Betting on a Bounce Back [2017 Season Preview]

(Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports)

On the heels of a relatively solid offensive season in which he posted a 109 wRC+ with 20 HR in just 426 PA, Matt Holliday has the look and feel of a hitter that can offer so much more. Some of this is undoubtedly based on his reputation (he was, by wRC+, a top-10 hitter as recently as 2013, and a top-30 hitter in 2014), as well as the hope that a healthy, more rested version of the 37-year-old will be more productive. There are several indicators that Holliday will improve relative to his 2016 season, or, at the very least, stall the effects of Father Time for one more year.

Batting Average on Balls in Play

What stands out the most among a slew of career-lows for Holliday may well be his .253 BABIP. Prior to 2016, Holliday had never posted a BABIP lower than .298, and his career norm sat at .335 (the same mark that he posted in 2015). Much of this can be explained away by career-high groundball rate and a career-low line drive percentage – but how much?

Attempts at calculating an accurate predictive version of xBABIP (expected BABIP) haven’t been all that great thus far, but the folks at FanGraphs keep on trying. Progress has certainly been made, and enough so that it isn’t entirely inane to plug-and-play with the latest and greatest in their formulas. Using the methodologies outlined in those three separate posts, we find that Holliday’s xBABIP ranged anywhere between .300 and .345 … which is a testament to how rough these equations are, but I digress.

If we take the low end of those samples and give Holliday a .300 BABIP for 2016 and treat all of the extra hits as singles, his numbers look significantly better (obviously). Instead of a .246/.322/.461 slash line with a 109 wRC+, he would’ve hit .281/.353/.484 with a 120-ish wRC+. All this for an extra nine or ten singles.

This is far from perfect analysis, to be sure, as the quirks and inconsistencies of xBABIP cannot be ignore – but it is demonstrative of the simple fact that a bit more favorable treatment from the luck dragon can change things dramatically.

Hitting the Ball Hard

As Mike pointed out when the signing was made official, Holliday hit the snot out of the ball in 2016. To wit:

[H]is hard contact rate (38.5%) was comfortably above the MLB average (31.4%) and his career average (35.6%). In fact, among the 375 players to put at least 100 balls in play this past season, Holliday had the third highest average exit velocity (94.7 mph). Only Nelson Cruz (95.9 mph) and Giancarlo Stanton (95.1 mph) were better. Miguel Cabrera (94.5 mph) was fourth. That is some good company. Also, according to Mike Petriello, Holliday put 42.5% of his balls in play at 100 mph or better, the fourth best rate in baseball. Exit velocity isn’t everything — it’s possible to hit a 100 mph pop-up, you know — but it’s not nothing either. Holliday can still strike the ball with authority.

A hard contact rate generally correlates with strong offense, with 19 of the top 30 posting a wRC+ of 120 or better in 2016, and all but one sitting above league-average. This is a normal split, going all the way back to 2010 (the first year for which we have this data). There are varying degrees of offensive prowess sprinkled throughout the list of the hardest-hitters in baseball, so it isn’t necessarily predictive of anything other than solid-average offense – but it’s a good sign nevertheless.

Statcast’s exit velocity tells a similar story. There are few bad hitters among those that hit the ball with authority, but there is little predictive value beyond that.

The Yankee Stadium Boost

Or, phrased differently, the promise of having a new home ballpark.

Holliday was significantly better away from Busch Stadium last season, batting .297/.363/.554 with 11 of his home runs coming on the road. His splits were relatively steady heading into 2016, so it’s possible that this was merely a one year blip. However, it’s also possible that a park that limits power (particularly right-handed power) finally began to catch up to an aging hitter. Yankee Stadium is much friendlier to all hitters, and will greatly benefit a slugger that drives the ball to all fields, like so:

plot_hc_spray

Power to all fields will play in any park, and Yankee Stadium is particularly advantageous for a hitter of Holliday’s caliber. And the fact that he still showed an all-fields approach with power in what amounted to the worst season of his career is certainly encouraging. So is the fact that all three of his Spring Training home runs have gone to the opposite field.

Rest, Rest, and Even More Rest

Holliday should not (and hopefully will not) have to play the field all that often this year, if at all. The Yankees have five players listed as outfielders on the 40-man roster, and that does not include Tyler Austin, Jorge Mateo, Rob Refsnyder, and Ronald Torreyes, all of whom could play out there in a pinch, nor does it include those outfielders that stand to open the season in Triple-A and could easily be added (Dustin Fowler, Clint Frazier, Jake Cave, etc). The depth at first base is strong, as well, albeit in a different manner, as probable back-up/platoon player Chris Carter could conceivably start for several teams.

Playing regularly at DH should help keep Holliday rested, and protect him from the nagging sort of injuries that have hampered his last two seasons. He has a bit of experience playing DH, for what it’s worth, batting .260/.340/.535 with 9 HR in 144 PA scattered across his career; such a small, spread out sample size may not mean much, but it lends a sliver of optimism that he can adjust to the routine of the position.


Two weeks ago, I discussed second-guessing the Matt Holliday signing due to the way the marketplace for designated hitters unfolded. That was never intended to be a question of Holliday’s potential, however, as I am a strong believer in his ability to have a strong season for the Yankees. The average DH had a 115 wRC+ last season, and he wasn’t all that far off in a down year. That should be well within reach for a mostly healthy Holliday, with a dash of luck.

