Coming off shoulder surgery, Greg Bird’s spring home runs do mean a little something

#GREGBIRD (Presswire)
#GREGBIRD (Presswire)

The theme for the Yankees early this Spring Training is home runs. They’ve hit a lot of dingers. Eleven in six games, to be exact. No team has hit more. I really hope this trend continues during the regular season. For now, I’ll enjoy it while it lasts in February and March.

Tuesday afternoon projected first baseman Greg Bird smacked two of those eleven home runs in a Grapefruit League game against the Red Sox. He hooked one around the faux Pesky Pole in right, then lifted the other over the faux Green Monster in left. The game wasn’t televised, though video still exists:

Spring Training performance generally means nothing. There’s just so much noise to consider. For example: Bird took Kyle Kendrick and Edgar Olmos deep yesterday. The chances of those two seeing the big leagues this summer are quite small. Hitting dingers is fun! But there is always important context to consider, especially in the spring.

Part of that context is Bird’s return from shoulder surgery, which makes yesterday’s home runs a little more meaningful than your typical Grapefruit League dinger. Bird had a serious injury and procedure, and he missed the entire 2016 season. Beyond the rust typically associated with such a long layoff, an injury to a hitter’s front shoulder (like Bird’s) often results in a decline in power, even temporarily.

Matt Kemp, for example, had the same shoulder surgery back in October 2012. He had a .236 ISO in 2012 and a .125 ISO in 2013, his first season after surgery. It wasn’t until 2014 that his power came all the way back (.220 ISO). Adrian Gonzalez was one of the game’s top power hitters (.242 ISO from 2009-10) before going under the knife in October 2010. He had a .180 ISO in the three years after surgery.

Bird’s home runs show that, if nothing else, he has regained strength in his shoulder and is still capable of driving the ball to all fields. (Going opposite field over the Green Monster lookalike is no small feat.) That’s reassuring. We know it’s still in there. He can still drive the ball out of the ballpark. Bird is close to a bat only player, so if his power is compromised following shoulder surgery, even temporarily, it would create some problems.

Furthermore, Bird says he feels better right now than he has in a long time. He was pretty good with the Yankees before the surgery, remember. He did all that despite pain and discomfort. Bird says that’s gone and he feels better physically. “The results are great. I’ll take them, obviously. But I’m feeling good and feeling good the next day and the next day. It wasn’t like that for a long time,” he said to Dan Martin yesterday.

Hitting home runs against Kyle Kendricks and Edgar Olmos on February 28th is not a sign Bird is ready to do damage against guys like Chris Sale and Aaron Sanchez during the regular season. All those homers tell us is Bird’s shoulder is healthy and he’s either regained his power following surgery or is in the process of regaining it. (Probably the latter.) When a player is coming off a major surgery, you look for signs he’ll be his old self, and we saw a bit of that from Bird yesterday.

The Long-Term Future in Center Field

Ellsbury. (Presswire)
Ellsbury. (Presswire)

This is an exciting time to be a Yankees fan. The big league team might not be any good this season, and frankly they haven’t been all that good over the last four years anyway, but at least now the farm system is loaded and there are a ton of quality young players in the organization. Soon young guys like Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier will join Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird in the Bronx.

At some point in the near future, perhaps sooner than anyone realizes, the Yankees will have to figure out their center field situation. The two best center fielders on the roster, Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, will both turn 34 later this year. Over the last ten years there has been one full-time center fielder age 34 or older: Mike Cameron, who continued to play center full-time from ages 34-36 in 2007-09. No one else has done it.

Center field is a young man’s position because it involves lots and lots of running, day after day after day. The Yankees had Johnny Damon begin the process of moving to left field at age 33 because Melky Cabrera was the superior defensive option, remember. By center fielder standards, Gardner and Ellsbury are pretty darn old, and it stands to reason they won’t be viable options at the position much longer. Speed usually doesn’t age all that well.

This creates two questions for the Yankees. One, who plays center field long-term? And two, what do the Yankees do with Gardner and/or Ellsbury? I’ll answer the second one first: they’re probably going to trade Gardner at some point. Would they prefer to trade Ellsbury? Yeah, I’m sure of it. But that’s not happening, so Gardner it is. They’ve been listening on him for over a year, and it feels like only a matter of time until a trade goes down.

