DotF: Mateo steals fifth base, makes first start in center field

Two quick notes:

  • There have been some rumors going around that LHP Justus Sheffield and RHP Chance Adams are hurt, but they’re not. Not sure where that all started. Sheffield is pitching tomorrow and Adams is pitching Thursday, both for Double-A Trenton, according to Matt Kardos. Sheffield’s first start was pushed back by the rainouts late last week.
  • The Yankees have released 1B Connor Spencer, according to Matt Eddy. He was their eighth round pick in 2014. Spencer hit .303/.368/.387 in parts of three minor league seasons. Between college and pro ball, he hit six home runs in 368 games from 2012-16. A first baseman needs a little more pop than that.

Triple-A Scranton (6-0 loss to Lehigh Valley)

  • DH Mason Williams: 0-3, 1 BB, 1 K — final game in the organization? the Yankees need to clear a 40-man roster spot for LHP Jordan Montgomery tomorrow
  • RF Clint Frazier: 1-3, 1 BB — Shane Hennigan says he took too wide a turn around first base on the single and was thrown out before he could get back to the bag
  • CF Dustin Fowler: 1-4, 2 K — off to a 3-for-20 (.150) start
  • LF Mark Payton: 3-4, 1 2B, 1 K, 1 E (throwing)
  • RHP Chad Green: 5 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 8 K, 4/3 GB/FB — 63 of 95 pitches were strikes (66%) … he was supposed to start today for Double-A Trenton, but once Montgomery got called up to MLB, the Yankees put him here

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Tuesday Night Open Thread

Once again, the Yankees had an off-day today. I’m getting sick of off-days. This is the fourth off-day in the last eleven days. Thankfully the daily grind begins in earnest tomorrow. Tomorrow afternoon the Yankees begin a stretch of 18 games in 20 days. Twelve of those 18 games are at home too. Good chance to get comfy in Yankee Stadium and string together some wins, I’d say.

This is the open thread for the evening. The Mets are playing, ESPN is showing the Cardinals and Nationals, and MLB Network will have a regional West Coast game later tonight. Talk about those games or anything else here, as long as it’s not religion or politics.

Jordan Montgomery’s big chance

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the first time this season, the Yankees have changed their pitching plans. Rather than wait until April 16th to use their fifth starter, Joe Girardi announced Jordan Montgomery will be called up to start Wednesday’s game, giving Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia an extra day to rest. They both worked hard in their starts over the weekend and the Yankees don’t want to push them too much, too soon.

The 24-year-old Montgomery will be making his MLB debut Wednesday after opening eyes in Spring Training. He wasn’t an unknown going into camp — at least not among the RAB faithful! — but he certainly wasn’t first in line for a rotation spot. Luis Severino, Bryan Mitchell, Luis Cessa, and Chad Green all made starts for the Yankees last year and were understandably considered the favorites.

Montgomery out-pitched all those guys in Spring Training, including Severino, who was named the fourth starter. He did enough to put himself in position for an early call-up — there’s a pretty good chance Montgomery would have been in the Opening Day rotation had the Yankees needed their fifth starter right out of the gate — and tomorrow afternoon he’ll make his first big league start. That’s exciting. And, needless to say, a huge opportunity for Montgomery, for a few reasons.

1. The Yankees need short-term rotation help. It will be Montgomery’s first MLB start! That’s always huge. Get a start, and you have a chance to impress and remain in the rotation. The Yankees can’t feel too comfortable with their current rotation situation, I imagine, and Montgomery has a chance to ease those concerns somewhat. The Yankees are the land of opportunity right now. They’re serious about this youth movement, so if you’re a young player and show you can help, they’ll make room for you. A job is there for the taking for Montgomery.

2. The Yankees need long-term rotation help too. This isn’t just about this season either. Michael Pineda and Sabathia will both become free agents after the season and Tanaka can opt-out too. None of the young guys have established themselves as long-term building blocks yet. I don’t think anyone expects Montgomery to be a top of the rotation starter or anything like that, but he has a chance to be a solid mid-rotation innings guy, and the Yankees will sign up for that right now. This is a chance to win a rotation spot now and for the next six years too.

3. The other guys are breathing down his neck. The rotation may be shaky right now, but the Yankees do have some depth. Severino is in the rotation and Mitchell is in the bullpen — so is Adam Warren, who could start if necessary — but Green and Cessa are waiting in Triple-A. Should Montgomery slip up at some point, the Yankees won’t hesitate to make a change. The fifth starter’s competition was never confined to Spring Training. It’s ongoing. Montgomery is getting the first chance to show what he can do as the fifth starter and he’ll have to pitch well to keep the job.

