Examining Chase Headley’s defensive ‘slump’

(Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

Heading into the season, there was probably no major-league team that had more question marks than the Yankees. Can the starting rotation remain healthy and be effective? Can A-Rod be an everyday player after being out of baseball for a year? How will Didi Gregorius handle the pressure of replacing Derek Jeter? Can the middle-of-the-order bats (Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann) bounce back? Who will be the closer? And the list goes on and on and on …

If there was one thing that Yankees fans did not have to worry about – and a reason to be optimistic about the team’s chances to be a playoff contender – it was the expectation that the Yankees would have one of the league’s best defensive lineups in 2015. One of the key factors in that projection was that they’d get a full season of Chase Headley at third base. No player accumulated more defensive value at the hot corner last year than Headley, who also seemingly passed the eye test as one of the league’s best-fielding third baseman.

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Six weeks into the season, the consensus is that Yankees defense has failed to live up to those lofty preseason expectations. Whether you prefer the traditional stats or the advanced metrics, the Yankees are one of the worst defensive teams in baseball, and their sloppy play has probably cost them at least a few wins already. They rank 24th in both Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), 22nd in fielding percentage and 19th in defensive efficiency.

While he’s not the only Yankee underperforming on defense, Headley’s poor stats so far are perhaps the most surprising. His struggles in the field are puzzling given his stellar defensive reputation, and history would suggest that this stretch of poor defense is just a short-term slump rather than a real decline in skill. Although defensive stats can be unreliable in small samples, they are still hard to ignore right now when all of them are in agreement that Headley has performed well below average this season.

The advanced metrics have not been kind to Headley this season. He’s already cost the team five runs with his glove, according to DRS, and UZR has him as the third-worst defensive player at the hot corner. Both of those numbers are also the worst among all Yankees at any position (min. 40 innings played).

Looking at the traditional fielding stats, Headley already has as many errors this season (8) in 39 games as he did all of last year in 127 games at third base, and six of those have been throwing errors – twice as many as he made in 2014.

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It’s not just the errors that have been piling up. Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) tracks every batted ball fielded by a defender, and flags certain ones as “Defensive Misplays” — plays that were not scored an error but where the fielder clearly squandered the opportunity to make an out or allowed a baserunner to advance. Headley has seven Defensive Misplays this season, putting him on pace for nearly 30, which would be more than double his total from last year (13).

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Digging deeper into the numbers, we can see the types of plays that have been the most troublesome for Headley. One of the reasons that Headley was so good at the hot corner was his ability to make a lot more plays down the line than the average player. Balls hit to that location are typically more damaging than others if they get past the defender, because they often scoot into the outfield corners or reach the wall and likely end up as extra-base hits. According to BIS, Headley made 13 more plays to his right than the average third baseman last season. That’s good! This year, he’s been essentially an average fielder on those same balls hit down the third-base line. Uh, not as good.

As we know, defensive stats are not perfect, and there a couple possible explanations for the regression in these numbers. It could be due to a change in positioning (though they do not include any balls in play where the infield is shifted); or Headley could be struggling to make plays because the balls he’s fielded have been hit really hard towards him (the average velocity of ground balls fielded by Yankee third baseman ranks fourth-highest in the majors this season).

So what does all this mean going forward? Given Headley’s excellent defensive reputation, the fact that he’s historically rated above-average in the advanced metrics, and the unreliability of defensive stats over a short time period, we can’t make any definitive statements about his defense right now. It’s hard to believe that his true defensive talent has declined in a sample of fewer than 40 games, so you have to expect that his numbers will eventually normalize over an entire season.

Headley himself said that he’s not worried about his defense. “I’ll get it cleaned up,” he told the media on Sunday. Let’s hope he’s right.

Thoughts following Jacoby Ellsbury’s injury

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees lost more than a game last night. They also lost Jacoby Ellsbury to what is being called a right knee sprain, though we haven’t heard anything about the severity of the injury or a timetable for his return. It goes without saying the Yankees can not afford to lose Ellsbury for anything longer than the minimum 15-day DL stint. He’s way too important on both sides of the ball. Here are some thoughts in the wake of the injury.

