Here is tonight’s open thread. In addition to the World Series, the NBA season gets underway tonight — the Knicks are going to be playing the Cavaliers right across the street from Progressive Field (after the Cavs get their rings, of course) — and the Devils are in action too. You folks know how these things work by now, so have at it.
For all the attention the Yankees received this year for selling at the deadline and going young in the second half, the youth movement actually started last season. Rather than make a trade to aid the 2015 postseason push, the Yankees called up some of their very best prospects and gave them prominent roles in the final two months of the season. That was a change from the previous, oh, two decades or so.
No young player received a more prominent role in the second half last season than Luis Severino, who stepped into the rotation and gave the Yankees eleven high-quality starts. The then-21-year-old had a 2.89 ERA (4.37 FIP) in 62.1 innings and established himself as a fixture in the 2016 rotation. Rather than build on that success this year, Severino took a step back in almost every single way this past summer.
Seven Starts in the Show
Despite a rough first outing, Severino was very good in Spring Training, leaving no doubt that he belonged in the rotation. He actually started the fourth game of the season — there were some folks pining for an Opening Day start — ahead of CC Sabathia, which tells you what the Yankees thought of Severino (and Sabathia).
Severino’s first start of the season was not good. Not terrible, but not good either. He allowed three runs on ten hits in five innings against the Tigers, including four consecutive singles in the fourth inning. One bad start is one bad start. It happens to everyone. But then, next time out, Severino got hit hard again, this time allowing four runs on eight hits and a walk in 5.2 innings.
It never got any better. Severino allowed at least four runs in four of his next five starts, including seven runs on seven hits and four walks in 2.2 innings against the White Sox on May 13th. He left that start with an injury, and ominously pointed to his elbow when trainer Steve Donohue came out to visit him.
Injury or no injury, it seemed like there was a pretty good chance that disaster start against the White Sox was going to be Severino’s final big league start for a while. There was chatter the Yankees would move him to the bullpen or demote him to Tripe-A, and it would have been in no way unjustified. He was terrible and costing the Yankees games. The injury provided a temporary reprieve.
A Dozen Starts in the Minors
Thankfully, the injury was nothing serious. The first thing that crosses everyone’s mind when they see a pitcher grab their elbow like that is Tommy John surgery, and I understand why. Lots and lots of pitchers are blowing out their elbows these days. Severino avoided a serious injury and instead went down with a mild triceps strain. Ex-friggin-hale.
The triceps only required two weeks of rest and one minor league rehab start, but rather than bring him back to the big leagues, the Yankees activated Severino off the disabled list on May 30th and optioned him to Triple-A. He was sent down with the goal of improving his command, specifically of his secondary stuff. Look at his slider location during those first seven starts:
Yikes. That’s not good. Severino make a lot of mistakes in the middle of zone — with all his pitches, really, not just his slider — and he seemed to pay for every single one. Opponents hit .327/.373/.547 against him in those seven starts. That’s slightly better than what AL MVP candidate Mookie Betts did this year (.318/.363/.534). Severino was bad. Bad bad bad.
The Yankees sent Severino to Triple-A and they kept him there for a while. It wasn’t one of those “one or two starts and you’re coming back up” deals. Severino made ten starts with the RailRiders and his numbers were very good: 3.25 ERA (3.00 FIP) with 22.0% strikeouts and 5.8% walks in 63.2 innings. Did he actually improve his command while down there? Who knew. We were going to have to see Severino with our own eyes to find out.
“I did look at it,” said Joe Girardi in early June after one of Severino’s best Triple-A starts. “He threw some better sliders, some better changeups, but I still think there’s work to be done with location of fastball and consistency of his offspeed. I did see some better sliders.”
Following those ten Triple-A starts, the Yankees called Severino back to the big leagues to replace Aroldis Chapman after he was traded to the Cubs. I thought it was a temporary call-up until Adam Warren reported, but nope, Severino stuck around even after that. The Yankees did not use him as a starter though. He returned as a reliever and made three mop-up appearances.
The first two of those three appearances were solid. Two scoreless innings each time. The third appearance was the masterpiece, the one that had folks thinking Severino deserved another chance to start. He replaced Chad Green in the fourth inning and fired 4.1 innings of one-hit ball against the Mets on August 3rd. Severino struck out five and allowed just one unearned run.
