Game 150: The Final Stretch

(Brian Blanco/European Press)
(Brian Blanco/European Press)

Thirteen games in 13 days. That’s all the Yankees have left this season barring a damn near historic run to the postseason. For them to have any shot at the playoffs, this series against the last place Rays is a must-sweep. One game a time though. Get a win tonight and snap the five-game losing streak. Let’s start there. Here is the Rays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. RF Aaron Hicks
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. DH Billy Butler
  5. 1B Mark Teixeira
  6. SS Didi Gregorius
  7. 2B Ronald Torreyes
  8. 3B Donovan Solano
  9. CF Mason Williams
    RHP Michael Pineda

The internet tells me it’s cloudy and grossly humid in St. Petersburg, but it’ll be a cool 70-something degrees inside Tropicana Field. Tonight’s game will begin at 7:10pm ET and you can watch on YES. Enjoy.

Roster Move: As you can see from the lineup, Hicks (hamstring) was activated off the disabled list. He’d been out close to three weeks. No other move was required because rosters are expanded.

Injury Update: Jacoby Ellsbury (knee) is still sore but he said he’s hopeful he will play tomorrow. He’s available to pinch-hit tonight … Chase Headley (back) is not available at all. His back locked up on him in Boston. The Yankees play their next seven games on turf, so if Headley does return to the lineup this week, it might only be as the DH. We’ll see.

News: The Yankees announced they will honor Teixeira with a pregame ceremony prior to the final game of the season, on Sunday, October 2nd.

Cashman says young players have to earn roster spots in 2017 because of course they do

Bird. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
Bird. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

To no surprise, Brian Cashman confirmed the Yankees will not simply hand their top young players roster spots next season. They’ll have to earn it. “May the best man win,” said Cashman to Brendan Kuty recently when asked specifically about first base in the wake of Mark Teixeira‘s retirement.

At this point it’s safe to say that yes, Gary Sanchez has earned his place on the 2017 Yankees. Not exactly going out on a limb here. He’s the only young guy who has forced the issue this season though. First base and right field are another matter, ditto the pitching staff. And the bench too, I suppose. There’s a lot going on here, so let’s break it all down.

1. Competition is good! There seems to be this sense that when you’re a rebuilding transitioning team, the best thing to do is throw the kids out there and let them sink or swim. I couldn’t disagree more. Yes, there comes a point when you have to run a young player out there everyday to help him develop, but handing players jobs? Nah. That should be reserved for the best of the best.

Besides, competition between young players is good and healthy. They push each other to get better and it helps foster that “be the best player you can be” mentality. That’s a good thing. “We want a team full of good players. That’s how we’re going to win games,” said Greg Bird to Kuty. “And that’s us competing or other people competing with each other makes us all better, than that’s what we want.”

2. There’s a wide range of outcomes at first base. A year ago at this time we were all thrilled about the future at first base, the same way we’re thrilled about the future at catcher right now. Bird burst onto the scene and played very well down the stretch last season. He wasn’t Sanchez, but he was pretty awesome. The Yankees really missed Bird this year. He would have helped at first base and DH big time.

Bird’s shoulder injury has created some questions about next season. How healthy will he be? How quickly will he be back at full strength? Will he ever get back to full strength? Bird told Kuty his shoulder feels great — “It’s stronger than what it was and it’s structurally sound now,” he said — and he’ll soon face live pitching in Instructional League and the Arizona Fall League, but until he gets out there everyday, we just can’t know what he’s capable of. This was a major injury.

With any luck, Bird will come back and pick up right where he left off last season, giving the Yankees a no-doubt answer at first base. There’s a chance he may need time at Triple-A to shake off the rust, however, in which case Tyler Austin becomes Plan A at first base. I guess? Austin or Rob Refsnyder. Maybe Brian McCann or Austin Romine? First base could be really good or really bad next season. Bird could rake or the Yankees could end up cycling through players all year in an effort to find a solution.

