Diagnosing The Source Of Travis Hafner's Slump

Hafner vs OAK

(Syndicated from An A-Blog for A-Rod.  Stats have not been updated to reflect last night's game)

He's managed to fly under the radar for over a month because other players like Vernon Wells and Robinson Cano have been slumping big time too, but Travis Hafner is in a similar production freefall himself.  After last night's 0-fer, he's down to .231/.346/.463 on the season, which is still good for a .350 wOBA that ranks second on the team but a far cry from the high .300s-low .400s value he was holding through his hot start in April.  Hafner missed a handful of games in the middle of April due to a shoulder injury and since he's come back we haven't heard much about any physical problems, yet his production continues to plummet.  What's going on with Pronk that he's become just as much of a black hole in the middle of the lineup as everybody else?  Glad you asked.

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Travis Hafner's unexpected start to the season

Robinson Cano is the face of the Yankees. He leads the team in HR, RBI and AVG. He may be on his way to his best season yet. But, he's not the best rate hitter on the Yankees this season. That honor belongs to none other than Travis Hafner. Hafner has a higher wOBA than Cano's, .416 versus .410, driven by a substantially higher OBP, .402 versus .376. Cano is the more valuable player because he plays a premium position and gets more plate appearances than Hafner, but in any given plate appearance Hafner is the most productive Yankee. Can he keep it up?

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Hafner Showing Better Plate Coverage In 2013

“I was working on a bunch of things mechanically (in spring training),” Hafner said. “And then basically scrapped everything and really tried to simplify my swing to the point where there’s nothing going on. And I’ve had a lot of success with that. It feels really good and really simple. Hopefully I’ve found something that can be really good and consistent.”

Travis Hafner has been one of the hottest the Yankees thus far, and has carried the team to wins with a few early season home runs. We only have two weeks of data at this point, but Hafner has already been accused of being "rejuvenated" by pinstripes. I like to think this "rejuvenation" is the work of his hitting coach and months of preparation, rather than the symbol on his hat. The quote above tells us that the left-hander has done some work to his swing, and I was interested in seeing the difference between this year and last year.

hafner The GIF above shows a home run hit in 2012 and 2013. While the one in 2012 came on a two-handed follow through, and the one in 2013 was hit on a one-handed follow through, Hafner has not ditched the former. This season, the designated hitter has alternated between these  two approaches, and it looks like he chooses the two-handed approach on pitches up or in, while the one-handed approach comes on pitches that are low or away.

The biggest difference in his swing, is on contact with the pitch. In 2012 and 2013, Hafner begins in an open stance and on stride he brings his front foot parallel to the plate. But when unloading his hips, you'll see both his front and back feet pivot back to an open stance in 2012. In 2013, his feet do not pivot, and he remains in a square stance after the stride.

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Just one more day ...

Tonight, the 2013 Major League Baseball season begins, with the Texas Rangers playing the Houston Astros. The most beautiful thing about the baseball season is that it changes how I spend my leisure time. Nothing on TV tonight? They always play baseball. Can't think of something to do after work? Call a buddy and watch some baseball. Don't know how to spend time on a sunny afternoon? Upper deck tickets are cheap on Stub Hub and the 4 train moves fast. 162 games plus the playoffs means something to do, something to watch and something to talk about for half the year, and in terms of weather it's the better half of the year. After the gift of always having something entertaining to do, my second favorite thing about the baseball season is following story lines. Most Yankee fans are upset because the team enters 2013 in the weakest state that it has been in since 2008. Not only is the team not favored to win the AL East, but many believe the team will miss the playoffs. Win or lose, challenging seasons at least give fans like me more story lines to follow. When the Yankees put a juggernaut on the field and it demolishes its opponents every success was essentially scripted and only the failures make headlines. When the team is predicted to struggle, as it is this year, then new story lines will emerge, not only about failure but also about unexpected success. If the Yankees are going to make the playoffs they're going to need to get strong performances from a number of players who are not household names, especially while household names Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson are on the DL. Here are some of the story lines I'll be following during the first month of the season:

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Oh Hey, Travis Hafner! Didn't See You Over There. What's Going On, Buddy?

Hafner ST When two of the defining storylines of your team's Spring Training are "lack of power" and "injuries" and Travis Hafner is on your team, it's more than reasonable to expect that he's going to factor heavily into those stories.  After all, his calling card at the plate is power and you can pretty much set your watch to him pulling, tearing, or spraining something.  That hasn't really been the case for the Yankees so far this month, as Hafner hasn't been a presence in the lineup so much as a name on the lineup card.  To be honest, I kind of forgot he was even in camp with the team, what with the lack of power and the fact that he's still walking around without limping.

