Ackley & Hicks: The New & Important Bench Players [2016 Season Preview]

Smackley. (Presswire)
Smackley. (Presswire)

Since the end of last season, Joe Girardi and the Yankees have said they need to give their regulars more rest going forward so they remain productive all season. Last year’s second half offensive collapse was not something anyone wants to go through again. More rest is the key — or at least the Yankees think it’s the key — which means the bench will be vital in 2016.

The Yankees currently have two open bench spots: the backup catcher and the backup third baseman. The other two spots will be occupied by fourth outfielder Aaron Hicks and utility man Dustin Ackley. Both are former tippy top prospects — prior to the 2010 season, Ackley ranked 11th and Hicks ranked 19th on Baseball America’s top 100 list — who fell out of favor with their former teams, so the Yankees scooped them up while their stock was down. Where do they fit this season? Let’s preview.

The Super Utility Guy

I am irrationally excited about Ackley heading into the season. I know I shouldn’t be, but dammit, I have that bug. Ackley tweaked some things at the plate after coming over last year and he’s hitting rockets all over the field this spring. (Ackley struck out for the first time yesterday, in his 32nd plate appearance.) The raw hitting ability is there, we saw it late last season, and Ackley being good now would be wonderful for Mariners trolling purposes.

In all seriousness, the Yankees acquired Ackley because at worst, he was an upgrade over Garrett Jones, and at best, he’s an everyday player with first round talent. His arm prevents him from playing the left side of the infield, but Ackley will back up at first and second bases, and also serve as the fifth outfielder. He’s also a left-handed hitter with the propensity to pull the ball in the air. I mean, look:

2013: 32.2% pull / 27.0% fly balls
2014: 37.4% pull / 36.6% fly balls
2015: 43.5% pull / 40.3% fly balls

That is exactly the kind of batted ball profile and trend that will play in Yankee Stadium. Like I said, I’m irrationally excited to see what Ackley can do this season. The problem: when is he going to play? He plays positions that are pretty well occupied.

For Ackley to get playing time, he’s either going to have to force the issue with his bat, or hope the Yankees are true to their word when it comes to giving the veteran players more rest. Spots could always open via injury, but no one wants that. It seems like the best case scenario for Ackley is one game at first base and one game at second base a week. His only outfield time figures to come in blowouts or in emergencies. Not great, but what can you do?

Bench players can be hit or miss because they don’t play regularly and for the most part they work in small sample sizes. Unpredictable things happen under those circumstances. If nothing else, Ackley offers the illusion of upside — he just turned 28 and he is former top prospect — and is a versatile left-handed bat. If he’s nothing more than the 24th man on the roster, so be it. I think there’s the potential for more.

The New Fourth Outfielder

The Yankees had a great fourth outfielder last season. Chris Young annihilated lefties, held his own against righties, and played rock solid defense. He was awesome. It was also kind of tough to expect similar performance going forward. Last season was Young’s best offensive year overall since 2009 and his best year against lefties ever. The Yankees didn’t want to bet two years and $13M he would do it again. The Red Sox did.

Hicksie. (Presswire)
Hicksie. (Presswire)

Instead, the Yankees acquired Hicks from the Twins in exchange for John Ryan Murphy. Hicks is only 26, he has four years of team control remaining, he’s a switch-hitter, and he’s an outstanding defender with a cannon arm. That is a pretty desirable player, wouldn’t you say? Hicks has yet to gain consistency at the MLB level — Minnesota did him no favors by skipping him right over Triple-A — which is why he was available. The Twins got tired of waiting.

There are indications Hicks is close to breaking out. He added a leg kick last season and improved his selectivity; PitchFX data shows he swung at way more pitches in the zone without substantially increasing the number of swings he took on pitches out of the zone. Hicks is a switch-hitter who has been better from the right side of the plate, and now he’s moving into ballpark that rewards left-handed hitters.

The Yankees are planning to play Hicks and play him often. As you know, the plan is to give the veteran players a little more rest this season, and that includes the starting outfielders. “I think Hicks has a chance to help those guys in spelling them and keeping them healthy and strong,” said Girardi at the Winter Meetings. Because he can switch-hit, Girardi doesn’t have to worry about platoon matchups when playing Hicks. Because he can play all three outfield spots, Girardi also can keep his regulars in their normal positions.

