2015 Midseason Review: The Best of Brett

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Two years ago Brett Gardner was the Yankees’ second best player almost by default. They still had in-his-prime superstar Robinson Cano, but for the most part the rest of the roster was filled out by retreads and guys on their very last legs — Kevin Youkilis, Travis Hafner, and Vernon Wells all had regular lineup spots on Opening Day and not one of them played another MLB game after leaving the 2013 Yankees.

Last year Gardner was arguably the best player on the team, inarguably one of the two best. He and Jacoby Ellsbury had very similar stastistical seasons, with Gardner showing more power while Ellsbury hit for a higher average and stole more bases. This season, Gardner’s progression has continued, and he has been the team’s best player through the first half of the season.

Oh sure, Alex Rodriguez has better offensive numbers overall, mostly thanks to his power, but A-Rod is a DH and he’s supposed to outhit everyone else because he doesn’t play the field. Mark Teixeira is having a fine season as well, though his only advantage over Gardner is power. Gardner has a 140 wRC+ and Teixeira has a 137 wRC+ — the difference lies in Gardner far superior batting average, on-base percentage, and base-running.

But we’re not here to argue who has better numbers. They’re all on the same team, after all. Gardner has been, indisputably, one of the best outfielders in all of baseball this season. That he had to wait to be named to the All-Star Game as an injury replacement is a knock against the system, not Gardner. He should have been on the original roster, though quiet and unassuming players like Brett are rarely rewarded with All-Star Game nods. It’s a popularly contest.

Anyway, Gardner came into the All-Star break hitting .302/.377/.484 (140 wRC+) with ten homers and 15 steals on the year. Here is the full list of AL players with ten homers and 15 steals at the break: Brett Gardner. That’s it. It’s just him. Gardner is also one of only ten AL players with a .370+ OBP and a .470+ SLG. He’s shown his over-the-fence power spike last season was no fluke, but the difference between this year and last year are the non-homer hits.

As good as he was in 2014, Gardner had only 25 doubles last season. He added eight triples for good measure because, you know, he’s fast. This season Gardner has already swatted 22 doubles and three triples. He’s on pace for 41 doubles, six triples, and 18 homers after going 25/8/17 last year. He’s on pace for 15 more extra-base hits! I’m sure Gardner will slow down a bit in a second half, players do get fatigued, but last year at the break he was on pace for only 49 extra-base hits. His spray charts are pretty revealing:

Brett Gardner 2013-14 Spray Charts

Gardner is using the opposite field more often than he did a year ago. You can see it in the spray chart, last year he had more batted balls to the pull side — if you need hard numbers: 42.0% of his balls in play were pulled last year, this year it’s 35.8% — and the result was a career year in the power department. This season he’s been able to both spray balls the other way for base hits while still yanking pitches to right field when the opportunity presents itself.

Remember, when Gardner first came up, he was a pure slash-and-dash speed guy. He focused on hitting the ball to the left side of the field and running like hell. Over the past few seasons Gardner started pulling the ball with more authority and why not? Yankee Stadium rewards pulling the ball if you’re a left-handed hitter. This year he’s doing both. Pulling the ball for power and serving it the other way for base hits when the pitchers give him nothing to drive. That’s the evolution of a great hitter, and yes, Gardner is absolutely a great hitter.

In addition to his strong performance at the plate, Gardner remains a high-end defender, at least based on the eye test. The various defensive stats have been hating on him for a while now. UZR wants you to believe Brett has cost the Yankees 4.8 runs in the field this year. 4.8! lol UZR, lol. DRS is slightly better — it says Gardner has saved the team one singular run with his glove. I don’t get it. The defensive numbers for Yankees outfielders have been screwy for years. I’m not saying Gardner is the best defensive outfielder in the game, but damn yo, he’s clearly above-average. I’m not being a homer here. I’m very willing to admit when dudes play bad defense. Gardner’s isn’t.

