Platoon

I’m hardly one who obsesses over dreams and they’re meanings, but for years now, I’ve had some recurring, sports-related themes in my dreams. Often, in some random context, I’m playing baseball or basketball, things I’ve done for most of my life. As a kid, I was decidedly mediocre at both of these, though getting contact lenses in the eleventh grade certainly helped. Nevertheless, when I have dreams featuring these two very familiar sports, I often find myself playing horrendously: I miss layups and jumpers at a Chucker Costanza like rate in basketball dreams and frequently in my baseball-inclusive dreams, I physically cannot throw the ball. Last night, I had a dream in which my wife and I were coaching a youth team, then I took some cuts against one of the pitchers and whiffed a lot–which I chalked up to playing slow pitch softball and not being used to hitting actual pitching–until finally smacking one over the shortstop’s head, just before the dream’s context and setting changed in a heartbeat, as they tend to do. I suppose the takeaway from this all, sparing you the Freudian dream analysis, is the simplest of all: even in our dreams, it’s damn hard to play sports, especially baseball. Players, managers, and teams have to constantly search for any advantage they can find and exploit in. For managers, one of the simplest and oldest advantages in the game is the platoon advantage. As Mike noted in late October, the Yankees led the league in gaining the platoon advantage over their opponents’ pitchers in 2015. 2016 has the potential to be no different, with at least three platoon situations presenting themselves early in the offseason.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Catcher: When the Yankees traded away John Ryan Murphy to the Twins in exchange for switch-hitting outfielder Aaron Hicks, it seemed to open the door for Gary Sanchez to (finally?) fully break through to the Major Leagues and get some consistent playing time. With Brian McCann entrenched behind the plate, Sanchez won’t be the full-time starter unless McCann gets injured. A platoon, however, could develop and give the Yankees value. As a young hitter with little experience to Major League pitching, Sanchez could benefit from a platoon that sets him up for success by limiting his exposure and letting him work against the types of pitchers–lefties–that he’s done well against. Like with any Minor League numbers, take these with a grain of salt, but Sanchez has put up an .863 OPS against southpaws throughout his career with a .241 ISO. His raw OPS against right-handed pitchers isn’t bad–.737–but it’s significantly lower and he’s flashed less power, a .147 ISO, against same-handed pitchers. Additionally, a straight platoon could give Sanchez more predictable playing time and give McCann more regular and consistent rest, something all catchers need, especially ones in their 30’s. On the other side of the ball, Sanchez’s defense, though improved, likely will never be a shining part of his game. Playing him against lefties and limiting him against righties will allow his potential shortcomings to be minimized.

So far, this seems like a decent plan. That doesn’t mean, though, that there aren’t things that would need to be considered. For one, Brian McCann actually has a reverse platoon split in his time with the Yankees, something I didn’t expect at all. The Yankees may also want Sanchez to get every day playing time in the minors until they feel he’s ready, rather than let him sit on the bench. While Murphy flourished with inconsistent playing time last year, the Yankees may not want to do that with Sanchez and opt to put him–along with Greg Bird, probably–in Scranton to see the field every day.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Second Base: Catcher is not the only spot on the field where the Yankees have a young player who may be ready to break out. Fans clamored for Rob Refsnyder through much of last season, and in 2016, they’re likely to get him–along with trade-deadline acquisition Dustin Ackley. This situation is likely more amenable to a straight platoon since the difference between Ackley and Refsnyder–while large, as one is an established-if-not-great Major Leaguer and the other is still unproven–is not as large as the difference between McCann and Sanchez. Neither one of these guys is making mega-bucks, so there’s no financial incentive to play one over the other more consistently.

A platoon at second base between these two would be best for them and the team as it would let their strengths play up, as platoons tend to do. In his career, Ackley has put up a replacement-level wRC+ of 80 against lefties. His mark against righties–97–isn’t great, but it’s much more palatable than the one against lefties. He’s also got a respectable .140 ISO against right-handed pitching and a solid 8.4% walk rate against them. Meanwhile, Refsnyder’s hit both types of pitchers will in the minors, but has outperformed against lefties: an .863 OPS against lefties compared to an .800 mark against righties. And with these two, you’ll let one of them shine. As soon as one starts to perform and the other starts to lag, you can ride that wave without too much consequence. If Refsnyder prevails, Ackley becomes the backup. If Ackley reclaims some of that prospect shine, Refsnyder can go back to AAA for some more seasoning and more reps.

The only real downside to this platoon is that neither of these players is strong on the defensive side of things. There’s also that chance that Ackley continues to be aggressively “meh” at playing Major League Baseball and that Refsnyder never blossoms into the player we all want him to be. The alternative in that nightmare scenario, then, is Brendan Ryan? Yuck.

