So, the Yankees won the World Series last year, the first time they’ve done so in the seven postseasons since I started blogging about them, and I didn’t write a single word in acknowledgment of that fact. In fact, I haven’t made any attempt to look back a the 2009 Yankees at all thus far. Blame the World Baseball Classic. The WBC delayed the start of the 2009 regular season, pushing the World Series into November, and when the Yankees finally wrapped up number 27, I had to attend to commitments to Sports Illustrated and Baseball Prospectus that ran right into the holidays (baby’s first Christmas!). Before I knew it, it was 2010. I figured I had missed the boat by that point, but with the NFL playoffs on hold for two weeks in anticipation of the Colts-Saints Super Bowl, and Pitchers and Catchers still more than three weeks away, now seems like as good a time as any to look back at 2009 before we move forward with 2010. I’ll start with the obvious: letter grades for the 2009 team, which will serve as both the follow-up to my mid-season grades, and something of a preface to my annual “campers” post, which typically skips over the players who are assured roster spots. Hitters today, pitchers and the manager tomorrow.
Mark Teixeira, 1B
54.7 VORP, -3.7 UZR
.292/.383/.565, 39 HR, 122 RBI, 103 R, 43 2B, 344 TB
Misguided calls for Teixeira to earn the American League Most Valuable Player award put me in the odd position of arguing against a player I actively campaigned for last fall, despite the fact that he was having exactly the sort of season I hoped and expected he would. Removed from the absurd suggestion that he was more valuable than Joe Mauer last year, I don’t have a single bad thing to say about Teixeira. He finished in the top ten in the league in VORP, tied his career-best OPS+, and his counting stats across the board were near perfect matches for his career averages per 162 games. He led the AL in home runs (tied with Carlos Peña), RBIs, and total bases, and won what I thought was a deserved Gold Glove (UZR’s shortcomings in evaluating first-base defense lead me to trust my eyes rather than that stat in this case).
Teixeira’s postseason batting line was unimpressive, but he nonetheless made his impact with a few big hits (most notably his game-winning home run in the 11th inning of Game 2 of the ALDS) and his glove, the latter of which played a major roll in bases-loaded, no-out escape acts by David Robertson and Mariano Rivera in the ALDS and ALCS, respectively.
Robinson Cano, 2B
50.3 VORP, -5.2 UZR
.320/.352/.520, 25 HR, 85 RBI, 103 R, 48 2B, 331 TB
The Yankees’ improvement from an 89-win team that missed the playoffs in 2008 to a 103-win team that won the World Series in 2009 had two sources. One was the big offseason acquisitions of Teixeira, CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Nick Swisher, but the other, the rebounds by 2008 disappointments including Cano, Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui, Melky Cabrera, Phil Hughes, and even Derek Jeter, was far more significant. Mark Teixeira was roughly a three-win improvement over Jason Giambi (+24.5 VORP rounded up for his glove, using 10 runs ~ 1 win), but Robinson Cano was almost a five-win improvement over the 2008 version of himself (+43.8 VORP again rounded up for some improvement in the field). Cano didn’t merely bounce back; at age 26, he had his finest season yet, setting career highs in games, at-bats, runs, hits, doubles, homers, total bases, and VORP and posting his best major league K/BB ratio (2.1). Cano’s UZR above looks problematic, but he was at -8.0 in 2008, and those who watched him all season thought he was solidly above average.
Whatever you make of Cano’s fielding, he did have one major hole in his game in 2009. Cano hit .376/.407/.609 with the bases empty, but just .207/.242/.332 with men in scoring position. He also struggled in the postseason, hitting just .193/.266/.281. Still, he had the third best VORP total among major league second basemen behind future Hall of Famer Chase Utley and ’09 fluke Ben Zobrist, so it’s hard to complain too much about the details.
Derek Jeter, SS
72.8 VORP, 6.6 UZR
.334/.406/.465, 18 HR, 107 R, 30 SB (86%)
If the Yankees had a legitimate MVP candidate in 2009 it was Jeter, who finished fourth in the majors in VORP trailing only Mauer in the AL (albeit by 18.2 runs). To put it simply, Jeter’s 2009 season was one of the best seasons in the career of a legitimate first-ballot Hall of Famer. Depending on how much emphasis you place on his defense (or which statistic you use to evaluate it), 2009 might have been Jeter’s second-best season ever behind only his otherworldly 1999 (103.9 VORP), though I’m tempted to rank it behind his 2006 campaign as well. In addition to setting a career high in UZR (a stat which only dates back to 2002), Jeter posted a career best K/BB ratio (1.25) in 2009, both of which suggest that it was hard work rather than good fortune which improved Jeter’s performance in 2009. As we await the annual barrage of reports of players reporting to camp “in the best shape of his life,” it’s worth noting that conditioning can make a difference.
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
52.3 VORP, -8.6 UZR
.286/.402/.532, 30 HR, 100 RBI, 14 SB (88%)
Before he could even get into a spring training game, Alex Rodriguez was outed as a former steroid user and diagnosed with a torn hip labrum that required surgery. Things could only get better, and boy did they. Rodriguez returned in early May and homered on the first pitch he saw, and though his batting average struggled a bit early on and the surgically repaired hip hindered him in the field, Rodriguez was undiminished at the plate. Then came the postseason. Rodriguez hit .363/.414/.648 in the first 100 postseason plate appearances of his career, but his .143/.314/.214 mark in the next 70 gave him an undeserved reputation as a choker. No more. Rodriguez hit .365/.500/.800 as he led the Yankees to the title with one of the great postseason performances of all time. His biggest hits were home runs that tied up Games 2 of the ALDS and ALCS in the bottom of the ninth and 11th innings, respectively, and a key RBI double with two outs in the bottom of the ninth as the Yankees rallied against Brad Lidge in Game Four of the World Series, but there were many more as he connected for six homers and drove in 18 runs in total, the latter falling just one RBI shy of the record for a single postseason. Add those postseason totals to his regular season line in place of his missing April, and his totals swell to .294/.413/.560 with 36 homers, 118 RBIs, and 92 walks.