Archive for Raul Ibañez
For a team whose season will be defined by failures with runners in scoring position, the Yankees sure did seem to have a lot of enormous hits along the way. Especially late in the season too — September and October featured all sorts of memorable hits that injected new life into a team that was fighting tooth and nail for the division title down the stretch.
With some help from win probability added, or WPA, we’re going to take a look at New York’s five biggest hits of this season. If you’re not familiar with WPA, I highly recommend Joe’s primer. Long story short, it tells you how much an event — a hit, strikeout, walk, error, anything in baseball — increases or decreases a team’s chances of winning using historical data. For example, if the Yankees have a 50% chance of winning when I step to the plate and hit a walk-off homer (thus giving them a 100% chance of winning), I get credit for the +50% (0r +0.50 WPA) while the pitcher gets charged with +50% (-0.50 WPA). Simple enough, right?
Anyway, WPA isn’t a predictive stat and it doesn’t have a ton of analytical value. It lacks context like the quality of the pitcher and hitter, the impact of the game in the standings, stuff like that. It is useful for this kind of exercise though, a fun look back at some of the biggest hits of the season. You won’t be surprised to see that one player is featured prominently in this post.
April 11th: Nick Swisher vs. Kevin Gregg (WPA graph & box score) (video)
You wouldn’t know it from his playoff performance, but Swisher had a monster season with runners in scoring position. He hit .301/.406/.589 (164 wRC+) with eleven homers in 181 plate appearances in those situations, including a game-winning homer against the Orioles just six games into the season. The Yankees had tied the game at four on a Curtis Granderson single in the seventh, and score didn’t change until Swisher took Gregg’s full count hanging slider out to right-center. Eduardo Nunez had singled earlier in the inning but was picked off first, so his teammates — Mark Teixeira doubled ahead of the homer — picked him up. That was the last extra innings game Baltimore would lose in the regular season. WPA: +0.45
October 2nd: Raul Ibanez vs. Andrew Bailey (WPA graph & box score) (video)
The Yankees and Orioles were locked in a tight division race down the stretch, and a loss by New York in Game 161 would have had the two clubs tied atop the AL East heading into the final day of the regular season. The Red Sox took a two-run lead in the first inning off David Phelps and tacked on an insurance run with a solo homer in the ninth, so the Yankees had three outs to score two runs in the bottom of the inning. Andrew Bailey was on the mound to face Granderson, who only batted in the ninth inning because Brett Gardner got caught stealing to end the eighth. Curtis singled to right to lead things off, then Ibanez came off the bench to pinch-hit for Nunez. Bailey caught way too much of the plate with a 1-2 fastball, a pitch Raul hooked into the right field seats for a game-tying two-run homer. He went on to win the game with a walk-off ground ball single in the 12th inning — a hit that preserved the team’s one-game lead in the standings — but only the dinger cracks our list. WPA: +0.45
September 22nd: Ibanez vs. Pat Neshek (WPA graph & box score) (video)
A little less than two weeks prior to his heroics against the Red Sox, Ibanez came up huge in a big extra innings comeback against the Athletics. The two clubs were deadlocked at five after seven innings and stayed that way until the 13th, when Oakland unloaded on Freddy Garcia and Justin Thomas for three homers and four total runs. The Yankees were not going down without a fight though, as the first three hitters in the bottom of the inning singled to load the bases with no outs. The first run scored on a wild pitch and the second on a Nunez sacrifice fly, but it was Ibanez who did the honors of tying things up. Neshek, a right-handed submariner, left a 3-1 sinker right out over the plate, which Ibanez clubbed halfway up the second deck in right for another game-tying two-run homer, his second dinger of the game. The Yankees won the game on a walk-off error an inning later, which was all made possible by what was essentially the start of Raul turning into Mr. Big Hit down the stretch. It was the team’s biggest hit during the regular season. WPA: +0.46
October 10th: Ibanez vs. Jim Johnson (WPA graph & box score) (video)
