Yankees want Sanchez to shed added bulk to improve blocking behind the plate

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Because Aaron Judge is out there crushing everything in sight, it can be easy to overlook Gary Sanchez‘s impressive .276/.358/.530 (138 wRC+) batting line this season. Among the 21 catchers with at least 150 plate appearances, Sanchez is third in wRC+ and third with ten homers. He’s been awesome! Judge has been otherworldly.

One area in which Sanchez has seemed to struggle this season is blocking balls behind the plate. For what it’s worth, the blocking numbers at Baseball Prospectus say he’s been better this year (+0.2 runs) than last year (-1.4 runs). That doesn’t really match the eye test, I don’t think. Sanchez has appeared to have trouble keeping the ball in front of him at times this year. At least moreso than last year.

Either way, the Yankees acknowledge Sanchez has had some blocking issues, and Ken Rosenthal says they want him to shed some of the bulk he added over the winter to improve his mobility behind the plate. From Rosenthal:

Gary Sanchez, like Severino, had only good intentions when he packed on 12 pounds of muscle last winter. But rival scouts all season have noted that he is again struggling to block pitches.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman believes that the added weight affected Sanchez’s mobility behind the plate, but adds that Sanchez is working to address the problem and become more like the catcher he was last year.

Sanchez holds a slightly different view — he said through an interpreter that he is indeed working on losing some weight, but didn’t think the added bulk created an issue with his catching.

Luis Severino, you may remember, added quite a bit of muscle last offseason, then all of a sudden last year his fastball command disappeared and his delivery was too stiff. Severino trimmed down a bit this past winter and he regained the fluidity in his delivery. His tempo is so much better.

Something similar could be happening with Sanchez behind the plate, and given Cashman’s comments to Rosenthal, the Yankees seem to think it is at least a possibility. Sanchez is not a great defender. He’s a bat first, second, and third guy. But he is adequate back there and he has improved quite a bit over the years. Sanchez doesn’t need to be peak Yadier Molina defensively to have value. Just be okay.

Because he is such a big dude — Sanchez is listed at 6-foot-2 and 230 lbs., and he is rock solid — Sanchez is always going to have to work hard to keep his weight in check, and that doesn’t necessarily mean bad weight either. Severino bulked up last year and it hurt him on the field. Sanchez bulked over the winter and now he’s not moving well behind the plate. There’s a happy medium somewhere and Sanchez is still searching for it.

Let’s talk about Aaron Judge’s defense in right field

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

If the season ended today, Aaron Judge would finish in the top three of the AL MVP voting. Forget Rookie of the Year. I’m talking MVP. Judge is hitting .315/.419/.685 (195 wRC+) overall and he’s tied with Mike Trout for the MLB lead with 15 home runs. Do that for a first place team and you’re going to get plenty of MVP support. He’s been awesome thus far.

The home runs get all the attention and deservedly so, but Judge is not a one-dimensional player. It can be easy to stereotype him as a lumbering slugger given his size, though Judge is a good athlete and he helps the Yankees with his right field defense too. He’s a sneaky great athlete, and that athleticism was on full display Sunday:

That’s the catch of the season so far, right? For the Yankees, anyway. I’m having a tough time coming up with other memorable defensive plays. I’m sure they exist, but nothing is immediately coming to mind. If that ball falls in, the game is tied and Evan Longoria is on second base with no outs, giving the Yankees a 30.9% win probability. Instead, it was a double play, leaving the Yankees with a 68.4% win probability. Massive defensive play, that was.

The catch this weekend was not the first time we’ve seen Judge make a highlight reel catch. Remember when he flipped over the wall at Fenway Park? Or when he did this? Or this? Those aren’t easy plays! Judge made them look easy. His throwing arm is also a weapon. His throws look effortless and yet they carry and carry. Look:

Before the season Baseball America (subs. req’d) said Judge is a “slightly above-average runner underway and plays average defense in right field with a well above-average throwing arm.” UZR says he’s been about average in the field (+0.8 runs saved). Total Zone thinks he’s been a bit better (+5). DRS thinks Judge has been elite in the field. The outfield DRS leaderboard:

  1. Jarrod Dyson: +9
  2. Jason Heyward: +8
  3. Aaron Judge, Kevin Kiermaier, Guillermo Heredia: +7

Heyward has split time between center and right fields this season, so Judge is first among full-time right fielders. That’s pretty awesome. It’s difficult to say which defensive stat is right. UZR? DRS? Total Zone? The important thing is they all agree Judge has been a positive in the field. He’s saving the Yankees runs. Exactly how many is up for debate.

