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

#GREGBIRD (Presswire)
#GREGBIRD (Presswire)

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

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

How is Bird’s shoulder?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bird will bring a much needed element to the offense.

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

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

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

Carter is going to play more than you may think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Spring Training Game Thread: Sabathia’s First Start

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

We’ve officially entered the dog days of Spring Training. Everyone is just kinda going through the motions and waiting for the regular season to begin. Don’t get me wrong, the games are still fun to watch — how could they not be with this farm system? — but I’m ready for some meaningful baseball. I guess I’ll enjoy the stress-free baseball while I can.

CC Sabathia is making his first Grapefruit League start this afternoon. The Yankees have been taking a bit slow with Sabathia this spring following his relatively minor knee surgery back in October. There’s no reason to push it this time of year. Did you know this will be Sabathia’s 17th big league season? Crazy. He made three starts against the dynasty era Yankees in the span of the month during his rookie season in 2001, and allowed 15 runs in 9.2 total innings. He’s come a long way, eh? Here is the lineup the Rays sent up from Port Charlotte, and here are the players the Yankees will use today:

  1. 2B Ronald Torreyes
  2. C Gary Sanchez
  3. DH Matt Holliday
  4. 1B Chris Carter
  5. RF Aaron Judge
  6. SS Gleyber Torres
  7. LF Clint Frazier
  8. 3B Miguel Andujar
  9. CF Dustin Fowler
    LHP CC Sabathia

Available Pitchers: RHP Adam Warren, LHP Chasen Shreve, RHP Ben Heller, RHP Jonathan Holder, RHP Domingo German, and LHP Jason Gurka are all scheduled to pitch today. RHP Johnny Barbato, LHP Nestor Cortes, RHP Brady Lail, and RHP Eric Ruth are the extra arms. Cortes and Ruth are up from minor league camp for the day.

Available Positions: C Kyle Higashioka, 1B Francisco Diaz, 2B Rob Refsnyder, SS Ruben Tejada, 3B Tyler Wade, LF Pete Kozma, CF Rashad Crawford, RF Billy McKinney, and DH Greg Bird are coming off the bench later in the game. C Jorge Saez, SS Jorge Mateo, OF Zack Zehner, and UTIL Wilkin Castillo are also available. Crawford and Zehner are up from minor league camp.

It is cloudy yet warm in Tampa today. Not picturesque baseball weather, but it’ll do. Today’s game will begin a little after 1pm ET and you can watch on YES. There’s also MLB.tv and the FOX Sports Go app. Enjoy the game.

Even in worst case, Holliday an improvement over 2016 DH situation

alex-rodriguez-matt-holliday-getty-split-slide
(Getty)

On Friday, Domenic raised the interesting question of whether the Yankees jumped the gun in signing Matt Holliday. While he was cheaper in total cash outlay than Kendrys Morales, he earned substantially more than some other DH options, including Chris Carter, who the Yankees still signed on top of Holliday.

But there’s one thing that I think is without a doubt: Holliday brings more to the table than 2016 Alex Rodriguez (duh) and will bring a substantial improvement in the Yankees’ DH situation this season, even in the worst case scenario. Yet how much Holliday will bring in surplus value is another question entirely (and whether it is worth $13 million is an extra question on top of that).

If we’re going to get into how much extra value he’ll bring, first you need to set the baseline: A-Rod‘s 2016 season. Man, that was just a huge disappointment. His 2015 season was perfect in many regards considering expectations and then he came back with a complete dud, failing to reach 700 home runs and getting a barely ceremonious release in August. In total, A-Rod hit .200/.247/.351 (56 wRC+) in just 243 plate appearances.

Because he played in just 65 games, that opened up nearly 90 games worth of DH at-bats (remember: 10 games in National League parks with pitchers hitting). Therefore, the baseline isn’t entirely Rodriguez. His general ineptitude opened the door for DH starts for many players. Carlos Beltran (148), Brian McCann (122), Gary Sanchez (72), Billy Butler (20) and Mark Teixeira (16) all got at least 15 plate appearances without needing to take the field.

