2017 Midseason Review: Holliday and the Rest of the Roster

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

So far this season the Yankees have used 43 different players — 23 position players and 20 pitchers — which is the seventh most in baseball. The Mariners lead the way with 47 players and both the Indians and Diamondbacks have been lucky enough to use only 35 players. The Yankees used their fair share of shuttle arms in the first half, though position player injuries also forced them to dip into their farm system more than expected.

We’ve already covered most of those 43 players as part of our Midseason Review. Now it’s time to wrap things up and cover whoever has been left behind. Among them is one regular because I am bad at scheduling. Time to finish off the Midseason Review.

Matt Holliday: As Advertised

When the Yankees signed Holliday in November, he came billed as a good clubhouse guy and a professional hitter with some bounceback potential given his exit velocities and things like that. Nothing was guaranteed, of course. Holliday did turn 37 in January and he very easily could have been at the end of the line. The Yankees bet $13M on a rebound and so far he’s been worth every penny.

Holliday, as the team’s regular DH and occasional first baseman, is hitting .262/.366/.511 (132 wRC+) with 15 homers in 68 games so far, and he’s the No. 1 reason the Yankees have the most productive DH spot in the baseball.

  1. Yankees: 137 wRC+
  2. Mariners: 129 wRC+
  3. Indians: 127 wRC+

Oddly enough, Holliday’s strikeouts are way up this year. His 25.7% strikeout rate is on pace to shatter his previous career high (19.6% as a rookie in 2004). I think there’s a chance Holliday is selling out for power, which might partially explain the strikeouts. Holliday has also been pretty streaky. That’s alright though. He’s been productive more often than not, and day-to-day consistency in baseball is a myth anyway.

Beyond the on-field production, Holliday has also been a positive on all the young players the Yankees are incorporating into their lineup. Aaron Judge went out of his way to praise Holliday at the All-Star Game media day Monday. Here’s what Judge told Brendan Kuty about Holliday earlier this month:

“I just pick his brain on what he does,” Judge said he often asks Holliday. “‘What are you doing in a situation, with a certain pitcher? What are you doing with this guy? He’s a sinkerball pitcher, what do you try to do with those guys?’ I’ve picked up a couple little things.”

“He’s just really committed to his plan,” Judge said. “That’s one thing I’ve noticed. I’ll talk to him (in the early afternoon) and I’ll say, ‘Hey, what are you doing this game? What are you trying to do against this guy?’ Every single time I ask him, ‘What are you working on?’ He’ll say he’s trying to stick to his plan and drive the ball to right field. That’s why he’s so successful. He just sticks to it, no matter the situation.”

An illness, which was recently confirmed as Epstein-Barr, has had Holliday on the shelf since June 24th and holy cow did the Yankees miss his bat these last few weeks. He did play a pair of rehab games last weekend and is tentatively scheduled to rejoin the Yankees for the second half opener tomorrow. That’s huge. Holliday has been everything the Yankees could have expected and more.

The Extra Position Players

Among all the random position player call-ups the Yankees have made this year, whether it was an injury fill-in or a one-day audition, the leader in plate appearances is … catcher Kyle Higashioka. He served as the backup catcher in April when an injury forced Gary Sanchez to the 10-day DL and Austin Romine into the starter’s role. Higashioka went 0-for-18 and started only five games. If that changed your opinion of him, you’re thinking too hard.

Another April injury fill-in was veteran Pete Kozma, who served as the backup while Didi Gregorius was hurt and Ronald Torreyes started at shortstop. Kozma went 1-for-9 with the Yankees and had nothing resembling a signature moment. The Yankees lost him to the Rangers on waivers when Gregorius returned and Kozma is still on their bench because Jurickson Profar played his way down to Triple-A.

Last month the Yankees finally got sick of Chris Carter and finally called up Tyler Austin, who missed the start of the season after fracturing his ankle with a foul ball early in Spring Training. Austin mashed with Triple-A Scranton before the call-up, hitting .300/.366/.560 (151 wRC+). He came up, went 2-for-13 with a home run and six strikeouts at the plate, then landed on the 10-day DL with a fairly significant hamstring strain. The Yankees can’t have nice things at first base.

The final two position players both played only one game in the big leagues this year, for very different reasons. After Holliday landed on the disabled list, the Yankees called up third base prospect Miguel Andujar for a day, and he went 3-for-4 with a double in his MLB debut. He became the first player in franchise history to drive in four runs in his big league debut.

The Yankees sent Andujar down to the minors the next day because they didn’t have regular at-bats to give him and there’s no point in making the kid sit on the bench. Andujar is really breaking out in the minors this year — he’s hitting .302/.336/.476 (121 wRC+) between Double-A and Triple-A — but he needs to work on his third base defense, so that’s what he’s doing. I’m glad the Yankees have resisted the temptation to move him to first to plug a short-term hole.

The other one-game position player in the first half was outfielder Dustin Fowler who gave us, hands down, the saddest moment of the season. In the first inning of his first big league game, Fowler crashed into the side wall in foul territory chasing a pop-up, which ruptured his right patella. It was an open rupture, meaning it broke through the skin. Yikes. Fowler had emergency surgery that night and is done for the season.

Fowler came up to replace Andujar after hitting .293/.329/.542 (137 wRC+) down in Triple-A Scranton. The Yankees called him up before Clint Frazier. They like him that much. Fowler’s injury is so sad. I feel terrible for the kid. The good news is he is expected to make a full recovery in time for Spring Training. Plus he’s on the big league disabled list collecting service time and big league pay, so his bank account is doing better. But still, you know Fowler wants to play. What a terrible and sad moment.

The Extra Pitchers

For the first two months or so of the season, the Yankees did away with the bullpen shuttle. The days of calling up a new reliever every day to make sure Joe Girardi had a fresh arm in the bullpen were over. The Yankees stuck with their guys. Then the bullpen melted down and started blowing leads left and right, and the Yankees started shuttling guys in and out regularly. Such is life. The shuttle returned last month.

