One more year of #TANAK [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

With pitchers these days, there are no givens. One day, you may have an ace. The next, a player you’re paying for the next 12-18 months is rehabbing an elbow tear with uncertainty as to whether he’ll ever be the same.

The closest thing the Yankees have to a sure thing in their starting rotation is Masahiro Tanaka. Even he comes with the giant caveat of a partial tear of the all-important UCL, but beggars in the pitching market can ill-afford to be choosers. Every five days, #TANAK inches you closer to your TV screen or forces you to pay that much more attention in your seat. He’s the closest thing we’ve seen this side of CC Sabathia‘s latest extension to an ace.

So what does the 28-year-old starter from Japan have in store for 2017? Let’s take a look, shall we?

200 inning plateau

It’s tough to define aces by an exact ERA, FIP or strikeout rate. However, with big-time starting pitchers, there’s always been a sort of mystical question as to whether they can handle 200 innings in a time when elbow injuries are so prevalent. To this point, the answer for Tanaka has been no but barely. See, he threw exactly 199 2/3 innings last season. That is literally as close as you can get to 200 without actually, you know, getting there.

What prevented him from hitting that arbitrary landmark was a flexor mass strain in his right elbow. He likely would have pitched in the Yankees’ Game 162 if they were still in the postseason chase, but those hopes had evaporated days earlier. The Yankees would obviously like to see Tanaka get through a full season, but 31 starts last year was certainly a welcome sign after 44 over his first two years.

In terms of reaching 200 innings next year, Tanaka is easily the most likely among the Yankees’ starters. He goes deeper into games (6.44 innings per start) than any of their other pitchers and the others are either on innings limits, haven’t thrown full MLB seasons before, or are veterans with injury concerns of their own. Days when Tanaka pitches are the best ones for the bullpen because he can usually hand the ball right to the elite back-end relievers.

We all know he’s dealing with a partial tear in his UCL, so his elbow is always a concern here. Projections are mixed for Tanaka. Steamer has him throwing 205 innings over 32 starts while ZIPS has him at 165 2/3 innings over 27 starts. PECOTA has just 176 1/3 innings and an unseemly 4.18 ERA. Truly all over the place.

A true No. 1?

Tanaka does what you want for a pitcher: He strikes batters out, avoids walks and pitches efficiently deep into games. The question above is so hard to pin down. As far as performance, he’s been a No. 1 starter for the Yankees, particularly last season. He won his last seven decisions. He had a 4.58 K-to-BB ratio. A 3.07 ERA (3.51 FIP) in basically 200 innings and kept the Yankees in essentially every game he started.

One of his big concerns after 2015 was his home run rate. That fell in 2016, going from 16.9 percent of fly balls turning into homers to just 12 percent. His ground ball rate reached a career-high 48.2 percent. His line drive percentage fell as well.

One concern is his decreasing strikeout rate. I’ll get into his stuff below, but his pure strikeout rate has decreased each year from 26 percent in 2014 to 20.5 percent in 2016 while his walk rate slightly increased from 3.9 to 4.4 percent. He’s still pretty solid with his control, but it’s something to look out for next year.

Lastly, he’s looked pretty darn good this spring. It doesn’t mean all that much. However, it’s a great sign. Take his start from last week: four perfect innings with seven strikeouts. That’s ace-type performance. Grapefruit League competition has taken a hit with the WBC going on and that Tigers lineup he faced was no exception. Still, it’s worth hoping that his early success can roll over into Opening Day in Tampa.

Repertoire

At the end of 2016, Tanaka’s fastball and sinker were at a career-low in terms of average velocity with his four-seamer averaging 91.11 mph. His fastball lost velocity as the year progressed and have also lost velocity year over year. Take, for instance, his average velocity on his pitches each of the last three years via Brooks Baseball.

tanaka-mph

Tanaka legitimately has six pitches that he throws at least five percent of the time. He relies most heavily on his sinker, splitter and slider, in that order last season. His sinker rose significantly in usage with his four-seamer and cutter seeing decreases. Perhaps that is because of the velocity decrease and him needing to keep hitters off balance. That increased sinker usage also helps explain his increase in groundball percentage last season.

Tanaka’s sinker and splitter were his most effective last season, eliciting the lowest ISO power against and some of his lowest batting averages against. His splitter and his less-used slider provide the most whiffs per swing.

Contract Question

Everyone knows about Tanaka’s opt-out. That was the price to pay for Tanaka in order to entice him away from the Cubs in 2014 and now the proverbial chickens will come home to roost in a little more than seven months. As with the rest of the veterans in the rotation, Tanaka can be a free agent at the end of this season.

The question of whether he opts out is a complicated one. Tanaka, 29 in November, would theoretically be in the prime position to cash in with a free agent market starved for proven pitchers. The problem is his elbow. Anyone who signs him would get a chance to look at his UCL and that might be something Tanaka chooses to avoid. Maybe his elbow gives out this season and this is all moot.

However, if Tanaka pitches well this season and perhaps even clears the 200-inning hurdle, there are many, many dollars telling him and agent Casey Close he should opt out. In the case he opts out, the Yankees face the choice of paying top dollar for a pitcher with a potentially serious elbow injury in the near future (the team knows better than anyone outside of Tanaka what his elbow looks like) or letting go their No. 1 starter. These days, most pitchers face some sort of arm injury in their future, but whether Tanaka is worth the risk is a tricky question.

