2011 Season In Review: Infielders

The Yankees have had the same infield for the last three seasons and have all four men under contract through at least 2013. (AP)

1B - Mark Teixeira (S)
.248/.341/.494, 39 HR, 111 RBI, 3.1 WARP

Coming off a disappointing 2010 campaign, Teixeira, a notorious slow-starter, spent the offseason determined to get his bat going earlier in the season, largely by doing more work earlier to try to trick his body into thinking April was May. It worked. Teixeira homered in the Yankees' first three games and four of their first five and finished April with a .392 on-base percentage and .549 slugging percentage. However, he also finished the month with a .256 batting average, and other than five non-consecutive days in May, he never got his average above .260 the rest of the season. A career .290 hitter through the end of the 2009 season, Teixeira has now hit .252 over the last two seasons.

One could chalk that up to bad luck on balls in play (Teixeira's career BABIP prior to 2010 was .308, but over the last two years he has hit just .254 on balls in play, including a miserable .239 this season), but there's something else at work here. Over the past two seasons, Teixeira has hit .291/.395/.557 (.289 BABIP) right-handed, but just .234/.334/.455 (.239 BABIP) left-handed. That's not bad luck. That's a clear flaw with his left-handed approach that has manifested itself over 815 at-bats over the last two season.

According to Teixeira, he has become too much of a pull hitter from the left-side, something that plays right into the hands of opposing managers who shift their defense against him when he bats left-handed. That would account for his poor showing on balls in play. According to Teixeira, his increased tendency to pull has been the result the temptation represented by Yankee Stadium's short right-field wall, something that appears to be supported by his .218 BABIP at home this year. The irony there being that Teixeira has actually homered more often from the right side than the left side over the last two seasons (17.3 AB/HR left-handed, 15 AB/HR right-handed), which is just proof that, for a power-hitter like Teixeira, if your swing is healthy, the homers will come.

Having finally copped to his poor approach, Teixeira plans to spend the offseason working with Yankee hitting coach Kevin Long to fix it, which is certainly encouraging. As for the season he just had, it was disappointing, but he was still third among AL first basemen in WARP, behind only Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Gonzalez: B-

2B - Robinson Cano (L)
.302/.349/.533, 28 HR, 118 RBI, 6.5 WARP

A major leaguer at 22, Cano improved every year through his age-27 season last year, with the exception of a fluky bad year in 2008 at age 25, and now seems to have settled in at a near-MVP level of play that has him constantly in the discussion for the title of best second baseman in baseball. Cano's rate stats were down a tick from 2010 this season, but offense was down overall, so his adjusted stats were close enough considering the fact that some regression was expected following a season in which he legitimately finished third in the AL MVP voting.

Cano actually set a career high in isolated slugging this year (.231), but also set a career-high in strikeouts (96) and saw his walk rate regress significantly after a career high in 2010. Cano drew just 27 unintentional walks all season, a rate of one every 24.8 plate appearances. If not for the 11 times he was intentionally passed and the 12 times he was hit with a pitch, his on-base percentage would have been .327, just 25 points above his batting average. That's disappointing, but at this stage of his career it might be too much to say it's problematic. After seven full seasons in the majors, Cano is a career .308 hitter and he has matured into a middle-of-the-lineup threat with 30-homer power who plays Gold Glove quality defense at second base. That player is plenty valuable, even if his on-base percentage leaves something to be desired. He's basically the post-Safeco Park version of Adrian Beltre at second base.

If this is as good as Cano gets, no one gets to complain. He's at worst the fourth-best second baseman in Yankee history and looks likely to finish even higher on that list. A

SS - Derek Jeter (R)
.297/.355/.388, 6 HR, 61 RBI, 16 SB (73%), 1.9 WARP

From the start of the 2010 season through June 13 of this year, Derek Jeter hit .267/.336/.357. When his 37th birthday arrived on June 26, he was on the disabled list with a calf strain and his season line sat at .260/.324/.324. He looked finished, and his new three year, $51 million contract looked every bit like the milestone-motivated disaster that we here at the Bible had warned the Yankees against last fall. Then Jeter came back from the DL.

