The Other Excellent Rookie [2017 Season Review]

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

The Yankees headed into Spring Training with the fifth starter role entirely up in the air (that’s true of the fourth spot, as well, but now is not the time to discuss how awesome it was that Luis Severino went from “competing for a spot” to “finalist for the Cy Young Award”). Brian Cashman specifically mentioned that Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, Adam Warren, and Jordan Montgomery were in the mix, and the first four came into the season with at least five big league starts under their belt. Montgomery was the youngest and the least experienced, but it seemed likely he’d get the call eventually. Instead, he latched onto that slot in the rotation, and never let go.

An Impressive Spring Training

Cashman and Co. were not lying when they said that the fifth starter’s role was very much up for grabs, and Montgomery seized the opportunity. He appeared in six games, starting two, and pitched to the following line: 19.2 IP, 16 H, 3 BB, 17 K, 1.2 GB/FB, 3.20 ERA. Green had a much shinier 1.50 ERA, but Montgomery was trusted to throw more innings, and had much better peripherals – and so the job was his.

There were, of course, two factors that gave Montgomery something of an edge; or, at the very least, helped to make up whatever ground he would’ve lost by being a rookie. The first is that Cessa, Green, Mitchell, and Warren all had experience pitching out of the bullpen, and profiled better in that role, given their stuff. And the second is rather simple – he’s a southpaw. When your home ballpark is Yankee Stadium, the more left-handed starters you can muster, the better. A strong Spring Training, a track record of success in the high minors, left-handedness, and the lack of a high-end reliever profile all worked together to push Montgomery into the rotation.

Arriving A Bit Earlier Than Expected

The Yankees were slated to use Montgomery for the first time on April 16, as that was the first time that a fifth starter was necessary. Plans changed, as they often do, and they elected to give CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka an extra day of rest by starting Montgomery on April 12. It’s a relatively minor difference, to be sure – but I’m not sure that they expected Montgomery to be there for the long-haul from day one(-ish).

Montgomery turned in a solid start in his major league debut against the Rays, going 4.2 IP and allowing 5 hits, 2 earned runs, and 2 walks, while striking out 7. You can read more about that start in Mike’s game recap, but the key takeaway was that Montgomery did everything the team could have reasonably expected of him, and looked good in doing so. Or, phrased differently, he pitched well-enough to make that fifth starter’s spot his to lose.

A Consistent Force At The Back Of The Rotation

Montgomery stuck in the Yankees rotation for the rest of the season, with a small asterisk. He was sent down to Triple-A in the dog days of Summer to mitigate his workload; he made one three-inning start there, on August 24, and was back in the show six days later. That jaunt to the minors was sandwiched in the midst of his worst stretch of the season, where he seemingly hit the rookie wall. Montgomery went 17 innings over four starts, allowing 18 hits, 12 earned runs (6.35 ERA), 10 walks, and five home runs. It wasn’t pretty.

Up to that point, Montgomery had made 22 starts, pitching to the following line: 121 IP, 110 H, 38 BB, 115 K, 3.94 ERA, 3.94 FIP. Those ERA and FIP numbers may not look all that impressive, but his 89 ERA- and 87 FIP- show that both were comfortably above-average. His 22.8% strikeout rate and 7.5% walk rate were above-average, as well.

And he rebounded nicely after his rough patch, too. He closed out the season with three strong starts, totaling 17.1 IP, 12 H, 3 BB, 14 K, 0 HR, and a 1.04 ERA. It was a great end to a very good season, and a comforting sign that he had straightened himself out a bit.

Surprisingly, Montgomery’s stuff didn’t really sag as the season progressed:

brooksbaseball-chart

All five of his pitches stayed within a range of +/- a MPH on the season as a whole, excepting October – which may simply be an outlier, given that it was just one start. That is likely a product of Montgomery being accustomed to heavier workloads in the minors, as he only took a jump of 24 IP from 2016 to 2017; and it’s a good sign.

