Weekend Open Thread

Free agents are starting to sign! It’s about time. Carlos Santana is heading to the Phillies (for real) and Zack Cozart will join Shohei Ohtani in Anaheim. Speaking of Ohtani, Zach Buchanan got his hands on the recruiting package the Reds submitted to Ohtani. Make sure you check that out. It’s a neat little behind the curtain look at what teams were sending Ohtani earlier this month.

Friday: Here is an open thread for the evening. Rangers, Devils, Nets. They’re all playing tonight. That’s pretty much it. Talk about those games, the Ohtani presentation, or anything else here that isn’t religion or politics. Thanks in advance.

Saturday: This is the open thread again. There are two NFL games today (Bears vs. Lions at 4:30pm ET and Chargers vs. Chiefs at 8:30pm ET) plus the Rangers, Islanders, and Knicks are all playing. Have at it.

Sunday: For the final time, this is the open thread. The Nets are playing and there is all the day’s NFL action as well. Enjoy the rest of the weekend.

Assessing Trade Targets

Cole. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
Cole. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Yankees are looking for pitching. It’s shocking, I know, but it’s going on. Even though they ‘found’ a pitcher yesterday by re-signing CC Sabathia to a one year, $10 million contract, it’s unlikely that they’ll just settle in with what they have. Sure, a rotation of Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray, Sabathia, and Jordan Montgomery is solid, but that doesn’t mean they can’t and won’t add to it. We’ve seen the Yankees connected to free agent Alex Cobb a bunch of times this offseason. However, most of the buzz around the Yankees and pitching seems to be concentrated around the trade rumor mill.

Over the past two weeks or so, the Yankees have been linked to no fewer than four starting pitchers in trade rumors. One is division rival Chris Archer of the Rays. Another, also in the AL is Tigers’ starter and 2016 AL Rookie of the Year, Michael Fulmer. The other two hail from the National League–Gerrit Cole of the Pirates, the Yankees’ first round draft pick in 2008, and Patrick Corbin off the Diamondbacks (who became an absolute monster in one iteration of franchise mode in The Show for me many moons ago).

When considering a trade, we’ve got a multitude of factors to weigh, but they can be boiled down to three fundamental categories: cost, control, and performance.

Cost operates on two fronts: How much money and how many players will it take to get your target? Control considers the player’s current contract and that/those of the player(s) you’re giving up. And performance deals, of course, with whether or not the guy is any good or has done well. All three categories can and will intersect when evaluating whether or not to make a trade.

To bring work home with me even more than an English teacher already does, I developed a quick rubric of sors to judge each trade candidate using the aforementioned fundamental categories.

 

Category/Score 3 2 1
Cost $ Low $ Medium $ High $
Cost player Low player Medium player High player
Control 3+ years beyond 2018 1-2 years beyond 2018 Impending free agent
Performance High performance consistently AND recently Some inconsistencies, may be a rebound/regression candidate Consistently poor performance

For the acquiring team, you obviously want the cost to be low and the control and performance to each be high. The better that combination, the more desirable the trade target. Let’s use Giancarlo Stanton as a test case or model to implement this rubric. We have hindsight here and in a vacuum, without the Marlins’ apparently dire financial situation, Stanton would be high on all three categories. He’s got a big contract for a long, long time, and just won NL MVP; in a “normal” world, he would’ve cost an arm, a leg, and then some. But, in reality, Stanton was acquired for a low player cost and even the big cost of his contract–which has him under control for a long time, a double-edged sword, perhaps–is somewhat mitigated by the Marlins kicking in $30 million. By any rubric or measure, this was a no brainer trade for the Yankees to make.

Let’s lead off by looking at Gerrit Cole, the pitcher most consistently linked to the Yankees recently. Cole is projected by MLBTR  to make $7.5 million in 2018. That’s not bad at all. Additionally, he’s also under control for 2018 and 2019. The former puts him at a 3 for Cost $ and a 2 for control. Not a bad start. The player cost is where we hit a bit of a bump or a snag. Yesterday, it got out that the Pirates were going to ask for Gleyber Torres in exchange for Cole, which is, uh, not gonna happen. Good for them for asking, but I’d sooner bet on the snowball in hell. Failing Torres, though, it’s likely the Pirates will then ask for Clint Frazier and more–Chance Adams, perhaps, and another lesser piece. At first blush, that seems to be the going rate for a pitcher of Cole’s reputation, so that could just be the cost of doing business, right? You’ve gotta give to get and all that, and if both sides are hurting, then the trade is probably good. But Cole seems to have more in the bank on reputation than on performance lately. He was downright elite in 2015 but then just sorta good in 2016–and hurt–and pretty meh overall in 2017. He had a big home run spike last year–his HR/FB% more than doubled from the year before–which could explain a lot. But when you’re poised to give up someone as talented as Clint Frazier and a potential league-minimum, back of the rotation guy in Chance Adams, AND another piece, I’d want something more than a guy who’s pretty much the definition of a 2 on my rubric. The idea of Cole seems to be better than the reality.

