The Yankees could use a 2005-esque shake-up, but they don’t have a lot of options

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Eleven years ago the Yankees had a truly miserable start to their season. They opened the 2005 season by losing 19 of their first 30 games and falling nine games back in the AL East. Nine back after 30 games! Needless to say, fans were pretty uneasy because that slow start followed the 2004 ALCS collapse. It was not a good time around these parts. No siree.

The 2005 Yankees rebounded of course, winning 84 of 132 games following the 11-19 start. Two reasons they turned it around were a pair of early-May call-ups: Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang. The Yankees shook things up and were rewarded when Cano and Wang had an immediate impact. Robbie hit .297/.320/.458 (105 wRC+) in 132 games and Wang had a 4.02 ERA (4.20 FIP) in 116.1 innings. They gave the team a real shot in the arm.

Getting Wang into the rotation was pretty easy because Jaret Wright got hurt. (Remember when Wright failed his physical and George Steinbrenner signed him anyway because he thought it would lure Leo Mazzone to New York? Good times.) Getting Cano into the lineup took more creativity. The Yankees moved Tony Womack to left field, Hideki Matsui to center field, and basically benched Bernie Williams, who was nearing the end of the line.

The 2016 Yankees, like the 2005 team, have gotten off to a terrible start. They’re 8-15 overall and have lost 13 of their last 17 games. The AL East is much more competitive these days too. Back in 2005 it was the Yankees, the Red Sox, and a bunch of pushovers. Erasing that nine-game deficit was much easier. The current Yankees are six games back in the division with four good teams ahead of them. It’ll be an uphill climb, that’s for sure.

Given their sluggish start and the fact the Yankees have underachieved on both sides of the ball in the early going — the offense has been far worse than the pitching, but the rotation hasn’t been all that good either — the team could use an early-May shake-up like the one the 2005 team received. The problem? The Yankees don’t have a Cano and/or Wang waiting in Triple-A. There’s not much depth at the positions of obvious need. Here are some shake-up ideas.

Give A Young Outfielder Regular Playing Time

If there’s one thing the Yankees have in Triple-A, it’s outfield depth. Both Ben Gamel (136 wRC+) and Aaron Judge (125 wRC+) are off to nice starts, though Slade Heathcott (41 wRC+) has mostly struggled. The Yankees also have Aaron Hicks at the big league level, though he hasn’t played much for a variety of reasons. (Hicks may not seem young, but he’s only a year older than Heathcott.)

Brett Gardner (110 wRC+) has been one of New York’s most productive hitters in the early going. Jacoby Ellsbury (85 wRC+) and Carlos Beltran (91 wRC+) have not. Beltran has really struggled of late. He has a 16 wRC+ over the last two weeks. Yikes. Sitting Ellsbury and/or Beltran more often in favor of Hicks or Gamel or Judge or whoever is one way to change the lineup and get some young legs on the field.

I think the best way to go about this is to use a regular rotation that also includes Alex Rodriguez and the DH spot. Something like this, perhaps:

LF CF RF DH
Game One Gardner Ellsbury Beltran A-Rod
Game Two Gardner Ellsbury Young OF A-Rod
Game Three Gardner Young OF Beltran A-Rod
Game Four Gardner Ellsbury Young OF Beltran
Game Five Gardner Ellsbury Young OF A-Rod

Ellsbury, A-Rod, and the young outfielder would be playing four out of every five games while Beltran is reduced to playing three times out of every five games, with only two of three starts coming in the outfield. Gardner stays in there full-time because, you know, he’s actually been good this year. The Yankees reduced Bernie’s playing time in 2005 and it’s time to start thinking about doing the same with Beltran.

Calling up Gamel or Judge or Heathcott requires a roster move and cutting someone else loose, and it’s a little too early for that, I think. I’d start by playing Hicks more often. No, he hasn’t hit in the early going (-47 wRC+!), but it’s 28 plate appearances in 23 games. This is a guy who hit .256/.323/.398 (97 wRC+) with eleven homers and 13 steals last year, and we’ve already seen the kind of impact he can have at defense.

Hicks is not going to get his bat going while sitting on the bench. He’s been an everyday player his entire career. This bench thing is new to him. With two of three starting outfielders not really hitting and the team reeling, it’s time to see what Hicks can do with regular at-bats. The Yankees need to figure out what they have in him.

