Archive for Offense
I have this buddy — most of you probably know him — who IMs me at least once a week clamoring for the Yankees to sign Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales.
Drew we know makes some level of sense. The Yankees still need some infield help. Despite his relative health so far, and his improving performance, they can’t ignore the injury risk of Brian Roberts. Fun as he’s been to watch, Yangervis Solarte could go away at any time. The Yankees can’t really afford that kind of drop-off at this point.
Once they signed Carlos Beltran, Morales didn’t make sense for the Yanks. They had Mark Teixeira installed at first base, and with four outfielders they had their DH needs covered. There just weren’t enough at-bats for a guy who certainly deserves them. There was always the “if Mark Teixeira misses significant time” caveat, but other than that there wasn’t much connection between Morales and the Yankees.
Beltran’s injury changes the scene a bit. If he does require immediate surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow, the Yankees have room to add a bat. With two MLB players waiting for a team to sign them, the Yankees have a perfect opportunity to improve.
Morales: DH and spelling Teixeira
The Yankees need a healthy Teixeira if they’re going to make a run at the postseason. They’ve already missed him for two weeks. To lose him again, especially with Beltran out, would further cripple the offense. We got a little scare earlier this week, when Teixeira sat out a game and complaining of tired legs. He ran poorly, even for himself, during the weekend series in Milwaukee.
Adding Morales gives Girardi a viable backup for Teixeira. Playing Morales at first allows Teixeira to take a full day off, or to rest up a bit at DH. Kelly Johnson could do that, sure, but what happens if Roberts gets hurt? Johnson can’t play the entire right side of the infield.
Morales’s primary role would be at DH, with Alfonso Soriano taking over in right field. His arm might not be fit for the job, but he’s shown considerably more range than Beltran this season. It’s a trade-off that the Yankees will have to take. They can still get Soriano days at DH and on the bench, as he’s been doing all year. That will free up some at-bats for Ichiro as well.
Drew: Mitigating Jeter
The rise of Solarte has made the Yankees infield a bit better than we anticipated going into the season. Unfortunately, Jeter’s defense has been even worse than imagined. The pitching staff has had its troubles, and it’s tough to blame the entire problem on shaky infield defense, but it sure hasn’t helped them. Drew is no defensive wizard, but he represents an upgrade over the current corps.
Signing Drew only works if Girardi makes Jeter the primary DH in Beltran’s absence. Perhaps Jeter can stay fresher if he’s off the field, providing a bit more offense than he is now. Drew plays his natural position, at which his bat provides the most value.
Given the state of the Yankees infield, there doesn’t need to be a very strong case made for Drew. He’d help.
What about pitching?
With three-fifths of the Opening Day rotation on the DL, the Yankees might need some pitching help. We know Ivan Nova is lost for the season. Who knows if CC Sabathia, with a degenerative knee condition, or Michael Pineda, with an injury so close to his surgically repaired right shoulder will come back — let alone come back and pitch effectively. If the Yankees are going to open their wallets, shouldn’t it aid the pitching staff?
In an ideal world, sure. But in the real world, there aren’t any major league caliber pitchers on the free agent market. A few might become available in July, but the Yankees can’t count on that. They have to take measures to improve the team where they can when the opportunities arise. Right now, the opportunities lie in Drew and Morales.
There is little to no chance the Yankees sign both, giving up their second- and third-round draft picks in the process. (Unless Boras comes up with one of his creative package deals, a la Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez.) Either could help the Yankees if Beltran misses significant time. Strangely enough, it might even make them a more balanced team in the process.
As a team, the Yankees have one of the lowest strikeout rates in baseball. They came out of last night’s game with a 19.6% strikeout rate, below the 20.5% league average and the tenth lowest rate in the game. Guys like Derek Jeter, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Brian Roberts, and Yangervis Solarte have had little trouble putting the ball in play, and that’s five-ninths of the starting lineup right there.
And then there’s Brett Gardner. He has a career 18.2% strikeout rate and last season it was 20.9%, both of which are more or less league average when you consider baseball’s perpetually increasing strikeout rate. (MLB has set a new record high for strikeout rate in each of the last seven seasons.) This season as been different though. Gardner has a 24.4% strikeout rate, by far the highest of his career. His 6.1% swing-and-miss rate is also a career-high (but still below the 9.3% league average). He’s been piling up the whiffs in 2014.
Gardner isn’t oblivious to the strikeout issues he’s had these last few weeks and he’s working to correct them. He cites a mechanical flaw and says he isn’t planning any kind of major overhaul to his game. That would be a little silly at this point. From George King:
“I have been striking out too much,’’ said Gardner, who didn’t whiff Wednesday night against the Angels in Anaheim after fanning seven times in the previous four games. “My mechanics have been a little off, rushing the swing and swinging with my head moving. I have been swinging and missing more than I would like.’’
“I have to do a better job, but I don’t want to change my game. I have to be aggressive so when I get a pitch to hit, I put the ball in play and use my speed,’’ said Gardner, whose 31 Ks were tied for 22nd among AL hitters Thursday. “I felt better [Wednesday].’’
