Monday, June 29, 2009


"If you think you're going to hit into a double play, do the right thing and strike out."-- Earl Weaver

Among the more compelling narrative threads woven through Tom Verducci's "The Yankee Years" is the story of the philosophical rift that gradually estranged the former Yankee manager from his erstwhile friend, advocate, and GM and that ultimately ended in an unseemly public and gratuitously acrimonious divorce. The divide, evidently, first opened in 2005. In the off-season that year, Brian Cashman finally received the full prerogatives a GM's title implied and with it, the power to modernize the Yankees' antiquated baseball operations and to rejuvenate the team's decaying farm system. The plan contemplated greater reliance on the advanced statistics and Jamesian sabermetrics that Billy Beane's acolytes in Boston had been using for years to outmaneuver their arch rival. The suden changes cast Torre, the consummate baseball traditionalist, in the role of the skeptic. The seasoned manager warned of the soulless number crunchers who would replace abstract percentages for instinctive judgment and who would err because they didn't, or couldn't, apprehend the living, beating heart that animated the Game.

In one especially telling episode, back in 2007, when the Yankees were sputtering through their 21-29 start because their vaunted offense had foundered for inexplicable reasons, Cashman, explains Torre, suggested an unconventional and seemingly counterintuitive lineup change. The statisticians, it seems, had concluded that the team could produce more runs by placing its two hitters most adept at getting on base at the top of the order. Sounds eminently reasonable. Only it meant hitting Bobby Abreu first, Jason Giambi second, and moving Damon and Jeter God knows where. Torre confides that he scoffed at the idea and that ended the discussion.

Cut to February 2008. Exit King Lear and his Court. (A sixth Act awaits their arrival in the Land of Dreams.) Enter the new viceroy, Joseph Elliot Girardi. Cue the p.r. creation myth.

You may recall the 2008 off season. After a winter of well-deserved villification for their smugly cavalier and ruthlessly passive-aggressive dismissal of the hired help, the Levine Cabal and the Cashman Clique spent the Spring casting the new viceroy in their image. Girardi, we discovered, championed fitness and discipline. Girardi symbolized vigor and stamina. In General Girardi, we trust. That was one part of the new Girari mythology.

However, there was a second element of the Girardi persona touted as well. And this part bears the Cashman Clique's signature and hearkens back to his rift with Torre. Girardi, we discovered, had graduated with an engineering degree from Northwestern. Girardi possessed an acute, incisive intelligence. Girardi trusted the numbers; more importanlty, he excelled at them. He read Baseball Prospectus. He wanted to deploy cutting-edge sabermetric tools. Girardi personified innovation, ingenuity, and acumen. Together, Genius Girardi and Canny Cashman would lead the revolution to modernize the Yankees and to close the gap the Arbitrage Magnate and his Boy Wonder has opened between New York and Boston.

Of course, rarely does the image mirror the reality. And while Girardi regularly shows a greater affinity for numbers and more impressive command of statistics than his predecessor, he has proven himself far more the traditionalist than the myth led us to anticipate. Sure, he counts pitches, records innings, spreads workloads. Witness his bullpen management in '08. Sure, every now and then, he'll invert two players in the batting order. Witness his inspiration (or Cashman's) to switch Jeter and Damon in the order, capitalizing on the latter's power production and alleviating the latter's tendency to first inning double plays.

However, these notable exceptions only illustrate fate's inexorable rules. Like father, Like son. And New Joe is very much Old Joe's ideological son and managerial protege. Instinct, trust, and experience, by and large, not abstract numbers, inform his management style and guide his decisions. When the veteran talks, the manager listens. CC says, "I can get Drew," and so, Girardi believes him. A-Rod says, "I'm not tired," and so, Girardi plays him. Rivera's velocity wanes. No matter, when emergency strikes in the eighth, break glass: Call Mo.

