After brutal ALDS, Aaron Judge could benefit from being more aggressive in the ALCS

(Jason Miller/Getty)
(Jason Miller/Getty)

Thanks to their historic comeback from an 0-2 deficit in the ALDS, the Yankees are heading to the ALCS to the face the Astros. It’s only the eighth time in 59 total opportunities that a team came back to win the LDS after losing the first two games. And the Yankees did it against the best team in the American League. A satisfying series, it was.

Two things stand out about the ALDS comeback. One, the Yankees could’ve won that series 4-1. They had a five-run lead in Game Two, and it slipped away in part due to Joe Girardi‘s non-challenge. The Indians had not lost three straight games since July — they’d lost just four of their final previous 39 games as well — then the Yankees went out and beat them in three straight. Hot damn.

And two, the Yankees won the series and completed the comeback even though Aaron Judge, their best player and a legitimate MVP candidate, was pretty much a non-factor all series. He went 1-for-20 with 16 (!) strikeouts in the five games. The one hit was a big one, it was that two-run double against Trevor Bauer in Game Four, but still. The Indians did an incredible job keeping Judge in check.

“I haven’t been doing my job there at the top of the order, and my teammates came up big for me this series. Now it’s time to regroup and get ready for the (ALCS),” said Judge to Bryan Hoch and Dan Martin following last night’s win. “It’s not tough for me. I’ve been through this before. Everyone has. Guys were able to pick me up when I wasn’t able to get the job done.”

On one hand, the Yankees managed to win the series despite Judge’s performance, which is evidence of how good and deep they are. On the other hand, they probably can’t count on that happening again. The Yankees need Judge to contribute. Not necessarily monster homers every at-bat, though I’d take them. Quality at-bats, base hits, walks … something more than strikeouts.

Judge, to his credit, did work the count in the ALDS. He didn’t go up there, flail at three pitches for the strikeout, then head back to the dugout. He saw 138 pitches in his 24 plate appearances in the series, or 5.75 pitches per plate appearance. That’s ridiculous. We also saw a Judge take a lot of called strikes in the ALDS. Here are the pitch locations and pitch types of Judge’s called strikes in the series, via Baseball Savant:

aaron-judge-alds-called-strikes

First things first, yes, Judge did get hosed on some called strikes both down below the zone and off the edges of the plate. The called strike three on the strike ’em out, throw ’em out double play last night was particularly bad. Umpires are going to make bad calls sometimes. It happens. With Judge, it seems to happen down at the knees more than anywhere. Umps haven’t adjusted to a 6-foot-7 hitter’s strike zone, I guess.

“He’s been a little more emotional … I think sometimes young kids are afraid to say something. But I definitely wouldn’t have a problem with it,” said Girardi to Mike Mazzeo when asked whether Judge should argue balls and strikes more often. “He’s extremely respectful. But I don’t necessarily think arguing for yourself is being disrespectful if you do it in the right way. It could hurt him, too. It could go the other way, too. So it’s a fine line. You really don’t know.”

And secondly, there are more than a few hittable pitches on that plot. Breaking balls that stayed up and fastballs over the plate and in the bottom half of the strike zone. They’re not meatballs, but they were pitches he might’ve been able to do something with. Judge crushed pitches basically everywhere during the regular season. Up, down, inside, on the outer half, you name it here. Here is his regular season isolated power zone profile, via Baseball Savant:

aaron-judge-2017-iso

Those pitches down in the zone and over the middle of the plate — not the pitches down and away — Judge can handle those. He did all through the regular season. The Indians did a tremendous job keeping Judge off balance in the ALDS — by Game Two it was clear he was going to see a steady diet of breaking balls — but there definitely appeared to be some instances in which Judge let a hittable pitch go by.

The best way to avoid strikeouts? Don’t get into two-strike counts. And after an ALDS that featured lots of deep counts and also some passivity, the best way for Judge to get back on track could be being more aggressive at the plate, and jumping on those early count pitches in the zone. That isn’t to say he should be reckless and swing at everything over the plate, but look for something hittable early rather than waiting for the perfect pitch, and trying to work a long at-bat. Jump on ’em early, you know?

Fortunately for Judge, he no longer has to face the Indians pitching staff. The Astros have a great staff too! But they don’t have Corey Kluber’s slider, or Trevor Bauer’s curveball, or Carlos Carrasco’s slider, or Andrew Miller‘s slider, or Cody Allen’s curveball. Those are nasty, nasty pitches. Justin Verlander’s curveball is obviously great, as in Ken Giles’ slider, otherwise the Astros can’t bury Judge with elite breaking balls. That’s not their staff.