Even if you’ve never playing anything higher than Little League, you know that too much head movement during your swing is a recipe for swinging and missing. If you can’t see the ball properly, you’re not going to hit it. Gardner isn’t chasing more bad pitches or anything like that — 23.0% swing rate on pitches out of the zone, down from 23.6% last year — he’s just coming up empty when he does swing. The swing-and-miss punishment fits the head movement crime.
Gardner struck out 12 times in his first 40 plate appearances of the season (30%) and more recently he had a stretch with 11 strikeouts in 27 plate appearances (40.7%), which is just way too high, especially for a non-power hitter. He has gotten better as the season has progressed …
… but it’s clear there is still some work to be done. It’s not like Gardner isn’t hitting at all — both his AVG (.283) and OBP (.352) are better than last season (.273 and .344), he’s just hitting for zero power (.053 ISO) — he’s just struggling to put the ball in play. It’s actually kinda amazing he’s remained as productive as he has despite the high strikeout rate.
The most important thing is that Gardner isn’t chasing more pitches out of the zone. That would be a real big concern. Since his plate discipline seems to be fine and he’s identified a mechanical issue with his head, I think it’s only a matter of time before he snaps out of his swing-and-miss funk. It’s frustrating, I know it is, but as long as Gardner is getting on base, stealing bases (7-for-7 this year), and playing high-end defense, he remains a productive player for the Yankees and worthy of an everyday lineup spot.
Through the first month or so of the season, I’m not sure anyone on the roster has been more disappointing than Brian McCann. The backstop has started his Yankees career with a 56 wRC+ in the first five-ish weeks, which ranks 177th out of 188 qualified hitters and dead last out of 15 qualified catchers. Chris Stewart had a 58 wRC+ last season, remember. The Yankees basically swapped Stewart for a balder, more expensive version in McCann. He’s been that bad so far.
As the fine broadcasters at the YES Network are wont to remind us day after day, inning after inning, the infield shift is widespread throughout baseball these days and McCann is one of its most popular targets. He was one of the most shifted against hitters in baseball last season and the same is true again so far this year. That was to be expected. Other teams weren’t going to stop shifting against McCann just because he was wearing a new uniform.
The shift has taken more than a few hits away from McCann this season and again, that is expected. Teams wouldn’t shift if they didn’t work. His .204 BABIP is a career low, especially when compared to his other healthy seasons (.234 before shoulder surgery in 2012), and down quite a bit from last season’s .261 BABIP. This isn’t all because of the shift — 8.3% of his plate appearances have ended with an infield pop-up this year, the fifth highest rate in baseball. Infield pop-ups are pretty much automatic outs and death to BABIP. His career pop-up rate prior to 2014 was only 4.0%, so this is way out of the norm.
Between the increased pop-up rate, the career low (by far) 3.5% walk rate, the career high (by far) 34.8% swing rate on pitches out of the zone*, and the ol’ eye test, I’m pretty comfortable saying McCann is pressing like hell at the plate. He’s trying to squeeze sap out of the bat. It happens. New team, new city, fat new contract, no beard, it’s understandable. Players press. McCann isn’t the first and he sure as hell won’t be the last. We’ve seen flashes of the productive power-hitting catcher the Yankees signed, but he hasn’t shown up consistently yet. It’ll happen, hopefully very soon.
* McCann’s strikeout rate (11.3%) is far below the league average and his best since 2008, so it’s not like he’s having trouble putting the ball in play.
Getting back on track, other clubs have been shifting against McCann quite a bit this season and lately it seems like he’s making an effort to go the other way. He’s always been a dead pull power hitter and that’s a big reason why he was so attractive to the Yankees, but lately I feel like we’ve seen more attempts to go to the opposite field. It doesn’t always work, but the attempt is there. Remember this?
McCann had three hits in that game and all three were to left field. I remember he ripped a line drive foul ball in that direction as well. Obviously a double to the wall is an extreme example of beating the shift by going the other way, but McCann did attempt a simple bunt towards third base to beat the shift on Monday. Here’s the play if you didn’t stay up late for the West Coast game:
The bunt went foul — it’s not easy to bunt Major League pitching, you know — but McCann made the attempt. He tried to beat the shift in the most basic way possible: by rolling the ball to where the defenders aren’t standing. That’s all a bunt is.
I didn’t watch enough of McCann during his time with the Braves to know whether these attempts to beat the shift are new or something he’s been trying for years. I would greatly prefer the former and hope this is a new development. Thankfully, we can check that. With an assist to the intimidatingly great Baseball Savant, here are some numbers on McCann’s tendencies to pull the ball or hit it the other way over the last few seasons. The table doesn’t include last night’s game because stupid West Coast:
|Total Pitches Pulled||Away Pitches Pulled||Total Pitches Other Way||Away Pitches Other Way|
First, some explanations are in order:
- Total Pitches Pulled: Percentage of all pitches pulled to the right side of the infield or to right field. McCann saw 452 pitches prior to last night and he pulled 35 of them to the right side of the field, or 7.7%.
