SSTN Mailbag: 2023 BABIP, 40-Man Reaction, And Minor League Rule 5 Considerations!
The off-season has gotten underway, but despite some mini-press conference drama, it's been a slow start to the off-season. Not just for the Yankees, but around baseball more generally. Today marks the first trade of any real significance, as Aaron Bummer was traded from the White Sox to the Braves in exchange for a couple of reclamation projects and spare parts. I feel like a lot of the big stuff is going to happen in a big bang day this off-season, while the rest of it plods along. That big bang could come prior to the Winter Meetings in the first week of December, as rumor has it that Ohtani might make up his mind prior to the annual gathering.
Meanwhile, I'm just waiting and hoping that the Yankees don't sit on their hands. My perspective on a lot of the drama in the last few days is different than most, but the short version is that very little of it really matters. Brian Cashman has worked with Stanton's agent for decades. Cashman's comments (many of which were positive and taken out of context in TMZ-style reporting) regarding Stanton were clearly too honest and an unforced error for which he likely needs to smooth things over with Stanton and his agent (something which, apparently, has already happened), but the endgame is that this is a relatively meaningless story. If the Yankees are the highest bidder, do we really think most players will turn down the money? No. Money speaks the loudest, and as long as that is there, the Yankees can get free agents to sign in New York. The question is really whether Hal Steinbrenner is willing to pony up the cash. That's the story. Anything else is noise.
As always, thanks for the great questions and keep them coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. In this week's SSTN Mailbag, we'll talk about the impact of bad luck on the Yankee offense, react to the Yankees' 40-man moves, and discuss the minor league portion of the Rule 5 Draft and the non-tender deadline! Let's get at it:
Rick K. asks: Nowhere in any of your analysis of the Yankee 2023 season did you mention BABIP. I realize BABIP is not the most significant of the analytic figures, however you really need to mention that the Yankees finished dead last in BABIP with a .266 average. The next highest was .275 by the Mets a full nine points higher. Almost all the teams that made the playoffs in both leagues had at least a .300 BABIP or higher. While I realize that Yankee hitters, outside of Judge and Torre[s], did not perform as well as they should, a higher BABIP might have made some difference. What do you think?
Rick brings up an interesting point. In fact, I'm pretty sure this is the longest I've gone into the off-season without mentioning BABIP as it relates to individual Yankee hitters, if not the whole team. Rick is absolutely correct: the Yankees finished dead-last in MLB in BABIP, miles behind (in terms of statistical relativity) the next-worst team. Traditional analysis would suggest that the Yankees are due for positive regression given the fact that BABIP is typically a relatively stable constant over time.
However, that thinking is outdated to some extent. BABIP is really only stable in situations where players are very average in all offensive tools. For instance, it is very common for BABIP to be consistently inflated for players who are well above-average runners, which allows them to beat out an inordinate number of infield singles. Likewise, players who run badly or hit a very high number of weak fly balls (or groundballs) have a tendency to post very low BABIPs.
So where do the Yankees fall on this spectrum? On the one hand, the Yankees were one of the slowest teams in baseball in 2023, with Anthony Volpe as the only regular with above-average speed. The Yankees got faster with the late-August youth movement, but those players didn't put enough balls in play to move the BABIP needle. More frequently, the Yankees had players like Rizzo, DJLM, Stanton, and the catchers trying to beat out throws to first base, an obvious disadvantage to BABIP.
However, we see a somewhat different story when we really evaluate the numbers. As a team, the Yankees produced a .304 WOBA (Weighted On-Base Average, a calculation that measures total offensive contribution for batted ball events using the on-base percentage scale...it's also the most accurate offensive measurement for batted balls, in my opinion), a seriously below-average number (league average was .318 in 2023). However, the Yankees xWOBA (expected weighted on-base average) was .324, a well above-average figure. That indicates that the Yankees really did hit into some bad luck in 2023. Additionally, Yankee batted ball numbers were reasonably strong.
Even this has a caveat, though. Despite all of his injuries, Aaron Judge was 4th on the team in plate appearances, and really bumps up all of the Yankees' numbers under the hood. If we removed Aaron Judge from the equation, the Yankees' xWOBA, whiff%, swing rates, chase rates, and contact quality numbers would fall from above-average to below-average, in all likelihood. Looking around the roster, I do see opportunities for improvement, but I'm not sure I see likelihood for significant bounce-back.
The Yankee roster, as currently assembled, is pre-disposed to run below-average BABIPs and under-perform their batted ball performance, given their reliance on a superstar. That being said, there was some bad luck, as indicated by BABIP, and we can expect some modicum of bounce-back from some areas of the roster. So, both are true: BABIP overrates the Yankees' bad luck offensively, but it also indicates that there is at least some room for natural positive regression.
Larry asks: The Yankees only protected 2 players from the Rule 5 Draft (Beeter and Ramirez). Can you analyze this decision?
The Yankees were a bit more conservative in their protection maneuvers than I predicted. Some people were surprised that Agustin Ramirez was protected, but I think there are enough truly terrible teams out there that would be willing to hide a third catcher at the back of the roster for a year that the Yankees made the right call on a player they really like internally. Beeter was an obvious protection candidate, as a solid prospect near-ready for the Majors.
Beyond that, I don't think any of the other players I wrote about last week are likely to stick for any length of time on an MLB roster, though I still believe that Matt Sauer and Mitch Spence deserved protection. While Sauer's fastball/slider combination is very similar to other pitchers available for selection in the Rule 5 Draft, I think he'll be a quick-riser and a useful MLB piece as soon as 2024. With a bullpen in flux, I thought it made sense to at least protect him in the near-term as a potential bullpen candidate. Spence doesn't have big stuff, but he pitched really well in difficult circumstances in AAA while soaking a relatively large compliment of innings. He's clearly on the short-list of MLB fill-in starters this year, and I think leaving him unprotected is a risk.
Were these omissions absolutely mission-critical? No, but the Yankees have a bad habit of leaving serviceable arms unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft, so it pains me to see similar mistakes made now. Beyond that, I'd say it was a pretty ho-hum set of decisions.
Alan B. asks: Can someone please explain how the Rule 5 Minor League phase. Is there another, further list of protected players each team gets to hand in?
The other question is who do you think the Yankees will non tender today?
The Minor League phase of the Rule 5 Draft is something of a mystery to everyone. I'll give you what I know. Beyond the 40-man Major League roster, there is a 38-man AAA roster (expanded for the purpose of protection). Eligibility is the same as the Major League Rule 5 Draft: 5 years in the minors with the same team without being added to either the 38-man AAA roster or the 40-man MLB roster. This information is only accurate as of 2020, but I don't believe the new CBA made any real changes to this process.
As for the non-tender deadline, I don't expect significant moves from the Yankees. The only real non-tender candidates I see are Albert Abreu and Lou Trivino, though I suppose that Higgy and Rortvedt could be on the list as well. That said, I can't imagine that Higgy and Rortvedt would be non-tendered, as both have at least some minimal trade value. Abreu is cheap enough that I'd be surprised if he is non-tendered. Trivino's projected salary is so high, and he's not projected to pitch until later in 2024, so I think a non-tender is coming there.