That doesn’t mean they won’t attack Judge’s weaknesses, of course. They’re still going to throw him breaking balls because breaking balls are harder to hit than fastballs, and anything you can do to limit how often this guy makes contact is a plus. Judge is still a threat to hit a ball off the scoreboard at any moment. Other teams don’t feel comfortable with him in the box. Judge had a rough ALDS and the Yankees won anyway. To have their best chance to beat the Astros, the Yankees will need Judge to do more at the plate, and the best way to do it may be swinging early in the count.

“He was going up against some amazing pitching,” said Brian Cashman to Hoch last night. “Turn the page and now focus on Houston. Reggie (Jackson) always talked about, ‘If you have the bat in your hand, you can change the story.’ Thankfully, he’ll have the bat in his hand for another series. He’s one of the reasons we got this far, but it takes a village. Other people were able to pick it up and find a way to carry us through.”

Yankeemetrics: Kings of the Comeback (Wild Card & ALDS)

(AP)
(AP)

Wild, wild win
From a nightmare start to a very happy ending, the Yankees used their relentless power bats to overcome a debacle on the mound in a crazy Wild Card Game victory. With the win, the Yankees snapped a five-game postseason losing streak, which was tied for the second-longest in franchise history.

Luis Severino produced one of the worst playoff starts ever, becoming the third starter in franchise history to give up three or more runs while getting pulled before recording two outs in a postseason game. The others were Art Ditmar in the 1960 World Series and Bob Turley in the 1958 World Series.

Down 3-0 before even swinging a bat and your ace is in the showers? No big deal for this Yankees team: they had the second-most wins when their opponent scored first during the regular season (36). Yet still, this victory was nearly unprecedented in major-league history. Only once before had a team won a postseason game in which their starter lasted 1/3 of an inning and allowed at least three earned runs – the Pirates in Game 7 of the 1925 World Series against the Washington Senators.

The game quickly became a battle of the bullpens and the relief crew responded with a historic performance. Chad Green, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle and Aroldis Chapman allowed just one run while striking out 13, the most strikeouts ever by a bullpen in a winner-take-all playoff contest.

Robertson’s epic outing deserves a couple #FunFacts. He’s the first Yankee reliever to throw at least 3 1/3 scoreless innings and strike out five guys in the playoffs since Mariano Rivera in Game 2 of the 1995 ALDS, and just the third reliever in major-league postseason history do that in a winner-take-all game. The other two? Pedro Martinez (1999 ALDS) and Walter Johnson (1924 World Series).

Aaron Judge put an exclamation point on the comeback with a two-run laser shot into the leftfield seats that gave the Yankees a 7-4 cushion in the fourth. Adding to his ever-growing legendary rookie campaign, he became the youngest player in franchise history to go deep in his first career postseason game. Judge also became the second-youngest Yankee to homer in a sudden-death playoff win; the other dude was a 20-year-old Mickey Mantle in Game 7 of the 1952 World Series. #NotClutch

(Newsday)
(Newsday)

Overmatched in Cleveland
The Yankees offense was a complete no-show in Game 1 of the Division Series as they were dominated from start to finish by the AL’s best team. Not only were they blanked, 4-0, but they had only three hits, the seventh postseason game all-time that the Yankees were shut out on three hits or fewer.

Adding in the 14 strikeouts, and the Yankees entered the MLB record books – in the worst possible way. This was the fifth time in major-league playoff history that a team scored zero runs, had no more than three hits and struck out at least 14 times. The Yankees are the owners of two of the five games: Thursday night and 2010 ALCS Game 3 vs Rangers. Welp.

Trevor Bauer used his nasty fastball-curve combo to throw one of the most dominant playoff pitching performances ever against this franchise. Bauer, Pedro Martinez (1999 ALCS Game 3) and Cliff Lee (2010 ALCS Game 3) are the only starters to allow no runs and two hits or fewer while striking out at least eight Yankees in a postseason game.

While the Yankees bats went M.I.A., Sonny Gray was a mess on the mound. He really struggled with his command, issuing four walks, hitting a batter and throwing a wild pitch. Only one other Yankee pitcher crammed all that into a single playoff appearance: Jack McDowell in the 1995 ALDS.

Even worse, Gray gets our Obscure Yankeemetric of the Series with this #NotFunFact: only one other starter in major-league postseason history walked four guys, hit a guy and tossed a wild pitch while pitching fewer than four innings: Ramon Ortiz (Angels) in the 2002 ALDS … against the Yankees.

(Getty)
(Getty)

No challenge, no win
Speechless.

