Thoughts before the quick four-game weekend homestand

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees enjoyed yet another off-day yesterday — it was their seventh scheduled off-day in the first five weeks and three days of the regular season — and later today they’ll get back to work with the series opener against the Astros. It’s a four-game series and a four-game homestand. The Yankees will be back out on the road starting Monday. Anyway, I have some thoughts on things.

1. Yankees outfielders are hitting a combined .301/.404/.579 (160 OPS+) with 28 home runs in 436 total plate appearances so far this season. That is, far and away, the best outfield production in baseball. (The Nationals are second with a 142 OPS+). The least productive outfielder on the roster in terms of OPS+ has been Jacoby Ellsbury, who is hitting .281/.373/.427 (118 OPS+). The Yankees have four starting caliber outfielders on the big league roster — well, that’s if you’re fully buying into Aaron Hicks in the early going — plus two very good outfield prospects in Triple-A in Clint Frazier and Dustin Fowler. Outfield is an area of major depth right now. It’s hard to take any of the big leaguers out of the lineup, and if the Yankees wanted to call up Frazier or Fowler, it would be difficult to justify the change. This isn’t a problem! It’s a luxury. Too many good players is a good thing. The outfielders won’t keep this up all season. I don’t think this is a true talent 160 OPS+ outfield unit. I’m just curious to see how all this plays out. Do the Yankees try to unload Ellsbury and his contract while he’s playing well? Do they finally move Gardner? Is another team willing to buy high on Hicks? Or is cashing Fowler and/or Frazier in as trade chip for a starting pitcher the best move? What a fascinating outfield situation.

2. I find Aaron Judge‘s lack of doubles weirdly interesting. He has 13 home runs so far this season — it would be 14 if not for that stupid non-homer triple — and only three doubles. I don’t see this as a flaw at all. I think the lack of doubles is due entirely to how hard Judge hits the ball. Going into yesterday’s games he ranked sixth in baseball in average exit velocity (93.6 mph) and 13th in hard hit rate (48.3%). Judge hits the ball so hard that a) it tends to carry over the fence for homers rather than fall in the gap for two bases, and b) it comes off the wall hard and the outfielder gets to it so quickly that Judge has no choice but to hold at first base. Those “he hit it so hard he held himself to a single” batted balls. You know what I mean. Judge looks so much more disciplined and comfortable in the batter’s box this season and he’s doing a ton of damage. More than I ever thought he’d do this early in his career, even in a 121 plate appearance sample. Everything about him is interesting because he’s such a unique player, including his seeming inability to hit doubles because he hits the ball so damn hard.

3. Speaking of Judge, he is exactly the kind of player and athlete baseball has been losing to other sports over the years. Judge had Division I football scholarship offers coming out of high school, but baseball was his true love, so he stuck with it. Too many other kids in similar situations — big, physical athletes who are good at multiple sports in high school — wind up playing football (or basketball) because there are more scholarships available. Division I schools are allowed 11.7 scholarships for a 27-man baseball roster. That’s it. Many schools don’t even fund all 11.7 either. Football, on the other hand, gets 85 scholarships a year. Judge is in the minority. Most kids in his situation end up playing football because it equals a free ride to college. Judge stuck with baseball, worked very hard to make himself into the player he is today, and the Yankees are reaping the rewards. MLB should look at Judge and realize this is the kind of talent they’re losing to other sports. I’m not quite sure what the league can do about it — they can’t force colleges to give players baseball scholarships, etc. — but MLB should want to keep players like Judge playing baseball and not fleeing to other sports because they offer more immediate advantages.

