RAB on The Shore Sports Report

Just a reminder, my weekly appearance on The Shore Sports Report with Mike Krenek and Joe Giglio is coming up at 4:20pm ET. You can listen in on either FOX Sports 1030 AM or WOBM 1160 AM, and I’m willing to bet that you’ll be able to stream it online via one of those links as well.

The art of terrorizing pitchers

Even before Moneyball helped make the importance of on-base percentage mainstream, the Yankees were building their lineups around patient hitters that worked deep counts and saw a ton of pitches. The idea was to wear down the opposing starter as quickly as possible, then go to town on the inferior relief pitchers. Then-GM Gene Michael acquired players like Paul O’Neill and Wade Boggs in the early-90’s for this very reason, for their ability to work the count and grind away during an at-bat.

The Yanks’ lineup is still very much designed this way, as GM Brian Cashman has imported patient hitters like Bobby Abreu, Nick Swisher and Nick Johnson in recent years. As a team, the Yankees hit .281-.352-.471 with a .365 wOBA against starting pitchers last season, but once the bullpen door opened, forget it. They hit .286-.377-.487 with a .374 wOBA against relievers in 2009, which essentially means the team turned into nine Victor Martinezes once the opposition’s relief corps came into play. It also helped that they had more plate appearances against relief pitchers than any other American League team last year (table on the right), a function of wearing down the starters.

But last year’s team is different than this year’s team. Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui will not be in the lineup, and to a lesser extent the same could be said about Melky Cabrera. They’ll be replaced by Johnson, Curtis Granderson, and some mash-up of the Brett Gardner, Randy Winn, Marcus Thames, Jamie Hoffmann quartet. Damon and Matsui combined to see exactly four pitches per plate appearance in 2009, while Johnson and Granderson combined to see 4.42 pitches per plate appearance. The latter didn’t have the same kind of lineup support either.

Looking at the chart to the left, the Yankees’ eight projected regulars (not counting the unsettled LF situation) going into 2010 averaged just under four pitches seen per plate appearance last year, which quite frankly is a ton.  You’re talking about more than 35 pitches thrown to just the first eight batters each time through the order. Depending on who’s playing left on a given day, you could add another 3.75-4.00 pitches to that total. Now we’re talking about close to 39 pitches seen each time through the order. Simple math tells us that on average, the other team’s starting pitcher will have thrown about 117 pitches if he was lucky enough to make it through the order a third time

Seeing lots of pitches is nice, and it’s important to remember that the whole point of seeing all those pitches is to tire the other team’s starting pitcher. The more tired he is, the less effective and more prone to making mistakes he’ll be. The sooner that happens, the quicker the bullpen has to join in on the action. There’s a reason middle relievers are middle relievers, and that’s because they aren’t good enough to do anything else. Pounding away on the soft underbelly of the opposition has been the Yankees’ M.O. since before most of us were born.

Yesterday’s walk-off win in the exhibition opener reminded us just how wonderful the 2009 season was. You’ll need two hands and a foot to count the number of walk-off wins they had, and a lot of that had to do with the Yankees ability to wear down opposing starters and get into the bullpen much sooner than the other team would like. As good as Damon and Matsui were for the Yankees, Granderson and Johnson are an even better fit for the lineup. I’m not saying they’ll rip off 15 walk-off wins again, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they improved upon last year’s .295-.379-.511 batting line (.383 wOBA) and +116 run differential from the seventh inning on in 2010.

Photo Credit: Roberto Borea, AP

Johnson scratched with a stiff lower back

Update (2:20pm): Bryan Hoch says NJ caught a spike during BP and felt something, but he definitely would have played if it was a regular season game. No point in pushing it March 4th.

1:30pm: Via Ben Shpigel, Nick Johnson was scratched from today’s game against the Phillies with a stiff lower back. Jamie Hoffmann took his place at DH and in the two-hole. Most of the time this wouldn’t be news, but NJ’s injury history and previous back trouble (he spent 52 days on the disabled list with a lower back strain back in 2004) makes it worth a mention. More than likely, this is no big deal, and they’re just playing it safe.

