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2012 Preview: New York Yankees


New York Yankees

What They Did:      97-65, 1st Place AL East.  Lost in ALDS.

      Actual Runs:     Scored 867 runs, Allowed 657.

                                Expected wins based on RS and RA:  101.1 (4.1 above actual)

           Restated:     Scored 833 runs, Allowed 688.

                                Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA:  95.1 (1.9 below actual)


A reader asks,

“I’ve heard people say Derek Jeter is a terrible fielding shortstop even though he’s won a Gold Glove.  Why do they say that?”

Derek Jeter has actually won five Gold Glove Awards as the best fielding shortstop in his league.  There are only four shortstops in the history of baseball – Ozzie Smith (13), Omar Vizquel (11) Luis Aparicio (9), and Mark Belanger (8) – all of them legendary slick fielders, who have won more Gold Gloves than Derek Jeter.  This despite the fact that writers and bloggers have spent more than a decade denouncing his defensive prowess and in the process created at least three memorable and oft-repeated lines that, like the composer of Happy Birthday, were hard to accurately credit:

  • “Derek Jeter goes to his left as often as Dick Cheney.” – Steven Goldman
  • “Jeter . . . turns the area around (shortstop) . . . into a better spot for singles than – Joe Sheehan
  • “The only thing Michael Kay says more often than “See-ya” (his home run call), during a typical Yankees’ broadcast is ‘Past a diving Derek Jeter.’  – There are so many “past a diving Jeter” jokes it’s impossible to attribute accurately but Joe Posnanski suggests every Italian restaurant in New York City should have Pasta Diving Jeter on its menu.

So should we ignore the Gold Gloves, or dismiss the data-driven writings of baseball analysts as snarky dispatches from mom’s basement?*  For 2011 at least, I’m going to lay out a strong case for the former. 

*Dispatches from Mom’s Basement would make an equally awesome name for a website, alternative band, or newsletter.

As I mentioned in the Detroit Tigers preview I spent a lot of time this winter digging through 2011 defensive data and I think I found a pretty convincing argument that Jeter is easily among the least effective, if not the least effective fielding shortstop in the American League, at least in 2011.  In comparing defensive plays by shortstops across teams it’s important to only focus on plays the shortstop is solely responsible for.  This means excluding put outs recorded on force plays, as the fielded ball or assist, and therefore the true credit for fielding the ball belongs to another fielder.  Same applies for putouts on steal attempts, etc.  That leaves the shortstop with credit for all of his assists and unassisted putouts, which include, of course, caught fly balls and line drives.  However, even that comparison across teams wouldn’t be entirely fair because the amount of balls hit in the area of the shortstop can be affected by the ground ball tendencies of the pitching staff and the percent of right-handed hitters a team faces.  I found four teams, including the Yankees, with nearly identical profiles of batters' faced during 2011:                                   

                                    % RHB           % GB             

Baltimore                       52%              32%

Chicago White Sox        53%               32%

Detroit                           49%               32%

NY Yankees                    53%               32%

(In the case of Detroit, to illustrate the point further, I included a team with a good bit less right-handed batters faced, and therefore almost certainly less groundballs to the left side of the infield.)

Here are the total assists and unassisted put outs for the shortstops on each team:

Baltimore                    612

Chicago White Sox     547

Detroit                        530

NY Yankees                450

The only other American League team with shortstop plays made under 500 was Cleveland with 497 and they, compared to the Yankees, faced less right-handed batters (51%) but did induce a higher percentage of ground balls (34%).  Based on the number of balls hit into play vs. the Yankees compared to the entire league the Yankees’ shortstops made 74 less plays than the average AL shortstop.  (Jeter started 75% of the games at shortstop in 2011, and his replacement, Eduardo Nunez had nearly identical range stats as Jeter.)  So when you hear a “stathead” disparage Jeter’s defense, this is what he’s talking about.

