Thoughts following Monday’s off-day

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Counting the Opening Day rainout, the Yankees enjoyed their fourth off-day in the span of two weeks yesterday. They only have two off-days in the next five weeks though, so the day in, day out grind is about to begin. Here are some thoughts.

1. I’m not sure anyone on the roster needed a good start to the season more than Jacoby Ellsbury. Yeah, you could argue it was Brett Gardner after his second half swoon, or Mark Teixeira after his broken leg, or Starlin Castro since he’s new to the team, but I think it was Ellsbury. He didn’t hit at all following his knee injury last season, and the Yankees owe him roughly $110M through 2020, so the team needs him bounce back strong this season. It’s imperative if they want to contend. Instead, Ellsbury has owns a .213/.260/.298 (56 wRC+) batting line and has made a number of notable misplays in the field. It’s still super early in the season — the Yankees have played 6.8% of their schedule — but yeesh. Anytime you feel like getting it going, Ells.

2. The propagation of runner in scoring position stats is easily my least favorite recent baseball trend. RISP success fluctuates wildly from game to game, series to series, month to month, and year to year — the 2013 Cardinals hit .330 with RISP and the 2014 Cardinals hit .254 with RISP even though they had the same damn team — and it has zero predictive value. Everyone thinks their team sucks with runners in scoring position. Know why? Because baseball is a game of failure, and the league right now is hitting .248 with runners in scoring position overall, which means fans are annoying more than 75% of the time. (No one seems to care about walks with RISP.) The Yankees did a terrible job with RISP against the Mariners. It was hideous. But it doesn’t mean much of anything. The constant updates (0-for-1, 0-for-2, 0-for-3, etc.) are the worst. There’s so much more going on.

3. Good gravy how awesome have Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller been? They’ve struck out 27 of 41 batters this year, or 65.9%, which is ridiculous. Major League hitters are the best ballplayers in the world. Even the guys we complain about all the time. The ones who aren’t very good relative to their peers. They’re still in, like, the 99.9999th percentile of humans athletically. Big league hitters are so good, and yet Betances and Miller completely overwhelm them. Did you see Sunday’s game? That was not a fair fight. Those Mariners hitters had no chance at all. Mariano Rivera was dominant in a unique way. He was all about precision and avoiding the barrel of the bat. (The career soft contact rate leaderboard is a personal favorite.) Betances and Miller just overpower hitters. It’s unreal. This is so fun. Just wait until Aroldis Chapman returns three weeks from yesterday.

4. The rest of the bullpen has been pretty good too. There were some questions about the middle relief, remember, but Johnny Barbato has been awesome and Chasen Shreve has bounced back well. Ivan Nova got rocked for that one inning in Toronto and Tyler Olson had a few forgettable innings over the weekend, and that’s about it as far as meltdowns go. Trading away Justin Wilson and Adam Warren created some very real holes — especially since Chapman was going to be out of action for a still undetermined length of time when the trade went down — and that was kinda scary. None of the shuttle relievers impressed in camp either. And yet, Shreve’s been great and Barbato has emerged as a weapon. The Yankees seem to be pretty good at this bullpen building thing, huh?

5. The first two turns (plus one start) through the rotation have not gone too well. To wit:

Rotation

That’s the five starters, and I’ll let you try to guess who is the proud owner of each of those sets of numbers. Point is, the rotation has generally been not very good. There have been some flashes of excellence — Nathan Eovaldi was dominant before hanging a splitter to Josh Donaldson, CC Sabathia was solid in Detroit, etc. — but that means nothing. The Yankees need to start seeing some sustained success out of their starting five. Quality starts are pretty dumb — what’s so good about a 4.50 ERA? — but it would be cool if the starters ran off a string of, like, eight of them in a row right now.

