The Underwhelming Jacoby Ellsbury [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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

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

A Poor April, Then A May To Remember

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Fade, This Time Without The DL Stint

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

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

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

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

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

No Longer A Speed Threat

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still Strong In The Field

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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

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

Outlook For 2017

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

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

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

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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

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

The Spring Training Competition

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

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

The Brief Stint in the Bullpen

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

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

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

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

Back in the Rotation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Pittsburgh

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivan Nova curveballs

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

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

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

Outlook for 2017

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

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

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

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

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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

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

Stuck On The Bench

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, A Chance To Play

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron Hicks wRC+

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

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

A Good Defender Who Looks Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outlook for 2017

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

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

Yo Soy Gary [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

We’ve been waiting a long time for this. For the Yankees to call up a tippy top prospect and get instant high-caliber production. Jesus Montero had a big September in 2011 and Joba Chamberlain did well out of the bullpen in 2007, but otherwise you have to go all the way back to Robinson Cano in 2005 for the last time the Yankees called up a young player and watched him dominate.

This season, Gary Sanchez did exactly that. The Yankees called him up after selling at the trade deadline, shifted Brian McCann to designated hitter to clear playing time, and watched Sanchez rake. It wasn’t just immediate success either. It was immediate success above and beyond anything anyone could have reasonably expected. Sanchez’s first few weeks as a full-time big leaguer were positively Ruthian.

Losing The Job That Was His To Lose

I’d like to unleash the Kraken,” said Brian Cashman at the GM Meetings in mid-November after trading John Ryan Murphy to the Twins for Aaron Hicks. Murphy had a very nice season a year ago as McCann’s backup, and while we all know anyone can be traded at any time, I don’t think many folks saw that trade coming. Murphy was gone and Cashman all but declared Sanchez ready for the job.

One small problem though: Sanchez lost the job that was his to lose in Spring Training. He went 2-for-22 (.091) during Grapefruit League play, and while pitchers didn’t overpower him (only two strikeouts), Sanchez didn’t play as well as the Yankees hoped. “I was too anxious. I wanted to impress the Yankees and show that I was ready to play in the big leagues,” he later said.

Austin Romine did play well, and since Sanchez had minor league options while Romine didn’t, Romine got the backup job. Disappointing? Oh sure. But the right move? Well, based on the way things worked out this year, it’s hard to think they could have gone better for Romine or especially Sanchez had the Yankees done things differently in Spring Training.

The Final Tune-Up In Scranton

(Scranton Times-Tribune)
(Scranton Times-Tribune)

You know, it’s funny. Sanchez performed worse in Triple-A Scranton this year than he did last year. A season ago he hit .295/.349/.500 (145 wRC+) with six homers in 146 plate appearances and 35 games for the RailRiders. This year he hit .282/.339/.468 (131 wRC+) with ten homers in 313 plate appearances and 71 Triple-A games. Don’t get me wrong, that’s still really good, especially for a catcher. It’s just that when a guy repeats a level, you expect him to do better the second time around.

To be fair, Sanchez missed about three weeks with a fluke thumb injury. He was hit by a foul tip and suffered a small fracture. One of those catcher injuries. An occupational hazard. It took Sanchez a little time to get back on top of his game following the thumb injury. Even still, he had a very good Triple-A season, especially when you consider he was a 23-year-old full-time catcher. It ain’t easy to play that position everyday and still rake. Sanchez went back to Scranton and did everything he needed to do.

Back In The Big Leagues, For Good

In mid-May, with the offense struggling and a bunch of left-handed starters coming up, the Yankees briefly recalled Sanchez to be the DH. It was supposed to be a two-game cameo against Chris Sale and Jose Quintana on May 13th and 14th. Sanchez started at DH against Sale, went 0-for-4, then was sent down the next day. Not because of the 0-for-4, but because the pitching staff was stretched thin and they needed another arm.

It wasn’t until early-August, a few days after the trade deadline, that the Yankees brought Sanchez back for good. Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller were traded away, but more importantly Carlos Beltran had been dealt, which opened up DH at-bats. (Alex Rodriguez was firmly glued to the bench by this point.) Step One was moving veterans for prospects. Step Two was calling up MLB ready prospects and playing time.

Sanchez started his first two games after being recalled at DH, went 3-for-8 with a double, then took over as the regular catcher. It wasn’t subtle either. Sanchez caught 18 of the team’s next 25 games. The Yankees cast McCann aside and made him the DH. Sanchez was their guy behind the plate, and he rewarded them. Holy crap did he reward them. From August 10th through August 27th, he hit eleven homers in the span of 15 games.

