2016 Midseason Review: The Bench

Now that the All-Star break has arrived, it’s time to look back and review the first half of the season. We’ve already looked at the catchers, infielders, and outfielders. Now it’s time to cover the bench.

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Despite their efforts to get younger, the Yankees still have a very veteran roster. In fact, they have only two regulars under the age of 31, and they’re the double play combination. Everyone else is on the wrong side of 30, which means the Yankees need a quality bench to give those players extra rest throughout the season.

As always, the Yankees started the season with three non-catchers on their bench: Aaron Hicks, Dustin Ackley, and Ronald Torreyes. Torreyes beat out Rob Refsnyder for the final bench spot in Spring Training — he not only out-hit him, but his ability to play short and third worked in his favor too — though a few weeks later both guys ended up on the bench anyway. Funny how that works. Times to review the bench.

Alex Rodriguez: The Designated Hitter Bench Player

A-Rod was not supposed to be a bench player. He opened the season as the team’s regular DH for the second straight season, though the combination of a hamstring injury and unproductive at-bats have limited him to only 47 starts in the team’s 88 first half games. The hamstring injury sidelined him for close to three weeks in May. More recently, the Yankees have benched A-Rod against righties.

Overall this season Rodriguez is hitting .220/.260/.382 (65 wRC+) with eight homers in exactly 200 plate appearances. That’s broken down into .198/.237/.333 (46 wRC+) with six homers and a 29.6% strikeout rate in 135 plate appearances against righties, and .267/.308/.483 (105 wRC+) with two homers and a 24.6% strikeout rate in 65 plate appearances against lefties. It’s easy to understand why they’ve decided to sit him against righties, right? Right.

A-Rod will turn 41 later this month, and really, it’s not much of a surprise when player in his 40s doesn’t hit, even one as talented as Alex. His 2015 season was marvelous. He was so good last year. Now he looks close to done, so much so that the Yankees have cut into his playing time. As with Mark Teixeira, it was probably foolish to expect him to repeat his 2015 effort. At the same time, no one expected him to be this bad. At least we still get to see this once in a while:

Second Half Out Look: Gosh, I wish I knew. There’s no reason to think A-Rod won’t be benched against righties to open the second half, though he is working out at first base, which could mean more at-bats. There’s a Catch-22 here. A-Rod’s not playing because he hasn’t hit but he probably needs more at-bats to get his bat going. The more interesting question will come after the season. If Rodriguez struggles all year, would the Yankees really cut ties and release him, and or will they handicap the roster for another year with a righty platoon DH? That’s another question for another time.

Aaron Hicks: The Fourth Turned Fifth Outfielder

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

When the Yankees acquired Hicks over the winter, they did so with the expectation he would play fairly regularly by rotating around the outfield and resting the regulars. At worst, he would platoon against lefties, against whom he’d hit .272/.360/.447 (125 wRC+) prior to 2016. The Yankees had a spare catcher in John Ryan Murphy and wanted an athletic, switch-hitting outfielder, so the trade was made.

Hicks fell well short of expectations in his first half-season as a Yankee. On both sides of the ball, really. He’s hitting .197/.261/.301 (46 wRC+) with three homers in 204 plate appearances overall — yes, he has more plate appearances than A-Rod — including .155/.218/.225 (15 wRC+) against lefties. The Yankees have given him regular at-bats at times, most notably when Alex was on the DL, but it hasn’t come together.

In the field, Hicks seems to have a knack for breaking the wrong way when the ball comes off the bat. He has good speed and often that bad first step doesn’t matter, but it has definitely come back to bite him and the Yankees at times. The one thing Hicks does insanely well is throw. Gee willikers does he have a strong arm. Needless to say, the start of Hicks’ first season with the Yankees has been a huge disappointment.

Second Half Outlook: Hicks doesn’t have any minor league options remaining, otherwise the Yankees would have sent him to Triple-A already. They’re not going to expose him to waivers — he’d get claimed in a heartbeat — or release him even though Joe Girardi‘s patience seems to have run out. (Refsnyder has seen more time in right lately as A-Rod rides the bench.) I could see the Yankees flipping Hicks as part of a deadline deal, but, mostly likely, he’ll remain on the roster in the second half and continue to get playing time as the Yankees try to get him going.

Ronald Torreyes: The Necessary Backup Infielder

(Brian Bahr/Getty)
(Brian Bahr/Getty)

Usually when a player changes organizations five times in the span of nine months, he doesn’t make an Opening Day roster. And yet, Torreyes did indeed change teams five times last season and over the winter, and there he was on the Opening Day roster as the backup infielder. He won the job by having a good spring and showing he was capable defensively all over the infield.

Torreyes, who is only 23, started the season with an insane 8-for-17 (.471) hot streak that had people calling for him to start at third base. I get it, Chase Headley was off to a terrible start, but it was only a matter of time until Torreyes came back to Earth. Sure enough, he’s gone 6-for-48 (.125) since, and is hitting .219/.286/.297 (55 wRC+) overall. His walk (8.6%) and strikeout (14.3%) rates are good, so yay?

