The New Yankee Ace [2017 Season Review]

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

Luis Severino was a highly-touted prospect coming up to the bigs. He had the stuff, could throw strikes, had youth, etc. However, there always were question marks following him (size, durability concerns and delivery, mostly). His solid 2015 showing was encouraging, but in 2016, Severino put many in doubt by putting up a 5.83 ERA in 22 appearances (with an ugly 8.50 ERA in 11 starts as a starter). Some felt that his long-term destination is in bullpen due to his flaws taking over his performance.

However, the Yankees were not just going to give up their starting pitcher plans for a 23-year-old. Severino entered 2017 as one of the candidates for the last spots of the rotation. He went out, showed some marked improvement in Spring Training, and earned a spot. As you know, since then, he never looked back. He put up one of the best seasons… ever… by a young starter in an illustrious Yankees history.

The full-season dominance

Severino made his first start of the season on April 7 versus the O’s. He went 5 innings, allowed 4 earned runs but walked 1 and struck out 6. Okay, okay. Not the best outcome but there were encouraging things. The next start, he struck out 11 in 7 IP while allowing 2 runs against the Rays. He followed it up with a strong losing effort vs. the White Sox (8 IP, 3 ER, 10 K). And we gradually started to think this: is this for real?

As we know, the answer was a resounding yes. Severino became a very reliable starter in the first half (3.54 ERA in 17 games with 124 K/27 BB in 106.2 IP) and earned the AL All-Star honors. Not so bad for a guy who had to make trips to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last year, right? In the second half, however, he bulldozed through the hitters: 2.28 ERA in 14 starts with 106 strikeouts and 24 walks in 86.2 IP. To be a bit more specific, after the first ten starts of the season, Severino was just on the next level. Look at this graph and marvel at how consistent and reliable he was after around the tenth start of the season. His season FIP stayed right around 3.00 for the most of it:

luis-severino-era-fip

It is remarkable for any pitcher to be able to accomplish this, especially pitching at the Yankee Stadium for half of the season.  To me, he basically had a season that we all envisioned guys like Joba Chamberlain or Michael Pineda having back they were much more promising.

How good was Luis Severino’s season in context of the Yankee history? Well, let’s take a look at Sevvy’s total season numbers:

14-6, 2.98 ERA, 31 GS, 193.1 IP, 150 H, 21 HR, 51 BB, 230 K

We’ll get some help from the Baseball Reference Play Index here. How many Yankee starters in the history had an ERA lower than 3.00 while throwing more than 175 innings and striking out at least 200 in a season?

  • 1904 Jack Powell
  • 1904 Jack Chesbro
  • 1910 Russ Ford
  • 1978 Ron Guidry
  • 1979 Ron Guidry
  • 1992 Melido Perez
  • 1997 David Cone
  • 2011 CC Sabathia
  • 2017 Luis Severino

Alright, alright. That’s a pretty great company Sevy’s associated with. Take out the Dead Ball Era guys and the group is even more exclusive. Now, how many of those guys were not yet 25-years old in those seasons?

  • 2017 Luis Severino

That’s it. Severino was also the only starter under 25 in all of ML in 2017 to accomplish the feat. In 2016, it was Jose Fernandez and Noah Syndergaard. 2015? Madison Bumgarner and Gerrit Cole.

Basically, in 2017, the Yankee fans got to witness not only one of the greatest seasons put up by a young Yankee starter, but also a young ML starter in 2017.

Baby’s first postseason

With the Yankees pretty much destined to take the first AL Wild Card spot, the team brass started to monitor Severino’s workload to get him prepared for the Game 163 versus the Twins. Start your best starter in a winner-take-all game, right? No one refuted that logic but things just didn’t work out for Sevy. He overthrew, missed his spots and failed to go beyond recording one out in his Wild Card Game start (0.1 IP, 4 H, 3 ER, 2 HRs) – by far his worst showing in 2017, especially given the circumstances! Fortunately for the Yankees, they pounced on Ervin Santana and the Twins bullpen to advance to the ALDS, but Severino, once again, had questions from detractors. Can he handle the bigger spotlight? Are the innings catching up to his arm?

Fortunately for the Yanks, Severino rebounded in the ALDS. In Game 4, with the Yankees down 2-1 in the best-of-five series, the team needed a win to force the Game 5 and he pitched to a tune of 3 ERs in 7 IP with 9 strikeouts and a walk against the dangerous Indians lineup. It also helped that the hitters absolutely jumped on Trevor Bauer, but Severino did his part to keep the Indians bat in check.

Against the Astros though, things were a bit dicier. Severino started the Game 2 of the ALCS and lasted only four innings after exiting with a shoulder issue. He insisted that he was fine and wanted to pitch more, but what kind of chance can you take with a young starter whose workload increased steeply this year? Joe Girardi pulled him out of the game and the Yankees suffered a walk-off loss. Later in the series, in the Game 6, Severino was back out against the Minute Maid Park for a rematch against Justin Verlander. It went less than stellar – 4.2 IP, 3 ER, 4 BB, 3 K and a loss. The Yankees dropped the game and, later, the series.

Severino finished his first postseason with a 5.63 ERA in 4 starts. I would not point much finger at him though. It is a lot to ask any pitcher to go out and dominate the Indians and Astros lineups (oh, and the Twins too, they were No. 6 in all MLB in the team wRC+). A guy like Severino will definitely see a plenty of playoff actions in his career and this could be a valuable learning experience.