Trusting His Stuff

Montgomery’s pitch selection was somewhat inconsistent throughout the season, and it will bear watching going forward. I first noticed this back in May, when he followed-up the worst start of the season with the best (to that point), at least. It essentially boiled down to slider usage – he threw 11 the first time around, and 29 the next time out, and it was unhittable. For better or worse, though, his usage rate on all of his pitches was all over the place:

brooksbaseball-chart-1

The best explanation for this may simply be that he didn’t like to use his slider and curveball in the same game, as the usage of those pitches is close to a mirror image. He had great success with both pitches, though, so being able to deploy both in the same outing with confidence could pay dividends.

The Best Rookie Pitcher In Baseball

Put all of that together, and Montgomery was at the top of the charts for rookie pitchers, with the following overall line – 155.1 IP, 22.2 K%, 7.9 BB%, 88 ERA-, 2.7 fWAR, 2.9 bWAR. He led all rookie pitchers in both fWAR and bWAR, and finished fourth in innings pitched. An argument can even be made that he was the best non-Aaron Judge rookie in the American League, given that he was tied with Matt Chapman for second in fWAR, and didn’t derive a great deal of his value from a half-season’s worth of defensive metrics.

Regardless, that’s a hell of a rookie season from someone that may’ve been fourth or fifth on the pre-spring depth chart for the fifth starter’s slot.

2018 Outlook

Montgomery has more than earned a spot in the Yankees rotation and, barring some unforeseen blockbuster deal, I don’t see him anywhere else in 2018.

The Primary Back-Ups [2017 Season Review]

Romine. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Romine. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

If you would’ve told me that the Yankees would spend most of April with both Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius on the disabled list, I would have been shocked to learn that they were arguably the best team in baseball in the first month of the season. And, amazingly enough, that was the case. That was largely due to Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, Starlin Castro, Chase Headley, and Matt Holliday tearing the cover off of the ball for those four weeks – but Austin Romine and Ronald Torreyes did their part, too.

Austin Romine

Gary Sanchez left the game after straining his right bicep on April 8, and ended up spending twenty-one games on the disabled list. Romine was pressed into full-time duty as a result, and he did just about as well as one could expect. He slashed .281/.314/.406 (88 wRC+) with a couple of home runs while Sanchez was out, and garnered praise for his defense and handling of the pitching staff; whether or not that was earned is another story, of course. But I digress.

Romine was relegated to the bench when Sanchez returned, and his offense slipped dramatically in the more sporadic role. He hit just .194/.256/.248 (34 wRC+) in 182 PA the rest of the way, failing to go deep even once. Romine ended the season with a .218/.272/.293 slash line, and his 49 wRC+ and -0.6 fWAR were tied for the worst among the forty-nine catchers that amassed at least 200 PA. That didn’t stop some from calling for him to be the starting catcher, though, given Sanchez’s defensive woes and Romine’s reputation as a stout defender.

Is that reputation fair, though?

Baseball Prospectus breaks down catching into several categories, including framing runs, blocking runs, and throwing runs. Romine’s struggles with the running game are well-known, so it is no surprise to see that he was worth -1.2 throwing runs. However, he was also a negative in terms of blocking the ball in the dirt, as evidenced by his -0.3 blocking runs – and that’s a trend that has followed him from Triple-A to the majors. In reality, framing is Romine’s only real strength; and, as valuable as that is (he picked-up 4.1 runs last year, which is a borderline elite mark when adjusting for playing time), framing alone does not make a great catcher.

The ability to handle a pitching staff is kind of a nebulous quality. Pitch framing is a portion of that, as is calling the game – but the latter is all but impossible to measure. One factor that people tend to bring up in that regard is catcher ERA, flawed as that may be. For what it’s worth, Romine sported a 4.23 CERA last year, as compared to 3.45 for Sanchez.

All that being said – would it be an exaggeration to say that the most memorable aspect of his season was the punches he threw in August’s brawl against the Tigers?

Torreyes, apparently in a John Woo film. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Torreyes, apparently in a John Woo film. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Ronald Torreyes

Unlike Romine, Torreyes opened the season knowing that he would be starting for a stretch. Gregorius opened the season on the disabled list following a shoulder injury in the WBC, and Torreyes was in the lineup on Opening Day. He started 18 of the 20 games that Gregorius missed, batting .308/.308/.431 (93 wRC+) with a home run in 65 PA. He didn’t take a walk in that entire stretch, swinging at 61.9% of pitches along the way; for comparison’s sake, the league-average swing rate is 46.5%.

