Weekly Mailbag: The Fate of the Replacements, Hicks, Garcia, and Stats!

mailbag.jpg

The questions were really great this week, everyone, and I’m sorry that I can’t get to all of them. Know that I’m keeping some of the questions that have not been answered in the hopper for future mailbags, if the questions remain relevant. Without further ado, let’s get at it:

Gregory asks: What if, and I realize that this is highly unlikely (I hope), the Yankees team reaches the playoffs and goes deep as the team is presently constituted? What happens to the “superstars left at the starting gate (IL) for next season? Trades? Do the projected starters become second stringers?

This question gets to the root of what we're talking about when we reference "small sample size." The 2019 Yankees have been fun to watch because they're winning, as expected, but not in the way we expected heading into the season. Very few MLB teams have the kind of depth that it would take to sustain the massive number of injuries that have struck the Yankees this season. Yet, the Yankees have seen low-cost imports and AAA prospects (both lauded and unheralded) keep them near the top of the AL East. Gregory's question though is what happens if the "replacements" keep up this level of play and parlay that into a deep playoff run. Sadly, I think we're getting ahead of ourselves a bit.

Kendrys Morales, Cameron Maybin, Mike Tauchman, and Nestor Cortes Jr. are not players that will be capable of keeping up this level of performance over the long haul. Cortes Jr. is a warm body to soak up innings, Maybin is a faded role player having a few hot weeks, and Morales is someone the Yankees are hoping can catch lightning in a bottle for a few weeks until the big bats return. Tauchman is a slightly different case, as I think he plays good enough defense with enough pop in his bat to be a serviceable 4th outfielder. These are all guys who have provided some level of value in the short-term, but cannot be counted on to perform over a long period of time.

The case is not the same, however, for some more notable names. Domingo German and Clint Frazier have impressed during their extended opportunities. Unfortunately, both have long medical histories that indicate that the Yankees will need to manage their playing time appropriately, but the talent is obvious. Both players, if healthy, have carved out a long-term role with the team.

Gio Urshela, who I wrote about more extensively on Monday, is a player who might have staying power. The defense, based on the eye test, is at least above-average, and I think that there is a non-zero chance that the bat can be at least average moving forward. That combination is an everyday MLB 3B. Andujar's surgery to repair a torn labrum takes all certainty out of his future, and as long as Urshela keeps producing above-average results, I believe that he will be part of the MLB roster next season. The roster has a way of working itself out, and the Yankees can re-assess when Andujar is healthy again.

As for some of the other promising young prospects that have shown flashes thus far, I think that Thairo Estrada, Mike Ford, and Jonathan Loaisiga can play at the big league level. I'm not sure Ford will ever get a longer look, given that he was just passed over in favor of Morales. Estrada and Loaisiga have impressed in limited samples. The Yankees may need to change Loaisiga's role to keep him healthy, and Estrada could be one of the best utility men in the sport if the Yankees find room for him on a "healthy" roster.

In general though, while there are some exciting young players part of the replacement mix, I would not expect this team to play .600 ball the rest of the way, particularly as the quality of the Yankees' opponents increases. The Yankees are getting healthy at just the right time; over time, talent shows, and few of the current injured Yankees are truly in danger of being Wally Pipped.

Frederick asks: Could you see Deivi Garcia as a bullpen arm later in the year? I'm thinking he finishes his development ala, Hughes, Joba, Liriano or Price and is a weapon down there?

Deivi Garcia is one of the fastest rising Yankee prospects in recent memory. Just last season, he was really on the periphery of the prospect conversation, but by the end of it, he had everyone's attention with his strong stuff, good control, and aggressive style on the mound. This season, Garcia has impressed with his absurdly high strikeout rates (currently 16.5 K/9 at A+ and AA), but he has struggled some with walks. I'm not worried about the walks yet as an increased walk rate could be a result of Garcia trying to strike everyone out. That can all be smoothed out in development.

What does concern me with regards to Garcia's potential impact to the 2019 Yankees is his workload. The good news: Garcia threw the highest number of innings of his short career last season. The bad news: it amounted to only 74 innings. Garcia surely has a limit this season, and it would not surprise me if that limit is somewhere in the 135-145 inning range. Garcia is already at 31.2 innings pitched this season, so with only 110 innings to go, on the outside of the margin, the Yankees would have to get very creative to get Garcia onto the roster prior to September for the playoff run.

It is fun to dream about Garcia chucking out of the Yankee 'pen this summer. His fastball is electric, as is his curveball, and he can pound the zone with strikes when he's right. I also very strongly believe that there is value to having a pitcher on the precipice of being a big league starter throw some MLB innings out of the bullpen to get some exposure to getting better hitters out. Garcia would be well-suited to this role, but I think that logistics will keep us from seeing Garcia come out of the bullpen for the Yankees this season. If there are further injuries to the pitching staff, though, all bets are off.

Mark asks: Hicks is lost at the plate and was in the minors during his rehab stint. Why the rush to get him back while the replacements are doing a fine job?

It's been 4 at-bats!!! In all seriousness, Hicks missed all of Spring Training and has not seen big league pitching at all since the playoffs last season. No amount of rehab in the minors can prepare a hitter properly for big league pitching. The jump from AAA to the Majors is really that large. For reference, Hicks went 3-7 with 2 doubles and a homer for AAA Scranton prior to completing his rehab assignment. I actually think that the Yankees have been very cautious with Hicks. While they brutally botched the initial timetable, they have taken precautions to make sure he was healthy prior to putting on pinstripes this year.