For now, it’s one more year to enjoy the Yankees’ top starting pitcher.

Hicks, Romine and the rest of the part-timers [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

While the Yankees have plenty of new starters littered around its lineup, they appear to have a very similar bench to the one they fielded in 2016. They have the same fourth outfielder, the same backup catcher and, chances are, the same utility infielder. If it wasn’t the signing of Chris Carter and Tyler Austin‘s preseason injury, it would be essentially identical to the bench with which the team ended last season.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the individuals who will make up the Yankees’ Opening Day bench as well as a few players that could fill roles later in the season. (Disclaimer: I didn’t go into Gleyber Torres here. That’s worth another post entirely.)

Fourth Outfielder

It appears like it’ll be Aaron Hicks as the extra outfielder again this year. I’m someone who really believes in his potential. It’s been over a year since the Yankees dealt John Ryan Murphy, a player I enjoyed watching an irrational amount, for Hicks in a deal that seemed to make sense for both teams. The Yankees needed a fourth outfielder and had a catcher of the future (Hi Gary Sanchez) while the Twins needed a catcher and had a center fielder of the future (Byron Buxton). A potential win-win.

Well, it didn’t work out that well for either team. Murphy simply didn’t hit in Year 1 in Minnesota while Hicks hasn’t quite panned out yet in New York. To be fair, both players are still relatively young, but time is running out for them to prove themselves. Let’s focus on what Hicks brings to the table as he gets another chance to prove himself.

Hicks, 27, has always been close to an 80 in one tool: his arm. It’s a cannon. He’s also pretty fast. Combine that and he makes for a solid fielder, although his routes to balls have been rough at times. He can still man each spot in the field well, but he’s been relegated mostly to the corners to start this spring.

And then there’s his bat. He took a clear step back from 2015 to 2016, going from .256/.323/.398 (96 wRC+) to .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+). That’s doesn’t cut it. A switch-hitter, Hicks came in with a reputation as a better right-handed bat than a lefty. He actually improved from the left side (79 wRC+ to 86 wRC+) but went from a .307/.375/.495 (138 wRC+) line to a paltry .161/.213/271 (25 wRC+) from the right. That’s pretty dumbfounding. His exit velocity actually increased from 90.1 to 90.8 mph from the left side and his strikeout rate fell (his walk rate did too), but his BABIP plummeted from .368 to .176.

That could indicate a potential improvement for Hicks, who seemed to struggle with the lack of regularity concerning his role last year (he improved in the second half when Carlos Beltran was traded). However, he may not get consistent starts again this year with Aaron Judge presumably manning right field. Therefore, the Aaron Hicks project may reach a crossroads this season when he becomes arbitration eligible for the first time after this season.

Beyond Hicks, Mason Williams is the only other outfielder on the 40-man roster. Williams has 51 MLB plate appearances over the last two years. When healthy, he is plenty fast to man center field and seems like he can hit for average. Health will be key for the 25-year-old as he tries to make the roster for good at some point.

Clint Frazier and Dustin Fowler will be in Triple A to start the year. They’re both 22 and will need more at-bats in Scranton before they can earn a role in the majors. Frazier, being the better prospect, may be more likely to force his way to the majors this summer.

Backup catcher

Austin Romine returns as the backup catcher with a different starter ahead of him. Gary Sanchez, as Mike eloquently covered, is the face of the franchise now and it stands to reason that Romine could see fewer starts this season than last. Romine played 50 games at catcher, started 40, while starting two games at first base and four at designated hitter. Chances are, the latter six starts go away with younger and healthier options at 1B and DH, but who knows? I wouldn’t have bet on multiple Romine starts away from catcher last year.

Romine was fine as the bench backstop in 2016 and was much better than his first stint in 2013, when he was backing up Chris Stewart. He batted .242/.269/.382 (68 wRC+) and was better against southpaws. That allowed him to get more starts early in the season when Brian McCann was struggling against lefties. Now, with Sanchez as the starter, Romine will still get once or twice-a-week starts yet it’s hard to see him getting to take advantage of platoon advantages quite as often. That may lead to a worse batting line despite no decline in talent or performance.

The other catcher on the 40-man is Kyle Higashioka. Higashioka was finally healthy in 2016 and rode that to a 20-homer season. He has legitimate power, which has been conveyed plenty of times this spring. The Yankees likely won’t take Higashioka with them on Opening Day — they’d have to DFA Romine — but he’ll only be a bus trip away in Scranton.

Utility infielder

The backup infielder job looks like it is Ronald Torreyes‘ job to lose again this year. Torreyes was a bit of a surprise to claim the spot last year out of the spring, but he held onto it all year. He’s the perfect bench player: He makes plenty of contact, can play every infield position (and the outfield corners in a pinch) and seems to be a good presence around the club. He doesn’t hit for power — do you remember his home run last year? I barely do — but the Yankees would gladly sign up for another .258/.305/.374 line from the part-timer.

It seems highly unlikely that Torreyes won’t break camp with the team. Pete Kozma and Ruben Tejada have each been fine yet unimpressive in their brief spring stints and it may be tough to top the incumbent. Donovan Solano is another non-roster invitee and has been away from the club playing for Colombia in the World Baseball Classic. He did have a solid cup of coffee with the Yankees last fall.

