Assorted Baseball Thoughts

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Hey, baseball! You’re unofficially back and that’s all sorts of awesome. It’s still a while before things really count, but it’s nice to have the game back in our lives on a daily basis, even if it’s just in the form of players doing workouts or taking batting practice or throwing bullpens. Dinner, so to speak, is finally on the stove and we’re beginning to smell it as its scent wafts up to us, enticing us to walk down into the kitchen (even if it won’t really open until April). So, in celebration of the season, here are some assorted thoughts about baseball goings on and whatnot.

How about that Aaron Judge homer? Or Gleyber Torres knocking two doubles and scoring from second (!) on a wild pitch? Or Clint Frazier going oppo on a triple? In the long run, these things mean absolutely nothing. I know it; you know it; the players themselves (probably) know it. But, regardless, it’s nice to see. Spring Training already gives us that nebulously fuzzy feeling of optimism and that only gets heightened when prospects and young players perform well.

While on the topic of young players, whom do you guys think is more likely to start the year in AAA: Judge or Greg Bird? There are cases for both players needing more work. Judge still swings and misses a lot and Bird will need to find his power stroke after missing an entire year; it’s plan to see why those two things could/should be worked out in Scranton rather than the Bronx. Both have nominally capable “replacements” in Aaron Hicks and Chris Carter, though Carter is much more a sure thing than Hicks at this point. I don’t think either of them ends up in AAA to start the year, though, and despite arguments for it, in a year in which the Yankees are transitioning, it’s okay to see some growing pains at the highest level.

The World Baseball Classic is back this year and it’s still something that I like but don’t love at this point. I get why it exists and I think the commissioner and his office genuinely do want to grow the game internationally–as they well should from a business point of view–but the whole thing still feels a bit stilted and awkward and I can’t place why. As a fan of soccer, I enjoy tournaments that the WBC tries to mimic–the World Cup, the European/Copa America tournaments, the Champions League, the FA Cup, etc.–but I just can’t fully buy into the WBC. I think I’d like it a lot more if it were styled after the Champions League with club teams rather than international teams. The only problem there is lack of competition. Only teams from the US, Japan, Cuba, and Korea would really be able to hack it in such a tournament, as teams from the other leagues in the world aren’t anywhere near good enough to hang with the best of the best from those leagues. I suppose, then, that there really isn’t much to do about changing it. Eventually–when no Yankees play in the damn thing–I’ll learn to love it.

Intentional walks as we know them may soon be a thing of the past. (Getty)
Intentional walks as we know them may soon be a thing of the past. (Getty)

Speaking of changes, MLB is doing away with the intentional walk process and I feel very…ambivalent about it. I don’t necessarily like it, but I don’t feel nearly strong enough about it to make a stink. At the end of the day, it’s a fairly meaningless change that won’t do much to take away from the game and won’t do much to improve it. It’s a fairly transparent move, in fact, so MLB can say ‘Look! See? We’re making changes!’ without having to do anything radical or spend any money. Regardless of my personal feelings, pace of play is a concern of MLB’s and they’re going to do what they can to speed up play, though I’m not sure how much it’ll help. Will casual fans become die hards or will new fans be born because games go from three hours to two hour and forty five minutes? Eh.

To grow the game, MLB needs to think outside just the field of play. I love baseball not just because it was introduced to me by my family, but because I played it growing up. For many kids in this country–especially kids of color and those in urban environments–the cost of playing baseball is prohibitive. Pumping money into youth leagues of all shapes and sizes–even subsidizing some of them–is one way for MLB to grow both with young people and people of color, demographics the sport has lacked recently.

Additionally, MLB needs to tap into why young people like certain sports. Over the last five years or so, I’ve taught every grade from 7-12 (though only as a day sub for 8th grade) and kids like players more than they like teams. I was the same way when I was younger–I had basketball and football jerseys from a dozen different teams and kids today are no different. They talk about players and stars more than they talk about teams. MLB hasn’t done the greatest job of promoting its new crop of stars and that’s going to hurt them as they compete against star-driven leagues like the NBA and the NFL. Allow player personalities to shine on the field and give them exposure off the field. It’s 2017; act like it, MLB.

