The end of Didi’s slump and four others things that must happen for the Yankees to make the postseason

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

Against all odds, the Yankees remain in the postseason race with less than three weeks to go in the regular season. They lost yesterday, but prior to that they won seven straight and 13 of their previous 17 games. The Yankees are two games back of the second wildcard spot and FanGraphs puts their postseason odds at 13.5%. They were 2.3% eight days ago.

As well as the Yankees have played recently, with seemingly a different player stepping up each night, they’re going to need to be even better over the final 20 games to sneak into the postseason. The schedule only gets more difficult from here on out. New York’s best chance to make the playoffs involves continuing their current play and getting some more from a few players on the roster. Here are five things I think need to happen to maximize the team’s postseason chances.

Gregorius snaps out of his slump

Didi Gregorius has been, rather easily, the Yankees’ best all-around position player this season. His 17 home runs are nearly double his previous career high (nine last year), and he’s still making a lot of contact and playing strong defense. I was skeptical when the Yankees acquired Didi because I didn’t believe in his bat. Boy was I wrong.

As good as Gregorius has been this season, he’s been slumping hard this month, going 3-for-34 (.088) with eight strikeouts and zero unintentional walks in September. Slumps happen, but with Didi it seems like fatigue might be a factor as well. His bat looks a little slow, and even in the field there’s been some moments when his first step wasn’t as quick as usual.

A day off could do Gregorius some good — the Yankees are ten games into a 17 games in 17 days stretch — though it is tough to get him out of the lineup given what he does defensively. We all love Ronald Torreyes, but he’s no Didi. No one is expecting Gregorius to hit five homers in a ten-game span like he did in late-June/early-July. The Yankees do need more offense from him than they’ve been getting this month, however.

Gardner and Ellsbury stay hot

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Overall, both Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury have had disappointing seasons atop the lineup for the Yankees. Gardner’s power has disappeared, and up until recently, Ellsbury wasn’t getting on base all that much. Disappointing middle of the order veterans like Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez are the main reason the Yankees have had a below-average offense this year. The two guys at the top of the lineup aren’t without fault though.

Not coincidentally, the team’s recent strong play coincides with both Ellsbury and Gardner getting hot. Ellsbury has gone 9-for-27 (.333) with two homers, four walks, and only one strikeout during this recent 7-1 stretch while Gardner is 10-for-26 (.385). Their combined on-base percentage is .417. During the 13-5 stretch, Ellsbury has hit .311/.394/.541 and Gardner has hit .317/.386/.350.

Gardner’s power still hasn’t resurfaced, but he has been hitting for average and getting on base the last three weeks. Ditto Ellsbury. The Yankees look like an entirely different team when these two are hot at the same time. We’ve seen it at various points the last three seasons. Gardner and Ellsbury continuing to set the table like they have been the last few weeks is essential to getting the Yankees into the postseason.

Betances and Clippard be automatic

At this point Joe Girardi‘s bullpen pecking order is clear: Dellin Betances is the closer (duh) and Tyler Clippard is the eighth inning guy. For a little while after the trade deadline Clippard was the seventh inning guy, but he and Adam Warren have flipped spots, which is for the best. Warren is better able to go multiple innings, which means Girardi won’t hesitate to use him to put out fires in the sixth inning, if necessary.

The Yankees seem to play nothing but close games these days — eight of their last 13 wins have come by no more than three runs and seven have come by no more than two runs — and that doesn’t figure to change, which means Betances and Clippard are going to have to be perfect in the last two innings, meaning protect every lead. The Yankees can’t afford to led late leads slip away and the two righties are the last line of defense out of the bullpen. When they’re handed a lead, it has to hold up.

Pineda becomes a reliable second starter

Right now the Yankees have a bonafide ace in Masahiro Tanaka and four other guys in the rotation who don’t make you feel all that comfortable. Maybe comfortable isn’t the right word. They’re just unpredictable from start to start. CC Sabathia is in the twilight of his career, Bryan Mitchell and Luis Cessa are just kids, and Michael Pineda is one of the most enigmatic pitchers in all of baseball.

