Yankees can’t protect another lead, fall 3-2 to Nationals

The nightmare road trip is finally over. The Yankees lost 3-2 to the Nationals on Wednesday night, getting swept in the little two-game series, and losing for the seventh time in their last eight games. They went 2-7 on the nine-game road trip and I’m surprised it went that well. It’s been ugly.

(Greg Fiume/Getty)
(Greg Fiume/Getty)

Five Outs
The Yankees gave the Nationals five outs in the seventh inning and it cost them the game. It all started with a ground ball Chase Headley muffed for an error, putting the leadoff man on base. Headley’s uncharacteristically shaky defense continues. Adam Warren walked the next batter, then Headley kinda sorta toned for the error with a spectacular diving catch of Danny Espinosa’s bunt attempt in foul territory. He was charging in, had to change directions, then made the play.

The next defensive miscue isn’t going to show up in the box score. Pinch-hitter Dan Uggla, winner of this year’s “huh, he’s still playing?” award, popped up in foul territory and Carlos Beltran was inexplicably unable to run it down. The ball hung up in the air for quite a while and landed a few feet in front of Beltran, who alligator armed it. It was awful. That ball was in the air way, way too long to not be caught. Beltran’s defense has been a disaster for years but that’s no excuse. Awful, awful non-play. The kind of non-play that gets a rookie benched.

Anyway, of course the two defensive miscues came back to bite the Yankees. Warren walked Uggla to load the bases and Justin Wilson gave up a dinky little Denard Span ground ball single through the left side to score the run. It was just out of the reach of the diving Didi Gregorius, but it wouldn’t have mattered, run was scoring anyway. I was actually surprised just the one run scored. Could have been two. Wilson rebounded to escape the inning with a strikeout and a ground ball after the damage had been done.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Two Runs, No More Runs
The Yankees reverted back to the offensive plan that didn’t work in Tampa Bay last week: they scored two runs in the first inning and none after that. Brett Gardner led the game off with a bloop single to right, then scored all the way from first on Beltran’s double. It was a Span-aided double — he seemed to take a weird route and it scooted by him. Brian McCann drove in Beltran with a sac fly later in the inning.

And that was it. No more offense. The Yankees scattered seven base-runners after the first inning and none of them made it as far as third base. Their best chances to score came with two runners on and two outs in the sixth (McCann walk, Headley single) and eighth (Teixeira and McCann walks), but they couldn’t capitalize. Stephen Drew struck out to end the sixth and Headley grounded out to end the eighth. They scored just enough runs to lose.

(Greg Fiume/Getty)
(Greg Fiume/Getty)

Leftovers
Warren gave up two solo homers (Ian Desmond and Tyler Moore) and was really shaky in the first — only ten of 27 pitches were strikes! — but settled down. He retired 15 of 18 batters faced from the second through sixth innings and completed six innings for the second time this year (and the second time in as many starts). The final line is 6.1 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 4 BB, 4 K on 98 pitches and 57 strikes. Serviceable.

Bryce Harper was ejected in the third inning for, well, a lot of reasons. He didn’t like a strike call, stepped way out of the box, was slow to get back in when the ump told him to get a move on, and then started mouthing off. I know umpires don’t have to take that kind of abuse, but they’re not supposed to escalate the situation either, which I felt Marvin Hudson did by yapping back at Harper. The Yankees caught a break because no Harper, but it didn’t matter.

Gregorius had two hits and hit another ball to the warning track, which in all seriousness might have been the hardest ball he’s hit all season. McCann bunted to beat the shift and drew two walks. Teixeira had the other walk and Headley, Beltran, and Gardner had the other hits. Esmil Rogers took his sweet time in tossing a scoreless eighth.

And finally, I have no idea why Joe Girardi didn’t pinch-hit Alex Rodriguez for Gregorius with two outs in the ninth. It didn’t matter — Gregorius singled and A-Rod struck out to end the game — but don’t you want make sure Rodriguez bats there? You can’t lose a one-run game with A-Rod standing on deck. Geez. Stupid NL.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
Here are the box score and video highlights, as well as the updated standings. Also check out our Bullpen Workload and Announcer Standings pages. YES just used their tenth different booth combination in the team’s 13th series of the year. Here’s the loss probability graph:


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
The Yankees have an off-day Thursday — at this point I think fans need an off-day from the Yankees! — and are finally heading home. They played 15 of their last 19 and 25 of their last 35 games on the road. A six-game homestand begins with a three-game weekend series against the Rangers. Michael Pineda and Colby Lewis is the scheduled pitching matchup for Friday night. Head over to RAB Tickets if you want to catch that game or any other game on the homestand in person.