Return as a Reliever
Once rosters expanded, the Yankees recalled Severino and again used him as a reliever, though this time he wasn’t limited to mop-up duty. Severino essentially took over as Girardi’s secondary setup man. On days Warren and Tyler Clippard weren’t available, it was Severino who got the ball in high-leverage spots, and he was excellent. One run allowed on seven hits and seven walks in 15 innings. He struck out 15. A few too many walks, but otherwise beautiful.
The Yankees gave Severino two starts at the very end of the season because Green got hurt, and that was basically out of necessity. They had no one else to start. The first of those two starts was rather eventful. Severino unintentionally hit Josh Donaldson with a pitch, J.A. Happ retaliated by hitting Chase Headley, then Severino retaliated for the retaliation by drilling Justin Smoak. Madness ensued.
Anyway, Severino made one last ineffective start (three runs in 3.2 innings) to close out his season. The total damage: 5.83 ERA (4.49 FIP) in 71 innings spread across eleven starts and eleven relief appearances. That, my friends, is a -0.3 bWAR and +0.6 fWAR pitcher. Pretty much replacement level. Worse than that as a starter, much better than that as a reliever.
This year, Severino became only the 23rd pitcher in history to make at least ten starts in the single season with an 8.50+ ERA. One of those 23 is Roy Halladay, who had to be broken down and built back up completely by the Blue Jays before becoming a two-time Cy Young award winner. Most of the others are broken down dudes trying to hang on. Not good company to keep.
At no point this season did Severino look like a competent Major League starter. Young starters struggle. It’s what they do. Usually you’re willing to live with the growing pains because you see the occasional flashes of brilliance. There were no flashes of brilliance with Severino this year. Not when he was in the rotation. His best start this season was two runs on seven hits in six innings. Yeah.
Whither the Changeup?
When the Yankees sent Severino down to Triple-A following the injury, the goal was improving the command of his secondary pitches. His slider in particular. I thought we saw improved slider location after he was called back up later in the season too. Severino did a better job burying it down and away to righties. There’s still work to be done, but there was progress.
The changeup, however, went backwards. Severino did not throw the pitch at all in relief — why would he? he was asked to get important outs in September and he leaned on the fastball and slider, his two best pitches — and he admitted he lost confidence in the pitch. He has a good changeup! It’s a quality pitch. But Severino lost confidence in it. He said as much. That’s a problem.
What Severino went through this season was not normal growing pains. He went backwards. We didn’t see any signs that he could be an effective starter, and any gains he made in slider command he gave back by losing confidence in his changeup. All he did was shift the problem. The Yankees really rushed Severino up the minor league ladder and I do think that played a role in his poor year. It doesn’t explain everything, but I do think it was a factor.
Outlook for 2017
There’s no way the Yankees can bring Severino to Spring Training counting on him to be one of their five starters next year. It made sense to give him a rotation spot last year. He pitched himself out of the rotation though. That isn’t to say he shouldn’t be given the opportunity to win a rotation spot in camp, because he should. The Yankees just can’t hand it to him though. Severino hasn’t earned it.
If nothing else, Severino showed this year he can be a pretty great reliever. It’s still way too early to give up on him as a starter. The Yankees should send him to Triple-A to start before keeping him in the big leagues as a reliever. Severino will turn 23 in February and he showed last season he can be a successful starting pitcher in the show. He got thrown off track this year. It happens. As ugly this season was for Severino, it shouldn’t be the end of his career as a starter. Hopefully it’s a learning experience and he’s better for it in the long run.
Yesterday afternoon, the Yankees announced extensive upgrades designed to make Yankee Stadium more fan friendly. There will be seven new social gathering spaces, a kids zone, and “dynamic food and beverage areas.” Construction will begin this week and the renovations are expected to be done in time for next season.
“We have listened to our fans and ticketholders and their top requests were for more family-friendly and socially-oriented spaces at Yankee Stadium,” said Hal Steinbrenner in a statement. “Yankees fans will now have many more dedicated areas for spending time with Guests who have tickets in other sections of the Stadium, allowing all Guests to be able to enjoy the game from multiple vantage points while having unique food and drink options available to them.”
