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On a cold day in February, I made a bet that I thought would be a sure thing. In a fit of Twitter arrogance, I threatened to eat my hat if Robinson Cano reached 80 walks. His previous career high had been 61.

How could things go wrong, I thought. The Yanks didn’t have a great lineup entering the season, but they seemed to be able to offer up Cano enough protection that he wouldn’t blow past his 2012 walk total. And the things went south in a hurry. Derek Jeter wasn’t ready to return really at all this year while Curtis Granderson suffered two freak accidents. Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner were total busts, and Cano was left holding the Yanks’ offense on his shoulders.

For a few months, things looked dicey. As Robbie emerged as the only real slugger in the Yanks’ lineup, his walk totals rose precipitously. After walking only 18 times in April and May combined, Robbie drew 18 free passes in June, and this four-walk affair at the hands of Joe Maddon and the Rays seemed to represent my nadir. Would I be able to eat an inedible item made of sponge and wire?

From May 24 through July 28 — a span of 59 games — Cano drew 39 free passes, ten of which were intentional. That’s a pace of over 100 in a 162-game season, and the hat seemed doomed. Even accounting for his slow start, Cano was on pace to draw 81 walks, and I figured all was lost. But then Alfonso Soriano arrived and Alex Rodriguez returned. It was all wine and roses from there.

From July 29 through the end of the season, Cano returned to his free-swinging ways. He drew just 13 walks while still hitting a robust .346/.391/.528. The intentional walk well fell dry as well since he now had protection in the lineup. Opposing mangers IBB’d Robbie just twice over the final two months of the season.

And so the hat was saved. Despite sweating out a tough summer, despite a short-lived Tumblr with hat recipes and an RAB Countdown, the hat has survived the winter. Robbie ended the year with 65 walks — a new career high but a far cry from the 80 he needed to achieve for us to see what happens when man eats toxic sponge. I’d say that’s a season that went very, very right.

(REUTERS/Robert Galbraith)

(REUTERS/Robert Galbraith)

Outside of the walks, though, Cano’s season was a bright spot. He hit .314/.383/.516 with 27 home runs and 107 RBIs. He played a spectacular second base and seemed to be a leader in the clubhouse when the top veterans were injured. After hitting 21 dingers prior to the All Star Break, he launched only six more longballs all year but still hit .331/.379/.494. He appeared on his fifth All Star game and placed fifth in the AL MVP voting.

What comes next though is more important than what he did. We’ve followed the saga of Robbie very closely. He’s a premier offensive player who can man his position with the best of them. He’s Jay-Z’s first client and star in New York City. He’s also turned 31 a little over a month ago and wants a long-term commitment with lots of dollar signs attached. The Yanks can’t afford to let him go but may not want to pay. Yet for all the public posturing, they need Robinson Cano. I won’t say I’ll eat my hat if he doesn’t sign with the Yanks; I’ve learned my lesson there. But I’d be very, very surprised if the team’s best player in 2013 isn’t wearing his Yankee pinstripes come April.

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Nov
22

What Went Right: Mariano Rivera

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(Maddie Meyer/Getty)

(Maddie Meyer/Getty)

After 19 big league seasons, including the last 17 as closer, Mariano Rivera‘s Hall of Fame career is over. He announced his intention to retire during Spring Training, so this is no surprise. We all knew it was coming. Turns out the knee injury that wiped out almost his entire 2012 season extended his career by one year — Mo admitted he planned to retire last year before the injury. In a weird way, I’m thankful he got hurt.

As good as he was this past year, the 2013 season was actually a down year for Rivera. He blew more saves (seven) than he had in any season since 2001, including three in a row during one ugly early-August stretch. His 2.11 ERA was his highest in a full, healthy season since 2007 and second highest since 2002. His 1.05 WHIP was also his highest since 2007. Rivera allowed seven homers in 64 innings, the second highest total of his career since moving to the bullpen full-time. His 3.05 FIP was his highest since 2000.

Despite all of that, Rivera was still one of the best closers in baseball. Among relievers who saved at least 20 games, he ranked seventh in bWAR (2.4) and tenth in fWAR (1.5). That’s a down year. Forty-three-year-old Mariano Rivera coming off a serious knee injury was still better than two-thirds of everyone else out there. When the Yankees were making one last push towards the postseason, Mo threw multiple innings five times in September, more than he had in any full season since 2009. He did that despite pitching through what he called “tremendous soreness” in his arm. He left everything on the field for New York and was deservedly named the AL’s Comeback Player of the Year for his effort.

Throughout the season, teams around the league paid their respects to Rivera with gifts and donations to his charity. The Athletics gave him a surfboard, the Twins gave him a rocking chair made out of broken bats, the Red Sox gave him the never-again-needed #42 placard from the Green Monster scoreboard, the Rangers gave him cowboys boots and a hat, the Rays gave him … whatever the hell this is. During Mariano Rivera Day at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees enshrined their closer in Monument Park followed by a live rendition of Enter Sandman by Metallica. The farewell tour was one of the coolest sidebars of the season, hands down.

