Mailbag: Hosmer, Freeman, Outfield, Defense, Estrada, Netting

Big mailbag this week. Sixteen questions and 15 answers. RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is the email address for all mailbag related correspondence.

Hosmer. (Brian Davidson/Getty)
Hosmer. (Brian Davidson/Getty)

Joe asks: What would an Eric Hosmer deadline trade look like? Do you think it’s a potential fit?

The Royals are pretty terrible and Hosmer is one of their many impending free agents, along with fellow core players Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain. Hosmer, 27, went into last night’s game hitting .295/.358/.409 (110 wRC+) with three home runs, and he’s really turned things round after a terrible start. He was hitting .225/.281/.292 (55 wRC+) on the morning of May 1st.

Hosmer has developed a reputation for being better than he actually is. I guess being a former top prospect and cleanup hitter for a World Series champion will do that. The fact of the matter is Hosmer hit .266/.328/.433 (101 wRC+) last season, and is a career .278/.336/.427 (107 wRC+) hitter in nearly 4,000 MLB plate appearances. That’s not awful, but it is below average for a first baseman.

As far as the Yankees are concerned, the question is whether Hosmer would be better than their in-house first base options, specifically Greg Bird and Chris Carter. I guess it depends on Bird’s health, really. I’d much rather stick with Bird than give up prospects for Hosmer. But, if Bird’s ankle issue lingers and the Royals decide to sell, maybe checking in on Hosmer wouldn’t be a terrible idea?

The thing is, I’m not willing to give up a whole lot for Hosmer. I do think he’s a better defender than the stats indicate, but he is a below average hitting first baseman, and that’s not all that valuable. If the Yankees could build a package around their second tier prospects, guys like Miguel Andujar and Domingo Acevedo, then sure, it might be worthwhile. I can’t imagine parting with Tyler Wade or Dustin Fowler for Hosmer though, nevermind Gleyber Torres or Clint Frazier.

Jason asks: Could you imagine a scenario in which the Yankees ownership gets antsy and decides to buy big in either July or this offseason and target Freddie Freeman? What would a package for him look like?

This question was sent in before Freeman took a pitch to the wrist the other day. He’ll be out ten weeks with a fracture. Hypothetically though, I don’t think trading for Freeman would be an “ownership gets antsy” move. I think everyone would be on board with that, including Brian Cashman and the rest of the front office. There are not many players I would give up Torres to acquire, but Freeman is one of them.

The facts: Freeman is only 27, he is signed affordably through 2021, and he’s hit .309/.411/.602 (162 wRC+) with 48 homers in 858 plate appearances since the start of last season despite playing nearly all of his home games in a pitcher’s ballpark. He is one of the best and most valuable players in baseball. There’s basically no chance the Braves are open to trading him — Freeman is their franchise player, the guy they’re building around — but if they decide to put him on the market, the Yankees should go all out to get him. He’s an MVP caliber producer.

Would the Braves be wrong to ask for Torres, Frazier, Bird, and Luis Severino? I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s enough, to be honest. Torres and Frazier are great looking prospects, but they’re still prospects. Bird hasn’t been healthy for a while now. Severino? Well, you have to give something to get something. Add Freeman to Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge, and the Yankees are set with a monster middle of the lineup. Like I said though, the Braves aren’t trading him.

Freeman. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty)
Freeman. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty)

Michael asks: Mike. Am I being irrational in wanting them to trade Fowler but not Frazier (or Torres for that matter) for a SP..?? As a CF Fowler may project as better in the long term, yet I’m fascinated by what Frazier is likely to become and want to keep him no matter.

Not at all. Fowler is getting more hype right now because he’s having an insane start to the season in Triple-A, but Frazier remains the better prospect with the higher long-term ceiling. I’m not opposed to trading either! I just wouldn’t give them away for a quick fix rental, you know? Trading Frazier or Fowler as part of a package to get a young pitcher with ceiling and long-term control is perfectly cool with me. If I had to pick, I would trade Fowler before Frazier despite their early season numbers. Frazier’s upside is too great to ignore.

Pete asks: I just read your post about the OF production and the 160 OPS+. What was the best Yankees OF of the past 25 years based on overall OPS+?

