Archive for January, 2011
A game of risk • 01.30.11
The Phillies won the Cliff Lee sweepstakes, there’s no doubt about it. Philadelphia secured the deal the Yankees so desperately wanted, and the course of an entire offseason was changed by that very fact.
But a five-year deal with a 32-year-old pitcher is risky. Lee won the Cy Young award three years ago, but four years ago he had a 6.29 ERA and a losing record. Performance varies. Injuries happen.
Every contract is a risk.
This morning, Kevin wrote about choosing wisely in building a bullpen. There are times when it’s clearly better to give young, cheap pitchers a job, and there are times when it’s clearly better to commit money to proven veterans.
Problem is, we rarely know which is right and which is wrong until the very end.
We won’t know the full impact of Derek Jeter’s current contract until 2014, but we can safely look back at his previous 10-year deal and say that his was one of the rare long-term contracts that never became a significant drain on the franchise. CC Sabathia’s deal is shaping up the same way, but that’s two years into a seven-year deal. Far too early to pass a final judgment.
Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett are all coming off seasons that made their contracts look questionable at best. Damaso Marte’s three year deal has proven to be a mistake. Carl Pavano’s previous Yankees deal worked out so badly it was difficult to imagine him coming back to the Bronx, even when he was clearly the best starting pitcher left on the market.
Will Rafael Soriano be worth three years and $35 million? Maybe. He certainly has a track record of success, but that track record comes with a few injury concern. Right now, not one of us knows whether that signing was a good deal or a bad deal.
What could be more interesting is learning how the Yankees plan to move forward with two of their own. Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain reached arbitration this winter, meaning it’s a matter of time before the Yankees make long-term decisions about two of the best arms they’ve developed in the past 10 years.
Pinch hitting: Kevin Seefried • 01.30.11
Our next Pinch Hitter, Kevin Seefried, spent his early years in Westchester County before moving to Colorado at the turn of the century. He’s now a freshman at Claremont McKenna College, and he co-founded 6pound8ouncebabyjoba.com back in 2008. Kevin is often featured at the Claremont Sports Connection where his Sports Disconnection series recently debuted, and he’s a regular on The Nightcap sports talk radio show in Claremont, CA.
Kevin spends his free time listening to Mitch Hedberg and Daniel Tosh albums to feed his stand-up comedy addiction. In his more serious hours, Kevin is an Economics major — for whatever it’s worth, I actually minored in economics at Mizzou — and he’d like to land a gig in the sports industry at some point. For his guest post, the self-described “Joba-idolizing character” looked into what it takes to build a winning bullpen.
Okay, so the Yanks’ signing of Rafael Soriano sort of lit the blogosphere ablaze with debate and disagreement and yada, yada, yada. Questions arose. Should teams spend big dollars on set-up men and lefty-specialists? Or should the bullpen be an assemblage of minimum wage (by MLB standards) journeymen, rookies, fading stars and failed starters?
Well, I’m going to start by apologizing for not taking a staunch hold to either side and settle in the middle.
Brian Cashman has it right: You can have extreme success in the bullpen by throwing a bunch of guys out there and seeing what sticks. Phil Hughes electrified the Yanks’ endgame in ’09 when he unexpectedly stepped into a setup role. David Robertson wasn’t the biggest name on the farm, but he’s proven important over the past couple years. Heck, even Edwar Ramirez and Jose Veras saw some success in the ‘pen.
That said, wasn’t Hughes one of the game’s best starting pitching prospects? His dominance in a one-inning role wasn’t all that surprising. Robertson was a K-master in the minors before his promotion, posting a 15.34 K/9 rate at AAA in ’09, a 13.11 rate in 35 AAA innings in ’08, and a 12.54 rate in his other 18.2 ’08 innings at the AA level. So, it shouldn’t have been shocking that MLB hitters flailed at his pitches too. As for Veras and Ramirez, they essentially flunked out of the bullpen in ’09, right?
The Yankee bullpen’s 4.06 FIP in 2010 placed last among playoff teams. With Kerry Wood back on the North Side of Chicago, the team needed to add some insurance to their late-game staff. Sure, you can hope and pray that an eighth-inning messiah arises from the mess of relievers fighting for time in the Bronx, but how likely is that to happen?
Among Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Mark Prior, Robert Fish, Steve Garrison, Ryan Pope, Brian Schlitter, and Daniel Turpen, do you really see anyone that’ll remind us of Mariano circa 1996? The lights-out talents that manned the eighth inning for the Yanks’ last three playoff teams were all former top-prospects: Joba, Hughes and Wood. With a not-so-full rotation, the Yanks can’t be plugging top young starting talents into late-inning roles when those guys would be much more valuable taking the hill for six or seven innings at a time. Even before Soriano signed, it was pretty clear that any gems like the 2007 Joba or the 2009 Hughes are going to be asked to start, not take on a set-up role.
