Even in worst case, Holliday an improvement over 2016 DH situation

alex-rodriguez-matt-holliday-getty-split-slide
(Getty)

On Friday, Domenic raised the interesting question of whether the Yankees jumped the gun in signing Matt Holliday. While he was cheaper in total cash outlay than Kendrys Morales, he earned substantially more than some other DH options, including Chris Carter, who the Yankees still signed on top of Holliday.

But there’s one thing that I think is without a doubt: Holliday brings more to the table than 2016 Alex Rodriguez (duh) and will bring a substantial improvement in the Yankees’ DH situation this season, even in the worst case scenario. Yet how much Holliday will bring in surplus value is another question entirely (and whether it is worth $13 million is an extra question on top of that).

If we’re going to get into how much extra value he’ll bring, first you need to set the baseline: A-Rod‘s 2016 season. Man, that was just a huge disappointment. His 2015 season was perfect in many regards considering expectations and then he came back with a complete dud, failing to reach 700 home runs and getting a barely ceremonious release in August. In total, A-Rod hit .200/.247/.351 (56 wRC+) in just 243 plate appearances.

Because he played in just 65 games, that opened up nearly 90 games worth of DH at-bats (remember: 10 games in National League parks with pitchers hitting). Therefore, the baseline isn’t entirely Rodriguez. His general ineptitude opened the door for DH starts for many players. Carlos Beltran (148), Brian McCann (122), Gary Sanchez (72), Billy Butler (20) and Mark Teixeira (16) all got at least 15 plate appearances without needing to take the field.

While A-Rod having more success would have benefited the Yankees’ win-loss record, it would have hurt Sanchez’s development time or cut in further to McCann’s at-bats when Sanchez was called up. It also means the Yankees likely don’t sign Butler (probably a good development), Beltran is slightly less productive with the extra need to play the field and Aaron Hicks receives less of a chance to develop with Beltran taking starts away in right field. All of that is to say A-Rod’s struggles and eventual release opened the door for some strong positives for the Yankees.

As a whole, the Yankees’ designated hitter ‘position’ produced a paltry -1.5 bWAR, the worst in baseball. The position, in 642 plate appearances, had a .261/.312/.450 line. They also had -2.0 WAR in right field, which was in part due to Beltran only getting 232 plate appearances there.

I see very few scenarios where the Yankees post that poor a performance at DH in 2017, mostly thanks to Holliday. This factors in the idea that last season was likely the worst of his career and he seems to be on the decline. After all, he is 37 years old and can’t be far from retirement. Still, despite the decline, he still hit .246/.322/.461 (109 wRC+), which isn’t outstanding but certainly above average. He produced the lowest WAR of his career (0.7 fWAR, 0.3 bWAR) and the Cardinals as a team had a -1.4 WAR in left field with Holliday getting most of the at-bats there.

However, any comparison between Holliday’s performance totals last year and potential performance this year needs to factor in his defense. He was dreadful in left field last season while starting 82 games there and his fielding likely is a big factor in the -1.4 WAR for the Cards. Barring a rash of injuries, the Yankees don’t have to worry about the seven-time All-Star as anything but a hitter. If he is playing the field on anything of a regular basis, this whole post is thrown out the window because something has gone seriously wrong in the Bronx.

Assuming Holliday is able to stick to DH and maybe, just maybe, a few games in the field during National League play, there’s a solid chance he’s much healthier than towards the end of his time in St. Louis. He only played 183 games combined over the last two seasons and the injuries no doubt affected him at the plate. If he only needs to focus on his bat and doesn’t need to expend energy in the field, he should be a healthier and, therefore, better version of what he’d otherwise be in 2017.

And that leads to some optimistic projections for 2017 from Steamer and PECOTA.

ZiPS: .244/.325/.447 with 14 HR in 329 PA
Steamer: .271/.357.470 with 21 HR in 505 PA
PECOTA: .262/.352/.447 with 19 HR in 495 PA

ZiPS, as you can see, projects Holliday to continue his decline. That’s not unreasonable. All three systems had A-Rod hitting a lot better last season than he did but still had him declining, and sometimes an older hitter just falls off in an instant. Declines aren’t always gradual.

The best case scenario for Holliday is something along the lines of A-Rod’s 2015 season. That’ll happen if he stays healthy and really takes to the DH role. There are some signs pointing to this type of bounce back. Holliday was better in the second half last season. He also was at his best (.368/.385/.868 with five HR) in his eight games as the Cardinals’ DH. Holliday also gets the chance to play 81 games in the hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium.

In this type of scenario, Holliday could anchor the Yankees’ lineup and warrant consideration to bring him back in 2018. The most likely case — a slightly above average but not great Holliday — is still a welcome improvement over last season and would bring stability to DH.

But there is the worst case scenario and ZiPS hints at it. However, I’d argue even the worst case with Holliday is still better than the Bombers’ 2016 DH situation. On one hand, you have Holliday getting injured. That’s not such a big deal for the team for two reasons; The Yankees have Chris Carter as a ready-made replacement and could also hand at-bats to developing younger players like Tyler Austin, Aaron Judge, etc. Heck, they could also use the spot to give Sanchez days off from the field like last year.

The other worst case is Holliday declining significantly. That wouldn’t be optimal, but he’s only under contract for one season unlike A-Rod from last year. Because of the limited investment (in years, not dollars), the team could move on and give away those ABs, which could perhaps be put to better use on a team in transition. A truly significant Holliday decline could help put a fork in the Yankees’ playoff hopes, but a more modest decline is much more likely.

On top of his performance, Holliday is renowned for his clubhouse presence. Who knows if it is more or less than what Rodriguez or Beltran brought to the table while they DH’d? Regardless, that alone isn’t worth $13 million and it may be tough for him to live up to the contract. But have no fear: It almost definitely doesn’t get worse than last season.

