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May 28, 2013
The Real Future Yankees
Bryce Harper made his major league debut on April 28, 2012. It took 11 days for someone not only to project his future as a New York Yankee but also to put an outrageous salary number on it. Thirty-seven days later, ESPN wondered in its Yankees coverage about Harper’s future in pinstripes.
It’s a bit of an industry, making projections on who’s going to be a New York Yankee. Felix Hernandez was a future Yankee forever until the Mariners made sure that he wasn’t. Just this week, that infamous Royals graphic placed Mike Trout on the Yankees already. And the terrific New York Daily News-er and 80-grade Internet troll Andy Martino gave his Mets followers a little “FY” treatment regarding Matt Harvey.
It’s always fun to pick out which items the Yankees will be buying—what are the fancy stores now, like that watch shop that Rick Ross name-drops—but that’s just not the Yankees anymore. As they try to exercise some payroll restraint in accordance with the luxury tax, and as other teams extend their young players early instead of allowing themselves to be outbid, they’ve been doing their shopping at the K-Mart (nailed it) and turning out quite well.
The secret—well, it’s not really a secret—is their ballpark, and that’s where the search for who really should be the next Yankees ought to begin.
Since the house that YES built opened in 2009, the Yankees have been loading up on left-handed hitters who would provide much more value to them than to the average team. It’s a superb way to beat the market in a hypothetical world where everybody is willing to bid the same amount per unit of baseball value. Why offer more than that going rate when you can just get more baseball value out of the same asset?
Thanks to the 314-foot wall beckoning in right field, Yankee Stadium is a paradise for left-handed hitters, including those whose power is their only tool or their only remaining tool.
In their five years at the new stadium, the Yankees have signed or otherwise acquired eight left-handed-hitting position players in their 30s who would play a game or more for the major league team. Of the eight, seven have improved their TAv when they came to the Yankees, meaning they’ve improved production by one measure even after adjusting for ballpark. (The ballpark factor used is an overall one, rather than just a left-handed hitters’ one because the Yankees really do get that advantage by playing to their strengths while visiting teams might not.)
The eight, with triple-slash stats and TAvs through Sunday’s games:
Eric Hinske, 2009, Age 31
Nick Johnson, 2010, Age 31
Eric Chavez, 2011-12, Age 33-34
Raul Ibanez, 2012, Age 40
Dewayne Wise, 2012, Age 34
Ichiro Suzuki, 2012-13, Age 38-39
Lyle Overbay, 2013, Age 36
Travis Hafner, 2013, Age 36
While the Yankees have been described as getting lucky on several occasions, and there may be a degree of luck in some cases, it’s actually a very sound strategy and one that may prove vital in the coming years.
The Yankees face a huge decision during and/or after this season on the long-term status of Robinson Cano, who didn’t actually forget how to hit in last year’s playoffs and now could be looking at a payoff well into nine figures.
The prudent approach has generally been to thank a player for his years of service at reasonable cost and then stick somebody else with the bill and the inevitable decline. Yet if they do decide to meet Cano’s demands, they can offset that cost by continuing to go cheap on the positions down the defensive spectrum. First base is a high-ticket item for a while with Mark Teixeira under contract through 2016, but they can skimp on right field, left field, and designated hitter thanks to their unique advantage (or at least one that they’ve decided to utilize more than most teams).
So who are the future Yankees? They should be left-handed, first of all, and they should have power as a big part of their game. But it’s not just any power. Ryan Howard, for instance, would fit all the characteristics of somebody the Yankees could try to revive at age 37 when his contract expires heading into the 2017 season. But much of Howard’s power is to left-center, where Yankee Stadium doesn’t have nearly the ease of escape as it does in right. Carlos Pena and Adam LaRoche came to mind as well, but their power tends to be right in line with left-handed hitters’ home run distributions by field. We’re looking for high percentages of home runs to right field and low ground ball-fly ball ratios.
If you look at the guys with the most home runs hit to right field—not right-center—since the stadium opened, you’ll find a few Yankees at the top, and that’s what we want to replicate.
So the candidates for future Yankeedom and that career revitalization that came for Overbay and the like at a price tag well south of $400 million fit a few different profiles.
The classic case: Luke Scott
The perfect backup: George Kottaras
Young and in need of saving: Tyler Colvin
The white whale: Colby Rasmus
Oh, and Sterling better be around to see these.