Going into last night’s game Yankees outfielders were hitting .303/.407/.572 (157 OPS+) with 31 home runs in 520 plate appearances this season, so they have slipped a tiny little bit since that 160 OPS+ post. That was bound to happen. Even then, the Yankees still have far and away the most productive outfield in baseball. The Nationals are a distant second with a 148 OPS+.

Most of the best outfields in Yankees history are from way back in the day. The Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle teams. The most productive outfield in franchise history is the 1940 team (140 OPS+), which was led by DiMaggio. Next best is the 1961 team (135 OPS+), the year Mantle and Roger Maris raced to the single season home run record. Here are the best Yankees outfields over the last quarter-century:

  1. 1994: .317/.407/.497 (128 OPS+)
  2. 2011: .260/.360/.459 (119 OPS+)
  3. 1998: .299/.380/.482 (118 OPS+)
  4. 1997: .302/.380/.473 (117 OPS+)
  5. 1996: .291/.379/.482 (114 OPS+)

The peak Bernie Williams/Paul O’Neill teams dominate the list, unsurprisingly. The Yankees had some great outfields from 2009-12, though they weren’t close to the mid-to-late-1990s teams. I’m not sure the current outfield is good enough to best the 1994 outfield — that was a strike-shortened season, remember — though I do this year’s crew will go down as one of the most productive units in recent Yankees history.

Alessandro asks: Who is the 40th man on the roster right now? Is it finally Refsnyder? Or is it someone like Giovanny Gallegos/Mason Williams?

There actually is no 40th man on the 40-man roster right now. Well, no, that’s not true. There are 40 players, but Tyler Austin doesn’t count against the 40-man because he is on the 60-day DL. The Yankees have an open spot at the moment. Right now, my guess is Dietrich Enns is the last man on the 40-man roster. He’s an okay prospect at best and he’s currently out with a shoulder injury. Those dudes usually don’t stick around long. Refsnyder and Williams are the next men up on the position player side. If an infielder gets hurt, Refsnyder is coming up. If an outfielder gets hurt, Williams is coming up. I don’t think either is in danger of losing their 40-man spot right now. Enns is my guess. Tommy Layne might be next.

Charlie asks (short version): While we look great at the plate and pretty good in pitching (when I combine the performance of the starters and the bullpen), I’m wondering how the team ranks in terms of performance in the field. I know defensive stats are tough, but how are we doing?

Here are the defensive stats for the Yankees over the last three seasons (MLB ranks in parenthesis):

UZR DRS Defensive Efficiency
2015 -19.9 (27th) -38 (22nd) .700 (22nd)
2016 +5.0 (15th) +1 (14th) .708 (10th)
2017 -1.3 (15th) -2 (16th) .715 (12th)

Keep in mind UZR and DRS are counting stats, so the Yankees right now are on pace for -5.7 UZR and -9 DRS, which indicates the Yankees have been worse than last year. I suppose that makes sense. The Carlos Beltran to Judge upgrade is negated by the Mark Teixeira to Bird/Carter downgrade, plus Chase Headley‘s errors have annoyingly returned.

That said, UZR and DRS aren’t perfect. Far from it. On a team-wide scale, I prefer Defensive Efficiency, which is simply the percentage of batted balls the team turns into the outs. The Yankees have converted 71.5% of all balls in play into outs this year, up from 70.8% last year and 70.0% the year before. The MLB average is 70.9% this year. Simplistic? Sure, but I think this works best.

Jerome asks: If Gleyber asks for the number zero would the Yankees give it to him? What will it take for the Yankees to issue the #0 to someone?

I don’t think they ever would. The Yankees have never issued No. 0 (or No. 00, for that matter) and it just seems like one of those things they’d never do. Then again, I didn’t think we’d ever see a player wear No. 99 either, so what do I know? No. 0 is just weird though. I suppose eventually they will have no choice but to issue No. 0 because so many other numbers are retired, but we’ll all be long gone by time that happens. A player wearing No. 0 would be kinda cool — wouldn’t Ronald Torreyes be a fun No. 0? — but I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for it to happen.

