Aaron Hicks has been working out of first base, and hopefully the Yankees won’t need him there

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

All winter long, I and many others said there was no way the Yankees would get worse production from first base this year than what Mark Teixeira gave them last year. Teixeira hit .204/.292/.362 (76 wRC+) last season. And so far this season, Yankees first basemen are hitting .164/.276/.295 (59 wRC+), and that’s with Chris Carter hitting a home run last night. Welp. First base has been a sore spot.

Help is kinda sorta on the way. Bird swung a bat yesterday for the first time since landing on the disabled list, and Tyler Austin started a minor league rehab assignment over the weekend. That’s good. They’ll give the Yankees options. Will they improve the first base situation? Man I hope so. It’s hard to think they’ll make it worse once healthy, but who knows? No one thought Bird/Carter would be a downgrade from Teixeira, yet here we are.

In an effort to give themselves more options, the Yankees have had fourth outfielder Aaron Hicks work out at first base recently. Here’s what Joe Espada, the third base and infield coach, told Brendan Kuty:

“He’s athletic, and sometimes we get deep in games,” Espada said. “It gives (manager Joe Girardi) some flexibility. (Girardi) asked me to hit him some ground balls in the infield, just in case … If he learned it, yes, I think (he’d be an option there). During the season, it’s really hard to get him to learn it. But he’ll take some ground balls on his off days and see what he can do. He does have some athleticism but it takes time to learn.”

The Yankees put Rob Refsnyder through a first base crash course last season — literally one day of work! — before playing him at the position during a game, though that was out of necessity. Teixeira was banged up and they ran out of options. I doubt the Yankees want to do that again, and they haven’t. Hicks has been working out at first base and nothing more. He’s yet to play there in a game.

I get why the Yankees are having Hicks work out at first base, and there’s no reason not to try to increase the versatility of your players, but I hope they don’t decide to actually play him there in anything other than emergency. I am totally cool with sticking with Carter at first base until Bird and/or Austin returns. Carter has gone 7-for-29 with two homers since the end of the NL city road trip. That’s a .241/.333/.483 line in nine games. That’s Chris Carter.

First base has been a problem area for the Yankees since last season. They’re getting little production from a position in which the offensive bar is quite high. It’s actually kinda amazing they’re second only to the Nationals (5.72) in runs per game (5.62) without getting anything from first base. Giving Hicks work there is fine as long as he’s an emergency only option. Playing him there full-time shouldn’t be a consideration right now. The Yankees aren’t that desperate yet.

Yankeemetrics: Kings of Kansas City (May 16-18)

(AP)
(AP)

Vintage CC
The Yankees kicked off the most grueling stretch of this early season – 20 games in 20 days – with one of their most complete and thorough performances so far. Power, pitching and defense were all on display in a satisfying 7-1 win over the Royals on Tuesday night.

The power was supplied by Gary Sanchez and Chris Carter, who each went deep and combined to drive in five runs.

Sanchez broke a scoreless tie in the third inning with a booming 428-foot homer, putting the Yankees up 3-0. It was his 23rd career homer in just his 69th game at the big-league level. The only player in major-league history to hit more homers before his 70th career game is White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu (25).

Carter tacked on two more runs with a deep blast to center in the fourth inning, punctuating his breakout 3-for-4 night at the plate. The list of Yankee first baseman to have at least three hits, including a homer, at Kauffman Stadium is a fun one: Lyle Overbay (2013), Tino Martinez (1998, 1999), Don Mattingly (1993), Steve Balboni (1983) and Chris Chambliss (1979). Welcome to the club, Chris!

Sure, chicks dig the longball, but the best story of the game was the strong bounce-back outing by CC Sabathia. The lefty had an ugly 9.58 ERA in his previous four starts entering this series, but delivered a vintage performance with 6 2/3 scoreless and efficient innings.

Sabathia checked off a couple notable milestones in the victory. It was his:

  • 109th win as a Yankee, tying Spud Chandler and Fritz Peterson for 15th place on the franchise all-time list
  • 13th win at Kauffman Stadium, matching the most wins by a visiting pitcher at the ballpark. Justin Verlander, Mark Buehrle and Bert Blyleven also have 13 wins there.

