The Four-Week Starting Catcher

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Shortly after Monday’s 8-1 drubbing of the Rays, the Yankees announced that Gary Sanchez would miss roughly four weeks with a strained brachialis muscle. All things considered, that isn’t terrible news – I was all but certain that he tore something on Saturday, given his reaction and the speed with which he was put on the disabled list, and visions of Greg Bird were dancing in my head. Comparatively speaking, Sanchez sitting out until May 8 or so is positively fantastic news.

In the interim, however, the Yankees lineup will be unquestionably weaker. Sanchez was expected to be the team’s best hitter heading into the season, and the drop-off from him to Austin Romine is larger than any other gap between starter and back-up on this roster. Romine is perfectly adequate as a reserve, but his limitations as a hitter become more glaring as he garners more plate appearances, and his defense is more good than great.

That being said, perhaps we should be talking about the drop-off from Sanchez to Kyle Higashioka instead. The 26-year-old was officially called-up on Sunday, and made his big league debut in the 9th inning of the home opener, catching the last three outs of the game. Joe Girardi has been noncommittal about the team’s plans, hinting at the nebulous ‘shared duty,’ so the playing time split appears to be up in the air.

How should the Yankees handle it?

The Case for Romine

Romine has played 123 games behind the plate in the Majors, and has been a solid presence defensively. He throws out would-be basestealers at a roughly league-average rate, and his pitch framing abilities are passable at worst (0.7 framing runs in his career). The deeper you dig into the numbers, the more average he seems – and that’s just fine. It’s not nearly as good as Sanchez, but he’s not hurting the team behind the dish, either.

That modicum of defensive value is just about all that you’ll get from Romine, though. He slashed .242/.269/.382 (68 wRC+) last year, and has hit .219/.256/.324 (53 wRC+) in his career. And while he’s only had 371 PA at this level, it’s difficult to envision him getting much better, given his age (28) and minor league numbers (.251/.307/.371 in 811 PA at Triple-A). Those aren’t terrible numbers for a back-up catcher, but it represents a severe drop-off from Sanchez, and a sizable dip from the average catcher (87 wRC+ for the position in 2016).

It is possible that we should look into how Romine handles pitchers, though. Much was said on Monday about how beautifully he worked with Michael Pineda, and there could be something to that. After all, Big Mike was at his best when he pitched to Romine last year:

pineda

There are several problems in working with a sample size such as this, as it ignores the ballpark and the quality of the competition (among other things), but it jibes with Romine’s reputation of knowing how to handle the pitching staff. And it isn’t just Pineda, either – Masahiro Tanaka posted better strikeout, walk, and home run rates while throwing to Romine. CC Sabathia had an unsightly 6.85 ERA with Romine as his battery mate, but he also managed 23 strikeouts against just 4 BB in 23.2 IP, so it wasn’t all bad.

It’s difficult to draw a clear-cut point about Romine’s work with the pitching staff, given the aforementioned sample sizes and sampling issues in general, but there’s a certain level of certainty that comes with him. That certainty may only be that he won’t actively hurt the team – but it’s something to cling to.

The Case for Higashioka

Higashioka hit .293/.355/.509 (136 wRC+) in 256 PA at Double-A last year, and .250/.306/.514 (131 wRC+) in 160 PA at Triple-A. That level of offense is unknown to Romine at any level of professional baseball, and it came in Higashioka’s first healthy season … ever, basically. The 26-year-old missed time every year from 2012 through 2015, with a litany of ailments and injuries, including Tommy John Surgery in 2013. It’s been a long road to the show.

While 2016 represented a heretofore unknown level of production for Higashioka, there are reasons beyond the injuries to suspect that it wasn’t a simple fluke. He has long drawn praise for owning a solid hit tool and above-average raw power, and he has always maintained strong contact rates in the minors (16.4 K% across all levels). He’s known as an aggressive hitter, and that shone through at Triple-A last year – but a career 8.1% walk rate isn’t too shabby, and he managed a 10.2% walk rate at Double-A prior to his promotion. The injuries hindered his development arc significantly, and his production last year may exaggerate his offensive potential, but the bat has always been Higashioka’s calling card.

Higashioka looked comfortable in Spring Training this year, as well, slashing .296/.406/.630 in 32 PA. There were rumblings that he had earned himself the back-up job, given all that had happened since the beginning of 2016, but Romine’s lack of options and the desire for Higashioka to continue to develop (more on that in a bit) made the team’s decision fairly easy.

Analyzing Higashioka’s defense is a bit tricky, given his lack of experience at the highest level. Scouting reports credit him for moving well behind the plate, and ding him for a weak throwing arm (and this was even before TJS). Baseball Prospectus credits Higashioka for 16.3 framing runs between Double-A and Triple-A last year, which is excellent, and he threw out 30% of attempted basestealers, which is right around average. Minor league defensive numbers are a bit shaky, but it seems reasonable to say that he’s at least an average-ish defender.

