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.

Introducing the Yankees’ All-Revenge team

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Plenty of players throughout baseball, but particularly in the American League East, develop the reputation as Yankee killers. Certain guys just play especially well when opposite the pinstripes. Howie Kendrick with the Angels comes to mind. So does the mysterious contributions of Pedro Ciriaco with the Red Sox.

But there is a special breed of Yankee killer: The former Yankee turned Yankee killer. The group I call the All-Revenge team. The guys who the Yankees let go, trade or otherwise give up on and have turned into a thorn in their sides, a few meetings a year.

So I unveil the All-Revenge lineup, former Yankees who have turned their former employers into a most despised adversary. (Note: I chose to use only active players and focused on players who have performed well vs. NYY since leaving the team).

C: Russell Martin

Why does Martin make the team? Martin is perhaps the most obvious thanks to the 2015 division race. He left the Yankees after the team chose to let him walk and instead go with Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli as his immediate replacements. When Martin came back to the AL in 2015 and was in a race with the Yankees, he was ready to pounce.

Over the course of 16 games (13 starts) in 2015, he hit .300/.362/.660 vs. NYY, hitting five home runs with a whopping 18 RBI. Particularly stinging was a two-homer game in September followed up by a go-ahead walk in the 11th inning the next day. He followed that up with four homers, nine RBI and a much more modest .207/.319/.431 line in 2016. He also tried to fight Gary Sanchez last September and extract his pound of flesh from the Yankees. The Bombers held him in check this series, but he’s been a menace in the past.

Signature game: The two-home run game vs. the Yankees on Sept. 11, 2015 was a masterpiece for Martin. He singled home a run to knock Luis Severino out of the game, hit a solo home run off Andrew Bailey and then hit a two-run shot off Chasen Shreve that all but finished off the Yankees. Honorable mention goes to his two-homer game last Aug. 16, which included a go-ahead homer in the eighth inning off Adam Warren. I’ll take the first one because of the division race implications.

1B: Steve Pearce

Why does Pearce make the team? Pearce has played for every team in the AL East except the Red Sox and he has more home runs against the Yankees (10) than any other team except the Rays (10). Pearce has a solid .293/.397/.579 line vs. the Yankees, a tOPS+ of 152, which indicates he’s much better against the Yankees than vs. other teams.

The Yankees gave Pearce just 30 PA in 2012, and he’s had 148 PA to pay them back over the last four years, picking up 34 hits, 14 of which have gone for extra bases. Five of his 25 career HBP are from Yankees pitching. He does special damage at Yankee Stadium with seven home runs with a .338/.419/.692 mark.

Signature game: Pearce has a plentiful number of performances for this list. He had a go-ahead homer off Adam Warren in an Orioles win on Sept. 9, 2015. He almost single-handedly beat the Yankees with a three-hit game last Aug. 28 with a home run and two-run single off CC Sabathia and Warren, respectively. (Man, Warren’s getting beat down in these games). His four-hit, two-homer game Tuesday would be a surefire winner if the Jays had won.

But his most clutch anti-Yankee moment came Sept. 14, 2014, again with the Orioles. With the O’s trailing 2-1 in the ninth inning at Camden Yards on Sunday Night Baseball, Pearce lined a game-tying double off David Robertson. He’d come home to score on a walk-off double from All-Revenge team honorable mention Kelly Johnson.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

2B: Robinson Cano

Why does Cano make the team? Cano leads the rest of the All-Revenge team infield, which has had less experience facing the Yankees, having done so only in the last three seasons. However, Cano did quick work to get onto this list. He’s batting .324/.377/.479 vs. his former squad and has three home runs. His batting average jumps up to .363 when you take out his 3-for-16 struggles against Masahiro Tanaka

Signature game: His highest Win Probability Added in his first two seasons with the Mariners came against the Yankees. He had two two-run homers against Michael Pineda on July 18, 2015, knocking in all four runs during the Mariners’ 4-3 win over the Yankees. Both home runs came with the game tied and one-upped his former squad.

