Game 32: The Best vs. The Best

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees are back home this weekend, but only briefly. They have a four-game weekend series with the Astros before heading back out on the road. At this very moment, the Yankees and Astros are the two best teams in baseball in terms of winning percentage. The Yankees are first at .677. The Astros are right behind them at .676. They’re also first and second in the AL in run differential. Should be a fun series.

Tonight the Yankees will face old nemesis Dallas Keuchel, who crushed the Yankees Kevin Gausman style back in 2015, including in the AL Wildcard Game. He was on short rest that day too. This is a different Yankees team though. Only two players from the 2015 Wildcard Game starting lineup are in tonight’s starting lineup, and they’ll be on the left side of the infield. Everyone else is a new face. Here is the Astros’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. C Gary Sanchez
  3. DH Matt Holliday
  4. 2B Starlin Castro
  5. RF Aaron Judge
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. SS Didi Gregorius
  8. LF Aaron Hicks
  9. 1B Chris Carter
    RHP Michael Pineda

It is cool and cloudy in New York today, though there’s no rain in the forecast, so that’s good. Tonight’s game will begin at 7:05pm ET. You can watch on YES locally and MLB Network nationally. Enjoy the game.

Roster Move: As rumored, Gio Gallegos was called up today, the Yankees announced. Chad Green was send down yesterday to clear the roster spot.

5/11 to 5/14 Series Preview: Houston Astros

Correa and Altuve. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images North America)
Correa and Altuve. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images North America)

A strong argument can be made that this is the series to watch this weekend, regardless of your fandom. As of this morning, the Yankees and Astros rank in the top-five in winning percentage, runs scored, runs allowed, run differential, wRC+, and park-adjusted ERA; and, beyond that, both teams are headlined by young sluggers. In short, this is a match-up between teams that have the foundation laid to be good over the next several years – what more could you ask for?

The Last Time They Met

The Yankees visited the Astros for a three-game set just before last year’s deadline, taking two out of three. It was their first series following the Aroldis Chapman trade (he was actually dealt the morning of the first game), and the last time Andrew Miller would take the mound as a Yankee. Some other points of interest:

  • The Yankees were four games above .500 after winning the second game, which was the high-water mark of the season to that point.
  • Astros third baseman Alex Bregman made his big league debut in this series, starting all three games. He went 0-for-9 with 2 walks and 3 strikeouts.
  • Michael Pineda gave up a home run on his first pitch of the game. He promptly settled down, finishing with 7 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 2 BB, and 8 K.
  • Luis Severino made the first relief appearance of his career in the third game of the series. He went two innings, and allowed no hits and one walk while striking out three.
  • Adam Warren made his first appearance since coming back from the Cubs in that same game. He gave the Yankees a scoreless sixth inning.

You can check out Katie’s Yankeemetrics post for more interesting tidbits.

Injury Report

RHP Collin McHugh has been on the disabled list since Opening Day with a posterior impingement in his right elbow, and isn’t expected to return until sometime in June. He has been a stalwart in the back of the Astros rotation since 2014, but the team has managed to get by in the interim.

Would-be fourth outfielder Teoscar Hernandez is on the DL, as well, as the result of a scary collision with Jose Altuve. He’s expected to activated soon, but he may end up in Triple-A.

Their Story So Far

The Astros are 23-11, and lead the AL West by a full six games. That impressive record is a product of their dominance of the division thus far, as they’re 17-6 against the Mariners, Angels, A’s, and Rangers (and 6-5 against everyone else). Even so, the team has performed quite well in most every facet of the game; they have seven regulars/semi-regulars with a wRC+ above 120, and Carlos Beltran‘s 92 wRC+ represents the bottom of the barrel. They have a 3.42 ERA (109 ERA+) as a team, a resurgent Dallas Keuchel pitching like an ace, and a deep bullpen that is striking out 11.54 batters per nine innings (the best mark in the majors). The greatest flaw of the team — at least in terms of how it’s performing right now — lay in baserunning, as they’re 29th in the game in FanGraphs’ BsR (an all-encompassing metric).

In short, the Astros are firing on (almost) all cylinders right now.

