Archive for Offense
Of the $483 million the Yankees spent this winter, just $22 million went to the infield – just 4.5 percent of the total. More than half of that $22 million went to a player who might not physically be able to hold down a position all year. The situation looks bleak indeed.
How bleak? Last year the Yankees ranked 26th in the league in infield OPS+ — and that was with Robinson Cano, who ranked 10th in the majors in OPS+. Even adding Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter won’t offset the loss of Cano. The downgrade at second base is just too severe. If Brian Roberts gets hurt, the downgrade tumbles further.
From there the Yankees turn to Dean Anna, Eduardo Nunez, Corban Joseph, and Jose Pirela. Maybe one of them steps in and performs like an average 2B or 3B. But of them only Nunez is battle tested, and he hasn’t shined much when given opportunities. It has become pretty clear that the Yankees have moved on from Nunez as a primary option.
What the Yankees have in the infield is a pile of potentially decent players. Maybe Jeter comes back and hits enough to compensate for his defense. Maybe a finally healthy Teixeira can bolster the crew. Would you take either of those bets, let alone both of them?
At this point there is little the Yankees can do. Maybe they’ve talked trades and think they have a potential match that will materialize later. It’s not as though they’ll find any solutions on the free agent market. They could sure use Stephen Drew, but have said that they will not sign him.
Will the Yankees really go into the season, having spent a half billion in the off-season, with an infield as uncertain as the current one? Right now it seems that way. With not much time left, and few players who can actually help, it appears they’ll try the smorgasbord method.
Unless they know something we don’t…
Last summer, Joe Girardi was forced to fill out his lineup card by putting the hottest hitters around Robinson Cano on a daily basis. That’s how guys like Thomas Neal, Ben Francisco, David Adams, Brennan Boesch, and Zoilo Almonte wound up starting games as high as fifth in the order. Alfonso Soriano settled things down late in the season, but for the most part the lineup was subject to change drastically each and every day.
This coming season figures to be different. Cano is gone, but the Yankees added two middle of the order bats to Soriano in Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann. I expect those three to hit 3-4-5 in whatever order most days, or maybe we should add Mark Teixeira and make it 3-4-5-6. That seems very likely. The team didn’t give Jaocby Ellsbury over $20M a year not to leadoff, so he’ll displace Brett Gardner atop the lineup. Girardi’s biggest lineup question this year might be who the number two hitter behind Ellsbury and ahead of that 3-4-5(-6) group will be.
Traditionally, the number two hitter is someone who can handle the bat and bunt all do all that nonsense. For the Yankees, a team built around power hitters who play in a tiny home ballpark in a division full of tiny ballparks, the number two hitter should function as a second leadoff guy trying to get on base for the middle of the order. Furthermore, given Ellsbury’s speed, the two-hole hitter should also be someone who is patient and gives him a chance to run. If you’re not going to do that, it defeats the point of paying a premium to add an elite base-stealer. Ellsbury has to steal to really have an impact.
The Yankees have two obvious number two hitter candidates in Gardner and Derek Jeter. Jeter has been batting second almost his entire career and I suspect that as long as he’s healthy, he’ll open the season behind Ellsbury in the lineup. That’s fine. Jeter was very good in his last full season and he’s earned the opportunity to show whether he can do that again despite his age and the lost 2013 season. The Cap’n isn’t especially patient (3.78 pitches per plate appearance from 2011-13) and is very double play prone (GIDP’d in 19% of opportunities from 2011-13), two traits that aren’t ideal for the second spot in the lineup. That’s never stopped him from hitting there before though.
Gardner, on the other hand, is very patient (4.21 P/PA from 2011-13) and he rarely grounds into double plays (7 GIDP% from 2011-13) thanks to his speed. He’s a much better fit for the two-hole in that sense, at least against right-handers. Jeter has destroyed lefties his entire career and if he continues to do that in 2014, he’ll deserve a prominent lineup spot against southpaws. A Gardner vs. righties/Jeter vs. lefties platoon in the second spot behind Ellsbury seems ideal if Jeter struggles against same-side hitters.
