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.

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Mailbag: Martin, Shoppach, Bourjos, Choo

Just four questions this week, and they’re all geared towards potential roster moves. Use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar whenever you want to send us something.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Matt asks: Given his current performance, do you think the Yankees are going to re-sign Russell Martin (and, should they)? If so, what kind of contract do you think he’s going to get?

I wrote about the catching situation yesterday and how the Yankees should look for an upgrade behind the plate, but that’s obviously easier said than done. I don’t think Martin’s true talent is a .178/.297/.347 batting line, he’s probably closer to a .225/.320/.380 guy. That’s not great but it’s at least tolerable, you can live with it behind the plate as long as he’s solid defensively and hitting eighth or ninth. I think that Martin’s back may still be bothering him, which would at least help explain the recent dreadful production.

Anyway, looking for an upgrade and potentially re-signing Martin after the season are two different thing. I’m sure Russ is kicking himself to turning down that three-year extension before the season but then again the catching market is weak. After Mike Napoli, Martin will be the best free agent catcher this offseason. Someone may and probably will overpay. If the Yankees could bring him back on one of those one-year, “re-establish your value” contracts, wouldn’t that be a pretty decent stopgap option until that 2014 payroll plan takes effect? Pair him with Austin Romine as a veteran caddy, they could do worse as long as they actually split time behind the plate.

Gabriel asks: What about trading for Kelly Shoppach as a back-up? I just read on MLBTR that the Red Sox were thinking of dealing him. Red Sox-Yanks deals are always tough, but what do you think?

Shoppach can hit a little, though he’s not really a .267/.359/.522 hitter like he has been this year. His primary value comes against left-handed pitchers, who he’s tagged for a .249/.348/.465 line over the last three seasons. That’s a useful platoon guy and would be a clear upgrade for the Yankees. The problem, as you know, is the whole Red Sox-Yankees thing. I can’t see those two teams getting together for a trade unless Boston just completely falls apart and decides to sell before the deadline (or even during the waiver trade period in August). I think they would have to get a real prospect in return as part of the trade, otherwise the negative PR from “helping the Yankees” probably isn’t worth it. He’d be a fit, he knows the division from his time with the both the Sox and Rays, but I just don’t think he’s actually obtainable.

Alex asks: According to Jayson Stark, the Angels are willing to give up Peter Bourjos in a deal for the right bullpen piece. Given that David Aardsma and Joba Chamberlain will be back this summer, would it be worth dealing Rafael Soriano to pick up an outfielder for the next few years?

(Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

No, I don’t think so and for a few reasons. For one, the goal is still to win this year and trading Soriano for Bourjos decreases the team’s chances of doing so. Aardsma just had his setback and despite all his progress, we have no idea what the Yankees will get out of Joba until he’s actually on a mound for them. They can’t start counting their chickens before they hatch.

Secondly, I’m just not a big Bourjos fan. I know he’s young and cheap and under control for the next half-decade and all that, but I’m just not a fan of defense-first players. We’ve — well not me specifically, but the baseball analysis community in general — come a long way with advanced defensive metrics but I still don’t have a ton of faith in them. That doesn’t mean I think Bourjos or Brett Gardner are bad players, just that I don’t think WAR accurately grades out their value. Plus could you imagine those two in the outfield at the same time? Even with Curtis Granderson the Yankees would still be lucky to get 45 homers out of their outfield.

The Bombers do need to add some kind of young outfielder for the long-term, but not enough to trade Soriano for him unless you’re getting a Mike Trout or something. Soriano may opt-out after the season and sign elsewhere and leave the Yankees with nothing to show for his tenure, who knows, but the best chance for the Yankees to win this season — before Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, CC Sabathia, etc. get a year older — is with him in the bullpen closing games.

Joe asks: What is Shin-Soo Choo’s contract status and do you think he would be a viable candidate to play right field and therefore let Nick Swisher walk?

Choo is making $4.9M this season and will be under team control one more time as an arbitration-eligible player next year. He’ll be a free agent after 2013. The Yankees would have to trade for him and any kind of extension would probably be in the range of whatever Swisher gets this winter. Choo’s a year or two younger, better defensively, and more of a on-base/gap power/stolen base guy that someone who hits the ball over the fence. Similar players and the difference between the two really isn’t worth arguing.

I think rentals are generally undervalued; there’s nothing wrong with giving up prospects for one year or even half-a-year of a player if he improves your chances of winning that year enough. Choo falls into that category but I’m not sure if the Indians would actually make him available, and if they did the price would be pretty high since he’s their like, franchise cornerstone guy. Him and Carlos Santana. He’d be a perfect fit for the Yankees but as always, it comes down to the price.