While A-Rod having more success would have benefited the Yankees’ win-loss record, it would have hurt Sanchez’s development time or cut in further to McCann’s at-bats when Sanchez was called up. It also means the Yankees likely don’t sign Butler (probably a good development), Beltran is slightly less productive with the extra need to play the field and Aaron Hicks receives less of a chance to develop with Beltran taking starts away in right field. All of that is to say A-Rod’s struggles and eventual release opened the door for some strong positives for the Yankees.

As a whole, the Yankees’ designated hitter ‘position’ produced a paltry -1.5 bWAR, the worst in baseball. The position, in 642 plate appearances, had a .261/.312/.450 line. They also had -2.0 WAR in right field, which was in part due to Beltran only getting 232 plate appearances there.

I see very few scenarios where the Yankees post that poor a performance at DH in 2017, mostly thanks to Holliday. This factors in the idea that last season was likely the worst of his career and he seems to be on the decline. After all, he is 37 years old and can’t be far from retirement. Still, despite the decline, he still hit .246/.322/.461 (109 wRC+), which isn’t outstanding but certainly above average. He produced the lowest WAR of his career (0.7 fWAR, 0.3 bWAR) and the Cardinals as a team had a -1.4 WAR in left field with Holliday getting most of the at-bats there.

However, any comparison between Holliday’s performance totals last year and potential performance this year needs to factor in his defense. He was dreadful in left field last season while starting 82 games there and his fielding likely is a big factor in the -1.4 WAR for the Cards. Barring a rash of injuries, the Yankees don’t have to worry about the seven-time All-Star as anything but a hitter. If he is playing the field on anything of a regular basis, this whole post is thrown out the window because something has gone seriously wrong in the Bronx.

Assuming Holliday is able to stick to DH and maybe, just maybe, a few games in the field during National League play, there’s a solid chance he’s much healthier than towards the end of his time in St. Louis. He only played 183 games combined over the last two seasons and the injuries no doubt affected him at the plate. If he only needs to focus on his bat and doesn’t need to expend energy in the field, he should be a healthier and, therefore, better version of what he’d otherwise be in 2017.

And that leads to some optimistic projections for 2017 from Steamer and PECOTA.

ZiPS: .244/.325/.447 with 14 HR in 329 PA
Steamer: .271/.357.470 with 21 HR in 505 PA
PECOTA: .262/.352/.447 with 19 HR in 495 PA

ZiPS, as you can see, projects Holliday to continue his decline. That’s not unreasonable. All three systems had A-Rod hitting a lot better last season than he did but still had him declining, and sometimes an older hitter just falls off in an instant. Declines aren’t always gradual.

The best case scenario for Holliday is something along the lines of A-Rod’s 2015 season. That’ll happen if he stays healthy and really takes to the DH role. There are some signs pointing to this type of bounce back. Holliday was better in the second half last season. He also was at his best (.368/.385/.868 with five HR) in his eight games as the Cardinals’ DH. Holliday also gets the chance to play 81 games in the hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium.

In this type of scenario, Holliday could anchor the Yankees’ lineup and warrant consideration to bring him back in 2018. The most likely case — a slightly above average but not great Holliday — is still a welcome improvement over last season and would bring stability to DH.

But there is the worst case scenario and ZiPS hints at it. However, I’d argue even the worst case with Holliday is still better than the Bombers’ 2016 DH situation. On one hand, you have Holliday getting injured. That’s not such a big deal for the team for two reasons; The Yankees have Chris Carter as a ready-made replacement and could also hand at-bats to developing younger players like Tyler Austin, Aaron Judge, etc. Heck, they could also use the spot to give Sanchez days off from the field like last year.

The other worst case is Holliday declining significantly. That wouldn’t be optimal, but he’s only under contract for one season unlike A-Rod from last year. Because of the limited investment (in years, not dollars), the team could move on and give away those ABs, which could perhaps be put to better use on a team in transition. A truly significant Holliday decline could help put a fork in the Yankees’ playoff hopes, but a more modest decline is much more likely.

On top of his performance, Holliday is renowned for his clubhouse presence. Who knows if it is more or less than what Rodriguez or Beltran brought to the table while they DH’d? Regardless, that alone isn’t worth $13 million and it may be tough for him to live up to the contract. But have no fear: It almost definitely doesn’t get worse than last season.

