Spring Notes: Tanaka, Sabathia, A-Rod, Castro, Nova, Davis

Those shirts! (The Asahi Shimbun/Getty)
Those shirts! (The Asahi Shimbun/Getty)

Pitchers and catchers are due to report to Spring Training in just six days. Many — or most, it seems — are already in Tampa though, so some early camp notes are starting to trickle in. This is good. I am ready for baseball. Here’s a roundup of recent news and notes from Tampa.

Tanaka begins throwing, may be behind other starters in camp

Masahiro Tanaka has gotten back on a mound after having surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow in October. According to Ronald Blum, Tanaka threw a bullpen session at Yankee Stadium last week in front of pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Bryan Hoch says Tanaka played catch in Tampa today. Afterwards he said he needs to “get innings in (to) see how I feel” before knowing whether he’ll be ready for Opening Day.

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild told Dan Martin Tanaka’s “throwing program was right on target,” though Brian Cashman was a bit more conservative. “He will enter Spring Training maybe a little behind for precautionary reasons. He may be behind going off the bullpen from the beginning, but he is healthy. There are no issues, there are no hiccups,” said the GM to George King.

CC Sabathia was behind the other starters in Spring Training 2013 after having surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow early during the 2012 offseason. He was ready to start the season on time; the club limited his bullpen work early in camp, and had him make his first few spring starts in controlled minor league games rather than regular Grapefruit League games. Tanaka could do the same this spring. We’ll see.

“When you pitch a good game, you’re the hero,” said Tanaka, who worked out with his former Rakuten Golden Eagles teammates in Japan this offseason, to Brad Lefton. “When you have a bad game, everyone says, ‘Something’s wrong with the elbow.’ There’s no way to handle it other than to just accept that’s the way it’s going to be. If you want to stop such talk, then you just have to go out and keep winning ballgames.”

Sabathia and his knee are feeling great

You can file this in the classic early Spring Training everything is awesome category: CC Sabathia’s knee feels great and he’s doing very well following his stint in an alcohol treatment center, he told Laura Albanese and Mark Feinsand. “I feel great and I’ve been working hard for the last three months and I’m ready to go,” said Sabathia. “I’m excited … This is the best I’ve felt in three years.”

Sabathia, now 35, usually throws year round, but he took a month off from throwing a baseball while in rehab. He’s been throwing off a mound for three weeks now. “I’m definitely in a good place. You’ve never got this thing beat; it’s always there and I’m always going to be a recovering alcoholic, but I’m in a good place,” he said. “This is my 16th year in the big leagues and you can take it for granted. This whole experience has put a new lease on my career and the way I’m viewing it.”

I’d be lying if I said I have even medium high hopes for Sabathia this coming season — I’ve done the “overly optimistic about CC” thing a few times these last three years — but I’m glad he feels great and his alcoholism recovery is going well. That goes beyond baseball and he’ll be fighting it the rest of his life. On the field, if the new knee brace allows Sabathia to give the Yankees, say, 180 league average innings in 2016, that would be an enormous upgrade over what he gave them from 2013-15.

Cashman reiterates A-Rod will be a DH only

As if it was not already clear, Cashman reiterated the Yankees see Alex Rodriguez as a DH and a DH only going forward. “You’ve got to stop asking Alex questions,” said Cashman to Billy Witz. “He’s not playing any position anymore. He’s a DH. He’s a very productive DH. For us to get maximum value out of Alex Rodriguez, he’s going to only DH. If we have to put him in the field somewhere, we’re in trouble.”

I wish the Yankees would at least entertain the idea of giving Alex some time at first base in Spring Training, but obviously that’s not going to happen. Greg Bird is done for the season, leaving Dustin Ackley as the backup first baseman. It would be nice if A-Rod were at least capable of being an emergency fill-in at first base for a few innings. Alas. The DH spot is his and his alone.

Castro will play some third base in Spring Training

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

As expected, the Yankees will have Starlin Castro play some third base in Spring Training this year, Cashman told Ryan Hatch. Castro has not played third since rookie ball years and years ago, and that was only a handful of games. He’s played shortstop most of his career, so he is familiar with being on the left side of the infield. Castro moved to second base last August, and I’m not sure giving him another new position to learn right now is the best idea, but we’ll see.

“It’s too early to tell (if he can handle third), so we’ll take the time in Spring Training,” said Cashman. “If (he) can swing over and play some third for us and spell Chase (Headley), that’s a huge benefit for roster flexibility, but if he can’t, we’re not going to force it … If it’s something he’s not comfortable with we’re certainly not going to force that either. But we’ll certainly find out when we get to know him a little better and see how he looks.”

Nova wants to start, because duh

Ivan Nova, who is currently sixth on the rotation depth chart, told Martin he wants to start this year but will pitch out of the bullpen if necessary. “I’m a starting pitcher. I’m not a reliever, but if that’s what they tell me to do, that’s what I’ve got to do,” he said. “If I feel bad going to the bullpen, what’s that going to change?”

