September 2009

A taste of the Secret Sauce

My pals at Baseball Prospectus have a little congeries of stats we call the Secret Sauce. Introduced in the book, Baseball Between the Numbers, to which your humble host contributed a chapter and a little page about the relationship between stats and Stephen King’s “Cujo,” the Secret Sauce ranks teams by how well they do in the three key areas that correlate to winning postseason games. As explained here by sauce-master Nate Silver, they are:

1.  A power pitching staff, as measured by strikeout rate.
2.  A good closer.
3.  A good defense.

I won’t get into how these ranking are derived, because they involve some of those esoteric statistics that I suspect make many of y’all’s eyes glaze over. Still, we can appreciate what the rankings say by looking at some more commonplace measures. Here is how the likely postseason teams fare, in reverse order:

lidge250_091109.jpgNo. 20 PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
The Phillies have been strong in strikeouts, both in the rotation, where Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton have done their part, and particularly in the bullpen, but the pen has been a disaster overall, accounting for the team’s low ranking here. As of today, Brad Lidge and Charlie Manuel are still trying to figure out what the former’s role will be going forward, which is a problem given that the season is nearly over. You wouldn’t want to say that Lidge has gone Steve Blass on the Phillies, but six walks and two home runs per nine makes a compelling case that he has. The Phillies can at least take justifiable pride in their strong defensive infield of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Pedro Feliz.

The Rangers, second in the American League in runs allowed (4.41 per game; the Mariners lead at 4.36), are third from last in strikeouts per nine innings, which suggests a lot of balls in play. The reason that this is a particularly bad thing in the playoffs is pretty basic: In a regular season game against the Baltimore Orioles, your team might fail to get a lot of strikeouts but nothing happens anyway, because when they hit the ball it goes “piff,” not “boom!” In the playoffs, where the best offenses are usually to be found, balls in play tend to do real damage. Note that AL starters are averaging 6.5 strikeouts per nine innings; Rangers starters are whiffing 5.6.

The Rangers have been solid on defense, with the second-best record in the league of turning balls in play into outs (that’s how they survive the weak strikeout rate). Frank Francisco has been effective, if not a lights-out closer. Neftali Perez’s crazy debut doesn’t enter into these calculations, but you can’t forget about him when talking about the Rangers’ end game.

The Angels get knocked down on the power pitching angle, as overall they are a tick below average in strikeouts per nine, and in defense, which has been just average or a little below. Call it the Bobby Abreu Effect. Closer Brien Fuentes leads the AL with 40 saves but has also blown six, and right-handed hitters are slugging .462 against him. None of this is a reason to take the Angels likely, as Jered Weaver and John Lackey, combined with their fine offense, should be able to keep them in at least the first two games of any short series. Still, this is not Mike Scioscia’s usual flavor of team.

The Cardinals get strikeouts from starters Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. The rest of the rotation, and even closer Ryan Franklin, allows the opposition to put more balls in play than is typical. Joel Piniero, who would be the third starter in any playoff scenario, gets by on exquisite control (just one per nine innings) and a high groundball rate. Franklin, formerly an unexceptional starter and reliever, leads the NL in saves with 37 and has a 1.67 ERA and it’s deserved — he’s actually done a good job of stranding inherited runners as well as keeping runners off base in the first place. He’s blown three saves all year long. While the bubble could burst at any time, particularly in October, at this point you have to take Franklin seriously. Cards’ defense has been problematic at times, especially at second base, where converted outfielder Skip Schumaker is making a game effort at competence.

The Rockies are about average as National League strikeout rates go, in part because Jason Marquis and Aaron Cook drag down the numbers. Ubaldo Jimenez and Jorge de la Rosa do get batters to swing and miss. The bullpen has also been solid in the swing-and-miss department. The real problem right now is overall depth, with Cook and Huston Street injured. Both are supposed to be back ere long. One potential equalizer for the Rockies is former starter Franklin Morales who (shades of Phil Hughes) has moved into the pen and has been throwing bullets from the left side. When their park is taken into account, Rockies fielders have been solid if unexceptional. Street has converted 33 of 34 saves and has even held left-handed batters in check, a problem for him in the past.