The Yankees have suffered plenty of heart-breaking and frustrating losses this season, yet somehow Game 2 managed to top them all, zooming to first place in the W.L.O.T.S. (Worst Loss of the Season) standings. How improbable was this loss?

  • The five-run blown lead was tied for their second-largest in the postseason; the last time they gagged a five-run lead in the playoffs was the 2002 ALDS (Game 3) against the Angels. And it was the first time ever the Indians erased a deficit of five-plus runs to win a playoff game.
  • Scoring eight runs, fueled by three homers, should have been enough offense to win this game. Before Friday’s loss, the Yankees were 14-0 all-time in the postseason when scoring at least eight runs and going deep three times in a game.
  • It was just the second time the Yankees lost a postseason game on the road in the 13th inning or later. It’s probably best to not mention the other one (Game 5 of 2004 ALCS vs. the Red Sox). Sorry.

And still, sometimes, baseball is predictable. This was the third extra-inning playoff contest between these two teams — and the Yankees have now lost all three.

Obviously the major pivot point of the game was the non-challenge by Joe Girardi in the sixth inning. Before we get to the numbers, Girardi’s non-challenge was clearly an inexcusable mistake given the circumstances. Anyways, here’s a couple stats related to the at-bat.

First, Chad Green had faced 190 left-handed batters in his career entering Game 2, and had hit exactly one of them (Chris Davis last year). And Francisco Lindor’s grand slam was the first extra-base hit that Green had allowed with the bases loaded in his career. Second, the Yankees challenged six hit-by-pitch calls in the regular season, which was the most of any team (they ranked 13th in total challenges with 42). And overall, the Yankees 75 percent success rate on all challenged plays this season was the best in the majors.

Now that The Ugly chapter of this game has been written, let’s finish off with The Good. Remember, the Yankees pummeled the likely AL Cy Young winner, Corey Kluber, for six runs and seven hits. Gary Sanchez kick-started the offense with a two-run homer in the first inning. The 24-year-old is the youngest Yankee catcher to homer in a postseason (a 22-year-old Yogi Berra homered in the 1947 World Series as a pinch-hitter).

Aaron Hicks then sent Kluber to the showers with a three-run bomb in the third inning that put the Yankees ahead 6-3. That gave us a nice #FunFact: he joined Bernie Williams and Mickey Mantle as the only Yankee centerfielders to hit a tie-breaking, multi-run homer in the playoffs.

Finally, Greg Bird extended the lead to 8-3 with a towering shot to rightfield in the fifth. Bird and Sanchez became the second set of Yankee teammates under age 25 to homer in a postseason game. Joe DiMaggio and Charlie Keller also did it in Game 3 of the 1939 World Series.

(Getty)
(Getty)

It ain’t over ’til …
The Yankees staved off elimination with a dramatic 1-0 win in Game 3 on Sunday night, showing off their Fighting Spirit once again in this rollercoaster, never-say-die season.

It was the sixth 1-0 win in franchise postseason history and the third in a potential elimination game (also 2001 ALDS Game 3 and 1962 World Series Game 7). Their only other 1-0 playoff win in the Bronx was in Game 1 of the 1949 World Series against the Dodgers.

In contrast to the rest of this run-happy postseason, Game 3 was a classic – and unprecedented – pitchers duel. It was the first postseason game in major-league history where each starter allowed zero runs, no more than three hits and had at least five strikeouts.

Masahiro Tanaka delivered an ace-like performance for the Yankees, carving up the Indians lineup with his nasty, dive-bombing splitter and late-breaking slider. Considering the magnitude of the game, Tanaka’s gem becomes even more impressive and historic. A worthy #FunFact for our ‘Hiro: he is the first Yankee pitcher ever to toss at least seven scoreless innings, strike out seven-or-more guys and give up three hits or fewer in a potential postseason elimination contest.

Aroldis Chapman also came through in the clutch with a white-knuckle, five-out save to seal the win. Since saves became official in 1969, the only other pitcher in baseball history to record a save of at least five outs in a 1-0 win with his team facing postseason elimination was Mariano Rivera in Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS.

As brilliant as Tanaka and Chapman were, the Yankees couldn’t have won the game without the heroics of Greg Bird and his solo homer in the seventh off Andrew Miller. Two other Yankees have gone deep in the seventh inning or later of a postseason contest to break a 0-0 tie — Tommy Henrich in the 1949 World Series (Game 1) and Charlie Keller in the 1939 World Series (Game 4).

