Thoughts in the middle of the six-game road trip

(Justin K. Aller/Getty)
(Justin K. Aller/Getty)

The 2017 regular season is only 23 days old, yet yesterday was already the fifth off-day for the Yankees. Geez. I know there are always a lot of off-days in April because of weather concerns, but five in the first three weeks of the season seems … excessive. Whatever. It is what it is. Here are some thoughts as the Yankees gear up for tonight’s series opener against the Red Sox.

1. I know the Yankees lost the series in Pittsburgh over the weekend, which is especially annoying because Sunday’s game was very winnable, but overall, I would have signed up for an 11-7 start to the season in a heartbeat back in January and February. The 11-7 start isn’t a mirage either. Here are some numbers:

  • Run Differential: +30 (1st in MLB)
  • Team wRC+: 123 (1st in MLB)
  • Team ERA: 3.17 (2nd in MLB)
  • Runs Scored Per Game: 5.11 (t-3rd in MLB)
  • Runs Allowed Per Game: 3.44 (t-1st in MLB)

The Yankees also had the best record in baseball in Spring Training by several games, remember. What if they’re actually, you know, good? Keep in mind the Yankees are off to this good start despite not having Didi Gregorius at all, and getting only four and half generally ineffective games from Gary Sanchez. (Greg Bird hasn’t done a whole lot either.) The season is still young and I’m not going to read too much into this start. For example: I’m not buying Chase Headley and Starlin Castro as true talent 185 wRC+ and 178 wRC+ hitters, respectively. This good start has happened though. It’s in the books. And that’s exciting. The Yankees might not be heading for the .500-ish season many seemed to expect when they committed to the youth movement last year.

2. Speaking of Gregorius, my guess — and this is only a guess — is he returns to the Yankees for the start of the homestand Friday. That gives him three more minor league rehab games — poor Didi is going to go broke feeding the minor league kids during this long rehab stint — which could go nine innings at shortstop Tuesday, nine innings at shortstop Wednesday, nine innings at designated hitter Thursday, then back in the Bronx Friday. So far he’s played two seven-inning games at shortstop and one full game at DH. I’m looking forward to seeing Didi back in the lineup. Back in the lineup and back in the field. Ronald Torreyes has done a hell of a job filling in at short, but Gregorius is clearly the better player, so the sooner he comes back, the better it is for the Yankees. Hopefully these next few rehab games go well, the shoulder feels strong, and we see him back on the big league roster in the coming days. Didi is a fun player and I am pro-fun.

3. Sanchez is about two weeks away from returning based on the original four-week timetable given at the time of his injury. His rehab is progressing nicely — Sanchez has been increasing his throwing and hitting pretty much everyday since the middle of last week — and hopefully that continues. I know I shouldn’t do this because so much can change even in the span of two weeks, but I can’t stop myself from looking forward and thinking about what the lineup will look like with Sanchez and Gregorius. Does this work?

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

If Gardner continues to slump — he hit safely in seven of his first eight games, but has gone 2-for-24 (.083) since crashing into Rickie Weeks — Joe Girardi will have no choice but to drop him in the lineup. Then again, three lefties in a row in the wraparound 8-9-1 spots? Nah. Won’t happen. May you one day find someone as committed to you as Girardi is committed to breaking up the lefties. The lineup really isn’t something worth thinking about anyway. It’s going to change on a near daily basis. Aaron Hicks has been getting fairly regular starts so far — he has 44 plate appearances in 18 team games, last year he had to wait until the 28th game for his 44th plate appearance — and I’m sure that will continue. Also, Chris Carter is going to play as long as Bird continues to not hit. At the very least Carter will start against lefties, I believe. Still, the Yankees lead baseball in wRC+, my preferred all-encompassing offensive stat, and they’re going to get Gregorius and Sanchez back reasonably soon. That’s exciting.

