Scouting the Wild Card Game: Ervin Santana

(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)
(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)

In just a few hours the Yankees will once again face veteran right-hander Ervin Santana in a postseason game. He will start tonight’s Wild Card Game for the Twins. Santana faced the Yankees in both the 2005 and 2009 postseasons with the Angels, allowing six runs (four earned) in eleven total innings. Weirdly enough, he’s never started against the Yankees in the playoffs. He’s made five relief appearances.

Santana had a marvelous regular season — he’s probably going to get some down ballot Cy Young votes — in which he threw 211.1 innings with a 3.28 ERA (4.46 FIP) and average-ish strikeout (19.3%), walk (7.1%), and ground ball (41.2%) rates. That includes one start against the Yankees. Santana allowed two runs in 5.2 innings at Yankee Stadium two weeks ago. These days Santana is more of a contact manager who gets a lot of weak fly balls than a strikeout pitcher, hence his .245 BABIP in 2017.

The Twins announced last week Santana would start the Wild Card Game, so even though the Yankees were still alive in the AL East race as late as Game 161, they’ve been preparing for Santana for quite a while now. Scouting reports, video, the whole nine. Santana has been around a while, but like everyone else, he’s changed over time. The 2017 version of Santana is not necessarily the same guy we’ve watched the last ten years. Here’s a look at Minnesota’s starter.

History Against The Yankees

Although he has faced the Yankees franchise plenty of times over the years, Santana doesn’t have a ton of experience against the current crop of Yankees because they’re so young. Jacoby Ellsbury leads the way with 40 career plate appearances against Santana. Brett Gardner has 34 and Todd Frazier has 27. No one else has more than 18.

All told, players on New York’s roster have hit a combined .272/.316/.481 with ten doubles and eight homers in 176 plate appearances against Santana. That includes data dating all the way back to 2006, when 26-year-old Matt Holliday went 1-for-3 with a double against 23-year-old Ervin Santana. Not sure that history is relevant now. Here’s how the current Yankees have fared against Santana since the start of the 2015 season, via Baseball Reference:

Name PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Todd Frazier 22 17 3 0 0 2 3 4 6 .176 .318 .529 .848
Jacoby Ellsbury 13 10 3 0 0 0 0 2 1 .300 .417 .300 .717
Brett Gardner 13 13 6 1 0 0 0 0 1 .462 .462 .538 1.000
Didi Gregorius 11 11 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000
Chase Headley 11 10 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 .300 .364 .400 .764
Starlin Castro 8 8 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 .125 .125 .125 .250
Greg Bird 5 5 2 0 0 2 4 0 1 .400 .400 1.600 2.000
Aaron Judge 3 3 1 0 0 1 1 0 1 .333 .333 1.333 1.667
Gary Sanchez 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000
Total 89 80 19 2 0 5 8 6 12 .238 .295 .450 .745

Head-to-head stats are a weird thing. I absolutely believe a hitter can “own” a certain pitcher and vice versa, but the head-to-head stats don’t always reflect that because they’re usually very small sample sizes spread out over several years. Does Santana “own” Castro because Castro is 1-for-8 against him the last three years? Maybe! But I’m not sure the 1-for-8 is reflective of the matchup or just regular baseball noise.

Pitch Selection

Tonight’s starting pitchers are pretty similar. Both Santana and Luis Severino are fastball-slider pitchers who use a changeup as their third pitch, though Severino has considerably more velocity on the fastball and slider. (Fun Fact: Current Yankees international scouting director Donny Rowland signed both Santana and Severino as amateurs out of the Dominican Republic.) Santana was a straight fastball-slider guy for a very long time. It wasn’t until fairly recently that the changeup became a legitimate weapon for him.

Here, via Brooks Baseball, is Santana’s pitch selection against right-handed and left-handed batters this season:

ervin-santana-pitch-selection

Santana throws lots of fastballs and sliders to all hitters, regardless of handedness, though the changeup he will use basically only against lefties. That’s pretty typical. Severino does the same thing. When Santana gets ahead in the count, he’s really going to lean on his slider. When he falls behind, he tends to use a fastball to get back in the count.

Now, that said, teams and players have a way of changing the scouting report in the postseason. Pitchers will lean more heavily on their best pitch — Santana’s slider, in this case — in an effort to get outs. We could definitely see Santana spin more breaking balls tonight, even when behind in the count. That is his best chance for getting a swing and a miss and his best chance for getting an out in general.

Enough words, let’s get to some video. Here is every pitch from Santana’s four-hit shutout of the oh so terrible Giants on June 9th of this season:

As you can see in the video, Santana is going to live on that outside corner against righties. Fastballs and sliders, away away away all game. It’s not just that one game against the Giants either. Here is Santana’s fastball and slider location heat map against right-handed batters this season, via Baseball Savant:

ervin-santana-vs-rhp-heat-map

Like I said, away away away to righties. Maybe Santana will change things up in the Wild Card Game and make an effort to bust righties inside more often, though it sure seems like pounding that outside corner is his comfort zone. Judge, Sanchez, Castro, Frazier … zero in on that outside corner.