Judge. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Judge. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

3. Right field seems wide open. Give the Yankees a truth serum and I’m guessing they’d tell you they want Aaron Judge to take the right field job in Spring Training and run with it. Of their in-house options, he has the best chance to become a middle of the order bat one day. “He will have to earn his way on to next year’s roster. There are no absolutes. Without question, he’ll be better for the experience,” said Cashman to Andrew Marchand.

Judge struggled to make contact this season and he’s losing reps now due to the oblique injury, which stinks. That’s valuable development time, even if it is only three weeks. His primary competition figures to be Austin, Refsnyder, Aaron Hicks, and Mason Williams. And you know what? The right field job could fall on two players via platoon or some kind of time share. It would be awesome if Judge won the job. I feel like anything could happen in right field though. Hicks everyday, a Williams/Austin platoon, whatever.

4. A veteran backup plan feels like a must. The Yankees have brought in a veteran bench player to cover first base and right field the last two years, and it didn’t work either time. Garrett Jones didn’t hit last year and Dustin Ackley blew out his shoulder this year. Neither played all that much either because the Yankees had pricey veterans in the lineup. It was a smart use of a roster spot that didn’t work out.

Since the Yankees are poised to go young at first base and in right field next year, bringing in a veteran backup plan for depth again makes sense, and this time at-bats should be easier to come by. Veterans like Teixeira and Carlos Beltran get the benefit of the doubt and stay in the lineup no matter what. A struggling kid could see a little more time in the bench just to get a mental break now and then.

We can sort through potential candidates for this role in the offseason — I’ll be beating the Steve Pearce drum this winter, so get ready for it (yes I know he’s having elbow surgery) — though it’s worth noting the Yankees have some options for this role themselves. Perfect world scenario is what, Bird at first and Judge in right with Austin and/or Refsnyder backing up both positions? I guess so, but a little veteran depth to protect against a Bird setback/Judge whiff-fest would be nice.

5. Severino shouldn’t be guaranteed anything. Competition for a rotation spot or a few bullpen spots is nothing new. I can’t remember the last time the Yankees didn’t have some pitching spots up for grabs in camp. I’m sure that’ll be true next year as well. Chad Green, Luis Cessa, and Bryan Mitchell could all wind up competing for the fifth starter’s job, for example. That would be ideal, really.

Luis Severino presents an interesting case. He got hammered as a starter this season in two separate stints, but he’s also dominated out of the bullpen. The Yankees insist they don’t want to give up on him as a starter because he’s still so young and I believe them. But, because he was so bad a starter this season and lost feel for his changeup, Severino shouldn’t come to camp with a rotation spot locked up like he did this year. He should have to earn it like everyone else.

Severino is in the bullpen right now because he gives the Yankees the best chance to win. That’s all there is to it. He hasn’t thrown his changeup much in relief — seven of his 200 pitches this month have been changeups, so yeah — and that’s kind of a problem. His development as a starting pitcher should be the priority in 2017. If that means more time in Triple-A, so be it. Severino shouldn’t be handed a spot just because. That would be a mistake.

Refsnyder and Williams are the Yankees’ best options in the wake of the Judge injury

(Ed Zurga/Getty)
(Ed Zurga/Getty)

Last night the Yankees won the second game of their three-game series with the Dodgers, but they also lost an everyday player to injury. Right fielder Aaron Judge tweaked his right oblique taking a swing, and although he stayed in to finish the at-bat, he was pulled from the game after the inning was over. Judge will go for an MRI today to determine the severity of the injury.

“It’s possible (he’s done for the season),” said Joe Girardi following last night’s game. “It’s his right rib cage. He’ll have an MRI. We won’t see him for a while … I just told him, ‘You’re out.’ I called him over and he didn’t really argue. We’ve got to get this checked out and see where you’re at.”