1. Ellsbury is a speed player, so any sort of injury to his lower half is a concern, and those lower half injuries have started to pile up the last few years. He broke his foot in September 2013, missed time in Spring Training with a calf issue in both 2014 and 2015, had an ankle issue at the end of last season, and now he has this knee sprain. It’s not uncommon for speed players to start suffering these nagging leg issues in the second half of their careers — their legs take such a pounding and eventually it catches up to them — and you just have to hope they don’t rob Ellsbury of his speed or first step quickness. Without his legs, he’s a pretty average player, both at the plate and in the field. Hopefully this knee issue is nothing serious and the Yankees are just being cautious. A diminished Ellsbury going forward would be very bad.

2. I was a little surprised the Yankees opted to call-up Slade Heathcott over Ramon Flores, but with Ellsbury going down, they needed another player capable of playing center field, so Slade’s the guy. I’m not sure how Joe Girardi will use Heathcott but I hope it’s in a straight platoon with Chris Young, at least at first. Young has been pretty great this year — he’s slowed down of late, which was to be expected — but I don’t want to see him in the lineup every single day. That’s a good way to overexpose him real quick. He’s a part-timer at this point of his career and Ellsbury’s injury shouldn’t change that. Heathcott has been stuck in a slump with Triple-A Scranton the last two weeks or so (.163/.196/.184 in his last 12 games) but I wouldn’t hold that against him. Stick him in the lineup against righties and let’s see what he can do. What’s the point of calling him up otherwise?

3. Personally, I’m really happy for Slade, who’s been through hell in his pro career. He battled alcoholism early in his career and of course has had all those injuries. Every year it was another injury. Heathcott worked very hard to get back from his two knee surgeries last season and supposedly he’s done a lot of growing up — he got married recently and I’m sure that helped him — over the last few years. Yeah, he’s a former first round pick, but Slade is also an underdog at this point. Lots of people wrote him off entirely — how could you not after all those injuries? — but now he’s finally made it MLB and has a chance to help the Yankees. I’ll be rooting like hell for him.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

4. So, as far as the lineup goes, I assume Brett Gardner will now take over as the leadoff hitter. That’s the easy part. But who bats second now? Both Carlos Beltran and Chase Headley have started to hit recently, and they could be options, especially since they’re switch-hitters who create matchup headaches. Young has batted second against left-handers a few times already this year and I suppose that could continue going forward. Heathcott will probably get the rookie treatment and bat eighth or ninth until he shows he deserves a higher lineup spot. That’s just the way it goes. Gardner and Robinson Cano batted ninth when they first came up too. Either way, the Ellsbury/Gardner dynamic atop the lineup made the offense go, and now that dynamic is gone. It’s a huge blow to a team that has had trouble scoring runs of late.

5. Obviously this is a huge opportunity for Heathcott to show he’s a big league caliber player. This is a guy who was non-tendered this past offseason, remember, he knows what’s in front of him. The sucky part is that even if Heathcott plays very well while Ellsbury is out, the Yankees aren’t scheduled to have an outfield spot open up anytime soon. Ellsbury, Gardner, and Beltran are all signed through next year, ditto Alex Rodriguez, so Beltran can’t even slide to DH. This is similar to the Melky Cabrera situation in 2006 — Melky came up as an injury replacement, but once Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui got healthy, there was no spot for him. (The Bobby Abreu trade didn’t help either.) The Yankees traded Sheffield that offseason to clear the logjam and maybe Heathcott plays so well they’ll look trade an outfield this winter — it would have to be Gardner, right? he’s the only one without a no-trade clause or an onerous contract — otherwise he’ll be stuck going up and down as injury replacement. I’m getting ahead of myself though. The Yankees will be lucky if Slade plays as well as 2006 Melky this year.