I get the feeling the eventual outcome here is Gardner gets traded away, then Ellsbury slides over to left field for the tail end of his contract, similar to Damon back in the day. (Or worse, to designated hitter full-time.) That creates an opening in center field, and as good as the farm system is these days, the Yankees don’t have an elite center field prospect. Torres is a shortstop, Frazier and Aaron Judge are corner outfielders, and so on.

That doesn’t mean the Yankees lack potential center field options, however. Not at all. They actually have quite a few, both short-term and long-term. That’s good. Multiple options are good. As much as we all love the prospects, the reality is they won’t all work out, and you’d hate to pin your hopes on that one guy to take over a position long-term. Here, in no particular order, are the club’s various long-term center field options.

The Almost Ready Option

Fowler. (Presswire)
Fowler. (Presswire)

When the 2017 regular season begins, Dustin Fowler figures to roam center field for Triple-A Scranton. Fowler is New York’s best pure center field prospect — I ranked him as the 12th best prospect in the system overall — and last year he hit .281/.311/.458 (109 wRC+) with 30 doubles, 15 triples, 12 homers, and 25 steals in Double-A. He really fills up the box score. Fowler is also a very good defender with plenty of range.

There are two glaring weaknesses to Fowler’s game. One, he doesn’t have much of a throwing arm. And two, he’s pretty undisciplined at the plate. Minor league walk rates aren’t everything, though his career 4.4% walk rate in over 1,500 minor league plate appearances is emblematic of his approach. Those are negatives, clearly, but Fowler also offers enough positives to be an everyday player. He makes contact, has some pop, steals bases, and defends well. Similar skill set to peak Ellsbury now that I think about it.

For all intents and purposes, Fowler is a call-up candidate right now. He’s going to start the season in Triple-A and will be added to the 40-man roster no later than next winter (when he’s Rule 5 Draft eligible), and any time those combination of things exist, there’s a chance for the player to wind up in the show. Fowler is, by far, the Yankees’ best close to MLB ready center field prospect. He is easily the favorite to take over the position in the short-term.

The Square Peg, Round Hole Option

Although his tools point to a long-term future in left field, Frazier has enough speed and athleticism to handle center field right now, if necessary. He has plenty of experience at the position — he’s played more minor league games in center (260) than he has in left and right combined (117) — and still possesses enough speed to cover the gaps. Would Frazier be a perfect fit in center? No, but it’s doable. The question is whether mid-30s Ellsbury in left and Frazier in center is a better defensive alignment than mid-30s Ellsbury in center and Frazier in left. It’s not so cut and dried.

The Conversion Candidates

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

The Yankees are loaded with shortstop prospects at the moment, so much so that they’ve had Tyler Wade and Jorge Mateo get acquainted with the outfield. Wade played all three outfield spots in the Arizona Fall League last year and he’s been out there this spring as well. Mateo worked out in center field in Instructional League and is doing the same this spring. He’s yet to play an actual game out there, however.

Wade, like Fowler, will open this season in Triple-A, though he’s not an immediate center field option given his inexperience at the position. He’s not someone the Yankees could call up and stick in center for two weeks in May to cover for injuries, you know? That’s a little too soon. Besides, it seems the Yankees are looking to make Wade a super utility player, not a full-time outfielder. He’s too good defensively on the infield to throw that away entirely.

As for Mateo, I am pretty intrigued with the idea of putting him in center field full-time. He’s a good defender at shortstop, that’s not much of a problem, but his truly elite speed may be put to better use in center. Mateo is a good defender at short. He might be a great defender in center. Either way, Mateo is not close to the big leagues like Fowler, Frazier, and Wade. He’s yet to play above High-A and has to answer some questions about his bat before we can start to think about him as a realistic center field option. (And, you know, he has to actually play some games in center too.)

The Reclamation Candidate(s)

Earlier I mentioned Gardner and Ellsbury are the two best center fielders on the roster, which is true when taking all things into account. The best defensive center fielder on the roster is Aaron Hicks (despite a few funky routes last season). He’s got top notch closing speed and a rocket arm. Right now, in the year 2017, Hicks is a better gloveman than either Gardner or Ellsbury in center.

