Archive for Mark Teixeira
The 2008 season might not have been as bad as 2013, but Yankees fans would still like to forget it. It seemed that every little thing went wrong that season. Whenever it looked as though the Yankees might have a charge in them, the suffered another blow.
Let’s consider a (perhaps incomplete) list of those maladies:
- Both Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes, top prospects who showed promise in 2007, started off the season in disastrous fashion.
- Then Hughes got hurt.
- Darrell Rasner started 20 games.
- Much worse: Sidney Ponson started 15.
- Save for a brilliant start here and there, Andy Pettitte was thoroughly mediocre.
- The only two starters under age 30, Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera, had wholly disappointing seasons. Cano was benched for lack of hustle, while Carbera got sent back to AAA after more than two service-time years in the bigs.
- Jorge Posada, fresh off signing a new contract, played the first half with a bum shoulder which required surgery, forcing a cast of offensively inept backups into starting roles.
- Hideki Matsui‘s balky knees limited him to under 400 PA and sapped him of his power.
- Chien-Ming Wang suffered a foot injury that would indirectly end his career.
- Derek Jeter had his worst season since 1996. (Sure, he won the AL Rookie of the Year Award that year, but we’d come to expect more of him.)
- Joba Chamberlain dazzled out of the pen, and then in the rotation — until he suffered a shoulder injury that cut his season short (and probably ended up causing a lot more long-term damage than we typically account for).
- They traded a reasonably effective Kyle Farnsworth and got back a wholly terrible Ivan Rodriguez.
- Xavier Nady hit .330/.383/.535 before the Yankees traded for him, .268/.320/.474 for them.
- Damaso Marte was terrible and then broke after the trade. Thankfully, they didn’t end up giving away anything of consequence.
- All told the Yankees used 27 — twenty-seven! — pitchers.
What went right? Mike Mussina’s resurgence was nice to watch. Bobby Abreu and Jason Giambi both stayed healthy and produced decent numbers. Alex Rodriguez wasn’t his 2007 MVP self, but he was still a top-five hitter. Unfortunately, he started his streak of six straight years on the disabled list. (Which he’ll have snapped at season’s end.) The Yanks did discover Al Aceves, which was nice, and Brian Bruney, which was nice for a very short period of time.
Despite all that, had there been a second Wild Card, or had the Rays improved by 22 wins, instead of 31, the Yanks would have made the playoffs. So how bad could the season have been?
It could have been a fatal sign going forward. The franchise players were getting older. Each had been hurt or saw diminished production during the 2008 season. The only starters under age 30 took steps backwards. Maybe it didn’t feel like it at the time, but the potential for disaster loomed during that off-season. The Yankees needed big changes, and that’s not easy to achieve through free agency.
Thankfully for the Yankees, the 2008-2009 free agent class featured a number of players who fit their exact needs. Even more thankfully, they shed a number of their biggest, and in some cases worst, contracts at the exact right time.
The 2008 payroll was a then-franchise-record $209 million (just a bit more than the 2005 payroll). Without some of those bigger contracts coming off the books, there’s now way that even the Yankees can afford to add contracts for CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira (and to a lesser extent, Nick Swisher). But the exact right contracts expired at the exact right time.
Jason Giambi cost the club $22 million in 2008. They essentially shed $17 million, though, since they had to pay him a $5 million buyout on his 2009 option.
Carl Pavano cost the club $11 million in 2008.
Bobby Abreu cost $16 million, but with a $2 million buyout the Yankees saved $14 million.
Mike Mussina cost $11 million, but the Yankees probably weren’t glad to be rid of him at that point.
Andy Pettitte cost $16 million. Worthwhile in 2007, but not so much 2008.
They also saved some money when Ivan Rodriguez’s contract expired. Trading away Wilson Betemit’s $1.6 million was like finding some loose change in the couch cushions.
In total the Yankees shed more than $70 million in salaries, mostly for players they were glad to be rid of, of who were considerably overpaid in 2008.
Time to reallocate those resource to more productive players.
Add up the guys they signed. At $23 million for Sabathia. $22.5 million for Teixeira, $18.5 million for Burnett, and $5.3 million for Swisher, plus another $5.5 million for bringing back Pettitte, you get $74.8 million.
