With reinforcements on the way, it’s time to drop Aaron Judge in the lineup

(Adam Glanzman/Getty)
(Adam Glanzman/Getty)

There’s a weird dynamic in Yankeeland right now. The two most vilified players on the roster are the runaway Rookie of the Year favorite and the best young catcher in baseball. Gary Sanchez, who is hitting .270/.346/.519 (127 wRC+) with 23 home runs this season, has been catching grief for his league leading 12 passed balls. He was even benched for a game two weeks ago.

Aaron Judge, meanwhile, is hitting .282/.413/.593 (163 wRC+) with an AL leading 37 home runs this season, though it really has been a tale of two seasons for him. He hit .329/.448/.691 (197 wRC+) in the first half and has slumped down to .169/.329/.355 (80 wRC+) in 35 games since the All-Star break. Over the weekend Judge went 1-for-12 with five strikeouts in the three games against the Red Sox.

“I’m not getting the job done. I want to be there. I’m the three hitter, the middle of the order. I’ve got to be that guy for the team,” said Judge following yesterday’s game (video link). “I trust the guys behind me to get the job done, but as the three hitter, I want to be that guy in the position with runners on every single time. It’s a little disappointing not being able to get the job done but you can’t pout, you can’t cry. You’ve just got to keep working and move on.”

Not surprisingly, Joe Girardi was asked about moving Judge out of the third spot in the lineup prior to yesterday’s game. That’s usually what happens then the three hitter has struggled as much as Judge has the last few weeks. And, again not surprisingly, Girardi shot the idea down entirely. He’s always been a very patient manager who sticks with his guys, sometimes to a fault.

“He’s going to stay (in the third spot),” said Girardi prior to yesterday’s game (video link). “I’m not going to move him. He’s still dangerous. He’s still getting on a pretty high clip and he’s on in front of some other guys that are swinging the bat well so, yeah, he’s going to stay there … I think you fall into a roulette, if you’re just moving guys all over the place (based on hot and cold streaks) … We’re kinda going on what he’s done this year, and we’re letting him fight his way out of it.”

Girardi is patient and will stick with his guys, but not indefinitely. Just this weekend Aroldis Chapman was demoted out of the closer’s role. Literally one day after Girardi said he was sticking him with as a closer. It took four straight pretty terrible outings, but it happened. Jacoby Ellsbury has been riding the bench for weeks. Eventually Tyler Clippard was moved into low-leverage situations. Girardi will make changes when he feels they are necessary, and right now, he doesn’t feel a lineup change is necessary.

That said, I believe they’ve reached the point with Judge where it’s not best for the team to continue hitting him third. That’s the goal here, right? To put the team in the best position to win. This isn’t a one or two-week slump. He’s batted 155 times in the second half. That’s nearly 30% of his season plate appearances. I’m not saying Judge should bat ninth or be demoted to Triple-A or anything like that. But bump him down a bit below some presently better hitters? Sure. This lineup makes sense to me:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. CF Aaron Hicks
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. SS Didi Gregorius
  5. RF Aaron Judge
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. 1B Todd Frazier
  8. DH … uh … Tyler Austin? Jacoby Ellsbury?
  9. 2B Tyler Wade Ronald Torreyes

Nice and easy. Basically flip Sanchez and Judge in yesterday’s lineup. Sanchez is swinging very well of late and deserves more at-bats than Judge. Same with Gregorius. It wouldn’t be very difficult to argue Headley should hit ahead of Judge as well, though I’m not sure I’d bat Judge any lower than fifth given his power. He can still change a game with one swing and he could snap out of it at any time.

Girardi says he’s going to stick with Judge as the three hitter for the time being, so I don’t expect him to be moved down even though I think it should happen. The Yankees do, however, have several players nearing a return from the disabled list, and perhaps their returns will make Girardi more open to batting Judge lower in the lineup. The return of Starlin Castro and Greg Bird will give the Yankees more weapons and Girardi more lineup options. For example:

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

See? Much deeper lineup. We really have no idea what Bird will give the Yankees once he returns because the guy’s missed close to two years, and the last time he was in the big leagues, he didn’t hit at all. You know how bad Judge has been since the All-Star break? Bird was even worse in April. So yeah, batting him down in the lineup and moving him up once he’s shows he’s capable of producing at a high clip works for me.

