If the rumors do indeed come to pass (and it looks like they are going to), Vernon Wells will be moving across country to join the New York Yankees. The Yankees have been searching for an outfield bat with some pop throughout the Spring and apparently GM Brian Cashman. The Angels have been trying to dump Wells since they decided to shoot themselves in the foot, acquiring the outfielder at the steep cost of Mike Napoli, which meant the gears for a deal where properly greased. But the big question is why would the Yankees want a player the Angels are so desperate to get rid of?
“I’m really excited,” Francona said on the air as an ESPN analyst, his job for the past season. “People who don’t know me may have thought I was looking for something different.” – Terry Francona, on accepting the job to be the manager of the Cleveland Indians
“We have better talent than our record shows.”– Indians GM Chris Antonetti, a couple of days before hiring Terry Francona
Optimism is abuzz in Cleveland as we approach the reporting of pitchers and catchers, thanks to a flurry of offseason activity that brought new manager Terry Francona, who should be a perfect fit. GM Chris Antonetti was a busy bee this offseason, bringing in Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds, Drew Stubbs, Trevor Bauer, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Jason Giambi among others to beef up the roster to make a potential playoff push. And you know what? I think they have quite a few reasons to be optimistic:
The American League Championship Series got off to a rousing start last night before, ultimately, ending on a sour note. Tigers closer Jose Valverde continued his season long battle with the save, giving up a pair of 2-run homers and a 4-0 lead to the Yankees in the bottom of the 9th. A couple innings later, the Tigers were able to parlay an atrocious display of defense by Nick Swisher and some timely hits into a pair of 12th inning runs to escape with a 1-0 series lead. The game was particularly disastrous for New York because not only did they hand over home-field advantage, captain Derek Jeter was also lost for the rest of the playoffs due to a broken ankle.
With the playoffs fast approaching, half of the teams in Major League Baseball are either looking at a playoff spot or still have fantasies of winning one. All that means is that we as fans have a smorgasbord of delicious games to watch between wanna-be playoff teams. Let’s take a look at the 3 best series of the weekend:
The New York Yankees, losers of 6 of their last 7 games, currently have some major issues right now. The team has fallen in to a last place tie with the Boston Red Sox at 21-21, 5.5 games behind the Baltimore Orioles. The Yankees have had a rough season on the injury front as well, losing many expected key contributors for the remainder of the season. During their recent losing streak the Yankees have been outscored 34-15 and have been unwatchable when hitting with runners in scoring position, batting 6-73, for a .083 batting average. At some point the law of averages says New York will have to start hitting with runners on so what are the team’s real issues? And is any of this fixable for a ballclub that many, myself included, thought would be a World Series contender at best and a playoff team at worst? Let’s break down some of the issues in the Bronx:
The most impactful injury to date for the Yankees hasn’t been the loss of Mariano Rivera, it’s been the loss of Brett Gardner for the past month. Gardner hasn’t played since April 17th and was off to a fantastic start. He was hitting .321/.424/.393 with 2 steals while playing his trademark excellent defense. Gardner’s defense rated by most defensive metrics to be the best in baseball during the 2011 season, and without the speedster, the Yankees have been forced to choose between Raul Ibanez terrible glove and Dewayne Wise’s all-around useless game. The sooner Gardner gets back in the lineup and starts stealing bases and taking away hits the better for New York.
The Yankees are one of the many teams that have been cruelly bitten by the injury bug. The pitching staff has seen more quality arms go on the disabled list than any other franchise in the league. Michael Pineda and Joba Chamberlain, who the Yankees were counting on to throw around 240-260 combined innings in 2012, probably won’t throw a pitch this season. The greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, was horrifyingly lost for the year after slipping on the warning track in Kansas City. Rivera had thrown at least 60 innings for 9 consecutive seasons, a streak that will come to an end this year. David Robertson will be out for at least another week after straining his oblique against the Mariners on May 11th. All of those injuries will cost the Yankees 300+ combined innings, which is tough for any team, even the wealthiest, to overcome.