Believe it or not, Hafner is in camp and has actually been playing in games.  He just hasn't done much in those games.  Hafner is just 4-29 this spring, with a single solitary home run and an even dozen strikeouts.  He's still somewhat of a presence in the lineup with four walks, but after Teix and C-Grand went down he became a much more critical part of that lineup.  As of this morning he hasn't given much of an indication that he's ready to be that critical part of the lineup and that's a tad unsettling.

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What about Travis Hafner?

Over the past few seasons the Yankees have had incredible success with single season, aging platoon DHs. First it was Marcus Thames. After him it was Andruw Jones. Last year it was Raul Ibanez. Will it be Travis Hafner this season? At first glance you have to imagine that the only role Hafner will play in pinstripes is as a member of the DL. Despite his mass, Pronk is made of porcelain. The last time he played in more than 100 games was 2010, and then he managed just 118 games. Last season he had just 263 plate appearances in 66 games. Pronk is entering his age 36 season. Another injury seems inevitable.

While it is difficult to see past Hafner's lengthy injury history, the numbers he puts up when he stays healthy are still impressive. He managed a .342 wOBA last season, with a .346 OBP and a .438 SLG. In 2011 his wOBA was .354 and he managed to get into 94 games. Pronk has never been able to do anything but hit, but when he's healthy he still brings a solid bat to the ballpark.

In light of those numbers, it is clear why the Yankees signed Hafner. He's a low cost gamble. If he can stay healthy enough to get into 100 games, he figures to give the Yankees a .340-.350 wOBA bat against righties. In addition, he has upside for the Yankees. His left handed bat figures to play well at Yankee Stadium, potentially inflating his power numbers. All told, while it is still most likely that Hafner will suffer an injury and play in just 50 games, he remains an intriguing, somewhat overlooked addition to the offense.

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Piecing it Together: Part Three

In my last two pieces talked about building the lineup. To quickly test the potency of these lineups, I ran them through the lineup analysis tool from Baseball Musings. I used the PECOTA and ZiPS projections to get the players' OBP/SLG. Remember, though, these projected OBP/SLG numbers are NOT split adjusted. Here are the results: PECOTA vs RHP

This lineup projects to score 4.874 R/G, which translates to about 790 runs over the course of a 162 game season.

PECOTA vs LHP, Rivera

Using PECOTA and Juan Rivera as the, DH, the Yankees project to score 4.840 R/G, about 785 per 162 games.

PECOTA vs LHP, Diaz

Using Matt Diaz at DH, we get 4.805 R/G, which is about 779 runs over 162 games.

ZiPS vs RHP

ZiPS is a little more friendly to the Yankees, projecting 4.974 R/G. That would push the Yankees over the hump to about 806 runs per game.

ZiPS vs. LHP, Rivera

This gets us 4.887 R/G, about 792 for the season. Again, ZiPS is a little more friendly than PECOTA.

ZiPS vs. LHP, Diaz

Last but not least, we get 4.831 per game, 783 over the course of the season.

So these projections, which are NOT split adjusted, give us somewhere between 785-805 runs for the Yankees. Those are perfectly reasonable, but they do sell the Yankees short a bit. Both are probably a bit conservative and the fact that they're not split adjusted affects the output in the analysis tool. Certainly, e can expect certain players (Derek Jeter, Kevin Youkilis, Mark Teixeira, Juan Rivera, and Matt Diaz) to hit better against lefties than their overall projections while we can expect others (Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano, and Travis Hafner) to do the same against righties. The Yankee offense has never been flawless, but this season, there do seem to be a few more flaws than there have been in the past. Remember, though, offense has been down in the last few years. Despite the fairly conservative projections, the Yankees have a chance to be a top offensive club, as they always do.