The best defensive outfielder in the entire organization is another reclamation project: Mason Williams. He’s a premium runner who gets great reads, and while his arm isn’t Hicks caliber, it is comfortably above average. Even after shoulder surgery two years ago. It’s unclear whether Williams will ever hit enough to play regularly, but his glove is unquestioned. The Yankees could play him everyday in center and he could handle it defensively.

That “will he ever hit?” question is a big one though, and it applies to Hicks as well. Hicks and Williams are so talented that you can never rule out things coming together, especially at their ages, but for them to have any shot at replacing Ellsbury in center field full-time, they’re going to have to do more at the plate. No doubt. (To be fair to Williams, he’s been hurt more than ineffective the last two seasons.)

The Far Away Options

Fowler and Frazier (and Wade) are knocking on the door. Mateo is a little further away. Ever further away are Blake Rutherford and Estevan Florial, two high-upside center field prospects. Both figure to start the season at Low-A Charleston. They were teammates with Rookie Pulaski last year, where Rutherford played center field and Florial manned left. (First rounder gets priority.)

It goes without saying there is a lot of risk involved with players this far away from the big leagues. There’s so much that can go wrong these next few years. The obstacles facing Rutherford and Florial are very different too. The expectation is Rutherford will shift to a corner spot at some point as he fills out and adds some bulk. Florial is a graceful defender who happens to be a total hacker at the plate. He might not make enough contact to reach MLB.

Give the Yankees a truth serum and I’m sure they’d tell you they want Rutherford to be their long-term center fielder. Frazier, Rutherford, and Judge from left to right would be the perfect world long-term outfield picture. The odds are against that actually happening though, mostly because prospects have a way of breaking hearts. Rutherford and Florial are definitely long-term center field candidates. They’re just far away and carry a lot of risk relative to the other guys in this post.

The External Options

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

These are the Yankees, and even though they’re trying to scale back spending to get under the luxury tax threshold, you can never really rule them out going outside the organization for help. I, personally, am hoping for a Rob Refsnyder for Mike Trout trade. Fingers crossed. If that doesn’t happen, here are some potential free agent center fielders:

  • After 2017: Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, Carlos Gomez, Andrew McCutchen (if option is declined)
  • After 2018: Charlie Blackmon, Adam Jones, A.J. Pollock, McCutchen (if option is exercised)

A few of those guys would look pretty good in pinstripes, no? Cain is pretty damn awesome. He’s a fun player and I am pro-fun. Blackmon hit .324/.381/.552 (130 wRC+) with 29 homers and 17 steals last season, you know. Pollock missed a bunch of time with an elbow injury last year, but he’s quietly been one of the best players in baseball the last three or four years.

There’s also Bryce Harper, who will become a free agent following the 2018 season, when he’ll still be only 26 years old. He’s a really good athlete and has played center field for the Nationals at times. Could the Yankees view him as a potential center fielder? That’d be interesting. It’s not like he’d be over the hill or anything. Perhaps Harper in center could work for a few years. Frazier in left, Harper in center, Judge in right? Sign me up.

Anyway, the problem with the non-Harper free agents is the same problem that currently exists with Ellsbury. The Yankees would be paying big money to someone over 30 and in their decline years. Before you know it, we’d be talking about moving Cain or Blackmon or Pollock or whoever to left in favor of a better defensive center fielder. Signing a free agent center fielder is definitely possible. It just seems unlikely given the team’s direction at this point.

The Worst Case Scenario

This is going to sound mean, but the worst case scenario would be keeping Ellsbury in center field through the end of his contract. Maybe he can make it work defensively in his mid-30s like Cameron did once upon a time. He’d be an outlier in that case, but hey, stranger things have happened. I’m sure the Yankees would prefer to keep Ellsbury in center as long as possible too. That’s where he’s most valuable. History suggests his days in center are numbered, however. There simply aren’t many players age 34 and over roaming center nowadays.