* * *

Last season Montgomery threw 152 total innings between Double-A and Triple-A, during which he had a 2.19 ERA (2.91 FIP). He spent three years in the rotation for a major college program, he throws five pitches and locates, and he hasn’t missed a start dating back to high school. Montgomery is as close to ready as a pitching prospect can get, and the Yankees won’t let a 40-man roster crunch stand in his way. There’s no sense in keeping him in Triple-A when he could help you at the MLB level, you know?

Tomorrow afternoon’s start is as much about the rotation going forward as it is giving Tanaka and Sabathia an extra day to rest. The Yankees are going with Montgomery over Cessa and Green (and Mitchell and Warren) because they think he’s is best able to help them win right now. It’s that simple. That chance to help the Yankees win now is also an opportunity for Montgomery to earn a rotation spot for the future. It’s something the other rotation candidates were unable to do last year.

The Four-Week Starting Catcher

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Shortly after Monday’s 8-1 drubbing of the Rays, the Yankees announced that Gary Sanchez would miss roughly four weeks with a strained brachialis muscle. All things considered, that isn’t terrible news – I was all but certain that he tore something on Saturday, given his reaction and the speed with which he was put on the disabled list, and visions of Greg Bird were dancing in my head. Comparatively speaking, Sanchez sitting out until May 8 or so is positively fantastic news.

In the interim, however, the Yankees lineup will be unquestionably weaker. Sanchez was expected to be the team’s best hitter heading into the season, and the drop-off from him to Austin Romine is larger than any other gap between starter and back-up on this roster. Romine is perfectly adequate as a reserve, but his limitations as a hitter become more glaring as he garners more plate appearances, and his defense is more good than great.

That being said, perhaps we should be talking about the drop-off from Sanchez to Kyle Higashioka instead. The 26-year-old was officially called-up on Sunday, and made his big league debut in the 9th inning of the home opener, catching the last three outs of the game. Joe Girardi has been noncommittal about the team’s plans, hinting at the nebulous ‘shared duty,’ so the playing time split appears to be up in the air.

How should the Yankees handle it?

The Case for Romine

Romine has played 123 games behind the plate in the Majors, and has been a solid presence defensively. He throws out would-be basestealers at a roughly league-average rate, and his pitch framing abilities are passable at worst (0.7 framing runs in his career). The deeper you dig into the numbers, the more average he seems – and that’s just fine. It’s not nearly as good as Sanchez, but he’s not hurting the team behind the dish, either.

That modicum of defensive value is just about all that you’ll get from Romine, though. He slashed .242/.269/.382 (68 wRC+) last year, and has hit .219/.256/.324 (53 wRC+) in his career. And while he’s only had 371 PA at this level, it’s difficult to envision him getting much better, given his age (28) and minor league numbers (.251/.307/.371 in 811 PA at Triple-A). Those aren’t terrible numbers for a back-up catcher, but it represents a severe drop-off from Sanchez, and a sizable dip from the average catcher (87 wRC+ for the position in 2016).

It is possible that we should look into how Romine handles pitchers, though. Much was said on Monday about how beautifully he worked with Michael Pineda, and there could be something to that. After all, Big Mike was at his best when he pitched to Romine last year:

pineda

There are several problems in working with a sample size such as this, as it ignores the ballpark and the quality of the competition (among other things), but it jibes with Romine’s reputation of knowing how to handle the pitching staff. And it isn’t just Pineda, either – Masahiro Tanaka posted better strikeout, walk, and home run rates while throwing to Romine. CC Sabathia had an unsightly 6.85 ERA with Romine as his battery mate, but he also managed 23 strikeouts against just 4 BB in 23.2 IP, so it wasn’t all bad.

It’s difficult to draw a clear-cut point about Romine’s work with the pitching staff, given the aforementioned sample sizes and sampling issues in general, but there’s a certain level of certainty that comes with him. That certainty may only be that he won’t actively hurt the team – but it’s something to cling to.

The Case for Higashioka

Higashioka hit .293/.355/.509 (136 wRC+) in 256 PA at Double-A last year, and .250/.306/.514 (131 wRC+) in 160 PA at Triple-A. That level of offense is unknown to Romine at any level of professional baseball, and it came in Higashioka’s first healthy season … ever, basically. The 26-year-old missed time every year from 2012 through 2015, with a litany of ailments and injuries, including Tommy John Surgery in 2013. It’s been a long road to the show.