4. Gardner hasn’t hit since crashing into Weeks and Holliday hasn’t hit since his back acted up, forcing him to sit out two games against the Cardinals last weekend. His slump actually goes back further than the two days on the bench. Holliday is in a 2-for-24 (.083) rut at the moment, and I suppose his back could have been giving him trouble before he sat out the two games. He did crush that long home run against the White Sox — at 459 feet, it is the third longest home run in baseball so far this year — so his back can’t be bothering him too much. Still, Holliday hasn’t been quite right for nearly two weeks now, which has been a bit of a drag on the offense. Between off-days and the interleague series in Pittsburgh, Holliday has essentially had five days off in a row — he pinch-hit in each game against the Pirates, that’s all — and hopefully that will get him on track, especially if the back is truly the cause of his problems. Then again, pretty much every player goes through a 20-something at-bat slump during the course of the season, so this might not be anything more than baseball being baseball. The combination of age (37) and a back injury, no matter how minor, still makes me wonder if something is up physically.

5. One more lineup related note: Ellsbury’s versatility within the batting order has been a pleasant surprise early on. He doesn’t fit anyone’s idea of a cleanup hitter, but Girardi has stuck him in the four spot a few times and Ellsbury has delivered. He’s hitting .435/.480/.565 (205 wRC+) with one home run in 25 plate appearances batting fourth, and .368/.400/.579 (182 wRC+) and one home run in 20 plate appearances batting fifth. (He’s also hit .176/.222/.176, 11 wRC+, in 18 plate appearances batting first, so yeah.) I don’t expect this level of production to continue because how could you? At the end of the day, Ellsbury is still a slash-and-dash hitter who has hit double-digit home runs only twice in parts of eleven big league seasons. Point is, the Yankees asked Ellsbury to hit in the middle of the order at the start of the season, something he’s never really done in his career, and he’s come through. Being able to move guys around in the lineup is a nice little luxury.

6. I’d like to see Bryan Mitchell get a little more responsibility, which is sort of a weird thing to say when he’s second on the team in relief innings. (Adam Warren has 10.2 innings, Mitchell has 8.2.) Right now Mitchell is the low-leverage multi-inning guy. He’s made seven appearances so far this season, and in each of those seven appearances the Yankees were either trailing when he entered the game, or winning by at least four runs. Mitchell can be wild. We saw it when he loaded the bases with no outs Sunday. But he also has really good stuff and can make hitters do things like this:

bryan-mitchell

For whatever reason Girardi has been more inclined to use Jonathan Holder in more important situations than Mitchell so far this season — Holder has been brought in to start the sixth with one and two-run leads already, and both times he failed to get out of the inning — and I’d like to see their roles reversed. I get that Mitchell can give you two or three innings at a time. There will still be plenty of opportunities to do that though. Mitchell has never been able to develop a changeup and I think he’s destined for the bullpen long-term because of it. I’d like to see him get a little more involved. Let him air it out for an inning a time and I think the Yankees will be pleasantly surprised.

DotF: Adams puts up zeroes, Gilliam has huge day at the plate

SS Gleyber Torres (shoulder) is inching closer to return. At least that’s what he said on Twitter. Torres was placed on the seven-day disabled list last Wednesday and he’s not expected to miss much time, so I suppose that means we could see him back as soon as the day after tomorrow. That’d be neat.

Triple-A Scranton had a scheduled off-day.

Double-A Trenton (2-1 win over New Hampshire)

  • CF Rashad Crawford & DH Billy McKinney: both 0-4 — McKinney struck out once, Crawford thrice
  • SS Thairo Estrada: 1-3, 1 BB — six strikeouts and eight walks in 13 games … he’s been on base 25 times in those 13 games
  • 3B Miguel Andujar: 0-3, 1 BB — Ben Badler says he did some light work at first base before the game, though I wouldn’t read too much into that … players work out at other positions all the time
  • 2B Abi Avelino: 1-3, 1 SB
  • RHP Chance Adams: 5.2 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 4 K, 5/4 GB/FB — 53 of 95 pitches were strikes (56%) … down to a 0.82 ERA on the season … ten walks in 22 innings so far, which isn’t great … he didn’t walk his tenth batter until his 30th inning last year

[Read more…]

Monday Night Open Thread

The Yankees have yet another off-day today — I’m getting sick of all these off-days, aren’t you? — so, while we wait for the next game, I suggest checking out Travis Sawchik’s post on the necessity of mound visits. Aside from implementing a pitch clock, the single best way MLB can improve pace of play is reducing mound visits, especially by the catcher. Do mound visits by the pitching coach actually help at all? No one seems to know.

