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.

The Yankees will need to find a new leadoff hitter soon, and they have plenty of options

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the past four seasons the Yankees have been set at the leadoff position thanks to Brett Gardner. He hit .262/.341/.400 (104 OPS+) as New York’s primary No. 1 hitter from 2013-16 compared to the .269/.330/.402 (102 OPS+) league average leadoff hitter. Through two games this season Gardner remains the leadoff hitter. There’s not much of a reason to expect that to change anytime soon.

In a perfect world either Jacoby Ellsbury, who is now hitting fifth rather than atop the lineup, or Gardner would continue to hit leadoff through 2020. Gardner’s contract is up following the 2018 season, though Ellsbury is signed another two years beyond that, and the Yankees would love to see him reemerge as a top of the lineup hell-raiser. The Yankees have only seen that guy in a Red Sox uniform. Not pinstripes.

Of course, players age, and both Gardner and Ellsbury will turn 34 later this year. Neither figures to be a legitimate leadoff caliber hitter much longer — heck, you could argue they aren’t worthy of hitting leadoff right now — the same way neither figures to be a legitimate center field option much longer. Players age, their skills diminish, and their roles are reduced. It’s the circle of baseball life.

At some point, perhaps as soon as later this year or as late as 2021, the Yankees will need to find someone else to hit leadoff. The smart money is on them needing to do so sooner rather than later. Within a year or two. The farm system is loaded, which is an obvious plus. Even if the Yankees can’t develop their next leadoff hitter, they’ll have the pieces to go out and make a trade. Or the cash to sign one because young MLB players are cheap and keep payroll down.

The way I see it, the Yankees have five possible paths to filling the leadoff spot for the foreseeable future. This of course means they’ll find a completely different way to fill the leadoff spot when the time comes, because that’s usually how things work out. Anyway, here are the five options to finding the next leadoff hitter.

Stay the Course

As always, doing nothing is an option. The Yankees could stick with Gardner and/or Ellsbury at the top of the lineup and hope it works. Ellsbury is signed another four seasons, after all. He’s going to be around whether the Yankees like it or not. The Yankees were willing to live with an unproductive Derek Jeter as their No. 2 hitter in 2014, so they’re not above suboptimal lineups, but obviously circumstances are a wee bit different. Neither Gardner nor Ellsbury have Jeter’s clout and standing in the organization. But still, the Yankees could stick with those two atop the batting order. Always an option.

Rely on the Farm System

Fowler. (Presswire)
Fowler. (Presswire)

The Yankees sure are relying on their farm system a lot these days, huh? Gary Sanchez is the starting catcher with no veteran safety net. Greg Bird is the everyday first baseman despite missing the entire 2016 season with shoulder surgery. The rotation? The Yankees are going to sink or swim with the kids. They have a lot of rotation options and are probably going to end up cycling through all of them at some point.

Among their top 30 prospects, the Yankees have three potential leadoff hitters: shortstop Jorge Mateo, shortstop/supersub Tyler Wade, and center fielder Dustin Fowler. You could squint your eyes and see someone like, say, Wilkerman Garcia as a future leadoff hitter, but he’s a very long way from the big leagues. Wade and Fowler will open the season in Triple-A and Mateo will be back at High-A with a chance for a quick promotion to Double-A.

Going from leadoff hitter prospect to actual big league leadoff hitter is a process with several steps. Remember, Gardner made his big league debut in 2008 and didn’t take over as the full-time leadoff hitter until 2013. Wade and Fowler have to perform at Triple-A and show the requisite skills for promotion, get called up, have enough success to stay in the lineup, and then have enough success to bat near the top of the lineup. Mateo is even further away than those two.

Now, that all said, every player has a different timetable. Gardner had to wait a few years before becoming a leadoff hitter, in part because the Yankees had some quality veterans to hit leadoff in the meantime. Those 2009-12 lineups were pretty awesome. Ellsbury, on the other hand, was a September call-up in 2007 who hit well enough to take over the leadoff hitter in 2008. Who’s to say Wade or Fowler won’t do the same next year? Either way, the Yankees have some potential leadoff options in the farm system, including at the upper levels.

