Carpenter & Bailey: Veteran righties who didn’t provide depth [2015 Season Review]

Last offseason the Yankees remade almost their entire bullpen. In fact, the only reliever who was in both the 2014 and 2015 Opening Day bullpens was Dellin Betances. Everyone else had been replaced. (Adam Warren was another bullpen holdover, but he moved into the rotation.) Bullpen turnover is not uncommon and the Yankees went through a lot of it last winter.

One of the new bullpen additions was right-hander David Carpenter, who came over from the Braves with Chasen Shreve in the Manny Banuelos trade. Carpenter had been one of Craig Kimbrel’s primary setup men in recent years and was expected to fill a similar role in 2015. Fellow righty Andrew Bailey also re-upped with the Yankees last winter as he continued to rehab from shoulder surgery. Neither player contributed much this season.

Carpenter. (Presswire)
Carpenter. (Presswire)

When Good Relievers Go Bad

From 2013-14, Carpenter pitched to a 2.63 ERA (2.88 FIP) in 126.2 innings for Atlanta. He missed bats (27.4 K%), he limited walks (7.0 BB%), and he threw hard (95.3 mph). Carpenter was pretty much everything the Yankees look for in a reliever. That he came with three years of team control as an arbitration-eligible player was icing on the cake.

Carpenter never did come close to repeating that success with the Yankees. After starting the year with four mostly low-leverage appearances — because the Yankees lost a lot the first week of the season — Carpenter was asked to protect a one-run lead in the sixth inning against the Orioles on April 15th. He gave up a game-tying home run on his second pitch and was ultimately charged with three runs in one-third of an inning.

Just like that, Carpenter fell out of the Circle of Trust™. Joe Girardi had Andrew Miller and Betances in the late innings, and both Shreve and Justin Wilson were pitching well, so Carpenter was relegated to very low-leverage work. Here are the game situations when he entered his next ten appearances following the meltdown in Baltimore:

eighth inning, Yankees up nine
eighth inning up nine
seventh inning up two
seventh inning tied
eighth inning up three
nine inning up six
sixth inning down four
eighth inning up five
sixth inning up five
sixth inning down three

Not many important innings in there. Even in that third appearance, when he entered with the Yankees up two in the seventh, Carpenter was only asked to get one out. Carpenter allowed eight runs (seven earned) on ten hits and three walks in 6.2 innings spanning seven appearances in mid-May, at which point he had really fallen out of favor.

The Yankees didn’t want to cut Carpenter loose so early in the season — after all, he was pretty good from 2013-14 and they controlled him through 2017 — so they stuck with him. Girardi gave Carpenter plenty of work too. He appeared in nine of 17 games at one point in late-May/early-June. The Yankees kept running him out there hoping something would click.

The final straw came on June 2nd, when Carpenter was brought into the sixth inning of a tie game against the Mariners. Seattle had runners at the corners with two outs, and all Carpenter had to do was retire Austin Jackson, who ultimately hit .259/.299/.358 (83 wRC+) against righties in 2015. Carpenter got ahead in the count 1-2 but couldn’t put Jackson away, eventually allowing a go-ahead double.

The Yankees designated Carpenter for assignment the next day, opting to keep Jacob Lindgren on the roster when Masahiro Tanaka came off the DL. Carpenter finished his stint in pinstripes with a 4.82 ERA (5.33 FIP) in 18.2 innings. He also allowed four of nine inherited runners to score. His strikeout rate (13.4%) was way down even though his velocity was mostly fine. Rather than factor into the end-game equation, Carpenter was a big liability for the 2015 Yankees.

A few days later the Yankees flipped Carpenter to the Nationals for infield prospect Tony Renda. Carpenter allowed one run in six innings across eight appearances for Washington before landing on the DL with a sore shoulder. He didn’t pitch again the rest of the season and the Nats outrighted him off the 40-man roster a few weeks ago. Carpenter elected free agency and recently signed a minor league deal with the Braves. Relievers, man.

The Return of Bailey

Over the last few years the Yankees have rolled the dice on injured relievers, rehabbing them to health while hoping they’d contribute down the line. They did this with Matt Daley and David Aardsma, though neither paid dividends. They tried it again with former All-Star Andrew Bailey.

Bailey. (Presswire)
Bailey. (Presswire)

The Yankees first signed Bailey to a minor league contract last offseason that included a club option for 2015 worth $2M or so. He never did pitch last year as he rehabbed from shoulder capsule surgery — Bailey suffered a few setbacks — so the Yankees declined the option and signed Bailey to a new minor league contract. This one included a $2.5M club option for 2016.

Bailey’s rehab progressed nicely, enough that he was able to pitch in Spring Training. He allowed four runs in 5.2 innings, but while the results stunk, the important thing is Bailey was healthy and actually pitching. It was progress. The Yankees had Bailey stay behind in Tampa to continue working his way back after Grapefruit League play ended. He made six appearances with High-A Tampa in April before suffering another setback.

It wasn’t until late-June that Bailey was healthy enough to pitch again. The Yankees took it very slow with him and let him climb the minor league ladder gradually. After some tune-up appearances in Tampa, Bailey spent a month with Double-A Trenton then another month with Triple-A Scranton. He finished the season with a 1.80 ERA (2.87 FIP) in 35 minor league innings.

The Yankees put Bailey through the grinder immediately before calling him up. They had him work back-to-back days, multiple innings, enter in the middle of an inning … the works. They really tested him with the RailRiders before bringing him up when rosters expanded. Bailey passed every test and joined the team in September. He made his first MLB appearance since 2013 on September 2nd, allowing a run on a hit and two walks in one-third of an inning against the Red Sox.

Bailey threw 12 strikes with his 22 pitches that afternoon and looked pretty amped up. I can’t say I blame him. Girardi continued to pick his spots with Bailey — remember, the Yankees were trying desperately to stay in the AL East race and later clinch a wildcard spot — which is why he entered eight of his ten appearances with the Yankees trailing. The other two where his first game (Yankees up by nine) and his ninth game (11th inning of a tie game).

With the bullpen taxed and the Yankees barely hanging on in the AL East race, Girardi turned to Bailey with the Yankees trailing by one in the seventh inning against the Blue Jays on September 23rd. It was a game they basically had to win to stay in the division race. Instead of keeping it close, Bailey served up a three-run home run to Russell Martin that all but crushed New York’s AL East hopes.

Bailey’s month in pinstripes featured a 5.19 ERA (6.48 FIP) in ten appearances and 8.2 innings. He also allowed three unearned runs (so eight runs total in 8.2 innings) and two of six inherited runners to score. Bailey had nearly as many walks (five) as strikeouts (six) despite a healthy 12.0% swing-and-miss rate. The Yankees really could have used another reliable bullpener down the stretch and Bailey had the pedigree, but it didn’t happen.

As expected, the Yankees declined Bailey’s $2.5M option after the season. They could have held on to him as an arbitration-eligible player, but instead outrighted him off the 40-man roster because space is tight. Bailey elected free agency rather than accept the assignment, and he is currently a free agent. Like Daley and Aardsma, the Yankees didn’t invest much in Bailey, but they didn’t get much of a return either.

Rogers & Capuano: The Long Men [2015 Season Review]

We were spoiled by Adam Warren two years ago. Warren, who at that point had just one start’s worth of MLB experience, stepped into the long man role in 2013 and gave the Yankees a 3.39 ERA (4.32 FIP) in 77 innings. By long man standards, that’s as good as it gets. The long man is typically the last guy in the bullpen, there out of necessity rather than luxury.

The Yankees had two different long men at two different times this year. Well, they actually had more than two long relievers — Warren filled the role himself for a little while — but they had two main guys and neither was very good. That’s usually how this long man thing goes. Esmil Rogers started the season as the long reliever before giving way to Chris Capuano. The Yankees ended up cutting both. Multiple times too.

