Cashman confirms the Yankees looked into signing Edwin Encarnacion

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Prior to the holidays, the Indians got maybe the bargain of the offseason when they agreed to a three-year contract worth $60M with free agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion. When the offseason started, I thought he would get double the guaranteed money. The market for sluggers collapsed though, and the defending American League champions got themselves a middle of the order thumper on a nice contract.

As Encarnacion sat out there waiting to be signed, it was hard not to think about the possibility of the Yankees swooping in to get him on a smaller than expected contract. New York had already signed Matt Holliday, but Greg Bird and Tyler Austin are no sure things at first base, and Encarnacion would have solved that probably capably. And added a ton of offense, which the Yankees need.

Alas, the Indians signed Encarnacion, not the Yankees. The Yankees did look into signing Encarnacion, however. Brian Cashman confirmed at the team’s town hall event earlier this week. A fan asked about passing on Encarnacion and here is Cashman’s answer (video link):

“We looked into him. We talked about it. Given where we currently are — the payroll flexibility that we’re going to try to provide ourselves moving forward, the draft pick it was going to cost us at the same time — the timing wasn’t right. And, just as important, we’ve got two kids knocking on the door that are cost effective. Are they Edwin Encarnacion? No, they’re not, but their ceilings are pretty interesting. The only way to find out about them is to provide (playing time).”

It’s a very similar answer to what Cashman said about the possibility of trading for Chris Sale during his end-of-season press conference. In a nutshell, the Yankees don’t think they’re in position to make win-now moves, like trading top prospects for Sale or spending big/forfeiting a draft pick to sign Encarnacion. The Red Sox and Indians are in that position, so they went ahead and made the deals.

With actually saying it, Cashman indicated during the town hall that 2017 is going to be something of a rebuilding year, and I think we all knew that already. They’ll have kids playing their first full season in the big leagues at catcher, first base, and right field, not to mention in the back of the rotation. There will inevitably be bumps along the way. Probably more than we expect or are willing to admit.

Signing Encarnacion would have unquestionably made the Yankees a better team. I don’t think anyone will say otherwise. But, if this coming season is going to be a transition year, you’re wasting what figures to be the most productive year of Encarnacion’s contract. He’s already 34. Decline is coming. And by time the Yankees are ready to contend, they’d have Encarnacion tying up a roster spot at big dollars while providing declining production.

Who knows. Maybe Encarnacion will age like David Ortiz and never miss a beat. I’ll always bet against it though. Using first base to find out about Austin and especially Bird is far and away the most sensible move for the Yankees at this point in time. If they were on the playoff bubble and a win or two away from being real World Series threats, then by all means, sign the big free agent and give up the pick. That’s not the case though. Not right now.

Where does each 2017 Yankee hit the ball the hardest?

(Rich Gagnon/Getty)
(Rich Gagnon/Getty)

Ever since Statcast burst on to the scene last year, exit velocity has become part of the baseball lexicon. It’s everywhere now. On Twitter, in blog posts, even on broadcasts. You name it and exit velocity is there. Ten years ago getting velocity readings of the ball off the bat felt impossible. Now that information is all over the internet and it’s free. Free!

Needless to say, hitting the ball hard is a good thing. Sometimes you hit the ball hard right at a defender, but what can you do? Last season exit velocity king Giancarlo Stanton registered the hardest hit ball of the Statcast era. It left his bat at 123.9 mph. And it went for a 4-6-3 double play because it was a grounder right at the second baseman.

That’s a pretty good reminder exit velocity by itself isn’t everything. Launch angle is important too, as is frequency. How often does a player hit the ball hard? One random 115 mph line drive doesn’t tell us much. But if the player hits those 115 mph line drives more than anyone else, well that’s useful.

The Yankees very clearly believe in exit velocity as an evaluation tool. We first learned that three years ago, when they traded for Chase Headley and Brian Cashman said his exit velocity was ticking up. Former assistant GM Billy Eppler once said Aaron Judge has top tier exit velocity, and when he reached he big leagues last year, it showed. Among players with at least 40 at-bats in 2016, Judge was second in exit velocity, so yeah.

