Injuries have caught up to the offense, but there are signs things may soon improve

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Even including last night’s win, the Yankees are now 11-11 in August and have seen their six-game AL East lead disappear. They’re now tied with the Blue Jays. The combination of Toronto getting insanely hot and the Yankees playing decidedly mediocre ball have turned a comfortable division lead into a legitimate race. Races are fun! That’s why we watch. It also would have been nice to see that big lead last more than three weeks, but alas.

The Yankees have faded a bit this month — August is not their worst month of the season, they went 13-16 in May but rebounded to go 15-12 in June and 17-7 in July — for many reasons, some of which were not entirely unpredictable. First and foremost, they’ve been bit by the injury bug. They lost Michael Pineda (forearm) and CC Sabathia (knee) to injuries after both guys came into the season as health risks. Seeing them land on the DL wasn’t a total shock.

Other injuries have been somewhat fluky. Mark Teixeira fouled a ball off his shin and has been out a week, hurting the Yankees on both sides of the ball. (I love Greg Bird as much as anyone, but the Yankees miss Teixeira. It’s obvious.) Brian McCann pulled a little something in his left knee chasing after a ball in the dirt a few weeks ago, and while he’s stayed in the lineup, he’s clearly not 100%. He’s wearing a brace and has altered his batting stance to take pressure off the knee:

McCann downplayed the batting stance change but come on. It looks like he’s about to fall over trying to take his weight off that left knee. McCann hurt his knee on August 4th and has gone 12-for-57 (.211) with a 22.6% strikeout rate since. He has hit four home runs during that time, so his power is still there, but he had an 18.8% strikeout rate before the injury. His timing seems to be off slightly following the knee injury, maybe due to that weird stance.

Then there’s Alex Rodriguez, who as far as we know isn’t hurt. Either way, he is not producing like he did earlier in the year. That’s not really a surprise, I suppose. As great as Alex is, it was probably unrealistic to think he’d hit like an MVP candidate all season as a 40-year-old with two surgically repaired hips who didn’t play at all last year and barely played the year before. A-Rod‘s gone 11-for-84 (.131) with two homers this month, though it worth noting the two homers both came within the last week.

Joe Girardi gave Rodriguez both Saturday and Sunday off, saying he wanted to “refresh” him. The Yankees have an off-day Thursday, so that’s another day to rest, and they’ll be in Atlanta for an interleague series this weekend. The team has committed to A-Rod at DH this year and there’s no reason to think he’ll play third (or first) base against the Braves. Assuming he starts tonight and tomorrow, Alex will still get six days off in a nine-day span. Hopefully that gets him going.

The Yankees built that big lead in the AL East thanks in large part to Teixeira, A-Rod, and McCann. Those guys were forces in the middle of the lineup for much of the season and are a huge reason why the team still ranks second in baseball with an average of 4.73 runs per game. That’s even after scoring 61 runs in their last 19 games, or 3.21 per game. They were that good for most of the season. Now? Not so much. McCann and Teixeira are banged up and A-Rod’s in a cold spell, perhaps due to fatigue.

The good news is things may be starting to change for the better. McCann had a great game last night, going 3-for-3 with a walk. Also, Teixeira was on deck ready to pinch-hit last night when Beltran hit his walk-off sac fly, which is an indication he is moving closer to returning to the starting lineup. A-Rod? Eh, aside from his two big homers last week — big as in long distance, they were bombs — I’m not sure if there are any positive signs there. Two outta three ain’t bad, I guess.

Let’s not beat around the bush: without Teixeira, McCann, and A-Rod producing at an above average clip, the Yankees have close to no chance to beat out the Blue Jays for the division title. The Yankees need to fire on all cylinders to keep pace with Toronto, and those three key middle of the order bats are hitting a combined .189/.270/.388 in 218 plate appearances this month. Yikes. Carlos Beltran can’t do it all himself. Those three need to start helping out again.

The pitching has been solid this month but the offense has been a big letdown of late. These nagging injuries Teixeira and McCann are dealing with are part of baseball, and hey, when you have a 40-year-old player playing everyday, you run of risk of him hitting a wall down the stretch. Unfortunately all of this is happening at once. Hopefully McCann’s big night, Teixeira being on deck, and A-Rod hitting two homers last week are signs these guys are close to getting back to where they need to be. The sooner they get going, the better the Yankees’ chances of winning the AL East.

A-Rod’s Slump: Second half fade or a blip on the radar?

