By the Decade: More designated, less hitting

The offensive part of our Yankees By the Decade retrospective is coming to an end. After looking at the eight position players, we’ve landed on that catch-all designated hitter spot. Through the 2000s, the Yanks used 61 players at least one at the DH spot. From A-Rod to X-Nady, nearly everyone had a chance to DH. To whittle down the candidates, the chart shows those with at least 10 games as a designated hitter.

  AB Hits 2B 3B HR RBI BB IBB HBP K GDP BA OBP SLG
Jason Giambi 1267 297 52 0 77 225 261 16 51 322 20 .234 .384 .458
Hideki Matsui 930 264 47 2 49 176 117 4 7 137 18 .284 .365 .497
Bernie Williams 430 111 22 0 11 62 57 3 1 78 22 .258 .343 .386
Ruben Sierra 409 97 13 1 20 81 27 3 0 77 11 .237 .280 .421
Johnny Damon 386 106 20 3 7 38 48 1 0 70 4 .275 .354 .396
David Justice 363 88 15 1 18 55 53 4 0 81 8 .242 .337 .438
Nick Johnson 294 77 11 0 12 46 50 4 10 77 13 .262 .387 .422
Gary Sheffield 191 61 8 0 13 42 30 1 2 26 4 .319 .415 .565
Jorge Posada 171 35 7 0 4 17 30 3 3 49 6 .205 .330 .316
Shane Spencer 165 37 5 4 5 19 19 0 1 27 2 .224 .302 .394
Chuck Knoblauch 164 47 8 1 2 21 27 0 10 31 3 .287 .412 .384
Jose Canseco 89 23 3 0 5 16 19 1 0 29 1 .258 .378 .461
Glenallen Hill 86 27 4 0 9 14 7 0 1 24 0 .314 .368 .674
Alex Rodriguez 82 24 2 0 9 24 17 0 2 21 3 .293 .417 .646
Derek Jeter 57 16 3 0 2 6 5 0 2 11 1 .281 .359 .439
Bubba Trammell 44 10 4 0 0 4 4 0 0 8 1 .227 .292 .318
Jim Leyritz 44 11 0 0 0 3 5 0 0 13 1 .250 .327 .250
Shelley Duncan 42 9 1 0 4 10 5 0 0 14 2 .214 .298 .524
Totals 5684 1448 253 12 263 920 824 45 94 1218 133 .255 .355 .442

What leaps out at me from this chart is how the Yanks’ designated hitters weren’t that great at hitting. Most of the regulars who DH’d hit well below their career averages, and the team never really had a true DH this decade either. Jason Giambi led the pack with 22.3 percent of all DH at-bats, and Hideki Matsui was second with 16.4 percent. Beyond those two, the Yanks used the DH spot to rest regulars and give aging stars a spot in the lineup.

Early in the decade, the Yanks went after sluggers for the DH spot. They used a Glenallen Hill/Jose Canseco tandem in the second half of 2000 to some stellar results. Hill, acquired on July 21, 2000, from the Cubs for Ben Ford and Oswaldo Mairena, turned in a 175 OPS+ in 143 at bats, and around half of those came as a DH. Canseco, acquired on August 7, 2000, in a waiver move designed to block him from going to the Red Sox, had a great power spurt too. The duo combined for 15 home runs in just 175 DH at-bats.

After that though, the Yankees used the DH as a spot of convenience. They tried Chuck Knoblauch there in 2001 and Nick Johnson to some success in 2002 and 2003. After Johnson was traded, the Yanks turned to Jason Giambi, and he surprisingly hit significantly worse as a DH than he did as a first baseman. As the first baseman of the decade, Giambi hit .280/.420/.567. As the DH, he hit .234/.384/.458. That’s a swing of .145 OPS points.

Back in my younger and more ignorant days as a rookie baseball blogger at Talking Baseball, I explored the differences amongst hitters when they DH and when they play the field. My study then confused causation with correlation, but I’ve always believed that many hitters are better when they play the field too. Giambi always said that he preferred to play first because it kept him more in the game. It kept him warmer and more ready to bat. The decade’s numbers seem to bear him out.

At the same time, though, Giambi DH’d when he wasn’t healthy enough to play the field, and he would, in all likelihood, hit better when healthy. He DH’d, when he could, in 2004, 2006 and 2007 when sapped by injuries, and he played first in the years he was healthy. Somewhere, somehow, it’s probably a mixture of both.

