The Three Questions Facing Brett Gardner [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The last 12 months have been pretty eventful for Brett Gardner. He had a phenomenal first half last season, good enough to get him to his first All-Star Game. He then struggled big time in the second half, so much so that he (and the rest of the Yankees) were booed in the wildcard game. Then, after the season, Gardner’s name was floated in constant trade rumors over the winter.

The Yankees never did trade Gardner though, so he again reported to Spring Training as the starting left fielder and a key offensive table-setter. Even with that disastrous second half, Gardner hit .259/.343/.399 (105 wRC+) with 16 homers and 20 steals in 2015, plus he played strong defense. He’s no longer a Gold Glove caliber defender, but he is an asset in the field. Gardner’s two-way play is pretty darn valuable. There are still some questions heading into 2016. Big questions.

Is His Wrist Okay?

Little did we know, Gardner suffered a bone bruise in his left wrist making a catch during the wildcard game last fall. Here’s the video if you can’t remember the play:

The bone bruise lingered all through the offseason — perhaps that’s why the Yankees were unable to make a trade? — and was still an issue when Gardner reported to Spring Training. “We’ll start him out of the gate slow. Just more of a safe route,” said Brian Cashman earlier this spring. He added recent tests had shown “significant” improvement.

So the Yankees took it slow with Gardner, and it wasn’t until this Wednesday that he played in a Grapefruit League game. Gardner went 0-for-2 and, most importantly, he felt fine afterwards. He did have his wrist wrapped in ice after the game according to Brendan Kuty, but that’s not really surprising. Gardner’s still receiving treatment. They call it “prehab.” Many players literally sit in a tub of ice water after games to help their bodies recover.

Last season Gardner battled wrist trouble after being hit with two pitches in a short period of time, thought that was the other wrist. He took the two pitches to the right wrist. Now the left is acting up. So far he seems to be doing well in camp — Gardner progressed from hitting off a tee to hitting in a cage to batting practice to live batting practice to a game — and that’s good news. Wrist injuries are always scary though, and if this thing lingers into the season, it could really impact Brett’s production.

Is He Going To Steal More Bases?

Back in 2010, his first full season as a big league player, Gardner stole 47 bases and finished third in the AL behind Juan Pierre (68) and Rajai Davis (50). The next year he stole 49 bases and tied with Coco Crisp for the league lead. Gardner lost almost the entire 2012 season to injury, but from 2013-15, he stole only 24, 21, and 20 bases. That’s still a healthy amount. It’s just not an eye-popping number.

Gardner attempted a stolen base in 24.6% of his opportunities — a stolen base opportunity is define as being on first or second base with the next base unoccupied — from 2010-11, well above the 5.6% league average. From 2013-15, his attempt rate dropped to 10.9%, which is still above the 6.7% league average, but not by much. (Teams are attempting more steals as offense declines.) Gardner’s success rate is still fantastic (78% from 2013-15), he just doesn’t run as often.

“I can’t necessarily pinpoint what it is, but obviously I was a little less aggressive,” said Gardner to Mark Feinsand. “You can’t steal 40-something bases if you don’t try to steal 40-something bases. I think all that starts with getting on base more often, trying to get my OBP north of .350 and doing a good job of being consistent and setting the table for these guys at the heart of the order … I think for the most part I’ve done a good job of trying to do that and being smart about when we run but we’re always looking for ways to improve.”

The general lack of steals and Gardner’s hesitation when stealing bases has earned him the “bad base-runner” label, which is a load of crap. Brett takes the extra base (first-to-third on a single, move up on a wild pitch, etc.) at a rate far better than the league average (48% from 2013-15; average is 39%), and his +14.9 base-running runs are the 13th most in baseball since 2013. Gardner’s a very good base-runner. The lack of steals doesn’t make him bad.

Stealing bases is a young man’s game. The 2016 season will be Gardner’s age 33 season, and only seven players have stolen 30+ bases in their age 33 season since 2000. (Only one has stolen 40+ bases.) Expecting Brett to get back to stealing 40+ bases like he did from 2010-11 is unrealistic. Players his age rarely do it. The stolen base aging curve (via Mike Podhorzer) doesn’t lie:

Stolen Base Aging Curve

The blue line represents all players. The red line represents players who had at least one season with 20+ steals in their career, like Gardner. Historically the peak ages for steals are 23-27. After that, it’s a steady decline. Or in the case of former speedsters, a rather steep decline. The speed just isn’t there any more and all those years of stealing bases and diving back into first base on pickoff throws take a toll.

