Thoughts as the Yankees wait to clinch a postseason spot


The Yankees were unceremoniously eliminated from the AL East race yesterday afternoon, when the Blue Jays beat the Orioles in the first game of the doubleheader. They had a seven-game lead once upon a time, but boy, it disappeared in a hurry. The good news is New York is still in good position to clinch a postseason spot. Win one of the final four games and they’re in. Anyway, I have thoughts.

1. The Yankees are playing terribly right now — they didn’t even look good while taking three of four from the White Sox over the weekend, that was a grind of a series — and they look old and worn down. That’s because the Yankees always look old and worn down whenever they struggle, regardless of the time of year. Most teams do, but the Yankees are actually old, so there’s some truth behind it. Last night’s homer notwithstanding, I absolutely think it’s fair to wonder if Alex Rodriguez is running on fumes at this point. Joe Girardi admitted it was a concern yesterday. He’s 40 years old with two surgically repaired hips, and he was phenomenal at the start of the season. Really into late-July. But even as a full-time DH, A-Rod very well might be gassed after 157 games. It’s not just sitting on the bench, getting four at-bats and running to first a few times. There’s all the pregame work in the cages and the travel and all that stuff too. Baseball is a very demanding sport, it’s an endurance sport at heart, and as great as Alex is, he’s at the age where he can’t bounce back from the physical grind as well as he once did. The Yankees are struggling right now and they look old, because they always look old when they struggle. A-Rod is the only position player I am truly worried about being worn down though.

2. Even with his recent control issues, Dellin Betances has joined Andrew Miller to form the most dominant one-two bullpen punch in baseball. No other team has two relievers who can compare. Betances and Miller are the strength of the roster, and while that’s great when leading after six or seven innings, the Blue Jays also showed how quickly that strength can be negated. The Yankees and Blue Jays played 13 games after the trade deadline, and Betances and Miller combined for only nine appearances in the 13 games. Five by Betances, four my Miller. That’s all. Why didn’t they pitch more often? The Blue Jays had the lead. Betances and Miller are dynamite, but their usage is dependent on the other players on the roster, so the Blue Jays were able to remove those two from the equation by having a better offense and a better rotation than the Yankees. Having a dominant one-two bullpen punch is great! You need a strong bullpen to contend these days, especially with starters throwing fewer and fewer innings. Bullpen usage depends on the offense and rotation though, and if those parts of the team aren’t up to snuff, the great relievers get marginalized. That happened with Betances and Miller against the Blue Jays in the second half.

3. How about Dustin Ackley? It’s too bad he missed that month with a back injury after the trade considering how well he’s played the last two weeks. I didn’t think Ackley would have any sort of impact at all — he was terrible with the Mariners (76 wRC+) and he was replacing Garrett Jones, which meant he was probably never going to play — but here he is, mashing taters and playing second base nearly everyday. It’s very easy to get excited about a player like this, a former elite prospect and super high draft pick coming to a more competent organization with a more hitter friendly ballpark. I have no idea what the plan is for Ackley next year. We’ve got an entire offseason ahead of us to think about that. Right now though, Ackley has been tremendous the last two weeks. I’m not buying in all the way yet, but Ackley has talent, and it’s easy to understand why the Yankees wanted to pick him up. Classic change of scenery guy who has produced right away. The Yankees have done well with players like this this season (Didi Gregorius and Nathan Eovaldi are two other examples.)