Last season Young batted 356 times and appeared in 140 games — he started 77 games — so the playing time will be there, especially since the plan is to rest the other outfielders a little more often. I could totally see a scenario in which Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury start four out of every five games in the outfield, and Carlos Beltran starts three out of every five games in the outfield. Something like this:

Day One: LF Gardner, CF Ellsbury, RF Beltran (Hicks on bench)
Day Two: LF Gardner, CF Ellsbury, RF Hicks (Beltran on bench)
Day Three: LF Hicks, CF Ellsbury, RF Beltran (Gardner on bench)
Day Four: LF Gardner, CF Hicks, RF Beltran (Ellsbury on bench)
Day Five: LF Gardner, CF Ellsbury, RF Hicks (Beltran at DH)

That make sense? Gardner, Ellsbury, and Hicks would be starting four out of every five games in the outfield, and Beltran would be starting three out of every five games in the outfield plus one more at DH. The Yankees would effectively have four regular outfielders. Hicks would be getting as much playing time as the veterans.

It’s not quite that simple, of course. At some point someone is going to get hot and it’ll be tough for Girardi to take that player out of the lineup. It’s going to happen a bunch of times across a 162-game season. That rotation seems like a great idea until, say, Gardner is on a 15-for-30 hot streak and the Yankees have lost four of five because they’ve scored eight runs total, know what I mean? You know that’s going to happen at some point.

The Yankees want to develop Hicks into an everyday player and that’s not going to happen without at-bats. They want to rest the regulars and they want to play Hicks. This seems like it will be simple enough. Will it work? We’ll see. Hicks needs to build on the strides he made offensively last season and continue to play excellent defense, because even when he doesn’t start, he’s going to come off the bench to replace Beltran in the late innings.

The Yankees won’t say it, but the rotation is already lined up for the regular season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Opening Day is only ten days away now. Soon the mundane monotony of Spring Training will be replaced by meaningful games that have a real impact on the standings. We can celebrate wins and lament losses. The very best and the very worst thing about baseball is that it’s every day. Soon the every day games will mean something.

Joe Girardi and the Yankees have not yet announced their rotation for the start of the season, which is not a big deal at all, though they do seem to be going to great lengths to keep the rotation order secret. The team claims the fifth starter’s spot is up for grabs and the closest Girardi has come to announcing Masahiro Tanaka will start Opening Day is that we “could surmise” it.

“We’ve kind of thought about (the rotation order), but because we had so many things we were dealing with when we came back this spring, we didn’t have anything set in stone,” said Girardi to Chad Jennings yesterday. “We’re starting to try to line them up. Obviously you have to figure out who your Opening Day guy is, and then you go from there. We have to iron out the fifth starter situation, too. We don’t have an exact order yet, but we’re happy with where the guys are.”

The rotation is not like the lineup. You can’t just move pieces into different spots on different days. Pitchers are on schedules and they have their throw days, they need a certain amount of rest, all that stuff. Especially this late in Spring Training. It’s a little too late in the game to be shifting pitchers around and disrupting schedules, you know? This is how the rotation is lined up at the moment:

Tuesday, March 22nd: Luis Severino (Nathan Eovaldi in a minor league game)
Wednesday, March 23rd: Tanaka
Thursday, March 24th: CC Sabathia
Friday, March 25th: Ivan Nova
Saturday, March 26th: Michael Pineda
Sunday, March 27th: Severino or Eovaldi (guessing Eovaldi starts to give Severino an extra day of rest)
Monday, March 28th: Severino or Eovaldi
Tuesday, March 29th: Tanaka and Sabathia in split squad games
Wednesday, March 30th: Nova
Thursday, March 31st: Pineda and a spot starter (Bryan Mitchell?) in split squad games
Friday, April 1st: Severino or Eovaldi (would have to be whoever starts the 27th)
Saturday, April 2nd: Severino or Eovaldi
Sunday, April 3rd: off-day

That lines Tanaka up to start Opening Day, April 4th, with an extra day of rest, which the Yankees prefer. April 5th is the typical post-Opening Day off-day, then Pineda is lined up perfectly to start the second game of the season on April 6th. He’s currently two days behind Tanaka on the spring schedule. Severino and Eovaldi are then lined up for the third and fourth game of the season — I’m guessing the veteran Eovaldi starts before the kid Severino — then Sabathia or Nova are in line for the fifth game. Make sense?

