Building the Wildcard Game Roster: Position Players


The Yankees are in position to clinch a wildcard spot very soon, possibly tonight, so it’s time to start thinking about the wildcard game roster. Earlier today we sorted through the pitching staff, trying to figure out which ten or eleven pitchers the Yankees will carry in the wildcard game. It was easier said than done.

Ten or eleven pitchers — my guess is ten, but you never know — leaves 14-15 position player spots to fill. Joe Girardi will have a decent-sized bench at his disposal, but ideally it won’t come into play too much. The starting lineup will decide the game. As we did with the pitchers, let’s go through the position player group and try to figure out who will be on the wildcard game roster next Tuesday.

The Locks

This is the easy part …

Catcher: Brian McCann, John Ryan Murphy
First Base: Greg Bird
Second Base: ???
Shortstop: Didi Gregorius
Third Base: Chase Headley
Outfield: Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran
Designated Hitter: Alex Rodriguez

That’s nine of the 14-15 position player spots right there and they’re all self-explanatory right? Right. That is eighth-ninths of the starting lineup and the backup catcher. All easy calls. Next.

Second Base

For most of the summer, Stephen Drew and Brendan Ryan platooned at second base. That is no longer the case. Drew has been dealing with some dizziness/concussion issues that may end his season, but even before that Dustin Ackley wrestled the starting job away from him. Ackley got some playing time, hit right away, and he’s continued to play against right-handers.

Meanwhile, Rob Refsnyder has started each of the Yankees’ last four games against left-handed starters, not Ryan. Chances are Refsnyder will start against lefties Wade Miley, Rich Hill, and Wei-Yin Chen the next three days too. Like Ackley, he got a few at-bats, got some hits, and has received more playing time. That Drew/Ryan platoon was together for 140 games or so. The last 16 have gone to Ackley/Refsnyder.

Smackley. (Presswire)
Smackley. (Presswire)

At this point there is no doubt Ackley will be on the wildcard roster. The rest of the guys is where it gets tricky. Refsnyder is starting against lefties, but would the Yankees actually start him in the wildcard game if they face, say, Dallas Keuchel or Scott Kazmir or Cole Hamels? I get the sense Girardi would stick with Ackley in that situation and just roll with his best player.

If Refsnyder’s not going to start the game, then what’s his role? Pinch-hitter against a lefty reliever. That’s all. I guess he could pinch-run too, but there figure to be other guys on the roster to do that. Refsnyder’s not going to come in for defense. Pinch-hitter against a lefty is a big deal though! It could be the difference in the late-innings of a close game. Given the extra bench spots, I think Refsnyder’s in.

With Ackley and Refsnyder on the roster, the Yankees will need to carry a shortstop-capable backup infielder. Neither of those guys can play short. Not even in an emergency. That leaves a spot for Drew or Ryan. In a vacuum, I’d take Drew over Ryan eight days a week and twice on Sundays. But Drew isn’t healthy and we shouldn’t count on him getting healthy before the wildcard game. He’s still dealing with this dizziness/concussion stuff and has been for almost two weeks now. That puts Ryan on the wildcard game roster along with Ackley and Refsnyder.

The Pinch-Runner

Rico Noel will be on the wildcard game roster. I’m sure of it. One of the benefits of shrinking the pitching staff in the postseason is creating an open roster spot for someone just like Noel. A burner who can come off the bench to pinch-run in the late innings of a close game. Look at Rico run:

The kid can fly and his speed can potentially have a huge impact in the wildcard game. The Yankees brought Noel up this month strictly to pinch-run and I fully expect him to be on the postseason roster. Remember, they carried Freddy Guzman on the postseason roster in 2009 for this exact reason. Noel’s on the wildcard roster. I have no doubt about it.

(Since he wasn’t called up until September 1st, Noel will technically have to be an injury replacement. The Yankees have two position player injury spots available thanks to Mark Teixeira and Mason Williams.)

The Backup Outfielder

Noel will be on the wildcard game roster but he’s not really a backup outfielder. He’s a pinch-runner and that’s all. (The scouting reports indicate Noel is a pretty good defender, but the Yankees haven’t used him defensively all that much.) The Yankees will still need to carry a legitimate backup outfielder if for no other reason than to replace Beltran for defense in the late innings. Chris Young, who is the only righty hitting outfielder on the roster, held that job all season and I expect him to be on the wildcard roster. I know he’s stumped lately, but there’s no reason to think the Yankees won’t carry Young in October. In fact, I’m not sure how you can look at the 39-man active roster and saying Young doesn’t belong on the wildcard game roster. He’s in.