Every time he stepped to the plate, you expected him to go deep. It was like A-Rod in 2007. Sanchez was that locked in. And the thing is, he never really slowed down. He had a ten-game stretch with no home runs at one point, but overall the kid came up in August and hit 20 homers in 53 games. That’s almost exactly one-third of a season. He had a 60-homer pace as a catcher. Nuts. Sanchez was so good he even drove in runs while being intentionally walked.

The best part — besides the dingers, of course — was that Sanchez was not a one-trick pony either. This was no Kevin Maas feasting on mistake fastballs. Sanchez hit all sorts of pitching and he hit for average too, carrying a .337 batting average into the final week of the season before finishing in a 2-for-29 (.029) slump. I mean, whatever. It happens. The kid played more this year than he ever had before. I’m sure he was worn down.

When it was all said and done, Sanchez authored a .299/.376/.657 (171 wRC+) batting line with those 20 homers, a 24.9% strikeout rate, and a 10.5% walk-rate in 53 games. Only Brian Dozier (22) hit more home runs than Sanchez following the date of his call-up. In terms of games played, Sanchez became the fastest player in history to 11, 18, 19, and 20 career home runs. Again: as a catcher!

The historic showing — Sanchez led Yankees’ positions players in fWAR (+3.2) and was second in bWAR (+3.0) despite playing one-third of a season — is going to earn Sanchez serious Rookie of the Year consideration, and I do think he’s going to win. Michael Fulmer had an excellent season, no doubt about it. But basically no one has come up and done what Sanchez did in the second half. It’s excellence vs. historic greatness, and I think the voters will lean towards history. We’ll see. Either way, holy cow was Sanchez awesome.

Power & Plate Coverage

One thing we learned about Sanchez in the second half is that the kid can do damage on just about any type of pitch in any location. He is close to a dead pull hitter — Sanchez did pop two opposite field home runs — but that’s okay. When you hit for that kind of power, you call pull the ball as much as you want.

Look at the pitches on which Sanchez did his most damage this year. I’m going to use 100 mph exit velocity as my completely arbitrary cutoff point here. It’s a nice round number. Here are the locations of the pitches Sanchez hit at least 100 mph this year, via Baseball Savant:

Gary Sanchez exit velocity

All over the zone and all types of pitches. He doesn’t live on fastballs inside, or breaking balls up in the zone. Nothing like that. Sanchez covers the entire strike zone — heck, he even covers outside the strike zone too — and he’s able to drive the ball with authority regardless of where it’s pitched. He doesn’t have a traditional wheelhouse. The strike zone is Sanchez’s wheelhouse.

Despite the late call-up, Sanchez finished sixth on the Yankees with 55 batted balls of at least 100 mph, more than guys like Mark Teixeira (54), Didi Gregorius (54), and Brett Gardner (52). His average home run distance was 398 feet as well, so it’s not like Sanchez hit a bunch of wall-scrappers. Hit Tracker classified only five of his 20 home runs as “Just Enoughs,” meaning five cleared the wall by fewer than ten feet. Bombs. He hit bombs.

We all knew Sanchez had huge power. That was the book on him coming up through the minors. The kid could hit the ball a long way, it was just a question of whether he’d put in the work required to be a big leaguer, and he’s done that the last two years. Sanchez has admitted that becoming a father two years ago helped put his career in better perspective, and helped him understand he couldn’t coast on talent. This year, for the first time, he was rewarded for all his hard work.

A Work In Progress On Defense

For years and years, the concern with Sanchez was whether he’d improve enough defensively to be a passable catcher. He is blessed with a rocket arm, and holy geez, we saw it a bunch of times this year. Sanchez threw out 13 of 32 basestealers this season, or 40.6%, plus he picked five runners off first base and two off second. We saw throws like this on the regular:

Perfect throw. Strong, accurate, right on the money. It’s amazing anyone tried to run against this kid once word got out about his arm. Six of the 19 successful steals against Sanchez came with Dellin Betances on the mound, and, well, Betances might be the worst pitcher in baseball at holding runners. Hard to fault Sanchez there. Also, he seemed to take charge on the mound. He didn’t hesitate to go out to talk to the pitcher, even a veteran like CC Sabathia.

Depending on who you ask, Sanchez was either an above-average (Baseball Prospectus) or a slightly below-average (StatCorner) pitch-framer. I thought he looked fine. He didn’t stab at everything but he wasn’t exactly catching pitches and presenting them with baby soft hands like Yadier Molina. Sanchez was fine at framing pitches. The one glaring weakness in his game seemed to be wild pitches and passed balls. More than a few got by him.

In fact, Sanchez allowed 15 wild pitches and six passed balls this year. His 21 combined passed pitches were 41st most in baseball even though he ranked 58th in innings caught. There were times that yes, Sanchez seemed to get a little lazy behind the plate and let a catchable ball scoot by. That’s something that will have to be improved going forward. An excellent arm and average-ish framing make for a good defensive catcher. If Sanchez can improve the passed pitches, he could be a real asset behind the plate.

