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Tag: Brett Gardner
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Observations From Cooperstown–Competition, Mr. Sheppard, and Herman Franks

There are those who believe that spring training performance is too misleading to be useful in determining who should win spots on an Opening Day roster. I would tend to agree with that theory, at least in the case of established veteran players, but the Grapefruit and Cactus League seasons can be helpful in sorting out the best and worst among younger players.

The 2009 Yankees provide a classic case in point. Last Sunday, Joe Girardi announced that Brett Gardner had won the center field battle, with Melky Cabrera relegated to backup duties. Gardner hit a leadoff home run in the Yankees’ first Grapefruit League game—and continued to hit all spring, even showing surprising power. Cabrera, after a slow start, rebounded to lift his average near the .350 range, which is terrific, but still short of Gardner’s exhibition season level.

In my mind, Girardi has made a perfectly reasonable and rational decision in choosing Gardner. Both players have their strengths, Gardner his speed and range, and Cabrera his throwing arm, but neither has a huge edge in talent over the other. Both are younger players still trying to establish their levels of value in the major leaguers. Neither player hit well in 2008, leaving question marks about their staying power as regular center fielders. If Girardi can’t use spring training as a major factor in this decision, then what else can he rely on? A call to Joe Torre? Tarot cards?

I believe that the pressure of spring training performance can also tell us something about a player. If a player knows he has to hit well in the spring in order to win a job, and then he goes out and does exactly that, it may be an indication that he can handle the pressure that comes with the major leagues. Similarly, I believe that competition should bring out the best in good players. And based on the way that both Gardner and Cabrera have responded to this spring’s competition (and the way that Austin Jackson, slated for Triple-A, also hit in Grapefruit League play), the Yankees may find center field to be in far more capable hands than they originally planned…

No one seems to know for sure whether Bob Sheppard is fully retired, or might make a cameo appearance at the new Yankee Stadium this year, but what I do know is this: This incredible man has introduced Yankee players for nearly 60 years, dating back to the 1951 season. So we thought we’d compile an “all-Bob Sheppard team,” consisting of some of the best and most unusual Yankee names in history. (The more syllables, the better.) Some of the monikers are lyrical, others are clunky, but all have been delivered with a grace and precision unlike any other public address announcer in baseball history.

Catcher: Thurman Munson (the only big leaguer with the given name of Thurman)
First Base: Duke Carmel (true identity: Leon James Carmel)
Second Base: Robinson Cano (the only current Yankee to make the squad)
Shortstop: Paul Zuvella (Rizzuto loved this name)
Third Base: Celerino Sanchez (makes me think of celery stalks)
Outfield: Ross Moschitto (hit like a mosquito, too)
Outfield: Roger Repoz (if only he had played so lyrically)
Outfield: Claudell Washington (the first and only Claudell, and a personal favorite)
Pinch-Hitter: Oscar Azocar (not much of a hitter, but what a name!)
SP: Ed Figueroa (Mr. Sheppard would never call him “Figgy”)
SP: John Montefusco (did Bob ever call him “The Count?”)
SP: Eli Grba (still not sure what happened to all of the vowels)
SP: Hideki Irabu (never referred to as “The Toad”)
RP: Hipolito Pena (an obscure left-hander, but a memorable moniker)
RP: Cecilio Guante (translates to “Cecilio Glove”)
RP: Ron Klimkowski (went from pitching to selling Cadillacs)
RP: Dooley Womack (one of the stars of Ball Four)
Opponent: Jose Valdivielso (Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins)…

One of the most underrated managers in the history of the expansion era died this week. Herman Franks, the major leagues’ oldest living ex-manager, passed away on Monday at the age of 95. At first glance, Franks’ managerial record with the Giants and the Cubs might look pedestrian. In seven seasons, he failed to take any of his teams to the postseason. Without a measure of postseason glory, his record pales in comparison with that of contemporaries like Walter Alston, Dick Williams, Gil Hodges, and even Ralph Houk. That’s the cursory look, and as usual, it tells us little about the man’s true accomplishments. So let’s look deeper. In those seven seasons, Franks’ teams never finished worse than four games below .500. And his teams always contended, never concluding a season worse than five games behind the division or league leader.