Pineda is also one of the most talented pitchers in baseball — it’s good to be 6-foot-7 with a mid-90s cutter and a wipeout slider — and I think he has the best chance to emerge as a second reliable starter these last three weeks. The problem is Pineda has given Girardi no real reason to trust him. We all saw Girardi pull Pineda one out short of qualifying for the win with a five-run lead the other night.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

As bad as the offense has been for long stretches of time this season, it seems more likely the rotation will be the Yankees’ downfall these final few weeks. Ivan Nova‘s been traded and both Nathan Eovaldi and Chad Green got hurt, meaning the Yankees have no choice but to rely on two rookies and a fading Sabathia. Pineda is young and he’s in what should be the prime of his career. He’s the club’s best hope for second solid starter.

One of the kids contributes from the bottom of the lineup

The Yankees committed to their youth movement last month and the kids have really improved the team, not only on the field, but in the dugout. The Yankees seem more energetic than they have been in years. It’s fun to watch. Gary Sanchez has been a monster who is rightfully hitting in the middle of the lineup. Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge, two other rookies, have had a tougher go of it. Here are their MLB numbers:

Austin: .224/.274/.414 (81 wRC+), 3 HR, 6.5 BB%, 35.5 K% in 62 plate appearances
Judge: .177/.258/.316 (53 wRC+), 3 HR, 9.0 BB%, 43.8 K% in 89 plate appearances

Both have shown signs of coming around of late, especially Austin, but the fact remains both have been negatives at the plate since being called up. (Judge has at least improved the right field defense.) If the Yankees were well out of the race like many expected them to be this month, running both kids out there everyday would be no big deal. The experience is the most important thing.

The Yankees need impact to get the postseason though, and it would be a huge help if either Austin or Judge started to figure things out and contribute from the bottom of the lineup. It would be cool if both did it, but let’s not get greedy. One of the two getting locked in would lengthen the lineup and make the offense that much dangerous. The kids are a big reason the Yankees are remotely close to a playoff spot right now, and if they’re going to sneak into the postseason, rookies like Austin and Judge will have to be a driving force.

Saturday Links: A-Rod, Rowson, Braves, Gardner

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Later this afternoon the Yankees and Rays will continue their four-game series with the third game at Yankee Stadium. First pitch isn’t until 4pm ET, so here are some miscellaneous links to help you pass the time.

A-Rod expected to appear at Instructs

According to Brendan Kuty, Alex Rodriguez is expected to make an appearance at Instructional League later this month. As a special instructor, of course. Not as a player. “I’m very pleased to have somebody with Alex’s experience and time in the game to be able to share those experiences with our young players. Our best young players are all going to be part of Instructional League,” said farm system head Gary Denbo.

This year’s Instructs roster hasn’t been released yet but it’ll come out soon enough. It’s usually a collection of top prospects, recent draftees, and players who missed time due to injury. Greg Bird will face live pitching for the first time since shoulder surgery in Instructional League, for example. My guess is A-Rod will wind up spending a bunch of time with the team’s small army of middle infield prospects, specifically Gleyber Torres and Jorge Mateo.

Rowson joins Yankees

Minor league hitting coordinator James Rowson joined the Yankees earlier this week and has been with the team since, reports Dan Martin. Rowson has worked with Aaron Judge a ton over the years. “He’s trying to get comfortable here. Everything is new to him and he’s had his battles before and made the adjustments,” said Rowson. “He’s been through rough times, especially with the punch outs and he’s always come out on the other side. So I feel like he’s going to do that again.”

This is not all that uncommon, really. A handful of minor league coaches will join the big league team for a homestand in September pretty much every year. Every single one of the Yankees’ full season minor league affiliates qualified for the postseason this year though, so those coaches and instructors haven’t had a chance to come up yet. This isn’t Rowson’s first stint with the big league team and it won’t be his last. Chances are he didn’t join the team specifically to work with Judge.

Update: Minor league pitching coordinator Danny Borrell is with the Yankees as well, reports Chad Jennings.

Yankees to open SunTrust Park

(Braves)
(Braves)

The Yankees and Braves will open the brand new SunTrust Park with an exhibition game on Friday, March 31st next year, the Braves announced. Apparently only “A List Members” (season ticket holders) will be allowed to attend. Lame. Atlanta is moving into their new 41,500 seat ballpark just 20 years after moving into Turner Field. The Yankees and Braves opened Turner Field with an exhibition game in 1996 as well.