The key to all of this, however, might just be development. Higashioka is the team’s back-up of the future; that doesn’t sound sexy, but it could mean a larger role if the team gives Sanchez more time at DH to keep him healthy while keeping his bat in the lineup. Sitting on the bench for four weeks isn’t going to do much to prepare Higashioka for that role, nor is it going to give the Yankees a great idea as to what he can do.


In my mind, the decision should be relatively easy for the Yankees – Higashioka should be playing everyday, regardless of the level. If he’s going to be on the big league roster for the next four weeks, he should start the majority of those games. It may sound weird to talk about developing a 26-year-old, and for a back-up role at that, but it makes more sense than calling him up to sit behind a known replacement-level commodity.

Five things we’ve learned about the Yankees one week into the 2017 season

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

For the third time in the first nine days of the 2017 season, the Yankees have an off-day today. This one is a happy off-day. They won the home opener convincingly yesterday, one day after rallying late to beat the Orioles in Camden Yards. The Yankees are 3-4 through their first seven games of the new season. Not great, but considering they were nine outs away from a 1-5 record through six games fewer than 48 hours ago, I’ll take it.

The first week of the season is the best time to watch baseball because woo baseball’s back! We’ve been waiting all winter for this. The first week is also the worst time to analyze baseball because the sample sizes are tiny. Our eyes lie to us these first few days. Not everything needs a large sample size though. We can make some observations after only seven games, and I’m going to do that right now. Here are five things, in no particular order, we’ve learned about the 2017 Yankees through the first week of the new season.

The new Sabathia is sustainable

Seven games into the season, CC Sabathia has been unquestionably the best starter in the rotation, allowing three runs total in eleven innings in his two starts. He chucked five shutout innings in his first start and allowed three runs in six innings next time out, and both starts were reminiscent of last season. Sabathia danced in and out of danger and did a nice job limiting hard contact. The Orioles got to him with a bunch of soft line drives to the shallow outfield Sunday.

Last year the 36-year-old Sabathia reinvented himself after being wholly ineffective from 2013-15, mostly by adding a cutter and doing a better job neutralizing right-handed batters. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. Sabathia is having more success against righties because of the cutter. He’s always been good against lefties — he’s not as effective as he once was against them, but he’s still able to keep them in check — but righties hit him hard the last few years. We’re talking .304/.363/.502 (.370 wOBA) in 2015. Yikes.

MLB switched from PitchFX to Trackman this season and there have been some pitch classification issues early on — I had an entire Dylan Bundy post at CBS get borked by classification issues — so for some reason Sabathia’s cutters are being classified as four-seamer fastballs. Watching the games though, you can see he’s throwing a cutter, not a straight four-seamer. Here’s how he’s pitched righties through two starts, via FanGraphs (view is from the catcher’s perspective):

cc-sabathia-vs-rhb

Cutters — four-seamers according to Trackman, but nah — inside and everything else outside. Same as last year. And it’s working too. Sabathia has had two solid starts and he’s held righties to a .212/.333/.212 (.266 wOBA) batting line early on. (He won’t be that good against righties all season, obviously.) That Sabathia has already been able to carry over last season’s approach and success is encouraging. His days as an ace are over. We know that. Based on last season and the first two starts this year, Sabathia can still be a serviceable big league starting pitcher.

Gardner will be more aggressive on the bases

Over the last four seasons Brett Gardner‘s stolen base totals have fallen from 24 to 21 to 20 to 16. His stolen base attempts have declined from 32 to 26 to 25 to 20. Gardner is 33 now and players that age typically don’t run as much as they did earlier in their careers, but you can’t help but shake the feeling he (and Jacoby Ellsbury, for that matter) is capable of more on the bases.

“I definitely think we should be more aggressive and I need to be more aggressive. Not only hopefully do a better job of getting on base but when I do, I’m going to run a little more often, for sure,” said Gardner to Brendan Kuty back in Spring Training. And through seven games, Gardner has five steals in five attempts. He didn’t steal his fifth base until the team’s 27th game last year, and it wasn’t until the 36th game that he stole his sixth base.

Furthermore, Gardner is running early in the count. He’s had an annoying tendency to wait and wait and wait before stealing a bag, rather than going early and giving the hitter a better chance to drive him in. Gardner has stolen all five bases on the third pitch of the at-bat this year. You’d like him to go first or second pitch, but going on the third pitch is better than going fifth or sixth pitch, you know? He said he was going to be more aggressive on the bases and we’ve seen it so far.

“I talked to (Gardner) in Spring Training. Gave him a goal, basically,” said Joe Girardi following yesterday’s game. “Your job is to score 100 runs, and I don’t care how you get to the next base, but your job is to score 100 runs. If you do that, and Ells can do that, we’re going to have a pretty good offense. He’s run a lot, he’s swung the bat extremely well, he’s played defense extremely well, so he’s off to a great start.”

Ellsbury, meanwhile, has only one steal so far, but it was kind of a big one. He pinch-ran for Matt Holliday in the ninth inning of a tie game Sunday, and stole second on the very first pitch. Again, Gardner and Ellsbury are both 33 and will soon be 34. Their days of stealing 40+ bases a year are probably over. Speed typically doesn’t age well. They do seem to be capable of more than their 36 combined steals last season though, and they’re off to a nice start on the bases in 2017, especially Gardner.