The Tigers have allowed the third-fewest runs in the AL, just 4.5 per game. Their strikeout rate is roughly average, with only starter Justin Verlander, who leads the league with 230 strikeouts, really jumping out in that department. The Tigers have been an average to slightly above average fielding club, with few standout performances (Clete Thomas has been strong in right field, though he can’t hit like a right fielder) but no truly poor ones either, and overall they rank in the top half of the AL in turning balls in play into outs. Desperation closer Fernando Rodney has blown only one save all year, but walks too many batters for comfort against strong postseason lineups.


We begin with Jonathan Papelbon. We continue to the staff overall, which is tied with the Yankees for the league lead in strikeout rate, propelled by Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daniel Bard and Papelbon. We conclude with a defense that has been surprisingly weak. The outfield has been defensively shaky, the infield has lacked a shortstop of any defensive quality until Alex Gonzalez came over, and Kevin Youkilis has had to play too much third base, not to mention a couple of scary games in left field.

Joe Torre’s guys have perhaps the best defense in the game this year, which is a novel thought for those of us used to watching even Tommy Lasorda’s good teams juggle balls. They lead the NL in turning balls in play into outs, receiving fine defensive performances around the infield (though Orlando Hudson has not been at his best) and from center fielder Matt Kemp. Manny Ramirez is the exception that proves the rule. They are third in the NL in strikeout rate, an advantage that doesn’t wholly disappear when you start adjusting for park effects. Starter Chad Billingsley is whiffing eight per nine innings, lefty Clayton Kershaw 10, and closer Jonathan Broxton 13.6. It should be noted that the rest of the pen is not particularly intent on the strikeout, a possible vulnerability. Broxton has blown five saves in 39 chances, which is shaky by today’s standards.

I probably don’t have to give you much detail here. The Yankees are tied for the league lead in strikeout rate, have the most reliable closer in the game, and ra
nk third in the league in turning balls in play into outs. The high rankings in all three categories boosts the Bombers to the top of this list.

None of the foregoing guarantees anything, but it’s a reassuring indicator. Historically, teams with large helpings of these qualities have gone far in October. The Yankees haven’t had all of the elements line up in the same place at the same time in quite a few years. In fact, the last time the Yankees came this close to the top of the Secret Sauce list, the year was 1998.

To praise Jeter, and not bury him

As long as I’ve been writing this feature, I’ve had to respond to this kind of comment:

Steve, I always look forward to reading the PB. You are very knowledgeable and have a great sense of humor and write extremely well. That being said, have you ever written anything on Jeter that was totally positive? As, I tell my 10 year old son all the time, we are very blessed to be able to watch him play. Of course he has weaknesses, everyone does, but the total package is to be appreciated. You are able to do this with Posada, why not Jeter? There is no need to put this hits record into perspective. It is what it is. No one is suggesting that he is a better hitter than those he is passing (Mantle, Ruth, Gehrig) anymore than anyone would suggest that Pete Rose was a better hitter than Ted Williams, Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. — RTO

You can’t be much of a baseball fan if you don’t appreciate Derek Jeter. I appreciate Jeter not only for all the things he is, but for all the things he’s not, which is to say that I’ve been following the Yankees long enough to remember in excruciating detail his many predecessors, most of whom were advertisements for how not to build a winning ballclub. Put it this way: I’m just old enough to remember people debating the merits of Chicken Stanley, and I attended games in which Bucky Dent played. Unfortunately, by the time I was old enough to follow the Yankees with anything like an adult comprehension of the game, Dent had stopped hitting even at the low level he had previously; he was essentially done at 30, and the Yankees swapped him for Lee Mazzilli. He gave way to…

ROY SMALLEY (1982-1983)
Smalley was a very good hitter for a shortstop of the day, batting .266/.351/.434 as a Yankee in ’82 and ’83, but injuries had reduced his range to that of a rusty coat rack. Before the 1983 season was over, the Yankees were experimenting with other players. Worse, they traded Greg Gagne to the Twins to acquire Smalley; Gagne was a not a great player, but he played a fair shortstop for two championship teams while the Yankees watched from the sidelines.

