Brett the Maintainer

Excuse me for starting out on a philosophical note, but one slightly ironic certainty in life is that we have no idea why some things happen. That’s even truer in baseball, and a clear example of that is Brett Gardner. His success as an outfielder for the Yankees is one of the more pleasant surprises I’ve experienced in the last decade or so as fan. When he first came up, I liked his batting eye and I liked his defense, as did everyone else. However, I thought that his lack of power at the beginning would come back to bite him eventually; pitchers would challenge him in the zone, thus negating his good eye and patience, exploiting his lack of power. I’m glad I was wrong.

Taking the more micro view of things, I thought there would be a difference in performance from Gardner after Jacoby Ellsbury went down with an injury, but there really hasn’t been. Ellsbury last appeared in a game for the Yankees on May 19; at that time, Gardner was hitting .291/.366/.433, mostly out of the second spot of the lineup. Since then, through Friday’s game against the Tigers, Gardner has hit .259/.331/.454. There’s been a drop off in average and OBP, but nothing too significant, and that drop is balanced out by a boost in power.

Again borrowing from cliche philosophy, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Gardner moved up a spot in the order to the leadoff spot, a role he’s more than suited for; after all, he and Taco Bellsbury are fairly similar hitters. Going into writing this piece, I was expecting to find some differences in the way pitchers approached Gardner thanks to the new lineup spot, specifically the fact that there’d be no one on in front of him for his first time up which would be a change from the Ellsbury/Gardner configuration. During the opening stretch of the season before Gardner got hurt, Ellsbury was on base quite a bit–his OBP before going down was .412. In turn, Gardner came up to the plate with men on base in 55 of 127 at bats, 43%. Moving to the leadoff position lowered that to 33.33%, which is expected; you’ll always be starting with no men on in your first trip to the plate. Given that difference, though, and the move to the higher lineup spot, pitchers haven’t treated Gardner much differently than they did when he was a two hitter.

He has seen more ‘hard’ stuff since moving up in the order than he did to start the year, but the differences in results aren’t all that drastic, except for the increase in power on breaking pitches, moving from an ISO of .057 to an ISO of .333. His increased power against both hard and offspeed stuff as well just mirrors the overall increase in power noted earlier.

While the Yankees have struggled  in Ellsbury’s absence, Gardner’s been a more consistent presence than realized. The team’s been up and down all year, but he’s been steady, which is exactly what a team needs at the top of the lineup.

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First inning dominance driving Yankees’ success early in 2015

Why are the Yankees so great in the first inning? These two. (Presswire)
Why are the Yankees so great in the first inning? These two. (Presswire)

Last night the Yankees did something for the ninth time in 13 games this month: they scored in the first inning. Nine times in 13 games! They’ve now scored in the first inning in 16 of their 35 games this year, with last night’s game breaking a tie with the Padres for the most in MLB. New York has scored 36 runs in the first inning in 2015, eight more than any other team.

On the other side of the coin, the Yankees allowed a run in the first inning last night for only the third time in 13 games this month. They’ve allowed a run in the first inning eleven times in 36 games this season, which ranks middle of the pack — 16th fewest in MLB and seventh fewest in the AL. Their 16 first inning runs allowed are the tenth fewest in baseball, so when they do allow the other team to score in the first, it’s usually just one run.

Between their first inning offensive dominance and their average first inning run prevention, the Yankees have the best first inning run differential in baseball at +20. The Orioles have the next best at +11. The Athletics and Pirates are the only other teams in double-digits. More often than not, the Yankees are getting off to a great start and playing from ahead. They’re forcing the other club to play catch-up right from the start.

Usually individual innings splits are pretty meaningless. No one says “this guy is a good fourth inning hitter.” That doesn’t exist. If anything, we’d look at performance the second and third time facing a pitcher. The individual innings mean very little. Now, that said, there’s a pretty obvious explanation for the Yankees’ first inning offensive excellence: Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner.

The first inning is the only inning in which Ellsbury and Gardner are guaranteed to bat. And not just bat either, they’re guaranteed to lead off. They aren’t coming up with two outs and the bases empty or something like that. They’re starting the inning and setting the table for everyone else. Ellsbury and Gardner have been dominant atop the lineup this year, total game-changers, and they’re always going to bat in the first inning.