Open Thread: March 6th Camp Notes

Today wasn’t a good day for the ol’ Grapefruit League pythag record. The Pirates walloped the Yankees pretty good. Bryan Mitchell started and allowed four runs on six hits and no walks in 2.1 innings. He struck out two. Jordan Montgomery allowed two runs in his two innings while Jon Niese chucked a scoreless frame in his spring debut. Evan Rutckyj took one on the chin. He allowed six runs and didn’t record an out.

Not a whole lot happened offensively. Both Jorge Mateo and Aaron Hicks had would be home runs knocked down by the wind. Hicks at least got a double off the wall out of it. Mateo’s well-struck fly ball turned into an out. Aaron Judge had a single and struck out for only the third time this spring. He’s batted 21 times so far. That’s a 14.3% strikeout rate. Hopefully that sticks. Here are the box score and video highlights, and here is the rest of the day’s notes from Tampa:

  • Matt Holliday took some ground balls at first base today. He played a few games at first for the Cardinals last season, so it makes sense for the Yankees to have him work there. Just in case, you know? I wonder if we’ll see Holliday play a game at first this spring. Or in left field, for that matter. [YES Network]
  • Mason Williams resumed hitting over the weekend and light running today. He’s been out since the start of camp with left patella inflammation. “I feel good right now, but we’ll see how it goes as I get going,” he said. [Lou DiPietro]
  • Kyle Higashioka has been learning Japanese this spring. His father’s family is from Japan and they’ve been pushing him to learn the language. Added bonus: it helps him with Masahiro Tanaka. “I thought it could be beneficial for the Yankees to have a catcher who speaks Japanese,” he said. [Billy Witz]
  • CC Sabathia is scheduled to make his first spring start tomorrow afternoon. I’m hoping Justus Sheffield will pitch too. We’ll see. That’s a home game against the Rays. It’ll be on YES and MLB.tv.

Here is tonight’s open thread. This afternoon’s game won’t be replayed anywhere, though I’m not sure why you’d want to sit through that again anyway. Today’s game was my “I’m ready for Spring Training to be over” moment. MLB Network is showing a spring game on tape delay tonight, and later on they’ll have a World Baseball Classic game (Israel vs. Chinese Taipei at 10pm ET). The Knicks, Nets, and (hockey) Rangers are all playing too, and there’s a pair of college basketball games on as well. Talk about those games or anything else here, as long as it’s not politics or religion.

It’s time for the Yankees to relax their hair policy

(Getty)
(Getty)

Without fail, whenever the Yankees trade a player away or let him walk as a free agent, that player shows up to his new team with longer hair and a beard. Happens all the time. Same thing in the offseason too. Players go home for the winter and skip shaving every day. I don’t blame them. Shaving sucks.

The Yankees’ hair policy — hair above the shoulders, no facial hair below the lip — has been around since the 1970s, when George Steinbrenner decided his players should look professional and business-like. A few players have pushed the limits of the hair policy in recent years — we’ve seen CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera take the mound with five o’clock shadows — but, generally speaking, it’s still a strict rule.

The hair policy has been in the news the last few weeks and months thanks largely to Clint Frazier, who, before being traded to the Yankees last year, was known for his long curly bright red locks. He trimmed his hair following the trade and again before Spring Training, though it’s still on the long side. From yesterday’s game:

clint-frazier-hair

Billy Witz says Jennifer Steinbrenner, George’s daughter, enforces the team’s hair policy. She scolded both Frazier this year and Ben Gamel last year for the length of their hair, says Witz. I’m sure more than a few other players have heard from her over the years too.

The Yankees are free to run their business however they see fit, though at this point, after all these years, it’s probably time to loosen up the hair policy. It’s not the 1970s anymore. It’s 2017. The Yankees are building a very young and exciting team, yet the hair policy takes away part of the players’ personality. Frazier with his poofy red hair is a ton of fun. Frazier with a short haircut is just another ballplayer.

