Learning to turn on inside pitches is the next challenge for Didi Gregorius

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

By and large, this season has been a success for Didi Gregorius. He had the unenviable task of replacing Derek Jeter — I underestimated the pressure of that job — and, after some early season hiccups, Gregorius has settled in and been an asset on both sides of the ball. His defense is clearly above-average at this point and his bat has come around as well.

Gregorius is hitting .272/.321/.372 (92 wRC+) overall this year and .298/.341/.411 (108 wRC+) since June 1st while the league average shortstop has hit .255/.304/.371 (84 wRC+) in 2015. If the post-June 1st version of Didi is here to stay, the Yankees have themselves one heck of a player. A 25-year-old left-handed hitting shortstop who is above-average on both sides of the ball? That’s pretty awesome. Considering how bad he looked in April, Gregorius now appears to be one heck of an asset.

One of the biggest reasons behind Didi’s midseason offensive breakout is his newfound ability to go the other way. We’ve all seen it these last few weeks. Gregorius was hooking everything to right field earlier in the season but now feasts on left-center field. They’re aesthetically pleasing hits. He strokes the ball to the opposite field and he’s found some success doing so. Someone deserves a lot of credit for the adjustment, whether it was Didi himself or the hitting coaches or someone else entirely.

The opposite field approach has worked splendidly for Gregorius the last few weeks, though there is a still way for him to take his offensive game to the next level: turning on the inside pitch. Here’s a strike zone plot of Didi’s batted ball velocity by pitch location. The darker the red, the more above-average the exit velocity. The brighter the blue, the more below-average (via Baseball Savant):

Didi Gregorius batted ball velocity strike zone

Gregorius can handle pitches down the middle or on the outer half of the plate. He’s learned to serve those balls to left field. But the inner half? Those pitches have tied him up this year and resulted is generally weak contact. This isn’t necessarily uncommon, hitting inside pitches is hard. (Throwing them is hard too!)

The Yankees just wrapped up a six-game road trip and during those six games Gregorius did indeed turn around some inside pitches and pull them with authority. He had 14 hits (!) on the six-game trip and eight were pulled to the right side of the field, including all three extra-base hits (one double, two homers). Look at the homer he hit in Atlanta:

The pitch was on the inner half of the plate, Gregorius got his bat around quickly, and drove the ball with authority to right field. Perfect. Exactly what you want a left-handed hitter to do with a pitch like that. (Here’s the strike zone plot showing the pitch was on the inner half.) The benefit of being able to turn on pitches like that is obvious for a lefty swinger in Yankee Stadium.

Now this is all much easier said than done. Being able to yank inside pitches to the pull field while still maintaining that opposite field approach is a tough thing to do. Usually only the great hitters can maintain that balance, so maybe it’s unfair and unrealistic to think this is something Gregorius will one day be able to do with regularity. Right now his power comes mostly from mistake pitches, and chances are that is how it will always be.

Gregorius has made a lot of progress this season already, however. He made the adjustment to go the other away and it’s paid huge dividends. Learning how to turn on inside pitches is the next step in his offensive development, and hey, if it doesn’t happen, so be it. This current version of Gregorius is pretty awesome as it is. At 25 years old though, and as a left-handed hitter playing his home games in Yankee Stadium, learning how to pull the ball could really turn Didi into something special.

Yankeemetrics: Fenway’s finest (Aug. 31-Sept. 2)

This guy is on fire.  (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
This guy is on fire. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Yankee wasteland in Boston
The Yankees had so many missed scoring opportunities in their 4-3 loss to the Red Sox on Monday night, it’s not worth recounting here. But know this: they left 14 men on base, their most stranded baserunners in any nine-inning game that they ended up losing by one run since Sept. 11, 2010 against the Rangers. And the last time they endured a loss like that against the Red Sox was July 17, 1996.

A plane trip to Boston couldn’t cool down the red-hot bat of Didi Gregorius, who had another four-hit night, and just missed being the hero when his ninth-inning fly ball was caught for the final out at the warning track by Rusney Castillo. Oh, and he did this: Sir Didi became the first Yankee shortstop with at least four hits in a game at Fenway Park since the immortal Rafael Santana on June 13, 1988. Yup, Mr. Jeter somehow never did that.

Carlos Beltran quietly reached a pretty cool milestone in this game with his 500th career double in the fifth inning. He’s now the only switch switch hitter in major-league history with at least 500 doubles, 300 homers and 300 stolen bases. The only other players to reach those totals (regardless of batting side) are Barry Bonds, A-Rod, Willie Mays and Andre Dawson.