And yet, the thing I will remember most about the 2013 season was the goodbye. We all knew it was coming — Joe Girardi announced beforehand that Rivera would pitch in the final home game of the season no matter what — but it was still a surprise to see him exit before the end of the ninth inning. It was unscripted, it was incredibly emotional, and it was a moment Yankees fans won’t ever forget.

Rivera never did pitch in another game after that and he didn’t have to. It was the perfect send off, the perfect goodbye for a perfect Yankee. Mariano was more than the greatest reliever to ever live. He was a first class person who was kind and treated everyone with respect. He helped countless people through his charity work and always took the time to give some love back to the fans.

I am happy to have witnessed Mo’s career from start to finish and I will miss watching him pitch dearly. There is never going to be another like him. Not ever.

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Nov
19

What Went Wrong: Phil Hughes

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The 2013 season is over and now it’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with the end of a disappointing homegrown era.

(Presswire)

(Presswire)

This was the biggest year of Phil Hughes‘ career. He was coming off a disappointing but almost perfectly league average 2012 season and had the opportunity to pitch his way into a hefty free agent contract this summer. This wasn’t your average contract year. Hughes’ walk year potentially meant going out onto the market at age 27 (!) with AL East and small ballpark success under his belt. Teams would have been lining up to pay him.

Rather than capitalize on that opportunity, Phil had the worst non-injury plagued season of his big league career. The end result was a 5.19 ERA and 4.50 FIP in 145.2 innings across 29 starts and one relief appearance, a performance that was below replacement level. Outside of a four-start stretch from late-April through early-May, Hughes never really put it together for any length of time. There was only one other instance this year in which he surrendered two of fewer earned runs in three consecutive starts. It was ugly for a number of reasons. Here are a few.

Homers For Everyone
Believe it or not, Hughes actually improved his homerun rate from 2012 to 2013. He allowed 35 homers in 191.1 innings last summer, which works out to 1.65 HR/9 and 12.4% HR/FB. This past season it was 24 homers in 145.2 innings, or 1.48 HR/9 and 11.1% HR/FB. Obviously the sheer volume of homeruns allowed is a problem, but timing was an issue as well. Twenty-three of those 35 homers in 2012 were solo shots (66%) and 25 came when the score was separated by two or fewer runs (71%). This season, 17 of 24 homers were solo shots (71%) and 22 of 24 (!) came with the score separated by no more than two runs (92%).

Obviously there is more to consider here than just Hughes — the Yankees played nothing but close games this past season because they had a crappy offense, so he had more opportunities to give up dingers in tight games. Still, it goes to show how untrustworthy Phil was for a team that needed steady and reliable pitching to compete. Any pitcher can give up a homer at any time, but Hughes is especially long ball prone and all season we sat on the edge of our seats waiting for the #obligatoryhomer. Every start he was walking on eggshells.

(Getty)

(Getty)

Bullpen Killer
Aside from missing his very first start of the season due to lingering back problem, Hughes did take the ball every five days for the Yankees. Despite that, he failed to throw enough innings (162) to qualify for the ERA title. Hughes led all of baseball with 14 (!) starts of fewer than five full innings of work, four more than second place Barry Zito and five more than second place in the AL Erik Bedard. Part of that was Joe Girardi‘s general lack of faith in him, as the skipper rightfully showed a very quick hook late in the season.

Among the 192 pitchers to make at least ten starts in 2013, only eight averaged fewer innings per start than Hughes (5.01). The guy was a drain on the rest of the pitching staff. He taxed the bullpen when he pitched and that’s something that can (and often did) carry over and impact the next day’s game. Calling Phil a five-and-fly starter this year would be pretty generous.

Getting Ahead But Not Putting Away
There is one thing that Hughes does exceptionally well, and that’s get ahead of hitters. He threw a first pitch strike to a whopping 71.7% of batters faced in 2013, the highest rate in all of baseball (min. 100 innings). Patrick Corbin (70.2%) and Cliff Lee (68.5%) were the only other pitchers within four percentage points of Phil. Furthermore, Hughes was second in baseball by going to an 0-2 count on 26.3% of batters faced this summer. Only Lee (28.7%) was better. There’s no denying Phil did an outstanding job of getting ahead in the count and putting himself in a position to succeed.

However, he rarely took advantage of those opportunities. Hughes’ lack of a legitimate put-away pitch led to foul ball after foul ball and prolonged at-bats, so much so that he ranked 118th in pitches per plate appearance (3.97) out the 145 pitchers to throw at least 100 innings. He was 134th in pitches per inning (17.5). Batters hit a remarkable .281/.290/.409 (177 OPS+) against Phil when he was ahead in the count and a ridiculous .245/.290/.413 (213 OPS+) when he jumped ahead 0-2. The league average following an 0-2 count was .167/.197/.248 this summer. That’s nut. It’s easy to think Hughes is an out-pitch away from becoming an ace given his ability to get ahead in the count, but you can say that about a whole lot of guys. He’s not anything special in that regard.

* * *

Barring something completely unexpected, Hughes will leave the Yankees and sign with a new team as a free agent this winter. He pitched his way out of a qualifying offer — making the offer seemed like a no-brainer as recently as late-July or so — so the Bombers won’t even get a draft pick as compensation. For shame.