Surely there’s a happy medium here, right? Somewhere between a Joe Girardi crew cut and letting everyone look like Brent Burns. Hair down to the shoulders but not below, neatly trimmed beard or goatee. That sound doable? Keep in mind the Yankees could market the hell out of this. “Clint Frazier wig day” at Yankee Stadium would be a smash hit. The Yankees have been far too corporate (and boring) in recent years. This would help liven things up.

The Yankees brand is built on winning, not a hair policy. They’re not going to lose fans by letting players let grow their hair out a bit. It just seems like, given everything the Yankees are doing to build a young and energetic team, sucking some of the personality out of it with a 40-something-year-old grooming policy seems counterproductive. Let the players be themselves. Baseball is supposed to be fun, not business-like. Most folks watch baseball to escape the real world.

The New Face of the Franchise [2017 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Over the last few years, really since Derek Jeter retired, the Yankees have sorely lacked a franchise cornerstone player. Robinson Cano would have been that guy had he not left as a free agent. Late career Alex Rodriguez didn’t do it for many folks. (Heck, many didn’t like peak A-Rod.) Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mark Teixeira, and even Masahiro Tanaka lack that marquee value. Jeter was the face of the franchise.

Now, for the first time since Jeter called it a career, the Yankees have a worthy heir to that face of the franchise title. It’s Gary Sanchez, the team’s just turned 24-year-old budding superstar catcher, the one with the rocket arm and easy power. Sanchez took over behind the plate last year and was an instant success, smashing 20 homers in one-third of a season and establishing himself as a core player going forward.

The Yankees are so committed to Sanchez and their youth movement that they traded Brian McCann for a pair of lower level pitching prospects over the winter, even eating some money to make it happen. It would have been pretty easy — and smart, I’d argue — to keep McCann around as a high-end backup, someone to mentor Sanchez in his first full season as a big leaguer while getting at-bats behind the plate and at designated hitter. Instead, McCann is now an Astro.

Truth be told, the Yankees are asking a lot from Sanchez this season. They want him to lead their pitching staff, be a force in the middle of the lineup, and continue to develop into that marquee homegrown player they’ve lacked since Jeter retired. Catcher is a tough position. Even the most talented young backstops struggle early in their big league careers because there’s so much responsibility. Not everyone can transition to MLB seamlessly like Buster Posey.

Then again, Sanchez is much closer to Posey than most catchers. He is the most promising young catcher in baseball and I don’t think I’m being a raging homer when I say that. Aside from maybe Cubs backstop Willson Contreras, I don’t see any catcher under the age of, say, 25 who comes close to matching Sanchez’s offensive potential and defensive aptitude. Here are a few key storylines heading in Sanchez’s first full MLB season.

No, he won’t do that again.

What Sanchez did down the stretch last season was truly historic. He became the fastest player in history to hit 20 home runs, doing so in his first 51 career games, and he did it despite the physical demands associated with being a full-time catcher. (Between Triple-A and MLB, Sanchez caught exactly 100 games in 2016.) It was remarkable. We’ve never seen a young player come up have that level of success. Like, ever.

Of course, it’s unfair and unrealistic to expect Sanchez to sustain that pace this coming season. He’s a great young player, but basically no one can keep that up, especially as a catcher. Outliers do exist. Guys like Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez came up, mashed right away, and basically didn’t stop hitting until they reached their 30s. Posey hasn’t stopped hitting either. Great players don’t follow typical developmental paths. Perhaps Sanchez can do the same.

This summer Sanchez will have to contend with, possibly for the first time in his career, opposing teams game planning for him. He saw 55.4% fastballs and 44.6% soft stuff in August last year. It was 53.0% and 47.0%, respectively, in September. Not a big difference there. By time pitchers stopped throwing him pitches in the zone, the season was over.

gary-sanchez-plate-discipline

To Sanchez’s credit, once pitchers stopped throwing him so many pitches in the zone, and he did adjust and stop swinging at stuff off the plate (O-Swing%). But again, by time this all happened, the season came to an end. This coming season we’ll get to see the constant cycle of pitchers adjusting to Sanchez and Sanchez adjusting back, over and over again.