3B: Yangervis Solarte

Why does Solarte make the team? The No. 1 reason Solarte is here? There aren’t many third basemen to work with. Thanks to Alex Rodriguez for holding down the position for so long. Solarte still made a big impact in his three games vs. the Yankees last July. Six hits in 10 at-bats with two walks, a home run and two doubles. Batting .600 with a 1.767 OPS against a team, even in one series, still has merit.

Signature game: Even though the Padres lost, 6-3, Solarte had one of his four career four-hit games last July 3, scoring two runs and hitting a solo shot. Solarte turns 30 this July, so there’s a solid chance he gets more games to get further revenge for the Yankees trading him.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

SS: Eduardo Nunez

Why does Nunez make the team? Again, a lack of shortstops. But Nunez has still performed well. 15 hits in 48 at-bats vs. the Yankees. Only two extra-base hits, but one went for a home run. All of his 14 games against the Yankees were with the Twins, and now he’s playing a bevy of positions for the Giants.

Signature game: Nunez had a clutch double off the bench in 2014 but it came with the Twins already leading and Matt Daley in the game. He also had a two-hit game with a home run last June. But his top anti-Yankee moment came in a game where he went 1 for 4 with a walk in 2015. On Aug. 17, his one hit was lined off Bryan Mitchell‘s face, ending the rookie’s night early and turning the game into a bullpen affair. I get wanting revenge, but that was ugly!

Getting reacquainted (Getty Images)
Getting reacquainted (Getty Images)

OF: Melky Cabrera

Why does Cabrera make the team? If Martin isn’t the captain of the All-Revenge squad, Melky would do just fine in the role. He’s batting .302/.350/.527 in 198 plate appearances against his former club. He’s actually played more seasons out of NY (8) than with the Yankees (5) at this point. In 2014 alone, he faced the Yankees 15 times, had hits in all but two games and racked up six multi-hit games.

Signature game: Cabrera’s first ever series against the Yankees came in 2011 with the Royals and he helped KC win the series in the clincher on May 12 with a two-hit night. Both his hits went for extra bases, including an RBI double (before getting picked off second) and a home run off Ivan Nova in a 11-5 Royals win.

OF: Curtis Granderson

Why does Granderson make the team? Granderson is the one player on this list with experience playing vs. the Yankees both before and after coming to the Bronx. He had four HR and 15 extra-base hits vs. the Yankees during his Tigers days (not including the ’06 playoffs). He’s 12 for 46 with four home runs and eight walks since joining the Mets.

Signature game: In his second game vs. the Yankees since moving crosstown, Granderson came through big time. He went 2 for 3 with two walks, a home run, three RBI and two runs scored. This game (May 13, 2014) was highlighted by both Vidal Nuno and Zack Wheeler exiting early and Daisuke Matsuzaka outdueling Alfredo Aceves in the battle of the bullpens. 2014 was a weird time.

P.S. If I was willing to include pre-Yankee days, this is the obvious winner.

OF: Austin Jackson

Why does Jackson make the team? Capping off the list is a player who never actually played for the Yankees. Jackson was a top prospect but was traded for the man above him on this team, never giving him a chance to don the pinstripes. In 158 plate appearances over 37 games against his ex-organization, he has a respectable .289/.361/.444 batting line with nine doubles, two triples and three home runs. Not to mention five stolen bases. In classic Jackson fashion though, he does have 48 strikeouts.

Signature game: Flash back to mid-August 2013, when Jackson was center fielder for the AL Central-winning Tigers. He led off an Aug. 10 game vs. Phil Hughes with a triple and scored, then later hit a solo dinger in the top of the fifth, helping knock Hughes out of the game. The Tigers would go on to win 9-3 after Jackson drew a walk and scored later in the game.

Disagree with a player making the team? Have someone else in mind? Or suggestions about current pitchers who have made good on their sweet sweet revenge against the Yankees? Let me know. The All-Revenge team can change series to series with one or two standout performances or with a trade. But for now, this is the lineup that prevails.

