With Teixeira out, Yankees need Jacoby Ellsbury to snap out of post-DL slump

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

During the four-game series against the Blue Jays this weekend, it was hard not to notice the utter lack of impact from Jacoby Ellsbury. The Yankees leadoff hitter went 1-for-19 (.053) with a walk in the four games — Ellsbury went 0-for-4 last night and is currently mired in an 0-for-21 slump — and generated nothing from atop the lineup. It’s a minor miracle the Yankees have scored 26 runs in the last five games with Ellsbury hitting like that.

At this point Ellsbury’s slump is not just a little bump in the road. He did perform well during the ten-game homestand before this last one that just ended (.351 in nine games starts) and did beat up on some bad Braves pitching in Atlanta, but otherwise his bat has never really come around since returning from the DL. Ellsbury is hitting .210/.251/.328 (55 wRC+) in 258 plate appearances since returning in early-July, dragging his overall season numbers down to .254/.315/.345 (83 wRC+).

This is getting to the point where it’s more than a slump. A slump is a bad week or two. Maybe a bad month on occasion. Those happen to everyone. Ellsbury is over 250 plate appearances since returning from his knee injury now, and his offensive production has been replacement level. When he started slow immediately after coming off the DL, okay, it was understandable. But now, more than two months later? Now it’s time to be legitimately concerned.

“He’s just not squaring the ball up,” said Joe Girardi to Ryan Hatch when asked about Ellsbury’s slump Sunday, which doesn’t tell us much. We know he’s not squaring the ball up, we see it during the games and the batted ball data backs it up. Ellsbury’s soft contact rate has continually climbed since he returned in July and he’s hitting both more ground balls and more pop-ups.

Jacoby Ellsbury batted ball1

Weakly hit ground balls and pop-ups are BABIP killers. Those are the types of balls in play that rarely go for hits, which explains Ellsbury’s .235 average on balls in play since coming off the DL. He had a .379 BABIP before getting hurt and has a career .319 BABIP. Ellsbury is nowhere close to that now, and unless he starts hitting the ball with more authority, there’s no reason to expect a rebound.

The real question is why. Why isn’t he squaring the ball up? Ellsbury was a leadoff monster before getting hurt, remember. He was hitting .332/.408/.368 (123 wRC+) when he landed on the DL in mid-May. I’ve been one of the harshest critics of Ellsbury’s contract, I think it’s a disaster in the making, but I also don’t think he’s suddenly a true talent 83 wRC+ hitter either. He’s not as good as he was before the injury and he’s not as bad as he has been after. The truth is somewhere in the middle based on his history.

The injury could be certainly be a factor here. Actually, the injuries could be a factor. Plural. Ellsbury went on the DL with a right knee problem, and he also missed a few days with a right hip issue about three weeks ago. He slid for a ball in the outfield and hurt himself somehow. His hip swelled up and Girardi sat him for a few days. Leg injuries are no good for any player. Hitting starts from the ground up. Without a solid base underneath you, you won’t be able to drive the ball.

Here are two screen grabs showing the same thing at different points of the season. The screen grab on the left is from early-May, one of the final home games before Ellsbury’s knee injury. The screen grab on the right is from Saturday night. They both show the moment Ellsbury’s front foot touches down as part of his leg kick.

Jacoby Ellsbury foot

The pitch on the left has traveled a lot deeper by time Ellsbury’s foot touches down. The pitch on the right is barely out of the pitcher’s hand. Could it be the knee and hip injuries have resulted in a timing problem? Ellsbury is getting his front foot down too early now, so his weight transfer and stuff is all out of whack, leading to softer contact. (He’s been rolling over on everything and hitting grounders to the right side of late.) That sounds … plausible? I dunno. We’re playing amateur hitting coach here.

For what it’s worth, Girardi dismissed the idea Ellsbury is playing hurt, telling Brendan Kuty that Ellsbury “feels pretty good. He’s been just a little bit off.” Every player is banged up at this point of the season and it may be Ellsbury is more banged up than most given his knee and hip issues. It’s entirely possible he’s playing hurt and the team just isn’t letting on. I mean, it’s hard to think Ellsbury is playing this poorly and is 100% healthy. That would be scary. At last playing hurt would explain things.

