Swisher hit his 27th home run Monday night and has begun to show more consistency at Yankee Stadium II, which bodes well for the playoffs. Right field is a traditional power spot, especially for the Yankees (that Ruth guy, you know), but the last time the Yankees had a right fielder hit over 30 home runs, Gary Sheffield was still young, or at least younger. He hit 36 home runs in 2004 and 34 in ’05 while spending most of his time in right. If you want a Yankees right fielder who topped 25 home runs before Sheffield, you have to skip past Paul O’Neill (who was a great hitter but averaged 22 round-trippers a season) and Danny Tartabull (who did a lot of his work at designated hitter) and point to Jesse Barfield in 1990. As mention of Sheffield, O’Neill, and also Bobby Abreu should make abundantly clear, the Yankees have largely gotten excellent production from the position — we will skip quietly past the Raul Mondesi Interregnum — but with the exception of Sheffield it has come in the form of high averages and on-base percentages and only average home run power. Nothing wrong with that if you can get it. Swisher lags those players in exactly one regard — fewer singles.
With last night’s 3-for-4, Teixeira upped his numbers to .285/.381/.551. Teixeira has been terrific, both with the bat and with the glove, and if he finishes with roughly this level of production, his season will rank somewhere in the top 10 for production by a Yankees first baseman/post-Gehrig division. Incredibly, though, it won’t rank anywhere near the top. That’s no insult to Teixeira, but a measure of just how good Don Mattingly was in the 1984 to 1986 period. He out-hit Teixeira in each of those seasons, doing so in a vastly different league. The American League of 2009 slugs .429. The AL of Mattingly’s glory days slugged about .400. Power comes more easily now than it did then.
As frustrating as he could be at times, the best-hitting Yankees first baseman of the last half-century not named Mattingly was Jason Giambi in 2002. Giambi hit .314/.435/.598 that year, a devastating combination of power and patience. Of course, he couldn’t field like the other two guys. Heck, he couldn’t field like anybody.
Went 3-for-3 to raise his average to .371. At one point it seemed as if .400 was the goal, but now the question is if he can record the highest batting average in history by a catcher. Depending on where you want to place your cutoff, the highest batting average in a full season by a backstop was .362 by the Yankees’ Bill Dickey in 1936 (472 plate appearances) and Mike Piazza in 1997 (633 plate appearances). Smoky Burgess hit .368 in 1954, but had only 392 plate appearances. One wonders what having a minor record like that would do to strengthen Mauer’s MVP candidacy….
Here’s the upside to acquiring Chad Gaudin: He’s been a somewhat reliable starting pitcher in his career. Though as a starter his ERA is just 4.85 in 378.2 innings, he’s kept the ball in the park and pitched well enough, often enough, to post a quality start in 42 percent of his attempts. That’s a below-average figure, but as compared to the work of the other pitchers the Yankees have tried in the fifth starter’s slot it is the work of a Cy Young. This year, Gaudin has made nine quality starts in 19 attempts, or 47 percent, which is actually about average. Add up Phil Hughes, Chien-Ming Wang, Sergio Mitre, and Alfredo Aceves and you get two quality starts in 21 tries. Look at it this way:
|Wang, Mitre, Hughes||21||5-8||90||125||38||64||15||8.20|
Gaudin has a low 90s fastball and a very good slider, hence the high strikeout rate. The walks have been a career-long problem, which is why he’s ill-suited for the bullpen. Yet, that’s where Brian Cashman said he’s headed for now — Mitre will get another chance.
In the bullpen, though, Gaudin is just another Brett Tomko. He lacks good control, walking 4.3 batters per nine innings in his career and 4.8 per nine this year. Those walks are de-emphasized in an extended appearance, but bring a pitcher with poor control into the seventh inning of a one-run game and the free passes can kill you.
