Five Questions: New York Yankees

Despite losing their two starting corner outfielders early in 2006, the Yankees managed to score 930 runs while cruising to their ninth consecutive AL East crown. The Yankees won the division by 10 games, their largest margin of victory since 2002.

The Red Sox re-loaded, adding prized free-agent hurler Daisuke Matsuzaka, talented but snake-bitten J.D. Drew and shortstop Julio Lugo. Do the Yankees still have what it takes to emerge as the AL East champion for what would be the 10th consecutive season? It will depend at least partly on the answers to these five questions.

1. Who’s on first?

Despite having the biggest payroll in baseball, the Yankees can’t seem to avoid entering a season with at least one apparent hole in the lineup. This year, the hole can be found at first base. Jason Giambi‘s health and lack of defensive ability preclude him from manning first base full time. Andy Phillips put up impressive AAA numbers in 2004 and 2005, but tanked in his first full season in the majors, hitting .240/.281/.394. At age 30, Phillips’ best days are probably behind him. Doug Mientkiewicz was signed more for his glove than his bat. Mientkiewicz’ defense still rates well by zone rating, but his offensive projections for 2007 are about 13 runs worse than an average 1B over 150 games.

Non-Giambi Yankee first basemen hit .229/.277/.382 in 419 plate appearances in 2006, so the bar is not particularly high for improvement in this area.

So what’s the answer? It could well be Rule 5 draftee Josh Phelps. Phelps’ defense is a problem, but he’s younger than either Phillips or Mientkiewicz, projects to hit better than either, and would add more right-handed pop to a lineup that’s become heavily left-handed.

Here are the average projections (CHONE, Marcel, PECOTA and ZiPS) for Mientkiewicz, Phillips and Phelps.

Mientkiewicz: .257/.338/.388
Phillips: .253/.310/.430
Phelps: .266/.324/.451

Over a full season (150 games), Phelps would be worth about one win more than either Mientkiewicz or Phillips on offense. He probably gives back a lot of that value on defense to both; the other two project fairly well defensively by zone rating. Ideally, an offense/defense platoon of Phelps and either Mientkiewicz or Phillips would seem the best bet. However, it looks like the Yankees are leaning toward keeping Phillips and Mientkiewicz, at Phelps’ expense.

2. How likely is it that Chien-Ming Wang can continue to succeed with a strikeout rate that would embarrass Kid Madden?

“For a baseball fan to fail to see that strikeout rates are closely tied to career length, I would argue, is very much like a basketball fan failing to notice that basketball players tend to be tall.”

Bill James from The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract
Nothing gets statheads more riled up than statistical outliers. Chien-Ming Wang is one of the current players who seemingly defies common sabermetric wisdom, as a very successful pitcher who has an extremely low strikeout rate.

A Google search for “chien-ming wang” lucky returns 23,400 hits.

In the article DIPS, LIPS, and Hips, David Gassko predicted that “Yankees fans should expect a big step backwards this year.”

So why are so many convinced that Wang’s success is more the product of luck than skill? The idea that Wang’s been lucky is not without merit, if you look at the pitchers who have exhibited similar stats. I calculate a stat I call K+ by dividing a pitcher’s strikeouts per batters faced by the league average for that season and multiplying by 100. Wang struck out 76 of the 900 batters he faced in 2006. AL pitchers struck out 14,397 of 85,576. So Wang’s K+ in 2006 was (76/900)/(121/85,576) x 100 = 51.

I looked at all pitchers who pitched at least 200 innings in a season since WWII and had a K+ of less than 60 at age 26 or younger. I got a list of 20 players plus Wang.

Year one will be the year where they put up the 200 innings and a K+ of 59 or less. Each subsequent year will be the following seasons.