Even if he’s not hurting right now, it could be the knee and/or hip issues have messed up Ellsbury’s mechanics. That stuff happens without the player even realizing it sometimes. They subconsciously try to protect the injured area. Thing is, we don’t even know if this is the problem. We’re searching for answers. I’m sure Ellsbury and hitting coaches Jeff Pentland and Alan Cockrell are as well. “He’s doing everything he can to get back on track,” added Girardi.

Should the Yankees move Ellsbury down in the order? After over 250 plate appearances of this, I say yeah, but that’s not going to happen. “If every time a guy was going through a tough spot and you start moving him around and moving him down, you’d be juggling the lineup every day,” said Girardi. The Yankees won’t drop Ellsbury in the lineup in year two of his seven-year contract. This is a team that bumped Adam Warren from the rotation in favor of CC Sabathia (and Ivan Nova), after all.

The Ellsbury we’re seeing right now is not the real Ellsbury. He’s a much better player than what he’s shown the last few days and also since coming off the DL. At this point the Yankees have to focus as much on staying in a wildcard spot as they do winning the division, and it’ll be hard to do either of those things these last three weeks with Ellsbury hitting so poorly. His season numbers are what they are. There’s not enough time to pretty them up. The best he can do is get on track and help the Yankees from here on out.

“He’s extremely important to our lineup,” added Girardi. “A lot of times, when guys go through tough periods, the game has a way of equaling its way out and it would be great if it did it over the next 20 games.”

Brett Gardner is starting to come out of slump just in time for the Teixeira-less Yankees

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Thanks to the Braves, the Yankees averaged a healthy 4.71 runs per game in August, right in line with the 4.88 runs per game they averaged from April through July. We all know the offense wasn’t quite that good last month though. The Yankees scored 38 runs in three games against Atlanta over the weekend and only 94 runs in the other 25 games, or 3.76 per game.

The team-wide offensive malaise last month was not the result of any one thing. It was a combination of things. Lots of players slumped, perhaps none moreso than Brett Gardner. The first time All-Star hit a weak .208/.304/.257 (61 wRC+) in August, easily his worst month of the season. Easily. His second worst month was the .252/.322/.421 (105 wRC+) batting line he put up in May.

Gardner has always been a better first half player, but not to this extreme. He’s a career .283/.360/.421 (116 wRC+) hitter in the first half and .240/.330/.356 (90 wRC+) in the second half. That 26 wRC+ point difference is pretty huge. Brett’s a first half player, no doubt. This year though? This year he hit .302/.377/.484 (139 wRC+) in the first half and is at .212/.318/.291 (74 wRC+) in the second half. That’s a 65 wRC+ point gap.

Anecdotally, it seems as though Gardner has been striking out more in the second half, but that’s not really the case. He had a 19.8% strikeout rate in the first half and has a 22.5% strikeout rate in the second half. Basically three extra strikeouts per 100 plate appearances. No big deal. His 23.3% strikeout rate in August wasn’t much worse either. So yes, he is striking out more, but not that much more.

Gardner’s plate discipline was fine in August, at least in the sense that it didn’t deviate from his season averages a whole lot. He swung at 20.7% of pitches out of the zone last month. His season rate is 21.4%. Gardner didn’t start hitting more grounders (39.8%) or pop-ups (6.9%) in August either. His season averages are 45.4% and 6.0%, respectively. Too pull happy? Not enough hard contact?

Brett Gardner batted ball data

Eh. Not too much of a difference there. The 6.7 percentage point drop in hard contact from the first half to the second half is disconcerting, but most of it shifted over to medium contact, not weak contact. Is that enough to explain Gardner’s .274 BABIP in August, by far his lowest month of the season? Maybe! The admittedly imperfect data suggests he was not hitting the ball as hard in August as he had earlier this season.

The more important question is why. Why isn’t Gardner hitting the ball as hard as he did earlier this season? It’s impossible to answer. It could be as simple as scorer bias — Baseball Info Solutions uses human stringers for their contact data, so one scorer’s hard hit ball could be another’s medium hit ball — or sample size issues. Maybe he’s playing hurt again. Remember, Gardner played through an abdominal strain in the second half last year, which was severe enough that he needed offseason surgery. Maybe his swing is a mess. There could be a million reasons.

