By Tommy Rancel //
Coming off a season in which he led the American League with 45 saves, Rafael Soriano headed into the free agent market as the best closer not named Mariano Rivera. After seeing lesser relievers sign multi-year deals, Soriano sat on the open market, looking for a big payday.
With nearly every closing vacancy filled – except the one he created in Tampa Bay – Soriano finally got his wish with a three-year, $35-million contract; however, he won’t be a closer. Instead, he signed with the New York Yankees to be the set-up man to the best closer who happens to be named Mariano Rivera.
Soriano stunned the Atlanta Braves last season when he accepted their offer of arbitration. This set off a chain of events that ended with him being the $7-million dollar closer the Tampa Bay Rays didn’t intend to have. Unafraid of the competition level in the AL East, Soriano racked up 45 saves while compiling a minuscule 1.73 ERA in 64 appearances. He is unlikely to replicate his low ERA in a hitter-friendly environment, but even if he regresses his career 2.73 ERA is very good.
Soriano limited the number of runs he allowed by limiting baserunners. Opponents hit just .170 off the righty and he walked just 2.02 batters per nine innings (BB/9). When a runner reached base, he was stranded nearly 82% of the time.After posting a career-high strikeout rate of 12.13 per nine innings (K/9) in 2009, he dropped down to 8.23 in 2010. The drop is significant, but is still above-average and his 11.7% whiff rate was also stellar.
All things considered, Soriano is still one of the best non-closing relievers to consider on draft day. Even if Rivera remains healthy, Soriano should post a sub 3.00 ERA with steady peripherals and get 8-10 saves. If Rivera should hit the DL, he would get even more. Additionally, if your league counts holds he should be considered higher than some potential AL closers like Octavio Dotel or Kevin Gregg.
by Eno Sarris //
The man with a lot of names is bringing his game to River Avenue: Russell Martin has agreed to a one-year contract with the Yankees. He’s not much of a consolation prize for losing out on Cliff Lee, but Martin still fills a need, and may even enjoy a bit of a bounceback in the Bronx. The move also means a lot for the organization, as minor as the signing might seem.
The team had already announced that Jorge Posada would function mostly as the designated hitter in 2011. He hasn’t hit well as a DH in the past (.223/.336/.361), but being relieved of the rigors of catching might allow him to play more often and have a mini-resurgence of his own. At the very least, it rids the Yankees of Posada’s subpar defense behind the dish. By announcing the move early, the Yankees basically admitted that they would spend the off-season looking for a solution at the position.
The speculation to date had been that the team would play Jesus Montero for the lion’s share of the at-bats at the position – speculation based on the strength of Montero’s bat. That bat is impressive: Montero just hit .289/.353/.517 in Triple-A, with 21 home runs…as a 20-year-old. That’s made even greater by the fact that the International League is one of the minors’ toughest places for offense.
Unfortunately, Montero isn’t known for his work behind the plate, and even after four years spent shoring up his footwork and receiving ability, he may not be long for the position. Some prospect gurus, like Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus, are more blunt about his flaws. Goldstein has also pointed out that Montero would be larger than any other catcher in the game. Now with Lee in Philadelphia, Montero might actually be the main chip in a trade to net another starter for the Yankees. He’s gone from Opening Day starter to a possible trade candidate in the span of a month or two.
Cue Russ Martin. After peaking with a .293/.374/.469 line (with 19 home runs and 21 stolen bases) in 2007, Martin has seen his statistics wither away – down to last year’s .248/.347/.332 with five home runs and six stolen bases in a career-low 387 plate appearances. The good news is that Martin has retained his excellent eye at the plate – he continues to walk (12.9% career) and not strike out too much (15.8% career).
Mostly, he’s lost his power and speed. His speed may not return – it’s rare for a catcher to continue stealing bases long into his career, and Martin is coming off of a leg injury. Martin never had much power: At his peak (.176 ISO in 2007) he was only slightly above average (.150 most years). The last two years, his power has been middle-infield-esque, though (.079 and .085 ISO respectively).