13 times a charm
The Yankees overcame a really impressive performance by Rick Porcello (and his 5.47 ERA) on Tuesday night to win a pitchers’ duel, 3-1, against the Red Sox.

Porcello recorded 13 strikeouts in his eight innings of work, becoming just the third Red Sox pitcher in the last 100 seasons to reach that total against the Yankees. Roger Clemens struck out 13 Yankees on Sept. 30, 1987; Pedro Martinez got 13 punch outs against them on May 30, 2001 and then had 17 strikeouts in an epic one-hitter at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 10, 1999.

The New Jersey native also joined an even more exclusive club, though, when he got tagged with the loss. He is the only major-league pitcher in the last 100 years to lose a game against the Yankees despite getting 13-or-more strikeouts and allowing no more than one earned run.

Michael Pineda didn’t quite dominate like Porcello (only seven strikeouts), but his six innings of one-run, four-hit ball were plenty good enough for the win. It was also Pineda’s third straight start of no more than one run allowed against the Red Sox in Boston, a streak that is unprecedented for any Bronx Bomber since at least 1914. That’s right, Pineda is the first Yankee in more than a century to allow one run or fewer in three straight starts at Fenway Park.

The friendly confines of … Fenway?
It has been more than five decades since the Yankees enjoyed their trips to Fenway Park as much as they have over the last two seasons. With their win over the Red Sox on Wednesday, the Yankees have now captured the last six series played between these rivals in Boston. That’s their longest streak of series wins on the road against the Red Sox since taking seven in a row from 1956 to 1958.

The Yankees jumped out to an early double-digit lead, scoring eight runs in the second and then three more in the third. This was the first time ever that the Yankees scored at least 11 runs combined in the first three innings of a game at Fenway Park.

Red Sox rookie Henry Owens was on the mound for most of the damage and charged with seven runs in 1 2/3 innings. He’s the first Red Sox starter to give up at least seven runs while pitching fewer than two innings at Fenway against the Yankees since Luis Tiant (who was at the game!) on Sept. 29, 1976.

The young bats shined for the Yankees in this game, with three of their five home runs coming from Greg Bird (age 22), John Ryan Murphy (age 24) and Didi Gregorius (age 25). The last time the Yankees had at least three players age 25 or younger homer in the same game was Sept. 25, 1990 versus the Orioles.

But the biggest offensive star of the game was probably Stephen Drew, who went 3 for 4 with a homer and three RBIs. He’s the third Yankee No. 9 batter with at least three hits and three RBIs in a game at Fenway Park, joining Scott Brosius (June 19, 2000) and Pat Kelly (Aug. 15, 1995).

Thoughts prior to the ten-game homestand

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

The Yankees wrapped up the six-game road trip yesterday and tomorrow they begin a long ten-game homestand. From here on out, the team will not be away from New York more than three consecutive days. The travel situation is very favorable the rest of the season. Anyway, I have some thoughts.

1. After all his injuries the last two or three years, who would have thought Mark Teixeira would become such a vital piece of the 2015 Yankees? He’s been the team MVP this year. Losing him for what is going to end up being at least a month is really, really tough. Teixeira’s two-way play is irreplaceable. There’s no way to replace both his bat and his defense. Can’t be done. The only thing the Yankees can do is hope everyone else steps up their game, allowing them to weather the storm. I like Greg Bird, he seems to have a plan at the plate and a knack for hard contact, but he’s also a 22-year-old rookie who’s been thrust into a postseason race. Not an ideal situation. (Remember, Bird was called up to spell Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez on occasion, not play everyday.) Losing Teixeira to this dumb, fluke injury is a huge blow. They needed him to dominate just to establish themselves as contenders. Now they have to try to stay in the race without him.

2. Speaking of Bird, it sure seems the scouting report is attack him with high fastballs. Here are two strike zone plots from Baseball Savant. On the left is every two-strike pitch Bird has seen as a big leaguer, and on the right are all his strike threes. You can click the image for a larger view.

Greg Bird two-strike pitches and strike threes

 

Opposing teams are definitely attacking Bird with high heat in two-strike situations. It has been noticeable watching games and the PitchFX data backs it up. Teams have great scouting reports these days, even on kids who were just called up. I remember the Yankees using the shift against Jackie Bradley Jr. when he was first called up — Red Sox manager John Farrell said that prompted them to check the spray charts of their own players to make sure they weren’t missing something — and that’s another example. No, Bird doesn’t have much big league experience, but teams already know his strengths and weaknesses. Now it’s up to Bird to adjust to all those high fastballs — hitting high fastballs is really hard, he has to learn to lay off more than anything — and make pitchers beat him a different way.

