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.
Jorge Posada, C
35.7 VORP, 28% CS, 8 PB
.285/.363/.522, 22 HR, 81 RBI
The list of catchers above the age of 36 who have hit 20 or more home runs in a season is a short one. Carlton Fisk, the greatest old catcher of all time, hit 146 home runs after his age-36 season, surpassing 20 in a season twice. Mike Piazza, the greatest hitting catcher of all time, hit 30 home runs after his age-36 season, 22 of them coming in his age-37 season with the Padres. In 2009, the 37-year-old Posada matched Piazza’s 22 home runs at that age. That’s the list: Fisk, Piazza, Posada. The catchers age 37 or older who had 400 or more plate appearances with an OPS+ better than Posada’s 133 in 2009 were Fisk (again twice), and Ernie Lombardi who posted a 141 mark at age 37 in 1941. Piazza’s Padres season ranks fifth.
A year removed from shoulder surgery, Posada at 37 had a strong season for a catcher of any age. Despite missing most of May with a quad strain, he finished third among major league catchers in VORP trailing the Braves’ Brian McCann by just a half a run for second place behind Joe Mauer. The fourth man on that list, Miguel Montero, who had a breakout season for the Diamondbacks, fell 7.7 runs shy of Posada’s VORP total. Though Posada’s mobility behind the plate, or lack thereof, cause some controversy in the postseason when A.J. Burnett’s lack of confidence in Posada’s ability to block his curve ball in the dirt led to Jose Molina starting Burnett’s games, Posada’s throwing was as strong as ever coming off shoulder surgery. His 28 percent caught stealing rate was his best since 2006, right in line with his career rate of 29 percent, and comfortably above the league average of 26 percent. There’s no telling when the bottom will drop out for Posada (Piazza lasted just one injury-shortened season after his strong age-37 showing), but he has two years left on his contract. His 2009, which ended with a championship, will resonate for far longer.
Nick Swisher, RF
30.9 VORP, -0.7 UZR
.249/.371/.498, 29 HR, 82 RBI, 35 2B, 97 BB
Like Cano, Posada, Hideki Matsui, and Melky Cabrera, Nick Swisher was a player who needed a big rebound in 2009, though unlike those others, his dismal 2008 didn’t come as a Yankee. Nonetheless, Swisher, like the others, got his big bounce as he followed his worst major league season with one that was arguably his best. It’s odd to think about it now, but Swisher actually started the season on the bench having lost a spring training slap fight with Xavier Nady for the right-field job. It didn’t take him long to correct that injustice. Swisher delivered a big pinch-hit double on Opening Day, drew a pinch-hit walk the next day, went 4-for-9 with three extra base hits and six RBIs while starting over Nady the next two days, then went 4-for-10 with a triple, a homer, and a scoreless inning pitched (remember that?) while filling in for an injured Marx Teixeira over the next three games. Nady blew out his elbow the next day and was never missed. Swisher was exactly as advertised: an ideal complimentary player capable of delivering power and on-base percentage from anywhere in the order, playing solid defense in the outfield corners and first base, and talking continuously without ever getting his foot caught in his mouth. Swisher struggled mightily in the postseason and was actually benched for Game 2 of the World Series, but if Bobby Abreu was the bargain of last winter because he gave the Angels 35.6 VORP for $6 million (after you factor in his plate-appearance bonuses), Swisher was a close second having given the Yankees 30.9 VORP for $5.3 million after coming over in a dump trade for Wilson Betemit and two marginal minor league pitchers.
Melky Cabrera, CF
17.1 VORP, 1.4 UZR
.274/.336/.416, 13 HR, 68 RBI, 10 SB (83%)
In 2006, Melky hit .280/.360/.391 and posted a 4.7 UZR in left field as a 21-year-old rookie. That was an encouraging showing for a player that young in his first extended exposure in the major leagues, but rather than building on that showing, he headed in the other direction, ultimately earning a demotion to Triple-A after hitting .226/.274/.293 from May through mid-August in 2008. Cabrera bounced back in 2009 after taking advantage of a Brett Gardner slump to reclaim the center field job and reemerged as an almost perfectly average major league center fielder (the average major league center fielder hit .267/.334/.414). That helped the Yankees achieve their goal of winning the World Series, but for a 24-year-old in his fourth full major league season, it was underwhelming and likely less than they would have gotten from Gardner had he not injured his thumb. Yes, Melky had some memorable walk-off hits, but his overall clutch splits were unexceptional, and while he had a strong ALCS, he was a dud in the other two postseason series. Dealt to the Braves in the Javy Vazquez trade, he won’t be missed.
Brett Gardner, CF
11.4 VORP, 7.2 UZR
.270/.345/.379, 26 SB (84%)
Gardner won the center field job out of camp, but a slow start (.245/.288/.306 after 14 games) allowed Cabrera to reclaim the job. Gardner fought his way back from there, hitting .285/.374/.430 over the next three months and reclaiming a share of the job, but he injured his thumb trying to break up a double play on July 25, effectively handing the job to Cabrera for the remainder of the season. Gardner made just two starts in the postseason, going 0-for-8, and though he went 2-for-5 off the bench with a sac bunt and three runs scored, he was thrown out on two of his three postseason steal attempts. He should really get an incomplete, but attendance is part of these grades.