The Final Roster Spot

We still have one last roster spot to fill. The nine locks above plus Ackley, Refsnyder, Ryan, Noel, and Young gets us to 14 position players. I suppose the Yankees could carry eleven pitchers, but I doubt it. It was hard enough coming up with ten pitchers worth a spot on the wildcard roster. One last position player makes sense.

There’s no point in carrying three catchers, so Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez are out. The remaining candidates are Jose Pirela and Slade Heathcott, assuming Drew is indeed done for the year. With Refsnyder on the roster, there’s no need for Pirela, another righty hitter. Yeah, Pirela can play the outfield if necessary, but he’s an emergency option out there only. Noel and Ackley are available as emergency outfielders. I also think Pirela would have played more this month if he was a serious wildcard game roster candidate.

Slade. (Presswire)
Slade. (Presswire)

That leaves it between Heathcott and a possibly but not likely healthy Drew. If Drew is not over high dizziness/concussion symptoms by next week, this questioned gets answered for us. In the unlikely event Drew is healthy though, would it make sense to carry another infielder or another outfielder? I think an extra outfielder makes more sense. Between Ackley, Refsnyder, and Ryan, you’ve got the second base starter and two backups. The only backup outfielder is Young considering Noel’s job is pinch-running.

Heathcott gives the Yankees another potential pinch-runner — he’s no Rico, but he’s faster than Young or Refsnyder — and another quality defender, as well as a left-handed bat on the bench. In fact, Drew and Slade are the only possible lefty bats off the bench, and one’s hurt. Besides, if Drew is healthy, it’s Ryan or Heathcott, not Drew or Heathcott. I’d take Heathcott over Ryan.

With Slade on the roster, the Yankees would have two backup infielders even without Drew (or Ryan), and Heathcott at least has a chance to contribute offensively and defensively. I mean, if Drew’s healthy and on the roster, what’s the point of Ryan? What does he offer in a winner-take-all game? I’d expect neither guy to actually play in the game, but, if pressed into action, it’s easy to see Slade having more potential impact than Ryan.

So after all of that, here’s the 25-man wildcard game roster we’ve kinda sorta pieced together today:

Catchers (2) Infielders (7) Outfielders (6) RHP (5) LHP (5)
McCann Bird Gardner Masahiro Tanaka (SP) Andrew Miller
Murphy Ackley Ellsbury Dellin Betances Justin Wilson
Gregorius Beltran Adam Warren Chasen Shreve
Headley Young Andrew Bailey Chris Capuano
A-Rod (DH) Heathcott Nova/Severino/Pineda CC Sabathia
Refsnyder Noel (PR)

Remember, the Yankees can change their 25-man roster prior to the ALDS should they advance, and they’ll have to change it too. They’d need to get more starting pitchers on the roster. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. One thing at a time.

That appears to be the best 25-man roster the Yankees can carry in the wildcard game. Maybe not the most talented, but the most useful given the circumstances. We’re not planning for a best-of-five or best-of-seven series. It’s one game. One stupid little game where anything can happen. Hopefully Girardi won’t have to use anyone beyond the nine starting position players, Beltran’s defensive replacement, Tanaka, and the big three relievers. That’s the best case scenario. If the Yankees need to dip any deeper into their wildcard game roster than that, then, well, just hang on tight.

The Yankees and 2015’s major awards


We’re now into the final week of the regular season, meaning candidates for baseball’s major annual awards only have a handful of games remaining to state their cases. Outside of NL MVP, which should go to Bryce Harper unanimously, the other major awards in both leagues feature some very tight races. It’ll be fun to see them shake out.

The last Yankees player to win a major award was Mariano Rivera, who took home 2013 AL Comeback Player of the Year honors after tearing his ACL on the Kauffman Stadium warning track in 2012. Prior to that you have to go back to Alex Rodriguez‘s 2007 MVP season. There is something of a Yankee bias in the awards voting — a Yankee usually needs to have a season far superior to everyone else to receive votes, a la A-Rod in 2007. If it’s close, the votes tend to go to the non-Yankee.

