Food For Thought: First Baseman

The Yankees’ last four primary first baseman. Interesting to see Tex’s curve compared to Donnie’s. Stupid back problems.

(related graphs)

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Link Dump: Girardi, Giambi, Russo, Catchers

Some links to check out while I try to get my finger to stop bleeding after cutting it open with a broken glass…

Joe Girardi interview at HBR

Katherine Bell of The Harvard Business Journal sat down for a chat with Yanks’ manager Joe Girardi recently, and it’s really one of the better interviews you’ll see. There aren’t any lay-up questions; they talked about his use of statistics, older players mentoring the younger players on the team, his divorce from the Marlins, steroids, all sorts of great stuff. It gets RAB’s highest level of recommendation.

Giambi gets hosed

He hasn’t been a Yankee for over a full year now, but Jason Giambi was always a favorite of mine, so I still keep tabs on him. Even during his down years from 2006-2008, he still put up a .386 OBP and a .262 ISO. Anyway, the Giambino invested seven figures into a social network/fashion retail website (really Big G?), but apparently got taken to the cleaners by a tech guy who delivered an inferior product. Giambi and his wife are now suing the guy for $3M, but I get the sense that the former Yank is the kind of guy that would rather have a few minutes alone with him in a locked room.

Mr. Russo makes it

The Wall Street Journal has been cranking out some great stuff recently, and today they have a feature on Kevin Russo. Apparently the scrappy (yay!) little utility player from Long Island didn’t even have the benefit of the doubt from his college coach at Baylor, who “was just pulling for him to catch a break.” Russo’s father was a Yankee fan before succumbing to cancer in 2007, so for him to be playing in that uniform is all the more special for him and his family. Great stuff, right there.

Overworking catchers

Over at FanGraphs, our own Joe Pawlikowski took a look at catchers who’ve been doing a lot of catching this season, and the possible effect it’ll have on their production. I bring this up because Frankie Cervelli just finished a stretch in which he started seven games in seven days, nine games in ten days, and 15 games in 20 days. Unsurprisingly, his OPS has dropped 64 points during that time, but of course he wasn’t going to maintain his torrid pace all season. Really, I’m thinking more about laying off him a little more now to prevent him from being completely worn out come August and September.

Jorge Posada‘s not young and has already dealt with three different injuries this year (two fluky, of course), so Girardi has to be prepared for a situation in which Cervelli starts the majority of games from here on out. Easing back on the gas now should have benefits later.

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.

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.