Remember, Jorge Posada‘s shoulder was barking this time last spring (when he was coming off surgery), and he was fine in the end.

2010 Season Preview: Will Posada continue to defy age?

Catching is hell on the knees. For over 120 pitches in most games the catcher squats behind the plate, receiving pitches with varying speed and break and coming in at all different locations. That’s over an hour a game in the squat position. Life then becomes harder with runners on base, when the catcher has to put himself in a position to throw out a would-be base stealer and block a potential ball in the dirt. It’s no wonder that many catchers see their production decline by their early- to mid-thirties, and that most are out of the game by the time they’re Jorge Posada‘s age. Yet the 38-year-old catcher posted one of his finest seasons in 2009, though he did catch only 100 games. Can he hold up again in 2010?

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

Since 1901, only 11 catchers reach 400 plate appearances at age 37. Only 16 got into 100 or more games. At age 38 that dropped off even more, with only three reaching the 400 PA plateau, and eight getting into 100 or more games. Even worse, the catchers who did survive over 100 games in their age-38 season did not play because of their offensive contributions. Of the 21 age-38 catchers with more than 200 PA, only seven posted an OPS over .700 — and five of those did it before 1950. None posted an OPS of .800.

At age-37, however, some catchers still played often and hit big. Of the 11 with more than 400 plate appearances, four posted an OPS over .800 and another two were above .750. Only Ernie Lombardi played his age-38 season before 1950. The rest played in 1985 or later. None of the .800 OPS catchers came to bat even 300 times the following season (though Posada is one of the four), and among the .750 OPS players only Benito Santiago continued playing and hitting in his age-38 season. The odds, then, seem to be against Posada posting a repeat of his 2009 campaign.

Both Carlton Fisk and Mike Piazza hit well in their age-37 seasons. Fisk came to bat 620 times that year, 1985, and hit .238/.320/.488, which translates to a .345 wOBA and a 115 OPS+. Of the 153 games he played, 130 were at catcher. Yet in his age-38 season he saw start drop-offs in production and catching time. He did play in 125 games that year, but only 71 as a catcher. Even if he had made the age-38 list, he wouldn’t have fared well, as his numbers dropped to .221/.263/.337, a .264 wOBA and a 60 OPS+. While it appeared at the time that Fisk was finished, he did come back to post five more average or better seasons, including two stellar years, 1989 and 1990, at ages 41 and 42.

Piazza realized a resurgence of sorts in 2006, his age-37 season, after he signed with the Padres. After hitting .251/.326/.452 in his final season for the Mets, Piazza rebounded to hit .283/.342/.501, despite accumulating about half of his plate appearances at PETCO Park. He did play his age-38 season, though the stint with Oakland did not go too well. He didn’t catch a single inning and posted a meager .275/.313/.414 line in a season shortened by injury. Unlike Fisk, there would be no late-career revival for Piazza. He hasn’t played since his final game with Oakland in 2007.

The stories of Fisk and Piazza might appear to bode poorly for Posada, but as with any player-to-player comparison it never tells the whole story. All three catchers traveled different paths to their age-38 seasons. Fisk was a highly touted prospect, the No. 4 overall pick of the 1967 draft, who came up in 1972, at age 24, and hit right out of the gate. While Piazza broke out at the same age, he was not nearly as highly regarded. The Dodgers took him in the 62nd round, apparently as a favor to Tommy Lasorda. Yet he killed the ball when the Dodgers handed him the starting gig at age-24.

Posada, however, did not break into the league until age 25, and at that point he was a part-time player. Over the next two seasons he saw more playing time, but it wasn’t until 2000 that he truly took over as the full-time catcher, at age 28. He also didn’t convert to catcher until age 20, when he played behind the plate for just 41 games. Entering his age-38 season he has started 1,793 games behind the plate between the majors and minors. Piazza had 1,898 at that age, though Fisk, because he caught under 100 games in four different seasons, had 1,782.