6. I’m in the minority, but I’m not too worried about Chase Headley. I don’t expect him to hit for much power, even in tiny Yankee Stadium, though he’s always taken his walks (seven walks and six strikeouts so far) and eventually his .190 BABIP will go back to normal. Especially since his soft contact rate (14.3%) has returned to his career average (14.8%) after last year’s spike (17.4%). Longtime RAB readers, especially those who frequent the chats, know I’ve been on Headley for years. Since his prospect days. His throwing seems to be back to normal, and I think he’ll settle in around .260/.330/.380 when it’s all said and done. That’s something like a 90-95 wRC+ these days. Not great, but not the end of the world either. I have a hard time thinking the No. 7 hitter is going to sink the season.

DotF: Swisher homers; Cave and Fowler have big games in Trenton’s win

Some notes:

  • LHP Tyler Olson has officially reported to Triple-A Scranton, so LHP Daniel Camarena was sent down to Double-A Trenton, reports Shane Hennigan. RHP Ronald Herrera, who is still only 20, remains with the RailRiders.
  • Following yesterday’s dominant outing, RHP Domingo Acevedo earned a mention in Baseball America’s daily prospect report. It’s not behind the paywall, so head over to check it out.
  • 1B Mike Ford was placed on the High-A Tampa DL with a wrist injury, the team announced. He was hurt in yesterday’s game.
  • UPDATE: SS Kyle Holder was placed on the Low-A Charleston DL with an unknown injury, the club announced.

Triple-A Scranton (9-6 loss to Buffalo)

  • LF Ben Gamel: 3-3, 1 R, 1 RBI, 1 BB — 11-for-28 (.393) in his last seven games
  • RF Aaron Judge: 1-4, 1 2B, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K — threw a runner out at third
  • C Gary Sanchez: 0-5
  • CF Slade Heathcott: 1-5, 1 R, 3 K, 1 SB — he’s in a 4-for-33 (.121) slump with 18 strikeouts
  • 1B Nick Swisher: 2-3, 1 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 K — first homer in four games with the RailRiders
  • RHP Kyle Haynes: 5 IP, 9 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 3 BB, 4 K, 6/3 GB/FB — 54 of 95 pitches were strikes (57%)
  • LHP James Pazos: 2.1 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 2/1 GB/FB — 27 of 44 pitches were strikes (61%)
  • RHP Diego Moreno: 0.2 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 2 K — 18 of 25 pitches were strikes (72%)

[Read more…]

Monday Night Open Thread

The Yankees sure have had a lotta off-days so far this season, haven’t they? I guess the two rainouts are making it seem worse than it really is. Anyway, make sure you check out Steve Serby’s Q&A with new second baseman Starlin Castro. They talked about his goals, his upbringing, all sorts of stuff.

Here is your open thread for the night. The Mets are playing and ESPN is showing the Cubs and Cardinals at 8pm ET. The NHL and NBA playoffs continue as well. You folks know how these open thread things work, so have at it.

Guest Post: Constructing the 1927 Team: If You’re Strong You’ll Survive and Keep Your Dream Alive

The following is a guest post from Adam Moss, who you know as Roadgeek Adam in the comments. He’s previously written guest posts on Tim McClelland, Frankie Crosetti, the No. 26, Casey Stengel, Leo Durocher, Miller Huggins, Jerry Kenney, the Copacabana incident, and Mark Koenig.

Combs. (National Baseball Hall of Fame.)
Combs. (National Baseball Hall of Fame.)

It seemed to be just another day of baseball at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, Missouri on Tuesday, July 24, 1934. Johnny Murphy was throwing for the Yankees a game of one-run baseball. The Yankees held a small 2-1 lead over the Browns. The players were pretty much drained by the seventh inning because of the 109 degree ambient temperature in St. Louis, which felt more like 120+ in the ballpark. During the seventh inning, Murphy gave up a long fly to the Browns’ Harland Clift, and the left fielder ran after it at full speed. Before he knew it, he crashed into the left field wall, made completely of concrete. The force of the impact was so powerful that the player rebounded off the concrete and fell on the ground, lying completely still. After rushing to his aid, players carried the injured outfielder to the clubhouse with bruises and bleeding, very much dazed. Before the end of the game the precious career and the life of a player for the Yankees was in the hands of a hospital in St. Louis.

