Yankees avoid a shutout, but lose to the Royals 5-1

After two easy wins to start off the series, the Royals returned the favor by beating the Yankees 5-1. Eh, I’ll still take a series win. The Yankees are still in the first place with a 24-14 record with a 1.5-game lead over the Orioles.

(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Falling behind

The scoring started for the Royals in the second inning. With one out and two runners on base, Jordan Montgomery generated a grounder to third. Timing-wise, it should have been an easy double play. However, Starlin Castro‘s throw to Chris Carter bounced in front of the first baseman and Carter couldn’t handle it. Instead of ending the inning, the Royals followed it up by taking a 1-0 lead with a Whit Merrifield RBI single. Drew Butera followed it up with another RBI single to make it 2-0 Kansas City.

The Royals did more damage in the fifth. Merrifield reached with a bunt single and two hitters later, Montgomery walked Alcides Escobar to put two runners on base. Escobar almost never walks (that was his fifth of the season) and Montgomery paid for it against Mike Moustakas. The Royals’ Moose hit a three-run home run to give Kansas City a 5-0 lead. Welp. Montgomery finished the frame but that was the last one for him tonight.

It was yet another ho-hum start for Jordan Montgomery (5 IP, 5 ER, 3 BB, 4 K). There’s a lot to like about him – a young, tall lefty who can throw multiple pitches in any count – but he won’t get to the next level if he doesn’t cut down on walks (4.12 BB/9 IP after tonight). After tonight, Montgomery has a 4.81 ERA/3.93 FIP. Struggles like this is expected of a rookie starter. We’ll see how he learns from his mistakes though.

Shutdown by the Duffman

Simply said, Danny Duffy was overpowering. Dude was a good power pitcher in 2016, striking out 9.42 hitters per 9 IP, but injuries and fatigue made it a bit of an enigmatic season. He’s one of those guys that if he can stay healthy for a full season, he’d be considered one of the top starters of the league. Well, he looked like one tonight against the Yankees.

In 7 innings, Duffy struck out 10 Yankees hitters while allowing only 2 hits. I don’t have the data handy for the best SP performance against the Yankees lineup this year but this has got to be one of the tops. Duffy’s killer pitch was his slider, which he got a whopping 13 whiffs per Brooks Baseball. He generated three whiffs total on other pitches so yeah, that slider really set the tone for his dominance tonight.

The Yankee bats did try to rally though. Jacoby Ellsbury reached on a bunt base hit to lead off the fourth and two batters later, Matt Holliday walked to put the runner on scoring position. However, Castro struck out swinging and Aaron Judge flew out to end that threat quite quickly. They had another good chance in the 5th. Duffy started the inning by allowing a base hit to Chase Headley and walking Didi Gregorius. However, Aaron Hicks swung at the first pitch slider to ground into the double play to kill the tension almost immediately. Yeesh. One of those nights.

Leftovers

Chad Green impressed again in his long relief appearance. He came in relief after Montgomery’s 5 IP outing and struck out 6 in three scoreless innings. Not bad. He now has 11 strikeouts and 1 walk in 7.2 IP so far in the MLB with a 0.00 ERA. Green is pitching like a guy who wants a bigger role and I wonder what the management thinks of it. He did have a 4.73 ERA in the Triple-A before getting called up so there’s also that to take into the factor but he’s also seen flashes of success in his ML stint last year. He’s an interesting case. I personally think he should get a shot at the rotation at some point but can’t say when would be a good time.

The Yankees were 2-for-14 in RISP tonight. Not great. A pair of outfielders – Aaron Judge and Jacoby Ellsbury – had a 2-for-4 night so that’s a silver lining. Gregorius, who drove in the sole Yankee run, was 1-for-3 with a walk. If you haven’t noticed, Didi is having a good season, hitting .320/.358/.413 after tonight.

Box score, standings, WPA graph

Here’s tonight’s box score, updated standings and WPA graph.