Didi Gregorius is ready to help all the young shortstops in the Yankees’ farm system

(Sung Min Kim/River Avenue Blues)
(Sung Min Kim/River Ave. Blues)

A bit after the Netherlands-Israel World Baseball Classic match at the Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, a group of Taiwanese reporters flocked towards the Netherlands dugout as Didi Gregorius stepped outside of the dugout. As one of the reporters finished an interview, she giddily asked Gregorius for a selfie because she “wants to prove that she actually talked to him.” Gregorius easily obliged. He (and I) probably knew that the reporter probably wanted one with him regardless because he is Didi Gregorius, a young and rising figure who plays for the famed New York Yankees.

Gregorius spent the past week in Seoul as a member of the Kingdom of the Netherlands team for the 2017 World Baseball Classic. After one of the exhibition matches, Gregorius and several teammates went out and he posted on his Instagram stories a selfie of themselves at a shopping mall.

“I was just walking around,” he said. “You gotta experience everything when you’re in a different country. I’ve never been (in Korea) so you gotta walk around and see what they got.”

The Korean baseball fans — and many others who traveled to see the games in Seoul — however, got to see what Gregorius has to offer. Gregorius, after hitting a home run in his first Spring Training at-bat this year, did not seem to lose his power stroke in Pool A play of the World Baseball Classic. In three games and twelve at-bats, he has hit for a 1.083 OPS, hitting three doubles and knocking in three. One of the doubles, which came in the bottom of eighth in the game against Taiwan, tied the game up at five and Netherlands went on to walk-off in the ninth to clinch the second round trip to Tokyo.

Gregorius also barely missed a home run earlier in the game, as the ball hit the wall just a few feet shy of being in the seats. It might as well as been a home run in many other ballparks, as the Gocheok Sky Dome is rated below-average for home run rates. Last night, in the Tokyo Dome, Gregorius clobbered a big home run for the Netherlands:

However, Gregorius never looks for home runs when he steps into the box. He is aware of last year’s power surge and the expectations that came with it. But when asked if he changed his offseason training regimen to increase power, he immediately shook his head and gave a firm response.

“If I hit a home run, I hit a home run,” Gregorius said. “But I’m just trying to drive the ball, try to hit it gap to gap — left field line, right field line — I’m a line drive hitter. If they go out, they go out, but nothing’s going to change.”

Indeed Didi is a line drive hitter. He’s always had a line drive swing that Yankee scouts loved even when his bat did not play out for the Diamondbacks in 2014 (.226/.290/.363 in 299 PA). After hitting for a .276/.304/.447 line with 20 home runs with 70 RBI in 2016 while still displaying slick fielding ability, he’s established himself as one of the most fun AL shortstops to watch.

With the Team Netherlands, Didi is teammates with another young AL shortstop, Xander Bogaerts, whom Gregorius acknowledges is a better hitter “if you look at the numbers.” While they play for rival teams in the regular season, Gregorius and Bogaerts feel natural playing for a same squad.

“It does not feel weird to play with (Bogaerts) because I played with him when we were young,” Gregorius said. “It’s just fun because all people (on the team) are from back home representing Netherlands and Curacao. When we’re working together, we are a team. When we’re playing each other, we don’t know each other (laugh).”

Sure, the Red Sox may have a better-hitting shortstop right now, but the Yankees have some great shortstop talent in the minors that could impact the big league team in a few years. There’s of course Gleyber Torres and Jorge Mateo. Deeper down, there are Tyler Wade, Wilkerman Garcia, Kyle Holder, Hoy Jun Park, etc., all of whom signed as shortstops but could very well change positions in near future.

Despite the many shortstop talents in the system, Gregorius is not worried about his long-term outlook with the Yankees.

“I’m going to play my game,” Gregorius put it succinctly. “They are playing their game too. I cannot judge people on what they do and I cannot worry about it.”

Even if any of the younger talents land in the majors, Gregorius is planning to be an embracing “veteran.” “When we are on the team, we play together so there’s no competition between each other,” he said. “Why do I have look out for something that’s not even there right now? (To them) I’m a so-called veteran so they come to me and I pass along what A-Rod and all those guys taught me. I hope every young guy goes a long way because you want them to be successful.”

Gregorius, of course, was once in their shoes before. Breaking into the bigs in 2012, it took him until 2015 to be a solid regular and the work ethic that scouts raved about and guidance from older players took his play to the next level in 2016. Prior to that though, he has had to go back and forth between Triple-A and MLB in the both Reds and Diamondbacks systems. He is aware of the challenges of having to transition as an ML player and has the right intentions – guide them through the most crucial part of their career.

Not only Gregorius cares about the younger players, but also he has looked out for the fans during Pool A play of the World Baseball Classic. After Netherlands defeated Taiwan in a dramatic walk-off affair, he walked over to the Royal Diamond seats (the seats directly behind the home plate and by the dugouts in Gocheok) to sign each autographs for each fan and take selfies while his teammates had gone into the clubhouse to celebrate the win.

In each instance I have been around him, Gregorius is upbeat, smiling, not saying “no” to fans and generally being positive to whatever is in his sight. His positive attitude rings in his answer when asked what his 2017 goal is.

“Win a ring. That’s it,” he said. “We got a lot of talent and a lot of young guys coming up so wait for the season.”

All Rise for Aaron Judge [2017 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The first impression was as good as it gets. On the fourth pitch he saw as a big leaguer, Aaron Judge smoked a towering home run off the very top of the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar in center field at Yankee Stadium. The ball cleared the windows and very nearly made the seats. It was fun to see the power after reading all those scouting reports over the years.

