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May 16, 2013

Overthinking It

The Mystique and Aura of the Other 29 Teams

by Ben Lindbergh

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There’s a strange thing that happens to normally rational baseball writers when discussing the Yankees. People who would normally question every assumption and demand to see some empirical proof blindly believe that the Yankees have mastered the dark art of picking up past-their-prime players and restoring some of their former success. The only evidence is anecdotal, so we know we’re being naughty and going off the reservation, sabermetrically speaking. But like Luke Skywalker, we’ve searched our feelings, and we know it to be true. And we’re only kind of kidding.

When the Yankees traded for a struggling Ichiro Suzuki last July, The Great Grant Brisbee—after acknowledging the absurdity of what he was about to say—wrote this:

Honestly, I'm expecting a .350/.370/.430 finish with a couple of big playoff hits. Just because. There's no supporting evidence. You're still feeling it in yer bones, though. Of course you are. This scares you. It scares me, dammit.

I read that and nodded. Ichiro went on to hit .322/.340/.454 and finish with some big playoff hits. (Actually, he was the only Yankee whose bat touched the ball in the ALCS.)

Here’s Grant again, in March:

If you want to be cynical about the Yankees, look at their projected lineup for the start of the season. Then take Teixeira out of there for a bit. How many of those players are you confident in? Let's see, there's Robinson Cano, and ... well, Robinson Cano. 

But I’m not buying it. The Yankees are a deceptive bunch of liars when it comes to reports of their imminent demise.

He then went on to list a series of increasingly improbable events that he figured could keep the Yankees in contention, culminating in an Austin Romine appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And in retrospect, most of those tongue-in-cheek predictions were no more outrageous than, say, Lyle Overbay slugging .496, or Vernon Wells hitting like it’s 2006, or Travis Hafner also hitting like it’s 2006.

Joe Posnanski got in on the act earlier this week, writing about the “Yankees School of Witchcraft and Wizardry,” specifically Wells, its star pupil. Posnanski, whose “faith in the science-based baseball world” has been shaken by Wells, passed on a list of examples of “Yankees sorcery” kept by formerly suffering Red Sox fan Michael Schur (of Parks and Recreation and FireJoeMorgan fame):

Shawn Chacon, 2005
Aaron Small, 2005
Bartolo Colon, 2011
Raul Ibanez, 2012
Eric Chavez, 2012

It’s really hard to construct a study that would reveal whether the Yankees have a higher rate of turning struggling veteran players into useful parts. (For one thing, the success stories have little in common other than exceeded expectations; Chacon was 27 when he went to the Yankees, and a reliever, while Ibanez was a 40-year-old outfielder.) Of course, there are some potential explanations for why it might be true, even aside from a deal with the devil or the brilliance of Brian Cashman’s front office. Suzuki, Overbay, and Hafner (not to mention Ibanez and Chavez) are all lefties, so it’s not a shock that they hit more homers playing half their games in Yankee Stadium. And as Sam Miller, Carson Cistulli, and I discussed on Effectively Wild today, it’s not inconceivable that the intensity of playing for the biggest-market team in a pennant race could help refocus a player who was previously languishing in some baseball backwater (or, alternatively, screw up an Ed Whitson, Javier Vazquez, or Carl Pavano who supposedly doesn’t have a big-city constitution). Plus, the Yankees, as perhaps the only team for whom building through free agency has been a model for sustainable success, have had more veterans than most other teams, so it stands to reason that they’d also have had more veterans who did something surprising.

But much as the primitive part of my brain rebels at the thought of attempting to explain Yankees magic away, I suspect it’s mostly selective memory. Recent history is full of players who went to the Bronx with their careers on life support and continued to flatline for the Yankees. Lance Berkman, for instance, was traded to New York at the deadline in 2010 after a down first half for Houston, then proceeded to hit .255/.358/.349 as a Yankee. (His renaissance came with the Cardinals.) Or on that same 2010 team, Austin Kearns and Randy Winn, and Dustin Moseley and Chan Ho Park. Or over the past several seasons, Chris Dickerson, Casey McGehee, Chad Qualls, Angel Berroa, Brett Tomko, Morgan Ensberg, Richie Sexson, Sidney Ponson, Ivan Rodriguez, Josh Phelps, Craig Wilson, Terrence Long. Or this very season (so far), Ben Francisco, Brennan Boesch, and Chris Nelson.

You might not remember that some of those players were Yankees, because they were bad (at least compared to previously established standards) both before and after their time with the team, and quickly moved on. But had any one of them had a hot half-season, he would’ve been trotted out as an example of the rejuvenating power of the pinstripes. We tend to remember the ones who worked out, just as people tend to remember a so-called psychic’s correct calls and forget about his or her misses.

