Archive for Offense
By almost any measure, the Yankees had their worst offensive season in more than two decades last year. They averaged only 4.01 runs per game, their lowest rate since scoring 3.72 runs per game way back in 1990. The team AVG (.242), OBP (.307), SLG (.376), and wRC+ (85) were all their lowest since that abysmal 1990 campaign as well, and the 144 homers were their fewest in a non-strike season since 1989. It was bad.
The scrub-laden lineup was necessitated by injury and offseason inactivity, and the result was a very un-Yankee-like offense that was impatient and didn’t really work the count. There were plenty of quick outs and quick innings for the other team. The Yankees drew a walk in only 7.7% of their plate appearances in 2013, their lowest rate since 1991 and only the second time they posted a sub-8.6% walk rate this century. Their average of 3.81 pitches per plate appearance was their lowest since 2004 and it showed. Here’s the position-by-position breakdown, using the guys who led the team in playing time at each position:
|Player||2013 BB%||2013 P/PA|
|C Chris Stewart||8.8%||3.78|
|1B Lyle Overbay||7.4%||3.80|
|2B Robinson Cano||9.5%||3.63|
|SS Eduardo Nunez||6.0%||3.60|
|3B Jayson Nix||7.9%||3.76|
|LF Vernon Wells||6.6%||3.42|
|CF Brett Gardner||8.5%||4.23|
|RF Ichiro Suzuki||4.7%||3.70|
|DH Travis Hafner||10.7%||4.11|
Fixing that lack of patience (and the offense in general) was a top priority this winter, and the Yankees wound up completely overhauling their offense. It wasn’t all by design — letting Cano walk probably wasn’t part of the plan — but it happened. Gardner is the only player from the 2013 Opening Day starting lineup who projects to be in the 2014 Opening Day starting lineup as well, and even he could wind up traded before the season begins. At a minimum, there will be eight new starters in the lineup when April rolls around. That’s some kind of turnover.
Two of the Yankees’ three big offseason additions have long been known as guys who will work the count (Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann) while the third (Jacoby Ellsbury) is closer to league average in that department. Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts, two smaller pickups, are also strong count-workers. Getting Mark Teixeira back from his wrist injury will help the club’s overall on-base skills as well. Here’s another position-by-position breakdown, this time with the Yankees’ projected 2014 starters and their plate discpline stats over the last three seasons:
|Player||2011-13 BB%||2011-13 P/PA|
|C Brian McCann||9.9%||3.98|
|1B Mark Teixeira||10.9%||4.07|
|2B Brian Roberts||14.1%||4.04|
|SS Derek Jeter||7.0%||3.77|
|3B Kelly Johnson||9.8%||4.05|
|LF Brett Gardner||9.5%||4.20|
|CF Jacoby Ellsbury||7.0%||3.85|
|RF Carlos Beltran||9.6%||3.67 (wtf? weird)|
|DH Alfonso Soriano||6.1%||3.72|
Obviously the infield is still up in the air a bit, especially since the Alex Rodriguez ruling has not yet been handed down. In the unlikely event his suspension is completely overturned, A-Rod will further help correct the team’s plate discipline issue (10.6 BB% and 3.86 P/PA from 2011-13). He’s always been a deep count/high walks kinda guy, even during his decline.
The overall difference in pitches per plate appearance between the two starting lineups might seem pretty small — 0.13 P/PA is one pitch every eight plate appearances or so, maybe 4-5 extra pitches per game on average — but some of the individual differences are huge. That 2013 lineup had only two guys with a 3.90+ P/PA and three with a 3.80+ P/PA mark. The projected 2014 lineup boasts five and six, respectively. The number of those annoying ten-pitch, 1-2-3 innings should go down considerably.
The overall difference in walk rate is a bit larger, just about a full percentage point. The only total hacker — meaning someone who refuses to walk — in that projected 2014 lineup is Soriano. Having one guy like that is fine, especially when he has Soriano’s power. It’s a different look from the rest of the starting nine and he’s capable of ambushing a first pitch fastball if one comes his way. A one-ish percent increase in walk rate doesn’t sound like much — it’s one extra walk every three games, more or less — but every little bit helps. That walk could have a big impact in a given game.
The Yankees’ lineup heading into next year is still unsettled, especially on the infield. They could still add someone like Stephen Drew (despite Brian Cashman‘s recent comments) or Mark Reynolds, which would change things quite a bit. Most of the heavy lineup lifting is done though. McCann, Beltran, and Ellsbury are the big additions and they’ll change the team’s overall offensive profile. Roberts and Teixeira (both if healthy) will do the same, ditto Johnson. The Yankees gave away too many at-bats last season, but that figures to be less of a problem in 2014.
Last week we looked at the five longest homeruns the Yankees hit this season, so now it’s time to flip the coin and look at the shortest. Given how hilariously homer-friendly Yankee Stadium plays, you can be sure the Bombers hit a ton of cheap homers. Not as many as they hit in Fenway Park though — the four shortest outside-the-park homers were hit in Boston this year. That kinda surprised me, but I guess the Green Monster and Pesky Pole offer some advantages.
