Full Strength–Or Something Like It

Apr 4, 2017; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; New York Yankees first baseman Greg Bird (33) works out during batting practice prior to the game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
(Presswire)

Like any full baseball season worth its salt, the second half for the Yankees has been an unpredictable series of ups and downs. At times, they’ve looked as dominant as they did in the early season; at other times, they’ve looked as hapless as they did in June. Overall, though, they’re holding the line and keeping their first wildcard position with some room to spare. The division is also in reach, but they’re gonna need a boost to catch the Red Sox. Enter Starlin Castro, Matt Holliday, and Greg Bird. All three are on rehab assignments right now and are the cavalry to the Yankees’ main fighting force.

All three players are returning from varying circumstances. Castro is in the midst of an All-Star season, just injury riddled. Holliday is hoping to recover from a mid-season crash after a solid start. And Bird is hoping to take off, finally, after a disastrous and frustrating stretch of bad health. Despite those different paths to this spot, the ‘destination’ is clear: give the Yankee lineup a much wanted and much needed spark to help push them over the edge. The challenge for the Yankees, then, is to incorporate these guys into a lineup that has been molded and established without them.

Let’s not worry about arrival times for the moment and just take a look at what the lineup may look like when all three are back in action.

Though Holliday was hitting there during his hot times early on and Bird was slotted for there at the beginning of 2017, neither should bat at the top of the lineup right now. The top five, really, should look about the same as it has recently:

  1. Brett Gardner OF
  2. Aaron Hicks OF
  3. Aaron Judge RF
  4. Gary Sanchez C
  5. Didi Gregorius SS

Now comes the part where we might expect Bird to hit, but I’d imagine Joe Girardi would want to break up the lefties. He can do so in two ways, by either inserting Holliday in the six spot, or keep Chase Headley there, who’s had a solid, if powerless, season. Also, given Bird’s presence in the lineup, this shifts Headley back to third and Todd Frazier to a bench role (I imagine he’ll play against LHP to ease Bird’s transition). The other wrinkle here is Castro. Given the year he’s had, I think he’d get preference to bat sixth, bumping Headley down to seventh. The ripple effect here, of course, is it pushes the veteran Holliday to eighth and Bird to ninth.

6. Castro 2B

7. Headley 3B

8. Holliday DH

9. Bird 1B

That lineup is…really friggin’ good. It has the potential to absolutely mash. Best laid plans and all, but that lineup, with Frazier, Ronald Torreyes, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Austin Romine on the bench is just fierce. Even if Girardi gives deference to Castro and Holliday as veterans and moves them around towards the top, the bottom loses nothing with Gregorius and/or Hicks moving down.

Is this a bit of rosterbating? Sure, but why not? This year has been better than any of us could’ve imagined and I’m feeling positive right now. That lineup, combined with a rotation of Luis Severino, Sonny Gray, Masahiro Tanaka, and CC Sabathia in the playoffs, backed up by a dominant bullpen, is a recipe for playoff success. Get there, Yanks, and you’ll do some damage.

Attitude Adjustment

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

If you’re reading this, chances are you know a little bit about me. For those of you who don’t, let me tell you that I’m a teacher (high school English) by trade. In my experience as a teacher, I’ve had to rely on one trait more than any: flexibility. It took me a long time to land a full time position, so I was ‘stuck’ doing long-term sub positions in southwestern Connecticut from April 2013 to February 2016. In that time, I taught grades 7, 9, 10, 11, and 12 in five different schools (one middle, four high) to different populations, from different courses/curricula, and in five different districts. To boot, most of the time, I was parachuting in after the start of the year and had to find my bearings on the fly. If not for flexibility, I’d’ve drowned. It might be time to exercise similar flexibility for the Yankees.

All year, I’ve been saying this is a ‘house money’ season for the Yankees. Given the roster, expectations weren’t high; a second wildcard spot seemed like the ceiling. Of course, early season hotness blew the doors right off of that. Despite some hiccuping in June, the Yankees went into the trade deadline like buyers and came away with a much improved Major League roster and, until recently, a first place position in the AL East. Now, they sit in the first wildcard seat, controlling their own destiny. And with many games left against the first place Red Sox, the division isn’t far out of reach.

