Only wrong answer at top of the lineup is one that doesn’t include Ellsbury and Gardner

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

On the very first day of camp last week, Joe Girardi held his annual start of Spring Training press conference and discussed the importance of settling on a lineup, among other things. “Figuring out our batting order I think is something important, because there are some people we don’t know exactly where they are at, and there are obviously some new people in camp,” he said.

The middle of the lineup is where the most questions exist. Figuring out the best way to align the three through seven spots with Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, Chase Headley, and Alex Rodriguez will be Girardi’s toughest challenge, and he needs to see those guys in games before making a decision. The top and bottom of the lineup should be relatively easy. Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner at the top, Didi Gregorius and Stephen Drew at the bottom. Boom, done.

Here’s where it gets interesting: is it better for the Yankees to bat Ellsbury leadoff and Gardner second, or vice versa? They are two extremely similar offensive players. If you don’t believe me, look:

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ HR BB% K% SB/CS wRC+ RHP wRC+ LHP
2014 Ellsbury 635 .271/.328/.419 107 16 7.7% 14.6% 39/5 97 130
2014 Gardner 636 .256/.327/.422 110 17 8.8% 21.1% 21/5 116 96
2012-14 Ellsbury
1,594 .282/.336/.412 104 29 7.2% 14.3% 105/12 109 96
2012-14 Gardner
1,283 .266/.338/.418 110 25 8.8% 20.9% 47/15 111 106

Like I said, they’re almost the same damn player. Ellsbury hits more singles, strikes out less, and steals more bases. Gardner draws more walks and hits for more power. Neither has a crippling platoon split either. (Girardi has said he has no problem batting them back-to-back even though they’re both lefties.) The end result is two players with almost identical offensive value overall.

Over the years, all sorts of statistical analyses have shown the best hitter should bat second, but when you have two guys this similar, deciding whether to bat Ellsbury leadoff and Gardner second or vice versa comes down to a matter of preference. We have to start nitpicking. They’ve both gotten on base at the same rate, so the default “he has a higher OBP so he should bat leadoff” tiebreaker doesn’t even apply.

I see it this way: Ellsbury not only steals more bases, he’s also the more aggressive base-stealer. We’ve all seen Gardner sit around and wait until the third or fourth or fifth pitch of the at-bat to take off. It’s annoying. Ellsbury gets on and goes. Ellsbury and Gardner get on base at the same rate, but Ellsbury will get himself to second base quicker, and that’s who I want leading off.

In addition to that, Gardner has a bit more power — he had a higher ISO than Ellsbury last year (.166 vs. .148) and over the last three years (.152 vs. .130) — and batting him second means there should be a few additional runners on base when he bats. That will help turn some of those solo homers — Gardner hit 17 homers last year and 14 were solo shots because he batted leadoff and the eight/nine hitters (Ichiro Suzuki, Brian Roberts, etc.) weren’t getting on — into multi-run blasts.

On the other side of the argument, we could say Ellsbury strikes out less than Gardner, meaning Girardi could be a little more creative with the better bat control guy hitting second. More hit-and-runs, that sort of thing. It’s an old school mentality but the Yankees are going to have to manufacture more runs that way this year. The three-run homers aren’t coming like they used to and Ellsbury’s contact skills (and both his and Gardner’s speed) is a weapon they can use.

Ellsbury was forced to hit third last year due injuries and whatnot, but he is totally miscast in that role. He’s at his best creating havoc in a table-setting role. Same with Gardner to slightly lesser degree. Unless the season gets underway and one guy is drastically outproducing the other, there’s no clear cut answer as to whether Ellsbury or Gardner should bat leadoff. The only wrong answer is the one where someone other than these guys hits first or second.

