Archive for What Went Right
Part of the reason why the Yankees won World Series after World Series in the late-1990s was the quality of their reserves. They had guys like Tim Raines and Darryl Strawberry and Chili Davis on the bench, established star-caliber players who accepted lesser roles later in their careers for the sake of winning. The club has gotten back to that model in recent years, which led them to Eric Chavez in 2011.
Last season, Chavez’s first year in New York, went well but it wasn’t great. He missed nearly three months with a foot injury and hit .263/.320/.356 (80 wRC+) in 175 plate appearances overall, including .255/.322/.365 (83 wRC+) against righties. His offense was propped up by a number of big hits (.415/.468/.537, 165 wRC+ with runners in scoring position) and his defense at the hot corner was pretty strong. He wasn’t Raines or Strawberry or even Davis, but he was a solid bench piece.
The Yankees brought the 34-year-old Chavez back on another one-year deal in 2012, likely expecting more of the same. Instead, they got a whole lot more. He singled in his first plate appearance of the season and was used pretty sparingly for the first 15 games or so, but he made his second start of the year on April 20th and responded with two solo homers in Fenway Park. He homered again on April 30th, matching his long ball output from 2011 in his first month and 30 plate appearances of 2012. Chavez had a torrid 12-for-37 (.324) stretch with four doubles and two homers in mid-June and carried a .282/.336/.504 batting line into the All-Star break. He then went 3-for-3 with a homer in the third game after the break.
When Felix Hernandez broke Alex Rodriguez‘s hand with a pitch on July 24th, Chavez took over as the regular third baseman against right-handers. He hit .333/.392/.543 in 89 plate appearances during A-Rod‘s absence, including an insane 16-for-34 (.471) stretch with five homers from late-July to mid-August. During a four-game series against the Tigers in early-August, he went 9-for-16 (.563) with two homers, including the game-winning dinger in the eighth inning of the series finale.
A-Rod returned in early-September and Chavez went back to his usual role off the bench, but he didn’t stop hitting. He went 8-for-30 (.267) with four homers and more walks (seven) than strikeouts (six) in the club’s final 22 games of the season. Chavez didn’t hit all in the playoffs, literally zero hits in 17 plate appearances, but that’s not enough to take the shine away from his .281/.348/.496 (126 wRC+) effort in 313 regular season plate appearances. He hit 16 (!) homers, his most since 2006 and more than three times as many as he hit from 2008-2011 combined (five), and he also tagged right-handed pitchers for a .299/.366/.545 (144 wRC+) batting line in 244 plate appearances. The guy was a monster off the bench.
At the same time, the Yankees also got lucky that Chavez didn’t get hurt and miss a significant chunk of time. He did spend seven days on the concussion DL in early-May and was unavailable for a handful of games through the season for general maintenance, but otherwise Chavez stayed on the field all season despite needing a rigorous daily routine to get ready to play. He was arguably the team’s best bench player since those veteran laden late-1990s team, providing solid defense and excellent offense while subbing in during A-Rod’s injury and allowing the team to never miss a beat.
Last season was David Robertson‘s coming out party. The right-hander emerged as one of baseball’s most dominant setup men, usurping Rafael Soriano as the eighth inning guy while pitching to a 1.08 ERA (1.84 FIP) in a career-high 66.2 innings. His follow up in 2012 didn’t go as smoothly, but the end result was the same. Robertson was again one of baseball’s most dominant setup men.
The 27-year-old opened the season in pretty much the only way he knew how: with a Houdini act on Opening Day. Joe Girardi handed him the ball with a one-run lead in the eighth inning against the Rays, and Tampa had men on the corners with no outs in the span of eleven pitches thanks to a walk and a single. Robertson then struck out Stephen Vogt (four pitches), Jose Molina (five pitches), and Matt Joyce (five pitches) to escape the jam and end the inning. Pretty much par for the Houdini course.
Through his first dozen appearances, Robertson had allowed zero runs with 21 strikeouts against just three walks in 12 innings. In five appearances from April 20th through May 4th, he struck out 12 of 17 batters faced including eight in a row at one point. That’s when Mariano Rivera got hurt. The club’s long-time closer blew out his knee on the Kansas City warning track on May 5th, and Robertson was the obvious replacement in the ninth inning. He nailed down his first save three days later but blew the save next night, allowing a three-run homer to Joyce. Two days later he wiggled out of Boone Logan‘s ninth inning jam to preserve the four-run lead, and that was it. We wouldn’t see him for more than a month.