Think About the Future

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

One of the few movies from my childhood that still holds up is Tim Burton’s “Batman” from the late eighties. For whatever reason, a line that stuck out to me was one from Jack Nicholson’s Jack Napier (not yet the Joker) near the end of the film’s first act. Just before becoming the Joker, he yells to a corrupt cop, “Hey, Eckhardt, think about the future!” before shooting him. The Yankees have done a pretty good job thinking about the future. They’ve shown restraint with long-term contracts (the Aroldis Chapman deal notwithstanding) and, last season, committed to the future by trading away Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Carlos Beltran to help revitalize the farm. They also gave significant playing time to Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge, and look poised to do the same this year with those guys, and some pitchers (Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, etc.). Then this happened and I’m tempted to yell to Randy Levine, “Hey, Randy! Think about the future!” (Please note that I do not want to shoot–nor do I want you to shoot–Randy Levine)

That the Yankees beat Dellin Betances at an arbitration hearing is nothing too special. Though the Yankees have rarely gone to arbitration, this thing is standard operating procedure for the rest of baseball. It’s frustrating that a team as rich as the Yankees was petty with one of their best and most popular players over two million dollars, especially considering just how rarely the Yankees hand out pre-arb/pre-FA contracts, but that’s the business. That the team president, though, essentially took a victory lap to dunk on Betances and his agent is appalling. The arbitration process itself is awkwardly acrimonious and contentious enough without an executive and agent airing the hearing’s dirty laundry for the fans to see and for the player to relive.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Maybe the Yankees aren’t used to this sort of thing. After all, it’d been a long time since they’d been to an arbitration hearing and they haven’t had a lot of young players worth fighting over. They were smart enough to lock up Brett Gardner and Robinson Cano to contracts as to avoid this ugly process, but what Levine said gives me great concern going forward.

For the first time in a while, the Yankees are going to have a glut of young players and they’ll all be reaching arbitration around the same time. I don’t want to read minds, but it’s hard to imagine that guys like Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Luis Severino, and Aaron Judge have comfortable feelings about the arbitration process and their bosses after Levine’s outburst yesterday. And, frankly, that’s the best case scenario. The worst case–from the player’s point of view–is that it’ll scare them into not going to arbitration and just take whatever the Yankees offer. After all, who’d want to be wrongly blamed for slagging ticket sales and missing the playoffs? Maybe, Randy, just maybe, ticket sales are down because the prices are too high and the team is in transition. Maybe, Randy, just maybe, the team hasn’t made the playoffs much recently because of design.

The organization has more or less gotten it right with their plan to rebuild and look forward. However, comments like the ones Levine made yesterday are harmful. While they may not do much in terms of dissuading free agents to come play for the Yankees, there’s still an insidiousness to them. They affect the players who have the least leverage in the game–not counting minor leaguers–whom the Yankees can “exploit” for cheap before not signing them to big contracts. In a year plus that has seen Lonn Trost bash non-rich fans (exactly a year ago yesterday!), Brian Cashman exploit domestic violence for a cheap trade, and Hal Steinbrenner downplay fan concerns about said domestic violence, this is just the cherry on top of a very unappetizing sundae. The past is the past, and that’s where these comments should stay, but, please, Yankee front office, think about the future.

Fitting Chris Carter into the Lineup

(Lachlan Cunningham/Getty)
(Lachlan Cunningham/Getty)

If you’ve never experienced pure boredom and, for whatever reason, want to, I suggest you proctor a New York State Regents exam. It’s perfect if you love pacing around a room, unable to speak, sit, read, or write while students take a graduation-mandatory exam. Just as perfect is hall proctoring, in which you wait outside a room or pair of rooms for students to use the bathroom, where you must escort them–one by one–and wait outside. The highlight of this was flipping quarters that I happened to have in my pocket, marking down heads or tails on my finger; for the record, tails won in a relative landslide. I mention this not so that you pity me– please, though, feel free to do so–but because this is a near-perfect analogy for where we are in the baseball calendar. Like me waiting to be relieved by the next proctor or the kids who finished early waiting for the release time, we’re all at our ‘desks’ waiting for Spring Training to begin.

To their credit, the Yankees did add some fire to the hot stove when they signed Chris Carter to a one year contract last week. When I first heard that they were checking in on him, I wasn’t too jazzed about the idea. But once the signing was announced–especially for so cheap–I came around on it more and more; that could have had something to do with spending a bit of time watching highlight videos of Carter’s NL-leading 41 homers. Regardless of how I–or you–feel about the deal, it’s done and Carter will be part of the team and playing time for him needs to be found. He brings with him a ton of whiffs, but a ton of walks and the aforementioned homers, too, and the Yankees have been lacking those things of late. Though not necessarily an ideal candidate for this team, Carter can help and add value; the only issue is, as Mike mused, where the heck is he gonna play?