The Yankees sent Nova to the bullpen briefly last September, but he never did make a relief appearance and instead moved back into the rotation when Tanaka pulled his hamstring. I firmly believe Nova is going to end up making something like 20-25 starts this year. One or three of the other starters will get hurt and he’ll be the guy to step in. The sixth starter always works more than expected, it seems.

Nova, now 29, had a 5.07 ERA (4.87 FIP) in 94 innings after coming back from Tommy John surgery last year. He didn’t blame his struggles on the elbow — “Whatever happened last year wasn’t because of the Tommy John. I just didn’t pitch good. If I didn’t feel good, I would have said it,” he said — but I do think it’s fair to expect him to improve as he gets further away from the procedure. That’s common. This is also Ivan’s contract year too. I’m sure he’s extra motivated to pitch well, and the Yankees will happily take it if he does.

Beltran, McCann do not want to play first base

Although both Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann have briefly played first base for the Yankees, neither wants to do it going forward, they told Anthony McCarron and Brendan Kuty. “No, no, no. I would do anything. Except (play first). It’s a different animal,” said Beltran. McCann added “I don’t think they want me over there. I don’t move too good. I don’t think they want that.”

Both Beltran and McCann have played some first base in pinstripes, so they’re clearly not opposed to the idea, but they don’t want to do it regularly. I understand that. The Yankees shouldn’t want Beltran or McCann to do it at all. Ideally Mark Teixeira stays healthy at first base and mashes taters all season with Ackley backing him up. If it gets to the point where Beltran has to play first, something very bad has happened. By the way, Beltran told Hatch he dropped ten pounds this offseason and joked he “might try and steal some bases this year.”

Cashman confirms Yankees have spoken to Davis

In the wake of Bird’s injury, the Yankees have indeed spoken to free agent Ike Davis, Cashman confirmed to Anthony Rieber. “We’ve talked to Ike Davis. That’s all I can tell you, really. We’ve talked to a lot of people,” said the GM. “Again, in terms of the Greg Bird scenario, we clearly have a need for an everyday first baseman at Scranton. So anybody that we feel is of quality and can fit that bill and is interested and willing to play in Scranton, then we’re going to have those conversations with a number of different people. But we have talked to Ike as well.”

Ken Davidoff says Davis is expected to sign a minor league contract — not necessarily with the Yankees — at some point soon. Davis, 28, hit .229/.301/.350 (83 wRC+) with three homers in 74 games for the A’s last season. He is a year removed from a 109 wRC+ season, however. Davis is a dead pull lefty hitter with power, making him a very good third string first base candidate for the Yankees. At this point of the offseason, he’s the best option to replace Bird in Scranton. Steve Simineri explained why the Yankees should side Davis in a guest post recently.

Way Too Early Lineup Musings

2015 Wild Card Game Lineups

Spring Training may still be about a month away and, despite their relative quietness this Hot Stove season, the Yankees may not be done adding to or tinkering with their team. However, it’s never too early to start dreaming on the lineups we’ll see throughout the year, even with the general knowledge that lineup construction doesn’t always have a big effect on the macro level.

Over the last few seasons, the Yankees have a had a good deal of year-to-year lineup turnover due to players leaving the team or leaving the game altogether–or returning to it in Alex Rodriguez‘s case. Before this three year stretch of 2013-2015, we’d usually see the Yankees cycle out a DH or a random position here or there, but things were generally consistent and well-balanced. That hasn’t been the case for the last few years, though we could see a return to that in 2016.

The return of Mark Teixeria will help restore some needed right-handed power to the lineup, and Aaron Hicks will look to replicate what Chris Young did. Hicks also joins two other switch hitters, Carlos Beltran and Chase Headley. Starlin Castro gives the Yankees a dedicated righty hitter in their infield who can hopefully fit into the lineup in a variety of ways.

There is no shortage of ways the Yankees could deploy their hitters against right handed pitchers. Joe Girardi could stack lefty/switch hitters in the first four spots of the lineup and not give the other team a platoon advantage until fifth, or even sixth if he really wanted to:

1. Brett Gardner
2. Jacoby Ellsbury
3. Carlos Beltran
4. Mark Teixeira
5. Brian McCann
6. Alex Rodriguez
7. Chase Headley
8. Didi Gregorius
9. Starlin Castro

You could flip Didi and Castro if you’d like, but I imagine Girardi would want to break up the lefties at the turn of the lineup. Of course, swapping Ellsbury and Gardner is possible as well. Given Gardner’s slight power advantage over Ellsbury, that might make some sense, provided Ellsbury returns to his non-2015 form. The 3-4-5-6 spots are also fairly interchangeable; at their best, any of those players can carry a team offensively and having them anchor the lineup, even at their advanced age, is an okay thing.