The good news is that the Yankees bullpen has still been strong despite missing 3 of its 4 best arms. David Phelps has thrown 29.1 innings of quality baseball, allowing only 9 earned runs. Cory Wade has given the Yankees 20 quality innings as well, and has a 190 ERA+ with a WHIP below 1. The highly paid Rafael Soriano has been worth some of his contract this season, throwing for a 172 ERA+ in 14.1 innings and earning 2 saves.
The Yankees probably won’t have the top rated bullpen in baseball like they did in 2011, but the team still has plenty of talented fireman, and will probably rank as one of the best in the American League again. The bigger problem will be overcoming the loss of Michael Pineda, which will thrust Andy Pettitte into a larger role, and forces Phil Hughes to step up.
The Yankees pitching has been downright abysmal this season, after ranking 10th in baseball in 2011. The Yankees currently rank 23rd in baseball in run prevention, and have given up the 2nd most long balls. The entire rotation of CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, and Phil Hughes has been homer-happy, allowing 38 of the 54 total. The Yankees tiny ballpark has something to do with those homeruns, but as Hiroki Kuroda said a few days ago “The homeruns I’ve been giving up are homeruns everywhere.” That, more than anything else, has been the Yankees biggest problem this season. Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, and Hiroki Kuroda all have allowed more than 10 hits per 9 innings, which means their all being hit like piñatas at a birthday party. Each pitcher has had issues locating the ball over the plate up in the zone, which are correctable going forward and could lead to some big improvement.
In better news, the Yankees rank 3rd in baseball in strikeouts, behind only the hard-throwing pitching staffs of the Nationals and Tigers. New York also has the 5th best strikeout-to-walk rate in the Majors, tied with the Cincinnati Reds. If Yankees pitchers can cut down on the homeruns allowed, their ability to strike hitters out should begin to result in quality starts, which lead to victories.
Currently every major team defensive metric available rates the Yankees defense as terrible. The outfield has been absolutely porous when Raul Ibanez plays. This issue will be alleviated by the return of Brett Gardner, the best defensive player in baseball, but only he can do so much for the team as a whole.
Derek Jeter’s bat may be looking spry, but his range in the field is certainly showing signs of age. Jeter has never been very good going to field balls hit up the middle, but this season he is reaching fewer of those than ever. Alex Rodriguez rates among the worst 3rd basemen in the American League on defense, leading to a very leaky left side of the infield, and a lot of seeing-eye singles. Eric Chavez has been valuable off the bench, but is injury-prone and should only be counted on in a limited role. Eduardo Nunez, another alternative on the left side of the infield, is even worse defensively, requiring a demotion to work on his defense. This is the risk you take when your long-term left side of the infield is over 35 years old, and there is no real solution this season.
The Yankees have tried to remedy some of the problem by playing the 5th most shifts in baseball. The Yankees have historically only shifted on big left-handed sluggers like David Ortiz, but Joe Girardi is showing some fortitude and shifting more frequently. As of May 11 the Yankees had shifted 55 times, just 15 short of last season’s total. Its difficult to say whether this is working, because the Yankees rank 26th in baseball in defensive efficiency (which measures the percentage of balls put into play that are turned into outs), tied with the Detroit Tigers, who play two poor-fielding 1st basemen in their infield.
Before the season I thought the Yankees had one of the deepest roster’s in baseball, which would serve them well over the long, arduous season. The Yankees’ depth has been severely tested this season, and outside of Raul Ibanez’s hitting and the bullpen, they have come up short. The offense has been elite so far and ranks 3rd in the majors in all 3 triple slash categories. Once they start hitting with runners on base, the runs will start flowing again. The Yankees have one of the elite offenses in baseball, which will keep them around .500, the bigger, more pressing issue is if the pitching that New York currently has is good enough to capture a playoff spot in the ferocious AL East. I’m not quite sure the Yankees have the caliber of pitching to make the postseason, and I fully expect Brian Cashman, annually one of the most active GMs in baseball, to make some sort of play to add a few wins to the overall total.
