Extreme plate discipline is fueling Aaron Hicks’ great start

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

They had to wait a year longer than hoped, but the Yankees are now reaping the benefits of an Aaron Hicks breakout season. The former first round pick and top prospect has finally turned his high-end tools and athleticism into big time baseball production at age 27. Hicks went deep last night and owns a .326/.464/.616 (195 wRC+) batting line this year. Unlike last season, it’s really hard to keep him out of the lineup.

The book on Hicks coming up through the minors was that he had very good knowledge of the strike zone — he owns a career 14.4% walk rate in over 2,600 minor league plate appearances — but would often be too passive, meaning he’d let hittable pitches go by. That’s not an uncommon problem, though getting a player to be more aggressive is not always easy. It’s in their DNA to want to wait for the perfect pitch.

Last season Hicks showed strong plate discipline with the Yankees, even when he was struggling. His 18.8% strikeout rate and 8.3% walk rate were both better than the league averages, and his 23.1% chase rate was far below the 30.6% league average. Hicks rarely expanded the zone. The problem was that when he did swing, nothing really happened. Hicks played his best when he was in the lineup regularly, but he didn’t play well enough to get regular at-bats. It was a tough spot.

This season Hicks has started well and he’s forcing Joe Girardi to give him at-bats, which is a good thing. The Yankees have four starting caliber outfielders on the roster right now, three of whom could legitimately handle center field defensively full-time, if necessary. How many other teams can say that? One reason Hicks is breaking out is his plate discipline, which has become extreme. He simply doesn’t chase out of the zone. Here is the chase rate leaderboard among players with at least 100 plate appearances this season:

  1. Aaron Hicks: 13.7%
  2. Eric Thames & Robbie Grossman: 18.1%

The gap between No. 1 and No. 2 is the same as the gap between No. 2 and No. 18, who, coincidentally enough, is Chase Headley. It’s worth noting Hicks has the second lowest swing rate overall, on pitches both in and out of the zone. He’s at 33.0%. The lowest swing rate? Brett Gardner at 32.8%. Matt Carpenter is third at 34.0%.

Here is the pitch location map of all the swings Hicks has taken this year, via Baseball Savant:

aaron-hicks-swing-locationsNot many swings on pitches outside the strike zone at all. Heck, most of the pitches out of the zone that Hicks did offer at were borderline pitches, the kind that could have been called either way had he laid off. There’s fewer than a dozen pitches well out of the zone that generated a swing in that plot. If you want Hicks to swing, you have to come in the strike zone. He won’t get himself out by chasing off the plate.

What this extreme level of plate discipline does is get Hicks into better hitter’s counts. Hicks has 111 plate appearances this season and in 43 of them he’s seen a 2-0 or 3-1 count, or 39%. The MLB average is 23%. Hicks is nearly double that. And in hitter’s counts, Hicks is hitting .450/.744/.800 this year. That’s a 218 OPS+, on par with elite sluggers like Freddie Freeman (216 OPS+) and Kris Bryant (206 OPS+) when they’re ahead in the count.

Hicks has been so good at laying off pitches out of the strike zone this year that it almost can’t continue. Among players with at least 400 plate appearances, the lowest single season chase rate during the PitchFX era (2008-present) is 13.5% by 2010 Daric Barton. Marco Scutaro had a 14.0% chase rate in 2009. No one else is below 16.0%. Maybe Hicks can maintain his 13.7% chase rate. That’d be cool. Chances are it’ll climb though. In fact, it already has. From FanGraphs:

aaron-hicks-chase-rate

The fact Hicks has a history of strong plate discipline, including a 23.1% chase rate last year and a 21.3% chase rate for his career, suggests this isn’t a complete fluke, however. It’s not like Starlin Castro has suddenly turned into Joey Votto, you know? Hicks has always had plate discipline, and this year he’s cranked it up another notch. As a result, he’s seeing better counts, and doing more damage.

Even now, more than six weeks into the season, it’s still difficult to tell what is real improvement (or decline) and what is general baseball randomness. I want to believe the Hicks breakout is real and I think it is, but I don’t know that it is. The underlying data, specifically his complete unwillingness to expand the zone and history of plate discipline, suggest this could be real. For now, the hot start has happened, and Hicks has helped the Yankees win an awful lot of games early on. Good things happen when you swing at strikes and lay off balls.

