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.

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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.

Athletics Nation interviews Giambi

If anyone is missing Jason Giambi this spring, you can head over to Athletics Nation where Tyler Bleszinski has conducted an interview with the former Yanks first baseman. It’s quite the long one — and it’s only the first part. Jason talks about the difference between playing in Oakland and playing in New York, how he views himself on each team, and the adjustments he made to his swing upon coming to the Yanks.

Head over to read the whole thing — I can’t possibly do it justice without completely reprinting it. However, there were a couple of parts I found particularly interesting. The first of which is Giambi’s reply to the question of how he views himself as a defensive first baseman. I didn’t know what to expect after reading the question, but it certainly wasn’t this: “I view myself as great.” Yeah, right. Tyler’s talking about playing first base, Jason, not about chugging Jack. Jay at Fack Youk takes a closer look at this statement.

Most interesting, though, is the revelation that Giambi very well might not have been a Yankee had ownership not intervened. The A’s and Giambi apparently had a place in deal before the 2001 season which would have paid Big G around $90 million over six years.

Trust me, I wanted to stay in Oakland. We had a deal done. You can ask Billy Beane. It was my free agent year before the season started. And ownership at the time pulled the deal off the table. I had flown my parents out, my agent, everybody. A lot of people don’t know that.

That creates one massive what-if scenario. Looking at the list of free agents that year, there was really only one superstar bat available: Barry Bonds. Would the Yanks have pursued him to fill their left field void? He was, after all, fresh off a record-breaking season. The Giants ended up signing him for four years and $72 million with a $18 million club option, but without another blue-chip slugger on the market perhaps the Yankees would have put their resources towards Bonds.

Barring that, they could have gone forward with a Johnny Damon signing, putting him in left field. Considering the money they would have saved on Giambi, they could have as easily signed Rondell White, too, to play right field.

I love how one little interview sparks so many questions. We’ll never know how Yankee history would have unfolded had Giambi re-upped with the A’s in 2001. But it’s fun to think about for sure.