Not surprisingly, Torreyes has started only two of the team’s last 29 games. Gregorius has been awesome of late and Headley has been very good since May, plus Castro seems to have a very long leash, so there’s no real way to get Torreyes in the lineup. He’s been solid defensively wherever he’s played — second, short, third, even some right field — and that’s his primary value. Torreyes is a sound gloveman who will put the ball in that play. He’s the quintessential utility infielder.

Second Half Outlook: The Yankees do not seem to want to use Castro as their full-time backup shortstop — they’ll use him there now and then, but I don’t think they want him to be the guy — which means Torreyes will stick around through the second half. He’s essentially a replacement level backup infielder. He won’t kill them in spot start duty, but he’s not someone you want to run out there on an everyday basis either.

Dustin Ackley: The Perfectly Imperfect Role Player

For the second straight year, the Yankees opened the season with a player capable of filling in at first base, right field, and DH, three positions with starters who carry perpetual injury concerns. Last year Garrett Jones filled that role. This year it was Dustin Ackley. Jones played his way off the roster. Ackley got hurt before he had a chance to do the same.

That little dive back into first base resulted in a torn labrum that required season-ending surgery. It’s the same exact thing that happened to Mason Williams a year ago. Freaky, right? We see players dive back into first base a million times each year. The Yankees managed to have players suffer season-ending shoulder injuries in back-to-back years on pickoff plays.

Prior to the injury, Ackley hit .148/.243/.148 (9 wRC+) in 70 plate appearances spread across 49 team games. Not much playing time at all. At least his walk (11.4%) and strikeout (12.9%) rates were good, I guess. Ackley wasn’t good defensively anywhere (first, second, or right), which was to be expected. In theory, the Jones/Ackley slot is a good idea. Someone who can fill in at right, first, and DH, and maybe sock the occasional dinger into the short porch sounds like a useful bench piece. But, for the second straight year, it hasn’t worked out.

Second Half Outlook: There is none because of the injury. The surgery almost certainly ends Ackley’s time with the Yankees. He was going to be a non-tender candidate after the season to start with, and the injury all but clinches it.

Rob Refsnyder: Forcing The Issue

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees tried to find a way to get Refsnyder on their Opening Day roster. They had him work out at third base in Spring Training in an effort to increase his versatility, but the four-week crash course didn’t work out too well. Refsnyder took two grounders to the face right at the end of camp that all but assured Torreyes would be the backup infielder to start the regular season.

To Triple-A Refsnyder went, where he remained until A-Rod landed on the DL in May. He was on the roster for only a few days before being sent back down, though the Ackley injury got him back to MLB a few days later, and Refsnyder has been with the Yankees since. After teaching him third in Spring Training, the Yankees stuck Refsnyder at first base — he played there after literally one day of taking grounders at the position — when Teixeira was on the DL. Once Teixeira returned, the team started using Refsnyder all over the field.

All told, Refsnyder has played 19 games at first, ten games in right, five in second, and one at third. He’s looked fine at first base all things considered, though his inexperience has been painfully obvious at times. That was to be expected. Refsnyder is a bat first player though, and his numbers probably aren’t as good as you may think: .276/.337/.368 (86 wRC+) with no homers in 99 plate appearances.

Now, that said, Refsnyder has looked like he belongs. He takes quality at-bats (9.1 BB% and 16.1 K%) and he consistently hits the ball hard (only a 12.3% soft contact rate), so it’s only a matter of time until the results match the process. Eventually he’s going to hit a dinger, you know? With Hicks struggling and A-Rod benched, Refsnyder has seen more and more time in right field of late, so Girardi’s giving him a chance.

Second Half Outlook: I get the feeling we’re going to see a lot of Refsnyder in the second half, especially if the Yankees trade Beltran at the deadline and A-Rod remains glued to the bench against righties. The Yankees have asked a lot of Refsnyder — learn third, learn first, play second and right too, hit your way into the lineup, etc. — and he’s handled it well. He’s the only guy in this post who has earned more playing time.

A-Rod planning to take ground balls at first base during All-Star break

(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)
(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)

According to Mark Feinsand, Alex Rodriguez is planning to take ground balls at first base during the All-Star break in an effort to improve his versatility and get into the lineup a little more often. Brian Cashman told George King it was Rodriguez’s idea to work out at first base, not the team’s. “I wouldn’t say he was encouraged. I was told he was more open to playing the field. Last year he was opposed to it,” said the GM.

A-Rod, who turns 41 in two weeks, is hitting .220/.260/.382 (65 wRC+) with eight homers in 200 plate appearances on the nose this year. That includes a .198/.237/.333 (46 wRC+) line against right-handers. The Yankees are now benching Alex against righties — he’s started only one of their last ten games — so he’s not playing much at all. He’s been a forgotten man. Anyway, I have some thoughts on this.

1. It’s about time! I’ve been beating the “give A-Rod a first base glove” drum since the offseason. I’m not saying he should play there every single day. Just having the option to put him there increases his versatility a bit. A right-handed platoon DH is the least flexible player possible. Getting Rodriguez comfortable at first gives Joe Girardi some more options. It’s not much, but it’s something.