Hal says the Yankees aren’t looking to trade away prospects, but they will be “active” in free agency

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

At the quarterly owners meetings in New York earlier this week, Hal Steinbrenner confirmed to Christian Red that no, the Yankees are not looking to trade away any of their top prospects at the trade deadline this year. They are open to adding pieces and will consider everything, but moving guys like Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier is not on the agenda. The same goes for other top young players.

Trading prospects may not be in the cards. Free agency though? The Yankees could be pretty busy once the winter rolls around, Hal indicated. Here’s what he told Red:

“I think we’ve been pretty consistent about not trading away the young talent the last three to four years. I think in part that consistency has paid off in several areas. So that’s not something I’m looking to do, is trade away all of our top prospects,” said Steinbrenner, who attended the MLB owners meetings in Manhattan Wednesday. “When you look at the young talent that we got (last summer), those deals were tough to turn down. Got some good young players.”

“I don’t know if I’d be more open to it, but I will absolutely divert all of my attention to any one deal that is brought across my table. That’s the way I’ve always been,” said Steinbrenner, who spoke to reporters in the lobby of 245 Park Ave. “I’ll do the research. I’ll read the scouting reports, I’ll talk to (general manager Brian Cashman), all of his people. And I’ll consider any option. We will be active in the free-agent market, I can assure you. To what degree, and in what areas remains to be seen.”

Brendan Kuty says Hal pointed out that whenever the Yankees have had money come off the books in recent years, they reinvested it in the team. And this offseason the Yankees are shedding a lot of salary. A lot. CC Sabathia ($25M) and Alex Rodriguez ($21M), most notably, plus Masahiro Tanaka ($22M) could opt-out too. Matt Holliday ($13M), Michael Pineda ($7.4M), and Tyler Clippard ($6.15M) will also be free agents. A few things to keep in mind though.

1. The luxury tax plan is still a thing! The Yankees will be “active” in free agency as long as it doesn’t jeopardize their plan to get under the $197M luxury tax threshold next year. They’ve been wanting to do it for a long time, and next season represents their best chance to do it. Hal even hedged a bit by saying it “remains to seen” exactly how active they will be. The Yankees sat out free agency completely two offseasons ago. That was a rarity. I don’t think that will happen again. I also don’t think they’re going to abandon the luxury tax plan either.

2. The Yankees will still have plenty to spend. My quick math says the Yankees have approximately $100M on the books next season for luxury tax purposes assuming Tanaka does not opt-out. Arbitration raises will add another $30M or so to that. Dellin Betances and Didi Gregorius are the major arbitration cases. Aaron Hicks and Adam Warren will get decent salaries as well.

That all adds up to roughly $130M for ten players. Fortunately guys like Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, Greg Bird, and Gary Sanchez will all be making something close to the league minimum as pre-arbitration-eligible players, and hooray for cheap production. Add in player benefits and other miscellaneous expenses, and the Yankees figure to have $45M or so in annual salary space left over for free agency. That’s a lot! They should be able to add some real nice pieces without bumping up against the luxury tax threshold next year. And if Tanaka opts out, forget it, they’ll have lots to spend.

3. The 2017-18 free agent class kinda stinks. Okay, great, so the Yankees will have a lot to spend. Where will they spend it? Pitching is the obvious spot. Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish are both scheduled to become free agents after the season, so I suppose the Yankees could make a big play for an ace. I would be surprised if the Yankees did that though. Arrieta kinda stinks now and Darvish had his arm cut open two years ago. Either way, here is the 2017-18 free agent class. Not the most exciting group of players. Having money to spend is only good as long as there’s somewhere reasonable to spend it.

4. The 2018-19 free agent class looms. The Yankees may be active in free agency this coming offseason, though I don’t think they’re going to do anything that endangers their a) plan to get under the luxury tax threshold, and b) ability to pursue Manny Machado and/or Bryce Harper during the 2018-19 offseason. Those guys are both superstars and they’ll hit free agency soon after their 26th birthdays. They fit the youth movement perfectly.

