Opening Week Overreaction: The Struggles of Sanchez and Bird

(John Raoux/AP)
(John Raoux/AP)

To say that Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird had a disappointing opening series would be a fairly strong understatement. The duo combined to bat .077/.143/.115 against the Rays this week, and by fWAR’s reckoning they’ve already cost the Yankees -0.4 wins. It’s a less than ideal start to the season, to say the least – particularly for two players that are being counted on to be cornerstones of the team’s offense this year. And it feels more surprising than might normally be the case, given Sanchez’s utter dominance in August and September last year, and Bird’s Spring Training performance (lest we forget that he was arguably the best hitter in baseball in March).

As was the case when I wrote about Masahiro Tanaka earlier this week, I offer a brief disclaimer: this is a minuscule sample size. It’s three games against a good pitching staff in one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the majors. There’s no reason to worry at this juncture. However, it is worth taking a look to see if there are any trends that may explain this mini-slump.

Gary Sanchez

Sanchez does not have an extra-base hit yet. That isn’t shocking in and of itself – most every hitter in Major League Baseball will have several such stretches throughout the season. Sanchez went six straight games without an extra-base hit in September; it just didn’t stand out as much because he was hitting .374/.441/.798 when that streak started, and could do no wrong. It’s much easier to shine a light on such a stretch when it opens the season, and leaves a hitter slashing .071/.071/.071.

What could be causing this, aside from luck, random variation, and every small sample size caveat you can think of?

It’s interesting to note that Sanchez has yet to go to the opposite field. He was a pull-heavy hitter in 2016, with just 15.1% of his batted balls going the other way – but he’s pulling nearly two-thirds of balls in play to left this year (an increase of 9.5 percentage points), and going up the middle more. The shift-savvy Rays are undoubtedly aware of his preexisting tendency to pull the ball, and played him as such in the opening series … and it seems as though Sanchez played right into their hands.

Sanchez is also swinging at more pitches (from 44.9% last year to 54.2% this year), and making more contact (from 71.1% to 75.0%). That seems indicative of bad luck for Sanchez, as more balls in play oftentimes means more hits – especially when the ball is hit hard. And, as per FanGraphs, he’s hitting the ball harder than last year, and significantly so as his soft contact rate has dropped by 9.4 percentage points to a ridiculously low 9.1%. Despite this, his BABIP sits at .091.

The extra swinging may be indicative of Sanchez pressing (as is the fact that he hasn’t taken a walk yet), but it isn’t a sign of impatience. He’s swinging at fewer pitches outside of the strikezone (32.8% in 2016 against 24.1% this year), and he’s seeing a robust 4.5 pitches per plate appearance. That 4.5 P/PA mark would have placed him third in all of baseball last year, and puts him 30th among 199 qualified hitters at this point.

It is difficult to really dig into Sanchez’s numbers and find something disconcerting, with the possible exception of his ignorance as to the opposite field. And, even then, he thrived in 2016 by hammering the ball to the pull side.

Greg Bird

Despite his impressive 2015 debut, monster Spring Training, and undeniable hype, Bird was always entering 2017 as something of an unknown. He missed all of 2016 with an injury that has a spotty track record for recovery, and we seem to forget that he had played a total of 80 games above Double-A (34 at Triple-A and 46 in the majors) prior to this year. The projection systems were all over the place as a result, with ZiPS forecasting a middling .234/.307/449 line, PECOTA sitting in the middle at .244/.328/.457, and Steamer tossing out an optimistic .264/.346/.489. He was great at Triple-A and with the Yankees, but it was a long time ago over a small-ish sample size.

There are a few red flags in the even smaller sample size that is 2017, though. As per PITCHf/x, Bird has a horrendous 40.0% contact percentage, and is whiffing on 22.2% of his swings. Both marks would have been the worst in baseball last year, and both are in the bottom-ten this year (his contact percentage is dead last). His strikeout rate has dropped by 1.2 percentage points when compared to 2015, even as strikeout rates have risen by over two percentage points; he’s also swinging at fewer pitches overall, and seeing plenty of pitches (4.5 P/PA). It isn’t all bad on this front.

That being said, unlike Sanchez, Bird does not seem to be making good contact. His hard- and medium-hit rates have dropped precipitously, and he’s making soft contact on 37.5% of the balls he puts in play. That helps to explain his .083 BABIP, as does the fact that (per FanGraphs) he’s yet to hit a line drive. This could be a classification, of course, but the eye test confirms that he hasn’t quite driven the ball yet. Oddly enough, all of his batted balls have gone to center or left thus far, making him the anti-Sanchez in that regard.

The lack of pulled balls could be encouraging in and of itself, as the shift was something of a problem for Bird in 2015. Would mentioning small sample sizes here be beating a dead horse?

This was supposed to read as an overreaction, which is generally pessimistic. However, it is difficult to parse these numbers and not see how influenced they are by the simple fact that the duo has combined for 28 plate appearances in three games. It’s still the first week of the season, they’re both just 24-years-old, and they’re both supremely talented hitters with some measure of success in the show (however brief it may have been). And some of the underlying numbers serve as a testament to bad luck more so than anything else.

Even so, it would be lovely if their bats could wake up with gusto this weekend.

