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.

Massive home/road offensive split defining the season so far for the Yankees

"Alright guys, three runs, great game!" (Presswire)
“Alright guys, three runs, great game!” (Presswire)

The Yankees went 3-4 on their seven-game road trip despite scoring only 18 runs in the seven games, with half those runs coming on Saturday. They scored zero or one run in each of the four losses, though Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh deserve credit for excellent performances. They overmatched the Yankees. C.J. Wilson and Andrew Heaney? Eh, not so much.

Not surprisingly, the Yankees are averaging more runs per game at home (5.77) than on the road (3.77). A lot more. I ridiculous amount more. They’ve scored 36 more runs at home in nine fewer games. Geez. Easy to understand why they’re 21-14 (+38 run differential) at home and 21-23 (-16 run differential) on the road in 2015. Just about every offense is better at home — MLB average is 4.22 runs per game at home and 4.02 on the road — but the Yankees have taken it to the extreme this season. Here are the team’s raw offensive numbers:

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ BB% K% PA/HR PA/XBH BABIP
Home 1,395 .282/.350/.496 130 8.5% 18.2% 22.5 10.3 .306
Road 1,666 .235/.302/.371 88 8.1% 19.0% 39.7 14.5 .269

The Yankees are Kris Bryant at home and Michael Cuddyer on the road. This recent road trip was an extreme example of their offensive struggles away from the Bronx but it’s not confirmation bias either — the Yankees are substantially more productive at home. They’re a much more dangerous team playing in Yankee Stadium. Their three highest run totals and six of their nine highest run totals have come in the Bronx this year, unsurprisingly.

It’s easy to understand why the Yankees are more productive at home, right? Yankee Stadium is a hitter friendly park and the Yankees have tailored their lineup for the short right field porch — Brian McCann, Garrett Jones, and Stephen Drew are all left-handed pull hitters who were brought in after everyone knew how the park played (Mark Teixeira signed before the park opened), and Carlos Beltran is way more effective batting lefty than righty. Has been for years. Brett Gardner learned how to pull the ball for power in recent years as well, and even Didi Gregorius has benefited from the short porch.

The largest home/road splits belong to McCann (195 wRC+/62 wRC+), Gardner (179/107), Drew (101/44), and Alex Rodriguez (182/113). A-Rod‘s the outlier as a right-handed hitter. The home/road splits make sense for the other guys. Rodriguez is hitting for power both at home (.256 ISO) and on the road (.201 ISO), and his walk rates are high (13.7% and 12.0%), yet he has a .393 BABIP at home (146 PA) and a .248 BABIP on the road (166 PA). The sample sizes aren’t big though, and I suspect his home production will take a step back and is road production will improve as the season progresses.

There are other factors in play here that are tough to quantify, if not outright impossible. For example: traveling sucks. The Yankees have played 44 road games this season, the second most in baseball, and their 35 home games are the third fewest. Thirty-four of their 57 games since May 1st have been on the road. Yeah, they’re pro athletes and they make gobs of money, but maybe they’re just worn out from the travel. How do you quantify a good night’s sleep? I don’t know, but the Yankees are trying.

I’m not sure how or if the Yankees can improve their road production. I don’t think they can force the issue and try to be something they’re not — sac bunts, hit-and-runs, those sorts of things. They don’t have many players capable of doing that stuff. This is a team of wallbangers. I’d like to think this lineup is better than a true talent 88 wRC+ offense on the road, especially once Jacoby Ellsbury returns, but this recent road trip was a reminder of how tough it can be for the Yankees to score runs when the threat of a short porch homer doesn’t always exist.

Slowly and steadily, Gregorius is turning things around at the plate

(Patrick Smith/Getty)
(Patrick Smith/Getty)

Let’s start with the obvious: the first 70 games of the Didi Gregorius era have not been pretty. He’s hitting a weak .231/.283/.325 (67 wRC+) overall and his defense, while occasionally spectacular, has been enigmatic at times. Decision-making has been an issue too. I think we all knew there would be some growing pains with Didi this season, but not this many.