Will the Yankees actually start Sabathia in the fifth game of the season? It’s possible, sure. They would also have the option to start him earlier, perhaps in the third game of the season, given the way the schedule is laid out. Tanaka, Pineda, and Sabathia started the first three games of last season in that order. I guess Sabathia’s place — assuming he gets the rotation job, of course — could depend on the matchups. Would the Yankees rather have him face the Astros at home in the first series of the season, or the Tigers in Detroit in the second series?

My educated guess right now is the Yankees will start the season with Tanaka on Opening Day, followed by Pineda, Eovaldi, Sabathia, and Severino in that order. Should Nova actually beat out Sabathia for a rotation spot, as unlikely as that may be, I think he would be the fifth starter and Severino the fourth. I still have a hard time believing that will happen, but who knows. Maybe the Yankees will stash Sabathia on the DL to give him an extra long Spring Training.

In the grand scheme of things, the rotation order on Opening Day doesn’t mean a whole lot. The rotation at the end of the season and heading into the postseason is far more important. The Opening Day start is more ceremonial than anything. The Yankees are keeping their rotation a bit of a secret right now, which is fine. Given the way the pitching schedule is laid out right now though, it’s easy to see how things line up. Now the Yankees just have to make it official.

March 23rd Camp Notes: Ellsbury, Miller, Slade, Williams

The Yankees got spanked 13-0 by the Nationals earlier this evening. They committed four errors in the eighth inning alone, two by Cesar Puello. Ah, spring baseball. Masahiro Tanaka had his second straight rough outing, allowing seven runs on nine hits and a walk in four innings. He struck out three. Tanaka has one more Grapefruit League start to get things straightened out.

Not much happened offensively. Brett Gardner had two hits, and Dustin Ackley, Austin Romine, Rob Refsnyder, and Chris Denorfia had one each. Gardner also threw a runner out at the plate. This was some uninspired baseball. Here is the box score, here are the video highlights, and here are the day’s notes from Spring Training:

  • Jacoby Ellsbury (wrist) hit off a tee and soft toss today, and said he was “very happy” with the way things went. He is tentatively scheduled to play tomorrow, but he’s going to take batting practice first and they’ll see how he feels. [Chad Jennings, Erik Boland]
  • Michael Pineda threw his between-starts bullpen session and Andrew Miller threw a simulated inning. That’s notable because Miller pitched in last night game. This was his first time pitching back-to-back days this spring. [Jennings]
  • Slade Heathcott has a sore right (non-throwing) shoulder. It’s the kind of thing he could play through during the regular season, but there’s no reason to push it in March. Mason Williams (shoulder) is still taking batting practice and throwing from 90 feet. That’s all right now. Domingo German (elbow) has resumed throwing bullpens. [George King, Jennings]
  • Joe Girardi said “you could surmise” Tanaka will be the Opening Day starter. This is getting so silly that I assume it’s on purpose. Tanaka’s been lined up to start Opening Day since his first Grapefruit League appearance. [Ryan Hatch]
  • Shane Hennigan posted the day’s minor league lineups and workout groups, if you’re interested. Wilkerman Garcia is listed under rehabbing players for whatever reason. He was working out on the minor league side earlier in camp. Not sure what happened there.

The Yankees have another night game tomorrow, at home against the Rays. There is no broadcast for that game. CC Sabathia is the scheduled starter.

Spring Training Game Thread: Tanaka on the Road

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Masahiro Tanaka is making the fourth of his five Grapefruit League starts this afternoon. He says he’s been struggling with fastball command this spring, which makes sense. He’s coming off surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow and command is usually the last thing to come back following elbow surgery. Tanaka has two starts to iron it out.

In other news, Austin Romine is starting behind the plate, which is pretty notable. Romine caught Nathan Eovaldi in a minor league game yesterday and he’s catching Tanaka today. He’s also batting higher in the lineup than Gary Sanchez. I’m not saying Romine’s definitely getting the backup catcher’s job, but there are more and more signs pointing in that direction with each passing week.

