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.

Yankeemetrics: Escape from The Jake [July 7-10]

(USA Today Sports)
(USA Today Sports)

Derek and Didi
Thursday’s game in Cleveland not only marked the Yankees’ final series before the All-Star break, but was also the start of a crucial, season-defining 14-game gauntlet against the AL’s cream of the crop: three first-place squads (Indians, Orioles, Rangers) and a wild-card team (Red Sox).

If their performance over the next few weeks is going to dictate whether they declare themselves as contenders or pretenders in this year’s playoff race, then at least the Yankees began this critical stretch with a bang.

Despite this matchup looking like a complete mismatch on paper — the AL’s best pitching staff (3.61 ERA entering Thursday) versus the AL’s second-least productive offense (.707 OPS entering Thursday) — the Yankees somehow rallied from an early deficit and held off a late comeback bid by the Indians to escape with a 5-4 win.

Didi Gregorius sparked the rally in the fifth inning with his 10th homer of the season, setting a new career-high and further cementing himself potentially as the team’s next superstar infielder. The list of Yankee shortstops (guys who played at least 75 percent of games at the position) to hit double-digit homers before the All-Star break is a short one: Derek Jeter (six times), Roy Smalley (1983), Frankie Crosetti (1936) … and now Sir Didi.

Hanging Chad
In a season filled with inconsistency, it was only fitting that the Yankees failed to build any momentum following their exciting win on Thursday and were clobbered by the Indians the next night, 10-2.

The game was essentially over after the first inning as Cleveland battered Chad Green for three homers and four runs before he could even get three outs. Carlos Santana led off the game with a homer to right field, and then three pitches later Jason Kipnis took Green deep to put the Yankees in an early 2-0 hole.

(AP)
(AP)

Green became just the fourth Yankee pitcher in the last 75 years to give up back-to-back homers to start a game. The last guy to do it was Hiroki Kuroda on Sept. 25, 2014 vs. the Orioles, and the others were Ted Lilly (June 6, 2001 vs. Orioles) and Catfish Hunter (June 17, 1977 vs. Red Sox).

The Indians weren’t done crushing Green’s batting practice fastballs, though. Lonnie Chisenhall went yard later in the first inning, giving Green the honor of being the sixth Yankee since 1930 to allow three homers in the first inning of a game. The rest of this illustrious list: A.J. Burnett (2010), Ron Guidry (1987), Catfish Hunter (same as above), Wade Blasingame (1972) and Hank Johnson (1932).

And Mike Napoli put an exclamation point on Green’s miserable night when he smoked a 3-2 pitch to deep left center field that nearly hit the scoreboard. It traveled 459.6 feet per Statcast, the second-longest home run allowed by a Yankee pitcher since 2008 (when Statcast began measuring batted ball distance).

Green’s final line was seven runs, five hits and four homers allowed in 4 1/3 innings. The last Yankee to surrender at least four homers against the Indians was Scott Sanderson on April 17, 1992, and the last guy to do that in Cleveland was Dennis Rasmussen in 1987.

(AP)
(AP)

Extra, extra
For the second time in three games the Yankees rallied to beat the Indians, 7-6 in 11 innings, stealing another thrilling victory on Saturday afternoon against the AL’s second-best team.

It was the Yankees’ first extra-inning win of the season, making this the latest into the season by date that the Yankees recorded their first win in extras since 1940, when they didn’t get one until July 17 … also against the Indians.

Brian McCann ripped the game-winning hit in the decisive frame with a booming RBI double off the wall in right field to break a 6-6 tie. He earned our ridiculous #Funfact Yankeemetric of the series: The last Yankee catcher with a extra-inning, go-ahead hit in Cleveland was Elston Howard, who belted a tie-breaking solo homer in the 11th inning off Luis Tiant on Sept. 23, 1964 in a 4-3 Yankees win.