According to the FanGraphs projection mode, the Yankees have a 69.4% chance of making the playoffs. Using the season-to-date mode, their playoff chances are even higher at 79.8%. If we flip over to the Baseball Prospectus playoff odds table, they’re at 81.8%. Coupling this with the Yankees’ deadline moves and the general feeling you get, it’d be hard to call missing the playoffs anything aside from a disappointment.

If we allow ourselves some dispassion for a minute, we can rationalize a missed playoff run. Aaron Judge will have had a killer season. Gary Sanchez, too. Clint Frazier came up and held his own. Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery will have taken huge steps forward. Didi Gregorius, too. With Sonny Gray aboard, the rotation for 2018 feels a lot better than it did even a month ago. Those are all great things for the Yankees in 2017 and 2018, regardless of this year’s record.

But dispassionate analysis is for the offseason. Right now, we’re in the heat of things, quite literally as August marches on. I want this team to make the playoffs. This team can and should make the playoffs. They’ve worked hard and gone through some rough patches and ‘deserve’ to have that rewarded with a real shot at number 28. The rotation and bullpen are stacked for a playoff run and they could do some real damage in a short series, especially if the bats heat back up to support them.

Another important factor of teaching is holding students to high expectations, or at the very least, adjusting those expectations as they perform. The Yankees have performed above and beyond their original expectations for 2017 and it’s time to ask more of them. Play today. Win today. That’s it.

Detailing Didi’s Dingers

(Getty)
(Getty)

There are few players in baseball who make it as easy to root for them as Didi Gregorius does. Rare is the time when he doesn’t have a smile on his face; his post-Aaron Judge home run antics with Ronald Torreyes are (almost) just as fun as the prodigious homers; his post-victory tweets are must-see material after a Yankee win. To top that all off, he’s become a great player on the field, having a career year after he just had one last year. Didi is on pace to post career highs in pretty much everything at the plate and has maintained great defense at short, even after missing the first month of the season.

A big part of Didi’s offensive emergence in the last two seasons has been the home run. Last year, he hit 20. This year, he’s already at 16 and all three projection systems at his FanGraphs page see him hitting seven more this year, which would leave him with 23, a new career high. This, like the rest of his game since arriving in the Bronx, really, is a justification for the trade that brought him here. He’s a lefty swinger who showed brief flashes of power in the minors and majors, which seems like a perfect fit for Yankee Stadium. For all the reasons listed above–both on-field and off–Didi’s proven that right.

For the last two years, Didi has had an average home run distance of 373 feet. This year, that is the fourth shortest homer distance among players with at least 190 batted ball events. Last year, that mark was in the bottom 10 of the league with the same qualifier. Using HitTracker, 14 of Didi’s home runs between 2016 and 2017 have been labeled as just enough or lucky. Didi’s ISO at home the last two years is .199, compared to .166 Those signs seem to point to a guy taking advantage of a short porch in his home field. However if we dive a little deeper, we see that isn’t quite the case.

Of the seven just enough/lucky homers of 2017, only two of them have taken place at Yankee Stadium. He had, similarly, seven just enough/lucky homers in 2016. Again, just two of them took place in Yankee Stadium. Since this power surge started last year, Didi has 36 home runs split evenly between home games and away games, 18 apiece. While there’s a bit of a power boost at home–as evidenced by the ISO difference–it’s only partially fueled by the home runs.

Whatever Didi has been doing the last two years is working. He’s emerged as a top shortstop in the American League and that has made the trade to bring him here look more and more like a great steal with each passing day. A player like him is an absolute blessing to have on the team and I look forward to rooting for him for the rest of his time in pinstripes, which is hopefully a long, long time.

Why Isn’t Clint Frazier Walking?

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The emergence of Clint Frazier as one of the Yankees’ best outfielders this year is a microcosm of the Yankees’ 2017 in general. We expected steps forward for the Yankees, but not necessarily in terms of winning games; rather, we expected them to forward the development of young players at the Major League level — like Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, and Luis Severino — while fostering the same thing in minor leaguers like Gleyber Torres and, of course, Frazier. And for Frazier, we expected him to be with the big club, but not until late in this year at the earliest. Instead, somewhat like his team and organization itself, he jumped those expectations and arrived earlier than the schedule originally intended.

