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is the glamour position in baseball. The Bomber patrolling the middle pasture in the Bronx does so knowing the mythology of the country boy from Commerce, Oklahoma, clearing Griffith Stadium with a thunderous clout and the son of a fisherman stringing together a hitting streak requiring a level of patience and poise that even Santiago himself might not possess. In addition to Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, Earle Combs gives the Yankees a troika of Hall of Fame center fielders. Rickey Henderson entered Cooperstown in another cap but manned center early on during his Yankees tenure, and Bobby Murcer and Bernie Williams were perennial All-Stars in pinstripes. No other team has as long and storied a lineage in center field. The man tasked with living up to Yankee lore at the position in 2011, Curtis Granderson, had a season that would make The Mick and Joltin’ Joe proud. Acquired in the winter of 2009 in a three-team trade involving the Detroit Tigers and Arizona Diamondbacks, Granderson had some Yankee fans feeling buyer’s remorse in 2010 as he looked platoon-worthy against left-handed pitching and prospects-turned-trade bait Ian Kennedy and Austin Jackson flourished with their new clubs. But, by hitting for unprecedented power, solving lefties and showing base running smarts, Granderson had an MVP-type year ranking up there with some seasons turned in by the Commerce Comet and The Yankee Clipper. According to Fangraphs.com, Granderson’s 2011 campaign places in the top 20 all-time among Yankees center fielders in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), an all-encompassing stat that compares a player’s offensive, defensive and base running value to that of a minor leaguer or waiver wire-type player: Top 20 seasons ever among Yankees center fielders, ranked by WAR
Rank Player Season Wins Above Replacement 12.2 12.0 11.1 10.6 10.2 10.1 10.1 Rank Player Season Wins Above Replacement 8.1 8.0 7.9 7.6 7.4 7.3 7.3
1. 2. 3. 4. 5. T-6 T-6
Mickey Mantle Mickey Mantle Mickey Mantle Joe DiMaggio Rickey Henderson Joe DiMaggio Mickey Mantle
1956 1957 1961 1941 1985 1937 1955
11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17.
Bobby Murcer Joe DiMaggio Mickey Mantle Earle Combs Bobby Murcer Mickey Mantle Mickey Mantle
1972 1948 1960 1927 1971 1959 1952
8. 9. 10.
Mickey Mantle Joe DiMaggio Joe DiMaggio
1958 1939 1940
9.2 9.1 8.3
18. 19. 20.
Joe DiMaggio Mickey Mantle Curtis Granderson
1942 1954 2011
7.1 7.1 7.0
Granderson ranked behind only Jacoby Ellsbury and Matt Kemp in WAR among center fielders in 2011, and he came in at eighth among all position players. He doubled his WAR total from 2010. How did Granderson become twice the player during his second year in New York? Let’s take a closer look at his performance at the plate, on the bases and in the field. At the Plate "Somebody once asked me if I ever went up to the plate trying to hit a home run. I said, 'Sure, every time.'" – Mickey Mantle I don’t know whether Granderson tried to pop one over the fence every time he stepped to the plate in 2011, but it sure seemed like it. During his four seasons as a regular in Detroit, he averaged about 24 home runs per year and had a .484 slugging percentage. He put up similar numbers with New York in 2010, hitting 24 homers and slugging .468. In 2011, though, Granderson slammed a career-best 41 HR (only Jose Bautista hit more) and tied his career high with a .552 slugging percentage. In fact, Mantle and DiMaggio are the only Yankees center fielders to reach the cheap seats more often in a single season. Granted, Granderson’s power binge came in a more homer-friendly environment, and in new Yankee Stadium as opposed to the more cavernous confines in which Mantle and DiMaggio took their swings. Still, that’s some impressive company: Most single-season HR among Yankees center fielders
Player Year HR Plate Appearances Per Home Run in AL that season 40.6 44.9 60.7 44.3 38.1 Home Park Factor
Mickey Mantle Mickey Mantle Joe DiMaggio Mickey Mantle Curtis Granderson
1961 1956 1937 1958 2011
54 52 46 42 41
97 100 103 102 110
New Yankee Stadium is especially generous to left-handed batters. StatCorner.com shows that the park increases home runs by 43 percent compared to a neutral venue. Hit Tracker Online, your one-stop shop for all things homers, says that six of Granderson's Yankee Stadium shots would have gone out of five or fewer other major league parks. He definitely took advantage of the short porch down the right field line, but Granderson wasn't merely the product of aiming for that 314 marker. He was a power-hitting force both at home (21 home runs and a .563 slugging percentage) and on the road (20 home runs, .543 slugging percentage). It didn't seem to matter what pitchers threw him. Fastballs, curveballs, sliders, changeups...Granderson killed them all. Fangraphs keeps track of a batter's performance against different pitch types, and Granderson had an above-average run value against heaters, breaking balls and off-speed stuff alike: Granderson's run value by pitch type, per 100 pitches seen
Pitch Run Value per 100 pitches +2.03 +1.5 +0.93 +0.14
Fastball Changeup Slider Curveball
Granderson's slugging compelled pitchers to feed him more soft stuff and challenge him less often. He got a fastball just 51 percent of the time in 2011, well below his 59 percent average from 2004 to 2010. And he saw a pitch thrown over the plate 42 percent of the time, compared to 50 percent entering the season. That cautious approach by opponents paid off for Granderson in the form of a career-high 12.3 percent walk rate and a .364 on-base percentage, his best mark since 2008 and a full 40 points above his 2010 OBP. Solving Lefties "Trying to hit him is like trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks." -- Bobby Murcer Murcer was referring to Phil Niekro, the right-handed, knuckle balling nemesis who held him to a career .208 average. But that quote could have just as easily come from Granderson when he took on any left-handed pitcher in the universe prior to 2011. From 2004 to 2010, he hit .215, got on base at a .275 clip and slugged .347 against fellow southpaws. His .621 on-base-plus slugging percentage (OPS) was dead last among hitters with at least 800 plate appearances against lefties over that time frame. With same-handed hurlers turning him into a Ramiro Pena clone, some
