2016 Midseason Review: The Farm System

Now that the All-Star break has arrived, it’s time to look back and review the first half of the season. We’ve already looked at the catchers, infielders, outfielders, bench, rotation, bullpen, and role players. Now let’s go down into the farm system.

Judge. (Presswire)
Judge. (Presswire)

The Yankees are a team in transition. They’re trying to get younger wherever possible while waiting out the last few years of all those big money contracts. Most of them will be off the books by the end of next season. There’s no denying the Yankees have had their problems developing players over the last few years, but that doesn’t lessen the importance of the farm system. If anything, it makes the farm system more important going forward. Let’s review the first half of 2016 in the minor league system.

The Top Prospects

The order may vary, but pretty much everyone was in agreement OF Aaron Judge, C Gary Sanchez, and SS Jorge Mateo were the Yankees’ three best prospects coming into the season. I ranked them in that order in my Preseason Top 30 Prospects List. Others had Mateo first and Judge third. The order doesn’t really matter. Those were the three guys.

Judge and Sanchez both opened the year in Triple-A and they’ve had very different seasons. Judge has been up and down. He started well, slumped hard in May, then caught fire in June. At one point he hit nine home runs in 15 games. Overall, Judge is hitting .261/.357/.469 (139 wRC+) with 16 homers and a strong 11.4% walk rate in 83 games. His strikeout rate, which was the No. 1 concern coming into 2016, sits at 23.2%, down from 28.5% in Triple-A last year. Judge unfortunately hurt his knee last week and will be out a month.

Sanchez, meanwhile, has mashed pretty much all season. He hasn’t had the big peaks and valleys like Judge. Sanchez, who is still only 23, is hitting .286/.328/.489 (133 wRC+) with nine homers in 56 games around a fractured thumb caused by a foul tip. My favorite thing about Sanchez is the progression of his strikeout rate:

Low-A: 25.0%
High-A: 19.2%
Double-A: 18.7%
Triple-A: 16.3%

Sanchez is making more contact as he climbs the ladder, and his defense is improving too. That’s pretty awesome. He and Judge factor prominently into the team’s long-term plans. The Yankees envision these two as not only as their catcher and right fielder of the future, but their middle of the lineup of the future too. They’re both having success in Triple-A right now, which is exactly what the Yankees wanted to see this summer.

As for Mateo, he’s down in High-A and gosh, he had an incredible start to the season. He was hitting .299/.364/.485 (149 wRC+) with five homers on June 1st — last year Mateo hit two homers, one of which was an inside-the-parker — and he looked very much like an electric power-speed threat at shortstop. Since then though, Mateo has hit only .211/.250/.246 (46 wRC+) in 122 plate appearances, and last week the Yankees suspended him for violating team policy. He reportedly complained to team officials about not being promoted. Not great, Jorge.

Both Sanchez and Judge are performing as hoped in Triple-A, which puts them in position to assume fairly prominent roles with the 2017 Yankees. It’s not out of the question we see them with the Yankees in the second half. Mateo has had a fine statistical season — he’s hitting .266/.323/.396 (112 wRC+) overall even with the recent slump — but this suspension is a bummer, regardless of why it happened.

The Breakout Prospect

Andujar. (MLB.com video screen grab)
Andujar. (MLB.com video screen grab)

There has been no bigger breakout prospect in the system this year than 3B Miguel Andujar, who always had the tools to be a high-end prospect, but had not yet turned those tools into baseball skills. He’s doing that this year, hitting .291/.343/.446 (128 wRC+) with ten homers and a measly 11.4% strikeout rate in 83 games split between High-A and Double-A. We’ve been waiting a while for Andujar to put it all together, and it’s happening this year.

The other notable breakout prospect this year is a reliever turned starter. The Yankees took last year’s fifth rounder, RHP Chance Adams, and moved him into the rotation this season because of his stuff and pitchability. The results have been better than anyone expected. Adams has a 2.63 ERA (2.97 FIP) with a 29.4% strikeout rate and a 7.5% walk rate in 85.2 innings between High-A and Double-A. He still has work to do with his changeup, but Adams is able to hold his stuff deep into games, which is always a big question with these reliever-to-starter conversation guys.

Perhaps the most interesting breakout prospect is an older guy: 26-year-old C Kyle Higashioka. Higashioka was the Yankees’ seventh round pick back in 2008, and this year he’s hitting .321/.379/.589 (168 wRC+) with 14 homers in 62 games between Double-A and Triple-A. He’s dealt with a bunch of injuries over the years, including Tommy John surgery, but he’s finally healthy now. Higashioka has always had power and he’s the best defensive backstop in the system. Catchers tend to be late-bloomers moreso than any other position. Higashioka may be 26, but they don’t check IDs on the field. A good defensive catcher with power is a legitimate big league prospect.

Other prospects who have raised their stock in the first half this season include RHP Vicente Campos, OF Jake Cave, and SS Tyler Wade. All three have been on the prospect map for a while. Campos is healthy for the first time in years and is having success as a starter, really for the first time since coming over in the Jesus MonteroMichael Pineda trade. Cave has developed some power after being returned as a Rule 5 Draft pick this spring. Wade is doing the bat control/strike discipline/good defense thing in Double-A.

The Inevitable Injuries

Kaprielian. (MLB.com video screen grab)
Kaprielian. (MLB.com video screen grab)

Injuries come with the territory and they’re unavoidable. The biggest injury in the system this year is RHP James Kaprielian‘s elbow injury, which was only recently diagnosed as a flexor tendon strain. Kaprielian, who was the Yankees’ first rounder last year, was limited to three High-A starts this year. That’s a bummer. He was expected to shoot up the ladder rather quickly. There’s no timetable for Kaprielian’s return, as far as we know.

Elsewhere in the system, LHP Jacob Lindgren came down with an elbow injury after completely losing the strike zone in High-A. He threw seven innings and hasn’t been heard from since. RHP Ty Hensley had to undergo a second Tommy John surgery, unfortunately. The team’s first rounder in 2012 has thrown 42.1 innings in parts of five seasons. Ouch. RHP Nick Rumbelow and RHP Branden Pinder had their elbows rebuilt early in the season too.

One of the biggest names — and longest tenured players — in the system saw his time with the organization come to an end following an injury. OF Slade Heathcott, who the Yankees selected in the first round way back in 2009, hit .230/.271/.310 (58 wRC+) with a 32.0% strikeout rate in 23 Triple-A games before coming down with another knee problem. He’s had a bunch of those over the years. The Yankees released Slade in May and he hooked on with the White Sox a few weeks later.

The Prospects Returning From Injury

Clarkin. (MLB.com video screen grab)
Clarkin. (MLB.com video screen grab)

Last year the Yankees seemed to have an inordinate number of full season injuries in the farm system. Several big name prospects missed the entire season, including C Luis Torrens (shoulder), LHP Ian Clarkin (elbow), RHP Domingo German (elbow), and RHP Austin DeCarr (elbow). Clarkin avoided the knife. The other three guys all had surgery. All things considered, their 2016 seasons have gone well to date.

Clarkin was one of New York’s three first round picks in 2013, and so far this season he has a 3.12 ERA (3.16 FIP) in 95.1 innings with High-A Tampa. He’s not only avoided another injury, he’s gotten stronger as the season has gone on. When it comes to the first 100 innings back following a lost season, Clarkin’s season has gone about as well as hoped this year. He’s healthy and he’s getting outs.

Torrens, German, and DeCarr all returned within the last few weeks and haven’t played much. German and DeCarr went through the usual 14-16 month Tommy John surgery rehab — it used to be 12 months, but nowadays teams are stretching it out a bit more — while Torrens was said to be ready to go in Spring Training. He had to be shut down with shoulder discomfort though. Torrens is the healthy now and he’s picked up right where he left off before the injury.