Torreyes moved back to the bench when Gregorius returned, but he ended up starting an additional 67 games the rest of the way, most of which came at second base while Castro was on the mend. And he did his best work at the keystone, slashing .327/.353/.426 (107 wRC+) in 177 PA while starting there. It’s difficult to take much, if anything, away from that – but most players do perform better with more consistent playing time. Torreyes has a limited ceiling on offense, to be sure, but he rose to the occasion with the Yankees needed him to start for an injured teammate.

He ended the season with a .292/.314/.375 (82 wRC+) slash line in 336 PA.

The defensive metrics all paint Torreyes as somewhere around average at second, third, and short, and that’s perfectly acceptable for a utility player. It’s difficult to fully trust the numbers, given the sample sizes, but that matches the eye test, as well. He’s a bit miscast as a full-time shortstop, but he’s far from an embarrassment there.

And who can forget the TOE-Night Show?

2018 Outlook

Austin Romine will be heading through arbitration for the second time, and MLBTR projects a $1.2 MM salary. I suspect that the Yankees will be looking to replace him this off-season in an effort to add a back-up that moves the needle in one way or the other, be it someone with a solid bat that can DH in a pinch (maybe Alex Avila), or one that is a legitimately strong defensive presence. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was in the organization on Opening Day, but that almost certainly isn’t the team’s plan.

And Torreyes may well be a lock to stick with the team for the time being. He can hit a little and play decent defense at the non-1B infield positions, and he’s still pre-arbitration. There might be upgrades available, but I don’t think the team will look to add salary for a position (or positions) that could be filled by Gleyber Torres. Torreyes’ time with the Yankees might be limited once the season begins, though.

The Stopgap Third Baseman [2017 Season Review]

(Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
(Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

The Yankees acquisition of Todd Frazier served as a reminder of just how quickly Brian Cashman works. Jon Heyman reported that the team was interested in Frazier (and David Robertson) on July 16, and Frazier (and Robertson and Tommy Kahnle) were acquired less than forty-eight hours later. In the grand scheme of things, it was the move that signaled that the Yankees would be buyers this year, filling the gaping void at first base and doubling-down on a dominant bullpen – and it worked out quite well.

Who Said Anything About First Base?

A revolving door at first and a seemingly endless stream of rumors demonstrated just how unsettled the Yankees infield was well into July, and Frazier’s name had popped-up in that respect more than a few times. Most every outlet viewed his acquisition as a move made to stabilize first base, but it only did so in a roundabout way, as Frazier did not play a single inning there for the Yankees. Instead, he took over as the starting third baseman, with Chase Headley and his questionable-at-best defense moving across the diamond.

It shouldn’t have come as a shock that Frazier manned third base, though. Headley had been a poor defender at the position more often than not as a Yankee, and this organization has prided itself on strong glovework in recent years. Frazier, on the other hand, has been a strong (albeit occasionally error-prone) third baseman for the better part of his career; to wit, he has a 6.0 UZR/150 and 6.5 DRS/150 in 6900 innings at the position. And he played the part following the trade, saving 6 runs in 539.2 innings by DRS’ reckoning.

He Was Who We Thought He’d Be At The Plate

Frazier was batting .207/.328/.432 (104 wRC+) with 16 HR in 335 PA prior to the trade. That’s not too far off of his 2016 season, wherein he hit .225/.302/.464 (104 wRC+) with 40 HR in 666 PA. He was a useful thumper, to be sure, but not the middle of the order threat that all of those home runs would suggest. It was worth noting, though, that his walk rate had jumped rather dramatically, from 9.6% in 2016 to 14.3% with the White Sox this year, which helped make up for his dip in batting average. Luckily for the Yankees, they didn’t need him to be a big-time run producer – they just needed stability. And he gave them a bit more.