Finally, another #FunFact for the Birdman: he is the first player in major-league history to snap a 0-0 tie with a homer in the seventh inning or later and his team on the brink of being eliminated from the playoffs.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Stayin’ Alive
The never-say-die Yankees forced a winner-take-all Game 5 with a convincing 7-3 win at the Stadium on Monday night. The Yankees broke out of their mini-offensive slump with seven runs and were helped out by a sloppy Indians defense that led to six of them being unearned. This was just the second postseason game where a Yankee opponent allowed six or more unearned runs; the other was in Game 2 of the 1960 World Series against the Pirates.

Gary Sanchez added an insurance run in the sixth inning with a solo drive to right-center for his second homer of the postseason. Power-hitting young catchers shining in October is special; only four other backstops under age 25 have hit multiple homers in a single playoffs: Johnny Bench (1970, ’72), Javy Lopez (1995), Brian McCann (2005) and Yadier Molina (2006).

While the offensive fireworks were cool, the star of this game was Luis Severino. He bounced back from his disastrous Wild Card game outing with seven superb and gutty innings. Sevy is the second-youngest Yankee with nine strikeouts in any postseason game (trailing 22-year-old Dave Righetti in the 1981 ALDS). And he is only the fourth pitcher – of any age – in franchise history to win a potential elimination game while striking out at least nine guys. CC Sabathia (2012 ALDS Game 5), Bob Turley (1958 World Series Game 5) and Vic Raschi (1952 World Series Game 6) are the others.

(Getty)
(Getty)

#LoveThisTeam
The Yankees are Kings of the Improbable Comeback, winning Game 5 to become the 10th team in baseball history to overcome a two-games-to-zero deficit in a best-of-five series. Combined with their similar rally in the 2001 ALDS against the A’s, they joined the Red Sox as the only franchises to achieve this incredible feat twice.

Making this amazing victory even more impressive is that it came against a 102-win Indians club that was the AL’s best in the regular season. The Yankees are now 9-2 in postseason series against 100-plus-win teams, and their only losses were to the Reds in the 1976 World Series and the Cardinals in the 1942 World Series.

They’ve been at their best with their backs against the wall this entire season and especially in the playoffs, improving to 4-0 in potential elimination games and 2-0 in winner-take-all games in this postseason. It is the first time in franchise history they’ve won four games when facing elimination in a single postseason, and the first time they’ve won multiple winner-take-all games in a single postseason.

(New York Post)
(New York Post)

Didi Gregorius had a performance for the ages, lighting up the scoreboard early and often, with a solo homer in the opening frame and then going deep again in the third inning. He joined Jason Giambi (2003 ALCS Game 7) and Yogi Berra (1956 World Series Game 7) as the only Yankees with multiple homers in a winner-take-all postseason game. And … he’s the first shortstop in franchise history to go yard twice in any playoff game.

While Didi provided the power, Brett Gardner brought the grit. He won a grueling 12-pitch battle with Cody Allen in the ninth inning, lacing an RBI single into right field to give the Yankees a three-run cushion with three outs to go. Remarkably, it was the longest at-bat of his career that G.G.B.G. ended with a hit.

CC Sabathia was lights-out through four innings before getting into trouble in the fifth, but still finished with nine strikeouts. That matched his career postseason high that he set in the deciding Game 5 of the 2012 ALDS. Sabathia is just the fourth pitcher in major-league history to whiff at least nine guys in a winner-take-all game twice in his career. The others? Bob Gibson, Curt Schilling and Justin Verlander.

Aroldis Chapman sealed the win with two near-perfect innings and entered the record books with this remarkable #FunFact: He is the first pitcher in postseason history to save a winner-take-all game by throwing at least two hitless innings and striking out four or more guys.

************
We will see you Friday night!

The Yankees and Greg Bird have waited a long time for him to do what he’s doing right now

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Last night was, hands down, one of the most intense and thrilling games in new Yankee Stadium history. There have been plenty of emotional farewells and of course there was plenty of drama during the 2009 postseason, but last night? It’s hard to top that. A riveting 1-0 win in an elimination game against a great Indians team makes for wonderful baseball theater.

The Yankees scored their only run last night when, of all things, a left-handed batter took Andrew Miller deep. That doesn’t happen often. It only happened once in the regular season, in fact. But, leading off the seventh inning, Miller left a fastball up in the zone and Greg Bird turned it around for a mighty blast into the right field second deck. Here is the very necessary video:

Yankee Stadium was shaking. It was as loud as any postseason game at the old ballpark. These Yankees are good, they’re fun, and the fans are eating it up. All game long the crowd was waiting to erupt — Masahiro Tanaka did provide some nice stress-release moments along the way — and when Bird lifted that ball to right field, the place exploded. It was great. Everything you could want in a baseball game.

