The Gauntlet Is Thrown

The first point I have to make, in order for this analysis to be useful at all, is that the 2010 Yankees are better than the 2009 Yankees. Here at the blog, we’ve referred plenty to the statistics of Nick Johnson and Curtis Granderson against those of Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon. Unless your statistic of choice is batting average (and if so….why?) the new guys are better offensively, as well as being younger.

               
      BA OBP SLG OPS  
  3-Year Johnson and Granderson 0.279 0.379 0.485 0.864  
  Damon and Matsui 0.284 0.365 0.463 0.828  
               
  5-Year Johnson and Granderson 0.276 0.372 0.473 0.846  
  Damon and Matsui 0.292 0.366 0.467 0.833  
               

The 2010 Yankees also have the benefit of starting the season with their best hitter, Alex Rodriguez, intact. You may recall that A-Rod was on the DL for the first month of the 2009 season, and wasn’t really fully himself until late in the season. So sub in Johnson and Granderson for Damon and Matsui, slot in A-Rod instead of Cody Ransom for a month, and I think it’s hard to argue that this year’s lineup isn’t a chunk better than last year’s lineup.

With that in mind, let’s compare 2009 to 1998, offensively.

  wOBA OPS+ AVG OBP SLG OPS
1998 0.361 116 0.288 0.364 0.460 0.825
2009 0.366 122 0.283 0.362 0.478 0.839

So, 2009 is a tick better than 1998–especially in normalized statistics (which measure the team against the league, so we can see how good they were relative to the rest of baseball). OPS+ says that the 2009 team’s on-base plus slugging, adjusted for league and park, was 22% better than league average. 1998 was only 16% better than league average. Again, remember, this is without the new additions, and a full season of A-Rod.

Next let’s look at pitching. As above, we have to compare 2010 to 2009 before we can do any real analysis. And as above, 2010 is better than 2009. In 2009 25 games were started by Sergio Mitre, Chad Gaudin, Alfredo Aceves or the ghost of Chien Ming Wang. 25 games! People forget that Wang was slotted in as our #2 going into the season, before putting up an achingly bad 9.64 ERA over 42.0 innings. While we can argue the benefits of Hughes versus Joba all day long, in the end it’s a miniscule issue compared to the addition of Javier Vazquez.

As I’ve alluded to, last season, Javier Vazquez was the second best pitcher in the National League (by FIP), and the best by xFIP, which normalizes for HR/FB rate. Let’s clarify what that means. FIP is a fielding independent version of ERA–which allows us to better look at the contribution of the pitcher himself, independent of the defense behind him, or luck on balls in play. It also happens to be a much better predictor of future ERA than past ERA is. xFIP is FIP, but adjusted to take out luck on the HR/FB rate, which most studies have shown is difficult for the pitcher to control. Javier Vazquez is a very good pitcher. He’s filling innings previously filled by guys we pulled off the scrap heap. Andy Pettitte is old…..but he was old last year too. Seems to me the addition of Vazquez outweighs any expected regression there as well.

The bullpen is right around the same place it was last year. Which isn’t to say the performance will be the same–reliever performance is very volatile. And after the shellacking they took in the first game of this season, I’m sure it’ll be easy to convince you that our bullpen is worse than it was last year. It was one game. It’s really made up of the same pitchers, excepting Joba replacing Hughes, and Chan Ho Park (who was quite good for the Phillies last year).

I’d conclude that 2010′s pitching is handily better than 2009′s pitching. But what does 2009 look like relative to 1998? 1998 is better–no doubt. 1998′s FIP of 4.15 versus 2009′s 4.32 is a clear winner. But wait…the innings Vazquez will be replacing came out as follows: 112.1 innings, 5.29 FIP. The four headed beast’s ERA was a crushing 7.39. Vazquez’s FIP last season? 2.77. His ERA? 2.87. There’s an obvious adjustment upwards for his transfer back from the NL to the AL–but even so, this more than bridges the gap.