Anyway, here is an open thread for the evening. ESPN is showing the Cubs and Pirates, and MLB Network will have a regional game later on. There are also a trio of NBA playoff games on as well. No NHL though. No one bothered to force a Game Seven this round. Lame! Talk about anything that isn’t religion or politics here.

2017 Draft: Bonus Pool, Top Prospect Lists, Mock Draft

(Matthew Ziegler/Getty)
(Matthew Ziegler/Getty)

Baseball’s annual three-day amateur draft will begin seven weeks from today. The 2017 draft runs from June 12th to 14th this season and it’s safe to assume MLB Network will again broadcast the first day. Based on previous years, the broadcast will cover 75 picks on Day One, stretching from the First Round to Competitive Balance Round B. Here is the full 2017 draft order.

The Yankees will make two selections on Day One — their first (16th overall) and second (54th overall) round picks — and for the third straight year, they will pick in the top 20. They held the 18th pick last year (OF Blake Rutherford) and the 16th pick (RHP James Kaprielian) the year before. Only once in the previous 19 years did the Yankees have a top 20 pick. They used the 17th pick to take SS C.J. Henry in 2005. He was later traded for Bobby Abreu.

At some point soon, perhaps later this week, I’ll begin profiling draft prospects and potential draft targets for the Yankees. I never did profile Rutherford last summer because I didn’t think he’d fall all the way to 18th. It would be cool if something similar happened this year. Here’s the draft profile I wrote about OF Aaron Judge back in 2013. The profiles will look similar again this year. Here are a few draft notes seven weeks out from the main event.

Yankees will have a $6.91M bonus pool

A few weeks back it was reported the Yankees will have a $6.583M bonus pool, but it turns out that’s low. They’ll actually have a $6,912,800 pool this year, according to Jim Callis. More important than the overall bonus pool are the individual slots. Here are New York’s slot values for the 2017 draft:

  • First Round (16th overall): $3,458,600
  • Second Round (54th): $1,236,000
  • Third Round (92nd): $588,700
  • Fourth Round (122nd): $433, 100
  • Fifth Round (152nd): $323,400
  • Sixth Round (182nd): $247, 600
  • Seventh Round (212nd): $193,700
  • Eighth Round (242nd): $157,200
  • Ninth Round (272nd): $141,200
  • Tenth Round (302nd): $133,300

As a reminder, if the Yankees fail to sign a player in one of those slots, they lose the associated pool money. If they sign a player below the slot value, they can use the savings elsewhere. The Yankees, like many teams, tend to select college seniors in the sixth through tenth rounds, sign them dirt cheap, then spend the savings on other players. That’s the only way you can give out overslot bonuses now.

MLB and the MLBPA agreed to direct more bonus pool money to the top of the draft as part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which is why the first round slot is so high. Last year the Yankees had a $2,441,600 slot bonus for Rutherford and the 18th pick. Yeah. The money was distributed much more linearly through the top ten rounds. Now it’s top heavy.

Baseball America, MLB.com top draft prospects

In recent weeks both Baseball America (no subs. req’d) and MLB.com released their top draft prospect lists. Baseball America’s list runs 100 players deep at the moment. Eventually that will grow to 500 based on previous years. MLB.com’s list covers 50 players and will eventually expand to 200. As always the MLB.com information is completely free. Scouting reports, video, 20-80 grades, the whole nine. It’s an amazing resource.

