Yankeemetrics: Welcome back, baseball (April 5-7)

(AP Photo)
Just call me Starsky. (AP Photo)

Deja Boooooo
After nearly five months of waiting for meaningful baseball games, the Yankees’ 2016 season started in familiar fashion with a loss to the Astros and Dallas Keuchel at Yankee Stadium, the same way the 2015 campaign ended.

The good news is that they managed to score against Keuchel, who entered the game with a 1.12 regular-season career ERA against the Yankees — the third-lowest by any pitcher in the last 100 seasons (min. three starts) — and riding a 28-inning scoreless streak versus the team. The bad news is that the end result was the same: another frustrating loss to open the season.

For the fifth year in a row and the seventh time in eight tries, the Yankees dropped game No. 1 on the schedule, matching the franchise record for most consecutive losses in season openers. The mark was set nearly eight decades ago, when they lost five straight Opening Day games from 1934-38.

Still, there were some notable highlights midst the carnage. Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius made history when they took the field as the first Yankee middle infield duo to start on Opening Day at age 26 or younger since Willie Randolph and Bucky Dent in 1978.

Castro then doubled in the first two Yankee runs of the season, becoming the first Yankee second baseman with a multi-RBI game on Opening Day since Alfonso Soriano in 2003 (Robinson who?). Gregorius completed the scoring with an eighth-inning homer. The only other shortstops in franchise history to homer on Opening Day were Derek Jeter (three times) and Bucky Dent (1981).

This is the first time in the last 100 seasons of Yankee baseball that both of the team’s middle infielders each had an extra base hit and an RBI in a season opener.

Sweet Sixteen
The temps were still chilly on Wednesday night but the Yankee bats heated up as they crushed the Astros, 16-6, in the middle game of this series.

Castro stole the show for the second straight day, delivering four hits while driving in five runs. The only other Yankees with at least four hits and five RBI in a game this early into the season were Bill Dickey (1934), Yogi Berra (1956) and Tino Martinez (1997).

His seven RBI in the first two games are the most by any Yankee in his first two contests with the team, and matched the franchise record for most RBI in the team’s first two games of the season. The three other guys to do that each have a plaque in Monument Park: Babe Ruth (1932), Berra and Martinez.

Mark Teixeira chipped in another two hits and four RBI, giving the team a rare offensive explosion from the right side of the infield. The last time the Yankees had their first baseman and second baseman each record at least two hits and drive in four or more runs in the same game was July 7, 1935. A couple Hall of Famers, Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri, combined for six hits and 11 RBI against the Senators.

The other dugout featured a young slugging phenom, too, as 21-year-old Astros shortstop Carlos Correa went 4-for-5 with two homers in the losing effort. Correa became the youngest player with four-plus hits, including at least two homers, in a game against the Yankees over the last 100 years.

Eight is enough
The Yankees took the opening series of the season after beating Houston, 8-5, in the rubber game on Thursday.

The offense has stolen the headlines in the first week of the season. This is now the seventh time the Yankees have scored at least 27 runs in the first three games combined. They won the AL pennant in five of the six previous seasons it happened, and the World Series three times.

The team’s seven homers are tied for the fourth-most through three games in franchise history, while their .962 OPS is the second-best by a Yankee team in the Wild Card Era this early into the season.

The pitching, on the other hand, has been less than good (mild understatement, yes!). They’ve allowed at least five runs in each of the first three games, making their 2-1 start even more impressive. The last time the Yankees gave up five-plus runs in three straight games to begin the season — yet still emerged with a winning record — was 1962.

Teixeira had the biggest hit of the game, a tie-breaking three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh inning that gave the Yankees a 8-5 lead. It was his 396th career home run, tying Joe Carter for 57th place on the all-time MLB list, and it was his 193rd with the Yankees, passing Tino Martinez for 17th on the Yankees leaderboard.

Castro, too, continued his scorching-hot start with another multi-hit game and a homer. His 1.250 slugging percentage and 1.833 OPS are both the best marks by any Yankee middle infielder with at least 10 plate appearances in the team’s first three games.

Hot start by Starlin Castro exactly what the Yankees need to open 2016

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Two games into the 2016 season, we’ve seen the very best of what Starlin Castro has to offer. We know all about his credentials by now, the three All-Star Game selections and the 991 hits before his 26th birthday, but Castro still had to come in and produce. What he did with the Cubs the last six years doesn’t have any value to the Yankees.

So far this year Starlin has gone 5-for-8 (.625) with three doubles and a home run, driving in seven of the team’s 19 runs. Castro drove in two runs with a double against the excellent Dallas Keuchel on Opening Day, and last night he punished all the mediocre pitching the Astros ran out there. In the seventh inning, after being buzzed up high by Josh Fields, he responded by stroking an RBI single to right. It was perfect.