DotF: Judge and Jagielo return in Trenton’s loss

RHP Rookie Davis has been placed on the High-A Tampa DL, according to Nicholas Flammia. No idea what’s wrong with him. Davis has a 4.01 ERA (2.08 FIP) in seven starts and 33.2 innings for Tampa this year.

Triple-A Scranton (5-2 loss to Charlotte)

  • CF Ben Gamel: 2-4, 1 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 1 K, 1 SB — hitting .336/.378/.496  in 34 games as an outfield rover but now figures to play center regularly with Slade Heathcott in MLB
  • LF Ramon Flores: 1-3, 1 BB, 1 SB
  • RF Tyler Austin: 0-4, 3 K — having a real tough year so far
  • C Austin Romine: 0-4
  • RHP Jaron Long: 7 IP, 10 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 1 BB, 4 K, 10/5 GB/FB — 60 of 93 pitches were strikes (65%)
  • RHP Nick Rumbelow: 1 IP, zeroes, 2/1 GB/FB — seven of eleven pitches were strikes

[Read more…]

Game 41: Slade’s Debut

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

This day has been a long-time coming. The Yankees selected Slade Heathcott out of a Texas high school with the 29th pick in the 2009 draft — the compensation pick they received for failing to sign Gerrit Cole in 2008 — and tonight he can finally say he’s a big leaguer. To say the road from Texarkana to the Bronx was rocky would be a massive understatement.

Heathcott, now 24, had a turbulent upbringing and hit rock bottom soon after being drafted, when he battled alcoholism and even missed a flight to Instructional League because he’d been out drinking. The Yankees sent Heathcott to Alcoholics Anonymous in April 2010, and while that helped him deal with his substance abuse issues, Slade’s body started to betray him. Multiple knee and shoulder surgeries limited Heathcott to 306 minor league games from 2010-14. He played nine last year due to knee problems.

Now, after being non-tendered in the offseason and returning to the organization on a minor league contract, Heathcott is with the Yankees, having impressed in Spring Training and again during his stint with Triple-A Scranton. It has been almost six years since the Yankees drafted Heathcott, and during those six years he went from multimillionaire first round pick to an underdog. Tonight, all the hard work finally pays off. He’s in the show. Give ’em hell, Slade.

Here is the Nationals lineup — Jordan Zimmermann is starting for Washington, not A.J. Cole, so boo to that — and here is the Yankees lineup. Heathcott is on the bench for his first game:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. RF Carlos Beltran
  3. 1B Mark Teixeira
  4. C Brian McCann
  5. 3B Chase Headley
  6. 2B Stephen Drew
  7. CF Chris Young
  8. SS Didi Gregorius
  9. RHP Adam Warren

It’s cloudy and cool in Washington, so not perfect weather, but there won’t be any rain. That’s coming tomorrow. The Yankees are getting out of town just in time. Tonight’s game will start a bit after 7pm ET and you can watch on YES. Enjoy.

Roster Moves: As expected, Chase Whitley (elbow) was transferred to the 60-day DL to clear a 40-man roster spot for Heathcott, the Yankees announced. The team still has another 60-day DL candidate in Brendan Ryan (calf, hamstring) should they need another 40-man spot.

Injury Updates: Jacoby Ellsbury (knee) said the injury is to the outside of his knee and he is wearing a brace. He’ll see the team doctor on Friday and they won’t know his timetable until then. For what it’s worth, Joe Girardi said the injury is “not something that requires surgery” … Ivan Nova (elbow) threw four innings and 42 pitches in an Extended Spring Training game on Monday. He’ll make another ExST start on Saturday and could begin an official 30-day minor league rehab stint after that … Ryan has resumed baseball activities in Tampa.

2015 Draft: Chris Betts

Chris Betts | C

Background
The 18-year-old Betts attends Wilson High School in Long Beach, which has long been a baseball hotbed, producing 14 big leaguers including one Hall of Famer (Bob Lemon) and one borderline Hall of Famer (Bobby Grich). Betts has consistently excelled against top prep competition on the showcase circuit. He’s committed to Tennessee.

Scouting Report
Listed at 6-foot-2 and 220 lbs., Betts is a bat-first catcher with a ton of left-handed power, arguably the most in the draft. Certainly the most among high schoolers. His setup at the plate is a little unorthodox — he brings his back elbow up pretty high before swinging — but the bat speed and plate coverage are there. Betts knows the strike zone and is an all-around solid hitter. His defense behind the plate lags but isn’t disastrous. His arm is above-average and he moves around well behind the plate. Betts is not a lock to stick at catcher long-term but it’s not out of the question either. He has some tools and needs reps more than anything. If he has to move to first, the bat will play.