Among the new additions will be “Budweiser Party Decks” in Sections 311 and 328, where folks can meet and hang out, and the “AT&T Sports Lounge” in Section 134, where “televisions tuned to the Yankees broadcast and other live sporting events will provide a sports-bar atmosphere on the Stadium’s main outdoor concourse in left field.” I don’t know about you, but I always go to the ballpark to get that sports bar atmosphere. Anyway, here’s more on the two biggest changes.
The Batter’s Eye
So center field is getting a massive facelift. The deck on top of the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar will be expanded to 3,500 square feet, and there are new left and right field “Bullpen Landings.” They’ll feature specialty food and drink options. You can see the rendering above. That looks really different!
To make all that possible, the Yankees are removing 2,100 seats total, most of which currently have obstructed views in the bleachers. Did you ever sit in the seats directly adjacent to the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar? You can only see half the field. Those are being ripped out and replaced with those bullpen landings.
Adding these social spaces seems like a pretty cool idea. It’ll be nice to have some new places to hang out at the ballpark. Two drawbacks though. One, with those 2,100 seats being ripped out, some folks are going to lose their season tickets, and that sucks. I assume the Yankees will give them a chance to buy seats elsewhere, but your seats are your seats. They’re your home away from home, you know?
And two, this new area gives fans another reason to leave their seats*. There’s nothing uglier than an empty ballpark, and with these new spots to hang out, there will be fewer butts in the seats. This isn’t really a problem — some folks go to watch a ballgame, others go to hang out with pals — because people will still be at the ballpark, but it might be an aesthetics issue. We’ll see.
* The Yankees say all these new sections will be accessible to everyone in the ballpark, regardless of your ticketed seat. You can buy a cheap bleacher ticket and hang out in that “AT&T Sports Lounge” all game.
Sunrun Kids Clubhouse
The kids area will include a mini-baseball field with a soft artificial surface and all sorts of baseball-themed playground equipment. It’ll be located on the 300 level in right field, and it seems some of those 2,100 seats will be removed from this area. In addition to the playground, there’s going to be a shaded section to sit, interactive exhibits, and a private space for nursing mothers.
“We want our youngest fans to feel as if Yankee Stadium is an extension of their local park or backyard,” said Steinbrenner in a statement. “The Sunrun Kids Clubhouse is designed to nurture their love for experiencing games in person, while providing parents the resources they need to keep their children entertained prior to and during the game.”
This is a really great idea. There was absolutely nothing kid friendly in the ballpark from 2009-16. I don’t have any kids, but I can’t imagine getting the young ones to sit through nine innings is easy. Now there’s a place for parents to take their children for some more age appropriate fun. I love baseball! Six-year-olds probably don’t though. Now they have something to do in the park.
* * *
There are still two aspects of Yankee Stadium that need to be fixed. First and foremost, the security lines outside. MLB (unnecessarily?) requires metal detectors at all entrances for security reasons, so there’s nothing the Yankees can do about that. They can improve the process though. The lines outside are long and move slowly. There’s a reason the ballpark is a ghost town in the first inning and filled up in the fourth. Too many people miss the first pitch.
Secondly, Monument Park. I hate that it’s hidden in center field like that. I wish it were on full display somewhere, like it was at the old Yankee Stadium. Show off that history, yo! I’m not sure how the Yankees could fix this — maybe create a two-tier bullpen in right field instead of the party deck, and put Monument Park in what is now the left field bullpen? — but man, I do hate that you can’t see Monument Park at all.
Kudos to the Yankees for trying to make the Yankee Stadium experience more entertaining, especially for kids. Yankee Stadium has gotten kinda stale in recent years. Maybe stale isn’t the right word, but the novelty has worn off. Adding some new social spots and a kids section mean there are new places to explore and hang out. That’s neat. I’m looking forward to checking out these new upgrades next year.
Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Texans and Broncos are on Monday Night Football, and that’s pretty much it. There’s no preseason basketball tonight and none of the local hockey teams are playing either. Have at it.
Now that we’re into October, it’s time for another edition of our MLBTR Archives series. I forgot to do this earlier in the month, so my bad for the tardiness. Anyway, the entire point of his monthly series is to look back at trade and free agent rumors from five years ago to see how silly (or genius!) it all sounds now. What good are rumors if you only read them once?