4. Greg Bird‘s role with the Yankees going forward has been a much discussed topic the last few weeks. He’s clearly the first baseman of the future, but Mark Teixeira is still under contract next season, and neither Teixeira nor Bird can play a position other than first base or DH. Teixeira’s not going anywhere — he has full no-trade protection and no reason to uproot his family — and, frankly, he’s the better player and should be at first base in 2016. As good as Bird has been, Teixeira was a monster before getting hurt. The Yankees miss him, especially against lefties. Anyway, I made this handy flow chart to help you figure out what the Yankees should do with Bird next season:

Bird flow chart

That sums it up, right? When Bird is hitting homers and doing well, we all want him in MLB. When he’s striking out in bunches, eh maybe some more time in Triple-A wouldn’t be the end of the world. Then we all wait until for his next at-bat to change our minds again. As with Ackley, this is a “worry about it in the offseason” problem. (“Problem.”) Get through the season first. Besides, A-Rod and Teixeira (and Bird, for that matter) haven’t been the most durable players in recent years. This could easily take care of itself and all three guys end up playing 100-120 games or so. I’m just glad Bird has put himself in this discussion. I had no expectation of him playing in MLB this season, let alone producing in an everyday role.

5. This has not been Girardi’s finest month in terms of on-field moves. I think he’s an average-ish strategic manager who does his best work behind closed doors in the clubhouse. The Yankees are, amazingly, a distraction-free team, and I think Girardi deserves a ton of credit for that. On the field though, there have been really questionable moves in September. Last Wednesday’s game stands out the most, when a bunch of Triple-A relievers decided a close game against the Blue Jay the Yankees more or less had to have to stay alive in the AL East, but there have been some other weird ones. Pinch-running for A-Rod at first base with the bases loaded a few weeks ago, for example. Using four different second baseman in four innings against the Mets because of unnecessary double switches. That sorta stuff. Girardi doesn’t hit or pitch, he can push the correct button every time and it still might not work out. That’s baseball. His job is to put his players and his team in the best possible position to succeed, and I’m not sure he’s done that consistently this month. I don’t think Girardi should be fired or anything that. I’m just making an observation. This hasn’t been a great month for the skipper.

Severino’s Sleeping Giant?

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

Back in April, if I told that Greg Bird and Luis Severino were getting significant time in August and September, y0u’d likely think that something had gone horribly wrong and the Yankees were no where near contending. Luckily, that hasn’t been the case and the Yankees are inching ever-closer to a playoff spot, thanks in large part to the contributions of Bird and Severino.

Severino was pressed into Major League service earlier than anticipated and he’s done much better than anticipated. Coming into today’s start against the White Sox, he owns a shiny 129 ERA+ and respectable strikeout numbers: 8.8 K/9 and a 23.07% strikeout rate. His walk rates (~10% and 3.8 per nine) and homer rates (15.9 HR/FB% and 1.3 per nine) are a touch high, but that’s excusable for a 21-year old in his first big league action. Along with Nathan Eovaldi‘s post-disaster start stretch, Severino’s performance has been the most pleasant pitching surprise for the Yankees in 2015.

One of the biggest problems young starters tend to face is turning a Major League lineup over multiple times during the course of the game. For the most part, Severino hasn’t run into this problem. His numbers tend to get better as the game goes on; take that with a grain of salt, though, as the first-time numbers could be skewed thanks to his 9/11 start against the Jays in which he gave up five hits–four for extra bases, including two homers–in the first inning alone. Still his numbers against teams the second and third times he sees them are solid. Severino’s three-pitch arsenal helps this, as he has a dynamite fastball, a strong slider, and a developing changeup. In fact, it’s that changeup that has helped him be so successful in turning lineups over.

Like most pitchers, Severino throws his fastball the most in any time through the order: 57.65 the first time; 44.88 the second; and 54.82 the third. His changeup, as you can see in the chart/graph, is least utilized each time through the lineup as well: 12.46; 16.17; 16.27. Changeup usage does ramp up slightly from first to second, then stays pretty consistent during the third. The changeup, though, has one interesting result that differentiates it from other pitches; it generates more whiffs-per-swing as the game goes on, whereas the other two pitches see a drop-off in whiff-per-swing, especially the slider.