4. Joe Girardi has used many different batting orders so far this season — 26 different batting orders in 31 games, in fact (not including the pitcher’s spot in NL parks) — and so far they’re all working. He’s indicated he’d like to keep Gary Sanchez in the two-hole going forward and I am cool with that even though he’s not a typical No. 2 hitter. He’s one of the team’s best hitters, so give him as many chances to hit as possible. Sanchez gave the Yankees a 1-0 lead with a solo homer two batters into Tuesday’s game, remember. At the same time, I think the best No. 2 hitter on the roster is Hicks. He switch hits, he’s been ultra-disciplined this year (17 walks and 13 strikeouts!), he has power, and he runs well too. Pretty much the perfect No. 2 hitter as far as I’m concerned. The problem is Hicks doesn’t play every single day, so Girardi can’t stick him in that spot permanently. In that case, I’d like to see Judge bat second going forward, with Sanchez bumped down to either fourth or fifth. Judge does play just about every day, he’s a more disciplined hitter than Sanchez, and he runs better too. And he’s going to give you that same power threat as well. Simply put, Judge is a more complete all-around offensive player than Sanchez thanks to his discipline and baserunning, so I think he’s a better fit for that premium lineup spot. It’s not a huge deal, and over the course of 162 games the difference between the two in the No. 2 spot might be negligible. But in one individual game, Judge’s advantages in plate discipline and baserunning could have a huge impact.

Hicksie. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
Hicksie. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

5. Sunday night’s game, that marathon against the Cubs, showed exactly why I am not a fan of the automatic intentional walk rule. After the Yankees took the lead in the 18th, a clearly fatigued Chasen Shreve was able to walk both Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo with two outs to get to the pitcher’s spot without having to throw a pitch. He then struck out Kyle Hendricks to end the game. Shreve had thrown 39 pitches in 2.2 innings before the walks and was running on fumes. The intentional balls he didn’t have to throw to Bryant and Rizzo would have taken more out of him! His location to Hendricks could have suffered and changed the inning completely! Hey, the Yankees benefited and won the game, so I’m not going to complain. But this is what I was referring to when I said intentional walks are a competitive play the pitcher (and catcher) should be forced to execute. Shreve was out of gas and he was able to get the matchup he wanted without having to waste any his remaining bullets walking Bryant and Rizzo. Things like that are an unintended consequence of a rule change designed to speed things up a bit.

6. If there was any lingering belief the Yankees view Rob Refsnyder as something more than an emergency option at second base, it was erased in the ninth inning Saturday, when he was replaced defensively with the Yankees up by five runs. Egads. Refsnyder did boot a ball in the previous inning that no doubt contributed to Girardi’s decision to remove him for defense, but still. Up five runs? If you believe in the kid at the position, he doesn’t get pulled in that spot. That spoke volumes about how comfortable — or uncomfortable, in this case — Girardi is with Refsnyder defensively at second base. At this point Refsnyder is basically an up-and-down depth player for the Yankees, someone who won’t kill you at the plate against lefties, and is capable of filling in at first base and in the corner outfield spots. And second base in an emergency. Nothing more. There’s no reason to get rid of him now while he has a minor league option and can be sent up and down as necessary. Next year, when Refsnyder runs out of options and has to be exposed to waivers to be sent down, chances are his time in the organization will come to an end. The Yankees have told us with their actions they never believed in him as much as the fans and, to be fair, just about all the love he received from fans was based on the stats, not the scouting report.

7. The Yankees are 21-10 overall, which is a 110-win pace over a full season. No, I don’t think they’re that good, but they are definitely better than I believed coming into the season. I saw them as an 84-85-ish win team that could maybe win 88-89 games and sneak into wildcard contention if some things went their way, like Judge hitting the snot out of the ball and Luis Severino turning the clock back to 2015, which is exactly what happened. Here’s the thing though: that 21-10 record is in the bank. It happened. Even if the Yankees are a true talent 84-win team and revert back to form and play at an 84-win pace in the final 131 games of the season, they’d finish 89-73. That’s how much this great start has helped. Young rebuilding teams have a way of “arriving” ahead of schedule. Theo Epstein admitted he expected 2016 to be the coming out party for the Cubs. They instead went from 73 wins in 2014 to 97 wins in 2015. The Pirates went from 79 wins in 2012 to 94 wins in 2013. The Rays went from 66 wins in 2007 to 97 wins in 2008. When it comes together, it can come together quick. That could very well be what is happening to the Yankees. And, even if it’s not, this great start has given them a huge head start in the race for a postseason spot.

