"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Infieldels!

Mark Teixeira’s bum wrist might bother him throughout the season. Couple his sore wrist with his steep decline and unless he’s developed a hell of a sense of humor over the off-season, it’s hard to see what he’s bringing to the infield in 2014.

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees

That’s just fine though because they’ve got Hall of Famers at short and third and an MVP candidate at second… hold on, I’m catching up on some news items. Oh. Oh no.

So the 2014 Yankee infield might be bad. How bad? Let’s look at the Steamer projections for the infielders:

1B: Mark Teixeira .247/.341/.465, 26 HR in 558 PA (2.2 WAR, not factoring in lingering wrist issue)

2B: Brian Roberts .251/.314/.379, 6 HR in 335 PA (0.7 WAR)

SS: Derek Jeter .281/.339/.376, 5 HR in 409 PA (1.3 WAR)

3B: Kelly Johnson .231/.311/.393, 15 HR in 490 PA (1.4 WAR)

UTIL: Eduardo Nunez .257/.307/.363 2 HR in 162 PA (0.1 WAR)

UTIL: Brendan Ryan .216/.284/.297 3 HR in 308 PA (0.2 WAR)

(While I don’t think WAR is a perfect metric to stand in for overall performance, I’m going to use it below since it was the only way to easily compile the infield-specific data for each team in Yankee history).

Unfortunately for the Yankees, Steamer only projects 2262 plate appearances, so they’d need another 350 PAs or so from total scrubs who were not good enough to make the above list. But save your shuddering until the end please.

Last year’s infield was also bad. In place of Teixeira, we mostly saw Lyle Overbay. Jayson Nix and Nunez took turns sucking at short and third, and when they weren’t bad enough, David Adams was there to be even worse. The 2013 infield produced 4.2 WAR, one of the worst in modern Yankee history, but not the worst thanks to Robinson Cano’s all-star season. Cano was worth 6 wins above replacement all by himself, so the rest of that collection of suck was worth -1.8 WAR.

At least the 2013 infield was not designed to be bad. The Yankees hoped for Teixeira and Cano to play their customary 150 games and for Jeter and Arod to be back on the field some time in the spring. And not the springs of 2014 and 2015. Even with performance declines and ample substitutions, that’s not a recipe for one of the worst infields in franchise history. In fact, those four guys led one of the best infields in Yankee history to the 2009 World Series title.

In contrast, the Yankees stumble into 2014 with eyes wide open. This is hardly revelatory, as the infield represents approximately 50% of the lineup, but it’s hard to win with a terrible infield. It’s obvious there’s a strong correlation between infield quality and winning percentage. What we’re about to experience is rare in Yankee history.

Let’s go way back to 1925, the year Lou Gehrig replaced Wally Pipp. Gehrig at 22 was good, but the rest of his cohorts were not, and the result was one godawful infield. Like Cano in 2013, only Gehrig’s presence keeps the group in postive WAR. The Yankees won only 69 games and finished seventh. The next year they added Tony Lazzeri, won the pennant, and, seemingly, made putting together a quality infield an organizational priority.

bb1-35m[1]

From 1926 through 1964, the team from the Bronx became the Yankees as they are known today. Twenty six pennants in 38 years means that seeing the Yankees in the World Series was more probable than flipping a penny and seeing Lincoln’s mug. The infield was occasionally worth 20 WAR all by themselves and rarely dipped into the single digits. 

The average infield during that span accounted for around 14 WAR, or almost 3.5 WAR per position. After Gehrig, the Yankees didn’t employ slugging first basemen to rack up the WAR but instead relied on depth and diverse skill sets around the horn. Casey Stengel maximized value with strategic platoons. Rolfe, Crosetti, Rizzuto, Gordon, McDougald, Skowron, Richardson, Johnson etc. Hall of Famers some, but solid and productive all.

Since 1965, the Yankees have still been the class of baseball, but the pendulum has swung back to Lincoln’s visage in the battle of probability with the Yankees only appearing in the Postseason 22 times in 48 years. The twin killings of the player draft and CBS ownership made it harder for the Yankees to stockpile the best amateur talent and increased competitve balance across the game.