Anyway, at the end of last season I said Gardner just had what was likely his career year. I don’t think it was that unreasonable to say. This year Gardner has been ever better though, especially at the plate because he’s gotten back to slashing the ball to the opposite while still maintaining his newfound ability to unload on a pitch that is begging to be pulled towards the short porch. That’s not an easy thing to do, and for at least the first half of 2015, Gardner has been able to do it. He has been New York’s best all-around player this year.

Thoughts following the first half of 2015

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees came into the All-Star break with a 48-40 record and a +26 run differential. They have a 3.5-game lead in the AL East and have held sole possession of first place during 43 of 88 games this season. The Yankees were in sole possession of first during 32 games combined from 2013-14. Jeepers. This season has been much more enjoyable than the last two, yes. Here are some thoughts.

1. This is what I’ve learned about the Yankees in the first half: they are flawed — second base is a black hole and the rotation is inconsistent, putting it gently — and they are also the most well-rounded team in the division. The Red Sox, Orioles, and Blue Jays all live and die by their offense while the Rays have good pitching but no offense. The Yankees have a very good offense and the best pitching among the AL East’s non-Rays teams. This division is right there for the taking and the Yankees have to be considered the favorites. Not only because they lead the division right now, but because they boast the deepest roster in the division even with those second base and rotation concerns. This is the first time since 2012 that I’ve felt the Yankees are legitimately the team to beat in the AL East.

2. I expect the Yankees to be active at the trade deadline. Know why? Because they are in first place and they haven’t been to the postseason in two years. Hal Steinbrenner & Co. are surely very motivated to get the team to October this year because they don’t want to miss out on all that postseason revenue again, among other reasons. That could mean they will be more willing to take on salary at the trade deadline or surrender top prospects to get a deal done. Like I said, the AL East is there for the taking, and the Yankees want to take it. I would be surprised if they pulled the trigger on a blockbuster like Johnny Cueto, but I definitely think we’ll see some pitching depth brought in and possibly even a second baseman, regardless of how well Rob Refsnyder plays the next few weeks.

3. Speaking of Refsnyder, John Harper says he will remain with the team after the All-Star break, which makes sense. There’s no reason to send him down now. Hell, he should have been up weeks ago. The Yankees didn’t leave themselves a whole lot of time to evaluate Refsnyder before the trade deadline. He could be the answer at second base! Or he might not be. No one really knows. The second half begins Friday and the trade deadline will be exactly two weeks away. Two weeks to determine if Refsnyder is the answer at second base in the second half or if they need to make a trade. That’s not much time! They really did stick with Stephen Drew way too long. Hopefully they run Refsnyder out there everyday out of the break. No reason not to at this point.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

4. Both Brendan Ryan and Carlos Beltran are expected back from the DL either immediately after the All-Star break or soon thereafter. With Refsnyder back, it’ll be interesting to see how they squeeze those guys on the roster. Gregorio Petit is an obvious send down candidate, though that’s just one roster spot. Garrett Jones is useful as a backup first baseman/fifth outfielder who can come off the bench and yank something into the short porch, which means either Drew or Ryan gets the axe. It has to be Ryan, right? He can’t stay healthy and he even though he’s a solid defender, he contributes nothing on offense. Drew is a fine defender himself — he can play both middle infield spots plus some third base — and at least he’ll run into a mistake pitch and hit the ball out of the park on occasion. Keeping both Ryan and Drew and cutting Jones loose doesn’t make sense. They’re redundant. One of Ryan or Drew has to go, and Ryan’s the obvious choice. Maybe this would be a tougher decision if Ryan hadn’t spent so much time on the DL the last two years.

5. Let’s close with a fun little exercise. It’s the bottom of the ninth in Game Seven of the World Series. The Yankees have a one-run lead with two outs, but the tying run is at third base. Who do you want the ball hit to? Using the regular everyday lineup, but excluding the pitcher and catcher because they’re not usually the guys who field a ball in play, I’d say:

  1. Mark Teixeira
  2. Jacoby Ellsbury
  3. Brett Gardner
  4. Chase Headley
  5. Didi Gregorius
  6. Drew (or Refsnyder)
  7. Beltran

Nos. 1, 2, and 3 are basically 1A, 1B, and 1C. I’d be comfortable with the ball being hit towards any of those three guys. After that it gets interesting. Headley has been a great defender his entire career except the first half of this season. Gregorius has been excellent in the field of late but had a knack for knuckleheaded plays earlier this season. Drew is as sure-handed as they come but his inexperience at second is evident at times. You could argue Drew should be fourth. Being a good defender and having the trust of fans are not the same thing!