Regardless of what exactly is causing Gardner’s slump, Gardner’s slump has hurt the offense overall these last few weeks. The good news is he is starting to come out it. Brett went deep last night and is 6-for-22 (.273) on the road trip, which is a heck of a lot better than what he did the rest of August. You have to squint your eyes, but the signs are there. Gardner’s hit the ball with some more authority of late, even his outs, which suggests he’s getting better swings.

Unless Gardner is playing hurt and we don’t know about it, I expect him to climb out of his slump soon enough. I have a hard time believing Brett is simply a bad hitter now. Great in the first half to zero in the second half? Not impossible, just unlikely. The Yankees will be without Mark Teixeira for the foreseeable future, so getting Gardner back on track as the No. 2 hitter is imperative. Runs are harder to come by these days, even moreso with Brett struggling.

The real impact of losing Mark Teixeira’s bat

(AP Photo)
(AP Photo)

The news just keeps getting worse and worse for Mark Teixeira and the Yankees. Joe Girardi announced Monday that Teixeira was sent back to New York for further tests on his badly bruised leg. That means Tuesday night’s matchup with the Red Sox will be the 13th time in 14 games since the injury that the Yankees won’t have their leading home run guy and most explosive power hitter in the starting lineup. Even worse, there is no definitive answer about when, if at all, Teixeira will return. As a wise man once said …

girardi

Sure, the home runs and extra-base hits provide a ton of value, but Teixeira’s impact on the Yankees’ offense goes beyond just his ability to hit the ball really far, really high and really hard. It is his outstanding performance in the most high-pressure plate appearances that sets Teixeira apart from the rest of the Yankee hitters — and makes his bat nearly impossible to replace.

There are a few ways we can isolate “high-pressure” situations in a baseball game. First, there is the concept of leverage, which is basically an attempt to quantify how tense and suspenseful any single at-bat is in a game. For example, there is a lot more on the line — in terms of winning or losing — when a batter steps to the plate trailing by a run in the ninth inning with two outs, compared to a similar at-bat in the third inning or if you are ahead by five runs. In high-leverage situations, Teixeira owns a team-best 1.009 OPS and .418 on-base percentage this season.

high lev2

Need a big hit when the Yankees are leading by one run, tied, or have the potential tying run on base, at bat, or on deck? Teixeira is your man. He is hitting a whopping .311/.436/.600 in those “late and close” plate appearances, ranking first among Yankee regulars in on-base percentage, slugging and OPS for those situations.

In fact, no player on the Yankees has delivered more game-changing hits than Teixeira. When the game is tied, Teixeira has a ridiculous line of .310/.394/.655, good for a 1.049 OPS that is easily the best on the team. And he leads them with 26 hits that either tied the game or given the Yankees the lead this season, including a team-high 15 home runs.

Remember that super-important victory against the Blue Jays on August 15, which guaranteed the Yankees a series win in Toronto? Masahiro Tanaka dominated the headlines with his one-run, complete game gem, but it was Teixeira who came through with the game-winning, go-ahead home run.

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He is also what you might call the hitting version of an “ace” for the Yankees, a guy that can step up and stop the bleeding when the team really needs a win. In games following a Yankee loss this season, Teixeira has the highest OPS (.982), slugging percentage (.582) and on-base percentage (.401) on the team, and each of his rate stats are higher in those games than overall this season.

The Yankees have shown this season that they are capable of beating up on bad pitching even without Teixeira (see the 38 runs scored in three games this weekend against the Braves’ staff, which has the fifth-worst ERA in the majors). But in Monday’s loss to the Red Sox — when the Yankees wasted numerous scoring chances and left 14 men on base — we also saw how a Teixeira-less lineup could really hurt the Yankees down the stretch.

As the final month of the season gets underway and the Yankees entrenched in a heated division race with the Blue Jays, the games are only going to get more intense, more stressful and take on even greater importance — the exact situations where they need Teixeira’s clutch bat the most.

Poll: The Designated Pinch-Runner in September

Sladerunner. (Presswire)
Sladerunner. (Presswire)

Five days from now teams will be able to expand their rosters and carry up to 40 active players. I can’t remember a team ever carrying the maximum 40 players, but they can do so if they choose. The Yankees are planning to be aggressive with their September call-ups and get them on the roster right away. No waiting around for the Triple-A postseason to end or anything like that.