One of the key differences for Sabathia against the Royals was his ability to pitch inside to righties with his cutter. On the left, his cutter location to right-handed batters in his previous four starts from April 21-May 9; on the right, his cutter location to right-handed batters on Tuesday:

cc-cutter-rhb-combined

In his previous four starts, righties hit .346 and slugged .590 overall against Sabathia, including a .407 average and .741 (!) slugging percentage against his cutter. On Tuesday, the Royals right-handed batters went 3-for-16 overall and were 0-for-4 when putting a cutter in play against Sabathia.

(TNS)
(TNS)

Runs, runs, and more runs
Another night, another run-scoring bonanza for the Yankees. They pummeled the Royals on Wednesday, 11-7, their MLB-leading seventh game with more than 10 runs. That’s the same number of 11-plus-run games they had all of last year, and tied with the 1936 club for the second-most in franchise history through 37 team games.

Royals starter Jason Vargas entered the game with the lowest ERA in the league (1.01!), but was shelled early and often by the visitors – a result that shouldn’t have been surprising given his track record against the Bronx Bombers. After surrendering six runs in four innings, his ERA against the Yankees rose to 7.15, the highest by any active player with at least 35 innings pitched against them.

Aaron Hicks contributed to the offensive fireworks with two hits, including a three-run homer, and one walk. After Wednesday’s slate, he was one of 16 major-league players with at least 25 plate appearances and more walks (22) than strikeouts (17). The only other guy on the list with a higher slugging percentage than Hicks (.616) was Bryce Harper (.744).

Starlin Castro led the hit parade with two doubles and a single, his 18th multi-hit game of the season. Over the last 20 years, the only other Yankee to produce 18-or-more multi-hit games within the team’s first 37 contests was Alfonso Soriano, who did it in 2002 and 2003.

Throwback (to 2016) Thursday
The Yankees couldn’t complete the sweep of the last-place Royals, falling 5-1 on Thursday in a game where the offense was M.I.A. for much of the night. It would have been their first series sweep in Kansas City in nearly a decade (September 2007).

Didi Gregorius once again saved the Yankees from being shut out for the first time this season with a one-out RBI single in the ninth inning. They are still one of three teams that haven’t been blanked in 2017, along with the Nationals and Twins.

Although the Yankees have scored at least one run in every game, there’s been some close calls. This was the fourth time that the Yankees had zero runs through eight innings (also on April 18, May 5 and May 12), and this was actually the second time in less than a week that Gregorius was the hero. His RBI single in the ninth inning on May 12 against the Astros was the Yankees only run of that game.

(AP)
(AP)

Jordan Montgomery allowed a career-high five runs in five innings, and the big blow was Mike Moustakas’ three-run homer on a first-pitch slider in the fifth inning. Entering this game, batters were 6-for-34 (.177) with one extra-base hit (double) when putting Montgomery’s slider in play.

Royals starter Danny Duffy was brilliant as he mowed down the Yankee lineup, retiring the first nine batters — six of them via strikeout — before Jacoby Ellsbury‘s bunt single leading off the fourth inning.

Duffy allowed just two more hits in seven scoreless innings while striking out 10. Duffy became the third Royals pitcher with double-digit strikeouts and no runs allowed against the Yankees, joining Tom Gordon (April 20, 1991) and Mark Gubicza (Aug. 17, 1986).

Extreme plate discipline is fueling Aaron Hicks’ great start

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

They had to wait a year longer than hoped, but the Yankees are now reaping the benefits of an Aaron Hicks breakout season. The former first round pick and top prospect has finally turned his high-end tools and athleticism into big time baseball production at age 27. Hicks went deep last night and owns a .326/.464/.616 (195 wRC+) batting line this year. Unlike last season, it’s really hard to keep him out of the lineup.

The book on Hicks coming up through the minors was that he had very good knowledge of the strike zone — he owns a career 14.4% walk rate in over 2,600 minor league plate appearances — but would often be too passive, meaning he’d let hittable pitches go by. That’s not an uncommon problem, though getting a player to be more aggressive is not always easy. It’s in their DNA to want to wait for the perfect pitch.