Remember, Gardner has had injuries to both wrists in the last 12 months, and stealing bases is dangerous. It’s a good way to get stepped on or jam your fingers or whatever. I can’t imagine the Yankees are eager to have Gardner attempt a bunch of stolen bases after nursing a bone bruise in his wrist for the last five months. Gardner says he wants to be a little more aggressive this year and that’s fine. At this point of his career he’s a 20-25 stolen base guy though. Nothing more.

How Does He Avoid Another Bad Second Half?

There’s no sugarcoating it: Gardner’s second half slump last season was brutal. He hit .206/.300/.292 (66 wRC+) after the All-Star break, which ranked 146th out of 156 qualified hitters in terms of wRC+. Wrist problems or not, Gardner was awful in the second half, and it has become a bit of a pattern.

First Half Second Half
2013 .272/.338/.422 (109 wRC+) .274/.354/.403 (110 wRC+)
2014 .279/.353/.424 (122 wRC+) .218./286/.417 (95 wRC+)
2015 .302/.377/.484 (137 wRC+) .206/.300/.292 (66 wRC+)
Career .283/.360/.421 (115 wRC+) .236/.326/.351 (88 wRC+)

Gardner had no dip in performance in the second half of 2013. In 2014 he had a pretty substantial dip, and in 2015 it was even bigger. He lost 71 points of wRC+ between the first and second halves this year. Sheesh. Gardner has been hurt the last two second halves — he had the wrist problem after the hit-by-pitches in 2015, and in 2014 he played through an abdominal injury so severe it required offseason surgery — but no one wants to hear that because it sounds like an excuse.

Regardless of what happened from 2014-15, the Yankees and Joe Girardi have said they want to find a way to keep Gardner (and everyone else) productive all season, and they hope to do that with extra rest. Aaron Hicks was brought in to be the fourth outfielder, and since he’s a switch-hitter, Girardi can play him against both righties and lefties. Chris Young was awesome last season, but you did not want him at the plate against a right-handed pitcher.

Gardner has played at least 1,150 innings in the outfield in five of the last six seasons, and the only time he didn’t was 2012, the year he barely played due to an elbow injury. That’s a lot of running around and fatigue is a very real factor, especially now that he’s approaching his mid-30s. I don’t know if there’s a magic number. Gardner has played 145+ games in five of the last six seasons, so maybe now he’s more of a 130 games a year player. That sound okay?

The key to avoiding another second half slump is health, first and foremost. Bad wrists or bad abdomens or whatever are no good for baseball playing. Managing fatigue is also important, and it’s up to Girardi to do that, because Gardner’s is not the kind of guy who will ask for a day off or give something less than his all on the field.

“I’m going to continue to play hard, but I am going to try to play smart. If it’s 13-2, don’t dive into first or run into a wall,” said Gardner to Kevin Kernan. “(Playing hard) got me to where I am today. I’m not going to turn the volume down.”

Mailbag: Hitter/Pitcher Combos, Gossage, Ackley, Olson

Got eleven questions for you in this week’s mailbag. Remember to use the RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com email address to send us anything. Questions, comments, links, money, whatever.

... okay. (Patrick Smith/Getty)
… okay. (Patrick Smith/Getty)

J.J. asks: Which team has the best pitcher/hitter combo? I’m talking one pitcher and one hitter. Am I crazy to think Chicago might dominate, with both the White Sox, with Abreu and Sale, and the Cubs, with Arrieta and Bryant, as frontrunners? Maybe Keuchel/Correa? King Felix/Cano? What do you think? Also, what is the answer for the Yankees – Chapman/Teixeira?

The first pairing that jumped to my mind was Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey. I’d probably go with Anthony Rizzo over Kris Bryant with Jake Arrieta, but Bryant works too. Carlos Correa and Dallas Keuchel’s another good one. How does this look for a top ten ranking?

  1. Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer
  2. Paul Goldschmidt and Zack Greinke
  3. Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner
  4. Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole
  5. Anthony Rizzo and Jake Arrieta
  6. Carlos Correa and Dallas Keuchel
  7. Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez
  8. Mike Trout and Garrett Richards
  9. Jose Abreu and Chris Sale
  10. Michael Brantley and Corey Kluber

I’m not missing anyone obvious, am I? I also considered Yoenis Cespedes/Matt Harvey and Robinson Cano/Felix Hernandez. A year ago Cano/Felix would have been right near the top, but both showed signs of slowing down last year, enough to scare me away long-term. For what it’s worth, ZiPS has Harper/Scherzer as the best at +12.9 WAR in 2016. Corey Seager/Clayton Kershaw is a distant second at +11.4 WAR. (ZiPS loves Seager.)

Who would the Yankees submit for this list? I can’t in good conscience put a reliever in a best hitter/best pitcher combination. That’s just sad. Mark Teixeira and Masahiro Tanaka? Jacoby Ellsbury and Luis Severino? I’d go with Teixeira/Tanaka.