They were able to fill their needs with such high-priced guys, because they had a number of lower-cost players on both sides of the ball. It took some faith in them rebounding, but Cano and Cabrera cost them a combined $7.4 million in 2009. Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes earned the minimum, as did almost everyone in the bullpen. If they didn’t have those major-league-ready younger players, then spending $75 million on top-tier players makes less sense. You can have a core of great players, but you still need 25 players on the roster.
At the end of 2008, the Yankees were in a tough spot. Their younger players saw their flaws exposed during the season. There was plenty of uncertainty about the tested veterans. Without the perfect free agent class and money to lure them, the 2009 Yankees might not have been much better than 2008. Without some of those younger guys returning to form, or performing well for a change, the successful free agent signings might not have mattered.
The Yankees found the exact guys to fill needed spots. It cost them plenty, but each of the free agent signings (and trade bounty, in Swisher’s case) added significantly to the 2009 team’s production. Perhaps just as importantly, the Yankees stuck with those younger players and saw their patience rewarded. The entire off-season could have gone a lot differently. But it played out perfectly. We all know the reward.
I have this buddy — most of you probably know him — who IMs me at least once a week clamoring for the Yankees to sign Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales.
Drew we know makes some level of sense. The Yankees still need some infield help. Despite his relative health so far, and his improving performance, they can’t ignore the injury risk of Brian Roberts. Fun as he’s been to watch, Yangervis Solarte could go away at any time. The Yankees can’t really afford that kind of drop-off at this point.
Once they signed Carlos Beltran, Morales didn’t make sense for the Yanks. They had Mark Teixeira installed at first base, and with four outfielders they had their DH needs covered. There just weren’t enough at-bats for a guy who certainly deserves them. There was always the “if Mark Teixeira misses significant time” caveat, but other than that there wasn’t much connection between Morales and the Yankees.
Beltran’s injury changes the scene a bit. If he does require immediate surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow, the Yankees have room to add a bat. With two MLB players waiting for a team to sign them, the Yankees have a perfect opportunity to improve.
Morales: DH and spelling Teixeira
The Yankees need a healthy Teixeira if they’re going to make a run at the postseason. They’ve already missed him for two weeks. To lose him again, especially with Beltran out, would further cripple the offense. We got a little scare earlier this week, when Teixeira sat out a game and complaining of tired legs. He ran poorly, even for himself, during the weekend series in Milwaukee.
Adding Morales gives Girardi a viable backup for Teixeira. Playing Morales at first allows Teixeira to take a full day off, or to rest up a bit at DH. Kelly Johnson could do that, sure, but what happens if Roberts gets hurt? Johnson can’t play the entire right side of the infield.
Morales’s primary role would be at DH, with Alfonso Soriano taking over in right field. His arm might not be fit for the job, but he’s shown considerably more range than Beltran this season. It’s a trade-off that the Yankees will have to take. They can still get Soriano days at DH and on the bench, as he’s been doing all year. That will free up some at-bats for Ichiro as well.
Drew: Mitigating Jeter
The rise of Solarte has made the Yankees infield a bit better than we anticipated going into the season. Unfortunately, Jeter’s defense has been even worse than imagined. The pitching staff has had its troubles, and it’s tough to blame the entire problem on shaky infield defense, but it sure hasn’t helped them. Drew is no defensive wizard, but he represents an upgrade over the current corps.
Signing Drew only works if Girardi makes Jeter the primary DH in Beltran’s absence. Perhaps Jeter can stay fresher if he’s off the field, providing a bit more offense than he is now. Drew plays his natural position, at which his bat provides the most value.
Given the state of the Yankees infield, there doesn’t need to be a very strong case made for Drew. He’d help.
What about pitching?
With three-fifths of the Opening Day rotation on the DL, the Yankees might need some pitching help. We know Ivan Nova is lost for the season. Who knows if CC Sabathia, with a degenerative knee condition, or Michael Pineda, with an injury so close to his surgically repaired right shoulder will come back — let alone come back and pitch effectively. If the Yankees are going to open their wallets, shouldn’t it aid the pitching staff?
In an ideal world, sure. But in the real world, there aren’t any major league caliber pitchers on the free agent market. A few might become available in July, but the Yankees can’t count on that. They have to take measures to improve the team where they can when the opportunities arise. Right now, the opportunities lie in Drew and Morales.