The Yankees lost some lefty power, but does it matter?

Getty Images
(Getty Images)

The Yankees lost a lot of veterans over the last year, whether to trade, retirement or release. While it has enabled the team to undergo a much-needed youth movement, it also signifies a significant loss in left-handed power. Lefty power isn’t a be-all, end-all. Just look at the 2015-16 Blue Jays and the success they had with Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.

Yet nearly all of the Yankees’ teams since Babe Ruth have been built around powerful lefty (or switch) hitters and they have a home stadium built to match. After all, lefties have the platoon advantage most of the time and strong lefty pull hitters can make mince meat of Yankee Stadium. Therefore, it’s worth looking into whether the Yankees can maintain that or if it will even matter with the team’s new additions.

What they’ve lost

In 2016, the lineup had Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Didi Gregorius, all lefties or switch-hitters, all hit 20+ home runs in pinstripes. Now, the first three names on that list are either retired or playing for the Astros. That leaves a major hole in the middle of the Yankees’ lineup without similar players to fill it.

And those weren’t the only lefties in the lineup. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury combined for just 16 home runs after 33 between the pair as recently as 2014. Chase Headley, despite going without an extra-base hit until mid-May, still hit 11 homers from the left side. In total, thanks to the contributions of those above and a few others, 101 of the team’s 183 homers came from lefty batters, many taking advantage of the short porch in right field.

Sir Didi and Bird

If all went according to plan in 2017, Gregorius and Greg Bird would cement themselves as Yankees regulars for the foreseeable future. Headley, Ellsbury and Gardner will all be 33 for most of the upcoming season, so it’s tougher to see them rebound and provide a strong power surge. So we look to the youthful duo.

It’s worth questioning whether Gregorius, who had only 22 career dingers before last year, can sustain his power surge. He improved on pitches located essentially anywhere, but where he really improved was his power on inside pitches. It’s spelled out through his isolated power in 2015 vs. 2016, via Baseball Savant.

didi-iso-zone-2015-vs-2016
2015 (left) vs. 2016 (right)

While he began the spring with a home run, he’s still not exactly a home run hitter. Some of those home runs last year were line drives that snuck out and he pulled all 20 of his dingers, benefiting from the short porch. Craig Goldstein broke down Gregorius’ 2016 power surge at Baseball Prospectus (subs. required) and says it very well could be a one-year blip.  For what it’s worth, the Yankees believe he can maintain his power, even if the home runs don’t necessarily come, and he did also post a career-high in doubles last season.

As for Bird, the 24-year-old first baseman has the task of replacing Teixeira in the middle of the Yankees’ order. First base is the one spot where the Yankees could find improved power for a LHB, but there is also reason to fret that may not happen. Greg Bird hit 11 homers with a .268 ISO in 178 plate appearances in 2015, but now he’s working his way back from shoulder surgery. Did the surgery sap some of his power? Time will tell and his spring will be important to knocking off some of the inevitable rust (his two doubles on Monday are a good sign).

Righties in the middle

Beyond Bird, there were no lefty hitters added to the Yankees lineup. Maybe Gardner or Ellsbury could bounce back and hit double-digit home runs again. It’s certainly possible that, with extended playing time, this is the year Aaron Hicks puts it together and fulfills his potential.

However, it’s more than likely any uptick in slugging would come from righty Bombers, of which there are plenty candidates. Namely Chris Carter, Matt Holliday, Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge.

Carter mashes lefties more than righties, making him an obvious platoon candidate with Bird, but he still hit 29 homers and posted a more than respectable .487 slugging percentage against RHPs in 2016. Furthermore, he used the opposite field more against RHPs while pulled the ball against LHPs, a sign Carter can utilize the short porch more than one might expect. Here’s his spray heatmap vs. RHPs via Baseball Savant (and here’s the link to the same vs. LHPs).

chris-carter-heatmap-vs-rhp

Matt Holliday, the team’s new everyday DH, has hit — with the exception of 2015 — 20 home runs every season since 2005. Like Carter, he hit for more power against lefties but was still above league average against same-sided pitchers.

Sanchez and Judge are tougher enigmas to crack. Sanchez’s slump to end 2016 indicates he won’t put up nearly the same numbers as he did in August last year. Then again, how exactly was he supposed to replicate that anyway? For what it’s worth, Sanchez hit righties much better than lefties, making up for the lack of platoon advantage McCann provided vs. RHPs. Judge, meanwhile, has more than enough power regardless of opponent but needs to cut down on strikeouts to stay in the lineup.

Does it matter?

Surely the Yankees will hit fewer homers from the left side. But their addition of right-handed power, particularly batters who can use the opposite field, will help make up for that. This will help correct the team’s issues against southpaws that plagued them last season (.253/.317/.391 vs. LHP as compared to .256/.323/.414 league average). With a division littered with lefty starters (eight, including potentially four on the Red Sox alone), the Yankees may be able to turn a 2016 weakness into a strength. As mentioned above, you can be right-handed heavy like the Blue Jays recently were and still be able to rack up extra bases.

Still, it’s worth wondering if the team has traded struggles vs. southpaws for something worse, a lack of power vs. RHPs, who make up the majority of what the team will face. The team as a whole was just 12th in the AL in slugging last season. Therefore, it’s reliant on young players like Bird and Gregorius as well as the team’s RHBs to fill in the power gap or else the Yankees won’t be able to live up to the Bronx Bomber nickname in this transitional season.