Stick Headley On The Bench

I’ve defended Headley as much as anyone but I can’t do it any longer. He’s been atrocious this year, hitting .156/.267/.156 (24 wRC+) with nary an extra-base hit in 75 plate appearances. As Jared Diamond pointed out yesterday, Headley is only the 13th player in history to start May with a sub-.150 slugging percentage in at least 70 plate appearances. That’s brutal.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

I don’t care how good a player is on defense — Headley has rebounded quite well in the field after last year’s error-fest — there is a minimum acceptable standard on offense and Headley is not meeting it. The Yankees can talk all they want about the quality of his at-bats or how close they think he is to snapping out of it. The bottom line is this is a results oriented business and Headley’s results have been dreadful one month into the season.

The problem at third base is the Yankees don’t have an obvious replacement. Womack stunk back in 2005 and Cano was the obvious candidate to take over. Who can replace Headley at third? Ronald Torreyes? Moving players with bench player skill sets into a full-time role usually turns out poorly. Rob Refsnyder? Pete Kozma? Donovan Solano? Solano is hitting .312/.341/.351 (100 wRC+) in Triple-A, you know.

Since no obvious replacement exists, I’d go with the highest upside candidate: Refsnyder. He’s new to third base — he’s played 153.1 career innings at the hot corner between Spring Training and Triple-A — and his defense is rough, but he might actually hit. Stick him at third, get three at-bats out of him, then pull for defense in the sixth-ish inning. When you hit as poorly as Headley has, you losing playing time. That’s the way it should work.

(Yes, I know Refsnyder hasn’t hit much in Triple-A this year. I’m not too concerned about that though. It’s been cold in Scranton and he’s spent a lot of time learning a new position. As long as he’s healthy, I think he’ll be fine.)

Play Ackley or Swisher?

One the biggest reasons the Yankees scored the second most runs in baseball last year were bounceback seasons from A-Rod and Mark Teixeira. A-Rod was suspended for the entire 2014 season and no one knew what to expect from him in 2015. Teixeira was terrible in the second half of 2014. He hit .179/.271/.302 (63 wRC+) with only five homers after the All-Star break that year.

Dustin Ackley hasn’t played a whole lot this year (18 plate appearances!) because it’s tough to get him into the lineup. He’s stuck in the same role as Garrett Jones last year. Teixeira and A-Rod are not doing much damage right now — Rodriguez has looked much better of late, to be fair — and giving Ackley some of their at-bats could spark the offense. This would complicate the outfield plan outlined above. That’s not worth worrying about right now.

The alternative here would be Nick Swisher, who owns a .340/.370/.540 (167 wRC+) batting line with three homers down in Triple-A. I can’t say I put much stock in a 12-year veteran mashing minor league pitching though. Swisher has two bad knees and he’s hit .204/.291/.326 (75 wRC+) in the big leagues the last two years. Call him up and I suspect you’ll get closer to 2014-15 MLB Swisher than 2016 Triple-A Swisher.

This is where Greg Bird‘s injury really hurts. Calling up Bird to take at-bats away from Teixeira and A-Rod would be far more realistic and, likely, far more successful than the Ackley/Swisher plan. With those two you’re just hoping small sample size success translates to long-term success. Ackley was terrible all those years with the Mariners before raking in pinstripes in September. Swisher was bad from 2014-15 and has had a few good weeks in Triple-A. That’s all it is.

The Yankees have had some success turning veterans who looked washed up into useful players (see Chavez, Eric), so we shouldn’t completely write off Swisher as a possibility. Either way, Ackley or Swisher, taking at-bats away from A-Rod or Teixeira is one potential way to inject some life into the offense. For what it’s worth, I think this is the least likely suggestion in this post.

* * *

I’m not sure what the Yankees could do to shake-up the pitching staff other than maybe swap out some relievers. I guess they could replace Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, or Luis Severino with Ivan Nova. My guess is Nova’s going to end up making a bunch of starts at some point anyway. Point is, the Yankees have reached the point where some kind of change needs to be made. The problem is they don’t have a lot of internal options. What you see is what you’re going to get with this team.

Are the Yankees being too passive at the plate?

