Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
2005 Yankee Postmortem: Catchers and Infielders
2005-11-01 00:24
by Cliff Corcoran

This should all be self explanitory. My goal is to post the outfielders and designated hitters tomorrow, the starting pitchers on Thursday and the relief pitchers on Friday. We'll see how that goes. While reviewing the below, it might be helpful to keep in mind that the average American Leaguer hit .268/.328/.424 (AVG/OBP/SLG).


AL Average: .257/.313/.393

Jorge Posada .262/.352/.430 (.272 EQA)

Jorge Posada turned 33 last August, a dangerous age for a catcher, but because he entered the 2005 season coming off two of his three best offensive seasons (2000 being the third), the prevailing thought was that, as an infielder converted to catching at the age of 20 and brought along slowly in the majors (he caught less than 40 games in the majors prior to his 26th birthday), Posada had more miles left on him than the typical 33-year-old catcher. Emboldened by this logic, the Yankees shipped Dioner Navarro, one of the top catching prospects in the game to Arizona in the Randy Johnson deal despite the fact that Navarro's progress through the Yankees' farm system synched up perfectly with what would otherwise have been Posada's expected decline and the expiration of Jorge's current contract.

Absent a future at the position (bounced to Los Angeles by the Diamondbacks, Navarro posted a .263 EQA as the Dodgers' everyday catcher over final two months of the season), the Yankees watched as their 33-year-old backstop struggled at the plate for the bulk of the 2005 season. Despite hot streaks in May and September (.326 and .298 GPA's respectively), Posada finished the year with his lowest marks across the board (AVG, OBP, SLG, EQA) since he assumed the full-time catching job in 2000.

That said, he was still comfortably above average for his position. In fact, he had the fourth best offensive season by a catcher in baseball, behind only his AL counterparts in Boston, Cleveland and Minnesota, and easily out-produced the best NL backstop (the Cubs' Michael Barrett). Meanwhile, he had one of his best defensive seasons. In addition to allowing just eight passed balls (just one more than his career low, including his part-time 1997-99 seasons), and throwing out a hair more than 30 percent of attempting base stealers (a pinch better than his career rate), Jorge Posada finally learned to block the plate, a development I covered in detail in the bullet points at the end of this post.

Grade: B+

John Flaherty .165/.206/.252 (.149)

After catching Randy Johnson's best start to that point in the season on June 11 in St. Louis, Flaherty was installed as the Big Diva's personal receiver, proceeding to cost the Yankees a half a win over the course of the season due to lack of production at the plate. Flaherty's collapse (believe it or not, his uncharacteristic slugging over the past two seasons--.461 between 2003 and 2004--was good for an extra win each year for the Yanks) would have made for the perfect opportunity for Navarro to step into the back-up job much like Posada did in 1997 after Jim Leyritz's departure. Instead the Yankees' third string catcher was Wil Nieves, who doesn't do anything well at the plate and didn't show up in the Bronx until September, when he took four hitless at-bats, all as an in-game replacement.

Grade: F

First Base

AL Average: .271/.343/.457

Jason Giambi .271/.440/.535 (.332)

Amid a series of ailments that would make Job wince, Jason Giambi hit .152/.281/.232 in just 138 at-bats over the final four months of the 2004 season. He then began the 2005 season by hitting .195/.386/.325 through May 10. Already reduced to being a part-time player, Giambi was then asked by Joe Torre and Brian Cashman to accept a demotion to the minors in order to find his stroke. Giambi refused, insisting he could work out his problems in the majors with the help of batting coach Don Mattingly. Perhaps motivated by that conversation, Giambi hit .320/.370/.480 (8 for 25 with a double, a homer and two walks) over the first six games of the ensuing west coast roadtrip.