One other worry: Gaudin somehow put up an 8.10 RA in San Diego’s PETCO Park, the friendliest park for pitchers in the biz. That number has all the marks of a fluke occurrence — he had a more reasonable 4.55 RA on the road — but it’s something to be aware of. If a pitcher can get bombed in PETCO, he’s not safe anywhere, especially your friendly neighborhood Yankee Stadium II, where left-handed hitters get to take cheap shots at the right field wall. Lefties have hit .292/.388/.431against Gaudin in his career.
Despite this, the value of players is relative, and on paper Gaudin is an upgrade on what the Yankees have been trying. Why send him to the bullpen when there’s a more urgent an obvious need? One wonders if Mitre gets a break because Joe Girardi is vouching for him based on the good old days with the Marlins — which weren’t that good.
POSADA WEARS NO. 15/THURMAN THROWS
Posada wearing a No. 15 decal on his mask in honor of Thurman Munson was a classy gesture from one great Yankees catcher to another. Posada was not quite eight years old when Munson died, so the act was based as much or more on their mutual standing in that lineage than any real memory of Munson the player. It’s a more profound statement than any based on personal association, as it requires an appreciation and respect for history, and says that Munson remains a powerful enough figure in even death that he was able to touch Posada without Posada having had direct contact with him.
Something about Posada’s tribute reminded me of an aspect of Munson’s career that doesn’t get a lot of comment given the focus on his hitting, his leadership, and his gruff personality: He was great at throwing out runners. Consider:
Munson won only three Gold Gloves, those coming in 1973-1975. In his first three seasons the award went to Ray Fosse (1970-1971) and Carlton Fisk (the only one Fisk ever got); from 1976 on the award was dominated by Jim Sundberg, who took six straight awards. Sundberg was also very good at controlling the running game. The Gold Gloves don’t prove much — one of Munson’s awards came in 1974, a year in which a sore arm cut his success rate and led to 22 errors; he made 23 the next season and somehow won again. The errors probably caused the voters to discard Munson for Sundberg so quickly as much as Sundberg’s own defensive excellence; the latter was only in the league for two years when he picked up his first award.
QUICK NOTES ON THURSDAY’S ACTION AND OTHER STUFF
? I’m grieved by John Hughes’ passing. His movies were often skin deep, but at their best there was something touching about them, something wistful about youth and its passing in films like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Some Kind of Wonderful” — which is not to forget that these were basically teen comedies and often very funny. Of the films that took place outside of his suburban Illinois universe, there are bits of “Vacation” (the first one, not the countless sequels) that can still make me laugh, and I have a soft spot for “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” one of the few films that used John Candy to truly good effect. Hughes’ peak was long ago and far away, the 1980s (and by this I mean to exclude the huge 1990 hit “Home Alone” from the canon), but if you were a teenager then, his work was inescapable, alternatively patronizing and uplifting, and for many people, defining. Seeing him go is a bit like waving goodbye to a piece of the landscape of my youth. It’s saddening, even if the sadness isn’t really about him. I will now spin the Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me” from “The Breakfast Club” in his honor.
? I really nailed that analysis of John Smoltz yesterday, didn’t I? Some days you’d be better off staying in bed. As important a win as it was for the Yankees, it was still painful watching a great pitcher brought low. Lefties are now hitting .440 off of Smoltz as he struggles to get his fastball by them on the inside. Righties have had a harder time of it, so perhaps Smoltz might still have some value out of the bullpen if he’s willing to go that route to stay in the game.
? Yesterday did nothing to dissuade me from the idea that the Yankees’ Joba Conservation Plan might cost him his command at a time when he and the team need and most, when he was about to turn the corner and show consistency for the first time all year.
? The Twins acquired Carl Pavano today from a player to be named. Good luck with that, Twinkies.
? Nick Johnson gets traded from the Nats, who can’t win a game, to the Marlins, who then get swept by the Nats. Life can be comically unfair.
? The A’s seem to have done a Soviet-style redaction off Jason Giambi’s place on the team. “No, nothing today,” Geren said. “I haven’t seen him today.”
Turns out the A’s released Giambi on Friday.
MORE TO COME
Since this is the <b>Series of the Year</b> I’ll be posting updates throughout the weekend. Hope you check in.
