Thoughts in the middle of the six-game road trip

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

The 2017 regular season is only 23 days old, yet yesterday was already the fifth off-day for the Yankees. Geez. I know there are always a lot of off-days in April because of weather concerns, but five in the first three weeks of the season seems … excessive. Whatever. It is what it is. Here are some thoughts as the Yankees gear up for tonight’s series opener against the Red Sox.

1. I know the Yankees lost the series in Pittsburgh over the weekend, which is especially annoying because Sunday’s game was very winnable, but overall, I would have signed up for an 11-7 start to the season in a heartbeat back in January and February. The 11-7 start isn’t a mirage either. Here are some numbers:

  • Run Differential: +30 (1st in MLB)
  • Team wRC+: 123 (1st in MLB)
  • Team ERA: 3.17 (2nd in MLB)
  • Runs Scored Per Game: 5.11 (t-3rd in MLB)
  • Runs Allowed Per Game: 3.44 (t-1st in MLB)

The Yankees also had the best record in baseball in Spring Training by several games, remember. What if they’re actually, you know, good? Keep in mind the Yankees are off to this good start despite not having Didi Gregorius at all, and getting only four and half generally ineffective games from Gary Sanchez. (Greg Bird hasn’t done a whole lot either.) The season is still young and I’m not going to read too much into this start. For example: I’m not buying Chase Headley and Starlin Castro as true talent 185 wRC+ and 178 wRC+ hitters, respectively. This good start has happened though. It’s in the books. And that’s exciting. The Yankees might not be heading for the .500-ish season many seemed to expect when they committed to the youth movement last year.

2. Speaking of Gregorius, my guess — and this is only a guess — is he returns to the Yankees for the start of the homestand Friday. That gives him three more minor league rehab games — poor Didi is going to go broke feeding the minor league kids during this long rehab stint — which could go nine innings at shortstop Tuesday, nine innings at shortstop Wednesday, nine innings at designated hitter Thursday, then back in the Bronx Friday. So far he’s played two seven-inning games at shortstop and one full game at DH. I’m looking forward to seeing Didi back in the lineup. Back in the lineup and back in the field. Ronald Torreyes has done a hell of a job filling in at short, but Gregorius is clearly the better player, so the sooner he comes back, the better it is for the Yankees. Hopefully these next few rehab games go well, the shoulder feels strong, and we see him back on the big league roster in the coming days. Didi is a fun player and I am pro-fun.

3. Sanchez is about two weeks away from returning based on the original four-week timetable given at the time of his injury. His rehab is progressing nicely — Sanchez has been increasing his throwing and hitting pretty much everyday since the middle of last week — and hopefully that continues. I know I shouldn’t do this because so much can change even in the span of two weeks, but I can’t stop myself from looking forward and thinking about what the lineup will look like with Sanchez and Gregorius. Does this work?

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. 3B Chase Headley
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. DH Matt Holliday
  5. 2B Starlin Castro
  6. SS Didi Gregorius
  7. RF Aaron Judge
  8. 1B Greg Bird
  9. LF Brett Gardner

If Gardner continues to slump — he hit safely in seven of his first eight games, but has gone 2-for-24 (.083) since crashing into Rickie Weeks — Joe Girardi will have no choice but to drop him in the lineup. Then again, three lefties in a row in the wraparound 8-9-1 spots? Nah. Won’t happen. May you one day find someone as committed to you as Girardi is committed to breaking up the lefties. The lineup really isn’t something worth thinking about anyway. It’s going to change on a near daily basis. Aaron Hicks has been getting fairly regular starts so far — he has 44 plate appearances in 18 team games, last year he had to wait until the 28th game for his 44th plate appearance — and I’m sure that will continue. Also, Chris Carter is going to play as long as Bird continues to not hit. At the very least Carter will start against lefties, I believe. Still, the Yankees lead baseball in wRC+, my preferred all-encompassing offensive stat, and they’re going to get Gregorius and Sanchez back reasonably soon. That’s exciting.

