What Went Wrong: Austin Romine

The 2013 season is over and now it’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with a young player who failed to take advantage of a good opportunity.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

After Russell Martin signed with the Pirates and the Yankees declined to bring in another catcher, it was obvious Austin Romine would get a chance to play at some point this past season. He was slated to open the year with Triple-A Scranton while Frankie Cervelli and Chris Stewart held down the fort at the big league level, but the opportunity was inevitable. Either someone would get hurt or play their way off the roster.

Sure enough, the opportunity came towards the end of April. Cervelli took a foul tip off his right hand and was expected to miss several weeks with a fracture, but a setback and a 50-game suspension eventually ended his season. For all intents and purposes, Romine was the backup catcher to Stewart this season. The opportunity came and it came early.

The first ten weeks in the show were a total disaster for Romine. He hit .132/.145/.176 with 17 strikeouts and zero walks (!) in 71 plate appearances from late-April through mid-July, a span of 23 starts and 32 games played. I get that playing sporadically — it was obvious Joe Girardi had an affinity for Stewart and would play him whenever possible — is tough to do, especially as a kid when you’re used to playing everyday, but man were the first weeks ugly for Romine. He looked completely overwhelmed.

Romine spent several weeks working with hitting coaching Kevin Long while also getting input from his father Kevin, a former big league outfielder with the Red Sox. His performance started to turn around in mid-July, right before the All-Star break. Romine played in three of four games before the break and went 3-for-8 with a double and his first walk of the season, which was something to feel good about. I think that “something to feel good about” part was rather important. There’s no doubt the kid needed a confidence-booster.

The playing time remained sporadic immediately after the break but Romine kept hitting, enough that Girardi started playing him a little bit more. He started ten of the first 25 games after the break and went 13-for-32 (.406) with five walks, four doubles, and his first big league homer, a monster solo shot to dead center field at spacious Petco Park. Three weeks later, he had his best at-bat of the season, working a nine-pitch bases-loaded walk against David Price.

The mini-hot steak came to an abrupt end in mid-August and Romine went only 3-for-27 (.111) with seven strikeouts the rest of the way. His season ended on September 10th against the Orioles, when he took a foul tip to the face mask and suffered a concussion. Romine was actually cleared to play late in the season but Girardi didn’t take a chance. They basically shut him down for the year, which was a wise move.

All told, Romine hit an awful .207/.255/.296 (48 wRC+) with just the one homer in 148 plate appearances this season. He only threw out eight of 38 attempted base-stealers as well, a well-below-average 21%. I thought he was okay on balls in the dirt and stuff like that, but who really knows. There isn’t an easy or reliable way to quantify that stuff.

What we do know is that Romine was terrible at the plate and at throwing runners out. Really terrible. The little hot streak was encouraging but who knows if it was a glimpse of what he can really do or just that, a hot streak. Either way, Romine was given a great opportunity this summer and he couldn’t capitalize. The starting catching job is wide open both right now and for the foreseeable future, yet he was unable to take advantage. Romine could have cemented himself in the team’s long-term plans with a strong showing this summer, but it just didn’t happen.

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Romine not ready to return, still dealing with concussion symptoms

Via Andy McCullough: Austin Romine is still dealing with concussion symptoms and isn’t ready to return to the team. He has been given the okay for light workouts, but those aren’t going well. “I think (the ball is) going to be one place and it’s another place, or I’ll do something I’m always used to doing and I won’t catch it,” he said. “I know my body. I know what I can do. So when I do stuff I’m not used to doing, I’m like ‘What the heck?’ I don’t want that to happen in a game.”

Romine, who missed time with a much more serious concussion suffered during a home plate collision in 2011, added: “Mainly, it’s my health. I’m not going to go out there and risk permanent damage, a worse concussion, possibly die. It’s a pretty serious injury. And two, I’m not going to go out there and screw my team. I’m not going to miss a ball with a guy on third, because I’m trying to suck it up and go out there. I’m better for the team if I don’t go out there.”

The 24-year-old Romine has been sidelined for eleven days after taking a foul tip to the mask in Baltimore. He has hit .207/.255/.296 (47 wRC+) in 60 games overall this season, but he was far more productive after the All-Star break and before the injury (105 wRC+ in 23 games). With only eight games left in the year and a microscopic chance of making the postseason, the Yankees should just shut Romine down. Brain injuries are nothing to screw around with.

Update: Austin Romine “probably” has concussion following foul tip to mask

10:34pm: Romine “probably” has a concussion, according to Joe Girardi. I imagine they have to run some tests before they know for sure. If he does have one, there’s a decent chance his season is over. Like I said, brain injuries are nothing to mess around with.

