The Wait For Aaron Hicks To Take A Step Forward [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Two years ago the Yankees started their youth movement with an interesting strategy. They targeted talented young players who had fallen out of favor with their current organizations, and bought low on them in trades. That’s how they landed Didi Gregorius and Nathan Eovaldi. Dustin Ackley too. You win some, you lose some.

The Yankees employed a similar strategy last offseason — you could argue the Aroldis Chapman deal falls under that umbrella, though he was an established veteran at the time of the trade — and it landed them switch-hitting outfielder Aaron Hicks in a trade with the Twins. John Ryan Murphy went to Minnesota. Hicks was slated to serve as New York’s heavily used fourth outfielder. He would rotate around the three outfield spots and given the veterans rest. It never worked out.

Stuck On The Bench

The Yankees stunk in April. They were bad. Really bad. They won only eight of their first 24 games, mostly because they couldn’t generate offense. The Yankees scored only 82 runs in those 24 games, or 3.42 per. Yikes. Because runs were so hard to come by, Joe Girardi stuck with his veteran outfielders. The trio of Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran started 15 of those first 24 games. Hicks started eight of them.

In those eight games, the now-27-year-old Hicks went 2-for-26 (.077) with no extra-base hits and only two walks. I guess the good news is he only struck out three times, so he was putting the ball in play. It was only a matter of time until the hits dropped in, right? Right??? Well, I guess so. From May 4th through May 25th, Hicks hit .258/.319/.403 (91 wRC+) with two homers in 73 plate appearances and 21 games. His first homer as a Yankee was kind of a big one.

Hicks was able to get regular playing time during that three-week stretch thanks to injuries to Alex Rodriguez (hamstring) and Ellsbury (hip). Beltran shifted to DH and Hicks took over in the outfield. When he wasn’t playing regularly — I mean doing more than replacing Beltran for defense in the late innings — he didn’t hit. When he played regularly, he did hit. Coincidence? Eh, maybe. I don’t think so.

Once Ellsbury and A-Rod returned, Hicks went right back to the bench. From May 26th through July 22nd, the final day of the “Alex Rodriguez, Everyday Player” era, Hicks started 27 of the team’s 50 games, so he was basically a half-time player. Beltran’s hamstring injury in June helped open some playing time there, so it stands to reason that if Beltran had stayed healthy, Hicks would have played even less.

Hicks hit only .197/.261/.301 (48 wRC+) in the first half and Girardi pretty clearly grew frustrated with his lack of production. “Hicks needs to relax, too, I think, to get going. He’s a kid that’s used to playing every day. He’s played a lot but he hasn’t played every day,” said the manager in June. It was a Catch-22. Hicks wasn’t playing because he didn’t hit and he wasn’t hitting because he didn’t play, in theory.

Finally, A Chance To Play

After the Yankees traded away Beltran at the deadline, Girardi made an effort to get Hicks into the lineup more often, even after Aaron Judge had been recalled. Hicks started 23 of the team’s 28 games in August while playing all three outfield spots. Gardner’s sore ankle opened up some playing time as did the club’s sudden willingness to sit veterans for younger players. Gardner and Ellsbury both saw time on the bench in August.

Hicks went down with a hamstring injury of his own in late-August and was unable to return until late-September, when he season was nearly over. He played every day down the stretch because Beltran was gone and Judge went down with his oblique injury. Following the trade deadline, Hicks was very close to an everyday player, and during that time he hit .271/.333/.424 (105 wRC+) with five homers in 129 plate appearances and 37 games around the hamstring injury.

One of those five homers was a thoroughly satisfying go-ahead two-run homer against the Blue Jays on September 26th, the final road game of the season. Benches cleared (twice!) earlier in the game because of the J.A. Happ/Luis Severino retaliation silliness, and Mark Teixeira had just tied the game with a ninth inning blast against Jason Grilli. Hicks went deep a few batters later to give New York the lead. He crushed a hanger, clapped loudly because he knew it was gone, then trotted around the bases.

Teixeira and Hicks pimping clutch ninth inning homers against the Blue Jays. What a time to be alive.

That strong finish in August and September brought Hicks’ final season batting line to .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+) in 361 plate appearances, which is still bad. Really bad. I’m one of those folks who thinks Hicks would thrive with more playing time, but still. You can’t do that, dude.

Take a look at Hicks’ offensive production as the season progressed. It’s easy to see when he got regular at-bats (May, then August and September) and when he was used sparingly off the bench (the rest of the season):

Aaron Hicks wRC+

Hicks came to the Yankees as a switch-hitter with a reputation for being better against left-handed pitchers. The exact opposite was true in 2016. He hit .249/.318/.373 (86 wRC+) against righties, which is barely adequate, and .161/.213/.271 (25 wRC+) against lefties, which is terrible. Hicks didn’t hit his first home run against a southpaw until June 24th, the team’s 72nd game of the season, and he didn’t get his second until August 5th, their 109th game. Yikes.

There is no other way to slice it: Hicks was awful this past season. Inexcusably so, really. He was primed for a breakout season and instead fell flat on his face. The only thing keeping the trade from being a disaster is Murphy somehow being worse than Hicks this year (4 wRC+!). Maybe regular playing time would have helped. I think it would have. But that’s not an excuse. Hicks had his role and didn’t adapt to it. He would have received more playing time had he earned it, but he didn’t.