With that in mind, I want to look at where each projected member of the 2017 Yankees hits the ball the hardest. Not necessarily on the field, but within the strike zone. Every swing is different. Some guys are good low ball hitters, others are more adept at handling the inside pitch, and others can crush the ball no matter where it’s pitched. Not many though. That’s a rare skill. Those are the Miguel Cabreras of the world.

Also, I want to limit this to balls hit in the air, because as we saw in the Stanton video above, a hard-hit grounder is kinda lame. Hitting the ball hard in the air is the best recipe for success in this game. The average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives last season was 92.2 mph, up ever so slightly from 91.9 mph in 2015. I’m going to use 100 mph as my threshold for a hard-hit ball because, well, 100 mph is a nice round number. And it’s comfortably above the league average too.

So, with that in mind, let’s see where each Yankee hit the ball the hardest last season (since that’s the most relevant data), courtesy of Baseball Savant. There are a lot of images in this post, so the fun starts after the jump. The players are listed alphabetically. You can click any image for a larger view.

[Read more…]

Poll: Tyler Austin or Rob Refsnyder on the bench

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

When Spring Training opens in a little under the a month, the Yankees are going to have to sort out a few positions, and for once, it’s not because there’s a veteran guy in camp trying to make the team. The Yankees have several young players vying for two rotation spots, a bunch of bullpen spots, right field, and also first base. Brian Cashman insists right field and first base are wide open.

Of course, if you give Cashman a truth serum, he’d tell you he wants Greg Bird to take the first base job and run with it. Bird completed his shoulder surgery rehab and got some at-bats in the Arizona Fall League last year, but the Yankees know he might be all the way back to his 2015 form come Opening Day. A stint in Triple-A is entirely possible. Hopefully not, but if it’s necessary, what can you do?

Bird’s primary competition at first base is Tyler Austin, who reemerged as a prospect last season and made his big league debut in August. He did some cool things, like sock some clutch opposite field home runs at Yankee Stadium, though he had his difficulties as well. Austin’s strikeout (40.0%) and contact (62.0%) rates weren’t much better than Aaron Judge‘s (44.2% and 59.7%), whom many seem to think will strike out his way to the prospect graveyard.

Also in the mix at first base will presumably be the recently signed Ji-Man Choi as well as Rob Refsnyder, who saw time at first last year. And the thing is, it’s entirely possible — if not likely — two of these players will make the Opening Day roster. Would a Bird-Austin platoon at first base surprise you? Not me. Same goes with Bird-Refsnyder. A Choi-Austin or Choi-Refsnyder platoon could happen too. (Austin-Refsnyder would be weird.)

Barring Spring Training injuries or surprises, the four-man bench going into the season figures to include a backup catcher (Austin Romine), a backup infielder (Ronald Torreyes), and a backup infielder (Aaron Hicks). That assumes Hicks isn’t needed to play right field because Judge gets sent down to Triple-A. I feel like that would be the ideal bench, with the fourth spot still to be determined.

Bird winning the first base job would make carrying Choi on the bench sorta silly. I mean, yeah, Choi can play a little outfield, but not really. Carrying two left-handed hitting first baseman doesn’t make much sense. Austin or Refsnyder would be the best candidates for that fourth bench spot, especially with the Yankees trying to go young. What’s the advantage of carrying, say, Ruben Tejada over those guys? I don’t see one. Let’s make cases for Austin and Refsnyder on the bench, shall we?

The Case for Austin

In his limited big league time last year, Austin annihilated left-handers, hitting .348/.444/.652 (195 wRC+) against them even though three of his five homers came against righties. (Austin had a 62 wRC+ against righties). His split was far less pronounced in Triple-A: .365/.459/.698 against lefties and .304/.394/.609 against righties. Austin was a man among boys in Scranton. I’m not sure how useful his Triple-A splits are.

One thing we know for sure is Austin has more power than Refsnyder. A lot more. Refsnyder hit two home runs in 405 plate appearances last year. Two. Both in Triple-A. Austin hit five homers with the Yankees on top of the 17 he hit in the minors. He hit nearly as many homers in 2016 (22) as Refsnyder hit from 2014-16 (27). Austin’s right field pop is a fun fit for Yankee Stadium. He’ll unquestionably give New York more thump.

