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April 12, 2013

Overthinking It

When the 2013 Yankees Were Young(er)

by Ben Lindbergh

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A few days ago, Ken Rosenthal wrote an article about the Yankees’ advanced age, entitled “Yankees working on getting younger.” “One thing we know,” Rosenthal wrote, “no matter how this season turns out—the Yankees need to get younger.” Then he went through all the ways the Yankees’ youth movement could work: young prospects panning out, good drafting, “a strategic trade or two.”

I’d like to suggest a simpler scenario: a time machine. Let’s say the Yankees are stuck with their current collection of talent—they can’t acquire anyone who isn’t already on their 40-man roster. But they can have that talent at any point in time. So if the Yankees want one of the MVP Award-winning incarnations of Alex Rodriguez instead of the 37-year-old version who can’t play baseball but looks great eating dinner, they can go get him.

The catch is that they can’t mix and match to pick out every player’s peak season—they can't take Travis Hafner from 2006, say, and Andy Pettitte from 1997. (Yes, 1997. Andy Pettitte is old.) Time travel is expensive and counts against the luxury tax, so the Yankees can make only one trip, to one year, and bring everyone back together. If they want the 25-year-old Andy Pettitte from 1997, they have to take the 10-year-old Adam Warren from 1997, too. And he can’t just sit in the bullpen watching Johnny Bravo, or whatever he was doing before the time machine showed up. He has to face big-league batters.

So here's the question: If the Yankees could reset their roster to any year, and their goal were to win as many games as possible in a single season, which year should they choose?

A few ground rules:

  • The Yankees can apportion playing time however they’d like, but they can’t ask players to do things they’ve never done. Derek Jeter might have made a fine center fielder at some point, but we won’t assume that he would have. If he hadn’t been restricted to save situations, Mariano Rivera might have been able to pitch over 100 innings every season, as he did in 1996, but we won’t assume that he could have handled that workload in every season since. David Robertson’s numbers as a reliever might suggest that he’d make an awesome starter, if you applied the typical reliever-to-starter statistical translation to them, but we won’t assume that David Robertson is a suitable candidate for conversion, since the Yankees never did. We’re trying to make this a realistic discussion about time-traveling baseball players.
     
  • We’re going to assume that what each player did in each season reflected his true talent—or, if you’d prefer to think of it this way, that whatever luck a player had in a certain season, he’ll have again. So if someone had a fluky high-BABIP year in whatever season we’re stealing him from, he’ll have a fluky high-BABIP year again.
     
  • We could use translated stats for years when players hadn’t made the majors yet, but A) we don’t have translated WARP, only translated rate stats, and B) minor-league translations are based on what players who were promoted to the majors did. The players we’re considering weren’t promoted to the majors, and we’ll assume that there was a reason for that—they weren’t ready.
     
  • So we’ll just say that a player would have been replacement level the season before he debuted in the majors (or the season he did debut, if he made his first appearance at the very end of it). And then we’ll subtract one WARP for each season before that. For example, Robinson Cano’s rookie year was 2005, when he played almost a full season in the majors at age 22. In our system, he gets credit for 0.0 WARP over a full season in 2004, -1.0 WARP in 2003, -2.0 WARP in 2002, and so on. In real life—the one without time machines—the Yankees would just pick up a replacement player instead of playing someone who was multiple wins below replacement level. But what we want to know is which year the current collection of Yankees talent would have been best, so we won’t supplement that collection with anyone else. If you want to go so far as to say that this exercise has a purpose, then replacement players would defeat the purpose of this exercise.
     
  • Hiroki Kuroda made his major-league debut at age 33, and he’s been worth about 2.0 WARP per season since. Since he was worth 2.0 WARP per season from ages 33-38, we’ll say he would’ve been worth 2.0 WARP per season from ages 27-32, had he been pitching in the majors instead of NPB.
     
  • Based on how he pitched from 2008-10 and in 2012, it’s probably safe to assume that Andy Pettitte would have been worth about 3.0 WARP in a full 2011 season, but he took the year off to spend time with his family. Having missed the past two years due to time travel, he’d be even more eager to spend time with his family, and he might be upset about the whole temporal kidnapping thing, which would make him even less inclined to pitch. On the other hand, he’d get to see how Breaking Bad ends, and maybe that would make up for it. So we’ll give him credit for 3.0 WARP for that season. We’ll also give every player an iPad 5 at the end of the season, to make up for pulling them out of the past just to make a baseball team better.
     
  • Everything old is young(er) again, so currently disabled players are eligible to play. That means A-Rod, Jeter, Curtis Granderson, and Mark Teixeira make the team. Brennan Boesch, Ben Francisco, Lyle Overbay, and Eduardo Nunez do not. However, past injuries are still in effect, so 2012 Mariano Rivera, who pitched only 8 1/3 innings, gets to pitch only 8 1/3 innings for our 2013 time-travel squad.
     
  • For comparative purposes, we’ll fit each collection of players to the playing time totals of the 2012 Yankees, rounded to the nearest five: 6,230 plate appearances and 1,445 innings.