Aaron Hicks
(Getty)

Outfield: Last week, I touched on the newest Yankee, Aaron Hicks, and his potential to get a lot of playing time even if he isn’t necessarily a starting outfielder, so I’ll be brief here as not to be repetitive. With Hicks in the fold, the Yankees can add a bit more balance to their outfield, balance that’s missing when two of the three outfielders are lefty hitters and one of them–Jacoby Ellsbury–has struggled against lefties recently. Manager Joe Girardi has also shown a propensity to platoon for Brett Gardner in the past and doing so with Hicks would be a fairly seamless transition. Carlos Beltran‘s concerns are from the defensive side, and it’s easy to see how much and how often he’ll be replaced on defense in the late innings. In that vein, a platoon involving Ellsbury, Gardner, and Hicks will always leave the Yankees with at least two–three when Beltran sits–outfielders capable of playing center field and playing it well, bolstering their outfield defense.

Hicks does struggle against righties, which limits his usefulness in resting Ellsbury and Gardner if the Yankees hit a long stretch of right-handed pitchers, but there is hope that some new adjustments can help overcome those (hopefully former) struggles. Regardless, Hicks’ defense and the injury concerns that all three starting outfielders have should give Hicks plenty of burn in the field and in the lineup, making a de-facto, if not de-jure, platoon situation.

Seeking the platoon advantage is something the Yankees have clearly prioritized of late and they’re set up to do so again in 2016. The ways hinted at here are not necessarily what will happen–it’s only November, after all–but it’s easy to see the Yankees tinkering with their lineup day in and day out to get the biggest advantage possible. They’d be foolish not to.

New approach and leg kick are reasons to believe Aaron Hicks is on the verge of a breakout

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

Late last week the Yankees made their first significant move of the offseason, trading backup catcher John Ryan Murphy to the Twins for outfielder Aaron Hicks. The team has some depth at catcher — Gary Sanchez‘s breakout summer sure helped matters — and needed an outfielder, particularly someone who can hit lefties and play strong defense.

Hick does both of those things. He has long been considered a standout gloveman in center field — Hicks is the best outfield defender in the organization right now — and this past season he hit .307/.375/.495 (139 wRC+) against southpaws. That’s pretty great. At the very least, Hicks is a fine replacement for Chris Young, who is reportedly seeking a starting job this offseason.

The Yankees don’t view Hicks merely as Young’s replacement, however. They believe he has the potential to be more than that in the future. Brian Cashman called him an “everyday player” at the GM Meetings last week, and while there is no obvious starting spot for Hicks on next year’s team at the moment, there figures to be a way to get him 350+ at-bats. After all, Young batted 356 times in 2015.

The Twins jerked Hicks around the last few years, calling him up and sending him down multiple times. He started this past season in Triple-A, came up for four weeks in May and June, went back to Triple-A for three weeks, then came back up for good in early-July. Part of that was Hicks’ fault — he would have stuck around longer had he performed better — but Minnesota didn’t show much patience.

Hicks hit .259/.333/.432 (109 wRC+) with ten homers and a 16.8% strikeout rate in 291 plate appearances after that final call-up this summer. He was a career .209/.293/.311 (70 wRC+) hitter with a 24.6% strikeout rate in 637 big league plate appearances prior to that. The Yankees are hoping the strong finish is a sign of real improvement and not just a three-month hot streak.

There are reasons to believe Hicks is on the verge of a breakout, if he didn’t already break out with the Twins last year. First and foremost, he became more aggressive at the plate. Usually that’s a bad thing, but Hicks was passive earlier in his career, and that’s bad. Here are his plate discipline stats:

Aaron Hicks plate discpline

(Hicks had over 200 plate appearances each year from 2013-15 and swing rates tend to stabilize very quickly, so while it isn’t a huge sample, the data works.)

Hicks started swinging at more pitches in the strike zone last year (Z-Swing%) without swinging at substantially more pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%). His contact rates have held relatively steady too, which is good. He’s being more selective in the sense that he’s swinging at more strikes without swinging at more balls.

All throughout the minors Hicks drew a ton of walks (career 14.4 BB%) but he was letting too many hittable pitches go by at the MLB level. The MLB average Swing% and Z-Swing% are 46.9% and 64.4%, respectively. Hicks was well below that from 2013-14 and is now closer to average. Working the count and drawing walks is good! But the goal first and foremost is to get a hit, and taking so many pitches in the zone is no way to hit.

“Preparation is key to be successful to the big leagues. If you don’t know who the starting pitcher is, it’s tough to prepare for that. I think that made me a stronger player, a better player,” said Hicks to Ken Davidoff when asked about his strong second half. “I feel confident that I’m hitting big league pitching and I’m developing into a good Major League hitter.”