With a little help from our former enemy

So how did Severino transform from a fifth starter candidate to No. 3 in AL Cy Young voting? A popular narrative regarding his improvement is that he worked with none other than Pedro Martinez over the offseason to tweak the mechanics. When I talked to Severino, he told me that what Martinez taught him was nothing more than a simple adjustment.

“You know, the thing was that (last year), I was starting with my hands right here,” Severino told the Sporting News, as he emulated his old hand position. Severino held his hands a bit away from his torso, as you can see below from a game from last year:

giphy

“(Martinez) told me to keep my hands closer to my body and just go over my pitches,” Severino said as he brought his hands nearer to his torso. You can see the change in the gif below:

giphy-1

By starting the delivery with his hands closer to the body, there is less movement for his arm to get to the high-cocked position, simplifying the process.

Simple enough, right? Well, don’t attribute everything to this one weird trick. Severino also worked hard over the offseason to work on his changeup. In my opinion, the changeup is the most underrated pitch. It is not the sexiest but it helps with what pitching is supposed to be, which is upsetting hitter’s timing. Severino increased his changeup usage from 9.8% in 2016 to 13.6% in 2017. While fastball and slider are his bread and butter, having a changeup that he can throw in any count makes you a more formidable being on mound.

If you want to know what #shoving looks like, here are all the pitches thrown by Severino in his June 10 start vs. the Orioles.

2018 Outlook

Unlike how it was back in February, Severino will have a spot locked hard in the Yankee rotation, and many hope that would be the case for a long, long time. Assuming he stays healthy and can maintain the 2017 excellence… man, the Yankees have an absolute gem.

The Aaron Boone hiring shows Cashman’s priority in the manager search

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

The New York Yankees will hire their former player and ESPN analyst Aaron Boone to manage the team 2018 and beyond. While the Yankees bringing in a new skipper is a big story in itself, the selection of Boone seems to be a bigger one. There are a lot of questions that people are asking but this is the main one: why Boone over more experienced candidates (or non-candidates)?  Why take a risk on a newcomer in managing?

The manager interview group featured names of diverse experience backgrounds. We got Aaron Boone, who does not have any managing or coaching experience and had been an ESPN analyst since 2010. There was Hensley Meulens, who has been coaching since 2003 and earned three World Series rings with the Giants (and also the Kingdom of Netherlands WBC team). Eric Wedge previously managed the Indians and Mariners. Rob Thomson was a loyal soldier of the Yanks for 28 years and was most recently the team’s bench coach. Chris Woodward has been coaching since 2012 and is currently the Dodgers’ third base coach. And, of course, Carlos Beltran just wrapped up his prolific career so he joined Boone as a candidate who does not have any coaching or managing experience.

While coaching experience is a nice — and many would say essential — asset for managerial candidates, based on these names that the Yankees interviewed, it was not a big priority to Cashman.

While most of us don’t know Boone personally, there is information out there that paint a portion of him as a person First, he is well-liked. Many who know him raved about the hiring once it was announced. He is supposedly a great communicator and that might have been one of the major reasons why Cashman wanted to interview him. This article by Hal McCoy of the Dayton Daily News shows how well he delivers the message to others. It is an incredible story:

Back in 2003, due to strokes in both my optic nerves, I became legally blind and considered retiring for good…Corsoe, though, convinced me to give spring training a try and I agreed. The first day I walked into the Reds clubhouse in Sarasota, I stood at the door and looked around.

Everything was dark and fuzzy. Faces were blurred. I didn’t recognize players who I had known for years. Boone noticed me standing at the door with a perplexed look on my face.

He approached me and asked, “What’s wrong?” I told him what had happened, that I was legally blind, and that he probably wouldn’t see me again, that I was going home, I was about to quit.

He grabbed me by my elbow and led me to his locker stool, pointed to it and said, “Sit down.” I sat. And Boone said, “I don’t ever want to hear you saw the word quit again. You love what you do and you are good at it. Everybody in this room will help you when you need it.”

That’s the kind of communicator he is, the kind of passionate and compassionate person he is. Writers and players are water and oil. They don’t often mix. And I wrote my share of critical things about Boone. But he took the time to change a writer’s life, to save a career.

It may be one anecdote but it is also incredible, isn’t it? One story isn’t everything but many have acclaimed Boone for his ability to communicate and connect with others, which is a huge leadership skill.  Cashman stated that the main reason why he did not bring Girardi back is because of his inability to communicate well with younger players.

Whether that’s valid or not, it seems like Cashman felt he found someone who can connect with the clubhouse well. When asked about what he looked for in the next manager, Cashman said “There’s no perfect person that checks every box … (Communication is) one attribute of many. Some have more weight that others … (We want someone) who’s willing to push back and have open discourse … I’m looking for the right person regardless of age.” Take that for what you will.

Other things? I would think it helps that Boone is experienced with media. Being a Yankee manager is a whole different animal because of all the media attention and scrutiny that one faces on daily basis. Lastly, we know that Boone was pretty much born, raised and lived with baseball his whole life. We’re not talking about your neighbor Brad who played in high school JV team and now has a part-time job teaching kids how to swing. Boone is a third generation MLB’er whose older brother, Bret, also played for an extensive amount of time. Here’s a good read on that aspect. I’m willing to bet that, for what he lacked in coaching experience, he backed himself up with baseball smarts that’s been ingrained in his head for a long time.

Besides that, what other factors are out there?  Qualifying managerial candidates are tricky. Guys like Meulens, Woodward, Beltran, etc. were given an interview because they also were known to have skills that Cashman looked for in the next Yankee manager. But what pushed Boone to the top?

