2017 Midseason Review: The Starting Rotation

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Coming into Spring Training and the 2017 season, the starting rotation was pretty clearly the biggest concern for the Yankees. They had three veterans to anchor the rotation in Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, and CC Sabathia, yet all three came with some questions. Tanaka’s elbow hangs over every pitch he throws, Sabathia is nearing the end of his career, and Pineda is, well, Pineda.

The final two rotation spots were wide open going into camp. I always though Luis Severino had a leg up on a spot — I definitely wrote that a few times — and sure enough, he landed one in Spring Training. The Yankees had four candidates for the fifth starter’s spot (Adam Warren, Bryan Mitchell, Chad Green, Luis Cessa) and none of them won it. Jordan Montgomery snuck up and beat everyone out. Time to review the rotation.

Masahiro Tanaka: The Return of the Dingers

Last season Tanaka was, legitimately, one of the best starters in the league. He threw 199.2 innings with a 3.07 ERA (3.51 FIP) and strong strikeout (20.5%) and walk (4.5%) numbers. If you’re into WHIP, his 1.077 WHIP was fifth lowest among AL qualified starters. Tanaka was excellent.

This season Tanaka has been one of the worst starters in the league. There are 74 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title and Tanaka ranks 69th in ERA (5.47) and 59th in FIP (5.03). He’s also 71st in home run rate (2.03 HR/9), which is his biggest problem. Tanaka has not been able to keep the ball in the park, especially of late. We’re talking 20 homers in his last 13 starts, and that includes a three-start stretch with no homers.

Why is Tanaka allowing so many more homers? Well, the answer is kinda obvious. He’s been leaving too many pitches out over the plate, and because he’s not overpowering (and because balls are flying out of every park this year), Tanaka has paid dearly for his mistakes. The question is why is he making more mistakes? Why have more fastballs run back over the plate, and why haven’t his splitter and slider had the same bite for long stretches of time?

The Yankees and Tanaka are still looking for that answer. It looked like he found something these last few weeks, in which he fired 31.2 innings with a 2.56 ERA (3.21 FIP) across five starts. Then Tanaka got bombed Sunday, in the final game before the All-Star break. One step forward, one step back. Hopefully that game was just a blip and Tanaka goes back to dominating again like he did in four of his previous five starts. That would be swell.

Whatever is wrong with Tanaka — injury, bad mechanics, lack of confidence, etc. — it is the single biggest problem for the Yankees right now. Even moreso than the bullpen, I think. I think Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman will figure it out and be fine. Given how long Tanaka has struggled — basically since Opening Day — his struggles concern me more. It’s hard to imagine the Yankees getting to the postseason if Tanaka continues pitching like this.

Luis Severino: The Emerging Ace

Aside from Aaron Judge, who is on a completely different level than everyone else right now, there has been no better short and long-term development for the Yankees this season than Severino. He came up and pitched very well in the second half of 2015, struggled mightily as a starter in 2016, and now he’s pitching at a near ace level (3.54 ERA and 3.16 FIP) through 17 starts and 106.2 innings. His ranks among the 74 qualified starters:

  • Strikeout Rate: 28.4% (8th)
  • Walk Rate: 6.2% (17th)
  • K/BB ratio: 4.59 (8th)
  • Ground Ball Rate: 52.4% (8th)

Severino and Lance McCullers Jr. are the only pitchers who rank in the top ten in both strikeout rate and ground ball rate, and they’re both deserving All-Stars. By Game Score, the 23-year-old Severino — he spent most of the season as the youngest player on the roster before the recent Tyler Wade and Clint Frazier call-ups — is responsible for four of the nine best and five of the eleven best games pitched by a Yankee this season.

What has been different about Severino this year? A few things. For starters, he seems to be much more aggressive with his fastball. I really believe the stint in the bullpen last season taught Severino that yes, he can throw his heater by big league hitters, and that gave him the confidence to do it this year. He’s no longer trying to paint the corner. He’s just letting it fly and letting the pitch’s natural life and velocity do the rest. (At 97.5 mph, Severino has the highest average fastball velocity among all starters in 2017. Carlos Martinez is second at 96.8 mph.)

Two, Severino seems to have much more confidence in his changeup. He’s not necessarily throwing it more often — he threw the pitch 14.1% of the time in 2015, 9.4% of the time in 2016, and 11.4% of the time in 2017 — but he is throwing better quality changeups and he’s throwing it with more conviction. Last year Severino admitted he lost confidence in his changeup and he basically stopped throwing it by the end of the season. The changeup is still his third pitch, but Severino uses it and he now seems to trust it again.

And three, he’s locating his slider so much better this year. So, so much better. Last season he left way too many sliders up in the zone and hitters either fouled it off or put it in play rather than swing and miss. This year’s he’s burying the pitch down and getting those whiffs. That impressive — and elite! — combination of strikeouts and ground balls is no accident. Severino pairs a big fastball with a better located wipeout slider and an improved changeup.

I’m curious to see how the Yankees will handle Severino’s workload in the second half because he is on pace to throw 201 innings, and I can’t imagine they’ll let a 23-year-old kid throw 200+ innings. Or maybe they will. Who knows? My guess is the Yankees find a way to give Severino some extra rest between starts down the stretch. We’ll see. Whatever they do, the most important thing is that Severino looks like a top of the rotation starter, and gosh do the Yankees need one of those going forward.

CC Sabathia: The Veteran Innings Guy

Aside from a rough four-start stretch spanning late-April and early-May in which he allowed 22 runs in 20.2 innings, Sabathia has been steady and reliable for the Yankees this year. He reinvented himself as a cutter pitcher last year and he’s stuck with that approach this year. Sabathia in 2016: 3.91 ERA and 4.28 FIP. Sabathia in 2017: 3.81 ERA and 4.19 FIP. Yup.

