Mailbag: Defensive Alignment, Cole/Sign-Stealing, Era Committee, Curtis Granderson, Sabermetrics

Happy Friday, everyone. There are only 19 days left before pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training. 19! That’s not so bad. Get ready for a lot of photos of Gerrit Cole stretching, doing some long toss, and not much else. But hey, it’s better than nothing. I’ll take it.

In the meantime, we have five great questions for today’s mailbag. As usual, reach out to us via email (viewsfrom314 [at] gmail [dot] com), via our contact form above, or through Twitter if you’d like to submit a question. We answer our favorites each Friday.

Michael Asks: Instead of making Urshela the starting 3B, wouldn’t it make more sense to use him in the LeMahieu role? He has some experience at all 4 spots in the infield and thus could give everyone except Torres days off. 

The ideal 2020 defensive alignment is an interesting thought experiment for the Yankees. That’s especially true regarding Gio Urshela. I’ve noted this before, but Urshela is an interesting defensive case. That’s because I don’t think there’s any denying that the guy is a defensive maestro just from watching him in Cleveland and New York. The advanced defensive metrics, though, disagree. Check out his 2019 stats:

  • Outs Above Average: 0
  • UZR: -2.5 (at 3B)
  • UZR/150: -3.4 (at 3B)
  • FRAA: 5.9

Only Baseball-Prospectus’ FRAA is favorable to him, which always surprises me. It just feels like there’s something not right there. (Yes, I know that players who make spectacular plays sometimes do so because they don’t have the range of another player who can make the play easily.) I mean, Urshela was a zero offensively before 2019 — a real zero — and still had a job. To me at least, that suggests that teams’ internal metrics, which are proprietary and can differ widely from what we see, demonstrate his defensive value. It’s the simplest explanation. Teams are not stupid.

I bring this up only to complement the next point, which is that Urshela really doesn’t have experience across the diamond. Here are his career games played by IF position:

  • First Base: 1
  • Second Base: 4
  • Third Base: 255
  • Shortstop: 13

So, yeah. He’s almost exclusively manning the hot corner. Granted, with shifts, where a player “starts” the game matters less than where they actually stand on a given play. Even by that metric, though, Urshela stuck to the line: Statcast classified that he fielded 255 plays from 3B and zero from SS and 2B in 2019.

LeMahieu, by contrast, has more experience playing multiple positions. He was primarily a second baseman in Colorado, but the Yankees did not use him that way. Check out his splits by position in 2019:

  • First Base: 35
  • Second Base: 74
  • Third Base: 51

Now, some of this is a function of the injuries. There’s no doubt about that. But, at the same time, LeMahieu rates well on the advanced metrics — he’s been positive at every position and in every season since 2017, which is the earliest we have data for Statcast — and looked very fluid at both second and third.

All of this is to say that I think the current approach works. I don’t buy that Urshela is only average (or worse!) at 3B, and it doesn’t seem like teams do either. I do buy that LeMahieu is a slick defender even when roving across the diamond, though. So I’m pretty comfortable with the Yankees sticking to their current formula here, but we’ll see what happens. They always have some tricks up their sleeves, and I do think that their defensive alignment will be worth closely watching in 2020.

Craig Asks: Do you think there will be any negative impact from the sign stealing matter on Gerrit Cole’s relationship with his new teammates?  Although Cole was a pitcher, he presumably must have known what was going on.

Yep, this photo is back.

I’m not going to lie, I’ve thought about this one myself. Not because I think that there will be any fallout but because it’s another element of the Astros debacle that I feel like people are forgetting. Think about it. We’ve now seen prominent players speaking out in anger about the scandal. Aaron Judge, Cody Bellinger, Chris Archer, Tommy Pham, and Trever Bauer are just a few examples. That speaks to a real anger within the league. There’s no doubt that players are actually mad about this.

Obviously, this anger extends toward the actual players who cheated, too. (Side note: it’s a sign that other teams weren’t as brazen in their own methods.) I think that’s doubly true for a team like the Yankees, who were eliminated by the two teams under investigation in three consecutive postseasons. It’s going to put former Astros players in a weird position moving forward.