He started out slow following the trade, slashing a powerless .216/.356/.297 (87 wRC+) to close out July. Frazier had just one extra base hit in his first two weeks with the team, and it almost felt like more of the same. His bat was better in August, but still a bit disappointing – he hit .221/.352/.395 (104 wRC+) with 4 HR. The power was coming back, but it was still a tick under what we expected.

And then the calendar flipped to September, and Frazier’s bat came alive. He slashed .225/.385/.521 (139 wRC+) with 6 HR and nearly as many walks (15) as strikeouts (17) in the season’s last month, as he helped the Yankees wrap-up home field advantage in the Wild Card game. He was also the standard-bearer for the team’s love of the thumb’s down celebration, and the de facto cheerleader from the bench down the stretch and throughout the playoffs.

All told, Frazier hit .222/.365/.423 (114 wRC+) with 11 HR in 241 PA in pinstripes.

2018 Outlook

Todd Frazier is a free agent as of this writing, but he has made his interest in returning to the Yankees fairly clear; whether or not the Yankees have room on the roster (and/or payroll) to retain his services is another issue entirely. I would be surprised if Frazier ended up back in pinstripes next year, as the team preps its full-court press for Shohei Otani, and likely hopes to have room on the roster for Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar if and when they are ready for a shot. Stranger things have happened, but I just don’t think Cashman and Co. see it as a fit.

Three Months of a Great Designated Hitter [2017 Season Review]

(Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
(Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

I had mixed feelings about the Yankees signing Matt Holliday so early in the off-season, given the breadth of options on the market and the salary that he would be paid. The signing of Chris Carter left me with something of a bitter taste in my mouth, as Carter came at a much cheaper price, as well as the promise of similar or better production; I even wrote a bit about it. I was never terribly concerned with Holliday’s potential to rebound, but it felt like strange roster construction. I was, of course, hilariously wrong about Carter this year. Holliday, however, was brilliant from the outset.

The First Three Months

It didn’t take too long for Matt Holliday to demonstrate his aptitude for hitting, as the 37-year-old reached base safely in eight of his first nine games. That stretch included his first home run as a Yankee (which came in game four), and a team record-tying five-walk game on April 9, and he looked dialed-in at the plate. Holliday earned his pinstripes a few weeks later, when he hit a walk-off three-run home run against the Orioles on April 28.

Holliday was batting .262/.402/.492 (141 wRC+) with 4 HR and 14 RBI when April came to an end, and was as big a part of the team’s success as any hitter this season aside from Aaron Judge. He was hitting, hitting for power, and drawing walks (19.5% BB), and the term “professional hitter” was thrown around with gusto whenever his name was mentioned.

He cooled off a little bit in May, slashing .260/.321/.521 (119 wRC+). His power was up – he hit 7 HR – but there were signs that he might be selling out for power. Holliday’s walk rate dipped to 6.6%, his strikeout rate increased by 7.4 percentage points, and his flyball rate jumped by 10.8 percentage points. It was a strong month, regardless, yet it did lead to a bit of caution.

And then Holliday returned to his all-around raking ways in June, batting .264/.386/.514 (140 wRC+), with 4 HR, 15.9% walks, and just 17.0% strikeouts. It was a fantastic month, and his normalized approach was a thing of beauty. His flyball rate jumped yet again, all the way up to 48.3%, but he was hitting the ball harder and taking more pitches, so nothing seemed to be amiss.

Holliday was placed on the DL with a viral infection on June 28, and would end up sitting out for the remainder of the first half. Despite that, he was among the best designated hitters in the game as of the break:

capture
(FanGraphs)

The numbers speak for themselves here, as Holliday was third at the position in wRC+, and just four off the home run lead despite missing two weeks of games in the end of June and early July. Given his age and injury history it made sense for the Yankees to give him as much time as possible to recover, and the hope was that that would allow him to return at full-strength.

Two Months of Injuries and Awfulness

Holliday returned from the disabled list on July 14, and went 0-for-4 against the Red Sox, but nobody read much into that – it was his first game back following a long lay off. And all seemed right in the world the next evening, when he played the hero by hitting a long home run off of Craig Kimbrel to tie the game at 1-1 and send it into extra innings.