The one shuttle reliever who made the Opening Day roster is Bryan Mitchell. Back-to-back rough outings (seven runs in 2.2 innings) earned him a demotion to Triple-A at the end of April. He came back up briefly at the end of May and again at the end of June. So far this season Mitchell has a 5.06 ERA (4.02 FIP) in 16 big leagues innings and a 3.60 ERA (2.27 FIP) in 35 Triple-A innings. He’ll be back at some point in the second half, I’m sure of it. Mitchell’s time to carve out a long-term role with the Yankees is running out though.

Luis Cessa, who was in the running for an Opening Day rotation spot, has made three starts and three relief appearances for the Yankees this year. The three starts came when CC Sabathia was on the disabled list and they did not go well (eleven runs in 13.2 innings). The three relief appearances were better (two runs in eleven innings). The end result is a 4.18 ERA (4.50 FIP) in 23.2 innings. I like Cessa — I seem to the be the only one who likes Cessa — and hope we see more of him going forward.

Four shuttle relievers have made their MLB debut this season: Gio Gallegos, Domingo German, Ronald Herrera, and Tyler Webb. They’ve combined for the the following line: 31 IP, 32 H, 20 R, 18 ER, 16 BB, 30 K. Replacement Level ‘R Us. German showed the most potential among those four. By far, I think. He also returned from Tommy John surgery a little more than a year ago and needs to pitch, not sit in the big league bullpen as the eight reliever. He’s in Triple-A where he belongs. Also, Ben Heller spent a day with the Yankees. He faced three batters: grounder, walk, walk-off single off his butt. He does have a 2.68 ERA (3.11 FIP) in 37 Triple-A innings though.

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The Yankees have used 43 players this season and over the last four years they’ve averaged 56 players per season, so recent history suggests we’re going to see several new faces in the second half. New faces from outside the organization or the farm system. Probably a little of both.

2017 Midseason Review: The Bullpen

(AP)
(AP)

The Yankees’ bullpen was supposed to be a strength in 2017 after it helped hold together the 2016 squad. Aroldis Chapman back, Dellin Betances still in middle relief and some intriguing young players.

And it looked like a continuation of 2016 early on. But things have quickly gone off the rails over the last month. Here’s a rundown of the top players in the Yankees’ pen so far this year.

Dellin Betances

Key Stat: 8.26 walks per nine innings

Betances has never been known for his pinpoint control, but he’s barely had an idea where the ball is going in recent weeks. Like many of the guys on the roster, reviewing Betances’ season is almost like reviewing two seasons.

Through the end of May, he was the Yankees’ best reliever as expected. In 17 1/3 innings, he struck out 32, walked nine, gave up eight hits and just one earned run. That’s an ERA of just 0.52. There’s a reason he just made his fourth straight All-Star appearance.

But his 11 innings since June began have been troubling. He’s walked 17 in 11 innings, allowing nine runs despite giving up just six hits (and still striking out 21). He blew multiple games (Toronto, Houston, Chicago come to mind).

He hasn’t looked anything like this since he first came up in 2011. Sure, he’s had walk issues (4.3 per nine in 2015), but this has been pretty absurd. 20.6 percent walk rate. He actually still has the same strikeout rate because his stuff is still there. Whether it’s been his nasty curve or his fastball, they’ve betrayed him at times. The Blue Jays game last week jumps to mind.

One issue that could have led to his lack of command has been his usage. From May 9 to May 21, he picked up just two outs. From June 3 to June 12, he pitched in just one game and got just one out. It’s nice to see a lesser workload for the big man who’s been overused at times in his career, but he needs to get into games more often. Part of his underuse was the injury to Chapman leading to Joe Girardi using Betances as a traditional closer.

Aroldis Chapman

Key Stat: 35 days on the disabled list

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Perhaps the worst nightmare of a team giving a reliever a five-year deal is them spending significant time on the DL with a shoulder injury. That fear was realized when Chapman went down with rotator cuff inflammation in May.

Chapman seemed off at start of the year. His velocity was down, although it wasn’t too worrisome at first. The big lefty usually doesn’t hit peak velocity until mid-season. Still, seeing him toy with his changeup more and throw *merely* in the high 90s was a caution flag. Beginning with his struggles against Boston on Apr. 26, he looked hittable. It came to a head when he blew a three-run lead during the Yankees’ 18-inning win in Chicago. He simply couldn’t put guys away, which may have been due to his lower velocity, down one mph across the board so far in 2017.

His stuff has looked good since he returned and his strikeouts are still there. His underlying stats (1.16 FIP, career worst strand rate) indicate that a second-half resurgence is likely. Yet this is certainly not what the Yankees imagined when they signed him to a long-term deal.

Let’s get to some of the weird stats. He has allowed zero home runs this year. He has a .426 BABIP but a 27.3 percent infield fly ball rate. His 2.09 GB-to-FB ratio is easily a career high (previous was 1.58 in 2016, never higher than 1.25 since 2011). Surely he’ll allow a home run at some point and some of the BABIP spike can be from more groundballs getting through, but it’s still a little different than the Chapman we expected.

Tyler Clippard

Key Stat: 12 meltdowns

Welp.

It hasn’t been a pretty last two months for Clippard. He started to fall apart right after I wrote that fans should appreciate the homegrown talent. Mike was very much on point saying that his lack of home runs would soon change (although I never thought otherwise), but it was tough to see things going quite this poorly, at least for me.

For two months, he was a seemingly reliable pitcher. There were some rough games, including a blown game against the Orioles in his second appearance. But he struck out batters at a career-best rate through two months and had limited walks and hard contact enough to earn high leverage spots. The red flags of his high strand rate (88.5 percent through May) and zero homers in May made it fairly obvious he wouldn’t maintain that level of effectiveness.

Still, it went south worst than expected. Way worse. One could have easily projected he’d give up more homers, but for him to completely fall apart was disheartening. Relievers are fungible and such is life.