(Brian Davidson/Getty Images)
(Brian Davidson/Getty Images)

Starting with the money, we get another manageable situation in Diamondbacks lefty Patrick Corbin. He’s projected to make $8.5 million. Another 3 in the Cost $ category. Where he loses out, though, is that this is his last year of team control and he’s a free agent at the end of the year. Big time 1 in the Control category. That would likely bring his player cost down, too, as would performance that was okay-ish in 2017 (4.03 ERA, 4.08 FIP), his second full year back from injury after missing all of 2014. 2016, by the way, was pretty ugly for Corbin (5.15 ERA, 4.84 FIP). What stands out is a garishly high HR/FB% of 15.8% last year; his career mark is 13.8%. Granted he plays in a homer friendly park, but that wouldn’t be likely to move down in Yankee Stadium and the AL East. If I’m feeling generous, I give him a 1.75 in the Performance category and probably a high 1, low 2 for player cost. Overall, I don’t think this one would be worth it unless that player cost dipped way down low.

Archer. (Presswire)
Archer. (Presswire)

Chris Archer is a pitcher who, on the face of things, passes every mark for a Yankee trade target. He’s got a good reputation and has spent his entire career in the AL East. Beyond that, he’s got a team friendly contract that has him making $6.25 million in 2018, $7.5 million in 2019, $9 million in 2020, and $11 million in 2021; the latter two are club options with buyouts of $1.75 million and $250, 000 respectively. That all makes for a fantastic mark in both Cost $ and Control. Unfortunately, that also means he’d likely be a 1 in Cost Player. Add on the fact that the Yankees would be trading with a division foe and you’re looking at a very steep cost. In terms of the Performance category, Archer is sort of in the same territory as Gerrit Cole; based on the way we think and talk about him, you’d think his stats would be a lot more glowing. While he hasn’t been bad by any real stretch, he’s failed to repeat the great season he had in 2015. A big home run spike in 2016 and 2017 is likely the cause of that. Still, he throws lots of innings (200+ the last three seasons), strikes out lots of guys, and doesn’t walk a ton of batters. Throw in that with the with the contract and this is someone who, unlike Cole, I could see giving up some top-flight talent for.

(Justin Edmonds/Getty)
(Justin Edmonds/Getty)

Michael Fulmer is about to start his third year of MLB service, so his first shot at arbitration won’t be until a year from now. Per Cot’s , Fulmer is also going to qualify for Super 2 status, meaning he’s got an extra year of arbitration, giving his team control of him through 2022. Hot damn. That’s a 3 and then some on the Control category. Even if he signed some sort of extension or contract, his mark in Cost $ is going to be a 3 pretty much no matter what. In terms of performance, Fulmer more or less repeated his ROY season, though with a lower strikeout rate. He kept up a big ground ball rate, though, and did a good job of keeping the ball in the park. That would probably change in moving from Comerica Park to Yankee Stadium, of course. Still, he’s got good control and command and keeps the ball on the ground; if you’re not going to strike people out, those two are the next best things. All this, though, of course means that Fulmer’s player cost is going to be sky high. The Tigers would be justified in asking anything–non-Torres division–in exchange for Fulmer. While there would be doubts in my mind about paying the player cost for Cole and some minor ones in paying the player cost for Archer, those more or less don’t apply to Fulmer. A young, supremely controlled pitcher with history of solid performance? Yep.

Given all this, my preferred order of acquisition would look like this:

Fulmer, followed by Archer, then a toss up between Corbin and Cole. While Cole is definitely the better pitcher, the cost for Corbin would likely be a lot lower, which evens them out a little bit. I’m not sure, obviously, what’s going to happen, but if the Yankees are going to go hard for one of these guys, it should be Fulmer. The farm system would take a hit and it would suck to say goodbye to someone as fun and cool as Clint Frazier, but Fulmer would make an immediate impact and a lasting one.

Yankees, Sabathia reportedly agree to one-year, $10M deal

(Gregory Shamus/Getty)
(Gregory Shamus/Getty)

CC Sabathia is staying with the Yankees. According to Mark Feinsand, the Yankees and Sabathia have agreed to a new one-year contract worth $10M with incentives based on innings pitched. The deal is pending a physical which, despite Sabathia’s knee, shouldn’t be an issue since the Yankees know all about his medicals. The Yankees have not yet confirmed the agreement.

