Building the Most Sensible Lineup for the 2016 Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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

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

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

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

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

The Leadoff Man

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

The Two-Hole

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

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

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

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

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

The 3-4-5(-6) Hitters

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

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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

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

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

The Bottom Third

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 16th Camp Notes: Gardner, McCann, Relievers

The Yankees beat the Blue Jays by the score of 2-1 earlier tonight. Brett Gardner went 0-for-2 in his spring debut after dealing with a wrist problem earlier in camp. He told Jack Curry everything went well and he’s scheduled to play again Friday. Starlin Castro hit a two-run homer while Jacoby Ellsbury, Alex Rodriguez, and Chase Headley each had one hit.

Nathan Eovaldi started and did not allow a hit or a run, but he reached his pitch count (45-ish) after only two innings. He struck out two and walked two. Aroldis Chapman, Diego Moreno, and Branden Pinder each struck out a pair in a scoreless inning. The Yankees struck out 13 batters total in the game. Here is the box score, here are the video highlights, and here are the little bit of notes from Tampa:

  • Brian McCann is feeling better after taking that foul tip to the knee the other day. “I still might wait one more day,” said Joe Girardi. “He was much better today and he was talking about playing (Wednesday), but I said, ‘Let’s just see.’ If you feel it at all, it’s kind of silly in Spring Training to send you out there.” [Mark Feinsand]
  • Now that Grapefruit League play is two weeks old, Girardi said he will begin to evaluate the shuttle relievers and determine who will make the club. “This is the time when they have to start showing us what they can do and try to make the club,” he said. [Bryan Hoch]
  • Following Goose Gossage’s latest nonsensical tirade, Brian Cashman said the Yankees won’t waste time talking to him again. Girardi pointed out Gossage has freedom of speech, but not “freedom of consequences.” Joe gets it. [Brendan Kuty, Jared Diamond]

The Yankees will be on the road to play the Pirates tomorrow afternoon. Day game on the road after a night game? Guessing we won’t see many regulars. Masahiro Tanaka is lined up for that start. There will be no YES or live MLB Network broadcast of the game. You’ll be able to watch on MLB.tv though.

Spring Training Game Thread: Gardner’s Debut

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the first time this spring, Brett Gardner is in the Yankees’ lineup. Gardner is making his Grapefruit League debut tonight after nursing a bone bruise in his left wrist earlier in camp. He originally hurt himself crashing into the wall to make a catch in the wildcard game. Gardner has been taking batting practice and all that the last few weeks. Now it’s time to get into a game. He’s scheduled for three at-bats.

Nathan Eovaldi will make his second spring start tonight after being slowed by a minor groin pull. He looked really sharp in his first outing — Eovaldi was already hitting 99 in early-March — and hopefully that carries over tonight. The starters have been quietly excellent this spring. They have a 2.48 ERA in 32.2 innings even with Luis Severino getting rocked in his first start. Here is the Blue Jays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup, which looks awfully close to the lineup they figure to send out there on Opening Day:

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

Available Pitchers & Position Players: No idea, sorry. None of the reporters in Tampa posted the lineup card anywhere. Seems like Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller are both lined up to pitch today though. We’ll see.

Not a bad night for baseball in Tampa. A tad cloudy and cool, but not rainy or windy or anything. Tonight’s game will begin at 6:30pm ET and you can watch on YES and MLB.tv. MLB Network is not showing the game live, but they will show it on tape delay at 12:30am ET later tonight. Enjoy the game.

Ivan Nova is showing off a slightly new delivery in Spring Training

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

By any measure, the 2015 season was close to a disaster for Ivan Nova. He returned from Tommy John surgery at midseason and had a 5.07 ERA (4.87 FIP) in 94 innings, which temporarily cost him his rotation spot in September. His strikeouts were down and lefties crushed him. It was not a good year at all.

After a season like that, a pitcher and his pitching coach are going to look for answers. It’s reasonable to expect Nova to improve as he gets further away from Tommy John surgery, sure, but that can’t be the only solution. Nova and pitching coach Larry Rothschild had to figure something out, and it appears that something is a slightly revamped delivery. Here is 2015 Nova (on the left) vs. 2016 Nova (right):

Ivan Nova 2015 vs. 2016

Nova is no longer going over his head during his delivery. I can’t tell if that’s the only difference, but it is the most obvious difference. Nova was not bringing his hands over his head in last Wednesday’s start against the Mets, his only other televised outing of the spring, so this has been going on for a while now. It wasn’t a spur of the moment thing last night.

