Game Eight: Rubber Game

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The six-game turned five-game road trip ends tonight with the rubber game against the Blue Jays. A win to clinch the series victory would be awfully sweet. A 3-2 road trip is always better than a 2-3 road trip, especially when you get that last win over a division rival.

Nathan Eovaldi is on the mound and he did something in his last start he usually doesn’t do a whole lot: give up homers. He gave up two of them in five innings after allowing ten homers in 154.1 innings last year. Hopefully Eovaldi fares a little better tonight with the game inside and not in the freezing cold. Here is the Blue Jays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ 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. 2B Starlin Castro
  9. SS Didi Gregorius
    RHP Nathan Eovaldi

It’s another really cold day in Toronto, so the Rogers Centre roof will be closed. First pitch is scheduled for 7:07pm ET. You can watch on YES. Enjoy the game.

Injury Update: McCann (toe) is back in the lineup, obviously. He is wearing some sort of extra padding to protect his toe after taking that foul tip the other night.

Update: Fluoroscope on McCann’s toe comes back negative

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

10:43pm: A fluoroscope at Rogers Centre came back negative, the Yankees say. It’s being called a bruise and McCann is day-to-day. He will not go for any additional tests unless the injury lingers. Exhale.

10:24pm: Brian McCann is going for an x-ray on his toe, Joe Girardi told reporters following tonight’s game. He took a foul pitch off his foot early in the game but did stay in, and he even hit a home run in the sixth inning. Girardi said McCann will not play tomorrow regardless of the x-ray results.

McCann was limping noticeably during his home run trot and was also seen rubbing his foot during the at-bat. He even called the trainer out at one point during the game, but stayed in. Austin Romine replaced McCann behind the plate in the ninth inning.

Following tonight’s 2-for-4 effort, McCann is now hitting .500/.591/.889 (323 wRC+) this season. Yes, it’s super duper early. That doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s been outstanding so far. Everyone loves Gary Sanchez, but man, losing McCann for any length of time would be a big blow.

Yankeemetrics: Frozen in Motown (April 8-9)

No. 688 (Rick Osentoski | USA Today Sports)
No. 688 (Rick Osentoski|USA Today Sports)

Chill out
The Yankees’ first road trip of the season got off to a historically terrible start, as their bats were put on ice in a 4-0 loss to the Tigers on Friday afternoon at Comerica Park. They were held to just three singles and got only one runner in scoring position against starter Jordan Zimmermann and the Detroit bullpen.

THE GOOD: The game lasted just 2 hours and 44 minutes!
THE BAD: It was the first time since 1980 that the Yankees were shut out in their road opener.
THE UGLY: The last time they were held scoreless and had three hits or fewer in their first road game of the season was 1915 against the Senators. Walter Johnson tossed a two-hit shutout in Washington’s 7-0 win; the lone Yankee hits were by Wally Pipp and Jeff Sweeney.

Zimmermann, who gave up two of the three hits, joined Mike Maroth (2004) as the only Tigers pitchers in the last 25 years to allow two hits or fewer in an outing of at least seven innings against the Yankees.

Luis Severino, the youngest pitcher to start a game in the majors this season, got tagged for a career-high 10 hits and allowed three runs in five innings. He really struggled to command his slider and the Tigers took advantage of those hanging pitches in the zone. Severino threw 28 sliders, Detroit batters swung at 13 of them, put six in play and all six went for hits.

Luis Severino2

Return of the Bats
Playing in even colder temps on Saturday, the Yankee bats warmed up quickly and delivered a nice bounceback win over the Tigers. With a game time temperature of 31 degrees, it was the coldest game the Yankees have played in baseball-reference.com’s database (which has near-100 percent weather data coverage since 1988).

The three veterans that sat out Friday’s game shined on this frigid afternoon: Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran both homered, while Brian McCann went 2-for-4 with a walk and scored three runs in the Yankees 8-4 victory.