In all likelihood, the Yankees will use one September call-up spot for a designated pinch-runner. Most teams do these days. Last year the pinch-runner was Antoan Richardson — Richardson is the answer to the “who scored the winning run on Derek Jeter‘s walk-off single in his final home game?” trivia question — and a few years ago it was Greg Golson. Freddy Guzman was the pinch-runner late in 2009. He was on the postseason roster, you know. He pinch-ran twice in October, both times in the ALCS. So that’s World Series Champion Freddy Guzman to you.

The Yankees have gone the designated pinch-runner route so many times in recent years that it’s safe to assume they’ll do so again this year. Who will that player be next month? That’s a tough question to answer. There is no super obvious candidate. (No, they’re not going to stick Jorge Mateo on the 40-man roster and start his options clock several years early just to pinch-run a few times in September.) Let’s run down the possibilities.

Internal Options

The most obvious — and, frankly, only — pinch-runner candidate on the 40-man roster is Slade Heathcott. Heathcott still runs very well even after multiple knee surgeries, we saw it earlier this year, plus he’s ultra-aggressive. If the Yankees use Slade to pinch-run and want him to steal a base, he’ll go first or second pitch. That’s just his style. Heathcott left Friday’s Triple-A game, didn’t play for a few days, but has since returned to the lineup, so I assume he’s healthy now.

Other 40-man pinch-runner options include … uh … well … Jose Pirela? Maybe Cole Figueroa? The Yankees don’t have any other good candidates on the 40-man roster, not with Mason Williams out for the season following shoulder surgery. I suppose Ben Gamel or Taylor Dugas could be pinch-runner options, though neither has the blazing speed you expect from a pinch-running specialist. This guy needs to fly. Instincts are not enough. Heathcott’s certainly the best option among 40-man roster players, assuming he’s healthy.

Minor Trade

The Yankees acquired Guzman in an ultra-minor trade in August 2009 to be their pinch-runner specialist late in the season and in the postseason. The Red Sox acquired Quintin Berry in August 2013 to be their pinch-runner down the stretch. A few days ago the Mets traded for Eric Young Jr. to be their September pinch-runner. Teams trade for pinch-runners late in the season all the time.

Picking out a pinch-runner trade target is tough because it’s not about stats — who cares if the guy isn’t hitting or is riding the bench in Triple-A? Can you run? If you can, you’re a candidate for the job. Looking around Triple-A, someone like Chase d’Arnaud (26 steals in 106 Triple-A games with the Phillies) or Shawn O’Malley (37 steals in 88 games at multiple levels for the Mariners) could work. They have speed. A small trade is always possible. Good luck finding a target though. Only the scouting report matters for these players, and every team has different reports. Stats are irrelevant.

Noel's back. (Christian Petersen/Getty)
(Christian Petersen/Getty)

The Dark Horse

The Yankees may have already acquired their September pinch-runner: Rico Noel. They brought him in back in July and he’s been bouncing back and forth between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton these last few weeks, stealing ten bases in 29 games. Here’s a mini-scouting report from J.J. Cooper, who wrote up the 26-year-old Noel as a possible Rule 5 Draft pick this past offseason:

Rico Noel, of, Padres: Noel has plenty of Triple-A time, can play center field, gets on base and has outstanding speed. But he has bottom-of-the-scale power and a fringe-average hit tool at best.

That scouting report is fairly recent. The fact Noel has 20 total steals in 25 attempts this season — he was with the Padres before hooking on with the Yankees — suggests the “outstanding speed” part is still at least somewhat true these days, nine months since Cooper’s report. The “bottom-of-the-scale power and fringe-average hit tool at best?” Who cares. No one’s asking him to hit.

Noel is currently riding the bench in Triple-A and, aside from two spot starts, he has been used exclusively as a pinch-runner this month. Not just for slow guys either, he pinch-ran for Heathcott on two occasions. Noel had been an everyday player prior to this season. Are the Yankees using August to get him accustomed to sitting around on the bench then pinch-running at a moment’s notice? Maybe! We shouldn’t rule Noel out as a candidate.