DotF: Florial homers, Rutherford triples twice in Charleston’s blowout win

A few notes to pass along:

  • The Yankees optioned RHP Chad Green to Triple-A Scranton following last night’s game, the team announced. There have been a few unconfirmed reports floating around saying RHP Gio Gallegos is coming up to replace him, which makes sense given the available options. The Yankees haven’t announced anything though.
  • RHP Albert Abreu is on the High-A Tampa disabled list with elbow inflammation, reports Antonio Mendes. It’s considered precautionary. That’s encouraging, I guess, but anytime you hear a top pitching prospect is out with an elbow issue, it’s never good. Hopefully this doesn’t turn into something more serious.
  • Matt Eddy reports the Yankees have signed RHP Wilser Barrios and RHP Daison Manzano to minor league deals. I can’t find anything about them, so chances are they are late 2016-17 international signing period free agent pickups.

Triple-A Scranton (5-2 win over Pawtucket)

  • SS Tyler Wade: 2-5, 1 R, 1 2B, 2 K — got picked off first
  • CF Dustin Fowler: 0-5, 4 K
  • LF Clint Frazier: 1-4, 1 K — 18-for-60 (.300) in his last 14 games
  • 2B Rob Refsnyder: 1-4, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 SB
  • RF Mason Williams: 1-3, 1 R, 1 RBI, 1 K
  • LHP Caleb Smith: 5 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 4 K, 2 HB, 3/5 GB/FB — 54 of 82 pitches were strikes (66%), plus he picked a runner off first
  • RHP Ben Heller: 2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 3/0 GB/FB — 22 of 29 pitches were strikes (76%) … throwing two innings and 29 pitches today likely rules him out for a call-up tomorrow

[Read more…]

Wednesday Night Open Thread

An off-day on a Wednesday? Weird. Those are usually reserved for Mondays and Thursdays. Anyway, on this day without Yankees baseball, make sure you check out the SI cover story on Aaron Judge. So whenever Judge slips into a slump, which will happen because every player slumps at some point, we can blame the SI cover jinx. RIP Aaron Judge. His career died as he was doing what he loved: mashing dingers.

Here is an open thread for the off-night. There are no nationally broadcast MLB games tonight, though there are a bunch of NBA and NHL postseason games. Talk about that stuff, the Judge story, or anything else here that isn’t religion or politics. Thanks in advance.

2017 Draft: Keston Hiura

Keston Hiura | 2B/OF

Background
Hiura, 20, had a decorated prep career at Valencia High School in Southern California, though he went undrafted in 2014 and followed through on his commitment to UC Irvine. He’s a career .360/.455/.570 hitter with the Anteaters, including .405/.551/.684 with eight homers, 44 walks, and 30 strikeouts in 46 games as a junior this year. Hiura suffered an elbow ligament injury making a throw last season, and it continues to bother him, so much so that he has been limited to DH duty this spring.

Scouting Report
Hiura, who is listed at 6-foot-0 and 185 lbs., might be the best pure college hitter in the 2017 draft class. He’s a right-handed hitter with good bat-to-ball ability and bat speed to spare. Hiura projects to hit for both average and power while drawing plenty of walks. Prior to the injury, he played second base in addition to both left and center fields. His range and mobility on the infield is limited, though he has no problem running down balls in the outfield. The consensus seems to be that left field is his most likely defensive home long-term. The problem is scouts haven’t been able to see him in the field at all this year due to the injury.