The Yankees are doing more of the “little things” offensively this season

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

It’s not often three runs are enough to beat the Red Sox at Fenway Park, but the Yankees managed to pull it off last night, thanks largely to Luis Severino‘s brilliance. He tossed seven shutout innings and got enough offensive support from Aaron Judge (two-run homer) and Greg Bird (run-scoring single). The kids. They’re all right. Glad to see Bird contribute a bit. He needed that hit.

The three-run effort dropped New York’s season average to a still healthy 5.00 runs scored per game. Their team 119 wRC+ remains the best in baseball. This is after averaging 4.20 runs per game with a team 92 wRC+ in 2016. The offense has been so much better early on and Judge has played a big role in that. So too have veterans like Starlin Castro and Chase Headley. They’re off to monster starts.

The Yankees have only played 19 games, so there’s plenty of season remaining, but already we’ve seen this year’s offense do some things we didn’t see much of last summer. And I’m not just talking about Judge’s massive home runs either. Consider:

2016 Walk Rate: 7.8%
2017 Walk Rate: 10.9%

2016 Infield Hits: 5.5%
2017 Infield Hits: 10.1%

Through 19 games we’ve seen a much more patient team, and I don’t think anyone will disagree. It’s not just the walks either. Last season the Yankees averaged 3.83 pitches per plate appearance. This year that number is 3.97 pitches per plate appearance. I know that doesn’t seem like a huge difference, but it is on a team-wide level, so it adds up. The Yankees are grinding out longer at-bats.

The infield hit rate thing is a bit of an anomaly — the highest single-season infield hit rate since batted ball data started being recorded in 2002 is 8.7% by the 2007 Mariners — and it will come down as the season progresses, though I also think it’s reasonable to believe the 2017 Yankees are better equipped to beat out those infield  hits than the 2016 Yankees. Why? Because there’s no more Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and Carlos Beltran. Love those guys! But they were slow. So, so slow.

So far we’ve seen the Yankees be more patient at the plate and grind out at-bats, and also beat out some more infield hits. They also seem to be better at capitalizing on their opponent’s mistakes. Just last night Xander Bogaerts made a throwing error on a routine ground ball, allowing Castro to reach base. Judge, the next batter, sent a ball into the bullpen for a two-run homer. Perfect. Just perfect. That’s how you want to follow up a botched play.

“Capitalizing on your opponent’s mistakes” is not really something we can quantify. At least not fully. The Yankees have already scored eleven unearned runs this season — including one last night thanks to the Bogaerts error — after scoring only 33 last season, 17th most in MLB, so they’re well ahead of last year’s pace. Not all mistakes are errors, however. Sometimes it’s throwing to the wrong base, or not paying attention to a runner, that sort of thing.

We saw an example of this in addition to the Bogaerts error last night. Judge turned an 0-2 count into a walk in the sixth inning — yay plate discipline! — then was able to advance to second base on Rick Porcello’s wild pitch. That extra 90 feet allowed Judge to score on Bird’s single to left field. Bogaerts gave the Yankees a baserunner with an error and Porcello gave them an extra base with a wild pitch. The Yankees took advantage both times.

I have no idea whether any of this will last. The infield singles almost certainly won’t, but tough at-bats and capitalizing on mistakes? That’s something we’d all love to see continue. Good offenses typically do those things. The Yankees have some power on the way in Didi Gregorius and Gary Sanchez, plus hopefully a rebounding Bird (and Matt Holliday), so maybe they won’t need all these little things to succeed. Either way, it’s happened already, and it has helped the Yankees get off to this nice 12-7 start.

Looking for positive signs amid Greg Bird’s early season slump

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

Remember Spring Training? It was a fun time. The Yankees were winning on a near daily basis, the prospects were all playing well, and a now healthy Greg Bird looked like a budding middle of the order force. Bird hit .451/.556/1.098 during Grapefruit League play, and he led all players in homers (8) and extra-base hits (16). If nothing else, he looked healthy after missing last season with shoulder surgery.