Now we’re venturing into the postseason. The Yankees and Orioles couldn’t settle their differences during the regular season, so their season-long battle for AL East supremacy spilled over into the ALDS. The series was knotted at one and New York was on the verge of falling into a 2-1 hole in the ninth inning of Game Three. Baltimore had been nursing a 2-1 lead since the fifth inning and they had their All-Star closer on the mound with two outs to go, but Joe Girardi elected to remove Alex Rodriguez from the game to get the platoon matchup with Ibanez. Johnson left a 1-0 sinker up in the zone, right in Raul’s swing path, and he hammered it out to right-center for a game-tying solo blast. The pinch-hit worked to perfection, and a few innings later Ibanez won the game with a walk-solo homer into the second deck off lefty Brian Matusz. The first homer was the biggest though, bringing the Yankees from the brink of a loss to a tied ballgame. WPA: +0.47
October 13th: Ibanez vs. Jose Valverde (WPA graph & box score) (video)
Yeah, that’s right, Ibanez again. He really turned into Mr. Big Hit in the final few weeks of the season, and his most impactful hit of the year also happened to be one of his last. The Yankees had been stymied by the Tigers’ pitching staff in Game One of the ALCS, and they were down four runs heading into the ninth. Valverde had been very hittable in recent weeks, and he let New York get on the board with an Ichiro Suzuki two-run homer with one out in the bottom of the inning. Robinson Cano followed with a strikeout for the second out, but Teixeira worked a tough eight-pitch walk to bring the tying run to the plate. Ibanez wasted no time against Valverde, sabotaging a hanging 0-1 splitter for yet another game-tying two-run homer to right. There was nothing to be said at this point, Raul had rendered everyone speechless. He had been giving the Yankees new life time after time down the stretch, and he did so again in the ALCS opener. Just amazing. WPA: +0.49
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The Yankees had four other hits register at +.40 WPA or higher this season (links go to video): Derek Jeter‘s solo homer off Casey Janssen in late-August (+0.44), Ibanez’s three-run homer off Felix Hernandez in early-May (+0.43), Jayson Nix‘s three-run double off Shawn Kelley in late-July (+0.42), and Teixeira’s two-run homer off Vicente Padilla in late-July (+0.41). As you’ve probably noticed, the biggest WPA swings occur when a hit turns a deficit into a tie game (or a lead), which is why homers that break a tie — Russell Martin vs. Johnson in ALDS Game One or Ibanez vs. Matusz in ALDS Game Three — usually only register in the +.35-ish range. Swisher’s homer off Gregg scored higher because it gave the team a two-run lead, not just one like Martin’s off Johnson.
Subjectively speaking, I think the Ibanez homer off Johnson in Game Three of the ALDS was the biggest hit of the season. The homer off Valverde was crazy clutch, but the Yankees went on to lose the game and that took some of the shine off it. All Raul did was delay the inevitable. That game-tying homer against the Orioles was something to behold though, and it stands out even more because Ibanez ended the game with another homer a few innings later. That’s just my opinion though, you’re welcome to feel that another hit was the biggest of the season.
The night was getting late,
The base paths hardly trod,
Girardi pondered fate
And pinch hit for poor Arod.
The 40-year old bald guy
Sauntered to the plate
And with a timely mighty swing
Sent Arod down the grate.
Oh, Arod tried to smile
But he knew that he had died
A washed up veteran showed him
How to give the ball a ride.
Old Raul brought joy to thousands
Who were mired in a pout
His stellar blast consigned thirteen
To his new home–the dugout.
(via Wayne Kabak, Ben’s father)
After going nearly a month without consecutive wins, the Yankees won two games in the span of about nine hours yesterday. They’ve also won four straight, six of seven, and nine of 13. If the Mariners had been something other than pitiful these last two nights, the division lead would be two or three games instead of just one. But hey, I’ll take the one-game lead. Better than being one back.
1. I don’t want to make too much of one game (one day, really), but man it would be such a huge lift if Ichiro Suzuki got hot and became a more consistent offensive threat these next few weeks. No one is asking him to go 4-for-4 with four steals every game — he’s more than welcome to do that, if he wants — but something more than the three or four hits a week he was providing would be nice. Prior to yesterday Ichiro had only been 6-for-9 in stolen base attempts with New York, so adding some more speed to the offense would be appreciated as well. He was awesome on Wednesday and I hope he builds on it going forward.