A-Rod‘s homer gave them a 1-0 lead in the first inning; it was his team-leading 15th go-ahead home run since the start of last season, four more than any other Yankee. Beltran’s blast was his 394th career homer, breaking a tie with Jim Edmonds for sole possession of 59th place on the all-time list. McCann’s second-inning single made him 20-of-43 (.465) in his career vs. Tigers starter Mike Pelfrey, his highest batting average against any pitcher he’s faced at least 25 times.

CC Sabathia, the first Yankee with a quality start this season, threw six innings of three-run ball as he improved to 5-1 with a 2.74 ERA versus the Tigers since the start of 2012. That’s the sixth-best ERA and third-best record by any pitcher with at least five starts against Detroit over the last five seasons.

Starlin Castro made sure the young guys also got some headlines. He notched another multi-hit game to give him 1,000 career hits at the age of 26 years and 16 days. Derek Jeter, who reached that milestone on Sept. 25, 2000, joined the 1,000th hit club at the age of 26 years and 94 days.

He’s also in select company with his ability to hit for average and extra bases as a young up-the-middle infielder. He’s just the seventh second baseman and/or shortstop to compile at least 1,000 hits, 175 doubles, 30 triples and 60 homers through his age-26 season. The others: Roberto Alomar, Robin Yount, Bobby Doerr, Arky Vaughan, Travis Jackson and Rogers Hornsby.

Yankees officially set 2016 Opening Day roster

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Tomorrow afternoon — weather permitting — the Yankees will open the 2016 regular season against the same team and in the same place their 2015 season ended: at Yankee Stadium against the Astros. Opening Day is just another game in the grand scheme of things, but it absolutely has symbolic value, and besides, everyone wants to start the new year with a win.

Earlier today the Yankees officially announced their Opening Day roster. The deadline to file the roster with MLB was 12pm ET this afternoon. The Opening Day roster offers no surprises. There were no last minute trades or waiver claims. Nothing like that. The roster is exactly as expected following all the roster moves over the last week or two. Here is the club’s Opening Day roster:

CATCHERS (2)
C Brian McCann
C Austin Romine (No. 27)

INFIELDERS (6)
UTIL Dustin Ackley
2B Starlin Castro
SS Didi Gregorius
3B Chase Headley
1B Mark Teixeira
IF Ronald Torreyes (No. 17)

OUTFIELDERS (4)
RF Carlos Beltran
LF Brett Gardner
CF Jacoby Ellsbury
OF Aaron Hicks (No. 31)

DESIGNATED HITTERS (1)
DH Alex Rodriguez

STARTERS (5)
RHP Nathan Eovaldi
RHP Michael Pineda
LHP CC Sabathia
RHP Luis Severino
RHP Masahiro Tanaka

RELIEVERS (7)
RHP Johnny Barbato (No. 26)
RHP Dellin Betances
RHP Luis Cessa (No. 85)
LHP Andrew Miller
RHP Ivan Nova
LHP Chasen Shreve
RHP Kirby Yates (No. 39)

MISCELLANY (4)
1B Greg Bird (15-day DL retroactive to March 25th, shoulder surgery)
LHP Aroldis Chapman (restricted list, 30-game suspension)
RHP Bryan Mitchell (15-day DL retroactive to March 31st, broken toe)
OF Mason Williams (15-day DL retroactive to March 25th, shoulder surgery)

Romine beat out Gary Sanchez and I guess Carlos Corporan for the backup catcher’s job. Torreyes beat out Pete Kozma and Rob Refsnyder for the backup infielder’s job, and Sabathia beat out Nova for the fifth starter’s spot. Barbato, Cessa, and Yates beat out a small army of relievers for spots on the Opening Day roster. They’re on the shuttle though; they could be send down for a fresh arm in short order.

Tanaka will start his second straight Opening Day tomorrow — Sabathia started six straight Opening Days prior to last year — and be followed in the rotation by Pineda, Eovaldi, Severino, and Sabathia in that order. Miller is going to pitch through the chip fracture in his right wrist, which is both admirable and awesome. After spending all winter talking about the team’s super-bullpen, the Yankees were dangerously close to starting the season with only one of their three elite relievers.