Beyond inheriting Old Joe's habits, Girardi, in addition, subscribes to his orthodoxies. New Joe also believes in the bunt, the sacrifice, the steal-- despite the statistician's skepticism or outright abhorrence. He believes in reserving closers for saves. (Not, for example, leveraging his best relief pitcher when the game's pivotal juncture demands it, inning be damned.) Girardi honors the archaic shibboleth of batting average.

How else to explain the Yankee manager's defiant infatuation with Robinson Cano? How else to explain the baffling strangehold the human GIDP, the walk's consummate antagonist, Plate Indiscipline personified, has gained on the fifth spot in Girardi's batting order? Is there a less ideal candidate for the role of the middle-of-the-order bulwark behind A-Rod than a hitter whose plate profiency actually falls as runners on base increase in number and as they draw closer to home?

By now, every Yankee fan, at one time or another, has marvelled at the talent and kindled to the promise of the second baseman, Robinson Jose Cano. We've all foreseen the potential greatness that seemingly looms just over the horizon. The sublime swing, the prodigious opposite-field power, the sweeping plate coverage, the swift hands, the nimble glove, the panoptic range, the impeccable grace and preternatural agility. A noble lineage claimed Cano no less early in life than in his career. The infant named after Jackie Robinson, in just his sophomore year received the title of Rod Carew's twin and Jeter and A-Rod's heir.

The problem, it seems, is that the Yankees' organization, in general, and Joe Girardi, in particular, too often, have rewarded Cano for flourishes of greatness that have proven fleeting. By all means, applaud Girardi his faith and his loyalty. But recognize as well, in few Stadiums outside the Field of Dreams is faith self-realizing, and when it defies reality, it's downright self-destructive.

Although Cano's defense-- as viewed by the naked eye, if not also confirmed by Revised Zone Ratings-- has shown a steady, gradual improves each season, he continues, at the plate, to exhibit the same obdurate vice that has beset him since his rookie year. The shortcoming has stifled the potentially great hitter from germinating-- his impatience in the batter's box. Extraordinary plate coverage has begotten feeble plate discipline. Cano still swings at eye-level pitches because, remarkably, he can. And if he still reaches them, he rarely hits them, not fair and hard anyway.

In fact, by plate discipline's standard measures, pitches per plate appearance and isolated plate discipline[1], Cano's development has stagnated. From 2006 through 2009, the annual average of pitches he sees per plate appearance (P/PA) has levelled at 3.34 and his isolated plate discipline, IsoD (the spread between his batting average and on base percentage) has averaged about .035.

2006 - P/PA = 3.22; IsoD = .023
2007 - P/PA = 3.42; IsoD = .047
2008 - P/PA = 3.35; IsoD = .034
2009 - P/PA = 3.37; IsoD = .035

Cano's overeagerness manifests itself most vividly with runners on base. Witness the precipitous decline Cano's OPS has undergone, throughout his career, as the pressure mounts.

Career OPS- Bases Empty = .860
Career OPS - Runners on Base = .742
Career OPS - RISP (Runners in Scoring Position) = .702
Career OPS - RISP w/ 2 outs = .688
Career OPS - Bases Loaded = .587

His numbers in 2009 only accentuate the overall trend. I list first, his OPS, and second, his batting average, in classic "situational hitting" opportunities below.

2009 OPS- Bases Empty = .902
2009 OPS - Runners on Base = .710
2009 OPS - RISP (Runners in Scoring Position) = .594
2009 OPS - RISP w/ 2 outs = .552
2009 OPS - Bases Loaded = .367

2009 BA- Bases Empty = .333
2009 BA - Runners on Base = .255
2009 BA - RISP (Runners in Scoring Position) = .215
2009 BA - RISP w/ 2 outs = .190
2009 BA - Bases Loaded = .167

Compare, by contrast, the Yankees' most disciplined hitter, Nick Swisher, who, in raw tools, probably possesses a fraction of Cano's talent. The comparison is instructive for multiple reasons. First, the identity in their career OPS statistic; each possesses a .812 career OPS. Second, only a year separates Cano's and Swisher's rookie seasons, 2005 and 2004, respectively. Third, despite their manager's access to the same statistical data, Girardi, in defiance of it, routinely bats Cano 5th (42 of 72 games) in the heart of the order, behind A-Rod, while batting Swisher 6th, 7th or 8th (24, 10, and 10 times respectively, in 72 games)