Statcast’s new catch probability drops batted balls into five buckets based on how often similar balls are turned into outs around the league. Here are Judge’s catch probability numbers:

  • One-Star Catches (caught 91-95% of the time): 100%
  • Two-Star Catches (76-90%): 100%
  • Three-Star Catches (51-75%): 100%
  • Four-Star Catches (26-50%): 50%
  • Five-Star Catches (0-25%): 0%

Batted balls that are turned into outs 51% to 95% of the time around the league have been turned into an out 100% of the time by Judge so far this season. The only thing he hasn’t done is make the super duper highlight reel plays, the ones very few outfielders can make. The Five-Star Catches. Eventually he’ll make one of those too. For now Judge is making all the defensive plays he’s supposed to make, and then some.

The last few seasons the Yankees have typically enjoyed strong outfield defense thanks mostly to Brett Gardner in left and Jacoby Ellsbury in center. Right field has been a problem. The Yankees lived with Carlos Beltran‘s glove out there because he brought offense. Now they’re getting the best of both worlds from right field. Judge is giving them offense and defense. He impacts games on both sides of the ball.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with all this other than to say Judge has been really good in the field this season. There’s much more to this guy than mammoth dingers. He’s a very good all-around player. Probably better than most non-Yankees fans given him credit for. Watching him every day though, we’ve been able to see exactly how good he is defensively, and that two-way play is a reason he’s a extremely super early MVP candidate.

Aaron Hicks has been working out of first base, and hopefully the Yankees won’t need him there

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

All winter long, I and many others said there was no way the Yankees would get worse production from first base this year than what Mark Teixeira gave them last year. Teixeira hit .204/.292/.362 (76 wRC+) last season. And so far this season, Yankees first basemen are hitting .164/.276/.295 (59 wRC+), and that’s with Chris Carter hitting a home run last night. Welp. First base has been a sore spot.

Help is kinda sorta on the way. Bird swung a bat yesterday for the first time since landing on the disabled list, and Tyler Austin started a minor league rehab assignment over the weekend. That’s good. They’ll give the Yankees options. Will they improve the first base situation? Man I hope so. It’s hard to think they’ll make it worse once healthy, but who knows? No one thought Bird/Carter would be a downgrade from Teixeira, yet here we are.

In an effort to give themselves more options, the Yankees have had fourth outfielder Aaron Hicks work out at first base recently. Here’s what Joe Espada, the third base and infield coach, told Brendan Kuty:

“He’s athletic, and sometimes we get deep in games,” Espada said. “It gives (manager Joe Girardi) some flexibility. (Girardi) asked me to hit him some ground balls in the infield, just in case … If he learned it, yes, I think (he’d be an option there). During the season, it’s really hard to get him to learn it. But he’ll take some ground balls on his off days and see what he can do. He does have some athleticism but it takes time to learn.”

The Yankees put Rob Refsnyder through a first base crash course last season — literally one day of work! — before playing him at the position during a game, though that was out of necessity. Teixeira was banged up and they ran out of options. I doubt the Yankees want to do that again, and they haven’t. Hicks has been working out at first base and nothing more. He’s yet to play there in a game.

I get why the Yankees are having Hicks work out at first base, and there’s no reason not to try to increase the versatility of your players, but I hope they don’t decide to actually play him there in anything other than emergency. I am totally cool with sticking with Carter at first base until Bird and/or Austin returns. Carter has gone 7-for-29 with two homers since the end of the NL city road trip. That’s a .241/.333/.483 line in nine games. That’s Chris Carter.

First base has been a problem area for the Yankees since last season. They’re getting little production from a position in which the offensive bar is quite high. It’s actually kinda amazing they’re second only to the Nationals (5.72) in runs per game (5.62) without getting anything from first base. Giving Hicks work there is fine as long as he’s an emergency only option. Playing him there full-time shouldn’t be a consideration right now. The Yankees aren’t that desperate yet.

