Aaron Hicks is starting to have an impact now that he’s getting regular playing time

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Over the winter the Yankees and Twins got together for an old school baseball trade. My young player for your young player, my surplus for your surplus. It was pretty cool. John Ryan Murphy went to Minnesota for outfielder Aaron Hicks as the Yankees looked to add athleticism to their outfield and the Twins sought to improve their catching situation.

Early on this season, neither team was getting what they wanted out of the trade. Murphy had a poor Spring Training and struggled so much the first few weeks of the regular season that the Twins shipped him to Triple-A. Hicks, meanwhile, started his Yankees career with two singles and two walks in his first 28 plate appearances. Those 28 plate appearances were spread across 24 games.

Going from playing every single day to playing part-time, as Hicks did this year, can be a really tough adjustment, and it sure seems Hicks had trouble with it. Lately though, he’s been able to play regularly thanks to Alex Rodriguez‘s injury, which allowed the Yankees to slide Carlos Beltran into the DH spot and play Hicks in the outfield. Jacoby Ellsbury‘s recent hip problem has pushed Hicks into his natural center field too.

Since A-Rod‘s injury Hicks has started eight straight games, and during those eight games he’s gone 9-for-25 (.360) with a double, two homers, and two walks. Last night he was one of the few bright spots in the loss to the Royals, going 3-for-4 with a single to right field, a single to left field, and then a single to center. The night before he went 2-for-3 with a homer to right and a double to left, all from the left side of the plate.

“For me, it’s just the opportunity that I’m getting to play every day, and I’ve been able to get consistent at-bats and I’ve been able to just relax, just swing and just play,” said Hicks to Fred Kerber yesterday. He told Chad Jennings, “I feel like the more at-bats I get, the more comfortable I’m going to be. To be able to see the ball more often is definitely helping out, especially when it comes to having a solid approach.”

A-Rod’s disabled list stint doesn’t expire until one week from today, so Hicks has at least another week’s worth of starts coming to him. (Ellsbury is due back this weekend, but he’ll take Ben Gamel‘s playing time, not Hicks’.) That’s more time to get comfortable and more time for Hicks to show the Yankees he deserves to get more than 28 plate appearances every 25 games when the team is at full strength.

No one thinks Hicks is a true talent .360 hitter like he’s hit the last eight games. That .077 average he put up while playing sparingly the first few weeks isn’t him either. We’ve seen that when he is comfortable at the plate, Hicks has power and can spray the ball around a little a bit, and part of keeping him comfortable at the plate is giving him more playing time. And there’s his defense too. He’s an upgrade in the field, especially thanks to him arm.

Once A-Rod and Ellsbury are healthy — knock on wood — the Yankees would be smart to continue giving Hicks regular at-bats to keep him locked in and productive. He can legitimately be a building block going forward as a 26-year-old switch-hitting center field. I mean geez, how do you not make playing time for that guy? It won’t be easy, the at-bat are going to have to come from somewhere, but it’s for the best both this year and the future.

Chapman is back, and now the Yankees have to figure out the middle innings

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

The back-end of the bullpen is an undeniable strength for the Yankees. A case can be made Aroldis Chapman is the best reliever in baseball. The same is true of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances. All three are Yankees, so when it comes to the late innings of close games, Joe Girardi‘s collection of power arms is unmatched. They’re playing six-inning ballgames.

And yet, despite that obvious bullpen strength, the game got away from the Yankees last night because other members of the bullpen let things get out of hand. The Royals took a quick 4-0 lead in the first inning, the Yankees battled back to cut the deficit to 4-3 by the fifth inning, then Nick Goody and Phil Coke turned that 4-3 deficit into a 7-3 deficit in the span of four batters.

“The bridge to those (late innings) guys is extremely important,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings after the game. “Goody has pitched extremely well up to that point. He did not tonight. Cokey kind of saved our bullpen a little bit tonight. With the three one-inning guys that you want to use when the games are really close, those other guys need to step up and bridge the gap. Tonight we weren’t able to do it.”