And then he stopped hitting.

From July 14 through August 4 (85 PA), Holliday hit .136/.165/.198 (-13 wRC+) with 1 HR, 3.5% walks, and 28.2% strikeouts. His bat was slow, his power was non-existent, and he seemed to have no plan at the plate. Nearly 60% of Holliday’s batted balls were grounders, and he wasn’t hitting the ball with authority (23.8% hard-hit rate, against a 35.8% mark in the first half). Given all of that, it wasn’t shocking when he went back to the DL on August 5 with a back injury.

The End of the Line

Holliday returned to the lineup on September 2, and he came back with a vengeance. He went 2-for-6 with 2 HR, 4 RBI, 2 BB, and 0 strikeouts in his first two games, and he drove the ball with authority. Unfortunately, that was basically it for Holliday as an effective hitter, as he hit .226/.276/.340 (61 wRC+) with a home run in his last 15 regular season games. He had trouble catching up with velocity, and was very aggressive with precious little in the way of positive results. As a result of this, he ended up playing in just one postseason game, going 0-for-3 in Game 1 of the ALCS.

All told, Holliday hit .179/.225/.300 (34 wRC+) with 4 HR, 6.0% walks, and 28.5% strikeouts in the second half – and it wasn’t pretty. He hit .231/.316/.432 (98 wRC+) with 19 HR in 427 PA on the season, which was actually good enough to make him a middle of the pack DH overall. That’s faint praise – though, I do believe he could’ve been at least competent in the second half if he had been healthy.

2018 Outlook

Holliday played himself out of a meaningful playoff role and, taken in conjunction with his injury issues these last three years, may well be viewed as a scrap heap player as he hits free agency. It’s highly unlikely that he has a return engagement with the Yankees, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he spent most of the off-season looking for a job.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Tyler Chatwood

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

The Yankees starting rotation is far more settled heading into 2018 than it was this past season, and it’s a pretty good feeling. Luis Severino earned a top-three finish in the Cy Young voting, Masahiro Tanaka rebounded brilliantly from a poor first half, Sonny Gray was mostly as good as advertised, and Jordan Montgomery was the best rookie starting pitcher in baseball, and all four will be in the rotation this coming season.

That leaves one spot open for a potential reunion with CC Sabathia, an internal candidate like Chance Adams, international free agent-to-be Shohei Otani (perhaps their primary target), or “other.” There’s a great deal of off-season to go, but it is clear that, as of this writing, the Yankees need a fifth starter. And my favorite free agent for that role is Tyler Chatwood.

Recent Performance

Let’s take a look at Chatwood’s numbers over the past two seasons:

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Two things jump out immediately – he didn’t throw a full workload in either season, and he regressed fairly heavily from 2016 to 2017. Well, those things, as well as the fact that Coors Field is still a veritable death trap for pitchers, given that his 4.69 ERA was actually 7% better than league-average (relative to the conditions in which he played) … but I digress.

Chatwood was quite good across the board in 2016, and something closer to mediocre in 2017, and there’s obviously value in both. The middling strikeout and walk rates leave something to be desired, but his groundball rates are elite, he limits hard contact (league-average was 31.8% in 2017), and his home run rate was actually a tick above-average. There are reasons to believe that he is closer to the pitcher that we saw in 2016 than last year’s version as a result.

And, as you might suspect, he has been significantly better on the road the last two years:

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The sample sizes are relatively small, and Chatwood pitched in a division with three pitcher’s parks on the docket, but the underlying numbers nevertheless paint him as a different pitcher on the road. His walk rate is still discouraging, but he picks up more whiffs and garners less hard contact on the road, which may be indicative of him changing his plan of attack to suit his environment. He is not as good as the 2.57 road ERA indicates, but he has been a far better pitcher than his overall numbers suggest.

The Stuff

Chatwood throws five different pitches, each of which has a fair bit of moment. It may be a bit disingenuous to call him a true five-pitch guy, though, as his change-up is more of a show-me pitch than anything else, and he doesn’t use it all that often. Take a look:

brooksbaseball-chart

His fastball and sinker velocity ticked up this past season, jumping from the low-90s to sitting comfortably in the mid-90s, which fits the league-wide trend in velocity. And all of those pitches have a great deal of movement, which allows him to induce grounders with all five.

