Three Months of a Great Designated Hitter [2017 Season Review]

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

I had mixed feelings about the Yankees signing Matt Holliday so early in the off-season, given the breadth of options on the market and the salary that he would be paid. The signing of Chris Carter left me with something of a bitter taste in my mouth, as Carter came at a much cheaper price, as well as the promise of similar or better production; I even wrote a bit about it. I was never terribly concerned with Holliday’s potential to rebound, but it felt like strange roster construction. I was, of course, hilariously wrong about Carter this year. Holliday, however, was brilliant from the outset.

The First Three Months

It didn’t take too long for Matt Holliday to demonstrate his aptitude for hitting, as the 37-year-old reached base safely in eight of his first nine games. That stretch included his first home run as a Yankee (which came in game four), and a team record-tying five-walk game on April 9, and he looked dialed-in at the plate. Holliday earned his pinstripes a few weeks later, when he hit a walk-off three-run home run against the Orioles on April 28.

Holliday was batting .262/.402/.492 (141 wRC+) with 4 HR and 14 RBI when April came to an end, and was as big a part of the team’s success as any hitter this season aside from Aaron Judge. He was hitting, hitting for power, and drawing walks (19.5% BB), and the term “professional hitter” was thrown around with gusto whenever his name was mentioned.

He cooled off a little bit in May, slashing .260/.321/.521 (119 wRC+). His power was up – he hit 7 HR – but there were signs that he might be selling out for power. Holliday’s walk rate dipped to 6.6%, his strikeout rate increased by 7.4 percentage points, and his flyball rate jumped by 10.8 percentage points. It was a strong month, regardless, yet it did lead to a bit of caution.

And then Holliday returned to his all-around raking ways in June, batting .264/.386/.514 (140 wRC+), with 4 HR, 15.9% walks, and just 17.0% strikeouts. It was a fantastic month, and his normalized approach was a thing of beauty. His flyball rate jumped yet again, all the way up to 48.3%, but he was hitting the ball harder and taking more pitches, so nothing seemed to be amiss.

Holliday was placed on the DL with a viral infection on June 28, and would end up sitting out for the remainder of the first half. Despite that, he was among the best designated hitters in the game as of the break:

capture
(FanGraphs)

The numbers speak for themselves here, as Holliday was third at the position in wRC+, and just four off the home run lead despite missing two weeks of games in the end of June and early July. Given his age and injury history it made sense for the Yankees to give him as much time as possible to recover, and the hope was that that would allow him to return at full-strength.

Two Months of Injuries and Awfulness

Holliday returned from the disabled list on July 14, and went 0-for-4 against the Red Sox, but nobody read much into that – it was his first game back following a long lay off. And all seemed right in the world the next evening, when he played the hero by hitting a long home run off of Craig Kimbrel to tie the game at 1-1 and send it into extra innings.

And then he stopped hitting.

From July 14 through August 4 (85 PA), Holliday hit .136/.165/.198 (-13 wRC+) with 1 HR, 3.5% walks, and 28.2% strikeouts. His bat was slow, his power was non-existent, and he seemed to have no plan at the plate. Nearly 60% of Holliday’s batted balls were grounders, and he wasn’t hitting the ball with authority (23.8% hard-hit rate, against a 35.8% mark in the first half). Given all of that, it wasn’t shocking when he went back to the DL on August 5 with a back injury.

The End of the Line

Holliday returned to the lineup on September 2, and he came back with a vengeance. He went 2-for-6 with 2 HR, 4 RBI, 2 BB, and 0 strikeouts in his first two games, and he drove the ball with authority. Unfortunately, that was basically it for Holliday as an effective hitter, as he hit .226/.276/.340 (61 wRC+) with a home run in his last 15 regular season games. He had trouble catching up with velocity, and was very aggressive with precious little in the way of positive results. As a result of this, he ended up playing in just one postseason game, going 0-for-3 in Game 1 of the ALCS.

All told, Holliday hit .179/.225/.300 (34 wRC+) with 4 HR, 6.0% walks, and 28.5% strikeouts in the second half – and it wasn’t pretty. He hit .231/.316/.432 (98 wRC+) with 19 HR in 427 PA on the season, which was actually good enough to make him a middle of the pack DH overall. That’s faint praise – though, I do believe he could’ve been at least competent in the second half if he had been healthy.

2018 Outlook

Holliday played himself out of a meaningful playoff role and, taken in conjunction with his injury issues these last three years, may well be viewed as a scrap heap player as he hits free agency. It’s highly unlikely that he has a return engagement with the Yankees, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he spent most of the off-season looking for a job.

Aaron Hicks: Fourth outfielder to starting in center [2017 Season Review]

(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Going into 2017, you would have been forgiven if you chalked up the John Ryan MurphyAaron Hicks deal to a lose-lose with both players going bust in their new environments. Hicks hit .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+) in his first season with the Yankees while fulfilling mostly a part-time, fourth outfielder role.

Despite his clear tools, his breakout in 2017 was nonetheless surprising.

Forging an opportunity

Just like in 2017, Hicks was the fourth outfielder to start the year. He nearly outhit Aaron Judge in spring training while trying to win the right fielder job, putting up a .268/.379/.518 line.

When the regular season started, Hicks was better from the jump. In his first start (Apr. 8), He went 1 for 2 with a double and a walk. After Brett Gardner was banged up on a play at first, he got a chance to start full-time for a week and he took off. He homered twice to lead the Yankees to a win over the Rays. He walked six times while knocking in eight runs in a four-game span.