That was a mere hint of things to come. Giambi struggled for another two weeks (.276/.344/.310) but finally bust out in June in conjunction with a shift from designated hitter to first base. From June 6 to June 12 the Yankees played six games in NL ballparks, forcing Giambi into the field during his four starts on that road trip. In the last of those games, Hideki Matsui turned his ankle playing right field, forcing him to DH when the Yankees returned home. With Matsui filling the DH spot, Giambi stayed in the field. Playing 30 of 35 games at first base from June 6 through July 22, Giambi hit .353/.507/.755. With that, Giambi once again became the MVP-caliber hitter he had once been. From June 6 through the end of the season, Giambi hit .287/.468/.619 with 28 home runs and 86 walks against just 69 strikeouts in 385 plate appearances. Even with his poor start factored in, Giambi was the fifth most productive first baseman in baseball, and the second best first-sacker in the American League (to Mark Teixeira) as measured by VORP. Giambi also lead the AL in on-base percentage and finished tied with Albert Pujols for the fourth best EQA in baseball.

Grade: A

Tino Martinez .241/.328/.439 (.265)

Tino Martinez was acquired to serve as a back-up for Jason Giambi who would be able to step into the full-time first-base job if Giambi struggled. With that as its modest goal, his 2005 season was a success. With Giambi struggling through the first two months of the season, Martinez hit .252/.350/.548 and provided the Yankees' primary offensive spark during a season-saving ten-game winning streak in early May. Martinez homered in each of the first five games of that streak on his way to hitting .264/.356/.708 with ten home runs in May. Though he picked up only ten more extra base hits through the season's final four months, Tino got the baton to Giambi as he was asked to do and posted a .455 on-base percentage in eleven pinch-hitting chances. If there was a flaw in his season, it was that his defense declined dramatically, his 92 Rate being far and away the worst of his career (though still better than Giambi's 88).

Grade: B

Second Basemen

AL Average: .271/.323/.413

Robinson Cano .297/.320/.458 (.262)

With their record a paltry 10-15, the Yankees traveled to Tampa to begin a four game series on May 2. Despite winning 6-2 in the opener behind Mike Mussina, Brian Cashman followed the game with a shocking announcement. Tony Womack, signed the previous winter to be the Yankees' second baseman, would move to left field. Hideki Matsui would move to centerfield. Bernie Williams would become a part-time DH, and the new Yankee second baseman would be a 22-year-old kid named Robinson Cano.

Cano had been touted as the Yankees' second baseman of the future the previous season (in part to drum up trade interest, as he was also showcased at third base in Columbus), and had been tearing up the International League in April (.333/.372/.574). But he had also been rejected during the offseason by the Diamondbacks, who instead took Dioner Navarro in the Randy Johnson trade, and had a less than stellar track record in the minors, marked by a lack of both power and patience at the plate.

Installed as the Bombers' second baseman, Cano started with a 2-for-23 slump in which his only times on base came via a pair of ground-ball singles on the Tropicana Dome turf. Both of those singles came in his second game, which the Yankees' lost by three runs, all of which scored following a Cano throwing error when the rookie fielded a would-be double play ball and air mailed it over Derek Jeter's head into left field.

Normally, that sort of performance would land a Yankee rookie on the shuttle back to Columbus (see Phillips, Andy), but the team's 12-game winning streak began with Cano's fifth game and in his eighth, Cano picked up another pair of hits including an RBI single and a ringing double into center. Cano then kicked off the Yankees' ensuing west coast trip with five doubles in four games, each a convincing gapper. Cano struggled a bit more through the end of May, but found his stroke for good with a 3 for 4 night in Minnesota on June 4 in which he drove in or scored three of the Yankees' four runs in a 4-3 win that broke a six-game losing streak. From than night through the end of the season, Cano hit .310/.334/.476, a line which would look even more impressive had he not struggled in August.

In the field, Cano displayed soft hands, good range, a strong and alarmingly accurate arm and a knack for turning the double play, though all were subject the occasional ugly error, such as the one in his second game. One hopes such yips will decrease in frequency as Cano adjusts to the league.

Cano's lack of patience at the plate and occasional defensive miscues have elicited comparisons to the last everyday major league starter to emerge from Columbus, fellow second baseman and San Pedro de Macoris native Alfonso Soriano, but the association doesn't work. To begin with, Soriano wasn't given the second base job until he was 25 years old (as we've since learned). What's more he was a far inferior fielder during that first season. Soriano was a whopping 22 runs below average in the field in 2001, while Cano was a mere 5 below in 2005. This despite the fact that Soriano was by far the speedier player (Cano's foot speed is unexceptional at best).

