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.

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.