After letting go of Jorge Posada’s corpse and dealing Jesus Montero in the offseason, the Yankees were searching for a way to fill the DH spot. Given that they already had lefty-mashing Andruw Jones on the roster, it made the most sense to pursue someone who could crush righties and form a platoon at DH. At the time, there were a few left-handed free agent options at DH. They included: Raul Ibanez, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, and Russell Branyan.
As we know, they went with Ibanez and also signed Branyan to a minor league deal. The decision has certainly made Brian Cashman look like he knows what he’s doing. Even though Matsui and Damon would have been the easy fan favorite choices, both struggled this season and have been cut loose by the Rays and Indians respectively. Damon posted a paltry .277 wOBA vs righties, and Matsui a disastrous .152. After an awful spring training that raised concerns, Ibanez has put up a solid .337 wOBA against right handers and hit 15 home runs. Branyan has been hurt (what else is new), but has raked in a small sample in AAA. Obviously, hindsight is 20/20, but I wanted to see if Ibanez was the obvious choice at the time of the signing.
Using pre-season projections and projected platoon splits, I compared the players in question. The Book by Tom Tango outlines how we should regress platoon splits to league averages in order to determine a hitter’s true platoon ability. I used these guidelines to determine the projected platoon splits. I’ll give a brief explanation without getting too technical. It generally takes a left-handed hitter 1000 PA’s until his observed platoon split becomes a more reliable predictor of future performance than the league average. This number is 2200 for right handers. The reason for this difference is that the variance of platoon splits of left handed hitters is higher than that of righties. The logic here is that since left-handed hitters in general are more likely to have an extreme platoon split, a left-handed hitter exhibiting one is more likely to be legitimate. Switch hitters have the highest variance of platoon split and only need to be regressed toward 600 plate appearances. This seems logical since some switch hitters are better against righties and some against lefties. Check out this article for more details or The Book itself if you’re really feeling ambitious.
Using this neat excel tool, I projected the Yankees pre-season DH candidates to see how they would be expected to perform against right handed pitching. Just for kicks, I included incumbent Jorge Posada:
Surprisingly, Branyan seems like the obvious choice given the numbers. However, with a history of chronic back problems and other bizarre injuries, his projections need to be taken with a grain of salt. He’s done very well AAA, but its unlikely he’ll see any time in New York barring an injury or two.
Given his extreme platoon splits and upside, it’s easy to see why the Yankees took a minor-league flier on Branyan. However, it’s unclear why the inked Ibanez to a major league deal over Damon. Looking purely at offense against right handers, they seemed to be more or less even. However, Damon would have also provided some flexibility. He’s the only one on the list who could have been expected to be anywhere near average in the field. Also, his minimal platoon split meant he could hold his own against lefties if need be. Despite all of this, Damon completely flopped in Cleveland with a .275 wOBA (.277 vs righties) in 224 PA. Part of it was certainly due to a .239 BABIP. However, he also experienced decreases in power as well as walk rate. Looking at the projections alone, there doesn’t seem to be any explanation for signing Ibanez instead of Damon. Every projection system foresaw a higher wOBA for Damon. Nonetheless, the 2012 performances speak for themselves.
For whatever reason, the Yankees correctly predicted that Ibanez would be the better option. Perhaps the Yankees’ scouts saw something in Damon’s approach that made them believe he was about to drop off the map. Maybe they had reason to believe the 40-year-old Ibanez would bounce back after his disappointing 2011. It’s very possible that the Yankees developed a projection system that works better than the ones publicly available on the internet.
Whatever their logic was, the decision has certainly worked out well for the Yankees. We’ll never know what Damon or Matsui would have done if they had returned to the Yankees this off-season. But based on their performances elsewhere, it seems like signing Ibanez was the right decision.