What does Statcast’s catch probability tell us about Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner?

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Barring injury or a last minute Spring Training trade, when the 2017 regular season begins, the Yankees will have Brett Gardner in left field and Jacoby Ellsbury in center field. That’s been the regular arrangement for three years now. The Yankees will have some things to figure out once prospects like Clint Frazier or Dustin Fowler are ready, but that’s not a pressing issue.

Both Gardner and Ellsbury are 33 and will turn 34 later this year. Gardner in August, Ellsbury in September. They’re at the age — beyond it, really — when everything usually begins to slip. Offense, defense, speed, everything. Soon-to-be 34-year-old baseball players are rarely as productive as they were in their 20s. Such is life. The Yankees will have to navigate their declines in the coming years.

Interestingly enough, the various stats say Gardner and Ellsbury both had their best defensive seasons in several years in 2016. That surprised me. I though the opposite would be true. The quick numbers:

DRS UZR Total Zone FRAA
2016 Gardner +12 +3.5 +0 +11.9
2015 Gardner +1 -0.9 -6 -3.5
2013-15 Gardner +5 +1.9 -21 -39.2
2016 Ellsbury +8 +0.7 +1 -15.7
2015 Ellsbury +1 -3.2 +1 -9
2013-15 Ellsbury +11 +7.3 +26 -1.9

You’ll have a hard time convincing me Gardner cost the Yankees nearly 40 (!) runs in the field from 2013-15 as FRAA alleges, but that’s why it’s good to look at several metrics. Generally speaking, the four main defensive stats say Gardner and Ellsbury were better in 2016 than they were in 2015 and on a rate basis from 2013-15. That’s the direction the numbers are pointing.

If you’ve watched the World Baseball Classic at all, you know there’s a new Statcast metric out called Catch Probability, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: how likely is it this ball will be caught? Here are the nuts and bolts of catch probability, via MLB.com:

With Statcast tracking the exact start position on the field for each fielder and also measuring the hang time of each batted ball, the two most important pieces of data to define the difficulty of a catch opportunity are: 1. How far did the fielder have to go? 2. How much time did he have to get there?

Accordingly, each tracked batted ball to the outfield is assigned an expected Catch Probability percentage — relative to comparable catch opportunities in the Statcast era — based on distance needed and opportunity time. The more time a fielder has to react to a ball and the less distance needed to reach it, the higher the Catch Probability.

Seems simple enough, right? This is only the first pass at a catch probability metric, remember. I’m sure there will be ballpark and other adjustments added as time goes on. Catch probability drops batted balls into five buckets:

  • One Star Outs: Catches made at least 91% of the time.
  • Two Star Outs: Catches made 75-90% of the time.
  • Three Star Outs: Catches made 51-74% of the time.
  • Four Star Outs: Catches made 26-50% of the time.
  • Five Star Outs: Catches made 0-25% of the time.

One Star Outs are your routine cans of corn. The plays every outfielder should make even if he’s, say, late career Carlos Beltran or Matt Holliday. Five Star Outs are the most difficult plays. The fly balls and line drives that rarely get caught by even the best defenders. The math may be gory behind the scenes, but catch probability is easy to digest on this end.

We have two years of Statcast data available and therefore two years of catch probability. The defensive stats in the table above tell us both Gardner and Ellsbury were better defensively in 2016 than 2015. Does catch probability agree? Let’s look. (Shout out to the indispensable Baseball Savant for the data.)

Brett Gardner

One Star Outs Two Star Outs Three Star Outs Four Star Outs Five Star Outs
2015 100.0% 81.5% 50.0% 46.7% 16.7%
2016 100.0% 75.0% 94.4% 21.4% 12.1%

Those Three Star Outs jump out at you, eh? Gardner went from making those catches, the ones that are made 51-74% of the time, at a 50.0% rate in 2015 to a staggering 94.4% rate in 2016. Only two players had a higher Three Star Out catch probability last year: Mookie Betts and Desmond Jennings, who were both at 100.0%.

Therein lies part of the problem: sample size. Jennings played only 65 games last year due to injury and he had only only six Three Star Out catch opportunities. Gardner, who played full-time both seasons, had only 14 Three Star Out opportunities in 2015 and 18 in 2016. He made seven of those plays in 2015, hence the 50.0% catch probability. Last year he made 17 of 18.

