Game 28: Chance To Win Another Series

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

The Yankees and Blue Jays have split the first two games of this series at Rogers Centre — the Yankees aren’t fans of the new turf, by the way — so tonight’s rubber game will determine the series winner. New York has won each of their last five series and they haven’t won six straight since the middle of the 2011 season, when they won seven straight. Would be nice to get over that hump, no?

Tonight’s pitching matchup would have been great about five years ago: CC Sabathia vs. Mark Buehrle. Now they’re both in the latter phases of their careers trying to figure out how to pitch with reduced stuff. (Yes, even Buehrle’s trying to learn how to pitch with lost velocity even though he had little to begin win.) The Yankees have historically owned Buehrle but I don’t really think that means much. This Yankees team is different than last year’s and the all the other ones before it. Here is Toronto’s lineup and here is New York’s lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Chris Young
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. C Brian McCann
  6. RF Carlos Beltran
  7. 3B Chase Headley
  8. SS Stephen Drew
  9. 2B Jose Pirela
    LHP CC Sabathia

It’s been a real nice day in Toronto, with a clear sky and temperatures in the 70s. I’m guessing the roof will be open tonight. First pitch for tonight’s game is scheduled for 7:07pm ET. You can watch on YES. Enjoy.

Injury Update: Brett Gardner is out with a stiff neck, Joe Girardi told reporters this afternoon. He hurt himself on a head-first slide last night. Seems like it’s only a day-to-day thing, thankfully.

Roster Move: As you can tell from the lineup, Pirela (concussion) has been activated off the DL. Gregorio Petit was placed on the 15-day DL with a right hand contusion in a corresponding move, the Yankees announced. Petit took a pitch to the hand last night and the various reporters say it was pretty swollen today. Timing worked out well.

2015 Draft: Tyler Jay

Tyler Jay | LHP

Background
Jay, 21, went undrafted out of an Illinois high school in 2012 and landed at the University of Illinois, where he’s been working in relief since the first day he stepped on campus. He has a 0.73 ERA with 54 strikeouts and four walks in 49.1 innings this spring after pitching to a 2.32 ERA with a 67/23 K/BB in 62 innings his freshman and sophomore years. Jay dominated with Team USA last summer, striking out 21 batters in 16.2 innings with a 0.00 ERA.

Scouting Report
Jay is miscast as a reliever because he has the deep repertoire and command not only to be a starter, but a potential impact starter. He sits in the mid-90s with a ton of life on his fastball as a reliever, so even if he drops into the low-90s working as a starter, Jay still has above-average velocity for a lefty with plenty of action on the pitch. He throws both a curveball and a slider — the curve is the better pitch right now because he can consistently throw it for strikes or bury it in the dirt for swings and misses, but the slider has flashed put-away potential through the years as well — and also has a changeup, though its development has lagged because he doesn’t need it in relief. Jay, who is listed at 6-foot-1 and 185 lbs., locates everything well thanks to an easy delivery he repeats pitch after pitch.

Miscellany
Keith Law (subs. req’d), MLB.com, and Baseball America rank Jay as the 16th, 19th, and 29th best prospect in this year’s draft class in their latest rankings, respectively. Jay’s college coach likely cost him several thousand dollars (maybe millions) by choosing to use him as a reliever — Jay actually started the Illini’s third game this year, pitched well (5 IP, 0 R, 6 K), then was immediately moved back to the bullpen — because Jay is believed to have top five pick ability as a starter. Scouts haven’t been able to see him pitch regularly in that role though. I assume whichever team drafts Jay will give him the opportunity to start because the potential for command of four average or better pitches exists, and if the rotation doesn’t work out, he can always go back to the bullpen and resume being a shutdown reliever. The Yankees pick 16th and 30th this year and Jay’s combination of polish and upside seems right up their alley.

Hot starts by A-Rod and Chris Young have left little playing time for Garrett Jones

(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)
(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)

The Yankees had been after Garrett Jones for quite a while before landing him this offseason in the Martin Prado/Nathan Eovaldi trade. They first tried to get him in the A.J. Burnett trade a few years ago, at least as far as we know. Given his left-handed pull power and the ability to play first base as well as right field, Jones sure seemed like a good fit for the roster this year. The Yankees needed protection at those two positions as well as DH.