The Yankees’ new record for consecutive games without an error doesn’t mean much to me, because official scoring in baseball has spectacularly low standards and has become almost totally subjective. What is interesting about the record is the way the Yankees have been climbing the defensive efficiency ladder. Defensive efficiency is the percentage of balls in play that a team turns into outs. Over the last several seasons, almost uniformly going back to the last century, the Yankees have ranked toward the bottom of the Majors in this category. Their players had so little range that the pitchers were giving up hits on balls that other teams might have put in the back pockets. Everything gets distorted: The pitchers look worse than they really are, the team goes crazy trying to sign pitchers when it really needs fielders and hitters, and the whole club spins off its axis.
If memory serves, the last time the Yankees led the league in this category was 1998. Since then, there’s been a lot of “Past a diving [your name here]!” in the play by play. That has changed a great deal this season, particularly due to the addition of Mark Teixeira, who is a revelation on the fielding job after so many years of Jason Giambi. Another key factor has been Nick Swisher, who hasn’t made many spectacular plays but gets to many more balls than Bobby Abreu was inclined to pursue in right field. Right now, the Yankees are fourth in the American League at 70.7 percent, a number almost indistinguishable from that of the league-leading Rangers (71.3 percent; the Brewers lead the Majors at 72.4 percent). It’s an old but true baseball adage that you can’t win by giving the opposition extra outs. Usually, that adage refers to errors, but it should apply to every ball hit within the fences and between the lines. The Yankees haven’t cared much about this in the recent past, but with Teixeira’s help a change has come. It and the team’s current hot streak are not coincidental.
JOBA CAN PITCH THE EIGHTH — AS A STARTER
And that’s all I have to say about that. He won’t get there in most starts, of course, but the point is that if he is capable of this kind of upside, the Yankees owe it to themselves to keep running him out there until he gives some definitive reason that he can’t. The performance of OTHER pitchers, like the eighth-inning relievers, have nothing to do with him. The bullpen is its own problem with its own solution set. You don’t take a pitcher who is capable of giving you 21 or even 24 outs a night with an ERA below 4.00 out of the rotation because you can’t find another guy who can give you three, no matter how “important” the spot. That’s idiotic. All of the outs are important. We just perceive protecting late leads to somehow be a bigger deal than holding the opposition scoreless in the first or the third or the sixth, but a run is a run is a run, and you never know which one is going to beat you. More to the point, you can’t protect leads you don’t have, and a strong starting pitching staff is the tool that is most likely to buy you the time to generate that lead. Secondary point: It’s much easier to find a guy to give you three outs than it is to find the one that will give you 21, even if the Yankees are having trouble finding that guy right now.
And yet another point, one that I alluded to yesterday: As good as Chien-Ming Wang has been as a starter in his career, his stuff and approach do not correlate with long-term success. I don’t care if you have a sinker so heavy that Superman can’t lift it — eventually the lack of strikeouts, the lack of a solid inner defense, or both is going to eat you alive. In Wang’s case, his injury of last season may have altered his delivery, stuff or strength in a minute way, hard to perceive with the naked eye, but significant enough that he can no longer balance on the point of a needle the way he used to. Putting him in the bullpen, while perceived by many fans and commentators as a waste or an insult of some kind, may in fact allow him to make changes in his approach that will save his effectiveness and ultimately his career. A Wang who isn’t worried about marshalling his stuff and can throw harder over a shorter span of time while still getting groundballs may be able to get outs in a way that a six- or seven-inning version of Wang can no longer aspire to.
Right now, there’s no reason for the Yankees to make a change except that some people are arguing for it. Wang is pitching well in the bullpen, they say, so let’s make him a starter. Chamberlain is pitching well as a starter, so let’s make him a reliever. That way lies madness.
Parenthetically, I was pleased that Joel Sherman made very much the same argument I did yesterday about using Mariano Rivera in a tied game on the road. Within that piece there’s also a promising note about the Yankees vowing not to resign Hideki Matsui after the season, 100 percent the correct decision.