D.C. chilled: Yankees suffer first walk-off loss of the season, 8-6

Well, eventually one of those guys was going to give up a run. Ryan Zimmerman hit an opposite-field walk-off homer against Andrew Miller in the 10th inning to deliver a crushing 8-6 loss to New York. What’s even worse is that the Yankees had a 6-2 lead going into bottom of the fifth and they failed to hold it. A win against one of the hottest teams in baseball would have been huge for the Yankees. Instead, they now have dropped six of the last seven.

Please don’t be Nathan Burnett (Source: Getty)

Nate “Eh”valdi

He’s a young guy and he has makings of being a better pitcher. Tonight, he once proved again that he can please and be infuriating in a same outing.

In the first inning, Nathan Eovaldi allowed two bombs – one to Ian Desmond and another to Bryce “overrated” Harper. For both pitches, however, it wasn’t like Eovaldi served up an absolute meatball – Desmond’s homer came from a veering fastball on the lower outside corner and Harper lifted a low slider that somehow carried out of the right center wall. What power that 22-year old has.

But after that, Eovaldi seemed to have settled in. From second to fourth inning, the righty allowed only one baserunner – a walk to Harper – and struck out four. That was probably three of the best innings from Eovaldi we’ve seen this season.

In the fifth inning, however, the Nats’ bat barraged Eovaldi with four consecutive hits that scored three runs. The 6-2 Yankee lead became a 6-5 lead, and Joe Girardi pulled him out as Harper came up to bat. See, this was just like watching the eighth inning Nate’s previous start – cruising along only to allow baserunners bit by bit. It’s annoying, especially considering the velocity he has.

Same (Source: Getty)

All good things must end
We are definitely used to seeing Miller and Dellin Betances throw scoreless frames. In fact, that’s literally all they had done so far this season. With the game tied at 6 in the eighth inning, Betances came in and threw two scoreless innings – striking out three, walking one and allowing zero hits.

Girardi turned to Miller to pitch the tenth inning. When he came in, a lot of eyes turned to the eventual Miller vs. Harper battle, a matchup of two of the hottest performers in baseball. With runner on first, Miller struck out Harper after going into a full count. Because Miller was being Miller and the biggest offensive threat was out of the way, I assumed that Yankees would get out of the inning unscathed…

…then Ryan Zimmerman happened. The Nats first baseman hit the outside fastball on the screws and the flyball hit the right field foul pole for a walk-off homer. Miller finally has an ERA – 0.98 – and quite frankly, it’s a bit disheartening to see that. Let’s hope Dellin’s stretch goes quite further.

Let’s talk about Carpenter

I was quite excited when Yankees turned Manny Banuelos into David Carpenter in the offseason. The righty was one of the best eighth inning guys for the playoff-bound Braves in 2013 and had a good 2014 season. In 2015, as a Yankee, Carpenter has just not been good. After allowing a game-tying homer to Wilson Ramos tonight in the sixth inning, he has a 5.28 ERA with a 5.56 FIP. That’s pretty bad, especially for someone who was seen as the seventh inning guy in the offseason. That was probably the spot Chris Martin would have pitched had he not gone down with an injury. Martin is by no means a thoroughly reliable reliever but he does have a 3.55 ERA and a stellar 2.04 FIP.

But then again, I was hoping that Carpenter would figure things out sooner or later – and I still do feel that. But with the team in a 1-6 funk, the last thing the Yanks needed was blowing a close lead against a very good and hot team. Urgh.

Leftovers

Mark Teixeira is one of the players that shaved off the mustache prior to tonight’s game but that did not affect his bat at all. He went 2-for-3 with a two-run homer and two walks. His line has bumped up to .258/.380/.602, good for a 161 wRC+. Hoo man. Imagine if his wrist still hasn’t healed.

Losing Jacoby Ellsbury hurts. He had a 126 wRC+ coming into tonight’s game with the team-best 1.3 fWAR. The team is not doing well and one of the last things Yankees needed was losing their speedy leadoff man. Here’s to hoping that Heathcott can do a decent job patching up the lost production. That would be awesome. Get well soon, Jacoby.

