Yankees 5, Rays 0: Torreyes and Headley lead Yankees to first win of 2017

The Opening Day losing streak may be at six years, but you know what? The Game Two winning streak is now at three years. Boom! The Yankees picked up their first win of the 2017 season Tuesday night at Tropicana Field. They beat the Rays 5-0.

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Sabathia’s Resurgence Continues
Masahiro Tanaka was damn near perfect in Spring Training. He almost made it through the entire Grapefruit League season with a 0.00 ERA. Then, of course, he couldn’t make it out of the third inning on Opening Day. CC Sabathia, meanwhile, got knocked around all spring, then went out and tossed five scoreless innings in his first regular season start Tuesday night. Go figure.

The Rays, as teams tend to do, stacked their lineup with right-handed batters against Sabathia. Kevin Kiermaier and Brad Miller were the only lefties in the starting lineup, and you can understand why. Two years ago righties hit .304/.363/.502 (.370 wOBA) against Sabathia. Goodness. Adrian Beltre hit .300/.358/.521 (.371 wOBA) last season, for reference. The big man has a big platoon split late in his career.

As of past of last year’s renaissance, Sabathia picked up a cut fastball, which he used to bust righties in on the hands. That helped him hold opposite side batters to a .258/.325/.400 (.316 wOBA) batting line. That’s still not great, but it is a heck of a lot better than two years ago. Sabathia used the cutter to limit Tampa’s righty hitters to three hits and two walks in 14 plate appearances Tuesday, with two of three hits being infield singles. Here’s how Sabathia pitched those righties, via Brooks Baseball:

cc-sabathia-vs-rhb

Cutters inside — the new Trackman system is classifying them as four-seam fastballs for some reason, but watching the game, they sure looked like cutters — and everything else away. Sabathia struck out two and got eight ground ball outs, the latter of which is more important. At this point of his career Sabathia can’t blow hitters away. But if he can keep the ball on the ground, he’ll be in good shape. Nice work, CC. A fine season debut, this was.

Three Runs On A Role Reversal
You know, Matt Holliday is supposed to be the one launching home runs while Ronald Torreyes gets the BABIP luck, not the other way around. Naturally, Torreyes smacked the Yankees’ first home run of the season, a loud two-run shot in the third inning. He hit two homers in Spring Training, remember. Maybe he’s growing into some power. Then again, when Jake Odorizzi leaves an 86 mph cutter here …

ronald-torreyes-jake-odorizzi

… most hitters will drive the ball with authority. Torreyes did exactly that and the Yankees took a 2-0 lead, their first lead of the season. (Aaron Judge laced a line drive single back up in the middle as a previous batter despite being down in the count 0-2. Judge is looking pretty comfortable at the plate so far this year, at least compared to last year.)

Brett Gardner followed the Torreyes home run with a double into the right field corner — that was three straight hard-hit balls for the Yankees — so the Yankees were again in business. Then Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird struck out to put the rally on life support. Womp womp. Holliday picked them up by strategically lifting a pop-up into the catwalks in left field, which caused Peter Bourjos to lose sight of the ball. It bounced in for a run-scoring double. Smart move by Holliday. You can’t teach that kind of veteran experience. The Yankees were up 3-0 in the third.

Four Innings From The Bullpen
Sabathia escaped a little two-out jam in the fifth inning — he walked Bourjos and gave up an infield single to Steven Souza, then got Kiermaier to hit a tapper back to the mound — and Chase Headley gave the Yankees an insurance run in the next half inning. He smacked a solo home run off whatever the hell that thing is in center field at the Trop. Last season Headley didn’t hit his first home run until May 12th. He got it out of the way early this year.

With a 4-0 lead and off-days galore these first ten days of the season, Joe Girardi went to his top relievers to close out the game. Bryan Mitchell needed nine pitches to cut through the middle of the Rays lineup in the sixth inning. Tyler Clippard struck out two in a perfect seventh inning. Headley was nice enough to drive in another insurance run in the eighth, this time with a shift-beating ground ball single. That’s four shift-beaters in two games. Headley also stole a base. He’s sneaky good at that. It was the Yankees’ first steal of the year.