Brett Gardner capped off the Yankees second rally of the game with a go-ahead, bases-clearing triple in the sixth inning to stake the Yankees to a brief 6-5 lead. Gardner entered the game with just 10 RBI in 60 at-bats with runners in scoring position this season; his rate of one RBI every six at-bats with RISP was the worst among the 199 players that had at least 50 at-bats with a man on second and/or third heading into the weekend.

Hey there, .500
The Yankees will head into the All-Star break on a winning note, riding the momentum of an impressive — and improbable — series win over the AL Central-leading Indians. By taking of three of four against one of the best teams in the league, the Yankees improved to 44-44, a fitting mark at the mid-point given that they’ve danced around the .500 mark for much of the season.

(AP)
(AP)

This is the 24th straight year the Yankees will enter the second half of the season with a .500 or better record, dating back to 1993. In that span no other team has even posted 20 non-losing first-half seasons, with the Cardinals, Braves and Red Sox each at 19.

Carlos Beltran was undoubtedly the Yankees’ first-half MVP, thanks to his tremendous power and consistency at the plate, leading the team in homers, doubles, RBI, batting average, slugging percentage and OPS. He is just the second Yankee in his age-39 season or older to finish the first half with a slugging percentage of .550 or better. The other was Babe Ruth, who slugged .562 before the break in 1934.

Andrew Miller has been arguably the most valuable pitcher on the Yankees staff thus far, featuring video game-like stats that haven’t been duplicated by anybody before this year. He is the only player in major-league history to pitch at least 35 innings in the first half and post an ERA below 1.50, a strikeout rate of at least 15.0 per nine innings and a WHIP below 1.00.

Fan Confidence Poll: July 11th, 2016

Record Last Week: 4-3 (36 RS, 40 RA)
Season Record: 44-44 (371 RS, 405 RA, 40-48 pythag. record)
Opponents This Week: All-Star break (four days, Mon. to Thurs.), vs. Red Sox (three games, Fri. to Sun.)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the Features tab in the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Yankees survive Tanaka’s brutal start, beat Indians 11-7


Source: FanGraphs

The pre-All-Star break portion of the season is officially over. The Yankees beat the Indians 11-7 on Sunday — they took three of four from the first place Tribe, how about that? — and go into the break with a 44-44 record. They’re 7.5 games back in the AL East and 5.5 games back of the second wildcard spot with six teams ahead of them. The Yankees have given us no reason to believe they can play well enough for long enough to make a serious run at a postseason spot in the second half. Anyway, let’s recap with bullet points, because I’m short on time today:

  • Early Runs!: The turning point of this game was home plate umpire Ramon DeJesus calling Carlos Carrasco’s 3-1 pitch to Jacoby Ellsbury a strike in the second inning. It was a ball, here’s the strike zone plot, but DeJesus called it a strike and the at-bat continued. Ellsbury hit a three-run home run on the very next pitch to give the Yankees a 4-0 lead. Give DeJesus on assist on that one. Dingers are cooler than walks.
  • More Early Runs: The Yankees blew this game open — or saw we thought! — with a six-spot in the fifth inning. There was no big blow. They kept the line moving and strung together three straight two-out hits to drive in runs. The inning featured five singles, one double, one walk, one hit batsman, two sac flies, and a two-run throwing error by Francisco Lindor. The error really set that inning up for New York. The six-run outburst gave the Yankees an 11-1 lead.
  • Bad Tanaka: I guess Masahiro Tanaka picked a good time for his worst start of the season. Tanaka’s stuff was flat all game, though he was able to wiggle through the first four innings with just one run allowed. Then it all came apart in the fifth. Tanaka couldn’t get through the inning with a ten-run lead — a Didi Gregorius throwing error didn’t help matters — and allowed six runs in the frame, the last two on Tyler Naquin’s monster two-run homer. It was ugly. Maybe his worst inning as a Yankee. Tanaka finished the game with seven runs (three earned) allowed on ten hits and two walks in 4.2 innings. Yuck.
  • Nasty Nate: How about Nathan Eovaldi? With the big three relievers taxed and 13 outs to go with a four-run lead, Eovaldi took the ball the rest of the way. He held the Indians to one hit and three walks in the final 4.1 innings, striking out three. Eovaldi restored order to the game after Tanaka’s dreadful start. Huge performance given the state of the bullpen. Just huge. Nate gets the win, but if there was ever an outing that deserved a save, that’s it.
  • Leftovers: The Yankees had 13 hits total, including two each by Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira, and Starlin Castro … every starter had a hit except Brett Gardner, who walked and make a number of nice running catches … Gregorius ripped an opposite field double. Castro, Chase Headley, and Austin Romine had two-baggers too … the Yankees went 5-for-16 (.313) with runners in scoring position … Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Danny Salazar all allowed a season-high in runs this series. Go figure.