Chatwood boasted healthy whiff rates on his change-up (20.16%), slider (16.9%), and curve (12.9%) last year, which has led some to speculate as to why he doesn’t use his off-speed stuff more often. That curveball is also a groundball generating machine, with 70.4% of those put into play were worm burners. And, while we still have a great deal to learn about the usefulness of spin rate, it’s worth noting that Chatwood’s curveball (4th among starting pitchers) and four-seamer (7th) have elite spin rates, as per Statcast.

Injury History

The reason why Chatwood threw so few innings in 2016 is because he underwent Tommy John surgery in the Summer of 2014, and was on an innings limit as a result. He made just four starts in 2014 and missed all of 2015 as he rehabbed from the procedure. That was the second such surgery of his career – the first came way back in 2005, when he was a 15-year-old pitching for Redlands East Valley High School.

Having two Tommy John surgeries is never a good thing, so caution may be a key word thrown around by any team interested in his services – but he has otherwise been mostly healthy as a professional. He spent time on the disabled list in 2017 with a calf strain, and that’s about it.

Contract Estimate

MLB Trade Rumors predicted a 3-year, $20 MM deal for Chatwood, ranking him as the sixth best starting pitcher on the market (not including Shohei Otani). That feels a bit light for a 28-year-old with a recent history of success, but his ugly overall numbers and twice-repaired elbow may well give some teams pause. The market was light last year, as well, with Rich Hill being the only free agent starter to get a multi-year deal worth $10 MM or more per year.

If I had to hazard a guess, I would go with something closer to 3-years, $30 MM.

Does He Fit the Yankees?

Chatwood is young, he throws hard, his pitches have great movement, and he keeps the ball on the ground – that sounds like the sort of package that the Yankees would salivate over. And, should Otani not come to the Yankees (be it by staying in Japan, or signing elsewhere), I could see him being at or near the top of the team’s list.

That being said, the Yankees are trying to limit payroll, and I don’t know that they’d view Chatwood as the player to invest precious dollars in, given the team’s internal options and potentially cheaper options on the market. The fit in a vacuum is obvious, but it becomes less so when viewed under the totality of it all.

Chase Headley: A Tale of One Horrendous Month [2017 Season Review]

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

It seems like a lifetime ago that I was writing Chase Headley‘s season preview piece, which focused largely on how his unimaginably awful April essentially torpedoed his 2016 season as a whole. That wasn’t the first time that we saw him forget how to hit for a full month, either, as he closed 2015 on the lowest of notes. And, unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last time, either.

A Hot Start

Headley spent the first month of the season reminding us of the hitter we thought the Yankees had acquired way back in 2014. He hit .301/.402/.494 (142 wRC+) with 3 HR and 4 SB in 97 PA in April, and the underlying numbers didn’t stand out as particularly unsustainable. His 14.3% HR/FB was right in-line with league-average, and his .361 BABIP wasn’t terribly uncharacteristic for a player with a career BABIP of .328. Given his previous two seasons, nobody really expected Headley to keep it up – but he looked as good as he ever had in pinstripes, and nothing screamed fluke. And then…

Worst … Month … Ever

How bad was Headley in May, you ask? He was bad enough that his April of 2016 looked mildly appealing. He batted .165/.211/.235 in 90 PA, which is “good” for a 14 wRC+. That’s not a typo – he had a 14 wRC+ in the month of May. Headley struck out in 29 of those 90 PA, while walking just 4 times; for comparison’s sake, he drew 14 walks in April, and struck out just 19 times. What happened?

It’s difficult to explain the lack of patience and bat-to-ball skills, but Headley did see his batted ball profile change completely from one month to the next. His line drive rate dropped by nearly 12 percentage points, and his ground ball rate jumped by just over 18 percentage points. His infield fly rate also jumped from 4.8% all the way up to 20% – and the percentage of infield flies that turn into hits is just about as close to zero as one can get. In the span of a month, Headley went from a well-rounded hitter with patience and power to the type of production you’d expect from a pitcher. And it was ugly.

