The Time the Yankees Traded the Best Relief Pitcher in Baseball [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

I can’t think of another player who became as beloved as a Yankee as Andrew Miller despite spending so little time with the Yankees. He didn’t even win a championship in New York or anything. Miller wore pinstripes for only a season and a half, yet he was a fan favorite, a clubhouse favorite, and one of the team’s best and most reliable players. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to call him one of the greatest free agent signings in Yankees history.

Miller’s departure from the Yankees really had nothing to do with Miller himself. He went above and beyond the call of duty in New York, but the rest of the team was not ready to contend, so much so that they needed an infusion of young talent. The dominant and affordable Miller was one of the club’s most valuable trade chips, so when the trade deadline rolled around, the Yankees entertained offers. Eventually someone met their demands.

The Spring Injury

The trade deadline was not the first time the Yankees dangled Miller on the trade market. They listened to offers over the winter and reportedly discussed sending him to the Astros for a package similar to what Houston sent to the Phillies for Ken Giles, but things never came together. Miller remained with the Yankees and reported to Spring Training not really knowing what his role would be.

“Certainly, they felt like more firepower can help us reach the goals. And if that’s what it takes to get there, then I’m all for it,” said Miller after Joe Girardi declared the newly acquired Aroldis Chapman the team’s closer. “I came here to play for the Yankees. I had a choice to go there. My goal is to win … I’m not worried about some sort of milestone or Hall of Fame case or anything like that. I’m just trying to go out there and win.”

MLB announced Chapman’s suspension in early-March, which meant, once again, Miller would be the team’s closer. At least temporarily. He went about his business in Spring Training, got his work in, and prepared for the season as usual. Preparing to be a closer is no different than preparing to be a setup man. Then, on March 30th, right at the end of camp, Miller took a line drive to his right wrist.

That looked bad. It looked bad and it was bad, really. Tests showed Miller suffered a chip fracture in his right wrist, and after seeing a specialist, he was cleared to play through the injury. MLB rules would not allow him to wear a brace, even on his glove hand. He would have to gut it out for several weeks.

Thirty Games as Closer

If the wrist injury had a lingering effect on Miller’s performance, it didn’t show during the regular season. He went 6-for-6 in save chances during the first 30 games of the season — the Yankees didn’t give him many leads to protect, unfortunately — and during that time he allowed seven hits and one walk with 20 strikeouts in 11.2 innings. At one point Miller retired 22 straight batters with 14 strikeouts. Yeah.

Miller’s most memorable moment as the closer this year was his final save chance before Chapman’s suspension ended. The Red Sox were in town and the Yankees were nursing a 3-2 lead in the eighth inning. Girardi went to Miller for the four-out save, and after getting the final out of the eighth, he loaded the bases with one out on three singles (Josh Rutledge, Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts) in the ninth. It was butt-clenching time. Then Miller did what Miller does (with some help from home plate umpire Ron Kulpa).

Three days later, Chapman returned from his suspension and took over as the closer. Miller did nothing to lose the job, but Chapman has been one of the best closers in baseball over the last few years, so the Yankees gave him the job. Miller could have made a big stink about it — more than a few players would have, I’m sure — but he didn’t. He slid back into the eighth inning and Dellin Betances took over the seventh.

“What do you want me to do? You want me to throw a fit?” said Miller the day Chapman returned. “The goal here is to win. I think if you go around and ask, there’s 25 lockers in here, and I think everyone is going to say that. We haven’t gotten off to the start that we want to. I think we’ve played well in the last couple of days, and the goal is to keep that going. Wins are what’s fun at the end of the day.”

Back to the Eighth

Weirdly enough, Chapman allowed a run before Miller this season. Chapman gave up a run in his first game back from the suspension. Miller didn’t allow his first run until the next day. He entered the eighth inning with a one-run lead against the Royals, then allowed a leadoff home run to Lorenzo Cain. (It was Cain’s third homer of the night.) The Yankees rallied to win that game, but still, Miller finally allowed a run, and some tried to make it a thing that he was unhappy about losing his closer’s job.

“There shouldn’t be (an adjustment). It should be the same,” said Miller after that game. “I’m out there trying to get outs, and unfortunately, I made a bad pitch and had to pay for it. Honestly, I’m just focused on the hitters. I’m trying as much (as I can) to concentrate on that.”

To the surprise of no one, Miller went right back to dominating as the setup man, and along with Chapman and Betances, he help form one of the most devastating bullpen trios in baseball history. In 30 games and 31.2 innings as the eighth inning guy, Miller pitched to a 1.99 ERA (2.55 FIP) with 54 strikeouts and six walks. That’s a 44.3% strikeout rate and a 4.9% walk rate, so yeah. He also had a 54.2% ground ball rate too.

Miller allowed eight runs (seven earned) in those 31.2 innings and five came on home runs. All solo shots. One was even a walk-off. I totally forgot about this:

That was basically the only way to score against Miller for those three months (or ever). You had to hope he made a mistake you could hit out of the park. Putting together a rally against him — stringing together singles and walks, that sort of thing — is basically impossible. He misses too many bats and he doesn’t beats himself with walks, which is sort of crazy because earlier in his career, Miller had a lot of problems throwing strikes.

For the first time in his career, Miller was an All-Star this season, and he actually had a tough outing in the All-Star Game itself. He entered the eighth inning with a two-run lead and it went fly out (Brandon Belt), single (Jonathan Lucroy), strikeout (Jay Bruce), single (Starling Marte), walk (Adam Duvall). Miller loaded the bases and threw 28 pitches in two-thirds of an inning. Will Harris had to come in to bail him out. (Harris struck out Aledmys Diaz to strand the bases loaded.)

The Yankees traded Chapman to the Cubs on July 25th, so for his final week in pinstripes, Miller returned to the ninth inning and served as the closer. He converted both save chances and struck out three in two scoreless innings that week. All told, Miller had a 1.39 ERA (1.78 FIP) in 45.1 innings with the Yankees in 2016. He struck out 77 (44.8%), walked seven (4.1%), and got a ton of grounders (52.9%). Miller also saved eight games in eight tries in his two short stints as closer. Total domination.

The Trade Deadline

On the morning of July 31st, the Yankees were 52-51 and 4.5 games back of the second wildcard spot with four teams ahead of them. They’d lost their last three games as well. The Yankees had been spinning their wheels all season. Each hot streak was met with an equally long cold streak. It had been a struggle all season just to get over .500. Remember that? They didn’t do it for good until August 10th.

There was no real indication the Yankees were going to make any sort of run in the second half. Chapman had already been traded, so the team was ready to sell, though Miller was different. Chapman was going to be a free agent after the season. Miller is signed through 2018 at an affordable rate. The Yankees didn’t have to trade Miller the way they had to trade Chapman (and Carlos Beltran and Ivan Nova). There was no reason not to listen to offers though.

Just about every contender in baseball had interest in Miller. The Indians, Cubs, Giants, Dodgers, Rangers, Astros, Nationals, Red Sox, Cardinals … you name the team and they wanted him, understandably. The Yankees set the price high and let teams come to them. It was a bidding war, and when it was all said and done, the Indians stepped up and gave the Yankees what they wanted.

On July 31st, the day before the trade deadline, the Yankees shipped Miller to Cleveland for a package of four prospects: outfielder Clint Frazier, left-hander Justus Sheffield, and right-handers Ben Heller and J.P. Feyereisen. Baseball America ranked Frazier and Sheffield as the 21st and 69th best prospects in baseball, respectively, in their midseason top 100 list earlier in July. They were the headliners.

“One of those two wouldn’t have been enough. We had to have them both,” said Cashman after the trade. “(There) was a pit in my stomach that I have the most difficult job of all in calling Andrew Miller. Andrew, he didn’t want to go anywhere. He loved playing here. Andrew was everything you want. Unfortunately, we had a lot of areas that need to be addressed, so unfortunately he was part of that type of solution.”

After the Trade

The Indians didn’t acquire Miller to get to the postseason. They had a 4.5 game lead in the AL Central on the day of the trade and FanGraphs put their postseason odds at 95.0%. Cleveland made the trade because they wanted to win the World Series, and they very nearly did that thanks in large part to Miller. The Indians pushed the best team in baseball to extra innings in Game Seven of the World Series, and they did it without Michael Brantley and Carlos Carrasco. They came so close!

Miller was Miller after the trade. He had a 1.55 ERA (1.53 FIP) with a ton of strikeouts (44.7%) and grounders (56.4%), and few walks (1.9%) in 29 regular season innings with the Indians. Coincidentally enough, Miller earned his first of three regular season saves with Cleveland against the Yankees.

Miller took it to another level in the postseason, allowing three runs in 19.2 innings with 30 strikeouts and five walks. He set new MLB records for strikeouts and innings by a reliever in a single postseason. Miller recorded at least four outs in all ten postseason outings and was named ALCS MVP in Cleveland’s five-game series win over the Blue Jays. The guy was marvelous. Miller gave the Indians everything they needed and then some.