Tyler Austin

austin low five
(Getty)

As we covered in the Greg Bird preview post, Carter will receive a lot of the righty at-bats at first base this season, likely platooning with Bird. Before Carter’s signing, many thought that role would be filled by Tyler Austin. That idea went fully down the tubes with his preseason injury (fractured left foot) which will prevent him from playing most of the spring.

Austin provided real power in his 90 plate appearances in the majors last year, particularly the other way. He did strike out 36 times. For now, the 25-year-old first baseman likely starts the season in extended spring training or goes straight to Scranton, waiting for a call-up. You can almost surely count on Austin playing with the Yankees at some point.

Rest of the 40-man

Remember when Rob Refsnyder was the talk of the town in 2015? Part of that was just a clamoring for anyone but Stephen Drew, but Refsnyder also provided promise that he could hit at the big league level. However, he didn’t come quite as advertised and his 2016 was a disappointment. Given 175 plate appearances last season, he showed nearly no power and had a disappointing .250/.328/.309 line. Without a serious showing with his bat, Refsnyder doesn’t have a role in the majors, hence the Yankees’ willingness to trade him. Can he prove to be more than just a Quad-A player? It’s tough to see right now.

Miguel Andujar hasn’t played above Double A before, so he will need some experience in Scranton before he can be considered for a long-term role. His fielding has been a bit rough at times this spring, so that’s something for him to work on in Triple A. Still, he’s a top 10 third base prospect according to MLB.com and a potential future piece, albeit not likely before September this year.

The man furthest from the majors on the 40-man roster is Jorge Mateo, a top five Yankees prospect depending on the source. Mateo probably doesn’t factor into the Yankees’ plans in 2017, but he would make the ideal pinch runner in September. That’s about the extent to his role in the majors as far as I can tell.

Betting on a Bounce Back [2017 Season Preview]

(Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports)

On the heels of a relatively solid offensive season in which he posted a 109 wRC+ with 20 HR in just 426 PA, Matt Holliday has the look and feel of a hitter that can offer so much more. Some of this is undoubtedly based on his reputation (he was, by wRC+, a top-10 hitter as recently as 2013, and a top-30 hitter in 2014), as well as the hope that a healthy, more rested version of the 37-year-old will be more productive. There are several indicators that Holliday will improve relative to his 2016 season, or, at the very least, stall the effects of Father Time for one more year.

Batting Average on Balls in Play

What stands out the most among a slew of career-lows for Holliday may well be his .253 BABIP. Prior to 2016, Holliday had never posted a BABIP lower than .298, and his career norm sat at .335 (the same mark that he posted in 2015). Much of this can be explained away by career-high groundball rate and a career-low line drive percentage – but how much?

Attempts at calculating an accurate predictive version of xBABIP (expected BABIP) haven’t been all that great thus far, but the folks at FanGraphs keep on trying. Progress has certainly been made, and enough so that it isn’t entirely inane to plug-and-play with the latest and greatest in their formulas. Using the methodologies outlined in those three separate posts, we find that Holliday’s xBABIP ranged anywhere between .300 and .345 … which is a testament to how rough these equations are, but I digress.

If we take the low end of those samples and give Holliday a .300 BABIP for 2016 and treat all of the extra hits as singles, his numbers look significantly better (obviously). Instead of a .246/.322/.461 slash line with a 109 wRC+, he would’ve hit .281/.353/.484 with a 120-ish wRC+. All this for an extra nine or ten singles.

This is far from perfect analysis, to be sure, as the quirks and inconsistencies of xBABIP cannot be ignore – but it is demonstrative of the simple fact that a bit more favorable treatment from the luck dragon can change things dramatically.

Hitting the Ball Hard

As Mike pointed out when the signing was made official, Holliday hit the snot out of the ball in 2016. To wit:

[H]is hard contact rate (38.5%) was comfortably above the MLB average (31.4%) and his career average (35.6%). In fact, among the 375 players to put at least 100 balls in play this past season, Holliday had the third highest average exit velocity (94.7 mph). Only Nelson Cruz (95.9 mph) and Giancarlo Stanton (95.1 mph) were better. Miguel Cabrera (94.5 mph) was fourth. That is some good company. Also, according to Mike Petriello, Holliday put 42.5% of his balls in play at 100 mph or better, the fourth best rate in baseball. Exit velocity isn’t everything — it’s possible to hit a 100 mph pop-up, you know — but it’s not nothing either. Holliday can still strike the ball with authority.

A hard contact rate generally correlates with strong offense, with 19 of the top 30 posting a wRC+ of 120 or better in 2016, and all but one sitting above league-average. This is a normal split, going all the way back to 2010 (the first year for which we have this data). There are varying degrees of offensive prowess sprinkled throughout the list of the hardest-hitters in baseball, so it isn’t necessarily predictive of anything other than solid-average offense – but it’s a good sign nevertheless.

Statcast’s exit velocity tells a similar story. There are few bad hitters among those that hit the ball with authority, but there is little predictive value beyond that.

The Yankee Stadium Boost

Or, phrased differently, the promise of having a new home ballpark.

Holliday was significantly better away from Busch Stadium last season, batting .297/.363/.554 with 11 of his home runs coming on the road. His splits were relatively steady heading into 2016, so it’s possible that this was merely a one year blip. However, it’s also possible that a park that limits power (particularly right-handed power) finally began to catch up to an aging hitter. Yankee Stadium is much friendlier to all hitters, and will greatly benefit a slugger that drives the ball to all fields, like so:

plot_hc_spray

Power to all fields will play in any park, and Yankee Stadium is particularly advantageous for a hitter of Holliday’s caliber. And the fact that he still showed an all-fields approach with power in what amounted to the worst season of his career is certainly encouraging. So is the fact that all three of his Spring Training home runs have gone to the opposite field.