Even without many lefty power hitters, the Yankees will still be able to take advantage of the short porch

Carter. (Dustin Bradford/Getty)
Carter. (Dustin Bradford/Getty)

Once the new Yankee Stadium opened and it became clear the short right field porch was even shorter than it had been at the old ballpark, the Yankees started to build their roster around left-handed pull hitters. I mean, they’d always done that, but there was an increased emphasis for sure. It made complete sense too. You tailor your roster to your ballpark since that’s where you play the majority of your games. Every team does it.

The Yankees sought left-handed pull hitters whenever possible. When they needed a short-term designated hitter, they signed guys like Nick Johnson and Raul Ibanez and Travis Hafner. Filling out the bench? They brought in Kelly Johnson and Eric Chavez. Brian McCann‘s pull power from the left side of the plate was one of the biggest reasons the Yankees signed him. No doubt about it.

At the moment the Yankees have three left-handed hitters in their projected 2017 lineup: Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Didi Gregorius. Greg Bird can make it four should he win the first base job in Spring Training, and he’s the only one of those four you’d truly consider as a power hitter, right? Gregorius hit 20 homers last season and that was awesome, but I don’t think anyone is counting on him to be a big run producer going forward.

The Yankees actually have more power from the right side of the plate right now. Chris Carter, who will play first base on the days Bird does not, smacked 41 home runs last year. He’s hit the eighth most homers in baseball since 2014. Gary Sanchez, Matt Holliday, and Starlin Castro all topped 20 homers in 2016. Sanchez and Holliday didn’t even play full seasons. Aaron Judge hit 23 homers in 120 games between Triple-A and MLB.

For the first time in as long as I can remember, the Yankees lineup leans towards the right side of the plate. Go back throughout history and most successful Yankees teams had big lefty bats, from Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to Reggie Jackson and Graig Nettles and Chris Chambliss to Paul O’Neill and Tino Martinez. Left-handed power and patience is the franchise’s trademark. That isn’t the case so much right now.

“The power is not prevalent from the left side. That is the way the dominoes have shaken out,” said Brian Cashman to Joel Sherman recently. “There is no think-tank, philosophical change to get away from lefty power. It is how it has shaken out as we tried to upgrade each individual position.”

If the Yankees wanted lefty power, they could have added it this offseason. They could have brought in Pedro Alvarez and Brandon Moss instead of Holliday and Carter, for example. Or maybe Adam Lind and Luis Valbuena. There were left-handed pull hitters on the market this winter waiting to be signed. The Yankees went righty instead of lefty, probably because Holliday is a better pure hitter than those guys and Carter has more power than all of them.

The team’s lack of left-handed power — Carter hit more homers than Gardner, Ellsbury, and Gregorius (and Bird) combined in 2016 (41 to 36) — does not mean the Yankees will be unable to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch in 2017. Last year we saw Castro drive the ball to right field with authority. Holliday and Carter have been doing it for years as well. Check out their line drive and fly ball rates by direction from 2014-16:

LD+FB% to Pull LD+FB% to Middle LD+FB% to Oppo
Carter 51.8% 80.0% 90.1%
Castro 31.3% 51.6% 74.5%
Holliday 33.9% 54.3% 77.9%
MLB AVG for RHB 33.7% 35.3% 51.1%

When Carter has hit a ball the other way over the last three seasons, it’s been a fly ball or a line drive more than nine times out of ten. That sounds ridiculous, and it is, but it’s not unheard of. Other top right-handed power hitters like J.D. Martinez (90.1%), Kris Bryant (88.6%), and Mike Trout (88.0%) are in the same neighborhood. The best power hitters are the ones who hit the ball out to all fields.

Castro and Holliday don’t hit as many line drives and fly balls when going the other way as Carter, but they’re still way above the league average for right-handed batters. Roughly three out of every four balls they’ve hit to right field over the last three seasons have been airborne. Want to take advantage of the short porch as a right-handed hitter? You’ve got to get the ball in the air when you go the other way, and Carter, Castro, and Holliday are all very good at it.

(Last year, after Tyler Austin hit his walk-off home run against the Rays, I noted how rare it is for a right-handed batter to hit an opposite field home run on an inside pitch. Only eleven righties had done it up to that point last year, and three are now Yankees: Austin, Carter, and Holliday.)

Holliday. (Jennifer Stewart/Getty)
Holliday. (Jennifer Stewart/Getty)

Now, here’s the rub: those three don’t hit the majority of their batted balls the other way. When they do hit the ball to right field, it tends to be in the air, but like most hitters they mostly hit back up the middle and to the pull side. Since 2014 only 23.0% of Carter’s batted balls were to right field. It was 29.9% for Holliday and 22.5% for Castro. This is important context. It’s not like these three are hitting every other ball to right field. It’s just that when they do go to right field, they often do so in the air. That’s good given the short porch.

During their brief big league cameos last season we saw Sanchez and Austin, as well as Judge, hit home runs to right field. All five of Austin’s big league homers were opposite field shots at Yankee Stadium. Sanchez hit two out to right field and Judge hit one. Their scouting reports coming up as prospects indicated those guys have opposite field power, especially Sanchez and Judge, so what we saw last year wasn’t out of character.

The Yankees aren’t very left-handed at the moment. Their best lefty power hitter is Gregorius by default, though a healthy Bird would take over that title. The good news is the Yankees do have plenty of power from the right side, including several righties who are equipped to take advantage of the short right field porch given their tendency to hit the ball in the air the other way. They’ll be able to use the short porch without all the annoying grounders pulled into the shift.

Didi Gregorius and the value of being a bad ball hitter

(Denis Poroy/Getty)
(Denis Poroy/Getty)

In just a few short weeks, the Yankees will enter year three of the Didi Gregorius era. Time flies, eh? In his two seasons as New York’s starting shortstop, Gregorius has shown a rocket arm and strong overall defensive chops, and blossoming power as well. And enthusiasm for the game, too. The Yankees have been a little too corporate over the years and a player having fun on the field is a welcome change.