9:46pm: Austin Romine left tonight’s game in the eighth inning after taking a foul tip to the face mask. He actually stayed in the game to finish the at-bat, but was later visited by the trainer and taken off the field. More than a few catchers have suffered concussions on foul tips this year, so it’s good they’re getting him out of there. Brain injuries are no joke.

A popular gripe that’s worth considering

(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)
(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

If the Yankees are serious about successfully completing the Hail Mary pass that is their playoff hopes, they’ll need to win for the remainder of the season. For the first time all season, they’ve had a roster that resembles something competitive, despite still not being at full strength. Last week, Joe discussed a couple ways the team could improve their chances as it pertains to the pitching staff.

Today, I’m here to discuss another idea that seems to be gaining popularity — specifically, upgrading the lineup from within. It’s time for Joe Girardi to give Austin Romine more opportunities. This doesn’t necessarily mean Romine has to be the full-time catcher after this year; if the team wants to pursue the likes of Brian McCann, by all means, they should. We’re talking right now.

Let’s start with Chris Stewart. Through 277 plate appearances this season, he’s batted .231/.305/.302 (.276 wOBA, 68 wRC+). He’s managed four home runs all season (.070 ISO) and has been valued at 0.8 fWAR. He doesn’t walk a ton and doesn’t strike out a ton, but he also doesn’t really get on base. I’m not claiming he’s a bad catcher, but I don’t think he’s cut out to be the main guy.

It seems pretty clear by this point that the team values his defensive contributions. In terms of fielding metrics, FanGraphs lists him at 4.3 Fld (based on UZR) which is good but not great. Even though I personal question the legitimacy of fielding metrics in general, particularly as they pertain to catchers, I’m willing to concede that Stewart is probably a capable catcher defensively in general (though he has only thrown out 28% of base runners which is slightly below average, and it seems like he’s bobbled more pitches than one would expect out of a defensive-oriented guy).

What’s interesting though about Stewart is that he’s basically been utilized far more this season than he ever has throughout his career at the MLB level. In 2011, he started 67 games with the Giants (183 plate appearances), which was significantly more than he had prior with any of his former teams (the Padres, Yankees, Rangers, and White Sox). This year, he’s already played in 86 games (and counting), and has already accumulated about 100 more plate appearances (and counting). Anecdotally, Stewart has looked gassed at times. If this theory is indeed true, it would make sense that he would be struggling by this point in the season. After all, he does play a very demanding position.

Interestingly enough, Stewart’s splits seem to support this theory to some degree. Through the first half of the year, Stewart produced a .283 wOBA (73 wRC+). While the first half of the season wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, the second half of the year (at least thus far), by comparison, has been considerably worse (.260 wOBA, 57 wRC+). Although Stewart has picked up his production in August, his July was completely abysmal (.200 wOBA, 16 wRC+). Hilariously, his lone home run this month was the first one he hit since May. Although August has been better for Stewart (.316 wOBA, 96 wRC+), he’s also had several more breathers.

On the other hand, Romine is young, healthy, available and has shown increasing value of late. Of course it’s a gamble; I’m sure the fact that he was awful early on in the season hasn’t inspired a ton of confidence in Girardi either. I think the team is in a position though where it has to take risks that could pay off if they’re serious about remaining in the hunt – even if those risks only provide incremental benefit.

Admittedly, Romine’s overall season stats aren’t exactly inspiring (.227/.271/.327, .265 wOBA, 61 wRC+, 0.1 fWAR). He’s hit one home run, walks very little (5.0 BB%), strikes out at a fair pace (25.6 K%) and has been graded as below average defensively (-0.2 Fld), though the same caveats about defensive metrics apply to Romine as well, in addition to the small sample size disclaimer (23% caught stealing rate for what that’s worth).

So what’s the draw you may ask? It’s simple; Romine is the hot bat and has been for a while. If he cools off, fine, sub him out without blinking. But for now, take advantage of him and get offense from a position traditionally void of offensive production. During Romine’s eight games started in July, he produced a .385 wOBA (143 wRC+). In August, through eight games he’s improved further (.395 wOBA, 150 wRC+). Am I claiming Romine is the next Posada? Of course not, nor do I have those expectations. I’m just saying give the kid’s bat a chance with more frequency as Stewart really hasn’t giving the team any incentive not too.