Beyond Giambi, the Yankees’ DH numbers really highlight their love for the concept of the rotation DH. Hideki Matsui took over with great success over the last two years, but the team has used A-Rod, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada as the DH enough times to put them on this list. A-Rod, it seems, just loves to hit.

And so as Nick Johnson prepares to take over the DH mantle, I will anoint Jason Giambi as the Yanks’ DH of the decade. Had Hideki closed the playing time gap, he probably could have stolen this one from the Giambino; after all, he put up a better DH-only OPS this decade. But with over 300 at-bats, 28 home runs and approximately 43 runs created separating the two, Jason takes the crown but only barely.

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By the Decade: Tino and the Giambino

Our Yankees by the Decade series continues today with a look at first base. After talking about the decade of Derek yesterday and Jorge’s time behind the dish on Wednesday. Today, we have an actual debate.

For this one, because the Yankees used 42 players at least once at first base, I limited our analysis to the guys who played at least 10 games at first over the decade. At some point or another, the Yankees decided to give these players somewhat regular playing time. It’s quite the list.

Player AB Hits 2B 3B HR RBI BB IBB HBP K GDP BA OBA SLG
Jason Giambi 1639 459 80 2 129 373 355 21 58 376 35 .280 .420 .567
Tino Martinez 1436 376 69 6 64 246 126 13 12 210 38 .262 .325 .452
Mark Teixeira 586 171 42 3 37 115 80 9 11 109 13 .292 .384 .563
Nick Johnson 461 118 24 0 19 66 74 5 14 89 9 .256 .375 .432
Andy Phillips 412 110 19 4 10 56 26 0 2 79 13 .267 .311 .405
Tony Clark 243 54 12 0 16 48 26 3 2 90 6 .222 .300 .469
John Olerud 162 46 7 0 4 26 21 1 2 20 5 .284 .371 .401
Doug Mientkiewicz 160 45 12 0 5 24 16 0 3 23 2 .281 .356 .450
Wilson Betemit 114 27 4 0 5 21 7 0 1 38 4 .237 .285 .404
Craig Wilson 95 21 3 0 4 8 4 0 1 34 2 .221 .26 .379
Miguel Cairo 94 26 7 0 0 13 3 1 2 13 2 .277 .310 .351
Josh Phelps 63 19 2 0 2 11 6 0 2 12 5 .302 .380 .429
Todd Zeile 60 13 3 0 3 8 11 0 0 12 0 .217 .333 .417
Shelley Duncan 58 13 3 0 2 8 8 0 0 12 1 .224 .318 .379
Nick Swisher 40 13 3 1 3 8 10 0 0 5 1 .325 .460 .675
Aaron Guiel 27 5 0 0 0 3 3 0 1 8 2 .185 .290 .185
Ron Coomer 24 5 0 0 0 1 2 0 0 3 1 .208 .269 .208
Richie Sexson 24 6 1 0 1 6 5 0 0 7 1 .250 .367 .417
Luis Sojo 19 2 0 0 0 1 2 0 0 3 0 .105 .190 .105
Juan Miranda 18 6 1 0 1 4 2 0 1 8 0 .333 .409 .556
Clay Bellinger 16 2 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 7 0 .125 .176 .118
Cody Ransom 12 5 2 0 1 4 1 0 1 4 0 .417 .500 .883
  5763 1542 295 16 306 1050 789 53 113 1162 140 .268 .369 .484

For the Yankees, finding a suitable first basemen took up a lot of resources in the 2000s. The 1980s belonged to Donnie Baseball, and the 1990s were split between a fading Mattingly and Tino Martinez. As the 2000s rolled around, Tino’s days in the Bronx were numbered. He hit an admirable .280/.329/.501 with 34 dingers and 113 RBI in 2001, but heading into his age 34 season, Tino was given his walking papers.

The Yankees turned their attention to the big fish that off-season: Jason Giambi. Coming off of some stellar years for the Oakland A’s, the Yankees desperately wanted to add Giambi’s bat to the lineup. For seven years and $120 million, they did just that. After hitting .330/.458/.617 over his final three years in the A’s, Giambi would be playing on the world’s biggest stage.

At first, he struggled in the Bronx. He didn’t homer until the Yanks’ ninth game of 2002 and didn’t appear to be the feared hitter the Yanks thought they were getting. That is, until the flood gates opened on May 17, 2002. That night, Giambi blasted a walk-off Grand Slam in the 12th inning as the Yanks downed the Twins 13-12. The Giambino had arrived. He would end the year with a .314/.435/.598 with 41 home runs and 122 RBI.