There’s also the perennially high profile that makes anything that happens to the Yankees seem more significant. If Jason Bay, James Loney, or Ervin Santana were having the seasons they’re having with the Yankees instead of their actual teams, it would be chalked up to Yankee magic. But the Yankees don’t have a monopoly on surprising seasons. So, in an attempt to exorcise the idea, I decided to look up recent players for all 29 other teams who fit the “Yankee magic” mold.

All of the benchmarks Ryan Lind and I used to pinpoint these players are completely arbitrary. But here they are anyway:


1) Players since 2000 who achieved a .750-plus OPS in at least 100 PA or an ERA under 5 in at least 30 innings
2) Who either:
a) Played for a different team in the year previous with an OPS <.750 or an ERA >5 and had an OPS at least 100 points lower or an ERA at least one run higher
b) Played for the same team in the year previous but had fewer than 200 PA or 50 innings, and played for a different team two years previous with an OPS > 100 points worse or an ERA at least one run higher  
c) Were traded to the Yankees midseason and had an OPS >.750 or an ERA <5 and an OPS at least 100 points higher or an ERA at least one run higher than they did for their previous team
d) Did not play anywhere in the majors in the year previous, were over the age of 30, and contributed at least 250 PA or 100 innings.

You can see the full results here. The query returned something like two players per team per season. I’m not going to talk about all of them, because that sounds like it would be less like an article than a really boring book. Instead, I’m going to pick the most “Yankees Magic” player for each franchise and hope you’ll enjoy the reminder about a bunch of seasons that had no business happening. Debate in the comments is encouraged.

Angels
Matt Palmer, 2009: A 30-year-old rookie who went 11-2, both because the Angels scored 7.2 runs per game for him—almost a run more than any other starter who pitched 120 innings—and because he eluded punishment by the BABIP gods long enough to post a respectable ERA. Palmer is still pitching. His ERAs from 2011-13 in the Pacific Coast League: 6.44, 5.66, 5.59.

Astros
Vinny Castilla, 2001: Shortly before his 34th birthday, Castilla was released by the Devil Rays—at the time, among the biggest insults a player could suffer—on May 10, 2001, signed with the Astros on May 15, and hit .270/.320/.492 the rest of the way, with 23 homers in 484 plate appearances. He never posted an above-average OPS+ in any amount of playing time for a team that didn’t play half its games at Coors Field.

Athletics
Brandon Moss, 2012: How to be Brandon Moss, in three simple steps.
1. Slug .382 with 15 homers in 749 plate appearances from age 23-27, mostly in good hitter’s parks.
2. Sign with team that plays in extreme pitcher’s park.
3. Slug .596 with 21 homers in 296 plate appearances.

Blue Jays
Frank Menechino, 2004: Menechino hit .205/.312/.325 for Oakland in 2002 and .193/.364/.265 for Oakland in 2003, then started 2004 hitting .091/.143/.091 in 35 plate appearances before the A’s finally traded him to Toronto. In 72 games with the Jays at age 33, he batted .301 and slugged .504 with a .400 on-base percentage. He retired after the following season.

Randy Ruiz’ 2009 and Alex Gonzalez’ 2010 are also strong contenders.

Braves
Jaret Wright, 2004: From 2000-2003, Wright totaled 155 1/3 innings with a 7.30 ERA. In 2004, the always injured starter managed to make it through 186 1/3 innings with a 3.28 ERA. Bonus points because the season convinced the Yankees to sign him, after which all the magic evaporated.

Here are Wright’s career ERAs broken down by team (in descending order):

Padres, 8.37 ERA (47 1/3 IP)
Orioles, 6.97 ERA (10 1/3 IP)
Indians, 5.50 ERA (515 2/3 IP)
Yankees, 4.99 ERA (204 IP)
Braves, 3.23 ERA (195 1/3 IP)

Leo Mazzone! Maybe! Or small sample size or something.

Eli Marrero gets an honorable mention for the same season. Marrero hit .238/.295/.390 in 1577 PA for St. Louis from 1997-2003, then hit .320/.374/.520 in 280 PA for Atlanta at age 30. Sure, why not.

Brewers
Devon White, 2001: Felipe Lopez’ .320/.407/.448 2009 would work, but White gets the nod for having his best offensive season (.277/.343/.459) in about a decade as a 38-year-old for the Brewers. He retired after that season. Classic example of an aging, declining player turning out to have a little more left in the tank after joining the Bombers Brewers.

Cardinals
Tie between Joel Pineiro, 2007, and Brad Penny/Jeff Suppan, 2010: Dave Duncan does his thing. (His thing is turning below-average starters into above-average ones, at least temporarily.)