Gregorius came to the Yankees with questions about his ability to hit, and while no one is going to confuse him for Derek Jeter at the plate, Didi hasn’t been a total zero with the stick either. He’s authored a .270/.311/.409 (94 wRC+) batting line in nearly 1,200 plate appearances as a Yankee. The league average shortstop hit .262/.319/.407 (92 wRC+) last season, so Gregorius is right there. Add in his defense and you’ve got a nice little player.

One thing we know for sure about Gregorius offensively is that he loves to swing. Loves it. His 55.4% swing rate last season was sixth highest among the 146 hitters to qualify for the batting title. And when he swings, he usually puts the ball in play. Gregorius had the third lowest walk rate (3.2%) and 26th lowest strikeout rate (13.7%) in baseball last season. He’s not someone who swings and misses a lot. When he swings, he tends to put in play.

Gregorius is not shy about swinging at pitches out of the zone — his 38.3% chase rate last year was 14th highest among those 146 batters — and that can get pretty annoying! At the same time, his 71.7% contact rate on pitches out of the zone was quite a bit above the 63.9% league average. This play sticks out to me from last summer. David Price tried to put Gregorius away with a changeup out of the zone, and Didi hooked it into the corner for extra bases:

That’s not a bad pitch! It was down and out of the zone, and with an 0-2 count and two outs, trying to get the hitter to chase something in the dirt is a smart move. The count says you don’t need to go right after the hitter in that situation. Price had some wiggle room thanks to the 0-2 count and the pitch was a ball (via Brooks Baseball) …

david-price-vs-didi-gregorius-050716

… yet Gregorius made him pay. What can you do if you’re the pitcher in that situation? Nothing, you just have to tip your cap, as annoying as that may be. Price made a good pitch and Gregorius drove in three runs anyway. That’s baseball. Sometimes you do everything right and still get beat.

That play speaks to Didi’s skills as a bad ball hitter. Vlad Guerrero was the ultimate bad ball hitter. We’ve all see the highlight of him hitting a single on a pitch that bounced. That guy could swing at any pitch in any location and do damage. Ichiro Suzuki was another great bad ball hitter. Gregorius is not a Vlad or Ichiro caliber bad ball hitter, basically no one is, but he is better than most in MLB today.

Over the last two seasons Gregorius has hit .222 with a .297 BABIP on pitches out of the zone, which sounds terrible, but the league averages were .187 and .281, respectively. The best bad ball hitter over the last two seasons, Denard Span, hit .268 on pitches outside the zone. Only nine others cleared .250. Here are Didi’s BABIPs on pitches in various locations from 2015-16, via Baseball Savant:

didi-gregorius-babips

The brighter the red, the higher above average the BABIP. The brighter the blue, the further below average. Gregorius has excelled at pitches down and in and out of the zone, like the Price changeup in the video above, and has been about average on pitches out of the zone away from him. That’s from the catcher’s perspective, so his weakness is up and in. Otherwise if it’s out of the zone, Gregorius has some level of success when he swings.

Of course, in a perfect world Didi would not swing at pitches out of the strike zone, but that’s just not who he is. Getting a hitter to change his approach is awfully tough, especially when you’re talking about a soon-to-be 27-year-old who has had success in the big leagues swinging at everything. Gregorius at this point probably is what he’s always going to be from an approach standpoint. He’s going to swing and swing often. So it goes.

I definitely think there is value in having a bad ball hitter in the lineup. Diversity is cool. On-base percentage is king and patient hitters who make the pitcher work tend to drive successful offenses. These days though, with velocity and strikeouts at an all-time high, having someone who can not only spoil those put-away pitches out of the zone, but actually get base hits off them is pretty useful. A full lineup of free swingers like Gregorius might not work. One in a lineup of patient hitters though? That’s doable.

Do the Yankees have a lineup full of patient hitters at the moment? Not really, though they’re probably in better shape than their 7.8% walk rate a year ago (19th in MLB) would lead you to believe. Brett Gardner, Chase Headley, Matt Holliday, and Greg Bird all have histories of working the count and drawing walks. Gary Sanchez showed similar patience last year. Aaron Judge has done it in the past too. Gregorius, Starlin Castro, and Jacoby Ellsbury are the team’s only true swing at everything hackers right now. Maybe three is too many.

Over the last two years we’ve seen enough from Gregorius to know he’s probably never going to draw a ton of walks and be a high on-base guy. Would I prefer it if he laid off pitches out of the strike zone? Of course, but that doesn’t seem to be in his DNA. Revamping his approach will take a lot of work. Drawing walks is not natural to him. If nothing else, at least Gregorius has demonstrated the ability to have some success when swinging at pitches out of the zone. If he’s not going to lay off them, then that’s the next best thing.

Yankees considering splitting Ellsbury and Gardner in the lineup, but I’ll need to see it to believe it

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Three offseasons ago the Yankees committed significant dollars to reshape their offense. After years of relying on the home run (not a bad thing!) and playing station-to-station baseball (a bad thing), New York invested big in a pair of speedsters. Jacoby Ellsbury was brought on board as a free agent and Brett Gardner was retained with an extension. That’s $205M worth of table-setters right there, with three-quarters of that money going to Ellsbury.

The attempt to diversify the offense hasn’t worked as hoped. In the three years since the signings, the Yankees ranked 20th, second, and 22nd in runs per game. The year they ranked second was the year zombie Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez rose from the dead to hit a combined .252/.357/.513 with 64 homers in just under 1,100 plate appearances. It wasn’t because Ellsbury and Gardner raised hell atop the lineup.