A few weeks ago that middle innings bridge looked very strong. Chasen Shreve had a dominant Spring Training and came out of the gate with six scoreless innings to start the regular season. Johnny Barbato won a job in camp and started his big league career by striking out nine of the first 23 batters he faced (39.1%). Heck, even scrap heap pickup Kirby Yates opened the season pitching well.

Adding Chapman to Miller and Betances was not only going to improve the late innings, it was also supposed to improve the middle innings by pushing Shreve and Barbato down the pecking order, so to speak. Instead, Barbato struggled so much he had to be sent to Triple-A a few days ago, and Shreve has managed to allow seven runs (five homers!) in his last 6.2 innings. Shreve and Barbato went from weapons to liabilities real quick.

Yates has probably been the team’s best non-big three reliever this year — Kirby (+0.3) is actually sandwiched between Miller (+0.8) and Betances (+0.1) in WAR, for what it’s worth — which was not part of the plan. Not at all. Shreve was supposed to be that guy coming into the season, which is why Girardi used him as his seventh inning man early on. The hope was Barbato would grow into that role too. It hasn’t happened.

To make matters worse, all that bullpen depth the Yankees had has disappeared. Branden Pinder and Nick Rumbelow went down with Tommy John surgery. Bryan Mitchell broke his toe in Spring Training. Jacob Lindgren forgot how to throw strikes. The Yankees went from having plenty of bullpen options to signing Coke out of an independent league and sticking him in their bullpen in the span of six weeks. Baseball, man.

The end of the game is set with Chapman, Miller, and Betances. It’s the other bullpen innings where it gets dicey. Let’s look at some numbers really quick:

IP ERA FIP K% BB%
Chapman, Miller, Betances 28.2 1.88 1.73 47.7% 4.5%
All Other Relievers 64.2 4.59 4.39 21.9% 7.5%

Yeah, that’s not so good. To be fair, there are a bunch of mop-up innings in there for the other relievers, which skews the numbers a bit. But still, that’s a pretty drastic difference. The three guys at the end of the game are great! Every else? Eh, not so much, especially of late.

The Yankees have to find someone — and by find someone I mean hope someone (or, preferably, multiple someones) emerges from the current in-house options — to pitch all those other bullpen innings. Goody was given an opportunity to show he can be counted on in tight situations last night, and the result was a hit batsman and a two-run single in two batters faced. Shreve is back to giving up dingers, meaning the job is Yates’ by default for the time being.

The Triple-A options are not all that appealing right now. The Yankees didn’t sign Coke because had nothing better to do. They needed the depth after all the injuries. Luis Cessa and Tyler Olson are on the 40-man roster, ditto James Pazos. Others like Anthony Swarzak, Mark Montgomery, Conor Mullee, Tyler Webb, and Matt Wotherspoon could get a chance at some point. The Yankees hope it doesn’t come to that.

When the Yankees have a lead, or even when the game is tied, they’re in pretty excellent shape in the late innings. No team in baseball can match the Chapman-Miller-Betances trio. Games like last night are where the bullpen can be a problem, when Girardi has to dip into the B-relievers to keep a game close, especially when Yates isn’t available. The bullpen is great overall, but it is definitely top heavy. They need to create a little more balance.

Pineda rocked early again, Yankees fall 7-3 to Royals

This to me was one of those “sometimes you just get beat” games. Every team is going to win 60 games and lose 60 games each year, and this was one of those 60 losses. That’s baseball. The final score was 7-3 Royals. The Yankees have still won five of eight and they still have a chance to clinch the four-game series win Thursday.

On the bright side, this game gave us this photo. (Elsa/Getty)
On the bright side, the game gave us this photo. (Elsa/Getty)

Yet Another Bad First Inning
Coming into Wednesday’s game, Michael Pineda owned a 12.00 ERA and a .455/.486/.970 batting line against in the first inning this season. Following Wednesday’s game, Pineda now has a 15.43 ERA and a .500/.535/1.026 batting line against in the first inning. The Royals tagged him for four runs on four hits, a walk, and a hit batsman in that first inning Wednesday. He faced eight batters in the inning and only actually retired six (Brian McCann threw a runner out stealing second).