Because baseball can be a jerk, Bird has followed up his monster Spring Training performance with a dreadful start to the regular season. He’s hitting .104/.204/.229 (23 wRC+) in 54 plate appearances, and basically all his success has come in one game, that 3-for-3 with a home run and a double effort against the Cardinals last Sunday. We all hoped that would be the start of big things for Bird. Instead, he’s gone 1-for-19 (.053) since. Woof.

Players go through slumps all the time. Sometimes right out of the gate to start the season. It’s not often a talented young player hits .104/.204/.229 in a span of 54 plate appearances, however. When they do that, they tend to find themselves back in Triple-A. The Yankees are clearly giving Bird some rope here. To me, the biggest red flag so far has been this:

greg-bird

That’s Matt Andriese blowing a 92 mph fastball right by Bird. He’s late on it. Second straight pitch too! Bird swung and missed at a nearly identical fastball the previous pitch. We saw Bird punish all sorts of fastballs in Spring Training. He was turning around 97 mph heaters like it was no big deal. Now he’s getting beat by 92 mph fastballs in the zone? Yikes.

Here, for reference, are all the fastballs Bird has swung at and missed this season, via Baseball Savant:

greg-bird-fastball-whiffs

Swinging and missing at back-to-back 92 mph fastballs from Andriese two Thursdays ago was not an isolated incident. Bird has been doing it pretty much all month. Pitchers haven’t needed Aroldis Chapman velocity to get Bird to swing and miss at a fastball. Anything at 92 mph and above has given him trouble, even when it’s out over the plate.

As bad as Bird as been, there are some positive trends in his game that suggest maybe he’s getting closer to snapping out of it. You have to squint your eyes a little, but the trends are there. The question is whether they’re meaningful this early in the season and in this few plate appearances. For example, here are Bird’s strikeout rate and contact rate on pitches in the zone, via FanGraphs:

greg-bird-plate-discipline

Okay, that’s a start. The strikeout rate is coming down and the contact rate on pitches in the zone is going up.  Earlier this year Bird was making contact with fewer than 50% of his swings against pitches in the strike zone. That is unfathomably awful. When the pitch was in the zone, Aaron Judge managed to make contact with 74.3% of his swings last year, and Judge was terrible last season.

So while Bird couldn’t handle Andriese’s 92 mph heat two weeks ago, he has gradually been doing a better job getting the bat on the ball and avoiding strikeouts since then. That’s sort of a prerequisite for being a good baseball player. Making contact. Bird has a healthy 9.3% walk rate, but walks alone are not enough. He needs to do a better job making contact, especially on pitches in the zone, and he’s started to do that. Progress!

Making contact is one thing. Lots of players can do that. Pete Kozma can do that. Making quality contact is another. Quality contact is what separates good hitters from everyone else. Simply getting the bat on the ball isn’t enough. You have to be able to drive it too. Here is Bird’s hard contact rate, again via FanGraphs. It also shows a recent uptick:

greg-bird-hard-contact

Here’s something that surprised me: Bird has a 48.4% hard contact rate this season. That’s really freaking good. The MLB average is 31.1%. Going into yesterday’s games 228 players had batted at least 50 times this season, and only 13 had a higher hard-hit rate than Bird. Judge, who has been hitting mammoth home run after mammoth home run, has a 47.7% hard contact rate. This is a big deal. Bird is coming back from major shoulder surgery and he’s impacting the baseball. Good news!

Those two graphs are connected, of course. Bird is hitting the ball harder because he’s making more contact on pitches in the zone. And, as always, Bird is getting the ball airborne. His 30.0% ground ball rate is well below the 44.3% league average and ranked 18th lowest among those 228 hitters with at least 50 plate appearances prior to yesterday’s games. Hitting the ball hard in the air is Bird’s thing. Hit the ball hard in the air and extra-base hits will come. Bird is still doing that. Remember this?

greg-bird-fly-out

Bird hit a fly ball there Saturday afternoon. He hit the ball hard and he hit it in the air, and it was just short of the wall. Bird also had a line drive back up the middle taken away Sunday when Ivan Nova stuck out his glove and caught it. Bird has been dreadful so far this year. No doubt about it. But I can’t help but feel there’s a little bad luck in his .133 BABIP (!), especially given his hard contact rate.