Rogers. (Presswire)
Rogers. (Presswire)

Call Me Esmil

Remember back in Spring Training when Rogers was considered a rotation candidate? Good times. He actually competed with Warren for the fifth starter’s spot after Capuano hurt his quad covering first base. Rogers pitched decently in camp — he had a 2.35 ERA with 16 strikeouts and four walks in 15.1 innings — but was never a serious rotation candidate, so come Opening Day, he was in the bullpen.

The Yankees were still easing their starters into things in April, so Rogers saw a lot of work early in the season. He struck out the only batter he faced on Opening Day, then, three days later, he allowed one run in 2.1 innings against the Blue Jays. An Edwin Encarnacion solo homer was the only base-runner Rogers allowed. He threw 35 pitches that night.

The next night was that ugly 19-inning marathon loss to the Red Sox. The Yankees ran out of pitchers in the 15th inning, so even though Rogers threw those 35 pitches the night before, Joe Girardi had no choice but to turn to him again. Rogers ended up taking the loss after throwing 81 pitches (!) in 4.2 innings. He allowed three runs (two earned) on six hits and a walk while striking out four. Rogers took the loss but deserves respect for his effort those two days.

Girardi gave Rogers a week off after throwing 35 and 81 pitches on back-to-back days, and for a while he pitched really well. He allowed one run on four hits and three walks in nine innings across his next four outings, striking out ten. That includes 2.2 scoreless innings on April 28th, when the rest of the bullpen was taxed. Girardi used Rogers to get the ball from Chase Whitley to Chris Martin, who recorded the save.

Rogers threw 15.1 innings in April, the sixth most on the team behind the five starters. He was pretty effective too (2.35 ERA and 3.53 FIP), at least by long man standards. Then it all came crashing down in May. Rogers allowed 15 runs on 21 hits and ten walks in 15.2 innings in May, including seven runs in three innings against the Rangers on May 23rd. He then allowed nine runs in two innings in his first two appearances of May.

At one point Rogers allowed 17 runs (14 earned) on 16 hits and four walks in seven innings across five appearances. The Yankees were starting to get healthy in early-June, which means they needed roster spots, so Rogers was cut loose. He was designated for assignment on June 15th, accepted an assignment to Triple-A Scranton a few days later, and made two starts with the RailRiders before being brought back to the big leagues a few weeks later.

Rogers never did pitch in his second stint with the Yankees this summer. The team needed a just in case arm and he sat in the bullpen for three days before being dropped from the roster and sent back to Triple-A. Rogers made five more starts with Triple-A Scranton before working out a deal with the Hanwha Eagles in Korea. The Yankees released him in early August so he could head to Asia.

All told, Rogers pitched to a 6.27 ERA (4.68 FIP) in 33 innings across 18 appearances for the Yankees this year. He had a 3.38 ERA (2.67 FIP) in seven starts and 34.2 innings for Triple-A Scranton as well. The Hanwha Eagles? Rogers had a 3.09 ERA in ten starts and 75.2 innings after leaving for Korea. He struck out 60, walked 20, and threw three complete-game shutouts with Hanwha.

The Yankees always liked Rogers because he throws hard, has a decent slider, and has a resilient arm capable of handling big workloads. For a while this past season he was useful, but the wheels fell off and Rogers didn’t finish the season in the organization. He’s a free agent right now and Yakyu Baka recently passed along a report saying the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan — Masahiro Tanaka‘s former team — are interested in signing Esmil.

Capuano. (Presswire)
Capuano. (Presswire)

Capuano, Again and Again and Again and Again

It is truly amazing how Capuano kept resurfacing this season. The Yankees signed him for rotation depth, then he got hurt in camp, and once he returned he was so bad in three starts (eleven runs in 12.2 innings) the team moved him into the bullpen, where he effectively replaced Rogers as the long man.

Capuano didn’t pitch any better in long relief — 7.24 ERA (4.89 FIP) in 27.1 innings across 18 appearances — and he did make one spot start against the Rangers, which was a disaster. He allowed five runs on three hits and five walks in two-thirds of an inning. Somehow that was only the team’s second worst start of the year. (Capuano can thank Nathan Eovaldi‘s disaster in Miami for that.)

Fun fact: the Yankees won that game by 16 runs (box score).

When it was all said and done, Capuano finished the season with a 7.97 ERA (5.03 FIP) in 40.2 innings spread across four starts and those 18 relief appearances. He also made six starts with Triple-A Scranton. Obviously Capuano was awful, but his transactions log is remarkable. The Yankees designated Capuano for assignment four times (!) this summer, but ended up bring him back each time. Here’s the list of moves:

May 17th: Activated off 15-day DL (quad injury in Spring Training)
July 29th: Designated for assignment (outrighted to Triple-A Scranton on July 31st)
August 12th: Called up
August 15th: Designated for assignment (outrighted on August 17th)
August 18th: Called up
August 22nd: Designated for assignment
August 24th: Yankees re-sign and add Capuano to 25-man roster after he elects free agency
August 26th: Designated for assignment (outrighted August 28th)
September 7th: Called up

So from July 29th through September 7th, a span of 41 days, Capuano was designated for assignment and re-added to the roster four times. He spent 23 days on the active roster during that stretch and appeared in only two games, throwing two innings on August 20th and another two innings on August 25th.

It’s not a good thing when your season is more notable for the number of times you were designated for assignment rather than, you know, your pitching. Capuano, like Rogers, was not good this past season and he’s now a free agent. He turned 37 in August and chances are he’ll have to settle for a minor league contract this offseason, if he finds an offer at all. The end for complementary players is rarely pretty.

Ryan & Jones: The Necessary Bench Players [2015 Season Review]

Acquiring decent bench players has always been difficult for the Yankees. First and foremost, bench players are like relievers. They tend to be good one year and terrible the next. Secondly, the good ones who hit free agency never want to sign with New York because they know they’ll be stuck behind someone with a big name or a big contract or both. Players want to play. The Yankees over the years haven’t been able to promise much playing time to bench guys.

So the Yankees have instead had to grow their own bench players. Either that or acquire them in trades, which is how they ended up with Brendan Ryan and Garrett Jones. Ryan came over in a trade with the Mariners in September 2013 before taking a two-year contract to be Derek Jeter‘s caddy. Jones was part of last offseason’s Martin PradoNathan Eovaldi swap. Both were part of the 2015 bench. For at least part of the season, anyway.

Ryan. (Presswire)
Ryan. (Presswire)

The Utility Infielder, Because You Need One

For the second straight year, Ryan was not healthy enough to be on the Opening Day roster. He had an ongoing back problem in Spring Training, then, once his back was healthy, he strained his calf making a play in the field during a Grapefruit League game. That landed him on the 15-day DL and eventually the 60-day DL. (Ryan was transferred to the 60-day DL to make 40-man roster room for Jacob Lindgren in late-May.)

Eventually Ryan got healthy. He played in some minor league rehab games — that was his Spring Training, basically — before being activated off the DL on June 10th. Ryan made his season debut that day and, naturally, went 2-for-3 with a triple. He reached base three times in the game overall.

Ryan’s return lasted less than two weeks. He appeared in six games over the next eleven days — he started three of them and went 4-for-13 (.308) overall — before returning to the 15-day DL with another back injury on June 22nd.

It wasn’t until after the All-Star break that Ryan returned to the Yankees. He played sparingly the rest of July though did finish the month very well. Ryan went 6-for-16 (.375) with three doubles and a triple in the span of three games at the end of the month. That includes a 2-for-6 with two doubles night in that 21-5 blowout win over the Rangers.

Of course the offense wasn’t going to last though. Ryan has never been much of a hitter and one of those doubles that night looked like this:

That, ladies and gents, is some good ol’ fashioned BABIP luck. It happens.