3. I’m not surprised the Yankees are staying away from A-Rod playing first base, even against lefties. I think he could do it — awkwardly, but do it — if the team is really in a bind and has no other choice, and that seems to be their thinking. Emergencies only. Dustin Ackley and Austin Romine can play first base, and they could always stick Brian McCann there if necessary, so they have a few different options. Not great ones, but options nonetheless. A-Rod has looked out of gas at times in the second half, so the Yankees are trying to do anything they can to keep him fresh. Being 40 years old with two surgically repaired hips stinks, apparently. It’s an unfortunate situation because I’m sure they’d like to be able to sit Bird every once in a while, but keeping A-Rod as fresh as possible is the priority.

Martin. (Elsa/Getty)
Martin. (Elsa/Getty)

4. Following Tuesday’s call-ups, there are only six players on the 40-man roster who are not in the big leagues right now: Gary Sanchez (hamstring) and Jacob Lindgren (elbow), who are hurt; Nick Rumbelow and Nick Goody, who will be called up once their ten days pass after being sent down last week; and Chris Martin and Slade Heathcott. I thought Heathcott would get called up on September 1st and it was surprising when that didn’t happen, but I think the Yankees want him to play everyday with Triple-A Scranton rather than sit on the big league team’s bench after missing so much time with the quad injury this year. Slade is still under 300 plate appearances this year after playing only nine games last year. The kid needs at-bats and he’ll get them with the RailRiders, who are very likely to go to the postseason. They’ll be playing another two weeks or so. Martin? Not sure what the story is there. It seems like he’s next in line to lose his 40-man spot should a need arise, and I guess the Yankees just don’t think he is able to help them this month. He’s been passed by other players on the depth chart.

5. The Yankees called up Rico Noel just to be their pinch-running specialist this month, which got me wondering how often a guy like that is actually used. Terrance Gore pinch-ran nine times in 26 September games for the Royals last year, stealing five bases and scoring five runs. Quintin Berry pinch-ran eight times in 25 September games for the 2013 Red Sox, stole two bases and scored three runs. Freddy Guzman pinch-ran eight times in 31 September/October games for the 2009 Yankees, stealing four bases and scoring just two runs. So, all together, those three players stole eleven bases and scored ten runs in 25 pinch-running situations across 82 games. (There have been other September pinch-runners, both those are the three that stand out to me.) Pinch-running 25 times in 82 games doesn’t sound like much, but remember, these are high-leverage pinch-running spots. They’re not pinch-running in blowouts — 23 of those 25 pinch-running situations came in the sixth inning or later of a game separated by no more than two runs. Considering the standings and the fact the Yankees have some slow runners in the lineup, we’re going to see Noel pinch-run in some very big spots these next few weeks. The potential for impact is there, just in a very specialized way.

6. The YES booth had a conversation the other day about which pitcher the Yankees should start in a potential wildcard game. If I’m remembering correctly, David Cone said Masahiro Tanaka while John Flaherty said either Luis Severino or Nathan Eovaldi. Either way, it blows my mind anyone would consider starting someone other than Tanaka in a winner-take-all game. Eovaldi’s been great of late and Severino has been super impressive, but man, season on the line, I trust Tanaka more than anyone. I think he’s most likely to dominate and, perhaps more importantly, least likely to completely implode. Even Tanaka’s bad starts aren’t all that bad. He’s allowed more than three runs just five times in his last 18 starts and more than four runs only twice in those 18 starts. Forget about the contract. I want Tanaka in a potential winner-take-all game because of his wide array of weapons and unflappability. If the Yankees do have to settle for a wildcard spot, I hope they’re able to line up their rotation and give Tanaka that start.

DotF: Domingo Acevedo dominates in Staten Island’s win

Triple-A Scranton (8-1 loss to Rochester) one more win or one more Rochester loss clinches the division title

  • CF Ben Gamel: 0-4
  • RF Aaron Judge: 2-3, 1 BB
  • CF Jake Cave: 0-3, 1 BB, 3 K — no contact game in his first Triple-A start
  • DH Slade Heathcott: 1-3, 2 K
  • RHP Kyle Haynes: 5 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 1 WP, 1 Balk, 8/3 GB/FB — 47 of 81 pitches were strikes (58%)
  • RHP Conor Mullee: 1.2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 2/1 GB/FB — 13 of 24 pitches were strikes (54%) … Triple-A debut for the 27-year-old three-time Tommy John surgery survivor

[Read more…]

Yankees hang on for 13-8 win over Red Sox in series finale

That was a good end to the road trip. The Yankees overcame the late afternoon #shadows to clobber the Red Sox on Wednesday, winning the series finale 13-8. They won five of six games on the road trip.