DotF: Park’s hitting streak snapped in Pulaski’s loss

Triple-A Scranton is off until Thursday for the All-Star break. The International League vs. Pacific Coast League All-Star Game will be played Wednesday night. C Austin Romine and 1B Kyle Roller are the club’s All-Stars.

Double-A Trenton (7-1 win over Richmond)

  • DH Brendan Ryan: 0-3, 1 BB, 1 K — still rehabbing
  • LF Jake Cave: 2-5, 1 R, 1 K, 1 SB — had been in a 1-for-14 (.071) slump
  • 2B Tony Renda: 1-4, 1 R — 8-for-15 (.533) in his last four games
  • RF Mark Payton: 1-3, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 K
  • LHP Caleb Smith: 6 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 3/8 GB/FB — 49 of 75 pitches were strikes (65%)
  • RHP Johnny Barbato: 2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 4 K, 2/0 GB/FB — 27 of 39 pitches were strikes (69%) … 41/14 K/BB in 41 innings for the guy the Yankees got in the Shawn Kelley trade

[Read more…]

2015 Home Run Derby Open Thread

The 2015 Home Run Derby will take place tonight in Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park … maybe. It’s been raining in the Queen City for much of the afternoon — there was a severe weather warning at one point — and it’s supposed to continue raining tonight. Some forecasts seem to indicate a window will open up a little later. Hopefully that’s the case.

If the Home Run Derby is able to go down tonight, it will have a brand new format, one with a clock and head-to-head brackets. Players now get five minutes to take their swings, though they can earn additional time based on home run distance and some other stuff. Here are the rules. The last minute rules seems needlessly complicated. Here’s the brackets from MLB.com. Seeding is determined by regular season home run totals.

2015 Home Run Derby Bracket

No Yankees are in the Home Run Derby (duh) — I remember reading somewhere that Mark Teixeira said he would decline if invited, but I can’t seem to find it now — so I guess I need to make an official pick based on something more than fandom, huh? My pick is Joc Pederson. He leads all players in average home run distance (427.32 feet) and he’s young, so endurance during the five-minute hack session won’t be an issue. So yeah, Pederson’s my pick.

The Home Run Derby has been rained out once before: back in 1988, coincidentally also in Cincinnati. Hopefully it doesn’t get washed out tonight. That would be lame. The Derby is set to begin at 8pm ET and you can watch it on ESPN. Talk about the Home Run Derby or anything else right here tonight. Have at it.

2015 Midseason Review: The Mostly Bad New-Look Infield

Thanks to several factors, most notably Derek Jeter‘s retirement, the Yankees had to rebuild almost their entire infield this past offseason. It was a clean slate! And also a huge project for Brian Cashman and the rest of the front office. One trade and two free agent signings (re-signings, really) later, the Yankees had their shiny new 2015 infield. Let’s go around the horn to review the first half.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Falling Short On Both Sides Of The Ball

The new third baseman was the old third baseman — the Yankees re-signed Chase Headley to a four-year, $52M contract in December after he played so solidly on both sides of the ball following the trade that brought him over from San Diego last year. Headley was a good but not great switch-hitter and a top notch defender at the hot corner. We saw it firsthand last year. Infield defense was the priority this winter and Headley was the cornerstone.

Instead, Headley has fallen short of expectations on both sides of the ball. He is hitting .255/.310/.373 (89 wRC+) overall with a career-low walk rate (6.8%) and his lowest ISO since 2011. That only tells part of the story too — Headley is hitting .271/.336/.372 (98 wRC+) against right-handed pitchers this summer and a feeble .218/.248/.376 (67 wRC+) against left-handed pitchers. He’s a switch-hitter, yeah, but he’s been a platoon bat. Headley has been terrible against southpaws.