Hughes will leave the Bronx having pitched to a 4.54 ERA and 4.31 FIP in 780.2 innings. That’s the third highest ERA and tenth highest FIP in team history among the 88 pitchers to throw at least 500 innings in pinstripes. Only Hank Johnson (4.84 ERA and 4.82 FIP), who played a century ago, and A.J. Burnett (4.79 ERA and 4.31 FIP) are worse in both categories. Hughes was electric as a reliever during the team’s World Championship season in 2009 and he had two years as an adequate back-end starter (2010 and 2012), but otherwise he was a huge disappointment and another example of the team’s inability to turn its top minor league talent into top Major League contributors.

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Lost amid a flurry of news and rumors yesterday were the pronouncements of two veteran pitchers who wish to return in 2014. Perhaps the news was lost because the pitchers just aren’t that good. Brad Penny last pitched in 2012 and hasn’t cracked 4 K/9 since 2010. Roy Oswalt has gotten knocked around in each of the last two seasons despite extended off-seasons. So what does either seemingly washed up pitcher have to do with the Yankees?

For Penny, there’s nothing. He looks as done as done can be. Oswalt, after a disastrous and injury-shortened performance in 2013, might also appear finished. But there is a glimmer of hope for Oswalt’s future. It might just coincide with one of the Yankees’ desires this off-season.

Late last week we learned that the Yankees want to add a late-inning reliever. Given that they just lost the best who ever lived, that’s an understandable item on the off-season shopping list. They’ve spoken to Joe Nathan, but like most other viable late-inning options on the free agent market, he’ll cost more than the Yankees can probably afford if they want to stay under the $189 million luxury tax threshold.

So if the best options — Nathan, Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, and even Edward Mujica — are priced out, where can the Yankees turn? One place you can get creative in roster construction is the bullpen, and the Yanks might have an opportunity here. Roy Oswalt might be the kind of guy they seek.

Why would a guy with an 8.63 ERA last year — in the NL — and a 6.80 ERA in the last two years appeal to the Yankees? Because instead of starting, his primary role in his disastrous 2013 campaign, the Yankees could target him as a reliever. There are a few factors that could play in his favor if he were to transition from the rotation to the bullpen. Combine that with a likely manageable price tag, and it could be a deal that fits the Yankees’ needs and plans.

Starting with the most general, Oswalt still has quality peripherals. In Texas during the 2012 season he gave up a few too many homers, but he still struck out a batter per inning and walked fewer than two per nine. That walk rate jumped a bit in 2013, but his home run rate — while pitching at Coors Field no less — dropped back to normal levels. At the same time, he struck out more than a batter per inning. In both cases he ended up with an above-average FIP, despite a below-average ERA.

A decline in stuff has marked Oswalt’s recent seasons. His fastball has dropped from around 93 mph in 2009 and 2010 to about 91 mph in 2013. Yet that averages his starts and relief appearances. In two relief outings towards the end of last season he averaged over 93 mph with his fastball, topping out at around 94.5. That is to say, he can still reach back and get some gas on the ball. He also fared fairly well in Texas’s bullpen in 2012, further demonstrating that his 2014, if he has one, lies in the pen.

Oswalt has said that he’d like a return chance in Colorado, but that seems unlikely at this point. They just signed LaTroy Hawkins as their interim closer; he’ll hold the job for either Rex Brothers or Adam Ottavino. With those three in late-inning roles, it appears Oswalt will have to try elsewhere. A few teams are reportedly interested in him as a reliever, but even so the price likely won’t get too high. It’s hard to justify a raise over your ~$3 million salary coming off that kind of 2013 season.

The Yankees, who could use some late-inning bullpen help at a reasonable cost, could play this situation to their advantage. Oswalt would require only one year, while the other late-inning options could require multiple. Given his performances, he probably can’t ask for much in terms of salary. At the same time, there are indicators that he could perform in a late-inning role — if not as closer, than as setup man for David Robertson.

There are other relievers on the market who could perhaps more effectively fill the Yankees’ needs. At the same time, almost all relievers come with a large degree of risk. Given the ages of most available relievers, the Yanks will be gambling wherever they choose to spend their money. Why not go with a guy who could come at a relative bargain, and who has shown the potential to succeed as Oswalt has?

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Nov
18

What Went Right: Andy Pettitte

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The 2013 season is over and now it’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with the up and down final season of an all-time Yankees great.

(Al Bello/Getty)

(Al Bello/Getty)

When the Yankees coaxed Andy Pettitte out of retirement last season, it was supposed to be one last ride off into the sunset. Pettitte was going to come back, give whatever he had left, then walk away after the season. Again. Instead, a fluke injury robbed him of three months at midseason. The competitive juices were still flowing, so Andy decided to give it another go in 2013.

Unlike last summer, Pettitte was more than just a fun, feel-good story this year. He was an integral part of the team and he was paid as such — the Yankees re-signed him to a one-year pact worth a hefty $12M and penciled him in as their number three starter behind CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda. This wasn’t “okay Andy, come back whenever you’re ready and do what you can.” This was “let’s go Andy, if we’re going to go anywhere you have to help carry us.”

Pettitte was baseball’s oldest starting pitcher come Opening Day and sometimes it was painfully obvious. Let’s break his season down into four separate acts.