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

Over Early
I know no game is ever truly out of reach at Fenway Park — Joe Girardi sure doesn’t think so — but the Yankees put this game to bed early with an eight-run second inning against BoSox lefty Henry Owens and the pitcher formerly known as ace reliever Ryan Cook. A whole lot happened that inning, so let’s recap with an annotated play-by-play.

Yankees Red Sox play by play1

(1) The last few days have not been kind to Greg Bird, who’s been thrust into a starting role thanks to Mark Teixeira‘s injury. His two-run home run off Owens was only his second extra-base hit since this two-homer game and it looked like a no-doubter off the bat, but it only landed a row or two deep in right field. Usually I get surprised and the ball carries further than I expect. This was the opposite. It didn’t carry as much. Either way, Bird put a great swing on a very hittable fastball and gave his team a 2-1 lead.

(2) Is Stephen Drew the 2015 version of 2012 Raul Ibanez? That would be cool as hell. I doubt he’ll come up with as many enormously clutch homers as Raul — how could he? Ibanez was unreal that year — but his bat has started to come around after lagging most of the season. Drew’s second inning double was very hard hit over the right fielder’s head. He’s now 9-for-12 (.750) with two doubles, two homers, two walks, and one strikeout in his last four games.

(3) The Brett Gardner at-bat was the one that convinced me they were going to do a lot of damage against Owens. The young southpaw had nothing to put Gardner away. Brett flicked his wrists, fouled off a bunch of pitches, then took the walk to load the bases when nothing hittable came his way. The second time through the order, the Yankees were on everything against Owens.

(4) I don’t want to complain too much about an eight-run inning, but the Yankees did run themselves into an out on Chris Young‘s base hit off the Green Monster. It wasn’t a booming hit, it was more of a high fly ball that looked catchable at first, which is why Drew didn’t get a good read and only advanced to third. Gardner was running the whole way and got caught between second and third when he finally noticed Drew was standing on the bag. They’re both at fault — Drew got a bad read and Gardner failed to realize the runner ahead of him didn’t advance. Joe Espada as well. The third base coach has been involved. Oh well. Didn’t cost them much, thankfully.

(5) The Carlos Beltran homer was the icing on the cake. Alex Rodriguez picked up Drew and Gardner with a two-run single — it should have been a double, it kicked off the sidewall at a weird angle and away from the left fielder, but Alex isn’t running well these days — that ended Owens’ afternoon. In came Cook, and Beltran turned around his first pitch for an opposite field two-run homer over the Green Monster. Officially a laugher.

(6) The second inning was New York’s fifth inning with at least eight runs innings this season, the most in baseball. The Marlins (!) have three and no one else has more than two. The Yankees scored at least eight runs in an inning just once in both 2013 and 2014. They came into this game with 633 runs on the season. They scored 633 runs all of last season. I know they had been struggling the last few weeks, but hooray offense.

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

Cruise Control
The afternoon did not start too well for Masahiro Tanaka. Mookie Betts started the game with a double high off the Green Monster — it looked like it had a chance to get out, but it fell no more than ten feet short — and David Ortiz later drove him in with a ground rule double to right. Both doubles came on mistake pitches out over the plate, the kind of pitches that should get crushed. That gave the Red Sox a quick 1-0 lead.

After the Yankees scored their eight runs in the second inning, Tanaka settled in and cruised the rest of the afternoon. He allowed two garbage time runs — the first on a Blake Swihart double and two fly balls, the other on a Xander Bogaerts solo homer — and was in the dugout when an inherited runner scored, uglifying his line. Tanaka finished the afternoon with four runs allowed on six hits and one walk in 6.1 innings. He struck out five and threw 66 of his 92 pitches for strikes. He looked better than four runs in 6.1 innings.

Considering Tanaka was starting on normal rest for only the third time this season, I was surprised Girardi sent him back out for the seventh at 82 pitches. Especially with the big lead and all the call-ups in the bullpen. They’ve gone to great lengths to keep Tanaka healthy this season, so I figured Girardi would get him out after six. No big deal, Tanaka threw ten more pitches and was done.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Panic Time
Welcome back to the big leagues, Andrew Bailey. He replaced Tanaka with the Yankees up 12-3, walked two batters, allowed a sacrifice fly, and then a single, then was yanked. Bailey threw 22 pitches and PitchFX says he averaged 93.2 mph with his heater, down from 94.9 mph back in 2013, his last stint in the show. That’s not surprising after major shoulder surgery. Bailey looked amped up more than anything. His issue was command, not stuff. Good to get it out of his system now. Justin Wilson replaced Bailey and got the final out.

