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.

The Yankees’ Five Shortest Home Run of 2016

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

Yesterday we looked at the longest home runs hit by the Yankees hit in 2016, and now it’s time to go to the other extreme. Now we’re going to look back at the shortest home runs. The most laughable wall-scrapers of the season. These are the homers that make you feel like the Yankees just stole a run because the ball would have been caught at most other ballparks.

Thanks to right field, Yankee Stadium is very conducive to hilariously short home runs. It cuts both ways though; the Yankees hit plenty of cheap home runs into the short porch, but they also give up a lot too. So anyway, let’s get to the team’s five shortest dingers of the 2016 season. Thanks again to Baseball Savant for making this post possible.

5. Castro vs. David Huff

True story: I got my Starlin Castro home runs mixed up and wrote up a capsule for entirely separate short home run against the Angels before realizing it was the wrong one. Oops.

Anyway, the fifth shortest home run of the season came against Huff, the ex-Yankee, who I had no idea was still active, let alone spent time in MLB this year. It was June 7th and the Yankees were home against the Angels. They’d lost eight of their last 13 games — the Yankees, not the Angels — and were struggling to score runs. Hard to believe, I know.

The Yankees did rally from behind to win the previous night’s game — Castro hit a home run in that game and that’s the one I originally wrote up (d’oh) — and because Huff is not so good, they were able to open a quick 5-0 lead in this game. Three in first, one in the second, and one in the third. The fifth shortest home run of the season was run No. 5. To the video:

The Yankees cruised to relatively easy 6-3 win that day. It was the second of five straight wins, which included that four-game sweep of the Halos at Yankee Stadium. Distance: 331 feet.

4. Teixeira vs. Carlos Villanueva

Milestone homer! Mark Teixeira‘s home run off Villanueva, an eighth inning solo shot on July 7th that stretched New York’s lead to 3-1, was the 400th dinger of his career. Teixeira became only the fifth switch-hitter in history to hit 400 home runs, joining Mickey Mantle, Eddie Murray, Chipper Jones, and Carlos Beltran. Here’s the video:

One inning later, Teixeira smashed a two-run home run to provided some insurance runs. That was the fourth longest home run hit by a Yankee this season. So, in consecutive innings, Teixeira hit the fourth shortest and fourth longest home runs of the season. Baseball.

Also, Teixeira gets +10 RAB Internet Points for hitting a short right field homer somewhere other than Yankee Stadium. Distance: 331 feet.

3. Austin vs. Matt Andriese

The fourth shortest and fourth longest homers of the season were hit in consecutive innings. The third shortest and third longest homers of the season were hit by consecutive batters.

The Yankees were playing the Rays at home on August 13th, the day they really went all-in on the second half youth movement. We said goodbye to Alex Rodriguez the night before and hello to Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge that day. In his first big league at-bat Austin showed off his opposite field approach and poked a home run down the right field line. Check it out:

Solid contact for sure, but yeah, that’s a double into the corner in most other ballparks. Maybe it even gets caught for an out. Hey, Austin can only hit in the ballpark that’s on the schedule that day. His home run gave the Yankees a 1-0 lead, and two pitches later, Judge cleared the windows of the damn restaurant in center field for a 2-0 lead. Distance: 331 feet.

2. Hicks vs. Ryan Garton

I remember every home run in the shortest/longest home runs posts except this one. Happens every year. Always forget one completely. Don’t remember this one happening at all.

The day before Austin and Judge went back-to-back, the Yankees were home against the Rays saying goodbye to A-Rod. The Yankees were up 5-3 in the seventh inning when Aaron Hicks stepped to the plate to start the inning against Garton. Unlike every other homer in this post, Hicks went to left field, not right. Check it out:

That was kind of an excuse me swing. A “will it stay fair or slice foul” ball, though it was fair by plenty. Just a weird looking play all around. The ball kept carrying and carrying. Hicks has some sneaky pop, you know. Distance: 329 feet.