Defensively, Austin is limited to first base and the two corner outfield spots. He has minor league experience at third base (35 total games), but he’s not good there, so I wouldn’t consider him anything more than an emergency option at the hot corner. Furthermore, Austin is not a good defensive outfielder. We saw him take some weird routes and pull up short of the wall a few times last year. At first base he was fine enough. Not great, not terrible.

Austin has long been a bat-first player, which is why his prospect stock took a big hit when he didn’t do much at the plate from 2014-15. Put him on the bench, and Joe Girardi can use him as a platoon option at first as well as occasionally in the outfield and at DH. He gives them some legitimate power to use against all those AL East southpaws (Chris Sale, David Price, Eduardo Rodriguez, J.A. Happ, Francisco Liriano, Blake Snell, Wade Miley).

The Case for Refsnyder

(AP Photo)
(AP Photo)

For long stretches of time last season Girardi used Refsnyder as a platoon bat against righties, often batting him second in the lineup. Refsnyder responded with a .274/.370/.355 (94 wRC+) batting line against southpaws, which, while short on power, is nice from an on-base point of view. Not making outs is cool. Austin has the advantage in power while Refsnyder boasts the better plate discipline numbers:

  • Austin in 2016: 40.0 K% and 7.8 BB% in MLB (25.2 K% and 13.7 BB% in Triple-A)
  • Refsnyder in 2016: 17.1 K% and 10.3 BB% in MLB (13.0 K% and 7.4 BB% in Triple-A)

One thing we saw out of Refsnyder last year — and even the year before, really — was consistently quality at-bats. He didn’t jump out of his shoes flailing at pitches out of the zone and he wasn’t afraid to hit with two strikes. The results weren’t always there, but have quality at-bats and the results will come eventually. Hopefully. Anyway, Austin has more swing and miss in his game.

Refsnyder’s lack of defense makes him a bat-first player as well, though based on what I saw last year, which admittedly isn’t much, Refsnyder is much more refined in the outfield than Austin. He won’t win Gold Gloves or anything, but he takes good routes and seems to be in control out there. Austin was a bit more … chaotic. Also, we know Refsnyder can play second if necessary, and last year the Yankees had him learn first and third base. As with Austin though, third seems like an emergency only option.

With Refsnyder on the bench, Girardi could continue using him as a platoon bat who will make a pitcher work, though he doesn’t figure to hit for much power. Right field is probably his best defensive position, but he can also play first and second bases if necessary, so there’s another layer of versatility there. Neither guy will set land speed records, so baserunning isn’t a tiebreaker.

* * *

Ultimately, this comes down to Austin’s power against Refsnyder’s contact skills and ability to play second base. Being able to play second is not nothing. With Torreyes and Austin on the bench, the Yankees can only rest one regular non-first base infielder at a time. With Torreyes and Refsnyder, Girardi will be able to rest two at the same time. At the end of a blowout or whatever.

In all likelihood both Austin and Refsnyder are going to spend time in the fourth bench spot next season. They both have minor league options remaining, and depending on the team’s needs at the time, they might find themselves going up and down. And you know what else? When injury strikes — and it inevitably will — chances are both will be on the roster at the same time. Baseball has a way of making these situations go away. Anyway, this question is ripe for a poll, so let’s get to it.

Who should get the final bench spot?
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Raines, Bagwell, and Rodriguez voted into Hall of Fame, Posada drops off the ballot

Raines. (Ron Frehm/AP)
Raines. (Ron Frehm/AP)

There are three new members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Wednesday night it was announced Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Ivan Rodriguez have been voted into Cooperstown by the BBWAA this year. Bagwell received 86.2% of the vote while Raines and Rodriguez received 86.0% and 76.0%, respectively. Trevor Hoffman fell five votes shy of induction. The full voting results are at the BBWAA’s site.

Bagwell, who was on the ballot for the seventh time, retired as a career .297/.408/.540 (149 wRC+) hitter with 449 home runs and 202 stolen bases. His 1994 MVP season, during which he hit .368/.451/.750 (205 wRC+) with 39 home runs and 116 RBI in 110 games around the work stoppage, is the 24th best offensive season in history in terms of OPS+. To put it another way, it’s the eighth best offensive season by someone other than Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, or Babe Ruth.