For baseball players, you can evaluate a good amount of skills by watching them on the field. Coaches and managers? You gotta dig deeper, especially into their mind. The manager is not a flashy job. Acquiring Beltran as a player would be much more exciting than Boone as a player, but that’s not how it works this time. A frustrating part of the past few weeks for the fans is that they are not given much detailed description of the candidates’ skills – because how do you even write out a “manager candidate scouting report” a la the players’ ones?

The people that get to know the best fit to the organizations are the ones that interviewed them (in this case, probably Brian Cashman) and that is all the public is given. And, from what we know, it was an intense, grueling 5-6 hour-long interview that covered many aspects.

We all know that not everything Cashman touches turns to gold. This move comes with risk and a guy like Boone will be tested by well-tenured opposing managers during games. At the same time, we all know that Cashman’s moves have revived the franchise into heavy playoff favorites for years to come – not to mention that he has the experience of running this franchise for almost 20 years. While it does not validate hiring Boone a hundred percent, the recent success gives him a bigger credibility in making crucial moves like this. Right now, this is the gist: Cashman is a smart guy who knew what he was looking for – and probably had the most access of the managerial candidate information.

The Boone hire, as it goes for many other baseball moves, is not foolproof. At this point, we don’t know how the Aaron Boone era of the Yankees history will go. Brian Cashman, who now seems to have more authority on team decisions than he’s ever had, made the call. How it unfolds, your guess is as good as mine.

Thoughts on the Yankees’ pursuit on Shohei Ohtani

(Getty)
(Getty)

The offseason is in full swing. The other day, Shohei Ohtani’s NPB team the Nippon Ham Fighters announced that they will post their two-way player/phenom to the Major Leagues.

Ohtani will be a special case. You know the deal. He is uber-talented on both sides of the ball and has the potential to be great as a pitcher and hitter in the MLB. Because of his skills, marketability, etc. the Yankees are expected to go hard after him and many experts have predicted Ohtani will head to Bronx. Wouldn’t it be nice?

However, even if the Yankees are objectively favored to be his destination, many things have to go right in order for the marriage to happen. And even if things work out, there are question marks that will only be answered by time. Here are few thoughts on things to be addressed assuming Ohtani gets successfully posted and the Yankees are in strong contention for him (duh).

1. Could the two-way talent become a sweet poison?

The skills Ohtani has shown as a 23-year old are insane. 2017 was a down season because of his injuries, but take a look at how well he did in 2016, his MVP season. As a pitcher, he went 10-4, 1.86 ERA with 174 K/45 BB in 140 IP while allowing only 4 home runs (!). As a matter of fact, he hit way more than that. On the plate, he hit .322/.416/.588 (1.004 OPS) with 22 HRs (41 extra-base hits) in 323 AB’s. For a player to excel like that on both sides of the ball is utterly insane. Again, we’re not talking about a guy who just merely helped the team out. He was a superstar on both facets of the game. The Fighters had a Corey Kluber and Freddie Freeman morphed into one player.

Now, it’s no secret that Ohtani wants to continue being a two-way guy in the MLB. He certainly has the potential and tools to be very good at both. Because Ohtani has been seen as a special talent since he was drafted by Nippon Ham, the team took care of him quite differently than other NPB players. Having to practice and play two different positions can take a toll on body. In the NPB, Ohtani was a weekly starting pitcher and hit DH two or three times a week. From 2014-16, he racked up more than 140 IP each season and from 2013-2017, he had more than 200 plate appearances in every season but one.

I don’t know how much that workload contributed to his injury troubles in 2017, but he started out this season with a thigh injury and recently, he underwent an ankle surgery (but is expected to be ready for the Spring Training). Now, it’s not great when you hear a 23-year-old get hampered by lower body issues. You just hope that they don’t turn into something long-term. Though he should be 100% and ready to go come Spring Training, these injuries at this stage of his career should serve as a cautionary guideline on how to handle him going forward.

2. How much would a team be willing to work around him?

This is something that will probably be talked about on and off for years. Never in recent ML history has a team had to adjust their roster and usage based on one player. Ohtani – and whichever club that would acquire him – could be a pioneer in something a bit more complicated.

I think this will play a big part in how a team can sell themselves to Ohtani. Remember, the initial contract is not a huge factor in signing him. He will choose a team that is the best fit for him and that club would most likely tell him that they will do this and that to accommodate his playing interests.

Let’s go back to the injury aspect though. It is worth noting that an ankle trouble for someone at Ohtani’s age is troubling – especially considering that he pitches and bats. Both of those activities require a lot of use of lower body (as does athletics in general) and it’s conceivable that the stress of all those motions have caught up to Ohtani’s ankle and caused him to miss the 2017 World Baseball Classic and beyond. It is quite possible that his lower body troubles don’t suddenly end after the surgery he went through. It is reasonable for teams to feat that Ohtani’s ankle problem could reoccur later on and bring that up to him when proposing their plan.

The concern doesn’t end at his ankle either. There’s also the pitching workload. Typically, Ohtani’s had to pitch only once a week with 6 days of rest. In the MLB, starting pitchers get four or five days of rest before they go back to the hill. If a team wants to accommodate Ohtani’s two-way wishes, it means that they have to give him a good amount of rest time in between his starts AND have to find time for him to hit. That is a lot of physical demand, especially in 162 games (an NPB season lasts 146 games, with every Mondays off). That tells me that, if a team wants to keep Ohtani healthy and have him pitch and hit, they would have to run the roster a bit unorthodox than other teams. It will lead to some headaches, I would imagine.