2. There figures to be a decent amount of playing time at first. Mark Teixeira is now getting regular days off to rest his ailing knee — he hasn’t started more than four straight days since coming off the DL — so that clears some playing time for A-Rod, who probably needs to play more than once every ten days to get his bat going. Those spare starts at first could add up to another 100 plate appearances the rest of the season.

3. Rest won’t be a problem. One of the reasons the Yankees have been hesitant to play A-Rod in the field is fatigue. They don’t want him to get worn down throughout the season. That’s understandable, especially last year when he was playing so well. Nowadays the Yankees are straight up benching Rodriguez against righties, so they can schedule the starts at first in such a way that he’ll get the next day or two off because righties are on the mound. Fatigue isn’t much of a concern when you’re sitting three out of every four games anyway.

* * *

I’m glad A-Rod will spend the break getting work in at first base. That the Yankees didn’t ask him to do it tells you Alex is motivated and looking to get back into the lineup however possible. I can’t say I’m optimistic this will lead to anything, but you never know. With Teixeira’s knee acting up, Rodriguez could be forced into first base duty at a moment’s notice in the second half. At least now playing him in the field might be an option rather than off the table completely.

2016 Midseason Review: The Outfielders

Now that the All-Star break has arrived, it’s time to look back and review the first half of the season. We’ve already looked at the catchers and infielders. Now it’s time to cover the outfielders.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees have been making an effort to get younger over the last 20 months or so, but the one place they’ve been unable to do so is the outfield. They’re locked into three veterans making good to great money, and despite their efforts to move one of them over the winter, the Yankees didn’t get an offer they liked.

Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran returned as the starting outfield this season, and all three have been among the most productive players on the team. In fact, along with Didi Gregorius and Brian McCann, I’d said they were three of the Yankees’ five most productive players in the first half. Let’s review their seasons.

Carlos Beltran: Still Great After All These Years

Last April, Beltran looked done. Like done done. He was 38 and coming off surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow, and he was caught so far between fastballs and offspeed stuff that it seemed like he was guessing at the plate. It was ugly. But, once the calendar flipped to May, Beltran raked the rest of the way, and it’s carried over into this season.

Beltran was, by no small margin, the team’s best hitter in the first half. He’s hitting .299/.338/.550 (132 wRC+) with 19 homers in 320 plate appearances, and he leads the Yankees in … drum roll, please … AVG, SLG, ISO, OPS, OPS+, wOBA, wRC+, doubles, homers, and RBI. Pretty much everything except OBP. (He’s fourth in OBP.) Carlos is 17th among the 167 qualified hitters in SLG and 21st in ISO, and he’s 19th among all players in homers. He hasn’t hit for this kind of power since he was in the prime of his career with the Mets.


Source: FanGraphsCarlos Beltran

The signs of aging are there. Beltran walks less (5.3%) and strikes out more (18.4%) than he did during his prime, and good fastballs have given him a hard time, but otherwise he’s still a very smart hitter with power who seems to have a knack for understanding how he’s being pitched. He’s even hitting lefties better than he has in years, putting up a 167 wRC+ against southpaws in 2016 after having a 75 wRC+ against them from 2014-15.

Beltran’s offense has been better than I think anyone could have reasonably expected. Even as good as he was from May through the end of the season last year, it wasn’t crazy to think the 39-year-old would slip some this year. That’s baseball. Instead, Beltran has been a monster at the dish and he has been since Opening Day, really. He hasn’t had any sort of extended slump this year. Most players will hit the skids for two or three weeks at some point. Not Carlos.

As you know, offense is pretty much the only Beltran provides these days. He doesn’t run well and he’s a terrible defender in right field. The Yankees have been able to give him more time at DH this year, first because Alex Rodriguez got hurt, and then because they’re flat out benching A-Rod. Beltran seems to be running better this year than the last two years, and call me a cynic, but I can’t help but that think that’s tied to his upcoming free agency. He’s playing for a contract and might be in a little better shape this year. Either well, Beltran has been the team MVP so far.

Second Half Outlook: One of three things will happen: One, the Yankees remain in the postseason hunt and they keep Beltran for a second half push. Two, the Yankees fall out of the race and trade Beltran to a contender at the deadline. Three, the Yankees don’t contend and don’t trade Beltran. Clearly, the third option would be the worst. I’d like to see the Yankees contend, but the team isn’t cooperating, which makes a trade the best outcome. Carlos definitely played his way into some nice trade value in the first half.

Jacoby Ellsbury: Separating The Player From The Contract

(Dustin Bradford/Getty)
(Dustin Bradford/Getty)

It’s impossible to look at Ellsbury and assess his play without thinking about his contract. He’s a good player making great player money, and so far this season Ellsbury has been exactly that: a good player. He owns a .279/.347/.398 (100 wRC+) batting line with four homers and 16 steals, and he’s stayed mostly healthy too. That’s always a question, unfortunately.

