Beltran, McCann, and bounceback seasons

The Yankees offense has been among the worst in baseball in 2014. Among American League teams, they’re dead last in runs scored, and have managed to score fewer runs than 11 National League teams as well. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, though, as the team’s run-scoring potential actually looked pretty promising heading into the year. Holdovers Brett Gardner and Alfonso Soriano were coming off of very good seasons, while Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter both looked like strong rebound candidates. Throw in newcomers Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, and Brian McCann, and it was easy to envision the Yankees running out a lineup with seven or eight above-average hitters. That never came to be, of course. Soriano fell flat on his face, Jeter and Teixeira were nowhere close to their 2012 selves, and most disappointing of all, Beltran and McCann both took  giant steps backwards at the plate. With wRC+’s of 96 and 93 respectively, that duo’s likely undershoot last year’s marks by some 20 or 30 points. Continue reading

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Could It Be Time to Update WAR’s Positional Adjustments?

It’s been quite a week for the WAR stat. Since Jeff Passan dropped his highly controversial piece on the metric on Sunday night, the interwebs have been abuzz with arguments both for and against the all-encompassing value stat. One criticism in particular that caught my eye came from Mike Newman, who writes for ROTOscouting. Newman’s qualm had to do with a piece of WAR that’s often taken for granted: the positional adjustment. He made the argument that current WAR models underrate players who play premium defensive positions, pointing out that it would “laughable” for Jason Heyward to replace Andrelton Simmons at shortstop, but not at all hard to envision Simmons being an excellent right fielder.

This got me thinking about positional adjustments. Newman’s certainly right to question them, as they’re a pretty big piece of the WAR stat, and one most of us seem to take for granted. Plus, as far as I’m aware, none of the major baseball websites regularly update the amount they credit (or debit) a player for playing a certain position. They just keep the values constant over time. I’m sure that whoever created these adjustments took steps to ensure they accurately represented the value of a player’s position, but maybe they’ve since gone stale. It’s certainly not hard to imagine that the landscape of talent distribution by position may have changed over time. For example, perhaps the “true” replacement level for shortstops is much different than it was a decade or so ago when Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, and Miguel Tejada were all in their primes. Continue reading

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Corey Dickerson Doesn’t Care About Your Stupid Strike Zone

Rockies outfielder Corey Dickerson is quietly having an excellent season at the plate. Believe it or not, the 25-year-old is hitting an impressive .315/.371/.577, which even after adjusting for the effects of Coors Field, is still good for a 144 wRC+ — 13th highest among players with at least 400 plate appearances. Dickerson’s batted pretty sparingly against lefties, which has certainly played a role in his gaudy stat line, but platoon or no platoon, a .405 wOBA is certainly nothing to sneeze at.

While Dickerson’s out-of-the-blue breakout is interesting, the approach he’s used to get there is what makes him truly unusual. Since debuting last season, he’s swung at 62% of pitches inside the strike zone and 42% of pitches outside of it, making him about 1.5 times (62%/42%) as likely to swing at a strike than a ball. This is the lowest such ratio of any player with at least 600 PA’s these last two years. Dickerson’s not a free swinger, per se — his overall swing rate of 51% is 38th out of 251 players with at least 600 PA’s — but he just doesn’t discriminate based on whether or not a pitch is in the strike zone. Here’s a look at the hitters with the lowest Z-Swing%/O-Swing% these last two seasons: Continue reading

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Should the Yankees bring back David Robertson?

The Yankees have a tough decision looming with regards to their current closer, David Robertson. The 29-year-old is slated to hit free agency come season’s end, and he’s likely be paid handsomely. Tasked with the tall order of replacing Mariano Rivera as the team’s closer, Robertson’s been everything the Yankees could have asked for this season. His 2.34 FIP and 39% K% rank 16th and 7th respectively among relievers in 2014, making him easily one of the best ten or twenty relievers in the game. Save for the two weeks he missed with a groin strain back in April, Robertson’s dominance has enabled the Yankees to seamlessly transition from one elite closer to another. Yet as good as Robertson’s been, it’s unclear if the Yankees will be willing to spend what it would take to retain their closer, especially with the equally-dominant Dellin Betances already in the fold.

On a dollar per WAR basis, relief pitchers tend to be vastly overpaid on the open market. On average, free agent relievers cash in at over three times the overall market rate, while elite closers — such as Jonathan Papelbon — have been known to go for significantly more than that. The Yankees front office is well aware of this price-value disconnect. In the last two offseasons, they’ve let both Rafael Soriano and  Boone Logan sign multi-year contracts elsewhere, and let the Nationals have Matt Thornton for literally nothing other than the few million left on his contract. Plus, for all of the mega-deals the Yankees have handed out in the last 6-8 years, they’ve been very spendthrift when its come to relievers. Aside from Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano has been the only notable reliever contract they’ve signed in quite some time, and even that was mandated by ownership. Prior to that, we’re getting back to Pedro Feliciano (2Years/$8M) and Damaso Marte (3 Years/$12M), if those even qualify. Otherwise, we’re looking at the Kyle Farnsworth deal signed way back in 2006.