Source: FanGraphs


The Yankees start a three-game series at the Trop tomorrow. Luis Severino will be up against Erasmo Ramirez.

DotF: Frazier, Torres, Andujar, McKinney all go deep in wins

SS Gleyber Torres was pulled from last night’s game for not running out a double, Brian Cashman confirmed to Mike Mazzeo. Torres said he thought the ball was going to go foul. “He didn’t do it on purpose, but the manager had the discretion to pull him if he felt it was warranted, so he did,” said Cashman, who added he considers the incident to be in the past.

Triple-A Scranton (11-10 win over Pawtucket in 11 innings, walk-off style)

  • SS Tyler Wade: 2-5, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 BB, 1 K, 2 E (both fielding) — he’s up to .322/.398/.452 this season, and he’s played six different positions too
  • CF Mason Williams: 1-5, 1 R, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 SB
  • 2B Rob Refsnyder: 2-5, 2 R, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 SB — hitting streak is up to 18 games
  • DH Mike Ford: 1-5, 2 R, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 1 BB — 7-for-22 (.318) with two doubles and three homers in five games since the promotion
  • LF Clint Frazier: 3-6, 2 R, 2 2B, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 K — walk-off double (here’s video) … he’s hitting .261/.348/.493 with 16 singles and 20 extra-base hits this season, and he’s yet to face a pitcher younger than him
  • RHP Domingo German: 6.2 IP, 7 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 3 BB, 6 K, 2 HB, 7/4 GB/FB — 57 of 97 pitches were strikes (59%) … Triple-A debut after throwing only 33 innings in Double-A and 23.2 innings in High-A
  • RHP Colten Brewer: 1.1 IP, 3 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 1 HB, 3/0 GB/FB — 19 of 31 pitches were strikes (61%)
  • RHP Ernesto Frieri: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 3 K — 15 of 22 pitches were strikes (68%) … inherited a bases loaded, no outs situation from Brewer in the ninth, and gave up a game-tying grand slam

[Read more…]

Game 38: A-Rod in the Booth

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the first time since his (forced) retirement, Alex Rodriguez will be in the broadcast booth tonight. The series finale between the Yankees and Royals will be on FOX Sports 1 tonight, not YES, and A-Rod will be doing color commentary alongside play-by-play man Kevin Burkhardt. How cool is that? A-Rod was pretty great doing pregame and postgame analysis during the postseason the last two years. I’m looking forward to hearing him in the booth.

Anyway, on to more pressing matters. The Yankees are looking to complete the sweep of the Royals this evening, and because the Orioles lost earlier today, the Yankees can stretch their AL East lead to 2.5 games. Is it too early to look at the standings? Nah. The Yankees are in first place. Enjoy the hell out of it. Here is the Royals’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. C Gary Sanchez
  3. DH Matt Holliday
  4. 2B Starlin Castro
  5. RF Aaron Judge
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. SS Didi Gregorius
  8. LF Aaron Hicks
  9. 1B Chris Carter
    LHP Jordan Montgomery

It is a bit cloudy in Kansas City tonight, though there’s no rain in the forecast. Thank goodness for that. Losing an off-day to go to back to Kansas City for a makeup game would stink. Tonight’s game will begin at 8:15pm ET, and as I mentioned earlier, the game will be on FOX Sports 1, not YES. Enjoy.

Injury Update: Greg Bird (ankle) did some light running today for the first time since being shut down. He didn’t travel with the team and is back in New York. The hope is Bird will be given the thumbs up to resume baseball activities early next week.

2017 Draft: Shane Baz

Shane Baz | RHP

Background
At 17 with a June birthday, Baz is one of the younger high school players in the 2017 draft class. He attends Concordia Lutheran High School in the Houston suburbs and is committed to Texas Christian.