- Away Pitches Pulled: Percentage of pitches on the outer third or off the plate away that were pulled to the right side. McCann saw 270 pitches in those locations and pulled 15 of them to the right side, or 5.6%.
- Total Pitches Other Way and Away Pitches Other Way are the same thing, only with pitches that were hit towards the left side of the infield or left field. Got it? Easy enough.
This season, either consciously or through the mirage of small sample size, McCann has been pulling fewer pitches to the right side of the field. He’s going the other way more often and that is especially true with pitches away from him, the ones you’re supposed to serve to the opposite field for a Nice Piece of Hitting. More than a few players (coughMarkTeixeiracough) will still try to pull those pitches and wind up rolling over on them, hitting a weak grounder right into the teeth of the shift.
We’ve seen McCann roll over on outside pitches this year, everyone does it, but he is doing it less often than he had the last few years. He’s taking those pitches to left field nearly twice as often as he had from 2011-12. I’m not going to bother looking at inside pitches because inside pitches are supposed to be pulled and pulled for power. Not everyone is Derek Jeter, who is going to the Hall of Fame because of his ability to pull his hands in and drive those pitches the other way. You want McCann to pull inside pitches because that’s how he can do some real damage.
Anyway, this is good! I think. We still need to wait a few more weeks to make sure this newfound tendency to go the other way is not just sample size noise, which is always possible. The data matches what my eyes were telling me though. McCann is indeed trying to hit the ball the other way more often. That could absolutely be contributing to his early season slump too. It’s a change in approach and sometimes those changes take time. McCann’s been hitting one way his entire life and now he appears to be changing it up. Of course there are going to be some bumps in the road.
Are teams going to stop shifting McCann because he’s hitting the ball the other way more often? Nope. Here are his spray charts. He still a pull-first hitter who yanks a ton of ground balls and line drives to the right side of the field and teams will stack their defense accordingly. McCann does appear to be making an attempt to go the other way more, particularly with pitches on the outer third of the plate. That will change how teams pitch him more than the defensive alignment. The most important thing is that he is hitting more balls away from the shift. The first few weeks of McCann’s tenure in New York have been ugly, no doubt about it, but there seems to be some serious work going on behind the scenes, and that could have positive results in time.
Just last week, the Yankees scored 45 runs on a seven-game road trip through Tampa and Boston, scoring at least five runs in five of the seven games. The rebuilt lineup started the season slowly but that wasn’t going to last forever. The Yankees were getting on base, smacking homers, stealing bases, coming up with timely walks, hitting good pitching (14 runs in 9.2 innings against Jon Lester and David Price), and hitting bad pitching (11 runs in 6.1 innings against Erik Bedard and Felix Doubront). It was great.
The first four games of this homestand have not gone as well. The Bombers scored eight total runs in three games against the Angels over the weekend (still won two of three!) and last night they were shut down by whatever’s left of Chris Young‘s career. Two of their last four runs have scored because of defensive miscues — Nick Maronde wild pitch, Mike Zunino throwing error — so they’ve needed some help getting on the board these last two games. It’s annoying but every team goes through (multiple) stretches like this each year.
The Yankees haven’t been scoring lately simply because the top half of the lineup is in a collective funk. Here is what they’ve done over the last seven days, which includes that 14-5 beatdown of the Red Sox:
- No. 1 Hitter Jacoby Ellsbury: 4-for-20 (.200), two walks (.273 OBP)
- No. 2 Hitter Derek Jeter: 5-for-24 (.208), two walks (.269 OBP)
- No. 3 Hitter Carlos Beltran: 4-for-24 (.167), two walks (.259 OBP)
- No. 4 Hitter Alfonso Soriano: 4-for-23 (.174), one walk (.192 OBP)
- No. 5 Hitter Brian McCann: 2-for-20 (.100), one walk (.182 OBP)
The fivesome has combined for seven extra-base hits during that time, all doubles. Obviously some parts have been mixed in the last few days (Brett Gardner leading off yesterday, for example), but that has been the team’s most used one through five lineup combination so far this season according to Baseball Reference. You’re not going to score many runs when your top five hitters do that. Guys like Brian Roberts, Mark Teixeira, and Yangervis Solarte are not going to carry a lineup all by themselves.
McCann had a good 6-7 game stretch a few weeks ago but otherwise he has not hit this year and it’s starting to get annoying. He isn’t striking out much — his 13.3% strikeout rate is well below the league average and his lowest rate in seven years — but he also isn’t walking much either (4.4%). Considering he walked in 9.7% of his plate appearances last year and in 9.4% for his career, I don’t think this will last. McCann is being victimized by the fourth highest infield pop-up rate (9.6%) among baseball’s 193 qualified hitters, which is by far a career high. Pop-ups are basically automatic outs. It seems like McCann is juuust missing and popping up some pitches he should be creaming. Since he isn’t struggling to make contact and his ground ball rate hasn’t spiked like it does for most players when they start to lose bat speed (his grounder rate has actually dropped this year), it seems like it’s only a matter of time before he breaks out.
