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.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

 

Big Lugs and Small Sample Sizes

Watching Tuesday night's Yankees-White Sox game in an attempt to keep my mind off the Pennyslvania Democractic primary results, I saw Jason Giambi homer to left field in the second inning. Giambi came into the game hitting .109/.288/.283 in 46 at-bats, and more ominously, just .174/.323/.366 in 213 at-bats going back to last May 1. In the wake of Frank Thomas' unceremonious release from the Blue Jays, Steven Goldman floated the idea in today's New York Sun that it may be time for the Yankees to cut ties with the 37-year-old 1B/DH, who's in the final year of his seven-year, $120 million deal. The Blue Jays cut Thomas while owing him $8 million, but Giambi's contract is an even bigger pill to swallow; he's owed $21 million for this year plus a $5 million buyout for next year.

I'm not buying it, at least not just yet. It's unlikely the Yanks can find a trade partner to take Giambi off their hands even if they pay virtually every red cent of his deal AND convince Giambi to waive his no-trade clause. His results last year were skewed by the plantar fascitis woes which cost him two months and limited his availability; thus far this season there's no reason to believe he's in anything but a slump, as opposed to dealing with yet another injury. The Yanks aren't so desperate for a roster spot that it makes sense to cut him just for the sake of cutting him. Now, if Jorge Posada were to get to the point where he could hit but couldn't catch, I could understand, because his bat has far more life in it than does Giambi's. But Posada is back behind the plate tonight, so his arrow is at least momentarily moving in the other direction.

There may be something to the fact that Giambi homered to left; on the YES telecast, Michael Kay and Paul O'Neill spent a bit of time talking about his work with Yankee hitting coach Kevin Long and how he needed to return to going the other way. It's no secret that since coming to the Yankees, and particularly since 2003, Giambi has gotten away from his ability to hit to the opposite field; that's what the infield shift and his declining batting averages are all about. According to the data at Baseball-Reference.com's Play Index, the percentage of Giambi's homers that go to left field or left center is less than half of what it was during his Oakland heyday:
            LHR   Tot   Pct
Career 46 367 12.5

Oak (95-00) 28 187 15.0
NYY (01-08) 18 180 10.0

2001-2003 13 94 13.9
Since 2004 5 86 5.8
Obviously, the asymmetry of Yankee Stadium and the way it favors lefties (318-399-408-385-314) has something to do with that change; by comparison, the Oakland Coliseum was a more symmetrical 330-362-400-362-330. But as the last breakdown shows, this is something that's gotten more pronounced during his Yankee tenure, suggesting that it's more a function of choice or habit to focus on puling the ball to right field, than anything else. If he can't break out of that cycle -- and it's not just homers; O'Neill was incredulous that Giambi doesn't just take his pokes to the left side of the infield -- his career will continue its downward spiral. For the sake of the 2008 Yankees, here's hoping tonight's homer plants the seed for what he needs to do.

Update: good stuff at Replacement Level Yankees Blog on Giambi's lousy batting average on balls in play.

• • •

Regarding Thomas, Joe Sheehan appropriately savaged the move over at Baseball Prospectus:
So, as you read the coverage of the Jays’ decision to release Thomas yesterday, on the heels of their decision last week to reduce his playing time, remember that the “slow start” being cited as justification isn’t a slow start at all. It’s a slump that lasted all of 10 games, beginning April 9 against the A’s. Thomas was hitting .240/.296/.640 a week into the 2008 season, which is the kind of awkward line you get when you have 27 plate appearances, but it's nonetheless productive. In the subsequent nine games, Thomas was awful: 4-for-35 with no extra-base hits and 10 walks.

There were any number of ways the Blue Jays could have handled this. They could have given Thomas a day or two off, diddled with his spot in the lineup, put him into a platoon with Matt Stairs for a week or two, kept everything quiet and private. No, the Blue Jays had to turn it into a project, telling Thomas that he would be playing less, which invited Thomas to question their motivations. After all, Thomas is a bit more than 300 plate appearances shy of vesting his 2010 option for $10 million, and has already lost one contract to the invocation of a “diminished skills” clause. He would, justifiably, see this as an attempt to take money out of his pocket rather than a baseball decision.