Sabathia did miss three weeks with a hamstring injury and his first start back was pretty bad (four runs in 2.2 innings), and, in hindsight, the Yankees shoulda sent him out on a minor league rehab assignment rather than have him make one start — one start on a 75-80 pitch count, no less — before the All-Star break. Either way, Sabathia’s days as an ace are over, but so are his days as a below-average pitcher, which he was from 2013-15. The big man made some adjustments last year, they worked, he’s stuck with them, and they’re still working. That’s pretty much all there is to say about him. Go CC.

Michael Pineda: Same Ol’ Michael Pineda

Groan. Do we really have to review Pineda’s season? He’s the same guy he was last year and the year before that. The difference this year is that Pineda started very well and had more than a few folks, myself included, thinking he had turned the corner. But no, it was just one of his patented “did he figure it out???” streaks at the start of the season. To the monthly splits:

  • April: 3.14 ERA (3.25 FIP)
  • May: 3.48 ERA (4.76 FIP)
  • June: 5.35 ERA (4.69 FIP)
  • July: 15.00 ERA (16.48 FIP) in one start

Overall, Pineda has a 4.39 ERA (4.64 FIP) in 96.1 innings this year. He had a 4.60 ERA (3.58 FIP) in 336.1 innings the last two seasons. The biggest difference this year is the home runs, though that’s not unique to Pineda. Almost every pitcher in the league is allowing more homers this year. Pineda had a 1.28 HR/9 from 2015-16. It’s 1.87 HR/9 this year, hence the massive spike in FIP.

One thing Pineda does deserve credit for is his improved performance with two strikes. Remember all those annoying two-strike hits last season? Check it out:

  • 2016 with two strikes: .187/.246/.286 (104 OPS+)
  • 2017 with two strikes: .162/.212/.242 (71 OPS+)

I know a .187/.246/.286 batting line against seems great, but in two-strike counts, it was actually 4% worse than average last year. That shouldn’t happen to a guy with Pineda’s slider. This year he’s been much better with two strikes. He’s gone from 4% below-average to 29% above-average. And, to be fair, last season is the outlier for Pineda. He has a career 42 OPS+ allowed in two-strike counts. Usually he excels in those spots. Last season he didn’t for whatever reason.

In all likelihood Pineda is entering his final few months as a Yankee, and maybe even his final few weeks. If the team continues to fall in the standings, they could ship Pineda to a pitching needy contender at the trade deadline. He’s a free agent after the season and he’s not a qualifying offer candidate. Not when the potential return is a pick after the fourth round. Not worth the risk. Pineda started this season pretty well. But with each passing start, it’s becoming more and more clear he’s the same guy he’s always been.

Jordan Montgomery: The Reliable Rookie

I thought it was inevitable we would see Montgomery in the big leagues at some point this season. He came into 2017 as New York’s best big league ready pitching prospect and by a pretty decent margin. I just didn’t think he’d win a rotation spot out of Spring Training. Montgomery outpitched everyone else in camp, the Yankees decided he was their best option, and he’s been a rotation mainstay ever since.

Through 16 big league starts the 24-year-old Montgomery has a 3.65 ERA (4.05 FIP) in 91.1 innings. He’s completed six innings in eight of those 16 starts and at least five innings in 13 of those 16 starts. Joe Girardi has had a quick hook with the rookie at times, which is fine. For the most part Montgomery has been a consistent source of quality innings. Three things stand out about his first half.

1. His lack of ground balls is starting to catch up to him. Montgomery is a big man (6-foot-6) with an extreme over-the-top arm angle, and because of that, he can have a tough time getting his pitches down at the knees and below the strike zone. The result has been a 41.6% ground ball rate, which ranks 50th among those 74 qualified starters. And lately, more and more of those fly balls are turning into home runs:

jordan-montgomery-home-run-rate

Home runs are being hit at a higher rate than at any other point in baseball history and Montgomery’s home ballpark is homer happy Yankee Stadium. Given how fly ball prone he’s been so far this season, it was only a matter of time until the home runs came. Hopefully more grounders will follow.

2. He’s great at getting hitters to chase out of the zone. Montgomery is a polished young pitcher with a five-pitch arsenal. He’s got both a straight four-seamer and a sinker, plus a slider, a changeup, and a curveball. His least used pitch is his slider. He’s thrown it 13.0% of the time this year, which is pretty darn often for a fifth pitch. Because of his deep arsenal, Montgomery has excelled at getting hitters to swing out of the zone. Here is the chase rate leaderboard:

  1. Masahiro Tanaka: 39.8%
  2. Zack Greinke: 38.6%
  3. Jordan Montgomery: 38.3%
  4. Chris Sale: 38.3%
  5. Clayton Kershaw: 37.6%

Max Scherzer (37.2%) is sixth. McCullers (36.9%) is seventh. Corey Kluber (36.8%) is eighth. The top of the chase rate leaderboard is basically the seven best pitchers in baseball and Jordan Montgomery. Getting hitters to expand the zone is a very valuable skill. Swings on pitches out of the strike zone often result in swings and misses or weak contact. You don’t see those pitches squared up very often. That chase rate ability is a big reason why Montgomery has had so much success early in his MLB career.

3. Montgomery is not afraid to pitch inside. Especially to righties, which he needs to do to have success. He’s not going to blow anyone away with the sheer quality of his stuff. Here’s a heat map of his fastball and slider locations against right-handed batters, via Baseball Savant:

jordan-montgomery-heat-mapYep. Montgomery lives on the inner half of the plate with those pitches against righties. He uses them to set up changeups and curveballs away, and he’s been successful doing that. Montgomery has held righties to a .249/.307/.403 (.306 wOBA) batting line. He’s not dominating them by any means, but he is holding his own, and that’s important as a starting pitcher. Pitching inside allows him to have that success.

Montgomery right now looks very much like a long-term keeper. He’s poised and he seems fearless on the mound, even when things are going haywire. Add in the fact he throws five pitches regularly and has pretty good command, and the ingredients are there to stick in the rotation going forward. The Yankees needed to find some starting pitchers this year and they’ve found one in Montgomery.