Last season Hicks showed strong plate discipline with the Yankees, even when he was struggling. His 18.8% strikeout rate and 8.3% walk rate were both better than the league averages, and his 23.1% chase rate was far below the 30.6% league average. Hicks rarely expanded the zone. The problem was that when he did swing, nothing really happened. Hicks played his best when he was in the lineup regularly, but he didn’t play well enough to get regular at-bats. It was a tough spot.

This season Hicks has started well and he’s forcing Joe Girardi to give him at-bats, which is a good thing. The Yankees have four starting caliber outfielders on the roster right now, three of whom could legitimately handle center field defensively full-time, if necessary. How many other teams can say that? One reason Hicks is breaking out is his plate discipline, which has become extreme. He simply doesn’t chase out of the zone. Here is the chase rate leaderboard among players with at least 100 plate appearances this season:

  1. Aaron Hicks: 13.7%
  2. Eric Thames & Robbie Grossman: 18.1%

The gap between No. 1 and No. 2 is the same as the gap between No. 2 and No. 18, who, coincidentally enough, is Chase Headley. It’s worth noting Hicks has the second lowest swing rate overall, on pitches both in and out of the zone. He’s at 33.0%. The lowest swing rate? Brett Gardner at 32.8%. Matt Carpenter is third at 34.0%.

Here is the pitch location map of all the swings Hicks has taken this year, via Baseball Savant:

aaron-hicks-swing-locationsNot many swings on pitches outside the strike zone at all. Heck, most of the pitches out of the zone that Hicks did offer at were borderline pitches, the kind that could have been called either way had he laid off. There’s fewer than a dozen pitches well out of the zone that generated a swing in that plot. If you want Hicks to swing, you have to come in the strike zone. He won’t get himself out by chasing off the plate.

What this extreme level of plate discipline does is get Hicks into better hitter’s counts. Hicks has 111 plate appearances this season and in 43 of them he’s seen a 2-0 or 3-1 count, or 39%. The MLB average is 23%. Hicks is nearly double that. And in hitter’s counts, Hicks is hitting .450/.744/.800 this year. That’s a 218 OPS+, on par with elite sluggers like Freddie Freeman (216 OPS+) and Kris Bryant (206 OPS+) when they’re ahead in the count.

Hicks has been so good at laying off pitches out of the strike zone this year that it almost can’t continue. Among players with at least 400 plate appearances, the lowest single season chase rate during the PitchFX era (2008-present) is 13.5% by 2010 Daric Barton. Marco Scutaro had a 14.0% chase rate in 2009. No one else is below 16.0%. Maybe Hicks can maintain his 13.7% chase rate. That’d be cool. Chances are it’ll climb though. In fact, it already has. From FanGraphs:

aaron-hicks-chase-rate

The fact Hicks has a history of strong plate discipline, including a 23.1% chase rate last year and a 21.3% chase rate for his career, suggests this isn’t a complete fluke, however. It’s not like Starlin Castro has suddenly turned into Joey Votto, you know? Hicks has always had plate discipline, and this year he’s cranked it up another notch. As a result, he’s seeing better counts, and doing more damage.

Even now, more than six weeks into the season, it’s still difficult to tell what is real improvement (or decline) and what is general baseball randomness. I want to believe the Hicks breakout is real and I think it is, but I don’t know that it is. The underlying data, specifically his complete unwillingness to expand the zone and history of plate discipline, suggest this could be real. For now, the hot start has happened, and Hicks has helped the Yankees win an awful lot of games early on. Good things happen when you swing at strikes and lay off balls.

Yankeemetrics: Bronx Bombers invade Wrigley (May 5-7)

Air Gardy. (Presswire)
Air Gardy. (Presswire)

It Ain’t Over ‘Til Its Over
The Comeback Kings struck again as the Yankees pulled off yet another stunning late-game come-from-behind victory on Friday afternoon against the Cubs.

Trailing 2-0 in the top of the ninth with two men on base and two outs, Brett Gardner drilled a 2-2 slider into the right field bleachers to give the Yankees the lead; Aroldis Chapman got the final three outs to secure the most improbable win.