It’s possible if not likely the Royals would have been held scoreless in the first inning had Mark Teixeira been playing first and not Dustin Ackley. Ackley let Eric Hosmer’s hard hit grounder go through him to put runners on the corners with one out. It was the kind of ball we’ve seen Teixeira turn into a 3-6-3 double play countless times over the years. At the very least, Ackley has to get one out, and he didn’t do that. A big league first baseman has to make that play.

That said, the softest contact Pineda allowed that inning was Alcides Escobar’s leadoff flare. Hosmer hit a rocket through Ackley, Alex Gordon hit a sacrifice fly to the warning track, and Salvador Perez smashed a three-run home run on the hanging-est slider that ever hanged. Look at this thing:

Michael Pineda Salvador Perez

A tee. That pitch is on the damn tee. An 86 mph cement mixer slider right out over the plate. That’s as bad a pitch a Major Leaguer can throw. Good gravy. I can’t get over how bad that pitch was. How soon after he released it do you think Pineda knew it was going to be hit out of the park? Instantly, right? Brutal.

To Pineda’s credit, he did settle down and follow that ugly first inning with four scoreless innings. This wasn’t the first time this season he struggled in the first inning then got into a groove. Joe Girardi tried to steal a few more outs from Pineda in the sixth inning and that backfired. The inning went walk, double play, walk, single, hit batsman, two-run single, ground out. Nick Goody replaced Pineda after the second walk and retired neither batter he faced. It was Goody’s chance to earn a spot in the Circle of Trust™. Nope.

Pineda finished the night with six runs allowed on six hits, four walks, and two hit batsman in 5.2 innings. His control has been a problem all year. Lots more walks and hit batters. Pineda is now sitting on a 6.28 ERA (5.24 FIP) in 38.2 innings this season. Does Pineda keep his rotation spot when CC Sabathia comes back, or does Ivan Nova automatically go back to the bullpen? It’s fair to ask at this point.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Trying To Claw Back
The Yankees were down 4-0 before they even had a chance to bat Wednesday. That stinks. They did at least cut the deficit to 4-3 at one point. Carlos Beltran hit a solo homer in the second inning, then Chase Headley singled in Aaron Hicks later in that inning to make it 4-3. McCann drove in a run with a ground out in the fifth inning. Just like that, they were back in the game.

Unfortunately, the tying run never came. Not that the Yankees didn’t have chances, of course. They went 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position overall, and three different times they had a runner on third with one out and failed to get the run home. Headley and Beltran grounded out to first base in the fourth and fifth innings, respectively, so the runner at third had to hold. The game is very different if either Headley or Beltran gets a run home there. Alas.

The offense was basically two players: Beltran and Hicks. Beltran went 2-for-4 with a homer and Hicks went 3-for-4. The other seven hitters went a combined 2-for-26. Brett Gardner did draw two walks and reach base a third time on a hit-by-pitch. That was clearly intentional too. It was payback for Pineda hitting Lorenzo Cain in the first. Wade Davis plunked Gardner in the back with two outs and the bases empty in the ninth. Textbook retaliation plunking at the perfect time.

Did he point up at the homer? I forgot to look. (Elsa/Getty)
Did he point up at the homer? I forgot to look. (Elsa/Getty)

Leftovers
The “only when losing” relievers let the game slip away in the sixth and seventh innings. Goody allowed the two runners he inherited from Pineda to score, then Phil Coke allowed a solo homer to Kendrys Morales in the seventh to make it 7-3 Royals. At least Coke soaked up some innings. He threw 52 pitches in 3.1 innings. Coke was working as a starter in an independent league when the Yankees signed him two weeks ago, so he’s stretched out.

Ackley had himself a really bad night. In addition to not getting an out on Hosmer’s first inning grounder, he muffed a scoop later in the game that cost Didi Gregorius a highlight reel play, plus he went 0-for-4 at the plate. Not great. Gregorius went 0-for-4 and saw nine total pitches. He’s still swinging at everything.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
The box score and updated standings are at ESPN while MLB.com is the place to go for the video highlights. Also make sure you check out our Bullpen Workload and Announcer Standings pages. Here’s the win probability graph:


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
The Yankees will try again to win the series Thursday night. Current Yankees hotshot youngster Luis Severino Nathan Eovaldi will take on former Yankees hotshot youngster Ian Kennedy. RAB Tickets is the place to go if you want to catch the game.