The run prevention angle is a little different. As a whole, the Yankees have a league average rotation this year. The group has a 3.93 ERA (3.63 FIP) overall, a touch better than the 4.13 ERA (4.04 FIP) league average thanks mostly to Michael Pineda. Hitters have a 118 OPS+ the first time facing a Yankees starter this year, which applies to the first inning. The team’s average rotation is facing the other team’s best hitters (in theory) in the first inning, and the result is basically middle of the pack run prevention.

Last season the Yankees had -12 first inning run differential and the year before that it was a staggering -33 first inning run differential. The 2013-14 Yankees were constantly playing from behind, it seemed. This year’s squad is the exact opposite — they’re scoring in the first inning on the regular and taking the lead. They’re taking control of the game right from the start and that changes everything. Teams play a little differently when they’re behind. We see it every night.

With Ellsbury and Gardner atop the lineup, I don’t think the Yankees’ first inning offensive success is any sort of fluke. If they’re not the best one-two lineup punch in baseball, they’re on the very short list. It’s either them or Kole Calhoun and Mike Trout in Anaheim. Either way, those two generate so much offense for the Yankees, and it starts right in the first inning. The pitching has been solid as a whole, not great but not terrible, but average pitching plus Ellsbury and Gardner equals a major first inning advantage for the Yankees, and it’s a big reason why they’re off to such a strong start in 2015.

Yankees’ improved offense starts at the top with Ellsbury and Gardner

And they have a special handshake. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
I bet they have a secret handshake only other fast guys know about. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

When the Yankees missed the postseason in both 2013 and 2014, the offense was the main culprit. Sure, there were other factors like injuries, bad team defense, and just an okay pitching staff, but the Yankees really struggled to score runs and it was the reason they lost more often than not. They hit .244/.307/.378 (88 wRC+) in over 12,000 plate appearances as a team from 2013-14. I mean, come on.

Thankfully the story has been much different so far this year. The Yankees are averaging 4.85 runs per game, up considerably from 3.91 runs per game last year and well-above the 4.19 league average. They’re hitting .244/.321/.418 (104 wRC+) as a team overall, which is oh so much better than what we sat through the last two seasons. Much of the improved offense is thanks to power — the Yankees have a team .174 ISO this after .134 from 2013-14.

The Yankees are also benefiting from the best one-two lineup punch in baseball. Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner are both off to tremendous starts, especially hitting for average, getting on-base, and running the bases. The power isn’t really there, but that’s not their game. Look at these numbers:

AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ SB/CS K% BB%
Ellsbury .358/.433/.415 143 11/4 12.5% 9.2%
Average Leadoff Hitter .262/.320/.389 99 4.4/1.8 17.7% 7.1%
Gardner .309/.404/.444 141 8/1 12.4% 11.3%
Average No. 2 Hitter .261/.321/.405 105 1.1/0.6 18.3% 7.7%

The only other team in baseball getting something even remotely close to Ellsbury/Gardner production from the one-two spots this year are the Angels thanks to my boy Kole Calhoun (139 wRC+) and the amazing Mike Trout (167 wRC+). Calhoun recently spent a few days hitting lower in the order as Mike Scioscia tried to generate more offense too, so he hasn’t even been a full-time leadoff guy.

Of course, traditional lineup construction plays a big role in only one other team having two hitters his productive atop the lineup. Just about every team has two above-average hitters these days, yet managers continue to adhere to the whole “the best hitter bats third” theory. Teams are slowly starting to come around on batting their best hitters second — Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista have taken turns batting second for the Blue Jays, Joey Votto has batted second for the Reds, etc. — though it’s hardly common practice.

Joe Girardi deserves credit for batting his two best hitters in the top two lineup spots. It certainly helps that they are leadoff types who should hit near the top of the order, but Girardi could easily split them up saying he doesn’t like back-to-back lefties atop the lineup and no one would really question it. It’s sorta silly, yeah. It’s one of those things managers do though. Aside from occasionally sitting Gardner for Chris Young, Girardi has stuck with Ellsbury and Gardner atop the lineup.