Year 1: 4,644 innings, ERA of 3.86, ERA+ of 120 (21 pitchers)
Year 2: 2,987 innings, ERA of 4.09, ERA+ of 100 (20 pitchers)
Year 3: 2,442 innings, ERA of 4.37, ERA+ of 95 (19 pitchers)
Year 4: 1,908 innings, ERA of 3.84, ERA+ of 105 (15 pitchers)
Year 5: 1,711 innings, ERA of 4.30, ERA+ of 94 (15 pitchers)
Year 6: 1,390 innings, ERA of 4.22, ERA+ of 93 (15 pitchers)
Year 7: 1,149 innings, ERA of 4.25, ERA+ of 92 (12 pitchers)
Year 8: 731 innings, ERA of 4.25, ERA+ of 93 (9 pitchers)
Year 9: 768 innings, ERA of 4.33, ERA+ of 93 (8 pitchers)
Year 10: 425 innings, ERA of 4.35, ERA+ of 93 (6 pitchers)
Year 11: 442 innings, ERA of 4.34, ERA+ of 93 (4 pitchers)
Year 12: 368 innings, ERA of 3.81, ERA+ of 124 (2 pitchers)

Focusing on just Wang’s K rate does ignore the fact that he has succeeded by managing to keep the ball in the ballpark, and has better than average control. Wang’s career FIP of 4.03 is not much worse than his career ERA of 3.77. A pitcher who can keep his walk rate down and keep his HR rate down can succeed without striking out a lot of hitters.

However, the point is that historically, an extremely low K rate is not a good indicator for longevity. That doesn’t mean Wang can’t continue to succeed, of course. However, he’ll be doing something that few have been able to do long-term if he does it while striking out such a low percentage of the batters he faces.

3. Should he stay or should he go?

While this is probably more apt for the end of the season, Alex Rodriguez’ 2007 will determine not only the answer to this question, but also how the Yankees’ 2007 plays out.

Much has been made of Rodriguez’ opt-out clause in his contract following the 2007 season. Fairly or unfairly, a lot of the blame for the Yankees’ failure to win a World Series over the last three seasons has been laid directly on Rodriguez. A successful season by Rodriguez, helping the Yankees win the World Series, likely keeps him in pinstripes for the next few seasons.

Rodriguez has been three different players for the Yankees. The chart below shows Rodriguez’ batting runs above average using linear weights, and his defense using Chris Dial’s system for converting Zone Rating to runs.

Year    Offense   Defense   Total
2004    +38       +11       +49
2005    +68       -12       +56
2006    +33       -8        +25

In 2004 Rodriguez’s down offensive year (for him) was supplemented with very good defense, and he was worth about five wins above the average third baseman. In 2005, Rodriguez had an outstanding offensive season, making up for a massive defensive dropoff and winning the MVP. Rodriguez’s 2005 was worth six wins above an average third baseman. In 2006, Rodriguez was worth only 2.5 wins above average, as his offense slipped and his defense remained negative. If he can rebound to even his 2004 level, it makes the Yankees two wins better. Rodriguez dropped 15 pounds this offseason in an attempt to regain some of his agility. This could help his defense and may help him catch up to fastballs he was having trouble with last season.

4. What reliever(s) will be enshrined in the Circle of Trust?

Joe Torre has a history of becoming heavily reliant on certain relievers, often riding them to the point of fatigue or injury/ineffectiveness. Last year, it was 29-year-old Scott Proctor, who after a couple of mediocre partial seasons in 2004 and 2005 seemed to harness his 95 mph fastball, providing the Yankees with 102.1 innings of valuable relief. Proctor seemed to thrive under the workload. In fact, he improved as the season went on.

Date                     IP    ERA    FIP    HR/9    BB/9   K/9
4/4/2006 – 6/30/2006    50    4.14   4.69   1.26    3.8    7.2
7/1/2006 – 10/01/2006   52.1  2.92   3.27    .86    2.1    8.4

Proctor’s a risk to decline, not just because of his workload, but because last year was so out of line with his past performance. To be equipped to handle that, Torre needs to make better use of all the pitchers in the seven-man bullpen the Yankees are planning this season. Watch the performance of newcomer Luis Vizcaino. How he performs early in the season likely will dictate how much he gets used, which will lessen the need for a repeat by Proctor. The Yankees have some decent bullpen depth stashed in the minors this season as well, with Chris Britton and Brian Bruney. However, having depth but not being willing to use it defeats the purpose.