Impressively, he had four two-walk games in April despite starting just nine times. Since he was in the minors, Hicks was always renowned for his eye, but it hadn’t quite translated to the majors. He added a pair of three walks games on May 3 and May 11 while notching seven hits in two games in-between against the Cubs. After the May 11 game, he was hitting .333/.474/.627. That’s unreal, even in the small sample size.

Of course, while this was happening, Aaron Judge was taking the entire league by storm while Brett Gardner was beginning to show off some power. Even Jacoby Ellsbury was hitting some, so it would have been simple for Hicks to lose playing time as soon as he had a brief cold streak…

Breaking out

But then came Ellsbury’s concussion on May 24. From there on out, centerfield was Hicks’ job for the taking.

And take it he did. He put together a 21-game on-base streak from mid-May to mid-June. This included a four-hit game with three doubles and six RBI against Toronto. Just killing the ball.

He was walking consistently and wasn’t striking out nearly as much. Meanwhile, Hicks continued to hit for power, posting 10 homers and 15 doubles along with 37 walks to just 42 strikeouts through June 25.

Injuries rear their ugly head

But on Old Timer’s Day on the 25th, Hicks injured his oblique. He’d missed a few games with Achilles soreness just a few days earlier. Hicks had dealt with injuries in 2016, but none that kept him out quite as long as the oblique injury did. It robbed the Yankees of their best option in the No. 2 spot of their lineup, where Hicks had been batting for nearly three weeks.

While he was replaced by Ellsbury on the roster, it was still a blow to the team as they lost Starlin Castro and Matt Holliday around the same time. The team was left shorthanded and their lineup took a hit.

Hicks would return more than a month later on Aug. 10 and he wasn’t quite the same despite a clutch homer and outfield assist in his second game back.

He went from hitting .290/.398/.515 before the oblique injury to hitting .265/.367/.463 when he left with another oblique injury. At the time, it was thought that it may end his season. He had put up six hits on Aug. 30-31 over nine plate appearances, but it was still a disappointing finish.

However, he’d make it back for six more games (five starts) to close out the year. He robbed his second grand slam of the season in his first inning back on Sept. 26 and walked three times in the game. He’d hit homers each of the next two days and close out the year hitting .266/.372/.475 (127 wRC+), a career-best line.

You're probably wonder how I ended up here... (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
You’re probably wonder how I ended up here… (Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Highlights in the field

Here are the two grand slams he robbed. One was in Anaheim in mid-June (the road trip from hell) and the other in Tampa.

Hicks had yet another strong year in the field. Despite Ellsbury’s hot streak to end the year, he earned the starting centerfield job back in part due to his far superior arm in center. It definitely discourages teams from taking an extra base on him like Eduardo Nunez tried to in August.

As for his overall fielding, he occasionally misreads a ball yet he tends to make up for it with his speed. His first oblique injury came making a play near the wall, so he made need to be more careful there moving forward.

Still, Hicks had a career-best 15 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and a UZR/150 of 13.5. While he had a strong year at the plate, he didn’t let himself take off plays in the field. A testament to him and his all-around game. True five-tool player.

Back in the nick of time

Returning just in time for the postseason, Hicks was right back in center field. It gave the Yankees their best defensive arrangement and a batter with a strong eye near the bottom of the lineup. Getting back into center so quickly showed that he’s well above Ellsbury in the Yankees’ plans.

And Hicks produced some big playoff moments, including a bases-loaded walk in the Wild Card Game to extend the lead and a monster home run to KO Corey Kluber in ALDS Game 2. He nearly opened the ALCS with a homer off Dallas Keuchel in Game 1, but he hit to the wrong part of Minute Maid Park. While he hit well in the ALDS (.316/.350/.526), he was mostly silent at the plate in the ALCS, finishing the postseason with a .196/.260/.304 line.

2018 Outlook

Hicks likely goes into 2018 as the Yankees starting centerfielder. He’s opened the door for the Yankees to salary dump Ellsbury while still having a more than adequate replacement.

If healthy, he has the approach at the plate that can produce something close to his 2017 production over a full year, even if maybe not quite as productive. He hit just .218/.319/.396 in the second half, still showing off his ability to draw walks but striking out a fair amount more while working around injuries.

Still, there’s less pressure on him to be a top-of-the-order hitter with Judge, Sanchez, Bird and others ahead of him. He works anywhere in the lineup with a limited left-right split (surprisingly close splits, even for a switch-hitter) and his approach at the plate.

Year Four of the Jacoby Ellsbury Era [2017 Season Review]

(Abbie Parr/Getty)
(Abbie Parr/Getty)

At this point, the best thing the Yankees can say about the Jacoby Ellsbury contract is that they’re finally closer to the end than the beginning. Year 4 of the Ellsbury era played out very much like Years 1-3. There were months of poor production, an injury, and a hot streak that had everyone wondering whether Ellsbury would finally provide some bang for the buck.

In the end, Ellsbury hit .264/.348/.402 (101 wRC+) with seven home runs and 22 steals in 25 attempts in 112 games in 2017, which isn’t bad by any means. It is a bit deceiving though, because Ellsbury bunched all the good into a four-week hot streak from August 26th through September 20th, in which he hit .397/.494/.616 (194 wRC+) in 89 plate appearances. In his other 320 plate appearances, he hit .230/.303/.346 (~77 wRC+).

Now, don’t get me wrong, those 89 great plate appearances from August 26th to September 20th count. Ellsbury was phenomenal those weeks! He helped the Yankees win a lot of games. The season is not four weeks long, however. There was a lot of bad sandwiched around those four weeks, bad enough that Ellsbury was relegated to fourth outfielder duty for long stretches of time, including in the postseason.