“Starlin Castro is playing tee ball right now. He’s just seeing the ball good and hitting the ball where it’s pitched,” said Carlos Beltran after last night’s game. Starlin joins Babe Ruth, Tino Martinez, and Yogi Berra as the only Yankees to drive in seven runs in the first two games of the season. “It means a lot, especially because those guys have been unbelievable in baseball,” said Castro. “I feel really good about that.”

In addition to his production at the plate, Castro has played a fine second base, most notably ranging to his left to make some stops before turning and firing to second to get the lead runner. Those are tough plays, especially for a guy whose experience at second base is limited. The season is very young, we all know that, but the early returns have been very positive.

The Yankees need a hot start from Castro, maybe more than they’re willing to admit. First and foremost, they want him to come out of the gate strong just so he feels good about himself. Players are human and they want to impress their new employers and their new fans. Confidence can be a very powerful thing for a baseball player, and I can’t imagine Castro is short on it right now.

Furthermore, a lot of nonsense happens when a big new addition comes to New York and struggles right away. Remember Didi Gregorius last year? There was talk of sending him to Triple-A and playing Stephen Drew at short. That was a real thing that happened. No. Just … no. The Yankees have shown they will be patient. They were last year with Gregorius, but fans? Not so much. The sooner Castro got on their good side, the better.

Starlin has batted eighth these first two games, and the Yankees are counting on him to lengthen the lineup and provide offense behind the veterans. The Yankees talked all offseason about resting their regular players. Castro, however, won’t get as much rest as the veterans because he’s so young. (Ditto Didi, the other member of the Prestige Worldwide™ middle infield.) Girardi said so in Spring Training. Starlin’s going to be a consistent presence in the lineup.

And let’s face it, the Yankees don’t really know what to expect from some of their veterans. Alex Rodriguez is 40 and Carlos Beltran is 38. Mark Teixeira hasn’t played more than 123 games since 2011. Brian McCann is mighty old in catcher years, and who knows what Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner will do following their finishes to last season. There’s a lot of unknowns there. Starlin has to be a known, both right now and going forward.

Even with the Opening Day loss, Castro’s first two games in pinstripes couldn’t have gone any better. He had a fantastic spring and it has carried over into the regular season. He’s been the Yankees’ best player these first two games by no small margin. An adjustment period would have been understandable, but give the Yankees a truth serum and I’m sure they’d tell you they wanted Castro to come out of gate hot by having an impact on both sides of the ball. He’s done exactly that.

“We thought that he would be big in our lineup,” said Girardi. “He gave us a lot better balance than we’ve had the last couple of years, and that he would do a really good job at second base. All that is so far, so good.”

The Milestone Watch [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

With another Yankee season underway, let’s take a look at some statistical milestones that a few of our boys in pinstripes can reach this summer.

Alex Rodriguez
A-Rod, of course, is on the verge of becoming the fourth player in major-league history with 700 homers. His pursuit of the home run record is well-documented, as he is 28 homers shy of passing Babe Ruth for third place all-time.

He is at 342 homers with the Yankees, just 16 shy of tying Yogi Berra for fifth-most in franchise history. He has a good chance to move into the top-10 of a couple more lists in the Yankee record books, too. With 14 runs scored, he’ll pass Don Mattingly for 10th place there, and with 35 more RBI, he’ll also jump ahead of Mattingly and into 10th place on that leaderboard.

Carlos Beltran

Beltran is approaching a few nice round numbers this season. With eight more home runs, he’ll be the fourth switch hitter to reach the 400-homer milestone. Beltran can join an even more exclusive club, too, when he hits No. 400. He’d be just the fifth player in MLB history with at least 400 homers and 300 stolen bases in a career, joining A-Rod, Andre Dawson, Barry Bonds and Willie Mays.

If he stays healthy, he should also reach two more benchmarks: 2,500 hits and 1,500 RBI. He is at 2,454 hits and 1,443 RBI entering Tuesday’s season opener. The only switch hitters in baseball with 2,500 hits and 1,500 RBI are Eddie Murray and Chipper Jones.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Mark Teixeira
Teixeira is also nearing membership in the 400-homer club, and is just six away as he begins his 14th major-league season. The only other switch hitter to hit 400 homers that early into his career was Mickey Mantle. Eight other first baseman totaled 400 homers in their first 14 career seasons: Carlos Delgado, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Jeff Bagwell, Albert Pujols and Mark McGwire.