* * *

The center field situation is not a pressing matter, fortunately. The Yankees don’t need to figure this out right now. They can let the season play out, see how Ellsbury handles it defensively and how the kids progress in the minors, then figure out what’s next. And maybe nothing is next. Maybe keeping Ellsbury in center through the end of his contract is plausible. The Yankees do have some center field options, both short and long-term, just in case things don’t work out. Sooner or later the team will have to go in a new direction in center field, and odds are it’ll be before the end of Ellsbury’s contract.

Open Thread: February 28th Camp Notes

The Yankees played a pair of (untelevised) split squad games today and they won them both. They’re now 5-1 this spring. Masahiro Tanaka threw two perfect innings at home against the Tigers, in his first outing of the Grapefruit League season. Gary Sanchez and Chris Carter both went deep, and Clint Frazier doubled in a pair of runs as well. Thairo Estrada also went yard again. The Summer of Thairo 2.0 is well underway. Here’s the box score for that game.

On the road against the Red Sox, Greg Bird smacked two home runs, pulling one to right and lifting the other over the faux Green Monster in left. Aaron Judge singled and drew a walk, and Gleyber Torres had a single as well. Here’s video of Gleyber. Luis Cessa, the first rotation candidate to make his second appearance of the spring, allowed two runs in two innings. Chance Adams tossed two scoreless frames and Justus Sheffield allowed a run in 1.2 innings. Here’s the box score for that game and here’s the rest of the day’s notes:

Here is the open thread for the evening. MLB Network is showing the Angels and Cubs on tape delay at 9pm ET tonight — Manny Banuelos started and Vicente Campos pitched in relief for the Halos that game (life comes at you fast) — plus the (hockey) Rangers are playing. There are a few college hoops games on as well. Talk about those games or anything else here, as long as it’s not religion or politics. Thanks in advance.

Update: YES will return to Comcast on March 31st

(MLB.tv screen grab)
(MLB.tv screen grab)

February 28th: YES will return to Comcast on March 31st, the network announced. Opening Day is April 2nd, so just in the nick of time. The Yankees are playing an exhibition game against the Braves at brand new SunTrust Park on March 31st, and the press release says that game broadcast will be available to Comcast customers. Hooray for that.

January 2nd: According to Joe Flint, Comcast and the FOX News Channel have reached a new broadcast agreement, and as part of the deal, Comcast will resume carrying the YES Network this year. It’s a four-year agreement between the two cable giants.

Now, the bad news: Flint says YES will not return to Comcast subscribers immediately, and it’s possible it won’t be back until later in the spring, after the start of the regular season. That would be a bummer, though at least it’s coming back at some point. That’s better than nothing.

Comcast stopped carrying YES in late 2015 due to a rights fee dispute. They said the subscriber fee was too high — it was reported YES offered a rights fee reduction at one point, but to no avail — and supposedly Comcast argued the team wasn’t good enough to justify the price.

YES is available for in-market streaming through the FOX Sports Go app, but only if you subscribe to the network through your cable provider. It was no help for Comcast customers last year. Anyway, more people can watch the Yankees this year, and that’s good news.

The Yankees lost some lefty power, but does it matter?

Getty Images
(Getty Images)

The Yankees lost a lot of veterans over the last year, whether to trade, retirement or release. While it has enabled the team to undergo a much-needed youth movement, it also signifies a significant loss in left-handed power. Lefty power isn’t a be-all, end-all. Just look at the 2015-16 Blue Jays and the success they had with Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.

Yet nearly all of the Yankees’ teams since Babe Ruth have been built around powerful lefty (or switch) hitters and they have a home stadium built to match. After all, lefties have the platoon advantage most of the time and strong lefty pull hitters can make mince meat of Yankee Stadium. Therefore, it’s worth looking into whether the Yankees can maintain that or if it will even matter with the team’s new additions.

What they’ve lost

In 2016, the lineup had Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Didi Gregorius, all lefties or switch-hitters, all hit 20+ home runs in pinstripes. Now, the first three names on that list are either retired or playing for the Astros. That leaves a major hole in the middle of the Yankees’ lineup without similar players to fill it.