A Lineup Demotion, In Theory

Following the end of the 2016 season, both Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman hinted at a lineup change for the 2017 season. The Brett Gardner/Ellsbury tandem would be broken up atop the lineup. The Yankees signed Ellsbury hoping he and Gardner would form a dynamic one-two lineup punch with speed and sneaky power. It never really materialized.

The question was who would be demoted, the more productive Gardner or the more highly compensated Ellsbury? Money talks. In a perfect world teams wouldn’t consider salary in making roster decisions, but they do. They all do. The Yankees are no different. In this case, Ellsbury salary didn’t matter. Girardi dropped him from second in the lineup all the way down to … fifth. He even batted fourth for a few games.

On one hand, dropping Ellsbury from the second spot in the lineup was the right move. On another hand, dropping him to fourth and fifth meant he was still hitting in the premium lineup spot, and would still be a significant part of the offense. And for the first few weeks of the season, it was fine. Not great, not terrible. Fine. Ellsbury hit .277/.333/.410 (99 wRC+) in April and even swatted his first career grand slam.

Ellsbury played well enough in April — and the season was still young enough, of course — that he stayed in the lineup even with Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks hitting the snot out of the ball and forcing their way into the lineup. Judge played every single game because he had to. Hicks, Ellsbury, and Gardner spent most of the month rotating in and out of the lineup, with Hicks getting the least playing time.

The Concussion

On May 24th, with his batting line sitting at .281/.349/.422 (108 wRC+) through 153 plate appearances, Ellsbury crashed shoulder-first into the center field wall making a catch against the Royals. He initially stayed in the game, but was removed one inning later with a concussion.

Ouch. Concussions are no joke. They’re a brain injury and if they’re not treated properly and quickly, they can lead to very bad things down the road. The concussion sidelined Ellsbury for almost exactly one month — he returned on June 26th. Ellsbury’s injury gave Hicks a chance to play everyday, and it was a Hicks injury that brought Ellsbury back from the disabled list a little sooner than expected. Hicks hurt his oblique on June 25th and the Yankees brought Ellsbury back from his rehab assignment a few days early to fill the roster spot.

The first few weeks back from the concussion did not go well, and while that is understandable — again, concussions are a serious matter — it also fit a career-long pattern for Ellsbury. He has a history of getting hurt and not hitting once he returns. We’ve seen it in pinstripes a few times, most notably after he tweaked his knee in 2015. In his first 41 games back from the concussion, Ellsbury hit .186/.289/.297 (60 wRC+) in 136 plate appearances. Yeesh. At one point he went 3-for-29 (.103) during a 13-game span. That dragged his season batting line down to .237/.320/.364 (85 wRC+).

Ellsbury’s Best Four Weeks As A Yankee

That ugly 41-game slide ended August 25th, a cherry-picked date. The very next day, Ellsbury started his monster four-week hot streak, a 38-game stretch in which he was not only New York’s most dangerous hitter, but also one of the best hitters in the game not named Giancarlo Stanton. Those four weeks were incredible.

Those four weeks were so great they represent Ellsbury’s best four-week stretch as a Yankee, bar none. He hit .397/.494/.616 (194 wRC+) those four weeks. His next best four-week stretch in pinstripes is a .324/.366/.539 (150 wRC+) batting line back in August 2014. Here is Ellsbury’s tenure with the Yankees:

jacoby-ellsbury-2014-17-wrc

More valleys than peaks, though some of the peaks are quite high. None are as high as his second half this season. Ellsbury was the Yankees’ best player during those four weeks late this season and the Yankees needed him to step up, because Hicks was hurt again and Judge was still working his way out of his second half slump. The Yankees were noticeably short a bat down the stretch. Ellsbury helped pick up the slack.

The hot streak was the very best of Ellsbury. He was a contact machine — he drew 13 walks and struck out only nine times in those 38 games — who sprayed the ball all around and used his speed. There is always going to be some element of luck involved when a player hits .397 across 38 games — Ellsbury did have a .444 BABIP during the hot streak — but Ellsbury created his own luck by putting the ball in play so often. He saw 375 pitches during the hot streak. He swung and missed only 28 times.

The biggest moment of Ellsbury’s torrid hot streak came during Players Weekend, when he swatted a go-ahead three-run home run against the Mariners. The Yankees suffered a tough extra-innings loss the night before and basically half the AL was trying to catch them in the wildcard race. Ellsbury’s homer contributed to an important win.

By the end of the hot streak Ellsbury had raised his season batting line to .273/.361/.420 (110 wRC+). It was an uneven distribution — he started well enough, stunk in the middle, then got crazy hot — but it was the first time since his first season with the Yankees that Ellsbury was an above-average hitter that late into the season.

The Beginning Of The End

The hot streak didn’t last, of course. They never do. Ellsbury went 5-for-30 (.167) in his final eight games of the regular season, and with Hicks back from his second oblique injury, Ellsbury again found himself on the bench. It was Hicks, not Ellsbury, who played center field in the postseason. The Yankees played 13 postseason games this year and Ellsbury appeared in six of them. He started four, all at DH. In those six games he went 0-for-9.

There were stretches throughout the season in which Ellsbury was dropped down into fourth outfielder duty, though the Hicks injury and the general day in, day out nature of the regular season meant he still played a few times a week. In the postseason though, with every game meaning so much, Girardi and the Yankees determined Ellsbury did not give the Yankees the best chance to win. Not at the plate and not in the field. He was a pinch-runner, basically.