2. Ichiro started against the left-handed Ricky Romero last night because it appears that Joe Girardi has finally run out of patience with Andruw Jones. He’s been dreadful in the second half (.137/.250/.225 in 120 plate appearances), and that sure looked like his last pinch-hitting hurrah in Game One. When Girardi needed a right-hander off the bench with the go-ahead run on third and the left-handed Aaron Loup on the mound in Game Two, he went to Steve Pearce. If he’s not hitting, especially against lefties, there won’t be any reason to carry Andruw on the postseason roster should the Yankees qualify.
3. Speaking of not making the potential postseason roster, what about Raul Ibanez? He’s only been slightly less useless than Jones since the All-Star break, putting up a .190/.287/.356 line in 143 plate appearances. Remember when Hideki Matsui fell into a slump and every single at-bat was a weak ground ball to second? That’s Ibanez now, everything is weakly hit to the right side. He could just be worn down from playing the field so much earlier in the year or he could just be completely done, but at some point soon the Yankees will have to pull the plug on the other half of their preseason DH platoon. There isn’t much season left and neither guy is getting it done.
4. It goes without saying that the biggest positive development from yesterday was Andy Pettitte. He wasn’t sharp, but he still managed to throw five shutout innings against a bad offense after spending the last twelve weeks or so recovering from a leg fracture. Pettitte will need every bit of his final two regular season starts to a) build his pitch count back up over 100, and b) shake the rust off, but it was definitely encouraging to see him come out and pitch well in his first start off the DL. With all due respect to David Phelps, who pitched well in the spot start last night as well as last time out against the Red Sox, getting Andy back in the rotation is huge. Tack on Ivan Nova replacing Freddy Garcia, and suddenly the starting staff looks a lot more formidable.
5. Thanks to Rafael Soriano‘s two-save effort yesterday, the Yankees are up to 50 total saves as a team this year. Soriano has 42, Mariano Rivera had five before he got hurt, and the trio of David Robertson, Boone Logan, and Derek Lowe have one each. It’s only the second time since 2005 that the Yankees have had more than 50 team saves in a single season, joining the 2009 squad (51). Obviously that means they’ll go on to win the World Series this year. Okay … in all seriousness, it’s a function of all the close games they’ve been playing. One hundred and fifteen of their 148 games have been decided by fewer than five runs, a whopping 77.7%. Last year it was 71%, the year before 68%, and the year before that 69%. Soriano has saved each of the team’s last six wins and ten of their last 12. He’s been absolutely huge for the Yankees this year, and yesterday’s performance was probably the highlight of his season to date.
Jesus Montero was going to be the Yankees’ regular, or at least part-time DH in 2012. We were pretty sure of it all offseason long … until the Yankees traded him to the Mariners for Michael Pineda. With just a month left until Spring Training opened, the Yankees were without a DH and the search was on. Names like Carlos Pena, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Russell Branyan, Bobby Abreu, Garrett Jones, and Travis Hafner were all connected to New York at some point, either through legitimate reporting or speculation. Instead, the Yankees went in another direction.
Just days before camp opened and month after the Montero-Pineda trade, the Yankees agreed to sign then-39-year-old Raul Ibanez to be the left-handed half of the DH platoon. His performance had been in clear decline in recent years and he didn’t offer the True Yankee™-ness or name value as some of the other DH options, but it’s clear at this point the Yankees picked the right guy for the job. Ibanez has hit a respectable .243/.304/.461 (100 wRC+) in 293 plate appearances this year, seeing far more time in the field than anyone could have expected. He’s also come up with several big hits.
Meanwhile, the other free agent DH alternatives have pretty much flopped. Pena is hitting .198/.321/.364 (96 wRC+) with a 30.6% strikeout rate in 445 plate appearances for the division rival Rays. Damon signed with the Indians a month into the season and owns a .222/.281/.329 line (70 wRC+) in 224 plate appearances. The media in Cleveland is calling for him to be released so the kids can play. Matsui was released after signing with the Rays at midseason and produced a .147/.214/.221 line (18 wRC+) in 103 plate appearances. Branyan signed a minor league deal with the Yankees but has missed most of the season with back problems. Abreu has been designated for assignment twice and trade talks for Jones and Hafner were never really serious.
