Sunday Morning Thoughts

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Let’s start this with something obligatory, but wholly necessary. Happy Father’s Day to all the dads or step dads or dads to be or people (regardless of gender) who play the role of dad on a day-to-day basis. This is my first (official) Father’s Day and there is no ‘club’ more special than the one you ‘join’ when you become a parent. Every single cliche about it–fatherhood, parenting in general–I’ve found to be completely true. As I’m sure many of you did, I got my love of baseball–and countless other things–from my father and grandfather and I hope, one day, my son will say the same thing about my dad and me (and, of course, his mom, who’s just as big a fan). Either way, Happy Father’s Day, everyone!

California Nightmare

So, things have gone, uh, not well–industry term–for the Yankees on the west coast, have they? Walk off losses; bullpen meltdowns; injuries across the diamond. If there’s a bright spot in the 2017 season universe, this is the spot it’s farthest from. Regardless of how the rest of the season goes, this will be the turning point in the Yankees’ narrative of this season. Should they fall out of first place and ‘revert’ to what we though they’d be this year, it’ll be because of this rough stretch. Should they recover, though, and go back on a winning streak when they get back to the Bronx, this horrible week will indicate the team’s resilience, its moxie, its fighting spirit. 

Like baseball itself–defined by what’s going to happen, not necessarily what is happening–this season will be defined by what comes next and how the Yankees go along for the rest of the month. It’s certainly been a fun and unexpected ride up to this point, and there is a bit of a ‘house money’ feel to the season. It will be disappointing if this is a negative turning point, but these last three months of baseball have been as fun as any since 2009.

(Rob Carr/Getty)
(Rob Carr/Getty)

More Like Ta-NOT-ka, AMIRIGHT?!

What is up with Masahiro Tanaka? No, seriously, what the hell is up with Masahiro Tanaka? I’m out of answers, honestly. He’s clearly healthy enough to keep going out there–the team wouldn’t risk him, morally or financially–if he weren’t. He just…isn’t…good? That answer is one I find equally troubling because it just doesn’t seem to make much sense. He was Cy Young caliber last year and very good in the years prior. Is it possible he just turned into a pumpkin, became toast, seemingly overnight? Given that this is baseball and a pitcher we’re talking about, it’s possible. But it just doesn’t seem plausible.

Including CC Sabathia‘s good performance and Aaron Judge‘s absolute dominance, this development has surprised me the most, and I’m sure the same could be said for you all reading this. If there was one thing we were going to count on in 2017, it was Tanaka’s performance. Apparently not.

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)
(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)

All Rise

Aaron Judge. Aaron Freaking Judge. Major League leader in fWAR by a full win (4.4) over Paul Goldschmidt (3.4). Major League leader in wRC+ (200) by 24 points over Ryan Zimmerman (!! What year is it?!). Major League leader in OBP (.444), just edging out Goldschmit (.443). Major League leader in slugging (.704), again beating out Zimmerman by more than 20 (.681). Major League leader in ISO (.369) over Eric Thames (.347).

If you saw this coming, raise your hand, then put it back down, you liar. There are no more adjectives left to describe what Aaron Jude has done and is doing and (hopefully) will continue doing. This has been the most enjoyable player performance by a Yankee since Alex Rodriguez in 2007. Like Alex’s did in his prime, Aaron’s at bats make you stop what you’re doing and watch because something special might (probably will at this point?) happen. That’s the fun of baseball and Aaron Judge is that feeling incarnate.

Decoding Didi

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

From the outside way back in 2014, blending in was probably a reasonable thing for fans to expect of Didi Gregorius. He was a fairly nondescript player at that point, having gone from the Reds to the Diamondbacks–hardly high-profile organizations–and he was taking over one of the game’s most important positions from a player that his new fan base had practically canonized. But in that time, Didi has stuck out and become a fan favorite. And in 2017, he’s having himself a career year. After going 2-5 with a double and a homer in last night’s drubbing of the Orioles, Didi is now hitting .325/.346/.497, good for a .357 wOBA and 125 wRC+, all career highs.

When a guy has a big jump in production like this, it’s natural to want to know why and how. Has his approach changed? Has he done something different? At first blush, things seem pretty similar to last year. 2017’s and 2016’s walk and strikeout rates are nearly the same for Didi–in the low 3’s for the former and around 14 for the latter. Maybe he’s hitting the ball harder or distributing his batted balls differently? Nope. Everything looks to be in line with last year and his career norms; in fact, his line drive rate is actually down a bit. To boot, per Statcast, Didi’s exit velocity this year is just a tick below 85 MPH. Where was it last year? Exactly 85 MPH. 2015? 84.8

There also doesn’t seem to be anything to telling in his basic plate discipline profile. He’s swinging more often, by a decent amount, but as evidenced above, he’s not necessarily hitting the ball any harder than he did last year or the year before that. But, he’s still getting more hits. And with that, we go to the last resort: BABIP.