Do Nothing

The do nothing option always exists. The Yankees don’t need a pinch-runner next month. It’s just a thing they’d like to have available late in close games. If the Yankees don’t have anyone in the minors they trust to run in key spots, or if they can’t swing a trade in the next few days, they could just move forward with no designated pinch-runner and keep using Chris Young in the role like they have been all season. I don’t think that will happen, but it is always possible. We shouldn’t rule it out.

* * *

For what it’s worth, I expect the Yankees to add a pinch-runner next month, and Heathcott is probably the favorite simply because he is on the 40-man roster. The Yankees do have an open 40-man spot after designating Chris Capuano for assignment yesterday, so adding Noel wouldn’t be a headache, but I think that spot is earmarked for someone else. Andrew Bailey, most likely. Heathcott is perfectly qualified as long as he’s healthy. Should he get hurt at some point, the Yankees might be stuck scrambling for a pinch-runner down the stretch. Anyway, time for the poll.

Who should be the designated pinch-runner in September?

Injuries have caught up to the offense, but there are signs things may soon improve

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Even including last night’s win, the Yankees are now 11-11 in August and have seen their six-game AL East lead disappear. They’re now tied with the Blue Jays. The combination of Toronto getting insanely hot and the Yankees playing decidedly mediocre ball have turned a comfortable division lead into a legitimate race. Races are fun! That’s why we watch. It also would have been nice to see that big lead last more than three weeks, but alas.

The Yankees have faded a bit this month — August is not their worst month of the season, they went 13-16 in May but rebounded to go 15-12 in June and 17-7 in July — for many reasons, some of which were not entirely unpredictable. First and foremost, they’ve been bit by the injury bug. They lost Michael Pineda (forearm) and CC Sabathia (knee) to injuries after both guys came into the season as health risks. Seeing them land on the DL wasn’t a total shock.

Other injuries have been somewhat fluky. Mark Teixeira fouled a ball off his shin and has been out a week, hurting the Yankees on both sides of the ball. (I love Greg Bird as much as anyone, but the Yankees miss Teixeira. It’s obvious.) Brian McCann pulled a little something in his left knee chasing after a ball in the dirt a few weeks ago, and while he’s stayed in the lineup, he’s clearly not 100%. He’s wearing a brace and has altered his batting stance to take pressure off the knee:

McCann downplayed the batting stance change but come on. It looks like he’s about to fall over trying to take his weight off that left knee. McCann hurt his knee on August 4th and has gone 12-for-57 (.211) with a 22.6% strikeout rate since. He has hit four home runs during that time, so his power is still there, but he had an 18.8% strikeout rate before the injury. His timing seems to be off slightly following the knee injury, maybe due to that weird stance.

Then there’s Alex Rodriguez, who as far as we know isn’t hurt. Either way, he is not producing like he did earlier in the year. That’s not really a surprise, I suppose. As great as Alex is, it was probably unrealistic to think he’d hit like an MVP candidate all season as a 40-year-old with two surgically repaired hips who didn’t play at all last year and barely played the year before. A-Rod‘s gone 11-for-84 (.131) with two homers this month, though it worth noting the two homers both came within the last week.

Joe Girardi gave Rodriguez both Saturday and Sunday off, saying he wanted to “refresh” him. The Yankees have an off-day Thursday, so that’s another day to rest, and they’ll be in Atlanta for an interleague series this weekend. The team has committed to A-Rod at DH this year and there’s no reason to think he’ll play third (or first) base against the Braves. Assuming he starts tonight and tomorrow, Alex will still get six days off in a nine-day span. Hopefully that gets him going.

The Yankees built that big lead in the AL East thanks in large part to Teixeira, A-Rod, and McCann. Those guys were forces in the middle of the lineup for much of the season and are a huge reason why the team still ranks second in baseball with an average of 4.73 runs per game. That’s even after scoring 61 runs in their last 19 games, or 3.21 per game. They were that good for most of the season. Now? Not so much. McCann and Teixeira are banged up and A-Rod’s in a cold spell, perhaps due to fatigue.

The good news is things may be starting to change for the better. McCann had a great game last night, going 3-for-3 with a walk. Also, Teixeira was on deck ready to pinch-hit last night when Beltran hit his walk-off sac fly, which is an indication he is moving closer to returning to the starting lineup. A-Rod? Eh, aside from his two big homers last week — big as in long distance, they were bombs — I’m not sure if there are any positive signs there. Two outta three ain’t bad, I guess.