Starlin Castro
The 26-year-old enters 2016 needing nine hits to reach the 1,000-hit mark. His gap-to-gap power and ability to hit for average is underrated and rare for a player at his age and position. He would be just the seventh middle infielder to compile 1,000 hits, 175 doubles, 30 triples and 60 homers through his age-26 season. The others: Roberto Alomar, Robin Yount, Bobby Doerr, Arky Vaughan, Travis Jackson and Rogers Hornsby.

CC Sabathia
If Sabathia can hold onto his rotation spot, he can enjoy a few round-number milestones. First, he is just 11 1/3 innings pitched shy of 3,000 for his career. Only 10 other left-handers have gotten to that mark in their age-35 season or younger, as CC is about to do. And of that group of 10, only Steve Carlton and Mickey Lolich also had at least 2,500 strikeouts on their resume like Sabathia.

He’s also moving up the Yankee pitching lists. With two more starts, he’ll be the 17th guy to start 200 games for the Yankees, and he needs three wins to become the 17th pitcher with 100 wins for the franchise.

Spring Competitions: The Backup Catcher & Final Bench Spot [2016 Season Preview]

Romine. (Presswire)
Romine. (Presswire)

Coming into the spring, half of the bench was set. We knew Dustin Ackley and Aaron Hicks would occupy two of the four spots and nothing’s changed. The last two spots were up for grabs. One will go to the backup catcher, and because the plan to play Starlin Castro at third base didn’t work out, the other has to go to a backup third baseman. The Yankees don’t have much of a choice with those last two spots, positionally. Let’s preview those last two bench players, whoever they may be.

The Backup Catcher (For Now)

The Yankees have had some pretty good backup catchers in recent years. At the very least, they were strong defenders. The Yankees place a lot of emphasis on catcher defense. Some of those backups even hit too, like Frankie Cervelli a few years back and John Ryan Murphy last year. Murphy was traded for Hicks over the winter, leaving the backup spot to a spring competition.

The two main competitors: actual prospect Gary Sanchez and former prospect Austin Romine. The Yankees brought in veteran journeyman Carlos Corporan for depth, but Joe Girardi quickly ruled him out of the race, surprisingly. Others like Eddy Rodriguez and Sebastian Valle didn’t get much of a look in camp at all. It was either Sanchez or Romine. Anyone else would be a surprise.

It’s not yet official, but all signs point to Romine getting that backup catcher job to start the regular season. The Yankees optioned Sanchez to Triple-A last night, which effectively takes him out of the running. If he was still being considered for the job, the Yankees would keep Sanchez in big league camp so he could continue working with the big league pitchers. Instead, they sent him to minor league camp for at-bats and regular reps.

Sanchez and Romine are very different players. Sanchez hit 25 home runs in 500 total plate appearances a year ago. Romine hit 25 home runs from 2011-15. Sanchez is an outstanding thrower and an adequate receiver. Romine is an adequate thrower and a very good receiver. They’re pretty close to polar opposites, really. Sanchez was miserable during Grapefruit League play (1-for-21!) though, and Girardi said he felt he was pressing in an effort to make the team.

Sending Sanchez to Triple-A for a few weeks is totally justifiable given his still rough around the edges defense. The service time aspect can’t be ignored either. Thirty-five days in the minors delays Sanchez’s free agency a year. That’s potentially huge. If he turns into the type of player his tools suggest he can become, gaining control of his age 29 season in 2022 would be enormous. It’s a no-brainer, really. How do you not send him down to delay free agency?

The Yankees have gone young at almost every opportunity over the last 18 months, and replacing Murphy with Sanchez seems like the logical move. Remember, Romine was pretty close to out of the organization last year. The team designated him for assignment at the end of Spring Training, he slipped through waivers, and they stashed him in Triple-A. He was added to the 40-man roster and called back up in September only because Sanchez was dealing with a hamstring issue and the Yankees wanted a third catcher when rosters expanded.

So, for now, Romine is in line to be the backup catcher. The key words there are “for now.” There is zero doubt Sanchez is in the club’s long-term catching picture. Ideally, he would spend some time as Brian McCann‘s understudy before taking over the starting job. That apprenticeship is still likely to begin this year, I think. Once his free agency is delayed and once the Yankees are comfortable with his defense, Sanchez will be in the show. Romine is a placeholder more than anything.

Ref Robsnyder. (Presswire)
Ref Robsnyder. (Presswire)

Open Tryouts At Third Base

Eight different players have played third base for the Yankees during Grapefruit League play this spring. Eight! It would have been nine had the team not pulled the plug on the Castro experiment. One of the eight is the starter (Chase Headley) and another is a prospect (Miguel Andujar) who was up from minor league camp for a day to help out during a set of split squad games. The other six: Jonathan Diaz, Pete Kozma, Rob Refsnyder, Deibinson Romero, Donovan Solano, and Ronald Torreyes.