Other Notables

RHP Domingo Acevedo is having an excellent statistical season but still has to work on his secondary pitches … OF Dustin Fowler has climbed the ladder rather quickly after being a two-sport guy in high school and an 18th round pick in 2013. He’s have a good but not great season in Double-A … LHP Jordan Montgomery is inching closer to being a big league option after a strong half-season in Double-A … SS Hoy Jun Park, who was part of that big 2014-15 international class, is having a solid two-way season in Low-A … SS Kyle Holder is still playing the heck out of shortstop, but he’s not hitting much in Low-A … LHP Jeff Degano spent most of the first half in Extended Spring Training, apparently because he’s no longer able to throw strikes.

* * *

Kaprielian’s injury and Mateo’s recent suspension have put a bit of a damper on the top prospects in the system, but Judge and Sanchez are having strong seasons in Triple-A, Andujar and Adams are breaking out, and both Clarkin and Torrens have returned well after missing last season with injury. The Yankees haven’t been able to dip into their farm system for help like they did last year, when RHP Luis Severino and 1B Greg Bird had an impact in the second half, but the tippy top prospects are performing well and the key injured prospects have come back strong. That qualifies as a good season in the minors to me.

2016 Midseason Review: The Role Players

Now that the All-Star break has arrived, it’s time to review the first half of the season. We’ve already looked at the catchers, infielders, outfielders, bench, rotation, and bullpen. Now let’s tackle the role players.

Green. (Presswire)
Green. (Presswire)

As always, the Yankees have had to dip into their farm system for help at times this season. That’s mostly the result of injuries. Sometimes they called up a legitimate prospect and gave him a chance, like Rob Refsnyder, and other times they brought in a journeyman veteran to plug a short-term hole. Either way, they were all Yankees. Let’s review the spare parts.

Chad Green: The Sudden Sixth Starter

Over the winter the Yankees looked at their rotation and bullpen depth, and decided to rob Peter to pay Paul. They traded reliable setup man Justin Wilson to the Tigers for two Triple-A starters because they figured they had enough bullpen arms, but not nearly enough starters. Starters under control beyond 2017, especially.

One of those two Triple-A starters is Green, who has spent the majority of the season with Triple-A Scranton, where he’s been dominant. Detroit’s 11th round pick in 2013 currently leads the International League in ERA (1.54 ERA) and FIP (2.18), and that performance has earned him three big league starts. One went well. Two didn’t.

May 15th @ D’Backs: 4 IP, 8 H, 6 R, 4 ER, 1 BB, 5 K, 2 HR (MLB debut)
July 3rd @ Padres: 6 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 8 K, 1 HR
July 8th @ Indians: 4.1 IP, 5 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 2 BB, 6 K, 4 HR

Seven homers in 14.1 innings is really bad! Left-handed hitters have hit five of the seven homers, which makes sense because Green hasn’t really shown a reliable changeup yet. He did add a cutter while in Triple-A between his first and second starts, which is promising, though clearly the Indians had no trouble with it last week.

Green did throw one perfect relief inning with the Yankees in mid-June, so right now he has a career 7.04 ERA (7.09 FIP) in 15.1 innings. Surely he’s looking to improve those numbers, and my guess is he’ll get multiple chances to do so in the second half. Green seems to have climbed to sixth in the rotation depth chart, ahead of Nathan Eovaldi and Luis Severino. How about that?

Second Half Outlook: If the Yankees do sell at the deadline, I could see them giving Green an extended look as a starter in the second half. There’s really no reason to keep running impending free agent Ivan Nova out there in the second half if they’re out of the race. More than likely Green will go up and down a few more times and be the team’s sixth starter, giving the regular rotation members extra rest.

Nick Goody: The Last Shuttle Reliever Standing

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

The Yankees opened Spring Training with a small army of Triple-A relievers ready to go up and down as needed. We saw it last year. It seemed like one or two of them would be given an extended look at some point this season, but that hasn’t been able to happen. They’ve almost all gotten hurt. The list:

The hope was one or two of those guys would step up and become a permanent piece of the bullpen. Instead, they’ve combined for one big league inning (by Pinder) this season. Baseball, man.

Goody is the last young shuttle reliever standing. He started the season in Triple-A but has had a few stints with the big league team, throwing a total of 22 innings across 19 games. Goody has a 4.91 ERA (4.59 FIP) in those 22 innings, and he’s been alarmingly home run prone (2.05 HR/9). His strikeout (27.4%) and walk (5.3%) numbers are great! But there’s more to life than that. Not a good year to be a young reliever with the Yankees.

Second Half Outlook: Goody is actually on the big league roster right now. He was called up when Green was sent down following his start in Cleveland. Something tells me Goody is going to end up back in Scranton at some point. Then back in New York. Then Scranton. Then New York. You get the point. He’s the very definition of a spare up-and-down arm.

Plans E & F at First Base

At one point in the first half the Yankees had their Plan A (Mark Teixeira), Plan B (Greg Bird), and Plan C (Dustin Ackley) first basemen on the DL. Plan D turned out to be Refsnyder, who basically had an afternoon of prep work at the position before being thrown into game action. The Yankees didn’t want to overwhelm Refsnyder, so a few days after Teixeira’s injury, they called up Plan E: Chris Parmelee.

The Yankees signed Parmelee over the winter after Bird got hurt. He hit .252/.343/.444 (128 wRC+) with seven homers in 43 games with Triple-A Scranton — Parmelee thoroughly outhit Nick Swisher with the RailRiders — before being called up. In his first game in pinstripes, Parmelee went 3-for-4 with a double and two homers. For real! Check it out:

The very next night Parmelee singled in a run in the fifth inning to tie the game against the Angels. No one expected Parmelee to keep hitting like that, but hey, he gave the team a nice little shot in the arm. You need those out-of-nowhere contributions to contend.

The Yankees are not allowed to have nice things though. A few innings after that game-tying single, Parmelee popped his hamstring while stretching for a throw at first base. He suffered a Grade II strain and will be out two months or so. Just like that, Refsnyder was the first baseman again. Plans A, B, C, and E at first base were hurt.

To replace Parmelee, the Yankees signed Ike Davis (Plan F) after he opted out of his minor league deal with the Rangers, and he didn’t even go to Scranton. The Yankees added him to the MLB roster right away. Davis appeared in eight games with the Yankees, went 3-for-14 (.214), then was designated for assignment when Teixeira came off the DL. Davis is currently with Scranton waiting for Teixeira’s next injury.

Second Half Outlook: Parmelee was slated to begin baseball activities a week or two ago and is still a few weeks from returning. The Yankees don’t really have anywhere to play him right now, not unless they trade Teixeira or Carlos Beltran at the deadline. Neither Parmelee nor Davis have much of a role with the Yankees going forward. They’re just injury fill-ins. Parmelee had a memorable moment in pinstripes. Davis … not so much.

The Up & (Mostly) Downers

Johnny B. (Elsa/Getty)
Johnny B. (Presswire)

There are still nine players who played for the Yankees this season that we have not yet covered as part of this crash course midseason review. Let’s wrap up the big league portion of the midseason review with one sentence on each of those nine players. Sound good? Good.

  • RHP Johnny Barbato: For a while it looked like Barbato would stick as a middle reliever, but the bloom came off the rose and he’s now in Scranton.
  • LHP Richard Bleier: The 29-year-old rookie has not only appeared in ten games with the Yankees, he’s still on the roster!
  • LHP Phil Coke: Sure, why the hell not?
  • RHP Luis Cessa: Cessa made the Opening Day roster and keeps going back and forth between big league reliever and Triple-A starter.
  • OF Ben Gamel: His hair is pretty great and pushes the limits of team regulations.
  • RHP Conor Mullee: The three-time major elbow surgery guy got affordable health care for life this year, so that’s cool.
  • LHP Tyler Olson: Olson appeared in one game with the Yankees, then was lost on waivers.
  • C Gary Sanchez: “Hey, Gary, we’re going to call you up for a game and make you face Chris Sale, sound good?”
  • RHP Anthony Swarzak: It’s literally Anthony Swarzak.

