Guest Post: Counterpoint for the Future of the Big Three Relievers

The following is a guest post from Andrew Calagna, who goes by The Original Drew #BAEROD in the comments. You can follow him on Twitter at @_swarlesbarkley. Andrew wrote about the trade deadline and the Yankees top relievers. Enjoy.

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

Last week Don Sullivan wrote an intriguing guest post that advocated that the Yankees send off all 3 of their endgame bullpen arms and go into full rebuild mode. While the Yankees are not close to contending in 2016 (as of today), I do not believe that contending in 2017 is out of the realm of possibilities. Allow me to retort0

There is a core of the team already in place

There is a ton of dead weight on the Yankees roster currently (I refuse to use the “A” word) but there are still many pieces on the 2016 team that can help build a contender in 2017. Starting pitching wise you have Masahiro Tanaka, the much improved Nathan Eovaldi, and despite his struggles I would still consider Luis Severino to be an asset going forward. You have Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances potentially back as the anchors to the bullpen.

Lineup wise is where it gets tricky. Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius are definitely building pieces along with Aaron Hicks, but you have to squint really hard to find others on the current roster. Brian McCann led all catchers in HRs as recently as 2015 and having the presence of Gary Sanchez on the roster might make McCann a part time DH option next year. Do we believe that Brett Gardner is a truly .230 hitter now? It is a definite possibility but there is still enough good performance dating back to last year to possibly justify keeping him around a piece for next year’s team.

That is beginning of building a contender for next year. The good news is that some of the dead weight of the current roster will be gone next year, but there are many players that still remain (I am looking at you Chase Headley). What do the Yankees do with these players? I am not going to pretend that I am smarter than the Yankee front office, but jettisoning many of these players, even if it is for pennies on the dollar is a must. I listed 10-11 guys as pieces for next year, not counting the Yankees top prospects which is a nice segue to…

Rolling the dice with prospects

The Yankees went into the year with their offense relying on Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, two aging sluggers, having a repeat of their mostly awesome 2015 seasons. This was clearly a risk by the front office but there weren’t really any other realistic options for the team going into 2016. The 2017 team is going to be much different. Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, and Gary Sanchez will potentially be ready to step in and contribute at the major league level.

As it stands today, handing over the keys to the Yankees offense to this group are also inherently risky. We are unsure of Bird’s recovery timetable from shoulder surgery, Judge is struggling at AAA right now, and Sanchez currently out with an injured thumb. The question is, is it more risky than what the Yankees did going into 2016? At some point you have to see what you have in these players and you ride or die with them. I can only speak for myself but I would rather roll the dice with this group of prospects (on top of other offseason moves the Yankees make) rather than go with the approach the Yankees have currently.

Trading away 2/3 of the big 3 relievers but not all 3

The Yankees have a depreciating asset in Aroldis Chapman. The longer he is on the roster in 2016, the less the Yankees are going to get for him in a trade. As Mike and many others have stated, no matter if the Yankees somehow miraculously turn it around in 2016 Chapman has to be turned into future assets. The return is potentially much larger now than what they gave up for him in the offseason.

Trading both Miller and Betances is where things start to get dicey. Relievers are fickle creatures, but having a dominant bullpen is a must for contending teams. I agree with Don that the most valuable reliever on the Yankees roster is currently Betances, but at the same time the Yankees would have to be really blown away to trade him. Miller seems to be a top target for a lot of contending teams and should definitely be more in play.

There is always the possibility of trading away Miller and Chapman and being able to resign the latter. This is an unlikely possibility but it becomes more likely if the Yankees trade away Miller. Like most, I believe that the now budget conscious Yankees wouldn’t pay top dollar for two relievers. If Betances is the only reliever left standing in 2016, re-signing Chapman should definitely be in play. The domestic violence issue that lead the Yankees to acquire Chapman has been a icky situation at best, but the Yankees were willing to take the brunt of the criticism but acquiring Chapman to begin with. Re-signing him should not be out of the question.

In conclusion, there is definitely more than one way to build a team. Being that the Yankees don’t truly rebuild in the sense that other teams do, I think that there is a way for the Yankees to trade away assets this year but not go into 2017 with having zero hope to contend.

I don’t think this team would be World Series favorite going into the season, but I personally would be happy with the team battling for a WC spot and have the potential to get better year and after year. Brian Cashman and Co. would be doing a disservice to the franchise to not listen to any and all offers for players on the current roster, but absolutely having to trade all assets away in a rebuild is not the only way to get the Yankees back into contention.

Guest Post: The Still Good At Baseball Jacoby Ellsbury

The following is a guest post from Carlo Macomber, who goes by CoryWadeDavis in the comments. He’s previous written guest posts about Masahiro Tanaka and Didi Gregorius.

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

Jacoby Ellsbury’s contract is horrible. Absolutely terrible. Ellsbury is not the type of player that should make over $21 million per season (Cot’s Contracts actually says he makes exactly $21,142,857.15 annually, which is oddly specific). This is not about Ellsbury’s contract, though. Nothing can be done about that at this point, and as Yankees fans, all we can hope is that Ellsbury plays close to his career averages. We should not (and cannot) expect him to perform like a $21 million per year player.

Now that the contract talk is out of the way, let’s look at Jacoby Ellsbury the baseball player. So far this year, Ellsbury has actually been pretty good! After hitting .257/.318/.345 (83 wRC+) in 501 PAs last year, Ellsbury is hitting .280/.344/.415 (108 wRC+) through June 1 (186 PAs) of this season. While his offensive numbers are not anywhere near his anomalous 2011 season when he had a 150 wRC+, this year’s batting line looks incredibly similar to his career .288/.343/.425 (106 wRC+) line. In other words, after being a well below average hitter in 2015, Ellsbury is (so far) back to being the above average hitter he has been for most of his career.

Perhaps the biggest difference between 2015 and 2016 Ellsbury is simply health. Although he did miss about a week with a hip injury this year, Ellsbury has been mostly healthy this season, which is already a noticeable difference from 2015. With this in mind, let’s look to see what Ellsbury has done differently baseball-wise in 2016.