I won’t go so far as to say that 2010′s pitching is better than 1998′s, because I don’t think it’s that clear. But I’ll say the two are extremely comparable, and either could easily be the victor in this battle.

So what’s left? Defense. This one is hard to objectively discuss, as the advanced statistics that have been developed in recent years didn’t exist back then. I’m not going to demean you by quoting fielding percentage. I’ll simply go position by position. The outfield defense was quite bad in 1998–Paul O’Neill was never a great fielder, Bernie Williams, while not the fielding zombie he eventually became, was still mediocre at best–his routes were bad and his arm was terrible. The speed didn’t make up for his lack of defensive instinct. I’ll honestly admit I haven’t a clue how good Chad Curtis was on defense. I just doubt he’s anywhere near as good as Brett Gardner, who is a top shelf OF defender (at the more difficult CF). Swisher is an adventure, but really, RFs a tie given Paulie’s fielding. Granderson is a great defender in center field, and is head and shoulders above Bernie defensively.

Around the diamond, Posada was and is bad (he’s probably a bit worse now); Teixeira is incredible defensively, but so was Tino; Cano is a lot better than Knoblauch; Jeter is surprisingly about as good as he used to be after the last two seasons’ renaissance (we’ll see if it continues). Alex, if his hip is back to normal, is an average to slightly above-average defender–I guess Scott Brosius probably wins this, but not by too much.

Given the advantage the 2010 Yankees have in the OF and up the middle of the diamond, I’d suggest they take this home as well.

So there you have it. The 2010 Yankees are stronger than the 1998 Yankees both offensively and defensively, and pitching is a wash. In the balance, the 2010 team is, in fact, better than the sacred 1998 team.

11 thoughts on “The Gauntlet Is Thrown

  1. Moose

    Enjoying the pork chop underwear, Will?  How about strength of schedule?  Seems like the Sox and Rays are better this year, although the Jays are probably worse (without looking at the numbers).  How would the other AL East teams from '98 stack up?

  2. Moose–

    Your instincts are spot on–the big issue (and the reason the Yankees don't have much more than a prayer of winning 114 games in the 2010 regular season) is that the AL East is an absolute beast now, relative to what it was. As talent has switched from the NL to the AL, it's become less and less useful to compare teams that are a decade apart by their win-loss record (and let's be clear…it wasn't tremendously useful to begin with).

    Even within the AL, the talent has clearly been coming to the AL East–as older talent on other teams has retired and been replaced by the #1 picks Tampa has picked up over the years, and as the Yankees and Red Sox have acquired the top shelf players.

    Even the Orioles look to be getting stronger going forward. I wouldn't be at all surprised if two years from now, there is all sorts of commentary on how 4 of the top 5 teams in the AL are in the AL East. Weiters, Jones, Markakis, Matusz, Tillman, that's a great base for a team that does, in fact, have money to deploy.

  3. Interesting argument. I await TCM's response.

    Sure the 2010 team could be better, but I don't think they will be better. Aside from the valid strength of schedule argument above, so many things would have to go right just to equal last year's record, let alone 1998's record:  people staying healthy, the older players defying regression for another year, outplaying the pythagorean record again, 15 walk off wins, etc. I don't think the odds are in favor of that.

    And at the risk of being a complete turd in the punchbowl, the picture at the top of the post is from the 1996 World Series celebration. The '98 Yanks clinched in SD.

  4. Matt,

    I'll be up front–I'm not measuring how good the team is by how many wins they get, bceause the leagues are so much different. I'm look ing at the production of the offense, pitching and defense (as best I can) relative to the 1998 team. So–just as an example–outperforming their pythagorean record doesn't really change the outcome, to my view.

    The question at hand is really this–which team would win a seven game series, between the 1998 team and 2010 team. I say 2010.

    Thanks for stopping by, and good pickup on the picture–that's an oops!

  5. In that light then, yes, I can easily see the 2010 team as being better. Whether that happens in reality though still remains to be seen.