Ellsbury actually started this season rather slowly, hitting .235/.278/.341 (62 wRC+) with one homer and five steals in eight attempts in April. He’s since hit .297/.373/.421 (115 wRC+) with three homers and eleven steals in 15 chances. Ellsbury has also walked (9.9%) nearly as often as he’s struck out (10.7%). We haven’t seen the disruptive baserunning this year, which could be a product of age — 32-year-olds usually don’t run much — or a minor hip injury he dealt with earlier this season.

Defensively, Ellsbury has settled in after a weirdly poor start to the season. His days as a Gold Glover are over and really, at some point during the life of his contract he’ll have to shift to left field. Not too many 33+ year olds are running around playing center at a high level these days. Ellsbury’s range is still good and his arm … well sometimes his throws reach the cutoff man on one hop. Let’s leave it at that.

Relative to his contract, Ellsbury is performing well-below expectations and he’s not likely to get better as he approaches his mid-30s. Relative to other center fielders, Ellsbury is a solid player who is worth a roster spot on a contending team. When he gets hot, he gets really hot and can raise hell with his bat and his legs. He’s just not someone you want to pay $20M+ a year. What’s done is done though. Ellsbury has shaken off that slow start and is one of the more productive players on the team.

Second Half Outlook: Last season Ellsbury started well, then crashed horribly after returning from a knee injury. He’s healthy now and the outlook going forward is much more promising. Ellsbury is a good all-around player, and now that he’s hitting second rather than leading off, he figures to get some more opportunities to do damage with men on base. For the Yankees to have any chance at the postseason, Ellsbury is probably going to have to play at an All-Star level in the second half. He’s vital to their success.

Brett Gardner: Same Ol’ Brett, Just Without The Power

Brett Gardner is one boring baseball player. He’s hitting .257 with a .353 OBP this season. Last year he hit .256 with a .343 OBP. His career averages? A .263 AVG and a .346 OBP. Boring! Outliers are much more fun. Gardner is reliably productive each and every year even though a large segment of the fan base seems to think otherwise.

The difference between 2016 Gardner and pre-2016 Gardner is his power, which was never his calling card anyway, but still. Look:


Source: FanGraphsBrett Gardner

Gardner hit his power peak at ages 29-31 thanks in part to former hitting coach Kevin Long, who got him to be a little more aggressive and hunt fastballs early in the count. Gardner’s power peak was basically a league average ISO, but this year he’s well below that with a .098 ISO. He’s hit five homers this year, his fewest in the first half since 2011, when he hit four. (Not counting his injury shortened 2012 season.)

Gardner’s power outage is tied directly to his ground ball percentage. He’s put a career-high 55.2% of his batted balls on the ground this year, up from 45.3% last year and 41.7% the year before. Furthermore, when he pulls the ball, Gardner is putting it on the ground 69.9% of the time. Two years ago it was 49.7%. That’s no way for a left-handed hitter to take advantage of Yankee Stadium‘s short right field porch.

Offensively, Gardner is doing just about everything he usually does except hit the ball out of the park. He’s hitting in the .255-.260 range, he’s drawing a ton of walks (11.6%), and he’s going to end up with 20+ steals again. The over-the-fence power isn’t there like it has been the last few years though. Don’t get me wrong, no one was expecting Gardner to swat 20+ dingers this year, but he might not even get to ten this season.

(Jason Miller/Getty)
(Jason Miller/Getty)

On top of the offense is Gardner’s defense, which remains comfortably above-average and actually seems better this year than it was the last two years. Maybe it’s just me. The various stats like UZR and DRS agree, but eh. Let’s not rely on half-seasons of defensive stats. Between the solid defense and team-leading OBP, Gardner is once again one of the most productive players on the Yankees. His power has gone missing, and the Yankees have compensated by putting him in the leadoff spot, where the lack of pop is less of an issue.

Second Half Outlook: Gardner has a recent history of fading in the second half, but as long as he’s healthy, I expect him to be rock solid. I suppose the Yankees could look to trade him as part of a deadline sell-off, though they figure to push Beltran a little harder in trade talks given his status as an impending free agent. As with Ellsbury, the Yankees will need Gardner to produce at a high level to make a run at a postseason spot.

DotF: Williams, Amburgey have big days in Tampa’s loss

Got some notes to pass along:

  • The Yankees have signed 11th round pick Georgia LHP Connor Jones, according to Matt Eddy. No word on his bonus, but it’s safe to assume it’s no more than the $100,000 slot. The Yankees don’t have the pool space to hand out any more over-slot bonuses. Here’s our Draft Pool Tracker.
  • Also from Eddy: the Yankees have released RHP Vinnie Pestano and OF Connor Oliver. Pestano threw only 10.2 innings with Triple-A innings before getting hurt. The Yankees picked up Oliver out an independent league to fill a roster spot a few weeks ago.
  • The Yankees have signed Tampa RHP Brett Morales as an undrafted free agent, the school announced. Here’s a photo of the contract signing. Morales redshirted and didn’t pitch this spring.
  • In his Futures Game write-up, Chris Crawford (subs. req’d) says C Gary Sanchez impressed with his improved receiving behind the plate. “He didn’t stab at the ball like he used to, and his hands appeared softer. This was just one look, but several scouts had mentioned similar things, so it’s good to see,” he wrote.
  • Arm & Hammer Park in Trenton will host the 2018 Double-A Eastern League All-Star Game, the team announced. That’s pretty cool. By then guys like C Luis Torrens and OF Blake Rutherford could be in Double-A.