Derek Jeter‘s retirement tour kept him glued to the No. 2 lineup spot in 2014, but over the last two years, Ellsbury and Gardner have batted first and second in whatever order in 200 of 324 possible games, or 62%. Needless to say, building the top of the lineup around their speed hasn’t worked as planned for a number of reasons, and as a result, the Yankees are now considering breaking up the Gardner-Ellsbury combo.

“We’ve kicked it around (since) the second half last year,” said Brian Cashman during a YES Network interview earlier this week (video link). “Is it best to split them up? Who should really bat leadoff? Those type of things. And I’m sure those will pop back up this Spring Training. It could stay that way. It’s ultimately going to be Joe’s call … I think Joe’s going to get a better feel when he sees everything in camp — if it’s all healthy — and who’s best for that two-hole, then where’s the best guy slot after that. We’ll see how it plays.”

Changing the lineup can sometimes be really simple and at other times really complicated. Splitting up Gardner and Ellsbury is one of those times when it’s complicated, I think. There are a lot of ramifications up and down the lineup, and even in the clubhouse as well. There’s a lot going on here, so let’s break it down bit by bit.

1. Of course Gardner, not Ellsbury, should bat leadoff. Ellsbury has the more lucrative contract and is the bigger name, but Gardner is the better player and better hitter, and therefore the better fit for the leadoff spot. Consider their offensive numbers over the last few years (defense doesn’t matter when it comes to lineup spots):

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ HR XBH SB-CS BsR
2016 Gardner 634 .261/.351/.362 97 7 35 16-4 +7.3
2016 Ellsbury 626 .263/.330/.374 91 9 38 20-8 +2.7
2014-16 Gardner 1,926 .259/.340/.395 105 40 130 57-14 +18.5
2014-16 Ellsbury 1,762 .264/.326/.382 95 32 110 80-22 +14.1

Ellsbury steals a few more bases and hits for a slightly higher average, and that’s about it. Gardner is better at everything else, including all the other aspects of baserunning (BsR). The most basic job of the leadoff man is to get on base, and Gardner has a higher on-base percentage than Ellsbury over the last year (.351 to .330), the last two years (.347 to .324), the last three years (.340 to .326), the last four years (.341 to .333), the last five years (.341 to .331) … on and on we could go.

Furthermore, Gardner sees a heck of a lot more pitches than Ellsbury. That is kinda the secondary job of the leadoff man, right? To work the pitcher and prolong the at-bat so everyone else in the lineup gets an idea of what’s coming? Right. Gardner saw 4.09 pitches per plate appearance last season, 29th most in baseball. Ellsbury saw 3.73 pitches per plate appearance, which was 108th most. Gardner has a big advantage over the last three years too (4.23 to 3.73).

Looking ahead, both Steamer (.340 OBP to .324 OBP; 101 wRC+ to 91 wRC+) and ZiPS (.330 OBP to .324 OBP; 104 OPS to 97 OPS+) project Gardner to both get on base more often and be a better overall hitter than Ellsbury this coming season. Unless you’re one of those folks who believes the quality of a leadoff hitter can be measured exclusively by his stolen base total, there’s no statistical argument to be made Ellsbury deserves the leadoff spot over Gardner.

2. Okay smarty pants, who bats second then? The second spot in the lineup is an important one. Old school baseball folks will say that spot should go to a bat control guy who can hit behind the runner, hit-and-run, things like that. New schoolers believe your best overall hitter should hit second because he’ll get more at-bats than he would hitting third or fourth, plus he’d bat with more men on base than he would as the leadoff hitter.

Ellsbury fits the mold of an old school No. 2 hitter. He struck out only 13.4% of the time last year (career 13.6 K%), the 25th lowest strikeout rate among the 146 hitters qualified for the batting title. Ellsbury is most certainly not New York’s best hitter though. That’s probably Gary Sanchez. (I wouldn’t be completely shocked if, say, Greg Bird out-hits Sanchez in 2017.) Girardi has batted power hitters second in the past, most notably Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher, but I have a hard time believing he’d do it with Sanchez. He seems entrenched as the No. 3 hitter.

So if Gardner is leading off, Sanchez is hitting third, and Ellsbury is moving down in the lineup, who is the best candidate to hit second? My nomination: Chase Headley. He’s a better on-base player than Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro — Headley had a .331 OBP last year whereas Didi and Starlin were at .304 and .300, respectively, and ZiPS suggests more of the same in 2017 — but he probably won’t pop 20-something homers like those two. He’s better in a table-setting role. Gregorius and Castro are better used killing rallies with homers a bit lower in the order.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Ultimately, the Yankees don’t have a great No. 2 hitter candidate. Ellsbury has the bat control but is a below-average hitter overall. Castro and Gregorius don’t get on base much. Headley and Sanchez (and Bird and Matt Holliday) are really slow. Aaron Judge strikes out too much. You know who’d theoretically be a nice fit as the No. 2 hitter? Aaron Hicks. Switch-hitter with some pop who can run, doesn’t strike out a ton (18.8 K% in 2016), and will draw walks (8.3%). Of course, Hicks has a lot to prove before becoming a serious consideration for a premium lineup spot.

The lineup is going to change throughout the season, it always does, and it’s entirely possible Ellsbury will emerge as the best possible candidate for the two-hole. Headley seems like the best fit right now because, even though he lacks top of the order speed, he’ll get on base and hit for more power than Ellsbury, plus he’s a switch-hitter, which creates some matchup headaches for opposing managers. Headley has batted second for the Yankees before, 49 starts there the last two years, so it wouldn’t be new to him. He’s my suggestion until a better option emerges.