* * *

Tanaka, Severino, Sabathia, Pineda, and Montgomery have combined to start 82 of 86 games for the Yankees this season. Cessa started three and Green started one while Sabathia was sidelined with his hamstring injury. Otherwise the Yankees have been pretty fortunate injury-wise. That’s not to say the good health will continue all year, but it happened in the first half, and that’s all that matters right now.

Believe it or not, the rotation ranks tenth in ERA (4.26) and eighth in FIP (4.21) among the 30 teams, which surprised me. It still feels like there’s room for improvement, mostly with Tanaka but also with Pineda given his recent performance. The Yankees now have two rotation building blocks in Severino and Montgomery whereas four months ago they had none, and Sabathia sure looks like a new pitcher too. I still expect the Yankees to be in on just about every high-end starter at the trade deadline because hey, there’s no such thing as too much pitching. The current rotation has been good enough to get the Yankees to the All-Star break in postseason position.

2017 Midseason Review: The Outfield

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Going into the spring, the Yankees had two spots claimed in the outfield and one up for grabs.

Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner were the veteran holdovers from last season while the pair of Aarons — Hicks and Judge — battled for right field. Both hit quite well in the spring, so the job went to the prospect with higher promise — and what promise it has been!

Perhaps the best way to look at this outfield is going month-to-month, as things changed … other than Aaron Judge‘s dominance.

April: Judge and Hicks emerge

As I’m sure everyone remembers, Judge was a monster in April. He smacked 10 home runs, batting .303/.411/.750 (198 wRC+) for the month. Somehow, that wasn’t his peak for the season. That slugging percentage should be a little higher because of that “triple” against the Cardinals. It actually took him five starts to hit a home run and he’s taken off from there.

Hicks, on the other hand, was the fourth outfielder, so he took a lot of pinch hitting duty early on. He hit two home runs vs. the Rays on Apr. 13 and proved effective in the 57 plate appearances he received. His .295/.429/614 (173 wRC+) slash line is his best for a month this year.

Gardner and Ellsbury each got off to slow starts, which allowed Hicks to get into the lineup more often. They combined for 11 stolen bases (and fielded their positions well, like both Aarons), but had 78 and 99 wRC+ respectively. Gardner was slowed by a collision at first base against Tampa Bay while Ellsbury met expectations while hitting a key grand slam against Baltimore.

Signature moments: I’ll nominate two: Judge’s birthday, when he homered and dove into the stands for a catch vs. Boston, and Hicks’ two-homer game against the Rays, when he provided all of the offense the Yanks needed.

May: Judge (and Gardner) surge

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The fair assumption was that Judge would cool off in May. His OPS did fall… but from 1.161 to 1.084. Another seven homers, just insane stuff. Hits first grand slam came late in the month and he followed with a Memorial Day homer next day. He actually hit for more average in May yet with a little less power.

Meanwhile, Gardner went on a power surge starting with a two-homer game vs. Toronto May 2, his first of two multi-homer games in the month. He had perhaps the most clutch homer of the season vs. the Cubs three days later. His nine homers for the month were more than he had all of 2016.

Hicks really hit his stride, earning some playing time over Ellsbury before Taco’s injury. Not quite as good as April overall, but he also proved his first month wasn’t a fluke. He had seven hits over the first two games of the Cubs series and 10 hits over a four-day span.

Even Taco hit better in May with a .288/.373/.442 (120 wRC+) line. Just one HR, but five doubles. Unfortunately, he got hurt catching a ball on May 24 and was out for over a month.

Signature moment: Easily Gardner vs. the Cubs. Down to the final strike, Gardner erased a 2-0 deficit with a game-winning three-run shot. That’s a very literal game changer.

June: How is Judge still doing this!?!

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Judge literally got on base every single game in June. That shouldn’t be possible. But it was. That 495-foot homer was absurd. He struck out 39 times, but walked 30(!). Another 10 home runs. Ho hum.

Like Ellsbury, Hicks got hurt making a catch and it threw a wrench into the outfield situation. He had slumped later in the month, but was still walking and getting on base. Ellsbury’s return was quickened by the loss of Hicks.

Gardner cooled off significantly (.239/.296/.389 for June). With his power falling off, he got back to stealing bases with five and continued to provide solid fielding in left and center.

Off the bench, the Yankees went to Mason Williams and Rob Refsnyder, the former who would be DFA’d. You surely remember the Dustin Fowler injury…

Signature moment: Is there any question? It’s Judge vs. the Orioles. A 495-foot homer is impressive in BP, let alone in game. And he followed it with a lightning fast shot to right-center.

July: Enter Clint Frazier

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Since returning at the end of June, Ellsbury is batting just .208/.321/.208. No power and a lot of weak grounders to second. Judge, of course, is still doing Judge things, though his on-base streak came to an end on July 1. He also won the Home Run Derby, which was cool. Gardner picked up just five hits (no HR) in 37 plate appearances.

The main bright spot in the eight games before the ASG was Clint Frazier. Frazier has been a revelation with his bat speed. He could force his way onto the roster post-Hicks return, although the outfield will be quite crowded if everyone stays healthy. Six of his seven hits have gone for extra bases and he’s slugging .875 through 24 at-bats. I like it!

Signature moment: Frazier’s walk-off vs. the Brewers. He fastball hunted against All-Star Corey Knebel and launched one to left for the win. Well done.

With Judge, Hicks, Ellsbury, Gardner and Frazier all starting quality outfielders, the Yankees have some of the most enviable outfield depth in baseball. That crew includes the MVP so far, a young player having a career year, a vet with a power resurgence and a 22-year-old just tapping into potential. It’s been a good 3 1/2 months for the Bombers OF and it should be a good overall season, too.

2017 Midseason Review: The Infielders

(Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
(Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

In the weeks leading up to Opening Day, our expectations surrounding the infield were fairly high. Greg Bird was raking in Spring Training, and it seemed as though he hadn’t missed a beat; and, in the event that he did, Chris Carter was around as an overqualified back-up. Starlin Castro had shown flashes of brilliance in 2016, and had been hyped-up by some as a potential breakout player. Chase Headley … well, his defense had improved, and he was better after a calamitous first month. And Didi Gregorius was coming off of a great all-around season. What could possibly go wrong?