After an initial 0-for-4, he doubled in each of his next three games to put himself two hits shy of 3,000 for his career. On Saturday, July 9, on a beautiful afternoon in the Bronx against the division rival Rays and their lefty ace David Price, he went 5-for-5 with a double, homering for number 3,000. It felt like a moment frozen in time, one last bit of Jeter magic with the old Yankee captain reminding us all of what an exciting and productive player he had been at his peak.

What was even more amazing, however, was that it wasn't just a moment. The 37-year-old Jeter hit .331/.384/.447 in 314 plate appearances after returning from the disabled list, a performance that, save for a little extra batting average, was a dead ringer for his career rates. In spring training, Kevin Long had worked with Jeter to eliminate his stride to compensate for the natural loss of bat speed that comes with age, but Jeter quickly abandoned the new mechanics. According to Jeter himself, it wasn't until he was forced to the DL, against his own unwittingly selfish preference to try to take his calf injury day-to-day, that he was able to find a viable alternative while working in Tampa with Gary Denbo, a current Yankee scout who had been the team's hitting coach in 2001 and Jeter's first professional manager in 1992.

That suggests that the revival of Jeter's bat was real, but it doesn't guarantee that it will last into the coming season, never mind beyond that, and the .390 BABIP that accompanied that revival isn't a good indication that Jeter will be able to keep up that level of production (though his BABIP from 1996 to 2009 was .360, which isn't that much lower). Still, it was a pleasant surprise and undeniably valuable. Of course, it also didn't happen until the season was already half over. C+

3B - Alex Rodriguez (R)
.276/.362/.461, 16 HR, 62 RBI, 3.4 WARP

Rodriguez's season was in some way the inverse of Jeter's. At the exact mid-point of the season, after the Yankees beat the Mets on July 2, Rodriguez was hitting .304/.379/.509 with 13 home runs and 52 RBIs and had played in all but six of the Yankees' first 81 games. That's right on target for Rodriguez and an improvement on where he was at the same point in 2010. However, from that point forward, Rodriguez played in just 24 of the Yankees remaining 81 games and hit .189/.311/.311 with just three homers and 10 RBIs in those two dozen contests.

What happened was that Rodriguez went 22 games without a home run from June 12 to July 7, and at some point during that period it was discovered that Rodriguez had a torn meniscus in his right knee. Rodriguez hit .333 during his home run drought, but despite the fact that he remained productive, it was decided that the Yankees would rather have a fully-healthy version of Rodriguez for the stretch run and postseason than the singles-hitting and possibly deteriorating version they had. So Rodriguez had his meniscus repaired, missed six weeks (38 games), and returned to the lineup on August 21, as was the plan.

What wasn't part of the plan was Rodriguez spraining his left thumb trying to field a sinking liner by Joe Mauer in his first start back. The thumb injury cost Rodriguez the next two games and never really went away, shelving him for 13 of the team's final 37 games in total, and preventing him from ever really getting his stroke back at the plate. Out of desperation, Kevin Long had Rodriguez adopt a split grip on the bat, using a ring of trainer's tape to keep his hands separated just enough so that his left thumb (bottom hand) wouldn't be aggravated by contact with his top hand in his swing, but that didn't really fix things either, and then his knee started to hurt again.

It's easy enough to write that second-half as a fluke due to the injuries. After all, the last time Rodriguez failed to hit 30 home runs or drive in 100 runs in a season was 1997, when he was a 21-year-old shortstop for the Mariners in his second full season in the majors. However, injuries have been a constant hindrance for Rodriguez over the last several seasons. Rodriguez hasn't avoided the disabled list for a full season since 2007 and each of his visits since has been because of a leg injury, two of them requiring surgery that cost him more than a month of the season (the other being the surgery to repair his right hip labrum at the start of the 2009 season). Rodriguez is 36, will be 37 in July, and while he can still produce when healthy, the chances of his reversing his current trend toward injuries large and small seem slim.