Let’s not beat around the bush: without Teixeira, McCann, and A-Rod producing at an above average clip, the Yankees have close to no chance to beat out the Blue Jays for the division title. The Yankees need to fire on all cylinders to keep pace with Toronto, and those three key middle of the order bats are hitting a combined .189/.270/.388 in 218 plate appearances this month. Yikes. Carlos Beltran can’t do it all himself. Those three need to start helping out again.

The pitching has been solid this month but the offense has been a big letdown of late. These nagging injuries Teixeira and McCann are dealing with are part of baseball, and hey, when you have a 40-year-old player playing everyday, you run of risk of him hitting a wall down the stretch. Unfortunately all of this is happening at once. Hopefully McCann’s big night, Teixeira being on deck, and A-Rod hitting two homers last week are signs these guys are close to getting back to where they need to be. The sooner they get going, the better the Yankees’ chances of winning the AL East.

Bird’s approach and hard-hit tendencies stand out early in MLB career

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

Even with last night’s 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, first base prospect Greg Bird has been very impressive in his short MLB cameo. He had the two-homer game Wednesday and has gone 6-for-21 (.286) with a double, two homers, and a .348 OBP so far. Losing Mark Teixeira to that bone bruise in his shin could have been very bad, even if only for a few days, but Bird has stepped in and helped the offense. It’s been awesome to watch.

“Miguel Cabrera had a slow clock, and really had an understanding of what he wanted to do, and I think Greg Bird has an understanding of who he is and what he wants to do,” said Joe Girardi to Kieran Darcy following the two-homer game Wednesday. “He’s got a slow heartbeat, and you can just see it. He doesn’t go out of his zone, he knows what he wants to do and has a plan, and he executed really well today.”

Bird had a reputation for being a very disciplined hitter as he came up through the system, and it shows in his career 14.9% walk rate in the minors. Being disciplined isn’t just about drawing walks, however. Walks are a byproduct of being disciplined; the goal is to get into a good hitter’s count first and foremost. Bird showed he’ll swing early in the count if he gets something to hit earlier this week with his first pitch double off Glen Perkins:

“I got ambushed by the first guy,” said Perkins to Mike Berardino after the game. Bird was leading off the inning against a new pitcher, a tough lefty he had never seen before, and taking a pitch to get a feel for the situation would have been easy to understand. Instead he jumped on the first pitch fastball, a very hittable pitch, and sparked the game-winning rally.

PitchFX data says Bird has swung at only 16.3% of pitches out of the zone so far, which is microscopic. The MLB average is 30.8%, and Carlos Santana has the lowest swing rate on outside pitches among qualified hitters at 19.1%. For what it’s worth, swing rates stabilize very quickly, though Bird’s swing rate on pitches out of the zone is unsustainably low. He’ll inevitably swing at more pitches out of the zone as he accumulates more plate appearances and that’s okay. That’s baseball.

Even to my untrained eye, that “slow clock” Girardi spoke about seems pretty obvious. Bird looks very comfortable and very in control at the plate. Lots of rookies come up and start hacking at everything because they so badly want to impress. It’s only natural. Bird has not done that at all. Look at his ninth inning walk last night. Lots of rookies would have come out of their shoes swinging at bad pitches trying to make something happen. Bird appears to be very relaxed at the plate and it shows in the strike zone plot of his swings (via FanGraphs):

Greg Bird swing heat map

In a nutshell, the brighter the red, the more often Bird has swung at pitches in that location in his brief MLB career. The brighter the blue, the less often he has swung at pitches in that location. Almost all of the red is out over the plate and almost all of the blue is outside the zone. It’s exactly what you want to see, though it rarely happens with a rookie.

In addition to his impressively disciplined approach, Bird has also stood out because he seems to hit the ball really, really hard. His average exit velocity is a healthy 93.2 mph, well above the 88.4 mph league average. Obviously Bird’s number comes in a very small sample, so take it with a grain of salt. Baseball Info Solutions data, which is recorded by human stringers, pegs his hard contact rate at 57.1%. The league average is 28.6%.