Whether motivated by baseball or money, the Jays released their DH and #5 hitter based on a 10-game slump. Thomas was unquestionably awful over the last two weeks. If only there were evidence of him emerging from similar early-season stretches to be productive over the course of a season. It’s not like he hit .097/.243/.129 in a stretch of 37 PA last April, then went on to hit .285/.382/.500 afterwards. No, wait, that happened. Of course, that’s another small sample size. It’d be something else if, in 72 PA, he hit .154/.236/.323. That would be meaningful. He could never come back from that and hit .289/.403/.575 the rest of the way. What? He did that in 2006? Boy, I don’t know. Keep reading things like this, and you’d think that stretches of ineffectiveness weren’t all that meaningful when put up against Thomas’ career. But that would mean the Blue Jays had made a bad baseball decision, and that doesn’t seem…. No, wait.

It would be one thing if the Blue Jays were so larded with talent that they had to create space for it, and this was the only way to do so. On Saturday, the Blue Jays DH’d Matt Stairs, batted Rod Barajas sixth, and played Joe Inglett in left field. On Sunday, their DH was Barajas, who batted fifth; their left fielder was Marco Scutaro. I give you Jays’ GM J.P. Ricciardi:
I don't know that we have the luxury of waiting two to three months for somebody to kick in because we can't let this league or this division get away from us.
Really, now. Well, let me help you along with that, J.P. Rod Barajas is 32 and has a career OBP of .288. I seriously doubt it’s all going to “kick in” for him. Marco Scutaro is 32 and a utility infielder. Not playing him in left field is one good idea if you want to help your club's offense. Joe Inglett is 30 and might be a serviceable replacement for Scutaro, but is also not suitable for the outfield. These are all the guys who Frank Thomas is too done to play ahead of, based on 10 bad games.
Did I say savaged? There are days I read Joe as a fan rather than a colleague; like editor Christina Kahrl, I eagerly awaited seeing pounce on this petty little decision. Like a lion eating a rabbit (a particularly clueless one so as to better resemble the Toronto GM) -- "disembowled" would have been more appropriate. "Eviscerated" maybe. Classic Sheehan stuff.

• • •

Meanwhile, out in Milwaukee, there's been much made of Prince Fielder's decision to go vegetarian, not in an effort to slim down his bulky 260+ pound frame but for ethical reasons. Fielder started the season in a slump, and came into last Thursday's game hitting .224/.350/.286, without a single homer; he bashed 50 last year. By that point, even Brewers fans were begging Prince to go back to carnivory, and the national media was making a fuss. Luckily, Brewers' beat reporter Anthony Widtrado showed a good grasp of the situation with his piece the day before:
The national media, ESPN in particular, has been all over the topic of Prince Fielder not having any home runs in 45 at-bats. Oof course, people are blaming his vegetarian diet because it's an easy topic of conversation and makes Prince an easy target after his 50-HR season.

PTI and Around the Horn both had Fielder as subjects, and it amazes me that some people are still thinking that his diet is a way to lose weight and that it is contributing to his lack of home runs. I'm sure the Cardinals don't feel that way since they completely pitched around the slugger last night.

...Prince is struggling. Period. He isn't driving the ball because he is not squaring it up on the meat of the bat with any consistency. He's proven to be a good, patient hitter. His groove will probably come. The guy hit the ball 8 miles last season, so a drop in power won't mean he can't hit the ball over the fence. It'll just mean that instead of hitting balls off the scoreboard, he'll hit them into the bullpen.

Maybe, if there is a drop in power, and I'm not saying there is because I don't think that's the case, it would affect the balls that get to the warning track. But in reality, how many home runs of Prince's do we remember scraping the back of the wall? Not many.

He plays for a professional baseball franchise, and that franchise has enough money to hire qualified nutritionists to help Prince and all the players with what their bodies need to perform.
Fielder did homer last Thursday, just in time for me to note it in the Hit List, and he's now up to .250/.386/.368. His diet will continue to draw more scrutiny than merited, and he may not top last year's monster season, but we should at least wait for a larger sample size before trying to connect the dots between his lack of cheeseburgers and his lack of homers.

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