Miscellany
Keith Law (subs. req’d), MLB.com, and Baseball America ranked Betts as the 21st, 21st, and 28th best prospect in the draft class in their most recent rankings, respectively. Baseball America said the Yankees were in on Betts in their latest mock draft, for what it’s worth. The Yankees like to hoard catchers as much as any team and they also have a thing for lefty power hitters, so Betts is right in their wheelhouse. They select 16th and 30th this year, and since Betts is one of the two or three best catcher prospects in the draft class, they’d probably have to grab him 16th. Catchers who look like they will hit are hot commodities come draft day.

Lack of production from up-the-middle positions holding the Yankees back

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Back in the day, the late-1990s dynasty was built on excellent production from the up-the-middle positions. The Yankees were getting high-end production from Jorge Posada at catcher, Derek Jeter at short, and Bernie Williams in center. Chuck Knoblauch never did put up huge numbers with the Yankees like he did with the Twins, but he still had a .377 OBP as the starting second baseman from 1998-99.

Those four positions are the hardest to fill in baseball, historically. Third base is tough too, but not as tough. Quality first basemen and corner outfielders are plentiful. Catchers, middle infielders, and center fielders are not, which is why teams are more willing to sacrifice offense for defense at those positions. It’s really hard to find someone who can hit there, so at least get someone who will catch the ball.

Right now, the Yankees have too many defense-first — in some cases, defense-only — players at the four up-the-middle positions. Jacoby Ellsbury in center field is the team’s only up-the-middle player who has been solidly above-average on both sides of the ball so far this season. Brian McCann, Stephen Drew, and Didi Gregorius are providing defense but very little offense, especially the last two.

Position NYY Player NYY AVG/OBP/SLG Average MLB AVG/OBP/SLG
C McCann  .228/.279/.382 (78 wRC+) .235/.302/.363 (83 wRC+)
2B Drew  .188/.271/.350 (70 wRC+)  .262/.321/.391 (96 wRC+)
SS Gregorius  .204/.269/.241 (42 wRC+)  .248/.304/.361 (83 wRC+)
CF Ellsbury .324/.412/.372 (126 wRC+) .257/.319/.391 (96 wRC+)

Those are some really low bars and yet the Yankees are falling short at three of the four positions. Ellsbury’s been awesome at the plate, McCann’s hovering close to average for a catcher thanks to his power, and both Drew and Gregorius have been well-below-average. Those two haven’t hit at all. Like, not even a little. There’s not much of a reason to expect either guy to hit much going forward either, but at least Gregorius has youth on his side.

There’s no good way to measure defense this early in the season. You have to take any stats with a huge grain of salt because the sample is too small. Based on the eye test, all four players have been above-average defenders in my opinion, even considering McCann’s passed ball/wild pitch issues. Didi’s looked much more comfortable at short in recent weeks yet his early season brain farts are still hurting his reputation. He’s been really good in the field of late.

Overall though, the Yankees aren’t getting enough production from these four positions. It’s really just three positions because Ellsbury’s been great. It’s a bit unfair to lump him in here. The other three guys has been far from great though. McCann’s been okay but hardly what the Yankees thought they were getting. Drew and Gregorius have been miserable at the plate, bad enough that their defense probably doesn’t make up for it.

The Yankees have limited options to replace these guys, and the one guy they didn’t want to replace (Ellsbury) just landed on the DL. McCann’s contract ensures he will remain the starting catcher, and besides, finding a better catcher would be damn near impossible anyway. Quality catchers almost never hit the trade or free agent markets. Drew, on the other hand, is totally replaceable and the Yankees do have some internal second base candidates, namely Jose Pirela and Rob Refsnyder.

The best internal candidate to replace Gregorius is, well, Drew. Besides, given Didi’s age and ability, he’s someone the Yankees should stick with this year and ride out every growing pain. Give him a chance to play everyday and see what happens. The first 40 games of 2015 aren’t going to write the story of his time in pinstripes. The Yankees just got done playing a Royals team littered with players who struggled early in their careers before figuring it out, after all. Sometimes it takes time.

The Yankees have gotten great production from first base, left field, and DH this season, which has helped cover for the underwhelming non-Ellsbury up-the-middle numbers. Carlos Beltran and Chase Headley are kinda sorta starting to hit too, which will help even more, though the Ellsbury injury hurts. One step forward, one step back. It wasn’t long ago that the Yankees were getting top of the line production from the up-the-middle positions. Now they’re barely getting average production and it’s one of the reason they haven’t been able to get out in front of a wide open AL East.

Examining Chase Headley’s defensive ‘slump’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts following Jacoby Ellsbury’s injury

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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

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

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

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

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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

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