Anyway, as I mentioned last week, the Yankees hit 101 fewer homers in 2013 than they did in 2012. That’s the largest single-season drop from one year to the next in baseball history. That decline probably would have been much greater if not for the short right field porch in the Bronx, which saw its fair share of cheapies this summer. You know what I’m talking about, the homers that hit off the top of the wall or just sneak over. The ones that make you chuckle. With a big thanks to Hit Tracker, here are the team’s five shortest homers from this past season.
August 13th: Alfonso Soriano vs. Joe Blanton (video)
I was at this game! That’s kinda fun. The Yankees demolished the Angels during a four-game series in the middle of August, and this game featured two homers by Soriano. The first was a normal-distance two-run shot that turned a one-run deficit into a one-run lead, but the second was a three-run shot that really turned the contest into a laugher. The full count slider caught a little too much of the plate, and Soriano lifted it out to right field for a dinger off the top of the right field wall. We’ve seen some cheap homers change games dramatically, but not this one. It was already a blowout. Distance: 339 ft.
May 18th: Robinson Cano vs. Brandon Morrow (video, 0:43 mark)
Another two-homer game, this one with two two-run homers for Cano. Both came against Morrow, but it’s the first that winds up on our list. This one was a line drive more than a high fly ball, making it a little more legitimate in my opinion. Those balls that hang up in the air and land just over the wall rather than settling into the outfielder’s glove as a can of corn are the ones that make me roll my eyes. Cano hit this one right on the screws and gave his team a much more comfortable 3-0 lead. His second homer off Morrow was a bomb into the bleachers in right-center. Gone off the bat, no-doubter … all that stuff. Not a candidate for this post, basically. Distance: 338 ft.
July 28th: Soriano vs. Matt Moore (video)
This game was memorable for several reasons. First, the Yankees honored Hideki Matsui‘s career prior to the game with on-field ceremony in which Godzilla officially signed his retirement papers. Second, Derek Jeter made his (second) return from the DL and homered on the first pitch he saw. Third, Soriano, who had just been acquired from the Cubs, had his first big “welcome back to New York game,” going 4-for-5 and driving in three runs. Two of the three scored on his third inning homer, which just snuck over the right field wall to give the Yankees a one-run lead. Watching the replay, you can almost see the exact moment Soriano had the epiphany and realized how friendly the right field short porch can be. Distance: 338 ft.
August 27th: Soriano vs. J.A. Happ (video)
Yep, Soriano again. Of his 17 homers with the Yankees this year, six were classified as “Just Enoughs” by Hit Tracker, meaning they cleared the wall by less than ten vertical feet or landed less than one fence height behind the wall. Unlike the other homers in this post though, this one was not hit in Yankee Stadium. It’s yet another two-homer game, with the second one being a third inning solo shot that literally hit the top of the Rogers Centre left field wall and scooted over for a dinger. With all due respect to Kevin Pillar, a better fielding (better jumping, really) left fielder has a chance to bring this one back. Distance: 337 ft.
May 1st: Ben Francisco vs. Erik Bedard
Yes, Ben Francisco actually hit a homerun as a Yankee. Just one though, and in fact this was the only run he drove in during his 21 games (and 50 plate appearances) in pinstripes. The dinger required a perfect storm: a homer-prone (1.1 HR/9) left-hander in Bedard, a belt-high 89 mph fastball in a 2-0 count, and a ballpark that was just small enough to let the ball carry out. To his credit, Francisco hit the homer out to left field and didn’t take advantage of the short porch in right. The MLB.com video isn’t working for whatever reason, but fast-forward to the 0:30 mark of the embedded video above for Francisco’s season-short tater. Distance: 335 ft.
The 30 clubs combined to hit 4,661 homeruns this past season. Of those 4,661 homers, only eleven traveled a shorter distance than Francisco’s according to Hit Tracker. Two of those eleven were inside-the-park homers, and, believe it or not, there was even one inside-the-parker that traveled farther than Francisco’s blast — Angel Pagan’s walk-off inside-the-parker clanked off the AT&T Park right field wall 388 ft. from home plate. Pretty crazy.
The 2013 season is over and we’ve had a week to catch our breath. It’s time to review pretty much all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with the team’s strong record in one-run games.
One year ago, the Orioles snuck into the postseason thanks in part to a historic record in one-run games. Their 29-9 (.763) record in one-run contests was the best in baseball history, yet we spent all summer expecting them to crash back to Earth. It never happened. One-run games are highly volatile just because they’re so tight — one weird bounce or bad call by an umpire can change everything. Most teams walk the .500 line in one-run games.
The 2013 Yankees were the 2012 Orioles when it came to games decided by one run, though not as extreme. They didn’t make history or anything like that, but they did have baseball’s best record in those such games at 30-16 (.652). Winning those close games definitely helped them stay in the playoff race far longer than you would have otherwise expected. I think we can both admit this club had little business being within shouting distance of a playoff spot heading into the final week of the regular season.
