Baseball BeatJuly 06, 2004
Yankee Doodlin'
By Rich Lederer

Over the Fourth of July weekend, I thought it would be appropriate to profile the team with the best record in baseball at the halfway point in the season.

  • Jason Giambi (1B), Derek Jeter (SS), and Alex Rodriguez (3B) were named to the American League All-Star starting lineup on Sunday. These Yankees comprise three-quarters of the A.L. infield. The fourth? None other than former Yankee Alfonso Soriano, who led all players in votes.

    Outfielder Gary Sheffield and relief pitchers Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera were added to the team. If someone had told me before the season started that the Yankees were going to have six players on the All-Star squad--including two pitchers--and not one would be Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown, or Mike Mussina, I would not have believed them.

  • What has been the key to the Yankees success thus far? How about this little-quoted stat? New York and its opponents have each struck out 488 times thus far. However, the Yankees have walked 360 times vs. just 205 for the opposition. The Bronx Bombers have five players--Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui, Rodriguez, Sheffield, and Bernie Williams--who project to 80+ BB plus Giambi (who is running slightly behind owing to injuries), while only three pitchers--Jose Contreras, Tanyon Sturtze, and Brad Halsey--have allowed at least half a walk per inning. Contreras is the only pitcher among the trio with a meaningful number of innings.

    Jon Lieber has been the stingiest pitcher of all with only six BB in 76 IP (or about one walk per every 13 innings). Babe Adams, Christy Mathewson (twice), Bret Saberhagen, and Cy Young are the only hurlers since 1900 with a better ratio than Lieber among pitchers with 154 or more innings pitched (which is the number that Lieber is currently projected to throw this year). Saberhagen (1994), Bob Tewksbury (1992 and 1993) and Greg Maddux (1997) are the only pitchers in the top 15 since 1933.

    The Bronx Bombers also lead the A.L. in HR with 123. The pitching staff hasn't fared quite as well in this department, ranking sixth in the league with 94. Ranking first in three of the four Rob Neyer's Beane Count stats is usually a good recipe for success, and the Yankees have demonstrated just that with the best winning percentage (.638) in the major leagues.

  • The Yankees' biggest perceived weakness is second base. Although it would be hard to pass up a Bret Boone for the second half of the season, Miguel Cairo has actually been one of the biggest surprises thus far. Cairo's stats (.310/.365/.462) compare favorably to Boone's (.232/.299/.389) even if one adjusts them for ballpark effect. Boone would add HR power to the lineup and some might think a better glove but it should be pointed out that his range factor (4.27) and zone rating (.743) this year are the lowest of his career. By comparison, Cairo's range factor is 5.38 and his zone rating is .748.

  • Earlier this season, Williams became the third Yankee center fielder to accumulate 2000 hits and 250 home runs for his career. In addition to Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, the other CF in baseball history to post that rare double are Willie Mays, Vada Pinson, Ken Griffey Jr., Duke Snider, Dale Murphy, and Ellis Burks. If Williams can prolong his career and reach 2500 and 300, he would join Mays (and possibly Griffey) as the only CF in that exclusive club. Throw in a batting title, four Gold Gloves, and four World Championships and you have a player who would be difficult to keep out of the Hall of Fame.

  • Rodriguez has stolen 18 bases this year and has been caught just two times. He now has 195 SB for his career with a highly successful stolen base rate of 80%. A-Rod is on pace to hit 41 homers and steal 36 bases. If the All-Star 3B were to reach the 40-40 mark, he would become the first player to do so twice. Jose Canseco (1988) and Barry Bonds (1996) are the only other players to put up a 40-40 season in major league history. Another 40 HR season would also give Alex the Great seven in a row, tying him with Babe Ruth for the most consecutive years of 40 or more homers.

  • What can Jeter do to please his detractors? He makes an outstanding catch a week ago and gets tagged with the label of perhaps owning the two most overrated defensive plays of all time. The guy can't win for losing. How many fans thought he was done when he was hitting .161 with no homers on April 28? Well, since then, Jetes is hitting .316 with 13 HR and is on pace to hit a career-high 26 dingers.

    The Jeter haters will most assuredly point to his defense as a continued flaw even though his range factor (4.75) and zone rating (.860) are a career best, and he is turning two at a personal high rate. In addition, the Yankee captain's fielding percentage is currently his second-highest ever. Better range, more double plays, and fewer errors mixed in with a great play here and there adds up to a possible Gold Glove for the man who always seems to be #2. If you think I've lost my mind, let me point out that no shortstop in baseball has a higher range factor, zone rating, and fielding percentage than Jeter this year. Rich Aurilia, David Eckstein, Pokey Reese, and Jose Valentin rank higher in two of these three areas among A.L. SS but only Aurilia has played in more than 60 games at short thus far.

    Isn't the purpose of sabermetrics one of objectivity? When it comes to Jeter's defense this year, it is only fair we rid ourselves of the biases and let the facts speak for themselves.

  • Comments

    When looking at range factor, you must also consider ground ball:fly ball tendencies of the pitching staff.

    The Mariners pitching staff is one of the most flyball oriented in baseball, if not the most. That means that infielders will get fewer opportunities, causing their range factor to decrease.

    For 2003 I estimated that the Mariners starting pitchers received the benefit of 40 more double plays than expected, given the total number of available double play opportunities and gb/fb characteristics of the Mariners staff.

    For details, see these links:

    40 extra DPs is a huge amount of additional defensive support, and some of that should be credited to having an infield comparised of Guillen/Sanchez, Boone, and Olerud.

    You won't get any disagreement from me, Steve. Although range factor doesn't take into account the groundball:flyball tendencies of the pitching staff, zone rating takes care of that.

    Jeter's range factor AND zone rating are both up this year. Boone's RF and ZR are both down.

    Aurilia's defensive metrics are actually pretty good this year so I don't think Boone's drop can be solely attributable to the type of pitchers the Mariners had in 2003 and 2004.

    Rich - I agree that Boone's defense is down. He looks to be at least a half-step slower than in previous years. The question is whether it's real, or just the malaise around the 2004 Mariners.

    The point of my post, which I didn't really say, was that turning the double play is a very important skill in an infield, and that is not caught in Zone rating. And the data from 2003 suggest that Boone was part of a pretty phenomenal infield at turning double plays.