The second impression wasn’t so good. In 94 plate appearances after that home run, Judge went 14-for-83 (.169) with three homers and 42 strikeouts before an oblique strain ended his season prematurely. Judge’s strikeouts were no surprise. He struck out a bunch in the minors and hey, a 6-foot-7 hitter has a pretty huge strike zone. Still, seeing a 44.2% strikeout rate in action is no fun.

Over the winter Judge went to work on his lower half and he came to Spring Training with a chance to win the right field job. Barring injury, it’s either Judge or Aaron Hicks, and I do believe this is a true competition, not one of those rigged ones we’ve seen over the years. So far this spring Judge has hit .310/.394/.586 with two homers and seven strikeouts in 33 plate appearances (21.2 K%), which is promising, but ultimately doesn’t mean much of anything.

There’s very little question the Yankees want Judge to be the right fielder of the future. Is he ready to be the right fielder of the present? My gut says the Yankees will indeed go with Judge over Hicks once the regular season rolls around, but what do I know. We’ll find out soon enough. Let’s preview Judge’s season, shall we? We shall.

What is an acceptable strikeout rate?

Well, that depends. It depends how much Judge produces when he does make contact. No, I don’t think there’s any way he can be productive with a 40-something-percent strikeout rate. The highest single-season strikeout rate in baseball history is 36.2% by current Yankee Chris Carter. He hit .223/.320/.451 (112 wRC+) with 29 homers in 585 plate appearances for the Astros that year.

Only six batters in history have struck out in one-third of their plate appearances while qualifying for the batting title, and two of the six failed to produce at a least average rate offensively:

  • 2013 Chris Carter: .223/.320/.451 (112 wRC+) with 29 homers and 36.2% strikeouts
  • 2010 Mark Reynolds: .198/.320/.433 (96 wRC+) with 32 homers and 35.4% strikeouts
  • 2012 Adam Dunn: .204/.333/.468 (115 wRC+) with 41 homers and 34.2% strikeouts
  • 2009 Mark Reynolds: .260/.349/.543 (127 wRC+) with 44 homers and 33.7% strikeouts
  • 1963 Dave Nicholson: .229/.319/.419 (111 wRC+) with 22 homers and 33.7% strikeouts
  • 2008 Mark Reynolds: .239/.320/.458 (97 wRC+) with 28 homers and 33.3% strikeouts

One of those things is not like the other. Anyway, there’s no precedent for an everyday player striking out as much as Judge did last year, mostly because you’d eventually get sent down or released if you struck out that much. Even the guys who struck out one-third of the time needed to hit for huge power and draw a ton of walks — 2008 Reynolds had the lowest walk rate among those six batters at 10.4% — to have value offensively.

Clearly, Judge needs to cut down on his strikeouts and both he and the Yankees know that. That’s why he continues to work on his hitting mechanics. He’s changed his leg kick however many times over the last two years, plus he’s changed his hand position as well. If Judge fails, it won’t be due to a lack of effort. He’s working with the hitting coaches all season and offseason and trying all different things. Being a 6-foot-7 hitter is hard.

Strikeouts around baseball have ticked up over the last few years, mostly because pitchers are throwing harder than ever before, and also because there are more specialized relievers. Here’s a quick plot showing wRC+ vs. K% for all hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title over the last five seasons:

wrc-vs-k

There’s close to zero correlation between strikeout rate and offensive production, interestingly enough. Anyhow, looking at the graph, once you get beyond a 25.0% strikeout rate, there aren’t many dots above a 110 wRC+ or so. It seems striking out a lot won’t stop you from being a productive hitter, but it will reduce your chances of being a great hitter. Only 18 players since 2012 managed a 120+ wRC+ while striking out at least one-quarter of the time.

So I suppose that’s the magic number for Judge this year: 25.0 K%. Get the strikeout rate down there and he has a chance to be a quality offensive weapon for the Yankees. Judge struck out 24.7% of the time in the minors overall and 25.7% of the time at Triple-A (23.9% in 2016), so getting down to a 25.0% strikeout rate in the big leagues doesn’t seem impossible. Can he do it this year? That’s the million dollar question. The Yankees hope so. Getting down to 25.0% strikeouts in 2016 would be wonderful, but, if nothing else, we at least need to see a decline in strikeouts. Fanning four out of every ten plate appearances ain’t gonna cut it.

Exactly how much power are we talking?

A ton. We’ve seen it already. There was that aforementioned shot off the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar last year, and we all saw that ball Judge hit off the top of the scoreboard in his first spring game this year. His home run this past weekend really gives you an idea of how strong this guy is. There’s basically no effort in this swing:

Baseball America (subs. req’d) says Judge’s power “rates as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale” while MLB.com says it’s a 60. That’s really good! A hitter with 60 power can be expected to mash 25-30 homers a year. Someone with 70 power projects to hit 30+ dingers annually. The various projection systems love Judge’s power:

  • PECOTA: 20 homers in 468 plate appearances (26 HR per 600 PA)
  • Steamer: 17 homers in 378 plate appearances (27 HR per 600 PA)
  • ZiPS: 30 homers in 522 plate appearances (34 HR per 600 PA)

Only ten rookie hitters have qualified for the batting title while averaging 26+ homers per 600 plate appearances since 2000, and they’re guys like Albert Pujols, Mark Teixeira, and Prince Fielder. Basically the best power hitters of the century. The completely objective projection systems think Judge can produce at that level, at least when it comes to hitting the ball over the fence.