Sal asks: Mike, Regarding a question you answered today about Aaron Judge (and Swisher) and possible move to 1B due to Bird Injury, you mentioned moving to a more or less valuable position. Could you rank the 8 defense positions from Most Value to Least Value?

Bill James did a ton of work on the defensive spectrum back in the 1980s. The general consensus is the positions are ranked like so, from most valuable to least valuable:

  1. Catcher
  2. Shortstop
  3. Second Base
  4. Center Field
  5. Third Base
  6. Right Field
  7. Left Field
  8. First Base

There’s room for debate here. I tend to think first base is more important than left field, for example. Historically, the first baseman handles the ball approximately six times more often than the left fielder over the course of the season. Catcher is kind of in its own little world too. It’s not like the other positions where you wait for the ball to be hit to you. Otherwise it’s pretty straight forward, right? Up the middle positions first, corner positions with long throws next, corner positions with short throws after that.

Chris asks: What are your thoughts on Harper’s comment baseball is ‘Tired’? And shouldn’t Gossage go play golf instead of judging today’s players?

I thought Harper’s comments were on point. The game is evolving, and these days MLB is filled by young players and players from all around the globe. Expecting them to act the way players acted 30, 40, 50 years ago is not realistic. MLB wants to grow the game among younger fans and the way to do that is by letting players be themselves. Let them bat flip, let them pump their first. This is baseball and it should be fun.

As for Gossage, his rant(s) came straight out of the “the game was so much better when I played” textbook. Nerds? Check. Bat flips? Check. Instant replay? Check. He hit on all of it. Gossage was teammates with Reggie Jackson. Did he have a problem with his showmanship? He was teammates with Rickey Henderson too.

Rickey Henderson

Gossage is entitled to his opinion and we all know he’s not the only ex-player who hates bat flips and stats and all that other stuff. He’s from a different generation and this is what Harper was talking about when he said the game is tired. That way of thinking is outdated. Baseball can either continue to embrace the old school mentality and lose younger fans to other sports, or they can get with the times. No sport clutches its pearls quite like baseball.

Matt asks: What is your reaction to Chris Sale apparently “ripping into” Ken Williams over the LaRoche debacle?

That seems very bad. First and foremost, a player shouldn’t be chewing out the team president. That shows a lack of control on the team’s part. Secondly, Sale is the most irreplaceable player in the White Sox organization, even morso than Williams, so when he’s this upset about something, it’s a problem. I do wonder if some players privately complained to Williams about Adam LaRoche’s kid and that’s what brought this all about, because otherwise it makes no sense.

Does the team change their policy if LaRoche hits 30 homers last year? Why change the policy in the middle of March? Players consider the clubhouse their space. They don’t like others getting involved in what happens there, so the Sale incident is a symptom of a larger problem. The White Sox have a very unhappy clubhouse right now — by all accounts LaRoche was super popular and a beloved teammate — and it’s up to manager Robin Ventura to smooth things over.

Brian asks (short version): I appreciated your lineup analysis piece and I don’t understand Girardi’s fascination with platooning Gardner. Hicks should absolutely play against every lefty, but shouldn’t it be at the expense of either Beltran (wRC+ (2015-2012): 99, 51, 100, 129)) or Ellsbury (83, 131, 77, 75) over Gardner (112, 97, 102, 446(SSA!))?

There’s more to this than the platoon splits. Ellsbury is on a huge contract and Carlos Beltran‘s a borderline Hall of Famer, so they’ve received the benefit of the doubt when it comes to playing time against left-handed pitchers. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. I also think Joe Girardi likes to give Brett Gardner regular rest because he always seems to be banged up. That’s just his style of play.

Benching Ellsbury in the wildcard game could be a sign Girardi will be more open to sitting him against lefties, but remember, that came after three terrible months, and even then Girardi said he had to think hard about it. I’m not going to hold my breath. I expect Aaron Hicks to play a lot this year. This could be a situation where Ellsbury and Gardner each start only three out of every four games, with Hicks picking up the slack. Gardner shouldn’t automatically sit against lefties, though Girardi has leaned that way over the last few years.

Keith asks: Are you aware of any scientific or enlightened approach by front offices or players to figure out what size/weight bat should be used? Obviously the goal is to maximize bat speed and bat weight but of course the the two don’t go hand in hand.

I am not but that sounds pretty interesting. That would be highly specialized — each player is different, you can’t have a one size fits all approach with something as important as the bat — and require a lot of research. Players are very particular about their bats too. They find a model they like and stick with it pretty much their entire career. Convincing them to change would be tough. I suspect it would be like most new ideas. Some players would be interested while others wouldn’t want to hear it.