The Yankees made the long cross-state trip to Viera to play the Nationals this evening. As you can imagine, they didn’t bring many regulars. They’re not going to send guys on long bus trips this late in camp if at all possible. Here is the Nationals’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. CF Aaron Hicks
  3. 2B Dustin Ackley
  4. C Austin Romine
  5. 1B Chris Parmelee
  6. DH Gary Sanchez
  7. 3B Rob Refsnyder
  8. RF Chris Denorfia
  9. SS Ronald Torreyes
    RHP Masahiro Tanaka

Available Pitchers: RHP Johnny Barbato, RHP Luis Cessa, RHP Nick Goody, LHP Tyler Olson, RHP Nick Rumbelow, RHP Anthony Swarzak, LHP Tyler Webb, and RHP Matt Wotherspoon are all on the trip according to Chad Jennings. I’m not sure who is scheduled to pitch after Tanaka though.

Available Position Players: C Carlos Corporan, C Francisco Diaz, IF Deibinson Romero, IF Pete Kozma, IF Tyler Wade, IF Donovan Solano, IF Jose Rosario, OF Cesar Puello, OF Juan Silva, and OF Lane Adams are all on the trip, says Jennings. No idea who’s going to come off the bench to play.

Today’s game will begin just after 5pm ET and the internet tells me it is mostly sunny with temperatures in the mid-70s in Viera. There is no YES Network broadcast of today’s game, but you will be able to watch live on MLB Network and MLB.tv. There is no blackout for either, so yes, you watch on MLB Network in New York. And also MASN if you live in the Nats’ home market. Enjoy the game, ladies and germs.

A-Rod planning to retire following the 2017 season

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

This is not surprising but it’s still a bummer. Alex Rodriguez told Andrew Marchand today he is planning to retire following the 2017 season, once his current contract expires. “I won’t play after next year. I’ve really enjoyed my time. For me, it is time for me to go home and be dad,” he said. Is he the first player to announce his retirement two years in advance? Probably. That’s so A-Rod.

I have long assumed A-Rod’s playing career would end following the 2017 season one way or the other. Either he was going to retire and walk away, or teams would straight up collude him out of the game Barry Bonds style. He’s still persona non grata around the league, though the Yankees seem to be softening up a bit. Not that they have much of a choice.

Rodriguez has first ballot Hall of Fame credentials, though there is almost no chance he’ll be inducted into Cooperstown. He admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs with the Rangers from 2001-03 and he was suspended the entire 2014 season due to his ties to Biogenesis. Bonds and Roger Clemens were never suspended and they haven’t come close receiving enough votes for the Hall of Fame. Hard to think Alex will get in.

A-Rod will turn 41 this July and he is one of the best players in history by any objective measure. He’s third all-time in RBI (2,055), fourth in home runs (687), 12th in bWAR (118.9), and 21st in hits (3,070). Rodriguez is only 27 dingers behind Babe Ruth for third on the all-time list, so he could pass the Great Bambino in the second half of this season. Hitting the 76 homers needed to pass Bonds for the all-time lead is unlikely but not completely impossible, I suppose.

During his eleven years with the Yankees — A-Rod has played more games with the Yankees (1,444) than he did with the Mariners and Rangers combined (1,275) — Alex has won two MVPs (2005 and 2007) and helped the team to the 2009 World Series title. He was a major factor in that 2009 postseason run too.

That homer is a top five moment in new Yankee Stadium history, right? The 2009 World Series, Derek Jeter‘s farewell walk-off and his 3,000th hit, Mariano Rivera‘s farewell … what else is there? Love him or hate him, damn has it been fun to watch A-Rod over the years. He’s a baseball playing machine.

A two-year farewell tour would be the most obnoxiously awesome thing ever, but that’s not going to happen. I’m not even sure A-Rod will get a one-year farewell tour. Either way, Rodriguez is one of the best players in history and he still has plenty of fans even though most seem to hate him. I’m going to miss Alex. Baseball will be way less interesting without him.