Rest, Rest, and Even More Rest

Holliday should not (and hopefully will not) have to play the field all that often this year, if at all. The Yankees have five players listed as outfielders on the 40-man roster, and that does not include Tyler Austin, Jorge Mateo, Rob Refsnyder, and Ronald Torreyes, all of whom could play out there in a pinch, nor does it include those outfielders that stand to open the season in Triple-A and could easily be added (Dustin Fowler, Clint Frazier, Jake Cave, etc). The depth at first base is strong, as well, albeit in a different manner, as probable back-up/platoon player Chris Carter could conceivably start for several teams.

Playing regularly at DH should help keep Holliday rested, and protect him from the nagging sort of injuries that have hampered his last two seasons. He has a bit of experience playing DH, for what it’s worth, batting .260/.340/.535 with 9 HR in 144 PA scattered across his career; such a small, spread out sample size may not mean much, but it lends a sliver of optimism that he can adjust to the routine of the position.


Two weeks ago, I discussed second-guessing the Matt Holliday signing due to the way the marketplace for designated hitters unfolded. That was never intended to be a question of Holliday’s potential, however, as I am a strong believer in his ability to have a strong season for the Yankees. The average DH had a 115 wRC+ last season, and he wasn’t all that far off in a down year. That should be well within reach for a mostly healthy Holliday, with a dash of luck.

All Rise for Aaron Judge [2017 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The first impression was as good as it gets. On the fourth pitch he saw as a big leaguer, Aaron Judge smoked a towering home run off the very top of the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar in center field at Yankee Stadium. The ball cleared the windows and very nearly made the seats. It was fun to see the power after reading all those scouting reports over the years.

The second impression wasn’t so good. In 94 plate appearances after that home run, Judge went 14-for-83 (.169) with three homers and 42 strikeouts before an oblique strain ended his season prematurely. Judge’s strikeouts were no surprise. He struck out a bunch in the minors and hey, a 6-foot-7 hitter has a pretty huge strike zone. Still, seeing a 44.2% strikeout rate in action is no fun.

Over the winter Judge went to work on his lower half and he came to Spring Training with a chance to win the right field job. Barring injury, it’s either Judge or Aaron Hicks, and I do believe this is a true competition, not one of those rigged ones we’ve seen over the years. So far this spring Judge has hit .310/.394/.586 with two homers and seven strikeouts in 33 plate appearances (21.2 K%), which is promising, but ultimately doesn’t mean much of anything.

There’s very little question the Yankees want Judge to be the right fielder of the future. Is he ready to be the right fielder of the present? My gut says the Yankees will indeed go with Judge over Hicks once the regular season rolls around, but what do I know. We’ll find out soon enough. Let’s preview Judge’s season, shall we? We shall.

What is an acceptable strikeout rate?

Well, that depends. It depends how much Judge produces when he does make contact. No, I don’t think there’s any way he can be productive with a 40-something-percent strikeout rate. The highest single-season strikeout rate in baseball history is 36.2% by current Yankee Chris Carter. He hit .223/.320/.451 (112 wRC+) with 29 homers in 585 plate appearances for the Astros that year.

Only six batters in history have struck out in one-third of their plate appearances while qualifying for the batting title, and two of the six failed to produce at a least average rate offensively:

  • 2013 Chris Carter: .223/.320/.451 (112 wRC+) with 29 homers and 36.2% strikeouts
  • 2010 Mark Reynolds: .198/.320/.433 (96 wRC+) with 32 homers and 35.4% strikeouts
  • 2012 Adam Dunn: .204/.333/.468 (115 wRC+) with 41 homers and 34.2% strikeouts
  • 2009 Mark Reynolds: .260/.349/.543 (127 wRC+) with 44 homers and 33.7% strikeouts
  • 1963 Dave Nicholson: .229/.319/.419 (111 wRC+) with 22 homers and 33.7% strikeouts
  • 2008 Mark Reynolds: .239/.320/.458 (97 wRC+) with 28 homers and 33.3% strikeouts

One of those things is not like the other. Anyway, there’s no precedent for an everyday player striking out as much as Judge did last year, mostly because you’d eventually get sent down or released if you struck out that much. Even the guys who struck out one-third of the time needed to hit for huge power and draw a ton of walks — 2008 Reynolds had the lowest walk rate among those six batters at 10.4% — to have value offensively.

Clearly, Judge needs to cut down on his strikeouts and both he and the Yankees know that. That’s why he continues to work on his hitting mechanics. He’s changed his leg kick however many times over the last two years, plus he’s changed his hand position as well. If Judge fails, it won’t be due to a lack of effort. He’s working with the hitting coaches all season and offseason and trying all different things. Being a 6-foot-7 hitter is hard.

Strikeouts around baseball have ticked up over the last few years, mostly because pitchers are throwing harder than ever before, and also because there are more specialized relievers. Here’s a quick plot showing wRC+ vs. K% for all hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title over the last five seasons:

wrc-vs-k

There’s close to zero correlation between strikeout rate and offensive production, interestingly enough. Anyhow, looking at the graph, once you get beyond a 25.0% strikeout rate, there aren’t many dots above a 110 wRC+ or so. It seems striking out a lot won’t stop you from being a productive hitter, but it will reduce your chances of being a great hitter. Only 18 players since 2012 managed a 120+ wRC+ while striking out at least one-quarter of the time.