Piecing it Together: Part Two

You'll remember that last week, I mused about the possible lineup construction for the 2013 squad. Let's revisit the idea of the lineup one more time, with something else in mind. If you've read this site, then you're probably familiar with the Replacement Level Yankee Blog and its CAIRO Projections. The last iteration of them came out on January 28th. What's nice about the CAIRO splits is that they also include platoon breakdowns; each player has his normal projections and his split projections in the form of wOBA vs. LHP and RHP. Let's take a look at the lineups I presented in my previous post and see what each guy is projected to do. We'll start against lefties for a bit of a switch. The number next to each player is the projected wOBA:

1. Jeter, SS: .354 2. Youkilis, 3B: .367 3. Teixeira, 1B: .362 4. Cano, 2B: .356 5. Diaz, DH: .321; Rivera, DH: .324 6. Granderson, CF: .305 7. Cervelli, C: .310 8. Ichiro, RF: .323 9. Gardner, LF: .309

The only disappointing things are the relatively low wOBAs for Diaz and Rivera. They're both in camp to hope to become the team's Major League lefty mashers, so we'd hope for something a little higher than wOBA's in the low-to-mid .320's. Brett Gardner might need a platoon partner in left, but seeing Ichiro projected for a wOBA that "high" is encouraging. CAIRO also seems to predict a platoon partner for Curtis Granderson, though he's been better against lefties of late (and we know Joe Girardi won't platoon Granderson...at least not right away). Let's jump to righties and see what we come up with.

1. Gardner, LF: .332 2. Jeter, SS: .322 3. Teixeira, 1B: .346 4. Cano, 2B: .392 5. Granderson, CF: .361 6. Youkilis, 3B: .341 7. Hafner, DH: .362 8. Cervelli, C: .292 9. Ichiro, RF: .331

This lineup is a bit more well rounded and a bit more solid. There's just one wOBA under .320 and it belongs--predictably--to Francisco Cervelli. For posterity's sake, Chris Stewart's projected wOBA against RHP is .283 (.303 vs. LHP). My eyes definitely lit up thinking about Cano having a .392 wOBA against righties (for the record, he did .461 against righties).

Remember, projections aren't predictions, but logical inferences as to what each player can do. If the CAIRO projections I've put forward here are indicative of anything, it's that they might be a bit on the conservative side. However, they show us that the Yankees should still have a pretty solid offense. It may not necessarily be the complete and total package that we're used to, but it should still pound out some quality runs. How many could it do? We'll check in on that on Thursday.

Who Really Needs A Platoon Partner In 2013?

(The following is being syndicated from An A-Blog for A-Rod)

"Platoon" is a word that's slowly worked its way into the collection of words typically associated with the Yankee lineup over the past few seasons, right next to "patience" and "power."  Older veterans on the downside of their careers who are drawn to New York to chase a ring, lack of impact bats coming up from the farm system, and the newly implemented payroll restrictions have all combined to make the Yankee lineup a safe haven for the still productive but no longer well-rounded hitter.  This season, the reliance on platoons will play an even bigger role in the everyday lineup as the Yankees have their fair share of guys who only excel against one category of handed pitchers, guys like Ichiro, Hafner, Gardner, and Youkilis.  Joe has shown before that he's not afraid to mix and match and play with the lineup, but how necessary is it for every one of those players to be platooned?  Does the Yankee lineup really need to be turned into Version R and Version L?  Let's take a look.

Ichiro Suzuki- LHH

Career vs. LHP- .331/.370/.420, .345 wOBA, 5.4% BB, 8.7% K

2012 vs. LHP- .284/.291/.358, .282 wOBA, 1.3% BB, 6.8% K

2011 vs. LHP- .281/.325/.383, .290 wOBA, 6.3% BB, 9.2% K

2010 vs. LHP- .309/.340/.343, .308 wOBA, 3.7% BB, 9.9% K

Ichiro is a tough case based on his strong career split against left-handed pitching.  When you're as great a hitter as he was, the hand the pitcher's throwing with probably doesn't matter, and Ichiro's career tripleslash and wOBA against southpaws are actually better than against righties.  But Ichiro's heyday is long gone and the last 3 years are proof.  His batting average against lefties is perfectly fine, but his lack of on base skills is a huge problem.  It would be one thing if Ichiro was hitting for power against lefties, but he's not.  In the last 3 seasons he has just 25 XBH against LHP, just 3 of them HR, so he's not a run producer.  And by not getting on base at a good clip, his speed is significantly lessened as an offensive weapon.  Joe can get away with using him against lefties every now and then, but based on his recent production drop off and his age, I would say Ichiro should be platooned almost all the time.