Second Half Outlook: Sanchez definitely has a future with the Yankees. He’s the long-term plan behind the plate. Barbato, Cessa, Gamel, and Mullee might have roles with the team going forward too. We’ll see them again in September, if not earlier. Everyone else? They’ll be gone soon enough.

2016 Midseason Review: The Rotation

Now that the All-Star break has arrived, it’s time to look back and review the first half of the season. We’ve already looked at the catchers, infielders, outfielders, and bench. Now it’s time to cover the rotation.

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Coming into this 2016 season, the common refrain was “if the rotation pitches up to its potential, the Yankees are going to have a really great staff.” And you know what? That wasn’t crazy. Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda have shown the ability to dominate, ditto Nathan Eovaldi at times. Luis Severino‘s debut last season was very good, and although the last few years didn’t go well, CC Sabathia had a new brace going for him. Ivan Nova was the No. 6 guy.

Naturally, the rotation has not pitched up to its potential. It’s tough to get five guys to do that at the same time. Heck, it’s hard to get two guys to do that at the same time. With the exception of Severino, the four starters behind Tanaka all put together a three or four or five start stretch in which they dominated, but it hasn’t lasted. The rotation comes into the break with a 4.81 ERA and 4.33 FIP, which rank 22nd and 13th in MLB, respectively. Let’s review the starting staff.

Masahiro Tanaka: An Ace On Extra Rest

Is there a more divisive pitcher on the Yankees than Tanaka? I don’t think so. Some see him as an ace, others see him as an overpaid mid-rotation guy. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Let’s start with some facts. Here’s where Tanaka ranks among the 96 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title this year:

Innings: 117 (14th)
ERA: 3.23 (24th)
ERA+: 133 (25th)
FIP: 3.31 (13th)
WHIP: 1.11 (20th)
BB%: 4.6% (7th)
K%: 19.5% (57th)
GB%: 50.0% (25th)
HR/9: 0.77 (20th)
fWAR: 3.0 (7th)
bWAR: 2.7 (18th)

Tanaka is top 25 in everything except strikeout rate and is top 20 in most categories as well. When it comes to keeping runs off the board, which is the whole point of pitching, Tanaka is far better than average. He’s done it this year by changing up his pitch selection and emphasizing his sinking two-seam fastball rather than his four-seamer, and the result is way more grounders and fewer homers allowed. That’s good! Homers were a problem last year.

The season the problem seems to be extra rest vs. normal rest. It’s always something, right? As I pointed out last week, Tanaka performed better on normal rest from 2014-15. This year the opposite is true. Again, let’s look at the facts.

IP ERA FIP WHIP K% BB% HR/9
Normal Rest 49 5.33 4.36 1.39 17.8% 4.7% 1.83
Extra Rest 68 1.72 2.47 0.91 20.9% 4.6% 0.26

That’s a huge difference! Huge. Unignorably huge. I know the 2014-15 stats say one thing, but the 2016 stats say another, and they’re more relevant. Tanaka is a different pitcher this year than the last two years simply by virtue of being older and having more wear and tear on his arm.

There’s also this: Tanaka had elbow surgery this offseason. Remember that? I kinda forgot about it. He had a bone spur taken out of his elbow and was brought along slowly in Spring Training. That could absolutely have an effect on Tanaka’s ability to pitch on normal rest. The guy’s anatomy and offseason routine changed.

John Flaherty has said Tanaka’s stuff looks much crisper with an extra day of rest during various YES broadcasts, and while true, that’s one of those things that applies to every pitcher. Is the difference in Tanaka’s stuff so great that it leads to that huge difference in performance? Apparently so. The facts are the facts. Tanaka pitched like an ace with extra rest and a dud on normal rest in the first half.

Overall, Tanaka was really good in the first half. He’s never not been really good with the Yankees. Tanaka made 18 starts in the first half and allowed two or fewer runs 12 times. He has nine starts of at least six innings and no more than two runs allowed. Only Aaron Sanchez (12) and Chris Tillman (ten) have more among AL starters. Tanaka’s a top tier starter in the league.

Second Half Outlook: The normal rest/extra rest numbers are too drastic to ignore. The guy has been two totally different pitchers depends on his rest. Will that be the case going forward? Not necessarily, but the Yankees should proceed as if it will be. They should try to get Tanaka — and their other starters, for that matter — an extra day whenever possible. Chad Green could help make this possible. Either way, Tanaka is the Yankees’ best pitcher and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue to be the case going forward.

Michael Pineda: Proof Swings & Misses Aren’t Everything

The last Yankee pitcher as frustrating as Pineda was A.J. Burnett, right? Both guys oh so clearly had the stuff to not only get results, but dominate. Instead, they were generally mediocre because of bad command and their propensity for mistake pitches. Pineda has this nasty slider in his arsenal …

Michael Pineda slider… and yet opponents are hitting .204/.256/.290 against him in two-strike counts this year. The league average is .177/.247/.278. Pineda has been worse than average across the board. Furthermore, opponents are hitting .200/.200/.300 against Pineda in 0-2 counts, the most pitcher friendly count there is. That works out to a 158 OPS+ (!) because the league average is .152/.160/.226. Groan.

Pineda was so bad to start the 2016 season that there was talk of sending him to the minors or moving him to the bullpen. He had a 6.92 ERA through his first ten starts and 53.1 innings. Opponents hit .322/.371/.581 against him during that time. That’s basically Manny Machado (.318/.375/.569). Pineda turned everyone into Manny Machado for 50-something innings. GROAN.

But, in his last seven starts and 42 innings, Pineda has a 3.43 ERA and a .205/.256/.346 opponent’s batting line. That’s much better! That’s closer to Freddy Galvis (.234/.263/.368) than Manny Machado. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild gave reporters a vague “we tweaked some things mechanically” answer when asked about Pineda’s improvement a few weeks ago, so while we don’t know what exactly changed, we know something did change.

Overall, Pineda has a 5.38 ERA (3.79 FIP) in 17 starts and 95.1 innings. His strikeout (27.2%) and walk (6.3%) rates are phenomenal! His 13.9% swing-and-miss rate is fifth highest in baseball behind Clayton Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard, Max Scherzer, and Jose Fernandez. Basically the four best pitchers in baseball. And yet, Pineda gives up a ton of homers (1.42 HR/9) and more than a hit per inning. Blargh. That describes Pineda. Blargh. Just … blargh.

Second Half Outlook: If the Yankees do come to their senses and decide to sell, Pineda could be one of the pieces moved at the deadline. He’s under team control one more season before hitting free agency, so he could fetch a decent return even with his maddening inconsistency. If the Yankees keep Pineda, I have no idea what to expect performance-wise. He goes from dominating to getting smacked around in a moment’s notice, often right in the middle of a start.

Nathan Eovaldi: So Good, Then So, So Bad

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

True story: On the morning of May 30th, Eovaldi had a 3.71 ERA (3.59 FIP) through ten starts and 60.2 innings. His strikeout (22.9%), walk (6.0%), and grounder (54.3%) rates were all excellent. The high-octane fastball and new splitter had turned Eovaldi into a reliably above-average starter. It was awesome. He and Tanaka were one heck of a one-two punch for the first two months.

Now, on July 13th, Eovaldi has a 5.18 ERA (5.09 FIP) in 97.1 innings. His last six starts were so bad — 31 runs in 30.1 innings! — the Yankees had to send Eovaldi to the bullpen. It went south so quick. Those six starts were, by far, the worst stretch of Eovaldi’s career. This wasn’t a case of a career mediocre pitcher regressing to the mean. This was beyond that. Something went wrong and no one seems to know what.

The good news is Eovaldi’s healthy. He was so bad in those six starts that I thought he was hurt. The bad news is no one seems to know what’s wrong. At least an injury would explain the sudden drop in performance. Eovaldi’s location has deteriorated, that’s obvious, but why? That’s up to Rothschild to figure out. In the span of six starts, Eovaldi went from extension candidate to mop-up reliever. Baseball is so dumb sometimes.