     

    As far as the pythag record, I was referring to last year's team, not '98. Though I'm sure the 98 team outperformed theirs as well. It would take an incredible run differential to predict a 114 win season.  If you're not focusing on win totals I suppose it's inconsequential. But the point I was alluding to was that as good as last year's team was, and it may well have been the best Yankee team since '98, they still had to catch a fair amount of breaks to win that many games.

  6. Eddie

    Will,

    Spot on analysis and well done with the statistics.  We can agree to disagree about my comments last week re: the value of a trade concerning Gardner, Melky, Melancon and a bag of baseballs (lol), but I have to give kudos where they are due.  FIP is an incredible stat and a great predictor of true value for pitchers.  I am sure Dan Shaughnessy would be rolling over in his grave somewhere.  I completely agree with everything you have written here.  Clearly we cannot compare the SOS or how the schedule played out.  I see people comment about how the SOS was so different back than given the Rays were not that good etc., but has anyone actually taken the time to look at which starters the Yanks faced in all of those games vs last year or the ones they will face this year?  Would you rather face Andy Sonnastine and the Rays in 2010 or would you rather have faced The Big Unit in 1998?  Keep up the good work, I will be checking in daily. 

  7. Bret

    Instead of 1998, compare the Yankees to last year.  They won 103 games but should have won 95 based on their runs scored.  Gardner is replacing Melky Cabrera which is a downgrade, Damon/Granderson a wash, Johnson/Matsui a wash if Johnson can stay healthy.  Otherwise, it is highly likely that Sabathia won't have a 3.41 ERA, Petitte won't be as good and one or all of the old guys could see the roof cave in (Jeter, Posada, Rivera, even Arod is getting up there).  I don't think getting Javy Vasquez is nearly enough to offset those other things, especially when many guys outperformed last season and could regress.  They were also especially lucky with injuries.  If Posada gets hurt, they have no depth and that is true at pretty much every position.  I think they will struggle to win 90 games and I am somewhat confused by people who are so high on them.  Even ardent Yankee fans have to realize that a lot of things went right last year that probably won't this year just as the Rays of 2008 found out.

  8. Bret:

    I feel like you didn't read the entire post. I specifically did compare the 2010 Yankes to the 2009 Yankees…all over the place. With nasty little statistics to back up my points.

    Let's start with most egregious. "They were lucky with injuries last year".

    They lost their #2 pitcher for the season (Wang), and the consensus best hitter in the American League for a month (A-Rod). They got hammered by injuries.

    Next: we've shown the statistics here a few times. Gardner is actually an upgrade from Melky. Not only that, he's a fairly big upgrade. You can feel free to keep saying Melky's better, or you can show me some numbers that suggest he actually is. Then we can have a discussion.

    On the rest of the replacements: I've shown the numbers very openly, even in the above post regarding Matsui, Damon, Johnson, Granderson. The new guys are better hitters–that's not really in question. That Granderson is head and shoulders above Damon defensively matters, too. Oh, they're also significantly younger AND significantly cheaper. Weird.

    I see no reason to think Sabathia will do worse this season. How on earth do you come to that conclusion? His ERA the last 4 years combined is around 3.15, spent almost entirely in the AL.

    On the old guys regressing a bit, sure. That's definitely a possibility. Given the other upgrades on the team, they'd have to fall rather hard to undo the progress that has been made.

    We like objectivity here at IIATMS. Thanks for joining in!

    Will

  9. Eddie

    Bret,

    Disagree with almost everything, respectfully of course.  Gardner is NOT a downgrade from Melky.  He is a defensive upgrade.  Cabrera last 3 year UZR is -8.4, Gardner is +20.9.  You kidding me?  Even if Gardner hit below the Mendoza line and Melky was a good hitter, Gardy still would be just as good but Cabrera and Gardner were not that far off with the stick.   Last 3 years, Gardy is a .254/.326/.354 which is not very good but Melky .269/.330/.384.  There is almost no difference except Melky will hit a few more homers, but didn't we already know that?