Sabathia, 37, reportedly spoke with the Angels and Blue Jays this offseason, though he made it clear his first choice was remaining with the Yankees. “This is my home. I want to see this thing through. I want to come back here and finish things off. This is where I want to be,” said Sabathia following the ALCS Game Seven loss a few weeks ago.

“There were very competitive offers out there that really made CC take his time,” said Sabathia’s agent to Joel Sherman. “In the end, he feels there’s unfinished business to attend to. Loves his teammates, clubhouse and the moves the Yankees are making this offseason. (Sabathia) wanted to come back for his 10th season with the New York Yankees.”

Given his age and performance and leadership, there’s a pretty good chance Sabathia and the Yankees are operating on the Andy Pettitte plan now, meaning they keep working out new one-year contracts as long as Sabathia wants to continue pitching. That would be cool. There’s no such thing as too much pitching and this signing doesn’t break the bank.

This past season Sabathia threw 148.2 innings with a 3.69 ERA (4.49 FIP), and he did it with the same cutter heavy approach that revived his career in 2016. He’s a soft contact machine now. Sabathia had the lowest average exit velocity (83.9 mph), fifth lowest hard contact rate (24.1%), and sixth highest soft contact rate (27.2%) in baseball in 2017.

Sabathia will join Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray, and Jordan Montgomery in the rotation. The Yankees have been connected to a bunch of young controllable starters in recent days, including guys like Gerrit Cole and Michael Fulmer, and I don’t believe re-signing Sabathia will stop that. I think the Yankees still want another starter.

With Sabathia back on a $10M deal, the Yankees are approximately $23M under the $197M luxury tax threshold, though keep in mind they have to set some money aside for midseason additions and call-ups. In addition to another starter, the Yankees could use another infielder after trading away Starlin Castro and Chase Headley.

Saturday Links: Cole, Ellsbury, Diamondbacks, Judge, Fowler

Cole. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
Cole. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

As of today, pitchers and catchers are 59 days away from reporting to Tampa for Spring Training. Two months. There’s lots to do in those two months too. The Yankees need another pitcher and probably another infielder. and eventually the top free agents are going to have to sign. Anyway, here are some notes to check out.

Yankees, Pirates talking Cole trade

As rumored during the Winter Meetings, the Yankees and Pirates are indeed talking about a Gerrit Cole trade, reports George King. The deal “possibly” could include Clint Frazier, and the Pirates are said to want a young big league ready pitcher as well. Chance Adams is the obvious fit there, though who knows, maybe the Pirates prefer Domingo German or Luis Cessa. Strangers things have happened.

On one hand, Cole turned only 27 in September, and he has obvious ace-caliber upside. Plus he’s under control for two seasons, not just one. On the other hand, Cole has gone backwards the last two years. He had a 4.26 ERA (4.08 FIP) in 203 innings this season, which is as close to league average as it gets. League average is fine! A league average workhorse is quite valuable. I just worry about trading an ace package for a guy who hasn’t been an ace in two years.

Yankees, D’Backs talked Ellsbury trade

The Yankees and Diamondbacks discussed a Jacoby Ellsbury trade at some point recently, according to Brendan Kuty, though apparently it was a one-sided conversation. The D’Backs weren’t interested. Arizona appears to be one of the few potential landing spots for Ellsbury given the fact they need an outfielder, and Ellsbury and manager Torey Lovullo know each other from their Red Sox days. Plus Ellsbury has a house in Arizona, apparently.

Supposedly Ellsbury does not want to waive his no-trade clause, which could simply be his way of playing hard to get, and leveraging the no-trade clause into some sort of compensation for agreeing to a deal (pick up his 2021 option)? That might be pushing it. Or maybe Ellsbury doesn’t really want to leave the Yankees because he wants to win, and is willing to accept a reduced role. Whatever it is, he is in control here. If he doesn’t want to go to the D’Backs (or anywhere else), he doesn’t have to.

Judge will be ready for Spring Training

Earlier this week Brian Cashman told Brendan Kuty that following his shoulder surgery, Aaron Judge will be ready for the start of Spring Training, though the procedure will throw a wrench into his offseason workouts. Judge will have to start hitting a little later than usual. Here’s what Cashman said:

“He won’t be hitting in the winter the way he’s used to doing but in terms of hitting the ground in spring training he should be fine,” Cashman said. “But as far as his normal cage work and picking up a bat at a certain point, that’s going to be delayed for a period of time. But in terms of the recovered and the rehab puts him well in advance of spring training.”

While every surgery comes with risk, I’m not too worried about Judge because it was a fairly minor procedure — they scoped out a loose body and repaired some cartilage, there wasn’t any damage to his labrum or rotator cuff — and he has plenty of time to recover. Missing some offseason cage time isn’t the end of the world. As long as Judge is ready in time for Spring Training, he’ll get more than enough at-bats to be ready for the season.