In the top of the eighth, the Yankees tacked on an insurance run when Jose Pirela beat out an infield single. Gardner doubled to start the inning and made his way to third on A-Rod‘s double play ball following Young’s walk. Rico Noel, who replaced Beltran in right field in the seventh, was literally in the batter’s box for his first big league at-bat when Girardi called him back for Pirela. Brutal. Seven-run lead against a last place team? When can the kid hit if not then?

Anyway, Bryan Mitchell came on for the eighth inning and was terrible, allowing five of six batters to reach base. That includes four singles and a walk. Girardi, who was in full blown panic mode, brought in Dellin Betances (!) with the Yankees up six runs. He got the next two outs with ease to end the inning. I’m worried Dellin’s arm is going to be mush soon. He’s on pace for 85 innings this year after throwing 90 last year.

Caleb Cotham started the ninth inning while Andrew Miller warmed up in the bullpen. The Yankees had a six-run lead and Miller was warming before Cotham even threw a pitch. Why not just use Miller to start the inning in that case? There’s obviously no trust in Cotham. Cotham allowed back-to-back doubles, in came Miller, and he closed the door for a panicky 13-8 win. The game was never close after the second inning.

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

Leftovers
After the eight-run second inning, the Yankees scored three more runs in the third (Drew three-run homer), one more in the fifth (Gregorius solo homer), and another in the eighth (Pirela infield single). Everyone in the starting lineup had at least one hit and the 6-7-8-9 hitters went a combined 8-for-17 (.471) with a double, three homers, two walks, and one strikeout. All told, the Yankees scored their 13 runs thanks to 15 hits and five walks.

The non-Betances/Miller portion of the bullpen was awful. Bailey, Wilson, Mitchell, and Cotham combined to allow four runs on seven hits and two walks in 1.2 innings. They struck out no one. Of course, Wilson was the only one of those guys in the Circle of Trust™, and he faced one batter. Two kids and a reclamation project did the damage. Whatever.

And finally, congrats to Girardi for his 800th career managerial win. He is 722-544 (.570) all-time with the Yankees and ranks fifth on franchise wins list. It’ll be a long time before he climbs a spot — Miller Huggins is fourth with 1,076 wins.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
Here are the box score and video highlights for the game as well as the updated standings and postseason odds for the season. Also check out our Bullpen Workload and Announcer Standings pages. The Bullpen Workload page is kinda crowded now thanks to September call-ups. Here’s the win probability graph:


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
The six-game road trip is over. The Yankees have an off-day Thursday and will open a ten-game homestand Friday night, with the first of three against the Rays. Luis Severino and Jake Odorizzi is the scheduled pitching matchup. Head over to RAB Tickets if you want to catch any games on the homestand live at Yankee Stadium.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

That mid-week 4pm ET start time was weird, no? Baseball is all about routines, including for fans who follow daily, and that start time today threw everything out of whack. Anyway, make sure you check out this Andrew Keh article on the extravagant bat flips in Korea, which are common in KBO but are frowned upon in MLB. The “unwritten rules” seem to be much different on the other side of the world.

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Mets are playing and ESPN will show the Cardinals and Nationals a little later. The Nats, man. What a monumental disappointment they’ve been this year. Talk about those games or anything else right here.

Game 132: End of the Road Trip

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

The Yankees have won four of the first five games on this six-game road trip — doesn’t seem like it, does it? — so it’s already a good trip. This afternoon is a chance to make it a great trip. A win this afternoon not only clinches a 5-1 road trip, it also clinches a sixth consecutive series win at Fenway Park. The Yankees say they haven’t done that since the 1950s. Wowza.

Believe it or not, the Yankees will not spent more than three consecutive days on the road the rest of the season. They do have a nine-game road trip in two weeks, but the middle three games are against the Mets in Citi Field. The players will get to sleep in their own beds and everything. The travel gets a lot easier from here on out. Gotta take advantage. Here is the Red Sox’s lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Brett Gardner
  2. LF Chris Young
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. RF Carlos Beltran
  5. 3B Chase Headley
  6. 1B Greg Bird
  7. C John Ryan Murphy
  8. SS Didi Gregorius
  9. 2B Stephen Drew
    RHP Masahiro Tanaka

Another lovely weather day in a series full of them. It is nice and sunny in Boston with temperatures in the upper-80s. I’m guessing we’re going to hear a bunch of #shadows talk during the game thanks to the weird start time. First pitch is scheduled for 4:05pm ET and you can watch on YES locally and MLB Network nationally, depending where you live. Enjoy the game.