In fact, of all his pitches, we could argue that the changeup has been Severino’s most effective pitch. It has the best whiff/swing rate; the best groundball rate; and the lowest home run rate (0.00!). This could be a result of relative scarcity: he’s thrown the pitch least often, so batters may not be used to it and aren’t able to do much to it. However, the results on the pitch seem encouraging enough for him to consider trying it more often. This will be dictated by whoever he’s facing because an RHP like Severino is less likely to throw a changeup to a lineup full of RHB. Still, given the velocity on the pitch, it acts a bit like a splitter, which is something a pitcher is able to throw to batters of both handedness (see Masahiro Tanaka).

Severino has three pitches, which is key to any pitcher’s success–remember all the frustration of A.J. Burnett‘s two-pitch assault? The next step for him in transitioning to big-time, big-league starter is feeling comfortable and confident enough to throw any pitch in any count to any batter. Given what we’ve seen so far, Severino’s changeup has the potential to be a great pitch; if he can learn to use it more frequently, he’ll go from potential great pitcher to great pitcher.

Thoughts on Thursday’s off-day


Today is the Yankees’ final off-day of the 2015 season. The close the regular season with 17 games in 17 days starting tomorrow. This season really flew by, didn’t it? The race for a postseason spot should be a pretty good one. Here are some miscellaneous thoughts.

1. If you had told me back in Spring Training the Yankees would be three games back in the AL East and 3.5 games up for the first wildcard spot with 17 games to play, I would have taken it in a heartbeat. There were plenty of reasons to be skeptical about Yankees chances coming into the season. At the same time, if you would have told me that on, say, July 25th, I would have been kinda annoyed. The Yankees are exceeding expectations this season in the big picture, but expectations re-calibrate, and when they had that seven-game lead halfway through the season, my focus shifted to the AL East title. Yes, I’m glad the Yankees are in postseason position right now. I’ve greatly missed October baseball. It’s also pretty annoying their seven-game lead has turned into a three-game deficit. That sucks.

2. At this point, I think it’s clear the Yankees made the right move keeping their top prospects at the trade deadline. That has nothing to do with how Luis Severino and Greg Bird have performed since being called up either. Once they had that seven-game lead, I was all-in on 2015 and hoping the Yankees would be open to trading a top prospect or two for a legitimate difference-maker to improve their chances. They had obvious needs (pitching, second base, etc.) and there were some potentially huge upgrades out there. Now though, I’m not sure David Price or Ben Zobrist or Craig Kimbrel or whoever would have been enough to prevent them from falling out of first place. (Price might have since he wound up with the Blue Jays, but I don’t think we can say that with any certainty.) The offense has slowed, the bullpen has hit a wall, the rotation is shaky … there’s too much going wrong for me to believe one or two trades would have been enough to stay in first place. Keeping Severino and Bird and whoever else was the right move, in hindsight.

3. Moving Ivan Nova to the bullpen had to happen. The Yankees are in a postseason race and he’s been way too ineffective to keep running him out there this late in the season. I wouldn’t waste any time trying to figure out what the move means for Nova and the Yankees going forward either. This looks very much like a short-term move designed to improve the team’s chances right now, in late-September 2015. That’s all. Next year and beyond is another matter the two sides will deal with at a later time. With any luck, Nova will emerge as a reliable reliever to help improve a bullpen that has become quite shaky of late. That would be really cool. He couldn’t stay in the rotation though. Guys who allow 29 runs in a 35-inning span like Nova has his last seven starts don’t get to stay in the rotation in a postseason race. Smart move that improves the Yankees’ chances of playing in October. That’s all there is to it.

Pinder. (Presswire)
Pinder. (Presswire)

4. The downside to the bullpen shuttle is that it didn’t give any of the young relievers a chance to emerge as a potential high-leverage option. Every time someone threw a few innings, the Yankees swapped them out for a fresh arm. Not every pitcher comes up and dominates right away. Most don’t, in fact. David Robertson debuted in 2008 and didn’t became all-world reliever David frickin’ Robertson until 2011, remember. It’s too late now, but next year the Yankees should try to keep one or two of these young relievers in the big leagues to see what they have to offer over an extended period of time. How else can they evaluate them? I don’t know if any of these relievers will be any good — my guess is Nick Goody will have a pretty nice impact at some point, and both James Pazos and Branden Pinder end up banking like $30M as part of their 15-year careers as boringly effective middle relievers — but the bullpen shuttle system didn’t give them much of a chance to show anything. Now they’re all being pressed into important situations and no one knows anything about them.