1. He’s hitting the ball harder (for the most part)!

Ellsbury’s hard contact rate this year is at 26.3%, up from 21.1% last year, and very close to his career rate of 25.4%. This is a very good improvement! Interestingly, however, Ellsbury’s soft contact rate is also up. This season he is making soft contact 25.5% of the time, up from 24.1% last year, and well above his career rate of 19.5%. Ellsbury’s BABIP is not particularly high this season at .328, which is in line with his career BABIP of .319 (but higher than last year’s .301).

On the one hand, Ellsbury is making more hard contact than last year (and is now in line with his career average). On the other hand, his soft contact is well above his career rate, yet he is still putting up a typical Ellsbury batting line without an astronomically high BABIP. It will be interesting to see how Ellsbury’s batted ball velocity and BABIP look as the season progresses, but as of right now, it all looks quite solid.

2. He’s striking out less.

Ellsbury’s K% last year was a career-worst 17.2%. A player like Ellsbury, who depends a lot on his speed, needs to put the ball in play as often as possible to be successful. He simply did not do that last season. This year, however, Ellsbury’s K% is down to 15.1%, much closer to his career rate of 13.6%, and nearly identical to his 2013 and 2014 rates (14.5% and 14.6%). It should also be noted that Ellsbury’s 2016 BB% of 7.5% is in line with his career rate of 7.0%. So, while Ellsbury’s hard contact rate is up this year, he is simply making more contact in general than he did last season, leading to a more typical batting line.

3. He’s swinging at better pitches.

Here is a graphic, from the catcher’s perspective, of the percentage of pitches in each location that Ellsbury swung at in 2015.

Jacoby Ellsbury 2015

Obviously, Ellsbury swung at high percentages of pitches in the zone, just as he should.  What stands out here, however, is how often he swung at pitches low and out of the zone, and, to a lesser extent, outside and off the place. In general, it is more difficult to hit pitches low and/or outside with authority, which, as evidenced by last seasons’ hard contact rate, Ellsbury did not do very well. On pitches in the bottom five squares of the graphic, Ellsbury hit 14 total line drives, compared to 52 ground balls last season. He also whiffed on 12 of the 21 pitches he swung at in the bottom right square. If Ellsbury is looking to hit the ball hard, which all players should be, laying off more of these low pitches would make sense. Of course, that is much easier said than done in the MLB.

Now, here is the same graphic, except for all pitches Ellsbury has seen this season through June 1.

Jacoby Ellsbury 2016 swings

Clearly, this is a much smaller sample size, but Ellsbury has at least started this season by swinging at fewer pitches low and out of the zone and outside and off the plate. In fact, Ellsbury has swung at a lower percentage of pitches in eight of the nine lowest and furthest outside squares. The only square of those nine with a higher swinging percentage this season is the one in the middle and outside. Ellsbury has continued to swing at pitches both in the zone and inside with high frequency, and these are the pitches that he should be looking to attack in order to hit the ball hard more often.

Offensively, Ellsbury has looked much more like himself so far this season. He is a good, not spectacular, hitter that uses his speed to put pressure on the other team. Last season, after he returned from the DL, Ellsbury looked like an absolute mess at the plate, and he started to swing at poor pitches. It appears that so far this season Ellsbury is being more selective at the plate, which has lead to better contact and fewer strikeouts! It is still possible (maybe likely?) that health is a key factor in his improvement. It is also possible that he made a mechanical adjustment. However, it is evident here that Ellsbury’s ability to swing at better pitches this year has certainly contributed to his success. I imagine that Ellsbury’s resurgence (through two months, don’t forget) is a combination of all three!

4. But what about defense?

While we all know that Ellsbury struggled offensively last season, he actually cost the team several runs defensively as well. Ellsbury has always had a poor arm. Anyone that has ever watched him throw can confirm this. Outfield arm runs, one of the components of the all-encompassing (but, of course, imperfect) defensive metric Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), says he cost the Yankees 2.1 runs last season, and 2.7 runs this season just because of his poor arm. What is more interesting, however, is that range runs, another component of UZR that measures how well and outfielder can get to balls hit near him, says Ellsbury cost the Yankees 2.0 runs. When all the components are added together, Ellsbury total UZR last season was -3.2 and his UZR per 150 games played was -5.6. This was only his second ever season with a negative UZR.

While his arm has already cost the Yankees 2.7 runs this year, Ellsbury range has improved considerably, and his overall UZR so far this year is +0.6. He is, hypothetically, on track for a UZR per 150 games played of +12.8, which would be a drastic improvement on both 2014 and 2015 but right near is 2013 level. While I do not expect Ellsbury to provide that much defensive value over the course of this season, the evidence is there to suggest that last year was an (injury-related?) aberration, and that Ellsbury is a valuable defensive player. (Last night’s error notwithstanding.)

Overall, Ellsbury is so far revealing that his 2015 season was the polar opposite of his 2011 season. Those two seasons deviate the most from his career averages but in opposite directions. His batting line this season is incredibly close to his career average, and his defense, according to UZR, is returning to a positive level, even if it is not close to his defensive peak. Ellsbury has looked like a good Major League Baseball player again this year, and Yankees fans everywhere should hope that Ellsbury continues to swing at good pitches, chase down fly balls in the outfield, and, of course, remain healthy!

Guest Post: The Future of the Big Three Relievers

The following is a guest post from longtime reader Don Sullivan, who is smart enough to avoid the comments. Don wrote about the future of Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman.

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

It wasn’t too long that the Yankees were playing pretty well, was it? A big part of their success has been their bullpen. Chapman, Miller, and Betances form a historic trio. There is no denying that a phenomenal bullpen can turn a good team into a great team. The question that Brian Cashman and company have to be honest with themselves in asking is, “are we a good team?” If the answer is yes, then you keep the bullpen status quo; if the answer is no, it is time to shop. In my opinion, the magic number is somewhere between 8-12 games under .500 now that we are nearly 1/3 of the way through the year in which the answer is shop.

This post will explore the future of each of the big three and ramifications/expected returns of unloading each one.

(*Disclaimer: I am more of a fan of trades that bring in talent compared to unloading contracts. However, the Yankees do have some albatross contracts to unload.)

Move #1 – Dellin Leaves Home

Out of the three relievers, I would be most inclined to trade Betances (gasp!). In my opinion, not only is Betances the most valuable (youngest/cheapest/most years of team control) but he is also the most enigmatic. He is also the only reliever in which I think the Yankees can trade and include a bad contract with. Relievers are fickle, history tells us there are very few of them who enjoy consistently great careers.