Second Half Outlook: Joe Girardi and the Yankees insist they see Eovaldi as a starter long-term, so I guess that means he’s going to return to the rotation at some point. Since Chad Green got lit up in his last start and demoted to the minors the next day, Eovaldi could be back in the rotation as soon as, well, immediately. When the second half starts. If not, he figures to get a shot as a middle innings reliever, or traded at the deadline.

Luis Severino: From Future Ace To Reclamation Project

Ugh. This 2016 season has been pretty crummy overall, but Severino going from young stud starter to punch line is the crummiest thing about it. Severino posted a 7.46 ERA (5.55 FIP) in seven starts and 35 innings before coming down with a triceps injury. Only twice did he allowed fewer than four runs or not allow a homer. It was not pretty.

After the injury, the Yankees optioned Severino down to Triple-A, which was something no one expected to happen before the season. His performance has been much better in Triple-A (3.18 ERA and 2.78 FIP), and thank goodness, because the worst thing ever would be Severino getting lit up in the minors too. The Yankees don’t seem to be in much of a rush to bring him back, which is fine with me.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

What went wrong with Severino? More than anything, his command of his offspeed pitches was just awful. He couldn’t locate his slider or changeup consistently, so most of the time he was out there with a fastball and nothing else. That ain’t gonna work. Those command problems didn’t exist last year, or at least when they did, they didn’t last very long. I’m not going to say they came out of nowhere, but it’s not like there were obvious warning signs last year.

Also, I think fans set expectations a wee bit too high for Severino coming into the season. There was talk about him being the best pitcher on the staff and possibly starting Opening Day and things like that, all of which was way way way too premature. The kid had eleven starts in the show. Anything less than dominance was going to be a disappointment. Expectations have since been re-calibrated.

Make no mistake, for the Yankees to contend this season, they were going to need Severino to pitch at a high level. Instead, he was one of the worst pitchers in baseball before getting hurt, prompting the team to send him to Triple-A for more seasoning. Severino is basically catching up on all the development time the Yankees skipped the last few years by promoting him so aggressively. His season very quickly went from “help the team win” to salvage mode.

Second Half Outlook: There’s basically nothing Severino can do now to help the Yankees contend. It’s a little too late for that. The most important thing is getting his command issues sorted out so he’s ready to help them win next year, and if that means spending the rest of the year in Triple-A, so be it. Severino is too important to the franchise long-term to call him back up before he’s ready.

CC Sabathia: Return of the Ace, Temporarily

Hands down, the best story of this Yankees’ season to date is CC Sabathia’s early dominance. And yes, he was dominant. He pitched to a 2.20 ERA (3.33 FIP) through eleven starts and 65.1 innings — there was a two-week DL stint for a groin strain thrown in there — and he did it by shelving his four-seam fastball. Sabathia replaced it with a cutter …

CC Sabathia pitch selection

… that better allowed him to bust righties inside. Sabathia had toyed with a cutter before, but it never did stick. This year it did, and it was a tangible explanation for his improvement. So was the new knee brace he started wearing late last year, as well as his sobriety. How could being sober not help Sabathia on the field? Alcoholism is brutal.

Sabathia’s last four starts have not gone well (22 runs in 23 innings), though some regression was inevitable, especially when it came to home runs. He allowed two homers total in his first 65.1 innings, then allowed four in the 23 innings since. Even with these last four starts, Sabathia was the Yankees’ second best starter in the first half, and that’s definitely not something I expected coming into the season. What a pleasant surprise.

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Second Half Outlook: Sabathia came into the break with a 3.77 ERA (3.82 FIP) in 15 starts and 88.1 innings, and I’m hopeful he can sustain that level of performance in the second half. That said, the last three years have not been pretty, so it would not be a surprise is Sabathia’s ERA kept rising. Either way, boy those first eleven starts sure were fun, weren’t they?

Ivan Nova: See? I Told You He’d Be Back In The Rotation

It’s easy to forget given how Sabathia pitched in the first half, but there was a rotation competition in Spring Training. Sabathia beat out Nova, who started the season in the bullpen before rejoining the starting staff after Severino got hurt. It was only a matter of time until Nova started again. No team gets through the season using only five starters.

Nova made six relief appearances before getting the opportunity to start again, and his first three starts were very good. He allowed three runs total in 16.1 innings while on a pitch count each time out. Things went south after those first three starts. Nova has a 6.34 ERA (5.17 FIP) in nine starts and 49.2 innings since. Check out his 2015 numbers and 2016 numbers:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9
2015 94 5.07 4.87 15.3% 8.0% 49.0% 1.24
2016 80 5.18 4.88 17.6% 4.9% 55.7% 1.69

Pretty much the same guy. The idea Nova’s performance would improve has he got further away from Tommy John surgery was a sound one. We see guys do it all the time. It hasn’t happened though. Nova’s been pretty terrible the last nine times out, yet there doesn’t seem to be chatter about him being moved back to the bullpen. Those talks existed with Pineda and Eovaldi (and even Severino), but not yet Nova for some reason.

Second Half Outlook: Nova is going to be a free agent after the season, so there’s no long-term stake here. Both Eovaldi and Severino — and Chad Green, for that matter — have a chance to help the Yankees beyond this season, so whenever they’re deemed ready to rejoin the rotation, Nova should be removed. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Yankees moved him at the deadline either.

2016 Midseason Review: The Bench

Now that the All-Star break has arrived, it’s time to look back and review the first half of the season. We’ve already looked at the catchers, infielders, and outfielders. Now it’s time to cover the bench.

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Despite their efforts to get younger, the Yankees still have a very veteran roster. In fact, they have only two regulars under the age of 31, and they’re the double play combination. Everyone else is on the wrong side of 30, which means the Yankees need a quality bench to give those players extra rest throughout the season.

As always, the Yankees started the season with three non-catchers on their bench: Aaron Hicks, Dustin Ackley, and Ronald Torreyes. Torreyes beat out Rob Refsnyder for the final bench spot in Spring Training — he not only out-hit him, but his ability to play short and third worked in his favor too — though a few weeks later both guys ended up on the bench anyway. Funny how that works. Times to review the bench.

Alex Rodriguez: The Designated Hitter Bench Player

A-Rod was not supposed to be a bench player. He opened the season as the team’s regular DH for the second straight season, though the combination of a hamstring injury and unproductive at-bats have limited him to only 47 starts in the team’s 88 first half games. The hamstring injury sidelined him for close to three weeks in May. More recently, the Yankees have benched A-Rod against righties.

Overall this season Rodriguez is hitting .220/.260/.382 (65 wRC+) with eight homers in exactly 200 plate appearances. That’s broken down into .198/.237/.333 (46 wRC+) with six homers and a 29.6% strikeout rate in 135 plate appearances against righties, and .267/.308/.483 (105 wRC+) with two homers and a 24.6% strikeout rate in 65 plate appearances against lefties. It’s easy to understand why they’ve decided to sit him against righties, right? Right.

A-Rod will turn 41 later this month, and really, it’s not much of a surprise when player in his 40s doesn’t hit, even one as talented as Alex. His 2015 season was marvelous. He was so good last year. Now he looks close to done, so much so that the Yankees have cut into his playing time. As with Mark Teixeira, it was probably foolish to expect him to repeat his 2015 effort. At the same time, no one expected him to be this bad. At least we still get to see this once in a while:

Second Half Out Look: Gosh, I wish I knew. There’s no reason to think A-Rod won’t be benched against righties to open the second half, though he is working out at first base, which could mean more at-bats. There’s a Catch-22 here. A-Rod’s not playing because he hasn’t hit but he probably needs more at-bats to get his bat going. The more interesting question will come after the season. If Rodriguez struggles all year, would the Yankees really cut ties and release him, and or will they handicap the roster for another year with a righty platoon DH? That’s another question for another time.