Following Tuesday night’s action against the Reds, Frazier is hitting .277/.284/.569 with a .347 wOBA (117 wRC+). Of his 18 hits, 11 have gone for extra bases. As Katie pointed out on Twitter, that’s just two fewer XBH than Jacoby Ellsbury has in 137 fewer at bats. The good ol’ eye test also tells us that Clint stings the hell out of the ball, thanks to his incredibly quick hands that generate great bat speed; the numbers back that up, too. Among players with at least 40 batted ball events, Frazier ranks 28th in the majors, with an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH. The only wrinkle in Clint’s game, it seems, has been a lack of walks (one in 67 plate appearances). It’s not as if that’s gotten in the way of his production, but it’s still curious.

Aside from his 30-game stretch at AAA last year, split between the Yankees and Cleveland’s organization, Frazier has always tallied respectable walk rates in the minors. His 2013 stint in rookie ball — and the aforementioned 2016 AAA stint — is the only time he failed to put up a double digit walk rate; even then, it was 8.7%. We could definitely chalk it up to armchair psychological factors: rookie jitters, wanting to impress, the feeling of needing to hit instead of walk to earn a spot on the team. Clint’s not necessarily going up there hacking, though. He’s seeing 3.96 pitches per plate appearance and, again with the eye test, does seem to have a plan when he’s up at the plate. There are numbers, aside from P/PA, to back this up as well.

If we look over Frazier’s swing data from FanGraphs, the first thing we notice is a low out-of-zone swing rate of 21.7%. The league average is usually around 30ish, so that’s great. In terms of pitches in the zone, he’s swinging at 71.5% of those pitches, compared to the average of around 67%. A low O-Swing% and a high Z-Swing% would seem to point to a lot of walks, but that’s not the case here. Perhaps, then, the answer can be found in the fact that Frazier sees more pitches in the zone — 54.4% — than the league average of around 45%. Given that number and his high in-zone swing rate, it’s a bit easier to see why Frazier isn’t taking his walks. Take a look at his heat map, also from FanGraphs:

clint-frazier-heat-map

 

Look at all that red in the zone, especially in the middle portion. Pitchers are pounding him there and he’s taking advantage by swinging. Additionally, pitchers are throwing lots of fastballs to Clint. Per Brooks, 196 of the 252 pitches he’s seen have been fastballs. Lots of fastballs. Lots of in the zone pitches. A hitter with remarkably quick hands. This isn’t too hard to figure out.

As the league adjusts to Frazier, I image he’s going to see more pitches out of the zone and more pitches with some wrinkles to them. Given he’s done so in the minors and does seem to have a good approach at the plate, I think we’ll see him laying off more pitches and taking his walks. Until then, let’s enjoy his bat and rejoice that he’s taken the “singles are for the weak” approach to hitting.

The Yankees still live in the past even when focused on the future

Frazier. (Justin K. Aller/Getty)
(Justin K. Aller/Getty)

We live in a world in which the corporate culture is, as always, dominated by brands. In terms of sports, the Yankees are arguably the most famous and valuable brand out there, at least on this side of the Atlantic. At this point, the Yankees have built that brand on a tradition of winning and a tradition of, well, tradition itself. In the past few weeks, that idea has manifested itself in a bunch of frustrating ways.

Most recently, there was the manufactured controversy of new acquisition Todd Frazier‘s number of choice. For his entire Major League career–up until this past week, of course–Frazier had worn the number 21. Now he’s wearing number 29. Why? Because of the past. Paul O’Neill’s 21 has gone unworn–save for by Latroy Hawkins and Morgan Ensberg, briefly–thanks to some limbo the Yankees are playing. They won’t retire it, but they won’t issue it. This is beyond silly. I saw a lot of fan reaction in support of Frazier NOT wearing the number because he’s not Paul O’Neill, he’s not “The Warrior” and he hasn’t “earned his pinstripes.” This is hogwash. You now how Todd Frazier earned his stripes? By being traded to the Yankees. He doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone; he’s done that over his career. If wearing a number makes him more comfortable at the plate, in the field, in the clubhouse, wherever, whenever, then he should be allowed to wear that number. Stop living in the past if you’re not going to retire the number 21.