Miscellany
In their latest rankings, Baseball America ranked Heston as the 20th best prospect in the 2017 draft class. MLB.com ranked him 26th and Keith Law ranked him 32nd. The Yankees hold the 16th pick. There’s little doubt Heston can hit and college bats have a way of moving through the system quickly. The elbow is a major question though — there’s some thought he’ll need Tommy John surgery sooner rather than later — and while the Yankees have rolled the dice on injured players in the past (Andrew Brackman, most notably), it’s been a while since they’ve done that with a high pick.

Guest Post: Yankees Outcasts Ben Gamel And James Pazos Thriving For Seattle

The following is a guest post from Steven Simineri, who has previously written guest posts on Austin Romine, Chris Capuano, Ike Davis, and the bullpen.

(Stephen Brashear/Getty)
(Stephen Brashear/Getty)

With a 5-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday night, the Yankees became the last team in the majors to reach double-digit losses at 21-10. Through the early goings of the regular season, New York is one of the best teams in baseball and the youth movement is only going to continue as the Bronx Bombers boast the second best farm system in baseball, according to MLB.com.

General manager Brian Cashman has done a tremendous job rebuilding on the fly and restocking the team’s minor league system. But the one problem that comes with this is keeping enough room on the 40-man roster for everyone, and trying to avoid losing guys via the Rule 5 draft. The clogged roster led to two small trades that Cashman made a few months back, which seemed trivial at the time and were perhaps the cost of having too much talent in the farm system.

Last August, the Yankees traded outfielder Ben Gamel to the Mariners for right-handed pitchers Jio Orozco and Juan De Paula. In November, the two teams agreed on a second low-key transaction. In this deal reliever James Pazos, who was once deemed untouchable by Hal Steinbrenner, was shipped off in exchange for minor league right-hander Zack Littell, an 11th round pick in 2013 who will not be Rule 5 eligible until after this season. After looking at the 40-man crunch the Yankees were faced with last fall, it’s easy to see why they dealt Gamel and Pazos away.

What wasn’t easy to see was the duo becoming important contributors for Seattle during the first few weeks of 2017. This spring, the two youngsters were fighting for big league jobs. Pazos made the team and Gamel was beat out by Guillermo Heredia for the forth outfield spot. But the long-haired Gamel was called up two weeks ago from Triple-A Tacoma to take fellow rookie Mitch Haniger’s place.

Last night in Philadelphia, Gamel went 4-for-5 with a homer and threw out a potential go-ahead run at home in the eighth inning. The 24-year old outfielder, who hit .200 in 40-at bats for Seattle last September, is slashing .362/.455/.596 with a 200 wRC+. In that same game, Pazos pitched a scoreless 7th inning and lowered his ERA to 2.40. The 26-year old southpaw is second on the team among relievers in innings pitched and he’s regularly hitting 99 mph with his fastball. He has whiffed 20 batters in 15 innings and he’s becoming a fairly reliable option for manager Scott Servais.

At the time of his trade to Seattle, Pazos had logged just 8 1/3 big league innings, making a few cameos in pinstripes over the last two seasons. The big lefty, who was drafted by New York in the 13th round in 2012 out of the University of San Diego, mostly dominated in the minors, but was ineffective in the majors. He cobbled together a 1.79 ERA with 78 punchouts in 60 1/3 innings during his time at the Triple-A level with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. But he also battled command issues,  posting an unsightly 6.26 BB/9 last season while with Scranton.

Meanwhile, the 24-year old Gamel, who is the younger brother of former Brewers top prospect Mat Gamel, was drafted by the Yankees in the 10th round of the 2010 draft and made his big league debut with the team last May. He appeared in just six games, but was quite productive during his time at the with Scranton. In 533 plate appearances, the sweet-swinging lefty hit .308/.365/.420 with six homers and 19 stolen bases while appearing at all three outfield spots.

At worst, Gamel figured to profile as a fourth outfield candidate and he was rated 24th among Yankees prospects according to MLB.com prior to being dealt. He won’t dazzle anyone with displays of power, but both his hit tool and speed were rated as above-average, drawing comparisons to Brett Gardner. Working against Gamel was the fact that the Yankees possess a talented core of young outfielders coming through the system as well. Most notably Clint Frazier and Blake Rutherford. And to a lesser extent, Dustin Fowler.

