Benching A-Rod against righties is a good start, but there are other lineup changes worth making

But that's not any of Al's business. (Presswire)
But that’s none of Al’s business. (Presswire)

Later today, Alex Rodriguez will return to the lineup after spending the last two days on the bench. He wasn’t hurt. The Yankees are looking for ways to improve the offense and sitting Alex against right-handers is the solution they came up with. With lefty Cole Hamels on the mound tonight, A-Rod will be back in there.

“It’s a hard decision. Alex has meant a lot to this club over the years, but right now we’re gonna do something a little bit different and see how it works,” said Joe Girardi to Howie Kussoy yesterday. “It’s been tough for him against right-handers. That’s why we’re looking at this … You perform, that’s the bottom line. We’re in the business of performing. Things change. Nothing is set in stone.”

Rodriguez certainly has struggled against righties this year. The demotion is not undeserved. He’s hit .200/.236/.348 (50 wRC+) with a 31.7% strikeout rate against them so far, and his at-bats have looked pretty bad. A-Rod can’t seem to lay off sliders away and is getting chewed up by good fastballs. Removing him from the lineup against righties is necessary and smart.

That’s not the only lineup change the Yankees can and should make, however. Everyone involved keeps saying they’re trying to contend — “We can’t keep treading water. I want to be a contender, not a pretender,” said Brian Cashman to Josh Thomson yesterday — yet they can’t maintain the status quo and expect different results. It’s almost July. Here are some other changes the Yankees should make.

Give Teixeira’s Knee A Break

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Even with Mark Teixeira going deep the last two days, my guess is Rob Refsnyder will be at first base against Hamels tonight. Not only is there the left-right thing, but the Yankees had a very long night last night, and Teixeira also just played three straight games after coming off the DL with a knee problem. Girardi said they plan to give Teixeira a little more rest just to make sure the knee doesn’t flare up again. Makes sense, right? Right.

The Yankees have to do something to get Refsnyder at-bats and Teixeira’s knee is going to need regular rest, so this works well. Maybe something like three games on and one day off for Teixeira? Or two games on, one game at DH, and one day off? That will be difficult if these homers the last two days are a sign Teixeira is snapping out of his season long funk, but the Yankees can deal with that when the time comes. The point is to get Refsnyder some more at-bats. The kid has to play.

Drop Castro In The Lineup

There are 168 players qualified for the batting title as of this morning. Starlin Castro ranks 156th with a .285 OBP. That is terrible. I know he’s hit some big dingers and has generally been better than Stephen Drew, but man, his at-bats are consistently the worst on the team. He hacks at everything. Execute a slider off the plate in a two-strike count and Starlin will go fishing, no doubt about it.

Castro’s hot start and consistent dinger production — not to mention his age and contract — has bought him a long leash in a fairly premium lineup spot. He’s been hitting fifth or sixth for a while now. That has continued even though others, specifically Didi Gregorius and Chase Headley, have out-hit Castro for weeks now. Here are some numbers since May 1st, a totally arbitrary date I picked because it’s the start of a month:

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ 2B HR BB% K%
Castro 209 .231/.260/.372 64 7 7 3.3% 19.1%
Gregorius 193 .311/.344/.443 110 10 4 4.1% 8.3%
Headley 183 .279/.344/.412 104 8 4 8.2% 21.9%

So yeah, Gregorius and Headley have been way more productive players for close to two months now. Benching Castro won’t (and shouldn’t) happen — he’s still only 26 and at least has a chance to be a building block player going forward — but dropping him in the lineup shouldn’t be off the table. Moving him behind Gregorius and Headley would be totally justifiable given their recent production.

Give Gardner & Ellsbury More Rest

Remember the plan to rest the regulars more often? The Yankees talked about it all offseason and in Spring Training. It hasn’t happened though. The team got off to a slow start, so Girardi kept running his regulars out there in an effort to get things turned around. As a result, Brett Gardner has started 64 of 75 games while Jacoby Ellsbury has started 61. That’s more than I think the Yankees originally planned.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Gardner and Ellsbury have slowed down of late. Gardner is hitting .273/.340/.295 (75 wRC+) over the last two weeks and Ellsbury is at .222/.255/.244 (32 wRC+). I don’t know if giving them one extra day on the bench a week while help things, but that was the plan coming into the season, right? That plan shouldn’t be abandoned, especially with the offense being so hit and (mostly) miss. It’s time to try something different.

