Judging from the Start

All rise. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
All rise. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

Aaron Judge, huh? Okay, guys, thanks for reading! Check back next week for…something else…and enjoy whatever show Judge’s gonna put on for the next week.

Despite Chase Headley‘s heroics and Starlin Castro‘s hot start, the hands-down, no doubt about it, bonafide best thing about the Yankees in April of 2017 has been Aaron Judge. He’s been an absolute monster, clocking massive homer after massive homer, displaying the power we all dreamed of and got flashes of during 2016. Additionally, he’s cut down on his strikeouts from a mind-boggling 44.2% last year to a still-high-but-manageable 25.4% this year. Part of that is due to a reduced chase rate and a reduced whiff rate.

In 2016, the league averaged an O-Swing% (swings on pitches out of the zone) of 30.6%; Judge came in at 34.9%. This year, the average has dropped (so far) to 30.1%; Judge clocks in with a wonderfully below average rate of 18.3%. And while his contact rate–74.8%–is still worse than average (77.1%), it’s a demonstrable improvement from last year’s tally of 59.7%.

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

It’s no surprise that a guy as big and strong as Judge will do damage when he makes contact and so far, that’s what he’s done. The improved contact rate is a big step forward in Judge reaching his full potential. He’s shown growth in both the “where” and the “what” of making contact–not just in one area–and that dual fact has been key for his hot start.

In 2016, there were 13 zones out of a possible 25 that saw Judge whiff on 50% or more of his swings. So far in 2017, he’s cut that number to just five zones. Additionally from 2016 to 2017, Judge has dropped the whiff rates on fastballs by about one percent, sinkers by about three percent, changeups by over 20 percent, sliders by about 14 percent, and curves by about ten percent.

We tend to be selfish as fans and we want results when we want them and no later. Of course, baseball doesn’t work like that and we must be careful not to get mad at the microwave for not heating up our burrito fast enough. But so far this year, we’ve gotten near instant gratification from Aaron Judge. He’s given us the improvement we all knew he’d need to make while keeping his prodigious power. The rest of the year has a long time to play out, but with things starting to stabilize, we may be in for a truly great year from a truly great talent.

Unaccording to Plan

(Adam Hunger/Getty)
(Adam Hunger/Getty)

Two weeks of baseball are almost in the books and, as always, they’ve been predictably unpredictable. For the Yankees, that’s manifested itself in two divergent paths thus far: CC Sabathia‘s pitching and Greg Bird‘s “hitting.”

Despite the apparent completion of his reinvention project last year, what we’d get in 2017 from Sabathia was certainly no sure thing. A pitcher as good and smart as he is could repeat what he did in 2016, but a pitcher as old as he is could just as easily fall apart. So far, it’s been the former and CC has done a great job in his starts, even pitching into the eighth yesterday.

Last year, CC leaned mostly on the cutter. In this year’s few offerings, CC has been leaning more on the sinker than he did last year. Additionally, the handful of changeups he’s found this year have been successful, leading to whiffs 33% of the time overall and 66% per swing. It’s too early to tell and all that stuff, but things are looking good for CC. It’s not often a pitcher develops again and who knows what could happen next, but I’ve never been one to bet against Sabathia.

#GREGBIRD (Presswire)
#GREGBIRD (Presswire)

On the other side of the coin is Greg Bird, who can hardly buy what even looks like a good plate appearance these days, let alone a hit. Would this stretch be markedly less noticeable if it happened in the middle of the season? Definitely. Is it concerning, at least a little bit, that Bird looks so lost at the plate? Yes.

After a hot spring in which he looked fantastic–and had similar results–it’s disappointing to see Bird struggling so much. Of course, it is still way early and just as Sabathia can fall down, Bird can climb up. Pretty much everything has been a disaster for Bird, but I find it hard to believe he’s going to keep whiffing this much on his swings.

Compared to 2015, Bird is swinging at similar rate, but he’s chasing out of the zone about four percent more. This has led to a four percent drop in zone swing percentage, too. When he has swung in the zone this year, though, it hasn’t mattered much. There’s the aforementioned whiffing problem, which as led to a zone contact rate of 53.1%; league average is just around 86%. Whether it’s timing, mechanics, or lack of pitch recognition, something is vexing Bird.

For both of these players, even if their results have been opposite of each other and opposite of expectations, there is still plenty of time. Sabathia and Bird both have the talent and the know how to succeed at their respective levels. Though it’s a positive thing with Bird and potentially a negative thing with Sabathia, we’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop. We know it’s coming, but what the footprint looks like is a mystery.

The Gary-less Lineup

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

If you haven’t heard by now–though the collective worried gasp of Yankee fans everywhere yesterday afternoon probably gave it away–Gary Sanchez is injured, and will be going on the 10-day disabled list with a right biceps issue.

