Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Yankees' Most Important Hitter in 2010?

A few days ago I was talking with reader/commenter Ross, and asked him who he thought the Yankees' most important hitter is in 2010. Not the guy they can least afford to lose, but if they have their A lineup healthy the guy they need to step up the most. He said Curtis Granderson because, if he plays anywhere near his highest level, he can give near elite all-around production. A good answer, and probably would be my second choice. In fact, he'd likely be my first choice if my first choice wasn't batting in such a critical position in the Yankees' lineup.

That's why I'm going with Robinson Cano. Unless something unforeseen happens, when the Yankees' open the season at Fenway Park in 11 days Robinson Cano is going to be batting 5th, a position that has been occupied by Hideki Matsui (when healthy) for most of the last seven seasons. The 5th spot in the Yankees' order is a particularly important position for them. Why? Because two of the 10 best hitters in baseball hit directly in front of that position. Not only do the two of them do plenty of damage themselves and have great natural on base ability, but they will often be pitched to carefully, especially if the 5 hitter has not presented himself as a serious threat. Ideally you want Teixeira and Rodriguez to be able to take what's given to them and pass the baton if necessary, not try to force it. In order to do that you need a number 5 hitter that can make it rain, especially with runners on base.

Make it rain Matsui did, as he was a rock hitting in that spot for the Yankees. In his five healthy seasons, Matsui averaged just shy of 25 homers and just shy of 105 RBI, while hitting .292/.370/.482 across his seven seasons in pinstripes. These numbers scream number 5 hitter, and Matsui's penchant for hitting both with runners on base and in the clutch only made him more of one.

Robinson Cano is a .306/.339/.480 hitter in his first five Major League seasons. He's averaged 17 homers and 79 RBI despite missing parts of two seasons, and has career highs of 25 homers and 97 RBI, all batting mostly 7th, 8th, or 9th in the lineup. All of this suggests he could be an outstanding 5th hitter for the Yankees. He has foul pole to foul pole power, rarely strikes out, and consequently always has the ball in play.

There are only two potential concerns. The first is that Cano was horrible with runners in scoring position. He batted somewhere around .350 with the bases empty and just over .200 with RISP. It's just one year, and there is evidence that he ran into some bad luck, but when the numbers are this pronounced and you're asking someone to replace a Matsui in protecting Teixeira and Rodriguez, it's cause for concern. A performance anywhere near that this year would not be good for the Yankees, both when Cano is hitting there, and because they will be looking for a new #5 hitter pretty quickly.

The second concern is related to the first one, and it's simply that he's never hit in this type of key spot before so we don't know what he's going to do. Both because Cano is new to this type of spot in the lineup and because he struggled so much last year with RISP, pitchers are going to test him early. There will likely be times early in the season where there will be two outs and a runner on, and Rodriguez will be carefully worked to and put on base intentionally or unintentionally. This is the exact spot where Cano has to come through, both because the Yankees need his production and because they need him to force pitchers to pitch to Teixeira and Rodriguez.

Robinson Cano is an excellent player. After Chase Utley, he's probably the best second baseman in baseball. Kinsler or Pedroia can and have had better seasons, but Cano has been better overall and there is not one player other than Utley I'd rather have at the position. The fact that he plays a premium position makes his production even better than it is, and that will still be true in 2010. However, he's now batting 5th for the Yankees. It doesn't matter what position he plays, they need production relative to 5th hitters (and really all hitters), not production relative to second baseman. The extent to which he can do that is going to be big for the Yankees this year. They need Cano to replace Matsui. For that reason he's their most important hitter in my opinion.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

PF

I think that Cano is obviously important to the Yankee equation, but I think that Jeter is actually the key guy this year.