So, with that in mind, here again are Gardner’s catch probabilities, this time with the number of opportunities added to provide more context:

One Star Outs Two Star Outs Three Star Outs Four Star Outs Five Star Outs
2015 100.0% (37) 81.5% (27) 50.0% (14) 46.7% (15) 16.7% (30)
2016 100.0% (36) 75.0% (16) 94.4% (18) 21.4% (14) 12.1% (33)

The number of catch opportunities varies wildly from player to player. Adam Eaton had 65 One Star Out opportunities in 2016. Gardner had 36. They both played everyday, but one guy had nearly twice as many cans of corn hit his way than the other. Obviously the pitching staff plays a part in this. New York’s pitching staff generated way more strikeouts (23.1%) and ground balls (46.9%) than Chicago’s (20.5% and 43.1%), hence fewer opportunities for Gardner than Eaton.

The sample sizes cause us some problems. I’m hesitant to read too much into so few data points. Gardner’s Four Star Out catch probability dropped from 46.7% in 2015 to 21.4% in 2016, but we’re talking about 29 batted balls total across two seasons. We wouldn’t attempt to analyze 29 at-bats spread across two years, would we? Can’t do the same with defense. Anyway, I promised to look at both guys, so let’s get to Ellsbury now.

Jacoby Ellsbury

One Star Outs Two Star Outs Three Star Outs Four Star Outs Five Star Outs
2015 93.9% (33) 91.7% (12) 75.0% (12) 68.8% (16) 26.1% (23)
2016 94.6% (37) 82.4% (17) 80.0% (20) 50.0% (16) 3.6% (28)

Yeesh, look at that Five Star Out catch probability. Ellsbury made one such play in 28 opportunities last year. One! As with Gardner, there aren’t enough data points here to say anything definitive about Ellsbury and which way his defense is trending at this point of his career, but gosh, one catch in 28 opportunities? These numbers are a record of what happened on the field, remember. If a hitter goes 1-for-28 at the plate, it doesn’t mean he’s a true talent .036 hitter, but the 1-for-28 happened and it hurt the team.

Keep in mind Ellsbury hurt his knee in May 2015 and missed close to two months, and it’s possible if not likely the injury hampered him in the field after he returned. It sure seemed like the injury threw him out of whack at the plate. The same is possible in the field. Even then, Ellsbury’s catch probabilities were pretty good in 2015. Like Gardner, Ellsbury performed worse in three of the five catch probability categories from 2015 to 2016. And that means … I’m not sure. It could be normal year-to-year fluctuation.

* * *

As with the other defensive stats like DRS and UZR, it seems you need a sample of several seasons for catch probability to be reliable. I do think it’s a better measure of single-season defense than the other stats because Statcast more accurately measures the batted ball trajectory, the defender’s positioning, stuff like that. DRS and UZR are estimating.

So, while Ellsbury’s 1-for-28 effort on Five Star Outs in 2016 may not accurately reflect his true defensive ability given the limited amount of data, it did happen, and it did cost the Yankees runs. My eyes told me both Gardner and Ellsbury were still above-average defenders last season, Gardner moreso. Neither was as good as we’ve seen them in the past, I don’t think, and that makes sense given their ages. The various defensive stats say the opposite is true, that they were better than they’d been in previous years. I was hoping catching probability would clear that up for us, but alas. It’s just more information to consider, not a definitive answer.

Dellin Betances has been working to correct his problem throwing to the bases this offseason

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

Last September, all the flaws of Dellin Betances were on full display. He struggled to throw strikes, possibly due to fatigue considering it was the second straight season his control vanished in the season’s final month, and he was still unable to hold runners. Runners went 9-for-9 stealing bases against Betances in the second half.

Dellin, who has never been great at fielding his position, also made some errors. He threw away a ball that led to a run against the Dodgers (video) and also bobbled a bunt against the Blue Jays (video). Betances also made a critical error against the Astros on Opening Day (video), and there were other throwing issues that didn’t go for errors, like this one:

This offseason, at the behest of pitching coach Larry Rothschild, Betances has worked on his fielding, specifically throwing according to George King. He’s not the only pitcher to struggle throwing to the bases, lots of guys have a similar problem — they’re so used to throwing off a mound that throwing off flat ground feels weird — but Dellin’s throws were far from textbook. He’d shot put the ball, not throw it with conviction.