Outlook for 2017

The Indians are a small payroll team and they did ride Miller hard in the postseason, so I suppose there’s a chance they will entertain trading him this offseason to replenish the farm system. That’s nothing more than my speculation though. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to listen. Teams may still be willing to pay through the nose for bullpen help like they did at the trade deadline.

As for the Yankees, the focus is on the four prospects they received in the Miller trade. Heller made his MLB debut after the deal and figures to be a bullpen factor next season. Frazier is slated to begin the season in Triple-A and could reach the show at some point during the summer. Sheffield will start next year in Double-A and Feyereisen will be in Triple-A. They’re all pretty close to the big leagues, so we’ll see what happens. Nothing we can do other than wait.

In his year and a half as a Yankee, Miller was essentially the perfect player. He was ultra-productive, he was willing to pitch in any role, and he was on a bargain contract. You wish you could have 25 guys like this on your roster. Miller was not the problem in any way. The rest of the team was the problem. I don’t think anyone didn’t love Andrew Miller. He’s awesome. It’s a shame he had to go, but it was the right move. Given their current state, the Yankees need the young talent more than they need a dominant reliever.

The Two Bench Mainstays [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Because baseball is so competitive these days, a strong bench is imperative for success. You can’t win with just eight or nine quality position players. Teams need good bench players capable of filling in without much of a drop off in production. That depth is often the difference between good teams and great teams. We see it every season.

As usual, the Yankees cycled through several different bench players this season due to injuries and ineffectiveness and whatnot. Two players remained on the bench all year though: Austin Romine and Ronald Torreyes. Neither was a lock to make the team out of Spring Training, and yet, they stayed on the big league roster all season. You really can’t predict baseball, huh?

The Backup Catcher

A year ago Romine was barely on the big league radar. He was designated for assignment last Spring Training and slipped through waivers unclaimed, and when September 1st rolled around, he was among the first wave of call-ups only because Gary Sanchez‘s hamstring was barking. The year before Romine wasn’t called up until Francisco Cervelli got hurt in mid-September.

The Yankees kept Romine on the 40-man roster all offseason and brought him to Spring Training as backup catcher competition for Sanchez this year. They didn’t want to just hand the backup job to Sanchez. They wanted to make him work for it, and Romine (and I guess Carlos Corporan) was the alternative. Then a weird thing happened: Romine thoroughly outplayed Sanchez in Spring Training and won the backup job.

The combination of Romine outhitting Sanchez in camp (.289/.308/.474 vs. .091/.259/.136) and their roster statuses (Romine was out of options, Sanchez had one left) tipped the scales in Romine’s favor. It’s tough to think the Yankees made the wrong decision in hindsight too. Sanchez thrived in the second half after some more minor league seasoning and Romine turned in a decent year as the backup catcher.

As expected, Romine didn’t play a whole lot early in the season. The Yankees stuck with Brian McCann because he was the clear cut starter, and also because they were really struggling to score runs early on and wanted their best players in the lineup as often as possible. Romine started only five of the team’s first 22 games. His best month was May, when he went 12-for-37 (.324) with four doubles and a homer. That includes a 3-for-4 game with two doubles and two runs driven in against the Red Sox on May 7th.

Romine also went 3-for-4 and drove in two runs in a game against the Rays later in the month. His bat cooled down after that — Romine went 17-for-84 (.202) with three homers from June 1st through August 31st — before a nice little finish in late September. He had a pair of two-hit games within his final four starts. By then Sanchez had established himself as the starting catcher, so playing time was hard to come by.

All told, Romine hit .242/.269/.382 (68 wRC+) with three home runs in 176 total plate appearances this year, which stinks in general but is basically right on par with the league average backup catcher. He was surprisingly excellent with runners in scoring position, hitting .364/.354/.477 (111 wRC+) in those spots. I do love OBP > AVG batting lines. That’s what three sac flies and one walk will do for you.

Defensively, the numbers don’t match Romine’s reputation. He only threw out 16.7% of basestealers — to be fair, it’s a more respectable 22.2% if you remove Dellin Betances, who doesn’t hold runners — and both StatCorner (-3.8) and Baseball Prospectus (-1.9) say he cost the Yankees runs with his pitch-framing. FRAA, which is BP’s attempt at an all-encompassing catcher defense metric, rated Romine at -3.2 runs overall behind the plate.

It’s tough to gauge backup catcher defense with the eye test because they play so sparingly, though Romine does seem like a classic Nichols Law catcher. He doesn’t hit much, so his defensive reputation gets talked up. Romine will turn 28 later this month and he is what he is at this point. He’s a decent enough backup option. Someone you can stash behind a starter like McCann or Sanchez, who will play as much as possible. Not someone you want to platoon or use as part of a two-catcher timeshare.

Romine filled in capably early in the season as the Yankees gave Sanchez those extra reps in Triple-A. It’s hard to see how Austin fits into the team’s long-term plans. Heck, he might not even make it through the offseason. Sanchez isn’t going anywhere, I’d say the odds are against a McCann trade, plus Kyle Higashioka is being added to the 40-man roster. Romine had a decent enough season in 2016, yet his roster spot is not terribly secure.

The Backup Infielder

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The last 18 months have been pretty hectic for Torreyes. The poor guy has changed organizations five times since last May. Here is his transactions log.

  • May 15th, 2015: Traded by Astros to Blue Jays for cash.
  • June 12th, 2015: Traded by Blue Jays to Dodgers for cash.
  • January 12th, 2016: Traded with Tyler Olson by Dodgers to Yankees for Rob Segedin.
  • January 25th, 2016: Claimed off waivers by Angels.
  • February 1st, 2016: Claimed off waivers by Yankees.

Astros to Blue Jays to Dodgers to Yankees to Angels to Yankees. Five transactions and four different teams. And yet, Torreyes remained on the big league roster all season in 2016. Usually guys who bounce around that much in a short period of time don’t stick in the big leagues. Torreyes did.

Of course, Torreyes had to win a job in Spring Training first. He was up against Rob Refsnyder and Pete Kozma (and some others) for the backup infielder’s job, and Torreyes won it because he hit well enough in camp and offered the most defensive versatility. Simply put, Torreyes could out-hit Kozma and out-defend Refsnyder, so he made the team out of Spring Training.

Baseball America ranked Torreyes as the No. 26 prospect in the Dodgers’ farm system last offseason and we saw exactly what was in their scouting report this season:

Though he is 5-foot-7 with physical limitations, his bat control is terrific. He has a simple stroke, getting his body in position to create a swing that stays on plane through the hitting zone. That allows him to consistently find the barrel. He has a solid eye but doesn’t draw a ton of walks, while his well below-average power limits his impact. An average runner, he’s played at shortstop and third base, but his best fit is second, where he’s a solid defender with an average arm.

That perfectly describes Torreyes. That’s exactly him. Torreyes had an 11.9% strikeout rate and an 86.0% contact rate this season, both of which were far better than the league averages (21.1% and 78.1%). That contact ability allows him to go on ridiculous BABIP-fueled hot streaks. Torreyes went 8-for-17 (.471) with a double and a triple to start the season. He then went 14-for-26 (.538) with six doubles and a homer during an eight-game span in late-August.

With those insane hot streaks came long cold streaks as well. In fact, from May 1st through August 14th, an arbitrarily selected stretch of 95 team games, Torreyes hit .158/.238/.228 (25 wRC+) in 63 plate appearances. He didn’t hit and he didn’t play. I mean, 63 plate appearances in 95 games! And he was healthy and on the roster for all of them too. At one point Torreyes appeared in only six of 31 games.

Torreyes wasn’t playing for a few reasons, most of which weren’t hit fault. Chase Headley was very good after April, so it was tough to take him out of the lineup. Didi Gregorius was generally awesome all year, so it was tough to take him out of the lineup too. Starlin Castro had an insane hot streak to open the new season and that bought him a lot of rope. It was hard for Joe Girardi to take one of those guys out of the lineup with the Yankees needing wins.

Overall, Torreyes hit .258/.305/.374 (81 wRC+) this season, which is the most backup infielder batting line possible. I’m pretty sure every backup infielder is contractually obligated to hit .250-something/.300-something/.370-something. Ronnie also did the little things at the plate, like protect the runner on a steal attempt.

Ronald Torreyes swing

Torreyes didn’t strike out (11.9%), didn’t walk (6.0%), didn’t hit for power (.116 ISO), and didn’t steal bases (2-for-3). Only one of those things is a good thing. It’s tough to rack up big stolen base totals as a reserve player, though Torreyes did steal 12+ bases a bunch of times in the minors. It would be cool if he ran more next year.

It’s very easy to like Torreyes because he plays with a ton of energy and is short little guy. He and Gregorius had this thing where Didi would pick Torreyes up so he could high-five teammates after they hit home runs. It was pretty awesome.