The Lineup We Might See

Manager A.J. Hinch like to mix-and-match his lineups, as evidenced by the fact that he has used 32 unique lineups this year (as per Baseball-Reference). He does this not only to gain the platoon advantage, but also as a means to keep players rested – Brian McCann has already had nine days off, and no player has played every game. Having versatile players like Marwin Gonzalez, Alex Bregman, and Evan Gattis helps with that, too. That being said, we’ll probably see something along these lines:

  1. George Springer, CF
  2. Josh Reddick, RF
  3. Jose Altuve, 2B
  4. Carlos Correa, SS
  5. Carlos Beltran, DH
  6. Yulieski Gurriel, 1B
  7. Brian McCann, C
  8. Alex Bregman, 3B
  9. Nori Aoki, LF

Evan Gattis will almost certainly start at least one game at catcher, and probably when Jordan Montgomery takes the mound. Jake Marisnick may play LF over Aoki on that day, as well. And Gonzalez will get a couple of starts; where he plays is up in the air, as he has started at 1B, 2B, 3B, LF, and RF this year.

The Starting Pitchers We Will See

Thursday (7:05 PM EST): RHP Michael Pineda vs. LHP Dallas Keuchel

Keuchel followed-up his 2015 Cy Young-winning season with a subpar 2016, pitching to an 87 ERA+ in 168 IP. His velocity dropped across the board, he struggled to throw strikes at times, and he missed starts with shoulder soreness, leading many to wonder if there was a more serious injury lurking beneath the surface. Fortunately for the Astros, he came to Spring Training healthy, and he has rebounded in a big way in 2017 (albeit at least in part due to a ridiculously low .195 BABIP). He’s currently sitting on a 199 ERA+, and has averaged more than 7 IP per outing in his seven starts.

The 29-year-old southpaw throws three fastballs in the mid-to-upper 80s – a four-seamer, a two-seamer, and a cutter. He also mixes in a slider and a change-up in the upper-70s, which account for around 40% of his pitch selection. Keuchel pounds the bottom of the strike zone with gusto, as evidenced by his 63% ground ball rate in 2017.

Last Outing (vs. LAA on 5/5) – 8.0 IP, 7 H, 5 R, 2 BB, 5 K

Friday (7:05 PM EST): LHP Jordan Montgomery vs. RHP Lance McCullers Jr.

The story of McCullers’ career-to-date is highlighted by brilliant stuff, strong performances, and concerns over the health and future of his elbow. The 23-year-old boasts a 120 ERA+, 27.3 K%, and 51.7 GB% in his young career, along with an average of nearly +4 bWAR per 200 IP. Unfortunately, he missed right around half of 2016 due to elbow issues, and missed time in Spring Training due to the same malady. He’s been healthy and effective since the regular season began, though, and is tossing just over 6 IP per start.

McCullers is a borderline two-pitch pitcher, living and dying by his explosive mid-90s fastball and ridiculously hard, bendy knuckle-curveball (which is just as filthy in-game as it reads on your screen). That curveball represents nearly half of his offerings in any given game, and he gets whiffs on it about 20% of the time. He’ll also mix in a split-fingered change-up, which is another swing-and-miss pitch when it’s working.

Last Outing (vs. LAA on 5/6) – 7 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 4 K

Saturday (1:05 PM EST): RHP Luis Severino vs. RHP Mike Fiers

It seems like Aaron Judge is hitting the ball out of the park whenever he puts it in the air, and that’s because 44.8% of his fly balls have left the yard. Fiers has turned every hitter into Judge this year, as 41.2% of his fly balls allowed have turned into home runs. He’s allowed 14 home runs in just 30.1 IP, which ties him with Jered Weaver and his 84 MPH fastball (and Weaver has pitched in Colorado and Arizona this year). Fiers was ineffective last season, and he has to be close to losing his job at this point. It’ll be interesting to see him in Yankee Stadium

Fiers’ arsenal includes a four-seamer in the upper-80s, a mid-80s cutter, a low-80s change-up, a low-80s slider, and a low-70s curveball. He uses all five pitches fairly regularly, and they used to play-up because of his over-the-top delivery, which added a great deal of deception. It doesn’t seem like it’s fooling anyone nowadays.

Last Outing (vs. LAA on 5/7) – 5 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 4 BB, 1 K

Sunday (7:35 PM EST): RHP Masahiro Tanaka vs. RHP Charlie Morton

Morton leapt into baseball consciousness nearly six years ago, due largely to his professed copying/mimicry/absorption of Roy Halladay’s mechanics and pitch selection. The overall results have been mixed, as he has a 94 ERA+ in 681.1 IP since the self-overhaul, and he has spent nearly as much time on the disabled list as he has on the field — his 2016 season ended in April, when he tore his hamstring running out a bunt (thanks, National League). Morton has great strikeout (25.1%) and ground ball (50.5%) rates right now, in addition to a 103 ERA+. The Astros would be more than happy with that over 180 IP or so, given their 2-year, $14 MM investment.

