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.

End of offensive slump has to start at the top of the lineup

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

By know you know the numbers. The Yankees were held to one run during their three-game series against the Blue Jays — that run was scored on a cheap Yankee Stadium homer too — leading to back-to-back shutouts on Saturday and Sunday. They were held to three singles in each of those two games. It was ugly. The offense scored 90 runs in ten games and then four runs in their next five games. Baseball, man.

The slump won’t last forever, we all know that, but the Yankees need it to end sooner rather than later to hold off the Blue Jays. The entire team stunk at the plate over the weekend, you can’t really point your finger at one or two culprits, but it’s clear who the Yankees need to get going the most: Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner. We saw it earlier this year. Those two are game-changers atop the lineup.

The numbers are not pretty. Ellsbury went 0-for-12 with a walk in the series against the Blue Jays while Gardner went 2-for-8 (.250) with a walk. (Gardner sat in favor of Chris Young against David Price.) You’re usually not going to score many runs when the top two hitters in your lineup combine to reach base four times in a three-game series. The numbers since the All-Star break aren’t much better.

Ellsbury: .170/.216/.330 (43 wRC+) with 22.2 K% and 5.1 BB% in 99 plate appearances
Gardner: .206/.329/.265 (74 wRC+) with 20.2 K% and 13.1 BB% in 84 plate appearances

That’s a combined 183 plate appearances of gross from the two table-setters in the second half. Ellsbury and Gardner haven’t even attempted a stolen base since the break — that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is notable — and even with Gardner’s nice walk rate, No. 3 hitter Alex Rodriguez has batted with a runner on base in just 34 of his 92 plate appearances in the second half, or 37%. It was 167 of 348 in the first half (48%). The AL average this year is 42%.

Gardner has a history of performing better in the first half — he’s a career .283/.360/.421 (116 wRC+) hitter before the All-Star break and .242/.332/.359 (91 wRC+) after — though his second half performance this year is more of slump than a “this guy really sucks in the second half” thing. The chances of him hitting .206 with a .265 SLG the rest of the way are pretty damn small. Yes, he is a better hitter in the first half, and no, his performance these last few weeks is not his true talent level.

Ellsbury’s second half performance is a little more concerning just because he’s hasn’t really hit since coming back from his knee injury. It’s more of a “he hasn’t hit since coming off the DL” thing as opposed to a “he hasn’t hit in the second half” thing. The All-Star break is a convenient reference point but it is pretty arbitrary. Coming back from an injury isn’t really arbitrary. We’re talk about a player being physically compromised. Gardner’s been bad since the All-Star break. Ellsbury’s been bad since coming off the DL. There’s a difference.

It’s impossible to know whether the knee injury is having an impact on Ellsbury right now. It could just be a slump! Who knows? Ellsbury is not necessarily injury prone, but he does have a history of getting hurt and staying hurt longer than expected. Perhaps the knee injury is lingering and hurting him at the plate. It might even be a mental thing. The knee is healthy but he’s changed his hitting mechanics to protect it. Something like that. It happens all the time, often subconsciously.

If the knee is behind Ellsbury’s slump, well that could be either good or bad depending on how you want to look at it. It would be good in the sense that he has not lost any skills and will eventually get over the injury. We know what to point to. It would be bad in the sense that, uh, when will get over it? Injuries have a way of explaining things and making them more scary at the same time, especially a leg injury for a speed guy.

Regardless of whether Ellsbury’s knee is causing his current slump, he and Gardner have not produced in the second half, and that’s something that needs to change for the offense to get back on track. The Yankees dominated offensively for a few weeks earlier this season because those two guys were on base every other inning, it seemed. The sooner they get back on track — even just one of them getting on track would help — the sooner the offense gets back to normal.

Yankees have stopped stealing bases, but they don’t need them either

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

Coming into the season, the Yankees seemed likely to rely on the speed of Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner to create runs because the middle of the order was loaded with questions. And, for a while, the Yankees did rely on those two to create runs. The Yankees as a team stolen eleven bases in their first 16 games and 21 bases in their first 27 games. Ellsbury and Gardner accounted for 19 of those 21 steals.

Lately though, the speedy game has been a non-factor for the Yankees. They stole one base during the recent ten-game road trip, and that was Mark Teixeira taking advantage of the defense paying no attention to him in the late innings of a game the Yankees were losing by six. After stealing those 21 bases in the first 27 games of the season, the Yankees have stolen just 18 bases in 77 games since.

