The Yankees are likely to get fewer borderline pitches with Gary Sanchez behind the plate in 2017

(Joseph Garnett Jr./Getty)
(Joseph Garnett Jr./Getty)

Gary Sanchez is no longer the catcher of the future. He’s the catcher of the present. The Yankees made it official earlier this offseason, when they traded Brian McCann to the Astros for two Single-A pitching prospects and salary relief. They’re handing the catching reins over to Sanchez and he’ll be the centerpiece of the youth movement.

As we saw this past season, the 24-year-old Sanchez can be a true middle of the order impact hitter. Is he going to continue producing like Babe Ruth going forward? Probably not. It’s unrealistic to expect that kind of production all the time. Especially from a catcher. But his bat has always been his calling card and the Yankees are counting on Sanchez to hit and hit big going forward.

Defensively, there have long been questions about Sanchez behind the plate. His arm is, obviously, a cannon. One of the best I’ve ever seen. There are other aspects of catching though, such as blocking balls in the dirt and general receiving, and that stuff generated questions about Sanchez’s defense. He’s improved, but as we saw in 2016, he’s still rough around the edges. That’s okay. He’s still learning.

The Yankees were among the first teams in emphasize pitch-framing — Ben Lindbergh, a former Yankees intern, wrote about the fellow intern who stumbled on the value of framing back in 2009 — which is still a relatively new phenomenon in the sabermetric world. I mean, we all know it’s a valuable skill. We just didn’t know how valuable, and really, we still don’t fully understand it. The numbers are still being refined.

McCann came to the Yankees with a reputation for being a top notch pitch-framer, a reputation he maintained throughout his time in New York. Sanchez? Well, we don’t know too much about his pitch-framing skills yet because he just got to the big leagues. Minor league pitch-framing data exists, but it’s even more dubious than Major League numbers. Here are McCann’s and Sanchez’s 2016 pitch-framing numbers (MLB only for Sanchez):

McCann per StatCorner: +0.51 calls per game
McCann per Baseball Prospectus: +1.84 runs per 1,000 chances

Sanchez per StatCorner: -0.15 calls per game
Sanchez per Baseball Prospectus: +0.73 runs per 1,000 chances

On a rate basis, McCann is a better pitch-framer than Sanchez and not by a small margin either. Both StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus rate McCann as one of the top framers in the game. Sanchez is closer to middle of the pack. Not terrible, not great. Just … average-ish.

Let’s try to visualize the difference between McCann’s pitch-framing and Sanchez’s pitch-framing. With an assist from Baseball Savant, here are all the called strikes with McCann behind the plate this season and all the called strikes with Sanchez behind the plate. Again, this is MLB only for Sanchez. I created a GIF and overlaid the strike zone plots to make the comparison easier:

mccann-sanchez-framing

Do you see the difference? McCann’s strike zone is a little wider on the edges of the plate, though I suspect that might have as much to do with sample size as it does his framing ability. The bottom of the strike zone is what really caught my attention. Based on the data, Sanchez didn’t get nearly as many called strikes at (or below) the knees as McCann.

Framing a borderline pitch requires good technique as much as it does hand and wrist strength. The catcher has to receive the pitch, hold it firm, and subtly pull it into the strike zone as necessary. Too much movement is a bad thing. Here are McCann and Sanchez framing two fastballs in the same spot. McCann, on the left, got the strike. Sanchez didn’t.

mccann-sanchez-framing

Again, those fastballs are in the same spot — the coordinates are damn near identical, per PitchFX — yet McCann got the call and Sanchez did not. Sure, we could blame the umpire for missing the borderline call, but look how the two catchers frame that pitch. McCann receives it nice and quietly. Sanchez stabbed down with a big recoil to get back into the strike zone. He didn’t present it well for the umpire. McCann did.

The numbers and the eye test both indicate McCann is a better pitch-framer than Sanchez. Exactly how much better? That’s up for debate. I don’t think framing metrics are accurate enough to give us exact runs saved values myself, but to each his own. Either way, McCann is a better framer than Sanchez, and that’s going to affect the pitching staff going forward. The Yankees figure to get fewer borderline calls next year, particularly on pitches down in the zone.