Anyway, the addition of Castro — I should mention I’m not too optimistic Matt Holliday will come back and be an impact hitter again, though I’m hoping to be completely wrong — gives the Yankees another quality bat, and another hitter to bolster the middle of the lineup. It’s one thing to stick with Judge as the three hitter when so many regulars are hurt. Once everyone is healthy though, it’s much easier to bump him down in the lineup.

The Judge lineup demotion is intended to do two things. One, to give more productive hitters more at-bats. That’s simple enough, right? And two, to take some pressure off him. Judge does look like he’s pressing now, and that’s normal when a guy is in a slump. They all press and try to hit a five-run home run each at-bat. Maybe dropping him in the lineup won’t alleviate any of that pressure and Judge will still press. I don’t think that’s a good enough reason not to do it though.

Girardi doesn’t want to demote Judge in the lineup because he believes he’s going to turn it around and soon, and that’s great. A manager should have confidence in his guys. At the same time, Judge’s slump is going on six weeks now, and there comes a time when action is necessary. If Girardi wants to wait until Castro and Bird return and he has more lineup options, fine. Maintaining the status quo doesn’t seem like a viable option anymore, however. Judge hasn’t produced for too long now and it’s time to de-emphasize him in the lineup, and hopefully it’s only temporary.

Aaron Judge, Matt Holliday, and two very different slumps

(Presswire)
What is going on with this fist bump. (Presswire)

Last night, as the Yankees beat the Tigers for their seventh win in the last eight games, rookie masher Aaron Judge clubbed his MLB leading 34th home run, breaking a tie with Giancarlo Stanton. Judge is having a monster rookie season overall, hitting .303/.429/.639 (179 wRC+) with those 34 homers in 101 games, though he hasn’t been all that good lately. He’s hitting only .169/.333/.373 (79 wRC+) with a 34.7% strikeout rate since the All-Star break.

Also last night, Matt Holliday went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts, though he did draw an important walk that loaded the bases with no outs and led to the Yankees scoring four runs in the fourth. Holliday, like Judge, has struggled in the second half. He’s hitting .130/.164/.188 (-14 wRC+) with a 30.1% strikeout rate since the break. Yikes. Go back to June 12th and Holliday is hitting .133/.205/.248 (17 wRC+) in his last 28 games.

There’s no doubt both Judge and Holliday have struggled recently, and watching the games, my eyes tell me these are different types of slumps. Judge’s timing seems to be off ever so slightly. He’s flying open a bit and missing some pitches he should crush. His strikeout rate is up but he hasn’t expanded the zone too much. I mean, his walk rate since the All-Star break is 20.0%. That doesn’t happen when a hitter starts swinging at everything out of the zone. Here is his chase rate:

aaron-judge-chase-rate

This year Judge’s worst 15-game rolling average was a 33.9% chase rate two weeks ago. The MLB average is a 30.8%. Judge peaked at a not-so-high 33.9% chase rate and has brought it down since. His season average is a 26.0% chase rate, which is excellent. There are 164 hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title this year and Judge has the 29th lowest chase rate despite being 6-foot-7 and having so much strike zone to cover.

Also, the quality of Judge’s contact has been pretty good during this slump. In the first half of the season 62.0% of Judge’s batted balls were either a line drive or a fly ball, and his average exit velocity was an MLB best 96.2 mph. Since the All-Star break, more than two-thirds of Judge’s batted balls (67.7%, to be exact) are either a line drive or a fly ball, and his average exit velocity is 94.7 mph, again the highest in MLB.

There are two big differences between first half Aaron Judge and second half Aaron Judge. One, he is striking out more often (29.8% vs. 34.7%) and that’s because his swings and misses on pitches in the zone have increased. In the first half he had an 82.8% contact rate on pitches in the zone. Since the All-Star break it’s 75.8%. The increased strikeouts are the result of swinging and missing more in the strike zone, not chasing out of the zone.