Unlike Bagwell, who spent his entire career in the NL with the Astros, Raines did suit up for the Yankees. He was a platoon player for the 1996-98 teams and won a pair of World Series rings. Raines spent most of his career with the Expos and was a career .294/.385/.425 (125 wRC+) hitter with 170 home runs and 808 steals, the fifth most all-time. This was Raines’ tenth and final year on the Hall of Fame ballot. He received only 24.3% of the vote in his first year, which is crazy.

“Tim Raines was one of the greatest leadoff hitters to ever play the game. Period,” said Joe Girardi in a statement. “He was a game-changer whose numbers speak for themselves. For me personally, he was a treasured teammate and someone people always seemed to gravitated toward. Everyone loved the Rock, except opposing pitchers and catchers.”

“Tim Raines was by far one of my favorite teammates,” added Derek Jeter. He taught me how to be a professional and more importantly to enjoy the game and have fun every day. Congratulations Rock.”

Rodriguez, another former Yankee, was on the ballot for the first time. He was a career .296/.334/.464 (104 wRC+) hitter — remember the days when that batting line was only 4% better than average? good times — who finished with 2,844 hits and 311 home runs. Rodriguez also caught more games (2,427) than anyone in baseball history. He spent a few forgettable months with the Yankees in 2008.

The most notable ex-Yankee on the ballot was Jorge Posada, who received only 3.8% of the vote and will drop off the ballot going forward. That’s a damn shame. I don’t necessarily think Posada is a Hall of Famer, he’s borderline, but I was hoping he’d stick around on the ballot for a few more years. Alas. Other former Yankees on the ballot include Roger Clemens (54.1%), Mike Mussina (51.8%), Lee Smith (34.2%), and Gary Sheffield (13.3%). Moose is gaining support.

Looking ahead to next year, notable former Yankees Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon will join the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time. Andruw Jones too, though he was only a Yankee briefly. Clemens, Mussina, and Sheffield will still be on the ballot as well. In two years the Yankees will get their next Hall of Famer, when Mariano Rivera joins the ballot. Andy Pettitte too, but only Rivera is a shoo-in. Jeter hits the ballot the following year.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

Tonight is an important night, so I’m posting the open thread a little earlier than usual. The 2017 Hall of Fame class will be announced during an MLB Network broadcast this evening. The show starts at 6pm ET and I’m guessing the announcement will come fairly early in the broadcast. They’ll go over the ballot, announce the new Hall of Famers, then have them on for interviews and all that. The announcement won’t come at, like, 6:55pm ET or something.

Here is Ryan Thibodaux’s public ballot tracker. Jeff Bagwell and ex-Yankee Tim Raines appear to be locks for induction this year. Vlad Guerrero, Trevor Hoffman, and Ivan Rodriguez are right on the bubble. Jorge Posada is in danger of falling off the ballot. As a reminder, it takes 75% for induction and 5% to remain on the ballot another year. Posada, Raines, Rodriguez, Mike Mussina, Gary Sheffield, Roger Clemens, and Lee Smith are the former Yankees on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot.

Use this open thread to talk about the Hall of Fame announcement or anything else that’s on your mind. Just not religion or politics, please. This isn’t the place for that. The Knicks are the only local sports team in action, and there’s some college hoops on the schedule too. Enjoy.

Didi Gregorius and the value of being a bad ball hitter

(Denis Poroy/Getty)
(Denis Poroy/Getty)

In just a few short weeks, the Yankees will enter year three of the Didi Gregorius era. Time flies, eh? In his two seasons as New York’s starting shortstop, Gregorius has shown a rocket arm and strong overall defensive chops, and blossoming power as well. And enthusiasm for the game, too. The Yankees have been a little too corporate over the years and a player having fun on the field is a welcome change.