From June 4 to July 7, he threw 11 1/3 innings, gave up 16 earned runs, walked 10 and surrendered five homers, culminating fittingly in a grand slam against the Brewers this weekend. That’s 7.9 walks and 4.0 homers per nine innings. His K-BB rate was 3.4 percent. Batters hit .298/.414/766 against him in that time. Before that, they hit a paltry .150/.244/.238.

At this point, one has to wonder whether he makes it through the season, let alone the month. His stuff seems to have had a little more life on it in recent games, but the results simply aren’t there and trotting him into high leverage situations right now is a costly mistake.

Adam Warren

Key Stat: 18.1 K-BB percentage

Warren has been one of the Yankees’ more reliable relievers this season and it’s started to earn him some spots ahead of Clippard since he returned from the DL last week. He missed 18 days with right shoulder inflammation, although it didn’t seem to be anything too serious. He’s jumped right back to form for the most part.

In April, he was mostly a long reliever despite being in short relief to end 2016. In seven appearances to start the year, he had six of at least four outs and four of seven-plus outs. He came in with the team ahead or behind, keeping games within reach or preventing any comebacks.

After Chapman’s injury, he moved into short relief as Girardi’s 7th-inning game. He had three blown leads but was competent, bringing a 2.23 ERA into his stint on the DL beginning June 16.

What has he had working for him? His strikeout and walk rates are both career bests. He’s utilized his slider more (up 12 percent) while decreasing the usage of his other offspeed stuff. While that doesn’t necessarily account for his better control, it could be the reason he’s struck out more batters.

There is a red flag: His 2.9 percent HR/FB rate. He’s bound to let some balls leave the yard in the second half. He has an increased groundball rate and GB/FB ratio, which could help explain part of that.

Since returning to the Yankees last July, he has a 2.59 ERA in 66 innings with batters slashing .191/.260/.298 against him. It’s been a nice welcome back.

Chad Green

Key Stat: 34.7 percent strikeout rate

Green. (Getty)
(Getty Images)

Since coming up for the first time in May, Green has been a revelation in relief. He’s mostly filled in with Warren’s old role of the multi-inning reliever, throwing 33 innings in 17 games, including one brief start.

Green displayed his potential last year in the rotation and was one of the last cuts in spring training‘s battle for the fifth starter role. He’s struck out batters at every level but his fastball-slider combo seemed best suited for relief (S/O against to Mike, who called it).

Perhaps his biggest flaw in 2016 was his performance against lefties, who posted a 1.014 OPS against the righty. He actually has a slight reverse split in 2017 in a small sample, giving up just four hits in 35 at-bats vs. LHBs. He’s introduced his cutter more at times but he’s also just relied more on his four-seamer, throwing it over 60 percent of the time the last two months.

His flyball has increased, but HR/FB way down from 25 percent to 9.4, much closer to league average. The 25 percent last year seemed like somewhat an outlier. Even a few more homers won’t spoil his 1.91 ERA too much

Overall, he’s blowing people away with mid/upper 90s fastball and his top notch slider, sporting a 5.25 K/BB ratio. He looks more and more like a late inning reliever and his ability to throw multiple innings increases his value moving forward.

Jonathan Holder

Key Stat: 5 meltdowns in 32 games

Holder earned a spot in the bullpen this spring after making a brief call-up in September. After pitching mostly in mop-up duty to start the year, he slowly inched his way into a few higher leverage spots, but he never rose too high in the bullpen pecking order. His best outings came in the Cubs series, when he earned a win in the first game before throwing three shutout innings in relief during the 18-inning affair.

As stated above, he had a few meltdowns. He was tossed into a one-run game against the Orioles Apr. 30 and handed the Orioles a 4-2 lead against the heart of the order. He allowed the Royals to blow a game open in May. And he received a blown save and a loss during the cursed West Coast trip.

In the minors, Holder made his name for his high strikeout rate. His 22.9 percent K rate in 2017 isn’t bad, but it’s not quite what he was doing in the minors. The team still seems high on the 24-year-old and he’s been solid this year. Not spectacular, but fine in low-leverage relief.

It’s easy to forget because he was sent down for a while and didn’t factor into many decisions, but he’s thrown the third-most relief innings for the Yankees behind Warren and Clippard. In the second half, he’ll surely get another chance to stick in the majors.

15 pitchers have seen time in relief for the Yankees this season. Not quite the shuttle of past years, though they’ve shuffled through multiple guys in recent weeks. Chasen Shreve has seemed to stick as the token lefty with Tommy Layne gone and he’s been … pretty average. Better than last year, but not near his dominant summer of 2015. I’m a believer in Bryan Mitchell and Domingo German as potential relievers, but they likely won’t see much time in the eight-man pen.

With Clippard’s struggles, the Yankees surely will be in the market for a reliever. For now, they’ll have to hope for better second halves from Chapman and Betances alongside continued success from Warren and Green.

2017 Midseason Review: The Starting Rotation

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Coming into Spring Training and the 2017 season, the starting rotation was pretty clearly the biggest concern for the Yankees. They had three veterans to anchor the rotation in Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, and CC Sabathia, yet all three came with some questions. Tanaka’s elbow hangs over every pitch he throws, Sabathia is nearing the end of his career, and Pineda is, well, Pineda.

The final two rotation spots were wide open going into camp. I always though Luis Severino had a leg up on a spot — I definitely wrote that a few times — and sure enough, he landed one in Spring Training. The Yankees had four candidates for the fifth starter’s spot (Adam Warren, Bryan Mitchell, Chad Green, Luis Cessa) and none of them won it. Jordan Montgomery snuck up and beat everyone out. Time to review the rotation.

Masahiro Tanaka: The Return of the Dingers

Last season Tanaka was, legitimately, one of the best starters in the league. He threw 199.2 innings with a 3.07 ERA (3.51 FIP) and strong strikeout (20.5%) and walk (4.5%) numbers. If you’re into WHIP, his 1.077 WHIP was fifth lowest among AL qualified starters. Tanaka was excellent.

