2010 Season Preview: Early Season Alex

In three of the last five seasons the Yankees have performed poorly in April. In 2005, fresh off their ALCS collapse, they went 10-14. In 2007 they went 9-14. While in those seasons they fought back to make the playoffs, 2008 went a bit differently. They didn’t start as poorly, at 14-15, but also didn’t have the same mid-season surge that lead to their 2005 and 2007 comebacks. Another difference: they didn’t have Alex Rodriguez pummeling baseballs.

Photo credit: Julie Jacobson/AP

Over his career, A-Rod has been a standout April performer. In 1,311 plate appearances he has hit .311/.391/.611. The only month in which he has performed better is August. Those early season displays and late-season surges have helped the Yankees out of a few jams. For instance, can you imagine the 2007 team without A-Rod’s April heroics? They easily could have gone 6-17 and found themselves in a much tougher situation to start May.

The 2009 Yankees did not have the benefit of A-Rod’s hot early season bat and suffered because of it. While he wouldn’t have made a difference in two of Chien-Ming Wang‘s starts, which caused the team to allow more runs than it scored in April despite 12-10 record, A-Rod could have made a difference in a number of games. For instance, his added offense might have rendered the bullpen meltdown on April 12 moot. Maybe his added offense on April 24 gives the Yankees a win against the Sox.

Even beyond these close games, A-Rod’s presence in the lineup has a cumulative effect on the hitters behind him. Instead of facing Teixeira-Rodriguez-Matsui in the middle of the order, in April pitchers had Teixeira-Matsui-Posada. The effect trickled down the lineup to the end, where pitchers faced Swisher-Gardner/Melky-Ransom, rather than Cano-Swisher-Melky. That makes the lineup a bit easier to navigate. Starting pitchers could get through the lineup with fewer pitches, leaving lesser pitchers sitting in the bullpen. The Yankees are known for working up pitch counts, and without A-Rod that strategy was weakened.

How many runs would a healthy A-Rod have added in April? His collective replacement — Cody Ransom, Ramiro Pena, and Angel Berroa — hit .214/.283/.310 over 92 plate appearances. According to linear weights, that amounts to just under seven runs created. To be nice, let’s round up to that. First, for the extreme, let’s insert A-Rod’s 2007 April, in which he hit 14 home runs. That year he would have been worth 28.6 runs. In other words, if we subtract the seven runs generated by his replacement and add in his runs, that’s 149 runs scored in April. In his other MVP season, 2005, he created 19.6 runs in April, which would have brought the Yankees’ total to 140. Even if we use his even-worse April 2008 he created 14.5 runs, double his 2009 replacements.

For the Yankees, getting off to a hot start now is more important than ever. While they were able to recover from a stagnant start last year, there’s no guarantee that they can do so in a similar manner this season. Even if they do, it won’t be like 2005 and 2007, when the Red Sox were the only team standing in their way. This year the Rays figure to be a formidable opponent, as they were in 2008 and 2009. The Rays, by many indications, hit a streak of bad luck early on. They scored 110 runs and allowed 103 in April, yet finished the month with a 9-14 record. If they catch a few breaks this season, the division could be a three-horse race to the end. In that situation, there isn’t much room for teams who start slow.

How does A-Rod break down among the various projection systems?

Click for a larger view.

While his BA projects a bit lower than career average and his OBP hits his exact career mark, the systems are bearish on his power and his ability to play a whole season. This is understandable, of course. Rodriguez has missed 54 days over the past two seasons with injuries, so leaving room in a projection for a 15-day DL stint makes sense. If fully healthy, though, I expect A-Rod will outperform these projections, probably to the tune of .300/.400/.580.

Even better, if his monthly stats break down along his career lines, he’ll be a big help early in the season. Perhaps his production can offset Mark Teixeira’s presumed slow start. Thankfully, Alex’s other big month is August, when the Yankees should again be working to gain comfortable control of the AL East. Early season and mid-summer surges could push the Yanks over the top in 2010, even as they’re faced with increasingly tough competition in the Sox and Rays.

Yet another RAB Fantasy Baseball League Post

Well, apparently three leagues aren’t enough, so we had to create a fourth. You people are a needy bunch, you know that? Anyway, the league settings are the same as the original, which you can see here. The only difference is that the max number of moves per week is capped at eight. If you’re interested in playing and wasn’t able to get into one of the other leagues, then go to Yahoo and sign up here:

League ID: 423467
Password: loubrown

Remember, it’s a deep league not for the faint of heart, so only join if you’re serious.