Open Thread: 2/25 Camp Notes

Coach Mo. (Presswire)
Coach Mo. (Presswire)

Position players reported to Spring Training today — everyone arrived on time and everyone passed their physicals, no issues this year — and a special guest instructor showed up as well: Mariano Rivera. “I’ve decided to come back,” he joked. He’ll be in camp for ten days or so. The odds Rivera could come back this year and dominate are like, 95%, right? Right. Here is the rest of the day’s news from Tampa:

  • It was a pretty light day on the mound. Esmil Rogers (live batting practice) and Justin Wilson (bullpen session) were the only no doubt Opening Day roster guys to throw. All the catchers took batting practice and Carlos Beltran went through a full workout. The rest of the position players begin working out tomorrow. [Chad Jennings]
  • Mark Teixeira said he lost 15 lbs. of fat and gained 13 lbs. of muscle this offseason by changing his diet — “No gluten. No dairy. No sugar. No fun.” — and getting back to lifting heavy weights. He feels much stronger than last year. Oh, and Foul Territory is not coming back. Lame. [Jack Curry, Brendan Kuty, Jennings]
  • Alex Rodriguez spoke to Joe Girardi and will work out at first base this spring. “I’d run through a wall for Joe,” he said. Girardi said he is planning to play A-Rod in the first or second Grapefruit League game next week. [David Lennon, Erik Boland]
  • Quote of the day from new hitting coach Jeff Pentland: “I’m only a good hitting coach if we have good players. I’m not a fool to think I’m better than the players.” [Boland]

Here is your nightly open thread. The Knicks, Nets, and Devils are playing, and there’s a ton of college hoops on as well. Talk about those games or anything else here.

The easy to forget but still really important Ivan Nova

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Since Spring Training officially opened last week, all eyes have been on Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia. Well, at least the eyes that weren’t glued to Alex Rodriguez‘s every step. Tanaka and Sabathia are by far the biggest pitching stories in camp since they are both being counted on as rotation anchors and are coming off pretty serious injuries. It has not yet been a week, but so far, so good with those two.

Early in the morning yesterday, before Sabathia threw his second bullpen session of his spring, rehabbing righty Ivan Nova was at the team’s complex throwing his third bullpen as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery. It was a relatively light throwing session — 25 pitches, all fastballs — and he’ll likely throw another all fastball bullpen before introducing offspeed pitches. When the team breaks camp in early-April, Nova will stay behind to continue rehabbing in Tampa.

The Yankees have taken it very slow with Nova’s rehab so far — he had surgery in late-April, and according to Mike Dodd’s classic Tommy John surgery rehab article, Nova should have been throwing bullpens by October or November — and that is by design. A lot of pitchers have rushed back from elbow reconstruction in the last year or two only to need another procedure almost immediately. Cory Luebke and Daniel Hudson didn’t even complete the rehab from the first surgery when they blew out their elbows again. Brandon Beachy made it back for 30 innings. The Yankees are playing it safe.

“One good thing, you know you’re not going to be ready in April,” said Nova to Chad Jennings yesterday. “So you prepare yourself to be ready whenever they tell me. I don’t have to be thinking right now that I’ve got to be ready in April, so that’s kind of fortunate. I’m just taking it day by day, and I know that — I believe — a month before they think I’m going to be ready to go to the big leagues, they’re going to tell me. So that’s the time when I’m going to really prepare for that day.”

Because he’s been out of action for so long — Nova made only four starts last season before getting hurt — it’s been pretty easy to forget he exists. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess. That doesn’t make him any less important to the team, however. The Yankees have a risky rotation led by Tanaka and Sabathia, so getting Nova back healthy at midseason will be a boost to the starting staff. Hopefully an extra boost, not a “oh goodness we need him back as soon as possible” sort of boost.

Last year Jeff Zimmerman ran some numbers on performance before and after Tommy John surgery and confirmed that yeah, pitchers tend to struggle immediately after having their elbow ligament replaced. Their ERA increases 5.8% relative to projections, their walk rate increases 5.0%, and their strikeout rate drops 4.4%. It’s not until two years after surgery that they really get back to being themselves. Using that info, here’s a quick and dirty look at Nova’s projected performance for 2015:

ERA K% BB%
2013 Actual Performance 3.10 19.8% 7.5%
2014 Actual Performance 8.27 12.5% 6.3%
2015 ZiPS Projection 4.08 19.6% 7.2%
2015 ZiPS + TJS Penalty 4.32 18.7% 7.6%

Nova has been a perfectly league average pitcher overall so far in his career (career 100 ERA+!) though it’s been a roller coaster. He’s had some great years and some really bad years, including his brief four-start cameo in 2014. ZiPS, unsurprisingly, pegs him as a true talent league average pitcher for this coming season (99 ERA+) but it doesn’t know he had his elbow rebuild. Add in the Tommy John surgery penalty from Zimmerman’s research and he’s a projected below average pitcher, more like a 93 ERA+ guy.

