Five questions: New York Yankeesby Nick Fleder
March 07, 2012
Will the West Coast boys thrive in the Bronx?
Hiroki Kuroda has enjoyed four rock solid, if unspectacular, years in Chavez Ravine, putting together anywhere from 2.1 to 4.1 fWAR in those campaigns. Michael Pineda is a budding star, rocking a powerful fastball-slider combo that yielded 3.4 wins above replacement in his rookie season. Both are unquestionably above-average major league pitchers, and at this point, it’s unclear if Phil Hughes or Freddy Garcia fits that mold. So firstly, the newest Men in Pinstripes are certainly improvements.
What does Pineda need to do? Says R.J. Anderson over at Baseball Prospectus, “adapt to the Bronx and further develop his tertiary pitch.” Says Paul Swydan over at FanGraphs, “He could make things easier on himself by working to refine his changeup so that it is more than the show-me pitch it was last year.” It’s no surprise that Yankee Stadium is less friendly to pitchers, particularly those with a fondness for fly balls, than Safeco Park. But just how much?
Safeco Park clocks in with a 1.037 homer mark on ESPN Park Factors, meaning it is ever so slightly above average in terms of home runs allowed. Yankee Stadium, on the other hand, has a 1.267 homer mark. This is roughly the same difference between Wrigley Field (0.987) and Petco Park (0.799). Suffice it to say that he may well struggle, but he has the talent, by all means, to overcome the homers.
As Brad Johnson pointed out in the comments section of his “Let There Be News: Volume 4” column, all teams aim, in theory, to pay less for a win than the typical average market rate of a win (seen to be $5 million). The Rays, he assumed, might look to pay $2.5 million for a win. The Yankees, on the other hand, may search for bargains when they can, but perhaps $10-15 million represents closer to what they might be willing to pay for one win.
So, while an average team might, in hindsight, consider Kuroda an unworthy signing if he doesn’t put up at least 2.0 WAR given his $10 million contract, the Yankees may only expect 1.0 WAR—and perhaps that is all they will receive.
Kuroda saw his homer-per-fly ball rate jump, as he allowed a career-high 24 homers in 2011, considerably higher than his previous mark of 15 allowed. Also, his groundball rate dropped nearly 8 percent. His FIP- was 101, never having been below 87 in his previous three seasons. The sunset is setting on Kuroda’s career, but perhaps he has just enough in the tank to provide value as a No. 3/4 pitcher, and perhaps he can bring home a championship in what may be his final major league season.
How good can the bullpen be?
Anchored by the best closer there ever was, the Yankees haven’t had to worry about the ninth inning for the last fourteen years, at least. Chalk this up as another year devoid of ninth-inning worries, and while you’re at it, take a look at this bullpen construction:
Inning Incumbent Career Saves Career ERA Career K/9 2011 fWAR 9th Mariano Rivera 603 2.21 8.25 2.4 8th David Robertson 3 3.03 12.03 2.8 7th Rafael Soriano 90 2.86 9.49 0.3 6th Phil Hughes 3 4.46 7.51 0.7
Sure, Rafael Soriano and Phil Hughes (in a starting gig) were unimpressive in terms of 2011 fWAR. It’s fair to say Soriano was a vast overpay by the Steinbrenners (er, Cashman), but he can be dominant in the seventh inning if he re-harnesses his control (his walks-per-nine jumped by over two last year) and finds himself on the right side of the luck equation.
Also worth noting is his over-reliance on the slider in 2011; Soriano threw it 31.2 percent of the time, up considerably from his 2010 mark of 21.6 percent. Additionally, he threw a cutter—perhaps influenced by the presence, or in awe of Mariano Rivera, or maybe a combination of both—20.1 percent of the time.
In doing so, he threw his fastball a career-low 48.8 percent of the time (down sharply from his career average of nearly 70 percent). All three pitches had positive pitch values, but his fastball was the key to his success in 2009 and was a big factor in the subsequent campaign, too. He’d do well to throw it more; a lot more, in fact.