The Yankees are in the postseason right now mostly because their young players emerged as key contributors in a very short period of time. Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Luis Severino were all All-Stars this year and are the headliners in the youth movement, and understandably so. There’s also Chad Green and Jordan Montgomery, and others like Clint Frazier and Miguel Andujar provided some exciting moments this year as well.

Bird was supposed to be part of that group this season. He hit third on Opening Day! Remember that? Bird tore the cover off the ball in Spring Training after missing all of last year with shoulder surgery, and it looked like he was poised to have a big year. Sanchez was the star of the show after last season, but Bird showed he could hit big league pitching in 2015, and now that he was healthy, he would reclaim his place as the first baseman of the future.

“I bet on it. To be honest with you, I bet on it. I bet on myself,” said Bird after last night’s win. “I got a little taste in 2015 and I’ve wanted nothing more than to be back. And going through the shoulder thing was tough, and I thought I got through that, and then obviously dealing with the ankle thing. I learned a lot, though, and like I said, I bet on myself and I knew I could come back and be a part of this.”

An ankle injury quickly sabotaged Bird’s season, really before it even had a chance to start. He fouled a pitch off the ankle in Spring Training, played hurt throughout April, then had to be placed on the disabled list in May. Eventually he had to have surgery, and it wasn’t until mid-August that Bird returned to the lineup. And at that point, no one knew what to expect. Of course Bird is talented, but boy he missed a lot of time the last two years.

Not surprisingly, it took Bird some time to get his bearings at the plate. He went 9-for-43 (.209) with 12 strikeouts in his first 15 games back from the ankle injury, and Chase Headley was still getting plenty of time at first base. It wasn’t until mid-September that Bird really started to lock in at the plate. He went 13-for-44 (.295) with six home runs and nearly as many walks (six) as strikeouts (eight) in his last 14 games of the regular season.

That hot finish to the regular season has carried over into the postseason. Bird drove in a run in the Wild Card Game and hit a two-run home run in Game Two of the ALDS on Friday. Then, last night, Bird took Miller deep for that solo home run in the 1-0 season-saving win. Through four postseason games Bird is 5-for-16 (.313) with two homers, three walks, and a hit-by-pitch, which works out to a .450 OBP.

“As I’ve said about Greg Bird, I think he’s built for this park. I really do,” said Joe Girardi after last night’s game. “Just the way he played in the playoffs and the way he finished up the year, I felt really good. It’s great to have him back healthy. It sure is.”

The last two years have no doubt been difficult for Bird given all the injuries, and the Yankees have been remained very patient because they believe in him. They didn’t bring in a big name first baseman over the winter despite Bird’s shoulder surgery. Rather than add a first baseman at the trade deadline, they stuck with their in-house options because they thought there was a chance Bird would come back.

The Yankees have waited an awfully long time for this version of Bird to arrive, and now he’s arrived at exactly the right time. He’s finished strong in the regular season and has been the team’s best hitter through four postseason games. And for Bird himself, this has to feel awfully rewarding. He spent many days in Tampa rehabbing and watching the Yankees on television. That’s tough. Being away from the team that long is no fun.

“What got me through it? My family and my close friends. I have a great group, really, and they know who they are and they’re really special to me,” said Bird last night. “At times, it was hard. I mean, just watching from afar … I just like being there. So what a wild ride it’s been. But like I said, I knew we had a good team and we’d be here and I was hoping that I could be part of it.”

Matt Holliday doesn’t have a clear role in the ALDS

(Elsa/Getty Images)
(Elsa/Getty Images)

All but five players on the Yankees’ 25-man ALDS roster have played in this series.

Two of the five are the Game 3 and 4 starters, Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino, who will each pitch if the series gets to Monday. One is Jordan Montgomery, the break in case of emergency reliever or blowout mop-up man. Another is Austin Romine, the backup catcher.

And then there’s Matt Holliday. What’s his role again? That’s a good question.

Holliday is no longer the designated hitter. That much is clear. The Yankees have flipped between Jacoby Ellsbury and Chase Headley at DH for the last week except during last Sunday’s meaningless game vs. the Jays. While starting Ellsbury at DH means no true backup outfielder, Joe Girardi has gone with him anyway.

Now 37-years-old, Holliday hasn’t played the outfield all year and there’s obviously no way he’s starting ahead of Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks or Aaron Judge. It’s highly doubtful the team feels comfortable with him playing the field, even at first base, which he played a few times early in the year. Greg Bird is the man at first, with Headley and Todd Frazier likely ahead of Holliday in the pecking order.