The 33-year-old throws four different fastballs — a low-to-mid 90s four-seamer, a low-to-mid 90s two-seamer, a cutter in the upper-80s, and a mid-80s splitter. His only true offspeed pitch is a curveball, which he throws a bit more than a quarter of the time (and has a strong 20.8% whiff rate this year).

Last Outing (vs. ATL on 5/9) – 5.2 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 4 BB, 5 K

The Bullpen

The Astros bullpen has been excellent this year, ranking sixth in the majors with a 2.93 ERA. Fireman Chris Devenski has thrown 21 IP across 11 appearances, with incredible strikeout (49.4%) and walk (3.9%) rates – and his 2.14 ERA is fourth on the team among relievers with 10-plus IP. Ken Giles has reclaimed the closer’s role after losing it to Luke Gregerson last year, and he might be the team’s fifth best reliever right now as he’s still rounding into form.

Gregerson pitched on Tuesday and Wednesday, so he isn’t likely to be available in the first game of the series. Giles went yesterday afternoon, but he only needed 11 pitches to pick up the save. Between Monday’s off-day and both starters pitching into the 6th in their two-game series against the Braves, the Astros bullpen is fairly well-rested.

Yankees Connection

The Astros have two everyday players that were Yankees regulars as recently as last year, in McCann and Beltran. The latter is showing an age a bit, as he is currently slashing .256/.295/.397 (92 wRC+) with a 25.6% strikeout rate, but he has shown signs of life since the calendar flipped to May with three multi-hit games and six extra-base hits.

McCann, on the other hand, is playing better than he has in years. He’s batting .281/.381/.461 (135 wRC+) with terrific walk (14.3%) and strikeout rates (10.5%) in 105 PA. He’s on-pace to play less than 120 games, and the regular rest has clearly paid off six weeks into the season. And, while there’s may be some small sample size noise here, his .270 BABIP and exit velocity suggest that this isn’t necessarily a fluke.

Who (Or What) To Watch

The Astros are a high-contact team, so they will test the Yankees defense early and often. They’re striking out in just 18.1% of their plate appearances, which is the second-lowest mark in baseball, and they’re aggressive in and out of the zone. It goes without saying that this will be a challenge for the Yankees pitchers, too.

Any McCullers start is a must-watch, as well. Or, at the very least, his curveball is a sight to behold.

Revisiting the MLBTR Archives: May 2012

(Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
(Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

We’re in a new month, which means it’s time to once again go back through the MLB Trade Rumors archives. Five years ago was May 2012. May is kind of a weird month for trade rumors. There are very few free agent rumors, and at this point of the season, teams are still evaluating their rosters and internal depth options. They’re not yet aggressively pursuing outside help.

The Yankees went into May 2012 with a 13-9 record and a +18 run differential, which had them right behind the 15-8 Rays in the AL East. Michael Pineda, their prized offseason pickup, had already been lost for the season with a shoulder injury. Hiroki Kuroda, the other prized offseason pickup, got off to a slow start in pinstripes — “He’s just another NL pitcher!” was a thing that was said at the time — before turning it around. Let’s dive into the May 2012 archives, shall we?

May 2nd, 2012: Yankees Sign Adonis Garcia

9:21pm: Garcia signed a one-year minor league contract worth $400K according to Marc Carig of The Star Ledger (on Sulia).

4:16pm: The Yankees have signed Cuban outfielder Adonis Garcia, Ben Badler of Baseball America reports. The 26-year-old became a free agent in February and drew interest from a number of teams.

Adonis! I didn’t realize he received such a large bonus. Well, large by normal people standards, not by baseball player standards. Garcia was in the farm system from 2012-14 and spent most of his time with Triple-A Scranton, hitting .286/.329/.429 (110 wRC+) in 844 plate appearances. The Yankees released him following that 2014 season.

The Braves have a thing for ex-Yankees, so they scooped up Garcia, and a few weeks later he was their starting third baseman. The Yankees signed him as an outfielder and he reached the show as a third baseman. Garcia hit .273/.311/.406 (90 wRC+) last year and was basically replacement level due to his defense: +0.9 fWAR and +0.2 bWAR. Atlanta is still running him out there at the hot corner while they wait for a long-term option to emerge.