The Yankees haven’t had a rookie hit 25+ home runs since Bobby Murcer in 1969. Heck, prior to Gary Sanchez last year, the last Yankees rookie to hit even 20 homers in a season was Kevin Maas in 1990. If he makes enough contact — and that remains the big question — Judge could very well smack 25+ homers this summer. It’s not unreasonable, not given Yankee Stadium and the other hitter friendly AL East parks. Judge’s exit velocity on fly balls and line drives is elite. When he connects, he tends to do a lot of damage.

Don’t forget about his defense.

Given his size, power, and strikeout tendencies, it can be easy to stereotype Judge as a lumbering slugger. That’s not the case though. Judge is a very good athlete for his size and he has the skills to be a defensive asset in right field. He has a very strong arm …

… and he covers a decent amount of ground. He’s not going to be Brett Gardner out there in terms of range, but he won’t be Carlos Beltran either. “He’s a slightly above-average runner underway and plays average defense in right field with a well above-average throwing arm,” said Baseball America’s scouting report.

Judge doesn’t play station-to-station baseball despite being so damn massive. He offers some speed and will contribute with the glove in right field, especially since right field in Yankee Stadium is kinda tiny. So, even if he strikes out a bunch while finding his footing in the big leagues, Judge will still be able to provide value in the field. The big man is more well-rounded than you’d think.

* * *

What would qualify as a successful season for Judge? Geez, that’s tough. It’s about more than raw stats with Judge. Is he cutting down on the strikeouts? Is he showing a sound approach and recognizing how pitchers are attacking him? Judge is going to see a ton — a ton — of breaking balls down and away. It’s inevitable. Can he lay off more often than not?

The numbers might not be there, but if we see improvement with his approach and strikeout rate, it’ll be a positive. Judge is going to require patience, perhaps more than most prospects, though the potential reward is sky high. This dude can be a game-changing impact bat, and odds are he will get a chance to claim the long-term right field job this summer.

Outfielders on the wrong side of 30 [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Welcome to Year 4 of Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury manning the Yankees’ outfield. At the time Ellsbury signed in the 2013-14 offseason, it seemed like Gardner may quickly receive a ticket out of New York, but an extension for the speedster said otherwise. Three years of trade rumors have followed yet Gardner is still firmly planted in left field.

Including this season, there are four years left on Ellsbury’s deal and two on Gardner’s. With a series of outfield prospects — or shortstop prospects soon-to-be outfield prospects — slowly making their march towards the major league roster, the days of both players taking the field simultaneously for NYY is quickly dwindling.

The wrong side of 30

Within three weeks of each other late this summer, both Ellsbury and Gardner will turn 34 years old. For two players that have made their names with their speed as their No. 1 tool, it’s not an ideal time in their careers. Many players like these two don’t age gracefully. That presents a grim reality for a squad reliant on both their skills if it’s going to be a playoff contender.

Both players have seen their stolen base numbers fall every season since 2013. They still combined for 36 in 2016, a respectable total but one each player used to eclipse individually. The duo on the base paths does have value regardless of decline. For what it’s worth, it seems like they could steal fewer bases if that was mandated. Gardner had the same stolen base percentage in 2016 as he did in 2015 but had five fewer attempts. Ellsbury had one fewer steal and one fewer caught stealing in 2016 than 2015.

Beyond stolen bases, both players are about average hitters at this points in their careers. Gardner hit .261/.351/.362 (97 wRC+) in 2016. His OBP improved over 2015 (.343) but his slugging percentage fell significantly (.399). Gardner had hit 33 home runs over 2014-15 but smacked just seven last year. On the bright side, he had just five fewer hits in 22 fewer plate appearances and he sliced 29 strikeouts (135 to 106) off his total.

Gardner’s average exit velocity decreased by nearly 2 mph (88.8 to 86.9) while his launch angle was slightly lower. He does still have the best eye of anyone on the team and his patience near the top of the lineup is a significant asset. Even when he makes outs, he tends to see a lot of pitches to the benefit of those who come after him.

As for his exit velocity, check out his charts from 2015 to 2016 below via Baseball Savant. His performance lagged on pitches low in the zone and inside while he greatly improved on pitches high and away.

gardner-2015-2016-exit-velo
2015 vs. 2016 (Baseball Savant)

Ellsbury, meanwhile, actually saw general improvement from 2015 to 2016. That makes sense: He injured his knee midway through 2015 and his performance declined sharply after his return. He went from a .257/.318/.345 (83 wRC+) line to a still-below-average but better .263/.330/.374 (91 wRC+) mark. That’s encouraging. He had 14 more extra-base hits in 125 more plate appearances in 2016 while seeing a small increase in exit velocity (87.1 to 87.4 mph)

Brian Cashman called out Ellsbury, saying the team expected more from their center fielder in 2016. That doesn’t mean a return to the 32-home run season he had with the Red Sox in 2011, but the team wants him to be a force getting on base and stealing bases. Ellsbury set the catcher’s interference record in 2016 but don’t expect a repeat of that dubious mark in this year: Hitting coach Alan Cockrell is working with Ellsbury to move his contact more out in front. It may not make much of a difference, but hey, he does already have a home run this spring off a lefty pitcher!

Both guys played over 145 games in 2016 and that kind of durability would be a solid plus in 2017 as well. Age-wise, you may not be able to count on that, but that’s why you have Aaron Hicks and general outfield depth.

Lineup questions

Since Ellsbury signed his monster deal to join the Yankees, Gardner and Ellsbury have been in the top three of the Bombers’ lineup in varying orders at all times. That may change in 2017.

The reason to keep them at the top is simple: They add impressive speed and are two of the Yankees’ best in on-base percentage. Who doesn’t want fast players who get on base near the top of the lineup?