1. McCann vs Kevin Gausman

The shortest home run the Yankees hit in 2016 was also the last home run the Yankees hit in 2016. It was Game 162, and it came against a guy the Yankees couldn’t touch all season. Gausman really dominated them all year. Pretty annoying, it was.

McCann’s home run led off the fourth inning with the Yankees already down 3-0. It wasn’t even that bad a pitch. It was an up-and-in fastball, and McCann was able to get his bat around quick enough to hook it into the short porch in right field.

Believe it or not, MLB.com does not have video of this home run. I guess it was too inconsequential to post. I had to make a GIF instead:

Brian McCann home run

And that was that. The Yankees lost the meaningless game — meaningless to them, anyway, it clinched a wildcard spot for the Orioles — and didn’t hit another dinger in 2016. See you in 2017. Distance: 324 feet.

* * *

Statcast only goes back so far, but as best I can tell, McCann’s home run was the shortest by a Yankee since Teixeira hit a 321-foot bomb (!) off Roy Halladay in 2010. Here’s the video:

Also, there’s a freaky amount of overlap between the shortest and longest homers list, isn’t there? Two of the shortest and two of the longest are from the same game, and heck, look at the order. No. 5 on each list was Castro. No. 4 was Teixeira. No. 2 was Hicks. No. 1 was McCann. No. 3 on each list was part of the back-to-back homers by Austin and Judge. Weird. Weird weird weird.

The Yankees’ Five Longest Home Runs of 2016

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

For whatever reason, baseballs flew out of the ballpark at a near record pace this past season. An average of 1.155 homers per game were hit in 2016, up from 1.010 last year and 0.861 just two years ago. In fact, 2016 was the second most homer happy season on record. Only in 2000 were more homers hit per game (1.171). My guess is the ball is juiced, but who knows.

Anyway, the Yankees certainly benefited from the home run spike as a team. They hit 183 home runs in 2016, which is down from last year (212), but way up from both 2014 (147) and 2013 (144). Also, the Yankees hit the ball farther on average this season too. Every team did, which lends some credence to the juiced ball theory. Giancarlo Stanton hit a 504-foot home run this summer, for example. It was the longest in baseball since 2009.

As we do every year, it’s time to look back at the five longest home runs hit by the Yankees this season. There are some meaningful and milestone blasts in here too. These aren’t five garbage time shots against random Triple-A arms. Pretty nice mix this season. Shout out to Baseball Savant for making this post possible. Let’s get to it.

5. Castro vs. Jason Motte

New York’s fifth longest home run of the season was a walk-off. How about that? I told you there were some meaningful dingers in this post. The Yankees and Rockies played a wild back-and-forth game at Yankee Stadium on June 22nd. Look at the win probability graph:


Source: FanGraphs

The Yankees scored four runs in the second inning on a Chase Headley grand slam of all things. The Rockies then rallied to score two in the third, three in the fourth, and three more in the fifth. CC Sabathia and Anthony Swarzak were responsible for that. So, after falling behind 8-4, the Yankees then put up another four-spot in the seventh inning to tie the game. Carlos Beltran‘s three-run dinger was the big blow, but a run-scoring single by Didi Gregorius is what tied the game.

The score remained 8-8 until the bottom of the ninth inning, when Starlin Castro waited all of two pitches to win the game. He clobbered a walk-off home run into the second deck in left field against Jason Motte. To the action footage:

The Yankees had lost two straight and six of their previous nine games, so they were reeling. Taking a 4-0 lead early in the game and then blowing it really stunk. Castro sent everyone home happy and helped spark a three-game winning streak. Distance: 443 feet.

4. Teixeira vs. Kevin Quackenbush

I thought this was Mark Teixeira‘s 400th career home run. Alas, it was No. 401. Teixeira hit his 400th home run earlier in the game, against Padres righty Carlos Villanueva. Unfortunately, No. 401 wasn’t all that dramatic. It was a tack-on blast in the ninth inning of a game the Yankees were already leading 4-1. Here is Teixeira’s long two-run blast (0:54 mark):

On the bright side, I did get to say Quackenbush, so it’s not a total loss. Teixeira’s home run was the Yankees’ fourth longest of the 2016 season. Distance: 444 feet.