Bird has made lots of hard contact early on — I thought it was sorta funny that his first career hit was a dinky little ground ball with eyes after he watched some rockets find gloves in previous days — and the most impressive thing is that he’s consistently hitting the ball in the air. Just three of his 14 balls in play have been ground balls (21.4%). That’s it. This isn’t something new either. Here’s a snippet of Keith Law’s preseason scouting report (subs. req’d), when he ranked Bird as the 81st best prospect in baseball (emphasis mine):

Bird’s swing is very short to the ball, and he accelerates his hands quickly for hard contact to all fields, rarely putting the ball on the ground because he squares it up so frequently.

According to MLB Farm, Bird had a tiny 31.0% ground ball rate in the minors this year before being called up. Last year it was a 30.0% ground ball rate. That’s ridiculously low. The league average ground ball rate in the big leagues is 45.4%. It’s approximately 45% in the Triple-A International League, 44% in the Double-A Eastern League, and 47% in the High-A Florida State League. Bird has been way below the league average at each stop. He doesn’t hit the ball on the ground.

Generally speaking, fly balls are turned into outs more often than ground balls — fly balls have a .073 BABIP this year while grounders are at .243 — but they also go for extra base hits more often. That makes sense intuitively and the numbers back it up: fly balls have a .287 ISO this year while ground balls are at .020. (The only ground balls that go for extra bases are those hit down the line.) We also know the harder you hit the ball, the more likely it is to go for a hit (line drives have a .615 BABIP and .393 ISO!), so Bird’s combination of hard contact and not hitting grounders is one hell of a recipe for doing damage.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. Bird has been in the big leagues for a little more than a week now and that’s nothing. This could all be small sample size noise for all we know. The super early returns do match the scouting reports though, so that’s encouraging, and the combination of plate discipline and hitting the ball hard in the air sure is exciting. Most impressively, Bird looks like he belongs. He has looked very calm and in control at the plate. That’s stood out more than anything.

A-Rod’s Slump: Second half fade or a blip on the radar?

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Over the last 12 games, the Yankees are averaging just 2.83 runs scored — that includes last night’s eight-run outburst — which is down considerably from the pace they maintained in the first half of the season. The pitching staff has been great of late, they’re allowing just 3.33 runs per game during that 12-game stretch, but the lack of offense has led to a 5-7 record. A big part of the offensive problems is Alex Rodriguez‘s worst slump of the season.

“I felt like (expletive) today. I felt terrible,” said A-Rod to Brendan Kuty after going 0-for-3 with a walk and three strikeouts Sunday. “You know, you grind through it. Everyone is going to go through times like this. So it’s going to be good to have a change of scenery and get back home.”

A-Rod’s slump conveniently started right at the beginning of the month: he’s 7-for-53 (.132) with three doubles in August after ending July with a seven-game hitting streak, during which he went 11-for-27 (.407) with two doubles and four homers. This is also not the first time Alex has slumped his year — he went 5-for-37 (.135) during a ten-game span in April — but this slump is worth examining for more than a few reasons.

For starters, the Yankees have fallen in the standings the last two weeks or so primarily because of their offense. A-Rod, the No. 3 hitter, is a big reason why, and if he doesn’t start hitting soon, chances are the Yankees will continue to slide in the standings. Secondly, we’re deep into the season, and Alex is a 40-year-old with two surgically repaired hips who did not play last year. It’s not unreasonable to suggest he may be wearing down, though he did tell Kuty “I actually feel fine” when asked about fatigue the other day.

When Rodriguez first returned in Spring Training, what stood out most to me was his plate discipline and still excellent knowledge of the strike zone. There was no rust there. A-Rod swung at strikes and spit on pitches out of the zone. Over the weekend in Toronto and last night against the Twins, he did not do that. He swung at some bad pitches out of the zone and looked lost. Here are Alex’s swing tendencies this year:

O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact%
April thru July 25.2% 65.9% 53.8% 77.8%
August 22.7% 64.2% 56.7% 81.8%
AL Average 30.4% 63.9% 64.0% 87.3%

Okay, so that was a bit unexpected. I figured A-Rod’s swing rate on pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%) would be sky high during his August slump, but that’s not the case. He’s swung at fewer pitches out of the zone. We are talking about a small sample, however, so it’s entirely possible Alex was ultra-disciplined earlier in the month and has taken to hacking at everything the last few days, skewing the numbers.