The consensus top draft prospect this year is California HS SS/RHP Hunter Greene, who Keith Law recently said has a “chance (to be) a generational talent.” Greene is a legitimate prospect as both a shortstop and a pitcher, though most believe he has more upside on the mound. It’s worth noting a high school right-handed pitcher has never been selected first overall. Greene has a chance to make history this summer. (Don’t miss the Greene vs. Rutherford video above!)

As for potential Yankees targets, I’d start by looking at players from Southern California. That is scouting director Damon Oppenheimer’s wheelhouse. Both high school and college, and if the college guy has had success in the Cape Cod League, that’s a bonus. Rutherford, Kaprielian, LHP Ian Clarkin, RHP Gerrit Cole, RHP Ian Kennedy … all first round picks under Oppenheimer and all SoCal products.

Baseball America’s mock draft v2.0

Last month John Manuel posted his first mock draft of the year, though it only covered the top ten picks, so the Yankees were not included. He had the Twins selecting Greene (as a pitcher) with the No. 1 overall pick. Last week Manuel posted his second mock draft — this time he had the Twins taking Louisville 1B/LHP Brendan McKay — and this one covered the entire first round. He has the Yankees taking California HS 1B/OF Nick Pratto with the 18th overall selection. Here’s the blurb:

Fresh off Blake Rutherford’s strong start, the Yankees could go to the SoCal hitter well again with Pratto, who also has a fallback as a lefthanded pitcher. While the Yankees have had confidence in their ability to draft and develop pitching, the injuries to James Kaprielian and success of homegrown hitters such as Aaron Judge could nudge them back in the hitter direction. Pratto runs well enough to give the outfield corners a shot rather than just being limited to first base.

Even with the draft six weeks away, it’s still a bit too early to start connecting teams to individual players. Lots and lots can and will change between now and draft day. As I said before, Southern California is a safe bet for the Yankees, so I guess that means Pratto fits.

I wish I could quit Starlin Castro

(Elsa/Getty Images North America)
(Elsa/Getty Images North America)

Starlin Castro is not a very good major league baseball player. This is something that precious few people would find shocking or inaccurate, and yet I feel the need to say it. His career 97 wRC+ is a bit above-average for a middle infielder, but, when combined with his subpar defense and middling to poor base-running it leads to an average of 1.8 fWAR per 150 games. If you squint, you can easily convince yourself that Castro is an average big leaguer – I just happen to take it a step further.

I was ecstatic when the Yankees dealt Adam Warren for Castro a year and a half ago. I saw a 25-year-old player that had shown flashes of greatness in his six seasons in the majors, and was just one season removed from a deserved All-Star appearance. And, given his age and overall contact-heavy approach, it wasn’t difficult to recall the 70s and 80s that scouts tossed on his hit tool back in 2010. He was a frustratingly inconsistent player, to be sure, but the talent was obvious, and he felt like the ideal ‘change of scenery’ type, given the new direction of the Cubs franchise and his status as the face of the failures of the previous several seasons.

This time last year, it seemed as though my optimistic outlook was paying off. Castro wrapped-up April batting .305/.345/.488, which was essentially his 2014 season with more power. Nothing screamed outlier, either, as his .324 BABIP was less than a handful of points higher than his career norm, his 5.7 BB% was in-line with his better seasons, as was his 12.6 K%, and his 15% HR/FB was explained by a few cheap home runs. And the power wasn’t what we were looking for anyway – it was always about Castro getting back to that .300 batting average range, and seeing what happened around it. Things were looking up.

And then he hit .244/.278/.370 for the next three months. His walk rate dropped by 1.7 percentage points, his strikeout rate jumped by nearly 8 percentage points, and his BABIP dropped down to .285. We watched Castro swing at everything between his shoulders and his ankles, and most anything that came within six inches of the strike zone. Is there hyperbole sprinkled in there? Yes, to some extent – but that’s what the Castro experience feels like. He rebounded in August and September, and that led to some positive buzz; but the damage was done.

Or so you’d think, as I’m finding myself gravitating right back into his corner.