So I suppose that’s the magic number for Judge this year: 25.0 K%. Get the strikeout rate down there and he has a chance to be a quality offensive weapon for the Yankees. Judge struck out 24.7% of the time in the minors overall and 25.7% of the time at Triple-A (23.9% in 2016), so getting down to a 25.0% strikeout rate in the big leagues doesn’t seem impossible. Can he do it this year? That’s the million dollar question. The Yankees hope so. Getting down to 25.0% strikeouts in 2016 would be wonderful, but, if nothing else, we at least need to see a decline in strikeouts. Fanning four out of every ten plate appearances ain’t gonna cut it.

Exactly how much power are we talking?

A ton. We’ve seen it already. There was that aforementioned shot off the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar last year, and we all saw that ball Judge hit off the top of the scoreboard in his first spring game this year. His home run this past weekend really gives you an idea of how strong this guy is. There’s basically no effort in this swing:

Baseball America (subs. req’d) says Judge’s power “rates as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale” while MLB.com says it’s a 60. That’s really good! A hitter with 60 power can be expected to mash 25-30 homers a year. Someone with 70 power projects to hit 30+ dingers annually. The various projection systems love Judge’s power:

  • PECOTA: 20 homers in 468 plate appearances (26 HR per 600 PA)
  • Steamer: 17 homers in 378 plate appearances (27 HR per 600 PA)
  • ZiPS: 30 homers in 522 plate appearances (34 HR per 600 PA)

Only ten rookie hitters have qualified for the batting title while averaging 26+ homers per 600 plate appearances since 2000, and they’re guys like Albert Pujols, Mark Teixeira, and Prince Fielder. Basically the best power hitters of the century. The completely objective projection systems think Judge can produce at that level, at least when it comes to hitting the ball over the fence.

The Yankees haven’t had a rookie hit 25+ home runs since Bobby Murcer in 1969. Heck, prior to Gary Sanchez last year, the last Yankees rookie to hit even 20 homers in a season was Kevin Maas in 1990. If he makes enough contact — and that remains the big question — Judge could very well smack 25+ homers this summer. It’s not unreasonable, not given Yankee Stadium and the other hitter friendly AL East parks. Judge’s exit velocity on fly balls and line drives is elite. When he connects, he tends to do a lot of damage.

Don’t forget about his defense.

Given his size, power, and strikeout tendencies, it can be easy to stereotype Judge as a lumbering slugger. That’s not the case though. Judge is a very good athlete for his size and he has the skills to be a defensive asset in right field. He has a very strong arm …

… and he covers a decent amount of ground. He’s not going to be Brett Gardner out there in terms of range, but he won’t be Carlos Beltran either. “He’s a slightly above-average runner underway and plays average defense in right field with a well above-average throwing arm,” said Baseball America’s scouting report.

Judge doesn’t play station-to-station baseball despite being so damn massive. He offers some speed and will contribute with the glove in right field, especially since right field in Yankee Stadium is kinda tiny. So, even if he strikes out a bunch while finding his footing in the big leagues, Judge will still be able to provide value in the field. The big man is more well-rounded than you’d think.

* * *

What would qualify as a successful season for Judge? Geez, that’s tough. It’s about more than raw stats with Judge. Is he cutting down on the strikeouts? Is he showing a sound approach and recognizing how pitchers are attacking him? Judge is going to see a ton — a ton — of breaking balls down and away. It’s inevitable. Can he lay off more often than not?

The numbers might not be there, but if we see improvement with his approach and strikeout rate, it’ll be a positive. Judge is going to require patience, perhaps more than most prospects, though the potential reward is sky high. This dude can be a game-changing impact bat, and odds are he will get a chance to claim the long-term right field job this summer.

Outfielders on the wrong side of 30 [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Welcome to Year 4 of Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury manning the Yankees’ outfield. At the time Ellsbury signed in the 2013-14 offseason, it seemed like Gardner may quickly receive a ticket out of New York, but an extension for the speedster said otherwise. Three years of trade rumors have followed yet Gardner is still firmly planted in left field.

Including this season, there are four years left on Ellsbury’s deal and two on Gardner’s. With a series of outfield prospects — or shortstop prospects soon-to-be outfield prospects — slowly making their march towards the major league roster, the days of both players taking the field simultaneously for NYY is quickly dwindling.

The wrong side of 30

Within three weeks of each other late this summer, both Ellsbury and Gardner will turn 34 years old. For two players that have made their names with their speed as their No. 1 tool, it’s not an ideal time in their careers. Many players like these two don’t age gracefully. That presents a grim reality for a squad reliant on both their skills if it’s going to be a playoff contender.

Both players have seen their stolen base numbers fall every season since 2013. They still combined for 36 in 2016, a respectable total but one each player used to eclipse individually. The duo on the base paths does have value regardless of decline. For what it’s worth, it seems like they could steal fewer bases if that was mandated. Gardner had the same stolen base percentage in 2016 as he did in 2015 but had five fewer attempts. Ellsbury had one fewer steal and one fewer caught stealing in 2016 than 2015.

