"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

2005 Yankee Postmortem: Outfielders

You can read my contribution to the Baseball Analysts’ “What Went Wrong” series here. Meanwhile, on with the outfielders.

Overall AL Average: .268/.328/.424

Right Field

AL Average: .270/.332/.451

Gary Sheffield .291/.379/.512 (.302)

Sheffield has been an absolute masher for the Yankees in his first two seasons in pinstripes, but both years he’s suffered a fall-off in September. At first blanch those September swoons might appear to be evidence fatigue exacerbated by Sheffield’s age. Indeed, his production in 2005, though still placing him among the top hitters in the game, marks a continued decline from his fantastic 2003 season. On second glance, injuries appear to have played a role. After playing all of last season with a torn shoulder muscle, Sheffield simply wore down at the end of 2004. A pair of cortisone shots in that shoulder on September 19 helped him put up strong postseason numbers, but robbed him of his power for the remainder of the regular season. Looking at this year, one is tempted to point to the mysterious upper leg muscle pull Sheffield suffered while playing the field against the Devil Rays on September 7 as the cause for his September swoon, noting his lack of an extra base hit in 21 post-season at-bats as further evidence of the effects of the injury. In reality, after missing five games due to that injury, Sheffield hit a robust .299/.383/.545 over the remainder of the regular season. Rather, it was the six games prior to the thigh injury, a plain old slump in which he went 2 for 19, both hits being singles, that sunk his September numbers.

Despite the slight fall off in production from 2004, Sheffield finished second among American League right fielders in VORP in 2005 and a very close fourth among major league right fielders (behind Vlad, free agent Brian Giles and the still underrated Bobby Abreu). As an added bonus, after a dismal 5 for 11 performance on the bases in 2004, Sheffield rebounded by stealing 10 bases in 12 attempts in ’05.

Grade: A-

Center Field

AL Average: .268/.322/.407

Bernie Williams .249/.321/.367 (.242)

After what was actually one of his finest offensive seasons in 2002 (.333/.415/.493 – .312), Bernie appeared to take a step down to an inferior, but consistent level of production in 2003 and 2004 (something along the lines of .260/.360/.420 – .270). Alas, Bernie’s production fell off yet again in 2005 to the point where, after clearly not being able to field his position for the past several seasons, he could no longer hit well enough to carry it either. One would think that this fall off in production is what motivated the Yankees, ever the offensive-minded organization, to take desperate measures to get Bernie out of center field. Curiously, that was not the case. Instead it was Bernie’s defense that prompted the move,

In the seventh inning of a home game against the Blue Jays on May 1, Eric Hinske stood on third with one out when Gregg Zaun lifted a fly ball to shallow center. Charging, Bernie made the catch for the second out, but, suffering from an elbow injury, couldn’t even get his throw to the pitcher’s mound on the fly, allowing Hinske to tag up and score. It was then that Brian Cashman realized that, after ill-advisedly sending Bernie out to the middle pasture for the past several season, the time had come to send Bernie out to pasture somewhere else.

Unfortunately, Cashman chose to replace Williams in the outfield with Tony Womack, which assured Bernie’s return to the starting line-up. A later attempt with 20-year-old Melky Cabrera in June lasted a mere six games, as did a mid-July stretch of starts by Bubba Crosby. Ultimately, the Yankees simply didn’t have anyone on hand who could clearly out-produce what remained of Bernie’s bat. It wasn’t until Crosby kicked off a hot streak at the plate with his first extra base hit of the season, a triple on September 11, that Joe Torre was able to find a reliable replacement for Williams in center. Meanwhile, in a curious turn of events, Bernie’s defense improved upon his return to center, continuing a trend back to league average that had stretched back to 2001, which was statistically his worst defensive season. Unfortunately, Bernie’s bat never did recover.

Grade: D+

Left Field

AL Average: .278/.333/.437

Hideki Matsui .305/.367/.496 (.293)

After a disappointing rookie campaign (ignore the 106 RBIs which were largely due to Matsui coming to bat with more men on base than any other American Leaguer in 2003, Matsui’s .287/.353/.435 was below the .287/.343/.462 league average at the position that year), Matsui busted out in 2004, nearly doubling his home runs and increasing his walks by 40 percent. In 2005, however, his walks dropped right back down to his 2003 total and about ten of those homers turned back into doubles.