The Yankees finished the 2011 season with a 97-65 record and a +210 run differential despite serious rotation concerns. Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia really bailed them out. Only the Phillies (102-60) had a better regular season record than New York. Unfortunately, the Yankees didn’t last long in the postseason. The Tigers beat them in five games in the ALDS. That stunk. Let’s get to the October 2011 rumors.
October 1st, 2011: Quick Hits: Pettitte, Granderson, Alomar Jr.
Former Yankees lefty Andy Pettitte is enjoying retirement is highly unlikely to return to pitching, according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post. “I feel the desire [to play] is gone,” Pettitte said. “I am retired. I would never say never, but God would literally have to give me desire again… I’m really doing good. I just had a good peace about [retiring].“
Hah. Little did we know that a few months later Pettitte would come out of retirement to join the Yankees not only for 2012, but 2013 as well. I never in a million years expected Pettitte to un-retire — I know people talk about it all the time, but it rarely actually happens — but I’m glad he did. He was pretty awesome after coming back. The first round of “will he or won’t he retire” talk during the 2010-11 offseason was the worst though. It never ended.
October 7th, 2011: Yankees Notes: Sabathia, Posada, Cashman
Joel Sherman of the New York Post suspects that the Yankees will wait, instead of extending Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson this offseason. Both players are eligible for free agency after 2013 (assuming New York exercises Cano’s two options).
This was back when the Yankees had that “no extensions” policy that accomplished … I’m not sure what, exactly. Thankfully that is no more. Extending Cano back then would have been a smart move because he was an excellent homegrown Yankee at a hard-to-fill position — there’s no reason to think Robbie would have entertained an extension offer at that time anyway — and those guys are worth locking up.
Granderson was a different matter. He had a monster 2011 season, hitting .262/.364/.552 (146 wRC+) with 41 homers and 25 steals. Granderson finished fourth in the AL MVP voting and Cano finished sixth. That was also Granderson’s first season with that kind of production, so it was fair to wonder whether he’d do it again. The Yankees had him signed for another two years and could afford to be patient. Granderson had another year like that in 2012 but no extension came. Alas.
October 7th. 2011: Eric Chavez “Leaning Heavily Towards Retirement”
Veteran third baseman Eric Chavez is considering retirement, according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post (Twitter link). Chavez, 33, is “leaning heavily towards” hanging up his cleats after 14 Major League seasons.
The Yankees brought Chavez to camp as a non-roster player in 2011 and he wound up making the team as a bench player. He was okay that year, hitting .263/.320/.356 (80 wRC+) while playing the corner infield and missing time with a foot injury. Not great, not awful. Chavez did not retire that offseason, so the Yankees brought him back, and he rewarded them with an incredible 2012 season. He hit .281/.348/.496 (126 wRC+) with 16 homers that year. Pretty awesome. Chavez played another two years with the Diamondbacks after that, so he wasn’t close to retiring this offseason.
October 9th, 2011: Quick Hits: Payrolls, Jay, Wilson, Epstein
Some people think that C.J. Wilson has keen interest as a free agent in New York, tweets Jon Heyman of Sports Illustrated. He adds that the Yankees are probably the early favorite to sign him.
At the time, Wilson was very desirable as a free agent. The Rangers moved him into the rotation in 2010, and from 2010-11 he had a 3.14 ERA (3.39 FIP) in 427.1 innings. That’s really good! Wilson walked a few too many (9.5%), but he missed bats (21.3%) and got grounders (49.2%), plus he didn’t have nearly as many miles on his arm as most 30-year-old starters because he spent so much time as a reliever.
Alas, the Yankees didn’t sign Wilson, and that was for the best. He actually took less money from the Angels than the Marlins because he thought they were closer to winning. Wilson had a 3.87 ERA (3.95 FIP) in 722.1 innings with the Halos during his five-year, $75M contract. That’s not awful, but it’s not what the team was expecting. Wilson hasn’t pitched since July 2015 due to ongoing elbow and shoulder woes. The Yankees were never seriously in the mix to sign him during the 2011-12 offseason.