5. Assistant GM Billy Eppler appears to be the front-runner for the Angels GM job — he’s also going to interview for the Mariners GM job, reportedly — and it seems the Yankees are likely to lose him to another team now more than ever. If Eppler does get the Anaheim job, I’m curious to see what happens next. New GMs tend to poach some front office talent from their former organizations — Padres GM A.J. Preller hired a bunch of people away from the Rangers, for example — and I have no reason to think it would be different with Eppler. I don’t know nearly enough about the team’s front office hierarchy to guess who Eppler might try to poach or what the Yankees might do to replace him. That’s why I’m so interested to see what happens. Of course, I’d rather they not lose Eppler at all. By all accounts he’s a really smart guy and the pro scouting department cranked out low-cost producers like Luis Ayala, Bartolo Colon, and Eric Chavez under his watch a few years ago. We’ll see. The front office dynamics may change quite a bit this offseason. Or maybe they won’t change much at all.

A Eulogy for Mark Teixeira’s Season

This guy is good at baseball. (Jeff Haynes/AP Photo)
This guy had a great season. (Jeff Haynes/AP Photo)

“A cardinal crashed into my window;

I think he might die. 

I’ll plan him a funeral; I’ll read his last rites

‘Cause I know what he saw in that reflection of light.

On the glass was a better life.”

With the announcement on Friday that he would miss the rest of the season due to his leg injury, Mark Teixeira‘s 2015 season came to a close. While this has been lingering since he fouled a ball off his leg on August 17 against the Twins, the news still carries a bit of a shock, considering the original diagnosis wasn’t this bad, not to mention just how well Tex had hit the ball all year. The timing of the announcement–on the verge of a terribly important four game series with the division-leading Blue Jays–was a harbinger for the weekend (or at least the first three games and two days thereof). Not only was the weather miserable yesterday, but so was the baseball as the Yankees have dropped all three games of the series so far, including a double-header sweep (hopefully, Masahiro Tanaka can right the ship today) leaving them 4.5 games back of the Jays with 21 games to play. Having played the last few weeks and facing the last few weeks without Teixeira, that lead seems about as bleakly large as it can be when it comes to winning the division.

Things aren’t all bad, however, as they do have a three game lead on the Rangers for the first Wild Card spot which is obviously good, but not preferable. That idea is just a microcosm of Tex’s injury situation; it’s nice that Greg Bird has filled in about as admirably as possible, but like the Wild Card spot, he’s just not your first choice.

2015 was a renaissance year for Tex as his 30 homer power (officially) returned. He clubbed 31 homers in his 111 games this year, nine more than he did all of last year in fewer games (123) and fewer plate appearances (462 this year; 508 last year). In terms of raw OPS, Tex’s .906 mark this year is the second best of his Yankee career, bested only by 2009 and its .948 mark. Using OPS+, though, 2015 has been Tex’s best season in the Bronx, beating out 2009 by a “score” of 148-141. A similar pattern holds true with wOBA/wRC+ as 2009 was better from a raw perspective–.402 to .381–while 2015 was better from an adjusted perspective–143-142.

Tex’s last three (partial) seasons have mirrored the Yankees’ last three seasons in that there were some underlying positives despite a less-than-desirable outcome. In 2013, Tex played in just 15 games. There were some signs that he was himself–a 12.7% walk rate and a .189 ISO–but there’s no way to call that a season, let alone a successful one. He took a step forward in 2014 and displayed his usual patience–11.4% walk rate–and solid power–.182 ISO. But, it still wasn’t quite enough, just like the Yankees’ season in general. With his return to prominence in 2015, so too returned the Yankees, who’ve long been in playoff position; with Tex back where he should be, the Yankees were back where they “should be.”