What does that mean? Not a whole lot, really. I just think it’s important to remember the road back from Tommy John surgery can initially be a little bumpy. Pitchers on average have seen a slight performance dip, but each pitcher is a little snowflake that is different than everyone else. Thanks to the team’s conservative approach to his rehab, Nova could shake off the usual pre-Tommy John issues and return in June, picking up right where he left off in 2013. That would be sweet. Or maybe the performance dip hits him extra hard. We’ll find out when he gets back.

Personally, I hate relying on players coming back from major injury, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. New York’s rotation is what it is and I am comfortable saying with great certainty they are looking for upgrades at all times. Hopefully one pop up at some point. “Chris Capuano, fifth starter” is really “Chris Capuano, just keep us afloat until something better comes along.” That sometime just might end up being when Nova returns in May or June (likely June). Hopefully not, but it’s possible.

“I know they expect big things from me,” said Nova to Bryan Hoch yesterday. “I know I’ve had an up and down career so far, but I know what I’m able to do. I just have to put things straight and hopefully by the time I have everything in line, I can contribute to the team and win some games.”

For Nathan Eovaldi, not all adjustments will be physical

(NY Daily News)
(NY Daily News)

Earlier this week in our little poll, RAB readers voted right-hander Nathan Eovaldi as the Yankees’ most important pickup of the offseason. (He received 40% of the 2,500+ votes.) He beat out the likes of Chase Headley, Didi Gregorius, and various relievers because he’s a hard-throwing starter with obvious upside and three full years of team control remaining. He’s a rotation building block going forward.

Although he already has 79 career starts and 460 big league innings under his belt, Eovaldi is still just a kid. He turned 25 less than two weeks ago. He’s almost two full years younger than reigning NL Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom. He’s younger the all five of the top five finishers in last year’s AL Rookie of the Year voting. At his age, Eovaldi is far from a finished product, and the Yankees know that. He’s a work in progress.

“He kind of defies some of the logic with the analysis, as far as velocity and location and then giving up so many hits,” said pitching coach Larry Rothschild to Billy Witz over the weekend. “I’ve watched the tape, but I want to sit and watch during the game and try to figure out, how do you eliminate that? There’s not any great explanation.”

Eovaldi throws very hard — his fastball averaged 95.5 mph last year, fifth highest among the 88 qualified starters — and he doesn’t really walk many batters (5.0 BB% in 2014), yet he led the NL in hits allowed last season (223 in 199.2 innings) and only struck out 16.6% of batters faced, well below the 20.4% league average. An argument can be made all those hits were the product of bad luck (.323 BABIP was fourth highest among qualified starter), especially since his batted ball profile held steady.

Clearly though, there’s some kind of disconnect here. You’d expect someone who throws as hard as Eovaldi to strike out more batters, especially since he throws so many strikes. Eovaldi ranked 32nd out of those 88 qualify starters in first pitch strike percentage (62.9%) last year and he ranked 21st in percentage of 0-2 counts (22.0%), right alongside noted control artists like Jon Lester (22.3%), Zack Greinke (22.0%), and Doug Fister (21.8%). Getting in favorable counts wasn’t a problem.

Getting strike three has been an issue and Eovaldi knows that — “That’s one of the big issues I’ve had, not being able to finish the batters off. I try and do too much,” he said to Mark Feinsand recently — so he spent the weekend working on elevating his fastball with Rothschild, according to Chad Jennings. High fastballs are an excellent swing-and-miss pitch due to effective velocity. High fastballs look faster to the hitter and make it appear like they have less time to react.