Tonight we get to see Jason Giambi’s return to the Bronx. I’ve seen some hostile comment in the press about Giambi, but beyond general disapproval of Giambi’s juicing, this anger is misplaced.
No, the Yankees didn’t win any championships during Giambi’s stay, but the team had many faults that had nothing to do with its first baseman-DH. As for the man himself, Giambi’s limitations were known to the Yankees when they picked him up, and it was apparent back in December, 2001 that the seven-year length of the contract was likely to bite the Yankees. As I wrote at the time, a player who isn’t terribly mobile at 30 — and the Empire State Building has moved more in the last 50 years than Giambi has in his whole career — is going to be a statue at 35.
Put the juice aside, because if anything is clear from the past few years it’s that no one inside baseball was ignorant of what players were doing to maintain their amazing physiques. I’m not saying that the Yankees necessarily had specific information that Giambi was juicing, but that they had to know it was a realistic possibility that anyone they acquired was doing some chemical dabbling. It wouldn’t have been practical for the Yankees to rule out acquiring all players suspected of having fun with pharmaceuticals, because the culture had been so thoroughly corrupted.
Thus: for their seven years of dough the Yankees expended, they got five very good years and two injury years. Injuries happen, and as I said, the cause is immaterial, or simply a predicable consequence of what was happening in baseball at the time. Giambi hit .260/.404/.521 with 209 home runs (tenth on the club list). He hit over 40 home runs twice, and over 30 three times, hit .300 once, and had more than 100 walks four times. Yankees who outhit Giambi in a career of more than 2,500 plate appearances, relative to league (as measured by OPS): Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, A-Rod, Charlie Keller and Reggie Jackson. That’s it, for the whole history of the franchise. That’s a successful signing. Did he field well? No, but he shouldn’t have been expected to. Did he run the bases? Nope, but he never could. Did he age? Yes, as do we all. Was he Reggie Jackson in the postseason? No, but he hit fairly well.
Though he was friendly the few times I talked with him, Giambi isn’t one of my favorite players. The steroid culture hurt baseball, and basically all for vanity’s sake, and his relative lack of production when DHing forced the Yankees into some disadvantageous defenses. Yet, to say that Giambi robbed the Yankees is a stretch. He was no longer an MVP-level player after 2002, and maybe he was never a guy to teach a class on professional ethics, but he was one of the most productive hitters the club ever had. That’s what the Yankees paid for and that’s what they got.
YANKEES RAINOUT THEATRE
No game yesterday means no home runs to increase our wonder and paranoia about the new ballpark. In the last day we’ve seen several articles attempting to account for what may be a small-sample fluke. AccuWeather.com talked about changed wind flow. Occasional YES-guest Tyler Kepner of the New York Times reported on Greg Rybarczyk’s finding that the contour of the right field wall means that the right-center field wall in Stadium II is effectively nine feet shorter than the one in Yankee Stadium Classic. Either explanation works to explain the new park’s dynamics, although the wind best explains what I felt I was seeing last Friday, balls finding a second gear as they reached their apogee. An intriguing thought: what if it’s both?
Meanwhile, the combination of rainout and off-day on Thursday means the Yankees get a no-brainer opportunity to bag on Chien-Ming Wang’s next start. Fangraphs.com lists the average velocity of Wang’s fastball is at 90.5 mph, down from an average speed of 91.8 mph a year ago and 92.7 mph in 2007. I don’t know if that one mph decrease is significant in terms of the batter experience, but just on a superficial basis, the mild drop would seem to give credence to the Yankees’ argument that the problem is mechanical, not physical. You would expect that if a pitcher isn’t throwing the ball with ease, his velocity is going to be negatively affected, and you would expect that if he figures out the problems he’s having with his release, he might find that missing mile again.
Another data point is the charting of Wang’s release point made possible the PitchFX tool at Brooks Baseball (thanks to Marc Normandin for pulling the information together). It seems that Wang’s release point is about six inches higher than it was a year ago. Six inches doesn’t seem like much in real-world terms, but when you’re dealing with a sinkerball, the extra elevation could be the difference between the batter getting on top of the ball and pounding it into the ground and hitting solidly on a line to the outfield.
THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
? Justin Masterson didn’t miss a beat as he shifted to the starting rotation for the Red Sox. Meanwhile, shortstop Jed Lowrie is going to go for surgery and could be out for six weeks. One wonders if they’ll live with Nick Green or try to make a move. They have a few interesting minor league shortstops, but none would seem to be ready to jump up to the Majors. Argenis Diaz, the Double-A shortstop, is supposed to have terrific range but probably won’t hit.
? Masterson’s fine pitching knocked the Orioles a game under .500, where they’ll probably stay. That is, they’ll stay under .500, not they’ll finish at 80-82 or something. When the Yankees were in Baltimore, the O’s were talking about a new, winning attitude. I wonder if they’re still saying things like that. Tonight’s rookie starter is Brad Bergeson, a control guy whose upper-level strikeout rates don’t portend much, unless he manifests a Wang-like groundball rate…
? Nice Major League debut for the Nats’ Jordan Zimmerman, who beat a Braves team that has struggled to find its hitting shoes in the early going. The newfangled bullpen held the lead, too. You wonder if any clubs have put in a call on a resurgent Nick Johnson (.381/.458/.429). The Angels, maybe? Kendry Morales is batting only .227/.277/.318, and while he’s going to come around and do better than that, he won’t out-hit a healthy Johnson. A momentarily healthy Johnson. Johnson if he’s healthy, when he’s healthy. Which is sometimes. Occasionally. Alternating Tuesdays. Check your local TV listings for details.
? Ross Ohlendorf had a fine start against the Marlins, holding them to two hits in seven innings. It’s nice to see Olhendorf come around and exploit his sinking stuff, but I think there is going to be more of this kind of thing for the Marlins in the future. In the game they walked once and struck out six times, and their lineup suggests there’s going to be a lot more than that. Meanwhile, the Pirates go a game over .500, once again endangering their 16-year losing streak. Their record in those years: 1104-1419 (.438).
? The Mets signed Wily Mo Pena. If he makes it up to the big club, it will be interesting to see him wandering about in Citi’s big outfield. Imagine the Hebrews in the desert, with more grass and less sand.
Today we begin our annual look at what each player is looking to accomplish this season — a tradition since whenever I started doing it. I believe it was in 1881, when my friend Clemens yielded this feature to me so he could finish work on Huckleberry Finn.
JORGE POSADA — STARTING CATCHER
2008 GOAL, AS STATED HERE: Repeat his 2007 performance.
DID HE GET THERE? Nope. Injuries intervened.
2009 GOAL: Health, which means not only staying in the lineup and contributing some approximation of his career numbers (.277/.380/.477) but also throwing out 25-35 percent of attempting base stealers.
CHANCE OF MAKING THAT GOAL: He seems to have a fair shot, but it’s asking a lot given his age.
SOMETHING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: Even when struggling last year, Posada was strong with runners in scoring position, batting .250/.392/.425. He’s a career .282/.403/.492 hitter in those situations.
ANOTHER THING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: With 27 home runs this year, Posada can pass YES broadcaster Ken Singleton on the career home run list for switch hitters (Singleton ranks 14th with 246). Kenny is probably safe for another year — Jorge hasn’t hit more than 23 homers in a season since 2003.
JOSE MOLINA — RESERVE CATCHER
2008 GOAL AS STATED HERE: Hit as well as he did after he joined the Yankees in July ’07 (.318/.333/.439 in 29 games).
DID HE GET THERE? Heck no, but he did play terrific defense.
2009 GOAL: Keep up the glove work while rebounding at the plate from a career-worst offensive season.
CHANCE OF MAKING THAT GOAL: You’d think he’d have to if he’s going to stay on the roster.
SOMETHING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: Believe it or not, Molina’s .263 on-base percentage wasn’t the worst of Yankees history (200 PAs and up). Shortstop Jim Mason’s .210 OBP of 1976 takes the prize, while shortstop Pee Wee Wanninger’s .256 of 1925 is even worse than Mason’s mark when contrasted against the league average.