The Yankees 40 man roster crunch was subject of much debate during the fall. Gamel and Pazos were two casualties of that problem. The two former Yankees prospects current success is simply a testament to how loaded the Yankees farm system has become. Having the best or second best minor league system in baseball is great, but the truth is that not all the prospects will succeed and some will succeed elsewhere.

Yankeemetrics: Post-Chicago hangover (May 8-9)

Gardy goes yardy. (AP)
Gardy goes yardy. (AP)

No sleep, no problem
The Yankees arrived bleary-eyed in Cincinnati just as the sun was rising on Monday morning, but there was no hangover from Sunday’s epic marathon game when they took the field against the Reds later that night.

They put up a three-spot on the Reds in the top of the first inning and cruised to a 10-4 win, giving them a remarkable 21-9 record. There is obviously a ton of baseball to be played, but it’s still worth putting their win total in perspective at this point in the season.

This is the 17th time in franchise history the Yankees have won at least 21 of their first 30 games. Here’s the breakdown of how the previous 16 seasons ended up:

  • Won division/league – 15 (all except 2010)
  • Made World Series – 15
  • Won World Series – 12

A look at their run differential (currently +58) through 30 games tells a similar story. This is 15th time in franchise history the Yankees have outscored their opponents by at least 58 runs through 30 games. Here’s the breakdown of how the previous 14 seasons ended up:

  • Won division/league – 12 (all except 2010 and 1931)
  • Made World Series – 12
  • Won World Series – 11

Back to Monday’s game … the Bronx Bombers continued to do Bronx Bomber things, belting two more homers to give them 50 on the season. This is the second-fastest the Yankees have reached the 50-homer milestone, behind only the 2003 team that that hit their 50th longball in their 28th game.

Masahiro Tanaka was good but not great, though the most important number he tallied was seven – his innings pitched – ensuring that Joe Girardi wouldn’t have to dig deep into his very tired bullpen. Since Tanaka’s debut in 2014, he has 39 outings of seven innings or more. That nearly three times as many as any other Yankee has produced in that span (CC Sabathia is second with 15).

Gary Sanchez was the most consistent offensive threat for the team in this game, getting on base all five times he came to plate, as went 3-for-3 with a walk and hit-by-pitch while driving in two runs. It had been more than five years since a Yankee catcher reached base five times in a game: the last guy to do it was Jesus Montero on September 22, 2011 against the Rays.

The first inning was fun. (AP)
The first inning was fun. (AP)

Zero heroes
The Yankees six-game win streak came to an end on Tuesday night in a 5-3 loss to the Reds, as they capped off their five-game road trip on a disappointing note.

You can’t win ’em all, especially when you’re starting pitcher gives up five runs in the second inning to cough up a 2-0 lead. Aside from that horrible inning, CC Sabathia held the Reds scoreless, but the damage was done. He’s now allowed at least five earned runs in three consecutive starts, matching the second-longest streak of his career, and his ERA has ballooned to a rotation-worst 5.77.

Gary Sanchez put the Yankees on the board first, launching a 448-foot homer in the first inning, the longest home run of his career. He bookended that blast with a game-ending double-play in the ninth inning, drilling a 110.2 mph line drive into the glove of Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez.

He’s now just 2-for-6 (.333) when hitting a ball with an exit velocity of at least 110 mph (league batting average is .743). His four outs on batted balls with an exit velocity of 110-plus mph match the total number that the rest of the Yankees have produced this season.

Brett Gardner extended his hit streak to a career-best 12 games with a fifth-inning single. That’s the second-longest hit streak by a Yankee left fielder over the past decade, behind only a 13-gamer by Ichiro in 2012.