Instead of being that part-time first baseman, part-time right fielder, part-time DH against righties this year, the 33-year-old Jones has been limited to 34 unproductive plate appearances in the team’s first 27 games. He’s started just seven of the 27 games — two in right, two at first, and three at DH. Jones is currently in an 0-for-15 slump and has hit .152/.176/.242 (9 wRC+) with no homers so far this year. His defense hasn’t been anything special but that was always the case.

The lack of playing time is only partly due to the ugly batting line. Both Alex Rodriguez and Chris Young are off to very good starts and are stealing at-bats from Jones, so to speak. No one expected A-Rod to be this productive this soon. We all figured Jones would get a fair amount of DH at-bats coming into the season. And whenever someone in the outfield has needed a day off, Young has stepped in because he’s tearing the cover off the ball, even against righties.

The leaves Jones almost as a man without a role. He’s not seeing much time in the outfield, isn’t seeing much time at DH, and Mark Teixeira‘s combination of good health and lots of dingers has kept Jones from playing first base as well. There’s just no way to squeeze him into the lineup right now, and his lack of production is only going to make it easier for Joe Girardi to avoid using him going forward. Jones is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Jones averaged 527 plate appearances per season from 2010-14 and never came to the plate fewer than 440 times. He’s on pace for 204 plate appearances this year, so his playing time has been more than cut in half, and it’s hard to be a bench player after playing everyday your entire career. This is a chicken or the egg thing — is Jones not producing because he isn’t playing, or is he not playing because he isn’t producing? It’s probably some of both. He’s the position player version of David Carpenter, basically.

I’m not saying Jones should play more. I just don’t think he’s turned into a true talent 9 wRC+ (!) hitter in an offseason and my guess is the lack of regular playing time is at least partially to blame. It’s hard to stay sharp when you play this infrequently. Extra batting practice and time in the cage only does so much. Live pitching is a different animal. A-Rod and Young (and Teixeira) have been too good to take out of the lineup and the Yankees should milk those hot starts for all they’re worth.

Jones is stuck in an unfortunate spot right now, and, aside from an injury, I’m not sure there is any way to get him the playing time he maybe needs to be a productive part-time player. I don’t think the Yankees should replace him, at least not yet, and even if they were going to replace him, who’s a better option? It’s not like the next guy is going to play much. Calling up Slade Heathcott or Ramon Flores to play once a week is a waste. For the time being the Yankees should ride it out with Jones and hope he figures out a way to be a productive yet seldom-used bench player.

Yankees’ improved offense starts at the top with Ellsbury and Gardner

And they have a special handshake. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
I bet they have a secret handshake only other fast guys know about. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

When the Yankees missed the postseason in both 2013 and 2014, the offense was the main culprit. Sure, there were other factors like injuries, bad team defense, and just an okay pitching staff, but the Yankees really struggled to score runs and it was the reason they lost more often than not. They hit .244/.307/.378 (88 wRC+) in over 12,000 plate appearances as a team from 2013-14. I mean, come on.

Thankfully the story has been much different so far this year. The Yankees are averaging 4.85 runs per game, up considerably from 3.91 runs per game last year and well-above the 4.19 league average. They’re hitting .244/.321/.418 (104 wRC+) as a team overall, which is oh so much better than what we sat through the last two seasons. Much of the improved offense is thanks to power — the Yankees have a team .174 ISO this after .134 from 2013-14.

The Yankees are also benefiting from the best one-two lineup punch in baseball. Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner are both off to tremendous starts, especially hitting for average, getting on-base, and running the bases. The power isn’t really there, but that’s not their game. Look at these numbers:

AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ SB/CS K% BB%
Ellsbury .358/.433/.415 143 11/4 12.5% 9.2%
Average Leadoff Hitter .262/.320/.389 99 4.4/1.8 17.7% 7.1%
Gardner .309/.404/.444 141 8/1 12.4% 11.3%
Average No. 2 Hitter .261/.321/.405 105 1.1/0.6 18.3% 7.7%

The only other team in baseball getting something even remotely close to Ellsbury/Gardner production from the one-two spots this year are the Angels thanks to my boy Kole Calhoun (139 wRC+) and the amazing Mike Trout (167 wRC+). Calhoun recently spent a few days hitting lower in the order as Mike Scioscia tried to generate more offense too, so he hasn’t even been a full-time leadoff guy.