Obviously the speed game took a hit when Ellsbury spent seven weeks on the DL with a knee injury. He is their best and most aggressive base-stealer. Ellsbury has attempted just one stolen base since coming back and that wasn’t even a real steal attempt — Eduardo Rodriguez picked him off first and Ellsbury got caught in a rundown. (It was scored a caught stealing.) Between the time on the DL and not wanting to push the knee since coming back, Ellsbury’s been a non-factor stealing bases for almost three months now.

Gardner, on the other hand, has a history of stealing early in the season but not so much down the stretch. Throughout his career he has made 38.4% of his steal attempts in April and May, so that’s basically 40% of his steal attempts in the first 33% of the season, give or take. (For what it’s worth, the league average last year was 34.8% of steal attempts in April and May.) Gardner doesn’t run much later in the season and I’m sure fatigue and general wear and tear have something to do with. Stealing bases is a great way to get banged up.

Between Ellsbury and the Gardner, the team’s stolen base game has been non-existent for a few weeks now. And it hasn’t mattered one bit. The Yankees are still scoring a ton of runs — they averaged 4.95 runs in April, 4.10 in May, 5.07 in June, and 5.54 in July — without stolen bases because the rest of the order is picking up the slack. Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann got over their early season struggles, specifically, and the bottom of the order has been much more productive of late as well. The Yankees don’t need to steal bases to score now.

“I think it’s a calculated risk. Our guys don’t just run recklessly … If it’s a 50-50 chance, it doesn’t make sense with the hitters that we have behind us,” said Joe Girardi to Ryan Hatch recently. Girardi and I seem to be on the same page — I want Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira batting with as many runners on base as possible. First base is scoring position with those two at the plate. Stolen bases are an unnecessary risk.

Now, that said, the Yankees shouldn’t shelve the stolen base entirely, just limit their attempts. Stolen bases are most helpful in the late innings of a close game, when one run can make a huge difference. That’s when Ellsbury and Gardner should be on high alert looking to take that extra base. Also, if there’s a pitcher and/or catcher prone to stolen bases — Ubaldo Jimenez, Rick Porcello, and Drew Hutchison are all among the MLB leaders in stolen bases allowed and are AL East rivals, for example — then run like wild. As Girardi said, take those calculated risks.

The Yankees do have the ability to steal bases. Gardner and Ellsbury are historically high-percentage stolen base threats — Gardner’s been successful in 79% of his steal attempts the last three years, Ellsbury 88% (!) — who surely make opposing pitchers nervous when standing on first. There’s no doubt opposing teams are aware of their stolen base ability and try to game plan a way to stop them. That threat of a steal still exists and has value.

Overall, the Yankees are a station-to-station club with two prime speed threats in Gardner and Ellsbury. The offense has been so dominant that their stolen base ability has been unnecessary, however. They can score runs without those extra 90 feet. They couldn’t in April because the lineup was thing, but they can now, four months later. The Yankees don’t steal many bases and that’s okay.

The Majors’ deepest lineup is in the Bronx

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

If there was one thing that defined the Yankees for the first three months of the season, it was inconsistency. Every three-game win streak seemed to be followed by a three-game losing streak, every surge in the standings muted by a subsequent slide back to the pack in the crowded AL East.

The erratic performance of the rotation was undoubtedly a huge reason why the Yankees struggled to build momentum in the early part of the season. The steadying force of their lockdown bullpen, though, helped to offset some of those problems with the starting staff. However, it could do little to counter another key roster issue that frequently stalled the team — a top-heavy lineup featuring four bright, shiny stars and five massive black holes.

Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira shouldered much of the offensive load from the one-through-four spots in the order during the first few months, while the bottom half of the order languished, providing little support to the Big Four. This imbalance did have one positive by-product — first-inning runs! — but the lack of length in the lineup also made it really difficult to manufacture any sort of rally when the Yankees’ starting pitcher inevitably coughed up that early lead. Through the end of June, the team had yet to come back and win a game after trailing by more than three runs.