(If you want to see how I assigned the playing time, you can check what might be the most convoluted spreadsheet I’ve ever made.)

2012
Peak seasons: Robinson Cano, Hiroki Kuroda, Boone Logan, Shawn Kelley, David Phelps, Adam Warren
Positive WARP: 41.8
Negative WARP: None
Total WARP: 41.8
Total WARP for real 2012 Yankees: 47.8 WARP
The 2012 version of the 2013 Yankees is a little worse than the actual 2012 Yankees. There’s no Russell Martin, so Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli contribute less than a win between them, and Vernon Wells fills in for Nick Swisher in the outfield. Rafael Soriano’s innings go to Shawn Kelley and Adam Warren. But it’s still a quality team—exactly as good WARP-wise, actually, as PECOTA’s projection for the 2013 Yankees (91-71).
Comparison to 2013 Yankees: Same

2011
Peak seasons: Chris Stewart, Ivan Nova, Mariano Rivera
Positive WARP: 45.9
Negative WARP: -0.5
Total WARP: 45.4
Total WARP for real 2011 Yankees: 44.3
Comparison to 2013 Yankees: Better
With a healthy Brett Gardner in the outfield, Vernon Wells goes back to the bench. We’ve traveled back in time two seasons now, and the team is improved over the 2013 model.

2010
Peak seasons: Brett Gardner, Francisco Cervelli
Positive WARP: 46.8
Negative WARP: -2.2
Total WARP: 44.6
Total WARP for real 2010 Yankees: 39.2
Comparison to 2013 Yankees: Better
We’ve turned the clock back three years, and still most players are past their primes.  

2009
Peak seasons: Kevin Youkilis, Phil Hughes
Positive WARP: 50.1
Negative WARP: -3.3
Total WARP: 46.8
Total WARP for real 2009 Yankees: 50.1
Comparison to 2013 Yankees: Better
Four years into the past, and better than ever. This was the year the real Yankees won the World Series, and it’s also the year that the current Yankees roster collectively peaked.

2008
Peak seasons: Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, Joba Chamberlain
Positive WARP: 53.0
Negative WARP: -7.0
Total WARP: 46.0
Total WARP for real 2008 Yankees: 34.8
Comparison to 2013 Yankees: Better
Now we’re starting to see the negative WARP add up. Phelps, Warren, and Nova are all into their sub-replacement seasons, but there’s still much more than enough production coming from today’s elderly players to make up for it.

2007
Peak seasons: Curtis Granderson
Positive WARP: 52.3
Negative WARP: -9.4
Total WARP: 42.9
Total WARP for real 2007 Yankees: 45.6
Comparison to 2013 Yankees: Better
The whole starting lineup is healthy this season, so Gardner and Nix hardly play. The pitching staff is really starting to suffer from some gaping holes, but there’s just enough prime production left to make this team—today’s Yankees, six years ago—better than the 2013 team.

2006
Peak seasons: Travis Hafner, Vernon Wells
Positive WARP: 48.2
Negative WARP: -7.6
Total WARP: 40.6
Total WARP for real 2006 Yankees: 43.9
Comparison to 2013 Yankees: Worse, but barely
The time-traveling Yankees use Chamberlain as a starter this season, even though he’s in his final season at the University of Nebraska. He’s bad, but he’s better than David Phelps and Adam Warren, who are still two and three years from being drafted, respectively. It took seven years, but the current Yankees are finally worse as a group than they are today.

2005
Peak seasons: Derek Jeter
Positive WARP: 51.2
Negative WARP: -11.1
Total WARP: 40.1
Total WARP for real 2005 Yankees: 42.8
Comparison to 2013 Yankees: Worse, but still barely
Alex Rodriguez has an MVP season, and Jeter posts his highest WARP ever. Teixeira and Hafner have strong seasons. We’re eight years back, and the only hitters below replacement level are Gardner, Cervelli, Stewart, and Nix. The team hits enough to overcome poor pitching.

2004
Peak seasons: Ichiro Suzuki
Positive WARP: 39.9
Negative WARP: -21.5
Total WARP: 18.4
Total WARP for real 2004 Yankees: 42.8
Comparison to 2013 Yankees: Worse
It all falls apart! The Yankees are too young. If only they had more experienced players.

The average age of Yankees hitters so far this season, according to Baseball-Reference, is 32.1—and that’s without Jeter, Rodriguez, and Teixeira, all of whom would have brought that average up. Their pitchers’ average age is 32.4. The Yankees beat out the Phillies by over a year in each category. Given that players tend to peak around 26 or 27, it’s not surprising that you’d have to rewind several years before you’d get to a time when the current Yankees weren’t better as a group than they are now.

In baseball, six or seven years is often all that separates a raw teenager from a player in his prime, and a player in his prime from one who's washed up. Most teams aren’t more than a couple years removed from the best version of themselves, but most of the 2013 Yankees were the best versions of themselves the better part of a decade ago. They were so good to begin with that there’s still something left. But yes, the Yankees need a youth movement. Either that, or a way to travel back in time. 

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  New York Yankees,  Yankees,  Age

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