As his exit velocity hints at, Didi has never been one to really sting the ball; that’s reflected in his career BABIP of just .293. Before this year, his career high was in 2015 when he BABIP’d .297. Last year, the mark was .290. This year, Didi’s just hitting ’em where they ain’t, racking up a BABIP of .344. That’d be high regardless, but it looks even more the outlier considering his career mark. There’s a chance we could see a dip in his numbers coming as that BABIP begins to correct itself down towards Sir Didi’s career norms. However, he can still remain productive, given that his HR/FB% is still near 10% , like it was last year.

Didi appears to have changed very little between last year–a previous career year–and this year. The only big change we can see is that big discrepancy in BABIP. Is this looking a gift horse in the mouth? Yeah, probably. But at the same time, a drop in production from Didi won’t sink this team; they’ve got–for the first time in a while–a steady supply of strong bats so that Gregorius doesn’t need to be a leader on offense. While it keeps up, though, it makes this team damn near unstoppable at the plate.

Under the Radar

Get well soon, El Gary. (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

After what he did last summer, it’s hard to imagine Gary Sanchez running a low profile. He burst onto the scene with an impressive display that almost won him AL Rookie of the Year honors over a pitcher who was successful in the league all year. Immediately, he endeared himself to the game with his powerful displays and came into 2017 with great expectations and the combination of talent and potential to back it up. And then he got hurt swinging a bat in Baltimore and missed a lot of time. While that was unexpected in and of itself, here’s another thing that I didn’t expect: Gary Sanchez is having the best season of any catcher in the American League.

Thanks to Aaron Judge being, well, Aaron Judge, Luis Severino doing his ace thing, Aaron Hicks emerging as a legit player, Brett Gardner and Matt Holliday hitting bald bombs all over the place, and Starlin Castro reestablishing his All-Star status, Sanchez has taken a bit of a backseat with regards to attention this year. Missing time with an injury will do that, sure, but the overall success of the team has sort of buried the lede on how good Sanchez has been this year.

In home runs, Sanchez’s six trail only Salvador Perez (11) and Alex Avila and James McCann with 7. Perez laps all catchers with 201 plate appearances; Avila (120) and McCann (125) have a handful more than Sanchez (119). In terms of wOBA, Sanchez is at .352, two points behind Russell Martin (.354) and a bunch behind Avila (.433!). wRC+ puts him behind Avila (176) and Martin (122), and tied with Evan Gattis at 121. He’s third in ISO (.190) behind Avila (.283) and Perez (.214). He’s tied for sixth in fWAR with Gattis (0.7), but has fewer games played than every player ahead of him AND every player behind him. What we should also note is that Alex Avila has played 20 games at catcher, but also 11 at first. He’s having a damn good season–seriously, I’d forgotten about his existence as a baseball player–but splitting time makes me give preference to the other guys on the list, especially Sanchez.

El Gary may not top the AL catching leaderboards in everything, but his combination of stats paints a fine, well rounded picture of a fantastic season. That this has slipped a bit under the radar speaks to a few things. Obviously, Sanchez’s teammates listed above have played a bit more and have shined, some of them unexpectedly. The team overall has been much more successful than anticipated and all of that has–somewhat rightly–overshadowed Sanchez’s solid, if not outwardly flashy, 2017 performance. Hopefully, the next few weeks net Sanchez some more attention and votes to get him to the All Star game. He deserves his first of what should be many.

Grounded for the Month of May

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

On Friday night, with the game tied at 0, Chase Headley came to the plate with one out and two runners on–first and second. To say that my faith in Headley was low would be a bit of an understatement. Tragically for Masahiro Tanaka and the rest of the Yankees, Headley proved my lack of faith right by grounding into a double play, ending the inning. He didn’t even have the common freakin’ courtesy to just strike out or hit into the infield fly rule. Until now, I didn’t quite realize just how indicative of his descent into dumpster fire at the plate that play was.

We all know Headley started out the year on fire, tearing up the league, topping leaderboards for a few weeks in April. Since then, though, it’s been a steady decline to where he sits right now: a career low 82 wRC+ thanks to a .292 wOBA and a .228/.299/.367 batting line. Consider, folks, that he ended April with a .388 wOBA and a 148 wRC+; that’s one hell of a drop. And as his performance has dropped, so have the balls he’s been hitting, quite literally.

Per FanGraphs, Headley was quite adept at hitting the ball in the air for the first month of the season. In April, he sported a robust line drive percentage of 30.2% and hit fly balls 33.3% of the time. He generally avoided weak contact, evidenced by his low 4.8% infield fly ball rate. That script has flipped for the month of May.