Of course, the small sample size disclaimer applies to Romine’s offensive contributions as well. But isn’t it worth considering the idea at this point? At the very least, if Girardi wants to approach this matter conservatively, he could always just level out the playing time between the two catchers rather than giving Romine the starting gig altogether. It may not be desirable for those two players on am emotional level, but it may be what’s best for the team. Changing the roles of Stewart and Romine probably won’t be the ultimate factor that decides the fate of the season, but if it could help, the team should consider it. Unfortunately, it seems like Girardi isn’t quite as sold on the idea.

The future needs to be now behind the plate

I have something to show you:

Chris Stewart spray chart

That is Chris Stewart‘s spray chart since the All-Star break (via Texas Leaguers). You know how they set up those short little outfield fences behind the infield for charity softball games or whatever? I think Stewart would have hit like two homeruns since the break using those fences. According to the batted ball data at FanGraphs, he hasn’t hit a fly ball since August 3rd (!).

This isn’t much of a surprise, of course. Stewart has never hit in his career and no one expected him to this year, yet he’s still somehow falling short of expectations at .219/.296/.279 (60 wRC+). Among the 33 catchers with at least 200 plate appearances this year, Stewart ranks 30th in offensive output. As an added bonus, he’s stopped throwing out base-runners — opponents are 13-for-15 (87%) in stolen base attempts against him since the All-Star break. He’s worn out. It happens when a guy who hasn’t started more than 85 games behind the plate since 2005 catches 70 of your first 117 games.

Austin Romine, meanwhile, has shown some signs of life since the All-Star break after being completely unplayable in the first half. He’s gone 8-for-23 (.348) with some power (three doubles and a homer) since the break and that’s kinda cool. Romine also had a few nice games at the plate immediately prior to the Midsummer Classic and has actually thrown runners out of late — four steals and four caught stealings since the break. It’s not much, but when you’re talking about a 24-year-old kid who missed basically half of each of the last two seasons with back problems, it’s encouraging. A silver lining in these rough last few weeks.

“He’s been swinging the bat pretty good,” said Joe Girardi to Mark Feinsand last week when asked about upping Romine’s workload down the stretch. “I might give him a little bit more playing time here and there. Stew’s still going to catch a lot, but he’s been swinging the bat pretty good.”

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

To Girardi’s credit, Romine has started seven of the team’s last 17 games. But that’s not really enough. Stewart is generally bad at this baseball thing and now he’s even worse at it because he’s out of gas. Romine should play more and not just two or three times a week. He should take over as the starter — three-fifths of the rotation has pitched so poorly that they don’t even deserve the luxury of a personal catcher, so that’s not an issue — and that’s it. See what happens. He won’t continue to hit .348 the rest of the way, but he can actually hit the ball in the air and still play pretty good defense.

There’s a pretty good chance Romine might stink at baseball too. Baseball is hard, especially as a young catcher. It took Yadier Molina three years to get his OPS over .700 and seven years to get it over .750, for example. But there’s also a chance Romine might not stink at baseball. It was just last year that Baseball America said his “defense still could make him New York’s long-term future catcher, with the offensive upside of a .270 hitter with 10 homers annually.” That’s pretty good by catcher standards. Certainly better than Stewart, who we know isn’t anything special because he’s 31 and hasn’t been anything special his entire career.

The Yankees are stuck in the unenviable spot of having way too many old players and way too few young players. Their long-term catching outlook is promising with J.R. Murphy in Triple-A and Gary Sanchez in Double-A, but prospects are no sure thing, especially catching prospects. Look at Matt Wieters. Romine has shown actual signs of life at the Major League level these last few weeks and that’s an amazing thing. The Yankees should be thankful for it and they should give him every opportunity to show it isn’t a fluke. As crazy as it sounds, they might even have a long-term building block sitting right under their noses, which is something they desperately need regardless of position.

Injury Updates: Jeter, A-Rod, Phelps, Grandy

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Got a plethora of injury updates courtesy of George King, Chad Jennings, and Josh Norris:

  • Derek Jeter (quad) fielded ground balls hit right at him and made throws to first base yesterday, his first time doing any real baseball activity since getting hurt. He also hit off a tee and soft toss. The Cap’n is expected to take regular batting practice and run today.
  • Alex Rodriguez (quad) is down in Tampa but will have to rest for a few days before resuming any kind of baseball activity.
  • David Phelps (forearm) will make his first rehab start for Double-A Trenton tonight. Brian Cashman has already confirmed Phelps won’t automatically re-enter the rotation when he’s ready to come off the DL.
  • Curtis Granderson (hand) took three at-bats in a simulated game yesterday. “I’m getting there. I definitely need some [at-bats],” he said. Granderson will be re-evaluated after getting more simulate game at-bats today and tomorrow.
  • Kevin Youkilis (back) started rehab work about two weeks ago following his surgery. His agent said it is “early in the process,” but Youkilis said he expects to return to the team this year. The original 10-12 week timetable put him on track to return in September.
  • Jayson Nix (hamstring) had six at-bats in a simulated game yesterday. He is expected to go out on a minor league rehab assignment at some point soon.
  • Austin Romine (neck) has been limited by some stiffness. “I planned on catching him [Sunday], but he got to the ballpark and couldn’t turn to his left,’’ said Joe Girardi, who added Romine is getting better by the day.
  • Frankie Cervelli (hand, elbow) has been participating in catching drills but has yet to do anything more than take dry swings. He said batting practice is “coming soon.”