Ellsbury and Beltran were hitting earlier this season, quite a bit too. They just hit the skids recently. It happens. Perhaps Ellsbury’s sore hand explains his slump, who knows. Soriano has long been one of the streakiest hitters in baseball, we all know this from his first stint in pinstripes, and right now he’s not hitting. A few weeks ago he was, also quite a bit. Jeter … I don’t really know what to expect from him going forward. He isn’t hitting for any power whatsoever but his overall .352 OBP is more than respectable. I’d be happy if he maintains that all season at his age and after all those injuries. Baseball is hard enough as it is. It’s extra hard for a soon-to-be 40-year-old coming off some serious leg problems.
When the Yankees struggled to score at the start of the season, I said it was way too early to worry and it was. They started hitting a day or two later. The same is true now. The top half of the lineup has stunk for a week now and the team has struggled to score runs on the homestand, but it is only a handful of games. McCann is the only one of these guys who hasn’t hit much all season but it’s not like the Yankees will bench him. That’s be pretty silly. They just need to work through it. Otherwise Ellsbury, Jeter, Beltran, and Soriano have just stopped hitting at the same time. It stinks but it won’t last forever. It’s just baseball.
Back in January, the Yankees signed a nondescript journeyman named Yangervis Solarte to a minor league contract. It was reported that he would compete with guys like Eduardo Nunez and Dean Anna for a bench spot in Spring Training, but come on. Yangervis Solarte? When I posted the news of the signing, I wrote “he’s likely at the very bottom of the infield depth chart.” You know why I wrote that? Because he was.
Then, in Spring Training, Solarte became that guy. The random player no one knew anything about who had a huge spring. Solarte hit .429/.489/.571 with two homers in 47 plate appearances during Grapefruit League play, and most years that would mean nothing. The Yankees tend to have very few roster spots up for grabs in camp. This year was different though, and Solarte played his way into consideration for a bench job –Brendan Ryan‘s injury certainly helped — a bench job he eventually won. He didn’t just take Nunez’s job, he took his 40-man roster spot and uniform number. Scorched earth.
Solarte made his Yankees debut as a pinch-hitter in the team’s second game of the season, banging into a rally killing double play in his first at-bat. He got the start the next day and went 3-for-3 with a double. He went 2-for-5 with two doubles the next day. Then 2-for-3 the next day. Then 1-for-3 with a double the next day and 1-for-3 with a walk the day after that. Yesterday, Solarte went 2-for-4 with two doubles. He got into the lineup and he hasn’t given Joe Girardi a reason to take him out.
So, now that the hot spring has turned into a hot start to the season, we’re sitting here wondering if Weird Al Yangervis (h/t @rxmeister28) is legit. And who knows, really? I don’t know, you don’t know, the Yankees don’t know, no one knows. I mean, obviously Solarte will not continue to hit .458/.519/.708 (248 wRC+) all season because no one does that. I’d be happy with literally half that production (124 wRC+). But, eventually balls like this …
… will not find a hole on the infield. Balls like this …
… will not drop in for a base hit. Balls like this …
… will not plop out of the outfielder’s glove. Let’s not kid ourselves here. Solarte has definitely been lucky these first eight games, and yes, it’s luck. That word is thrown around way too often to explain random events in baseball, but a pop-up falling between a bunch of infielders? Luck. A soft line drive clanking out of a Gold Glove right fielder’s mitt? Luck. Let’s call it what it is.
At the same time, Solarte’s MLB-leading (!) six doubles are not luck. Five of the six have either clanked off the wall or landed on the warning track. The other was a bloop that a diving outfielder just missed. Solarte has a little bit of pop in his bat — I’m not sure how much harder he can hit a ball than five doubles, it looked like he got a hold of each one — and he can turn on a mistake pitch. Some of the singles have been lucky. The doubles? Not so much.
Solarte, who is only 26 and had never played in the big leagues before this season, did not make the team just because of his hot spring. He made the team because he’s a switch-hitter who makes a lot of contact (one strikeout in 27 plate appearances so far) and can play reliable defense at second base, third base, and in left field. He can even fill in at shortstop in a pinch. Is he a great defender? No. But he is adequate, something you could not say about the man he replaced.
How long will Solarte’s hot start last? Who knows. It could end today, it could end next week, it could end in July. I’m not ready to declare him a long-term piece for the Yankees but he is playing very well right now and the production is in the bank. It happened and it helped the team win games while Mark Teixeira has been hurt and the middle of the order has gotten off to a slow start. He’s been just what the team needed.
Solarte should play everyday until he stops hitting, and moving him up a spot or three in the lineup isn’t a bad idea either. Even if he turns into a pumpkin tomorrow, the club has already gotten more out of him than they could have reasonably expected, and he’s been a huge boost early in the season.