A Good Defender Who Looks Bad

Back during his days as a prospect — Hicks was a really good prospect once upon a time, he was on Baseball America’s annual top 100 list four times and peaked as high as 19th — the scouting reports said Hicks was an exceptional defensive player. Baseball America called him a “gliding runner” who “possesses plenty of range” and is capable of “providing premium defense in center” in 2013, the last time he was prospect eligible. Everyone loved his glove.

This year we saw a player who took some circuitous routes in the outfield but generally made every catch. There were a few instances in which he broke back instead of breaking forward (and vice versa), but again, he made the catch. DRS (+4), UZR (+4.8), Total Zone (+9), and FRAA (+1.6) all rated him as above-average in the field. And yet, those bad first steps are unsettling. Even if he makes the catch, they just look bad, you know?

There is one aspect of Hicks’ defense that is an undeniable strength: his arm. It’s one of the best in baseball, easily. In fact, Hicks uncorked the fastest outfield throw in the Statcast era back in April. To the action footage:

Hicks had only three outfield assists this season, two fewer than Ellsbury (!), but that’s terribly misleading. Runners rarely tested his arm. It’s a Yadier Molina arm in the outfield. Runners don’t bother trying to stealing against Molina because his arm is so strong. This year runners didn’t even bother to try to run on Hicks because they know he has a cannon. He shut the running game down without even making throws.

Hicks in RF: 62.1% hold rate (47.0% league average)
Hicks in CF: 53.6% hold rate (44.3% league average)
Hicks in LF: 69.2% hold rate (63.5% league average)

Hold rate is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the rate at which runners stayed put despite having the opportunity to take the extra base on a ball hit to the outfield. Like a runner on second not moving to third on a fly ball. Or a runner not going first-to-third on a single to right. That sort of thing. Hicks held runners at a rate far better than the league average at all three outfield positions. His arm is so great he rarely has to use it. It’s the ultimate compliment. Runners don’t even challenge him.

Outlook for 2017

Gosh, I don’t know. I could see any one of a number of things happening with Hicks next season. I could see him starting the year as the fourth outfielder again. I could see him starting in left field if Gardner is traded. I could see him starting in right if Judge struggles in camp. I could see him in a platoon. I could see him getting traded. The possibilities are endless.

I wouldn’t necessarily call 2017 a make or break year for Hicks, but he’s entering a very critical phase of his career. He just turned 27 and it’s time to turn his obvious natural gifts into consistent production. The Yankees hope it happens it with them. It might not. Either way, Hicks has played parts of four seasons in the show now and he has close to 1,300 big league plate appearances under his belt. It’s time to take that next step.

Mailbag: Ellsbury, Heyward, Pujols, Bedrosian, Schwarber

I’ve got ten questions in the mailbag this week, which I guess makes this a small mailbag. Any and all questions should be directed to RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com. Fire away.

I'm no hitting coach, but this looks all wrong. (Jason Miller/Getty)
I’m no hitting coach, but this looks all wrong. (Jason Miller/Getty)

Chris asks: I know My Trade Proposal Sucks, but I’m wondering with the World Series starting and Jason Heyward getting benched Game 1, would the Cubs and Yankees swap Heyward for Ellsbury? I know Heyward is much younger, but we’ll need a big contract swap or eat a ton of money to get away from Jacoby.

I wanted the Yankees to sign Heyward last offseason. I really did. I thought his offensive production would get better in his age 26 season, not take such a huge step back that he was one of the worst hitters in baseball. Heyward and Ellsbury are very similar players, right? Below average hitters and above-average glovemen. Heyward’s better than above-average in the field, but the shape of their production is similar. Glove before bat. Heyward is much younger, but he was also worse this year and is owed more money.

This trade would be four years of Ellsbury for six of Heyward. I’d rather have Heyward’s next six years than Ellsbury’s next four, but yeesh, I don’t say that with much confidence. Both teams would love to get out from under these contracts right now whether they’re willing to admit it or not. I’d rather just keep the guy who comes off the books sooner than try to get cute and buy low on a dude who had a 72 wRC+ this year and has another $162M coming too him.

Andrew asks: Any interest in an Ellsbury for Pujols bad contract swap? Would fill a hole on both sides, giving us some power and a backup option for Bird while giving the Angels an actual outfielder to play LF. Or would you be scared off by the extra year, money, and injury risk that comes with Pujols?

This one is an easy no for me. Ellsbury for Heyward is at least worth thinking about given Heyward’s age and athleticism. Pujols can still sock dingers, but that’s about it. He doesn’t hit for much average or get on base anymore. He’s going to be 37 in January, he can’t run or play the field, and he’s owed (gulp) $140M over the next five years. The Yankees owe Ellsbury $90M over the next four years. We’ve seen more than enough ex-star sluggers over the age of 35 lose it in pinstripes, haven’t we? There aren’t many players I would not trade Ellsbury and contract for at this point. Pujols is one of them. It’s the worst contract in baseball, hands down.