Hughes had a well-documented and wildly successful foray into bullpen-land in 2009, posting a simultaneously filthy and sparkling 1.40 ERA in 51-plus innings and whiffing 65 of the 193 batters he faced, good for a 33.6 percent strikeout rate. His stuff stumbled and his success fizzled in the 2011 season, where he stopped getting whiffs (6.2 swinging-strike percentage), strikeouts (5.67 strikeout per nine inning rate), and stopped stranding men on base (65.7 percent strand-rate).
This is all a long-winded way of saying he had an injury-plague campaign (he did only appear in 17 games, 14 of which were starts). If he’s healthy, he could be dominant in a less trying sixth-inning role.
The Yankees had the second-best bullpen in the league last year, trailing only the Papelbons (er, Red Sox), and still only by 0.7 fWAR. A huge asset, the bullpen was also a beneficiary of the Pineda deal, which allowed for Hughes to enter the trenches and get the ball rolling in the sixth inning. It should propel the Yankees to the high mark on the bullpen fWAR leaderboards next season, and in doing so, perhaps another AL East division title.
What was the best offseason move?
Perhaps this is unfair when the rotation improvements are considered, but I’ll wager the Raul Ibanez signing was the best move. The $1.1 million incentives-laden deal may look foolish on the surface, as the dwindling Ibanez tanked all the way to -1.3 fWAR last year, but fear not. Brian Cashman knows what he was doing when he passed on the likes of Johnny Damon.
Ibanez hit 16 homers in 402 at-bats against righties, putting together a respectable .256/.307/.440 triple-slash, despite a lower-than-usual .270 BABIP. Compare this, if you will, to his anemic .211/.232/.353 triple-slash against lefties, which, when coupled with his poor fielding numbers, goes a long way to explain his sub-replacement level showing.
However, Ibanez has been 10 percent above league average at the dish over the last three seasons, which accounts for his lefty at-bats, too. The beauty of the signing is that Ibanez will shift out of the lineup against lefties, yielding time to Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, or the other assorted tired veteran of the day while giving allowing for more playing time for the neglected Eduardo Nunez.
Leaving Damon at the altar couldn’t have felt good from the GM’s seat, but it was a smart move. Ibanez is a driven veteran searching for a rebound and another championship, and he's on a short leash with the still-capable Andruw Jones and half-adept Eric Chavez scowling behind him. Friendly competition never hurts.
Is all of the above a recipe for success?
A revamped starting rotation. A top-notch bullpen. Nick Swisher’s option picked up. Russell Martin returning. An offseason of healing for Alex “Nagging Injury” Rodriguez. Their ace having gone through a new diet.
The Yankees have a plethora of reasons to believe that 2012 will be the year of their 28th World Series victory. The Bombers simply ran into elite starting pitching in their ALDS matchup against the Tigers and have set themselves up nicely for a playoff run behind what may make for elite starting pitching and the typical offensive juggernaut.
In the simplest of terms, they got better in one place without getting worse anywhere else; I’d call that a recipe for success any day.
Who will the winter 2012-13 free agent splash be?
I suppose I am a bit of a walking (writing?) contradiction in that I love the Pineda deal partly because it gives the Yankees a young, cost-controlled starter of the “potential ace” mold. As if the Yankee homer needs a cost-controlled ace, an embarrassment of riches, that is. Wouldn’t they rather spend another hundred million on the next big market figure?
Maybe it’s the small market-infatuation that I have deep down inside—I love to see how the game works from a small-market perspective, even as a New York man—but it was a refreshing change of pace to see the team I grew up loving trade for a pitcher rather than having to buy their soul on the free-agent market. It also, in theory, keeps the payroll lower for next year’s presumptive free-agent purchase or two.
(After all, unless the Yankees’ Plan B was to tender a contract to another Bartolo Colon-esque pitcher, they would have been forced, in all likelihood, to settle for a multi-year contract for the likes of a Edwin Jackson. At least I hope their Plan B wasn’t Bartolo Colon).
Here are the potential addendums to Sabathia, Pineda, and Ivan Nova:
With the exception of Cain, who is likely to re-sign with the Giants, the Yankees have set themselves up nicely (as if they needed to) to commit next year to one or two from the far superior Class of 2013 crop, rather than burning cash on a long-term commitment in the form of an Edwin Jackson. Would Hamels look good in pinstripes? I hardly care. But for the record:
Nick can be reached for questions, comments, or concerns via email: nick.fleder AT gmail DOT com.