The start of the season has a way of magnifying things. We can’t help it. We’ve been baseball starved for months and while Spring Training is fun in its own way, it can’t compare to meaningful games. Once the season starts and we see new faces in new uniforms, we get excited and look at things a little too deeply. I did it just this morning. If that CC Sabathia start happens any other day of the year, I probably wouldn’t think twice about it.
That same idea applies to the offense. The Yankees haven’t hit a lick these last two days, especially against Astros starters Scott Feldman and Jarred Cosart (combined 11.2 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 6 K). New York’s offense went 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position last night and 2-for-8 in those spots on Opening Day. Few things are are frustrating as stranding runners. The much-hyped outfield is hitting a combined .103 with a .212 OBP while the oft-criticized infield has hit .278 with a .350 OBP. Up is down, black is white, nothing makes sense anymore.
That’s because the season is two games old. The Yankees as a team have had 73 plate appearances so far. That’s a small amount for a single player, nevermind an entire team. If these last two games happened in the middle of June — and trust me, they’ll stop hitting for a few games several times this year, that’s baseball — we’d notice but not think much about it. Because it’s the start of the season, it’s a Really Big Deal.
“We’re going to be fine, man. We haven’t been able to put anything together offensively, but we have what it takes to play better and win ballgames. We don’t need to worry about it,” said Carlos Beltran to Mark Feinsand after last night’s game. “That’s part of when a team is cold. Sometimes you put a few guys in scoring position and you have difficulties getting those guys in. It’s just the second game of the season. It’s important to win and every win counts, but we’ve had good pitching from them, so you have to give credit for what they’ve been doing.”
I mean, of course there’s a chance the Yankees really do stink offensively despite all the new additions. That’s always possibility but I find it very hard to believe. Jacoby Ellsbury (calf) and Alfonso Soriano (flu, shoulder) were behind the other position players in camp because of injuries, Mark Teixeira (wrist) and Derek Jeter (legs) are coming back from lost seasons, so it’s no surprise they look rusty. The offense has positively stunk these last two games, but it has been just that, two games. It’s annoying but hardly a cause for concern at this point.
Over the last few years, as sabermetrics and all that stuff has become more popular, batting average has become underrated. It used to be overrated — not making outs and having a high on-base percentage is still the single most important aspect of hitting — but the art of getting a base hit is definitely underappreciated these days. There is more to life than that of course, but getting a hit is a big piece of the offensive pie.
Last season, the Yankees hit a collective .242 with a team .285 BABIP, rates that ranked 24th and 26th among the 30 teams, respectively. Injuries have a little something to do with the team’s low average, but remember, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira aren’t exactly high-average hitters. Derek Jeter and the out of sight, out of mind Alex Rodriguez are, however. Well, kinda. A perfectly healthy Yankees squad might have hit a few points higher as a team, but not much. The team’s .307 OBP (23rd overall) would have quite a bit higher with good health, I’m sure of that.
The Yankees rebuilt their offense over the winter and back in January I explained how the new-look lineup will bring more a patient approach and, theoretically, a higher team OBP. That’s pretty important. The Yankees didn’t just make too many outs last season, they made too many quick outs. It’s not much of a coincidence that two pitchers (Derek Holland and Chris Archer) threw sub-100 pitch nine-inning complete games against New York last season after only one pitcher (Roy Halladay, surprise surprise) did in the previous ten seasons. The makeshift offense was an impatient lot last summer.
Along with a more patient and disciplined offense should come a group that hits for a higher average. How much higher? I don’t think we could say with any degree of certainty. As underrated as batting average has become, it is still tough to predict because it fluctuates so much from year to year. Robinson Cano is my go-to example: he’s a career .309 hitter who hit .342 in 2006 and .271 in 2008. Did his talent level change in those years? No, it’s just baseball. Weird stuff happens in a game built around hitting a round ball with a cylindrical bat onto a 2+ acre swath of grass. Here’s a look at the Yankees’ lineup and its batting average potential.
Likely to hit .290+
With Cano gone, I don’t think the Yankees have a single player you can comfortably expect to hit .300 or better in 2014. I mean, how many players around the entire league would you safely expect to hit .300+ this year? Cano, Joe Mauer, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen, Joey Votto … that’s probably it. Hitting .300 is hard and few guys can do it year after year, especially in age of declining offense. That’s not to say others won’t hit .300, we all know those guys won’t be alone. Like I said before, weird stuff happens.
The Yankees have two players who are safe bets for a .290+ average this summer and both were acquired in the offseason. Jacoby Ellsbury hit .298 last season (.341 BABIP) and is a career .297 hitter (.326 BABIP) , so he seems to be the team’s best hope for a .300+ hitter. I do think Yankee Stadium will work against him though. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place to hit, but Yankee Stadium is a homerun park. Fenway Park is more conducive to a high batting average with the Green Monster and weird angles. The park factors at FanGraphs bear that out.
