The Five Longest Home Runs of the 2015 Season

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

The Bronx Bombers returned in 2015. The team’s power production slipped big time from 2013-14, mostly due to personnel (Ichiro Suzuki, Brian Roberts, etc.) and injuries (Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, etc.), but they rebounded in a big way this year. The Yankees hit 212 home runs this season, fourth most in baseball behind the Blue Jays (232), Astros (230), and Orioles (217).

Naturally, some of those 212 home runs were very long. The Yankees hit some bombs this year, and in this post we’re going to look back at the five longest. Because Statcast data is not fully available yet — the MLB.com Statcast leaderboard only runs 50 players deep and is not sortable by team for whatever reason — we’re going to rely on good ol’ Hit Tracker for home run distance data. Maybe next season the Statcast leaderboard will be a bit more user friendly. Anyway, on to the Yankees’ five longest homers of 2015.

5. July 25th: A-Rod‘s third homer ties the game. (box score)
There’s a lot to unpack with the fifth longest home run of the season. First, it tied the game in the top of the ninth. Second, it was Alex Rodriguez‘s third home run of the game. Third — and spoiler alert — it was only A-Rod’s second longest home run of the game. This was one of those “it’s the Twins, of course the Yankees are going to find a way to win” games, and, sure enough, Alex tied things up with this dead center bomb off Glen Perkins.

The Yankees won the game later that inning on John Ryan Murphy‘s three-run dinger. The A-Rod home run measured a healthy 438 feet. It had distance and impact. Alex tied that game with authority. That it was his third home run of the game made it even cooler.

4. October 1st: Refsnyder almost reaches the left field bleachers. (box score)
There’s a whole lotta A-Rod in this post, and Refsnyder is not the player I would have guessed to break up the monopoly. If you’d asked me to predict the longest non-Rodriguez homer of the season, I would gone with Teixeira or Brian McCann. Maybe Carlos Beltran or Greg Bird, but Teixeira or McCann seem like better guesses. But nope, it’s Rob Refsnyder, with this 439 foot blast against the Red Sox:

Refsnyder’s home run gave the Yankees an insurance run in the eventual win, a win that clinched the team’s first postseason berth since 2012. I didn’t think Refsnyder had that in him. He really turned on that Heath Hembree fastball. When you see something like that, it’s easy to understand why the Yankees are “leaning towards” using Refsnyder (and Dustin Ackley) at second base next year.

3. July 25th: A-Rod goes third deck at Target Field. (box score)
I think my favorite part of this home run was John Flaherty’s call. Flaherty was talking about A-Rod and how he had never hit a home run at Target Field when Alex launched this Tommy Milone pitch into the third deck in left field. Check it out:

That’s great. It was the first of A-Rod’s three home runs that game and it measured 450 feet off the bat. Notice the score in the video: the Yankees were losing 5-0 at the time. A-Rod and his three home runs got the Yankees back in the game.

2. July 22nd: A-Rod takes Gausman to the bleachers. (box score)
This is the inevitable forgotten homer. The one I forgot about completely. Seems to happen with each and every one of these top five play posts I put together each year. Anyway, the Yankees were home against the Orioles, and A-Rod turned around a hanging 85 mph changeup from Kevin Gausman. It landed in the left field bleachers.

The unofficial but good enough for our purposes measurement: 453 feet. Aside from A-Rod’s monster home run, this was one of those nondescript midsummer games that blends into the blob of baseball we watch then forget each year.

1. April 17th: A-Rod goes way deep at the Trop. (box score)
I remember this game and this home run specifically as the moment it became clear Alex still had something left in the tank and was going to help the Yankees. There were a ton of questions about him coming into the season given his age and suspension and all that, and while the early returns were promising, we still wanted to see more evidence A-Rod could contribute. Then he did this:

That home run traveled 477 feet. It was the longest by a Yankee since A-Rod hit a 488 foot home run off Cliff Lee back in 2006 (video). Yeah, it’s been a while. It was also the longest home run by an American League player this season and the sixth longest in baseball overall. Only Giancarlo Stanton (484 twice), Paul Goldschmidt (482), Joc Pederson (480), and Michael Taylor (479) hit balls farther in 2015. Three of those five were hit at Coors Field, by way. (Pederson’s, Taylor’s, and one of Stanton’s.)

The season-long home run was the highlight of A-Rod’s monster game, in which he went 3-for-4 with two home runs and four runs driven in. He tied the game with a two-run blast in the sixth and drove in the go-ahead run with an eighth inning single. Huge home run and a huge game from Rodriguez.