4. Gardner hasn’t hit since crashing into Weeks and Holliday hasn’t hit since his back acted up, forcing him to sit out two games against the Cardinals last weekend. His slump actually goes back further than the two days on the bench. Holliday is in a 2-for-24 (.083) rut at the moment, and I suppose his back could have been giving him trouble before he sat out the two games. He did crush that long home run against the White Sox — at 459 feet, it is the third longest home run in baseball so far this year — so his back can’t be bothering him too much. Still, Holliday hasn’t been quite right for nearly two weeks now, which has been a bit of a drag on the offense. Between off-days and the interleague series in Pittsburgh, Holliday has essentially had five days off in a row — he pinch-hit in each game against the Pirates, that’s all — and hopefully that will get him on track, especially if the back is truly the cause of his problems. Then again, pretty much every player goes through a 20-something at-bat slump during the course of the season, so this might not be anything more than baseball being baseball. The combination of age (37) and a back injury, no matter how minor, still makes me wonder if something is up physically.

5. One more lineup related note: Ellsbury’s versatility within the batting order has been a pleasant surprise early on. He doesn’t fit anyone’s idea of a cleanup hitter, but Girardi has stuck him in the four spot a few times and Ellsbury has delivered. He’s hitting .435/.480/.565 (205 wRC+) with one home run in 25 plate appearances batting fourth, and .368/.400/.579 (182 wRC+) and one home run in 20 plate appearances batting fifth. (He’s also hit .176/.222/.176, 11 wRC+, in 18 plate appearances batting first, so yeah.) I don’t expect this level of production to continue because how could you? At the end of the day, Ellsbury is still a slash-and-dash hitter who has hit double-digit home runs only twice in parts of eleven big league seasons. Point is, the Yankees asked Ellsbury to hit in the middle of the order at the start of the season, something he’s never really done in his career, and he’s come through. Being able to move guys around in the lineup is a nice little luxury.

6. I’d like to see Bryan Mitchell get a little more responsibility, which is sort of a weird thing to say when he’s second on the team in relief innings. (Adam Warren has 10.2 innings, Mitchell has 8.2.) Right now Mitchell is the low-leverage multi-inning guy. He’s made seven appearances so far this season, and in each of those seven appearances the Yankees were either trailing when he entered the game, or winning by at least four runs. Mitchell can be wild. We saw it when he loaded the bases with no outs Sunday. But he also has really good stuff and can make hitters do things like this:

bryan-mitchell

For whatever reason Girardi has been more inclined to use Jonathan Holder in more important situations than Mitchell so far this season — Holder has been brought in to start the sixth with one and two-run leads already, and both times he failed to get out of the inning — and I’d like to see their roles reversed. I get that Mitchell can give you two or three innings at a time. There will still be plenty of opportunities to do that though. Mitchell has never been able to develop a changeup and I think he’s destined for the bullpen long-term because of it. I’d like to see him get a little more involved. Let him air it out for an inning a time and I think the Yankees will be pleasantly surprised.

Marketing the Yankees’ present with the past and the future

(Steven Tydings/River Ave. Blues)
(Steven Tydings/River Ave. Blues)

With the New York Yankees brand, the past is always present. But should the future take precedent?

Early in this season, the Yankees’ marketing near the stadium has brought the team’s historic past to the forefront. After two seasons where the souvenir cups featured current players, the new cups contain a smattering of World Series logos. Ads at the subway stops near Yankee Stadium highlight the 27 championships. Furthermore, the team has begun selling stadium-exclusive hats corresponding to each World Series win with unique details for each era.

When you think about the Yankees’ brand over the years, this makes a lot of sense. The brand has always been built upon a winning atmosphere. With a ridiculous number of championships has come an overwhelming number of fans scattered across the country but concentrated especially in New York. There is little doubt which is the No. 1 baseball team in the hearts of most New Yorkers.

And diehard fans identify with this sense of winning. They even demand it. They come to the park both due to a connection to the past and an expectation the current product will live up to the established expectations. But the diehard fans make up the 25-30 thousand spectators that will come to the park rain or shine, win or lose, championship or no.

So at least part of any marketing campaign each season needs to be focused on how to bring in the casual fan. The one who could live with themselves if they don’t make it to Yankee Stadium each year, let alone every month or game. Beyond simply going to the stadium, these are the fans that may only follow and watch the team a little, paying extra attention if the team is winning.