Judge’s first month or so in the big leagues has been a mixed bag. He’s hitting .179/.263/.345 (61 wRC+) overall with a 44.2% strikeout rate, so for the most part his at-bats have been unproductive. At the same time, every once in a while Judge will do this …

… and remind you exactly why he’s been so highly touted the last few seasons. That’s not even the longest home run Judge has hit in his short time as a big leaguer. He hit one over the windows of the restaurant in center field last month. Between the power and the strikeouts, it’s amazing Judge ever sees a fastball. It really is.

Anyway, the injury means the Yankees are down not only their starting right fielder in Judge, but also their backup right fielder. Aaron Hicks is still out of action with a Grade II hamstring, remember. At the moment the Yankees have only three healthy true outfielders on the active roster: Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Eric Young Jr. That’s it. (I won’t blame you if you forgot about EYJ. I did too.)

Even if the MRI today reveals good news, chances are the Yankees will be without Judge for at least a few days. Oblique strains usually don’t heal overnight. Also, they’re very easy to reaggravate, and Judge isn’t a nobody. The Yankees are going to play it very safe with him. The last thing they want is him to suffer a setback that throws his offseason workouts out of whack. Here are the team’s options with Judge sidelined.

Short-Term Fix

Girardi all but confirmed Rob Refsnyder will step in as the every right fielder for the time being. They really have no other choice. “That’s what I’ll go with now and obviously I’ve got to talk to (Brian Cashman) to see if we’re going to make a move here,” said the manager last night. The only other option is Tyler Austin, who is the most-of-the-time first baseman, so Refsnyder it is.

In sporadic playing time this year Refsnyder has a .268/.342/.333 (81 wRC+) batting line in 159 plate appearances. That’s … unique. He’s drawing walks (10.1%) and making contact (13.2% strikeouts), but he’s also hit for zero power. Refsnyder’s yet to hit a home run and he has only nine doubles too. He works a quality at-bat almost every time up and that’s great. Some extra-base pop would be cool though.

(Bob Levey/Getty)
(Bob Levey/Getty)

Hopefully the doubles and homers come now that Refsnyder will get a chance to play everyday. His defense is not great in right field — maybe this will press Young into defensive replacement duty in tight games? — but again, the Yankees are pretty much out of options. Based on the guys they have on the active roster, Refsnyder is the best right field solution.

Returning Soon?

Grade II hamstring strains can be pretty serious and they tend to lead to prolonged absences, but Hicks is already back performing baseball activities. He got hurt on August 31st and he’s already started running in the outfield and taking batting practice. Hicks is going to Tampa later today to ramp up his rehab, and it sounds as though the goal is to activate him off the DL when the Yankees arrive for their series with the Rays next week.

As crappy a year as he’s had, getting Hicks back as soon as next week would be pretty huge. At the very least, he could replace Refsnyder for defense in the late innings. Best case scenario is Hicks picks up where he left off in August — he hit .280/.330/.439 (106 wRC+) in fairly regular playing time last month — and takes over right field everyday. A little friendly competition between Refsnyder and Hicks would be good for both, I think. Either way, there’s a chance Hicks will return as soon as next week. That would be pretty awesome.

The Call-Up Candidate

The Yankees have one outfielder on the 40-man roster who is not in the big leagues right now: Mason Williams. Williams returned from shoulder surgery at midseason and hit .317/.335/.410 (112 wRC+) in 46 regular season minor league games, almost all at Triple-A. Typical Mason Williams, basically. At least when he’s going good. Williams has carried that performance over into the postseason with the RailRiders too.

Girardi acknowledged a Williams call-up was possible last night — “It’s going to be really difficult (with a short bench) … There’s outfielders down there that we’re going to have to talk about because we’re short,” he said — and given where the Yankees are in the postseason race, everything has to be on the table at this point. They surely want Williams to get as many at-bats as possible following shoulder surgery, but playing with a short bench in a postseason race makes no sense.

(Scranton Times-Tribune)
(Scranton Times-Tribune)

Remember, the Yankees originally planned to give Bryan Mitchell one more Triple-A start to iron things out earlier this month, but as soon as Chad Green got hurt, they called Mitchell up because he was the best option. The same applies to Williams. Would they like him to get more at-bats with the RailRiders? Surely. Judge’s injury has forced their hand though, and with a playoff spot within reach, having the best team possible has to be the priority.