I know most folks are done with Aaron Hicks but I’m nowhere near ready to give up on him. Clamoring for the Yankees to sell and wanting to move on from Hicks are conflicting ideas. I say give Gardner and Ellsbury that extra day of rest per week and stick Hicks in the lineup in their place. The two veterans get more rest and hopefully stay productive while Hicks gets some at-bats.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Bonus Non-Lineup Suggestion: Get Nova Out Of The Rotation

Ivan Nova stepped into the rotation a few weeks back and strung together three very good starts. The rotation was a total mess at the time and Nova did a really nice job calming things down. Props. Lately though, Ivan has been a mess, and following last night’s dud he owns a 5.32 ERA (5.07 FIP) on the season. That can’t continue. Chad Green has a 1.54 ERA (2.25 FIP) in 81.2 Triple-A innings and lines up to take Nova’s spot perfectly. The Yankees have plenty of dead weight in the bullpen they can cast aside, so put Nova back into a long relief role and give Green a chance to show what he can do.

* * *

Are the Yankees doing all they can right now to give themselves the best chance to win? I don’t think so, not if Refsnyder is sitting on the bench for three days at a time and Nova is taking a regular rotation turn. Benching A-Rod is a good move that figures to improve the offense. There’s more than can be done though, and the sooner the Yankees start making other changes, the better off they’ll be. Sitting A-Rod should be step one, not the only step.

Carlos Beltran’s power surge comes at a great time for the Yankees

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Two nights ago the Yankees beat the Angels thanks to an eighth inning three-run home run by Carlos Beltran. It was an opposite field job into the short porch against lefty Jose Alvarez. Believe it or not, that was the team’s first three-run homer since April 7th, the third game of the season. Yeah, it had been a while. Beltran again gave the Yankees the lead lastnight, this time with a first inning two-run homer off David Huff.

Last night’s home run was the 15th of the season for Beltran, and that’s notable because he hit only 19 homers last season and 15 the year before. Even in 2013, his final year with the Cardinals, Beltran swatted 24 homers. He’s on pace to hit 42 dingers (!) this season. His .277 ISO and .549 SLG rank 11th and 13th among the 175 qualified hitters in baseball, respectively. The guy is 39, remember.

As you know, Beltran started last season horribly. He looked done. Like done done. He turned things around in May and raked the rest of the season, but he didn’t hit for power like this. Beltran hit his first homer last year on May 10th, in the team’s 32nd game. From that game through the end of the season, Carlos ran a pace of 26.6 homers per 150 games. That’s really good! It’s still far below this year’s pace of 38.8 homers per 150 games.

Check out Beltran’s rolling 20-game ISO since 2010, via FanGraphs. Aside from a spike early in 2012, Beltran hasn’t matched his current power rate at any point in the last six seasons:

Carlos Beltran ISOAs you can see in the graph, Beltran’s ISO gradually faded from early-2012 though the end of the 2014 season, and that is totally normal for a player on the wrong side of 35. Players lose bat speed as they age and their power suffers. That’s the way it goes. Beltran was no exception during that three-year period.

Since the last May though, Beltran has been hitting for power at a tremendous pace, and he’s kicked it up a notch through two months and change this season. He’s done it without a substantial change in his fly ball rate or hard hit ball rate too. Beltran’s not even pulling the ball more often to take advantage of the short porch. In fact, his pull rate is down, though as a switch-hitter, that helps him take aim at the short porch against lefties.

“That’s not the plan,” said Beltran when Chad Jennings earlier this week when asked if he’s trying to hit more home runs. “The plan is to just to try to put together good at-bats. Hopefully everyone in the lineup is capable of putting together good at-bats. The plan is not to go up there and try to hit homers. That’s a terrible plan, but (Monday) it worked out for us.”