The Yankees tried hard to pretend that Robertson was a Major League shortstop. His glove got good reviews, but he had struggled to post even a .285 on-base percentage in the minors. In 1983 he got a chance to take over for Smalley and hit .248/.271/.326, which is actually better than would have been projected from his showing in the sticks. Indeed, he was in an extended slump when a serious car accident ended his season in August. The rest of his career was one long attempt at a comeback. At the time, there was a good deal of asking “what could have been,” but the correct answer was, “Not much.”

BOBBY MEACHAM (1983-1986)
Meacham took over shortstop after Robertson got hurt, and then repeated the experience when Robertson’s 1984 comeback was aborted due to his making a disproportionate number of outs. Meacham was a double-threat. He couldn’t hit and was an erratic, error-prone fielder. He was also singled by the owner, which almost certainly did not help. In 1985, Meacham’s .218/.302/.266 rate stats and 24 errors played a decisive role in the loss of a close divisional race to the Blue Jays. In 1984, we also had the pleasure of seeing 33-year-old infielder Tim Foli dramatically under-hit his career .251/.283/.309 rates as a Robertson/Meacham substitute. Meacham began 1986 in the same role, likely because offseason moves were being misguidedly  being restricted. When Meacham had batted only .222/.301/.278 through mid-June, the Yankees finally sent him down. This was a terrific move, except there was no substitute on hand. In the short term, the Yankees tried veteran non-hitter Mike Fischlin, who batted .206/.261/.225 on the season. They also tried Dale Berra and veteran National Leaguer Ivan DeJesus. Ken Griffey and Robertson were then dealt to the Braves for Claudell Washington and 27-year-old Paul Zuvella, who was installed as the sorting shortsop. He hit .083. The Yankees then traded for…

WAYNE TOLLESON (1986-1987)
The 30-year-old Tolleson came to the Yankees on July 30, 1986. The 5’9″ infielder had primarily been a light-hitting second baseman in his career, but he was coming off a fluke season in which he had hit .313, albeit with no walks or power. Still, he made the Yankees look good over the remainder of the season, batting .284/.332/.344. This was great production compared to what they had received from shortstop over the previous months and year. In 1987, a year in which everyone hit, Tolleson became an out machine, and by the end of the year, the Yankees were giving Randy Velarde a look and also gave Meacham one more chance. There were also one-game cameos from veteran Jerry Royster and minor league journeyman Jeff Moronko.

In December of 1987, the Yankees dealt three middling prospects (all they had at the time) to the Mets for Santana, who had a bit of a glow on him from being the starting shortstop on the champion 1986 Mets. The glow seemingly blinded Yankees decision-makers to the painful realities of Santana’s game — he couldn’t hit, had neither good range nor sure hands and was suffering from an arm problem that hampered his throwing. Billy Martin, then managing his final season, was reportedly appalled by him. Unfortunately, the club had few alternatives. Velarde got in a few games, and veteran Luis Aguayo, brought over from the Phillies to platoon at third with Mike Pagliarulo, got in one game.

It was assumed that Santana would start again in 1989, but his arm proved to require surgery that would keep him out for the season. In desperation, the Yankees turned to Espinoza, who had joined the team as a Minor League free agent the year before, spending the entire season at Triple-A Columbus. Espinoza was a fairly steady fielder, but had no business holding a bat in his hands. His .224/.258/.274 season of 1990 still qualifies as one of the most pathetic offensive seasons in Yankees history, and it is no coincidence that Espinoza’s reign coincided with some of the worst years the team has ever had. Substitutes during this period included Tolleson, Velarde, Yankees farmhand Carlos Rodriguez, and veteran infielder Tom Brookens.

STAFF (1992)
The Yankees released Espinoza during spring training 1992, having signed free agent utility infielder Mike Gallego away from the Oakland A’s. Gallego got hurt during spring training and didn’t make his Yankees debut until mid-May. Velarde, now 29 but not yet established in the Majors, played in his place, as did Andy Stankiewicz and farmhand Dave Silvestri, whose Minor League numbers suggested he might hit a bit for a middle infielder, but somehow he never did. A  broken wrist shelved Gallego for most of the second half, leaving Velarde and Stankiewicz sharing the shortstop’s job. Overall, team shortstops hit .248/.317/.331, which was miserable but better than what they had been getting out of Espinoza.