May 3rd, 2012: New York Notes: Rivera, Chamberlain, Harvey, Bay

Joba Chamberlain has been transferred to the 60-day DL, the Yankees announced today.  In corresponding moves, Jayson Nix has been called up from Triple-A and Eric Chavez has been put on the seven-day DL due to a possible concussion.

And thus begins the Jayson Nix, Ballplayer™ era. It all started with a Chavez concussion. The Yankees had signed Nix to a minor league contract over the winter — it was one of their very first offseason moves, so they were in a hurry to sign him, apparently — and he wound up playing 161 games and getting 505 plate appearances with the Yankees from 2012-13. Basically a full season’s worth of playing time, at a variety of positions. Nix hit .239/.307/.340 (78 wRC+) with +1.2 bWAR and +1.2 fWAR during that time. He hasn’t played in MLB since 2014 or anywhere since 2015. With all due respect to Nixie, Ronald Torreyes is much more fun utility guy.

May 4th, 2012: Mariano Rivera Suffers Torn ACL

THURSDAY: Rivera told reporters that he plans to return to baseball, tweets Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News“I am coming back. Write it down in big letters. … I’m not going out like this,” said the closer.

WEDNESDAY, 11:40pm: Mariano Rivera appears to have suffered a torn ACL in his right knee, Yankees manager Joe Girardi told reporters after tonight’s 4-3 loss in Kansas City.  Rivera suffered the injury while chasing a fly ball during batting practice earlier today, a pre-game ritual that Rivera has undertaken throughout his entire career. The ace closer will consult with doctors tomorrow in New York and, if the initial diagnosis is confirmed, Rivera will miss the rest of the 2012 season. 

What an awful day that was. Rivera took a misstep chasing after a fly ball during batting practice and blew out his knee on the Kauffman Stadium warning track. Here’s the video:

I remember being in denial. “He’ll be fine, he just rolled his ankle or something,” I said to myself as Mo clutched his knee in pain. After the game we found out it was a torn ACL and that his season was over. It felt like the Yankees’ season was over! Rivera was so important to their success over the years that he seemed irreplaceable. The security blanket was gone. Those easy, stress-free ninth innings would turn into nail-biters. No one could do what Mo did!

There’s a lot of unnecessary panic in baseball, I’ve learned. The Rivera injury was a legitimate panic-inducing moment.

May 4th, 2012: Quick Hits: Rivera, Yankees, Contracts

Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com hears that the Yankees will not aggressively pursue a reliever in a trade in the wake of Rivera’s injury (Twitter link). They are confident in David Robertson and Rafael Soriano in the late innings.

No surprise here. I mentioned this last week in the Adam Eaton post. Any time a team suffers a major injury, they always come out and say they will replace the player from within. No need to go outside the organization! They don’t want to look desperate because that only creates more problems. Suddenly prices will go up.

Robertson had his insane breakout year in 2011 and Soriano was a Proven Closer™, meaning the Yankees would be in good shape. Robertson actually got the first chance to replace Rivera. Not Soriano. His first save chance was a typical Houdini act — one hit and two walks in a scoreless innings — but the second was a disaster. Robertson allowed four runs, including three on a Matt Joyce homer, to turn a 1-0 ninth inning lead into a 4-1 loss.

Robertson hit the disabled list with an oblique strain after that, pushing Soriano into the closer’s role. He kept it the rest of the season. Soriano went 42-for-46 in save chances the rest of the way and had a 2.26 ERA (3.36 FIP) in 55.2 innings. That’s when #untuck became a thing.

(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)
(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)

Robertson served as Soriano’s setup man and was excellent. Even without Mo, the Yankees had a dominant setup/closer tandem. That ninth inning success pushed Soriano to opt-out of his contract after the season. He hooked on with the Nationals and the Yankees used the compensation draft pick on Ian Clarkin.

The Rivera injury was bad. Don’t get me wrong. Losing an elite closer would be a devastating blow to just about every team. The Yankees were able to survive and thrive thanks to Soriano, who had a so-so first season in pinstripes in 2011. Some guys just need the adrenaline rush of the ninth inning to be at their best, I guess.

Soriano, by the way, announced his retirement this past winter. He last pitched in 2015, allowing four runs in 5.2 innings with the Cubs.

May 7th, 2012: Rosenthal On Ethier, Santana, Blue Jays, D’Backs

A scout tells Rosenthal that Andy Pettitte “does not look close to ready” and will need several more minor league starts before he’s ready to return to the Yankees.

May 7th: A scout says Pettitte “does not look close to ready.” May 13th: Pettitte allows four runs in 6.1 innings in his return to the big leagues. Eh. But! May 18th: Pettitte strikes out nine in eight shutout innings. I guess he needed that one last tune-up start to get ready.