Michael asks: It’s easy to see the Yankees in the market for a top reliever, but what about the trade market? This winter, guys like Greg Holland (actually a FA, my bad), Wade Davis, David Robertson might be available. Are there any pieces that stand out as interesting for NYY? (Personally, a possible buy-low on Davis intrigues me.)

Davis is going to be the big name on the bullpen trade market. He’ll be a free agent next offseason and the Royals probably won’t re-sign him — Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen are going to break the bullpen salary scale this offseason — so they figure to make him available in trades. His name was out there at the deadline before he got hurt, so this isn’t coming out of nowhere.

I don’t think it would be wise for the Yankees to trade a big package of prospects for one year of a reliever, even one as good as Davis. That’s a move you make when you’re a World Series contender, not a team in transition. (The Chapman trade was an exception because he came so cheap.) Robertson is signed for two more years and there were some red flags in his performance this year. Would the Marlins make A.J. Ramos available given Kyle Barraclough’s emergence? Tyler Thornburg and Tom Watson are trade candidates too.

Like every other team, the Yankees should explore every possible avenue to get better this season. Trade, free agency, waivers, whatever. When it comes to the elite reliever market, it would make more sense to just spend the money and sign Chapman and/or Jansen rather than trade away top prospects for someone like Davis or Ramos or whoever. The Yankees have money. Spend it and keep the prospects. Best of both worlds.

Bedrosian. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty)
Bedrosian. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty)

Chris asks: Assuming Chapman and Jensen’s services are coveted by many teams this off-season and the Yankees are no lock on any free agent lately, what do you think of the Angels Cam Bedrosian as a possible late inning bullpen piece to set up for Dellin?

For some reason I thought Bedrosian had Tommy John surgery this year, but apparently not. I guess I got him confused with all the other Angels pitchers who had their elbows rebuilt. Bedrosian — yes, he’s Steve’s kid — did have surgery in September to remove a blood clot from his arm pit, and he’s expected to be ready to go for Spring Training. Blood clots are scary, but by all accounts he’ll make a full recovery.

The 25-year-old Bedrosian had a phenomenal year in 2016, pitching to a 1.12 ERA (2.13 FIP) with 31.5% strikeouts and 49.5% grounders in 40.1 innings. He walked a few too many (8.5%), but not a ridiculous amount. Bedrosian has really good stuff too. He lives in the mid-to-upper-90s with his heater and backs it up with a wipeout slider. Not a whole lot went right for the Angels this year. This guy was a positive before the blood clot got in the way.

The Halos need basically everything. Well, except a center fielder. They won 74 games. There’s plenty of room for improvement on the roster. I wonder if Billy Eppler would be willing to cash Bedrosian in as a trade chip to plug other roster holes. Maybe the Justin Wilson trade is a good benchmark? Two good but not great prospects? Say, Chad Green and Rob Refsnyder for Bedrosian? I know, I know. My trade proposal sucks.

Paul asks: What are the average woba or wrc+ for each position? Does it vary year to year?

Yep, it varies year to year the same way the league batting average and slugging percentage and ERA and everything else varies. It all fluctuates. Generally speaking though, the league average offensive production from each position stays the same relative to each other. First basemen outhit shortstops, etc. Here are the 2016 averages:

Catcher: .242/.310/.391 (.304 wOBA and 87 wRC+)
First Base: .255/.344/.447 (.334 wOBA and 108 wRC+)
Second Base: .270/.329/.425 (.324 wOBA and 101 wRC+)
Shortstop: .262/.319/.407 (.312 wOBA and 92 wRC+)
Third Base: .264/.331/.442 (.331 wOBA and 106 wRC+)
Left Field: .251/.321/.417 (.318 wOBA and 97 wRC+)
Center Field: .259/.324/.407 (.316 wOBA and 96 wRC+)
Right Field: .257/.327/.425 (.324 wOBA and 101 wRC+)
Designated Hitter: .258/.330/.480 (.343 wOBA and 115 wRC+)
Pitchers: .133/.165/.172 (.152 wOBA and -15 wRC+)

Boo pitchers, hooray DHs. I mean, seriously. Pitchers totaled over 5,300 (!) plate appearances in 2016. Imagine how many more runs would be scored around baseball if we replaced pitchers with DHs. It would be so much more exciting. You won’t even notice double switches are gone.

Anyway, I’m surprised to see left field production was so low this year. Teams historically stash a masher out in left, but not any more. Think about it. How many truly great left fielders are there in baseball today? I count three: Yoenis Cespedes, Christian Yelich, and Starling Marte. That’s it. I guess Ryan Braun is still great too. And healthy Michael Brantley, but he’s not healthy. These are dark times for left field.

Liam asks: My question is: With the possibility that Tanaka could opt out of his contract after next season, would it be smart to put him on the trade block this offseason? Who would be realistic trade partners?

Yes and pretty much every contender. Cubs, Red Sox, Dodgers, Rangers, Astros, Giants, Nationals, Cardinals … all of ’em. Even the smaller market teams like the Indians and Pirates could swing it for a year, not that I think they’d actually go through with it. Masahiro Tanaka is an ace. He is. It’s weird people try to downplay his performance. He’s an ace and any team with a realistic chance to win the World Series should want him. Tanaka makes every rotation better. It would be foolish not to listen to offers for Tanaka given the impending opt-out, but that doesn’t mean the Yankees should give him away. They need high-end arms too.