Mailbag: Holliday, Carter, Austin, Yelich, Judge, Frazier, Torres

Big mailbag this week. Fifteen questions. You guys are excited about the new season, huh? The mailbag email address is RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com. Send your questions there each week.

Holliday. (Presswire)
Holliday. (Presswire)

Nick asks (short version): I understand why Holliday is the favorite for the DH job this year, but I do wonder why it seems like he is such a lock over Chris Carter. Carter does bring tremendous power and is far younger and less likely to completely collapse.

Matt Holliday‘s contract and track record are going to ensure he has a long leash, though at this point of their careers, he and Carter aren’t all that far apart in terms of expected production. The shape of their production is different, but you’re going to get similar overall value. The numbers:

Holliday in 2016: .246/.322/.461 (109 wRC+), 20 HR
Carter in 2016: .222/.321/.499 (112 wRC+), 41 HR

Holliday ZiPS for 2017: .244/.325/.447 (106 wRC+), 14 HR
Carter ZiPS for 2017: .223/.316/.509 (117 wRC+), 37 HR (that’s assuming full-time duty)

Holliday will strike out less and Carter will draw more walks, and neither will provide much value on the bases. The Yankees are hoping Holliday will be more productive as a full-time designated hitter because it’ll keep him off his feet and avoid wear and tear, but, at the same time, he is also 37, and that’s not a good age for a baseball player.

It’s obviously too early to give up on Holliday and I do think he could very well end up being more productive this year than last year as a designated hitter in Yankee Stadium. I also don’t think he should have the job indefinitely. If he’s not looking too good a few weeks into the season, I absolutely hope the Yankees start giving some of his at-bats to Carter. Older players have a way of making you keep waiting for a slump to end, you know?

John asks: I count 5 players on 40 man who probably can’t help us this year, have little or no experience in AAA: J. Mateo, M. Andujar, Y. Ramirez, R. Herrera, D. German. Is this too many future prospects tying up usable roster space for this year? We’ve lost some usable pieces like Goody, Bleier, Pazos, Mullee, And Lindgren who if healthy could have helped this year. Is roster balanced enough?

I could see all three of those pitchers (Yefrey Ramirez, Ronald Herrera, Domingo German) helping the Yankees in some capacity this season. Jorge Mateo and Miguel Andujar are top prospects who had to be protected from the Rule 5 Draft. Can’t risk losing guys like that for nothing. Among the players the Yankees cut loose over the winter, Jacob Lindgren is the only one who I think could come back to bite them, and he’s going to miss the  season with Tommy John surgery. Others like Nick Goody and James Pazos are up-and-down depth arms, and the Yankees have plenty of those. Mateo and Andujar are the only players on the 40-man right now who I think have no chance of helping the Yankees in 2017. I think everyone else is a call-up candidate, some sooner than others.

Mark asks: Assuming Tyler Austin looks great at the plate once he’s healthy, what do you see as his short and long term role with the big league club? With Bird, Holliday and Judge entrenched in their positions and Carter and Hicks ready off the bench, I’m not seeing where he has a role with this club this year barring any injuries.

In the short-term Austin’s role will likely be up-and-down depth player. Whenever someone gets hurt or they need an extra right-handed bat for a few days, he figures to be the guy who gets the call over Rob Refsnyder (once healthy). Long-term, I’m guessing the Yankees would like to have him in their first base/corner outfield/designated hitter mix. Holliday is on a one-year contract and there’s no guarantee Carter will be around in 2018 either — he will remain under control as an arbitration-eligible player next year, so the Yankees could bring him back if they want — so they’ll have ways to get Austin on the roster. It’s not easy to break through with Austin’s profile. Those right-handed hitting/right-handed throwing corner bats need to provide a lot of thump to stick around.

Joe asks: I see Ben Gamel is out there in Seattle fighting for a roster spot in the outfield. How do you think the players we acquired in the trade (Jio Orozco and Juan de Paula) last year develop this year and beyond?

Gamel did not make the Mariners and has been sent down to Triple-A, his third straight season at the level. That’s not good. He’s very much at risk of becoming a Quad-A type. (Refsnyder is in the same boat.) The two kids the Yankees got for Gamel are still only 19, so they’re super young. Orozco will be in the Low-A Charleston rotation this season and DePaula will start back in Extended Spring Training before joining one of the short season leagues in June. They’re both right-handed pitchers.

Orozco is the better prospect of the two because his curveball and changeup are further along. Neither was particularly close to my top 30 prospects list but and Baseball America had them in Seattle’s top 30 last year, so they’re not nobodies. I’m hoping Orozco can get to High-A next year and DePaula can do enough this year to start next season with Low-A Charleston. For that to happen, they have to develop more consistency with their secondary stuff. Neither has ace ceiling or anything like that. The Yankees hope they’ll develop into nice back-end starters down the line. Fringe MLB players like Gamel usually don’t fetch much in a trade.

Paul asks: I’m looking to take my kids to a Thunder game this year. Realistically, when do you think which prospects might be there? How long will Torres be there and does Rutherford get there this year? Any chance they overlap?

I can’t see Blake Rutherford getting to Double-A in his first full pro season. He might not even get to High-A. Keeping him in Low-A the entire season would be completely reasonable. Mateo should get to Double-A at some point though, perhaps before the start of June. He and Gleyber Torres could very well overlap. June might be the sweet spot. That’s early enough that Torres, Andujar, and Justus Sheffield should still be with Trenton, but also late enough that Mateo (and Ian Clarkin?) figures to be up from High-A.