Gone is the high line drive rate, down to 21.7%. Gone is the low ground ball rate, up to 54.3%. Gone is the high fly ball rate, down to 23.9%. Gone is the low IFFB rate, up to 18.4%. Thanks to TexasLeaguers, we can see the results of these drastic changes.

Here’s Headley’s April spray chart. Nine outs in the field, ten if we count that one behind the plate.

headleyapril

Now May:

headleymay

17 in the infield, including the foul balls. Also, there’s a huge cluster in right field that wasn’t really there during April, indicating that Headley’s hitting his grounders–at least as a lefty batter–right into the shift.

A trip–well, two trips to Brooks will show us just what’s going on here. In April, Chase was getting pretty decent lift on pretty much everything. Now in May, something is making him play right into the pitcher’s hands. Like they’d want him to, he’s hitting almost 56% grounders on sinkers, almost 77% (!) on change ups, 75% on curves and 100% on cutters.

The other alarming note on Brooks is the big uptick in whiffs/swing on fastballs, going from 13% and change to almost 23%; from April to May, Headley’s strikeout rate has climbed from about 20% to about 35%. Not so coincidentally, Headley’s walk rate has plummeted; he’s walked just once in May–and has been hit by one pitch. Also not so coincidentally, Headley’s been chasing the ball more in May than he did in April. The league average o-swing rate is a touch over 29%. While he’s been under that for the year, May has seen a spike. In April, there are four locations on the chart showing Headley swung at balls at a higher-than-league-average pace. Fast forward to May and the number goes up to eight.

Beating the ball into the ground–especially in this day and age of the fly ball–and chasing balls out of the zone are not a good combination for success. So, Chase, if you’re reading this, get on that, huh? I like you, I really do, but it’s getting hard to watch at this point.

Tanaka and the Dingers 2017 Edition

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Before stepping to the mound yesterday afternoon in Tampa, Masahiro Tanaka had already surrendered ten home runs to opposing hitters. Then he gave up three more. His HR/9 currently sits at an unconscionable 2.44 and his HR/FB% is absurdly high at 24.5%. Tanaka’s always been prone to giving up home runs, but they’re flying out at a ridiculously rapid rate in 2017. How?

The first culprit that jumps out is the fastball. Per Brooks, that pitch had a 50% HR/(FB + LD) rate going into yesterday’s game. That pitch accounts for the lowest percentage of Tanaka’s pitches this season, and he’s famously avoided throwing it recently, sticking more to a sinker, splitter, slider mix. But two of the homers he gave up yesterday–the ones to Corey Dickerson–were both on the four seam fastball. The other homer, from Longoria, came against a sinker.

Then, there’s the splitter. As always, this has been a generally effective pitch for Tanaka. Its whiff/swing% is over 30 and its grounder rate is pushing 70%. But on the flip side, its led to three homers against Tanaka and batters are hitting it to a .229 ISO, not counting yesterday’s start. Its HR/(FB+LD)% is up at 27.27. For his career, it’s predictably low at 7.3%.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

The slider, conversely, has been right along with his career rates in its success this year. Basically, all the hard stuff Tanaka throws is being hit equally hard, leading to lots of homers, lots of runs, and lots of frustration. Taking a look at the ISO marks against the hard stuff, it’s clear that Tanaka’s command of those pitches is off.

A solution to this problem isn’t necessarily easy to find. It’d be wrong to suggest a pitcher with elbow issues in the past begin throwing more sliders, but we can’t just click our heels or cross our fingers and expect Tanaka’s command to be back to form.

It's not what you want (Source: Getty)
It’s not what you want (Source: Getty)

Time is likely the best answer since this is such an extreme exaggeration of one of the few issues Tanaka has had on the mound since joining the Yankees. Were this a year like 2016, this might be less worrisome. But given that the Yankees seem to be, well, actually pretty good this season, Tanaka performing like his normal self is imperative. 2017 was lined up to be a ‘house money’ type of year for the Yankees. If they did well, great! If not, hey, at least there’s a bunch of young, exciting guys. Luckily for us, the two things seem to be converging. Regardless of that, one thing was true heading into this year–as it has been the last few years–if anything good was going to happen to this team, it needed Tanaka to be its strongest pitcher. That hasn’t happened so far in 2017. And given the rest of the Yankee rotation, if Tanaka doesn’t get back to his regular levels, the charm of an unexpected playoff season may not last too long.

My Obligatory Derek Jeter Post

The Captain circa 2009. (Paul Bereswill/Getty)
The Captain circa 2009. (Paul Bereswill/Getty)

In 1995, I began my Yankee ‘career’ in earnest with a love for Don Mattingly. As an 8 1/2 year old–or thereabouts–I cried when Mattingly retired, still not exactly sure what that term meant beyond knowing I couldn’t watch him play anymore. The next year, though, someone else came along to begin his actual Yankee career in earnest: Derek Jeter.