Against lefties, there’s an opportunity for Girardi to really shake things up and get pretty frisky. It all hinges on just how much he plans on platooning Gardner/Ellsbury/Hicks. It’s very likely that Aaron Hicks winds up playing in a ton of games–like Chris Young did this year–just as a defensive replacement for Carlos Beltran late in games. But he’s also here to hit lefties, something Ellsbury struggled with in 2015, leading to a benching in the Wild Card game. If we assume Ellsbury sits a fair amount against lefties, we could see something like this:

1. Gardner
2. Hicks
3. Beltran
4. Teixeira
5. Rodriguez
6. McCann
7. Castro
8. Headley
9. Gregorius

If it’s Gardner who ends up sitting against lefties, it’s likely that Ellsbury would still hit at the top of the lineup. After all, he’s got the name and he’s got the big contract. But, in a more “just” world, perhaps this lineup could be trotted out:

1. Castro
2. Hicks
3. Beltran
4. Tex
5. A-Rod
6. McCann
7. Ellsbury
8. Headley
9. Gregorius

Regardless of who sits and who doesn’t, the Yankees will likely feature a more balanced attack against lefties than they did in the second half and the Wild Card game last year. Their inability to hit lefties consistently certainly cost them and the front office seems to have recognized that with the acquisitions of Hicks and Castro. There are a ton of other permutations for each lineup, but I’m choosing to stay positive and assume some health for the Yankees (trust me, I know this could all fall apart very, very quickly).  What lineup combinations do you favor? Which ones did I forget? What are you dying to see, even if you know it’s probably a bit unrealistic? Even if we know they don’t make much of a difference, it’s still fun to play manager and adjust a lineup to our own liking. And at this time of year, when we’re all optimists, it’s easy to dream.

Yankees hoping veteran clubhouse helps Starlin Castro get to the next level

(Jon Durr/Getty)
(Jon Durr/Getty)

It would be wrong to say new second baseman Starlin Castro has only played on young rebuilding or up-and-coming teams. The Cubs did have some lean years there, but he was also teammates with veterans like Derrek Lee (2010), Carlos Pena (2011), Aramis Ramirez (2010-12), and Alfonso Soriano (2010-13) early in his career. The team stunk, but Castro grew up around respected veterans.

“You know who I learned a lot from? Sori,” said Castro to Patrick Mooney last season. “Sori’s the same guy. Always. I always hung out with him. And that’s the kind of thing that he told me: Nobody’s better than baseball. When you’re gone, baseball stays. If you’re a star, if you’re a great player, keep the same (attitude). Stay humble.”

Thanks to the Cubbies’ rebuild, Castro went from the youngest guy on the team to their longest tenured player in about three years. He was The Man on those really bad Cubs teams from 2011-14. “We didn’t really have a good team and the pressure was on me and (Anthony) Rizzo. Sometimes we had a little pressure because we had to do everything,” said Castro to reporters in a conference call after the trade.

With the Yankees, Castro gets a fresh start and can go back to being just one of the guys. He no longer has to carry the club — that’s up to veterans like Carlos Beltran and Alex Rodriguez, among others. Those veterans also form something of a leadership group in the clubhouse. Beltran has a great reputation for helping young Latin American players and A-Rod helps all the young guys on the roster.

“With the veterans we have, we’ll be on top of (Castro), helping him become a better ballplayer,” said Beltran to Zach Braziller recently. “He’s a great kid. He’s a humble guy, a hard worker, and I have heard a lot of good things from him … Hopefully, being able to play in New York motivates him to become a better ballplayer than what he is.”

The appeal of Castro is pretty obvious. Even though he’s had some bad years recently, he’s still very young (26 in March) and offers a lot of athleticism and hitting ability at the two middle infield positions. Plus he’s signed for another four years at an affordable rate. That’s a guy you’d like to have. At the same time, I think the Yankees are hoping veteran leaders like Beltran and A-Rod can help take Castro the next level.

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

That’s not necessarily why the Yankee made the trade though. I don’t think you can give up an asset like Adam Warren and take on $40M or so in future salary because you’re banking on some veteran mentors unlocking the talent. They like Castro’s tools and physical ability, first and foremost. And if the veterans can help Castro improve his game, then great. That makes it even better.

“I think Alex can help him a lot, I think Carlos can help him a lot,” said Joe Girardi to George King. “(I know) that he played with Soriano, and he really liked Soriano. I think it’s gonna be a good fit. (A-Rod) always mentored. Now he’s the gray, old grizzly guy and he’s doing a lot of that.”

Over the last few years the Yankees have gone out of their way to acquire players with reputations for being good leaders and clubhouse guys. They really started to move in that direction when they signed CC Sabathia and they’ve continued to target those types of players ever since. Castro was the first time they really deviated from that path. Fair or not, he has a reputation for being a bit of a headache, and he’s also had some off-field issues. The Yankees aren’t oblivious to that.

The Yankees believed in Castro enough as a person — remember, special assistant Jim Hendry and pitching coach Larry Rothschild were with Castro in Chicago for a while, so the Yankees had some firsthand knowledge about Starlin — and as a player to pull the trigger on the trade. It wouldn’t be wrong to say he’s falling well short of his ceiling. With a fresh start and the help of veteran leaders, the team hopes Castro gets back on the path to stardom and becomes part of the core of the next great Yankees team.

Carlos Beltran hints at retirement following 2016 season

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

The 2016 season with be the third year of Carlos Beltran‘s three-year contract with the Yankees. The first two years have been a mixed bag. Some good, some bad, some injuries. To Beltran’s credit, he was the team’s best hitter from about mid-May through the end of the season in 2015.