Did you notice Bird’s positive trends — the improved hard contact rate and contact rate in the zone — started at roughly the same time? That all started when Bird came back from the nagging ankle injury and that illness. He spent five straight days on the bench earlier in the season due to the ankle and the illness. Since he’s returned, Bird is making more contact and hitting the ball harder. Coincidence? Maybe! But yeah, probably not. He’s probably healthier now than he was on Opening Day.

There is no denying Bird has been awful in the early going this season. And if he continues to be awful, the Yankees will have no choice but to consider sending him to Triple-A to get things straightened out. I don’t know when they’ll have that conversation. Maybe next week, maybe next month, or maybe at the All-Star break. But it’ll have to happen eventually if this continues. Sending Bird out there day after day to get his lunch handed to him helps no one.

At the same time, we are starting to see the old Greg Bird at the plate, even if the results aren’t there yet. He’s making more contact on pitches in the zone. He’s hitting the ball hard and he’s hitting it in the air. He’s talking his walks. I’d be worried if Bird was still missing hittable fastballs, or if he was beating the ball into the ground. That’s not happening now. At least not as often as it did a few weeks ago. Small sample size caveats always apply in April and that is no different here. We have to reach a little bit because Bird has been so bad, but there are some reasons to believe he is inching closer to getting out of this early season funk.

No, Chase Headley won’t be this good all year, but there are some promising signs in his game

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Something weird happened last night. Chase Headley was not in the starting lineup. That in and of itself isn’t weird. Joe Girardi is pretty good at making sure his regulars get enough rest. What was weird was the reaction. Fans were upset! In our comments, on Twitter, and probably on a bunch of other social media sites I don’t even know exist. Upset about Headley being out of the lineup! What a time to be alive.

Fans were upset for a good reason, of course. Headley has been a monster hit season. He is hitting .409/.519/.614 (227 wRC+) with two home runs, three stolen bases, ten walks, and nine strikeouts through the team’s first 14 games. No, he won’t do that all season, but hot damn, Headley has been a beast early on. It’s the complete opposite of last year, when he was beyond useless in April. Remember that? How could you forget.

“I started extremely poorly, and that contributed to the team starting bad,” said Headley to Zach Braziller earlier this week. “I knew I couldn’t start the way I started last year. You can’t just take a month and two weeks out of the season, and say, ‘Oh, I had a (good) season with the exception of this month and a half.’ It counts … It’s a small sample size, but I feel like I’m playing the way I’m capable of. I feel like I’m swinging at the pitches I want to, and that’s always a good place to start.”

Headley is not really as good as he’s been so far this year nor is he really as bad as he was last April. The truth is somewhere in the middle, and the question is where. Hopefully closer to this year than last April. Here are a few notable early season trends within Headley’s game that help explain why he’s been so productive these first two weeks and change of the new season.

1. He’s going the other way an awful lot. In the very first game of the season Headley beat the shift three times against the Rays. Once with a bunt and twice with ground balls directed the other way. We haven’t seen Headley beat the shift quite that obviously since then — I’m talking about those well-placed rollers where the defense is normally positioned — but he has continued to use all fields. Here’s the batted ball direction breakdown:

chase-headley-batted-balls

That covers both sides of the plate, though it essentially represents Headley’s numbers as a left-handed hitter. Only eight of his 54 plate appearances have come as a righty so far, and in those eight plate appearances he’s put six balls in play. So yeah, for all intents and purposes, those are Headley’s numbers from the left side of the plate.