There’s also an experience component to this that’s tough (impossible?) to quantify. It’s been said Eovaldi tries to throw harder when he’s in a jam like many pitchers his age, but the numbers don’t back that up. According to Baseball Savant, Eovaldi’s fastball has averaged 95.5 mph with the bases empty in his career, 94.9 mph with men on base, and 95.3 mph with runners in scoring position. Batters have a 94, 108, and 115 OPS+ against him in those situations, respectively.

The radar gun might not say Eovaldi is trying to throw harder in big spots — remember, trying to throw harder doesn’t automatically result in throwing hard. The result could be the same velocity but a “rushed” delivery and therefore bad location — but that doesn’t necessary mean the game doesn’t speed up on him in certain situations. Baseball is hard, man. It’s even harder when you’re young. It can be overwhelming.

“Sometimes, I think (his competitiveness) takes him into territory where he needs to back off a little bit, and not be not competitive, but get it under control. Or not always run it into the middle of everything. Step off and gather yourself and not try to necessarily power yourself through the inning,” said Rothschild to Witz. That sounds like a pitching coach describing a pitcher who needs to learn how to slow the game down in certain spots.

I’m not going to quote Yogi Berra here but you all know the saying. Eovaldi has the natural gifts — the big fastball, the solid slider, the work-in-progress changeup — but his development into a top flight pitcher will take more than physical adjustments. There’s a mental component to the game that can be easy to overlook but is also really important. I’m not saying Eovaldi is stupid or anything. He’s just a young kid and the game can spiral out of control on occasion. It’s normal. Learning to slow things down and stay in control will be an important part of his development, and that’s not something we can stick a number on.

Thoughts before position players report to Spring Training

(Presswire)
#TeamShorts (Presswire)

Pitchers and catchers have been in camp since last Friday, and today position players officially join them in Spring Training. Many of them — including Alex Rodriguez! — have already been in Tampa for a few days now. I’ve already said what I had to say about Yoan Moncada. Let’s move on to some Spring Training related thoughts now.

1. A-Rod reported to camp on Monday and apparently the Yankees were upset he showed up early without letting them know. “He’s learned nothing. He’s the same old guy. He just did what he wanted to do,” said one executive to Mark Feinsand. This has to be, hands down, the stupidest possible thing to be upset about, especially since Feinsand says A-Rod has showed up to the complex without advance notice lots of times in the past. This isn’t some kind of isolated incident. It’s so dumb I refuse to believe it’s true. Maybe Feinsand’s source is just one guy with a grudge? I hope so. Alex did not play at all last year and has barely played the last two years. Most people — well, rational people, and maybe that’s not most people — would be happy he showed up early to camp to get prepared for the season. Good grief.

2. CC Sabathia said he regained some weight this offseason because it made him more comfortable. “I lost a bunch of weight drastically, pretty quick, two years ago, and was kind of off-balance. I didn’t know really how my body was working,” he said to Feinsand. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this in the past: I wonder how much the weight loss led to Sabathia’s ineffectiveness the last two years. Not necessarily the reduced fastball velocity, I don’t expect that to come back at all at his age (he’ll probably lose more velocity going forward, if anything), but it seemed like his command was all over the place. Sabathia was leaving pitches up in the zone and over the plate way more often than he had from 2009-12. I wonder if his mechanics were all out of sync because of the weight loss. There’s no real way to prove this. It’s just a thought. Hopefully the extra weight — reportedly only ten pounds — gets his mechanics and command back in place without further complicating his knee issue.

3. I hate that this is happening but I now find myself optimistic about Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow because of some stupid early Spring Training bullpen sessions. I’ve been doing this blog thing for a while now. I know early spring optimism is for suckers, but dammit, I can’t help myself. Tanaka said he is “absolutely fine” the other day and revealed an MRI in October came back clean. Dammit. Stop saying that. I spent all winter accepting Tanaka had a pretty severe elbow injury and would need Tommy John surgery, likely sooner rather later, yet here I am thinking he might actually make 30 starts and dominate this summer. I’m setting myself up for some major disappointment because of two stupid bullpen sessions in February. Spring Training optimism is just the worst.