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Over the last 12 games, the Yankees are averaging just 2.83 runs scored — that includes last night’s eight-run outburst — which is down considerably from the pace they maintained in the first half of the season. The pitching staff has been great of late, they’re allowing just 3.33 runs per game during that 12-game stretch, but the lack of offense has led to a 5-7 record. A big part of the offensive problems is Alex Rodriguez‘s worst slump of the season.

“I felt like (expletive) today. I felt terrible,” said A-Rod to Brendan Kuty after going 0-for-3 with a walk and three strikeouts Sunday. “You know, you grind through it. Everyone is going to go through times like this. So it’s going to be good to have a change of scenery and get back home.”

A-Rod’s slump conveniently started right at the beginning of the month: he’s 7-for-53 (.132) with three doubles in August after ending July with a seven-game hitting streak, during which he went 11-for-27 (.407) with two doubles and four homers. This is also not the first time Alex has slumped his year — he went 5-for-37 (.135) during a ten-game span in April — but this slump is worth examining for more than a few reasons.

For starters, the Yankees have fallen in the standings the last two weeks or so primarily because of their offense. A-Rod, the No. 3 hitter, is a big reason why, and if he doesn’t start hitting soon, chances are the Yankees will continue to slide in the standings. Secondly, we’re deep into the season, and Alex is a 40-year-old with two surgically repaired hips who did not play last year. It’s not unreasonable to suggest he may be wearing down, though he did tell Kuty “I actually feel fine” when asked about fatigue the other day.

When Rodriguez first returned in Spring Training, what stood out most to me was his plate discipline and still excellent knowledge of the strike zone. There was no rust there. A-Rod swung at strikes and spit on pitches out of the zone. Over the weekend in Toronto and last night against the Twins, he did not do that. He swung at some bad pitches out of the zone and looked lost. Here are Alex’s swing tendencies this year:

O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact%
April thru July 25.2% 65.9% 53.8% 77.8%
August 22.7% 64.2% 56.7% 81.8%
AL Average 30.4% 63.9% 64.0% 87.3%

Okay, so that was a bit unexpected. I figured A-Rod’s swing rate on pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%) would be sky high during his August slump, but that’s not the case. He’s swung at fewer pitches out of the zone. We are talking about a small sample, however, so it’s entirely possible Alex was ultra-disciplined earlier in the month and has taken to hacking at everything the last few days, skewing the numbers.

A-Rod’s contact rates on pitches both in (Z-Contact%) and out (O-Contact%) of the strike zone have increased this month, so isn’t swinging and missing more often either. Rodriguez has always been a guy who’s swung and missed a bunch (he is fifth all-time in strikeouts, you know), so it wouldn’t have been a surprise if his slump featured more empty swings. That’s not the case, however.

More interesting is what’s happened when A-Rod has made contact during his slump. He’s struck out 15 times in 63 plate appearances this month, a 23.8% rate that is in line with his pre-August rate (21.1%). Alex has put 38 balls in play this month with only seven hits to show for it (.184 BABIP). I absolutely remember a few line drives finding gloves during the series in Cleveland and Toronto, but they were the exception, not the norm during this sump. The line drive outs stood out because they were so infrequent.

A low BABIP is not always bad luck. Rodriguez’s quality of contact has gone down during the slump. He simply hasn’t hit the ball as hard as he had the first four months of the season. Here are the numbers:

GB% FB% IFFB% Soft% Hard% Pull% Oppo%
April thru July 43.1% 36.9% 3.1% 10.4% 38.5% 46.2% 16.9%
August 47.4% 36.8% 28.6% 21.1% 23.7% 52.6% 10.5%
AL Average 44.5% 34.9% 10.0% 18.5% 28.2% 40.5% 24.7%

The infield pop-up rate jumps out at you. A-Rod rarely popped out earlier this season (league average is 11.1 IFFB%) but now nearly three out of every ten fly balls is going straight up in the air. (IFFB% is pop-ups per fly ball, not pop-ups per ball in play.) Pop-ups are BABIP killers. They’re as close to a sure out as you can get on a ball in play.

Rodriguez’s isn’t necessarily hitting more grounders or fly balls — a four percentage point increase in ground ball rate isn’t alarming, that’s the normal ebb and flow of baseball more than anything — but his hard and soft contact rates have gone in the wrong direction this month, further explaining the low BABIP. The harder you hit the ball, the more likely it is to fall in for a hit. The numbers haven shown that.