Platoon Splits

That changeup has been enough of a weapon for Santana that he’s had a reverse split the last two years. Righties hit him better than lefties now. Huh. That wasn’t always the case, of course. Santana once had a pretty significant platoon split. Now it’s reversed, or at the very least even. Here are his last three years:

vs. RHP vs. LHP
2015 .243/.297/.355 (.286 wOBA), 21.7 K%, 5.9 BB% .256/.338/.446 (.346 wOBA), 14.4 K%, 9.8 BB%
2016 .241/.293/.404 (.299 wOBA), 22.7 K%, 6.3 BB% .246/.310/.357 (.293 wOBA), 17.1 K%, 7.9 BB%
2017 .231/.308/.397 (.305 wOBA), 22.4 K%, 13.9 BB% .213/.260/.386 (.275 wOBA), 15.6 K%, 5.4 BB%

On one hand, the lack of a platoon split means the Yankees can’t stack their lineup with lefties and take aim for the short porch. I mean, they could, but it wouldn’t create a clear advantage against this pitcher. On the other hand, Santana’s lack of a split means the Yankees could simply play their nine best players, and not fret over ideal matchups. Santana is effective against both righties and lefties, so just play your best. Simple, right?

Can The Yankees Run On Him?

Kinda. Santana used to have big time problems controlling the running game — runners went 122-for-149 (82%) in stolen base attempts against him from 2007-12 — though he has done a better job later in his career. Runners went 11-for-13 (85%) stealing bases against Santana this year and 23-for-27 (85%) over the last three years. Still a high likelihood of success, but not nearly as many chances.

Of course, the catcher plays a big part in this as well, and Jason Castro threw out only 15 of 57 (26%) attempted basestealers this season. That includes one of 12 with Santana on the mound. The Yankees ran wild on Joe Biagini and Raffy Lopez the other day. They probably won’t be able to do the same in the Wild Card Game tonight, but, if they pick their spots — the Yankees did steal two bases against Santana and Castro two weeks ago, for what it’s worth — the Yankees should be able to swipe some bags tonight. The opportunity for stolen bases exists.

* * *

Ervin Santana is not Dallas Keuchel circa 2015, that bonafide ace who shut the Yankees down in the winner-take-all Wild Card Game, but he is a very good Major League pitcher, and they figure to have their hands full tonight. Probably the biggest thing to take away here is that when a righty is at the plate, Santana is going to the outside corner. That’s his spot. That won’t help Yankees hitters discern a fastball from a slider, but having a pretty good idea where the pitch will be located takes one variable out of the equation.

The Yankees need their arms to neutralize the Twins’ legs in the Wild Card Game

Eyes on the target! (Elsa/Getty)
Eyes on the target! (Elsa/Getty)

Tonight’s AL Wild Card Game features two up-and-coming teams built around impressive young cores. The Yankees have Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Luis Severino. The Twins have Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Jose Berrios. The Yankees have Brett Gardner and CC Sabathia as veteran support. The Twins have Brian Dozier and Ervin Santana. There are interesting parallels between the two teams.

Beyond the roster composition, the Yankees and Twins have something else in common: they’re both very good baserunning teams. Among the best in the game. You may not believe it after watching the Yankees run into outs all summer, but I assure you, every team does that. The Yankees added a lot of value on the bases this season. Some stats:

Yankees Twins
FanGraphs BsR +10.6 runs (5th in MLB) +14.2 runs (1st in MLB)
SB Total 90 (12th) 95 (9th)
SB% 80% (1st) 77% (4th)
Extra Base% 39% (16th) 42% (7th)

I have to think at least part of the difference in their extra base taken rates — that’s going first-to-third on a single, scoring from first on a double, etc. — is a result of their home ballparks. Yankee Stadium is pretty small and it’s not always possible to go first-to-third on a single to right because the right fielder is that much closer to the infield. Target Field is massive. There’s more room to cover and that gives the runner a little extra time on the bases.

As for stolen bases, the Twins are led by Buxton, who went a ridiculous 29-for-30 in stealing bases this year. And the one time he was caught stealing, Buxton made it to the bag safely, but was tagged out when he overslid.

Both Dozier (16-for-23) and Jorge Polanco (13-for-18) had double-digit steals as well. Buxton took the extra base a whopping 71% of the time this season, the highest mark among all MLB regulars, while Eddie Rosario (58%), Eduardo Escobar (50%), and Dozier (44%) were all comfortably above the 40% league average.

The Twins use their speed to take the extra base. That’s what they do. The best way for the Yankees to combat Minnesota’s speed is by not allowing anyone to reach base. Simple, right? In the likely and unfortunate event the Twins do get some men on base tonight, it’ll be up to the throwing arms to limit those extra bases, specifically Sanchez behind the plate and the three outfielders.