Scouting Report
Texas is known for producing hard-throwers, and while Baez sits 92-95 mph and touches 97, he stands out most for his secondary staff. He has arguably the deepest arsenal in the entire draft class. Baz complements his four-seamer with an upper-80s cutter, a mid-80s slider, a low-80s changeup, and an upper-70s curveball. The cutter and slider are his top non-fastballs at the moment, though the changeup and curveball are quite promising as well. Baz often falls in love with his secondary stuff rather than attacking with his fastball, which is pretty much of the opposite of most live-armed high school kids. His athleticism and clean delivery help the 6-foot-3, 190-pound right-hander throw strikes. Baz also draws praise for his makeup and worth ethic. It’s worth noting he has legitimate pop at the plate and has committed to both pitch and play third base for TCU, though he is a far better pro prospect on the mound.

Miscellany
Both MLB.com and Baseball America ranked Baz as the 12th best prospect in the 2017 draft class while Keith Law (subs. req’d) isn’t as much of a fan. He ranked him 45th. The Yankees hold the 16th overall pick. The Yankees do love hard-throwers (who doesn’t?), and they’ve targeted prep kids with deep repertoires in the first round before (Ian Clarkin and Gerrit Cole, most notably), so Baz could pique their interest.

Extreme plate discipline is fueling Aaron Hicks’ great start

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

They had to wait a year longer than hoped, but the Yankees are now reaping the benefits of an Aaron Hicks breakout season. The former first round pick and top prospect has finally turned his high-end tools and athleticism into big time baseball production at age 27. Hicks went deep last night and owns a .326/.464/.616 (195 wRC+) batting line this year. Unlike last season, it’s really hard to keep him out of the lineup.

The book on Hicks coming up through the minors was that he had very good knowledge of the strike zone — he owns a career 14.4% walk rate in over 2,600 minor league plate appearances — but would often be too passive, meaning he’d let hittable pitches go by. That’s not an uncommon problem, though getting a player to be more aggressive is not always easy. It’s in their DNA to want to wait for the perfect pitch.

Last season Hicks showed strong plate discipline with the Yankees, even when he was struggling. His 18.8% strikeout rate and 8.3% walk rate were both better than the league averages, and his 23.1% chase rate was far below the 30.6% league average. Hicks rarely expanded the zone. The problem was that when he did swing, nothing really happened. Hicks played his best when he was in the lineup regularly, but he didn’t play well enough to get regular at-bats. It was a tough spot.

This season Hicks has started well and he’s forcing Joe Girardi to give him at-bats, which is a good thing. The Yankees have four starting caliber outfielders on the roster right now, three of whom could legitimately handle center field defensively full-time, if necessary. How many other teams can say that? One reason Hicks is breaking out is his plate discipline, which has become extreme. He simply doesn’t chase out of the zone. Here is the chase rate leaderboard among players with at least 100 plate appearances this season:

  1. Aaron Hicks: 13.7%
  2. Eric Thames & Robbie Grossman: 18.1%

The gap between No. 1 and No. 2 is the same as the gap between No. 2 and No. 18, who, coincidentally enough, is Chase Headley. It’s worth noting Hicks has the second lowest swing rate overall, on pitches both in and out of the zone. He’s at 33.0%. The lowest swing rate? Brett Gardner at 32.8%. Matt Carpenter is third at 34.0%.

Here is the pitch location map of all the swings Hicks has taken this year, via Baseball Savant:

aaron-hicks-swing-locationsNot many swings on pitches outside the strike zone at all. Heck, most of the pitches out of the zone that Hicks did offer at were borderline pitches, the kind that could have been called either way had he laid off. There’s fewer than a dozen pitches well out of the zone that generated a swing in that plot. If you want Hicks to swing, you have to come in the strike zone. He won’t get himself out by chasing off the plate.

What this extreme level of plate discipline does is get Hicks into better hitter’s counts. Hicks has 111 plate appearances this season and in 43 of them he’s seen a 2-0 or 3-1 count, or 39%. The MLB average is 23%. Hicks is nearly double that. And in hitter’s counts, Hicks is hitting .450/.744/.800 this year. That’s a 218 OPS+, on par with elite sluggers like Freddie Freeman (216 OPS+) and Kris Bryant (206 OPS+) when they’re ahead in the count.