Year Three of the McCann Era [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Earlier this week the crew at FanGraphs started their annual Positional Power Rankings series. In a nutshell, they rank all 30 teams by position using a combination of projection systems. Love or hate projections, the posts are always super informative, and it’s the best place to look over each team’s depth chart at a position in one convenient place.

The Yankees ranked third at the catcher position in the Positional Power Rankings. The Buster Posey led Giants were predictably in the top spot, then the Dodgers and the projection friendly Yasmani Grandal were No. 2. The Yankees were No. 3 because of Brian McCann, and I thought Jeff Sullivan’s write-up was interesting:

I think there’s this vague sense that McCann has been a disappointment in New York, so maybe seeing the Yankees so high in the rankings is an important reminder. McCann, predictably, gets his batting average absolutely slaughtered by his ground balls, because there’s no way he’s going to run out a grounder he pulls into the shift, but he still draws walks and he still mashes a baseball every now and again. Throw in defensive ability that hasn’t completely deteriorated, and McCann looks like a plus. However frustrating it is to watch a guy hit into the shift over and over, one shouldn’t overlook everything McCann is still able to do for his team. He’s not toast.

That seems pretty accurate, no? McCann has been very productive in pinstripes and I still kinda get the sense folks feel he could be doing more. After all, he hit .256/.336/.461 (122 wRC+) in his final season with the Braves. In his two years with the Yankees, he’s been a .232/.303/.421 (99 wRC+) hitter despite moving from spacious Turner Field to homer happy Yankee Stadium.

McCann turned 32 last month and he’s approaching the age when most catchers begin to turn to pumpkins. He’s been freakishly durable throughout his career — McCann has started 100+ games behind the plate in eight of the last nine years — so he’s been able to avoid the injuries usually associated with the position. At the same time, that’s an awful lot of wear and tear. McCann’s been a big league starter since he was 21 years old. He’s caught nearly 11,000 innings in the show.

By now we all know what McCann is about offensively. He takes aim for the short porch and tries to pull the ball to right field, even when he’s on the road. His strikeout rate (16.2% from 2014-15) is sneaky good, he’ll take his walks, he’s prone to lazy fly balls, and yeah, he pulls grounders into the shift. McCann’s been doing that for a while. He’s hit .232 with a .236 BABIP the last two years. He hit .242 with a .249 BABIP the previous two years. This is who he is. A low average, high power hitter.

McCann, somewhat surprisingly, has turned into a lefty masher with the Yankees. He hit .292/.324/.526 (138 wRC+) against southpaws in 2014 and .241/.331/.422 (108 wRC+) in 2015. That’s new. Lefties ate McCann up his last few years in Atlanta. Do it once and I’m inclined to say it’s a one year blip. Do it two years in a row and there’s something to it. McCann’s no longer a guy who can be automatically neutralized by a lefty specialist.

At this point I kinda feel I know what to expect from McCann at the plate. He’s going to hit around .230, walk enough to put his OBP a bit north of .300, and slug 20-something homers. That sound right? The potential for age-related (and catcher-related) decline can not be ignored at this point. Otherwise I’m pretty sure we know what to expect from McCann offensively. The questions have more to do with the other aspects of the game.

So, About That Pitch-Framing

Anecdotally, McCann seemed to struggle blocking balls in the dirt last season, at least moreso than he did in 2014, but the numbers don’t bear that out. In fact, Baseball Prospectus’ new catching metrics say McCann was baseball’s best at blocking balls last year at +0.6 runs saved. How about that? I never would have guessed.

One part of McCann’s defensive game that did decline, at least according to the numbers, was his pitch-framing. He’s long been considered one of the best framers in the game and the numbers backed it up throughout his career. Last year though, his pitch-framing took a big step back according to both StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus:

StatCorner, 2013: +9.9 runs
StatCorner, 2014
: +11.4
StatCorner, 2015: -2.5

Baseball Prospectus, 2013: +10.2
Baseball Prospectus, 2014
: +9.7
Baseball Prospectus, 2015: -3.9

That’s a pretty big drop, huh? I don’t full buy into the pitch-framing numbers — it’s obviously a valuable skill, though I’m not convinced we’re measuring it accurately yet — the same way I don’t fully buy into any defensive numbers. I like to use defensive stats directionally, and the numbers say McCann went from being a far-above-average framer to below-average last summer.