*     *     *

 Based on the discussion in the Boston preview last Friday, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that, for the 2011 season, my numbers showed New York achieving results mildly in excess of its actual performance, nor that the performance over 162 games graded out beneath the Red Sox’ regardless of the final standings.  So unlike Boston, which enters the year with subdued expectations tinted by their third-place, 90-win season last year, Yankees fans may see last year’s 97-win team, factor in a couple of key rotation additions, subtract one A.J. Burnett, and may see the makings of a 100-win team. 

While I see the collective expectations for both teams turned on its head by the time the 2012 regular season ends, the good news for Yankees’ fans is that in light of the addition of a second Wild Card entrant, it seems very unlikely that the Bombers won’t be in the playoffs.

To be sure, the difference between the Yankees and the Red Sox projections are minor and sum to just three games in my model.  The Yankees project to wrest the “highest-scoring-team-in-baseball” mantle from the Red Sox this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Yankees are the only MLB team to score over 800 runs this year.  The problem is, even if they score about 820 as I project, that’s will be 47 less than last year.  As is the case with any player who had an MVP-like year last year (Jacoby Ellsbury, for one) some regression is be expected in 2012.  That means it’s unlikely the Yankees will get that kind of year again from Curtis Granderson or Robinson Cano.  So if the Yankees want to be as good as or better than last year, where are they going to get the increased production?  The age of their batting order suggests it’s unlikely to occur elsewhere, although keeping Alex Rodriquez in the lineup for more than 99 games would be a good place to start.  On the whole, though, the Yankees benefited from excellent health last year with five different starters playing in more than 150 games.  The whack-a-mole aspect of overall team health suggests some other contributor would replace A-Rod on the DL.

While no one would argue that the additions of Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda to replace the 58 starts the Yankees received last year from A.J. Burnett and Bartolo Colon isn’t a huge increase on the margin, it’s possible those gains will be relinquished by decreased production from Freddy Garcia and Ivan Nova.  In 2011 Garcia and Nova gave the Yankees 52 starts worth of 3.67 ERA starts, compiling a 28-12 record in the process.  Despite these stellar results, neither pitcher struck out even 6 batters every 9 innings (major league average is over 7).  Nova (just 5.3 Ks per 9) walked batters at a league rate (3.1 per 9 innings) and Garcia (5.9 Ks per 9) was only slightly better than league average (2.8 per 9 innings.)  They also both has sub-7% HR/Fly Ball ratios, and since the league average consistently hovers around 10%, this also suggests regression in 2012.  All together, this means Yankees’ fans should not be surprised if Pineda and Kuroda pitch as well in 2012 as Garcia and Nova did in 2011 while Garcia and Nova post 2012 results similar to Burnett’s and Colon’s 2011 numbers.  If that happens, there will be little change from last year’s results – the restated ones, above, which ex-out considerable “cluster luck” the Yankee staff enjoyed (as detailed in the Boston essay.) 

Look, I love the trade of Jesus Montero for Michael Pineda and the subsequent replacement of A.J. Burnett with Kuroda.  Both Seattle and New York dealt young gems they had developed to address a gaping hole elsewhere.  That type of bold thinking is to be commended.  The Yankees had to make move to shore up their rotation and they did it in a manner that will benefit not only their on-field performance but their payroll in out years as well.  But, the reality is that those moves merely gave them hope they can come close to matching last year’s results; there is little chance they will be better in 2012 than they were in 2011.

Oddsmakers’ expectations:  Every market posted to date has the Yankees favored to win their division. At best I think it’s a toss-up.  From offshore to Vegas, bookmakers consistently list the Yankees’ total wins over/under at 93 ½.  There might be some value there on the under, but nowhere near as much as I find with Detroit and Kansas City.  Bookmakers certainly seem to realize the chances of the Yankees winning 97 games again are about the same as winning in the 80s.  Taken as a whole, therefore, it’s safe to conclude the value I see in the Red Sox isn’t because the Yankees are overrated (maybe just a little) by oddsmakers but instead due to a notable under-valuation of Boston.  I certainly find that an interesting proposition.


2012 Outlook:

90-72 – Second in AL East

820 Runs Scored       721 Runs Allowed



Mop Up Duty:

Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball*  (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.

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