Ironically enough, part of the reason why the Yankees preferred Ibanez to Damon and Matsui was his ability to play the outfield. All three are terrible defenders, but Ibanez was the only one to spend significant time in the field in recent years. When Brett Gardner went down, Raul stepped right into left field and the Yankees nary missed a beat. He’s out-hit the other DH options and despite his general defensive shakiness, he’s been reliable in the field as well. The Bombers could have gone in any number of directions to fill Montero’s roster spot before the season, but they made the right call by bringing in the guy who few fans felt was the best candidate for the job.
As we’ve learned through the years, winning the AL East and eventually a World Series takes an awful lot more than the nine regular position players, five starting pitchers, and a closer. Clubs need not just a strong bullpen and bench, but they also need quality backup backup players in Triple-A. The full 40-man roster is important.
The Yankees have gotten some excellent production from their projected reserve players this season, but they also assumed more prominent roles due to injuries — specifically Brett Gardner‘s. Dewayne Wise filled in admirably for a while but was replaced on the roster by Ichiro Suzuki yesterday. He’s not the Ichiro of old but he does add some sorely needed speed and outfield defense, and perhaps more importantly he relegates those reserve players back into their projected roles.
Gardner’s injury forced Ibanez into left field far more often than we or the Yankees would have liked, but now he gets to return to the platoon DH role he was brought in to fill. Ichiro is going to play left field against right-handed pitchers while Ibanez’s bat stays in the lineup and his glove stays in the clubhouse. Hopefully the extra rest can revive Raul’s bat a bit, because he has tailed off noticeably since that monster start in April…
We’re still going to see Ibanez play the field once in a while since Joe Girardi figures to rest Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher more often down the stretch, especially if the Yankees maintain their big division lead. Once a week isn’t the end of the world but not having to run him out to left day after day is a huge boon.
Andruw’s role actually won’t change very much at all. He was and remains the right-handed hitting half of the left field/DH platoon, so whether he subs in for Ichiro in left or Ibanez at DH depends on the day and whoever else is resting. Jones already has just 22 fewer plate appearances against righties this year thanlast, so expect that pace to change a bit. He’ll probably get fewer total plate appearances moving forward that he otherwise would have, but that’s not necessarily a bat thing as long he still takes his hacks against southpaws, either as a starter or off the bench.
In terms of playing time, Chavez probably lost the most with the Ichiro pickup. He had been getting regular DH and third base plate appearances — just six fewer plate appearances than last season with two months to go — but now will give Alex Rodriguez a day or two off a week and little more. There will be occasional spot starts at DH and Chavez could spell Mark Teixeira at first base once in a while, plus he’ll be the primary left-handed pinch-hitter off the bench. Given his fragile body, less playing time for Chavez is probably a good thing in terms of keeping him healthy down the stretch and potentially into the postseason.
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I’m hopeful that with Ibanez spending more time at DH, Girardi will be a more open to pinch-hitting for him against tough lefties in the later innings. As the left fielder, a pinch-hitting appearance generally required three players — Ibanez the starter, Jones the pinch-hitter, and Wise the defensive replacement. Now they can replace Ibanez with Jones, leave Ichiro in the outfield, and still have Chavez on the bench in case Andruw winds up facing a right-hander later in the game. Whether or not he’s actually open to doing that remains to be seen, but I’m cautiously optimistic.
Ichiro isn’t Gardner but he’s a reasonable approximation, at least in the field and on the bases. The Yankees should use him in a similar way, which means hitting near the bottom of the lineup while sitting against tough lefties. Returning Ibanez, Chavez, and to a lesser extent Jones to their intended roles is a fringe benefit that may have huge dividends if Raul stays fresh and Chavez stays healthy.
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?
Any time a team in any sport wins a championship or even sits in first place for a prolonged period of time, there’s always a few players on their rosters exceeding expectations. Talent can only take you so far, it’s those unexpected contributions that push one team ahead of the rest. The Yankees have the best record in baseball and comfortable lead atop the AL East, and as you’d expect they have some players on their roster doing more than expected.
When Mariano Rivera crumbled to the ground in Kansas City, all of Yankeeland held their collective breath. The worst case scenario played out — Rivera had torn his ACL and is expected to miss the rest of the season — and New York was suddenly without the one undisputed advantage they had over every team. No matter who they faced, regular season or playoffs or whatever, the Yankees have always had the advantage in the ninth inning thanks to Mo.