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

It seems one of the biggest universal pet peeves in baseball is swinging at the first pitch when the pitcher is struggling to throw strikes. In the second inning two nights ago the Yankees had runners at first and second with no outs after Martin Perez walked Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, then Brian McCann swung at the first pitch and grounded into a double play. That took the wind out of everyone’s sails.

As fans, seeing McCann swing at the first pitch in that spot was frustrating, but players will tell you the first pitch might be the best one to hit in those situations. The pitcher doesn’t want to fall behind in the count again, so they lay a first pitch fastball in the zone, figuring the hitter might take it. They try to steal a strike when they’re struggling to locate. Unfortunately McCann hit into the double play and that was that.

The Yankees have struggled to score runs this season, and following Wednesday’s game I noted 12 of the 34 men they sent to the plate saw two pitches or less. They were swinging early and often that night. On the season though, only one team has swung less often than the Yankees. The Yankees have a 42.3% swing rate in 2016. The Brewers are at 41.4% and the MLB average is 45.6%. Let’s break it down a little further.

Z-Swing% Z-Contact% O-Swing% O-Contact%
Yankees 58.9% 91.4% 27.2% 62.7%
MLB AVG 63.4% 85.8% 29.3% 61.9%
NYY MLB Rank 30th 1st 6th 14th

Do you see what’s going on there? The Yankees have the highest contact rate in baseball on pitches in the strike zone (Z-Contact%), but they also swing at those pitches (Z-Swing%) less than any other team. They also don’t swing at many pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%). This is good! You want your players to a) make contact when they swing, and b) not chase stuff off the plate.

But dead last in swing rate on pitches in the zone? Those are the pitches you’re supposed to swing at. Last season the Yankees swung at 62.6% of the pitches they saw in the zone with largely the same lineup. The only difference is Starlin Castro instead of Stephen Drew. The Yankees were still a bottom five team in Z-Swing% last year — they were also top three with an 88.8 Z-Contact% — but the gap between 2015 and 2016 is pretty substantial.

The obvious caveat: it’s still early and this stuff can change in a hurry. (For what it’s worth, swing and contact rates do stabilize fairly quickly.) That said, I do wonder if the Yankees are perhaps being a bit too passive as a team, and are letting hittable pitches go by on occasion. Let’s look at some individual players really quick:

2015 Z-Swing% 2016 Z-Swing% Change from 2015-16
Mark Teixeira 65.8% 56.3% -9.5%
Brett Gardner 52.8% 44.0% -8.8%
Chase Headley 61.6% 54.5% -7.1%
Alex Rodriguez 66.6% 62.2% -4.4%
Jacoby Ellsbury 64.5% 60.7% -3.8%
Carlos Beltran 64.3% 61.0% -3.3%
Starlin Castro 64.9% 63.6% -1.3%
Brian McCann 56.5% 55.5% -1.0%
Didi Gregorius 71.7% 71.7% 0.0%

Every single player in the starting lineup except Gregorius is swinging at fewer pitches in the zone this season than they did a year ago. Most of them are swinging at considerably fewer pitches too. We’re talking a difference of three percentage points or more for most guys.

Now, again, the 2016 season is only 20 games old, and weird stuff happens in samples of 20 games. But the entire team has a lower Z-Swing%, so I wonder if that has something to do with the new hitting coaches. The Yankees replaced Kevin Long with the Jeff Pentland/Alan Cockrell tandem last year, then replaced Pentland/Cockrell with Cockrell/Marcus Thames this year. Cockrell was promoted to the main hitting coach to replace Pentland with Thames taking over as his assistant.

Is it possible for a new hitting coach(es) to instill a philosophy like “swing less?” I suppose so, but the Yankees are a pretty veteran team. These guys know what they’re doing at the plate. And even if the new coaches did preach swing less, what’s to be gained? A few more walks? Believe me, I know how important on-base percentage is, but the goal first and foremost is to get a hit, and letting hittable pitches go by is no way to do that.

The Yankees have the highest Z-Contact% and the lowest Z-Swing% in baseball, so it’s easy to say they should simply swing more often and the offense will come. I don’t think it’s quite that simple though. If they start swinging for the sake of swinging, their Z-Contact% rate is going to come down in a hurry. You want to swing at pitches in the strike zone but not necessarily every pitch in the strike zone.