Beltran will turn 39 shortly after Opening Day next year, and during a scheduled appearance in midtown earlier this week, he seemed to suggest he is considering retiring following the 2016 season. He indicated he’ll either play one more season after that or call it a career. From Zach Braziller:

“I don’t think there is any big decision I have to make — other than to play one more year or go home,” he said. “In my case, I am very happy with my career. … If I feel like I produce well to the point where I can make a good impact on a team, then I can play one more year. Or if I feel like I have [had] enough, I’ll go home.”

Beltran has had a brilliant career that, at the very least, will deserve serious Hall of Fame consideration when the time comes in a few years. He’s going to wind up retiring with 500+ doubles, 400+ homers, 300+ steals, and 70 WAR or so. Beltran is still looking for that elusive World Series ring, however.

As far as the Yankees are concerned, Beltran’s decision to retire or keep playing figures to have little impact on them. It’s hard to see the team bringing Beltran back in 2017 no matter what happens in 2016. The Yankees are focused on getting younger and right field is earmarked for top prospect Aaron Judge. Even if Judge flames out in Triple-A next year, others like Aaron Hicks, Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, and Ben Gamel could get the call.

Beltran, who also told Braziller he intends to stay on top of new addition Starlin Castro, will again play right field next season because Alex Rodriguez is locked in at DH. Should A-Rod get hurt or see his playing time reduced at any point, Beltran’s the obvious choice to slide into a full-time DH role.

Fun with Statcast: Where does each Yankee hit the ball the hardest?

Carlos Beltran
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

This past season, MLB and MLBAM made Statcast data available to the public for the first time. Things like spin rate and batted ball velocity were suddenly right at our fingertips. The info as presented still lacks context — I have no idea if a 96.8% route efficiency is good or bad or average — but it’s a start. More information is a good thing.

Batted ball velocity is an interesting one because intuitively, the harder you hit the ball, the better. There’s something to be said to having the ability to place the ball in a good location, but hitting the ball hard is a positive. There’s a pretty strong correlation between exit velocity and BABIP. From Rob Arthur:

Exit Velocity BABIP crop

The averaged batted ball velocity in the AL this season was approximately 88.7 mph. The Yankees as a team had an 88.6 mph average exit velocity, but that doesn’t help us much. The individual players are most important, so we’re going to look at them. Specifically, we’re going to look at where each Yankee hit the ball the hardest, which for our purposes means 100+ mph. That sound good?

Before we start, it’s important to note exit velocity by itself is only so useful. Things like launch angle are important — it’s possible to hit a 100+ mph infield pop-up, for example — but there still hasn’t been a ton of research in that department. We’re going to keep it simple and just look at the pitch locations of the 100+ mph batted balls by each Yankee this past season. Got it? Good. So with a big assist from Baseball Savant, let’s dive in. (Click any image in this post for a larger view.)

Carlos Beltran

Carlos Beltran 100mph

Beltran led the Yankees with exactly 100 batted balls with a 100+ mph exit velocity in 2015. Seventy-eight of them came against right-handed pitchers, which makes sense since 71% of his plate appearances came as a left-handed batter. Those numbers are in line with each other.

There isn’t much data against southpaws, so that doesn’t tell us a whole lot, other than Beltran liking the ball over the plate. The pitch locations against right-handed pitchers is far more interesting. Beltran hit away pitches the hardest this past season. Almost all of his 100+ mph batted balls as a lefty batter came on pitches in the middle of the zone or away. There’s very few on the inner half.

Beltran is not an extreme pull hitter from the left side but he definitely doesn’t use the field a whole lot — only 20.3% of his batted balls as a lefty were to the opposite field in 2015. He pulled 45.2% and the other 34.5% went back up the middle. He’s able to do that despite hitting away pitches harder than inside pitches. Interesting! Being able to hammer outside pitches is cool, but would taking slight step back away from the plate better allow him to cover the inner half?

Alex Rodriguez

Alex Rodriguez 100 mph

A-Rod was second on the team in 100+ mph batted balls with 92. It appears he hits the ball the hardest in the lower half of the strike zone, and he also does a better job driving balls on the outer half of the plate, which is also interesting. Pulling inside pitches is anecdotally a good way to create exit velocity.

Chase Headley

Chase Headley 100 mph

Headley was third on the team with 69 batted balls of 100+ mph, so yeah, the gap between Beltran and A-Rod and everyone else was massive. Twenty-five of Headley’s 69 100+ mph batted balls, or 36.2%, came as a right-handed batter, which matches up with his plate appearance split (31% as a righty).

Again, the “vs. LHP” plot doesn’t tell us much because there’s not a ton of data, but wow, look at the “vs. RHP” plot. Headley loves down and away pitches, huh? Or at least that’s where he hit the ball the hardest in 2015. He didn’t drive anything — and by drive I mean hit a ball 100+ mph — up in the zone or in the inner half. So far the data has been the exact opposite of what I expected. I figured we’d see most 100+ mph batted balls on pitches up and/or in.