As far as I can tell, neither Nova nor Rothschild has talked about the reworked delivery with reporters this spring, so we’re stuck guessing why the changes were made. How exactly does keeping his hands at his chest during his delivery help Nova? In my totally amateur opinion, this right here looks like the biggest benefit of Nova’s new mechanics:

Ivan Nova 2015 vs. 2016 head

When Ivan brought his hands over his head, he turned his head down toward the ground for a few moments. With his new mechanics, Nova is able to keep his head forward and his eyes on the target the entire time. Before he would pick up his target, begin his delivery, look at the ground, then pick up the target again. Now he never takes his eyes off the catcher.

That … seems like kind of a big deal? We’ve all played catch before. When you focus on your target you tend to be more accurate. At least I do. I don’t know if this is the reason behind the mechanical change, but it does seem like a benefit. Nova no longer has to pick up his target in the middle of his delivery. And considering the majority of his issues are command related (fat pitches over the middle of the plate) and not stuff related, this might be a big help.

We’ll see. We’ll see if it helps and we’ll see if Nova sticks with it. Nova and Rothschild have clearly identified this as some kind of potential solution. Remember, Ivan had been bringing his hands over his head his entire career. Now he’s no longer doing it and that’s a big deal. There’s a lot of muscle memory that has to be changed. Making an adjustment like this is not as easy as it looks.

Nova has thrown well so far this spring (two runs in nine innings), and while he may not have a rotation spot come Opening Day, he’ll inevitably get a chance to start this summer. If these new mechanics help him be effective, Nova stands to make himself a lot of money as a free agent next winter.

The Best No. 3 Reliever in Baseball [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Over the last three years, Dellin Betances has made the transition from control-challenged minor league starter to two-time All-Star setup man. He’s gone from busted prospect to indispensable big leaguer. This is the ten-year anniversary of Dellin’s draft year, you know. It’s been a long time coming.

Most teams would make a reliever of Betances’ caliber their closer. With the Yankees, Dellin is only their third best option in the bullpen behind Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. I mean, you could argue Betances is the best of the three, the same way you could argue Miller or Chapman is the best of three. They’re all awesome. Chapman is going to close though, and Miller is going to close during Chapman’s suspension, so I guess that makes Dellin the third option.

Either way, Betances will be a crucial part of the bullpen and a crucial part of the Yankees this summer. They’re built from the ninth inning forward. The plan to build a lead however possible — they have to out-score their own starting pitcher, so to speak — then turn it over to the bullpen. Dellin figures to be the first guy out of the bullpen most nights. Let’s look at three important aspects of his 2016 season.

Watch His Workload

Betances is a massive human — he’s listed at 6-foot-8 and 265 lbs. on the team’s official site, though I think he’s heavier than that (not in a bad way) — and he’s endured a heavy workload these last two years. He threw 174 innings from 2014-15, nearly 20 innings more than any other reliever in baseball, and Dellin admitted to being fatigued late last year. “I think that will help my workload as well, having Chapman there,” he said over the winter (video link).

Of course, Betances’ ability to throw a lot of innings is a huge part of his value, and the Yankees want to maintain that ability. Perhaps Chapman will be able to help here. Joe Girardi can use Betances for two innings one day, then be better able to give him that extra day of rest because Miller and Chapman will still be available. Throwing two innings at a time is not necessarily a bad thing. Throwing two innings and not getting enough rest is a bad thing.

Pitching is inherently dangerous. Pitching while fatigued is even more dangerous, and the Yankees want to make sure Betances is effective not only this season, but the next several seasons as well. Dellin’s in this for the long haul. Girardi has to figure out a way to balance winning now with Betances’ long-term health, which is not easy. Hopefully the Chapman pickup means Girardi can give Dellin that extra day of rest on occasion this season. It could go a long way.

What About The Walks?