Replacing Rivera’s brutal effectiveness is impossible, but the Bombers had the pieces in-house to get by. David Robertson got the first crack at the closer’s job but almost immediately hit the disabled list with an oblique strain. That’s when Soriano, the 2010 AL saves champ who signed on as a setup man prior to last season, stepped in. Since Rivera and Robertson hit the DL, Soriano’s pitched to a 1.25 ERA (2.00 FIP) in 21.2 innings while going 20-for-21 in save chances. He’s allowed just three runs total during that time and has held hitters to a .210/.273/.272 batting line. Soriano has avoided the disabled list and after a rocky first season in pinstripes, he’s settled into a crucial role for the team. He’s not Mariano, but my goodness has he been effective as his replacement.
When the season opened, it was more of the same from Hughes. He allowed 22 runs in his first five starts (21.2 IP) and batters were tagging him for a .298/.365/.617 batting line. After a second-half fade in 2010 and a disastrous 2011 season, it seemed that the Phil’s days as a starter were number.
The Yankees stuck with him though, and Hughes has rewarded them by pitching to a 3.46 ERA (3.91 FIP) in his last dozen starts. Only thrice in that span did he allow more than three earned runs in a start, only four times more than two earned runs. His strikeout (8.31 K/9 and 21.5 K%) and walk (2.08 BB/9 and 5.4 BB%) numbers are so good that he’s actually fourth in the league among qualified starters with a 4.00 K/BB. The only guys ahead of him are Colby Lewis (7.50), Justin Verlander (4.27), and Jake Peavy (4.15). That’s pretty great.
Hughes still has a homerun problem — fourth in the league with 19 allowed (1.72 HR/9) — but that’s just going to be who he is. He’s a fly ball pitcher (just 33.7% grounders), but because he walks so few the majority of them has been solo shots. Only six of those 19 homers have come with men on base, and five of those six were two-run shots. The Yankees have remained patient with Phil and he’s rewarded them in the first half by (finally) becoming a solid and sometimes dominant starter.
Considering his age (40), his performance last year (.245/.289/.419), and his Spring Training showing (.150/.190/.333), it was very easy to write Ibanez off as a non-factor just before Opening Day. Rather than burn out and get released by June 1st like we all expected, Raul was the team’s most reliable hitter for the first six or seven weeks of the year and has settled in as a very nice weapon against righties — .250/.311/.484 vs. RHP — in the lower third of the lineup.
Furthermore, Ibanez has had to step in for the injured Brett Gardner and has effectively been the everyday left fielder for the last three months or so. He’s started 45 of the team’s 85 games in the outfield and has only been the DH a dozen times. That’s hard to believe. Ibanez has certainly had his share of lol-worthy moments on defense, but just being able to step in and play everyday while maintaining a reasonable level of offense is far more than we could have expected. Raul was supposed to flame out and have the Yankees hunting for a new DH at the deadline, but he’s instead provided very real impact.
Eric Chavez & Dewayne Wise
The bench has been one of the team’s strengths this year, thanks in large part to Chavez. He had an okay year in 2011 while missing lots of time due to injury, but this year he’s stayed on the field — minus a seven-day concussion hiatus — and legitimately mashed. Chavez owns a .282/.336/.504 batting line with seven homers already, two more dingers than he hit from 2008-2011. Gardner’s injury has forced him into the lineup a little more than expected, but he’s produced both at the plate and in the field. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that Chavez has been one of the biggest surprises of the season so far.
The trickle down effect of Gardner’s injury is quite substantial; it forced Ibanez into the outfield, Chavez into a healthy amount of at-bats, and it brought Dewayne Wise up from Triple-A. The team’s fourth outfielder has 13 hits in 50 at-bats, but two are doubles, one’s a triple, and three (!) are homers. He’s also six-for-six in stole base chances. With the Yankees struggling to score runs and having lost six of their previous seven games, Wise laid down a perfect bunt hit against the Royals to load the bases and ignite a game-winning rally on May 22nd. They won the game and have won 30 of 42 since. Dewayne Wise’s bunt turned the season around. Okay, maybe not. But he’s been awesome.