There is one really obvious possible explanation for Beltran’s recent power surge: he’s healthy. Beltran spent most of 2014 playing through a bone spur in his elbow. He wasn’t all that good that season, especially in the second half. Beltran then had the bone spur removed in the offseason. It seems like it took him a few weeks early last year to get right physically, then once he started to feel really good in May, he took off and it carried into this season.

I also think there might be something tying Beltran’s performance to his contract status. This is going to sound cynical as hell, but money is a great motivator. We’ve all noticed Carlos running better in the outfield and on the bases this season, right? Is it unreasonable to think he’s in better shape than he has been the last few years because his deal is up? I don’t think so. This happens all the time in all sports.

The combination of good health and that extra contract year motivation could help explain Beltran’s recent power surge. Could is the key word there. We don’t know this for sure. The only thing we know for sure is that since May of last season, Beltran has really awesome at the plate, and he’s upped his power output considerably this season. He hasn’t hit for power like this since he was in his prime with the Mets years and years ago.

For the Yankees to have any chance to climb back into the postseason race, they’ll need Beltran to keep up this pace. He’s been their best hitter this season by no small margin and is their biggest power threat. And you know what? If the Yankees don’t get back into the race, this power surge will make Beltran that much more attractive to other teams at the deadline should the Yankees decide to sell. For now, Carlos’ power definitely qualifies as a good surprise this season.

Batting average isn’t everything, but the lack of it is really hurting the Yankees

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

Last night, in the series opening loss to the Blue Jays, the Yankees were held to two runs or fewer for the 21st time in 50 games this season. No AL team has more games with no more than two runs in 2016. The Yankees were also held to five hits or fewer for the 11th time in 50 games. That’s the third most in the league.

It’s no surprise then that the Yankees came into Tuesday with the second fewest runs scored (192) and the second lowest runs per game average (3.84) in the AL. Only the lowly Twins (187 and 3.74) are worse. The offense has been a big problem overall this season, and, not coincidentally, their team batting average (.233) is the lowest it’s been through 50 games since 1969, as noted by our Katie Sharp. Check out last night’s lineup:

Yankees batting averages

Three players in the starting lineup were hitting over .250 and five of the nine were hitting below .230. That’s almost the regular lineup too. Aaron Hicks was starting in place of Alex Rodriguez, and, sadly, Hicks’ .198 average is an upgrade over A-Rod‘s .170 average. Otherwise that’s the starting lineup. That’s pretty close to what Joe Girardi would send out there in a winner take all wildcard game tomorrow.

Obviously batting average is not the only — or best — way to evaluate offense. Walks and hitting for power matter too. Batting average is not nothing though. We’ve reached the point where batting average has become underrated. The best thing a hitter can do at the plate is not make an out, and hits are always better than walks. Always always always. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Walks should supplement hits, not replace them.

The Yankees as a team really stink at hitting for average. Look at that lineup and tell me how many players have a lower batting average than what you’d reasonably expect coming into the season. Brett Gardner? Sure. He’s not a true talent .217 hitter. He hit .259 last year and .265 in over 3,000 plate appearances since becoming a regular in 2010. Mark Teixeira doesn’t really hit for average anymore but .195 is low even for him.

That’s probably it, right? You could argue Starlin Castro is better than a .250 hitter, though he did hit .265 in over over 1,800 plate appearances from 2013-15, and a 15-point swing in either direction is still within the range of “that’s baseball.” I guess you could argue Chase Headley is better than a .229 hitter too, but eh. That might be pushing it even as good as he’s been in May (.284/.348/.425) and after hitting .259 last year.

Point is, that is close to the normal for the offense in terms of batting average. Gardner and Teixeira (and A-Rod) are underperforming expectations that’s really it. Everyone else is pretty much where you’d expect them to be. Combine the lack of batting average with the lack of power — nine homers combined for Teixeira and Rodriguez through 50 games, woof — and you get, well, one of the worst offenses in the league.