Can Betances be one of the few? Absolutely, but I would rather cash in on his value now, which probably cannot be any higher. Is Betances enough of a sweetener to make a team like the Rangers (5.20+ bullpen ERA) bite and take on Jacoby Ellsbury‘s contract (also note their current CF is Ian Desmond)? Possibly. Maybe throw in a tertiary bullpen piece like Chasen Shreve or some cash to get it done. Rangers ownership has shown the propensity to spend and after last year’s debacle, they may be the perfect partner to unload Ells. The only way I am trading Betances is if the other team will take on a Ellsbury or a Chase Headley type contract. I am not personally trading Betances for controllable talent (unless I am blown away).

Move #2 – Cashman cashes in on Chapman

Aroldis is the most accomplished of the three and also has the most explosive stuff (which is really saying something). Odds are the Yankees will not dole out the big bucks to keep Chapman after 2016. Trading Chapman comes with one huge caveat, if you keep him you are guaranteed a first round draft pick when he bolts in free agency.(Recent first round picks have been Aaron Judge, James Kaprielian, Ian Clarkin, etc.)

Also of note, Chapman has been the definition of a work horse throughout his career and Joe Girardi would not have to worry about burning him out. Chapman has pitched five times in six days (2013) and six times in eight days (2012) during his career. Additionally, Chapman probably has the lowest trade value because of his limited amount of team control (half a season).

Given the Yankees farm system and current needs, I would definitely deal Chapman for either a young, controllable starter or a third baseman. The Pirates would seem to be the perfect trade partner as they know Chapman from the division and need to dramatically improve their bullpen (3.93 bullpen ERA). For me either Jameson Taillon or Ke’Bryan Hayes get it done.

Move #3 – Move on from Miller

Andrew Miller has been all the Yankees could hope for and more.  His performance has been gaudy and he has proven to be the consummate teammate. He is also signed until 2018 at $9M per year, which is extremely reasonable. I don’t know if his trade value is as high as Betances, but it is certainly higher than Chapman’s.

I do think that Miller can get a similar package to that of Ken Giles, though probably slightly less. Miller is the superior player but Giles is controlled for a longer period of time/cheaper. However, I do think a Vincent Velasquez type talent in return for Miller is not at all unreasonable. The Dodgers would seemingly salivate if Miller were available. They backed out of the Chapman deal based on off the field concerns that Miller does not carry. I would ask the Dodgers for Julio Urias (unlikely), but settle for Jose De Leon, who is much more likely.

All in all, if the Yankees choose to deal, I believe the smartest action is to move two of the three.  If the team manages to improve and play well, it still may be worth trading one of the three, however the deal better bowl you over. Of course, my trade proposals suck.

Guest Post: Constructing the 1927 Team: If You’re Strong You’ll Survive and Keep Your Dream Alive

The following is a guest post from Adam Moss, who you know as Roadgeek Adam in the comments. He’s previously written guest posts on Tim McClelland, Frankie Crosetti, the No. 26, Casey Stengel, Leo Durocher, Miller Huggins, Jerry Kenney, the Copacabana incident, and Mark Koenig.

Combs. (National Baseball Hall of Fame.)
Combs. (National Baseball Hall of Fame.)

It seemed to be just another day of baseball at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, Missouri on Tuesday, July 24, 1934. Johnny Murphy was throwing for the Yankees a game of one-run baseball. The Yankees held a small 2-1 lead over the Browns. The players were pretty much drained by the seventh inning because of the 109 degree ambient temperature in St. Louis, which felt more like 120+ in the ballpark. During the seventh inning, Murphy gave up a long fly to the Browns’ Harland Clift, and the left fielder ran after it at full speed. Before he knew it, he crashed into the left field wall, made completely of concrete. The force of the impact was so powerful that the player rebounded off the concrete and fell on the ground, lying completely still. After rushing to his aid, players carried the injured outfielder to the clubhouse with bruises and bleeding, very much dazed. Before the end of the game the precious career and the life of a player for the Yankees was in the hands of a hospital in St. Louis.

The Kentucky Kid

Earle Bryan Combs was born on May 14, 1899 on a farm in a small community 56 miles southeast of Lexington, Kentucky called Pebworth. Combs was one of six children by farmer James J. Combs (born 1860) and Nannie Brandenburg (born 1869). As a kid, young Earle would make baseballs for his local team to use as a baseball player. In addition to his work playing baseball as a kid, Combs also played for the local basketball team in Owsley County. Combs was accepted to Eastern Kentucky State Normal School in 1914 and received a certificate in teaching in 1919. His first love was always baseball, and when playing for the Eastern Kentucky Colonels, scouts caught attention of the 6-foot, 170 lb. 22-year-old who was playing the outfield. In 1921 with the college team, Combs had managed a batting average of .591!

Combs began to teach at a one-room school at Harlan, Kentucky until realizing that he could probably make more money as a baseball player than a teacher. In 1922, he signed with the Louisville Colonels of the American Association and played for manager Joe McCarthy. In his very first game as a Colonel, Combs made several errors in the outfield, which led to their opponents winning the game. The young Combs after the game was concerned about his ability to play and that he would wonder what would happen to him and his wife Ruth. McCarthy quickly eliminated any doubt about his potential, knowing he had a great player. Combs responded to McCarthy’s support, hitting .344 and slugging .487. In 130 games, he managed to get 167 hits, 21 doubles, 18 triples and slug four home runs.

1923 was a much better season under McCarthy’s leadership, when in 166 games, the 24-year-old Combs hit at an astounding .380 average and a .566 slugging. His overall peripherals also improved, with 241 hits, 46 doubles and 14 home runs. (His triple rate went down to 15, but that’s bookkeeping.) On January 7, 1924, the Louisville Colonels announced that Wayland Dean, a pitcher, was sold to the New York Giants for $50,000 (1924 USD). Also reported by the Colonels was that Earle Combs was sold to the New York Yankees for the similar amount, along with outfielder Elmer Smith. At the time, the $100,000 acceptance for their players was the record for the American Association. The so-called “Mail Carrier” had made the Majors.