    Damon/Granderson a wash?  Again, huh?  Granderson UZR over the past 3 years is +6.7 and Damon is -5.9.  Not even close and that includes the 1 year blip that Granderson had where he went from +14 to a -8.  Did he forget how to play Center?  No, the following year he was positive again.  For these 2 guys to accentuate the point, let's use WAR, (wins above replacement).  Granderson cumulative WAR last 3 seasons, 14.4 and Damon is 9.1 meaning Granderson has meant a cumulative 5 wins better. 

    Why is Sabathia's 3.41 ERA unlikely to be that number again if not better now that he has had a year to get comfy with the Yanks?  .. not to mention, ERA is quite a bad stat to begin with.  His FIPx last 3 years, 3.82, 3.10. 3.52.  3.41 sounds right to me. 

    The roof will cave in?  I think until we see "the roof cave in" with some of these guys, we have to give them the benefit of the doubt, do we not?  Jeter got better defensively last year as he worked harder on it in the offseason.  Pettitte won't be as good?  Why not?  What suggests this?  He is 1 year older, so what?  He is still pretty darned good.  Who outperformed last year?  I just find the argument baseless. 

  10. Bret

    Doesn't seem like a very objective analysis to me.  The first point that you are glossing over is the 2009 Yankees were very lucky to get 103 wins (and by the way the 1998 Yanks were lucky also, should have won 108).  Runs scored/runs allowed is a very reliable indicator of wins over the long term, Yankees won 103 but should have won 95 based on runs scored so you start 2010 with a baseline of 95.

    Second point, you have to compare what Yankees did last year when they got the wins.  Damon had an OPS + of 126 last year.  Granderson had an OPS + of 100.  Now, the park differential and the lineup protection will help even that out but to predict Granderson is much better or even better at all than Damon's 2009 is a big stretch.  Same with Melky, he had an OPS + of 99 last year.  Gardner has a career OPS + of 81.  That is significantly lower so to say Gardner will be better than Melky's 2009 is not to use stats but must be a hunch or guess of some sort.  Nick Johnson and Matsui have identical career OPS + of 124.  Johnson is younger but also much more injury prone.  So I don't think you can say that any of those three is likely to outperform their predecessor.

    Jeter is likely to decline, so is Posada, and Swisher had a great season.   Sabathia might be as good but has a lot of innings on his arm and Petitte is going to have to prove to me that he is a #3.   Yes, you get one extra month of Arod and Vazquez is good but Vazquez was great in an inferior league in a pitcher's park.  Now he is in a hitter's park in the best division in baseball.  My basic point is there are many places the Yankees could potentially be worse but few where they could be better. 

    Finally, the O's are better, the Rays are probably better and their aren't going to be as many easy wins this year.  They won 95 last year, I think they are a worse overall team and I think the division is better.  But time will prove one of us right or wrong.

  11. gary

    The 1998 Yankees are much better because they knew how to get runners on, move them over, and get them in, better than anyone.  Their bullpen was a stopping machine as well.  The NYY loss to the LAA yesterday is the difference between 1998 and 2010.  The 1998 team would have won that game.  Aceves came in and let the Angels score 2 runs on him – one letting the runner on 3rd with two outs score, & the other on his own to expand the score to 5 – 1.  In 1998 it would have remained 3 – 1 and the NYY would have won in extra innings.  This 2010 verion has a hard time moving runners over & bringing them home from 3rd base with less than two outs. 

    Those are the kind of games the 1998 Yanks would win while this team cannot win those kind of games.  It doesn't show up in the stats but is most important.  A productive out is what the 1998 team lived on.  And remember, that team won three WS in a row, 4 out of 5, and were in six years played in five WS championships.  Teams greatness are based on winning championships  and that is why I think the team in the late 90's is one of the greatest teams ever.  If this team wins the next 3 WS in a row, than I will call them great, but to compare them with 98, not a chance.

    It is team – not individuals – that make a team.  

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