Thankfully Gregorius has settled down in recent weeks and looks way more comfortable than he did in April, both at the plate and in the field. “I’m settling down a little bit more. Trying to get more comfortable more at-bats, better at-bats, so it’s getting better,” he said to Chad Jennings recently. The bad decisions don’t really happen anymore and his offense is, very slowly and steadily, trending upward.

Gregorius started well — relatively well, anyway — during the last two seasons with the Diamondbacks before fading as the season progressed. This year he’s done the opposite. Started terribly and now gradually heading in the right direction. That’s … something. I mean, the guy still has a 67 wRC+, but at least there is some semblance of improvement:

Didi Gregorius wOBANo one is claiming Gregorius has suddenly become an offensive dynamo. We’re just looking for some silver linings here, and Didi has indeed gotten better at the plate as the season has progressed. Let’s break his season up into three almost equal parts:

AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ BB% K% Soft% Hard% O-Swing% Z-Swing%
Games 1-23 .212/.274/.242 44 6.8% 17.8% 22.2% 9.3% 35.2% 75.2%
Games 24-46 .222/.290/.349 78 5.7% 17.1% 21.2% 23.1% 33.1% 69.2%
Games 47-70 .253/.284/.373 79 4.5% 14.8% 16.9% 29.6% 30.8% 75.2%

The slash line is what counts the most, at the end of the day we’re all judged on results, but the most important numbers going forward here are the K%, Hard%, and O-Swing%. Gregorius has cut down on his strikeout rate while making more hard contact and swinging at fewer pitches out of the strike zone. His hard contact rate has improved considerably as the season marches on.

A few weeks ago the Yankees had both Carlos Beltran and Alex Rodriguez, two veterans who know a whole lot about what it takes to be a successful big league hitter, work with Gregorius in an effort to get him headed in the right direction at the plate. Beltran specifically said he worked with Didi to use the same approach in batting practice and in the cage as in games. “I am taking BP seriously, trying to get better,’’ said Gregorius to George King.

The league average shortstop is hitting .248/.298/.358 (81 wRC+) this season, so while Didi is still short of even that low bar, he’s getting closer. Gregorius doesn’t figure to hit for much power outside of a few Yankee Stadium home runs now and then and he doesn’t walk either, so his offensive potential is limited. It’s basically batting average plus a little extra on top. That’s okay though. Gregorius with average shortstop offens plus his defense makes him a slightly above-average player for the position in my opinion.

There are two questions going forward. One, will Gregorius ever actually become a league average hitting shortstop? He’s trending the right way now but that’s not guaranteed to continue. The increase in hard contact and decline in strikeouts are encouraging, sure, but that only goes so far. Two, should Gregorius one day become that league average hitting shortstop, is that good enough for the Yankees? The Yankees will always and forever be driven by star power, and a shortstop with an 81 wRC+ and good defense probably doesn’t fit the bill.

I imagine the Yankees are hoping Gregorius develops the way Brandon Crawford has developed for the Giants. Crawford started out as a no-hit/all-glove shortstop earlier in his career but improved at the plate little by little each season as he entered his peak years. He’s gone from a 81 wRC+ to a 92 wRC+ to a 102 wRC+ to a 132 wRC+ during his age 25-28 seasons. Obviously the Yankees would like more immediate impact from Gregorius, but, if he were to develop on a similar timetable as Crawford, I doubt they’d complain.

For now, Didi has been able to shake off his brutal April and show signs of improvement at the plate. Not just signs of improvement, I mean actual, tangible improvement. He’s hitting better now than he did earlier this season. The numbers say so. His strikeout rate is down and his hard contract rate is up. Progress! It’s progress, very slow and steady progress, but progress nonetheless. Hopefully it continues.