The Yankees have occasionally sucked in the last 48 years, and they haven’t always put together a decent infield. And not surprisingly, there’s some overlap there. Using last year’s total as a baseline for inepitude, here are the worst infields since 1926:

66topps-547-Horace-Clark[1]

1965 (77-85, 6th Place AL): 4.1 WAR 

Clete Boyer flashed quality leather as always at third, and Joe Pepitone contrbuted something at first, but this was the beginning of the Horace Clark era and the rest of infield gave us a sign of the mediocrity to come. Clarke burst onto the scene with a typically forgettable performance in 51 games, but as often the case with teams of this era, he was hardly responsible for the overall suck. Phil Linz, Bobby Richardson and Tony Kubek combined to be truly awful as regular players.

balboni[1]

 1982 (79-83, 5th Place AL East): 1.3 WAR

Take post-1973 numbers with a grain of salt because it’s difficult to separate out the WAR of some of the DHs in here, but no amount of precision is going to improve this group to respectability. Off years from Randolph and Nettles made Roy Smalley the most productive infielder. There is so much negativity in this group it’s like my living room when Mariano Rivera blows a save. Steve Balboni blundered to -1.1 WAR in just 33 games and Bucky Dent deteriorated to -1.1 WAR in just 59 games. That’s sabotage with a quickness.

dd163[1]

1988 (85-76, 5th Place AL East): 2.6 WAR

Mattingly’s season was just fine, but he was merely an all-star and no longer able to carry the team. Randolph was nearing the end of his usefulness as a starting second basemen. And oh my, the suck of the left side of the infield. Randy Velarde, Rafael Santana, Mike Pagliarulo and Luis Aguayo combined to produce almost -3 WAR. 

51kPZy6PVWL._SY355_[1]

1990 (67-95, Last Place, AL East): 1.2 WAR

Nobody will be surprised to see this team on the list, as they won only 67 games. This was the year Don Mattingly’s back spasmed him into oblivion. Alvaro Espinoza got 150 games to prove he was nothing close to a Major Leaguer and neither Mike Blowers nor Jim Leyritz could handle third. Steve Sax at least had a pulse, but if it wasn’t for Kevin Maas coming out of nowhere to hit a bunch of homers, the Yankees would have had negative WAR for the infield. (Also, some of Mass’s 1.3 WAR came from 25 games at DH, so really, this total should be even lower.)

 derek-jeter.05815146[1]

2000 (87-74, 1st Place AL East, World Series Champions): 3.7 WAR

A World Champion. Maybe there is hope for 2014 after all! Derek Jeter was in superstar mode at the plate hitting .339/.416/.481. But he picked the wrong year for that slash. Since offense was so jacked up in 2000, his numbers merely tabbed him as an all-star instead of the MVP candidate he’d be in virtually any other context. UZR hates his defense so much that he racked up only 3.7 WAR. You will notice, with some non-rigorous number-crunching, that means the World Champs got exactly zero from Tino, Knobby, Brosius and their understudies.

Robinson-Cano-Mariners[1]

2013 (85-77, 3rd Place AL East): 4.2 WAR

We went over this, it was all Robinson Cano. And he’s a Mariner.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays

2014: 6.4 WAR (Projected before Teixeira’s wrist revelation)

So 6.4 WAR is probably more like 4 or 5 WAR when you discount Teixeira and add in the scrubs who will use up the rest of those plate appearances we’re missing. If Teixeira is bad enough, it’s possible that McCann plays first base and the infield will receive a shot in the arm. Though that’s still bad news for the Yankees, because they’ll be sacrificing the catching advantage they paid handsomely to obtain this offseason. I’d be surprised if the 2014 infield is better than the 2013 infield.

The problem is that these players are too old to have much hope for upside. Kelly Johnson, I guess, could put together something special if everything breaks perfectly for him, but the other guys? Guys in their late 30s coming off career-altering injuries do NOT have career years. If we are very, very lucky, they have seasons that resemble their career averages. More likely, they play poorly and infrequently.

It’s going to be a very bad infield, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a very bad team. The Yankees will need heavy lifting from the outfield and the catcher and they paid the price for that muscle this offseason. The top of the rotation is going to have to outperform their 2000 counterparts, as the bullpen lacks 2000′s Rivera, Stanton and Nelson.