Anyway, as a reminder, the awards are all voted on following the end of the regular season but before the postseason. The playoffs have zero bearing on the major awards. They cover the regular season only. So, with that in mind, let’s preview the awards races and see where some Yankees may fit into the picture, if any.

Most Valuable Player

Right now the MVP race is between Josh Donaldson and Mike Trout, with Donaldson seemingly in the lead. Trout, however, has equal or better offensive numbers (other than RBI, basically) and doesn’t play in a hitter-friendly home park. Also, the Angels are right in the thick of the AL wildcard race. If they sneak in, will that push some voters towards Trout? The ballot literally says standings do not matter, but we all know they do. Voters consider that stuff all the time. Donaldson is the favorite but Trout could make it very interesting with a big final week to push the Halos into the postseason.


For much of the season Mark Teixeira was a legitimate MVP candidate based on old school stats. He was mashing taters and driving in runs (and playing great defense) for a first place team, which usually equals MVP candidate. Teixeira’s injury — he only played 111 games this year — and the Yankees’ tumble into a wildcard spot ended his long shot chances for the MVP award. Teixeira was awesome, but I thought it was a stretch to lump him into a group with Donaldson, Trout, Nelson Cruz, Manny Machado … guys like that.

The Yankees only have three other players remotely close to being considered MVP candidates, in my opinion: A-Rod, Brian McCann, and Dellin Betances. A-Rod has had a big year offensively but is still a DH, and DHs need huge years to win MVP. Not even peak Edgar Martinez and David Ortiz won an MVP, remember. McCann has been arguably the best offensive catcher in the league and a reliable defender. Betances? Even with his recent walk problems, he’s been the most dominant reliever in the game this summer.

The MVP ballot includes ten spots and those last two or three spots always seem to get weird. Teixeira, A-Rod, McCann, and Betances could all get down-ballot votes. Heck, maybe Carlos Beltran and Andrew Miller will as well. Even Raul Ibanez got a tenth place vote on the 2012 MVP ballot after all those clutch late-season homers. (No, really.) I think a Yankee or three will get MVP votes in 2015. But they don’t have a serious candidate to win the thing.

Cy Young

The Yankees do not have a legitmate Cy Young candidate. They probably won’t even have a starter reach 170 innings — CC Sabathia leads the team with 162.1 innings with one start to go — which has never happened in a non-strike season in franchise history. Ever. Masahiro Tanaka has been the team’s best starter and he’s only thrown 149 innings with one start remaining. Betances and Miller could get votes — Dellin actually went into last night’s game eighth in the AL in bWAR — but they won’t win and shouldn’t win. Too many deserving starting pitcher candidates.

At this point I’d say the AL Cy Young is a toss-up between Dallas Keuchel and David Price. The traditional stats are damn near identical — Keuchel is 19-8 with a 2.47 ERA, Price is 18-5 with a 2.45 ERA — and Keuchel has an edge in bWAR (7.3 vs. 6.0) while Price has an edge in fWAR (6.4 vs. 6.1). So pick one. I don’t think there’s a wrong answer. Sonny Gray, Chris Archer, and Chris Sale are among the other candidates. The Cy Young ballot includes five slots, not ten, and I suppose Dellin could steal a fifth place vote or two. He’s pretty much their only hope for 2015 Cy Young votes.


Rookie of the Year

The Yankees have used more rookies this season than at any point in the last 10-15 years or so — at a quick glance, I count 23 Yankees rookies, 16 of whom made their MLB debuts in 2015 — but they don’t have a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate. None of them have been around long enough. Chasen Shreve is the only rookie who has been on the roster more than even half the season, and he’s a middle reliever. Middle relievers don’t get Rookie of the Year votes.

Luis Severino is New York’s best chance at Rookie of the Year votes and I don’t see it happening at all. That’s not meant as a knock on Severino’s performance. He’s been great, but ten starts and 55.1 innings just isn’t enough to get love on a Rookie of the Year ballot that runs only three slots deep. Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa will occupy the top two spots in whatever order, then the list of candidates for the third spot include Lance McCullers Jr., Roberto Osuna, Miguel Sano, Delino DeShields Jr., Devon Travis, and Billy Burns.

