The Yankees and the 2017 All-Star Game

Judge and Sevy. (Al Bello/Getty)
Judge and Sevy. (Al Bello/Getty)

Despite recent events, the Yankees have the second best record (39-30) and the second best run differential (+107) in the American League. Many expected this to be something of a rebuilding year, one of those “step back and regroup for next season” years. Instead, the Yankees got off to a great start and remain in the thick of the division race as we approach the season’s midway point.

The All-Star Game is less than three weeks away now — it snuck up this year, didn’t it? — and given their play to date, the Yankees will undoubtedly have multiple representatives in Miami next month. They won’t be one of those “one token All-Star” teams. The internet tells me the Yankees have sent multiple players to the All-Star Game every year since 1992, when Roberto Kelly was their lone representative.

The 2017 All-Star Game rosters will be announced either later next week or next weekend. That makes this as good a time as any to look at which Yankees could be selected to the Midsummer Classic. In fact, let’s rank the 25 players on the active roster in terms of their All-Star eligibility. Shall we? We shall. Let’s get to it.

1. Aaron Judge

Judge is a lock for the All-Star Game. He’s received more fan votes than any other AL player this far — his lead over second place Jose Altuve is roughly 500,000 votes — and is on track to start the game in right field. The Yankees have not had an All-Star Game starter since Derek Jeter got the farewell vote in 2014. Even if Judge were to fall out of the top three outfielders in fan voting, he would still be selected to the game. His AL ranks:

  • AVG: .331 (second)
  • OBP: .438 (first)
  • SLG: .694 (first)
  • wRC+: 195 (first)
  • HR: 24 (first)
  • RBI: 54 (second)
  • fWAR: +4.4 (first)
  • bWAR: +4.1 WAR (first)

Flawless victory. Fatality. See you in Miami, Aaron.

2. Dellin Betances

Remember Dellin? He’s this really great reliever who used to pitch for the Yankees once upon a time. Betances did actually pitch last night. It was his fifth appearance in the last 24 days. True story! Can you believe that? It’s friggin’ insane. Anyway, Dellin has allowed one earned run — on April 8th — in 22.2 innings this season. He’s struck out 43 and opponents are hitting .117/.261/.117 against him. I think Betances is going to his fourth straight All-Star Game. I do wonder whether the relatively light workload — Dellin ranks 162nd among all relievers in innings (!) — will work against him. I don’t think so though. Betances should be an All-Star again.

3. Luis Severino

This is awesome. Severino was so bad as a starter last season. So, so bad. And now he’s a legitimate All-Star candidate. He has a 2.99 ERA (3.23 FIP) through 13 starts and 81.1 innings, and he is among the AL top ten in WHIP (fifth), strikeouts (fifth), ERA+ (fifth), K/BB ratio (fifth), fWAR (fifth), ERA (sixth), FIP (seventh), and bWAR (eighth). Last season eight starters made the AL All-Star team and so far this season Severino has been one of the seven or eight best starting pitchers in the league. He’s not a lock, I don’t think. But he should receive strong consideration.

4. Aaron Hicks

Hicks should be an All-Star this year. The guy is hitting .301/.414/.543 (155 wRC+) overall and he’s fourth in the league in fWAR. I mean:

  1. Aaron Judge, Yankees: +4.5
  2. Mike Trout, Angels: +3.3
  3. Jose Altuve, Astros: +3.1
  4. Aaron Hicks, Yankees: +2.9

He’s also seventh among all AL players in bWAR. Hicks wasn’t even an everyday player to start the season! He’s been awesome and he should be an All-Star. My guess is Hicks gets snubbed and instead lands on the Final Vote ballot. Maybe he’ll make the roster outright with Trout injured. There are only six outfield spots on the roster though, and squeezing two Yankees into those six spots seems like a thing that won’t happen. Fingers crossed.

5. Matt Holliday

Man, how awesome has Holliday been this season? He’s hitting .275/.379/.536 (142 wRC+) with 15 home runs and it’s thanks to him that the Yankees lead all AL teams with a 138 wRC+ from their DHs. Nelson Cruz is currently leading the fan voting at DH with Holliday roughly 300,000 votes back in second place. Making up that gap seems unlkely with one week to go in the voting.

In recent years there have been two designated hitter spots on the All-Star Game roster, so it stands to reason that even if Cruz wins the fan voting, Holliday could still make it. It’ll be either him or Edwin Encarnacion, who has been insane the last six weeks or so. Now, that said, the All-Star Game rosters were trimmed from 34 players to 32 this year. With two fewer spots, will they not take a second DH? Hmmm.