Because the Machado/Harper free agency class is looming, I think the Yankees could wind up focusing on one-year contracts this coming offseason rather than multi-year deals. They don’t necessarily have to be cheap one-year deals. We could see some pricey one-year contracts a la Holliday. But the one-year part is important. It’ll better allow the Yankees to spend big for Machado and/or Harper, especially with the luxury tax rate reset.

* * *

Free agency is an awful lot of fun, but we are getting a little too far ahead of ourselves here. The Yankees have started the regular season very well, so much so that they might actually be buyers at the trade deadline, even if they make top prospects off-limits. I feel like the Yankees may be heading for a 2014-esque deadline, one with a series of low cost pickups a la Brandon McCarthy and Martin Prado. Those moves could end up shaping the team’s free agency plan.

Trying to decipher Didi Gregorius’ post-victory tweets

Fun team is fun. (Presswire)
Fun team is fun. (Presswire)

Last night the Yankees did a number on Jason Vargas en route to an 11-7 win over the Royals. The Yankees extended their AL East lead to 1.5 games over the Orioles, and although that doesn’t mean a whole lot in May, it’s better than being 1.5 games back, isn’t it? Also, the Yankees boast the baseball’s best run differential at +63. That’s pretty cool.

Following last night’s win, Didi Gregorius fired off a celebratory tweet, as he does after just about every win. They all start with #StartSpreadingTheNews and end with WHAT A GAME too. Love it. Such a fun little tradition. Here is last night’s post-win tweet:

He’s got the #BigMike hashtag in there for Michael Pineda and … an old man emoji for Aaron Hicks? Hicks hit the three-run home run last night. The emoji has white eyebrows so yeah, it’s definitely an old man. What’s up with that? Is it because Hicks likes golf? That’s kind of an old man thing. Or maybe because he’s bald like the emoji? That’s it. It’s because Hicks is bald. Has to be.

Here is the tweet Didi sent out following Tuesday’s series-opening win over the Royals.

A squid for Gary Sanchez! Or is that an octopus? I think it’s a squid. Either way, Sanchez is the Kraken — he can thank Brian Cashman for that nickname — and the squid/octopus fits perfectly.

What about the rhino though? That’s Chris Carter. He hit the two-run home run Tuesday. Is Carter a rhino simply because he’s a big strong dude? Because he’s deceptively fast? Rhinos can run up to 34 mph, you know. The internet told me that. Is it because his eyesight is poor and he strikes out so much? Rhinos have bad eyesight too. That can’t be it. That’s too mean. I’m going to say Carter is a rhino because they’re both big and strong. Perhaps an ox emoji would have been better, but rhinos are cooler than oxen.

The Yankees came back for a win over the Astros in the first game of Sunday’s doubleheader, and between games Gregorius broke out the ultra-rare five emoji tweet to celebrate.

Okay, the first two are kinda easy. The star is Starlin Castro. He hit a two-run game-tying home run. The Judge is, well, Aaron Judge. He hit a solo shot to give the Yankees the lead as part of back-to-back homers with Castro.

Now we move on to the clown, who is Brett Gardner. He’s hit the other solo home run. To further confirm the clown=Gardner dynamic, here is the tweet Gregorius sent out after Gardner’s ninth inning game-winning home run against the Cubs two weeks ago:

That was a fun game, wasn’t it?

Anyway, you know why Gardner is the clown? I’ll tell you why. Because he’s the biggest jokester on the team. He’s the dude who pranks everyone and keeps the team loose. You wouldn’t think Gardner is that guy, but he is. Next time you’re at Yankee Stadium, pay attention to the between-innings entertainment on the scoreboard. There’s one skit in which they ask a bunch of players who the funniest guy on the team is, and to a man, they say Gardner. That’s why he’s the clown.

Okay, going back to the original May 14th tweet, we’re left with a fist and a red angry face. That’s … Chase Headley? He had the bases clearing triple that game. Has to be him. I have no idea why Headley is a fist and an angry red face. He doesn’t strike me as a fighter or a guy who gets mad a lot. Could it be because he’s intense? We’ve seen Headley get pretty fired up at times, either after a big hit or a big play or whatever. Example:

chase-headley-catch

I’m at a loss for this one. Headley as fist plus angry red face is a #thingtowatch. A developing situation.

Let’s now go back to May 6th, the middle game of that three-game sweep at Wrigley Field.