Triple-A Scranton is off until Thursday for the All-Star break. The All-Star Game itself is Wednesday night. It’ll be broadcast on MLB Network. OF Ben Gamel, RHP Chad Green, OF Aaron Judge, and C Gary Sanchez were selected to represent the Yankees. Judge won’t be playing because of his recent knee injury though.

[Read more…]

2016 Home Run Derby Open Thread

The 2016 All-Star festivities started last night with the Futures Game, though I’m not sure anyone noticed. MLB really needs to do a better job marketing that thing. Making it compete with regular season games is a good way to make sure no one watches.

Anyway, the All-Star break continues tonight with the Home Run Derby in Petco Park, where the Yankees just played last weekend. There are no Yankees in the Home Run Derby this year, but there is a former Yankee: Robinson Cano. Robbie returns to the event this year after representing the Yankees from 2011-13. He won it in 2011, as I’m sure you remember.

This is year two of the Home Run Derby’s fun new format. Instead of counting down outs, each player gets five minutes to hit as many homers as possible. The race against the clock is a blast. Also, players are now seeded head-to-head in the bracket style tournament. Here are this year’s matchups:

Mark Trumbo, Orioles vs. Corey Seager, Dodgers
Todd Frazier, White Sox vs. Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies
Adam Duvall, Reds vs. Wil Myers, Padres
Robinson Cano, Mariners vs. Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins

That Cano vs. Stanton matchup looks fun as hell. I’m pretty sure I picked Myers to win on CBS somewhere, but I’m going with Cano now. No real reason, just a hunch. I’m never right with these things anyway.

The Home Run Derby starts at 8pm ET tonight and will be broadcast on ESPN. Talk about that or whatever else is on your mind right here. Have at it.

2016 Midseason Review: The Infielders

Now that the All-Star break has arrived, it’s time to look back and review the first half of the season. We’ve already looked at the catchers. Now it’s time to tackle the infielders.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

For years and years, the infield was the backbone of the Yankees. The 2009 infield was one of the greatest in history — the 2009 Yankees are one of only four teams in history with four +4 WAR infielders — but age and free agency has slowly chipped away at the greatness of the team’s infield the last few years. Over the last 20 months or so the club has had to rebuild three-fourths of that infield.

Only Mark Teixeira remains from that 2009 infield unit. Robinson Cano has been replaced by Starlin Castro at second base. Didi Gregorius took over at shortstop after Derek Jeter retired. Alex Rodriguez has given way to Chase Headley. There have been others along the way, but that’s where the Yankees are now. Headley, Gregorius, Castro, and Teixeira going around the horn. It’s an, uh, interesting group. Interesting is a good word. Let’s review the infield’s first half.

Mark Teixeira: What’s The Opposite of a Contract Push?

Holy moly, what a disastrous half-season for Teixeira. Not only has he missed time with injury — ongoing neck problems and cartilage damage in his knee, specifically — but he’s also not hitting. Teixeira went into the All-Star break with a .193/.272/.317 (57 wRC+) batting line and only seven homers in 243 plate appearances. Woof. Last year Teixeira hit .240/.350/.526 (133 wRC+) with 22 homers in the first half.

The drop off in production from Teixeira is a huge reason why the Yankees are only a .500 club and not a true contender at the All-Star break. He was expected to again put up big time power numbers and anchor the middle of the lineup. Maybe it was foolish to think Teixeira could approximate last year’s pace, especially after he spent the offseason rehabbing his shin fracture and not going through his usual routine.

Given the lack of home runs, it’s no surprise to see Teixeira has a (by far) career high 48.1% ground ball rate. His previous career high was 42.8% back in 2008. You’re not going to hit for power if you’re beating the ball into the ground, which Teixeira is doing often from both sides of the plate. He’s hitting .169/.248/.324 (51 wRC+) against righties and .237/.314/.303 (67 wRC+) against lefties.

The good news is Teixeira is still a shutdown defender in the field, which has been made all the more obvious by the parade of bad glovemen the Yankees have used to back him up this season. But when you’re a first baseman whose only redeeming quality is your defense, you’re a net negative. No amount of defense can make up for the offense Teixeira provided in the first half. He was so, so good last year. Now? Now I dread his at-bats.

This is the final season of Teixeira’s original eight-year, $180M contract, and even though Greg Bird‘s shoulder surgery has thrown a wrench into the long-term first base picture, it’s hard to see the Yankees bringing Teixeira back. He’s no longer a qualified offer candidate, and heck, he’s not even a trade candidate. The hope was Teixeira would mash some taters and be a decent trade chip should the Yankees not contend. Now they’re not contending and he’s not a trade chip. The worst of both worlds.