Scranton’s season will end no later than Saturday — it can end as soon as tomorrow — and I’m guessing Williams won’t make it that far. He’ll be up before then, perhaps later today. The RailRiders would be pretty screwed during the International League Championship Series, but the big league team is the always the priority. Chances are we’ll see Mason very soon.

The Long Shots

The three other outfielders with Triple-A Scranton are not on the 40-man roster: Clint Frazier, Cesar Puello, and Jake Cave. I can’t see them calling Frazier up a year before he’s Rule 5 Draft eligible. That would be a big time panic move. Puello and Cave are a different story because cutting them loose in the offseason wouldn’t be a big deal. If the Yankees do decide to give Williams more at-bats in Triple-A following surgery, Puello or Cave could get the call instead. This section is called “The Long Shots” for a reason though. I don’t see this happening. Puello, Cave, and Frazier are all options available to the Yankees. They’re not that desperate yet though.

* * *

The Judge injury isn’t devastating — he wasn’t hitting much outside the occasional dinger — but it further thins out the Yankees’ outfield. Refsnyder is a short-term solution and Hicks might be back next week, which would be cool. My guess is we’ll see Williams sooner rather than later too. There’s a clear need and he can be useful, even if he’s only a defensive replacement for the time being. The Yankees may not want to use Refsnyder in right or call up Williams before the end of the Triple-A season, but they’re short on outfielders at the moment, and those two are their best immediate options with Judge and Hicks out.

Game 143: The Random Mid-September Interleague Series

(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)
(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)

One of the many joys of modern baseball is the random interleague series in the middle of the September postseason push. The Dodgers are in town for three games this week and that’s pretty cool. Unfortunately it also means the Yankees won’t be playing head-to-head games against one of the teams they’re chasing in the standings. They’ll need help to gain ground tonight.

Bryan Mitchell will make second his big league start of the season tonight, and the first went very well. He held the high-powered Blue Jays scoreless over five innings. Toronto also had eight right-handed batters in their lineup that day. The Dodgers have six lefties and one switch-hitter in the lineup tonight. Pretty big difference. Here is the Dodgers’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. 2B Starlin Castro
  5. DH Brian McCann
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. 1B Tyler Austin
  8. RF Aaron Judge
  9. SS Ronald Torreyes
    RHP Bryan Mitchell

Absolutely gorgeous night for baseball here in New York. Nice and cool with a slight breeze, and only a few clouds in the sky. Autumnal. Tonight’s game will begin at 7:05pm ET and you can watch on YES. Enjoy the game.

Injury Updates: Didi Gregorius is “really beat up” and could sit tomorrow too, said Joe Girardi. All the recent hit-by-pitches and foul balls off his legs are taking their toll. Gregorius is available tonight if necessary … Aaron Hicks (hamstring) has resumed running and hitting in the cage. He’s going to head to Tampa at the end of the homestand to ramp up his rehab work, and he could be activated off the DL next week.

Game 137: Closing In

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

Here’s a fun fact: with a win tonight, the Yankees will trim their deficit in the AL East to 4.5 games. They haven’t been that close since the end of April. Heck, you could argue the Yankees have an easier road to the division title than they do a wildcard spot because they actually play the teams ahead of them in the AL East. Now I’m just talking crazy.

Anyway, the Yankees have won ten of their last 16 games despite the back-to-back shutouts in Baltimore over the weekend. A win tonight would clinch their first series win over the Blue Jays since last August, six series ago. That was the series with Carlos Beltran homer/Andrew Miller vs. Troy Tulowitzki game. As fun as games like that are, I could go for a more stress-free win tonight. Here is the Blue Jays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. SS Didi Gregorius
  5. 2B Starlin Castro
  6. DH Brian McCann
  7. 3B Chase Headley
  8. RF Aaron Judge
  9. 1B Tyler Austin
    RHP Luis Cessa

It has been overcast and cool in New York all day, and there’s rain in the forecast pretty much all night. It doesn’t look like there will be torrential downpour, just on-and-off showers. The Yankees haven’t had much luck with rain delays this year. Hopefully they don’t get hosed again tonight. Tonight’s game will begin at 7:05pm ET and you can watch on YES.

