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More Thoughts on Baseball and Race

Remember last week when I said baseball is political? Well, it still is! And since there’s nothing else to talk about regarding baseball, we’re going to keep that discussion going. You know what, though? That last sentence…I don’t really like it. As I said last week, not talking about these things in baseball isn’t helpful. While I may prefer to be talking about actual on-field stuff in this space every week, it’s important to acknowledge these things as they come, rather than letting them boil over later on.

Former Yankee–and guy who should be in the Hall of Fame–Gary Sheffield wrote a piece for the Players’ Tribune, detailing a harrowing experience he and his uncle, Dwight Gooden, had with police in South Florida. The title of the piece–Do You Believe Me Now?–got me thinking about another racially-charged incident from Sheffield’s pace that involved the Yankees.

In http://2007, Sheff did an interview with Andrea Kremer for HBO in which he said Joe Torre treated black players differently than he treated other players.

Sheffield, who was traded to the Detroit Tigers during the offseason, claimed that black and white players in the Yankees clubhouse were treated differently, specifically how players Tony Womack and Kenny Lofton were handled by Torre. In the interview with HBO, Sheffield says the black players on the Yankees’ roster would be “called out” in the clubhouse by Torre, while the white players would be called into Torre’s office to discuss matters.

“They weren’t treated like everybody else. I got called out in a couple of meetings that I thought were unfair,” Sheffield told Kremer.

Sheffield later added: “He had a message to get across to the whole team, so he used me to get the message across.” Sheffield said Torre didn’t use the same method with white players.

“No … I’d see a lot of white players get called in the office and treated like a man. That’s the difference.”

When asked Saturday to respond to Sheffield’s comments, Lofton said: “All I can say is, Sheffield knows what he’s talking about. That’s all I’m going to say,” Lofton told the AP in the Texas Rangers’ dugout just before the team took batting practice.

Sheffield said he doesn’t consider Torre a racist. “No. I think it’s the way they do things around there,” he said. “Since I was there I just saw that they run their ship different.”

At that point, Kremer says to Sheffield that the Yankees most high-profile player is black. “Who?” Sheffield says.

Told Jeter, Sheffield says: “Derek Jeter is black and white.”

First, a question: If Sheffield–or any player with any manager–made these comments today, how much more weight would they carry? The answer is a lot. From what I remember back then, these comments were largely derided and swept away. They definitely disappeared as the 2007 season came and went, as did Torre’s tenure with the Yankees. But in our climate today, hell, even in the one just a few years after these comments, this would get a lot more attention. I’ll admit to brushing these comments off at the time, chalking them up to Sheffield’s attitude and the fact that Womack and Lofton didn’t do well with the Yankees and were frustrated. But is it possible that a lack of comfort led to them not performing well? Yes. It’s not necessarily the reason, but it’s worth mentioning. As Sheffield says, it’s not likely that Joe Torre is/was a racist, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t implicit, unconscious biases in his head–like there are in all of us–that influenced his decision making.

The comment about Derek Jeter, followed later by “[i]t’s just [Jeter] ain’t all the way black,” doesn’t feel great, but we also have to acknowledge that colorism is a thing and that Sheffield, Womack, and Lofton all having darker skin could play into the aforementioned implicit biases.

Gary Sheffield was one of my favorite players on the team in his brief time with the Yankees. Maybe he wore out his welcome–as he did in lots of places–but that doesn’t mean we should’ve so easily brushed off his comments about the Yankees and race. While he may have been a prickly dude, when a Black man speaks up about mistreatment because of his race, no matter how big or small, we should pay more attention and give it more respect than we did to Sheff in 2007.

Expanding on this discussion, let’s jump to the Boston Globe and Alex Speier’s article about biases in scouting. This relates to what Sheffield said about Torre. The scouts in here are likely not racists. That doesn’t mean, though, that there aren’t certain things that influence or leverage the way they talk about players or categorize players.

Public statements from MLB lately show they’re at least aware of the problem. And those statements talked about uncomfortable conversations, introspection, all that. So here are some questions for MLB that need answers in something beyond platitudes.

Why are there so few Black American/Canadian players in the game?

Why are there so few Black coaches and managers and executives?

Why are Black American/Canadian players being shut out of positions, almost entirely? From the article:

Moreover, Black players are drastically underrepresented as starting pitchers and catchers because of what Huntington and others see as the same sort of bias that for years limited opportunities for Black quarterbacks in the NFL.

That’s from Pirates’ GM Neal Huntington, and something Randy, Bobby, and I touched on during the last week’s podcast.