An Unconventional Solution

Baseball is evolving. We’re not only starting to see sluggers like Sanchez hit second in the lineup, but some teams are even using players like that to hit leadoff. Kyle Schwarber is hitting leadoff for the Cubs. Corey Dickerson, who hit 24 home runs with a .293 OBP in 2016, is batting leadoff for the Rays. Curtis Granderson has hit leadoff for the Mets for much of the last three years. Adam Jones hit leadoff last year. Those guys don’t have traditional leadoff hitter skill sets, but they’re all good hitters, so their clubs decided to give them the most at-bats.

The Yankees could pursue something similar. Batting Sanchez leadoff probably won’t happen because he’s a slow catcher and teams still like their leadoff hitter to have some speed, but what about, say, Aaron Judge? Or even Bird? He projects to be a high on-base player and he can run a little too. What about Didi Gregorius as an Adam Jones-esque “he’ll sock some dingers but won’t have a high OBP” leadoff hitter? I suppose Starlin Castro fits that mold too. I’m not saying the Yankees should do something like this. I’m just saying it’s an option.

Free Agency

We’ve seen the Yankees dip into free agency for leadoff hitters a few times already. Example one: Ellsbury! Example two: Johnny Damon. Go back even further and you have example three: Wade Boggs. He hit leadoff for a while for both the Red Sox and Yankees. The Yankees seem to have a thing for ex-Red Sox leadoff hitters, huh? I guess that means we should expect them to one day sign … looks up Boston’s current leadoff hitter … oh geez not Dustin Pedroia.

Anyway, in all seriousness, acquiring a new leadoff hitter via free agency is always an option. Sometimes is works out (Boggs and Damon) and sometimes it doesn’t (Ellsbury). That’s free agency (and baseball in general) in a nutshell. Here’s a quick run down of leadoff types scheduled to hit free agency the next two years:

  • After 2017: Rajai Davis, Jarrod Dyson, Jon Jay, Yunel Escobar, Eduardo Nunez, Ben Revere, Jose Reyes
  • After 2018: Charlie Blackmon, D.J. LeMahieu, A.J. Pollock, Jean Segura

The 2017-18 free agent class looks much more promising on the leadoff front. The 2017-18 class is basically Escobar and Nunez, and a bunch of part-timers who would in no way be upgrades over Gardner and Ellsbury.

That’s fine though. The Yankees are trying to get under the luxury tax threshold next season, so spending on a free agent leadoff guy might not make much sense anyway. They can stay in-house for the time being with Gardner and Ellsbury (and Wade and Fowler), then reevaluate things after the luxury tax rate has been reset for the 2018-19 offseason. So, long story short, free agency doesn’t offer any immediate leadoff help.

Future Yankee A.J. Pollock? (Presswire)
Future Yankee A.J. Pollock? (Presswire)

What About Trades?

I keep saying this and it bears repeating: the Yankees are going to have to trade some of their prospects, and fairly soon too. If they don’t, they’re going to start losing players for nothing on waivers or in the Rule 5 Draft. The great prospects like Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier will remain with the Yankees for sure. The lesser prospects still have value though, and the Yankees surely want to maximize it.

Trying to figure out which teams could put their leadoff man on the trade block in the future is damn near impossible. Who would have guessed Segura would be made available after the season he had last year, and that the Mariners would give up Taijuan Walker to get him? I suppose Arizona could make Pollock available before he becomes a free agent, though would the Yankees make that move? They balked at three years of Chris Sale. We’re talking about fewer than two of Pollock.

The point is trading for a leadoff type is always an option, and because the Yankees are so deep in prospects, they’ll be able to get pretty much anyone they want. Should someone like, say, Manuel Margot break out with the Padres over the next year or two, he could be someone the Yankees target as a long-term leadoff hitter and center fielder. Same with the Twins and Byron Buxton. (That would be fun, wouldn’t it?)

* * *

I haven’t mentioned Torres as a leadoff option yet but I definitely should. Long-term, he projects as more of a true No. 2 or No. 3 hitter, someone who can hit for power and drive in runs. Many players with that profile started their careers as leadoff hitters though. Christian Yelich hit leadoff for the Marlins for a while. So did Manny Machado for the Orioles. Mookie Betts made the transition from leadoff hitter to No. 3 hitter last year. Gleyber has the skills to do the same.