Gleyber. (Presswire)
Gleyber. (Presswire)

Bobby asks: As I read Steven’s piece on the potential for a Yankees-Astros rivalry, I thought about how the battles with Cleveland, Anaheim and Seattle in the past and how replicating those seem less plausible now that teams in the same league but different divisions only play two series per year. Do you support the unbalanced schedule and inter-league play or would you rather balance things out to see the A.L. central/west teams more often?

I would greatly prefer a balanced schedule with no interleague play. It would add more drama and intrigue to the World Series because there’s no chance the two pennant winners will have played during the regular season — the Yankees dropped two of three to the Phillies during the 2009 regular season — and also the balanced schedule would make things much more fair. Could you imagine the Yankees if they had, say, the Nationals’ schedule? The Nats are going to play 57 games, more than one-third of their schedule, against the crummy Braves, Phillies, and Marlins. A balanced schedule would make things more fair for everyone, especially since the postseason seeding is determined by regular season record. Interleague play is never going away because it’s too popular among casual fans and there’s too much money to be made, and the unbalanced schedule is more about travel than anything. I don’t see these things going away anytime soon.

Jim asks: I was a little surprised the Yankees held back former top international signee Dermis Garcia based on the power he showed last year (13 Hrs in 194 ABs) for extended spring training. Seems like move was based on his contact issues the first few years stateside. Might it be to rebuilt or tweak his swing to produce better contact? The Yankee minor league philosophy has been leave them alone initially before making changes.

On a scale of 1-10, I’m about a three with my level of surprise for Garcia being held back in Extended Spring Training. I thought he would start the season with Low-A Charleston, but holding back a 19-year-old kid who had a 34.3% strikeout rate in rookie ball last year is not stunning, regardless of his power output. The Yankees felt Dermis required more seasoning and instruction than full season ball allows, so they kept him in ExST. Not a huge deal or terribly surprising, as far as I’m concerned.

John asks: Do the Yankees have a better bullpen now than in 2016? Do you agree? Disagree? Why? Obviously without Andrew Miller who is arguably the best reliever in all of baseball it’s a tough argument to make, but on some level it does make sense due to the depth.

I do think the 2017 bullpen is better than the 2016 bullpen, at least when Aroldis Chapman is healthy. The Chapman-Dellin Betances-Andrew Miller trio is unmatched. Those guys were devastating for the short time they were together. Chapman-Betances-Tyler Clippard is a pretty great end-game trio too, but Clippard is not Miller, so this year’s late-game relievers aren’t as good as last year’s.

The key difference between the 2016 bullpen and the 2017 bullpen is depth. Adam Warren and Jonathan Holder, the fourth and fifth relievers in this year’s bullpen, are far better than the guys who held those roles last year. Do you remember who they were? It was Kirby Yates and Anthony Swarzak. Yeah. Really though, they were shuttle spots with others like Chasen Shreve, Nick Goody, and Richard Bleier. Either way, give me Warren and Holder over those guys any day of the week. No Miller stinks. He’s awesome. But the Yankees have a much deeper relief crew right now than they did a year ago.

Billy asks: MLBTR had a phenomenal in-depth look at the 1992 expansion draft. Using the same rules, who do you think would be the 15 protected players in the Yankees’ organization right now?

An expansion draft would be pretty fun to cover as a baseball writer dude. I’m jealous of all the NHL folks who get to analyze the expansion draft this summer. Anyway, here are the 1992 expansion draft rules:

  1. Teams could protect only 15 players in the entire organization for the first round.
  2. Players with no-trade clauses (either contractual or 10-and-5 rights) had to be protected.
  3. After the first and second rounds, AL teams could protect an additional four players.
  4. Players selected in the 1991 and 1992 drafts did not have to be protected.
  5. International free agents signed at 18 or younger from 1990-92 also didn’t have to be protected.

So let’s assume there will be an expansion draft after this season, meaning 2014-16 international free agents and 2015 and 2016 draftees do not have to be protected. Here is my protection list for the Yankees:

Teams can only lose one player per round, and I assume the Yankees would lose one of those pitchers in the first round. Probably Sheffield since he’s the best prospect of the bunch. It’s not often you can grab a top 100 caliber prospect in an expansion draft. Perhaps the expansion team would pop Hicks, though he doesn’t come with a ton of team control (free agent after 2019).

