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May 28, 2013

Skewed Left

The Real Future Yankees

by Zachary Levine

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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

2008 Rays

.247/.333/.465

.267

2009 Pirates

.255/.373/.368

.263

2009 Yankees

.226/.316/.512

.284

Nick Johnson, 2010, Age 31

2009 Nationals/Marlins

.291/.426/.405

.290

2010 Yankees

.167/.388/.306

.257

Eric Chavez, 2011-12, Age 33-34

2010 Athletics

.234/.276/.333

.243

2011-12 Yankees

.274/.338/.445

.274

Raul Ibanez, 2012, Age 40

2011 Mariners

.245/.289/.419

.261

2012 Yankees

.240/.308/.453

.263

Dewayne Wise, 2012, Age 34

2011 Marlins/Blue Jays

.202/.231/.303

.251

2012 Yankees

.262/.286/.492

.269

Ichiro Suzuki, 2012-13, Age 38-39

2011 Mariners

.272/.310/.335

.244

2012 Mariners

.261/.288/.353

.235

2012-13 Yankees

.290/.315/.407

.256

Lyle Overbay, 2013, Age 36

2012 Diamondbacks/Braves

.259/.331/.397

.246

2013 Yankees

.250/.291/.476

.263

Travis Hafner, 2013, Age 36

2012 Indians

.228/.346/.438

.289

2013 Yankees

.262/.384/.516

.315

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.

Curtis Granderson 108
Robinson Cano 72
Prince Fielder 71
Mark Teixeira 70
Brian McCann 65

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
Career home runs to RF:
75 of 129, 58.1 percent (MLB average last year was 26.6 percent, 53.7 percent for lefties)
Career GB/FB rate: 0.68 (MLB average last year was 0.84)
His Yankee future: Scott will be 35 next month and pretty much a designated hitter only if a team is smart. With the uncertainty around Alex Rodriguez and maybe Derek Jeter going into next year, it might be unwise to commit a player to DH, but as long as the price tag isn’t high, he could take the Hafner roster spot if Hafner leaves. His power is down the last few years, but that’s coincided with a drop in his home runs per fly ball, rather than his fly ball rate, so an easier park should be more of a boon to him than most.
John Sterling call: Great Scott! It’s a nuke from Luke!

The perfect backup: George Kottaras
Career home runs to RF: 16 of 25, 64 percent
Career GB/FB rate: 0.80
His Yankee future: Kottaras, who has played for three teams in the last 365 days, has a higher isolated power than Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rizzo, and Adam Jones. Combine that with the fact that he’s a left-handed pull hitter at a position of extreme short-term need and he would mean more to the Yankees than to pretty much anyone else in baseball, including his current employer. If the Royals are out of contention, the Yankees should expedite their pursuit to this July rather than the offseason.
John Sterling call: By George he got it! Welcome back Kottaras!

Young and in need of saving: Tyler Colvin
Career home runs to RF:
30 of 44, 68.2 percent
Career GB/FB rate: 0.69
His Yankee future: He’s not a 30-something like the Yankees typically get for these spots, and he’s not even all that great with a 2.0 career WARP in the equivalent of two full seasons, as his stats aren’t as good as they look with the Coors factor in his most prolific season. But he is available, and presumably at a low cost, now that he’s in Triple-A with the Rockies. He’s an outstanding fit for the Stadium in both of the criteria to the point where the Yankees’ interest in him was rumored when Granderson got hurt the first time. Even with a healthy outfield, he could fashion a nice role with the Yankees as a fourth outfielder and pinch-hitter who could always have a chance to put one out.
John Sterling call: Don’t have this one, but I’m going to stop you before you suggest “Tyler the Run Creator” in the comments since John Sterling music references must come from pre-1975 musicals.

The white whale: Colby Rasmus
Career home runs to RF: 58 of 83, 69.9 percent
Career GB/FB rate: 0.54
His Yankee future: Rasmus will never be confused for Bryce Harper, but he could be the Bryce Harper of raising his value with the Yankees. The numbers are exceptional in both categories. He almost never hits the ball on the ground, and when he does drive the ball it’s with one of the highest left-handed pull rates in the game. So whether sooner (if the Jays are selling) or more likely when he hits free agency in 2015, he’d be the ideal ballpark creation spliced with the Vernon Wells narrative of an underachiever in two places.
John Sterling call: A little Raz-zle dazzle!

Oh, and Sterling better be around to see these.

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

Related Content:  Yankees,  Yankee Stadium,  Park Factors

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