Chapman will return on May 9th, in the 31st game of the season. Bird is done for the season, Mitchell will miss a minimum of three months, and I’m not quite sure how long Williams will be sidelined. He’s been hitting and throwing at Tampa, so I assume his return is weeks away, not months. Chapman’s suspension means the Yankees have an open 40-man roster spot. Bird and Mitchell are 60-day DL candidates whenever more spots are needed.

Okay, that was entirely too many words about an Opening Day roster with zero surprises. Hooray for baseball being back. Go team.

Year Three of the McCann Era [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Earlier this week the crew at FanGraphs started their annual Positional Power Rankings series. In a nutshell, they rank all 30 teams by position using a combination of projection systems. Love or hate projections, the posts are always super informative, and it’s the best place to look over each team’s depth chart at a position in one convenient place.

The Yankees ranked third at the catcher position in the Positional Power Rankings. The Buster Posey led Giants were predictably in the top spot, then the Dodgers and the projection friendly Yasmani Grandal were No. 2. The Yankees were No. 3 because of Brian McCann, and I thought Jeff Sullivan’s write-up was interesting:

I think there’s this vague sense that McCann has been a disappointment in New York, so maybe seeing the Yankees so high in the rankings is an important reminder. McCann, predictably, gets his batting average absolutely slaughtered by his ground balls, because there’s no way he’s going to run out a grounder he pulls into the shift, but he still draws walks and he still mashes a baseball every now and again. Throw in defensive ability that hasn’t completely deteriorated, and McCann looks like a plus. However frustrating it is to watch a guy hit into the shift over and over, one shouldn’t overlook everything McCann is still able to do for his team. He’s not toast.

That seems pretty accurate, no? McCann has been very productive in pinstripes and I still kinda get the sense folks feel he could be doing more. After all, he hit .256/.336/.461 (122 wRC+) in his final season with the Braves. In his two years with the Yankees, he’s been a .232/.303/.421 (99 wRC+) hitter despite moving from spacious Turner Field to homer happy Yankee Stadium.

McCann turned 32 last month and he’s approaching the age when most catchers begin to turn to pumpkins. He’s been freakishly durable throughout his career — McCann has started 100+ games behind the plate in eight of the last nine years — so he’s been able to avoid the injuries usually associated with the position. At the same time, that’s an awful lot of wear and tear. McCann’s been a big league starter since he was 21 years old. He’s caught nearly 11,000 innings in the show.

By now we all know what McCann is about offensively. He takes aim for the short porch and tries to pull the ball to right field, even when he’s on the road. His strikeout rate (16.2% from 2014-15) is sneaky good, he’ll take his walks, he’s prone to lazy fly balls, and yeah, he pulls grounders into the shift. McCann’s been doing that for a while. He’s hit .232 with a .236 BABIP the last two years. He hit .242 with a .249 BABIP the previous two years. This is who he is. A low average, high power hitter.

McCann, somewhat surprisingly, has turned into a lefty masher with the Yankees. He hit .292/.324/.526 (138 wRC+) against southpaws in 2014 and .241/.331/.422 (108 wRC+) in 2015. That’s new. Lefties ate McCann up his last few years in Atlanta. Do it once and I’m inclined to say it’s a one year blip. Do it two years in a row and there’s something to it. McCann’s no longer a guy who can be automatically neutralized by a lefty specialist.

At this point I kinda feel I know what to expect from McCann at the plate. He’s going to hit around .230, walk enough to put his OBP a bit north of .300, and slug 20-something homers. That sound right? The potential for age-related (and catcher-related) decline can not be ignored at this point. Otherwise I’m pretty sure we know what to expect from McCann offensively. The questions have more to do with the other aspects of the game.

So, About That Pitch-Framing

Anecdotally, McCann seemed to struggle blocking balls in the dirt last season, at least moreso than he did in 2014, but the numbers don’t bear that out. In fact, Baseball Prospectus’ new catching metrics say McCann was baseball’s best at blocking balls last year at +0.6 runs saved. How about that? I never would have guessed.