In his return to baseball, Pettitte pitched to a 3.22 ERA (3.40 FIP) in nine starts and 58.2 innings before a comebacker broke his leg at the end of June. Blah. It was a great story before it got cut short. Andy did return in September to make three starts (three runs in 16.2 innings total) and he made two postseason starts too. Three runs in seven innings against the Orioles in the ALDS, then two runs in six innings against the Tigers in the ALCS.

That broken leg pushed Pettitte to come back in 2013 though. Andy said initially he thought he would get it all out of his system in 2012 and go back into retirement, but, after the injury, he wanted to give it another go. Pettitte made 30 starts with a 3.74 ERA (3.70 FIP) in 185.1 innings in 2013. He tossed a complete game in his final big league start.

That 2013 season was pretty crummy overall. But at least we got some very memorable farewells out of it between Pettitte and Mo.

May 12th, 2012: Yankees Claim Justin Thomas Off Waivers

The Yankees have claimed left-handed reliever Justin Thomas off of waivers from the Red Sox, Marc Carig of the Star-Ledger confirms (via Twitter).  The move was first reported by Maureen Mullen of CSNNE.com (via Twitter). 

The never-ending search for reliable lefty relief led the Yankees to Thomas, who wound up spending most of the season in Triple-A. He got a September call-up and allowed three runs in three innings. He hasn’t pitched in the big league since. Thomas ended up in Japan in 2013 and Korea in 2014. He’s been out of baseball since.

May 17th, 2012: Yankees Claim Matt Antonelli

The Yankees have claimed infielder Matt Antonelli off of waivers from the Orioles, Marc Carig of the Star-Ledger tweets. Antonelli, who was designated for assignment four days ago, will report to Triple-A.

The Yankees went a little waiver crazy in mid-May. Antonelli was a former first round pick and top prospect with Padres who, by this point in time, was on his fourth organization in the previous three years. Antonelli never did play for the Yankees. He appeared in 15 games with Triple-A Scranton, went 12-for-61 (.197), then was released in July. Antonelli played a handful of Triple-A games with the Indians in 2013 before retiring. At least he made it to the show, appearing in 21 games with the 2008 Padres. I remember being excited about this pickup, thinking he could be a late bloomer. So much for that.

May 18th, 2012: Oswalt Worked Out For Phillies, Red Sox

11:48am: Rosenthal reports (on Twitter) that neither the Yankees or Tigers are in the mix for Oswalt at this time. The righty intends to sign soon, possibly within the week, and pitch in MLB by mid or late June, Rosenthal tweets.

The Yankees were connected to Oswalt every year from roughly 2006-14. Either at the trade deadline or free agency. That sound about right? At this point Oswalt was 34 and coming off a solid season with the Phillies, throwing 139 innings with a 3.69 ERA (3.44 FIP) in 23 starts. And yet, no one signed him during the 2011-12 offseason.

Eventually Oswalt signed with the Rangers at midseason, people were mad the Yankees missed out, then he threw 59 innings with a 5.80 ERA (4.23 FIP) for Texas, and people were less mad the Yankees missed out. That was pretty much it for Oswalt. He allowed 31 runs in 32.1 innings for the Rockies in 2013 and has not pitched since. Oswalt went from finishing sixth in the 2010 NL Cy Young voting to dunzo in 2013.

The Yankees, meanwhile, never did bring in any rotation reinforcements in 2012. Not even after losing Pineda to season-ending shoulder surgery. They got Pettitte back and that was it. They stuck it out with what they had in-house, and hey, it helped get them to the ALCS.

May 25th, 2012: Minor Moves: Maine, Hernandez, Lindsay

The Yankees will sign right-hander John Maine to a minor league deal, Evan Drellich of MLB.com tweets. The Red Sox recently released the 31-year-old, who has missed considerable time with shoulder injuries. He posted a 7.43 ERA in 46 innings with the Rockies’ top affiliate in 2011 before signing with the Red Sox this January.

John Maine! Okay, so maybe I was wrong about the whole “they never brought in any rotation help” thing. They tried. Maine never did pitch for the Yankees though. He spent the season with Triple-A Scranton, throwing 79.2 innings with a 4.97 ERA (3.96 FIP). The Yankees cut Maine loose after the season, he hooked on with the Marlins, and actually got back to MLB in 2013, allowing ten runs in 7.1 innings in Miami. He did not pitch in the show at all in 2011 or 2012 before resurfacing in 2013. The Marlins released Maine at the end of April 2013 and that was it. He’s been out of baseball since. The Yankees haven’t had to go out and sign a veteran starter hanger-on like Maine this year because of their farm system depth. If anything, they have more starters than rotation spots at the upper levels.