Stephen Drew had a rare multi-hit game. He went 2-for-4 and hit a go-ahead 2-run single in the fourth inning. I feel like every time Drew has a performance like this, Rob Refsnyder‘s ML debut gets delayed by… I dunno, two or three weeks or so.

Box Score, WPA, Standing

As always, here’s the box score, WPA and updated standings. Yankees are still in the first place but they share the spot with the Rays now.


Source: FanGraphs


Tomorrow, the Yankees will face off the Nationals again in Washington. RHP Adam Parish Warren will be on the hill. If he can repeat the 7-inning 3ER performance from the previous start against the Rays, that would be dandy – provided that the offense can score more than three, of course. Also, I will be at the game. It will be my last night as a college student. Time to live it up.

DotF: Sanchez homers again in Trenton’s loss

Got some news and notes to pass along.

  • RHP Luis Severino is expected to come off the DL and start for Double-A Trenton on Thursday, according to Nick Peruffo. Severino missed a week and a half with a blister. It’ll be Severino vs. Orioles RHP Dylan Bundy on Thursday.
  • OF Aaron Judge is day-to-day with upper leg tightness, says Peruffo. Judge didn’t play Sunday, Double-A Trenton was off Monday, and he was out of the lineup again today. Peruffo says he is with the team and did take batting practice today, so it can’t be that big a deal. Blame the Prospect Watch curse.
  • 3B Eric Jagielo was scratched from tonight’s Double-a Trenton lineup just a few minutes before first pitch for an unknown reason, according to Matt Kardos. Weird. He wasn’t even on the field for the National Anthem before the game. Blame last year’s Prospect Watch curse. Update: Jagielo was scratched because his blood-sugar level was high, says Kardos.

Triple-A Scranton (5-4 loss to Charlotte)

  • LF Ramon Flores: 0-4, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 K — threw a runner out at the plate
  • 2B Rob Refsnyder: 2-4, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 K — on-base streak is up to 21 games
  • DH Kyle Roller: 0-4, 1 BB, 3 K
  • RF Tyler Austin: 2-4, 1 R, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 1 K — second homer of the year and his first since the fourth game of the year
  • C Austin Romine: 2-4, 1 K
  • LHP Matt Tracy: 4.1 IP, 9 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 3 BB, 4 K, 3/4 GB/FB — 53 of 94 pitches were strikes (56%)
  • RHP Danny Burawa: 1.2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 1/1 GB/FB — 16 of 29 pitches were strikes (55%)
  • RHP Jose Ramirez: 3 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 4/1 GB/FB — 27 of 39 pitches were strikes (69%)

[Read more…]

Update: Yankees place Jacoby Ellsbury on 15-day DL with knee sprain, call up Slade Heathcott

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

11:27pm: It’s official, Ellsbury has been placed on the 15-day DL with what they’re calling a right knee sprain, the Yankees announced. Heathcott will indeed be called up.

11:00pm: Ellsbury will be placed on the 15-day DL, reports Jack Curry. Slade Heathcott will be called up to fill the roster spot. Heathcott is not on the 40-man roster but either Brendan Ryan or Chase Whitley can be slid to the 60-day DL.

10:40pm: Ellsbury is going for an MRI, Joe Girardi told reporters after the game. He said expects Ellsbury to miss some time but not much. Ellsbury has a history of getting injured and staying injured longer than expected, so we’ll see. Obviously a leg injury for a speed guy is bad news.

8:14pm: Jacoby Ellsbury exited tonight’s game against the Nationals in the fourth inning with a right knee injury, the team announced. Ellsbury appeared to hurt himself on a swing, but he stayed in to run the bases. Joe Girardi and trainer Steve Donahue came out to check on him, but Ellsbury remained in the game, scored from second on a single, and was then taken out of the game.