From the Mail Carrier to the Waiter

Now as a member of the Yankees, Miller Huggins decided to have a long talk with the young Combs about his purpose on the team. Huggins changed his title from “Mail Carrier” to “The Waiter,” noting that rather than use his base stealing abilities, just wear out a pitcher and get on base, that way people like Ruth can just knock him in for a run. Combs took Huggins’ advice, and the numbers ended up reflecting themselves in 1924. During the 1924 season, Combs stole no bases and was caught stealing once. However, his statistics that season reflect all of 24 games, because on June 15 during a game against the Cleveland Indians, Combs broke his right ankle in front of 30,000 people sliding into home plate. Harvey Hendrick replaced him in left field. While multiple reports note that Combs was out for the season in 1924 after the ankle fracture, he managed to squeeze one more game in during the 1924 season: September 2’s first game against the Boston Red Sox. Combs was able to pinch hit in his only appearance for Al Mamaux. The loss of Combs is considered a reason the Yankees lost the pennant in 1924 to the Washington Senators by two games.

Returning to the Yankees in 1925 as a fully-healed player, Combs went to work being The Waiter. By the end of the April, Combs had been hitting .378/.439/.459, spending most of May above a .400 batting average (peaking on May 6 at .467/.543/.583). Combs did not fall under the .400 line until after the game on May 27, 1925 against the Boston Red Sox. As the dog days of summer passed, Combs’s line below .350 on August 6 against the Detroit Tigers, but would not fall much further. The lowest Combs would ever reach is .336 on two occasions: August 29 against the Browns and September 2 against the Red Sox. Combs finished the season with an absurd batting line: .342/.412/.462. On top of that, Combs eked out 203 hits, 36 doubles and 13 triples along with three homers. The Waiter also managed 65 walks over 43 strikeouts. For the SABRmetrics geeks, he represented 4.0 WAR for the 1925 Yankees, receiving an MVP vote and finishing 18th.

1926 represented a very blip-ish season for the Yankees outfielder. Hitting a paltry .299, Combs never broke the .350 barrier after April 21 against the Red Sox. Despite the questionable season for Combs, which involved getting 181 base hits (31 doubles, 12 triples and 8 homers), his ability to reach base more than strikeout continued, with his 47 walks over 23 strikeouts. Yes, 23 strikeouts in 145 games. The team still managed to reach the pennant, unfortunately losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. During that World Series, Combs played in all seven games, hitting .357/.455/.429 with 10 hits in 28 at bats, along with 5 walks.

That brings us to the magical 1927 season. Whatever afflicted Combs during the 1926 season wore off, because the season he had was similar to 1925. Although he spent most of the season batting around the .320 range, Combs managed to hit at a then career-high (base 130 games) .356/.414/.511. Combs set major league highs in plate appearances (725), at bats (648), hits (231) and triples (23) in 152 games. The 231 hits were a record, and it was not eclipsed until Don Mattingly did the job in 1986 with 238. He also hit 36 doubles and 6 homers, along with stealing 15 bases (caught 6 times). He also walked at twice the rate of his strikeouts (62/31) during the 1927 season. During the 1927 World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Combs managed to hit .313/.389/.313 with 5 hits in 16 at bats. While definitely a downgrade from his line in the 1926 Fall Classic, Combs finally got his first ring a member of the New York Yankees, as the Yankees swept the Bucs in 4 games.

Because parity, Combs’s 1928 season reflected his 1926 performance, with Combs managing only a .310/.387/.463 batting line that year. However, it was not for naught. Combs still managed 194 hits, 33 two-baggers and yet another major league high 21 triples. The Yankees still went on to face the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, but Combs would be a non-factor. Combs had one plate appearance on October 8 as a pinch-hitter for Benny Bengough. This was due to an injured wrist, which he was claimed to be unavailable for the entire season. Strangely enough, Combs managed to finish sixth in the MVP standings. (Teammate Tony Lazzeri finished in a tie for third!)

For those who would yell “Decline!” after the 1928 season performance were quickly debunked in the 1929 season. Combs started the 1929 season extremely slow, not reaching the .300 batting average line until May 11 against the Detroit Tigers. However, unlike the dog days of summer before, Combs only got better as the season went on, reaching the .350 batting average on June 16 against the Tigers. In the fight to keep up with the Philadelphia Athletics, Combs managed to hit .350 on a regular basis, finishing the season just below that at .345/.414/.468. He also broke the 200-hit barrier for the third time in his career, ratcheting another 202. However, these statistics were overshadowed by the unexpected death of the manager Miller Huggins on September 25. Huggins had loved Combs and Gehrig on his team, and the death of the Mighty Atom affected the newly-nicknamed Kentucky Colonel. The nickname came from the fact that he was a determined person in the field, but also the gentleman of the Yankees. Combs did not smoke or swore like his teammates, focusing on his studying of the Holy Bible.

From Waiter to Non-Factor

1930 would be considered the last excellent season for The Waiter. His statistics under Bob Shawkey’s leadership echoed his 1929 ones. The 31-year-old Combs hit .344/.424/.523 for a third-place team, racking up another 183 hits to his career, including 30 doubles and his third major league high 22 triples in 137 games. That season was the last that Combs would lead any category whatsoever, but he was far from done. In 1931, Combs got a boost from the Yankees hiring his manager from Louisville, Joe McCarthy, and in 138 games, Combs racked up another 179 hits. However, decline finally showed in the 32-year old outfielder. Combs only hit .318/.394/.446. While this is nothing to consider pathetic, by the standard Combs had set before, this was definitely out of whack. He still kept within average on doubles and triples, hitting 31 and 13 respectively and was still the machine when it came to walking versus striking out (another doubled performance: 68 over 34.)

1932 reflected the last great season Combs would have as a Major League player. Combs gained another 190 hits to his resume, running his average back up to .321/.405/.455 overall. The Kentucky Colonel helped lead the Yankees to another pennant in 1932, facing the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. However, unlike 1928, Combs returned to being a factor in 1932 during the Fall Classic. Combs had 16 at bats in the 4 games, racking up 6 hits and 4 walks, batting .375/.500/.625. However, the 1932 World Series was famous more for Babe Ruth’s called homer during Game 3, noting that he could not remember if Babe was pointing to the stands, but that the Cubs were “machine-gunned” when Ruth did exactly what he predicted.

