The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

 

A Recipe for Getting Berned

Told ya I'd be back soon. The other day I broke radio silence with a quick BP Unfiltered post on Bernie Williams, commenting on his sad puppy-dog act as he declined the Yankees' offer of a minor-league contract:
So Bernie Williams has undertaken his version of Operation Shutdown, refusing the Yankees‘ admittedly half-assed offer of a minor-league contract for a player who — no matter his long list of accomplishments or central place in building their recent dynasty — has no business being on their 2007 roster. Instead Williams plans to continue spurning guaranteed offers from other teams and wait for the Yankees to change their minds and offer him a guaranteed roster spot. In other words, he’s painting himself into a corner roughly the size of the spot on the Venn diagram where the keen strategy of a four-year-old’s hold-breath-until-blue temper tantrum meets a paraphrased Yogi Berra chestnut: if he doesn’t want to come to spring training, nobody’s going to stop him.

Even for a Yankee fan who enjoyed Bernie’s best years, I’m finding it harder to sympathize amid this sad final act than I usually do for a favored player whose career is clearly behind him. Williams’ combined offensive and defensive production has been inadequate for the past four years, and while the Yankees covered for him until 2005, they paid a price (count da rings… hmmm, that would be zero) for their latter-day delusions. As Williams’ talents have faded, he’s done little in the way of acquiring skills that might have allowed him to hang on in a reduced capacity, say by learning first base — a position the Yanks have struggled to fill during the period of his decline — or adapting to the admittedly difficult world of pinch-hitting. Bernie’s stats there, according to the fabulous new splits feature at Baseball-Reference.com show him at .205/.360/.282 in the pinch for his career, with about 2/3 of that experience coming in the last two years. Furthermore, Williams’ PECOTA projection (.258/.320/.388, for an MLVr of -.114) has fallen well below that of the man taking his fourth-outfielder job with the Yanks, Melky Cabrera (.282/.341/.408 , -.033). And that’s without even mentioning the defense and a throwing arm only slightly stronger than your average Thanksgiving turkey — on the plate.
The rest of the post is about Bernie's Hall of Fame chances per JAWS (not quite there on the numbers, but likely with the peripherals -- Fielding Grammies, Series rings and other things), but for the moment I wanted to address to my colleague Joe Sheehan's advocacy of a roster spot for Ol' 51. I've probably strained my neck muscles agreeing with Sheehan so often on a wide variety of topics, particularly regarding the Yankees, but I think he's off base this time.

The thrust of the piece is better a roster spot for Bernie than a 12th pitcher, and while I agree with it conceptually -- no 12th pitcher, please, ever -- the Yankees can still do better than a lefty-masher with little power, versatility or aptitude to a bench role than Williams. There are younger lefty-mashers out there with more sock and skill sets better suited to the task at hand; as Steve Goldman writes regarding the Yanks' related first base situation, where Andy Phillips, Doug StinkyMinky and Josh Phelps are all imperfect solutions:
You know the old baseball saying about the ubiquity of defense-only players, how you can shake a tree and have a million gloves fall out? It's wrong. The minor leagues don't mint defenders with anywhere near the consistency that they stamp out right-handed first-base types whose main skill is that they can stomp left-handed pitchers. They breed like rabbits. You don't have to shake a tree — you can find them lying around on the ground.

Think about it this way: last year, the complete group of major league right-handed hitters averaged .275/.346/.442 against lefty pitchers, with a home run once every 30 at bats. Josh Phelps, who no one thinks of as a particularly great hitter, has a career record of .292/.357/.500 against lefties, with a home run every 19 at-bats. Lance Niekro, a miserable hitter despite good baseball bloodlines, is a career .296/.330/.574 hitter against lefties with a home run once every 17 at-bats.
In other words, Williams' one remaining skill, hitting lefthanded pitching, just isn't all that special, at least at the level he's able to manage. Don't tell me that his .323/387/.549 versus southpaws in 150 PA last year is any more valid than the .231/.305/.286 he hit in 203 PA against them the year before, or the previous two years of adequate but unremarkable production from that side which preceded it. They're all small sample sizes, and one shouldn't let sentimentality dictate the reading of them as anything but. The total against lefties in those four years, in a much more valid, season-sized sample of 713 PA, is .271/.369/.421, which is the kind of basically average production that necessitated Williams' early entry into the shuffleboard market in the first place.

Furthermore, Sheehan's piece rests on the fallacy that the starting outfield of Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu, though they may be "wired, in most years, to play virtually every day," (his words) will in fact be such. Just look at last year. If it can be said that "shit happens," the lesson of the 2006 Yankees is that it certainly goes double for outfielders over 30 (even green-lighted ones or guys with an impressive consecutive-game streak). Bernie Williams circa 2007 is in no way able to take up the Melky Cabrera fourth-outfielder role should the Melkman be pressed into starting for two weeks or two months. The Yanks require able-bodied contributors off the bench, not charity cases who can't carry their roster spaces no matter how championship-infused they may be. Sheehan's suggestion that there's any roster configuration that could justify Cabrera summering in Triple-A Scranton is so dubious I'm not even sure I can bother to break it down except via a non-sequitur citation of a Tony Soprano quotation: "It's like Scranton with clams." In other words, "No, thanks."

Sheehan also dismisses the good works of reliever Brian Bruney (25 K in 20.2 innings as a Yank, with an 0.87 ERA -- and yes that's a small sample, but it may well represent the kind of nonlinear leap forward that young pitchers often make) relative to legitimate 12th man fodder like T.J. Beam. While it's true that Torre favors a top-heavy bullpen where he overworks the principals and neglects those on the margins, the presence of Kyle Farnsworth, Scott Proctor, Luis Vizcaino, Chris Britton and Bruney in front of St. Mo, with Mike Myers or the re-upped Ron Villone regrettably along for the ride, gives the Yanks a legitimate surplus of live arms (that's eight there, making for a 13-man staff) in an area where they've been thin in the past. Brian Cashman has gone out of his way this winter to give Joe Torre a bigger pool to draw from by netting Britton in the Jaret Wright dump and Vizcaino in the Big Eunich trade. If Torre's bullpen crashes and burns, it's on him, not on the GM, and if you think all of those pitchers are going to be healthy at once, you obviously haven't been paying attention to Yankee pitching in recent years. Or maybe you gone gooey thinking about those good times we had with Wayne Franklin and C.J. Nitkowski. You can have too many pitchers on a roster at a given point in time, but You Can't Have Too Much Pitching, Ever. Because if "shit happens" goes double for outfielders over 30, it goes exponentially for pitchers.

Anyway, despite his own efforts, I think Joe's still falling into the trap of using his heart more than his head on this one. The baseball reasons he cites for keeping Williams around just aren't very convincing, and the bottom line is that there's just too much sentimentality governing this particular sentiment.

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