Judge is adjusting to MLB pitching

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

The overall numbers are pretty awesome thus far: .261/.320/.565 (150 wRC+) with a double and two home runs. It’s still early, of course. More important than the raw numbers these first 25 plate appearances is how much more comfortable Aaron Judge looks so far this year compared to last year. Last season, when he fell into a two-strike count, Judge was basically in survival mode. Pitchers picked him apart and the result was a 44.2% strikeout rate.

So far this year Judge has struck out six times in 25 plate appearances, a 24.0% rate, and his approach looks so more better. He’s not chasing out of the zone as often. He’s doing a much better job laying off those breaking balls down and away, the pitch that gave him such a hard time time in 2016. Judge also isn’t swinging and missing at pitches in the strike zone nearly as much. Here are the quick numbers, which come with big ol’ sample size warnings:

  • Judge in 2016: 34.9% chase rate and 74.3% contact rate in the zone
  • Judge in 2017: 25.5% chase rate and 92.3% contact rate in the zone
  • MLB averages 2016-17: 30.8% chase rate and 86.4% contact rate in the zone

All throughout his career Judge’s tendency has been to struggle initially when he gets to a new level, then adjust and have success. He struggled big time last season after being called up. Sure, he mashed some long home runs, but the strikeouts piled up and were a major concern. How could they not be? We’ve yet to see that version of Judge this year, the one who can’t make contact. He’s provided some nice punch from the bottom third of the lineup.

“I think it’s important he contributes,” said Girardi yesterday. “Being a young player can be difficult at times, when you get off to slow starts. Maybe you’re not swinging quite as well as people think you should. There’s a lot of expectations placed on you. Anytime you’re able to contribute — and he’s contributed pretty big the last two days — I think it helps them relax a little bit.”

Seven games doesn’t tell us anything definitive about Judge this season. He could slip into a 4-for-40 with 25 strikeouts slump tomorrow. Early on though, he looks more comfortable at the plate, especially in two-strike counts, and that is really encouraging. He’s worked hard to make changes and put himself in the best position to succeed. We’re starting to see the results of that work now that he’s swinging and missing less often.

Yes, there will be growing pains with the kids

Spring Training sure was fun, wasn’t it? Greg Bird and Gary Sanchez hit the snot out of the ball and it was hard not to get excited about them hitting second and third in the regular season. Naturally, both have started the regular season slowly. Bird was off to a 1-for-16 (.063) start — the one hit was a bloop just inside the foul line — before getting sick over the weekend and sitting out a few games. Sanchez went 3-for-20 (.150) with a homer before landing on the disabled list with a biceps issue.

Fair or unfair, the combination of their first impressions — Bird in the second half of 2015 and Sanchez in the second half of 2016 — and dynamite springs raised expectations. The Yankees certainly expect Bird and Sanchez to be key contributors this year given their lineup positions. The first week of the season was a harsh reminder that yeah, these are two kids in their first full MLB season, and there will be bumps along the way. They’re better than they’ve shown so far. Much better. Ups and down come with the territory with young players though.

Carter is an imperfect bench piece

The Yankees were smart to pick up Chris Carter on the cheap at the end of the offseason because hey, 40-homer bats don’t grow on trees, plus no one knew what to expect from Bird. We still don’t know what Bird can do this season. I think he’ll be good, but I don’t know that. Adding Carter as a safety net was a nifty little low-cost addition. Dingers are cool. I like dingers.

At the same time, Bird showed his shoulder is sound in Spring Training and the Yankees are committed to playing him, which leaves Carter on the bench. Before Bird’s recent illness, Carter pinch-hit twice in the first four games of the season, and that’s it. He can’t do much else. He’s a first baseman (and designated hitter) only, so he offers no versatility, and given his splits, ideally he’d hit against lefties. There’s a very specific set of conditions that have to be met for Carter to play.

Bird is out sick now (and his ankle is acting up), so the Yankees are happy to have Carter as a temporary fill-in. When Bird is healthy though — and especially once he starts hitting, which is only a matter of time — Carter’s usefulness is limited. He basically gets to pinch-hit against lefties in the late innings, and even then he’s only going to pinch-hit for certain batters. Ronald Torreyes and Austin Romine, essentially. That’s about it. Meh.

Yankeemetrics: Baltimore Chopped (April 7-9)

Get well soon, El Gary. (Getty Images)
Get well soon, El Gary. (Getty Images)

Leads are for wimps
The season-opening road trip headed north to Camden Yards, a house of horrors recently for this Yankees team. They entered the weekend with a 7-20 record at the ballpark since 2014, the second-worst mark by any AL team in that span, and were 1-8 in nine series openers there over the previous three seasons.

Make that 7-21 and 1-9 in road series openers against the Orioles after Friday night’s 6-5 loss.