In terms of performance, the only significant difference between 2014 Betances and 2015 Betances was his walk rate. His strikeout (39.6% vs. 39.5%) and ground ball (46.6% vs. 47.7%) rates were basically identical, yet his walk rate jumped from 7.0% in 2014 to 12.1% in 2015. It was especially bad early in the season and late in the season. Not so bad in the middle:

Dellin Betances walk rateBetances has a history of high walk rates, so this isn’t completely out of the ordinary. He walked 12.2% of batters faced in Triple-A in 2013, which was actually an improvement from his 15.7% walk rate at Double-A and Triple-A in 2012. Lots of walks is nothing new for Dellin, but that’s kind of a problem, right? You don’t want the high walk rate. We want Betances to get back to that 7.0% walk rate he had in 2014.

Tall pitchers have a long history of struggling to repeat their mechanics, leading to poor control. Randy Johnson didn’t post his first sub-10.0% walk rate until age 29, for example. Betances, who turns 28 next week, is on record saying working out of the bullpen helps him maintain his delivery because he pitches more often. He’s not throwing more innings, but he’s pitching more games, and the daily work helps him.

Betances was pretty awesome even with all the walks last season. Hopefully he can bring his walk rate down this year. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. With that big frame and that powerful delivery, I think Betances will always be prone to bouts of wildness. It comes with the territory, and as long as he keeps missing bats and getting weak contact, the walks won’t be a major problem.

Fireman

Over the last two years Girardi has shown a willingness to bring Betances into the middle of an inning to clean up another pitcher’s mess. He appeared in 74 games last year, and eleven times he entered in the middle of the inning with at least two runners on base. Twenty times he entered a game with either the tying or go-ahead run on base. When push came to shove, Dellin was on the mound.

With Chapman in tow and Miller not traded, Girardi will have some more freedom to use Betances to put out fires in the middle innings. Girardi does like to assign his relievers specific innings and it would be easy to shoehorn Dellin in as the seventh inning guy, but I’m sure we’ll see him in the sixth inning a bunch of times too. Girardi has shown he will do that. Except now we’re going to see the starter handing the ball right to Betances. Not a middle reliever. Adding Chapman makes Betances available for middle innings and that’s huge. Lots of games are won and lost there.

Out of options market doesn’t appear to have much help for the Yankees

Lyons. (Presswire)
Lyons. (Presswire)

Each year at the end of Spring Training, there is always a flurry of minor trades as teams finalize their Opening Day rosters. Most of those deals feature out of options players, the guys who have to go through waivers to be assigned to the minor leagues. Rather than lose them for nothing on waivers, teams trade those guys for whatever they can get. Cash, a middling prospect, whatever.

The Yankees have three out of options players: Dustin Ackley, Ivan Nova, and Austin Romine. Ackley and Nova will be on the Opening Day roster in some capacity. Romine is battling for the backup catcher’s spot and could very well end up out of the organization before the start of the regular season. Over a hundred players are out of options this year and the majority have Opening Day roster spots locked up. Very few are actually available.

The out of options market appears to have less to offer than usual this year. I mean, the out of options market is not a gold mine or anything, but usually there’s one or two useful players without roster spots. Not this year. As a result, there are very few out of options players who make sense for the Yankees. With an assist from MLBTR, here are five out of options players of potential interest.

IF Cristhian Adames, Rockies
2016 ZiPS: .284/.327/.386 (78 wRC+), 7 HR, 10 SB, +1.1 WAR
Why? Utility infielder Daniel Descalso took a pitch to the hand and broke a bone last week, clearing a bench spot for Adames. He’s a 24-year-old switch-hitting infielder who came up as a shortstop and also has experience at second and third bases, making him a candidate for that last bench spot. Adames has no power, but he’s had decent contact rates throughout the minors, and he has a reputation for being a strong glove man. He’s basically a taller, switch-hitting version of Ronald Torreyes. The Descalso injury creates a need for the Rockies though, so Adames figures to stick around in Colorado for a little longer.

LHP Tyler Lyons, Cardinals
2016 ZIPS: 3.98 ERA (3.89 FIP), 20.7 K%, 5.1 BB%, +1.4 WAR
Why? The Yankees drafted Lyons with their tenth round pick in 2009, but he opted to return to Oklahoma State for his senior season, then the Cardinals grabbed him in the ninth round in 2010. Lyons, 28, has starter stuff — four and two-seamers right around 90 mph, low-80s slurve, low-80s changeup — but no rotation spot. He doesn’t have a bullpen spot either since it is “more likely than not” the Cardinals will carry Rule 5 Draft pick Matt Bowman into the season, according to Adam Rubin.