Hicks has been so good at laying off pitches out of the strike zone this year that it almost can’t continue. Among players with at least 400 plate appearances, the lowest single season chase rate during the PitchFX era (2008-present) is 13.5% by 2010 Daric Barton. Marco Scutaro had a 14.0% chase rate in 2009. No one else is below 16.0%. Maybe Hicks can maintain his 13.7% chase rate. That’d be cool. Chances are it’ll climb though. In fact, it already has. From FanGraphs:

aaron-hicks-chase-rate

The fact Hicks has a history of strong plate discipline, including a 23.1% chase rate last year and a 21.3% chase rate for his career, suggests this isn’t a complete fluke, however. It’s not like Starlin Castro has suddenly turned into Joey Votto, you know? Hicks has always had plate discipline, and this year he’s cranked it up another notch. As a result, he’s seeing better counts, and doing more damage.

Even now, more than six weeks into the season, it’s still difficult to tell what is real improvement (or decline) and what is general baseball randomness. I want to believe the Hicks breakout is real and I think it is, but I don’t know that it is. The underlying data, specifically his complete unwillingness to expand the zone and history of plate discipline, suggest this could be real. For now, the hot start has happened, and Hicks has helped the Yankees win an awful lot of games early on. Good things happen when you swing at strikes and lay off balls.

Hal says the Yankees aren’t looking to trade away prospects, but they will be “active” in free agency

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

At the quarterly owners meetings in New York earlier this week, Hal Steinbrenner confirmed to Christian Red that no, the Yankees are not looking to trade away any of their top prospects at the trade deadline this year. They are open to adding pieces and will consider everything, but moving guys like Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier is not on the agenda. The same goes for other top young players.

Trading prospects may not be in the cards. Free agency though? The Yankees could be pretty busy once the winter rolls around, Hal indicated. Here’s what he told Red:

“I think we’ve been pretty consistent about not trading away the young talent the last three to four years. I think in part that consistency has paid off in several areas. So that’s not something I’m looking to do, is trade away all of our top prospects,” said Steinbrenner, who attended the MLB owners meetings in Manhattan Wednesday. “When you look at the young talent that we got (last summer), those deals were tough to turn down. Got some good young players.”

“I don’t know if I’d be more open to it, but I will absolutely divert all of my attention to any one deal that is brought across my table. That’s the way I’ve always been,” said Steinbrenner, who spoke to reporters in the lobby of 245 Park Ave. “I’ll do the research. I’ll read the scouting reports, I’ll talk to (general manager Brian Cashman), all of his people. And I’ll consider any option. We will be active in the free-agent market, I can assure you. To what degree, and in what areas remains to be seen.”

Brendan Kuty says Hal pointed out that whenever the Yankees have had money come off the books in recent years, they reinvested it in the team. And this offseason the Yankees are shedding a lot of salary. A lot. CC Sabathia ($25M) and Alex Rodriguez ($21M), most notably, plus Masahiro Tanaka ($22M) could opt-out too. Matt Holliday ($13M), Michael Pineda ($7.4M), and Tyler Clippard ($6.15M) will also be free agents. A few things to keep in mind though.

1. The luxury tax plan is still a thing! The Yankees will be “active” in free agency as long as it doesn’t jeopardize their plan to get under the $197M luxury tax threshold next year. They’ve been wanting to do it for a long time, and next season represents their best chance to do it. Hal even hedged a bit by saying it “remains to seen” exactly how active they will be. The Yankees sat out free agency completely two offseasons ago. That was a rarity. I don’t think that will happen again. I also don’t think they’re going to abandon the luxury tax plan either.