The duo at the top of the lineup has presented some problems for the Yankees. While they give the Yankees a speed dynamic to begin games, they are also easy targets for potent lefty relievers to take advantage late in games. Finding a way to split up the lefties would make a whole lot of sense for the Yankees, particularly if it meant moving a stronger bat like Gary Sanchez up in the lineup. Both players have also seen declines in their on-base skills recently, so there’s even more logic to splitting them up.

According to Joe Girardi, the Yankees are unlikely to split them up by moving one of them (Gardner) to the ninth spot. This wouldn’t really solve their problems as they’d still be back to back in the lineup after one time through. Most people have thought about the possibility of moving Ellsbury down to around sixth in the lineup.

Ellsbury batting sixth would make a lot of sense. You split up lefties, you move a declining bat down and you give yourself speed in the second half of the lineup as well. However, Ellsbury has been lukewarm at best on the lineup. It’s understandable when you’re a veteran so used to batting in the top three. With Ellsbury’s reticence, the team may wait until later in his contract to move him in the lineup.

Still strong defensively

There are plenty of questions about Ellsbury and Gardner going into this season, but it’s tough to have many doubts about them defensively. After all, Gardner is coming off his first Gold Glove. Ellsbury is six years removed from his only Gold Glove. However, according to most defensive metrics, he rebounded from a poor 2015 season (-3.2 UZR likely explained due to his knee injury) with the glove to be a better center fielder again in 2016 (0.7 UZR). Gardner (-2.7 to 3.6) had a similar bounce, which could be partly thanks to fewer games in center field thanks to a healthy Ellsbury.

That’s really important for the Yankees. If the duo will continue to decline in any way offensively, they will need to at least stay viable defensively. When healthy, they both provide the speed necessary to cover at least 2/3s of the outfield and help the pitching staff. One issue, of course, is each of their respective arms. Gardner’s is below average, albeit decent. Ellsbury comes from the Johnny Damon school of outfield arm strength and teams will continue to take advantage of his weak arm in center field.

At some point in the future, Ellsbury is likely to move over to left field but not this season. That’s for late in his contract when his speed isn’t as viable and someone, whether it be Clint Frazier or Jorge Mateo, has proven capable of taking over center. At the very least, Ellsbury has significant left field experience from his early Red Sox career.

So far this spring, Gardner has played center field when Ellsbury has been off with Hicks tending to play a corner position. This goes contrary to last season when Girardi tended to keep Gardner in left field even when Ellsbury was out. The change may be to optimize the outfield to take advantage of Gardner’s extra range and superior angles to the ball. It’s something to keep an eye on as the season commences.

Gardner was clearly on the trade block this offseason. However, until proven otherwise, it’ll be Gardy and Jake again in the outfield for the Yankees. Both players may be on the downside of their careers, but they still have real value to the Yankees beyond the weight of their respective contracts. Count me among those excited to see if Gardner can bounce back in 2017 and whether Ellsbury’s 2016 bump up was a sign of things to come.

The Frustrating Chase Headley [2017 Season Preview]

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

To say that Chase Headley‘s first full season in pinstripes was a disappointment would be something of an understatement. Fresh off of a solid 123 wRC+ and stellar 2.8 fWAR in 58 games with the Yankees in 2014, expectations for Headley were at least a bit high – and the resultant 4-year, $52 MM contract that he inked that off-season didn’t help matters. He responded with, as Mike detailed this time last year, the worst season of his career, posting his lowest wRC+ ever, and his worst WAR since moving to third full-time after the 2009 season.

The existence of Jacoby Ellsbury prevented Headley from becoming the focus of the Yankees fanbase’s collective ire, but there was quite a bit of discussion about the three years remaining on his deal, and Rob Refsnyder learning the hot corner was far more newsworthy than it otherwise would (or should) have been. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that 2016 was a make or break year – in hindsight or otherwise – but the word ‘albatross’ was thrown around at least a bit.

And Headley, of course, responded with a borderline carbon copy of his 2015 season in the batter’s box:

pvgsxt9

Even with an improved walk rate and a bit more pop, Headley remained a below-average hitter (comfortably below the positional wRC+ of 106 in 2016), ranking 21st among qualified third basemen in wRC+. This may just be who he is as he enters his age-33 season, but there are some positives beneath the surface.

He Remembered How to Play Defense

The worst aspect of Headley’s 2015 was his defense. The former Gold Glover made 23 errors, nearly doubling his previous career-high of 13 (set in his first year at the position), posting a fielding percentage twelve points below the league-average. Twenty players qualified for the Gold Glove at the hot corner in 2015, and Headley ranked 15th in Defensive Runs Saved 15th in UZR/150, 19th in fielding percentage, and 20th in errors (with career-worst marks across the board). And, given the lasting impressions of his throwing issues and the agreement between advanced and old-fashioned metrics, he was just as bad as those numbers suggest.

Last year represented a defensive about-face for Headley, as he improved across the board to a staggering extent. If you prefer basic statistics, he made 13 fewer errors, and improved his fielding percentage from .946 to .974. If advanced metrics are more your speed, his DRS jumped from -6 to 7, and his UZR went from -3 to 6.6.

Put simply, he looked far more comfortable at the position (and much more like the guy that the Yankees acquired in the Summer of 2014).

What About His Bat?

Headley ended 2015 with a whimper, batting .179/.252/.223 (32 wRC+) between September and October. That impotence continued into 2016, as he hit just .150/.268/.150 (22 wRC+) in April, and did not pick up his first extra base hit until May 12.