None of the baby Yankees have been around long enough to garner serious Rookie of the Year consideration this year. Maybe Severino steals a third place vote. Maaaybe. That’s about it.

Manager of the Year

At some point in the last decade or so the Manager of the Year morphed into the “manager of the team that most exceeds expectations” award. Are the Yankees exceeding expectations this year? I think so, but more than, say, the Rangers (Jeff Banister) or Astros (A.J. Hinch) or Twins (Paul Molitor) or even the Blue Jays (John Gibbons)? That’s up to the voters to decide.

The Manager of the Year ballot runs three names deep and last year seven of the 15 AL managers received a vote (Girardi got one third place vote). The year before that? Nine of 15 managers got a vote. Girardi has received at least one Manager of the Year vote every year with the Yankees except 2008, his first season. The smart money is on Girardi appearing on at least one voter’s ballot. Winning it over Banister or Hinch or whoever? That’s tough to see.


Comeback Player of the Year

Okay, now we’re talking. A-Rod is a bonafide Comeback Player of the Year candidate along with Prince Fielder, Ryan Madson, and Kendrys Morales. (Jose Iglesias and Chris Davis are probably in the mix as well.) The Comeback Player of the Year used to be decided by fan voting, but it’s now up to a panel of beat reporters. I’m not sure how that whole process works.

Rodriguez didn’t play last season because of his suspension and there is precedent for a player being named Comeback Player of the Year following a performance-enhancing drug issues — Jason Giambi was named Comeback Player of the Year in 2005, a few months after getting caught up in the BALCO scandal. That doesn’t necessarily mean the voters won’t hold the PED stuff against A-Rod, but if they don’t, it wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened.

Anyway, Madson is a non-closer reliever, which works against him. Usually closers are the only relievers to win major awards. That’s not to say Madson isn’t deserving — the guy missed three years after Tommy John surgery, after all — just that the history of the voting body works against him. On the other hand, A-Rod (130 wRC+), Fielder (126 wRC+), and Morales (130 wRC+) all have comparable offensive numbers and they’re all DHs too. (Fielder has played only 18 games at first base this year.) Comparing them is nice and easy. Apples to apples.

The Comeback Player of the Year will come down to a matter of nitpicking. Fielder’s batting average (.306) or Morales’ RBI total (105) or A-Rod’s homers (32)? You can slice this in any number of ways. I don’t know if A-Rod will win the Comeback Player of the Year this year, but he’s a legitimate candidate and the Yankees’ best shot at winning a major award this season.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game 108: Bring on the Jays


It has been three years since the Yankees played a series this important, no? I think that’s fair to say. That doesn’t mean this series is life or death — there are still 52 games to play after this, you know — but it is pretty damn important. Gotta keep the Blue Jays, who are playing their most important series in about 20 years, at bay. A six-game lead in the loss column is nice but not insurmountable.

Nathan Eovaldi is on the mound tonight and he is the Yankees’ most reliable starter right now. No, he doesn’t pitch deep into games, but he’s found a way to keep runs off the board and limit base-runners — 45 hits in his last 47 innings! — on a somewhat consistent basis. The Blue Jays have baseball’s best offense and they’ll be a tough little test for Eovaldi. Here is Toronto’s lineup and here is New York’s lineup:

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

Gosh it is a gorgeous day for baseball here in New York. Just a few clouds, nice blue sky, temperatures in the low-80s … pretty much perfect weather for baseball. Too bad it wasn’t a day game. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05pm ET and you can watch on YES. Enjoy!

Injury Updates: McCann (knee) is well enough to play today, obviously. He’s wearing a brace on his knee and will for another week or so … Michael Pineda (forearm) played catch at 90 feet both Wednesday and Thursday with no issues. Today was a scheduled off-day for him. He hopes to throw off a mound Monday.

2015 Midseason Review: The Mostly Bad New-Look Infield

Thanks to several factors, most notably Derek Jeter‘s retirement, the Yankees had to rebuild almost their entire infield this past offseason. It was a clean slate! And also a huge project for Brian Cashman and the rest of the front office. One trade and two free agent signings (re-signings, really) later, the Yankees had their shiny new 2015 infield. Let’s go around the horn to review the first half.