Does an appeal to a past filled with winning work on these casual fans? This, after all, is what the brand already is, so you’re emphasizing what you already have and not extending the brand. That isn’t a bad thing. Extending a brand further can dilute it and the accentuation on championships makes plenty of sense from a marketing perspective. However, I don’t know if this brings that extra 10-20K to the stadium. This is because I am a Yankees and baseball junkie and far from a casual fan.

The way I tried thinking about this was from the perspective of a Yankee fan considering a trip to Citi Field. I am not a Mets fan by any means, but if I’m in the city and the Mets are the only game in town, I’ll certainly consider it. I don’t think an appeal to the Mets’ past would get me to the stadium, but they don’t have the same past as the Yankees, making this an unfair comparison. A general Mets advertisement would make me consider the ride to Citi Field when I otherwise wasn’t considering it, but I would need something more to get me there.

In the recent past, that something extra has been the Mets’ pitching. I can say definitively that I went to Citi Field with the express purpose of seeing Matt Harvey in 2015. By that time, he was no longer a rookie or burgeoning star but a more established part of the team well into his third big league season.

But my trip to see Harvey made me think that maybe a marketing push around exciting young talent could work better than an appeal to nostalgia.

The Yankees don’t have the established talent of the Mets’ rotation right now or the flashy everyday veteran star of a Yoenis Cespedes. What they do have is some of the most exciting young position players who could potentially man the middle of the lineup for the next decade. For a baseball fan, that’s an exciting proposition. For a Yankee fan, even a casual one, that should be even more appealing, the chance to ostensibly get in on the ground floor of a new Yankee evolution.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

So a marketing push behind, let’s say, Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge and Greg Bird could set you up for the future. The team already utilizes their breakout potential in some YES ads and it’s not like they’re absent from the Yankees’ marketing materials. However, if you further establish the star power of those young players, it can help you down the road if they’re everything they’re made up to be. It would create a connection with fans, including the non-consistent ballpark goers, that you can play off of for years. It could potentially be the same as connecting fans with Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter in 1996 and riding that all the way to 2014 and beyond.

But this can really backfire, too. I go back to the Harvey example. He was dreadful last year and that can create a bad taste in fan’s mouths. Or what about the ill-fated Dan & Dave Reebok commercials from before the 1992 Olympics. Relying on unestablished athletes can blow up in your face. What if the first baseman you’re advertising heavily starts the year 1 for 20? Or your catcher of the future injures his arm and is out for a month? Not many people are going to be excited about a cup or t-shirt of a player who appears to be a marginal talent.

So there are easy reasons not to go all-in on the youth movement. The risk is high despite the potential reward and the possible reality that youth talent may bring more casual fans to the park. Still, it’s not hard to imagine a near future with a slightly more than life-sized billboard of Aaron Judge dominating Time’s Square. With the dad jokes aside, the future of Yankees’ marketing seems to be on the current team, but the past may be the best present for now.

Thoughts before the Yankees begin a six-game road trip

5-foot-11, 6-foot-1, 6-foot-7. (Presswire)
5-foot-11, 6-foot-1, 6-foot-7. (Presswire)

The Yankees wrapped up a wildly successful 8-1 homestand last night, and they’ll now go out on the road for a six-game trip through Pittsburgh and Boston. But first: an off-day. There’s no Yankees game today. Lame! This team is mighty fun to watch, isn’t it? Anyway, I have thoughts on stuff.

1. There is noticeably more energy at Yankee Stadium this year. Maybe it’s just general “hey baseball is back hooray” early season enthusiasm, but I went to plenty of April home games last year and the year before and the two years before that, and the atmosphere was not close to what it was during the homestand. At first I thought it was just the fans getting into Michael Pineda chasing perfection in the home opener, but no, the energy has stuck. It’s been pretty cool. The new center field landing areas are packed each night and that seems to help. There’s more people moving around and more noise in general. There’s also been some changes to the between innings entertainment — the Subway Race is gone (wtf?!?) and so is Cotton Eye Joey (woo!) — that, if nothing else, has brought some fresh content. The between innings entertainment at Yankee Stadium went stale a long time ago. I’m sure things will cool down as the season progresses and we get into the dog days, but right now, fans definitely seem to be into this new young Yankees team. The ballpark has been much livelier than it was the past few Aprils. (Now please do something about those damn security lines, Yankees. Too many people are missing the start of the game because they’re stuck waiting on line outside.)