Robertson had strained his left oblique and needed to spend time on the DL. The injury cost him more than a month, as he didn’t return until June 15th after a handful of minor league rehab appearances. Soriano had seized the closer’s job during his absence, so Robertson came back as the setup man and was eased back into things. Girardi didn’t use him in back-to-back days at first and didn’t bring him into the game in the middle of an inning even though he had some chances. It raised some questions about whether Robertson was actually fully healthy, but he was pitching fine and striking a ton of guys out so it wasn’t a huge concern.
In 26 first half appearances, Robertson struck out 40 and allowed just seven earned runs in 24.2 innings. He walked a dozen, but that’s nothing unusual for him. The second half opened with seven straight scoreless appearances and just one run allowed in his first eleven outings. Robertson melted down in an early-August game against the Tigers (three runs in one inning), but the Yankees held on to win anyway so it didn’t hurt anything but his ERA. Another ten scoreless innings followed as he carried a 2.18 ERA into September.
Outside of the blow save against the Rays, Robertson’s most infamous blowup of the season came on September 6th against the Orioles, the first game of the important four-game series in Camden Yards. The Yankees had just scored five runs in the top of the eighth to tie the game at six, but Robertson surrendered a solo homer to Adam Jones to leadoff the bottom half, and then two batters later Mark Reynolds took him deep for a two-run shot. Three batters faced, three hits allowed, two homers, three runs. The Yankees went on to lose the game and Robertson’s ERA climbed by more than half-a-run.
Robertson allowed two runs in two-thirds of an inning in a win against the Blue Jays later in the month but that was pretty much it. He followed up his strong but injury-shortened first half with a 2.75 ERA (2.49 FIP) in 36 second half innings. Girardi leaned on his setup man heavily down the stretch, as Robertson made four sets of back-to-back-to-back appearances in the team’s final 35 games of the season after Girardi never once asked him to work three consecutive days in the first four years of his career. He was also the team’s best reliever in the postseason, allowing just one run on three hits and no walks while striking out seven in 6.1 innings. Despite missing all that time with the oblique issue, Robertson still threw 60.2 innings across 65 appearances during the 2012 regular season.
At the end of the year, the right-hander owned a 2.67 ERA (2.48 FIP) with his usual sky-high strikeout rate (12.02 K/9 and 32.7 K%). He did allow a career-high-tying five homers one year after allowing just one, which was a bit of a problem. The good news is that he also posted a (by far) career-low walk rate, just 2.82 BB/9 and 7.7 BB%. He came into the season with a career 4.72 BB/9 and 12.2 BB%, and even last year it was 4.73 BB/9 and 12.9 BB%. The cool part is that nearly all of the walk improvement came in the second half …
In those 36 second half innings, Robertson walked just seven batters. From July 21st through the end of the season, a span of 36 appearances and 33 innings, he walked just five batters. From August 11th through September 24th, a span of 22 appearances and 82 batters faced, he walked zero batters. That seems impossible, but it’s true. He closed the season out with 81 strikeouts against just 19 walks, setting a new career-high (by far) with a 4.26 K/BB.
Robertson wasn’t as great as he was a year ago, but no pitcher, not even Mariano Rivera, sustains a near-1.00 ERA. He did have two really memorable meltdowns and at times he stopped throwing his curveball for no apparent reason, but it never really cost him effectiveness. Robertson hurt the Yankees the most when he wasn’t on the mound due to the oblique injury, but otherwise he was again a fantastic setup man and one of the five or six best non-closing relievers in the game.
It was a year of two halves for Boone Logan, the Yankees’ polarizing southpaw reliever. As a founder of the Boone Logan fan club on Twitter and a frequent defender of his, I believe I might be of service in this discussion. I have always viewed Logan as useful bullpen piece: lefties with his power fastball-slider combo don’t grow on trees, and at times he is not entirely useless against opposite-handed hitters. He doesn’t have the consistency or command at this stage in his career to be a Matt Thornton type who is deadly against both righties and lefties, but he is a solid contributor in the Yankee ‘pen. In the first half of 2012, Logan at times looked like he was taking the next step and becoming the kind of shutdown lefty that the Yankees have been fruitlessly seeking for many years.