The Yankees don’t have any room in their rotation either, but they definitely have room in the bullpen, and Lyons could be another long man who serves as rotation insurance. He’s handled heavy workloads and shown the ability to bounce back quickly, so his arm is pretty resilient, and that’s a plus. If the Cardinals can’t squeeze Lyons onto their roster, I suspect more than a few teams will come calling.

RHP Neil Ramirez, Cubs
2016 ZiPS: 2.94 ERA (3.34 FIP), 27.4 K%, 9.9 BB%, +0.5 WAR
Why? Right now the Cubs have eight relievers for seven bullpen spots, and it looks like the last spot will go to either Ramirez or veteran lefty Clayton Richard. Ramirez was limited to 14 innings last year by shoulder problems and Richard signed a $2M contract over the winter, so yeah. Safe to say Richard is the favorite for that spot right now.

Ramirez, 26, is an ultra-rare four-pitch reliever. He lives in the 91-95 mph range with his two and four-seam fastballs, and he also throws a mid-80s slider and an upper-70s curveball. As a result, Ramirez has had a minimal platoon split in his career, and he misses an awful lot of bats. The shoulder trouble is a concern, as is the elbow inflammation he dealt with in 2014, so he’s risky. If healthy though, Ramirez could be a nice little middle innings weapon.

RHP Michael Tonkin, Twins
2016 ZiPS: 3.88 ERA (3.72 FIP), 20.9 K%, 6.5 BB%, +0.4 WAR
Why? Tonkin might throw too hard for the Twins. Okay, fine, that joke is outdated, but it does appear the Twinkies don’t have room in the bullpen for the 26-year-old Tonkin and his mid-90s gas. J.R. Graham, Ryan Pressly, Alex Meyer, and Ryan O’Rourke are his competition for a bullpen spot. Tonkin spent most of last season in Triple-A and he owns a 3.35 ERA (4.07 FIP) in 53.2 big league innings over the last two seasons.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Tonkin makes sense for the Yankees given their shuttle relievers. He’s not much different than, say, Branden Pinder or Nick Goody. They’re all fastball slider guys, except Pinder and Goody have options and Tonkin doesn’t. Adding another arm to the stable is never a bad idea, but Tonkin can’s start like Lyons and he doesn’t offer four pitches with a history of missing bat like Ramirez. He’s just another guy.

RHP Steven Wright, Red Sox
2016 ZiPS: 4.58 ERA (4.50 FIP), 16.3 K%, 7.1 BB%, +0.8 WAR
Why? As with Lyons, the knuckleballing Wright could be another long man/rotation insurance plan. He wasn’t all that good last year, but the good thing about knuckleballers is their resiliency. They can throw three innings today, another two innings tomorrow, then three innings two days after that. That’s a nice trait to have in a long man. Two problems: 1) the Red Sox probably aren’t eager to trade with the Yankees (and vice versa), and 2) the Red Sox aren’t going to move Wright as long as Eduardo Rodriguez’s knee is acting up. Stocking up on rotation depth is always a good idea. It’s just hard to think Wright would ever actually be available to the Yankees.

* * *

The Yankees have some open spots in the bullpen and that last bench spot is up for grabs, but unfortunately the out of options market doesn’t have a whole lot to offer. Lyons and Ramirez are the two most interesting out of options players in my opinion, and it’s not impossible they stick with the Cardinals and Cubs come Opening Day. There’s nothing here that is clearly better than what the Yankees already have in house.

March 15th Camp Notes: Gardner, Severino, Lindgren

The Yankees beat the Red Sox 6-3 earlier tonight, in their first night game of the spring. Ivan Nova started and held the BoSox to one run on three hits and one walk in four innings. He fanned four. Ivan’s strong spring continues. Bryan Mitchell allowed one hit in three scoreless innings out of the bullpen. He looked pretty sharp as well. The Nicks (Rumbelow and Goody) were each charged with a run.

At the plate, Aaron Hicks hit a solo home run the other way against David Price, and Dustin Ackley had a pair of hits as well. Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira both went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. Cesar Puello, Cito Culver, Gary Sanchez, and Ben Gamel all had base hits off the bench. Here’s the box score, here are the video highlights, and here’s the latest from Tampa:

The Yankees will play another night game tomorrow. That one will be at home against the Twins. Nathan Eovaldi will make his second start of the spring and the game will air on YES at 6:30pm ET.