Outlook for 2017

Sanchez is in the big leagues for good. As if his bat didn’t make that clear enough, he is out of minor league options, so the Yankees can’t send him back to Triple-A anyway. Well, they could, but they’d have to put him on waivers, and there’s a better chance of the team signing me than that happening. It’s time to stop thinking about Sanchez as the catcher of the future. He’s the catcher of the present.

“Gary Sanchez is our starting catcher next year,” said Cashman during his end-of-season press conference. “That’s his position to lose. That doesn’t mean he can’t lose it. We saw (Luis) Severino last year helping us get to the postseason. This year, he struggled. We’re very excited about Gary, who always projected to be (a middle of the order bat).”

It’s impossible to expect Sanchez to do what he did in 2016 again in 2017. He’s not going to repeat his 60-homer pace. He’s not going to slug close to .700 again. Chances are he probably won’t hit close to .300 again either. If Sanchez hits, say, .270/.330/.450 with 20-something dingers next season, it would be phenomenal for a young catcher in his first full season. And yet, it would represent a big step down from what his did this year.

Sanchez set the bar awfully high this year. The Yankees will count on him to again be a middle of the lineup force — he batted third in his final 40 games of the season — and provide power. They’ll have to carefully balance his playing time too. Catchers need regular off-days to rest, but Sanchez’s bat is so good that you don’t want him out of the lineup. A lot of DH days are in his future and that’s okay. Gary finally arrived this season, and now he’s here to stay.

The End of Mark Teixeira’s Career [2016 Season Review]

Oct 2, 2016; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira (25) waves to the crowd during a retirement ceremony before a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports
(Presswire)

Last year, the Yankees qualified for the postseason thanks largely to Mark Teixeira‘s resurgent season. He rebounded from brutal second half in 2014 to hit .255/.357/.548 (143 wRC+) with 31 home runs in 111 games in 2015. Unfortunately, a foul ball to the leg ended Teixeira’s season in August. He suffered a small fracture in his shin and had to be shut down.

Greg Bird filled in capably for Teixeira down the stretch, but once Bird went down with his shoulder surgery in February, the Yankees were going to have to lean on Teixeira even more this year. Their backup plan at first base — and DH, for that matter — was gone. The Yankees needed Teixeira to stay on the field and provide power from the middle of the lineup. Neither of those things happened.

Getting Old Fast

Teixeira has a reputation for being a slow starter, and since he was coming off a serious lower body injury, it wasn’t completely unexpected when he started the 2016 season poorly. The Yankees took it easy on him during Spring Training following the leg injury, understandably so. And because he’s a veteran, no one really thought twice about his poor Grapefruit League numbers. We’ve seen him struggle in the spring only to come out of the gate strong during the regular season before. Teixeira knows what he has to do to get ready. No big deal.

The sad thing is Teixeira hit .224/.352/.355 (98 wRC+) with three home runs in April and it was his best month as a full-time player this year. It wasn’t until the Yankees reduced his playing time and went young in the second half that Teixeira again started to contribute with the bat. Check out his offense this summer:

Mark Teixeira wRC+Teixeira bottomed out at .176/.271/.259 (46 wRC+) on June 25th. That was the day he returned from the knee injury that sent him to the disabled list for three weeks. Two years ago we saw Alfonso Soriano go from hitting like an MVP candidate in the second half one year to being totally unplayable the next. Skills erode with age and it can happen very fast. Add injuries to the mix and they could erode even quicker.

The Yankees continued to play Teixeira at first base on an everyday basis until mid-August, when Tyler Austin was called up. Teixeira’s offense did improve slightly, but on the day Austin was recalled, he was still hitting .201/.289/.337 (70 wRC+) with 10 home runs in 332 plate appearances. Alex Rodriguez was released that day as the Yankees cut ties with an unproductive veteran. It wasn’t unreasonable to think Teixeira may face a similar fate.

Neck & Knee Problems

The last few years of Teixeira’s career have been hampered by injuries. It hasn’t been one thing either. This wasn’t David Ortiz with his chronic foot/ankle problems. Teixeira seemed to have a new injury every year. In 2012 it was a sore left wrist and a calf problem. In 2013 it was right wrist surgery. In 2014 it was hamstring trouble. Last year it was the shin fracture.

This season Teixeira was bothered by nagging neck and knee problems. He missed several games with neck spasms in May and they were far more serious than anyone let on. Teixeira’s pregame preparation for much of the season involved two hours of treatment on the neck (massage, acupuncture, heat, etc.) just to get ready for that day’s game. The neck never did send him to the disabled list, but it sidelined him for a few days throughout the season, and it bothered him all year.