This isn’t to say that the loss of Tex dooms the Yankees into bird-crashing-into-unseen-window status. They have plenty of bats, a solid (if tired) bullpen, and plenty of games to make up some ground on the Blue Jays or separate themselves from the Rangers (and Twins and Angels). Those tasks are obviously a lot harder without the team’s offensive MVP, but they aren’t impossible. Thanks to Tex, the Yankees are in a good position to make the playoffs and hopefully make a deep run therein. He helped carry the this far and now it’s up to his teammates to carry his torch as far as they can. Thanks for a great season, Mark; we’ll see you in the spring.

Thoughts prior to the four-game series with the Blue Jays


The Yankees and Blue Jays start an ultra-important four-game series at Yankee Stadium tonight, assuming the weather cooperates. It rained late last night and it’s supposed to rain the rest of the day. I imagine they’d play a doubleheader this weekend should tonight’s game get postponed. Hopefully it doesn’t. Anyway, I have some thoughts not necessarily related to the Blue Jays series.

1. Workload limits are a hot topic right now because of the Matt Harvey fiasco. We all know innings are too simplistic, right? Not all innings are created equal. Grinding through a 30-pitch inning full of base-runners is not the same as tossing ten pitches in a 1-2-3 frame even though they both go into the record book as one inning pitched. I’d like to see more data-driven workload management. Has the pitcher’s release point changed or become inconsistent? How many high-stress sliders are being thrown? Are more pitches being left up in the zone? Is the pitcher suddenly taking more time between pitches? Pitching in general leads to injuries, especially pitching while fatigued. There are so many better ways to potentially measure fatigue and monitor workloads than simply counting total innings or pitches. Teams are always well ahead of the public with stuff like this. I have to think there is data-driven workload management going around around the league. There’s too much information available for it not to happen.

2. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little concerned about Dellin Betances‘ late-season workload. Not panicking, but a bit concerned. He’s thrown 71.2 innings and made 63 appearances through 138 games this year. Through 138 games last year it was 81 innings and 61 appearances, so the raw numbers are not significantly different. The issue is a) he now has all of last year’s innings on his arm too, and b) his innings this year have been much more stressful. Dellin’s average Leverage Index when entering a game last year was 1.36, which is firmly in medium leverage territory. This year he’s at 1.72 LI when entering the game. That’s astronomical. Ninth highest among 139 qualified relievers. So he’s throwing more intense innings this year. At this point the Yankees can not hold Dellin back though. They need Betances to help nail down wins. But the fact he’s now put 16 of the last 36 batters he’s faced on base (.444 OBP) is a red flag. He doesn’t look quite as sharp as he did even earlier this season. Hopefully it’s just a little slump and not workload related. (Yes, I know he has a long history of being wild. Isn’t it a red flag that he’s turned back into that guy of late?)

3. How great has John Ryan Murphy been? He doesn’t play a whole lot, and when he does he usually has the platoon advantage, but a .282/.326/.427 (105 wRC+) line from the backup catcher? That’s phenomenal. Murphy’s been even better of late, hitting .325/.367/.494 (137 wRC+) with five doubles and three homers over the last three calendar months. He seems to work very well with the pitchers — Joe Girardi praised him for getting Michael Pineda through six innings following his ugly second inning on Monday — and handle the defensive part of the game well. The young call-ups like Luis Severino and Greg Bird are getting all the headlines right now and deservedly so, they’ve been pushed into regular roles and are handling them well, but Murphy’s done very well himself as a part-timer player. He’s somehow managed to become the ultra-rare impressive young Yankees player who gets zero hype. Murphy would be the talked about as baseball’s next great young catcher if he played for the Cardinals or Red Sox.