4. I have nothing to back this up, but my hunch is the Yankees want Andrew Bailey to win the final bullpen spot. That would be the perfect world scenario. Bailey shows he’s healthy and effective in Grapefruit League play — he said he feels a “night and day difference” between this spring and last spring following shoulder capsule surgery — then claims the last bullpen spot. That doesn’t mean he’ll close or anything like that, I just think they want him to be healthy enough to make the team. They have all this bullpen depth and Bailey will give others like Jacob Lindgren and Chasen Shreve more time in Triple-A. And if Bailey stinks, they can cut him loose early in the season and move on. He wouldn’t be hanging around in the minors wasting bullets.

5. Last week I said I was most interested to see Nathan Eovaldi in camp, and among the position players, I’m most interested in seeing Didi Gregorius. Yes, I know those two are the new additions and that’s a bit of a cop-out, but they are important long-term pieces and this will be my first extended look at them. Didi’s defensive reputation is top notch but the numbers say he’s been average in his relatively short big league career, so I want to see him with my own eyes. It appears there is evidence he is capable of highlight plays but will occasionally have a brain fart and botch the routine one. If true, he’s not unlike many young middle infielders. I also want to see his at-bats. Gregorius has a slightly above-average 8.1% walk rate in his career, but 56.5% of his career plate appearances have come batting eighth in the NL. Opposing pitchers pitched around him to get to the pitcher on more than a few occasions, I’m sure. So I just want to see his at-bats. Does he really know the zone? Is he overmatched by good velocity? Can he handle breaking pitches? So on and so on.

Open Thread: 2/24 Camp Notes

Sir Didi. (Presswire)
Sir Didi. (Presswire)

One week from today, the Yankees will open their Grapefruit League schedule against the Phillies in Clearwater. Actual baseball games are right around the corner. Here are the day’s notes from Tampa:

  • Chris Capuano, David Carpenter, Chase Whitley, and Bryan Mitchell all threw live batting practice while CC Sabathia, Andrew Bailey, Dellin Betances, Scott Baker, Michael Pineda, and Adam Warren were among those to throw bullpen sessions. The catchers all hit and Carlos Beltran went through a full workout. Beltran is allowed to work out on the main field before position players report because he’s coming off offseason surgery. [Chad Jennings]
  • Ivan Nova threw his third bullpen as part of his rehab from Tommy John surgery. He threw 25 pitches, all fastballs, and will likely throw one more all fastballs bullpen before starting to incorporate changeups. Breaking balls are next after that. [Meredith Marakovits]
  • Chase Headley reported a day early to camp and worked out alongside Alex Rodriguez. He said all the right things (A-Rod isn’t a distraction, etc.). Alex said he has been getting support from teammates and thinks he’ll need 2-3 weeks to shake off the rust. Cole Figueroa and Chris Young has also reported a day early. [Jack Curry, Marakovits, Brendan Kuty]
  • Bailey said he appreciates the team’s patience with him and he wants to make the Opening Day roster. Joe Girardi cautioned they still need to see him in games. Slade Heathcott said his twice surgically repaired knee feels great and he’s ready for games right now. [Jennings, Dan Barbarisi]
  • And finally, third base prospect Eric Jagielo has a special tutor this spring: Scott Rolen. New farm system chief Gary Denbo asked Rolen to come down to camp to work with the defensively challenged Jagielo. Denbo and Rolen know each other from their days with the Blue Jays. [Kuty]

Here is the nightly open thread. Both the Rangers and Islanders are playing and there is some college basketball on as well. Feel free to talk about those games, Spring Training, or anything else right here.

Yankees may have missed an opportunity to bring back Brandon McCarthy

McCarthy in his new digs. (Jon SooHoo)
McCarthy in his new digs. (Jon SooHoo)

At the start of the offseason, it seemed like the most sensible moves for the Yankees were to bring back the guys they acquired at the trade deadline last year, specifically Chase Headley and Brandon McCarthy. Stephen Drew on a cheap one-year deal is fine but those other two made the most sense. They filled pressing needs and weren’t going to require a massive long-term deal.