Framing seems to be one of those things that can be taught, though maybe only to a point. At the end of the day, it’s an athletic move that requires a certain level of strength and athleticism and reflexes. Some have it, some don’t. If it could be easily taught, everyone would do it. The Yankees clearly value pitch-framing and I’m certain they’ll have Sanchez work on it going forward. Tony Pena and Joe Girardi are two pretty good catching mentors, I’d say.

Pitch-framing is a very real skill that does impact the pitching staff. The Yankees are poised to go young at the back of the rotation, and turning a few extra borderline pitches into strikes could be a big help. McCann’s advantage in framing might not be enough to make up for Sanchez’s advantage in, well, everything else, but when it comes to getting those borderline calls, it appears the Yankees will be worse off next season.

Attendance, the Shift, and Other Random Stats [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

At long last, our 2016 Season Review series comes to an end today. Every year I wrap the season review up with a post on some random stuff I found interesting or caught my eye or whatever. Just stuff that’s worth touching on but isn’t worth a full post, you know? Some quirky stats and whatnot. Time to put a bow on the season review. Here’s our last little bit of 2016 coverage.

Attendance

Attendance at Yankee Stadium was down this season. We all saw it. We watched on television. It wasn’t entirely unexpected either, even after the wildcard berth a year ago. The Yankees have been mostly mediocre the last few seasons and that doesn’t exactly sell tickets. Here are the attendance numbers the last few seasons, via Baseball Reference:

  • 2012: 3,542,406 (43,733 per game) — swept in ALCS
  • 2013: 3,279,589 (40,489 per game) — Mariano Rivera‘s final season
  • 2014: 3,401,624 (41,995 per game) — Derek Jeter‘s final season
  • 2015: 3,193,795 (39,430 per game) — lost Wildcard Game
  • 2016: 3,063,405 (37,820 per game) — missed postseason with no farewell tour

It’s worth noting the Yankees were second in the AL in total attendance this season behind the Blue Jays (3,392,099) and sixth in all of MLB in attendance. It’s not like they were near the bottom of the league or even middle of the pack. Relative to the rest of the league, attendance was very good this year. Relative to Yankees’ standards, attendance was down. Especially considering the attendance numbers are tickets sold, not tickets used. There were large swaths of empty seats late in the season.

On a per game basis, the Yankees’ attendance this past season was their lowest since drawing 36,484 fans per game in 1998. Not too many folks wanted to see a 114-win juggernaut, I guess. In all seriousness, the relatively low 1998 attendance is because there is a lag between team performance and attendance change, historically. Got a great team? The big attendance spike comes the following season, not that season. (The 1999 Yankees drew 40,651 fans per game.) That’s because most tickets are sold before the season and early in the season.

The Yankees made the Wildcard Game last year and there were reasons to feel good about the team coming into 2016, but they got off to a slow start, slow enough that they sold at the deadline. That’s a pretty significant event that could have an impact on attendance. Sure enough, the Yankees drew 38,588 fans per game before the trade deadline and 36,515 per game after the deadline. Can’t say a drop of 2,000 fans per game surprises me. The team essentially threw in the towel.

It’s possible if not likely attendance will drop again next season, even though a mediocre team with young players is far more exciting than a mediocre team loaded with veterans in my opinion. Given their attendance this year, it’s not unreasonable to think the Yankees could draw fewer than 3,000,000 fans in 2017 for the first time since 1998. If it happens, it happens. Whatever.

The Shift

Over the last few seasons the Yankees have become one of the most shift happy teams in baseball. According to the fancy Baseball Info Solutions data I have access to through CBS, the Yankees used the seventh most shifts in baseball this season, though they were close enough to bunch of other teams that they were a few more David Ortiz and Chris Davis at-bats away from being third.

Overall, New York’s performance with the shift was not great, at least according to the data we have. Chances are the team sees something different with their internal data. Here are the numbers, via FanGraphs:

No Shift All Shifts Traditional Shifts Non-Traditional Shifts
Yankees .284 .304 .301 .329
MLB AVG .298 .297 .298 .293

A shift qualifies as a traditional shift if one of three things happens: three infielders on one side of the infield, two players are significantly out of position, or one infielder is playing in the outfield. If any of those three conditions are met, it’s a traditional shift. Anything else is considered non-traditional.