The 46 one-run games were the fourth fewest in baseball and right in line with New York’s last few seasons. This wasn’t some kind of anomaly; they played 47 one-run games last year (.468 winning percentage), 45 the year before (.467), and 39 the year before that (.513). The Yankees didn’t play substantially more (or fewer) one-run contests in 2013, yet their winning percentage in those games went up while their overall winning percentage (across the full 162 games) came down. Outside of those one-run games, the Yankees went 55-61 (.474) and that sucks.
There’s an awful lot that goes into being successful in one-run games, with the most obvious being bullpens. When you have David Robertson in the eighth and Mariano Rivera in the ninth, those one-run cushions in the late innings tend to turn into wins. Bullpens are absolutely a factor, but there has been quite a bit of research showing their impact on one-run contests is generally overstated. The rest of the team usually has to make it a one-run game before the bullpen comes into play. The game situation controls reliever usage, not the other way around.
Offensively, the Yankees actually fared quite a bit worse in “close and late” situations this year than they did in previous years. “Close and late” situations are defined as plate appearances in the seventh inning or later where they are tied, ahead by one run, or have the tying run on deck. Here’s a quick breakdown of the team’s “close and late” performance in recent years:
So the winning percentage in one-run games got better while the offense was terrible in the late innings of close games. Okay then. I mean, they had a lot of bad hitters on the roster this summer, so it’s no surprise they didn’t hit much late in the game. They didn’t hit much overall. Anecdotally, the Yankees did seem to score a bunch of runs early in games this year before the offense went to sleep in the middle innings, but the stats don’t really bear that out — they scored 221 runs in innings 1-3, 224 runs in innings 4-6, and 205 runs in innings 7+. This isn’t some kinda weird run distribution thing.
Without re-watching each game and figuring out exactly what happened, it’s close to impossible to explain why a team was successful in one-run games. Heck, Mariano Rivera blew seven (!) saves this year and five of them were one-run leads. They actually came back to win two of those five (by one run, of course), but the Yankees could have very easily been 31-15 (.674) or 32-14 (.696) in one-run contests had Rivera not had what amounts to a down season for him. The Bombers had baseball’s best record in one-run games this year for many reasons, and whether those reasons continue next year is a mystery. After that historic record last summer, the Orioles had the fifth worst record in one-run games this year (20-31, .392). The magic isn’t guaranteed to last, but it’s not guaranteed to disappear all together either.
Believe it or not, the Yankees actually made homerun history in 2013. After going deep a Major League-leading 245 times last season (franchise record!), the so-called Bronx Bombers hit just 144 dingers this year. That 101-homer drop is the largest in history from one year to the next. Dubious history, but history nonetheless.
The Yankees lost an awful lot of power either due to injury or poor decision-making (Brian Cashman’s words!) this summer, but they still managed to hit plenty of long homers. I’m talking about pure distance here; the ones you can tell are gone just by the crack of the bat. You know what I’m talking about. The long long balls. They didn’t hit as many as we’re used to, but they still hit a bunch. With a big assist from Hit Tracker, here are the five longest homeruns the Yankees hit this past season.
September 11th: Curtis Granderson vs. Scott Feldman (video)
Even though he missed more than 100 games due to fluky hit-by-pitch related injuries, Granderson managed to find time to visit Eutaw Street this season. The Yankees were in Baltimore for what was, at the time, a really important game against the Orioles. They were chasing a wild-card spot and down two runs when Feldman hung a 1-0 slider in the fifth inning, a pitch Curtis hit over Boog’s BBQ in right field. Granderson now has one of those neat little plaques just outside the ballpark. Distance: 436 ft.
July 1st: Robinson Cano vs. Scott Diamond (video)
We didn’t see much of it this year, but one of my favorite things is watching the Yankees storm into a large, pitcher-friendly park and make it look like a bandbox. You know what I’m talking about, when the home team can’t hit the ball out of the park to save their lives but the Yankees play dinger derby for the series. Cano did that in Minnesota in early-July, clobbered the Twins in a four-game series at Target Field. In the first inning of the first game, Diamond put a 3-1 fastball right on a tee that Robbie hit off the batter’s eye in dead center. I thought this would be the longest homer of the season coming into the post, but it was just short. Still a ridiculous shot. That ball went a mile. Distance: 442 ft.
April 4th: Frankie Cervelli vs. Clayton Mortensen (video)
Who? Cervelli? Yeah, Cervelli. Frankie actually mashed for a few weeks before a foul tip broke his hand and, when combined with the #obligatorysetback and a 50-game suspension, ended his 2013 campaign. He hit the longest homer of his career in the third game of the season, planting a Mortensen 3-1 fastball over the visitor’s bullpen and into the left field bleachers at Yankee Stadium. It’s not that easy to hit homers in the Bronx if you’re a right-hander trying to pull the ball, but Cervelli got all of this and then some. He may never hit a ball this far again in his life. Distance: 444 ft.