Severino & Sanchez

We know Sanchez has a ridiculously powerful arm, one that allowed him to throw out 23 of 60 attempted basestealers this season, which is a well-above-average 38%. The league average is 27%. How good is Sanchez’s arm? Runners attempted only 91 steals against the Yankees this season, third fewest in baseball behind the Cardinals (Yadier Molina) and Indians. That’s with Austin Romine, who can’t throw at all, starting for basically all of April.

Severino, tonight’s starter, allowed four stolen bases in six attempts this season. That’s it. The guy threw 193.1 innings and six runners attempted to steal. Six! Between Sanchez’s arm and Severino’s nifty little pickoff move — he has that funky sidearm motion that really speeds up his delivery to first base — the Yankees appear to be well-suited to control the running game tonight. It’ll be strength against strength. Fun!

The Outfielders

For the first time in a long time, the Yankees have some pretty great outfield arms on the roster. Aaron Judge has a very strong arm and Aaron Hicks has one of the strongest outfield arms in the game. Maybe the strongest. Brett Gardner has a solid arm as well. Jacoby Ellsbury? His arm is bad. It just is. His arm is terrible and it has cost the Yankees plenty of runs over the years. Here are some outfield throwing numbers:

Opportunities Hold % Throw Out %
Gardner in LF 135 65.2% (63.2% MLB average) 3.0% (1.6% MLB average)
Ellsbury in CF 88 36.4% (44.9%) 1.1% (1.9%)
Judge in RF 140 54.3% (47.7%) 1.4% (2.1%)
Hicks in LF 14 50.0% 0.0%
Hicks in CF 61 45.9% 0.0%
Hicks in RF 11 63.6% 0.0%

Hicks did have three outfield assists this season, though none came on a runner trying to advance an extra base on another player’s base hit. He twice threw a runner out trying to stretch a single into a double, plus this happened:

Anyway, both Gardner and Judge were better than the league average at preventing runners from taking the extra base. Judge was considerably above-average, but again, I think the small right field at Yankee Stadium has at least something to do with that. He’s closer to the infield than most other players at the position. Judge clearly has a very strong arm though.

In center field, opposing teams ran wild on Ellsbury. His hold rate was far below the league average for center fielders. That’s not surprising, right? Because of this, I think the Yankees have to seriously consider starting Hicks in center field tonight. Even if you ignore the hold rates for a second, Hicks has a much better arm than Ellsbury — the Twins should know that better than anyone after drafting and developing Hicksie — and he’s better equipped to control Minnesota’s high-end running game.

Keep in mind we’re not talking about a small difference in outfield arms here. We’re talking about one of the best outfield arms and one of the worst outfield arms, against a team that is very aggressive on the bases. Given the winner-take-all nature of the Wild Card Game, the Yankees have to put their best team on the field, and the best team has Hicks and his arm in center field over Ellsbury. Let Ellsbury be the DH.

* * *

The Twins went 40-34 in the second half and, believe it or not, they led the AL with 412 runs scored. The Indians (397) were second and the Yankees (381) were third. The running game is a huge part of Minnesota’s offensive attack and the Yankees have to be prepared for that tonight. Sanchez and Severino are about as good a stolen base neutralizing battery as there is. Judge’s and Gardner’s arms are assets in the outfield. Ellsbury’s? No way. Hicks’ is though, and the Yankees need to seriously consider playing him in center field tonight to help take away the Twins’ ground game.

Frazier and Wade make 2017 Wild Card Game roster

(Frank Franklin II/AP)
(Frank Franklin II/AP)

The deadline for the Yankees and Twins to submit their 25-man AL Wild Card Game rosters to the league was 10am ET today, and shortly thereafter, both teams announced their rosters. Here is the Twins’ roster and here are the 25 players the Yankees will use in tonight’s winner-take-all affair.

Pitchers (10)
RHP Dellin Betances
LHP Aroldis Chapman
RHP Sonny Gray
RHP Chad Green
RHP Tommy Kahnle
RHP David Robertson
LHP CC Sabathia
RHP Luis Severino
LHP Chasen Shreve
RHP Adam Warren

Catchers (2)
Austin Romine
Gary Sanchez

Infielders (7)
Greg Bird
Starlin Castro
Todd Frazier
Didi Gregorius
Chase Headley
Ronald Torreyes
Tyler Wade

Outfielders (5)
Jacoby Ellsbury
Clint Frazier
Brett Gardner
Aaron Hicks
Aaron Judge

Designated Hitters (1)
Matt Holliday

The Yankees are carrying ten pitchers, which feels like one too many, but it’s not really a big deal. I’m sure Joe Girardi‘s master plan tonight is Severino to Green to Robertson to Chapman, and if Severino pitches well enough that they could skip Green all together, great. That works too. Look at it as a four-man pitching staff with six emergency arms.

Sabathia threw 75 pitches Saturday and is likely on the roster for one reason and one reason only: to get out Joe Mauer in a big spot. Mauer has hit .192/.259/.250 with a 34.5% strikeout rate — this is a guy with a career 12.8% strikeout rate, remember — in 58 career plate appearances against Sabathia. This is Sabathia’s throw day, so he can’t go very long out of the bullpen. Mauer specialist it is.