2. I mentioned this yesterday, but Luis Severino appears to be much more confident on the mound this year. He’s getting the ball, throwing it with conviction, and attacking hitters. That wasn’t the case last year. The same seems to be true with Pineda. In the past he had a tendency to wander around the mound a bit and get fidgety. Pineda’s body language has always been … interesting. That’s a good word. Interesting. Anyway, there’s no real way to measure a pitcher’s confidence, but we can measure his pace on the mound thanks to PitchFX and Trackman. The numbers show Severino and Pineda are indeed working quicker this year:

2016 Severino: 21.7 seconds between pitches (as a starter only)
2017 Severino: 19.5 seconds

2016 Pineda: 23.8 seconds
2017 Pineda: 22.7 seconds

Furthermore, CC Sabathia has trimmed his pace from 24.8 seconds between pitches last year to 23.0 seconds this year. (The MLB average is 24.0 seconds.) According to man of the people Lucas Apostoleris, Severino (-2.2 seconds) and Sabathia (-1.8 seconds) have the two largest pace drops in baseball from last year to this year. No one has cut more time between pitches than those two. Pineda isn’t far behind either at -1.1 seconds. (Masahiro Tanaka is at +0.2 seconds.) Could this be part of a team-wide emphasis on working quickly — the Yankees as a team went from 24.0 seconds last year to 23.4 seconds so far this year — or is this just three starting pitchers pitching well and feeling confident? I’m inclined to think it’s the latter right now. Pace is not necessarily a proxy for confidence, though having watched Severino and Pineda so far this year, they do seem to be much more confident and aggressive, and I think that can lead to working quicker on the mound.

3. Dellin Betances made a pickoff throw to first base the other day! Friday night, specifically. The Yankees had a one-run lead with two outs in the eighth inning. Matt Adams was at the plate and Stephen Piscotty, who went 7-for-12 (58%) in stolen base attempts last year, was on first base. Here’s the pickoff throw:

dellin-betances-pickoff

That’s an honest-to-goodness pickoff throw with some velocity on it. Not some sort of half-baked lob you usually see from pitchers who have trouble throwing to the bases, like Jon Lester. No, that throw was not particularly close to actually picking the runner off first, but that’s not really the point. Betances forced Piscotty to dive back into first base and he put it in his head that yes, he will throw over. That’s something Dellin didn’t do at all last year. Runners knew they could take a great big lead against him and run on his first move, because he wasn’t throwing over to first. He was going to the plate. Betances worked on his defense over the winter — not just his pickoff throws, also making plays on weak grounders hit back at him — and we’re seeing some results. Two Saturdays ago a runner was thrown out trying to steal against Betances for the first time since September 1st, 2015. That was 23 steal attempts ago. (Austin Romine was behind the plate too, not Gary Sanchez and his rocket arm.) Holding runners is a clear weakness for Dellin and he worked on it during the offseason. He’s holding runners a little better and he actually made a pickoff throw. It’s not much, but it is progress.

4. The whole Chris Carter thing isn’t really working out. I understand why the Yankees signed him given the cost and uncertainty surrounding post-shoulder surgery Greg Bird, but he’s sort of a square peg in a round hole on the bench. Bird is going to play and play a lot, and because Carter is a first baseman/designated hitter only, there’s no other way to get him in lineup. He can pinch-hit and that’s really it. Carter is 4-for-26 (.154) with eight strikeouts thus far and I wonder whether steering clear of contact challenged bench players would be the smart move going forward. It can be tough to keep your timing down while playing sparingly, and that problem could be exacerbated by having difficulty making contact in the first place. Garrett Jones, a similar player to Carter, didn’t work out in 2014. Andruw Jones figured out how to thrive as a part-timer later in his career when he was swinging and missing a bunch, but Jones was a Hall of Fame caliber talent, and I think he’s an outlier. I guess we have to consider these things on a case-by-case basis. Jones and Carter were regulars before they joined the Yankees and had their roles reduced, so perhaps that explains why they didn’t hit in pinstripes. Even with limited playing time, I figured Carter would have already run into a home run by this point of the season. Instead he’s flailing at pitches off the plate and popping up the pitches he should crush.