So, in addition to the statistical improbability of Sanchez maintaining last year’s home run pace (40.0 HR/FB% in 2016!), he’ll also have to contend with being the “we can’t let this guy beat us” guy. The book is out on him. Teams will prepare for him more carefully because Gary has shown he can punish big league pitchers and has established himself as his club’s best hitter. He’s going to get more attention now and he’ll have to adjust. There’s a learning curve.

What would a successful 2017 season for Sanchez look like? I’d be pretty happy with, say, .270/.330/.450 and 25 homers or so. That is both a big step down from last year and pretty awesome for a 24-year-old catcher in his first full season as a big leaguer. Don’t believe me? Here are the last five catchers to spend their first full season in MLB at age 24 or younger:

  • J.T. Realmuto, Marlins, in 2015: .259/.290/.406 (92 OPS+) with ten homers
  • Matt Wieters, Orioles, in 2010: .249/.319/.377 (90 OPS+) with eleven homers
  • Kurt Suzuki, Athletics, in 2008: .279/.346/.370 (96 OPS+) with seven homers
  • Russell Martin, Dodgers, in 2006: .292/.355/.436 (101 OPS+) with ten homers
  • John Buck, Royals, in 2005: .242/.287/.389 (79 OPS+) with 12 homers

Baseball is hard, especially for young catchers. It’s difficult to temper expectations with Sanchez given what he did last year, I know it is, but you’re setting yourself up for disappointment if you’re expecting to see that again. The smart money is on Sanchez being both very productive in 2017 and not repeating his 2016 numbers. That debut was almost too good to be true.

Will he continue to make progress with his glove?

There are no questions about Sanchez’s throwing arm. It’s one of the best arms I’ve ever seen and that’s not hyperbole. Sanchez threw out 13 of 32 attempted basestealers last year, or 41%. The league average was 29%. Furthermore, Sanchez threw out 13 of 26 attempted basestealers when anyone other than Dellin Betances was on the mound. No offense to Dellin, but he does his catchers no favors when it comes to holding runners. (Sanchez has thrown out five of seven attempted basestealers this spring.)

Sanchez’s arm is a game-changer. It shuts the other team’s running game right down. His arm is so good he won’t even have to use it. Many runners won’t even dare test him. (The Yankees do have some pitchers who are slow to the plate, like Betances, so Gary’s arm will still get a workout.) Sanchez does, however, need to make progress in the other defensive aspects of his position, such as receiving and blocking balls in the dirt. His framing numbers were average in limited time last season and the scouting reports tout him as a work in progress in that department.

Also, Sanchez allowed 21 passed pitches (six passed balls and 15 wild pitches) in 316 innings behind the plate last year. The league average was 16 passed pitches (three passed balls and 13 wild pitches) per 316 innings. We saw a little too much of this last season:

gary-sanchez-passed-ball

That’s a pitch that has to be caught, you know? The pitcher missed his spot (by a lot) but that’s catchable. The Yankees have some tough to catch pitchers (Michael Pineda and his wipeout slider, Tanaka and his diving splitter, Betances and his everything, etc.) so I’m inclined to cut Sanchez some slack here, but clearly, overall receiving and blocking is something that can be improved going forward.

To Sanchez’s credit, he’s made a ton of progress with his defense over the years. He was never Jesus Montero bad, though it wasn’t crystal clear he’d remain behind the plate long-term either. Sanchez has improved as he progressed through the minors, and now he’ll go through first base coach Tony Pena‘s brutal season-long catching boot camp. Pena is out there smacking baseballs at his catchers in the early afternoon most days throughout the season. He doesn’t take it easy on them.

Sanchez is always going to be a bat first player and that’s perfectly fine. His defense isn’t terrible either, it should be noted. He’s not late career Jorge Posada bad or anything like that. Sanchez is an adequate defender now, probably a bit better than that, and he’s still so young that there’s reason to believe his receiving will get even better with experience and more coaching.

No. 2 in the lineup, No. 1 in our hearts.

The Yankees called Sanchez up for good on August 3rd last year, and by August 19th, he was their regular No. 3 hitter. About two weeks is all it took for Gary to establish himself as the most dangerous hitter in the lineup. It stands to reason Sanchez will hit third against this year, though Joe Girardi has indicated he might hit him second instead. From Mike Mazzeo:

“I’m going to look at it,” Girardi said of the potential batting order. “In the first inning, I think I’d prefer to have two guys in front of my best hitter. But then you start going through the other three times through the lineup and you get a few more at-bats over the course of the season, so I can see it both ways.”

