The Yankees are three games into their nine-game West Coast trip and there are only five more days to go in the RAB era, including today. Barring a surprise development (with the Yankees, not RAB), this is probably the last thoughts post. It was a good run. Let’s get to it.
1. I don’t have much to say about Chad Green being demoted to Triple-A. His performance had become untenable and something had to be done. I don’t think it was odd Aaron Boone said the Yankees weren’t planning to send Green down following Tuesday’s game either. That was minutes after the game and he has to back his player. The actual conversations about sending Green down happened later. I thought Green would land on the injured list because how could a healthy Chad Green possibly be this bad? Instead, he’ll go to Triple-A Scranton and try to figure out what’s wrong. The Yankees can get him lots of work down there — there’s no need to wait for a low-leverage spot to pop up every few days, he can pitch and pitch and pitch with the RailRiders — and that’s what Green needs more than anything right now. To pitch. To pitch and not be worried about being sent down because, well, he’s already been sent down. Green’s fastball velocity is down a tick but his spin rate is fine, so the underlying numbers look okay. Clearly though, he’s not okay. This is one of those situations where the minor league numbers might not tell us much, because Chad Green with his C+ fastball instead of his A+ fastball can still dominate Triple-A hitters. Hopefully this is a quick fix and Green returns soon. The Yankees are at their best with a productive Green in their bullpen, not with Stephen Tarpley or Joe Harvey to Domingo Acevedo or whichever minor league reliever happens to have shiny stats at the time. (Using Clint Frazier’s injured list stint to recall Joe Harvey before his ten days in the minors were up rather than Green tells you the Yankees don’t believe this is something he can fix at the MLB level.)
2. A few years back, when David Price was on the trade block, I wrote that he was the platonic ideal of a Yankees pitcher. Lefty, durable, succeeded with a high velocity fastball he could command to both sides of the plate. If you could build a pitcher in a lab, the Yankees would’ve built 2010-15 David Price. In 2019, I’m pretty sure the Yankees would build James Paxton in that lab. They are a velocity and spin rate organization and Paxton offers both. He’s left-handed, he racks up strikeouts, and his secondaries are good enough to get outs and make hitters respect the fastball. Paxton doesn’t have peak Price’s command or durability, so 2019 Paxton is more like a poor man’s 2010-15 Price, but 2019 Paxton is really good. So it took him three starts to settle in this year. Big deal. He’s been lights out his last two starts. That’s a guy the Yankees can send out there in Game One of a postseason series and expect dominance. Paxton checks all the boxes analytically and the results on the field have been very good overall, especially lately. The question is health. As long as Paxton stays healthy, he’s going to be very good, and he’s healthy right now. He has been as advertised one month into his Yankees career.
3. I was planning to write something on Aaron Judge’s relative power outage before he had a homer and a double over the weekend, then landed on the injured list. Judge is hitting .288/.404/.521 (145 wRC+) on the year, so he was awesome before getting hurt, though it never did feel like he was truly locked in at the plate. Am I wrong? That’s what it felt like to me. To me, it seemed like Judge was really focusing in going the other way to right field, possibly because he is one of the few right-handed hitters who sees the infield shift regular. The numbers back up that opposite field approach:
Judge was still smashing the ball, but yes, his pull rate was down and his opposite field rate was up. Quite a bit too. Was this a conscious thing or just small sample size noise? We won’t know the answer to that for a while now that he’s injured. As good as he’s been, Judge has been unlucky to some degree this year. His .394 wOBA is quite a bit below his .442 xwOBA, and he lost base hits to great plays like this 111.2 mph rocket and this 110.4 mph scorcher. I reckon Judge wasn’t far away from a monster hot streak prior to the injury. Anyway, it did seem to me that Judge was focusing on the opposite a bit early this season, and the numbers do back it up. Was it a small sample fluke? Maybe. If it was a conscious decision, I don’t like it. Like the big man eat. Aaron Judge shouldn’t focus on serving the ball to the opposite field. Focus on maximum damage, and he does the most damage when he pulls the ball.