1933 was the clincher for those who call decline, and it showed in his stats. Combs only appeared in 122 games, the lowest since his injury-ridden 1924 season. He only chalked up 125 hits, 22 doubles and somehow managed to leg out 16 triples and five homers. He only hit .300/.372/.465 as the Yankees lost to the Senators for the AL pennant by 7 games. If not for an 8-14 record against the Senators, the Yankees may have gone to the World Series. For the first half of the 1934 season, Combs managed to hit a paltry .319/.412/.434, with 80 hits in 63 games along with 13 doubles and 5 triples. However, all the work he put into season came to a head on July 24 at Sportsman’s Park.

The Accident

During the game against the St. Louis Browns on July 24, Combs was playing in left field. In three at-bats, Combs had failed to reach base, getting only his ninth strikeout of the season. Everyone in the park was pretty drained due to the rough St. Louis heat, 109 degrees ambient and projections over 120 degrees in the ballpark itself. Harland Clift, the third baseman for the Browns hit a long fly off Johnny Murphy that Combs chased into the 370-foot left field of the park. Combs, despite the heat, ran full-speed to catch the ball, and while focusing on the ball, neglected to notice the concrete wall at the edge of the ballpark. Combs slammed head-on into the wall, so powerfully that he rebounded off the wall and fell down.

Combs just lay still while Clift rounded the bases for his third hit of the day. The players panicked seeing the Colonel on the ground and carried him off the field and into the clubhouse, bruised, dazed and bleeding as Myril Hoag replaced him in left. That night he was brought to St. Johns Hospital in the Westwood section of St. Louis County. Dr. Robert Hyland of the hospital examined the injured Combs, who had no idea what hit him, noted that the outfielder had a fracture of the left temporal bone and a fractured left clavicle. While spending most of his time in the hospital in critical condition, Combs managed to have a restful night of July 24 and that he was in satisfactory shape.

The baseball media thought that the injury at Sportsman’s Park would mean the end of the career of Combs, due to the severity. However, Combs was determined to return, citing his time during the 1924 season of breaking his ankle as his reasoning. During the time that he had injured his ankle, the media “counted him out” and that he would never play baseball again. However, he noted that he could fool the media once and believed he could do it again. However, in August as his shoulder completely repaired itself, Dr. Hyland did not want to make suggestions on the effect the injury would have to his career. Combs noted though that as soon as he could leave St. John’s, he would return to his farm in Richmond, Kentucky to prepare and condition himself for the 1935 season.

On September 8, 1934, the time finally came. Combs left St. John’s Hospital to go see the Washington Senators take on the Browns. That game was the first time that Combs had left the hospital since the night of the accident, but Combs would have to return before being discharged the next day. Afterwards, he went to visit his Yankee teammates then headed home to Kentucky. The comeback would be completed on April 16, 1935 when he was put in the Opening Day lineup by manager Joe McCarthy, batting leadoff as the left fielder behind Lefty Gomez. While Combs had a 0-4 day, the fact that he was playing in another game after a life-threatening accident just nine months earlier was a major step forward. Always a fan favorite, Combs was applauded in his return.

Combs noted in the media during an early May series against the Indians that he had told Lou Gehrig that they were getting too old to go all-out crashing into walls, but that when Clift hit the fly ball, he forgot all about it. He noted that it would take another crash into a wall to keep him out of the lineup, and that he would never make the same mistake twice. During the 1935 season, Combs played in 89 games, racking up 84 more hits and still had his excellent eye, getting 36 walks over 10 strikeouts. However, problems reared their ugly heads on August 25 during a game against the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park. Chasing another fly ball, Combs and shortstop Red Rolfe collided with Rolfe falling backwards on top of Combs. Combs was spiked and bruised above the right knee, but most painfully, separated his right collarbone from the shoulder blade and ligaments were pulled.

This time, Combs noted that this was probably the end. Noting that he was jinxed, Combs had his shoulder repaired in Manhattan, he felt that the end was near anyway and that he better get out of the way before it got any worse. An issue that would come up is that Combs’s defense would be affected. Combs was never the best outfielder with his arm and such an injury would just inhibit him more. Combs basically decided it would be time to hang up the spikes and head back to Kentucky. Despite the injuries, Combs managed to get into games on September 11 and September 12 against the Indians and Tigers. Combs would sit out until September 25, when McCarthy had him pinch run for Bill Dickey for one last hurrah. After all was said and done, Combs had managed 1,866 hits in 1,455 games, batting an amazing .325/.397/.462 with 670 walks over 278 strikeouts.

Conclusion

For the 1936 season, Earle Combs ended up not going back to his farm, but becoming a coach under McCarthy. During that season, he had to teach a new outfielder about having to play center field at Yankee Stadium. This new outfielder had just come from the San Francisco Seals and was given No. 9 for his first season, Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio, better known as Joe DiMaggio. Combs would remain coach of the Yankees through the end of the 1944 season, gaining 6 more rings under his time there. In 1947, he joined the St. Louis Browns as a coach under Muddy Ruel. In 1948, he became the first base coach for the Boston Red Sox, a position he held until the end of 1952. On March 30, 1953, 53-year old Combs announced that he quit to spend more time with his family, farm and business interests in Richmond, Kentucky, replaced by Del Baker. However, he chose to spend one more season in the league, being a coach for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1954 under Steve O’Neill and Terry Moore. One of the other coaches on the 1954 Phillies was Benny Bengough, the catcher that Combs had pinch hit for despite being injured during the 1928 World Series.

After the final swan song, Combs made headlines in May 1958 when former baseball commissioner Albert Benjamin (Happy) Chandler talked to Combs about becoming the Kentucky State Banking Commissioner. Chandler became Governor in 1955. The position had become vacant when S. Albert Phillips had left. Combs was a member of the Board of Directors for the Kentucky State Bank and Trust Company in Richmond, and after talking to Chandler, took the job. Combs retained the job until 1960 when H.A. Rogers took the job under new governor Bert Combs. In 1970, the 70-year old Combs was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown by the Veterans Committee along with Lou Bouderau, Jesse Haines and Ford C. Frick. Combs spoke of his teammates Ruth and Gehrig and noted that it was a great honor and that he would never bring shame to the honor.