Wade and Frazier are essentially the 24th and 25th men on the roster, though both could get a chance to play as a pinch-runner. (Or if there’s an injury.) Even if they don’t steal a base, they’re better able to score from first on a double or from second on a single than many of the veterans. That could come in handy in a close game.

Keep in mind the Wild Card Game is considered its own postseason round, so if the Yankees do win tonight’s game, they will be able to set a new 25-man roster for the ALDS. And they will certainly do that to get more starting pitchers on the roster, obviously.

Thoughts prior to the 2017 Wild Card Game

(Frank Franklin II/AP)
(Frank Franklin II/AP)

Following a wildly successful 2017 regular season, the Yankees will face the Twins in the Wild Card Game tonight with their season on the line. The Yankees went 91-71 with a +198 run differential during the regular season. The Twins went 85-77 with a +27 run differential. Doesn’t seem fair, does it? Oh well. That’s the system. Anyway, here are some thoughts a few hours before the winner-take-all affair.

1. I feel approximately a billion times more confident going into this Wild Card Game than I did the 2015 Wild Card Game. The Yankees really limped to the finish in 2015. They went 1-6 in their last seven games — they were outscored 47-23 in those seven games — and very nearly blew homefield advantage in the Wild Card Game. The Diamondbacks beat the Astros in Game 162 that year to send the game to Yankee Stadium. Remember that? The 2015 Yankees were old and they played like it in the second half. The lifeless shutout loss in the Wild Card Game did not come out of nowhere. It was a continuation of everything we saw in September. The 2017 Yankees, meanwhile, had an excellent September — they went 20-8 with a +70 run differential in the season’s final month — and there’s so much more life and energy in their play. Who knows what’ll happen tonight. It’s baseball and weird things can happen in nine innings. All I know is that right now, I feel pretty confident going into the Wild Card Game. In 2015, it felt like the Yankees were a dead team walking even though they had a better regular season record than the Astros and the game was in the Bronx.

2. The Yankees have thoroughly dominated the head-to-head series with the Twins since 2002. They are 78-31 against Minnesota during that time — that’s a 116-win pace across a full 162-game season — plus another 12-2 in four postseason series, all ALDS series wins in four games or fewer. This head-to-head series has been lopsided. And that means nothing tonight. Are the Yankees a better team than the Twins? Almost certainly. During the regular season they had a better record, they scored more runs (858 to 815), and they allowed fewer runs (660 to 788). Over a 162-game season, the Yankees were better. But tonight is one game, and in one game the best team doesn’t always win. It happens countless times each season. I’m confident in the Yankees tonight because they have a great starting pitcher on the mound, a very good and very deep bullpen behind him, and one of the best offenses in baseball. What they’ve done against the Twins since 2002 makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but it doesn’t mean anything. What Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Mike Mussina, and all those other long gone dudes did against the Twins all those years ago won’t help the Yankees tonight.

3. I wonder how long Luis Severino‘s leash will be tonight. I guess that will depend entirely on how he looks. If he’s cruising, Joe Girardi will stick with him as long as possible. If he’s having a hard time putting hitters away and the at-bats are long and the swings are comfortable, he could be out fairly early. Back in 2015, it felt like Girardi was counting down the outs until he could get Masahiro Tanaka out of the game and turn it over to the bullpen. Tanaka was good that season, not great (3.51 ERA and 3.89 FIP), and the quick hook was warranted given his season long case of homeritis. (He had a 1.5 HR/9 during he regular season and allowed two solo homers in five innings in the Wild Card Game.) Severino was outstanding all season and you’d think that would earn him a longer leash, but who knows. How long can you wait for your starter to find it in a winner-take-all game, regardless of what he did during the regular season? This seems like one of those pure gut feel decisions. Every manager uses data and stats to make decisions, but they’re not going to help you in a situation like this. You’ve got to trust your eyes, read the swings, and make a quick decision.

4. Building on that last point, my guess is Girardi has Chad Green, David Robertson, and Aroldis Chapman penciled in for five innings tonight. Combined, of course. How those five innings are divided up, I’m not sure. It’ll depend on pitch counts and all that. I could see two innings each from Green and Robertson, then Chapman. Chapman has said in the past he doesn’t like pitching multiple innings, but he did do it at times in the postseason last year — he had an eight-out save in Game Five of the World Series, remember — and I’m sure the Yankees will go to him before the game tonight and say hey, if we need two innings from you, you’re throwing two innings. So maybe five innings from Green, Robertson, and Chapman is really six innings? I dunno, we’ll see. Point is, I think those are Girardi’s three guys. Tommy Kahnle, Dellin Betances, and Adam Warren are not part of Plan A. They’re Plan B once Green, Robertson, and Chapman have been used.

