Mariano Rivera is so consistently good that he at times gets over looked on blogs such as this one. A writer is probably more inclined to write a Mo post if he’s seeing a bad stretch of play than if he’s being his usual dominant self. I try to do at least one Mariano appreciation post a year, but this year is a little different. Mariano missed most of last year with an injury. This is his swan song season (and unlike other athletes you know he means it). For a time his unreal stretch of play was getting somewhat overlooked, but now that he gotten off to a perfect start in save opportunities to start the season the media hype surrounding his play has picked up. The saves are shiny and nice to have, but to admire them is to overlook all that Rivera is doing. Let’s take a closer look.
In mid-May, the baseball season is far, far from over, but we’ve also logged enough games to have a sense of which teams are competitive and which teams are not. This season in particular there are several ball clubs that stand out because they are not competitive. Specifically, the Dodgers, the Angels and the Blue Jays are struggling to win, after entering the season with high expectations. The teams are 14-21, 14-22 and 14-24 respectively. Of the three, the Dodgers stand out as the most egregious failures. Only the Yankees will spend more this season. A team doesn’t take its payroll above $200 million to finish last. The Angels are only moderately better. Over the past two seasons they’ve added Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton at exorbitant cost only to watch them struggle. Of the three the Blue Jays aren’t quite as profligate spenders, but they too made some ill-advised, splashy moves this offseason only to watch them backfire.
The big surprise is that these mistakes have been made at all. At this juncture of the game, Baseball has already seen just about every financial mistake a team can make. The Alex Rodriguez contract should have been a warning not to sign Albert Pujols to a mega-mega-deal when he was clearly in decline. Jose Reyes‘ own history of injuries should have been a warning not to trade for him. The entire history of the players the Dodgers added should have been warning not make those moves. Despite this, these teams went ahead and made these moves anyway, confusing splashy moves for smart moves.
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The Yankees swept the Royals today, winning 4-2 on Mother’s Day. The real star of the game was Hiroki Kuroda. Kuroda didn’t strike a lot of batters out, fanning just one, but he only walked one as well, limiting the Royals to six hits over 7.2 innings. With that kind of control, you don’t need a lot of strike outs. Kuroda was efficient as well, throwing just 98 pitches. He got into some trouble in the eighth inning, and even got into a verbal spat with the home plate umpire, but none of that was enough to undo a solid performance.
Guess who’s in first place? Not the Toronto Blue Jays. Not Tampa Bay either. None other than your New York Yankees. While it is early in the season yet, this is a good sign. It is also evidence of how fickle the baseball media is. Remember just before the season began when the new look Blue Jays were going to be the jewel of the AL East? Me neither. But it was obvious that the Jays weren’t built to last. What was less obvious was how the Rays would start a bit slowly in the division. That said, it’s tight atop the AL East and at least three, and probably four, of the team’s are going to have winning records. That’s a crowded field.
Robinson Cano is the face of the Yankees. He leads the team in HR, RBI and AVG. He may be on his way to his best season yet. But, he’s not the best rate hitter on the Yankees this season. That honor belongs to none other than Travis Hafner. Hafner has a higher wOBA than Cano’s, .416 versus .410, driven by a substantially higher OBP, .402 versus .376. Cano is the more valuable player because he plays a premium position and gets more plate appearances than Hafner, but in any given plate appearance Hafner is the most productive Yankee. Can he keep it up?
We can close the books on the month of April for CC Sabathia. CC won’t pitch again until Friday, May 3rd. Numerically, CC’s month wasn’t as strong as it might seem. Sabathia started six games for the Bombers. He pitched 43 innings, just a tad above seven innings a start. CC is always a work horse, and the durability stats are impressive. But his slash line was 3.35/3.90/3.82. He was worth 0.6 fWAR. Given that a pitcher usually starts 33 games, we can infer that over the course of the full season had he maintained his April pace Sabathia would be worth 3.3 fWAR. That’s not bad, but that’s also not CC. That would be his worst faring since 2004.
R.A. Dickey was good. Lyle Overbay and Phil Hughes were better. Dickey gave the Blue Jays seven innings of four hit baseball. Normally that’s enough to get your team the victory, but not when two of those hits were homers. Brennan Boesch gave the Yankees their first run with a solo shot in the second inning. That was enough to keep the Yankees in the game until the seventh inning. With Travis Hafner on base Lyle Overbay hit a home run in the seventh frame to put the Yankees ahead three to two, the eventual margin of victory.
Thank god the Blue Jays retooled in the offseason. If they hadn’t made all these improvements the Yankees may not have won each of the past three games. This afternoon the Yankees go for the sweep. They’ll have to do it against the knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. Dickey hasn’t gotten off the start that many expected after his Cy Young season in 2012, but you can never predict a knuckleballer. The Yankees will counter with Phil Hughes. Hughes hasn’t been strong to start the season either. My gut tells me that both of these pitchers will show up today, but my gut tells me a lot of things. Use this as your game thread. Enjoy!
The consistent story line surrounding the Yankees so far this season has been that the team needs to tread water until the injured superstars, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter, can return. Last week we found out that Jeter has suffered a set back and won’t be able to play until July. Without question, this harms the team. Much has been made of Jeter’s recent decline, specifically his sub-par 2010 and 2011 seasons, but even that weakened Jeter gave the Yankees above average offense at shortstop. Furthermore, Derek bounced back in 2012. The .347 wOBA Jeter posted in 2012 was far from his .365 career average, or the production he’s put up in his signature seasons, such as 2009, but it was a welcomed return to form, and evidence that maybe Derek had one more .340 plus wOBA season in him.
As frustrating as it is to watch the Yankees play Mariano Rivera‘s final season without Jeter in the lineup every day, Derek will come back. He’s still under contract and too competitive an athlete to go out this way. The real question is therefore how much damage his extended absence will wreak on the team. Given that Derek will miss half the season, we can measure the production this will cost the Yankees as a whole.
According to Fangraphs, Derek has averaged just under 2.6 fWAR over the past three seasons (Baseball Reference puts the figure at 2.3 bWAR). Taking that as a baseline, its safe to suggest that over the course of half a season, even an aging Derek Jeter will be responsible for between one and two victories for the Yankees. It may not sound like much, but that’s a hefty contribution.
Unfortunately, Jeter’s contribution isn’t zero sum. The Yankees have to put nine players on the field. Less Derek Jeter usually means more of Eduardo Nunez or Jayson Nix. Nunez is off to a terrible start. Fangraphs suggests he’s been a net negative on the team, with an fWAR of -0.2. Last season he managed only 0.5 fWAR in limited playing time, which means at best Nunez is a slightly above replacement level player. Jayson Nix isn’t any better. He clocks in at -0.2 fWAR on the season already, and managed 0.3 over all of 2012.
Taking it all together, assuming Nix and Nunez actually cost the Yankees games, Jeter’s absence over the first half of the season will probably take two games off the Yankees win total during that time. That may not sound like much, but the AL East will be tight all season long and there is no guarantee that both Wild Card teams will come from the AL East when Texas, Oakland and Anaheim all have post season plans in the AL West. Jeter’s absence will most certainly be felt.