DotF: Refsnyder’s hitting streak reaches 15 games in AAA loss

More injuries: OF Slade Heathcott and RHP Kyle Haynes have been placed on the Triple-A DL. Haynes has a lat issue and will be shut down a week, then re-evaluated, so says Shane Hennigan. It’s not clear what’s wrong with Slade, but Hennigan says he had his knee wrapped the other day and was walking with a noticeable limp. Heathcott has a pair of knee surgeries in his past. OF Jake Cave was bumped up from Double-A to fill the outfield spot.

Triple-A Scranton (2-1 loss to Pawtucket)

  • LF Jake Cave: 1-5, 1 R, 1 3B, 1 K — he played a few games with the RailRiders late last year, so this isn’t his Triple-A debut
  • CF Aaron Judge: 2-4, 1 2B, 1 RBI — eight of his last eleven hits have gone for extra bases (three doubles and five homers)
  • C Gary Sanchez: 1-4, 1 K
  • 3B Rob Refsnyder: 3-4, 1 2B — he’s 23-for-60 (.383) during his 15-game hitting streak
  • RF Nick Swisher: 0-4, 2 K — 10-for-55 (.182) in his last 13 games
  • LHP Richard Bleier: 7 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 10/6 GB/FB — 65 of 96 pitches were strikes (68%)
  • RHP Matt Wotherspoon: 1.1 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 1 WP, 2/1 GB/FB — 22 of 34 pitches were strikes (65%)
  • RHP Mark Montgomery: 0.2 IP, zeroes, 1 K, 1/0 GB/FB — seven pitches, five strikes

[Read more…]

Game 32: Take the Series

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

The Yankees have been playing much better over the last week or so, and they come into tonight’s game winners of five of their last seven. Tonight they have a chance to clinch a win of a four-game series over the Royals, the defending World Series champs. Winning a four-game set is never easy, not even against a bad team, and Kansas City is no pushover. Here is the Royals’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. 2B Starlin Castro
  3. C Brian McCann
  4. DH Carlos Beltran
  5. 1B Dustin Ackley
  6. CF Aaron Hicks
  7. SS Didi Gregorius
  8. 3B Chase Headley
  9. RF Ben Gamel
    RHP Michael Pineda

It has been a lovely day in New York. There is no rain in the forecast tonight. Nice little evening for baseball, I’d say. Tonight’s game will begin at 7:05pm ET and you can watch on YES locally and ESPN nationally. Enjoy the game.

Injury Updates: Alex Rodriguez (hamstring) has been running on the treadmill and it appears he’ll be ready to return once his 15 days are up … CC Sabathia (groin) played catch again and feels fine. It’s possible he’ll be able to rejoin the rotation once his 15 days are up without needing a rehab start … Jacoby Ellsbury (hip) did some light running and took batting practice. Joe Girardi said he hopes to get him back in the lineup this weekend … Mark Teixeira (neck) is out again and the plan was to give him two days off anyway. He’ll be re-evaluated tomorrow.

2016 Draft: Jared Horn

Jared Horn | RHP

Background
The 17-year-old Horn attends Vintage High School in Napa, so he’s from wine country. So far this spring he owns a 0.46 ERA with 103 strikeouts and eleven walks in 61 innings. He’s also hitting .338/.438/.600 with three homers in 96 plate appearances, though his future lies on the mound. Horn is committed to Cal.

Scouting Report
At 6-foor-3 and 190 lbs., Horn has the prototypical high school pitcher build, and he’s really broken out this spring. His fastball has consistently sat in the 92-94 mph range with some 96s and 97s, making him one of the hardest throwers in the prep ranks. Horn throws the three standard non-fastballs (changeup, curveball, slider), though none of the three are reliable secondary pitches right now. He’s dominating high schoolers with his fastball. The curveball has shown the most promise of the two breaking balls. Horn, who also played football in high school, is a very good athlete and an intense competitor.