When it comes to the game’s last two innings, it’s nice to have a little insurance, but when patching together the rest of the bullpen, Cashman’s approach can be effective. I’m fine watching Veras/Ramirez/Robertson/Coke/Aceves types in the middle innings, because someone is bound to play over their head for the year and make the stat-lines look good. You don’t need a Mariano-type in the sixth inning, but come the eighth, knowing that your lead is safe is a big deal.
Relievers are volatile, which is why generally it’s not smart to dish out the big bucks to a seventh- or eighth-inning guy. When a guy is coming off one good year, with an injury-laden past or without a strong history of success, dishing out dinero is silly.
Folks with proven records are worth the extra couple mill, though.
Arms like Scott Downs, Ryan Madson, Matt Thornton and — yes — Rafael Soriano proved dominant consistently for two-plus years and thus deserve to be paid accordingly. Sure, some deals won’t work out, but hey, that’s true at any position. The best way to look at relievers is to examine the marginal upgrade of a signee over whatever arms would otherwise take up a roster spot. The difference between a 3.50 ERA/1.30 WHIP veteran and a bunch of rookies that might put up those same numbers isn’t enough to merit a seven-figure salary. If the veteran in question will post a 2.00 ERA/1.10 WHIP, however, he’s worth the investment. That’s a big upgrade over a spring-training standout.
The only way to run a baseball team is with an open-mind to all philosophies. You don’t have to embrace them all or completely abandon a strategy that has worked, but GMs need to constantly reevaluate each situation. Yes, letting a hodgepodge of relievers duke it out for bullpen spots can work. Yes, paying a veteran millions of dollars to join that ‘pen can work too, just ask Tom Gordon. But you can’t just choose one path and never make exceptions.
Moral of the story: You have to adjust for your budget, your situation, your in-house options, your out-of-house options and your rotation. Sticking with one theory because it worked in a different time and different situation just won’t fly. Billy Beane moved away from OBP and poor fielders, Roger Clemens stopped relying solely on his fastball, and Brian Cashman must consider alternate bullpen theories. That’s the game. That’s life. Adjusting to the situation is the only way to see success.
Associated Press photos
Just a few notes and links • 01.29.11
Is it time for spring training yet? Here are a few notes and links on this Saturday night.
• Jorge Posada spoke a little bit at an event with Bernie Williams tonight, saying he’s accepted the fact he’ll be a designated hitter this year, but he’s still planning to do at least a little bit of catching.
• Kevin Millwood is generating some interest from the Indians, but Jon Heyman reports that Millwood could still be a fallback plan for the Yankees if Andy Pettitte doesn’t change his mind.
• Kevin Towers is out of the Yankees organization, but his short tenure with the team left Towers with new respect for Brian Cashman. “I don’t care how smart and how good you are, if you take somebody from the outside to run the New York Yankees, I think he’ll be in for a big surprise,” Towers said.
• MLB.com has a video of Cashman’s night as a bartender.
• The Royals have decided to move their top catching prospect to the outfield to speed his path to the big leagues. To be fair, this is not a shocking move, there has previously been speculation about Wil Myers ending up in the outfield. The Royals have simply decided to make that move sooner rather than later.
The pieces that barely fit • 01.29.11
The best free agent still on the market is almost certainly Vladimir Guerrero, who had nice 2010 but suffered from a DH-heavy offseason market. These days, the Orioles are the team most commonly linked to him, but their reported offer of roughly $5 million doesn’t seem to have grabbed Guerrero’s attention.
There seems to be at least a small push within the fan base for the Yankees to make a run at Guerrero as a power bat off the bench, but I find it hard to see where he would find enough at-bats to justify a $5-million deal. Seems to me, it’s best to save that money for a move mid-season, when the team’s needs are more accurately defined.
Instead, the Yankees could sift through what’s left of the free agent market to add a low-cost option for the last spot on the bench.
Best fit: Lastings Milledge
Notable: Scott Podsednik, Ryan Church, Gabe Gross
The outfield market is still left-heavy, and that’s with Jim Edmonds reportedly leaning toward retirement. Milledge is a former top prospect who’s never quite produced at the big league level, but he’d be interesting as a fifth outfielder with upside. The trick might be getting him to take a job with such little playing time. I like Scott Podsednik, but it’s hard to envision a role for him a team that already has Brett Gardner.