And two, not as many of those well-struck line drives and fly balls are falling in for base hits. I’m not saying Judge has hit into bad luck or anything like that. I’m just stating a fact. Judge’s line drives and fly balls are resulting in more outs than they did earlier this season. Here on the numbers on his line drives and fly balls:

  • First Half: .655 AVG and .530 BABIP (.896 xwOBA)
  • Second Half: .489 AVG and .303 BABIP (.777 xwOBA)
  • 2017 MLB Average: .469 AVG and .408 BABIP (.549 xwOBA)

(BABIP is lower than AVG because home runs don’t count against BABIP. They’re not a ball in play. The defense can’t make a play on homers.)

xwOBA is the new Statcast hotness expected wOBA, which is based on launch angle and exit velocity and things like that. Judge has been getting the ball airborne since the All-Star break — again, 62.0% line drives and fly balls in the first half and 67.7% in the second half — yet the hits aren’t falling in as often. That’s baseball. We aren’t talking about a huge sample here, remember. Judge has put 34 balls in play since the All-Star break.

All of this is a long way of saying Judge is just slightly off at the plate. He hasn’t expanded the zone too much in the second half and when he does make contact, he’s still hitting the ball hard and he’s still hitting it in the air. The biggest issue has been the misses on pitches in the zone. Something’s off mechanically. You can blame the Home Run Derby if you want. That seems pretty lazy to me. (Judge’s slump started before the All-Star break.) Whatever it is, Judge is pretty great at making adjustments, and I think it’s only a matter of time until he gets straightened out.

As for Holliday, the eye test tells me he simply isn’t hitting the ball very hard these days. He isn’t hitting it hard and he isn’t getting it off the ground. A graph is worth a thousand words:

matt-holliday-contact

Yeah. That’s not good. It’s not just less hard contact. It’s less hard contact and more balls on the ground. Holliday’s ugly 28-game stretch started on June 12th, the first game of the West Coast trip in Anaheim. From Opening Day through June 11th: .375 xwOBA on all batted balls. Since June 12th: .276 xwOBA. That’s going from Anthony Rizzo (.378 wOBA) to Billy Hamilton (.276 wOBA).

So why has Holliday basically stopped hitting the ball hard? Two theories. One, he’s 37 and older hitters sometimes just stop hitting forever. We saw it with Alfonso Soriano three years ago, Alex Rodriguez two years ago, and Mark Teixeira one year ago. Or two, Holliday is still sick. Remember when he first came down with this mystery illness? It was out on that West Coast trip that started on June 12th. He first sat out a game in Oakland, in the second series on the trip, but who’s to say he hadn’t already been feeling it for a few days before that?

We’ve seen some older players go through miserable stretches in which they looked done — like done done — only to rebound later in the season. Raul Ibanez was pretty bad for most of the 2012 regular season before he started socking clutch dingers in September and October. Carlos Beltran looked completely washed in April and May in 2015 before turning it around and hitting like prime Beltran the rest of the season. Who’s to say Holliday can’t do the same?

With Judge, I see a hitter who is off a bit mechanically and missing hittable pitches. He hasn’t chased out of the zone too much, and when he puts the ball in play, it’s well-struck. With Holliday, I see a guy who flat out can’t hit the ball hard right now, and has a tough time hitting it in the air. That isn’t to say he’s broken forever. It doesn’t look very good right now though. These are two slumping hitters at different points of their careers slumping in different ways. One seems a tick off. The other makes you wonder if he’s done for good.

The Yankees have won seven of their last eight games while getting basically nothing from their three best first half hitters — Judge and Holliday have slumped, and Starlin Castro is on the disabled list — and that’s pretty impressive. The roster depth has picked those guys up. For the Yankees to win the AL East and make noise in the postseason though, they need Judge and Holliday (and Castro) to produce, so getting them to straighten things out is pretty damn important. I think Judge will figure it out soon enough. Holliday? I’m not so sure.

Are Holliday’s strikeouts a sign he’s selling out for power?

