Results tagged ‘ Mark Teixeira ’
From this day forward I think we can all agree to never, under any circumstance, question what Brian Cashman is doing again. The Yankees general manager took a verbal beating from almost every sports writer this winter over the moves, or lack thereof, that he was making. Signing Travis Hafner? Nah, he’s too old and brittle. Kevin Youkilis? No way jose, he’s a one of those Red Sox, plus he can’t hit anymore. How about swapping for Vernon Wells? Ha, don’t make me laugh.
These lackluster acquisitions, plus numerous injuries to the roster, were supposed to finally sink a Yankee ship that appeared to be too battered from years of battles to stay afloat. Yes, Robinson Cano and CC Sabathia were still aboard, but they weren’t going to be able to make up for the loss of Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, and Curtis Granderson, among others. The hope was that the replacements would hold the fort until the cavalry made their way back. But that hasn’t been the case this season. Buoyed by an excellent pitching staff, a deep bullpen, and some surprise offensive breakouts from Cashman’s reserves, the Yankees have gotten off to a rousing 19-13 start that has defied even the biggest optimists expectations.
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?
Team USA announced their provisional roster for the 2013 World Baseball Classic today, picking 27 of the final 28 players to represent the red, white, and blue. The final spot on Joe Torre’s ball club has been reported to be reserved for the one and only Justin Verlander, and if those rumors come to fruition, America’s team could be as strong as it’s ever been. As things stand right now, the Stars and Stripes will have 3 former MVP’s on the roster, the reigning NL Cy Young award winner, and a smorgasbord of All-Stars to fill out the rest of the lineup card. Here’s a comprehensive look at the 27 players picked for Team USA:
For the better part of the last two decades the American League East has been dominated by the big fish, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Recently the Tampa Bay Rays have been able to break into that triumvirate to steal a couple of playoff births and division titles. Last season brought more parity and more disturbance to the big budget empires with the Baltimore Orioles surprise run to 94 wins and a Wild Card spot, leaving only the Toronto Blue Jays out in the cold.
But this offseason, the established order in the AL East may finally be fully overthrown. The Yankees are old, injured, and cutting payroll back to a modest $189 million. The Red Sox are coming off their worst season since 1981 and they aren’t signing any of the big name players either, instead opting for character guys on short-term deals. Toronto (yes, Toronto) is ramping up payroll and making franchise-altering trades to add a staff full of pitchers, one that includes 2012 NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. Tampa Bay is doing their usual thing, trading for young, unproven talent while rebuilding on the cheap. And Baltimore, well, they’ve stood pat thus far.
The sharks are circling. From the looks of it, everybody has a shot in the AL East. No other division in baseball can say that. So why don’t we take an early peak at the division race, position by position, to see where things stand?
With a quarter of the 2012 season in the books, many teams around the league are having an issue with the play of their 1st basemen. Over the past decade 1st base has been the strongest position in the Majors, boasting MVP candidates annually in both leagues. But this season many of these players have been black holes in their respective lineups, sucking up and wasting at-bats, contributing to losses. Lets take a look at some of the biggest culprits of bad play so far.
Hosmer has been terrible at the plate this season, ranking as the worst everyday 1st baseman in the American League thus far. He is still hitting under the Mendoza line, and none of his triple slash stats (.191/.260/.333) are even league average. A big part of Hosmer’s problem has been a drop in his line drive rate from 17% way down to 11%. Line drives drop for base hits more frequently than any other kind of hit, and having a rate 7% below league average makes keeping a decent batting average tough.
There is some good news for Hosmer however. His walk rate, which was elite for a rookie, has jumped again, to 8.5% of total at-bats, which is above the league average, and is a very difficult skill for a hitter to master. His BABIP is .191, which is almost criminally unfair and should come up with normal regression. Hosmer has been making solid contact but hitting the ball straight at fielders. Once some of these hard hit balls start dropping for hits, his average will come up. Hosmer is excellent at pitch recognition and has a good knowledge of the strike zone. His play will eventually improve and the Royals are wise to let him work out his issues.