Yelich. (Harry How/Getty)
Yelich. (Harry How/Getty)

Dennis asks: I agree with your sentiments that Christian Yelich is criminally underrated. Obviously, the Marlins aren’t moving him but if they did, what do you think it would take to get him. My Trade Proposal Sucks but would a Clint Frazier and James Kaprielian get them talking. Marlins are short on pitching.

This question was sent in before Kaprielian’s elbow started acting up again. Frazier and healthy Kaprielian would have to be the start of a package, not the package. And the other pieces would have to be fairly significant too. Yelich turned only 25 in December and he’s owed $46.75M total through 2021 with an affordable ($15M) option for 2022. He’s young, excellent, and signed cheap. Tough to beat that combination. Yelich hit .290/.365/.406 (118 wRC+) from 2013-15 before hitting .298/.376/.483 (130 wRC+) last season, so he’s still getting better.

There aren’t many players I would consider trading Torres to acquire, but Yelich is one of those players. I’d rather build a hypothetical package around Frazier and healthy Kaprielian. I’m just not sure that’s possible. The third and fourth pieces might have to be players like Aaron Judge and Luis Severino. I can’t see the Marlins trading a borderline star signed so affordably for a bunch of prospects. They’ll need some MLB players in return. They could ask for Judge and Greg Bird and more and I don’t think it would be crazy at all. I’m not saying I’d do it, but the Marlins wouldn’t be crazy to ask.

Doron asks: Finally, the Yankees are in a position in which they have youngsters that warrant an early career extension to lock in a payday for the players, and for the Yankees to obtain cost certainty and not have to go to arbitration. The ? is, at what point do the Player Association push for a Bird Rule a la NBA for teams to be able to retain their own players without it counting against the salary cap for luxury tax purposes?

There’s no salary cap in baseball! The luxury tax effectively acts as a salary cap now. MLBPA may push for something similar to the Bird Rule, but I can’t see MLB ever agreeing to it. The owners want the luxury tax to keep costs down. They’re not going to put a mechanism in place that allows clubs to exceed the luxury tax threshold without penalty. The Yankees and Red Sox and Dodgers may push for a Bird Rule, but most clubs aren’t particularly close to the luxury tax threshold, and they’d fight it. Bottom line: the luxury tax is in place to, in order, 1) save money by creating an artificial salary cap, and 2) promote competitive balance. I can’t see MLB letting rich clubs skirt the luxury tax with a Bird Rule.

Greg asks: What is the point of the Rule 5 Draft?

To prevent teams from hoarding talented players and burying them in the minors indefinitely. Nowadays there are all sorts of mechanisms in place to help players get to MLB and stay in MLB as long as possible. That wasn’t always the case. Back in the day when there was no amateur draft, you could sign all the talented prospects and keep them as long as you want. That’s how the Yankees won all those championships. Nowadays players have only three minor league option years, and everyone has to pass through waivers when they’re being removed from the 40-man roster. The goal is give these guys every opportunity to get to and stay in the big leagues.

Adam asks: What’s the over/under date for Judge moving up from the 8th spot? There’s something awful about seeing Ellsbury 5th when literally every other hitter would be more appropriate in that spot.

I’m going to set the over/under on Judge moving out of the eighth spot permanently — not just a game higher in the lineup here or there — at June 5th. That’s an off-day for the Yankees between Games 56 and 57, so almost exactly the one-third point of the season.

Judge has looked pretty good so far, no? He’s only 2-for-12 (.167) at the plate, but his at-bats have been good and he’s not swinging at everything with two strikes. Here are all the two-strike pitches he’s seen this year, via Baseball Savant:

aaron-judge-two-strike-pitchesThe Rays kept trying to get Judge to chase that breaking ball down and away in two-strike counts and he did a pretty good job laying off, for at least that one series. I count three swings and misses and four balls in play, so hooray for that.

Jacoby Ellsbury is 5-for-11 (.455) with a double and a home run so far, so he’s doing his part and not giving Joe Girardi a reason to think about moving him further down the lineup yet. It’s early though. It’s three games. Let’s see where Judge and Ellsbury and everyone else is in a few weeks, then reevaluate things.

Garret asks: Don’t you think the Bethancourt pitching and catching for the Padres greatly increases the feasibility of them keeping Torrens all season?

Sure, but even then Luis Torrens is still only their third catcher. Keep in mind their starting catcher, Austin Hedges, is a 24-year-old top prospect himself, so his development and playing time will be a priority for the Padres. Keeping Torrens is doable but far from ideal, and if they manage to keep him on the roster all season, how much will he play and how much will it hurt his development? The Yankees signed Torrens in July 2012 and, because of his shoulder surgery, he only has 673 career plate appearances. There is definitely value in catching bullpen sessions and sitting in on scouting meetings and all that, but ultimately the kid needs to play and play a lot to get better.

Michael asks: Does Ronald Torreyes have any options remaining? If he has options remaining and if he struggles, do you see a possibility of the Yankees sending him down when Didi returns instead of designating Pete Kozma for assignment?