Once the lead was stretched to 5-0, Girardi went to Jonathan Holder for the eighth, not Dellin Betances. Holder allowed two dinky infield singles — the Rays had five hits on the night, four of which were infield singles — before giving way to Betances, who walked Longoria to load the bases with one out. Never easy. Betances escaped the jam with a strikeout (Rickie Weeks) and a weak grounder to first (Logan Morrison). Aroldis Chapman cruised through the ninth with ease. Five relievers, four scoreless innings.

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Leftovers
Sanchez went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts and is now 0-for-10 with three strikeouts on the season. Bust! Back to Scranton he goes. In all seriousness, Sanchez had a double taken away by Longoria, who made a nice play at the line, and he also smashed a line drive right at the shortstop. This isn’t one of those “he’s flailing at everything!” slumps. This is one of those “bah, he’s hitting into some bad luck” slumps. It’s not even a slump. It’s two games! He’ll be fine.

Everyone in the starting lineup had a hit except Sanchez and Starlin Castro. Jacoby Ellsbury had two hits, the first a hard-hit grounder that hit Odorizzi and deflected away from the defenders, and the second a ground ball double down the line. Holliday hit what I thought was his first home run of the season in the eighth inning. He hit it hard, but the ball just died and was caught at the warning track. Too much topspin, I guess.

Judge’s wingspan turned a double into a single in the first inning. Longoria stroked a line drive single to right field — it was Tampa’s only hit to leave the infield — and Judge was able to run over and reach out to grab the ball before it rolled to the wall, limiting Longoria to one base. Being nine feet tall has its advantages.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
Go to ESPN for the box score and MLB.com for the video highlights. Don’t miss our Bullpen Workload page either. Here’s the win probability graph:


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
The first rubber game of the season. The Yankees and Rays will close out this three-game series Wednesday night. Michael Pineda and Alex Cobb are the scheduled starters.

Game Two: Okay, Let’s Try That Again

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Opening Day feels like a long time ago, doesn’t it? Nearly 51 hours will pass between the final pitch of Game One and the first pitch of Game Two. The good news is the wait is over, and the Yankees have a chance tonight to erase the bad taste left in everyone’s mouth by their (sixth straight!) Opening Day loss. The Yankees have won their last two Game Twos, you know. Think positive thoughts.

Year two of the CC Sabathia renaissance tour begins tonight. Sabathia had a poor Spring Training because he always has a poor Spring Training. Only once in the last six years did he have a sub-5.00 ERA during Grapefruit League play, and that was 2014. That year he had a 1.29 ERA during the spring and a 5.28 ERA during the regular season. So yeah. Whatever your thoughts on spring numbers, Sabathia has to be better tonight than Masahiro Tanaka was Sunday. Here is the Rays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Brett Gardner
  2. C Gary Sanchez
  3. 1B Greg Bird
  4. DH Matt Holliday
  5. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  6. 2B Starlin Castro
  7. 3B Chase Headley
  8. RF Aaron Judge
  9. SS Ronald Torreyes
    LHP CC Sabathia

The internet tells me it is hot and humid in Florida, and that is basically the worst kind of weather. It’ll be a climate controlled 72-ish degrees inside Tropicana Field. Tonight’s game will begin at 7:10pm ET and you can watch on YES. Enjoy the game.

Injury Update: Didi Gregorius (shoulder) started his throwing program today. That’s the first step in his road back.

Pitching Update: Jordan Montgomery and Chad Green will both pitch for High-A Tampa on Thursday. That keeps them lined up for April 16th, the first day the Yankees need a fifth starter. Montgomery was scheduled to pitch for Triple-A Scranton and Green for Double-A Trenton that day, but the weather forecast isn’t looking too great, and they want to make sure those guys get their work in.

PSA: If you’re a T-Mobile customer, you can sign up for a free MLB.tv subscription today only. Here’s the link.

Opening Week Overreaction: Tanaka’s First Start

(Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
(Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

We are now a bit more than forty-eight hours removed from the worst start of Masahiro Tanaka‘s stateside career. That distinction is not necessarily hyperbole, mind you, as it represents his lowest Game Score (11) in pinstripes, as well as the most earned runs (7) he has allowed in a single game. Prior to Sunday’s outing, that ignominious title went to his September 27, 2014 start against the Red Sox, when he pitched to the following line: 1.2 IP, 7 H, 7 R (5 ER), 2 BB, 2 K, 17 Game Score. That was in Fenway Park (a much more hitter-friendly park), albeit against what amounted to their second-string lineup. I leave it up to you to determine which was worse.