Swisher's career averages in P/PA of 4.25 and IsoD of .113, in fact, exceed Cano's by almost a full order of magnitude. Swisher averages, then, almost one more full pitch per at-bat than Cano, and the .080 IsoD differential explains why Cano, while amassing anywhere between 20 to 50 more hits each year than Swisher, still reaches base less often. Swisher's career OBA exceeds Cano's (.356 to .335).

It may also account for the seeming paradox that while Cano's career slugging percentage exceeds Swisher's (.470 to .455), his career OPS+ is lower. Despite his relative power deficit, Swisher, then, in his ability to draw walks, makes a more valuable contribution to his team's run production, in the long run, than Cano.

Swisher's plate discipline may also account for the relative constancy his production evinces regardless of the situation.

2009 OPS- Bases Empty = .810
2009 OPS - Runners on Base = .814
2009 OPS - RISP (Runners in Scoring Position) = .781
2009 OPS - RISP w/ 2 outs = .821
2009 OPS - Bases Loaded = .977

Further contributing to the problem with batting Cano 5th behind A-Rod is that his greatest asset -- the infrequency with which he strikes out -- has abetted the frequency with which he grounds into double plays. Cano currently leads the team with 11 GIDPS.

Throughout his career, Swisher, by contrast, strikes out twice as often as Cano-- an SO/PA of 21.5% to 11.1%-- and yet grounds into one third as many DPs-- GIDP/PA = 2% to 3%. (Although in 2009 Swisher hasn't proven much more immune to the double play than Cano. Swisher's 7 GIDP ranks him third behind Cano and Jeter in aggregate double plays and in GIDP/PA.)

Yet Swisher's relative immunity to the DP during his career-- relative, compared to Cano anyway-- probably stems less from his tendency to strike out than in his tendency to hit fly balls. Observe the difference between the two hitters in their career ratios of ground ball outs to fly ball outs (GO/AO). While Swisher's career GO/AO 0.83, Cano's is 1.36.

Thus far, Cano's GO/AO of 1.27 for 2009, has been about representative. In fact, among the hitters Girardi has chosen to bat 5th this season most frequently-- Cano, Swisher, Posada, amd Matsui-- Cano's 1.27 ground out to fly out ratio (GO/AO) for 2009 ranks highest.

To compare, I list below each one's 2009 statistic in the following categories:
(i) ground out to fly out ratio (GO/AO)
(ii) strike out per plate appearance percentage (SO/PA);
(iii) their on-base percentage (OBA)
(iv) Average with Runners in Scoring Position (RISP)
(v) Overall Productivity (OPS+)

I also include Johnny Damon's for reasons that will become evident below.

Cano1.27/17.5%.330/.033 .215111

From the composite picture the above table paints, it's little surprise to discover that Cano leads the Yankees through 72 games with 11 GIDP's. Only Jeter rivals Cano in this statistic with 8, the harm from which Girardi, at least, has endeavored to contain by moving the captain into the lead off spot. (Despite the plate discipline Jeter developed as he matured, his susceptibility to the double play has stemmed from a GO/AO ratio that only has risen as he's aged. Through 72 games in 2009, it's 3.07.)

Yet if Girardi discerned this frailty in Jeter's game, and compensated for it accordingly by inverting Damon and Jeter, he hasn't acted likewise to contain the damage Cano's susceptibility to the DP, likewise, has inflicted in the middle of the lineup. Now, a double play, it's true, throttles a rally whenever it occurs. But when it regularly stifles rallies ignited by your two best hitters, at 3rd and 4th in the order, respectively, the double play is especially lethal. Worse, it can metastasize and spread. After all, how long will Texieria and A-Rod resist the temptation to expand their strike zones if a double play looms behind them.