The defensive struggles are much more shocking. Headley has already committed a career-high 16 errors, the most among big league third baseman (by four) and the third most among all players regardless of position (behind Marcus Semien and Ian Desmond). He’s actually been quite good at making non-routine plays, so it’s not all bad, but the routine play has been an issue for Headley. Throwing, scooping, the hole nine. Headley has been better of late — two errors in his last 24 games — but overall his glove has been a disappointment.

Offensively, the Yankees can take solace in the fact Headley has been a much better second half hitter throughout his career. He is a career .255/.331/.381 (102 wRC+)  hitter before the All-Star break and a .278/.363/.442 (126 wRC+) hitter after. After his subpar first half, the Bronx Bombers are clearly hoping for another big second half (not guaranteed to happen though!). Defensively … I don’t know. Headley’s been too good of a defender in his career to suddenly lose it overnight. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen! I just think his issues with routine plays are a defensive slump. Those happen. I’m banking on the track record going forward.

Either way, Headley did not give the Yankees what the expected in the first half, not at the plate or in the field. He was a disappointment on both sides of the ball. That he’s been a better second half hitter in his career and has a very long track record as a high-end defender are only slightly reassuring that Headley’s post-All-Star Game performance will be better than his pre-All-Star Game showing. Headley was not good in the first half and it needs to change for the Yankees to get to where they want to go.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Replacing A Legend

I don’t even know how to recap Didi Gregorius‘ first 88 games as a Yankees. The first few weeks of the season were awful. Just awful. Gregorius was making boneheaded plays in the field and on the bases, and he wasn’t hitting a lick. In hindsight, he looked completely overwhelmed by the responsibility of replacing Jeter. Maybe I was too quick to dismiss that pressure in April.

Now though, at the All-Star break, Didi looks like a completely different player. He looks much more comfortable offensively, defensively, and in his own skin. The overthinking has stopped and the game is coming more naturally. Gregorius plays a beautiful shortstop when he doesn’t think, he’s so smooth and his movements are effortless in the field, yet in April he looked like a blindfolded Eduardo Nunez. Now? Totally different player.

Make no mistake, Gregorius is still not tearing the cover off the ball. He is hitting .238/.293/.326 (71 wRC+) overall with four Yankee Stadium homers and no walks (5.7%), but at least that’s better than what he was doing earlier in the year. His offense continues to trend in the right direction:

Didi Gregorius wOBAI don’t think anyone was expecting Gregorius to have an impact right away. At least not offensively. That part of his game has always been in question. He was expected to excel in the field though, and after some hideously ugly glovework early on, Didi has played a damn near flawless shortstop for two months now. The physical tools are obvious, especially his no effort rocket arm, and that’s what the Yankees were buying when they traded Shane Greene to get Gregorius.

Unlike literally every other starting position player on the roster, Didi’s best years are ahead of him, at least in theory. He had the unenviable task of being the shortstop after Jeter on top of all the pressure that come with being a young player on a new team. It was a tough situation and for a while it didn’t look like Gregorius couldn’t handle it. He has really turned his season around though. All we want to see in the second half is more progress. Keep catching everything and putting up a fight at the plate. Didi’s along for the ride. He’s not driving his team.

Okay So Maybe 2014 Wasn’t A Fluke

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

After re-signing Headley and acquiring Gregorius, the infield was set. That is until Martin Prado was used to acquire Nathan Eovaldi. That created an opening at second base, an opening the Yankees filled by re-signing Stephen Drew to a little one-year contract worth $5M. The idea was simple: Drew couldn’t possibly be as bad as he was in 2014 again, right? Right??? Wrong.

So far this season Drew is hitting an unfathomably terrible .182/.257/.372 (71 wRC+) with 12 homers — that’s actually the fourth most homers on the team — in 278 plate appearances. And the crazy thing is his platoon split: Drew is hitting .170/.250/.374 (69 wRC+) against righties and .215/.278/.369 (76 wRC+) against lefties. It’s not even like he’s a platoon candidate at this point. He hasn’t hit anyone.