Anonymous asks: I know it would never happen because you have to appease your stars, but would Baltimore be better off with Trumbo at first and Chris Davis in RF? After all, he played 30 games there last year, and Boras DID market him as a ‘potential corner outfielder’. (wink, wink)

Yes, I do think so. I even mentioned that when I whipped up our CBS post on the Alvarez signing. Davis has been stereotyped as a lumbering one-dimensional slugger, but that’s not the case. He’s a surprisingly good athlete for his size and he’s a very good defender at first base. Over the last few years he’s shown he can handle right field with no problem. Is Davis the rangiest outfielder? No. But he can make all the routine plays. Mark Trumbo can’t do that. Trumbo at first with Davis in right and Alvarez at DH is the best defensive alignment for the O’s. Instead, they’re going to play Trumbo in right and Davis at first, and that’s good for the Yankees given their lefty pull hitters and Baltimore’s all-righty rotation.

Rich asks (short version): With the recent talks about the DH being implemented in both leagues, and the absurd uproar about losing the double switch as a strategic tactic, why can’t MLB just amend the double switch rule to incorporate the DH?

I like it. The idea would be to treat the DH spot as the pitcher’s spot, so the Yankees could start Alex Rodriguez at DH and Beltran in right field, then double switch Hicks into A-Rod‘s lineup spot as the right fielder and slide Beltran to DH. I like the idea. It would maintain some of the “strategy” old school folks love — hopefully my simple DH loving brain will be able to grasp the immense complexity of the double switch — and give managers another tool. I’ve never really understand why the DH isn’t treated like every other position, allowing managers to move players in and out throughout the game. I would be surprised if MLB went for something like this. It just seems like someone would fight it for some reason.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Bart asks: If CC Sabathia continues with the same poor results, shouldn’t the Yankees propose a buy-out of his current contract with possibly a deferral of some of the salary to future years? Would CC consider this rather than continuing to perform poorly for another year (or 2)?

They could try, but why would Sabathia agree? Unless you think Sabathia is willing to just walk away from baseball — Michael Cuddyer and LaRoche just did it, so it’s not impossible — there’s no reason for him to agree to a buyout. Sabathia is a top notch competitor and baseball is the only thing he’s known his entire adult life. I have a hard time thinking he’ll just walk away. He’s going to do whatever he can to help his team even though he’s a shell of his former self.

Mike asks: Why does Ackley’s name never seem to come up in conversations about backup third basemen? Does he not have the arm for it?

Right. Dustin Ackley does not have the arm for third base. He barely has the arm for second base at this point. Ackley never had a strong arm to start with, but he had Tommy John surgery in college, and since then it’s been lob city. Considering the Yankees were willing to try both Starlin Castro and Rob Refsnyder at third base this spring, I’m guessing they would have given Ackley a shot there as well if they thought it was possible. The arm strength just isn’t there. That’s too bad. Ackley would be really useful if he could play the right side of the infield.

Julian asks: Does Tyler Olsen have a legit chance to make the Opening Day bullpen?

I’m starting to think he might. Olson has allowed two hits and three walks in 5.2 scoreless innings this spring, and two of the three walks were in his first outing. He’s struck out four overall and lefties are 0-for-8 against him. Olson is a pure lefty specialist with an upper-80s heater and a sweepy slider, so his usefulness is limited. Also, he had a phenomenal spring for the Mariners last year (12.2 IP, 8 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 15 K) then got destroyed in the regular season after making the Opening Day roster (5.40 ERA and 6.36 FIP), so beware Grapefruit League numbers. Right now I think Olson is on the outside looking in, but if he pitches well these next two weeks, he might just sneak onto the roster.

Open Thread: March 17th Camp Notes

The Yankees won their third straight Grapefruit League game this afternoon, beating the Pirates 7-2. Masahiro Tanaka really labored in his two innings, allowing two runs on four hits. He also threw over 50 pitches. Yikes. After the game Tanaka told Bryan Hoch his fastball command stunk. Luis Severino came out of the bullpen and allowed two hits in four scoreless innings. He fanned five.