This year the Yankees closed out Spring Training with a pair of exhibition games at Marlins Park. Last year they played two at Nationals Park. The Cubs came to New York for two exhibition games in 2009, when the new Yankee Stadium opened. They do this stuff every year. Also, the fact this exhibition game is scheduled for March 31st suggests the 2017 regular season will begin on Monday, April 3rd. Next year’s schedule should be announced soon. Possibly next week.

Gardner nominated for Roberto Clemente Award

Brett Gardner is the Yankees’ nominee for the 2016 Roberto Clemente Award, MLB announced. Here are the nominees from each team. The award is given each year to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.” Three Yankees have won the award: Derek Jeter (2009), Don Baylor (1985), and Ron Guidry (1984).

Amazingly, MLB turned an award recognizing community involvement — and an award named after an iconic player and a great humanitarian — into a popularity contest. Each nominee has an official hashtag and the player who receives the most votes on Twitter and Facebook will win. Incredible. MLB really knocked this one out of the park, eh? I’m sure fans will recognize each player’s off-the-field work and definitely not vote for their favorite player. No way.

Game 121: Out West

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

I don’t know about you, but West Coast night games don’t even feel real to me. It’s almost like they don’t count. Baseball’s great. I love it dearly. But staying up this late to watch games? Not something I’d like to do regularly. The Yankees will be out west for the next week, so we’re stuck. So it goes. Here is the Angels’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. SS Didi Gregorius
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. DH Brian McCann
  5. 2B Starlin Castro
  6. RF Aaron Judge
  7. LF Aaron Hicks
  8. 1B Tyler Austin
  9. 3B Ronald Torreyes
    RHP Masahiro Tanaka

Great weather in Anaheim. Sunny and generally excellent for baseball. I didn’t even bother to check the forecast. That’s the everyday forecast for Orange County. Tonight’s game is going to start at 10:05pm ET and you can watch on FOX Sports 1. No YES, no regular FOX. FOX Sports 1 only. Enjoy the game.

Injury Updates: Brett Gardner (ankle) remains day-to-day and could return tomorrow … Chase Headley (Achilles) is also day-to-day and he figures to be out a little longer than Gardner … Nathan Eovaldi (elbow) went under the knife today. He had his second career Tommy John surgery and also had his flexor tendon repaired. The Yankees say everything went “as expected.”

Game 117: Mariano Rivera Day

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

This has been a pretty fun weekend, hasn’t it? Friday night was Alex Rodriguez‘s farewell game, and then yesterday there was the 1996 World Series team reunion and the debuts of Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge. That was an awful lot of great stuff to pack into a 24-hour window.

Today, the fun continues with Mariano Rivera Day. The Yankees have already retired No. 42 — they did that in Mo’s honor back in 2013 — and today they’re dedicating a Monument Park plaque in his honor. Needless to say, Rivera is very deserving. He’s the greatest reliever in baseball history and was a key member of five World Series teams.

From what I’ve seen, the ceremony is going to begin sometime between 12pm ET and 12:40pm ET, which is a pretty big window. This afternoon’s game is scheduled to start at 1:25pm ET, so I’m guessing the ceremony will start closer to 12:40pm ET. The Yankees never seem to start these things on time anyway. YES will carry the ceremony, as always.

Once that’s done, the Yankees will play the finale of this three-game series with the Rays. New York is looking to complete the sweep and win their fifth straight game today. If they’re going to make a run at a postseason spot, they need to put together more extended winning streaks like this. Here is the Rays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Aaron Hicks
  3. SS Didi Gregorius
  4. 2B Starlin Castro
  5. DH Brian McCann
  6. C Gary Sanchez
  7. 1B Tyler Austin
  8. RF Aaron Judge
  9. 3B Ronald Torreyes
    RHP Luis Severino

It is again incredibly hot in New York today, though at least there are some clouds in the sky, so every so often we’re gifted some shade. Like I said, today’s game is scheduled to begin at 1:25pm ET. It’ll be broadcast on YES. Enjoy the ceremony and the game.

Injury Update: Brett Gardner (ankle) is going to be out a few days. He’s still feeling it after being hit by that pitch in his first at-bat Friday night. Doesn’t sound like a DL situation.

Brett Gardner’s Disappearing Power

(Jason Miller/Getty)
(Jason Miller/Getty)

Being a sports fan means you’re going to make predictions or statements or give takes; with that comes a lot of being wrong. Most recently, I was most wrong about fellow former UConn Husky and current Detroit Piston Andre Drummond. After he left Storrs following his freshman year, I thought he’d struggle in the NBA thanks to a lack of a refined offensive game. I was wrong and I was very glad to be wrong. Before him, I was (somewhat) wrong about Brett Gardner.

