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May 5, 2005

Prospectus Today

Double Dipping

by Joe Sheehan

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This is going to be a double feature today, two columns in one space. For reasons I won't get into, I may do this occasionally this season, playing catch-up to make up for a slightly more erratic posting schedule. Please be patient.

--

How about the Robinson Cano Era?

After a flurry of excitement over the Yankees' full shift on Tuesday, the team went out and allowed 22 runs in two games to the Devil Rays, losing 11-4 and 11-8 and sinking to 11-17. They're just a game out of last place, second in the majors in runs allowed, and at no point have they appeared to be a contender for anything other than a Razzie.

It's been two days since the roster and lineup moves, and I can almost be rational about them now. The Yankees have made themselves worse through the decisions, but the silver lining to be found--for those of us with an attachment to the squad--is that the current alignment isn't likely to last very long.

The big problem in an otherwise reasonable set of solutions is making Tony Womack an everyday left fielder. Womack is an inadequate solution as a second baseman; he immediately becomes the worst left fielder in baseball, a converted infielder with a .227 EqA and no upside. The organization's affection for Womack is inexplicable, and as long as Womack maintains a decent batting average, that love will threaten the team's chance to turn around its season.

Even given the need to get Bernie Williams out of center field--something that dates back to the 2002 Division Series--and the idea that Hideki Matsui can move over to be an improvement, the logical solution is to allow Williams to play left field. His nonexistent arm and declining range will have less impact there, and in the worst slump of his life he's a better hitter than Womack is. That's not hyperbole. Williams, chased to the bench, is hitting .247/.324/.312 for a .235 EqA. Womack, your #2 hitter, is at .277/.320/.319 with a .227 EqA.

There's an argument that Yankee Stadium's spacious left field presents a considerable challenge, but as bad as Williams has become in center, is there any reason to think he can't play left field better than a 35-year-old second baseman who has never played left as a major leaguer and who has less than 15 innings in the outfield in this century? I've been Williams' biggest critic, and I can't imagine he's not a better defensive left fielder than Womack, or that, at worst, he's close enough that his massive offensive edge would make him the better choice.

Moving Matsui to center field is no bargain, either. He's 30, something less than lithe, and more strong than fast. His defensive numbers haven't been impressive in left field (below average in both '03 and '04), and he doesn't have a strong arm. If the standard is "better than Bernie Williams," Matsui can play, but expecting him to even be an average major-league center fielder is wildly optimistic.

Two corner outfielders and a converted second baseman. Not to self-check, but shouldn't $207 million buy more than this?

The one mild positive is that Cano replaces Womack at second base. I'd advocated giving Cano the job rather than signing Womack over the winter, so I guess I shouldn't back down now. He's a better player than Womack right now, but as with Matsui as a center fielder, you'd like to shoot for a higher standard. Just 22, he's essentially up based on a good month at Columbus, one that was driven by a high batting average. With three unintentional walks In more than 100 at-bats at Triple-A, it's hard to be optimistic about his readiness for this gig. He could eventually be Adam Kennedy; right now, he's likely to be overmatched. If Cano had five fewer singles to start the year, would he be in the majors right now?

In a remake of 2004's Miguel Cairo storyline, Rey Sanchez is going to end up getting a lot of playing time at second base.

What the Yankees are doing is playing Cano and Womack over Bernie Williams, creating a $27 million platoon at DH (Williams and Jason Giambi), not actually solving any of the team's outfield problems, and making the lineup worse. Hard to believe Congress isn't involved somehow.

This could work itself out. If Bernie Williams is allowed to play left field once his elbow feels better, the Yankees should be marginally better defensively and in line to improve offensively as Williams recovers. Ideally, Cano would outplay Womack and force the veteran to the bench as a pinch-runner and supersub. Even Sanchez is a better choice as a second baseman than Womack, who brings exactly one viable skill-speed--to the table. If nothing else, Joe Torre has to get Womack out of the #2 spot, where he's breaking up innings and taking at-bats away from Gary Sheffield, Matsui and Alex Rodriguez.

The Yankees appear to have finally identified the team's problem: defense. For all the attention being paid to the starting pitching, it's the defense that has been the bigger factor in those 16x runs allowed. They're converting just over 65% of balls in play against them into outs. I went back to 1986 and I can't find a team that converted less than 66% in a full season; under 67% isn't terribly common. The Yankees are on pace to have one of the worst team defenses in recent memory, and they have no obvious way to fix the problem. That doesn't let Kevin Brown off the hook, but it does mean that Yankee pitchers have to be graded on the kind of curve we're not used to employing.

One thing is certain: the Yankees have earned this moment. By watching as their position players got older and more immobile, but misidentifying the problem as a shortage of pitching, rather than defense, and by investing in arms this winter rather than picking up the true center fielder they desperately needed, they made this happen.

--

One of the themes that runs through this space, and really, much of the work at BP, is that the modern position of "closer" is overrated. People within the game, and certainly the media that covers it, is heavily invested in the idea that only certain people have a special ability to get the last three outs of a game when their team has a one-, two- or three-run lead. Well, occasionally a four-run lead. Sometimes a five-run lead, too. And sometimes it's not three outs, but less than that. The 27th out, though, that's the big one.

Sorry…got a bit lost there for a second…the point is, I argue that closers are just good relievers, and good relievers can get guys out no matter what inning we're in. Relievers become closers, by and large, by being successful in their first few chances in the closer role. It's very Salem 1692; close, and you're a closer. Don't close, and you lack the lower intestine to get the job done. No, wait, liver. Spleen? I get so confused…

The point is we overrate the role, and therefore, the pitchers who perform in it. With that construct in place, we can overreact to a team's losing its closer, seeing garish doom in their future when, in fact, a deep bullpen can cover for the loss quite easily.

Consider that four teams are currently going without their well-known and, in most cases, high-priced, closers. Here's how they've done:

  • Eric Gagne hasn't thrown a pitch all year. The Dodgers have survived to the tune of 17-11, and while the bullpen blew one ninth-inning save, the Dodgers came back to win that game.

  • Armando Benitez tore his hamstring last week. Since they lost him, the Giants have gone 5-2, with the bullpen blowing one game in his absence and the team winning anyway.

  • The Cardinals' Jason Isringhausen left last Tuesday's game with a strained oblique. Including that game, which his teammates closed out, the Cardinals have gone 6-3 without him, and their bullpen hasn't blown any leads.

  • Guillermo Mota went on the disabled list Sunday, but he hadn't been available for a week prior to that. Since his last outing, the team is 4-3, and the bullpen hasn't blown any games.

The closer role has been mythologized as much as any element of modern baseball, but while the pitchers in the role are accomplished, the lesson we relearn every year is that it's being an effective pitcher that makes you a good closer, not any special qualities over and above that. The experiences of the Dodgers, Giants, Cards and Marlins should serve as a lesson to any team tempted to overreact to the loss of a saves leader. Closers, more than any players on a roster, can be replaced.

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

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