Can he return to respectability in that category? Maybe. The park factor for right-handed home runs in Los Angeles was 92 last year, and in New York it was 110. To take advantage of the friendly confines, Martin will have to get more balls in the air. If he, perhaps, puts up a flyball percentage like the one he showed in 2007 (34.1%) rather than the one he had last year (28.3%), he could see a few more big flies in 2011.
With a little step back in strikeouts (last year’s 18.4% was a career high), and slightly better luck on balls in play (.287 BABIP last year, .302 career), Martin’s batting average might also improve in 2011. With his walk rate as it is, he’s still a boon in leagues that count on-base percentage. And even with reduced speed, he should steal a handful of bases. Martin is a decent bet for a slight bounceback. He’s a worthy late-round flyer in mixed leagues.
By Eriq Gardner //
by Eno Sarris //
Things are getting heated in the negotiations between Derek Jeter and the Yankees. Over the holiday week, Brian Cashman dropped this bomb in typically understated fashion:
“We understand his contributions to the franchise and our offer has taken them into account,” Cashman said. “We’ve
encouraged him to test the market and see if there’s something he
would prefer other than this. If he can, fine. That’s the way it
That is the way it works, but of course the baseball blogosphere took the tidbit and ran with it. Some of the fake baseball cards created by Beckett.com were chilling, and the prospect of Jeter in another uniform should be doubly chilling to fantasy players planning on snapping up Jeter as a bounce-back shortstop in 2011.
R.J. Anderson did a fine job taking a look at the historical precedent that 37-year old shortstops have provided in his article on Jeter earlier in the month. The most damning paragraph:
In June, Jeter will turn 37. No shortstop (defined by
having played at least 50% of their games at the position along with 300
plate appearances) aged at least 37 has ever hit more than nine home
runs in a season. Since 1970, only 20 shortstops met that qualification
after turning 37, with the highest batting average being .295, the
highest on-base percentage being .367, and the highest slugging
percentage being .419. Over the last three seasons, Jeter’s line:
.301/.369/.414. Meanwhile, only two of those players finished with an
OPS above the league’s average.
Looking at Jeter’s combination of BABIP and batting average last year (.307 BABIP, .270 batting average), you might wonder where some optimistic batting average projections are coming from. Bill James has him projected at .295, for example. On the other hand, Jeter is still athletic, has a much better career BABIP (.356), and could easily find himself batting closer to .300 next year.
And yet, if Jeter ends up in a different uniform, he probably won’t be a great bounceback pick. Three important statistics that have always been in Jeter’s favor could then work against him: plate appearances, runs and RBI.
If Jeter were to don a new uniform in 2011, the most vulnerable statistic would be runs scored. Since Jeter joined the Yankees’ lineup for good fifteen years ago, he’s averaged 112 runs per season. That’s meant that even in his worst seasons, he’s been a boon in the category. The Yankees lineup has driven him in prolifically, and last year that offense scored the most runs in baseball (859). The offenses on the two teams that have been linked to Jeter, the Giants and Orioles, weren’t even close. In fact, the Giants (697 runs) scored only 81% of the runs that the Yankees scored.
Let’s say we walk the runs and RBI projections for Jeter back 15% – after all Jeter would improve those two lineups ostensibly – and the package looks a little worse. Now we’re talking about a player that will gather around 85 runs and 50 RBI.
And there’s one last caveat. The projections we’ve been using here – Bill James’ on FanGraphs – use 703 plate appearances. A 37-year-old shortstop has never amassed 700 plate appearances. Omar Vizquel‘s 659 plate appearances in 2006 is tied with Luke Appling‘s effort in 1946 as the most ever by a 37-year-old at the position. Only nine other men have ever crossed the 600 plate appearance threshold. If we remove another 50 plate appearances to place Jeter in the middle of the best old shortstops ever, now we’re hoping that Jeter can get to double-digits in homers and steals, and worrying that he might not garner even 80 runs and 45 RBI.
