Midseason Review: Falling Short of Expectations

During the next few days we’ll take some time to review the first half of the season and look at which Yankees are meeting expectations, exceeding expectations, and falling short of expectations. What else is the All-Star break good for?

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Although the Yankees have the best record in baseball, they have yet to really fire on all cylinders. They have a number of players who have not produced as expected so far, including some high-profile guys in prominent roles.

Alex Rodriguez
Father Time catches up to everyone, even players who were once historically great. A-Rod was able to avoid the DL in the first half thanks to Joe Girardi‘s plan of regular rest, but the production has not improved as hoped. Alex is hitting just .269/.357/.436 with 13 homers overall, on pace for what will likely become the worst season of career after setting a new low-water mark a year ago. His strikeout rate (22.0%) is his highest since 1996, his walk rate (10.3%) his second lowest since 2001, and his ISO (.167) his lowest ever.

Obviously there’s a lot going on here. A-Rod will turn 37 later this month, so age-related decline as already set in. Numerous lower body injuries in recent years — torn hip labrum and knee surgery chief among them — have impacted his ability to incorporate his lower half into his swing, resulting in the power decline. He’s more of an arms hitter than ever before. His struggles with runners in scoring position (.215/.354/.367) only exacerbate the problem. There’s no BABIP correction coming (he’s at .318 right now) and the power is unlikely to re-emerge. A-Rod is not a superstar anymore, get used to it.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Mark Teixeira
Teixeira’s offseason and Spring Training work drew lots of attention as he focused on hitting the ball the other way to beat the shift and improve his declining batting average. Everything looked fine during the first two weeks of the season, as he hit a solid .288/.354/.508 through the team’s first 15 games. Teixeira fell off in a big way after that, hitting just .135/.185/.220 in his next 16 games. He got hot a few games after that, but then Girardi decided to sit him for three games due to an ongoing cough that has since been diagnosed as nerve damage to his vocal cords.

The rest helped the cough and at some point during those three days, Teixeira decided to abandon everything he’d been working on and get back to being a pull-happy slugger. What he was doing before just wasn’t working. The early returns were positive — four homers in his next seven games — but Teixeira’s production soon slowed down once again. Through the team’s first 85 games, their first baseman is hitting .250/.334/.473 after putting up a .248/.341/.494 batting line last year, the second worst of his career outside of his rookie season.

Teixeira’s production has been better than league average but again, below his normal standards even if you were expecting him to simply repeat last year. His 15 homers are well behind his usual pace — he had 25 at the break last summer — and his walk rate has dipped from 13.1% in 2010 to 11.1% in 2011 to 10.7% in 2010. A ten-point boost in BABIP from last year hasn’t helped his average much, unsurprisingly. The big problem right now is that not only has his average and OBP suffered, but he’s not hitting the ball out of the park as often either. His defense is still all-world, but Teixeira’s production at the plate has declined for the fourth straight season.

(Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

Nick Swisher & Russell Martin
The Yankees can survive a few sluggish bats because they have a deep lineup, but even the production from lower down in the order has suffered. Swisher is in the middle of a contract year but is hitting just .262/.336/.477 so far. The power production is obviously fine, but his 10.1% walk rate is the second lowest of his career and well below his 13.3% career average. Swisher’s strikeout rate (22.0%) is up slightly compared to recent years, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s swinging at 23.6% of the pitches he sees outside of the strike zone. Last year it was just 17.5%. He’s doing damage when he makes contact, but a big part of Swisher’s value is his ability to be get on-base in ways other than a hit. He hasn’t done much of that in 2012.

Martin, on the other hand, hasn’t done much offensively at all. His .179/.300/.348 batting line is below average even for a catcher, and although he’s shown signs of breaking out on occasion, it never lasted. Martin will have a good game or two every once in a while then slide back into a prolonged slump. He’s striking out way more than usual (20.2% strikeouts this year, 14.6% career) despite swinging at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone (15.4%) than ever before. His .193 (!) BABIP should improve in the second half just by pure luck, but the quality of Martin’s contact has not been good all year. You really can’t understate how awful he was in the first half.