(Frank Franklin II/AP)
(Frank Franklin II/AP)

5. So who is the DH tonight? I don’t think Matt Holliday can play. He hasn’t hit much at all since about mid-June. Holliday’s been a part-time player the last few weeks and he’s a pro, so I can’t imagine he’ll make a fuss about being on the bench in the Wild Card Game. I expect Todd Frazier to start at third base because his defense is too important there. Severino is a ground ball pitcher and the Twins like to bunt, so you need to have your best defensive third baseman over there. That’s Frazier. (I was wrong about it being Chase Headley after the trade.) I expect Greg Bird to start at first base because he’s been one of the team’s best hitters lately. That essentially means the designated hitter spot comes down to Headley and either Aaron Hicks or Jacoby Ellsbury, whichever one doesn’t start in center field. Hmmm. Ellsbury had that insane hot streak to help the Yankees to the postseason before cooling down — he went 5-for-30 (.168) in his final eight regular season games — and the same is true for Headley. He went 5-for-31 (.161) in his final nine regular season games. On the other hand, Hicks just came back from the disabled list. I know he’s hit two homers and robbed a grand slam since returning, but is he really all the way back at the plate? This is tough and I’m not sure there’s a right answer. I think I’d go with Headley at DH and Hicks in center field, yet I feel like that is the least likely outcome. My hunch is we’re heading for Headley at DH and Ellsbury in center with Hicks on the bench because Girardi will see Hicks is 0-for-6 with three strikeouts in his career against Ervin Santana.

6. As for the batting lineup, that doesn’t seem to be much of a problem. Girardi has settled into a fairly set lineup the last few weeks and I have no reason to think he’ll change things up tonight. The starting nine figures to look something like this:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. RF Aaron Judge
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. SS Didi Gregorius
  5. 2B Starlin Castro
  6. 1B Greg Bird
  7. DH Headley/Ellsbury/Hicks
  8. CF Ellsbury/Hicks
  9. 3B Todd Frazier

Yeah, that’s it. And I’m fine with it. The bottom three spots could look a little different, but the top six is the top six. Part of me wonders whether Girardi would move Bird up to the third spot and bump Sanchez/Gregorius/Castro down a peg, but nah. If he were going to do that, I think he would’ve done it at the end of the regular season. He’s not going to break out an entirely new lineup in the postseason. That’s not Girardi’s style. That lineup above works for me.

7. The Twins are starting Santana tonight and it’s worth noting they used Jose Berrios out of the bullpen Friday night in anticipation of a relief appearance tonight. Manager Paul Molitor played it off as one of those “just in case he’s needed” things, though I don’t buy it. Minnesota’s middle relief is kinda sketchy — righty Trevor Hildenberger and lefty Taylor Rogers have had fine seasons, but it’s not like they have Green and Robertson out there — so it wouldn’t surprise me if Molitor’s master plan is Santana for as long as possible and Berrios for as long as necessary to get the ball to closer Matt Belisle. Would it screw up their potential ALDS rotation? Of course. But you have to get there first, and the Twins’ best chance to advance likely involves Santana handing the ball to Berrios and skipping over all those less than intimidating middle relievers.

8. So I guess I need to make a prediction? Might as well. This is a Yankees site, so of course I’m going to pick them to win. I expect tonight to be a low-scoring game. Each team has a quality starting pitcher going, and if Berrios does pitch in relief, they’ll both have power strikeout arms coming out of the bullpen. Runs will be at a premium. I’m thinking the Yankees win 4-2 and rally after falling behind 2-0 early. Let’s say … Eddie Rosario pokes a two-run homer into the short porch in the third inning. The Yankees come back in the middle innings with Bird’s two-run double turning a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead. Bird then provides an insurance run with an eighth inning solo homer. So yeah, I guess that means Bird will be the player of the game. Why not? So there’s my sure to be correct prediction. Yankees win 4-2 thanks to Bird. No need to watch now that you know what’s going to happen.

Monday Night Open Thread

The calm before the storm. All of baseball has an off-day today before the postseason begins tomorrow night, at Yankee Stadium, with the AL Wild Card Game. Should be fun. With no Yankees baseball tonight, I recommend checking out this MLB.com feature, in which rival players scout various Yankees. It’s pretty great. I really enjoyed it.

Here is an open thread for the evening. The Redskins and Chiefs are the Monday Night Football game, and that’s pretty much it for sports tonight. Talk about anything other than politics and religion here. Thanks in advance.

The Twins probably won’t pitch to Aaron Judge, so others need to carry the Yankees in the Wild Card Game

(Adam Hunger/Getty)
(Adam Hunger/Getty)

I think the most impressive thing about Aaron Judge‘s rookie season is the way he rebounded from a deep slump not once, but twice. Sure, the massive dingers were cool — no one loves dingers like I do — but the league tested Judge and he passed with flying colors. He adjusted following his MLB debut last year and he adjusted again following his midseason slump. It was quite impressive for a rookie.

Judge finished the 2017 regular season with a .284/.422/.627 (172 wRC+) batting line and a rookie record 52 home runs, and in September he authored a .311/.463/.889 (223 wRC+) batting line with 15 homers. He was a force as the Yankees pushed for a postseason spot and hung around the AL East race far longer than anyone expected. Judge will win Rookie of the Year. It should be unanimous. Will he win MVP? Eh, maybe. The fact he is in the conversation is pretty cool.