August 7th: Cano vs. Dylan Axelrod (video)
For a little while, this looked like both the longest and most important homer of the season. The Yankees had lost the first two games of a three-game series against the awful White Sox, and Mariano Rivera had blown the save in the third game. The game went to extra innings and score remain tied until Robbie got a hold of an Axelrod junkball in the 12th inning. The ball landed halfway up the right-center field bleachers and gave New York an important 5-4 lead. The Yankees lost the game in walk-off fashion, but that doesn’t knock any distance off Cano’s tater. Distance: 445 ft.
August 18th: Alex Rodriguez vs. Ryan Dempster
I know you remember this. You can’t not remember it. This was arguably the best win of the season considering all the nonsense that went down. A-Rod was returning to Fenway Park for the first time since all the Biogenesis stuff broken, and the booing was as vicious as any booing I’ve ever heard. Dempster, the self-appointed Chief of Baseball Police (Lieutenant Brian McCann was out of town), took it upon himself to punish Alex for his performance-enhancing drug crimes in his first at-bat. The first pitch was behind his legs, the next two inside at his waste, the fourth in Rodriguez’s ribs.
Benches cleared and both teams were warned, plus Joe Girardi got ejected after nearly punching an umpire. Dempster was somehow allowed to stay in the game and later received a slap on the wrist suspension. That was a joke. A joke, but probably good for the Yankees because he kinda sucks. A-Rod came around to score later that inning and two at-bats later, he led off the sixth inning was a mammoth homer halfway up the seats in dead center field. It was an A-Rod of old homer, not an old A-Rod homer. Just a monster shot. The Yankees came back to win the game and both the hit-by-pitch and homer helped get things started. In a season that featured a lot of disappointment, this was one of the very best moments. And also the longest homer. Distance: 446 ft.
The Yankees are on their last legs. Baseball Prospectus gives them a 2.4% chance to make the postseason following last night’s shutout loss and even that feels high. The non-Andy Pettitte starters are struggling, the bullpen is a disaster, and the offense has dried up since Brett Gardner got hurt. Obviously Gardner’s absence is not the only reason the team is struggling to score runs, but taking a .273/.344/.416 (107 wRC+) hitter out of the lineup sure does hurt. No doubt about it.
Because of the injuries to Gardner and Derek Jeter — as well as Alex Rodriguez‘s barking calf and hamstring — there is only so much Joe Girardi can do to shake up his lineup going forward. Brendan Ryan (!) has already replaced Eduardo Nunez at short and Mark Reynolds has taken over at the hot corner full-time despite his defensive deficiencies. There are still two more moves that can be made though, and it has more to do with getting unproductive bats out of the lineup than having slam dunk upgrades waiting in the wings.
Since Gardner got hurt, replacement Ichiro Suzuki has gone 2-for-15 while hitting exactly four balls out of the infield on the fly. He came off the bench to get all the at-bats that would have gone to Gardner had he not gotten hurt. Chris Stewart, meanwhile, has gone 3-for-38 (!) in the team’s last 24 games. To make matters worse, both guys have started to slip defensively either due to fatigue or old age or whatever. Ichiro‘s been misplaying balls in right field while Stewart is a passed ball machine. They’re killing the team.
Girardi doesn’t have a ton of alternatives at his disposal despite September call-ups, but he could pull the plug on the veterans and run the kids out there. Zoilo Almonte recently returned from his ankle injury and J.R. Murphy was called up to serve as the third catcher a few weeks ago. Austin Romine would be another option behind the plate had he not been concussed last week. Almonte and Murphy aren’t exactly the next Mike Trout and Buster Posey, but the offensive bar in right field and behind the plate has been set so low that it’s worth giving the kids the try.
No team — extra-especially the Yankees — likes to hand the keys to a playoff race over to a bunch of prospects late in September, but the alternative is two very unproductive veterans. Ichiro and Stewart have stunk all year, this is not anything new, but their recent slumps have been much more pronounced and ill-timed. Almonte had some success during his brief cup of coffee earlier this year and at the very least put together some quality at-bats while Murphy … well he had a real nice year split between Double-A and Triple-A. What more can you say about him? Not much. Change for the sake of change is usually foolhardy, but I think Ichiro and Stewart have forced the issue. Enough is enough.
These last eleven games will tell us nothing about whether Almonte and/or Murphy can help the team next year. Nothing at all. There just isn’t enough time. What they can do is potentially help the team right now. Again, the bar in right field and behind the plate has been set so very low that it won’t take much for them to be upgrades. Could they be downgrades? Oh sure, it’s very possible. But the Yankees aren’t going to postseason if Ichiro and Stewart continue to play everyday. Replacing them with Almonte and Murphy could possibly improve their already slim chances. It’s worth a shot.
Homeruns are fun, and no one is having more fun right now than Alfonso Soriano. In 30 games since returning to the Yankees, Soriano has hit eleven homers, including several dramatic late-inning game-winners. The Bombers may not make the postseason this year, but it won’t be because he didn’t deliver after coming over from the Cubs. Soriano has been excellent and a major shot in the arm for the offense (and, somewhat surprisingly, the defense as well).