Of course, traditional lineup construction plays a big role in only one other team having two hitters his productive atop the lineup. Just about every team has two above-average hitters these days, yet managers continue to adhere to the whole “the best hitter bats third” theory. Teams are slowly starting to come around on batting their best hitters second — Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista have taken turns batting second for the Blue Jays, Joey Votto has batted second for the Reds, etc. — though it’s hardly common practice.

Joe Girardi deserves credit for batting his two best hitters in the top two lineup spots. It certainly helps that they are leadoff types who should hit near the top of the order, but Girardi could easily split them up saying he doesn’t like back-to-back lefties atop the lineup and no one would really question it. It’s sorta silly, yeah. It’s one of those things managers do though. Aside from occasionally sitting Gardner for Chris Young, Girardi has stuck with Ellsbury and Gardner atop the lineup.

“We definitely push each other,” said Brett Gardner to Chad Jennings earlier this week. “It’s a lot of fun hitting next to (Ellsbury) in the lineup. Feels like every time I come up, he’s on base. I feel like he makes me better, and hopefully he feels the same about me. Like I said, we push each other. We take a lot of pride in getting on base, and that’s our job at the top of the lineup. We feel like we’re two leadoff hitters, and we can get on base for those guys in the middle of the lineup and give them RBI opportunities.”

As a result of these two atop the lineup, the Yankees’ number three lineup spot has batted with at least one man on-base in 66 of 124 plate appearances this year, or 53.2%. Last year it was 44.8% and the league average is 45.0%. (The rate for the cleanup spot is nearly identical to last year and the league average, in case you’re wondering.) We’re talking about an improvement of nearly ten percentage points from one year to the next. Ellsbury and Gardner are table-setters and man, they couldn’t possibly be doing a better job right now.

Lineup protection is not a myth. It just exists in a different way than everyone’s been saying for the last century. The best protection is not having a great hitter behind you — that helps! but lots and lots of research has shown it doesn’t help that much — it’s having runners on base when you’re at the plate. MLB hitters have put up a .239/.299/.377 (90 wRC+) batting line with the bases empty this season and .262/.332/.407 (104 wRC+) with men on base this year. It’s not a sample size issue either. The league wide split was 93/101 last year and has been similar for years and years and years.

Batting with Ellsbury and/or Gardner on base is the best protection a Yankee can have this year and it’s not just because of those bases empty/men on base batting splits either. Those two guys are not typical base-runners. They draw attention when they’re on base because they’re threats to steal. Remember when Clay Buchholz threw over to first base even though Ellsbury was literally standing on the bag (twice!) a few weeks ago? That’s what they do to pitchers. They’re unnerving. I’m not sure it’s possible to quantify that but we see it game after game.

Last season the Yankees were hamstrung atop the lineup by Derek Jeter, a legacy Yankee the team was unwilling to drop in the order. Jeter’s an all-time great, we all know that, but the 2014 version of Derek hit .256/.304/.313 (73 wRC+) and snuffed out rallies on a nightly basis. That’s not happening this year. Girardi is able to use his two best hitters atop the lineup and the offense has benefited in a big way. The Ellsbury/Gardner duo is a legitimate game-changer and they’re a huge reason the offense has improved so much 27 games into 2015.

“They get our offense going,” Girardi said to Jennings. “That’s their job, and they’ve been really good at it. You look at the stretch we’ve been in, they’ve played extremely well. They had a tremendous weekend; a big part of our success in Boston, and we need it to continue. You can’t expect Jake to get on six times every night. It would be nice, but both of these guys have an ability to change the game in a lot of ways, and that’s what they’ve been doing.”