This might not be the result of a decline in McCann’s skills, however. Jeff Sullivan seemed to find evidence umpires are rebelling against framing, so to speak. Several top framers like McCann, Jonathan Lucroy, Hank Conger, and Rene Rivera all saw their framing numbers dip big time from 2014 to 2015. Umpires are aware of pitch-framing, and it’s almost as if they made sure catchers with reputations for being good framers didn’t get those extra strikes last year.

Pitch-framing can be difficult to observe — the entire point is to be as quiet and discrete as possible, you don’t want the umpire to see the glove move too much — and I didn’t notice any sort of decline in McCann’s receiving ability. What do I know though. The number say his framing was not as good as it was in the past. Is it a one year blip? Are the umpires sticking it to catchers around the league? Did McCann actually decline? We’ll inch closer to an answer in 2016.

Is It Time To Lighten His Workload?

Like I said earlier, McCann is 32 years old and he’s caught a ton of innings in his career. Here are the innings caught leaderboards over the last few seasons:

2011-15
1. Yadier Molina — 5,508
2. Miguel Montero — 5,343
3. Russell Martin — 5,075.1
4. Kurt Suzuki — 5,008
5. Brian McCann — 4,815.1

2006-15
1. Yadier Molina — 10,723.1
2. Russell Martin — 10,574.2
3. Brian McCann — 10,302.1
4. A.J. Pierzynski — 10,229
5. Kurt Suzuki — 8,993.2

John Ryan Murphy played about as well as you could reasonably expect a backup catcher to play last season, and McCann still caught 72% of the team’s innings. His 1,042.1 innings were sixth most in MLB. That’s a function of wanting McCann in the lineup as much as possible because of the offense he provides.

McCann has three years at $17M per season left on his contract, and at some point the Yankees have to begin scaling back his workload to prevent him from completely cratering at the plate. Not every catcher stays productive into their mid-to-late-30s like Jorge Posada. Very few do, in fact.

“You try to keep it around somewhere between 100 and 120 games. 120 is pushing it a little bit. You know, he wants to play every day, and sometimes I’ve got to tell him, ‘You’re going to take a day here,'” said Joe Girardi at the Winter Meetings when asked about McCann’s workload. “But I think you see how he’s doing … I know his bat is important to us and I have to keep him healthy.”

The Yankees will have a new backup catcher this summer regardless of who wins the job this spring, and I’m not sure Girardi will be as comfortable with his new backup as he was with Murphy. It can take a while for a young player to earn trust, especially at a position as important as catcher. Does that mean McCann will continue to carry a heavy workload?

This might not be the year to scale back McCann’s workload behind the plate. He could end up catching those 120-ish games again as the Yankees break in Gary Sanchez, who is their next long-term catcher even if he doesn’t win the backup job this spring. Girardi has talked about resting all of his veteran players more often this year and I assume that includes McCann. That he plays such an important position makes it difficult.

McCann is vitally important to the Yankees, which creates a Catch-22. Girardi wants to play McCann as much as possible because the Yankees are better when he’s in the lineup. He also must be cognizant of his age and the wear and tear of catching — Joe’s an ex-catcher, he knows what’s up — and give McCann regular rest to keep him fresh all summer. It’s a difficult balancing act.

Yankees hoping Aaron Judge takes to his new leg kick as quickly as Ben Gamel took to his

Gamel. (Photo via @SWBRailRiders)
Gamel. (Photo via @SWBRailRiders)

After spending four seasons as an interesting but under-tooled prospect, outfielder Ben Gamel broke out in a big way last year, hitting .300/.358/.472 (138 wRC+) in 129 Triple-A games. It was his first try at the Triple-A level. Gamel led the farm system in hits (150), triples (14), and extra-base hits (52). That earned him a spot on the 40-man roster after the season.

Gamel, 24 in May, did all of that after hitting .261/.308/.340 (80 wRC+) in 131 Double-A games in 2014. The Yankees selected him in the tenth round of the 2010 draft and his innate hitting ability kept him on the prospect radar — Keith Law called Gamel a sleeper prospect way back in 2012 — but at some point the production had to come, and it finally did last year.