A-Rod’s contact rates on pitches both in (Z-Contact%) and out (O-Contact%) of the strike zone have increased this month, so isn’t swinging and missing more often either. Rodriguez has always been a guy who’s swung and missed a bunch (he is fifth all-time in strikeouts, you know), so it wouldn’t have been a surprise if his slump featured more empty swings. That’s not the case, however.

More interesting is what’s happened when A-Rod has made contact during his slump. He’s struck out 15 times in 63 plate appearances this month, a 23.8% rate that is in line with his pre-August rate (21.1%). Alex has put 38 balls in play this month with only seven hits to show for it (.184 BABIP). I absolutely remember a few line drives finding gloves during the series in Cleveland and Toronto, but they were the exception, not the norm during this sump. The line drive outs stood out because they were so infrequent.

A low BABIP is not always bad luck. Rodriguez’s quality of contact has gone down during the slump. He simply hasn’t hit the ball as hard as he had the first four months of the season. Here are the numbers:

GB% FB% IFFB% Soft% Hard% Pull% Oppo%
April thru July 43.1% 36.9% 3.1% 10.4% 38.5% 46.2% 16.9%
August 47.4% 36.8% 28.6% 21.1% 23.7% 52.6% 10.5%
AL Average 44.5% 34.9% 10.0% 18.5% 28.2% 40.5% 24.7%

The infield pop-up rate jumps out at you. A-Rod rarely popped out earlier this season (league average is 11.1 IFFB%) but now nearly three out of every ten fly balls is going straight up in the air. (IFFB% is pop-ups per fly ball, not pop-ups per ball in play.) Pop-ups are BABIP killers. They’re as close to a sure out as you can get on a ball in play.

Rodriguez’s isn’t necessarily hitting more grounders or fly balls — a four percentage point increase in ground ball rate isn’t alarming, that’s the normal ebb and flow of baseball more than anything — but his hard and soft contact rates have gone in the wrong direction this month, further explaining the low BABIP. The harder you hit the ball, the more likely it is to fall in for a hit. The numbers haven shown that.

The decline in hard contact is just a symptom of the problem, however. There is something causing the lack in hard contact and figuring out what it is will take a miracle. Bad mechanics? Fatigue? Guessing wrong? We could come up with a million reasons. I’m no swing expert, so I couldn’t tell you is Rodriguez’s swing is out of whack. I can tell you opponents haven’t been pitching him any differently …

FB% SL% CB% CH%
April thru July 61.8% 18.4% 6.5% 9.6%
August 61.0% 12.1% 6.6% 9.8%
AL Average 63.6% 14.6% 7.5% 10.7%

… so it’s not like opponents have suddenly started burying him with breaking balls or throwing fastballs by him. (The lower slider rate coincides with an increase in knuckleball rate. A-Rod has seen 7.8% knuckleballs this month thanks to R.A. Dickey and Steven Wright. Good reminder we’re talking about a small sample here.) Alex has seen the same basic pitch mix during the slump as he did when he was raking earlier this year.

From the looks of things, it appears A-Rod’s slump may be a timing issue. He is not swinging at more pitches, but he is making more contact, and the contact he has made hasn’t been as hard as before. The huge spike in pop-up rate is a classic indicator that timing is an issue — those pop-ups are just a millisecond from being a fly ball or line drive. Rodriguez has always had a low pop-up rate. That it suddenly spiked like this suggests he’s juuust missing. The timing isn’t right.

That could be good news is bad news. Is A-Rod’s timing off simply because hitters tend to lose their timing at various points through a 162-game season? Or is he starting to get worn down and his bat is slowing as a result? I don’t know. Alex might not even know. That’s not a satisfying answer but it’s better than pretending I do know the answer when I really don’t. His approach has been fine, he’s not chasing stuff off the plate, so that’s encouraging. It would be much more worrisome if Rodriguez had started hacking at everything.

We’re in uncharted territory with A-Rod because of his age, his hips, his suspension … everything, really. We came into the season not knowing what to expect, he exceeded even the most optimistic of projections for the first four months of the year, and is now in his worst slump of the season. Regardless of whether this is a late season fade due to fatigue and age, or simply a normal slump, the offense has taken a big hit with Alex’s lack of production.