Estimating the length of Stephen Drew’s leash

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Following a 2-for-4 effort in last night’s win over the Blue Jays, shortstop turned second baseman Stephen Drew is now hitting .167/.247/.359 (65 wRC+) on the season. He was hitless in his previous 17 at-bats heading into last night’s game and is in a 7-for-45 (.156) rut in his last 14 games overall. Drew has had his moments, most notably the grand slam in Baltimore, but so far he isn’t doing much better than the .162/.237/.299 (44 wRC+) line he put up a year ago.

Despite the lack of production, Brian Cashman recently gave Drew a vote of confidence and declared his job safe. “I think Drew’s been fine. Right now, I’m not looking at anyone being an alternative at second base to Drew,” said the GM to Andrew Marchand last week. That’s not surprising. Cashman has always been the type to preach patience, and even if he was unhappy with Drew’s play, he wouldn’t tell the media. That’s just how the Yankees roll nowadays.

That said, if Drew doesn’t start hitting reasonably soon, Cashman and the Yankees will become impatient and look for alternatives. His defense has been very good, no doubt about it, but one team can only have so many dead spots in the lineup. And unlike Didi Gregorius and Carlos Beltran, the Yankees have no long-term stake in Drew. He’s on a one-year contract and figures to be gone after the season. So how long will his leash be? Let’s look at some recent precedents set by the Yankees.

The Tony Womack Leash

Gosh, the Womack signing was so bad. He hit .270/.314/.360 (72 wRC+) with 0.6 fWAR in nearly 1,000 games and 4,300 plate appearances as an everyday player from 1997-2003, had a career year thanks to some St. Louis Cardinals devil magic in 2004 (94 wRC+ and 2.8 fWAR), and turned it into a two-year contract worth $4M with the Yankees. Gross.

Womack hit the emptiest .280 you’ll ever see during his first month in pinstripes (.280/.330/.329, 80 wRC+) and was erratic at second base, so in early-May the Yankees called up Robinson Cano and temporarily stuck Womack in left field, a position he’d never played before. By June, Womack was a part-time player on the bench. It certainly helped that Cano came up and hit right away, of course.

Womack’s leash was very short — he got one month as a second baseman and about a month and a half as an outfielder before being banished to the bench. We’re already one month into the season and Cashman’s comment sure make it seem like Drew is not in imminent danger of losing his starting job, but perhaps he ends up a part-timer like Womack come mid-June if he doesn’t right the ship.

The Brian Roberts Leash

(AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
(AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

This one is much more recent. The Yankees signed Roberts a year ago to replace Cano, giving him a one-year deal worth $2M despite a recent history of injuries and poor performance. He hit .246/.310/.356 (81 wRC+) and played in only 192 of 648 possible games from 2010-13. Replacing Cano is an impossible task, and the Yankees were hoping Roberts could stay healthy and be a pest at the bottom of the lineup. Nothing more.

Roberts did manage to stay healthy but he never did hit, putting up a .237/.300/.360 (84 wRC+) batting line in 348 plate appearances before being designated for assignment at the trade deadline, coincidentally when the Yankees acquired Drew. The Roberts leash is the trade deadline — hang on to Drew for the next few weeks, ride it out, then if necessary make an upgrade at the end of the July and drop him. So four months, basically. That’s the length of this leash.

The Raul Ibanez Leash

Man, Ibanez was awesome as a Yankees. Except for all those months he wasn’t. Before he started smashing all those clutch homers in September and October, Ibanez hit only .235/.303/.437 (95 wRC+) in 357 plate appearances as a corner outfielder/DH. And remember, Raul’s defense was really bad too. Really, really bad. He was a below-average hitter and a well-below-average defender. Not much to like there, at least not until he started hitting those homers.

The Yankees signed Ibanez to a one-year, $1.1M contract and they stuck with him all season. Raul’s a great guy and easy to like, but finding an upgrade at the DH spot wasn’t going to be all that tough, yet the Yankees stuck it out and were rewarded late in the season. So the Ibanez leash is the full season. The Yankees could stick with Drew, ride out the ups and downs throughout the summer, and hope it all works out in the end.

