What is Acceptable Production from Your Starting Catcher?
Russell Martin finished April hitting .293/.376/.587 and defused any calls for the promotion of Jesus Montero, who has not impressed at Triple-A Scranton. Since then, before/after/during his back stiffness, Martin has hit .194/.331/.301 in 30 games. The walk rate is wonderful, the rest less so. Among his offensive faults, he leads the Yankees in grounding into double plays and ranks fourth in the American League in double-play percentage (DP/DP opportunities). His defensive work has been very solid.
Montero’s season has been a mixed bag. He hit well in April, albeit without home run power, and has gotten gradually colder as the season has gone on, hitting just .248 since May 1. He’s hit just five home runs and drawn just 14 walks this season leading to an unimpressive .287/.333/.408 line—although it must always be remembered that as a 21-year-old playing at Triple-A, many of Montero’s contemporaries are still in college. Defensive reviews are still mixed at best. Only 8 of 42 basestealers have been caught. Given the 18 errors by Francisco Cervelli in his last 96 games behind the plate (that is, 2010-2011), it is worth noting that Montero has been credited with just one error this season.
Even though Montero has not been impressive at the plate thus far, he will eventually hit. There is one rather interesting aspect of his performance in that he has struggled at home, a generally neutral facility that is a bit difficult for left-handed power-hitters (Montero is a right-handed hitter). The catcher has hit .328/.377/.493 on the road versus only .225/.266/.281 at home. There is no reason for that split, and as is often the case with a phenomenon for which there is no reason, it will shortly cease.
Martin had a great start. He has already hit three-fourths as many home runs as he hit in the previous two years combined. At the same time, Martin really did hit .261/.364/.356 over the last three seasons. That wasn’t a bad dream that can be wished away. The Yankees gambled on Martin and won with his fine April. How much longer do you wait to collect your winnings and walk away from the table?
When is a Shortstop’s Defense Unacceptable?
Derek Jeter reached relatively few ground balls, but he didn’t fumble those that he was able to pick up. Eduardo Nunez gets to a few more balls and displays a great arm, but he makes a lot of mistakes, having been given seven errors so far in just 124 innings. If he qualified, his .873 fielding percentage would rank last among shortstops by about the same distance as there is between Manhattan and the moon. No shortstop has fielded below .900 in a full season at the position since Neil Ball of, appropriately enough, the 1908 Highlanders, who threw away 80 balls in 130 games. The Yankees/Highlanders lost 103 games that year.
Nunez has hit a bit. He has hit fractionally better than Jeter has to this point. At what point is the defensive loss too great to bear in return for Nunez’s offensive output? Note that since he started playing regularly all of five games ago, Nunez has hit .389 with a home run. Along those lines, I was in the stands for a recent game and I heard two fans debating Nunez’s future. "Will he hit?" one asked. The other, who was clearly intoxicated, said, "I know he’ll hit. It’s not if he will hit. He will hit." I wondered how he was able to account for Nunez’s so-so minor league production and lack of patience.
When Is Platooning Not Worth It?
The assumption behind platooning is that by playing hitters to their strengths, you gain an extra benefit while masking their weaknesses. It is not clear if this has been the case with Andruw Jones, who has hit .236/.311/.491 against southpaws this season while platooning with Brett Gardner. Gardner has hit .273/.385/.303 against lefties, but is hot right now and plays great defense every day. Shouldn’t he be playing every day?
You can make an argument one way or another, but there isn’t a definitive answer. Jones is a career .260/.360/.501 hitter against southpaws and .256/.374/.668 with 8 home runs in 86 at-bats against them last year. Both are very good. The average right-hander is hitting .263/.333/.413 against lefties this year, so Jones, as mediocre as the results have been, has done his job. We’re also dealing with very small samples, just 61 plate appearances in Jones’ case, so we can’t even say that what he has done this year is representative.
The same goes for Gardner. He’s a career .251/.356/.335 hitter against same-side pitching, which is nothing special. His defense makes him a positive even at those rates, but he still subs in the games that Jones starts so that advantage is only muted not lost. You don’t know what Garner would hit if he played every day, you don’t know if he would get hurt or wear down, both realistic possibilities based on past history, and you don’t know if his current hot streak (.404 in June, .338/.416/.438 since the end of April, albeit with his weird 10-of-17 stolen base record) would evaporate when subjected to too many portside challengers.
What is clear is that the platoon is working. The average American League left fielder is hitting .241/.303/.365. Parenthetically, this is odd; left field is normally one of the more potent positions in the major-league lineup, sometimes more potent than right field, but not so much in the 2011 Junior Circuit. Yankees left fielders are hitting .269/.346/.426 overall. Jones playing over Gardner isn’t necessarily right, but it’s not necessarily wrong either.
Next time: I can't resist writing more about the team's truly odd bullpen alignment.