2. The Yankees will still have plenty to spend. My quick math says the Yankees have approximately $100M on the books next season for luxury tax purposes assuming Tanaka does not opt-out. Arbitration raises will add another $30M or so to that. Dellin Betances and Didi Gregorius are the major arbitration cases. Aaron Hicks and Adam Warren will get decent salaries as well.

That all adds up to roughly $130M for ten players. Fortunately guys like Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, Greg Bird, and Gary Sanchez will all be making something close to the league minimum as pre-arbitration-eligible players, and hooray for cheap production. Add in player benefits and other miscellaneous expenses, and the Yankees figure to have $45M or so in annual salary space left over for free agency. That’s a lot! They should be able to add some real nice pieces without bumping up against the luxury tax threshold next year. And if Tanaka opts out, forget it, they’ll have lots to spend.

3. The 2017-18 free agent class kinda stinks. Okay, great, so the Yankees will have a lot to spend. Where will they spend it? Pitching is the obvious spot. Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish are both scheduled to become free agents after the season, so I suppose the Yankees could make a big play for an ace. I would be surprised if the Yankees did that though. Arrieta kinda stinks now and Darvish had his arm cut open two years ago. Either way, here is the 2017-18 free agent class. Not the most exciting group of players. Having money to spend is only good as long as there’s somewhere reasonable to spend it.

4. The 2018-19 free agent class looms. The Yankees may be active in free agency this coming offseason, though I don’t think they’re going to do anything that endangers their a) plan to get under the luxury tax threshold, and b) ability to pursue Manny Machado and/or Bryce Harper during the 2018-19 offseason. Those guys are both superstars and they’ll hit free agency soon after their 26th birthdays. They fit the youth movement perfectly.

Because the Machado/Harper free agency class is looming, I think the Yankees could wind up focusing on one-year contracts this coming offseason rather than multi-year deals. They don’t necessarily have to be cheap one-year deals. We could see some pricey one-year contracts a la Holliday. But the one-year part is important. It’ll better allow the Yankees to spend big for Machado and/or Harper, especially with the luxury tax rate reset.

* * *

Free agency is an awful lot of fun, but we are getting a little too far ahead of ourselves here. The Yankees have started the regular season very well, so much so that they might actually be buyers at the trade deadline, even if they make top prospects off-limits. I feel like the Yankees may be heading for a 2014-esque deadline, one with a series of low cost pickups a la Brandon McCarthy and Martin Prado. Those moves could end up shaping the team’s free agency plan.

Trying to decipher Didi Gregorius’ post-victory tweets

Fun team is fun. (Presswire)
Fun team is fun. (Presswire)

Last night the Yankees did a number on Jason Vargas en route to an 11-7 win over the Royals. The Yankees extended their AL East lead to 1.5 games over the Orioles, and although that doesn’t mean a whole lot in May, it’s better than being 1.5 games back, isn’t it? Also, the Yankees boast the baseball’s best run differential at +63. That’s pretty cool.

Following last night’s win, Didi Gregorius fired off a celebratory tweet, as he does after just about every win. They all start with #StartSpreadingTheNews and end with WHAT A GAME too. Love it. Such a fun little tradition. Here is last night’s post-win tweet:

He’s got the #BigMike hashtag in there for Michael Pineda and … an old man emoji for Aaron Hicks? Hicks hit the three-run home run last night. The emoji has white eyebrows so yeah, it’s definitely an old man. What’s up with that? Is it because Hicks likes golf? That’s kind of an old man thing. Or maybe because he’s bald like the emoji? That’s it. It’s because Hicks is bald. Has to be.

Here is the tweet Didi sent out following Tuesday’s series-opening win over the Royals.

A squid for Gary Sanchez! Or is that an octopus? I think it’s a squid. Either way, Sanchez is the Kraken — he can thank Brian Cashman for that nickname — and the squid/octopus fits perfectly.