Later in 2011 drafts, you may be looking at Jeter among some shortstops that are at least five years younger than him. Would you pick Jeter over Alexei Ramirez (.280, 18 HR, 80 R, 78 RBI, 12 SB), Stephen Drew (projected for .270, 16 HR, 82 R, 67 RBI and 8 SB), or Elvis Andrus (.274, 2 HR, 82 R, 43 RBI, 34 SB)?
The answer to that question will depend, of course, on the actual draft positions required to grab each of the shortstops in question. But, looking at the runs and RBI totals of this projected crew, it doesn’t look like Jeter would be the same old Jeter in a new uniform. Fantasy managers looking to grab Jeter as a value should join the throng hoping that Jeter will re-up with the Yankees.
By R.J. Anderson //
Derek Jeter is a free agent by name only. The Yankees’ only conundrum in re-signing their captain will be similar to the ones the Bombers faced with Andy Pettitte last offseason: how long and for how much?
Those questions are not easy to answer in this case, because Jeter’s marketing power and brand are unrivaled. The Yankees’ own brand would not suffer from losing Jeter – they were popular before him too, you know – but they have no reason to pass on him (despite diminishing skills) because a sunk cost is no big deal to New York.
Jeter’s 2010 season represents a massive disappointment. Fresh off a season in which hit .334/.406/.465 with 18 home runs, Jeter failed to come near those numbers. His batting average slipped under .300 (to .270) for the first time since 2004. His on-base percentage fell below .350 (.340) for the first time in his career – the same can be said of his slugging percentage ending at less than .400. Jeter still managed 10 home runs and 18 stolen bases, but his mediocre stats and slap-hitting ways might represent the future more than Yankees fans would like to believe.
In June, Jeter will turn 37. No shortstop (defined by having played at least 50% of their games at the position along with 300 plate appearances) aged at least 37 has ever hit more than nine home runs in a season. Since 1970, only 20 shortstops met that qualification after turning 37, with the highest batting average being .295, the highest on-base percentage being .367, and the highest slugging percentage being .419. Over the last three seasons, Jeter’s line: .301/.369/.414. Meanwhile, only two of those players finished with an OPS above the league’s average.
In other words, Jeter’s not likely to get much better than he’s played lately as he ages. The crowd perception is that Jeter will get a deal worth three years at roughly $15 million per year. Even though three years does not seem like a long time, one has to wonder if Jeter’s increasing immobility at shortstop along with the presence of prospect Eduardo Nunez will result in the Yankees moving Jeter to the outfield or full-time DH before the contract expires. Moving him becomes a definite if the Yankees foolishly give in to Jeter’s supposed desire for six years. Consider the idea admirable – in the sense that Jeter loves to play and really wants to test the limits of his icon boundaries – but also insane.
As for your fantasy docket, one would expect him to be undervalued entering next season, and there’s something possibility for a bit of positive regression after such a huge year-over-year drop. Still, in most leagues Jeter’s name value will inflate his bidding price beyond a reasonable range.
Tread softly and do not be afraid to let him go. Unlike the Yankees, you have a choice.
By Tommy Rancel //
Coming off his worst start of the season, Phil Hughes looks to rebound tonight against the Oakland Athletics. Sure, the five runs allowed in 3.2 innings last time out hurt fantasy owners, but it may have bought you more time with the Yankees’ young righty. While some suggest New York should be counting pitches thrown (102 pitches in his short 3.2 inning outing) and not innings, the common belief is Hughes is on an innings limit rather than a pitch limit. There is no public number, but that limit is believed to be around 170-180 innings.
In 2010, Hughes has thrown just under 145 innings. That is up from the 105 (combined major and minor leagues) he threw last season. That potentially leaves fantasy owners with 25-35 innings of Hughes to work with. We don’t know if they will all be starts, or if he makes a couple more starts and then shifts to the bullpen. There is a good chance, though, that those will be above-average innings.
