On Sunday, Bill Madden of the New York Daily News wrote, “Cashman is poised to spend what it takes on a significant upgrade in left field (read that: Chone Figgins).”
I don’t want to “read that.” In the words of Casey Stengel, let’s make out that’s a misprint. Right now, the common assumption in the media seems to be that when it comes to Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, the Yankees will retain one, but not both, necessitating the addition of another player. We can weigh the pros and cons of retaining one or the other after the playoffs — it’s not a slam-dunk decision either way — but either way, the Yankees will be looking for offensive consistency and a defensive upgrade in left field.
Figgins is not the way to go. The problem is, despite whatever reputation Figgins has, he’s not there: Figgins has no power, his stolen base percentages are edging downwards, is severely diminished when not batting left-handed (.266/.340/.351 career versus lefthanders), and as far as defense goes, has played only 36 games in left field in his career, just one of them coming in the last three years, so you really don’t know what you’ll get. With the exception of two seasons in his eight-season career, 2007 (in which he played only 115 games) and 2009, he hasn’t been a great on-base guy either — and there’s not guarantee he’ll ever draw 100 walks again. He’s also 31 years old, which means the Yankees will be paying for the rump end of his career, and he hasn’t been durable in recent seasons. Finally, to this point in his career he is a .175 hitter in 30 postseason games. Mr. October this ain’t.
This year, the average Major League left fielder hit .270/.341/440. Last year they hit .269/.344/.442. Two years ago, the rates were .277/.347/.453. This is the line the Yankees are shooting to be over when they cast the position. Figgins is a career .291/.363/.388 hitter. In two of the last four seasons, he was well below that, hitting .267/.336/.376 in 2006 and .276/.367/.318 in 2008. Imagine a best-case scenario in which the Yankees get everything that Johnny Damon gave them this year except for 20 home runs. The stolen bases wouldn’t make up for the loss of power, and that’s without the risk that Figgins has another off-year and turns in a .260/.340/.360 season somewhere along the line.
In 1982, the Yankees signed free agent outfielder Dave Collins, another speedster, then realized that he was far below their offensive requirements. It cost them Fred McGriff to get rid of him. Signing Figgins has the potential to repeat that scenario, with the Yankees once again casting a singles hitter at a power-hitter’s position, then immediately regretting it.
RIKKI, DON’T USE THAT NUMBER
As noted here before the series, in Game 2, Joe Girardi put Freddy Guzman into the game in the ninth inning to run for Hideki Matsui, then subsequently was forced to let him bat, a problem given that Guzman is the closest thing to an instant out among the non-pitchers on either team. It was the only discordant note in a game in which Girardi pressed all the right buttons — he backed himself into a corner on a move that didn’t have much of a chance of working out, given that Matsui had singled with two outs. If a home run wasn’t to be hit (in which case the pinch-runner was moot) it was going to take at least two events to score either player Matsui or Guzman, in the former case single and a double or vice-versa, in the case of Guzman a stolen base plus another hit. Perhaps Guzman might have scored from first on just the right ball hit into the gap, but betting on that is gambling Matsui’s next at-bat on a very specific outcome.
It’s one thing to use Brett Gardner in these situations given that Gardner has some ability to hit, but you get into a whole other level of risk when you put Guzman into the game. Before the series, I argued that Eric Hinske would have had more utility to the Yankees. That can be argued given the prevalence of left-handers in Mike Scioscia’s end game — Shelley Duncan would have been a wiser pick than either Hinske or Guzman. Either way, Guzman has to be a tool of very last resort.
I want to respond to one commenter on yesterday’s entry — I tend to assume that even one opinion fronts for an army of like-thinking fellow travelers, though in this case it’s something we’ve heard before: Let Frankie Cervelli catch next year.