6. Gary Sanchez

If Sanchez didn’t miss that month with that biceps injury, he’d be a shoo-in for the All-Star Game. The guy is hitting .296/.376/.554 (147 wRC+) with 12 home runs. Only Salvador Perez has gone deep more times among all catchers. He has 15 homers in 257 plate appearances. Gary has 12 in 178 plate appearances. Brian McCann and Alex Avila (?!?) are also having All-Star caliber seasons and neither missed a month with an injury. I think it’s down to Sanchez and Avila for the third spot. Perez is going to win the fan voting and McCann belongs too. He’s been great. A few more Sanchez dingers over the next week could decide this thing.

7. Starlin Castro

Altuve is going to start the All-Star Game at second base, as he should. Dustin Pedroia’s injury issues mean the backup spot could come down to Castro (128 wRC+), Jed Lowrie (126 wRC), or Robinson Cano (111 wRC+). I suppose Brian Dozier (106 wRC+) is in that mix too. Name value matters in the All-Star Game. Here’s an important factor: will Yonder Alonso make the All-Star team? If not, Lowrie figures to end up the A’s token All-Star, which will hurt Starlin’s chances of making the roster.

8. Didi Gregorius

Can you quietly hit .321/.342/.500 (120 wRC+)? Because Gregorius is doing it. He’s been so good since coming back from the disabled list. And that’s the problem. The disabled list. Gregorius missed a month with a shoulder issue. He was already facing an uphill battle with Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, and Francisco Lindor in the AL. Those three dudes are going to the All-Star Game and they might be the three AL All-Star shortstops for the next ten years. Didi has been great. He’s almost certainly going to get squeezed off the All-Star roster though.

9. Brett Gardner

Gardner has had a slow June, but he’s still hitting .259/.341/.471 (115 wRC+) overall, and his 13 home runs are eighth among AL outfielders. The problem is Gardner is only the third best Yankees outfielder this season, and there are only six outfield spots on the All-Star roster. Judge is getting one of them. And if they pick a second Yankees outfielder, it’ll be Hicks. No chance for Gardner, unless he’s an injury replacement or something, and even then it’s a long shot.

10-11. Michael Pineda, Jordan Montgomery

A good but not great season for Michael Pineda, this is. He has a 3.56 ERA (4.05 FIP) in 14 starts and 83.1 innings — hey wait a minute isn’t Pineda supposed to be a ERA > FIP guy? — which is solid, but not All-Star worthy. Montgomery is right there with him with a 3.74 ERA (3.87 FIP) in 13 starts and 74.2 innings. Imagine where the Yankees would be without these two. Nice seasons, not All-Stars.

12. Aroldis Chapman

Last season Chapman did not make the All-Star team because he missed a month serving his suspension. This season he will not make the All-Star team because he missed more than a month with a shoulder injury. Also, Chapman wasn’t exactly lights out before going on the disabled list. He allowed five runs and 18 baserunners in 12.2 innings before getting hurt. Aroldis has thrown 14.2 innings this season. 14.2! No All-Star Game for him.

13. Chase Headley

Great start! Okay-ish June. Terrible May. Headley is hitting .245/.335/.362 (87 wRC+) overall, and by wRC+, he ranks 21st among the 24 third basemen with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Better luck next year, Chase.

14-17. Tyler Clippard, Chad Green, Jonathan Holder, Chasen Shreve

Non-Betances middle relievers have a really hard time making the All-Star Game. Green and Shreve have been the best of this foursome and they’ve thrown 23.1 and 19.2 innings, respectively.

18. Masahiro Tanaka

Woof. Tanaka has legitimately been one of the worst pitchers in baseball this season. There are 81 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, and Tanaka ranks 69th in fWAR (+0.1), 74th in FIP (5.64), 79th in ERA (3.34), and 79th in bWAR (-0.8). Please be better, Masahiro.

19. Chris Carter

At least he kinda plays everyday? That counts for … something. Carter is hitting .201/.287/.384 (77 wRC+) overall and probably wouldn’t make a Triple-A All-Star Game at this point.

20-21. Austin Romine, Ronald Torreyes

Remember April? These guys were so great filling in for Sanchez and Torreyes. Romine is hitting .237/.258/.325 (50 wRC+) even after last night’s big game while Torreyes is at .296/.319/.374 (84 wRC+). The next backup catcher and utility infielder I see make the All-Star Game will be the first.

22-25. Luis Cessa, Domingo German, Rob Refsnyder, Mason Williams

If you had to bet a paycheck on one of these four guys making an All-Star Game at some point in their careers, who would you pick? I feel like German is the obvious choice here, though I remain a Cessa fan. Maybe Refsnyder will have a late career Jose Bautista breakout?