Ryan stayed healthy the rest of the season but was just awful at the plate. He had four hits in August. Four. Four hits in 35 at-bats (.114) spread across 17 games, including ten starts. A seven-hit September followed. For a while Joe Girardi used Ryan in a straight platoon with Stephen Drew, and, to Ryan’s credit, he did hit .283/.321/.453 (109 wRC+) against southpaws this summer.

All told, Ryan hit .229/.275/.333 (64 wRC+) with a 28.2% strikeout rate and a 4.9% walk rate in 103 plate appearances this past season. He did not hit a home run or steal a base, and 53 of those plate appearances came against lefties. Believe it or not, the 64 wRC+ represents Ryan’s best offensive season since 2011 with the Mariners (84 wRC+).

Ryan makes his living in the field, not at the plate. The defensive stats say he was a below-average defender this summer but it’s hard to take them seriously. He played 261.67 innings in the field. That’s slightly more than 29 full games. The eye test told me Ryan is still really good in the field. He can still do stuff like this:

For the most part Ryan played the middle infield and third base. He also dabbled at first and even spent a few innings in right field. Heck, Ryan threw not one, but two (!) scoreless innings in a blowout loss to the Astros on August 25th. He threw 20 of 28 pitches for strikes and even got a swing-and-miss. What a time to be alive.

As expected, Ryan exercised his $1M player option shortly after the end of the World Series. I suppose the Yankees could look around for an upgrade — Cliff Pennington just signed a two-year contract worth $3.75M, if you’re wondering what backup infielders are going for on the open market — but I consider it a low priority. Utility infielders typically aren’t very good. Ryan still plays strong defense, he’s cheap, and he’s an A+ clubhouse dude. I’m not sure what more you could want from a position that is lucky to crack 150 plate appearances in a season.

(Presswire)
G.I. Jones. (Presswire)

The Perfect Fit That Wasn’t

Coming into this season there were a lot of questions about Carlos Beltran (offseason elbow surgery), Mark Teixeira (terrible second half), and Alex Rodriguez (suspended all of 2014). The Yankees didn’t really know what to expect from any of them. All three could have been at the end of the line.

So, to get themselves some protection, the Yankees acquired Jones in that five-player trade with the Marlins. Jones had experience playing right (Beltran) and first (Teixeira), and could also step in at DH (A-Rod). He provided depth at all three spots. The Yankees had been after Jones for years — they first tried to get him from the Pirates in the A.J. Burnett trade — and they finally got him last winter.

Once it became clear A-Rod and Teixeira still had something left in the tank, it was very hard for Jones to get playing time. He appeared in only 18 of the team’s first 41 games, starting just eight of them. Jones went 6-for-40 (.150) with one walks and eleven strikeouts in those 41 team games. It wasn’t until May 22nd that he hit his first home run. The next day he pitched in a blowout loss.

Jones actually got into a bit of a groove in late-May, going 11-for-25 (.440) with three home runs in the span of 13 team games. The biggest of those three home runs — and Jones’ most notable moment as a Yankee — was a game-winning three run homer in extra innings against the Mariners on June 2nd.

That was a huge hit at the time. The Yankees had lost 13 of their last 19 games and needed someone, anyone, to come through with a huge hit. And that was it. Jones came through. The homer earned him another start the next day and Jones went deep again. It looked like he was finally going to contribute.

It didn’t last though. Jones went back to playing sporadically and eventually the Yankees cut him loose at the end of July. They acquired Dustin Ackley to effectively replace Jones. Ackley could play right field and first base like Jones, as well as fill-in at second base. Plus he’s seven years younger. It made sense. It seemed like a small upgrade at the time but it was an upgrade nonetheless.

The Yankees cut Jones loose, then, after Ackley hurt his back a few days after the trade, the Yankees ended up re-signing Jones to fill his old roster spot. The timing was a bit awkward, I’d say. Ackley missed the entire month of August but Jones never did get appear in another game with the Yankees. He remained with the team for another two and a half weeks or so, then was designated for assignment when Greg Bird got called up.

Jones was unable to hook on with another team after that. I thought maybe someone would pick him up as a lefty power bench bat once rosters expanded in September, but it didn’t happen. All told, Jones hit .215/.257/.361 (65 wRC+) with five home runs in 152 plate appearances spread across 57 games with New York. He played 24 games in right field, 21 at first base, four at DH, four in left field, plus one on the mound. And he pinch-hit a few times.

On paper, Jones was a great fit for the 2015 Yankees. He gave them some protection at first base, right field, and DH, three positions with questions, and his left-handed power looked like a perfect match for Yankee Stadium‘s short right field porch. It didn’t work out. That’s baseball. The Yankees paid Jones $5M this season and he’s a free agent. No reason to think he’ll be back next year.

Brett Gardner and the Tale of Two Seasons [2015 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees had a lot of players coming into the season with health and performance concerns, and Brett Gardner was no exception. The team’s longest tenured non-A-Rod player played through an abdominal injury in the second half last year, an injury so bad it required offseason surgery. The surgery came with a four-week recovery time and Gardner was 100% come Spring Training.

With Derek Jeter retired, Gardner was certain to hit near the top of the lineup in 2015 after being the club’s best offensive player a year ago. (His 111 wRC+ led guys who were with the Yankees for all of 2014.) Whether he hit leadoff or second really didn’t matter. Gardner was one of the team’s best hitters and there was now a clear path to at-bats at the top of the order, which was a step in the right direction for an offense in need of help.

A Normal Spring

Abdominal injuries — Gardner had surgery to repair a core muscle near his ribs, specifically — are a pretty big deal in baseball. In all sports, really. Hitting and throwing requires a lot of quick-twitch movements. Gardner had no physical problems in camp but he didn’t hit at all: .186/.294/.220 with 16 strikeouts in 22 Grapefruit League games. Did anyone even mention that? I don’t remember that being talked about at all. Either way, Gardner was healthy and in the lineup come Opening Day, because duh.

An All-Star First Half

When the season started, Joe Girardi opted to use Jacoby Ellsbury at leadoff and Gardner as his No. 2 hitter. There was really no bad way to order them as far as I was concerned. As long as those two hit in the top two spots of the lineup, the Yankees were good. The first of the team’s 764 runs in 2015 came on Opening Day, on Gardner’s sixth inning solo home run.

That was the only run the Yankees scored in the Opening Day loss to the Blue Jays. Gardner nearly went deep in the first inning too, but Jose Bautista made a nice jumping catch at the wall. Here’s the video.

The Opening Day home run was the start of an outstanding first half for Gardner. He basically never slumped. Only four times in the first half did Gardner go back-to-back games without a hit and he never once went three straight games without a hit. He started the season by reaching base in each of his first eleven games and in 31 of his first 32 games. From April 18th through May 15th, a span of 25 games, Gardner reached base 40 times.

During his best hot streak of the season, an eleven-game stretch in late-June, Gardner went 25-for-50 (.500) with seven doubles, a triple, and four home runs. That’s a .500/.545/.920 (300 wRC+) batting line. It’s both an extremely small sample and cool as hell. The performance helped earn Gardner a spot on the AL All-Star Final Vote ballot, though he was later named to the All-Star Team as an injury replacement for Alex Gordon.

Gardner went 3-for-5 with a home run that afternoon. He came off the bench in the All-Star Game in Cincinnati and went 0-for-2 with two strikeouts against Clayton Kershaw and Mark Melancon, his former teammate at several levels. He also played one inning in left field and three in center.

Gardner finished the first half with a .302/.377/.484 (137 wRC+) batting line. He had ten homers and 15 stolen bases, making him the only AL player with 10+ homers and 15+ steals at the break. Also, Mike Trout (179 wRC+), Nelson Cruz (154 wRC+), J.D. Martinez (146 wRC+), and Bautista (138 wRC+) were the only AL outfielders with better offensive production in the first half. Gardner was a monster. The Yankees scored a lot of runs in the first half and he was a huge reason why.