4. The Yankees aren’t getting enough credit for rebuilding on the fly. Retooling, as they say. They didn’t go to the postseason the last two years but they weren’t awful either — 84 and 85 wins do not constitute disaster seasons, just disappointing ones. The Yankees are back in the race this year and while their veteran players are a major reason why, they’ve dipped into the farm system for help whenever a need arose. It’s not just Bird and Severino, or even Murphy. Slade Heathcott and Mason Williams helped in limited duty. So did Ramon Flores. Chase Whitley made some spot starts. An flock of young relievers have been shepherded back and forth between Scranton and New York. That’s all while other prospects like Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Brady Lail reached Triple-A. Eric Jagielo would have as well if not for the fluke knee injury he suffered sliding into home plate back in June. There’s something to be said for not being unwatchably awful. Not every rebuild has to be a total tear down. It’s possible to rebuild and retool while remaining at least somewhat competitive and keeping fans interested, especially when you’re a large market team. The Yankees have done it the last few seasons and don’t get enough credit for it.

5. Boy, there is just no fight in the Nationals, huh? As soon as things started to go wrong against the Mets this week, they let it spiral out of control. They’re easily the most disappointing team in baseball this year — one of the most disappointing in the last 15 years, right? — and manager Matt Williams is probably going to take the fall after the season, but it’s not all on him. Bryce Harper’s the only dude on the roster who deserves zero blame. He’s been a monster and has kept them relevant almost single-handedly this summer. Anyway, I bring this up because the Nationals seem to be the antithesis of the Yankees. The whole Fighting Spirit thing is a fun little joke but there is definitely a lot of truth behind it. The Yankees never let things spiral out of control like the Nats and they constantly prove doubters wrong. (No, losing two games to the O’s does not mean the Yankees never put up a fight.) People have been predicting the collapse of the Yankees for a decade now, and their worst team during that time won 84 games while dealing with a zillion injuries. The front office puts a lot of stock in character and makeup and I think this is the result. They suffer a tough loss or drop a few games in a row, but they bounce right back. The Yankees as a team are mentally tough year after year and it’s not an accident. It’s by design. I’ve really come to appreciate that in recent years.

The (Non) Acquisition

Drew. (Jim Rogash/Getty)
Drew. (Jim Rogash/Getty)

At various points during the 2015 season, we’ve been fed up and “done” with multiple players. Didi Gregorius‘s first few weeks in pinstripes were far from smooth. Carlos Beltran looked deep fried, extra crispy, well done and every other overcooked food metaphor you can think of during the first month of the season. Then, there’s Stephen Drew, a player who has, can, and will draw ire from Yankee fans in a variety of different ways for a variety of different reasons. This outrage, however mild or vitriolic, is not unfounded. There’s no denying that Drew had a wholly awful season in 2014 no matter how you slice it and started of 2015 just as poorly.

Though he showed some pop with five homers between April and May of this year, Drew hit just .157/.225/.301/.526. He also suffered from an unfathomably low .164 BABIP in that time, though his exit velocity in the beginning of the season was below league average, hinting that hard contact wasn’t quite his thing (aside from the homers, of course). Drew’s dreadful start to the season prompted many fans–myself included–to wonder when the Yankees would cut bait with Drew and make a change at second base. The team certainly had options, with the trade market available and Rob Refsnyder hanging in the minors; he even got a call up and a brief audition during a weekend series with the Red Sox. A trade never happened and the Yankees didn’t call up Refsynder (for the long-term, that is), but the Yankees were right to hold onto Drew as the starting second baseman, even after that dismal beginning tacked onto a poor end to 2014.

It was remarkably frustrating to watch Drew during April and May, but the non-trade was defensible. Though there were trade possibilities, we have no idea what the Yankees did or what the market actually looked like. While it’s likely that Refsnyder will be better than Stephen Drew was during those first months, in the short term, a guy getting his first exposure to MLB is likely to suffer from non-ideal play. It’s a moot point since the time has passed, but it’s definitely possible that Refsnyder, in the short term, would’ve been just as bad or worse than Drew at the plate during his first extended time in the majors. That also ignores defense, which Drew is pretty good at and Refsnyder has a bad reputation with.