“We pretty much worked on (pitchers’ fielding practice),” said Betances to King over the weekend. “It was mutual. He wanted a couple of days and it helped me. I feel good right now. He gave me drills to do while I am in the (Dominican Republic). I will continue to work on it in Spring Training … Right now I am throwing the ball. Before I was lobbing it over. I am in good position with my feet and making the throw.”

Obvious statement is obvious: players working to correct their flaws is a wonderful thing. Fielding is something a pitcher can work on at any time too. He can’t get up on a mound and throw, say, 50 changeups a day in the dead of winter, for example. He can go out on the field, scoop some grounders, and make throws to first though. I’m glad to hear Betances is working on this. Some quick thoughts:

1. Betances won’t be with the Yankees for part of Spring Training. The Dominican Republic plays their first World Baseball Classic game on March 9th, 22 days after the pitchers and catchers report to Tampa, though I’m not sure when Betances is leaving camp to join his WBC squad. In previous years the WBC teams got together a few days before their first game to work out and play a tune-up exhibition game. (The Yankees are playing Canada on March 8th this year.)

The WBC will cut into Betances’ time with the Yankees this spring no matter when he leaves camp. The WBC Championship Game is March 22nd at Dodger Stadium and the Dominican Republic team, which won the 2013 WBC, is very much a contender. Dellin could miss up to three weeks of Spring Training, which cuts into his time to work with Rothschild and the rest of the staff on his fielding. It’s not ideal, but what can you do? The Yankees can’t force Betances to stay, and while fans may be apathetic about the WBC, players are eager to represent their countries.

2. The throwing issues are real, but perhaps a bit overblown. There is no doubt Betances has had issues throwing to the bases. The impact of his poor fielding is generally overblown, however. Dellin faced 299 batters last season and he fielded the baseball 13 times. That’s all. The year before? Thirteen times. The year before that? Fourteen times. So in his three full seasons as a big leaguer, Betances has faced 972 batters and had to field the ball only 40 times.

Furthermore, 15 of those 40 fielding chances were Dellin covering first base, not making a throw. He’s made four throwing errors (five errors total) in the 25 times he’s had a baseball hit his way in the last three years. There’s been a ball hit his way roughly once every ten innings. That’s it. But Mike, what about bunts!? Fine point, RAB reader, but trying to bunt a dude throwing in the high-90s with a breaking ball that is literally the hardest pitch to hit in the PitchFX era ain’t easy.

Over the last three seasons ten batters have successfully laid down a bunt against Betances. And buy successfully I mean simply bunt the ball in play, not necessarily beat it out. Only three got a bunt down last year, and two were thrown out. More bunt attempts have resulted in foul balls (seven) than baserunners (four) against Betances the last three seasons. This isn’t a video game where you just push a button and bunt. A 6-foot-8 dude throwing 100 mph without much control is scary as hell. You try squaring around against him.

3. What about holding runners? To me, holding runners is a far bigger issue than throwing to the bases. Runners went 21-for-21 stealing bases against Betances last year, including 6-for-6 when Gary Sanchez‘s rocket arm was behind the plate. They’re 50-for-57 over the last three seasons. Runners have attempted a stolen base in 15.9% of their opportunities against Betances since 2014. It was 17.7% in 2016. The league average is 5.5%.

Because he’s a high-leverage reliever, Betances pitches most often in the late innings of close games, when that extra 90-feet can be really valuable. He does have a slide step and he does vary his times to the plate, but obviously that’s not enough. No one is asking Dellin to develop an Andy Pettitte (or Nathan Eovaldi!) pickoff move. But he has to at least put something in the back of the runner’s mind. Something to keep them on their toes.

Hopefully all this fielding work will make Betances more comfortable throwing to the bases, and also make him more comfortable making a pickoff throw over the first. Again, he doesn’t need to actually pick guys off. He just has to keep them closer to the bag and reduce their chances of stealing the base. Dellin fields the ball so infrequently that his throwing issues don’t worry me much. The stolen bases are a far bigger concern.

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.