For what it’s worth, that will make it much harder for NL teams to pursue him. If they promise him a hitting gig, it would mean that he has to go out and field. Being a pitcher and DH can be strenuous enough but pitch + hit + field? Lordy.

3. Prospect

Let’s take a different look at Ohtani – him as a prospect instead of a guy who’s expected to produce big time right away. He may not dominate right away in the majors. He is young, he just came off a season hobbled with injuries, and he will have to get acclimated to a whole other league. However, a healthy Ohtani could be as nasty as anyone. I’m sure you’ve seen a share of Ohtani pitching videos by now, but here’s a reminder of how deadly he can be:

Ohtani will be 23-years old on the 2018 Opening Day. That’s the age where a lot of young ML players either reach the show or start settling in. Aaron Judge reached to the bigs at age 24, for instance. Ohtani can grow more by getting ML experience, which is an exciting thought.

Now, what am I trying to say? I’m saying that you can see him as an exciting potential ML’er that can make an impact right away but can improve significantly after a few seasons. Now, it’s also reasonable to expect some growing/adjustment pains as well. It would be neat if he performs like a superstar from the game one, but it’s never easy to just come over to a different league and do that.

As exciting as he is, Ohtani does come with certain flaws. For instance, he struck out for a 27.3% clip at the plate in 2017. That number would most likely increase in the MLB. Also as mentioned, there are question marks with his health, which certainly impacted his pitching performance in ’17 (19 walks allowed in 25.1 IP). The greatness might not come right away and, frankly, it doesn’t have to. It’s perfectly normal for guy like him to take some time to blossom in the MLB.

Ohtani has already put his skills and potential into action in the NPB with monstrous performances. All that needs to happen – much easier said than done – is for him to do the same in the MLB. Ohtani has the potential to be a big part of the core of a team’s future. Think of how much the Yanks are counting on guys like Judge, Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino, etc. going forward. Ohtani could be one of them.

4. Are the Yankees going to get him anyways?

The Yankees have their share of history bringing in Japanese talents. Because of that, it’s easy to assume that they are one of the very likely destinations for Ohtani. In their recent history, the Yanks went all-out to convince Masahiro Tanaka to sign with the team with video presentations, etc. I’m sure they’ll do at least the similar for Ohtani as well.

However, you never know what goes behind the curtains. Ohtani would not cost a lot of money for any team thanks to the CBA rule, which means, hypothetically, a small-market club like the Rays could sign him without financial hitch if they somehow can appeal to him. Remember, the big factor to signing him is how much a club can sell themselves to him. The Yankees are obviously very charming but so are many other clubs. One thing that goes well for them and other AL clubs is that Ohtani wants to hit and they can plug him in a DH role regularly. Good luck to NL teams trying to get him convincing him that he can try to hit regularly without having him to field.

On a personal note – I remember the Daisuke Matsuzaka saga in the winter of 2006. The rumored posting fee to get to talk to him was $25 million and it seemed a lot at the time. The Yankees were interested and, of course, that was around the amount that they bid to the Saitama Seibu Lions. However, the Red Sox blew everyone out of the water by giving an unprecedented $50 million bid. That was shocking to many. And sure, the Matsuzaka and Ohtani situations are quite different, but my point here is that anything could happen when all 30 MLB teams are in play.

This Ohtani situation is something truly unique. Whatever happens and however he pans out as a player, it’s a good bet that the next month or two will be talked about for a long, long time.

The outlook for the upcoming ALCS games

(Corey Perrine/Getty Images)
(Corey Perrine/Getty Images)

Alright, we’ve seen this before. Down 2-1 in the series but a win tonight would tie it up. Gotta win few more games in a row from here on, right? Well, the Yankees could do that (again), but if only it were that simple. Winning three against a team like the Indians after being down 2-0 is pretty incredible. Asking for another similar task against the Astros… well, this team is certainly capable of it. We just don’t know the odds.

Game Four begins soon and I have some thoughts about the outlook going forward.

1. Lance McCullers Jr., eh?

I was fully expecting the Astros to go with Brad Peacock as the Game 4 starter (or Dallas Keuchel on a short rest) but they went with Lance McCullers Jr. instead. That is… an interesting decision.

McCullers had an up-and-down year. He had a great first-half (7-2, 3.05 ERA) that got him an All-Star nod. However, his second half was marred by a back injury and his performance was, well, not great (0-2, 8.23 ERA in 6 starts). For what it’s worth, he pitched in relief in the Game 3 of the ALDS versus Red Sox and went 3 IP, 2 ER while walking 2 and striking out 4. Eh. I don’t know if that would assure me enough to rely a postseason start on him.

The upside in McCullers Jr. is clear though. As mentioned, he was an All-Star this season and has been garnering attention as one of the best up-and-coming young pitchers in the MLB for awhile. If his health is fine and he can turn the right buttons perchance, he can dominate. It should be noted that McCullers has one of the nastiest curveballs in the game and dude throws it a lot (47.4% of his pitches in 2017) – like, more frequently than his fastball (40.4%). It will be interesting how that could give fits to guys like Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez, who have struggled with laying off the breaking ball in this postseason. The current Yankee roster hitters have hit only .241/.290/.310 cumulatively against him, which is not great. However, that does not mean a lot when predicting a one-game outcome. If McCullers can’t bring his A-game tonight, the Yankees could very well hit him.