From 2011-2012, no one had more fun that Curtis Granderson. He led all of baseball with 84 homers during those two seasons, ten more than tied-for-second Miguel Cabrera and Ryan Braun. The self-proclaimed “not a power hitter” was baseball’s premier power hitter until a pair of fluke hit-by-pitch injuries sabotaged his 2013 season. Oddly enough, homeruns are the reason Granderson is being overlooked right now. Soriano is stealing the show.
In 24 games since coming off the DL, Curtis is hitting .291/.412/.456 (140 wRC+) with three homers, six steals (in seven attempts), 17 walks (17.5%), and 25 strikeouts (25.8%). The power production isn’t the same as it has been in recent years, but hopefully that will come around as he gets further away from the forearm and hand fractures. Granderson does have a .196 ISO in his last 15 games after putting up a .107 ISO in his first nine games back, so that’s encouraging. (Also: Hooray arbitration endpoints.)
Instead, Granderson’s recent production has come in the form of on-base ability. He reached base three times (two singles and a walk) in last night’s blowout win over the Blue Jays and has reached base at least once in 20 of his 22 starts since rejoining the team. Curtis went 0-for-4 in his first game off the DL and 0-for-4 in Friday’s series opener against the Rays. That’s it. Heck, he’s reached base at least twice in 12 of those 22 starts. That ridiculous 17.5% walk rate isn’t being padded by intentional walks (just one) or hit-by-pitches (zero) either.
Because he is a high-strikeout hitter, Granderson was stereotyped as someone who rarely walked in recent years. I have no idea why people think someone who strikes out a lot doesn’t walk much, usually the exact opposite is true, but that line of thinking does exists. Granderson doesn’t fit the bill at all though, his career walk rate (10.3%) is well-above-average and he’s been even better as a Yankee (11.4%). He has also consistently ranked among baseball’s leaders in pitches per plate appearances throughout his career. Walks require working deep counts and strikeouts are a byproduct. They come with the territory.
Obviously a 17.5% walk rate is probably not something Granderson will be able to maintain long-term. Only two guys — Jose Bautista (20.2% in 2011) and Adrian Gonzalez (17.5% in 2009) — have managed a walk rate that high over a full season in the last five years. You would expect that number to come down and his power production to go up in the coming weeks, but the season is almost over. There’s no guarantee Granderson’s walk and power rates will regress to his career norms — or, really, to his current talent level — before the end of the season. Instead of being a power hitter, he might be more of an on-base guy for the Yankees this year.
Either way, Granderson has been very productive for New York since coming off the DL. The shape of that production has been a little different than what we’ve come to expect — instead of a power-heavy 140 wRC+ it’s been an on-base heavy 140 wRC+. That’s perfectly fine. Production is production, and frankly the Yankees probably need the on-base skills more than the power right now given the rest of the roster. The rank 17th out of the 30 clubs with a 7.7% walk rate, their lowest as a team since 1991. Soriano’s homers are stealing the show, but Granderson has been outstanding as well these last few weeks.
With an assist to the impossibly bad Angels bullpen — seriously, how awful is Joe Blanton? — the Yankees scored a season-high tying 14 runs on a season-high 19 hits last night. During one span from the fifth through seventh innings, 14 of the 21 men they sent to the plate reached base. It was, by far, the best the offense has looked since April.
“It felt more like the old days,” said two-homer man Alfonso Soriano to Chad Jennings after the game, referring back to his first stint with the Yankees in the early-2000s. “We scored 14 runs today, so I hope we can do that more often. I know it can’t happen every day because the other team gets paid to get us out, but I hope we continue playing like we played tonight.”
Even with last night’s 14-run outburst, the Yankees are still only averaging four runs per game with a team .249/.324/.383 (94 wRC+) batting line in August. That’s a bit below-average but way better than what the offense did during the disaster months of June and July: 3.58 runs per games with a team 72 wRC+. The Yankees spent two hot summer months in a hitter friendly home ballpark hitting — as a team (!) — like consummate fifth outfielder Endy Chavez (72 wRC+). Think about that.
The Yankees have hit eleven homeruns in their last six games and 13 in August overall, more than they hit in July (ten) and the same number they hit in their previous 31 games combined. Not coincidentally, Soriano joined the lineup along with Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez recently. Soriano has hit five homers in 19 games since returning to the Yankees and Granderson has hit two in his eleven games back. A-Rod, who many believed would never play again as recently as last month, has even gone deep once in his seven games back.
Those three, even with all their flaws, represented massive upgrades to the lineup. The bar at third base, in left field, and at DH had been set so low that even league-average production would have been a huge step up. More A-Rod means less Jayson Nix (62 wRC+) and David Adams (45 wRC+). More Granderson means less Vernon Wells (79 wRC+). More Soriano means less Travis Hafner (87 wRC+), who wound up on the DL anyway. Guys like Nix and Wells moved back into roles more suitable for their abilities rather than be asked to play everyday. Add in the recently productive Austin Romine taking at-bats away from Chris Stewart and the Yankees have upgraded four lineup spots in the last three weeks or so.