One trend I noticed and paid special attention to over the weekend was the use of defensive shifts by the Royals and Yankees. Both teams used a variety of shifts, mostly on left-handed hitters, successfully and frequently. These teams came into the series ranking in the top-5 in baseball in defensive shifts, using the tactic over 50 times apiece, nearly 100 shifts less the Rays. I was able to capture a few of the defensive setups and I want to discuss the variety of factors that go into playing shifts.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals frequently shifted on the Yankee lefties all series long. More than not they used the standard overshift, which looks something like this, which was used on Mark Teixeira:
The Royals played an overshift on Mark Teixeira every time he came to the plate. Teixeira was unfazed by the shift, although he had little success against it, drawing a walk and flying out a couple of times. The Royals’ defense isn’t shifted as severely as some teams shift Teixeira, (Tampa Bay would be one, playing their 2nd baseman about 20 feet deeper) but they place a fielder, in this case 2nd baseman Chris Getz, right in the hole and the shortstop plays up the middle. 3rd baseman Mike Moustakas was typically playing about 25-30 feet off the line against the lefty sluggers, and as you can see the base isn’t even in the picture.
Here’s another look at the shift they used against Nick Swisher, which was also somewhat effective:
The shift worked on Swisher once, taking away a ground ball single into hole on the right side of the infield. Swisher also hit a mammoth solo homerun in the game, so its evident that the shift didn’t bother him too much.
The shift the Royals used on Robinson Cano was even more drastic.
Kansas City played him very deep all around the infield, and pulled all of their fielders about 8-12 steps right. Cano has been a little more pull happy this season and defenses are catching on. The Royals took away a couple hits from Cano over the course of the series with the shift, but on Sunday he was able to get a fat pitch from Luke Hochevar and deposit it into the seats.
Hochevar’s poor performance, allowing 7 runs in less than 3 innings again proves that one of the most important aspects to the shift is a quality pitcher. Without one it just doesn’t work, just like on Sunday in Kansas City.
New York Yankees
The Yankees used the shift as well during this series, although not as much as Kansas City. The Yankees have used defensive shifts much more this season, ranking in the top-5 after finishing around the middle of the league last year. They have even begun to use the shift on right handed hitters like they did against doubles machine Billy Butler on Sunday.
The struggling Eric Hosmer also saw a form of a shift from the Yankees defense. When he came up to the plate the Yankees shaded him to pull the ball left. Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter each moved about 5-10 feet left, giving Hosmer the 3rd base line and taking away more up the middle. Cano and Teixeira played fairly standard on the right side, and they Yankees were able to continue Hosmer’s frustrating season. Here’s an example of the shade the Yankees played:
Hosmer appears to be uncomfortable at the plate right now, so it was tough to tell if his struggles were due to a mechanical problem, or if the scouting report has caught up to his talent. The Royals should still continue to play Hosmer every day and let him work through his struggles in order to regain his .300 hitting ability.
Teams across the league seem to be catching on to what Tampa Bay has been doing for years. Its not just the little guys either. The most expensive baseball franchise, the Yankees, are also seeing the value in defensive positioning and is taking advantage of the new information available. It should also be a positive sign in Kansas City that the front office is using the information available and is actively trying to get the Royals back to the playoffs. It was interesting to watch in person how the defenses were moving and adjusting based on scouting reports, and its just another sign of the information age in baseball.
Joe Maddon has employed many different varieties of shifts this season and I’ve tried to watch as much of the Rays as I can so far this season to gain a feel whether the shifts are working or not. From what I am seeing so far, the result tends to be a net positive, because very few hitters actually hit the ball to beat the shift, plays usually result in an out. This is just an early estimation, and because defensive numbers are so unreliable, particularly with a small sample size, we will have to put that judgment off for another day.