Right now the center field position and leadoff spot are intertwined for the Yankees because of their personnel. It doesn’t have to — and won’t — stay that way forever. The Yankees have close to a clean slate when you think about it. Ellsbury is only long-term contract on the position player side. They’re in position to pursue a leadoff type at nearly any position. Gardner (and Ellsbury) can hold things down for the time being. Soon enough though, the Yankees will have to find a new table-setter.

Why Chris Carter should be the Yankees starting shortstop

(Newsday)
(Newsday)

The headline drew you in, didn’t it?

The Yankees were almost faced with a situation where someone, either Chris Carter, Austin Romine or Aaron Hicks, was going to have to play second base if they tied it up on Sunday. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see it.

But it could actually be quite logical to start Chris Carter, a guy who is basically confined to first base, at shortstop… and bat him lead off.

No, I’m not crazy. This is an old Earl Weaver trick that can only be used on the road and only with a sufficient roster. Here’s how it works:

1. Carter isn’t actually going to play the field: Basically, you would have Carter lead off the top of the first inning in the lineup card as the shortstop. He’d take his turn at the plate. If you’re having a really good day, he might even get two plate appearances. And then you put Ronald Torreyes or Pete Kozma in as the shortstop for the bottom of the first. The lineup will then be the same as it is normally, just with the nine hitter as the leadoff guy and everyone moved down a spot.

With this scenario, you guarantee that you’ll get a better hitter an at-bat. You probably don’t want to do it with Didi Gregorius because he can actually hit. However, with him out, why not give an AB to Carter (or Aaron Hicks, who works just fine here too) over Torreyes? You can still pinch hit for them later with whoever is left on your bench in case you have a situation like Sunday’s ninth inning.

2. This can cause some clubhouse turmoil: When Weaver would do this back in the mid-1970s, it led to Royle Stillman, a left-handed hitting outfielder, as the team’s shortstop (as well as others). Personally, I love the concept of a lefty shortstop, even if it’s in name only. And Stillman was 3 for 6 in the role. However, Weaver also acknowledged in his book, “Weaver on Strategy,” that his sure-handed shortstop Mark Belanger was annoyed by the move. Sure, it makes perfect baseball sense, but it also is forcing a hitter like Belanger to see that he is an inferior hitter in his manager’s mind. That can really toy with a guy’s mind and may not be worth it from that standpoint.

3. The Yankees would have to re-tool their bench: This move eliminates your best pinch hitter (or one of them) and you lose one of your 13 position players off the bat. Therefore, it really only works if you have more position players on the roster. Weaver only pulled this trick in September with expanded rosters.

But the Yankees actually have an opportunity for that now. They have eight relievers for the time being, until a fifth starter is needed on April 16. That means they can easily afford to send someone down and call up another hitter. This would give the team more flexibility in general, but also enough room to use this ‘Carter at SS’ move.

Heck, it doesn’t even have to be Carter. On the 40-man, you could call up someone like Mason Williams, Rob Refsnyder or Kyle Higashioka and let them be the team’s shortstop in name only. That way, you save Carter for a late-game situation that may never come but could be a more valuable use of his power bat. Carter has never led off a game, as you may have guessed, so you don’t know if he’s even comfortable doing so.

(Getty Images)
A leadoff dinger would be fun. (Getty Images)

4. Lineup considerations: The other thing to consider is that with Matt Holliday at DH, Carter is your only backup first baseman unless you’re willing to have your pitcher hit or use your backup catcher (Romine). Therefore, you’d have to call up a backup first baseman (Refsnyder) or a backup catcher (Higashioka). You could also better do this move with Holliday getting a day off while you play all four of your outfielders with one as your DH. This way, Holliday is your emergency 1B or corner outfielder. Maybe you have Williams up as insurance for the outfield. Either way, this would probably be the optimal idea to pull this off.

I write this post acknowledging that the concept I’m suggesting will probably not be put into place. Beyond the simple thinning of your roster, it would cause a stir in the media. Girardi would be skewered if Carter made an out or Torreyes was forced to bat in a big situation late in the game. That’s the risk of this concept and you have to be someone that doesn’t care about how it will be received in order to actually put it in motion. I don’t blame Girardi if he doesn’t even consider this because really, what other current manager would even think about doing this? Maybe Joe Maddon or Buck Showalter? Buck, being in Baltimore, would be fitting to try it out.

But I will keep on dreaming of a world where some road PA announcer has to belt out, “Leading off, the shortstop, Chris Carter.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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