The Five Biggest Hits of the 2015 Season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

After two years with no October baseball, the Yankees returned to the postseason in 2015, albeit briefly. They were knocked out in the wildcard game by the Astros. Still, it was fun to have meaningful baseball back in the Bronx this year, even if we all pulled our hair out waiting for the Yankees to clinch a postseason berth and then home field advantage in the wildcard game.

As always, getting to the postseason required some huge hits, and this season was no different. The Yankees had plenty of memorable hits in 2015. In this year’s annual biggest hits post, we’re going to look at those big hits two ways. First we’ll use WPA since that adds some context regarding the game situation and whatnot. Then we’ll look at the what I think are the five biggest hits on an emotional “holy crap that was huge” level. Make sense? Let’s start with the WPA.

5. September 14th: Heathcott gives the Yankees the lead. (box score)
The Yankees were in the middle of their September fade when they arrived in Tampa for a three-game series in the middle of the month. Heading into that September 14th game, the team had dropped five of their last six games, and they were falling further behind the Blue Jays in the AL East. Then, with one swing, Slade Heathcott temporarily made things all better with this go-ahead blast against the Rays:

The Yankees were losing that game 1-0 heading into the ninth, and they actually had the bases empty with two outs before rallying. Brett Gardner drew a walk, stole second, and scored on Alex Rodriguez‘s double to right-center. An intentional walk to Brian McCann brought Heathcott to the plate. Slade was only in the game because he replaced Rico Noel, who pinch-ran for Carlos Beltran the previous inning. That three-run dinger had a +0.48 WPA.

4. April 10th: Headley ties it up in the ninth. (box score)
The fourth biggest hit of the season came in the fourth game of the season, a game the Yankees lost, believe it or not. It was the nightmare 19-inning game against the Red Sox. The Red Sox were nursing a 3-2 lead in the ninth and had the Yankees down to their final out when Edward Mujica left a splitter up in the zone to Chase Headley. Headley tied the game with a dinger.

The Red Sox took the lead in the 16th, though the Yankees again tied the game in the bottom half of the inning on Mark Teixeira‘s solo homer. The WPA of Teixeira’s blast was +0.44. The WPA of Headley’s to tie the game? +0.49. Too bad the Yankees went on to lose the game in the 19th. That was a memorable game for annoying reasons, not happy ones. The loss dropped the Yankees to 1-3 in the early going. Womp womp.

3. August 18th: A-Rod‘s go-ahead grand slam. (box score)
For me, this was the forgotten big hit. It seems to happen every year when I write this post. I completely forget one of the five biggest hits by WPA. The Yankees were playing well in mid-August, winning four of five heading into this August 18th game. The Twins jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the seventh when Miguel Sano hit a go-ahead two-run homer off CC Sabathia. They stretched the lead to 4-1 later in the inning.

The Twins are the Twins though, and they always seem to find a way to lose to the Yankees. In the bottom of the seventh, generic lefty reliever Ryan O’Rourke loaded the bases with one out on a single (Headley) and two walks (Brendan Ryan, Gardner). The bottom of the order got the rally started. A-Rod capped it off with a go-ahead grand slam:

The Yankees took a 5-4 lead on Rodriguez’s four-run home run, which resulted in a +0.51 WPA swing. They tacked on some insurances runs — yes, the Yankees actually did that a few times this year — and won the game 8-4. That was the middle game of a three-game sweep over Minnesota. Unfortunately, that was also the last series of the season in which the Yankees were in first place in the AL East.

2. April 13th: Drew’s go-ahead grand slam in Baltimore. (box score)
Two of the five biggest hits of the season came in the span of four days. The Yankees started very slowly this year, losing four of their first five games, but they crushed the Red Sox on Sunday Night Baseball on April 12th to get things moving in the right direction.

The next night the Yankees mounded an impressive late inning comeback against the Orioles, who were the reigning division champs. The two teams traded runs early before Adam Jones gave the O’s a 4-2 lead with a sixth inning two-run home run off Michael Pineda. In the top of the seventh the Yankees loaded the bases with two outs against Tommy Hunter on two singles (Chris Young, Jacoby Ellsbury) and a walk (John Ryan Murphy). Stephen Drew then gave the Bombers a 6-4 lead with two-out grand slam. Here’s the video:

Drew started the year in a 2-for-17 (.118) funk before hitting that grand slam. He was actually pinch-hitting for Gardner, who took a pitch to the wrist earlier in the game. Gardner remained in and tried to bunt in his next two at-bats because he wasn’t comfortable swinging, then Joe Girardi went to Drew off the bench. Boy, did it pay off. The grand slam had a +0.56 WPA. The Yankees went 13-5 in their next 18 games.