2013 Midseason Review: Grade F’s

We’ve spent some time dissecting the team’s performance through the first half of the year. Mike wrote about the A’s, the B’s, and the C’s while I covered the D’s. Let’s wrap this up with the F’s and incompletes.

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Every championship-caliber team has a group of individuals who go above and beyond, who perform incredible feats in incredible moments. These are the players who carry the team on their shoulders through thick and thin. Unfortunately, the players listed in this post are not those guys!

No, instead we’re going to discuss the “F” team. These are the retreads. These are the players that we, as fans, wish we did not have to watch on a daily basis. These guys are the ones who make us cringe, curse, and grind our teeth for three hours or so a night on a daily basis.

The Shortstops
Ah, yes, the shortstops. Jayson Nix. Alberto Gonzalez. Luis Cruz. Reid Brignac. Eduardo Nunez*. You’ve all been awful. For simplicity’s sake, let’s refer to the old table.

2013 NYY SS

It’s sad, really. The Yankees shortstops have collectively posted a .241 wOBA and a 44 wRC+ (-1.2 fWAR). Relative to the rest of the league, this production (or lack there of) is ranked second worst in all of baseball.

While power is certainly a bit of a rarity from the shortstop position, it is both saddening and mildly surprising (at least to me) that this group, together, has only managed two (!) homeruns thus far. Hell, even the Marlins have three (though to be fair, the Cardinals and the White Sox both have one, and the Rangers none). I think, more than anything, what this tell us is a) how fortunate the Yankees are to have had Derek Jeter all these years, and b) how even a super-star in decline (like Derek Jeter or A-Rod perhaps) can still be a really preferable option to the alternative much of the time.

If the Yankees expect to reach the playoffs, they’ll need more from these guys, plain and simple. We’re not talking Troy Tulowitzki production (though that would be okay too), they just can’t be well-below replacement level. Right now, the shortstop position is a black hole in the lineup and it’s noticeable.

* I was a little torn about whether Nunez belonged in the “Grade F” group or with the “Incompletes.”  At the end of the day I chose to throw him in with this lot which is probably a bit unfair. Nunez had a really great opportunity to prove his valuable to the team early on when it became obvious that Jeter would not be available for much of the year, and simply has not capitalized on his opportunity. Anyway you look at it, Nunez’ season has to be deemed a disappointment thus far. Of course, if you feel it’s unfair to give him a letter grade given his limited playing time, that’s fine too.

The Third Basemen

2013 NYY 3B

Next stop on the depressing infield tour is third base. It’s ugly. Really ugly. The good news is that the Yankees third basemen ranked higher relative to the league than their shortstop counterparts. The bad news is it’s not by much. They rank fourth worst in all of baseball with only the Twins, Blue Jays, and Brewers trailing. The group has managed to hit six home runs collectively (over 625 plate appearances) and has batted to a .219/.279/.295 (.256 wOBA, 56 wRC+) line. They haven’t taken many walks (6.2 BB%) though they have struck out at fair pace (25.8 K%), and as already mentioned, power has been a scarcity.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

The culprits hear are pretty obvious. Kevin Youkilis was the super non-durable (and super desperate) backup plan to Alex Rodriguez. Even prior to his back injury, which ultimately sidelined him for the year, he looked pretty shot. He was getting an awful lot of weak ground outs down the third base line.  His patented patience never really surfaced and he basically looked uncomfortable at the plate from moment one. I suppose if you’re generous you can give him a pass if you want to call his season “incomplete” too. I’m not that generous though. He’s getting an “F” in my book.

From there you can talk about Nix, who really has been used way more than he probably should be in an ideal scenario. Frankly, he was getting exposed out there. He’s an adequate fill in on occasion, but he’s not a starter. If the Yankees keep throwing him out their day in and day out, they should expect below replacement level production. As for Adams, I wrote a while back that we should temper our expectations. Well, our expectations certainly have been tempered. After an impressive hot streak following his big league arrival, he’s basically looked lost at the plate for months. There was a pretty clear reason why was he was optioned to AAA.