Others of Note

The Yankees have four regulars on the disabled list right now: Greg Bird, Jacoby Ellsbury, CC Sabathia, and Adam Warren. There is no firm timetable for any of them to return to the Yankees, as far as we know. Warren seems closest since he’s scheduled to resume throwing Friday.

Ellsbury was playing well before his concussion. Not All-Star well — he was still the team’s fourth most productive outfielder behind Judge, Hicks, and Gardner — but well. Sabathia was pretty awesome after his four-start disaster stretch in May. Good enough to be an All-Star? Maybe! He allowed six runs (four earned) in his six starts and 36.1 innings before the injury. Imagine he keept that up until the All-Star break. Alas.

* * *

I think the Yankees will have at least two All-Stars this year (Judge and Betances) and possibly as many as seven (Judge, Betances, Severino, Hicks, Holliday, Sanchez, Castro). Seven’s not going to happen though. Seven All-Stars is reserved for super teams. The Cubs had seven All-Stars last season and that’s only because the fans stuffed the ballot and voted in five starters. So yeah, seven isn’t happening.

My official guess is four Yankees make the All-Star team: Judge, Betances, Severino, and Sanchez. Hicks gets hosed, Holliday loses out because they won’t carry two DHs with the smaller roster, and Castro gets squeezed out by other second basemen. The Yankees haven’t had four All-Stars since 2012, when Jeter, Sabathia, Cano, and Curtis Granderson made it. (Jeter, Cano, and Granderson were all voted in as starters.) Four All-Stars would be cool. Two seems like the absolute minimum for the 2017 Yankees.

Austin Romine, Gary Sanchez, and the Yankees’ pitching staff

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Later today Gary Sanchez will begin a minor league rehab assignment with Triple-A Scranton, and, if all goes well the next few days, he could rejoin the Yankees in time for the start of their road trip Friday. Sanchez played four games and four innings before hurting his biceps taking a swing at Camden Yards. Fortunately it was nothing structural with his shoulder or elbow.

Losing Sanchez seemed devastating at the time. The Yankees started the season slowly, and while Sanchez had yet to really get going at the plate, taking away ostensibly their best hitter felt like a recipe for disaster. Instead, the Yankees have gone 14-5 since the Sanchez injury and have averaged 5.55 runs per game. Turns out all they had to do to start winning was lose a guy who hit 20 homers in one-third of a season last year. Who knew?

The Yankees have thrived without Sanchez thanks in large part to fill-in catcher Austin Romine. Romine was pushed into everyday duty for the first time in his big league career and he’s responded by hitting .315/.350/.463 (125 wRC+), including going 4-for-6 with two walks and no strikeouts with runners in scoring position. How about that? Romine has been a godsend these last few weeks. Can’t say enough about the job he’s done.

The offense only tells part of the story though. The Yankees sport a solid 3.51 ERA, which ranks fourth in all of baseball. (It was a 3.35 ERA prior to yesterday’s loss.) Since the Sanchez injury the pitching staff has a 3.38 ERA in 176 innings overall, including a 3.60 ERA in 140 innings with Romine behind the plate. Run prevention has been the surprise of the season so far. I don’t think anyone saw this coming.

“He’s done a really good job with our pitching staff. He’s very bright and he knows what he’s doing back there, and he understands how to call a game,” said Joe Girardi over the weekend when asked about Romine’s work behind the plate. “Sanchez is our No. 1 guy here, but Romine has played excellent. He could be a No. 1, too. I believe in the kid and he’s played really well.”

As Girardi said, Sanchez is the No. 1 catcher, and whenever he gets healthy he’ll step in behind the plate. He’s a cornerstone type of player. Sanchez showed us what he is capable of last year, and it’s basically what Aaron Judge is doing now, only as a catcher. Romine knows the deal — “All I want to do as a backup player that gets thrust into that kind of position is do well for the team and show them that you belong,” he said over the weekend — and will go back to being the backup when Sanchez returns.

With Sanchez’s return looming, it’s fair to wonder what it means for the pitching staff. The pitchers have performed very well with Romine behind the plate, and now the Yankees will be throwing a wrench into that. Here’s the thing though: evaluating a catcher’s impact on the pitching staff is tough. Nearly impossibly to isolate, at least right now. At the end of the day, it is still up to the pitcher to execute. Calling the best game in the world won’t help if Michael Pineda is still hanging two-strike sliders, you know?

Here are the facts. These are the numbers with Romine and Sanchez catching since the start of last season to give us the largest possible sample size:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% HR/9
with Romine 492.1 3.77 3.74 22.1% 7.4% 1.08
with Sanchez 353 4.39 4.29 23.1% 8.0% 1.48

In a relatively limited sample — the average starting catcher catches about 1,000 innings each season — New York’s pitchers have been quite a bit more effective with Romine behind the plate than Sanchez. Sanchez has a small edge in strikeout rate and that’s basically it. And he’s better at throwing out runners too, but that’s another matter for another time.