Drew’s one redeeming quality is his defense, which is quite good at second base, especially for a guy who didn’t start playing the position until eleven and a half months ago. He’s sure-handed, he’s filled in at short multiple times, and even gave third a try. Drew’s done whatever the team has asked him to do with no complaints. He just hasn’t hit. We’re talking about a .172/.247/.334 (57 wRC+) hitter in 578 plate appearances since the start of last season. Yeesh.

The Yankees took a low-cost flier on Drew and gave him the regular Spring Training he wanted, yet he hasn’t performed and there’s no indication it will improve going forward. The Yankees (finally) called up Rob Refsnyder this past weekend, a sign they are ready to move on from Drew. Either way, Drew is not part of the answer. That much is clear. Whether it’s Refsnyder or a trade pickup, someone else has to man second in the second half.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Welcome To New York, Brian

The catcher is technically an infielder (right?), so we’re going to lump Brian McCann in here since I’m not sure where else to put him. Anyway, how about Brian McCann! His first season in New York was a bummer on many levels, particularly offensively, but the 2015 season has been much different. McCann came into the break hitting .259/.331/.471 (120 wRC+) with 14 homers and an 8.3% walk rate that is much better than last year’s 5.9% mark.

McCann’s numbers at the plate tell a bit of a story. He’s not a new hitter this year, he’s simply gone back to being the hitter he used to be. Check it out:

2013 with the Braves: .256/.336/.461 (121 wRC+)
2014 with the Yankees: .232/.286/.406 (92 wRC+)
2015 with the Yankees: .259/.331/.471 (120 wRC+)

McCann’s production has returned to where it was the year before he signed with the Yankees, plus with a little Yankee Stadium short porch bonus. Two years ago McCann pulled 49.0% of the balls he put in play. Last year it was 44.5%. This year it is 50.2%. McCann’s gone back to yanking the ball to right field because that’s his strength. Last summer he appeared to be focusing on beating the shift — he had more opposite field hits last year than he had in 2012 or 2013 — and that turned him into something he wasn’t.

This year it looks like McCann is much comfortable at the plate because he stopped trying to be something he’s not. He’s a dead pull left-handed hitter. That’s who he is. And yes, it means he will lose some hits to the shift. That comes with the territory. But it also means McCann is far from productive overall — he’s hitting for a higher average and hitting for more power. I like this version of McCann better. Take the good (120 wRC+!) with the bad (shifts).

McCann’s bat has rebounded this year, but his defense is another matter. Both StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus says he’s gone from being an elite pitch-framer in past years to a below-average one this year. I don’t know if that matches the eye test or how reliable those numbers are at the halfway point. McCann’s throwing has been outstanding (40% caught stealing rate), but he’s had trouble blocking balls in the dirt. He’s allowed 35 passed pitches (passed balls plus wild pitches), the third most in baseball, and that definitely matches the eye test. McCann has let a lot of balls get by him or bounce away this year.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest a 31-year-old catcher with a ton of innings on his legs — McCann has been a big league starter since age 21 — might be losing mobility behind the plate, hence the issues with blocking balls in the dirt. The pitch-framing stuff? I can’t explain that. Overall though, I think McCann has been much more valuable to the Yankees this season than last because he’s producing so much more at the plate. It feels more like a big step forward offensively and a slight step back defensively than a slight step forward offensively a big step back defensively. I’m sure being more comfortable in his second season in pinstripes is part of the reason for improvement.

* * *

Aside from first base, the traditional infield positions have been mostly bad this season. Headley has played below expectations, Drew has been a disaster, and Gregorius has experienced a bumpy learning curve. Drew is on the verge of being replaced but Headley and Gregorius aren’t going anywhere. You can’t really expect Didi to be an impact player going forward, so Headley is the key. Chase has to pick it up both at the plate and in the field in the second half.