As things stand, the Yankees are deep in outfielders going into the 2017-18 offseason. Ellsbury, Gardner, Hicks, and Judge are all under control for at least two more years, and Clint Frazier is very close to ready for full-time MLB action, if he isn’t already. Ellsbury is the one outfielder who clearly deserves less playing time going forward, not more. That the Yankees already scaled back on his playing time this summer leads me to believe Ellsbury’s days as a starter are close to over, at least when he’s not in the middle of a hot streak.

2018 Outlook

For the first time since Ellsbury joined the Yankees, I feel like the team will make a very serious effort to unload him this offseason, to clear room for Hicks and Frazier and the other outfielders. It’s going to hurt to trade Ellsbury, and it should hurt. The signing seemed completely crazy at the time, and when you make a decision that bad, you deserve to deal with the consequences. The Yankees will have to eat a lot of money to move Ellsbury. There are four questions now:

  1. Will Ellsbury waive his no-trade clause?
  2. Does any other team even want Ellsbury?
  3. How much money will the Yankees have to eat to facilitate a trade?
  4. How badly do the Yankees want to open the roster spot?

That’s what this is about, right? Opening a roster spot for a younger player (Frazier) and saving as much money as possible. The contract is a sunk cost. Right now the Yankees have to pay all of it no matter what. Saving some of it, even a few million a year, to open the roster spot and create a more flexible roster makes sense given where the Yankees are. It’s hard to see Ellsbury as a meaningful piece of the next great Yankees team.

Trading Ellsbury won’t be easy nor will it yield any sort of meaningful return. It’ll be a reverse Vernon Wells trade, basically. The Yankees get non-prospects in return for saving some cash. Ellsbury is better than Wells, sure, but his contract is more onerous. If the Yankees can unload Ellsbury, I think they’d jump at the chance this winter. And if not, they’ll have no choice but to go into next season with him penciled into a bench spot.

A career year for the powerful, tweet-happy shortstop [2017 Season Review]

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

After a strong 2016 season, it wasn’t certain whether Didi Gregorius was going to maintain his powerful breakout or return to Earth. Well, he maintained … and then some. The Yankees’ shortstop put together the best offensive year of his career to go with a defensive bounceback, culminating in career-year.

Strong from the start

Gregorius injured his shoulder while preparing for the last round of the World Baseball Classic and missed all but three games in April. The Yankees were forced to fill in with Ronald Torreyes and Pete Kozma (remember him?) for a few weeks until Didi was back in the fold.

In his first game back — which just so happened to be the crazy 14-11 comeback vs. the Orioles — Gregorius reminded everyone of his defensive prowess by making a diving stop in the second inning.

He hit for very little power in his first few weeks back, finally hitting a home run in his 11th game.

(Fangraphs)
(Fangraphs)

Whether there were lingering effects from his shoulder strain is unclear, but he maintained a high average, batting .307 through the end of May. He had begun to pull the ball more and had some balls fall in, but it was unclear how sustainable his success was.

Heart of the lineup again

As the temperature heated up, so did Didi. He primarily batted in the bottom third of the order up until the end of June, when injuries and his solid performance prompted a move towards the middle.

This wasn’t necessarily expected despite him finishing 2016 by often hitting cleanup. Yet he justified it with his powerful bat. I detailed just before the postseason how he adjusted to lift the ball more and take advantage of Yankee Stadium as well as the potential juiced baseball.

You can see in the ISO chart above that he really peaked near the trade deadline and at the very end of the season. At the end of July, he had four home runs in a three-game span and followed that up in September with homers of three consecutive days against the Orioles. He finished the year with a career-best 25 home runs and .191 ISO while having just two fewer extra-base hits than 2016 in 17 fewer games.

Improvements in the field

Defensive metrics were down on Gregorius in 2016, but they rated him as a strong fielder again in 2017. It seemed like he made fewer mistakes on routine balls while still making some of the spectacular plays he usually gets.

Overall, in about 130 fewer innings, he committed six fewer errors. Not bad! Ultimately, outside of Brett Gardner, he’s probably the guy to whom you want the opposing team hitting the ball. While he wasn’t a Gold Glove finalist, he was still as sure-handed as ever. Perhaps more so.

Tweets and sideline reporting

Just a quick aside, but how much fun was it watching Didi when he wasn’t playing? He’s a delight. The post-win tweets were the perfect cap to all 98 wins in 2017 and it became an intriguing guessing game to figure out how each emoji represented each new player.

However, the best thing may have been the post-home run interviews in the dugout. The team took the lead of the Cubs and others and took it the stratosphere, making the interviews complexly laid out with a YES microphone flag to boot. Gotta love The Toe-night Show.

While Gregorius may not be an 80-grade celebration specialist like Yasiel Puig, he’s high up there. At least a 70.

Let's flash to Corey Kluber's nightmares (Gregory Shamus/Getty)
Let’s flash to Corey Kluber’s nightmares (Gregory Shamus/Getty)

Three homers in October

Gregorius had some big moments in the regular season sprinkled among his defensive gems, 25 home runs and myriad of multi-hit games. But he shined brightest by arguably hitting the three biggest home runs of the Yankees season. If not THE biggest, then certainly three of the top five.

It’s pretty hard to forget the three-run homer in the first inning to tie up the Wild Card Game. He fought back against Ervin Santana to force a 3-2 count and pounced on a fastball over the heart of the plate and drove it into a raucous Yankee Stadium crowd.