1. July 3rd: McCann’s walk-off homer through the fireworks. (box score)
This came awfully close to being a Fourth of July walk-off home run. The Yankees and Rays played 12 innings on Independence Day Eve, and it was roughly 11:45pm ET when McCann won the game. Of course, the game doesn’t go to extra innings without another big hit earlier in the game. Teixeira tied the game 3-3 with a three-run blast in the eighth inning. That one had a +0.42 WPA. Here’s the video:

The Yankees had played pretty damn well in the first half, but they hit a bit of a slump in late-June/early-July, and they went into this July 3rd game with a 3-7 record in their previous ten games. They weren’t scoring at all either. They scored six runs total in their previous four games, and three of the six came in one game.

Anyway, the game eventually went to extra innings after Teixeira’s homer, and the Rays took a 5-3 lead on two walks and two singles in the 12th. It would have been worse had Headley not made a nice play to turn an inning ending 5-4-3 double play. The Yankees started to chip away in the bottom of the 12th, getting a run when Teixeira singled in Gardner, who drew a leadoff walk. Teixeira had a pretty huge game and absolutely no one remembers it.

Following Teixeira’s single, the Yankees had runners on first and second with one out, so a single probably would have tied the game. (Gregorio Petit pinch-ran for A-Rod.) Singles are for the weak though. McCann clobbered this no-doubt walk-off three-run home run. To the action footage:

Oh yeah, that’s the good stuff. Pretty good call by Michael Kay too. That was the Yankees’ first walk-off win of the season — they picked up their second the very next day, so I guess they did get that Fourth of July walk-off after all — and it sent them on another extended run of dominance. The Yankees won 14 of their next 19 games. McCann’s home run was the biggest hit of the season at a staggering +0.67 WPA. Yowza.

* * *

Now that we’ve gone through the five biggest hits according to WPA, let’s add some personal touch. WPA is a fine story telling stat, but it does lack context. It doesn’t know the division race situation, doesn’t know who’s on the mound, doesn’t know the Yankees lost three of their last four games, stuff like that. All of that definitely affects how big a hit can feel while watching a game live.

Anyway, so all things considered, here is my list of the five biggest hits of the season. This is totally subjective, of course. Feel free to disagree:

  1. August 14th: Carlos Beltran’s three-run homer in Toronto. (video) (box score)
  2. September 14th: Heathcott’s homer against the Rays.
  3. July 3rd: McCann’s walk-off homer against the Rays.
  4. June 2nd: Jones’ go-ahead 11th inning homer against the Mariners. (video) (box score)
  5. July 25th: A-Rod ties the game with his third homer of the night. (video) (box score)

The Beltran home run is pretty self-explanatory, right? The Yankees were swept at home by the Blue Jays the weekend prior to this game and it felt like the AL East was slipping away. Beltran came off the bench to pinch-hit and gave the team a colossal go-ahead three-run home run. Gosh, that was fun. The WPA of that dinger was a healthy +0.45.

The Heathcott homer ranks second because again, the Yankees were struggling and in the thick of the postseason race, plus Heathcott has been through an awful lot over the years. He’s a real easy guy to root for. Had someone else hit that home run, it still would have been awesome, but the fact Slade did it made it even more special. Seeing him have some success at the MLB was fun.

The Garrett Jones home run to me was huge, obviously. That’s why it’s No. 4. The Yankees did win the first game of that series in Seattle but had still gone 6-13 in their previous 19 games. They needed a big hit, and Drew gave it to them with a game-tying single off Fernando Rodney in the top of the ninth (video). Jones then won the game with a three-run home run off the lefty Joe Beimel in the top of the 11th. That homer had a +0.45 WPA and was by far Jones’ best moment in pinstripes.

Maybe I’m overrating the A-Rod home run. The Yankees were 9-3 in their previous 12 games at the time, after all. It’s not like they were desperate for a win. But still. It was the third of A-Rod’s three home runs on the night and it tied the game in the top of the ninth. Murphy won the game with his first home run of the season later in the inning. Alex’s third homer had a mere +0.34 WPA. It was still pretty damn awesome though.