The lineup Joe Girardi ran out there on Sunday and Monday…
- Brett Gardner
- Ichiro Suzuki
- Robinson Cano
- Lyle Overbay
- Eduardo Nunez
…is the deepest lineup the Yankees have had this season. Yeah, Granderson and Overbay should be flipped and Romine should be in there for Stewart, but you get the point. Six of the top seven spots are filled by hitters who should be league average or better offensive players, whereas a few weeks ago the Yankees were trotting out a lineup with just two such hitters. There’s power, speed, and batting average to be found in that lineup. They were lucky to get one of three in June and July.
All of this offensive improvement is probably too little, too late though. The Yankees have just a small chance of making the postseason — 4.6% according to Baseball Prospectus — in part because the lineup was so bad for so long. They needed to go out and get a bat or three in early-June, right after Granderson, Mark Teixeira, and Kevin Youkilis (remember him?) suffered their long-term re-injuries. That didn’t happen and the Yankees are where they are. Such is life. At the very least, they now have a lineup capable of being competitive in a daily basis. That wasn’t the case for much the year.
I’m going to preface this by saying I don’t think the Yankees are good enough to qualify for the postseason. I’m not even sure they’re good enough to finish the year with a winning record at this point. There are just too many soft spots in the lineup and too many question marks in the rotation. They’ve exhausted all of their depth and then some. I see too many things wrong with the team to think they can turn it around after more than three months of mediocrity.
That said, the Yankees are still only four games back of a playoff spot with a little less than two months to play. Nobody wants to run away with this thing, apparently. It’s a daunting task for New York because there are four teams ahead of them fighting for that spot, but it is doable. They’re going to need some help to do it though, they have for weeks, and they got a very unwanted piece of help on Monday night. Alex Rodriguez and all of his baggage returned to the lineup against the White Sox.
In his first game following hip surgery, a quad strain, and a historic suspension, A-Rod went 1-for-4 at the plate with a jam shot bloop single, two deep fly balls, and a strikeout looking. He worked the count well — 17 pitches in four at-bats — which is more than you can say about most of the lineup these days. If this is all that Alex is capable of at this point of his career, he won’t help the Yankees at all. But it was just one game, one big league game after two Double-A rehab games. It doesn’t tell us much of anything.
What we do know is that prior to Monday’s game, the team’s third basemen were hitting a combined .215/.272/.285 (54 OPS+) on the season, by far the worst production at the position in baseball. In fact, they’re being out-homered by Cubs pitchers 5-4. I wish I was making that up. The Yankees also came into Monday hitting a weak .237/.305/.344 (85 OPS+) against left-handers, which is a far bigger problem in the grand scheme of things. It’s one thing to have a really bad spot in the lineup, it’s another when you can’t hit an entire handedness of pitcher.
A-Rod, even at his age with all those injury problems and off-the-field baggage, is going to help with their hot corner and against-lefties problems. It would an upset if he didn’t. Even last year — the worst full season of his career — he managed a 113 OPS+ overall and a 146 OPS+ against southpaws. If A-Rod comes back as 70-75% of the player he was in 2012, he’d still be an upgrade. In a weird kinda way, he’s lucky the bar has been set so low. Expectations are low and that’s probably the best thing he has going for him. If he sucks, he’ll be doing exactly what everyone expected. No one to disappoint, I suppose.
Outside of the potential on-field upgrade, I do think there’s some small value in the distraction Rodriguez creates. He does draw attention and keep it away from others, which means fewer questions for CC Sabathia to answer about his awful season. Fewer questions for Andy Pettitte, who looks to be at the end of the line. Fewer questions about Derek Jeter‘s calf and Robinson Cano‘s impending free agency and the team’s overall poor play. There is always going to be some kind of hot button issue with the Yankees, the media makes sure of it, and A-Rod is a lightning rod. The more negative attention he takes away from his teammates, the better it is for them.
The Yankees have made it fairly obvious they want nothing to do with A-Rod. The kept him away from the team in Spring Training, kept him away from the team during his rehab, the GM very publicly told him to “shut the f**k up” following a seemingly innocuous tweet, and they pushed back his return from the quad injury as long as possible. I’ve said this before, but I truly believe the Yankees kept him out as long as reasonably possible in hopes he would get suspended and stay away from the club long-term. If Alex didn’t have almost $100M left on his contract, they absolutely would have cut him and gotten rid of the headache. Zero doubt about that whatsoever.
We’ve reached the point of the season where the options to upgrade the team are very limited. The trade deadline has passed and most of the guys stashed in the minors have already gotten an opportunity, so there’s not much available to the team anymore. Replacing the hilariously awful revolving door of third basemen with A-Rod and all of his warts could actually be a significant improvement over the final two months. All he has to do is be a league average hitter — that’s a .253/.317/.398 batting line, so we’re not talking about a miracle here — to be a significant improvement. The Yankees don’t like A-Rod and they don’t want him anywhere near the team, but they also want to qualify for the postseason. Their best chance to do that is with Alex on the field everyday.