Anyway, those numbers in table are both AVG and BABIP. They’re identical because strikeouts, walks, and home runs are not included in the shift data. Interestingly enough, the overall MLB batting average was essentially the same when there was a shift and no shift on this past season. You’d think batting average would be lower with the shift since that’s the whole point, but nope.

For the Yankees though, their overall AVG/BABIP allowed with the shift employed was 20 points higher than without the shift. That’s backwards. The whole idea is bringing down your AVG/BABIP allowed by using the shift. This could be a statistical blip, but last season the Yankees allowed a .292 AVG/BABIP without the shift and .322 with. The year before it was .298 vs. .299, and the year before that it was .302 vs. .304.

Over the last two seasons the Yankees have allowed a much higher AVG/BABIP while employing the shift than without, according to the numbers we have. That’s a problem! The shift should be helping your pitchers, not your opponent. I don’t know what the problem is either. Bad positioning? Pitchers not executing? A bad pitching plan? It could be many things. This has happened two years running now. The shift upped the opponent’s AVG/BABIP by 20 points this season. Last year it was 30. 30!

Does this mean the Yankees should stop shifting all together? Of course not. That’s an overreaction. Intuitively, placing your defenders where the batter is most likely to hit the ball is a very smart thing to do. I’m surprised it took teams so long to start doing it regularly. For all we know the AVG/BABIP numbers we have above are wrong. Remember, this stuff is being recorded by human stringers watching video, so there is scorer bias.

I’m not sure I fully buy the huge gap in AVG/BABIP the last two years, but based on the eye test, I won’t argue with anyone who says the Yankees allow more hits with the shift on than without. If the numbers we have are even close to right, this is something that has to be fixed. Can’t keep shooting yourself in the foot like that.

Ellsbury and the First Pitch

Ellsbury. (Presswire)
Ellsbury. (Presswire)

One thing I neglected to mention in Jacoby Ellsbury’s season review was his propensity to swing at the first pitch this season. He became such an extreme first pitch hacker at times that even Michael Kay noticed and commented about it. Here are the numbers, with an assist from Baseball Savant:

  • 2013: Swung at the first pitch in 23.9% of all plate appearances.
  • 2014: 27.6%
  • 2015: 31.0%
  • 2016: 30.5%
  • MLB AVG in 2016: 28.3%

Those are all instances in which Ellsbury swung at the first pitch. It includes balls in play, foul balls, and swings and misses. If he swung at the first pitch, it’s included in those numbers regardless of outcome. That isn’t just the percentage of first pitches put in play.

Ellsbury didn’t swing at more first pitches this year than last year. Fewer actually, but by a tiny little amount. Compared to two and three years ago though, Ellsbury is swinging at way more first pitches these days. Swinging at the first pitch is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, I advocated for doing it more often coming into the season. Many times the first pitch of the at-bat is the best one to hit. Why let it go by? It’s not like starters pitch deep into games these days. You’re going to get to the bullpen eventually.

Swinging at the first pitch so often wouldn’t be so bad if Ellsbury had hit well in those situations. He hit .298 with a .131 ISO on the first pitch in 2016. That seems pretty good, especially compared to his overall season numbers (.263 AVG and .111 ISO). The problem is the league averages were a .346 AVG and a .236 ISO on the first pitch this year. Ellsbury was well below that. He rolled over and grounded out to second on a ton of first pitches.

Ellsbury has never been a guy who works deep counts. (He actually set a new career high with 54 walks in 2016.) He’s up there to swing and that’s fine. Hits are better than walks. He just hasn’t hit much the last two years, and when you’re not producing as expected, a lot of quick one-pitch outs gets mighty frustrating. Had Ellsbury hit, say, .350 with a .200 ISO on the first pitch, I don’t think anyone would care. But when his numbers are that far below league average, it gets old in a hurry.

Differences of Opinion on Baserunning

Depending who you ask, the Yankees were either one of the better baserunning teams in baseball this season, or one that was below average. They were successful with 77% of their stolen base attempts, fifth best in baseball, but they also attempted only 94 steals, which was 23rd most among the 30 teams. The Yankees took the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) only 37% of the time, the fourth lowest rate in baseball.

So the Yankees didn’t take the extra base all that often — obviously that is largely due to personnel, because guys like Brian McCann and Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez aren’t burners — but they were sneaky efficient at stealing bases. They just didn’t do it often. Here’s what the all-encompassing baserunning metrics say:

Hmmm. Which one is correct? I lean towards BRR myself. The eye test told me the Yankees were not a good baserunning team overall, mostly because they had so many slow players. They didn’t take the extra base often, didn’t advance on wild pitches and similar opportunities all that much, and they didn’t steal often either.