Through his age-37 season, Posada has defied age. His .885 OPS in 2009 ranks best for catchers with more than 200 PA in their age-37 seasons. Even if he does decline drastically and produces only 80 percent of that, .702, for the 2010 season, he’d still rank among the top catchers at age-38. The Yankees, however, are not so much concerned with how Posada stacks up with his historical comparables as they are how he fits into the lineup. While the .702 OPS might stand out in the former sense, it would be a huge burden in the latter.

These represent five of the freely available projection systems. After mashing them together, they think that Jorge will see only five percent fewer plate appearances than in 2009, though ZiPS accounts for most of the drop-off. All the others expect right around the same playing time, while Bill James is overly optimistic — though his article on players declining is a bit more pessimistic. In terms of production the systems forecast a 2.5 percent reduction in OBP, modest enough, but a nearly 14 percent reduction in power. Perhaps the short porch at the Stadium would inflate those projections.

While all aging catchers warrant concern, Posada presents an interesting case. He’s had an odd career path, switching to catcher in the minors and not taking a full-time role until age-28. The following 10 years were excellent, though, as Jorge became one of the game’s premier catchers, and perhaps the best hitting catcher over the past decade. He enters his age-38 season with few comparables, and unfavorable ones among those that exist. Still, Jorge has given us little reason to expect a drastic drop-off.

Almost trading Bernie Williams again and again

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Bernie Williams hasn’t played in a regular season game for the Yankees since Oct. 1, 2006. He went 1 for 1 as a pinch hitter in Game 162, and then played in just one game during the ALDS. He knew he was nearing the end of his career, but he couldn’t convince the Yanks to give him a guaranteed deal. The team offered to invite him to Spring Training, and Bernie went home to nurse his wounded pride instead.

Now, three full seasons removed from his last game as a Major Leaguer, Bernie still feels the itch, and when he showed up at George M. Steinbrenner Field yesterday, he spoke with reporters about coming to grips with his forced retirement. “Someone said it takes a player three to five years to get used to not playing,” Williams said. “I’m in my fourth year now, so I’m right between there. I miss it, but I like what I’m doing.”

Bernie is 41, but he still thinks about coming back. “I think mentally I try not to really think about that too much,” he said. “I go through periods of time within the past couple of years in which I go back and forth, and this doesn’t help, being here and saying hi to the guys. It obviously brings a lot of the old feelings back, but I know that I’m doing something worthwhile in another field. Any way that I look at it, I can’t lose. If I come back, that would be great. But if I don’t, it’s just a great opportunity to do something different and try to excel at it.”

As much as he may want to rejoin the Majors, Bernie’s time has passed. I hated seeing Bernie go fading away as he did, and it still pains me to hear my one-time favorite talk about wanting to come back. He tried that during the WBC in 2009 and ended up with a quad injury. It was an ignoble end, to say the least.

But what’s done is done. Instead of dwelling on Bernie’s tortured present, let’s look at his distant past. As a top Yankee prospect in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bernie was subject of more trade rumors than we could count. Scouts knew he would be good, but they couldn’t foresee his peak from 1997-2001 when he hit .325/.411/.548 and led the Yanks to four World Series berths. And so into the Wayback Machine we go.

Would you, in 1989, have traded Bernie Williams for Jeff Blauser? That’s what the Braves wanted to do. Blauser, then a highly-coveted 22-year-old, had just made his Major League debut and would go on to put up serviceable career numbers. He hit .262/.354/.406 and twice made the All-Star team. A deal was nearly in place that may or may not have involved Bernie.

Here’s a more intriguing rumor: What about Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla for Bernie Williams, Kevin Maas, Roberto Kelly Jesse Barfield and a pitcher? It’s a bit tougher to say “no” to Bonds. The Yanks maybe could have landed Bonds and Bonilla in a deal with Gerald Williams instead of Bernie. A Bonds/Bernie outfield would have been a sight to see in the late 1990s.