So where does Holliday fit in? In theory, he makes most sense pinch hitting (or starting) against left-handed pitching. He has normal splits, batting .220/.301/.418 (89 wRC+) vs. RHP and .267/.366/.477 (125 wRC+) vs. LHP.

The Indians have a rotation with 4-6 righties and no lefties. That means no starts.

So that leaves him as logically only worth pinch hitting against the two lefties on the Indians’ roster: former Yankees Andrew Miller and Tyler Olson. Olson pitched to only Ellsbury, Frazier and Gardner in the third/fourth inning on Friday, too early to go to a pinch hitter for Ellsbury.

Miller has pitched against the DH twice in this series. In the eighth inning on Thursday, Girardi kept Headley up there with none on and one out (he drew a walk). With Ellsbury coming up and none on, two outs in the eighth on Friday, Girardi pinch hit … Headley, not Holliday.

So in the most logical spot to use Holliday, Girardi chose Headley instead. It’s hard to quibble with the decision, too. Headley had walked vs. Miller the day before and was 5 for 7 with that walk against Miller in his career going into Friday night. Those numbers are hard to argue with.

That’s before you mention that Holliday is 0-for-4 vs. Miller and 0-for-1 vs. Olson in his career. He’s just 1-for-7 as a pinch hitter this year, 9-for-43 in his career. He doesn’t seem well-suited for the job he ostensibly fills.

So I repeat: What is his role on this roster? The Yankees could have used another pinch runner or an extra outfielder, which Tyler Wade or Clint Frazier could provide. They have DH covered. They aren’t facing many LHPs and Miller pitches well against both lefties and righties.

After being unable to play in National League parks early in the year, Holliday ironically makes the most sense in a series against an NL squad where pinch-hitting opportunities abound and all four playoff squads feature left-handed starters.

When asked on Saturday whether Holliday would play on Sunday, Girardi said, “We will continue to look at things and we’ll see.” He’s 1-for-4 with a single against Carlos Carrasco in his career, which is better than Headley’s numbers against the Indians’ starter. However, Ellsbury hits him well (8-for-21 with a triple, home run and two walks), so he makes the most sense to start.

And that likely leaves Holliday waiting on the bench once again, the 25th man on the 25-man roster. Maybe he finds his way into this series, facing Olson at an opportune time or being used to deke Terry Francona away from even going to the lefty. However, it seems like the Yankees could have put the spot to better use than a RHB without a clear position or role.

Chase Headley should be the Yankees’ ALDS DH

(David Maxwell/Getty Images)
(David Maxwell/Getty Images)

After scoring eight runs in the Wild Card Game, the Yankees may not be inclined to switch up their lineup. Yet one small change could be their most prudent move.

Therefore, I’d advocate for Joe Girardi to move Chase Headley back to designated hitter and have Jacoby Ellsbury come off the bench.

Ellsbury provided a lot to the Yankees’ late-season surge. From Aug. 26 to Sept. 20, he went 29-for-73 with nine doubles, two triples and a homer, sporting a .397/.494/.616 (194 wRC+) line. That doesn’t include record-setting catcher’s interference(!). Filling in after Aaron Hicks‘ injury, he became a reliable presence and looked like the player the team thought it was getting when he signed in the 2013-14 offseason.

But he’s gone cold. In his last eight games of the regular season, he went just 5-for-30 with a double and a walk, striking out six times. He followed that up with an 0-for-4 performance on Tuesday. Just like the 73 AB sample above, there isn’t a whole lot to go off, but he hasn’t been quite as useful.

Meanwhile, Headley has been similarly cold, which likely led to his benching in the first place. In his last 40 PA, he batted 6-for-36 with three walks and a HBP, no extra-base hits. After three homers in his first five games of the September, his power went back to previous levels. Again, small sample size.

So this move is less about trends and more about what it opens up on the roster. As I detailed last month, Ellsbury is an ideal pinch runner if he’s not starting. He was 22-for-25 stealing bases and has an 82.9 percent success rate on steals in his career. He’s the Yankees’ best option to wreak havoc on the bases now that Tyler Wade was taken off the roster.

With Ellsbury on the bench (and Aaron Hicks still in centerfield), the only is that if he solely pinch runs for anyone, the Yankees won’t have a backup outfielder remaining on the bench. They’d have Headley and Todd Frazier for first base. Ronald Torreyes for the middle infield and third. Then no one left for the outfield. Sometimes that’s a risk you take though.