Kenny asks: Mike, could the Yankees bring back Pat Venditte to serve as an innings eating long man? I know he hasn’t exactly dominated the big leagues, but it’s essentially a day off for the bullpen in blowout games. And does he have any options remaining?

No. Come on. Does this question get asked about a non-switch pitcher? Anyone eager to bring Preston Claiborne back? Venditte is 31 and he has a 4.97 ERA (5.02 FIP) in 50.2 career big league innings, including a 5.73 ERA (6.15 FIP) in 22 innings this year. No offense to the guy, but he doesn’t have the stuff to get Major League hitters out. Never really did. PitchFX says his fastball averaged 85.4 mph from the right side and 83.3 mph from the left side in 2016. Nope. Nope nope nope. I think there’s value in having a veteran long man you can run into the ground in blowouts and things like that, but the Yankees can do better than Venditte. They have enough bullpen arms. There’s a competent long man among them.

Venditte. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty)
Venditte. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

Brock asks: Better trade: the proposed Miller for Schwarber or the actual Chapman for Warren, Torres, McKinney, Crawford? From my biased point of view, the Yanks gave up less to get more. I don’t recall who balked at the Miller/Schwarber deal, but if you’re Theo, how do you rationalize accepting one but not the other? Is it simply that the Cubs didn’t want to give up ML-talent?

Chapman for that package, hands down. The Cubs supposedly made Kyle Schwarber completely off limits anyway, so this is a moot point. Could you imagine trading Andrew Miller for a guy who is essentially a platoon DH coming off a major knee surgery though? Yeesh. Schwarber’s good! But he’s not some generational talent or anything. The guy hit two singles the other night and people are acting like it he pulled a Willis Reed.

What are the odds Schwarber is an appreciably more valuable player than Greg Bird going forward? Pretty small, I think. Give me the high-end shortstop prospect, the big league swingman, and two others for the rental reliever. Easy call. Chapman for Schwarber would maybe be a different story, but Miller for Schwarber? Not a chance. Anyone thinking the Yankees are better off with a (still not 100% healthy!) Schwarber instead of the package they received for Miller is getting too caught up in the moment.

George asks: Instead of a separate Int. draft, where poor teams get protected picks, early slots, etc. would it be possible to include international players in the regular draft, and maybe add 2-3 rounds. The money/slot might also have to change. That would seem to add talent for teams with lower picks, and not penalize teams with good records twice.

Have one amateur talent draft that combines high school, college, and international kids would be the best way to go, if an international draft is unavoidable. I don’t see why the crummiest teams should get first dibs on the best draft and international prospects. That’s too much of a reward for being bad. They wouldn’t even need to add rounds to the draft. Forty rounds is plenty. Teams can fill out their minor league rosters with undrafted free agents.

MLB is said to be pushing for an international draft — they have been for years, really — and part of the current proposal includes making kids wait until they’re 18 to sign. If they do that, it would make it easier to combine the talent pools. Lumping 16-year-old kids from Latin America in with high school and college kids from the U.S. would have been a little weird. I don’t like the idea of two separate drafts at all. Combining the two talent pools into one draft is the lesser of two evils.

Daryl asks: I know when discussing closers and this off season, many think Chapman will be back, including you. Each time you mention it, you don’t think it’s the right move. Why? Besides just “relievers are volatile”? Where would you prefer 15mil x 4yr go?

For me, it’s mostly off the field stuff with Chapman. I know a lot of people don’t care about that and that’s cool. You’re welcome to feel however you want. He’s a great pitcher. There’s no doubt about that. I do wonder what happens when he inevitably loses a little velocity — for a guy who throws that hard, he gives up an awful lot of foul balls, doesn’t he? — but that might not happen for a few years. He’s still only 28.

Four years and $15M annually seems like Chapman’s floor to me. That’s only $3M more per season than Jonathan Papelbon’s record contract for relievers, which was signed five years ago now. Salaries have increased a ton since then. That extra $3M might not even cover general league-wide inflation. In this market, Chapman is probably worth something like $17M a year for four or five years. I just don’t like the off-field stuff. This isn’t performance-enhancing drugs here. This is much more serious.

Thursday Night Open Thread

Today is a travel day for the World Series, but don’t worry, there’s still baseball tonight. MLB.com is streaming an Arizona Fall League game at 9:30pm ET. Here’s the stream link. Gleyber Torres, Greg Bird, and Miguel Andujar are all the in the starting lineup. Greg Bird! Miss that dude. Let’s all watch it together and overreact to three or four at-bats, shall we?

Here is tonight’s open thread. In addition to the AzFL game, you’ve also the Thursday NFL game (Jaguars and Titans), and the Islanders are playing as well. Talk about those games or whatever else here.

Brett Gardner among Gold Glove finalists, again

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

For the second straight year, Brett Gardner is among the three finalists for the AL Gold Glove award in left field, MLB announced. He was a finalist back in 2011 as well. Gardner is up against Alex Gordon and Colby Rasmus. No other Yankees are among the Gold Glove finalists, which isn’t surprising. You can see all of this year’s finalists right here.