Hicks is a switch-hitter who stopped hitting left-handed for a while in 2014 because of a lack of success. He made the decision himself before being talked back into it — “Rod Carew called me and told me what the heck am I doing, giving up switch hitting? It’s a blessing and I should go back to work harder at it and be able to learn from my mistakes,” said Hicks to Ronald Blum — though maintaining two swings can be tough. Maintaining one swing is tough.

Last year Hicks made some mechanical changes at the plate, specifically adding a leg kick. This was him at the plate in 2014. He had the same slight step while batting right-handed as well:

Aaron Hicks 2014 swing

The center field camera in Target Field is just the best.

Anyway, Hicks has almost no leg kick there. It was a little step forward and nothing more. Again, he did the same from the right side of the plate. Here’s video if you don’t believe me. I’m not making another GIF.

Now look at Hicks in 2015. He has a much more exaggerated leg kick:

Aaron Hicks 2015 swing

Hicks had the same leg kick while hitting from the right side too. Here’s video. He told friend of RAB Brandon Warne the leg kick came about when he and some teammates were messing around during batting practice, mimicking the swings and leg kicks of other players around the league.

“I started to like it,” he said to Warne. “From then on it was kind of a point where I was just like, you know what, I’m going to try this. We were just having fun in offseason hitting, and it just kind of led to me being comfortable with it and taking solid swings.”

Hicks told Warne he came to Spring Training this past season with the leg kick and kept “tinkering all through the spring” until he got it just right. “Torii (Hunter) helped tinker it for me as far as what I needed to do to be able to get my foot down in time,” he added.

Leg kicks do different things for different hitters, but for the most part it is a timing and/or weight transfer thing. There aren’t a whole lot of hitters these days who hit with a tiny step forward like the one Hicks was using prior to this season. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, just that it’s not for everyone. Hicks found something more comfortable.

“I feel like with the leg kick I’ve been more aggressive. Swinging early in counts and being able to make contact early, and not missing pitches,” said Hicks to Warne. “I think for me it’s more important to have my hands ready all the time to be able to fire them whenever I need to. A leg kick is going to generate my timing mechanism so I need to have my hands ready.”

So hey, how about that, the leg kick and the increased Z-Swing% might be related. At least Hicks believes they are, and that’s all that matters. Neat. It’s also worth noting that even though Hicks was swinging at more strikes this year, he still maintained a healthy 8.7% walk rate. It was 9.6% after being called up the final time.

Once upon a time Hicks was a first round pick (14th overall in 2008) and one of the top prospects in baseball (No. 19 in 2010), so this isn’t some middling talent the Yankees are trying to refine. Hicks has tremendous natural ability. Baseball America (subs. req’d) once said he has the potential to “become a five-tool center fielder with 20-25 home run power who bats in the middle of a lineup.”

It has taken Hicks some time to find his way at the MLB level and that’s not terribly uncommon. He’s still trying to figure out what works best for him, which led to the leg kick and a more aggressive approach — let’s call it “controlled aggression” since he’s not hacking at pitches off the plate — this year. Sometimes it takes time. Baseball is hard.

The Yankees are betting on Hicks — who turned only 26 last month, by the way — and his talent, hoping the improvement he made this summer is real. The change in approach and leg kick give us some tangible reasons to believe Hicks is on the verge of breaking out, at least as a legitimate everyday player, if not more.

“It feels good that the team that just traded for me has confidence in me,” said Hicks to reporters on a conference call after the trade last week. “Whatever they want me to do, just do it, and to know my role and help this team win.”

The Swiss Army Outfielder

This ball was caught. (Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankee outfield was given more shape on Wednesday when the team acquired Aaron Hicks from the Twins for John Ryan Murphy. Ironically enough, that shape is a little more amorphous now than it was before the trade. The term “amorphous” generally carries a negative connotation, the implication for the Yankees going forward is one of flexibility, not shapelessness.

It’s most likely that Hicks will slot in as the team’s fourth outfielder to start the year, but that alone could carry a great deal of playing time, as Chris Young appeared in 140 games for the Yankees last season. That much playing time is easy to envision for Hicks. Given his defensive reputation, he’ll likely be replacing Carlos Beltran on a daily/nightly basis, which will give the Yankees a strong defensive outfield in the late innings, something any team would gladly sign up for.

Nominally, Hicks will be the fourth outfielder, but there’s potential for him to play an even bigger role. He’ll definitely swap out for Beltran in the late innings, but given Joe Giradi’s tendency to platoon and his desire to rest players, Hicks will get plenty of burn in the starting lineup. Brett Gardner (fairly or unfairly) already gets his fair share of platooning as he sits semi-frequently against lefties. That’s a trend that’ll probably continue, given that Hicks hit lefties very well last year–.375 wOBA; 139 wRC+; .188 ISO–and has done similarly over the course of his (short) career–.354; 125; .175. Gardner was also, apparently, playing through injury in the second half and it’s a certainty we’ll see Hicks start in place of Gardner when Brett starts to slow down a bit after playing for long stretches. The same could be said for Jacoby Ellsbury, who probably wasn’t healthy for more than a month and a half of last season; he also had his fair share of struggles against left-handed pitchers and the fact that Hicks can play center–88 games there last year–means the Yankees will still be able to run out a mostly strong defensive outfield, even if one of Gardner or Ellsbury is sitting.