To date, this has been a lost season for Curtis Granderson. Two long-ish term fluke injuries have limited him to just eight (!) of the team’s first 107 games, and the Yankees have sorely missed his power production in the middle of the lineup. The injuries also came at a bad time for Curtis personally, since he’s due to become a free agent for the first time this winter. That’s unfortunate.
The good news is that Granderson’s time on the DL is about to come to an end. He wrapped up his six-game minor league rehab assignment yesterday, going 4-for-19 (.211) with four walks and five strikeouts with High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton. Granderson played left field in four of the six games — he was the DH in the other two, once because he had a stomach bug and couldn’t play the field as scheduled — and reported no problems with his left hand.
“Curtis has been a vital part of our offense,” said Derek Jeter to Wally Matthews. “He’s a guy that can change the game with one swing. We’re looking forward to him coming back, but just because Curtis is back doesn’t mean we can sit back and relax. Everybody has a job to do and everyone needs to do it.”
As a team, the Yankees have hit just 28 homers in 53 games since the calendar flipped to June, including a recent eight-game homer-less streak that was their longest since going ten straight in April 1984. That’s where Granderson, a flawed hitter who won’t hit for much average and will strike out a bunch, figures to give the team a big boost. They need someone who can put a run(s) on the board with one swing, and few hitters in the world can do that as well as Curtis. That his left hand was broken and not the right (front hand) bodes well for retaining that power after the injury.
There’s also this: the Yankees have become a very impatient team. They rank 19th in baseball with a 7.5% walk rate, their lowest since 1990 and their first time below 8.5% since 2001. Outside of Brett Gardner, who is seventh in baseball with an average of 4.24 pitches per plate appearance, not a single regular sees more than 3.75 pitches per plate appearance. That’s awful and leads to a lot of quick outs, as you may have noticed. In addition to hitting for power, one of Granderson’s strengths is drawing walks (11.0% in 2012, 10.1 % career) and seeing pitches (4.27 P/PA in 2012, 4.16 career). That will be a welcome addition to the offense.
Although the Yankees are lefty-heavy, it won’t be tough to squeeze Granderson’s bat back into the lineup. I assume Melky Mesa will be sent to Triple-A to clear a 25-man roster spot and either Luis Cruz or Zoilo Almonte will be transferred to the 60-day DL to clear a 40-man spot, but that’s the easy part. Granderson should play left field every day, pushing Alfonso Soriano into the DH role. Ichiro Suzuki and Vernon Wells will have to duke it out for playing time in right. The regular lineup could look something like this:
- CF Gardner
- SS Jeter
- 2B Robinson Cano
- LF Granderson
- DH Soriano
- 1B Lyle Overbay
- RF Ichiro or Wells
- Third Base
That splits up the lefties a bit, rather than batting Soriano cleanup and having three straight lefty bats from the five through seven slots whenever Ichiro plays. It’s not perfect, but that suddenly looks like a competitive big league lineup. Four guys you can expect to be above-average, two you can expect to be about average, and three that range from below-average to awful. It’s not a classic Yankees lineup, but it’s far better than what they’ve trotted out there for most of the season.
So, this is it. The Yankees are at full strength now. With the exception of Alex Rodriguez, who is facing a Biogenesis-related suspension, all of the injured position players will be back as soon as Granderson is activated. Frankie Cervelli is heading to see Dr. Andrews and is unlikely to play again this year, and the trio of Cruz, Almonte, and Travis Hafner are largely inconsequential. This is it barring an August waiver trade. With Curtis back, the Yankees are as close to full strength as they’re going to get, and now is the time to make a run at that second wildcard spot.
Fresh off three offensively inept losses to the Athletics last week, the Yankees called up outfielder Thomas Neal from Triple-A and inserted him right into their lineup during the first two games of the Angels series. The move wasn’t just a response to the 18-inning marathon game either — Neal told Chad Jennings he received the call at 2:15pm ET on Thursday, more than an hour before the marathon game started. The team made the move as a direct response to their struggling offense.
It was just one very small move, and the Yankees shouldn’t stop there. Despite yesterday’s six-run outburst, this is still a club that struggles to put more than four runs on the board on any given night, and lately scoring more than two runs has been a chore. With so many high-profile injuries and scrap heap replacements, the Bombers actually have some roster flexibility and can replace players without having to worry about salaries or contract statuses or egos.
In no particular order, here are four moves the Yankees can make to potentially improve the position player side of their roster. None of these moves are going to transform the offense into a juggernaut, not even close, but even slight upgrades are worth making at this point.
Bring back Brennan Boesch
Boesch, 28, hit .283/.341/.458 (117 wRC+) with 16 homers as recently as 2011. He had surgery to repair the UCL in his right thumb (so the thumb on his front/power hand) following that season, and the lingering effects contributed to his .240/.286/.372 (77 wRC+) line in 2012. The Yankees picked him during Spring Training and outside of a one-week stint with Triple-A Scranton last month, Boesch has not played regularly or been able to get into a groove this season. He managed a .275/.302/.529 (123 wRC+) line during his sporadic appearances with the big league team, and now’s the time to see what he can contribute with regular at-bats. The club’s corner outfielders have been just awful overall this year.
