Positive storylines from the 2010 season

As we get further into the offseason I’ll be doing comprehensive rundowns of each individual player’s seasons, but for now I’d like to take a look at the Yankees’ 2010 year at a more macro level. I’d also like to take a moment to give a brief shout-out to our sponsor at Sports Interaction, and that you should please click on the following link if you’re a fan of online betting.

A lot of great things happened during the regular season in 2010, and today we’re going to focus on some of the things that went right for the Yankees. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at some of the aspects of the season that didn’t turn out so well.

Positive storylines from 2010

Phil Hughes was given a full season in the starting rotation. Matt rehashed the Spring Training “contest” between Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain yesterday, so need to get into that here, but it was particularly gratifying for those of us who have been devouring anything we could find about Hughes on the Internet since 2004 to finally see him get a full season’s shot in the starting rotation. In 2007, Hughes acquitted himself rather nicely as a 21-year-old in the AL East, making 13 starts in an injury-shortened year and pitching to a 102 ERA+. Hughes’ 2008, of course, was a year to forget, but Phil came back strong a season ago and emerged as one of the best relievers in baseball, throwing 86 mostly high-leverage innings of 152 ERA+ ball.

While Hughes’ 2010 had its share of ups-and-downs, I don’t think we can classify it as anything but a success that he managed to throw a career-high 176 1/3 innings of 102 ERA+ ball over 31 starts in the toughest division in Major League Baseball. Those totals don’t include the three additional starts he made in the postseason, the first of which was of course amazing, the last two rather miserable. And though he spit the bit against Texas in the ALCS, he still came up rather huge when the Yankees needed him most down the stretch, pitching six innings of one-run ball in arguably the most must-win game of the season.

It’s easy to forget that Hughes came out of the box like a house on fire, sporting a 1.38 ERA after his first six starts, and staying under 3.00 until after his 12th start of the season against Houston in June, a game in which he coincidentally still won. Of course, therein lies the slight rub on Hughes’ season — no one can take anything away from what Phil accomplished, though he did receive more run support than anyone else in the American League in his starts. That’s going to happen when you pitch for the Majors’ top offense, and hopefully Phil will be able to continue bringing it even when his offense isn’t on top of its game.

At 2.7, bWAR has Phil as the 33rd-most valuable pitcher in the AL (just behind Andy Pettitte‘s 3.1), and tied with Chris Perez and 0.1 behind Dan Haren, and I think we’d all have happily signed up for that outcome prior to the season starting. It’s clear Hughes is only going to get better as he continues to develop as a starter, and if he figures out how to better mix up his pitches and further work the change into his arsenal it’s not inconceivable that a year from now we could be talking about a guy who made the top ten. After all, Clay Buchholz went from a 1.7 bWAR pitcher in 2009 to 5.4 this season — tied for second-highest mark in the AL with Jered Weaver and CC Sabathia. I don’t know that Phil will ascend to quite those heights next year, but I don’t think anyone expected Buchholz to get there either, and by many accounts Hughes has been the more highly touted pitcher.

Robinson Cano came into his own with the best season of his career. Was there anyone more enjoyable to watch hit in 2010 than Robinson Cano? Alex Rodriguez‘s at-bats have been “drop-everything-must-see-TV” for as long as he’s been on the Yankees, but this year Cano may have surpassed A-Rod. Like Hughes, Cano also owned the month of April, being named AL Player of the Month on the strength of an outrageous .497 wOBA. Can’s huge April sparked much MVP talk, though I was quick to throw cold water on that, as I knew Cano couldn’t possibly sustain that level of production, since no one can. Sure enough, Cano never broke the .400 wOBA mark in any other month of the season, but he remained extraordinarily productive and was the best hitter on the Yankees by far this season, leading the team with a career-high .389 wOBA. At 6.1, bWAR had Cano tied for the 4th-most valuable player in the American League this season. If there’s any downside it would seem that it’d be pretty hard for Robbie to repeat the year he just had, but as he’s smack dab in the prime of his career, it’s certainly far from inconceivable.