Honestly, that would have been enough out of him for the postseason. That hit propelled the Yankees into the ALDS and avoided a shameful offseason of rehashing a loss to a lesser Twins squad. It’s the type of hit that justified his spot in the order.

But he wasn’t done. He hit a pair of homers off inside pitches from presumed AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber in ALDS Game 5 — another winner-take-all masterpiece. (Side note: AL pitchers, stop going inside on Didi. He’ll burn you to a crisp.) That was enough to put the Yankees into the ALCS in remarkable fashion.

The trio of homers leaves a perfect imprint on Didi’s season, announcing loud and clear his transformation into a middle-of-the-order hitter. He came up clutch in the ALCS (the triple and single in the Game 4 comeback come to mind), but in the fashion of 2017 baseball, his home runs stand out.

2018 Outlook

He’s shown his power is sustainable as long as current environment holds together. But more importantly, he’s displayed that he’ll be a key part of the core. He doesn’t have to be looking over his shoulder at Gleyber Torres and has probably cemented himself as the shortstop for a while, meriting consideration for a contract extension.

As crazy as it may have sounded before this year or when the Yankees acquired him, he could be a 30-HR SS in 2018. Get excited. We may not have seen peak Sir Mariekson Julius Gregorius yet.

Chase Headley: A Tale of One Horrendous Month [2017 Season Review]

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

It seems like a lifetime ago that I was writing Chase Headley‘s season preview piece, which focused largely on how his unimaginably awful April essentially torpedoed his 2016 season as a whole. That wasn’t the first time that we saw him forget how to hit for a full month, either, as he closed 2015 on the lowest of notes. And, unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last time, either.

A Hot Start

Headley spent the first month of the season reminding us of the hitter we thought the Yankees had acquired way back in 2014. He hit .301/.402/.494 (142 wRC+) with 3 HR and 4 SB in 97 PA in April, and the underlying numbers didn’t stand out as particularly unsustainable. His 14.3% HR/FB was right in-line with league-average, and his .361 BABIP wasn’t terribly uncharacteristic for a player with a career BABIP of .328. Given his previous two seasons, nobody really expected Headley to keep it up – but he looked as good as he ever had in pinstripes, and nothing screamed fluke. And then…

Worst … Month … Ever

How bad was Headley in May, you ask? He was bad enough that his April of 2016 looked mildly appealing. He batted .165/.211/.235 in 90 PA, which is “good” for a 14 wRC+. That’s not a typo – he had a 14 wRC+ in the month of May. Headley struck out in 29 of those 90 PA, while walking just 4 times; for comparison’s sake, he drew 14 walks in April, and struck out just 19 times. What happened?

It’s difficult to explain the lack of patience and bat-to-ball skills, but Headley did see his batted ball profile change completely from one month to the next. His line drive rate dropped by nearly 12 percentage points, and his ground ball rate jumped by just over 18 percentage points. His infield fly rate also jumped from 4.8% all the way up to 20% – and the percentage of infield flies that turn into hits is just about as close to zero as one can get. In the span of a month, Headley went from a well-rounded hitter with patience and power to the type of production you’d expect from a pitcher. And it was ugly.

As a result of this, Headley’s wRC+ dropped from 142 to 81, and those who even contemplated getting on-board with a resurgence felt foolish.

Four Months of Competence

Something miraculous happened on June 1, though. Headley went 2-for-5 with a couple of RBI against the Blue Jays that day … and he kept hitting after that. He hit .294/.372/.427 (114 wRC+) with 9 HR in 399 PA the rest of the way, and didn’t have another truly awful month. Headley wasn’t good in September, posting an 89 wRC+ – but it was palatable when compared to the lowest of lows that he has reached with the Yankees in his three-plus years in pinstripes. His bat was good enough to stay in the lineup, for the most part, and that represented a massive upgrade over 2015 and 2016.

For those who may be curious, Headley hit .295/.377/.440 in his 496 non-May PA, with 12 HR. That’s a wRC+ of around 120, and it’s quite good. Unfortunately…

He Forgot How to Play Defense Again

The Yankees shifted Headley from the hot corner to first base this season, and some of that was due to necessity; it was a revolving door of a position while Greg Bird was on the mend, and his solid bat and capable glove represented the best-case scenario there.

He made it an easy decision, though, with 13 errors, -7 Defensive Runs Saved, and -4.3 UZR/150 at third in 85 games. Headley’s defense has been all over the place for the Yankees – it was amazing in a small sample size in 2014 (6 DRS, 39.9 UZR/150), bad in 2015 (-6 DRS, -3.0 UZR/150), very good in 2016 (7 DRS, 8.6 UZR/150), and bad again last year. The acquisition of Todd Frazier was as much about solidifying the team’s infield defense as it was adding a powerful bat to the lineup, and that’s why he never played another position for the Yankees.

If it’s any consolation, Headley did grade out as a good defender at first.

The Bottom Line

Headley finished the season with a .273/.352/.406 slash line (104 wRC+), 12 HR, 9 SB. That essentially made him a league-average offensive third baseman, as they hit .256/.330/.438 (102 wRC+) as a group. Headley’s 104 wRC+ was his best since 2013, but his subpar defense at third dragged his WAR down by about half a win, to 1.9, which would make him fringe average there. If only he hadn’t forgotten how to hit in May…

2018 Outlook

As is the case with Starlin Castro, Headley is something of a placeholder. Miguel Andujar is knocking on the door (he had a 139 wRC+ at Triple-A), and would have garnered a longer look in 2017 had his defense been up to snuff. And top prospect Gleyber Torres was taking to the position, as well, and may’ve replaced Headley had it not been for his season-ending injury. Put it all together and you have a player that’s on borrowed time with the organization.