Logan got off to a strong start to 2012, giving up just one run in the first month of the season, and striking out about 13 batters per nine innings (though with a walk rate approaching 5/9 innings). May was a rougher month ERA-wise as he gave up five runs in 9 2/3 innings, but his peripherals were vastly improved — he walked just one batter the entire month. June saw him give up just two runs, though his strikeout rate dropped somewhat. Overall in those first three months of the season, Logan’s line was: 28 innings, 37 strikeouts, eight runs (2.57 ERA), 11 walks, and two homers allowed while being used very heavily by manager Joe Girardi.
In a post I wrote earlier in the year for TYA, I wondered what was the cause for Logan’s early success. One area that I highlighted was a change in Logan’s pitch mix, where he was throwing more sliders than in previous years, and fewer fastballs. He was also getting vastly improved whiff rates on the slider, indicating that he was not losing effectiveness by throwing it more often. There was some tangible evidence suggesting that the big first half was legitimate improvement and not a small sample size fluke.
While it was only three months, Logan’s first half performance was very important for the Yankees. Their bullpen depth was shortened due to injuries/ineffectiveness of several guys ahead of him on the depth chart. He often worked in a setup role rather than just as a specialist, and he handled himself quite nicely. While the Yankees obviously still missed Mariano Rivera and Joba Chamberlain, Boone’s early effectiveness did help to cushion the blow. Logan’s heavy workload in the first half (where he was among the league leader in relief appearances) may have taken a toll on him later in the season, but there is no question that he answered the bell when the team needed him early on.
Since coming to the Yankees four years ago, Nick Swisher has been a model of consistency. He’s played between 148-150 games each year with New York, hit between 24-29 homers, posted a .359-.374 OBP, hit to a 120-129 OPS+, produced a 124-135 wRC+, and has been worth 3.2-4.1 fWAR. It’s been the same thing year after year, and outside of the postseason, that’s been very good for the Yankees.
The 31-year-old Swisher opened the season by coming to camp in noticeably improved shape — “It’s the best-looking I’ve ever been,” he joked — and he mashed in Spring Training (.323/.344/.710). He carried that over into the start of the regular season, going 17-for-60 (.283) with four homers in the team’s first 15 games. By the end of the month he owned a .284/.355/.617 batting line with six homers in 21 games. May was rough, but by the All-Star break he had his season line at .262/.336/.477.
By Swisher’s standards, that actually wasn’t all that good. He was hitting for power and a not horrible average, but the walks just weren’t there. Walks are a Swisher trademark, and he got back on the horse and became a free pass machine in the second half…
The Yankees were fading in the standings but it wasn’t because of their right fielder. Swisher hit .298/.392/.510 in the first month after the All-Star break and carried a .272/.356/.485 batting line into the season’s final month. While everyone focused on the Orioles, the rejuvenated Ichiro Suzuki, and the molten hot Robinson Cano, Swisher quietly hit .407/.521/.661 with more walks (14) than strikeouts (12) in the final three weeks of the season to help the Yankees keep the Orioles at bay. He capped the year off with a 7-for-11 series against the Red Sox, singling with the bases loaded in his final at-bat of the season.
Swisher got painted with the unclutch brush a long time ago, but he was (by far) the team’s best hitter with runners in scoring position in 2012. He put up a .301/.406/.589 batting line in 181 plate appearances with men on second and/or third, a 164 wRC+ that ranked fourth among all hitters in those situations this year (min. 150 plate appearances). His docket of big hits included this extra innings homer against the Orioles, this huge game against the Red Sox (the 15-9 comeback win), and this go-ahead homer against the Braves.
When Mark Teixeira went down for more than a month with a calf injury, Swisher stepped in at first base and the Yankees didn’t miss a beat. He started 27 games at first and played 41 games at the position overall, his most since 2008 with the White Sox and more than the first three years of his Yankees career combined. Swisher avoided the DL for the seventh straight season — he did miss a week with a hamstring issue in May and another week with a hip issue in July — though he did dip below 150 games played for the first time since 2005. He only made it into 148 games in 2012.
Swisher’s season ended with another poor postseason showing (5-for-30, .167), something that unfortunately became a trend during his four years in New York. The Yankees will probably never come out and say it, but I think the playoff struggles are at least part of the reason why they’re comfortable letting him walk as a free agent this winter. His Yankees career will likely come to an end this winter with a .268/.367/.483 batting line (128 wRC+) batting line in 498 games and 2,501 plate appearances. Swisher’s performance this year — .272/.364/.473 (128 wRC+) with 24 homers — was one of the team’s three best offensively and a big reason why they held off the Orioles to win the AL East.
