Tuesday, May 02, 2006

An April in Review: The Hitters

It’s time for another bimonthly assessment of the Yankees with a focus on their Win Expectancy. In my first edition, WE was the dominating aspect, mainly because I’m a newbie and still fascinated with all we can learn from WE. After a full month of tracking each game, I think I’m better positioned to make some apt commentary. Let’s eat!

We’ll go position by position. First I’ll list each players averages by Avg/OPB/Slg (yes, a return to slugging percentage for the time being, though I’ll talk about ISO in my analysis), followed by their respective AL rank at said position. Then onto some WE analysis and relevant commentary.

[MORE]Catcher (9 qualified players)
Jorge Posada: .288/.395/.452 – 6th/3rd/3rd
WE: .540
Notable WE games: -.138 (4/8 vs. Anaheim); .198 (4/9 vs. Anaheim); .179 (4/12 vs. Kansas City); .123 (4/14 vs. Minnesota); -.156 (4/15 vs. Minnesota); .148 (4/19 vs. Toronto); .170 (4/21 vs. Baltimore); -.154 (4/26 vs. Tampa Bay)

I have to admit Jorge has been a pleasant surprise this year. After a steep decline last year, he’s gotten back into his groove early. He ranks right up there with the best in the AL, though that’s not much of a change from even last year. What most people forget is that catchers aren’t expected to put up monster numbers. Guys like Piazza (in his prime), Victor Martinez, and Joe Mauer are aberrations among backstops. So to have a catcher who ranks third in OBP and Slugging – and second in Isolated Power (to the monstrous Victor Martinez).

His Win Expectancy is well in the positive, but as I’ve explained, that can be misleading. He has contributed more than .100 four times, while taking away .100 thrice, so he’s relatively even in that department. In those games, he’s +.200, meaning that he’s hacked his way to an additional .340 points in smaller situations. What I take this to mean is that he’s doing little things, and while he’s not dominating, he’s not killing the team by any means. And on top of being one of the best catchers in the AL, he’s got to be among the top No. 7 hitters in the league.

First Base (20 qualified players)
Jason Giambi: .344/.554/.852 – 2nd/1st/1st
WE: 1.171
Notable WE games: -.116 (4/5 vs. Oakland); .335 (4/11 vs. KC); .203 (4/16 vs. Minnesota); .139 (4/22 vs. Balt); .276 (4/23 vs. Balt); .153 (4/26 vs. TB); .176 (4/29 vs. Toronto); .104 (4/30 vs. Toronto)

Uh, yeah, Giambi is kinda sorta back in MVP form. And forget that 2nd rank in batting average; the only player ahead of him is Paul Konerko. And while his .360/.443/.640 line is quite impressive, all you have to do is juxtapose his with Giambi’s to prove who’s having a better season.

His greatest quality is his impeccable plate discipline, which has led to his possession of the highest OBP in baseball. Not only that, but since pitchers know he’ll only swing at strikes, they face the conundrum of facing him or putting him on base. The only snafu is that the only player protecting him is the slumping Hideki Matsui. But I’ll get to lineup optimization in just a little bit.

Second Base (14 qualified players)
Robinson Cano: .316/.341/.443 – 5th/5th/5th
WE: -.002
Notable WE games: -.118 (4/11 vs. KC); .123 (4/14 vs. Minnesota)

So here’s Cano, by the numbers one of the top second basemen in the AL, with an essentially neutral WE. He’s had one noticeably great performance (though he was the only one hitting on that horrid night in Minnesota), and sucked it up while the Captain saved the day against Kansas City. So his best game came in a loss, and his worst in a win.

Okay, we know WE isn’t the be all, end all stat when it comes to evaluating players. But we do know that it adequately sums up a player’s contribution to a win or loss on a game by game basis. And while Cano’s numbers are up there, his neutral win expectancy has me wondering. Why does it have me wondering? Well, let’s have a looksee at Candidate A.

Third Base (18 qualified players)
Alex Rodriguez: .267/.390/.477 – 12th/5th/11th
WE: -.159
Notable WE games: .143 (4/3 vs. Oakland); -.239 (4/4 vs. Oakland); -.142 (4/5 vs. Oakland); -.123 (4/8 vs. Oakland); .191 (4/19 vs. Toronto); -.165 (4/21 vs. Balt); -.167 (4/26 vs. TB); .126 (4/27 vs. TB)

Ouch. That’s all I can say about A-Rod. His WE is in the negative, and he’s not even among the top AL third basemen this season. Of course, we can expect a turnaround at some point, but it’s pretty apparent though traditional stats and WE that A-Rod just isn’t contributing to an acceptable level.