Aaron Hicks: The Fourth Turned Fifth Outfielder

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

When the Yankees acquired Hicks over the winter, they did so with the expectation he would play fairly regularly by rotating around the outfield and resting the regulars. At worst, he would platoon against lefties, against whom he’d hit .272/.360/.447 (125 wRC+) prior to 2016. The Yankees had a spare catcher in John Ryan Murphy and wanted an athletic, switch-hitting outfielder, so the trade was made.

Hicks fell well short of expectations in his first half-season as a Yankee. On both sides of the ball, really. He’s hitting .197/.261/.301 (46 wRC+) with three homers in 204 plate appearances overall — yes, he has more plate appearances than A-Rod — including .155/.218/.225 (15 wRC+) against lefties. The Yankees have given him regular at-bats at times, most notably when Alex was on the DL, but it hasn’t come together.

In the field, Hicks seems to have a knack for breaking the wrong way when the ball comes off the bat. He has good speed and often that bad first step doesn’t matter, but it has definitely come back to bite him and the Yankees at times. The one thing Hicks does insanely well is throw. Gee willikers does he have a strong arm. Needless to say, the start of Hicks’ first season with the Yankees has been a huge disappointment.

Second Half Outlook: Hicks doesn’t have any minor league options remaining, otherwise the Yankees would have sent him to Triple-A already. They’re not going to expose him to waivers — he’d get claimed in a heartbeat — or release him even though Joe Girardi‘s patience seems to have run out. (Refsnyder has seen more time in right lately as A-Rod rides the bench.) I could see the Yankees flipping Hicks as part of a deadline deal, but, mostly likely, he’ll remain on the roster in the second half and continue to get playing time as the Yankees try to get him going.

Ronald Torreyes: The Necessary Backup Infielder

(Brian Bahr/Getty)
(Brian Bahr/Getty)

Usually when a player changes organizations five times in the span of nine months, he doesn’t make an Opening Day roster. And yet, Torreyes did indeed change teams five times last season and over the winter, and there he was on the Opening Day roster as the backup infielder. He won the job by having a good spring and showing he was capable defensively all over the infield.

Torreyes, who is only 23, started the season with an insane 8-for-17 (.471) hot streak that had people calling for him to start at third base. I get it, Chase Headley was off to a terrible start, but it was only a matter of time until Torreyes came back to Earth. Sure enough, he’s gone 6-for-48 (.125) since, and is hitting .219/.286/.297 (55 wRC+) overall. His walk (8.6%) and strikeout (14.3%) rates are good, so yay?

Not surprisingly, Torreyes has started only two of the team’s last 29 games. Gregorius has been awesome of late and Headley has been very good since May, plus Castro seems to have a very long leash, so there’s no real way to get Torreyes in the lineup. He’s been solid defensively wherever he’s played — second, short, third, even some right field — and that’s his primary value. Torreyes is a sound gloveman who will put the ball in that play. He’s the quintessential utility infielder.

Second Half Outlook: The Yankees do not seem to want to use Castro as their full-time backup shortstop — they’ll use him there now and then, but I don’t think they want him to be the guy — which means Torreyes will stick around through the second half. He’s essentially a replacement level backup infielder. He won’t kill them in spot start duty, but he’s not someone you want to run out there on an everyday basis either.

Dustin Ackley: The Perfectly Imperfect Role Player

For the second straight year, the Yankees opened the season with a player capable of filling in at first base, right field, and DH, three positions with starters who carry perpetual injury concerns. Last year Garrett Jones filled that role. This year it was Dustin Ackley. Jones played his way off the roster. Ackley got hurt before he had a chance to do the same.

That little dive back into first base resulted in a torn labrum that required season-ending surgery. It’s the same exact thing that happened to Mason Williams a year ago. Freaky, right? We see players dive back into first base a million times each year. The Yankees managed to have players suffer season-ending shoulder injuries in back-to-back years on pickoff plays.

Prior to the injury, Ackley hit .148/.243/.148 (9 wRC+) in 70 plate appearances spread across 49 team games. Not much playing time at all. At least his walk (11.4%) and strikeout (12.9%) rates were good, I guess. Ackley wasn’t good defensively anywhere (first, second, or right), which was to be expected. In theory, the Jones/Ackley slot is a good idea. Someone who can fill in at right, first, and DH, and maybe sock the occasional dinger into the short porch sounds like a useful bench piece. But, for the second straight year, it hasn’t worked out.

Second Half Outlook: There is none because of the injury. The surgery almost certainly ends Ackley’s time with the Yankees. He was going to be a non-tender candidate after the season to start with, and the injury all but clinches it.

Rob Refsnyder: Forcing The Issue

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees tried to find a way to get Refsnyder on their Opening Day roster. They had him work out at third base in Spring Training in an effort to increase his versatility, but the four-week crash course didn’t work out too well. Refsnyder took two grounders to the face right at the end of camp that all but assured Torreyes would be the backup infielder to start the regular season.

To Triple-A Refsnyder went, where he remained until A-Rod landed on the DL in May. He was on the roster for only a few days before being sent back down, though the Ackley injury got him back to MLB a few days later, and Refsnyder has been with the Yankees since. After teaching him third in Spring Training, the Yankees stuck Refsnyder at first base — he played there after literally one day of taking grounders at the position — when Teixeira was on the DL. Once Teixeira returned, the team started using Refsnyder all over the field.

All told, Refsnyder has played 19 games at first, ten games in right, five in second, and one at third. He’s looked fine at first base all things considered, though his inexperience has been painfully obvious at times. That was to be expected. Refsnyder is a bat first player though, and his numbers probably aren’t as good as you may think: .276/.337/.368 (86 wRC+) with no homers in 99 plate appearances.

Now, that said, Refsnyder has looked like he belongs. He takes quality at-bats (9.1 BB% and 16.1 K%) and he consistently hits the ball hard (only a 12.3% soft contact rate), so it’s only a matter of time until the results match the process. Eventually he’s going to hit a dinger, you know? With Hicks struggling and A-Rod benched, Refsnyder has seen more and more time in right field of late, so Girardi’s giving him a chance.

Second Half Outlook: I get the feeling we’re going to see a lot of Refsnyder in the second half, especially if the Yankees trade Beltran at the deadline and A-Rod remains glued to the bench against righties. The Yankees have asked a lot of Refsnyder — learn third, learn first, play second and right too, hit your way into the lineup, etc. — and he’s handled it well. He’s the only guy in this post who has earned more playing time.

2016 Midseason Review: The Outfielders

Now that the All-Star break has arrived, it’s time to look back and review the first half of the season. We’ve already looked at the catchers and infielders. Now it’s time to cover the outfielders.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees have been making an effort to get younger over the last 20 months or so, but the one place they’ve been unable to do so is the outfield. They’re locked into three veterans making good to great money, and despite their efforts to move one of them over the winter, the Yankees didn’t get an offer they liked.

Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran returned as the starting outfield this season, and all three have been among the most productive players on the team. In fact, along with Didi Gregorius and Brian McCann, I’d said they were three of the Yankees’ five most productive players in the first half. Let’s review their seasons.

Carlos Beltran: Still Great After All These Years

Last April, Beltran looked done. Like done done. He was 38 and coming off surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow, and he was caught so far between fastballs and offspeed stuff that it seemed like he was guessing at the plate. It was ugly. But, once the calendar flipped to May, Beltran raked the rest of the way, and it’s carried over into this season.

Beltran was, by no small margin, the team’s best hitter in the first half. He’s hitting .299/.338/.550 (132 wRC+) with 19 homers in 320 plate appearances, and he leads the Yankees in … drum roll, please … AVG, SLG, ISO, OPS, OPS+, wOBA, wRC+, doubles, homers, and RBI. Pretty much everything except OBP. (He’s fourth in OBP.) Carlos is 17th among the 167 qualified hitters in SLG and 21st in ISO, and he’s 19th among all players in homers. He hasn’t hit for this kind of power since he was in the prime of his career with the Mets.