This season Tanaka has been one of the worst starters in the league. There are 74 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title and Tanaka ranks 69th in ERA (5.47) and 59th in FIP (5.03). He’s also 71st in home run rate (2.03 HR/9), which is his biggest problem. Tanaka has not been able to keep the ball in the park, especially of late. We’re talking 20 homers in his last 13 starts, and that includes a three-start stretch with no homers.

Why is Tanaka allowing so many more homers? Well, the answer is kinda obvious. He’s been leaving too many pitches out over the plate, and because he’s not overpowering (and because balls are flying out of every park this year), Tanaka has paid dearly for his mistakes. The question is why is he making more mistakes? Why have more fastballs run back over the plate, and why haven’t his splitter and slider had the same bite for long stretches of time?

The Yankees and Tanaka are still looking for that answer. It looked like he found something these last few weeks, in which he fired 31.2 innings with a 2.56 ERA (3.21 FIP) across five starts. Then Tanaka got bombed Sunday, in the final game before the All-Star break. One step forward, one step back. Hopefully that game was just a blip and Tanaka goes back to dominating again like he did in four of his previous five starts. That would be swell.

Whatever is wrong with Tanaka — injury, bad mechanics, lack of confidence, etc. — it is the single biggest problem for the Yankees right now. Even moreso than the bullpen, I think. I think Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman will figure it out and be fine. Given how long Tanaka has struggled — basically since Opening Day — his struggles concern me more. It’s hard to imagine the Yankees getting to the postseason if Tanaka continues pitching like this.

Luis Severino: The Emerging Ace

Aside from Aaron Judge, who is on a completely different level than everyone else right now, there has been no better short and long-term development for the Yankees this season than Severino. He came up and pitched very well in the second half of 2015, struggled mightily as a starter in 2016, and now he’s pitching at a near ace level (3.54 ERA and 3.16 FIP) through 17 starts and 106.2 innings. His ranks among the 74 qualified starters:

  • Strikeout Rate: 28.4% (8th)
  • Walk Rate: 6.2% (17th)
  • K/BB ratio: 4.59 (8th)
  • Ground Ball Rate: 52.4% (8th)

Severino and Lance McCullers Jr. are the only pitchers who rank in the top ten in both strikeout rate and ground ball rate, and they’re both deserving All-Stars. By Game Score, the 23-year-old Severino — he spent most of the season as the youngest player on the roster before the recent Tyler Wade and Clint Frazier call-ups — is responsible for four of the nine best and five of the eleven best games pitched by a Yankee this season.

What has been different about Severino this year? A few things. For starters, he seems to be much more aggressive with his fastball. I really believe the stint in the bullpen last season taught Severino that yes, he can throw his heater by big league hitters, and that gave him the confidence to do it this year. He’s no longer trying to paint the corner. He’s just letting it fly and letting the pitch’s natural life and velocity do the rest. (At 97.5 mph, Severino has the highest average fastball velocity among all starters in 2017. Carlos Martinez is second at 96.8 mph.)

Two, Severino seems to have much more confidence in his changeup. He’s not necessarily throwing it more often — he threw the pitch 14.1% of the time in 2015, 9.4% of the time in 2016, and 11.4% of the time in 2017 — but he is throwing better quality changeups and he’s throwing it with more conviction. Last year Severino admitted he lost confidence in his changeup and he basically stopped throwing it by the end of the season. The changeup is still his third pitch, but Severino uses it and he now seems to trust it again.

And three, he’s locating his slider so much better this year. So, so much better. Last season he left way too many sliders up in the zone and hitters either fouled it off or put it in play rather than swing and miss. This year’s he’s burying the pitch down and getting those whiffs. That impressive — and elite! — combination of strikeouts and ground balls is no accident. Severino pairs a big fastball with a better located wipeout slider and an improved changeup.

I’m curious to see how the Yankees will handle Severino’s workload in the second half because he is on pace to throw 201 innings, and I can’t imagine they’ll let a 23-year-old kid throw 200+ innings. Or maybe they will. Who knows? My guess is the Yankees find a way to give Severino some extra rest between starts down the stretch. We’ll see. Whatever they do, the most important thing is that Severino looks like a top of the rotation starter, and gosh do the Yankees need one of those going forward.

CC Sabathia: The Veteran Innings Guy

Aside from a rough four-start stretch spanning late-April and early-May in which he allowed 22 runs in 20.2 innings, Sabathia has been steady and reliable for the Yankees this year. He reinvented himself as a cutter pitcher last year and he’s stuck with that approach this year. Sabathia in 2016: 3.91 ERA and 4.28 FIP. Sabathia in 2017: 3.81 ERA and 4.19 FIP. Yup.

Sabathia did miss three weeks with a hamstring injury and his first start back was pretty bad (four runs in 2.2 innings), and, in hindsight, the Yankees shoulda sent him out on a minor league rehab assignment rather than have him make one start — one start on a 75-80 pitch count, no less — before the All-Star break. Either way, Sabathia’s days as an ace are over, but so are his days as a below-average pitcher, which he was from 2013-15. The big man made some adjustments last year, they worked, he’s stuck with them, and they’re still working. That’s pretty much all there is to say about him. Go CC.

Michael Pineda: Same Ol’ Michael Pineda

Groan. Do we really have to review Pineda’s season? He’s the same guy he was last year and the year before that. The difference this year is that Pineda started very well and had more than a few folks, myself included, thinking he had turned the corner. But no, it was just one of his patented “did he figure it out???” streaks at the start of the season. To the monthly splits:

  • April: 3.14 ERA (3.25 FIP)
  • May: 3.48 ERA (4.76 FIP)
  • June: 5.35 ERA (4.69 FIP)
  • July: 15.00 ERA (16.48 FIP) in one start

Overall, Pineda has a 4.39 ERA (4.64 FIP) in 96.1 innings this year. He had a 4.60 ERA (3.58 FIP) in 336.1 innings the last two seasons. The biggest difference this year is the home runs, though that’s not unique to Pineda. Almost every pitcher in the league is allowing more homers this year. Pineda had a 1.28 HR/9 from 2015-16. It’s 1.87 HR/9 this year, hence the massive spike in FIP.