There is little to no chance the Yankees sign both, giving up their second- and third-round draft picks in the process. (Unless Boras comes up with one of his creative package deals, a la Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez.) Either could help the Yankees if Beltran misses significant time. Strangely enough, it might even make them a more balanced team in the process.
The mailbag is our Friday staple, but this week we received a question worth its own post.
Jonathan asks: Hey Mike, have you noticed any change in Mark Teixeira‘s stance so far? He’s standing up much more straight with less of a crouch and his hands are starting in a lower position.
I hadn’t noticed anything different until I read Jonathan’s question the other day, so I paid extra attention during Tuesday night’s game against the Mariners. Sure enough, it looks like Teixeira has changed his setup at the plate. To the action GIFs:
That is 2013 on the left and 2014 on the right, both homerun swings (not that the outcome matters much, but just in case) and both at Yankee Stadium so the camera angle is the same. I’m not much when it comes to media editing and all that, but I did my best to sync the two GIFs at the moment his front foot hits the ground.
There are definitely some differences between last year and this year, as Jonathan pointed out. Four that I see, in fact.
- Closed Stance: Teixeira’s front foot was further away from the plate than his back foot last season. He’d been like his entire career. The same is still true this year, but it isn’t nearly as exaggerated.
- More Upright: Look at his knees. He was in a bit more of a crouch last season. This year he’s standing close to straight up.
- Lower Hands: They wind up in the same place once he starts to load his swing, but Teixeira has brought his hands out in front of his body before the pitch is delivered. Before they were almost behind his head.
- Follow-Through: Last year Teixeira still had his big one-handed follow-through. This year it’s a more compact two-handed follow-through.
Do those adjustments sound familiar? They should. You’re a bad fan if they don’t. (Not really.) Those are the same exact adjustments Curtis Granderson made when he revamped his batting stance in August 2010 and turned into one of the game’s premier power hitters almost literally overnight. Here’s a pair of screen caps from a post I wrote about Granderson’s overhaul back in the day:
Granderson’s very first at-bat of the 2010 season is on the left (homer off Josh Beckett!) and an at-bat from August 2010 is on the right. It’s from the series immediately after he went through his crash course with hitting coach Kevin Long, so right after Curtis went through the overhaul.
The camera angle isn’t the same but you can see Granderson closed his stance and dropped his hands, pretty drastically too. Much more than Teixeira. (Lower hands is a classic adjustment players make in an effort to get their bat moving quicker.) He is not standing more upright, though he did replace his one-handed follow-through with a two-handed follow-through. I’m not going to make a GIF of that; I trust you remember Grandy following through with two hands these last few years.
Kevin Long noticed that Teixeira had been letting the bat go early when he hit lefty, protecting his right wrist in the process. Teixeira said he fell into that habit last year when he tried to play through the injury, but until Long picked it up on video earlier in the week, he didn’t realize it was still happening.
“Lefthanded, mentally I have to continue to remember that it’s healthy now and even though it might be a little bit tight, and every now and then it’s a little bit sore, I can still take that full swing,” Teixeira said. “It was unbelievable how early I was letting go of my (left) hand to protect the (right) wrist. Just really a bad mechanical thing.”
Long and Teixeira worked on the adjustment in the cage and during batting practice, but it wasn’t until Thursday’s game against the Pirates in Bradenton that the first baseman truly felt he let loose during his lefthanded at-bats.
“It looked like a whole different animal,” Long said. “The problem is it wasn’t allowing him to drive the ball and he was cutting his swing off. I can’t tell you how positive the Bradenton game was for him and for us.
That’s the kinda thing I read in Spring Training and completely ignore. We hear that sorta stuff everyday and most of it means nothing, both short and long-term. Teixeira has noticeably revamped his stance though, and both he and the hitting coach talked about making adjustments back in camp. The early returns are positive too: .231/.375/.487 (140 wRC+) with three homers in 48 plate appearances this season, including two homers in his last two games. Suddenly that little blurb from March seems more meaningful.
Teixeira is a switch-hitter, but his left-handed swing has been the concern in recent years. I didn’t bother to look to see if he changed his righty stance as well. He never stopped mashing lefties (144 wRC+ from 2011-13), so there was never a reason to worry about him from that side of the plate. Teixeira’s production against righties took a hit though (104 wRC+ from 2011-13), plus a right wrist injury is more worrisome for a lefty hitter. The front arm is the power arm, so if any part of that is compromised, it’s tough to drive the ball. Teixeira has hit those two homers off righty pitchers the last two games, which is encouraging.