The First Basemen

Expectation: Bird and Carter would form a more than competent platoon, of sorts, with Carter playing first against tougher LHP, and allowing Bird to rest a bit more often than a normal team composition would dictate. ZiPS projected a .234/.307/.449 line for Bird, and .223/.316/.509 for Carter.

Reality: Bird is on the disabled list for the second time in his career, as the result of an ankle injury. He’s played just 19 games, and is hitting on a .100/.250/.200 slash line. And Carter has earned himself two DFA’s by hitting .201/.284/.370 and absolutely brutal defense at first. The starter is currently Ji-Man Choi.

I almost don’t want to write more about first base, as it’s rather depressing. Bird’s injury (and the resulting fallout from the front office) has cast a shadow over the team’s season, and it has only grown darker as the team struggled over the last few weeks. His return is still up in the air, and surgery is a distinct possibility. And it is that uncertainty that is most frustrating.

And Carter – the should-have-been safety net – failed catastrophically. We always knew that he was a feast or famine hitter, but that had still resulted in a .221/.318/.474 slash line (116 wRC+) in five seasons as a regular. There was some sentiment that he was struggling as he adjusted to playing part time, but that excuse went out the window once he became the full-time first baseman. His 73 wRC+ ranks dead last among first basemen.

Choi is the starter for the time being, and he has made a decent impression in a four games. He’s hitting .182/.308/.727 in 13 PA, with 2 HR and 2 BB, and there’s no real challenger for his position in the organization right now. And, for what it’s worth, he does have a career .853 OPS in 851 PA at Triple-A.

Second-Half Forecast: The Yankees will acquire a first baseman via trade, and shut Bird down sooner rather than later.

The Second Basemen

Expectation: Castro would continue to be a competent yet frustrating presence at the keystone. ZiPS projected a .272/.305/.419 slash line, which isn’t too far off from his career norms (in 4000-plus PA).

Reality: Castro is currently on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, which was a major blow to the team’s lineup. He’s currently slashing .313/.348/.486 (121 wRC+) with 12 HR in 313 PA.

The 27-year-old Castro absolutely raked in April, batting .352/.362/.549 (154 wRC+) with 5 home runs. He also had a 7.1% walk rate, which is impressive for the free-swinger. His performance dipped in May (97 wRC+, 3.4 BB%), but he showed improvements in June (117 wRC+, 4.2 BB%) prior to hitting the DL. Castro earned an All-Star nod for his first-half, but had to be replaced due to that injury.

Tyler Wade and Ronald Torreyes have filled-in since the injury. I’ll have more on them in a bit.

Second-Half Forecast: Castro will be back soon, and his numbers will continue to fluctuate. With so much strong production in the bank, however, we may end up seeing a career year.

The Third Basemen

Expectation: Headley would be a warm body at the hot corner, with competent defense. And maybe, just maybe, he’d be a bit better with the bat. ZiPS had him at .247/.324/.376.

Reality: Headley has been a warm body at the hot corner, but his defense has regressed. His offense (91 wRC+) is right in-line with 2015 (92 wRC+) and 2016 (92 wRC+), even with a blistering hot start.

This is who Headley is at this point. He’s batting .254/.329/.373 (92 wRC+) since Opening Day of 2015, and his highs (142 wRC+ in April) are always met with ridiculous lows (15 wRC+ in May). That’s fine when he’s playing strong defense, as he did in 2016, but he has been a borderline disaster out there in 2017. DRS has him at -5 runs already, and he has already surpassed last year’s error total.

Second-Half Forecast: More of the same, unfortunately. Though, I could see a Miguel Andujar cup of coffee happening down the stretch.

The Shortstops

Expectation: Gregorius would continue to win our hearts with his surprising power, slick defense, and top-notch Twitter game. ZiPS was bearish on the power spike, projecting a .262/.308/.404 line.

Reality: Pretty darn close, albeit with nearly a month lost to a shoulder injury suffered at the World Baseball Classic. He’s hitting .291/.321/.458 with 10 HR (104 wRC+) on the year, and nearly made the All-Star team.

Gregorius is one of the most likable players in baseball, as evidenced by the fun he had trying to garner that final vote. The fact that he has proven that last season wasn’t a fluke helps, too, and he is currently a top-10 shortstop by both WAR (7th in MLB) and wRC+ (9th). And keep in mind that WAR is a counting stat, so the fact that he’s 26th among shortstop in PA helps to bring that number down. He may not be a Hall of Fame talent, but that’s perfectly acceptable – he’s still really, really good.

Second-Half Forecast: Gregorius will keep it up. He’s the safest bet among the infielders to be an above-average player for the remainder of the season, and I’m confident that he will.

The Reserves

Expectation: Ronald Torreyes and Co. would be perfectly adequate bench players.

Reality: Torreyes and Co. have been perfectly adequate – but they’ve had too play more often than anyone would have wanted.

Torreyes spent most of April as the team’s starting shortstop, and he was surprisingly competent. He posted a .313/.313/.433 slash line (95 wRC+) while Gregorius was on the mend, and his defense was more than passable. He has been overextended and a bit exposed since then, though, as he has already surpassed last year’s PA mark, and stands to play more as the season wears on. He’s another fun player, but he shouldn’t be counted on for much more than what he’s done already.

Wade was called upon to shore up the bench when Castro landed on the DL, and he has picked up five starts at second in those two weeks. He has yet to get on-track (.107/.219/.179 in 32 PA), but his versatility and speed should earn him more opportunities in the coming months. Wade hit .313/.390/.444 (134 wRC+) with 5 HR and 24 SB at Triple-A this year, and he might just be the best reserve the team has right now.

