We recently compared the Yankees and Red Sox position players as they stack up right now. Unsurprisingly, the Sox came out ahead. Barring the unexpected, the 2011 Red Sox’s position players will be somewhat better than the 2011 Yankees’ position players. What’s lost in this analysis, though, are the poor seasons so many Yankees had last year. Yes, the Red Sox are a better team if the Yankees get 2010 production from Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter. However, the Sox are not a better team if the Yankees get 2009 production from those three players.
The Yankees will compete in the AL East right now, and, despite the Red Sox’s improvements, have the 2nd-best odds of winning the 2011 World Series on Sportsbook.com. It is entirely possible that they will do even better if some of their key players bounce back from their 2010 seasons. How likely is this?
Baseball-Reference’s similarity scores will drive this analysis. Any active player has three scores: a score for players who have put up similar career numbers, a score for players who have put up similar career numbers through the active player’s current age season, and individual scores for players who put up similar numbers in each individual season of the active player’s career, at that age. For example, Derek Jeter is compared to players whose career totals are similar to his right now, players who were similar through age 36, and players who had similar seasons when they were also 36.
The first score isn’t very helpful because it compares players whose careers are finished to those who are still playing. I’m loath to compare Mark Teixeira to someone who only hit 300 career bombs. But the latter two scores can help to understand how a given player may perform in the coming year. This analysis will shed light on the chances many key Yankees bounce back in 2011 using players who had similar seasons at the same age, and players who had similar career numbers at the same point in their careers as the Yankees in question.
One final note on the similarity score: 1000 is a near-perfect match, but a score of 900 doesn’t mean the players are 90% similar. The scores are point-driven. The units of measurement are not proportional to percentages.
Derek Jeter | A theme that I’ve noticed with similarity scores is that Hall of Fame-caliber players, such as the Captain, are unique. They don’t compare well to anyone. Jeter compares most closely to Roberto Alomar. Craig Biggio is a distant 2nd. His career to date, however, scores an 869 when compared to Alomar and a 791 to Biggio. We ran a similar exercise for Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth and Cliff Lee earlier, and each compared to players with similarity scores of 920 or above. As any Yankee fan could have told you for the better part of a decade now: They just don’t make ’em like the Captain.
If we are going to infer how Jeter will fare over the next few seasons soon-to-be Hall of Famer Alomar is the best player to use. Jeter has compared most closely to him every year since his age 32 season. That’s bad. Alomar never played baseball again after his age 36 season, when he posted an OPS+ of 81.
Although he really rates as a different kind of player, Craig Biggio is the better of the two comparisons, in terms of who had more left in the tank after age 36. Biggio played until he was 41, and wasn’t half bad along the way. He posted OPS+’s of 96, 104, 104 and 88 from ages 37 to 40. I’d take that productivity from Jeter in a heartbeat. The first three seasons would be an improvement on his 2010.
There is already one major difference between age 36 Derek Jeter and age 36 Roberto Alomar: Jeter got a new contract; Alomar did not. Similarity scores are backward-looking. Alomar’s numbers through age 36 are similar to Jeter’s, but that doesn’t mean they will be moving forward. Alomar became a below-average hitter after his age 33 season and steadily faded away. Derek has been at least average every season of his career until 2010. In the end, the best argument to make in support of Jeter having a bounceback year in 2011 is that his career to date has been so unique. Why rule anything out now? That said, there are few precedents of players like him sustaining quality production much past age 37, which is why his contract negotiations were so contentious.
Mark Teixeira | Unlike Jeter, Tex compares well to many players. To a man, those players aged well. Tex’s career has been most similar to date to Carlos Delgado‘s. This has been true since his age 28 season. This is also a good thing. In his age 31 through 36 seasons, or Tex’s remaining years on the Yankees, Delgado put up OPS+’s of 161, 129, 160, 131, 102 and 127. I woul
d take similar production from Tex inside of a New York minute.
Tex also compares favorably to Jeff Bagwell, Fred McGriff, Paul Konerko and Jim Thome, each with scores of 907 or higher. Bags and Thome aged like fine wine, while Konerko and the Crime Dog rated anywhere from average to excellent through age 36. Three of the five players Tex is most similar to were positive bruisers until they were 36 or 37 and the other two had at least one 150 OPS+ season left. Don’t be surprised in Tex has an OPS+ around 140 again next year.
Alex Rodriguez | Just like Jeter, no one really compares well to A-Rod. Fortunately for us the ten players who rate as similar to him are all inner circle Hall of Famers. Hank Aaron is tops on the list, but his score is only 769. We can only hope that A-Rod is as good over the next four seasons as The Hammer was from ages 36 to 39. Hank posted OPS+’s of 148, 194, 147 and 177. For the record, Aaron was, you know, really good, and Alex has NEVER had an OPS+ as high as either 194 or 177. Still, when it comes to similar players you can do a lot worse.
The bad news is that the next three players most similar to A-Rod are Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, and Frank Robinson. Ott’s last season was his age 36 season. Foxx was pretty much done with baseball after he turned 33 (although World War II had something to do with that). Robinson, thankfully, aged more like Aaron.
A-Rod is in a similar boat to Derek Jeter. His career has been so successful, so unlikely to occur, that he doesn’t really compare to any other player. His incredible track record of success, more than anything else, is why it is smarter to be on a come back next season than anything else. Comparing favorably to Hank Aaron doesn’t hurt either.
Robinson Cano | This is out of curiosity, and not because Robbie needs to bounce back. He’s in his prime. Is 2010 his new normal?
Baseball-Reference says that Cano is most similar to Carlos Baerga through his age 27 season. God I hope not. Baerga was already in decline when he turned 27. He also never had a season as strong as Cano’s 2010. Robbie’s scores are confused a bit due to his awful 2008, when he had an OPS+ of 86.
The next player is none other than Hall-of-Fame Yankee Tony Lazzeri. I’m always hesitant to make comparisons between players who played 70 years apart, but Lazzeri continued to be an excellent offensive second basemen until he retired at age 35. Hall of Fame Red Sox Bobby Doerr is next. The same caveat applies about comapring players from different eras, but of the three his offensive production looks most similar to Cano’s, right down to his breakout season at age 26. Although he was out of baseball after his age 33 season, he was a beast every year in the pro’s.
More than anything else this suggests that Robbie’s erratic past few seasons are confusing the model. He’ll either be a Hall of Famer, or out of baseball. Had Cano not bounced back from his 2008 disaster, it was entirely possible that the Yankees would also be searching for a second baseman right now. Fortunately, he had a monster season in 2010. While he doesn’t project to be that good again (who would?), it isn’t bad when two of the three players you compare best to are in the Hall of Fame.