3. Will Girardi actually move Ellsbury down in the lineup? I can think of 153 million reasons why Ellsbury will remain the leadoff hitter in 2017. Like or not (not!) contract status absolutely plays a role when teams make decisions. It’s one thing to bench a wholly ineffective A-Rod, or slide Brian McCann to DH when Sanchez starts socking dingers left and right. It’s another to drop a guy in the lineup when you owe him $90M over the next four years.

Now, to be fair, Girardi did bench Ellsbury in the AL Wildcard Game two years ago, which I’m sure was difficult even though it was unquestionably the right move at the time. And Girardi did scale back the playing time of his veterans last year (A-Rod, McCann, Teixeira) without the clubhouse breaking into mutiny. Say what you want about Girardi’s on-field management skills. The Yankees have been largely distraction free the last few seasons. He seems to do a wonderful job managing the clubhouse.

Perhaps then demoting Ellsbury lower in the lineup — by demoting I mean dropped to the bottom third of the batting order, not, say, third or fifth — would not be a problem. Ellsbury accepts the demotion, uses it as motivation, and plays his way back to the top of the lineup. (Or demands a trade!) That would be the best thing for everyone. That said, there are too many years and too many dollars left on Ellsbury’s contract for me to think this will actually happen. I’m going to need to see this one to believe it.

4. Don’t forget, a Gardner trade is still possible. The Yankees can split Gardner and Ellsbury up by dropping one, preferably Ellsbury, lower in the lineup. They could also split them up by trading Gardner (or, again, preferably Ellsbury, but nah). Gardner has been on the trade block for more than a year now and reports indicate the Yankees continue to field offers. He remains a Yankee though, and until he’s traded, we have to proceed as if he’ll be around. This is just a reminder that a Gardner trade could make Ellsbury the leadoff hitter by default.

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

5. So what actually is the best lineup? Good question! Moving Ellsbury, who has been 5% worse than the league average hitter over the last three seasons, down in the lineup makes perfect sense. Except when you look at the rest of the roster and realize the Yankees aren’t exactly loaded with high-end hitters. It’s not like they still have Swisher hitting eighth or something like that. I’d say this is the best possible lineup right now:

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

That allows Ellsbury to act as a second leadoff hitter, so to speak. After the first inning, he’d still be setting the table for Gardner and Headley and Sanchez. He just wouldn’t do it in the first inning. There are a lot of questions in that lineup — will Judge stick with the team on Opening Day or go to Triple-A? is Bird healthy and productive? etc. — but that seems like the best order.

Now, based on last year and his overall tendencies, this is the lineup I’m guessing Girardi would run out there if the Yankees do decide to split up Ellsbury and Gardner:

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

Don’t ask me why, that just seems very Girardi-ish to me. Gregorius saw plenty of time in the middle of the lineup last year, and Castro was elevated to second on more than a few occasions. (Fifteen times, to be exact.) Sixth is low enough that Ellsbury is not getting premium at-bats but still high enough not to insult him. Then you’ve got the two kids in Bird and Judge, then Headley, who Girardi never bothered to elevate in the lineup for an extended period of time last summer even though he hit .269/.344/.426 (107 wRC+) in the final 135 games of the year.

Like I said earlier, I’m going to need to see Ellsbury dropped in the lineup before I believe it. Consider me skeptical. I half expect Gardner to be the one who gets demoted to seventh or eighth or whatever. It’s good the Yankees have been discussing this for a while now, since the second half of last season according to Cashman, now we just need to see if it leads anywhere. If there were one year left on Ellsbury’s deal and more viable top of the lineup alternatives on the roster, I’d be more optimistic about the chances of him being dropped. For now, I’m not expecting much.

The key to a Matt Holliday resurgence: Getting the ball airborne more often

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

A little more than a week ago, the Yankees landed their new veteran designated hitter by signing Matt Holliday to a one-year deal worth $13M. Carlos Beltran was reportedly the team’s first choice, but Beltran went to the Astros, so it was on to Plan B. I thought the Yankees were smart to avoid a big money DH like Edwin Encarnacion or Mark Trumbo, and instead go with Holliday on a one-year deal.

With the Cardinals this past season Holliday hit .246/.322/.461 (109 wRC+) with 20 homers in 426 plate appearances around a broken thumb caused by a hit-by-pitch. It was his worst offensive season since his rookie year back in 2004. The Yankees are hoping Holliday, who turns 37 next month, can bounce back for two reasons. One, he’ll be off his feet as the DH and won’t wear down physically. And two, exit velo. From my thoughts post:

3. One reason to expect Holliday’s numbers to bounce back next season: his .253 BABIP was by far a career low and well below his career .333 BABIP. That happened even though his hard contact rate (38.5%) was comfortably above the MLB average (31.4%) and his career average (35.6%). In fact, among the 375 players to put at least 100 balls in play this past season, Holliday had the third highest average exit velocity (94.7 mph). Only Nelson Cruz (95.9 mph) and Giancarlo Stanton (95.1 mph) were better. Miguel Cabrera (94.5 mph) was fourth. That is some good company. Also, according to Mike Petriello, Holliday put 42.5% of his balls in play at 100 mph or better, the fourth best rate in baseball. Exit velocity isn’t everything — it’s possible to hit a 100 mph pop-up, you know — but it’s not nothing either. Holliday can still strike the ball with authority. That suggests that .253 BABIP, which was so far out of line with the rest of his career, might not last.

Generally speaking, hit the ball hard and good things will happen. Defenders have less time to react and that’s good for the hitter, especially these days with fielders precisely positioned based on the hitter’s tendencies. Holliday did, by just about every publicly available metric, hit the ball hard in 2016. He didn’t get the results he wanted though, and according to Holliday, he hit too many grounders. In nerd terms, his launch angle was bad.