Gardner had a typical Brett Gardner season in left field this year, I thought. Both DRS (+12) and UZR (+3.5) liked his work out there, for what it’s worth. Gardner did make his fair share of highlight reel catches throughout the summer as well. These are the two most notable, I’d say:

Gardner has yet to win a Gold Glove, mostly because Gordon has been hogging it the last few years. Gordon has won four of the last five AL Gold Gloves in left field, with the only exception being last year, when Yoenis Cespedes won it despite splitting the season between the Tigers and Mets.

Gold Gloves are voted on by managers and coaches around the league — they’re not able to vote for their own players — plus there’s now a statistical component as well. Gordon missed some time with an injury, so if he gets dinged for that, Gardner just might sneak in and win himself a Gold Glove.

The Gold Glove winners will be announced Tuesday, November 8th. I’m pretty sure they’re announced during a live television broadcast these days. The other major awards (MVP, Cy Young, etc.) will be announced the following week.

Yo Soy Gary [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

We’ve been waiting a long time for this. For the Yankees to call up a tippy top prospect and get instant high-caliber production. Jesus Montero had a big September in 2011 and Joba Chamberlain did well out of the bullpen in 2007, but otherwise you have to go all the way back to Robinson Cano in 2005 for the last time the Yankees called up a young player and watched him dominate.

This season, Gary Sanchez did exactly that. The Yankees called him up after selling at the trade deadline, shifted Brian McCann to designated hitter to clear playing time, and watched Sanchez rake. It wasn’t just immediate success either. It was immediate success above and beyond anything anyone could have reasonably expected. Sanchez’s first few weeks as a full-time big leaguer were positively Ruthian.

Losing The Job That Was His To Lose

I’d like to unleash the Kraken,” said Brian Cashman at the GM Meetings in mid-November after trading John Ryan Murphy to the Twins for Aaron Hicks. Murphy had a very nice season a year ago as McCann’s backup, and while we all know anyone can be traded at any time, I don’t think many folks saw that trade coming. Murphy was gone and Cashman all but declared Sanchez ready for the job.

One small problem though: Sanchez lost the job that was his to lose in Spring Training. He went 2-for-22 (.091) during Grapefruit League play, and while pitchers didn’t overpower him (only two strikeouts), Sanchez didn’t play as well as the Yankees hoped. “I was too anxious. I wanted to impress the Yankees and show that I was ready to play in the big leagues,” he later said.

Austin Romine did play well, and since Sanchez had minor league options while Romine didn’t, Romine got the backup job. Disappointing? Oh sure. But the right move? Well, based on the way things worked out this year, it’s hard to think they could have gone better for Romine or especially Sanchez had the Yankees done things differently in Spring Training.

The Final Tune-Up In Scranton

(Scranton Times-Tribune)
(Scranton Times-Tribune)

You know, it’s funny. Sanchez performed worse in Triple-A Scranton this year than he did last year. A season ago he hit .295/.349/.500 (145 wRC+) with six homers in 146 plate appearances and 35 games for the RailRiders. This year he hit .282/.339/.468 (131 wRC+) with ten homers in 313 plate appearances and 71 Triple-A games. Don’t get me wrong, that’s still really good, especially for a catcher. It’s just that when a guy repeats a level, you expect him to do better the second time around.

To be fair, Sanchez missed about three weeks with a fluke thumb injury. He was hit by a foul tip and suffered a small fracture. One of those catcher injuries. An occupational hazard. It took Sanchez a little time to get back on top of his game following the thumb injury. Even still, he had a very good Triple-A season, especially when you consider he was a 23-year-old full-time catcher. It ain’t easy to play that position everyday and still rake. Sanchez went back to Scranton and did everything he needed to do.

Back In The Big Leagues, For Good

In mid-May, with the offense struggling and a bunch of left-handed starters coming up, the Yankees briefly recalled Sanchez to be the DH. It was supposed to be a two-game cameo against Chris Sale and Jose Quintana on May 13th and 14th. Sanchez started at DH against Sale, went 0-for-4, then was sent down the next day. Not because of the 0-for-4, but because the pitching staff was stretched thin and they needed another arm.

It wasn’t until early-August, a few days after the trade deadline, that the Yankees brought Sanchez back for good. Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller were traded away, but more importantly Carlos Beltran had been dealt, which opened up DH at-bats. (Alex Rodriguez was firmly glued to the bench by this point.) Step One was moving veterans for prospects. Step Two was calling up MLB ready prospects and playing time.

Sanchez started his first two games after being recalled at DH, went 3-for-8 with a double, then took over as the regular catcher. It wasn’t subtle either. Sanchez caught 18 of the team’s next 25 games. The Yankees cast McCann aside and made him the DH. Sanchez was their guy behind the plate, and he rewarded them. Holy crap did he reward them. From August 10th through August 27th, he hit eleven homers in the span of 15 games.