All things considered, the decision to start McCullers Jr. is fascinating. It’s a bit of an unknown factor for now. I would not be surprised if they only have him out for three to four innings and put in Brad Peacock to absorb more.

2. The Astros starters after Game 4?

At first, I was wondering if there was a chance that the Astros could start Peacock on the Game 5 instead of Keuchel but 1) they probably want to start Keuchel on the normal rest 2) Keuchel has owned the Yankees, you know that. The goal for either team is not get to the Game 7 – it’s to end the series with a win as soon as possible. It does not matter for Keuchel whether he’s pitching in Minute Maid Park or Yankee Stadium – the lefty has a measly .446 OPS allowed at YS3 in his career. Yeesh.

I think Peacock would be a bullpen guy for Game 4 if McCullers Jr. departs early. In case you were wondering, Peacock had a breakout 2017 season. The Houston pitching coach Brent Strom has a reputation of working wonders on talented arms. The righty went 13-2, 3.00 ERA while striking out 10.98 batters per 9 innings pitched. He also went back forth between rotation and bullpen so it would make sense to ask him to absorb multiple innings if McCullers doesn’t work out.

If the series goes back to Houston, Game 6 would most definitely feature Justin Verlander. He started after Keuchel and dominated the Yankees in Game 2. What will be interesting, however, is if the series goes to Game 7. Do the Astros start Charlie Morton again? He flashed electric stuff last night but this industry is about the results – Morton allowed 7 ER in 3.2 IP and took the loss. I can see them give a nod to Collin McHugh, who pitched 4 scoreless last night in long relief and has a 3.55 ERA in 12 starts in the regular season. However, just like the Yankees, I’d expect the Astros to be ready to empty the tank on bullpen if they need to. Well, we’ll see if the series goes to that extent in the first place but gosh, that would be some drama.

3. Sonny Gray

It is easy to forget how excellent Sonny Gray has been in his career. As a Yankee, during the regular season, he had a 3.72 ERA in 11 starts. It’s not bad but there were some peripherals that are worrying. First off, after allowing only 8 home runs in 97.0 IP with the A’s, Gray allowed 11 in 65.1 IP in the pinstripes. That’s a jump from 0.7 HR/9 IP to 1.5. He also allowed walks more frequently – 2.8 BB/9 IP in Oakland to 3.5 in New York.

However, here’s something to keep in mind. In 8 out of 11 regular season starts as a Yankee, Gray allowed 2 ERs or less. He went 6 IP or more in 6 of those starts as well. Because of recency bias (9 ER, 8 IP, 3 HRs, 9 walks in the previous two starts. Yikes), it is okay to be wary of how he will do later tonight.

Here’s a positive that could just be a small sample size thing: he was pretty great after a long rest (6 days or more) this season – only .170/.255/.295 allowed in 4 starts. What the Yankees would hope is that he’ll be out there refreshed and mentally charged for this crucial, crucial matchup. So many things could go wrong – he’s had trouble avoiding long balls with the Yankees and will be pitching in the YSIII while facing the powerful Astros lineup. However, if he throws a solid start, he can catch multiple rabbits at once by instilling more faith in him going forward and giving the Yankees a chance to win today.

Depends on how things go with the bats, I would be happy with a five inning outing with maybe 2 runs allowed from Gray. The bullpen is rested and can take it from there. Chad Green, David Robertson and Aroldis Chapman should be able to throw multiple innings – Tommy Kahnle maybe an inning or less.

4. Again with the dumb luck

Back in ALDS, I talked about how there were significantly more lucky bounces going the Indians’ way in their first two wins of series. Well, what do you know – some of it came to the Yankees’ side to help them win the series.

The first two games of the ALCS has featured an array of moments that favored Houston – not a lot of 344 feet liners turn into homers but that’s what Carlos Correa made happen. Aaron Hicks could have given Yankees a 2-0 lead in Game 2 but the ball fell right in front of the wall. Brett Gardner could have been safe at third. Gary Sanchez could have fielded Didi Gregorius‘s throw from second and tagged Jose Altuve out easily, etc. A lot of these happened from inches to few feet’s worth of difference to resulting in very different outcomes. Who knows how the series’ momentum could be by now had many more little things gone the Yankees’ way?

It’s impossible to predict or project luck. The Yankees could get bad breaks here and there and could still win the series – it just would be very hard to work around them. Make no mistake about it – the players on both teams are very skilled and that’s why they are playing for a league title in the Major League Baseball. But sometimes, luck plays that x-factor that can really separate the winners from losers – and the Yankees could, again, really use some bounces go for them the next few games. We’ll see.

Yankees 1, Astros 2: Correa’s walk off and Verlander’s gem sink the Yankees in Game Two

Um, yeah. Holy hell. What was that ending? Well, before that, the Yankee bats got completely owned by Justin Verlander for the entirety of nine innings. They did manage back-to-back doubles in the fourth to score a run but that was about it. After Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson put in a strong relief effort, the game unraveled in the ninth thanks to Jose Altuve’s extra-hustle and, uh, what Gary Sanchez did. Let’s not put the blame solely on Sanchez though. The lineup has not been… good. Not at all. Let’s recap this thing.

(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Starting pitching duel part deux

It’s Severino vs. Verlander. I don’t know of any more possible matchups that could be as exciting. Two of the best fireballers in the baseball going at each other in a high-stakes playoff game. Inject it into my veins. And, of course the first few innings lived up to that hype. Both teams were scoreless for the first three innings. Luis Severino did not record any strikeouts but outs are outs. You can’t be too picky about them in the postseason.