First, let’s praise Clint Frazier for picking 77 as a great troll move. Yes, he gave the reason that he liked the way 77 balanced Aaron Judge‘s 99 in right, but it’s easy to see that Clint is having a little fun with his number controversy–also fake–from earlier in the year. Second, we got word that when Aaron Hicks returns from the disabled list, he’ll be going down. If this happens, that’s a mistake. Big time. Frazier is clearly one of the three best outfielders on the team, and will likely to continue to be when Hicks comes back; even then, he’s one of the four best and should get every day at bats. Sending him down, even for a brief time, would be ill-advised and really only serve to placate Ellsbury.  Granted Hicks is still a ways away from coming back, but if Frazier is sent down in late August or early September, those are crucial games he’ll be missing with a lesser player getting his at bats. This would betray not only the future in depriving Frazier of developmental at bats, but also the present in that it would actively hurt the Yankees’ chances at the playoffs.

With Starlin Castro now on the DL–again–the Yankees need to think of the future once again: play Tyler Wade every day. He’s up here, he might as well play. Ronald Torreyes is NOT an every day player. Running him out at second will hurt the team in the present. Wade didn’t show too well at the plate in his first cup of coffee, but he deserves to play, since he, unlike Torreyes, has the potential to be a future starter. He should–at the least–play against right handed pitching.

The Yankee organization has done well to market this year around their young stars like Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Luis Severino. They need now to make a full commitment to that future, because those players–as well as Frazier, Wade, and even the regrettably absent Greg Bird–are the brightest parts of the current team and the signs of things to come. Living in the past by deferring to tradition and veterans serves a losing cause.

Cause for Concern

(Adam Glanzman/Getty)
(Adam Glanzman/Getty)

Ever since 2013, expectations for the Yankees have been ratcheted down in preseason discussion. Their roster construction from then on limited their outlook to wildcard contenders rather than division favorites, as they’d been for the 15-20 years before then, excepting 2008 (a brief digression: The ’08 Yankees won 89 games despite getting 30 starts from the combination of Darrel Rasner and Sidney Ponson; that’s incredible).

While spectacular–or even good–results were hard to count on, one thing was pretty sure: the Yankees would have a good bullpen. It helps when your relief corps is led by Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman over the last 20 or so years, but after that, whether it was Joe Girardi pushing the right buttons, the team cycling through and replacing options quickly and efficiently, some combination of those things, or bullpen fairy dust, the Yankees always did well in relief. This year, things have not followed that pattern.

Before the All Star Break, Betances and Tyler Clippard had well-publicized meltdowns. It seemed just about every reliever was taking his turn in coughing up winnable games for the Bombers during their futile June and early July. Things came to a head on Friday night in Boston when Chapman blew a save in grand fashion, walking in the winning run after experiencing some combination of bad luck and bad performance, a bit of a microcosm of his season.

From certain angles, things look good for Chapman. He hasn’t allowed a home run all year. His K/9 is in line with his career norm. He’s got a 1.66 FIP. Then there’s the weird stuff. His ERA is sky high (for him) at 3.74. His strikeout percentage is down to 34.3 (which is still good!), way off from the 42.1% mark he’s had for his career; he hasn’t been under 40% since 2011. His strand rate–normally around 80%–is at 67.7%. His BABIP is .415, which seems insane for a guy who throws that hard (and has a career BABIP of .290).

That strand rate seems odd to me, so I checked out his splits with runners on and it turns out his K% is “only” 30%. It hasn’t been that low since 2011. Batters are hitting .277 against him when they’ve never hit over .186 in those situations. He also seems to be allowing much more hard contact and much less soft contact in those situations. That and the BABIP suggest a lot of flukiness in the runs he’s given up–excluding, of course, that awful walk to Andrew Benintendi on Friday night.

The underlying data, though, suggest some reasons to be concerned. Let’s start with velocity, which is an odd place to start considering how hard Chapman throws. This year, he’s hucking fastballs at a ridiculous 100.08 MPH on average; that’s absurd. Human beings shouldn’t be able to do that. What’s crazy is that it’s actually down a full MPH from the 101.08 mark he averaged in 2016. There are explanations–playoff hangover, time on the DL this year–but any time you see a drop like that, it’s a bit iffy. The tables also show that Chapman is getting slightly less horizontal movement on his slider this year than he was last year; Friday, he threw only fastballs in his outing, which seemed odd. More odd was that of 23 pitches, Chapman got just one swing and miss.