This question was sent in before Torreyes socked that home run the other night. As far as I can tell Big Toe definitely has one option remaining and likely two. Even if Torreyes were to struggle as the fill-in shortstop, I think the Yankees would keep him over Kozma as the utility infielder. He’s the better player at this point and I’m not sure Torreyes has anything to gain by playing in Triple-A. Maybe he’ll end up struggling so much the Yankees decide to send him down to rebuild confidence, but I don’t see it happening. Torreyes will be fine and the Yankees will cut ties with Kozma, which was the plan all along.

Richard asks: I’ve been trying to read the tat the runs up on Matt Holiday’s huge arm. What does it really say?

Joe Strauss says it’s an Old Testament verse (Job 38:4): “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.” Holliday is a religious guy, apparently. Strauss’ story says he and other Cardinals players used to meet weekly to discuss how to apply lessons from the Bible to their baseball careers. So there you have it.

Headley. (Brian Blanco/Getty)
Headley. (Brian Blanco/Getty)

Kevin asks: I know it’s early, but Chase Headley is definitely off to a better start than in previous years! If he continues to hit decently well (I don’t know let’s say .750 OPS), do you think he has any trade value come August (if the Yankees decide to sell again)? Do you see the Yankees maybe trading him, or keeping him since there are no immediate options to replace him at third?

I think the Yankees are willing to trade Headley right now and will be for the duration of his contract, regardless of what he’s doing on the field. Maybe this hot start will boost his value somewhat, though I don’t see it. Teams know Headley. They have a book on him and two or three month’s worth of at-bats aren’t going to sway them too much. The White Sox figure to trade impending free agent Todd Frazier at some point, so any team looking for third base help figures to check in on Frazier before Headley. Which teams need a third baseman anyway? I don’t see too many. An injury can always change things though. Anyway, yeah, Headley is on the trade block, now and through the end of his contract.

Adam asks: Yelling at Frazier about his hair, calling it a distraction, and now the impossibly stupid decision of Suzyn Waldman telling the world that he (Frazier) asked for Mantle’s number. I can’t help but feel like someone in the organization is going out of their way to embarrass a promising, young player. What is your take?

Nah. If the Yankees have problems with Frazier, they’d handle it behind closed doors, not drag him through the mud publicly. (Dellin Betances probably disagrees with that.) That helps no one. These aren’t the George Steinbrenner in his heyday Yankees. The hair thing was beyond stupid. It’s hair. The fact it became a distraction — a hair cut distraction! — tells you all you need to know about the archaic hair policy. No one does baseball sanctimony quite like the Yankees.

The Mickey Mantle stuff was completely avoidable — the Yankees shot it down and Waldman apologized to Frazier — but the damage is done. It’s out there and in the court of public opinion, Frazier is guilty. Anyone who doesn’t like him will hold it against him. Real talk forthcoming: without Alex Rodriguez to kick around anymore, many fans and media folks needed a new, easy target. Then the punk kid with bright red hair that was a little longer than usual came into their lives. Frazier is going to be a whipping boy going forward. That has been made crystal clear.

Bill asks: What do you think of the decision to rotate Gleyber Torres at multiple positions at Double-A Trenton? Should the Yankees have him focus on becoming a better shortstop or on improving his versatility?

I’m okay with moving him around. Torres is a good defensive shortstop and his bat is going to play anywhere, so it doesn’t hurt to see how his athleticism plays at other positions. I’m not sure whether second base or third base is the best spot long-term. I guess Gleyber will answer that question, right? He might feel more comfortable at third because he’s still on the left side of the infield. Or maybe he likes second better because there’s more action on the middle infield. If the Yankees didn’t have a quality big league shortstop, I’m not sure I’d be on board with moving Torres around. But, since they have Didi Gregorius, I’m cool with it. The best Yankees team going forward has both guys in the lineup.

DotF: Rutherford reaches base three times in Opening Day loss

At long last, the 2017 minor league regular season has arrived. The Yankees have a loaded farm system and this should be a pretty fun year. Even after RHP James Kaprielian complained about pain in his elbow that will send him into various MRI tubes. Blah. Baseball can be such a jerk sometimes. Here are some notes before we get to the Opening Day games:

  • High-A Tampa finally released their roster earlier today. RHP Dillon Tate is not listed on any of the four full season affiliate rosters and I’m not sure why. There’s been no word about an injury, so the Yankees probably held him back in Extended Spring Training. They’ve been working with Tate on all sorts of mechanical stuff since the trade last year, trying to get him back to his fourth overall pick form. We’ll see when he pops back up.
  • OF Jake Cave (knee), 1B Chris Gittens (unknown), LHP Chaz Hebert (elbow), RHP Brody Koerner (unknown), RHP Branden Pinder (elbow), LHP James Reeves (elbow), RHP Nick Rumbelow (elbow), and LHP Stephen Tarpley (unknown) will all start the year on the DL, according to Donnie Collins and Nick Flammia. Hebert, Pinder, and Rumbelow are rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.
  • LHP Miguel Sulbaran, who came over from the Twins in the Eduardo Nunez trade, has been suspended 25 games for violating the minor league drug program, MLB announced. The 25-game ban indicates he tested positive for a drug of abuse (in most cases the kid gets caught smoking pot), not a performance-enhancer. Sulbaran did not pitch last year due to injury.
  • The Yankees have released 3B Drew Bridges, RHP Sean Carley, RHP Kyle Halbohn, RHP Cody Hamlin, RHP Tim Holmes, 1B Kane Sweeney, 2B Josh Gardiner, and OF Nathan Mikolas, according to Matt Eddy. There’s always a ton of cuts after Spring Training. The Yankees have also signed C Sharif Othman. Othman, 28, was with the Marlins from 2011-16. He hit .156/.208/.221 (23 wRC+) in 40 games between High-A and Double-A last season.
  •’s Jonathan Mayo posted a feature on Yankees’ minor league camp as well an interview with OF Blake Rutherford, so make sure you check those out. Also, don’t miss Anthony Castrovince’s feature on LHP Justus Sheffield, who doesn’t get as much attention as he deserves for being a top pitching prospect.
  • And finally, check out 20-80 Baseball’s massive Yankees organizational review. “They may not have the pitching to compete with a juggernaut Red Sox or a strong Toronto ball club in 2017, but don’t think that the rest of the American League doesn’t notice the stirring giant in the Bronx,” said the write-up.