One part of McCann’s defensive game that did decline, at least according to the numbers, was his pitch-framing. He’s long been considered one of the best framers in the game and the numbers backed it up throughout his career. Last year though, his pitch-framing took a big step back according to both StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus:

StatCorner, 2013: +9.9 runs
StatCorner, 2014
: +11.4
StatCorner, 2015: -2.5

Baseball Prospectus, 2013: +10.2
Baseball Prospectus, 2014
: +9.7
Baseball Prospectus, 2015: -3.9

That’s a pretty big drop, huh? I don’t full buy into the pitch-framing numbers — it’s obviously a valuable skill, though I’m not convinced we’re measuring it accurately yet — the same way I don’t fully buy into any defensive numbers. I like to use defensive stats directionally, and the numbers say McCann went from being a far-above-average framer to below-average last summer.

This might not be the result of a decline in McCann’s skills, however. Jeff Sullivan seemed to find evidence umpires are rebelling against framing, so to speak. Several top framers like McCann, Jonathan Lucroy, Hank Conger, and Rene Rivera all saw their framing numbers dip big time from 2014 to 2015. Umpires are aware of pitch-framing, and it’s almost as if they made sure catchers with reputations for being good framers didn’t get those extra strikes last year.

Pitch-framing can be difficult to observe — the entire point is to be as quiet and discrete as possible, you don’t want the umpire to see the glove move too much — and I didn’t notice any sort of decline in McCann’s receiving ability. What do I know though. The number say his framing was not as good as it was in the past. Is it a one year blip? Are the umpires sticking it to catchers around the league? Did McCann actually decline? We’ll inch closer to an answer in 2016.

Is It Time To Lighten His Workload?

Like I said earlier, McCann is 32 years old and he’s caught a ton of innings in his career. Here are the innings caught leaderboards over the last few seasons:

2011-15
1. Yadier Molina — 5,508
2. Miguel Montero — 5,343
3. Russell Martin — 5,075.1
4. Kurt Suzuki — 5,008
5. Brian McCann — 4,815.1

2006-15
1. Yadier Molina — 10,723.1
2. Russell Martin — 10,574.2
3. Brian McCann — 10,302.1
4. A.J. Pierzynski — 10,229
5. Kurt Suzuki — 8,993.2

John Ryan Murphy played about as well as you could reasonably expect a backup catcher to play last season, and McCann still caught 72% of the team’s innings. His 1,042.1 innings were sixth most in MLB. That’s a function of wanting McCann in the lineup as much as possible because of the offense he provides.

McCann has three years at $17M per season left on his contract, and at some point the Yankees have to begin scaling back his workload to prevent him from completely cratering at the plate. Not every catcher stays productive into their mid-to-late-30s like Jorge Posada. Very few do, in fact.

“You try to keep it around somewhere between 100 and 120 games. 120 is pushing it a little bit. You know, he wants to play every day, and sometimes I’ve got to tell him, ‘You’re going to take a day here,'” said Joe Girardi at the Winter Meetings when asked about McCann’s workload. “But I think you see how he’s doing … I know his bat is important to us and I have to keep him healthy.”

The Yankees will have a new backup catcher this summer regardless of who wins the job this spring, and I’m not sure Girardi will be as comfortable with his new backup as he was with Murphy. It can take a while for a young player to earn trust, especially at a position as important as catcher. Does that mean McCann will continue to carry a heavy workload?

This might not be the year to scale back McCann’s workload behind the plate. He could end up catching those 120-ish games again as the Yankees break in Gary Sanchez, who is their next long-term catcher even if he doesn’t win the backup job this spring. Girardi has talked about resting all of his veteran players more often this year and I assume that includes McCann. That he plays such an important position makes it difficult.

McCann is vitally important to the Yankees, which creates a Catch-22. Girardi wants to play McCann as much as possible because the Yankees are better when he’s in the lineup. He also must be cognizant of his age and the wear and tear of catching — Joe’s an ex-catcher, he knows what’s up — and give McCann regular rest to keep him fresh all summer. It’s a difficult balancing act.

Sorting through the 45 players the Yankees still have on their Spring Training roster

Mitchell. (Presswire)
Mitchell. (Presswire)

Two weeks from today, the Yankees will open the 2016 regular season at home against the Astros. There are a 14 exhibition games to be played between now and then, and several roster decisions have to be made as well. The Yankees have made two rounds of roster cuts so far, paring the number of players in big league camp from 70 down to 45. Another 20 still must go.