How unlikely was this rally? The last time the Cubs lost a game in this scenario – protecting a two-or-more-run lead in the ninth – was nearly three years ago, on May 21, 2014 at Wrigley Field … against the Yankees.

Or maybe it wasn’t so unlikely, given the refuse-to-lose mojo of the 2017 Yankees. Entering Saturday’s slate, they were one of just three teams this season with multiple wins when trailing by at least two runs entering the ninth inning (Padres and Angels were the others).

Before Gardner went deep, he was a pathetic 3-for-20 (.150) with zero extra-base hits after the sixth inning, and hitless in five at-bats in the ninth inning this season.

Gardner’s home run was not just shocking, it was one for the record books. Only six other times since 1930 has a Yankee hit a go-ahead homer in the ninth inning with two outs and trailing by at least two runs. That list includes: Mark Teixeira (2016), Alex Rodriguez (2010), Don Mattingly (1985), Chris Chambliss (1976), Bobby Murcer (1969) and Bobby Richardson (1962).

A-Rod‘s three-run homer in the top of the ninth on Sept. 17, 2010 in Baltimore is the only other instance in the last quarter-century that a Yankee pulled off that feat when down to their final strike, like Gardner.

And, finally, this was the third time in the last 75 years that the Yankees were one out away from being shut out, and then hit a go-ahead home run. Incredibly, the hero in the two previous games was the same guy – Bobby Murcer – who erased a 1-0 deficit on June 14, 1980 in Oakland and a 2-0 deficit on August 5, 1969 against the Angels with ninth-inning, game-changing homers.

Hot hot Hicksy. (EPA)
Hot hot Hicksy. (EPA)

No comeback needed
One night after perhaps the most dramatic win of the season, the Yankees authored one of their least dramatic wins of the season, taking a 5-0 lead in the top of the first inning en route to an 11-6 victory on Saturday. The win gave them their fourth straight series victory, something they never did last year.

Sure, the Yankees and Cubs don’t match up often, but it’s still fun to note that the last time the Yankees scored 11-or-more runs against the Cubs was in Game 4 of the 1932 World Series, a 13-6 series-clinching win at Wrigley Field. The 3-4 hitters in that lineup were Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig; for Ruth, it was the last World Series game of his Hall-of-Fame career (h/t Mark Simon, friend of Yankeemetrics).

The offensive explosion on Saturday was led by the top of the order as Aaron Hicks and Starlin Castro combined to go 7-for-9 with five runs and six RBIs. Castro was 3-of-4, notching his AL-best 15th multi-hit game of the season. In the last 40 years, only two other Yankees produced that many multi-hit games within the team’s first 28 contests: Derek Jeter (2012) and Alfonso Soriano (2002, 2003).

Hicks’ performance was the statistical highlight of the night, as he went 4-of-5, including a homer, while driving in three runs and scoring three runs. The last Yankee center fielder to put up those numbers in any game – at least four hits, a home run, three RBIs, three runs – was Mickey Mantle on Aug. 6, 1961 against the Twins.

Yes, miracles do happen. (Getty)
Yes, miracles do happen. (Getty)

It’s over, finally
After way too many innings, way too many hours, way too many pitches, way too many strikeouts … the Yankees finished off the sweep of the Cubs on Sunday night (actually Monday morning).

It marked their first sweep of the defending World Series champs since July 14-16, 2006 against the White Sox, and the first time they’ve done that on the road since July 29-31, 2003 in Anaheim against the Angels.

The 18-inning affair was the longest game in Interleague history, longest game ever on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball (which began in 1990), and the longest in the majors this season.

It is the sixth time in franchise history the Yankees won a game of at least 18 innings and the first time since September 11, 1988 vs. the Tigers. The only other time they won a game this long on the road was a 22-inning marathon on June 24, 1962 in Detroit.

With the game going 18 innings, you’d think there would be a few more records set … and you would be correct.