Carlos Beltran hit .296 (.314 BABIP) last season and .288 (.313 BABIP) over the last three years, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he hit .300 or better this summer. Derek Jeter hit .316 (.347 BABIP) in his last healthy season and the guy used to fall out of bed and hit .300, but he’s coming off a series of leg injuries and a lost season at age 40. He hasn’t looked particularly good in camp either, though I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt after missing almost all of last season. So much rust to shake off. Tough to know what to expect from him, but I don’t think many would be surprised if the Cap’n had a big going away year.
As for an out of nowhere .290+ hitter, I’d put my money on Eduardo Nunez, who seems like a lock to make the roster and play more than expected at this point. Nunez makes a ton of contact (career 92.8% contact rate) and he’s fast, two skills that lend themselves to hitting for average, especially in small-ish (~300 plate appearances) samples. I’m not saying he’ll do it, but if you’re looking for a Yankee to come out of nowhere to hit for a high average, Nunez is a good guess. For now, I’ll take Ellsbury and Beltran as the team’s best chances for a .290+ hitter with Jeter an honorable mention.
Likely to hit sub-.250
On the other end of the spectrum, there are a few Yankees we can count on for a low-ish batting average. Kelly Johnson hit .235 (.276 BABIP) last season and .226 (.284 BABIP) over the last three seasons. He’s the safe bet to finish with the lowest average among the regulars. Johnson’s offensive game is built around hitting for power, stealing bases, and drawing walks. I have no reason to believe 2014 will be any different.
Alfonso Soriano hit .255 (.289 BABIP) last season, including .256 (.286 BABIP) with the Yankees. Over the last three seasons it’s a .254 average (.289 BABIP). He’s right on that .250 bubble at age 38. Brian McCann (.256 AVG/.251 BABIP in 2013 and .252/.263 from 2011-12) and Mark Teixeira (.251/.250 in 2012 and .252/.258 from 2010-12) are right there with Soriano. Brian Roberts managed to hit .249 (.267 BABIP) in 296 plate appearances last season and has a .246 average (.275 BABIP) while batting injuries over the last four years. He’s probably the second safest bet for a sub-.250 average this season behind Johnson.
Likely to hit somewhere in the middle
This is a bit of a cop-out, because the vast majority of players hit somewhere in that .251-.289 range. Or at least most regulars do. Bench players and pitchers are another matter entirely. Soriano, McCann, and Teixeira will probably be on the low-end of this range, Ellsbury and Beltran will probably be at the high-end (if not over), and Brett Gardner (.273/.342 in 2013 and .268/.325 career) will be right smack in the middle somewhere. There’s really nothing sexy about hitting somewhere in the .251-.289 neighborhood. The extremes are far more interesting.
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Last season, American League non-pitchers hit .256 with a .298 BABIP as the league average continues to drop. It was as high as .275 (.305 BABIP) as recently as 2006 and .267 (.300 BABIP) as recently as 2009, but down it goes. Ellsbury, Beltran, and Gardner give the team three regulars who you can pencil in for a better than average batting average with Jeter a possibility for a fourth. Others like McCann, Teixeira, and Soriano will be right around the average. Batting average is tough to predict, but based on their current talent levels and the last few seasons, the Yankees have six and possibly seven regulars likely to match or exceed the league average. Compared to last year, that’s pretty darn good.
It has been an easy to overlook part of their game, but the Yankees have been one of the most prolific base-stealing teams in baseball over the last decade. They’ve swiped 100+ bases in seven of the last eight seasons and their 1,117 steals since 2004 are the fourth most in the game. No one thinks of the Yankees as a base-stealing team but they’ve been among the best in recent years.
Of course, there is more to base-running than bulk stolen base totals. A lot more, really. Advancing on a ground ball, scoring from first on a double, going first-to-third on a single, all of that is important as well. Players don’t even need to be fast to be good base-runners, though speed sure does help. Between the incumbents and the players brought in over the winter, New York has a number of guys who can make plays on the bases if not flat-out cause chaos.
When the Yankees signed Ellsbury to that massive $153M contract back in December, they added arguably the best base-runner in the world to their roster. He led baseball with 52 steals last year and was only caught four (!) times, a 93% success rate that was easily the best among players who attempted at least 25 steals. Ellsbury has one 70 steal season (2009) and two other 50+ steal seasons (2008, 2013) to his credit. His career success rate is 84%, well above the current break-even point of 66-68%.
Over the last three seasons, Ellsbury has taken the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) 49% of the time, which again is well above the 39-40% league-average. It’s worth noting that he took the extra base only 42% of the time last season, his lowest rate in five years. That doesn’t necessarily mean Ellsbury is slowing down or anything like that, we’re talking about a sample of 74 extra-base opportunities. The difference between 42% and 49% is five extra bases, that’s all. Ellsbury just turned 30 in September and there is little reason to think he will be anything but a base-running monster in 2014. If he stays healthy, 40+ steals and tons of extra bases taken feels like a lock.
I know I’m not the only one who was disappointed in Gardner’s stolen base total last summer. After stealing 96 bases (81% success rate) during his previous two healthy seasons from 2010-11, he dropped down to only 24 steals (75% success rate) in 2013. My hypothesis is that because their offense was so weak, the Yankees gave Gardner the red light a bunch of times last year in an effort to make sure there were runners on base for Robinson Cano. Maybe I’m crazy, who knows.