Tomorrow night the season will be on the line in the Wild Card Game, and of course the Yankees are hoping Judge helps them to a victory. He’s the centerpiece of their offense and he’s almost certainly going to bat second, nice and high up in the order. Here’s the thing though: the Twins won’t let Judge beat them. I assume that’s their plan going into the Wild Card Game. Don’t give Judge anything to hit.

When the Twins visited Yankee Stadium two weeks ago, they did pitch to Judge, and he burned them over and over and over again. Judge went 4-for-11 (.364) with two homers, two sac flies, one walk, and two strikeouts in the three-game sweep. The Twins pitched to him in every single situation:

  • Bases empty: 3-for-3 with two singles and a homer
  • Men on with first base occupied: 0-for-2 with a sac fly
  • Men on with first base open: 1-6 with a homer, a walk, and a sac fly

Perhaps the Twins will take their chances and hope Judge saves all his hits for when the bases are empty tomorrow night. Something tells me that will not be the case. In a close game, they’re probably going to take the bat right out of his hands because he can change the game with one swing. That’s what I would want the Twins to do if I were a Twins fans, anyway. This isn’t a normal hitter here. Judge might get the Barry Bonds treatment.

What does this mean? This means it’ll be up to the other guys in the lineup to lead the charge offensively, because Judge might not even get a chance to have an impact. Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius, the guys hitting behind Judge, will have to make the Twins pay for pitching around him. The No. 9 hitter and Brett Gardner will have to get on base to force the Twins to pitch to Judge. Clog those bases and make pitching around Judge a non-option.

Fortunately the Yankees have a deep lineup, one in which Todd Frazier and Jacoby Ellsbury figure to hit in the bottom third tomorrow night. Frazier hits for a low average, sure, but he can get on base and hit for power. Ellsbury makes an awful lot of contact and can create havoc with his legs. From 2013-15, guys like that were hitting much higher in the lineup for the Yankees. Now they’re hitting eighth and ninth. The lineup depth is there to supplement Judge.

With any luck, the Yankees will back the Twins into a corner and force them to pitch to Judge several times. Runners on first and second with no outs, or men on the corners with one out, that sort of thing. Otherwise I just can’t see him getting much to hit — other than mistakes, of course — and Judge is more than disciplined enough to take those walks. Getting on base is good! But it would also be nice to see Judge get some chances to swing the bat.

Can the Yankees win without Judge contributing offensively? Of course. They did it a bunch of times this season. It sure does make life easier when he contributes though, and the Twins are very aware of this. Maybe Minnesota will trust their game plan and go after Judge all night, like they did two weeks ago. That’d be cool. I’d welcome that. I trust Judge to do damage. If they don’t pitch to him, it’ll be up to everyone else to carry the load offensively, and the Yankees have the firepower to do exactly that.

Six under-the-radar decisions that helped get the Yankees back to the postseason

Sir Didi. (Adam Hunger/Getty)
Sir Didi. (Adam Hunger/Getty)

In what was supposed to be a rebuilding transition season, the Yankees won 91 games and will play in the AL Wild Card Game tomorrow night. They remained in the hunt for the AL East title right up until the final weekend too. That’s pretty cool. Can’t say I saw this coming. This has been a fun six months, hasn’t it? Couldn’t have asked for a more enjoyable season.

Getting to the postseason and possibly maybe hopefully winning the World Series is the result of many, literally hundreds of decisions over a period of several seasons. It doesn’t happen quick. Some of the decisions that got the Yankees back to the postseason this year are obvious. Draft Aaron Judge with the 32nd pick in 2013 instead of literally anyone else. Trade for Sonny Gray and David Robertson. Sign CC Sabathia. Those are the obvious moves.

Many times it’s the not-so-obvious decisions, the multitude of easy-to-look decisions that are the difference between contending and just being okay. Don’t think much of that lightly regarded prospect thrown into a trade? Well sometimes that guy turns into Chad Green. Those are the moves and decisions that separate the contenders from the pretenders. Here are six of those not-so-obvious decisions that played a role in getting the Yankees back to the postseason.

Giving Denbo the keys to the farm system

The Yankees were never going to get back to being a perennial contender without developing players from within. You can’t build a winner through free agency anymore. Baseball has changed. And aside from a Brett Gardner here and a Dellin Betances there, the Yankees hadn’t developed an impact player since Robinson Cano as recently as two years ago. Things had to change and they did change.

Four years ago Hal Steinbrenner ordered what was essentially an audit of the farm system. The Yankees weren’t producing players and the owner wanted to know why. Hal’s evaluation of the system led to substantial changes. Coaches and player development personnel were replaced, and the minor league complex in Tampa was renovated. The status quo was not working so the Yankees changed the way they went about developing players.

The single biggest change was the (forced) retirement of longtime vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman, who’d been running the farm system for 15 years. Brian Cashman tabbed Gary Denbo, who has done basically everything there is to do in baseball throughout his career, to replace Newman, and the difference has been staggering. The Yankees are not just producing MLB players, they’re producing stars.