ANOTHER THING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: Elston Howard. There’s nothing wrong with having an old starting catcher, but as that catcher’s durability declines, you need a tandem starter who can give you good production the rest of the time, not just defense. The Yankees had this situation with Yogi Berra and Elston Howard in the early 1960s. Acquiring a reserve catcher with a bat is of paramount importance to the Yankees.
MARK TEIXEIRA — FIRST BASE
2008 GOAL AS STATED HERE: N/A
2009 GOAL: Just consistency would be good. Teixeira is a .290/.378/.541 career hitter and Gold Glove fielder.
CHANCE OF MAKING THAT GOAL: There’s no reason why he shouldn’t.
SOMETHING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: You hear a lot about Teixeira being a slow starter, but the flipside of his slow starts are hot finishes. Teixeira is a career .303/.390/.574 hitter after the All-Star break.
ANOTHER THING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: Teixeira is going to see a lot more of the Red Sox this year than he’s used to, and he hasn’t hit them well in his career. He’s a career. 193/.363/.274 hitter at Fenway Park (80 PA) and has hit only .232/.364/.373 against the Red Sox overall.
ROBINSON CANO — SECOND BASE
2008 GOAL AS STATED HERE: Keep on growing and/or simply hold onto present value.
DID HE GET THERE? Not even close. His season was disastrously poor.
2009 GOAL: Get back to being the guy who hit .322/.358/.504 from 2006 to 2007.
CHANCE OF MAKING THAT GOAL: Reasonably good given his age and a few lucky hits. He might not get all the way back, but he should get close.
SOMETHING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: Five games from now, Cano will pass Jerry Coleman for 10th place on the career list of games played at second base for the Yankees with 573. He still has a long, long way to go to catch the team’s all-time leader, Willie Randolph, who manned the keystone for 1,688 games.
ANOTHER THING YOU MIGHT NOT BE THINKING ABOUT: It might seem like Cano led the Yankees in pop ups last season, but he didn’t. He was fifth, with 33. The leader was Johnny Damon, with 45. Derek Jeter hit 13 pop ups all year.
To be continued…
MAKE IT STOP!
Here’s a literal blast from the past for you: In Tuesday’s Royals-at-White Sox game, the Royals took a 2-1 lead into Chicago’s turn at bat in the bottom of the eighth. The White Sox have the 9-1-2 spots due up: Josh Fields, Dewayne Wise, and Chris Getz. Royals manager Trey Hillman calls on Kyle Farnsworth. The Royals, you see, have decided that Farnsworth is a setup man. We in New York know it ain’t true. They even know it in Detroit and Atlanta, but they’re smarter in Kansas City.
Fields bunts to third base and reaches. Wise flies out to center. Gets singles to right, moving Fields to third. That brings up number three hitter Carlos Quentin. Even Joe Torre would have called for another pitcher by now, but Farnsworth gets Quentin to whiff, so score one for Hillman. Two outs now, future Hall of Famer Jim Thome at the plate. Thome is a left-handed hitter, and he’s getting up there in years, doesn’t hit the portsiders as well as he used to, averaging just .233 against them in 2008 (albeit with a ton of power). The Royals have Ron Mahay in the bullpen, but apparently he’s only hanging around for moral support. You know what happened next. Farnsworth throws, Thome swings, boom — it’s No. 542 for Jim and loss No. one of the 2009 season for Farnsworth.
Nice work if you can get it. Joe Posnanski ruminates on the managerial brilliance of the move.