That production came after Gamel and hitting coach Marcus Thames did some tinkering, reports Chad Jennings. Thames was Gamel’s hitting coach with Double-A Trenton in 2014 and Triple-A Scranton in 2015, and they changed some things during the 2014-15 offseason. From Jennings:

What changed last year? Gamel said it’s pretty easy to pinpoint. He and hitting coach Marcus Thames decided to add a leg kick, which made it easier to get his hands in the right spot.

“Last offseason, Marcus and I decided we were going to try this,” Gamel said. “That’s what I worked on all last offseason, and I came into spring training last year and was like, it feels good. He liked where I was at and just rolled with it, more than anything. Getting my timing, getting my game reps with it, things like that. It worked out.”

Leg kicks are obviously very common, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Some players have big leg kicks (Matt Holliday jumps to mind), some have small leg kicks (Albert Pujols), and some are in between. Every player is different and every leg kick is different, but at the end of the day, all leg kicks are timing mechanisms.

Minor league video below the Triple-A level can be tough to find, so here’s the best clip I can find of Gamel at Double-A in 2014, before the leg kick (video link):

Ben Gamel 2014 leg kick

Not great, but the clip does the job. Gamel has no leg kick there at all. It’s almost more of a toe tap than a leg kick. His stride is basically non-existent. Some hitters can hit like that. (Pujols did in his prime.) Gamel managed to get to Double-A with no leg kick, but that level gave him trouble, and no MLB club felt he was worth a Rule 5 Draft pick selection in December 2014.

According to Gamel, he and Thames added the leg kick during the 2014-15 offseason, so he was using it in Spring Training last season. The video confirms that. Here he is in Spring Training a year ago (video link):

Ben Gamel 2015 leg kick

That’s an ugly swing and a miss against a left-handed breaking ball (hey, it happens), but the point is the leg kick is there. Gamel went from no leg kick in 2014 to a pretty generic looking leg kick in 2015. He still has that leg kick too. I’m not making another GIF, but here’s video of Gamel and his leg kick this spring. After the season he had in 2015, why wouldn’t Gamel stick with it? He had a ton of success and the leg kick provides a tangible reason for his breakout.

Gamel is about to enter year two with his leg kick. Aaron Judge, the Yankees’ top prospect, is about to enter year one with his. We noticed he added a leg kick in the very first Grapefruit League game this spring, and Judge says it’s designed to “help with my timing.” Hitting coach Alan Cockrell and minor league hitting coordinator James Rowson were behind that adjustment, not Thames. Judge and Thames only spent a half-season together in Triple-A last year. Gamel and Thames were together for two straight years.

In Judge’s case, he’s working to improve one very specific flaw in his game, and that’s combating soft stuff away. Triple-A pitchers picked him apart by getting him to reach last year. Gamel has had success in the past — he hit .306/.342/.394 (104 wRC+) as a 20-year-old in Low-A in 2012 — but he had a hard time finding his way from 2013-14. He needed more of an overhaul. What he was doing wasn’t working at all. Judge has had success everywhere but Triple-A and only needs to fine tune.

Judge. (Presswire)
Judge. (Presswire)

Gamel took to the new leg kick instantly last year — he went 18-for-43 (.409) with six walks and five strikeouts in his first 12 games in 2015 — and that’s pretty much the best case scenario. He added the leg kick and it instantly clicked. Not all adjustments happen that way. It’s not uncommon for players to struggle initially as they implement new mechanics, either at the plate, in the field, or on the mound. The Yankees hope Judge can avoid those initial issues.

Judge and Gamel are both Triple-A outfielders, though they have different long-term outlooks. Judge is the top prospect, the guy the Yankees hope will anchor their lineup for years to come. Gamel is more of a role player. It would be awesome if he became more than that, the Yankees would happily take it, but they’d also be pretty thrilled if he became a the left-handed half of a platoon. That’s a great outcome for a tenth round pick.

Baseball is a game of never-ending adjustments. Last year Gamel had to make some sort of adjustment to avoid becoming an afterthought and having his career stall out. This year Judge is looking to correct a flaw in his game so he can be the best player he can be at the next level. Both players wound up incorporating leg kicks, and with any luck, Judge will have the same instant success with his new leg kick as Gamel did a year ago.