How much credit does Denbo deserve for the farm system turnaround? It’s hard to say, exactly. Denbo did overhaul the minor league coaching staffs — even the beloved Tony Franklin, Double-A Trenton’s longtime manager, was moved into another role — and start Captain’s Camp, among many other things. The farm system went from frustratingly unproductive to pumping out quality big league players under his watch. More than the Yankees can roster, really.

I never thought the Yankees had a problem acquiring talent (aside from the Cito Culver and Dante Bichette Jr. picks). They had talent. But that talent was not developing into MLB players. That has changed since Denbo took over, and hey, maybe it’s all one giant coincidence. I don’t think that’s the case though. Denbo replacing Newman barely registered as a blip on the radar at the time, but in the grand scheme of things, it may have been the team’s most impactful move of the last five or six years.

Letting Severino pitch in relief

Sevy. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)
Sevy. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)

The 2016 season couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start for Luis Severino. Rather than emerge as a homegrown ace, the then-22-year-old struggled big time early in the season and eventually went down with a triceps injury. He threw 35 innings with a 7.46 ERA (5.52 FIP) in seven starts before the injury, then once he got healthy, the Yankees sent him down to Triple-A Scranton.

In 13 games with the RailRiders, Severino had a 3.49 ERA (2.60 FIP) in 77.1 innings, and he was sent down for the express purpose of improving his command and improving his changeup. The Yankees did bring Severino back to the big leagues eventually, but not as a starter. As a reliever. In eleven relief appearances he threw 23.1 innings with a 0.39 ERA (2.29 FIP) and was overwhelmingly dominant. Naturally, the calls to keep Severino in the bullpen came, but the Yankees knew better and moved him back into the rotation this year.

This season Severino emerged as that homegrown ace and I don’t think that happens without his bullpen stint last season. While working in relief Severino learned how to get MLB hitters out, learned to trust his overpowering stuff, and built confidence, and it carried over this year. He looks like a reliever pitching as a starter this season. He has that same attack attack attack mentality and a better idea of how to get outs.

Development is rarely linear. So many players experience ups and downs along the way, and last season was a down year for Severino. It wasn’t a lost year though. You hope young players learn something when they struggle and Severino absolutely did. He doesn’t become the pitcher he is today without going through everything he went through last year. I know we’re all still scarred from the Joba Rules and all that, but in this case, a stint in the bullpen turned into a major positive for Severino and the Yankees.

Beltran picks the Astros

Over the winter the Yankees had a clear opening for a veteran middle of the order bat. Someone to support the youngsters and take all those designated hitter at-bats. The Yankees wanted to bring Carlos Beltran back for that role. He was Plan A. Instead, Beltran decided to take a one-year contract worth $16M with the Astros.

“They really made an offer early, faster than any other team,” said Beltran to Brian McTaggart after signing with Houston. “At the same time, I took a look at the roster, and having an opportunity to play against them last year with the Rangers, this team is very, very close to winning and winning for a long time. The fact they were aggressive and went out there and really showed big-time interest, it wasn’t that difficult to make to make a decision.”

With Beltran off the board, the Yankees shifted gears and turned their attention to Matt Holliday, the other big name veteran bat who could be had a one-year contract. The Yankees have Holliday a one-year deal worth $13M four days after Beltran signed with the Astros, and, well:

  • Holliday: .231/.316/.432 (97 wRC+) and 19 homers
  • Beltran: .231/.283/.383 (76 wRC+) and 14 homers

Holliday has crashed hard in the second half, hard enough that it’s fair to wonder whether he belongs on the postseason roster, but his first half was incredible. He hit .262/.366/.511 (132 wRC+) with 15 homers in 68 games before the All-Star break. Beltran’s best 68-game stretch this season was a .246/.301/.442 line (96 wRC+) with eleven homers from May 3rd through August 6th. Yeah.

Between Holliday’s first half production and his reported impact on Judge and other young players, the Yankees are pretty fortunate Beltran decided to return to Houston. They wound up with a slightly cheaper player who was more productive on the field and also an asset in the clubhouse (which Beltran certainly is as well).

Diamondbacks put their faith in Ahmed and Owings

Nearly three years ago, then-D’Backs general manager Dave Stewart decided he was going to dip into his team’s shortstop depth to bolster their rotation. The club had three young shortstops, none older than 24, so there was some surplus. Arizona could trade one young shortstop and still have two others on the roster. And that’s exactly what they did. The shortstops they kept: Nick Ahmed and Chris Owings. The shortstop they traded: Didi Gregorius.

  • Gregorius from 2015-17: .276/.313/.432 (98 wRC+) and +9.6 WAR
  • Ahmed from 2015-17: .228/.276/.351 (60 wRC+) and +1.9 WAR
  • Owings from: 2015-17: .255/.291/.387 (72 wRC+) and -0.5 WAR

To be fair, the D’Backs acquired Robbie Ray in the Gregorius trade, and Ray is pretty damn awesome. He threw 162 innings with a 2.89 ERA (3.72 FIP) and 32.8% strikeouts this season, and went to the All-Star Game. The trade worked out for them from the “get a young starter” perspective. The Yankees did not have a young starter to trade with the D’Backs directly, which is how the Tigers got involved. Then-Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski loved Shane Greene and served as an intermediary.