I used this article as a conversation-starter with some friends at work–all fellow white men who also love baseball. Their reaction was positive; they said it made them think in ways they hadn’t before, which is a step in the right direction. It also started two spinoff conversations, one about Brett Gardner and one about Gary Sanchez.

In the former, one colleague asked if Brett Gardner fits the term “grinder.” I said yes, but that’s really the default for short white guys. Were Gardner black, I posited, scouts and media probably would’ve focused on his speed. I brought up Dustin Pedroia (who I realize is one of my least favorite players ever) and how even he, unfairly, got the ‘grinder’ tag placed upon him. Pedroia was a second round pick from a NCAA baseball powerhouse, not some diamond in the rough. He was an immensely talented (if annoying) baseball player and compared to Gardner–a walk-on at his college–nothing like a grinder. I also mentioned that rare is the time when a black player is called a grinder.

The Gary Sanchez conversation started from a place it often does with Sanchez–at least from more ‘mainstream’ fans: Sanchez is lazy because he doesn’t run out ground balls. I retorted that Sanchez is just slow and that players like Jason Giambi and Mark Teixiera–also fellow piano-draggers, but very white–were never criticized for lack of hustle on grounders. What I forgot to say was, yes, there was a time when Sanchez not busting it down the line cost the Yankees a win in Tampa…but he was already playing through pain at that point and then injured himself later on while ‘hustling’ down the line. I did, however, remember to say that hustle down the line is often eyewash, etc. My colleague–a different one than the one who brought up Gardner/grinder–saw a brown player not hustling due to lack of speed, but chalked it up to laziness. He didn’t do the same thing for white players. Does this make him racist? No, but it showed a bias, even for just a moment. That bias is (part of) what baseball needs to reckon with.

Baseball alone is not going to cure the ills of racism in American society. It’s too deeply ingrained in our systems to be undone by one relatively frivolous (in the grand scheme of things) business/whatever baseball is or is supposed to be. But it still has a responsibility to be the best it can be. I’m glad baseball is starting to reckon with this, even in a surface-level way. Hopefully they start coming up with answers to the tough questions.

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The 2019 Yankees and RBI

If you’re reading this site, chances are you’ve at least dipped a toe into the waters of analytics, sabermetrics, whatever you want to call it. Even if you haven’t done more than that–or even that at all–you likely know that RBI isn’t exactly an ‘in vogue’ measure of a player’s performance. And, really, it shouldn’t be. While getting a hit with a man on base is great, that hitter didn’t do the work to put the men on base. At best, a high RBI total shows us a combination of skill–getting the hit–and chance–hitting while there happened to be men on in front of you. 

Stil, RBI tells us a story–who scored when and courtesy of whom. Without that story, the story of the game itself can’t be told. Earlier in the week, I saw a story about RBI that caught my attention. 

In a Facebook group, someone mentioned Luis Castillo’s 2000 season, in which he notched 17 RBI in 626 (!) plate appearances. Curious as to how that happened, I went to Castillo’s game logs page on Baseball Reference and looked up this handy chart:

Despite how shockingly low that is, especially when you see it compared to the average, it makes sense. Castillo was mostly a leadoff guy who was on a below average (79-82) team, so he routinely had bad hitters and the pitcher in front of him to drive in. The whole thing, though, got me curious about the Yankees. How good were they at driving in runners? Let’s take a look, using some charts. I included only those who had 300+ PA. 

Gary Sanchez

PAROBRBIRBI %AVG RBIAVG ROBAVG RBI %+/- RBI%
44629677265426321+5

Luke Voit

PAROBRBIRBI %AVG RBIAVG ROBAVG RBI %+/- RBI%
51032062196130020+1

DJ LeMahieu

PAROBRBIRBI %AVG RBIAVG ROBAVG RBI %+/- RBI%
655343102307938620+10

Didi Gregorius

PAROBRBIRBI %AVG RBIAVG ROBAVG RBI %+/- RBI%
34421561284120220+8

Gio Urshela

PAROBRBIRBI %AVG RBIAVG ROBAVG RBI %+/- RBI%
47630474245728020+4

Gleyber Torres

PAROBRBIRBI %AVG RBIAVG ROBAVG RBI %+/- RBI%
60436890247335621+3

Brett Gardner

PAROBRBIRBI %AVG RBIAVG ROBAVG RBI %+/- RBI%
55030574246632420+4

Aaron Judge

PAROBRBIRBI %AVG RBIAVG ROBAVG RBI %+/- RBI%
44724955225426321+1

This isn’t too surprising, is it? The Yankees get a lot of men on base–not one player had fewer than expected runners–and drive a lot of them in–not one player had fewer than expected RBI. As such, all of them are above the average expected RBI% by at least 1%, with DJLM smoking everyone else at 10% above average. 