Aaron Judge Ronald Torreyes

Torreyes is a classic underdog. He’s a little guy who doesn’t hit for power and has been in four different organizations in the last 18 months. You can’t help but root for him, especially when you see him go on one of his insane hot streaks. He’s a good bench player. That’s what he is. There’s not enough here to start — he’d have to start hitting for power or stealing a lot more bases, something like that — but Torreyes is a guy worth having on the bench.

I don’t think you can ever say a bench player is locked into a roster spot on next year’s team in November. Roles like this feature an awful lot of turnover. Torreyes is clearly the favorite to be the utility infielder again next season though. That’s not a stretch. Refsnyder and others might get a crack at the job in camp, as they should. Competition is a good thing. Torreyes did a fine job as the backup infielder this past season and there’s a chance he might stick around for a little while in that role.

The Baby Bombers [2016 Series Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

I don’t think it’s a stretch to call the 2016 trade deadline one of the most important periods in recent Yankees’ history. You probably have to go all the way back to the 2008-09 offseason for the last time the club made moves that so greatly impacted the future of the organization. The Yankees sold productive veterans at the deadline and not only added quality prospects, but they also opened big league playing time for young players.

Aside from Gary Sanchez, who had more impact than any other AL rookie position player in 2016, the two youngsters who most benefited from that suddenly available playing time were Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge. The Yankees traded Carlos Beltran, released Alex Rodriguez, and reduced Mark Teixeira‘s playing time, which created a path for Austin and Judge to play nearly everyday.

History on Day One

Austin and Judge both made their MLB debuts on the same day. August 13th, the day after A-Rod was released. They batted back-to-back in the starting lineup too. Austin hit seventh as the first baseman and Judge hit eighth as the right fielder. Sanchez was batting sixth as the DH. It was a hell of an afternoon.

In their first big league at-bats, Austin and Judge made history by becoming the first set of teammates to hit their first career home runs in their big league debuts in the same game. And they did it back-to-back. And in their first at-bats. Like I said, it was a hell of an afternoon.

Hilariously, Austin’s home run was one of New York’s shortest of the season while Judge’s was one of the longest. The Yankees went young in the second half this season and were rewarded immediately. Sanchez was a force for two months, and Austin and Judge did something historic in their debuts. That sure was fun, wasn’t it? The back-to-back jacks were one of the best moments of the season.

Clutch Homers & Sporadic Playing Time

This was an incredibly important season for Austin. Last year the 25-year-old hit .246/.320/.361 (96 wRC+) with nine home runs in the minors and was so bad he had to be demoted from Triple-A Scranton to Double-A Trenton at midseason. When September rolled around, the Yankees dropped Austin from the 40-man roster to create space for someone else. He went unclaimed on waivers, then went unpicked in the Rule 5 Draft. Ouch.

“You never want to go backward in this game but I think it was a great learning experience for me,” said Austin back in June. “This game humbled me very fast and I found out the hard way. I’m going to try and not let anything like that happen again and continue to work hard and go from there.”

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Greg Bird went down with shoulder surgery in February, and during Spring Training, Brian Cashman said Austin wasn’t even on the team’s radar as a potential first base solution. He was that far down the depth chart. Austin didn’t get an invite to big league Spring Training either. If he was going to get back on the 40-man roster and to the big leagues, he was going to have to earn it. The Yankees didn’t give him much of a look in camp.

When the regular season started, Austin returned to Double-A Trenton — this was the fifth straight year he’d spent time with the Thunder — and you know what? He didn’t exactly destroy the competition. Austin hit .260/.367/.395 (117 wRC+) with four homers in 50 games at Double-A. The Yankees only bumped him up to Triple-A because they called Chris Parmelee to the Bronx, and the RailRiders needed a first baseman.

Austin made the most of the opportunity. His game took off once he arrived in Triple-A in early-June. Austin hit .323/.415/.637 (201 wRC+) with 13 homers in 57 games with Scranton before called up to the Yankees in early-August. He hadn’t had that much success in the minors, even in a short stint, since his breakout 2012 season way back when. Austin forced the issue, exactly has the Yankees hoped. He made them take notice.

Things quickly went downhill for Austin following his debut home run. He fell into an ugly 5-for-36 (.139) slump with 13 strikeouts after that, which landed him on the bench for long stretches of time. The Yankees managed to climb back into the race in August and Teixeira simply gave the team a better chance to win at the time, so he played. Austin looked overmatched.

Joe Girardi gave Austin another look in early-September, and he wound up hitting two of the most important home runs of the season. On September 6th, Austin cracked a go-ahead two-run home run against noted ground ball machine Aaron Sanchez. It was his birthday too. Quite a way to turn 25, eh?

Two days later, Austin hit his third big league home run, this one a walk-off blast against the Rays. So, to recap, his first homer was part of the first set of back-to-back homers by rookies in their MLB debut, his second was a birthday blast, and his third was a walk-off. That’s a hell of a thing.

Austin hit two more home runs later in the month and finished his first big league stint with a respectable .241/.300/.458 (102 wRC+) batting line and five home runs in 90 plate appearances. Four of his five home runs gave the Yankees the lead. The other tied the game. All five were hit to right field in Yankee Stadium too. Austin showed off some serious opposite field power. Check out his spray chart, via Baseball Savant:

Tyler Austin spray chart

That’s a pretty interesting exit velocity spray chart. (Yes, I broke out an exit velocity spray chart.) Austin hit all of his home runs the other way, but he also pulled the ball with authority as well. He wasn’t a dead pull hitter and he wasn’t a pure opposite field guy either. Austin sprayed the ball all around. I don’t think that tells us much of anything in a 90-plate appearance sample, but it’s cool to see.

After being drafted as a catcher and dabbling at third base in the low minors, Austin is a pure first baseman at this point of his career. A first baseman who can play right field in an emergency situation. The Yankees ran him out there in right a few times late in the season and it was not pretty. I don’t recommend doing it often. Austin isn’t Teixeira at first base but he’s solid defensively. Makes all the plays he should make. He’s in the lineup for his bat though, not his glove.

With Teixeira retired, the Yankees now have a great big opening at first base, and Austin figures to come to Spring Training with a chance to win the job. It’ll be him and Bird, and you know what? The job could very easily go to both of them next season. I see them platooning and splitting time at first base and DH. A year ago Austin was so far off the radar that no team claimed him off waivers. The strong 2016 season and impressive display of opposite field pop put him in position to have a role with the Yankees doing forward.

The Adjustment Period

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

When the season started, Judge was in a very different yet similar place as Austin. Austin had played his way out of the picture while Judge was the Yankees’ top prospect, someone who was going to get every opportunity to succeed. That was the big difference between the two. Austin and Judge were also similar in that they were going to have to prove themselves before getting a big league opportunity. Neither would be handed anything.

Judge, now 24, reached Triple-A in the second half last season and struggled, hitting .224/.308/.373 (98 wRC+) with eight home runs and a 28.5% strikeout rate in 61 games. Experienced pitchers picked apart the inevitable swing holes that come with being 6-foot-7. Judge spent much of his offseason in Tampa, working the team’s minor league hitting coordinators, and he reworked his hitting mechanics quite a bit. Here’s a GIF I’ve posted a few times now:

Aaron Judge 2015 vs 2016That’s Spring Training 2015 on the left and Spring Training 2016 on the right. Judge added a bigger leg kick over the winter, and he also dropped his hands a bit. In fact, by time he arrived in New York, his hands were even lower. Judge kept dropping them and dropping them until he found a comfortable spot that more easily allowed him to get the bat into the hitting zone.

Judge started the Triple-A season fairly slowly, slow enough that some folks were saying his development had stalled out. He was sitting on a .221/.285/.372 (87 wRC+) batting line with seven home runs and a 26.2% strikeout rate through his first 50 games. That included an ugly 10-for-72 (.139) slump with 24 strikeouts. Judge looked overmatched, at least based on the box score, and there was reason to be worried.

That all changed pretty quickly. Following those tough 50 games, Judge went on an insane tear and hit .328/.463/.630 (216 wRC+) with nine home runs in his next 33 games. He dropped his strikeout rate to 18.8% and drew nearly as many walks (17.4%). That hot streak raised his season batting line to .261/.357/.469 (139 wRC+). Unfortunately, on July 8th, Judge suffered a sprained knee ligament and bone bruise diving for a ball in the outfield. The injury sent him to the DL for a little less than a month.

Judge returned in early-August, went 12-for-34 (.353) with three home runs in ten games with the RailRiders, then was called up to the Yankees. He not only hit a home run in his first big league at-bat, he also went deep the following day too. Judge hit home runs in back-to-back games to start his big league career. He had two hits in his third game as well.