Gregorius came to the Yankees with questions about his ability to hit, and while no one is going to confuse him for Derek Jeter at the plate, Didi hasn’t been a total zero with the stick either. He’s authored a .270/.311/.409 (94 wRC+) batting line in nearly 1,200 plate appearances as a Yankee. The league average shortstop hit .262/.319/.407 (92 wRC+) last season, so Gregorius is right there. Add in his defense and you’ve got a nice little player.

One thing we know for sure about Gregorius offensively is that he loves to swing. Loves it. His 55.4% swing rate last season was sixth highest among the 146 hitters to qualify for the batting title. And when he swings, he usually puts the ball in play. Gregorius had the third lowest walk rate (3.2%) and 26th lowest strikeout rate (13.7%) in baseball last season. He’s not someone who swings and misses a lot. When he swings, he tends to put in play.

Gregorius is not shy about swinging at pitches out of the zone — his 38.3% chase rate last year was 14th highest among those 146 batters — and that can get pretty annoying! At the same time, his 71.7% contact rate on pitches out of the zone was quite a bit above the 63.9% league average. This play sticks out to me from last summer. David Price tried to put Gregorius away with a changeup out of the zone, and Didi hooked it into the corner for extra bases:

That’s not a bad pitch! It was down and out of the zone, and with an 0-2 count and two outs, trying to get the hitter to chase something in the dirt is a smart move. The count says you don’t need to go right after the hitter in that situation. Price had some wiggle room thanks to the 0-2 count and the pitch was a ball (via Brooks Baseball) …

david-price-vs-didi-gregorius-050716

… yet Gregorius made him pay. What can you do if you’re the pitcher in that situation? Nothing, you just have to tip your cap, as annoying as that may be. Price made a good pitch and Gregorius drove in three runs anyway. That’s baseball. Sometimes you do everything right and still get beat.

That play speaks to Didi’s skills as a bad ball hitter. Vlad Guerrero was the ultimate bad ball hitter. We’ve all see the highlight of him hitting a single on a pitch that bounced. That guy could swing at any pitch in any location and do damage. Ichiro Suzuki was another great bad ball hitter. Gregorius is not a Vlad or Ichiro caliber bad ball hitter, basically no one is, but he is better than most in MLB today.

Over the last two seasons Gregorius has hit .222 with a .297 BABIP on pitches out of the zone, which sounds terrible, but the league averages were .187 and .281, respectively. The best bad ball hitter over the last two seasons, Denard Span, hit .268 on pitches outside the zone. Only nine others cleared .250. Here are Didi’s BABIPs on pitches in various locations from 2015-16, via Baseball Savant:

didi-gregorius-babips

The brighter the red, the higher above average the BABIP. The brighter the blue, the further below average. Gregorius has excelled at pitches down and in and out of the zone, like the Price changeup in the video above, and has been about average on pitches out of the zone away from him. That’s from the catcher’s perspective, so his weakness is up and in. Otherwise if it’s out of the zone, Gregorius has some level of success when he swings.

Of course, in a perfect world Didi would not swing at pitches out of the strike zone, but that’s just not who he is. Getting a hitter to change his approach is awfully tough, especially when you’re talking about a soon-to-be 27-year-old who has had success in the big leagues swinging at everything. Gregorius at this point probably is what he’s always going to be from an approach standpoint. He’s going to swing and swing often. So it goes.

I definitely think there is value in having a bad ball hitter in the lineup. Diversity is cool. On-base percentage is king and patient hitters who make the pitcher work tend to drive successful offenses. These days though, with velocity and strikeouts at an all-time high, having someone who can not only spoil those put-away pitches out of the zone, but actually get base hits off them is pretty useful. A full lineup of free swingers like Gregorius might not work. One in a lineup of patient hitters though? That’s doable.

Do the Yankees have a lineup full of patient hitters at the moment? Not really, though they’re probably in better shape than their 7.8% walk rate a year ago (19th in MLB) would lead you to believe. Brett Gardner, Chase Headley, Matt Holliday, and Greg Bird all have histories of working the count and drawing walks. Gary Sanchez showed similar patience last year. Aaron Judge has done it in the past too. Gregorius, Starlin Castro, and Jacoby Ellsbury are the team’s only true swing at everything hackers right now. Maybe three is too many.