Are these players good because they have high RBI totals and percentages compared to the average? No. They have those things because they are good players and they play with good players who get on base. RBI don’t tell the whole story, but they tell part of it. In this case, it’s another way of telling us the the Yankees are good at hitting. Plain and simple.

Brett Gardner looks to deliver an encore [2020 Season Preview]

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No one could have foreseen Brett Gardner’s offensive performance last season. When he trudged to the finish in 2018, it seemed like his career was entering its final stages. Instead, he followed that up with the best offensive season of his big league career. Granted, just about everyone put up numbers never seen before thanks in part to the juiced ball. Still, Gardner was awfully impressive at the dish.

Gardy received a well-deserved raise for the 2020 season and is slotted as the club’s everyday center fielder until Aaron Hicks returns. After that, Gardner should slide over to left field regularly presuming his performance doesn’t fade. Decline is always a concern for someone Gardner’s age — he’ll turn 37 in August — but there’s no question he’s kept himself in great physical shape. He’s played in at least 140 games annually since 2013.

It’s hard to imagine Gardner repeating what he did in 2019, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be a valuable contributor to the team. Hitting aside, Gardner’s defense has always remained a strong point. Plus, and perhaps more importantly, he’s a significant presence in the clubhouse. Now with CC Sabathia in retirement, Gardner’s role as a leader is further emphasized. He’s now the last vestige of that 2009 championship team, as odd as that sounds.

Will his power return?

Take a look at the following marks that Gardner set career-bests in last year, all related to his power output:

Statistic2019Previous Best (Year)
HR2821 (2017)
ISO.253.166 (2014)
SLG.503.428 (2017)
Pull%46.4%40.2% (2014)
FB%38.2%36.7% (2014)
HR/FB19.3%13.5% (2017)
Meatball Swing%*64.7%59.1% (2015)

*Only dates back to Statcast’s availability (2015).

Never say never, but it’s very doubtful that Gardner approaches last year’s marks. Regression and age-related decline get to everyone. Gardner won’t be an exception. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean he can’t remain a threat to go deep.

The physical baseball will certainly play a role in Gardner’s power output come the regular season. It certainly helped him last year. Whether it’s the same ball, a juicier one, or a deadened one, there are still some positives from last year that may be indicative of continued power.

Approach will be key. Gardner’s always been patient at the dish and maintained that last season in spite of some more aggression. In particular, the longtime Yankees outfielder swung at nearly two-thirds of what Statcast defines as meatballs (essentially right in the hitter’s sweet spot). That was up nearly ten percent from 2018 and quite easily was a career high. As long as he continues attacking pitches in the heart of the zone, Gardner should be able to continue hitting for power.

Lifting and pulling the ball was huge, too. Speedsters like Gardy have often been encouraged to put the ball on the ground, but things have changed in the era of launch angles. Hitting more fly balls, particularly as a left-handed hitter at Yankee Stadium, is a recipe for success. Gardner maximized that last season and maintaining a similar batted profile can help him come close to last year’s power performance.

Can he stay strong all season?

It took a long time, but Gardner finally bucked a career-long trend of fading during the dog days of summer in 2019. He finished the year on fire after looking toast late in 2018 and early 2019. Now it’s just a matter of whether that’s a blip or something Gardner can repeat in 2020.

The easy thing to say is that last year was a blip on the radar. And not only has he typically stumbled toward the finish, he’s also not getting any younger. He’ll turn 37 in August and have already spent a bunch of the season at the more demanding center field position. In other words: it’s a lot to ask of Gardner t to not wear down again.

But hey, it’s fun to imagine that 2019’s second half (124 wRC+) Gardner is the real deal from here on out. Sure, the odds are against him holding off his usual second half swoon (and age-related decline). Then again, maybe there’s some sort of adjustment to his preparation or tweak to his regimen that improved his endurance in 2019.

On the bright side, the Yankees shouldn’t need Gardner as much in the second half this season. Key word: shouldn’t. That assumes good health for Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton come the second half. That’s a pretty big assumption to make, unfortunately.

Is this the end of the Gardy Party?