  • The Yankee batters struck out 22 times, breaking the previous single-game franchise record of 17. And the Yankee pitchers struck out 26 Cubs, also obliterating the previous single-game franchise record of 19. Hooray!
  • The 26 strikeouts by Yankee pitchers matched a major-league record, set by the 1971 A’s vs. the Angels and the 2004 Angels vs. the Brewers.
  • This is the first game in MLB history where both teams each whiffed at least 21 times.
  • The 48 combined strikeouts by both teams is also a new single-game major-league record.
  • Yankees are the first team in major-league history to have four players (Castro, Didi Gregorius, Austin Romine, Chase Headley) go 0-for-7 or worse at the plate. Yes, they still won the game.

So how did we get there?

Luis Severino delivered an absolute gem, allowing one run in seven stellar innings. Twenty of his 21 outs came either groundballs (11) or strikeouts (9), and the one out he got in the air was a liner by Cubs starter Jon Lester. His final pitching line (4 hits, 1 walk, 9 strikeouts, 1 run, 7 innings) gives us our #FunFact Yankeemetric of the Week:

Only one other visiting pitcher as young Severino (23 years, 76 days) struck out at least nine batters, gave up no more than one run and allowed five or fewer baserunners in a game at Wrigley Field: Reds right-hander Jim Maloney, who delivered two such outings on August 21, 1962 and July 23, 1963.

Aaron Judge broke out of his mini-slump and gave the Yankees a 2-1 lead in the seventh with a tie-breaking RBI triple. It was the first go-ahead triple by any Yankee in nearly four years, when Travis Hafner hit one on April 27, 2013 to break a 4-4 tie in the seventh against the Blue Jays. Of course it was Pronk, just as we all predicted.

Aroldis Chapman came on in the ninth to protect a three-run lead, but eventually blew the save when he hit Anthony Rizzo with the bases loaded to even the score at 4-4. Chapman is the only Yankee pitcher since at least 1930 to give up the game-tying run in the ninth inning via a bases-loaded hit by pitch.

Finally, Castro reached on a fielder’s choice groundout, scoring Aaron Hicks from third. So the guy who went 0-for-8 was the hero of the night with the game-winning RBI.

Yankeemetrics: Rocky road trippin’ (April 21-23)

(Getty)
(Getty)

The Bad, the Ugly and the Awful
Last year the Yankees went 3-7 on their road Interleague slate, tied with the Twins for the worst record among AL teams … and the trend continued into 2017 after dropping the series opener in Pittsburgh, 6-3, on Friday night.

All the momentum and confidence built up from a strong 8-1 homestand came to a screeching halt thanks to a mix of bad pitching (see below), sloppy defense (two unearned runs) and a lack of clutch hitting (0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and 11 men left on base).

CC Sabathia was knocked around early, allowing a lead-off homer on the third pitch he threw and another longball in the second frame, putting the Yankees in 4-0 hole after two innings. Although he settled down and was able to gut through three more innings without allowing another run, he still was tagged for his worst outing of the season.

For whatever reason, Sabathia’s fastball (sinker/cutter) velocity was down significantly from his first three starts, averaging 88.2 mph compared to 90.6 in his first three starts combined …

brooksbaseball-chart-1

… and stuff-wise, each of his fastballs had much less “ride” on Friday, averaging just 7.1 (sinker) and 1.3 (cutter) inches of horizontal movement compared to 11.9 (sinker) and 3.7 (cutter) in his first three starts.

brooksbaseball-chart-2
Unsurprisingly, the Pirates crushed Sabathia’s diminished hard pitches, going 5-for-14 with two homers when putting his fastballs in play. In his first three starts, batters hit .244 and slugged .317 against Sabathia’s sinker/cutter combo.

The Pirates did their best to give the Yankees a chance to win, committing three errors, while the Yankees weren’t credited with an official RBI on any of their three runs scored. It was just the sixth time in franchise history they scored as many as three runs in a game with zero RBI. The last time it happened was May 2, 1989 in a 5-3 loss to the Royals.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Love these Komeback Kids
The Yankees got back in the win column with their sixth comeback win of the season, this time erasing a 3-0 deficit after five innings and cruising to an 11-5 victory.