Things started to improve dramatically from there, and Headley swung a hot bat for the next two and a half months. Selective endpoints are tricky, to be sure, but he batted .293/.360/.482 with 10 HR (127 wRC+) from May 12 through the end of July, and hopes started to rise.

And then he hit .232/.322/.361 with 4 HR (83 wRC+) over the last two months, coming full circle in replicating his 2015 season. Here’s a visualization of his streakiness:

capture

His 2016 breaks down as an awful month and a half, two and a half very good months, and two well below-average months … which is actually quite similar to his 2015 (even if the order is a bit different):

capture

So where are those positives that I mentioned?

As I mentioned earlier, Headley’s walk rate improved by 1.7 percentage points, and his ISO jumped from .110 to .133. Both marks are skewed somewhat, as league-averages jumped, as well, but Headley’s improvements were notable nonetheless. He also started running the bases again, picking up 8 SB and adding 3.9 runs per BsR, which is something that he simply didn’t do in 2015. And most everything else (including his swing percentages) eked closer to his career norms.


If we buy into Headley’s sustained mid-season hot streak and the signs that he’s trending back towards his career norms, it stands to reason that he could bounce-back to being a league-average hitter. Interestingly enough, PECOTA sees something that suggests a modest improvement, projecting a .251/.333/.400 slash line with 16 HR, good for a .259 TAv. For reference, a .260 TAv is average, and Headley’s marks in 2015 and 2016 were .245 and .248, respectively.

It’s certainly reasonable to expect Headley to continue to play defense at a high level, and I think he’ll do that. And if his bat can find its way into league-average territory – which I remain split on – he could be a 3 win player in 2017. I’d be thrilled with that, and I’m sure the Yankees would be, too.

A Couple of Middle Infielders in Their Prime [2017 Season Preview]

(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

There seems to be a strong consensus that 2016 was a breakout season for Didi Gregorius, and something between a disappointment and a shrug of the shoulders for Starlin Castro. This is unsurprising, considering that the former set career highs (nearly) across the board, whereas the latter failed to have the change of scenery bounceback that many expected – but is it fair? Consider their offensive production last year:

castro-gregorius-fg
(FanGraphs)

Their numbers were virtually indistinguishable. Gregorius struck out significantly less, to be sure, but it’d be difficult to find two more comparable players otherwise (much less a duo that mans the same middle infield). It feels like cognitive dissonance to an extent.

The comparison shouldn’t end there, of course, as Gregorius was the superior base-runner, adding between four and eight extra runs depending on your metric of choice, and he played the more difficult position (both were subpar defenders by most measures, though the eye and reputation tests tell another story entirely for Gregorius). As a result of these factors, Gregorius had a comfortable lead in both fWAR (2.7 to 1.1) and bWAR (2.2 to 1.2). He was undoubtedly the better player, but the similarities remain striking.

With Gleyber Torres setting the world ablaze, Tyler Wade in Triple-A, and Jorge Mateo still earning some prospect love, the Yankees are certain to be watching the performances of Castro and Gregorius closely. And if they see an opportunity to improve the team with a cheaper, internal option, they might just take it.

So what should be expected of the Yankees current double play combination in 2017?

Starlin Castro

The only real constant in Castro’s career to-date has been his inconsistency. Plotting his year-to-year wRC+ results in a fairly wicked looking roller coaster:

castro-wrc

Put that all together and you have a roughly league-average hitter, with a 162 game average of .280/.318/.408 (96 wRC+) and 13 HR. Both ZiPS (.272/.305/.419 with 18 HR) and PECOTA (.268/.308/.415 with 16 HR) project more of the same in 2017, which makes sense at this point in his career. Castro is still quite young, as he won’t be 27 until March 24, but he has 4374 Major League plate appearances under his belt, and he has regressed more so than anything else of late.

Just last week, however, Mike dug into a potential breakout season for Castro, discussing the reasons for optimism, which essentially boil down to past success, harder (and better) contact, greater comfort at the keystone, and his age. In the end, Mike thinks that a .300/.340/.475 line is within the realm of possibility; it’s tough to disagree, given that he hit .307/.341/.432 in 2011 and .292/.339/.438 in 2014, and just showcased the best power of his career last year. I wouldn’t expect that level of production – but it wouldn’t shock me, either.

This does feel like a big year for Castro, at least insofar as his pinstriped career is concerned. He’s no longer cheap, as he’ll earn an average of just under $11 MM over the next three years, but he’s far from untradeable, given his age and ability to play an up-the-middle position. Another middling season might result in him playing elsewhere in 2018, as it’s no secret that he is (or was) available in trade talks this off-season.

Didi Gregorius

Projecting Gregorius’ 2017 is an incredibly difficult task, as the shape of his production has changed dramatically over his four full-ish seasons. Keeping in mind that his 2012 season was a 21 PA cup of coffee, take a look at the following:

didi-plate-discipline

In 2013 – his first full-ish season – Gregorius walked in 9.2% of his plate appearances, which was comfortably above the league-average walk rate of 7.9%. He swung a bit more often than the average player by about 4 percentage points, but his strikeout rate was better than average and his 91 wRC+ as a 23-year-old shortstop was more than acceptable.

Fast forward to the end of 2016, and Gregorius looked like a completely different player. His 3.2% walk rate was 5 percentage points below average, his 13.7% strikeout rate was 7.4 percentage points above average, and he swung at 55.4% of pitches thrown his way (the highest among all qualified shortstops, and tied for 6th in the Majors). His gradually developed aggression resulted in the best season of his career.