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Act I: Early Awesomeness
When he wasn’t hurt in 2012, Pettitte was pretty freakin’ awesome. He pitched to a 2.87 ERA and 3.48 FIP in 75.1 innings, posting his best strikeout (8.24 K/9 and 22.8 K%), walk (2.51 BB/9 and 6.9 BB%), and ground ball (56.3%) rates in years. It was amazing and much-needed considering how close the AL East race was down the stretch.

Early on this past season, that same Andy was on the mound. He pitched the team to their first win of the year with eight innings of one-run ball against the Red Sox in the third game of the season, and he followed up by allowing six runs total in his next three starts while throwing at least six innings each time. The Astros (of all teams) pounded him to close out the month (seven runs in 4.1 innings), but Pettitte got right back on the horse and pitched well in early-May. Following seven innings of two-run ball against the Royals on May 11th, he was sitting on a 3.83 ERA and 4.08 FIP in 44.1 innings through seven starts. Dandy.

Act II: Injuries & Ineffectiveness
On May 16th, Pettitte was forced from a start against the Mariners due to a sore trap muscle after only 4.2 innings. He had missed one start in April due to a stiff back, but the trap injury landed him on the DL for a touch more than two weeks. That was the risk of relying on a 40-year-old starter — a 40-year-old starter who had not thrown more than 130 innings since 2009 at that — injuries and physical setbacks figured to pop-up at some point.

Andy returned to the mound on June 3rd and clearly was not himself. He allowed at least four runs in eight of his next nine starts (including seven straight at one point), a nine-start stretch that featured a 5.04 ERA despite a 3.62 FIP. Opponents hit .295/.329/.436 against him in those nine games and the Pettitte trademark, the ability to wiggle out of jams, had deserted him. Pettitte looked old and washed up. I’m not sure there is another way to put it. He looked like a guy who should have stayed retired, frankly. The team didn’t have much of a chance to win on the days he pitched and through 17 starts, he had a 4.47 ERA and 3.78 FIP.

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

Act III: Empty The Tank
Something changed on June 24th. That ability to escape jams and keep the team in games had returned. Pettitte held the Rangers to two runs in six innings on that date, and five days later he held the Dodgers to two runs in seven innings. From June 24th through September 17th, a span of eleven starts, Andy allowed two earned runs or less eight times and only twice did he fail to complete six full innings of work. That works out to a 3.06 ERA and 3.54 FIP in 64.2 innings. He was back to being himself and not a moment too soon. The Yankees were fighting to stay in the playoff hunt and Pettitte had emerged as their best starter just as Kuroda began to fade.

Act IV: Blaze Of Glory
Following 6.1 innings of one-run ball against the Blue Jays on September 17th, Pettitte owned a 3.93 ERA and 3.69 FIP in 169.1 innings across 28 starts. Three days later, he announced his intention to retire (for the second time) after the season. “I’ve reached the point where I know that I’ve left everything I have out there on that field,” he said. “The time is right. I’ve exhausted myself, mentally and physically, and that’s exactly how I want to leave this game.”

Andy’s final start at Yankee Stadium came two days later, on Mariano Rivera Day. The Yankees honored Mo will a long and incredible pre-game ceremony before Pettitte took a perfect game into the fifth inning and a no-hitter into the sixth inning against the Giants. In that final home start, he surrendered two runs on two hits in seven innings against the defending World Champions. Andy walked off to the mound to a long and thunderous ovation after being removed from the game.

Four days later, Pettitte and long-time teammate Derek Jeter were sent out to the mound to remove Rivera from the final appearance of his career. Those few days were just unreal. Incredibly exciting and emotional and heartbreaking all at once. What a way to go out.

Andy made the final start of his season and career on September 28th, appropriately enough against the Astros in Houston, his hometown and the only other Major League team for which he played. Pettitte went out in style, allowing one run in the complete-game win. It was his first nine-inning complete-game since August 2006 and his first nine-inning complete-game for the Yankees since August 2003. It was the kind of start that seemed unthinkable as recently as mid-June, and yet, Andy did it. Remarkable.

* * *

All told, Pettitte pitched to a 3.74 ERA and 3.70 FIP in 185.1 innings this season, right in line with his career 3.85 ERA and 3.74 FIP. Same ol’ Andy, basically. Steady and reliable. Yeah, the 2013 campaign was shaky at times but that was to be expected at his age and with the long recent layoffs. When it was all said and done, Pettitte was an obvious positive for the 2013 squad. He retires as the greatest Yankees pitcher in history — an argument can certainly be made for Whitey Ford, but I think Andy just edges him out — and one of the most beloved players in team history. Few rank above him.

It is sad to see Andy go again, but I think it’s clear the time has come to call it a career. When he retired following the 2010 season, I thought it was obvious he still had something left in the tank and could continue pitching for another year or two. This time, I’m not so sure. He really labored for long stretches of time this summer and his usual start-to-start consistency just wasn’t there. The nagging injuries, stiff backs and strained lats and the like, became more frequent as well. Pettitte is one of my all-time favorites and the Yankees wouldn’t have hung around the postseason race as long as they did without him, but the tank looks to tapped out. Saying goodbye will be much easier for fans and Pettitte alike this time around.