Mark Teixeira

Mark Teixeira 100 mph

If not for the shin injury, Teixeira would have been among the team leaders in 100+ mph batted balls, if not the leader outright. He had 66 of ’em. Teixeira has that big long swing from both sides of the plate so he loves outside pitches. The vast majority of his 100+ mph batted balls came on pitches on the outer half if not off the plate entirely. Let Teixeira extend his arms and he can do major damage.

Brian McCann

Brian McCann 100 mph

Another outer half guy. The Yankees have all these pull hitters and yet most of them seem to hit outside pitches the hardest, and McCann is no exception. He tied Teixeira with 66 balls in play at 100+ mph. It’s amazing to me McCann and the other guys can reach out and pull a pitch that far away from them with such authority. So if you want to limit hard contact, I guess the best way to pitch these guys is inside? That sounds a little weird given their pull tendencies, but the pitch location plots don’t lie.

Brett Gardner

Brett Gardner 100 mph

Okay, this is more like what I expected. Gardner is an all-fields hitter and the majority of his 53 100+ mph batted balls came on middle-middle pitches. There are a few on the inner half and a few on the outer half, but in general, Gardner hit the ball the hardest when it was right down the middle. That makes perfect sense. Brett’s not a brute masher like most of the other guys ahead of him in this post. He makes the hardest contact on mistake pitches over the plate.

Jacoby Ellsbury

Jacoby Ellsbury 100 mph

Ellsbury had 46 batted balls register 100 mph or better and, like Gardner, most of them came on middle-middle pitches. He did some more damage on down and away pitches and less on inside pitches than Brett, but generally the pitch locations are similar. These two aren’t power hitters. The pitcher has to give them something in the heart of the plate for them to really drive it.

Didi Gregorius

Didi Gregorius 100 mph

Ellsbury had one more 100+ mph batted ball than Gregorius in 77 fewer plate appearances. Didi is another guy who does most of his damage on pitches out over the plate, but he also showed the ability to reach out and drive pitches on the outer half this past season. Well beyond the outer half too. Gregorius had a handful of 100+ mph batted balls on pitches off the plate. Pretty crazy.

The Yankees worked with Didi this summer and in June or so he seemed to make a concerted effort to use the opposite field more often. His plot of 100+ mph batted balls ostensibly reflects that approach.

Dustin Ackley

Dustin Ackley 100 mph

This plot covers Ackley’s entire season, not just his time with the Yankees. He had 47 total 100+ mph batted balls in 2015, including nine with the Yankees. Ackley has tremendous natural hitting ability, and although it hasn’t shown up in the stats yet, he does a good job of covering the entire plate based on the plot. He hit balls 100+ mph that were in, out, down, middle-middle … basically everywhere but up, which doesn’t appear to be uncommon.

I am really curious to see a full season of Ackley next year, and not just because of this plot. Getting away from the Mariners and into hitter friendly Yankee Stadium is one hell of a change of scenery for a talented left-handed hitter.

Greg Bird

Greg Bird 100 mph

Bird wasn’t around very long this past season but his 35 batted balls with a three-figure exit velocity were ninth most on the team, ahead of guys with (many) more plate appearances like Chris Young (30) and Stephen Drew (24).

Based on the pitch location plot, Bird does his most damage on pitches down in the zone, which sorta jibes with opponents trying to beat him upstairs with fastballs all the time. I don’t think Bird has an uppercut swing, or at least not an extreme one like McCann or Teixeira, but the lower half of the strike zone is his wheelhouse. He can go down and golf pitches.

Aaron Hicks

Aaron Hicks 100 mph

Hicks, who so far is the Yankees’ only notable pickup of the offseason, had 35 batted balls of 100+ mph last season. As a right-handed batter, he was all about the low pitch. He could really go down and drive low pitches with authority from the right side of the plate.

As a left-handed batter, Hicks had the hardest contact on pitches middle and away. Not so much inside. That is his weaker side of the plate, historically, but being a left-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium comes with some perks. I’m looking forward to seeing what the Yankees and the hitting coaches do with him next season. There are reasons to believe Hicks is on the verge of really breaking out.

* * *

The Yankees had a bunch of other guys on the roster this past season who are still with the team, but they didn’t hit many 100+ mph batted balls at all. That group includes Rob Refsnyder (seven 100+ batted balls), Slade Heathcott (seven), Brendan Ryan (four), and Mason Williams (three). Click the links in parentheses for each player’s pitch location plot, if you’re interested.