According to the statistic Wins Above Replacement, Ike Davis has been the worst player in baseball this season, worth -1.2 wins. His problems are abundant so far this season, but his biggest issue is his 44-10 strikeout to walk rate. This issue has led to a triple slash of .164/.218/.295,, all of which are absurdly low for a 1st baseman. In addition to being abysmal with the bat, Davis has made 4 errors, which is 2nd most out of NL 1st baseman, and has otherwise looked mediocre with the leather as well.
Until Davis stops striking out in 28.2% of his at-bats and begins to draw more walks he will not improve much at the plate. Like Hosmer he has also been hurt by a BABIP under .200, but when you’re giving away more than a quarter of your at-bats, it’s tough to hit for average or power. So much has gone right for the Mets this season, leading to a 24-21 record in a tough division, but Davis has been a disappointment. The Mets considered demoting Davis a couple days ago, but have decided against the proposition, and will continue to give him chances at the plate.
For the most part the Toronto Blue Jays have enjoyed a successful start to the 2012 season, with the noted exception of Adam Lind. Lind was off to a putrid start, hitting .186/.273/.314, accumulating only 37 bases in 118 at-bats. Lind has never been the same player who won a Silver Slugger award at age 25, and he has declined each season since. Lind was demoted nearly 2 weeks ago, down to the Triple-A Las Vegas 51’s, and got off to a nice start, hitting .500 in his first 3 games.
Lind’s biggest issue has been his complete inability to hit left-handers. At the time of his demotion he was only hitting .129 in over 30 plate appearances with just 1 extra-base hit. The Toronto 1st baseman has never exhibited more than the normal, league-average platoon split, but this year it’s been severely noticeable. Hopefully he can get his issues corrected in Las Vegas and become a contributing member of the Blue Jays, rather than a black hole in the lineup.
The $180 million dollar man has only been worth his defense so far this season in New York. Teixeira is a notorious slow starter; with a career batting average 42 points lower than his norm in April. Unfortunately for the Yankees, those struggles have continued into May this season. Tex is hitting an anemic .226/.291/.381 with an OPS+ nearly 20 points under the league average. Part of this issue may be due to a bronchial infection, but it’s more than likely that some of Teixeira’s problems have to due with a drop in bat speed as well as walks.
The Yankees 1st baseman is picking up fewer free passes than at any point in his career, walking only 8.1% of the time, the 1st time he’s been under 10% since 2005. His line drive rate has also been steadily dropping since 2010, and now it’s at a career low 14% this season. While Teixeira is still playing his trademark Gold Glove defense, the reason he is so highly compensated is that he is expected to drive in runs and slug the ball. If he can get his bat going again, the Yankees could evolve into a legitimate threat to the Texas Rangers for AL supremacy, if not, they may struggle to get to the playoffs in a deep AL East.
Justin Smoak has now accumulated over 1000 career major league plate appearances and is a .224/.306/.373 hitter, good for an 89 OPS+. His best batting average in any of his major league seasons has been an anemic .239. He has only hit above the league average in OPS+ once in his career and is having his worst season in 2012 by far, hitting only .209/.251/.316 with 5 homers and 15 RBI. Smoak doesn’t draw walks, receiving only 9 this year in 167 plate appearances, and whiffs a ton, going down swinging in 24% of his at-bats.
Its worth asking if the Mariners should move past Smoak and begin looking for another 1st baseman, because he doesn’t look like he will ever develop into a league average player. The Mariners don’t have many options in at the big league level or in the minors. Dennis Raben has hit well in the low minors, but its tough to project a hitter that hasn’t been above high-A ball yet, and is so far away from the Major Leagues. Smoak will probably be given many more at-bats, because he is only 25, but he needs to start producing soon, especially if the Mariners want to turn around their losing ways.
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.