On July 21, 1976, Earle Bryan Combs, the “Kentucky Colonel” died of a long illness. He was survived by his wife Ruth, and their sons, Earle, Jr., Charles and Don (the Athletic Director and swimming coach at Eastern Kentucky.) His funeral services were held at 2 PM on July 23 at the First Christian Church on Main Street and Richmond. He was then interred at the Richmond Cemetery. His wife would join him in 1989 and his son Earle, Jr. would in 1990.

Earle Combs was probably the greatest leadoff hitter in Yankee history. His numbers from 1925-1933 were historic, and somehow, he is not in with the Yankees legends at Monument Park, with his managers, Miller Huggins and Joe McCarthy along with teammates Gehrig and Ruth. I know a lot of people, especially on this site, would love to see the No. 1 un-retired because of who it was given to, but I think it should’ve stayed retired and kept in the honor of the original and true No. 1, Earle Combs.

Guest Post: On the nature of Fandom: A Family Story

The following is a guest post from longtime reader Tarik Shah, who wrote about the Yankee fandom in his family.

(NY Daily News)
(NY Daily News)

As a new baseball season is upon us, I like many Yankee fans am excited. For the first time in a long time, the franchise seems to be building the roster by developing its own young talent, and augmenting it with other young players who have yet to fulfill their potential. Though it’s been repeated ad nauseum, the fact that the Yankees did not sign any major league free agents this past winter is staggering. These aren’t your father’s Yankees. But for me, no Yankees are “my father’s Yankees” because he doesn’t like baseball, or any sport for that matter. Still, his son became a devout fan, which is equally staggering to me. How did that happen?

My father immigrated here from Pakistan, and his relationship to professional sports can generously be described as ambivalent. He, like many immigrant parents, was more interested in making sure that his children succeeded in school, so they could go on to become doctors, lawyers, or engineers. Even if he had a greater interest in sports, Cricket and Men’s Field Hockey are the dominant sports in Pakistan, and they aren’t exactly featured on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays. Assuming we spent Saturdays playing catch in the backyard, I’m not sure it would have helped much, as I was terrible at baseball. Ultimately, he was probably playing to his and my strengths at the time, by focusing on academics.

In many ways, my Yankee fandom stems from my maternal grandfather, whom I never had the opportunity to meet. My mother’s family immigrated to the Bronx from France and Eastern Europe. Long before the “Core Four” or the Bronx was burning, the Yankees were steamrolling the league in the 1930s and 1940s with players whose names are memorialized in Monument Park and Cooperstown. The Yankees were on top and it’s easy to see why they became so interwoven in the fabric of the city. You’d think that my grandfather’s devout fandom would have sparked generations of Yankee fans in my family, but team allegiances aren’t as hereditary as it might seem.

My uncle famously tells a story about how when he was a kid my grandfather asked him where he’d like to go for his birthday, and my uncle said he wanted to go to Coney Island (or out for Chinese food, depending on which version of the story he decides to tell that day), but my grandfather instead took him to Yankee Stadium. In fact, a recurring theme in my uncle and grandfather’s relationship was that whenever my uncle wanted to go anywhere, my grandfather would take him to Yankee Stadium. Predictably, as young boys rebel against their fathers, my uncle rebelled in the most visceral way he could, by becoming a Mets fan.

Somehow, my mom was not forced to go to Yankee Stadium anytime she wanted to ride the Cyclone or eat Chinese spare ribs, and as a result, she never held the same resentment towards the Yankees that my uncle did. Even though my mom never cared too much about baseball growing up, she recognized that being from the Bronx meant passing down to your children a love of the Yankees, and that this was as fundamental as passing down any religious or cultural tradition. In fact, that’s as important of a cultural tradition that has been passed down to me as anything else.

My mom would take my sister and I to games, and pulled us out of school to go watch the ticker tape parade in 1998. As it turns out, watching Paul O’Neill fist pump on Broadway is a healthier and more educational experience than learning about the Nitrogen cycle or getting teased in middle school gym class. Even as a young adult my mom got my family tickets through her job to go to see a few games. I remember we went to a game on a sticky August afternoon, and wouldn’t you know it, some intrepid young third baseman named Al Rodriguez hit a home run that day, his 500th I’m told. My sister and I cheered and hugged. And while I’m not sure what my brother-in-law’s reaction was at the time, I can imagine it fell somewhere between suspicion and disinterest.

You see, my brother-in-law is a good husband and a great dad, but he suffers from a major character flaw in that he’s a Red Sox fan. My sister and his jockeying over how to raise my 18-month-old niece plays out quite publicly on Facebook. One parent dresses my niece in preferred team apparel and posts about it, while the other is off running errands, and vice versa. I would be remiss in my duties as a proud uncle if I failed to mention that my niece smiles and giggles in her Yankee gear, and reacts with a look that says “Mommy is not going to like this,” when donning her Red Sox cap. In an effort to ease tensions, my brother-in-law’s mother, a highly skilled seamstress, bought both Yankees and Red Sox toddler sized jerseys, cut them in half and sewed two of the halves together. We won’t know for some time where my niece’s allegiances lay, and ultimately she may not end up liking or caring about baseball at all.

Yanks Sox jersey

As it turns out, ambivalence towards the sport isn’t exactly unheard of in my family. Not only is my uncle a die-hard converted Mets fan, but my aunt is from the Dominican Republic, which might be the most baseball-rich place on Earth. Her love for Robinson Cano is absolute and transcends team affiliations, and I think, is seconded only by her love of Marc Anthony, at least according to recent conversations. Nevertheless, their son, my cousin, has almost no interest in baseball whatsoever. It’s no surprise he’d much rather focus on swimming, a sport at which he excels.

I’m not sure my aunt and uncle did anything specific to turn him off of the sport. And, as much as “you can’t predict baseball”™ neither can you predict whether children will have the same allegiances as their parents or any interest in the sport at all. I have one parent who doesn’t like sports and another who doesn’t particularly care about them, and yet I turned out to be a rabid Yankee fan.

