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.

The Third Wheel

(Christian Petersen/Getty)
(Christian Petersen/Getty)

That whole “New Year, New Me,” meme that we always see as the number turns on the calendar is not going to apply to the New York Yankees in 2017. Some of the names and faces may be different, but the big picture looks a whole lot like the one from last year. Questions about veteran bats like Mark Teixeira‘s, Alex Rodriguez‘s, and Carlos Beltran‘s have given way to questions about young players’ bats, like Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, Tyler Austin, and the returning Greg Bird. The rotation, as it seems to have been for a while, is far from secure. Leading the similarities, however, is a bullpen headed by a “Big Three,” though this year’s trio will be missing the best of the bunch in Andrew Miller. Replacing him, as he did at the trade deadline last year, is right hander Tyler Clippard.

Clippard pitched well in his 25.1 innings for the Yankees last year, striking out 24.3% of the batters he faced (9.24 K/9) and posting a 2.49 ERA (177 ERA+; 59 ERA-), though that is somewhat belied by a 4.05 FIP (99 FIP-), owed to a high walk rate of 10.3% (3.91 BB/9). In what is likely to be his first full season as a Yankee (provided he doesn’t get traded), Clippard is going to play an important role as gatekeeper to the superior Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman.

Given that the rotation isn’t likely to give much length, something I discussed last month, it’s possible that a lot of games are going to hinge on Clippard performing well in the sixth or seventh inning, holding onto tight leads to turn them over to Betances and Chapman. To mix metaphors, the success of the Yankees’ three-headed-monster may rely on its third wheel, represented by Clippard.

Unless the Yankees improve their rotation before the start of the season, though, they risk the team’s biggest strength being mostly mitigated from the start. While it’s obviously better to have a solid game-ending trio than to not have one, the importance of said trio is lessened when the rotation can’t provide quality or length and the lineup can’t thump its ways through thickets of poor starting to the meadows of high-scoring leads. This isn’t really a thing, but the team’s questionable starting pitching is a case of a weakness potentially turning a strength into something, well, less strong.

To cut back on some of the falling sky here, Clippard is still a good enough pitcher that I’m not too worried about him blowing leads before they’re put into more capable hands. I am worried, though, that he’ll be pressed into early service too often and that, as the season wears on, fatigue may set in. The Yankees need an innings eat to help make sure this doesn’t happen.

Anticipating the Adjustment

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

The world knows who Gary Sanchez is…and not just the baseball world. After his magnificent arrival in August, even the BBC got in on the action, profiling Sanchez’s sudden dominance at the plate. His profile, already large in Yankee and prospect circles at he beginning of 2016, looms even more so now that he placed second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting behind Detroit’s Michael Fulmer. AL pitchers are sure to have taken notice and will be determined to make 2017 a sophomore slump for Sanchez.

Regardless of how you do in your first real taste of the Majors, making adjustments is a part of making sure you go back for a second (and third, fourth, fifth…) bite; pitchers and coaches will always be looking to exploit weaknesses–real or perceived–and it’s up to young hitters to beat them to the punch in that regard. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what pitchers may do to adjust to Sanchez in his first full season as a big leaguer.

Below is a strike zone plot, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, detailing Sanchez’s ISO against pitches in various parts of the zone.

sancheziso

From that chart, it looks like when pitchers tried to tempt Sanchez with pitches on the outer half, he made them pay. Granted, pretty much every spot looks good; even the blue spots in the zone on the inner half have ISOs of .333; .200; and .429. Perhaps this means pitchers will be more reluctant to go outside against Sanchez, seeing that he has the ability to not only hit those pitches, but do so with authority. If they do go away, though, they need to do so out of the zone.

sanchezwhiffswing

Those are Sanchez’s whiff/swing numbers in various parts of the zone and it’s clear to see where there’s an issue: low and away. That’s where pitchers got Sanchez to swing and miss at high clips in 2016 and you can be sure they’re going to try to do that again; low and away is a winning spot for pitchers, regardless of the batter.

2016 showed us that Sanchez is capable of brilliance in a small stretch. Now, he’ll need to prove his steadiness over the course of an entire season. Given his pedigree–and what he did last season–there’s little reason to doubt him at this point. Baseball does happen, though, and ultimately we won’t know until, well, we know. So long as Sanchez makes his adjustments, he’ll be fine.

Piecing Pitching Together

Comeback Player of the Year? (Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

When the Yankees signed Aroldis Chapman earlier in the week, it more or less solidified their bullpen. Set up now with Chapman closing and Dellin Betances and Tyler Clippard behind him, the team has its coveted trio of relievers. And while I’m not a big fan of the Chapman signing — my thoughts are very similar to the ones Mike laid out in the aftermath — it does give the Yankees a more than formidable end of game crutch on which to lean. That crutch will come in handy considering the relatively weak state the rotation will likely be in.