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Once the Yankees traded Brian McCann, it was clear they had two offseason priorities. They wanted another high-end reliever to replace Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller, who were traded away at the deadline, and they wanted a big bat to plug into their designated hitter spot. The Yankees reportedly wanted another starting pitcher too, but that didn’t happen.

Rather than go for a big name DH like Edwin Encarnacion, the Yankees instead settled on Matt Holliday, who had never been a full-time DH before and had seen his offensive output, by wRC+, drop from 146 to 132 to 124 to 109 from 2013-16. Not a good sign for a 37-year-old! The Yankees took the plunge though, partly because Holliday would take a one-year contract, and partly because there were indications his underlying skills hadn’t slipped as much as his numbers indicate.

A little more than one-third of the way into the season, Holliday has been a central figure in an offense that leads baseball with an average of 5.72 runs scored per game. He’s hitting .270/.375/.516 (137 wRC+) overall, and his 14 home runs give him a chance to hit 30 for the first time since 2007. (Even during his best years with the Cardinals, Holliday was more of a 25-28 homer guy.) Home runs like his walk-off against the Orioles …

… show the ball still flies off Holliday’s bat. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen him hit a ball like that and think it’s a routine fly out off the end of the bat, only to watch it carry and carry and carry. He did it twice in the series in Toronto two weeks ago. Holliday hits the ball the other way with so much power. It’s no wonder why he’s been such a great hitter throughout his career.

Holliday is hitting better now that he has in years, especially for power, and in all likelihood there are several reasons for that. One, he now plays his home games in Yankee Stadium, a hitter’s ballpark. Two, he’s a full-time DH who doesn’t have to deal with the wear and tear of playing the field. At this point of the season, 67 games in, no one is 100% physically. Holliday is probably closest on the Yankees because he’s off his feet so much.

And three, there are some indications Holliday is a different hitter now than he was last year and really the last few years. The single biggest difference between Holliday right now and the Holliday of the past is the strikeouts. He has a 25.4% strikeout rate at the moment, by far the highest of his career. His previous career high was 19.6% as a rookie in 2004. His career average is 16.7% strikeouts. Look:

matt-holliday-strikeout-rate

Usually when a player on the wrong side of 35 sees his strikeout rate spike that like, it comes with a massive drop in production. That isn’t the case with Holliday. He’s been more productive this season than he has been in three or four years now. I don’t doubt that Holliday has lost some bat speed — he is 37, after all — but clearly he hasn’t lost so much that he is incapable of being an impact hitter.

Soon after Holliday signed with the Yankees, he said he wanted to do a better job getting the ball airborne. He hit way too many grounders last season. Exactly half his batted balls, in fact. So far this season Holliday’s ground ball rate has dropped to 45.1%, his lowest since 2010, and he’s also pulling the ball more often. His 39.2% pull rate is a career high and quite a bit above his career 35.1% pull rate.

More strikeouts plus more fly balls plus more balls pulled to left field? Could it be an indication Holliday is selling out for power this season? I think it’s a possibility. I should note that while a 39.2% pull rate is high for Holliday, it’s actually below the MLB average. The league average pull rate is 39.9% this year. We’ve seen some really pull happy hitters over the years, like Brian McCann (50.0% in 2016). Holliday isn’t pulling the ball that much.

What I think may be happening is Holliday is selling out for power selectively. In certain situations he’ll look for a pitch, really try to unload on it, and hope he connects. If he does, great! If not, well, better luck next time. Holliday may be selling out for power, but he hasn’t completely sacrificed his all-fields approach either. Like I said earlier, we’ve seen him really muscle some balls out to center and right-center. Here’s his spray chart, via Baseball Savant:

matt-holliday-sprau-chart1

If Holliday is selling out for power — and I don’t know that he is, it’s just a theory — he’s managed to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise his ability to take the ball the other way. McCann, for example, looked to pull just about every pitch because, as a left-handed hitter, he would be rewarded for doing so at Yankee Stadium. Holliday, as a righty, still has incentive to go the other way.