The knee injury did send Teixeira to the disabled list, however. He missed three weeks with torn cartilage in his right knee in June, and rather than undergo season-ending surgery, he opted for treatment and rehab. After returning, the knee limited Teixeira from time to time — he was never a quick runner anyway, so we barely noticed it on the bases — but he played through it.

“We don’t really know what to expect,” said Teixeira when he came back from the disabled list. “We’re going to do a couple more shots over the All-Star break, and if we need another round at the end of the season we can. But it’s really just to keep it from locking up … I’m going to keep my fingers crossed obviously. I’m hoping for the best, expecting to have a good second half and be productive like I’ve always been. That’s the goal.”

The Farewell Tour

The good second half never came. Sure, Teixeira’s performance did improve after the All-Star break, but not enough to be a difference-maker. The hope coming into the season was Teixeira would play well enough to earn a qualifying offer after the season, but that didn’t happen. Not close. Any thoughts of re-signing him to serve as Bird’s caddy following shoulder surgery were crushed too.

On August 5th, a few days after the Yankees ostensibly threw in the towel on the season by trading their most productive veterans for prospects at the trade deadline, Teixeira announced he planned to retire after the season. His body was no longer up for the grind of the 162-game season.

“As the season went on, I just realized that my body couldn’t do it anymore,” said Teixeira. “If I’m going to grind through seasons not being healthy, I’d rather be home with my family. I’d rather do something else. I miss my kids way too much to be in a training room in Detroit rather than being at their dance recital or their school play.”

Teixeira said he was willing to do whatever the Yankees needed the rest of the season. He was very unselfish about it. The team reduced his playing time drastically in August and September — at one point Teixeira started only 21 games in a 40-game span — and Teixeira worked behind the scenes with Austin and Rob Refsnyder at first base. That’s what the Yankees needed from him and that’s what he did.

BLOWN SAVE

The start of September went about as poorly as possible for Teixeira. He went 5-for-35 (.143) in his first 15 games of the month, dragging his season batting line down to .197/.289/.343 (71 wRC+). Austin wasn’t playing well either, and with the Yankees still hanging around the wildcard race, Girardi stuck with the veteran Teixeira, who he knew was at least going to play good defense.

On September 26th, Teixeira rewarded his manager’s faith by clubbing a game-tying home run off Jason Grilli in the ninth inning. He flipped his bat too. Teixeira never flips his bat. It was the final road game of his career and likely the final road at-bat of his career, and he enjoyed the crap out of it, especially after the benches cleared (twice) earlier in the game.

Mark Teixeira bat flip

The YES Network cameras caught Teixeira yelling “Blown save!” at Grilli from the dugout too. “I was like, ‘Oh, sorry, the ball went a long way.’ I was just letting him know that he blew the save,” said Teixeira after the game. Awesome. Just awesome.

Had that been the final homer of Teixeira’s career, it would have been pretty great. A game-tying ninth inning homer against a mouthy division rival in a game where the benches cleared twice and the Yankees went on to win in dramatic fashion? Hard to top that. And yet, Teixeira managed to do it.

Two days after the homer against Grilli, Teixeira hit a walk-off grand slam against Joe Kelly and the Red Sox with New York’s season on the line. A loss that night would have officially eliminated the Yankees from postseason contention. They were able to stave off eliminate for another day thanks to Teixeira’s heroics. It was the biggest hit of the season.

“A base-hit ties the game. I’m telling the truth, I’m trying to hit a line drive up the middle because I’ve had success off (Kelly) thinking up the middle because I know he’s got a good curveball,” said Teixeira after the game. “You don’t want a walk-scrapper in an 8-0 game to be your last (homer). You want a walk-off grand slam against the Red Sox. I’ll still be trying to hit in the next four games, but if it just happens to be my last one, it’ll be pretty special.”

The walk-off grand slam was indeed the Teixeira’s final home run of his career. He played sparingly the next few days, and prior to Game 162, the Yankees honored Teixeira with a quick but thoughtful pregame ceremony.

Girardi removed Teixeira from the final game of the season with one out in the seventh inning so he could get one last ovation as he walked off the field. And just like that, his career and eight years in pinstripes were over.

Teixeira hit .204/.292/.362 (76 wRC+) with 15 homers in 438 plate appearances this season and was basically a shell of his former self. He retires as a career .268/.360/.509 (127 wRC+) hitter with 409 home runs, fifth most ever by a switch-hitter, and as a career .248/.343/.479 (120 wRC+) hitter with 206 homers, +18.3 fWAR, and +20.6 bWAR with the Yankees. On top of the offense, he was phenomenal defensively. Just outstanding at first base.