The difficult part is determining how much, exactly, the catcher is contributing to those numbers. Like I said before, you could call the best game in the world and whisper the sweetest nothings into the pitcher’s ear during mound visits, but, at the end of the day, the catcher isn’t throwing the pitch. All the catcher can do is offer suggestions and try to guide the pitcher one way or the other. He can’t make him execute.

One thing we know the catcher can do for his pitcher is turn borderline pitches into strikes with his receiving ability. As long as human umpires are calling balls and strikes, pitching-framing will be a real and valuable skill. We can quibble with the exact worth of pitch-framing all day. I don’t think anyone would argue it’s not a real thing though. We see it every day. Here are the pitch-framing numbers dating back to last season, via Baseball Prospectus:

  • Romine: -1.1 runs (-2.3 runs per 1,000 innings caught)
  • Sanchez: +1.7 runs (+4.8 runs per 1,000 innings caught)

The small sample size numbers tell us Sanchez has been better than Romine at presenting those borderline pitches in a way that leads to the umpire calling them a strike more often. I feel like the opposite is true based on the eye test. Sanchez seems to stab at the ball from time to time rather than receive it calmly and present it to the umpire. Maybe I’m wrong. Who knows? The numbers say I am.

That, right there, is pretty much the extent of how we can analyze a catcher’s impact on the pitcher. The personal relationships they build, they way they talk pitchers through things, we can’t quantify that. That doesn’t mean it has no value! It absolutely does, we just can’t measure it. A lot of what we’re hearing today boils down to “the Yankees are pitching well and Romine deserves credit,” because that’s how these things usual work. Backup catchers tend to have their defense and ability to work with pitchers talked up (Nichols Law), and Romine is no different.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Remember last season when Sanchez first came up? He was praised for going out to the mound and taking control of the game despite being a young catcher. Sanchez would go out there and set things straight with a veteran pitcher. People ate it up. But it seems no one stopped to think that maybe it wasn’t such a good thing. Maybe those mound visits meant Sanchez and the pitcher had a hard time getting on the same page, hence all the mound visits. We have no idea how well these guys work together because we’re not part of the conversation. The pitcher’s performance gets projected onto the catcher. That’s all.

This is what’s going to happen: At some point the Yankees are going to start to allow more runs because this is not a true talent 3.51 ERA pitching staff. They’re playing over their head a bit. The league is going to get another look at Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery soon, fatigue will set in, stuff like that. The Yankees had a 4.16 ERA last season and I do believe they’re better than that because Severino seems to be figuring some things out, and also because I think Montgomery is better than the back-end starters they used in 2016. That said, I’d be shocked if they finished the season with a 3.51 ERA. I’d sign up for that right now if possible.

A some point the Yankees will begin to allow more runs, and when that happens, Sanchez is going to get the blame. The pitchers worked so great with Romine and now they have Sanchez and they’re just not on the same page! They can’t find the same dynamic. The Yankees should consider making Sanchez the designated hitter (or first baseman?) and starting Romine behind the plate because it’s best for the pitching staff. Prepare to hear all of it. It’s coming.

Romine very well might work better with the pitching staff and be the smart choice behind the plate from that point of view. Here’s the thing though: Sanchez is the future behind the plate. He’s a potential All-Star catcher and building block player for the Yankees going forward. The goal shouldn’t be putting Romine behind the plate because he works better with pitchers. The goal should be working with Sanchez and helping him get better at working with pitchers. That should be the priority going forward, and I think it will be.

The Yankees are off to a very nice start at 15-9, but, as they said all winter, they’re a team in transition. And part of that is helping Gary Sanchez develop into a better all-around catcher. Transitioning him from a bad defender into a good defender, so to speak. Romine has done a phenomenal job filling during Sanchez’s injury. He’s been awesome. But when Sanchez is healthy, he will rightfully take over as the starting catcher, even if it is not necessarily the best thing for the pitching staff in the short-term.

Austin Romine is taking advantage of the opportunity created by Gary Sanchez’s injury

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Ten days ago the Yankees suffered what could have very easily been a devastating injury. Starting catcher and offensive cornerstone Gary Sanchez hurt his biceps taking a swing and was later diagnosed with a strained brachialis muscle. It’ll sideline him at least four weeks. Sanchez started the season slowly, going 3-for-20 (.150) with a homer before the injury, but still. Losing your catcher and No. 2 hitter is rough.