5. The Yankees just put together an eight-game winning streak and have won nine of their last ten games overall, and the schedule may have had something to do with it. The Rays, Cardinals, and White Sox aren’t very good — the Rays and Cardinals sure seem to be mistake prone this year, and the White Sox are rebuilding — so the Yankees are beating up on some bad teams. I’ve seen that bandied about a little bit the past few days. Two things about that. One, you can only play the teams on your schedule. Two, one of the many reasons the Yankees missed the postseason three times in the last four years was their inability to beat the teams they were “supposed” to beat. They went 3-7 against three crummy NL West teams last year (Padres, Rockies, Diamondbacks). In 2014 they went 2-4 against the 70-92 Astros and 8-11 against the 77-85 Rays. In 2013 they went 0-4 against the 74-88 Mets. The Yankees had a way of playing down to their competition. They trailed in five games during the eight-game winning streak, yet they managed to come back and win partly because the other team made mistakes, and they took advantage. The Yankees had problems doing that in the past.

6. Aaron Judge‘s third inning ground out last night was his 130th career big league at-bat, meaning he is no longer rookie eligible. (He can still win Rookie of the Year this year.) He is only the fourth player drafted by the Yankees in the first round to exhaust his rookie eligibility in pinstripes since Derek Jeter. Judge, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy. That’s the list. (Eric Milton and Brian Buchanan were first round picks by the Yankees who eclipsed the rookie limits with the Twins after being part of the Chuck Knoblauch trade.) Judge and Buchanan are the only position players drafted by the Yankees in the first round who managed to reach 130 big league at-bats since Jeter. That is pretty nuts. A combination of things (bad drafting, bad development, bad luck) have resulting in the Yankees having little success with their first round picks the last two and a half decades, though I should note part of that is forfeiting picks to sign free agents and never being bad enough to have a top ten pick. But still. You’ve got to hit on more first rounders than that. Hopefully Judge represents the start of the sea change. The financial playing field has been leveled over the years, making those high draft picks more important than ever.

Aaron Judge is open to participating in the Home Run Derby and MLB should want him there

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

I don’t know about you, but Aaron Judge has very quickly become one of my favorite players on the Yankees. He’s so fun to watch because he’s such an extreme outlier. Baseball players aren’t supposed to be that big, and baseball players who are that big aren’t supposed to be such good athletes and runners. We’ve seen Judge save some runs in right field and beat out infield singles already this season.

And, of course, there are the home runs. They’re why everyone loves Judge. His four home runs have averaged a healthy 399 feet, and according to Statcast, Judge is responsible for five of the 14 hardest hit balls in baseball this season, including two of the top three. The ball just explodes off his bat. Judge has all the power you’d expect from a guy listed at 6-foot-7 and 275 pounds.

Given his early season exploits, folks are already starting to wonder whether Judge will participate in the Home Run Derby this summer. It makes sense, right? Put the big guy capable of hitting long home runs in the event dedicated to big guys hitting long home runs. Randy Miller asked Judge about the Home Run Derby earlier this week. Here’s his response:

“The Home Run Derby is awesome. It’s a fun event to watch and I’d probably do it if they asked me,” said Judge. “No (I’m not worried about screwing up my swing). I’ve been in them before and I just take my normal swing that I do in batting practice and hopefully it would all work out. I’d just go out there and have fun. I wouldn’t change anything. But it would be a fun thing to do.”

Judge’s batting practices are already the stuff of legend. YES has shown clips of Judge hitting balls over the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar in center field and onto the concourse over the last week and a half. I saw him do that with my own eyes before the home opener and was amazed. But it’s normal for him. That’s just something does every day during batting practice. It’s incredible. There’s no doubt he’d be a fun Home Run Derby contestant.


Personally, I’m not worried at all about a potential Home Run Derby hangover effect. There have been several studies showing it isn’t real, like this one and this one. Pick eight players at random and inevitably one or two of them will perform worse in the second half than they did in the first. The same is true of guys who participate in the Home Run Derby. It’s just normal baseball being baseball stuff.

Anyway, I’m getting off track here. Judge indicated he’s open to participating in the Home Run Derby this summer and MLB should want him there. For a few reasons too. One, he’s a Yankee! The last Yankee to participate in the Home Run Derby was Robinson Cano in 2013. The Yankees are the most popular team in the sport and one of the most recognizable brands in the world. Put a Yankee in a Home Run Derby and he will attract viewers. No doubt about it.