Over the last two years we’ve seen enough from Gregorius to know he’s probably never going to draw a ton of walks and be a high on-base guy. Would I prefer it if he laid off pitches out of the strike zone? Of course, but that doesn’t seem to be in his DNA. Revamping his approach will take a lot of work. Drawing walks is not natural to him. If nothing else, at least Gregorius has demonstrated the ability to have some success when swinging at pitches out of the zone. If he’s not going to lay off them, then that’s the next best thing.

Prospect Profile: Albert Abreu

(@MLBpipeline)
(@MLBpipeline)

Albert Abreu | RHP

Background
Back in 2013, the Astros signed the now 21-year-old Abreu out of the relatively small town of Guayubin, in the Dominican Republic. He received a $185,000 bonus. Baseball America did not rank Abreu among the top 30 international prospects available during the 2013-14 international signing period.

The Yankees acquired Abreu from Houston in the Brian McCann trade earlier this offseason. Abreu and fellow right-hander Jorge Guzman went to New York in the two-for-one swap.

Pro Career
Because he wasn’t a high-profile signing, the Astros assigned Abreu to one of their rookie Dominican Summer League affiliates for his pro debut in 2014. He had a 2.78 ERA (3.41 FIP) with 19.4% strikeouts and 10.4% walks in 14 starts and 68 innings that year.

The ‘Stros brought Abreu to the U.S. in 2015 and sent him to their rookie Appalachian League affiliate. That summer he made seven starts and six relief appearances, and threw 46.2 innings with a 2.51 ERA (3.56 FIP) with 26.0% strikeouts and 10.7% walks. Baseball America ranked Abreu as the sixth best prospect in the league after the season.

Abreu opened the 2016 season in the Low-A Midwest League. He managed a 3.50 ERA (3.85 FIP) with 27.1% strikeouts and 12.8% walks in 90 innings spread across 14 starts and seven relief appearances at that level. Houston bumped Abreu up to the High-A California League at the end of the season, where he allowed eight runs in 14.1 innings.

All told, Abreu had a 3.71 ERA (4.07 FIP) with 26.3% strikeouts and 12.9% walks in 104.1 innings in 2016. Baseball America (subs. req’d) ranked him as the 14th best prospect in the league, one spot ahead of Angels catcher Matt Thaiss, the 16th overall pick in the 2016 draft. Abreu was ranked the Astros’ tenth best prospect prior to the trade by Baseball America.

Scouting Report
When the Astros signed Abreu, he was 6-foot-2 and rail thin with an 87-91 mph fastball. He still stands 6-foot-2, but he’s filled out a bit and now checks in at 175 pounds. His fastball has climbed into the 93-96 mph range and will top out at 99 mph. Abreu’s arm is really loose and the ball jumps out of his hand.

Depending on the day, either the slider or the changeup will look like Abreu’s second best pitch. The slider has hard break in the mid-to-upper-80s while the changeup fades down and away to lefties when thrown properly. Abreu also has a big breaking power curveball. He’s still working to gain consistency with all three non-fastballs. Here’s some video:

Abreu is a good athlete with a really quick arm, though his control suffers because he tends to rush through his delivery. He’s still learning to repeat his mechanics, especially from the stretch, and once he does that, it should improve his presently below-average control. Abreu is very much a young pitcher with tantalizing stuff who is still learning how to pitch.

2017 Outlook
Given his success at Low-A last season, the Yankees figure to assign Abreu to High-A Tampa to begin the 2017 season, his first in the organization. I wouldn’t count on a midseason promotion. Abreu just turned 21 in September and he’s not very experienced. A full season at High-A is in the cards, even if he dominates.

My Take
I’m not gonna lie, I’m not much of an Abreu fan. The kid has a great arm, no doubt about that. Four pitches and a good delivery is a nice starting point. I just see too many obstacles to overcome. Abreu needs to refine multiple secondary pitches, hone his mechanics, and learn to throw strikes. His upside is enormous, possibly the highest of any pitcher in the system, but there’s a very long way to go before Abreu approaches that ceiling. And, frankly, the Yankees haven’t much success developing these high-risk/high-reward kids. Abreu is a quality prospect. I’m just not his biggest fan. That’s all.