3. Judge vs. Matt Andriese

Now this is what I’m talking about. August 13th was one of the most important days of the season. The Yankees officially released Alex Rodriguez that day, after his farewell ceremony the night before, and the move helped clear a spot for Aaron Judge. The club’s top prospect drove all night from Rochester to the Bronx and was in the starting lineup for the 1pm ET game.

Judge wasted little time showing fans why he is so highly regarded. Two pitches after Tyler Austin, who was also called up that day, poked a line drive home run into the short porch in his first career at-bat, Judge launched a missile to dead center field for a solo home run in his first big league at-bat. Here’s the video:

Good gravy that was hammered. Austin and Judge became the first teammates in history to hit home runs in their MLB debuts in the same game, and they did it back-to-back. Incredible. What a fun afternoon. Judge’s home run cleared the windows of the restaurant in center field entirely. He hit it over the damn windows. I mean, look:

Aaron Judge home run

That was so fun, wasn’t it? The A-Rod farewell game the night before was pretty awesome, then the Yankees quickly turned the page and we all got a glimpse of the future. Alex was gone but Judge (and Austin) had arrived. Definitely a fun afternoon. One of the best of the season. Distance: 446 feet.

2. Hicks vs. Rick Porcello

Judge’s home run is actually tied for the second longest hit by a Yankee this season. Don’t ask my why I listed it first. I guess because it’s chronological. Or reverse chronological. Whatever.

Anyway, the Yankees were absolutely reeling on May 6th. They went into that night’s game against the Red Sox having lost 15 of their previous 20 games (!), and the day before they were walked off by the Orioles. Morale was low. The Yankees looked like one of the worst teams in baseball.

Naturally, the Yankees fell behind quickly in this May 6th game. Michael Pineda allowed a two-run home run to David Ortiz in the first inning. Of course he did. The Yankees rallied though, scoring one run in the bottom of the first on Brian McCann‘s double, and another in the bottom of the second on Dustin Ackley‘s single. Dustin Ackley! Good for him.

The game did not devolve into a slugfest, oddly. Both Pineda and Porcello settled down and the score remained 2-2 into the seventh inning. Heading into that seventh inning Porcello had retired seven straight and 12 of the last 13 batters he faced, so he was cruising. Then he left a changeup up to Aaron Hicks, and this happened:

Hicks had done absolutely nothing as a Yankee up to that point. He’d gone 0-for-1 in the game prior to the home run and was hitting .091/.143/.091 on the season. It was bad. Bad bad bad. Hicks came through big in that spot with his long home run over the bullpen and into the right field bleachers. The Yankees won the game and seven of their next ten. Distance: 446 feet.

1. McCann vs. Brandon Kintzler

How about this for a buzzkill: the Yankees’ longest home run of the season came in a loss! To a Twins team that lost 103 total games in 2016! No other team lost more than 94 games this year, you know. Bummer. The Yankees won the other four games featured in this post. Just not this one.

The Yankees did lead this June 19th game early. A McCann home run — not the one we’re going to focus on — and an A-Rod single built a 2-0 lead through four innings. Then Nathan Eovaldi and the bullpen puked all over it. The Twins scored one run in the fifth, four in the sixth, one in the seventh, and then one in the eighth for good measure. Blargh.

When McCann came to the plate against Kintzler to lead off the ninth inning, the Yankees trailed 7-3 and their chances of winning were down to 1.4%. His job was to get on base and maybe start a rally. He did one better. McCann laid into a 2-1 fastball and hit the team’s longest home run of the season. Look at this damn thing. It almost left Target Field (0:23 mark):

The Yankees did nothing after that home run, so the distance didn’t exactly inspire them to make a ninth inning comeback. That’s a shame. It was still an impressively long home run. No one in pinstripes hit a ball farther in 2016. Distance: 450 feet.