As this new season starts, I think about what it would have been like to talk to my grandfather about those great Yankees teams of the 30s, 40s and 50s, what it was like to watch the Bambino, the Mick, and Joltin’ Joe. I hope that one day I’ll get to talk about the baseball giants that I saw. “What do you mean he only threw one pitch, Grandpa?” “But wait, why would the shortstop even be positioned up the first base line for a relay through to the catcher?” Or maybe after this season, a story about the most improbable of Didi Gregorius playoff home runs. Hopefully, they don’t look at me as a senile elderly man, embellishing old stories, or worse, become Mets fans.

Guest Post: The bullpen has the potential to be special, but will it be better than last year’s?

The following is a guest post from Steven Simineri, whose work can be found at Double G Sports, among other places. He’s previously written guest posts on Chris Capuano and Ike Davis.

The new closer. (Presswire)
The new closer. (Presswire)

The Yankees acquired Aroldis Chapman to go with Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances, giving New York all three of the relievers who struck out at least 100 batters in 2015 and arguably the strongest 1-2-3-relief punch since the 1990 Cincinnati Reds “Nasty Boys” trio of Norm Charlton, Randy Myers and Rob Dibble.

Last year, the troika of Chapman, Miller and Betances threw 212 innings, with 347 strikeouts and a 1.66 ERA. They ranked 1-2-3 in strikeouts per nine innings among all major-league relievers, all finishing in the top-7 for lowest opponents’ batting average, and there is no doubt that Chapman has brought a lot of attention toward the Yankee bullpen.

By talent and what you hear on sports-talk radio, the 2016 Yankees bullpen should be one of the best ever and better than the 2015 Yankees bullpen. But on performance, it’ll be hard for this coming year’s group to improve on the group that was. In fact, the Yankees last season were 66-3 when leading through 6, 73-2 when leading through 7, and 81-0 when leading after 8. Joe Girardi’s bullpen was tied for second in all of baseball with 5.3 fWAR. Additionally, by WPA (Win Probability Added), the Yankees bullpen ranked third, at +8.5.

The loss of Adam Warren and Justin Wilson, who combined for 96 1/3 quality relief innings and were worth 3.7 WAR last season, should not be underestimated and one could argue that the addition of Chapman is not as huge as it could have been, with Warren departing for Chicago and Wilson being shipped off to the Tigers.

Moving Warren hurt somewhat, but made sense because of the return. The North Carolina graduate made 17 starts last year and appeared in 26 other games out of the bullpen. He had a 3.29 ERA, the lowest of any pitcher on the team with over 100 innings. Despite yo-yoing between the bullpen and starting rotation, Warren posted an impressive 2.29 ERA and 4.11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in relief.

While trading Warren for Starlin Castro was necessary to plug a hole at second base, moving Wilson to the Tigers for two mediocre Triple-A starters – Luis Cessa and Chad Green – seemed questionable. Certainly the two youngsters are under team control for a combined 12 seasons, but Wilson was also a key cog in the 2015 bullpen, posting a 2.69 FIP in 61 innings. He went 5-0 with a 3.10 ERA and 66 strikeouts. He was also able to get both lefties and righties out.

It’s also important to note that Chapman is essentially replacing Wilson. Both are hard throwing lefties with excellent strikeout numbers and the difference between their performances may not be as big as many might think. Wilson finished with a WPA of 2.58, while Chapman finished with a WPA of 2.59. While Chapman was worth 2.5 fWAR last year, Wilson wasn’t far off at 1.5 fWAR. Their Steamer projections also predict a similar one WAR split next season.

On Friday, Chapman and the Yankees avoided salary arbitration, agreeing to a one-year contract worth $11,325,000 — or more than seven times what Wilson will make (with two fewer years of control). Chapman is an upgrade, no question, but by losing the Warren and Wilson, the Yankees will be putting a lot more stress on the top of that pen. And that stress could shift entirely to Betances, Miller, and Chapman. With the two 28-year-olds gone, the question becomes who are now the Yankees’ middle relievers?

Of the organizational products, right-hander Bryan Mitchell and left-hander James Pazos likely will get the best looks. The 23-year old Mitchell can start or come out of the bullpen. Pazos, who appeared in 11 big league games and didn’t allow a run in five innings after Hal Steinbrenner included him in the list of untouchables before the July 31 trade deadline, appears to have a good shot of breaking camp with the big club.

Chasen Shreve and Jacob Lindgren are also left-handers like Wilson. Despite a solid rookie season where Shreve posted a 3.09 ERA, advanced stats suggest that he is good candidate for a sophomore slump and he imploded during the final month of the season. Lindgren, the team’s second-round selection in 2014, has only thrown seven big league innings and underwent elbow surgery last June.

Nick Rumbelow, Nick Goody and Branden Pinder, who all made cameos last season figure to be in the mix. Youngster Johnny Barbato, who was acquired from the Padres for Shawn Kelley, was put on the 40-man roster and perhaps he will get a shot to make the team. It wouldn’t even be shocking to see Kirby Yates, Vinnie Pestano or Anthony Swarzak soak up innings at some point.

Brian Cashman can take a plunge into free agency with a couple of interesting right-handed relievers available. Ground ball specialist Burke Badenhop is still unemployed as March approaches. Veterans Casey Janssen and Ross Ohlendorf can be had. They can extend a minor league contract to Long Island native Joe Nathan, who turned 41 over the winter and underwent Tommy John last April. They can even take a flier on former Met Vic Black, who has battled injuries and control issues.

The Yankees have gotten used to strong bullpens, with Girardi proving himself as a bullpen whisperer. In fact, according to how they’ve actually performed, the Yankees haven’t had a below-average bullpen in two decades. This year should obviously be no different and in the best-case scenario for New York, Betances and Miller lead a bridge to Chapman, turning games into a season-long six-inning affair.

The three-headed bullpen monster creates the potential for an all-time bullpen trio, but it’s no guarantee that this unit will be much better than last years.

Guest Post: A Positive (But Plausible!) Career Path for Didi Gregorius

The following is a guest post from Carlo Macomber, who goes by CoryWadeDavis in the comments. Carlo is a freshman at Colby College in Waterville, ME. He’s previous written a guest post about Masahiro Tanaka.