Like Austin, Judge fell into a slump after his big debut, going 4-for-36 (.111) with 20 (!) strikeouts in his next eleven games after the hot start. Girardi gave Judge a few days off here and there, but, generally speaking, he was in the lineup everyday. The Yankees were willing to live with the growing pains even while the team scratched their way closer to a wildcard spot.

Judge’s season came to a premature end on September 13th, when he tweaked his oblique taking a swing. Obliques are tricky. They’re very easy to re-injury if they’re not allowed to heal properly. The Yankees shut Judge down for the season and the good news is he’s already healthy and reportedly again working in Tampa with the team’s hitting instructors.

All told, Judge hit .270/.366/.489 (147 wRC+) with 19 home runs and a 23.9% strikeout rate in 43 Triple-A games — that was his lowest strikeout rate since he was in Low-A two years ago (21.2%) — and .179/.263/.345 (63 wRC+) with three home runs and a 44.2% strikeout rate in 27 big league games. The good news: his hard contact rate was an insane 48.8%. (His soft contact rate was 9.3%!) Only Nelson Cruz had a higher average exit velocity.

Now, the bad news: Judge’s contact rate was only 59.7%. Only one of the 452 players to bat at least 90 times this season had a lower contact rate. It was Madison Bumgarner at 59.2%. So yeah. (Austin had the third lowest contact rate at 62.0%, by the way.) Here are the pitch locations of Judge’s swing and misses, via Baseball Savant:

Aaron Judge whiffs

Many of the empty swings came on pitches that move and were on the outer half or out of the zone entirely. Sliders, curveballs, that sort of thing. Not all of them though. Judge’s contact rate on pitches in the strike zone was only 74.3%, which ranked 447th among those 452 batters with at least 90 plate appearances. Contact was a clear issue during Judge’s relatively brief big league stint. No doubt about it.

This wasn’t entirely unexpected, however. Judge has a history of starting slow each time he’s promoted before making the adjustment and getting on track. He did it at Double-A and he did it at Triple-A. Now he has to do it in MLB. The good news is Judge has made those adjustments in the past. It’s easy to stereotype this guy as a big dumb masher who grips it and rips it, but that’s not the case. His hit tool is solid. “He’s got more feel to hit than one would expect for a man his size,” said Baseball America’s scouting report before the season.

Strikeouts are always going to be part of Judge’s game. You can only shorten your swing so much when you’re 6-foot-7. The hope is Judge will be able to trim his strikeout rate down into the 23.0% range down the road while tapping into his obvious power potential. Judge is also a sneaky good athlete for his size too. He’s not a liability in right field at all. Heck, he robbed a home run without even jumping. His arm is a rocket as well. The guy flicked his wrist and the ball carried from the warning track to second base.

The right field job is Judge’s for the taking. The Yankees want him to take it and run with it in Spring Training, and never look back. They’re also not going to hand him the job either. They have other outfielders. Cashman said Judge will have to earn his roster spot like everyone else and I believe it. A poor, strikeout heavy spring could land him back in Triple-A. Either way, Judge is clearly the right fielder of the future, and hopefully the future starts on Opening Day 2017.

The Fill-In Starters [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
Green. (Presswire)

For the 19th consecutive season, the Yankees used at least eight different starting pitchers in 2016. They actually used nine this year. All nine made at least five starts too, so that number isn’t skewed by some random September call-up who made a spot start in Game 162 or something like that. The Yankees used nine starters this year and they needed all of ’em.

Late in the season, after the rotation was thinned out by injuries (Nathan Eovaldi) and trades (Ivan Nova) and ineffectiveness (Luis Severino), the Yankees turned to a trio of young pitchers to shore things up: Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell. Cessa and Green both came over in the Justin Wilson trade last offseason. Mitchell? He’s been around for a while now. The Yankees drafted him in 2009. All three had their moments this year.

The Work In Progress

Lots of eyebrows were raised when the Yankees traded Wilson last offseason, especially since they sent Adam Warren to the Cubs for Starlin Castro literally one day earlier. Just like that, two of Joe Girardi‘s four most trusted relievers were gone. The Yankees felt they needed rotation depth though — were they right or what? geez — so Wilson was traded for two Triple-A starting pitching prospects.

The lower ranked of the two, at least according to various scouting publications, was Green, a former 11th round pick who had a 3.93 ERA (3.22 FIP) in Double-A last season. Not the sexiest prospect, you know? The Yankees sent the 25-year-old right-hander to Triple-A to start the year, as expected, and holy crap, he dominated. Green had a 1.52 ERA (2.17 FIP) in 94.2 innings for the RailRiders. A total of 649 pitchers threw at least 90 innings in the minors this summer. Green ranked third in ERA and second in FIP.

The Yankees called Green up in early-May to make a spot start not because someone was hurt. They just wanted to give the rest of the rotation an extra day to rest. It wasn’t a “we need someone and he’s available” call-up. Green pitched well and the Yankees gave him a chance. The spot start didn’t go well — six runs (four earned) in four innings against the Diamondbacks — and that’s usually what happens. Green wasn’t the first guy to get lit up in his debut and he won’t be the last.

After a return trip to Triple-A, the Yankees brought Green back in early-July to make another spot start, this time because they didn’t want CC Sabathia and his balky knee to hit and run the bases in San Diego. Green pitched very well, allowing one run on three hits in six innings against the Padres. He struck out eight and didn’t walk anyone. That earned him another start and … the Indians clobbered him for seven runs in 4.1 innings. Four homers too. Three in the first inning!

The Yankees could have easily — and justifiably — sent Green to Triple-A after that, but they didn’t. They kept him around as a long reliever and he pitched well, throwing 8.1 scoreless innings across three appearances following the All-Star break. The Eovaldi injury and Nova trade opened up rotation spots, so Green got another chance. His best start of the season, by far, came against the Blue Jays on August 15th. Eleven strikeouts in six innings of two-hit ball. How about that?

Green remained in the rotation really because the Yankees didn’t have any other options, but also because he earned it by pitching well through August. Unfortunately, his season came to a premature end on September 2nd, when Green left a start against the Orioles with pain in his elbow after only 1.2 innings.

The injury was later diagnosed as a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and a strained flexor tendon. That sounds bad and it is, don’t get me wrong, but the sprain and strain were relatively minor. They ended Green’s season but he didn’t need surgery and is expected to be ready for Spring Training. He had resumed playing catch even before the end of the regular season. Sucks, but at least his rehab seems to be going well.

All told, Green had a 4.73 ERA (5.34 FIP) in 45.2 innings spread across eight starts and four relief appearances with the Yankees this season. He missed a lot of bats (26.3%) and did a good enough job limiting walks (7.6%), but Green didn’t get grounders (41.3%) and didn’t keep the ball in the park (2.36 HR/9). Yikes. Here are the all-important left/right splits:

BF AVG/OBP/SLG wOBA K% BB% GB% HR/9
vs. RHB 103 .253/.311/.394 .306 25.2% 7.8% 47.1% 1.13
vs. LHB 95 .287/.351/.663 .421 27.4% 7.4% 34.5% 3.74

So yeah, Green really needs to figure out a changeup. I don’t think his true talent level is a 3.74 HR/9 (!) against lefties, but still, he needs something to combat them. He can bust them inside with cutters, but that only works so much. Green can get righties out. He has the slider for that. But he has nothing that moves away from lefties to stay off the barrel. Getting that changeup going is priority No. 1.

To Green’s credit, he came over from the Tigers as a work in progress and he did make strides this season. He added the cutter — “From my last outing, I added a cutter. I’ve been working on that the past couple of weeks. I think that made a big difference, being able to throw that for strikes,” said Green after his start in San Diego — and he’s also improved his slider since Spring Training.

“Everything’s gotten better,” said Girardi following the Blue Jays game when asked about Green’s slider. “We loved his arm, and that’s why we traded for him. Each time, he took his demotion the right way and said, this is what I need to work on and I’m going to get better. He never got down on himself, never hung his head and just went to work. And he works extremely hard.”

At this point, Green is a four-pitch pitcher with three fastballs (four-seam, two-seam, cutter) and a slider. He has velocity too. His four-seamer averaged 94.4 mph this year and topped out 98.7 mph. That’s a pretty great starting point. The changeup is the big question. Green does throw one — you can see it at the 1:04 mark of the video above — but it’s not consistent enough. It needs to improve.

Depending how the offseason shakes out, the Yankees figure to give Green the opportunity to compete for a rotation spot in Spring Training, assuming he’s healthy. And if that doesn’t work out, he could land in the bullpen. Triple-A is another option. Lots of possibilities here. Green has some lively stuff and he seems to be a quick learner and hard worker. Hopefully those traits mean more progress is coming.