Over the past few weeks, however, the bottom of the lineup has suddenly caught fire and started to pull its weight on offense. Since the All-Star break, the regular bottom-of-the-order hitters — Chase Headley, Didi Gregorius, John Ryan Murphy, Stephen Drew, Brendan Ryan — are each hitting at least .275 with OPS’s above .800.

bottom statsPerhaps the most important part of their offensive surge is that they’ve also become key run producers. In the second half of the season, the 7-8-9 hitters have combined for 39 of the team’s 114 RBIs (34 percent), a much higher rate than came from those same lineup slots in the first half of the season (21 percent). That’s led to some explosive innings and high-scoring games recently. They’ve scored 12-or-more runs four times in their last seven games, after doing that just four times in their first 92 games.

With this dramatic improvement from the bottom of the order, the Yankees now have arguably the deepest and most dangerous lineup one-through-nine in the majors. They have eight guys with at least 200 plate appearances and a park-adjusted OPS better than the league average, the most such players of any team in baseball. They also have an MLB-high seven guys with an offensive WAR of 1.5 or better, and not a single position player on the active roster has a negative total WAR.

A lopsided lineup that once was riddled with question marks and clogged by inconsistency at the bottom has been transformed into a balanced, machine-like offense capable of putting up crooked numbers on a daily basis. With few automatic outs in the lineup and more guys capable of providing an offensive spark, the Yankees should present a ton of problems for opposing pitching staffs over the final two months of the season. Now, about stabilizing that rotation …

Ellsbury returning to better lineup than one he left behind earlier this season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Later today, the Yankees will officially welcome Jacoby Ellsbury back from the DL. (Andrew Miller too!) He missed 43 games with a knee injury and will finally return to the lineup tonight, seven weeks after getting hurt when he caught a spike during a swing. Injuries don’t get much flukier than that. What can you do?

At the time of Ellsbury’s injury, the Yankees were averaging a solidly above-average 4.38 runs per game, and that number has since climbed to 4.60 runs per game overall. The team managed to score 4.80 runs per game without their leadoff hitter. Go figure. Like many of you folks I figured the Yankees would have a harder time scoring runs simply because Ellsbury is one of their top hitters. Brett Gardner is a fine fill-in leadoff hitter, but still, the Yankees lost a good bat.

Earlier this season the Yankees relied heavily on the top of the order. That’s putting it lightly. They were totally dependent on the top of the lineup to score runs. Ellsbury and Gardner were getting on base, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira were driving them in, and that was it. The bottom five hitters in the lineup were doing nothing. Ellsbury and Gardner got on, A-Rod and Teixeira got them in. If that didn’t happen, the Yankees didn’t score.

Things are much different now because a few (not all) of those players at the bottom of the lineup have either turned their season around or simply picked up the pace a little bit. Here’s the quick rundown:

Date of Ellsbury’s injury Since Ellsbury’s injury
Brian McCann .228/.279/.382 (78 wRC+) .297/.388/.559 (161 wRC+)
Carlos Beltran .236/.272/.386 (75 wRC+) .287/.349/.478 (130 wRC+)
Chase Headley .236/.284/.389 (84 wRC+) .263/.323/.351 (88 wRC+)
Didi Gregorius .204/.269/.241 (42 wRC+) .270/.314/.392 (95 wRC+)
Stephen Drew .188/.271/.350 (70 wRC+) .164/.231/.369 (62 wRC+)

There’s no correlation here. The five regulars at the bottom of the order didn’t start performing better — well, three regulars are performing better, Drew has been worse and Headley just changed the shape of his production without really improving much  — because Ellsbury got hurt. They didn’t step up their game because they had to pick up the slack. That’s a cheesy narrative. Those guys were playing below their talent level and simply picked it up as the season continued and the sample grew. That’s all. Nothing more, nothing less.

Obviously McCann is the big one there. For the first few weeks of the season he looked like 2014 McCann, meaning lots of weak pop-ups and missed meatballs. It wasn’t pretty. He’s been substantially better the last two months or so, hitting for average and power while drawing more walks. McCann has been the guy he was with the Braves all those years and it’s added length to the lineup. Much-needed length.

Gregorius went from totally useless at the plate early in the season to competent now. That’s the best way to put it, competent. He’s not tearing the cover off the ball but he’s not a total zero anymore either. Headley did a surprisingly fine job filling in as the two-hole hitter — he hit .291 with a .340 OBP as the No. 2 hitter while Ellsbury was out, albeit with little power (.376 SLG) — though he’s a better fit for the lower third of the order, where he’ll hit now.