Rather than collapse without Sanchez, the Yankees have won all eight games since the injury, including six of six with Austin Romine behind the plate. Romine has gone 7-for-21 (.333) with two doubles, a homer, four walks, and three strikeouts in the super early going this season. “The team is playing well, period. I’m not going to take credit. I’m trying to stay out of the way the best I can. We have a lot of people doing things right. I can’t sit here and take credit for anything,” he said to George King over the weekend.

Last season the 28-year-old Romine hit .242/.269/.382 (68 wRC+) with four homers in 176 plate appearances while backing up Brian McCann and later Sanchez, and geez, I don’t even remember the four homers. Did he really hit that many? Romine came into this season with 21 doubles and five home runs in 359 career big league plate appearances. Here is his 2013-16 spray chart, via FanGraphs:


Source: FanGraphs
Like most players — particularly bench players who don’t play a whole lot because they don’t offer much at the plate — the right-handed hitting Romine did most of his damage to the pull side from 2013-16. All five home runs were pulled to left field as were most doubles. That cluster of blue dots along the right field line are bloop doubles that fell in just fair. I distinctly remember a few of those.

This year, either intentionally or accidentally, Romine has taken an extreme opposite field approach and peppered right field. It’s happened so often that I have to think it’s intentional. He’s put 19 total balls in play so far this season and only three — three! — have been pulled to the left side of the field. Almost everything else has gone to right field. Not even back up the middle. To right field. Here is Romine’s spray chart thus far this season, via Baseball Savant:

austin-romine-2017-spray-chart

I wasn’t kidding when I said an extreme opposite field approach. Romine has hit nearly everything to the opposite field, and hey, when you’re a right-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium, it makes sense to go the other way. Romine has already been rewarded with one opposite field home run this year. He never came particularly close to hitting a short porch homer in previous years.

Clearly Romine is hitting the ball to right field more often this year than he has in the past, so now the question becomes: so what? I’m not sure, honestly. This could all be small sample size noise — again, Romine has put only 19 balls in play this year — or it could be an honest-to-goodness adjustment in an effort to help him be more productive at the plate. Trying to pull the ball all the time only worked so much. Now he’s incorporating the opposite field more often. Maybe? Possibly?

Romine said himself last season he knows he needs to hit not only to stick with the Yankees, but stick in the big leagues in general. Even defense-first catchers have to hit a little bit, you know? There was basically nothing Romine could do to stop Sanchez from taking over as the starting catcher, but now Kyle Higashioka, who is coming off a 21-homer season between Double-A and Triple-A, is breathing down his neck for the backup job. His roster spot is far from safe.

I should also note Romine has been behind the plate for this recent run of strong starts from the rotation. So far this year pitchers have a 3.00 ERA (2.92 FIP) in 57 innings with Romine compared to a 4.14 ERA (3.34 FIP) in 37 innings with Sanchez. How much credit does Romine deserve for that? Tough to say. I’ve always been a catcher impact skeptic, dating back to the days of Jose Molina being A.J. Burnett‘s personal catcher. Ultimately it’s up to the pitcher to execute, so the catcher can call the best game in the world and it might not matter. Either way, the pitching staff as performed well of late and the always reflects well on the catcher.

For now, Romine’s new opposite field approach is a #thingtowatch. He’s going to play a lot while Sanchez is on the disabled list — Joe Girardi made it clear Romine will be the starter and Higashioka the backup, so playing time won’t be split evenly — so we’ll get a chance to see whether this is real. For Romine, this is a huge opportunity. It’s his first time playing everyday at the MLB level, so this is his chance to show the Yankees he’s worth keeping around and other teams he’s worth acquiring and giving an expanded role.

Yankeemetrics: We’re Going Streaking (April 14-16)

(Getty)
(Getty)

Comeback kids
Behind the improved pitching of Masahiro Tanaka, and the power of Starlin Castro and Austin Romine, the Yankees opened their 2017 Interleague slate on Friday night with a 3-2 come-from-behind win over the Cardinals. This was the Redbirds first visit to the new Yankee Stadium, making the Padres the only team that hasn’t visited the Bronx since 2009.

Masahiro Tanaka entered this matchup having allowed just one run in 21 innings (0.43 ERA) over three Interleague starts at Yankee Stadium. That was the lowest ERA in the majors by any pitcher with two career home Interleague starts … until the third batter of the game, Matt Carpenter, crushed a two-run homer to give the Cardinals an early 2-0 lead.

He settled down after that rocky first frame, retiring 10 straight at one point, before faltering again in the seventh. Tanaka has now given up 13 runs in three outings this season – a number he didn’t reach until May 10 last year in his seventh start of the 2016 campaign.