Platoon

I’m hardly one who obsesses over dreams and they’re meanings, but for years now, I’ve had some recurring, sports-related themes in my dreams. Often, in some random context, I’m playing baseball or basketball, things I’ve done for most of my life. As a kid, I was decidedly mediocre at both of these, though getting contact lenses in the eleventh grade certainly helped. Nevertheless, when I have dreams featuring these two very familiar sports, I often find myself playing horrendously: I miss layups and jumpers at a Chucker Costanza like rate in basketball dreams and frequently in my baseball-inclusive dreams, I physically cannot throw the ball. Last night, I had a dream in which my wife and I were coaching a youth team, then I took some cuts against one of the pitchers and whiffed a lot–which I chalked up to playing slow pitch softball and not being used to hitting actual pitching–until finally smacking one over the shortstop’s head, just before the dream’s context and setting changed in a heartbeat, as they tend to do. I suppose the takeaway from this all, sparing you the Freudian dream analysis, is the simplest of all: even in our dreams, it’s damn hard to play sports, especially baseball. Players, managers, and teams have to constantly search for any advantage they can find and exploit in. For managers, one of the simplest and oldest advantages in the game is the platoon advantage. As Mike noted in late October, the Yankees led the league in gaining the platoon advantage over their opponents’ pitchers in 2015. 2016 has the potential to be no different, with at least three platoon situations presenting themselves early in the offseason.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Catcher: When the Yankees traded away John Ryan Murphy to the Twins in exchange for switch-hitting outfielder Aaron Hicks, it seemed to open the door for Gary Sanchez to (finally?) fully break through to the Major Leagues and get some consistent playing time. With Brian McCann entrenched behind the plate, Sanchez won’t be the full-time starter unless McCann gets injured. A platoon, however, could develop and give the Yankees value. As a young hitter with little experience to Major League pitching, Sanchez could benefit from a platoon that sets him up for success by limiting his exposure and letting him work against the types of pitchers–lefties–that he’s done well against. Like with any Minor League numbers, take these with a grain of salt, but Sanchez has put up an .863 OPS against southpaws throughout his career with a .241 ISO. His raw OPS against right-handed pitchers isn’t bad–.737–but it’s significantly lower and he’s flashed less power, a .147 ISO, against same-handed pitchers. Additionally, a straight platoon could give Sanchez more predictable playing time and give McCann more regular and consistent rest, something all catchers need, especially ones in their 30’s. On the other side of the ball, Sanchez’s defense, though improved, likely will never be a shining part of his game. Playing him against lefties and limiting him against righties will allow his potential shortcomings to be minimized.

So far, this seems like a decent plan. That doesn’t mean, though, that there aren’t things that would need to be considered. For one, Brian McCann actually has a reverse platoon split in his time with the Yankees, something I didn’t expect at all. The Yankees may also want Sanchez to get every day playing time in the minors until they feel he’s ready, rather than let him sit on the bench. While Murphy flourished with inconsistent playing time last year, the Yankees may not want to do that with Sanchez and opt to put him–along with Greg Bird, probably–in Scranton to see the field every day.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Second Base: Catcher is not the only spot on the field where the Yankees have a young player who may be ready to break out. Fans clamored for Rob Refsnyder through much of last season, and in 2016, they’re likely to get him–along with trade-deadline acquisition Dustin Ackley. This situation is likely more amenable to a straight platoon since the difference between Ackley and Refsnyder–while large, as one is an established-if-not-great Major Leaguer and the other is still unproven–is not as large as the difference between McCann and Sanchez. Neither one of these guys is making mega-bucks, so there’s no financial incentive to play one over the other more consistently.

A platoon at second base between these two would be best for them and the team as it would let their strengths play up, as platoons tend to do. In his career, Ackley has put up a replacement-level wRC+ of 80 against lefties. His mark against righties–97–isn’t great, but it’s much more palatable than the one against lefties. He’s also got a respectable .140 ISO against right-handed pitching and a solid 8.4% walk rate against them. Meanwhile, Refsnyder’s hit both types of pitchers will in the minors, but has outperformed against lefties: an .863 OPS against lefties compared to an .800 mark against righties. And with these two, you’ll let one of them shine. As soon as one starts to perform and the other starts to lag, you can ride that wave without too much consequence. If Refsnyder prevails, Ackley becomes the backup. If Ackley reclaims some of that prospect shine, Refsnyder can go back to AAA for some more seasoning and more reps.

The only real downside to this platoon is that neither of these players is strong on the defensive side of things. There’s also that chance that Ackley continues to be aggressively “meh” at playing Major League Baseball and that Refsnyder never blossoms into the player we all want him to be. The alternative in that nightmare scenario, then, is Brendan Ryan? Yuck.

Aaron Hicks
(Getty)

Outfield: Last week, I touched on the newest Yankee, Aaron Hicks, and his potential to get a lot of playing time even if he isn’t necessarily a starting outfielder, so I’ll be brief here as not to be repetitive. With Hicks in the fold, the Yankees can add a bit more balance to their outfield, balance that’s missing when two of the three outfielders are lefty hitters and one of them–Jacoby Ellsbury–has struggled against lefties recently. Manager Joe Girardi has also shown a propensity to platoon for Brett Gardner in the past and doing so with Hicks would be a fairly seamless transition. Carlos Beltran‘s concerns are from the defensive side, and it’s easy to see how much and how often he’ll be replaced on defense in the late innings. In that vein, a platoon involving Ellsbury, Gardner, and Hicks will always leave the Yankees with at least two–three when Beltran sits–outfielders capable of playing center field and playing it well, bolstering their outfield defense.