The decline in hard contact is just a symptom of the problem, however. There is something causing the lack in hard contact and figuring out what it is will take a miracle. Bad mechanics? Fatigue? Guessing wrong? We could come up with a million reasons. I’m no swing expert, so I couldn’t tell you is Rodriguez’s swing is out of whack. I can tell you opponents haven’t been pitching him any differently …

FB% SL% CB% CH%
April thru July 61.8% 18.4% 6.5% 9.6%
August 61.0% 12.1% 6.6% 9.8%
AL Average 63.6% 14.6% 7.5% 10.7%

… so it’s not like opponents have suddenly started burying him with breaking balls or throwing fastballs by him. (The lower slider rate coincides with an increase in knuckleball rate. A-Rod has seen 7.8% knuckleballs this month thanks to R.A. Dickey and Steven Wright. Good reminder we’re talking about a small sample here.) Alex has seen the same basic pitch mix during the slump as he did when he was raking earlier this year.

From the looks of things, it appears A-Rod’s slump may be a timing issue. He is not swinging at more pitches, but he is making more contact, and the contact he has made hasn’t been as hard as before. The huge spike in pop-up rate is a classic indicator that timing is an issue — those pop-ups are just a millisecond from being a fly ball or line drive. Rodriguez has always had a low pop-up rate. That it suddenly spiked like this suggests he’s juuust missing. The timing isn’t right.

That could be good news is bad news. Is A-Rod’s timing off simply because hitters tend to lose their timing at various points through a 162-game season? Or is he starting to get worn down and his bat is slowing as a result? I don’t know. Alex might not even know. That’s not a satisfying answer but it’s better than pretending I do know the answer when I really don’t. His approach has been fine, he’s not chasing stuff off the plate, so that’s encouraging. It would be much more worrisome if Rodriguez had started hacking at everything.

We’re in uncharted territory with A-Rod because of his age, his hips, his suspension … everything, really. We came into the season not knowing what to expect, he exceeded even the most optimistic of projections for the first four months of the year, and is now in his worst slump of the season. Regardless of whether this is a late season fade due to fatigue and age, or simply a normal slump, the offense has taken a big hit with Alex’s lack of production.

Saturday Links: A-Rod, Best Tools, 810 River Ave., CLEAR

(Tom Pennington/Getty)
(Tom Pennington/Getty)

The Yankees and Blue Jays resume their three-game series early this afternoon. Until then, check out these stray links and news items to help you pass the time.

Pre-game ceremony for A-Rod‘s 3,000th hit

This is rich. The Yankees will hold a special on-field pre-game ceremony for Alex Rodriguez‘s 3,000th career hit later this season, the team announced. It’ll be held Sunday, September 13th, before the team’s 1pm ET game against the Blue Jays. They ask you to be in your seats by 12:30pm ET. So just a few weeks after refusing to pay A-Rod his $6M home run milestone bonus because they claimed it was unmarketable, the Yankees are honoring Alex for his 3,000th hit. Guess they’re hoping for a late-season attendance bump.

MLB.com’s farm system rankings

Jim Callis posted his updated ranking of the top ten farm systems this week, and the Yankees placed tenth. I’m not sure where Callis had the Yankees coming into the season, but most other publications had them in the 18-25 range. “New York has position prospects at every spot on the diamond, including speedy shortstop Jorge Mateo (No. 99), sweet-swinging second baseman Robert Refsnyder and slugging catcher Gary Sanchez,” wrote Callis. I don’t know if the Yankees truly have a top ten system yet — this is just one person’s rankings, of course — but the system is clearly on the rise, even if Severino graduates to the big leagues before the end of the season.

Baseball America’s Best Tools

Baseball America published their annual Best Tools survey this week, in which they poll managers, coaches, scouts … basically everyone about the best players and best tools in their individual leagues. Several Yankees players and prospects appeared throughout the survey, so here’s a quick rundown:

All of the surveys are free, you don’t need a subscription, so click the links and you can read through each category and each league. Obviously this is all very subjective — I can’t imagine there are many Yankee fans who consider Gardner the best bunter in the AL — but I’ve always found it interesting and fun to see who coaches and scouts feel have the best skills.

(6sqft)
(6sqft)

New apartment tower being built next old Yankee Stadium site

According to Ondel Hylton, a new 17-story apartment building is being built on River Ave. between 157th and 158th Streets, on the old Ball Park Lanes site. (The bowling alley closed years ago.) The 134-unit building at 810 River Ave. is right across the street from the old Yankee Stadium site and is a few blocks away from the new Stadium. The neighborhood was re-zoned for buildings up to 30 stories back in 2009, and this is the first new high-rise going up in the area. Construction started in May.