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Nov
15

What Went Wrong: CC Sabathia

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Another crappy start at the Trop, probably. ( J. Meric/Getty Images)

Another crappy start at the Trop, probably. ( J. Meric/Getty Images)

CC Sabathia was in the best shape of his life. Following a season in which he was twice placed on the disabled list, and after which he underwent offseason elbow surgery, Sabathia decided the time had come to shed some of his excess weight. It wasn’t the first time; he had come to camp a bit slimmer in 2011 as well, but gained back much of that weight during the season. This time, the weight loss was here to stay.

The result: the worst year of his 13-year career, by no small measure.

We can start with the obvious, that Sabathia’s 4.78 ERA (85 ERA+) ranked 35th out of 37 qualified AL pitchers. All of his peripherals declined from his 2011 to 2012 levels. Watching his starts you could see the points at which he’d start to unravel. In 28 of his starts he made it to the sixth inning, and during those sixth frames opponents hit .339/.419/.550 against him. The list goes on.

Did Sabathia’s troubles stem from the weight loss? After all, he did turn in a very good 2012 season despite the injuries. While causation is always difficult to prove, there are some indicators that Sabathia did not adjust to his new body type. If that is the reason for Sabathia’s poor 2013, there is certainly hope for 2014 and beyond; mechanics are correctable.

Sabathia has started his off-season a bit early, going on the DL with a Grade 2 hamstring strain just a few days after turning in one of his best performances of the season (albeit against the hapless Giants). He should be fine for Spring Training, and thanks to the necessary rehab from the injury he might come into camp a bit stronger. Perhaps with some more repetitions, he’ll iron out his mechanics. But this represents the optimistic scenario for last year. We’re still here to discuss what went wrong in 2013.

While his weight loss might have played a role in his poor 2013, it’s hard to ignore another possible factor: past workload. Sabathia pitched a full season, 33 starts, at age 20, and has made at least 28 starts in each following season. Before he signed his first contract with the Yankees he had thrown 1659.1 innings. Heading into the 2013 season he had thrown 2564.1. He has now thrown the 139th most innings in MLB history, at age 33. That can be a good thing as well as a bad thing, of course. Tim Hudson has lasted through more innings than Sabathia, and is about five years older. There are cases where players can throw lots of innings and hold up.

In reading the last three paragraphs, you might have noticed the same thing I did while writing it: that each paragraph ends on an optimistic note. It is difficult to write about such an obviously disappointing season from a guy expected to anchor the rotation, hence the “things could be better” follow-up to every negative point. Instead of continuing in this fashion, perhaps it’s best to list the final few factors in his poor 2013 and let that be that.

  • Sabathia’s tERA, which accounts for batted ball types, stood at 4.87, the worst of his career and a full run worse than 2012.*
  • His average velocity was down a mile per hour from 2012, and nearly 3mph from 2009 — though his velocity did rise as the season progressed.
  • Then again, there was a drop-off after a steady rise sometime in August. Perhaps that was a turning point?
  • He used his changeup more often than any year since 2010, but according to weighted values it was worth negative runs. Chances are that has to do both with the drop in fastball velocity and with his command issues; hanging changeups go a long way.

*Not that I buy totally into the value of tERA, but it is one tool with which we have to measure pitchers. Just like all other stats mentioned.

Honestly, after 2013 there’s nothing to do but hope that Sabathia gets stronger while rehabbing his hamstring, gets in as many reps as he needs in Spring Training, and starts 2014 fresh. Otherwise the last three to four year of his contract are going to hurt.

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Nov
14

What Went Wrong: Chris Stewart

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The 2013 season is over and now it’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with yet another player who was exposed by far too much playing time.

(Presswire)

(Presswire)

Before every season, usually sometime in Spring Training, MLB’s people get together and start piecing together the All-Star ballot. The ballots are released in late-April for fan voting and it takes a few weeks to actually print these things and get them in every ballpark, so they have to prep before the season. As part of that preparation, they confer with every team about their positions and All-Star candidates. Some are obvious, like Robinson Cano at second base for the Yankees. Others aren’t so clear.

The Yankees listed Chris Stewart as their catcher on this year’s All-Star ballot.

Not Frankie Cervelli, who eventually took over as the starting catcher late in camp and early in the season, but Stewart. The guy who we heard was in line to be the starter all winter after Russell Martin bolted for the Pirates because dammit, his defense was that good. He couldn’t hit, but he’ll help the team by throwing out runners and framing the hell out of some borderline pitches. The Yankees were planning to play him so much that they dubbed him worthy of the All-Star ballot.

On April 26th, after a foul tip broke Cervelli’s hand, Stewart became the starter. It was clear Joe Girardi had little faith in Austin Romine, and, frankly, Romine didn’t exactly force the issue either. Stewart was the starter almost by default. He actually wrapped up April with a perfectly fine .294/.333/.382 (97 wRC+) batting line, production any of us would have happily taken over the full season. I would have signed up for that in a heartbeat.