My father’s unabashed hatred for Smacky McBluelips has led me to become an A-Rod apologist. However, it has become increasingly difficult this year. What his WE composite number and game log can tell us is that, echoing a popular opinion, A-Rod is terrible in key situations. The NoMaas crew will try to have you believe otherwise by citing "Close and Late" situations (after the seventh when the teams are within three runs of each other). However, that is a very loose definition of clutch. A strikeout with the bases loaded in the fifth inning of a one-run game won’t show up in "Close and Late," but I’d define them as rather clutch situations. And there are few players I would like to see less in such situations than A-Rod at this point.

Shortstop (9 qualified players)
Derek Jeter: .396/.504/.637 – 2nd/1st/1st
WE: 1.595
Notable WE games: -.111 (4/5 vs. Oak); .122 (4/8 vs. Anaheim); .555 (4/11 vs. KC); .322 (4/15 vs. Minnesota); .100 (4/18 vs. Toronto); -.132 (4/19 vs. Toronto); .294 (4/21 vs. Balt); .100 (4/22 vs. Balt); .125 (4/25 vs. TB); .170 (4/26 vs. TB)

I’m going way out on a limb here: if any player in baseball can hit .400 this year I might just have to go with Jeter. Okay, realistically I’d say Albert Pujols. But, just look at the way Jete’s been hitting in the season’s first month. If he can maintain a .380 average for most of the season, it’ll only take a few hot streaks to push him over the threshold.

Of course, I’m being mildly facetious with this projection, but hey, we all know Derek is just one of “those players.” And “those players” always do something out of the ordinary. He’s never going to hit in 56 straight or win a home run title, but the .400 average mark is actually reasonable for Jeter – if reasonable for anyone in the majors. At the very least, I’d like to see him win a batting title. After losing the ’99 race to Nomar, he just hasn’t put up ridiculous averages. But his slide into the No. 2 hole seems to have benefited his numbers.

Left Field (17 qualified players)
Hideki Matsui: .247/.327/.409 – 11th/9th/10th
WE: -.544
Notable WE games: .117 (4/11 vs. KC); -.264 (4/15 vs. Minnesota); -.147 (4/19 vs. Toronto); -.274 (4/26 vs. TB); .173 (4/27 vs. TB); .118 (4/29 vs. Toronto); -.111 (4/30 vs. Toronto)

Okay, so maybe this isn’t as ugly as Jeter’s April of 2004. But he’s getting up there, mired in what could be the worst slump of his 3-plus year Major League career. I’m not exactly fretting over this, but I do know that his slump has cost the Yanks a game or two in April.

With Hideki, I keep thinking back to Mr. Baseball: he has a hole in his swing. He’s struck out 15 times in 104 plate appearances, or roughly once out of every seven times he steps up. That’s up from once every nine times last year, a significant downgrade.

Part of the problem, in my opinion, is his placement in the batting order. Now, I’m not saying that his numbers are deserving of a higher spot, but he looks like A-Rod in 2004, i.e. he’s not seeing enough good pitches, and is jumping on bad ones in an attempt to get a hit and start rolling. Once again, a lineup analysis is in the offing, but you can be sure I want to see Hideki moved up, at least temporarily.

Center Field (13 qualified players)
Johnny Damon: .299/.386/.485 – 3rd/2nd/4th
WE: .231
Notable WE games: .161 (4/4 vs. Oakland); .105 (4/7 vs. Anaheim); -.110 (4/8 vs. Anaheim); .123 (4/15 vs. Minnesota); -.204 (4/21 vs. Baltimore); -.112 (4/23 vs. Balt); .097 (4/25 vs. TB); -.103 (4/28 vs. Toronto); .248 (4/29 vs. Toronto); .148 (4/30 vs. Toronto)

Quickly note that Damon should be third in slugging percentage, since Craig Monroe is ranked No. 3. Curtis Granderson plays the majority of the center field innings in Detroit, making me wonder why Yahoo! includes Monroe in their listing. But whatever, you get the point; Damon is living up to the hype.

Damon had been hovering in the negative WE for most of April, until the weekend rolled around at Yankee Stadium. He’s in the positive for the moment, but I do expect further fluctuation into the negative. It’s much tougher for a leadoff hitter to accumulate a consistently positive WE, since the first out of the inning is more costly than the second and third. Damon also gets more at-bats, therefore recording more outs, which kicks his WE in the teeth.

While his OBP and average aren’t the best on the team, I can still live with him as a leadoff hitter. The big buzz around the media was how the Yankees had finally found a true leadoff hitter in Damon, but I’ve always been an advocate of Jeter in that slot – statistically the best leadoff hitter in baseball from 2000-2005. But Jeter seems to be flourishing in the two hole, and Johnny’s .386 OBP works for me.