The 2011 season was a nightmare for Phil Hughes, who battled shoulder and back injuries after logging a (by far) career-high workload the year before. He came into the 2012 season not necessarily as a virtual lock for the rotation, but he definitely had a leg up on Freddy Garcia for one of the final spots behind CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, and Hiroki Kuroda. Michael Pineda‘s shoulder injury took care of the rotation logjam and Hughes had himself a rotation spot.
Phil was terrible in April, but we’ll talk about that a little bit later today. Right now we’re going to focus on his season starting in May, when he turned things around and became a key cog in the rotation. It all started in Kansas City, a few days after Mariano Rivera blew out his ACL on the warning track. Hughes put together his best start of the season (to date) against the Royals, striking out seven while allowing three runs in 6.2 innings. It wasn’t great by any means, but compared to April, he looked like Cy Young.
That start against Kansas City was a jumping-off point for Hughes, who followed up with 7.2 innings of one-run ball against the Mariners and five total runs allowed in his next three starts. The Angels pounded Phil in his hometown in his first June start (seven runs in 5.1 innings), but he rebounded to allow just one run in a complete game win over Justin Verlander and the Tigers his next time out. After that win over the Royals, Hughes allowed no more than two earned runs in eight of his next ten starts and in 14 of his next 20 starts to drop his ERA to 4.02 on the season.
At the end of the year, after logging a career-high 191.1 innings in a career-high 32 starts, Phil posted a 4.23 ERA and 4.56 FIP. His strikeout (7.76 K/9 and 20.3 K%) and walk (2.16 BB/9 and 5.6 BB%) rates were both better than the league average, and his 3.59 K/BB ranked tenth among qualified AL starters. From that start against the Royals through the end of the season, Hughes pitched to a 3.82 ERA (4.26 FIP) with 7.53 K/9 (20.0 K%), 2.07 BB/9 (5.5 BB%), and a 3.64 K/BB in 169.2 innings across 27 starts. He threw a strong start against the Orioles in the ALDS before exiting his ALCS start earlier this a back injury to close out the year.
Was Hughes the ace-caliber pitcher he was promised to be during his prospect days? No, of course not. That ship has all but certainly sailed. That doesn’t mean he isn’t a valuable contributor though. Hughes was a rock solid mid-rotation starter for the Yankees this season, especially following his disastrous April. He has two big league seasons as a full-time starter in the AL East under his belt (2010 and 2012) and has been roughly league average both times while making a bit under $4M in the process. He could improve going forward, but what he did in the final five months of the season was enough to help the Yankees win another division title.
As we discussed earlier, Russell Martin‘s first 100 games of the season were a nightmare offensively. He hit .182/.300/.364 in his first 283 plate appearances and the Yankees were sliding in the standings. The trade deadline brought no catching help, so any improvement down the stretch was going to have to come from Martin himself. It was easy to have no confidence in him.
Instead of continued to falter, Russ turned things around. He went 2-for-2 with a homer and two walks in Game 101 and 8-for-22 (.364) with four walks in the next seven games. He doubled in his next game, homered a week after that, and homered again a few days later. On September 5th, the team’s 136th game of the season, Martin went 2-for-4 with a double and a homer to raise his season battling line to .202/.305/.376. It was very late in the season, but he was above the Mendoza Line for good.
Along with deadline pickup Ichiro Suzuki, Martin was arguably the Yankees’ very best hitter in the final month of the season. He hit .277/.355/.578 with seven homers in the club’s final 28 games of the year, including .375/.500/1.000 (!) with runners in scoring position. Russ hit walk-off homer against the Athletics (video) on September 21st, and three of those seven homers either tied the game or gave the Yankees the lead. Martin didn’t hit a lick in the postseason like most of his teammates, but he did hit the game-winning homer off Jim Johnson in Game One of the ALDS. That was enormous.
Despite all those late-season homers, the 62-game hot streak to close the season was fueled by a BABIP return to normalcy…
As I wrote this morning, you would expect Martin to have a low-ish BABIP because of the type of hitter he is, but anything below .200 is venturing into massively unlikely territory for any player. He enjoyed a .271 BABIP in the final 62 games of the season, which is right around his true talent level based on recent years. That raised his season line up to .211/.311/.403, a 95 wRC+ that was a bit below the league average overall but actually identical to the MLB average for the position. Catchers get a little slack.