A Disaster Second Half

Believe it or not, Gardner started the second half fairly well, going 10-for-39 (.256) with a homer and more walks (nine) than strikeouts (eight) in his first eleven games after the break. It all collapsed from there. Gardner put up a .208/.304/.257 (60 wRC+) line in August then a .198/.271/.321 (62 wRC+) line in September (and October). Ice cold like too many of his teammates.

Gardner hit six home runs in the second half and three of them came on the same day. The Yankees played a doubleheader against the Blue Jays on September 12th, and Gardner went 4-for-9 with three homers and a walk on the day. He drove in seven of their 12 runs in the doubleheader.

The overall numbers are ugly. Gardner hit .206/.300/.292 (66 wRC+) in the second half, dragging his overall season slash line down to a still respectable .259/.343/.399 (105 wRC+). He stole 15 bases (18 attempts) in the first half and only five (seven attempts) in the second half. Brett was two totally different players in 2015. He was unbelievable in the first half. Legitimately one of the most productive outfielders in baseball. Then, in the second half, he ranked 145th out of 156 qualified hitters with that 66 wRC+.

Gardner started the wildcard game in the leadoff spot — Ellsbury was benched against Dallas Keuchel in favor of lefty masher Chris Young — and went 0-for-4 with three ugly strikeouts. He grounded out in the eighth inning and heard loud boos from the Yankee Stadium crowd, which was dumb, but whatever. Fans were frustrated. The Yankees went from leading the AL East (by seven games!) to barely hanging on to a wildcard spot and Gardner’s disaster second half was a huge factor.

Before & After

Something changed this season. There has to be an explanation for Gardner going from great in the first half to a replacement level in the second half. Realistically, his true talent is somewhere in between the two halves. In fact, it’s right where he finished the season. Gardner hit .259/.343/.399 (105 wRC+) in 2015 after hitting .267/.350/.397 (108 wRC+) as an everyday player from 2010-14, so yeah.

The easy way out would be to blame it on simple regression. He was so insanely hot in the first half and then the other shoe dropped, bringing his numbers where they belonged. That is … unsatisfying. For instance, we know Gardner had some kind of wrist injury this year. We don’t know how much it affected his performance, but it would be silly to ignore it. Wrist injuries are kind of a big deal.

We know the raw stats, the 137 wRC+ in the first half followed by the 66 wRC+ in the second half. Let’s look at some batted ball data to see if anything else was going on.

Brett Gardner batted ball

Gardner hit considerably more fly balls in the second half than he did in the first half, which at least somewhat explains going from a .363 BABIP to a .247 BABIP. Fly balls are bad for BABIP business.

Even worse for BABIP business: not hitting the ball hard. Gardner’s hard contact rate fell big time after the All-Star break — he had a 27.5% hard contact rate from 2013-14, so his first half number isn’t unusual, but his second half number is way down — and that’s another BABIP killer. Unless you can expertly place the ball like peak Ichiro Suzuki, less hard contact generally leads to fewer hits. The wrist could be one possible explanation.

Gardner’s spray rates didn’t change much. He’s always been pretty good at hitting to all fields and in the second half he hit some more balls back up the middle rather than the other way to left field. That’s not really a huge deal in my opinion. Had Gardner suddenly started pulling like 50% of his balls in play, that would be a red flag. There’s only a slight change. No biggie.

More fly balls and less hard contact is a really good way to reduce offensive production. I can’t explain why it happened — I’m not even sure Gardner and the Yankees can explain it right now — but it happened. It would be nice if the wrist was behind all this, that way we could point to an injury and simply wait for it to heal. Injuries are a pretty good excuse most of the time.

It could also be that Gardner wore himself down in the first half. He has a history of being better in the first half — career 115 wRC+ before the All-Star break and 88 wRC+ after — and a few reports this summer indicated the Yankees are concerned Gardner’s hard-nosed style of play causes him to wear down late in the season. That’s a plausible explanation too. It also could be Gardner was a mechanical mess and lost his swing. It happens.

My guess as to the cause of Gardner’s second half fade: everything. It was a little of everything. The wrist, being worn down, some swing issues, some poor ball-in-play luck, everything. This could all be connected too — the wrist injury led to bad hitting mechanics, etc. I don’t think Gardner is suddenly a true talent 66 wRC+ hitter. He didn’t forget how to hit during the All-Star break. Something happened and I don’t know what.

Looking Ahead to 2016

There have been more than a few Gardner trade rumors this winter — we know the Yankees have talked to the Mariners about him — and while that’s nothing new, it does seem like there is a bit more validity to them this year. He’s one of their few (only?) movable veteran players and the Yankees would be able to replace him internally after picking up Aaron Hicks. For now, Gardner remains the team’s starting left fielder. I think a trade is a very real possibility though.

The Ups and Downs of Masahiro Tanaka [2015 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last season Masahiro Tanaka was everything the Yankees hoped he would be after handing him a massive seven-year, $155M contract. He was one of the most dominant pitchers in the league, both in terms of traditional stats and advanced stats. Tanaka was selected to the All-Star Game and a candidate to start, and he was very much in the AL Cy Young conversation.

It all came to a crashing halt in late-June, when Tanaka felt a twinge in his elbow and missed three months with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. The rest and rehab protocol worked and Tanaka made two starts at the end of the season because why not? Additional rest wasn’t going to help, the doctors said. The Yankees didn’t want the elbow to give out, but, if it did, they wanted it to happen late in 2014 rather than early 2015.

The elbow injury lingered over Tanaka all summer in 2015. Every time he had a bad start — heck, every time he made a bad pitch — there were questions about the health of his elbow. It was unavoidable. The elbow stayed intact this past season, though Tanaka’s performance was not as excellent as his rookie season. He was occasionally good, occasionally bad, and mostly in between.

A Healthy Spring, Please

I still haven’t forgotten how I felt watching Tanaka’s first Grapefruit League start. I remember figuratively sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for him to throw a pitch, grab his elbow, and walk off the mound. It was gross. After the injury last season, it felt like only a matter of time until the elbow blew out for good.

That never happened. Tanaka went through Spring Training with no issues. He made four Grapefruit League starts plus one more in a minor league game, allowing five runs (four earned) in 14.2 innings. Tanaka struck out 13 and walked one. That is pretty damn good. That anxiousness watching him pitch and waiting for his elbow to give out still existed, but it started to fade, at least for me.

“I feel good that I was able to come through camp healthy, right now. So that being said, yeah, I am a bit relieved,” said Tanaka to reporters following his final spring start.

Four & Out

For the first time in six years, someone other than CC Sabathia started Opening Day for the Yankees. Joe Girardi & Co. tabbed Tanaka for the Opening Day start and it didn’t go well: five runs (four earned) in four innings against the Blue Jays. Tanaka struck out six and walked two. A two-run Edwin Encarnacion homer was the big blow.

Tanaka’s second start wasn’t much better. He allowed four runs (three earned) in five innings against the Red Sox, this time allowing a solo home run to Hanley Ramirez. Tanaka fanned four and struck out three. He walked five batters in his first two starts of 2015. It wasn’t until his sixth start last year that Tanaka walked his fifth batter of the season.

Needless to say, the back-to-back poor starts to open the season led to questions about Tanaka’s health and his effectiveness with a compromised elbow. They were absolutely fair questions to ask given the circumstances. Then, in his third start of the season, Tanaka manhandled the Rays, holding them to two hits in seven shutout innings. He struck out eight and walked none.

That was the Tanaka we saw for much of the first half last year. He recorded strikeouts on his fastball, slider, and splitter, pitched quickly and efficiency, and had the Rays completely off balance. When Tanaka is at his best, he’s totally unpredictable. He throws anything at any time.

Tanaka started again five days later and again pitched well, holding the Tigers to one run on three hits and two walks in 6.1 innings. So despite those rough first two starts, Tanaka owned a 3.22 ERA and held hitters to a .175/.236/.313 batting line in his first four starts. It was uneven — two bad starts, two great starts — but it was still early.