(Stacy Revere/Getty)
(Stacy Revere/Getty)

Against right handed pitchers, it’s pretty hard to find a spot for Carter, aside from a late-inning pinch hitter when a tough lefty reliever comes in. As a right handed batter, he obviously doesn’t give a platoon advantage over Greg Bird at first, and he’s not as complete a hitter as Matt Holliday. To be fair to Carter, though, he does have a career wOBA of .332 (109 wRC+) against righties, so he’s not helpless against them–far from it–which is comforting should Holliday go down or Bird’s shoulder not be fully recovered.

Against lefties, though, there will be ample opportunity for Carter to play. The simple answer is that he and Bird split the first base duties as a platoon. This serves a dual purpose as it gives Bird the lion’s share of the playing time and gives the Yankees another powerful right handed bat to deploy against lefties. However, as Bird is much longer for this team than Carter, it might make more sense to expose Bird to lefties as well. Where does that leave Carter? It depends on some other platoon variables.

If the Yanks really want to hammer lefties and eschew defense a bit in the process, they can. They can accomplish this dual ‘goal’ by being aggressive with their platooning in the outfield. Aaron Hicks can play center in place of Jacoby Ellsbury. Matt Holliday can “play” left field in place of Brett Gardner. The latter move would free up a spot for Carter to DH, giving the Yankees an all-right handed lineup against lefties, save for Didi Gregorius at short.

Chances are, this is all academic and this “problem” resolves itself through lack of performance or an injury. And, either way, the Yankees didn’t sign a 30+ homer guy–regardless of lack of cost–to have him ride the pine. He’ll get his playing time. And, as Mike noted, Carter has team control after this and 2017 could be a showcase for 2018. Hopefully, he makes the most of it.

Attempting to “Optimize” the Lineup

Using one of these guys probably won't help much nowadays.
(Using one of these guys probably won’t help much nowadays.)

Even though it’s something we will never have control over, and even though it’s something that doesn’t matter much at the end of the day, we as fans love to obsess over lineup construction. I’ve probably written as many posts about it in my illustrious writing career as I have about any other topic. Forgive me for dipping into that shallow pool again, but in the days leading up to the pitchers and catchers report date and Spring Training proper, most of the other pools have been completely drained.

The new conventional wisdom says that the most important spots in your lineup are numbers 1, 2, and 4, so your best hitters ought to go there. I don’t think I’m taking a big leap of faith here when I assume that the Yankees’ three best hitters this year will be some combination of Matt Holliday, Gary Sanchez, and probably Brett Gardner. To be fair, I’m getting an assist from ZiPS on this one, which projects those three to have the highest wOBAs on the team at .329; .342; and .321 respectively. A note: Aaron Judge is also projected for a .329 wOBA, but we’ll get to him later.

For lineup spot one, you want your best OBP guy who’s also fast, so that obviously goes to Brett Gardner. No need to consider anyone else, really, as he’s got the best on-base skills on the team and is still fast, even if he doesn’t steal as much. He can use his speed to take extra base when the hitters behind him–who are more powerful–knock the ball into the gaps, and that has just as much value as steals.

The New School (as if this theory is still new) generally states your best overall hitter should go second. By ZiPS projected wOBA, that’s Gary Sanchez. However, he also has the highest projected slugging at .490 and the second highest ISO at .235. Those signs point to him being in the number four slot to take better advantage of his power. This leaves Matt Holliday–who also comes withe some pop–and his slightly better on base skills (his projected OBP beats Sanchez’s .325 to .313) to take up the two spot and Sanchez for the clean up spot.

Looking to the future. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Looking to the future. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

That leaves the three spot for someone like Aaron Judge, a slugger who’s not likely to be a high OBP guy, but will also come up with the bases empty and two outs quite often. Given that, putting his power at the third spot in the lineup–he’s projected for the highest ISO on the team at .244 and a .473 SLG, second highest on the team.

This old post has a rather vague description for the fifth spot in the lineup:

The Book says the #5 guy can provide more value than the #3 guy with singles, doubles, triples, and walks, and avoiding outs, although the #3 guy holds an advantage with homeruns. After positions #1, #2, and #4 are filled, put your next best hitter here, unless he lives and dies with the long ball.

The only guy who really fits this bill is the returning Greg Bird. Of the remaining players, he’s got the most power and probably the best batting eye. The only other option for this could be Chase Headley, but his power has waned enough that his on-base skills wouldn’t quite make up for it.

Spots six through nine are also a little broadly defined, with a stolen base threat occupying the six spot so he can be driven in by singles hitters behind him. Of the players left, Jacoby Ellsbury is the only stolen base threat. Behind him, you can slot one of Starlin Castro, then Didi Gregorius to avoid stacking the lefties too much. These guys bring a potential bonus because both did show some power last year. Chase Headley can bring up the rear, a switch hitter at the bottom to avoid any platoon snarls.