If there’s one thing we learned about Martin offensively these last two years, it’s that he can be very streaky. The downs are longer and more frequent than the ups, but the ups are power-filled stretches with a lot of clutch hits. Martin always seems to put quality at-bats together as well, even when he’s struggling, and he never seems to take his problems with the bat out to the field defensively. He’s no Jorge Posada, especially at the plate, but Russ has been serviceable if not solid for the Yankees at the catcher position these last two years and especially down the stretch in 2012.
Brett Gardner‘s elbow injury was supposed to be minor. He was going to miss two or three weeks and come back as good as new. Then he had a setback. Then another setback. And then a date with Dr. James Andrews and before you knew it, his sliding catch in April turned into a near-season-ending, surgery-requiring elbow injury. Raul Ibanez did the best he could filling in at left field, but the Yankees lost a ton of speed and defense with Gardner’s injury.
Enter Ichiro Suzuki. A few days after Gardner’s surgery, the Yankees swung a trade with the Mariners to bring the 38-year-old Japanese superstar to the Bronx to fill that speed and defense hole. Ichiro had previously informed Seattle’s management that he was sick of losing and would welcome a trade to a contender, which is when New York got involved. Ichiro agreed to some conditions (he was going to play left, sit against lefties, hit near the bottom of the order), the Mariners ate some salary (roughly $4M), and the Yankees surrendered some spare parts (D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar). After 12 years in the Great Northwest, Ichiro officially became a Yankee on July 23rd.
Coincidentally enough, the Yankees were in Seattle at the time of the trade. Ichiro’s first game in pinstripes came against his former team, and he singled on a ground ball back up the middle in his first at-bat following a lengthy standing ovation from the crowd. His Yankees career started with a 12-game exactly-one-hit streak, and through his first 40 games with the team he hit .271/.297/.398, including a two-homer game against Josh Beckett and the Red Sox. That was pretty much exactly in line with expectations considering his .268/.302/.342 batting line with the Mariners from the start of 2011 through the day of the trade. Ichiro had settled in nicely as that platoon left fielder at the bottom of the order.
The Yankees were playing rather intense games down the stretch in September after blowing a ten-game lead and finding out that the Orioles weren’t just going to go away. They were just one game up in the standings when they arrived at Camden Yards on September 6th for the start of an important four-game series, and that’s when Ichiro took his game up a notch. He went 3-for-4 in the series opener and 2-for-4 in both the third and fourth games to help the Yankees split the series and maintain their one-game lead.
The Blue Jays came to the Bronx about a week later and Ichiro took his game up another notch. He went 9-for-12 in the three-game series, including a 4-for-4 with four steals effort in the middle game that including the game-winning single in the eighth. He also had six hits in six consecutive at-bats against left-handed pitchers at one point during the series. The barrage continued, as Ichiro went 6-for-13 against the Athletics in the following series and closed his season out on a 37-for-94 (.394) run in the final 25 games of the season. He shed the platoon label and moved up in the order, becoming the full-time left fielder and two-hole hitter.
Ichiro was one of the team’s best hitters in the postseason (11-for-40, .275), and he ended the season with a .322/.340/.454 batting line in 240 plate appearances with the Yankees. He also stole 14 bases in 19 chances, including ten in 12 chances in the final 25 games of the season. Ichiro practically fell into the club’s lap — the Mariners initiated trade talks at the ownership level — but he fit New York’s needs and provided the spark they were missing without Gardner. Maybe that ridiculous 25-game finish to the season was him being rejuvenated by playing for a contender or maybe it was just dumb luck, but either way Ichiro was a huge reason why the Yankees were able to fend off the Orioles down the stretch and win another AL East title. Trade deadline rentals don’t get much better.
For all intents and purposes, Ivan Nova‘s 2012 season was just short of a total disaster. Instead of taking a step forward and solidifying his spot in team’s long-term plans, he took a step back and became one of the Yankees’ biggest question marks. It’s not all bad though, he did improve his underlying performance and quite substantially as well.