We’ve been over this ground before, but since this thought is still harbored out there like some kind of hidden infestation of bedbugs, I want to go back to it. Cervelli is an athletic, mobile catcher and he’s going to have a decent career just on the quality of his defense. This is not in dispute. Cervelli’s active presence behind the plate catches the eye; there’s nothing subtle about his work, no “inside baseball” aspect that requires you to be told what he’s doing. He’s a lot of fun to watch back there, especially compared to Jorge Posada’s no-frills brand of backstopping, with his trademark “pick it up when it stops rolling” approach to pitches in the dirt. Posada was never the most artful of catchers, and now that his ballplaying life can be numbered in dog-years, he’s starting to be a bit reminiscent of Rodin’s “Thinker”
You already know where we’re going with this: Posada is a crazy good hitter for a catcher. The average MLB receiver is batting .254/.320/.397. There’s a reason the Tigers have tried to shift their catching responsibilities from veteran Gerald Laird to Alex Avila, a rookie out of Double-A while in the midst of a pennant race, which is that Posada-ism is seen as a desirable thing to pursue. There’s always a team or two that goes with a Brad Ausmus-style catcher and sees that as an advantage, but the offensive pace of today’s game is simply too demanding to embrace purely defensive players on more than a limited basis.
Make no mistake that Cervelli is a purely defensive player at this time. While 89 Major League plate appearances is a small sample, Cervelli’s .268/.282/.341 is consistent with his production during his short Minor League career, during which he hit .273/.367/.380 in 828 plate appearances. Although Cervelli showed decent selectivity at the lower levels, his complete lack of power mean pitchers won’t respect him enough to let him utilize that patience — they’re going to come right after him. One key takeaway here is that .273/.367/.380 in the Minors, primarily the low Minors, does not suggest the foundations of a Major League hitter. It suggests an out machine. It might suggest Jose Molina, and Molina, also a very talented catcher, isn’t good enough to play every day.
The Angels, for all of Mike Scioscia’s love of good defense at catcher (he being an excellent defender himself, and a brick wall when blocking the plate), kept him firmly behind Bengie Molina. The team to give Molina the most playing time, last year’s Yankees, was also the first Yankees team to miss the playoffs in 100 years. It was not a coincidence — despite the fact that Molina allowed only two passed balls, despite the fact that he caught 44 percent of basestealers. An offense can’t overcome that many outs, and a bad hitter makes more of them on offense than he can possibly save on defense.
Period. No debate. This is reality. It’s not a stathead thing. It’s not a calculator thing. It’s just very basic truth. A catcher might get 600 chances on offense a year. The number of great, run-saving plays that a strong defensive catcher will make over a mediocre one doesn’t add up to the extra outs. It can’t when we’re talking about plays that save perhaps a base a game, if that.
If Posada’s defense frustrates you, that’s understandable. However, the kind of exchange being proposed suggest that winning is also frustrating. Posada, when he’s not elbowing opposing pitchers in the ribs, is a huge contributor. You want to get mad at the Yankees for being tolerant of players who don’t contribute, you can always remember how many games they lost with Cody Ransom subbing for Alex Rodriguez, or think on how long Angel Berroa stuck on the roster, or rent your garments every time Sergio Mitre pitches — I’m about out of good shirts at this point, although the cats enjoy chasing the flying buttons.
Otherwise, you’re really biting the hand that feeds the Yankees, or one of them. As it says in the New Testament, a prophet is not without honor, save in his own country. It turns out the same thing is true of Jorge Posada. An offensive-minded catcher is not without honor, save to team’s fans.
STILL WAITING ON ACTION JACKSON
Scranton lost their playoff series on Thursday, which frees as many Pennsylvania Yankees as the club would like to come on up to the big city. Juan Miranda was recalled today. Austin Jackson is not on the 40-man roster, so a move would have to be made to get him to the bigs. Perhaps Christian “Out For the Year” Garcia could be shifted over to the 60-day disabled list to create a spot. Or Sergio Mitre could be released…
…Miranda, who is either 16 or 29, had a solid year at Scranton, batting .290/.369/.498 with 19 home runs in 122 games, handling left-handed and right-handed pitchers with equal aplomb. This performance translates to .273/.351/.491, which is not without its uses, though it’s not particularly useful to the Yankees because they’ve gotten fine left-handed production at DH and Mark Teixeira is a full-service first baseman. Thus, the Yankees have another power-hitting pinch-hitter to go with Shelley Duncan, which is okay.
Unfortunately, every team except, apparently, the Rays, has their own Duncan or Miranda, so there’s not much market for these guys. Every once in awhile one will surface in the Majors and do well, like Randy Ruiz with the Blue Jays or Garrett Jones with the Pirates, and everyone will act surprised, but they shouldn’t, because the thing that held them back wasn’t that they couldn’t hit, but that over the long term they weren’t expected to hit well enough to sustain first base or right field given lousy-to-non-existent defense. Kevin Millar is the rare example of this brand of player who actually went on to have a sustained career as a starter.