Best fit: Felipe Lopez
Notable: Willy Aybar, Cristian Guzman, Eric Chavez, Joe Inglett
Lopez has played every position but center field and catcher at the big league level. He’s also hit .280/.351/.392 the past three years. He could be seen as an experienced alternative to Eduardo Nunez or Ramiro Pena, or as a fourth man on the bench: Part fifth outfielder, part second utility infielder. The Yankees have plenty of Triple-A infielders, but at this point I wonder if Aybar and Inglett might have to settle for minor league deals with invitations to big league camp, kind of like Marcus Thames last year.
Best fit: None
Notable: Bengie Molina
The Yankees have plenty of catchers, so it’s hard to predict them getting back into this market. That said, Molina is still out there and would be an upgrade over Francisco Cervelli. Jon Heyman has reported that Molina wants to play if “special opportunities” present themselves. Would coming off the bench for the Yankees be a special opportunity? My guess is, it doesn’t matter. The Yankees have made their catching move of the offseason.
In a good question and answer session with Josh Norris, Brian Cashman once again said the Yankees believe Jesus Montero can catch at the big league level. In fact, Cashman said Montero is already better than some of the catchers in the Majors.
“The minor leagues is (where you) work out your problems,” Cashman said, “and he’s certainly closing the gap. He’s not there yet, but he’s pretty damn close. We believe he’s better than some starting catchers, defensively, in the big leagues right now.”
Check out the full interview over at Josh’s Minor Matters blog. Cashman discussed his drafting strategy, his dedication to building a top-rate scouting department and the value of developing talent.
Give and take • 01.29.11
Absolutely no one noticed or cared.
As Mike wrote this morning, baseball is quite often a game of tradeoffs. High strikeout totals aren’t as bad as we often make them out to be, as long as those strikeouts come with something positive.
Last year’s Yankees leader in strikeouts was Nick Swisher, who also finished with his lowest full-season walk total, but those negatives came with the highest slugging percentage and OPS of his career.
For baseball players, managers and executives, it’s all a give and take. Swisher made himself a more productive hitter at the cost of some things he already did very well. Last season, Joe Girardi had to weigh Marcus Thames’ ability to hit against his inability to field. This winter, Brian Cashman had to weigh Andruw Jones ability to hit for power against his tendency to swing and miss.
From the outside looking in, there are times when the negatives standout far more than the positives. The tradeoffs are hard to accept when a guy goes down swinging with two outs and a runner at second, or when a guy who homered in the second inning drops a fly ball in the eighth.
Brett Gardner takes heat for being a corner outfielder who has little power but still strikes out quite a bit, but Gardner is also one of the most patient hitters and fastest base runners in the game. His strikeouts come with a lot of walks, those walks keep his on-base percentage high, and that ability to reach base came with 47 stolen bases last year.
Derek Jeter does not have good range in the field, but he’s as fundamentally flawless as any shortstop in the game. Not everyone is OK with that tradeoff — and I can understand that — but it makes him a viable defensive player, and if that tradeoff comes with a return to form offensively, the Yankees will be more than happy to play him everyday for the next four years.
Curtis Granderson’s power is what you’d expect from a first baseman, but it carries extra weight because it comes from a guy who also plays a good center field. Yes, he strikes out and has a sketchy track record against lefties, but it’s hard to find that sort of impact bat at a premier defensive position.
It’s a waste of time trying to build a roster full of perfect baseball players. Some guys strikeout a lot. Some can’t catch the ball. Some can’t hit the ball much beyond the infield dirt.
And sometimes that’s OK.
Associated Press photo of Cano
Pinch hitting: Mike Cribier • 01.29.11
Our next Pinch Hitter is Mike Cribier, and those of us stuck in the snow should be jealous. Mike up in Bergan County, N.J., but he’s now living in sunny San Diego. He’s been writing his blog High and Tight for about six years. “I guess my niche is pointing out hypocrisy and mistakes or general buffoonery in the sports media,” he wrote. Mike also noted that I’ve escaped his wrath, “so far.”
This is Mike’s third guest post here at LoHud. “I’m an avid poker player, am firmly in the camp that Jeter’s defense is overrated, believe strongly in sabermetrics, and am hopeful that one day Mariano Rivera will win a Cy Young award,” he wrote.
Are Strikeouts Really All That Bad for an Offense?
While romanticized for sure, how much effect does the strikeout really have on a lineup or team? What’s the effect on how many runs are scored by lineups with high or low strikeout hitters? Overall, does the strikeout really matter much at all?