The team removed both C. Frazier and Wade from the roster to make room for Jaime Garcia and Jordan Montgomery. Now that they’ve decided they need 12 pitchers, which may be a mistake, they can simply use Ellsbury as a fourth outfielder and have Torreyes as the emergency man on the corners. Not ideal, but serviceable with Frazier or Wade able to be called up in case of injury.

That option is a no-go if Ellsbury is at DH unless the team is willing to insert the pitcher into the lineup. That is because the Yankees weren’t willing to remove Matt Holliday from the roster even though he only serves as a pinch hitter and doesn’t serve much, if any, defensive role on the roster. However, Holliday is still a solid option against the Indians’ left-handed relievers and should be their best offensive option off the bench.

There were many permutations for the Yankees’ ALDS roster. It could have involved 11 pitchers or 12. Two outfielders on the bench or one. The Yankees opted for 12 pitches which leaves them one fewer outfielder on the bench. But, either way, having Headley as the designated hitter would be the prudent move for the ALDS.

Yankeemetrics: Goodbye, regular season (Sept. 29-Oct. 1)

(AP)
(AP)

Terrific Tanaka
The Yankees opened their final regular-season series with a 4-0 shutout of the Blue Jays, reaching the 90-win plateau for the first time since 2012 and the 61st time in team history. That’s 19(!) more 90-win seasons than any other franchise (Giants have 42).

Masahiro Tanaka was absolutely dominant as he carved up Toronto’s lineup, retiring the first 14 batters – including 10 via strike three – en route to one of the most spectacular outings of his pinstriped career. He finished with a career-best 15 strikeouts and no walks in seven scoreless innings. Let’s recap this historic gem:

  • First Yankee ever to strike out at least 15 guys, walk none and allow no runs in a game.
  • Second pitcher in major-league history with 15-plus strikeouts, no walks and no runs in an outing of seven innings or fewer. Mike Mussina also did it on September 24, 2000 against the Red Sox.
  • It was his third start this year with 13 or more strikeouts – he’s the only pitcher in franchise history to have a trio of games like that in one season.

In all three of those 13-strikeout, zero-walk games he also gave up no more than one run. Tanaka is one of two pitchers in the history of baseball to have three games with at least 13 strikeouts, no walks and one run or fewer allowed in a single season. The other guy you might have heard of, Pedro Martinez, in 2000.

Tanaka’s first and last starts of the regular season perfectly encapsulate the bizarre and confounding campaign he’s had this year. In his first start, he tossed a clunker (7 runs, 2 2/3 innings vs. Rays), which was one of five games he allowed at least seven earned runs. In his final start, he authored a 15-strikeout, no-walk gem, which was one of three games with at least 13 strikeouts and zero walks.

Putting those two bizarro notes together, we get this head-scratching factoid for Tanaka:

  • Five starts allowing at least seven earned runs are the most in the American League this year.
  • Three 13-strikeout, no-walk games are the most in MLB this year. In fact, the rest of the pitchers in the majors combined for four such starts!
(AP)
(AP)

Vintage Sabathia, Record-breaking Judge
The Yankees extended their win streak on Saturday with a narrow 2-1 victory, but their chase for the division crown ended as the Red Sox beat the Astros to secure first place in the AL East. Still, the Yankees have made a strong push towards postseason these past few weeks, and finished up the month with a 20-8 record, their most September wins since 1995.

CC Sabathia – in possibly his last start as a Yankee – delivered yet another vintage performance, scattering four hits across 5 2/3 scoreless innings, while lowering his ERA to 3.69. He is the third Yankee southpaw to start at least 25 games in his age-36 season or older and finish with an ERA that low, along with Tommy John (1979, 1980, 1982) and Whitey Ford (1965).

Sabathia gave up one run or fewer in nearly half (12) of his 27 starts this season, which gives us to a notable #FunFact for the large lefty: Only one other Yankee pitcher as old as Sabathia (age 36+) compiled 12 or more starts with one run or fewer allowed in a season – Spud Chandler had 14 in 1946.

In the least surprising news of the day, Aaron Judge broke another record. He destroyed a 2-0 fastball from Marcus Stroman in the fourth inning, clearing the bleachers in left-center with a blast that Statcast measured at 484 feet, the second-longest homer of his career. Since Statcast began tracking distance in 2015, Judge is the only player to hit multiple homers of 480-plus feet in one season.

It was also the 33rd time he went deep in the Bronx and the 15th time he cleared the fences in September. Seems good, right?