The Yankees avoided the big flashy move over the winter, which would have been signing Encarnacion, and they opted for the most sensible move in signing Holliday to a one-year contract. And so far, it couldn’t be working out any better. Holliday has transitioned to DH seamlessly — lots of guys struggle with that after playing the field every day basically their entire lives — and he’s producing more than he has in years. And he seems to be a positive influence on the young players too.

As an older player, Holliday has inevitably had to make adjustments to remain successful, and it seems his latest adjustment may involve picking his spots to swing out of his shoes. If he swings and misses, so be it. That’s the trade off. That he’s been able to do that, pull the ball and get it in the air more often, without sacrificing his all-fields ability is pretty damn impressive. Yeah, Holliday may be striking out more than ever before, but the strikeouts have come with his best offensive season in years.

The Blue Jays and Red Sox have found a way to attack Aaron Judge, and now it’s up to him to adjust

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last night the Yankees put a hurting on reigning AL Cy Young award winner Rick Porcello (lol), and they did it without getting anything from Aaron Judge. He went 0-for-4 with a walk and two strikeouts, which dragged his season batting line down to a still incredible .321/.428/.668 (190 RC+). There ain’t much BABIP luck in there either. Judge tattoos the ball on the regular.

Over these last six games against the Blue Jays and Red Sox, Judge has gone 6-for-22 (.273) with eleven strikeouts, though he also has six walks and three extra-base hits (two doubles and a homer). He hasn’t been bad by any means. That is a lot of strikeouts though, and it seems the Blue Jays and Red Sox have found a way to attack Judge: with high fastballs.

Here, via Baseball Savant, are two strike zone heat maps. The heat map on the left shows the fastball location Judge saw in April and May. The heat map on the right is the fastball location he’s seen in June, which, conveniently, are these last six games against the Blue Jays and Red Sox (click to embiggen):

aaron-judge-fastballs

Not surprisingly, pitchers tried to attack Judge down and away earlier this season, even with heaters. He’s 6-foot-7 and they wanted him to reach as far as possible for the ball. Judge has shown he can handle that down-and-away pitch so far this season. How many times have we seen him flick that outside pitch to right field? More than a few.

These last two series though, against Toronto and Boston, two division rivals who figure to really dig in and study Judge, Judge has seem many more fastballs upstairs. That’s not easy to do! The guy is 6-foot-7. A high fastball to a normal hitter would be at the letters for Judge. You’ve got to go higher than high against him.

Judge has been getting hosed on low called strikes all season (the numbers confirm it) and now he has to worry about high pitches too. All those high fastballs from the Blue Jays and Red Sox have resulted in a lot of swings and misses from Judge lately. Here are the pitch locations of his swings and misses against fastballs these last six games:

aaron-judge-fastball-whiffs

Yep. They’re going upstairs against him and Judge has chased. Not to the point where he’s been completely neutralized — like I said, he is 6-for-22 with a homer these last six games — but enough to stop him from being the planet-eating monster he was in April and May. They’ve (mostly) kept him in the park and generated more empty swings. That’s a win for them. They’d love to stop Judge. They’ll settle for containing him.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Maybe not the high fastballs specifically, but the fact opposing teams have found a way to keep Judge in check. The Blue Jays and Red Sox are going to see an awful lot of Judge going forward. They did their homework and hey, look at that, they both came up with the same plan. (Perhaps the Red Sox are copying the Blue Jays. Who knows.)

The league has started to adjust to Judge and now it’s up to Judge to adjust back. That’s baseball. And you know what? In his relatively brief big league career, Judge has already shown he can make adjustments. He looks like a completely different hitter now than he was last year. That’s not a fluke. That’s the result of hard work and baseball smarts. Now Judge will have to work to combat all these high fastballs.

Because he made the adjustment from last year to this year, and has a history of making adjustments in the minors, I am completely confident Judge will figure out how to handle this sudden barrage of high fastballs. Hopefully he can make that adjustment soon, but if it takes some time, then it takes time. Baseball is hard. The Blue Jays and Red Sox have come up with a bit of a blueprint though. Want to slow Judge down? Go upstairs. It’s only a matter of time until other teams start doing it too.