CLEAR comes to Yankee Stadium

As you know, MLB mandated all 30 ballparks must have metal detectors at the entrances this season, which is a total pain. Couldn’t be any less convenient and, frankly, it doesn’t make me feel any safer. (Not that I’ve ever felt unsafe at a game, but that’s besides the point.) The Yankees recently partnered up with CLEAR to expedite the process, the team announced. It’s the same biometrics technology they use at airports for TSA pre-check. You can sign up at Gate 4, and, if approved, you’ll be able to simply scan your finger at a designated fast access lane and skip the whole metal detector process. Yankee Stadium is the third stadium with CLEAR technology, joining AT&T Park and Coors Field. So if you’ve ever wanted that airport experience at a ball park, this is your lucky day!

Sunday Links: A-Rod, Sabathia, Sierra, Jeter

(David Banks/Getty)
(David Banks/Getty)

The Yankees wrap up their ten-game, three-city road trip a little later this afternoon with the series finale against the White Sox. Until then, here are some stray links to help you pass the time.

A-Rod on TV?

According to Bob Raissman, FOX and Alex Rodriguez‘s representatives have had preliminary discussions about A-Rod becoming involved in the network’s postseason coverage. Alex’s camp is talking to TBS and ESPN too. ESPN only carries one wildcard game while TBS gets the other wildcard game, four LDS games, and one entire LCS. FOX gets everything else.

I get the feeling Rodriguez would be an excellent television analyst. Who knows how he’ll be on camera and stuff — live television is hard! — but as far as baseball knowledge, A-Rod is unmatched. The guy lives and breathes the game. He’d have a ton of insight to offer. Of course, none of this will matter because Alex will be busy carrying the Yankees to the World Series this October. Nice of the networks to reach out though.

No talk of removing Sabathia from rotation

This isn’t a surprise. Brian Cashman told Wally Matthews the Yankees have not discussed removing CC Sabathia from the rotation. “That’s not something that we’re considering at this moment,” said the GM. “We’re going to continue to give him every opportunity to work through this for the foreseeable future.”

This is pretty frustrating, but again, not a surprise. Michael Pineda‘s injury means the Yankees couldn’t even take Sabathia out of the rotation if they wanted, but, even with a healthy Pineda, Sabathia was going to stay in there. The Yankees want to try to salvage the last few years of his contract even though he’s hurting their chances of getting back to the postseason. My guess is I’ll be writing this same blurb a few more times the next two years.

Yasiel Sierra works out for scouts

Cuban right-hander Yasiel Sierra worked out for scouts in the Dominican Republic last week, reports Jesse Sanchez. Sanchez says the 24-year-old Sierra works in the 93-97 mph range with a good slider and a recently added changeup. Because of his age and international experience, Sierra is not subject to the international spending restrictions, so the Yankees can sign him to contract of any size.( They’re limited to $300,000 for younger international amateurs the next two signing periods as part of the penalties stemming from last year’s spending spree.) I don’t know anything about Sierra beyond what’s in this post, but if he’s really 93-97 with a good slider, chances are there’s at least reliever potential there.

Jeter in Hollywood Reporter

I don’t really have much to add here: Hollywood Reporter recently ran a feature on Derek Jeter, focusing on his post-baseball life with The Players’ Tribune and his publishing venture. “I didn’t want to wake up one day and say, ‘What am I going to do now?'” said Jeter, acknowledging he’d been thinking about his post-baseball career for quite a while. Check it out. Neat article. (h/t Jeff Beck)

2015 Midseason Review: First-half Yankeemetrics

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

As part of Mike’s great Midseason Review series, I’m here to give you some of the amazing (both good and bad) statistical notes from the unofficial first half of the season, plus a quick look ahead to a few of the records that these six Yankees below will be chasing during the remainder of 2015.

Without further adieu, your first-half Yankeemetrics:

Brett Gardner
Gardner is certainly deserving of the being the Yankees’ first-half MVP, and if Mike’s write-up on Tuesday didn’t convince you, then how about this note: Gardner is the second player in franchise history with at least 10 homers, 20 doubles, 15 steals and a .300 batting average at the break. The other? Alfonso Soriano in 2002 — which just happened to be the year he came thisclose to a historic 40-40 season (39 homers, 41 steals).

Something to watch for in the second half: Gardner needs three steals to reach the magic number of 200. He would be the second Yankee, along with Hal Chase, to have 200 stolen bases in their first eight major league seasons — and the only player in franchise history with at least 200 steals and 50 homers through their first eight career seasons.