October 10th, 2011: AL East Links: Red Sox, Jays, Yanks, Sabathia, O’s
The Yankees did indeed get starting pitching that offseason — that was the Michael Pineda trade/Hiroki Kuroda signing offseason — but they took the “let’s bring in a bunch of guys and hope they work out” approach to the lefty relief market. The Yankees added three southpaws that winter: Cesar Cabral, Hideki Okajima (!), and Clay Rapada. Cabral, a Rule 5 Draft, hurt his elbow in Spring Training. Okajima failed his physical and never officially signed with the Yankees.
Rapada? He was nails in 2012. Had a 2.82 ERA (3.20 FIP) overall and held lefties to a .183/.263/.255 batting line with 28.7% strikeouts. Pretty awesome. Rapada and Boone Logan were a very nice left-on-left matchup tandem during that 2012 season. Unfortunately, Rapada got hurt during Spring Training in 2013 and didn’t pitch a whole lot after that. He pitched for the Philippines in the World Baseball Classic qualifier this past February, then retired.
October 11th, 2011: Raul Valdes, Scott Proctor Elect Free Agency
Relievers Raul Valdes and Scott Proctor have elected free agency, the Yankees announced today (Bryan Hoch of MLB.com tweeted the news). Having lost Aaron Laffey as well, the Yankees’ 40-man roster now stands at 37.
Like this offseason, the Yankees got a head start on their 40-man roster cleanup during the 2011-12 offseason. Valdes and Proctor were late-season bullpen depth pickups not unlike Blake Parker and Tommy Layne. I’ll never forget Joe Girardi letting Proctor wear it in Game 162 in Tampa that year. That was the year the Red Sox collapsed and the Rays made the postseason on the final day of the season. Girardi brought Proctor in to pitch extra innings that game and you could tell he was in there until the game ended, one way or the other. He threw 2.2 innings and 56 pitches that game. Proctor spent 2012 in Korea and that was pretty much it for his career.
October 12th, 2011: Front Office Notes: Orioles, Yankees, Angels
The Yankees have granted the Angels permission to interview both Billy Eppler and Damon Oppenheimer for their vacant general manager job, tweets Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News.
The Angels wound up hiring Jerry Dipoto to be their new GM that offseason, and Eppler was actually the runner-up. Oppenheimer was eliminated from contention earlier in the process. Dipoto resigned last summer — when was the last time a GM resigned? geez — and eventually the Halos hired Eppler as their new GM, partly because they were so impressed during his initial interview in 2011.
October 13th, 2011: David Ortiz Talks Yankees, Red Sox
David Ortiz recently hinted that the offseason could get even more tumultuous for the Red Sox. The designated hitter, who will be eligible for free agency after the World Series, suggested to ESPN’s Colleen Dominguez that he would fit into the Yankees’ culture.
“It’s great from what I hear,” he said. “It’s a good situation to be involved in. Who doesn’t want to be involved in a great situation where everything goes the right way?”
Ortiz says there’s “too much drama” in Boston these days and acknowledged that he’s thinking about moving on. “I don’t know if I want to be part of this drama for next year.”
This was so obviously an attempt to create leverage during contract talks with the Red So that the “Ortiz to the Yankees???” stuff never picked up steam that offseason. Yeah, the Red Sox collapsed hilariously in 2011, but no one actually expected him to leave. The Yankees needed the DH spot for Alex Rodriguez and other veterans, plus Jesus Montero was locked into a roster spot at the time, so signing another DH wasn’t a priority, even one as good as Ortiz. He eventually re-signed with the Red Sox to the surprise of absolutely no one. This was like when Mariano Rivera said he was open to signing with Boston during the 2010-11 offseason. Yeah, sure. Like that was going to happen.
October 19th, 2011: Yankees To Decline Damaso Marte’s Option
The Yankees will announce that they’re declining their 2012 option for Damaso Marte, according to Mark Hale of the New York Post (on Twitter). The left-hander missed the entire 2011 season after undergoing shoulder surgery last October. He’ll get a $250K buyout instead of a $4MM salary for 2012.
That’s World Series hero Damaso Marte to you. The Yankees declined Marte’s $6M option for 2009 and instead gave him a three-year deal worth $12M. He had a 6.39 ERA (5.41 FIP) in 31 innings during the life of the contract and didn’t pitch at all in 2011 due to injuries. But! …
October 19th, 2011: Yankees Notes: Kuroda, Darvish, Sabathia, Nova
Rafael Soriano will not opt out of the two years and $25MM remaining on his contract, though there’s nothing official yet, according to Marchand.