Rob Refsnyder is still around, too, but the Yankees seem to have decided that he’s a 1B/LF/RF. He’s batting .135/.200/.216 in 40 PA, and he hasn’t played since July 2.

Second-Half Forecast: This may be optimistic, but I’m hoping that we’ll see more of Wade, and less of Torreyes (and Refsnyder, if such a thing is even possible). The Yankees have been grooming him for this exact role for some time now; it’s his time to shine.

2017 Midseason Review: The Catchers

With the world of baseball enjoying the All-Star break, this week is as good a time as any to look back and review the first half of the Yankees’ 2017 season. It was a really interesting first half, wasn’t it? Let’s begin today with the two catchers.

Yo soy Gary. (Adam Hunger/Getty)
Yo soy Gary. (Adam Hunger/Getty)

The history of the Yankees is littered with excellent offensive catchers. Back in the day there was Bill Dickey, then Yogi Berra, then Elston Howard, then Thurman Munson, then Jorge Posada. Now the Yankees have Gary Sanchez, a homegrown 24-year-old All-Star in his first full season as the starting catcher. He gives the Yankees yet another excellent offensive catcher to anchor the lineup. His backup, Austin Romine, is homegrown too. Let’s review the first half of their season.

Gary Sanchez: Nearly repeating 2016 in 2017

What Sanchez did last year, smashing 20 home runs in 53 games en route to being named AL Rookie of the Year runner-up, made it impossible to estimate his true talent level coming into the 2017 season. Expecting him to sustain a 60-homer pace was unrealistic. The question is how much would his production fall?

Turns out, not much. At least not until Sanchez hit the skids a bit the final week before the All-Star break. His numbers through the same number of plate appearances as last year are freakishly similar:

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ HR K% BB% BABIP
2016 229 .299/.376/.657 171 20 24.9% 10.5% .317
2017 229 .289/.376/.517 139 13 23.1% 10.0% .333

Sanchez has gone 1-for-13 since his 229th plate appearance to drag his overall season batting line down to .276/.360/.591 (127 wRC+), which is still pretty awesome. Only Salvador Perez has more home runs among all catchers. (He has 18.) Among the 24 catchers with at least 200 plate appearances, only Alex Avila (156) and Buster Posey (142) have been more productive overall in terms of wRC+.

As for the straight 229 plate appearances comparison, it’s kinda freaky, no? The AVG, OBP, BABIP, strikeout rate, and walk rate are nearly identical to last year. The difference falls within the error bars of baseball randomness. The similarities go beyond those numbers too. Sanchez’s hard contact rate (41.8% vs. 37.2%) and pull rate (54.1% vs. 52.6%) are nearly identical. So is his chase rate (32.9% vs. 30.8%) and contact rate in pitches in the zone (83.7% vs. 85.0%).

This season Sanchez is hitting fewer ground balls (49.3% vs. 42.6%), which is a good thing! You want him hitting the ball in the air. At the same time, his HR/FB rate has dropped from 40.0% to 26.0%. That was to be expected though. No one can hit two out of every five fly balls out of the park. That was never going to last. The fewer grounders is good though. The more Gary hits the ball in the air, the more damage he’ll do. He’s not hitting at a 60-homer pace anymore. It’s more like a 35-homer pace. And that is pretty cool.

One thing I think everyone has noticed about Sanchez’s season to date is that he’s had an awful lot of hard-hit outs. I mean, he hits the ball hard a lot, so it’s bound to happen, but it seems like Gary has had more line drives find gloves than any one player reasonably should. Here are the numbers:

% Batted Balls at 100+ mph AVG on 100+ mph balls BABIP on 100+ mph balls
Sanchez 36.6% .561 .432
MLB AVG 19.4% .650 .564

Okay, so we’re not imagining things. Sanchez has had an inordinate number of hard-hit batted balls — I used 100 mph exit velocity as my cutoff because humans are obsessed with round numbers — for whatever reason. Part of it is probably his pull rate, right? Sanchez pulls the ball a lot so teams shift their defenses to that side. Some of it is probably plain ol’ bad luck too. Hopefully that luck pendulum swings back in Gary’s favor in the second half.

On the defensive side, Sanchez has had a bit of a rocky season, I’d say. He’s especially had trouble blocking pitches in the dirt. We saw Joe Girardi pull him aside in Chicago after he failed to block a Masahiro Tanaka splitter two weeks ago. The catcher defense stats at Baseball Prospectus say Sanchez was 1.4 runs below average blocking balls in 316 innings last year. This year he’s at 0.5 runs below average in 400.2 innings. Hmmm.

The numbers say Sanchez has been a bit better this year blocking balls but still below average overall. The eye test tells me he’s been worse this year, but who knows. Your eyes lie. Perhaps I was too distracted by all those glorious dingers last season to notice his blocking deficiencies. Point is, blocking pitches has been an issue for Sanchez this year and it’s something he needs to improve going forward.

In terms of throwing, Gary has been great. He’s thrown out eleven of 30 would be basestealers, or 37%, well above the 27% league average. Last year he had a 41% caught stealing rate, so he’s not too far off that mark. Not enough to be a red flag. Baseball Prospectus rates his pitch-framing as a tick above average too (+1.7 runs). The same was true last year (+1.6 runs). Not great, not awful. Good enough.

Aside from the biceps injury, which thankfully has not lingered, Sanchez’s sophomore season has gone about as well as we could have hoped. His power numbers have taken an expected step back but he’s still a force at the plate. Add that to average-ish defense (above-average throwing, average framing, below-average blocking) and you’ve got one of the top catchers in the league and a deserving All-Star. Sanchez’s sophomore season has been pretty awesome.

Austin Romine: A competent backup who shined in April

Catcher at first base. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
Catcher at first base. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

In the fifth game of the season, Sanchez felt a tug in his biceps taking a swing and had to be placed on the disabled list. The Yankees were 1-4 at the time and their star offensive player — this was before Aaron Judge‘s ridiculousness — just suffered an injury that would require a month’s rest. Not ideal! Especially when that guy is your starting catcher and your options to replace him are fairly limited.