Roster Moves: The Yankees have called up both Bryan Mitchell and James Pazos, the team announced. There are now 13 pitchers in the bullpen. Joe Girardi said the team is leaning towards starting Mitchell tomorrow.

Injury Updates: Aaron Hicks (hamstring) was placed on the 15-day DL yesterday, which is odd. There’s no need for the 15-day DL once rosters expand in September. Chad Jennings thinks it could be a way to send Hicks to the minors for rehab games, and really, that’s the only thing that makes sense. There’s no other benefit to the 15-day DL at this point … Chad Green (elbow) seemed to indicate the second opinion revealed good news. He’s going to have a dye contrast MRI at some point though.

Game 133: Control What You Can Control

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Let’s do some quick math. Right now the second wildcard spot has a .541 winning percentage, which works out to 88 wins across a full season. The Yankees need to go 19-11 the rest of the get to reach 88 wins. Their best 30-game stretch this season is 18-12 from July 9th through August 13th, so it’s not impossible for this group. Long shot? Yes. But not impossible.

Here’s where it gets complicated: the Tigers have tied the Orioles for the second wildcard spot, and the Yankees don’t play Detroit the rest of the season. They’re going to need help from the Indians and Royals and, sigh, the White Sox and Twins. The Yankees have a brutal schedule this month. The Tigers have it pretty easy. There’s nothing the Yankees can do about that though. They can only control what they can control, and that starts with tonight’s game against the Orioles. Here is the O’s lineup and here is the Yanks’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. SS Didi Gregorius
  6. 2B Starlin Castro
  7. DH Brian McCann
  8. 3B Chase Headley
  9. RF Aaron Judge
    RHP Chad Green

It is cool, cloudy, and humid in Baltimore. Not exactly baseball weather, but it’ll do. Tonight’s game is scheduled to begin at 7:05pm ET and you can watch on YES. Enjoy the game.

Injury Update: Aaron Hicks (hamstring) has a Grade II strain, Joe Girardi told reporters this afternoon. He hurt himself running out a ground ball last night. The Yankees won’t place Hicks on the disabled list because there’s no need with expanded rosters, but this is going to keep him out a few weeks. Crud.

Guest Post: Aaron Hicks in August

The following is a guest post from Carlo Macomber, who goes by CoryWadeDavis in the comments. He’s previous written guest posts about Masahiro Tanaka, Didi Gregorius, and Jacoby Ellsbury.

(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)
(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)

From April through July, Aaron Hicks struggled mightily in his first season with the Yankees. There are no two ways about it. Hicks hit .187/.251/.287 (41 wRC+) in 232 relatively sporadic PAs. That is unacceptable for a Major League player, but, to the disappointment of most fans, the Yankees stuck with Hicks through all of his struggles.

The Yankees have been rewarded for their patience as Hicks hit .280/.330/.439 (107 wRC+) in 88 PAs during the month of August. By no coincidence, Hicks’ much improved hitting has matched up perfectly with the Carlos Beltran trade that has allowed him to play regularly. However, all players are constantly making adjustments at the plate, and surely Hicks is no different.

Unfortunately, Hicks suffered a hamstring injury on the last day of the month. Nevertheless, let’s look to see what other differences there have been this month for Aaron Hicks other than simply playing regularly, while of course keeping in mind that this is only a small sample size.

Unsurprisingly, Hicks hit the ball harder in August than he had the first four months of the season. His hard contact rate in August is at 30.3%, up from 25.6% from April-July. His soft contact rate also dropped to 13.6% from 20.2%. This is clearly good news, especially because it shows that Hicks’ improved batting line is not entirely BABIP driven. His BABIP has increased significantly, from .220 in April-July to .306 in August, but the latter number is not absurdly high and seems to be the result of Hicks making much better contact.