Triple-A Scranton‘s game was rained out. They’ve already postponed tomorrow’s game too. One of the games will be made up as part of a doubleheader Sunday. They haven’t announced a makeup date for the other game yet. RHP Johnny Barbato will start the season opener Saturday, according to Shane Hennigan. LHP Dietrich Enns will start the first game of Sunday’s doubleheader and RHP Luis Cessa will start the home opener Monday. The starter for the second game of the doubleheader is TBA. Might be a bullpen game.

Double-A Trenton was also rained out. I’ll get the Prospect Watch up tomorrow since SS Gleyber Torres didn’t play tonight. This game will be made up as part of a doubleheader Sunday. Prior to the rainout, the rotation to start the season was going to be, in order, RHP Chance Adams, LHP Justin Sheffield, RHP Yefrey Ramirez, RHP Domingo German, and LHP Daniel Camarena, according to Matt Kardos. Not sure what the postponement and doubleheader do to the pitching plans.

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Thursday Night Open Thread

Once again, the Yankees had an off-day today. They had one Saturday, they had one Monday, they have one today, and they’ll have another one Tuesday. Love to have twice as many off-days in the first eleven days of April than in all of March. The threat of rain in a dome is real. Anyway, the Yankees are off again today. They’ll be back at it tomorrow night in Baltimore.

Here is an open thread for the night. The Mets are playing and MLB Network is showing a regional game. Also, all of the local hockey and basketball teams are playing except the Rangers. Talk about those games or anything else here, as long as it’s not religion or politics. Thanks in advance.

(The Yankees are off today, but it is Opening Day in the minors. The first DotF post of the year will be along later. If you can’t wait until then, here are the box scores.)

Revisiting the MLBTR Archives: April 2012

(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)
Stew. (Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)

We are now in April and a new season has begun. That is true today and it was true in 2012 as well. Now that we’re in a new month, it’s time to go through the MLB Trade Rumors archives again. April is usually a slow month for rumors and transactions though. The season has just started and most teams are evaluating their rosters and minor league depth before looking for help outside the organization.

The Yankees remade their rotation during the 2011-12 offseason by signing Hiroki Kuroda and trading for Michael Pineda. They also brought back Freddy Garcia and salary dumped A.J. Burnett. The Yankees didn’t just lose on Opening Day in 2012 — that was the first of these six straight Opening Day losses — they got swept in the first series by the Rays. The cries of panic were quickly erased by a 10-3 stretch. The Yankees went 13-9 in April overall. Let’s dive into the MLBTR archives, shall we?

April 1st, 2012: Minor Moves: Scales, Bulger

The Yankees have signed Jason Bulger to a minor league contract, tweets’s Bryan Hoch. He’ll pitch at Triple-A. After signing a minor league deal with the Twins this winter, Bulger disappointed in Spring Training, allowing 10 earned runs on eight hits and five walks in four innings. He last enjoyed success in 2009 with the Angels.

Bulger had some nice years with the Angels back in the day, throwing 99 innings with a 3.64 ERA (4.40 FIP) from 2009-11. He was just trying to hang on by time he signed with the Yankees. Bulger, then 33, spent the 2012 season in Triple-A, where he had a 3.41 ERA (4.50 FIP) in 34.1 relief innings. He walked 21 and struck out 28 as the designated “veteran arm who makes sure the kids don’t get overworked” reliever. The Yankees have a few guys like that this year (Ernesto Frieri, Jason Gurka), though they’re much deeper in young arms than they were five years ago. The odds of seeing Frieri and Gurka in the Bronx aren’t as good as they would have been a few years back.

April 4th, 2012: Giants, Yanks Swap George Kontos For Chris Stewart

2:32pm: The Yankees have acquired Stewart in exchange for right-hander George Kontos, reports’s Bryan Hoch (on Twitter).

The big-ish surprise trade. Opening Day was April 6th, 2012, and two days earlier the Yankees changed course behind the plate and acquired Chris Stewart to back up Russell Martin. Francisco Cervelli was optioned to Triple-A. It was right around that time we started to learn about the value of pitch-framing, and Stewart was a master at it. Here are the numbers, per StatCorner:

Stewart Cervelli
2011 +16.8 in 460.1 innings +8.4 in 316.1 innings
2012 +14.1 in 395.1 innings +0.2 in 5 innings
2013 +21.7 in 844.1 innings +3.2 in 138 innings

On a rate basis, Stewart was one of the very best pitch-framers in baseball at the time. Cervelli was good, but not as good as Stewart. Stewart backed up Martin in 2012 and hit .241/.292/.319 (65 wRC+) in 157 plate appearances. Cervelli hit .246/.341/.316 (89 wRC+) in 99 Triple-A games.