Brett Gardner- LHH

Career vs. LHP- .256/.362/.335, .320 wOBA, 12.7% BB, 17.2% K

2011 vs. LHP- .233/.344/.272, .291 wOBA, 12.9% BB, 12.1% K

2010 vs. LHP- .252/.373/.353, .333 wOBA, 14.6% BB, 19.9% K

Gardner doesn't have the largest sample size to work from (just 395 career PA vs. LHP), and his 2012 season was basically a wash, but he does offer plus on-base ability because of his strong pitch recognition, count working, and contact skills.  Gardner is never going to hit for much power, against righties or lefties, but his career BB rate against southpaws is better than against righties.  Even in a SSS, that indicates that he sees the ball pretty well coming out of lefties' hands and his career .320 wOBA against LHP isn't that far off from his .328 against right-handers.  At the respective stages of their careers, Gardner is faster than Ichiro, which makes him more valuable as a baserunner and outfielder, and gets himself on base at a much better clip against lefties than Ichiro.  He can get a day off here and there and Ichiro can play for him, but I think Gardner should be playing every day as long as he's healthy.

Kevin Youkilis- RHH

Career vs. RHP- .277/.371/.471, .368 wOBA, 10.8% BB, 18.4% K

2012 vs. RHP- .220/.316/.377, .309 wOBA, 8.0% BB, 23.1% K

2011 vs. RHP- .234/.349/.415, .341 wOBA, 12.1% BB, 17.7% K

2010 vs. RHP- .275/.376/.487, .378 wOBA, 12.1% BB, 15.8% K

Like Ichiro, Youkilis is a former elite hitter whose recent production against same-side pitchers doesn't come close to matching his career numbers.  You can pretty much pinpoint 2010, when Youkilis started to get banged up and only played 102 games, as the time when his ability to hit right-handed pitching started to go south.  Based on his age and last year's performance, there's not much reason to expect a major turnaround from Youkilis this season.  But if any team's style can help resurrect Youkilis' career, it's the Yankees, and Kevin Long has already started to tinker with Youkilis' swing mechanics to speed his bat up.  There's also the issue of the Yankees not having a good lefty infield bat available as a platoon option.  Joe needs to monitor Youkilis' health and give him some days off even while A-Rod is on the shelf early, but Youkilis needs to be in the lineup every day.

Travis Hafner- LHH

Careers vs. LHP- .257/.359/.445, .352 wOBA, 11.3% BB, 22.4% K

2012 vs. LHP**- .197/.306/.443, .324 wOBA, 11.1% BB, 23.6% K

2011 vs. LHP- .233/.259/.379, .279 wOBA, 1.9% BB, 22.2% K

2010 vs. LHP- .273/.342/.364, .319 wOBA, 6.3% BB, 21.6% K

The 2012 asterisk was for another SSS warning, but looking at Pronk's splits going back the previous 2 years you'll see that his sample size against lefties was never that big.  Hafner's career numbers against lefties show a guy who could hold his own on the strength of his walks and longball threat, but those days are long gone now that he's mid-30s and banged up all the time.  Hafner's increasing K rate and wildly inconsistent BB rate over the last 3 seasons tells me he's a hitter who struggles to get comfortable against LHP and is losing some of his hitting skills.  There's no point in trying to get Hafner more work against southpaws now, as that would only serve to minimize his overall output potential.  And production aside, it's definitely for the best to keep him off the field as much as possible to try to keep him as healthy and available to mash righties as much as possible.  Hafner is a no-doubt platoon candidate and should only be used against a LHP if he's the last available bat in a game and has to pinch hit for somebody who just got hurt.

Would it be nice to have 4 solid hitters on the bench who could sub in for these guys when the pitching matchup called for it?  Sure.  Is it absolutely necessary?  I don't think so.  Gardner does just enough to be valuable offensively against LHP, and Youkilis should at least be given the chance to work out his new mechanics to see if it brings some of his righty-hitting ability back.  Ichiro doesn't bring much to the table, nor does Hafner, but the 2013 Yankee lineup shouldn't be a complete revolving door of platoon bats.

Piecing it Together

For most of the offseason, I’ve lamented the losses of two key batters: Nick Swisher and Russell Martin. By no means are those players superstars, but they were perfect fits for the Yankee offense. Both Swisher ad Martin provided power and patience, cornerstones of the team’s offense for the last two decades. In their places, the Yankees will have players not known for their power or patience. Ichiro Suzuki and a combination of Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli (at least to start the year) will man right field and catcher. While Ichiro may have something left at the plate, the catching duo will hardly strike fear into the hearts and minds of opposing pitching staffs. Their inclusion is, overall, representative of a potential loss of offense for the Yankees. This isn’t to say that neither of the three has no redeeming offensive qualities. Ichiro can still make a bit of contact and Cervelli can draw the occasional walk. Both will have places in the Yankee lineup, probably towards the bottom of the lineup. That lineup may be a bit harder to construct this season.