The Ex-Shortstop (And Current TV Analyst)

Cessa. (Presswire)
Cessa. (Presswire)

The more well-known player of the two prospects the Yankees received in the Wilson trade was Cessa, not that he was a top prospect or anything. It was the second time Cessa had been traded in six months; he and AL Rookie of the Year candidate (favorite?) Michael Fulmer went from the Mets to the Tigers for Yoenis Cespedes at the deadline last summer. The Tigers then flipped Cessa for a bullpen arm, which they always seem to need.

Cessa, a former shortstop who converted to pitching in 2011, was impressive in Spring Training, allowing just three runs in ten innings across five outings. All the damage came in one game too. In the other four, he allowed two hits and a walk in eight scoreless innings while striking out eight. Cessa impressed enough with his stuff and results to land a spot on the Opening Day roster. He was in the bullpen to start the season.

The stint on the big league team didn’t last very long. Cessa made his MLB debut on April 8th, in the fourth game of the season, and allowed one run on a Miguel Cabrera homer in two innings. After that, the Yankees figured Cessa was better off in Triple-A, where he could start and pitch regularly, rather than sit in the big league bullpen and pitch sparingly. He’s a young man and he needed to pitch. Mop-up duty wasn’t a good role for him.

Cessa spent the next four months or so riding the Scranton shuttle. He returned to the big leagues briefly in May, and again in late-June and early-July when a fresh arm was needed. In the meantime, Cessa pitched to a 3.03 ERA (3.62 FIP) in 77.1 innings in 14 starts and one relief appearance with the RailRiders. He didn’t have the easiest schedule. Cessa bounced from Triple-A starter to MLB reliever several times in the first half. That was his role.

It wasn’t until late-August that Cessa got a chance to start with the big league team. Eovaldi was hurt, Nova was traded, and Severino pitched himself out of the rotation, so the Yankees gave Cessa an opportunity. He earned it by pitching well in Triple-A and in several short stints in the Bronx. His first start was his best. Cessa threw six shutout innings against the Angels on August 20th. He fanned five, walked one, and allowed three hits.

Cessa remained in the rotation the rest of the season and he pitched well. Better than I think many realize. He made nine starts for the Yankees, allowed more than three runs only twice, and four times he held the other team to two runs or less. Cessa also completed five innings in each of his nine starts, which doesn’t sound like anything special, but the Yankees didn’t get a whole lot of length from their other young starters in 2016.

All told, Cessa finished the season with a 4.35 ERA (5.52 FIP) in 70.1 innings spread across nine starts and six relief appearances. That includes 4.01 ERA (5.14 FIP) in 51.2 innings as a starting pitcher. Three things stood out to me about Cessa.

1. He throws four pitches. Unlike Green, who spent part of the season learning a cutter and still needs to work on his changeup, Cessa already has four pitches, and he threw all of them during his nine-start cameo. It’s the standard four-pitch mix. Here’s how often he threw each pitch as a starter, via Brooks Baseball:

  • Four-Seam Fastball: 48.6%
  • Slider: 30.3%
  • Curveball: 11.1%
  • Changeup: 9.9%

The slider is Cessa’s best secondary pitch and his go-to offering in big spots. He’s not shy about using his changeup or curveball though. He uses them regularly. Hitters are going to see four pitches from Cessa. They can’t sit fastball-slider or fastball-changeup or whatever. They have to be ready for everything else as well. Cessa had good velocity as a starter — his heater averaged 95.0 mph and topped out at 98.3 mph in his nine starts — and he definitely has a deep enough repertoire to remain in the rotation.

2. He can be really efficient. Girardi had a pretty quick hook with Cessa at times this year, rarely allowing him to face the middle of the lineup a third time, which I can understand with a young pitcher. Cessa still did a very nice job limiting his pitches and being efficient. He averaged only 14.7 pitches per inning and 3.69 pitches per plate appearance as a starter. The MLB averages are 16.8 and 3.95, respectively. Only three times in his nine starts did he throw more than 85 pitches, yet he still never once threw fewer than five full innings. Cessa was a breath of fresh air in a world of young pitchers on pitch counts.

3. He didn’t miss many bats or limit homers. It isn’t all good news, obviously. Four pitches and efficiency are nice, but they didn’t lead to strikeouts (16.1%) or grounders (43.2%). Cessa didn’t walk many (4.9%), so that’s cool, but he also had a hard time keeping the ball in the park (2.05 HR/9). He allowed homers in all but two of his nine starts. Eleven times he was taken deep in 51.2 innings as a starter, which works out to 1.92 HR/9.

Everyone gave up more home runs this year, balls were flying out of the ballpark, but a 2.05 HR/9 is rather extreme. Yankee Stadium plays a role in that, so it’s no surprise Cessa was more homer prone against left-handed batters, who can take aim at the short porch.

BF AVG/OBP/SLG wOBA K% BB% GB% HR/9
vs. RHB 167 .242/.289/.439 .311 15.0% 4.2% 42.7% 1.77
vs. LHB 118 .234/.280/.486 .324 17.8% 5.9% 43.8% 2.43

Cessa’s platoon split is not nearly as drastic as Green’s. That’s what having four pitches does for you. A right-handed pitcher giving up a lot of homers to left-handed hitters in Yankee Stadium is not exactly uncommon, though Cessa also had his trouble with righties too. It seems like a simple location issue. Here are the pitch locations of the 16 home runs he allowed in the big leagues, via Baseball Savant.

Luis Cessa home runs

Yeah. Fastballs down the middle tend to get hit a long way. Can’t throw them there, Luis. Cessa has the tools to start. I really believe that. The guy has four pitches he throws regularly, he pitches inside, and he throws strikes. So he was homer prone and didn’t miss as many bats as you’d like in his first nine big league starts. Welcome to the club. Tons of guys have done the same. All things considered, I liked what I saw from him in those nine starts.

Cessa finished the season healthy — he started Game 162 and threw 147.2 total innings in 2016, a new career high but not by a lot (139.1 in 2015) — so the 24-year-old is in position to throw upwards of 180 innings next year. That’s pretty great. Cessa is actually doing television work at the moment, broadcasting the World Series for FOX Sports Latin America …

(Phot via Erik Boland)
(Photo via Erik Boland)

… and it’s safe to assume he’ll come to Spring Training with a chance to compete for a rotation spot. He might even be the favorite for a rotation spot over others like Green, Severino, and Mitchell. Cessa performed the best out of all of them this past season, and his present skill set suggests he’s most likely to have success as a starter in the immediate future.

The Broken Toe That Sabotaged A Season

The Spring Training competition for the fifth starter’s spot was a two-man race between Nova and Sabathia. Had it been a three-man competition, Bryan Mitchell would have won. Mitchell was marvelous in camp, allowing one run on seven hits and three walks in 15.2 innings. He fanned 12. Beyond the numbers, his stuff was crisp and he seemed to be locating better than he had at any point in the previous two years with the Yankees.

Mitchell made the Opening Day roster, which wasn’t a shock given his Grapefruit League performance. He was going to be in the bullpen and was the early favorite to assume Adam Warren’s super utility reliever role. Instead, Mitchell managed to break his left big toe covering first base in his final Grapefruit League outing. He took a misstep and the bone cracked. Total fluke injury. The fracture required surgery and sidelined Mitchell for four freakin’ months.

“I felt something, but I definitely didn’t think it was this severe, given that I could still get over to the base and all that,” said Mitchell after the injury. “I’m not trying to be too roller coaster right now. Just have to roll with it. It’s just a bump in the road and we’ll get past it, hopefully quicker than later … It really hasn’t sunk in yet. But it’s tough right now.”

Mitchell. (Presswire)
Mitchell. (Presswire)

It wasn’t until August 8th that Mitchell pitched in his first minor league rehab game. He kept his arm in shape by throwing while sitting in a chair before finally being cleared to play catch and throw off a mound. Mitchell made four minor league rehab starts, reportedly looked as rusty as you’d expect, then was activated off the 60-day DL and optioned to Triple-A Scranton on August 24th.

The Yankees originally planned to keep Mitchell down through the end of the Triple-A postseason so he could start every fifth day, but after Green hurt his elbow, they called him up and stuck him in the rotation. Because he did not spend 20 days in the minors on an optional assignment — most of it was injury rehab — Mitchell did not burn a minor league option this year. He still has one for next season.

Anyway, Mitchell’s first big league start came against the Blue Jays on September 7th, and it went about as well as you could have hoped: four hits and two walks in five scoreless innings. He struck out five. His next two starts were duds (six runs in 2.1 innings and four runs in 4.2 innings) and that wasn’t too surprising. The Dodgers and Red Sox loaded their lineups with lefties and Mitchell paid the price.

Mitchell’s most impressive outings were his final two. On September 23rd, at a raucous Rogers Centre, the Blue Jays worked Mitchell hard and scored three runs in the first two innings. He threw 46 pitches to get six outs. It was all set up to be a short night, but Mitchell settled down, retired ten of the final 13 batters he faced, and completed six full innings. He showed some gumption against a good team in a hostile environment.