A number of years ago on my blog, I pushed for the Yankees to sign Adam Dunn (Or before that, trade for him. Or after that, trade for him. He was essentially the white whale to my Ahab). Dunn put up huge OPS numbers year after year and would hit 40+ home runs consistently. Yet, as a free agent, he got little interest and signed a two-year, $20-million deal with the Nationals. The biggest knocks on him? He strikes out too much, and he’s too slow. Constantly, I’d receive those complaints whenever I mentioned the guy as an incredibly undervalued player. “All or nothing,” the critics write.
Before we look at some numbers, let’s all agree that strikeouts are, of course, not good. Barring the unforeseen and rarely occurring event of the dropped third strike where the batter reaches first safely, nothing good comes from them for a hitter. Are they the *worst* possible outcome? Not necessarily. I’d rather see someone strikeout with a man on first than ground into a double play, for instance. Just to be clear however, the strikeout is not a good thing, nor is this an endorsement of them.
My theory on the strikeout is this — it’s an out. If a guy makes a bunch of outs, regardless of how they come, he’s not helping the team. I don’t believe the *type* of out is nearly as important.
Let’s look at a sample of the MLB hitters who were the top 100 in at bats in 2010. The top 15 in strikeouts averaged 160 each, but slugged to a .481 clip. The bottom 15 in strikeouts (65 on average) had an aggregate SLG of .412. Are those the best possible statistics to show a correlation? Let’s say not, but no matter where you pick those numbers from, which year, which sample size, strikeouts = power. Every era I plugged in showed the same results, and just thinking about it makes sense. Guys with big, powerful swings are more likely to swing harder and longer and miss more often. (By the way, Dunn had 199 Ks and SLG of .536 last year).
Part of the problem with trying to show statistical correlations in what is essentially a brief blog post is a lack of scale. So let’s take a look at team totals for the 2010 season and see how detrimental strikeouts were last year.
The easiest way to display a direct correlation would be through a scatter chart. The Y value (left) is total strikeouts for a team. The X value (bottom) is total runs scored by a team. Where the dots appear is where on the graph a team’s strikeout and run total match up.
The points are scattered all over the place, leading us to the conclusion that there is no correlation between high (or low) strikeout totals and the ability to score runs.
For a comparison, let’s look at SLG:
As you can see, a direct correlation. Higher SLG = more runs. The same applies for OBP:
So if this is the case — if the numbers do really show that high strikeout totals have no real effect on scoring runs — why all the backlash?
There’s still an “old school” of thinking out there. There are the people who vote for MVP based on RBI totals or Cy Young based on total number of wins. Thankfully this old method of thinking is dying, and people are relying more on statistics, but there are still plenty of people who “believe what they see.”
Regardless, next time you’re at a ballgame you’re sure to hear someone boo a slugger who strikes out, and praise a “scrappy little guy” for at least “putting the ball in play.” Perception can be a funny thing, but when it’s all said and done, both plate appearances are likely to net the same result.
Associated Press photo of Jeter, charts by Mike
The fire hasn’t completely disappeared from the Yankees front office.
Today, team president Randy Levine ripped Rangers CEO Chuck Greenberg for his public comments that the Rangers late push for Cliff Lee might have been what ultimately led Lee to sign with the Phillies.
According to the Daily News, Levine called Greenberg “delusional” and said he would be impressed if Greenberg could get the Rangers off “welfare,” a reference to Major League Baseball’s revenue sharing.
To be honest, I didn’t take Greenberg’s statement as any sort of boast or as a slam against the Yankees — he seemed to be saying that the Rangers made one last attempt to keep themselves in the mix and accidentally gave the Phillies time to swoop in — but I suppose Lee must be a sore spot with all of the Yankees front office, and it’s hard to argue with Levine when he says Greenberg should “let Cliff Lee speak for himself.” Also, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Greenberg made some negative comments about Yankee fans during the playoffs.
A few more notes and links from today:
• In other Yankees front office news, Hal Steinbrenner spoke to the New York Post and said disagreements between the front office and Brian Cashman have been blown out of proportion. That’s pretty much the same thing Cashman has been saying.
• The Associated Press moved a short story today about Derek Jeter and Kevin Long wrapping up their early work in Tampa. The final line of the story was this: Long is scheduled to spend time with third baseman Alex Rodriguez and designated hitter-catcher Jorge Posada next week.
• The Rays made another small move, signing Casey Kotchman to a minor league deal. Every time I hear Kotchman’s name, I think back to the Angels minor league system in the middle of the decade, when Kotchman, Dallas McPherson, Brandon Wood, Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar seemed on the verge of giving the Angels an incredible young infield. Instead, Kendrick has been pretty good, Aybar has been solid and the other three — generally considered the best prospects of the bunch — have been massive disappointments.