I don’t have an answer to the question in the title. I’m inclined to say this is all small sample size noise and eventually the team’s Z-Swing% will climb upwards. I do think it’s fair to wonder whether the Yankees are taking too many hittable pitches. The players know they’re struggling to score, they feel the pressure, and sometimes you can overthink things and let good pitches go by. They’re not going to walk their way out of this slump though. A few more swings on pitches in the zone can’t hurt.

Yankeemetrics: It’s getting late early [April 25-27]

Nasty Nate (Tim Heitman/USA Today Sports Images)
Nasty Nate (Tim Heitman/USA Today Sports Images)

Near No-No Nate
Nathan Eovaldi‘s chance to make history fell just short on Monday night, but he still established a new level of pitching dominance for Yankee starters this season and helped the team start its road trip with a 3-1 win over the Rangers.

Eovaldi dominated the Rangers lineup, holding them hitless through six innings until Nomar Mazara led off the top of the seventh with a single. He finished with a stellar line of seven-plus innings, no runs, two hits, six strikeouts and one walk, becoming the lone Yankee starter to produce a scoreless outing in 2016. His Game Score of 77 also set a new benchmark for the rotation.

He consistently got ahead in the count, and while pitching with the advantage, was able to get hitters to chase his diving splitter out of the zone. The Rangers went 0-for-12 in at-bats ending in his split-fingered fastball; six of those outs were swinging strikeouts, and five were harmless grounders. His command of his slider was just as impressive: he threw 19 of them, 17 for strikes, and none resulted in a hit.

Although Eovaldi missed out on etching his name in the record books, he did put himself on a couple lists with some pretty good names. The last Yankee to throw at least seven shutout innings while giving up no more than two hits against the Rangers in Texas was Ron Guidry (1980). It was also his eighth straight game with at least six strikeouts, the longest streak by a Yankee right-hander since Roger Clemens in 2001.

From best to worst
One day after Eovaldi spun a gem, Luis Severino produced the exact opposite – a terrible performance in which he was pummeled by the Rangers’ bats and allowed twice as many runs (six) as innings pitched (three). Severino’s Game Score of 20 was the worst for any Yankee starter this season, and it was also the shortest outing for any pinstriped starter.

The Rangers ultimately cruised to a 10-1 victory, handing the Yankees their worst loss in Arlington since a 13-3 beating on August 21, 2001.

The most frustrating part was that numerous times the Yankees seemed thisclose to escaping an inning with no harm done, but were stung by several crushing two-out hits. Nine of the 10 runs allowed by the Yankees came with two outs, continuing a troubling trend for the team.

After Tuesday’s disaster, they had surrendered 49 two-out runs, by far the most of any AL team (the Tigers were second with 39), and the Yankees easily led the league in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS allowed with two outs.

Dead Bats Society
Following their 3-2 loss on Wednesday night, there are few words left to describe the magnitude of the Yankees’ near-historic offensive struggles this season, so let’s just recap with some facts (because numbers never lie):

• Yankees have scored 72 runs, their fewest thru 20 games since 1990. And that season ended … um, not good.
• They’ve tallied two runs or fewer in 10 of 20 games, the most for any Yankee team this early into the season since 1966. Yuck.
• Yankees are the only major-league team this season that’s scored two-or-fewer runs in at least half of their games. Disgusting.
• They’ve scored three runs or fewer 15 times this season. Over the last 100 years, no other Yankee club has ever done that more times in the team’s first 20 games. Ugh.
• Since their game in Detroit was postponed on April 10, the Yankees have played 15 games and scored more than four runs just once. Gross.

On a more positive note, A-Rod returned from his oblique injury and produced his best game of the season, going 3-for-3 with a homer, double and single. It was his 543rd career double, tying Tony Gwynn for 32nd place all-time. Next up on the list is The Captain, Derek Jeter, with 544. A-Rod also scored his 1,000th run as a Yankee, the 12th player in franchise history to reach that milestone, and is one of nine players to total at least 1,000 runs and 1,000 RBIs in pinstripes. The other guys? Mattingly, Bernie, Jeter, Yogi, Mantle, DiMaggio, Ruth and Gehrig.

Headley must start hitting the ball in the air more often to get out of his slump

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Last night the Yankees played their 19th game of the season, moving their record to 8-11. They’re now 11.7% of the way through their schedule, so while it’s still early, it’s not that early anymore. Outlier performances are being corrected and stats are starting to look a little more normal. No one is hitting .400+ with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title anymore. That sort of thing.