Headley is entering the last year of his contract, and he’s owed $13 MM. I am confident that the Yankees will try to shop him this off-season, and his contract shouldn’t be a deterrent for many teams – particularly if they are confident in his ability to play defense at third base. Should he make it through the winter without being dealt, though, I think he’ll end up in the team’s Opening Day lineup at third.

The Good, the Bad, and the Injuries of Greg Bird [2017 Season Review]

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

Down the road, when we look back at this 2017 season, we’ll remember it for the young players who emerged to make the Yankees more competitive than pretty much everyone expected. Aaron Judge broke the rookie home run record. Gary Sanchez missed a month and still led all catchers in homers. Luis Severino pitched well enough to get Cy Young votes. All homegrown, all 2017 All-Stars, none older than 25.

There was supposed to be a fourth member of that emerging homegrown core. Greg Bird, who played very well during his late 2015 debut, was returning from shoulder surgery and set to take over first base full-time. That shoulder surgery caused him to miss the entire 2016 season, so it wasn’t a minor procedure. He had plenty of rehab time though — Bird did play in the Arizona Fall League last year — and was primed for a breakout season.

And in Spring Training, the 24-year-old Bird couldn’t have looked more ready for that breakout season. He hit .451/.556/1.098 with eight homers and more walks (12) than strikeouts (10) in 23 Grapefruit League. Bird led all players, Grapefruit League or Cactus League, in homers, total bases (56), and extra-base hits (16) this spring. Eight homers, seven doubles, one triple, seven singles. That was Bird’s spring. He was ready to pick up where he left off in 2015.

Of course, things didn’t play out that way. Bird again dealt with injuries and needed another surgery, this time to his ankle. What was supposed to be a breakout season instead featured a .190/.288/.422 (86 wRC+) batting line in 170 plate appearances. A total bummer. Not quite a second consecutive lost season, but pretty darn close. This season was about the good, the bad, and the injuries for Bird, though not in that order.

The Bad

Fun fact: Bird hit third on Opening Day. Not Judge, not Sanchez, not Matt Holliday or Starlin Castro. It was Gregory P. Bird, Esq. By the end of April, he was hitting eighth. Bird hit a miserable .107/.265/.214 (37 wRC+) in the season’s first month. He went 6-for-56 — 6-for-56! — in April, and three of those six hits came in one game against the Cardinals. Bird started the season 1-for-26, had the three-hit game, then slipped into a 2-for-31 rut. Yikes.

On one hand, it wasn’t a total surprise a player who missed all of last season with major shoulder surgery got off to a slow start. On the other hand, holy cow Bird was really freaking bad. The rest of the Yankees were great! The Yankees went 15-8 with a +43 run differential in April despite getting negative production from first base. They could afford to ride out Bird’s slump and reap the rewards later. But we never did see any real indications Bird was ready to bust out.

Throughout April, there were signs Bird was not right physically. It wasn’t the shoulder. It was his right ankle. He fouled a pitch off the ankle in the very last Grapefruit League game of the spring and it was still bothering him in April. Those suckers hurt. Paul O’Neill has talked about them on YES Network broadcasts a bunch of times over the years. He’s said he’s fouled pitches off his shin or foot in April and still felt it in September. I went through the trouble of finding the pitch earlier this year, so he’s the foul ball that created the injury:

greg-bird-ankle

Looked innocent enough. Joe Girardi sat Bird for a few games early in the season — he sat for the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth games of the season, to be exact — hoping that would knock it out. But apparently not. On May 2nd, with his batting line sitting at an unsightly .100/.250/.200 (29 wRC+), the Yankees placed Bird on the 10-day DL with what they called a bruised ankle.

The Injuries

“In watching him yesterday, and talking to (hitting coach Alan Cockrell) about his work yesterday, I just didn’t feel like there was a lot of explosion in his lower half,” said Girardi after Bird was placed on the disabled list. “We talked after the game. We felt that we just need to give this some time … He just felt like his ankle wasn’t working properly. Yesterday was the first day I really, really noticed it. Players play through things but this one just seems to not be healing. We’re pretty confident there are no breaks. But bone bruises, they’re tricky. They can last months.”

Indeed, they can last months. In fact, it was what was originally called a bone bruise that landed Bird his first MLB opportunity. Mark Teixeira fouled a pitch off his shin in August 2015, it hurt like hell, and weeks later a hairline fracture was discovered when the shin didn’t get better. That created an opening at first base. Now, two years later, there was fear the same would happen to Bird. A seemingly minor injury would blow out into something major. And that’s exactly what happened.

The ankle injury saga included a lot of important steps, so let’s recap this thing timeline style:

  • May 2nd: Bird placed on 10-day DL.
  • May 18th: Bird begins running.
  • May 24th: Bird begins baseball activities. Fielding grounders, hitting, running the bases, etc.
  • June 1st: Bird begins a minor league rehab assignment.
  • June 15th: Yankees pull Bird from his rehab assignment due to continued discomfort.
  • June 20th: Bird sees a specialist who gives him a cortisone shot.
  • June 28th: Bird resumes working out, but experiences renewed soreness.
  • July 14th: Bird sees another specialist, who gives him another cortisone shot.
  • July 17th: Bird sees yet another specialist, who says he needs surgery to treat “inflammation in his os trigonum.”