Source: FanGraphsCarlos Beltran

The signs of aging are there. Beltran walks less (5.3%) and strikes out more (18.4%) than he did during his prime, and good fastballs have given him a hard time, but otherwise he’s still a very smart hitter with power who seems to have a knack for understanding how he’s being pitched. He’s even hitting lefties better than he has in years, putting up a 167 wRC+ against southpaws in 2016 after having a 75 wRC+ against them from 2014-15.

Beltran’s offense has been better than I think anyone could have reasonably expected. Even as good as he was from May through the end of the season last year, it wasn’t crazy to think the 39-year-old would slip some this year. That’s baseball. Instead, Beltran has been a monster at the dish and he has been since Opening Day, really. He hasn’t had any sort of extended slump this year. Most players will hit the skids for two or three weeks at some point. Not Carlos.

As you know, offense is pretty much the only Beltran provides these days. He doesn’t run well and he’s a terrible defender in right field. The Yankees have been able to give him more time at DH this year, first because Alex Rodriguez got hurt, and then because they’re flat out benching A-Rod. Beltran seems to be running better this year than the last two years, and call me a cynic, but I can’t help but that think that’s tied to his upcoming free agency. He’s playing for a contract and might be in a little better shape this year. Either well, Beltran has been the team MVP so far.

Second Half Outlook: One of three things will happen: One, the Yankees remain in the postseason hunt and they keep Beltran for a second half push. Two, the Yankees fall out of the race and trade Beltran to a contender at the deadline. Three, the Yankees don’t contend and don’t trade Beltran. Clearly, the third option would be the worst. I’d like to see the Yankees contend, but the team isn’t cooperating, which makes a trade the best outcome. Carlos definitely played his way into some nice trade value in the first half.

Jacoby Ellsbury: Separating The Player From The Contract

(Dustin Bradford/Getty)
(Dustin Bradford/Getty)

It’s impossible to look at Ellsbury and assess his play without thinking about his contract. He’s a good player making great player money, and so far this season Ellsbury has been exactly that: a good player. He owns a .279/.347/.398 (100 wRC+) batting line with four homers and 16 steals, and he’s stayed mostly healthy too. That’s always a question, unfortunately.

Ellsbury actually started this season rather slowly, hitting .235/.278/.341 (62 wRC+) with one homer and five steals in eight attempts in April. He’s since hit .297/.373/.421 (115 wRC+) with three homers and eleven steals in 15 chances. Ellsbury has also walked (9.9%) nearly as often as he’s struck out (10.7%). We haven’t seen the disruptive baserunning this year, which could be a product of age — 32-year-olds usually don’t run much — or a minor hip injury he dealt with earlier this season.

Defensively, Ellsbury has settled in after a weirdly poor start to the season. His days as a Gold Glover are over and really, at some point during the life of his contract he’ll have to shift to left field. Not too many 33+ year olds are running around playing center at a high level these days. Ellsbury’s range is still good and his arm … well sometimes his throws reach the cutoff man on one hop. Let’s leave it at that.

Relative to his contract, Ellsbury is performing well-below expectations and he’s not likely to get better as he approaches his mid-30s. Relative to other center fielders, Ellsbury is a solid player who is worth a roster spot on a contending team. When he gets hot, he gets really hot and can raise hell with his bat and his legs. He’s just not someone you want to pay $20M+ a year. What’s done is done though. Ellsbury has shaken off that slow start and is one of the more productive players on the team.

Second Half Outlook: Last season Ellsbury started well, then crashed horribly after returning from a knee injury. He’s healthy now and the outlook going forward is much more promising. Ellsbury is a good all-around player, and now that he’s hitting second rather than leading off, he figures to get some more opportunities to do damage with men on base. For the Yankees to have any chance at the postseason, Ellsbury is probably going to have to play at an All-Star level in the second half. He’s vital to their success.

Brett Gardner: Same Ol’ Brett, Just Without The Power

Brett Gardner is one boring baseball player. He’s hitting .257 with a .353 OBP this season. Last year he hit .256 with a .343 OBP. His career averages? A .263 AVG and a .346 OBP. Boring! Outliers are much more fun. Gardner is reliably productive each and every year even though a large segment of the fan base seems to think otherwise.

The difference between 2016 Gardner and pre-2016 Gardner is his power, which was never his calling card anyway, but still. Look:


Source: FanGraphsBrett Gardner

Gardner hit his power peak at ages 29-31 thanks in part to former hitting coach Kevin Long, who got him to be a little more aggressive and hunt fastballs early in the count. Gardner’s power peak was basically a league average ISO, but this year he’s well below that with a .098 ISO. He’s hit five homers this year, his fewest in the first half since 2011, when he hit four. (Not counting his injury shortened 2012 season.)

Gardner’s power outage is tied directly to his ground ball percentage. He’s put a career-high 55.2% of his batted balls on the ground this year, up from 45.3% last year and 41.7% the year before. Furthermore, when he pulls the ball, Gardner is putting it on the ground 69.9% of the time. Two years ago it was 49.7%. That’s no way for a left-handed hitter to take advantage of Yankee Stadium‘s short right field porch.

Offensively, Gardner is doing just about everything he usually does except hit the ball out of the park. He’s hitting in the .255-.260 range, he’s drawing a ton of walks (11.6%), and he’s going to end up with 20+ steals again. The over-the-fence power isn’t there like it has been the last few years though. Don’t get me wrong, no one was expecting Gardner to swat 20+ dingers this year, but he might not even get to ten this season.

(Jason Miller/Getty)
(Jason Miller/Getty)

On top of the offense is Gardner’s defense, which remains comfortably above-average and actually seems better this year than it was the last two years. Maybe it’s just me. The various stats like UZR and DRS agree, but eh. Let’s not rely on half-seasons of defensive stats. Between the solid defense and team-leading OBP, Gardner is once again one of the most productive players on the Yankees. His power has gone missing, and the Yankees have compensated by putting him in the leadoff spot, where the lack of pop is less of an issue.

Second Half Outlook: Gardner has a recent history of fading in the second half, but as long as he’s healthy, I expect him to be rock solid. I suppose the Yankees could look to trade him as part of a deadline sell-off, though they figure to push Beltran a little harder in trade talks given his status as an impending free agent. As with Ellsbury, the Yankees will need Gardner to produce at a high level to make a run at a postseason spot.

2016 Midseason Review: The Infielders

Now that the All-Star break has arrived, it’s time to look back and review the first half of the season. We’ve already looked at the catchers. Now it’s time to tackle the infielders.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

For years and years, the infield was the backbone of the Yankees. The 2009 infield was one of the greatest in history — the 2009 Yankees are one of only four teams in history with four +4 WAR infielders — but age and free agency has slowly chipped away at the greatness of the team’s infield the last few years. Over the last 20 months or so the club has had to rebuild three-fourths of that infield.

Only Mark Teixeira remains from that 2009 infield unit. Robinson Cano has been replaced by Starlin Castro at second base. Didi Gregorius took over at shortstop after Derek Jeter retired. Alex Rodriguez has given way to Chase Headley. There have been others along the way, but that’s where the Yankees are now. Headley, Gregorius, Castro, and Teixeira going around the horn. It’s an, uh, interesting group. Interesting is a good word. Let’s review the infield’s first half.

Mark Teixeira: What’s The Opposite of a Contract Push?

Holy moly, what a disastrous half-season for Teixeira. Not only has he missed time with injury — ongoing neck problems and cartilage damage in his knee, specifically — but he’s also not hitting. Teixeira went into the All-Star break with a .193/.272/.317 (57 wRC+) batting line and only seven homers in 243 plate appearances. Woof. Last year Teixeira hit .240/.350/.526 (133 wRC+) with 22 homers in the first half.

The drop off in production from Teixeira is a huge reason why the Yankees are only a .500 club and not a true contender at the All-Star break. He was expected to again put up big time power numbers and anchor the middle of the lineup. Maybe it was foolish to think Teixeira could approximate last year’s pace, especially after he spent the offseason rehabbing his shin fracture and not going through his usual routine.