Then, five days later, Mitchell had his best start as a big leaguer, when he held the Red Sox to two hits in seven scoreless innings. The Yankees almost wasted that effort, but thankfully Mark Teixeira came up with the walk-off grand slam. Here is the inexplicably unembeddable video of Mitchell’s night. This was a really tough season for Mitchell overall thanks to the toe injury, but at least he was able to end it on a really positive note. That start must have felt great.

Overall, Mitchell finished the season 3.24 ERA (4.23 FIP) in five starts and 25 innings. The good news: he got grounders (48.2%) and kept the ball in the park (0.36 HR/9). The bad news: he walked (11.2%) more batters than he struck out (10.3%). That’s a big problem. Can’t be successful walking more batters than you strike out. Mitchell has good stuff. Or, rather, he has two good pitches in his fastball and curveball. He should, in theory, be able to miss bats with those pitches.

The fastball and curveball are Mitchell’s only two reliable pitches, however. His third pitch is his cutter and that’s pretty much the only thing he has to attack left-handed batters because his changeup is not good. So not good he doesn’t even bother to throw it. Losing most of this season is pretty unfortunate. Mitchell would have had a chance to continue working on things. Instead, he lost all that development time.

As with Green and Cessa, I expect Mitchell to come to camp with a chance to win a rotation spot. If that doesn’t work, he could wind up in the bullpen, which was the plan this year before the injury. Of the three guys in this post, I have the most confidence in Cessa remaining a starter long-term and it’s not all that close. Green and Mitchell have more work to do, but I do think that if neither can hack it in the rotation, they can be quality short relievers.

The Underwhelming Jacoby Ellsbury [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Three years ago, amid all the talk about getting under the luxury tax threshold, the Yankees committed over $400M to a quartet of free agents following the team’s disappointing 2013 season. I’d say three of the four free agents have been worth the money so far. Masahiro Tanaka, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran have done — or did, in Beltran’s case — more or less exactly as expected. Tanaka’s been hurt a few times, but pitchers do that.

Jacoby Ellsbury, the fourth of those four free agent signings, has not come particularly close to meeting the expectations that come with a massive seven-year contract worth $153M. The deal was market value at best and a gross overpay at worse, and right now it leans clearly towards the latter. Coming into the 2016 season, the hope was Ellsbury would rebound from a disappointing 2015 that seemed to get thrown out of whack by a May knee injury. It didn’t happen.

A Poor April, Then A May To Remember

Prior to last season’s knee injury, Ellsbury was a dominant leadoff man who was actually worth his contract for a short period of time. He hit .324/.412/.372 (125 wRC+) with 14 steals and nearly as many walks (11.2%) as strikeouts (13.5%) in his first 37 games before tweaking his knee taking a swing. Ellsbury landed on the DL, then returned in July to hit .224/.269/.322 (62 wRC+) in his final 74 games of the season before getting benched in the wildcard game.

Rather than come out of Spring Training hot this year like last year, Ellsbury hit a soft .235/.278/.341 (64 wRC+) in April, which was basically a continuation of what he did following the knee injury in 2015. At one point in April he went 4-for-27 (.148) with more doubles play grounded into (two) than extra base hits (one, a homer). Think about that. A speed guy getting doubled up twice as often as getting a hit for extra bases. Not even a hustle double or anything mixed in there.

To be fair, Ellsbury delivered one of the biggest highlights of the season on April 22nd, when he pulled off a straight steal of home against the Rays. There was no funny business here. No ball in the dirt, nothing like that. Ellsbury just took off for home and beat the throw. Check it out:

The Yankees had lost three straight games and seven of their last eight at the time, and they were having serious problems scoring runs. Ellsbury’s steal of home tied the game and the Yankees went on to win. It was early in the season, yes, but it was a huge play and a big game. Things were starting to spiral out of control there. Ellsbury made a big time play when the Yankees needed it the most. Props.

May was, by far, Ellsbury’s best month of the season. Maybe his best month as a Yankee. He has a tendency to get on insane hot streaks — I’m talking 15-for-25, 20-for-30, 25-for-40, stuff like that — and he got on one as soon as the calendar flipped to May, hitting .340/.410/.534 (155 wRC+) with two homers and seven steals in 30 games. (The hot streak carried over into early-June.)

The May (and early-June) hot streak brought Ellsbury’s season batting line up to .293/.353/.447 (116 wRC+) through 52 games and 214 plate appearances, and hey, that’s pretty awesome. The season was one-third complete and Ellsbury’s overall numbers were comfortably above-average. The production was a little uneven (poor April, great May), but that’s baseball. Day-to-day consistency doesn’t exist.

Another Fade, This Time Without The DL Stint

The hot start didn’t last. It never really does. Ellsbury went into the All-Star break with a .279/.347/.398 (103 wRC+) batting line and that’s not terrible. It’s not great either. It just kinda … is. In the game immediately prior to the All-Star break, Ellsbury smacked a big three-run home run against the Indians, one pitch after what should have been ball four was called strike two to extend the at-bat. Rookie ump Ramon DeJesus did the Yankees a solid there.

Ellsbury went 6-for-39 (.154) in his first eleven games after the All-Star break and never really did get back on track in the second half. His best stretch of the second half came in early-August, when he went 10-for-22 (.455) during a five-game span. Sometimes Ellsbury can stretch those hot streaks out for a few weeks. That one lasted five games.

Weirdly enough, Ellsbury did go on a bit of a power binge in late-August and early-September, swatting five home runs in the span of 22 games. That’s a 37-homer pace across a full 162-game season. The most notable of those five home runs came on September 13th against the Dodgers, and it was an seventh inning go-ahead blast. That was a fun game.

For some reason I thought that was a pinch-hit homer. It wasn’t. Ellsbury replaced Aaron Judge in the previous inning when Judge tweaked his oblique. (That was the injury that ended his season.) It wasn’t a pinch-hit homer but it was Ellsbury’s first at-bat of the game. Didi Gregorius followed with a pinch-hit homer in place of Rob Refsnyder. I guess that’s why I got confused.

Anyway, after that home run, Ellsbury went 12-for-58 (.207) to close out the regular season. He finished the year with a .263/.330/.374 (91 wRC+) batting line and nine homers in 626 plate appearances. His walk (8.6%) and strikeout (13.4%) numbers were nice, and he did steal 20 bases, but it took 28 attempts (71%). The Yankees paid Ellsbury a whole lotta money for league average offensive production in 2016.

No Longer A Speed Threat

At his peak, Ellsbury was an elite baserunner who created havoc every time he reached base. Just his presence on the basepaths changed the game. Pitchers had to pay attention to him and I’m sure that led to a few more fastballs for the guys at the plate. That’s the Ellsbury the Yankees thought they were signing. Someone who could diversify their offense by creating runs with his legs.

Nowadays Ellsbury is beyond his base-stealing prime — he turned 33 in September and stealing bases is not a skill that ages gracefully — and that’s not his fault. That’s just the normal aging process. If anything, blame the Yankees for giving a speed guy a seven-year contract (!) after his 30th birthday. What did they think would happen? Here are some baserunning numbers over the last few years.

SB-CS SBA% XBT% BSR BRR
2013 52-4 21.0% 42% 5.6 5.3
2014 39-5 22.2% 49% 4.1 -1.2
2015 21-9 13.3% 35% 0.9 4.2
2016 20-8 10.7% 32% 2.0 2.3

Ellsbury’s stolen base success rate has slipped the last few years and he’s also attempting fewer steals (SBA%) overall. It’s important to note a 10.7% steal attempt rate is actually really good — the league average is 5.5% — but it’s not what it was a few years ago. Top stolen base threats should be in the 10-15% range, ideally. Ellsbury was higher than that at his peak. This season he attempted steals half as often as just two years ago.

The stolen bases stand out the most because they’re the easiest aspect of baserunning to see, but to me the scariest number in that table is the extra-bases taken (XBT%). That’s going first-to-third on a single, scoring from second on a single, stuff like that. Ellsbury was at 32% this year. 32%! Beltran was at 30% this year. The MLB average is 42%. I mean, omgwtf. Why is it so low? Ellsbury didn’t just steal fewer bases, he took the extra base at a below-average rate too.

Injury could play a factor in this. Ellsbury missed a few days with a hip issue in mid-May and a lingering hip problem could easily explain any hesitation on the bases. We never heard that Ellsbury’s hip was aching all year, but who knows. He has a history of getting hurt and staying hurt, after all. Whatever it is, Ellsbury was not much of a weapon on the bases. Not stealing and not even taking the extra 90 feet on base hits. That’s a problem three years into a seven-year contract.

Still Strong In The Field

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

His bat and baserunning may be in decline, but Ellsbury remains a very good center field defender. I can’t imagine many folks will disagree with me there. Ellsbury actually had a rough start to the season in the field (remember all this?), but he shook all that off and turned in another comfortably above-average season in the field. That all the defensive stats spit out different numbers (+8 DRA, +0.7 UZR, +1 Total Zone, -14.5 FRAA) says more about the reliability of the numbers than it does Ellsbury.

Believe me, piling on Ellsbury would be very easy, but I can’t do it defensively. The stats — well, most of them, anyway — and the eye test tell me he remains a very good gloveman who saves the Yankees runs. Is he as good defensively as he was three or four years ago? Of course not. No player is. Age has sapped some of his speed. But he remains an asset out there. Defense is Ellsbury’s best attribute at this point, I’d say.

Outlook For 2017

Unloading Ellsbury and his contract should one of the team’s top priorities this offseason. It just seems so very unlikely the Yankees will be able to do that, not without eating a ton of money or taking on a bad contract in return. They’ve really painted themselves into a corner with this contract, which is a shame, because they have so many young MLB ready or near MLB ready outfielders.

There’s a non-zero chance the inability to move Ellsbury means the Yankees will have to instead Brett Gardner this offseason to clear roster space for younger players, which would be a shame, but what can you do? I went into this season hoping Ellsbury would rebound with good health after the knee injury last year. It didn’t happen. Now I don’t really know what to think. Maybe Ellsbury really is nothing more than a 90 wRC+ and +2 WAR player now.

The Final Year of the Ivan Nova Experience [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Aside from his rookie season, when he was trying to establish himself as a big leaguer, this was the most important season of Ivan Nova‘s career. He returned from Tommy John surgery last year and didn’t pitch well at all (5.07 ERA and 4.87 FIP), so this year Ivan wanted to show everyone he is still a viable starter before becoming a free agent. There was a lot of money at stake.

Unfortunately, this summer was more of the same for Nova, at least while he was in pinstripes. He was consistently inconsistently. Occasionally great, too often terrible, and mostly mediocre. The quintessential fifth starter, basically. The kind of guy who’s worth keeping around as depth, but probably not someone a contending team runs out there every fifth day. Nova’s time with the Yankees — he originally signed with the team in 2004 and was the longest tenured player in the organization — came to an end at the trade deadline.

The Spring Training Competition

As expected, the Yankees made Nova compete for a rotation spot in Spring Training. His primary competition: CC Sabathia. Nova was going to have to thoroughly out-pitch Sabathia in March, because anything close to a tie was going to go to the well-paid former Cy Young award winner. The odds were stacked against Ivan. No doubt about it. He was going to have to make the decision a no-brainer.

Nova allowed two runs in nine innings in his first two Grapefruit League starts, which seemed to have him in the lead for the fifth starter’s spot. He then allowed four runs in 4.1 innings in his fourth start and six runs in 4.2 innings in his fifth start, and that was that. Those two duds were enough to sway the competition in Sabathia’s favor. Sabathia started the season in the rotation and Nova had to settle for a bullpen job. Such is life.

The Brief Stint in the Bullpen

The Yankees came into the season with maybe the most dominant bullpen trio in baseball history, and although Aroldis Chapman was serving his suspension in April, the team still had Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances available on Opening Day. So, naturally, Nova picked up the club’s first save of the season. Just as we all expected, right? Right.

Nova got that save in the second game of the 2016 season. It was a blowout 16-6 win over the Astros, and Nova threw four shutout innings to close out the game. Throw the final three innings of the game in relief and you get a save, regardless of score. What a stat.

Nova worked sparingly in April, which is usually how it goes with long relievers. They’ll go ten days between appearances then bam, we need four innings from you. Ivan appeared in only six of the team’s first 29 games, and in those six games he allowed eight runs on 16 hits and one walk in 14 innings. Only once did he enter a game with the Yankees leading. It was that 16-6 win over Houston.

“We have to use him in different situations,” said Joe Girardi in April. “We need for him to get outs.”

Back in the Rotation

Nova’s stint in the bullpen lasted 29 team games. Sabathia went down with a minor groin injury in early-May, then Luis Severino went down with a triceps problem about a week later, which opened a full-time rotation spot for Nova. And at first, it went really well. Really, really well. Well enough some wondered why Ivan wasn’t in the Opening Day rotation.

May 9th vs. Royals: 4.2 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 1 HR (on a pitch count)
May 14th vs. White Sox: 5.2 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 1 HR
May 19th @ Athletics: 6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 3 K, 1 HR

Pretty great! The Yankees weren’t haven’t much success as a team overall, especially with Severino and Michael Pineda struggling so much as starters, and Nova gave the team a nice shot in the arm. We’ve seen him be good for long stretches of time in the past. It looked like Ivan was about to go on one of those runs.

It didn’t happen. Nova never once allowed fewer than three runs in any of his next seven starts. He allowed four or more runs five times. Nova had a 6.92 ERA (5.61 FIP) in 39 innings in those seven starts, and opponents hit .313/.368/.554 against him. That’s basically Mookie Betts (.318/.363/.534). Nova faced nine Mookie Bettses every start for a little more than a month.

July went a bit better — Nova had a 3.86 ERA (5.18 FIP) in five starts and 28 innings that month — but by then it was too late. The Yankees were fading in the standings and the decision to sell was made at the trade deadline. Nova, as an impending free agent who wasn’t getting a qualifying offer, was a prime candidate to go. It was either keep him and lose him for nothing after the season or get something, anything in return.

All told, Nova had a 4.90 ERA (5.10 FIP) in 97.1 innings across 15 starts and six relief appearances with the Yankees this season, which was a bit too close to last year’s numbers. He had a 4.86 ERA (5.33 FIP) in those 15 starts, and, amazingly, Nova allowed a home run in 14 of his 15 starts. The only team that didn’t take him deep as a starter was the Padres in spacious Petco Park, so yeah. Same ol’ Nova.

Welcome to Pittsburgh

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Minutes before the August 1st trade deadline, the Yankees shipped Nova to the Pirates, their favorite trading partner. They received not one, but two players to be named later in return. It seemed like a miracle. Nova hadn’t pitched well since 2013, remember. He was hurt in 2014 and terrible in both 2015 and 2016. The Rangers and a few other clubs reportedly had interest as well. Pittsburgh it was.

As you no doubt know, Nova pitched far better with the Pirates than he did with the Yankees this year. He had a 3.06 ERA (2.62 FIP) in eleven starts and 64.2 innings with Pittsburgh, though his strikeout (17.8% vs. 19.8%) and ground ball (54.3% vs. 52.3%) rates were basically the same. His walk rate (5.9% vs. 1.1%) fell big time because he threw way more pitches in the zone (41.6% vs. 48.1%).

The Pirates didn’t change Nova’s pitch selection all that much. He threw more sinkers and fewer four-seamers after the trade, but not a ridiculous amount. Pittsburgh got his sinker and four-seamer rates back where they were in April and May, basically. The biggest adjustment, according to Bill Brink, involved Nova’s chin. Yes, his chin.

Pitching coach Ray Searage advised Nova to keep his chin low during his delivery and align his chin with the target. This keeps the front shoulder closed. The results: Two walks in 46? innings, a 2.53 ERA and two complete games in his past four starts.

Nova had heard of the need to keep his chin down before. Recovering from Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, though, threw his mechanics out of whack. Releasing the ball later has improved Nova’s curveball.

“My release point was too off the timing. It was up here,” he said, with his arm above his shoulder, “and then just hold it a little bit more, throw it right in front.”

Nova’s curveball did improve after the trade. With the Yankees, opponents hit .212 with a .188 ISO against his curveball. With the Pirates, it was .175 with a .175 ISO. He also got more swings and misses (16.5% vs. 19.8%) with the curve, but, weirdly, fewer grounders (42.2% vs. 33.3%). Here are Nova’s curveball location heat maps before and after the trade, via Baseball Savant:

Ivan Nova curveballs

They look … pretty similar? Kinda? The vast majority of Nova’s curveballs are right at the bottom of the zone, and anything higher is on the inner half to righties and outer half to lefties. I wouldn’t get too caught up in this. Nova threw 252 curveballs with the Pirates. Total. The location is generally the same. Most of his curveballs were at the bottom of the zone.

There are other factors to consider here too. The switch from the AL to the NL is an undeniable help. Getting to face pitchers instead of guys like David Ortiz and Edwin Encarnacion and Mark Trumbo is kind of a big deal. Also, Nova moved into a more hitter friendly ballpark, and did face some weak competition. Six of his eleven starts with the Pirates came against the rebuilding Reds, Brewers, and Phillies. Must be nice, eh?

Whatever the reason, Nova performed much better with the Pirates than he did the Yankees. Good for him. He needed that little boost heading into free agency. The Yankees received outfielder Tito Polo and lefty Stephen Tarpley, two High-A prospects, as the players to be named in the trade, though they came over in late-August and barely played after the deal was finalized.