While 2016 represented a heretofore unknown level of production for Higashioka, there are reasons beyond the injuries to suspect that it wasn’t a simple fluke. He has long drawn praise for owning a solid hit tool and above-average raw power, and he has always maintained strong contact rates in the minors (16.4 K% across all levels). He’s known as an aggressive hitter, and that shone through at Triple-A last year – but a career 8.1% walk rate isn’t too shabby, and he managed a 10.2% walk rate at Double-A prior to his promotion. The injuries hindered his development arc significantly, and his production last year may exaggerate his offensive potential, but the bat has always been Higashioka’s calling card.

Higashioka looked comfortable in Spring Training this year, as well, slashing .296/.406/.630 in 32 PA. There were rumblings that he had earned himself the back-up job, given all that had happened since the beginning of 2016, but Romine’s lack of options and the desire for Higashioka to continue to develop (more on that in a bit) made the team’s decision fairly easy.

Analyzing Higashioka’s defense is a bit tricky, given his lack of experience at the highest level. Scouting reports credit him for moving well behind the plate, and ding him for a weak throwing arm (and this was even before TJS). Baseball Prospectus credits Higashioka for 16.3 framing runs between Double-A and Triple-A last year, which is excellent, and he threw out 30% of attempted basestealers, which is right around average. Minor league defensive numbers are a bit shaky, but it seems reasonable to say that he’s at least an average-ish defender.

The key to all of this, however, might just be development. Higashioka is the team’s back-up of the future; that doesn’t sound sexy, but it could mean a larger role if the team gives Sanchez more time at DH to keep him healthy while keeping his bat in the lineup. Sitting on the bench for four weeks isn’t going to do much to prepare Higashioka for that role, nor is it going to give the Yankees a great idea as to what he can do.


In my mind, the decision should be relatively easy for the Yankees – Higashioka should be playing everyday, regardless of the level. If he’s going to be on the big league roster for the next four weeks, he should start the majority of those games. It may sound weird to talk about developing a 26-year-old, and for a back-up role at that, but it makes more sense than calling him up to sit behind a known replacement-level commodity.

Five things we’ve learned about the Yankees one week into the 2017 season

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

For the third time in the first nine days of the 2017 season, the Yankees have an off-day today. This one is a happy off-day. They won the home opener convincingly yesterday, one day after rallying late to beat the Orioles in Camden Yards. The Yankees are 3-4 through their first seven games of the new season. Not great, but considering they were nine outs away from a 1-5 record through six games fewer than 48 hours ago, I’ll take it.

The first week of the season is the best time to watch baseball because woo baseball’s back! We’ve been waiting all winter for this. The first week is also the worst time to analyze baseball because the sample sizes are tiny. Our eyes lie to us these first few days. Not everything needs a large sample size though. We can make some observations after only seven games, and I’m going to do that right now. Here are five things, in no particular order, we’ve learned about the 2017 Yankees through the first week of the new season.

The new Sabathia is sustainable

Seven games into the season, CC Sabathia has been unquestionably the best starter in the rotation, allowing three runs total in eleven innings in his two starts. He chucked five shutout innings in his first start and allowed three runs in six innings next time out, and both starts were reminiscent of last season. Sabathia danced in and out of danger and did a nice job limiting hard contact. The Orioles got to him with a bunch of soft line drives to the shallow outfield Sunday.

Last year the 36-year-old Sabathia reinvented himself after being wholly ineffective from 2013-15, mostly by adding a cutter and doing a better job neutralizing right-handed batters. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. Sabathia is having more success against righties because of the cutter. He’s always been good against lefties — he’s not as effective as he once was against them, but he’s still able to keep them in check — but righties hit him hard the last few years. We’re talking .304/.363/.502 (.370 wOBA) in 2015. Yikes.

MLB switched from PitchFX to Trackman this season and there have been some pitch classification issues early on — I had an entire Dylan Bundy post at CBS get borked by classification issues — so for some reason Sabathia’s cutters are being classified as four-seamer fastballs. Watching the games though, you can see he’s throwing a cutter, not a straight four-seamer. Here’s how he’s pitched righties through two starts, via FanGraphs (view is from the catcher’s perspective):

cc-sabathia-vs-rhb

Cutters — four-seamers according to Trackman, but nah — inside and everything else outside. Same as last year. And it’s working too. Sabathia has had two solid starts and he’s held righties to a .212/.333/.212 (.266 wOBA) batting line early on. (He won’t be that good against righties all season, obviously.) That Sabathia has already been able to carry over last season’s approach and success is encouraging. His days as an ace are over. We know that. Based on last season and the first two starts this year, Sabathia can still be a serviceable big league starting pitcher.