As you can see, he’s going the other way substantially more than he has in the past. We’re talking nearly twice as often as he did from 2014-15. And the important thing here is not just the number of balls he’s hitting the other way. Look how many he’s pulling too. Headley has nearly an even split. He’s going the other way as often as he pulls the ball. That makes him tougher to defend.

2. He’s not hitting the ball on the ground. When Headley was going through his brutal April last year, he was beating the ball into the ground, and that is no way to hit. Especially when you’re not a good runner. Fly balls and line drives not only go for hits more often than ground balls — the league BABIP on fly balls and liners is .388 this year compared to only .240 on grounders — they also go for extra-base more often. The next ground ball I see go for a home run will be the first.

So far this season only 32.4% of Headley’s balls in play have been on the ground. That is tiny. That’s Kris Bryant (31.0%) and Nolan Arenado (31.9%) territory. Slugger territory. Headley’s ground ball rate was 44.2% last year and it is 44.4% for his career. He is well below that now. Between this and the first point, Headley is hitting the ball in the air to all fields in the super early going this year. Of course more hits are going to fall in when you do that.

3. He doesn’t swing out of the zone. Headley has always had a pretty good eye. He walked in 9.6% of his plate appearances last year, and he had several seasons with a walk rate north of 10% back with the Padres. Headley knows the strike zone, and his year he’s taken his plate discipline to another level. Look at his chase rate on pitches out of the zone:

2014: 25.8%
2015: 25.1%
2016: 25.8%
2017: 18.1%

That 25.8% chase rate last year? That’s really good. The MLB average was 30.6% and Headley was several percentage points below that. Now he’s all the way down at 18.4%. Right now 194 players have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title and Headley’s chase rate is fifth lowest. He’s been one of the most discipline hitters in baseball.

Keep in mind this is not just about drawing walks. Walks are overrated. Okay, maybe not, but people focus on them too much. The entire point of working the count is to get a hittable pitch. Laying off pitches out of the zone helps get the count in Headley’s favor, which better allows him to do damage. Also, chasing fewer pitches out of the zone means fewer balls in play on those pitches, and putting a pitch out of the zone in play usually results in weak contact.

* * *

Inevitably Headley will cool down at some point and not because Girardi gave him the night off last night. Something tells me he’s not really a true talent .485 BABIP hitter. Just a hunch. He’ll cool off and go back to being Chase Headley and everyone will resume complaining about the days he is in the lineup, not the days he’s on the bench.

In all seriousness, Headley is showing some promising early trends — using all fields, getting the ball in the air, not chasing out of the zone, etc. — and those things will help him be a productive hitter going forward. His performance is a bit on the extreme side right now. His ground ball and chase rates are so incredibly low that they have nowhere to go but up. But, if Headley can maintain these trends to some degree, he’ll help the Yankees more at the plate this year than he has the previous two seasons.

Opening Week Overreaction: The Struggles of Sanchez and Bird

(John Raoux/AP)
(John Raoux/AP)

To say that Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird had a disappointing opening series would be a fairly strong understatement. The duo combined to bat .077/.143/.115 against the Rays this week, and by fWAR’s reckoning they’ve already cost the Yankees -0.4 wins. It’s a less than ideal start to the season, to say the least – particularly for two players that are being counted on to be cornerstones of the team’s offense this year. And it feels more surprising than might normally be the case, given Sanchez’s utter dominance in August and September last year, and Bird’s Spring Training performance (lest we forget that he was arguably the best hitter in baseball in March).

As was the case when I wrote about Masahiro Tanaka earlier this week, I offer a brief disclaimer: this is a minuscule sample size. It’s three games against a good pitching staff in one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the majors. There’s no reason to worry at this juncture. However, it is worth taking a look to see if there are any trends that may explain this mini-slump.

Gary Sanchez

Sanchez does not have an extra-base hit yet. That isn’t shocking in and of itself – most every hitter in Major League Baseball will have several such stretches throughout the season. Sanchez went six straight games without an extra-base hit in September; it just didn’t stand out as much because he was hitting .374/.441/.798 when that streak started, and could do no wrong. It’s much easier to shine a light on such a stretch when it opens the season, and leaves a hitter slashing .071/.071/.071.