The two Aarons and thinking about a new top of the lineup

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Once upon a time, I was a lineup complainer. The lineup would be posted each day at 4pm-ish and I’d complain about it. So and so is hitting too low, this guy is hitting too high, why is bench player flavor of the week not playing, that sort of stuff. A few times a year the Yankees would play the “ideal” lineup. Otherwise it was the same story, day after day. The lineup stinks and I was Mad Online.

I’ve outgrown that, thankfully. Daily lineup complaints are no way to go through life. As long as Joe Girardi doesn’t do something crazy like bat his best hitter ninth (which he never does and would never do), whatever lineup he runs out there is fine with me. So this post shouldn’t construed as me complaining about the lineup. This is more of a rational discussion about the batting order nearly one-third of the way through the season.

For the most part, I think we can all agree on one thing regarding the lineup: Brett Gardner should lead off, and Chase Headley and Chris Carter should bat eighth and ninth, really in either order. I guess that’s three things. Anyway, that stuff is straight forward. Gardner is, yet again, one of the team’s best on-base players and count-workers. Headley and Carter have been terrible and should get the fewest at-bats. Simple, right? Right.

The few spots beyond Gardner are what I really want to discuss. This is my ideal top of the lineup right now, given the available personnel:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. CF Aaron Hicks
  3. RF Aaron Judge

The three outfielders, left to right. Gary Sanchez has been hitting second most of the season and I am totally cool with that. It works for me. Sanchez has looked a little jumpy at the plate the last few days, but I’m not worried. Hitters go through their ups and downs. Sanchez is one of the team’s best hitters, so by all means, hit him second. Josh Donaldson and Kris Bryant won MVPs hitting second in recent years. Power hitters can hit there too.

That said, I like Hicks hitting second over Sanchez right now because, well, Hicks has been the better hitter this season. The better overall hitter and, more importantly, the better on-base threat. Hicks has a .426 OBP this year. Sanchez has a .356 OBP. That’s still good! But it’s not .426. Batting Hicks second means more runners on base for Judge, who has inarguably been the Yankees’ best hitter this season.

Judge started the season hitting lower in the lineup and understandably so, but he’s forced his way up, and now he is in entrenched as the No. 5 hitter. Moving Judge up even further to the No. 3 spot means more at-bats. More at-bats over the course of the season, and a better chance to get Judge that one extra at-bat in an individual game. Through 48 team games the No. 3 spot has 14 more plate appearances than the No. 5 spot for the Yankees. That’s 14 more times Judge would have come to the plate in the late innings. It’s not nothing!

We’re not splitting atoms here. Hicks (.426), Judge (.419), and Gardner (.363) have the three highest OBPs on the Yankees. They make fewer outs than anyone else. Judge is also one of the game’s top power threats. Batting Gardner and Hicks first and second is, by far, the best way to get men on base for Judge. Batting these three atop the lineup also means they get the most at-bats, therefore giving the Yankees more chances to score.

Going with Gardner-Hicks-Judge atop the lineup and Headley-Carter at the bottom leaves you Sanchez, Starlin Castro, Matt Holliday, and Didi Gregorius for the 4-5-6-7 spots. What’s the best way to order them? I’m not sure there’s a wrong answer. I’d prefer hitting Sanchez fourth because I think he’s most likely to be an impact bat the rest of the season, but if you said the same thing about Castro or Holliday, I wouldn’t argue (much).

The important thing, as far as I’m concerned, is getting Judge more at-bats because because the guy is a monster, and the more he plays, the better the Yankees’ chances to win. Jacoby Ellsbury‘s concussion — Girardi said yesterday Ellsbury is still experiencing headaches, so he remains shut down indefinitely — ensures Hicks will be in the lineup everyday, and as long as he’s hitting like this, Hicks is the perfect No. 2 hitter. On-base ability, power, speed, switch-hitter, the whole nine. Perfect.

The lineup almost seems to write itself from there. Gardner leads off, Hicks hits second, Judge hits third. Your two best on-base players and your most devastating hitter. Sanchez, Holliday, Castro, and Gregorius add quality lineup depth through the No. 7 spot too. I get why Girardi hits Sanchez second, Holliday third, and Castro fourth. I do. But nearly 50 games into the season, it’s the clear the more Aaron Judge hits with men on base, the better. The lineup should be built in such a way that maximizes those opportunities.