Whatever his age, Miranda has hit well enough in the minors to deserve at least a small chance from some team looking for a low-cost lefty for a DH or first base rotation. The production likely wouldn’t be great, but say your team is in the position of the Rays, having to play 35-year-old Chris Richard — at that point, you’ll take whatever Miranda can give you.
Unfortunately for him, barring a catastrophic series of injuries, that team will never be the Yankees. Here’s hoping he pops a few home runs during his Big League cameo and ups his trade value. Given his age, which is closer to 30 than not, he’s not going to be getting any better, so he’s not doing much at Scranton other than providing a “Break Glass in Case of” option.
NOT UNUSUAL, EXCEPT IN ONE RESPECT
Aside from the victim having been the estimable Doc Halladay, Tuesday night’s win was your standard nail-biting Yankees victory, with Andy Pettitte skating by despite too many walks, a couple of rallies killed by double plays, and some rollercoaster action from the bullpen. That includes the great Mariano, who has shown for all his great accomplishments that he would very much prefer to be used with the bases empty and a lead. Having to pitch in a tie or bail out some other hapless reliever just isn’t part of the deal. Rivera still allows fewer inherited runners to score than the average AL reliever — he’s allowed five of 18 to pass, whereas (hold on) the typical cat will allow about six of 18 to score. It’s a benefit to the Yankees, slim or not, but you might think the greatest closer ever would do better. He’s actually had several seasons where close to 50 percent of inherited runners scored, which is odd given just how dominant he is the rest of the time.
A very high-scoring Scrabble word signifying tonight’s opponent, Marc Rzepczynski. He’s a lefty of the groundballer persuasion with just one home run allowed in his inaugural 27.2 innings. One wonders if this means another outfield start for Jerry Hairston. If Hairston is your main weapon against lefties, you’re really aiming too low. It’s as if we’re back to the days of Clay Bellinger playing center field (20 starts in 2000, Joe Torre, 20 starts!). Hairston is a better player than Bellinger in every way, but that praise is specific to the case and wholly relative.
Given that the 12th man on the staff (Mark Melancon … at least, he didn’t until recently) almost never pitches, it would be a better use of the roster spot to grant Shelley Duncan a berth. In these days of bloated pitching staffs, it would be seen as a brave, daring move to carry only 11 hurlers, but Joe Girardi is proving that the 2009 Yankees, at least, can make it through with less than a dozen pitchers. There is no reason not to acknowledge what is already a reality and use the spot as a weapon rather than a way for a lucky pitcher to get free travel around the country.
REPORTED WITHOUT COMMENT
Courtesy of Baseball Prospectus, pitchers’ wins added above replacement:
AL TOP 5
|1. Zack Greinke, KC||6.0|
|2. Felix Hernandez, SEA||5.4|
|3. Roy Halladay, TOR||5.3|
|4. Cliff Lee, CLE||5.2|
|5. Edwin Jackson, DET||5.2|
|17. CC Sabathia||3.3|
|23. A.J. Burnett||3.2|
|30. Joba Chamberlain||2.4|
|32. Andy Pettitte||2.3|
|128. Aceves, Hughes, Mitre, Wang||-0.6|
BOBBY ABREU, PLAYER OF THE MONTH
He batted .380 in July and is having a fine year overall. The Yankees still made the right choice in letting him leave. The Angels got a bargain, one the Yankees weren’t going to get, either in dollars or term of years, and his 2007-2008 numbers (.289/.370/.458) were just adequate for a defensively challenged right fielder. Perhaps Abreu needed the extra motivation supplied by his free-agency letdown. Perhaps this is just a random uptick, and the numbers certainly suggest that. Abreu has always been a prolific line drive hitter, which explains his unusually high success rate on balls in play (career .349). This year he’s hitting .372 on balls in play despite the lowest line drive rate of his career. That’s the favorable luck component of what he’s doing. To put it in plainer words, Abreu hadn’t hit .300 since 2004, and hadn’t hit over .310 since 2000. There was no reason for the Yankees to expect him to post a top-10 batting average in 2009.
HE MIGHT WANT TO TAKE SOME TIME OFF
I’ve undergone this procedure and Bobby Jenks has my sympathies. Let us just say that the surgery itself is not too traumatic but the aftermath is not pretty.