5. Who the hell is Kei Igawa?

The Yankees enter 2007 with a lot of question marks in the starting rotation. It starts at the top with the aforementioned Chien-Ming Wang, and trickles down to the 38-year-old Mike Mussina. Andy Pettitte is returning to the place where he made his mark on baseball, but he’s had injury issues at various times in his career. I won’t even get into Carl Pavano‘s injury and performance issues here.

Then, there’s Kei Igawa.

While the Yankees failed to land Matsuzaka, they did win the rights to Igawa, submitting a high bid of $26 million before signing him for five years and $20 million. Igawa’s physical talent doesn’t compare to Matsuzaka’s, but his statistical ledger in Japan is respectable.

In attempting to project what Igawa may do in the majors, I looked at the following pitchers who made the leap from Japan to the majors.

Akinori Otsuka
Hideki Irabu
Hideo Nomo
Kazuhisa Ishii
Kaz Sasaki
Keiichi Yabu
Masao Kida
Masato Yoshii
Satoru Komiyama
Shigetoshi Hasegawa
Takahito Nomura
Takashi Kashiwada
Takashi Saitoh
Tomo Ohka

Collectively, here’s how those pitchers performed in Japan.

IP: 12,153
H: 11,260
R: 5,296
ER: 4,734
HR: 902
BB: 4,290
K: 10,097

And here’s how that same group performed in MLB.

IP: 6,199
H: 6,000
R: 3,143
ER: 2,900
HR: 776
BB: 2,465
K: 4,903

To translate the Japanese performance into a major league equivalent, I matched each pitcher’s Japanese League innings to their actual major league innings so that each player contributed to both samples in the same percentage, and then calculated the differences in the components.

Japan -> MLB
H: 1.10
R: 1.14
ER: 1.16
HR: 1.84
BB: 0.78
SO: 0.87

This group of pitchers gave up 10% more hits, 14% more runs, 16% more earned runs and 84% more homers, and struck out 13% fewer hitters. The one positive is that their walk rate improved by 22%.

So what does this all mean for the Yankees? A simple three-year-weighted average of Igawa’s 2004-2006 gives us 195 innings, 188 hits, 21 HRs, 54 BB, 183 K and a 3.54 FIP. Adjusting that using the translations above, Igawa’s line would be 195 innings, 207 hits, 39 HRs, 42 BB, 159 K and a 4.79 FIP.

So the Yankees are entering 2007 with a starter who’s projected components translate to an ERA close to 5.00.

There’s no Marcel projection for Igawa, but Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection is a 4.77 ERA. If Igawa can pitch 180-200 innings and beat those projections, it helps mitigate some of the other potential risk factors in the rotation.

If Igawa does disappoint, the Yankees do have Phil Hughes waiting in the wings. Hughes projects better than any Yankee starter this season, but projecting pitching is a crapshoot, and projecting a pitcher who hasn’t even pitched above AA is even more of one. Hughes’ innings also will be limited this year, to 180 or so, so I don’t think there’s any chance of him being called up before June.

Less talented than Hughes, but also with decent chances to contribute this season are Humberto Sanchez, Tyler Clippard, Jeff Karstens and Darrell Rasner. While none have much of a high ceiling (Sanchez possibly excepted), they can’t be any worse than people like Darrell May, Tim Redding and Scott Erickson have been for the Yankees over the last few seasons.

Wrapping it all up

I don’t think there’s any question the Yankees have the most talented group of position players in baseball, regardless of their age. They should be able to score 900+ runs again this season. With a little health and some good fortune, they have an outside chance at 1,000. It’ll be up to a questionable pitching staff and a less-than-stellar defense to do their part to get them to the postseason again.

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