Fowler suing White Sox for injury

According to Tom Schuba, former Yankees farmhand Dustin Fowler is suing the White Sox and the agency that manages Guaranteed Rate Field over the injury he suffered this summer. Fowler suffered an open rupture of the patella tendon when his knee hit an electrical box along the sidewall chasing a foul pop-up, as I’m sure you remember. It happened in his first inning as a big leaguer. From Schuba:

The lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, claims the White Sox and the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority acted negligently by not securing the metal box or taking precautions to prevent players from colliding with it. In addition, the suit alleges the White Sox and Sports Facilities Authority failed to adequately inspect the right field wall and the box. The box was installed at knee-level “in a manner so as to create a hidden and undetectable hazard” to Fowler and other ballplayers, the suit alleges. By failing to properly pad, guard or cover the exposed box, the defendants showed “an utter indifference to or conscious disregard” for Fowler’s safety.

The lawsuit says Fowler, who later went to the Athletics in the Sonny Gray trade, suffered “severe and permanent” injuries as well as mental pain and anguish, and adds Fowler has had to spend “large sums of money” on medical care related to the injury. I have no idea whether he has any chance of winning the lawsuit, but I hope Fowler cleans them out and they have to rename the ballpark after him. He started baseball activities as part of his rehab last month, so it seems he’s doing well. Hopefully Fowler wins the A’s center field job in Spring Training.

Just how good is the Yankees lineup projected to be?

(AP)
(AP)

Adding Giancarlo Stanton is great for the Yankees. I don’t need to use any sort of analytics to tell you that. It was already a lineup that did not have shortage in power and production. Now, thanks to some stealthy reinforcement, the offense figures to be hypothetically deadly to the opposing pitchers.

That begged the question: When it comes to the numbers, how good is the lineup projected to be, and how is it compared to recent Yankee lineups? Is it something worthy of the championship year stuff?

In this post, we will use the 2018 Steamer Projections. Keep in mind that these are just projections, which try to forecast the players’ median expected outcome, so some of the numbers that you see here can be, well, bullish. That means that many (or all) of these guys can perform above that median expected outcome and put up numbers that are better than what’s presented. However, it is worth noting that Steamer is known as one of the most accurate projections out there. As much as you want to hear that Aaron Judge will hit 70 home runs, we are given what we are given and will stick with them – bear with me.

The stat that I like to use to evaluate hitters’ value is wRC+ (weighted runs created plus), which you probably have seen if you’ve stuck around this site long enough. wRC+ tries to assign a value to hitter based on 1) basic numbers 2) wOBA 3) park factors 4) how rest of the league has performed. The league average for players is 100. Which means that, since Gary Sanchez put up a 130 wRC+ in 2017, he created 30% more runs than a league-average hitter would have in a same amount of plate appearances in this past season. If you want an estimation of how useful a hitter has been, wRC+ works.

As of December 14, 2017, with the Yankees in the thick of the Winter Meetings in Orlando, here are the hitters that would be featured regularly in the lineup if the season were to start right away:

C – Gary Sanchez
1B – Greg Bird
2B – Ronald Torreyes/Tyler Wade/Gleyber Torres
3B – Torreyes
SS – Didi Gregorius
Corner OFs – Aaron Judge/Giancarlo Stanton/Brett Gardner
CF – Aaron Hicks/Jacoby Ellsbury
DH – A rotation of Judge/Stanton

Based on that, here is a glance at a possible lineup that the Yankees could have on the opening day:

  1. Gardner
  2. Judge
  3. Stanton
  4. Bird
  5. Sanchez
  6. Gregorius
  7. Hicks
  8. Torreyes
  9. Wade

And now, let’s take a look at what the 2018 Steamer projects for these guys.

LF Brett Gardner

.259/.345/.413, 16 HR, 62 BB, 111 K, 104 wRC+

In 2017, Gardy had the best power season of his career by hitting 21 home runs and put up a respectable 108 wRC+. Steamer projects him to do slightly worse but still perform at just above the league average. For a guy who will turn 35 at August, I’ll take that outcome.

RF Aaron Judge

.254/.368/.516, 37 HR, 91 BB, 188 K, 132 wRC+

Here is where I’d like to remind you this is just a projection but man, this is a considerable drop-off from Judge’s monstrous 2017 season. Here is a thing though – the projection usually gets more accurate when a player accumulates more plate appearances in their career. If Judge has a 2017 redux for 2018, then the projection for his 2019 would be much brighter. For now, we have a guy who suffers a sophomore slump yet puts up a well above-average 132 wRC+.