Given the lack of home runs, it’s no surprise to see Teixeira has a (by far) career high 48.1% ground ball rate. His previous career high was 42.8% back in 2008. You’re not going to hit for power if you’re beating the ball into the ground, which Teixeira is doing often from both sides of the plate. He’s hitting .169/.248/.324 (51 wRC+) against righties and .237/.314/.303 (67 wRC+) against lefties.

The good news is Teixeira is still a shutdown defender in the field, which has been made all the more obvious by the parade of bad glovemen the Yankees have used to back him up this season. But when you’re a first baseman whose only redeeming quality is your defense, you’re a net negative. No amount of defense can make up for the offense Teixeira provided in the first half. He was so, so good last year. Now? Now I dread his at-bats.

This is the final season of Teixeira’s original eight-year, $180M contract, and even though Greg Bird‘s shoulder surgery has thrown a wrench into the long-term first base picture, it’s hard to see the Yankees bringing Teixeira back. He’s no longer a qualified offer candidate, and heck, he’s not even a trade candidate. The hope was Teixeira would mash some taters and be a decent trade chip should the Yankees not contend. Now they’re not contending and he’s not a trade chip. The worst of both worlds.

Second Half Outlook: You know, I have a hard time believing Teixeira will be this bad all season, but the guy is 36 and he does have a nagging neck problem and a compromised knee, so … maybe? I’m feeling optimistic and think Teixeira will be better in the second half, mostly by hitting more homers. He almost can’t be worse at this point. Either way, Teixeira is almost certainly entering his final half-season as a Yankees, and that’s kinda weird.

Starlin Castro: Testing The Limits of First Impressions

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

Boy, Castro made a really great first impression, didn’t he? He went 7-for-12 with two home runs and eight runs driven in during the opening series of the season, and he looked like someone who could hold down a middle of the lineup spot going forward. The Yankees had cycled through a lot of veteran mediocrity in the two years since Robinson Cano left. Castro appeared to be a long-term solution.

Instead, Starlin has hit .244/.283/.363 (69 wRC+) since that opening series, lowering his season batting line to .256/.293/.395 (81 wRC+) overall. That looks mighty similar to the .265/.296/.388 (80 wRC+) line he put up last season, doesn’t it? That’s not good! Castro is still only 26 years old, but his offensive production plateaued a few years ago, and there’s no real indication he’ll make the necessary adjustments to take a step forward. He’ll chase out of the zone at-bat after at-bat, game after game.

Castro’s glove has been solid at second, especially considering he’s been playing the position less than a full year. Yes, his double play pivot can be slow at times, though I’m hopeful that’ll improve with experience. Still though, the Yankees didn’t go out and get Starlin for his glove. They got him because of the belief he has untapped offensive potential. I mean, we’ve seen it. Castro hit .292/.339/.438 (117 wRC+) just two years ago. It’s in there. We just don’t see it often enough.

The first half-season of the Starlin Castro era has been underwhelming. He’s had his fair share of big games and important hits …

… but there are just too many empty at-bats to ignore. There are 167 hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title right now. Castro ranks 148th in walk rate (4.5%) and 146th in chase rate (36.0%). (He’s 150th in wRC+). He has the exact opposite approach the Yankees are known for, that patient, wear-you-down approach. Starlin makes himself an easy out far too often, and after more than 4,000 big league plate appearances, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever improve his approach.

Second Half Outlook: Something tells me Castro will continue to be the same frustrating — yet so obviously talented — player who does just enough to justify his lineup spot. He’s the type of player who leaves you wanting more. No doubt about it. Starlin’s contract runs through 2019, so unless the Yankees trade him (I don’t see that happening anytime soon), he’s not going anywhere for a while.

Didi Gregorius: The Emerging Cornerstone

Gregorius has not been the Yankees’ best hitter this season — that’s Carlos Beltran — but he has been their best all-around player, and I’m not even sure it’s close. The last month or so has been particularly impressive. Didi has hit .346/.379/.594 (157 wRC+) with seven homers in his last 34 games while playing his typically strong defense. (We’ll get back to the defense in a bit.)

Overall, Gregorius has authored a .298/.328/.468 (109 wRC+) batting line with a career-high eleven homers through 88 teams games. No, he doesn’t walk (3.5%), but he also never strikes out. His 11.0% strikeout rate is ninth lowest among those 167 qualified hitters. Two things have impressed me the most about Gregorius in the first half. First, his ability to spray the ball to all fields:


Source: FanGraphs
Gregorius does all his home run hittin’ to the pull side, which is understandable. He’s hardly the only guy who does that. Otherwise Didi sprays the ball all over the field. Singles and doubles to all fields. He’s shift-proof. It’s really impressive. It’s amazing to see how far Gregorius has come since early last season, when he looked like a deer in the headlights.

Secondly, Didi is suddenly a real threat against left-handed pitchers. He came to the Yankees as a career .184/.257/.233 (33 wRC+) hitter against southpaws, and last year those numbers “improved” to .247/.311/.315 (73 wRC+). Not so great. This year? This year Gregorius is hitting .360/.400/.440 (129 wRC+) in the admittedly tiny sample of 82 plate appearances against lefties.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

No, the .371 BABIP won’t last forever, but I think we’ve seen legitimate improvement from Didi against southpaws. He hangs in better, he does a better job laying off breaking balls away, and he generally seems more comfortable. That applies to his entire game, really. Gregorius looks so much more comfortable in pinstripes this year. He’s playing with confidence. He really has come a long way in a short period of time.

Now, about his defense. Gregorius has all the tools to be a standout gloveman. We see them every single game. His hands are soft, he has big time range, and oh baby, that arm. Didi’s throws are so fun. At the same time, Gregorius has been more error prone this year. Specifically, it seems he’s bobbling more grounders than he did a year ago. I don’t think this is a long-term concern. Guys have defensive slumps the same way they have offensive slumps. We know Gregorius can play the hell out of shortstop because we’ve seen it.

Even with those errors, Gregorius is turning himself into a cornerstone type of player, someone who can handle the shortstop position for the next few years and be a real asset to the Yankees. Before I think the belief was Gregorius would catch everything at short and hit eighth or ninth. Now he looks like someone capable of hitting higher in the order and producing runs. Who would have guessed that last year? Didi’s development has been one of the best parts of this season, hands down.

Second Half Outlook: My guess is Gregorius’ numbers against lefties will come back to Earth a bit while his numbers against righties — he’s hitting .277/.303/.478 (102 wRC+) against northpaws — tick up a tad. Maybe not in terms of power, but the average and on-base ability. Remember, Gregorius really hit his stride in the second half last season. This is a guy who’s hit .294/.334/.441 (107 wRC+) over the last calendar year. This isn’t a small sample. This is who he has become. Keep building on that, Didi.

Chase Headley: The April That Can’t Be Forgotten

Chase Headley was so unbelievably bad in April that it doesn’t matter what he does the rest of the season. Everyone’s going to think he stunk this year. Headley hit .150/.268/.150 (21 wRC+) in the season’s first month. No extra-base hits! It was one of the worst months at the plate ever. In fact, in terms of OPS+, Headley had the second worst April in franchise history by a player with at least 50 plate appearances. He had a 21 OPS+ and Roger Peckinpaugh had 16 OPS+ in April 1918. So yeah.

And yet, almost as soon as the calendar flipped to May, Headley began hitting to his career averages. Look at his monthly splits:

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ 2B HR BB% K%
April 71 .150/.268/.150 21 0! 0! 14.1% 19.7%
May 93 .298/.355/.440 113 3 3 7.5% 18.3%
June 102 .275/.343/.418 103 5 2 8.8% 24.5%
July 35 .281/.343/.531 131 2 2 8.6% 37.1%

I guess the Yankees finally replaced the guy wearing No. 12 with the real Chase Headley on May 1st. April Headley stinks. Get that guy outta here. May through July Headley has been pretty damn cool though. He’s hit .285/.348/.444 (111 wRC+) in 230 plate appearances from May 1st onward, and currently owns a .255/.329/.378 (90 wRC+) line overall. Considering where he started, that’s pretty freakin’ good.