In his eight years in New York, Teixeira had one MVP caliber season and a few other very good years. He also helped the team to their most recent World Series championship, so that’s cool. Teixeira played hard and was funny in a dad humor sorta way. It was a good eight years.

Outlook for 2017

For Teixeira? Who knows. At his retirement press conference he talked about non-baseball business interests and continuing to work with the Harlem RBI program. Teixeira also indicated he has interest in coaching but not full-time. Seems like he’d rather be a guest instructor. Someone who pops in at Spring Training and Instructional League. That sorta thing.

Because he’s good for a laugh and can be very insightful when talking about baseball, it wouldn’t surprise me if Teixeira winds up broadcasting at some point. Maybe not next year, but down the road. Also, he totally seems like the kind of guy who will show up to Old Timers’ Day soon. Like next year. And absolutely love it. The Yankees need to figure out first base long-term — hopefully Bird makes this easy — and now Teixeira has to figure out what he’s going to do during life after baseball.

Luis Severino’s Big Step Back [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For all the attention the Yankees received this year for selling at the deadline and going young in the second half, the youth movement actually started last season. Rather than make a trade to aid the 2015 postseason push, the Yankees called up some of their very best prospects and gave them prominent roles in the final two months of the season. That was a change from the previous, oh, two decades or so.

No young player received a more prominent role in the second half last season than Luis Severino, who stepped into the rotation and gave the Yankees eleven high-quality starts. The then-21-year-old had a 2.89 ERA (4.37 FIP) in 62.1 innings and established himself as a fixture in the 2016 rotation. Rather than build on that success this year, Severino took a step back in almost every single way this past summer.

Seven Starts in the Show

Despite a rough first outing, Severino was very good in Spring Training, leaving no doubt that he belonged in the rotation. He actually started the fourth game of the season — there were some folks pining for an Opening Day start — ahead of CC Sabathia, which tells you what the Yankees thought of Severino (and Sabathia).

Severino’s first start of the season was not good. Not terrible, but not good either. He allowed three runs on ten hits in five innings against the Tigers, including four consecutive singles in the fourth inning. One bad start is one bad start. It happens to everyone. But then, next time out, Severino got hit hard again, this time allowing four runs on eight hits and a walk in 5.2 innings.

It never got any better. Severino allowed at least four runs in four of his next five starts, including seven runs on seven hits and four walks in 2.2 innings against the White Sox on May 13th. He left that start with an injury, and ominously pointed to his elbow when trainer Steve Donohue came out to visit him.

The injury ended an absolute nightmare start to the season for Severino. He pitched to a 7.46 ERA (5.52 FIP) in 35 innings in his first seven starts of 2016, and he wasn’t missing bats (16.8% strikeout rate) or keeping the ball in the park (2.06 HR/9). Home runs were up all around the league this season, but that’s an extreme dinger rate.

Injury or no injury, it seemed like there was a pretty good chance that disaster start against the White Sox was going to be Severino’s final big league start for a while. There was chatter the Yankees would move him to the bullpen or demote him to Tripe-A, and it would have been in no way unjustified. He was terrible and costing the Yankees games. The injury provided a temporary reprieve.

A Dozen Starts in the Minors

Thankfully, the injury was nothing serious. The first thing that crosses everyone’s mind when they see a pitcher grab their elbow like that is Tommy John surgery, and I understand why. Lots and lots of pitchers are blowing out their elbows these days. Severino avoided a serious injury and instead went down with a mild triceps strain. Ex-friggin-hale.

The triceps only required two weeks of rest and one minor league rehab start, but rather than bring him back to the big leagues, the Yankees activated Severino off the disabled list on May 30th and optioned him to Triple-A. He was sent down with the goal of improving his command, specifically of his secondary stuff. Look at his slider location during those first seven starts:

Luis Severino slider locations

Yikes. That’s not good. Severino make a lot of mistakes in the middle of zone — with all his pitches, really, not just his slider — and he seemed to pay for every single one. Opponents hit .327/.373/.547 against him in those seven starts. That’s slightly better than what AL MVP candidate Mookie Betts did this year (.318/.363/.534). Severino was bad. Bad bad bad.

The Yankees sent Severino to Triple-A and they kept him there for a while. It wasn’t one of those “one or two starts and you’re coming back up” deals. Severino made ten starts with the RailRiders and his numbers were very good: 3.25 ERA (3.00 FIP) with 22.0% strikeouts and 5.8% walks in 63.2 innings. Did he actually improve his command while down there? Who knew. We were going to have to see Severino with our own eyes to find out.

“I did look at it,” said Joe Girardi in early June after one of Severino’s best Triple-A starts. “He threw some better sliders, some better changeups, but I still think there’s work to be done with location of fastball and consistency of his offspeed. I did see some better sliders.”