Austin Romine
I hate seeing the young guys come up and struggle even though they do it most of the time. I mean, it has to be tough making the transition. After a lifetime of hard work, a prolonged stay in the Majors simply doesn’t pan out for many. For others, it’s a precious window that closes quickly. Very few stick around for an extended period of time, and even fewer make a big impact. That’s not to say Romine won’t enjoy a successful MLB career, but he’s had a pretty rough start.

At this point, Romine has batted .160/.182./.213 (.176 wOBA, 0 wRC+) and has been worth -0.4 fWAR.  He’s taken basically no walks (1.3 BB%) and has struck out 22.8% of the time. This includes zero home runs. Of course, he’s only had 79 plate appearances. Joe Girardi‘s been unable to play Romine because he’s been awful in limited opportunities. It seems like this has probably been fairly detrimental to Austin’s confidence (and the team’s confidence in him). Romine, on the other hand, really hasn’t been able to bounce back because he rides the bench almost full-time. On the plus side, when he is in the game, he puts forth solid defense for the most part.

When I think about Romine’s predicament, I ultimately arrive at one point: the Yankees were not adequately prepared at catcher, and Romine was probably not ready to be a big leaguer when he was brought up. He missed substantial time during his minor league development due to back injuries in 2011 and 2012, and really never had the chance to progress at a typical pace. He was thrown onto the big league roster when Francisco Cervelli went down, and backup catcher Chris Stewart became the primary backstop. Maybe we should be apologists for Romine. Maybe we shouldn’t be. Either way, he’s been pretty abysmal through the first half.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Joba Chamberlain
It appears as though the Joba Chamberlain saga is finally coming to a rather inglorious end. The once heralded prospect turned elite setup reliever, turned failed starter, turned back into not-quite-so-elite reliever will likely be gone by the trade deadline, or if not, most certainly by the off-season. Although Joba spent some time this season on the disabled list with a strained oblique, there were no massive setbacks to deal with like Tommy John surgery or an ankle dislocation.

As for Joba’s pitching stats, they speak for themselves (negatively). Through 22.1 innings pitched, he’s produced a 5.24 ERA (5.03 FIP). Joba’s strikeout rates are definitely respectable, as they generally are (8.87 K/9), but he’s given up way more walks (4.3 BB/9) than normal. He’s also seemed way more prone to the long ball (1.61 HR/9) than he has in the past. While I’m sure Joba wasn’t delighted about losing his eighth inning gig to David Robertson a couple seasons ago, I’m sure he’s been pretty disheartened this year about losing the seventh inning job as well. In fact, he’s no longer really being used in any high leverage situations, mostly just mop up duty at this point. Instead of responding to the challenge positively, Chamberlain has taken a step backward. As David Cone noted on Sunday afternoon’s brutal loss to the Twins, he looks like isn’t throwing with any conviction.

I do believe Joba is a better pitcher than what we’ve seen this season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he turned things around in the second half whether with NY or somewhere else altogether. Not to bludgeon a dead horse much further, I also believe the Yankees have mishandled Joba for a few years now, which in turn has hindered him to some degree. Ultimately though, Chamberlain needs to be accountable for his production, which has been pretty lousy. Basically, this seems like a sad ending to what otherwise could have been a promising career in pinstripes. In any event, I think the relationship between Joba and the organization has soured, which is a shame.  Such is life.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

The Incompletes
Mike and I were originally thinking of dedicating a separate article to the walking wounded. This includes Derek Jeter (ankle, quad), Mark Teixeira (wrist), Curtis Granderson (forearm, hand), A-Rod (hip), and Cervelli (hand, elbow). What is there really to say though? Injuries have decimated this team.

Would the Yankees be six games back out of first place if these guys weren’t all injured? Maybe. I have to believe though they’d be much more formidable. I suppose it’s appropriate to throw Zoilo Almonte into the mix as well. While he’s been a breath of fresh air offensively with all the quality at bats, he hasn’t been around all that long. After a torrid start, he’s since cooled somewhat, and who knows what he’ll happen from here (though if I had to guess, I’d say he’ll turn back into the AAAA guy I expected).

The team could have absorbed extended injuries to one or two of these guys perhaps. Having them all out basically all season has been a nightmare though. Who knows how long Jeter will be sidelined with this most recent setback, or whether A-Rod will face a big suspension. Granderson’s basically a non entity at this point. All we do know is that the guys who have been brought on board to supplement the production of these big names aren’t getting it done. While we can’t grade these players on game performance, I think we can say it’s been a very disappointing season for them (and the team) in terms of injuries.