Two, Judge is an exciting young up-and-coming player. MLB is trying like crazy to cultivate young fans and the single best way to attract new young fans is by showcasing your most exciting players. Judge is a freak and I mean that in the nicest way possible. Put him in the Home Run Derby and people who don’t know much about baseball are going to see him and not be able to take their eyes off him. Everything about him demands your attention.

(That’s also a reason for the Yankees to want Judge in the Home Run Derby. As MLB works to cultivate more young fans, the Yankees want as many of them as possible rooting for their team. Judge mashing dingers in the Home Run Derby would be a great “hey come root for the Yankees” sales pitch.)

And three, the power. At the end of the day, the Home Run Derby is a “hit ball far” competition with some bells and whistles. In a batting practice setting, which is essentially what the Home Run Derby is, few offer as much power as Judge. He’s going to hit the ball a mile and that’s what people want to see. MLB has brought non-All-Stars to the Home Run Derby in recent years just to ensure they showcase their top power hitters. (Giancarlo Stanton won the Home Run Derby last year but was not an All-Star. Todd Frazier also participated in the event as a non-All-Star.)

Judge has some Home Run Derby experience — he won the 2012 College Home Run Derby while at Fresno State — and while doing it at the MLB level is a heck of a lot different than doing it at the college level, he has some sort of Home Run Derby experience. It won’t be completely new to him. MLB (and the Yankees) have a lot to gain by putting Judge in their Home Run Derby and it is absolutely something they should consider when the time comes. An event like this is made for guys like him.

Unaccording to Plan

(Adam Hunger/Getty)
(Adam Hunger/Getty)

Two weeks of baseball are almost in the books and, as always, they’ve been predictably unpredictable. For the Yankees, that’s manifested itself in two divergent paths thus far: CC Sabathia‘s pitching and Greg Bird‘s “hitting.”

Despite the apparent completion of his reinvention project last year, what we’d get in 2017 from Sabathia was certainly no sure thing. A pitcher as good and smart as he is could repeat what he did in 2016, but a pitcher as old as he is could just as easily fall apart. So far, it’s been the former and CC has done a great job in his starts, even pitching into the eighth yesterday.

Last year, CC leaned mostly on the cutter. In this year’s few offerings, CC has been leaning more on the sinker than he did last year. Additionally, the handful of changeups he’s found this year have been successful, leading to whiffs 33% of the time overall and 66% per swing. It’s too early to tell and all that stuff, but things are looking good for CC. It’s not often a pitcher develops again and who knows what could happen next, but I’ve never been one to bet against Sabathia.

#GREGBIRD (Presswire)
#GREGBIRD (Presswire)

On the other side of the coin is Greg Bird, who can hardly buy what even looks like a good plate appearance these days, let alone a hit. Would this stretch be markedly less noticeable if it happened in the middle of the season? Definitely. Is it concerning, at least a little bit, that Bird looks so lost at the plate? Yes.

After a hot spring in which he looked fantastic–and had similar results–it’s disappointing to see Bird struggling so much. Of course, it is still way early and just as Sabathia can fall down, Bird can climb up. Pretty much everything has been a disaster for Bird, but I find it hard to believe he’s going to keep whiffing this much on his swings.

Compared to 2015, Bird is swinging at similar rate, but he’s chasing out of the zone about four percent more. This has led to a four percent drop in zone swing percentage, too. When he has swung in the zone this year, though, it hasn’t mattered much. There’s the aforementioned whiffing problem, which as led to a zone contact rate of 53.1%; league average is just around 86%. Whether it’s timing, mechanics, or lack of pitch recognition, something is vexing Bird.

For both of these players, even if their results have been opposite of each other and opposite of expectations, there is still plenty of time. Sabathia and Bird both have the talent and the know how to succeed at their respective levels. Though it’s a positive thing with Bird and potentially a negative thing with Sabathia, we’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop. We know it’s coming, but what the footprint looks like is a mystery.