Beyond stolen bases, both players are about average hitters at this points in their careers. Gardner hit .261/.351/.362 (97 wRC+) in 2016. His OBP improved over 2015 (.343) but his slugging percentage fell significantly (.399). Gardner had hit 33 home runs over 2014-15 but smacked just seven last year. On the bright side, he had just five fewer hits in 22 fewer plate appearances and he sliced 29 strikeouts (135 to 106) off his total.

Gardner’s average exit velocity decreased by nearly 2 mph (88.8 to 86.9) while his launch angle was slightly lower. He does still have the best eye of anyone on the team and his patience near the top of the lineup is a significant asset. Even when he makes outs, he tends to see a lot of pitches to the benefit of those who come after him.

As for his exit velocity, check out his charts from 2015 to 2016 below via Baseball Savant. His performance lagged on pitches low in the zone and inside while he greatly improved on pitches high and away.

gardner-2015-2016-exit-velo
2015 vs. 2016 (Baseball Savant)

Ellsbury, meanwhile, actually saw general improvement from 2015 to 2016. That makes sense: He injured his knee midway through 2015 and his performance declined sharply after his return. He went from a .257/.318/.345 (83 wRC+) line to a still-below-average but better .263/.330/.374 (91 wRC+) mark. That’s encouraging. He had 14 more extra-base hits in 125 more plate appearances in 2016 while seeing a small increase in exit velocity (87.1 to 87.4 mph)

Brian Cashman called out Ellsbury, saying the team expected more from their center fielder in 2016. That doesn’t mean a return to the 32-home run season he had with the Red Sox in 2011, but the team wants him to be a force getting on base and stealing bases. Ellsbury set the catcher’s interference record in 2016 but don’t expect a repeat of that dubious mark in this year: Hitting coach Alan Cockrell is working with Ellsbury to move his contact more out in front. It may not make much of a difference, but hey, he does already have a home run this spring off a lefty pitcher!

Both guys played over 145 games in 2016 and that kind of durability would be a solid plus in 2017 as well. Age-wise, you may not be able to count on that, but that’s why you have Aaron Hicks and general outfield depth.

Lineup questions

Since Ellsbury signed his monster deal to join the Yankees, Gardner and Ellsbury have been in the top three of the Bombers’ lineup in varying orders at all times. That may change in 2017.

The reason to keep them at the top is simple: They add impressive speed and are two of the Yankees’ best in on-base percentage. Who doesn’t want fast players who get on base near the top of the lineup?

The duo at the top of the lineup has presented some problems for the Yankees. While they give the Yankees a speed dynamic to begin games, they are also easy targets for potent lefty relievers to take advantage late in games. Finding a way to split up the lefties would make a whole lot of sense for the Yankees, particularly if it meant moving a stronger bat like Gary Sanchez up in the lineup. Both players have also seen declines in their on-base skills recently, so there’s even more logic to splitting them up.

According to Joe Girardi, the Yankees are unlikely to split them up by moving one of them (Gardner) to the ninth spot. This wouldn’t really solve their problems as they’d still be back to back in the lineup after one time through. Most people have thought about the possibility of moving Ellsbury down to around sixth in the lineup.

Ellsbury batting sixth would make a lot of sense. You split up lefties, you move a declining bat down and you give yourself speed in the second half of the lineup as well. However, Ellsbury has been lukewarm at best on the lineup. It’s understandable when you’re a veteran so used to batting in the top three. With Ellsbury’s reticence, the team may wait until later in his contract to move him in the lineup.

Still strong defensively

There are plenty of questions about Ellsbury and Gardner going into this season, but it’s tough to have many doubts about them defensively. After all, Gardner is coming off his first Gold Glove. Ellsbury is six years removed from his only Gold Glove. However, according to most defensive metrics, he rebounded from a poor 2015 season (-3.2 UZR likely explained due to his knee injury) with the glove to be a better center fielder again in 2016 (0.7 UZR). Gardner (-2.7 to 3.6) had a similar bounce, which could be partly thanks to fewer games in center field thanks to a healthy Ellsbury.

That’s really important for the Yankees. If the duo will continue to decline in any way offensively, they will need to at least stay viable defensively. When healthy, they both provide the speed necessary to cover at least 2/3s of the outfield and help the pitching staff. One issue, of course, is each of their respective arms. Gardner’s is below average, albeit decent. Ellsbury comes from the Johnny Damon school of outfield arm strength and teams will continue to take advantage of his weak arm in center field.

At some point in the future, Ellsbury is likely to move over to left field but not this season. That’s for late in his contract when his speed isn’t as viable and someone, whether it be Clint Frazier or Jorge Mateo, has proven capable of taking over center. At the very least, Ellsbury has significant left field experience from his early Red Sox career.

So far this spring, Gardner has played center field when Ellsbury has been off with Hicks tending to play a corner position. This goes contrary to last season when Girardi tended to keep Gardner in left field even when Ellsbury was out. The change may be to optimize the outfield to take advantage of Gardner’s extra range and superior angles to the ball. It’s something to keep an eye on as the season commences.

Gardner was clearly on the trade block this offseason. However, until proven otherwise, it’ll be Gardy and Jake again in the outfield for the Yankees. Both players may be on the downside of their careers, but they still have real value to the Yankees beyond the weight of their respective contracts. Count me among those excited to see if Gardner can bounce back in 2017 and whether Ellsbury’s 2016 bump up was a sign of things to come.