Despite last week’s bump in the road, Hughes is still 15-6 with a 4.12 ERA. According to fielding independent pitching (FIP), which measures home runs allowed, walks, and strikeouts, he has actually been a tick better (4.02 FIP) than his ERA. His 7.61 strikeouts per nine innings rate (K/9) is slightly above average. Moreover, he does a good job of limiting walks (2.68 per nine). His home run rate is so-so at 1.18/9 IP, with some of that number attributable to his home ballpark being a launching pad for left-handed hitters.
If Hughes remains a starter, you might be able squeeze two or three wins out of him in the four or five starts he has left. On the other hand, if he splits his time between the rotation and the bullpen, hi ratios might actually improve.
*Phil Hughes Year-To-End Projections by Bloomberg Sports
Hughes did dual duty in the major leagues during the 2009 season. He made 44 appearances in relief, but also made seven starts. In his time as a reliever, he had a 1.44 ERA and struck out 65 batters in 51.1 innings. That translates into a K/9 of 11.43 – a number generally reserved for the elite.
Regardless of what the Yankees do, make sure Hughes remains in your plans as we shift our focus toward the playoffs. That said, make sure you have a contingency plan as well. For that, look no further than Hughes’ teammate Ivan Nova.
The 23-year-old right-hander has made four appearances for the Yankees – including two starts. He sports a shiny 1.93 ERA and his 2.89 FIP isn’t too shabby either. With Andy Pettitte injured, A.J. Burnett struggling, and Javier Vazquez in the pen, there is a chance that Nova remains in the Yankees rotation through September.
Looking at his peripheral stats, Nova’s K/9 (7.07), BB/9 (1.29), and HR/9 (0.56) suggest the kid is not just throwing hard (94.1 mph average), but also pitching well. Of course, these are small-sample size number. Still, with five or six starts left this season, pitching for a team that offers plenty of run support, Nova’s a decent pickup, especially if your league is deeper than the standard mixed format.
For more on Phil Hughes and other young starters facing innings limits, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Kits.
By R.J. Anderson //
One of the weekend’s biggest trades brought Lance Berkman to the New York Yankees from the Houston Astros for two minor leaguers. Berkman was in the lineup on Saturday night; batting second while starting at DH. That seems to be the lineup slot and position he’ll likely man during his tenure in New York. Does that make him an attractive option in AL-only leagues?
Berkman’s switch-hitting ability meshes well with the rest of the Yankees’ lineup, which features three other switch-hitters in Nick Swisher, Mark Teixeira, and Jorge Posada. Throughout his career Berkman has hit righties better than lefties, however. With a sky-high .307 AVG/.423 OBP/.591 SLG versus righties, but just .262/.366/.415 vs. lefties. The good news for current and potential Berkman owners is that he’ll be spending a lot of time batting from the left-handed batters’ box, meaning the short porch in Yankee Stadium’s right field could be in play often.
It’s easy to look at his career interleague numbers (which feature a .295/.390/.511 slash line with 30 home runs in 711 plate appearances) and assume he’ll continue to hit that well in the AL. The reality is, those numbers are meaningless. Berkman has been playing baseball in the majors since 1999. He’s appeared in nearly 1,600 games. He has 6,720 career plate appearances. To separate 711 over a span of 12 seasons and assume they’re meaningful doesn’t make sense. He may have faced more weak teams than strong teams and played in friendly hitting environments on the road, or had other factors skew his performance. He’s also past his prime at this point, making some of his peak performance look dated.
Graphic courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com
What we know is that the level of competition in the American League East far outweighs that of the National League Central. It would be nonsensical to assume Berkman’s projected performances couldn’t slip based on competition alone. The move into Yankees Stadium will help. Being surrounded by great hitters will help when it comes to scoring runs. But there is no guarantee he will light up the league.
That doesn’t mean he’s not worth your time. With the deadline passed, you might as well break your free agent acquisition budget. But if you’re looking to give our offense a big lift, consider making a trade or two to augment the size of your potential offensive boost.