Managers around the league have started to embrace batting their best hitter second, which is an old school sabermetric credo at this point. The No. 2 hitter gets more at-bats than the No. 3 hitter across the full 162-game season, and he’ll also bat with more men on base than the leadoff hitter. The days of a bat control, hit-and-run guy hitting second are slowly fading away.

Sanchez is New York’s best hitter — I wouldn’t be completely shocked if, say, Matt Holliday or Greg Bird outhits him this year, but right now Gary is the guy — and batting him second would be a smart move despite his lack of speed. The Yankees have been toying with the idea of splitting up Gardner and Ellsbury atop the lineup. Rather than shoehorn someone like Didi Gregorius or Starlin Castro in the two-hole, Girardi could simply bat Sanchez second. This lineup looks good, no?

  1. Brett Gardner
  2. Gary Sanchez
  3. Greg Bird
  4. Matt Holliday
  5. Didi Gregorius
  6. Starlin Castro
  7. Jacoby Ellsbury
  8. Chase Headley
  9. Aaron Judge

I like it. Moreso than hitting Ellsbury or Headley or Castro or whoever second and Sanchez third. Simply put, the Yankees would be bunching their best hitters atop the lineup to give them the most at-bats rather than adhering to the old “your best hitter should bat third” way of thinking. Hooray open-mindedness! Now we’ll see whether Girardi actually goes through with it.

* * *

Sanchez is going to be front and center as the Yankees move forward with this transition. He plays a crucial position and has already shown he can be an impact hitter. That’s a building block player. The kind of franchise player the Yankees have lacked since Jeter walked away. Sanchez is, at the moment, the obvious candidate to be the next great homegrown Yankee, and my goodness is that exciting.

Spring Training Game Thread: Mitchell’s Third Start

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Like last spring, Bryan Mitchell has been the best potential starter candidate in camp aside from Masahiro Tanaka this year. Last spring Mitchell was electric, and if the fifth starter competition were based entirely on Grapefruit League performance, he would have beaten out CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova for the spot. Instead, he had to settle for a bullpen job before breaking his toe covering first base.

Of course, it’s still pretty early in the spring, so Mitchell is only making his third Grapefruit League outing today. It’s hard to handicap the fourth and fifth starter’s race at this point, though the fact he’s the only one of the fourth and fifth starter candidates who has yet to allow a run can’t hurt his chances. Mitchell will look to build on his strong early spring performance this afternoon. Here is the Pirates’ lineup he’ll face and here are the players the Yankees will use today:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  3. 2B Starlin Castro
  4. 1B Greg Bird
  5. 3B Chase Headley
  6. DH Aaron Judge
  7. RF Aaron Hicks
  8. C Austin Romine
  9. SS Jorge Mateo
    RHP Bryan Mitchell

Available Pitchers: LHP Jordan Montgomery, LHP Jon Niese, LHP Evan Rutckyj, LHP Joe Mantiply, RHP J.P. Feyereisen, and RHP J.R. Graham are all scheduled to pitch after Mitchell. LHP Jason Gurka, RHP Domingo German, RHP Jonathan Holder, and RHP Travis Hissong also made the trip. Hissong is up from minor league camp for the day.

Available Position Players: C Kyle Higashioka, 1B Wilkin Castillo, 2B Ruben Tejada, SS Gleyber Torres, 3B Miguel Andujar, LF Rob Refsnyder, CF Tyler Wade, and RF Billy McKinney will be the second string off the bench. C Francisco Diaz, IF Abi Avelino, and OF Clint Frazier also made the road trip even though they aren’t scheduled to play. Avelino is up from minor league camp.

The Yankees are on the road today, having made the hour long bus trip down to Bradenton. The internet tells me it’s cloudy and on the cool side. Today’s game will begin a little after 1pm ET. If you’re in the Pirates home market, you can watch on ROOT Sports. If not, the game will be shown live on MLB Network, even in the New York market. There’s also MLB.tv. Enjoy the game.