In the third inning, the Yankees bats came close to getting the big hits but were befallen. With one out, Chase Headley got a fastball down low and middle and drove it towards the right field fence. Normally, maybe 8 out of 10 times, that’s a home run or a double. However, Josh Reddick had it played beautifully and robbed Headley of a big hit with a jump catch. A batter later, Brett Gardner pulled a line drive down the right field line. He got to second easily and it seemed like he had a legitimate chance to reach third. However, the Astros turned a great relay from outfield to infield to make it very close at the third base. Third base umpire initially called it safe. But… was it?

bandicam-2017-10-15-06-01-56-211

Nope. Again with the game of inches! Upon replay, the umpires determined that Alex Bregman just got Gardner. That was the third out and ended the frustrating half inning for the Yankee bats.

In the bottom of the fourth, just like yesterday, the Astros struck first. With one out, Carlos Correa hit a 99 mph fastball up and away from the zone over the right field fence. Look at the location here. The fact that he hit it squarely enough for a home run is nuts:

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Or… did it actually go out? The ball bounced out of a kid’s glove right above the wall and the umpires decided to see if it’s a Jeffrey Maier situation. However, the ball was clearly going over the fence before it hit the kid’s glove. The umpires ruled it a home run and Astros took a 1-0 lead. I thought that Aaron Judge might have had a chance to make a leaping catch to rob it but he did not get back there in time – probably because that liner was scorched.

The Yankees got one back (a run!) the next inning. With two outs, Aaron Hicks squared up a 97 mph fastball up in the zone for a double. Todd Frazier followed it up with a deep flyball to left-center. In a normal ballpark, that very well could have been a home run, but instead, it got stuck in the fencing under the seats. I don’t know if that has ever happened before. The ball got stuck in there so neatly that you’d think that someone placed it by hand. The umpires ruled it a ground-rule double and that brought Hicks home for a 1-1 tie game.

Going into the bottom of the fifth, Yankees put in Tommy Kahnle to relieve Severino. Wait what? Sevy had thrown only 62 pitches but he was hit by Yulieski Gurriel’s comebacker in the fourth. If there’s any bright spot, he was hit on the non-throwing arm wrist. Also, prior to that, Girardi visited the mound after a pitch sailed way outside. Fortunately, Severino was only removed as a precaution. They would rather have him be 100% for the next start (if there is one). Also, because of the array of arms that they have in the ‘pen, it makes it easier to chew up innings while keeping the game close.

Kahnle took care of the fifth and sixth and Robertson got the seventh and eighth – and they were masterful. Both of them combined for a 4 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB and 3 K performance to keep the game tied. Now, if only the bats could take advantage of the pitchers balling out.

However, besides that one run that they scored, the offense got manhandled by Justin Verlander. His fastball was classic Verlander, his slider and curve kept the hitters off balance all throughout the game, etc. In nine innings that he pitched today, he allowed only 5 hits, 1 earned run and struck out 13. While it’s remarkable that the Yankee pitchers were able to hold the powerful ‘Stros lineup to one run in the first eight innings of the game, it is very frustrating that the bat has scored only two in the first 17 innings of the series. That is not a good strategy – and they paid for it.

The bitter end

Because the Astros’ best hitters were coming up, Joe Girardi decided to put in Aroldis Chapman, who has, as you may have noticed, very good for about a month and half.

Chappy struck out Reddick rather swiftly. Against Altuve, aka the human hitting machine, he allowed a single on the first pitch 100 mph fastball because it’s Jose Freakin’ Altuve. There’s not a lot of things that you can do when the hitter is 15-for-27 in the postseason. Up came Correa, who had driven in the lone Astros run of the game. Correa hit a liner to right-center that Judge cut off and tried to take a chance to getting Reddick out at second. Meanwhile, Altuve was sprinting past third and going home. Didi Gregorius‘s throw to Sanchez looked like Altuve was going to be out by a mile. Take a look:

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However, Sanchez could not handle the ball in time and as he tried to pick it up, Altuve slid past him to score the walk-off. I really thought he was dead meat when the throw came in but man, that was some brutal defense from Sanchez. I still believe his long-term future is at catching but that was not a good display.

(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Leftovers

It is really hard to win when your 2, 3, 4, 5 hitters in the lineup (Judge, Gregorius, Sanchez and Bird) combine for a 1-for-15 effort with 5 strikeouts. We all talk about how bad Judge has looked this postseason (rightfully so) but Sanchez also looks lost against the Astros pitching. Today, he went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and, of course, was involved in the game-ending play. Gotta think that it was the worst game of his career.

Here are the box score and video highlights. Here’s the win probability graph:


Source: FanGraphs


Up Next

The Yankees are heading back to Bronx to host at least the Games 3 and 4 of the ALCS. The streak stopper CC Sabathia will be on the mound, trying to rescue the Yankees’ season, against Charlie Morton.

Yankees 1, Astros 2: Keuchel quiets the Yankees in Game 1

Oh well, a loss happens. Dallas Keuchel, who has a very well-documented history of dominating the Yankee lineup, did it again tonight, going 7 scoreless while striking out 10 on the way. On the other side of the mound, Masahiro Tanaka shrugged off his road woes to give the Yankees a chance to win. Greg Bird finally gave New York a run in the top of the 9th but it was not enough and too late. Astros won the Game 1 2-1 and the Yankees will look to bounce back tomorrow versus Justin Verlander. Let’s recap this thing.