* * *

So, among those five home runs, we had one walk-off, one game-winner, and one career first. Pretty, pretty good. Only two other Yankees hit a baseball 440+ feet this season, by the way. Austin Romine launched a 442-foot dinger against someone named Chad Girodo on May 25th (video), and A-Rod clocked a 440-foot bomb off Chris Archer two days later (video). Austin Romine, eh? Didn’t see that coming.

The Yankees are getting power from premium positions to make up for their outfield

(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)
(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)

Three years ago the Yankees made a decision to prioritize defense over offense in the outfield. They spent big to sign Jacoby Ellsbury, then a few months later they committed a market value extension to Brett Gardner. Yeah, they also brought in Carlos Beltran to play right field, but the other two outfield spots were occupied to players known more for their gloves and legs than their bats.

Fast forward to today, and things have played out pretty much exactly as expected. Ellsbury and Gardner have declined offensively as they get further into their 30s, meaning their defense is that much more important. Neither is the defender they were three or four years ago either, though I do think both are still comfortably above-average. As planned, it’s defense over offense.

The Ellsbury and Gardner contracts made it clear the Yankees were going to have to get power from their infield, because two of the three starting outfielders weren’t going to hit many balls over the fence. (Ironically enough, Gardner’s power spiked and his 33 homers from 2014-15 were 29th among all outfielders.) That is even more true today, as Ellsbury and Gardner have declined.

Infielders with power — especially middle infielders — can be hard to find, but the Yankees have managed to do it. Didi Gregorius joined the 20-home run club Tuesday night, about three weeks after Starlin Castro did the same thing. The Astros (Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa), Mets (Asdrubal Cabrera, Neil Walker), Nationals (Danny Espinosa, Daniel Murphy), and Rays (Logan Forsythe, Brad Miller) are the only other teams to get 20+ homers from both middle infielders in 2016.

A year ago Didi and Castro combined for 20 homers total — Gregorius hit nine and Castro hit eleven with the Cubs — and now they are able to put up those numbers individually. Sure, Yankee Stadium definitely helps, but these guys are both 26 as well, and entering what should be the best years of their careers. A power spike at this age isn’t uncommon. Also, I’m pretty sure the ball is juiced, so let’s check this out quick:

Castro: 57 ISO+ in 2015, 81 ISO+ in 2016
Gregorius: 50 ISO+ in 2015, 76 ISO+ in 2016

ISO+ is the same basic idea as OPS+. It’s the player’s ISO relative to the league ISO with a park factor applied — I used the handedness park factors at StatCorner — where 100 is league average. Anything lower is below-average and anything higher is below-average.

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

Adjusting for ballpark and the the increase in power around the league, Castro and Gregorius are still below-average power hitters this season. But! Compared to last season, they’ve both made improvements. Castro essentially went from 57% of the league average power output to 81%. Gregorius jumped from 50% to 76%. There’s real development behind their power. It’s not all Yankee Stadium and juiced baseballs.

In addition to the middle infield, the Yankees are also getting a ton of power from their catchers. In fact, they have two catchers with 19+ homers. Again: two catchers with 19+ homers! That’s pretty awesome. The team’s biggest power sources — catcher and middle infield — are positions not normally associated with power, which is a big positive. Going forward, having Gregorius and Castro up the middle with Gary Sanchez behind the plate will be very nice in terms of dinger expectancy.

The problem this season has been the lack of power from other positions. We knew Gardner and Ellsbury weren’t going to hit many home runs, but the Yankees have gotten very little from first base and DH, the two most premium power positions. When it’s all said and done, the Yankees will (probably) miss the postseason this year not because Dellin Betances blew some saves or Chase Headley had a bad April. It’s because Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez were complete non-factors.

Hopefully young players like Greg Bird and Aaron Judge can help provide some more pop going forward. Right now the Yankees are getting their power from the middle infield and behind the plate, which is a good building block. It’s also necessary because Gardner and Ellsbury aren’t the hitters they once were, and when you have two defense-first players in the outfield, the offense has to come from somewhere else. The Yankees are starting to get that production from elsewhere.