The Yankees let Martin walk as a free agent following the season and were planning to go with Stewart and Cervelli behind the plate in 2013, but a foul tip broke Cervelli’s hand in April and kept him out most of the season. That gave Austin Romine his first extended taste of big league action.

Kontos, meanwhile, has two World Series rings with the Giants, and has carved out a nice career as a middle reliever. He came into this season with a 2.64 ERA (3.66 FIP) in 264 career innings. I thought Kontos had a chance to be a setup guy and wasn’t too pleased with the trade, but whatever. What’s done is done.

April 4th, 2012: Yankees Sign Ramon Ortiz

The Yankees signed right-hander Ramon Ortiz, Jon Heyman of tweets. It’s a minor league deal, Marc Carig of the Star-Ledger tweets. The Giants recently released the 39-year-old Praver/Shapiro client.

The Yankees have some nice pitching depth in the minors, which hasn’t always been the case over the years. It’s hardly been the case, really. They used to have to pick up guys like Ortiz to chew up innings in Triple-A. Ortiz, then 39 with over 1,400 big league innings to his credit, spent the entire season with Triple-A Scranton, where he had a 3.45 ERA (4.06 FIP) in 169.1 innings. That was the season Scranton had to play entirely on the road while PNC Field was being renovated, so Ortiz, a 12-year MLB veteran, stuck it out and road buses and lived in hotels all summer. Some guys stick around so long because they truly love the game.

By the way, those 169.1 innings Ortiz threw that season are still the most in the farm system since Steven White threw 175.1 innings back in 2006. Aside from Ortiz, only four Yankees farmhands have reached 160 innings in a single minor league season since White: Shaeffer Hall (164.1 in 2012), D.J. Mitchell (161.1 in 2011), Hector Noesi (160.1 in 2010), and Jason Jones (160 in 2008). Geez, those are some names. Shaeffer Hall was the Dietrich Enns of his time.

April 5th, 2012: Yankees Claim Cody Eppley

The Yankees claimed reliever Cody Eppley off of waivers from the Rangers, Joel Sherman of the New York Post tweets. The Rangers had designated the right-hander for assignment yesterday.

You never see it coming with these fringe relievers. The Yankees claimed Eppley off waivers the day before Opening Day, and while he didn’t make the Opening Day roster, he was called up in the middle of April and spent the entire rest of the season in the big leagues. He threw 46 innings with a 3.33 ERA (3.66 FIP) and a 60.3% ground ball rate. Eppley appeared in two games with the Yankees in 2013 before being released at midseason. He’s been bouncing around independent leagues and the Mexican League since 2014. The Yankees got their 40-something good innings out of Eppley and that was it, time to move on.

April 6th, 2012: NL West Notes: Padres, Dodgers, Phelps

The Giants originally requested right-hander David Phelps from the Yankees for catcher Chris Stewart, George A. King III of the New York Post reports. The Yankees ultimately sent right-hander George Kontos to San Francisco.

I don’t remember this at all. Phelps had yet to pitch in the big leagues at the time of the Stewart-Kontos trade, though he made his debut in the middle of the 2012 season. It’s easy to understand why the Yankees said no to Phelps but yes to Kontos. Phelps could start. Kontos couldn’t. Also, Phelps had a much cleaner injury history. (Kontos had undergone Tommy John surgery a few years prior.) The Yankees have never really missed Kontos. They would have missed Phelps given the 299.1 league average-ish innings he threw for them from 2012-14 though.

April 18th, 2012: Quick Hits: Lannan, Martin, Nationals, Orioles

The Yankees have no plans to talk to Russell Martin about a contract extension soon, reports Jon Heyman of (on Twitter). Martin will become a free agent after this season, and the two sides briefly discussed a multi-year deal this past offseason.

The two sides did talk about an extension at some point, but nothing came of it and Martin ended up signing with the Pirates after the season. That led to the Stewvelli era in 2013. Here are the catchers the Yankees have lost or traded away over the last few offseasons:

  • After 2016: Brian McCann traded to Astros.
  • After 2015: John Ryan Murphy traded to Twins.
  • After 2014: Francisco Cervelli traded to Pirates.
  • After 2013: Chris Stewart traded to Pirates.
  • After 2012: Russell Martin leaves as free agent.
  • After 2011: Jesus Montero traded to Mariners.

The Yankees did all of that and they still have a budding star behind the plate in Gary Sanchez. Pretty cool. The super early guess here is Romine is sent packing after the season so Kyle Higashioka can take over as the backup in 2018, continuing the annual tradition of jettisoning a catcher in the offseason.

April 19th, 2012: Yankees Sign Nelson Figueroa

The Yankees have signed right-hander Nelson Figueroa to a minor league deal, Jon Heyman of tweets.