Gardner will be more aggressive on the bases

Over the last four seasons Brett Gardner‘s stolen base totals have fallen from 24 to 21 to 20 to 16. His stolen base attempts have declined from 32 to 26 to 25 to 20. Gardner is 33 now and players that age typically don’t run as much as they did earlier in their careers, but you can’t help but shake the feeling he (and Jacoby Ellsbury, for that matter) is capable of more on the bases.

“I definitely think we should be more aggressive and I need to be more aggressive. Not only hopefully do a better job of getting on base but when I do, I’m going to run a little more often, for sure,” said Gardner to Brendan Kuty back in Spring Training. And through seven games, Gardner has five steals in five attempts. He didn’t steal his fifth base until the team’s 27th game last year, and it wasn’t until the 36th game that he stole his sixth base.

Furthermore, Gardner is running early in the count. He’s had an annoying tendency to wait and wait and wait before stealing a bag, rather than going early and giving the hitter a better chance to drive him in. Gardner has stolen all five bases on the third pitch of the at-bat this year. You’d like him to go first or second pitch, but going on the third pitch is better than going fifth or sixth pitch, you know? He said he was going to be more aggressive on the bases and we’ve seen it so far.

“I talked to (Gardner) in Spring Training. Gave him a goal, basically,” said Joe Girardi following yesterday’s game. “Your job is to score 100 runs, and I don’t care how you get to the next base, but your job is to score 100 runs. If you do that, and Ells can do that, we’re going to have a pretty good offense. He’s run a lot, he’s swung the bat extremely well, he’s played defense extremely well, so he’s off to a great start.”

Ellsbury, meanwhile, has only one steal so far, but it was kind of a big one. He pinch-ran for Matt Holliday in the ninth inning of a tie game Sunday, and stole second on the very first pitch. Again, Gardner and Ellsbury are both 33 and will soon be 34. Their days of stealing 40+ bases a year are probably over. Speed typically doesn’t age well. They do seem to be capable of more than their 36 combined steals last season though, and they’re off to a nice start on the bases in 2017, especially Gardner.

Judge is adjusting to MLB pitching

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

The overall numbers are pretty awesome thus far: .261/.320/.565 (150 wRC+) with a double and two home runs. It’s still early, of course. More important than the raw numbers these first 25 plate appearances is how much more comfortable Aaron Judge looks so far this year compared to last year. Last season, when he fell into a two-strike count, Judge was basically in survival mode. Pitchers picked him apart and the result was a 44.2% strikeout rate.

So far this year Judge has struck out six times in 25 plate appearances, a 24.0% rate, and his approach looks so more better. He’s not chasing out of the zone as often. He’s doing a much better job laying off those breaking balls down and away, the pitch that gave him such a hard time time in 2016. Judge also isn’t swinging and missing at pitches in the strike zone nearly as much. Here are the quick numbers, which come with big ol’ sample size warnings:

  • Judge in 2016: 34.9% chase rate and 74.3% contact rate in the zone
  • Judge in 2017: 25.5% chase rate and 92.3% contact rate in the zone
  • MLB averages 2016-17: 30.8% chase rate and 86.4% contact rate in the zone

All throughout his career Judge’s tendency has been to struggle initially when he gets to a new level, then adjust and have success. He struggled big time last season after being called up. Sure, he mashed some long home runs, but the strikeouts piled up and were a major concern. How could they not be? We’ve yet to see that version of Judge this year, the one who can’t make contact. He’s provided some nice punch from the bottom third of the lineup.

“I think it’s important he contributes,” said Girardi yesterday. “Being a young player can be difficult at times, when you get off to slow starts. Maybe you’re not swinging quite as well as people think you should. There’s a lot of expectations placed on you. Anytime you’re able to contribute — and he’s contributed pretty big the last two days — I think it helps them relax a little bit.”

Seven games doesn’t tell us anything definitive about Judge this season. He could slip into a 4-for-40 with 25 strikeouts slump tomorrow. Early on though, he looks more comfortable at the plate, especially in two-strike counts, and that is really encouraging. He’s worked hard to make changes and put himself in the best position to succeed. We’re starting to see the results of that work now that he’s swinging and missing less often.