It is harder right now to get a base hit than it has been at any point since the mound was lowered in 1969. I’m talking around the league, not just the Yankees. The MLB batting average is .252 right now. It was .262 when the Yankees won the World Series in 2009. A ten-point drop league-wide in seven years is huge! Go back ten years to 2006 and the league batting average was .269. There’s roughly 165,000 at-bats in MLB each season. The difference between a .269 average and a .252 average is over 2,800 hits. That’s crazy.

All sorts of things are contributing to the decline in offense and batting average. The infield shift is an obvious reason, but it’s not the only reason. More specialized relievers, the expanding strike zone, super detailed scouting reports, the increase in velocity — the MLB average fastball velocity is 92.3 mph this year, up from 90.9 mph in 2008, the first full year of PitchFX — all of that stuff has led to the decline in batting average.

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

Since the start of last season the Yankees have been, by far, the most shifted team in baseball. They’ve had 1,792 at-bats with the shift on since the start of last year. The Mariners are a distant second at 1,402 such at-bats. The shift has definitely played a role in the team’s inability to hit for average. Teixeira and Brian McCann are the most obvious victims, but shift-able switch-hitters like Headley and Carlos Beltran have been hurt too.

I’ve come to realize shifts are like strikeouts. You can have one guy in your lineup who will strike out 180+ times a year, maybe two if you really want to push it, but any more than that is a major problem. Same with the shift. One or maybe two shift-able hitters is fine. But five or six like the Yankees have at times? Nope. It doesn’t work. It’s too difficult to sustain rallies that way. We’ve seen too many rallies die on grounders hit to shallow right field the last few seasons.

The Yankees are — and have been for a few years now — one of the better contact teams in baseball, believe it or not. Their team 19.4% strikeout rate is sixth lowest in baseball. It was 19.1% from 2014-15, fifth lowest in baseball. There’s good contact and bad contact though, and the fact that they have the eight highest ground ball rate (47.7%) and 11th highest soft contact rate (19.8%) this year is bad news. Their MLB low .265 BABIP isn’t an accident. Weak grounders tend to go for outs, especially when you lack team speed like the Yankees.

There’s also this: the Yankees are old. Old hitters lose bat speed, which is why Beltran and Teixeira and A-Rod are no longer the hitters they once were. Even players in their early 30s like Gardner and Headley and Jacoby Ellsbury begin to slip. The team’s two under-30 regulars are Castro and Didi Gregorius, and let’s face it, they’re flawed hitters. They both tend to swing at everything. Aside from Gardner and Teixeira (and A-Rod) getting out of their slumps, there’s not much reason to expect the Yankees to post a higher batting average going forward.

The Yankees have focused on acquiring left-handed hitters who can take advantage of the short right field porch at Yankee Stadium and that intuitively makes sense. It doesn’t seem to have worked all that well, however. Going forward, in terms of overall team building, the best approach may be to focus on hitters with the skills to hit for average, then let any power boost from the ballpark come naturally.

Forget about hitting .300 for the second. Among players with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, the Yankees haven’t had a .285 hitter since Robinson Cano in 2013. The last regular other than Cano and Derek Jeter to hit .285+ for the Yankees was Nick Swisher in 2010 (.288). Batting average isn’t the only thing that matters. We know that. It also can’t be ignored either. The 2016 Yankees couldn’t make it any more obvious.

Didi’s bat starting to come around at just the right time for the Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Year one of the Didi Gregorius era did not get off to the best start. Didi struggled big time both in the field and at the plate early last season, so much so there was talk about sending him to Triple-A and playing Stephen Drew at short. The Yankees weren’t talking about that, but many fans were. He was playing that poorly. Thankfully, Gregorius turned things around in May and finished the season strong.

This season has not started well for Didi either. His defense has been more than fine, so it hasn’t been a total repeat of last year, but the bat has started very slow. Only Chase Headley has performed worse among the regulars. Gregorius came into the homestand in a 3-for-30 (.100) slump and hitting .215/.241/.316 (48 wRC+) overall. I was hoping his Opening Day home run would be the jumping off point for a strong second season in New York, but it hasn’t come together yet.