Will the adjustments Teixeira made this year be as effective as the ones Granderson made in 2010? Man that would be so cool. It is the same basic stuff, after all. Closed stance, lower hands, two-handed follow-through, etc. That said, no. Probably not. Granderson’s fix was 95th percentile stuff. Turning into a 40+ homer guy with a few mechanical tweaks is damn near the best case scenario. I wouldn’t expect the same results from Teixeira just because they made the same adjustments. They are two different players at two different points of their careers.
Still, can this new stance help Teixeira regain some of his lost production as a left-handed batter? It’s possible and I hope so. There’s really no way of knowing at this point though. Teixeira wasn’t bad in his last full, healthy season (116 wRC+), he just wasn’t as good as he had been during his prime. The easiest way for him to improve his overall production is to improve against righties, and these recent changes could help him do just that. Hopefully this recent power surge is a sign of things to come and an indication Teixeira’s new batting stance is paying real dividends.
The Yankees are starting to get healthy. Or, really, several of their players have started working their way back after being shut down for various lengths of time. No one has actually come off the DL yet. Here are some updates on the walking wounded, courtesy of George King, Erik Boland, and Jorge Castillo.
- Mark Teixeira (hamstring) went 0-for-1 with two walks during an Extended Spring Training game yesterday and 1-for-5 with a strikeout today. He played the field both games and had to run hard on several occasions. “I will be fully ready to play Sunday and disappointed if I don’t.,” said Teixeira, who is eligible to activated off the DL on Sunday.
- David Robertson (groin) threw a 25-pitch bullpen session yesterday and is scheduled to throw in an inning in Extended Spring Training tomorrow. “Get Sunday and Monday off and be ready to go Tuesday,’’ said Robertson. He’s eligible to be activated off the DL on Tuesday.
- Brendan Ryan (back) got several at-bats in a simulated game this morning, his first game action since getting hurt. Because he missed just about all of Spring Training, Ryan’s rehab will be much longer than a handful of minor league games. He’s still a few weeks from returning.
- Jose Ramirez (oblique) was one of the pitchers to face Teixeira this morning. He missed all of Spring Training but is throwing now, so that’s good. No word on when he’ll rejoin one of the minor league affiliates.
Mark Teixeira will play three innings in Tampa tomorrow according to Bryan Hoch. He is on track to be activated off the DL on Sunday, the first day he is eligible. Tomorrow will be Teixeira’s first game action since he hurt his hamstring roughly two weeks ago, though I don’t know if he’ll play in Extended Spring Training or with High-A Tampa. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.
Following this afternoon’s game, Joe Girardi announced that an MRI showed a Grade I strain in Mark Teixeira‘s right hamstring. He has already been on the DL for three days now. A Grade I strain is the least severe, but that doesn’t mean he is guaranteed to return after the minimum 15 days. Hamstrings are quite tricky.
Teixeira, 33, went 3-for-12 (.250) in four games before landing on the DL. Kelly Johnson has taken over at first base for the time being. The Yankees called up a third catcher (Austin Romine) to replace Teixeira because, well, their 40-man roster is a mess and they don’t have any better options. Russ Canzler is the starting first baseman at Triple-A Scranton, but the Yankees would have to drop someone from the 40-man roster to call him up. Hopefully the injury does not linger and Teixeira returns soon.
I know I just did a thoughts post yesterday, but there’s a bunch of stuff going on after Opening Day and none of it is worth a full post. This is the worst time of the season because we know the samples are still way too small to mean anything, but what else are we supposed to talk about? Baseball, man. It can be cruel.
1. I’m really curious to know what adjustment CC Sabathia made after the second inning last night. There had to be something, he looked like a completely different pitcher in his last four innings than he did his first two. Joe Girardi told Dan Barbarisi his pitches were cutting early and Sabathia told Bryan Hoch he was too amped up, but that doesn’t help us any. If there was a tangible adjustment made, that’s good. You want to be able to point to something specific for the improvement, something real. Everything gets magnified on Opening Day, that’s just the way it is, and Sabathia was far from impressive on Tuesday. I am looking forward to seeing his next outing though. Something changed after that second inning.