Castro quickly evened the scored with a two-run blast in the bottom of the first. It was Castro’s 11th game-tying or go-ahead homer in pinstripes, two more than every other Yankee since the start of last season.

Romine then delivered the eventual game-winner, a solo homer in the bottom of the second to put them ahead 3-2. It was the first time in his career he went deep to give the Yankees a lead.

(AP)
(AP)

Sabathia > Father Time
CC Sabathia produced a vintage performance in Saturday’s 3-2 Yankee victory, throwing 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball, while picking up his his 225th career win on Jackie Robinson Day. That moved him past Hall-of-Famers Jim Bunning and Catfish Hunter for sole possession of 66th place on MLB’s all-time wins list.

Sabathia also lowered his ERA to 1.47, the third-lowest of his career through his first three starts of a season; the only better marks were in 2011 (1.45) and 2005 (0.92).

The Yankees needed Sabathia’s masterpiece because their offense remained stuck in neutral for much of the game. They went 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position, left 12 men on base and tied a franchise record with 17 strikeouts (done three times previously). Somehow, the Yankees are now 2-1-1 all-time when striking out 17 times in a game.

Cardinals right-hander Carlos Martinez was both utterly dominant and laughably wild at times on Saturday afternoon, finishing with one of the most bizarre pitching lines you’ll ever see: 11 strikeouts, eight walks, four hits, three runs allowed.

He’s the first pitcher to walk at least eight guys and fan at least 11 batters since Randy Johnson in 1993, and the first to do that against the Yankees since Bob Feller in 1937.

Even more ridiculous is that he did this all in just 5 1/3 innings. Martinez is the only pitcher in major-league history to have 11-or-more strikeouts and eight-or-more walks in a game and not make it out of the sixth inning.

Seventh Heaven
The Yankees completed the sweep of the Cardinals on Sunday with a convincing 9-3 win, extending their win streak to an MLB-best seven games. They now have two sweeps in two home series this season, after notching just three sweeps in 26 home series in 2016.

The victory also pushes their Yankee Stadium record to 6-0, the second time in the Wild Card era (since 1995) they’ve won their first six games at home. It also happened in 1998, a season that ended … yeah, pretty sweet.

(USA Today Sports)
(USA Today Sports)

Greg Bird broke out of his brutal season-opening slump in style, as he reached base in all four plate appearances with a home run, double, single and a walk (hey, a triple short of the cycle!).

Prior to his second-inning homer, Bird was hitless in his previous 20 at-bats, and had just one hit and a whopping 13 strikeouts in 30 trips to the plate this season. Entering Sunday, his batting average (.038), slugging percentage (.077) and OPS (.244) were each the worst among the 237 MLB players with at least 30 plate appearances this season.

Bird’s homer was his first since Oct. 1, 2015, making him the 10th different Yankee in 2017 to go yard. That’s tied with the Tigers, Rays and Brewers for the most players with at least one homer this season.

Chase Headley continued to swing a hot bat, pushing his batting average above .400 and notching his seventh multi-hit performance of the year. He’s the first Yankee third baseman since Bobby Murcer in 1969 to have seven multi-hit games this early into the season (first 12 team games), and joins Derek Jeter (2010, 2012) as the only Yankees at any position to do it in the last decade.

Michael Pineda followed up his near-perfecto with another excellent outing, showing a hint of the consistency that has so far eluded him during his Jekyll-and-Hyde career in pinstripes. It was just the second time as a Yankee that he pitched at least seven innings and surrendered no more than two runs in back-to-back games (also May 5-10, 2015).

The Four-Week Starting Catcher

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Shortly after Monday’s 8-1 drubbing of the Rays, the Yankees announced that Gary Sanchez would miss roughly four weeks with a strained brachialis muscle. All things considered, that isn’t terrible news – I was all but certain that he tore something on Saturday, given his reaction and the speed with which he was put on the disabled list, and visions of Greg Bird were dancing in my head. Comparatively speaking, Sanchez sitting out until May 8 or so is positively fantastic news.

In the interim, however, the Yankees lineup will be unquestionably weaker. Sanchez was expected to be the team’s best hitter heading into the season, and the drop-off from him to Austin Romine is larger than any other gap between starter and back-up on this roster. Romine is perfectly adequate as a reserve, but his limitations as a hitter become more glaring as he garners more plate appearances, and his defense is more good than great.

That being said, perhaps we should be talking about the drop-off from Sanchez to Kyle Higashioka instead. The 26-year-old was officially called-up on Sunday, and made his big league debut in the 9th inning of the home opener, catching the last three outs of the game. Joe Girardi has been noncommittal about the team’s plans, hinting at the nebulous ‘shared duty,’ so the playing time split appears to be up in the air.