Diaz, Romero, and Solano have all already been assigned to minor league camp, taking them out of the running for the final bench spot. The remaining three candidates hit the bench guy stereotype trifecta:

  • Kozma: Veteran utility man who’s played for some pretty good teams in the past.
  • Refsnyder: Prospect with no clear path to playing time, so he’s trying to improve his versatility.
  • Torreyes: Third tier prospect with just enough tools to potentially force the issue.

Kozma is a known quantity at this point. He’s not going to hit, but he can play some pretty good defense at the three non-first base infield positions. Refsnyder has handled himself quite well at third base this spring despite being thrown into the fire. Give him some props. Learning a new position and trying to make the team at the same time isn’t easy. Torreyes? Well, I learned his name is pronounced “to-reyes” and not “torre-eyes” like I had been saying in my head. That about sums up his spring.

I get the feeling Refsnyder has the inside track for the final bench spot right now, though cases could be made for Kozma and Torreyes. Remember, this is a part-time gig. The Yankees could want Refsnyder playing everyday in Triple-A — and working on his third base defense — rather than sitting on the bench and playing maybe twice a week in the big leagues. Two months (55 days to be exact) in the minors delays his free agency a year. Like Sanchez, is it worth keeping Refsnyder up to play only a handful of times in those two months when he could instead play everyday in Triple-A and push his free agency back? That’s a question worth asking.

Kozma could be buried on the bench for weeks at a time a la Brendan Ryan and no one would care. Torreyes does not have Refsnyder’s offensive upside but he’s a contact machine with some speed and solid defensive chops. He truly may be a better bench option than Refsnyder because he does more things well. Refsnyder’s all bat. Torreyes is more well-rounded and his development isn’t a huge priority. If he sits on the bench and plays once every ten days, so be it.

The Yankees say they want to rest their regulars more often this season, but Girardi also acknowledged Didi Gregorius and Castro don’t need as much rest as everyone else because they’re so young. Whoever gets this last bench spot will be responsible for backing up Headley, first and foremost. Didi and Starlin don’t need as many days on the bench. I think Refsnyder will get the job. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Yankees go with the “safer” bet in Kozma or the more well-rounded option in Torreyes.

Ackley & Hicks: The New & Important Bench Players [2016 Season Preview]

Smackley. (Presswire)
Smackley. (Presswire)

Since the end of last season, Joe Girardi and the Yankees have said they need to give their regulars more rest going forward so they remain productive all season. Last year’s second half offensive collapse was not something anyone wants to go through again. More rest is the key — or at least the Yankees think it’s the key — which means the bench will be vital in 2016.

The Yankees currently have two open bench spots: the backup catcher and the backup third baseman. The other two spots will be occupied by fourth outfielder Aaron Hicks and utility man Dustin Ackley. Both are former tippy top prospects — prior to the 2010 season, Ackley ranked 11th and Hicks ranked 19th on Baseball America’s top 100 list — who fell out of favor with their former teams, so the Yankees scooped them up while their stock was down. Where do they fit this season? Let’s preview.

The Super Utility Guy

I am irrationally excited about Ackley heading into the season. I know I shouldn’t be, but dammit, I have that bug. Ackley tweaked some things at the plate after coming over last year and he’s hitting rockets all over the field this spring. (Ackley struck out for the first time yesterday, in his 32nd plate appearance.) The raw hitting ability is there, we saw it late last season, and Ackley being good now would be wonderful for Mariners trolling purposes.

In all seriousness, the Yankees acquired Ackley because at worst, he was an upgrade over Garrett Jones, and at best, he’s an everyday player with first round talent. His arm prevents him from playing the left side of the infield, but Ackley will back up at first and second bases, and also serve as the fifth outfielder. He’s also a left-handed hitter with the propensity to pull the ball in the air. I mean, look:

2013: 32.2% pull / 27.0% fly balls
2014: 37.4% pull / 36.6% fly balls
2015: 43.5% pull / 40.3% fly balls

That is exactly the kind of batted ball profile and trend that will play in Yankee Stadium. Like I said, I’m irrationally excited to see what Ackley can do this season. The problem: when is he going to play? He plays positions that are pretty well occupied.

For Ackley to get playing time, he’s either going to have to force the issue with his bat, or hope the Yankees are true to their word when it comes to giving the veteran players more rest. Spots could always open via injury, but no one wants that. It seems like the best case scenario for Ackley is one game at first base and one game at second base a week. His only outfield time figures to come in blowouts or in emergencies. Not great, but what can you do?