The Kentucky Kid

Earle Bryan Combs was born on May 14, 1899 on a farm in a small community 56 miles southeast of Lexington, Kentucky called Pebworth. Combs was one of six children by farmer James J. Combs (born 1860) and Nannie Brandenburg (born 1869). As a kid, young Earle would make baseballs for his local team to use as a baseball player. In addition to his work playing baseball as a kid, Combs also played for the local basketball team in Owsley County. Combs was accepted to Eastern Kentucky State Normal School in 1914 and received a certificate in teaching in 1919. His first love was always baseball, and when playing for the Eastern Kentucky Colonels, scouts caught attention of the 6-foot, 170 lb. 22-year-old who was playing the outfield. In 1921 with the college team, Combs had managed a batting average of .591!

Combs began to teach at a one-room school at Harlan, Kentucky until realizing that he could probably make more money as a baseball player than a teacher. In 1922, he signed with the Louisville Colonels of the American Association and played for manager Joe McCarthy. In his very first game as a Colonel, Combs made several errors in the outfield, which led to their opponents winning the game. The young Combs after the game was concerned about his ability to play and that he would wonder what would happen to him and his wife Ruth. McCarthy quickly eliminated any doubt about his potential, knowing he had a great player. Combs responded to McCarthy’s support, hitting .344 and slugging .487. In 130 games, he managed to get 167 hits, 21 doubles, 18 triples and slug four home runs.

1923 was a much better season under McCarthy’s leadership, when in 166 games, the 24-year-old Combs hit at an astounding .380 average and a .566 slugging. His overall peripherals also improved, with 241 hits, 46 doubles and 14 home runs. (His triple rate went down to 15, but that’s bookkeeping.) On January 7, 1924, the Louisville Colonels announced that Wayland Dean, a pitcher, was sold to the New York Giants for $50,000 (1924 USD). Also reported by the Colonels was that Earle Combs was sold to the New York Yankees for the similar amount, along with outfielder Elmer Smith. At the time, the $100,000 acceptance for their players was the record for the American Association. The so-called “Mail Carrier” had made the Majors.

From the Mail Carrier to the Waiter

Now as a member of the Yankees, Miller Huggins decided to have a long talk with the young Combs about his purpose on the team. Huggins changed his title from “Mail Carrier” to “The Waiter,” noting that rather than use his base stealing abilities, just wear out a pitcher and get on base, that way people like Ruth can just knock him in for a run. Combs took Huggins’ advice, and the numbers ended up reflecting themselves in 1924. During the 1924 season, Combs stole no bases and was caught stealing once. However, his statistics that season reflect all of 24 games, because on June 15 during a game against the Cleveland Indians, Combs broke his right ankle in front of 30,000 people sliding into home plate. Harvey Hendrick replaced him in left field. While multiple reports note that Combs was out for the season in 1924 after the ankle fracture, he managed to squeeze one more game in during the 1924 season: September 2’s first game against the Boston Red Sox. Combs was able to pinch hit in his only appearance for Al Mamaux. The loss of Combs is considered a reason the Yankees lost the pennant in 1924 to the Washington Senators by two games.

Returning to the Yankees in 1925 as a fully-healed player, Combs went to work being The Waiter. By the end of the April, Combs had been hitting .378/.439/.459, spending most of May above a .400 batting average (peaking on May 6 at .467/.543/.583). Combs did not fall under the .400 line until after the game on May 27, 1925 against the Boston Red Sox. As the dog days of summer passed, Combs’s line below .350 on August 6 against the Detroit Tigers, but would not fall much further. The lowest Combs would ever reach is .336 on two occasions: August 29 against the Browns and September 2 against the Red Sox. Combs finished the season with an absurd batting line: .342/.412/.462. On top of that, Combs eked out 203 hits, 36 doubles and 13 triples along with three homers. The Waiter also managed 65 walks over 43 strikeouts. For the SABRmetrics geeks, he represented 4.0 WAR for the 1925 Yankees, receiving an MVP vote and finishing 18th.