But even if relievers are over-priced, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Yankees should simply let Robertson get his millions elsewhere. WAR/dollar valuations are great and all, but at the end of the day, there are only so many ways to upgrade a team. If the Yankees were to move Betances to the closer’s role and replace D-Rob’s roster spot with an inferior pitcher, they would immediately make their team worse by a win or two. Sure, they could theoretically spend that saved money elsewhere on the roster, but there are only so many other spots left to upgrade. Robertson is one of the best at what he does, and the Yankees would be hard pressed to find a comparable replacement.

There’s no denying that Robertson’s a great reliever right now, but pitchers aren’t exactly know for having long shelf lives. And unsurprisingly, the history of great relievers entering into their 30’s isn’t overly encouraging. From 2002 to 2013, 32 relievers have thrown at least 100 innings in their age 28 and 29 seasons while posting an ERA, FIP, and SIERA all below 3.50.

Just like Robertson, every one of these pitchers was coming off of at least very good seasons, and had no known injury concerns. But that changed in a hurry. Six of these 32 landed on DL in their age 30 seasons, and excluding those who turn 31 next year, only 16 of 28 (57%) made it through their age 30 and 31 seasons unscathed. This, along with a few who simply stopped being good — like Brandon League and John Axford — caused the group’s average production to dip by 0.7 (FIP-based) WAR through age 30, and by another 0.4 by age 31. Here’s a Google doc of all of the relievers considered if you’re interested.

DROBs

As depressing as this sounds, keep in mind that the many of those who stayed healthy continued pitching well. Guys like Glen Perkins, Joe Nathan, Heath Bell, and Francisco Cordero didn’t miss a beat as they trekked through their early thirties. The upside of a Robertson extension is clear — a healthy Robertson is likely to continue being a good Robertson — but how he’ll hold up as he embarks on his 30’s is anyone’s guess.

There’s also the issue of the luxury tax. The Yankees threw the “$189M plan” out the window when they binged on Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran last winter, meaning they’re required to pay an extra fifty cents on every dollar spent over that $189M threshold. So a $30M contract for Robertson would actually end up costing the Yankees $45M, with $15M going straight to the tax man. As always, its hard to say how much an extra few million really matters to a team like the Yankees, but its yet another factor that might dissuade them from investing in a 30-year-old closer.

Whatever Robertson ends up getting, it will likely be an overpay by dollar/WAR standards., but the Yankees have the financial muscle to be able to overspend on a good player. It’s the injury scenario that they should be worried about. As reliable as D-Rob’s been these past few years, he’s a 30-year-old pitcher, which means he could go all Ryan Madson or Joel Hanrahan on us without much notice. Re-signing Robertson would almost certainly give the Yankees the best shot at making the playoffs in 2015. That might be all the justification needed following (probably) two consecutive years of missing the postseason, but the Yankees should still tread carefully. The last thing they need is yet another albatross contract, and Robertson would be just a ligament tear away from turning into exactly that.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.

This article originally appeared on Pinstripe Alley.

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How Brett Gardner’s Plate Discipline Made Him Great

At the start of the 2013 season, Brett Gardner adopted a new, more aggressive approach at the plate in the hopes of barreling more hittable pitches. Up to that point, the slap-hitting outfielder had been one of the most patient hitters in baseball. Gardner sat out most of 2012 due to injury, but swung at just 32.7% of all pitches seen between 2010 and 2011, the fewest of any player with at least 300 plate appearances. Last year, his swing rate jumped to 40.1%, with most of his new-found aggressiveness focused on pitches located within the strike zone. While his zone swing rate rose by 13 percentage points from 2010 to 2013, his rate for pitches out of the zone only increased by seven.

The change seemed to pay off. Gardner posted a career high .143 ISO last season — much better than his career mark of .103 — on his way to a very respectable 108 wRC+. He’s carried that success over to this season as well. With 16 homers, he’s doubled his total from last season — which was already a career high — and with a 119 wRC+, he’s developed into one of the better-hitting outfielders in all of baseball.

But unlike last season, he’s no longer sporting a swing percentage north of 40%. Instead, it’s fallen back to 36.6%, just a tad higher than his 35% mark from 2011. So if Gardner’s back to his old ways of watching two thirds of all pitches go by, how has he managed to keep hitting for power? The answer has everything to do with plate discipline. Gardner’s continued to take advantage of hittable pitches, but has also gotten much better at laying off pitches outside of the strike zone. First lets look at how often he’s swung at pitches inside of the strike zone. Continue reading

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Brandon Moss has become a little too patient

Brandon Moss has wielded an immensely potent bat since joining the Athletics’ lineup in June of 2012. Between 2012 and 2013, he hit a remarkable 146 wRC+, and clubbed a homer once every 15.7 PA’s, placing him third in baseball behind Chris Davis and Miguel Cabrera over that span. Moss kept up the hot hitting to start the 2014 season, as well. The 30-year-old 1B/OF/DH posted a 162 wRC+ in the season’s first two months, further establishing himself as a key cog in one of baseball’s most potent lineups. But Brandon Moss hasn’t been himself lately. Since his last home run on July 24th, he’s only managed three extra-base hits, resulting in a laughable .168/.317/.198 batting line. Moss’s slump has also coincided with a change in his hitting approach. Moss appears to have gotten a bit more passive at the plate, swinging at way fewer pitches both inside and outside of the strike zone. This new-found passivity took a turn for the extreme once the calendar turned to August, when his O-Swing% and Z-Swing% fell to 27% and 65%, respectively — both around six percentage points lower than his career norms.