May 29th, 2012: Yankees Claim Ryota Igarashi

The Yankees claimed right-hander Ryota Igarashi from the Blue Jays, Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News reports (Twitter links). The Yankees transferred right-hander Brad Meyers to the 60-day disabled list to create 40-man roster space for Igarashi, who will report to Triple-A.

Igarashi was a bit of a big deal back in the day. The success of Akinori Otsuka had teams scouring Japan for bullpen arms. The Mets gave Igarashi a two-year, $3M deal in December 2009, then he threw 69 innings with a 5.87 ERA (4.41 FIP) from 2010-11. So it goes. Igarashi spent most of the 2012 season in Triple-A with the Yankees, throwing 36.2 innings with a 2.45 ERA (2.07 FIP). They called him up twice in shuttle moves and he allowed four runs in three innings.

By the way, Igarashi is still active. He returned to Japan following that 2012 season and has been there since. So far this season Igarashi, now 37, has allowed two runs in 13 innings with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. The Yankees went through a lot of random relievers in 2012. We haven’t even gotten to Chad Qualls and David Aardsma and Derek Lowe yet.

Thoughts before the quick four-game weekend homestand

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees enjoyed yet another off-day yesterday — it was their seventh scheduled off-day in the first five weeks and three days of the regular season — and later today they’ll get back to work with the series opener against the Astros. It’s a four-game series and a four-game homestand. The Yankees will be back out on the road starting Monday. Anyway, I have some thoughts on things.

1. Yankees outfielders are hitting a combined .301/.404/.579 (160 OPS+) with 28 home runs in 436 total plate appearances so far this season. That is, far and away, the best outfield production in baseball. (The Nationals are second with a 142 OPS+). The least productive outfielder on the roster in terms of OPS+ has been Jacoby Ellsbury, who is hitting .281/.373/.427 (118 OPS+). The Yankees have four starting caliber outfielders on the big league roster — well, that’s if you’re fully buying into Aaron Hicks in the early going — plus two very good outfield prospects in Triple-A in Clint Frazier and Dustin Fowler. Outfield is an area of major depth right now. It’s hard to take any of the big leaguers out of the lineup, and if the Yankees wanted to call up Frazier or Fowler, it would be difficult to justify the change. This isn’t a problem! It’s a luxury. Too many good players is a good thing. The outfielders won’t keep this up all season. I don’t think this is a true talent 160 OPS+ outfield unit. I’m just curious to see how all this plays out. Do the Yankees try to unload Ellsbury and his contract while he’s playing well? Do they finally move Gardner? Is another team willing to buy high on Hicks? Or is cashing Fowler and/or Frazier in as trade chip for a starting pitcher the best move? What a fascinating outfield situation.

2. I find Aaron Judge‘s lack of doubles weirdly interesting. He has 13 home runs so far this season — it would be 14 if not for that stupid non-homer triple — and only three doubles. I don’t see this as a flaw at all. I think the lack of doubles is due entirely to how hard Judge hits the ball. Going into yesterday’s games he ranked sixth in baseball in average exit velocity (93.6 mph) and 13th in hard hit rate (48.3%). Judge hits the ball so hard that a) it tends to carry over the fence for homers rather than fall in the gap for two bases, and b) it comes off the wall hard and the outfielder gets to it so quickly that Judge has no choice but to hold at first base. Those “he hit it so hard he held himself to a single” batted balls. You know what I mean. Judge looks so much more disciplined and comfortable in the batter’s box this season and he’s doing a ton of damage. More than I ever thought he’d do this early in his career, even in a 121 plate appearance sample. Everything about him is interesting because he’s such a unique player, including his seeming inability to hit doubles because he hits the ball so damn hard.

3. Speaking of Judge, he is exactly the kind of player and athlete baseball has been losing to other sports over the years. Judge had Division I football scholarship offers coming out of high school, but baseball was his true love, so he stuck with it. Too many other kids in similar situations — big, physical athletes who are good at multiple sports in high school — wind up playing football (or basketball) because there are more scholarships available. Division I schools are allowed 11.7 scholarships for a 27-man baseball roster. That’s it. Many schools don’t even fund all 11.7 either. Football, on the other hand, gets 85 scholarships a year. Judge is in the minority. Most kids in his situation end up playing football because it equals a free ride to college. Judge stuck with baseball, worked very hard to make himself into the player he is today, and the Yankees are reaping the rewards. MLB should look at Judge and realize this is the kind of talent they’re losing to other sports. I’m not quite sure what the league can do about it — they can’t force colleges to give players baseball scholarships, etc. — but MLB should want to keep players like Judge playing baseball and not fleeing to other sports because they offer more immediate advantages.