Luis Severino got a no-decision, extending his winless streak to 13 starts dating back to his final start of 2015. Over the last 15 seasons, that’s tied with Phil Hughes (2013) for the most consecutive starts without a win by any Yankee pitcher.

The big blow came off the bat of Manny Machado, who drilled a 96-mph fastball for a three-run homer into the left field bleachers to cut the Yankees lead to 5-4 in the fifth inning.

Of the 21 homers Severino has allowed in the majors, more than half (14) have come on pitches 95 mph or faster. Since the start of last season, opponents have slugged .522 on his 95-plus mph four-seam fastballs, the fourth-highest mark among major-league pitchers in that span (min. 75 at-bats).

Gary Sanchez broke out of his early slump with a 2-for-3 effort that included a monster 426-foot home run in the top of the fifth. Since August 1 of last season, Sanchez has four homers of at least 425 feet, and the rest of the Yankees have combined for three such bombs.

It was his 21st career homer in his 59th career game – the second-most homers for any player in major-league history before their 60th game. Boston Braves outfielder Wally Berger had 22 homers in his first 59 games in 1930.

Brett Gardner sparked the offense with three hits, three runs scored and two stolen bases. He’s the first Yankee to reach those totals since … Gardner did it six years ago (July 17, 2011) vs Toronto. The only other Yankees to have multiple games with at least three hits, three runs and two stolen bases in their career are Rickey Henderson (3), Snuffy Stirnweiss (2) and Chuck Knoblauch (2).

Mr. 2,000. (Getty Images)
Mr. 2,000. (Getty Images)

Another painful loss
It was deja vu for the Yankees on Saturday afternoon, as they once again built an early multi-run lead, coughed it up in the middle innings, resulting in yet another frustrating one-run loss. It also clinched yet another losing road series to the Orioles, the 10th consecutive set they’ve lost at Camden Yards.

How long has it been since they actually won a series in Baltimore? When they clinched their last series win there on Sept. 11, 2013, Mariano Rivera posted the 651st save of his career and Andy Pettitte tossed a quality start; Curtis Granderson, A-Rod and Robinson Cano each homered in the 5-4 victory.

For the third time in the last five seasons, the Yankees are 1-4 through five games. They are the only MLB team to start 1-4 or worse three times since 2013.

Masahiro Tanaka looked solid through the first four innings before unraveling in the fifth. He really struggled with his command, hitting a guy and walking two others while giving up two runs. Adam Warren relieved him in the sixth inning, making it the fifth time in five games that the team’s starter didn’t go more than five innings.

This is just the second time in the last 100 years that no Yankee starting pitcher recorded an out in the sixth inning in the first five games of the season. It also happened in 2007, with a rotation of Carl Pavano, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina and Darrell Rasner.

Milestone Alert! Matt Holliday provided one of the few highlights, notching his 2,000th hit with a single in the first inning. He joined Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera as the only active players with at least 2,000 hits and a .500-or-better career slugging percentage.

Rally Time
The Yankees flipped the script in the final game of the series as they avoided the sweep with a much-needed comeback win. On Sunday they fell behind early, rallied late and left Baltimore with a 7-3 victory.

And the Yankees take the lead! (AP)
And the Yankees take the lead! (AP)

Starlin Castro delivered the game-winning hit with a tie-breaking RBI single in the ninth inning. Since the start of last year, Castro has seven go-ahead RBIs in the seventh inning or later — that’s two more than any other Yankee over the last two seasons.

Before Castro’s heroics, Aaron Judge tied it up with a solo blast leading off the eighth inning. He’s the third Yankee with a game-tying home run in the eighth inning or later at Camden Yards, joining the legendary duo of Travis Hafner (2013) and Roberto Kelly (1992).

The Orioles pitchers couldn’t find the strike zone all afternoon — issuing 11 walks, including seven by starter Wade Miley — and Holliday took advantage. He walked five times, tying a franchise single-game record. It had been done nine times prior to Sunday, with the two most recent being Mark Teixeira in 2009 and Roger Maris in 1962.

Besides Holliday, two other Yankees drew five free passes in five plate appearances and didn’t score a run: Hersh Martin in 1944 and Lou Gehrig in 1935. #FunFact: Martin and Holliday both went to high school in Oklahoma, and Martin attended Oklahoma State University in Holliday’s hometown of Stillwater.

Miley was effectively wild, giving up seven walks, one hit and zero runs in five innings. It had been more than 80 years since a pitcher had that many walks, allowed no more than one hit and held the Yankees scoreless — Washington Senators lefty Earl Whitehall achieved the feat on May 30, 1934. The No. 3 and 4 hitters in that lineup were Gehrig and Babe Ruth, who both went 0-for-2 and drew two walks each.

Opening Week Overreaction: The Struggles of Sanchez and Bird

(John Raoux/AP)
(John Raoux/AP)

To say that Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird had a disappointing opening series would be a fairly strong understatement. The duo combined to bat .077/.143/.115 against the Rays this week, and by fWAR’s reckoning they’ve already cost the Yankees -0.4 wins. It’s a less than ideal start to the season, to say the least – particularly for two players that are being counted on to be cornerstones of the team’s offense this year. And it feels more surprising than might normally be the case, given Sanchez’s utter dominance in August and September last year, and Bird’s Spring Training performance (lest we forget that he was arguably the best hitter in baseball in March).