Falling Short On Both Sides Of The Ball

The new third baseman was the old third baseman — the Yankees re-signed Chase Headley to a four-year, $52M contract in December after he played so solidly on both sides of the ball following the trade that brought him over from San Diego last year. Headley was a good but not great switch-hitter and a top notch defender at the hot corner. We saw it firsthand last year. Infield defense was the priority this winter and Headley was the cornerstone.

Instead, Headley has fallen short of expectations on both sides of the ball. He is hitting .255/.310/.373 (89 wRC+) overall with a career-low walk rate (6.8%) and his lowest ISO since 2011. That only tells part of the story too — Headley is hitting .271/.336/.372 (98 wRC+) against right-handed pitchers this summer and a feeble .218/.248/.376 (67 wRC+) against left-handed pitchers. He’s a switch-hitter, yeah, but he’s been a platoon bat. Headley has been terrible against southpaws.

The defensive struggles are much more shocking. Headley has already committed a career-high 16 errors, the most among big league third baseman (by four) and the third most among all players regardless of position (behind Marcus Semien and Ian Desmond). He’s actually been quite good at making non-routine plays, so it’s not all bad, but the routine play has been an issue for Headley. Throwing, scooping, the hole nine. Headley has been better of late — two errors in his last 24 games — but overall his glove has been a disappointment.

Offensively, the Yankees can take solace in the fact Headley has been a much better second half hitter throughout his career. He is a career .255/.331/.381 (102 wRC+)  hitter before the All-Star break and a .278/.363/.442 (126 wRC+) hitter after. After his subpar first half, the Bronx Bombers are clearly hoping for another big second half (not guaranteed to happen though!). Defensively … I don’t know. Headley’s been too good of a defender in his career to suddenly lose it overnight. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen! I just think his issues with routine plays are a defensive slump. Those happen. I’m banking on the track record going forward.

Either way, Headley did not give the Yankees what the expected in the first half, not at the plate or in the field. He was a disappointment on both sides of the ball. That he’s been a better second half hitter in his career and has a very long track record as a high-end defender are only slightly reassuring that Headley’s post-All-Star Game performance will be better than his pre-All-Star Game showing. Headley was not good in the first half and it needs to change for the Yankees to get to where they want to go.


Replacing A Legend

I don’t even know how to recap Didi Gregorius‘ first 88 games as a Yankees. The first few weeks of the season were awful. Just awful. Gregorius was making boneheaded plays in the field and on the bases, and he wasn’t hitting a lick. In hindsight, he looked completely overwhelmed by the responsibility of replacing Jeter. Maybe I was too quick to dismiss that pressure in April.

Now though, at the All-Star break, Didi looks like a completely different player. He looks much more comfortable offensively, defensively, and in his own skin. The overthinking has stopped and the game is coming more naturally. Gregorius plays a beautiful shortstop when he doesn’t think, he’s so smooth and his movements are effortless in the field, yet in April he looked like a blindfolded Eduardo Nunez. Now? Totally different player.

Make no mistake, Gregorius is still not tearing the cover off the ball. He is hitting .238/.293/.326 (71 wRC+) overall with four Yankee Stadium homers and no walks (5.7%), but at least that’s better than what he was doing earlier in the year. His offense continues to trend in the right direction:

Didi Gregorius wOBAI don’t think anyone was expecting Gregorius to have an impact right away. At least not offensively. That part of his game has always been in question. He was expected to excel in the field though, and after some hideously ugly glovework early on, Didi has played a damn near flawless shortstop for two months now. The physical tools are obvious, especially his no effort rocket arm, and that’s what the Yankees were buying when they traded Shane Greene to get Gregorius.

Unlike literally every other starting position player on the roster, Didi’s best years are ahead of him, at least in theory. He had the unenviable task of being the shortstop after Jeter on top of all the pressure that come with being a young player on a new team. It was a tough situation and for a while it didn’t look like Gregorius couldn’t handle it. He has really turned his season around though. All we want to see in the second half is more progress. Keep catching everything and putting up a fight at the plate. Didi’s along for the ride. He’s not driving his team.

Okay So Maybe 2014 Wasn’t A Fluke


After re-signing Headley and acquiring Gregorius, the infield was set. That is until Martin Prado was used to acquire Nathan Eovaldi. That created an opening at second base, an opening the Yankees filled by re-signing Stephen Drew to a little one-year contract worth $5M. The idea was simple: Drew couldn’t possibly be as bad as he was in 2014 again, right? Right??? Wrong.