David Phelps & Cody Eppley
The Yankees went into camp with six starters for five spots, but Michael Pineda‘s injury opened the door for Freddy Garcia to return to the rotation. It also created a competition for the final bullpen spot, a spot Phelps won in Spring Training. He shined in six long relief appearances before taking Garcia’s place in the rotation, at least until Andy Pettitte showed up. Phelps returned to the bullpen and has since bounced back and forth between the big leagues and Triple-A, mostly notably striking out eight in 4.1 innings in a spot start last Wednesday.
Overall, Phelps has pitched to a 3.05 ERA (4.37 FIP) in 41.1 innings, striking out a ton of batters (9.15 K/9 and 23.6 K%) while doing a respectable job in the walk (3.70 BB/9 and 9.6 BB%) and ground ball (43.8%) departments for an AL East rookie. He generated buzz in Spring Training with improved velocity and it carried over into the season, to point where he not only looks like he can get big league hitters out, he looks like a potential long-term starting pitcher.
Joining Phelps in the bullpen has been Eppley, who the Yankees plucked off waivers from the Rangers back in April. He assumed a regular spot on the roster once Rivera got hurt and he’s seized the opportunity by pitching his way into Joe Girardi‘s late-game mix. The sinker-slider sidearm guy has pitched to a 2.70 ERA (3.84 FIP) in 23.1 innings, holding right-handers to a .226/.298/.308 batting line. Eppley’s 65.2% ground ball rate is the fifth highest in the baseball (min. 20 IP). The Yankees do as good a job of find useful arms in unusual places as anyone, and they’ve dug up another good one in Eppley.
Once the Yankees traded Jesus Montero to the Mariners, they were left to pluck the scrap heap for a platoon DH option. They passed on former Bombers Johnny Damon (60 wRC+ in 135 PA for the Indians) and Hideki Matsui (39 wRC+ in 53 PA for the Rays) in favor of Raul Ibanez, who has produced an essentially league average 99 wRC+ in just shy of 200 PA this year. He and Derek Jeter carried the offense through the first six weeks of the season, but the last six weeks have been a different story for Raul…
First 33 games: .282/.333/.588 with seven homers, seven walks, and eight strikeouts in 93 PA
Last 33 games: .196/.250/.359 with three homers, five walks, and 13 strikeouts in 100 PA
Brought in to be that left-handed platoon DH, Ibanez has started 36 of the team’s 66 games — including 24 of the last 34 — in the outfield because of Brett Gardner‘s injury. At age 40, I think it’s fair to wonder if all the unexpected time in the outfield has worn him down a bit. At the same time, we also have to acknowledge that Raul has always been one of the streakiest players in baseball. He could just be in one of those slumps before picking it back up, hopefully sooner rather than later.
Gardner’s continued elbow trouble means Ibanez will see more time in the outfield in the coming weeks. The rest of the offense has come around so his offensive slide hasn’t hurt them in the standings, and this is usually the way things go most of the time anyway. Not everyone in the lineup hits at the same time, different players carry the team at different parts of the season. When you’re like the Yankees and you have a lineup full of strong hitters, the individual slumps don’t hurt as much. Hopefully Ibanez gets back to hitting like he was in April and this little dry spell is nothing more than a blip on the radar.
Brett Gardner‘s injury has hurt the Yankees in more ways than one. They miss his productive bat and ability to make pitchers work at the bottom of the lineup, they miss his speed on base paths, and most of all they miss his all-world defense. I give Raul Ibanez an A+ for his effort out there, but the man is a butcher and doesn’t belong anywhere near a glove. Andruw Jones can hold his own in the outfield but is no longer the defender he was during his Atlanta days, and Dewayne Wise is a very good glove man but can’t hit a lick.
With Gardner out anywhere from another two weeks to a full month with a strain muscle in his right (non-throwing) elbow, the Yankees are stuck with sub-optimal left field options for the time being. Ibanez has started each of the last four games and six of the last nine games in left mostly because the DH spot has been rotated around. Even with Eduardo Nunez in Triple-A, the duo of Jayson Nix and Eric Chavez give Joe Girardi a chance to rest Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter somewhat regularly early in the season. Better to rest them now than risk burning them out later, I suppose.