As was the case when I wrote about Masahiro Tanaka earlier this week, I offer a brief disclaimer: this is a minuscule sample size. It’s three games against a good pitching staff in one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the majors. There’s no reason to worry at this juncture. However, it is worth taking a look to see if there are any trends that may explain this mini-slump.

Gary Sanchez

Sanchez does not have an extra-base hit yet. That isn’t shocking in and of itself – most every hitter in Major League Baseball will have several such stretches throughout the season. Sanchez went six straight games without an extra-base hit in September; it just didn’t stand out as much because he was hitting .374/.441/.798 when that streak started, and could do no wrong. It’s much easier to shine a light on such a stretch when it opens the season, and leaves a hitter slashing .071/.071/.071.

What could be causing this, aside from luck, random variation, and every small sample size caveat you can think of?

It’s interesting to note that Sanchez has yet to go to the opposite field. He was a pull-heavy hitter in 2016, with just 15.1% of his batted balls going the other way – but he’s pulling nearly two-thirds of balls in play to left this year (an increase of 9.5 percentage points), and going up the middle more. The shift-savvy Rays are undoubtedly aware of his preexisting tendency to pull the ball, and played him as such in the opening series … and it seems as though Sanchez played right into their hands.

Sanchez is also swinging at more pitches (from 44.9% last year to 54.2% this year), and making more contact (from 71.1% to 75.0%). That seems indicative of bad luck for Sanchez, as more balls in play oftentimes means more hits – especially when the ball is hit hard. And, as per FanGraphs, he’s hitting the ball harder than last year, and significantly so as his soft contact rate has dropped by 9.4 percentage points to a ridiculously low 9.1%. Despite this, his BABIP sits at .091.

The extra swinging may be indicative of Sanchez pressing (as is the fact that he hasn’t taken a walk yet), but it isn’t a sign of impatience. He’s swinging at fewer pitches outside of the strikezone (32.8% in 2016 against 24.1% this year), and he’s seeing a robust 4.5 pitches per plate appearance. That 4.5 P/PA mark would have placed him third in all of baseball last year, and puts him 30th among 199 qualified hitters at this point.

It is difficult to really dig into Sanchez’s numbers and find something disconcerting, with the possible exception of his ignorance as to the opposite field. And, even then, he thrived in 2016 by hammering the ball to the pull side.

Greg Bird

Despite his impressive 2015 debut, monster Spring Training, and undeniable hype, Bird was always entering 2017 as something of an unknown. He missed all of 2016 with an injury that has a spotty track record for recovery, and we seem to forget that he had played a total of 80 games above Double-A (34 at Triple-A and 46 in the majors) prior to this year. The projection systems were all over the place as a result, with ZiPS forecasting a middling .234/.307/449 line, PECOTA sitting in the middle at .244/.328/.457, and Steamer tossing out an optimistic .264/.346/.489. He was great at Triple-A and with the Yankees, but it was a long time ago over a small-ish sample size.

There are a few red flags in the even smaller sample size that is 2017, though. As per PITCHf/x, Bird has a horrendous 40.0% contact percentage, and is whiffing on 22.2% of his swings. Both marks would have been the worst in baseball last year, and both are in the bottom-ten this year (his contact percentage is dead last). His strikeout rate has dropped by 1.2 percentage points when compared to 2015, even as strikeout rates have risen by over two percentage points; he’s also swinging at fewer pitches overall, and seeing plenty of pitches (4.5 P/PA). It isn’t all bad on this front.

That being said, unlike Sanchez, Bird does not seem to be making good contact. His hard- and medium-hit rates have dropped precipitously, and he’s making soft contact on 37.5% of the balls he puts in play. That helps to explain his .083 BABIP, as does the fact that (per FanGraphs) he’s yet to hit a line drive. This could be a classification, of course, but the eye test confirms that he hasn’t quite driven the ball yet. Oddly enough, all of his batted balls have gone to center or left thus far, making him the anti-Sanchez in that regard.

The lack of pulled balls could be encouraging in and of itself, as the shift was something of a problem for Bird in 2015. Would mentioning small sample sizes here be beating a dead horse?


This was supposed to read as an overreaction, which is generally pessimistic. However, it is difficult to parse these numbers and not see how influenced they are by the simple fact that the duo has combined for 28 plate appearances in three games. It’s still the first week of the season, they’re both just 24-years-old, and they’re both supremely talented hitters with some measure of success in the show (however brief it may have been). And some of the underlying numbers serve as a testament to bad luck more so than anything else.

Even so, it would be lovely if their bats could wake up with gusto this weekend.