The question is how long should the Yankees give Derek to prove he can still be a productive hitter given his age and recent injuries? A month? Six weeks? Half a season? I don’t know the answer and it probably depends on how Jeter looks during games. If he’s completely overmatched and unable to lift the ball — sorta like how he looked during his limited time last year — the team will have to pull the plug on him as a number two hitter sooner rather than later. At least against righties. It won’t be a pleasant move to make but it may be necessary at some point rather soon.
There has been a ton of research showing the two-hole is the most important lineup spot and thus your best hitter should bat second, but that only applies over a full season, and even then the impact is relatively small. Optimizing your lineup in such a way that it makes a meaningful difference across 162 games isn’t all that practical. Guys get hurt, need days off, get hot and cold, etc. The lineup can make a big difference in an individual game though; I remember at least two instances in which Cano was left on deck while the final out of a close game was recorded last summer (one, two). The Yankees have many reasons to emphasize pure patience and on-base ability from the two-hole this year and if that means Gardner, not Jeter is the best man of the job, so be it. The race for a postseason spot will be too tight to stick with an unproductive hitter near the top of the lineup for so long.
Thanks to the magic of free agency, the Yankees completely overhauled their offense this offseason. Brett Gardner is the only player from the 2013 Opening Day starting lineup who projects to be in the 2014 Opening Day starting lineup, but there’s still a chance he will be traded in the coming weeks. All that turnover isn’t a bad thing, of course. The Yankees had their worst offense since the early-1990s last year and they needed the overhaul.
As I mentioned last week, all the lineup turnover should lead to longer at-bats and more walks this summer. The Yankees were a pretty impatient club in 2013, especially by the team’s usual standards. Patience and plate discipline aren’t the only things that will change though. All the new faces will impact the team’s running game as well. No one thinks of New York as a running team, but they’ve stolen at least 100 bases in seven of the last eight seasons (including last season) and have had a positive base-running value (per FanGraphs) in three of the last four years. Last year was the exception.
The 2013 Yankees ranked fifth in the league with 115 stolen bases and third with a 79% success rate. Only the Red Sox (87%) and Royals (83%) were better. Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki both topped 20+ steals while Eduardo Nunez and Jayson Nix were also in double-digits. Curtis Granderson and Alfonso Soriano managed eight steals apiece in their limited time. The team really lagged at taking the extra base, meaning going first-to-third on a single or scoring from first on a double. Stuff like that. They successfully took that extra base in only 35% of their opportunities, second lowest in the league (Tigers at 33%) and well-below the 39% league average. Here’s how the regular lineup (using the guys with the most playing time at each position) fared on the bases:
|Players||2013 SBA%||2013 SB%||2013 XBT%|
|C Chris Stewart||4%||100%||19%|
|1B Lyle Overbay||1%||100%||23%|
|2B Robinson Cano||3%||88%||38%|
|SS Eduardo Nunez||10%||77%||40%|
|3B Jayson Nix||11%||93%||36%|
|LF Vernon Wells||7%||70%||39%|
|CF Brett Gardner||14%||75%||45%|
|RF Ichiro Suzuki||10%||83%||38%|
|DH Travis Hafner||2%||100%||32%|
First things first, some definitions are in order:
- SBA% or Stolen Base Attempt Rate: This is how often a player attempted to steal a base when presented with a stolen base opportunity. That is whenever they were standing on first or second base with no runner on the next base. The league average was 6%.
- SB% or Stolen Base Success Rate: Pretty straight forward. How many times did you try to steal a base and how many times were you successful? The league average was 74%.
- XBT% or Extra Base Taken Rate: I mentioned this above. It’s the rate of which a player successfully took the extra base on a hit, meaning first-to-third on a single, etc. The league average, as I said, was 39%.