“We definitely push each other,” said Brett Gardner to Chad Jennings earlier this week. “It’s a lot of fun hitting next to (Ellsbury) in the lineup. Feels like every time I come up, he’s on base. I feel like he makes me better, and hopefully he feels the same about me. Like I said, we push each other. We take a lot of pride in getting on base, and that’s our job at the top of the lineup. We feel like we’re two leadoff hitters, and we can get on base for those guys in the middle of the lineup and give them RBI opportunities.”

As a result of these two atop the lineup, the Yankees’ number three lineup spot has batted with at least one man on-base in 66 of 124 plate appearances this year, or 53.2%. Last year it was 44.8% and the league average is 45.0%. (The rate for the cleanup spot is nearly identical to last year and the league average, in case you’re wondering.) We’re talking about an improvement of nearly ten percentage points from one year to the next. Ellsbury and Gardner are table-setters and man, they couldn’t possibly be doing a better job right now.

Lineup protection is not a myth. It just exists in a different way than everyone’s been saying for the last century. The best protection is not having a great hitter behind you — that helps! but lots and lots of research has shown it doesn’t help that much — it’s having runners on base when you’re at the plate. MLB hitters have put up a .239/.299/.377 (90 wRC+) batting line with the bases empty this season and .262/.332/.407 (104 wRC+) with men on base this year. It’s not a sample size issue either. The league wide split was 93/101 last year and has been similar for years and years and years.

Batting with Ellsbury and/or Gardner on base is the best protection a Yankee can have this year and it’s not just because of those bases empty/men on base batting splits either. Those two guys are not typical base-runners. They draw attention when they’re on base because they’re threats to steal. Remember when Clay Buchholz threw over to first base even though Ellsbury was literally standing on the bag (twice!) a few weeks ago? That’s what they do to pitchers. They’re unnerving. I’m not sure it’s possible to quantify that but we see it game after game.

Last season the Yankees were hamstrung atop the lineup by Derek Jeter, a legacy Yankee the team was unwilling to drop in the order. Jeter’s an all-time great, we all know that, but the 2014 version of Derek hit .256/.304/.313 (73 wRC+) and snuffed out rallies on a nightly basis. That’s not happening this year. Girardi is able to use his two best hitters atop the lineup and the offense has benefited in a big way. The Ellsbury/Gardner duo is a legitimate game-changer and they’re a huge reason the offense has improved so much 27 games into 2015.

“They get our offense going,” Girardi said to Jennings. “That’s their job, and they’ve been really good at it. You look at the stretch we’ve been in, they’ve played extremely well. They had a tremendous weekend; a big part of our success in Boston, and we need it to continue. You can’t expect Jake to get on six times every night. It would be nice, but both of these guys have an ability to change the game in a lot of ways, and that’s what they’ve been doing.”

Injury Updates: Gardner, Nova, Capuano, Pirela, Ryan

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

The Yankees and Rays continue their series later tonight, so, until then, there are some updates on various injured Yankees courtesy of Chad Jennings, Bryan Hoch, and the Associated Press:

  • Brett Gardner (wrist) was going to stay in last night’s game to hit after pinch-running, if necessary. “I was prepared if my spot came up in the ninth to get a normal at-bat and get up there and swing the bat,” he said. Gardner came through several rounds of batting practice just fine and should return to the lineup today.
  • Ivan Nova (Tommy John surgery) threw 20 pitches in his second live batting practice session yesterday. “I’m getting closer. Feels awesome,” he said. Nova expects to throw batting practice two more times next week before getting back into games. Joe Girardi said they’re shooting for May 1st for Nova’s first minor league rehab start.
  • Chris Capuano (quad) threw live batting practice Thursday and will do so again tomorrow. Girardi said Nova and Capuano are “pretty close” with regards to their timetable, but Capuano is “slightly ahead.”
  • Jose Pirela (concussion) is going through all drills and hit against Capuano on Thursday. He’ll play in an Extended Spring Training game on Monday. Girardi was noncommittal when asked if Pirela will join the big league team once healthy.
  • Brendan Ryan (calf) “might” go to Tampa next week to begin going through baseball workouts. It depends how he feels in the coming days.

Brett Gardner remains day-to-day after MRI confirms bone bruise in wrist

Gardner with his wrist wrapped on Monday.
Gardner with his wrist wrapped on Monday.