Replays showed Ellsbury pointing to his right leg — near his knee but it was tough to tell on television — while talking to Girardi and Donahue. He took a swing and his knee appeared to buckle a little bit. I didn’t even notice it at first. Ellsbury has had minor leg injuries during his time with the Yankees, including an ankle issue last year and calf problem this spring.

Needless to say, the Yankees can not afford to lose Ellsbury for any length of time. Brett Gardner is more than qualified to step in as the leadoff hitter, but Ellsbury is one of the team’s best hitters, and there’s no replacing that, regardless of lineup spot. His defense and base-running ability can’t be replaced either. Hopefully it’s nothing major.

Game 40: Natitude

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Coming into the season the Nationals had the best roster in baseball, at least on paper. Then they got off to a slow start (7-13), people called them overrated, and they’ve gone 15-4 since. Turns out they were pretty good the whole time. And, you know, it helps that Bryce Harper has turned into the best hitter on the planet. He’s hit nine homers in his last eleven games and will probably hit another one tonight. That’s just the way it is.

The Yankees have kinda done the opposite of the Nats. No one expected much coming into the season, they got off to a great start (21-12), but have since dropped five of their last six games. The good news is they are still in first place, and while it’s still crazy early, I’d much rather see the Yankees sitting near the top of the AL East right now than wondering how they’ll jump over three or four teams. A win or two against the Nats this week sure would be a nice confidence booster. Here is Washington’s lineup and here is New York’s lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Brett Gardner
  3. RF Chris Young
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. C Brian McCann
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. 2B Jose Pirela
  8. SS Stephen Drew
  9. RHP Nathan Eovaldi

It’s a little cloudy in Washington but otherwise the weather is fine. First pitch tonight is scheduled for 7:05pm ET and you can watch live on YES locally or MLB Network nationally. Enjoy the game.

Injury Updates: Chase Whitley had his Tommy John surgery as scheduled earlier today. Joe Girardi told reporters his UCL was pretty shredded. “There were only a few fibers left, so he had a few more pitches left,” said the skipper … in case you missed it earlier, Masahiro Tanaka (wrist, forearm) will make his first minor league rehab start with Triple-A Scranton on Thursday.

Update: Tanaka to make first AAA rehab start Thursday

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Tuesday: Tanaka will make his first minor league rehab start with Triple-A Scranton on Thursday, the Yankees announced. The RailRiders will be at home playing Durham (Rays) that night. There’s no word on how many pitches or innings Tanaka is scheduled to throw yet. All of his bullpen sessions have been around 30 pitches, so perhaps he’ll throw three innings and 45 pitches Thursday. We’ll see. Tanaka told reporters he is scheduled to throw 45 pitches Thursday.

Monday: Earlier today, Masahiro Tanaka threw a 29-pitch bullpen session at Nationals Park, the Yankees announced. The Yankees have an off-day today and open a quick little two-game series with the Nats tomorrow. Today’s bullpen session was scheduled and is Tanaka’s third as he works his way back from a wrist and forearm issue.

“We just felt that it would be good for him to throw one more, because he hasn’t thrown in a while. We’ll make sure he’s sharp, then he’ll go down and make a rehab start,” said Joe Girardi to Mark Feinsand over the weekend, following Tanaka’s second bullpen session. Apparently Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild mentioned Thursday as a possible rehab start date if today’s bullpen session went well, which it did by all indications.

Both Triple-A Scranton and Double-A Trenton are home Thursday, making them the likely destinations for the rehab start. Unlike Chris Capuano, who basically had to go through an entire Spring Training, Tanaka only needs a tune-up and could make just one or two rehab starts. Not four or five like Capuano, who was pitching in Extended Spring Training for a few weeks before joining one of the minor league clubs.

“I think you have to see where he’s at and how many pitches he gets to (in the first start). The one thing you don’t want is to have to be in a situation where he can only give you three or four innings,” said Girardi to Feinsand. Obviously the Yankees will play it safe with Tanaka, but everyone has insisted the injury was minor from the start, so his rehab could be quick. The Yankees could use him as soon as possible, that’s for sure.