2. The offense was mostly a no show on Opening Day, but I thought Mark Teixeira looked really good. He hit a ball to the warning track in his first at-bat, ripped a line drive to right that sliced just foul in his second time up, then slapped a single the other way later in the game. He also drew a walk and saw 18 total pitches in four trips to the plate. Teixeira said he is still a little apprehensive about his surgically repaired wrist at the end of camp, which is a concern for obvious reasons, but he didn’t show it last night. He swung hard, made some solid contact, and he’s seeing the bell wall. Does that mean he’ll be fine going forward? Who knows. This one game, those four at-bats, were encouraging.
3. I’m fully on board with batting Brett Gardner seventh after being on the fence about it at first. Yeah, he would serve as the second leadoff man by batting ninth, but I think batting him seventh does a better job of helping the middle of the order. Gardner’s whole thing is not making outs, and by batting him closer to the middle of the lineup, he’ll get more of an opportunity to extend rallies and cap them off. The middle of the order is the key to everything; Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson aren’t going to generate much offense no matter where they slot into the lineup. Batting Gardner two spots higher to get that one extra good hitter behind Teixeira and Alfonso Soriano gives them more of a chance to turn rallies into runs. Instead of being a leadoff guy, he’ll be expected to drive in some runs. Plus he might get an extra at-bat once in a while.
4. I am wrong all the time, about everything, yet I’m still surprised at how wrong I’ve been about this last bench spot stuff. Literally every step of the way. I thought they’d take Scott Sizemore, then when it was clear he was out of the running, I thought they’d take Eduardo Nunez. When they didn’t take Nunez, I thought they’d keep him in Triple-A as insurance. Instead, he was designated for assignment yesterday to make room on the roster for Yangervis Solarte. Wrong, every step of the way. Even by my terrible standards, that’s amazing. The Yankees don’t have much shortstop depth now — Addison Maruszak figures to be the starter in Triple-A with Nunez gone — especially with Brendan Ryan out for a few weeks, so they’ll probably have to keep an eye on the waiver wire for an extra body.
5. Dellin Betances is going to be my favorite sidebar this season. He was great in relief last year, very good in Spring Training, and just electric last night. Betances has been in the farm system for an eternity and he’s had a ton of ups and downs, and we’ve watched them just about every step of the way. It’s great to finally see him find some sustained success and a niche in the bullpen. His stuff is obviously excellent, and now that he’s throwing strikes regularly, Betances can be a late-inning force. There is plenty of opportunity in the bullpen with a clear path to higher leverage seventh and eighth inning work, so this is a good time for everything to be clicking. Very much looking forward to seeing more.
6. As a team, the Yankees saw 138 pitches in last night’s game. That isn’t a huge number, but out of their 150 nine-inning games last year, they saw 138+ pitches only 72 times. Less than half the time. The 2014 offense had a bad day on Opening Day and yet they still saw pitches at a higher rate than last year’s squad. Roberts did the heavy lifting with 20 pitches in his four trips to the plate while Gardner, Teixeira, and Soriano saw 18 apiece. That was by far the worst part of the 2013 offense. They made a ton of outs and they were mostly quick outs, two or three pitch at-bats. This group isn’t like the 2004-12 lineups or anything, but they make the pitcher work for whatever he gets. It’s refreshing.
The Yankees will play their final two Spring Training games tonight and tomorrow afternoon before opening their regular season in Houston against the Astros on Tuesday. They made it through a full six weeks of camp relatively healthy — assuming Jacoby Ellsbury‘s tight calf is as minor as the team is letting on — so in that sense, this spring has been a big success. Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda look very good, which is icing on the cake.
One of the biggest concerns coming into the spring was Mark Teixeira, particularly the status of his surgically repaired right wrist. He missed essentially all of last year and was on a prolonged rehab program that had him swinging a bat in December and facing live pitching in early-March. A few weeks ago Teixeira acknowledged there was still some stiffness in the wrist, which isn’t uncommon after surgery. On Thursday though, he told Kevin Kernan he still does not trust that the wrist is healthy:
“I’m not trusting that the wrist is healthy,’’ Teixeira told The Post Thursday at Steinbrenner Field.