Two-run homer by the star (Castro)? Check. Three-run homer by the bald guy (Hicks)? Also check. That leaves the baby emoji in baby bomber, a phrase usually reserved for hitters, but in this case it goes to a pitcher, Jordan Montgomery. He pitched that day. 24-year-old Jordan Montgomery, who is 6-foot-6 and 225 lbs., is the team baby. Didi has spoken.

Okay, we’ve got one more postgame tweet and two more player-specific emojis to cover. Here’s the tweet:

May 3rd was the final game in the series against the Blue Jays, when the Yankees came back in the seventh inning against Joe Biagini. Gregorius drove in the go-ahead run with an infield single that game. He doesn’t have an emoji for himself, as far as I can tell.

Anyway, Judge smashed a two-run home run against Marcus Stroman that game — I guess there’s no short guy who finished his degree while rehabbing a torn ACL emoji? — so we get the judge emoji. The fire to close out the game? Aroldis Chapman. That one is easy.

That leaves us with the big biceps and expressionless face, which is Matt Holliday. He hit the three-run homer. Have you seen Holliday’s arms? They’re the size of my thighs. Holliday could give Joe Girardi a run for his money in the big arms contest. Judge too, for that matter. Ditto Clint Frazier whenever he gets called up.

What about the face though? Is it because Holliday never smiles? Now that I think about it, I can’t remember ever seeing him smile. He’s always super serious. That’s okay. He’s the grizzled veteran who was brought in to show the kids how to win and all that. It’s a serious job. I just enjoy that Didi decided a boring face emoji is most appropriate for Holliday.

The Yankees are off to a great start this season and this team is, rather easily, the most likeable group of players the Yankees have had in a long time. The young players are a big part of that, and Didi himself is a young player. He’s only 27. This team is so very fun and easy to root for, and after each win, Gregorius marks the occasion with a tweet. It’s the best. Love this team, you guys.

Yankees hammer Vargas, pick up 11-7 win over Royals

A quality, no nonsense win, this was. The Yankees came out Wednesday night, put a hurting on the MLB ERA leader, and cruised to an easy 11-7 win over Royals. The game didn’t feel as close as the final score indicates.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Big Two-Out Rally
I do love quick first inning leads on the road. Get on the board before the other team even has a chance to bat. Put them on the defensive right away. Love it. The Yankees did exactly that Wednesday night thanks to a Brett Gardner leadoff single and a Starlin Castro two-out double. Castro drove the ball off the wall in right field. Probably would have been a home run into the short porch in the Bronx. Either way, a 1-0 lead is a 1-0 lead.

It wasn’t until the fourth inning that the Yankees really broke the game open, and they scored all five runs that inning with two outs. I love two-out rallies too. All five runs were earned. Jason Vargas came into this start having allowed five earned runs total in his first seven starts and 44.2 innings of the year, giving him an MLB best 1.01 ERA. The Yankees put a nice dent in that. A lot happened in that fourth inning, so let’s recap it with an annotated play-by-play.

yankees-vs-royals-annotated-play-by-play(1) I thought Lorenzo Cain broke his wrist on Castro’s double. It was very 2006 Hideki Matsui-esque. Remember when Matsui broke his wrist attempting a sliding catch? Cain nearly did the same thing. He laid out to catch Starlin’s base hit, rolled over his wrist, and failed to complete the catch. The ball rolled away far enough that Castro advanced to second. Fortunately Cain was able to stay in the game. That was scary.

(2) I’m pretty sure the ball would have disintegrated on impact had Aaron Judge connected with either the 3-0 or 3-1 swings. He really cut it loose, but Vargas pulled the string with back-to-back changeups, and Judge was way out in front. Veteran pitcher got the best of the young hitter. Vargas threw a third straight changeup in the 3-2 count, and Judge spit on that one for ball four. Nice at-bat. Judge muscled up and tried to unload in the 3-0 and and 3-1 counts. Then he backed off in the 3-2 count.

(3) Didi Gregorius has really come a long way against left-handed pitchers the last year or so. He was pretty hopeless against them in the past, even during his first year in New York. Gregorius drove in the first run of the fourth inning by staying back on a two-out, two-strike breaking ball, and yanking it into right field. Very nice piece of hitting. In the past, Didi would have been close to an automatic out in that situation. Now he’s a threat.