Now, with all that said, I don’t think there will be any fallout for Cole. Like you said, he’s a pitcher and therefore wasn’t directly involved, even if he likely knew what was going on. Everything we’ve seen and heard about Cole is how competitive, intelligent, and likable he is as a player. I know there’s an element of PR at play here — the team obviously wants fans to like the guy they gave $300 million to — but it rings true. Everyone, from journalists to players to retired players, raves about the dude. And yes, that includes bloggers like us.

The 2020 Yankees are a new team. They are not the 2019 Yankees, nor the 2017 version. There are obviously holdovers, and some players may always be bitter about how those seasons finished, but they will enter the new season with new goals, teammates, and chemistry. The best way to make the pain of those past campaigns go away is to win this year. Cole obviously makes that much, much more likely — and the players know that. My guess is that they ask him a bunch of questions, he answers them, and everyone moves on. There’s work to do, after all.

Dan Asks: Your article about the next Yankee to be elected into the Hall of Fame had me wondering: when do guys become eligible to be elected on the Vets Committee/Modern Era Ballot (or whatever it’s called)? I ask because Jorge Posada stacks up very well against Ted Simmons, and clearly he got booted so quickly due to the ballot log jam (which has since broken).  I could see him getting elected through that ballot whenever he’s eligible.  It also wouldn’t shock me to see guys like Bernie Williams and Kenny Lofton (cup of coffee in pinstripes) get in that way.

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The thing about Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams is that I don’t think they’re Hall of Famers despite both being underrated generally. (How the hell isn’t Bernie in the “Core Four”? Absurd. I know the Fab Five is taken, but come on!) Let’s go one-by-one.

Posada is below the JAWS standard for catchers despite having some truly fantastic years — and being one of the best offensive catchers in the league. He was poor defensively, to the point that many pitchers wouldn’t work with him, and that counts, even if you’re generally skeptical of defensive metrics, as I am. Still, he was a career .273/.374/.474 (121 OPS+) player in 14 seasons, a five-time All-Star, and four-time World Series winner. He’s an all-time Yankee great for sure. Plus, there’s this:

Never gets old. Onto Bernie, who is a very similar tale. A career .297/.381/.477 (125 OP+) hitter across 16 seasons, Bernie is one hell of a player. He was a five-time All-Star, four-time champion, and four-time Gold Glover. Not a bad resume. Still, like Posada, he falls short of the JAWS standard for center fielders. He is an all-time Yankee in the Hall of Very Good, at least to me.

Now, it wouldn’t be an outrage for him to make the Hall of Fame. The election of Baines by the Eras Committee is a comparable case — they have similar statistical records — but meh. I don’t know. I wouldn’t be outraged but I don’t think they’re in, either. This isn’t the NFL.

As for eligibility, it’s all broken down by era. There’s more on that here, but these are the basics for Modern Era players:

  • Have to have 10 years of playing time, not banned, and retired for 15 seasons
  • Cannot have received 3 or fewer votes on a prior Era Committee ballot

They are selected by the committee and anyone is eligible who meets those two pretty simple requirements. It’s a weird, opaque system, but whatever.

George Asks: Any merit in bringing Curtis Granderson back on a very team friendly, one year deal?

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Let me start by making one thing extremely clear: the 38-year-old Curtis Granderson will be cool with me forever. He was one of my favorite Yankees on some truly great but forgotten early 2010’s teams. My man hit .245/.335/.495 (120 wRC+) with the Yankees from 2010-13. He also made that ridiculous jump in power after the tweaked swing and hit 40+ home runs in consecutive seasons in 2011 and 12. Just awesome stuff.

With that said, though, I think Curtis’ time as a productive big leaguer is over. He hit just .183/.281/.356 (71 wRC+) in 363 plate appearances last year with Miami and his peripherals were rough:

He also had below-average defense to boot. It sucks when a longtime favorite looks done, but that’s how it seems with Granderson for now. Maybe he’ll get another shot and he probably deserves one — he is just one year removed from a 116 wRC+ if you want to be optimistic. Still, Father Time comes for us all in the end and breakdowns can happen rapidly. I’d be thrilled if the Yanks signed him for a MiLB deal, but honestly, Granderson probably doesn’t belong on a contending team. Maybe if he’s productive and the Yanks need more outfield depth, they can swing a trade. Otherwise, I don’t see it.