  • 33 homers are the most ever by a Yankee at home, one more than Ruth in 1921 at the Polo Grounds. Ruth played 78 home games that year; this was Judge’s 77th game at the Stadium.
  • 15 homers are the most in a calendar month by a Yankee since Roger Maris had 15 in June 1961.
  • He joined Babe Ruth as the only guys in franchise history with at least 15 homers and 25 walks in a calendar month (Ruth did it in May 1928 and June 1930).
  • The 25-year-old is the youngest player in Major-league history to hit 15-plus homers and walk more than 25 times in any calendar month.
(AP)
(AP)

Bring on the Twins
The Yankees wrapped up the regular season with a meaningless loss to the Blue Jays on Sunday afternoon, a game in which the biggest takeaway is that everyone stayed healthy. Well, it was meaningless in terms of the standings and playoff implications. But, this is Yankeemetrics so let’s dig into the best stats and numbers from Game No. 162.

With Sunday’s 2-1 loss, the Yankees finished the season with an 18-26 record in games decided by one run. It’s their most one-run losses since 1990 (29) and their worst record in one-run games since 1981 (21-32). What does that mean? The 1990 club was one of the worst in franchise history — their 95 losses are the third-most by a Yankee team, and their .414 is the fourth-worst; the 1981 club went to the World Series (lost in six games to the Dodgers). So it means … nothing?!

The most encouraging performance in this game was delivered by Jordan Montgomery, who capped off his terrific rookie campaign with another impressive outing (1 run, 2 hits, 5 2/3 innings). He finished with 144 strikeouts, the seventh-most by a Yankee rookie and the most since Ron Guidry had 176 in 1977.

The bullpen didn’t allow another hit, but still coughed up a run on a groundout, resulting in #weirdbaseball loss. It was the first time in nearly four decades the Yankees lost a home game in which they gave up no more than two hits. That last time it happened was August 3, 1979 against the Orioles — the first game following Thurman Munson’s tragic death.

Finally, let’s end on a positive note with an #AaronJudgeFact that sums up his elite combo of patience (127 walks) and power (52 homers). Just three other players* in Major-League history have reached those homer and walk totals in a season: Barry Bonds (2001), Mark McGwire (1999, 1998) and Babe Ruth (1928, 1927, 1921, 1920).

Beginning at the End

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Yesterday, CC Sabathia walked off the mound after 5 2/3 innings. There is a chance that was the last time he walked off the mound as a starter in the regular season for the New York Yankees. Thinking back on it hours later, if it was his last time–I hope it wasn’t–it marks the end of something great, but hopefully the beginning of something that has the potential to be even greater.

CC hasn’t been a dominant pitcher in a long time and Masahiro Tanaka has been the Yankees’ best starter since he arrived; but he might be out the door as well. Two potential endings to two great Yankee careers. But right behind them, there’s a new beginning with equal potential: Luis Severino. It’s impossible to overstate just how good Severino was this year. The only pitchers better than him over the course of the season, really, were Corey Kluber and Chris Sale. That’s some damn good company. Is it likely that Severino has a year this good again? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be great going forward, and it looks like he will. As two ace-like pitchers (possibly? probably?) end their careers as Yankees, another one is taking over at just the right time. Are you ready for the Luis Severino Era?

Love these dudes. (Elsa/Getty)
Love these dudes. (Elsa/Getty)

Who else is ready to see that over and over and over for the next ten years? Hell. Friggin’. Yes. The end of this incredible season by Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge hopefully marks the beginning of a long run of offensive prowess and dominance by two young players that we haven’t seen in decades. Even back in the 90’s, Paul O’Neill and Bernie Williams were established when Derek Jeter was establishing himself. And was like O’Neill and Williams when Jorge Posada began his prominence. The most apt comparison is the pair of Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, forging their ways as Yankee pitching mainstays. Sanchez and Judge are doing it on the other side of the ball, though, and with a chance for both of them to be more dominant at their positions than Pettitte ever was. To match Mo, well, that’s a hard ask, isn’t it?

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Like in September of 2015, Greg Bird has been on fire this month. He was slow out of the block this year before being injured, and was somewhat inconsistent upon his return from the DL. Is he completely clear now, to the point where the Yankees can fully trust him for 2018 and beyond in terms of health? Eh… But his offensive performance this month speaks to his potential: a patient, powerful first baseman who can man the middle of the order with his counterparts at catcher and right field for years to come.

These individual accomplishments–hopefully big beginnings at the end of this surprising season–by homegrown Yankee youngsters are just a microcosm of the team and the organization at large. This was a year that took us all by surprise, but it happened. Just as we cross our fingers for the players above to be great for a long time, we do the same for the team. And if this season–especially its end–is any indication, we’re in for a fun few years. Now let’s just get through Tuesday.