One knock on Hicks, a switch hitter, is that he doesn’t hit right handed pitching well. That rang true in 2015 as he racked up just a .292 wOBA/82 wRC+ against them. His career numbers against non-southpaws are just as ugly: .269/66. In this way, he’s definitely similar to Chris Young, who also couldn’t hit right handed pitching. However, for his career, Hicks does have a 9.2% walk rate against right handed pitchers, something slightly encouraging that the team could build on. And, taking it with a shaker of salt, Hicks did hit right handed pitchers fairly well in the minor leagues, posting a .371 OBP against them. It’s not the most reliable data, but it shows that, at some point, Hicks did something well against righties.

Despite those struggles, though, it’s easy to see why Hicks could be an upgrade over Young. His ability to play center field–and play it well–means that the Yankees can feel fully confident when they match up for platoons or have to rest someone. Hicks will also play the entire 2016 as a 26 year old, which in and of itself means there’s potential for more growth and development. Trading for Hicks was certainly a surprise, but it’s something that gives the Yankees a lot of flexibility in one spot on the field. Given the way the team looks, that’s a welcome sign.

Yankees trade John Ryan Murphy to Twins for Aaron Hicks

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Let the roster makeover begin. The Yankees have traded catcher John Ryan Murphy to the Twins for outfielder Aaron Hicks, both teams announced. It’s a straight one-for-one trade. Brian Cashman told reporters at the GM Meetings he first proposed the swap to Minnesota a few weeks ago.

In a nutshell, both teams traded from a position of depth to fill a need. The Twins had a ton of outfielders but no viable catcher, and Murphy figures to get an opportunity to start in Minnesota. That wasn’t happening in New York because of Brian McCann. Hicks replaces Chris Young as a lefty mashing fourth outfielder at the very least, but he has the potential to grow into much more.

Hicks, 26, is a former top prospect — peaked at No. 19 on Baseball America’s top 100 list in 2010 — who has struggled to find his way at the MLB level. He is a career .225/.306/.349 (82 wRC+) hitter in 928 big league plate appearances, but he did start to figure it out in 2015, hitting .256/.323/.398 (97 wRC+) overall and .307/.375/.495 (139 wRC+) against lefties. Interestingly, Hicks is a switch-hitter who two years ago stopped hitting left-handed due to a lack of confidence. He then went back to switch-hitting this year.

In the field, Hicks is a borderline elite defender — he’s almost certainly the best defensive outfielder in the organization now — capable of playing all three outfield spots. He also has a rocket arm. Hicks did this at Yankee Stadium two years ago:

Statcast says Hicks was one of five outfielders to make at least three 100 mph throws this past season, and he didn’t even play everyday. What a novel idea, an outfielder who can throw. Hicks is also a stolen base threat. The tools are high-end but the production has yet to match. It’s easy to understand why the Yankees grabbed him. Hicks has a lot of ability and major upside.

Murphy, 24, is a career .267/.311/.374 (88 wRC+) hitter in 284 MLB plate appearances over the last three years. He put up a .277/.327/.406 (99 wRC+) line as McCann’s backup this past season, including .266/.314/.456 (108 wRC+) against lefties. Murphy’s a good defender and a pretty likable dude, though it was difficult to see how he could be anything more than a backup for the Yankees with McCann signed through 2018.

Hicks is under team control through 2019 and will be arbitration-eligible for the first time next offseason. Murphy is under control through 2020 and it looks like he’ll be right on the Super Two bubble, so he might be arbitration-eligible for the first of four times next year. The Yankees are getting four years of team control while the Twinkies are getting five.

The move could mean Gary Sanchez steps in as the backup catcher, but I don’t think that’s a given. It could mean Austin Romine sticks around a little longer, or the Yankees go outside the organization for a veteran backup. Sanchez mashed this season — he’s still mashing in the Arizona Fall League — but his defense is rough around the edges. Some more time in Triple-A wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Anyway, the Yankees continue to target young players with tools and upside. Over the last year they’ve brought in Didi Gregorius, Nathan Eovaldi, and Dustin Ackley, three young guys who seemed to fall out of favor with their former teams, and Hicks was in a similar situation with the Twins. I’m the world’s biggest Murphy fan and I’ll miss him, but I get it. The Yankees are adding upside while dealing from a position of depth.