It goes without saying some of those 45 players have a much better chance to make the Opening Day roster than others. You’d be surprised to see how few have close to no chance to make the team though. The Yankees have only a few open roster spots but an awful lot of candidates to fill them. Let’s look over the 45 players still in big league camp and figure out where they fit going forward.

Definitely Making The Team (20)

These are the easiest calls, so we might as well start here. These 20 players will definitely be on the Opening Day roster:

Coming into the spring I would not have considered Shreve a lock for the bullpen, but it’s pretty safe to say he’s in right now. He’s been phenomenal in camp, he was awesome most of last year, and Joe Girardi is talking about him like one of his regular relievers. Shreve’s going to break camp with the Yankees.

The Yankees insist they are having a true competition for the fifth starter’s spot, though sending Sabathia to the bullpen so Nova can start is one of those “I’ll believe it when I see it” things. Maybe the Yankees will figure out a way to stick Sabathia on the DL rather than send him to the bullpen, though that would surprise me. I’m sticking with what I said last week: I don’t believe Sabathia is truly competing for a rotation spot. He’s in.

Very Likely To Make The Team (2)

In Bryan Mitchell and Rob Refsnyder, the Yankees have two young players who are forcing the issue with their Spring Training performances. Both saw time in the show last year and both came to camp on the roster bubble. Mitchell keeps throwing fire and getting outs while Refsnyder has shown he can actually handle third base, a position he never played prior to this spring.

“(Refsnyder at third base) been better than I expected, to be honest. He’s never been over to that side of the infield. His reactions are really good. His arm’s good,” said Brian Cashman to Meredith Marakovits recently (video link). The Yankees need a backup third baseman now that Castro will stick to second, and Refsnyder has taken to the position quickly. He hit in his limited time last year and he adds some balance as a righty hitter.

As for Mitchell, the Yankees do have three open bullpens, and none of the shuttle relievers have impressed this spring. He’s been by far the best of the team’s bullpen candidates, and Girardi has mentioned him as a potential Adam Warren replacement, meaning a multi-inning reliever. Mitchell pitched pretty well in relief last year before taking that line drive to the nose. I wouldn’t call him or Refsnyder locks for the Opening Day roster, but they sure look like strong candidates right now.

Hurt Or Suspended (3)

Three of the 45 players still in camp will not be on the active 25-man roster when the season begins. Aroldis Chapman has to serve his 30-game suspension, and both Greg Bird and Mason Williams will start the season on the DL following shoulder surgery. Bird’s going to be out for the year. We know that already. Williams is doing pretty much everything — throwing, hitting, etc. — but still needs more time to finish up his rehab.

There are some 40-man roster implications here. Chapman will be on the restricted list and will not count towards the 40-man roster while suspended. Bird can also be placed on the 60-day DL whenever a 40-man spot is needed. The 60-day DL is kinda weird though. Teams can only use it when they need it, meaning another player has to placed on the 40-man right away. Bird will likely start the season on the 15-day DL, then be transferred over whenever a 40-man spot is inevitably needed.

Pazos. (Presswire)
Pazos. (Presswire)

In The Mix For A Roster Spot (7)

This might as well be the shuttle reliever category. Johnny Barbato, Nick Goody, James Pazos, Branden Pinder, and Nick Rumbelow are all still in camp and they’re all on the 40-man roster. All but Barbato pitched in the big leagues last year too. Barbato has pitched the best during Grapefruit League play so far, which won’t hurt his case for the Opening Day roster. Then again, none of these guys have thrown more than seven innings this spring.

Based on everything I have above, five of the seven bullpen spots are claimed: Miller, Betances, Shreve, Mitchell, and Nova (or Sabathia). I honestly have no idea how those last two spots will shake out. I don’t even have an inkling which way the Yankees are leaning. Barbato has pitched well so far, though that doesn’t mean much. He’s got two weeks to make some mistakes. At the same time, the other guys have a chance to step up their game. The best way to describe the bullpen situation right now is: developing.

Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez are also in the mix for a roster spot. They’re competing for the backup catcher’s job, and right now I’d say it’s advantage Romine. Sanchez has not had a good spring (1-for-17) and over the weekend Girardi said he seems to be pressing. There’s also the service time issue (35 days in the minors delays Sanchez’s free agency a year) and the fact that Sanchez probably could use some more Triple-A time to work on his defense.

Out of these seven players, all but Romine will go to Triple-A if they don’t make the team. Romine’s out of options, so if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, he’ll go on waivers. And even if he clears, he can elect free agency. The Yankees can’t expect to keep him based on those conditions. That’s probably another reason Romine seems to be the favorite to back up McCann right now.

Oh Gosh, They Might Actually Make The Team (5)

Remember Chris Martin? He was that random offseason pickup no one really paid attention to last year, then bam, he was on the Opening Day roster. The five guys in this group are candidates to be this year’s Chris Martin. Here’s how they can make the team out of camp:

  • Chris Denorfia: Unlike most of the team’s depth outfielders, Denorfia hits right-handed and he has a lot of MLB experience. He strikes me as the top bench candidate should Ellsbury’s wrist injury linger.
  • Pete Kozma: What if the Yankees want to give Refsnyder some more Triple-A time to continue working at third? Kozma, a veteran utility man, is the annoyingly obvious alternative.
  • Tyler Olson: Having a very good spring and could fill one of the open bullpen spots. Olson is a true lefty specialist and Girardi sure does love his matchups.
  • Anthony Swarzak: Swarzak has been solid overall, and he’s another guy with MLB experience. The fact he can throw multiple innings may land him in the bullpen.
  • Kirby Yates: Quietly shoving this spring (4 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 6 K) and he has big league time under his belt. With none of the shuttle guys standing put, Yates could grab a bullpen spot.

Yeah, you don’t have to try real hard to see one or two (or three) of these guys making the team, do you? It’s surprisingly easy, in fact. I swear, these guys just sneak up on you. You overlook them as cast-offs when they’re acquired, and before you know, they’re standing on the foul line and being introduced on Opening Day. Baseball, man.

Long Shots To Make The Team (8)

Never say never, but I am comfortable saying these last eight players are very unlikely to make the Opening Day roster. Catchers Carlos Corporan and Eddy Rodriguez remain in camp, though Girardi has dismissed them as backup catcher candidates. They’re still around so McCann, Romine, and Sanchez don’t have to catch every inning of every spring game. That’s all.

Chris Parmelee was signed to replace Bird as the Triple-A first baseman, so he’s going to Triple-A. The only way he makes the Opening Day roster is if Teixeira gets hurt. (I don’t think he’d make it if A-Rod got hurt. They’d use Beltran at DH in that case.) Ronald Torreyes had gotten a look at third base this spring and he’s been fine overall. At this point I think he’s behind Refsnyder and Kozma on the backup infield depth chart.

Kristen Orfia. (Presswire)
Kristen Orfia. (Presswire)

In addition to Denorfia, Slade Heathcott and Cesar Puello are the last remaining spare outfielders in camp. Heathcott has been brutal during Grapefruit League play (1-for-22!), and while that isn’t everything, I think it puts him behind Denorfia on the depth chart should Ellsbury stay hurt. Puello’s been great in camp, but this is a guy who played one game last season due to a back injury. I can’t see him sticking even if Ellsbury’s wrist problem lingers.

The last two arms in camp are Diego Moreno and Luis Cessa. The Yankees really like Cessa — Cashman in particular has talked him up — and he’s looked pretty good in his limited action. Those are the key words there, limited action. He’s appeared in only three Spring Training games, and if the Yankees were seriously considering Cessa for the roster, he’d get more looks. Pitching two innings once a week suggests he’s on the outside looking in. That’s fine. He could use more Triple-A time anyway.

The Yankees seem to like Moreno more than we realize — he’s been mentioned as a call-up candidate for two or three years now — and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him again this summer. He is not on the 40-man roster right now, and he hasn’t pitched well in camp (six runs in 5.1 innings), so it seems safe to say Diego is way down on the Opening Day bullpen depth chart at the moment. The Yankees have too many other candidates.