Much of the discussion about Gregorius’ 2017 revolved around his 20 home runs, which nearly matched his total of 22 in 1302 PA from 2012 through 2015. The most glaring improvement last season, however, came against LHP. Heading into 2016, the Dutch shortstop was a career .214/.282/.272 hitter (52 wRC+) against southpaws, and it seemed as though he may have to be platooned. There were signs of life in 2015, as a 74 wRC+ might just be playable with his defense, but it was still far less than ideal.

And then he hit .324/.361/.473 (126 wRC+) against LHP last year, striking out in just 7.5% of those plate appearances. He also walked in just 2.5% of that 161 PA sample size, posting an uncharacteristic .331 BABIP along the way. It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for a player to solve same-handed pitchers as he enters his prime, but we need more evidence to prove that he did just that.

Neither ZiPS (.262/.308/.404, 15 HR) nor PECOTA (.259/.309/.400, 14 HR) sees Gregorius repeating his 2016, though both do see him sustaining a bit of his power surge. At the same time, though, projections do not always take into account tangibles changes in approach over a short-term, which may well be the case with the Yankees shortstop.

What about their defense?

In an ideal world, the Yankees middle infield defense would be an embarrassment of riches. Castro was somewhere between a below-average and fringe-average defensive shortstop, and one would expect his tools to play-up as he slides down the defensive spectrum. And Gregorius was a legitimate prospect largely due to his potential Gold Glove defense, and his reputation is still that of a plus defender. If only it were that simple.

By Defensive Runs Saved and UZR/150, 2016 was Castro’s worst defensive season. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, as he had all of 258 innings at second prior to the 2016 calendar year, but there was some sense that his defense backslid as the year wore on. His acclimation to the Bronx and the position may well lead to a sizable step forward in defensive value this year, and that might just be the most important aspect in reviving his overall stock.

And, as I inferred earlier, the advanced metrics cast Gregorius as a middling, if inconsistent defender. He was worth 5 DRS and 7.9 UZR/150 in 2015, but was below-average in both in his other three full-ish seasons. DRS pegged Gregorius as a -9 defender last season, meaning he nearly cost the team a win relative to the position. The truth may well be that he’s merely average, with his smooth actions and strong arm masking his inadequacies to the naked eye. Given the Yankees dedication to defense, you can be sure that they’re watching him closely.


With the exception of the rookies and comparably inexperienced players, I’m not sure that there are two more difficult Yankees to project – and Castro and Gregorius feel somewhat less certain than a few of those guys, as well. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that Castro improves a bit overall (owing largely to improvements on defense), Gregorius produces a similar total package (perhaps with a bit less power and a bit more glove) … and we’re regularly reminded that Torres is tearing it up in the minors.

The Start of a New Era at First Base [2017 Season Preview]

#GREGBIRD (Presswire)
#GREGBIRD (Presswire)

For the most part, the Yankees have had four primary first basemen over the last 33 years. Sure, there’s been an Andy Phillips here and a Lyle Overbay there, but generally speaking Don Mattingly (1983-95), Tino Martinez (1996-2001), Jason Giambi (2002-08), and Mark Teixeira (2009-16) have manned first base over the last three-plus decades. Not a bad foursome, eh?

Teixeira retired following last season — at this time last year we were talking about possibly bringing him back on the heels of his big 2015 season (oy) — and, with any luck, the Yankees already have their first baseman for the next six, seven, eight, however many years. Shoulder surgery sabotaged Greg Bird‘s first full big league season in 2016, but he’s healthy now and ready to take over the position. First base is going to be a fascinating position in 2017.

How is Bird’s shoulder?

Better than ever, by all accounts. Bird had surgery last February and he was healthy enough to play in the Arizona Fall League last year. Healthy enough to hit, anyway. He didn’t play first base because doctors hadn’t yet cleared him to throw.

This spring Bird is a full go. Hitting, throwing, the whole nine. And any concerns about the shoulder surgery sapping his power have been assuaged by some long home runs. Bird has already launched three homers in Grapefruit League play — he also hit a double off the wall in another game that would have left the park with a favorable wind gust — and they weren’t cheapies. He went the opposite way over the faux Green Monster once, plus he did this:

Forget about the stats for a moment. Hitting home runs against guys like Kyle Kendrick and Joe Gunkel in February and March doesn’t tell us Bird is ready to take on the AL East pitching titans like Chris Sale and Chris Archer. More important than the results are the swing. It’s free and easy, and the strength is there.

Players like Adrian Gonzalez and Matt Kemp had the same surgery as Bird and it took months for them regain their old power stroke. One thing Bird and the Yankees had going for them is the timing. He had surgery in February and was going to miss the regular season no matter what, so he was able to rehab at his own pace. Gonzalez and Kemp had their surgeries in October, and raced against the clock to be ready for Opening Day.

“In early 2015, I was trying to hit the way I hit and I couldn’t. I’m a big feel guy and I couldn’t feel what I wanted to feel. I tried different bats and different things,” said Bird to Kevin Kernan over the weekend. “But four or five days ago, I got in the cage and got the work in that I wanted to get in and the feel was back. I found what I was looking for so long. The shoulder is stable and strong and the feel in my swing is back. It was just so cool to me, I don’t know what else to say, it’s really awesome to feel that way again.”