The Catching Problem

(REUTERS/Gary Cameron)

I think we all knew that the post-Jorge Posada era would be a shock to our system, at least initially, but I’m not sure we expected it to be this bad. Posada was one of the greatest offensive catchers in history and as of right now, the Russell Martin-Chris Stewart catching tandem has combined for a .204/.295/.340 batting line. That’s a combined 73 wRC+ which ranks 23rd among the 30 clubs. Catchers across baseball are averaging .247/.315/.398, which seems Ruthian compared to New York’s backstops.

As the starter, Martin gets the majority of the blame. He proclaimed that he was “starting to feel dangerous at the plate” after hitting two homers (including a walk-off) in a game against the Mets last month, but he’s followed up that statement with four (!) hits and four walks in his last 58 plate appearances. He hasn’t reached base in his last 27 (!!!) trips to the plate. That’s dragged his season line down to .178/.297/.347 through 81 team games, a lowly 77 wRC+. Dating back to May 25th of last season (an admittedly arbitrary endpoint), Martin is hitting .203/.330/.353 in 554 plate appearances. This isn’t a small sample.

Stewart has hit an empty .270 as Martin’s backup, slapping singles off infielders’ gloves and dunking bloops into shallow left seemingly once a start. He doesn’t walk or hit for any power, which is why his batting line sits at .270/.295/.311 in limited playing time. For all the talk about his clutch hits, Stewart has six singles in 29 plate appearances with runners in scoring position this year (.222/.214/.222). The guy has never really hit before, hasn’t hit this year, and there’s no reason to expect him to hit in the future. He is who he is.

Offense is obviously not the team’s strong point behind the plate, but defense supposedly is. Stewart has allowed the fifth most passed balls in the league (five) despite being a backup, and he’s only thrown out four of 14 attempted basestealers. That’s a league average 28.5%, hardly what you expect from someone touted as a defensive standout. Stewart seems like a classic Nichols Law of Catcher Defense guy, frankly. Martin has allowed four passed balls of his own and has only thrown out 12 of 51 attempted basestealers (below average 23.5%). The Rays showed him no respect by stealing seven bases (in seven attempts) over the last two games. Anecdotally, I consider the two to be about average or maybe even slightly above averageon defense, underwhelming compared to expectations and reputations.

I can’t remember the last time a team won the World Series without an above average offensive catcher. I suppose the 2006 Cardinals with a young Yadier Molina, but then you have to go back to the Joe Girardi era mid-1990s Yankees. It’s not early anymore, the season is officially halfway complete and the Yankees have gotten little production from their catchers. You may disagree and feel Martin and Stewart have been very good on defense, but I have a hard time believing their glovework has made up for the limp bats. I don’t think calling up Frankie Cervelli — 86 wRC+ in Triple-A — is the answer, but he’d probably be an upgrade at this point. Either way, the Yankees need to serious consider going out and addressing their catcher situation at the trade deadline. These two aren’t cutting it at all.

Russell Martin leaves game with stiff back

Russell Martin left tonight’s game in the eighth inning with a stiff back. Dewayne Wise pinch-hit for him before Chris Stewart took over behind the plate. David Robertson was bouncing breaking balls all over the place in the eighth, but who knows if that caused/contributed to the problem. Martin was likely to get Sunday off anyway with CC Sabathia pitching, but we’ll see what they say. Check back for updates.

Girardi asks for, and receives, better work from Martin

(Al Bello/Getty Images)

Russell Martin knew it would be a big year. Not only was he set to hit free agency after the season, but a fellow catcher had just set the market with a five-year, $75 million contract. While Martin isn’t held in the same regard as Yadier Molina, it seemed clear that with a repeat of 2011 he’d be in line for a bit more than the three years and $20 million the Yankees reportedly offered him.

A rough start has certainly changed the situation, at least temporarily. At the end of May he had just a .187 average. While his .333 OBP did help matters a bit, he still wasn’t hitting with much power. Those issues were clearly visible, though. What might not have been so apparent to us was Martin’s work with the pitching staff. As it turns out, that might have been a problem equal to his one at the plate.

As David Waldstein of the New York Times recently reported, Joe Girardi called Martin into his office before the game on June 2nd in Detroit. The gist: Martin wasn’t doing a great job of calling pitches. Girardi said that he could do better, and Martin agreed. Despite the wealth of talent, both in the rotation and the bullpen, the staff sported a 4.13 ERA at the end of May. Being above league average just isn’t acceptable for a team with the Yankees’ aspirations.