What about the rhino though? That’s Chris Carter. He hit the two-run home run Tuesday. Is Carter a rhino simply because he’s a big strong dude? Because he’s deceptively fast? Rhinos can run up to 34 mph, you know. The internet told me that. Is it because his eyesight is poor and he strikes out so much? Rhinos have bad eyesight too. That can’t be it. That’s too mean. I’m going to say Carter is a rhino because they’re both big and strong. Perhaps an ox emoji would have been better, but rhinos are cooler than oxen.

The Yankees came back for a win over the Astros in the first game of Sunday’s doubleheader, and between games Gregorius broke out the ultra-rare five emoji tweet to celebrate.

Okay, the first two are kinda easy. The star is Starlin Castro. He hit a two-run game-tying home run. The Judge is, well, Aaron Judge. He hit a solo shot to give the Yankees the lead as part of back-to-back homers with Castro.

Now we move on to the clown, who is Brett Gardner. He’s hit the other solo home run. To further confirm the clown=Gardner dynamic, here is the tweet Gregorius sent out after Gardner’s ninth inning game-winning home run against the Cubs two weeks ago:

That was a fun game, wasn’t it?

Anyway, you know why Gardner is the clown? I’ll tell you why. Because he’s the biggest jokester on the team. He’s the dude who pranks everyone and keeps the team loose. You wouldn’t think Gardner is that guy, but he is. Next time you’re at Yankee Stadium, pay attention to the between-innings entertainment on the scoreboard. There’s one skit in which they ask a bunch of players who the funniest guy on the team is, and to a man, they say Gardner. That’s why he’s the clown.

Okay, going back to the original May 14th tweet, we’re left with a fist and a red angry face. That’s … Chase Headley? He had the bases clearing triple that game. Has to be him. I have no idea why Headley is a fist and an angry red face. He doesn’t strike me as a fighter or a guy who gets mad a lot. Could it be because he’s intense? We’ve seen Headley get pretty fired up at times, either after a big hit or a big play or whatever. Example:

chase-headley-catch

I’m at a loss for this one. Headley as fist plus angry red face is a #thingtowatch. A developing situation.

Let’s now go back to May 6th, the middle game of that three-game sweep at Wrigley Field.

Two-run homer by the star (Castro)? Check. Three-run homer by the bald guy (Hicks)? Also check. That leaves the baby emoji in baby bomber, a phrase usually reserved for hitters, but in this case it goes to a pitcher, Jordan Montgomery. He pitched that day. 24-year-old Jordan Montgomery, who is 6-foot-6 and 225 lbs., is the team baby. Didi has spoken.

Okay, we’ve got one more postgame tweet and two more player-specific emojis to cover. Here’s the tweet:

May 3rd was the final game in the series against the Blue Jays, when the Yankees came back in the seventh inning against Joe Biagini. Gregorius drove in the go-ahead run with an infield single that game. He doesn’t have an emoji for himself, as far as I can tell.

Anyway, Judge smashed a two-run home run against Marcus Stroman that game — I guess there’s no short guy who finished his degree while rehabbing a torn ACL emoji? — so we get the judge emoji. The fire to close out the game? Aroldis Chapman. That one is easy.

That leaves us with the big biceps and expressionless face, which is Matt Holliday. He hit the three-run homer. Have you seen Holliday’s arms? They’re the size of my thighs. Holliday could give Joe Girardi a run for his money in the big arms contest. Judge too, for that matter. Ditto Clint Frazier whenever he gets called up.

What about the face though? Is it because Holliday never smiles? Now that I think about it, I can’t remember ever seeing him smile. He’s always super serious. That’s okay. He’s the grizzled veteran who was brought in to show the kids how to win and all that. It’s a serious job. I just enjoy that Didi decided a boring face emoji is most appropriate for Holliday.

The Yankees are off to a great start this season and this team is, rather easily, the most likeable group of players the Yankees have had in a long time. The young players are a big part of that, and Didi himself is a young player. He’s only 27. This team is so very fun and easy to root for, and after each win, Gregorius marks the occasion with a tweet. It’s the best. Love this team, you guys.