And those weren’t the only lefties in the lineup. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury combined for just 16 home runs after 33 between the pair as recently as 2014. Chase Headley, despite going without an extra-base hit until mid-May, still hit 11 homers from the left side. In total, thanks to the contributions of those above and a few others, 101 of the team’s 183 homers came from lefty batters, many taking advantage of the short porch in right field.

Sir Didi and Bird

If all went according to plan in 2017, Gregorius and Greg Bird would cement themselves as Yankees regulars for the foreseeable future. Headley, Ellsbury and Gardner will all be 33 for most of the upcoming season, so it’s tougher to see them rebound and provide a strong power surge. So we look to the youthful duo.

It’s worth questioning whether Gregorius, who had only 22 career dingers before last year, can sustain his power surge. He improved on pitches located essentially anywhere, but where he really improved was his power on inside pitches. It’s spelled out through his isolated power in 2015 vs. 2016, via Baseball Savant.

didi-iso-zone-2015-vs-2016
2015 (left) vs. 2016 (right)

While he began the spring with a home run, he’s still not exactly a home run hitter. Some of those home runs last year were line drives that snuck out and he pulled all 20 of his dingers, benefiting from the short porch. Craig Goldstein broke down Gregorius’ 2016 power surge at Baseball Prospectus (subs. required) and says it very well could be a one-year blip.  For what it’s worth, the Yankees believe he can maintain his power, even if the home runs don’t necessarily come, and he did also post a career-high in doubles last season.

As for Bird, the 24-year-old first baseman has the task of replacing Teixeira in the middle of the Yankees’ order. First base is the one spot where the Yankees could find improved power for a LHB, but there is also reason to fret that may not happen. Greg Bird hit 11 homers with a .268 ISO in 178 plate appearances in 2015, but now he’s working his way back from shoulder surgery. Did the surgery sap some of his power? Time will tell and his spring will be important to knocking off some of the inevitable rust (his two doubles on Monday are a good sign).

Righties in the middle

Beyond Bird, there were no lefty hitters added to the Yankees lineup. Maybe Gardner or Ellsbury could bounce back and hit double-digit home runs again. It’s certainly possible that, with extended playing time, this is the year Aaron Hicks puts it together and fulfills his potential.

However, it’s more than likely any uptick in slugging would come from righty Bombers, of which there are plenty candidates. Namely Chris Carter, Matt Holliday, Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge.

Carter mashes lefties more than righties, making him an obvious platoon candidate with Bird, but he still hit 29 homers and posted a more than respectable .487 slugging percentage against RHPs in 2016. Furthermore, he used the opposite field more against RHPs while pulled the ball against LHPs, a sign Carter can utilize the short porch more than one might expect. Here’s his spray heatmap vs. RHPs via Baseball Savant (and here’s the link to the same vs. LHPs).

chris-carter-heatmap-vs-rhp

Matt Holliday, the team’s new everyday DH, has hit — with the exception of 2015 — 20 home runs every season since 2005. Like Carter, he hit for more power against lefties but was still above league average against same-sided pitchers.

Sanchez and Judge are tougher enigmas to crack. Sanchez’s slump to end 2016 indicates he won’t put up nearly the same numbers as he did in August last year. Then again, how exactly was he supposed to replicate that anyway? For what it’s worth, Sanchez hit righties much better than lefties, making up for the lack of platoon advantage McCann provided vs. RHPs. Judge, meanwhile, has more than enough power regardless of opponent but needs to cut down on strikeouts to stay in the lineup.

Does it matter?

Surely the Yankees will hit fewer homers from the left side. But their addition of right-handed power, particularly batters who can use the opposite field, will help make up for that. This will help correct the team’s issues against southpaws that plagued them last season (.253/.317/.391 vs. LHP as compared to .256/.323/.414 league average). With a division littered with lefty starters (eight, including potentially four on the Red Sox alone), the Yankees may be able to turn a 2016 weakness into a strength. As mentioned above, you can be right-handed heavy like the Blue Jays recently were and still be able to rack up extra bases.

Still, it’s worth wondering if the team has traded struggles vs. southpaws for something worse, a lack of power vs. RHPs, who make up the majority of what the team will face. The team as a whole was just 12th in the AL in slugging last season. Therefore, it’s reliant on young players like Bird and Gregorius as well as the team’s RHBs to fill in the power gap or else the Yankees won’t be able to live up to the Bronx Bomber nickname in this transitional season.