Thoughts following yet another early season off-day

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

The Yankees and Rays will resume their three-game series with the middle game this afternoon. Assuming the weather cooperates, that is. It should. When I checked the forecast last night, it said it would rain in the morning and dry up by game time. Anyway, here are a few early season thoughts.

1. Later today left-hander Jordan Montgomery will make his first big league start and I wonder whether Joe Girardi will pair him with catcher Kyle Higashioka. Higashioka caught Montgomery for much of last season with Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton, so there’s familiarity there, plus the Rays are starting left-hander Blake Snell. Higashioka is a right-handed batter with some pop. Seems like a good way to get him his first start, right? Pair him with a pitcher he knows and give him the platoon advantage at the plate. My hunch is Girardi will stick with Austin Romine behind the plate while Gary Sanchez is out, but Higashioka is going to have to start once in a while, and this afternoon’s game seems like the perfect time to give him his first start.  A lot will be working in his favor, both on the offensive side and defensive side of the ball.

2. Prior to Monday’s game Girardi said he won’t necessarily stick with Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury hitting one-two while Sanchez is out, though those two are playing well right now, and my guess is Girardi will keep them together atop the lineup as long they’re both hitting. We’ve seen them both get hot at the same time in the past — the first few weeks of the 2015 season come to mind — and when it happens, they can carry the offense. That means Greg Bird won’t hit third whenever he returns because there’s basically no chance Girardi will stack three lefties at the top of the lineup. Matt Holliday third and Bird in the cleanup spot? Or maybe drop Bird to fifth or sixth given his sluggish start? Regardless of what happens with Bird, I don’t think Girardi ever wanted to move Ellsbury down in the lineup, and now that both he and Gardner are playing well, I think it gives Girardi an accuse to bat them one-two again. We’ll see what happens.

3. The Yankees seem to be giving Jonathan Holder every opportunity to prove his worth in middle relief. He’s appeared in four of seven games so far, and Girardi has used Holder in all sorts of situations. Here are the situations Holder has been brought into in those four appearances:

  • April 2nd: Start of the seventh inning down five.
  • April 4th: Start of the eighth inning with a five-run lead.
  • April 7th: Start of the sixth inning with a one-run lead.
  • April 8th: Start of the eighth inning down one.

In that April 7th game, the first batter Holder faced was Mark Trumbo, a player who was very capable of tying the game with one swing. (Trumbo struck out.) The Yankees clearly like Holder. They wouldn’t have called him up last September if they didn’t. Holder is not really as good as his 2016 minor league numbers would lead you to believe — he threw 65.1 innings with a 1.65 ERA (1.30 FIP) and 42.4% strikeouts and 2.9% walks at three levels last year — but he definitely has a chance to be a big league reliever. The Yankees are in position to ease Holder into things. They have Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances for the late innings, and Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren are capable third and fourth pieces. Girardi can pick and choose his spots with Holder while still getting him plenty of work, and that’s exactly what has happened so far.

4. Are you enjoying Holliday so far? I sure am. That dude is a total pro at the plate. He’s almost the perfect middle of the order veteran for a team that is transitioning to youth like the Yankees. He grinds out at-bats, takes his walks, hits to all fields, hits for power … what’s not to like? Holliday sets a good example for the young players and, in the grand scheme of things, helping the kids is more important than whatever he contributes at the plate this season. As productive as Carlos Beltran was last season, he was mostly a dead pull hitter who rarely walked (5.7% walks before the trade), and the Yankees needed to get away from that profile. Holliday will make a pitcher work and he’s not easy to defend. It’s refreshing. The season is still very young, but it’s tough not to impressed with what he’s bringing to the table as the designated hitter.

Holliday. (Al Bello/Getty)
Holliday. (Al Bello/Getty)

5. Speaking of the designated hitter, the Yankees have an interleague series coming up soon. They’ll be in Pittsburgh next weekend, April 21st to 23rd. I wonder what that will do to the lineup? Is Holliday going to sit, or will Girardi run him out there in left field for a few innings each night to make sure he gets three at-bats? Left field at PNC Park is not small. It’s one of the most spacious left fields in baseball. I want Gardner out there running fly balls down. It’s so ridiculously early in the season that I say sit Holliday next weekend and try to get by without the big bat in the lineup. The last thing the Yankees want is Holliday to pull a hamstring or something running after a fly ball, you know? Maybe if this were September and the Yankees were in a postseason race, I’d feel differently. This early in the season though? Forget it. Use Holliday to pinch-hit that weekend and nothing more.