Gardner’s rate of taking the extra base is very similar to Ellsbury’s: 45% in 2013 and 48% from 2011-13. I think the thing that has kept both guys from being truly elite extra-base takers like Mike Trout (career 61%) has been their ballparks. Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park are small parks, so the outfielders can play a little shallower and get to balls hit in front of them a little quicker. It doesn’t take much to stop a guy from taking those extra 90 feet on a base hit.
Anyway, Gardner turned 30 about two weeks before Ellsbury, so he’s still relatively young and should continue to be a threat on the bases in 2014. Hopefully he gets back to being a 40+ steal guy because that’s when he’s at his best. Only once in their history have the Yankees had two 40+ stolen base players in one season (Steve Sax and Roberto Kelly in 1990), but Gardner and Ellsbury have a very real chance of doing it this summer.
Man, remember how exciting Soriano was when he first came up? He was this wiry little guy who hit for power and ran like the wind, hitting 95 homers and stealing 119 bases from 2001-03, his three full years with the Yankees. That was a baseball lifetime ago and 40+ steals are a thing of the past, but Soriano can still do some damage on the bases.
After swiping a total of 22 bases from 2009-12, Soriano rebounded to steal 18 bags last season, including eight in 58 games with New York. He wasn’t terribly efficient though, getting caught nine times total and four times in pinstripes. That 67% success rate is right on the break-even point. Soriano has also taken the extra base 38% of the time the last three years (41% in 2013), so he’s basically league average in that regard.
I’m not exactly sure what we can expect from the 38-year-old Soriano on the bases this coming season. Could he steal 10-15 bases with a 67% success rate while taking the extra base a league average amount of time? That seems very possible but I’m not sure he could do much better without a huge contract year push. I’d bet against one at his age. Soriano isn’t a Gardner/Ellsbury level base-runner, but he can steal the occasional bag and score from first on the occasional double.
Ichiro, 40, stole 20 bases in 24 attempts last year, second most on the team behind Gardner. His bulk stolen base total has gradually declined over the years but he remains highly efficient, with an 83% success rate both last year and over the last three years. He took the extra base 38% of the time last season and 40% over the last three seasons, so more or less league average.
The additions of Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran have pushed Ichiro into a fifth outfielder’s role, but he should still get plenty of chances to have an impact on the bases as a pinch-runner/spot starter. He keeps himself in phenomenal shape and even though he has clearly lost a step over the years, Ichiro is still a smart base-runner who picks his spots well. I think experience can be very valuable for a bench player and when it comes to running the bases in the late innings of a close game, few would be a better option than Ichiro. Running the bases is something he still does very well, it’s just a question of how often he’ll get to do it.
In the past, the Yankees could always count on their captain for stolen bases and smart base-running decisions, but following last season’s leg injury filled nightmare, it’s unclear if he’ll be of any value on the bases in 2014. Even when he was healthy in 2012, Jeter only stole nine base (in 13 attempts) while taking the extra base 38% of the time. What will he be able to do on the heels of a twice-fractured ankle and various leg muscle problems? The smart money is on not much.
It would be awesome is Jeter got back to being a threat on the bases this summer, but that should be the very least of his and the team’s concerns. He should focus on staying healthy and being productive at the plate, first and foremost. Those are the most important things in his final season. Any base-running value Jeter gives the team this year is icing on the cake. It just isn’t much of a priority at this point of his career.
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Kelly Johnson has stolen 37 bases over the last three years but he only went 7-for-11 (64%) last season, and he took the extra base at a well-below-average 29% over the last three years. He might steal 10-15 bases this summer, but his history suggests he won’t be all that efficient on the bases. Beltran’s knees don’t allow him to run much anymore but Eduardo Nunez is always good for double-digit steals, even as a part-timer, and he took the extra bag at a league average rate from 2011-13.
Gardner and Ellsbury will clearly be the stars of the Yankees’ base-running show this season, and they have some nice support in Ichiro, Soriano, Nunez, and maybe Jeter. It feels like a foregone conclusion that they’ll again top 100+ stolen bases as a team this year and they should improve on their overall extra-base taken rate, which was the second worst in the game at only 35% last year.
Over the last three months, the Yankees have committed 12 contract years and $210.6M in guaranteed money to Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner. That’s a lot of cash and a lot of years for a pair of defense-first outfielders who will steal a bunch of bases but not hit for much power. Years ago, these two guys wouldn’t sniff that kind of money, but teams now better understand and value players who contribute in less obvious ways.
Having both Ellsbury and Gardner signed for at least the next five years impacts the Yankees in a lot of ways. First and foremost, they don’t have to worry about fly balls all that much because those two will track down almost anything. They also don’t need to sweat finding a leadoff man in the post-Derek Jeter era because they now have two of them. Having two-thirds of the starting outfield signed long-term makes life a bit easier, no doubt about it.