“I’m just trying to protect it,’’ he said. “Taking your ‘A’ swing, taking that swing that is 100 percent and I need to trust that I can do that and not feel pain. I need to finish my swing instead of protecting my wrist. Last year, to protect my wrist, I didn’t finish my swing.’’
Teixeira, who will turn 34 in exactly two weeks, did say “the wrist is feeling good” overall, so he’s not in pain or discomfort or anything. He’s just hasn’t fully cut it loose yet, like a pitcher who is tentative to throw the ball will full effort after Tommy John surgery.
One scout said Teixeira “still has some rust to knock off that swing,” which is obvious given his Grapefruit League performance: two singles and one double in 33 at-bats (.091 AVG, .121 SLG) against mostly MLB caliber competition according to Baseball Reference’s opponent quality stat. He’s seeing the ball fine (nine walks and nine strikeouts), it’s just that his swing isn’t all the way there. When will it be back?
“Hopefully, really soon,’’ said Teixeira, who averaged 34 home runs and 106 RBIs his first four seasons as a Yankee but was limited to three home runs and 12 RBIs last year, when he got only 53 at-bats.
“Obviously, we’re kind of running out of time in spring training, but I know that my wrist is going to get stronger as the year goes on and I think I’m going to progressively get better,’’ he said.
Given the nature of the injury and the fact he missed just about all of last season, it’s not exactly a surprise Teixeira’s swing isn’t all the way back. Swings, really, he is a switch-hitter. Forty-something Grapefruit League plate appearances and countless hacks in batting practice isn’t necessarily enough to get back in a groove.
Teixeira has traditionally been a slow starter and with the acknowledgement that he still doesn’t trust his wrist this close to the start of the season, the Yankees can’t start the year with him in the middle of the lineup. There are too many other quality hitters on the team for Tex to bat third or fourth without fully trusting the wrist. He is an important player, but the Yankees can’t expect him to be an impact player in an important lineup spot if he’s admitting he’s not where he needs to be. Common sense.
In a perfect world, maybe Teixeira would start the season on the DL so he can stay behind in Extended Spring Training and get eight or ten at-bats a day. But because the Yankees don’t have a true backup first baseman who can man the position everyday for a week or two, they’re stuck taking him north and letting him gain trust in that wrist on the fly. It’s not ideal, but it’s the only option the team has right now.
The more deeply you examine the 2013 New York Yankees, the more unbelievable their win total seems. On the whole they did nothing well. The putrid offense, which ranked 28th in wRC+, was on display daily. Pitching? They ranked 18th in the league in ERA.
You’d think that if they couldn’t put together a decent offense that they’d compensate with a solid defense. You’d be wrong. They ranked 24th in team defensive efficiency. The guys who couldn’t hit apparently also couldn’t field well.
The 2014 Yankees figure to perform a bit better on defense. They not only brought in an upgrade in Jacoby Ellsbury, but they get back Mark Teixeira. There are a couple of other subtle upgrades, too, that could add up to at least an average defense.
Derek Jeter as a defensive upgrade? Surely I’m just pulling your chain. Sadly, I’m not. Jeter did improve his defense for a few years starting in 2008, but by 2012 it had again declined. How can we expect he’ll provide any value in 2014, at age 40?
Defensive statistics have enough shortcomings that they’re hardly worth bringing into serious discussions. In fact, once the new fielding system becomes public, I think we’ll look back at UZR and laugh. Yet it’s troubling when not just UZR, but essentially every publicly available defensive metric says that Eduardo Nunez absolutely killed the Yankees at SS.
UZR: -20.6 (-40.7/150!)
* This includes all defense, while the others are at SS only
Given Nunez’s deficiencies, Jeter could actually be an upgrade. Furthering the upgrade is a full year of Brendan Ryan on the bench. He’ll provide value as a late-inning defensive replacement and as an occasional starter when Jeter needs a day off. His high level of play could even offset Jeter’s to an extent, even in a fraction of the time.
There is little doubt that the 2014 Yankees will provide better defense at short than the 2013 Yankees. It’s no wonder the Yankees moved quickly to get Ryan into the fold.
To be fair, the Yankees did find an adequate defensive first baseman in Lyle Overbay. He came nowhere near Teixeira’s offensive production, even if you erase his late-season slump. But on defense he held his own.
At the same time, Mark Teixeira is on another level. If we could precisely quantify everything a first baseman does on defense, I have to imagine Teixeira would consistently rank among the league’s top five. He might not be the quickest or most athletic guy on the diamond, but his instincts and reflexes at first more than compensate.