Keep in mind notable prospects like Chance Adams, James Kaprielian, Blake Rutherford, and the entire 2014-15 international signing class are not eligible for the expansion draft. They were all acquired too recently. Also, CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda will become free agents after the season, so they don’t have to be protected. The notable players left unprotected include Tyler Austin, Brett Gardner, Chase Headley, Jonathan Holder, Rob Refsnyder, and Adam Warren.

Simon asks: I’ve noticed that various folks have called Dellin Betances’ breaking ball as a curve, knuckle curve, slider. To me it looks like a curve. Can we determine once and for all what breaking pitch he actually throws?

The grip never lies. Here is a screen grab of Betances throwing his breaking ball from FanGraphs:

dellin-betances-grip

That’s a knuckle curveball grip. Mike Mussina used to throw that pitch too. Betances himself calls it a curveball, not a slider. The grip says it all though. His knuckle is on the ball, therefore it’s a knuckle curve. It’s a very hard knuckle curve — the pitch is averaging 83.7 mph this season — but it’s a knuckle curve nonetheless.

Brent asks: Thairo Estrada has been performing pretty well for a few years and as of late has been on fire. He’s young and seems to be very well rounded. Is he emerging as maybe a top 5 prospect in the Yankees system? With some guys graduating and his good play.

Bob asks: I get why the Yankees are exploring using Tyler Wade all over the field. Why aren’t they doing the same thing with Thairo Estrada? He has played 3b and 2b in addition to his natural ss position so why not the outfield as well?

Going to lump these two questions together. I love Estrada as much as anyone, but no, I don’t see him as a top five prospect in this system. His offensive ceiling is too limited by his lack of power. Perhaps he’ll grow into some more pop and outperform expectations. That would be cool. I do love me some Thairo though. That dude can flat out play.

As for the outfield, I think it is a very real possibility. Estrada is a natural shortstop who has played a ton of second and third base in deference to higher ranked prospects (Torres and Mateo, most notably), and the outfield could be next. Keep in mind the Yankees didn’t have Wade play the outfield until after he mastered Double-A. They could do the same with Thairo. Wait until it’s crystal clear he’s an MLB option with no clear path to playing time on the infield.

Anonymous asks: Since it looks like SD has no intention of returning Torrens, do you think they would be amenable to a trade that will allow them to send him back to the minors for seasoning instead of eating an entire year of development? What do you think the Yankees could ask for and what do you think SD would agree to surrender to make this happen?

Generally speaking, teams don’t give up a whole lot to acquire players already in their organization. The Padres already have Luis Torrens, and while I’m sure they’d love to send him to the minors for regular at-bats, I don’t think they’d part with even a decent prospect to make it happen. Last year the Padres traded cash to the Mariners to keep Jabari Blash, a Rule 5 draft pick. Torrens is better than Blash, but still, San Diego already has him. Why give up something worthwhile to acquire him again? Maybe the Yankees could get a Grade-C prospect, someone from the back end of their top 30 prospects list, but that’s probably it. The Padres have little reason to pursue a trade unless they determine there’s absolutely no way to keep Torrens on the MLB roster much longer.

Dan asks: In wake of Aaron Judges and Gary Sanchez’s high exit velocity, should the Yankees reconsider putting up extended netting down the foul lines? Do you think there is an increased risk of injury as players start hitting the ball harder? Could they do so on their own, or do they need permission from MLB?

Teams are free to do it on their own, and I am all for extended netting. Players are so big and strong these days, and everything on the field is happening faster than ever before. A woman sitting behind the dugout got hit by a flying bat earlier this year and the game was delayed nearly ten minutes while she received medical attention.

“Pay attention and watch the game!” is not a realistic solution, and “fans won’t be able to get autographs” is not an acceptable reason to keep the netting as is. The netting extends all the way around, from foul pole to foul pole in Korea. There’s no reason MLB can’t do the same. Given the way things are going now, it’s only a matter of time until a fan gets killed by a foul ball. The longer MLB waits to extend the netting, the more likely it is to happen. They need to be proactive when it comes to safety. Not reactive.

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.