So far this season Drew is hitting an unfathomably terrible .182/.257/.372 (71 wRC+) with 12 homers — that’s actually the fourth most homers on the team — in 278 plate appearances. And the crazy thing is his platoon split: Drew is hitting .170/.250/.374 (69 wRC+) against righties and .215/.278/.369 (76 wRC+) against lefties. It’s not even like he’s a platoon candidate at this point. He hasn’t hit anyone.

Drew’s one redeeming quality is his defense, which is quite good at second base, especially for a guy who didn’t start playing the position until eleven and a half months ago. He’s sure-handed, he’s filled in at short multiple times, and even gave third a try. Drew’s done whatever the team has asked him to do with no complaints. He just hasn’t hit. We’re talking about a .172/.247/.334 (57 wRC+) hitter in 578 plate appearances since the start of last season. Yeesh.

The Yankees took a low-cost flier on Drew and gave him the regular Spring Training he wanted, yet he hasn’t performed and there’s no indication it will improve going forward. The Yankees (finally) called up Rob Refsnyder this past weekend, a sign they are ready to move on from Drew. Either way, Drew is not part of the answer. That much is clear. Whether it’s Refsnyder or a trade pickup, someone else has to man second in the second half.


Welcome To New York, Brian

The catcher is technically an infielder (right?), so we’re going to lump Brian McCann in here since I’m not sure where else to put him. Anyway, how about Brian McCann! His first season in New York was a bummer on many levels, particularly offensively, but the 2015 season has been much different. McCann came into the break hitting .259/.331/.471 (120 wRC+) with 14 homers and an 8.3% walk rate that is much better than last year’s 5.9% mark.

McCann’s numbers at the plate tell a bit of a story. He’s not a new hitter this year, he’s simply gone back to being the hitter he used to be. Check it out:

2013 with the Braves: .256/.336/.461 (121 wRC+)
2014 with the Yankees: .232/.286/.406 (92 wRC+)
2015 with the Yankees: .259/.331/.471 (120 wRC+)

McCann’s production has returned to where it was the year before he signed with the Yankees, plus with a little Yankee Stadium short porch bonus. Two years ago McCann pulled 49.0% of the balls he put in play. Last year it was 44.5%. This year it is 50.2%. McCann’s gone back to yanking the ball to right field because that’s his strength. Last summer he appeared to be focusing on beating the shift — he had more opposite field hits last year than he had in 2012 or 2013 — and that turned him into something he wasn’t.

This year it looks like McCann is much comfortable at the plate because he stopped trying to be something he’s not. He’s a dead pull left-handed hitter. That’s who he is. And yes, it means he will lose some hits to the shift. That comes with the territory. But it also means McCann is far from productive overall — he’s hitting for a higher average and hitting for more power. I like this version of McCann better. Take the good (120 wRC+!) with the bad (shifts).

McCann’s bat has rebounded this year, but his defense is another matter. Both StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus says he’s gone from being an elite pitch-framer in past years to a below-average one this year. I don’t know if that matches the eye test or how reliable those numbers are at the halfway point. McCann’s throwing has been outstanding (40% caught stealing rate), but he’s had trouble blocking balls in the dirt. He’s allowed 35 passed pitches (passed balls plus wild pitches), the third most in baseball, and that definitely matches the eye test. McCann has let a lot of balls get by him or bounce away this year.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest a 31-year-old catcher with a ton of innings on his legs — McCann has been a big league starter since age 21 — might be losing mobility behind the plate, hence the issues with blocking balls in the dirt. The pitch-framing stuff? I can’t explain that. Overall though, I think McCann has been much more valuable to the Yankees this season than last because he’s producing so much more at the plate. It feels more like a big step forward offensively and a slight step back defensively than a slight step forward offensively a big step back defensively. I’m sure being more comfortable in his second season in pinstripes is part of the reason for improvement.

* * *

Aside from first base, the traditional infield positions have been mostly bad this season. Headley has played below expectations, Drew has been a disaster, and Gregorius has experienced a bumpy learning curve. Drew is on the verge of being replaced but Headley and Gregorius aren’t going anywhere. You can’t really expect Didi to be an impact player going forward, so Headley is the key. Chase has to pick it up both at the plate and in the field in the second half.

Is Brian McCann still an elite pitch framer?