After starting the season with a hot streak (6 for 9 with two homers and 5 RBIs in his first two games, .361/.400/.694 through mid-April), Matsui slumped badly, hitting .237/.300/.319 from April 15 through May 29. Things picked up slightly after that, but his big break came when he turned his right ankle playing right field in St. Louis on June 12. As he tends to do when he’s slumping, Matsui had been lunging at the ball, resulting in a return of the dreaded Groundzilla of 2003 (Matsui had a 2.17 groundball-to-flyball ratio that year). Having sprained his front ankle, Matsui was forced to keep his weight back at the plate and the results were immediate. From June 14, his first game as a DH due to the ankle injury, through the end of July (at which point he had long since returned to the field), Matsui hit a stellar .365/.439/.692 with 13 home runs in just 159 at-bats.

He came back to earth after that, but still finished fifth in the majors in VORP among left fielders (and second to only Manny Ramirez among a weak AL group). Matsui also saw his defense in left improve for the second straight year, passing league average for the first time, though his lack of range was exposed when the Yankees attempted to move him to center.

Grade: B+

Tony Womack .249/.276/.280 (.212)

Womack played uncharacteristically extraordinary defense at second base in April, showing great range and combining with Derek Jeter to lead the AL in double plays by a long shot. Statistically speaking, Womack was a better defensive second baseman in April than deserved Gold Glove winner Orlando Hudson. Of course, that didn’t change the fact that his bat couldn’t carry the position in a handbasket. Not that anyone should have been surprised by this. Despite exceeding his career totals in average and on-base percentage through May 2 (.280/.330), Womack was slugging a mere .329 when he was moved to left field in a desperate attempt to rid the Yankees of Bernie Williams’ defense.

Womack handled himself well in his first 27 starts in left field, playing league average defense and avoiding attention-getting misplays, but his production at the plate went from bad to awful (.233/.270/.250 over that span), resulting in time off in June as his bat ran away with the spoon (.169/.179/.169 for the month). After making a mere two starts through the first 23 games of July, Womack picked up back to back starts against the Angels on July 29 and 30. In the former, he doubled for his first extra base hit since May 13. In the latter, he led off the bottom of the ninth with a walk and a stolen base to start a three-run, game-winning rally. That prompted Torre to give him another look. Starting 16 of the next 25 games, Womack hit .254/.262/.317. Perhaps remembering what Einstein said about insanity, Torre held Womack just 5 more at-bats over the season’s final 37 games. With Womack out of the line-up the Yankees went on a 26-11 (.703) tear to clinch their eighth-straight AL East title.

When all was said and done, Womack lead the Yankees in steals with 27 at a useful 84 percent success rate and picked up a couple of game winning hits, but that shouldn’t be confused with having actual day-in and day-out value. In 351 plate appearances in 2005, Womack collected a grand total of nine extra base hits and 12 walks. According to VORP, Womack’s performance at the plate and the absurd amount of playing time he was allotted in light of it cost the Yankees 8.9 runs when measured against what could have been expected from a random waiver-wire pickup or minor league call-up, a level of futility surpassed only by John Flaherty, who amazingly cost the Yankees more runs in less than half as many plate appearances.

Grade: D-

Designated Hitter

AL Average: .259/.337/.440

Ruben Sierra .229/.265/.371 (.218)

In fareness, Jason Giambi lead the Yankees in starts at designated hitter, but Giambi also started more games at first than at DH, so I’ve taken care of him with the infielders. Meanwhile, Sierra was second on the team in DH starts, which is alarming given his performance. Due to a pair of injuries (a torn bicep suffered in late April and a torn hamstring suffered in mid-July), Sierra’s season was broken into three brief periods:

April: .269/.296/.692 in 26 AB (all seven of his hits for extra bases)
May-July: .291/.326/.418 in 79 AB
September: .138/.176/.185 65 AB (just one extra base hit)

Sierra actually exceeded his 2004 performance during those first two stints (.286/.319/.486 – half of his hits for extra bases), but couldn’t get it started again in September. Of course, he did pick up yet another big hit in the postseason, delivering a game-tying pinch-hit single in Game 4, but as great as key postseason hits can be (and Ruben has had a key, game-tying hit in all four of his pinstriped posteasons), they’re not always evidence of a valuable bat. Ultimately, Ruben had a deleterious effect on the Yankee offense in 2005.

Since 1991, when the 25-year-old Sierra appeared to be an emerging superstar in Texas, Ruben has hit just .258/.308/.431. He hasn’t been a viable outfielder since the ’80s. He’s now 40. It’s time for him to retire.