Bench players can be hit or miss because they don’t play regularly and for the most part they work in small sample sizes. Unpredictable things happen under those circumstances. If nothing else, Ackley offers the illusion of upside — he just turned 28 and he is former top prospect — and is a versatile left-handed bat. If he’s nothing more than the 24th man on the roster, so be it. I think there’s the potential for more.

The New Fourth Outfielder

The Yankees had a great fourth outfielder last season. Chris Young annihilated lefties, held his own against righties, and played rock solid defense. He was awesome. It was also kind of tough to expect similar performance going forward. Last season was Young’s best offensive year overall since 2009 and his best year against lefties ever. The Yankees didn’t want to bet two years and $13M he would do it again. The Red Sox did.

Hicksie. (Presswire)
Hicksie. (Presswire)

Instead, the Yankees acquired Hicks from the Twins in exchange for John Ryan Murphy. Hicks is only 26, he has four years of team control remaining, he’s a switch-hitter, and he’s an outstanding defender with a cannon arm. That is a pretty desirable player, wouldn’t you say? Hicks has yet to gain consistency at the MLB level — Minnesota did him no favors by skipping him right over Triple-A — which is why he was available. The Twins got tired of waiting.

There are indications Hicks is close to breaking out. He added a leg kick last season and improved his selectivity; PitchFX data shows he swung at way more pitches in the zone without substantially increasing the number of swings he took on pitches out of the zone. Hicks is a switch-hitter who has been better from the right side of the plate, and now he’s moving into ballpark that rewards left-handed hitters.

The Yankees are planning to play Hicks and play him often. As you know, the plan is to give the veteran players a little more rest this season, and that includes the starting outfielders. “I think Hicks has a chance to help those guys in spelling them and keeping them healthy and strong,” said Girardi at the Winter Meetings. Because he can switch-hit, Girardi doesn’t have to worry about platoon matchups when playing Hicks. Because he can play all three outfield spots, Girardi also can keep his regulars in their normal positions.

Last season Young batted 356 times and appeared in 140 games — he started 77 games — so the playing time will be there, especially since the plan is to rest the other outfielders a little more often. I could totally see a scenario in which Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury start four out of every five games in the outfield, and Carlos Beltran starts three out of every five games in the outfield. Something like this:

Day One: LF Gardner, CF Ellsbury, RF Beltran (Hicks on bench)
Day Two: LF Gardner, CF Ellsbury, RF Hicks (Beltran on bench)
Day Three: LF Hicks, CF Ellsbury, RF Beltran (Gardner on bench)
Day Four: LF Gardner, CF Hicks, RF Beltran (Ellsbury on bench)
Day Five: LF Gardner, CF Ellsbury, RF Hicks (Beltran at DH)

That make sense? Gardner, Ellsbury, and Hicks would be starting four out of every five games in the outfield, and Beltran would be starting three out of every five games in the outfield plus one more at DH. The Yankees would effectively have four regular outfielders. Hicks would be getting as much playing time as the veterans.

It’s not quite that simple, of course. At some point someone is going to get hot and it’ll be tough for Girardi to take that player out of the lineup. It’s going to happen a bunch of times across a 162-game season. That rotation seems like a great idea until, say, Gardner is on a 15-for-30 hot streak and the Yankees have lost four of five because they’ve scored eight runs total, know what I mean? You know that’s going to happen at some point.

The Yankees want to develop Hicks into an everyday player and that’s not going to happen without at-bats. They want to rest the regulars and they want to play Hicks. This seems like it will be simple enough. Will it work? We’ll see. Hicks needs to build on the strides he made offensively last season and continue to play excellent defense, because even when he doesn’t start, he’s going to come off the bench to replace Beltran in the late innings.

Year Three of the McCann Era [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Earlier this week the crew at FanGraphs started their annual Positional Power Rankings series. In a nutshell, they rank all 30 teams by position using a combination of projection systems. Love or hate projections, the posts are always super informative, and it’s the best place to look over each team’s depth chart at a position in one convenient place.

The Yankees ranked third at the catcher position in the Positional Power Rankings. The Buster Posey led Giants were predictably in the top spot, then the Dodgers and the projection friendly Yasmani Grandal were No. 2. The Yankees were No. 3 because of Brian McCann, and I thought Jeff Sullivan’s write-up was interesting:

I think there’s this vague sense that McCann has been a disappointment in New York, so maybe seeing the Yankees so high in the rankings is an important reminder. McCann, predictably, gets his batting average absolutely slaughtered by his ground balls, because there’s no way he’s going to run out a grounder he pulls into the shift, but he still draws walks and he still mashes a baseball every now and again. Throw in defensive ability that hasn’t completely deteriorated, and McCann looks like a plus. However frustrating it is to watch a guy hit into the shift over and over, one shouldn’t overlook everything McCann is still able to do for his team. He’s not toast.