(Pool/Getty Images)
(Pool/Getty Images)

The pitching duel

In the postseason where the bullpen usage has dominated headlines, tonight was very much about the starting pitching. Keuchel and Tanaka both displayed what they can do. Masahiro didn’t even really display his splitter – which worked so effectively against the Indians – yet he came away with a solid outing. In fact, he did not allow a hit for the first 3.1 innings. It seemed like the battle of who blinks first and it turned out to be the Yankees.

Well, New York came maybe a few feet of air away from scoring two in the top of the fourth. With two outs, Starlin Castro reached on base with a soft single to left. Aaron Hicks got a fastball up the middle and drove it deep to center. It looked like it had a decent chance to be a home run but the ball died right in front of the 409 feet center field wall. Gah. Maybe a tick or two higher launch angle or different direction and that ball’s outta here. A 2-0 lead would have been very gratifying especially against Keuchel. Instead, the Astros struck the next inning.

Jose Altuve’s feet manufactured the first run for the Astros. With one out, Altuve hit a grounder up the middle and beat out Castro’s throw for an infield single. During Carlos Correa’s at-bat, Altuve stole second to put himself in scoring position. It wasn’t even a bad throw from Sanchez either. Altuve got a great jump and simply used his speed to reach safely. The Astros shortstop promptly followed it up with an RBI single to left to cash in a run for Houston. It was a slider that hung up on the zone and easy contact for a talented hitter like Correa. Marwin Gonzalez’s groundout pushed Correa to the second base with two outs. Yulieski Gurriel tacked on another run for the Astros with an RBI single up the middle. With Dallas Keuchel on the other side of the rubber, 2-0 Astros lead seemed like a mighty order to top.

(Elsa/Getty Images)
(Elsa/Getty Images)

A 2-0 deficit  becomes more insurmountable when the team becomes unlucky in the game of inches. In the top of the fifth, the Yankees had two runners on with a Greg Bird single and Matt Holliday reaching on base on an Altuve error. After Todd Frazier lined out and Brett Gardner struck out, it was up to Aaron Judge to make something happen. He got a hold of a slider in the strike zone to line a base hit to the leftfielder Marwin Gonzalez.

At the moment that Gonzalez released the ball on the throw to the plate, Bird had just rounded third base and it seemed like he had a good chance to score. However, 1) Greg Bird isn’t really fast 2) Marwin Gonzalez threw that ball really hard at 97.4 mph. As a result, Bird was tagged out by Brian McCann as his foot was about to slide into the plate. I would not pin that on third base Joe Espada. Bird was well on his way home as Gonzalez was releasing the ball, which is like a runner tagging up way before the throw during the sacrifice fly. Take a look:
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Again, stupid game of inches. Would have been nice to score a run and get the rally going in that inning but that’s not how it went. Such is baseball. Another annoying thing happened in the top of the sixth when Didi Gregorius hit a blooper that headed towards the left field line… and was just foul. It could have placed a runner on the scoring position with one out but instead, Gregorius ended up striking out. It was close:

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Tanaka threw a good start. 2 runs allowed in 6 innings of work against the fine-tuned machine that is the Astros lineup is more than enough. Just so happens that Keuchel is a postseason beast that also happens to own New York. The Yankees will have to win the series in spite of him.

The bullpen portion

After Tanaka, Girardi put in Chad Green to keep the game close for the Yankees. It was his first appearance since the ALDS Game 2 disaster and boy, he rebounded well tonight. In two innings, Green struck out two and allowed only two baserunners. I have a feeling that he might be coming out of the ‘pen more frequently this series than in the ALDS. Tonight’s outing certainly helped making his case for more appearances.

On the Astros side, Chris Devenski relieved Keuchel to start the eighth inning. As Gardner walked with one out, A.J. Hinch brought in the closer Ken Giles for a five-out save. Giles threw 38 pitches, which makes you wonder if he will be available at all tomorrow. Even if he will be, he’ll probably be limited to an inning. With two outs in the top of the ninth, it looked like the Yankees will be shut out but Greg Bird denied it. On the third pitch of his at-bat, Bird squared up on Giles’ 98 mph fastball up in the zone into the right field seats for a 399-footer. It was a classic lefty pull power swing and a beauty. I can watch this gif over and over for awhile.

bird

Unfortunately, the time for the Yankees to rally was pretty much at minimum. Jacoby Ellsbury, pinch-hitting for Matt Holliday, struck out in four pitches to end the game. 2-1 Astros was the final score.

Box score, updated standings, video highlights and WPA

Here is tonight’s box score from ESPN, video highlights from MLB.com and WPA chart from Fangraphs.


Source: FanGraphs


The Yankees are back at it again at the Minute Maid Park tomorrow on 4 pm EST for the Game 2 of the ALCS. Luis Severino will be on the mound against Justin Verlander – two of the league’s best fireballers! Should be a fun one to watch (or gut-wrenching, depends on how tense you feel).

Four things that need to happen for the Yankees to come back in the ALDS

It is obvious. The Yankees are in some serious trouble. It’s elimination game time tonight.

There is no magic formula here. The Yankees need to do a lot of things right in order to have a chance to win the series. At this moment, it is not impossible, but it’s looking grim down 2-0 against an Indians team that had all the momentum heading into the postseason. Here are a few things that need to happen in order for the Yankees to at least tie it and take the series back to Cleveland, or, perhaps, win the whole damn thing.