How should the Yankees handle it?

The Case for Romine

Romine has played 123 games behind the plate in the Majors, and has been a solid presence defensively. He throws out would-be basestealers at a roughly league-average rate, and his pitch framing abilities are passable at worst (0.7 framing runs in his career). The deeper you dig into the numbers, the more average he seems – and that’s just fine. It’s not nearly as good as Sanchez, but he’s not hurting the team behind the dish, either.

That modicum of defensive value is just about all that you’ll get from Romine, though. He slashed .242/.269/.382 (68 wRC+) last year, and has hit .219/.256/.324 (53 wRC+) in his career. And while he’s only had 371 PA at this level, it’s difficult to envision him getting much better, given his age (28) and minor league numbers (.251/.307/.371 in 811 PA at Triple-A). Those aren’t terrible numbers for a back-up catcher, but it represents a severe drop-off from Sanchez, and a sizable dip from the average catcher (87 wRC+ for the position in 2016).

It is possible that we should look into how Romine handles pitchers, though. Much was said on Monday about how beautifully he worked with Michael Pineda, and there could be something to that. After all, Big Mike was at his best when he pitched to Romine last year:

pineda

There are several problems in working with a sample size such as this, as it ignores the ballpark and the quality of the competition (among other things), but it jibes with Romine’s reputation of knowing how to handle the pitching staff. And it isn’t just Pineda, either – Masahiro Tanaka posted better strikeout, walk, and home run rates while throwing to Romine. CC Sabathia had an unsightly 6.85 ERA with Romine as his battery mate, but he also managed 23 strikeouts against just 4 BB in 23.2 IP, so it wasn’t all bad.

It’s difficult to draw a clear-cut point about Romine’s work with the pitching staff, given the aforementioned sample sizes and sampling issues in general, but there’s a certain level of certainty that comes with him. That certainty may only be that he won’t actively hurt the team – but it’s something to cling to.

The Case for Higashioka

Higashioka hit .293/.355/.509 (136 wRC+) in 256 PA at Double-A last year, and .250/.306/.514 (131 wRC+) in 160 PA at Triple-A. That level of offense is unknown to Romine at any level of professional baseball, and it came in Higashioka’s first healthy season … ever, basically. The 26-year-old missed time every year from 2012 through 2015, with a litany of ailments and injuries, including Tommy John Surgery in 2013. It’s been a long road to the show.

While 2016 represented a heretofore unknown level of production for Higashioka, there are reasons beyond the injuries to suspect that it wasn’t a simple fluke. He has long drawn praise for owning a solid hit tool and above-average raw power, and he has always maintained strong contact rates in the minors (16.4 K% across all levels). He’s known as an aggressive hitter, and that shone through at Triple-A last year – but a career 8.1% walk rate isn’t too shabby, and he managed a 10.2% walk rate at Double-A prior to his promotion. The injuries hindered his development arc significantly, and his production last year may exaggerate his offensive potential, but the bat has always been Higashioka’s calling card.

Higashioka looked comfortable in Spring Training this year, as well, slashing .296/.406/.630 in 32 PA. There were rumblings that he had earned himself the back-up job, given all that had happened since the beginning of 2016, but Romine’s lack of options and the desire for Higashioka to continue to develop (more on that in a bit) made the team’s decision fairly easy.

Analyzing Higashioka’s defense is a bit tricky, given his lack of experience at the highest level. Scouting reports credit him for moving well behind the plate, and ding him for a weak throwing arm (and this was even before TJS). Baseball Prospectus credits Higashioka for 16.3 framing runs between Double-A and Triple-A last year, which is excellent, and he threw out 30% of attempted basestealers, which is right around average. Minor league defensive numbers are a bit shaky, but it seems reasonable to say that he’s at least an average-ish defender.

The key to all of this, however, might just be development. Higashioka is the team’s back-up of the future; that doesn’t sound sexy, but it could mean a larger role if the team gives Sanchez more time at DH to keep him healthy while keeping his bat in the lineup. Sitting on the bench for four weeks isn’t going to do much to prepare Higashioka for that role, nor is it going to give the Yankees a great idea as to what he can do.


In my mind, the decision should be relatively easy for the Yankees – Higashioka should be playing everyday, regardless of the level. If he’s going to be on the big league roster for the next four weeks, he should start the majority of those games. It may sound weird to talk about developing a 26-year-old, and for a back-up role at that, but it makes more sense than calling him up to sit behind a known replacement-level commodity.

The Gary-less Lineup

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

If you haven’t heard by now–though the collective worried gasp of Yankee fans everywhere yesterday afternoon probably gave it away–Gary Sanchez is injured, and will be going on the 10-day disabled list with a right biceps issue.