Gregorius is now a highly productive member of the Yankees because the D’Backs considered him expendable. That’s why he’s wearing pinstripes. They liked Owings and Ahmed more and identified them as their best chance to develop a shortstop of the future. “Didi has been one of the most talked-about players (in trades) for us. Looking at the possibilities for things we could do, it really came down to eventually, ‘How can we fill a need?'” said Stewart to Nick Piecoro after the trade. The D’Backs got their starter, so credit to them. That decision helped get the Yankees to where they are today.

Not making the easy move for the fifth starter’s spot

Monty. (Jamie Squire/Getty)
Monty. (Jamie Squire/Getty)

When Spring Training started, the Yankees had two open rotation spots. As it turned out, one was earmarked for Severino — didn’t I say that all offseason long? I did — leaving the fifth spot up to a good ol’ Grapefruit League competition. The fifth starter candidates: Green, Luis Cessa, Bryan Mitchell, and supposedly Adam Warren, though I never bought Warren as a rotation candidate. That group was the baseball equivalent of a shrug emoji.

Ultimately, none of the fifth starter candidates won the job. Jordan Montgomery shocked the world in camp, outpitched everyone, and won the job. The Yankees could’ve very easily gone with Cessa or Green or Mitchell, all of whom were already on the 40-man roster and had MLB experience, but no, they went with Montgomery. Johnny Barbato was the 40-man roster sacrificial lamb and Montgomery was the fifth starter.

What was expected to be a revolving door of fifth starters — when is it ever not a revolving door? — was instead steady and reliable production from Montgomery, especially in the first half. He finished the regular season with a 3.88 ERA (4.06 FIP) in 155.1 innings after pitching to a 3.65 ERA (4.05 FIP) in 91.1 first half innings. Montgomery led all rookie pitchers with +2.8 fWAR, all after coming into the season as a rotation afterthought.

There’s a pretty good chance Montgomery will not even be on the postseason roster, but make no mistake, he played a vital role in getting the Yankees back to October. He earned his spot in Spring Training and, truth be told, the only reason he had to be sent to Triple-A in the second half was to control his workload. Montgomery gave the Yankees what they’ve been seeking for years: a no nonsense starter to solidify the back of the rotation.

Going with Torreyes on the bench

It wasn’t that long ago that Rob Refsnyder was a pretty big deal around these parts. He put up very good numbers in the minors, and for the first few years of the post-Cano era, the Yankees had a revolving door at second base. The scouting reports said Refsnyder’s defense stunk, we all knew that, but wouldn’t the offense make up for it? After all, the Yankees were running guys like Brian Roberts and Stephen Drew out there.

The Yankees never believed in Refsnyder as much as the fans, so much so that when a bench spot was open last spring, they didn’t take him north. Refsnyder had a decent enough camp and was learning third base to increase his versatility. Instead, the Yankees decided to go with Ronald Torreyes, who had been in four different organizations in the previous ten months. They went with Torreyes because he could do what Refsnyder couldn’t: catch the ball.

Turns out, Torreyes had more to offer offensively as well. Refsnyder has never hit much in his various MLB stints — he authored a .170/.247/.216 (22 wRC+) batting line with the Yankees and Blue Jays this year — and he still doesn’t have a position. Torreyes, meanwhile, has settled in as a reliable utility infielder, one who filled in at shortstop and second base while Gregorius and Castro were injured earlier this year.

  • Torreyes while Didi was on DL: .308/.308/.431 in 19 games
  • Torreyes while Castro was on DL (two stints): .302/.321/.389 in 38 games

Does he draw walks? No. Does he hit for power? No. Does he even steal bases? No, not really (two all season). What Torreyes does do it get the bat on the ball (12.8%), and that prevents him from falling into deep and prolonged slumps. He’s a .300 hitter (well, .292 to be exact) and it is an empty .300, but .300 is .300, and we’re talking about a bench player. A bench player who can play all over the infield and start for a few weeks at a time if necessary.

Also, let’s not forget the off-the-field value Torreyes brings to the table. He’s a high-energy player who is universally beloved in the clubhouse. He’s a Grade-A glue guy and that is absolutely important. It’s a long season, man. Teams need players who can keep everyone loose and make it fun to go to the ballpark. Torreyes does that. He’s a solid utility player on the field and a great clubhouse guy behind the scenes.

Last spring Refsnyder was the trendy pick for that bench spot. He’d done all he needed to do in the minors to earn a chance, at least offensively and at least in the eyes of the fans, and it seemed like he would get the call. Instead, the Yankees went with the relatively unknown Torreyes, and his more functional skill set. This season he started for long stretches of time while Gregorius and Castro were out, and his production during those stints as a starter helped get the Yankees back to October.