Prior to delving into the details of his Opening Day start, allow this to serve as a disclaimer – this is a sample size of one game. As much as I’d love to dial up the snark and drudge up memories of the defunct “What’s Wrong With Mariano Week” tradition, it’s simply too early to do that. If he struggles his next time out, however…

All that being said, the first place to look is velocity. We know that many (if not most) pitchers gain velocity as the weather begins to warm up, and muscles, tendons, and ligaments are loosened back into game shape. It should never come as a surprise when a pitcher’s fastball is lacking a bit of pep in the early goings as a result. In this case:

tanaka-opening-day-velo

His fourseamer, sinker, and cutter sat in the 90 to 92 MPH range, his splitter was just under 88 MPH, his curve sat at about 79 MPH, and his slider was a tick over 84 MPH. Let’s compare that to 2016:

tanaka-2016-velo

It’s not all that different. In fact, the velocity on every pitch but his curveball was up on Sunday, as compared to his 2016 season as a whole. And it’s worth noting that his fourseamer averaged 90.25 MPH and 90.72 MPH in his first two starts last season, too.

If velocity wasn’t an issue, perhaps it was pitch selection. Take a look at Tanaka’s mix from Sunday:

tanaka-opening-day-pitch-selection

And compare it to 2016:

tanaka-2016-pitch-selection

Painting in broad stokes, Tanaka’s pitch selection has been all over the place. It’s even more glaring on a start-to-start basis, which makes it difficult to glean much of anything from it. This may be a simple matter of Tanaka going with whatever feels the best on any given day, which isn’t terribly surprising for a pitcher with such a diverse repertoire.

It’s also interesting to note that Tanaka picked up whiffs on 17.9% of his pitches, per FanGraphs, which is well above his career norm of 11.8%. On a more granular level, BrooksBaseball has a whiff rate of 15.35% of his fourseamer, 9.09% on his sinker, and 33.33% on his splitter on Sunday (his three most-utilized pitches); those numbers last year were 5.45%, 4.69%, and 17.62%, respectively.

What about his location?

(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)

The majority of his pitches were thrown on the edges of the strikezone (if not outside), so it isn’t as if he was grooving everything down the middle. That didn’t stop the Rays from hitting him hard, though, as his 53.8% hard contact percentage allowed was more than 20 percentage points above his career norm.

If there is an explanation for this, aside from small sample size bad luck, it may well be that the horizontal movement on his pitches was far removed from the norm:

tanaka-horizonal-movement

The differences are fairly dramatic across the board (and this is true on a start-by-start level, too), which may have resulted in pitches drifting into the sweet spot of the bat more often than pure location would show us. Or it may have meant that Tanaka’s mechanics were a bit off, leading him to tip his pitches. Or it could mean that he was experimenting with new grips. Or it could mean that BrooksBaseball is way off. The possible explanations are essentially endless.

In the end, it simply boils down to a bad start (a shocker, I know). He didn’t leave too many pitches over the middle, but those that he did were hammered – Logan Morrison’s home run came on a pitch right down the middle, for example, and Evan Longoria’s bomb was off of a splitter that caught way too much of the corner. These things happen. That is a small comfort, to be sure, but silver linings abound, with his velocity and movement appearing to be quite strong.

Here’s hoping he puts it back together next time out.

Why Chris Carter should be the Yankees starting shortstop

(Newsday)
(Newsday)

The headline drew you in, didn’t it?

The Yankees were almost faced with a situation where someone, either Chris Carter, Austin Romine or Aaron Hicks, was going to have to play second base if they tied it up on Sunday. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see it.

But it could actually be quite logical to start Chris Carter, a guy who is basically confined to first base, at shortstop… and bat him lead off.