Hicks does struggle against righties, which limits his usefulness in resting Ellsbury and Gardner if the Yankees hit a long stretch of right-handed pitchers, but there is hope that some new adjustments can help overcome those (hopefully former) struggles. Regardless, Hicks’ defense and the injury concerns that all three starting outfielders have should give Hicks plenty of burn in the field and in the lineup, making a de-facto, if not de-jure, platoon situation.

Seeking the platoon advantage is something the Yankees have clearly prioritized of late and they’re set up to do so again in 2016. The ways hinted at here are not necessarily what will happen–it’s only November, after all–but it’s easy to see the Yankees tinkering with their lineup day in and day out to get the biggest advantage possible. They’d be foolish not to.

The Revival of Carlos Beltran [2015 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Fresh off their worst offensive season in two decades, the Yankees went on a massive free agent spending spree during the 2013-14 offseason. They lost Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson but replaced them with Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran.

McCann filled an obvious need behind the plate. Ellsbury brought speed and defense to a station-to-station club. Beltran? Beltran was brought in to be an experienced middle of the order thumper. Year one with Beltran didn’t go well mostly due to injuries (shoulder, concussion, elbow). Year two was mostly positive despite a miserable start.

A Healthy Spring

Soon after the end of the 2014 season, Beltran underwent surgery to remove bone chips and shave a bone spur in his right (throwing) elbow. He played through the injury late last year and his performance suffered. The surgery came with a six-week rehab and a 12-week timetable for returning to baseball activity, which meant Beltran was ready to go in camp.

The elbow was a non-factor in Spring Training and the Yankees didn’t hold Beltran back. He played in Grapefruit League games right away, and not as a DH either. He played the outfield. The elbow was healthy enough to throw. “The thing is pain free,” said Beltran to reporters after his first spring game. “Now it’s time to continue to get better and put together good at-bats during all of Spring Training.”

All told, the 38-year-old Beltran hit .225/.289/.275 in 15 Grapefruit League games. He had seven singles and two doubles, four walks and nine strikeouts. It wasn’t a great Spring Training statistically, and yeah, after elbow surgery it would have been reassuring to see Beltran rake, but the most important thing was his health. The elbow was sound and gave him zero problems.

A Bad Month, or the End of the Line?

Holy cow was Beltran bad early in the season. Players slump, I get that, and when players slump (or get hot) to start the season, it’s easy to read too much into it. But my gosh, Beltran wasn’t just not hitting, he looked awful in the process. He started the year in a 4-for-28 (.143) slump and Baseball Info Solutions data says he didn’t record his first hard-hit ball until the fourth game of the season. Beltran had three hard hit balls in his first seven games of 2015. Three!

In 18 April games, Beltran hit .162/.216/.265 (22 wRC+) with no homers and a 28.4% strikeout rate. The month started with a 2-for-20 (.100) slump and ended with a 2-for-22 (.091) slump. Joe Girardi dropped Beltran from the third spot in the lineup to the sixth spot two weeks into the season, and with Chris Young coming out of the gate hot, there were calls to bench Beltran outright.

Between the elbow surgery and his age, there were plenty of possible explanations for the early-season struggles. The Yankees stuck with Beltran even though he gave them plenty of reasons to make a change. “The important thing is that you continue to send him out there,” said Girardi at the end of the month, “and understand that he’s going to turn it around and be a big part of our offense.”

A New Month, A New Season

The end of Beltran’s early season slump coincides perfectly with the end of April. He went 2-for-4 with a double on May 1st, then went 2-for-4 with a double in his next game. Another double followed the next day. On May 10th, in the team’s 32nd game of the season, Beltran finally hit his first home run of 2015. The game-tying solo homer was part of a 2-for-2 with two walks day.

Beltran hit another solo homer the next day. The back-to-back games with homers were games three and four of what turned into 15-game hit streak, the longest by a Yankees player this past season. Beltran went 19-for-56 (.339) with four doubles and three homers in the 15 games. It was still a little too early to say Beltran was “back” — I’m not sure we’d ever even seen the good version of Beltran up to that point anyway — but at least he was showing signs of life.

The hot streak never really ended. Beltran put up a .299/.346/.494 (129 wRC+) batting line with 13 doubles and seven homers in 48 games from May 1st through the end of June. He wasn’t drawing many walks (5.9%) but his strikeout rate was tiny (14.9%). At the time, the Yankees had a fearsome middle of the lineup. Alex Rodriguez was mashing, Mark Teixeira was hitting dingers, and Beltran had picked up his game. It was glorious.

A Bump in the Road

The Carlos Beltran is Back Baby tour hit a bump in the road in early-July. In Anaheim on June 30th, Beltran took a swing and hurt his left oblique. Girardi and the trainer checked on him and Beltran actually stayed in to finish the at-bat before being removed after the inning. Here’s the injury:

The Yankees were at the end of a seven-game West Coast swing and the injury was reportedly minor, so they gave Beltran a few days to see how he felt. He did not play the next day, in the series finale against the Angels, and the Yankees had an off-day the day after that. Beltran was able to swing left-handed but not right-handed, so on July 3rd, he was placed him on the 15-day DL with an oblique strain.