Miscellany
In their most recent rankings Horn was ranked as the 22nd, 29th, and 54th best prospect in the draft class by MLB.com, Baseball America, and Keith Law (subs. req’d), respectively. The Yankees pick 18th. Horn has already moved up draft boards quite a bit this spring and he could continue to climb in the four weeks between now and the draft. He’s a long-term project because his secondary pitches need work, but he has good size and a good fastball, which is a pretty great starter kit.

Didi’s bat starting to come around at just the right time for the Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Year one of the Didi Gregorius era did not get off to the best start. Didi struggled big time both in the field and at the plate early last season, so much so there was talk about sending him to Triple-A and playing Stephen Drew at short. The Yankees weren’t talking about that, but many fans were. He was playing that poorly. Thankfully, Gregorius turned things around in May and finished the season strong.

This season has not started well for Didi either. His defense has been more than fine, so it hasn’t been a total repeat of last year, but the bat has started very slow. Only Chase Headley has performed worse among the regulars. Gregorius came into the homestand in a 3-for-30 (.100) slump and hitting .215/.241/.316 (48 wRC+) overall. I was hoping his Opening Day home run would be the jumping off point for a strong second season in New York, but it hasn’t come together yet.

Things have gone a bit better on the homestand for Gregorius and the Yankees in general. The team has won four of five on the homestand, and Didi has gone 5-for-17 (.294) with a pair of bases clearing doubles in the five games. That has raised his season batting line to .229/.250/.344 (58 wRC+), which is still an eyesore. And yes, the caveat here is that those two bases clearing doubles were almost mistakes. This is the pitch he hit for the first:

Didi Gregorius David Price

That’s an 0-2 changeup almost in the dirt, the kind of pitch you typically want a hitter to take. Gregorius took a little defensive half-swing and dunked it into right field. Sometimes you can do everything wrong and it still works out. Baseball. Then, last night he took another little protect swing at an outside pitch and knocked it into shallow center. Didi almost threw his bat at the pitch.

Didi Gregorius Brian Flynn

Gregorius hasn’t been driving the ball all around the yard on the homestand, but that’s okay. Sometimes you just have to put the bat on the ball and hope to finds grass. You hear players and ex-players talk about it all the time: any little thing can help get you bust out of slump, even bloops and bobbles and bunts.

Most importantly, Gregorius is starting to hit the ball harder, and that’s always a plus. A total of 196 players had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title in April, and Didi ranked 196th in hard contact rate (12.5%) and 189th in line drive rate (10.9%). Woof. Alcides Escobar had the second lowest hard contact rate at 14.3%, so the gap between Didi and the next worst hitter was substantial.

So far in May Gregorius has upped his hard contact and line drive rates up to 22.3% and 36.0%, respectively. He hard contact rate still isn’t great, so it’s not like he’s tattooing the ball, but at least he’s moving in the right direction. The next goal is being more disciplined. I know that 0-2 changeup from David Price went for a double, but if Didi keeps swinging at pitches like that, he’s going to get himself out more often than not. Look at his swing rates on the season:

BB% O-Swing% Z-Swing% Zone%
2015 5.7% 33.8% 71.7% 47.0%
2016 2.0% 35.7% 75.6% 44.3%

Gregorius has never shown great discipline as a big leaguer and I’m not sure he ever well, but geez, he’s swinging at everything this year. Swinging at more pitches in the zone (Z-Swing%) is not automatically a bad thing. Swinging at pitches out of the zone (35.7%) is though, especially when pitchers are throwing you fewer pitches in the strike zone. Pitchers know they can get Didi to chase and he has obliged so far this year.

This isn’t a matter of simply taking more pitches. Gregorius has to do a better job staying back and differentiating balls from strikes. Swing at the strikes and take the balls. It’s easy and yet oh so difficult at the same time. Didi has made himself into too easy of an out because of how often he chases out of the zone. Pitchers have been exploiting that weakness big time this year. It’s something he must improve.

It was around this time last year that Gregorius started to turn things around. I don’t think anyone is asking him to be a force at the bottom of the lineup, but he needs to be more than a zero. Didi is hitting the ball harder this month and that’s a positive. It helps that some of those defensive swings are turning into three-run doubles too. He has to continue to work on his plate discipline going forward though. That’s the key. Gregorius has to make pitchers work harder to get him out.