As of this writing, Castro is batting .357/.400/.571, good for a 178 wRC+ – easily his best month in pinstripes, if not his career. It’s obviously unsustainable (note the .396 BABIP), but could we be seeing some tangible change? Maybe. Probably not … but maybe.

It all begins with his swing rates. As per FanGraphs, Castro is currently swinging at 32.5% of pitches outside of the strikezone (1.3 percentage points below his career norm), and 49.1% overall. Both are his lowest since 2014, and both are within striking distance of league-average; the aggressiveness is still there, but it has been toned down. For better or worse, however, we saw this last April, too:

(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)

Those charts are incredibly similar, and tell the same story – Castro loves to swing. And that includes swinging at pitches in on the hands, which may well be his kryptonite (announcers and fans have long lamented his propensity to be jammed inside). When everything’s working with his swing, he’ll pick up hits on those pitches; when it’s not, we see far too much weak contact.

What about the uptick in walks, though? Castro’s 6.7% walk rate would represent the high water mark of his career if it held, and it’s his best single month mark since July of 2014. That’s not great at face value, but it’s an improvement for the swing-happy second baseman. And there might just be something there, when you consider his swing percentages and his career-high 3.85 pitches per plate appearance.

That 3.85 P/PA mark is right around league-average, and represents a very real improvement from his 3.69 P/PA of 2016, and career rate of 3.68 P/PA. And that is something that we didn’t see last year, even in his hot April when he saw just 3.65 P/PA. While such a jump only represents an extra 130 or so pitches seen per season, it is nevertheless a positive indicator of a (potentially) more disciplined hitter.

There could also be something to Castro’s batted ball profile, as well. Castro is pulling the ball just 35.1% of the time, after sitting at or above 40% from 2014 through 2016. He’s also going the other way on 29.8% of batted balls, 3.8 percentage points above his career norm (and the second highest rate of his career). Given his average power, that’s a good way to take advantage of Yankee Stadium – especially when you factor in his continued uptick in flyballs and decrease in grounders.

Attempting to discern any real information from eighteen games and 75 plate appearances is something of a fool’s errand, and that oftentimes feels even more true with Starlin Castro. It is clear, though, that Castro has been a bit more disciplined this year, and that is contributing to his hot start. Moreover, prior successes (and scouting reports) tell us that the talent is there, and many of us have bought in, albeit to varying degrees. When talent and production meet in an age-27 season, the word ‘breakout’ comes to mind – but we’ve been fooled before.

Yankeemetrics: Rocky road trippin’ (April 21-23)

(Getty)
(Getty)

The Bad, the Ugly and the Awful
Last year the Yankees went 3-7 on their road Interleague slate, tied with the Twins for the worst record among AL teams … and the trend continued into 2017 after dropping the series opener in Pittsburgh, 6-3, on Friday night.

All the momentum and confidence built up from a strong 8-1 homestand came to a screeching halt thanks to a mix of bad pitching (see below), sloppy defense (two unearned runs) and a lack of clutch hitting (0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and 11 men left on base).

CC Sabathia was knocked around early, allowing a lead-off homer on the third pitch he threw and another longball in the second frame, putting the Yankees in 4-0 hole after two innings. Although he settled down and was able to gut through three more innings without allowing another run, he still was tagged for his worst outing of the season.

For whatever reason, Sabathia’s fastball (sinker/cutter) velocity was down significantly from his first three starts, averaging 88.2 mph compared to 90.6 in his first three starts combined …

brooksbaseball-chart-1

… and stuff-wise, each of his fastballs had much less “ride” on Friday, averaging just 7.1 (sinker) and 1.3 (cutter) inches of horizontal movement compared to 11.9 (sinker) and 3.7 (cutter) in his first three starts.

brooksbaseball-chart-2
Unsurprisingly, the Pirates crushed Sabathia’s diminished hard pitches, going 5-for-14 with two homers when putting his fastballs in play. In his first three starts, batters hit .244 and slugged .317 against Sabathia’s sinker/cutter combo.