Continue reading

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Stephen Drew isn’t as bad as he looks

Stephen Drew is having a terrible season with the bat. When the Yankees acquired the 31-year-old from Boston at the trade deadline, he was hitting a meager .176/.255/.328 through 39 games. That’s about as bad as it gets for a major league hitter, but Drew’s still managed to outdo himself by slashing a pitcher-esque .153/.225/.306 since donning the pinstripes. Drew’s always been more of a glove-first player, but up until recently, was a non-zero with the stick as well. Heading into the year, Drew had a career 97 wRC+ to his name, and was coming off of an impressive 109 wRC+ in 2013. He was essentially a league-average bat. But ever since the 2013 playoffs rolled around, Drew has just stopped hitting. By itself, his .111/.140/.204 playoff performance wasn’t anything to think twice about — it was a sample of just 16 games, after all — but held next to Drew’s proceeding 62 games, it starts looking like something more than just random variation.

So what’s changed between this year and last? Peaking under the hood of Drew’s offensive performance, we see some encouraging signs. Most of Drew’s struggles have been fueled by a poor BABIP — which can be wildly fluky in small samples, while his other peripheral numbers haven’t changed much. Sure, they’re all trending in the wrong direction, but these same trends are afflicting nearly every hitter in baseball. More than anything, Drew’s change in performance boils down to what’s been happening on balls put in play. Last year, 32% of balls in play went for hits, compared to 20% this season — including just 17% with the Yankees. Continue reading

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Previewing the Yankees September call ups

Monday marks the start of September, which means Major League teams are allowed to carry up to 40 players on their active roster for the remainder of the season. Very few September call ups are game-changers, but having a few extra players around gives teams some added roster flexibility — something that’s often at a premium now that bullpens run seven, eight, or even nine men deep. Most September call ups don’t happen on the first of the month, as many players stay with their minor league squads through the end of their seasons. This shouldn’t be a factor for the Yankees though, as none of their high-level affiliates have qualified for this year’s minor league playoffs. Both the Trenton Thunder and the Scranton Railriders finish up their seasons on Monday (September 1st), so most — if not all — of the team’s call ups will probably happen right away. So without further adieu, here’s a look at some guys the Yankees might wind up filling out the Yankees roster this September. Continue reading

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Why haven’t the A’s had any good pitch framers?

The ability to quantify the value of catcher framing has been one of the biggest sabermetric breakthroughs of the last decade. By parsing through PITCHf/x data, analysts like Mike Fast, Max Marchi, Dan Brooks, and Harry Pavlidis have managed to shed light on which catchers are adept at turning balls into strikes, uncovering hidden value in otherwise unremarkable players, including Rene Rivera, Chris Stewart, and of course, Jose Molina.

MLB front offices have taken notice. Several teams, including the Yankees, Rays, Red Sox, Pirates, Padres, and Brewers have begun hoarding good-framing catchers over the past few years. But one team that’s missing from this list are the Oakland Athletics, who have historically been among the first adapters of sabermetric principles. One would think that the A’s would be all over the Jose Molina’s and Chris Stewart’s of the world, yet Billy Beane and co. seem to have missed the memo on acquiring good framers. In fact, they’ve made a habit of employing poor ones. According to Baseball Prospectus‘ model, A’s catchers rank fourth from last in framing runs saved this season. This isn’t a one year anomaly, either. Here’s a look at all of the catchers the A’s have used since 2010, along with their career framing numbers. Continue reading

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Does Francisco Cervelli have a future with the Yankees?

Francisco Cervelli‘s been with the Yankees for quite some time now. Originally signed out of Venezuela way back in 2003, Cervelli broke in with the Yanks in 2008, making him one of just five current Yankees to have played for the team in the old stadium. Along the way, Cervelli’s caught hundreds of Yankee pitchers — from Carl Pavano to Masahiro Tanaka, served a 50-game PED suspension, and even celebrated a World Series victory with A-Rod and Jay-Z.

Cervelli’s never been the main guy behind the plate, but has been a big part of the Yankees’ catching situation for six years now. And although he was a glove-first player for most of his career, he’s shown signs of life with the bat the past couple of years, hitting .275/.352/.456 — way more than adequate for a catcher. Couple that with his much-improved defense, and Cervelli’s developed into a pretty decent player. But beyond this year, the 28-year-old’s future with the Yankees looks a little uncertain. Continue reading

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