Second Half Outlook: You know, I have a hard time believing Teixeira will be this bad all season, but the guy is 36 and he does have a nagging neck problem and a compromised knee, so … maybe? I’m feeling optimistic and think Teixeira will be better in the second half, mostly by hitting more homers. He almost can’t be worse at this point. Either way, Teixeira is almost certainly entering his final half-season as a Yankees, and that’s kinda weird.

Starlin Castro: Testing The Limits of First Impressions

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

Boy, Castro made a really great first impression, didn’t he? He went 7-for-12 with two home runs and eight runs driven in during the opening series of the season, and he looked like someone who could hold down a middle of the lineup spot going forward. The Yankees had cycled through a lot of veteran mediocrity in the two years since Robinson Cano left. Castro appeared to be a long-term solution.

Instead, Starlin has hit .244/.283/.363 (69 wRC+) since that opening series, lowering his season batting line to .256/.293/.395 (81 wRC+) overall. That looks mighty similar to the .265/.296/.388 (80 wRC+) line he put up last season, doesn’t it? That’s not good! Castro is still only 26 years old, but his offensive production plateaued a few years ago, and there’s no real indication he’ll make the necessary adjustments to take a step forward. He’ll chase out of the zone at-bat after at-bat, game after game.

Castro’s glove has been solid at second, especially considering he’s been playing the position less than a full year. Yes, his double play pivot can be slow at times, though I’m hopeful that’ll improve with experience. Still though, the Yankees didn’t go out and get Starlin for his glove. They got him because of the belief he has untapped offensive potential. I mean, we’ve seen it. Castro hit .292/.339/.438 (117 wRC+) just two years ago. It’s in there. We just don’t see it often enough.

The first half-season of the Starlin Castro era has been underwhelming. He’s had his fair share of big games and important hits …

… but there are just too many empty at-bats to ignore. There are 167 hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title right now. Castro ranks 148th in walk rate (4.5%) and 146th in chase rate (36.0%). (He’s 150th in wRC+). He has the exact opposite approach the Yankees are known for, that patient, wear-you-down approach. Starlin makes himself an easy out far too often, and after more than 4,000 big league plate appearances, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever improve his approach.

Second Half Outlook: Something tells me Castro will continue to be the same frustrating — yet so obviously talented — player who does just enough to justify his lineup spot. He’s the type of player who leaves you wanting more. No doubt about it. Starlin’s contract runs through 2019, so unless the Yankees trade him (I don’t see that happening anytime soon), he’s not going anywhere for a while.

Didi Gregorius: The Emerging Cornerstone

Gregorius has not been the Yankees’ best hitter this season — that’s Carlos Beltran — but he has been their best all-around player, and I’m not even sure it’s close. The last month or so has been particularly impressive. Didi has hit .346/.379/.594 (157 wRC+) with seven homers in his last 34 games while playing his typically strong defense. (We’ll get back to the defense in a bit.)

Overall, Gregorius has authored a .298/.328/.468 (109 wRC+) batting line with a career-high eleven homers through 88 teams games. No, he doesn’t walk (3.5%), but he also never strikes out. His 11.0% strikeout rate is ninth lowest among those 167 qualified hitters. Two things have impressed me the most about Gregorius in the first half. First, his ability to spray the ball to all fields:


Source: FanGraphs
Gregorius does all his home run hittin’ to the pull side, which is understandable. He’s hardly the only guy who does that. Otherwise Didi sprays the ball all over the field. Singles and doubles to all fields. He’s shift-proof. It’s really impressive. It’s amazing to see how far Gregorius has come since early last season, when he looked like a deer in the headlights.

Secondly, Didi is suddenly a real threat against left-handed pitchers. He came to the Yankees as a career .184/.257/.233 (33 wRC+) hitter against southpaws, and last year those numbers “improved” to .247/.311/.315 (73 wRC+). Not so great. This year? This year Gregorius is hitting .360/.400/.440 (129 wRC+) in the admittedly tiny sample of 82 plate appearances against lefties.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

No, the .371 BABIP won’t last forever, but I think we’ve seen legitimate improvement from Didi against southpaws. He hangs in better, he does a better job laying off breaking balls away, and he generally seems more comfortable. That applies to his entire game, really. Gregorius looks so much more comfortable in pinstripes this year. He’s playing with confidence. He really has come a long way in a short period of time.

Now, about his defense. Gregorius has all the tools to be a standout gloveman. We see them every single game. His hands are soft, he has big time range, and oh baby, that arm. Didi’s throws are so fun. At the same time, Gregorius has been more error prone this year. Specifically, it seems he’s bobbling more grounders than he did a year ago. I don’t think this is a long-term concern. Guys have defensive slumps the same way they have offensive slumps. We know Gregorius can play the hell out of shortstop because we’ve seen it.