But that’s definitely possible. If Sabathia bounces back (and it’s reasonable to expect him to be a good pitcher this year), the 2014 staff could be excellent. The real problem is that the rest of the AL East is much better than it was in 2000, so the 2014 Yanks could outperform the 2000 team byseveral games and still be shut out of October baseball.

Flip things around and look at the best infields in team history (1927, 1929, 1936, 1942, 2002, 2007, 2009) and there’s much more security in booking your Postseason parties. Starting in 2015 (or this July), when second base, shortstop and probably third base are all holes to fill, it’s time to build another one.

11 comments

1 Alex Belth   ~  Feb 3, 2014 2:57 pm

This has the kind of feeling where moves will be made! Nice write up J.

2 monkeypants   ~  Feb 3, 2014 3:12 pm

[0] Alvaro Espinoza got 150 games to prove he was nothing close to a Major Leaguer ...

Yes, but we'll always have that one time he pulled off the hidden ball trick to lack back on.

3 joejoejoe   ~  Feb 3, 2014 5:36 pm

Andy Stankiewicz is dead*. Long live Andy Stankiewicz!

* - actually not dead, currently managing Grand Canyon U.'s D1 ballclub

4 Mr OK Jazz Tokyo   ~  Feb 3, 2014 9:13 pm

[2] ????????? I don't remember that at all!

5 monkeypants   ~  Feb 3, 2014 9:51 pm

[4] Maybe it was Stanky, but I swear that I remember listening to a game on radio when Espinoza pulled off the trick after (I think) a conference on the mound, whle Rizzuto went nuts over it. Then again, I couldn't find any evidence of this today, so maybe the mind plays tricks.

6 joejoejoe   ~  Feb 3, 2014 10:57 pm

[5] Please forgive my non sequitur. I wasn't questioning you recall of the hidden ball trick.

I was checking out the pre-Jeter IF rosters of the early 90s and found in 1992 SS Andy Stankiewicz (2.7) had the same WAR as a 31 year old Don Mattingly. And a better oWAR! That 1992 team had an INF WAR of 9.2 (Mattingly, Randy Velarde, Stankiewicz, Charlie Hayes) and managed just 76 wins. It could be ugly this year without some upgrades to the infield. Thanks for your great insights Jon!

7 Chyll Will   ~  Feb 4, 2014 1:48 am

[5] This might be what you remembered...

As far as I can find, Willie Randolph is the last Yankee to be credited with a successful hidden ball trick in 1978, and then was victimized by it two years later, though a comprehensive (yet incomplete) list put together (and later taken down) on Retrosheet by Bill Deane only credited Randolph as the victim (at least until 2005 when he acknowledged the omission).

Quite incidentally, former Yankees J.T. Snow (1999 with the S.F. Giants) and Mike Lowell (2004 with the Florida Marlins) were the last two to pull it off until last season, when it was tried three times and successful twice [Evan Longoria (TB) vs. Juan Uribe (LAD) and Todd Helton (COL) vs. Matt Carpenter (STL)]. It's a rare trick indeed; one I wouldn't mind seeing as much as it happened last year. Imagine Jeter pulling a Stick Michael in what's likely the last season of his career (but hopefully not under the same circumstances)...

8 monkeypants   ~  Feb 4, 2014 9:10 am

[7] Maybe that's it, but I could swear it happened later. Or maybe Stanky or Espinosa tried it but the ploy failed. Or maybe I'm becoming an old geezer whose slowly losing his grip on reality.

9 The Mick536   ~  Feb 4, 2014 9:16 am

Knock on wood? Bad infields do make bad teams. And, while the outfield can catch, they cannot throw. How about the range of the infielders? Gotta get to the ball to catch it.

[0] Great piece. Baseball history draws me to the game, as much as the day to day, though I don't compute stats. Cards brought back memories, though I have long since parted with my sets.

Mike Ferraro didn't make the list.

10 The Mick536   ~  Feb 4, 2014 9:24 am

One other tidbit. Alvaro Espinosa appears on my favorite list, position players who pitch. In 1991, during a 14-5 blowout loss against the White Sox, Alvaro entered the game in the 8th inning, replacing Wade Taylor. He retired Tim Raines and Robin Ventura. Will one of this years infield perform so admirably?

11 illchemist   ~  Feb 5, 2014 10:17 am

WAR....huh!..What is it good for?.... (sorry)

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