“It just puts you in somewhat of a difficult position. If we were to test it and make it worse, if we were to just have him hit left-handed, everyone would possibly bring in a reliever when it was his turn and then you’ve got to make a switch,” said Girardi. “We had concerns about him trying to throw, so we thought it was best to give him this time off — especially with the days off that we have and the All-Star break, we’re trying to take advantage of them.”

The timing worked out fairly well. Beltran officially spent 18 days on the DL but missed only 12 team games due to off-days and the All-Star break. He played in three tune-up rehab games with High-A Tampa during the break and rejoined the team early in the season half. Obliques can be tricky. They’re very easy to aggravate. All things considered, the Yankees and Beltran were fortunate this was only a minor issue.

The Second Half Non-Slump

The Yankees came out of the All-Star break with a 3.5-game lead in the AL East and it swelled to seven games by the end of July. That lead quickly evaporated in the second half and the team had to settle for a wildcard spot, mostly because several important members of the lineup slumped. Brett Gardner, Ellsbury, A-Rod, and McCann were the main culprits, and Teixeira’s injury didn’t help either.

Beltran was the team’s one veteran middle of the order guy who didn’t slump in the second half. He was their best and most consistent hitter after the All-Star break, at times carrying the offense. The Yankees went 4-7 during an eleven-game span in mid-August but not because of Beltran: he went 12-for-34 (.343) with five homers in the eleven games. He was a one-man army.

In Toronto on August 14th, Beltran delivered the biggest hit of the season and the biggest by a Yankee in about three years. They were trying to keep pace with the Blue Jays in the AL East and Beltran delivered a huge pinch-hit three-run go-ahead home run in the eighth inning. To the action footage:

Thanks to that home run, the win turned a half-game division deficit into a half-game lead. Yeah, the Yankees lost the AL East anyway, but man, that was a huge win at the time. It was a statement win. The Blue Jays had won eleven straight and were steamrolling their way to the top of the division, but Beltran knocked them back to Earth and reminded everyone hey, the Yankees are pretty good too.

After returning from the oblique injury, Beltran hit .292/.364/.513 (138 wRC+) with 16 doubles and 12 homers in 67 games. He drew walks (10.8%), he didn’t strike out (13.4%), and he picked up countless huge hits. (His 0.63 Clutch score ranked 21st out of 153 qualified hitters in the second half.) The offense sputtered big time down the stretch. There were too many unproductive bats in the lineup. Beltran was the constant. The one guy who didn’t slump. He was their only reliable bat down the stretch.

Beltran finished the season with a .276/.337/.471 (119 wRC+) batting line, a team-leading 34 doubles, and 19 home runs. He had good walk (8.6%) and strikeout (16.0%) rates, he mashed righties (127 wRC+), held his own against lefties (99 wRC+) — southpaws had given Beltran a real hard time in recent years, so getting league average production in 2015 was better than expected — and he produced in high-leverage spots (147 wRC+).

The Yankees had three hits total — all singles too — in the wildcard game and Beltran had one of them. He went 1-for-4 with two strikeouts against Dallas Keuchel and the Astros that night. Beltran struck out to start the 1-2-3 ninth inning. The Astros finished one game back of the Yankees for the top wildcard spot and the Angels finished only one game behind the Astros. Without second half Beltran, the Yankees might not have even made the postseason.

Give Something Back on Defense

The Yankees signed Beltran for his bat, plain and simple. Had A-Rod not had such a strong season, particularly a strong first half, chances are Beltran would have spent a lot more time at DH. He started 128 games this summer and 120 were as the right fielder. Beltran finished only 59 of those 120 games. He was routinely replaced in the late innings because his defense isn’t good at all.

The stats paint an ugly picture. He finished with -14 DRS (57th out of 60 qualified outfielders), -4.5 UZR (47th), and -2.0 dWAR (59th). The Inside Edge data says Beltran made nothing beyond a semi-routine play in right field:

Carlos Beltran Inside Edge

Beltran made the routine plays and plays in which he had to range a little, but, beyond that, he made literally zero plays. The Inside Edge classification show zero outs recorded on plays that are made 40-60% of the time by the league average right fielder. So yeah, it was bad. Beltran gave a lot of runs back with his defense, even while being regularly lifted in close games. His offense was so good after April that he still contributed 1.9 fWAR and 1.0 bWAR on the season.

Looking Ahead to 2016

Next season is the final season on Beltran’s three-year contract. He has a no-trade clause and has made it no secret throughout his career he wants to play for the Yankees, so getting him to waive it doesn’t figure to be easy. Perhaps he could be convinced another club gives him a better chance to win his first World Series ring, like maybe the Royals, the club that originally drafted and developed him.

Anyway, a Beltran trade would really surprise me. The Yankees want to get younger but they want to win too, and Beltran is one of their better hitters. Replacing him in the middle of the lineup would be quite tough. Beltran figures to open next season in right field again, and I’m sure the Yankees will have their eye on moving him to DH should Rodriguez get hurt at some point. The Yankees don’t have a whole lot of flexibility with Beltran.

“I will approach (2016) like I approach it every year,” said Beltran to Christian Red recently. “If it’s my last year, it’s my last year. If I win a World Series, thank God for that. I’m very blessed.”