(4) You done messed up that baseball A-A-Rod! I thought the Aaron Hicks homer was foul off the bat. I actually looked away from the screen while the ball was in flight because I expected it to sail foul. Instead, the ball stayed fair by a few feet, giving the Yankees their second, third, and fourth runs of the inning for a 5-0 lead. That was Hicksie’s seven home run of the season in his 108th plate appearance. He hit eight homers in 361 plate appearances last year.

(5) I love those tack-on runs after a three-run home run. In most cases, a three-run dinger with two outs would mean you’re done scoring that inning. The rally has been killed, so to speak. Chris Carter was able to get a ground ball single through the middle, then Gardner hammered a triple into the right field corner. Shout out to Jorge Soler for completely airmailing the cutoff man, allowing Carter to score. The play at the plate would have been really, really close had Soler hit the cutoff man. Tacking on that extra run after the big home run is always fun.

(6) I can’t believe Royals manager Ned Yost stuck with Vargas that entire fourth inning. He threw 49 pitches that inning. 49! The guy was making his 11th start back from Tommy John surgery and he’s one of your top a) starting pitchers, and b) trade chips prior to the deadline. Gotta protect that investment, yo. Yost really let Vargas wear it that inning. Good for the Yankees, of course.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Mediocre Mike
It’s kinda funny what qualifies as a poor start for Michael Pineda this season, isn’t it? He allowed four runs on six hits, two walks, and a hit batsman in six innings Wednesday, and the fourth run scored after he was out of the game. Pineda served up a two-run home run to Salvador Perez in the fourth inning, with the Yankees already up 6-0. He then allowed a solo homer to Whit Merrifield in the fifth, with the Yankees up 10-2. Garbage time shots, basically.

A clean single and two errors by Headley (on the same play!) ended Pineda’s night in the seventh. I was surprised Joe Girardi elected to send Pineda out for another inning given how hard he had to work to get through the sixth, but with a seven-run lead and fewer than 100 pitches thrown, why not, I guess. Pineda struck out five and was fighting his command, especially with his fastball. The slider was mostly okay. He did a nice job burying it down and away to righties.

This was only the second time in eight starts this year that Pineda allowed as many four runs in a start. He allowed four in 3.2 innings in his first start, then rattled off six straight outings with three runs or fewer. Starts like this one used to be the norm for Pineda. If he got the Yankees through six innings with only four runs allowed, it felt like things went okay. Now four runs in six innings is a bad start for Big Mike. He’s been rock solid overall this year.

The Big No-Out Rally
One inning after putting up a five-spot with two outs, the Yankees scored four runs with (mostly) no outs. Vargas was out of the game, having been replaced by Peter Moylan, who is still pitching, apparently. The inning went infield single (Castro), walk (Judge), RBI single (Headley), RBI single (Gregorius), walk (Hicks), RBI fielder’s choice (Carter), sac fly (Gardner). Four runs. Bang bang bang. (Bang.)

Carter was thrown out at the plate to end the inning on Gary Sanchez‘s single. He was originally called safe. The call was overturned on replay. The Yankees were up 10-2 at that point. I have no trouble pushing the envelope, even with Carter running. It was nice to see the Yankees keep the pressure on after that five-run fourth inning. Between the fourth and fifth, they sent 17 batters to the plate and scored nine runs, and had a guy thrown out at the plate.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Leftovers
Tommy Layne got a lefty out! It was Alex Gordon, who came into the game hitting approximately .100/.150/.125 (.164/.277/.204, really), but hey, the left-on-left matchup guy got a lefty out. Layne replaced Pineda, then Adam Warren replaced Layne. He allowed a sac fly to Alcides Escobar to give the Royals their fourth run before escaping the seventh inning. Warren tossed a scoreless eighth as well.

Gio Gallegos made a mess of things in the ninth inning, allowing three runs on five hits while getting only two outs. Three of the five hits came in two-strike counts. Not good, OG Gio. That’s no way to earn a spot in the Circle of Trust™. Girardi had to go to Dellin Betances to get the final out with the tying run on deck, and Dellin got Eric Hosmer to hit a weak tapper back to the mound to end the game.