Cano also silenced the doubters (which included both Mike and myself) about whether he could contribute in the postseason, mashing to the tune of a .477 wOBA that included four home runs against the Rangers in the ALCS.

The bullpen was excellent for a third straight season. After years of mediocre Joe Torre-led pens that seemed to cough leads up like
it was their job, arguably Joe Girardi’s greatest strength has been his ability to get the most out of his ‘pen while efficiently spreading the workload.

I know many were displeased in his deployment of the ‘pen during the last month of the season (not to mention the playoffs), but on the whole he’s done a far, far better job than his predecessor. In 2008, the Yankee bullpen led the AL in FIP, at 3.82 (5th in ERA); in 2009 it wasn’t quite that effective, posting a 4.33 FIP (again 5th in ERA, at 3.91); and this past season the unit was 5th in FIP, at 4.06, while posting its lowest ERA of the Girardi era — a 3.47 mark — behind only the Rays and the Rangers.

CC Sabathia continued to be worth every penny. Though the big man may have tired a bit down the stretch, he remained every bit the ace the Yankees felt they were getting when they lavished him with $161 million two offseasons ago. Sabathia was arguably even better in his second year in pinstripes, putting up a 3.18/3.54/3.78 line compared with 3.37/3.39/3.82 the year prior, and was the 2nd-most valuable pitcher in the AL per bWAR.

One of next season’s recurring storylines will of course be whether Sabathia decides to opt out after the 2011 season, and while he’s gone on record several times saying he has no interest in doing so, if he turns in another 5.0-plus WAR season, it wouldn’t be the most surprising turn of events if he did decide to see if he could milk some extra dollars out of the Yankees, especially if they lose out on the Cliff Lee sweepstakes. Speaking of Lee, I do wonder what role (if any) Sabathia’s and Lee’s friendships may play as Lee ponders his future this winter. Additionally, you have to figure Yankee brass has CC’s opt-out clause in mind as they pursue Lee, which quite frankly will probably cause the team to push even harder, viewing Lee as possible Sabathia insurance.

Andy Pettitte turned in a season for the ages. It’s impossible to know whether All Day Andy Pettitte could’ve continued throwing as brilliantly as he had been for the remainder of the season had he not succumbed to that fateful groin injury in July, but prior to doing so he was in the midst of what was one of the finest seasons of his illustrious career. We can only hope Andy’s ready to re-up for another go-round, and it’s difficult to see him hanging it up after an injury-shortened season, especially one that didn’t end in a championship. The smart money says Andy’s back for one more go-round.

Curtis Granderson finally silenced the doubters. All we heard through the first four months of the season was that the Yankees got hosed on the Curtis Granderson-Austin Jackson deal, trading the center fielder of the future for a platoon player who couldn’t hit lefthanded pitching if his life depended on it. Jackson of course kicked off his season better than anyone would’ve expected, while Grandy started things off in memorable fashion, but slumped pretty severely before suffering a groin injury at the beginning of May.

Things didn’t really fully kick into gear for Grandy until the now-legendary private session he and Kevin Long held in Texas in mid-August, but whatever the two did while working together it paid off in spades, as Grandy seemed to have no trouble handling lefthanded pitchers from that point forward. From Game 1 through the second game of the Texas series, Curtis hit .239/.306/.415. Post K-Long intervention, Curtis absolutely raked to the tune of .261/.356/.564 — including a .411 wOBA in September — and carried that hot hitting into the postseason, where he and Robbie Cano basically provided the entire Yankee offense.