Another free agent signing, this time from the Expos, Owen was no hitter, though he did walk a bit. Defensively, his range was extremely limited. Buck Showalter rapidly soured on him, and by late April was giving him regular time off, then benched him completely not long after the All-Star break. Gallego and Velarde split time at short over the rest of the season. Velarde was starting to find his bat in this period, but never showed great hands at short.

Gallego played 69 games at short in the 113-game season, although there were also many starts by Velarde and an odd
flirtation with Kevin Elster, who was neither a good hitter nor strong fielder and hadn’t played more than a smattering of games in two years while rehabbing an injury. At this point in his career, he had the range of Jason Giambi. Gallego hit .239/.327/.359, which was beginning to look positively Ruthian as far as Yankee shortstops were concerned.

The Yankees signed the former All-Star and Gold Glover as a free agent after he had spent a year playing third base for the Cincinnati Reds. The Yankees would be the last team to ask Fernandez to play shortstop for any length of time. There was good reason for this; at 33, the Gold Glove days were long gone, as was the pretense of throwing hard to first base on routine grounders. Fernandez could be a very solid hitter for a shortstop, but as the Mets had discovered a couple of years earlier, his bat had a New York aversion, and he hit a weak .245/.322/.346. When Fernandez required time off, the Yankees tried Elster, the unavoidable Velarde, light-hitting Netherlands import Robert Eenhoorn, the unavoidable Velarde, and a then-obscure fellow named Jeter. The next spring, as Joe Torre was grousing about having to play a rookie shortstop, Fernandez went out for the season, and the rest is history.

IN TOTAL (1982-1995)
For the entire period under discussion, Yankees shortstops hit .245/.306/.331. Given that they played in a division with Cal Ripken (Hall of Fame), Robin Yount (ditto), and Alan Trammell (inexplicably isn’t in, but should be), as well as the occasional Julio Franco, this is even worse than it looks. The Red Sox, who were not exactly playing Vern Stephens and Johnny Pesky at this time, got more production out of their shortstops as well. Yankees shortstops also made more errors during this time than all but a handful of teams.

The Yankees won nothing during this time, and at best did little more than tease the possibility of winning. There were days when you could spend half the game on the phone or in the bathroom or just asleep and know you weren’t going to miss anything from the Yankees’ lineup. Just picking a game at random, on July 31, 1987, the bottom four hitters in the Yankees’ lineup were Gary Ward, Mark Salas, Juan Bonilla, and Wayne Tolleson. Incredibly enough, the Yankees won that game on a walk-off home run by Ward, but such days were few and far between — Ward hit .248/.291/.384, which competes with Rondell White’s 2002 as one of the worst seasons by a full-time Yankees outfielder. But I digress — the point here is the years of Waiting for Jeter, of hoping against hope that the Yankees would solve this ongoing, bleeding, suppurating hole in their roster. Jeter not only put an end to that, not only became the greatest shortstop in franchise history, but he ushered in an age of championships and is going to the Hall of Fame. In short:



If I have written critically about Jeter at times, it is only because the whole world sometimes seems directed towards writing a Jeter hagiography, and I am of the firm belief that we cannot properly appreciate even the best among us unless we fully measure the precise dimensions of their strengths and weaknesses. A Jeter who is perfect isn’t real and isn’t much of a hero, because where is the heroism in perfection? A true hero is a hero in spite of his or her flaws. They overcome. I want to know that George Washington had an incredible temper, that Abraham Lincoln suffered from depression, that Babe Ruth had to keep reminding himself that the world had rules once he got out of the orphanage. These things magnify their accomplishments rather than diminish them, and to discuss them does not betray their memory but exalts it, does not show a lack of appreciation or respect but rather enhances appreciation or respect.

Some people want to worship a Jeter that doesn’t exist, a paper god. I want to see him for what he is — and what he is, especially given what came before him, is great but hardly flawless. If you want more than that from me, I’m sorry, but the Pinstriped Bible is not about alternate realities. Major e longinquo reverentia.