With Sanchez sidelined, the Yankees turned to Romine as their starting catcher because they really didn’t have much of a choice, and holy cow did he deliver. The 28-year-old Romine hit .316/.349/.456 (111 wRC+) with two doubles and two homers in 63 plate appearances while Sanchez was out, including going 4-for-6 with two walks and no strikeouts with runners in scoring position. Hot damn!

Not even the biggest Austin Romine fan expected him to do that when Sanchez’s injury pressed him into everyday duty. The pitching staff performed well that month as well and Romine received a lot of credit. (Probably too much.) Sanchez is the clear No. 1 catcher for the Yankees and he took over as the starter as soon as he returned from the disabled list, as he should have. Romine did an incredible job filling in those four weeks though.

Since returning to backup duty, Romine has hit a weak .183/.245/.215 (23 wRC+) overall, dragging his overall season batting line down to .231/.284/.306 (57 wRC+). He’s also played some first base, including starting three straight games at the position two weeks ago. Romine has handled first base well defensively — he’s made a few plays look a little more difficult than they actually were, though he made them, and that’s what counts — and he’s even gone out of his way to help tutor Sanchez with his blocking.

Romine is what he is at this point. He’s a hard-working backup who does his best work behind the plate and will occasionally surprise you with a clutch hit. When the Yankees needed him to step up during Sanchez’s injury, he did it in a huge way. The Yankees wouldn’t be hanging around the postseason race without him. Romine is a role player now and going forward. His 2017 season is already a success thanks to April.

Yankeemetrics: Massive skid extends into break (July 7-9)

(AP)
(AP)

Groundhog Day in July
Another series, another bullpen failure, and the epic freefall continued with an embarrassing 9-4 loss on Friday night against the Brewers. The all-too-familiar late-inning implosion led to the Yankees 17th blown save, tying the Rangers for the most in MLB, and officially passing their total from last year. Yup, it’s July 10th.

Tyler Clippard once again was the conductor of this bullpen trainwreck, surrendering the game-losing runs in the seventh inning on a tie-breaking grand slam by Jesus Aguilar. Getting pummeled in key late-inning situations is nothing new for Clippard. Batters are slugging .711 against him in high-leverage plate appearances, the highest mark among major-league pitchers this season (min. 50 batters faced). And, for reference, Aaron Judge was slugging .701 after Friday’s game.

Clippard now has 11 Meltdowns – a metric at FanGraphs which basically answers the question of whether a relief pitcher hurt his team’s chance of winning a game. Those 11 Meltdowns are the most for any AL pitcher and tied with Blake Treinen (Nationals) and Brett Cecil (Cardinals) for the major-league lead.

And if the late-inning self-destruction wasn’t depressing enough, the Yankees also failed to take advantage of a sloppy five-error defensive performance by the Brewers.

You have to go back more than five years to find a team that lost a game despite their opponent committing five errors – the Giants against the Diamondbacks on April 8, 2012. And the last time the Yankees suffered such a mistake-filled loss was July 9, 1995 vs. the Rangers.

The one thing that salvaged this game from being another W.L.O.T.S. (Worst Loss of The Season) was – no surprise – another record-breaking performance by Aaron Judge. He hammered his 30th home run of the season in the fifth inning, becoming the first Yankee rookie ever to hit 30 homers. Forget the rookie qualification, Judge is only the third player in franchise history to hit 30-or-more homers before the All-Star break, joining Alex Rodriguez (30 in 2007) and Roger Maris (33 in 1961).

(USA Today Sports)
(USA Today Sports)

Boom goes Frazier!
With the Yankees down 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth and staring at another soul-crushing defeat on Saturday afternoon, Clint Frazier came to the rescue and stunningly flipped a near-disaster loss into a rousing walk-off party, drilling a 97-mph fastball over the left field fences for the win.

Showing off his “legendary bat speed,” Frazier made a serious dent in the Yankee record books:

  • Before Frazier, the last Yankee to hit a walk-off homer against the Brewers was Roberto Kelly on Sept. 18, 1991.
  • He is the youngest Yankee (22 years, 305 days) with a walk-off dinger since a 21-year-old Melky Cabrera on July 18, 2006 versus the Mariners.
  • Frazier is the first Yankee rookie to hit a walk-off homer that turned a deficit into a win since Bobby Murcer on Aug. 5, 1969 against the Angels.
  • And, he is the youngest Yankee ever to launch a walk-off home run with his team trailing.

frazier-walk-off-gif

Frazier’s historic game-winning hit capped off a three-hit, four-RBI day by the red-headed rookie:

First, his single in the bottom of the fifth inning broke up Brent Suter’s no-hit bid and also completed the “career cycle” – Frazier’s first three hits in the majors were a home run, triple and double. Then, his run-scoring triple in the seventh inning cut the Yankees deficit to 3-2, and made him the youngest Yankee with a triple in back-to-back games since a 22-year-old Don Mattingly on July 30-31, 1983.

Finally, let’s hand out our Obscure Yankeemetric of the Series to Mr. Frazier: He is the first Yankee to be a double short of the cycle in a game since Derek Jeter on April 30, 2010, and the youngest to do that since Mickey Mantle on May 22, 1954.

As the late-game struggles have become a recurring nightmare in recent weeks, it’s easy to forget that we had anointed this team as the Comeback Kids during the first two months. Saturday was the third time the Yankees won a game in which they trailed entering the ninth inning, matching their entire total from all of last season.

Luis Severino struggled out of the gate when he put the Yankees in a 3-0 hole after giving up a three-run bomb in the first inning. Aside from that rocky start, the 23-year-old right-hander was brilliant in blanking the Brewers for six more frames. He finished with 10 strikeouts, the fourth time this year he’s struck out double-digit guys. Severino is the youngest Yankee ever with four 10-strikeout games this early into the season (game number 85).