Coming up through the minors, Nova never struck out more than 19.3% (7.14 K/9) of the batters he faced in a single full season. Last year, in his first full big league season, he struck out 13.9% (5.33 K/9) of batters faced. This year that jumped up to 20.5% (8.08 K/9), the 11th highest strikeout rate among qualified AL starters. He held that rate pretty steady during his brutal second half, which is oddly a good sign…
Nova’s increase in strikeouts is due to increased usage of his slider, which is something we first saw in the second half of last year. After throwing the pitch just 3.7% of the time a year ago, he upped that to 12.1% this season while scaling back the usage of his curveball and changeup. Opponents missed on nearly 40% of their swings against the pitch (39.2%, to be exact), which is far above average. That’s pretty darn close to CC Sabathia‘s slider (42.8%), just for perspective. Overall, Nova generated a swing and a miss on 9.0% of his pitches this year, up from 6.6% last year.
The strikeout rate improvement was substantial this year, and normally that would result in improved performance. For Nova, it resulted in declining performance. Tough to explain and I really don’t know how, but this isn’t a “he stinks when he strikes guys out so he should stop striking guys out” thing. His walk rate (7.5 BB% and 2.96 BB/9) was rock solid and he still got an above average amount of ground balls (45.2%), so the peripheral stats improved from 2011 to 2012. The problem was that whenever Nova wasn’t striking guys out or getting ground balls, he was giving up homers and extra-base hits. This season was a disaster for Ivan, but the increased strikeout rate (while other core stats remained steady) was certainly a nice silver lining.
Johnny Damon. Hideki Matsui. Carlos Pena. Vlad Guerrero. Magglio Ordonez. After the Yankees traded Jesus Montero in mid-January and created an opening at DH, that was the lot of free agent solutions. All offered name value and track records, but instead the club went in a different direction. They signed Raul Ibanez to guaranteed contract.
The move was met with plenty of skepticism — how could they pass up Damon and Matsui?!? — and for most of Spring Training, it sure appeared as though the Yankees got the wrong guy. Ibanez, who turned 40 in June, went 9-for-60 (.150) with 14 strikeouts and just three walks in camp, and only a brief homer binge in the final week of March made him look like a competent big league hitter. The Yankees stick with their guys though (just ask 2010 Marcus Thames), and Ibanez opened the season as the left-handed half of the DH platoon despite his brutal spring showing.
On Opening Day, Raul made the club look pretty smart. He drove in New York’s first run of the season with an RBI ground out in his first at-bat of 2012, and one inning later he turned a 4-3 deficit into a 6-4 lead with a three-run homer off Jamie Shields. Four days later plated the go-ahead run with a ground rule double against the Orioles in the 12th inning — who knew one-run wins in extra innings against Baltimore would be such a big deal at the time? — and five days after that he walloped a two-run homer off Jason Isringhausen that very nearly made the upper deck in right field. It was a bomb.
By the end of April, Ibanez had proven his worth by providing a number of big hits during the first few weeks of the season, but more importantly he had a new position. Brett Gardner went down with an elbow injury in the 11th game of the season, forcing Ibanez into left field on a semi-regular basis. He was still platooning with Andruw Jones at the time, so it wasn’t an everyday thing just yet. As funny as it sounded at the time, the Yankees signed Ibanez over guys like Damon, Matsui, and Vlad because of his defense. Not because he had more range or anything like that, but because he was more physically equipped to play the outfield on an everyday basis if need be.
Raul has a reputation of being a very streaky player, and after topping out at .268/.318/.543 on May 30th, he fell into a long and prolonged slump that saw him hit .191/.278/.330 in his next 234 plate appearances. It appeared as though all the extra time in the outfield had worn him down a bit, and it didn’t help that Gardner was hurt or that Jones cratered in the second half. The Yankees didn’t have many alternatives, so Ibanez continued to play left field for most of the summer despite being a two-way liability — on defense and in the batter’s box.
That 234 plate appearance slump dropped his season line to .222/.294/.415 with 14 games to go in the season. That’s when Ibanez turned things around and got hot. Very hot. And very clutch. Despite not starting against the Athletics on September 22nd, he came off the bench to hit a pinch-hit homer in the fifth before tying the game with a monster two-run homer in the 13th to complete the four-run comeback. He hit another huge game-tying two-run homer in Game 161, this one in the ninth inning against the Red Sox. He later won that game with a walk-off single (against a lefty!). The Orioles had already won that day, so a loss would have moved the Yankees into a tie with Baltimore for first place in the AL East heading into the final day of the season.