* * *

With Opening Day two weeks away, it appears the Yankees have 22 of their 25 roster spots figured out. They need to pick a backup catcher and decide who will hold down the last two bullpen spots on a temporary basis. I assume those will be shuttle spots, with new guys cycling in and out as necessary, especially early in the season. The next round of roster cuts should be coming next weekend, and that may lend some clarity to the bullpen situation.

Building the Most Sensible Lineup for the 2016 Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last night, the Yankees used something that looked awfully close to their projected Opening Day starting lineup. The only regular not in the lineup was Brian McCann, who is still nursing a sore knee after being hit by a foul tip over the weekend. It’s nothing serious. He’ll be back in a day or two. No reason to push it in mid-March.

As a quick reminder, here is the starting lineup the Yankees ran out there against the Blue Jays last night:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Brett Gardner
  3. RF Carlos Beltran
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. DH Alex Rodriguez
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. 2B Starlin Castro
  8. SS Didi Gregorius
  9. C Gary Sanchez

I’m guessing a healthy McCann slots in at No. 6 behind A-Rod, bumping the other guys down a spot. That’s pretty close to the lineup the Yankees used for most of last season — the most common Yankees’ lineup last year was used only nine times, so yeah — which makes sense because almost none of the personnel has changed. Castro replaced Stephen Drew. That’s the only difference.

Obsessing over the lineup on a day-to-day basis is not really my thing anymore, though I do think it would be instructive to look over the projected batting order and try to figure out who fits best in each spot. The Yankees have a pretty straightforward lineup. We don’t have to rack our brains too much.

The Leadoff Man

This is the easiest, most predictable spot in the lineup. Ellsbury is going to hit leadoff. Against righties, against lefties, whatever. The Yankees are paying Ellsbury an awful lot of money to set the table and he was one of the most productive leadoff men in the game as recently as last May. The only time Ellsbury won’t hit leadoff this coming season is when he gets a day off. Right? Right. Next.

The Two-Hole

An lot of studies over the years have shown the No. 2 spot is the most important spot in the lineup. The No. 2 hitter gets the second most at-bats on the team and is responsible for both driving in runs (when the leadoff man reaches base) and setting the table (for the middle of the order). Ideally your best all-around hitter hits second. Who is the Yankees’ best all-around hitter? Beltran? I dunno.

An argument can be made Gardner is the team’s best hitter, at least when he’s healthy. He did hit .302/.377/.484 (137 wRC+) in the first half last season, after all. Gardner batted second most of last year and he fits that spot well because he can mash the occasional dinger and he’s one of the club’s best on-base guys. Prior to Ellsbury’s injury last year, he and Gardner were dominant from the 1-2 spots. They were on base a combined seven times a game it seemed.

Joe Girardi has discussed using Castro as his No. 2 hitter against lefties, which makes sense from a “he hits right-handed and Girardi likes to sit Gardner against lefties for some reason” point of the view. The problem? Castro hit .281/.304/.339 (76 wRC+) against lefties last year and .265/.309/.366 (86 wRC+) against lefties the last three years. Against lefties Gardner hit .276/.361/.400 (112 wRC+) in 2015 and .262/.337/.395 (104 wRC+) from 2013-15.

There also this: Castro is a big time double play candidate. He’s downright Jeterian with the double plays. Starlin had a 54.1% ground ball rate last year, 12th highest among the 141 qualified hitters, and throughout his career he’s banged into a twin killing in 16% of his opportunities. The league average hovers around 11% each year. Yes, Ellsbury steals bases, but he’s not going to steal every time he reaches base. Castro’s double play ability will short circuit a lot of rallies.

The way I see it, Starlin should show he’s an asset against lefties before giving him a primo lineup spot. Don’t give him the benefit of the doubt just because he’s a righty. When Gardner does inevitably sit against southpaw, Aaron Hicks would be a better No. 2 hitter option than Castro. Hicks hit .307/.375/.495 (139 wRC+) against lefties in 2015 and .272/.360/.447 (125 wRC+) against them the last three years. The Gardner/Hicks platoon is the best No. 2 option.