On the other hand, having both Ellsbury and Gardner signed for the next half-decade also creates some problems. Well, not to much problem. Just things to consider. They are two very similar players and that makes them somewhat redundant, especially offensively. Don’t get me wrong, guys who get on base and steal bases can be very dangerous, but there also needs to be some diversity to the lineup. The power is going to have to come from somewhere, and with two outfielders signed long-term, it will have to come from the infield.
The good news is that the Yankees have a clean slate on the infield, or close to one anyway. Mark Teixeira is signed to play first base for another three years but Derek Jeter is retiring after the season and both Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts are on one-year contracts. The team has a lot of flexibility when it comes to building their future infield, and that’s great. At the same time, holy crap they need to build three-fourths of an infield next winter. That’s a big deal and it’s a lot of work.
The Yankees’ best infield prospects (Eric Jagielo, Abi Avelino, etc.) are still years away from the big leagues and future free agent classes are pretty terrible. Next year’s class will get even worse as players sign extensions, most notably Hanley Ramirez. He recently said he wants to spend the rest of his career with the Dodgers and they have the money to keep him around that long. Hanley would be a great fit as a power-hitting infielder, though others like J.J. Hardy, Chase Headley, and Pablo Sandoval would make sense as well.
There aren’t many power-hitting infielders out there — only 13 non-first base infielders have had at least 40 extra-base hits in each of the last three seasons — so finding two or three of them won’t be easy in the coming years. The Yankees are going to have to dig up a few guys like that though, that is unless they plan on becoming a speed-first team despite playing in a tiny ballpark in the AL East. The Gardner and Ellsbury deals mean New York will have to target some infielders who can rake for the coming years.
Three offseasons ago, just weeks after winning the World Series, the Cardinals let Albert Pujols walk as a free agent. They made a substantial offer but reportedly held the line at five years, so it was no surprise that he left when another club blew that offer out of the water. The Cardinals wanted Pujols back but on their terms and their terms only.
This past offseason, just weeks after missing the postseason for only the second time in the last 19 years, the Yankees let Robinson Cano walk as a free agent. Like St. Louis with Pujols, the Yankees made Cano a substantial offer but held firm, topping out at seven years and $175 million. When another team blew that offer out of the water, Robbie was gone. New York wanted him back, but again, only on their terms.
The Cardinals’ situation with Pujols and the Yankees’ situation with Cano were very similar and in more ways than the ones I just laid out. Not only did the two teams hold a hard line during talks with their homegrown star, but when that homegrown star left, both clubs turned to the same player to replace the lost offense: Carlos Beltran. St. Louis signed Beltran soon after Pujols left and plopped him in the middle of their order. The Yankees signed Beltran hours after Cano left and are counting on him to anchor their rebuilt lineup.
Beltran, who will turn 37 in April, is certainly no stranger to New York. He spent parts of seven seasons across town with the Mets and he has flirted with the Yankees on numerous occasions. Beltran famously offered to sign with the Bombers at a discount during the 2004-05 offseason, and he also gave them a chance to match the Cardinals’ offer three winters ago. The Yankees passed both times but decided now, with his best years almost certainly in the past, was the time to bring him. Cano’s departure was a big reason why.
With Brian McCann, the Yankees addressed a very specific short and long-term need behind the plate. Jacoby Ellsbury was signed mostly because he was the best non-Cano free agent on the market, but he gives the team a dynamic leadoff hitter who has been through the AL East wars and knows all about playing in a huge market. Beltran is sorta like a combination of the two. He’s a middle of the order bat like McCann but he’s also familiar with playing in an intense market with big expectations.
At the same time, Beltran is nearing the end of his career, so it’s tough to know exactly what to expect at this point. His defense has already declined to the point where he needs a late-inning replacement and his production against lefties has slipped as well, so these next three years will be interesting. I’ve said before that the signing gives me a Randy Johnson vibe, that the Yankees acquired the right player only nine years too late. I really hope that isn’t the case and considering how much money they sunk into him, the team is confident Beltran will remain a very good hitter for another few seasons.
“I look at the team, I look at our situation, the players we have and we have a pretty good chance,” said Beltran to Dan Martin yesterday. “Last year, I experienced being in the World Series with the Cardinals and it was a great feeling. Once you play there, you want to go there every year … Hopefully we can help this team win a championship. I know [Derek Jeter] has a lot of championships, but I don’t have [any]. Hopefully, I can win one.”
During his two years with the Cardinals, Beltran essentially matched Pujols’ offensive output with the Halos (128 vs. 130 OPS+) while doing a better job of staying on the field (296 vs. 252 games). I would be very surprised if Beltran hits anything like Cano these next few years, nevermind play a similar number of games. The Yankees don’t need him to do that though. They improved several lineup spots this winter and should have a deeper lineup overall. Beltran doesn’t have to be The Man for New York the way Cano was, but he does replace him as the team’s best all-around hitter and likely number three hitter. That’s a role Beltran is very familiar with.