Johnny Damon, LF
39.3 VORP, -9.2 UZR
.282/.365/.489, 24 HR, 82 RBI, 107 R, 36 2B, 12 SB (0 CS)
Seventeen of Damon’s career-best-tying 24 home runs came at home last year, but beyond those homers and a few extra walks, he was the same hitter at home as on the road in 2009, and as a hitter and low-frequency basestealer, he was tremendously valuable. His fielding was another story, as he seemed to spend half of his time making pointless leaps after balls in the gap that were tens of feet out of his reach, a observation his awful Ultimate Zone Rating supports. Damon went 1-for-12 in the ALDS against the Twins, but hit .327/.375/.500 in the ALCS and World Series combined and delivered what was perhaps the Series’ signature moment. That came with two outs in the top of the ninth of Game Four with the game tied 4-4. Damon battled Brad Lidge over nine pitches, fouling off five of them and ultimate singling to left. He then stole second on the first pitch to Mark Teixeira and, with the shift on and third baseman Pedro Feliz covering second, slipped by Feliz and continued on to third, later scoring the go-ahead run on Alex Rodriguez’s double. In his four years with the Yankees, Damon hit .285/.363/.458, a superior line to his .295/.362/.441 mark in four years with the Red Sox, and 2009 was his best season at the plate as a Yankee.
Hideki Matsui, DH
.274/.367/.509, 28 HR, 90 RBI
The last of the Yankees’ comeback kids, Matsui made a strong return from a season ruined by knee problems. True, his knees kept him from playing the field at all, but he made up for it with his second-best state-side season at the plate, slugging over .500 for just the second time in his seven seasons as a Yankee and grounding into a career-low four double plays. Limited to pinch-hitting duties in National League parks, Matsui went 8-for-21 with three extra-base hits and five walks as a pinch-hitter during the regular season and 2-for-3 with a home run as a pinch-hitter in the World Series. He capped his Yankee career by hitting .349/.462/.674 in the postseason, going 8-for-13 with three homers in the World Series, and driving in six runs in the decisive six game to win the Series MVP.
The Yankees opened the season with Xavier Nady, Brett Gardner, and Cody Ransom in the starting lineup and a bench of Nick Swisher, Melky Cabera, rookie infielder Ramiro Peña, and backup catcher Jose Molina. Molina missed two months starting in early May, forcing the Yankees to promote rookie Francisco Cervelli. In early July, the Yankees acquired lefty-hitting corner man Eric Hinske from the Braves, and at the trading deadline, they picked up utility man Jerry Hairston Jr. Peña and Cervelli, both of whom joined the team at age 23 without having ever played a game at Triple-A, received rave reviews for their defense, their hustle, and their maturity. The hit .287 and .298 respectively, but they combined to draw just seven walks and hit just two home runs in 222 plate appearances. Still, rookies who can deliver strong averages, strong defense, and heady, hard-nosed play off the bench at minimum salaries are valuable. Molina matched his career low caught-stealing percentage (a still solid 28 percent), and cost the Yankees a half a win with his bat (-5.7 VORP) in just 155 plate appearances. Cervelli threw out 43 percent of the men who attempted to steal a base against him in the majors, rendering Molina irrelevant and earning the backup catcher job for 2010. Nady and Ransom got hurt before they could ride pine. Hinske hit five home runs in his first seven games with the Yankees, but hit just .190/.284/.333 thereafter. Hairston played six positions while getting on base at a decent .352 clip. The Yankees used five other reserves, but none of them had as many as 30 plate appearances. Still, the Yankees should be docked for having used Angel Berroa and Kevin Cash, even if it was for a total of only 52 plate appearance.
Molina, Peña, Cervelli, Hinske, Hairston, Cash, Berroa, Shelly Duncan, Juan Miranda, and Freddy Guzman combined to hit .246/.298/.359 in 651 plate appearances with 13 homers and 11 steals in 17 attempts (65 percent success).
Despite the poor play of Damon and Rodriguez and thanks to big upgrades at first base, right field, improvements at shortstop and second base, and the outstanding play of Brett Gardner during his opportunities in center, the 2009 Yankees ranked sixth in the majors and third in the American League in defensive efficiency. Only four AL teams made fewer errors than the Yankees, and the Yankee catchers were just a tick above the major league average in throwing out runners (29 percent against a major league average of 28 percent).
The 2009 Yankees led the majors in runs per game (5.65), runs (915), hits (1,604, tied with the Angels), homers (244), RBIs (881), walks (663), on-base percentage (.362), slugging (.478), OPS+ (122), total bases (2,703), and were second to the Angels in batting average (.283) and third behind the Blue Jays and Red Sox in doubles (325). As a team, they stole 111 bases at an 80 percent clip.