Dellin Betances walked the first two guys he faced in the seventh inning but then — unsurprisingly — recovered to strike out the side and end the threat. His third strikeout lowered his career batting average allowed with runners in scoring position (RISP) and two outs to .137 (21-for-153), breaking a tie with Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen for the lowest mark among active pitchers (min. 100 at-bats).

It’s not yet time for the Yankees to remove CC Sabathia from the rotation

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last night, for the fourth time in his last four starts, CC Sabathia put the Yankees in a early hole, this time by allowing five runs in the second inning. The Reds strung together six singles and a walk that inning. Sabathia did settle down and retire 13 of the final 15 men he faced, but by then it was too late. The Yankees couldn’t come back, which they’d done the last two times Sabathia gave up early runs.

“For whatever reason, (the cutter) was leaking over the plate,” said Sabathia to Andrew Marchand after the game, which matches what my eyes told me. Sabathia couldn’t get the cutter all the way in on righties in that second inning, and they kept making him pay. “It seemed like he didn’t find his cutter until later on. Once he did, it got a lot easier,” added Joe Girardi following the game.

After three excellent starts to begin the season, Sabathia has become the biggest liability in the rotation these last few weeks. We’re talking 22 runs and 42 baserunners in 20.2 innings these last four starts. Yikes. This is reminiscent of the Sabathia we saw from 2013-15, before last season’s resurgence. And with the Yankees playing extremely well overall, it’s only natural to wonder whether Sabathia still belongs in the rotation. Heck, it would be fair to ask that even if they weren’t playing well.

First things first: the Yankees are not pulling Sabathia from the rotation anytime soon, so don’t get your hopes up. They’ve stuck with him through much worse than this and there’s no reason to think that will change. I get the argument that he’s an impending free agent and not part of the long-term future, so give a young player a chance, but I don’t think that means much right now. The Yankees have shown in the past Sabathia has a very long leash and I’m sure the same is true now.

Secondly, I don’t think pulling Sabathia from the rotation would be a smart idea anyway. At least not right now. Sabathia had a miserable eleven-start stretch in the middle of last season — he threw 65 innings with a 6.78 ERA (5.33 FIP) from June 22nd through August 27th last summer — before snapping out of it and finishing strong. Based on what I saw in his first three starts, I think he should be given a chance to work through this.

To put it another way, I’m not convinced this is an irreversible decline and not simply a slump. It happens! Masahiro Tanaka is going through it right now himself. Sabathia’s stuff has been fine outside that one start in Pittsburgh. Last night the cutter averaged 91.0 mph and he generated swings and misses with both his changeup (three on eleven swings) and slider (two on seven swings). The problem is location. Look at lat night’s pitch locations, via Baseball Savant (Trackman calls the cutter a four-seamer for whatever reason):

cc-sabathia-pitch-locations

Way too many pitches out over the plate. Sabathia used to be able to get away with that location earlier in his career. Now he can’t. He has to be on the edges and/or down. Middle-middle is a bad combination and that’s where Sabathia has left too many pitches the last four times out. I’d be more worried if Sabathia lost stuff. If his fastball was more 87-88 mph or something like that. The stuff is pretty much what it was last year. The location is not.

The Yankees do, of course, have options to replace Sabathia should they decide to go that way at some point. Adam Warren is not moving into the rotation, so forget about that. The Yankees still have Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, and Luis Cessa available to start, and you know what? Odds are they’ll all get the ball at some point. The Yankees have been very fortunate so far. They’re one of seven teams to use only five starters so far. That won’t last forever. The other guys will be needed to start at some point.

Sabathia has been pretty terrible the last four times out, there’s no denying that, though his leash will be long and I think the Yankees are smart to stick with him right now. We can reevaluate things in a few weeks. I think it’s just a matter of correcting some location issues — and Sabathia seemed to do that after the second inning last night, I should add — to get him back to being the league average-ish starter he was last season. It’s still early in the season. Now’s the time for patience, not a drastic reaction to four starts.