2009 Season in Review: The Outfield and Designated Hitter

This is the fifth in a series of five Yankeeist 2009 Season in Review recaps. Please be sure to check out 2009 Season in Review: The Infield, 2009 Season in Review: Starting Pitchers, 2009 Season in Review: The Bullpen and 2009 Season in Review: The Bench if you haven’t already done so.

If there’s been one offensive constant across Yankee teams of the last 15 years, it’s been a highly productive infield. Not that the Yankees have had lousy-hitting outfielders by any stretch — although they haven’t fielded 100-OPS+-or-higher guys at all three outfield positions since 2004 — but the team’s ridiculously good production from its five infielders over the years — underscored by this year’s unit posting a collective .389 wOBA — has led the team to punt some outfield offense of late.

Having said that, the 2009 Yankee outfield was very productive — the best collective OPS+ (118) since the aforementioned 2004 group (129) — even with Melky Cabrera continuing to patrol center field on a regular basis. The starting tandem of Johnny Damon-Cabrera-Nick Swisher averaged a .361 wOBA, while Brett Gardner shored the defensive alignment up in the later innings.

Former outfielder Hideki Matsui was the designated hitter for the entire season, and significantly exceeded expectations, recording the second-best campaign of his seven-year Yankee career.

Johnny Damon, LF
162-Game Averages: .288/.355/.439, 105 OPS+
2009 regular season: .282/.365/.489, 126 OPS+, .376 wOBA
2009 postseason: .281/.333/.422, 2HR, 9RBI, .343 wOBA

While Damon has been very productive during the course of his Yankee tenure, I doubt many people expected him to put up a career year in his age 35 season. The team correctly flip-flopped Jeter and Damon in the batting order in spring training, and the move clearly worked out as well as anyone could have hoped. The only downside to Damon’s 2009 campaign were his rapidly deteriorating defensive skills.

Damon looked horrendous in the first round of the playoffs, but turned it in on the ALCS and World Series, posting a respectable slash line after all was said and done. And of course he was also responsible for one of the most memorable moments of the entire postseason.

As one of the team’s primary free agents, Damon’s been at the center of a lot of speculation in Yankeeland during the last few weeks. While I have been on board with re-signing him to a one- or two-year deal at a lesser salary, Damon apparently has other ideas. If Damon won’t take less than $13 million per, it’s probably time for the Yankees to cut their ties with Johnny. As great a year as he had in 2009, there’s no way he’s going to reach that level of production again as a 36-year-old.

Melky Cabrera, CF
162-Game Averages: .269/.331/.385, 88 OPS+
2009 regular season: .274/.336/.416, 99 OPS+, .331 wOBA
2009 postseason: .271/.314/.313, 0HR, 4RBI, .283 wOBA

I have a lot of trouble rooting for Melky Cabrera. Obviously I want him to do well, but he’s just too limited as an offensive player to get terribly excited about. He’s been a pleasure to watch play defense, but that’s about the nicest thing I can say about ol’ Leche. Melky’s really a fourth outfielder masquerading as a starter, and the Yankees were able to do that in 2009 because everyone else in the lineup had such ridiculous years.

For a while there it looked like Melky had possibly turned a corner, and after he hit for the cycle in early August the Yankees had all nine members of the starting lineup posting OPS+s of 100-or-better. Unfortunately Melky fell off and finished the year slightly below-average, although his 99 was still the best OPS+ of his career.

As previously discussed, I’d like to see the Yankees upgrade their center field situation offensively if possible, whether that means trading for Curtis Granderson or bringing Mike Cameron in. I know Melky’s young, but he’s now had nearly 2,000 Major League at-bats to distinguish himself at the plate and he has yet to do so.

Brett Gardner, CF
162-Game Averages: .256/.325/.352, 80 OPS+
2009 regular season: .270/.345/.379, 93 OPS+, .337 wOBA
2009 postseason: .154/.154/.154, 0HR, 0RBI, .078 wOBA

To Gardner’s credit, he posted a far better offensive season than most were expecting him to. He even out-wOBA’d platoonmate Melky, albeit in about the half the number of at-bats. Gardner usurped the starting role from Melky a couple of times in 2009, but Cabrera eventually won it back. I questioned whether Gardner should’ve started over Melky in the playoffs, given how poorly Cabrera finished the year, but ultimately the difference probably would’ve been negligible.

Gardner actually looked pretty terrible in the few playoff at-bats he did receive, but that was probably more a function of not having played on a regular basis in quite some time than his true talent level. Still, like Melky, Gardner’s also a fourth outfielder, and an ideal guy to use off the bench. Gardner’s defense and speed certainly helped the Yankees in 2009, and I have no problem with Brett continuing his role as back-up outfielder going forward.

Nick Swisher, RF
162-Game Averages: .245/.357/.460, 115 OPS+
2009 regular season: .249/.371/.498, 129 OPS+, .375 wOBA
2009 postseason: .128/.255/.234, 1HR, 2RBI, .234 wOBA

Nick Swisher is one of my favorite stories from the 2009 season. I still love and can’t believe that Brian Cashman somehow convinced Kenny Williams to take the most useless player this side of Tony Womack in a trade for Swisher. Swisher went from hypoothetical starting first baseman to back-up right fielder during the offseason, and was elevated to regular status after Xavier Nady went down for the season. No offense to Nady, but I wasn’t terribly heartbroken that he was out for the year, because I doubt he would’ve put up the numbers that Swisher did.