And that's because he's getting to the point where he's going to be 36 this year. And of all the players in the majors, only Ken Griffey Jr. is as accomplished as Jeter and also beyond the reach of steroid whispers as Jeter is. Therefore, Jeter is going to likely age more naturally than say, Barry Bonds (who hit 73 homers at 36 and had five consecutive 45+ homer seasons from age 35-39. If anyone every asks you if he used steroids, you don't even need to mention that he gained sixty pounds of muscle between the ages of 26 and 36. Just mention those stats). Eventually Derek Jeter is going to be an average baseball player. Maybe it won't happen until he's 42, but that's unlikely.

And I'm not saying it's going to happen this year. But it is going to happen. And if it does happen this year the Yankee offense is going to take a hit, because it would mean that the Yankees really are getting diminished production at the 1 and 2 spots (say what you want about Curtis Granderson, but he's not as good as Johnny Damon).

However, if Jeter keeps doing what he does, then I don't know how much it will matter if the Yankees get top-notch numbers from the 5-7 guys. Look at the 2007 Red Sox. JD Drew was their 5 hole guy. And he was awful. But it didn't matter because Pedroia and Youkilis got on all the time in front of Manny and Ortiz. The Yankees are looking at the same situation this year. If Granderson and Jeter get on at about a .380 clip in front of Teixeira and Rodriguez then you and I and Kaplan can bat 5,6,7 and the Yankees will still score 850 runs this year.

--the Gunn

Patrick said...

gunn -

first, and i wouldn't expect you to know this because girardi hasn't "officially" announced it yet, but nick johnson is going to bat second, as that's where he's been anytime the yankees have run their A lineup out this spring. to your point about getting on base in front of teixeira and rodriguez, i would guess the thinking is having a guy with the second highest obp in baseball behind pujols last year is going to be a really good thing. i think you can make a strong case for granderson, and i do think it has the potential to be fluid, but it will be johnson for now, and his obp will help bring up the average obp from the 1/2 spots from jeter/damon, even if jeter does regress as discussed below.

you can also add rivera, pettitte, and posada to your analysis in terms of older guys on the yankees. if we take injuries out of the equation - because even though you are more likely to get injured as you age with the shape these guys keep themselves in they aren't that more or less likely than anyone to get injured - these are the yankees that are reaching fall of a cliff at any moment in production stages.

of those, jeter is by far and away my smallest concern for 2010. in fact i don't even consider him a fall of a cliff candidate the way i do the others (i'd rather not with rivera, and it's not because of who he is but rather the nature of what he does -- not that i'm expecting it but it's certainly possible). you are absolutely correct that it is going to happen, and it may get started for jeter this year, but i think with him it will be somewhat gradual. in 2009 he hit .334/.406/.465. even if we give him a really big hit, and take him down to .290/.370/.440 (which are all well below his career averages), you know what you have? you have johnny damon instead of derek jeter. and that's not going to be the end of the world for the yankees. the reason we know that is because jeter has mixed in 2-3 seasons like that throughout his career and the yankees have largely been ok. because for shortstops that's still going to be above average and jeter does other things. in his age 35 season he made monumental defensive improvements to the point where he was the second best defensive SS in the AL and finished 3rd in mvp voting. after seeing what damon and matsui did in their age 36 seasons last year, i'm not as worried about a guy in better physical condition as much as i am about the position behind teixeira and rodriguez. not to say that jeter will perform just because damon and matsui will, because that's obviously not how it works, but if we're strictly playing the odds they are in jeter's favor for at least an above average season in 2010.

Anonymous said...

PF

I forgot about Nick Johnson. I checked out his numbers. This sucks for Red Sox fans. He's one of those guys who shouldn't be good at all, looks more like a sportswriter than an athlete (i.e. fat), plus he doesn't hit for power. So when he gets on to either start a rally or keep one going it's wildly frustrating.

--the Gunn

Anonymous said...

Gunn,

Laughed out loud when I read your second comment, especially the part where you put '(i.e. fat)' in there. That's a hilarious qualifier. You wanted make sure that no one had any doubt that it was his fatness that you were referring to.

One question: Is your frustration with Nick Johnson greater or less than the frustration you used to feel when you and Gaudet lost to Jay and Damien at 2 on 2?