For Giambi, though, 2002 would represent his peak in the Bronx. The power would begin to tail off in 2003, and although the batting eye would remain stellar, Giambi began to break down. He missed half of 2004 with a variety of injuries and much of 2007 as well. He found himself in the eye of the steroid hurricane and could not escape controversy. He rebounded nicely in 2008, but with Mark Teixeira looming, Giambi was gone.

So is Jason Giambi then the first baseman of the decade? Offensively, he makes a strong case for himself. As a first baseman only — not as a DH — he hit .280/.420/.567 with 129 home runs in 28.44 percent of the Yanks’ first base ABs. Tino, who made a Bronx return in 2005, came in second in team first base ABs but hit just .262/.325/.452 and blasted just 64 home runs.

Yet, the Yankees spent much of the decade trying to find someone who could actually play defense at first. The team learned early on that Giambi was ill-equipped to handle the glove. He wasn’t confident in his throws and generally had poor range. His cumulative UZR at first during his Yankee years was a -18.8. Only once in his Yankee career did he play more than 92 games at first and that was in 2008 when the Yanks had no better options. From 2004-2007, he played just 204 of the Yanks’ 648 games in the field. He was, in other words, a very highly paid designated hitter who could be stuck at first base when need me.

To that end, the Yanks tried just about everything. They used Nick Johnson for much of 2003 at first and brought back Tino in 2005. They tried the all-glove Doug Mientkiewicz; they begged Andy Phillips to do anything with the bat at the big league level; and they even gave Miguel Cairo enough chances to accrue nearly 100 ABs as a first baseman. The situation was that dire.

As we sit here in 2009, we’re on the precipice of the decade of Mark Teixeira. Already third on the list of Yankee first baseman of the ’00s by plate appearances, Mark’s contract ensures that his glove and bat will occupy first base for much of the 2010s. It will be a stark contrast with the ’00s, a decade that belongs to Giambi’s bat but not his glove and one that saw many players try to man first with varying degrees of success.

Peña up; former Yanks on the move

Update 4:02 p.m.: The Yankees have made a roster move this afternoon. Ramiro Peña has been recalled from AAA Scranton, and Anthony Claggett has been sent back down. Peña will back up both the infield and outfield while Claggett has been nothing short of terrible for the Yanks this season. When Chad Gaudin gets here, either David Robertson or Mark Melancon will hop on the Scranton Shuttle. I think Melancon stays. We’ll know soon.

* * *

As we await the start of what could be another epic Yankees/Red Sox contest this evening and as I readjust to East Coast time after a grueling day of travel, let’s talk about a few former Yankees who have seen their uniforms change stripes today.

As John Smoltz showed his age last night, Jason Giambi has been doing so all summer for the A’s. The seven-year Yankee vet who returned to the Bay Area this past winter was unconditionally released by Billy Beane today. Giambi is hitting .193/.332/.364. While the .139 IsoD is impressive, his batting average and slugging are both fourth-worst in the Majors, and the A’s have opted to give their younger first basemen extended looks.

I wonder if Giambi will land anywhere at this point. For what it’s worth, the fourth-place Blue Jays aren’t interested. It’s tough to call Giambi an impact bat, and he’s on the DL right now with a strained quad. If he’s finished, he sure went out with a wimper.

Another Yankee to symbolize the excesses and failures of the recent past found himself traded today. The Indians have dealt Carl Pavano to the Twins. This move came after the Twins put a waiver claim on Carl. For what it’s worth, the Twins are 4.5 games out of the AL Central but 9.5 games behind in the Wild Card race.

This move could be a risky one for the Twins simply because of Carl Pavano’s endurance. Right now, Carl Pavano has thrown 125.2 innings this year. He threw a combined 145.2 innings over four seasons for the Yanks. Despite his age and experience, he is definitely in the injury red zone right now. The Twins will rely on Pavano for depth, but that, as Yankee fans know, is a dicey proposition. The 5.37 ERA and 1.37 WHIP are hardly appealing.

Finally, Tom Verducci really likes the Yankees right now and doesn’t think things are looking up in Beantown. A Bronx win tonight would certainly cement that feeling.

Does Mark Teixeira prevent throwing errors?

One major difference between this season and last is the Yankees improved defense. It seems that Robinson Cano is making plays on everything near him. Derek Jeter, as we’ve discussed, is experiencing a defensive renaissance. But most importantly, the Yankees have a real first baseman in Mark Teixeira. It seems that every night he makes a spectacular play, one that his predecessor, Jason Giambi, would not make. As I’ve said more times than I can count this season, it feels great to have a real first baseman.