Simple enough, right? Last year’s regular lineup attempted about an average number of steals relative to their opportunities, and they were usually successful. Nix was caught only once in 14 attempts and Ichiro was caught only four times in 24 attempts. Gardner was not nearly as prolific or successful stealing bases last year as he has been in the past, and my theory is that he often put on the brakes to make sure there was someone on base for Cano. When you struggle to score like the Yankees did, having men on for your best hitter is a necessity.
The slow guys like Stewart, Overbay, and Hafner managed to go a combined eight-for-eight in stolen bases attempts but those are anomalies. Usually when someone like that steals a base, it’s on the back-end of a double-steal or because the pitcher completely stopped paying attention to them. The core base-stealers, the guys you expect to run like Nunez, Nix, Gardner, and Ichiro, were average or better on the bases in the three categories above. They carried the lineup to those strong overall marks, but most of those players are gone now. Either gone as in off the roster or gone as in relegated to a bench role.
Obviously, the club’s biggest base-running addition this winter was Jacoby Ellsbury. He led baseball in both stolen bases (52) and FanGraphs’ base-running value (+11.4 runs) in 2013, and those 52 steals came with only four (!) caught stealings. The guys was an animal on the bases. Ellsbury has three 50+ stolen base seasons to his credit and he’s been successful in 84% of his career attempts. I don’t think it’s crazy to think he will be the Yankees’ most dangerous base-running threat since Rickey Henderson way back in the day. Here’s how the rest of the projected lineup has done on the bases these last three seasons:
|Players||2011-13 SBO%||2011-13 SB%||2011-13 XBT%|
|C Brian McCann||2%||67%||16%|
|1B Mark Teixeira||2%||75%||28%|
|2B Brian Roberts||7%||77%||42%|
|SS Derek Jeter||5%||71%||33%|
|3B Kelly Johnson||8%||76%||29%|
|LF Brett Gardner||21%||77%||48%|
|CF Jacoby Ellsbury||19%||83%||49%|
|RF Carlos Beltran||4%||68%||37%|
|DH Alfonso Soriano||8%||68%||38%|
Teixeira and McCann are two of the very worst base-runners in baseball. Teixeira has never been fast and McCann has nearly 9,000 innings worth of squatting behind the plate on his legs. Amazingly, they might be downgrades from Overbay and Stewart on the bases, respectively. Thankfully they do almost literally everything else on a baseball field better.
Roberts and Jeter are almost complete unknowns due to injury. Roberts has barely played the last few years and Jeter missed almost all of last season due to a variety of leg and ankle problems. He wasn’t a particularly good base-runner before that, as the table shows, but there’s a chance he’ll be Teixeira-esque on the bases this coming season due to his age and injuries. Roberts has been effective when healthy — a touch better than league average across the board in the table — but he’s day-to-day at all times.
It’s interesting that Beltran and Soriano had nearly identical success rates for stealing bases and taking the extra base from 2011-13, but the latter attempted twice as many stolen bases. Of course, Beltran’s knees are a disaster while Soriano is perfectly healthy. That’s a bit factor. Regardless of who is in right and who is at DH on a given day, they’ll be a downgrade from Ichiro but an upgrade over Hafner. Ellsbury effectively replaces Wells and that’s a huge upgrade. Johnson is solid on the bases — moreso while stealing bases than taking the extra base — but a downgrade from Nix.
The Yankees have a lot of age in their starting lineup (putting it lightly), so I think they’re more likely to underperform on the bases compared to recent years than maintain the status quo. At least guys like Roberts, Beltran, Soriano, and Jeter. Ellsbury, Johnson, and Gardner should be fine, and in fact I think Gardner might go nuts and try to steal 50+ bases in his contract year. I would. Overall, given their rates these few years, the Yankees’ rebuilt starting lineup may wind up stealing (substantially) more total bases in 2014 than 2013, but they may do so with less efficency and without doing a better job of taking the extra base on hits.
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.