And even if it wasn’t really a trade or a signing or a promotion, the Yankees did get a new second baseman on June 1. From that point on, Drew has hit .246/.317/.473/.791 (compare that to the .715 league average OPS for an AL 2B). This is something I–and others–have been parroting for a while now when I see the lingering complaints about Drew’s play. Due to that awful start, everyone seems ready to jump on him whenever he has a poor at bat. Did this come out of no where? Sort of, given how terrible he was at the end of 2014 and the beginning of this year. But there were promising signs in those early struggles.

During the first two months, he did have a walk rate of 8.2% and and ISO of .144. Neither one of those numbers is outstanding, but neither is bad. He also so a solid 4.04 pitches per plate appearances, so he wasn’t giving away at bats; the results just weren’t there. Since June and his turnaround, Drew has a similar walk rate of just over 9% and an ISO of .227, much better than the first two months. The basic underlying things were there for Drew and the Yankees recognized them and held onto Drew. Now, given his second half surge, the Yankees do look pretty smart for holding onto him at second.

Had the Yankees made a change–like trading for Ben Zobrist or someone similar–I would not have been mad or even reacted in any sort of negative way. However, this does serve as a reminder that most of the time, we are not as informed as the organization is and we do not know nearly as much as we think we do. This isn’t to say that teams should be free from blame or criticism, but rather that we should remember we have no where near as much information or context as the teams do. Their reluctance to let go of Drew was not stubbornness. Their reluctance to let go of Drew was not hanging onto a sunk cost for the sake of saving face. It was a calculated decision made with knowledge of the alternatives. The organization clearly didn’t think that any internal replacements, like Refsnyder, would outperform drew and that any external replacements, like a trade or signing, wouldn’t be worth the cost. It’s likely that the Yankees saw the underlying numbers and data that pointed to a rebound for Stephen Drew and they made the choice to stay with him and it paid off.

Thoughts prior to the ten-game homestand

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

The Yankees wrapped up the six-game road trip yesterday and tomorrow they begin a long ten-game homestand. From here on out, the team will not be away from New York more than three consecutive days. The travel situation is very favorable the rest of the season. Anyway, I have some thoughts.

1. After all his injuries the last two or three years, who would have thought Mark Teixeira would become such a vital piece of the 2015 Yankees? He’s been the team MVP this year. Losing him for what is going to end up being at least a month is really, really tough. Teixeira’s two-way play is irreplaceable. There’s no way to replace both his bat and his defense. Can’t be done. The only thing the Yankees can do is hope everyone else steps up their game, allowing them to weather the storm. I like Greg Bird, he seems to have a plan at the plate and a knack for hard contact, but he’s also a 22-year-old rookie who’s been thrust into a postseason race. Not an ideal situation. (Remember, Bird was called up to spell Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez on occasion, not play everyday.) Losing Teixeira to this dumb, fluke injury is a huge blow. They needed him to dominate just to establish themselves as contenders. Now they have to try to stay in the race without him.

2. Speaking of Bird, it sure seems the scouting report is attack him with high fastballs. Here are two strike zone plots from Baseball Savant. On the left is every two-strike pitch Bird has seen as a big leaguer, and on the right are all his strike threes. You can click the image for a larger view.

Greg Bird two-strike pitches and strike threes


Opposing teams are definitely attacking Bird with high heat in two-strike situations. It has been noticeable watching games and the PitchFX data backs it up. Teams have great scouting reports these days, even on kids who were just called up. I remember the Yankees using the shift against Jackie Bradley Jr. when he was first called up — Red Sox manager John Farrell said that prompted them to check the spray charts of their own players to make sure they weren’t missing something — and that’s another example. No, Bird doesn’t have much big league experience, but teams already know his strengths and weaknesses. Now it’s up to Bird to adjust to all those high fastballs — hitting high fastballs is really hard, he has to learn to lay off more than anything — and make pitchers beat him a different way.