Remember when Nick Swisher was going to sit so that the thoroughly mediocre Xavier Nady could play? I thought you would. The Yankees’ baseball men make some very smart decisions, but like all of us the are sometimes vulnerable to valuing something incorrectly because it somehow looks better than it is. In my life I call this The Cindy Syndrome, also known as First Girlfriend Disease. I was lucky enough to break the spell, just as the Yankees were fortunate in that the Benevolent Deity deprived them of Nady long enough for them to discover their errors. It didn’t have to be that way — some of us marry our first girlfriend, and some teams play bad players all season long. In both cases all chance for a heroic October is lost.

Posada improving on the road

I’m diggin’ one of the great lost rockabilly classics, “Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache”. Somehow Sam Phillips of Sun Records never got this late ’50s track on a single, even as a B side; he was apparently too busy promoting guys like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. You try to figure out a guy’s priorities, I tell ya.  

posada300_090409.jpgJUST A CRUMB ON POSADA
A few days ago, I said that it was good to see Jorge have some big games on the road, because his production largely favored All-Embracing Yankee Stadium the Deuce. This is still the case (.335/.403/.658 in the Bronx — funny how that doesn’t change with the team on the road), but the road production is now respectable, particularly for an elderly catcher, at .244/.327/.435. His overall rates of .288/.363/.543 are verging on the special. Catchers his age who have carried those kinds of numbers through a full season or anything like it number exactly one: In one of the great fluke seasons, the platoon catcher Greg Myers, a career .255/.313/.395 hitter, had a huge year at 37 for the 2003 Blue Jays, batting .307/.374/.502 with 15 home runs in 121 games. That’s the list. At 37, Johnny Bench was on the golf course. Bill Dickey was with the Great Lakes Navy team after a few years as a part timer. Yogi Berra was a reserve who hit .224. Gary Carter was just hanging on. Ted Simmons stopped hitting that way at 31. Ivan Rodriguez stopped hitting five years ago.

Carlton Fisk, Mike Piazza, Gabby Hartnett, they all had some good years on the aged side of things, but not quite at that level (though Fisk’s 1988, .277/.377/.542 is close when you adjust for context; unfortunately, he only played in 76 games). Ernie Lombardi hit .307/.387/.486 at 37, but against diluted wartime competition. Regardless of whether the new ballpark has given him a push, the fact is that he’s having a season that is a rarity in the annals of extreme veteran backstops.

It seems like only yesterday we were watching Jose Molina and Kevin Cash split the catching chores. What a reversal.

In the recent past, some teams have experimented with keeping the innings of their pitching prospects under control in the low Minors by designating tandem starters — every fifth day, John pitches four innings and Bob pitches four innings. This was scoffed at by many, and it was unthinkable that such a program would be undertaken in the Majors, and yet, here we are.

At this point, it is safe to say that no pitcher in history has been treated in quite the same way Joba has. Credit where credit is due to the Yankees for trying something different, something preventative, but wow — there are famous works of art that have been treated more harshly (I’m thinking Leonardo’s “The Last Supper” vs. Napoleon’s troops — final score Troops 1, Painting 0). I know I’ve been asking this question in different ways since the All-Star break, but the mystery goes on: What if saving Joba means destroying his effectiveness? What if you get what you wanted but lost what you have?
A bit on the dangers of a speed-based offense at Baseball Prospectus, and no subscription required to view. 

Four games in the Great White North

                W-L  RS/G  RA/G  AVG  OBP SLG AB/HR SB CS HR/9 BB/9 K/9

Yankees   15-5  6.7    
4.4      .298   .368  .508  21        9   
3    1.2    2.8   

Blue Jays  5-15  4.3     6.0      .246   .324  .406  26        4   
4    1.5    3.7   

The Blue Jays have been softer in their last 20 games than the Orioles were in their 20 leading into the just-concluded series with the Yankees. If you replace their fluke 18-run game against the Rangers four days ago with the 21st game in the sequence, they are averaging just 3.7 runs a game. What makes this series competitive, at least on paper, is that the Yankees are employing a patchwork rotation for this four-game series, going with Chad Gaudin, Joba Chamberlain, Andy Pettitte, and Sergio Mitre. Joba matches up with Roy Halladay, and you would like to see him show up for this one given that Halladay has been murderized in his last three appearances (two against the Red Sox, one against the Rays), giving up 17 runs in 17 innings.