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

Baseball executives, analysts, and fans alike have always attempted to make comparisons between young, up-and-coming players and current or former MLB players. In recent years, as more and more information has become available on amateur players, these comps have started earlier than ever. If you watch the MLB First-Year Player Draft on MLB Network, you’ll hear the analysts comparing college and even high school players to established MLB regulars. Almost all of the time, this is completely unfair. Many of the early draft picks get completely unrealistic comps to perennial All-Star or even Hall of Fame caliber players. As a result, I usually end up feeling really bad for the mid first round pick that for some reason only draws a Larry Bigbie or Tony Graffanino comp (or someone along those lines).

Some comps are just plain lazy. Carlos Martinez has been compared to Pedro Martinez because they’re both small RHPs from the Dominican Republic with the last name Martinez. Similarly, #1 Yankees prospect Aaron Judge has drawn lazy comparisons to Giancarlo Stanton. These are based completely on size and position. Stanton had hit 117 MLB home runs through his age 23 season, while Judge is about to open his age 24 season in AAA. There is really no comparison here, especially not one fair to Judge.

Anyway, all of this leads me to the main point here: a fair and plausible comp for Didi Gregorius. After his early season struggles in 2015, Gregorius put together a solid 3.1 fWAR season. While the vast majority of Yankees fans were more than content with Didi’s first season in the Bronx, we all hope to get even more production out of him in the future, especially offensively.

As a result, Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford is a player with a career path that Gregorius could (and should) look to follow. Before this year, Crawford was known as a solid defensive shortstop with a below average overall bat but a slightly above average one for the position. This is similar to how Gregorius is viewed now. In 2015, Crawford broke out offensively. He hit .256/.321/.462/.783 (117 wRC+) with 21 home runs. All of those numbers are by far career bests. Crawford’s breakout offensive campaign coupled with what has become excellent defense led to him producing a 4.7 fWAR season.

The comparison of Crawford and Gregorius is not directly related to Crawford’s 2015 season, however. It starts by comparing Didi’s 2015 season (age 25) and Crawford’s 2013 season (age 26). Here is some key offensive data:

Player Year PA AVG OBP SLG HR wOBA wRC+ fWAR
Crawford 2013 550 .248 .311 .363 9 .296 93 2.3
Gregorius 2015 578 .265 .318 .370 9 .303 89 3.1

Looks pretty similar, doesn’t it? Gregorius was ever so slightly better in 2015 by wOBA but 2013 Crawford looked better by wRC+. Gregorius had a better batting average — both players had similar and close to league average BABIPs in the respective seasons, by the way – and Crawford showed slightly better power potential (.114 ISO to .105). Overall, though, the offensive numbers are very similar.

The difference in WAR, as you could assume, is actually a result of defense. In 2013, Crawford posted +2 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and had a +4.2 Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games played (UZR/150). He had yet to emerge as a truly excellent defender. On the other hand, 2015 Gregorius posted +5 DRS and +7.9 UZR/150. Gregorius proved last year that he is capable of putting together a 3 WAR season mostly because of his defense. If he wants to take the next step like Crawford and become a 4.5-5 win player, he should look to make similar offensive improvements, while always trying to incrementally improve his defense.

So, what noticeable offensive differences are there between 2013 and 2015 Brandon Crawford? There are some important changes in batted ball data:

Year Pull% Cent% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard% HR/FB
2013 35.9% 38.8% 25.3% 17.9% 57% 25.1% 7.0%
2015 39.8% 37.5% 22.7% 15.6% 51.5% 32.9% 16.2%

It’s easy to look at the table above and notice that Crawford’s hard contact percentage jumped almost 8% during the two-year period, and that this obviously led to his breakout offensive season. However, it also appears that Crawford tried to pull the ball more last season than in the past. Pulling the ball has gotten a bad reputation in recent years because of defensive shifts, but just about all players hit the ball harder to their pull side. Crawford took advantage of this fact by pulling the ball nearly 4% more often last year and hitting to the opposite field 2.6% less often. Because Crawford was able to pull the ball with authority more often, his HR/FB spiked up in 2015. His 21 home runs last season were more than double his previous career high (10).

While Crawford provides an example of one way a previously below-average hitter can break out offensively, his offensive trends don’t mean that Didi should try to copy him completely. Gregorius doesn’t strike me as someone who will hit 20 home runs in a season. Maybe he develops into a 15 homers per season guy, but I don’t see him as having quite the same power potential as Crawford. Hopefully now that I said that he proves me wrong. Anyway, Didi’s 2015 batted ball data does show that he could work on improving his ability to pull the ball with authority.

Year PA GB% FB% Pull% Cent% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
2014 299 37.4% 42.9% 32.9% 42.8% 24.3% 17.6% 54.5% 27.9%
2015 578 44.7% 34.1% 38.5% 35.0% 26.5% 21.6% 55.9% 22.5 %

The first thing to note here is Gregorius only had about half a season’s worth of PA in 2014 with the Diamondbacks. 299 PA isn’t nothing, though. The numbers show that Didi did start to pull the ball considerably more often last year. Crawford noticed significant offensive gains when he pulled the ball more often, and that hasn’t really happened yet for Didi. However, when Gregorius started to pull the ball more often, he actually made hard contact 5.4% less often, and soft contact 4% more often. The problem here appears to be his spike in GB% and drop in FB%. Didi moved to Yankee Stadium last year, and, as a left-handed hitter, he naturally started to pull the ball more to take advantage of the famous short porch in right field. Unfortunately, Gregorius hit considerably more grounders and considerably fewer fly balls, which completely ruins the point of pulling the ball at Yankee Stadium.

This strikes me as a pitch selection issue. Didi has the right idea of trying to pull the ball more often (like Crawford), but he has to try to pull the right pitches. Trying to pull outside pitches will cause weak ground balls to first and second base, something Didi did too often last year (and that’s backed up by the data!). In order to follow Crawford’s career path “model,” Gregorius should look to follow a teammate’s lead. Brett Gardner has improved his ability to pull the ball with authority (and subsequently raise his power numbers) by jumping on middle and inside fastballs. While it is always important to be patient, Didi should try and get the bat head out to the ball quickly on any middle-in fastballs. In order to do this, Didi will have to improve his overall pitch recognition, which, as a 26-year-old entering just his second full season, he still has time to do. If Gregorius can improve his pitch recognition and pull the ball with authority more often, the Yankees could have an elite two-way shortstop entering his prime years. The Giants are in a similar situation with Crawford, and there’s reason to believe Sir Didi could follow suit!