Starlin Castro ignited the first rally with a three-run homer in the sixth inning that knotted the score at 3-3. It was his 25th longball with the Yankees and the 12th one that either tied the game or gave the Yankees the lead – that’s three more than any other Yankee over the last two seasons.

Ronald Torreyes then followed with a two-run double to give the Yankees their first lead, 5-3, in the sixth. Torreyes finished with four hits and two RBI, giving him 13 RBI through the team’s first 17 games. The only other Yankee shortstops with that many RBIs this early into the season were Derek Jeter (1999, 2006) and Frankie Crosetti (1936).

After the Pirates came back to tie the score, Chris Carter delivered his first True Yankee Moment®, belting a tie-breaking, pinch-hit homer in the eighth inning – his first time going deep in pinstripes. He is just the fourth Yankee pinch-hitter with a go-ahead homer in an Interleague game, joining Travis Hafner (2013 vs Arizona), Eric Chavez (2012 vs Mets) and Clay Bellinger (2000 vs Braves).

Aaron Judge then put the icing on the cake, connecting for yet another moonshot deep into the left field bleachers at PNC Park. Statcast measured the blast at career-high 457 feet with an exit velocity of 115.6 mph. Since his debut on Aug. 13, 2016, he has hit three homers traveling at least 445 feet. In that span (and through Saturday), only Justin Upton could match Judge in 445-plus foot homers.

It was the sixth time in 2017 that Judge ripped a ball with an exit velocity of at least 115 mph, making the leaderboard of 115-plus mph batted balls this season through Saturday … well, pretty ridiculous:

  • Aaron Judge: 6
  • Joey Gallo: 2
  • Rest of MLB: 9

Supernova’d
As good as the Yankees have been in the Bronx, they’ve been just as bad away from the friendly confines. After dropping the rubber game on Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Yankees fell to 0-3 in road series this season.

Ivan Nova — in his first start against the Yankees since being traded away last summer — got some sweet revenge against his former team as he allowed one run in seven efficient innings. It was the ninth time in 15 starts (60%) with the Pirates that Nova gave up one earned or fewer; he did that in just 25 percent of his 118 starts with the Yankees.

(USA Today Sports)
(USA Today Sports)

Jordan Montgomery continued to show poise on the mound and a knack for pitching out of trouble in another impressive outing. Making his third career start, the 24-year-old rookie scattered seven hits across six innings, surrendering two runs. The Pirates had one hit in seven at-bats with runners in scoring against Montgomery, who has held batters to a .118 average (2-for-17) with a man on second and/or third in his three starts.

The Yankees had plenty of chances to win the game but repeatedly came up empty. Notably, they loaded the bases with one out in the ninth but Aaron Hicks struck out and then Pete Kozma grounded out to end the game.

This was not an ideal situation for Hicks: he is now 2-for-27 (.074) with the bases loaded in his career, the second-worst mark among active players (min. 25 at-bats). And Kozma is just a bad hitter: his .148 batting average overall since the start of 2015 is better than only two non-pitchers that have at least 100 at-bats in the last three seasons (Craig Gentry, .139 and Erik Kratz, .117).

Hicks is forcing the Yankees to give him more playing time

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

The season is very young. The Yankees have played 13 games and won nine of them, and in those 13 games fourth outfielder Aaron Hicks is hitting .269/.429/.654 (196 wRC+) with three home runs in 35 plate appearances. That includes a two home-run game against the Rays last week. Hicks has also drawn eight walks against only three strikeouts. He’s been pretty great so far. No doubt about it.

As you know, Hicks had a miserable debut season in pinstripes a year ago, though clearly the Yankees never stopped believing in his talent. Switch-hitters with some power and speed are nice players to have. The Yankees gave Hicks a legitimate opportunity to win the right field job in Spring Training, and while he got beat out by Aaron Judge, Hicks played well and gave the Yankees something to think about. It wasn’t an easy decision.

“I saw the disappointment in his face,” said Joe Girardi last week. “It wasn’t easy because I thought he had a pretty good Spring Training too. And I just said, ‘Your opportunities are going to come and you’ve just got to make sure that you’re ready.’ I give him a lot of credit because I thought he turned the page really quickly. That’s not easy to do. He’s played extremely well.”