THE AROUND (AND ABOUT)
In an effort to bond with my cat, I’ve started wearing sisal pajamas… Another year, another pounding for Ian Snell, and the Pirates are off to the races… Khalil Greene so impressed Tony LaRussa with his hot spring that he’s batting fifth; it would be nice to see him complete make that kind of comeback. Of course, any player’s bat is going to perk up after escaping PETCO… The Rays lineup sure looks light with B.J. Upton out. Of course, it’s easy to look light against Josh Beckett when he’s on. They and the Red Sox will go at each other nine times by May 10, a nice quirk of the scheduling for the Yankees; the Yankees have ten total games against both clubs through May 7… As with CC Sabathia, you hope that Tim Lincecum wasn’t burned out by overuse last year… The Marlins drew 11,124 against the Nats in Game 2 of the season, but they did get a terrific start from Josh Johnson, so Joe Girardi, you’re off the hook (so long as he lasts)… The Tigers’ pen tanked their game, but Edwin Jackson’s fine start is the more important omen for them in the long term. Good to see Scott Rolen drag his hot spring into the season… Erik Bedard sort of made it through a start; when does he get dealt? …Dan Haren picked up where he left off for the Diamondbacks (good), but so did Jon Rauch (not so good)…I actually saw Jason Giambi hit a bloop double to the opposite field against the Angels… The Beatles remasters are finally coming!
ONE MORE QUICK NOTE ON JETERIAN DEFENSE
Last year, opposition batters put 4,351 balls in play against the Yankees. They turned 68 percent of them into outs, which is a low rate. Boston turned 70 percent of balls in play against them into outs. The Rays turned 71 percent of balls in play against them into outs. These differences may seem small, but over the course of a season they can make a difference in a pennant race. Had the Yankees caught balls at the rate that the Red Sox did, for example, they would have retired an additional 74 batters. Had they fielded them at the Rays’ rate, they would have put out an additional 122 batters. The Yankees only allowed 1,170 fly balls all season long, so you can’t blame the entire shortfall on Bobby Abreu letting balls drop at the base of the wall. Their rate of line drives allowed was actually on the low side. Only so many balls were pulled down the lines past Jason Giambi or Alex Rodriguez. No one is to blame, apparently, and yet the balls weren’t caught. This happens year after year — the Yankees don’t catch as many balls as the opposition does, but no one is to blame.
This isn’t an argument. This isn’t subjective. Weak Yankees defense is a fact. You can choose not to see it when you watch a game. In the end, though, you have to account for what actually happens in those games. If the fielders weren’t at fault, then what happened? Unexpected stadium tilt? The moons of Saturn get in their eyes?
WE KNOW A REMOTE FARM IN LINCOLNSHIRE WHERE MRS. BUCKLEY LIVES… EVERY JULY, PEAS GROW THERE
The moment the Marlins bagged on former Angels’ prospect Dallas McPherson, the 28-year-old who led the minors in home runs last year, his name was circulated as a potential A-Rod sub. McPherson clearly has left-handed power, and the Yankees can use all the power they can get this year. There are two problems: First, McPherson strikes out so much that he would have trouble maintaining a .300 on-base percentage in the majors. Second, his defense at third is suspect. I’ve been skeptical of Cody Ransom’s ability to hit for average as well, but he should be able to field the position and hit a couple of home runs of his own. I figure the added defense makes Ransom a better fit than McPherson, or at least makes the two a wash. Now, you can argue about McPherson being a better bench asset than Angel Berroa or Ramiro Pena, but until Rodriguez comes back you might be forced to actually play him at third base if Derek Jeter leaves a game early, requiring Ransom to slide over to short.
It just occurred to me, reading what I just wrote in the context of our first item, above, that the Yankees worry an awful lot about defense but get very little out it.
If there’s a market for Gary Sheffield’s services, there’s a market for Nick Swisher or Xavier Nady. One also wonders if the Phillies would like to adopt Melky Cabrera — now that Geoff Jenkins has been released, their only reserve outfielder is Matt Stairs. They have rookie John Mayberry on the 40-man as well, but like Stairs he seems to be strictly corner material. Former Yankee Chad Moeller is going to back up Gregg Zaun for the O’s, at least until Matt Wieters comes up. Henry Blanco is going to be the starting backstop for the Padres. Consider those two pieces of information and feel free to speculate about a possible Jose Molina trade market. Say the Yankees brought up Frankie Cervelli halfway through the season, and… but no.