Mark Teixeira
Teixeira is having a tremendous bounceback season, leading the AL with 62 RBI and also hitting 22 homers. He is just the second Yankee in the last 40 years to be the outright league leader in RBI at the break, along with A-Rod (2007) and Don Mattingly (1985).

This is the third time as a Yankee he’s had at least 20 homers and 60 RBI before the All-Star break (also in 2009, 2011). Since the first All-Star Game in 1933, here’s the list of other Yankees to reach those benchmarks three-or-more times before the break: Mickey Mantle and Jason Giambi.

Something to watch for in the second half: Teixeira is on pace for his first 40-homer season as a Yankee. The only other player in franchise history to hit at least 40 homers in his age 35-season or older is Babe Ruth, who did it three times (1930-32).

Alex Rodriguez
If you told me that A-Rod would have the third-most at-bats on the team (he’s healthy!) and have 18 homers and 51 RBIs (he’s productive!) in the first half of the season, I might have suggested psychological treatment for you. How rare is it for a guy as old as A-Rod to be hitting that well?

The only other players in their age-39 season or older to have at least 18 homers, 50 RBI and 80 hits before the All-Star break (since 1933) are Edgar Martinez (2003), Andres Galarraga (2000) and Dave Winfield (1991). Yup, the Summer of Al continues.

Something to watch for in the second half: If A-Rod can stay healthy and get at least 500 plate appearances this season, while maintaining his current slash line of .278/.382/.515 or better, he’d join Barry Bonds (2004) and Ted Williams (1958) as the only players to finish a season with those marks in their age-39 season or older.

Stephen Drew
Of course we had to put Drew’s bizarre statistical first half into context, even if he might just be a bench guy in the second half (yes, please). With 12 homers and an unfathomable .182 batting average in the first half, Drew is the first player in franchise history to hit double-digit home runs and have a batting average under .200 at the break.

In fact, his .182 batting average is the third-lowest in major-league history for any player with at least 10 homers in the unofficial first half of the season. The only guys with a lower average are the Cubs’ Mike Olt (.144 in 2014) and the Twins’ Tim Laudner (.181 in 1987).

Something to watch for in the second half: I don’t think Drew is going to get enough at-bats to reach 20 or 25 homers, but what if he gets to 15? The lowest batting average for a guy that hit at least 15 homer runs in a season is .179, done by Dan Uggla (2013) and Rob Deer (1991). That’s doable!

CC Sabathia
At least he is healthy, right? Well, that might actually be the problem, because Joe Girardi has little choice but to keep sending Sabathia out there every fifth day (sort of) despite his ugly numbers (4-8, 5.47 ERA).

Sabathia is the third Yankee starter to lose at least eight games before the break with an ERA of 5.40 or higher. The other pitchers on this inglorious list are Tim Leary (1991) and Ralph Terry (1964). In the words of the aforementioned manager, “it’s not what you want.”

Something to watch for in the second half: How bad can it get for CC the rest of the season? The highest ERA for any Yankee pitcher that qualified for the ERA title in a non-strike season is 5.30 by Bump Hadley in 1937. (Unfortunately, Hadley is better known for something else that season, as the pitcher that beaned Hall-of-Famer Mickey Cochrane and ended his career.)

Dellin Betances
Betances couldn’t quite match his numbers from the first half of the season last year (84 strikeouts, 1.46 ERA), but still has had a terrific couple of months so far with 77 strikeouts and a 1.53 ERA.

Those back-to-back first-half performances are unprecedented for any pitcher since the first All-Star Game in 1933. That’s right, no pitcher (starter or reliever) in that span has entered the break with at least 75 strikeouts and an ERA of 1.60 or lower in back-to-back seasons. Bravo, Betances.

Something to watch for in the second half: Last year Betances set the single-season franchise record for the most strikeouts (135) by a pitcher with zero starts. He’s probably not going to break that record again, but even if he regresses a bit and finishes the year with more modest numbers, he’d do something that no reliever in major-league history has ever done: consecutive seasons with at least 115 strikeouts and a sub-2.00 ERA.

2015 Midseason Review: The Summer of Al (and Mark)

The Yankees came into the season with a ton — and I mean a ton — of questions on the roster. Every team has questions each year, but the Yankees had more than usual. The rotation was littered with injury concerns, the new-look middle infield was somewhat dubious, the bullpen had been overhauled, and the middle of the order was suspect for many reasons. Among those reasons: the uncertainty surrounding Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Al From Miami

Last season Rodriguez served the longest performance-enhancing drug suspension in baseball history, a 162-game ban that was reduced from 211 games after an arduous appeals process that included all sorts of lawsuits. He was 39 years old, he had two surgically repaired hips — Alex only played 44 games in 2013 following hip surgery — and the Yankees wanted pretty much nothing to do with him. The only reason A-Rod remained with the team is the three years and $60M+ left on his contract.