One thing Pineda does deserve credit for is his improved performance with two strikes. Remember all those annoying two-strike hits last season? Check it out:

  • 2016 with two strikes: .187/.246/.286 (104 OPS+)
  • 2017 with two strikes: .162/.212/.242 (71 OPS+)

I know a .187/.246/.286 batting line against seems great, but in two-strike counts, it was actually 4% worse than average last year. That shouldn’t happen to a guy with Pineda’s slider. This year he’s been much better with two strikes. He’s gone from 4% below-average to 29% above-average. And, to be fair, last season is the outlier for Pineda. He has a career 42 OPS+ allowed in two-strike counts. Usually he excels in those spots. Last season he didn’t for whatever reason.

In all likelihood Pineda is entering his final few months as a Yankee, and maybe even his final few weeks. If the team continues to fall in the standings, they could ship Pineda to a pitching needy contender at the trade deadline. He’s a free agent after the season and he’s not a qualifying offer candidate. Not when the potential return is a pick after the fourth round. Not worth the risk. Pineda started this season pretty well. But with each passing start, it’s becoming more and more clear he’s the same guy he’s always been.

Jordan Montgomery: The Reliable Rookie

I thought it was inevitable we would see Montgomery in the big leagues at some point this season. He came into 2017 as New York’s best big league ready pitching prospect and by a pretty decent margin. I just didn’t think he’d win a rotation spot out of Spring Training. Montgomery outpitched everyone else in camp, the Yankees decided he was their best option, and he’s been a rotation mainstay ever since.

Through 16 big league starts the 24-year-old Montgomery has a 3.65 ERA (4.05 FIP) in 91.1 innings. He’s completed six innings in eight of those 16 starts and at least five innings in 13 of those 16 starts. Joe Girardi has had a quick hook with the rookie at times, which is fine. For the most part Montgomery has been a consistent source of quality innings. Three things stand out about his first half.

1. His lack of ground balls is starting to catch up to him. Montgomery is a big man (6-foot-6) with an extreme over-the-top arm angle, and because of that, he can have a tough time getting his pitches down at the knees and below the strike zone. The result has been a 41.6% ground ball rate, which ranks 50th among those 74 qualified starters. And lately, more and more of those fly balls are turning into home runs:

jordan-montgomery-home-run-rate

Home runs are being hit at a higher rate than at any other point in baseball history and Montgomery’s home ballpark is homer happy Yankee Stadium. Given how fly ball prone he’s been so far this season, it was only a matter of time until the home runs came. Hopefully more grounders will follow.

2. He’s great at getting hitters to chase out of the zone. Montgomery is a polished young pitcher with a five-pitch arsenal. He’s got both a straight four-seamer and a sinker, plus a slider, a changeup, and a curveball. His least used pitch is his slider. He’s thrown it 13.0% of the time this year, which is pretty darn often for a fifth pitch. Because of his deep arsenal, Montgomery has excelled at getting hitters to swing out of the zone. Here is the chase rate leaderboard:

  1. Masahiro Tanaka: 39.8%
  2. Zack Greinke: 38.6%
  3. Jordan Montgomery: 38.3%
  4. Chris Sale: 38.3%
  5. Clayton Kershaw: 37.6%

Max Scherzer (37.2%) is sixth. McCullers (36.9%) is seventh. Corey Kluber (36.8%) is eighth. The top of the chase rate leaderboard is basically the seven best pitchers in baseball and Jordan Montgomery. Getting hitters to expand the zone is a very valuable skill. Swings on pitches out of the strike zone often result in swings and misses or weak contact. You don’t see those pitches squared up very often. That chase rate ability is a big reason why Montgomery has had so much success early in his MLB career.

3. Montgomery is not afraid to pitch inside. Especially to righties, which he needs to do to have success. He’s not going to blow anyone away with the sheer quality of his stuff. Here’s a heat map of his fastball and slider locations against right-handed batters, via Baseball Savant:

jordan-montgomery-heat-mapYep. Montgomery lives on the inner half of the plate with those pitches against righties. He uses them to set up changeups and curveballs away, and he’s been successful doing that. Montgomery has held righties to a .249/.307/.403 (.306 wOBA) batting line. He’s not dominating them by any means, but he is holding his own, and that’s important as a starting pitcher. Pitching inside allows him to have that success.

Montgomery right now looks very much like a long-term keeper. He’s poised and he seems fearless on the mound, even when things are going haywire. Add in the fact he throws five pitches regularly and has pretty good command, and the ingredients are there to stick in the rotation going forward. The Yankees needed to find some starting pitchers this year and they’ve found one in Montgomery.

* * *

Tanaka, Severino, Sabathia, Pineda, and Montgomery have combined to start 82 of 86 games for the Yankees this season. Cessa started three and Green started one while Sabathia was sidelined with his hamstring injury. Otherwise the Yankees have been pretty fortunate injury-wise. That’s not to say the good health will continue all year, but it happened in the first half, and that’s all that matters right now.

Believe it or not, the rotation ranks tenth in ERA (4.26) and eighth in FIP (4.21) among the 30 teams, which surprised me. It still feels like there’s room for improvement, mostly with Tanaka but also with Pineda given his recent performance. The Yankees now have two rotation building blocks in Severino and Montgomery whereas four months ago they had none, and Sabathia sure looks like a new pitcher too. I still expect the Yankees to be in on just about every high-end starter at the trade deadline because hey, there’s no such thing as too much pitching. The current rotation has been good enough to get the Yankees to the All-Star break in postseason position.

2017 Midseason Review: The Outfield

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Going into the spring, the Yankees had two spots claimed in the outfield and one up for grabs.

Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner were the veteran holdovers from last season while the pair of Aarons — Hicks and Judge — battled for right field. Both hit quite well in the spring, so the job went to the prospect with higher promise — and what promise it has been!

Perhaps the best way to look at this outfield is going month-to-month, as things changed … other than Aaron Judge‘s dominance.