No, I’m not crazy. This is an old Earl Weaver trick that can only be used on the road and only with a sufficient roster. Here’s how it works:

1. Carter isn’t actually going to play the field: Basically, you would have Carter lead off the top of the first inning in the lineup card as the shortstop. He’d take his turn at the plate. If you’re having a really good day, he might even get two plate appearances. And then you put Ronald Torreyes or Pete Kozma in as the shortstop for the bottom of the first. The lineup will then be the same as it is normally, just with the nine hitter as the leadoff guy and everyone moved down a spot.

With this scenario, you guarantee that you’ll get a better hitter an at-bat. You probably don’t want to do it with Didi Gregorius because he can actually hit. However, with him out, why not give an AB to Carter (or Aaron Hicks, who works just fine here too) over Torreyes? You can still pinch hit for them later with whoever is left on your bench in case you have a situation like Sunday’s ninth inning.

2. This can cause some clubhouse turmoil: When Weaver would do this back in the mid-1970s, it led to Royle Stillman, a left-handed hitting outfielder, as the team’s shortstop (as well as others). Personally, I love the concept of a lefty shortstop, even if it’s in name only. And Stillman was 3 for 6 in the role. However, Weaver also acknowledged in his book, “Weaver on Strategy,” that his sure-handed shortstop Mark Belanger was annoyed by the move. Sure, it makes perfect baseball sense, but it also is forcing a hitter like Belanger to see that he is an inferior hitter in his manager’s mind. That can really toy with a guy’s mind and may not be worth it from that standpoint.

3. The Yankees would have to re-tool their bench: This move eliminates your best pinch hitter (or one of them) and you lose one of your 13 position players off the bat. Therefore, it really only works if you have more position players on the roster. Weaver only pulled this trick in September with expanded rosters.

But the Yankees actually have an opportunity for that now. They have eight relievers for the time being, until a fifth starter is needed on April 16. That means they can easily afford to send someone down and call up another hitter. This would give the team more flexibility in general, but also enough room to use this ‘Carter at SS’ move.

Heck, it doesn’t even have to be Carter. On the 40-man, you could call up someone like Mason Williams, Rob Refsnyder or Kyle Higashioka and let them be the team’s shortstop in name only. That way, you save Carter for a late-game situation that may never come but could be a more valuable use of his power bat. Carter has never led off a game, as you may have guessed, so you don’t know if he’s even comfortable doing so.

(Getty Images)
A leadoff dinger would be fun. (Getty Images)

4. Lineup considerations: The other thing to consider is that with Matt Holliday at DH, Carter is your only backup first baseman unless you’re willing to have your pitcher hit or use your backup catcher (Romine). Therefore, you’d have to call up a backup first baseman (Refsnyder) or a backup catcher (Higashioka). You could also better do this move with Holliday getting a day off while you play all four of your outfielders with one as your DH. This way, Holliday is your emergency 1B or corner outfielder. Maybe you have Williams up as insurance for the outfield. Either way, this would probably be the optimal idea to pull this off.

I write this post acknowledging that the concept I’m suggesting will probably not be put into place. Beyond the simple thinning of your roster, it would cause a stir in the media. Girardi would be skewered if Carter made an out or Torreyes was forced to bat in a big situation late in the game. That’s the risk of this concept and you have to be someone that doesn’t care about how it will be received in order to actually put it in motion. I don’t blame Girardi if he doesn’t even consider this because really, what other current manager would even think about doing this? Maybe Joe Maddon or Buck Showalter? Buck, being in Baltimore, would be fitting to try it out.

But I will keep on dreaming of a world where some road PA announcer has to belt out, “Leading off, the shortstop, Chris Carter.”

Thoughts following the start of the 2017 regular season

Where the magic happens. (Brian Blanco/Getty)
Where the magic happens. (Brian Blanco/Getty)

Once again, the Yankees are 0-1 on the young season. The Opening Day losing streak is starting to transition from annoying to impressive. Losing six straight season openers — and eight of nine! — is a hell of a thing. Most of those nine games were started by peak CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka too. The Yankees will win an Opening Day one of these years, possibly by accident. Anyway, I have some thoughts, so let’s get to ’em.