2015 Midseason Review: The Summer of Al (and Mark)

The Yankees came into the season with a ton — and I mean a ton — of questions on the roster. Every team has questions each year, but the Yankees had more than usual. The rotation was littered with injury concerns, the new-look middle infield was somewhat dubious, the bullpen had been overhauled, and the middle of the order was suspect for many reasons. Among those reasons: the uncertainty surrounding Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Al From Miami

Last season Rodriguez served the longest performance-enhancing drug suspension in baseball history, a 162-game ban that was reduced from 211 games after an arduous appeals process that included all sorts of lawsuits. He was 39 years old, he had two surgically repaired hips — Alex only played 44 games in 2013 following hip surgery — and the Yankees wanted pretty much nothing to do with him. The only reason A-Rod remained with the team is the three years and $60M+ left on his contract.

So, when Spring Training opened, there was Alex, in pinstripes and with the Yankees. He offered a handwritten apology to fans, held a press conference to smooth things over with the media, then went about his business to prepare for the season, a season in which no one had any idea what to expect from him. Again, 39 years old! Two bad hips! Almost two full years away from the game! Attempting to predict Rodriguez’s season was futile.

Spring Training was almost too good to be true. A-Rod hit three long home runs in camp, showed a discerning eye at the plate, and even worked out at first base when the team asked. “It doesn’t matter, I am here to play baseball. Whatever (Joe Girardi) wants to do I will do,” said Alex to George King in camp, which wasn’t the first indication he was going to take a team first approach and say all the right things in his return from the suspension.

As good as A-Rod looked in camp, the regular season was going to be a different story. Pitchers weren’t going to be working on things anymore. There weren’t going to be a bunch of minor leaguers pitching in each game. It was time to face big league arms consistently for the first time in close to 20 months. Girardi wasn’t expecting much, so Alex batted seventh on Opening Day. He went 1-for-2 with a single and a walk. Rodriguez batted seventh the next game as well and went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. Some good, some bad.

The Yankees faced the left-handed Daniel Norris in the third game of the season, so Girardi decided to bump A-Rod up to second in the order, and he responded with a solo homer, his first of the season. Rodriguez batted third against a lefty the next day, went 2-for-5 with a double, and before you knew it, he was the regular No. 3 hitter. Ten games. That’s how long it took Alex to show Girardi he was one of the best hitters on the team and deserved to bat in the middle of the order. Of course, it helps when you do this in the tenth game:

That monster game against the Rays was the “okay, A-Rod’s back” moment. That was the game that, in hindsight, confirmed to everyone Rodriguez still had plenty to offer at the plate and wasn’t going to be a liability, someone the Yankees would have to grit their teeth and live with because the contract left them no choice. A-Rod showed he is an asset.

The A-Bombs have kept coming, 18 of them so far this year, and Rodriguez also climbed into sole possession of fourth place on the all-time home run list. He tied Willie Mays with a game-winning pinch-hit solo home run at Fenway Park on May 1st and passed Mays with a go-ahead solo home run at home against the Orioles six days later. The Yankees declined to pay Rodriguez the $6M milestone bonus they owed him for tying Mays, claiming his PED ties rendered it unmarketable, but eventually the two sides worked out an agreement with a bunch of money going to charity. It was a messy situation that was settled peacefully, thankfully.

At the plate, Rodriguez put up a .278/.382/.515 (148 wRC+) batting line in the first half and has probably been the team’s most consistent hitter. He’s been hovering around the .280/.380/.510 mark since mid-May, and every time it looked like he was about to fall into a slump, Alex climbed out of it relatively quickly. Regular off-days have helped. Opponents have tried throwing fastballs by Rodriguez, which is understandable, but that didn’t work. They tried to get him with breaking balls next, and that didn’t work either.

AVG ISO K%
vs. All Fastballs .307 (.271 MLB avg) .273 (.152 MLB avg) 17.8% (15.9% MLB avg)
vs. 94+ mph Fastballs .267 (.249) .289 (.129) 20.7% (22.1%)
vs. Breaking Balls .217 (.218) .145 (.127) 23.1% (30.5%)

A-Rod is still an all-around hitter who hits for average, draws walks, hits for power, and can handle both the hard and soft stuff. What he is not, however, is a fielder. Those days are over. Rodriguez started two games at third base and one at first base back in April — the start at first base was really awkward, which is understandable for someone who never played the right side of the infield before — and that was it. The Yankees pulled the plug and decided it was best to use Alex as the full-time DH going forward. He’s played 1.2 innings in the field in the last 66 games. That’s all.