The Yankees won’t be firing on all cylinders when Ellsbury returns because Beltran is on the DL, and who knows how long he will be sidelined. Obliques are very tricky and easy to re-injure. Beltran has really turned things around the last few weeks and that’s a big bat that will be missed. Hopefully he’s able to make it back shortly after the All-Star break. Either way, his turn around was a huge reason why the offense improved so much in recent weeks.

Although the Yankees did score more runs per game with Ellsbury on the shelf, it doesn’t mean they’re better off without him. Hardly. It just means they’ll be that much better with him. He adds speed to a very station-to-station team and lengthens the lineup, not to mention improves the defense. The Yankees are a better team with Ellsbury healthy, and they’re even more dangerous when guys like McCann, Beltran, and Gregorius are producing.

Yankees can’t wait any longer to attempt to fix second base situation

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Even after struggling offensively these last seven or ten days, the Yankees still rank second in baseball with an average of 4.62 runs per game. Only the absurd Blue Jays (5.48!) have been better. Yes, the Yankees hit better at home than on the road, but for the most part the offense has been very good this season. It’s nice knowing a two or three-run deficit is no longer insurmountable, isn’t it?

The Yankees have fielded such a strong offense despite having a total black hole at second base. The team’s second basemen are hitting a combined .182/.246/.339 (57 wRC+) in 313 plate appearances, the third worst second base production in the game, better than only the Royals (51 wRC+) and White Sox (24 wRC+). ChiSox second basemen are hitting .189/.234/.227 this year. Good gravy. Imagine watching that everyday? Geez.

Anyway, most of New York’s second base damage comes courtesy of Stephen Drew, and I don’t mean damage in a good way. He’s hitting .178/.251/.364 (67 wRC+) overall, far below league average despite eleven home runs, the second most at the position behind Brian Dozier (16). Other fill-ins like Jose Pirela and Gregorio Petit haven’t contributed much either. Second base has been a black hole all season.

The Yankees have waited very patiently for Drew to turn things around and it hasn’t happened. There aren’t even signs of it maybe, possibly happening in the coming weeks either. Exit velocity? Drew is averaging 85.9 mph off the bat, ranking 288th out of the 321 players with at least 100 at-bats. His exit velocity is not even trending upward either:Stephen Drew exit velocity

Drew is hitting .170/.243/.329 (55 wRC+) since resurfacing last year and that’s in 565 plate appearances. That’s spread across two seasons obviously but the excuses have all been exhausted. He had a full Spring Training this year, there haven’t been any injuries, nothing. It’s a full season worth of terrible, unplayable, just about any other player would lose his job production.

As it stands right now, second base is the only flexible position on the Yankees. They’re locked into players at every other position either developmentally (Didi Gregorius) or contractually (everyone else), at least once Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran return. The outfield is a bit of a mess until then. Still, there is no long-term obligation to Drew or anyone else at second base, and the season is now halfway complete. We’re firmly in “time to make a change” territory.

The Yankees only have one in-house second base alternative in Rob Refsnyder, who hasn’t exactly forced the issue with his play in Triple-A. He hasn’t been bad (.281/.378/.386 and 127 wRC+), he just hasn’t been great for a bat first prospect, and you’d like to see a non-elite prospect force the issue before a promotion. Then again, the Yankees have not been shy about trying out young players this year, specifically in the outfield and in the bullpen. Refsnyder could be next.

I feel like a trade is inevitable. The Yankees are atop a very tight yet winnable division, and you know Hal Steinbrenner & Co. are terrified of the prospect of a third straight postseason-less year and all that lost playoff revenue. I would be surprised if they don’t make a trade at the deadline. The second base market isn’t very good though. There’s the perfect for everyone Ben Zobrist and then a bunch of retreads like Brandon Phillips and Dustin Ackley. Hopefully the market spits out some more names in the three and half weeks before the deadline.

Either way, the Yankees have reached a breaking point at second base. They’re already carrying one soft spot at the bottom of the order in Gregorius and can’t afford to carry another despite the lineup’s strong offensive production overall. The AL East race is too close to let this go on any longer. Drew has given the Yankees no reason to think he will start hitting, and if the team doesn’t think Refsnyder is the answer, then they have to start aggressively looking for help outside the organization.