DH Giancarlo Stanton

.282/.376/.639, 55 HR, 78 BB, 164 K, 161 wRC+

That’s some pretty stuff, isn’t it? Stanton’s 161 wRC+ is the 2nd-highest projected in all of MLB (next to Mike Trout at 176 wRC+) and that gaudy 55 HR total gives you a glimpse of how good he can be when healthy for most of the season.

1B Greg Bird

.254/.344/.494, 28 HR, 61 BB, 117 K, 121 wRC+

Bird has had a very limited look in the MLB thanks to injuries, but because of what he could do while healthy, the Steamer projects a near-30 HR season with a .838 OPS in 2018. That would be quite neat. That would be the 2nd highest OPS from a Yankee first baseman since 2010 Mark Teixeira put up .846 OPS. Remember when gluten-free Tex put up a .905 OPS in 2015? That was fun.

C Gary Sanchez

.269/.333/.513, 30 HR, 41 BB, 111 K, 122 wRC+

Sanchez had a 130 wRC+ in 2017 so this is a slightly worse outlook. However, you can’t complain about an everyday catcher putting up a 122 wRC+. While you can bank on him doing better than what the Steamer thinks, but if you ask me, I’ll take it.

SS Didi Gregorius

.269/.314/.435, 19 HR, 31 BB, 77 K, 97 wRC+

Steamer thinks Sir Didi’s .287/.318/.478, 25 HR, 107 wRC+ 2017 season was a bit of overachieving compared to his talent. Just like Judge, Gregorius had a 2017 breakout with his bat and, because his past numbers are also put in consideration, the Steamer has him do less.

CF Aaron Hicks

.252/.341/.424, 18 HR, 62 BB, 101 K, 105 wRC+

Again, same deal with Judge and Gregorius. Hicks had a breakout 2017 on the plate but because of his past performances, the projection does not look as appealing as how he did this season (.266/.372/.475, 15 HR, 127 wRC+). Playing in the MLB is tough and it is certainly possible that Hicks regresses in 2018. However, there are reasons to believe in his breakout – his top prospect history, his tools, the improved plate approach, etc.

3B Ronald Torreyes

.266/.305/.366, 6 HR, 26 BB, 66 K, 77 wRC+

We will, for now, stick Torreyes in the third base spot. He played there for 26 games as Headley’s backup in 2017 and it seems that he figures to be the starter at this moment 1) unless the front office puts Gleyber there right away 2) they re-sign Todd Frazier or trade for another 3B. Anyways, Torreyes got a projected OPS of .671, which is just a bit lower than what he put up the past two seasons (.680, .689, respectively) but he’s not known for his hitting prowess. He did hit markedly better in 2017 (.258 to .292 avg.) but that kind of stuff can easily fluctuate. 2018 will be the season for him to prove that he can maintain hitting for a higher average.

2B Tyler Wade

.246/.313/.354, 7 HR, 36 BB, 94 K, 79 wRC+

I was going to put Gleyber here but because Tyler Wade has had some ML exposure this year and Torres might need more seasoning in the AAA before making it to the show, I put Wade here. Anyways, a 79 wRC+ in 245 PAs for a guy who can hit AAA pitching but struggled in the ML in brief look sounds about right. If I had to bank on it, I’d say Wade won’t be the primary second baseman in 2018. The Yankees will either make a move or promote internally (*ahem* Gleyber).

Based on this glance, we have a lineup that is projected to have 6 out of 9 hitters that could hit 20 or more home runs and produce runs better than a league-average hitter. Acquiring Stanton gives the lineup the higher highs because of his ridiculous projected 161 wRC+. If Judge comes close to his 173 wRC+ 2017 season then boy, there’s a two-headed monster right there. Now, here is a fun part. How does this Steamer-projected 2018 lineup compare to the past Yankee lineups?

To do so, I looked at every past Yankees positional hitter depths since 1996 with a minimum of 300 PAs each for a player. For fun, I decided to filter for the Yankee teams with more than six hitters with 100 or greater wRC+ WITH one or more hitters with 150 or greater wRC+ (since, in my opinion, it is very possible that Judge also breaks 150 wRC+ in 2018. With apologies to Steamer). Here they are:

  • 1998 Yankees (9 hitters above 100 wRC+, Bernie Williams with a 158 wRC+)
  • 1999 Yankees (6 hitters above 100 wRC+, Derek Jeter with a 156 wRC+)
  • 2002 Yankees (7 hitters above 100 wRC+, Jason Giambi with a 175 wRC+)
  • 2005 Yankees (8 hitters above 100 wRC+, Alex Rodriguez with a 174 wRC+ and Jason Giambi with 165 wRC+)
  • 2007 Yankees (8 hitters above 100 wRC+, Alex Rodriguez with a 175 wRC+ and Jorge Posada with a 157 wRC+)
  • 2008 Yankees (6 hitters above 100 wRC+, Alex Rodriguez with a 152 wRC+)
  • 2017 Yankees (8 hitters above 100 wRC+, Aaron Judge with a 173 wRC+)

With the exception of the 2008 Yankees, which was plagued by some bad pitching (so bad that Sidney Ponson and Darrell Rasner got extended looks), the other teams made the playoffs and two of them won the World Series. This is not really the accurate way to compare lineups, mind you – it’s more or less finding similarities based on categories.