I don’t know about you, but I was shocked a pitcher who missed half the season with elbow trouble and had a 4.12 ERA (3.97 FIP) when he did pitch didn’t walk away from a guaranteed $25M.
October 20th, 2011: Yankees Notes: Sabathia, Swisher, Blake, Soriano
The Yankees are “very likely” to pick up Nick Swisher‘s $10.25MM option for 2012, reports ESPN New York’s Wallace Matthews, though they may wait “until the very last minute” (i.e. three days after the World Series) to do so.
I didn’t understand the “the Yankees might decline Swisher’s option!” talk that was going around after the Yankees were eliminated in the 2011 ALDS. Switch-hitters coming off a .260/.374/.449 (124 wRC+) season with 23 homers are a dime a dozen, I guess. No need to keep that guy for $10.25M. What a weird talking point that was. The option was a no-brainer and of course the Yankees picked it up.
October 21st, 2011: Heyman on Friedman, Darvish, Yankees
Free agent starter Freddy Garcia is popular with the Yankees’ front office and could return in 2012. The right-hander barely qualifies as a Type B free agent, according to our rankings.
The good ol’ Type-A/B free agent system. Garcia did qualify as a Type-B, meaning the Yankees would have received a supplemental first round pick had he signed elsewhere. It would have been, like, 55th overall. Somewhere in that neighborhood. Instead, the Yankees re-signed Garcia to a one-year deal worth $4M. There’s no such thing as too much pitching depth, right? Sweaty Freddy was good in 2011 (3.62 ERA and 4.12 FIP) and not so good in 2012 (5.20 ERA and 4.68 FIP). So it goes.
October 24th, 2011: Quick Hits: Yankees, Pirates, Moyer, Oswalt
The Pirates have prioritized catching help this offseason and the Yankees would “definitely” trade Francisco Cervelli in the right deal, according to Sherman. The Pirates may not view Cervelli as a starter, however.
The seeds were planted early. In fact, Brian Cashman said he originally proposed Cervelli for Justin Wilson back in 2012, but the Pirates said no. It wasn’t until November 2014 that they went through with that trade. Anyway, Cervelli missed most of 2011 due to injuries and the Yankees stashed him in Triple-A for all of 2012. His value was at an all-time low at the time.
October 27th, 2011: Boras Kidding About Reworking Cano’s Contract
6:32pm: Boras was just joking about a new contract for Cano, the agent tells George A. King III. “Cash [Brian Cashman] and I have talked three or four times in the last three days. My statements were in jest. Cash always returns my phone calls,” Boras said. “My conversations with Cash about Robinson have nothing to do with the options. We fully expect the options to be exercised.”
9:57am: Agent Scott Boras phoned Yankees GM Brian Cashman to discuss the possibility of re-working Robinson Cano’s contract, according to George A. King III of the New York Post. Boras says he’s hoping to remove the 2012 and 2013 options on the second baseman’s deal and work out a new contract.
“I called Cash to ask about dropping the options and he hasn’t returned the call,” Boras told King.
Oh that silly Scott Boras. I have a hard time thinking Boras would have seriously discussed a contract extension that offseason, not unless the Yankees talked Mariners money. He was fully intent on getting Cano out on the open market and breaking the bank. And he did.
October 31st, 2011: Yankees, CC Sabathia Agree To Extension
CC Sabathia has agreed to a precedent-setting contract that will keep him in pinstripes and off of the free agent market. The 31-year-old left-hander announced on his Twitter account and on Zoodig.com that he has agreed to a new deal with the Yankees.
Sabathia’s opt-out was, by far, the biggest story of the 2011-12 offseason — really the entire 2011 season, for that matter — and it was over quick. The Yankees and Sabathia agreed to an extension minutes before the opt-out deadline. He got to say he never did opt-out while still leveraging it into more money. Here’s the video in which Sabathia announced the extension:
Sabathia had a phenomenal season in 2011 (3.00 ERA and 2.88 FIP) and letting him walk was not something anyone wanted. The extension hasn’t really worked out as hoped — Sabathia had a great year in 2012, stunk from 2013-15, then rebounded nicely in 2016 — but I still love the big guy. Huge money contracts can work out worse.