2017 has seen big drops in whiff/swing rate on Chapman’s pitches over where they were in 2016 and that is scary for any pitcher, especially one who’s going to be in big leverage spots. This helps explain the above trouble with runners on, too; if guys aren’t whiffing, they’re making more contact and they’re gonna get more hits and they’re gonna score more runs, etc. Indeed, Chapman’s contact rates are up, and have been trending in the wrong direction for a few years now. The only ‘comfort’ is that the jumps this year are so extreme that they should even out towards his career norms at some point (right?).

The first year of Chapman’s five year deal has been fraught with a lot of things, including frustration that the deal is even a thing. Now, there’s been a mix of injury, worse-than-normal performance, and a little bit of negative flukiness. There’s nothing we can do as fans but sit and wait for an adjustment. It’s in the hands of Chapman and the staff to make that adjustment. If there isn’t one to be made, though, and this is a sign of things to come, this may be a long, long five years.

Selling Points

brian-cashman-deadline
(Getty)

What a difference a month makes, huh? Through June and early July, the Yankees have suffered both injuries and insults–mostly in the form of bullpen meltdowns–on their way out of first place in the AL East. Still, they’re in playoff position as they lead in the wildcard spot, which is of comfort; they are also within striking distance of the now first place Red Sox with plenty of baseball left to play. In a vacuum, this team would be in buy-like-crazy mode, especially given the problems its had at first base all year and the bullpen recently, not to mention the rotation. Like always, though, there isn’t a vacuum and there’s a big mitigating factor at play.

This success–however tempered by the last five weeks or so–is unexpected. 2017 was not the year the Yankees were supposed to compete for anything more than a shot at the second wildcard. Now, the playoffs seem a real possibility. While that’s great for obvious reasons, it does somewhat betray the long term plan the organization had going into this year. Once again, the team will have to strike the delicate balance that defines the Yankees: win now AND later. They’re finally set up to do the latter more than the former, but they’ve also managed to do the former.

How the Yankees could buy is obvious. By all accounts, their farm system is–at worst–top five in the league. Even with Gleyber Torres injured, they have a blend of depth and upside in the minors that is (likely) the envy of many around baseball. Should they choose to, the Yankees could deal from a position of strength and depth by upgrading the major league roster at the expense of the minor league one.

But what happens if the Yankees continue to slip? It’s not likely as they’ll soon have players like Starlin Castro and Matt Holliday rejoining them from the disabled list, but let’s play what if. What if the Yankees find themselves in a position to sell again? Ask this a month ago–which was unthinkable at the time, really–and things would’ve seemed a lot better. Despite that, the Yankees do have some valuable pieces they could auction off.

The cons of trading all of these players are obvious–the Yankees need them for the stretch run. Each may have his own reasons, too, but that’s the overarching one.

First up are those two who’ll be returning: Matt Holliday and Starlin Castro. Both have obvious value as bats in any lineup, especially contending ones. Holliday, though, would likely be limited to AL teams. As for Castro, many might recognize this as the absolute top of his market–despite the injury–and avoid paying said cost.

Tyler Clippard would be next, but he completely demolished his own value over the last month plus, pitching like someone who hardly belongs in the big leagues.

Then there’s the real wildcard, Masahiro Tanaka. While he was shaky to start the year, that’s clearly atypical of him; he’s proven his mettle and worth over the last three plus seasons and on talent alone, he’s probably the Yankees’ best Major League trade piece not named Judge, Sanchez, or Frazier. But with his opt out, his trade value is diminished. No one likes uncertainty.

In all likelihood, the Yankees will not be sellers at this deadline. They’re going to be close and they’re going to owe it to their players to give an honest shot at things, even if this is ahead of schedule. If they’re lucky, they can maybe pull off the best of both worlds: improve the major league team by dealing prospects and selling off a major league piece to help replenish the minor league depth. That’s probably a pipe dream, but this season has sort of been one itself, hasn’t it?