In the late 1960s, Franks guided the Giants to three second-place finishes. Unfortunately, the National League was stacked at the time, with powerhouse clubs in place in Los Angeles and St. Louis, and the Pirates posing a threat as intermittent contenders. If only the league had been split into two divisions prior to 1969, Franks likely would have pushed one or more of his Giants teams into postseason play.

Franks, however, did his most impressive work a decade later with the Cubs, where he lacked the talent of the Mays-McCovey-Marichal Giants. In 1977, Franks led Chicago to a record of 81-81, remarkable for a club that featured four of five starting pitchers with ERAs of over 4.00. The Cubs’ lineup also had its share of holes, with Jose Cardenal missing a ton of games in the outfield, and mediocrities like George Mitterwald and the “original” Steve Ontiveros claiming regular playing time at catcher and third base, respectively. Two years later, Franks did similar wonders with a band of misfits, coaxing a career year out of Dave Kingman and using an innovative approach with fireman Bruce Sutter. Realizing that the Hall of Famer’s right arm had come up lame the previous two summers, Franks began to use Sutter almost exclusively in games in which the Cubs held the lead. It’s a practice that has become the norm in today’s game (to the point of being overdone), but Franks was the first to realize the benefit of reserving his relief ace for late-game leads.

For his troubles, the Cubs unfairly fired Franks with seven games remaining in the season. The following season, the Cubs finished 64-98, nearly 30 games out of first place. They should have kept Franks.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com.

Battles: Center Field

With the Grapefruit League schedule kicking off on Wednesday, I wanted to take these last two day of inaction to take a look at the key position battles being waged in Yankee camp. I’ll start today with the most significant: the center-field battle between Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner.

First the tale of the tape:

  Melky Cabrera Brett Gardner
Age (DOB) 24 (8/11/84) 25 (8/24/85)
Height – Wt 5’11″ -  200 5’10″ – 180
Bat/Throw S/L L/L
ML career (PA) .268/.329/.374 (1,608) .228/.283/.299 (141)
mL career (PA) .296/.347/.420 (1,621) .291/.389/.385 (1,738)

Cabrera is theoretically the incumbent, but Gardner started in center in 12 of the Yankees’ last 15 games of 2008 after Cabrera effectively lost the center field job in early August. Cabrera made just five starts in center after August 3 and was even demoted to Triple-A for three weeks and recalled only after rosters expanded in September. In that sense, Gardner is the incumbent, but really, despite the large discrepancy in their major league service time, neither player entered camp with the upper hand in this battle.

This battle is topsy-turvy in other ways. For example, the less experienced Gardner is the win-now player given his minor league promise of solid on-base numbers (.389 mL career OBP), excellent defense, and spectacular speed on the bases (153 minor league stolen bases at an 83% success rate, 13 for 14 on the bases in the majors). Meanwhile, the appeal of Cabrera, the experienced major leaguer, is his potential. Cabrera has shown flashes of power at the plate, particularly early last season when he slugged .505 with six homers through May 4. Cabrera is unlikely to ever develop into a serious home-run threat, but Gardner is a pure slap hitter, with just nine career home runs as a pro and an isolated slugging in the minors of just .094. Gardner seems unlikely to ever hit for much power, but there remains some hope that Cabrera, who is a year younger, may yet blossom into a complete hitter.

The problem is that Cabrera’s performance on the field has been heading in the opposite direction. Cabrera hit .280/.360/.391 as a rookie left fielder in 2006, displaying solid plate discipline for a 21-year-old as well as some doubles power (26 in 524 PA) and falling just short of a league-average performance overall. In 2007, however, his plate discipline melted away without a corresponding increase in power (.273/.327/.391), and last year, after that hot start, he simply stopped hitting, batting .235/.280/.286 from May 5 through the end of the season, a line worse than Gardner’s seemingly pathetic rookie showing.