The difference in BsR and BRR boils down to the way the two stats are calculated. Both essentially compare the team’s actual baserunning success to their expected baserunning success — how often does a runner go first-to-third on a single hit to that location? That sort of thing. BRR includes some more adjustments for ballparks and things like that, which are important.

You’re welcome to feel differently, but I agree with the BRR number more than the BsR number based on everything I saw this season. The Yankees weren’t a great baserunning team at all in 2016. Teixeira, A-Rod, and McCann are all gone though, and with the new infusion of younger players, this number will hopefully tick up in the future. Baserunning is a weird thing. It’s easy to overlook but it’s very obviously important, and it can often be the difference in an individual game. It’s something the Yankees can improve going forward, for sure.

Brett Gardner among Gold Glove finalists, again

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

For the second straight year, Brett Gardner is among the three finalists for the AL Gold Glove award in left field, MLB announced. He was a finalist back in 2011 as well. Gardner is up against Alex Gordon and Colby Rasmus. No other Yankees are among the Gold Glove finalists, which isn’t surprising. You can see all of this year’s finalists right here.

Gardner had a typical Brett Gardner season in left field this year, I thought. Both DRS (+12) and UZR (+3.5) liked his work out there, for what it’s worth. Gardner did make his fair share of highlight reel catches throughout the summer as well. These are the two most notable, I’d say:

Gardner has yet to win a Gold Glove, mostly because Gordon has been hogging it the last few years. Gordon has won four of the last five AL Gold Gloves in left field, with the only exception being last year, when Yoenis Cespedes won it despite splitting the season between the Tigers and Mets.

Gold Gloves are voted on by managers and coaches around the league — they’re not able to vote for their own players — plus there’s now a statistical component as well. Gordon missed some time with an injury, so if he gets dinged for that, Gardner just might sneak in and win himself a Gold Glove.

The Gold Glove winners will be announced Tuesday, November 8th. I’m pretty sure they’re announced during a live television broadcast these days. The other major awards (MVP, Cy Young, etc.) will be announced the following week.

The Yankees’ Five Biggest Defensive Outs of 2016

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Yesterday we relived the five biggest hits recorded by the Yankees this season, using win probability added. It’s not a perfect measure, of course, but it does a nice job for an exercise like this. Now it’s time to turn things around and look at the biggest outs record by the Yankees this past season. Not by the hitters, silly. No one cares about those. By the pitchers and the defense.

The Yankees played more than a few nail-biters this season, especially down the stretch in August and September, so there are no boring ground outs or pop-ups here. These outs were all recorded in pretty intense late-inning situations. It should no surprise then who was on the mound for most of them. So, once again with an assist from the Baseball Reference Play Index, here are the five biggest outs recorded by the Yankees this past season.

5. Shreve vs. Salvador Perez

The Yankees had some awful luck with rain delays this year. They had an inordinate number of ninth inning rain delays that threw a wrench into their bullpen plans and cost them games. It stunk.

On August 30th, the Yankees were in Kansas City playing the second of three games against the Royals. A 59-minute rain delay forced Masahiro Tanaka out of the game after five effective innings — he only threw 71 pitches too — and of course the bullpen blew the 4-2 lead after that. Lorenzo Cain doubled against Adam Warren and Kendrys Morales had a sac fly against Dellin Betances.

The game went to extra innings, and the Yankees took a 5-4 lead on Jacoby Ellsbury‘s run-scoring single off Joakim Soria. Brian McCann and Chase Headley started that rally with singles. With his key relievers already used, Joe Girardi went to Ben Heller for the save opportunity in the bottom of the tenth. It didn’t go well. Hit batsman, stolen base, single, stolen base, strikeout, intentional walk loaded the bases with one out.

That was it for Heller. Girardi went to Chasen Shreve to face Morales, and he managed to strike him out on three pitches. Unexpected! The strikeout pitch was maybe the best splitter Shreve has thrown since last year. That was only the second out of the inning though. There was one more out to go, and thankfully Sal Perez didn’t square up a splitter left up in the zone. He hit a fairly routine game-ending fly ball to center. To the video:

That was Shreve’s first and thus far only career save. The win was New York’s fifth in the span of seven games and was part of that great 13-4 stretch that got them back in the postseason race. WPA of Perez’s fly out: +.270. (The Morales strikeout was +.264.)