• Speaking of AL East moves, Orioles are reportedly still after Vladimir Guerrero, but Buster Olney says the O’s have been told that Guerrero has an $8-million offer on the table. Why he’s not taking it, I have no idea.
• One more AL East move: The Orioles have agreed to terms with former Yankees infielder Nick Green to a minor league deal. I happened to witness the worst season of Green’s career — he hit .233 with Scranton in 2008 — and the next year he was the Red Sox regular shortstop for a while. Crazy. By the way, Nick was always great to deal with, even when he was at his very worst as a player. Good guy. I was legitimately happy for him when he got that gig with Boston.
• The Twins are making a slight change to the beautiful Target Field, improving the batter’s eye by — among other things — removing some trees that were distracting hitters. The news has nothing to do with the Yankees, but I really like that park, so I thought I’d mention it.
New Yankees teammates Robinson Cano and Rafael Soriano were among the MLB players who visiting the United States Ambassador to the Dominican Republic on Thursday night. Here’s the press release and a picture, both passed along by Major League Baseball.
A contingent of representatives from Major League Baseball’s office in Santo Domingo and more than 40 Major League players visited the residence of the United States Ambassador to the Dominican Republic on Thursday evening. The visit, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and Ambassador Raul Yzaguirre, celebrated the charitable work of the Major League Baseball Dominican Development Alliance (MLB-DDA) and Major League players in Dominican communities and aimed to encourage additional opportunities via MLB-DDA’s relationship with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Jorge Pérez-Díaz, the head of Latin American Oversight for Major League Baseball, was among the MLB delegation at the event, along with the interim director of USAID, James Watson. The Major League players in attendance included three-time Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez; Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde of the Detroit Tigers; Robinson Cano and Rafael Soriano of the New York Yankees; Starlin Castro and Aramis Ramirez of the Chicago Cubs; Nelson Cruz and 2010 American League Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz of the Texas Rangers; Octavio Dotel of the Toronto Blue Jays; coach Manny Mota of the Los Angeles Dodgers; Ubaldo Jimenez of the Colorado Rockies; David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox; Ervin Santana and coach Alfredo Griffin of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim; and many others.
“Major League Baseball was delighted to spend time with the U.S. Ambassador and build on this vital relationship,” Pérez-Díaz said. “MLB is honored to work with USAID in order to identify creative ways of supporting the Dominican Republic through our common bond of baseball. The work of the Dominican players in the Majors to benefit their communities at home is truly admirable.”
During the visit, MLB representatives and players discussed plans for the organization of a campaign with MLB Clubs called “Dominican Baseball Families.” The proposed campaign focuses on connecting fans to community development projects in the Dominican Republic by organizing players, Clubs and fans into “families.” The families would then become active participants in supporting existing and new projects that are co-managed by the MLB-DDA.
“Many players participate in fundraising and community events to support the communities of the United States,” said Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez, “but we also want to support our communities in the Dominican Republic, and we welcome the support of the Major League teams and the fans.”
The MLB-DDA was created to attract resources from the MLB industry to support sound community development projects in the Dominican Republic, which produced more than 10 percent of MLB players on 2010 Opening Day rosters. USAID provided $1 million to benefit partnering 501(c)3 certified community development organizations in the DR. To date, the MLB-DDA has channeled over $1.2 million to support 16 projects in the Caribbean nation.
Long and Jeter making things simple in Tampa • 01.28.11
Great stuff from my friend Ben Shpigel, who went down to Tampa to check in with Kevin Long during his three-day batting cage session with Derek Jeter.
Using Paul Molitor as something of a guide, Long has worked to simplify Jeter’s mechanics by — most significantly — eliminating Jeter’s stride. Shpigel notes that the change is similar to the adjustment Molitor made as he got older. Molitor hit .341 as a 39-year-old in 1996, one year after he hitting .270 (the same thing Jeter hit last season).
“It would have been asinine for me to go in and try to change him before,” Long said. “He’s been so good for so long, what really needed to be done? … Now, he starts to get jammed a little more. Maybe his bat slows down just a hair, but that’s significant. We can say age all we want, but I’m not buying into that. I think if we fix this, that age factor dissipates.”
Long and Jeter started working on these changes back in September — at the prodding of Joe Girardi — and the early results were encouraging. They’ve spent the past three days continuing that work, and they’ll dive into it again when Jeter reports to spring training in a few weeks. The whole story is a really nice read, something concrete during these days of speculation and rumor.
Associated Press photo