Freddy Garcia
Although he just turned in a damn fine start against the Red Sox in Fenway Park, Garcia has been a disappointment overall. His first four starts in April were a total disaster, I’m talking a 20 runs in 13.2 innings kind of disaster. The Yankees shipped him off to the bullpen where he worked sparingly in low-leverage situations, then reinserted him into back into the rotation once CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte hit the disabled list. Freddy has pitched well in his two starts back, but that doesn’t wash away the stench of April. Overall, Garcia has pitched to a 5.23 ERA (4.16 FIP) in 43 innings. Here’s to a much more successful second half.

(Al Messerschmidt/Getty)

Eduardo Nunez
When the season opened, the Yankees planned to give A-Rod and Derek Jeter time at DH against left-handed pitchers while Nunez filled in on the infield. They did just that for a few weeks, but Nunez’s defense — four errors in 20 games plus several other botched plays — became such an issue that he had to be demoted to Triple-A in early-May. He was hitting just fine, especially for a utility infielder (.294/.356/.373), but the glovework just could not be tolerated anymore. Nunez committed two errors in four Triple-A games before being placed on the DL with a thumb injury. He had a chance to really step up and force his way into the team’s long-term plans this season, but now he doesn’t even have much trade value.

Cory Wade
For the first two months of the season, Wade was absolutely lights out while David Robertson and Mariano Rivera were on the DL. He also threw a lot of innings and made a lot of appearances, and that may have contributed to one of the worst pitched months in recent Yankees history. Wade has allowed 25 hits and 18 runs in 10.1 innings since the calendar flipped to June, earning him a demotion to Triple-A. His ERA climbed from 3.34 to 6.48 in his last three appearances alone (13 runs in 3.2 IP). It’s all about command with him; when he missed his spots with his soft stuff, it got hammered. Wade was tremendously useful last year and at the start of this year, but now the Yankees have to be wondering if he’s even salvageable.

Andre Ethier’s contract and the Yankees

(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

While you were sleeping last night, news broke that the Dodgers and Andre Ethier had agreed to a five-year. $85M contract extension with a vesting option for a sixth year that could push the total value north of $100M. It’s the third largest contract in franchise history behind the Matt Kemp and Kevin Brown deals and one of the 15 richest contracts ever for an outfielder. Ethier was scheduled to hit free agency this offseason but instead decided to stay in Los Angeles for a rather healthy sum.

Baseball Time in Arlington has already looked at the impact this deal will have on Josh Hamilton and the Rangers — presumably one fewer suitor now — but it also trickles down to the Yankees. Nick Swisher is scheduled to become a free agent this winter and like Ethier, he’s a very good but not elite corner outfielder in his early-30s. They’ve produced similar offensive (127 vs. 124 wRC+ in favor of Ethier) and defensive (-12 vs. -14 DRS* in favor of Swisher) numbers since the start of 2009, though Swisher has played in at least 150 games in each of the last six seasons while Ethier has done so just twice in his career and not since 2009.

* Defensive metrics are quite ambiguous, so if you look at UZR it’s Swisher in a landslide: +5.4 vs. -24.6.

Obviously Ethier is having the far better season in 2012 — 131 wRC+ and 2.2 fWAR vs. 105 and 0.4 for Swisher — and that’s part of the reason why the Dodgers were so desperate to re-sign him. He’s a fan favorite and while he’s not truly homegrown, he’s never played for another big league team. He’s gotten MVP votes and been to multiple All-Star Games, plus he has a “clutch” reputation. All of that helped Ethier land this massive contract and is stuff Swisher doesn’t have going for him, but when you get down to the nuts and bolts of it, their actual production on the baseball field, Swisher is a comparable player if not better than baseball’s newest $85M.

That said, I can’t see any way Swisher will land a contract that big this offseason without a Bonds-ian finish to the season. At the same time, my hopes of seeing the Yankees bring him back for Michael Cuddyer’s contract — three years and $31M — inflated upwards by 25% or so now seem pointless. Maybe I was being naive in the first place, I’m great at underestimating future free agent contracts. There seems to be little chance of Swisher signing a modest little three-year pact no matter how much he loves New York, which leaves the Yankees in a bind because they don’t have an ready-made outfield replacement and are trying to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold within the next 18 months or so.