4. Betances vs. Eric Hosmer

Because one extra innings game against the plucky Royals wasn’t enough, the Yankees played another one the very next day following Shreve’s save. This game was also 4-4 heading into extras, but rather than end in the tenth, it went all the way to the 13th. Shreve, Tommy Layne, Warren, Blake Parker, and Heller combined for six hitless innings in relief of Luis Cessa. How about that?

The Yankees manufactured a run in the top of the 13th — a single (Didi Gregorius), a double (Starlin Castro), and a sac fly (McCann) did the trick — allowing Girardi to give the ball to Betances for the save chance in the bottom of the 13th. Betances, naturally, walked the leadoff man. Sigh. Never easy.

Because Betances can’t hold runners, a leadoff walk usually turns into a double, but that didn’t happen. Hosmer hit a tapper back to Dellin that he grabbed between his damn legs, then turned into a rally killing 1-6-3 double play. Check it out:

And they said Betances can’t throw to bases. He did just find there la la la you can’t tell me otherwise. A Morales fly ball followed to end the game. The Yankees earned back-to-back 5-4 extra-innings wins over the Royals in Kansas City. Pretty crazy. The Royals never ever ever lost games like that from 2014-15, which is why they went to the World Series each year. WPA of the double play: +.285.

3. Miller vs. Carlos Gomez

July 25th was a pretty monumental day for the Yankees. That was the day they officially shifted gears and starting selling at the deadline. Aroldis Chapman was shipped to the Cubs in the afternoon, and later that night, Andrew Miller got into a bit of a jam in his first game back in the closer’s role.

The Yankees managed to take a 2-1 lead over Dallas Keuchel (!) on Austin Romine‘s eighth inning run-scoring double, but to start the bottom of the ninth, the left-handed hitting Luis Valbuena managed to bloop a leadoff single to left. Miller allowed 13 hits all season to lefties — I’m surprised it was that many, to be honest — and that was one of them. The Astros were in business.

Miller bounced back to strike out rookie Alex Bregman, then he coaxed what could have been a game-ending 5-4-3 double play from Evan Gattis, but the Yankees instead got zero outs. Zero. Replays showed Castro stepped off second base a little too early when he made the pivot, and Gattis beat out the back-end of the play. Could have been game over! Instead, Houston had the tying run at second and the winning run at first with one out.

Thankfully, Miller is insanely good, and he got the punchless Carlos Gomez to ground into a game-ending 6-4-3 double play. This one the Yankees turned perfectly. Here’s the video of the two double plays, the failed one and the successful one:

Textbook turn to end the game. Not the kind of play you’ll remember over the course of a long season. Not even close. But in the grand scheme of things, those were two huge outs for the Yankees. The win was part of what I was worried would be the most poorly timed winning streak in history, an 8-2 stretch following the All-Star break. Thankfully, the Yankees sold anyway. WPA of the double play: +.330.

2. Chapman vs. J.D. Martinez

Ugh, this game. It was June 2nd and the Yankees were in Detroit to play a makeup game against the Tigers. Remember that snow-out in April? This was the makeup game. The Yankees went from Toronto to Detroit to Baltimore in a three-day span.

In this game, the Tigers did something no other team did this season: they scored against Betances, Miller, and Chapman. The Yankees had a 5-1 lead thanks to their four-run seventh inning — Ellsbury’s two-run triple was the big blow — but Detroit chipped away, scoring a run against Betances in the seventh and another against Miller in the eigth. Girardi handed Chapman a 5-3 lead in the ninth.

The ninth inning did not go so well. I mean, the Yankees won, but still. In the span of 12 pitches, Chapman loaded the bases with no outs on a single (Mike Aviles), a walk (Jose Iglesias), and a single (Cameron Maybin). There was a wild pitch mixed in there too. Not great, Bob. That brought Martinez to the plate and he’s the kind of hitter who could have easily won the game with one swing.