While Jeter never occupied the coveted space as my ‘favorite player’ during the most recent Yankee dynasty–Bernie Williams held that spot; I even copied my batting stance after his–it’s impossible to say that he and what he has come to represent aren’t greatly responsible for the fact that I became and still am a rabid fan of the Yankees.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

As I grew older and became a different fan than I was in my elementary, middle, and high school years, my view of the team, of baseball, and even of Jeter himself changed. Your team didn’t win the World Series every year. Jeter wasn’t a perfect player. And part of that still carries over; this week of All Jeter All the Time is definitely a bit of overkill, considering he just retired in 2014.

The celebration, though, is warranted. Jeter is one of the most accomplished and most successful players in the history of the game and that applies to his place with the Yankees just as much. At some point, it became the cool thing to do to try to knock Jeter’s game down a peg or two, but that, in the end, just leads back to an easy appreciation for the player he was.

In the course of his career, Jeter became so overrated–the intangibles, the winning, the ‘mystique and aura’–that he was underrated on the field. His defense was never great, sure, but as a shortstop, he racked up an offensive career that corner players might kill for. In his 20 year career, Jeter had only two seasons in which he came to the plate at least 500 times and failed to be a league average hitter.

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

Necessarily, I’m a completely different fan of baseball now than I was when Jeter came to prominence. I’m more critical, more analytical, less wide-eyed, and less idealistic. I certainly understand the game better and in a more nuanced way and that goes for Jeter himself as well. But when I think of Derek Jeter, I think of my fandom as a kid. It was pure. It was always optimistic. It was always hopeful. At times, I miss that attitude towards the game. That is Jeter’s legacy to me, even beyond the great hitting and all the winning. Jeter–at a game I attended in 2014–thanked the fans for keeping him young. Talking about him and his career, no matter how old I get, will always make me feel young. Thanks for a great ride, Derek. Can’t wait to see you in Cooperstown.

Pineda’s Homers

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

I will never forget the night the Yankees traded for Michael Pineda. It was January 2012 and my wife (then-very-recent-girlfriend) was due to meet my parents and sister for the first time. As luck would have it, while she was driving, the wheels were in motion on the Yankees making a big trade. Well, the wheels had already moved and everything was set; we were just hearing about it for the first time. In the end, the trade was announced just as she was pulling into the driveway and she had to deal with meeting my family and balancing our shock and initial disappointment that Jesus Montero–whom we’d all just watched crush it in September–would no longer be in the team’s future plans.

Yankeedom for Michael Pineda has seen its ups and downs, peaks and valleys, highs and lows, and whatever other height cliches you wanna throw in there. Perhaps, given the times, its Aaron Judge moments and its Ronald Torreyes moments. Despite that, the Yankees (everyone all together now) won the trade, given that Pineda is pitching well–and pitching at all–while Jesus Montero is…somewhere in baseball. This year so far, Pineda has struck out over 31% of the batters he’s faced, while walking only 3.6%. His ERA is at a solid 3.12, good for a 77 ERA-. The only weird thing is he’s surrendered seven home runs, tied (with a bunch of other pitchers) for second most in the American League.

This isn’t exactly shocking overall, given that Pineda has been slightly homer prone in the past. With everything else going so well, it seems homers are the only blemishes against him this year. When looking at his batted ball rates, everything seems to be in order. Low line drives. High ground balls. Decreased fly balls. However, the HR/FB% is sky high at 25.0%. For his career, it’s never been over 17%, last season’s mark. All three of his pitches this year have a higher HR(FB+LD) than any one pitch from last year. A quick note on the Brooks stuff: given the change over in systems, it looks like some stuff is missing, including the homer Pineda gave up to Kris Bryant in the first inning back on Friday. Adjusting for that would make one of those numbers look even worse. So, what gives?

I’m going to take the cop out answer and say that it’s still early, even if Pineda has already made six starts and has given up a fair amount of homers in the past. The rate he’s going at now is way more than what he did last year, his most homer-prone season. His HR/9 then was 1.38 (not good!) and currently sits at 1.82, almost a half a homer more per nine. Combine this with the spike in his overall HR/FB% and you can see the randomness pretty easily. As support, xRA from StatCorner suggests that Pineda’s ERA ought to be even better at 2.38, given his batted ball profile.

It’s unlikely that Pineda ever becomes stingy with the long ball. He’s around the zone too much and when that happens, it’s more likely something’s going to get left in the wrong place and get sent on a long ride. Still, the homers should drop just slightly. In a perfect world–at least for Big Mike and not the batters–his walks would stay this far down and his strikeouts would stay this far up. The world is far from perfect, though, so I’ll settle for a drop in dingers.