Starlin Castro and Rob Refsnyder both clubbed two-run home runs (hooray second base depth!) with Castro’s clearing the batter’s eye in center field. How about that? Dustin Ackley had a pair of knocks — he’s yet to strike out in 25 plate appearances this spring — while Brian McCann and Chase Headley had one each. Nice day for the offense. Here is the box score, here are the video highlights, and here are the rest of the day’s notes from Tampa:

  • The upcoming rotation: CC Sabathia (Friday on TV), Michael Pineda (Saturday), and Ivan Nova (Sunday on TV). Pretty soon the guys will be going four or five innings. [Hoch]
  • Girardi is not yet ready to name Tanaka his Opening Day starter. “My thought process now is I don’t anticipate it being a problem, but let’s just wait,” said the skipper. [Hoch]
  • Aaron Hicks was scratched from today’s lineup with a stye. He went to see the eye doctor. I’ve never had a stye, but I know they’re annoying as hell and kinda gross. Hopefully this clears up in a few days. [Hoch]
  • Slade Heathcott, meanwhile, did not play today because he missed the bus to Bradenton. Not ideal, Slade. [Anthony Rieber]

This is tonight’s open thread. This afternoon’s game will be shown on tape delay on MLB Network at 6am ET tomorrow morning, if you’re going to be awake. ESPN is showing the Diamondbacks and Cubs right now, MLB Network will show the Giants and Padres live later tonight, all of the local hockey and basketball teams are in action except the Knicks, plus there’s a bunch of college hoops on as well. Feel free to talk about your bracket being busted.

Yankees have no plans to put Cito Culver on the mound

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It has been six years since the Yankees selected shortstop and Rochester native Cito Culver with their first round pick in the 2010 draft (32nd overall), and since then he’s lost his prospect status because he’s been unable to develop offensively. Culver is a career .228/.306/.313 (80 wRC+) hitter in over 2,600 minor league plate appearances. Baseball is hard.

There has been some speculation — from fans, mostly — the Yankees may soon try Culver on the mound since his has a strong arm and the bat isn’t developing. The team has no plans to do so, however. Here’s what farm system head Gary Denbo told Chad Jennings earlier this week:

“No,” Denbo said (when asked about moving Culver to the mound), without hesitation. “No, he’s a valuable guy. It’s difficult to find guys with his defensive abilities, so he’s got value as a player that can move around the field and play defense for us. Overall, his value eventually will be determined by how well he makes these offensive adjustments.”

Culver, now 23, did pitch back in high school. In fact, I remember when the Yankees drafted him, his MLB.com draft video was him pitching, not playing shortstop. I can’t find the video now, unfortunately. (UPDATE: Commenter ZachA found the video. Here it is.) Here’s a snippet of Baseball America’s pre-draft scouting report (subs. req’d):

Culver’s best tool is his arm, which rates as a 65 on the 20-80 scouting scale. Some scouts report seeing him up to 94 mph off the mound, but he has no interest in pitching.

The hitter-to-pitcher conversion is fairly common — current Yankees farmhand Luis Cessa and ex-Yankee Esmil Rogers are converted shortstops — and it’s really never too late to make the transition. Former outfielder Jason Lane made the transition at 35 and actually reached the big leagues as a pitcher, so there’s no such thing as too late.

The Yankees have a full infield at Triple-A Scranton, so it seems like the best case scenario for Culver this year is being Tyler Wade’s double play partner at Double-A Trenton. That will only happen if the team decides to give Abi Avelino more time in High-A, however. Denbo called Culver an “Infield 5 player,” which sounds like a nice way to say utility infielder.

Culver will be a minor league free agent after the season, and middle infielders are always in demand, so I’m sure he’ll find another job somewhere around the league next winter. Can he reach the show as an infielder? It seems unlikely. I wonder if Cito will decide at some point to give pitching a try in hopes of reaching the show. Right now though, that is not the plan, so another year on the infield it is.

A Full Season of Nasty Nate? [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees saw two versions of Nathan Eovaldi last season. They saw the frustrating, hit prone version with good stuff and bad results. Then they saw the guy with swing and miss stuff and the ability to dominate a lineup. The difference was the splitter and the numbers do not lie: Eovaldi had a 4.95 ERA (3.95 FIP) with a 15.8% strikeout rate without the splitter and a 3.46 ERA (2.90 FIP) with a 20.2% strikeout rate with it.

Elbow inflammation ended Eovaldi’s season in early-September last year, though he healed up and was ready to go as a reliever had the Yankees advanced to the ALDS. (He didn’t have time to stretch out to start.) Eovaldi has been throwing 98-99 mph in his two Grapefruit League starts, so the elbow’s healthy. Now the Yankees can look forward to having a full season of the good version of Eovaldi, the guy with an out-pitch splitter. Here are three questions I have for 2016.

Can He Pitch Deeper Into Games?

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild had Eovaldi start the season with a true forkball so he could get used to having his fingers so far apart on the baseball. After a while he shortened him up to the splitter grip, which is when he took off. With the forkball grip, Nate averaged 3.78 pitches per plate appearance. With the splitter grip, he averaged … 4.06 pitches per plate appearance. The split didn’t make him more efficient.