“Quite frankly, I probably hit too many hard-hit ground balls,” said Holliday to George King. “Nowadays with how good the infielders are, it’s not a good idea. I think if I can combine the exit velocity with a little bit more lift and have my misses be more in the air than on the ground, my numbers could really get back toward where they have been my whole career. I think it’s a good sign that the exit velocity was really high. I did have a little bit of bad luck, but that’s no excuse.”

This past season exactly half of Holliday’s balls in play were ground balls. His 50.0% grounder rate was a career high, up from 48.5% in 2015 and eclipsing his previous career high of 49.5% set back during his rookie year. Here is Holliday’s ground ball rate over the last three years:

matt-holliday-ground-balls

The plateaus in 2015 and 2016 are time missed to injury. In each of the last three seasons, Holliday began the year by beating the ball into the ground before starting to get it more airborne during the summer months. His overall ground ball rate is trending upward, but the injuries in 2015 (quad) and 2016 (thumb) robbed him of second half at-bats, when he was doing a better job of getting the ball in the air. That may be skewing his overall rate.

An increase in ground balls is a classic sign a player is losing bat speed. It happens to everyone at some point. As their bat slows, they don’t square the ball up quite as often, and that split-second is often the difference between a line drive and a ground ball. Holliday had some weird things going on statistically. The exit velocity indicates he hit the ball very hard overall. The career high grounder rate suggests something was still off.

Here are two heat maps showing pitch locations against Holliday. The brighter the red, the more pitches in that location. The brighter the blue, the fewer pitches in that location. The 2015 season is on the left. The 2016 season is on the right. You can click the image for a larger view.

matt-holliday-pitch-locations1

Holliday saw a lot more pitches down in the zone this past season than he did a year ago. His 2014 heat map looks like the 2015 heat map as well, meaning more pitches in the middle and not nearly as many down and away. The pitch selection against Holliday didn’t change all that much from 2015 to 2016. Just normal year-to-year fluctuations. When you see that many down and away pitches to a righty, you think slider, and Holliday saw 16.1% sliders in 2015. In 2016, it was 16.8%. His fastball rate went from 61.2% to 62.4%. A negligible difference.

Based on PitchFX, pitchers did not approach Holliday differently in terms of pitch selection. They just started pounding him down and away, and pitches in the bottom third of the zone are the hardest to lift in the air, hence the increase in ground ball rate. I love it when the puzzle pieces come together like that. It’s possible there is some small sample size noise in play here. The numbers are what they are though. Holliday did indeed see more pitches down and away.

Whether he sees that many pitches in that location next season, with the Yankees, is the next question, and it’s impossible to answer. This is a copycat league, and if Holliday has a hole down and away, pitchers are going to attack it. The thing is, Holliday is such a good natural hitter that he could make an adjustment. It’s not guaranteed to happen, but it’s possible. This guy isn’t a brute masher. He knows how to hit. After all, look at his spray chart, via Baseball Savant:

Matt Holliday spray chart

I can’t get enough of it. Power from foul pole to foul pole and base hits to all fields. All spray charts should look like that. You don’t spray the ball all around like Holliday without being a smart and adaptable hitter. After of a year of getting pounded with pitches down and away, Holliday might be better prepared to attack those pitches in 2016. The element of surprise is gone. At least that’s what I hope anyway.

Either way, the point stands. For Holliday to bounce back in pinstripes next season, he’ll have to hit the ball in the air more often than he did in 2016. That fact he was still hitting the ball hard is very good. The Yankees want him to continue doing that while improving his launch angle, so more of those 100+ mph batted balls fall in for hits. Whether he can make that adjustment at 37 years old remains to be seen. The fact Holliday has already acknowledged the ground ball problem is encouraging though, because he can begin to work on it right away.

The Yankees’ Five Biggest Hits of 2016

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

For the third time in the last four seasons, the Yankees missed the playoffs in 2016. They did stay in the race longer than I expected, which I guess is better than nothing. Despite another postseason-less season, the Yankees recorded several memorable moments in 2016, including more than a few walk-off home runs. Those are always cool.

Let’s take a look back at the five biggest hits of the season for the Yankees. To make life easy, let’s use win probability added. WPA goes a good job factoring in the game situation and all that, though it’s not perfect. Important context like the players — a Ronald Torreyes walk-off homer against Craig Kimbrel will feel bigger than a Gary Sanchez walk-off against Brad Boxberger, you know? — and the standings are left out, however.

With an assist from the Baseball Reference Play Index, here are New York’s five biggest hits of the season according to WPA. There were a lot of big ones and one massively huge one this summer.

5. Austin vs. Aaron Sanchez

Tyler Austin was not with the Yankees very long this year, only 47 games overall, and he played in only 31 of those 47. And yet, Austin had plenty of impact in his limited playing time. He hit more than a few important home runs — four of his five dingers gave the Yankees the lead and the other tied the game — and all of them were to right field at Yankee Stadium. His opposite field power is real.

On September 6th, with a postseason spot 3.5 games away, the Yankees were home against the Blue Jays, one of the teams they were chasing in the standings. This was wild back and forth game, at least in the late innings. Toronto was nursing a 2-1 lead in the seventh inning when Aaron Judge poked a ground ball single up the middle with two outs. Austin, the next batter, took advantage with a go-ahead two-run home run. On his birthday! To the action footage:

That was only the third home run ground ball machine Aaron Sanchez allowed in the second half, and only the third he allowed to a right-handed batter all season. He left a sinker up and on the outer half, which is essentially Austin’s wheelhouse given his opposite field approach.