With the obvious caveat that it’s still early, the Yankee rotation is, once again, heading into the new season with a ton of uncertainty. The only starter who can be reliably counted upon is Masahiro Tanaka. Beyond that, there are question marks. Was CC Sabathia‘s bounceback for real? Is Michael Pineda ever going to turn that corner? Will Luis Severino fall flat on his face again? Who the hell’s going to be the fifth starter? There are plenty of options for that spot, whether internal or external, but unless the Yankees swing a trade for an impact pitcher, it’s unlikely that this rotation is strong enough in general. That’s where Adam Warren and Bryan Mitchell come into account.

Adam loves it. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Warren will spend the winter preparing as a starter, but if history repeats itself, he’ll likely end up ticketed for the bullpen, where he’s shown he can flourish as a reliever. Mitchell was slated for a big role with the Yankees in 2016, but a toe injury in Spring Training derailed that; perhaps he can get back on track by joining Warren as tandem swingmen in 2017.

Aside from Tanaka and sometimes Sabathia, the Yankee rotation doesn’t have pitchers that are likely to go deep into games. That limits the effectiveness that the trio of Clippard, Betances, and Chapman can have. To alleviate this problem, it might be wise for the Yankees to use Warren and Mitchell as more flexible relievers, ready to go multiple innings to bridge between the starter and the closing trio or to spell one of those pitchers when he needs a day off.

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

Both pitchers are borderline starters and exposing them to one turn through the batting order — at most — might help their effectiveness, as might the artificial boost in stuff the bullpen gives. Given the Yankees’ shaky rotation outlook and lack of experience beyond their three big relievers, getting creative with the pitching staff may be the team’s best bet for pitching success in 2017.

Premature Lineup Questions

Ellsbury. (Presswire)
Ellsbury. (Presswire)

Considering it’s not even mid-December yet, the questions that follow are way too premature. To make up for that, I’ll try to avoid things that aren’t likely to stay the same. For example, I highly doubt the Yankees are going to go into the season with, say, Tyler Austin as the number one DH candidate just because they missed out on Carlos Beltran.

Let’s start at the top with two questions:

Will Jacoby Ellsbury keep batting second?

In early July, Joe Girardi made a bit of a lineup switch and had Ellsbury bat second behind Brett Gardner. Taco didn’t sparkle in the two hole, hitting just .244 with a .310 OBP. His walk rate was near 9%, which is encouraging, but it was mostly a forgettable performance. Might it make sense for them to flip places again, especially given Gardner’s shyness with regards to running lately? Granted, Ellsbury isn’t exactly bold on the basepaths anymore, either.

Will Aaron Hicks be platooned more aggressively this season? 

Towards the end of the year, Aaron Hicks woke up and showed flashes of why the Yankees traded for him last offseason. Given that the Yankees have two lefty hitting outfielders in Ellsbury and Gardner, and Hicks is a switch hitter, capable of playing both positions those guys do, how often will he start in one of their places when a lefty is on the mound? Of course, if one of those two is traded, that question is answered a lot more easily.

(AP)
(AP)

What happens if (when) Gary Sanchez struggles? 

Gary Sanchez was a monster in 2016 and we all hope he can be successful again in 2017; he gave us all the reasons he possibly could to believe. But that performance is hard to live up to and he’s going to take some sort of a step back over a full season. If Sanchez struggles behind the plate but maintains his solid hitting, you can always move him to DH. What, though, if the unlikely happens and Sanchez pulls the hitting version of 2008 Phil Hughes/Ian Kennedy? The answer for him is easy: send him back down and let him get right. For the Yankees, though, unless they sign a veteran back up, is less appealing, as it means giving the every day job to Austin Romine.

Who’s going to carry this lineup? 

Perhaps that question is unfair; it’s unlikely that one person on a team will carry a lineup. The right question might be, who’s going to lead this lineup? With Sanchez, the return of Greg Bird, and (hopefully) improvement from Aaron Judge, there’s the potential for big contributions from the young players. Will Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro continue their mild improvements at the plate? Will Ellsbury and Gardner bounce back? Which Chase Headley is going to show up? Depending on the answers to these questions, the Yankees could either be a reasonably solid offense, or they could be a disaster. Likely, they’re somewhere in the middle, but there don’t seem to be any sure things in the lineup.

This time, it’s personal

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Just a bit less than a year ago, I wrote  a piece detailing my inability to let go of caring about the Baseball Hall of Fame process. Now, all this time later, I still can’t stop caring. I’ve managed to let go of caring about the postseason awards voting, but the Hall of Fame stuff still lingers. In 2015, I talked about the idea of rational debate, of a love of logic and reason being behind my enduring attachment to the Hall of Fame process; this year, though, it’s different. I care his year for reasons that are wholly personal.