Things have gone a bit better on the homestand for Gregorius and the Yankees in general. The team has won four of five on the homestand, and Didi has gone 5-for-17 (.294) with a pair of bases clearing doubles in the five games. That has raised his season batting line to .229/.250/.344 (58 wRC+), which is still an eyesore. And yes, the caveat here is that those two bases clearing doubles were almost mistakes. This is the pitch he hit for the first:

Didi Gregorius David Price

That’s an 0-2 changeup almost in the dirt, the kind of pitch you typically want a hitter to take. Gregorius took a little defensive half-swing and dunked it into right field. Sometimes you can do everything wrong and it still works out. Baseball. Then, last night he took another little protect swing at an outside pitch and knocked it into shallow center. Didi almost threw his bat at the pitch.

Didi Gregorius Brian Flynn

Gregorius hasn’t been driving the ball all around the yard on the homestand, but that’s okay. Sometimes you just have to put the bat on the ball and hope to finds grass. You hear players and ex-players talk about it all the time: any little thing can help get you bust out of slump, even bloops and bobbles and bunts.

Most importantly, Gregorius is starting to hit the ball harder, and that’s always a plus. A total of 196 players had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title in April, and Didi ranked 196th in hard contact rate (12.5%) and 189th in line drive rate (10.9%). Woof. Alcides Escobar had the second lowest hard contact rate at 14.3%, so the gap between Didi and the next worst hitter was substantial.

So far in May Gregorius has upped his hard contact and line drive rates up to 22.3% and 36.0%, respectively. He hard contact rate still isn’t great, so it’s not like he’s tattooing the ball, but at least he’s moving in the right direction. The next goal is being more disciplined. I know that 0-2 changeup from David Price went for a double, but if Didi keeps swinging at pitches like that, he’s going to get himself out more often than not. Look at his swing rates on the season:

BB% O-Swing% Z-Swing% Zone%
2015 5.7% 33.8% 71.7% 47.0%
2016 2.0% 35.7% 75.6% 44.3%

Gregorius has never shown great discipline as a big leaguer and I’m not sure he ever well, but geez, he’s swinging at everything this year. Swinging at more pitches in the zone (Z-Swing%) is not automatically a bad thing. Swinging at pitches out of the zone (35.7%) is though, especially when pitchers are throwing you fewer pitches in the strike zone. Pitchers know they can get Didi to chase and he has obliged so far this year.

This isn’t a matter of simply taking more pitches. Gregorius has to do a better job staying back and differentiating balls from strikes. Swing at the strikes and take the balls. It’s easy and yet oh so difficult at the same time. Didi has made himself into too easy of an out because of how often he chases out of the zone. Pitchers have been exploiting that weakness big time this year. It’s something he must improve.

It was around this time last year that Gregorius started to turn things around. I don’t think anyone is asking him to be a force at the bottom of the lineup, but he needs to be more than a zero. Didi is hitting the ball harder this month and that’s a positive. It helps that some of those defensive swings are turning into three-run doubles too. He has to continue to work on his plate discipline going forward though. That’s the key. Gregorius has to make pitchers work harder to get him out.

Inability to get the ball airborne causing Teixeira’s power outage

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

For the majority of the season the Yankees have really struggled to score runs, and you can’t single out one guy as the culprit. It takes a total team effort to rank 24th out of the 30 clubs in runs per game (3.57) more than a month into the season. Starlin Castro has been the team’s only consistently productive hitter, I’d say.

A year ago the Yankees had one of highest scoring offenses in baseball overall, and one of the biggest reasons was regular cleanup hitter Mark Teixeira. He hit .255/.357/.548 (143 wRC+) with 31 home runs in 111 games before going down with a small fracture in his shin. Teixeira turned back the clock and was one of the game’s best power hitters.

That has not been the case this season. Far from it. Through 30 team games Teixeira is hitting .202/.325/.298 (82 wRC+) with only four extra base hits. (A double and three homers.) It has been 23 games and 94 plate appearances since his last home run. That is quite bad. Teixeira is not a complementary player. He’s a cornerstone piece of the offense and he isn’t helping much right now.