Two years ago the Yankees faced an uncertain future at shortstop following Derek Jeter‘s retirement. The last year or two of Jeter’s career weren’t great, he was a below-average hitter at that point, but there was something comforting knowing he was going to be the guy at the position. Shortstop’s important! That’s not a spot to have a revolving door.
Now the future at shortstop is far from uncertain. The Yankees acquired Didi Gregorius to replace Jeter and there were legitimate questions about his ability to be an everyday big league shortstop. Would he hit enough? Is his defense enough to carry his bat? Could he handle the pressure of replacing Jeter and playing in New York? There were lots of questions. Now there aren’t. Gregorius is the answer at short.
The 20-Homer Shortstop
A year ago Gregorius smacked nine home runs in 578 plate appearances thanks to an excellent second half, during which he hit .294/.345/.417 (110 wRC+) with five homers in 72 games. The hope was that strong second half would carry over into 2016. Gregorius is still young — he played the entire 2016 season at 26 — and he had a season under his belt in New York. He figured to be more comfortable in 2016 than he was in 2015.
It wasn’t unreasonable to expect Gregorius to produce more offense this season, especially in the power department, and he did exactly that. Didi hit 20 home runs this summer, the same number as Carlos Correa, and seven of the 20 came during a four-week hot streak at the end of the first half. At one point he hit five home runs in the span of ten games. One of the five was a walk-off against the Rangers.
I’ve never seen a ground ball go over the fence, so a prerequisite for hitting for more power is hitting the ball in the air more often. Take a look at Gregorius’s ground ball rate since joining the Yankees:
Well well well. Look at that. When Gregorius first arrived in New York, he was beating the ball into the ground. His ground ball rate has been in steady decline since. Didi had a 48.0% ground ball rate and a 36.0% fly ball rate in April 2015. It was down to 31.0% grounders and 56.0% fly balls in September 2016. Pretty awesome. Gregorius isn’t a speedster. Driving the ball in the air is the best way to do damage.
The best part of Didi’s newfound ability to get the ball airborne is that he isn’t selling out and trying to yank everything down the line. We’ve seen more than a few left-handed hitters fall in love with the short porch and try to pull everything to right. Gregorius is still hitting the ball to all fields. In fact, he was hitting more balls the other way this year than last year.
This is a wonderfully positive development for Gregorius. He’s hitting the ball in the air and the result is more home runs, and he’s been able to do that without sacrificing the all-fields ability he showed last year. For someone who makes so much contact — Didi had the 26th lowest strikeout rate (13.7%) among the 146 qualified hitters in baseball in 2016 — this is a really great skill set. Really, really great.
Now, as I said before, power was up around the league this year, and I have no doubt Gregorius benefited a bit from that. He hit for more power this summer because everyone hit for more power this summer. (Except Brett Gardner.) Let’s quickly compare Didi’s isolated power to the league average, while adjusting for ballpark. Same idea as OPS+, basically, except we’re using ISO instead of OPS.
2015: 57 ISO+
2016: 77 ISO+
Success! Last year Gregorius’ power output was 57% of the league average left-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium. This year it was 77%. So still below-average for his environment, but there’s still a legitimate improvement here. Those 20 home runs he hit this year weren’t just the product of the increase in power around the league. Didi himself improved. Hopefully he takes another step next year, in his age 27 season.
Suddenly Dangerous Against Lefties
Gregorius came to the Yankees will a big platoon split. He hit .262/.332/.411 (101 wRC+) against righties with the Reds and Diamondbacks from 2012-14, and only .184/.257/.233 (32 wRC+) against southpaws. That platoon split existed last year too, though it wasn’t quite that extreme. He hit .272/.321/.391 (95 wRC+) against righties and .247/.311/.315 (74 wRC+) against lefties.
This year, Gregorius managed to reverse the split. He was better against lefties than righties. Didi put up a .258/.283/.437 (88 wRC+) batting line against righties while hitting a whopping .324/.361/.473 (126 wRC+) against lefties. Fifty-four left-handed hitters had at least 100 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers this year. Among those 54, Gregorius ranked third in AVG, 13th in OBP, and eighth in SLG. Only Charlie Blackmon (.331) and Daniel Murphy (.329) had better left-on-left batting averages.