Outlook for 2017

Nova is a free agent this offseason and his agent is already floating the idea of a five-year contract worth $70M. Can you blame him? Jeff Samardzija led the lead in hits, earned runs, and homers allowed last year and he got five years and $90M. You’re never going to get Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano if you don’t ask. Start with a big opening demand and come down from there.

This upcoming free agent pitching class is bad. So, so bad. That works in Ivan’s favor. His strong finish with the Pirates will undoubtedly convince some team he’s turned the corner for good a la J.A. Happ, though for every J.A. Happ who left Pittsburgh and thrived, there’s an A.J. Burnett who left Pittsburgh and stunk. We’ve seen Nova do this before, right? Look unhittable for a few weeks then go right back to being Ivan Nova.

The Yankees need rotation help this offseason the same way every team needs rotation help. I have a hard time thinking they’ll pursue a reunion with Nova, however. Been there, done that. The Yankees are looking to move forward, not backward. Re-signing Nova puts them right back where they were this year, only Ivan will be more expensive. Someone’s going to pay Nova big bucks this winter and that’s great for him. Chance are it won’t be the Yankees though.

The Wait For Aaron Hicks To Take A Step Forward [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Two years ago the Yankees started their youth movement with an interesting strategy. They targeted talented young players who had fallen out of favor with their current organizations, and bought low on them in trades. That’s how they landed Didi Gregorius and Nathan Eovaldi. Dustin Ackley too. You win some, you lose some.

The Yankees employed a similar strategy last offseason — you could argue the Aroldis Chapman deal falls under that umbrella, though he was an established veteran at the time of the trade — and it landed them switch-hitting outfielder Aaron Hicks in a trade with the Twins. John Ryan Murphy went to Minnesota. Hicks was slated to serve as New York’s heavily used fourth outfielder. He would rotate around the three outfield spots and given the veterans rest. It never worked out.

Stuck On The Bench

The Yankees stunk in April. They were bad. Really bad. They won only eight of their first 24 games, mostly because they couldn’t generate offense. The Yankees scored only 82 runs in those 24 games, or 3.42 per. Yikes. Because runs were so hard to come by, Joe Girardi stuck with his veteran outfielders. The trio of Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran started 15 of those first 24 games. Hicks started eight of them.

In those eight games, the now-27-year-old Hicks went 2-for-26 (.077) with no extra-base hits and only two walks. I guess the good news is he only struck out three times, so he was putting the ball in play. It was only a matter of time until the hits dropped in, right? Right??? Well, I guess so. From May 4th through May 25th, Hicks hit .258/.319/.403 (91 wRC+) with two homers in 73 plate appearances and 21 games. His first homer as a Yankee was kind of a big one.

Hicks was able to get regular playing time during that three-week stretch thanks to injuries to Alex Rodriguez (hamstring) and Ellsbury (hip). Beltran shifted to DH and Hicks took over in the outfield. When he wasn’t playing regularly — I mean doing more than replacing Beltran for defense in the late innings — he didn’t hit. When he played regularly, he did hit. Coincidence? Eh, maybe. I don’t think so.

Once Ellsbury and A-Rod returned, Hicks went right back to the bench. From May 26th through July 22nd, the final day of the “Alex Rodriguez, Everyday Player” era, Hicks started 27 of the team’s 50 games, so he was basically a half-time player. Beltran’s hamstring injury in June helped open some playing time there, so it stands to reason that if Beltran had stayed healthy, Hicks would have played even less.

Hicks hit only .197/.261/.301 (48 wRC+) in the first half and Girardi pretty clearly grew frustrated with his lack of production. “Hicks needs to relax, too, I think, to get going. He’s a kid that’s used to playing every day. He’s played a lot but he hasn’t played every day,” said the manager in June. It was a Catch-22. Hicks wasn’t playing because he didn’t hit and he wasn’t hitting because he didn’t play, in theory.

Finally, A Chance To Play

After the Yankees traded away Beltran at the deadline, Girardi made an effort to get Hicks into the lineup more often, even after Aaron Judge had been recalled. Hicks started 23 of the team’s 28 games in August while playing all three outfield spots. Gardner’s sore ankle opened up some playing time as did the club’s sudden willingness to sit veterans for younger players. Gardner and Ellsbury both saw time on the bench in August.

Hicks went down with a hamstring injury of his own in late-August and was unable to return until late-September, when he season was nearly over. He played every day down the stretch because Beltran was gone and Judge went down with his oblique injury. Following the trade deadline, Hicks was very close to an everyday player, and during that time he hit .271/.333/.424 (105 wRC+) with five homers in 129 plate appearances and 37 games around the hamstring injury.

One of those five homers was a thoroughly satisfying go-ahead two-run homer against the Blue Jays on September 26th, the final road game of the season. Benches cleared (twice!) earlier in the game because of the J.A. Happ/Luis Severino retaliation silliness, and Mark Teixeira had just tied the game with a ninth inning blast against Jason Grilli. Hicks went deep a few batters later to give New York the lead. He crushed a hanger, clapped loudly because he knew it was gone, then trotted around the bases.

Teixeira and Hicks pimping clutch ninth inning homers against the Blue Jays. What a time to be alive.

That strong finish in August and September brought Hicks’ final season batting line to .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+) in 361 plate appearances, which is still bad. Really bad. I’m one of those folks who thinks Hicks would thrive with more playing time, but still. You can’t do that, dude.

Take a look at Hicks’ offensive production as the season progressed. It’s easy to see when he got regular at-bats (May, then August and September) and when he was used sparingly off the bench (the rest of the season):

Aaron Hicks wRC+

Hicks came to the Yankees as a switch-hitter with a reputation for being better against left-handed pitchers. The exact opposite was true in 2016. He hit .249/.318/.373 (86 wRC+) against righties, which is barely adequate, and .161/.213/.271 (25 wRC+) against lefties, which is terrible. Hicks didn’t hit his first home run against a southpaw until June 24th, the team’s 72nd game of the season, and he didn’t get his second until August 5th, their 109th game. Yikes.

There is no other way to slice it: Hicks was awful this past season. Inexcusably so, really. He was primed for a breakout season and instead fell flat on his face. The only thing keeping the trade from being a disaster is Murphy somehow being worse than Hicks this year (4 wRC+!). Maybe regular playing time would have helped. I think it would have. But that’s not an excuse. Hicks had his role and didn’t adapt to it. He would have received more playing time had he earned it, but he didn’t.

A Good Defender Who Looks Bad

Back during his days as a prospect — Hicks was a really good prospect once upon a time, he was on Baseball America’s annual top 100 list four times and peaked as high as 19th — the scouting reports said Hicks was an exceptional defensive player. Baseball America called him a “gliding runner” who “possesses plenty of range” and is capable of “providing premium defense in center” in 2013, the last time he was prospect eligible. Everyone loved his glove.

This year we saw a player who took some circuitous routes in the outfield but generally made every catch. There were a few instances in which he broke back instead of breaking forward (and vice versa), but again, he made the catch. DRS (+4), UZR (+4.8), Total Zone (+9), and FRAA (+1.6) all rated him as above-average in the field. And yet, those bad first steps are unsettling. Even if he makes the catch, they just look bad, you know?

There is one aspect of Hicks’ defense that is an undeniable strength: his arm. It’s one of the best in baseball, easily. In fact, Hicks uncorked the fastest outfield throw in the Statcast era back in April. To the action footage:

Hicks had only three outfield assists this season, two fewer than Ellsbury (!), but that’s terribly misleading. Runners rarely tested his arm. It’s a Yadier Molina arm in the outfield. Runners don’t bother trying to stealing against Molina because his arm is so strong. This year runners didn’t even bother to try to run on Hicks because they know he has a cannon. He shut the running game down without even making throws.

Hicks in RF: 62.1% hold rate (47.0% league average)
Hicks in CF: 53.6% hold rate (44.3% league average)
Hicks in LF: 69.2% hold rate (63.5% league average)

Hold rate is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the rate at which runners stayed put despite having the opportunity to take the extra base on a ball hit to the outfield. Like a runner on second not moving to third on a fly ball. Or a runner not going first-to-third on a single to right. That sort of thing. Hicks held runners at a rate far better than the league average at all three outfield positions. His arm is so great he rarely has to use it. It’s the ultimate compliment. Runners don’t even challenge him.

Outlook for 2017

Gosh, I don’t know. I could see any one of a number of things happening with Hicks next season. I could see him starting the year as the fourth outfielder again. I could see him starting in left field if Gardner is traded. I could see him starting in right if Judge struggles in camp. I could see him in a platoon. I could see him getting traded. The possibilities are endless.

I wouldn’t necessarily call 2017 a make or break year for Hicks, but he’s entering a very critical phase of his career. He just turned 27 and it’s time to turn his obvious natural gifts into consistent production. The Yankees hope it happens it with them. It might not. Either way, Hicks has played parts of four seasons in the show now and he has close to 1,300 big league plate appearances under his belt. It’s time to take that next step.