As a result of this, Headley’s wRC+ dropped from 142 to 81, and those who even contemplated getting on-board with a resurgence felt foolish.

Four Months of Competence

Something miraculous happened on June 1, though. Headley went 2-for-5 with a couple of RBI against the Blue Jays that day … and he kept hitting after that. He hit .294/.372/.427 (114 wRC+) with 9 HR in 399 PA the rest of the way, and didn’t have another truly awful month. Headley wasn’t good in September, posting an 89 wRC+ – but it was palatable when compared to the lowest of lows that he has reached with the Yankees in his three-plus years in pinstripes. His bat was good enough to stay in the lineup, for the most part, and that represented a massive upgrade over 2015 and 2016.

For those who may be curious, Headley hit .295/.377/.440 in his 496 non-May PA, with 12 HR. That’s a wRC+ of around 120, and it’s quite good. Unfortunately…

He Forgot How to Play Defense Again

The Yankees shifted Headley from the hot corner to first base this season, and some of that was due to necessity; it was a revolving door of a position while Greg Bird was on the mend, and his solid bat and capable glove represented the best-case scenario there.

He made it an easy decision, though, with 13 errors, -7 Defensive Runs Saved, and -4.3 UZR/150 at third in 85 games. Headley’s defense has been all over the place for the Yankees – it was amazing in a small sample size in 2014 (6 DRS, 39.9 UZR/150), bad in 2015 (-6 DRS, -3.0 UZR/150), very good in 2016 (7 DRS, 8.6 UZR/150), and bad again last year. The acquisition of Todd Frazier was as much about solidifying the team’s infield defense as it was adding a powerful bat to the lineup, and that’s why he never played another position for the Yankees.

If it’s any consolation, Headley did grade out as a good defender at first.

The Bottom Line

Headley finished the season with a .273/.352/.406 slash line (104 wRC+), 12 HR, 9 SB. That essentially made him a league-average offensive third baseman, as they hit .256/.330/.438 (102 wRC+) as a group. Headley’s 104 wRC+ was his best since 2013, but his subpar defense at third dragged his WAR down by about half a win, to 1.9, which would make him fringe average there. If only he hadn’t forgotten how to hit in May…

2018 Outlook

As is the case with Starlin Castro, Headley is something of a placeholder. Miguel Andujar is knocking on the door (he had a 139 wRC+ at Triple-A), and would have garnered a longer look in 2017 had his defense been up to snuff. And top prospect Gleyber Torres was taking to the position, as well, and may’ve replaced Headley had it not been for his season-ending injury. Put it all together and you have a player that’s on borrowed time with the organization.

Headley is entering the last year of his contract, and he’s owed $13 MM. I am confident that the Yankees will try to shop him this off-season, and his contract shouldn’t be a deterrent for many teams – particularly if they are confident in his ability to play defense at third base. Should he make it through the winter without being dealt, though, I think he’ll end up in the team’s Opening Day lineup at third.

The Old Reliable Outfielder [2017 Season Review]

(Elsa/Getty Images)
(Elsa/Getty Images)

It seems strange to think of Brett Gardner as the old man on the Yankees, but that was essentially the role he filled this season. He’s the longest-tenured member of the team, and, of the 51 players that suited-up for the Yankees this season, only Chase Headley, CC Sabathia, Matt Holliday, and pub trivia tidbit Erik Kratz are older. And, despite that, he’s still a high-quality starter in left field.

It All Starts with Defense

A few years ago it seemed as though Gardner was losing a step in the outfield. His numbers went from scale-breaking in his first few seasons to between average and very good thereafter, and it is never shocking when a player reaches his 30s and slows down. This season, however, was something of a blast from the past. Twenty-three players put in at least 500 innings in left field in 2017, and Gardner led them all in Defensive Runs Saved, with 17, and fielding percentage, as he went errorless in 1024 innings. He also finished fourth in UZR/150, and ranked near the top in every Inside Edge Fielding category.