Gardner, Tauchman, and Maybin have played admirably in relief of the Yankees' battered starting outfield (really, the entire outfield...what a season), but as I said in answering Gregory's question, their success is not sustainable and we are beginning to see the regression to the mean. Gardner and Tauchman started hot, but each has regressed significantly at the plate to the point that it is clear that both belong in part-time roles. While Maybin's short burst has been fun, I do not expect it to last due to the fact that we have 834 plate appearances worth of data from 2017 and 2018 that tells me that Maybin is a below-average hitter, and I don't see anything mechanical that implies that Maybin is suddenly a different player.

Give Hicks time, he'll be fine. He is an excellent defensive centerfielder, and once the bat comes around, Hicks is an important cog in the Yankees' machine. Getting him going will only come with big league reps.

Stephanie asks: I was wondering, as a Yankee fan looking for better understanding of the game, about how statistics reveal or predict a player's value during during their career. I've heard many types of statistics mentioned, OBP, RBI, ERA (all these depending on the players' positions of course); I was wondering which statistic holds the most weight on a player's value over time? Thank you for the help!

First off, thanks for reaching out, and I'm glad you were brave enough to email your question - this is an open community, and I encourage anyone who wants to have a deeper understanding of the game to reach out with questions like this. Obviously, baseball has been in the midst of a statistical revolution for the better part of 2 decades now, so many statistics get tossed around without a ton of explanation. Before I give you a quick run down, I highly recommend Keith Law's recent book, Smart Baseball, if you want to understand more about the statistics that are being used to evaluate players in today's game. Seriously, it's great.

Before I explain, please understand that while the math behind any of the statistics I mention below can be complicated, the statistics very strongly and simply reflect the value produced by a player. Additionally, the statistics that I like the best may not be the statistics that another person likes the best. That's where analysis and opinion meet statistics, and it's one of the reasons people like me even get to write about baseball.

From an offensive perspective, you mention On Base Percentage in your question, and it's pretty great! Getting on base and scoring runs are a hitter’s fundamental goals at the plate, so looking at OBP is good, but it doesn't tell the whole story (as the movie, Moneyball, may have implied…the book was better). As good as it is to get on base any way possible, a walk definitely has less value than a double or a home run. On base percentage does not discriminate, and the added value of base hits are not reflected in OBP. In order to understand differences in value between different outcomes at the plate, we need to use linear weights to assign value to each of these outcomes and assemble an end-value. The math behind this is somewhat complicated, but these numbers can be distilled into an easily comprehended number. For that reason, my favorite statistic that evaluates offensive value/contribution is wRC+ (weighted Runs Created, normalized to 100). This sounds complicated, but conceptually, it's not. This statistic takes the outcomes of all plate appearances, assigns value to each outcome, produces a raw "runs created" number, and then statistical functions are used to normalize the number for park factors (some ballparks are easier to hit in, some harder), league-wide offensive averages, and finally placed on the "100" scale. Very simply, a wRC+ value of 100 is average performance. A wRC+ value of 75 indicates that the player produced an offensive value 25 percent below the rest of the league, while a wRC+ 125 indicates that a player produced 25% more value at the plate as compared to the rest of the league. For example, as of today, Brett Gardner has a wRC+ of 80, meaning that his offensive contribution is 20% below league average.

You will also see me note more traditional stats like batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, ISO (slugging - batting average as a measure of power), OPS (on base plus slugging) OPS+ (OPS normalized to the 100 scale, as above), K% (strikeout percentage), and BB% (walk rate). All have meaning, but wRC+ brings them all together quite nicely. Now that we have even more batted ball data, you may see articles that try to understand why those aforementioned numbers are being produced. In the end, wRC+ is the best stat we have for actual performance and value at the plate.

I will not give you a favorite defensive metric, because I use a real mix due to the fact that there is so much variability in those metrics. I look at DRS (Defensive Runs Saved), dWAR (Baseball-Reference defensive wins above replacement), and other Fangraphs-based stats, however, there is a lot of noise in the data. Sometimes, the stats disagree strongly from one metric to another, so it is best to use a combination of statistics and the "eye test" here.

From a pitching perspective, I like looking at things in a pitcher's control. Strikeout rate (K%), walk rate (BB%), hits per 9 innings (H/9), home runs per 9 innings (HR/9), and ERA are good starts. For next-level information, batted ball data, like LD % (Line Drive Rate) and Exit Velocity Against also provide useful information.

The holy grail for statistics if you are looking for 1 statistic to show the value of a player (fielder or pitcher) is Wins Above Replacement (WAR). There are three major publicly available sources for WAR: Baseball-Reference (bWAR), Fangraphs (fWAR), and Baseball Prospectus (WARP). Each calculate WAR a little differently, so the numbers are not identical. For instance, Fangraphs' version of WAR for pitchers assigns less value to outcomes and more value to expected outcomes based on the things a pitcher can control, while Baseball-Reference weights outcomes in the opposite fashion. Generally, on this site, I will refer to both bWAR and fWAR when evaluating player value.

I gave you more than 1 statistic, but I hope this helps answer your question. Remember, as great as statistics are, there is value to what you see with your eyes as well. The statistics are merely a way to quantify what our eyes see. Thanks again for writing in, and enjoy the game!