Chapman executed pretty much a perfect pitch, a 101 mph fastball at the knees. Martinez did the only thing he could do with it, and that was beat it into the ground. Gregorius ranged to his left to start what was probably New York’s prettiest double play of the season. Check it out:

Twist-ending: that didn’t end the game! That got the first two outs of the ninth inning and a run scored to trim the lead to 5-4. The tying run also moved to third base. Chapman then picked up the save by getting Miguel Cabrera to bounce out to second base to end the game. I remember thinking the Yankees should have intentionally walked Miggy and gone after Victor Martinez. Shows what I know. WPA of the double play: +.339.

1. Betances vs. Edwin Encarnacion

This was the best game of the season that I completely forgot about. It was August 15th, and the Yankees earned a 1-0 win over the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium (!) because Chad Green struck out eleven in six innings (!!!). How did I forget that? Also, the Yankees scored the game’s only run on Aaron Judge‘s double. I feel stupid for forgetting this one.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Yankees-Blue Jays game without some serious late-game drama. Betances started the ninth inning by walking No. 9 hitter Josh Thole. Annoying! Devon Travis popped up in foul territory for the first out of the ninth inning, but Josh Donaldson followed with a ground ball single back up the middle, which put runners on the corners with one out. The tying run was a sac fly away.

The ninth inning meltdown suffered a quick death. On the very next pitch after the Donaldson single, Encarnacion hit into a game-ending 5-4-3 double play that was as pretty as it was clutch. To the very necessary video:

Heck of a play there by Headley to first stop the ball, then to make the throw to Castro at second to start the game-winning twin-killing. That was a close one. The Yankees won the game, gained some more ground in the standings, and gave us a few weeks of excitement in the second half. What a play that was. WPA of the double play: +.374.

* * *

In case you’re wondering, and I know I was, the final out of that crazy September 6th game against the Blue Jays, registered at +0.230 WPA, making it the team’s ninth biggest defensive out of the season. This was the Brett Gardner catch at the top of the left field wall. You know what I’m talking about, right? Of course you.

That felt like the biggest out of the season, because it was. WPA doesn’t factor in the context of the postseason race. The Yankees were playing maybe their best baseball of the season at that point — they’d won eight of their previous dozen games — and the win moved them to within 3.5 games back of a playoff spot. Losing that game to Toronto, one of the teams the Yankees were chasing in the wildcard race, would have been crushing. Instead, it was a win.

A-Rod planning to take ground balls at first base during All-Star break

(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)
(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)

According to Mark Feinsand, Alex Rodriguez is planning to take ground balls at first base during the All-Star break in an effort to improve his versatility and get into the lineup a little more often. Brian Cashman told George King it was Rodriguez’s idea to work out at first base, not the team’s. “I wouldn’t say he was encouraged. I was told he was more open to playing the field. Last year he was opposed to it,” said the GM.

A-Rod, who turns 41 in two weeks, is hitting .220/.260/.382 (65 wRC+) with eight homers in 200 plate appearances on the nose this year. That includes a .198/.237/.333 (46 wRC+) line against right-handers. The Yankees are now benching Alex against righties — he’s started only one of their last ten games — so he’s not playing much at all. He’s been a forgotten man. Anyway, I have some thoughts on this.

1. It’s about time! I’ve been beating the “give A-Rod a first base glove” drum since the offseason. I’m not saying he should play there every single day. Just having the option to put him there increases his versatility a bit. A right-handed platoon DH is the least flexible player possible. Getting Rodriguez comfortable at first gives Joe Girardi some more options. It’s not much, but it’s something.

2. There figures to be a decent amount of playing time at first. Mark Teixeira is now getting regular days off to rest his ailing knee — he hasn’t started more than four straight days since coming off the DL — so that clears some playing time for A-Rod, who probably needs to play more than once every ten days to get his bat going. Those spare starts at first could add up to another 100 plate appearances the rest of the season.

3. Rest won’t be a problem. One of the reasons the Yankees have been hesitant to play A-Rod in the field is fatigue. They don’t want him to get worn down throughout the season. That’s understandable, especially last year when he was playing so well. Nowadays the Yankees are straight up benching Rodriguez against righties, so they can schedule the starts at first in such a way that he’ll get the next day or two off because righties are on the mound. Fatigue isn’t much of a concern when you’re sitting three out of every four games anyway.