Brett Gardner significantly exceeded expectations. No position was more scrutinized before the season started than left field. Many wanted Johnny Damon brought back (myself included), assuming that there was no way Brett Gardner could be a viable every day outfielder. Even after a scalding-hot April I was still looking for other options for the Yankees for left field, including Josh Willingham. Boy, were we mistaken. Though Gardy’s production trailed off significantly after getting by a pitch in LA at the end of June, he still managed two huge months, posting a .381 wOBA in April and a .453 wOBA in June, mighty impressive numbers for a guy who has almost no power and slugged .379 on the season. Gardy finished the season with a .358 wOBA, still well-above what anyone ever expected him to do, not to mention he accumulated 5.4 fWAR (behind only Carl Crawford in left field) and 4.0 bWAR (making him B-Ref’s 18th-most valuable player in the AL). Season-ending slump or no slump, that’s ridiculously impressive.

Gardner also led the Yankees — a team that prides itself on getting on base — in OBP, with a sterling .383 mark, good for 8th-best in the AL, not to mention leading all of MLB in pitches per plate appearance (by quite a wide margin, I might add) at 4.61. The team-leading OBP plus ability to foul pitches off and work the count both scream for Gardner to be given a shot at leading off for a full season next year, especially when the alternative is Derek Jeter, who had the second-lowest OBP of the Yankees’ starting

lineup.

Despite blowing away expectations for his first full season as a starting outfielder, Brett still has several areas he needs to improve upon, perhaps none moreso than developing a more aggressive approach when it comes to stealing bases. Despite leading the league in stolen bases percentage (84% success rate) and tying for third for most stolen bases, given the sheer number of times Gardner reached base safely along with his impressive success rate he probably should’ve attempted to steal even more frequently. As a sabermetrician it almost feels wrong to be advocating for more stolen bases, but Gardner’s fast enough that it’s worth the risk.

I’d also love to see just a tad more pop out of Gardner’s bat. I know he’ll never be a power hitter, but a guy with wheels like Gardner really needs to be hitting more than 20 doubles per season. He did notch seven triples (and five home runs!), but as the season wore on it felt like Gardner’s only chance of getting on base was slapping the ball the other way (which he admittedly does quite well), and more often that not his flares to left field were getting caught. If Gardner can add just a bit more pop to his game — maybe even try to pull the ball down the first-base line earlier in the count — he could become an even more dynamic asset.

Gardy also vanished in the postseason, but so did everyone not named Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson or Lance Berkman, so I suppose I can’t get on him too badly.

5 thoughts on “Positive storylines from the 2010 season

  1. Charles Thompson

    Great post. As fun as it is examining what went so horribly wrong in the ALCS, it is just as important for us to look back on what went right for us during 2010 going into what is sure to be a busy off-season.

    I think you nailed it with all the above analysis. I really can't think of much to add, so I'll just emphasize some of your excellent points.

    CC is a true Ace. This raises the question as to whether the Yanks need to spend a similar amount for Cliff Lee. Would we not be better off spending far less on solid back of the rotation guys? The answer, of course, is no – Cliff Lee is just too awesome for the richest team in baseball to ignore, but I don't think it will be the end of the world if he chooses to go elsewhere.

    Granderson was a great pickup and should hold down center field for us for years to come.

    Gardner should be given a shot at keeping the left field job and should obviously be batting leadoff. But I won't cry if we go after Carl Crawford.

    Pettitte should come back for another season, and given his style (not dependent on overwhelming power) I don't see any reason why he can't have a year close to his outstanding 2010.

    Don't be surprised if Cano is even better next year. He is the man.

    After his sub-par 2008 season folks were ready to put Jeter out to pasture and he responded with a superb campaign in 2009. Granted his 2010 was much worse than his 2008, and it is unlikely that he will put together another season as productive as 2009. Still, I expect him to get close to his career averages next season. This is a hard-working, prideful dude who will want to earn the millions the yankees are sure to be overpaying him.

    Girardi needs to stick around and will continue to do a great job. Being a smart guy, I expect him to learn from some of his late-season mistakes. His best pitching decision in the playoffs was sending in Mo to help out that guy who couldn't finish his XXL chalupa in the T-Bell commercials (Sorry, couldn't resist).