Eleven runs on 16 hits for the Yankees, neither of which is a season high. Well, not true. The 16 hits ties their season high, which was set in the Mat Latos game. They’ve scored as many as 14 runs in a game this season though. Anyway, the Yankees scored double digit runs for the eighth time this season. No other team has done it more than six times. Last season the Yankees did it only nine times. Man do I love offense.

Not only did every starter have a hit, six of the nine starters had multiple hits. Judge, Headley, and Carter had only one hit apiece. The 1-2-3-4 spots in the lineup went a combined 9-for-18 with two doubles, one triple, and two walks. The Yankees went 5-for-14 (.357) with runners in scoring position overall. Have I mentioned I love offense? Because I love offense.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
Go to ESPN for the box score, MLB.com for the video highlights, then back to ESPN for the updated standings. Make sure you check out our Bullpen Workload page. Here’s the win probability graph:


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
The Yankees will look to complete the sweep in the series finale Thursday night. It would be their fourth three-game series sweep of the season already. They swept only four series of at least three games last year. Lefties Jordan Montgomery and Danny Duffy are the scheduled starting pitchers.

DotF: Rodriguez hits two homers in Scranton’s win

A few quick notes to get us started:

  • RHP Domingo German has been promoted from Double-A Trenton to Triple-A Scranton, reports Antonio Mendes. German has thrown only 23.2 innings in High-A and 33 innings in Double-A in his career. He missed all of 2015 and the first half of 2016 with Tommy John surgery.
  • RHP Domingo Acevedo has been promoted from High-A Tampa to Double-A Trenton, reports Mendes. Both Domingos are moving on up. Acevedo has thrown 91.2 innings at High-A between this year and last year. He struck out 106 and walked 24 in those 91.2 innings.
  • RHP Jonathan Holder has graduated to the big leagues, so SS Thairo Estrada has replaced him on MLB.com’s top 30 Yankees prospects list. Holder is exactly halfway to the 50-inning rookie limit, but he has lost rookie status by virtue of his service time (45 days outside September).

Triple-A Scranton (9-8 win over Pawtucket)

  • CF Mason Williams: 0-5
  • RF Dustin Fowler: 1-4, 1 R
  • 2B Rob Refsnyder: 2-4, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 RBI — 24-for-65 (.369) during his 17-game hitting streak
  • 1B Mike Ford: 1-4, 1 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI — 6-for-17 (.353) with two doubles and two homers in four games since the promotion
  • LF Clint Frazier: 2-3, 2 R, 1 RBI, 1 BB
  • DH Mark Payton: 2-4, 1 RBI, 1 K — 12-for-30 (.400) in his last nine games
  • C Eddy Rodriguez: 3-4, 2 R, 2 HR, 4 RBI, 1 K — two homers tonight, including the go-ahead two-run shot in the eighth, after hitting a walk-off homer Monday
  • RHP Luis Cessa: 7 IP, 5 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 3 BB, 6 K, 4/8 GB/FB — 60 of 100 pitches were strikes … 15 runs allowed in his last two starts and ten innings … he allowed ten runs in his first five starts and 29.1 innings
  • RHP Ben Heller: 2 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 R, 1 BB, 4 K, 1 WP, 2/0 GB/FB — 28 of 44 pitches were strikes (64%)

[Read more…]

Game 37: Battle of the Aces

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images North America)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images North America)

Who is the more unlikely “ace” between Michael Pineda and Jason Vargas? (It’s obviously Vargas, but bear with me.)

Pineda has already matched last season’s bWAR total in 134.1 fewer innings, and his 3.27 ERA is nearly a run and a half lower than the 4.60 mark he posted between 2015 and 2016. He’s in the top-ten in all of baseball in K%, BB%, and K-BB%, and he is first among Yankees starters in most every metric. It’s telling that his last start – a 6.2 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 1 BB, 7 K effort against the Astros – was viewed as something of a disappointment. This is something that we’ve long known that Pineda is capable of; he simply couldn’t put it together the previous two seasons.

And Vargas – he of the career 4.07 ERA and 97 ERA+ – leads the majors with a ludicrous 1.01 ERA (417 ERA+). He’s 34-years-old, and less than two years removed from Tommy John Surgery … and he’s allowed 0 or 1 run in 6 of his 7 starts. Vargas has done this with a fastball that sits right around 86 MPH, and a 39.7 GB%.