4. Joe Girardi has used many different batting orders so far this season — 26 different batting orders in 31 games, in fact (not including the pitcher’s spot in NL parks) — and so far they’re all working. He’s indicated he’d like to keep Gary Sanchez in the two-hole going forward and I am cool with that even though he’s not a typical No. 2 hitter. He’s one of the team’s best hitters, so give him as many chances to hit as possible. Sanchez gave the Yankees a 1-0 lead with a solo homer two batters into Tuesday’s game, remember. At the same time, I think the best No. 2 hitter on the roster is Hicks. He switch hits, he’s been ultra-disciplined this year (17 walks and 13 strikeouts!), he has power, and he runs well too. Pretty much the perfect No. 2 hitter as far as I’m concerned. The problem is Hicks doesn’t play every single day, so Girardi can’t stick him in that spot permanently. In that case, I’d like to see Judge bat second going forward, with Sanchez bumped down to either fourth or fifth. Judge does play just about every day, he’s a more disciplined hitter than Sanchez, and he runs better too. And he’s going to give you that same power threat as well. Simply put, Judge is a more complete all-around offensive player than Sanchez thanks to his discipline and baserunning, so I think he’s a better fit for that premium lineup spot. It’s not a huge deal, and over the course of 162 games the difference between the two in the No. 2 spot might be negligible. But in one individual game, Judge’s advantages in plate discipline and baserunning could have a huge impact.

Hicksie. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
Hicksie. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

5. Sunday night’s game, that marathon against the Cubs, showed exactly why I am not a fan of the automatic intentional walk rule. After the Yankees took the lead in the 18th, a clearly fatigued Chasen Shreve was able to walk both Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo with two outs to get to the pitcher’s spot without having to throw a pitch. He then struck out Kyle Hendricks to end the game. Shreve had thrown 39 pitches in 2.2 innings before the walks and was running on fumes. The intentional balls he didn’t have to throw to Bryant and Rizzo would have taken more out of him! His location to Hendricks could have suffered and changed the inning completely! Hey, the Yankees benefited and won the game, so I’m not going to complain. But this is what I was referring to when I said intentional walks are a competitive play the pitcher (and catcher) should be forced to execute. Shreve was out of gas and he was able to get the matchup he wanted without having to waste any his remaining bullets walking Bryant and Rizzo. Things like that are an unintended consequence of a rule change designed to speed things up a bit.

6. If there was any lingering belief the Yankees view Rob Refsnyder as something more than an emergency option at second base, it was erased in the ninth inning Saturday, when he was replaced defensively with the Yankees up by five runs. Egads. Refsnyder did boot a ball in the previous inning that no doubt contributed to Girardi’s decision to remove him for defense, but still. Up five runs? If you believe in the kid at the position, he doesn’t get pulled in that spot. That spoke volumes about how comfortable — or uncomfortable, in this case — Girardi is with Refsnyder defensively at second base. At this point Refsnyder is basically an up-and-down depth player for the Yankees, someone who won’t kill you at the plate against lefties, and is capable of filling in at first base and in the corner outfield spots. And second base in an emergency. Nothing more. There’s no reason to get rid of him now while he has a minor league option and can be sent up and down as necessary. Next year, when Refsnyder runs out of options and has to be exposed to waivers to be sent down, chances are his time in the organization will come to an end. The Yankees have told us with their actions they never believed in him as much as the fans and, to be fair, just about all the love he received from fans was based on the stats, not the scouting report.

7. The Yankees are 21-10 overall, which is a 110-win pace over a full season. No, I don’t think they’re that good, but they are definitely better than I believed coming into the season. I saw them as an 84-85-ish win team that could maybe win 88-89 games and sneak into wildcard contention if some things went their way, like Judge hitting the snot out of the ball and Luis Severino turning the clock back to 2015, which is exactly what happened. Here’s the thing though: that 21-10 record is in the bank. It happened. Even if the Yankees are a true talent 84-win team and revert back to form and play at an 84-win pace in the final 131 games of the season, they’d finish 89-73. That’s how much this great start has helped. Young rebuilding teams have a way of “arriving” ahead of schedule. Theo Epstein admitted he expected 2016 to be the coming out party for the Cubs. They instead went from 73 wins in 2014 to 97 wins in 2015. The Pirates went from 79 wins in 2012 to 94 wins in 2013. The Rays went from 66 wins in 2007 to 97 wins in 2008. When it comes together, it can come together quick. That could very well be what is happening to the Yankees. And, even if it’s not, this great start has given them a huge head start in the race for a postseason spot.