Of course, April happened and we can’t just ignore it. It cost the Yankees games in the standings. How many? That’s up for debate. There’s no debate he was a major drag on the offense that first month. The good news is Headley has turned it around and he did it relatively quickly. He had the one bad month and that was it. It’s not like he’s Teixeira, who’s still looking to get on track offensively heading into the All-Star break.

(Norm Hall/Getty)
(Norm Hall/Getty)

Speaking of turning things around, how about Headley in the field? He was not good defensively at all last season. He basically forgot how to throw. It was hard to watch. Headley seemed to be developing the yips, and in year one of a four-year contract, that’s scary as hell. Thankfully, after an offseason of work, Headley’s defense has bounced back in a big way this summer. He throws with conviction, and he’s also sure-handed at the hot corner.

Given Gregorius’ bobble issues and Teixeira’s in-and-out-of-the-lineup-ness, Headley has probably been the Yankees’ best and most reliable defender this season. Certainly on the infield, anyway. That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? Props to Headley for climbing out of that defensive rut. He worked hard at it and is back to being an above-average gloveman at third base. Between the defense and his offense since May 1st, Headley’s been solid this year.

Second Half Outlook: I’m a Headley believer, have been for years, and I think the guy we’ve seen since May 1st is the real him. Maybe not 111 wRC+ good offensively, but close. I think he’ll settle in around a 100 wRC+ and continue to be an asset in the field. That said, the Yankees are probably going to need more from Headley in the second half to get back into the race. No matter what he does, his performance in April will ensure he’s viewed as having had a bad year come the end of the season.

2016 Midseason Review: The Catchers

Now that the All-Star break has arrived, it’s time to look back and review the first half of the season. We start today with the catchers. The Yankees know a thing or two about quality backstops, historically.

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

The Yankees came into the season with an open spot behind the plate. Not the starter, of course. Veteran Brian McCann is entrenched as the team’s No. 1 backstop. The backup job was open following the trade of John Ryan Murphy, and for most of the winter it seemed top prospect Gary Sanchez would be the guy. Trade Murphy to clear a spot for Sanchez? Makes perfect sense.

That’s not what happened, however. Austin Romine beat out Sanchez for the job, just one year after being designated for assignment and passing through waivers unclaimed. Romine out-performed Sanchez in Spring Training, and the fact Sanchez had minor league options and Romine did not surely factored into the decision as well. McCann and Romine have been the team’s duo behind the plate all season. Let’s review their first half of 2016.

Brian McCann: Steadily Unspectacular

It really does look like McCann’s first year in pinstripes was an adjustment period. He hit .232/.286/.406 (93 wRC+) with 23 home runs that first season in New York, which is really good for a catcher, but I think that was a notch below expectations. The last two years have been much better, especially the first halves. Here are McCann’s first half numbers the last three years:

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ HR BB% K%
2014 330 .239/.294/.377 88 10 6.4% 14.8%
2015 290 .259/.331/.471 117 14 8.3% 18.6%
2016 274 .248/.347/.462 115 14 11.7% 19.7%

Much, much better the last two years. McCann has never not hit for power, especially with the Yankees, but now the walks have returned, boosting his OBP. He’s retained his ability to hold his own against lefties as well, hitting .235/.316/.451 (103 wRC+) against southpaws in the first half. McCann came to the Yankees having not hit left-handers in years. He’s now put up good numbers against them all three seasons in pinstripes.

The offense has been more than fine relative to the position. Defensively though, it seems McCann’s game has taken a step back this year. First and foremost, he’s thrown out only 13 of 54 basestealers, or 24.1%. That’s down from 36.8% the last two years. The Yankees parted ways with bullpen catcher Gary Tuck over the winter, and McCann credited Tuck for improving his throwing — he threw out 24.1% of basestealers his last two years with Atlanta — so his departure may explain the decline.

Both StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus rate McCann as one of the top pitch-framers in the game, so nothing has changed there. Blocking balls in the dirt seems to be a real problem though, and there’s no real way to quantify that. McCann has allowed four passed balls and 16 wild pitches, and, uh, so? That doesn’t help us. Those numbers don’t reflect the balls that get by even though the runner doesn’t advance, or McCann’s technique. We’ve seen a few of these this year:

Brian McCann block

Pitch in the dirt, McCann stabs at it instead of getting his body in front of it, and the ball hops away. That particular pitch went in the books as a wild pitch and is thus blamed on the pitcher, but did McCann put himself in the best possible position to block that ball? Not really. I feel like that’s been happening more often this year than it did the last two years.

Now, McCann is 32 and he’s got over 11,000 big league innings behind the plate on his legs, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that his mobility is not what it once was. It’s easy for me to sit here and say McCann has let some balls get by because he didn’t go down and square them up with his chest protector, but there’s a self-preservation aspect to this as well. Jumping around and going to your knees all the time probably isn’t such a great idea for a guy with all that wear and tear on his legs.

Overall, McCann has again been rock solid for the Yankees in the first half, especially on offense. He’s been an above-average hitter thanks to his walks and power, he’s picked up several big hits …

… and he’s been good behind the plate defensively. As good as he’s been in the past? I don’t think so. But he’s not Jesus Montero back there either. McCann, who was hampered by toe and elbow injuries at times in the first half, is doing exactly what the Yankees need him to do. Provide some pop and be a steadying presence behind the plate.

Second Half Outlook: McCann, like many Yankees, struggled big time down the stretch last season. He plays a grueling position and fatigue is inevitable, but obviously the team hopes to avoid a repeat. It’s imperative if they want to make a run at a postseason spot. Extra rest — McCann has started 62 of 88 games behind the dish — could be in the cards.

Austin Romine: Latest Backup Catcher Factory Product

I’m starting to think the Yankees can pull someone out of the bleachers and turn him into a quality backup catcher. Romine is the club’s third homegrown backup catcher in the last three years, and all three have been rock solid or better. Here’s the list:

2016 Austin Romine: .265/.278/.441 (80 wRC+)
2015 John Ryan Murphy: .277/.327/.406 (99 wRC+)
2014 Francisco Cervelli: .301/.370/432 (130 wRC+)

Romine has been the worst hitter of the three overall because he hasn’t matched Murphy’s or Cervelli’s on-base ability. He has hit for way more power though, mostly in the form of doubles. In fact, Romine has nine doubles on the season, the same number as McCann in 40% of the plate appearances.

The league average catcher is hitting .239/.308/.385 (84 wRC+) this season, and man, I wish there was an easy way to calculate the average line for backup catchers, because it would be way lower than that. In a vacuum, Romine has been a below-average hitter. In the world of backup catchers, he’s been very good. That bar is extremely low.

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Defensively, the numbers say Romine has been pretty poor behind the plate. StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus rate his framing as average at best, basestealers are 12-for-14 (!) against him, and he’s allowed nine passed pitches in only 227.1 innings. Yikes. He hasn’t seemed nearly that bad to me. I was surprised to see such poor throwing and passed ball/wild pitch numbers.

Look at the numbers and wow, Romine looks bad on both sides of the ball. I guess he’s appeared to be better watching him play — at least to me — because expectations were so low. Romine didn’t hit at all in 2013, his only other extended stretch in the big leagues, and again, this is guy who went unclaimed on waivers last spring. It seemed he was only keeping the backup job warm for Sanchez, but he got off to a nice start and has kept the job.

The Yankees traded Cervelli after 2014 and Murphy after 2015. Will they trade Romine after 2016? Maybe! Sanchez is looming, after all. For now he’s done an okay job as McCann’s backup — Romine’s .286/.305/.464 (95 wRC+) line against lefties has made him a fine platoon option — and allowed the Yankees to remain patient with Sanchez by giving him more time to work on his defense in Triple-A.

Second Half Outlook: Romine has been good, but not so good that he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder. Sanchez has had a strong Triple-A season, and if the Yankees do decide to throw in the towel and sell, giving Sanchez a bunch of starts in the second half would make sense. Romine would be the odd man out in that situation.