The Injury We Didn’t Expect

After those first four starts, Tanaka landed on the 15-day DL with a mild right forearm strain. He reportedly felt a little something down near his wrist, the Yankees sent him for tests, and shut him down. The plan was no throwing for 7-10 days, then a throwing program. There was no firm timetable for his return but Brian Cashman guessed it would be a month or so.

“Let’s conservatively just throw a month out there until we get him back in the rotation,” said the GM. “It could be sooner, but he’s a starter. You’ve got to build him back up. You shut him down. At the very least, 7-10 days of no throwing, and that’s the least, so it could be more. When he feels better, we’ll get him going. You get him on a throwing program, then you get him back on the mound as long as all that goes fine. Then he’s got to get his pitch count back up, get him back into rehab games. Because he’s a starter, it’s a little bit more time because of that.”

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees placed Tanaka on the 15-day DL on April 28th and he resumed throwing on May 7th. It wasn’t much — 50 throws at 60 feet — but it was something. The throwing program continued with no problems and Tanaka was able to make his first official minor league rehab start on May 21st, less than a month after getting hurt. He made another rehab start six days later and that was it. Two starts and he was back in the rotation.

It goes without saying everyone assumed the worst when Tanaka was first placed on the DL. That’s how it is with every injury. Guy pulls up lame running to first base? That’s a blown hammy he’ll be out six months. Outfielder crashes into the wall? That’s a separated shoulder we’ll see him next year. Pitcher goes down with a forearm injury? Schedule the Tommy John surgery. That Tanaka had the elbow trouble last year didn’t help matters.

Instead, the injury was nothing more than what the team said it was, a mild forearm strain. Tanaka was back in a month, as expected. It was curiously accordingly to plan. That’s … weird. It doesn’t usually happen like that.

Return of the Ace

Tanaka was as good as it gets after coming off the DL. He made his first start back on June 3rd and struck out nine Mariners in seven innings. They scored one run on three hits and no walks. Six days later he held the Nationals to one run in seven innings. He stuck out six and walked none. The run was a Bryce Harper solo homer which, you know, happens. Six days after that Tanaka allowed two runs in seven innings against the Marlins.

So, in his first three starts back from the injury, Tanaka allowed four runs on 17 hits in 21 innings. He walked no one. Literally zero walks against 21 strikeouts. Go back to his two starts before landing on the DL and Tanaka had allowed five runs on 22 hits and two walks in his previous 34.1 innings. The Yankees were scoring a boatload runs and the guy they effectively designated their ace before the season was pitching like an ace. It was wonderful.

Tanaka had back-to-back rough starts on June 21st and 27th, first allowing seven runs (five earned) in five innings against the Tigers, then allowing six runs in five innings against the Astros. He allowed three home runs in each start. The home runs were definitely a problem. Tanaka gave up some dingers last year but was giving them up even more often this past season. Even when he was pitching well, it seemed like he allowed one #obligatoryhomer per start.

The two bad starts were just that, two bad starts. They didn’t lead to a DL stint or an extended slump. Tanaka rebounded from the back-to-back duds and pitched well pretty much the rest of the season. From that point on, he posted a 3.31 ERA (3.96 FIP) in 15 starts and 100.2 innings. Homers (1.34 HR/9 and 16.3 HR/FB%) were still a problem, but Tanaka was missing bats (21.3%), limiting walks (4.3%), and keeping the ball on the ground (48.1%).

The Blue Jays eventually passed the Yankees in the AL East, mostly because they won nine of 13 games against New York in the second half. Tanaka was pretty much the only starter the Yankees had who could put up a fight against the high-powered Toronto offense. He made three starts against the Blue Jays in the second half: 22 IP, 12 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 20 K. That includes a complete game win on August 15th.

Aside from missing a start in September because he felt a tug in his hamstring running out a bunt, Tanaka stayed healthy after returning from the forearm issue in June. The Yankees did whatever they could to ensure he had an extra day of rest whenever possible too. Tanaka made 24 starts in 2015 and only five came on normal rest. He had at least one extra day for the other 19 starts.

Three of those five starts with normal rest came in September, when the Yankees were fighting for the AL East title and later a wildcard spot. Tanaka was pitching well and they needed him out there as often as possible. Expanded rosters meant they had spot starter options if they wanted to give him extra rest, but they opted to use Tanaka on normal rest three times. They protected him all season then turned him loose when they needed him the most.

Tanaka finished the regular season with a 3.51 ERA (3.98 FIP) in 154 innings. He had great strikeout (22.8%) and walk (4.4%) numbers, a good grounder rate (47.0%), and awful homer rates (1.46 HR/9 and 16.9 HR/FB%). Eighty-nine pitchers threw at least 150 innings in 2014 and only eight allowed home runs at a greater rate than Tanaka. At the same time, he had the sixth lowest walk and second highest chase rate. Only Carlos Carrasco (38.7%) generated more swings on pitches out of the zone than Tanaka (38.6%).

The Yankees selected Tanaka to start the wildcard game because he was clearly the best option. The only viable alternative was Luis Severino, and that went out the window when he started on the penultimate day of the regular season. Tanaka allowed two runs — solo homers, of course — in five innings in the wildcard game loss. It wasn’t a great start by any means, but maybe score some runs? Tanaka wasn’t the reason the team’s season ended that night.

The Home Run Problem

Like I said, Tanaka gave up a lot of home runs this season. Twenty-five, in fact. Here is a breakdown of the dingers:

Solo homers: 19
Multi-run homers: 6 (five two-run, one three-run)
Homers at home: 17
Homers on the road: 8
Homers by a righty: 12
Homers by a lefty: 13
Average distance: 404.6 feet (31st longest in MLB among 125 pitchers with 10+ homers allowed)

Anecdotally, Tanaka gets away with a lot of mistake pitches, and I attribute that to his general unpredictability. We see hitters swing through a lot of hanging sliders and things like that, and that’s because they’re looking for splitters down in the dirt and get caught off guard.

At the same time, when hitters do catch up to one of Tanaka’s mistakes, they crush it. They don’t hit a line drive single or rip a ball into the gap. It goes over the fence. Here are the pitch types and locations of Tanaka’s 25 homers in 2015:

Masahiro Tanaka home run locations

That’s a lot of belt high pitches over the middle of the plate. Most of the homers came on some kind of fastball too, a four-seamer or cutter or sinker. There’s a few sliders and splitters in there but most are heaters.

Tanaka gave up a league average amount of homers last season (0.99 HR/9) and I think he’s always going to be homer prone. Hopefully not as homer prone as he was this past season, I’d rather him be closer to 2012, but Tanaka’s pitching style seems conducive to dingers. He doesn’t have a huge fastball and he throws so many offspeed pitches that he inevitably hangs a few. Yankee Stadium doesn’t help either.

The silver lining is Tanaka’s ability to limit base-runners. He actually led all AL pitchers (min. 150 IP) with a 0.994 WHIP — Dallas Keuchel was second at 1.017 — because he doesn’t walk anyone and he’s generally hard to hit. Tanaka held opponents to a .221 AVG and a .242 BABIP this year. (.240 AVG and .299 BABIP last year.) There’s a reason 19 of those 25 homers were solo shots. He doesn’t put many guys on base to start with. (He only hit one batter too.)

Before & After

A partially torn elbow ligament is a serious injury. Most of the time it leads to Tommy John surgery and it still might for Tanaka, but he made it through 2015 in one piece. Most pitchers who attempt to rehab the injury don’t even make it back on the mound. The rehab doesn’t work and they go under the knife before picking up a ball.

As soon as he returned to the mound last season, Tanaka was way ahead of the game. He was one of the exceptions and continues to be. Tanaka is looking more like Adam Wainwright, who pitched five years with a partially torn ligament before needing surgery, and Ervin Santana, who has been pitching with a partial tear for years now, than guys like Matt Harvey, Drew Hutchison, and Cory Luebke. Those guys got hurt, tried to rehab, then had surgery because the rehab didn’t take.