Every time he stepped to the plate, you expected him to go deep. It was like A-Rod in 2007. Sanchez was that locked in. And the thing is, he never really slowed down. He had a ten-game stretch with no home runs at one point, but overall the kid came up in August and hit 20 homers in 53 games. That’s almost exactly one-third of a season. He had a 60-homer pace as a catcher. Nuts. Sanchez was so good he even drove in runs while being intentionally walked.

The best part — besides the dingers, of course — was that Sanchez was not a one-trick pony either. This was no Kevin Maas feasting on mistake fastballs. Sanchez hit all sorts of pitching and he hit for average too, carrying a .337 batting average into the final week of the season before finishing in a 2-for-29 (.029) slump. I mean, whatever. It happens. The kid played more this year than he ever had before. I’m sure he was worn down.

When it was all said and done, Sanchez authored a .299/.376/.657 (171 wRC+) batting line with those 20 homers, a 24.9% strikeout rate, and a 10.5% walk-rate in 53 games. Only Brian Dozier (22) hit more home runs than Sanchez following the date of his call-up. In terms of games played, Sanchez became the fastest player in history to 11, 18, 19, and 20 career home runs. Again: as a catcher!

The historic showing — Sanchez led Yankees’ positions players in fWAR (+3.2) and was second in bWAR (+3.0) despite playing one-third of a season — is going to earn Sanchez serious Rookie of the Year consideration, and I do think he’s going to win. Michael Fulmer had an excellent season, no doubt about it. But basically no one has come up and done what Sanchez did in the second half. It’s excellence vs. historic greatness, and I think the voters will lean towards history. We’ll see. Either way, holy cow was Sanchez awesome.

Power & Plate Coverage

One thing we learned about Sanchez in the second half is that the kid can do damage on just about any type of pitch in any location. He is close to a dead pull hitter — Sanchez did pop two opposite field home runs — but that’s okay. When you hit for that kind of power, you call pull the ball as much as you want.

Look at the pitches on which Sanchez did his most damage this year. I’m going to use 100 mph exit velocity as my completely arbitrary cutoff point here. It’s a nice round number. Here are the locations of the pitches Sanchez hit at least 100 mph this year, via Baseball Savant:

Gary Sanchez exit velocity

All over the zone and all types of pitches. He doesn’t live on fastballs inside, or breaking balls up in the zone. Nothing like that. Sanchez covers the entire strike zone — heck, he even covers outside the strike zone too — and he’s able to drive the ball with authority regardless of where it’s pitched. He doesn’t have a traditional wheelhouse. The strike zone is Sanchez’s wheelhouse.

Despite the late call-up, Sanchez finished sixth on the Yankees with 55 batted balls of at least 100 mph, more than guys like Mark Teixeira (54), Didi Gregorius (54), and Brett Gardner (52). His average home run distance was 398 feet as well, so it’s not like Sanchez hit a bunch of wall-scrappers. Hit Tracker classified only five of his 20 home runs as “Just Enoughs,” meaning five cleared the wall by fewer than ten feet. Bombs. He hit bombs.

We all knew Sanchez had huge power. That was the book on him coming up through the minors. The kid could hit the ball a long way, it was just a question of whether he’d put in the work required to be a big leaguer, and he’s done that the last two years. Sanchez has admitted that becoming a father two years ago helped put his career in better perspective, and helped him understand he couldn’t coast on talent. This year, for the first time, he was rewarded for all his hard work.

A Work In Progress On Defense

For years and years, the concern with Sanchez was whether he’d improve enough defensively to be a passable catcher. He is blessed with a rocket arm, and holy geez, we saw it a bunch of times this year. Sanchez threw out 13 of 32 basestealers this season, or 40.6%, plus he picked five runners off first base and two off second. We saw throws like this on the regular:

Perfect throw. Strong, accurate, right on the money. It’s amazing anyone tried to run against this kid once word got out about his arm. Six of the 19 successful steals against Sanchez came with Dellin Betances on the mound, and, well, Betances might be the worst pitcher in baseball at holding runners. Hard to fault Sanchez there. Also, he seemed to take charge on the mound. He didn’t hesitate to go out to talk to the pitcher, even a veteran like CC Sabathia.

Depending on who you ask, Sanchez was either an above-average (Baseball Prospectus) or a slightly below-average (StatCorner) pitch-framer. I thought he looked fine. He didn’t stab at everything but he wasn’t exactly catching pitches and presenting them with baby soft hands like Yadier Molina. Sanchez was fine at framing pitches. The one glaring weakness in his game seemed to be wild pitches and passed balls. More than a few got by him.

In fact, Sanchez allowed 15 wild pitches and six passed balls this year. His 21 combined passed pitches were 41st most in baseball even though he ranked 58th in innings caught. There were times that yes, Sanchez seemed to get a little lazy behind the plate and let a catchable ball scoot by. That’s something that will have to be improved going forward. An excellent arm and average-ish framing make for a good defensive catcher. If Sanchez can improve the passed pitches, he could be a real asset behind the plate.

Outlook for 2017

Sanchez is in the big leagues for good. As if his bat didn’t make that clear enough, he is out of minor league options, so the Yankees can’t send him back to Triple-A anyway. Well, they could, but they’d have to put him on waivers, and there’s a better chance of the team signing me than that happening. It’s time to stop thinking about Sanchez as the catcher of the future. He’s the catcher of the present.