The Frustrating Chase Headley [2017 Season Preview]

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

To say that Chase Headley‘s first full season in pinstripes was a disappointment would be something of an understatement. Fresh off of a solid 123 wRC+ and stellar 2.8 fWAR in 58 games with the Yankees in 2014, expectations for Headley were at least a bit high – and the resultant 4-year, $52 MM contract that he inked that off-season didn’t help matters. He responded with, as Mike detailed this time last year, the worst season of his career, posting his lowest wRC+ ever, and his worst WAR since moving to third full-time after the 2009 season.

The existence of Jacoby Ellsbury prevented Headley from becoming the focus of the Yankees fanbase’s collective ire, but there was quite a bit of discussion about the three years remaining on his deal, and Rob Refsnyder learning the hot corner was far more newsworthy than it otherwise would (or should) have been. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that 2016 was a make or break year – in hindsight or otherwise – but the word ‘albatross’ was thrown around at least a bit.

And Headley, of course, responded with a borderline carbon copy of his 2015 season in the batter’s box:

pvgsxt9

Even with an improved walk rate and a bit more pop, Headley remained a below-average hitter (comfortably below the positional wRC+ of 106 in 2016), ranking 21st among qualified third basemen in wRC+. This may just be who he is as he enters his age-33 season, but there are some positives beneath the surface.

He Remembered How to Play Defense

The worst aspect of Headley’s 2015 was his defense. The former Gold Glover made 23 errors, nearly doubling his previous career-high of 13 (set in his first year at the position), posting a fielding percentage twelve points below the league-average. Twenty players qualified for the Gold Glove at the hot corner in 2015, and Headley ranked 15th in Defensive Runs Saved 15th in UZR/150, 19th in fielding percentage, and 20th in errors (with career-worst marks across the board). And, given the lasting impressions of his throwing issues and the agreement between advanced and old-fashioned metrics, he was just as bad as those numbers suggest.

Last year represented a defensive about-face for Headley, as he improved across the board to a staggering extent. If you prefer basic statistics, he made 13 fewer errors, and improved his fielding percentage from .946 to .974. If advanced metrics are more your speed, his DRS jumped from -6 to 7, and his UZR went from -3 to 6.6.

Put simply, he looked far more comfortable at the position (and much more like the guy that the Yankees acquired in the Summer of 2014).

What About His Bat?

Headley ended 2015 with a whimper, batting .179/.252/.223 (32 wRC+) between September and October. That impotence continued into 2016, as he hit just .150/.268/.150 (22 wRC+) in April, and did not pick up his first extra base hit until May 12.

Things started to improve dramatically from there, and Headley swung a hot bat for the next two and a half months. Selective endpoints are tricky, to be sure, but he batted .293/.360/.482 with 10 HR (127 wRC+) from May 12 through the end of July, and hopes started to rise.

And then he hit .232/.322/.361 with 4 HR (83 wRC+) over the last two months, coming full circle in replicating his 2015 season. Here’s a visualization of his streakiness:

capture

His 2016 breaks down as an awful month and a half, two and a half very good months, and two well below-average months … which is actually quite similar to his 2015 (even if the order is a bit different):

capture

So where are those positives that I mentioned?

As I mentioned earlier, Headley’s walk rate improved by 1.7 percentage points, and his ISO jumped from .110 to .133. Both marks are skewed somewhat, as league-averages jumped, as well, but Headley’s improvements were notable nonetheless. He also started running the bases again, picking up 8 SB and adding 3.9 runs per BsR, which is something that he simply didn’t do in 2015. And most everything else (including his swing percentages) eked closer to his career norms.


If we buy into Headley’s sustained mid-season hot streak and the signs that he’s trending back towards his career norms, it stands to reason that he could bounce-back to being a league-average hitter. Interestingly enough, PECOTA sees something that suggests a modest improvement, projecting a .251/.333/.400 slash line with 16 HR, good for a .259 TAv. For reference, a .260 TAv is average, and Headley’s marks in 2015 and 2016 were .245 and .248, respectively.

It’s certainly reasonable to expect Headley to continue to play defense at a high level, and I think he’ll do that. And if his bat can find its way into league-average territory – which I remain split on – he could be a 3 win player in 2017. I’d be thrilled with that, and I’m sure the Yankees would be, too.

A Couple of Middle Infielders in Their Prime [2017 Season Preview]

(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

There seems to be a strong consensus that 2016 was a breakout season for Didi Gregorius, and something between a disappointment and a shrug of the shoulders for Starlin Castro. This is unsurprising, considering that the former set career highs (nearly) across the board, whereas the latter failed to have the change of scenery bounceback that many expected – but is it fair? Consider their offensive production last year:

castro-gregorius-fg
(FanGraphs)

Their numbers were virtually indistinguishable. Gregorius struck out significantly less, to be sure, but it’d be difficult to find two more comparable players otherwise (much less a duo that mans the same middle infield). It feels like cognitive dissonance to an extent.

The comparison shouldn’t end there, of course, as Gregorius was the superior base-runner, adding between four and eight extra runs depending on your metric of choice, and he played the more difficult position (both were subpar defenders by most measures, though the eye and reputation tests tell another story entirely for Gregorius). As a result of these factors, Gregorius had a comfortable lead in both fWAR (2.7 to 1.1) and bWAR (2.2 to 1.2). He was undoubtedly the better player, but the similarities remain striking.