First let’s take a look at a few reasons Tampa can use the shift more liberally. One of the big reasons is that Tampa Bay has an excellent, hard-throwing pitching staff that ranks 4th in the American League in strikeouts. A couple of their pitchers, Jeremy Hellickson and James Shields like pitching to the shift, and will even position infielders themselves, based on which pitch sequence they want to throw. This caliber of pitching staff tends to further exaggerate the success of the shift a little bit, but could also play a role in getting inside hitters’ heads.
It is also difficult to weigh the mental effect the shift has on hitters, because when many hitters see the shift they change their approach and get frustrated. After seeing the shift during the Opening Series in Tampa, Nick Swisher said, “Righties, lefties, it doesn’t really matter. It feels like there’s 15 guys on the right side of the infield or the left side of the infield.” Other hitters, such as Albert Pujols, have also appeared frustrated by the shift after seeing a normal base hit go directly toward a fielder.
The numbers are interesting as well so far, with the Rays having shifted 125 recorded times so far this season, according to ESPN. According to baseball prospectus, the Rays rank 2nd in baseball in defensive runs saved. However in defensive efficiency, a statistic that measures the number of balls put in play that are turned into outs, they only rank 20th. It’s way to early to put stock into any of those numbers, as defensive efficiency and defensive runs saved require very large sample sizes. Tampa used the shift more times than any other Major League team a season ago, and produced a fantastic defense, so Maddon’s decision to use it even more this season isn’t too much of a surprise, just him pushing the envelope.
So we have 125 cases over the course of the 1st month of the season. Let’s take a look at a few of the times the shift has worked this year, and a few of the hitters that Maddon has had particular success with, and why.
He has grounded into 2 outs this season on the left side of the infield, and 17 times he has hit a grounder to the left side for an out. This is not a recent trend either, because Granderson has always been a pull hitter, especially on ground balls. Joe Maddon knows this and intelligently deployed his shift, taking away multiple base hits from the Yankee centerfielder. In this particular video, Maddon places Sean Rodriguez, the shortstop, just to the right of 2nd base. He has his 2nd baseman, Elliot Johnson, playing deep in the hole with 1st baseman Carlos Pena holding the runner. The Rays ended up winning the game by 1 run, 7-6, and this double play was a rally killer for the Yankees. Rodriguez also took another hit away from Granderson, in nearly the same spot later in the game as well.
Maddon has also taken his shifts one step further this season, employing them nearly as often on right-handed hitters as lefties. Pujols saw the shift in all the games of a recent series. Maddon placed his 3rd baseman Evan Longoria on the line, his shortstop was planted deep in the hole, and his 2nd baseman was located on the left side of the base, shaded toward the middle. It was the perfect alignment for the struggling slugger because Pujols has been a pull hitting machine this year.
Pujols has 2 total outs to the infield on the right side this season, and is making outs all over the place on the left side of the infield. Maddon’s wisely deployed shifts stole hits from Pujols as well. One rocket line drive down the line was snared by a waiting Evan Longoria, taking away a double, and a sharp hit grounder in the hole was easily handled by Elliot Johnson. Again the Rays played a couple of close games in the series against Los Angeles, and Maddon’s maneuvering could be giving the Rays a slight edge.
The Rays also employ various shifts for switch-hitters as well. Mark Teixeira, the Yankees slugging 1st baseman, saw infield alignments that included 3 players on both sides of the infield, depending on which way he was batting. As you can see from Teixeira’s spray charts, he is a dead pull hitter when he hits the ball on the ground, and Maddon played him that way.
The Rays were able to turn multiple hits into outs on Teixeira as well. Teixeira hit a hard liner that was right at shortstop Sean Rodriguez, who was playing up the middle, and the Rays also took away a grounder in the hole with the shift.
Maddon is particularly adept at calling these shifts against the Yankees, and in the Opening Series of the season, he was able to successfully use the shift on half the New York lineup. This is an encouraging sign for Tampa Bay, because any advantage they can get on their wealthier rivals helps.
Over the course of the season I plan on looking at cases where the shift fails, the Rays pitchers who like the shift (particularly Hellickson), and the variety of shifts which Maddon will employ.