1. One quick thing I will say only because I feel it needs to be said: I’m not at all worried about Tanaka or Gary Sanchez. They had ugly Opening Days, especially Tanaka, but as far as I’m concerned they are very good players who had very bad days. That’s baseball. Won’t be the last time it happens. It’s so very easy to overreact to Opening Day even though it is truly nothing more than another baseball game. It doesn’t have any greater meaning. Tanaka is a very good pitcher who will go back to being very good soon, probably next time out. Sanchez is still a baseball mashing monster who will resume mashing baseballs in short order. Opening Day is fun and exciting. It doesn’t mean more than any other game though. The game is still the same, so … chill out if you’re worried.

2. Chase Headley beat the shift three times — three times! — on Sunday including once with a pretty gorgeous bunt. It was the perfect time to bunt too. The Yankees were down five runs in the seventh inning and they needed baserunners. Headley beat the shift two other times with ground ball singles, and after spending way too much time watching this GIF, I’ve concluded Headley was indeed trying to beat the shift with this swing:

chase-headley-single

Chris Archer busted him inside — Acher missed his spot by the full width of the plate, look where the catcher set up — so the result was a jam shot, but it sure looks like Headley was trying to direct the ball toward the wide open left side of the infield. After the game he told Dan Martin, “If they’re going to give me a free hit, I’m going to take it. The more I execute that, the truer they have to play me.” Based on that, it’s worth noting that in the ninth inning Evan Longoria was positioned more towards the third base bag when Headley was the plate. See how wide open the left side of the infield is in the GIF? Here is Longoria’s positioning on Headley’s ninth inning single:

evan-longoria-chase-headley

Longoria is there, shading him toward third base. Perhaps the score had something to do with it — the Rays were up 3-0 in the second for the first hit and 7-2 in the ninth for the second — though the base-out situation was the same. Starlin Castro on first with no outs. After beating the shift twice, including once with a bunt, it sure seems Tampa changed their defensive alignment against Headley. We’ll see whether this lasts. Obviously Headley won’t beat the shift three times every game, and teams won’t ever stop shifting against him completely because he when he does put the ball on the ground as a left-handed batter, it’s often pulled. Hopefully this helps Headley get off to a better start though. He was so dreadful last April and the Yankees need him to be better. This can help him be better.

3. Am I the only one who noticed Chasen Shreve‘s velocity Sunday? His fastball averaged 93.3 mph and topped out at 94.7 mph in that one-inning sample. Last season he averaged 92.3 mph and topped out at 94.8 mph. Amped up on Opening Day? Maybe, but Shreve pitched on Opening Day last season — that was in a tie game in front of the home crowd at Yankee Stadium too — and his fastball averaged 92.4 mph and topped out at 93.4 mph. This is better shown in a graph. From Brooks Baseball:

chasen-shreve-velocity

Hmmm. The extra velocity didn’t help much — Shreve allowed two hits and a walk in his scoreless innings Sunday — but it was there and it happened. I dunno, a pitcher showing up with an extra mile an hour on his fastball at the start of the season — an extra two miles and hour from where he was last September — is kinda interesting, especially when the pitcher in question is a left-handed reliever. Those guys are always in demand. Let’s file Shreve’s velocity away as a #thingtowatch.

4. Never in a million years would I have thought Greg Bird would open the regular season as the No. 3 hitter. First of all, I didn’t think Joe Girardi would bump Sanchez up into the No. 2 spot. It just didn’t seem like the kind of thing he would do. (I also didn’t think he’d drop Jacoby Ellsbury, but that’s besides the point.) Secondly, Bird is essentially a rookie, and I didn’t think the Yankees would thrust him into such a prominent lineup spot so soon. I thought they would start him out a little lower in the lineup, then move him up. That’s usually how it works, right? And third, Bird is coming back from major shoulder surgery. I’m not sure why that would factor into where he hits in the lineup, though I’m surprised the guy could miss an entire season and be slotted right into the middle of the order, no questions asked. This shows a) I have no idea what I’m talking about, b) the Yankees believe Bird is going to be a middle of the order force right away, and c) they believe he can handle significant responsibility. They could have very easily stuck a veteran in the No. 2 spot — I was totally expecting Castro to hit there as soon as we heard Ellsbury might be dropped in the lineup — and Sanchez in No. 3 spot, but no, they’re going with Bird as the No. 3 hitter. I love it.