The Pirates did their best to give the Yankees a chance to win, committing three errors, while the Yankees weren’t credited with an official RBI on any of their three runs scored. It was just the sixth time in franchise history they scored as many as three runs in a game with zero RBI. The last time it happened was May 2, 1989 in a 5-3 loss to the Royals.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Love these Komeback Kids
The Yankees got back in the win column with their sixth comeback win of the season, this time erasing a 3-0 deficit after five innings and cruising to an 11-5 victory.

Starlin Castro ignited the first rally with a three-run homer in the sixth inning that knotted the score at 3-3. It was his 25th longball with the Yankees and the 12th one that either tied the game or gave the Yankees the lead – that’s three more than any other Yankee over the last two seasons.

Ronald Torreyes then followed with a two-run double to give the Yankees their first lead, 5-3, in the sixth. Torreyes finished with four hits and two RBI, giving him 13 RBI through the team’s first 17 games. The only other Yankee shortstops with that many RBIs this early into the season were Derek Jeter (1999, 2006) and Frankie Crosetti (1936).

After the Pirates came back to tie the score, Chris Carter delivered his first True Yankee Moment®, belting a tie-breaking, pinch-hit homer in the eighth inning – his first time going deep in pinstripes. He is just the fourth Yankee pinch-hitter with a go-ahead homer in an Interleague game, joining Travis Hafner (2013 vs Arizona), Eric Chavez (2012 vs Mets) and Clay Bellinger (2000 vs Braves).

Aaron Judge then put the icing on the cake, connecting for yet another moonshot deep into the left field bleachers at PNC Park. Statcast measured the blast at career-high 457 feet with an exit velocity of 115.6 mph. Since his debut on Aug. 13, 2016, he has hit three homers traveling at least 445 feet. In that span (and through Saturday), only Justin Upton could match Judge in 445-plus foot homers.

It was the sixth time in 2017 that Judge ripped a ball with an exit velocity of at least 115 mph, making the leaderboard of 115-plus mph batted balls this season through Saturday … well, pretty ridiculous:

  • Aaron Judge: 6
  • Joey Gallo: 2
  • Rest of MLB: 9

Supernova’d
As good as the Yankees have been in the Bronx, they’ve been just as bad away from the friendly confines. After dropping the rubber game on Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Yankees fell to 0-3 in road series this season.

Ivan Nova — in his first start against the Yankees since being traded away last summer — got some sweet revenge against his former team as he allowed one run in seven efficient innings. It was the ninth time in 15 starts (60%) with the Pirates that Nova gave up one earned or fewer; he did that in just 25 percent of his 118 starts with the Yankees.

(USA Today Sports)
(USA Today Sports)

Jordan Montgomery continued to show poise on the mound and a knack for pitching out of trouble in another impressive outing. Making his third career start, the 24-year-old rookie scattered seven hits across six innings, surrendering two runs. The Pirates had one hit in seven at-bats with runners in scoring against Montgomery, who has held batters to a .118 average (2-for-17) with a man on second and/or third in his three starts.

The Yankees had plenty of chances to win the game but repeatedly came up empty. Notably, they loaded the bases with one out in the ninth but Aaron Hicks struck out and then Pete Kozma grounded out to end the game.

This was not an ideal situation for Hicks: he is now 2-for-27 (.074) with the bases loaded in his career, the second-worst mark among active players (min. 25 at-bats). And Kozma is just a bad hitter: his .148 batting average overall since the start of 2015 is better than only two non-pitchers that have at least 100 at-bats in the last three seasons (Craig Gentry, .139 and Erik Kratz, .117).

Fan Confidence Poll: April 24th, 2017

Record Last Week: 3-3 (32 RS, 22 RA)
Season Record: 11-7 (92 RS, 62 RA, 12-6 pythag. record)
Opponents This Week: Mon. OFF, @ Red Sox (three games, Tues. to Thurs.), vs. Orioles (three games, Fri. to Sun.)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the Features tab in the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?
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