Then & Now: A Javy Vazquez Retrospective

I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t help but laugh when Jimmy Rollins sent Javy Vazquez‘s first pitch of the exhibition season (his first pitch!) into the rightfield bleachers yesterday afternoon. “It was funny,” joked Vazquez after the game. “I’ve faced the Phillies a lot and Jimmy likes swinging at the first pitch once in a while, but my first time out in spring training, he should give me a chance to let it go a little bit.” The solo shot yesterday was like a gift from the confirmation bias gods, fueling the irrational hatred dwelling inside the lovers Javy scorned back in 2004. Of course, most realize that people change over time, especially when you’re talking about a period of six years. The Javy Vazquez we watched give up that grand slam to Johnny Damon is not the Javy Vazquez that suited up for the Yankees yesterday.

One thing that caught my attention following the game yesterday was that Vazquez said that he used to be “a little stubborn” in his younger years, trying to be macho by blowing his fastball by hitters. Believe it or not, this is not something unique to Vazquez. He claimed that he’s since changed his pitching style, steadily mixing in more offspeed pitches to keep hitters off balance. We saw some of those offspeed offerings at work yesterday, whether it was the changeup Chase Utley swung over or the bender Raul Ibanez watched drop in on the outer half.

Since we have the data at our disposal, I figured we should take a look at Javy’s pitch selection from 2004, and compare it to his pitch selection from last year. This info is begging for a pie chart, so here it is (remember to click for a larger view)…

You can clearly see that Vazquez has scaled back his fastball usage, and is now throwing his three offspeed pitches at near equal parts. The slider went from being his most ignored pitch to his second most utilized in that five year stretch, and that same changeup that got Utley yesterday went from his second most used pitch to the least used. With a guy like Javy, who throws upwards of 3,300 pitches per year, we’re talking about a difference of almost 230 fewer fastballs, 350 fewer changeups (think of that as ten fewer per start), and 520 more sliders (15 more per start) in a five year period (on average). Here’s a look at the year-by-year change, so you can see this has been a slow and steady process spanning the better part of a decade.

The change in pitching pattern isn’t just a superficial crutch, something the optimists among us are clinging to in hopes that Vazquez will actually pitch well this year. There’s evidence that the change has benefited him, just take a look at the pitch values to the right. Those values are runs per 100 pitches thrown, so last season Javy’s fastball was worth eight-tenths of a run above average for every 100 heaters he threw. As you can see, all four of Javy’s pitches were above average last season, and the improvement since 2004 is considerable. At least seven-tenths of a run per 100 pitches, and on average it’s closer to 1.70 runs across the board. Obviously not all of that improvement can be attributed to mixing up his pitches better, but it’s certainly part of it.

Of course, don’t let me fool you into thinking the Yankees are going to be getting the 2009 version of Vazquez. He had the luxury of feasting on National League lineups in a favorable ballpark during his one season in Atlanta, and he won’t enjoy those comforts in the Bronx. The 2009 season was one of the three best of Javy’s career in terms of WAR, and it’s unreasonable to expect him to repeat that kind of season when he’s less than five months away from his 34th birthday.

So on the surface, yeah, the Yankees did acquire the same Javy Vazquez in mid-December that they had in 2004. He’s still from Puerto Rico, still throws with his right arm, all that jazz. But no, this is not the same pitcher the Yanks had back then. This version of Vazquez is much more refined, much better at setting up hitters, and as a result, must more effective. That homer by Rollins temporarily brought back some bad memories, but don’t worry. Soon enough, you won’t even be able to recognize the guy when he’s on the mound, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

Are Mitre and Aceves really making their cases for fifth starter?

What happens when rusty pitchers face rusty hitters? It’s tough to say, which is why I don’t put stock in the results. That doesn’t mean that these performances go unnoticed. After all, if jobs are actually won and lost in spring training the coaching staff has to base their decisions on something. I’m just not sure that traditional statistics tell us what we need to know when the players are not only rusty, but also working on specific aspects of their games.