Yankeemetrics: Play Ball! (April 2-5)

It's not what you want (Source: Getty)
It’s not what you want (Source: Getty)

Baseball is a Marathon, not a Sprint
The ‘good’ news after the Yankees Opening Day debacle is that there was only one way to go after such a depressing game – up – since you probably could not have scripted a much more disastrous start to the 2017 season.

The bad news after the Yankees Opening Day debacle was that I had to write the first sentence of this post … and the next sentence: for the first time in team history, they’ve dropped six straight Opening Day contests.

Despite the unsightly outcome, there were some notable positive nuggets to report as the team took the field on Sunday afternoon:

  • For the first time in more than eight decades – since 1932, to be exact – the Yankees had four players under the age of 25 in the Opening Day lineup (Ronald Torreyes, Greg Bird, Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge). The quartet back in the ’30s included a couple Hall-of-Famers: Lefty Gomez, Bill Dickey, Frankie Crosetti and Ben Chapman.
  • The 24-year-old Bird was the franchise’s youngest Opening Day first baseman since Don Mattingly in 1986.
  • Sanchez joined Derek Jeter (1998-99) as the only under-25 Yankees to hit second on Opening Day over the last 40 seasons.
  • Judge (who turns 25 at the end of the month) was the youngest Opening Day corner outfielder for the Yankees since a 23-year-old Hensley Meulens in 1991.

Things quickly spiraled out of control after the first pitch, however, as Masahiro Tanaka delivered one of the worst Opening Day performances by any pitcher in franchise history.

Tanaka became the only Yankee ever to allow at least seven earned runs and get fewer than 10 outs on Opening Day. And his 2? innings tied Ron Guidry (1983) and Mel Stottlemyre (1973) for the fewest by a Yankee Opening Day starter in the last 100 years.

Along with poor fastball command, Tanaka’s splitter wasn’t fooling the Rays. Though he did get a respectable five whiffs and had good location on the 15 splits he threw, burying the pitch at the bottom of the zone …
masahiro-tanaka-2

… the Rays did damage on the five splitters they put in play, crushing two singles, a deep sac fly and a homer off the pitch.

While Tanaka got clobbered on the mound, there were a couple encouraging results from the bats on Sunday.

Sanchez might have gone 0-for-5 but his first-inning groundout was a rocket, with an exit velocity of 115.7 mph. It was the second-hardest hit ball recorded by Statcast (since 2015) for any Yankee, behind only an A-Rod homer on May 1, 2015 measured at 116.5 mph off the bat.

Starlin Castro did something that Robinson Cano never achieved in pinstripes – a three-hit Opening Day performance (the most recent Yankee second baseman to do it was Tony Womack in 2005) – while Chase Headley joined A-Rod (2006) and Wade Boggs (1994) as the only Yankee third baseman in the last 90 seasons to have three hits on Opening Day.

Best hi-five ever (Source: AP)
Best hi-five ever (Source: AP)

Second time’s a charm
The Yankees bounced back from their Game 1 disaster with an impressive blanking of the Rays on Tuesday. The 5-0 win was just the second time in the last quarter-century that the Yanks pitched a shutout in either their first or second game (also 2002), and was the team’s largest shutout win this early into the season since they beat the Twins 8-0 in the 1988 opener. Last year’s first shutout didn’t come until May 4.

The offense was ignited by a most unlikely source, when the (listed) 5-foot-8 Ronald Torreyes – who had one homer in 161 at-bats in his first two seasons in the majors – drilled a two-run shot to left center field to give the Yankees a 2-0 lead. He’s got a long ways to go to catch the franchise leader in homers by a player that short – of course, it’s Yogi Berra (5-foot-7) with 358 career bombs.

CC Sabathia put together one of his best season-opening performances, scattering three hits and two walks across five shutout innings. The only other time he didn’t allow a run in his first start was back in 2004 against the Twins.

It had been 15 years since a Yankee starter threw five-or-more scoreless innings in either the team’s first or second game: In 2003, both Roger Clemens (6 innings) and Andy Pettitte (7 innings) held the Blue Jays without a run in the first two games of the season.

Sabathia also notched a significant milestone with his 224th career win, tying Hall-of-Famers Jim Bunning and Catfish Hunter for 66th on MLB’s all-time wins list.

Little Mike, No Offense
Thanks to another frustrating outing by Michael Pineda and a lackluster effort by the offense, the Yankees lost 4-1 in the rubber game of this three-game set. This is the fifth time in the last six years the team has dropped its opening series of the season.

(Source: Getty)
(Source: Getty)

Michael Pineda didn’t make it out of the fourth inning, producing an all-too-familiar statline. The good: six strikeouts, no walks; The bad: eight hits, four runs. Sometimes you can predict baseball.

Three of the four runs he surrendered came with two outs, continuing yet another perplexing trend from 2016 — his inability to finish off innings. Last year Pineda allowed the most two-out hits (80) and second-most two-out runs (52) in the majors … and seems to be on track to repeat that performance in 2017.

Not only did Pineda extend his personal winless streak to a career-worst 11 starts dating back to early August of last year, he’s gone eight starts in a row without a win against Tampa Bay, the longest such streak by any Yankee. Among all pitchers, only Jeff Suppan (10 straight from 1999-03) and Sidney Ponson (9 straight from 2000-02) have recorded longer winless streaks versus the Rays.