Travis Snider tore up Triple-A Las Vegas (.337/.431/.663) but has hit three home runs and basically nothing else since his return to the bigs, hitting .167/.310/.354 in 16 games… Rare for the Yankees to play a team that runs even less frequently than they do in the absence of Brett Gardner, but the Jays are a slow team to begin with. Their main basestealer was Alex Rios, now with the White Sox, an act of generosity on Kenny Williams’ part with no parallel in the history of baseball… With Scott Rolen dealt to the Reds and Edwin Encarnacion hurt, the Yankees will see a lot of Jose Bautista and John McDonald at third base, which is a bit like getting to face a National League lineup. That’s a bit unfair to Bautista, not so much to McDonald… First baseman Lyle Overbay is coming off of a .329/.430/.507 month; he, Aaron Hill (31 homers), Marco Scutaro, and Adam Lind are the consistent threats remaining to this lineup. Toronto’s ability to develop pitchers will keep them vaguely relevant, but they are two-thirds of a lineup away from being a real contender. The farm system shows no signs of giving them that kind of help. Yankees should be good for three out of four here, even with the shaky pitching matchups. 

The wins keep coming … and coming


Posada-9-1-250.jpgThe Yankees are currently on a pace for 103 wins, and given their remaining schedule, they could win more than that. Should they hold up, the 2009 Yankees would become the 18th team in club history to win 100 or more games. Note that this is no proof of destiny–the 2002, 2003, and 2004 Yankees won over 100 games and only one of them got to a World Series. Still, winning 100 games is the traditional mark of a club that is dominant in a historically significant way, so at some point we will have to figure out where this Yankees edition ranks among the great teams, both in comparison to Yankees predecessors and the 75 other 100-game teams from 1901 onwards.

Should this year’s team exceed 103 wins, they would join a most elite list of Yankees teams that have exceeded that mark — 1998 (114 wins), 1927 (110), 1961 (109), 1932 (107), 1939 (106), and 1963 (104). While dispensing with the normal allowances made for modern conditioning, relievers, the slider, night baseball, integration, and other factors that make comparing teams and players across eras an exercise in futility, it’s hard to see this team competing too strongly with the six listed above, except perhaps for 1932, a very similar outfit that was all about the offense (the only consistent pitchers were Red Ruffing and the fiery Johnny Allen), and the overrated 1961 team. The 1961 team had better starting pitching and a couple of Hall of Fame-level offensive seasons from Mantle and Maris, but the rest was unremarkable.

If you want to go by winning percentage, then the bar gets a little higher, with the 2009 team’s current .636 tied with five other clubs for 18th-best in club history, some non-100-game teams like the 1938 and 1953 Yankees sneaking in ahead of them. No one ever talks about the champion 1953 team as one of the best in club history, but it was a very good offensive unit (Mantle, Gene Woodling, and Hank Bauer all had big years in the outfield, and the only starter not to have at least a league-average season was second baseman Billy Martin) with a deep, versatile pitching staff.

We have another month to figure out where the 2009 team fits, or if they fit at all, so this is premature, but it’s more fun talking about this than the stuff we were talking about at this time last year.

…That would be a swell name for a band, particularly if your name was Posada. It was good to see him swat a couple of home runs on the road, as he has largely confined his hitting to Yankee Stadium II this year, and we wouldn’t want folks to conclude he was merely banging ’em over the Blue Enabler (see, the Red Sox have the Green Monster and the Yankees have, heh, the Blue… oh, forget it). He still has some distance to go to overcome the possibility of being labeled the anti-Swisher, with .227/.314/.399 rates on the road versus a Piazza-like .335/.403/.658 at home. Despite the imbalance, his current 883 OPS ranks 15th among Yankees catchers (single-season, 300 PAs and up), mostly exceeded by Bill Dickey, Mike Stanley, and Yogi Berra, plus about three seasons from Posada himself. It has been a fine year, though slightly subpar by Posada’s own high standards as his walk rate has hit the lowest level of his career. Given that Posada is a 37-year-old catcher having one of the top 20 seasons at his position in team history, it probably would be ungrateful to kick about a detail like that.