The early returns on the health and strength of Bird’s shoulder are overwhelmingly positive. He doesn’t look lost at the plate either. I thought maybe it would take him a few weeks to get back into the swing of things against live pitching, but nope. For Bird to replace Teixeira and take over as the next long-term first baseman, his shoulder needs to be sound, and by all accounts, it is right now. It’s been nothing but good news on that front.

Bird will bring a much needed element to the offense.

Even with a bum shoulder, Bird managed to hit .261/.343/.529 (137 wRC+) with eleven homers in 46 games against the best pitching he’d ever faced two years ago, in his big league debut. He was supposed to come up and spell Teixeira at first base and Alex Rodriguez at designated hitter a few times a week, but Teixeira’s fractured shin pushed Bird into everyday duty and he thrived. It was: fun.

The book on Bird coming up through the minors touted him as a smart and disciplined hitter with a knack for hard contact and fly balls, and an approach befitting of a ten-year veteran. Bird did exactly what you’d expect a hitter with that skill set to do in the minors: he punished all those unpolished pitchers. He walked in 14.9% of his career minor league plate appearances and his worst full season performance was a .277/.356/.469 (139 wRC+) batting line between Double-A and Triple-A in 2015, when his shoulder was achy.

Last season the Yankees ranked 19th among the 30 teams in walk rate (7.8%) and 25th in OBP (.314), and a big part of that was Teixeira falling off a cliff. He went from .255/.357/.548 (143 wRC+) in 2015 to .204/.292/.362 (76 wRC+) in 2016. Yeesh. Bird, if nothing else, has shown he will work deep counts and take his walks. Hits are better than walks, but walks are better than outs, and the Yankees didn’t draw enough of them last year. Bird will help change that.

Carter is going to play more than you may think.

Little CC. (Presswire)
The other CC. (Presswire)

Oh yeah, the Yankees have Chris Carter too. He was a late offseason signing and Tyler Austin‘s fluke foot injury has already solved the “but where does he fit???” question. Carter has some left field experience but eh, I’m not sure sticking him out in spacious left field at Yankee Stadium is a good idea, even for a few innings. The fact he hasn’t played left field at all in Spring Training suggests the Yankees see him as a first baseman and designated hitter only.

Even with Austin out, finding playing time for Carter seems like it might be difficult, but I don’t think it will be. He’s going to end up playing more than everyone expects, I think. Isn’t that usually how it works? I see three ways to get Carter into the lineup fairly regularly.

1. At first base against lefties. At least against the tough ones, and there are a few of them in the AL East. Sale, David Price, Francisco Liriano, Blake Snell, so on and so forth. Bird hit .238/.347/.405 (111 wRC+) in a limited sample against southpaws during his big league cameo in 2015, and from 2014-15 in the minors, he hit .228/.320/.397 against lefties. That’s not too good for a bat first player.

Carter, meanwhile, authored a .224/.338/.537 (126 wRC+) slash line against lefties last year. It’s .221/.337/.459 (118 wRC+) for his career. Yes, at some point the Yankees will have to let Bird sink or swim against lefties, but I’m not sure the first year following major shoulder is the time to do it. Bird against righties and Carter against lefties would make a fine first base platoon in 2017. Lots of dingers, lots of walks. (Carter had an 11.8% walk rate last year. It’s 11.6% in his career.)

2. Every so often against righties. Again, Bird is coming back from major shoulder surgery, and you can be sure the Yankees won’t push him too hard. They’ll give him regular rest to keep that shoulder healthy and strong, which means Carter will see occasional starts even against righties. The Yankees readily admit this is a transition year, and part of that is keeping the big picture in mind. Taking it easy on Bird following surgery will be a priority.

3. Every so often at DH too. Matt Holliday turned 37 in January, and when the Yankees signed him, part of the thinking was keeping him out of the outfield and off his feet will help him remain productive deeper into the season. Less wear and tear and all that. The Yankees gave A-Rod fairly regular days off at DH even when he was hitting in 2015. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them handle Holliday the same way. (Keep in mind this could mean Bird at DH and Carter at first some days.)

Carter led the National League with 41 homers last season. Yeah, he strikes out a bunch, but 40-homer pop doesn’t grow on trees. Carter is going to play and play somewhat frequently. Can he adjust to being a part-time guy? Hopefully. He’s done it before. (Carter and Brandon Moss platooned at first base with the A’s for a while.) Given all the AL East lefties and the fact Bird (shoulder) and Holliday (age) figure to get more rest than most players, there are some pretty clear ways to get Carter at-bats.

The defense is going to take a hit. A big one.

We’ve been spoiled these last eight years. Teixeira was as good as anyone defensively at first base, even later in his career after the injuries set in. Bird and Carter are … not as good Teixeira. Not close. Carter is pretty rough in the field and has been his entire career. His best position is batter’s box. Bird is okay around the bag. He’ll make a great scoop from time to time, but that’s about it.

With any luck, the offensive upgrade going from 2016 Teixeira to 2017 Bird/Carter should more than make up for the defensive downgrade. That’s the plan, anyway. First base defense is one of those things you never fully appreciate until you don’t have it. It was easy to take Teixeira for granted over there. Bird and Carter won’t save their fellow infielders as many errors, and that means more pitches for the pitching staff. Their bats have to make up for it.

* * *

The Yankees signed Carter because his market cratered and the price was too good to ignore. Getting a potential 40-homer bat for $3.5M (!) is tough to pass up, especially when you play in the DH league. Bird is still very clearly the first baseman of the future, and it’ll be important for the Yankees to manage him and his surgically repaired shoulder this year. Carter will help them do that. Most importantly, these two figure to sock a bunch of dingers, and gosh do I love dingers.