April: Judge and Hicks emerge

As I’m sure everyone remembers, Judge was a monster in April. He smacked 10 home runs, batting .303/.411/.750 (198 wRC+) for the month. Somehow, that wasn’t his peak for the season. That slugging percentage should be a little higher because of that “triple” against the Cardinals. It actually took him five starts to hit a home run and he’s taken off from there.

Hicks, on the other hand, was the fourth outfielder, so he took a lot of pinch hitting duty early on. He hit two home runs vs. the Rays on Apr. 13 and proved effective in the 57 plate appearances he received. His .295/.429/614 (173 wRC+) slash line is his best for a month this year.

Gardner and Ellsbury each got off to slow starts, which allowed Hicks to get into the lineup more often. They combined for 11 stolen bases (and fielded their positions well, like both Aarons), but had 78 and 99 wRC+ respectively. Gardner was slowed by a collision at first base against Tampa Bay while Ellsbury met expectations while hitting a key grand slam against Baltimore.

Signature moments: I’ll nominate two: Judge’s birthday, when he homered and dove into the stands for a catch vs. Boston, and Hicks’ two-homer game against the Rays, when he provided all of the offense the Yanks needed.

May: Judge (and Gardner) surge

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The fair assumption was that Judge would cool off in May. His OPS did fall… but from 1.161 to 1.084. Another seven homers, just insane stuff. Hits first grand slam came late in the month and he followed with a Memorial Day homer next day. He actually hit for more average in May yet with a little less power.

Meanwhile, Gardner went on a power surge starting with a two-homer game vs. Toronto May 2, his first of two multi-homer games in the month. He had perhaps the most clutch homer of the season vs. the Cubs three days later. His nine homers for the month were more than he had all of 2016.

Hicks really hit his stride, earning some playing time over Ellsbury before Taco’s injury. Not quite as good as April overall, but he also proved his first month wasn’t a fluke. He had seven hits over the first two games of the Cubs series and 10 hits over a four-day span.

Even Taco hit better in May with a .288/.373/.442 (120 wRC+) line. Just one HR, but five doubles. Unfortunately, he got hurt catching a ball on May 24 and was out for over a month.

Signature moment: Easily Gardner vs. the Cubs. Down to the final strike, Gardner erased a 2-0 deficit with a game-winning three-run shot. That’s a very literal game changer.

June: How is Judge still doing this!?!

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Judge literally got on base every single game in June. That shouldn’t be possible. But it was. That 495-foot homer was absurd. He struck out 39 times, but walked 30(!). Another 10 home runs. Ho hum.

Like Ellsbury, Hicks got hurt making a catch and it threw a wrench into the outfield situation. He had slumped later in the month, but was still walking and getting on base. Ellsbury’s return was quickened by the loss of Hicks.

Gardner cooled off significantly (.239/.296/.389 for June). With his power falling off, he got back to stealing bases with five and continued to provide solid fielding in left and center.

Off the bench, the Yankees went to Mason Williams and Rob Refsnyder, the former who would be DFA’d. You surely remember the Dustin Fowler injury…

Signature moment: Is there any question? It’s Judge vs. the Orioles. A 495-foot homer is impressive in BP, let alone in game. And he followed it with a lightning fast shot to right-center.

July: Enter Clint Frazier

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Since returning at the end of June, Ellsbury is batting just .208/.321/.208. No power and a lot of weak grounders to second. Judge, of course, is still doing Judge things, though his on-base streak came to an end on July 1. He also won the Home Run Derby, which was cool. Gardner picked up just five hits (no HR) in 37 plate appearances.

The main bright spot in the eight games before the ASG was Clint Frazier. Frazier has been a revelation with his bat speed. He could force his way onto the roster post-Hicks return, although the outfield will be quite crowded if everyone stays healthy. Six of his seven hits have gone for extra bases and he’s slugging .875 through 24 at-bats. I like it!

Signature moment: Frazier’s walk-off vs. the Brewers. He fastball hunted against All-Star Corey Knebel and launched one to left for the win. Well done.

With Judge, Hicks, Ellsbury, Gardner and Frazier all starting quality outfielders, the Yankees have some of the most enviable outfield depth in baseball. That crew includes the MVP so far, a young player having a career year, a vet with a power resurgence and a 22-year-old just tapping into potential. It’s been a good 3 1/2 months for the Bombers OF and it should be a good overall season, too.

2017 Midseason Review: The Infielders

(Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
(Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

In the weeks leading up to Opening Day, our expectations surrounding the infield were fairly high. Greg Bird was raking in Spring Training, and it seemed as though he hadn’t missed a beat; and, in the event that he did, Chris Carter was around as an overqualified back-up. Starlin Castro had shown flashes of brilliance in 2016, and had been hyped-up by some as a potential breakout player. Chase Headley … well, his defense had improved, and he was better after a calamitous first month. And Didi Gregorius was coming off of a great all-around season. What could possibly go wrong?

The First Basemen

Expectation: Bird and Carter would form a more than competent platoon, of sorts, with Carter playing first against tougher LHP, and allowing Bird to rest a bit more often than a normal team composition would dictate. ZiPS projected a .234/.307/.449 line for Bird, and .223/.316/.509 for Carter.

Reality: Bird is on the disabled list for the second time in his career, as the result of an ankle injury. He’s played just 19 games, and is hitting on a .100/.250/.200 slash line. And Carter has earned himself two DFA’s by hitting .201/.284/.370 and absolutely brutal defense at first. The starter is currently Ji-Man Choi.

I almost don’t want to write more about first base, as it’s rather depressing. Bird’s injury (and the resulting fallout from the front office) has cast a shadow over the team’s season, and it has only grown darker as the team struggled over the last few weeks. His return is still up in the air, and surgery is a distinct possibility. And it is that uncertainty that is most frustrating.

And Carter – the should-have-been safety net – failed catastrophically. We always knew that he was a feast or famine hitter, but that had still resulted in a .221/.318/.474 slash line (116 wRC+) in five seasons as a regular. There was some sentiment that he was struggling as he adjusted to playing part time, but that excuse went out the window once he became the full-time first baseman. His 73 wRC+ ranks dead last among first basemen.