4. The more I watch him, the more I think the Yankees should leave Gleyber Torres at shortstop long-term. He looks so much more comfortable and natural at short than he does at second, and that makes sense, because he didn’t start playing second base full-time until last year. Torres has played only 136 career games at second base between the minors and the big leagues. Not even a full season. Of course he doesn’t look as comfortable there as he does at shortstop. Everything at shortstop looks easy. Actions are clean, arm is accurate, and his clock is great. Never rushed or too lackadaisical. In a vacuum, keeping Torres at shortstop long-term is an easy call. This isn’t a vacuum though. Didi Gregorius exists, and the best possible Yankees roster moving forward has Torres and Gregorius on the middle infield, not Torres and DJ LeMahieu or Tyler Wade or Thairo Estrada. It is really hard to acquire above-average two-way middle infielders and a Gleyber-Didi double play combo gives the Yankees two players like that. Do the Yankees re-sign Gregorius and move Torres back to second? I think that is the most likely outcome right now. What about re-signing Gregorius and moving him to second base though? Sir Didi turns 30 in February and eventually he’ll lose a step in the field, and there’s always a chance his arm won’t come all the way back following Tommy John surgery. It is not far-fetched to think the best defensive alignment going forward is Gleyber at short and Gregorius at second. Would the Yankees actually do it? I don’t think so, not unless Gregorius struggles in the field after elbow reconstruction. Torres definitely seems more comfortable at short than he does at second though. It is his natural position and it shows.
5. Both teams were hit hard by injuries, but there are two key differences between the 2013 Yankees and the 2019 Yankees. One, the 2019 Yankees started with a much higher talent baseline, and two, the quality of the replacements. The 2013 Yankees did not have a Clint Frazier to call up. Tyler Wade may never hit, but he can play the hell out of the middle infield, far better than dudes like Luis Cruz and Brent Lillibridge and Chris Nelson. The 2013 Yankees didn’t even have a Gio Urshela type, that 20-something (Urshela is 27) who isn’t too far removed from prospect status and could be counted on for above-average production on one side of the ball (defense) while offering a little upside on the other (offense). We could even drop Mike Tauchman in that bucket as well. It is so much easier to buy into Domingo German as a viable big league starter than it was David Phelps or Vidal Nuno. Also, the 2019 Yankees are way better at player development than the 2013 Yankees. It’s not just that they have more young talent than the 2013 Yankees — the 2013 team relied on waiver claims and veteran castoffs — it’s that they know what to do with it too. The injury situation is comical. It really is. Thirteen guys on the injury list, including six starting position players as well as the staff ace, yet the Yankees have won six straight and eight of nine. Sure, the Yankees have more resources than any other team, but Urshela and Tauchman and guys like that were not “the Yankees outspent everyone to get them” pickups. It is crazy impressive the Yankees are still racking up wins with their roster this depleted. These last few weeks could’ve sunk their season. Instead, the replacements are keeping them afloat.
6. This sorta ties into that last point, but, for as long as I can remember, the Yankees have had the ability to overcome adversity and survive crisis. There has always been this “they’ll figure out a way” trait to the Yankees. I’ve joked about the Fighting Spirit for years now but tell me it’s not true. Even their lean years haven’t been all that lean recently. The absolute worst Yankees team we’ve seen in the last quarter-century still won 84 games. That’s been the worst case scenario, 84 wins, and that ain’t so bad. The payroll excuse? The money helps, no doubt, but the Red Sox have finished in last place multiple times with sky high payrolls in recent years. The Phillies bottomed out. The Giants are doing it right now with a high payroll. Money helps but it doesn’t guarantee success. Besides, how many high-priced players are on the active roster right now? Masahiro Tanaka, Aroldis Chapman, and J.A. Happ are the only active roster players making more than $13M. Zack Britton and DJ LeMahieu are the only other active Yankees making more than $9M. My quick math puts the current active roster payroll at $125.8M. (According to Ron Blum, the average Opening Day roster payroll was $135.7M this year.) Figure out a way to stay competitive during tough times once or twice, and it may only be luck or that proverbial one good year. Do it consistently across 25 years, no matter whether we’re talking about a rash of injuries like this year or losing Derek Jeter for six weeks on Opening Day 2003 or Aaron Judge for seven weeks last year, and it makes me think there’s something in the water, so to speak. The Yankees have always found a way to keep themselves from completely collapsing. There is an organizational sticktoitiveness that helps them get through bad situations, no matter the personnel on the field. I can’t define it or quantify it, but it exists, and we’re seeing it again this year.
7. Despite all the injuries and all the call-ups and replacement players, the Yankees have received tremendous production from the bottom of the lineup this season. Their 7-8-9 hitters have arguably been the best in baseball. The 7-8-9 numbers going into yesterday’s late night West Coast game:
- AVG: .292 (first — Twins are second at .283)
- OBP: .357 (first — Twins are second at .351)
- SLG: .496 (third — Mariners are at .505 and Twins are at .498)
- wRC+: 125 (second — Mariners are at 129)
Gio Urshela has been way better than anyone could’ve reasonably expected him to be thus far, Mike Tauchman’s had his moments, and Austin Romine has had his moments too. When all these injuries struck and guys like Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier had to move into the middle of the lineup, it was reasonable to expect the production at the bottom of the order to sag. Instead, those dudes have been crushing the ball. Timely hits, the occasional #SurpriseDinger, and quality at-bats. I don’t know how much longer the Yankees can count on Urshela, Tauchman et al performing like this, but they’re doing it now, and they’ve helped the Yankees avoid sinking in the standings. Eventually the injured guys will come back and bolster the lineup. We shouldn’t forget what the fill-ins are doing now. They’re coming up big. Real big.