5. I am very surprised the Yankees did not have Castro play shortstop in Spring Training. Not even one inning. He took ground balls there during infield practice and that’s it. Same with Matt Holliday at first base and in left field. Those guys have played those positions a ton throughout their careers — well, Holliday has only ten games worth of experience at first base, but you know what I mean — so it’s not like they have no idea what they’re doing there, but it just seemed like the Yankees would give them a little time there, just to reacquaint them. You know Holliday is going to end up playing left field at some point this season. It’s inevitable. Someone will get banged up and miss a few days, something like that, and he’ll be standing out there for a game or two. Same with Castro and shortstop, especially with Didi Gregorius injured. You’d think the Yankees would at least want to get them a little time at those positions in Spring Training, so when they do play those positions during the regular season, it won’t be the first time they see a live ball hit at them from that direction this year. I guess they’re really committed to Castro at second and Holliday at designated hitter.

6. The Padres seem really committed to carrying Luis Torrens, huh? Torrens was a Rule 5 Draft pick from the Yankees and he’s a 20-year-old catcher making the jump from Low-A to MLB after missing all of 2015 and the first half of 2016 with shoulder surgery. And yet, he is on San Diego’s big league roster. They’re carrying four catchers and three true outfielders. Goodness. The tank is strong with that team. I still expect Torrens to come back at some point, and fairly soon too once the Padres realize carrying a fourth catcher who only plays in blowouts is not viable — Torrens made his MLB debut and caught a few innings in yesterday’s blowout loss — but give them credit. They’re trying to make it work. The Yankees are light on catching prospects at the moment and getting Torrens back would be nice. At the same time, 40-man roster space is precious, and the Yankees had to focus on players who can best help them short and long-term when make their roster decisions back in November. It’s easy to understand why they declined to protect the 20-year-old Low-A catcher who isn’t far removed from major shoulder from the Rule 5 Draft. They might get burned and lose Torrens, but that’s life. When you have a good farm system, you’re going to lose good players to roster crunches.

Monday Night Open Thread

Looking for some off-day reading? Check out Travis Sawchik’s article on Brian Cashman convincing ownership to sell last year. Cashman said he’s pushed to sell in the past — “(Robinson Cano) was, to me, someone we ultimately should have moved at the deadline but didn’t,” he said — but last year was the first time ownership gave him the thumbs up. Better late than never, I guess.

Here is the open thread for the night. ESPN is showing the Rangers and Indians now (Darvish vs. Kluber) and ESPN2 will have the Angels and Athletics later (Nolasco vs. Graveman). There’s also the college basketball championship game as well (9:20pm ET on CBS). Talk about those games, Sawchik’s article, or anything else right here.

Yankees bring back veteran catcher Eddy Rodriguez

(Scranton Times Tribune)
(Scranton Times Tribune)

The Yankees have added another layer of catching depth. The club has signed veteran journeyman Eddy Rodriguez and assigned him to Triple-A Scranton, according to his Twitter feed. The Yankees have not yet announced the move. Rodriguez was in the organization in 2015 and 2016. He was in camp with the Twins as a non-roster player this year, and was apparently let go at the end of camp.

Rodriguez, 31, was Gary Sanchez‘s primary backup at Double-A Trenton in 2015 and Triple-A Scranton in 2016. Last year he hit .214/.265/.329 (68 wRC+) in 44 Triple-A games last year, though the Yankees didn’t sign him for his bat. They signed him for his glove and because he’s long been regarded as a great clubhouse guy and mentor. Rodriguez has a little big league time with the Padres in 2012. His only MLB hit? A dinger:

This season Rodriguez will be tasked with backing up Kyle Higashioka with the RailRiders. I know this seems like a nothing signing, but Rodriguez is a much more viable big league option than Wilkin Castillo, who was originally slated to back up Higashioka. Should Higashioka get called up due to injury or whatever, Rodriguez would be a perfectly fine No. 3 catching option in Triple-A.

The minor league season starts this Thursday, April 6th. The official Opening Day rosters have not been released yet. The Yankees and their affiliates are notoriously slow to release those. We might not see them until Thursday afternoon.