On one hand, if the Yankees can’t make any more moves for an starting infielder this offseason, you could make a case that they will be fine without them. They already have six guys projected to produce above average league level with two power monsters lurking. However, that notion should not stop them from exploring moves for more immediate upgrades. What is more important is how balanced the lineup is from head to toe. For instance, let’s look at the 2009 WS champs Yankees. While they did not have anyone who put up a Judge-like monster performance in the regular season, 8 hitters put up wRC+ higher than 120. Imagine 8 out of the 9 guys in the everyday lineup all being top 50 hitters of the league: that’s what the 2009 Yankees had.

In comparison, the 2018 projected lineup has four guys above 120 wRC+. In my opinion, it is important to build something that does not give pitchers a breathing room from no. 1 to 9. A lineup of eight or nine really good hitters can really, really wear pitchers down and hypothetically present scoring opportunities more often.

Based on Steamer, the 2018 Yankees lineup is projected to do pretty solid. However, the reality will be different since projections are just forecasts. You can’t project the adjustments that hitters will make to take their game to the next level. You also can’t project season-long slumps that could happen to anyone (2005 Mike Lowell says hello). I am probably biased but Steamer seems to low ball guys like Judge, Gregorius and Hicks – all of them who had 2017 breakouts – because of their performances prior to 2017.

The 2017 Yankees did some remarkable stuff. They led the baseball in home runs (241) and FanGraphs rated their offense as the 2nd best next to the Astros. Adding Giancarlo Stanton will only help their cause. While things could go differently than expectations, all we can do now, in the thick of the winter, is to just imagine. Who knows, maybe 2018 will bring some of the wildest dreams come true.

The Erstwhile Manager [2017 Season Review]

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Joe Girardi‘s tenth season as manager of the Yankees turned out to be his final season as manager of the Yankees. And, weirdly enough, he was dismissed after the club exceeded all expectations and made it to within one game of the World Series. Just consider the preseason projections real quick:

And yet, after the season Hal Steinbrenner admitted the Yankees would have changed managers even if they’d won the World Series. “I’m sure there would have been more pressure. It would have been maybe a more difficult decision to make. But I would have made it because I felt like that was best for the organization moving forward,” he said.

There are two parts to being a manager. There are the parts we see and the parts we don’t see. The parts we do see are the batting orders and pitching changes, things like that. The parts we don’t see is everything that happens behind closed doors in the clubhouse, on the team plane, at the hotel, at home. Those relationships that develop between men who are with each other basically non-stop from mid-February through October.

The stuff we don’t see is apparently what led to Girardi being let go after the season. Brian Cashman cited concerns about Girardi’s ability to “communicate and connect” with his players, which is a pretty big deal considering communication is a manager’s No. 1 priority. The Yankees are building a very exciting team with a lot of young players. You don’t want that to be derailed by a manager with communication issues.

The thing is, those alleged communication issues came as a pretty big surprise to us outsiders. At least I thought so. The Yankees played well this season, all their young players had incredible years, the veterans blended in nicely even while having their roles reduced … what was the problem? I don’t know. Whatever it was, it was deemed enough of a problem that a change was necessary. After ten years and 910 wins, Girardi is out as manager.

We can’t evaluate the behind the scenes stuff. We kinda have to take the Yankees’ word on that. The on-field stuff is another matter, though even that is difficult to evaluate. The manager’s job is to put his team in the best position to succeed, right? He can do that and it still might not work out. That’s baseball. We’re not privy to which relievers are and are not available on a given night, things like that. Let’s try to evaluate Girardi anyway, shall we?

Bullpen Usage

Girardi has long had a reputation for being a strong bullpen manager, though he was always quite rigid. He likes to have a closer, an eighth inning guy, a seventh inning guy, and if possible even a sixth inning guy. Girardi didn’t deviate from his assigned innings all that often during the regular season. Most relievers like to have set roles. Girardi seemed to like having set roles even more than the players.