In discussing the infield defense, many have lauded Teixeira for his ability to scoop bad throws and prevent throwing errors. That can be huge, as it helps out pitchers and helps the team get out of innings quicker. It saves an unknown number of runs, because who knows what happens if that runner is safe and the pitcher is throwing with men on. Teixeira, we can see, is excellent at scooping balls out of the dirt. Yet for all his defensive shortcomings, Giambi was rather proficient at this, too.

Just how proficient was he? John Dewan, publisher of The Fielding Bible, takes a look. In the new volume of TFB, he discusses Defensive Misplays and Good Fielding Plays. Once of those Good Fielding Plays is scooping a ball out of the dirt, so we can see how Giambi and Teixeira rate.

The numbers are a bit skewed, because Tex plays first far more than Giambi did during his tenure in New York. Based on the numbers, Tex has scooped 22 throws in 95 games started. Last year Giambi picked 29 in 112 games started. The difference is marginal: 0.23 scoops per game for Tex, 0.26 for Giambi. So really, there’s not that much of a difference in their abilities to scoop balls out of the dirt. Then again, this data assumes a few things, and then leaves out a few things.

First, we’re assuming that they would both face the same number of opportunities per game. This might or might not be true. Over the course of a 162-game season one would think that the data would even out, but that’s not always the case. For instance, if Jeter’s range was poorer while Giambi was around, he might have a hard time getting to a ball, thereby rushing the throw and forcing a scoop. This would give more opportunities to Giambi. So while he would have a slightly larger number of scoops total, he would probably have a worse percentage.

In fact, this does leave out missed scoops, data I’m sure is available with Defensive Misplays. How many balls did Giambi fail to scoop vs. Teixeira? Even more importantly, how many times did a throw take Giambi off the bag, where Teixeira would have stayed on? These are tough questions to answer even with available data. We know Giambi wasn’t a bad scooper, but it seems that Teixeira is a bit better.

Where Tex is most proficient, of course, is fielding grounders. As Dewan notes, Tex has saved his team 18 runs over the past two years by fielding grounders, while Giambi has cost his team that many runs, a 36-run swing. That’s almost four wins right there, which is significant because it’s just one aspect of defense. I don’t think many would argue that Tex’s ability to field grounders might bring the Yanks an additional two wins over the course of the season.

The end of the Giambino Era

When Jason Giambi and the Yanks parted company last winter, they did so at the end of a tumultuous eight-year relationship. Yet, Giambi hit a respectable .247/.373/.502 with 32 home runs last year, and there was no reason to think he wouldn’t be at least a decent contributor in Oakland. For Giambi, though, 2009 has been an unmitigated disaster. Before injuring himself this week and landing on the DL, Giambi was hitting just .193/.332/.364 with 11 HR and 72 strike outs. His BABIP — a meager .218 — suggests a fair share of bad luck, but the A’s seem to have soured on Giambi. As Mychael Urban wrote on his blog yesterday, the end might be nigh for Jason Giambi, and the A’s may just buy him out when the season is over. It is shaping up to be a rather ignominious end for the once-great and controversial slugger.

On Jason Giambi’s baserunning efficiency

I was perusing Joel Sherman’s latest blog post about Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner last night when I came across an initially dismaying line. It is, on its face, the prime example of the anti-Moneyball approach to baseball. Wrote Sherman:

But when not hitting a homer, Giambi was – in many respects – an on-base detriment. He was station-to-station. He offered no threat on the bases. He scored nearly as many runs (32) via his own homers as all the other ways (36) combined, which also includes trotting home on other’s homers.

My kneejerk reaction to that statement — an on-base detriment — is to simply shake my head and move on. Joe Morgan and Dusty Baker hate players who “clog the bases” even when it’s been proven beyond a doubt that runners on base help a team score runs. That is, after all, the goal of baseball, and people who talk like Sherman did generally aren’t making valid points.

But then I got to thinking: What if Sherman is on to something here? Could a player be so slow that, while not a detriment, he underperforms on the base paths? Let’s find out.

In a way, Jason Giambi was remarkably inefficient on the base paths last year. With an OBP of .373 in 565 plate appearances, he reached base 211 times last year. He scored just 68 runs for a conversion rate of just 32.2 percent. As Sherman notes, when we omit Giambi’s home runs, he scored 36 runs in 179 times on base. That means that in just 20 percent of his non-home run times on base, Jason Giambi scored a run.