Back, Temporarily

Following those ten Triple-A starts, the Yankees called Severino back to the big leagues to replace Aroldis Chapman after he was traded to the Cubs. I thought it was a temporary call-up until Adam Warren reported, but nope, Severino stuck around even after that. The Yankees did not use him as a starter though. He returned as a reliever and made three mop-up appearances.

The first two of those three appearances were solid. Two scoreless innings each time. The third appearance was the masterpiece, the one that had folks thinking Severino deserved another chance to start. He replaced Chad Green in the fourth inning and fired 4.1 innings of one-hit ball against the Mets on August 3rd. Severino struck out five and allowed just one unearned run.

The Yankees were apparently among those convinced Severino was ready to start again, so they gave him the ball after Nathan Eovaldi went down with his elbow injury a week later. The results were, somewhat predictably, not good. He allowed 12 runs on 15 hits and one walk in eight innings in two starts. Yuck. So back to Triple-A Severino went for three more starts before rosters expanded.

Return as a Reliever

Once rosters expanded, the Yankees recalled Severino and again used him as a reliever, though this time he wasn’t limited to mop-up duty. Severino essentially took over as Girardi’s secondary setup man. On days Warren and Tyler Clippard weren’t available, it was Severino who got the ball in high-leverage spots, and he was excellent. One run allowed on seven hits and seven walks in 15 innings. He struck out 15. A few too many walks, but otherwise beautiful.

The Yankees gave Severino two starts at the very end of the season because Green got hurt, and that was basically out of necessity. They had no one else to start. The first of those two starts was rather eventful. Severino unintentionally hit Josh Donaldson with a pitch, J.A. Happ retaliated by hitting Chase Headley, then Severino retaliated for the retaliation by drilling Justin Smoak. Madness ensued.

Severino was ejected from the game but was somehow not suspended, which is, uh, weird. He was very obviously throwing at Smoak intentionally and the benches had already been warned. Usually that equals an automatic suspension. Severino managed to escape with just a fine. Weird. Too bad he couldn’t limit the damage on the mound the same way he limited the discipline after intentionally throwing at a guy nyuk nyuk nyuk.

Anyway, Severino made one last ineffective start (three runs in 3.2 innings) to close out his season. The total damage: 5.83 ERA (4.49 FIP) in 71 innings spread across eleven starts and eleven relief appearances. That, my friends, is a -0.3 bWAR and +0.6 fWAR pitcher. Pretty much replacement level. Worse than that as a starter, much better than that as a reliever.

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 Opp. Line
as SP 47.2 8.50 5.52 16.8% 6.2% 44.3% 2.06 .337/.389/.587
as RP 23.1 0.39 3.48 25.8% 9.9% 47.9% 0.75 .105/.209/.158

This year, Severino became only the 23rd pitcher in history to make at least ten starts in the single season with an 8.50+ ERA. One of those 23 is Roy Halladay, who had to be broken down and built back up completely by the Blue Jays before becoming a two-time Cy Young award winner. Most of the others are broken down dudes trying to hang on. Not good company to keep.

At no point this season did Severino look like a competent Major League starter. Young starters struggle. It’s what they do. Usually you’re willing to live with the growing pains because you see the occasional flashes of brilliance. There were no flashes of brilliance with Severino this year. Not when he was in the rotation. His best start this season was two runs on seven hits in six innings. Yeah.

Whither the Changeup?

When the Yankees sent Severino down to Triple-A following the injury, the goal was improving the command of his secondary pitches. His slider in particular. I thought we saw improved slider location after he was called back up later in the season too. Severino did a better job burying it down and away to righties. There’s still work to be done, but there was progress.

The changeup, however, went backwards. Severino did not throw the pitch at all in relief — why would he? he was asked to get important outs in September and he leaned on the fastball and slider, his two best pitches — and he admitted he lost confidence in the pitch. He has a good changeup! It’s a quality pitch. But Severino lost confidence in it. He said as much. That’s a problem.

What Severino went through this season was not normal growing pains. He went backwards. We didn’t see any signs that he could be an effective starter, and any gains he made in slider command he gave back by losing confidence in his changeup. All he did was shift the problem. The Yankees really rushed Severino up the minor league ladder and I do think that played a role in his poor year. It doesn’t explain everything, but I do think it was a factor.

Outlook for 2017

There’s no way the Yankees can bring Severino to Spring Training counting on him to be one of their five starters next year. It made sense to give him a rotation spot last year. He pitched himself out of the rotation though. That isn’t to say he shouldn’t be given the opportunity to win a rotation spot in camp, because he should. The Yankees just can’t hand it to him though. Severino hasn’t earned it.