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

The Miguel Cairo/Jayson Nix Leash

This is the worst kind of leash. This is the “he just won’t go away!” leash. Cairo played with the Yankees in 2004, 2006, and 2007 while Nix was around from 2012-13. Every time it seemed like these guys were about to be replaced or let go as a free agent, they managed to stick around. The Yankees kept bringing them back and we kept wondering why.

So imagine the Yankees not only ride out the season with an unproductive Drew, but bring him back next season in some capacity. And then maybe bring him back the season after that too. Don’t laugh. It could happen. The Yankees tried to sign Drew before both the 2013 and 2014 seasons before finally getting their hands on him. They like something about him and could continue to like that something after the season. The Cairo/Nix leash spans multiple years.

* * *

My hunch is Drew is closer to the Ibanez leash than the Womack leash. He might not necessarily remain the starting second baseman all season if he doesn’t pick up, but I do think Drew will be on the roster all year. And why not keep him around as a bench player if it comes to that? His middle infield defense is valuable and he’d be a better backup option than Brendan Ryan or Gregorio Petit.

The Yankees don’t have a 2005 Cano waiting but they do have Jose Pirela, who is expected to be added to the roster later today. Joe Girardi indicated Pirela will play against lefties, and he does well in that role, he may see more time against righties down the road. Rob Refsnyder is starting to heat up a bit and he’s looming in Triple-A, so the Yankees do have some other second base options to consider. Given how close the AL East race both is right now and figures to be throughout the summer, the Yankees shouldn’t stick with an unproductive Drew if a better option presents itself.

Yankees escape messy ninth with 6-3 win over Blue Jays

My favorite thing about the 2015 Yankees so far is that one loss is just that, one loss. It doesn’t spiral into two or three or four losses in a row like it the last two seasons. The Yankees rebounded from Monday’s tough series opening loss with a 6-3 win over the Blue Jays on Tuesday. This game was pretty stress-free for the first eight and a half innings. New York has won 14 of their last 18 games.

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

Led By The Leadoff Hitter
Jacoby Ellsbury is a pretty streaky hitter, and right now he’s absolutely locked in and pitchers just can’t him out. The Yankees had three-run scoring hits in the first five innings and Ellsbury was involved in all three. He led off the first inning with a single, moved to third on Brett Gardner‘s hustle double, then scored on Alex Rodriguez‘s double down the line. Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada was in the stretch right away.

In the second, Estrada was on the verge of a clean inning when Josh Donaldson tried to barehand Gregorio Petit‘s soft ground ball, only to throw it into the stands. I’m pretty sure Petit would have beaten it out anyway, but the throw gave him the extra base. Ellsbury made Donaldson and Estrada pay with a single slashed down the left field line. That gave the Yankees an early 3-0 lead with Ellsbury scoring one run and driving in another.

The fifth inning rally started with another Ellsbury leadoff single, his second leadoff hit of the game and third hit on the night overall. Ellsbury stole second later in the inning but that didn’t matter — Mark Teixeira unloaded on Estrada’s first pitch fastball for a monster two-run homer to right-center. Gone off the bat, cleared the bullpens, so on and so forth. Estrada led MLB with 29 homers allowed in only 150.2 innings last year and pitches like that fastball to Teixeira show why. Batting practice.

The homer gave the Yankees a nice 5-0 lead in the fifth inning and made things much more comfortable with Joe Girardi understandably wanting to stay away from his key late-inning relievers if at all possible. Ellsbury led the way offensively with three hits in five at-bats, scoring two of the six runs and driving in another. He has an eight-game hitting streak and is 28-for-67 (.418) in his last 16 games overall. Yowza.

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

Big Mike Goes Eight
For the first time as a Yankee and only the second time in his career, Michael Pineda completed eight innings on Tuesday. Eight shutout innings too. And he did it a) after laboring a bit in the early innings, and b) on a night when the bullpen really needed a rest. That’s what an ace does. Pineda put four men on base in the first three innings and just two in the next five. He retired the last seven and 15 of the last 17 batters he faced.