Limiting A-Rod to DH has hurt the team’s flexibility, no doubt about it — it would be nice to start him at third base once in a while so Carlos Beltran could serve as the DH — though it has helped keep him fresh and in the lineup, and that’s most important. Is it fair to question his production given his past PED ties? Oh yeah. Alex forfeited the benefit of the doubt a while ago. Either way, he’s gone from question mark to indispensable in the first half. Rodriguez’s surprisingly great first half is a huge reason why the Yankees are in first place.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Gluten-Free For Punishment

It’s easy to forget Teixeira was pretty excellent in the first half last season, hitting .241/.341/.464 (125 wRC+) with 17 home runs before the All-Star break before collapsing to .179/.271/.302 (62 wRC+) with five home runs in the second half. Teixeira was a year removed from wrist surgery and considering how long it took other sluggers like David Ortiz and Jose Bautista to get back to normal following similar injuries in recent years, it sure seemed like Teixeira was still dealing with the lingering effects of surgery.

Of course, no one wanted to hear that excuse, especially since Teixeira’s production and durability had been trending downward since his monster inaugural season in pinstripes back in 2009. Teixeira vowed to get stronger in the offseason — he often said he simply didn’t feel strong at times last year — and adopted a gluten-free diet to make it happen. It sounded like lip service. Players say they’re going to try new things, adopt a new training regime, all that stuff at the end of every season and it rarely amounts to something.

The early returns in Spring Training were unimpressive — Teixeira hit one homer during Grapefruit League play — but it was only Spring Training, so who knows. As soon as the season started though, Teixeira turned into a power-hitting machine, going deep in the team’s third game of the season, then again in their fourth, seventh, 13th, 15th, twice in the 17th, and again in the 18th game. The homers kept coming, and so did the walks — Teixeira hit 14 home runs with 28 walks and 22 strikeouts in his first 44 games of 2015.

The home run pace has slowed — that was inevitable, Teixeira was on pace for 59 homers at the end of April — but Teixeira’s general awesomeness has not. He came into the All-Star break hitting .240/.350/.526 (137 wRC+) with 22 homers, 46 walks, and 56 strikeouts in 82 games, equaling his dinger output for the entire 2014 season. That 137 wRC+ is his best at the break since putting up a 145 wRC+ in the first half of 2007. This is only the second time he’s hit 22+ homers in the first half too, joining 2005 and 2011 (he hit 25 first half homers those years).

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

On top of the offense, Teixeira is also back to playing all-world defense at first base. His defense was good last year but I didn’t think it was as good as it had been in the past, maybe because he was rusty after missing most of 2013. Teixeira appeared tentative at times making throws and it seemed like he bobbled more ground balls than ever before. The numbers kinda back it up too: Teixeira made only 15 out-of-zone plays last year, a career-low in a full season by a mile. (His previous career low was 32 in 2007 and 2012.) This year? He’s at 18 out-of-zone plays already. It’s not just the bat, Teixeira’s glove has rebounded too.

Teixeira was named to the AL All-Star team for his efforts, something that seemed damn near unthinkable the last few years. His production was slipping each year and the injuries continued to mount, so the thought of getting All-Star production from Teixeira was fading by the season. Maybe the gluten-free diet did the trick. I happen to think getting further away from wrist surgery is the biggest factor for Teixeira. He’s just healthier now than he has been in years.

“I’ve had knee surgery, I’ve had ankle surgery, you have little things here and there, shoulders and low back. You can play through all that. The wrist is the hardest thing, by far, I’ve ever had to go through,” said Teixeira to Tyler Kepner recently. Ortiz and Bautista showed how long it can take to return to normal after a tendon sheath injury — it took more than a full year for both of those guys as well. Teixeira is on a similar timetable. The wrist is healthy, his power is back, and Teixeira is once again a middle of the order force for New York.