Andrew Bernstein: I have a somewhat odd mailbag question.  I’m a die hard Yankees fan who grew up in the 80s, with walls full of Mattingly and Winfield posters. I love reading your blog, but as someone who has typically focused on old school metrics (BA, HRs, RBIs, etc) I’ve never been able to fully appreciate your analyses because I have yet to devote the time to understand today’s advanced metrics.  Do you have any suggestions of good places to start? At this point my biggest hurdle is finding a starting point since there’s such an overwhelming amount of information online.

This is a good reminder that something we’ve been meaning to do for a while now — since we started, really — was to created a depository on our own site for the statistics we most often use. We’ll get on that! I promise. Until we do, MLB.com has a really good, simple directory for advanced statistics. FanGraphs is a bit wonkier but explains some of our favorites like wRC+, and Baseball-Reference, of course, is comprehensive. I’d start by checking out those places and reading up on some of the stats you see often.

For more detail, it’s tough to beat Bill James’ New Baseball Abstract, which you can find here (it’s a bit pricey; look around a bookstore). There are a million other resources, but James really changed the game. He is a good starting point and explains the sabermetric thinking pretty well, even if it is outdated by this point. So that’s my recommendation. (You can also always reach out to us. We’re happy to explain anything that may be confusing!)

It’s all pretty intuitive despite the math, and most of the best explanations are simple and direct. The idea of advanced metrics is to make the game simpler to understand. It accomplishes that for me and I’m confident it will for you, too. Finally, thanks for reading despite the fact we are using stats you’re not familiar with. We’ll update our glossary and do our best to explain everything we use here.

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10 Comments

  1. RetroRob

    @AndrewBernstein, this just popped up yesterday as a quick primer on some advanced stats.

    http://tangotiger.com/index.php/site/article/you-realize-theres-more-to-stats-than-rbi-batting-average-and-pitcher-wins

  2. MikeD

    I suspect in time we’ll see Jorge and Bernie in the HOF, elected by some future version of the Veterans Committee. What are they called now? The Era Committees? Having Mo and Derek campaign from the inside for their teammates will probably move the needle with one of these committees, as it has for other players. And unlike the Harold Baines election, Posada and Bernie have an argument as legit borderline candidates. Pettitte will always have to deal with the PED admission, as minor as it was, so he’ll have a bigger hill to climb, although after Ortiz is elected, the hill will be much smaller. It’s going to be humorous watching the block of ant-PED voters cast a ballot for David Ortiz, while on the same ballot ignore Bonds and Clemens on their final year of eligibility.

  3. Mick

    Posada is 19th all time by JAWs (catchers), so he should be in the HOF.

    Bernie is 26th all time by JAWs and was better than Kirby Puckett, so he gets a yes as well.

  4. dasit

    bernie williams had a 7-season peak with an average ops of .947
    he’s a hall of famer
    posada is my all-time favorite player
    he’s not a hall of famer

  5. RetroRob

    I’ve long argued, as have others, that the HOF standards for catchers and 3B’man being two key ones, are too high. I mention this as I was not initially not on board with Rolen as a HOFer, but after studying his overall stats, I then realized that it was difficult for me to argue the standards are too high on one side and then not support Rolen for the Hall on the other. It becomes self-fulfilling if we keep applying past standards, and in Rolen’s case, he was already exceeding the standards from the past. I feel the same about catchers, probably more so. I supported Simmons being elected. I saw him play. Marvelous hitter, but defensively challenged, but still one of the best catchers in the game’s history. He played during a golden age of catchers that included the greatest ever, Bench; Fisk; Carter and Munson. I absolutely support Munson’s election, and I also support Posada too. Do you realize that there are more managers in the HOF than there are catchers? Heck, there’s more than half as many UMPIRES in the HOF as catchers. As for the JAWS standards, it is a reflection of the current group that’s in the Hall. If the past standards are too high, then that’s reflected in JAWS. Catcher is the most physically demanding demanding position on the field, involved in calling every single pitch, working in conjunction with the pitcher. Careers are shorter than any other position. More catchers need to be inducted.