What could be causing this, aside from luck, random variation, and every small sample size caveat you can think of?

It’s interesting to note that Sanchez has yet to go to the opposite field. He was a pull-heavy hitter in 2016, with just 15.1% of his batted balls going the other way – but he’s pulling nearly two-thirds of balls in play to left this year (an increase of 9.5 percentage points), and going up the middle more. The shift-savvy Rays are undoubtedly aware of his preexisting tendency to pull the ball, and played him as such in the opening series … and it seems as though Sanchez played right into their hands.

Sanchez is also swinging at more pitches (from 44.9% last year to 54.2% this year), and making more contact (from 71.1% to 75.0%). That seems indicative of bad luck for Sanchez, as more balls in play oftentimes means more hits – especially when the ball is hit hard. And, as per FanGraphs, he’s hitting the ball harder than last year, and significantly so as his soft contact rate has dropped by 9.4 percentage points to a ridiculously low 9.1%. Despite this, his BABIP sits at .091.

The extra swinging may be indicative of Sanchez pressing (as is the fact that he hasn’t taken a walk yet), but it isn’t a sign of impatience. He’s swinging at fewer pitches outside of the strikezone (32.8% in 2016 against 24.1% this year), and he’s seeing a robust 4.5 pitches per plate appearance. That 4.5 P/PA mark would have placed him third in all of baseball last year, and puts him 30th among 199 qualified hitters at this point.

It is difficult to really dig into Sanchez’s numbers and find something disconcerting, with the possible exception of his ignorance as to the opposite field. And, even then, he thrived in 2016 by hammering the ball to the pull side.

Greg Bird

Despite his impressive 2015 debut, monster Spring Training, and undeniable hype, Bird was always entering 2017 as something of an unknown. He missed all of 2016 with an injury that has a spotty track record for recovery, and we seem to forget that he had played a total of 80 games above Double-A (34 at Triple-A and 46 in the majors) prior to this year. The projection systems were all over the place as a result, with ZiPS forecasting a middling .234/.307/449 line, PECOTA sitting in the middle at .244/.328/.457, and Steamer tossing out an optimistic .264/.346/.489. He was great at Triple-A and with the Yankees, but it was a long time ago over a small-ish sample size.

There are a few red flags in the even smaller sample size that is 2017, though. As per PITCHf/x, Bird has a horrendous 40.0% contact percentage, and is whiffing on 22.2% of his swings. Both marks would have been the worst in baseball last year, and both are in the bottom-ten this year (his contact percentage is dead last). His strikeout rate has dropped by 1.2 percentage points when compared to 2015, even as strikeout rates have risen by over two percentage points; he’s also swinging at fewer pitches overall, and seeing plenty of pitches (4.5 P/PA). It isn’t all bad on this front.

That being said, unlike Sanchez, Bird does not seem to be making good contact. His hard- and medium-hit rates have dropped precipitously, and he’s making soft contact on 37.5% of the balls he puts in play. That helps to explain his .083 BABIP, as does the fact that (per FanGraphs) he’s yet to hit a line drive. This could be a classification, of course, but the eye test confirms that he hasn’t quite driven the ball yet. Oddly enough, all of his batted balls have gone to center or left thus far, making him the anti-Sanchez in that regard.

The lack of pulled balls could be encouraging in and of itself, as the shift was something of a problem for Bird in 2015. Would mentioning small sample sizes here be beating a dead horse?


This was supposed to read as an overreaction, which is generally pessimistic. However, it is difficult to parse these numbers and not see how influenced they are by the simple fact that the duo has combined for 28 plate appearances in three games. It’s still the first week of the season, they’re both just 24-years-old, and they’re both supremely talented hitters with some measure of success in the show (however brief it may have been). And some of the underlying numbers serve as a testament to bad luck more so than anything else.

Even so, it would be lovely if their bats could wake up with gusto this weekend.