    All told, I think we have a lot to look forward to next season.

  2. Thanks Charles. I really enjoyed writing this one.

    Though I've convinced myself the Yankees have to get Lee to remain competitive in an AL East absolutely stacked with young pitching talent, I've begin steeling myself for the possibility that they don't acquire him, and so I agree that missing out on Lee will not be the end of the world. The Yanks have won without him, so it's not as if he's somehow the last piece of the puzzle.

    That being said, when the best pitcher in baseball (apologies to Roy Halladay) comes on the market, you have to do everything you can to get him, and I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't be disappointed if the team couldn't get Lee.

    I hope you're right with regards to Jeter. Call me a pessimist on this one, but after watching Derek ground out to short on the first pitch of what felt like every at-bat, I have zero confidence in a bounceback year. I admire your unwavering faith, but Jeter lost all credibility with me this year.

    If he was able to produce a season anywhere close to his career numbers (.314/.385/.452) it would make the inevitable ridiculous contract he's about to get more palatable, but I just don't see it happening. It's not impossible to envision him picking his average up some, but where on earth is he going to make up the .082 points of slugging that went missing this year?

  3. Anonymous

    Fine post. I would quibble with the title, "Curtis Granderson-Austin Jackson deal." I'd call it the "Granderson, Coke and Kennedy – Jackson deal." Coke would have been one of the Yanks' best relievers at a 3.76 ERA. IPK's ERA of 3.80 would have been a lot better than Vazquez, Burnett, Nova, Gaudin or Mosely, even after adding 0.5 to the ERA to adjust from NL to AL. Although Granderson wasn't particularly expensive, the three players traded for him would have cost almost nothing, leaving more money to sign free agents.

    Yes, Granderson hit a bit better than Jackson with an OPS+ of 109 vs 102. However, IMHO that trade should not be counted as a success, because the Yanks were unable to find other players as good as Coke and IPK.

    David in Cal

  4. Thanks for the kind words, David.

    You're right; the trade was more than just Curtis for AJax, although admittedly I didn't (and still don't) think much of the other parts of the deal the Yankees gave up.

    Coke's 3.76 ERA is appealing, although a large portion of that is due to the spacious confines of Comerica, where he pitched to a 3.25 ERA (3.16 FIP) over 36 innings. On the road he threw to a 4.40 ERA (though more-than-respectable 3.32 FIP) in 28 2/3; although curiously enough his bugaboo, the home run ball, only bit him twice all year with both instances coming at home.

    Regardless, Coke lost my faith after serving up the go-ahead home run with the Yanks in the cusp of that huge four-game sweep against the Sox on August 9, 2009, and immediately became expendable to me. Even if he has turned a corner, I'm not convinced he would've been able to pitch to an under 4.00 ERA as a Yankee. Fair or not, I just don't like Phil Coke.

    As for Kennedy, there's zero chance he would've tossed to under a 4.00 as a starter in the AL East. Would he have been better than Burnett/Vazquez/Moseley? Almost certainly, but then again who wasn't better than that trio this past season? I also felt Kennedy was eminently expendable, and I don't think he ever could have established himself as a legitimate member of the Yankee rotation.

    Instead of Burnett/Vazquez/Moseley et. al., I would've rather have seen the Yankees get creative with Joba and give him another shot in the rotation — I doubt there are too many people who think Ian Kennedy will end up being a better starting pitcher than Joba, but unfortunately the Yankees appear to have no interest in going down that road again.

    Ultimately, I guess if you believe Coke and IPK would've been positive contributors to the 2010 team then the trade seems lopsided, but I saw them as having zero or negative value to the team, and thus were easily movable parts.

  5. [...] readers will recall that we did just two comprehensive “Positive Storylines” and “Negative Storylines” posts last offseason. In the interest of fleshing the 2011 [...]

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