Just because first base is all the way at the end of the defensive spectrum does not mean it lacks importance. Sure, plenty of big lumbering power hitters can stand at first base, but few play the position well. As Ron Washington so aptly put it, “It’s incredibly hard.”
Teixeira handles it with agility and grace. It’s easy to forget the days of Jason Giambi playing first.
Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner
In the last few years Ellsbury has improved his game in center field. A few years ago the Red Sox signed Mike Cameron and moved Ellsbury to left. Perhaps that was the kick in the ass he needed. Whatever the case, he tracks balls well and has plenty of speed, making him a high quality center fielder.
The Yankees had a very good center fielder last year in Brett Gardner. Speed takes center stage in Gardner’s game. He doesn’t always get the best read, nor does he always take the best route. But he makes a lot of plays, because he can compensate with his legs. This year he’ll play center a bit, but not on a day-to-day basis. This helps the Yankees outfield tremendously.
Again taking defensive metrics with a grain of salt (to the point where I won’t quote actual numbers), Gardner produced insane numbers playing left field in 2010 and 2011. Yes, he’s good, but multiple wins good? Here’s the thing with defensive numbers: they compare players at the same position. Since left field is reserved for those lumbering sluggers who don’t have much of an arm, they typically don’t play high-caliber defense. Gardner runs laps around them.
So the Yankees marginally upgrade in center, going from Gardner to Ellsbury. But they upgrade insanely in left field, relative to the league, because Gardner will track down so many more fly balls than his peers.
His bat might not have much left in it, but Ichiro can still run down balls in the outfield. This will come in handy at various points during the 2014 season. He’s the obvious defensive replacement on the bench, giving the Yankees a lockdown outfield in later innings. But that’s not his only role.
If everyone stays healthy – and given Ellsbury’s current injury that’s far from a given – Ichiro wouldn’t get many starts. But guys get bumps and bruises. Carlos Beltran could need days off to rest his knees. Ellsbury and Gardner will need days off here and there even if they do stay healthy. In each instance, playing Ichiro in right makes a degree of sense.
In the the case of longer-term injuries I’d like to see them call up Zoilo Almonte to take more reps, since he still has at least a modicum of big league potential. Ichiro is almost certainly gone after this season, and could be gone before that under the right circumstances. But as long as he’s on the roster, he’ll provide a good defensive option in right field when the Yankees need it.
Over the last few years, as sabermetrics and all that stuff has become more popular, batting average has become underrated. It used to be overrated — not making outs and having a high on-base percentage is still the single most important aspect of hitting — but the art of getting a base hit is definitely underappreciated these days. There is more to life than that of course, but getting a hit is a big piece of the offensive pie.
Last season, the Yankees hit a collective .242 with a team .285 BABIP, rates that ranked 24th and 26th among the 30 teams, respectively. Injuries have a little something to do with the team’s low average, but remember, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira aren’t exactly high-average hitters. Derek Jeter and the out of sight, out of mind Alex Rodriguez are, however. Well, kinda. A perfectly healthy Yankees squad might have hit a few points higher as a team, but not much. The team’s .307 OBP (23rd overall) would have quite a bit higher with good health, I’m sure of that.
The Yankees rebuilt their offense over the winter and back in January I explained how the new-look lineup will bring more a patient approach and, theoretically, a higher team OBP. That’s pretty important. The Yankees didn’t just make too many outs last season, they made too many quick outs. It’s not much of a coincidence that two pitchers (Derek Holland and Chris Archer) threw sub-100 pitch nine-inning complete games against New York last season after only one pitcher (Roy Halladay, surprise surprise) did in the previous ten seasons. The makeshift offense was an impatient lot last summer.
Along with a more patient and disciplined offense should come a group that hits for a higher average. How much higher? I don’t think we could say with any degree of certainty. As underrated as batting average has become, it is still tough to predict because it fluctuates so much from year to year. Robinson Cano is my go-to example: he’s a career .309 hitter who hit .342 in 2006 and .271 in 2008. Did his talent level change in those years? No, it’s just baseball. Weird stuff happens in a game built around hitting a round ball with a cylindrical bat onto a 2+ acre swath of grass. Here’s a look at the Yankees’ lineup and its batting average potential.