Meanwhile, Cano's lack of patience is much worse that even Soriano's. Soriano drew a walk every 21 plate appearances in 2001. This past season Cano had more than 34 plate appearances per walk. Cano was also a distant dead last among qualified players in pitches per plate appearance (3.05—Soriano actually saw a solid 3.84 pitches per plate appearance in 2001). In fact the only hitter with more than 100 at-bats to have seen fewer pitches in his average plate appearance was Cano's teammate Bubba Crosby. Obviously, Cano will have to learn to be more selective if he hopes to continue to be a productive major league hitter lest the league stop throwing him strikes altogether.

Assuming Cano can learn the strike zone (and at 22 there is still plenty of arch in his learning curve), he appears to be well on his way toward being an above average defender, which combined with his doubles power (he was second on the Yankees in two-baggers despite spending April in the minors), should make him one of the better second baseman in the league for years to come.

Grade: B+


AL Average: .276/.331/.451

Derek Jeter .309/.389/.450 (.292)

Jeter is as Jeter does. Compare that season line above to his career line of .314/.386/.461 (.289). Yup. The only thing that was different about his game in 2005, aside from the fact that his walk rate rebounded from a 2004 in which he attempted to hack his way out of a brutal season-opening slump, was that his fielding continued to improve. For the first time in his career, Jeter was above average in the field, posting a stellar 105 rate. Jeter's season was good for third in the majors in VORP among shortstops and he was tied with Miguel Tejada for second behind Michael Young in EQA among shortstops. Money.

Grade: A-

Third Base

AL Average: .266/.329/.428

Alex Rodriguez .321/.421/.610 (.337)

Rodriguez led the majors in EQA in 2005 and led the AL in VORP, outpacing David Ortiz by almost 14 runs. At the plate, Rodriguez not only had one of the three greatest offensive seasons in baseball in 2005 (along with Albert Pujols and Derrick Lee), but arguably the greatest offensive season in his inner-circle Hall of Fame career and inarguably the greatest offensive season by a Yankee third baseman ever. Along the way he became the youngest player to reach 400 career home runs (finishing the year with 429) and set a new record for home runs by a right-handed Yankee hitter (48, breaking Joe DiMaggio's 46 in 1937—though, in fairness, the Clipper had to overcome a much more deadly death valley in the original Yankee Stadium). There's really no way to undersell Rodriguez's accomplishments at the plate in 2005.

That said, he did struggle some on defense, starting the year with a string of costly errors, most of which, oddly enough, came with Carl Pavano on the mound. Rodriguez recovered to play some spectacular and frequently game-saving defense in the second half, but still finished the year seven runs below average at the hot corner. Still, given his obscene production at the plate (and on the bases, where he was 21 for 27 in steal attempts), the Yankees could afford to wait for him to readjust to his new position.


Futility Infielders

Andy Phillips .150/.171/.325 (.151) 27 G

After making the opening day roster due to Kevin Brown's first injury of the year, Phillips was not given a single at-bat before being demoted in mid-April. After five days in Columbus, Phillips was recalled when Ruben Sierra went down with a bicep injury. Given his first start of the year on April 24, Phillips went 2 for 4 with a double a home run and four RBIs. That earned him four more starts in the next seven games, but in the last of those he struck out swinging five times against Scott Kazmir and the Devil Ray bullpen to complete a 2 for 19 stretch.

That was about all she wrote for Andy Phillips. After going 1 for 7 in two more starts he was returned to Columbus when Sierra came off the DL. He spent exactly one day on the big league roster in June, then didn't return until Sierra's next injury in late July at which point he was given just seven more at-bats over the remainder of the year, with one more demotion in early August followed by the customary September call-up.

Meanwhile, in Columbus Phillips was mashing to a .300/.379/.573 tune, following up his .318/.388/.569 performance with the Clippers in '04, while Sierra was hitting .229/.265/.371 with the big club. Sigh. There's no telling what Phillips could have contributed given the same opportunity out of the DH spot that Cano was given at second base. Thus far, six of his eight major league hits have gone for extra bases, five of six in 2005. Of course, Phillips turns 29 in April, so thus far may be as far as he gets.