The table above suggests that any one of the players Girardi has batted 5th this season-- Swisher, Matsui, or Posada-- would acquit the role of A-Rod's anchor better than Robinson Cano. The second baseman doesn't merit a higher position in the batting order than the seventh or eighth spot he used to occupy until his pitch selection improves, if ever.

Swisher's statistics, on the other hand, bespeak a hitter with the discipline and constancy that follows him regardless of the situation or his spot in the order. His career OPS+ bears this out-- whether batting second or eighth, it varies little. Yet Swisher, perhaps for different reasons than Cano, poses a palpable DP threat as well.

Which is why if Cashman has become so enamored with using statistics to inform the Yankees' lineup Damon suggests such a tempting, if unorthodox, alternative for the spot behind A-Rod. Although long-standing tradition and well-worn practice have come to associate Damon with the upper echelons of the batting order, most of all, the lead off position, in 2009, Damon's statistics just as easily fit the profile of the daunting, middle-of-the-order, power bat.

With an OPS+ of 131, Damon ranks third on the team behind Teixiera and A-Rod. More persuasive still are his peripheral statistics. The plate discipline (P/PA of 4.15 and IsoD of .076). The team-leading 0.80 GO/AO. The knack for clutch hits with runners in scoring position. In 2009, his batting average with runners in scoring position is .313; over his entire career, it's .297.

But most of all, Damon, unlike Cano, Posada, Matsui, or Swisher, has demonstrated a remarkable talent throughout his career for avoiding the double play. That he's hit lead-off for much of his career has played a part, but a small one. After all, for much of his career, Jeter has led off as well. And while the captain has hit into 203 DPs in 9417 Plate Appearances (GIDP/PA 2%) during his career, Damon has only hit into 78 DPs in 9116 Plate Appearances, a GIDP/PA of less than 1%. Wouldn't the Yankees capitalize more on Damon's unique confluence of speed and power, at once, avoiding the DP and slugging for extra base hits, behind Teixiera and A-Rod than in front of them? Meanwhile Swisher's .373 OBA already has identified him as a candidate worthy of the 2-hole. His tendency for the DP, less marked, first of all, than Cano's is second of all, less likely with faster runners like Cabrera/Gardner and Jeter in front of him.

The architects of the Yankees' 2009 roster imagined they'd constructed a roster founded on the strength of their starting rotation. Little did they suspect that architects elsewhere had other ideas. Nostalgia has ill served the Yankees this time. Some aesthete's fetish for an archaic, and largely illegible, scoreboard lowered the walls, shortened their distance, and turned the new Yankee Stadium into modern equivalent of Fenway. If the trend continues, the Yankees will have to rely on producing runs more than they ever bargained. Runs which they won't produce if a deficit in their 5th spot continues to plague their lineup. At the moment, the Yankees have received less production from their five hole (an 80 OPS+) than from any other spot in their batting order. I list below the OPS+ they've received from each position in the order. Only their 5th hitter falls below 100, the benchmark for the league average.

1) 139
2) 140
3) 132
4) 101
5) 80
6) 129
7) 125
8) 111
9) 113

By now, we all know the Yankees define themselves as an organization rooted in a venerable lineage and a consecrated tradition, the immediate question for 2009, however, is how well they can adjust to unplanned contingencies and new circumstances and how much suffocating orthodoxies, outmoded dogma, and deleterious habits, will nonetheless control their manager's thinking.

[1] Isolated Plate Discipline or IsoD consists of the difference between a player’s on-base percentage and his batting average and is calculated as follows: IsoD = OBA (on base %) – BA (batting average). The oft-used metric BB/PA (percentage of walks a player earns per plate appearance) is a virtually identical calculation, just enumerated and expressed differently. The one caveat is that BB/PA statistic excludes two (or three) alternative means, beyond the traditional walk, by which a hitter can reach base, in the absence of a hit, and raise their OBA-- the error, the hit-by-pitch, the strike-out/wild pitch. I prefer the IsoD metric accordingly.