This season Girardi was thrown a curveball by Aroldis Chapman‘s early season injury and ineffectiveness, Tyler Clippard‘s meltdown, and Dellin Betances‘ walk problems. The plan was Clippard in the seventh, Dellin in the eighth, and Chapman in the ninth. That lasted maybe a month before changes were necessary. Betances became the closer when Chapman was hurt, and at one point, he pitched four times in 24 days because there weren’t any save chances. Clippard blew more than a few eighth inning leads during that time.

It wasn’t until about midseason, when it was clear Chad Green wasn’t a fluke and David Robertson had returned, that the bullpen settled down. And the first half bullpen problems weren’t all Girardi’s fault, of course. It’s not his fault Chapman temporarily stopped throwing his fastball by hitters or that Betances stopped throwing strikes. Should he have realized it sooner and pulled the plug? Eh, maybe. It’s not like he was loaded with options though.

Leverage index can help give us an idea who pitched in important situations the most, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s the most important aspect of bullpen management. Make sure your best guys are on the mound in the most important situations. Generally speaking, anything with a leverage index of 2.0 or greater is considered high-leverage. Here is the team’s leaderboard for high-leverage appearances:

  1. Aroldis Chapman: 18
  2. Dellin Betances: 16
  3. Adam Warren: 11
  4. Tyler Clippard: 9
  5. Chasen Shreve: 7
  6. Jonathan Holder: 5
  7. Chad Green: 4
  8. David Robertson: 4 with Yankees (12 with White Sox)
  9. Tommy Kahnle: 4 with Yankees (10 with White Sox)

I’m surprised Robertson had only four high-leverage appearances with the Yankees. I’m not surprised Green only had four though, because even when it was clear he was a monster, he entered a lot of games in the middle innings, which usually aren’t high-leverage spots. That doesn’t mean his work was any less important. Clippard getting almost as many high-leverage appearances as Warren despite only being a Yankee for half a season though? Yikes.

Girardi’s bullpen usage during the regular season is whatever. That period in May and June when Clippard was blowing games while Betances sat in the bullpen was quite annoying, otherwise it was a typical Girardi season. The postseason, however, was a much different story. Girardi’s bullpen work was exceptional in October, particularly in the Wild Card Game, in which Luis Severino recorded one out.

“We talked prior to the game. You bring up that scenario that if he takes line drive off the shin, what do you do? I didn’t think that he was going to get one out. I didn’t bring that scenario up,” said Girardi after the game. “And you know, part of that is trying to decide who to bring in, and we talked about Greenie and Robbie would be the first two guys that we would bring in tonight, no matter when the situation was, to try to put innings out, and to get as much out of them as we could.”

That’s exactly what happened. Green came out of the bullpen, got some big outs in the first inning, and Robertson bridged the middle innings. Robertson was Girardi’s go-to reliever in the postseason and he used him every chance he had, for as long as he could. Robertson appeared in eight of the team’s 13 postseason games and five times he threw more than an inning. Chapman was used for more than three outs on several occasions as well.

The postseason is a much different animal than the regular season, and in terms of his bullpen usage, I thought Girardi was just outstanding in October. He went to his best relievers regardless of inning and did as much as he could to put the Yankees in position to win. Sometimes it didn’t work out — Robertson gave up four runs and didn’t get an out in ALCS Game Six — but for the most part, it did. Girardi’s regular season bullpen usage was typical Girardi. In the postseason, he was fantastic.

Platoon Advantage

Throughout Girardi’s tenure the Yankees consistently ranked near the top of the platoon advantage leaderboard. Last season 68% of their plate appearances came with the platoon advantage, second most in baseball. The year before that they led baseball with 73%. The year before that they were third at 70%. From 2008-16, the Yankees were consistently one of the best teams at getting the platoon advantage.

That all changed this season, when only 51% of the team’s plate appearances came with the platoon advantage, slightly under the 52% league average. And it’s not Girardi’s fault. The Yankees lean more right-handed with their lineup nowadays, thanks mostly to Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez, but also keep in mind righties like Todd Frazier and Chris Carter held down regular lineup spots for an extended period of time as well. There are more righty pitchers in baseball than lefties, so yeah.

Is getting the platoon advantage a managerial skill? Yeah, I think so, to some degree. It depends on the personnel, obviously. The Yankees were near the top of the league in plate appearances with the platoon advantage from 2008-16 and part of it was Girardi and part of it was the roster. This year they were middle of the pack mostly because of the personnel, and they still scored the second most runs in baseball.

Instant Replay

In the first three seasons of the replay system, Girardi and the Yankees had one of the highest overturn rates in baseball. They had the second highest success rate in 2016 (69%) after having the highest in 2015 (75%) and 2014 (82%). This year they were had a 67% overturn rate, second highest in baseball behind the Twins (68%). When Girardi challenged, more often than not it was overturned.