Right Field (14 qualified players)
Gary Sheffield: .341/.390/.516 – 2nd/4th/6th
WE: -.114
Notable WE games: .220 (4/5 vs. Oakland); -.270 (4/7 vs. Anaheim); -.151 (4/11 vs. KC); .250 (4/12 vs. KC); -.105 (4/26 vs. TB); -.126 (4/27 vs. TB); .147 (4/29 vs. Toronto)

In a nutshell, Sheff has looked mostly lackadaisical out there. During his first two years in the Bronx, you could feel the intensity during every one of his at bats. The bat wave, the menacing glare towards the pitcher, the way he would rear back and put all of his force into his swing. And while that’s a completely intuitive notion, it’s how I feel about Sheff at this point. He’s walking less and striking out more, and as a result hasn’t been the power threat we’re used to.

And, like Matsui, I have a problem with Sheff’s spot in the order. I know it’s purely an ego thing that he bats third, but he really doesn’t deserve it. Then again, after reading an excerpt from The Book, I’m beginning to question the merits/importance of batting No. 3.

I wish Sheff would be reasonable and realize that playing well means Cashman will exercise his option. If he approached each plate appearance the way he has for the last two years, he’ll be pocketing an additional $13 million in no time. But, his logic is backwards, as he believes that giving a half-effort will send a message to the front office that he’s unhappy and wants to get paid. Sorry, Gary, but there are other guys in the league who can do what you do. Hell, if the Braves fall out of contention, they could be offering up Andruw Jones by mid-season. Same with the Twins and Torii Hunter.

And yet, the Yankees lineup just isn’t the same without him. This leaves me in an interesting place as a fan; on one hand, I love seeing Gary in the Yanks lineup, and am fairly certain he’ll finish among the top right fielders in the league. On the other, I hate his me-first attitude. All in all, given his performance decline over the last few years, I don’t think I’ll be all too sad to see him walk after this season. Then again, I could be singing a completely different tune in a few weeks.

All in all, the Yanks rank in the top of the league at nearly every position. This much was expected, though a bit of bad luck has led to less than optimized results. However, given the potency of this lineup, it’s a safe bet that they’ll get some good breaks to even out the bad luck. Then it all comes down to pitching and consistency, something the Yanks have been finding more of this year than they have for the past four or so.

I know this is already a long-winded piece, but I wanted to spend at least a paragraph talking about lineup analysis. Dave Pinto has a useful tool for this over at Baseball Musings. You simply enter each player’s OBP and Slugging, and the computer will spit out optimized lineups. I was tempted to write about this earlier in the month, but we were still victims of a small sample size. And really, we still are now, but it’s a little more accurate after a month of accumulating statistics. There are a few permutations of this list, and I’m going to pick the one that A) has close to the most projected runs per game and B) best aligns the team against the lefty-lefty issue.

6.976 runs per game (.09 less than optimal):
1. Jeter 2. Giambi 3. A-Rod 4. Damon 5. Sheffield 6. Matsui 7. Cano 8. Williams 9, Posada

Please note that of the 30 lineups spit out, Jeter was slated as leadoff 30 times, Giambi as No. 2 23 times, and Posada as No. 9 20 times. Bernie also landed in the No. 8 slot all 30 times. Here’s my take. There’s no way you’re moving Damon out of the No. 1 slot and Jeter out of No. 2. It’s just the way the lineup is going to be created, statistics be damned (not that I have a real problem with that 1-2 punch). So instead of doing what the numbers tell us, let’s take a more reasoned approach.

I like Giambi batting third, but I like him batting fourth more. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly a viable option if you want to avoid going lefty-lefty, considering my desire to see Matsui higher in the order. But I can’t really justify slotting him third, so fourth or fifth are the optimal spots. And remember, A-Rod and Sheffield still need their egos fed. However, screw Sheff at this point; he’s better suited to the No. 6 slot than Matsui. I still want to keep Cano at No. 9 so he’ll see pitches to hit with the top of the order due up. Taking all of this into consideration:

1. Damon 2. Jeter 3. Giambi 4. A-Rod 5. Matsui 6. Sheffield 7. Posada 8. Bernie 9. Cano

Just a few tweaks, but I think the Yanks will benefit more from Giambi batting third. He’ll have the opportunity to drive in runs with Damon and Jeter (and Cano, really) in front of him, and if they want to pitch around him, fine. He’ll take his base and leave the dirty work to A-Rod, Matsui, and Sheffield. Matsui won’t have to worry about seeing nothing to hit, since he’ll have the dangerous (or at least he’s perceived as dangerous) Sheffield hitting behind him. Jorge hasn’t had problems batting at the bottom of the order, and while I’d like to see the order go switch-lefty-switch, I’d rather see Cano hitting with Damon behind him rather than Bernie.

As you can tell, it’s been a long April. Tons of off-days and some bad luck make things seem to drag along, but things are still looking bright for the Yankees. The hitters are working, the starters are working, and the bullpen is working, so it’s only a matter of time before they fuse together to create another AL East title.