As poorly as he played last season overall, Hicks did finish fairly well, hitting .271/.333/.424 (105 wRC+) with five home runs in 129 plate appearances after Carlos Beltran was traded away at the deadline. The regular playing time seemed to help Hicks, who prior to last season had never been a bench player. Going from playing everyday to playing once or twice a week can be really tough. Not many players can make that adjustment seamlessly.

“I think he kind of figured it out as he went along last year,” added Girardi when asked about using Hicks as a part-time player last season. “We’ve tried to play him multiple days in a row (this year) so it’s a little more comfortable than playing sparingly … We’ll get in a little bit of a rotation and spell guys and make sure he’s getting his at-bats because I think he can be really productive.”

The Yankees are indeed making sure Hicks is getting his at-bats. He has 35 plate appearances through the first 13 team games this year. Last season Hicks didn’t receive his 35th plate appearance until May 4th, in the club’s 26th game. Some minor injuries have helped — Brett Gardner missed a game after his collision with Rickie Weeks, and Matt Holliday missed two games with a back issue — but Girardi seems to be making sure Hicks plays fairly regularly.

And, given his production to date, Hicks is forcing the Yankees and Girardi to consider giving him even more playing time going forward. No, he’s not going to hit like this all summer, but he showed signs of life late last season and he’s doing it again now. Did I mention he’s also only 27? And is a switch-hitter who draws walks and hits for power and offers some speed on the bases? That’s kind of a big deal. Hicks has natural ability. His talent is obvious.

Late last year the Yankees and Girardi had no problem sitting established veterans for younger players. Brian McCann lost playing time to Gary Sanchez and Mark Teixeira lost playing time to Tyler Austin, most notably. They’ll have to do something similar to get Hicks in the lineup, because right now Judge should not be losing playing time to anyone. A day off here and there, sure, but he’s a future core player and his playing time is a priority.

That leaves Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, both of whom will turn 34 later this year and don’t really fit into the Yankees’ long-term plans. At least not as key contributors. We should also include Holliday here. He is 37 and on a one-year contract. For Hicks to get more playing time going forward, it’ll come at the expense of those three. Perhaps the Yankees will find a trade partner for Gardner (or Ellsbury!) at some point, but until then, there will have to be some sort of outfield rotation.

Point is, the Yankees have a 27-year-old former first round pick — who switch-hits! and draws walks! and hits for power! and runs well! — who may or may not be coming into his own as a player. Hicks finished well last year, played well in Spring Training, and has started strong this year. Given the plan to get younger and more athletic, finding out whether Hicks is really starting to put it together should absolutely should be a priority. Girardi will have to be a little creative to make sure he gets Hicks into the lineup regularly going forward.

Yankeemetrics: Home Sweep Home (April 10-13)

(AP)
(AP)

#HugeMike
The Yankees 115th home opener nearly ended up as one of the most memorable in franchise history, as Michael Pineda flirted with a perfect game and gave fans much to cheer about on a gorgeous Monday afternoon at the ballpark.

Pineda is equal parts fantastic and frustrating, enigmatic and electric, dazzling and depressing. And just two starts into the 2017 season, he’s displayed both sides of his Jekyll-and-Hyde talent:

Less than a week after a miserable season-opening outing (3⅔ innings, 4 runs, 8 hits), Pineda was brilliant and dominated the same Rays lineup, retiring the first 20 batters he faced until Evan Longoria drilled a double into the left field corner with two outs in the seventh inning.

Armed with his wipeout slider, pinpoint command of his fastball and an effective changeup, Pineda whiffed 11 and allowed just two hits in 7⅔ innings. Pineda is the first Yankees pitcher to throw six perfect innings to start the team’s home opener, and also the first Yankees pitcher with double-digit strikeouts and no walks in the first home game of the season.

Before Pineda, the last Yankee in any game to pitch at least seven innings, get 11-plus strikeouts and allow no more than two baserunners was Mike Mussina in his epic near-perfecto against the Red Sox on Sept. 2, 2001.