8. I’m not too surprised the Yankees let Gio Gonzalez walk. It always seemed like they signed him more as an emergency option than a clear-cut “we’re going to put this guy in our rotation once he’s ready to go” player. Gonzalez was sitting out there in free agency and he was willing to take a minor league contract, so why not sign him? It was a no risk move, and if more injuries struck the rotation, the Yankees had a capable veteran fill-in already in the organization. No one else got hurt and Domingo German has thrown the ball well, so Gonzalez wasn’t needed. Here’s what Brian Cashman said about the Gio situation during a recent radio interview (transcript via George King):
“He has no interest in being a reliever, and so now we’re staring at this opt-out, where he’s pitched well his last two outings, and I don’t have a starting spot for him. So it’s that or throw him in the bullpen and say hang with him. For an athlete that’s historically, outside of I think twice last year in the postseason run pitching out of the pen for Milwaukee, the dialogue I’ve had directly with him, as well as our own assessments, is it worth it to throw $3M into the bullpen and hope it works out? The contract was kind of prohibitive in that it had so many incentives geared up towards starting, so it wouldn’t have been a tradeable thing for any of these teams that are gonna sign him now as a starter. They’ll repackage or make a new deal, whatever that’s gonna be, but we had to ultimately honor the fact that he was a starter insurance arm for us, and when that insurance policy was expiring, we couldn’t cash in on it because I didn’t have a starting spot for him.”
The Yankees could have added Gonzalez to the roster and said too bad, you signed a contract and we’re going to use you as a reliever whether you like it or not, but that’s not how the real world works. It sounds like it was made clear to the Yankees that Gonzalez only wanted to start, and they entered into the contract with that understanding. When the opt-out arrived, they could’ve reneged on that understanding and put him in the bullpen, though that would’ve damaged their relationship with his representatives (Scott Boras). I have been doing this long enough to know there will be a time later this season when the Yankees need a starting pitcher, and a time when Gonzalez has a nice two or three start stretch (he signed with the Brewers yesterday), and the “should’ve kept Gio!” crowd will come out of the woodwork. They say you can’t predict baseball, but trust me, this is as predictable as it gets. The thing is, the Yankees could not keep Gonzalez around until they need a starter later in the season, whenever that is. The opt-out was this past weekend. That’s when the decision had to be made. With every starter except Severino healthy and German pitching well — there is definitely something to be said for retaining as much pitching depth as possible, but bumping 26-year-old German from the rotation when he’s pitching like this to make room for 33-year-old Gonzalez makes zero sense — plus Jonathan Loaisiga available as the sixth starter (don’t sleep on David Hale as a depth option either, I’ve heard through the grapevine he’s taken well to adjustments suggested by the analytics group and has upped his velocity and spin rates this year), the Yankees did not need another starter, so they let Gonzalez go per the terms of their agreement. There’s not much more to it than that.
9. CC Sabathia is one of my all-time favorite players — seriously, how can anyone not love that guy? — and watching his resurgence these last few years has been a joy. He looked done from 2013-15. Like done done. Then he reinvented himself as a cutter pitcher and went into last night’s start with a 3.68 ERA (119 ERA+) in 491.1 innings since Opening Day 2016. Roughly 20% better than league average from ages 35-38. That is bonkers. During Sabathia’s start last weekend, Lindsey Adler wondered aloud how many veteran pitchers will get a chance to reinvent themselves in a similar manner, and the answer is not many. The free agent market is brutal right now, especially for 30-somethings who have shown signs of decline. 2013-15 Sabathia doesn’t get a chance to reinvent himself in 2019. That said, 2013-15 Sabathia probably only received a chance to reinvent himself in 2013-15 because he was already under contract. It’s not like the Yankees re-signed him and gave him a chance. They didn’t have much choice. The point stands though. Veterans no longer get that last chance to adjust like Sabathia did. That’s why guys like James Shields and Yovani Gallardo remain unsigned. No team will give them a chance to figure it out. I’m curious to see what happens with Felix Hernandez. He’s an impending free agent and is clearly no longer the pitcher he was in his prime. He turned only 33 earlier this week though, so he’s not completely over the hill, plus he possesses an elite combination of natural talent and pitchability. Do the Mariners (or another team) give Felix a chance to reinvent himself and carve out a second phase of his career in his mid-to-late-30s, or is this it? That’d be a bummer. Credit Sabathia for reinventing himself the way he did. Not many guys will get the same opportunity.