DotF: Florial homers, Rutherford triples twice in Charleston’s blowout win

A few notes to pass along:

  • The Yankees optioned RHP Chad Green to Triple-A Scranton following last night’s game, the team announced. There have been a few unconfirmed reports floating around saying RHP Gio Gallegos is coming up to replace him, which makes sense given the available options. The Yankees haven’t announced anything though.
  • RHP Albert Abreu is on the High-A Tampa disabled list with elbow inflammation, reports Antonio Mendes. It’s considered precautionary. That’s encouraging, I guess, but anytime you hear a top pitching prospect is out with an elbow issue, it’s never good. Hopefully this doesn’t turn into something more serious.
  • Matt Eddy reports the Yankees have signed RHP Wilser Barrios and RHP Daison Manzano to minor league deals. I can’t find anything about them, so chances are they are late 2016-17 international signing period free agent pickups.

Triple-A Scranton (5-2 win over Pawtucket)

  • SS Tyler Wade: 2-5, 1 R, 1 2B, 2 K — got picked off first
  • CF Dustin Fowler: 0-5, 4 K
  • LF Clint Frazier: 1-4, 1 K — 18-for-60 (.300) in his last 14 games
  • 2B Rob Refsnyder: 1-4, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 SB
  • RF Mason Williams: 1-3, 1 R, 1 RBI, 1 K
  • LHP Caleb Smith: 5 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 4 K, 2 HB, 3/5 GB/FB — 54 of 82 pitches were strikes (66%), plus he picked a runner off first
  • RHP Ben Heller: 2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 3/0 GB/FB — 22 of 29 pitches were strikes (76%) … throwing two innings and 29 pitches today likely rules him out for a call-up tomorrow

[Read more…]

Wednesday Night Open Thread

An off-day on a Wednesday? Weird. Those are usually reserved for Mondays and Thursdays. Anyway, on this day without Yankees baseball, make sure you check out the SI cover story on Aaron Judge. So whenever Judge slips into a slump, which will happen because every player slumps at some point, we can blame the SI cover jinx. RIP Aaron Judge. His career died as he was doing what he loved: mashing dingers.

Here is an open thread for the off-night. There are no nationally broadcast MLB games tonight, though there are a bunch of NBA and NHL postseason games. Talk about that stuff, the Judge story, or anything else here that isn’t religion or politics. Thanks in advance.

2017 Draft: Keston Hiura

Keston Hiura | 2B/OF

Background
Hiura, 20, had a decorated prep career at Valencia High School in Southern California, though he went undrafted in 2014 and followed through on his commitment to UC Irvine. He’s a career .360/.455/.570 hitter with the Anteaters, including .405/.551/.684 with eight homers, 44 walks, and 30 strikeouts in 46 games as a junior this year. Hiura suffered an elbow ligament injury making a throw last season, and it continues to bother him, so much so that he has been limited to DH duty this spring.

Scouting Report
Hiura, who is listed at 6-foot-0 and 185 lbs., might be the best pure college hitter in the 2017 draft class. He’s a right-handed hitter with good bat-to-ball ability and bat speed to spare. Hiura projects to hit for both average and power while drawing plenty of walks. Prior to the injury, he played second base in addition to both left and center fields. His range and mobility on the infield is limited, though he has no problem running down balls in the outfield. The consensus seems to be that left field is his most likely defensive home long-term. The problem is scouts haven’t been able to see him in the field at all this year due to the injury.

Miscellany
In their latest rankings, Baseball America ranked Heston as the 20th best prospect in the 2017 draft class. MLB.com ranked him 26th and Keith Law ranked him 32nd. The Yankees hold the 16th pick. There’s little doubt Heston can hit and college bats have a way of moving through the system quickly. The elbow is a major question though — there’s some thought he’ll need Tommy John surgery sooner rather than later — and while the Yankees have rolled the dice on injured players in the past (Andrew Brackman, most notably), it’s been a while since they’ve done that with a high pick.