    As for Cole. He does have some deniability. He was not on the 2017 “Bang the Drum Slowly” Astros. He showed up in 2018, and indications are the Astros moved to a different system, not as obvious. Pitchers and hitters hang together, even on the same team. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was shielded from what the players were doing, although I still suspect he knew. Regardless, it’s not as if anyone would expect the new guy to pull the alarm on his teammates. That’s more likely to happen once a player, specifically a pitcher, leaves the team. That’s how it came out through Mike Fiers.

  6. Joe

    Yes, thank you, never been a fan of the Core Four. I’m glad the even worse Key Three that Kay kept trying to make happen never happened outside his head.

    Gotta disagree on Jorge, I took a look at the numbers a few years ago and think he should make the cut. But I do agree Bernie (and Pettitte, who I hate to say as he’s my 2nd favorite Yankee after Mo) are a little short.

    And shout out to Andrew for being interested in learning new things. Post in the comments if you any questions as well.

    • I'm Not The Droids You're Looking For

      Why would you vote Posada in and not Bernie? Bernie played two more years, had superior numbers offensively, and also played a premium defensive position.

      • Joe

        CF is a significantly less premium position than C, and comes with a lot less of the wear and tear considerations.

  7. DJ Lemeddardhieu

    Michael Asks: Instead of making Urshela the starting 3B, wouldn’t it make more sense to use him in the LeMahieu role? He has some experience at all 4 spots in the infield and thus could give everyone except Torres days off.

    That makes absolutely no sense, Michael. Did you see Urshela play last year? He only hit .300 with gold glove defense. That’s not a utility infielder. Sure DJ played all over but that’s only because everybody got hurt. This year he’ll be playing every day at 2B. Tyler Wade is a utility infielder, not Urshela. Gio hasn’t played any SS or 1B and little 2B. And you can’t sit down his bat. He needs to be a 3B every single day.

    Craig Asks: Do you think there will be any negative impact from the sign stealing matter on Gerrit Cole’s relationship with his new teammates? Although Cole was a pitcher, he presumably must have known what was going on.

    No, Craig. Cole wasn’t an Astro for very long and he wasn’t really a true Astro like those cheaters Bregman and Altuve. Cole was a hired gun and didn’t hit. If he did know what was going on he can give us all their secrets.

    Dan Asks: Your article about the next Yankee to be elected into the Hall of Fame had me wondering: when do guys become eligible to be elected on the Vets Committee/Modern Era Ballot (or whatever it’s called)? I ask because Jorge Posada stacks up very well against Ted Simmons, and clearly he got booted so quickly due to the ballot log jam (which has since broken). I could see him getting elected through that ballot whenever he’s eligible. It also wouldn’t shock me to see guys like Bernie Williams and Kenny Lofton (cup of coffee in pinstripes) get in that way.

    They should have been in the HOF years ago, Dan. Jorgie, Bernie, Andy. All those guys from the late 90’s dynasty need to be in. Jorgie was the best hitting catcher of his time. Same with Bernie in CF. Andy was the clutchiest pitcher in his era and they’re saying Schilling will get in before him. That’s a joke.

    George Asks: Any merit in bringing Curtis Granderson back on a very team friendly, one year deal?

    Yuck, George. Do people think about the questions they’re asking before they ask them? Grandy is old, he can’t hit and he can’t field. If that’s the player we want why not just sign Dad. If Cash did sign him Boone would bat him 3rd to split up the righties and because of his name. We don’t need anymore .180 hitters that can’t field. Wasn’t Morales bad enough?

    Andrew Bernstein: I have a somewhat odd mailbag question. I’m a die hard Yankees fan who grew up in the 80s, with walls full of Mattingly and Winfield posters. I love reading your blog, but as someone who has typically focused on old school metrics (BA, HRs, RBIs, etc) I’ve never been able to fully appreciate your analyses because I have yet to devote the time to understand today’s advanced metrics. Do you have any suggestions of good places to start? At this point my biggest hurdle is finding a starting point since there’s such an overwhelming amount of information online.

    Just do what I do, Andrew. Read the headline of the article, ignore the content and post about whatever the hell I want. The only thing you need to evaluate players are your two eyes, or better yet just listen to John Sterling on the radio and go by what his eyes tell you. The problem with the game today is these nerds think the game is played on a spreadsheet. Just watch the games and that’ll tell you everything you need to know. None of this metric crap existed until Billy Beane and the game got along just fine.

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