The Gardy Party began back in 2005, when the Yankees drafted him. Now, 2020 will be his 16th season with the organization. It could be his last:

In other words, Gardy plans to do what his friend Sabathia wanted to do last year: retire a champion. Or does he? Playful banter or not, nothing’s set in stone, especially considering that the Yankees hold an option to retain Gardner in 2021. In a formal interview setting with the New York Post, Gardner shared his view on his future:

At this point, I’m just kind of taking things one year at a time. I’ve really always looked not too far into the future, obviously. The contract that I signed, the Yankees have a team option on me for next year. In a perfect world for me, I stay healthy and have a good season and they pick that option up and I come back and do it all over again. For me, I’m just focused on this current season and literally taking things one day at a time, trying to get prepared for a season. I know it sounds cliche, but I kind of learned that from some guys that I’ve played with along the way, that when you’ve been around this long, there’s no sense in looking too far into the future, really. You don’t know how much longer it’ll last, so really just enjoy every minute of it.

Gardner

You can flip that response around to a fan’s perspective, too. Enjoy watching Gardner this season and worry about his potential retirement later.

2020 Outlook: What They’re Saying

Here is what the projections are saying going into the season:

  • PECOTA (525 PA): .234/.313/.401, 17 HR, 95 DRC+, 1.8 WARP
  • ZiPS (531 PA): .247/.327/.414, 16 HR, 97 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR
  • Steamer (523 PA): .246/.327/.422, 17 HR, 99 wRC+, 1.9 fWAR

There’s a consensus here. All expect Gardner to be a slightly below average hitter while still offering some value in the field. None of these are exciting, especially off of one of Gardner’s finest campaigns, but it’s difficult to expect too much more from a soon-to-be 37 year-old.

A +2 win season isn’t anything sexy. Yet, all things considered, it’s a solid projection at this stage of his career. The Yankees really need Gardy to hit on this forecast though, because they’ll already be without a good deal of production in the outfield to begin the campaign.


Hopefully, Gardner delivers an encore to his terrific 2019 campaign. I can’t say I’d bet on it, but I’m here for a late career power surge (as are you, I’m sure). The Yankees could really use a carryover effect from last year while the big boppers in Stanton and Judge are down for at least the first couple of weeks of the season.

Performance aside, I want to see Gardner go out on his own terms whether it’s this year or next. If I were in his shoes and the Yankees won it all this year, I’d be hard pressed to return in 2021. But I’m not him, of course. In any case, Gardner deserves the year-to-year treatment a la Andy Pettitte and Sabathia. He’s been here forever and done everything the organization could have asked for (and then some). World Series title or not, if Gardy wants to return after this year, I’m all ears.

Tinkering With the Lineup

(Keith Allison – CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s January 26th. We’re under a month away from pitchers and catchers reporting. But it still feels like we’ve got forever to go and aside from Derek Jeter’s Hall of Fame election, there isn’t much going on in Yankee-land. So let’s do something fun, if futile: think about the Yankee lineup.

As we well know, lineup construction doesn’t matter that much over the course of the season, so long as you’re not putting the worst hitters up top and the best hitters down low. In the best possible way, it’s very hard to tell the good and bad hitters from each other in the Yankee lineup. This makes it difficult–again, in the best possible way–to figure out exactly what the best configuration is. What a wonderful problem to have, right?

The following lineup is pretty ‘standard,’ what I think Aaron Boone will trot out most days.

  1. DJ LeMahieu, 2B
  2. Aaron Judge, RF
  3. Giancarlo Stanton, LF
  4. Gary Sanchez, C
  5. Gleyber Torres, SS
  6. Luke Voit, 1B
  7. Miguel Andujar, DH
  8. Gio Urshela, 3B
  9. Brett Gardner, CF

This lineup is more than fine by itself. You could make a few tweaks, I suppose–swap Urshela and Gardner, if you want; swap Stanton and Sanchez, too, if you please. No matter what, a combination of these nine guys is gonna score a lot of runs.

Here’s a slightly more than slightly altered version.

  1. Brett Gardner, CF
  2. DJ LeMahieu, 2B
  3. Aaron Judge, RF
  4. Giancarlo Stanton, LF
  5. Gary Sanchez, C
  6. Gleyber Torres, SS
  7. Luke Voit, 1B
  8. Miguel Andujar, DH
  9. Gio Urshela, 3B

This lineup has a slightly more traditional twinge with a fast, OBP guy at the top and a contact hitter second. Given Gardner’s on-base ability–and occasional power–it’s not hard to imagine DJLM’s contact skills driving in a few runs or putting a runner in scoring position in the first inning. New conventional wisdom says to put Judge second to get him more plate appearances, but this still guarantees him a first inning PA and gives him a decent chance to have guys aboard. This does, however, bury Gleyber a bit, which he probably doesn’t deserve. Maybe you swap him and Gary, depending on who’s hot. Again, this lineup is gonna produce no matter what.