For more on Lance Berkman and his new team, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office
By Bloomberg Sports //
On July 10, Joba Chamberlain‘s shaky season took a turn for the worse, when he surrendered an eighth-inning grand slam to Seattle’s Jose Lopez en route to a 4-1 Yankees loss. The poor performance reawakened calls for the Yankees and fantasy owners to consider exploring other options.
On the surface, it isn’t hard to see why both Yankees fans and fantasy owners have found Chamberlain frustrating in 2010. The big right-hander’s ERA stands at 5.77, his WHIP’s at 1.51, with opponents now hitting a robust .290 against him. He has not had more than three consecutive scoreless appearances since the middle of May. Of the 11 appearances in which he has allowed a run this year, he has allowed either 3 or 4 runs in five of them, a trend that makes it all but impossible for him to consistently lower his ERA.
In reality, Chamberlain’s luck has been the biggest difference this year from years past. Chamberlain’s FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching–a version of ERA that strips away all luck-related variables) stands at 2.66, more than three runs lower than his ERA. He is not walking his way into trouble, as his 3.23 walk rate is his lowest since 2007 and about league-average. His live drive rate is up a little bit, but a 21.7% line drive rate–compared to a career rate of 19.4%–doesn’t account for more than three runs of difference between ERA and FIP.
Chamberlain’s sky-high .391 BABIP (Career: .327) and microscopic 58.7% strand rate (Career: 73.1%) are the main reasons for his struggles. One minor change, a decrease in pop-ups (2.9%, Career: 9.6%), hasn’t helped. But the rest of his profile’s mostly unchanged.
In 2007, Chamberlain burst on the scene with just 1 earned run allowed in 24 innings pitched, is hardly a distant memory for Yankee fans. When it was announced in March that he would return to the bullpen, there was anticipation of an immediate return to his lights-out form from three years ago. This has yet to happen, but the inevitable regression away from the abysmal luck Chamberlain has experienced so far this season could go a long way toward bringing back the Yankees’ shut-down 8th-inning man.
With the increased heat on Chamberlain’s fastball–which is once again consistently in the upper-90s–to consider, along with his past success in the eighth inning, an improvement should come sooner rather than later. If you own Joba in a deep fantasy league, especially one that counts holds, he is certainly worth your patience.
(chart and statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.com)
By Bloomberg Sports //
A.J. Burnett’s ERA is higher than it has ever been in his career, and Yankee fans wonder why. At the All-Star break, Burnett holds a 7-7 record with a 4.75 ERA, .85 higher than his career 3.90 mark. And that’s after two straight strong starts to end the first half.
The biggest cause of Burnett’s struggles is a reduction in strikeout rate. From 2008 to 2010, Burnett’s Ks have gone from 9.4/9 IP to 8.5/9 to 6.8/9. Burnett is essentially striking out one-third fewer batters he did in his contract year.
What has led to this trend? One statistic to consider is opponent whiff rate. If batters are swinging and missing less, then it would make sense that Burnett is less capable of striking batters out. During Burnett’s best season in terms of ERA, 2004, his whiff rate was 11.8%. In ’08, his best season in terms of number of wins, his whiff rate was 10.3.% This season: 7.3%.
Besides the decline in whiff rate, there’s also the issue of when those swings and misses transpire. Analyzed by counts, a general trend of lowered whiff rate in each type of count is seen from 2008 through 2010.
However, two numbers seem unusual, and significant, outside of the trend. One, while Burnett’s whiff rate has consistently gone down in a “neutral” count, e.g. 0-0, or 1-1 (from 7.8%, to 7.4%, to 6.4% over the past three seasons) even more drastic is the drop-off in whiff rate with two strikes. In 2008, that number stood at 17.3%; it fell to 14.9% in such situations for 2009, then 12.2% this season. Two, in both 2007 and 2008, Burnett’s whiff rate was higher behind in the count than ahead in the count, though still lower than with two strikes. However, in 2009 and 2010, his whiff rate has been higher ahead in the count than behind in the count, which should actually lead to more strikeouts.