The surgery, which was performed on July 18th, removed the os trigonum, which was an extra bone in his ankle. They’re not uncommon. I was born with one in each foot and they’ve never bothered me in any way. They’re just … there. It seems Bird fouled the pitch off his foot in such a way that disturbed the extra bone. Anyway, Bird’s surgery came with a six-week rehab, which meant there was a chance he’d return before the end of the season, but given his career to date, it was tough to count on him getting healthy.

“In nearly four months since first injuring my ankle, it had been increasingly frustrating to have only questions and no answers,” said Bird after finding out he needs surgery. “All this time, I have wanted nothing more than to be out there playing the game I love as a member of the New York Yankees. My season is not over. I plan to do everything in my power to return and help our team win in 2017.”

Because the miserable April and ankle injury weren’t bad enough, a “Yankee insider” ripped Bird while speaking to Bill Madden, and essentially questioned his desire to play. The quote:

“You really have to wonder what’s with this guy,” a Yankee insider complained to me earlier this week. “You’d think with Judge and Sanchez, the guys he came up through the system with, doing so well up here he’d want to be a part of this. Apparently not.”

The identity of the “Yankee insider” still isn’t known and probably won’t ever be known because that person is a gutless coward. You want to question someone’s desire and competitiveness? Fine, but put your name on it. Don’t hide.

“I don’t think I would be too happy about it,” said Girardi when asked how he’d feel if someone made similar comments about him. “Only the player knows, and I would be a little bit upset if someone questioning my desire and integrity … He’s done everything we’ve asked, it just hasn’t happened.”

The Good

This was a tough, tough season for Bird. Fortunately, the six-week recovery timetable meant there was still a chance he could contribute down the stretch, and on August 16th, Bird started another minor league rehab assignment. He went 11-for-26 (.423) with three homers in nine rehab games with Triple-A Scranton. Most importantly, his ankle — and surgically repaired shoulder — was feeling good.

Bird returned to the Yankees on August 26th, 117 days and one os trigonum bone lighter after being placed on the disabled list. I thought the Yankees would just wait until rosters expanded on September 1st to bring him back, but no, they wanted him in the lineup as soon as possible. And sure enough, Bird struggled out of the gate. He went 11-for-58 (.190) in his first 20 games back from the ankle injury. It was a continuation of April, basically.

Despite those ugly 20 games, there were some positive signs and things that led you believe Bird would soon figure it out. For one, he was healthy! For the first time in nearly two years. His shoulder was fine and his ankle wasn’t bothering him at all. And two, Bird was showing more power. Four of those eleven hits left the park — he had only one homer in April — and his soft contact rate dropped from 23.7% before the injury to 13.0% after the injury.

On September 20th, in the 152nd game of the regular season, Bird finally had that long awaited breakout. He went 3-for-4 with two doubles in a win over the Twins. The next game he went 1-for-4 with a homer. The game after that he went 1-for-3 with a double and a walk. Then back-to-back-to-back games with a home run. Bird was finally having an impact, better late than never.

In those final ten games of the regular season Bird went 11-for-29 (.379) with four doubles and four homers. His final season numbers were ugly — again, he hit only .190/.288/.422 (86 wRC+) in 170 plate appearances — but he was starting to snap out of it just in time for the postseason. The Yankees had been short a bat for a while. Basically since Holliday got sick and stopped hitting in June. Bird stepped in to fill the void late in the season.

During the Wild Card Game, Bird drove in what proved to be the game-winning run with a two-out single to drive in Sanchez. He went 4-for-18 (.222) in the ALDS against the Indians, and while his average was low, he made up for it with walks (.364 OBP) and also two homers. Bird’s second ALDS homer was probably my favorite homer of the season. Bird drove in the game’s only run in the 1-0 win in Game 3 to keep the season alive.

I love everything about it. I love that, given the circumstances, the home run basically saved the season. I love Matt Vasgersian’s call. I love that the crowd completely drowned out Vasgersian’s call. I love that the camerawork made it look like the ball was going to land in the upper deck. I love that Bird hit it against Andrew Miller. Not because I don’t like Miller. He’s awesome and forever cool in my book. He’s just so good and he normally chews up lefties, yet Bird took him deep anyway. So good. So, so good.

Bird added another home run in the ALCS against the Astros, and he finished the postseason hitting .244/.426/.512 with three homers and 12 walks in 13 games. He was probably the team’s most consistent hitter in the playoffs. Yes, Bird did get thrown out at the plate (twice!) in the ALCS, and that was a major letdown. Both plays probably changed the series in Houston’s favor. What can I say? Speed and baserunning was never Greg’s thing.

After missing all of 2016 with shoulder surgery, and after being dogged by injuries and idiot Yankee insiders for the first five months of 2017, Bird finally arrived late this season, and became the impact hitter the Yankees have expected him to become for years now. Seven homers in his final 23 games? Tons of walks? Surprisingly nimble first base defense (Bird can really stretch, eh?)? We’ve waiting a long time to see this Greg Bird. It was glorious.

2018 Outlook

It wasn’t all that long ago that there was speculation the Yankees would pursue impending free agent Eric Hosmer this offseason. Would Bird stay healthy? Would Bird hit even if he did stay healthy? We didn’t know the answers to those questions, and truth be told, we still don’t. We’ve only seen flashes of greatness from Bird. Next season will be his final pre-arbitration year and we’re still waiting for even a half-season of quality play, nevermind a full season.