Hideki Irabu, Twenty Years Later

(Bill Kostroun/Associated Press)
(Bill Kostroun/Associated Press)

A bit over twenty years ago, the San Diego Padres purchased the contract of Hideki Irabu from the Chiba Lotte Marines. There was no bidding process, nor was any other team able to offer Irabu a contract – the Padres were the early bird to the worm, and they stood to reap the rewards. This is noteworthy in and of itself, as it played a tremendous role in the creation and implementation of the posting system that we all know and loathe (though, to be fair, the system that brought Masahiro Tanaka over was an improvement, even if subsequent tweaks will prevent us from seeing Shohei Otani for a couple more years). But I digress.

The demand for Irabu was understandable. In addition to throwing the hardest recorded fastball in the history of the NPB (98 or 99 MPH, depending on the account), he was probably the league’s best pitcher from 1994 through 1996. Some called him the Japanese Nolan Ryan, while Bobby Valentine – a former manager – compared him to Roger Clemens (the 6’4″, 240 pound frame helped), and several scouts believed he would be better than Hideo Nomo. That last bit may not mean much nowadays, but it came on the heels of Nomo’s first two MLB seasons, which included a Rookie of the Year award, two Top-4 Cy Young finishes, over 10 K/9, a 133 ERA+, and 9-plus WAR (per both B-R and FanGraphs).

Unfortunately for the Padres (or fortunately, depending on how you want to weigh hindsight), Irabu refused to pitch in San Diego. He was a lifelong Yankees fan, after all, and that was the only organization that he would play for. And George Steinbrenner was more than happy to oblige, and a deal was struck. The Yankees sent top prospect Ruben Rivera (rated 9th overall by Baseball America a couple of months prior), Rafael Medina (64th on the same list), and $3 MM to the Padres, in exchange for Irabu, Homer Bush, and Gordie Amerson. They subsequently signed him to a four-year, $12.8 MM deal, with a team option for a fifth.

Fans, players, and talking heads the world over had strong opinions about the manner in which Irabu forced his way to the Yankees. A Tokyo-based newspaper was headlined “ARE YOU BLINDED BY MONEY?” on the heels of the deal, which is seemingly a timeless question for athletes. And both Andy Pettitte and Kenny Rogers questioned the signing, with the former griping about their comparative wages (Pettitte made around $600,000 in 1997). There was excitement, to be sure, but the skepticism and anger was palpable.

Irabu made his stateside debut shortly thereafter, making six warm-up starts in the minors. He dominated the competition, allowing a 2.32 ERA in 31 IP, and posting a ridiculous 34 strikeouts against just 1 walk. His fastball sat in the 94-96 MPH range, and his forkball had vicious bite in the upper-80s, low-90s. More than satisfied with his stuff and performance, the Yankees called him up to face the Tigers at home on July 10, 1997.

(Chuck Solomon/SI)
(Chuck Solomon/SI)

I was there that evening, as a part of a sell-out crowd (as compared to the average weekday audience of around 28,000), and I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen the stadium more excited for the first pitch of a relatively inconsequential game. That level of excitement was steady throughout the evening, with cheers at every strike and veritable roars with every punch out. When Joe Torre pulled Irabu in the top of the 7th the crowd reacted as though he had thrown a perfect game, demanding a curtain call. All told, he finished that night with 6.2 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 4 BB, and 9 K. It was a fine debut, and it seemed as though a legend was being born.

The brakes were pumped in short order, though, as Irabu was awful over his next seven starts, earning a demotion to the minors and a return engagement in the bullpen. In the eleven appearances between his first and last starts of the season, batters hit .343/.395/.663 against Irabu, which led to an 8.42 ERA in 41.2 IP. The first uses of ‘I-Rob-U’ were born during this stretch, as fans turned on him rather quickly. Some faint glimmer hope was found in his final start of the season, against those same Tigers, when he went 5 IP, allowing just 2 hits, 1 run, and no walks, while striking out 6. The final line was ugly – a 7.09 ERA and -0.9 bWAR in 53.1 IP – but there were flashes of brilliance sprinkled in.