If nothing else, Severino showed this year he can be a pretty great reliever. It’s still way too early to give up on him as a starter. The Yankees should send him to Triple-A to start before keeping him in the big leagues as a reliever. Severino will turn 23 in February and he showed last season he can be a successful starting pitcher in the show. He got thrown off track this year. It happens. As ugly this season was for Severino, it shouldn’t be the end of his career as a starter. Hopefully it’s a learning experience and he’s better for it in the long run.

The Continually Improving Didi Gregorius [2016 Season Review]

(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)
(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

Two years ago the Yankees faced an uncertain future at shortstop following Derek Jeter‘s retirement. The last year or two of Jeter’s career weren’t great, he was a below-average hitter at that point, but there was something comforting knowing he was going to be the guy at the position. Shortstop’s important! That’s not a spot to have a revolving door.

Now the future at shortstop is far from uncertain. The Yankees acquired Didi Gregorius to replace Jeter and there were legitimate questions about his ability to be an everyday big league shortstop. Would he hit enough? Is his defense enough to carry his bat? Could he handle the pressure of replacing Jeter and playing in New York? There were lots of questions. Now there aren’t. Gregorius is the answer at short.

The 20-Homer Shortstop

A year ago Gregorius smacked nine home runs in 578 plate appearances thanks to an excellent second half, during which he hit .294/.345/.417 (110 wRC+) with five homers in 72 games. The hope was that strong second half would carry over into 2016. Gregorius is still young — he played the entire 2016 season at 26 — and he had a season under his belt in New York. He figured to be more comfortable in 2016 than he was in 2015.

It wasn’t unreasonable to expect Gregorius to produce more offense this season, especially in the power department, and he did exactly that. Didi hit 20 home runs this summer, the same number as Carlos Correa, and seven of the 20 came during a four-week hot streak at the end of the first half. At one point he hit five home runs in the span of ten games. One of the five was a walk-off against the Rangers.

There are reasons to believe Gregorius’ power spike are legit and reasons to believe it might have been a little fluky. In reality, it was probably a little of both, right? You’ve got a prime-aged left-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium, so you’d expect a power uptick. Homers also jumped around the league this year — I think the baseballs are juiced, but who knows — and surely Didi benefited some.

I’ve never seen a ground ball go over the fence, so a prerequisite for hitting for more power is hitting the ball in the air more often. Take a look at Gregorius’s ground ball rate since joining the Yankees:

Didi Gregorius ground balls

Well well well. Look at that. When Gregorius first arrived in New York, he was beating the ball into the ground. His ground ball rate has been in steady decline since. Didi had a 48.0% ground ball rate and a 36.0% fly ball rate in April 2015. It was down to 31.0% grounders and 56.0% fly balls in September 2016. Pretty awesome. Gregorius isn’t a speedster. Driving the ball in the air is the best way to do damage.

The best part of Didi’s newfound ability to get the ball airborne is that he isn’t selling out and trying to yank everything down the line. We’ve seen more than a few left-handed hitters fall in love with the short porch and try to pull everything to right. Gregorius is still hitting the ball to all fields. In fact, he was hitting more balls the other way this year than last year.

Didi Gregorius pull oppo

This is a wonderfully positive development for Gregorius. He’s hitting the ball in the air and the result is more home runs, and he’s been able to do that without sacrificing the all-fields ability he showed last year. For someone who makes so much contact — Didi had the 26th lowest strikeout rate (13.7%) among the 146 qualified hitters in baseball in 2016 — this is a really great skill set. Really, really great.

Now, as I said before, power was up around the league this year, and I have no doubt Gregorius benefited a bit from that. He hit for more power this summer because everyone hit for more power this summer. (Except Brett Gardner.) Let’s quickly compare Didi’s isolated power to the league average, while adjusting for ballpark. Same idea as OPS+, basically, except we’re using ISO instead of OPS.

2015: 57 ISO+
2016: 77 ISO+

Success! Last year Gregorius’ power output was 57% of the league average left-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium. This year it was 77%. So still below-average for his environment, but there’s still a legitimate improvement here. Those 20 home runs he hit this year weren’t just the product of the increase in power around the league. Didi himself improved. Hopefully he takes another step next year, in his age 27 season.

Suddenly Dangerous Against Lefties

Gregorius came to the Yankees will a big platoon split. He hit .262/.332/.411 (101 wRC+) against righties with the Reds and Diamondbacks from 2012-14, and only .184/.257/.233 (32 wRC+) against southpaws. That platoon split existed last year too, though it wasn’t quite that extreme. He hit .272/.321/.391 (95 wRC+) against righties and .247/.311/.315 (74 wRC+) against lefties.