With Teixeira out, Yankees need Jacoby Ellsbury to snap out of post-DL slump

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

During the four-game series against the Blue Jays this weekend, it was hard not to notice the utter lack of impact from Jacoby Ellsbury. The Yankees leadoff hitter went 1-for-19 (.053) with a walk in the four games — Ellsbury went 0-for-4 last night and is currently mired in an 0-for-21 slump — and generated nothing from atop the lineup. It’s a minor miracle the Yankees have scored 26 runs in the last five games with Ellsbury hitting like that.

At this point Ellsbury’s slump is not just a little bump in the road. He did perform well during the ten-game homestand before this last one that just ended (.351 in nine games starts) and did beat up on some bad Braves pitching in Atlanta, but otherwise his bat has never really come around since returning from the DL. Ellsbury is hitting .210/.251/.328 (55 wRC+) in 258 plate appearances since returning in early-July, dragging his overall season numbers down to .254/.315/.345 (83 wRC+).

This is getting to the point where it’s more than a slump. A slump is a bad week or two. Maybe a bad month on occasion. Those happen to everyone. Ellsbury is over 250 plate appearances since returning from his knee injury now, and his offensive production has been replacement level. When he started slow immediately after coming off the DL, okay, it was understandable. But now, more than two months later? Now it’s time to be legitimately concerned.

“He’s just not squaring the ball up,” said Joe Girardi to Ryan Hatch when asked about Ellsbury’s slump Sunday, which doesn’t tell us much. We know he’s not squaring the ball up, we see it during the games and the batted ball data backs it up. Ellsbury’s soft contact rate has continually climbed since he returned in July and he’s hitting both more ground balls and more pop-ups.

Jacoby Ellsbury batted ball1

Weakly hit ground balls and pop-ups are BABIP killers. Those are the types of balls in play that rarely go for hits, which explains Ellsbury’s .235 average on balls in play since coming off the DL. He had a .379 BABIP before getting hurt and has a career .319 BABIP. Ellsbury is nowhere close to that now, and unless he starts hitting the ball with more authority, there’s no reason to expect a rebound.

The real question is why. Why isn’t he squaring the ball up? Ellsbury was a leadoff monster before getting hurt, remember. He was hitting .332/.408/.368 (123 wRC+) when he landed on the DL in mid-May. I’ve been one of the harshest critics of Ellsbury’s contract, I think it’s a disaster in the making, but I also don’t think he’s suddenly a true talent 83 wRC+ hitter either. He’s not as good as he was before the injury and he’s not as bad as he has been after. The truth is somewhere in the middle based on his history.

The injury could be certainly be a factor here. Actually, the injuries could be a factor. Plural. Ellsbury went on the DL with a right knee problem, and he also missed a few days with a right hip issue about three weeks ago. He slid for a ball in the outfield and hurt himself somehow. His hip swelled up and Girardi sat him for a few days. Leg injuries are no good for any player. Hitting starts from the ground up. Without a solid base underneath you, you won’t be able to drive the ball.

Here are two screen grabs showing the same thing at different points of the season. The screen grab on the left is from early-May, one of the final home games before Ellsbury’s knee injury. The screen grab on the right is from Saturday night. They both show the moment Ellsbury’s front foot touches down as part of his leg kick.

Jacoby Ellsbury foot

The pitch on the left has traveled a lot deeper by time Ellsbury’s foot touches down. The pitch on the right is barely out of the pitcher’s hand. Could it be the knee and hip injuries have resulted in a timing problem? Ellsbury is getting his front foot down too early now, so his weight transfer and stuff is all out of whack, leading to softer contact. (He’s been rolling over on everything and hitting grounders to the right side of late.) That sounds … plausible? I dunno. We’re playing amateur hitting coach here.

For what it’s worth, Girardi dismissed the idea Ellsbury is playing hurt, telling Brendan Kuty that Ellsbury “feels pretty good. He’s been just a little bit off.” Every player is banged up at this point of the season and it may be Ellsbury is more banged up than most given his knee and hip issues. It’s entirely possible he’s playing hurt and the team just isn’t letting on. I mean, it’s hard to think Ellsbury is playing this poorly and is 100% healthy. That would be scary. At last playing hurt would explain things.

Even if he’s not hurting right now, it could be the knee and/or hip issues have messed up Ellsbury’s mechanics. That stuff happens without the player even realizing it sometimes. They subconsciously try to protect the injured area. Thing is, we don’t even know if this is the problem. We’re searching for answers. I’m sure Ellsbury and hitting coaches Jeff Pentland and Alan Cockrell are as well. “He’s doing everything he can to get back on track,” added Girardi.