Though I’ve long been a fan of Gardner’s, I wasn’t always sure how he’d fare long-term in Major League Baseball. Despite a good batting eye that helped him get on base just about everywhere he played, I had concerns regarding his general lack of power. I thought that once he got through the league a time or two, pitchers would be able to knock the bat out of his hands by challenging him, thus negating his good eye at the plate and limiting his effectiveness as a hitter. I was wrong; Gardner’s lasted a long time in the league and has been a productive player for most of that time.

Not enough of this. (Elsa/Getty)
Not enough of this. (Elsa/Getty)

Part of that productivity came from a power surge in 2013 that lasted through 2015. From 2013-2015, he had ISOs of .143, .166, and .140 after never having an ISO greater than .110 from 2008-2012. Additionally, 2014 and 2015 saw him hit 17 and 16 homers respectively. This isn’t Barry Bonds level power or anything, but for Gardner, this was groundbreaking stuff. In 2016, though, that power reservoir has seemingly dried up.

This year, his ISO has dropped down to .116, his lowest since a .110 mark in 2011 — not including the partial season in 2012. Per FanGraphs, ZiPS rest-of-season projections forecast Gardner to hit only four more homers this year, bringing his total up to 11. While that would be higher than any non-2014/15 year, it’s still a drop from the last two years, though the ISO drop is the more pronounced of the two. As proof of that, let’s take a look at Gardner’s extra-base hit rate as a percentage of his hits. In 2014, 35.2% of his hits went for extra bases. That rate dropped to 30.4% in 2015 and is down another 5% to 25.3% this year.

He’s dropped back down to relatively normal levels of his power so it’s not horribly alarming, but it’s still disappointing to see since that added dimension of power helped make Gardner an even more valuable player. As such, it’s still worth looking at why these numbers have dropped back down. When Gardner was going right with his homers, he was pulling inside pitches over the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium. Let’s take a look at Gardner’s pull numbers over the last three years, incorporating HR/FB%; Hard Hit%; and ISO (all per FanGraphs):

Year HR/FB% Hard Hit% ISO
2014 29.4 37.3 0.385
2015 62.5 28.2 0.367
2016 37.5 24.5 0.263

While Brett is still hitting for good power to his pull field, it’s down significantly from the previous two years. 2015 was a little fluky with regards to the HR/FB% as Gardner tended not to hit many fly balls last year; the ones he did hit, however, left the park at an insanely high rate. It’s expected that there’s been a drop off this year, but that’s been coupled with a steadily dropping hard hit rate to the pull field. Why might this be? Well, intuitively, when you’re pulling the ball, you’re doing damage on inside pitches. Is that happening for Gardner this year compared to 2014-15? Not so much.

GardnerProfile1415

There’s Gardner’s 2014-2015 zone profile by ISO. By taking a look at the inside pitches in the zone, we see ISOs of .300; .281; and .361. He also did damage on pitches actually inside and out the zone, ISOing .471 on those pitches; he was even able to golf some low/in pitches out of the zone for a .286 ISO. Now let’s look at 2016.

GardnerProfile16

That inside power has seemingly disappeared in 2016. Up and in, in the zone, Gardner’s still doing damage: .546 ISO. Middle-in, in the zone is still solid at .250, but there’s been a drop off from 2014-15. The low-in, in the zone and the two out of zone locations have produced virtually no power.

There’s no quick and easy answers in baseball, but a rough estimate for why Gardner’s power has dropped this year is that he just isn’t doing damage on inside pitches and isn’t pulling the ball with as much authority to his pull field as he did in the previous two seasons. Despite the lack of power, Gardner has still been reasonably productive in 2016. He’s walking at his highest rate since 2011 (again, discounting 2012’s limited scope) and striking out at his lowest rate since 2011. But the lack of power has Gardner’s wRC+ under 100 for the first time since 2011. While the team was nowhere near reliant on Gardner for power coming into 2016, the lack of it — and the general lack of production from Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira — has been a disappointment. Hopefully next year, Gardner can regain his power stroke and increase his productivity.