* * *

A-Rod and Teixeira both far exceeded expectations in the first half, so much so that it’s fair to say both are performing at or close to the best case scenario. Good health, lots of homers, 135+ wRC+s for both guys? Even the most optimistic of fans couldn’t have predicted this. The Summer of Al (and Mark) has given the Yankees the dominant middle of the order they’ve lacked in recent years. Their performances are a major reason why New York has scored the second more runs in baseball in 2015.

Yankeemetrics: Welcome to the show (July 10-12)

See ya (AP/Steven Senne)
See ya (AP/Steven Senne)

Home sweet home, Fenway-style
The Yankees guaranteed they’d be alone atop the AL East at the All-Star break with their 5-1 win on Friday night, the first time that’s happened since 2012 — which also happens to be the last time the Yankees made the playoffs. Coincidence? Let’s hope not.

For the 117th time (well, almost), the Yankees got out to a quick lead thanks to a first-inning solo home run by A-Rod. It was his 26th career homer at Fenway Park, passing Reggie Jackson for the most at the ballpark by any visiting player in the Divisional Era (since 1969).

A-Rod also added another single against Clay Buchholz in the third inning, making him 13-for-29 (.448) with three homers against the Red Sox righty. That is his highest batting average versus any pitcher he’s had at least 25 at-bats against.

Michael Pineda pitched into the seventh inning and allowed just one run on seven hits to earn his first win since mid-June. He’s now gone at least 6 2/3 innings and given up one run or fewer in seven of his 17 starts this season. That’s tied with Chris Archer for the fourth-most such starts in the AL, behind only Felix Hernandez, Dallas Keuchel and David Price. Oh, by the way, all those guys except Pineda happen to be going to Cincinnati for the All-Star Game.

Saturday night stinker
For the second night in a row, the Yankees were feeling good after the top of the first inning thanks to another early homer by A-Rod … but this game didn’t have the same happy ending, as the Red Sox rallied to beat the Yankees, 5-3.

A-Rod now has 17 homers at Fenway with the Yankees, passing Jorge Posada for the most by any Yankee in the Divisional Era. It was also his eighth go-ahead homer this season, the most of any player on the team. #ClutchRod?

The only other thing that made this loss watchable was the first career major-league game for Rob Refsnyder. Before he took the field, the last Yankee to make his MLB debut against the Red Sox as a starting second baseman was Hall-of-Famer Joe Gordon in 1938. No pressure, kid!

The Yankees were shut down by 22-year-old Red Sox lefty Eduardo Rodriguez, who held them to just two runs in six-plus innings. He is the youngest Red Sox starter to allow two runs or fewer against Yankees since Roger Moret in 1971, and also became the first Boston pitcher age 22 or younger to get a win against the Yankees since a guy named Roger Clemens on April 11, 1985.

”Refsnyder has Seoul!” — you know who
Rob Refsnyder’s first major-league homer in the ninth inning ended up being the game-winner in Sunday afternoon’s rubber game, capping off a more-stressful-than-it-had-to-be 8-6 win over the Red Sox. He is the only Yankee second baseman in the last 100 years to homer in either of his first two career games.

With the win, the Yankees have now won five straight series at Fenway Park dating back to last year. The last time they had a run like that in Boston against the Sawx was when they took five series in a row there spanning the 1978-80 seasons.

Brian McCann gave the Yankees a 2-0 lead with what might be the most improbable homer as a major-leaguer: opposite field, against a lefty, on the road. Yeesh.

It was his first career homer at Fenway Park; his 74 at-bats there were his most any ballpark he hadn’t gone deep yet. The home run was also his first one to left or left-center since joining the Yankees last season, and and the only other time in his career he went oppo against a left-handed pitcher was Aug. 25, 2011 off John Grabow.

Alex Rodriguez and Brett Gardner both got hits, making them the only Yankees to have hit safely in all nine games against the Red Sox this season. A-Rod and Gardy are the first Yankee teammates to have hits in each of their first nine games played against the Red Sox in the same season since Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig in 1937. #MicDrop