Anyway, the Yankees are stuck with an undesirable left field situation until Gardner comes back. The personnel on the roster is unlikely to change barring injury, but the team can still maximize what they get out of these guys by optimizing their usage. Let’s take a quick look at some batted ball data (2010-present)…
You folks are smart, so you probably already know what I’m getting at here: the Yankees should employ their top defensive outfield unit whenever the fly ball pitchers are on the mound. That means Wise on the field and Ibanez at DH whenever Hughes and Pettitte start. We could also add Nova to that mix if his ground ball rate (44.6% this year) doesn’t return to previous levels (52.7% last year). Kuroda’s ground ball rate (48.6% this year), matches his career average after dropping to 43.2% last year. Perhaps reuniting with former battery-mate Russell Martin helped, or maybe it’s just an early-season fluke.
With Wise in the outfield two (potentially three) out of every five days, Girardi will be able to hide Ibanez’s defense a bit while still being able to rotate that DH spot. It’s not ideal; in a perfect world Ibanez never plays the field, but it’s going to happen until Gardner is healthy, so the Yankees should stick him out there when their top ground-ballers are on the bump to minimize the damage. It also goes without saying that Wise should replace Ibanez in the field in the late innings of close games.
Nunez is in Triple-A now, but the Yankees can also employ a similar defensive platoon on the infield. Nix is not exactly a stellar glove man, but he can spell Jeter at shortstop whenever one of the fly ball guys is on the hill with the thinking that he’ll have fewer tough plays to make. Sure enough, Nix’s only start at short so far this year came with Hughes on the mound this past Saturday. Perhaps the defensive platoon is already in place, at least on the infield. The difference may only be two or three plays a game, but every little bit counts.
Raul Ibanez left tonight’s game after taking a pitch to the right elbow in the ninth inning. He immediately left the game and was replaced by pinch-runner Dewayne Wise. Wise was probably going to come in for defensive purposes anyway, so Ibanez could be fine for all we know. He was in obvious pain however. Stay tuned for any updates.
That Raul Ibanez is off to a slow start comes with little surprise. His poor spring portended such a performance, as did his declining numbers the last two seasons in Philadelphia. The Yankees, we can only hope, did not expect a full recovery from Ibanez, who will turn 40 in just over a month. Instead they sought a serviceable player who could lend a hand for at least half the season.
At .250/.277/.409, Ibanez is looking a lot like his 2011 self. He oftentimes looks overmatched at the plate, as he did last night against Yu Darvish, unable to get his bat around on top-flight fastballs. So far he has been a half-run below average on offense, and his presence in the DH spot, or otherwise playing a poor outfield, further diminishes his value. Thankfully, there is a redeeming factor.
Ibanez has been at his worst in the most forgivable situations: no men on base. In his 21 bases empty PA he has gone 4 for 20 with a walk and no extra base hits. Yet when there have been men on he has put in his best effort. In 26 such PA he has gone 7 for 24 with all three of his extra base hits. As such, he’s been able to turn his 11 hits this season into 9 RBI. The fortuitous timing has made Ibanez more valuable in reality than his overall stat line indicates.
It’s normal, of course, for hitters to perform better with the pitcher in the stretch. This year AL hitters are OPSing 20 points better with men on than they are with the bases empty; in 2011 they hit .013 better with men on. Even still, Ibanez’s performance is out of line even with that disparity. That he’s hit all three of his extra base hits with men on base means a lot for the Yankees’ run scoring. We’d probably have a much more negative opinion of him if he’d hit a pair of solo homers and got stranded after a bases-empty double.
Just as we’d expect Ibanez to even out a bit, so we should expect the Yankees offense to do the same. They’re out of line with the league trend, OPSing just 9 points better with men on base than with the bases empty. That is, Ibanez has picked them up early on, when they needed the boost. Yet this doesn’t mean Ibanez will suddenly disappear. Remember, last year he was hitting .154/.238/.209 after 100 PA. From that point on he hit .264/.300/.462 in 474 PA. Those are no sterling numbers, but for $1.1 million the Yankees would probably take that.
It won’t be an easy year for Ibanez. He’s clearly a shell of his former self at the plate, and his previously poor defensive skills have completely eroded. But for a temporary solution to a vacant DH slot, the Yankees could have done worse. If the Yankees can squeeze just a little more well-timed value out of Ibanez, they can approach the trade deadline with an eye on acquiring a bat. That might sound a little cold, to eke as much value out of a guy as possible and then bid him goodbye, but that’s the reality of a team pursuing a championship.