The Yankees have a bit of a strikeout problem right now

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Last night, for only the eighth time in 19 games this month, the Yankees did not strike out 10+ times on offense. They struck out eight times, to be exact, and it helped that they faced Royals southpaw Jason Vargas, a finesse pitcher not known for missing bats. The Yankees have 18 double-digit strikeout games this season, third most in baseball behind the Rays (32), Athletics (22), and Brewers (19).

Over the last few seasons the Yankees have been consistently better than average at avoiding strikeouts, believe it or not. From 2013-16 they had a 19.5% strikeout rate as a team, eighth lowest among the 30 MLB teams. Last season they had the fourth lowest strikeout rate in baseball at 19.6%. This year though, the Yankees currently own an 23.0% strikeout rate, fifth highest among the 30 clubs. The league average is 21.4%. Pretty big swing in the wrong direction.

It’s no secret why the Yankees are striking out more this season. Aaron Judge (29.2 K%) is in the lineup everyday. He’s been awesome! But he still strikes out a lot. Greg Bird (30.6 K%) struggled big time before getting hurt, and Chris Carter (37.8 K%) has since taken over at first base. Matt Holliday (30.5 K%) is also striking out more than ever before at age 37. Those are fairly extreme strikeout rates. Judge and Holliday are making up for it with their production. Bird and Carter … not so much.

More important than the team’s overall strikeout rate is their strikeout trend. The Yankees struck out 10+ times in a game only seven times in April. They’re up to eleven such games in April with eight days to go. Twice this month they’ve struck out 16+ plus times in a nine-inning game after doing it zero times from 2011-16. I made a graph:

2017-nyy-strikeout-rate

Not good! The Yankees have been striking out more and more as the season has progressed. It was painfully obvious Sunday, when the Yankees struck out 16 times against Chris Archer and various relievers. They had runners on second and third with no outs in the first inning, then strikeout strikeout strikeout, inning over. Annoying! And also a problem. A problem that is getting worse.

Now, the million dollar question: how do the Yankees fix the strikeout problem? They can only change the personnel so much. They could jettison Carter in favor of, uh, Rob Refsnyder? Tyler Austin is on the mend, though he’s no lock to strike out less. He struck out in 40.0% of his plate appearances during his MLB debut last year. Removing Carter is potentially part of a solution, not the solution. Their options to replace him aren’t exactly contact machines.

Judge and Holliday aren’t going anywhere, so the Yankees just have to live with their strikeouts. As good as Judge has been, his strikeout rate has been ticking up the last few weeks. He’s not striking out as much as last year, but his strikeouts have been on the rise:

aaron-judge-strikeout-rate

It could be that the Yankees have just run into a collective rough patch. Facing Danny Duffy — they’re going to see him again tonight, by the way — and Archer in the span of five days is not fun. The Yankees also saw Chris Sale earlier this month. But still, already five pitchers have 10+ strikeout games against the Yankees this year (Archer, Duffy, Sale, Charlie Morton, Carlos Martinez). All but the Martinez game are fairly recent. Last year only two pitchers had 10+ strikeouts against the Yankees (Rich Hill, Lance McCullers Jr.).

Strikeouts are up all around the league these days — MLB is currently on pace to set a record high strikeout rate for the 13th straight season — because pitchers are throwing harder, hitters are selling out for power, and all sorts of other reasons. It’s not a surprise the Yankees are striking out more, especially given their roster. It was too be expected. But the strikeouts have become rather extreme lately, and it’s costing them runs. Again, we saw it Sunday. Runners on second and third with no outs, yet none of the next three hitters could put the ball in play.

Hopefully what we’re seeing right now is just a bunch of big strikeout games bunched together, and not an indication of what’s to come. Strikeouts are always bad. You tolerate them as long as they come with other stuff, like Judge’s power, but too many strikeouts will absolutely inhibit your ability to score runs. The Yankees have had trouble putting the ball in play at times this month. The sooner they snap out of it, the better.