This leaves the Yankees with a gaping hole at what is the most important defensive position on the field–where Sanchez has shown great skill–and arguably the most important position in the lineup; slotting Sanchez in second made sense and was a big show of confidence in him by Joe Girardi and the coaching staff. Now, that’s for naught–at least for the next ten days. So, what can the Yankees do in Sanchez’s lineup absence?

My first thought was one I suggested previously, using DH Matt Holliday as the second hitter thanks to his combination of skills. However, without Sanchez to be in the clean up spot–and no one yet reliable enough to take his place–I don’t think that idea works. Holliday should stick at fourth, which is just as important as the second spot. But, since the route they’ll likely take is sticking Jacoby Ellsbury–who’s off to a good start–back into the second slot, giving the Yankees a more traditional look at the top of the lineup, that would mean three lefties–Gardner, Ellsbury, and Greg Bird stacked together, and that could lead to matchup problems late in games. So, I assume Girardi will split the lefties and have Holliday bat third with Bird cleaning up.

The team can go one of two ways with the fifth spot. The first way is to bump Chase Headley up a spot, rewarding him for a hot start. I’d be totally fine with that. The other would be to give the spot to Aaron Judge. This could show faith in him, challenge him, and give him an opportunity to hit behind better players, increasing the likelihood of him batting with men on base. That second option probably isn’t going to happen, but I think that’s the one I’d like, if only to keep up the ‘give the kids a shot’ theme that this season is likely to have.

Best hi-five ever (Source: AP)
Best hi-five ever (Source: AP)

So, the combination of the most likely scenario/what I’d want to see would look like this:

  1. Gardner, LF
  2. Ellsbury, CF
  3. Holliday, DH
  4. Bird, 1B
  5. Judge, RF
  6. Castro, 2B
  7. Headley, 3B
  8. Romine, C
  9. Torreyes, SS

You could flip Castro and Headley if you like, and I might do the same. But the main takeaway here is that without Sanchez, this lineup seems a whole lot shorter and a whole lot thinner than it did just 24 hours ago. Losing a big bat at a premium position always hurts, and that goes double when a backup quality player–Torreyes–is already in the every day lineup. Get well soon, Gary; the lineup needs you.

Yankees finalize Opening Day roster; Holder, Mitchell, and Shreve make the bullpen

Holder. (Presswire)
Holder. (Presswire)

Earlier this morning, Joe Girardi informally announced the Yankees’ 25-man Opening Day roster. Aaron Judge will be the right fielder and Luis Severino will be the fourth starter, and the decision to option out Rob Refsnyder means Pete Kozma will be the utility infielder. Also, Girardi told Bryan Hoch that Bryan Mitchell, Jonathan Holder, and Chasen Shreve will be in the bullpen. Got all that?

The Yankees still need to open a 40-man roster spot for Kozma, though they have a few days to figure that out. The Opening Day roster itself doesn’t have to be finalized with the league until 12pm ET on Sunday, an hour before first pitch. Here’s the unofficial official roster:

CATCHERS (2)
Austin Romine
Gary Sanchez

INFIELDERS (6)
Chris Carter
Starlin Castro
Greg Bird
Chase Headley
Pete Kozma
Ronald Torreyes

OUTFIELDERS (4)
Jacoby Ellsbury
Brett Gardner
Aaron Hicks
Aaron Judge

DESIGNATED HITTER (1)
Matt Holliday

STARTING PITCHERS (4)
Michael Pineda
CC Sabathia
Luis Severino
Masahiro Tanaka

RELIEF PITCHERS (8)
Dellin Betances
Aroldis Chapman
Tyler Clippard
Jonathan Holder
Tommy Layne
Bryan Mitchell
Chasen Shreve
Adam Warren

DISABLED LIST (2)
Tyler Austin (foot)
Didi Gregorius (shoulder)

The Yankees will carry eight relievers for the time being. The team has three off-days in the first ten days of the regular season, allowing them to skip their fifth starter the first two times through the rotation. They’ll do exactly that, then figure out the fifth starter later. They don’t need one until April 16th.

Rotation candidates Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Jordan Montgomery did not make the Opening Day roster, though it’s only a matter of time until we see those guys in the big leagues. The Yankees will need a fifth starter soon enough, and given his performance last year, I don’t think it’s a given Severino sticks in the rotation all season. Montgomery opened some eyes this spring and could be the first starter called up. We’ll see.

The Yankees open the regular season this Sunday, with a 1pm ET game against the Rays at Tropicana Field. They’ll start the season with a six-game road trip through Tampa and Baltimore before coming home. The home opener is Monday, April 10th. They’ll play the Rays again.