Instead, Stewart predictably crashed. He fell into a 3-for-22 (.192) slump in early-May and hit .240/.286/.360 (73 wRC+) for the month overall. June was more of the same, with an ugly 7-for-37 (.189) stretch and an overall .255/.354/.291 (84 wRC+) line. Romine stole a few starts in early-July and Stewart went into the All-Star break hitting .241/.316/.306 (73 wRC+) with three homers in 170 plate appearances. He had started 54 of the team’s 95 games up to that point, more starts than he had in any other full season of his career.

As expected, Stewart completely collapsed in the second half. You can’t expect a career backup, even a reasonably young one like Stewart (he turns 32 in February), to suddenly play every single day without wearing down. He went 7-for-49 (.143) in his first 18 games after the All-Star break, dragging his overall season batting line down to .219/.296/.279. This is where I remind you he came into this past season a career .217/.281/.302 hitter. Stewart was played exactly as any reasonable person would have expected.

The second half slide continued all the way through the end of the season, and things got so bad at one point that on September 13th against the Orioles, Stewart struck out on two strikes:

If that’s not rock bottom, I don’t want to know what is. On the other hand, Stewart did make what might have been the Yankees’ best defensive play of the year. I don’t remember any better off the top of my head.

Stewart hit an unfathomably bad .169/.262/.226 (37 wRC+) in 124 plate appearances in the second half as Romine and J.R. Murphy saw more playing time behind the plate not necessarily because they earned it, but because Stewart played himself out of the lineup. That dragged his overall season batting line down to .211/.293/.272 (58 wRC+) in 340 plate appearances. Two-hundreds across the slash line board. Among the 32 catchers to bat at least 300 times this year, Stewart ranked 31st in wRC+. J.P. Arencibia (57 wRC+) should be ashamed of himself.

So yeah, Stewart was an unmitigated disaster on offense. I don’t think anyone seriously expected otherwise. But what about defensively? Well, Stewart was second in baseball with 12 passed balls — Arencibia had 13 and he had to catch knuckleballer R.A. Dickey — despite ranking 17th in innings caught. He did throw out 17 of 54 attempted base-stealers, a 31% success rate that was quite a bit better than the 26% league average. Pitch framing data is hard to come by, but a late-September update at Baseball Prospectus said Stewart was one of the ten best pitch-framers in the game (but not one of the top five) without giving us a runs saved value. An early-September update at ESPN had him at 17 runs saved. Overall catcher defense is damn near impossible to quantify even these days, but Stewart was obviously very good at framing pitches and a bit above-average at throwing out base-runners, but he didn’t do a good job blocking balls in the dirt.

If it wasn’t for the pitch-framing, Stewart would have been below replacement level this season, even for a catcher. An above-average but not truly excellent throw-out rate isn’t enough to make up for the passed ball issues and overall awful offense, both at the plate and on the bases. Framing pitches is his only redeeming quality and he’s lucky he’s so good at it, otherwise he probably would have been out of league by now. Similar to Jayson Nix, Stewart is a backup player who is best used once or twice a week but was forced in regular duty this past season. It’s not his fault he can’t hit or got worn down in the second half, it’s the team’s fault for putting him in that position in the first place.

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Nov
13

What Went Right: Ivan Nova

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Nova delivers a pitch during his first career complete game shutout. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Nova delivers a pitch during his first career complete game shutout. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Early in the 2013 season, it appeared that Ivan Nova would fall into the What Went Wrong category. Through his first three starts he allowed 10 runs in 14.2 IP and hadn’t recorded as much as a single out in the sixth inning. In the third inning of his fourth start, he exited with what appeared to be an elbow injury about fifteen seconds after trainer Steve Donohue came to check on him. His season had disaster written all over it.

Given how many young pitchers undergo the procedure every year, it would have surprised few if Nova required Tommy John surgery. Thankfully, that turned out not to be the case. The Yankees quickly assured us it was a triceps injury, abating some of the fear. About a month later he was back on the roster, pitching out of the bullpen. Apparently, something clicked for him between the injury and the return.

Able to air it out in shorter appearances, Nova let loose with fastballs that, for the only time in his career, consistently exceeded 95 mph. Even more impressive was how he kept the velocity up for a five-inning relief appearance against the Mets, allowing just one run while striking out six. Unfortunately, due to the returns of Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis, the Yankees had to option Nova. It seemed like poor timing for the move, given his resurgence.

Nova didn’t let the demotion get him down, and his persistence paid off. After about two weeks in the minors he got the call again to make a spot start against the Rays. It went well enough, as did his follow-up appearance, a 5.2-inning mop-up job against the Orioles. That earned him a spot in the rotation, wherein he produced one of the best second halves in the majors.

In 87.1 post-ASB innings Nova produced a 2.78 ERA, seventh best in the American League and good enough to bring his season-long ERA down to 3.10. His velocity had dipped back to normal levels, and actually took a further hit in his final four starts. And his peripherals looked a lot like his career numbers. So we must ask the question, was Nova actually good or did he merely get lucky?

Part of the answer is that Nova’s second half peripherals are a bit deceiving, in that they’re arbitrary end points. If you look at his peripherals from the time of his return from the DL, a bit less arbitrary in nature, his peripherals look a bit better. Then there’s the issue of peripherals not being a true measure of a pitcher’s ability. Some pitchers are better at inducing poor contact, meaning they’ll out-perform their peripherals. Other issues play roles, including focus and recovery.