Choi is the starter for the time being, and he has made a decent impression in a four games. He’s hitting .182/.308/.727 in 13 PA, with 2 HR and 2 BB, and there’s no real challenger for his position in the organization right now. And, for what it’s worth, he does have a career .853 OPS in 851 PA at Triple-A.

Second-Half Forecast: The Yankees will acquire a first baseman via trade, and shut Bird down sooner rather than later.

The Second Basemen

Expectation: Castro would continue to be a competent yet frustrating presence at the keystone. ZiPS projected a .272/.305/.419 slash line, which isn’t too far off from his career norms (in 4000-plus PA).

Reality: Castro is currently on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, which was a major blow to the team’s lineup. He’s currently slashing .313/.348/.486 (121 wRC+) with 12 HR in 313 PA.

The 27-year-old Castro absolutely raked in April, batting .352/.362/.549 (154 wRC+) with 5 home runs. He also had a 7.1% walk rate, which is impressive for the free-swinger. His performance dipped in May (97 wRC+, 3.4 BB%), but he showed improvements in June (117 wRC+, 4.2 BB%) prior to hitting the DL. Castro earned an All-Star nod for his first-half, but had to be replaced due to that injury.

Tyler Wade and Ronald Torreyes have filled-in since the injury. I’ll have more on them in a bit.

Second-Half Forecast: Castro will be back soon, and his numbers will continue to fluctuate. With so much strong production in the bank, however, we may end up seeing a career year.

The Third Basemen

Expectation: Headley would be a warm body at the hot corner, with competent defense. And maybe, just maybe, he’d be a bit better with the bat. ZiPS had him at .247/.324/.376.

Reality: Headley has been a warm body at the hot corner, but his defense has regressed. His offense (91 wRC+) is right in-line with 2015 (92 wRC+) and 2016 (92 wRC+), even with a blistering hot start.

This is who Headley is at this point. He’s batting .254/.329/.373 (92 wRC+) since Opening Day of 2015, and his highs (142 wRC+ in April) are always met with ridiculous lows (15 wRC+ in May). That’s fine when he’s playing strong defense, as he did in 2016, but he has been a borderline disaster out there in 2017. DRS has him at -5 runs already, and he has already surpassed last year’s error total.

Second-Half Forecast: More of the same, unfortunately. Though, I could see a Miguel Andujar cup of coffee happening down the stretch.

The Shortstops

Expectation: Gregorius would continue to win our hearts with his surprising power, slick defense, and top-notch Twitter game. ZiPS was bearish on the power spike, projecting a .262/.308/.404 line.

Reality: Pretty darn close, albeit with nearly a month lost to a shoulder injury suffered at the World Baseball Classic. He’s hitting .291/.321/.458 with 10 HR (104 wRC+) on the year, and nearly made the All-Star team.

Gregorius is one of the most likable players in baseball, as evidenced by the fun he had trying to garner that final vote. The fact that he has proven that last season wasn’t a fluke helps, too, and he is currently a top-10 shortstop by both WAR (7th in MLB) and wRC+ (9th). And keep in mind that WAR is a counting stat, so the fact that he’s 26th among shortstop in PA helps to bring that number down. He may not be a Hall of Fame talent, but that’s perfectly acceptable – he’s still really, really good.

Second-Half Forecast: Gregorius will keep it up. He’s the safest bet among the infielders to be an above-average player for the remainder of the season, and I’m confident that he will.

The Reserves

Expectation: Ronald Torreyes and Co. would be perfectly adequate bench players.

Reality: Torreyes and Co. have been perfectly adequate – but they’ve had too play more often than anyone would have wanted.

Torreyes spent most of April as the team’s starting shortstop, and he was surprisingly competent. He posted a .313/.313/.433 slash line (95 wRC+) while Gregorius was on the mend, and his defense was more than passable. He has been overextended and a bit exposed since then, though, as he has already surpassed last year’s PA mark, and stands to play more as the season wears on. He’s another fun player, but he shouldn’t be counted on for much more than what he’s done already.

Wade was called upon to shore up the bench when Castro landed on the DL, and he has picked up five starts at second in those two weeks. He has yet to get on-track (.107/.219/.179 in 32 PA), but his versatility and speed should earn him more opportunities in the coming months. Wade hit .313/.390/.444 (134 wRC+) with 5 HR and 24 SB at Triple-A this year, and he might just be the best reserve the team has right now.

Rob Refsnyder is still around, too, but the Yankees seem to have decided that he’s a 1B/LF/RF. He’s batting .135/.200/.216 in 40 PA, and he hasn’t played since July 2.

Second-Half Forecast: This may be optimistic, but I’m hoping that we’ll see more of Wade, and less of Torreyes (and Refsnyder, if such a thing is even possible). The Yankees have been grooming him for this exact role for some time now; it’s his time to shine.

2017 Midseason Review: The Catchers

With the world of baseball enjoying the All-Star break, this week is as good a time as any to look back and review the first half of the Yankees’ 2017 season. It was a really interesting first half, wasn’t it? Let’s begin today with the two catchers.

Yo soy Gary. (Adam Hunger/Getty)
Yo soy Gary. (Adam Hunger/Getty)

The history of the Yankees is littered with excellent offensive catchers. Back in the day there was Bill Dickey, then Yogi Berra, then Elston Howard, then Thurman Munson, then Jorge Posada. Now the Yankees have Gary Sanchez, a homegrown 24-year-old All-Star in his first full season as the starting catcher. He gives the Yankees yet another excellent offensive catcher to anchor the lineup. His backup, Austin Romine, is homegrown too. Let’s review the first half of their season.

Gary Sanchez: Nearly repeating 2016 in 2017

What Sanchez did last year, smashing 20 home runs in 53 games en route to being named AL Rookie of the Year runner-up, made it impossible to estimate his true talent level coming into the 2017 season. Expecting him to sustain a 60-homer pace was unrealistic. The question is how much would his production fall?