So, when Spring Training opened, there was Alex, in pinstripes and with the Yankees. He offered a handwritten apology to fans, held a press conference to smooth things over with the media, then went about his business to prepare for the season, a season in which no one had any idea what to expect from him. Again, 39 years old! Two bad hips! Almost two full years away from the game! Attempting to predict Rodriguez’s season was futile.

Spring Training was almost too good to be true. A-Rod hit three long home runs in camp, showed a discerning eye at the plate, and even worked out at first base when the team asked. “It doesn’t matter, I am here to play baseball. Whatever (Joe Girardi) wants to do I will do,” said Alex to George King in camp, which wasn’t the first indication he was going to take a team first approach and say all the right things in his return from the suspension.

As good as A-Rod looked in camp, the regular season was going to be a different story. Pitchers weren’t going to be working on things anymore. There weren’t going to be a bunch of minor leaguers pitching in each game. It was time to face big league arms consistently for the first time in close to 20 months. Girardi wasn’t expecting much, so Alex batted seventh on Opening Day. He went 1-for-2 with a single and a walk. Rodriguez batted seventh the next game as well and went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. Some good, some bad.

The Yankees faced the left-handed Daniel Norris in the third game of the season, so Girardi decided to bump A-Rod up to second in the order, and he responded with a solo homer, his first of the season. Rodriguez batted third against a lefty the next day, went 2-for-5 with a double, and before you knew it, he was the regular No. 3 hitter. Ten games. That’s how long it took Alex to show Girardi he was one of the best hitters on the team and deserved to bat in the middle of the order. Of course, it helps when you do this in the tenth game:

That monster game against the Rays was the “okay, A-Rod’s back” moment. That was the game that, in hindsight, confirmed to everyone Rodriguez still had plenty to offer at the plate and wasn’t going to be a liability, someone the Yankees would have to grit their teeth and live with because the contract left them no choice. A-Rod showed he is an asset.

The A-Bombs have kept coming, 18 of them so far this year, and Rodriguez also climbed into sole possession of fourth place on the all-time home run list. He tied Willie Mays with a game-winning pinch-hit solo home run at Fenway Park on May 1st and passed Mays with a go-ahead solo home run at home against the Orioles six days later. The Yankees declined to pay Rodriguez the $6M milestone bonus they owed him for tying Mays, claiming his PED ties rendered it unmarketable, but eventually the two sides worked out an agreement with a bunch of money going to charity. It was a messy situation that was settled peacefully, thankfully.

At the plate, Rodriguez put up a .278/.382/.515 (148 wRC+) batting line in the first half and has probably been the team’s most consistent hitter. He’s been hovering around the .280/.380/.510 mark since mid-May, and every time it looked like he was about to fall into a slump, Alex climbed out of it relatively quickly. Regular off-days have helped. Opponents have tried throwing fastballs by Rodriguez, which is understandable, but that didn’t work. They tried to get him with breaking balls next, and that didn’t work either.

AVG ISO K%
vs. All Fastballs .307 (.271 MLB avg) .273 (.152 MLB avg) 17.8% (15.9% MLB avg)
vs. 94+ mph Fastballs .267 (.249) .289 (.129) 20.7% (22.1%)
vs. Breaking Balls .217 (.218) .145 (.127) 23.1% (30.5%)

A-Rod is still an all-around hitter who hits for average, draws walks, hits for power, and can handle both the hard and soft stuff. What he is not, however, is a fielder. Those days are over. Rodriguez started two games at third base and one at first base back in April — the start at first base was really awkward, which is understandable for someone who never played the right side of the infield before — and that was it. The Yankees pulled the plug and decided it was best to use Alex as the full-time DH going forward. He’s played 1.2 innings in the field in the last 66 games. That’s all.