“Gary Sanchez is our starting catcher next year,” said Cashman during his end-of-season press conference. “That’s his position to lose. That doesn’t mean he can’t lose it. We saw (Luis) Severino last year helping us get to the postseason. This year, he struggled. We’re very excited about Gary, who always projected to be (a middle of the order bat).”

It’s impossible to expect Sanchez to do what he did in 2016 again in 2017. He’s not going to repeat his 60-homer pace. He’s not going to slug close to .700 again. Chances are he probably won’t hit close to .300 again either. If Sanchez hits, say, .270/.330/.450 with 20-something dingers next season, it would be phenomenal for a young catcher in his first full season. And yet, it would represent a big step down from what his did this year.

Sanchez set the bar awfully high this year. The Yankees will count on him to again be a middle of the lineup force — he batted third in his final 40 games of the season — and provide power. They’ll have to carefully balance his playing time too. Catchers need regular off-days to rest, but Sanchez’s bat is so good that you don’t want him out of the lineup. A lot of DH days are in his future and that’s okay. Gary finally arrived this season, and now he’s here to stay.

The Yankees’ Five Biggest Defensive Outs of 2016

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Yesterday we relived the five biggest hits recorded by the Yankees this season, using win probability added. It’s not a perfect measure, of course, but it does a nice job for an exercise like this. Now it’s time to turn things around and look at the biggest outs record by the Yankees this past season. Not by the hitters, silly. No one cares about those. By the pitchers and the defense.

The Yankees played more than a few nail-biters this season, especially down the stretch in August and September, so there are no boring ground outs or pop-ups here. These outs were all recorded in pretty intense late-inning situations. It should no surprise then who was on the mound for most of them. So, once again with an assist from the Baseball Reference Play Index, here are the five biggest outs recorded by the Yankees this past season.

5. Shreve vs. Salvador Perez

The Yankees had some awful luck with rain delays this year. They had an inordinate number of ninth inning rain delays that threw a wrench into their bullpen plans and cost them games. It stunk.

On August 30th, the Yankees were in Kansas City playing the second of three games against the Royals. A 59-minute rain delay forced Masahiro Tanaka out of the game after five effective innings — he only threw 71 pitches too — and of course the bullpen blew the 4-2 lead after that. Lorenzo Cain doubled against Adam Warren and Kendrys Morales had a sac fly against Dellin Betances.

The game went to extra innings, and the Yankees took a 5-4 lead on Jacoby Ellsbury‘s run-scoring single off Joakim Soria. Brian McCann and Chase Headley started that rally with singles. With his key relievers already used, Joe Girardi went to Ben Heller for the save opportunity in the bottom of the tenth. It didn’t go well. Hit batsman, stolen base, single, stolen base, strikeout, intentional walk loaded the bases with one out.

That was it for Heller. Girardi went to Chasen Shreve to face Morales, and he managed to strike him out on three pitches. Unexpected! The strikeout pitch was maybe the best splitter Shreve has thrown since last year. That was only the second out of the inning though. There was one more out to go, and thankfully Sal Perez didn’t square up a splitter left up in the zone. He hit a fairly routine game-ending fly ball to center. To the video:

That was Shreve’s first and thus far only career save. The win was New York’s fifth in the span of seven games and was part of that great 13-4 stretch that got them back in the postseason race. WPA of Perez’s fly out: +.270. (The Morales strikeout was +.264.)

4. Betances vs. Eric Hosmer

Because one extra innings game against the plucky Royals wasn’t enough, the Yankees played another one the very next day following Shreve’s save. This game was also 4-4 heading into extras, but rather than end in the tenth, it went all the way to the 13th. Shreve, Tommy Layne, Warren, Blake Parker, and Heller combined for six hitless innings in relief of Luis Cessa. How about that?

The Yankees manufactured a run in the top of the 13th — a single (Didi Gregorius), a double (Starlin Castro), and a sac fly (McCann) did the trick — allowing Girardi to give the ball to Betances for the save chance in the bottom of the 13th. Betances, naturally, walked the leadoff man. Sigh. Never easy.

Because Betances can’t hold runners, a leadoff walk usually turns into a double, but that didn’t happen. Hosmer hit a tapper back to Dellin that he grabbed between his damn legs, then turned into a rally killing 1-6-3 double play. Check it out:

And they said Betances can’t throw to bases. He did just find there la la la you can’t tell me otherwise. A Morales fly ball followed to end the game. The Yankees earned back-to-back 5-4 extra-innings wins over the Royals in Kansas City. Pretty crazy. The Royals never ever ever lost games like that from 2014-15, which is why they went to the World Series each year. WPA of the double play: +.285.

3. Miller vs. Carlos Gomez

July 25th was a pretty monumental day for the Yankees. That was the day they officially shifted gears and starting selling at the deadline. Aroldis Chapman was shipped to the Cubs in the afternoon, and later that night, Andrew Miller got into a bit of a jam in his first game back in the closer’s role.

The Yankees managed to take a 2-1 lead over Dallas Keuchel (!) on Austin Romine‘s eighth inning run-scoring double, but to start the bottom of the ninth, the left-handed hitting Luis Valbuena managed to bloop a leadoff single to left. Miller allowed 13 hits all season to lefties — I’m surprised it was that many, to be honest — and that was one of them. The Astros were in business.