1926 represented a very blip-ish season for the Yankees outfielder. Hitting a paltry .299, Combs never broke the .350 barrier after April 21 against the Red Sox. Despite the questionable season for Combs, which involved getting 181 base hits (31 doubles, 12 triples and 8 homers), his ability to reach base more than strikeout continued, with his 47 walks over 23 strikeouts. Yes, 23 strikeouts in 145 games. The team still managed to reach the pennant, unfortunately losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. During that World Series, Combs played in all seven games, hitting .357/.455/.429 with 10 hits in 28 at bats, along with 5 walks.

That brings us to the magical 1927 season. Whatever afflicted Combs during the 1926 season wore off, because the season he had was similar to 1925. Although he spent most of the season batting around the .320 range, Combs managed to hit at a then career-high (base 130 games) .356/.414/.511. Combs set major league highs in plate appearances (725), at bats (648), hits (231) and triples (23) in 152 games. The 231 hits were a record, and it was not eclipsed until Don Mattingly did the job in 1986 with 238. He also hit 36 doubles and 6 homers, along with stealing 15 bases (caught 6 times). He also walked at twice the rate of his strikeouts (62/31) during the 1927 season. During the 1927 World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Combs managed to hit .313/.389/.313 with 5 hits in 16 at bats. While definitely a downgrade from his line in the 1926 Fall Classic, Combs finally got his first ring a member of the New York Yankees, as the Yankees swept the Bucs in 4 games.

Because parity, Combs’s 1928 season reflected his 1926 performance, with Combs managing only a .310/.387/.463 batting line that year. However, it was not for naught. Combs still managed 194 hits, 33 two-baggers and yet another major league high 21 triples. The Yankees still went on to face the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, but Combs would be a non-factor. Combs had one plate appearance on October 8 as a pinch-hitter for Benny Bengough. This was due to an injured wrist, which he was claimed to be unavailable for the entire season. Strangely enough, Combs managed to finish sixth in the MVP standings. (Teammate Tony Lazzeri finished in a tie for third!)

For those who would yell “Decline!” after the 1928 season performance were quickly debunked in the 1929 season. Combs started the 1929 season extremely slow, not reaching the .300 batting average line until May 11 against the Detroit Tigers. However, unlike the dog days of summer before, Combs only got better as the season went on, reaching the .350 batting average on June 16 against the Tigers. In the fight to keep up with the Philadelphia Athletics, Combs managed to hit .350 on a regular basis, finishing the season just below that at .345/.414/.468. He also broke the 200-hit barrier for the third time in his career, ratcheting another 202. However, these statistics were overshadowed by the unexpected death of the manager Miller Huggins on September 25. Huggins had loved Combs and Gehrig on his team, and the death of the Mighty Atom affected the newly-nicknamed Kentucky Colonel. The nickname came from the fact that he was a determined person in the field, but also the gentleman of the Yankees. Combs did not smoke or swore like his teammates, focusing on his studying of the Holy Bible.

From Waiter to Non-Factor

1930 would be considered the last excellent season for The Waiter. His statistics under Bob Shawkey’s leadership echoed his 1929 ones. The 31-year-old Combs hit .344/.424/.523 for a third-place team, racking up another 183 hits to his career, including 30 doubles and his third major league high 22 triples in 137 games. That season was the last that Combs would lead any category whatsoever, but he was far from done. In 1931, Combs got a boost from the Yankees hiring his manager from Louisville, Joe McCarthy, and in 138 games, Combs racked up another 179 hits. However, decline finally showed in the 32-year old outfielder. Combs only hit .318/.394/.446. While this is nothing to consider pathetic, by the standard Combs had set before, this was definitely out of whack. He still kept within average on doubles and triples, hitting 31 and 13 respectively and was still the machine when it came to walking versus striking out (another doubled performance: 68 over 34.)

1932 reflected the last great season Combs would have as a Major League player. Combs gained another 190 hits to his resume, running his average back up to .321/.405/.455 overall. The Kentucky Colonel helped lead the Yankees to another pennant in 1932, facing the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. However, unlike 1928, Combs returned to being a factor in 1932 during the Fall Classic. Combs had 16 at bats in the 4 games, racking up 6 hits and 4 walks, batting .375/.500/.625. However, the 1932 World Series was famous more for Babe Ruth’s called homer during Game 3, noting that he could not remember if Babe was pointing to the stands, but that the Cubs were “machine-gunned” when Ruth did exactly what he predicted.

1933 was the clincher for those who call decline, and it showed in his stats. Combs only appeared in 122 games, the lowest since his injury-ridden 1924 season. He only chalked up 125 hits, 22 doubles and somehow managed to leg out 16 triples and five homers. He only hit .300/.372/.465 as the Yankees lost to the Senators for the AL pennant by 7 games. If not for an 8-14 record against the Senators, the Yankees may have gone to the World Series. For the first half of the 1934 season, Combs managed to hit a paltry .319/.412/.434, with 80 hits in 63 games along with 13 doubles and 5 triples. However, all the work he put into season came to a head on July 24 at Sportsman’s Park.

The Accident

During the game against the St. Louis Browns on July 24, Combs was playing in left field. In three at-bats, Combs had failed to reach base, getting only his ninth strikeout of the season. Everyone in the park was pretty drained due to the rough St. Louis heat, 109 degrees ambient and projections over 120 degrees in the ballpark itself. Harland Clift, the third baseman for the Browns hit a long fly off Johnny Murphy that Combs chased into the 370-foot left field of the park. Combs, despite the heat, ran full-speed to catch the ball, and while focusing on the ball, neglected to notice the concrete wall at the edge of the ballpark. Combs slammed head-on into the wall, so powerfully that he rebounded off the wall and fell down.

Combs just lay still while Clift rounded the bases for his third hit of the day. The players panicked seeing the Colonel on the ground and carried him off the field and into the clubhouse, bruised, dazed and bleeding as Myril Hoag replaced him in left. That night he was brought to St. Johns Hospital in the Westwood section of St. Louis County. Dr. Robert Hyland of the hospital examined the injured Combs, who had no idea what hit him, noted that the outfielder had a fracture of the left temporal bone and a fractured left clavicle. While spending most of his time in the hospital in critical condition, Combs managed to have a restful night of July 24 and that he was in satisfactory shape.

The baseball media thought that the injury at Sportsman’s Park would mean the end of the career of Combs, due to the severity. However, Combs was determined to return, citing his time during the 1924 season of breaking his ankle as his reasoning. During the time that he had injured his ankle, the media “counted him out” and that he would never play baseball again. However, he noted that he could fool the media once and believed he could do it again. However, in August as his shoulder completely repaired itself, Dr. Hyland did not want to make suggestions on the effect the injury would have to his career. Combs noted though that as soon as he could leave St. John’s, he would return to his farm in Richmond, Kentucky to prepare and condition himself for the 1935 season.

On September 8, 1934, the time finally came. Combs left St. John’s Hospital to go see the Washington Senators take on the Browns. That game was the first time that Combs had left the hospital since the night of the accident, but Combs would have to return before being discharged the next day. Afterwards, he went to visit his Yankee teammates then headed home to Kentucky. The comeback would be completed on April 16, 1935 when he was put in the Opening Day lineup by manager Joe McCarthy, batting leadoff as the left fielder behind Lefty Gomez. While Combs had a 0-4 day, the fact that he was playing in another game after a life-threatening accident just nine months earlier was a major step forward. Always a fan favorite, Combs was applauded in his return.

Combs noted in the media during an early May series against the Indians that he had told Lou Gehrig that they were getting too old to go all-out crashing into walls, but that when Clift hit the fly ball, he forgot all about it. He noted that it would take another crash into a wall to keep him out of the lineup, and that he would never make the same mistake twice. During the 1935 season, Combs played in 89 games, racking up 84 more hits and still had his excellent eye, getting 36 walks over 10 strikeouts. However, problems reared their ugly heads on August 25 during a game against the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park. Chasing another fly ball, Combs and shortstop Red Rolfe collided with Rolfe falling backwards on top of Combs. Combs was spiked and bruised above the right knee, but most painfully, separated his right collarbone from the shoulder blade and ligaments were pulled.

This time, Combs noted that this was probably the end. Noting that he was jinxed, Combs had his shoulder repaired in Manhattan, he felt that the end was near anyway and that he better get out of the way before it got any worse. An issue that would come up is that Combs’s defense would be affected. Combs was never the best outfielder with his arm and such an injury would just inhibit him more. Combs basically decided it would be time to hang up the spikes and head back to Kentucky. Despite the injuries, Combs managed to get into games on September 11 and September 12 against the Indians and Tigers. Combs would sit out until September 25, when McCarthy had him pinch run for Bill Dickey for one last hurrah. After all was said and done, Combs had managed 1,866 hits in 1,455 games, batting an amazing .325/.397/.462 with 670 walks over 278 strikeouts.

Conclusion

For the 1936 season, Earle Combs ended up not going back to his farm, but becoming a coach under McCarthy. During that season, he had to teach a new outfielder about having to play center field at Yankee Stadium. This new outfielder had just come from the San Francisco Seals and was given No. 9 for his first season, Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio, better known as Joe DiMaggio. Combs would remain coach of the Yankees through the end of the 1944 season, gaining 6 more rings under his time there. In 1947, he joined the St. Louis Browns as a coach under Muddy Ruel. In 1948, he became the first base coach for the Boston Red Sox, a position he held until the end of 1952. On March 30, 1953, 53-year old Combs announced that he quit to spend more time with his family, farm and business interests in Richmond, Kentucky, replaced by Del Baker. However, he chose to spend one more season in the league, being a coach for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1954 under Steve O’Neill and Terry Moore. One of the other coaches on the 1954 Phillies was Benny Bengough, the catcher that Combs had pinch hit for despite being injured during the 1928 World Series.

After the final swan song, Combs made headlines in May 1958 when former baseball commissioner Albert Benjamin (Happy) Chandler talked to Combs about becoming the Kentucky State Banking Commissioner. Chandler became Governor in 1955. The position had become vacant when S. Albert Phillips had left. Combs was a member of the Board of Directors for the Kentucky State Bank and Trust Company in Richmond, and after talking to Chandler, took the job. Combs retained the job until 1960 when H.A. Rogers took the job under new governor Bert Combs. In 1970, the 70-year old Combs was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown by the Veterans Committee along with Lou Bouderau, Jesse Haines and Ford C. Frick. Combs spoke of his teammates Ruth and Gehrig and noted that it was a great honor and that he would never bring shame to the honor.

On July 21, 1976, Earle Bryan Combs, the “Kentucky Colonel” died of a long illness. He was survived by his wife Ruth, and their sons, Earle, Jr., Charles and Don (the Athletic Director and swimming coach at Eastern Kentucky.) His funeral services were held at 2 PM on July 23 at the First Christian Church on Main Street and Richmond. He was then interred at the Richmond Cemetery. His wife would join him in 1989 and his son Earle, Jr. would in 1990.

Earle Combs was probably the greatest leadoff hitter in Yankee history. His numbers from 1925-1933 were historic, and somehow, he is not in with the Yankees legends at Monument Park, with his managers, Miller Huggins and Joe McCarthy along with teammates Gehrig and Ruth. I know a lot of people, especially on this site, would love to see the No. 1 un-retired because of who it was given to, but I think it should’ve stayed retired and kept in the honor of the original and true No. 1, Earle Combs.

A little extra velocity makes a big difference for Tanaka

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Through three starts, Masahiro Tanaka‘s season has been a microcosm of his entire Yankees’ career: very good overall, occasionally great, rarely bad, and better than he seems to get credit for. Tanaka’s sitting on a 3.06 ERA (3.08 FIP) with 16 strikeouts, five walks, and a career high 65.3% ground ball rate through 17.2 innings in 2016.

Yesterday’s win was Tanaka’s best outing of the season. He held the Mariners to three runs (two earned) in seven innings, and it could have been a) one or two runs if not for some defensive funny business, and b) eight innings if the Yankees did not have such a stupid good bullpen. A rock solid outing once again.

Tanaka had something Sunday he did not have in his first two starts: a fastball that averaged north of 90 mph. He’s been pitching heavily off his sinker, perhaps in response to last summer’s home run issues, and the pitch averaged 89.9 mph in his first start and 90.2 mph in his last second start. Yesterday it averaged 91.9 mph. The bump is noticeable (via Brooks Baseball):

Masahiro Tanaka velocityTanaka jokingly credited the warm weather for the velocity bump following yesterday’s game, but otherwise he chalked it up to building arm strength as he gets deeper into the season. That’s pretty typical. Most pitchers add velocity as the season progresses, especially since so many teams are taking it easy in Spring Training. April has almost become Phase Two of Spring Training.

“I think his arm is getting stronger,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings yesterday. “Obviously the weather was pretty good today, but for the starters, you’d like to say you have them built up to where they’re supposed to be by Game One, but I think you risk working them too hard in Spring Training. Understanding it’s a long season, they sort of pace themselves.”

The benefit of the added velocity showed up in Tanaka’s performance yesterday, though you have to go beyond his overall numbers to see it. The extra oomph allows his trademark splitter to play up, making the pitch even more devastating. Look at his swing-and-miss totals so far this season:

April 5th vs. Astros: 29 splitters, five whiffs (17.2%)
April 12th vs. Blue Jays: 28 splitters, six whiffs (21.4%)
April 17th vs. Mariners: 44 splitters, 14 whiffs (31.8%)

Tanaka threw lots more splitters yesterday than in his first two starts because the Mariners are so left-handed — they had seven lefties and one switch-hitter in the starting lineup — and that’s his go-to pitch against lefties. Last year he had a 20.6% whiff rate on his splitter. Back in 2014 it was 29.1%. (The MLB average is right around 15%.) He had eleven swings and misses on his splitter in his first two starts combined. Those 14 yesterday are a new career high.

Obviously there is more to getting swings and misses on the splitter than fastball velocity — command and arm action are the big ones — but it definitely helps. The fastball sets up the split. The hitter is supposed to read fastball in the zone out of the pitcher’s hand and start his swing before the split dives into the dirt. More velocity means the hitter has even less time to react and discern between fastball and splitter.

“I think velocity is a big thing,” said Brian McCann to Jennings yesterday. “When you’re throwing 92, 94, and your best out pitch is a split, everything plays up. As a hitter, you have to make your decision quicker, and you’re going to get a lot more swings and misses.”

We saw exactly that yesterday. Tanaka had the extra velocity and the Mariners had trouble getting the bat on that splitter, at least compared to the Astros and Blue Jays last week. His splitter is so good that the pitch is effective even when he’s living in the 88-90 mph range with his heater, but that little bit of extra velocity can be the difference between good and great.

I didn’t expect Tanaka’s fastball to jump almost two miles an hour from one start to the next, but it did yesterday. As the weather warms up and Tanaka continues to build arm strength, he should add even more velocity, which will only make him more formidable. Yesterday was a very positive development.

“Obviously the weather, that does play (into it) a little bit,” added Tanaka. “But I think we’re getting a little bit more deeper into the season, a couple of weeks, so I think the strength is coming together. It’s starting to build up, so it’s a positive.”

Yankeemetrics: #RISPFAIL [April 15-17]

(AP Photo)
(AP Photo)

It’s not what you want, Part I
The good news is that the Yankees created a ton of scoring chances on Friday night. The bad news is that they failed miserably in cashing in on those opportunities – and the result was a frustrating 7-1 loss to the Mariners in the series opener.

The Yankees put 13 guys on base overall and just one of them touched home plate – a solo homer by Brett Gardner in the first inning. It marked the first time they left 12-or-more men on base and scored only one run in a game since May 29, 2012 against the Angels.

They had at least one baserunner in seven of the nine innings and multiple guys on in the fourth, fifth and sixth frames. Yet, they couldn’t come up with the Big Hit ® as they went hitless in 12 at-bats with runners in scoring position.

Jacoby Ellsbury was the only Yankee starter that didn’t reach base, going 0-for-5 with two strikeouts. It was his 15th game in pinstripes with at least five at bats and zero hits, the most such games of any player on the team since his debut in 2014.

It’s not what you want, Part II
Another day, another three-plus hours of futility at the plate for the Yankees, who left a small navy of runners on base and lost 3-2 to the Mariners on Saturday afternoon.

They somehow managed to set a new level of offensive ineptitude for 2016, surpassing Friday’s debacle by going hitless in 12 at-bats with runners in scoring position again and this time stranding a whopping 14 baserunners.

It’s the first time in more than three decades that the Yankees have lost back-to-back nine-inning games while leaving at least 12 runners on base in each contest. The last time it happened was June 5-6, 1984 against the Red Sox.

Per the Elias Sports Bureau, the last major-league team to go 0-for-12 or worse with RISP in consecutive games was the Orioles in 1993.

CC Sabathia made his 200th start with the Yankees but it was a forgettable one. He was pulled in the fifth inning after allowing three runs on seven hits and with his pitch count at 95. Still, the milestone is a significant one for Sabathia, who also surpassed the 200-start mark with the Indians.

He is just the sixth pitcher in major-league history – and the second lefty – to have at least 200 starts and 1,000 strikeouts with two different franchises. The others in this club are Mike Mussina, Randy Johnson (the lone southpaw), Greg Maddux, Nolan Ryan and Jim Bunning.

Carlos Beltran did his best to spark the Yankees offense, driving in two runs while going 4-for-5 with two doubles and a homer. At the age of 38 and 358 days, he is the oldest player in franchise history to have a four-hit game that included at least three extra-base hits. He surpassed Babe Ruth, who was 38 years and 175 days old when he went 4-of-5 with two doubles and a triple against the Senators in 1933.

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Brett Gardner’s RBI double in the third inning, which scored Jacoby Ellsbury from second base, snapped an ugly 0-for-30 streak with runners in scoring position by the Yankees that dated back to the Blue Jays series (Of course, that was their only hit in 11 at-bats with RISP during the game. But one hit is progress!)

The Yankees also broke their four-game losing streak, avoided the dreaded sweep against the Mariners, and had their best offensive output (four runs) since April 9 in Detroit.

A-Rod also joined the streak-breaking party in the second inning when he smoked the first pitch he saw into the left field stands for career homer No. 689. That ended a 19 at-bat hitless streak, which was two shy of the longest in his career (2002 and 2007). He entered the game with a .100 batting average this year, his worst mark through eight games played in any season during his career.

The Yankees got seven strong innings from Masahiro Tanaka, who is now 4-0 with a 2.70 ERA in four starts against Seattle. He kept the Mariners lineup off-balance all afternoon with his nasty splitter, which netted him five of his six strikeouts and 14 swinging strikes, the most he’s ever had in a game with that pitch. Thanks to his sinker-heavy approach, Tanaka generated a ton of soft contact and his 12 ground ball outs also were a career-high.

Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller sealed the win with another pair of ridiculously dominant performances as they each struck out the side in the eighth and ninth innings on 26 total pitches. The pair has recorded 33 outs this season, and 27 of them have been strikeouts.

Of the last 15 batters that Betances has retired, 14 have been via strike three. He’s now had four outings in a row with at least three strikeouts and no more than 1⅓ innings pitched. Betances is the only pitcher in major-league history to put together a streak like that — and it’s not even the first time he’s done it. He had a similar stretch May 26-June 1 last year.

Fan Confidence Poll: April 18th, 2016

Record Last Week: 2-4 (14 RS, 26 RA)
Season Record: 5-6 (49 RS, 53 RA, 5-6 pythag. record)
Opponents This Week: Mon. OFF, vs. Athletics (three games, Tues. to Thurs.), vs. Rays (three games, Fri. to Sun.)

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