The question now is why? Why did Gregorius improve so much against lefties, and is this his new true talent level? I’m guessing he’s not really quite this good against lefties, but some improvement would be cool. Here are Didi’s core stats against lefties the last two years:
There are two huge differences there. One, Gregorius hit way more balls in the air against lefties this year than last year. That’s consistent with everything above about his power output. His soft contact rate dropped a ton too, though it became medium contact, not hard contract. That’s still better than nothing.
And two, Didi put way more balls in play against lefties this year. Look at those strikeout and walk rates. Last season Gregorius had 164 plate appearances against southpaws and put 124 balls in play. This year it was 140 balls in play out of 161 plate appearances. Pretty big difference. The combination of a) more balls in play, b) more balls in the air, and c) less soft contact helps explain the uptick in left-on-left damage.
Is Gregorius going to hit .320/.360/.470-something against lefties going forward? I find that unlikely. That doesn’t mean his improvement was a total mirage, however. A .331 BABIP in 161 plate appearances is not completely insane. It might not happen against next year, but it’s not so outrageous that it’ll never happen again, you know? I think there’s real improvement here. Didi is making more contact against lefties and hitting the ball in the air more often in general. Those are big positives.
All told, Gregorius hit .276/.304/.447 (98 wRC+) with 32 doubles and 20 home runs in 2016. He rarely struck out (13.7%) but he also rarely walked (3.2%). Only Rougned Odor (3.0%) and Brandon Phillips (3.1%) walked less among qualified hitters. That’s just who Didi is. He’s a free swinger. I don’t have much hope for him improving his plate discipline drastically. Hopefully one day he can get up to a 7.0% walk rate. That would be cool. (It was 5.7% last year.)
A Good Bad Defender, or a Bad Good Defender?
In terms of raw defensive tools, Gregorius is as good as anyone. He’s athletic, he’s got good hands, and his arm is a rocket. One of the best I’ve ever seen from a shortstop. Why then did the defensive stats hate him so much this year? Almost all of them, across the board.
Total Zone is the only holdout. DRS, UZR, and FRAA all dinged Gregorius this year, and by quite a lot too. We’re talking a full win in the field according to both DRS and UZR. That’s pretty crazy. That’s why Didi went from +3.1 fWAR and +3.3 bWAR in 2015 to +2.7 fWAR and +2.2 bWAR in 2016 despite his offensive improvement.
The eye test told me Gregorius was a really good defensive player this year, though I also thought there were a few more miscues than last year. Basic mistakes. A bobble, a ball not knocked down and kept on the infield, that sort of thing. Error totals don’t really help us — Didi had 13 errors last year and 15 this year — and I’m not sure really how to quantify this stuff. The various defensive stats are better than nothing, though they’re far from perfect.
I do have a very hard time believing Gregorius cost the Yankees with his glove this year. Was he really, truly, a negative in the field? Maybe he was! Maybe I’m my perception of quality shortstop defense is distorted after watching Jeter all those years. I see stuff like this …
Outlook for 2017
The Yankees are blessed with a ton of quality shortstop prospects right now, most notably Gleyber Torres and Jorge Mateo. There’s also Tyler Wade, who figures to open next season in Triple-A. Those guys don’t matter right now. Gregorius is New York’s unquestioned shortstop going into the next season and will be continue to be going forward until one of those other guys unseats him. The Yankees won’t give Torres or Mateo the job. They’ll have to take it.
Gregorius is under team control through 2019 as an arbitration-eligible player — MLBTR projects a $5.1M salary next year — and it would behoove the Yankees to approach him about a multi-year contract extension this winter. Forget about the prospects in the minors. A prime-aged up-the-middle player who plays good defense and can smack 20 dingers is a valuable asset worth locking up. The Yankees can figure out what to do with Torres and Mateo when the time comes.
2016 Season Record: 84-78 (680 RS, 702 RA, 79-83 pythag. record), 5.0 GB of postseason spot
Top stories from last week:
- The Blue Jays had interest in Carlos Beltran prior to the trade deadline. The qualifying offer system may change as part of the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement.
- Aaron Judge (oblique) is apparently already healthy and working with hitting instructor James Rowson in Tampa.
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