Through those 19 team games, Chase Headley has been one of the worst hitters in baseball and the worst hitter in the Yankees’ everyday lineup. He is hitting .157/.290/.157 (36 wRC+) in 62 plate appearances, which places him 191st out of the 196 qualified hitters in wRC+. Those 62 plate appearances are the most by any player with zero extra-base hits. (Kolton Wong is the only other player over 50 plate appearances with zero extra-base hits.)

“I haven’t had a problem with his at-bats … He’s taking his walks. He’s been patient. I don’t think he’s really left the zone a whole lot. He’s just not getting a lot of hits, and that will change. If you’re putting up good at-bats, things are going to change. So for him, they’ll start to turnaround,” said Joe Girardi to Brendan Kuty last week, and he’s right in the sense that Headley has been patient. His 16.1% walk rate is 16th highest among those 196 qualified hitters.

The walks are the only thing saving Headley at the plate right now. When he has actually swung the bat, very little has happened. His 25.6% hard contact rate is well below the 30.1% league average, and five of his eight hits have been ground balls through the infield. That’s bad. Headley’s plate discipline has been fine. He’s swinging at the right pitches and all that. But when he makes contact, nothing is happening.

“For me, just trying to find something that allows me to get into the air a little bit,” said Headley to Kuty. “I’ve hit a lot of balls hard this year that, if you hit balls on the ground, there’s a lot more of a chance they’re going to catch them. So for me to be who I think I can be, I need to get the ball in the air. (I’m) just working on some things to try to do that mechanically, put myself in a good position to stay behind the ball a little bit and hopefully that will happen.”

Headley is right in that he needs to get the ball in the air to be productive, that is true of everyone, but his overall 43.6% ground ball rate is right in line with his career average (44.6%). That said, Headley is a switch-hitter and that complicates things. He has two different swings and that means twice as much stuff can go wrong. Here are some real quick ball-in-play splits:

GB% as RHB Hard% as RHB GB% as LHB Hard% as LHB
2013 41.0% 41.0% 48.1% 32.1%
2014 37.1% 41.6% 42.2% 33.0%
2015 47.3% 26.7% 40.7% 28.4%
2016 21.1% 26.3% 65.0% (!) 25.0%

It goes without saying the sample size for 2016 is still very small. Headley has had 32 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers and 30 against lefties, so yeah. In that very limited sample Headley has hit a ton of fly balls against lefties and a ton of ground balls against righties. That’s … interesting. His hard contact rate is similar, but the ball has come off his bat in different directions from each side of the plate.

Headley’s numbers are better as a lefty (84 wRC+) than as a righty (-15 wRC+) so far, but I’m not going to put too much stock into that at this point. More importantly, if Headley keeps hitting 65.0% grounders as a left-handed batter, he’s not going to do much better than an 84 wRC+. He’s got to get the ball in the air at some point, especially in Yankee Stadium. And at the same time, if he keeps lifting the ball as a righty, that -15 wRC+ will come up eventually.

Through 19 games it appears Headley has corrected whatever issues he had defensively last season. His throws has been fine — he made one error but that’s no big deal, most players have made an error at this point — and he’s shown off good range too. Defense was always a huge part of Headley’s value and now he has that back. Even though he’s not hitting, he can contribute in the field and save runs.

Now Headley has to figure out how to get his bat back on track, and he has to do it soon, because the Yankees have zero alternatives at third base. Ronald Torreyes is the type of player who will get exposed quickly with regular playing time, Rob Refsnyder isn’t hitting in Triple-A (46 wRC+), and none of the other minor league infielders (Pete Kozma, Donovan Solano, etc.) are appealing. It’s too early to start thinking trade too.

Like it or not, the Yankees are stuck with Headley for the time being. I’ve been saying I think his offense will be fine, mostly because I can’t imagine his .205 BABIP will last all year, but at some point Headley has to, you know, hit. April is coming to an end soon. It’s time to get it going. Headley has to start getting the ball in the air more often as a left-handed hitter. That’s priority No. 1 right now. Do that and things will start to fall into place.