Perhaps Brett Gardner‘s elbow injury and latest setback is a blessing in disguise. Maybe it will force the Yankees to look to the trade market for a replacement outfielder, someone that could play left in Gardner’s stead this year before taking over right field next year. I don’t know who that guy would be, but it’s a possibility. Much like Yadier Molina and the catching market, Ethier’s contract really skewed the outfield market for this coming offseason. Swisher, Hamilton, Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton, and Shane Victorino now all have a pricy benchmark to reference in contract talks, and that doesn’t help the Yankees one bit.

Nick Swisher swinging at everything

Yep. He really just caught that. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Nick Swisher hasn’t been very Swisher-like at the plate this season. Sure, he’s hitting with his typical power, slugging 13 doubles and eight homers. He’s also seemingly been robbed more frequently than usual. There have been at least a few games where he’s hit three or four rockets, only to have fielders snag them — sometimes in spectacular fashion. But there has been something about Swisher’s game that just doesn’t add up, given his history.

When the Yankees acquired Swisher before the 2009 season they pretty much knew what they were getting: a low-average, high OBP player with some power. In his first season he met expectations almost precisely, hitting .249/.371/.498, slugging 29 homers and 35 doubles while walking 97 times. They got much of the same in 2011 as well: .260/.374/.449 with 23 homers, 30 doubles, and 95 walks. Maybe it has become an odd-year thing with Swisher, because in 2010, and now in 2012, he’s been a bit different.

In 2010 Swisher talked about becoming more aggressive at the plate. That worked out for him well. While his walk rate dropped to 9.1 percent, the lowest of his career by more than a full point, he made up for it by hitting .288, by leaps and bounds the highest of his career. He still added the power, with 29 homers and 33 doubles. Replacing the walks with hits worked out well for him, as he produced the highest OPS+ of his career.

This year Swisher has again shown a free-swinging tendency. The difference is that it’s not quite working to his advantage. We can start with his tendency to swing at pitches out of the zone — 27.2 percent, which is higher than even his then-career-high of 25.4 percent in 2010. Even worse, he’s actually swinging at pitches out of the zone at a rate higher than the league average; he’s never done that previously. In general he’s swinging more, with the highest rate of his career at this point. That’s just not what we’ve come to expect from Swisher.

Even more concerning is his swinging strike rate: 12.5 percent, which is far, far above his 8.9 percent career rate, and even more alarmingly above his average as a Yankee. While it’s difficult to make definitive conclusions from batted ball data, we can combine this with the eye test to make the following assertion: Swisher has been taking some terrible hacks this year, and his overall game is suffering from it.

While we can examine the problem, the solution is completely out of our grasp. Is Swisher swinging more often due to frustration over having his hard-hit balls land in fielders’ gloves? Is he trying to be more aggressive, as in 2010, but failing to recognize pitches? The most important question, though, is of whether he’ll eventually round into form. Given his history of only one below-average season, and his increasing production into his prime years, it seems as though he will.

In an offense riddled with problems, Swisher has at times seemed a savior. He’s had plenty of big hits. At the same time, he’s been floundering in many spots where his team needs him to be patient and wait for his pitch. Getting him back to his normal production levels will provide another boost to an offense that needs all the help it can get right now.

The Future of Right Field

(Brian Bissell/Future Star Photos)

Earlier today I wrote about the importance of having Nick Swisher in the lineup, and that got me thinking about the future of right field in general. Obviously Swisher will become a free agent after the season and with the 2014 payroll plan looming, he might not fit into the team’s plans going forward. He’s going to make it very hard for the team to let him walk given his early-season performance, but parting ways with a soon-to-be 32-year-old corner outfielder isn’t the craziest thing in the world.

The problem is that the Yankees don’t have an obvious in-house candidate to step into the outfield. Zoilo Almonte had an outside chance at being that guy, but that looks unlikely at this point. Melky Mesa is another Greg Golson/up-and-down type, ditto Colin Curtis to a certain extent. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Yankees moved prospects Rob Segedin and Tyler Austin (pictured) to right field on a full-time basis this season, but those two are still in Single-A and are years away from the bigs. Hopefully they become factors down the line, but they certainly won’t help next year or even the year after that.

