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.

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.