Some calm and collected thoughts about the struggling Yankees’ offense

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees lost for the sixth time in seven games last night, and in all six losses, the team scored no more than two runs. They again blew scoring opportunities and went 1-for-whatever with runners in scoring position Wednesday night. The Yankees are struggling in a bad way right now. It would be easy to go on a bumbling tirade against the offense — I’ve done my fair share of that over the years — but let’s not do that. Let’s talk about this offensive malaise in a calm and rational way, because we’re adults. (Well, most of you are.)

1. Joe Girardi is the type of manager who stands up for his players through thick and thin, but even he had to call out Didi Gregorius for his base-running blunder in the seventh inning last night. It was that egregious. “It’s bad base-running. You’ve got to understand what your run means … That’s a blunder we have to take care of,” said Girardi after the game. Gregorius had the entire play in front of him and he still didn’t stop to make sure he wasn’t tagged out. That’s Baseball 101. Every team is going to go into an offensive funk at some point(s) throughout the season, that’s just the way the games goes. But when you start adding bad mental mistakes on top of it, things get ugly. That was a bad, bad play by Gregorius. It’s the kind of play that earns someone a spot on the bench for a day or two.

2. Given the way the Yankees are built — and the way every team is built, really — their offense starts at the top of the lineup, and right now Jacoby Ellsbury is hurting the club. He did have the double and yet another catcher’s interference last night, but through 51 plate appearances this season, Ellsbury is hitting .220/.264/.320 (63 wRC+) with three walks. He’s currently in a 1-for-15 slump. The Yankees are going to give Ellsbury an awfully long leash thanks to his contract, so I don’t expect him to be moved down in the lineup anytime soon. Maybe Ellsbury and Brett Gardner will flip flop and in the one-two spots or something, but hitting Ellsbury seventh or eighth? Not happening. Ellsbury has a history of getting hurt and staying hurt in a way that impacts his performance for weeks or months — that’s exactly what happened with last year’s knee injury — so I can’t help but think back to that pitch he took to the wrist in Spring Training. Either way, Ellsbury is part of the problem right now. A big part of it.

3. This to me is the is the single biggest reason the offense has sputtered so much recently. Here are numbers since the start of the homestand:

Mark Teixeira: 1-for-15 (.067)
Brian McCann: 1-for-16 (.063)

Teixeira’s slump actually dates back to the Detroit series (3-for-30), though, to be fair, he is still drawing a ton of walks and providing value that way. Teixeira and McCann are not high average hitters, but they do hit the ball out of the park, and right now they’re not doing that. They’re not hitting much of anything. Gardner and Carlos Beltran are the Yankees’ two hottest hitters — they have a combined .463 OBP on the homestand — so they’re putting the team in position to score. The two guys hitting behind them are slumping bad and those opportunities created by Gardner and Beltran are being wasted. That’s why those two have scored six total runs on the homestand despite that .463 OBP, and three of those six runs have come on their own home runs. Getting Teixeira and McCann going is Priority No. 1 in my opinion. They are the keys to turning this mess around.

4. The Aaron Hicks Hate Train seems to be up and running already. The guy has 21 plate appearances in 13 games and eight of them have come the last two nights. The Yankees took a player who is used to playing every day and made him into a bench player, and that can be a tough adjustment. It looks to me like Hicks is pressing and trying to do anything he can to impress during his limited playing time. He saw four pitches in three at-bats last night. This is a guy with a 10.0% walk rate in the big leagues and a 14.4% career walk rate in the minors. Hicks is making more of an effort to be aggressive and swing at pitches in the strike zone, but I doubt he wants to be this aggressive. He’s jumping at everything. That’s not his game. The Yankees are going to see a lot of left-handed starters over the next week — my guess is either Gardner sits against Rich Hill tonight if his neck is still stiff, or Alex Rodriguez sits and Beltran slots in at DH — and hopefully that allows Hicks to settle in and feel more comfortable. He has a new role with a new team in a new city. No wonder why he’s started slow.

5. The bottom of the lineup has been pretty abysmal of late. Chase Headley has had a rotten start to the season with the bat — he’s one of only five players with at least 40 plate appearances and zero extra base hits — and his only saving grace right now is his batting eye. He’s drawn eight walks and has a .333 OBP — he didn’t draw his eighth walk until Game 32 last year — which is fourth highest on the team, believe it or not. But still, walking only gets you so far. Eventually Headley is going to have to do something more than push a ground ball single through the infield. Gregorius had two hits including a homer last night to snap a 3-for-25 (.150) slide and Starlin Castro has quietly gone 7-for-38 (.184) since the end of the Astros series. That’s not a lot of production from the bottom of the lineup. No one expects those guys to carry the team offensively, but they do have to provide support, and it’s hasn’t happened of late. When your fourth and fifth hitters slump like Teixeira and McCann have, you look for others to pick up the slack, and the bottom third of the lineup ain’t doing it.