Turns out, not much. At least not until Sanchez hit the skids a bit the final week before the All-Star break. His numbers through the same number of plate appearances as last year are freakishly similar:

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ HR K% BB% BABIP
2016 229 .299/.376/.657 171 20 24.9% 10.5% .317
2017 229 .289/.376/.517 139 13 23.1% 10.0% .333

Sanchez has gone 1-for-13 since his 229th plate appearance to drag his overall season batting line down to .276/.360/.591 (127 wRC+), which is still pretty awesome. Only Salvador Perez has more home runs among all catchers. (He has 18.) Among the 24 catchers with at least 200 plate appearances, only Alex Avila (156) and Buster Posey (142) have been more productive overall in terms of wRC+.

As for the straight 229 plate appearances comparison, it’s kinda freaky, no? The AVG, OBP, BABIP, strikeout rate, and walk rate are nearly identical to last year. The difference falls within the error bars of baseball randomness. The similarities go beyond those numbers too. Sanchez’s hard contact rate (41.8% vs. 37.2%) and pull rate (54.1% vs. 52.6%) are nearly identical. So is his chase rate (32.9% vs. 30.8%) and contact rate in pitches in the zone (83.7% vs. 85.0%).

This season Sanchez is hitting fewer ground balls (49.3% vs. 42.6%), which is a good thing! You want him hitting the ball in the air. At the same time, his HR/FB rate has dropped from 40.0% to 26.0%. That was to be expected though. No one can hit two out of every five fly balls out of the park. That was never going to last. The fewer grounders is good though. The more Gary hits the ball in the air, the more damage he’ll do. He’s not hitting at a 60-homer pace anymore. It’s more like a 35-homer pace. And that is pretty cool.

One thing I think everyone has noticed about Sanchez’s season to date is that he’s had an awful lot of hard-hit outs. I mean, he hits the ball hard a lot, so it’s bound to happen, but it seems like Gary has had more line drives find gloves than any one player reasonably should. Here are the numbers:

% Batted Balls at 100+ mph AVG on 100+ mph balls BABIP on 100+ mph balls
Sanchez 36.6% .561 .432
MLB AVG 19.4% .650 .564

Okay, so we’re not imagining things. Sanchez has had an inordinate number of hard-hit batted balls — I used 100 mph exit velocity as my cutoff because humans are obsessed with round numbers — for whatever reason. Part of it is probably his pull rate, right? Sanchez pulls the ball a lot so teams shift their defenses to that side. Some of it is probably plain ol’ bad luck too. Hopefully that luck pendulum swings back in Gary’s favor in the second half.

On the defensive side, Sanchez has had a bit of a rocky season, I’d say. He’s especially had trouble blocking pitches in the dirt. We saw Joe Girardi pull him aside in Chicago after he failed to block a Masahiro Tanaka splitter two weeks ago. The catcher defense stats at Baseball Prospectus say Sanchez was 1.4 runs below average blocking balls in 316 innings last year. This year he’s at 0.5 runs below average in 400.2 innings. Hmmm.

The numbers say Sanchez has been a bit better this year blocking balls but still below average overall. The eye test tells me he’s been worse this year, but who knows. Your eyes lie. Perhaps I was too distracted by all those glorious dingers last season to notice his blocking deficiencies. Point is, blocking pitches has been an issue for Sanchez this year and it’s something he needs to improve going forward.

In terms of throwing, Gary has been great. He’s thrown out eleven of 30 would be basestealers, or 37%, well above the 27% league average. Last year he had a 41% caught stealing rate, so he’s not too far off that mark. Not enough to be a red flag. Baseball Prospectus rates his pitch-framing as a tick above average too (+1.7 runs). The same was true last year (+1.6 runs). Not great, not awful. Good enough.

Aside from the biceps injury, which thankfully has not lingered, Sanchez’s sophomore season has gone about as well as we could have hoped. His power numbers have taken an expected step back but he’s still a force at the plate. Add that to average-ish defense (above-average throwing, average framing, below-average blocking) and you’ve got one of the top catchers in the league and a deserving All-Star. Sanchez’s sophomore season has been pretty awesome.

Austin Romine: A competent backup who shined in April

Catcher at first base. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
Catcher at first base. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

In the fifth game of the season, Sanchez felt a tug in his biceps taking a swing and had to be placed on the disabled list. The Yankees were 1-4 at the time and their star offensive player — this was before Aaron Judge‘s ridiculousness — just suffered an injury that would require a month’s rest. Not ideal! Especially when that guy is your starting catcher and your options to replace him are fairly limited.

With Sanchez sidelined, the Yankees turned to Romine as their starting catcher because they really didn’t have much of a choice, and holy cow did he deliver. The 28-year-old Romine hit .316/.349/.456 (111 wRC+) with two doubles and two homers in 63 plate appearances while Sanchez was out, including going 4-for-6 with two walks and no strikeouts with runners in scoring position. Hot damn!

Not even the biggest Austin Romine fan expected him to do that when Sanchez’s injury pressed him into everyday duty. The pitching staff performed well that month as well and Romine received a lot of credit. (Probably too much.) Sanchez is the clear No. 1 catcher for the Yankees and he took over as the starter as soon as he returned from the disabled list, as he should have. Romine did an incredible job filling in those four weeks though.

Since returning to backup duty, Romine has hit a weak .183/.245/.215 (23 wRC+) overall, dragging his overall season batting line down to .231/.284/.306 (57 wRC+). He’s also played some first base, including starting three straight games at the position two weeks ago. Romine has handled first base well defensively — he’s made a few plays look a little more difficult than they actually were, though he made them, and that’s what counts — and he’s even gone out of his way to help tutor Sanchez with his blocking.

Romine is what he is at this point. He’s a hard-working backup who does his best work behind the plate and will occasionally surprise you with a clutch hit. When the Yankees needed him to step up during Sanchez’s injury, he did it in a huge way. The Yankees wouldn’t be hanging around the postseason race without him. Romine is a role player now and going forward. His 2017 season is already a success thanks to April.