That doesn’t seem too impressive until we bring in Giambi’s overall numbers. Throughout his career, Giambi has scored 35 percent of the time after getting on base. If we eliminate his home runs, he has scored 26 percent of the time after getting on base.

But now we’re just looking at Giambi in a vacuum. Let’s see how the Yankees performed as a team in these situations. Counting the home runs, the Yankees turned 36.8 percent of their baserunners into runs. Discounting home runs, they turned 31.1 percent of their runners into runs. On a larger level, the American League numbers were 36.8 percent counting home runs and 31.5 percent without the home runs.

In other words, while Jason Giambi was just four percent worse at scoring overall than league average, he was nearly 10 percent worse at scoring in non-home run situations.

So what then does all of this mean? After all, Jason Giambi had a net positive effect on the Yankees in 2008 and had, by any account, a good season. Well, for starters, that combination of speed and power is quite valuable. A-Rod, for example, in his career has scored nearly 45 percent of the time he gets on base and 35 percent of the time in non-home run situations.

While the next obvious conclusion is that Jason Giambi, as he aged and slowed down, become a problem on the base paths, but that’s not one we can readily make. After all, Giambi’s scoring is as much a function of the guys hitting behind him as it is his own speed. For much of last year, the guys hitting behind Giambi included Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera, Wilson Betemit and Jose Molina. That was not a pretty bunch offensively, and they could very well be the reasons why Giambi’s percentage of runs scored not off of home runs was so slow.

Maybe, though, just maybe, Joel Sherman isn’t far off the mark. Maybe exceedingly slow — exceptionally slow, painfully slow — baserunners can slow a team down. It would require a lot more research, but as baseball analysis is all about challenging the norms, it’s an idea that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand even if it runs counter to the Shrine of the On-Base Percentage.

Two ex-Yankees on their times in the Bronx

If the Yankees manage to snap out of their World Series-less funk and return to their smart team-building ways of the late 1990s, Jason Giambi and Randy Johnson will forever live as the two biggest symbols of Aught-Aught decadence. The Yankees spent a whopping amount of dollars on both of those players and additional prospects on Randy Johnson. When Johnson left after 2006 and Giambi left this winter, their departures were quick and rather forgettable.

Over the weekend, the San Francisco Chronicle’s John Shea checked in with the Big Unit and the Giambino as they settle in to their new digs and their new old digs, respectively. The two former Yankees had widely divergent views on playing in the Bronx.

Neither Randy Johnson nor Jason Giambi won a World Series with the Yankees, which is why neither is viewed in that Paul O’Neill-Scott Brosius “True Yankee” sort of way, whatever the heck that is. Johnson’s and Giambi’s sin was playing on teams that fell short of winning it all, the Yankees’ only goal.

“If you don’t win the World Series, it’s considered a failing year,” said Johnson, who’s working near his Livermore roots after signing a one-year, $8 million contract with the Giants. “Those are extremely high expectations. It’s not that easy, though. I don’t think you should be measured on whether you won a World Series or not because the best team doesn’t always win the World Series.”

[snip]

“I loved having that pressure on you,” said Giambi, who returned to the A’s for a $5.25 million guarantee. “If you’re an athlete and really love the game, it’s pretty incredible. The expectation level from the media to the fans, it’s awesome, an incredible environment to play in. I know some people don’t thrive in it, but I enjoyed it.”

For some reason, Shea’s main goal seems to be taking jabs at the Yankees. He openly mocks the “True Yankee” moniker that some players have earned, and he notes in the omitted section the Yanks’ winter spending spree. In a way, though, he misses the point.

For Giambi, his time in New York was about excelling on the big stage, and he seemed to do that just fine. While his contract and tenure here will be forever marked by steroids, the Yanks got their money’s worth out of Jason, and it wasn’t his fault the Yanks’ pitching fell apart.

Between Randy Johnson and the Yanks, though, there is no love lost. Even in Johnson’s words — “I don’t think you should be measured on whether you won a World Series or not because the best team doesn’t always win the World Series” — are hints of excuses. He’s still trying to defend himself as the man who couldn’t put away the Angels in 2005 and couldn’t deal with the Tigers in 2006. He is every bit the insecure pitcher Joe Torre describes him to be in his book and nothing like the bulldog the Yankees thought he was.

When all is said and done, neither Randy nor Jason will go down in the annals of Yankee history as representative of a good time. This decade has seen the team try to find a way to return to World Series glory with no luck. For one of them, it certainly wasn’t from a lack of trying, and from the other, it will always just be sour grapes.