Rey Sanchez .279/.326/.302 (.219) 23 G

Bulging cervical discs ended his season in mid-June. Prior to that he was playing his usual solid defense and hurting lefties in relief of Womack and Cano (.364/.417/.409).

Russ Johnson .222/.300/.333 (.222) 22 G

Johnson hit .292/.382/.480 with the Clippers and played first, second, third and right field in his two-month stint with the Yankees. Explain to me why Tony Womack deserved a roster spot more than this guy again. I seem to have forgotten.

Felix Escalona .286/.375/.357 (.264) 10 G

His game winning single in the bottom of the ninth against the Blue Jays on August 23 was the only memorable moment of his two months of bench warming. Unlike Phillips and Johnson, his triple-A numbers (.274/.339/.394) don't suggest a missed opportunity.

Mark Bellhorn .118/.250/.294 (.190) 9 G

Released by the Red Sox in late August, he was picked up by the Yankees on August 30, apparently to help tackle the vicious overpopulation of sunflower seeds in the Yankee dugout. A smart, low-risk pick up that proved to be inconsequential.

2005-11-01 04:51:08
1.   singledd
Cliff.... a good assessment that really showed the depth of our bench. I think Posada's got more left, but he will need to do both physical and emotional work to continue to perform as he ages.

Everything points to Giambi 'being back' (including the best PS performance on the team). If he continues to work and stay healthy, he should be even better in 2006.

I wonder about Jetes. While his numbers were good, he did not seem to have his usually impact on the team's performance (read that... not clutch). I wonder if NY musical chairs is getting to him.

Is Moose done? He is bad Moose too often. We can't expect Small and Chacon to continue their magical ways... although Chacon is a decent #4-#5 guy.

It's great to have Cash and Torre back. With all the critism of Torre, I think he means a lot to this team.

I look forward to next year. We only really need 3 decent pickups... they dont have to be stars. CF and 2 in the pen should make us dangerous next year. I hear little about J.Jones from Minn. He would fit in nicely. Please start a 'just say NO to Damon' petition.

And I think we will have less competition from the Sox.

Thanks for continuing YOUR great offseason performance!

2005-11-01 06:02:15
2.   rbj
Great analysis, thanks Cliff. LOL re: Bellhorn, let's hope those sunflower seeds have learned their lesson.
2005-11-01 14:43:27
3.   randym77
Good analysis. Can't wait for the other installments!

I, too, hold hope that Jorgie just had a bad year, and is not yet in terminal decline. He's always struggled a bit under pressure, and this year had to be pretty stressful. Benched whenever the ace is on the mound, a dozen or two pitchers through the revolving door (talk about musical chairs), and talk of being replaced by Bengie Molina.

But jeez, are you grading a curve or something? An F for Flaherty? Yowch. And A+ for A-Rod? What are you gonna give him next year, when he doesn't "struggle some on defense"? ;-)

2005-11-02 07:40:06
4.   strangeluck
I think any comparison of Cano and Soriano is incomplete if you don't mention that Cano also struck out a lot less than Soriano did in 2001 (or, for that matter, in any season). Indeed, the difference in their K rates is just about equal to that of their BB rates. To me, this indicates that Cano doesn't swing at bad pitches like Soriano did, and he actually has decent command of the strikezone. I think his lack of walks is more a function of his needing to learn the difference between a pitch he can put in play and a pitch he can drive, and it probably didn't help that his spot in the order dictated that he got a lot of pitches in the strike zone. In other words, its not that he lacks discipline, but that he lacks patience, and hopefully, like Luke Skywalker, he will learn patience (I bet no one's made that comp before).
2005-11-02 10:38:51
5.   Cliff Corcoran
That's an excellent point, strangeluck, and one I regret not including in the above post. Cano struck out once every 8.1 plate appearances. Among Yankees with more than 100 plate apperances, only Hideki Matsui (9.03 PA/K) and Gary Sheffield (8.88) struck out less frequently in 2005.

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