This leaves the Yankees with a gaping hole at what is the most important defensive position on the field–where Sanchez has shown great skill–and arguably the most important position in the lineup; slotting Sanchez in second made sense and was a big show of confidence in him by Joe Girardi and the coaching staff. Now, that’s for naught–at least for the next ten days. So, what can the Yankees do in Sanchez’s lineup absence?

My first thought was one I suggested previously, using DH Matt Holliday as the second hitter thanks to his combination of skills. However, without Sanchez to be in the clean up spot–and no one yet reliable enough to take his place–I don’t think that idea works. Holliday should stick at fourth, which is just as important as the second spot. But, since the route they’ll likely take is sticking Jacoby Ellsbury–who’s off to a good start–back into the second slot, giving the Yankees a more traditional look at the top of the lineup, that would mean three lefties–Gardner, Ellsbury, and Greg Bird stacked together, and that could lead to matchup problems late in games. So, I assume Girardi will split the lefties and have Holliday bat third with Bird cleaning up.

The team can go one of two ways with the fifth spot. The first way is to bump Chase Headley up a spot, rewarding him for a hot start. I’d be totally fine with that. The other would be to give the spot to Aaron Judge. This could show faith in him, challenge him, and give him an opportunity to hit behind better players, increasing the likelihood of him batting with men on base. That second option probably isn’t going to happen, but I think that’s the one I’d like, if only to keep up the ‘give the kids a shot’ theme that this season is likely to have.

Best hi-five ever (Source: AP)
Best hi-five ever (Source: AP)

So, the combination of the most likely scenario/what I’d want to see would look like this:

  1. Gardner, LF
  2. Ellsbury, CF
  3. Holliday, DH
  4. Bird, 1B
  5. Judge, RF
  6. Castro, 2B
  7. Headley, 3B
  8. Romine, C
  9. Torreyes, SS

You could flip Castro and Headley if you like, and I might do the same. But the main takeaway here is that without Sanchez, this lineup seems a whole lot shorter and a whole lot thinner than it did just 24 hours ago. Losing a big bat at a premium position always hurts, and that goes double when a backup quality player–Torreyes–is already in the every day lineup. Get well soon, Gary; the lineup needs you.

Predictions by Position

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

After today, the next time you read a post from me, the Yankees will be three hours away from their first pitch of the season against the Tampa Bay Rays (while we’re on it, how silly is it that even in a dome, the Yankees have an off day after their Opening Day? Isn’t the point of the dome to avoid that? Ugh.). That’s pretty damn cool, huh? It also means you’re in for a flurry of prediction posts, so allow me to be near the top of the list. When September ends, we can all look back at this and laugh at how absurdly wrong I was.

Catcher

Gary Sanchez will struggle at the plate to start the year and a certain segment of fans–the talk radio set–will become frustrated, though his defense is mostly fine. By early June, though, Sanchez will find his stroke and finish the year with about 20 homers and a caught stealing percentage near the top of the league.

Austin Romine will remain the backup all year, turning in a very typical backup season. But, for him, it’s a coup as it lands him a two-year contract after the season to stay on as Sanchez’s reserve.

Carter. (Presswire)
Carter. (Presswire)

First Base

I don’t know exactly what the combination will be or how it will break down to a man, but Greg Bird and Chris Carter will combine for 40 homers.

Shortstop and Second Base

I’m combing these thanks to the Didi Gregorius injury. Ruben Tejada will start the year at short. By mid-April, though, his bat will not be worth the defensive contribution and he’ll be let go. Starlin Castro will slide over to short and “everyone” will get their wish as Rob Refsnyder will be called up to play second, the team willing to live with his defense since his offense will be needed more. He’ll have a hot first week, then cool down just in time for Didi to return and send Castro back to second.

Didi will take a slight step back offensively this year, as will Castro. However, they’ll be able to buoy it with solid defense, becoming one of the top double play combinations in the league.

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

Third Base

Chase Headley continues his ‘bounce back’ that started after his terrible beginning to 2016. He ends the year around a 100 wRC+, but his defense begins to show a little bit of wear before he heads into the last year of his contract.

Outfield

Brett Gardner bounces back offensively. The power doesn’t come back totally, but he reaches double digits in homers again and regains some of his base-stealing prowess. Jacoby Ellsbury hovers around where he was last year and his steals stay flat as he’s not apt to run in front of Sanchez or Matt Holliday, whoever occupies the three spot.

Aaron Judge struggles through the first month and is sent down to Scranton and Aaron Hicks takes over in right for a bit. Judge is eventually recalled and put in a platoon to start, but earns his way back into the starting role, promising better things for 2018.

(Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports)

Designated Hitter

Holliday shows flashes of his Colorado self, but is generally more like the player he was in St. Louis last year. He surprises, though, with a fair amount of opposite field homers and winds up leading the team in that category.

Starting Rotation

Michael Pineda comes out of the gates like a bat out of hell. He pushes his way into the All Star Game, but falters down the stretch, reminding us more of 2016 than the early part of 2017.

CC Sabathia pitches like a number two for half his starts and a number five for the other half. Masahiro Tanaka again competes for the Cy Young Award, putting up an even better case this year than last year.

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

Bullpen

Adam Warren becomes the new Dellin Betances. No, he won’t be as dominant as Dellin, but he’ll move into the multi-inning, high-leverage spot, allowing Betances to join Tyler Clippard and Aroldis Chapman as a more traditional one-inning reliever when Warren is fresh.

Team

What will all this add up to? Somehow, someway, I’m thinking…84 wins. That sounds right, no? What wild, crazy, or boring predictions do you have? If we’re gonna laugh at me in September, let’s laugh at you, too.

Play ball.

Looking at the Yankee Offense via Steamer Projections

(Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports)

Insert cliche about anticipation here. As we’ve been over since the last out of the World Series was recorded, we’re ready for baseball to begin again, aren’t we? That snowstorm last week may have made us feel trapped in winter for a few days, but the calendar is ticking away and we’re getting closer to Opening Day. The end of the WBC this week will likely speed things up as well, as it feels like a hill that needs to be conquered before we speed to the real season (but definitely a fun hill at that!).

The Yankees this year are somewhat up in the air. No one’s really expecting them to do anything much in the way of competing–myself included–but you can’t help but dream with all the potential on the team. Frankly, this is a best-of-both-worlds scenario and part of why I’m so looking forward to this season. If the Yankees are ‘bad,’ well, so be it. At least there are a bunch of young, exciting guys to watch. If they happen to compete? Awesome! An unexpected surprise. Even though I’ll watch and listen to most every game and definitely care in the moment, on a macro level, this season is going to be the epitome of Joe’s old maxim of Zen Baseball: just relax and enjoy it.

Regardless of that, curiosity’s got the best of me, so I wanted to take a look at what we might be in store for in 2017. We’ve already taken a look at ZiPS, so let’s try our hand at the Steamer projections for the Yankees.

Leading things off, Gary Sanchez paces the team in fWAR projection. Steamer projects him for 3.6 fWAR this year. Didi Gregorius follows him at 2.2 and Chase Headley rounds out the top three at 2.0. I was a bit surprised to see Headley at the third position, but Steamer likes his defense a lot and pairing that with near average offense (96 wRC+) gives him a solid projection. I’d sign up for that from Headley in a heartbeat.

In terms of wRC+, Steamer gives the nod to Greg Bird, projecting him for a 123 mark, just a head of Matt Holliday at 121 and Sanchez at 118. All in all, Steamer projects six Yankees to be over 100 in terms of wRC+: those three as well as Brett Gardner (101), Aaron Judge (106), and Chris Carter (107). Last year, only Brian McCann (103), Carlos Beltran (135), and Sanchez (171) were above average for the team in a significant number of plate appearances. That, frankly, is a breath of fresh air. It doesn’t mean this stuff will actually happen, but that would be a welcomed sight after last year’s mostly disappointing offense.

In terms of counting stats, Sanchez is projected to lead the team with 27 homers, then Bird at 23, followed by Carter at 22, though in limited playing time. Steamer also has Judge at “only” 17 homers, but also with under 400 PA. Adjusting him up to 500 PA gets him in the neighborhood of 22-23.

Regarding homers, there was one thing I wanted to touch on: Didi Gregorius’s total. It seems him dropping to 15 and, call it a silly gut feeling, but I think that’s about right. Didi did add some power last year, but I’m not sure 20 homers is going to be the norm for him. If he drops lower than 15, too, that’s fine, given his defense. I think 10-15 is more where he’s going to live, not 15-20, or even more.

Overall, Steamer seems to like the Yankee offense, at least as an improvement over last year’s team. ZiPS is definitely more bullish on Judge–projecting him to hit 30 homers–but Steamer seems to have the playing time distribution down better, excepting Judge being part-time. We’ve got to remember that projections aren’t predictions. We should use them to guide expectations, a starting point rather than an ending one. Regardless, things are looking up for the Yankees at the plate. It may not be a return to full on Bronx Bombers status, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Imagining Extreme Platooning

#GREGBIRD (Presswire)
#GREGBIRD (Presswire)

Okay, who’s about ready for Spring Training to end and the season to start? Nevermind the fact that this area is, apparently, about to get hammered with snow; it’s pretty much baseball season, dammit! At this point, all we can do is hope everyone gets through March healthy and heads into April charged up and ready to go. Additionally, all the principals of the Yankees seem to be performing well and, hair and arbitration cases aside (ugh), there isn’t much drama surrounding the roster formation; all we’re really waiting on is the fifth starter competition. In terms of the lineup, we know who’s going to be there, just not how it’s going to shake out.