All of that is a long way of saying that it’s incredibly difficult to judge whether a pitcher is lucky or good based on a single season, never mind a portion of a season. Add in Nova’s inconsistent performances for the last few years, and he becomes even more of a mystery. We’ve seen him pitch like one of the best in the league, and we’ve seen him pitch like a guy who will scramble for minor league deals in his late 20s. How could we possibly know which Nova pitches for the Yankees in 2014?

We can leave that speculation for another time, when we’re bored in January and February. For now we can reflect on Nova’s 2013 and how his resurgence helped make the season enjoyable for that much longer. The pitching staff, considered a strength before the season, broke down as CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes got knocked around start after start. Nova stepped up mid-season and gave the Yankees quality innings every fifth day. Without him, they wouldn’t have remained in contention for as long as they had, and they could have been staring down their first losing season since 1992.

Instead Nova did answer the challenge, not only salvaging some respectability in 2013, but giving the team hope for 2014 and beyond. In a season when so many things went wrong, Nova was one of the bright spots.

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Nov
12

What Went Wrong: Derek Jeter

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The 2013 season is over and now it’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with the captain who wasn’t around to go down with the ship.

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

This was the season Derek Jeter was never supposed to have. He’s Derek Jeter. Things are always supposed to go his way, and if they don’t, he proves people wrong and makes them go his way. Last season was a perfect example. The Cap’n was supposed to be finished, a washed up former star who was losing a fight with Father Time. Instead, he led the big leagues in hits (216), at-bats (683), and plate appearances (740). Thirty-eight-year-old shortstops aren’t supposed to do that.

Jeter finished that remarkable season on a down note, playing through a bone bruise in his left ankle during the month of September before it finally gave out and fractured in Game One of the ALCS. He had surgery in late-October and although the rehab timetable meant things would be tight, it appeared he would be ready in time for the start of Spring Training. Unfortunately, Father Time started started to win the war after losing the battle in 2012.

Derek JeterThe offseason was full of gossip stories about Fat Derek Jeter and reports that his rehab was right on schedule. The Cap’n emphatically said he was working hard and would be ready in time for camp. Ultimately, that was not the case. Jeter’s rehab had slowed down at some point and he was far behind the other position players in Spring Training. He didn’t play in his first Grapefruit League game until mid-March and only appeared in five total, as many as Cito Culver. It was clear he would not start the season on time.

Jeter opened the 2013 campaign on the DL as he continued his rehab from the ankle surgery. In early-May, right when everyone was expecting him to return to the lineup, the Yankees announced their captain had suffered a major setback — there was a new fracture in the ankle, a smaller hairline crack that would nevertheless keep him out until the All-Star break. New York was getting nothing offensively from Eduardo Nunez and Jayson Nix at the shortstop position, so the setback was a big blow.

It wasn’t until July 11th, four days prior to the All-Star break, that Jeter joined the team. He played in only four rehab games and was rushed back to serve as the DH when Travis Hafner‘s shoulder started barking (again). Jeter was in the lineup for the series finale against the Royals and his return lasted all of eight innings. He legged out an infield single in his first at-bat of the year but felt tightness in his right quad when he tried to do the same a few innings later. The Yankees kept Jeter active over the weekend and through the All-Star break to see if he’d feel better, but that didn’t happen and back to the DL he went.

The second DL stint was shorter, only 17 days total. Jeter rejoined the team one day prior to a West Coast trip through two NL cities that would force him to play the field. That (second) first game back from injury resulted in one of the most memorable moments of the season, a first pitch solo homer off Rays left-hander Matt Moore:

Jeter played a total of four games at shortstop (the game against the Rays and three on the West Coast) before his right calf started acting up. Tests revealed a Grade I strain and just like that, the Cap’n was right back on the DL. This stint lasted 24 days. When he returned on August 26th, the team’s 131st game of the season, the Yankees were seven games back in the division and six games back of the second wildcard spot.

Following the third DL trip, Jeter stayed healthy for approximately two weeks. He wasn’t all that effective, going 9-for-48 (.188) with one extra-base hit (a double) and ten strikeouts while playing ten of 13 games at shortstop. After missing so much time due to injury and only playing in seven rehab games — that’s seven rehab games total: four coming back from the first injury, zero coming back from the second, three coming back from the third — it was no surprise he showed considerable rust at the plate. The problem was the Bombers were slipping in the standings and couldn’t afford the lack of production.

Jeter’s season came to an end on September 7th, when he exited a game against the Red Sox in the sixth inning with soreness in his surgically repaired left ankle. Tests came back clean but he was going to sit a few games before returning to the lineup. The team didn’t want to risk yet another setback. Four days later, with the Yankees sitting ten games back in the division and three games back of the second wildcard spot, Brian Cashman announced Jeter was being placed on the DL to prevent him from pushing too hard to come back after the doctor said he needed to strengthen the area around his ankle before returning. Jeter’s fourth DL stint of 2013 ended his season.