It seemed like an apt comparison given certain body composition/athletic expectations of people involved.

On Jeter, you also have consider the fact that he's not really a power hitter so that may lessen the effects of age. Certainly reflexes can diminish as well, but it's not like Jeter is counting on hitting 30-40 homers.

Also, I since I've been a light commenter on the blog lately, I decided I would spend some extra time and do a player comparison, picking one player from both Red Sox and Yankees.

Player A for his career is averaging 15 home runs and 71 rbi per year and has a career OPS of .847

Player B for his career is averaging 18 home runs and 59 rbi per year with a career OPS of .896

Player A is Derek Jeter, while Player B is J.D. Drew. Seems pretty comparable to me.

Anonymous said...

Bandi

First, great job stirring up the hornets nest with that last comparison. I can't wait for PF's reaction.

Second, let's just say that Jay Johnson=Nick Johnson and Damien Strahorn=Alex Rodriguez (as a player, not a person). Your comparison is excellent and got a laugh.

Third, agreed about both yours and Pat's points about Jeter. I was just pointing out that eventually the guy is going to slow down, maybe it's this year, but probably not. Either way, if he does continue to play at a high level, I doubt that a lackluster effort by the 5-7 of the Yankee line-up would derail the offense.

--the Gunn

Patrick said...

nick johnson is somewhere between a role player and a game-changer. i guess we could call that a really good role player. put in the right situations these guys usually excel. if johnson can stay on the field i think he will excel. guys like this are always really great on your team and really frustrating when your're playing against them.

very good point on jeter not being a power hitter and how that impacts the aging process.

that comparison is probably better for a comment from dv, as you don't want to be a corner outfielder who hits in the middle of the order with comparable home run totals and less rbi totals than a shortstop who hits at the top of the order, even a really good one.

to be clear, in no way am i saying jeter won't take a step back this year. i'm under no illusion that he is just going to keep putting up 2009's. he might, or he might have a more above average and not elite 2008, or better or worse. i think most anything is possible. but i don't think his production falling off a cliff is likely, and i think that is really what would have to happen for the yankees to feel it. as long as he has a good season or better, the yankees have enough in other places that they should be ok. if he does fall off a cliff, well, then he is likely their most important hitter because that would really hurt the yankees. but you could probably say that about a few guys. and again i don't see that as likely, so i'll stick with cano. they need him producing and protecting teixeira and rodriguez.

Ross Kaplan said...

I think the fact that Pat and I debated over whose more important, a guy who has the potential to go for 30-30 and a 2nd baseman who can bat over .320-100-25 means that the Yankees are in an awfully good place right now so let's just relax and enjoy the beginning of what should be an exciting baseball season.

jason said...

id like to hope im not two seasons off on my prediction about jeter.. but i may be

the gm at work said...

Pat,

I'm liking the analysis instead of the blinding praise and optimism that is expected after a World Series championship. You have pretty much outlined everything that could go wrong with the Yankees...and if everything does go wrong as you've hypothesized, they'll be in more trouble than the Red Sox. That'd be pretty funny.

If Cano is unsuccessful in this new role, a few outages could be foreseeable with this lineup. Either that or someone else (Swisher? Johnson?) can step up into that role.

You have also outlined some of the troubles a pitching staff can get into after throwing into November. What are the chances CC and Pettitte get hurt this year and the 5th-starter debate is rendered moot? Certainly not zero.

Due to your concerns, I might be inclined to predict the Rays to win the East.

Nick Johnson is a good player who probably got more hype as a Yankees prospect than as a solid Nationals first baseman. I can see him with a Swisher-like presence next year, if not better.

Jeter has taken 46 JDs (aka days off) over the last six baseball seasons. JD took 51 JDs in the 2008 baseball season without going onto the DL. Jeter's also a middle infielder, a 2-hitter, and the face of the franchise who has 200 hits a season. Drew's an overpaid corner outfielder who's supposed to drive in runs but instead walks and sets up double plays and stranded runners. Go away.