That talk seems to have been the turning point for the staff. Since then they’ve pitched 89.2 innings to a 2.11 ERA. It looks even better for Martin, too. He doesn’t catch CC Sabathia, and Sabathia has turned in two poor starts since then. In fact, if you subtract the 14 innings and seven earned runs Sabathia has allowed in his last two starts, the staff, under Martin, has thrown 75.2 innings to a 1.67 ERA. Might it be time for Girardi to give up on the personal catcher thing and have Martin start catching the team’s most important pitcher?

As Waldstein notes, neither Girardi nor Martin has been very forthcoming with the specifics of the talk. But Martin did let one tidbit slip. “He said, ‘I think you need to start doing a couple of things; I think you need to start throwing inside more.'” As the old baseball adage goes, if you can’t establish your fastball inside you can’t get major leaguers out. Why Martin neglected this earlier in the season I’m not sure, but his adjustments have shown in the results.

The talk might have done more than boosted Martin’s performance behind the plate. Before the talk Martin was hitting .187/.333/.333. Since then, in the admittedly small sample of 34 PA, he has gone 9 for 31 with two doubles and four homers, for a slash line of .290/.353/.742.

Of course, we can’t be 100 percent sure that the pitching staff has improved because of Martin’s adjustments. Correlation, causation, and that whole thing. But there’s no denying the correlation. Girardi gave Martin something to think about, and he has seemingly responded in kind. The pitching staff is now pitching to its capabilities and then some — and that’s without Sabathia pitching like an ace. Just imagine how they’ll look once he gets back on track. Perhaps a run with Martin behind the plate would cure what ails him.

Adjustments help Martin take advantage of the short porch

(Al Bello/Getty Images)

The Yankees finished off the sweep of the Mets yesterday thanks to not one, but two homers — including the walk-off dinger — by catcher Russell Martin. He’s hit .319/.418/.681 in his last 15 games and .261/.369/.545 in his last 29 games dating back to the start of the Royals series in Kansas City. Sure, his first homer on Sunday was a total Yankee Stadium cheapie that hit off the top of the wall and took a fortunate bounce, but a few weeks ago Russ wasn’t even able to hit the ball to right field.

“I felt like I was getting tied up inside and I felt like I was starting to pull off the ball early with my stride,” said Martin after yesterday’s game. “Now I kind of just evened out my stride, and I feel like I’m ready to drive the ball the other way more with more ease. I was fighting to do it before.”

Hitting coach Kevin Long expanded on the idea of Martin evening out his stride, saying he’s backed off the plate a bit and is now able to turn on the inside pitch. “He was frustrated a little bit, but he kept believing that all his hard work — everything he’d done through the winter and up to this point — was going to pay off,” said Long. “It’s starting to show real good signs, especially this month. He’s been on fire.”

Martin was offensive dead weight for the first six or seven weeks of the season, carrying a .173/.321/.318 batting line into the recent West Coast trip before really turning things around. He was walking enough — 13.5 BB% this year — to keep from being a complete back hole offensively, but he lacked impact when he actually swung the bat. As you can see, he’s gone from constantly beating the ball into the ground to actually getting some loft and hitting it to the outfield…

Green is grounders, blue is fly balls, red is line drives.

This recent hot streak has Martin sitting on a 116 wRC+, the tenth best mark among catchers with at least 150 plate appearances. His .348 OBP ranks eighth. Russ is never again going to be the monster he was earlier in his career with the Dodgers, but the Yankees aren’t exactly asking him to be that guy. It would be nice if he was, but it isn’t imperative. He’s hitting mostly ninth in the lineup and like so many nine-hole hitters before him, he just has to be something more than an automatic out. Martin’s recent adjustment has him driving the ball to right — five of his eight dingers have gone the other way — and have helped him take advantage of the short porch.

Russell Martin tore into umpire Laz Diaz last night

Via Marc Carig, catch Russell Martin ripped home plate ump Laz Diaz following last night’s game.”He told me I had to earn the privilege (to throw the ball back to the pitcher),” said Martin, a three-time All-Star. “Even at the end of the game after I get hit in the neck. I’m like, can I throw the ball back now? He’s still like no. I’m like you’re such a (expletive). Like for real. Unbelievable. I even told him like when there’s guys on base, I like to keep my arm loose. No. I’m not letting you throw a ball back. That’s pretty strange to me.”

Terrible umpiring is nothing new, but usually it’s limited to calls on the field. I’ve never heard of a catcher being told he has to “earn the privilege” to throw the ball back to his pitcher. That’s just petty. Of course, calling out an umpire publicly wasn’t the smartest move on Martin’s part. I’m thinking he’s going to have to work a little harder to get borderline calls going forward.