All told, the Cap’n hit just .190/.288/.254 (48 wRC+) in only 17 games around the various leg injuries this past season. He made four separate trips to the DL this summer after making four total from 1999-2012. The Yankees never really came out and said so, but the team and their doctors gave indications the leg injuries were all related — Jeter was compensating for one injury but putting extra stress elsewhere on his body. Certainly sounds reasonable, especially with leg injuries, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. Jeter missed all that time and it hurt the team dearly in 2013.

Rather than wait for him to exercise (or decline) his $9.5M player option for next season, the Yankees re-signed Jeter to a one-year contract worth $12M about two weeks ago. They reportedly agreed to the increased salary (and luxury tax hit) in exchange for avoiding a repeat of their contentious negotiations from three years ago, which only makes sense if Jeter’s camp indicated he was prepared to decline the player option and ask for more money. The Cap’n had no leverage following his self-proclaimed “nightmare” season but the Yankees gave into his demands anyway. Jeter is a total unknown heading into next season but the team paid him as if he’ll be a big time contributor because hey, he’s Derek Jeter and things are always supposed to go his way.

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Nov
11

What Went Wrong: Jayson Nix

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The 2013 season is over and now it’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with the utility infielder who was forced into regular duty.

(Mike Stobe/Getty)

(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Before the season even started, the Yankees had two injured regular infielders. Alex Rodriguez was going to be out until the All-Star break following hip surgery and while Derek Jeter was initially expected to be ready for Opening Day, his slow progress in Spring Training was sign of things to come. Injury-prone Kevin Youkilis was brought in to replace A-Rod and the unreliable Eduardo Nunez was the backup plan for Jeter, so incumbent utility man Jayson Nix was an important cog in the Yankees machine.

It’s easy to forgot that when camp opened, Nix wasn’t even on the 40-man roster. The team re-signed him to a one-year, $900k contract over the winter and immediately designated him for assignment — Nix agreed ahead of time to accept the minor league assignment to Triple-A Scranton if he cleared waivers. He was re-added to the 40-man roster at the end of Spring Training (along with Ben Francisco!) to round out the bench. Nix was likely to make the team the whole time, but the team took advantage of his situation — unlikely to find a guaranteed $900k elsewhere — to create a 40-man roster spot over the winter.

At the start of the year, New York’s plan was to play Youkilis at first base and Nix at third against left-handed batters. Nix appeared in three of the team’s first five games (two starts) and went 0-for-7 with five strikeouts, but he broke out in the sixth game by going 3-for-4 with a two-run homer against Justin Verlander. He continued to play sparingly for another two weeks until Youkilis’ back gave out, at which point Nix became the everyday third baseman. When Nunez hurt his ribcage in early-May, Nix took over at shortstop with David Adams stepping in at third.

From April 20th through July 1st, a span of 66 team games, Nix hit .244/.312/.305 with one homer and 61 strikeouts (!) in 241 plate appearances. That’s a 25.3% strikeout rate for a player who was hitting with no power. Nix started 58 of those 66 games and appeared in four others off the bench. He was a regular, playing every single day at either shortstop of third base. It’s worth noting he had a real nice 20-game stretch from late-May through mid-June, going 23-for-72 (.319) with ten runs driven in (.730 OPS).

Nix’s time as a regular came to an end in early-July when he was placed on the 15-day DL with a Grade II hamstring strain. He hurt himself running the bases at some point. On the DL he remained for four weeks, until being activated on July 28th. By then Nunez had returned from his ribcage injury (and was kinda sorta hitting) and both Jeter and A-Rod were days away from returning. The team always wanted to give Adams another shot and soon acquired Mark Reynolds for third base support. The playing time well had dried up.

After coming off the DL, Nix appeared in 14 of the Yankees’ next 21 games but had only started nine of them. He went 7-for-30 (.233) with ten strikeouts during those 21 games and was mostly pinch-running and replacing A-Rod late in games for defense. In the second game of a doubleheader on August 20th, Nix hit a game-tying solo homer off Mark Buehrle in the seventh inning before lacing the walk-off single against Darren Oliver in the ninth. It was his best game of the season.

In his first at-bat the very next day, Nix’s season came to an end when an errant R.A. Dickey knuckleball broke his left hand. It hit him flush. Talk about a serious roller coaster of emotion. He went from the highlight of his year to a season-ending injury in the span of 24 hours. Brutal.

All told, Nix hit .236/.308/.311 (70 wRC+) with 80 strikeouts (26.4%) and 13 extra-base hits (three doubles) in 303 plate appearances this season. He did go 13-for-14 in stolen base chances and hit a tolerable .266/.357/.330 (93 wRC+) in 114 plate appearances against left-handers. Nix led the team in starts at third base (33) and was second in starts at shortstop (41). I thought he was rock solid defensively at both positions. Steady and reliable. Regardless of your WAR preference, Nix was a smidge above replacement level (0.7 fWAR and 0.8 bWAR).

The problem this season wasn’t so much Nix himself, but the fact that he had to play so damn much. That’s all due to the injuries. It certainly wasn’t by design. I think Nix is a solid utility infielder who is best used once or twice a week like a normal utility infielder, not as a platoon third baseman or whatever. Certainly not as a starter. He chipped in some big hits this summer and played admirably even though he was exposed with all that playing time. It’s not Nix’s fault he played so much this year, but all that playing time is the reason he was a baseball player net negative in 2013.

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