This year, Gregorius managed to reverse the split. He was better against lefties than righties. Didi put up a .258/.283/.437 (88 wRC+) batting line against righties while hitting a whopping .324/.361/.473 (126 wRC+) against lefties. Fifty-four left-handed hitters had at least 100 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers this year. Among those 54, Gregorius ranked third in AVG, 13th in OBP, and eighth in SLG. Only Charlie Blackmon (.331) and Daniel Murphy (.329) had better left-on-left batting averages.

The question now is why? Why did Gregorius improve so much against lefties, and is this his new true talent level? I’m guessing he’s not really quite this good against lefties, but some improvement would be cool. Here are Didi’s core stats against lefties the last two years:

PA BB% K% GB% FB% Pull% Opp% Soft% Hard% BABIP
2015 164 6.1% 15.9% 49.6% 32.8% 41.1% 26.6% 27.4% 21.8% .292
2016 161 2.5% 7.5% 38.5% 43.7% 34.3% 28.6% 20.0% 22.9% .331

There are two huge differences there. One, Gregorius hit way more balls in the air against lefties this year than last year. That’s consistent with everything above about his power output. His soft contact rate dropped a ton too, though it became medium contact, not hard contract. That’s still better than nothing.

And two, Didi put way more balls in play against lefties this year. Look at those strikeout and walk rates. Last season Gregorius had 164 plate appearances against southpaws and put 124 balls in play. This year it was 140 balls in play out of 161 plate appearances. Pretty big difference. The combination of a) more balls in play, b) more balls in the air, and c) less soft contact helps explain the uptick in left-on-left damage.

Is Gregorius going to hit .320/.360/.470-something against lefties going forward? I find that unlikely. That doesn’t mean his improvement was a total mirage, however. A .331 BABIP in 161 plate appearances is not completely insane. It might not happen against next year, but it’s not so outrageous that it’ll never happen again, you know? I think there’s real improvement here. Didi is making more contact against lefties and hitting the ball in the air more often in general. Those are big positives.

All told, Gregorius hit .276/.304/.447 (98 wRC+) with 32 doubles and 20 home runs in 2016. He rarely struck out (13.7%) but he also rarely walked (3.2%). Only Rougned Odor (3.0%) and Brandon Phillips (3.1%) walked less among qualified hitters. That’s just who Didi is. He’s a free swinger. I don’t have much hope for him improving his plate discipline drastically. Hopefully one day he can get up to a 7.0% walk rate. That would be cool. (It was 5.7% last year.)

A Good Bad Defender, or a Bad Good Defender?

In terms of raw defensive tools, Gregorius is as good as anyone. He’s athletic, he’s got good hands, and his arm is a rocket. One of the best I’ve ever seen from a shortstop. Why then did the defensive stats hate him so much this year? Almost all of them, across the board.

DRS UZR Total Zone FRAA
2015 +5 +7.4 +4 +1.2
2016 -9 -2.9 +5 -5.2

Total Zone is the only holdout. DRS, UZR, and FRAA all dinged Gregorius this year, and by quite a lot too. We’re talking a full win in the field according to both DRS and UZR. That’s pretty crazy. That’s why Didi went from +3.1 fWAR and +3.3 bWAR in 2015 to +2.7 fWAR and +2.2 bWAR in 2016 despite his offensive improvement.

The eye test told me Gregorius was a really good defensive player this year, though I also thought there were a few more miscues than last year. Basic mistakes. A bobble, a ball not knocked down and kept on the infield, that sort of thing. Error totals don’t really help us — Didi had 13 errors last year and 15 this year — and I’m not sure really how to quantify this stuff. The various defensive stats are better than nothing, though they’re far from perfect.

I do have a very hard time believing Gregorius cost the Yankees with his glove this year. Was he really, truly, a negative in the field? Maybe he was! Maybe I’m my perception of quality shortstop defense is distorted after watching Jeter all those years. I see stuff like this …

… and think hey, this dude is pretty good defensively though. I thought Didi was really good in the field this year. The defensive stats disagreed. Feel free to form your own opinions.

Outlook for 2017

The Yankees are blessed with a ton of quality shortstop prospects right now, most notably Gleyber Torres and Jorge Mateo. There’s also Tyler Wade, who figures to open next season in Triple-A. Those guys don’t matter right now. Gregorius is New York’s unquestioned shortstop going into the next season and will be continue to be going forward until one of those other guys unseats him. The Yankees won’t give Torres or Mateo the job. They’ll have to take it.

Gregorius is under team control through 2019 as an arbitration-eligible player — MLBTR projects a $5.1M salary next year — and it would behoove the Yankees to approach him about a multi-year contract extension this winter. Forget about the prospects in the minors. A prime-aged up-the-middle player who plays good defense and can smack 20 dingers is a valuable asset worth locking up. The Yankees can figure out what to do with Torres and Mateo when the time comes.