Cubs
Scott Feldman, 2013: If/when Feldman falters, 2004 Glendon Rusch can reclaim his crown.

Diamondbacks
Aaron Hill, 2011-13: Hill hit .205/.271/.394 for Toronto in 2010 and .225/.270/.313 for Toronto before the 2011 trade that made him a Diamondback. He’s hit a combined .304/.366/.519 in Arizona since.

That narrowly beats out Carlos Baerga’s 2003. From 1996-2002, Baerga hit .267/.303/.375 in almost 2000 plate appearances. But as a 34-year-old Diamondbacks, he had his best season with the bat since he was 26, hitting .343/.396/.464 in 105 games.

Also of note: Henry Blanco’s small-sample .540 slugging percentage in 2011.

Dodgers
Chan Ho Park, 2008: Park’s first above-average season since 2001.

Honorable mention goes to a 34-year-old Jose Hernandez’ .289/.370/.540 2004.

Giants
Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell, and Cody Ross, 2010: But if I have to give it to a single player, maybe Marco Scutaro last season. Sometimes when weird and wonderful things happen, World Series are won.

Indians
Karim Garcia, 2002: Garcia had a decent partial season as a Yankee in 2003, but the definitive Karim campaign came a year earlier, when he somehow hit 16 home runs in 197 at-bats.

Mariners
Bret Boone, 2001: Easiest selection so far. Otherwise, it would’ve been Oliver Perez.

Marlins
Justin Ruggiano, 2012: .401 BABIPs aren't sustainable, but they're fun while they last.

Mets
Fernando Tatis, 2008: After a promising start to his career, Tatis played in the majors in only four of the next seven seasons, hitting .227/.306/.367 when he did. Then, at age 33, he briefly got good again.

Honorable mention goes to Elmer Dessens’ 2009-2010. Particularly his 2010, when, at age 39, he struck out 16 and walked 16 in 47 innings, recording a 2.30 ERA. He retired after the season rather than attempt the impossible again.

Nationals/Expos
Daryle Ward, 2006: Ward hit .259/.309/.438 in over 200 plate appearances from 1998-2005, then hit .308/.390/.567 for the Nats. They made the most of his hot streak, flipping him to Atlanta for…Luis Atilano. Score!

Orioles
Nate McLouth, 2012-13: Nate McLouth is pretty good again.

Padres
Josh Bard, 2006: There are plenty of products of Petco who fit the description (Eric Stults, 2012). But by far the more impressive achievement is to have a fluky offensive season in baseball’s most extreme pitcher’s park. Bard’s .333/.404/.522 line takes the cake.

Philies
Erik Kratz, 2012: Journeyman minor-league catcher and 32-year-old rookie slugs .504, inspires Sam Miller to call him “the best story of 2012.” Landslide victory.

Pirates
A.J. Burnett, 2012-13: Classic mid-30s career renaissance. Bonus points for being a guy who earned a reputation for not being able to handle New York (despite handling New York just fine in his first season there).

Rangers
Sidney Ponson, 2008: Only nine starts, but still improbable, in light of the ballpark and his 5.86 ERA from 2004-7. The Rangers didn’t put much stock in his superficial success; they released him in June for being what Jon Daniels described as “disrespectful.” The Yankees picked him up, got a 5.85 ERA in 90 innings, and missed the playoffs. The Yankees are so snakebitten.

Rays
James Loney, 2013: Loney has the inside track, but if he tanks, there are many other options: Kelly Johnson, Jeff Keppinger, Kyle Farnsworth, Casey Kotchman, Grant Balfour…and, just for good measure, Greg Norton’s .296/.374/.520 2006.

Red Sox
Bill Mueller, 2003: Bill Mueller won a batting title! And also hit 19 homers, which is seven more homers than he hit in any season before or after.

Reds
Jerry Hairston, 2008: The only one of his 16 seasons in which Hairston really, truly raked. Honorable mention goes to Ryan Ludwick’s 2012.

Rockies
Joe Kennedy, 2004: I picked a position player at Petco, so I have to pick a pitcher at Coors.

Royals
Ervin Santana, 2013: This is probably premature, but Kansas City hasn’t experienced surprising success a lot lately.

Tigers
Armando Galarraga, 2008: In Baseball Prospectus 2008, we said Galarraga “could end up with a decent bullpen career.” That season, the 26-year-old rookie become Detroit’s best starter. He’s never been close to that good again.

Twins
Carl Pavano, 2009-2011: A return to kind-of-competence after his lost years as a Yankee.

White Sox
Esteban Loaiza, 2003: Up there with Bret Boone as the most valuable member of the list.

Thanks to Ryan Lind for research assistance.

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,  Predictions,  Surprises

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