Even with those errors, Gregorius is turning himself into a cornerstone type of player, someone who can handle the shortstop position for the next few years and be a real asset to the Yankees. Before I think the belief was Gregorius would catch everything at short and hit eighth or ninth. Now he looks like someone capable of hitting higher in the order and producing runs. Who would have guessed that last year? Didi’s development has been one of the best parts of this season, hands down.

Second Half Outlook: My guess is Gregorius’ numbers against lefties will come back to Earth a bit while his numbers against righties — he’s hitting .277/.303/.478 (102 wRC+) against northpaws — tick up a tad. Maybe not in terms of power, but the average and on-base ability. Remember, Gregorius really hit his stride in the second half last season. This is a guy who’s hit .294/.334/.441 (107 wRC+) over the last calendar year. This isn’t a small sample. This is who he has become. Keep building on that, Didi.

Chase Headley: The April That Can’t Be Forgotten

Chase Headley was so unbelievably bad in April that it doesn’t matter what he does the rest of the season. Everyone’s going to think he stunk this year. Headley hit .150/.268/.150 (21 wRC+) in the season’s first month. No extra-base hits! It was one of the worst months at the plate ever. In fact, in terms of OPS+, Headley had the second worst April in franchise history by a player with at least 50 plate appearances. He had a 21 OPS+ and Roger Peckinpaugh had 16 OPS+ in April 1918. So yeah.

And yet, almost as soon as the calendar flipped to May, Headley began hitting to his career averages. Look at his monthly splits:

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ 2B HR BB% K%
April 71 .150/.268/.150 21 0! 0! 14.1% 19.7%
May 93 .298/.355/.440 113 3 3 7.5% 18.3%
June 102 .275/.343/.418 103 5 2 8.8% 24.5%
July 35 .281/.343/.531 131 2 2 8.6% 37.1%

I guess the Yankees finally replaced the guy wearing No. 12 with the real Chase Headley on May 1st. April Headley stinks. Get that guy outta here. May through July Headley has been pretty damn cool though. He’s hit .285/.348/.444 (111 wRC+) in 230 plate appearances from May 1st onward, and currently owns a .255/.329/.378 (90 wRC+) line overall. Considering where he started, that’s pretty freakin’ good.

Of course, April happened and we can’t just ignore it. It cost the Yankees games in the standings. How many? That’s up for debate. There’s no debate he was a major drag on the offense that first month. The good news is Headley has turned it around and he did it relatively quickly. He had the one bad month and that was it. It’s not like he’s Teixeira, who’s still looking to get on track offensively heading into the All-Star break.

(Norm Hall/Getty)
(Norm Hall/Getty)

Speaking of turning things around, how about Headley in the field? He was not good defensively at all last season. He basically forgot how to throw. It was hard to watch. Headley seemed to be developing the yips, and in year one of a four-year contract, that’s scary as hell. Thankfully, after an offseason of work, Headley’s defense has bounced back in a big way this summer. He throws with conviction, and he’s also sure-handed at the hot corner.

Given Gregorius’ bobble issues and Teixeira’s in-and-out-of-the-lineup-ness, Headley has probably been the Yankees’ best and most reliable defender this season. Certainly on the infield, anyway. That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? Props to Headley for climbing out of that defensive rut. He worked hard at it and is back to being an above-average gloveman at third base. Between the defense and his offense since May 1st, Headley’s been solid this year.

Second Half Outlook: I’m a Headley believer, have been for years, and I think the guy we’ve seen since May 1st is the real him. Maybe not 111 wRC+ good offensively, but close. I think he’ll settle in around a 100 wRC+ and continue to be an asset in the field. That said, the Yankees are probably going to need more from Headley in the second half to get back into the race. No matter what he does, his performance in April will ensure he’s viewed as having had a bad year come the end of the season.

2016 Midseason Review: The Catchers

Now that the All-Star break has arrived, it’s time to look back and review the first half of the season. We start today with the catchers. The Yankees know a thing or two about quality backstops, historically.

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

The Yankees came into the season with an open spot behind the plate. Not the starter, of course. Veteran Brian McCann is entrenched as the team’s No. 1 backstop. The backup job was open following the trade of John Ryan Murphy, and for most of the winter it seemed top prospect Gary Sanchez would be the guy. Trade Murphy to clear a spot for Sanchez? Makes perfect sense.

That’s not what happened, however. Austin Romine beat out Sanchez for the job, just one year after being designated for assignment and passing through waivers unclaimed. Romine out-performed Sanchez in Spring Training, and the fact Sanchez had minor league options and Romine did not surely factored into the decision as well. McCann and Romine have been the team’s duo behind the plate all season. Let’s review their first half of 2016.

Brian McCann: Steadily Unspectacular

It really does look like McCann’s first year in pinstripes was an adjustment period. He hit .232/.286/.406 (93 wRC+) with 23 home runs that first season in New York, which is really good for a catcher, but I think that was a notch below expectations. The last two years have been much better, especially the first halves. Here are McCann’s first half numbers the last three years:

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ HR BB% K%
2014 330 .239/.294/.377 88 10 6.4% 14.8%
2015 290 .259/.331/.471 117 14 8.3% 18.6%
2016 274 .248/.347/.462 115 14 11.7% 19.7%

Much, much better the last two years. McCann has never not hit for power, especially with the Yankees, but now the walks have returned, boosting his OBP. He’s retained his ability to hold his own against lefties as well, hitting .235/.316/.451 (103 wRC+) against southpaws in the first half. McCann came to the Yankees having not hit left-handers in years. He’s now put up good numbers against them all three seasons in pinstripes.