If the Yankees do let Swisher walk, the best way to replace him probably involved a platoon of some sort until Segedin and/or Austin pan out, if they do at all. Andruw Jones seems like a logical candidate for the right half of that platoon assuming he doesn’t completely fall off a cliff this summer, but finding a lefty to go with him will be easier said than done. I’m partial to Kelly Johnson, who played the corner outfield earlier in his career and has everything the Yankees look for offensively: left-handed power, the willingness to take a walk, and the ability to steal double-digit bases. Would he take a one or even two-year deal to change positions for the Yankees at age 30? I highly doubt it. Heck, he might require a bigger contract than Swisher, but I digress.

The 2014 payroll plan is really going to throw a wrench into the team’s roster plans going forward, but frankly I think there’s a pretty good case to be made for keeping Swisher at say, something a little north Michael Cuddyer money (three years, $31M) and skimping elsewhere (coughsecondbasecough). He already has the “old player skills” that tend to age well and has been very durable throughout his career, which sounds kinda funny after he just sat out a week with a hamstring issue. There’s value in reliability, and it’s hard to find a more reliable and consistent Yankee over the last three years than Swisher. The best bridge from Swisher to the theoretical Segedin/Austin era just might be Swisher himself.

The Importance of Nick Swisher

(REUTERS/Dave Kaup)

Aside from yesterday’s blowout win, the Yankees slogged through a dreadful offensive slump last week that saw them score just 13 runs in six games. Six of those 13 runs came in Friday’s game, so the other seven were spread across five games. The lineup came back to life on Sunday, scoring ten runs in the win over the Royals thanks in part to the return of Nick Swisher, who homered after sitting out most of the week with a low-grade left hamstring strain.

Obviously Swisher’s presence alone did not account for the offensive outburst, but it didn’t hurt. He’d hit six homers with a .408 wOBA in 93 plate appearances before the injury, joining Curtis Granderson as the club’s second best bat behind the resurgent Derek Jeter in the early going. A player performing like that was going to be missed no matter what, but even moreso when seemingly everyone else in the lineup was battling through some kind of slump, either recent or extended. It was hard not to notice the big gaping hole in the offense last week.

Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, and Mark Teixeira have shown flashes of breaking out recently, but nothing more. Swisher’s return adds a little more thump to the offense and I think the Yankees should consider bumping him up in the lineup, at least temporarily. Batting order doesn’t mean much over 162 games, but in an individual game — especially when the 3-4-5 hitters as a whole haven’t been producing — it can make all the difference. Moving Swisher to, say, cleanup will put him in position to do more damage given how Jeter and Granderson are setting the table. Once the usual 3-4-5 guys get going, they can return to their regular lineup spots.

Just to be clear, I don’t think simply rearranging the batting order will spark A-Rod‘s, Cano’s, and Tex’s bats. I don’t buy into the idea that players perform better in specific lineup spots. I believe those three will improve their offensive performances (to various degrees) in the coming weeks, but right now they’re not getting it done. Swisher has been and moving him a little closer to Jeter and Granderson could actually lead to some more sustained rallies in lieu of stranded runners and frustration. It’s a crazy concept, I know.

The Yankees do a great job of remaining patient and avoiding knee-jerk moves these days, but at the same time they don’t have to ignore little tweaks. It’ll suck seeing Teixeira making $22M+ to bat sixth, but is that really worse than watching him make outs in big spots with men on base? I certainly don’t think so. Winning the division is too important this year for the Yankees to go through another week or two like last. Moving Swisher up will create a little more continuity among the team’s best hitters and hopefully leads to more runs on the scoreboard. If not, then no big deal. Real easy to go back to the way things were.

Swisher back in lineup at DH

After a full week on the shelf with a low-grade left hamstring strain, Nick Swisher is in this afternoon’s lineup at DH. He’s been hitting in the cage/batting practice for a few days and tested his leg running the bases yesterday. The Yankees can certainly use the lineup boost, so Swisher’s return is very welcome.

The bad news: there are severe thunderstorms in the forecast today and the Yankees don’t play in Kansas City again this season. They’d have to sacrifice a scheduled day off and travel to make this one up if the rain forces a postponement.