Now, that said, Girardi has also ranked near the bottom in total challenges over the years. Last year they challenged the fewest plays in baseball. The year before they challenged the ninth fewest and the year before that it was the fifth fewest. That changed this season. The Yankees challenged 49 plays during the regular season, sixth most in baseball. How about that? The Rangers led the way with 63 challenges.

I’d been beating the “Girardi should challenge more who cares about the overturn rate” drum for a while now, so I’m glad Girardi did challenge more season. That he did so while maintaining that high overturn rate is pretty cool. The problem, of course, is the one play Girardi didn’t challenge. In Game Two of the ALDS, Green appeared to hit Lonnie Chisenhall in the hand with a pitch, which loaded the bases and set up Francisco Lindor for the grand slam. Replays showed the ball hit the knob of the bat, but Girardi didn’t challenge in time even though Sanchez was telling him to challenge, so the hit-by-pitch count and the grand slam happened.

“There was nothing that told us he was not hit on the pitch. By the time we got the super slow mo, we were a minute — probably beyond a minute — and it was way too late,” said Girardi after the game, explaining the non-challenge. “They tell us we have 30 seconds … Being (an ex-catcher), my thought is I never want to break a pitcher’s rhythm. That’s how I think about it.”

That was about as bad an excuse as Girardi could’ve come up with. They give you two challenges in the postseason! It was a huge moment, Girardi didn’t challenge it, and the Yankees paid dearly. Who knows what happens had they challenged. Maybe they lose anyway. Or maybe they win the series in four games instead of five, and they outlast the Astros in the ALCS because the team is better rested. It was a bad, bad, bad, bad decision at the time. The Yankees bailed Girardi out by coming back to win the series.

The Gary Sanchez Incident

Girardi was a staunch defender of his players. He had their backs even when they didn’t deserve it. On August 4th, for really the first time during his tenure with the Yankees, Girardi threw a player under the bus. Sanchez committed a passed ball that allowed a run to score against the Indians, and after the game Girardi laid into Gary while speaking to reporters.

“He needs to improve. Bottom line,” said Girardi after the game. “I don’t have a problem with his effort, but sometimes he shows his frustrations. He’s late getting down. That’s what I see sometimes, and it’s something we’ve been working on and we continue to work on. He’s capable of doing a better job.”

Tame in the grand scheme of things, though that was easily the most we’ve ever heard Girardi criticize a player. And it wasn’t just any player, it was his franchise catcher who was already under the microscope. He inflamed the situation. Gary’s defense became a Very Big Deal the rest of the season, to the point that people were talking about starting Austin Romine in the postseason, which is madness.

Girardi benched Sanchez after that, and he did it in what was probably the best possible way. Gary sat the next day, which was a day game after a night game, so he was probably going to sit anyway. The next day was an off-day, then Sanchez was the DH the day after that before going back behind the plate. That’s three straight days away from catching but only one day out of the lineup, a day he was likely to sit anyway.

A narrative was born that the benching woke Sanchez up at the plate, which I would buy if he hadn’t gone 9-for-26 (.346) with three doubles and three homers in his previous seven games, but whatever. Between the benching and the fact Sanchez’s calls to challenge the Chisenhall hit-by-pitch were ignored, it seemed as though Girardi did not fully trust Gary, at least behind the plate. That’s not good. The manager — the ex-catcher manager — and the team’s young franchise catcher should be on the same page. I suppose it’s possible Girardi’s relationship with Sanchez could’ve contributed to his dismissal.

* * *

Before the Yankees let Girardi go, there were weeks of rumors that Girardi would make the decision to step away himself, so he could spend more time with his family and avoid getting burnt out. Managing for ten years is not easy, especially in New York. Hal and Cashman had been in Girardi’s corner for years and I assumed he still had their support, and if you have their support, you’re in good shape. I figured Girardi would be back if he wanted to be back.

Girardi did want to be back. He said so in interviews after being let go. The Yankees are going in another direction though, and it doesn’t really matter whether we think it is the right move or the wrong move. It happened and it’s done with. Girardi will undoubtedly land on his feet — he’s said he wants to manage again at some point, though it seems he’ll wind up in a broadcast booth somewhere next year — and the Yankees will likely win a boatload of games next year because they’re so talented and deep organizationally, making Boone look smart.

Given how they exceeded expectations so greatly, the case can be made that the 2017 season was Girardi’s most impressive with the Yankees. Behind closed doors though, enough problems had surfaced (or were beginning to surface) that the Yankees decided a change in leadership was necessary. Parting ways with Girardi came as a shock to me and I know it did to many others. We’re not in the clubhouse though, or on the plane or at the hotel. The stuff we don’t see is the reason the Yankees are moving forward with a new manager.