Now, that said, Tanaka’s elbow has physically changed. His elbow ligament has been compromised to a reportedly small degree, but compromised nonetheless. I spent a whole bunch of time clicking around on Brooks Baseball, so here’s some PitchFX data comparing pre-injury Tanaka to 2015 Tanaka.

Average Velocity

Masahiro Tanaka velocity

There was a time very early this season when Tanaka was leaning on his offspeed pitches, weirdly leading many to say he was protecting his elbow by not throwing fastballs. That seemed completely backwards. A pitcher worried about his elbow would throw more fastballs and fewer breaking balls, not vice versa. There has been all sorts of research showing breaking stuff is more hazardous to the elbow than heaters. It was … weird.

Anyway, Tanaka’s average velocities held pretty steady this year, includes his various fastballs and trademark splitter. In fact, his velocity improved this year. (He added almost three miles an hour to his curveball!) I was curious to see the velocity comparison and I’m relieved to see nothing that worries me. Next.

Pitch Selection

Masahiro Tanaka pitch selection

Woof. What a mess of a graph. Blame Tanaka for throwing so many different types of pitches. I wanted to looked at his game-by-game pitch selection graph to see what kind of changes Tanaka made this year. It’s going to change from start to start of course, but I wanted to see if there were any significant changes after the elbow injury and after the forearm injury this year.

Instead, it looks like Tanaka leaned heavily on his splitter and slider down the stretch, which is what I boxed out in the graph. He didn’t shelve his fastball, no pitcher can do that and succeed, but Tanaka really emphasized the slider and splitter late in the season. Again, that goes against what you’d expect from a pitcher with an elbow ligament issue. If he was worried about the elbow, you’d think the last thing he would do is throw so many splitters and sliders. Weird.

Anyway, there doesn’t appear to be any significant difference in Tanaka’s overall pitch selection after the elbow injury. I was looking to see if he scaled back on his splitter or stopped throwing his slider, something like that. That didn’t appear to be the case while watching Tanaka pitch this summer and the PitchFX data backs it up. Tanaka threw everything.

Release Point

Masahiro Tanaka vertical release pointTanaka’s release point gradually dropped as the season progressed. It dropped significantly in his fourth start of the season, the one prior to his DL stint, which I guess makes sense. But even after he returned, it gradually got lower and lower. The difference between April and September is about 4.5 inches.

It’s not unheard of for a pitcher’s arm to drop as the season progresses — everyone’s release point drops over time — and it’s mostly a fatigue thing. They get tired as the innings build up and they aren’t strong enough to keep the same arm slot. Tanaka has thrown a lot of innings in his career, and while he didn’t see his arm slot drop last season, we have to remember he missed almost the entire second half.

It is definitely possible the partially torn ligament contributed to Tanaka’s falling arm slot, though I don’t think we can say that with any certainty. It could be fatigue. Tanaka pitched only half a season last year and the Yankees gave him a ton of time off between starts this season. Maybe it was too much. I’m not really sure. I consider this a red flag because I’m not sure what else to consider it. Sweeping it under the rug seems wrong. Let’s see what happens next year.

Looking Ahead to 2016

Tanaka did indeed have elbow surgery after the season, but not Tommy John surgery. He had a bone spur removed from his elbow. Apparently it’s been in there since his time in Japan. Who knows how long that was bothering him this year. He’s not having the surgery just because. It didn’t bother him in the past but bothered him enough this year to have it taken out.

Anyway, Tanaka is expected to be ready in time for Spring Training and I’m sure the Yankees will treat him the same way next season. That means extra rest whenever possible — on paper, they have better rotation depth than they did last year, but who knows what things will look like in April and May — and another Opening Day start. Tanaka remains the team’s best starting pitcher.

The Many Errors of Chase Headley [2015 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last offseason the Yankees had exactly one infielder under contract. That was first baseman Mark Teixeira. They needed a new second baseman, a new shortstop, and a new third baseman. It was a clean slate, which is both good and scary. Having to rebuild three-fourths of an infield in one offseason is a lot of work.

The Yankees opted to re-sign Chase Headley to play third base. He provided strong two-way play after coming over at the trade deadline last summer — Headley hit .262/.371/.398 (122 wRC+) and played the hell out of the hot corner in 58 games — so they gave him a four-year deal worth $52M in mid-December. Headley reportedly turned down a $65M offer because he enjoyed his time in New York so much. His first full season in pinstripes didn’t go as well as his first half-season.

A Monster in Spring

As a team, the Yankees scored 1,283 runs from 2013-14, the fourth fewest in the AL. And, coming into 2015, there were major questions about the offense. Teixeira was coming off a brutal second half, Carlos Beltran had offseason elbow surgery, Brian McCann had a disappointing first year in New York, Alex Rodriguez … gosh, who knew what to expect from A-Rod? Lots of questions.

Headley, who turned 31 in May, had a history of being an average or better hitter. No one expected him to repeat his monster 2012 season (31 homers and a 145 wRC+) but league average output built more on OBP than power was a reasonable expectation given his track record. Then Headley absolutely mashed in Spring Training, putting up a .305/.349/.543 line with five doubles and three homers in 21 games. At the time, it was easy to think he could step into the middle of the lineup should one of the other veterans falter.

A Streaky First Half

The first few weeks of the season were a bit weird for Headley. He went 15-for-59 (.254) in his first 15 games with five multi-hit games mixed in there. Headley also hit two homers in his first six games of the season, including this game-tying blast in the bottom of the ninth against the Red Sox on April 10th.

That was the 19-inning marathon loss, so the homer ultimately went for naught, but it was a pretty huge hit at the time. The Yankees struggled big time out of the gate — they lost four of their first five games, yuck — and Headley had a knack for big hits in the second half last year. He came through again that night.

The rest of Headley’s first half was really streaky. He’d be great for two weeks (.327/.382/.510 from May 16th to 30th), slump for two weeks (.212/.241/.250 from June 2nd to 16th), his power would disappear (24 games and 109 plate appearances between homers from May 26th to June 22nd), then reappear in a hurry (two homers in his next five games). Most players are streaky but Headley was really streaky in the first half.

Headley went into the All-Star break hitting .255/.310/.373 (87 wRC+) with eight homers, which was definitely below expectations. His walk rate (6.8%) was down compared to his career average (10.0%). And yet, when Jacoby Ellsbury got hurt, Headley stepped into the No. 2 spot in the lineup and hit .291/.340/.376 in the interim. That’s pretty good. It was an up and down first half and the Yankees were going to need more from their third baseman down the stretch.

Second Half Headley

Throughout his career, Headley has a history of being a better hitter after the All-Star break. He’s a career 102 wRC+ hitter in the first half and 122 wRC+ in the second half, so there was some reason to expect improved performance after the All-Star break.

Sure enough, Headley came out of the gate strong after the break, hitting .327/.407/.473 (145 wRC+) in 42 games and 167 plate appearances from the All-Star break through the end of August. He still wasn’t hitting for power (only two homers) but was doing pretty much everything else. Headley had his best game of the season on August 30th, going 3-for-3 with a double, a homer, and two walks in a blowout win over the Braves.

September was rough for Headley, as it was for many of his teammates. He hit .179/.252/.223 (23 wRC+) overall with a 28.5% strikeout rate, which is ghastly. Seemingly no one hit that final month, but geez, Headley was especially bad. He of course started the wildcard game — it was the first postseason game of Headley’s career — and went 0-for-2 with a walk.

All told, Headley put up a .259/.324/.369 (91 wRC+) batting line with eleven home runs, a 7.9% walk rate, and a 21.0% strikeout rate in 156 games and 642 plate appearances this season. The average and OBP are fine, you can live with that from a guy who spent the majority of the season batting sixth and seventh, but where was the power? Solid so-called clutch stats — .258/.324/.435 (108 wRC+) in high-leverage spots and .285/.350/.482 (124 wRC+) with runners in scoring position — helped offset that a bit.