Blowouts in bulk a sign young Yankees are for real

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

There’s nothing like a comeback win.

Whether you’re down to your final out vs. the defending champs or down eight to a division rival, those are the games you remember. These are the ones that stick with you a few seasons later. Those, and the games that go on so long that they feel like 2-3 games.

But there’s value, perhaps even more value, in a good old fashioned blowout. However, beyond the 20-run games or the 10-RBI evenings, these will barely be distinguishable by September. You’ll think to yourself, ‘How did the Yankees take two of three from the White Sox? Didn’t Aaron Judge hit a long home run?’ or ‘How’d the Yankees get runs for Michael Pineda on opening day?’ Maybe the details from one of these easy victories comes to mind but others slip into the 162-game oblivion.

Still, when viewing the season as a whole from further out, the blowouts stand out a lot. We knew going into the season the Yankees could win close games with their bullpen. Andrew Miller was gone but Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren stack up well with any team’s finishers. That was evident going into the season.

But last season, with a killer bullpen, the Yankees won almost exclusively close games until Gary Sanchez came on the scene. The reasons were two-fold: The starting rotation was unable to shut down opposing lineups — even weak ones — and the aging lineup didn’t have the oomph of 2015, instead decomposing before our eyes. Thinking back to April and May of last season doesn’t bring bad memories as much as it brings muddied memories: That’s how boring the Yankees were then, even in wins.

So that’s where the most year-over-year improvement comes. The Yankees’ starters are taking advantage of bad lineups and going deep into games. There’s no three-game sweep at the hands of the Athletics or losing two of three to the lowly Mariners. Comparing to this season, the Cardinals and White Sox series were the type in which the Yankees absolutely would have lost two of three. There would have been general moans and groans about Matt Carpenter or Melky Cabrera owning the Yankees and the team would have slipped towards .500.

But the other way this team is different is the lineup. It’s the main reason the team is 9-1 in games decided by five or more runs after going 17-22 in those same games a year ago. Either the team is never out of it (see the Orioles game) or they never let the opposing team into the contest. Aaron Judge gets most of the credit nationally but it has truly been everyone. Starlin Castro, Chase Headley, yes, even Jacoby Ellsbury, large contract and all.

There are assorted sayings about how great teams not only beat bad teams, but blow them out. You can make the playoffs winning one-run games galore like the 2016 Texas Rangers, but the teams that tend to win it all are the ones that knock teams out early like last season’s Cubs. The Yankees have been doing that aplenty this year, showing off a circular lineup and non-stop rotation, just as they did last night. They’re landing that first punch and are 13-3 (.821 winning percentage) when scoring first as opposed to 46-27 (.644) in 2016.

Even good teams need to be able to put together blowouts to hand rest to their key relievers. The Cubs played 13 innings with the Phillies on Thursday and then had to sweat a close game against the Yankees Friday, a large part of the reason they ultimately lost. After 18 innings against the Cubs Sunday, scoring three runs before Masahiro Tanaka even threw a pitch on Monday allowed an exhausted team to relax and not rely on an even more exhausted bullpen. It follows a trend as the Bombers are scoring first in 53 percent of their games vs. 45 percent last season.

This ultimately may not last. It could be that the team has everyone hot at the same time and those same players will take a step back at the same time. Or maybe this rotation can’t sustain its success.

But then again, Sanchez is just getting going.  We haven’t seen the best of Didi Gregorius and Greg Bird. Or even Tanaka. If they play like fans expected this spring, there really could be a second gear to this young team. Or at least a maintaining of this early cruise control. If the team was winning exclusively close games, it’d be much easier to chalk this start up as a fluke that would come crashing to earth.

After this season, we’ll forget the Yankees scoring 10 runs on Rookie Davis and the Reds. Yet that’s precisely the type of game the Yankees lost last season or at least make hard on themselves, perhaps further compromising the bullpen for the next night. Again, the close ones, the comebacks, that’s what sticks with you. But the blowouts may be the signal that this young team means business.