Here are the box score, video highlights, and updated standings. Also, don’t miss our Bullpen Workload and Announcer Standings pages. What’s next? The All-Star break is next. The Yankees and every other team are off until Friday, then they’ll open the second half with a three-game set at home against the Red Sox. Michael Pineda and Eduardo Rodriguez is the scheduled pitching matchup.

Minor League Update: Sorry folks, busy weekend and I don’t have time for a full DotF again. Here are the box scores and here’s the short version: Ben Gamel and Tyler Austin each had two hits, Luis Severino allowed three runs in seven innings, Ian Clarkin allowed two earned runs in four innings, Mandy Alvarez had two more hits, Drew Bridges whacked a homer, Estevan Florial had a hit and two walks, and Wilkerman Garcia had two hits.

Sunday Open Thread

Here is the open thread for the rest of the weekend. The Futures Game is on tonight (7pm ET on MLB Network) plus the Giants and Diamondbacks are the ESPN Sunday Night Game. I hate that MLB has the Futures Game on at the same time as regular season games. They should try to make it its own event. Anyway, talk about whatever here.

Game 88: The End of the First Half

That's Sir Didi to you.
That’s Sir Didi to you. (Jason Miller/Getty)

Today marks the end of the first half of the 2016 season, and this afternoon’s game will determine whether the Yankees go into the All-Star break at .500 or something worse. The last time the Yankees had a sub-.500 record at the All-Star break was way back in 1992, when they were 42-45. That 1992 season was no good. Not fun at all. Here is the Indians’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  3. DH Carlos Beltran
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. SS Didi Gregorius
  6. 2B Starlin Castro
  7. 3B Chase Headley
  8. RF Rob Refsnyder
  9. C Austin Romine
    RHP Masahiro Tanaka

It’s nice and sunny in Cleveland today. Pretty great day to spend at the ballpark. This afternoon’s game will begin a little after 1pm ET and you can watch on YES. Enjoy the game.

Update: Aaron Judge expected to miss 3-4 weeks with knee injury

(Times Leader)
(Times Leader)

Sunday: Judge is expected to miss 3-4 weeks, Joe Girardi told reporters this afternoon. You know the Yankees are going to play it safe though. If it takes a little longer, it takes a little longer.

Saturday: Earlier today the Yankees placed top outfield prospect Aaron Judge on the Triple-A disabled list with a “mild PCL sprain and a bone bruise of the left knee,” the team announced. They say he will be out an “undetermined” length of time. Sigh.

Judge left Friday’s game after running out a ground ball, though the Yankees say he initially hurt himself diving for a ball in right field earlier in the game. Shane Hennigan has photos of the play. The combination of the dive and running out the grounder led to the injury.

I’m no doctor, but a sprained knee ligament — even a mild sprain — leads me to believe Judge will return in weeks, not days. I hope I’m wrong. Bone bruises, as we’ve learned over the years, are pretty tricky and can take a while to heal. Point is, it sounds like Judge will be out a while.

Judge, 24, is hitting .261/.357/.469 (139 wRC+) with 16 homers, a 23.2% strikeout rate, and an 11.4% walk rate in 83 Triple-A games this year. That’s his lowest strikeout since he was in Low-A two years ago. Judge is clearly the right fielder of the future. Hopefully this injury doesn’t derail that plan much.