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Last year when Brian McCann suffered through perhaps his worst offensive campaign as a major-leaguer with a career-low OPS of .692, the one thing that kept his season from being a complete disaster was his strong defense behind the plate. He ranked sixth in caught stealing percentage, and according to the various catcher framing metrics, he was among the elite in stealing strikes.

It’s been a different story this year for McCann. While he’s back to bashing baseballs and putting up his customary above-average offensive numbers, his glovework has been a mixed bag. Yes, he’s still throwing out runners at a high rate, but his pitch framing skills have declined sharply.

There are two catcher framing models — one from the Baseball Prospectus folks and one at — and both agree that McCann has surprisingly been a poor receiver behind the plate this year.

mccan stats pic2

For the first time in his career (or at least since data became available in 2008), his framing stats are below average and he’s actually losing strikes — i.e. getting fewer called strikes than predicted by the various framing models.

Last season McCann was really good at both stealing strikes outside the zone and getting correct strike calls on pitches that are taken within the zone. Baseball Prospectus credited him with 69 extra strikes gained from his ability to frame pitches outside the zone (16th in MLB); StatCorner calculated that only 10 percent of the pitches he caught within the defined strike zone were called balls, the fifth-best rate among qualified catchers last year.

This season, each of those numbers are in the red and much worse than last year. BP has him with -2 framing runs — meaning he has cost the team two runs based on his poor receiving work — while StatCorner is slightly more optimistic at -0.7 runs. He’s gotten 13 fewer strikes than expected while his rate of called balls within the zone has jumped to 13 percent. Although the raw number of “lost” strikes seems low (13), all it takes is one extra pitch for a batter to deliver a game-changing hit and give away a potential win. That’s baseball, folks.

Digging into the numbers using Baseball Savant’s pitch f/x tool, we can try to figure out where exactly McCann has struggled in stealing strikes outside the zone this year compared to last year. As you can see in the called strike pitch heat maps below, it appears that he’s been less effective in getting calls on pitches to his non-glove side — on the outside corner to right-handed batters and inside to lefties (focus more on the changes in the shapes of the blobs, not the colors):

There are a couple potential theories to explain McCann’s troubles with framing pitches this year. As the catcher told FanGraphs’ writer Eno Sarris earlier this month, framing is an athletic skill. “You have to have soft hands, and when the ball hits your glove, your wrist can’t move,” explained McCann. When a catcher ages — McCann turned 31 years old this winter — he loses the athleticism and physical skills, along with the critical flexibility, needed to properly execute the framing techniques.

It’s also possible that this year’s pitching staff has thrown him fewer “frameable” pitches. While most analysts agree that the catcher plays a significant part in getting borderline strike calls, framing is a two-way street. The pitcher also has to be able to paint edges with pitches that are just enough off the plate so the batter doesn’t swing but close enough to the zone that the catcher can make it look like a strike.

Regardless of the reasons why McCann is struggling with his pitch framing this year, there is little doubt based on the metrics that his skills have eroded. While the actual impact of these lost strikes on the outcome of a game might seem subtle, we know that one pitch can be the difference between a win and a loss, and one win can be the difference between making the playoffs and playing golf in October.

Sunday Links: Harper, McCann, Old Timers’ Day, Draft

(Mike McGinnis/Getty)
(Mike McGinnis/Getty)

The Yankees and Orioles wrap up their three-game series later this afternoon. Until then, here are some miscellaneous links to help you pass the time.

Future Yankee Bryce Harper?

It was inevitable. When the Nationals visited the Bronx to play the Yankees last week, Bryce Harper was asked about his hardly imminent free agency and whether he would consider signing with the Yankees. Harper grew up a Yankees fan because of his father, a big Mickey Mantle fan, and famously said he wants to “play in the pinstripes” in his 2009 Sports Illustrated feature.

“I enjoy playing for the Nationals,” said Harper to Dan Martin last week, astutely avoiding the question about the Yankees. “We try to win a World Series, just like every other team. If I could bring that back to DC, bring that back to the city, that’s what I want to do. I’ve said it for a long, long time. That’s something that I want to do … We have such a great team here. I look at every single day as a new day. I go in and have the same mentality. DC is a great place to play. It’s a monumental town.”