And, while fielding metrics are occasionally fickle, Gardner won the Fielding Bible Award for left field, and was named as a Gold Glove finalist. Both awards represent a blend of advanced metrics and the good ol’ fashioned eye test, so it stands to reason that Gardner was really that good.

An Asset in the Leadoff Spot

Gardner batted .264/.350/.428 (108 wRC+) this year, and he hit a career-high 21 home runs. Those 21 dingers represent exactly 25% of his career output, but I wouldn’t read into it too much – after all, 117 players hit 20-plus home runs this year, up from 111 in 2016, and 64 in 2015. It is worth noting, though, that Gardner’s bump in home runs wasn’t solely a product of Yankee Stadium, as 11 of his bombs came on the road. And there’s no overstating his ability to work the count.

There was a great deal of talk about Gardner’s clutchness in the postseason (more on that in a bit), but he came through in big situations all season long. The difference in his overall production versus his numbers in late and close situations was negligible, and he slashed .302/.393/.566 with 4 HR in 61 PA with runners in scoring position and two outs. As a result of this he led the Yankees in WPA, and finished second in FanGraphs’ Clutch metric (behind Jacoby Ellsbury, of all people).

He Can Still Run, Too

We as fans have been oscillating between loving Gardner for his high-efficiency base-running and lamenting his lack of stolen base attempts for years now. He averaged 58 stolen base attempts per 162 games in his first four seasons, as compared to 29 since he lost most of 2012 to injury. His 23 steals and 28 attempts this year were his most since 2013. That being said, with the modern style of play those 23 steals were good for 17th in all of baseball.

It isn’t just about raw steal totals, though. Gardner’s 82.1% success rate is well-above the break even point (and league-average is 73%), and within the top-20 among players with at least 15 SB attempts. He also ranked 11th in the game in FanGraphs’ BsR, which factors in stolen bases, caught stealing, taking the extra base, or making an out on the basepaths on a batted ball. As per Baseball-Reference, he took the extra base 49% of the time, which is comfortably above the league-average of 40%. For the sake of comparison, Jose Altuve took the extra base 48% of the time this year, and Dee Gordon did so on 60% of his opportunities.

Surprising Durability

Despite having the feel of a player that’s perpetually banged-up, Gardner has appeared in at least 145 games and racked up at least 609 PA in each of the last five seasons. This season represented a career-high of 682 PA for the 34-year-old, and 583 of those came from the top of the order. Given his hot and cold spells, it might make sense for Gardner to sit out a few more games – but his reliability in the field and on the bases combined with his ability to play almost every day is extremely valuable to the team.

The Playoffs

Gardner’s bat was largely silent in the ALCS, but he came through several times in the Yankees 13 game playoff adventure. The most memorable, for me at least, was his absolutely epic 12 pitch at-bat against Cody Allen in the decisive Game 5 of the ALDS. I highly recommend Jeff Sullivan’s detailed account of that at-bat, which could serve as a fine ‘Exhibit A’ of a nebulous ‘professional hitter’ presentation.

Well, that, or Gardner’s go-ahead home run in the Wild Card game, which included an uncharacteristic (and wonderful) stare-down of Ervin Santana:

How awesome was that? The swing, the bat-drop, the stare, the crowd … amazing.

The Bottom Line

As per Baseball-Reference, 2017 was the second-best season of Gardner’s career, as he posted a fantastic 4.9 bWAR. That put him in the top-five at the position, which is kind of amazing in and of itself. Were it not for Aaron Judge towering over the game like a colossus, Gardner would have easily been the team’s MVP.

2018 Outlook

Gardner is perpetually brought-up as a trade candidate, and we may well see more of the same this off-season. Judge has right field on lock, Aaron Hicks was quite good in center, Clint Frazier is ready for an extended look, and Jacoby Ellsbury has an albatross of a contract in center. And Gardner is eminently movable, given his $11.5 MM salary for 2018 and affordable $12.5 MM team option in 2019. It would be much, much better to send Ellsbury packing – but it’s a veritable guarantee that one of the two need to be moved.

That being said, Gardner is a bargain in 2018, and I would be happy to see him in left field for the Yankees on Opening Day. I don’t know how confident I am that that will happen, though.