wondered whether the Yankees would be better off limiting Granderson to sunflower flinging, Gatorade sipping and late-game defensive work on days when a lefty was on the mound. That was before a late-season road trip to Texas in August of 2010, however. Granderson got a few days off to work on his swing with Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long. Granderson closed his stance a bit, quieted his hands and decided to keep both hands on the bat during his followthrough. He entered the road trip with a .239/.306/.415 overall line, but rallied to finish the season with a .247/.324/.468 triple-slash. In 2011, he paid lefties back for all the pain they had caused him. Granderson pummeled port-siders for a .272 average, a .347 OBP and a .597 slugging percentage this past year. He led all major leaguers with 16 home runs against lefties, nearly closing in on his career HR total against them from '04 to '10 (20), and his .944 OPS ranked third among left-handed hitters who qualified for the batting title. David Ortiz and Joey Votto were the only lefties to do more damage against same-handed pitching. Left-handers like to pitch Granderson away: according to data from Sportvision and Trumedia, lefties threw 56 percent of their pitches to him on the outside corner. In the past, Granderson barely made a peep against those outside pitches. That changed in 2011. Check out these heat maps from Sportvision showing Granderson's in-play slugging percentage against left-handers by pitch location in 2010 (left) and 2011 (right). The more red you see, the better:
Granderson’s in-play slugging percentage Granderson’s in-play slugging percentage versus left-handed pitching, 2010 versus left-handed pitching, 2011
Granderson had a .304 slugging percentage on away pitches from lefties in 2010, but he slugged .565 in 2011. That's not eating Jell-O with chopsticks. That's chowing down on Bill Cosby's finest bowl of Berry Blue with a spoon the size of a Louisville Slugger.
That turnaround against lefties was one of the most dramatic in baseball over the past four decades. In June, The Wall Street Journal's Jared Diamond reported that Granderson was on pace to have one of the largest jumps in OPS among left-handed batters versus left-handed pitchers compared to his career average entering the season. Granderson kept mashing after that, and he finished with the seventh-largest OPS jump (323 points) since 1974. Barry Bonds (2002), Paul O'Neill (1994), Bonds (2003), Mel Hall (1991), Travis Hafner (2006) and Bonds yet again (2001) are the only lefties to improve more against same-handed pitching. O'Neill's strike-shortened '94 season makes for an interesting parallel. O'Neill was also in his second year with the Yankees, having been swapped from Cincinnati to New York. He entered the year with a paltry .596 career OPS versus lefties, but he managed a 1.010 OPS against them before labor strife ended his and everybody else's season. Like Granderson, he bopped like never before with a .603 slugging percentage, and he was likely on his way to establishing a new career best in home runs before the strike. O'Neill kept some, but certainly not all of the gains he made against lefties in subsequent seasons, generally posting OPS totals in the mid-to-high .700s. Great as Granderson's season against southpaws was, that's probably what we should expect from him, too. Research from sabermatricians like Tom Tango shows that year-to-year platoon splits vary greatly. It takes many years of data to get a feel for a hitter's skill against southpaws, and even then you need to heavily regress that hitter's performance toward the mean to predict how he'll fare against lefties in the future. Long's swing tweaks may well make Granderson a long-term threat versus lefthanders, but we shouldn't expect him to rock a .900-plus OPS against them from now on, either. On the Bases "You have to keep running. I always believed I was going to be safe." – Rickey Henderson A left groin strain kept Granderson from running much during his first year with the Yankees, as he missed most of May with the injury and stole 12 bases in 14 attempts. He took off far more often in 2011, swiping 25 bags in 35 tries. Granderson's 71 percent success rate wouldn't impress Rickey much -- the league average was 72 percent -- but he provided plenty of value with his legs by taking lots of extra bases. According to Baseball-Reference, Granderson gobbled up extra bags like few others. He either advanced more than one base on a single or more than two bases on a double (when possible) 59 percent of the time, way above the 41 percent big league average for taking an extra base. Stolen bases get the glory, but going first-to-third or home is a valuable skill that made Granderson's season even sweeter. Fangraphs' Ultimate Base Running (UBR) metric, which accounts for base running advances and outs on batted balls, shows that Granderson's smarts added nearly six runs of value compared to an average runner. That was third-best in the majors, behind Michael Bourn and Elvis Andrus,
and ranks second among Yankees since 2002 (the first year for which there's UBR data available): Best base running seasons by Yankees, 2002-2011
Player Year Ultimate Base Runs 6.1 5.9
Johnny Damon Curtis Granderson Alex Rodriguez Brett Gardner Hideki Matsui
2007 2010 2007
5.7 4.9 4.7
In the Field "You start chasing a ball and your brain immediately commands your body to 'Run forward, bend, scoop up the ball, peg it to the infield,' then your body says, 'Who me?'" – Joe DiMaggio
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