The Blue Jays had their best chance to rally against Pineda in the third inning, after he walked number nine hitter Ezequiel Carrera on five pitches to start the frame. Two outs followed, but the Yankees caught a break on Russell Martin‘s two-out double when third base coach Luis Rivera held Carrera up. I thought he was going to score pretty easily with two outs, but I guess not. Pineda got some more help from Gardner when he snow-coned Edwin Encarnacion’s fly ball for the final out.

Big Mike was in cruise control after that. He held Toronto to five hits and one walk in those eight shutout innings, striking out six. Pineda also got eleven outs on the ground and another three on infield pop-ups. Considering the trouble he had in those first three innings, completing eight scoreless on only 101 pitches is pretty great. Big time outing from Big Mike. The bullpen needed it too.

Messy Ninth
So we’re never going to see David Carpenter in a meaningful spot again. Carpenter, who had thrown only 16 pitches in the last 13 days, allowed three runs on three hits and a walk while getting only two outs in the ninth. Andrew Miller had to come into the game for the final out, which he recorded after walking Jose Bautista to bring the tying run to the plate. Is Carpenter struggling because he hasn’t pitched or has he not pitched because he’s struggling? We’re probably not going to get much of a chance to find out the answer.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Leftovers
I learned something new in this game: apparently the pitch is still live after a balk is called. That’s what happened on Ellsbury’s run-scoring single in the second. Estrada was called for a balk mid-delivery, threw the pitch anyway, and Ellsbury shot it down the line to score the run with two outs. Apparently it’s a free swing when that happens — the manager gets to decide whether to accept the balk or the outcome of the play. Who knew?

The Yankees scored their sixth run when Didi Gregorius singled in Brian McCann in the eighth. Stephen Drew broke his 0-for-17 skid with two singles, one off a lefty and one off a righty. Everyone in the starting lineup had at least one hit except for Carlos Beltran, who went 0-for-4. Beltran has 16 hits this year — seven against Red Sox starters and nine against everyone else. The Yankees went 4-for-8 with runners in scoring position as a team.

Petit took a pitch to the right hand in his final at-bat of the game. He stayed in to play defense for one more inning before being taken out. Preliminary tests came back clean, but either way Jose Pirela is ready to be activated on Wednesday. Petit would probably rather sit on the big league DL for two weeks rather than go to Triple-A.

Teixeira’s home run was his tenth of the season. This was the team’s 27th game, and prior to this year, the fastest Teixeira ever reached ten homers was 38 games in 2009. He was a chronically slow starter earlier in his career, but still, beat your old personal best by eleven games? No gluten for anyone next offseason.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
Here are the box score, video highlights, and updated standings. Also check out our Bullpen Workload and Announcer Standings pages. Here is the win probability graph:


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
The Yankees and Blue Jays will wrap up this three game series on Wednesday night, when veteran southpaws CC Sabathia and Mark Buehrle face off. Feel free to insert a joke about which one has the faster fastball.

DotF: Judge homers but Trenton loses again

RHP Jared Burton (lat) was activated off the minor league disabled list and sent to High-A Tampa, reports Brendan Kuty. I’m sure the big league vet will only make a few tune-up appearances with Tampa before joining the Triple-A Scranton bullpen.

Triple-A Scranton (3-1 loss to Gwinnett)

  • CF Slade Heathcott: 3-4, 1 R — 21-for-51 (.412) in his last 13 games
  • LF Ramon Flores & 2B Rob Refsnyder: both 1-4, 1 K — Flores threw a runner out at the plate
  • RF Tyler Austin: 0-4, 2 K — threw a runner out at second … he’s really been struggling at the plate for a few weeks now
  • C Austin Romine: 0-4, 2 K
  • RHP Kyle Davies: 7 IP, 10 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 3 K, 1 Balk, 7/7 GB/FB, 1 E (throwing) — 69 of 103 pitches were strikes (70%)
  • LHP Jacob Lindgren: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 1/0 GB/FB — ten of 15 pitches were strikes (67%) … ho hum
  • RHP Nick Rumbelow: 1 IP, zeroes, 2 K, 0/1 GB/FB — seven of ten pitches were strikes

[Read more…]