Here’s one last lineup that’s maybe a touch different, a little friskier.

  1. Brett Gardner, CF
  2. DJ LeMahieu, 2B
  3. Gleyber Torres, SS
  4. Aaron Judge, RF
  5. Giancarlo Stanton, LF
  6. Gary Sanchez, C
  7. Luke Voit, 1B
  8. Miguel Andujar, DH
  9. Gio Urshela, 3B

This lineup puts all the more contact-oriented players up top (minus one) and gives Gleyber his deserved spot at the top. This lineup is also just a power onslaught after the first three batters–who are capable of power themselves!

Regardless of how the Yankees line up this year, there will not be many landing spots, if any. There are questions, sure. Can DJLM keep tapping into power? Will Gardner keep up his production at an advanced age? How will Luke Voit and Miguel Andujar bounce back from their injuries? Hell, we don’t even know what the baseball is going to be like! But even with those (not very vexing) questions and whatever happens with the baseball, the Yankees are going to score. Often.

Sunday Thoughts

It’s been quite a week, hasn’t it? The last time I wrote here, the Astros, Red Sox, and Mets all still had managers and we hadn’t spent a chunk of an afternoon analyzing what was on Josh Reddick’s chest or under Jose Altuve’s jersey. Despite all that happened, it only tangentially touched on the Yankees, who’ve been relatively quiet since they signed Gerrit Cole. Still, I’ve got some thoughts, one on baseball in general and the other on the Yankees. Here they are.

The Sanctity of the Game

Given the Astros and the Red Sox, Hinch and Cora, and Beltran, the idea of the sanctity of baseball, the purity of the game, has floated around this week. This is as good a time as any to remind ourselves that such a thing has never really existed. At no point in baseball’s history was it pure. In the early 20th century, baseball battled gambling and allowed segregation. In the middle of the century, the supposed ‘golden age’ of the game, there was labor exploitation and the use of amphetamines. The rest of the century, and well into this one, saw the use of PEDs, not to mention two work stoppages and collusion, with another one potentially looming. Given all that, should we care all that much about the sign stealing business?

Hell yes we should. All of those transgressions above are worth fighting against to varying degrees. When these things happen, the illusion of the game gets blemished and can even shatter completely. When we discuss them, we’re healing those blemishes and repairing those cracks.

Will there always be sign stealing in baseball? Of course. But it shouldn’t be done electronically. Will players always try to get an edge, however they can? Of course. But it shouldn’t be done in a way that harms their health.

Perfection in baseball can never and will never exist, but that’s okay. We shouldn’t let that stand in the way of attempting to make the game more perfect, more inclusive, and more fair.

Platooning

The Yankees will be an excellent team once more, at least they should be. Bobby talked about their projections here and Derek did, too. The key to the Yankees being this good as that, simply, they have a lot of good players at a lot of positions. One of those good players is Miguel Andujar. As he returns from his injury, the Yankees will need to be judicious in deploying him, both for the sake of his skills and his health.

There’s little doubt that Andujar can hit. There’s much doubt, however, that he can adequately field his position at third base. The former certainty outweighs the latter doubt, though, and he should be in the lineup just about every day. Presumably, he’ll be the DH while Gio Urshela plays third base. Of course there are times when Urshela will need a day off and other players will need a DH day.

In cases of the former, perhaps they can slide whomever the utility IF is to third and keep Miggy at DH. In cases of the latter, they should plan for half days off when fly ball pitchers are on the mound. This will cover Andujar’s deficiency a bit while still keeping his bat in the lineup. Given that the Yankees like to plan days off ahead of time, this should be easy to accommodate. Will it always work out perfectly? Probably not. But it’s worth a shot.

This same plan could also work in reverse to give Brett Gardner days off. As good as he is, Gardner is up there in age and will need more time off as he’s manning center field. When a groundball pitcher is in, that’s when they can and should give him rest, with Mike Tauchmann in center. Like the Andujar plan, this won’t always work out, but it’s possible.

The easiest way to be a good team is to have good players. The next step is deploying them properly to take advantage of their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. The more the Yankees do that, the more they’re going to win..and they’re probably gonna do a lot of that anyway.

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