So our “optimized” lineup?

  1. Brett Gardner, LF
  2. Matt Holliday, DH
  3. Aaron Judge, RF
  4. Gary Sanchez, C
  5. Greg Bird, 1B
  6. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
  7. Starlin Castro, 2B
  8. Didi Gregorius, SS
  9. Chase Headley, 3B

It’ll never happen this way, but I think that’s a pretty okay looking, if top heavy lineup. If you really wanted, you could swap Ellsbury and Gardner without too much difference and the same goes for Judge and Bird, probably. We’ve gotta remember, though, that little lineup adjustments like this don’t make a ton of difference over the course of the season and as long as the guys at the top aren’t at the bottom, everything’ll end up about the same. Still, on the even of the preseason, it’s fun to talk about.

Judge a Key to Lengthening Lineup

(AP)
(AP)

It’s pretty damn difficult for a guy who’s over six and a half feet tall to get lost in the proverbial shuffle, but it seems that’s what’s happened to Aaron Judge during this offseason. Most of the focus has been on just about anyone and anything but him. Even guys yet to make their Major League debuts, like Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres, have gotten more attention than Judge has during this Hot Stove season. Despite the relative lack of chatter about the big outfielder, his role in 2017 is nonetheless strikingly important.

On a macro level, Judge, along with the other young players on the team, represents the future, the success or failure of this recent rebuild. Fairly or unfairly, he and Gary Sanchez will be under a lot of pressure to perform; and if they don’t, I foresee a lot of fans (though not necessarily those reading this site, who tend to be a bit more even tempered about these things) questioning the wisdom of abandoning ‘SPEND SPEND SPEND’ as a team building strategy in favor of rebuild/reload.

On a micro level, Judge’s presence in the lineup, even if he’s at a lower position in the batting order, will go along way in determining how strong the Yankees are at the plate. The top of the order seems fairly predictable, reliable, even; we pretty much know what we’re going to see from Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, as well as Matt Holliday. Sanchez’s bat is also a question, but not in terms of talent; we just need to see if he can keep up the power. In the middle and bottom of the order, Greg Bird‘s shoulder health is a question, as are the statuses of Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius; they both had great years (relatively speaking) in 2016 and repeating those isn’t a guarantee. Which Chase Headley will show up? With improvement from last year, Judge can be a steadying presence in the bottom of the lineup, adding value with power and patience.

Both of those things were on display last year. Judge socked four homers in his 95 plate appearances and posted a .167 ISO. Those aren’t horribly impressive numbers, but they’re not close to what his true talent level is. With adjustments, we’re likely to see those numbers climb. Additionally, he walked 9.5% of the time in 2016, a solid mark for anyone, let alone a rookie with a big strikeout problem.

Aside from those whiffs, Judge will need to improve against lefties, who exploited him big time last year. He hit just .067/.222/.067 against them last year with a 55.6% (!!!!) strikeout rate. The 16.7% walk rate is all well and good, but when it comes with nearly 60% strikeouts and literally zero power, it doesn’t mean too much. And how did they do it? Changeups.

Against that pitch, Judge whiffed on 81.82% (!!!!!) of the swings he took. Unsurprisingly, he hit .000 with a .000 slugging against left-handed changeups. If we take a look at this image from Mike’s post reviewing Judge’s year, we can see a pictorial representation of Judge’s struggles when pitchers pulled the string.

Aaron Judge whiffs

Improvement in general and improvement against lefties are the goals for Judge in 2017. Any progress on those fronts obviously means something good for him, but it also lends credence to a lineup with a lot of questions. Even if he’s in the seven, eight, or nine spot, a big year from Judge can make a big difference in the Yankees’ offensive production.

Previewing the Right-Handed Power

(AP)
(AP)

Last year, the Yankees had a power problem from the right side of the plate. Alex Rodriguez did, well, poorly enough that he essentially retired early. As right-handers, Chase Headley and Mark Teixeira had wOBAs of .301 (86 wRC+) and .307 (90 wRC+) respectively with basement-level power: .082 ISO for Headley and .109 for Tex. Starlin Castro did okay with a 93 wRC+ as a righty batter, but once Carlos Beltran left, the Yankees were left with a power void on the right side.

All told, the Yankees hit .251/.305/.415/.720 as right-handers, with a .309 wOBA and a 90 wRC+, and an ISO of .164. The American League’s collective right-handers hit .261/.321/.430/.752 with a .323/101/.169 wOBA/wRC+/ISO split. Gary Sanchez‘s arrival — Ruthian in nature as it was — helped erase some of the stain of the Bombers’ poor performance from the right side and, hopefully, signaled things to come.