Right now, it’s more than fair to say Eovaldi is a five and fly pitcher. He made 27 starts last year and he completed six full innings only eleven times. Nasty Nate was a drain on the bullpen. He was able to give some more length after learning the splitter, but not much more. That’s the next item on the development checklist. Learn how to pitch deep into games and become a 200-inning horse.

How does that happen? Eovaldi’s walk and overall strike rates are fine, so he’s not a guy who nibbles. He’s just a guy who gives up a lot of foul balls, and I’m not sure how to correct that. Change in pitch selection? Again, Eovaldi’s first pitch strike rate was good, so he has no trouble getting ahead in the count. He has to figure out how to finish hitters off in a timely fashion. This is something for Eovaldi and Rothschild to figure out. I’m just the messenger, you guys.

Is He Going To Use His Curveball?

When he reported to Spring Training, Eovaldi said he intends to work on his curveball in camp, though we haven’t really seen it yet. (Only two starts though.) I’m not sure working on a fourth pitch is worth the effort, but hey, if it’s something he can improve, great. The curve could be the key to getting some quicker outs and pitching deeper into games.

Eovaldi has two good pitches already in his fastball and splitter, and his slider is effective now that it’s his third pitch and not his second pitch. Spring Training is the time to mess around, though I feel like any time spent on the curveball would be better spent on the slider. The curve has been that bad all throughout his career, dating back to high school. Meh, I guess there’s no harm in trying. Maybe Rothschild can figure something else. Four-pitch Eovaldi would be something. I’d be happy with three good pitches Eovaldi.

Can He Keep The Ball In The Park Again?

Last summer Eovaldi allowed only ten homers in 154.1 innings, which is nutso. He allowed one more homer than Luis Severino in 92 more innings. Eovaldi had a 0.58 HR/9 and a 7.8 HR/FB% last year, which seems totally unsustainable in Yankee Stadium, except his career rates are 0.63 HR/9 and 7.1 HR/FB%. His home/road split was non-existent too:

Home: 0.57 HR/9 and 8.1 HR/FB%
Road: 0.59 HR/9 and 7.5 HR/FB%

Eovaldi’s ground ball rate was well-above-average last year (52.2%) but not insanely so. He’s not Dallas Keuchel or anything like that. (Keuchel in 2015: 61.7 GB%, 0.66 HR/9, 13.6 HR/FB%.) It’s weird. For all the hits he can give up, hitters rarely square Eovaldi up and hit the ball in the air with authority. His career homer numbers are fantastic, and we’re talking about a guy with over 600 career innings.

Would it be a surprise if Eovaldi’s home rate jumped this season simply because of Yankee Stadium? Of course not. A windy night could turn two lazy fly ball outs into two cheap short porch homers. Clearly though, Eovaldi has some kind of homer suppressing skill. Maybe it’s just the pure velocity; hitters can’t get around on Eovaldi’s fastball quick enough to really square him up. After all, most rallies against him look like this:

Nathan Eovaldi Red Sox rally2

Single after single, grounder with eyes after grounder with eyes. It almost seems like hitters get just enough of the pitch to find a hole, but not enough to do major damage. Even while pitching his home games in Yankee Stadium, Eovaldi held opponents to a .093 ISO last summer. Here is the full list of pitchers who held hitters to a sub-.100 ISO in 2015 (min. 150 IP):

  1. Jake Arrieta – .086
  2. Zack Greinke – .089
  3. Clayton Kershaw – .089
  4. Tyson Ross – .092
  5. Nathan Eovaldi – .093
  6. Gerrit Cole – .097
  7. Dallas Keuchel – .097
  8. Sonny Gray – .099

That is some company, eh? Keep doing that, Nate. This pitching thing will work out for you.

* * *

The Yankees have all sorts of injury questions in their rotation, so Eovaldi is one of their healthier starters by default. Masahiro Tanaka has the partial ligament tear in his elbow, CC Sabathia‘s knee is bone-on-bone, and Michael Pineda‘s shoulder was cut open not too long ago. Eovaldi is almost a decade removed from Tommy John surgery, and since then he’s only had a little inflammation here and there.

Eovaldi just turned 26 years old and he’s two years away from free agency. This is a big year for him. It’s the year to establish himself as a big time pitcher, someone who can use his splitter to get above-average results and throw a lot of innings. The Yankees go to great lengths to give their starters extra rest, so they’re doing their part. Now it’s time to see if the splitter really is the cure-all it seemed to be.