Along with hitting the ball harder, Hicks has also managed to hit the ball in the air with more frequency this month. Check out this batted ball data:

Months GB% LD% FB%
April-July 49.4% 15.7% 34.9%
August 35.4% 21.5% 43.1%

While the drop in GB% is certainly noticeable, Hicks’ August LD% is quite encouraging. If Hicks had a 21.5% LD% on the entire season, he would be nearly tied with Buster Posey and in the vicinity of players like Miguel Cabrera. Of course, this is not to say Hicks will ever be remotely close to Posey or Cabrera offensively, but it is certainly encouraging that he is capable of putting up a similar LD%, even in the small sample of a single month.

Also, as baseball fans know, players with elite speed can thrive with high ground-ball rates, the vast majority of players are better off hitting the ball in the air with frequency. Didi Gregorius, a player somewhat similar to Hicks in terms of speed, has managed to drop his GB% from 44.7% last year to 42% this season. This has, of course, coincided with Didi’s breakout offensive season. Hicks’ April-July GB% was simply too high for him to have sustainable, non-BABIP driven offensive success. While his August GB% may not be completely sustainable given where has was for much of the year, if he could maintain a ground-ball rate around Didi’s 2016 level, Hicks could notice more continued success in the future.

Now, let’s take a look to see how Hicks has done more damage offensively based on pitch selection. Because Hicks only had a small number of PAs from the right side of the plate in August, the following comparison is going to focus on Hicks’ PAs from the left side (against right-handed pitching). With that being said, the graphic below shows (from the catcher’s point of view) Hicks’ swing rate on four-seam fastballs against right-handed pitching from April through July.

Aaron Hicks1

Hicks was quite aggressive on fastballs just about anywhere in the zone as well as fastballs up and out of the zone for the first four months of the season. Being aggressive on fastballs in the zone is generally a positive, but considering that Hicks pulled the ball at a 46.4% clip during this time frame, he probably would be better off attacking pitches on the inner-half of the plate only. (For reference, Brian McCann pulls the ball 49.8% of the time so far this season.)

Additionally, while Hicks struggled mightily overall during this time, he did minimal damage on fastballs up and out of the zone, which is not particularly surprising given the location, but is quite poor considering how often he chased those pitches. Hicks struggled so much from April-July, that it would seem difficult to find one particular issue. His fastball selection, however, certainly stands out as contributing to his struggles. Now, let’s take a look at the same chart except with the time period being the entire month of August.

Aaron Hicks3

While keeping in mind that one month is obviously a smaller sample size than four, Hicks was much more successful at laying off fastballs up and out of the zone. Those types of fastballs can be challenging to do much damage with, so this stands out as a clear improvement for Hicks! Another noticeable difference between the two charts is that Hicks has also been more selective within the strike zone. While still swinging at some fastballs in the outer part of the zone, Hicks has taken more of them, while looking to attack fastballs on the inner-half of the plate. He has even been slightly more likely to swing at fastballs in and off the plate. Given his tendencies to pull the ball, Hicks has improved greatly in August by being more selective with fastballs and looking to attack ones located on the inner-half of the plate.

Of course, the sample size of pitches that meet these criteria is quite small, but Hicks has done quite a bit of damage in August on fastballs on the inner-half of the plate. The increased selectivity has been paying off, as Hicks was an above-average offensive player for the month of August. However, it is, of course, unknown whether Hicks can sustain this kind of success over a longer period of time. Perhaps, he simply had a good month. The increased hard contact rate, increased line drive rate, and better fastball pitch selection, among other improvements, do provide a little bit of evidence that Hicks may have made real gains in his development. His recent injury obviously creates another obstacle on his path to sustaining this success, but it is certainly fair to say the month of August provided hope for Aaron Hicks as a hitter.