The Bombers won the division (and finished with the best record in the league) and Ibanez closed the season on a 15-for-47 (.405) hot streak that included four homers, including the pair of game-tying two-run shots. That was just the beginning though. Raul upped his clutch game in October, starting with Game Three of the ALDS. He came off the bench to pinch-hit for Alex Rodriguez down a run in the ninth, and hit a game-tying solo homer off Orioles super-closer Jim Johnson. A few innings later, he clubbed another solo homer, this one the game-winning walk-off shot against Brian Matusz (a lefty!). That gave New York the Game Three win and a 2-1 series lead. In Game One of the ALCS, he hit a(nother) game-tying two-run homer, this one off Jose Valverde in the ninth to cap off the four-run comeback. True Yankee™ had been achieved.
All told, Ibanez hit .240/.308/.453 with 19 homers in 425 plate appearances this season, doing most of his damage against righties (.248/.319/.492). Those four game-tying homers in September and October went down as the team’s four biggest hits of the season by WPA, which really doesn’t do them justice. They were enormous, season-defining shots. Ibanez also started 76 games in the outfield while Gardner was out, which was what, 70 more than expected? His defense won’t get any praise from me, but I will give Raul credit for stepping up and stepping in to help the club when (and where) needed.
Damon and Matsui hooked on with the Indians and Rays, respectively, but were released by midseason due to poor performance. Pena stuck with Tampa all year but hit just .197/.330/.354. No team even bothered to sign Vlad or Magglio. The Yankees chose the unpopular DH solution prior to season and were rewarded many times over. Ibanez was the team’s second best hitter behind Derek Jeter in April and he piled up enough jaw-droppingly clutch homers down the stretch to last a baseball lifetime. One-year contracts worth about a million bucks don’t get much better.
Over the next few weeks we’re going to spend some time reviewing the entire 2012 season, which featured another division title and unfortunately another disappointing playoff exit.
Despite all of the attention given to the pitching staff in the offseason, the Yankees actually came into the season with more questions in the batter’s box than on the mound. Would Curtis Granderson hit for the same kind of power? Would Derek Jeter continue his second half resurgence? Would Alex Rodriguez stay healthy? Would Mark Teixeira reverse his downward trend? We could go on and on, but the one position player who came into the year with no concerns was Robinson Cano.
At age 29, Cano was New York’s best hitter and best all-around player for the third consecutive season. He also indisputably established himself as the best second baseman in baseball as Ian Kinsler’s performance took a step back and both Chase Utley and Dustin Pedroia continued to battle injuries. Robbie entered his peak and became a legitimate MVP-caliber player in 2010, sustained that performance in 2011, and actually managed to crank it up a notch in 2012.
Cano played in at least 159 games for the sixth consecutive year (he played in 161 games in 2012) and either set or tied career-highs in doubles (48), homers (33), runs (105), total walks (61), unintentional walks (51), ISO (.238), SLG (.550), OPS (.929), OPS+ (149), wOBA (.394), wRC+ (150), bWAR (8.2), and fWAR (7.8). The two WAR totals place him second and fourth in all of baseball (including pitchers), respectively. All told, Robinson hit a marvelous .313/.379/.550 overall — including an insane .359/.423/.685 against righties, a 196 wRC+ that was the best in baseball by 20 (!) points (Mike Trout was second at 176) — and led the Yankees in almost every meaningful offensive category.
Down the stretch in September, when the Bombers were trying to fend off the Orioles for the division crown, Cano was at his absolute best. He closed the regular season out with nine consecutive multi-hit games (one shy of the franchise record), going 24-for-39 (.615) with seven doubles and three homers in the nine games. The Yankees went 6-3 in that stretch to clinch the division title. Robbie hit .347/.418/.581 overall in September and .335/.408/.589 in the club’s final 40 games. New York blew a ten-game division lead to the Orioles but never actually fell out of first place, and Cano’s production was a big reason why.
Obviously Robbie absolutely stunk in the postseason, there’s no denying that. He was the worst offender in a lineup that completely disappeared in the ALCS (and to a lesser extent, the ALDS), but those nine games in October aren’t nearly enough to nullify his regular season contributions. Cano was one of the five best players in baseball this season (at worst) and the Yankees don’t even sniff the postseason without him. He’s been their best and most important player for three years running, and considering that he just turned 30 earlier this week, Robinson will be expected to be the same massively productive player in 2013.