Aaron Judge didn’t give us any home run heroics, but still added to his unprecedented statistical rookie season on Saturday with his 60th walk – highlighting his rare combo of patience, power and production. Judge is the first player in major-league history age-25-or-younger to pile up at least 30 homers, 60 walks and 95 hits before the All-Star break.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Bad Tanaka is back
There would be no inspiring comeback, no walk-off magic, no wild celebration in Sunday’s rubber game as the Yankees headed to the All-Star break on the heels of another disheartening loss. They ended the unofficial first half of the season with one of their worst extended slumps in the last quarter century, going 0-7-1 in their final eight series and losing 18 of their last 25 games.

The last time the Yankees went eight straight series without a series win — and lost at least seven of them — was August/September 1991. Before this season, they hadn’t endured a 25-game stretch that included at least 18 losses since May/June 1995. And then there’s this sobering fact … the last time the Yankees actually won a series (June 9-11), the Cleveland Cavaliers were still the reigning NBA champions.

The most frustrating part of the game was the Yankees endless string of bad clutch hitting, as they went 1-for-16 with runners in scoring position. It was their worst single-game performance in that situation (min. 15 at-bats) since a 1-for-17 effort on June 8, 2014 against the Royals.

Aside from the pathetic Yankee bats, the biggest culprit in Sunday’s loss was Masahiro Tanaka, who put the Yankees in an early 4-0 hole after the Brewers crushed two homers in the first two innings off him. That brought his dinger total to 23, one more than he coughed during the entire 2016 season.

While much has been made of his weird day/night splits (7-3, 3.10 ERA in night games; 0-5, 14.81 ERA in day games), the more troubling split is his performance versus teams with a .500 or better record compared to a losing record. He’s now 1-5 with a 10.87 ERA in six starts against winning teams, and 6-3 with a 3.66 ERA in 12 starts vs losing teams.

For the second straight day Clint Frazier did his best to rally the troops, belting a two-run opposite-field homer in the fourth inning to cut the Yankees deficit to one run. It was his third home run in seven career games, the fourth Yankee to go yard that many times within their first seven major-league contests. It’s quite an eclectic list: Shelley Duncan, Jesus Montero and Steve Whitaker are the others.

Aaron Judge went 1-for-4 with a walk and heads to the All-Star festivities with an unreal batting line of .329/.448/.691. Since the first Mid-Summer Classic in 1933, Judge is the only Yankee right-handed batter to enter the break with at least a .320 batting average, .440 on-base percentage and .690 slugging percentage (min. 200 at-bats).

Yankeemetrics: Epic freefall reaches new low (July 3-5)

(Getty)
(Getty)

Return of The Ace
Is he back? That was the burning question in the Bronx after the Yankees returned home and notched a 6-3 win over the Blue Jays in the series opener, a game featured a third straight strong outing by Masahiro Tanaka.

Tanaka was brilliant, going seven innings while allowing one run with eight strikeouts – and no home runs. He has a 1.29 ERA with 22 strikeouts in 21 innings and a .495 OPS allowed over his last three starts; a massive improvement from his first 14 starts (6.34 ERA and .910 OPS allowed).

One of the biggest keys for Tanaka during this excellent stretch of back-to-back-to-back outings has been his ability to keep the ball on the ground and limit hard-hit balls. His groundball rate has jumped from 47 percent in the first two and a half months to 61 percent in his last three games, while his rate of hard contact has been cut from 35 percent to 19.6 percent.

When he was at his worst – during those first 14 starts – he allowed an average airball exit velocity of 93.8 mph, the worst mark through June 22 in the majors (min. 100 batted balls). He’s lowered that number by nearly 10 mph since June 23, to a stellar 84.2 mph that ranks fifth-best in MLB over the last two weeks (min. 15 batted balls).

Digging deeper, we can see that Tanaka has been much more precise with his off-speed stuff, locating his slider and splitter consistently at the knees and below the zone:

tanaka-first-14

The depth on those pitches is also significantly better, with his slider showing nearly an inch more downward movement and his splitter dropping a half-inch more over his last three starts. All of that has resulted in opponents slugging .146 in 40 at-bats ending in his splitter or slider over his last three starts, compared to .469 in his first 14 starts.

While Tanaka’s gem and return to ace form were the biggest stories of the game, let’s put the spotlight on another player that’s quietly produced one of the best all-around first-halves by any Yankee.

Brett Gardner hit his 15th double of the season, giving him these numbers as we near the mid-summer classic: 15 doubles, 15 homers, 10 steals, 56 runs and 35 walks – power, pop, speed, patience and scoring. The only other Yankee to reach each of those totals before the All-Star break (since 1933) is Rickey Henderson in 1986.

(AP)
(AP)

Yankee Doodle Dud
July 4th is a storied day in Yankees history – Lou Gehrig’s ‘Luckiest Man’ speech, George Steinbrenner‘s birthday, Dave Righetti’s no-hitter, John Sterling’s birthday – but this year there would be no indelible moments, no joyous celebration, no fireworks at Yankee Stadium. Instead, they followed up Monday’s encouraging win with another dull loss, 4-1, on Tuesday afternoon.

The last time the Yankees won back-to-back games was June 11-12, a string of 21 games during which they’ve gone 5-16. This is just the third time in the last two decades the Yankees have gone 20-or-more games without a win streak; the other droughts came in July/August 2013 (24 games) and August/September 2012 (25 games).

CC Sabathia, making his first start since a three-week stint on the disabled list, retired the first eight batters he faced but then didn’t get another out, getting pulled after giving up four runs in the inning. Those four earned runs allowed in the third frame matched the same number he had surrendered over a combined 36 1/3 innings in his previous six starts.

Aaron Judge saved the day from being a disaster when he homered in the fourth inning. Judge’s 28th longball of the season was a sizzling shot that went 456 feet and left his bat with an exit velocity of 118.4 mph. It was the fourth time he’s hit a homer that hard … and in related news, the rest of MLB has combined for ZERO home runs with an exit velocity of 118-plus mph this season.