One of the few Yankees camp competitions involves the fifth starter spot. As the team tells it, the job is completely up for grabs. Sergio Mitre, Chad Gaudin, Al Aceves, Phil Hughes, and Joba Chamberlain all have an equal shot. But while the Yankees might say that publicly, many of us doubt that they’ll pick anyone but Chamberlain or Hughes, their most promising young pitchers. Yet the performances of two presumed also-rans might have changed the story.

Both Sergio Mitre and Al Aceves have pitched well so far this spring, neither allowing a run. Mitre has allowed just two hits and has walked one in five innings, while Aceves has been perfect with four strikeouts through six. We don’t know what kind of impression this has made on the Yankees’ brass, but the media has jumped on the story. Could one of these two break camp as the No. 5 starter, relegating both Hughes and Chamberlain to the bullpen?

It’s not as far-fetched as you might think. On Mike Francessa’s show last Wednesday, Brian Cashman admitted that the optimal 2010 Yankees team has both young pitchers in the bullpen blowing away guys. The idea is that they’d help save games for all five starters, avoiding losses when lesser relievers might blow the game. I’m not sure if I buy it — I’ve always advocated having your top five pitchers in the rotation and not worrying about a numerical designation — but if it’s coming from the general manager I suppose it has a chance of happening.

Just after talking about the optimal 2010 team, Cashman also said what we all know to be true. The future of the franchise is better served by having one or both young pitchers in the rotation. This is why I think the Mitre and Aceves stories are non-starters. The Yankees might have to replace two starting pitchers next year. While a few free agent options exist, the team probably wants to fill one of those spots with one of its own, young, cost-controlled arms. They’d be better served in 2011, then, by having at least one of Hughes and Chamberlain starting in 2010.

If the improbable does happen, if Mitre or Aceves impresses enough this spring that the team wants to use him in the rotation, I doubt both Hughes and Chamberlain will go to the bullpen from the start. In that unlikely scenario, chances are one will go to Scranton to stay fresh while the other pitches out of the bullpen. While sending Hughes to Scranton might be a waste, it might be a necessary action at that point. After all, we’ve seen many top spring training performers flop when the game start to count. It would benefit the Yankees, then, to have someone in Scranton ready to jump into the rotation.

Again, I don’t envision this happening. If Mitre continues pitching well perhaps the Yankees trade him at the end of spring training. If Aceves continues pitching well maybe he’ll get higher leverage innings out of the pen. Neither, I expect, will start the season in the rotation. The Yankees want to get the most out of Hughes and Chamberlain, and that probably means having one in the rotation all year.

Photo credit: Nati Harnik/AP

Open Thread: Yanks take both games

The day didn’t start off so well for Javy Vazquez. On his first pitch of the afternoon, his first live pitch of the spring, Jimmy Rollins took him deep. Perhaps he should compare notes with A.J. Burnett. Thankfully, things went pretty well after that. Vazquez retired the next six hitters he faced, striking out four. Jon Albaladejo pitched a scoreless frame, though not without allowing three hits. David Robertson got a bit roughed up, allowing two runs in .2 innings.

While starter Kyle Kendrick pitched well for the Phillies, old friend Jose Contreras got rocked, allowing six runs in 1.2 innings. Swisher doubled off him twice, and Kevin Russo did once.

Over in Bredenton, Al Aceves was even more impressive, throwing four no-hit innings in a 6-0 victory. Ivan Nova, Jason Hirsh, and Zach McAllister followed with shutout innings of their own, with Nova allowing the only hit of the game.

Now for this evening’s open thread. Basketball is the theme of the evening. The Hawks visit the Knicks, while ESPN will have college hoops.

Cervelli cleared to resume activities tomorrow

Via LoHud, a neurologist has cleared Frankie Cervelli to resume physical activities tomorrow following his hit-by-pitch incident over the weekend. All of the tests came back clean, which is especially good considering Frankie suffered a head injury in winter ball as well. I’m sure the Yankees will take it easy with their backup catcher and give him some time off before getting him back into game action. Just glad everything’s okay. I hear the brain is important later on in life.

Report: A-Rod was treated by Dr. Galea

Via the AP, Alex Rodriguez received treatment from Dr. Anthony Galea for his hip last spring. Galea is currently under investigation for supplying human growth hormone to athletes, though he maintains that he prescribed nothing more than anti-inflammatories for A-Rod‘s troublesome hip. The Yanks’ third baseman has already said he’ll cooperate with federal authorities, and I suspect this will get made into a bigger story than it really is. What else is new in the world of Alex Rodriguez.