Earlier today, the Yankees announced Brett Gardner underwent an MRI in Tampa, which confirmed he has a bone bruise in his right wrist. An x-ray showed the same thing on Monday, so the MRI confirmed the original diagnosis. The team says Gardner remains day-to-day, though he was available to pinch-run and play defense last night.

Gardner, 31, was hit by a pitch Monday night, a few days after taking a pitch to almost the exact same spot. He remained in Monday’s game for two more at-bats — during which he tried to bunt rather than swing — before being removed. Brett’s off to a 6-for-23 (.261) start with a double and a homer this year. He hasn’t stolen a base yet.

Prior to yesterday’s game Gardner told reporters he “feels much better” and expects to play in tomorrow’s series opener against the Rays. If he doesn’t come back until Saturday, fine, whatever. I just hope this doesn’t turn into a situation where it lingers, he never goes on the DL, and the team plays short-handed for ten days.

Game Nine: Eovaldi For The Series Win

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

The Yankees tried and failed to win their first series of 2015 last night, but they have another chance in the rubber game against the Orioles tonight. The last time the Yankees lost three straight series to start the season was that awful 1991 season, when they didn’t win their first series of the year until mid-May. I feel like we’ve said “this is the first time the Yankees have done that since 1991″ an awful lot the last few years.

Anyway, Nathan Eovaldi will be on the mound tonight, making his second start in pinstripes. The first was uneven — Eovaldi showed a big fastball and promising offspeed pitches, but struggled to put hitters away. Then again, everyone’s struggled to put the Red Sox away this year it seems. Hopefully the free swinging O’s have a tougher time with Eovaldi tonight. Here’s the starting lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. 3B Chase Headley
  3. RF Carlos Beltran
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. C Brian McCann
  6. DH Alex Rodriguez
  7. 2B Stephen Drew
  8. LF Chris Young
  9. SS Didi Gregorius
    RHP Nathan Eovaldi

The Orioles are sending right-hander Bud Norris to the mound. He got clobbered in his first start of the season by the Rays, allowing eight runs in three innings. Here is Baltimore’s lineup.

There’s no threat of rain at Camden Yards like last night. It’s cool and cloudy without only a slight breeze. Tonight’s game will begin a little after 7pm ET and you can watch on YES locally and MLB Network nationally. Enjoy the game.

Injury Update: Brett Gardner (wrist) told Chad Jennings he feels “much better today” and expects to return to the lineup Friday. He is available pinch-run and play defense tonight … Joe Girardi told reporters both Chris Capuano (quad) and Ivan Nova (elbow) are progressing well in their rehab. Capuano could be back within a month.

Roster Moves: The Yankees have called up RHP Branden Pinder for tonight’s game, the team announced. RHP Joel De La Cruz was optioned to Double-A Trenton to clear a roster spot. Also, RHP Kyle Davies was outrighted to Triple-A Scranton after being designated for assignment the other day.

Update: Brett Gardner could return to lineup by Friday

Gardner with his wrist wrapped.
Gardner with his wrist wrapped.

Tuesday, 5:01pm: Gardner may be available to pinch-run or play defense tonight, Joe Girardi told reporters. He is still sore and not available to hit. Girardi said he hopes Gardner will be able to return to the lineup Friday, following the off-day.

Monday, 10:11pm: X-rays on Gardner’s wrist came back negative, the Yankees announced. Phew. No word on how long he will sidelined, however.

9:55pm: Brett Gardner left tonight’s game against the Orioles in the seventh inning with a stiff right wrist, the Yankees announced. He is going for an x-ray. Stephen Drew pinch-hit for Gardner and hit a go-ahead grand slam.

Gardner, 31, was hit by a pitch around the wrist area earlier in the game — he was hit in a similar spot over the weekend too, if I’m remembering correctly — but it’s unclear if that’s related. Gardner had debridement surgery on the wrist in July 2012 and hasn’t had any issues since.

Needless to say, losing Gardner for any length of time would be pretty bad. He’s no worse than their third best player right now. I imagine a Garrett Jones/Chris Young platoon would replace him if necessary. Let’s hope if doesn’t come to that. Stay tuned for any updates.