6. I don’t see any potential quick fix for the offense. I suppose Girardi could shake up the lineup, but even if he does that, what lineup should he use? Bat Gardner and Beltran first and second, then make them go up to the plate in the three through nine spots wearing everyone else’s jersey? The Yankees are not a true talent .189 hitting team with runners in scoring position because I don’t think any lineup in baseball history is a true talent .189 hitting team in any situation. At some point Ellsbury will go on one of his insane hot streaks, and at some point Teixeira and McCann will hit a baseball out of the park. It’s going to happen. How soon? Soon, hopefully. Right now the best (only?) thing the Yankees can do is stay the course, clean up the sloppy mistakes like Didi’s base-running blunder last night, and wait for their good at baseball players to start being good at baseball again.

The Yankees are about to learn a lot about their ability to hit left-handed pitching

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

Late last season, when the Yankees were struggling to get much going offensively, they were shut down by left-handed starters seemingly every other night. As a team they hit .248/.320/.345 with only eight homers in 470 plate appearances against southpaws last September. They dropped nine of 13 games when the opposing starter was a lefty in that final month.

“I think we struggled against left-handers,” said Joe Girardi after the wildcard game loss to Dallas Keuchel and the Astros. “We lost a big bat (in Mark Teixeira), and he was one of the guys we counted on to do a lot of damage to left-handers. And Greg Bird had one of our hits tonight and had a tremendous season for us, but we struggled against left-handers.”

So far this season the Yankees are 0-3 when facing an left-handed starter. They replaced Chris Young with Aaron Hicks and the lefty hitting Stephen Drew with the righty hitting Starlin Castro (you could argue Castro replaced the righty hitting Rob Refsnyder), but so far the team owns a .226/.320/.321 (86 OPS+) batting line against southpaws. The struggles of late 2015 have carried over into early 2016.

Of course, we’re talking about a sample of three games here, so you can’t make too much of this. The Yankees are about to begin a stretch that will tell us much more about their ability to hit southpaws though. Based on the upcoming schedule and pitching probables, the club has just started a stretch in which they will face six left-handed opposing starters in nine games. Here’s the list:

Tuesday, April 19th: LHP Eric Surkamp (loss)
Wednesday, April 20th: RHP Kendall Graveman
Thursday, April 21st: LHP Rich Hill
Friday, April 22nd: RHP Erasmo Ramirez
Saturday, April 23rd: LHP Matt Moore
Sunday, April 24th: LHP Drew Smyly
Monday, April 25th: LHP Cole Hamels
Tuesday, April 26th: RHP A.J. Griffin
Wednesday, April 27th: LHP Martin Perez

Obvious caveat: the upcoming starters may change for a variety of reasons. The further out you go, the more likely it is the opposing starter changes. We’re looking at a nine-day span here — we’re on day two already — so we aren’t looking that far ahead, but yeah, things can change. As always, pitching probables are just that. Probables.

With five lefties coming in the next eight games, Hicks is going to see a lot of playing time and for good reason. He’s a career .258/.347/.425 (139 OPS+) hitter against lefties. Hitting lefties is why the Yankees went out and got him. Well, that’s not true. The Yankees hope he develops into an everyday player at some point. At a bare minimum, they want Hicks to mash southpaws. They’ll be able to get him in the lineup consistently this next week or so, something they’ve been unable to do yet this year.

“We’re going to see a lot of lefties in the next nine or ten days,” said Girardi to Chad Jennings prior to last night’s game. “So Hicksie’s probably going to get a lot of at-bats because he’s been so good against left-handers in his career. It’s a day to keep those guys fresh and to keep him involved. I think he’s important to this team, especially against the left-handers.”

Castro didn’t hit lefties much last year (80 OPS+) — he didn’t hit anyone last year — but he is 3-for-11 (.273) with three doubles against southpaws in the early going. Even if he was 0-for-11, he would still be in the starting lineup every time the Yankees face a lefty this season. He batting second last night, after all. I supposed we could see the right-handed hitting Ronald Torreyes at some point, maybe to give Didi Gregorius a breather, but that’s about as far as lineup changes go.