I’ve touched on this a few times in the last month–there really hasn’t been much to discuss, huh?–but I wanted to revisit something I briefly mentioned in my post about Chris Carter:

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.

Joe Girardi does like to play matchups, though I’m not sure he likes it so much as to do what I suggested there. Still, it’s fun to draw up lineup scenarios and imagine what they would do. Frankly, the Yankees could destroy lefty pitching if they approached it with an eye towards ignoring defense (not likely). Taken to the extreme, they could go even farther than my suggestion.

C: Austin Romine

1B: Chris Carter

2B: Starlin Castro

3B: Chase Healdey

SS: Didi Gregorius

LF: Matt Holliday

CF: Aaron Hicks

RF: Aaron Judge

DH: Gary Sanchez

ON the plus side, as mentioned, this lineup would probably be death to left handed pitching. With Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury on the bench, late inning defense and match ups could be solved via substitution. The big snag in the plan, though, is using Sanchez as the DH. Every team in baseball hates using their second catcher. And, really, with Romine, is there really going to be that much of a boost? Probably not.

Little CC. (Presswire)
Little CC. (Presswire)

The best bet for a balance of platoon and potential is likely to be trotting out Sanchez at catcher, Greg Bird at first, and Carter at DH. Last year, it’s worth noting, Hicks didn’t live up to his potential against lefties, so if you buy that performance, you could swap out Gardner in center to help cover Holliday in left. Of the two, Gardner is preferable to Ellsbury against lefties.

For the first time in a while, the Yankees are going to be a bonafide threat to lefty pitching. When they want to, they’ll be able to put out an immensely powerful lineup against southpaws, which should help them steal some games. If they can do that while also exposing Greg Bird to lefties in hopes of him improving, it’s a win/win.

Approaching Aaron Judge

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Here’s a hot take to help break the recent blustery cold in my neck of the woods: 2017 is going to be a big year for Aaron Judge. After his intermittently successful cup of coffee at the end of 2016, he’s poised to take over the starting right field job and hopefully lock it down for years to come. Of course, that future doesn’t depend wholly on this year. It’d be nice, though, if he laid any doubts to rest. Part of cementing his place in right field will be making adjustments to the league, as it will be for every young player, both in and out of the Bronx.

The biggest wrinkle–in terms of results–in Judge’s game is the fact that he strikes out a lot. He balances it with walks and homers, thankfully, so it makes you able to live with the whiffs. It would be disingenuous, though, to act like the high strikeout totals he racked up in MLB last year were not at last a little concerning. In 95 trips to the plate in 2016, Judge struck out 42 times, a percentage of 44.5. If we include his minor league numbers (98 Ks in 410 PA), the percentage drops down considerably to just over 27%, but that’s still rather high. To cut down on that number, Judge will have to adjust how pitchers have approached him in two situations: the first pitch and with two strikes.

On the first pitch last year, a the thing that stands out is his various whiff/swing rates on different pitch types. On the first pitch fastballs, he missed on 20% of his swings. That number is small, though, compared to how he fared on first pitches that were anything but a fastball. Of the non-fastballs, he saw 10 changeups, 16 sliders, and 13 curveballs. When he swung at those pitches, he didn’t make much contact. He whiffed at 100% of his first-pitch swings on changeups and curves, and 60% at the sliders. To his credit, Judge did a good job spitting on a fair amount of changeups and curveballs, as many of those went for balls on the first pitch. Some of that, though, could be due to location; those are pitches intentionally designed to dart out of the zone, and Judge’s whiff/swing rates show us he’s falling for that trick fairly often.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

With two strikes, the whiff/swing numbers increase slightly. They stay the same on the slider, but drop to 50% and about 64% on the changeup and curve respectively. Those numbers are better than I thought, as the trick of memory made it seem like Judge whiffed all the time with two strikes. It’s encouraging to see the two strike numbers be better than the first pitch numbers, though, as it does show he’s capable of recognizing the non-fastball coming in the non-fastball counts.

To adjust to this issue, Judge will need to better recognize non-fastballs, both on the first pitch and with two strikes. Doing so will allow him to hold back from swinging and getting himself into bad counts, which will set up the strikeout. He’s shown a good batting eye everywhere he’s been and his power means pitchers will be naturally cautious around him. Exploiting that by forcing them to come into the zone with fastballs early in the count will help make him successful in 2017 and beyond.