Signing Hosmer never seemed all that realistic to me given the plan to get under the luxury tax threshold. I mean, I suppose it could happen. The Yankees do still have an opening at DH, after all. But I don’t think it’ll happen. The Yankees love Bird and they want him to be their full-time first baseman, and he’s going to get another opportunity to do exactly that next season. And the goal is simple: stay healthy. If Bird stays on the field, I truly believe he can become one of the better first basemen in baseball. There are 30 homers and a .400 OBP batting eye in there, waiting for Bird to stay healthy enough to be unleashed.

The Old Reliable Outfielder [2017 Season Review]

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

It seems strange to think of Brett Gardner as the old man on the Yankees, but that was essentially the role he filled this season. He’s the longest-tenured member of the team, and, of the 51 players that suited-up for the Yankees this season, only Chase Headley, CC Sabathia, Matt Holliday, and pub trivia tidbit Erik Kratz are older. And, despite that, he’s still a high-quality starter in left field.

It All Starts with Defense

A few years ago it seemed as though Gardner was losing a step in the outfield. His numbers went from scale-breaking in his first few seasons to between average and very good thereafter, and it is never shocking when a player reaches his 30s and slows down. This season, however, was something of a blast from the past. Twenty-three players put in at least 500 innings in left field in 2017, and Gardner led them all in Defensive Runs Saved, with 17, and fielding percentage, as he went errorless in 1024 innings. He also finished fourth in UZR/150, and ranked near the top in every Inside Edge Fielding category.

And, while fielding metrics are occasionally fickle, Gardner won the Fielding Bible Award for left field, and was named as a Gold Glove finalist. Both awards represent a blend of advanced metrics and the good ol’ fashioned eye test, so it stands to reason that Gardner was really that good.

An Asset in the Leadoff Spot

Gardner batted .264/.350/.428 (108 wRC+) this year, and he hit a career-high 21 home runs. Those 21 dingers represent exactly 25% of his career output, but I wouldn’t read into it too much – after all, 117 players hit 20-plus home runs this year, up from 111 in 2016, and 64 in 2015. It is worth noting, though, that Gardner’s bump in home runs wasn’t solely a product of Yankee Stadium, as 11 of his bombs came on the road. And there’s no overstating his ability to work the count.

There was a great deal of talk about Gardner’s clutchness in the postseason (more on that in a bit), but he came through in big situations all season long. The difference in his overall production versus his numbers in late and close situations was negligible, and he slashed .302/.393/.566 with 4 HR in 61 PA with runners in scoring position and two outs. As a result of this he led the Yankees in WPA, and finished second in FanGraphs’ Clutch metric (behind Jacoby Ellsbury, of all people).

He Can Still Run, Too

We as fans have been oscillating between loving Gardner for his high-efficiency base-running and lamenting his lack of stolen base attempts for years now. He averaged 58 stolen base attempts per 162 games in his first four seasons, as compared to 29 since he lost most of 2012 to injury. His 23 steals and 28 attempts this year were his most since 2013. That being said, with the modern style of play those 23 steals were good for 17th in all of baseball.

It isn’t just about raw steal totals, though. Gardner’s 82.1% success rate is well-above the break even point (and league-average is 73%), and within the top-20 among players with at least 15 SB attempts. He also ranked 11th in the game in FanGraphs’ BsR, which factors in stolen bases, caught stealing, taking the extra base, or making an out on the basepaths on a batted ball. As per Baseball-Reference, he took the extra base 49% of the time, which is comfortably above the league-average of 40%. For the sake of comparison, Jose Altuve took the extra base 48% of the time this year, and Dee Gordon did so on 60% of his opportunities.

Surprising Durability

Despite having the feel of a player that’s perpetually banged-up, Gardner has appeared in at least 145 games and racked up at least 609 PA in each of the last five seasons. This season represented a career-high of 682 PA for the 34-year-old, and 583 of those came from the top of the order. Given his hot and cold spells, it might make sense for Gardner to sit out a few more games – but his reliability in the field and on the bases combined with his ability to play almost every day is extremely valuable to the team.

The Playoffs

Gardner’s bat was largely silent in the ALCS, but he came through several times in the Yankees 13 game playoff adventure. The most memorable, for me at least, was his absolutely epic 12 pitch at-bat against Cody Allen in the decisive Game 5 of the ALDS. I highly recommend Jeff Sullivan’s detailed account of that at-bat, which could serve as a fine ‘Exhibit A’ of a nebulous ‘professional hitter’ presentation.

Well, that, or Gardner’s go-ahead home run in the Wild Card game, which included an uncharacteristic (and wonderful) stare-down of Ervin Santana:

How awesome was that? The swing, the bat-drop, the stare, the crowd … amazing.

The Bottom Line

As per Baseball-Reference, 2017 was the second-best season of Gardner’s career, as he posted a fantastic 4.9 bWAR. That put him in the top-five at the position, which is kind of amazing in and of itself. Were it not for Aaron Judge towering over the game like a colossus, Gardner would have easily been the team’s MVP.

2018 Outlook

Gardner is perpetually brought-up as a trade candidate, and we may well see more of the same this off-season. Judge has right field on lock, Aaron Hicks was quite good in center, Clint Frazier is ready for an extended look, and Jacoby Ellsbury has an albatross of a contract in center. And Gardner is eminently movable, given his $11.5 MM salary for 2018 and affordable $12.5 MM team option in 2019. It would be much, much better to send Ellsbury packing – but it’s a veritable guarantee that one of the two need to be moved.

That being said, Gardner is a bargain in 2018, and I would be happy to see him in left field for the Yankees on Opening Day. I don’t know how confident I am that that will happen, though.