In addition to being a prototypical Yankee-type player — working the count, willingness to take a walk — he also played far better defense than Bobby Abreu ever did, and (not that this has anything to do with statistical analysis) really endeared himself to the fanbase. But most importantly, he put up a .375 wOBA.

Like several other Yankees, Swisher was unfortunately pretty awful in the playoffs, but thankfully it didn’t affect the end result.

Hideki Matsui, DH
162-Game Averages: .292/.370/.482, 124 OPS+
2009 regular season: .274/.367/.509, 131 OPS+, .37
8 wOBA
2009 postseason: .349/.462/.674, 4HR, 13RBI, .480 wOBA

Matsui’s 2009 represented the second-highest OPS+ of his career, trailing only 2004′s 137. He also had the third-best DH wOBA in the league, behind Adam Lind and Jason Kubel. Not to mention he was an utter beast in the postseason, with a batting line second only to A-Rod and a highly deserved World Series MVP trophy to polish in the offseason.

I, like several others, suspected Matsui was mostly done for coming into the year. As I mentioned the other day, I was pushing hard for Adam Dunn in pinstripes during the offseason. In fact, I didn’t have a blog back then, but I did go back into my G-Mail archives and found the following exchange I had with Joe P. from RAB last January 7:

Larry: I know No Maas has been harping on Adam Dunn for the entire offseason, and as someone who values OPS above any other statistic in baseball, I still think the Yanks would be foolish not to make some kind of run at Dunn, Teixeira notwithstanding. Think for a second how awesome a middle of the lineup that becomes — Teixiera/A-Rod/Dunn. I imagine one of our outfielders would have to be moved to make room, but who cares? How often do you have the opportunity to get a perennial 40 HR/100 BB threat? And his price tag has to be declining every day, in light of the Burrell and Bradley signings. And I just saw a graphic on MLB Network showing that Nick Swisher led the league in pitches per plate appearance last year, while Dunn was #4. We could potentially have two of the top 5 most patient hitters in baseball in our lineup! I really feel like it makes way too much sense to sign Dunn, and I’m hoping the fact that we haven’t heard a single thing about the Yanks being on Dunn means Cashman is going to pull another Teixeira and swoop in out of nowhere and grab him (and Teixeira himself was pretty much the best holiday gift ever — I don’t think I stopped grinning that entire night).

What do you think? Has your opinion changed since Mike posted this? Am I being insanely greedy wanting more offense? If you still like Dunn, it’d be awesome if you guys tossed a post up on RAB explaining why he’d be a great signing.

Joe: Only problem I see with that is where to put Dunn. He’s optimal at DH, playing the field a couple of days a week, but we have Matsui at DH, and he’s not going anywhere. If he gets injured we’ll all be saying “man, if we only signed Adam Dunn,” but you can’t predict injury in that manner (that is, to sign a starter in anticipation of one of your starters going down). Even if they trade one of Nady/Swisher, they still have Damon in left and the remaining one of those guys in right. An outfield of Dunn-Damon-Nady/Swisher would be horrendous defensively.

It’s tough for me to say this, since I’m a huge Dunn fan. Not just for the Yankees, but as a player who gets a lot of undeserved shit. So, love the idea, but don’t see a practical means to implement it.

Larry: Fair enough, I guess I was hoping that we could just dump Matsui on someone. I don’t really have a rational basis for this feeling, but I’m over Matsui.

——————-

Sorry Hideki! I still love you! As I also mentioned the other day, I was happy to be wrong on the demise of Matsui. However, like Damon, it seems highly unlikely that Matsui will be able to come close to repeating what he did this year in his age 36 season. If a one-year, $10 million deal can be worked out to bring Matsui back for an encore performance, then by all means.

If not, there are a handful of alternatives out there. We’ve talked about Vlad Guerrero a bit on this site, although one name that’s starting to pick up some steam is Nick Johnson, who I woke up this morning wanting to write about only to find that Mike Axisa beat me to the punch for the second time this week.

The more I think about it, the more I love this idea. Nick the Stick has always been a favorite of mine (how do you not love a guy with a career .402 OBP?), and as Mike notes, batting the ultra-patient Johnson and Nick Swisher back-to-back could present one of the ultimate headaches in the league to opposing pitchers. While the Yankees felt N the S was expendable in 2004 due to the presence of Jason Giambi and the desire for Javy Vazquez, they really need to think hard about bringing one of their best homegrown hitting prospects back into the fold this offseason.

Additionally, the Stick is five years younger than Matsui, put up nearly the same wOBA in 2009 and is projected to out-wOBA Hideki next year (.375 to .366). This could all be a moot point if the Stick is looking for some outrageous contract, given the fact that (a) the Yankees don’t need him at first base, even though he’s considered a good defender, and (b) Johnson’s main bugaboo is whether he can stay healthy.

But you have to figure Johnson’s agent realizes that Nick can’t sign for premium money with his injury track record. iI Matsui leaves and Johnson is available for around $10 million per, I’d love to have N the S’s bat back in the Yankee lineup.

One thought on “2009 Season in Review: The Outfield and Designated Hitter

  1. YES Bring back N-the-S!!!

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