The Yankees eventually did re-sign Headley, and while they expressed interest in re-signing McCarthy, it didn’t happen and he signed with the Dodgers. Brian Cashman confirmed the team never made him an offer back in December, saying he “figured the market would take him at a level that we couldn’t play on.” That’s sort of a silly thing for a Yankees executive to say but whatever.

McCarthy made it no secret he enjoyed playing in New York at the end of last season, enough that returning to the Yankees was his top priority going into the winter. Here’s what McCarthy told Andy Martino a few days ago:

“In my mind, I thought (re-signing with the Yankees) definitely was going to be the case,” he says, sitting at his locker at the Dodgers’ complex. “At least that’s where I was saying I wanted to go. At that point, I wasn’t considering anywhere else. It was perfect. It’s the Yankees. You don’t think money is going to be an issue. This is just going to be, ‘we’ll just find a way to make this fit.’”

“That was my hope, in that five-day window after the postseason before everybody becomes free — I was really hoping, this is where something gets done.”

Not only did McCarthy want to return to New York, he was willing to re-sign during the five-day exclusive negotiating period before free agency to make it happen. That no doubt made his agent cringe. McCarthy had just completed his first 200-inning season and finished strong in pinstripes. His agent surely wanted to get him out onto the open market to create a bidding war. Ultimately, that’s what happened.

Going into the offseason, I thought a three-year contract would get it done with McCarthy — regardless of whether he re-signed with the Yankees or not — but he ended up with a four-year deal from the Dodgers. McCarthy did tell Martino he would have at least considered a three-year contract with the Yankees.

“That’s a good question (whether he would have taken a three-year deal),” he says. “At that point, probably … (My agent) knew full well going in that ‘I want to go to the Yankees, and we need to make it work.’ And I think that five-day window just passed, and it became — It wasn’t like ‘you’re priority one, let’s do this.’ That’s where we started to open up and say, ‘Ok, what are plans B and C?’”

“It’s hard to say (if I would have taken it) for sure, but I certainly would have had a long discussion about it,” he said.

It’s unclear whether the Yankees engaged McCarthy in any serious contract talks during the exclusive negotiating period — his comments make it sound like they didn’t — but obviously he was open to doing so, and this may have been a missed opportunity for New York. Potentially keeping him off the open market and away from a bidding war is a pretty significant piece of news. He would have had less leverage and the Yankees might have been able to strike a favorable deal to shore up the rotation.

McCarthy ended up with four years and $48M. Let’s say the Yankees would have been able to retain him with a strong three-year offer, say three years and $39M. With both Headley and Andrew Miller, the Yankees ultimately caved and added the fourth year in exchange for a lower average annual value, suggesting they would have been open to paying more per year if the deal was shorter. Three years and $39M seems realistic to me give McCarthy’s desire to return to New York.

How would re-signing McCarthy have affected the rest of the offseason? That’s a complicated question we can’t really answer. Re-signing McCarthy could have meant no Headley since the money had been spent. (I think the Yankees would have signed Miller anyway, it seems like a high-end reliever was a priority.) No Headley means Martin Prado is probably the third baseman, and that means no Nathan Eovaldi. Or maybe it makes no difference whatsoever and the Yankees re-sign Headley anyway and still trade Prado. Re-signing McCarthy during the exclusive negotiating period changes the entire offseason dynamic.

With the obvious caveat that we don’t know how the rest of the offseason would have shaken out, the Yankees’ rotation would look much sturdier with McCarthy than it does without it. I mean, duh. A four-year deal for someone with his injury history is bonkers in my opinion — McCarthy did change his offseason workout routine last winter and believes it led to staying healthy for a full season the first time in his career, for what it’s worth — but three years would have been much easier to swallow. That’s the market these days.

If nothing else, I think the Yankees should have been a little more aggressive during the exclusive negotiating period. The injury concerns in the rotation were no secret, we all knew about Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow and CC Sabathia‘s knee in October, so trying to get out in front of the market and seeing if McCarthy would return on favorable terms would have been a smart move. I also don’t think letting him go was a catastrophic decision either. At the end of the day, he would have another injury concern in a rotation full of ‘em, albeit a very talented one.