That seems pretty accurate, no? McCann has been very productive in pinstripes and I still kinda get the sense folks feel he could be doing more. After all, he hit .256/.336/.461 (122 wRC+) in his final season with the Braves. In his two years with the Yankees, he’s been a .232/.303/.421 (99 wRC+) hitter despite moving from spacious Turner Field to homer happy Yankee Stadium.

McCann turned 32 last month and he’s approaching the age when most catchers begin to turn to pumpkins. He’s been freakishly durable throughout his career — McCann has started 100+ games behind the plate in eight of the last nine years — so he’s been able to avoid the injuries usually associated with the position. At the same time, that’s an awful lot of wear and tear. McCann’s been a big league starter since he was 21 years old. He’s caught nearly 11,000 innings in the show.

By now we all know what McCann is about offensively. He takes aim for the short porch and tries to pull the ball to right field, even when he’s on the road. His strikeout rate (16.2% from 2014-15) is sneaky good, he’ll take his walks, he’s prone to lazy fly balls, and yeah, he pulls grounders into the shift. McCann’s been doing that for a while. He’s hit .232 with a .236 BABIP the last two years. He hit .242 with a .249 BABIP the previous two years. This is who he is. A low average, high power hitter.

McCann, somewhat surprisingly, has turned into a lefty masher with the Yankees. He hit .292/.324/.526 (138 wRC+) against southpaws in 2014 and .241/.331/.422 (108 wRC+) in 2015. That’s new. Lefties ate McCann up his last few years in Atlanta. Do it once and I’m inclined to say it’s a one year blip. Do it two years in a row and there’s something to it. McCann’s no longer a guy who can be automatically neutralized by a lefty specialist.

At this point I kinda feel I know what to expect from McCann at the plate. He’s going to hit around .230, walk enough to put his OBP a bit north of .300, and slug 20-something homers. That sound right? The potential for age-related (and catcher-related) decline can not be ignored at this point. Otherwise I’m pretty sure we know what to expect from McCann offensively. The questions have more to do with the other aspects of the game.

So, About That Pitch-Framing

Anecdotally, McCann seemed to struggle blocking balls in the dirt last season, at least moreso than he did in 2014, but the numbers don’t bear that out. In fact, Baseball Prospectus’ new catching metrics say McCann was baseball’s best at blocking balls last year at +0.6 runs saved. How about that? I never would have guessed.

One part of McCann’s defensive game that did decline, at least according to the numbers, was his pitch-framing. He’s long been considered one of the best framers in the game and the numbers backed it up throughout his career. Last year though, his pitch-framing took a big step back according to both StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus:

StatCorner, 2013: +9.9 runs
StatCorner, 2014
: +11.4
StatCorner, 2015: -2.5

Baseball Prospectus, 2013: +10.2
Baseball Prospectus, 2014
: +9.7
Baseball Prospectus, 2015: -3.9

That’s a pretty big drop, huh? I don’t full buy into the pitch-framing numbers — it’s obviously a valuable skill, though I’m not convinced we’re measuring it accurately yet — the same way I don’t fully buy into any defensive numbers. I like to use defensive stats directionally, and the numbers say McCann went from being a far-above-average framer to below-average last summer.

This might not be the result of a decline in McCann’s skills, however. Jeff Sullivan seemed to find evidence umpires are rebelling against framing, so to speak. Several top framers like McCann, Jonathan Lucroy, Hank Conger, and Rene Rivera all saw their framing numbers dip big time from 2014 to 2015. Umpires are aware of pitch-framing, and it’s almost as if they made sure catchers with reputations for being good framers didn’t get those extra strikes last year.

Pitch-framing can be difficult to observe — the entire point is to be as quiet and discrete as possible, you don’t want the umpire to see the glove move too much — and I didn’t notice any sort of decline in McCann’s receiving ability. What do I know though. The number say his framing was not as good as it was in the past. Is it a one year blip? Are the umpires sticking it to catchers around the league? Did McCann actually decline? We’ll inch closer to an answer in 2016.

Is It Time To Lighten His Workload?