Spring Training Game Thread: McCann Returns

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Four days after taking a foul tip to the knee, Brian McCann returns to action this afternoon and will indeed squat behind the plate. He’s not easing back into things as the DH. This seems like one of those injuries McCann would have played through during the regular season, but because it’s Spring Training, the Yankees gave him a few days. No reason to push it.

On other news, Masahiro Tanaka is on the mound this afternoon, making his third start of Grapefruit League play. I imagine he’s scheduled for something like four innings and 60 pitches. Tanaka has two more spring starts after this one and he remains on track to start Opening Day. All good news so far. Here is the Pirates’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. SS Starlin Castro
  2. RF Carlos Beltran
  3. C Brian McCann
  4. 3B Chase Headley
  5. 1B Dustin Ackley
  6. 2B Rob Refsnyder
  7. LF Chris Denorfia
  8. DH Carlos Corporan
  9. CF Slade Heathcott
    RHP Masahiro Tanaka

Available Pitchers: RHP Luis Severino, according to Chad Jennings. With Tanaka going four innings and Severino presumably ready to go five innings, those two might be the only pitchers the Yankees use this afternoon.

Available Position Players: Not sure, sorry. None of the reporters in Florida have tweeted out photos of the lineup card the last few days, so we’re in the dark. Surprises are fun anyway. It’s like Christmas morning.

It’s a nice Florida spring afternoon in Bradenton, meaning sunny, temperatures in the 80s, and just enough humidity to make fans stick to their seats. There is no YES broadcast or live MLB Network broadcast of today’s game. If you’re in the Pirates’ home market, you can watch on ROOT Sports. Otherwise your only option is MLB.tv. MLB Network will show the game on tape delay at 6am ET tomorrow morning. Yeesh. I love baseball, but I’m not waking up that early to watch it. Enjoy the game.

Building the Most Sensible Lineup for the 2016 Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last night, the Yankees used something that looked awfully close to their projected Opening Day starting lineup. The only regular not in the lineup was Brian McCann, who is still nursing a sore knee after being hit by a foul tip over the weekend. It’s nothing serious. He’ll be back in a day or two. No reason to push it in mid-March.

As a quick reminder, here is the starting lineup the Yankees ran out there against the Blue Jays last night:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Brett Gardner
  3. RF Carlos Beltran
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. DH Alex Rodriguez
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. 2B Starlin Castro
  8. SS Didi Gregorius
  9. C Gary Sanchez

I’m guessing a healthy McCann slots in at No. 6 behind A-Rod, bumping the other guys down a spot. That’s pretty close to the lineup the Yankees used for most of last season — the most common Yankees’ lineup last year was used only nine times, so yeah — which makes sense because almost none of the personnel has changed. Castro replaced Stephen Drew. That’s the only difference.

Obsessing over the lineup on a day-to-day basis is not really my thing anymore, though I do think it would be instructive to look over the projected batting order and try to figure out who fits best in each spot. The Yankees have a pretty straightforward lineup. We don’t have to rack our brains too much.

The Leadoff Man

This is the easiest, most predictable spot in the lineup. Ellsbury is going to hit leadoff. Against righties, against lefties, whatever. The Yankees are paying Ellsbury an awful lot of money to set the table and he was one of the most productive leadoff men in the game as recently as last May. The only time Ellsbury won’t hit leadoff this coming season is when he gets a day off. Right? Right. Next.

The Two-Hole

An lot of studies over the years have shown the No. 2 spot is the most important spot in the lineup. The No. 2 hitter gets the second most at-bats on the team and is responsible for both driving in runs (when the leadoff man reaches base) and setting the table (for the middle of the order). Ideally your best all-around hitter hits second. Who is the Yankees’ best all-around hitter? Beltran? I dunno.

An argument can be made Gardner is the team’s best hitter, at least when he’s healthy. He did hit .302/.377/.484 (137 wRC+) in the first half last season, after all. Gardner batted second most of last year and he fits that spot well because he can mash the occasional dinger and he’s one of the club’s best on-base guys. Prior to Ellsbury’s injury last year, he and Gardner were dominant from the 1-2 spots. They were on base a combined seven times a game it seemed.

Joe Girardi has discussed using Castro as his No. 2 hitter against lefties, which makes sense from a “he hits right-handed and Girardi likes to sit Gardner against lefties for some reason” point of the view. The problem? Castro hit .281/.304/.339 (76 wRC+) against lefties last year and .265/.309/.366 (86 wRC+) against lefties the last three years. Against lefties Gardner hit .276/.361/.400 (112 wRC+) in 2015 and .262/.337/.395 (104 wRC+) from 2013-15.