Cerevlli will be easy to place; he’ll always be at the bottom of the lineup, most likely in the eighth or ninth spot, and the same goes for Chris Stewart. Ichiro will be a bit harder to slot in. When he came to the team in July of last year, he started at the bottom of the lineup, but a hot streak propelled him to a higher spot by the season’s end. Will that memory and his “name value” keep him at the top or will his age and skill set keep him at the bottom?

Ichiro and the catchers are not the only players that will provide a placement challenge to manager Joe Girardi. Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner, two new acquisitions, can help replicate the patience and power vacated by Swisher and martin. Though their skills are tangible and obvious, age and injury have obfuscated those skills. Ideally, Youkilis would be a two hitter–or a leadoff guy in a pinch–and Hafner would be a three, four, or five hitter. But with both players on the downside of their careers in terms of performance and health, their places in the lineup are unclear. Adding to the possible confusion, of course, are the myriad talented players that the team already employs. Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Brett Gardner, and the aforementioned Ichiro are all players that could hit in the potential spots for Youkilis and Hafner (and that’s not including Alex Rodriguez, who’ll presumably be back midseason). And even those players have questions attached to them.

The newly candid Teixeira is not what he once was (by his own admission). Jeter is coming off injury, as is Brett Gardner, whose injury was more severe and costly. Granderson had a rocky second half and playoff stretch. Only Cano seems like a good bet to maintain his offensive status (elite!). Departures, new arrivals, and remaining questions will combine into a lineup that will probably be pretty solid, regardless of our anxieties. The big picture will probably look pretty good at season’s end. On the macro level, lineup construction may not be wholly impactful. On the micro level, the game-to-game level, it does matter. Over the course of the season, the minute run changes that occur in-game won’t matter much, if at all. They will matter, though, in those game situations. What will those lineups look like? What should those lineups look like? We all have different interpretations of that second question and its answer could make up dozens of articles. In light of that, let’s go on our (assumed) knowledge of two things and make a lineup:

1. Derek Jeter will be at the top (one or two) of the lineup 2. Joe Girardi (generally) dislikes stacking lefties.

Given those conditions, let’s try to construct two lineups, one vs. RHP and one vs. LHP.

Vs. RHP Vs. LHP 1. Gardner, LF Jeter, SS 2. Jeter, SS Youkilis, 3B 3. Teixeira, 1B Teixeira, 1B 4. Cano, 2B Cano, 2B 5. Granderson, CF DH (Matt Diaz? Juan Rivera?) 6. Youkilis, 3B Granderson, CF 7. Hafner, DH Cervelli, C 8. Cervelli, C Ichiro, RF 9. Ichiro, RF Gadner, LF

Both lineups highlight something we may have overlooked regarding Nick Swisher’s departure. While his hitting skills would allow him to hit anywhere from one-six in the lineup, it’s conceivable that his switch hitting status is what made him such a great fit. With just one switch hitter in the lineup, the Yankees will likely need to stack lefty batters together more often than they’d like, including in my proposed lineups: 4-5 and 9-1 vs. RHP and 8-9 vs. LHP. Despite that, those lineups seem likely and are definitely justifiable.

Gardner in front of Jeter against RHP allows the former to get on base and (hopefully) use his legs to get into scoring position for Jeter and his opposite field approach. We could swap Tex and Cano in this lineup, which would eliminate one stack of lefties. This move could also give Cano, the team’s best hitter, a handful more plate appearances over the course of the season. That’s tempting, and I probably wouldn't argue against it. However, it might be more beneficial to have Cano bat behind someone like Tex who has great on-base skills.

Against lefties, the top three hitters all do their best work and most damage when facing said southpaws. The Tex/Cano swap could also work here. For our purposes, that decision may be a matter of preference: Do we (theoretically) more men on base in front of Cano or do we subscribe to the “newer” theory of lineup construction that says put your low OBP sluggers (sounds a lot like Robbie, no?) in the third spot? The Yankees have long been MLB’s top offensive club. That may not be true in 2013, but perhaps our apprehension is a bit overstated. The Yankee lineup, though different, should still be plenty productive.