That glimmer of hope expanded tenfold in the first few months of the 1998 season. Irabu allowed 1 run or less in six of his first seven starts, and boasted a 1.13 ERA in 47.2 IP when Memorial Day rolled around. When the first half came to a close, he was sitting on the following line: 86.2 IP, 67 H, 40 BB, 65 K, 2.91 ERA. The strikeouts and walks weren’t terribly strong, but we were at the tail end of the dark days of baseball analytics, and that ERA was quite good in the run environment of 1998. The wheels fell off in the second half, to the tune of a 5.21 ERA in 86.1 IP, and Irabu didn’t factor into the 1998 playoffs.

Overall, 1998 wasn’t a terrible year for Irabu. Disappointing? Sure. But 173 IP of 109 ERA+ ball isn’t too shabby, and he actually bested Pettitte in H/9, K/9, ERA+, and bWAR. The sequencing of it all kept him off of the playoff roster (as it should have, as he was all but unpitchable down the stretch) – but there were still some signs that he could be a competent back of the rotation starter. And, given his contract, he’d get the chance to be just that.

Instead, Irabu was viewed as a dead man walking in 1999, his season tarnished by Steinbrenner referring to him as a “fat pussy toad”  after he failed to cover first in a Spring Training game. (Pussy as in full of pus.) He was sent to the bullpen to open the season, spending the entirety of April as a mop-up reliever, before rejoining the rotation in May. The writing was on the wall at that point, it seemed, and Irabu did little to help his cause. His strikeout and walk rates improved markedly over his 1998 season, and he looked quite good in June (3.33 ERA in 24.1 IP) and July (2.64 ERA and 4.1 K/BB in 44.1 IP) – but that represented the high point to an otherwise dreadful season, including two-plus awful months to close the season (6.63 ERA between August and October).

The Yankees officially gave up on Irabu thereafter, and he was dealt to the Expos for Jake Westbrook, Ted Lilly, and Christian Parker in the 1999-2000 off-season. He spent three more years in the majors (two in Montreal, one in Texas), battling injuries, ineffectiveness, and demotions to the minors, throwing his last big league pitch on July 12, 2002 … he allowed a walk-off single to Jacque Jones in  a 4-3 loss to the Twins.

Irabu finished his career with 514 IP across 126 appearances (80 starts), posting a 5.15 ERA (4.97 FIP) along the way. His 18.1% strikeout rate and 7.8% walk rate were both better than average for their time, but his propensity for the long ball (1.59 HR/9 for his career) and gradually increasing hittability felled him. Luckily for the Yankees, their return for Irabu was much better than what they gave up back in 1997 – and he didn’t stop them from winning back-to-back World Series championships.

He returned to the NPB in 2003 at 34-years-old, pitching for the Hanshin Tigers of the Central League (in a rotation with Kei Igawa, because of course). He finished fourth in the Central League with 164 strikeouts, with a league-average-ish 3.85 ERA. He attempted a return engagement in 2004, but injuries essentially ended his career.

Irabu’s post playing days were discussed quite a bit when he committed suicide in 2011, and they don’t bear repeating here. Despite his struggles with the Yankees, I remember him somewhat fondly. He started one of the most exciting games that I’ve ever attended (I was eleven at the time), and his forkball stands out as one of the first filthy breaking balls in my memory. His career was a disappointment, and much of it was a circus – but the talent was there, and he was fun to watch when he was right.

If you’d like to take a few moments to see what could have been, I recommend these two videos. The first is from 1994, when he was still pitching in the NPB:

And the other is from his MLB debut:

Thoughts following the first four Grapefruit League games

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The first four Grapefruit Leagues games are in the books and the Yankees won three of them. They rallied to tie the game in the ninth inning in the one loss too. It’s good to have baseball back, isn’t it? Spring Training games are fun in their own way. Are you ready for some super small sample size reactions? Good. I have some thoughts.