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

1. Tanaka needs to ace it

This is imperative. The Indians will have one of their three aces up against the Yankees in Carlos Carrasco and there is basically zero margin of error for Masahiro Tanaka on Sunday.

This is easily the biggest start in Tanaka’s Yankee career. An encouraging thing is that he is coming off one of his best starts. The last time he was out, he pitched a gem against the Blue Jays on September 29 – 7 IP, 3 H, 0 ER and 15 strikeouts. Wouldn’t you love for him to replicate that against Cleveland? While he did have an overall inconsistent September (4.99 ERA in 30.2 IP with 7 walks and 39 K’s and 6 HR’s allowed) to cap off the season, Tanaka is certainly capable of rescuing the Yankees for the Game 3.

Tanaka is no stranger to big games. In high school, he took his school to the finals of the storied 2006 Koshien tournament. In 2013, his last year with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, he had the legendary Japan Series throwing a 160-pitch complete game on Game 6 and coming back out on the next game for a 15-pitch save to win it all. He has had to step up under the brightest spotlights at the levels he pitched and now, he holds the key to save the Yankees’ season.

If you look at it the Fangraphs’ way, Tanaka’s performance with the Yankees in the past four years is worth $100.3 million, as opposed to $88 million he’s made in that stretch. So he’s been (hypothetically) worth the big bucks. However, a heroic performance to extend the Yanks’ season would be priceless.

2. Severino needs to bounce back

Luis Severino was one of the best starters in MLB this season. There’s a chance that he might end it with only 0.1 IP logged in the postseason.

As you know, Severino was way too amped up in his only postseason appearance. He overthrew and couldn’t locate as he usually does. I would imagine that has become a learning experience for the young guy. While it is healthy to be skeptical, I would not be hesitant to use the best young Yankee starter in a long time. If it also helps his case, Severino threw a gem against the Indians back in August. If needed, it is entirely possible that Sevvy becomes a late-inning bullpen option for Game Three. Mike wrote a post about it yesterday. I would much rather prefer that Yankees be able to win Game 3 without Severino’s help and have him start the Game 4.

3. Cold bats need to come alive

Super obvious point here. While I think it is harsh trying to point flaws out of a lineup after only two games – especially the one that scored 6 runs off of Corey Kluber –  but the Yankees have their back against the wall.

Here are some notable hitters that have not pulled their weight the first two games:

Jacoby Ellsbury/Ronald Torreyes also have not had hits yet but they combined for only 4 at-bats so I won’t mention them here. The four guys I mentioned range from the leadoff guy in Gardner, the best power hitter in the league in Judge, the cleanup shortstop in Gregorius and a catalyst in bottom part of the lineup in Headley – all essential guys to get the offense going.

Here are the Indians starters lined up for the next two games – Carlos Carrasco and Josh Tomlin. Well, the Yankees need to get past Carrasco first so let’s talk about him. Carrasco put up some great numbers this season – 18-6, 3.29 ERA with 226 K’s in 200.0 IP. In terms of matchups, he trounces Tanaka, who had a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde 2017. However, in their only meeting against Carrasco in this season, the Yankees managed to pound him for 5 ER in 5.2 IP. So that’s something. Of course, he is more than capable of throwing an 0-fer to end the Yankees season later today. He’s been riding a hot streak ending the season as well, marking a 1.27 ERA in the last 7 starts of 2017. Welp. There is only one way to find out how it will go. You have to hope that Carrasco is not on his A-game tonight and/or the Yankee bats catch on fire.

If the Yankees get past Carrasco and Game 3, it will be Josh Tomlin on the Game 4 (or at least it’s listed as for now). If the matchup turns out to be Severino vs. Tomlin, it would be a much favored one for the Yankees… on paper. If not Severino, who would they start? They could have a short-leash start for Jaime Garcia or get Sonny Gray going on a short rest. I don’t think either would be as good of options as Severino but if it comes down to using him to nail down the Game 3, there are not a lot of choices. On the Indians side, Tomlin is definitely not as intimidating as Kluber, Bauer and Carrasco. This season, the right-hander went 10-9 with a 4.98 ERA. He also gave up homers in a rather higher rate (1.47 HR/9 IP), which is not a great look when you pitch at the pitcher-friendly Progressive Field (0.974 in home run park factor this season) for around half of your starts.

Say if the Yankees get past both Carrasco and Tomlin. They will have to face Kluber back in Cleveland. Game 2 aside, I’m not sure anyone feels comfortable facing that guy in a win or go home game. If nothing else, Game 2 reminded us Kluber is not unbeatable and can be rather human at times.

4. Dumb luck

The Indians have not lost three straight in a long, long time. They also lost only four games out of the last 36 games of the regular season, if you can imagine that. But fear not – historically, we have seen some unpredictable things happen in the playoffs, or in any short-term matchups.

That being said, it would really be useful to have lucky bounces happen the Yankees’ way. The sixth inning to the end of the Game 2? A lot of things went the Indians’ way. Chisenhall should have struck out to end the inning, Torreyes should have gotten back to the bag, the umpire’s zone maybe should not have been a bit wider with Josh Tomlin on the mound, etc. All the seasons’ worth of work can be dunzo just like that after some bad luck. However, it’s a different story when the lady luck shifts to the Yanks side. Something totally out of the players’ skill set reach could happen that spell either more doom or joy for the team. The Yankees could very well win both games at home the regular way for sure. But you know what they say – you can’t predict baseball, Suzyn.

And, in order to overcome the odds against the red-hot Indians in this situation, some dumb luck could help.