The homer gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead but it was far from the end of the scoring. The Yankees went on to win this game 7-6. It was the Brett Gardner catch game. You know the one I’m talking about. The score was 2-1 through six and a half innings, then the two clubs combined for ten runs in the final four half-innings. No mas. WPA: +.458

4. Gardner vs. Erasmo Ramirez

The start of the season did not go well for the Yankees. Well, that’s not true. They did win four of their first six games, so hooray for that. Before you knew it though, that 4-2 record turned into a 5-9 record. The worst.

The Yankees were home against the Rays on April 23rd, and they were trying to win consecutive games for the first time in nearly three weeks. Gardner tied the game 2-2 with a run-scoring single in the seventh inning, then, two innings later, he untied the game with a walk-off home run to right field:

The pitching in that game went exactly according to plan: Masahiro Tanaka to Dellin Betances to Andrew Miller. The offense almost wasted their effort though. Gardner came through twice. First by tying the game in the seventh, then by winning it in the ninth. WPA: +.465

3. Austin vs. Erasmo Ramirez

Austin again, Erasmo Ramirez again. I wonder how many non-closers have allowed multiple walk-off home runs to one team in a single season. Can’t be many, right? However many it is, Ramirez is on the list. He gave up two walk-off bombs to the Yankees in 2016.

Two days after his big home run against the Blue Jays, Austin came through with another clutch home run, this one the game-winning solo shot against the Rays. The score was 4-4 at the time and most of the runs came early; it was 3-3 after three. Austin won the game with another one with his made for Yankee Stadium inside-out strokes.

That homer gave New York their fifth straight win and got them to within two (two!) games of a postseason spot. This was peak “holy crap they might actually do this” craziness. It didn’t last, but you know what? The ride was fun as hell in August and early September. WPA: +.465

2. McCann vs. Sam Dyson

The Yankees had a nine-game homestand in the middle of June and they had three walk-off wins in the nine games. The first was Starlin Castro‘s walk-off homer against Jason Motte and the Rockies. That was one of the longest home runs of the season.

The second of those three walk-offs came on June 29th, and the walk-off was made possible by an incredible ninth inning comeback. The Rangers pushed the Yankees around early in the game — it was 6-1 after five and a half innings — and the score was 7-3 heading into the bottom of the ninth.

The six-run ninth inning started with a Rob Refsnyder single, of all things. Then Jacoby Ellsbury walked. That prompted Texas skipper Jeff Banister to go to his closer Sam Dyson. Gardner followed with a single to score a run, and suddenly the Yankees had the tying run at the plate. Hey, at least they were making it interesting.

That tying run at the plate? Alex Rodriguez. He lined out to second for the first out of the inning. The next batter, Brian McCann, got a sinker slightly up in the zone from Dyson, and he deposited it into the short porch for a game-tying home run and the second biggest hit of the season by WPA. To the video:

Two batters later, Didi Gregorius won the game with a walk-off two-run home run. The six-run ninth turned a 7-3 deficit into a 9-7 win. New York had a 1.8% chance to win the game when the ninth inning started. Here’s the WPA graph:


Source: FanGraphs

The Yankees beat the Rangers the next night with another walk-off. That one was a little less eventful though. Catcher Robinson Chirinos let a Tony Barnette pitch scoot by for a walk-off passed ball. Chase Headley scored from third. Quite an eventful 24 hours. WPA of McCann’s homer: +.479 (would have been higher had the homer won the game and not just tied it)

1. Teixeira vs. Joe Kelly

The biggest hit of the season for the Yankees was also the final home run of Mark Teixeira‘s career. It was totally unexpected too. I watched the game with my own eyes and I still didn’t believe it.

It was September 28th and the Yankees were on the brink of elimination. The Orioles came back to beat the Blue Jays in Toronto that night, which dropped New York’s tragic number to one. A loss to the Red Sox meant season over. And for much of the game, a loss felt inevitable. The offense was nonexistent against Clay Buchholz, and Boston took a 3-0 lead in the eighth inning when Mookie Betts chopped a double over Headley’s head at third.

The score remained 3-0 into the bottom of the ninth and it felt like only a matter of time until the Red Sox celebrated their AL East championship on the Yankee Stadium field. Sucks. Then Kimbrel came in and forgot how to throw strikes. Gardner started the inning with a single, then Kimbrel threw 14 of his next 23 pitches out of the zone. He walked the bases loaded with no outs and then walked in a run. How about that?

Suddenly the Yankees were in business. They were still down two runs, but the sacks were full and there were no outs. Castro and Gregorius then followed two terrible at-bats. Three-pitch strikeout and three-pitch foul pop-up. Geez, guys. Thankfully, Teixeira picked them up when Kelly left one of his arrow straight fastballs up in the zone. Walk-off grand slam. Ballgame over. Season still alive.

The WPA of the walk-off four-run homer: +.827. .827! It was not just the biggest hit of the season for the Yankees. It was the fourth biggest hit by any player in baseball this season, in terms of WPA. Here’s the list:

  1. July 18th: Adam Lind three-run walk-off homer vs. David Robertson (+.917 WPA)
  2. July 25th: Adrian Beltre walk-off two-run homer vs. Ryan Madson (+.896 WPA)
  3. May 24th: Leonys Martin’s two-run walk-off homer vs. Ryan Madson (+.866 WPA)
  4. September 28th: Teixeira’s walk-off grand slam vs. Joe Kelly (+.827 WPA)

Rough year for Ryan Madson, huh? Also, WPA says Teixeira’s grand slam was the second biggest hit by a Yankee since 2008. The biggest was Carlos Beltran‘s three-run walk-off home run against Zach Britton in 2014 (video). That checked in at +0.84 WPA. The biggest before that was Jason Giambi‘s three-run walk-off homer against B.J. Ryan in 2008 (+.890 WPA). I remember this like it was yesterday:

Baseball can be really cool sometimes.