1. Let’s get to the bottom of this Aaron Judge leg kick business, shall we? We know Judge and hitting coach Alan Cockrell worked on something with his lower half this offseason. What exactly? No idea. At one point it appeared he eliminated his leg kick, but nope, that’s not the case. My bad. Here is Judge last spring (left) and Judge this spring (right):

aaron-judge-2016-17-leg-kick

I wouldn’t say Judge’s leg kick is smaller this spring, but he is getting his foot down a little quicker. The GIFs are synced up at the moment he lifts his front foot, and you can see it touches down a tad earlier than last year. Last spring his foot kinda dangled out there for a second. This year it’s up and down, and he’s ready to hit. I have no idea whether this is what Judge and Cockrell worked on over the winter, but there’s his leg kick last year and his leg kick this year. They look about the same size — Judge isn’t picking his leg up any higher (or lower) — but this year his front foot gets down a tad bit sooner, ostensibly putting him in better position to hit. Intrigue!

2. Three quick observations about the kids. One, Gleyber Torres looks like a big leaguer. I don’t mean he’s ready to play in the big leagues right now, but the way he carries himself. He’s calm at the plate and in the field. Gleyber’s good and he knows it, though not in an arrogant way. It’s a quiet confidence. Two, Clint Frazier has been on everything. He’s gone 3-for-5 with a double and a triple, and even his two strikeouts were good at-bats with quality swings. It’s easy to see what Brian Cashman meant when he said Frazier has “legendary bat speed.” The kid gets the bat to the ball in a hurry. And three, Billy McKinney sure does have a pretty swing. I have no idea whether he’ll actually hit and be a productive player long-term, but his swing is a sweet. However his career plays out, McKinney will look good doing it. These first few games have been more fun than I expected as far as the prospects are concerned.

3. Each of the five fourth and fifth starter candidates have already appeared in games, and each has thrown two scoreless innings. And that means nothing to me right now. The first weekend of Grapefruit League games was never going to give someone an edge in this race. I was happy to see Luis Severino throw some nice changeups Sunday, though I’ve been doing this long enough to know a handful of changeups against minor leaguers (look at at the lineup Severino faced) in late-February don’t mean much of anything. The most encouraging thing I saw from the rotation candidates was probably Chad Green‘s velocity and overall health. His 2016 season ended early due to a sprained elbow ligament and strained flexor tendon, remember. That’s a scary combination of words. Green ran his fastball up to 94 mph in yesterday’s start and he was throwing free and easy. Hooray for that. The five rotation candidates got through their first appearances in one piece and that’s good. Once they get some more innings against MLB caliber hitters under their belts, those last two rotation spots will start to sort themselves out.

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

4. The Jacoby Ellsbury criticism has definitely been ratcheted up a notch this spring. I guess that’s what happens when Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira aren’t here to kick around anymore. Both Cashman and Joe Girardi have been asked directly about Ellsbury’s disappointing performance as a Yankee, Ellsbury himself has fielded questions about it, and the YES booth was on him Sunday as well. “We believe there’s more in there, we’ve seen it. Our job is to get that out of him,” said Girardi to George King, which is about as harsh as you’ll hear him criticize a veteran player. Hopefully Ellsbury uses this as motivation and has a strong bounceback season. That would be cool. I still think it’s unlikely he’ll be moved down in the lineup when the season begins — maybe a few weeks into the season, but not Opening Day — but I’m starting to think there’s a chance it will happen. Not a big chance, but a chance. I’d say it’s 90/10 in favor of staying at the top of the lineup. Sound good?

5. I thought it was kinda interesting Brett Gardner played center field and Aaron Hicks played left field in the first Spring Training game last week. Girardi said last season he wanted to keep Gardner in left field and he did. Gardner started only two games in center field last year, both in September when Hicks was on the disabled list and Mason Williams was still in Triple-A. Ellsbury got those days off and Gardner was the only other center field option. In all likelihood this is nothing. The Yankees are giving Gardner some center field time in Spring Training just to keep him sharp out there in case he’s needed. But maybe they consider him a better center fielder than Hicks at this point. By and large Hicks was really good in the field last year, though he took some funky routes at times, and stuff like that tends to stick in your memory. Hicks has played three games this spring, all in corner spots. His center field usage the rest of the spring is a #thingtowatch.