A full year of Sanchez will be (hopefully) complemented by the other right-handed power potential in the lineup in the persons of Aaron Judge and new addition Matt Holliday. Starlin Castro returns, obviously, and even if his slash line wasn’t so great, he still did provide over 20 homers, good for any right-hander, especially one at second base. Chase Headley joins them as a switch hitter, and hopefully he can bounce back to his career levels as a right-handed hitter (.319 wOBA/102 wRC+/.136 ISO).

The lineup will feature more balance this year, with those four above as the right side and Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, Didi Gregorius, and Greg Bird representing the left side of things. Looking things over, there’s really not a ton of power potential from either side. While Didi just had a breakout year with power, Ellsbury and Gardner aren’t going to be counted on for extra bases anymore. Bird certainly showed ability in 2015, but coming off of a shoulder injury, it’s easy to imagine some of his power being sapped.

Matt Holliday, then, becomes a very important part of 2017. Of any player on the team, he has the longest track record of solid performance, especially in the power department. Considering he’ll hit in either the three, four, or five spot in the lineup, his pop from the right side is paramount. As an aside, I’m very excited about Matt Holliday being on this team. I’ve long been a fan of his and definitely think he’s got enough left in the tank for a pretty big season.

It’s hard to count on a new guy and a couple of youngsters like Judge and Sanchez, but if those players stay their courses, things will be just fine. Judge has shown the ability to adapt to new levels and Sanchez seems to have the talent to adjust to new things; if they follow those tracks and Holliday keeps on keeping on, the right side of the plate will be much improved for the Yankees.

The Importance of Being Headley

(Norm Hall/Getty)
(Norm Hall/Getty)

Across the annals of the internet, I have a long history of championing Yankee causes that many would consider lost and a half. Going back about ten years or more, there is definitely evidence somewhere out there of me claiming Chris Britton was getting the shaft and deserved more of a look in pinstripes.  In 2014 and 2015, I was trying to convince–in my mind it was more reminding–everyone that Stephen Drew really wasn’t that bad. Last year, I beat the drum for Chase Headley despite his woeful start to the season. Even with a bounceback that ended up with him posting a (relatively, for where he started) respectable 92 wRC+, I’m sure I’ll have to beat that same drum this year, as Headley likely doesn’t have a lot of support from the fans right now. Despite that, Headley is an important piece for the 2017 Yankees.

As the team’s third baseman, he’s really on an island. At every other position, the Yankees have some form of a legitimate replacement. Should Didi Gregorius go down at short, Starlin Castro can slide over. Should Castro get hurt, there’s Rob Refsnyder. Greg Bird can be replaced by Tyler Austin or even Matt Holliday in a pinch. Gary Sanchez has Austin Romine to back him up. Aaron Hicks and the glut of minor league outfielders stand in reserve should someone out there get hurt as well. Headley, and maybe Holliday, is the only position player the Yankees don’t have a credible back up for at this point. This is all leaving aside the fact that Headley helps Didi make up a strong defensive left side of the infield, adding value with his glove that’s hard to replace at the hot corner.

At the plate, Headley brings patience, something the Yankees have lacked of late, putting up above average walk rates in each of his years with the Yankees. There’s also Headley’s place in the lineup. No matter where he hits, he’ll be of some importance. If he hits second, as Mike suggested earlier, well, that speaks for itself. Even if he hits ninth in that set up, he plays an important role in turning the lineup over and setting the table for the top of the order. It’s not likely, though, that he’ll bat second or ninth, though, since I–like Mike–doubt the Yankees will actually split Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury in the lineup. The way I see it, the lineup will likely shake out like this:

  1. Gardner
  2. Ellsbury
  3. Sanchez
  4. Holliday
  5. Bird
  6. Didi
  7. Castro
  8. Headley
  9. Judge

I’d rather see Judge bat behind Headley because Headley can give him some sort of ‘reverse protection,’ if you will. By using his ability to draw walks to get on base ahead of Judge, Headley can insure that Judge may see some better pitches and help artificially bring down the big guy’s strikeout numbers and make best use of his power numbers.

Chase Headley, clutch Yankee. (Photo credit: Richard Perry/The New York Times
(Richard Perry/The New York Times

To say a team’s starting third baseman is important is to state the obvious. However, even on a team without a ton (any?) star power, it’d be possible for Chase Headley to fly under the radar in 2017. A lot of focus will be on the young bats and the bullpen trio, but make no mistake that his role on this team is important. He’s a top quality defender with a patient eye at the plate, which can (and hopefully will) ease things for those around him in the lineup.