The Disappearing Power

Outside of that huge 2012 season, Headley’s never really been a power hitter throughout his career. Obviously spacious Petco Park had something to do with that, but, even on the road, Headley only mustered a .158 ISO as an everyday player with San Diego from 2009 through the trade in 2014. That’s more or less league average.

This year though, Headley hit only those eleven homers, his lowest total in four years, and had a career low .110 ISO. That’s in hitter friendly Yankee Stadium, remember. Headley’s a switch-hitter who was better against lefties (104 wRC+) than righties (86 wRC+), and there was no significant difference between his home (six homers and .110 ISO) and road (five homers and .111 ISO) power numbers.

We only have one year of exit velocity data right now, so that won’t help us much. Quality of contact data from Baseball Info Solutions, which is recorded by human stringers and inherently includes some scorer bias, will have to serve as a substitute. Here’s is Headley’s batted ball data since becoming an everyday player:

Chase Headley batted ball

The first thing that jumped out to me was the spike in infield pop-up rate. Headley’s IFFB% from 2010-14 was well below the league average (~9.5%). Infield pop-ups are usually just misses, unless you’re talking about an old school power dude with an uppercut swing, like Teixeira or Adam Dunn.

Furthermore, Headley’s ground ball rate didn’t spike this year. If he had suddenly started beating the ball into the ground, then it would explain where his power went. Ground balls don’t go for extra base hits all that often. The spikes in soft contact and hard contact rates are indeed huge, and yet, the league averages this year were 18.6 Soft% and 28.6 Hard%. Headley’s rates this season were out of line with his previous seasons but not the league averages.

Of course, Headley is a switch-hitter, and those numbers lump his left and right-handed swings together. Since he did damage against southpaws this summer, let’s focus on his lefty production. Here are three left-handed spray charts. From left to right you have Headley’s 2013, 2014, and 2015 seasons. I recommend clicking the image for a larger view.

Chase Headley 2013-15 spray charts

Headley, like many left-handed hitters, tends to pull his ground balls to the right side of the infield, which is why he gets shifted. This past season he hit way more line drives (the yellow dots) to left field as a left-handed hitter than he did in 2013 or 2014. It’s been a gradual progress — some liners to left in 2013, more in 2014, then even more in 2015.

That’s a good thing! Line drives to all fields are pretty cool. The problem is the lack of line drives beyond the middle of the outfield. The 2013-14 spray charts show a bunch of yellow dots to the warning track/wall in left field. This season there was one. So all those liners to left were short line drives, which are not the kind of line drives that result in power.

The extra liners to left this year — again, this is as a left-handed batter only — could be a one year fluke. Weird stuff happens sometimes. It could also be the result of working with a new hitting coach and a change in approach. Headley could have intentionally being going to left to avoid all those frustrating shifts. It could also be that his bat has slowed and he can’t turn on pitches like he once did. That could also explain the just missed pop-ups.

I don’t think anyone is expecting Headley to hit 30+ homers. Maybe not even 20+. But eleven dingers for a guy who bats the majority of the time as a lefty in Yankee Stadium? I was expecting more. The sharp spike in pop-ups combined with all the additional balls to left field give me some hope it was mechanical — Headley was focused on going the other way, something he’s not really used to doing. That’s my hope, anyway.

The Disappearing Defense

Errors are a bad way to evaluate defense, but holy moly did Headley commit a lot of errors this summer. Twenty-three total, by far a new career high (previous career high: 13 back in 2010) and the fifth most in baseball behind Marcus Semien (35), Ian Desmond (27), Starlin Castro (24), and Brett Lawrie (24).

Twelve of those 23 errors were throwing errors and many of them came on routine plays, like this one:

I can’t imagine how many errors Teixeira saved Headley with scoops at first base too. Headley still made some truly outstanding plays this year though, so it’s not like he forgot how the field entirely. I mean, look:

The defensive tools are there. But the throwing miscues piled up this year, and when you watch him play — plus the fact most of the errors came on routine plays — it’s hard not to think the problems are mental. Just look at the release on the throwing error in the video a little while ago:

Chase Headley error

Headley’s tentative. He takes his time, steps into the throw — I count three steps between fielding the ball and the throw — swings his arm back, then the throw sails away. Headley made a ton of throws like that this year and, to be fair, most were on-line. But many more were off-line compared to what you’d expect from a big league third baseman.

Here’s Headley making a fairly routine play last year, for comparison:

Chase Headley 2014 throw

There’s conviction behind that throw. Headley fields the hop and throws a dart to first base in one nice and fluid motion. That’s how big leaguers are supposed to play third base. There was no thinking there. It was all reaction. That wasn’t the case this year.

For what it’s worth, the errors did not come as frequently later in the season. Headley committed a ridiculous 16 errors in his first 69 games at third base and only seven in his final 86 games. That’s still a lot though! This is a guy who committed eight errors total in 127 games last year.

To me, it doesn’t look like anything is physically wrong with Headley. He looks like a guy dealing with a mental block, or the yips if you prefer. This isn’t a severe Knoblauchian oh my gosh he can’t throw ever again case of the yips, but Headley struggled this year. He didn’t look sure of himself, and getting over the yips can be really tough. Lots can go wrong during that long throw from third base.

“I did the extra work, but it wasn’t one thing to look at. More than anything I had gotten to the point a little bit where I was getting caught in between,” said Headley about his throwing problems this summer. “Hopefully it’s behind me and hopefully it makes me mentally stronger.’’

Looking Ahead to 2016

Headley has three years left on his contract and even though he doesn’t have a no-trade clause, I have a hard time thinking the Yankees would trade him. Not because they wouldn’t be able to find a taker, but because there are almost no viable replacements available. The best free agent third baseman is David Freese — or Daniel Murphy, I suppose we should count him — and the Yankees don’t have anyone in the system ready to step in. Headley figures to be back next year and hopefully he gets over his throwing issues. Finding some power is a secondary concern to the throwing in my book.

The Revival of Carlos Beltran [2015 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Fresh off their worst offensive season in two decades, the Yankees went on a massive free agent spending spree during the 2013-14 offseason. They lost Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson but replaced them with Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran.

McCann filled an obvious need behind the plate. Ellsbury brought speed and defense to a station-to-station club. Beltran? Beltran was brought in to be an experienced middle of the order thumper. Year one with Beltran didn’t go well mostly due to injuries (shoulder, concussion, elbow). Year two was mostly positive despite a miserable start.

A Healthy Spring

Soon after the end of the 2014 season, Beltran underwent surgery to remove bone chips and shave a bone spur in his right (throwing) elbow. He played through the injury late last year and his performance suffered. The surgery came with a six-week rehab and a 12-week timetable for returning to baseball activity, which meant Beltran was ready to go in camp.

The elbow was a non-factor in Spring Training and the Yankees didn’t hold Beltran back. He played in Grapefruit League games right away, and not as a DH either. He played the outfield. The elbow was healthy enough to throw. “The thing is pain free,” said Beltran to reporters after his first spring game. “Now it’s time to continue to get better and put together good at-bats during all of Spring Training.”

All told, the 38-year-old Beltran hit .225/.289/.275 in 15 Grapefruit League games. He had seven singles and two doubles, four walks and nine strikeouts. It wasn’t a great Spring Training statistically, and yeah, after elbow surgery it would have been reassuring to see Beltran rake, but the most important thing was his health. The elbow was sound and gave him zero problems.

A Bad Month, or the End of the Line?

Holy cow was Beltran bad early in the season. Players slump, I get that, and when players slump (or get hot) to start the season, it’s easy to read too much into it. But my gosh, Beltran wasn’t just not hitting, he looked awful in the process. He started the year in a 4-for-28 (.143) slump and Baseball Info Solutions data says he didn’t record his first hard-hit ball until the fourth game of the season. Beltran had three hard hit balls in his first seven games of 2015. Three!