2016 Trade Deadline Rumors Open Thread: Monday

Bye, Carlos? (Hannah Foslien/Getty)
Bye, Carlos? (Hannah Foslien/Getty)

The 2016 non-waiver trade deadline is 4pm ET this afternoon, and the Yankees have already been very active. One of the most active teams in baseball, really. Within the last week they traded Aroldis Chapman, traded Andrew Miller, and added Tyler Clippard. Chances are they aren’t done either.

“Stay tuned. A lot more things could happen,” said Brian Cashman to reporters during a conference call following the Miller and Clippard trades yesterday. “If you want to become a super team, there are ways you have to go about it. We’re trying to get back to a situation where we can build an uber-team, and a sustainable one.”

Here are Sunday’s rumors. Once again, we’re going to keep track of the day’s Yankee-related rumors right here in this post. I’m going to be running around a bit today — bad timing, I know, but family first — and will do my best to update things promptly. All time stamps are ET.

  • 9:00am: The Astros, Red Sox, Indians, and Rangers are all in on Carlos Beltran. He has not yet been asked to waive his limited no-trade clause and, unsurprisingly, a trade with Boston is considered unlikely. I’m sure the thought of Beltran helping the BoSox win the World Series makes ownership squeamish, even if it means making the best possible deal. Some clubs want the Yankees to eat money to facilitate a trade. [Buster Olney, Mark Feinsand, Jon Heyman]
  • 9:00am: The Yankees continue to listen to offers for Brian McCann, Brett Gardner, Nathan Eovaldi, and Michael Pineda. They also want to unload impending free agent Ivan Nova prior to today’s deadline. [Joel Sherman]
  • 12:03pm: McCann remains a possibility for the Braves. They want the Yankees to eat a bunch of money and the Yankees want good prospects in return, so there are some things that need to be worked out. [Mark Bowman]

Reminder before you comment: Your trade proposal sucks.

2016 Trade Deadline Rumors Open Thread: Tuesday

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Yesterday afternoon the Yankees made their biggest trade in quite some time, sending Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs for Adam Warren and three prospects. One of those prospects, shortstop Gleyber Torres, ranks among the top 25-ish prospects in baseball. It’s a significant haul for a rental reliever, even one as good as Chapman, and it very well might be the team’s biggest move at this year’s trade deadline.

“This one move doesn’t necessarily create a domino effect of selling, and it doesn’t prevent a domino effect of buying,” said Brian Cashman to reporters on yesterday’s trade conference call. “This is an easy call, and this was the right call. Easy because we traded from an area of strength, and we are excited about the players that we received for someone that obviously was only under control for two more months.”

With Chapman gone, the focus figures to shift to the team’s other rental players, namely Carlos Beltran and Ivan Nova. Andrew Miller‘s name has been out there as well, ditto basically everyone in the rotation other than Masahiro Tanaka. Here are Monday’s trade deadline rumors. We’ll again keep track of today’s rumors right here, in this one post, so check back often. All time stamps are ET.

  • 9:30am: Trading Nova is the next priority, and the Marlins are among the interested teams. “They’re shooting high, but it’s early. They know what the pitching market looks like right now and they’re trying to capitalize on that,” said a source to Mark Feinsand. I guess there’s a chance Nova has already thrown his last pitch as a Yankee.
  • 9:30am: Brett Gardner is a consideration for the Dodgers, though he is not atop their list of targets. Los Angeles is without Andre Ethier (leg) and Trayce Thompson (back), plus Yasiel Puig isn’t hitting, so they need outfield help. Howie Kendrick in left isn’t going too well. [Joel Sherman]
  • 9:30am: The Nationals were “deep in conversations” with the Yankees about Chapman before he was traded to the Cubs. They didn’t put enough on the table though, so to the Cubs he went. The Nats could change gears and focus on Miller now. [Buster Olney]
  • 10:21am: The Nats declared Joe Ross, Lucas Giolito, Trea Turner, Victor Robles, and Reynaldo Lopez off-limits in Chapman trade talks. That’s a lot of untouchables. The Indians were “seemingly” unwilling to part with top outfield prospects Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier. [Ken Rosenthal]
  • 10:51am: Rival clubs say the Yankees are buying and selling, and are looking for controllable pitching in particular. “We’re not playing in a narrow-minded world. We want to be open to any and all ideas. Buy, sell, long, short. It’s in our best interests to be creative and open-minded, not just now,” said Cashman. [Ken Rosenthal]

Reminder before you comment: Your trade proposal sucks.