The first baseball mitt I clearly remember using was a small black one that I used up until middle school. On the palm in gold lettering was a signature that read “Tim ‘Rock’ Raines.” It wasn’t until recently that I realized just how good Raines was as a player, that he was more than just the dude whose signature adorned my first mitt, which I’ll seemingly never forget. Given that this is his last year on the ballot, it’s hard not to care, not to want to see him get in. It’s possible–maybe even probable–that he does this year. That would be sweet and a long time coming or a great, great player.

Jorge Posada, on the ballot for the first time–and probably the last–was a favorite player of mine growing up. The same is probably true of a lot of you. Whether it was his consistent, excellent bat or his passion for the game, it wasn’t hard to root for Jorge. Always the player surrounded by stars, Posada’s career is likely highly underrated by anyone outside of Yankee fandom. He’s not going to garner a lot of support–and he probably shouldn’t be a Hall of Fame player–but it’d be nice for Georgie to get some recognition.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

All of us–well, except Michael Kay–loved Mike Mussina’s time on the Yankees. Combining his peak performance for the Bombers and his longevity, he’s got a case as one of the Yankees three best starters of the last twenty years.  He was a fantastic pitcher for a long time and is also underappreciated on a large scale and deserves Cooperstown just as much as any pitcher has in recent years.

The odds of all three of these favorites of mine getting in are incredibly long, nigh impossible. But having that connection to them is why I can’t stop caring, at least not this year. Maybe once this spate of ex-Yankees–ending with Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera and (hopefully) Alex Rodriguez in the next few years–comes to an end, I can finally put an end to caring about this damned process. Until then, though, I’ll continue to root, root for the home team and hope my favorites make it in.

Tanaka’s Falling Strikeout Rate

Masahiro Tanaka
(Getty)

There’s no denying that Masahiro Tanaka had a brilliant season in 2016. For the first time in his three-year career, he had a legitimate shot at the Cy Young Award and ended up finishing seventh in the balloting. He tied his career high in ERA- at 72 and was close to his career high FIP- of 78 with a mark of 80 this year; he put up a career high ground ball rate while notching new career lows in infield fly ball percentage and home run/fly ball percentage. The only thing he didn’t do as well as he’d done previously is strike batters out.

Continuing a trend, Tanka’s K/9 dipped again this year, falling to 7.44 from 8.12, which was down from 9.31 in 2014. His K% shows a similar downturn, going from 26 in 2014 to 22.8 in 2015 and 20.5 in 2016. 20.5 K% is still good, especially considering he’s never posted a BB% above 4.5 (this year’s mark). And given the change in approach that Mike described here, a drop in strikeout numbers wouldn’t be unexpected. Still, it’s worth taking a look to see what’s behind the dip in whiffs because punchouts are fun and the most efficient way to get a batter out.

tanaka cap tip
(AP)

Let’s start with the out-pitch, the one whose reputation came in tow when Tanaka arrived in MLB, the splitter. In 2014, he generated a 46.01 whiff/swing rate on the pitch. It dropped to 33.33 in 2015, then to 30.00 in 2016. As a percentage of his strikeouts, the splitter has gone from being about half of them (2014) to about a third of them or a little more (2015-16). Of course, when your groundball/balls-in-play percentage is in the mid to high sixties with a pitch, the declining strikeout rate is something you can live with. Tanaka’s slider tells a similar story. The whiff/swing rate on his slider has gone from 39.55 to 34.38 to 33.16. The GB/BIP rate has gone from 31.37 to 39.00 to 40.74.

If we take a look at the splitter and where Tanaka likes to throw it, we get a good idea of why whiffs and grounders happen. The bottom drops out of the splitter and the batter either swings over it or beats it into the ground. The conclusion drawn before–fewer strikeouts, more grounders–is fleshed out here as well. Take a look at the whiff/swing rate on Tanaka’s three most popular spillter locations in 20142015, and 2016; there’s a general downward trend, suggesting that hitters are making more contact with those pitches, even if they’re not doing a lot with them. His slider has shown a similar trend, gathering more grounders in the lower part of the zone as the years have gone on.

We tend to take a drop in strikeout rate as a cause for alarm among pitchers and I’m generally inclined to agree with that quick assessment. However, while it’s something to watch with our beloved, underrated TANAK, I’m not overly worried. He showed this year that he can be incredibly successful without having to get too many strikeouts and, frankly, this is a microcosm of him as a pitcher. Each game, Tanaka seems to bring a new strategy, a new approach to the mound and that’s been true on the broad scale of his three year career. As a pitcher who seems to reinvent himself every start, he’s capable of displaying greatness in myriad ways, strikeouts or not.