Limiting A-Rod to DH has hurt the team’s flexibility, no doubt about it — it would be nice to start him at third base once in a while so Carlos Beltran could serve as the DH — though it has helped keep him fresh and in the lineup, and that’s most important. Is it fair to question his production given his past PED ties? Oh yeah. Alex forfeited the benefit of the doubt a while ago. Either way, he’s gone from question mark to indispensable in the first half. Rodriguez’s surprisingly great first half is a huge reason why the Yankees are in first place.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Gluten-Free For Punishment

It’s easy to forget Teixeira was pretty excellent in the first half last season, hitting .241/.341/.464 (125 wRC+) with 17 home runs before the All-Star break before collapsing to .179/.271/.302 (62 wRC+) with five home runs in the second half. Teixeira was a year removed from wrist surgery and considering how long it took other sluggers like David Ortiz and Jose Bautista to get back to normal following similar injuries in recent years, it sure seemed like Teixeira was still dealing with the lingering effects of surgery.

Of course, no one wanted to hear that excuse, especially since Teixeira’s production and durability had been trending downward since his monster inaugural season in pinstripes back in 2009. Teixeira vowed to get stronger in the offseason — he often said he simply didn’t feel strong at times last year — and adopted a gluten-free diet to make it happen. It sounded like lip service. Players say they’re going to try new things, adopt a new training regime, all that stuff at the end of every season and it rarely amounts to something.

The early returns in Spring Training were unimpressive — Teixeira hit one homer during Grapefruit League play — but it was only Spring Training, so who knows. As soon as the season started though, Teixeira turned into a power-hitting machine, going deep in the team’s third game of the season, then again in their fourth, seventh, 13th, 15th, twice in the 17th, and again in the 18th game. The homers kept coming, and so did the walks — Teixeira hit 14 home runs with 28 walks and 22 strikeouts in his first 44 games of 2015.

The home run pace has slowed — that was inevitable, Teixeira was on pace for 59 homers at the end of April — but Teixeira’s general awesomeness has not. He came into the All-Star break hitting .240/.350/.526 (137 wRC+) with 22 homers, 46 walks, and 56 strikeouts in 82 games, equaling his dinger output for the entire 2014 season. That 137 wRC+ is his best at the break since putting up a 145 wRC+ in the first half of 2007. This is only the second time he’s hit 22+ homers in the first half too, joining 2005 and 2011 (he hit 25 first half homers those years).

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

On top of the offense, Teixeira is also back to playing all-world defense at first base. His defense was good last year but I didn’t think it was as good as it had been in the past, maybe because he was rusty after missing most of 2013. Teixeira appeared tentative at times making throws and it seemed like he bobbled more ground balls than ever before. The numbers kinda back it up too: Teixeira made only 15 out-of-zone plays last year, a career-low in a full season by a mile. (His previous career low was 32 in 2007 and 2012.) This year? He’s at 18 out-of-zone plays already. It’s not just the bat, Teixeira’s glove has rebounded too.

Teixeira was named to the AL All-Star team for his efforts, something that seemed damn near unthinkable the last few years. His production was slipping each year and the injuries continued to mount, so the thought of getting All-Star production from Teixeira was fading by the season. Maybe the gluten-free diet did the trick. I happen to think getting further away from wrist surgery is the biggest factor for Teixeira. He’s just healthier now than he has been in years.

“I’ve had knee surgery, I’ve had ankle surgery, you have little things here and there, shoulders and low back. You can play through all that. The wrist is the hardest thing, by far, I’ve ever had to go through,” said Teixeira to Tyler Kepner recently. Ortiz and Bautista showed how long it can take to return to normal after a tendon sheath injury — it took more than a full year for both of those guys as well. Teixeira is on a similar timetable. The wrist is healthy, his power is back, and Teixeira is once again a middle of the order force for New York.

* * *

A-Rod and Teixeira both far exceeded expectations in the first half, so much so that it’s fair to say both are performing at or close to the best case scenario. Good health, lots of homers, 135+ wRC+s for both guys? Even the most optimistic of fans couldn’t have predicted this. The Summer of Al (and Mark) has given the Yankees the dominant middle of the order they’ve lacked in recent years. Their performances are a major reason why New York has scored the second more runs in baseball in 2015.

Saturday Links: Castro, A-Rod, Draft, Ibanez, Heredia

Starlin ... and Manny! (Presswire)
Starlin … and Manny! (Presswire)

The Yankees and Red Sox continue their three-game series later tonight. So, until then, here are some spare links I had lying around to hold you over.

Start the Starlin Castro rumor mill

According to Jon Heyman, several executive are speculating the Yankees will pursue Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro due to his connection to Jim Hendry, currently a special assistant with New York who was the Cubs GM when the team signed (and called up) Castro. Just to be clear, Heyman is passing along speculation, not a hard rumor that the Yankees are pursuing Castro.