The lone offensive highlight came from the bat of Jacoby Ellsbury, who took Alex Cobb deep in the second inning to knot the score at 1-1. It was his 33rd homer since coming to the Bronx in 2014, but just the second one that’s tied up a game.

There are many pros and only a few cons to signing Sanchez to a long-term contract

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

February and March make up extension season in baseball. Most pre-arbitration and arbitration-eligible players hammer out their contracts for the upcoming season this time of year, and inevitably some strike long-term deals with their teams. In recent weeks Tim Anderson, Rougned Odor, Jose Ramirez (the hitter, not the pitcher), Kevin Kiermaier, and Carlos Martinez all signed extensions. The team gets cost certainty and the player gets rich. Everyone wins.

The Yankees have a lot of up-and-coming young talent, so it stands to reason they’ll start thinking about long-term extensions soon. Much of that talent is in the minors though. Aaron Judge has fewer than 100 big league plate appearances and Greg Bird just missed an entire season with shoulder surgery. Luis Severino was pretty bad as a starter last season. You can understand why the Yankees may wait to approach those guys about extensions.

Then there’s Gary Sanchez, who was so incredibly awesome late last year he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting despite playing only one-third of the season. The timing of Sanchez’s call-ups these last two years mean he has only 86 days of service time. That’s it. Not only do the Yankees still have Sanchez for six more seasons, but he won’t he even qualify as a Super Two. He’ll make something close to the league minimum from 2017-19 before going through arbitration from 2020-22.

Unlike Judge, Sanchez has shown he can thrive against big league pitching. And unlike Bird, Sanchez plays a premium position. There are many reasons the Yankees should look to extend their young cornerstone backstop and his position is one of them. Quality catchers are hard to find. When you get one who can hit and throw like Sanchez, you lock him up. The history of the Yankees is littered with ultra-productive catchers (Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson, Jorge Posada) and Sanchez looks to be next in line. That’s exciting.

Working out a long-term extension isn’t easy, of course. For starters, Sanchez has to be willing to sign away his maximum earning potential for the guaranteed payday. He received a $3M signing bonus as an amateur and may not be desperate for a huge contract right now. Also, Sanchez seems pretty committed to his #brand, so his goal may to be make as much money as possible. I couldn’t blame him one bit. There’s a few other factors to consider too.

1. There is very little precedent for an extension this early. Like I said, Sanchez has only 86 days of service time, and in the world of baseball 172 days equals a full year. Very few long-term deals are struck this early in a player’s career, though it should be noted the White Sox just extended Anderson with 115 days of service time. Here’s the list of players who signed long-term before reaching one year of service time over the last decade:

  • Tim Anderson, White Sox: Six years, $25M with two options in March 2017.
  • Jon Singleton, Astros: Five years, $10M with three options in June 2014.
  • Chris Archer, Rays: Six years, $20M with two options in April 2014.
  • Salvador Perez, Royals: Five years, $7M with three options in February 2012.
  • Matt Moore, Rays: Five years, $14M with three options in December 2011.
  • Evan Longoria, Rays: Six years, $17.5M with three options in April 2008.

That’s it. Six players over the last ten years, three of whom played for the Rays, a team that aggressively locks up its young talent because that’s the only way they can remain competitive. I’m certain the Yankees would give Sanchez the Perez extension right now, but yeah, no way that’s happening. Perez was a small amateur bonus guy ($65,000) who very much wanted the guaranteed millions, so he jumped at the contract. (Perez and the Royals tore that contract up and renegotiated a new $52.5M deal last year.)

The Anderson contract does set something of a benchmark for the Yankees and Sanchez, though I’m sure Sanchez’s agent would say “my guy is a lot better than that guy” and demand more. I know I would. The thing to keep in mind is the Yankees have Sanchez for the next six years at below-market salaries no matter what. They also have the ability to non-tender him and walk away should he stop hitting or suffer a catastrophic injury. So unless a long-term deal buys out some free agent years — meaning cover at least seven years — at a reasonable price, there’s little reason for the Yankees to agree to a contract extension.

2. Sanchez’s leverage may never be greater than it is right now. Sanchez could spend 15 years in the big leagues and make a bunch of All-Star teams, and it’s still very possible he will never have another two-month stretch like the one he had last season. Signing Sanchez right now could mean locking him up when his value is at its absolute peak, when everyone thinks he might be a Miguel Cabrera caliber hitter and an Ivan Rodriguez caliber defender.

For the Yankees, the smart move could be waiting until next offseason, when they have a chance to see how Sanchez performs over the course of a full season. Chances are he won’t match last year’s pace. At that point everyone will have a chance to get their head out of the clouds and evaluate this situation a little more rationally and with some more information. And you know what? If Sanchez is willing to sign a team friendly contract tomorrow, the Yankees could still pounce. For now it sure feels like Gary is holding all the cards.