Grade: D

The Rest

Bubba Crosby .276/.304/.327 (.227) 76 G

In March, Crosby earned the final spot on the Yankee roster with another blazing spring training performance, which hopefully would have earned him a spot even if his competition wasn’t Doug Glanville and Damian Rolls (a pair of players who combined for zero major league games and one retirement in 2005). In April he looked to get the Sunday starts in center field, but with the team sinking like a stone, Joe Torre cut Bubba off after just two such starts. In May he began yet another season of rides on the Columbus shuttle. Down on May 3 to make room for Sean Henn’s first start, back up on June 15 with a knowing glance at Andy Phillips, who was headed in the other direction, back down six days later for Scott Proctor, back up nine days later when Mike Stanton and Paul Quantrill were designated for assignment, back down eight days later for Darrell May, back up ten days later after the Melky Cabrera experiment failed.

That last call-up was for good, and resulted in Crosby being given a brief shot at the center field job Cabrera had punted, but after going 3 for 14 with no walks and no extra base hits in five starts, he was returned to the bench. Crosby was given just three more starts until Matt Lawton pulled a Melky in right field while Gary Sheffield was missing time due to a leg injury. Given the start in right on Sunday September 11, Crosby picked up his first extra base hit of the year, a triple off a dominating Tim Wakefield in a 1-0 Yankee win. He then started half of the Yankees remaining twenty games, winning one with a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning, and hitting .340/.353/.440 over that span. He then picked up the center field start in Games One, Four and Five of the ALDS against the Angels, going 2 for 3 with an RBI and a stolen base in the finale.

Along the way, Crosby proved to be far and away the Yankees’ best defensive outfielder, posting a spectacular 118 Rate in center. Thus it was a bitter irony that his range proved to be the lethal blow to the Yankees’ season when he failed to call off Gary Sheffield, who simply didn’t expect to find another fielder in the right-centerfield gap, in the bottom of the second inning in Game Five of the ALDS. The resulting collision turned what would have been the final out of that inning into a two-run triple the proved to be the difference in the game that ended the Yankees’ playoff run.

Matt Lawton .125/.263/.250 (.189) 21 G

Lawton made the All-Star team with the Indians in 2004 after hitting .305/.377/.474 with 15 homers, 49 RBIs and 16 stolen bases in the first half. He then collapsed in the second half, hitting .239/.352/.349 with just five more dingers. That pattern repeated itself in 2005. Traded to the Pirates for Arthur Rhodes during the offseason, Latwon hit .275/.379/.457 with ten homers and ten steals in the first half of 2005. He then hit .262/.384/.311 over the remainder of July and was traded to the Cubs at the trading deadline for his former Cleveland teammate Jody Gerut. In 20 games with the Cubs he hit .247/.299/.309, then was dealt again, this time to the Yankees for A-ball righthander Justin Berg.

Lawton started ten of his first 13 games as a Yankee, hit just .088/.205/.176, and played some of the worst outfield defense the Yankees had seen all year (which is really saying something). After his dreadful performance in right field contributed to a brutal loss to Curt Schilling and the Red Sox on the Fox Saturday Game of the Week on September 10, Lawton made just three more starts as a Yankee (though in one of them he hit a two-run home run that accounted for all of the Yankees’ runs in a 2-1 victory over the Orioles) and failed to make the postseason roster.

Melky Cabrera .211/.211/.211 (.104) 6 G

Desperate for some sort of stability in center field, the Yankees promoted the then 19-year-old Cabrera in early July and handed him the starting job claiming that they had promoted him based entirely on his defensive reputation and that any offense he provided would be considered a bonus. Cabrera quickly proved to be in way over his head, literally, misjudging several balls and allowing them to sail over his 5’11”-in-platform-shoes frame. Cabrera hit bottom on July 15 in Boston when he made a misguided and misdirected dive at a sinking liner by Trot Nixon, turning a would-be single into a three-run inside-the-park home run. That was his last big-league game of the year. Two days later he was back in Columbus and by year’s end he was back in double-A Trenton where he had started the year.

Mike Vento 0 for 2

Vento had an adventurous big-league debut in Tampa on September 13. After grounding into a one-out fielder’s choice in his first at-bat in the eighth inning of a 17-3 Yankee win, he jogged back to the dugout thinking he’d made the last out of the inning and was doubled off for what really was the last out of the inning. He then ended the game in the ninth by making a running catch for the penultimate out and then firing to first to double off Alex Gonzalez to end the game. The 27-year-old corner outfielder hit .291/.365/.445 with Columbus.

Kevin Reese 0 for 2 with a walk

The 27-year-old Reese, who hit a Vento-like .276/.359/.450 with the Clippers, was given just one start and two plate appearances to prove himself in late June. It’s almost as if his promotion was a clerical error.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver