Archive for Players
The 2014 season is over and it’s time to look back at the year that was. Our old What Went Right/Wrong format has gotten stale, so it’s time for a new review format. We’ll review individual players, performances, tendencies, all sorts of stuff in the coming days and weeks.
By just about any measure, last season was the worst of CC Sabathia‘s career. He did manage to soak up 211 innings and that’s worth something, but he ranked 76th with a 4.78 ERA and 72nd with 0.3 bWAR out of 81 qualified starters. Sabathia led baseball with 112 earned runs allowed and his 2.69 K/BB fell off big time from the 4.48 K/BB ratio he put up in 2012. It was an awful season and everyone and their mother had theories why CC dropped off so much.
Despite the terrible year, there were some reasons to believe Sabathia would rebound this year, specifically that he was a year out from elbow surgery and would have a normal offseason. He was also working to add a cutter. I, personally, also thought he couldn’t possibly be any worse. Maybe he wouldn’t get back to being an ace but he would be a serviceable mid-rotation horse, someone who soaked up a boatload of innings and was league average or better at preventing runs. I would have taken that in a heartbeat.
Instead, Sabathia did get worse in 2014. He got worse and he got hurt. Sabathia made just eight starts for the Yankees this summer and threw only 46 innings — he failed to complete six full innings of work three times, equaling his total from 2011-12 combined — with a 5.28 ERA and 4.78 FIP. It all started in the first inning of the first game of the season too. The Astros (!) tagged Sabathia for four runs in the first inning on Opening Day and only twice in those eight starts did he allowed fewer than four runs.
There were flashes of Sabathia figuring it out but one of the ways we cope with Ace Sucking Syndrome (ASS) is over-analyzing the hell out of every little thing. I did it. More than once. But none of the positive signs — the times he’s retired 12 in a row in the middle of a start, stuff like that — meant anything in the end. Sabathia was getting bombed on the regular, allowing ten homers in those 46 innings (1.96 HR/9 and 23.3 HR/FB%). Hit Tracker says those ten homers averaged 403.1 feet, so they weren’t wall-scrapers.
Sabathia’s season came to an end following his May 10th start against the Brewers, when the Yankees placed him on the disabled list with fluid in his twice-surgically repaired right knee. He was expected to return in June or July and he actually did go out on a minor league rehab assignment at one point — I completely forgot about that — but Sabathia eventually suffered a setback. It was feared he would need career-threatening microfracture surgery after a stem cell treatment didn’t work, but additional tests showed he only needed the knee cleaned out. Either way, his season was over.
If you’re looking for a silver lining in Sabathia’s season, it’s that both his strikeout (9.39 K/9 and 23.0 K%) and walk (1.96 BB/9 and 4.8 BB%) rates were stellar. He also got a lot of ground balls (48.0%). That’s all well and good, it’s better than having crappy peripherals, but Sabathia’s struggles are rooted in the type of contact he allowed, which was routinely hard. Unfortunately there is no publicly available data measuring this stuff. Line drive rates are fickle — his 22.1% liner rate was in line with the last four or five years anyway — because of scorer bias. All we have is anecdotal evidence and that sucks.
What we do know is that Sabathia’s velocity continued to trend downward — he averaged 90.76 mph in 2014, down from 92.36 in 2013 and 93.31 in 2013 according to Brooks Baseball — and that’s completely expected since he’s a 34-year-old with nearly 3,000 regular season innings on his arm. Velocity loss is inevitable and not reversible. That’s life. It happens to everyone. Sabathia’s location was ever so slightly worse than it had been, particularly when it came to grooving pitches over the plate (via Brooks):
You can get away with grooving ~6.5% of your fastballs like Sabathia did from 2011-13 when you’re throwing 93+. In his limited time this year he grooved 7.3% of his fastballs while averaging just north of 90 mph and that’s a big difference. Since 2010, opponent’s slugging percentage against Sabathia’s fastball has steadily reason from .373 to .447 to .479 to .486 to .722 (!) this year. Obviously there’s some sample size noise in there, but the point stands. Hitters are getting mighty comfortable in the box against CC.
The location issues — it seemed like whenever Sabathia missed, he missed up in the zone and/or right out over the plate — could stem from lots of stuff. There’s a million variables here. He could be overthrowing to compensate for lost velocity, his landings could have been sloppy because his knee was unstable, his mechanics could have been out of what for whatever reason. I’m sure all of that and more have contributed to his problems. Sabathia’s release point has been steadily dropping over the years (via Brooks) …
… which, again, is fairly common among pitchers his age, especially with that workload. At some point your shoulder just isn’t strong enough to maintain your arm slot. Sabathia’s dropped his arm over time and that at least partially explains the extra cut we see on his pitches from time to time. Extra cut that usually took the pitch over the plate and into the happy zone for hitters. We saw plenty of that last year and we saw plenty of it again this year. He had the same issues as last season only worse.
Sabathia had his knee cleaned out in August and soon thereafter had a second stem cell treatment (as planned). We recently learned he has started throwing and will soon get back up on a mound before shutting it down for the winter and going through his usual offseason routine. I love CC, he’s one of the my favorite Yankees of all-time, but I learned my lesson last year and I’m not expecting a bounce back next year. I’m not expecting anything. If he comes back and dominates with a healthy knee, that would be awesome. If he comes back and is a league average inning eater, great. If he comes back and stinks again, well that’ll stink, but that’s sorta what I’m expecting at this point.
The Yankees are stuck with Sabathia for another two years and possibly a third — his 2017 vesting option is based on the health of his shoulder, not his knee — so they have to hope this knee surgery helps him get back to being a useful pitcher. Sabathia is a tough dude who has pitched through knee problems and a bone spur in his elbow these last few years and I have not doubt that if he fails and is again one of the worst pitchers in baseball, it won’t be for a lack of effort on his part. The Yankees have a lot of uncertainty in their rotation heading into next season and, after both this year and last, Sabathia is a huge part of that uncertainty.
The 2014 season is over and it’s time to look back at the year that was. Our old What Went Right/Wrong format has gotten stale, so it’s time for a new review format. We’ll review individual players, performances, tendencies, all sorts of stuff in the coming days and weeks.
It happens every year like clockwork. Some seldom-known player shows up to Spring Training, has a strong camp, and fans clamor for him to make the team. He doesn’t, he goes to Triple-A, he performs exactly like he has every other year in his career, and fans forget about him by June. Happens to every team every year. This isn’t something unique to the Yankees. But, every once in a while, that player does stick.
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The Legend of Yangervis Solarte started in early January, when the Yankees signed the then-26-year-old minor league journeyman to a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training. The Tigers were after him as well, but Solarte was put off by their Ian Kinsler pickup because it blocked a potential spot for him. The Yankees flexed their financial muscle and signed him to a nice deal worth $22,000 per month in the minors. That’s big bucks for a minor league deal.
Solarte came to Spring Training and was lumped into the infield competition with guys like Dean Anna, Eduardo Nunez, Zelous Wheeler, and Scott Sizemore. He was a total afterthought. No one knew who he was and his minor league track record wasn’t particularly impressive — .282/.331/.404 (~91 wRC+) in over 1,100 plate appearances at Triple-A with the Rangers from 2012-13 — so there wasn’t much of a reason to get excited. Solarte switch-hit and he could play all over the field, which is great, but a ton of guys in the minors do that.
Then, in camp, Solarte was that guy. That guy who just hit and hit and hit. He played a different position just about everyday — Solarte played five games at second, eleven at short, four at third, and five in left during Grapefruit League play — and just kept hitting. Solarte ended Spring Training with a .410/.452/.615 batting line in 47 plate appearances while facing mostly MLB caliber pitching according to Baseball-Reference’s quality of competition metric. He was the guy. The guy everyone wanted to make the team but was destined for Triple-A.
But then something weird happened: Solarte actually made the team. The Yankees decided enough was enough and it was time to move on from Nunez, who was designated for assignment before Opening Day and traded to the Twins for a Single-A arm. Solarte took Nunez’s roster spot and his uniform number, No. 26. With Brendan Ryan starting the season on the disabled list a back problem, the first five or six weeks of the regular season were essentially a continuation of the Spring Training competition between Solarte and Anna, who also made the club.
Solarte’s first career big league plate appearance was not exactly a garbage time situation — he pinch-hit for Kelly Johnson against the left-handed Kevin Chapman with two men on the base and the Yankees down 2-0 in the seventh inning of the second game of the season. Solarte banged into a 4-6-3 double play to kill the rally and later popped up to end the game in his second plate appearance. It wasn’t the most exciting MLB debut after such a stellar camp, but what can you do. It was two plate appearances and I’m sure he was nervous.
The Solarte Partay began in earnest the next day, when Joe Girardi gave Solarte is first career start (at third base) with the lefty Brett Oberholtzer on the mound. Solarte recorded his first big league hit on a ground ball single back up the middle in his first at-bat then scored his first career run on Carlos Beltran‘s single later in the inning. He doubled to left field in his next at-bat and singled again in his third at-bat, which was nothing more than an infield pop-up the Astros didn’t catch because they’re the Astros:
That was also his first career run batted in. I’m sure he’ll tell his grandkids it was a screaming line drive into the gap but they won’t believe him. This is the internet age and they’ll pull up the video on their phones or whatever the hell the kids carry in the future.
Anyway, the 3-for-3 showing earned Solarte another start the next day. Two doubles in that game earned him another start the next day. Two singles in that game kept him in the lineup the next day. And on and on it went. Solarte went 11-for-22 in his first six starts and 19-for-49 (.388) in his first 14 starts. He also started an around-the-horn triple play in the middle of April, in his 16th career game:
Even if he hadn’t come out of the gate so strong, Solarte would have stayed in the starting lineup anyway because Mark Teixeira‘s hamstring injury forced Johnson to play first base. Solarte took advantage of the opportunity and just kept hitting. Through April he had a .303/.404/.461 (147 wRC+) batting line and through May he had a .288/.361/.441 (126 wRC+) batting line. He hit his first career homerun off Grant Balfour in the same game as the triple play.
Of course, there were slumps along the way. Slumps that made you think the Solarte Partay was over and he was going back to being a minor league journeyman. There was the 2-for-19 (.105) in late-April, the 1-for-14 (.071) in mid-May, and the 2-for-24 (.083) in late-May. Solarte rebounded well those times, but his June slump effectively ended his time in pinstripes. He went 10-for-61 (.164) in June, including an ugly 0-for-28 skid that spanned nine team games.
Solarte’s season batting line sat at a still respectable .263/.345/.404 (112 wRC+) after the 0-for-28, though the blush was off the rose and he was trending in the wrong direction. The Yankees shipped him to Triple-A Scranton on July 3rd — the move cleared a 25-man roster spot for Wheeler — hoping he would find his strike in the minors. Solarte went 12-for-20 (.600) with three doubles in five games with the RailRiders before being recalled on July 10th, when Beltran was placed on the 7-day concussion disabled list.
After appearing in just four more games with the Yankees — he went 1-for-10 in those four games — Solarte was traded to the Padres with Single-A pitching prospect Rafael DePaula for Chase Headley on July 22nd. The Yankees got what they could out of him then cashed in their chip for a third base upgrade. Solarte finished his time in pinstripes with a .254/.337/.381 (104 wRC+) line with six homers, 30 walks, and 34 strikeouts in 289 plate appearances. He played adequate defense at mostly third base but also saw time time at second and at short.
Following the trade to San Diego, Solarte hit .267/.336/.355 (101 wRC+) with four homers, 23 walks, and 24 strikeouts in 246 plate appearances while splitting his time between second, short, third, and left field. An oblique injury hampering him late-August. Ultimately, his numbers with the Yankees and his numbers with the Padres look very similar. Headley was a big boost at third base both at the plate and in the field. I’m guessing both sides were happy with the trade.
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Solarte was found money for the Yankees. They can talk all they want about how they thought he could be a useful player when they signed him, but I’m guessing that if you gave the team’s decision-makers and pro scouts a truth serum, they’d tell you they didn’t expect him to be a better than league-average hitter for nearly 300 plate appearances. They milked Solarte for all they could then used him to acquire a legitimate upgrade before his stock took a nose dive.
It’s very rare that the guy in Spring Training turns out to be The Guy like Solarte. He has some skills, most notably versatility and a good approach to go along with bat-to-ball ability from both sides of the plate, and he capitalized on every opportunity the Yankees gave him early in the season. Solarte was a huge lift when the team had question marks all around the infield and a nice trade chip when something better came along. He was right guy at the right time on more than one occasion in 2014.
The 2014 season is over and it’s time to look back at the year that was. Our old What Went Right/Wrong format has gotten stale, so it’s time for a new preview format. We’ll review individual players, performances, tendencies, and all sorts of stuff in the coming days and weeks.
Coming into the season, there were many reasons to think the Yankees would have a better offense in 2014 than 2013. For starters, they committed more than $280M to the free agent trio of Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, and Jacoby Ellsbury, each of whom brought a different dynamic to the lineup. The Yankees were also getting Mark Teixeira back from wrist surgery, and although Lyle Overbay filled in admirably last year, Teixeira at this phase of his career was still an upgrade.
On top of all of that, the Yankees would also have a full season of Alfonso Soriano. The club re-acquired Soriano at least year’s trade deadline and he was a force in the second half, hitting .256/.325/.525 (130 wRC+) with 17 homeruns in 58 games after the trade. He hit exactly as many homers and drove in nearly the same number of runs (51 to 50) in 58 games with the Yankees as he did in 93 games with the Cubs. Returning to New York seemed to reinvigorate the 38-year-old Soriano.
Because of the Ellsbury and Beltran additions, the Yankees forced Soriano into an unfamiliar role. He was either going to have to play right field or serve as the DH to stay in the lineup — and, coming into the year, there was every reason to want him in the lineup everyday — but he didn’t have much experience at either spot. In fact, Soriano had never played right field in his career until this year, and he had only 38 games of DH experience spread across the first 15 years of his career. He played DH only 14 times with the Cubs from 2007-13.
But, the Yankees painted themselves into a roster corner, so Soriano worked out in right field during Spring Training and also took some reps at DH to get familiar with sitting on the bench between at-bats. He opened the regular season as the regular DH while occasionally seeing time in left (whenever Ellsbury or Brett Gardner sat) and right (whenever Beltran sat). It wasn’t until Beltran’s elbow began to act up that Soriano moved into the field full-time — he took over as the regular right fielder in mid-May and was routinely taken out for defense in the late innings.
We can’t trust such a small sample of defensive stats but I thought Soriano actually looked decent in right field, especially considering he had never played the position before. I mean, he wasn’t great, but he made all the routine plays and occasionally surprised with a no-so-routine play. Opponents did run on his weak arm at will — runners attempted to take the extra base 12 times in 15 opportunities, a 20.0% hold rate that was well below the 46.4% league average — but that wasn’t surprising. You knew other teams were going to test him at a new position.
Adjusting to life as a part-time outfielder and part-time DH was not going to be easy, but the Yankees were expecting Soriano to be their top right-handed power source and a consistent threat near the middle of the lineup. Instead, they got one of the worst offensive players in baseball. Soriano hit .242/.275/.414 (88 wRC+) with five homers in 138 plate appearances as he regular DH before hitting .194/.200/.306 (29 wRC+) with one homerun in exactly 100 plate appearances after taking over in right field following Beltran’s injury. From May 5th through June 12th he went 16-for-83 (.193) with 37 strikeouts (43.5%).
The end result was a .221/.244/.367 (64 wRC+) batting line with six homers in 238 plate appearances. Among the 349 players with at least 200 plate appearances in 2014, Soriano ranked 298th in AVG, 343rd in OBP, 228th in SLG, 316th in OPS+, 332nd in wRC+, 327th in strikeout rate, and 346th in walk rate. He struck out 71 times (29.5%) and walked six times (2.5%), including once intentionally. The Yankees were counting on Soriano to be a major weapon against lefties and he hit .249/.269/.416 (84 wRC+) against southpaws, which is both terrible and way better than the .204/.228/.336 (51 wRC+) line he put up against righties.
The Yankees finally pulled the plug on July 6th, designating Soriano for assignment to clear both a 25-man and 40-man roster spot for career minor league journeyman Bruce Billings. Joe Girardi had relegated Soriano to the bench for spot start study a few weeks before that, opting to use Ichiro Suzuki in right field full-time once Beltran returning and took over the DH spot. Soriano told reporters he would spend some time with his family before deciding whether to retire or continue playing, but we haven’t heard anything since. No team showed interest in him even at the pro-rated portion of the league minimum.
Soriano was one of the most exciting players in recent Yankees history when he first came up all those years ago because of his speed and big power despite a rail thin frame. He returned to New York a decade later and had an excellent half-season in pinstripes in 2013 before things came crashing down in 2014. Maybe changing positions hurt his offense — to his credit, Soriano never complained about being asked to change positions — or maybe it was just old age. He is 38 after all, and he had already switched to a lighter bat with the Cubs to compensate for lost bat speed. Add in his plate indiscipline and it’s not really a surprise he fell off the cliff so quickly.
The Yankees did improve their offense from 2013 to 2014 but not as much as expected for many reasons, including Soriano’s sudden fall from grace. He wasn’t even able to be a bench bat who played against lefties by the end. The fall of was that drastic. Maybe Soriano will decide to play again, but players his age usually don’t get job offers after seasons like this, which included spending the last three months at home. In all likelihood, his excellent but not quite Hall of Fame worthy career is over, and that makes me sad.
Last night was almost too good to be true. It was the kind of ending that would be totally cheesy if I saw it in a movie, but I saw it with my own eyes in real life and it was amazing. Derek Jeter inside-outing a walk-off single to right field in his final game at Yankee Stadium is just perfect. Too perfect. It’s magic. There’s no other way to describe it. Pure baseball magic.
Like you, I’m going to remember that game for the rest of my life, but not just for the ending. I mentioned this in the game recap last night — I’m also going to remember seeing Jeter show more emotion than I can ever remember. He literally jumped for joy following the walk-off single and the only other time I can remember him doing that was when the Yankees won the World Series. Cameras caught Jeter fighting back tears as fans chanted his name in the ninth inning:
That is not the Derek Jeter face we’re used to seeing. We’re used to stone-faced, all business, we’ve got a job to do Derek Jeter. The YES Network broadcast showed both Joe Girardi and Mark Teixeira with tears in their eyes that inning, but I guess being on the verge of tears is the most we’ll get out of Derek. Jeter spoke about fighting back the tears following the game and I thought his quotes were interesting, so I want to pass them along. Courtesy of Chad Jennings:
“There were a couple of times I almost lost it,” Jeter said. “First inning I was saying, please don’t hit it to me. The last inning I almost lost it. Same thing. I don’t know how many times in my career I’ve said, please don’t hit it to me, but that’s what was going on in my mind. I really thought I was going to break down.”
“I almost started crying driving here today,” Jeter said. “I was by myself, so I could have lost it and no one would have seen it. My teammates presented me with something before the game. I almost lost it and I had to turn around. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of controlling my emotions throughout the course of my career. I have them, I try to hide them, I try to trick myself and convince myself that I’m not feeling those particular emotions whether it’s nerves, whether I’m injured; pain. I just try to trick myself that I don’t have it.
“Today, I wasn’t able to do it. It’s been getting more and more difficult these last few weeks, but today I wasn’t able to do it. I don’t know if the cameras were on me close, but there were a couple times I almost broke down. I was almost thinking to myself, ‘Joe, get me out of here before I do something to cost us this game.’ It’s funny how things change, I guess.”
I can’t imagine what last night — and these last few weeks, really — felt like for Jeter. Outside of a little fist pump following the final out of every win, he rarely showed emotion on the field, so being on the verge of tears on the field in front of a nationally televised audience means he was playing with a very heavy heart. Jeter even said these last few weeks were like “watching your own funeral.” That’s some heavy stuff.
I could be wrong, but it appeared to me Jeter was a little more laid back on the field this year. More smiles, more joking around with teammates and opponents who happened to make their way to second base. It seemed like he was more relaxed in his final season, like he decided to enjoy this year a little more and cherish the comradery. Almost every retired player says they miss the comradery more than anything once their playing days are over. It seems like Jeter went out of his way to enjoy being around his peers this year.
Last night was on the other end of the emotional spectrum. There weren’t any smiles or jokes exchanged, it was raw emotion on an iconic stage. It was a side of Jeter we never got to see these last 20 years and that’s part of reason it will be so memorable. We have a tendency to see athletes as invincible and Jeter has been the model of the invincible athlete throughout his career. Last night was our first and only real look behind the curtain, to the human side of Derek Jeter.
The non-waiver trade deadline is roughly 48 hours away, and based on the way he’s been talking the last few days, it seems likely Brian Cashman will swing another trade or two in an attempt to improve the team. Another starting pitcher feels inevitable, and they’ve been connected to a bunch of right-handed hitting outfielders as well. Those two upgrades are the bare minimum to make a run in the second half, in my opinion.
The Chase Headley trade solidified the infield, at least in the sense that they replaced a collection of bad players at the hot corner with one potentially good one. Headley’s first week in pinstripes has gone very well — 9-for-27 (.333) with two doubles, a homer, and a walk-off single — and hopefully that continues through the end of the season now that he’s out of Petco Park and doesn’t have to be The Man in the lineup. The upgrade on defense has already been noticeable as well.
The Yankees are locked into Derek Jeter at shortstop and Mark Teixeira at first base for a few reasons, and so far they’ve lived with Brian Roberts at second. In fact, I wouldn’t even say they’ve “lived” with him, they seem legitimately happy to have him out there. Roberts has somehow managed to stay healthy and he always puts together a long and quality at-bat, which is not nothing. Given how hacktastic this lineup has become, seeing someone who doesn’t go down on two or three pitches each time out is refreshing.
The problem is that Roberts’ long at-bats have not led to enough production. He is hitting a weak .237/.300/.360 (81 wRC+) in 348 plate appearances this year, including an even weaker .226/.281/.352 (72 wRC+) in 171 plate appearances since June 1st. Roberts was steady in the field earlier this season but has been much worse defensively of late, making three errors in ten games since the All-Star break and bobbling just about everything that isn’t hit right at him. He’s a liability both at the plate and in the field right now.
Remarkably, Roberts have remained pretty healthy this season. He missed a few games with a minor back issue in April but that’s it. His 91 games played are his most since 2009, his last full, healthy season. Given his age and his lengthy injury history, it could be that he is simply wearing down in the second half of the season. That would explain the lack of hitting and reliable fielding. It’s tough to expect a 36-year-old who has averaged 48 games and 202 plate appearances per year over the last four years to be an everyday player across a full season.
Soon after the Headley trade, Brian Cashman told reporters that while he is looking to make big upgrades to the roster at the trade deadline, he is making smaller, incremental upgrades whenever possible. “We have to try to improve, reinforce and upgrade, certainly,” said the GM to Andrew Marchand last week. “We certainly we would love to have some significant upgrades but when you lose four out of five starters, it is hard to re-materialize the same type of abilities with the guys you lost. It is whether you incrementally upgrade.”
Unlike the rotation and right field, the Yankees may be able to make an incremental upgrade at second base without having to make a trade. Second base prospect Rob Refsnyder — who you have all heard about by now — is stashed in Triple-A, hitting .296/.400/.500 (151 wRC+) with seven homers in 44 games and 190 plate appearances with the RailRiders after dominating with Double-A Trenton early in the season. He has cooled down of late but still has a solid .250/.327/.427 (108 wRC+) batting line this month. When a young player hits like that, you have to take notice, especially when he plays a position of need, both short and long-term.
Despite his Triple-A success, Cashman made it clear he doesn’t believe Refsnyder would be enough of an upgrade to justify calling him up and dropping Roberts. “I don’t think he would be significantly upgrading at second base right now … If you did see [Refsnyder], he would be probably more likely an outfielder for us. It’s a super big jump to the big league level,” said Cashman during a radio interview last week. He also pointed out the 40-man roster issue — Refsnyder won’t be Rule 5 Draft eligible for another year and they don’t want to clog up the 40-man roster, though that seems like a lame excuse more than anything. I don’t think a 40-man spot would stand in the way of helping the MLB club.
Now, here’s the thing: I’m not completely sold on the idea of Refsnyder being an upgrade over Roberts either. The defensive question marks at second are real, and Refsnyder struggled immediately after being promoted to both Double-A and Triple-A this year. That’s not unusual, Brett Gardner had the same problem while he was climbing up the minor league leader, but it is something to consider. The whole “how could he be any worse/what’s the harm?” argument is totally silly because Refsnyder could absolutely be worse than Roberts, just like David Adams was worse than Kevin Youkilis and Austin Romine was worse than Chris Stewart. It could always be worse.
At this point though, I think Roberts has forced the team’s hand and given them every reason to try someone new at second base. He isn’t hitting and he hasn’t been reliable in the field. When a player’s only redeeming quality is the ability to foul off pitches and have long at-bats, it’s time to try someone new. Roberts is about to start making some decent bucks through bonuses — he has already banked $350,000 in incentives and is two plate appearances away from another $250,0000 — so there is a financial incentive to make a change as well. The Yankees would pay Refsnyder through the end of the season less than the bonus they’d owe Roberts if he gets those next two plate appearances.
I would like to think being pulled for a pinch-hitter last night was the team’s way of preventing Roberts from triggering that next bonus under the guise of improving their chances to win, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t the case. The Yankees love their veterans and seem to think Roberts has some very real value to the team, but I don’t see it. Not at this point. He isn’t hitting and he isn’t fielding. When all the GM talks about are incremental upgrades and you’ve got a this sort of second base situation at the MLB and Triple-A levels, I don’t know how they don’t make a move. Refsnyder might not produce when he gets called up. It’s a very real possibility. But we know Roberts isn’t producing. That part isn’t up for debate. If they’re not going to make a change now, when will they?
Even though it is not really the halfway point of the season, there is no better time to review the first half than the All-Star break. This week we’ll hand out some simple, straightforward, and totally subjective grades, A through F, for the catchers, infielders, outfielders, rotation, and bullpen. We’ve already covered the catchers, infielders, outfielders, and rotation, so now let’s wrap up with the bullpen.
David Robertson — Grade A
So maybe replacing Mariano Rivera won’t be so difficult after all. Robertson inherited the closer’s job — to the dismay of more than a few — and has run with it, pitching to a 2.76 ERA (1.73 FIP) in 32 appearances and 32.2 innings. He is 23-for-25 in save chances with a career best strikeout rate (16.26 K/9 and 44.7 K%) and a career best ground rate (51.6%) while keeping his walk rate (2.76 BB/9 and 7.6 BB%) in line with the last two years. Robertson is also holding opponents to a .198 batting average, second lowest of his career (.170 in 2011) despite a career worst .356 BABIP.
Robertson has allowed ten earned runs this year with five coming in one disaster outing against the Twins on June 1st. He has allowed one run while striking out 27 of 56 batters faced since. Overall, 59 of 98 outs this season have been strikeouts, including 58 of 89 (65.2%) since coming off the disabled list (groin) in mid-April. No pitcher who has thrown at least 30 innings this season has a high strikeout rate. It’s not even close, really. Robertson leads in K/9 by more than one full strikeout and in K% by roughly three percentage points. He’s been dominant in every sense of the word.
The Yankees will need Robertson to continue his dominance in the second half for obvious reasons, though his looming free agency will be hanging over everyone’s head. The two sides have not discussed an extension but that could change at any time. Relievers like Robertson — super high strikeout pitchers with proven late-inning/big market chops and no history of arm problems — are rare and the Yankees should make every effort to keep him beyond this season. If his work this year doesn’t convince them he is the man to replace Rivera long-term, then I’m not sure they’ll ever find someone good enough.
Dellin Betances — Grade A
Just a few short months ago, Betances had a win a roster spot in Spring Training. Now he’s an All-Star high-leverage reliever who is 1996 Rivera to Robertson’s 1996 John Wetteland. Betances has a 1.46 ERA (1.37 FIP) while ranking third among full-time relievers in innings (55.1) and first in both fWAR (2.1) and bWAR (1.7). His strikeout rate (13.66 K/9 and 40.8 K%) is a bit behind Robertson’s but still among the highest in the league. He’s also stopped walking dudes (2.60 BB/9 and 7.8 BB%) and is getting grounders (50.5%).
Joe Girardi has not been shy about using Betances for multiple innings given his history as a starter — Betances has recorded at least four outs in 25 of his 40 appearances and at least six outs 12 times — though he did take his foot off the gas right before the All-Star break because it did appear the big right-hander was starting to fatigue a bit. His stuff was still electric but not quite as crisp. Hopefully the break recharges his batteries. A little more than a year ago, Betances looked like he may soon be out of baseball. The move into the bullpen has saved his career and given the Yankees a second elite reliever to pair with Robertson in the first season post-Mo.
Adam Warren — Grade B
From spot starter to swingman to trusted high-leverage reliever. Warren has had his role redefined over the last few seasons and he has now settled in as a quality third option behind Robertson and Betances. His numbers — 2.79 ERA (2.70 FIP) in 42 appearances and 48.1 innings — are not quite as good as those two, but he gets strikeouts (8.57 K/9 and 22.4 K%), gets grounders (46.8%), and is stingy with ball four (2.79 BB/9 and 7.3 BB%). His fastball velocity has also ticked up in short relief, averaging 94.1 mph this year after sitting 93.0 last year.
As with Betances, Girardi has taken advantage of Warren’s history as a starter by using his for multiple innings on several occasions — he’s recorded 4+ outs in 18 of his 42 appearances. The Yankees have said that if the need arises, they would pull Warren out of the bullpen and stick him in the rotation, but starters are dropping like flies and it hasn’t happened yet. Warren seems to have found a niche in short relief and he’s been a very valuable member of the bullpen despite being overshadowed by Robertson and Betances.
Shawn Kelley — Grade C
It was a tale of two first halves for Kelley, who opened the season as the regular eighth inning guy and nailed down four saves in four chances while Robertson was on the disabled list in April. He had a 1.88 (1.67 FIP) in his first 14.1 innings of the year before a disaster outing against the Angels on May 5th (two outs, four walks, three runs), after which he was placed on the disabled list with a back injury. It kept him out a month and he has a 4.05 ERA (3.21 FIP) in 13.1 innings since returning.
Kelley didn’t look right when he first returned from the back problem. He wasn’t able to finish his pitches and his trademark slider didn’t have much bite. It just kinda spun and floated. He looked much better in his last few outings before the All-Star break — one run, five hits, no walks, 13 strikeouts in 8.1 innings — and hopefully that’s a sign he’s now 100% and ready to take on some late-inning responsibilities so Girardi can spread the workload around. Definitely a mixed bag for Kelley in the first half.
Matt Thornton — Grade C
The rules of baseball fandom say we must hate the team’s lefty specialist, but Thornton has been solid (3.10 ERA and 3.04 FIP) in his 38 appearances and 20.1 innings. As his innings-to-appearances ratio suggests, Girardi has used him as a true matchup left-hander and not tried to force it against righties whenever possible. Thornton has held same-side hitters to a .229/.319/.244 (.262 wOBA) batting line with a 15.1% strikeout rate, a 3.8% walk rate, and a 50.0% ground ball rate. Solid.
The only real negative about Thornton is he doesn’t miss bats, even against left-handed hitters. That 15.1% strikeout rate is 76th out of the 90 left-handed pitchers who have faced at least 50 left-handed batters this year. Lefties have swung and missed only 20 times at the 220 pitches Thornton has thrown them this year (9.1%). That kinda sucks for a left-on-left reliever. Thornton missed a week with undisclosed soreness right before the break but did return to pitch against the Indians last week. LOOGYs, huh? Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.
Remember how awful Claiborne looked in Spring Training? We were talking about him as a candidate to be dropped from the 40-man roster if a need arose, but the Yankees kept him around and he pitched to a 3.57 ERA (3.82 FIP) in 17.2 innings while going up and down a few times in the first half. Three of his nine walks were intentional, uglifying his numbers a bit. Claiborne is currently on the Triple-A Scranton disabled list with a shoulder injury of unknown severity, which is not insignificant given his status as the team’s primary up and down depth arm.
The Yankees re-acquired Huff from the Giants in mid-June as part of their continuing efforts to find a not awful long man, and he’s since given the team 16.2 innings of 2.16 ERA (5.18 FIP) ball. Girardi used him as a matchup lefty while Thornton was out with his soreness and that predictably did not go well. Warren was pretty awesome by long man standards last year and that kinda spoiled us. Most long relievers stink. Is Huff keeping runs off the board? His ERA says yes. Has it been pretty? No but who cares. In that role you just want someone who can limited the damage and Huff has done that for the most part.
Alfredo Aceves — Grade F
Did you realize Aceves threw the sixth most innings among the team’s relievers in the first half? I sure didn’t. The Mexican Gangster threw 5.1 scoreless innings in long relief in his first outing back with the team, but it was all downhill from there. He allowed 14 runs on 20 hits (six homers!) and four walks in his next nine games and 14 innings, putting his overall season numbers at 6.52 ERA (6.29 FIP) in 19.1 total innings. The Yankees designated Aceves for assignment in early-June, he accepted the outright assignment to Triple-A Scranton, and he was recently suspended 50 games after a second failed test for a drug of abuse. He will be missed by: no one.
The combined pitching line of these seven: 33.2 IP, 46 H, 36 R, 33 ER, 19 BB, 33 K, 6 HBP, 6 HR. That’s an 8.82 ERA and a 5.19 FIP in one more inning than Robertson has thrown this year. I didn’t even include Dean Anna. /barfs
* * *
Girardi has had to rely on his bullpen more than I’m sure he would have liked in the first half, mostly because of the rotation injuries. Yankees relievers have thrown 292 innings this season, the 13th most in MLB, though their 264 total pitching changes are only 23rd most. That’s because of guys like Betances, Warren, and Huff being used for multiple innings at a time.
The bullpen has a 3.85 ERA (3.60 FIP) overall, which is bottom third in the league, but they have a top-heavy relief crew with arguably the best setup man/closer tandem in the game. The late innings are no problem at all. The middle innings are where it gets messy. Kelley is the bullpen key to the second half to me — if he gets back to pitching like he did before his back started acting up, Girardi will have another trustworthy high-strikeout arm who could potential solve that middle innings problem.
Even though it is not really the halfway point of the season, there is no better time to review the first half than the All-Star break. This week we’ll hand out some simple, straightforward, and totally subjective grades, A through F, for the catchers, infielders, outfielders, rotation, and bullpen. We’ve already covered the catchers, infielders, and outfielders, so now let’s move on to the rotation.
Masahiro Tanaka — Grade A
I didn’t think it would be possible for Tanaka to meet, nevermind exceed expectations after the Yankees invested $175M in the 25-year-old right-hander this winter. A contract (and release fee) like that comes with ace-sized expectations and given everything he had to adjust to — five-day pitching schedule, new hitters, tougher parks, new culture, etc. — I didn’t think there was any chance he would pitch that well right away. I didn’t think he’d be bad, he’d be really good but there would be an adjustment period, right? How could there not be?
Well, there wasn’t. Tanaka showed up to Spring Training on the first day and looked like he had been wearing pinstripes for years. The transition was seamless, or at least he made it appear that way. He was all business from day one, embracing the five-day schedule and the new workout routines (remember all the running early in camp?). Tanaka was the position player of Hideki Matsui. The guy who fit in so well, so soon that it was like he was born to wear pinstripes.
Tanaka lived up to the hype on the field, of course. That’s most important. He has thrown 129.1 innings in 18 starts, and among the 45 AL pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, Tanaka ranks third with a 2.51 ERA, third with 4.1 bWAR,, fourth with a 3.7% walk rate, fourth with a 7.1 K/BB ratio, fifth with a 26.6% strikeout rate, sixth with 3.2 fWAR, tenth with a 3.07 FIP, and 20th with a 45.9% ground ball rate. The only negative in his game is the long ball; he’ll give up some dingers (1.04 HR/9 and 14.4 HR/FB%). It’s a minor nuisance. Other than that though, Tanaka was one of the five best starting pitchers in the league in the first half.
Unfortunately, Tanaka suffered a partially torn elbow ligament in what was scheduled to be his second to last start before the All-Star break. Three doctors recommended he rehab the injury rather than undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery, so Tanaka received a platelet-rich plasma injection earlier this week and is currently resting before starting a throwing program. The expectation is that he will be able to return to the rotation later in the year, but surgery will remain a possibility if the rehab is less than perfect. It sucks but it is what it is. Tanaka managed to exceed expectations before the injury. What a stud.
CC Sabathia — Grade F
I was optimistic about Sabathia’s chances of rebounding this year, though I didn’t have much to base that on other than blind faith and Sabathia’s track record. I’m not even talking about getting back to being an ace. Just being a solid mid-rotation workhorse would have been plenty good enough for me. Instead, Sabathia gave the team a 5.28 ERA (4.79 FIP) in eight starts and 46 innings before going down with a degenerative knee condition. A stem cell procedure apparently did not work and now he’s facing the possibility of microfracture surgery, which could be career-threatening.
Rather than shake off the career worst 2013 season, Sabathia got worse and added in a serious injury this year. Not good. I mean, if you really want to squint your eyes and find a silver lining, know that his strikeout (9.39 K/9 and 23.0 K%) and walk (1.96 BB/9 and 4.8 BB%) rates were outstanding. That … really doesn’t make me feel much better at all. Maybe an incomplete would be a more appropriate grade given the injury (which might have led to the poor performance), but eight starts is one-fourth of the season. That’s not insignificant.
Anyway, Sabathia’s knee injury is very serious and remember, he’s only 33. We’re not talking about some guy approaching 40 here. Sabathia is still relatively young and an ultra-competitive type who leaves everything on the field — remember when he started four games in 12 days for the Brewers on the eve of his free agency? You’re kidding yourself if you think he’s just going to walk away from the game because of the knee injury — and now there’s a chance he may never pitch again. Like, for real.
Hiroki Kuroda — Grade C
There were plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Kuroda coming into the season, specifically his age (39) and brutal finish to the 2013 season. The Yankees re-signed him though, and while he has not pitched as well as he did the last two years, Kuroda has given the team innings every fifth day and is the only Opening Day rotation member not to come down with an injury. His 4.10 ERA (3.91 FIP) can be split up into a 4.62 ERA (3.75 FIP) in his first eight starts and 48.2 innings and a 3.72 ERA (4.02 FIP) in his last eleven starts and 67.2 innings, if you choose.
With Tanaka and everyone else going down with injuries — for weeks too, these aren’t 15 days on the disabled list and you’re good to go type of injuries — the Yankees need Kuroda to remain that reliable innings eater in the second half. Actually, they need him to be better than that, which is a problem because of his late-season fades. The Yankees absolutely can not afford that this year, not if they want to contend. Kuroda is currently the staff ace by default and the team needs him to reverse his recent trends and be better in the second half than he was in the first.
Michael Pineda — Grade D
It was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it? Two years after the trade that brought him to New York, Pineda was finally healthy enough to help the Yankees, and he started the year by pitching to a 1.83 ERA (2.73 FIP) in four starts and 19.2 innings. He was an ace! An ace on a very strict pitch count (no more than 94 pitches or six full innings in his four starts), but an ace nonetheless. The Yankees were finally getting some kind of return on the trade and it was glorious.
Then it all came to a crashing halt in Fenway Park in late-April. Two starts after the internet caught him with a glob of pine tar on his hand, Pineda was caught with an even bigger glob of pine tar on his neck. Red Sox manager John Farrell did not let it slide this time. He alerted the umpires and Pineda was ejected and eventually suspended ten games. While serving the suspension, he suffered a back/shoulder muscle injury and has been sidelined since. He just started throwing off a mound last week (after the #obligatorysetback). Given his recent history, there’s no possible way the Yankees could count on Pineda to return to help the rotation in the second half. If he does come back, it’s a bonus. But man, those 19.2 innings were pretty awesome, weren’t they?
Ivan Nova — incomplete
I went back and forth between giving Nova an F or an incomplete. He did make four starts this year, after all. Four terrible starts, with 40 base-runners and an 8.27 ERA (6.91 FIP) in 20.2 innings. But he also blew out his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery in late-April. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming the elbow contributed to his poor performance and that he was never really healthy this year. I don’t know, an F just seems too harsh for a guy that barely pitched before his elbow ligament snapped. Maybe I’m being too kind.
The Yankees lost Nova for the season and that’s a pretty significant blow. Not just for this year either, the timing of the injury means he will start next season on the disabled list and the team won’t really know what to expect from him. This is an injury that impacts two seasons, not only one. This was supposed to be the year for Nova to build on his strong second half of 2013 and stop the up and down nonsense, establishing himself as a no-doubt big league starter. That won’t happen.
David Phelps — Grade B
Once the injuries started to strike, Phelps worked his way into the rotation and has remained there ever since. He’s pitched to a 3.94 ERA (4.31 FIP) in 89 total innings, including a 3.96 ERA (4.08 FIP) in 13 starts and 77.1 innings since moving into the rotation. The Yankees have also been able to count on Phelps for innings — he’s thrown at least five full innings in all 13 starts (even before he was fully stretched out) and at least six full innings eight times in his last ten starts. That’s been much-needed.
There were some questions about Phelps and his ultimate role coming into the season — remember, he missed most of the second half last season with a pair of forearm strains — but things worked themselves out and he’s become one of the team’s three most reliable pitchers in the wake of the injuries. He’s been a godsend. You can’t ask anything more of a sixth starter. Now the Yankees need Phelps to keep it up in the second half. He’s in the rotation for good.
Chase Whitley — Grade C
It was definitely a tale of two first halves for Whitley. He came up following all the injuries and was outstanding in his first seven starts, posting a 2.56 ERA (2.75 FIP) in 28.2 innings. Considering he was a full-time reliever as recently as last July and the rotation was in total disarray, getting that kind of production out of Whitley was a minor miracle. The Yankees needed it desperately.
Then everything came crashing to a halt one night in Toronto last month, when the Blue Jays punished Whitley for eight runs in 3.1 innings. It wasn’t just a bump in the road either. He has a 9.43 ERA (6.14 FIP) in 21 innings since. (That includes two scoreless innings in relief.) After allowing eleven runs on 44 base-runners (one homer) in his first seven starts, Whitley has allowed 20 runs on 40 base-runners (five homers) in his last four starts. Those first seven starts were so good that I’m not going to go any lower than a C, especially since we’re talking about a guy who had never started regularly until this year. All things considered, Whitley’s been a plus even if he’ll only be a reliever going forward. He helped much more than I thought he would as a starter.
Vidal Nuno — Grade D
Nuno was actually the first guy to be pulled out of the bullpen and stuck in the rotation, but that had more to do with timing than anything. He was the only one rested and able to make a spot start because of a doubleheader in April, and he lined up perfectly to replace Nova after he blew out his elbow. That’s all. Nuno had a 5.42 ERA (5.18 FIP) in 78 total innings for the Yankees, including a 4.89 ERA (4.86 FIP) in 14 starts and 73.2 innings before being traded away two weeks ago. There were some good starts mixed in there and more than a few duds as well.
These two both joined the rotation last week. I mean literally. Greene made his first career start last Monday and McCarthy made his first start in pinstripes on Wednesday. Throw in Greene’s second start last Saturday and they’ve combined to allow six run (three earned) in 20.1 innings. They also have a combined 57.1% ground ball rate, which is pretty awesome even if it is a super small sample. Greene’s mid-90s sinker and upper-80s slider make me think he has more rotation staying power than either Nuno or Whitley, but, either way, we’ll see plenty more of these two in the second half.
* * *
Any time a team loses four of its five Opening Day rotation members, including three within the first six weeks of the season, they’re going to be scrambling for pitching. No team has enough depth to go nine starters deep. The Yankees have been able to tread water thanks to Phelps and some timely outings from Whitley and Nuno, who have since been replaced by McCarthy and Greene. The team clearly needs another starter in the wake of Tanaka’s injury and, frankly, they could have used another starter before that. This is a patchwork staff held together by Kuroda, Phelps, and McCarthy at the moment, and there’s no telling how much longer the duct tape will hold.
Even though it is not really the halfway point of the season, there is no better time to review the first half than the All-Star break. This week we’ll hand out some simple and straightforward grades, A through F, for the catchers, infielders, outfielders, rotation, and bullpen. These grades are totally subjective. We’ve already covered the catchers and infielders, so now let’s move on to the outfielders.
Brett Gardner — Grade A
Through the first 94 games of the 2014 season, Gardner has been the Yankees’ best position player. The team got out ahead of his impending free agency by signing him to a four-year extension worth $52M in Spring Training, a deal that looked sensible at the time and looks like a bargain now given his production and the lack of quality outfielders in the upcoming free agent classes.
Among players with at least 100 plate appearances, Gardner leads the team in one-base percentage (.353) and total bases (146), ranks second in batting average (.279), slugging percentage (.424), stolen bases (15), OPS+ (116), and wRC+ (116), and first in both bWAR (2.9) and fWAR (2.7). He’s already set a career-high with nine homers. Gardner actually started the season in a funk, going 15-for-62 (.242) in the team’s first 18 games, but he’s hit .286/.366/.447 (126 wRC+) in the 76 games since. That’ll do just fine.
Gardner’s defense continues to be excellent as well. He slid back into left field seamlessly and has performed up to his usually defensive standards, which are rather high. Inside Edge data rates his glovework very well. The Yankees tried shuffling things around and actually started Gardner in right field during a game at Fenway Park in April, but that was a disaster. It looked like he had never played the outfield before. Left field is where he remains and whenever the need has arisen for whatever reason, he’s slid over and filled in at center without missing a beat.
The only negatives in Gardner’s game are his career-high 21.7% strikeout rate and career-low 11.6% stolen base attempt rate. The strikeout issue seems to have to do with him being a little more aggressive in certain counts and swinging for a fences, hence the homers. The stolen base this is weird — he ran in 14.3% of his opportunities last year and in 25.0% of his opportunities from 2010-12. Gardner is still on pace for 26 steals (in 33 attempts), but it appears his days of 45+ stolen bases are over. That’s a shame. Either way, he’s having an unreal season.
Jacoby Ellsbury – Grade B
As the story goes, it became clear to the Yankees they were going to lose Robinson Cano on a Friday, so they acted quickly to sign Ellsbury before a bidding way broke out. The two sides were in agreement the following Tuesday, and the Friday after that, Cano hooked on with the Mariners. The Yankees replaced Cano with the second best free agent in Ellsbury even though he wasn’t a great fit for the roster — they already had a perfectly capable speedy leadoff hitter and strong defensive center fielder in Gardner.
Ellsbury has been very good through his first season in pinstripes, hitting .282/.346/.400 (105 wRC+) with six homers and 24 steals in 29 chances. That’s right in line with the .289/.341/.407 (103 wRC+) batting line he put up from 2012-13 following his outlier 2011 campaign. Ellsbury’s power has not ticked up despite the move into lefty friendly Yankee Stadium and that makes total sense — almost all of his hits are line drives to left and center field. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just not conducive to taking advantage of the short porch.
As expected, Ellsbury has had an impact both on the bases and in the field. He’s on pace for 41 steals with an 82.8% success rate, which would make him the team’s first 40-steal guy since Gardner in 2011. The defensive stats hate Ellsbury this year and I don’t get it — it’s a Gardner thing, it happened with Curtis Granderson too, he must be stealing outs and hurting the center fielder’s defensive numbers — but based on the eye test he’s been phenomenal in center. Better than Gardner last season and Gardner was awesome.
Because of injuries and underperformance and all that, the Yankees and Joe Girardi have had to improvise with their lineup. That means Ellsbury has been miscast as a three-hole hitter for most of the year while Gardner bats leadoff. They really don’t have an alternative at this point. Ellsbury lacks the traditional three-hole hitter skills in that he can’t create a run with one swing, but that’s not his fault. He’s a leadoff hitter the team is asking to hit third. Either way, Ellsbury was pretty awesome in the first half.
Carlos Beltran — Grade F
Worst case scenario? Possibly. The Yankees signed the 37-year-old Beltran (for three years!) to be the middle of the order hitter they lost in Cano, but so far all they’ve gotten is a broken down former star who has struggled to both be productive and stay on the field. This is the position player version of Randy Johnson — the right player, only nine years too late.
Beltran has hit .216/.271/.401 (78 wRC+) with nine homers in 228 plate appearances this year while missing time with elbow, knee, and concussion problems. He has a bone spur in his elbow that cost him a month and will require offseason surgery. It has relegated him to full-time DH duty because he can’t throw. (He tried a throwing program but had to shut it down due to discomfort.) The concussion was a fluke injury that occurred when he lined a ball off the cage and back into his face during batting practice. It’s that kinda year.
It’s easy to forget Beltran actually mashed at the start of the season. He was hitting .298/.339/.614 (151 wRC+) with four homers through the team’s first 16 games, then he flipped over the short wall in Tropicana Field while trying to catch a foul pop-up, and has hit .189/.249/.331 (56 wRC+) in 193 plate appearances since. I don’t know it it’s just a coincidence or if he hurt himself flipping over the wall, but he hasn’t hit for nearly 200 plate appearances now. Clutch hits? Beltran hit that walk-off homer against Zach Britton but otherwise has a .156/.216/.297 (25 wRC+) batting line with men in scoring position and a .130/.241/.391 (55 wRC+) batting line in high-leverage situations.
Because he’s not hitting and can’t play the field — not that his defense was a positive, he hurts the team less as the DH, to be honest — Beltran has very little value to the Yankees right now. He could start hitting at any moment and it would be a huge help if he did, but the combination of injuries and age are working against him. Beltran’s first three and a half months in pinstripes couldn’t have gone much worse.
Alfonso Soriano — Grade F
Man, this sucks. Soriano was one of the most fun to watch players when he on a roll and having a full season of him was supposed to give the Yankees a big offensive shot in the arm. Instead, he put up a .221/.244/.367 (60 wRC+) line with six homers and an unsightly 71/6 K/BB in 238 plate appearances before being dropped from the roster roughly two weeks ago. He wasn’t even hitting lefties anymore (80 wRC+). That’s it. Without warning he went from 34 homers and a 121 wRC+ in 2013 to being done in 2014. Like done done.
Soriano started the year as the full-time DH in deference to Gardner, Ellsbury, and Beltran in the outfield. He eventually moved to right — he had never played the position before (other than Spring Training) and I thought he did about as well as he could have realistically been expected to perform defensively — once Beltran got hurt, but eventually he lost playing time to Ichiro and was pushed into the light half of a platoon. The Yankees released Soriano earlier this week and he told Marly Rivera he might simply retire rather than continue playing. It was not a pretty end.
Ichiro Suzuki — Grade C
The Yankees relegated Ichiro to fifth outfielder status with their offseason spending spree, and even that was only after they were unable to trade him. And yet, through the traditional first half, he has batted 220 times and appeared in 81 games, the sixth most on the team. He took over as the most of the time right fielder a few weeks ago thanks to both his strong performance and the underwhelming performance of others.
Ichiro is hitting .297/.347/.337 (90 wRC+) with six stolen bases on the season, though his bat predictably cooled once pressed into everyday duty. He went 25-for-37 (.373) with a 142 wRC+ as a reserve player during the first 47 team games of the season but has managed only a .259/.308/.289 (63 wRC+) line as a regular in the 47 team games since. Ichiro’s defense has been fine and he’ll still steal the occasional base, but that’s pretty much it. He’s a very good extra outfielder and a pretty terrible regular outfielder at this point of his career.
Zoilo Almonte — incomplete
I get the feeling the Yankees are not going to give Almonte an opportunity to show whether he can be of some use at the MLB level, even as a nothing more than a fourth outfielder. He’s been up and down a few times this year thanks mostly to Beltran’s injuries, getting into ten games and going 4-for-25 (.160) with a homer. Even with Soriano gone, the Yankees have opted to play Ichiro everyday and sub in Zelous Wheeler on occasion. Meh
* * *
Coming into the season, the outfield was expected to be the strength of the team, and it has been. It just hasn’t been as strong as expected due to Beltran’s struggles and Soriano’s brutal ineffectiveness. Gardner and Ellsbury have been the team’s two best players all season and have lived up to expectations in my opinion. Everyone else in the outfield has kinda stunk. Getting Beltran back and producing at an above-average rate will be imperative in the second half. The Yankees will only be able to acquire so much offense in trades.
Even though it is not really the halfway point of the season, there is no better time to review the first half than the All-Star break. This week we’ll hand out some simple and straightforward grades, A through F, for the catchers, infielders, outfielders, rotation, and bullpen. These grades are totally subjective. We started yesterday with the catchers, now let’s move on to the infielders.
There were a lot of questions about the infield coming into the season in general, but especially Teixeira. The Yankees’ first baseman missed almost all of last season due to a tendon sheath injury in his wrist that eventually required surgery, and wrist surgery can be very problematic even after the player has been cleared to play. Remember, Teixeira started Spring Training late and has still felt soreness during the season. It has caused him to miss a game or two here and there. (His only DL stint was hamstring related.)
Despite that, Teixeira has been the team’s most consistent and productive power hitter this summer, coming into the All-Star break with a .241/.341/.464 (120 wRC+) batting line with a team-leading 17 homers. His power output (.222 ISO) is right in line with his last full healthy season (.224 ISO in 2012), which is definitely encouraging after the wrist surgery. Most importantly, he’s done most of his damage against right-handed pitchers (130 wRC+), who used to give him the most trouble. Is he Teixeira of old? No, of course not. That guy isn’t coming back. But he’s returned to his pre-surgery ways and been a much-needed force in the middle of the lineup.
Weirdly enough, the biggest issue for Teixeira this season has been his defense. He’s already committed six errors this season, his most since 2004, and while errors are not the best way to evaluate defense, most of them were plays we’re used to seeing Teixeira make. I think his scooping at first has been fine. It’s the hard-hit balls he used to turn into outs that are now eating him up. I think it’s a combination of rust from the lost 2013 season and a decline in his skills. Either way, Teixeira has definitely been a positive for the Yankees this year, especially when you consider he’s coming off major surgery.
Brian Roberts — Grade C
There was no way the Yankees were not going to have a massive drop off in production at second base this year. Robinson Cano was the best player at the position last year and has been for several years running, so by definition he is irreplaceable. Roberts was not exactly a popular choice as Cano’s replacement given his long injury history and the fact that he wasn’t all that productive even when healthy ways. The Yankees love veterans though, especially AL East proven guys.
Roberts has remained remarkably healthy so far this year — he missed a handful of games with a back issue in April, but that’s it — while being more than a total zero at the plate. His .241/.306/.376 (87 wRC+) batting line comes with the occasional homer (five), the occasional stolen bases (seven), the occasional walk (8.4%), and always a very long at-bat (4.04 pitches per plate appearance). Roberts has been fine defensively at second if not an asset. He’s a perfectly capable stopgap and No. 9 hitter who has been asked to bear more responsibility. Will Roberts hit a wall later in the year after not playing a full season since 2009? I have a hard time thinking his second half will be better than his first, honestly.
Derek Jeter — Grade C
Like Teixeira, Jeter was coming off a major injury. He missed just about all of last season with a series of leg problems, including a twice-fractured ankle. Add in the fact that he is a 39-year-old shortstop — a demographic that is not well-represented throughout history — and things were definitely stacked against the Cap’n coming into 2014.
Jeter’s season has been underwhelming statistically but I don’t it’s worst case scenario stuff. Like I said, a 39-year-old shortstop coming off a major leg injury could have been really, really ugly. Jeter is hitting .272/.324/.322 (80 wRC+) overall, so his power is non-existent, but he does rank third among qualified AL shortstops in OBP and is only five points away from leading. Is it vintage Jeter? Absolutely not. But relative to the league average shortstop (.308 OBP and 87 wRC+), he’s been passable.
Defensive is another matter. Jeter’s glovework has never been good and at this point he’s barely mobile. The old “he makes the plays on the balls he gets to” rhetoric doesn’t even apply anymore. He’s booted more grounders and made more offline throws this season than I can ever remember. Inside Edge data says he has converted only 46.2% of “likely” plays into outs, which are defined as plays that would be make 60-90% of the time on average. He hasn’t make anything tougher than an “even” play (40-60%) either. It’s been ugly.
The total package, offense plus defense, has not been good for the Yankees this year. At the same time, I’m generously giving Jeter a C instead of a D or F because he has played better than I expected coming off the ankle injury at his age. Maybe I’m just a giant homer. The Cap’n has not been good this season though, certainly not by his standards, but it could have been much worse given everything that happened last year.
Kelly Johnson — Grade D
The Yankees have put Johnson in a tough spot for most of the year — playing once or twice a week, usually at an unfamiliar position like first or third base — but, at the same time, he knew what he was walking into when he signed as a free agent over the winter. He has hit .214/.299/.380 (87 wRC+) with six homers in 211 plate appearances, including a disappointing 83 wRC+ against righties and an even more disappointing 87 wRC+ at Yankee Stadium. Five of his six long balls have come in the Bronx.
Johnson’s defense has been a problem, though again, he has mostly played out of position — he came into the season with only 18 innings at first base and 118 innings at third base. He has spent 199.2 innings at first and 255.1 innings at third this year, committing nine total errors and not looking particularly graceful either. Johnson was a shrewd signing and a wonderful fit for the roster on paper — left-handed hitter with power who can play the three non-shortstop infield positions as well as left field — but it just hasn’t worked out halfway through the season.
Yangervis Solarte — Grade B
Man those first eight or so weeks were fun, weren’t they? I like to think I’m well-versed in the minor leagues but even I had not heard of Solarte before the Yankees signed him as a minor league free agent over the winter. It goes without saying that no one expected to take over as the starting third baseman for the first eight weeks of the season, during which he hit .299/.368/.458 (128 wRC+) in 229 plate appearances. Solarte was a godsend for a beleaguered offense.
The Solarte Partay came to crashing halt after that, unfortunately. He has hit .111/.238/.130 (10 wRC+!) in 63 plate appearances since, earning him a demotion to Triple-A Scranton. Yangervis has owns a .255/.338/.382 (101 wRC+) line in 288 trips to the plate overall and holy crap, no one expected that. Even if he never hits again, those first eight weeks made the signing more than worth it. That’s even considering Solarte’s occasionally shaky defense. He was a great story and a tremendously productive player into early-June. His days as a useful MLB player may have already come to an end, but boy did Solarte contribute in a big way when given an opportunity early this season.
Brendan Ryan — Grade C
Giving Ryan two years plus a player option this past offseason definitely flies under the radar as a lolwtf offseason move. I mean, yeah, I get it. Jeter was a major question mark, but geez. Ryan spent the first five weeks of the season on the disabled list with a back injury, and he’s nothing more than a no-bat (.235/.273/.255, 43 wRC+ in 55 PA), good but no longer elite glove infielder who plays maybe once a week. It’s far from the best use of the roster spot, but the Yankees are stuck with him. It’s just a weird fit. Even weirder are all those times Ryan played first base while Jeter manned short. He’s fine as the 24th man on the roster. Just a pricey and not at all versatile (in terms of bringing different things to the table) insurance policy for Jeter in his final season.
These three guys have combined for 61 total plate appearances — Anna has the most at 25 — and have hit a combined .232/.246/.438. Most of the power production comes from Wheeler, who has hit two homers in his 20 plate appearances. He is currently with the team in that revolving door 25th man spot while Sizemore is stashed in Triple-A awaiting an injury. Anna has already been designated for assignment (to make room on the roster for Zelous) and claimed off waivers from the Pirates. I wonder how many more guys will cycle through this role in the second half.
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There were some serious concerns about the infield coming into the season. Teixeira and Jeter were huge question marks following their injuries and the same was true of Roberts given his history. Johnson was the sure thing on the infield at the start of camp. The defense has been hideous — Yankees’ pitchers have a .258 BABIP on ground balls, the seventh highest in baseball (league average is .244), and even more grounders would sneak through for hits if not for the club’s aggressive shifting — and that was fairly predictable.
The infield has, by and large, been more productive than I expected, mostly because Solarte was awesome for a while and Teixeira has shown no lingering issues with the wrist when it comes to raw production. Roberts is the new Lyle Overbay — the best of all the bad players and therefore giving off the appearance of being good — and Jeter’s Jeter. He’s untouchable. The Yankees have some internal options who may improve the infield, namely Triple-A Scranton second baseman Rob Refsnyder, but either way it’s clear they could use some help in the second half. Beefing up third base is an obvious upgrade area.
Even though it is not technically the halfway point of the season — the Yankees are 58% of the way through the 2014 season, in case you’re wondering — there is no better time to review the first half than the All-Star break. Over the next few days we’re going to hand out some real simple and straightforward grades, A through F, for the catchers, infielders, outfielders, rotation, and bullpen. These grades are totally subjective. Let’s start with the backstops.
Brian McCann — Grade D
If the Yankees wanted a defensively sound catcher with a .294 OBP and an 83 wRC+, they could have simply played on of their young upper-level guys everyday instead of signing McCann to a five-year, $85M contract. His first half was a colossal disappointment overall, especially offensively. McCann’s glovework and apparent leadership guiding the pitching staff are the reasons I’m giving him a D rather than a straight F.
From 2010-13, McCann posted either a 122 or a 123 wRC+. The one exception was the 2012 season, when he managed an 87 wRC+ while battling a right shoulder labrum injury that required offseason surgery. When healthy, he (very) consistently produced at the plate in recent years. This year though, McCann comes into the break with a .239/.294/.377 (83 wRC+) batting line, which ranks him ninth out of the ten catchers qualified for the batting title (only Dioner Navarro has been worse). Even with his strong first half-ending road trip, he’s been that bad overall.
Unlike offense, catcher defense is a very thing to quantify even with all these fancy stats we have today. StatCorner says McCann has one again been an excellent pitch-framer, and he rates right in the middle of the pack when it comes to allowing wild pitches and passed balls. I don’t think that’s been a problem. I mean, we watched Jorge Posada for a very long time, we know what it looks like when a catcher struggles to keep the ball in front of him. Considering all the nasty breaking and offspeed pitches on the staff — Masahiro Tanaka‘s and Hiroki Kuroda‘s splitters, David Robertson‘s and Dellin Betances‘ curveballs, Shawn Kelley‘s slider, etc. — I have no complaints about McCann’s receiving work at all. He’s been solid, as expected.
One thing we can measure is the rate at which a catcher throws out attempted base-stealers, and McCann has gunned down 21 of 48 runners, or 43.8%. That’s outstanding. It’s fifth among catchers with at least 300 innings behind the plate and second only to (who else?) Yadier Molina among the 16 guys who have caught at least 500 innings. McCann came into the season with a below-average career 23.8% throw-out rate. Is this a fluke? I don’t think so. I think this is Joe Girardi‘s and Tony Pena’s work. They have helped some others improve their throwing in the past (Frankie Cervelli, most notably) and it appears they helped McCann this year. He might not sustain a 43.8% throw-out rate, that’s pretty high, but I don’t think the improvement is dumb luck.
Overall, McCann has undeniably been a disappointment this season. He was expected to provide not just more offense than he’s given, but a lot more. He has not been able to fully take advantage of the short porch in right, perhaps because he’s been focused on hitting to the opposite field to beat the shift — his 20 opposite field hits are already more than his total from 2011 (14), 2012 (15), and 2013 (19). Given his overall lack of production, maybe it’s best for McCann to be himself and focus on ripping the ball to right. Trying to beat the shift seems to be dragging down his offense overall. The Yankees need more from McCann in the second half. There’s zero doubt about it.
Francisco Cervelli — Grade C
The first half was a typical first half for Cervelli. He showed enough to keep you interested with the bat, hitting .273/.333/.364 (95 wRC+) in 48 plate appearances. He also threw out some attempted base-stealers, four of twelve (33.3%) to be exact. And he got hurt, missing two months with a Grade II hamstring strain. Cervelli actually played more games before getting hurt last April (17) than he did in the first half this year (16). I can’t possibly go any higher than a C because of the injury and missing so much time. Cervelli is a perfectly cromulent backup catcher for a team with a clear number one (in theory) like McCann. I feel he has performed exactly as expected when healthy.
John Ryan Murphy — Grade C
When Cervelli got hurt, Murphy got the call and showed flashes of why he’s expected to one day be an everyday catcher. He started off very well with that bat before slowing down and finishing his cameo with a .286/.308/.365 (85 wRC+) batting line in 63 plate appearances. Murphy threw out two of ten attempted base-stealers and did allow eight passed pitches in 159.2 defensive innings, so the superficial defensive stats aren’t all that impressive. He looked very much like a young catcher getting his first extended taste of the show. There’s a decent chance Murphy will be traded in the coming weeks, but right now he is a capable backup catcher stashed in Triple-A.
Austin Romine — incomplete
Yes, Romine did actually spend some time with the big league team this season. The Yankees called him up and briefly carried three catchers when Mark Teixeira landed on the 15-day disabled list with his hamstring injury in April. Romine spent four days with the team, played two innings behind the plate in a blowout and struck out on seven pitches in his lone plate appearance. That’s it. Romine’s prospect shine has dimmed considerably over the last year or two, and he is currently a part-time first baseman/Murphy’s backup in Triple-A.
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The bar behind the plate is rather low these days, so even with McCann being such a big disappointment, Yankees’ catchers still rank only 19th out of the 30 teams with an 85 wRC+ this year. I thought it would be worse. They have collectively been very good defensively, throwing out 38.6% of attempted base-stealers (third best) while allowed one passed pitch every 22.2 innings (15th). StatCorner says McCann, Cervelli, and Murphy have all been better than average pitch-framers as well and I buy it based on the eye test.
The Yankees just need McCann to hit more, that’s it. Cervelli staying healthy would be nice too, if for no other reason than possibly upping his trade value. On paper, this should be one of the best and most productive two-way catching units in baseball. They’ve gotten the defensive value in the first half. Now they need to offense to catch up in the second half.