More than anything, the Yankees need the regulars to step up and produce if they want to right the ship against left-handers. Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Alex Rodriguez, Teixeira … those guys. They have to carry the offense regardless of whether there’s a righty or lefty on the mound. It hasn’t happened these last six games overall but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen going forward.

These next nine games will be a good litmus test for the offense’s ability to handle left-handed pitchers. They can’t be as vulnerable against southpaws as they were late last year. Not if they want to stay in the race and possibly return to the postseason. Castro and Hicks figure to help to some extent. Bottom line, it’s up to the regulars to lead the way.

Even at age 40, it’s too early to worry about A-Rod’s slow start

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Following last night’s 0-fer, Alex Rodriguez is now 3-for-22 (.136) on the young season. He did hit a home run against the Tigers over the weekend, though he’s also struck out eight times. A-Rod was pretty great last season. But when a 40-year-old with two surgically repaired hips starts slow, there’s going to be concern it’s more than a slump. That’s just the way it is.

The very first thing I look at when an older player slumps is the quality of his at-bats. A few years back, when Derek Jeter was nearing the finish line, he was clearly cheating fastball and jumping on anything near the hitting zone early in the count. Same with Ichiro Suzuki. The quality of their at-bats suffered because their reaction time wasn’t the same, so they had to speed up their bats and sit on the heater. They were at a disadvantage.

Anecdotally, A-Rod’s at-bats have seemed fine so far this season. It’s tough to explain what exactly constitutes a “quality at-bat,” but you know one when you see it. Hitters swing at strikes, spit on pitcher’s pitchers, that sort of thing. Here are some numbers to help put some of this into context:

2015 Walk Rate: 13.5%
2016 Walk Rate: 15.4% (11.1% career, 8.7% MLB average)

2015 Chase Rate: 25.1%
2016 Chase Rate: 27.7% (25.7% career, 29.9% MLB average)

I’ve felt Rodriguez has been doing a good job laying off pitches out of the zone this first week and a half of the season, and it’s good to see the numbers confirm what my eyes are telling me. His plate discipline numbers are right in line with last year and his career averages. He’s not jumping at the plate and chasing out of the zone.

Also, A-Rod is still hitting the ball hard. Wednesday night is a pretty good example of how the batting line can be deceiving right now. Rod went 0-for-4 but hit the ball hard three times: twice to the right fielder and once to the second baseman. Good contact but he hit it to the wrong spot. It happens. That’s baseball.

Baseball Info Solutions has A-Rod’s hard contact rate at 28.6% right now, which almost exactly matches the league average (28.7%). His soft contact rate is 0.0%. Literally zero. BIS says Alex has yet to make weak contact in 2016. Statcast has his average exit velocity at 95.9 mph. Last year it was 92.1 mph. His line drive and fly ball rates are 35.7% and 42.9%, so he’s getting the ball in the air too. I’m going to put this in the very simplest of terms: Alex hit ball good. That’s as basic as you’re going to get. His contact has been loud so far.

Of course it’s still early in the season and all of this can change in an instant. Right now we’re just looking for scary signs. Some sort of evidence Rodriguez’s game is slipping. And, really, you don’t have to look too hard to find it: his contact rate is 68.8% on pitches in the zone and 62.0% overall. Last year it was 77.7% and 70.2%, respectively. The league averages are 85.0% and 76.8%. That’s the red flag to watch.

Alex is a DH and a DH only at this point, so if he doesn’t hit, he’s pretty useless. Unlike last year, when he came out of the gate on fire, he’s started a bit slow this season. If Joe Girardi wants to drop A-Rod in the order — flipping him and Carlos Beltran seems like the obvious move — I say go for it. It’s an easy enough move to make and I can’t imagine anyone would have a problem with that. He dropped him in the order late last year, remember.

Otherwise I think it’s too early to worry about Alex. His contact rate is down, but he’s swinging at the pitches he’s supposed to swing at, and his contact has been solid. I’d be more concerned if A-Rod wasn’t driving the ball and wasn’t showing any kind of feel for the strike zone. Beltran was a disaster last April and the Yankees were rewarded for their patience with him. They’d be smart to remain patient with A-Rod now.