I spent most of the winter yelling at the free agent market to hurry up, hurry up! When you’re writing a season preview you want all the moves to happen as quickly as possible so your book is as up-to-date as it possibly can be when it hits shelves. All my goading got Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia signed, but it hasn’t budged Manny Ramirez, Adam Dunn, or any of the dozens of other free agents still on the market. Indeed, this winter has been one of the slowest to develop since the post-strike season, when any number of homeless players began Spring Training in a separate camp for displaced persons. With so many players still available, there are many teams that could look quite different when Spring Training convenes than they do now.
It has long been argued that teams should not shoot themselves in the wallet by overpaying for middle relievers, spot lefties, and the like, because those players are generally so inconsistent, and their roles frequently so marginal, that it doesn’t make sense to pay a premium for their services. With the exception of the odd Mariano Rivera or Joe Nathan, 75 percent of relievers could be shoved into a paper bag at the end of each season and picked out at random until each team had a full bullpen compliment, and the Majors would probably see the exact same distribution of good and bad bullpens as it does now. With the sour economy, it seems likely that teams have finally acquired the discipline to do this, as well as extend the principle to any other suspect class or individual player. This seems the most likely answer for why, for example, so many reasonably good spot lefties are on the market. It’s not that LOOGYs have gone out of style, but that paying them has. The players in turn must adjust to the new reality and diminish their expectations — which, poor lambs, means they’ll still get millions of dollars.
One player who has almost certainly been harmed by the New Fiscal Realities is Bobby Abreu, a player who is undoubtedly looking for a multi-year contract with which to close out his career. So far it ain’t happening, and it’s probably a safe bet that the one-year offers haven’t been to Abreu’s liking either. Say you get hooked into Abreu for his age-35, -36, and -37 season. If Abreu stays right where he is, you’re in good shape, particularly if you’re asking him to be your designated hitter. Unfortunately, 2008 was the kind of termite season that breeds doubters.
It seems strange to say something so critical of Abreu’s .296/.371/.471 season, but there’s a lot to be concerned about. Abreu hit only 20 home runs, not an awe-inspiring total, and while he still took a solid 73 walks, he was less patient than at any time in his career. These two facts — lower echelon power and ebbing patience — mean Abreu’s production will depend heavily on his batting average, and batting average is the least consistent aspect of any player’s production. Throw in a home-road split favorable to Yankee Stadium and signs of declining ability on the basepaths, and there is real cause to worry about getting stuck.
Abreu has been further damaged because 2008 was the year that his defensive problems changed from something that those eccentric fans in Philly made fun of to something that was visible to all and was quickly perceived as a real problem. When Gary Sheffield played right field for the Yankees, I used to make fun of his lack of range and oddly circuitous routes in the outfield. On fly balls to medium or short right field he sometimes looked like water swirling down the drain. Abreu makes the Sheffield of a few years ago look like a master defender, in that Sheffield played his position badly, but at least he attempted to play all of it. Because Abreu cannot go back, only forward, he gives up a whole section of his zone that a right fielder without this unusual handicap would cover. Even a poor outfielder would catch the odd ball at the wall.
This estimation of Abreu’s defense likely restricts him to the American League, where he may be hurt by the fact that a younger, more versatile (sort of), and more productive player in Dunn is still hanging around the market, not to mention Ramirez. A solid year from Abreu could be a godsend for the Angels after losing Teixeira. He could probably help the A’s, although with Matt Holliday in left, two designated hitters in Jason Giambi and Jack Cust, and a first baseman they’d like to get back on track in Daric Barton, it’s hard to see where everyone is going to play. If the Mariners would let Jeff Clement catch and push Kenji Johjima to the bench, Abreu would be a good fit in the Emerald City. The Rangers have this odd idea about letting Nelson Cruz play in right field, so he probably wouldn’t fit in there, and their DH spot is occupied by Hank Blalock.
These are not great choices. There is no automatic fit. Nor is Abreu a good fit for any of these teams at three years, and maybe not even for two. Abreu never got his due as a great player at his peak, but now his game has eroded to the point that it’s far too late to give him the rewards his resume would suggest that he deserves.