Given that Gardner was just breaking into the majors last year, been reliably productive in the minors, and seemed to heat up at the end of last season, hitting .294/.333/.412 in 73 PA his second of two major league stints, there’s every reason to believe that Gardner will significantly improve on his overall major league line if given the chance this season, but given Cabrera’s steady regression, there are far fewer reasons to continue to believe in Melky. It’s not as though Melky does anything else better than Gardner. Melky can steal bases, but he might steal 15, while Gardner could easily steal more than 50 and lead the league if he starts every day, and he’ll do it at a higher success rate than Cabrera’s. Melky has shown flashes of brilliance in the field, but Gardner, thanks in part to his superior speed, is going to turn more balls into outs in center, just as he’s likely to make fewer outs at the plate.

According to Dave Pinto’s Probabilistic Model of Range, Melky was the best defensive left fielder in baseball in 2006 but has displayed merely average range in center over the last two years. Gardner did not play enough to register on Pinto’s major league-only system, but per Ultimate Zone Rating, Gardner’s defense in center was worth  9.1 runs to Melky’s pedestrian 0.6 last year, a remarkable stat given that Gardner played just 160 2/3 innings in center for the Yankees, while Melky played 973 2/3. Of course, the small sample warnings about Gardner’s major league statistics are particularly acute when it comes to fielding, both because he spent a significant chunk of his first major league stint in left, and because fielding stats are so suspect to start with. It would be cherry-picking to write off Gardner’s poor performance at the plate in the majors as a small sample while emphasizing his absurd advantage over Cabrera in UZR. That said, what I saw watching the games supported the statistics’ assertion that Gardner has the superior range in center. Cabrera still has the better arm, but not by as much as one might think;  Gardner recorded four assists in his 22 major league games in center, showing a strong and accurate throwing arm that opposing runners would be ill-advised to test.

So Melky’s case comes down to power and potential, and it seems unlikely that he has shown enough of either to outweigh Gardner’s advantages on the bases, in the field, and in getting on-base. Melky’s 2008 season cracked the lenses of the rose-colored glasses that looked at his first two seasons and saw shades of fellow switch-hitting center fielder Bernie Williams’ early-career struggles. Bernie didn’t really start to come on until his age-25 season, which would give Cabrera another year, but it’s hard now look at the stocky, stumbling Cabrera and see any resemblance to the fawn-like awkwardness of the blossoming Bernie.

Hitting coach Kevin Long seems to believe that he can get Gardner to hit with doubles power by increasing the involvement of Gardner’s lower body in his swing. If Gardner shows any signs of proving Long right this spring, the job should be his. The catch is that, due to Cabrera’s pennant-race demotion last year, Melky is now out of options, meaning the Yankees would have to either keep him on the 25-man roster as a fifth outfielder (a platoon with Gardner wouldn’t work–Melky hit just .213/.279/.299 against lefties last year and has hit just .251/.319/.329 against southpaws in his major league career, while Gardner actually had a reverse split in Triple-A last year), or expose him to waivers in an attempt to outright him to Scranton. The latter would almost surely result in Cabrera being claimed by another team. The Yankees avoided arbitration by signing Cabrera to a $1.4 million contract last month, which would seem to strongly indicate that the Yankees have no intention of divesting themselves of Cabrera, but as a fifth-outfielder, Cabrera would be  a drain on the roster and would stand little chance of restarting his development. Then again, perhaps that $1.4 million price tag is just enough to prevent the sort of team that might make a claim on Cabrera from doing so. If Cabrera can’t win the center field job in camp, that may be a chance the Yankees have to take, particularly with Austin Jackson headed for Triple-A already having already unseated Cabrera as the team’s Center Fielder of the Future.

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