Likely to hit .290+
With Cano gone, I don’t think the Yankees have a single player you can comfortably expect to hit .300 or better in 2014. I mean, how many players around the entire league would you safely expect to hit .300+ this year? Cano, Joe Mauer, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen, Joey Votto … that’s probably it. Hitting .300 is hard and few guys can do it year after year, especially in age of declining offense. That’s not to say others won’t hit .300, we all know those guys won’t be alone. Like I said before, weird stuff happens.
The Yankees have two players who are safe bets for a .290+ average this summer and both were acquired in the offseason. Jacoby Ellsbury hit .298 last season (.341 BABIP) and is a career .297 hitter (.326 BABIP) , so he seems to be the team’s best hope for a .300+ hitter. I do think Yankee Stadium will work against him though. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place to hit, but Yankee Stadium is a homerun park. Fenway Park is more conducive to a high batting average with the Green Monster and weird angles. The park factors at FanGraphs bear that out.
Carlos Beltran hit .296 (.314 BABIP) last season and .288 (.313 BABIP) over the last three years, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he hit .300 or better this summer. Derek Jeter hit .316 (.347 BABIP) in his last healthy season and the guy used to fall out of bed and hit .300, but he’s coming off a series of leg injuries and a lost season at age 40. He hasn’t looked particularly good in camp either, though I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt after missing almost all of last season. So much rust to shake off. Tough to know what to expect from him, but I don’t think many would be surprised if the Cap’n had a big going away year.
As for an out of nowhere .290+ hitter, I’d put my money on Eduardo Nunez, who seems like a lock to make the roster and play more than expected at this point. Nunez makes a ton of contact (career 92.8% contact rate) and he’s fast, two skills that lend themselves to hitting for average, especially in small-ish (~300 plate appearances) samples. I’m not saying he’ll do it, but if you’re looking for a Yankee to come out of nowhere to hit for a high average, Nunez is a good guess. For now, I’ll take Ellsbury and Beltran as the team’s best chances for a .290+ hitter with Jeter an honorable mention.
Likely to hit sub-.250
On the other end of the spectrum, there are a few Yankees we can count on for a low-ish batting average. Kelly Johnson hit .235 (.276 BABIP) last season and .226 (.284 BABIP) over the last three seasons. He’s the safe bet to finish with the lowest average among the regulars. Johnson’s offensive game is built around hitting for power, stealing bases, and drawing walks. I have no reason to believe 2014 will be any different.
Alfonso Soriano hit .255 (.289 BABIP) last season, including .256 (.286 BABIP) with the Yankees. Over the last three seasons it’s a .254 average (.289 BABIP). He’s right on that .250 bubble at age 38. Brian McCann (.256 AVG/.251 BABIP in 2013 and .252/.263 from 2011-12) and Mark Teixeira (.251/.250 in 2012 and .252/.258 from 2010-12) are right there with Soriano. Brian Roberts managed to hit .249 (.267 BABIP) in 296 plate appearances last season and has a .246 average (.275 BABIP) while batting injuries over the last four years. He’s probably the second safest bet for a sub-.250 average this season behind Johnson.
Likely to hit somewhere in the middle
This is a bit of a cop-out, because the vast majority of players hit somewhere in that .251-.289 range. Or at least most regulars do. Bench players and pitchers are another matter entirely. Soriano, McCann, and Teixeira will probably be on the low-end of this range, Ellsbury and Beltran will probably be at the high-end (if not over), and Brett Gardner (.273/.342 in 2013 and .268/.325 career) will be right smack in the middle somewhere. There’s really nothing sexy about hitting somewhere in the .251-.289 neighborhood. The extremes are far more interesting.
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Last season, American League non-pitchers hit .256 with a .298 BABIP as the league average continues to drop. It was as high as .275 (.305 BABIP) as recently as 2006 and .267 (.300 BABIP) as recently as 2009, but down it goes. Ellsbury, Beltran, and Gardner give the team three regulars who you can pencil in for a better than average batting average with Jeter a possibility for a fourth. Others like McCann, Teixeira, and Soriano will be right around the average. Batting average is tough to predict, but based on their current talent levels and the last few seasons, the Yankees have six and possibly seven regulars likely to match or exceed the league average. Compared to last year, that’s pretty darn good.