Pineda was in complete control of nearly every at-bat, starting off 17 of the 25 batters with an 0-1 count, getting to 0-2 or 1-2 against 16 of those guys, and he got himself into a three-ball count just twice. A career-best nine of the 11 strikeouts came on his slider, which generated 11 whiffs on 20 swings.

pineda-k-vs-rays

Last year Pineda’s slider had a 46.2 percent swing-and-miss rate, fifth-best among starting pitchers (min. 500 pitches), and his 146 strikeouts with the slider ranked second behind Chris Archer (151).

Pineda’s gem wasn’t the only good news to come out of Monday’s win. The offense exploded for eight runs, thanks to the power bats of Aaron Judge, Chase Headley and Starlin Castro. While Judge’s homer was a majestic bomb that went 397 feet, Headley’s and Castro’s dingers barely cleared the fences. In fact, under normal conditions, their hits wouldn’t have been homers in any of the other 29 ballparks.

(Gettty)
(Gettty)

#AllRise for The Judge
As bad as the Yankees have fared against the Orioles at Camden Yards in recent years, they’ve been just as good at Yankee Stadium against another AL East foe, the Tampa Bay Rays. Following Wednesday’s 8-4 win, they’ve now won eight straight home series over the Rays, their longest such streak against any opponent at the current Yankee Stadium.

The pregame chatter focused on the debut 24-year-old Jordan Montgomery, who became the first Yankee southpaw to start in his major-league debut since Chase Wright and Kei Igawa in April 2007.

Montgomery was impressive out of the gate, striking out the the first two Rays that came to the plate. The last Yankee to make his big-league debut as a starter and strike out the first and second guys he faced was Mariano Rivera on May 23, 1995 vs the Angels.

Montgomery finished with seven strikeouts in 4⅔ innings, the most punchouts by a Yankee lefty in his first career MLB appearance since Al Leiter struck out eight in 1987.

No Gary Sanchez, no Greg Bird, no problem. The Yankees offense continued to roll thanks to the third slugger in the Baby Bomber trio, Aaron Judge, who had two hits and drove in three runs on Wednesday. Judge showed off his ridiculous power on both the hits:

  • The first one was a bullet line-drive RBI single that tied the game in the sixth inning and rocketed off his bat at 116.5 mph. It was the fastest base hit of 2017 by any player, and gave him four exit velocities of at least 115 mph this season – while the rest of MLB had combined for seven such balls in play through Wednesday’s games.
  • The second hit was a 437-foot homer that gave the Yankees an 8-3 cushion in the seventh inning. It was his third homer of the season, making him just the fourth Yankee under age 25 with at least three home runs in the team’s first eight games. The others are the list are not bad: Derek Jeter (1999), Bobby Murcer (1969) and Mickey Mantle (1956).
(Getty)
(Getty)

Three Times a Charm
The Yankees won their fourth straight game on Thursday night, wiping away the bad taste of that awful 1-4 start as they climbed above .500 (5-4) for the first time this season. The victory also gave them their first sweep of three-or-more games against the Rays at Yankee Stadium since September 2009.

And how can we forget that the Yankees first sweep last season didn’t come until May 22 (four-gamer in Oakland), and that their first three-game series sweep happened on September 7 against the Blue Jays.

Aaron Hicks was the night’s biggest hero at the plate, belting two home runs, including the game-winner that flipped a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning. It was his third career go-ahead homer in the seventh inning or later, and all three have come in pinstripes and against a division rival (Thursday vs. Rays; Sept. 26, 2016 at Toronto; May 6, 2016 vs. Red Sox).

The switch-hitter Hicks made sure that Luis Severino‘s stellar performance on the mound wouldn’t be wasted and helped the young Dominican earn his first win as a starter since Sept. 27, 2015 vs the White Sox. Severino flashed the electric stuff he showed during his rookie year, limiting the Rays to two runs while fanning a career-high 11 batters in seven strong innings, and etching his name in the franchise record books.

At 23 years and 52 days old, he’s the youngest Yankee right-hander in the last 100 years with more than 10 strikeouts in a game. The only others younger than Severino with 11-plus Ks in a game were all lefties: Al Leiter (1988), Dave Righetti (1981) and Al Downing (1963, 1964).