Like I said earlier, McCann is 32 years old and he’s caught a ton of innings in his career. Here are the innings caught leaderboards over the last few seasons:

2011-15
1. Yadier Molina — 5,508
2. Miguel Montero — 5,343
3. Russell Martin — 5,075.1
4. Kurt Suzuki — 5,008
5. Brian McCann — 4,815.1

2006-15
1. Yadier Molina — 10,723.1
2. Russell Martin — 10,574.2
3. Brian McCann — 10,302.1
4. A.J. Pierzynski — 10,229
5. Kurt Suzuki — 8,993.2

John Ryan Murphy played about as well as you could reasonably expect a backup catcher to play last season, and McCann still caught 72% of the team’s innings. His 1,042.1 innings were sixth most in MLB. That’s a function of wanting McCann in the lineup as much as possible because of the offense he provides.

McCann has three years at $17M per season left on his contract, and at some point the Yankees have to begin scaling back his workload to prevent him from completely cratering at the plate. Not every catcher stays productive into their mid-to-late-30s like Jorge Posada. Very few do, in fact.

“You try to keep it around somewhere between 100 and 120 games. 120 is pushing it a little bit. You know, he wants to play every day, and sometimes I’ve got to tell him, ‘You’re going to take a day here,'” said Joe Girardi at the Winter Meetings when asked about McCann’s workload. “But I think you see how he’s doing … I know his bat is important to us and I have to keep him healthy.”

The Yankees will have a new backup catcher this summer regardless of who wins the job this spring, and I’m not sure Girardi will be as comfortable with his new backup as he was with Murphy. It can take a while for a young player to earn trust, especially at a position as important as catcher. Does that mean McCann will continue to carry a heavy workload?

This might not be the year to scale back McCann’s workload behind the plate. He could end up catching those 120-ish games again as the Yankees break in Gary Sanchez, who is their next long-term catcher even if he doesn’t win the backup job this spring. Girardi has talked about resting all of his veteran players more often this year and I assume that includes McCann. That he plays such an important position makes it difficult.

McCann is vitally important to the Yankees, which creates a Catch-22. Girardi wants to play McCann as much as possible because the Yankees are better when he’s in the lineup. He also must be cognizant of his age and the wear and tear of catching — Joe’s an ex-catcher, he knows what’s up — and give McCann regular rest to keep him fresh all summer. It’s a difficult balancing act.

Chase Headley’s Chances For A Rebound, Offensively & Defensively [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Here’s a weird, random fact: the Yankees have had four different Opening Day third basemen in the last four years. It was Alex Rodriguez in 2012, Jayson Nix in 2013, Kelly Johnson in 2014, and Chase Headley in 2015. This year Headley will become the first player to start consecutive Opening Days at the hot corner for New York since A-Rod started three straight from 2010-12.

The Yankees re-signed Headley last offseason because Rodriguez can’t play third base anymore. The Yankees didn’t even wait to find out if he could in Spring Trianing. He was coming off his suspension last winter and had another hip surgery in his recent past, plus he was pushing 40, so the Yankees needed someone else at third. They brought back Headley because he had been one of the better third baseman in the game over the previous few years. From 2012-14:

  1. Miguel Cabrera — 19.0 fWAR
  2. Adrian Beltre — 17.2
  3. Josh Donaldson — 15.6
  4. David Wright — 15.3
  5. Chase Headley — 15.3

If you prefer bWAR, it’s the same five names, only with Miggy and Beltre flipped. If you want to limit it to 2013-14 only to remove Headley’s career 2012 season, he’s still top ten among all third basemen. Headley played rather well after coming over at the 2014 trade deadline and he seemed to fit exactly what the Yankees needed, namely a switch-hitting bat and good defense.

Last season Headley fell short on both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively. He hit .259/.324/.369 (91 wRC+) with eleven homers overall, making it his worst offensive season as a full-time player. Headley also committed a career-high 23 errors — his previous career high was 13 — and seemed to develop the yips, which turned routine throws into adventures. Needless to say, the Yankees are hoping for a big bounce back from their third baseman in 2016.

Can He Throw?

Headley’s ten fielding errors were a career high last season, but the throws were far more worrisome. It wasn’t just the errors, it was the number of poor throws overall, many of which Mark Teixeira saved at first base with his scooping ability. The throws weren’t just off-line either. Headley looked very tentative:

Chase Headley error

That is a third baseman lacking confidence. This all came out of nowhere too. Headley has been one of the best defensive third basemen in the game throughout his career and he was fantastic in the field with the Yankees after the trade two years. You’re lying if you say you saw this coming.

“More than anything, it’s just footwork. Footwork related stuff,” said Headley to Jack Curry (video link) recently when asked about his defensive work with third base/infield coach Joe Espada this spring. “Trying to keep my feet going … Just trying to clean that up a little bit and that’ll help some of the throwing issues I have last year.”