The 3-4-5(-6) Hitters

We know who is going to hit in the 3-4-5-6 spots: Beltran, Teixeira, A-Rod, and McCann. The only real question is how those four players should be ordered. I have two opinions:

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

1. Teixeira should hit cleanup. He is is not only the Yankees’ best power hitter, he’s also one of their best on-base guys, which serves the team well whenever he leads off the second inning after the top of the lineup goes down in order in the first. Fourth is a good spot for him. You don’t want Teixeira batting any lower because it means fewer at-bats, and you also don’t want to hit him much higher because you want as many men on base as possible when he hits. Plus he’s a switch-hitter. He’s the perfect cleanup hitter.

2. McCann should hit sixth. At this point of his career, McCann is basically a grip it and rip it hitter. That’s not a bad thing, but all the fly balls — his 36.1% ground ball rate was 18th lowest among the 141 qualified hitters in 2015 — are not conducive to a high batting average. McCann has hit .236 with a .309 OBP and a .241 BABIP in over 2,000 plate appearances the last four years. Yes, he has a lot of power, but out of the four guys projected to hit in the middle of the lineup, McCann is the worst at not making outs. He’s great at capping off rallies with a dinger. He’s not so great at extending rallies.

That leaves Beltran and A-Rod for the No. 3 and 5 spots. If Rod hits like he did from April through July, you want him hitting third. If Beltran hits like he did from mid-May through the end of the season, you want him hitting third. Rodriguez did hit more homers than Beltran (33 to 19) and was better overall last season (129 to 119 wRC+), so maybe bat him in the three-hole. I’m not sure there’s a wrong answer here, though I do think Alex gives you a better chance at quick first inning offense with the long ball. So I guess that means my 3-4-5-6 hitters go Rodriguez-Teixeira-Beltran-McCann.

The Bottom Third

I know Castro is the new hotness and everyone is excited about him, but the reality is he barely out-hit Stephen Drew last season (80 to 76 wRC+). That level of production is not so fluky either; Castro had a 74 wRC+ back in 2013. He did sandwich a 117 wRC+ between those two awful seasons in 2014, and surely the Yankees hope that’s the Starlin they’ll get going forward. Until then, I think he has to hit near the bottom of the lineup.

In fact, the best lineup might have Gregorius batting eighth and Castro batting ninth to break up the string of lefties in the wrap-around 9-1-2 portion of the lineup. We saw more than a few teams bring in a lefty reliever and leave him in for a full inning against that part of the lineup last year. Said reliever was staying in even longer when Drew was in the lineup and McCann was hitting fourth. Teams could get two innings out of their left-on-left reliever no problem.

Headley was the best hitter of the three last season and projects to be the best hitter of the three this season (per ZiPS), so seventh is where he belongs. Personally, I’d like to see Didi hitting eighth and Castro hitting ninth for “break up the lefties” purposes, but I have a hard time thinking the Yankees will bat their big offseason pickup ninth. Not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. We’re nitpicking.

So after all of that, I think the most sensible Yankees’ lineup looks something like this:

  1. Ellsbury
  2. Gardner vs. RHP and Hicks vs. LHP
  3. Rod
  4. Teixeira
  5. Beltran
  6. McCann
  7. Headley
  8. Gregorius
  9. Castro

Like I said, Castro’s probably going to hit eighth with Gregorius ninth. That’s the only real difference between my preferred lineup and what is likely to happen. Beltran and A-Rod might flip spots depending who is swinging better at the time. Not batting Starlin second against lefties is the only thing I feel strongly about. That’s a mistake in my opinion. Let him force the issue before bumping him up.

Recent research has shown that, generally speaking, the difference between the most optimal batting order and the worst batting order is a win or two across a full season. Wins are important! But we’re not talking about a difference of ten wins here. The Yankees have a pretty easy to put together lineup, and as long as Girardi doesn’t do something silly like bat A-Rod eighth or Castro leadoff (which he won’t), the Yankees will have a solid offense on the field.