Harper won’t be a free agent until after the 2018 season, when he will still be only 26 years old. He’s already one of the best players in the game and figures to be in position to smash contract records when he hits the open market a la Alex Rodriguez in 2000. Sure, the Nationals have one of the wealthiest owners in sports and could sign Harper to an extension at some point, but Giancarlo Stanton set the bar at $325M, and I’m sure Scott Boras will look to top that with Harper. (Stanton signed his deal at roughly the same service time level Harper will be at after the season.)

It both is and is not too early to look ahead to Harper’s free agency. It is early because geez, it’s still three and a half years away, but it isn’t because Harper is so talented and will be such a hot commodity. He’s a can’t your eyes off him superstar in every way. Buster Olney (subs. req’d) recently wrote it “would be shocking if Harper isn’t wearing a Yankees uniform on Opening Day in 2019,” in fact. Most of the team’s huge contracts will be off the books by then and the Yankees will be in position to go huge for Harper, who might command 12 years and $400M+ come 2018.

(Jason O. Watson/Getty)
(Jason O. Watson/Getty)

How McCann stopped popping up

During his first season with the Yankees, Brian McCann was a pop-up machine, hitting weak fly ball after weak fly ball, which resulted in a disappointing .232/.286/.406 (96 wRC+) line with a .231 BABIP. All those weak fly balls were easy outs, hence the low BABIP. McCann has been one of the team’s best hitters this season though, coming into the weekend with a .264/.327/.447 (122 wRC+) line that is right in line with the 121 wRC+ he put up during his healthy seasons with the Braves from 2009-13.

How did McCann improve this year? He stopped popping up, as Eno Sarris explains. McCann credits former hitting coach Kevin Long for some mechanical adjustments late last season. “Last year, for whatever reason, my hands weren’t taking a direct route to the ball,” said McCann to Eno. McCann averaged about 4.0% infield pop-ups from 2006-03, but that jumped to 5.0% last year, and it doesn’t take into account all the weak fly balls to the outfield. This year he’s down to a 0.8% pop-up rate (!), one of the lowest in the game. Fewer pop-ups, more hard contact, better McCann.

Old Timers’ Day attendees announced

Earlier this week the Yankees announced the list of former players, coaches, and personnel who will attend Old Timers’ Day next Saturday. Here is the full list. No Derek Jeter, no Jorge Posada, no Andy Pettitte, and no Mariano Rivera. Also no Mike Mussina or Hideki Matsui either this year. Lame. Oh well, it’ll still be fun. The Yankees will honor Willie Randolph with a plaque in Monument Park that night as well.

Several 2015 draft picks en route to Tampa

According to his Twitter feed, LHP Jeff Degano (2nd round) traveled to Florida earlier this week, which usually indicates he has a deal in place and will sign soon. Bryan Hoch and Jeff Hartsell say 3B Donny Sands (8th) and LHP James Reeves (10th) will turn pro as well. Also, RHP Kolton Montgomery (16th) and 1B Kale Sweeney (29th) told ABC 4 Sports and Norm Sanders, respectively, they are signing with the Yankees and will report to Tampa. The team’s mini-camp for draftees actually started Thursday, so these guys are probably already in uniform working out.

And finally, scouting director Damon Oppenheimer confirmed to Chad Jennings the Yankees will sign RHP Alex Robinett (32nd). Robinett is a second lieutenant and a staff ace at West Point, and will have to finish his military commitment after playing this summer. “Hopefully we can keep him in some kind of baseball shape when he’s able to finish that commitment and come back after serving his country,” said Oppenheimer. Earlier this season Cardinals righty Mitch Harris became the first military academy graduate to play in MLB in nearly a century.

Law’s team-by-team draft breakdowns

Keith Law posted his AL and NL draft reviews earlier this week (subs. req’d). He didn’t hand out grades or anything like that, just said which picks he liked and didn’t like. Law says the Yankees “wanted a bat with their first pick, but all the candidates went before them,” which is what I wondered the other day. He also says Degano has “first-round stuff, but slipped because he hadn’t pitched in more than two years due to Tommy John surgery and will turn 23 this fall,” and that RHP Drew Finley (3rd) “was a steal.” The Yankees reportedly had interest in Finley for their supplemental first round pick, the 30th selection, but they were able to get him with the 92th pick. Neat.

Also make sure you check out Draft to the Show’s review of New York’s draft class.