* * *

I’m glad A-Rod will spend the break getting work in at first base. That the Yankees didn’t ask him to do it tells you Alex is motivated and looking to get back into the lineup however possible. I can’t say I’m optimistic this will lead to anything, but you never know. With Teixeira’s knee acting up, Rodriguez could be forced into first base duty at a moment’s notice in the second half. At least now playing him in the field might be an option rather than off the table completely.

Ban the shift? That’s a solution to a problem that might not even exist

The Dodgers used this shift back in 2014.
The Dodgers used this shift back in 2014.

Two nights ago Nathan Eovaldi lost a no-hitter in the seventh inning on a ground ball single to the shortstop position. The Yankees, as they often do, had an infield shift employed, so the shortstop was standing somewhere else. The ball scooted on through and the no-hit bid was over. So it goes.

Prior to last night’s game Joe Girardi was asked about the infield shift in general, and, to my surprise, he said he would like to get rid of them. Here’s what he said, via Dan Martin:

“It’s illegal defense, just like basketball,” he said. “Guard your man. Guard your spot. If I were commissioner, they’d be illegal. As long as it’s legal, I’m gonna play it.”

“I just think the field was built this way for a reason,” Girardi said. “Two on one side, two on the other.”

Girardi is entitled to his opinion and he’s certainly not the only person who would look to see shifts outlawed. I’m sure Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann would be in favor of them going away too. Lots and lots of left-handed batters have lost hits and batting average points and, by extension, dollars in their pocket because of the shift.

The rulebook says that with exception of the pitcher and catcher, defenders can position themselves anywhere in fair territory. Eliminating the shift would be a relatively easy fix. Second base creates a nice boundary, so MLB and the MLBPA could change the rules and force teams to play two infielders on each side of the bag. Boom. Problem solved.

I respectfully disagree with Girardi here. I’m not a fan of eliminating the shift. I’m not a fan of any rule change that would limit creativity within the game. Baseball, like everything else, is survival of the fittest. Players have to adapt to stay in the league and those who can’t get left behind. The game went through a seismic shift when breaking balls were first introduced because only a few players could hit them. After some time, hitters caught up.

Offense is down around the league these days for many reasons, and the shift is surely one of them. It is worth noting the league wide batting average on balls in play has not changed much over the years. The league has a .297 BABIP this year. It was .299 in 2015, .297 in 2010, .295 in 2005, and .300 in 2001. Since the strike in 1994, only once has the league BABIP fallen outside the .296-.303 range (.293 in 2012). The overall impact of the shift is overstated.

The shift has been around for years and yet it is still a relatively new phenomenon. Every team uses them to some extent, though a few holdouts have not fully bought in just yet. Teams haven’t yet had time to try to develop a generation of hitters to be shift beaters. The shift is still a baby. It’s still a little too early to be re-writing the rulebook for something that may fizzle out on its own in due time.

Creativity and innovation are good. I want teams to try to outsmart each other and come up with new ways to gain an advantage. It makes the game more competitive and more interesting, I think. We shouldn’t push aside something new because it goes against the way the game has been played for the last 150 years. Baseball is too old fashioned as it is. It could use some fresh ideas.

What the heck is going on with Jacoby Ellsbury’s defense?

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The 2016 season is only eleven games old, but we’ve already seen several defensive miscues by center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. Ellsbury, who has played every inning of every game so far, has specifically made four misplays that stand out in the early going. Mistakes happen. That’s baseball. But four mistakes in eleven games? That’s unusual.

Ellsbury’s four misplays have all led to runs, which is partly bad luck — not every miscue should result in runs, Yankees — and partly a result of outfielder misplays often leading to extra bases, making it that much easier to score. Let’s look at these four miscues and try to figure out exactly what the hell happened, and whether it was simply one of those things or a sign of declining skills.

Play No. 1: J.D. Martinez single in Detroit

They say the toughest play for an outfielder is the line drive hit right at you, and that line drive was hit pretty much right at Ellsbury. He knew off the bat he had to retreat, so he had the correct jump, but the ball was closer to left field than he seemed to realize, so it feel in for a base hit.

“It kind of just died out,” said Ellsbury to Erik Boland after the game. “It just went straight down. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to recover on it. I got a great jump on it.”

It appears Ellsbury simply misread this ball in terms of its location left to right. He got the right jump and broke back, but he was about ten feet too far to the right. The fact that this was a line drive hit at him makes me think the ball knuckled unexpectedly. Ellsbury was there, but not there there. Know what I mean?