With Gleyber Torres setting the world ablaze, Tyler Wade in Triple-A, and Jorge Mateo still earning some prospect love, the Yankees are certain to be watching the performances of Castro and Gregorius closely. And if they see an opportunity to improve the team with a cheaper, internal option, they might just take it.

So what should be expected of the Yankees current double play combination in 2017?

Starlin Castro

The only real constant in Castro’s career to-date has been his inconsistency. Plotting his year-to-year wRC+ results in a fairly wicked looking roller coaster:

castro-wrc

Put that all together and you have a roughly league-average hitter, with a 162 game average of .280/.318/.408 (96 wRC+) and 13 HR. Both ZiPS (.272/.305/.419 with 18 HR) and PECOTA (.268/.308/.415 with 16 HR) project more of the same in 2017, which makes sense at this point in his career. Castro is still quite young, as he won’t be 27 until March 24, but he has 4374 Major League plate appearances under his belt, and he has regressed more so than anything else of late.

Just last week, however, Mike dug into a potential breakout season for Castro, discussing the reasons for optimism, which essentially boil down to past success, harder (and better) contact, greater comfort at the keystone, and his age. In the end, Mike thinks that a .300/.340/.475 line is within the realm of possibility; it’s tough to disagree, given that he hit .307/.341/.432 in 2011 and .292/.339/.438 in 2014, and just showcased the best power of his career last year. I wouldn’t expect that level of production – but it wouldn’t shock me, either.

This does feel like a big year for Castro, at least insofar as his pinstriped career is concerned. He’s no longer cheap, as he’ll earn an average of just under $11 MM over the next three years, but he’s far from untradeable, given his age and ability to play an up-the-middle position. Another middling season might result in him playing elsewhere in 2018, as it’s no secret that he is (or was) available in trade talks this off-season.

Didi Gregorius

Projecting Gregorius’ 2017 is an incredibly difficult task, as the shape of his production has changed dramatically over his four full-ish seasons. Keeping in mind that his 2012 season was a 21 PA cup of coffee, take a look at the following:

didi-plate-discipline

In 2013 – his first full-ish season – Gregorius walked in 9.2% of his plate appearances, which was comfortably above the league-average walk rate of 7.9%. He swung a bit more often than the average player by about 4 percentage points, but his strikeout rate was better than average and his 91 wRC+ as a 23-year-old shortstop was more than acceptable.

Fast forward to the end of 2016, and Gregorius looked like a completely different player. His 3.2% walk rate was 5 percentage points below average, his 13.7% strikeout rate was 7.4 percentage points above average, and he swung at 55.4% of pitches thrown his way (the highest among all qualified shortstops, and tied for 6th in the Majors). His gradually developed aggression resulted in the best season of his career.

Much of the discussion about Gregorius’ 2017 revolved around his 20 home runs, which nearly matched his total of 22 in 1302 PA from 2012 through 2015. The most glaring improvement last season, however, came against LHP. Heading into 2016, the Dutch shortstop was a career .214/.282/.272 hitter (52 wRC+) against southpaws, and it seemed as though he may have to be platooned. There were signs of life in 2015, as a 74 wRC+ might just be playable with his defense, but it was still far less than ideal.

And then he hit .324/.361/.473 (126 wRC+) against LHP last year, striking out in just 7.5% of those plate appearances. He also walked in just 2.5% of that 161 PA sample size, posting an uncharacteristic .331 BABIP along the way. It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for a player to solve same-handed pitchers as he enters his prime, but we need more evidence to prove that he did just that.

Neither ZiPS (.262/.308/.404, 15 HR) nor PECOTA (.259/.309/.400, 14 HR) sees Gregorius repeating his 2016, though both do see him sustaining a bit of his power surge. At the same time, though, projections do not always take into account tangibles changes in approach over a short-term, which may well be the case with the Yankees shortstop.

What about their defense?

In an ideal world, the Yankees middle infield defense would be an embarrassment of riches. Castro was somewhere between a below-average and fringe-average defensive shortstop, and one would expect his tools to play-up as he slides down the defensive spectrum. And Gregorius was a legitimate prospect largely due to his potential Gold Glove defense, and his reputation is still that of a plus defender. If only it were that simple.

By Defensive Runs Saved and UZR/150, 2016 was Castro’s worst defensive season. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, as he had all of 258 innings at second prior to the 2016 calendar year, but there was some sense that his defense backslid as the year wore on. His acclimation to the Bronx and the position may well lead to a sizable step forward in defensive value this year, and that might just be the most important aspect in reviving his overall stock.

And, as I inferred earlier, the advanced metrics cast Gregorius as a middling, if inconsistent defender. He was worth 5 DRS and 7.9 UZR/150 in 2015, but was below-average in both in his other three full-ish seasons. DRS pegged Gregorius as a -9 defender last season, meaning he nearly cost the team a win relative to the position. The truth may well be that he’s merely average, with his smooth actions and strong arm masking his inadequacies to the naked eye. Given the Yankees dedication to defense, you can be sure that they’re watching him closely.


With the exception of the rookies and comparably inexperienced players, I’m not sure that there are two more difficult Yankees to project – and Castro and Gregorius feel somewhat less certain than a few of those guys, as well. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that Castro improves a bit overall (owing largely to improvements on defense), Gregorius produces a similar total package (perhaps with a bit less power and a bit more glove) … and we’re regularly reminded that Torres is tearing it up in the minors.