3. I’m not surprised the Yankees are staying away from A-Rod playing first base, even against lefties. I think he could do it — awkwardly, but do it — if the team is really in a bind and has no other choice, and that seems to be their thinking. Emergencies only. Dustin Ackley and Austin Romine can play first base, and they could always stick Brian McCann there if necessary, so they have a few different options. Not great ones, but options nonetheless. A-Rod has looked out of gas at times in the second half, so the Yankees are trying to do anything they can to keep him fresh. Being 40 years old with two surgically repaired hips stinks, apparently. It’s an unfortunate situation because I’m sure they’d like to be able to sit Bird every once in a while, but keeping A-Rod as fresh as possible is the priority.

Martin. (Elsa/Getty)
Martin. (Elsa/Getty)

4. Following Tuesday’s call-ups, there are only six players on the 40-man roster who are not in the big leagues right now: Gary Sanchez (hamstring) and Jacob Lindgren (elbow), who are hurt; Nick Rumbelow and Nick Goody, who will be called up once their ten days pass after being sent down last week; and Chris Martin and Slade Heathcott. I thought Heathcott would get called up on September 1st and it was surprising when that didn’t happen, but I think the Yankees want him to play everyday with Triple-A Scranton rather than sit on the big league team’s bench after missing so much time with the quad injury this year. Slade is still under 300 plate appearances this year after playing only nine games last year. The kid needs at-bats and he’ll get them with the RailRiders, who are very likely to go to the postseason. They’ll be playing another two weeks or so. Martin? Not sure what the story is there. It seems like he’s next in line to lose his 40-man spot should a need arise, and I guess the Yankees just don’t think he is able to help them this month. He’s been passed by other players on the depth chart.

5. The Yankees called up Rico Noel just to be their pinch-running specialist this month, which got me wondering how often a guy like that is actually used. Terrance Gore pinch-ran nine times in 26 September games for the Royals last year, stealing five bases and scoring five runs. Quintin Berry pinch-ran eight times in 25 September games for the 2013 Red Sox, stole two bases and scored three runs. Freddy Guzman pinch-ran eight times in 31 September/October games for the 2009 Yankees, stealing four bases and scoring just two runs. So, all together, those three players stole eleven bases and scored ten runs in 25 pinch-running situations across 82 games. (There have been other September pinch-runners, both those are the three that stand out to me.) Pinch-running 25 times in 82 games doesn’t sound like much, but remember, these are high-leverage pinch-running spots. They’re not pinch-running in blowouts — 23 of those 25 pinch-running situations came in the sixth inning or later of a game separated by no more than two runs. Considering the standings and the fact the Yankees have some slow runners in the lineup, we’re going to see Noel pinch-run in some very big spots these next few weeks. The potential for impact is there, just in a very specialized way.

6. The YES booth had a conversation the other day about which pitcher the Yankees should start in a potential wildcard game. If I’m remembering correctly, David Cone said Masahiro Tanaka while John Flaherty said either Luis Severino or Nathan Eovaldi. Either way, it blows my mind anyone would consider starting someone other than Tanaka in a winner-take-all game. Eovaldi’s been great of late and Severino has been super impressive, but man, season on the line, I trust Tanaka more than anyone. I think he’s most likely to dominate and, perhaps more importantly, least likely to completely implode. Even Tanaka’s bad starts aren’t all that bad. He’s allowed more than three runs just five times in his last 18 starts and more than four runs only twice in those 18 starts. Forget about the contract. I want Tanaka in a potential winner-take-all game because of his wide array of weapons and unflappability. If the Yankees do have to settle for a wildcard spot, I hope they’re able to line up their rotation and give Tanaka that start.