Burnett’s whiff rate should be attributable to a specific part of his game, whether it’s velocity, control, or pitch patterns. While an overall decrease in whiff rate is unlikely to be the result of different pitch patterns, the reduced rate with two strikes, and the reduced percentage behind in the count relative to ahead in the count, may be explained by a difference in pitch trends. One noticeable pitching trend for Burnett is that with two strikes, while even or ahead in the count, he throws consistently more curveballs. However, with the count full, he has gone to his fastball more. Overall, Burnett has become more reliant on his curve with two sstrikes. This decision makes sense for Burnett, considering his curveball is statistically his best pitch in terms of whiff rate percentage this season, at 12.6%. Furthermore, hitters are batting .221 against the curveball, the lowest mark against any of his primary pitches. So, his pitching trends should only help his strikeout numbers improve, not decline.
Is his control impaired then? Actually, his control is the same this season as it has been his entire career. Burnett’s 3.8 BB/9 IP is identical to his career average, and even lower than last year’s “great season” in which he walked 4.2/9 innings. So Burnett’s pitch patterns have shifted, but should have only helped. And yet, he cannot strike people out.
Could the answer then lie in Burnett’s velocity? According to Fangraphs.com, Burnett’s velocity is down this season, averaging 93.2 MPH on his fastball, lower than his career 94.6 average, and way down from the 95.1 average in 2007. Even if Burnett’s velocity has declined, this would only matter if batters swung and missed at the fastball less as a result. However, in the tricky narration that is A.J. Burnett, batters are swinging and missing more often at his slower fastball, and whiffing less often at his curveball compared to years past. This season, batters are swinging and missing 6% of the time against his fastball, compared to 4% in 2009.
On the surface, it’s hard to understand the cause of Burnett’s strikeout struggles. It’s possible Burnett’s reduced fastball velocity is not affecting outcomes on his fastball, but rather on his curve. The velocity differential is reduced between the two pitches, allowing hitters more time to diagnose the curveball and its location. While Fangraphs suggested it’s the location of Burnett’s curveball that’s causing the righty’s problems, we can look at Bloomberg Sports tools to negate this idea.
By R.J. Anderson //
Nearly 50 games into the regular season and Derek Jeter does not look like Derek Jeter. It starts with his .275/.319/.399 slash line, which looks like it belongs to Jeter’s backup in any given year. Jeter is walking in fewer than 5% of his plate appearances – a career low – and striking out more than in recent years. Is there any upside to keeping the Yankees’ captain, or is this the beginning of the end?
Jeter is seeing significantly fewer pitches than normal. Between 2005 and 2009, Jeter’s seasonal low for pitches per plate appearance was 3.72, this year it’s 3.59. Making matters worse is that Jeter is hitting nearly 70% of his batted balls on the ground. Given the limitations of batted ball data – i.e. whether the ball is being hit hard, or softly – it’s impossible to say whether Jeter is replicating his trademark out (the slow grounder to shortstop) more often than usual. Two things are certain: 1) Jeter’s .300 BABIP is well below recent norms and 2) Jeter is swinging outside of the zone more than he ever has before. That could be a sign of pressing or a sign that Jeter’s plate approach is waning.
While Jeter should not be expected to continue to perform this poorly heading forward, the reality is that he is a soon-to-be 36-year-old shortstop. Mike Axisa of the wonderful River Avenue Blues site recently tweeted that only three 36-year-old shortstops in the last 50 years have posted an OPS+ of 100 or better. Those three were Barry Larkin, Ozzie Smith, and Luis Aparicio, three of the all-time positional greats.
Deciding whether to sell low on Jeter or not might be the most difficult decision some fantasy owners will make this season. Simply put, there’s no right answer. Yes, he’s old for a starting major league shortstop. But he’s also coming off a fantastic season and is one of the finest talents to ever take the field. The best news might come from 2008. Jeter had similarly poor outings in April and May — posting OPS of .654 and .715 respectively – before hitting his stride and finishing as an above-average hitter. That was just two seasons ago, so it’s certainly not impossible to think Jeter could do it once more.
For more on Derek Jeter and other struggling veterans, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.