“It’s only natural that you want to help carry the team, but I’ve always been someone that’s done that,” said Teixeira to Dan Martin yesterday. “As a middle-of-the-order hitter, it’s kind of what you’re there for, to drive in runs. You can carry a team for weeks or months at a time. This is nothing new for me to deal with.”

It’s actually pretty easy to pinpoint why Teixeira has not hit for much power this season: he isn’t hitting the ball in the air. His 50.7% ground ball rate is easily the highest of his career. (Previous high: 42.8% in 2008.) That’s only the super short version though. Teixeira is a switch-hitter and that complicates things. Plus we want to know why he isn’t hitting the ball in the air, right?

Here are Teixeira’s ball in play splits dating back to the start of the 2014 season. I’d normally go back three full years, but wrist surgery limited Teixeira to only 15 games in 2013.

Mark Teixeira batted ballsEverything looks okay from the right side of the plate this season. Teixeira’s batted ball profile is generally in line with last year’s, which is what we want to see. He was pretty awesome last year. It goes without saying this is all coming from a small sample, but so far, so good as a right-handed hitter.

The left side is where Teixeira is having big problems. He’s still pulling the ball a ton, but he’s not making as much hard contact and he’s not hitting the ball in the air. More weak contact on the ground as a left-handed batter means more balls that get eaten up by the shift. It’s actually kinda surprising Teixeira’s batting average isn’t lower, to be honest.

Before we move forward it should be noted Teixeira’s plate discipline has been fine. More than fine, really. He has the 23rd lowest swing rate on pitches out of the zone in baseball (22.7%), and his overall contact rate (80.3%) is right in line with his career norm. Teixeira’s not expanding his zone and hacking at bad pitches. That’s not causing all those extra ground balls as a lefty hitter.

Teixeira said he was working to correct a timing issue near the very end of Spring Training, and it’s possible that timing issue is still, well, an issue. He does the most damage as a left-handed hitter when he can extend his arms and punish a pitch on the outer half. Here’s the pitch location of every ball Teixeira hit 100+ mph last season from the left side of the plate, per Baseball Savant:

Mark Teixeira 100 mph

That is some plate coverage, huh? The guy is a big time power hitter playing his home games in Yankee Stadium, so as pitcher you’d think the best place to go is away, but nope. That is Teixeira’s wheelhouse. It takes a long swing to get to those outside pitches, so if his timing is off even a tiny little bit, it can be the difference between loud contact and something off the end of the bat.

Of course, it’s possible Teixeira’s timing is off because he’s 36 and his bat is slowing. It’s not necessarily a mechanical issue. That said, even old players still hit home runs, and I feel like Teixeira going 94 plate appearances (!) without a dinger is indicative of a mechanical problem more than a “he’s old” problem. What about injury? What if he’s not using his lower half the way he normally does following the shin fracture? Teixeira is not hitting for power because he’s not hitting the ball in the air from the left side of the plate. Why is he not lifting the ball? That’s the mystery.

“There’s no reason I should be struggling like this,” added Teixeira. “It’s been a tough few weeks. I’ve just got to get the ball in the air. I’ve been hitting too many ground balls and soft line drives … My whole career has been about back-spinning the ball, hitting the ball in the air and home runs. I’m just not doing that right now.”

The Yankees obviously still want to climb back into the postseason race this summer, and they’ll need Teixeira to get back to mashing baseballs to do that. And even if they continue to lose, they want him to be productive so they at least have the option of exploring trading him. Who knows whether Teixeira will waive his no-trade clause. But if he doesn’t start hitting, it won’t matter. No one will want him.

The silver lining here is that unlike some of the team’s other veterans, specifically Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran, Teixeira can still contribute with his glove when he’s not hitting. He’s still a great defensive first baseman. That’s not enough though. Teixeira is still getting on base thanks to his walks, so he’s not totally useless at the plate, but the Yankees need him to start hitting the ball out of the park, and he needs to get the ball airborne for that to happen.

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.