Now, there’s a small problem: Boesch is currently on the Triple-A DL with a shoulder injury. Ken Davidoff said it was a minor issue in multiple articles last week and indicated he could return relatively soon, however. As soon as Boesch is healthy and ready to be activated, the Yankees should call him up and stick him in the lineup everyday. Against righties, against lefties, at home, on the road, whatever. Let him sink or swim. There’s a non-zero chance he can contribute to the team both this year and in the future — Boesch is under control as an arbitration-eligible player through at least 2015 — and this is the time to see what he has.
Swap David Adams for Ronnie Mustelier
It feels like an eternity since the 26-year-old Adams burst onto the scene and went 10-for-31 (.323) with two doubles and two homers in his first eight big league games. Since then, he’s gone 6-for-44 (.136) with one double to drag his season batting line down to .213/.234/.333 (49 wRC+). He also has yet to draw a walk in 77 plate appearances. Adams has gone from everyday third baseman to seldom-used platoon infielder.
Mustelier, on the other hand, has put up an unimpressive .280/.319/.408 (96 wRC+) line in 166 plate appearances for Triple-A Scranton this year, at least unimpressive compared to the .314/.371/.488 (~140 wRC+) line he managed between Double-A and Triple-A last summer. The 28-year-old Cuban defector has picked it up of late following a slow start, hitting .324/.359/.468 over the last month. He plays third, he plays left, he plays right, he’s hit ever since signing two years ago. The defense is not great (or even good), but if not now, then when?
Of course, we run into another problem: like Boesch, Mustelier is hurt at the moment. He is currently sidelined — not on the DL, just day-to-day — with what amounts to a minor grain strain. I don’t know what the timetable is for his return, but I assume it will be relatively soon since they’ve yet to put him on the 7-day minor league DL. By swapping the two, Adams can go back to Triple-A to get regular playing time and rebuild his confidence while Mustelier gets the opportunity to play third everyday.
Drop Reid Brignac for Alberto Gonzalez
Brignac, 27, is the best defensive shortstop in the entire Yankees organization. He is also hitting .182/.217/.261 (18 wRC+) in 94 plate appearances overall this year, including a .100/.122/.125 mark since joining New York. Big league pitchers are hitting .138/.165/.186 (-9 wRC+) this year, for comparison. There is a minimum standard of acceptable offense and Brignac does not meet it, even at the low standards of shortstop.
The Yankees actually dumped the 30-year-old Gonzalez for Brignac last month, opting for better defense and the left-handed bat. Gonzalez has gone 8-for-35 (67 wRC+) in limited big league time this year, and at Triple-A Scranton he currently owns a .269/.355/.312 (85 wRC+) line. Neither of these guys can hit, but Gonzalez can’t hit slightly less. He’s no slouch with the glove either, in fact he’s probably the second best defensive shortstop in the organization. There isn’t much sense in keeping Brignac around for platoon reasons when he can’t hit at all. Gonzalez could provide a slight upgrade overall, and even if he doesn’t, no big deal. The Yankees really wouldn’t be any worse off.
Swap Austin Romine for … someone
Three (three!) competent big league backup catchers were designated for assignment last week, meaning they are freely available to the other 29 teams. One of those catchers (John Baker) has since been claimed by the Dodgers, but the other two (Ramon Hernandez and Kelly Shoppach) are still out there for the taking. Hernandez has hit .208/.291/.438 (103 wRC+) in 55 plate appearances for the Rockies and Dodgers this season while Shoppach put up a .196/.293/.346 (82 wRC+) line in 125 plate appearances for the Mariners.
Romine, 24, has been an absolute disaster even by backup catcher standards, going 7-for-53 (-24 wRC+) with two doubles. Both the 37-year-old Hernandez and 33-year-old Shoppach represent upgrades, allowing Romine to get the regular playing time he desperately needs in Triple-A. Shoppach is particularly appealing because he a) has hit .239/.333/.428 (112 wRC+) against left-handers since 2010, and b) is familiar with CC Sabathia from their years together with the Indians. As we saw with Romine, the Yankees are obviously concerned about the pitcher-catcher relationship. Shoppach and Sabathia already have a bit of a rapport, which should ease the transition. The backup catcher is pretty much the 25th man on the roster, but an upgrade is an upgrade.
* * *
Obviously these moves aren’t as simple as swapping one guy out for another. Each requires a 40-man roster move and that can get complicated, especially when making multiple moves at the same time. The 40-man is full right now, but guys like Chris Bootcheck, Melky Mesa, Neal, and Brignac are easily cuttable. Remember though, the team is expecting five (!) players to return from 60-day DL at some point this summer barring setbacks. Clogging up the roster with someone like Mustelier might not be ideal. Then again, neither is struggling to score four runs a night.