Nelson Figueroa too? Geez, the Yankees signed so many veteran guys to stash in Triple-A in 2012 that I had to go back to look at their rotation to start the season. Here are their Opening Day starting pitchers:

The Delcarmen start was basically a rehab thing. He moved to the bullpen after that one little start, at which point Ortiz took his rotation spot. Figueroa helped replace Banuelos, who got hurt early in the season. Others on the 2012 Triple-A Opening Day roster include Mike O’Connor, Craig Heyer, and Pat Venditte. I had a prospect crush on Heyer for a while.

April 20th, 2012: No More Personal Service Deals & Milestone Bonuses

Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association have agreed to put an end to personal service deals and milestone bonus clauses,’s Jayson Stark reports. Existing contracts with these deals or bonuses won’t be affected by the changes, which were agreed to this month.

I don’t remember this. Alex Rodriguez had those home run milestone bonuses in his contract, though he didn’t trigger the first bonus until 2015. MLB and MLBPA changed the rules three years before that was a thing. I know Albert Pujols has an option for a ten-year, $10M personal services contract in his deal with the Angels, which was signed a few weeks before this report. Ryan Zimmermann has a personal services clause in his contract too.

MLB and MLBPA determined milestone bonuses violated a clause in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that says performance statistics can not be used as a basis for incentives. The personal services stuff violated a clause about contracts extending beyond the player’s career as an active player. So, if you’re looking for a way the Yankees can sweeten the pot to lure a free agent in the future, milestone bonuses and personal services agreements are a no go.

April 25th, 2012: Michael Pineda To Undergo Labrum Operation

Michael Pineda has a tear in his right labrum and will undergo arthroscopic surgery next Tuesday, according to Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News (Twitter link). The 23-year-old will likely miss a full year,’s Bryan Hoch tweets. The Yankees acquired Pineda in an offseason trade that sent their top hitting prospect to the Mariners, but the right-hander has yet to pitch his first inning in pinstripes.

Oh boy. That was a bad day. Pineda’s velocity was down all throughout Spring Training — he came to camp out of shape too — and the Yankees had him start the season on the disabled list with what they called shoulder tendinitis. He made a rehab start a few days prior to this report and left the game after only a handful of pitches with pain in his shoulder. Tests revealed the labrum tear. Brian Cashman called it a “tragic diagnosis” at the time.

Pineda missed close to two full seasons following the surgery — he did throw 40.2 minor league rehab innings in the second half of 2013 — and all things considered, his stuff has come back very well following surgery. He can still get his fastball into the mid-90s regularly and his slider can be devastating. Pineda still doesn’t have a reliable changeup though, and his command is pretty terrible, which may or may not be the result of the surgery. I remember being worried he’d come back throwing 88-89 mph with no bite on his slider. That didn’t happen.

Even with his stuff coming back, the shoulder injury definitely derailed Pineda’s career to some degree. He missed his age 23 season and most of his age 24 season. Those are crucial developmental years, years Pineda could have been working on his changeup and command. There’s no guarantee Pineda would be a better today had he not undergone surgery. The surgery didn’t do him any favors though. Sucks.

April 28th, 2012: Bobby Abreu Links: Angels, Wells, Trout, Yankees

Mike Axisa of the River Ave Blues blog thinks the Yankees might have an interest in Abreu as at least a short-term fix while Brett Gardner is on the DL.  New York tried to acquire Abreu for A.J. Burnett in the offseason, before Burnett blocked the deal to avoid playing on the west coast.

That idiot Mike Axisa has a good idea every once in a while, but this probably wasn’t one of them. Gardner suffered what was essentially a season-ending elbow injury making a sliding catch in the team’s 11th game of the season — he did return very late in September and for the postseason — which sent the Yankees scrambling for outfield help. Here are their games started leaders in left field in 2012:

  1. Raul Ibanez — 65 starts
  2. Andruw Jones — 41
  3. Ichiro Suzuki — 26
  4. Dewayne Wise and Jayson Nix — 9 each
  5. Brett Gardner — 8
  6. Eduardo Nunez — 3
  7. Chris Dickerson — 1

I remember Nunez have some adventures during those three starts in left field. The Yankees rolled with an Ibanez/Jones platoon for much of the season, but Andruw was awful that year, which led to guys like Nunez and Nix playing out there. Eventually the Yankees traded for Ichiro to replace Gardner.

Anyway, I’ve gotten sidetracked. The Yankees and Angels reportedly agreed to a Burnett-for-Abreu trade during the 2011-12 offseason, but Burnett invoked his no-trade clause to block the deal because he didn’t want to go to the West Coast. He was traded to the Pirates, who were not on his no-trade list, a few weeks later.

Abreu, then 38, hit .208/.259/.333 (62 wRC+) in eight games with the Angels before being released on April 27th. The player called up to take his roster spot? Mike Trout. A good decision, that was. Abreu then hooked on with the Dodgers and hit a serviceable .246/.361/.344 (100 wRC+) in 92 games. Ibanez hit some enormous home runs late in 2012 and Ichiro played well after the trade. Good thing the Yankees didn’t listen to me and sign Abreu, huh?

Yankeemetrics: Play Ball! (April 2-5)

It's not what you want (Source: Getty)
It’s not what you want (Source: Getty)

Baseball is a Marathon, not a Sprint
The ‘good’ news after the Yankees Opening Day debacle is that there was only one way to go after such a depressing game – up – since you probably could not have scripted a much more disastrous start to the 2017 season.