Yes, there will be growing pains with the kids

Spring Training sure was fun, wasn’t it? Greg Bird and Gary Sanchez hit the snot out of the ball and it was hard not to get excited about them hitting second and third in the regular season. Naturally, both have started the regular season slowly. Bird was off to a 1-for-16 (.063) start — the one hit was a bloop just inside the foul line — before getting sick over the weekend and sitting out a few games. Sanchez went 3-for-20 (.150) with a homer before landing on the disabled list with a biceps issue.

Fair or unfair, the combination of their first impressions — Bird in the second half of 2015 and Sanchez in the second half of 2016 — and dynamite springs raised expectations. The Yankees certainly expect Bird and Sanchez to be key contributors this year given their lineup positions. The first week of the season was a harsh reminder that yeah, these are two kids in their first full MLB season, and there will be bumps along the way. They’re better than they’ve shown so far. Much better. Ups and down come with the territory with young players though.

Carter is an imperfect bench piece

The Yankees were smart to pick up Chris Carter on the cheap at the end of the offseason because hey, 40-homer bats don’t grow on trees, plus no one knew what to expect from Bird. We still don’t know what Bird can do this season. I think he’ll be good, but I don’t know that. Adding Carter as a safety net was a nifty little low-cost addition. Dingers are cool. I like dingers.

At the same time, Bird showed his shoulder is sound in Spring Training and the Yankees are committed to playing him, which leaves Carter on the bench. Before Bird’s recent illness, Carter pinch-hit twice in the first four games of the season, and that’s it. He can’t do much else. He’s a first baseman (and designated hitter) only, so he offers no versatility, and given his splits, ideally he’d hit against lefties. There’s a very specific set of conditions that have to be met for Carter to play.

Bird is out sick now (and his ankle is acting up), so the Yankees are happy to have Carter as a temporary fill-in. When Bird is healthy though — and especially once he starts hitting, which is only a matter of time — Carter’s usefulness is limited. He basically gets to pinch-hit against lefties in the late innings, and even then he’s only going to pinch-hit for certain batters. Ronald Torreyes and Austin Romine, essentially. That’s about it. Meh.

DotF: Wade and Cessa lead Scranton to win in home opener

Random note from Brendan Kuty: C Radley Haddad, who traveled with the Yankees a bunch of times as an extra player this spring, is now with the big league team full-time as one of the two bullpen catchers. Jason Brown is the other bullpen catcher. He was on the Triple-A Scranton coaching staff last season and spend time in the farm system as a player in the mid-2000s. Longtime bullpen catcher Ramon Rodriguez left the Yankees to become a scout with the Angels over the winter.

Triple-A Scranton (2-0 win over Lehigh Valley)

  • 2B Tyler Wade: 2-4, 1 K — he’s 7-for-15 (.467) so far and has hit safely in all four games
  • LF Clint Frazier: 0-3, 1 BB, 2 K
  • DH Dustin Fowler: 0-4, 1 K
  • RF Rob Refsnyder: 0-3, 1 K
  • CF Mason Williams: 0-2
  • RHP Luis Cessa: 7 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 6 K, 9/2 GB/FB — 60 of 82 pitches were strikes (73%) … he took a comebacker to the calf but was able to stay in the game … LHP Jordan Montgomery will start for the big league team Wednesday, and it’s only a matter of time until Cessa gets an opportunity to start in the Bronx this year as well
  • RHP Ben Heller: 1 IP, zeroes, 2 K, 1/0 GB/FB — ten of 16 pitches were strikes (63%) … nice bounceback after giving up the walk-off homer yesterday
  • RHP Ernesto Frieri: 1 IP, zeroes, 1 K, 0/1 GB/FB — eleven of 16 pitches were strikes (69%)

[Read more…]

Monday Night Open Thread

I’m not sure we could have asked for a better home opener. I guess Michael Pineda could have finished off the perfect game, but that’s asking a lot. Give me a great pitching performance and eight runs from the offense every day of the week. And home runs  from Aaron Judge. Damn do I love watching that man mash taters. These last two days were pretty fun. Tomorrow’s off-day will be a good one.

Here is an open thread for the rest of the night. This afternoon’s win will be replayed on YES at 10:30pm ET, if you’re interested. This was the rare game worth watching again. The Mets are playing tonight and ESPN will have the Dodgers and Cubs later on. The Cubbies are having their ring ceremony before the game. The Nets are playing as well, so talk about those games or anything else here, as long as it’s not religion or politics.