3. An extension would make it more difficult to get under the luxury tax threshold in 2018. The Yankees have made it very clear they want to get under the luxury tax threshold soon, and next season is the perfect time. Several huge contracts will be off the books (Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, maybe Masahiro Tanaka too) and the club has some cheap young talent to fill out the roster. Next season will be, by far, their best chance to get under the threshold.

As it stands Sanchez is slated to make six figures during the 2018 season. Somewhere around $600,000, probably a little less. For luxury tax purposes, he’ll be a bargain. Should Sanchez sign an extension though, his luxury tax hit would be equal to the average annual value of the contract. Let’s say he signed Anderson’s deal, six years and $25M guaranteed. That’s a $4.167M average annual value. So, rather than counting at ~$600,000 against the luxury tax next year, Sanchez would count as $4.167M even though his actual salary figures to be less than that.

Now, the extra $3.6M or so may not sound like much in the grand scheme of things, but when you’re trying to get under a hard payroll number, every dollar counts. That’s $3.6M the Yankees wouldn’t be able to use on an extra reliever, or a cheap depth starter. It’s real money that would be no longer available to the Yankees. In the long-term, signing Sanchez to an extension figures to save the Yankees millions. In the short-term, it will hurt their chances to get under the luxury tax.

4. Contract extensions tend to get more expensive the longer you wait. This sorta runs counter to point No. 2. Sanchez’s leverage may be sky high right now given his performance, but history shows the longer you want to extend a player, the more it’ll cost. Go look at that list of players who signed extensions with less than one year of service time again. See how cheap those deals are? Now here are the last five players to sign extensions with 1-2 years of service time:

  • Odubel Herrera, Phillies: Five years, $30.5M with two options in December 2016.
  • Gregory Polanco, Pirates: Five years, $35M with two options in April 2016.
  • Yordano Ventura, Royals: Five years, $23M with two options in April 2015.
  • Juan Lagares, Mets: Four years, $23M with one option in April 2015.
  • Christian Yelich, Marlins: Seven years, $49.75M with one option in March 2015.

Removing that ridiculous Perez contract, the extensions for players with less than one full year of service time averaged 5.6 years and $17.3M with 2.6 options. The average contract for those five players with 1-2 years of service time is 5.2 years and $32.25M with 1.6 options. More money across fewer years with fewer options. The sooner you lock them up, the cheaper they are.

With Sanchez, the Yankees would have to weigh potential long-term savings against making it a little more difficult to get under the luxury tax threshold in 2018.

* * *

Based on Anderson’s recent extension with the White Sox, I’m thinking it would take something like six years and $30M just to get Sanchez and his agent to listen. Anderson, a former top 100 prospect himself, had a nice year in 2016, hitting .283/.306/.432 (95 wRC+) with +2.4 fWAR and +2.8 bWAR in 99 games. Sanchez was a one-man wrecking crew though, and that performance combined with his Rookie of the Year finish — Anderson received only two third place votes and finished seventh in the voting — means he could demand more money despite fewer games played.

I see both sides of this argument, signing Sanchez now and waiting. Sign him now and it means you’ve got a cornerstone player locked up long-term and are very likely to save millions down the road, even if it means having a few million bucks less to spend in 2018. At the same time, Sanchez’s leverage is through the roof right now, and waiting a year for things to calm down could lead to a more reasonable contract in the grand scheme of things.

The Yankees aren’t the most aggressive team when it comes to locking up their young talent — to be fair, they haven’t had many young players worth signing long-term in recent years — but it’s something they will definitely have to consider soon. Young big leaguers like Sanchez and Bird, as well as high-end prospects like Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier, are players the Yankees want to build around going forward. Signing them to long-term extensions creates cost certainty going forward, and it also figures to give the team more flexibility to sign free agents down the road.

Passan: Yankees will use Luis Severino as fourth starter

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

According to Jeff Passan, right-hander Luis Severino has made the Opening Day roster and the Yankees will use him as their fourth starter. Neither Joe Girardi nor anyone with the team has announced anything yet, however. Still, all signs point in this direction. This isn’t exactly a surprise.

Severino, 23, has allowed six runs in 13.2 innings so far this spring. He’s struck out 16 and walked five. Severino will start this afternoon’s game in what will be his final tune-up for the regular season, regardless of role. He’s had his ups and downs this spring, though apparently the Yankees saw enough to give him another chance to start.

Last season Severino was a disaster as a starter, pitching to an 8.50 ERA (5.56 FIP) in eleven starts and 47.2 innings. Yikes. He was much better in relief (0.39 ERA and 2.29 FIP). That said, Severino was pretty awesome for the Yankees in 2015, throwing 62.1 innings with a 2.89 ERA (4.37 FIP) in eleven starts. That’s who they’re hoping to get in 2017.

Girardi said yesterday the Yankees will not announce a fifth starter anytime soon. They’ll use off-days to skip their fifth starter the first two times through the rotation, then figure it out later. Based on everything we’ve seen this spring, I’d say Bryan Mitchell and Jordan Montgomery are the front-runners for that job.