Perhaps something a little more recent would give us a taste of life almost without Bernie. The Yanks and Bernie nearly split up in 1998 when the team moved on Albert Belle after Bernie’s contract demands grew too rich for their tastes, but that almost-divorce, rescued on Thanksgiving Eve, had its origins in the 1997 off-season. With Bernie nearing free agency and the Yanks not in love with their enigmatic almost-superstar, the team looked to trade him that winter and nearly did so to the Tigers. The deal would have sent Roberto Duran and Mike Drumright, Detroit’s number one pick in 1995, to the Bronx for Bernie.

Why the deal was scuttled remains a mystery. Murray Chass speculated that (1) George quashed a deal then-GM Bob Watson negotiated on his own; (2) other baseball advisers didn’t feel the Yanks were getting enough back from the Tigers; or (3) it was a negotiating ploy to get Bernie to lower his demands on the Yankees. No matter the reason, it would have been a disastrous trade for the Yanks. Drumright never reached the majors and today works in construction in Wichita, Kansas.

So Bernie remained that ever-elusive Yankee for Life®. He’s trying to give up the sport, but it just keeps sucking him in. Even if his words make me wince today, I, for one, am quite relieved the Yanks never traded him as they often considered doing.

Avoiding the twin killing in the two hole

In discussing the merits of a No. 2 hitter, I hit on the value of setting the table. Because Nick Johnson gets on base at a better clip than the other candidates, he’ll create more opportunities for Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez to hit with men on base. But, while getting on base factors prominently into the quality of a No. 2 hitter, other issues can change the situation. For instance, what if the No. 2 hitter, who gets on base at a high clip, also grounds into a lot of double plays? Wouldn’t that sap his value?

About a year ago, while he was working with Team USA, I made a further argument for Derek Jeter the leadoff hitter. Beyond the reasons we’d heard a thousand times — Jeter got on base more than Damon while Damon had more power than Jeter — I thought another factor played prominently. In 2008 Jeter hit into 24 double plays, the highest number of his career. Many times, I’m sure, these double plays came after Damon reached safely. Damon, though, is historically good at avoiding double plays. Flipping the two, then, seemed obvious.

Just a few days after that post, Joe Girardi announced that he would make that very flip. The results, as we saw, reflected the projection. Jeter hit into fewer double plays. Damon hit into more, but that’s going to happen when the guy in front of you gets on base 40 percent of the time. This raises an interesting point. We don’t learn much from raw GIDP numbers, because they’re not placed in any context. What we seek is some kind of rate for GIDP — how many times the player hit into a double play when presented the opportunity. That seems like relevant information for a No.2 hitter.

Thankfully, Baseball Reference does have information about double play opportunities (under More Stats, then Situational Hitting).* So, among Johnson, Curtis Granderson, and Robinson Cano, who has hit into the most double plays per opportunity? We’ll add in Damon for comparison.

*When I originally wrote this article, I had no idea this existed. Thanks to B-R founder Sean Forman for pointing me in the right direction. This table is totally accurate.

Player GDP Opp Pct.
Johnson 72 594 12.1
Granderson 18 410 4.4
Cano 94 670 14.0
Damon 84 1591 5.3

Does Johnson’s GIDP propensity offset his better on-base skills? Sound like a good idea for another follow-up article.

Yankees sign Myron Leslie

Via The Winnipeg Free Press, the Yankees have signed first baseman Myron Leslie out of the independent Can-Am League to a minor league pact. The 27-year-old hit .272-.410-.494 with 18 homers in 92 games for the New Jersey Jackals last season, and prior to that he spent five years in Oakland’s farm system. Leslie has spent the majority of his career at third base, though he’s also played first, second, and the outfield corners. This is just a depth signing, a veteran guy to have around in the Double-A Trenton clubhouse.