Miller bounced back to strike out rookie Alex Bregman, then he coaxed what could have been a game-ending 5-4-3 double play from Evan Gattis, but the Yankees instead got zero outs. Zero. Replays showed Castro stepped off second base a little too early when he made the pivot, and Gattis beat out the back-end of the play. Could have been game over! Instead, Houston had the tying run at second and the winning run at first with one out.

Thankfully, Miller is insanely good, and he got the punchless Carlos Gomez to ground into a game-ending 6-4-3 double play. This one the Yankees turned perfectly. Here’s the video of the two double plays, the failed one and the successful one:

Textbook turn to end the game. Not the kind of play you’ll remember over the course of a long season. Not even close. But in the grand scheme of things, those were two huge outs for the Yankees. The win was part of what I was worried would be the most poorly timed winning streak in history, an 8-2 stretch following the All-Star break. Thankfully, the Yankees sold anyway. WPA of the double play: +.330.

2. Chapman vs. J.D. Martinez

Ugh, this game. It was June 2nd and the Yankees were in Detroit to play a makeup game against the Tigers. Remember that snow-out in April? This was the makeup game. The Yankees went from Toronto to Detroit to Baltimore in a three-day span.

In this game, the Tigers did something no other team did this season: they scored against Betances, Miller, and Chapman. The Yankees had a 5-1 lead thanks to their four-run seventh inning — Ellsbury’s two-run triple was the big blow — but Detroit chipped away, scoring a run against Betances in the seventh and another against Miller in the eigth. Girardi handed Chapman a 5-3 lead in the ninth.

The ninth inning did not go so well. I mean, the Yankees won, but still. In the span of 12 pitches, Chapman loaded the bases with no outs on a single (Mike Aviles), a walk (Jose Iglesias), and a single (Cameron Maybin). There was a wild pitch mixed in there too. Not great, Bob. That brought Martinez to the plate and he’s the kind of hitter who could have easily won the game with one swing.

Chapman executed pretty much a perfect pitch, a 101 mph fastball at the knees. Martinez did the only thing he could do with it, and that was beat it into the ground. Gregorius ranged to his left to start what was probably New York’s prettiest double play of the season. Check it out:

Twist-ending: that didn’t end the game! That got the first two outs of the ninth inning and a run scored to trim the lead to 5-4. The tying run also moved to third base. Chapman then picked up the save by getting Miguel Cabrera to bounce out to second base to end the game. I remember thinking the Yankees should have intentionally walked Miggy and gone after Victor Martinez. Shows what I know. WPA of the double play: +.339.

1. Betances vs. Edwin Encarnacion

This was the best game of the season that I completely forgot about. It was August 15th, and the Yankees earned a 1-0 win over the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium (!) because Chad Green struck out eleven in six innings (!!!). How did I forget that? Also, the Yankees scored the game’s only run on Aaron Judge‘s double. I feel stupid for forgetting this one.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Yankees-Blue Jays game without some serious late-game drama. Betances started the ninth inning by walking No. 9 hitter Josh Thole. Annoying! Devon Travis popped up in foul territory for the first out of the ninth inning, but Josh Donaldson followed with a ground ball single back up the middle, which put runners on the corners with one out. The tying run was a sac fly away.

The ninth inning meltdown suffered a quick death. On the very next pitch after the Donaldson single, Encarnacion hit into a game-ending 5-4-3 double play that was as pretty as it was clutch. To the very necessary video:

Heck of a play there by Headley to first stop the ball, then to make the throw to Castro at second to start the game-winning twin-killing. That was a close one. The Yankees won the game, gained some more ground in the standings, and gave us a few weeks of excitement in the second half. What a play that was. WPA of the double play: +.374.

* * *

In case you’re wondering, and I know I was, the final out of that crazy September 6th game against the Blue Jays, registered at +0.230 WPA, making it the team’s ninth biggest defensive out of the season. This was the Brett Gardner catch at the top of the left field wall. You know what I’m talking about, right? Of course you.

That felt like the biggest out of the season, because it was. WPA doesn’t factor in the context of the postseason race. The Yankees were playing maybe their best baseball of the season at that point — they’d won eight of their previous dozen games — and the win moved them to within 3.5 games back of a playoff spot. Losing that game to Toronto, one of the teams the Yankees were chasing in the wildcard race, would have been crushing. Instead, it was a win.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

Twenty years ago tonight, I was parked in front of the tiny little rabbit ears television in my bedroom watching the Yankees win the damn World Series. That was the team’s first championship of my lifetime and I’m pretty sure I’ll love that 1996 team more than I’ll ever love another Yankees team. You never forget your first championship as a fan. That one was really special, especially after the heartbreak of the 1995 ALDS. Happy anniversary, folks.

Here is tonight’s open thread. Despite a less than stellar weather forecast, they’re going to play Game Two of the World Series tonight. Trevor Bauer and Jake Arrieta are the scheduled starters (7pm ET on FOX). The Islanders, Rangers, and Nets are all playing tonight too. Talk about those games or whatever else here.