The offense has been more than fine relative to the position. Defensively though, it seems McCann’s game has taken a step back this year. First and foremost, he’s thrown out only 13 of 54 basestealers, or 24.1%. That’s down from 36.8% the last two years. The Yankees parted ways with bullpen catcher Gary Tuck over the winter, and McCann credited Tuck for improving his throwing — he threw out 24.1% of basestealers his last two years with Atlanta — so his departure may explain the decline.

Both StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus rate McCann as one of the top pitch-framers in the game, so nothing has changed there. Blocking balls in the dirt seems to be a real problem though, and there’s no real way to quantify that. McCann has allowed four passed balls and 16 wild pitches, and, uh, so? That doesn’t help us. Those numbers don’t reflect the balls that get by even though the runner doesn’t advance, or McCann’s technique. We’ve seen a few of these this year:

Brian McCann block

Pitch in the dirt, McCann stabs at it instead of getting his body in front of it, and the ball hops away. That particular pitch went in the books as a wild pitch and is thus blamed on the pitcher, but did McCann put himself in the best possible position to block that ball? Not really. I feel like that’s been happening more often this year than it did the last two years.

Now, McCann is 32 and he’s got over 11,000 big league innings behind the plate on his legs, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that his mobility is not what it once was. It’s easy for me to sit here and say McCann has let some balls get by because he didn’t go down and square them up with his chest protector, but there’s a self-preservation aspect to this as well. Jumping around and going to your knees all the time probably isn’t such a great idea for a guy with all that wear and tear on his legs.

Overall, McCann has again been rock solid for the Yankees in the first half, especially on offense. He’s been an above-average hitter thanks to his walks and power, he’s picked up several big hits …

… and he’s been good behind the plate defensively. As good as he’s been in the past? I don’t think so. But he’s not Jesus Montero back there either. McCann, who was hampered by toe and elbow injuries at times in the first half, is doing exactly what the Yankees need him to do. Provide some pop and be a steadying presence behind the plate.

Second Half Outlook: McCann, like many Yankees, struggled big time down the stretch last season. He plays a grueling position and fatigue is inevitable, but obviously the team hopes to avoid a repeat. It’s imperative if they want to make a run at a postseason spot. Extra rest — McCann has started 62 of 88 games behind the dish — could be in the cards.

Austin Romine: Latest Backup Catcher Factory Product

I’m starting to think the Yankees can pull someone out of the bleachers and turn him into a quality backup catcher. Romine is the club’s third homegrown backup catcher in the last three years, and all three have been rock solid or better. Here’s the list:

2016 Austin Romine: .265/.278/.441 (80 wRC+)
2015 John Ryan Murphy: .277/.327/.406 (99 wRC+)
2014 Francisco Cervelli: .301/.370/432 (130 wRC+)

Romine has been the worst hitter of the three overall because he hasn’t matched Murphy’s or Cervelli’s on-base ability. He has hit for way more power though, mostly in the form of doubles. In fact, Romine has nine doubles on the season, the same number as McCann in 40% of the plate appearances.

The league average catcher is hitting .239/.308/.385 (84 wRC+) this season, and man, I wish there was an easy way to calculate the average line for backup catchers, because it would be way lower than that. In a vacuum, Romine has been a below-average hitter. In the world of backup catchers, he’s been very good. That bar is extremely low.

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Defensively, the numbers say Romine has been pretty poor behind the plate. StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus rate his framing as average at best, basestealers are 12-for-14 (!) against him, and he’s allowed nine passed pitches in only 227.1 innings. Yikes. He hasn’t seemed nearly that bad to me. I was surprised to see such poor throwing and passed ball/wild pitch numbers.

Look at the numbers and wow, Romine looks bad on both sides of the ball. I guess he’s appeared to be better watching him play — at least to me — because expectations were so low. Romine didn’t hit at all in 2013, his only other extended stretch in the big leagues, and again, this is guy who went unclaimed on waivers last spring. It seemed he was only keeping the backup job warm for Sanchez, but he got off to a nice start and has kept the job.

The Yankees traded Cervelli after 2014 and Murphy after 2015. Will they trade Romine after 2016? Maybe! Sanchez is looming, after all. For now he’s done an okay job as McCann’s backup — Romine’s .286/.305/.464 (95 wRC+) line against lefties has made him a fine platoon option — and allowed the Yankees to remain patient with Sanchez by giving him more time to work on his defense in Triple-A.

Second Half Outlook: Romine has been good, but not so good that he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder. Sanchez has had a strong Triple-A season, and if the Yankees do decide to throw in the towel and sell, giving Sanchez a bunch of starts in the second half would make sense. Romine would be the odd man out in that situation.