Anyway, I wanted the Yankees to acquire Castro in the offseason to play shortstop, so of course he is hitting .249/.282/.323 (63 wRC+) on the season. (Reminder: Don’t ever listen to me. I’m awful.) Castro is still only 25 though, and he did hit .292/.339/.438 (115 wRC+) just last year, so it’s not like there’s nothing to like here. There’s about $43M left on his contract through 2019 with a club option for 2020.

Castro is seen as a change of scenery guy — the Cubs surely want to put Addison Russell at short — but he’s not a shortstop, his defense is terrible, so maybe the Yankees look at him for second base. If so, the move would probably wait until the offseason. I doubt they’d throw him to the wolves defensively and make him learn second on the fly a la Stephen Drew last year. Either way, my guess is we’ll hear lots more about the Yankees and Castro in the coming weeks and months.

The real cost of A-Rod‘s 3,000th hit ball

Last week, the Yankees agreed to donate $150,000 to Pitch In For Baseball in exchange for Alex Rodriguez‘s 3,000th hit baseball. Noted ballhawk Zack Hample caught the ball and leveraged it into a big fat donation for a charity he supports. Good for him. Of course, there’s much more to this story. Hample told Shawn Anderson the Yanks gave him a ton of other stuff in exchange for the ball as well:

“The Yankees have given me all the things they initially offered, such as meeting A-Rod, doing a press conference at Yankee Stadium, being interviewed live during the game on TV and the radio, and receiving signed memorabilia and free tickets, including tickets to this year’s Home Run Derby and All-Star Game in Cincinnati.” Hample told The Hall exclusively. “I will also have opportunities to write for Yankees Magazine, get a special behind-the-scenes tour to the most restricted areas of the stadium that no one in the public gets to see, get to meet the players, and more. There are certain things I’ve been asked not to talk about, so I need to respect that.”

Geez, that was one mighty valuable baseball, huh? Give Hample props for holding out for the donation rather than taking all that cool free stuff and running. That’s probably what I would have done.

2015 Draft signing updates

Morris. (Indiana Daily Student)
Morris. (Indiana Daily Student)

The signing deadline for the 2015 draft is next Friday, and the Yankees recently signed both UC Santa Barbara C/RHP Paddy O’Brien (24th round) and Indiana RHP Christian Morris (33rd). Morris announced his signing on Twitter while O’Brien is currently listed on the Rookie GCL Yanks2 roster. No word on their bonuses but I assume they didn’t receive more than the $100,000 slot for picks after the tenth round. O’Brien was a catcher in college who the Yankees are apparently going to try on the mound because he has a strong arm.

By my count the Yankees have signed 33 of their 41 draft picks, which is an unusually large number. Teams usually sign something like 25-30 picks each year. The Yankees will make it 34 of 41 when they sign UCLA RHP James Kaprielian (1st) next week — Jim Callis backed up Heyman’s recent report and says Kaprielian will get an overslot bonus in the $3M range — which I’m confident will happen. The Yankees have a bit more than $3M to spend before getting hit with penalties and there’s nowhere else to spend it — the late-round overslot candidates probably aren’t going to sign at this point — so that money either goes to Kaprielian or Hal Steinbrenner.

Rangers sign Andy Ibanez

Earlier this week the Rangers signed free agent Cuban infielder Andy Ibanez to a minor league contract worth $1.6M, reports Jeff Wilson and Jesse Sanchez. Ibanez, 21, was cleared to sign way back in February but took his sweet time picking a team. The Yankees had him in Tampa for a private workout in May and were reportedly interested, though they were unable to offer him anything more than $300,000 once the 2014-15 international signing period ended a few weeks ago. Ibanez is a light hitting second baseman who was expected to get upwards of $15M, though it sounds like teams didn’t value him that highly. You have to think he would have topped $1.6M easily if clubs felt he was as good as the public scouting reports.

Cuban OF Guillermo Heredia cleared to sign

According to Ben Badler and Jesse Sanchez, 24-year-old Cuban outfielder Guillermo Heredia has been unblocked by the Office of Foreign Assets Control and declared a free agent by MLB, so he can sign with any team at any time. Heredia is not subject to the international spending restrictions because of his age, so the Yankees and any other team can offer him any amount.

Listed at 5-foot-11 and 180 lbs., Heredia is considered a good defensive center fielder with speed and a strong arm. Badler (subs. req’d) ranked him as the 11th best prospect in Cuba last August and said he has “similarities to a righthanded-hitting version of Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley,” which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement these days. Heredia will work out for scouts soon.