All of that said, third base has become one of the thinnest positions in the major leagues, so even though he was only himself for a half a season, Rodriguez was still the sixth-most-valuable third baseman in baseball in 2011 according to WARP, which also rated him as the eighth-best position player in the game at the time of his surgery. C+

IF - Eduardo Nuñez (R)
.265/.313/.385, 5 HR, 22 SB (79%), 338 PA, 0.4

In 2011, the combined league average batting line of the three positions Nuñez is asked to play most often (shortstop, third base and second base, in that order) was .259/.318/.386, almost an exact match for Nuñez season line. That means that Nuñez is able to keep the Yankees not just above replacement level, but at league average whenever he is filling in in the infield. That makes him a tremendously valuable bench player, or would if he didn't undermine that value with bush league fielding yips.

The shortcomings of errors and fielding percentage as a measure of fielding ability are as familiar as the shortcomings of pitching wins, but when errors come in the quantity Nuñez made them in 2011, they still tell an important part of the story. Nuñez made 20 errors in the equivalent of 92 games (by total innings divided by nine) at those three positions, nearly a fifth of the Yankees' team total (102). Only six players in all of baseball made more, and none of them played the equivalent of less than 140 games in the field. Looking at the advanced stats, Nuñez cost the Yankees nearly a half win in the field according to Baseball Prospectus's Fielding Runs Above Average, just over one full win according to Baseball-References Defensive Wins Above Replacement, and more than a win and a half according to Ultimate Zone Rating. That dropped him back down to or even below replacement level, depending on the stat you prefer (WARP, used above, uses FRAA, and is thus the most forgiving).

If Nuñez can become a more reliable fielder, something Robinson Cano had to do early in his career as well, he can indeed be a very valuable piece and even a potential major league starter. If not, he'll just be another futility man. D+

3B/1B - Eric Chavez (L)
.262/.320/.356, 2 HR, 26 RBI, 175 PA, 0.2 WARP

Heck, it was worth a shot. Chavez survived spring training, proving that he was still viable in the field, and had a nice April, hitting .303/.410/.424 through May 5 for the Yankees as a part-timer (eight starts, nine other appearances in the team's first 29 games). Then he broke his left foot rounding the bases in Detroit and missed nearly three months. Surprise! Given greater exposure after his late-July return due to Rodriguez's injuries, he hit just .252/.294/.339.

At last check, the 33-year-old Chavez, who has hit .238/.288/.341 in just 424 plate appearances over the last four seasons, was "undecided" about retirement, but I'd be surprised to see him get another look. His power is gone, and the fact that he missed half of the season for a foot injury suffered without taking a misstep is all you need to know about his durability. The two things I'll most remember about his one season in the Bronx, beyond that foot injury, is the fact that, he often resembled Don Mattingly at the plate out of the corner of the eye (or, sometimes, in full focus), and that Joe Girardi pinch-hit him for fellow lefty Brett Gardner in Game 2 of the Division Series in a desperate ploy for a home run despite the fact that Gardner had homered more often (barely) and hit for more power during the regular season than Chavez, who had fewer home runs in the last four seasons (5) than Gardner had this year (7). D-

IF - Ramiro Peña (S)

.100/.159/.175, 46 PA, -0.1 WARP

Peña hit .273/.339/.397 in 231 plate appearances (he lost nearly 50 games to appendicitis) for Triple-A Scranton this year, which was his best performance at any level over a full season in his career. He's 26, will be 27 in July and is now Nuñez's backup at best. Nothing to see here. Incomplete

3B/1B - Brandon Laird (R)

4-for-21 (.190), 3 BB, 0 XBH, 0.0 WARP

Coming off his big showing in Double-A last year, where he had to play his home games in Trenton's pitching-friendly home ballpark but still hit .291/.355/.523 with 23 homers in 454 PA, the 23-year-old Laird looked like he had the potential to be a four-corner sub with power and a significant asset on the Yankee bench. Instead, he hit .260/.288/.422 for Scranton this year and only made the Yankee roster when a large enough vacuum was created on the major league roster that the laws of physics forced him to the majors. He's still just 24, so he may yet turn into Eric Hinske, who made his major league debut at that age, but don't hold your breath. Incomplete

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