Following the game, Chris Carter was designated for assignment for the second time in two weeks. If this is finally the end of the Chris Carter Experiment, he’ll have earned himself an inglorious place in the franchise record books: Carter would be the first Yankee ever to get at least 200 plate appearances in a season and finish with twice as many strikeouts (76) as hits (37).

(AP)
(AP)

Another collapse, send help
And the mind-numbing tailspin continues in the Bronx. The Yankees dropped the rubber game of the series, 7-6, suffering another crushing defeat in which they battled back from five runs down to take the lead only to have the bullpen self-destruct yet again.

Let’s update those ugly bullpen-implosion numbers from the last Yankeemetrics:

Stat Notes
16 Blown Saves – Through 83 games last year, they had only six (in three fewer save opportunities);
– The same total they had the entire 2016 season
17 One-Run Losses – Five more than all of last year;
– 11 of them since June 1, the most of any team in that span
11 losses when scoring at least five runs – The same number they had all of last year;
– Through 83 games in 2016, they had six such losses;
– 8 of them have come since June 1, the most in MLB

Chad Green ignited the meltdown when he coughed up the game-tying homer in the seventh, and then Dellin Betances put grease on the fire when he walked in the go-ahead run in the eighth.

Betances simply can’t find the strike zone now. His total lack of command has been really acute in his last four games, during which he has walked 10 of the 20 batters he’s faced and thrown only 41 of his 97 pitches for strikes.

Wednesday marked just the second time he’s ever walked four guys in an outing – the other instance was his first career big-league appearance on Sept. 22, 2011. Betances also joined Edwar Ramirez (July 20, 2007) as the only Yankees in the last quarter-century to give out at least four free passes and get one or fewer outs in a game.

For the season, he’s now at 8.56 walks per nine innings and a 21.1 percent walk rate, both of which would be the worst marks by any Yankee with at least 25 innings pitched since Ryne Duren in 1960 (9.0, 21.4%).

The beginning of the game was just as horrible to watch as the ending, with Michael Pineda getting shelled by the Toronto lineup. They crushed three homers off him, the second time in his last two home games he’s given up at least three dingers. The only other Yankee pitchers to allow at least three longballs in back-to-back games at Yankee Stadium were Kei Igawa (2007) and Red Ruffing (1941) – but neither of those two guys only pitched four innings or fewer in both games, like Pineda did.

The bullpen blowtorch erased what had been a rousing comeback, one that was sparked by Aaron Judge. The pinstriped cyborg drove in the first two runs of the game with his 29th home run of the season, matching Joe DiMaggio for the Yankee rookie record … with 79 games remaining on the schedule.

Perhaps more incredible is this stat, which illustrates his rare and legendary combination of power and patience: Three Yankees have compiled at least 200 total bases and 50-plus walks before the All-Star break – Judge, Mickey Mantle (1956) and Lou Gehrig (1936).

The Yankees have cut ties with Chris Carter (again), but that doesn’t solve their first base problem

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Chris Carter‘s second stint in pinstripes is over. Following yesterday’s loss, the Yankees designated Carter for assignment for the second time this season. Second time in the last two weeks, really. The only reason he was brought back was Tyler Austin‘s hamstring injury. The Yankees decided enough was enough yesterday.

All told, Carter hit .201/.284/.370 (73 wRC+) with eight homers and a 36.5% strikeout rate in 62 games with the Yankees, including 1-for-12 (.083) with four strikeouts since being brought back. When a guy is in the lineup for his bat and he’s being removed for pinch-hitters like Austin Romine and Tyler Wade in the late innings, the writing was on the wall. Joe Girardi‘s patience ran out weeks ago.

With Austin and Greg Bird still sidelined, the Yankees will now turn the first base reins over to Ji-Man Choi, a 26-year-old journeyman on a minor league contract. Choi has bounced from the Mariners to the Orioles to the Angels to the Yankees over the last 19 months. Last season, in his first and so far only big league stint, Choi hit .170/.271/.339 (67 wRC+) in 54 games with the Halos. If he does that again, he’ll be a downgrade from Carter.

The Yankees are turning to Choi for three reasons, basically. One, they’ve exhausted their patience with Carter. They’ve given him plenty of chances and he hasn’t produced. The Yankees and Girardi would live with the strikeouts if he were hitting the ball out of the park like last season, but he’s not. He’s not hitting home runs and his defense, which was fine in April and May, has become untenable. Carter has failed to make too many routine plays.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Two, Choi has been hot lately. He’s hitting .289/.371/.505 (137 wRC+) in 56 Triple-A games overall this year, and that includes a 14-for-45 (.311) stretch with six home runs in his last 12 games. He has eight home runs on the season overall, and six have come in the last two weeks. If you’re going to make a change and bring up someone new to play first base, the guy who is on a hot streak in Triple-A is as good a choice as anyone.

And three, the Yankees simply have nowhere else to turn. Bird is hurt, Austin is hurt, Matt Holliday is hurt, and playing Romine or Rob Refsnyder at first base on an everyday basis is not something anyone wants to see. I know I don’t. The trade market has yet to heat up too. Choi is the best option. Once the Yankees decided Carter wasn’t their guy, next up on the depth chart was Choi because of injuries.

Make no mistake though, Choi is a band-aid, not a permanent solution. I mean, I suppose he could have an unexpected hot streak and hold things down until Bird and/or Austin return, though I can’t imagine the Yankees are expecting Choi to be the guy at first base going forward. Brian Cashman and his staff are surely scouring the trade market for a more permanent solution will Bird’s status is unknown.

The Yankees have lost 15 of their last 21 games (!) and the bullpen has been the primary culprit. First base has been a problem all year though — even when Bird was healthy, he stunk — and the Yankees reached the point where it was time to try someone else. Heck, they reached that point with Carter a few weeks ago, but then Austin got hurt. I don’t think Choi is the answer and yeah, he can be worse than Carter, but the bar has been set so low. It was time to try someone new. Chances are the Yankees will again be looking to try someone new in a few weeks.