There also this: Castro is a big time double play candidate. He’s downright Jeterian with the double plays. Starlin had a 54.1% ground ball rate last year, 12th highest among the 141 qualified hitters, and throughout his career he’s banged into a twin killing in 16% of his opportunities. The league average hovers around 11% each year. Yes, Ellsbury steals bases, but he’s not going to steal every time he reaches base. Castro’s double play ability will short circuit a lot of rallies.

The way I see it, Starlin should show he’s an asset against lefties before giving him a primo lineup spot. Don’t give him the benefit of the doubt just because he’s a righty. When Gardner does inevitably sit against southpaw, Aaron Hicks would be a better No. 2 hitter option than Castro. Hicks hit .307/.375/.495 (139 wRC+) against lefties in 2015 and .272/.360/.447 (125 wRC+) against them the last three years. The Gardner/Hicks platoon is the best No. 2 option.

The 3-4-5(-6) Hitters

We know who is going to hit in the 3-4-5-6 spots: Beltran, Teixeira, A-Rod, and McCann. The only real question is how those four players should be ordered. I have two opinions:

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

1. Teixeira should hit cleanup. He is is not only the Yankees’ best power hitter, he’s also one of their best on-base guys, which serves the team well whenever he leads off the second inning after the top of the lineup goes down in order in the first. Fourth is a good spot for him. You don’t want Teixeira batting any lower because it means fewer at-bats, and you also don’t want to hit him much higher because you want as many men on base as possible when he hits. Plus he’s a switch-hitter. He’s the perfect cleanup hitter.

2. McCann should hit sixth. At this point of his career, McCann is basically a grip it and rip it hitter. That’s not a bad thing, but all the fly balls — his 36.1% ground ball rate was 18th lowest among the 141 qualified hitters in 2015 — are not conducive to a high batting average. McCann has hit .236 with a .309 OBP and a .241 BABIP in over 2,000 plate appearances the last four years. Yes, he has a lot of power, but out of the four guys projected to hit in the middle of the lineup, McCann is the worst at not making outs. He’s great at capping off rallies with a dinger. He’s not so great at extending rallies.

That leaves Beltran and A-Rod for the No. 3 and 5 spots. If Rod hits like he did from April through July, you want him hitting third. If Beltran hits like he did from mid-May through the end of the season, you want him hitting third. Rodriguez did hit more homers than Beltran (33 to 19) and was better overall last season (129 to 119 wRC+), so maybe bat him in the three-hole. I’m not sure there’s a wrong answer here, though I do think Alex gives you a better chance at quick first inning offense with the long ball. So I guess that means my 3-4-5-6 hitters go Rodriguez-Teixeira-Beltran-McCann.

The Bottom Third

I know Castro is the new hotness and everyone is excited about him, but the reality is he barely out-hit Stephen Drew last season (80 to 76 wRC+). That level of production is not so fluky either; Castro had a 74 wRC+ back in 2013. He did sandwich a 117 wRC+ between those two awful seasons in 2014, and surely the Yankees hope that’s the Starlin they’ll get going forward. Until then, I think he has to hit near the bottom of the lineup.

In fact, the best lineup might have Gregorius batting eighth and Castro batting ninth to break up the string of lefties in the wrap-around 9-1-2 portion of the lineup. We saw more than a few teams bring in a lefty reliever and leave him in for a full inning against that part of the lineup last year. Said reliever was staying in even longer when Drew was in the lineup and McCann was hitting fourth. Teams could get two innings out of their left-on-left reliever no problem.

Headley was the best hitter of the three last season and projects to be the best hitter of the three this season (per ZiPS), so seventh is where he belongs. Personally, I’d like to see Didi hitting eighth and Castro hitting ninth for “break up the lefties” purposes, but I have a hard time thinking the Yankees will bat their big offseason pickup ninth. Not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. We’re nitpicking.

So after all of that, I think the most sensible Yankees’ lineup looks something like this:

  1. Ellsbury
  2. Gardner vs. RHP and Hicks vs. LHP
  3. Rod
  4. Teixeira
  5. Beltran
  6. McCann
  7. Headley
  8. Gregorius
  9. Castro

Like I said, Castro’s probably going to hit eighth with Gregorius ninth. That’s the only real difference between my preferred lineup and what is likely to happen. Beltran and A-Rod might flip spots depending who is swinging better at the time. Not batting Starlin second against lefties is the only thing I feel strongly about. That’s a mistake in my opinion. Let him force the issue before bumping him up.

Recent research has shown that, generally speaking, the difference between the most optimal batting order and the worst batting order is a win or two across a full season. Wins are important! But we’re not talking about a difference of ten wins here. The Yankees have a pretty easy to put together lineup, and as long as Girardi doesn’t do something silly like bat A-Rod eighth or Castro leadoff (which he won’t), the Yankees will have a solid offense on the field.