In 18 April games, Beltran hit .162/.216/.265 (22 wRC+) with no homers and a 28.4% strikeout rate. The month started with a 2-for-20 (.100) slump and ended with a 2-for-22 (.091) slump. Joe Girardi dropped Beltran from the third spot in the lineup to the sixth spot two weeks into the season, and with Chris Young coming out of the gate hot, there were calls to bench Beltran outright.

Between the elbow surgery and his age, there were plenty of possible explanations for the early-season struggles. The Yankees stuck with Beltran even though he gave them plenty of reasons to make a change. “The important thing is that you continue to send him out there,” said Girardi at the end of the month, “and understand that he’s going to turn it around and be a big part of our offense.”

A New Month, A New Season

The end of Beltran’s early season slump coincides perfectly with the end of April. He went 2-for-4 with a double on May 1st, then went 2-for-4 with a double in his next game. Another double followed the next day. On May 10th, in the team’s 32nd game of the season, Beltran finally hit his first home run of 2015. The game-tying solo homer was part of a 2-for-2 with two walks day.

Beltran hit another solo homer the next day. The back-to-back games with homers were games three and four of what turned into 15-game hit streak, the longest by a Yankees player this past season. Beltran went 19-for-56 (.339) with four doubles and three homers in the 15 games. It was still a little too early to say Beltran was “back” — I’m not sure we’d ever even seen the good version of Beltran up to that point anyway — but at least he was showing signs of life.

The hot streak never really ended. Beltran put up a .299/.346/.494 (129 wRC+) batting line with 13 doubles and seven homers in 48 games from May 1st through the end of June. He wasn’t drawing many walks (5.9%) but his strikeout rate was tiny (14.9%). At the time, the Yankees had a fearsome middle of the lineup. Alex Rodriguez was mashing, Mark Teixeira was hitting dingers, and Beltran had picked up his game. It was glorious.

A Bump in the Road

The Carlos Beltran is Back Baby tour hit a bump in the road in early-July. In Anaheim on June 30th, Beltran took a swing and hurt his left oblique. Girardi and the trainer checked on him and Beltran actually stayed in to finish the at-bat before being removed after the inning. Here’s the injury:

The Yankees were at the end of a seven-game West Coast swing and the injury was reportedly minor, so they gave Beltran a few days to see how he felt. He did not play the next day, in the series finale against the Angels, and the Yankees had an off-day the day after that. Beltran was able to swing left-handed but not right-handed, so on July 3rd, he was placed him on the 15-day DL with an oblique strain.

“It just puts you in somewhat of a difficult position. If we were to test it and make it worse, if we were to just have him hit left-handed, everyone would possibly bring in a reliever when it was his turn and then you’ve got to make a switch,” said Girardi. “We had concerns about him trying to throw, so we thought it was best to give him this time off — especially with the days off that we have and the All-Star break, we’re trying to take advantage of them.”

The timing worked out fairly well. Beltran officially spent 18 days on the DL but missed only 12 team games due to off-days and the All-Star break. He played in three tune-up rehab games with High-A Tampa during the break and rejoined the team early in the season half. Obliques can be tricky. They’re very easy to aggravate. All things considered, the Yankees and Beltran were fortunate this was only a minor issue.

The Second Half Non-Slump

The Yankees came out of the All-Star break with a 3.5-game lead in the AL East and it swelled to seven games by the end of July. That lead quickly evaporated in the second half and the team had to settle for a wildcard spot, mostly because several important members of the lineup slumped. Brett Gardner, Ellsbury, A-Rod, and McCann were the main culprits, and Teixeira’s injury didn’t help either.

Beltran was the team’s one veteran middle of the order guy who didn’t slump in the second half. He was their best and most consistent hitter after the All-Star break, at times carrying the offense. The Yankees went 4-7 during an eleven-game span in mid-August but not because of Beltran: he went 12-for-34 (.343) with five homers in the eleven games. He was a one-man army.

In Toronto on August 14th, Beltran delivered the biggest hit of the season and the biggest by a Yankee in about three years. They were trying to keep pace with the Blue Jays in the AL East and Beltran delivered a huge pinch-hit three-run go-ahead home run in the eighth inning. To the action footage:

Thanks to that home run, the win turned a half-game division deficit into a half-game lead. Yeah, the Yankees lost the AL East anyway, but man, that was a huge win at the time. It was a statement win. The Blue Jays had won eleven straight and were steamrolling their way to the top of the division, but Beltran knocked them back to Earth and reminded everyone hey, the Yankees are pretty good too.

After returning from the oblique injury, Beltran hit .292/.364/.513 (138 wRC+) with 16 doubles and 12 homers in 67 games. He drew walks (10.8%), he didn’t strike out (13.4%), and he picked up countless huge hits. (His 0.63 Clutch score ranked 21st out of 153 qualified hitters in the second half.) The offense sputtered big time down the stretch. There were too many unproductive bats in the lineup. Beltran was the constant. The one guy who didn’t slump. He was their only reliable bat down the stretch.

Beltran finished the season with a .276/.337/.471 (119 wRC+) batting line, a team-leading 34 doubles, and 19 home runs. He had good walk (8.6%) and strikeout (16.0%) rates, he mashed righties (127 wRC+), held his own against lefties (99 wRC+) — southpaws had given Beltran a real hard time in recent years, so getting league average production in 2015 was better than expected — and he produced in high-leverage spots (147 wRC+).

The Yankees had three hits total — all singles too — in the wildcard game and Beltran had one of them. He went 1-for-4 with two strikeouts against Dallas Keuchel and the Astros that night. Beltran struck out to start the 1-2-3 ninth inning. The Astros finished one game back of the Yankees for the top wildcard spot and the Angels finished only one game behind the Astros. Without second half Beltran, the Yankees might not have even made the postseason.

Give Something Back on Defense

The Yankees signed Beltran for his bat, plain and simple. Had A-Rod not had such a strong season, particularly a strong first half, chances are Beltran would have spent a lot more time at DH. He started 128 games this summer and 120 were as the right fielder. Beltran finished only 59 of those 120 games. He was routinely replaced in the late innings because his defense isn’t good at all.

The stats paint an ugly picture. He finished with -14 DRS (57th out of 60 qualified outfielders), -4.5 UZR (47th), and -2.0 dWAR (59th). The Inside Edge data says Beltran made nothing beyond a semi-routine play in right field:

Carlos Beltran Inside Edge

Beltran made the routine plays and plays in which he had to range a little, but, beyond that, he made literally zero plays. The Inside Edge classification show zero outs recorded on plays that are made 40-60% of the time by the league average right fielder. So yeah, it was bad. Beltran gave a lot of runs back with his defense, even while being regularly lifted in close games. His offense was so good after April that he still contributed 1.9 fWAR and 1.0 bWAR on the season.

Looking Ahead to 2016

Next season is the final season on Beltran’s three-year contract. He has a no-trade clause and has made it no secret throughout his career he wants to play for the Yankees, so getting him to waive it doesn’t figure to be easy. Perhaps he could be convinced another club gives him a better chance to win his first World Series ring, like maybe the Royals, the club that originally drafted and developed him.

Anyway, a Beltran trade would really surprise me. The Yankees want to get younger but they want to win too, and Beltran is one of their better hitters. Replacing him in the middle of the lineup would be quite tough. Beltran figures to open next season in right field again, and I’m sure the Yankees will have their eye on moving him to DH should Rodriguez get hurt at some point. The Yankees don’t have a whole lot of flexibility with Beltran.

“I will approach (2016) like I approach it every year,” said Beltran to Christian Red recently. “If it’s my last year, it’s my last year. If I win a World Series, thank God for that. I’m very blessed.”