The bad news after the Yankees Opening Day debacle was that I had to write the first sentence of this post … and the next sentence: for the first time in team history, they’ve dropped six straight Opening Day contests.

Despite the unsightly outcome, there were some notable positive nuggets to report as the team took the field on Sunday afternoon:

  • For the first time in more than eight decades – since 1932, to be exact – the Yankees had four players under the age of 25 in the Opening Day lineup (Ronald Torreyes, Greg Bird, Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge). The quartet back in the ’30s included a couple Hall-of-Famers: Lefty Gomez, Bill Dickey, Frankie Crosetti and Ben Chapman.
  • The 24-year-old Bird was the franchise’s youngest Opening Day first baseman since Don Mattingly in 1986.
  • Sanchez joined Derek Jeter (1998-99) as the only under-25 Yankees to hit second on Opening Day over the last 40 seasons.
  • Judge (who turns 25 at the end of the month) was the youngest Opening Day corner outfielder for the Yankees since a 23-year-old Hensley Meulens in 1991.

Things quickly spiraled out of control after the first pitch, however, as Masahiro Tanaka delivered one of the worst Opening Day performances by any pitcher in franchise history.

Tanaka became the only Yankee ever to allow at least seven earned runs and get fewer than 10 outs on Opening Day. And his 2? innings tied Ron Guidry (1983) and Mel Stottlemyre (1973) for the fewest by a Yankee Opening Day starter in the last 100 years.

Along with poor fastball command, Tanaka’s splitter wasn’t fooling the Rays. Though he did get a respectable five whiffs and had good location on the 15 splits he threw, burying the pitch at the bottom of the zone …

… the Rays did damage on the five splitters they put in play, crushing two singles, a deep sac fly and a homer off the pitch.

While Tanaka got clobbered on the mound, there were a couple encouraging results from the bats on Sunday.

Sanchez might have gone 0-for-5 but his first-inning groundout was a rocket, with an exit velocity of 115.7 mph. It was the second-hardest hit ball recorded by Statcast (since 2015) for any Yankee, behind only an A-Rod homer on May 1, 2015 measured at 116.5 mph off the bat.

Starlin Castro did something that Robinson Cano never achieved in pinstripes – a three-hit Opening Day performance (the most recent Yankee second baseman to do it was Tony Womack in 2005) – while Chase Headley joined A-Rod (2006) and Wade Boggs (1994) as the only Yankee third baseman in the last 90 seasons to have three hits on Opening Day.

Best hi-five ever (Source: AP)
Best hi-five ever (Source: AP)

Second time’s a charm
The Yankees bounced back from their Game 1 disaster with an impressive blanking of the Rays on Tuesday. The 5-0 win was just the second time in the last quarter-century that the Yanks pitched a shutout in either their first or second game (also 2002), and was the team’s largest shutout win this early into the season since they beat the Twins 8-0 in the 1988 opener. Last year’s first shutout didn’t come until May 4.

The offense was ignited by a most unlikely source, when the (listed) 5-foot-8 Ronald Torreyes – who had one homer in 161 at-bats in his first two seasons in the majors – drilled a two-run shot to left center field to give the Yankees a 2-0 lead. He’s got a long ways to go to catch the franchise leader in homers by a player that short – of course, it’s Yogi Berra (5-foot-7) with 358 career bombs.

CC Sabathia put together one of his best season-opening performances, scattering three hits and two walks across five shutout innings. The only other time he didn’t allow a run in his first start was back in 2004 against the Twins.

It had been 15 years since a Yankee starter threw five-or-more scoreless innings in either the team’s first or second game: In 2003, both Roger Clemens (6 innings) and Andy Pettitte (7 innings) held the Blue Jays without a run in the first two games of the season.

Sabathia also notched a significant milestone with his 224th career win, tying Hall-of-Famers Jim Bunning and Catfish Hunter for 66th on MLB’s all-time wins list.

Little Mike, No Offense
Thanks to another frustrating outing by Michael Pineda and a lackluster effort by the offense, the Yankees lost 4-1 in the rubber game of this three-game set. This is the fifth time in the last six years the team has dropped its opening series of the season.

(Source: Getty)
(Source: Getty)

Michael Pineda didn’t make it out of the fourth inning, producing an all-too-familiar statline. The good: six strikeouts, no walks; The bad: eight hits, four runs. Sometimes you can predict baseball.

Three of the four runs he surrendered came with two outs, continuing yet another perplexing trend from 2016 — his inability to finish off innings. Last year Pineda allowed the most two-out hits (80) and second-most two-out runs (52) in the majors … and seems to be on track to repeat that performance in 2017.

Not only did Pineda extend his personal winless streak to a career-worst 11 starts dating back to early August of last year, he’s gone eight starts in a row without a win against Tampa Bay, the longest such streak by any Yankee. Among all pitchers, only Jeff Suppan (10 straight from 1999-03) and Sidney Ponson (9 straight from 2000-02) have recorded longer winless streaks versus the Rays.

The lone offensive highlight came from the bat of Jacoby Ellsbury, who took Alex Cobb deep in the second inning to knot the score at 1-1. It was his 33rd homer since coming to the Bronx in 2014, but just the second one that’s tied up a game.