Headley hasn’t had any defensive miscues this spring, though we are talking about only 21 total chances in 55 innings, which is not enough to say whether he’s back on track in the field. Especially since not all of those 55 innings have been broadcast somewhere for us to see. I guess no errors in 21 chances is better than a few errors, but it doesn’t help us much going forward.

Looking at Headley’s career, last season was the outlier. He’s been a very good defender throughout his career and he suddenly forgot how to throw in 2015. The goal this season isn’t to take a bad defender and make him good. The goal is to take a previously good defender and get him back on track after a down season. Defense is like everything else in baseball. Players have slumps and bad years.

There is definitely a mental side to this — Headley admitted to losing confidence in the field last year — and that can be tough to overcome. And if Headley can’t get over his throwing issues, that’s a big problem because the Yankees don’t have a true third base alternative. (Sorry, I don’t think 36 spring innings mean Rob Refsnyder‘s ready to play the position regularly at the MLB level.) Like it or not, the Yankees need Headley.

If the throwing issues persistent, it won’t be the result of a lack of effort. Headley has been putting in extra work since last summer to sort this out, and Curry said Headley and Espada are out on a back field working on his defense pretty much every day this spring. I have no idea if he can get his throwing in order. There’s no way to put a number on this. All you can do is hope 2015 was truly an aberration and Headley will go back to being the player he was prior to 2015.

Is He Going to Hit?

Twenty third basemen qualified for the batting title last season, and among those 20, Headley ranked 15th in AVG (.259), 12th in OBP (.324), 19th in SLG (.369), 18th in ISO (.110), and 19th in wRC+ (91). He was among the worst offensive regulars at the position a year ago. The lack of power was a big part of it too. Here is his ISO over the years (Headley became a regular in 2009):


Source: FanGraphsChase Headley

No one in their right mind expected Headley to repeat his career 2012 season after re-signing with the Yankees. But something close to his 2013-14 performance (108 wRC+) was reasonable. Earlier in his career Headley’s lack of power could be blamed on Petco Park, at least in theory. From 2009-11, those pre-peak years, he had a .101 ISO at home and a .133 ISO on the road, so the split wasn’t huge.

Headley now calls Yankee Stadium his home park, and Yankee Stadium is a great place to hit for power, especially if you’re left-handed. Headley hit six of his eleven homers in the Bronx last season, and five of the six came as a left-handed hitter. Overall though, he was actually a better hitter on the road (98 wRC+) than at home (84 wRC+), which is pretty weird. Maybe that’s a reason to expect a rebound offensively. It’s tough for a hitter to be average-ish on the road and bad at home in Yankee Stadium two years in a row.

The power is what it is, especially since Headley has never been a great power hitter and he’s now over 30. More interesting to me are his strikeout and walk rates. Last season he had his lowest walk rate (7.9%) since becoming a regular, but also his second lowest strikeout rate (21.0%). (His previous low was 20.6% in 2010.) The PitchFX data shows Headley is not chasing more pitches or anything like that. He’s just making more contact nowadays.

Chase Headley plate discipline

Headley’s swing rate on pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%) was actually a career low last season, so no, the career-low walk rate was not the result of chasing more pitches. His contact rate, both overall (Contact%) and on pitches in the zone (Z-Contact%) were the highest they’ve been in years, so he was putting the ball in play more often. When you put the ball in play, you don’t walk or strike out as much.

The problem was the quality of Headley’s contact wasn’t great last summer. His 27.8% hard contact rate exactly matched the league average in 2015, but it was down from the 35.6% hard contact rate he posted from 2012-14. The real problem: Headley’s soft contact rate was 17.4%, which is still better than the league average (18.6%), but was way up from is 12.6% soft contact rate from 2012-14. (He had a 35.3% hard contact rate and a 12.2% soft contact rate from 2013-14, if you want to remove his career year.)

As with his throwing and defense, 2015 was an outlier for Headley offensively compared to his recent seasons. Maybe it was an adjustment year? A year ago at this time we were all talking about Brian McCann possibly rebounding after his adjustment period. Yeah, Headley spent some time with the Yankees in 2014, but not that much time. Who knows. You can’t rule anything out when trying to figure out how a player will perform going forward.

* * *

My guess is Headley rebounds with the glove but not so much with the bat this year. Perhaps he can get back to being a league average-ish hitter. I’m not sure will happen without the power though. I can’t say I’m supremely confident, but I do feel pretty good about Headley bouncing back on defense. He’s worked hard at it, he looks okay in camp, and his track record is pretty long. Like I said, this is a good defender who had a bad year, not a true talent bad defender. I think the glovework will be there, and the Yankees are going to need it to be there, because they don’t have any great alternatives.