Play No. 2: Jose Bautista double in Toronto

This one Ellsbury clearly misread off the bat. His first step was in! Look:

Jose Bautista Jacoby Ellsbury

Ellsbury took a few steps in, then had to stop and retreat to right-center field. Those few wasted steps coming in put him behind the play and allowed Bautista’s double to drop in. Ellsbury almost caught it because he’s still really fast, but ultimately he couldn’t recover from that bad first step.

Also, look where the Yankees had Ellsbury positioned. He was shaded heavily towards left field for Bautista, who is an extreme pull hitter. Check out his 2014-15 spray chart, via Baseball Savant:

Jose Bautista spray chart

So yeah, Bautista is a big time pull hitter. The Yankees had Ellsbury positioned in the right place — he should be shading him towards left field — but Bautista had to go and be good at baseball and hit the ball to right-center. That didn’t help matters. Bottom line though, Ellsbury’s first step was in when it should have been back. That cost him a chance to make the play. This one is on Jake.

Play No. 3: Robinson Cano‘s single on Saturday

The speedy Ketel Marte managed to score all the way from first on that play, which just can’t happen. Marte and Mariners third base coach Manny Acta deserve credit for their aggressiveness and willingness to push the envelope, so let’s not take anything away from them. They caught Ellsbury napping. Look at his reaction:

Jacoby Ellsbury Ketel Marte

It sure looks like Ellsbury assumed Marte was going to stop at third base. He was caught off guard. While this play sucked and you hate to see players take seemingly routine plays for granted, I have a hard time dinging Ellsbury too much for this one. Marte and Acta were very aggressive. They were aggressively aggressive.

“It was the first time I think I’ve given up a single and the guy scored from first. First time for everything,” said CC Sabathia, who gave up the hit, to George King after the game.

As best I can tell, only 12 runners scored from first on a single last season. This is something that happens like 99.99% of the time. Ellsbury got caught off guard not because he’s lazy or anything like that, but because this is a play that basically never happens. Marte and Acta deserve more credit than Ellsbury deserves blame, I think.

Play 4: Nori Aoki triple on Sunday

This play is much different than I remembered when I wrote Sunday’s game recap. Ellsbury was in a full sprint and attempted the dive, and just missed. Looking at it again, I don’t think he could have pulled up to play the ball on the hop. His options were a) attempt a diving catch, or b) retreat into the gap to chase after the rolling ball, in which case it’s at least a double and maybe still a triple.

Also, let’s once again look at where the Yankees had Ellsbury positioned:

Jacoby Ellsbury Nori Aoki

The Yankees again had Ellsbury shaded towards left field. Why? Because Aoki is an extreme opposite field hitter. Here is his spray chart for the 2014-15 seasons, via Baseball Savant:

Nori Aoki spray chart

The Yankees had Ellsbury positioned in the proper spot for the opposite field left-handed hitter, but Aoki hooked it to the right side of center field. So it goes.

“It’s a triple for him anyway,” said Ellsbury to Chad Jennings after the game. “So you just try to cut the ball off and if you’re not going to catch it, try to block it.”

Now that I’ve had more time to watch this play, this isn’t really a defensive miscue on Ellsbury’s part. That ball was ticketed for extra-bases anyway. Ellsbury could have played it conservatively and retreated to the wall, or he could have played it aggressively and tried to make the catch. He did the latter and it didn’t work out.

* * *

Looking over these four defensive plays, I see two legitimate miscues (Bautista and Martinez), one aggressive play gone wrong (Aoki), and one surprise play that I’m not sure any center fielder would have expected (Cano/Marte). You can blame Ellsbury for two plays for sure, maybe three.

Ellsbury has not hit much in the early going and he didn’t hit at all last year after coming back from his knee injury, but he still provided value with his glove. He’s had two notable misreads in the early going and two other plays that have made his usually strong defense look rough. Bunching the four plays together in eleven games hasn’t helped matters either.

Unless injury is involved, nothing you see in eleven games should change your opinion about a player too much. Ellsbury is 32, so a defensive decline would not be unprecedented, but it’s far too early to say that with any certainty. His defense has not been good so far. Right now I still think it’s a blip more than something more serious.