When the season began, nobody would have expected this match-up to be a potential pitcher’s duel – and yet here we are.

Here’s the Royals lineup for this evening. The Yankees will counter with:

  1. Brett Gardner, LF
  2. Gary Sanchez, C
  3. Matt Holliday, DH
  4. Starlin Castro, 2B
  5. Aaron Judge, RF
  6. Chase Headley, 3B
  7. Didi Gregorius, SS
  8. Aaron Hicks, CF
  9. Chris Carter, 1B

The first pitch is scheduled for 8:15 PM EST, and the game will be on YES.

Layne’s struggles make this Chasen Shreve’s best chance to stick with the Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

All offseason long, the Yankees were said to be seeking a left-handed reliever, which seemed a little odd considering Tommy Layne did a nice job for them down the stretch last year. By no means was Layne irreplaceable. It just seemed like there were bigger fish to fry, you know? The Yankees wound up passing on guys like Boone Logan and Jerry Blevins, and instead rolled the dice with Jon Niese and Joe Mantiply.

Thus far neither Niese nor Mantiply have pitched for the big league team, and Layne has been so shaky that he’s been relegated to mop-up duty. Only once in his last seven appearances has the score been separated by fewer than five runs. That’s how far down the depth chart he’s fallen. Layne was good late last year, but he is a 32-year-old journeyman, and those guys are as unpredictable as it gets. The Yankees were smart to look for more lefty relief help.

Layne’s early struggles have opened the door for Chasen Shreve to get left-on-left matchup work, and so far he’s been lights out. Lefties are 0-for-14 with four strikeouts and one unintentional walk against him. A small sample, of course, though lefty specialists only work in small samples. That’s the nature of the beast. Layne wasn’t working out — lefties are 6-for-16 (.375) against him — so Joe Girardi moved on Shreve. Makes sense, right? Right.

Two years ago Shreve looked like a potential long-term bullpen piece thanks to his nasty splitter, which allowed him to neutralize both lefties and righties. He served as a trustworthy middle innings option for the first four months of 2015 before crashing hard late in the season. I hoped it was just fatigue. Then Shreve allowed 19 runs, including eight homers, in 33 innings last year. He wound up spending most of the summer in Triple-A.

Is there any reason to believe 2017 Shreve will pitch more like early-2015 Shreve than 2016 Shreve? Eh, not really. It’s too early to say. He’s thrown only 9.2 innings with the Yankees this year, three of which game during the 18-inning game with the Cubs, so we haven’t seen him much. Shreve did dominate those few weeks he spent in Triple-A — 12 strikeouts and no walks in 6.1 innings — though that doesn’t mean much. It’s Triple-A.

More important than the small sample early season results are what lies ahead: another opportunity. Layne has pitched his way out of high-leverage spots, Niese is still in Tampa building arm strength, and Mantiply isn’t doing enough in Triple-A to earn an MLB chance. Like it or not, Shreve is Girardi’s best left-handed bullpen option now that Aroldis Chapman is on the disabled list. (Chapman wouldn’t be used in matchup situations anyway.)

These next few weeks might be Shreve’s last chance to stick with the Yankees and carve out a role in the bullpen going forward. He’s already burned his final minor league option this year, meaning when time comes to clear a roster spot next year, Shreve may find himself on the chopping block. He has to make himself valuable, not expendable. There’s no real competition right now. The left-on-left matchup job is his for the taking.

Keep in mind the bullpen shuttle as we know it is kaput. We’re not seeing relievers called up and sent down on a near daily basis anymore. The bullpen moves that have been made have been made due to necessity (injury, extra innings, etc.). Shreve should get a chance to stick around the next few weeks and show whether he’s up for being the primary left-on-left reliever. And maybe he’s not. He’s had chances before, after all. Given the available options though, Shreve is worth another audition.

I don’t think a lefty specialist is all that important to start with — how many lefty hitters in the AL East really scare you? Chris Davis, Andrew Benintendi, and, uh, Corey Dickerson? — but the Yankees clearly value the role, and they spent the winter looking for an upgrade. They didn’t find one, and now Layne pitched his way out of the picture. Shreve is not the only in-house option, but he might be the best, and he now has a chance to grab the job outright.