6. Luis Severino threw 14 changeups out of 89 total pitches in his start last week — disclaimer: the Trackman system has had some pitch classification issues early on — which is a pretty good ratio considering the Orioles only had three left-handed batters in the lineup. More than anything, I thought Severino was working very quickly and throwing with a lot of conviction. It looked like he had a reliever’s mentality while working as a starter. Get the ball and throw it. Four runs in five innings isn’t great — the two-out walk to the un-walk-able Adam Jones that set up the Manny Machado three-run home run was Severino’s biggest mistake of the night — but I thought Severino looked better in that start than he did in any start last season. We’ll see how he looks going forward and how much he uses his changeup. I’d say I am cautiously optimistic at best right now. One or two starts isn’t enough to win me over.

7. Am I the only one who doesn’t care one bit about the New Era logo on the side of the hats? When it was first announced, I hated the idea. How could they desecrate the iconic interlocking NY hat??? Now that it’s been a few games, I hardly even notice it’s there. Meh. I wonder if the same thing will happen when the Under Armour logo makes its way onto the front of all jerseys in a few years. (MLB has announced Under Armour will replace Majestic as the league’s official uniform provider in 2020.) It’s only a matter of time until we see advertisements on jerseys. You know that, right? That’s an untapped revenue stream MLB and the MLBPA won’t sit on much longer. As long as it’s done tastefully and MLB jerseys don’t look like NASCAR cars, I’ll live. The thought of the New Era logo on hats bothered me. Now that I see it in action game after game, it’s no big deal. I’m guessing I’ll have the same reaction with the Under Armour logo and the inevitable jersey advertisements that are coming.

The Gary-less Lineup

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

If you haven’t heard by now–though the collective worried gasp of Yankee fans everywhere yesterday afternoon probably gave it away–Gary Sanchez is injured, and will be going on the 10-day disabled list with a right biceps issue.

This leaves the Yankees with a gaping hole at what is the most important defensive position on the field–where Sanchez has shown great skill–and arguably the most important position in the lineup; slotting Sanchez in second made sense and was a big show of confidence in him by Joe Girardi and the coaching staff. Now, that’s for naught–at least for the next ten days. So, what can the Yankees do in Sanchez’s lineup absence?

My first thought was one I suggested previously, using DH Matt Holliday as the second hitter thanks to his combination of skills. However, without Sanchez to be in the clean up spot–and no one yet reliable enough to take his place–I don’t think that idea works. Holliday should stick at fourth, which is just as important as the second spot. But, since the route they’ll likely take is sticking Jacoby Ellsbury–who’s off to a good start–back into the second slot, giving the Yankees a more traditional look at the top of the lineup, that would mean three lefties–Gardner, Ellsbury, and Greg Bird stacked together, and that could lead to matchup problems late in games. So, I assume Girardi will split the lefties and have Holliday bat third with Bird cleaning up.

The team can go one of two ways with the fifth spot. The first way is to bump Chase Headley up a spot, rewarding him for a hot start. I’d be totally fine with that. The other would be to give the spot to Aaron Judge. This could show faith in him, challenge him, and give him an opportunity to hit behind better players, increasing the likelihood of him batting with men on base. That second option probably isn’t going to happen, but I think that’s the one I’d like, if only to keep up the ‘give the kids a shot’ theme that this season is likely to have.

Best hi-five ever (Source: AP)
Best hi-five ever (Source: AP)

So, the combination of the most likely scenario/what I’d want to see would look like this:

  1. Gardner, LF
  2. Ellsbury, CF
  3. Holliday, DH
  4. Bird, 1B
  5. Judge, RF
  6. Castro, 2B
  7. Headley, 3B
  8. Romine, C
  9. Torreyes, SS

You could flip Castro and Headley if you like, and I might do the same. But the main takeaway here is that without Sanchez, this lineup seems a whole lot shorter and a whole lot thinner than it did just 24 hours ago. Losing a big bat at a premium position always hurts, and that goes double when a backup quality player–Torreyes–is already in the every day lineup. Get well soon, Gary; the lineup needs you.