Should the Yankees move Ellsbury down in the order? After over 250 plate appearances of this, I say yeah, but that’s not going to happen. “If every time a guy was going through a tough spot and you start moving him around and moving him down, you’d be juggling the lineup every day,” said Girardi. The Yankees won’t drop Ellsbury in the lineup in year two of his seven-year contract. This is a team that bumped Adam Warren from the rotation in favor of CC Sabathia (and Ivan Nova), after all.

The Ellsbury we’re seeing right now is not the real Ellsbury. He’s a much better player than what he’s shown the last few days and also since coming off the DL. At this point the Yankees have to focus as much on staying in a wildcard spot as they do winning the division, and it’ll be hard to do either of those things these last three weeks with Ellsbury hitting so poorly. His season numbers are what they are. There’s not enough time to pretty them up. The best he can do is get on track and help the Yankees from here on out.

“He’s extremely important to our lineup,” added Girardi. “A lot of times, when guys go through tough periods, the game has a way of equaling its way out and it would be great if it did it over the next 20 games.”

Brett Gardner is starting to come out of slump just in time for the Teixeira-less Yankees

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Thanks to the Braves, the Yankees averaged a healthy 4.71 runs per game in August, right in line with the 4.88 runs per game they averaged from April through July. We all know the offense wasn’t quite that good last month though. The Yankees scored 38 runs in three games against Atlanta over the weekend and only 94 runs in the other 25 games, or 3.76 per game.

The team-wide offensive malaise last month was not the result of any one thing. It was a combination of things. Lots of players slumped, perhaps none moreso than Brett Gardner. The first time All-Star hit a weak .208/.304/.257 (61 wRC+) in August, easily his worst month of the season. Easily. His second worst month was the .252/.322/.421 (105 wRC+) batting line he put up in May.

Gardner has always been a better first half player, but not to this extreme. He’s a career .283/.360/.421 (116 wRC+) hitter in the first half and .240/.330/.356 (90 wRC+) in the second half. That 26 wRC+ point difference is pretty huge. Brett’s a first half player, no doubt. This year though? This year he hit .302/.377/.484 (139 wRC+) in the first half and is at .212/.318/.291 (74 wRC+) in the second half. That’s a 65 wRC+ point gap.

Anecdotally, it seems as though Gardner has been striking out more in the second half, but that’s not really the case. He had a 19.8% strikeout rate in the first half and has a 22.5% strikeout rate in the second half. Basically three extra strikeouts per 100 plate appearances. No big deal. His 23.3% strikeout rate in August wasn’t much worse either. So yes, he is striking out more, but not that much more.

Gardner’s plate discipline was fine in August, at least in the sense that it didn’t deviate from his season averages a whole lot. He swung at 20.7% of pitches out of the zone last month. His season rate is 21.4%. Gardner didn’t start hitting more grounders (39.8%) or pop-ups (6.9%) in August either. His season averages are 45.4% and 6.0%, respectively. Too pull happy? Not enough hard contact?

Brett Gardner batted ball data

Eh. Not too much of a difference there. The 6.7 percentage point drop in hard contact from the first half to the second half is disconcerting, but most of it shifted over to medium contact, not weak contact. Is that enough to explain Gardner’s .274 BABIP in August, by far his lowest month of the season? Maybe! The admittedly imperfect data suggests he was not hitting the ball as hard in August as he had earlier this season.

The more important question is why. Why isn’t Gardner hitting the ball as hard as he did earlier this season? It’s impossible to answer. It could be as simple as scorer bias — Baseball Info Solutions uses human stringers for their contact data, so one scorer’s hard hit ball could be another’s medium hit ball — or sample size issues. Maybe he’s playing hurt again. Remember, Gardner played through an abdominal strain in the second half last year, which was severe enough that he needed offseason surgery. Maybe his swing is a mess. There could be a million reasons.

Regardless of what exactly is causing Gardner’s slump, Gardner’s slump has hurt the offense overall these last few weeks. The good news is he is starting to come out it. Brett went deep last night and is 6-for-22 (.273) on the road trip, which is a heck of a lot better than what he did the rest of August. You have to squint your eyes, but the signs are there. Gardner’s hit the ball with some more authority of late, even his outs, which suggests he’s getting better swings.

Unless Gardner is playing hurt and we don’t know about it, I expect him to climb out of his slump soon enough. I have a hard time believing Brett is simply a bad hitter now. Great in the first half to zero in the second half? Not impossible, just unlikely. The Yankees will be without Mark Teixeira for the foreseeable future, so getting Gardner back on track as the No. 2 hitter is imperative. Runs are harder to come by these days, even moreso with Brett struggling.

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.