Game 121: Out West

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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

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

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

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

Sherman: Yankees made Ellsbury and Headley available at the trade deadline

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

The Yankees made both Jacoby Ellsbury and Chase Headley available prior to the trade deadline, reports Joel Sherman. Obviously no teams bit; Ellsbury and Headley are still Yankees. It isn’t much of a surprise the Yankees put those two on the market considering they sold at the deadline. I’m sure they made all their veterans available.

Ellsbury, 33 next month, is hitting .274/.335/.374 (92 wRC+) in the third year of his seven-year, $153M contract. The 32-year-old Headley owns a .251/.325/.379 (90 wRC+) batting line following a miserable April. He’s in the second year of his four-year, $52M contract. Will either be a key contributor to the next great Yankees team? That’s up for debate but I lean no. Here are some more thoughts on this.

1. Expect the Yankees to continue to try to move both. The Yankees did sell at the trade deadline and it wouldn’t make sense to stop with those trades. Ellsbury and Headley don’t have nearly as much value as Andrew Miller, Carlos Beltran, and Aroldis Chapman, so they’re not going to bring a big return. Getting rid of them is as much about clearing payroll and a roster spot — especially in Ellsbury’s case given the team’s outfield depth — as it is adding pieces via trade.

The upcoming free agent market is pretty weak and I expect that to lead to a ton of trades over the winter. The pitching market especially, but also position players. The Yankees are making a concerted effort to get younger and dealing Ellsbury and/or Headley helps that cause. Replacing Ellsbury internally would be a piece of cake given all those outfielders with Triple-A Scranton. I expect the Yankees to continue pushing both guys in trades this month and in the offseason.

2. Ellsbury isn’t untradeable. There is no such thing as an untradeable contract these days. Vernon Wells was traded twice. Matt Kemp and Hector Olivera were just traded for each other. Josh Hamilton was traded last year. Ellsbury is not a terrible player. He’s just really overpaid relative to what he provides on the field. If guys like Wells and Kemp and Hamilton can be traded, so can Ellsbury.

Now, will the Yankees like the terms of an Ellsbury trade? Probably not. Chances are they’ll have to eat a bunch of money to facilitate a trade, or at least take another bad contract in return, a la Kemp and Olivera. It could work! A bad contract for bad contract trade that nets the Yankees a pitcher (Scott Kazmir?) while opening an outfield spot for one of the kids is worth pursuing. Ellsbury’s not untradeable. He’s just going to be really hard to trade.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

3. There figures to be a market for Headley over the winter. For all the talk about the golden age of young shortstops, there are a lot of really good third basemen in MLB these days. A few years back that wasn’t the case. There was a definite shortage at the hot corner. All those quality third basemen will make dealing Headley tough, but like Ellsbury, it’s not impossible.

Looking ahead to the offseason, the Dodgers (Justin Turner) and Marlins (Martin Prado) are set to lose their third basemen to free agency. The Giants just traded Matt Duffy and need to figure out what they’re doing at third base after this season. (Eduardo Nunez? Really?) The Angels could deal Yunel Escobar for prospects. Rebuilding clubs like the Braves and Brewers could have interest at the right price too. There will be a market for third base help in the offseason, which bodes well for the Yankees’ efforts to deal Headley.

4. The Yankees don’t have to trade Headley. Here’s the thing about Headley: the Yankees themselves need competency at third base going forward — you know as well as I that they’re going to try to win next season — and they don’t have an in-house third base replacement the way they do in the outfield. It’s clear the team doesn’t want to play Rob Refsnyder over there, leaving Ronald Torreyes as Plan B.

Now, this should not stand in the way of a Headley trade if one presents itself. The Yankees could always sign or trade for a replacement third baseman. This just gives them a little more leverage in trade talks, similar to Miller. Like it or not, they don’t have to trade this guy. Keeping him is perfectly fine given their internal options. Headley’s not someone who should be dumped for the sake of dumping a player, know what I mean?

Yankeemetrics: Raise or lower the white flag? [July 25-27]

Be Like Mike. (Photo: Getty)
Be Like Mike. (Photo: Getty)

No Chapman, no problem
Despite making their first significant “sell” trade-deadline move in more than two and a half decades, the Yankees continued to remain on the fringes of the playoff race with a 2-1 win over the Astros on Monday.

With the win, the Yankees moved to three games above .500 for the first time this season. This is the deepest into the season they’ve gone without reaching that mark since 1991, when they never got more than a game above .500 the entire season. They finished that forgettable campaign with a 71-91 record, their fifth-worth winning percentage in franchise history.

A victory did not look promising less than a minute after Michael Pineda took the mound in the bottom of the first inning; George Springer deposited the first pitch into the right-field seats for a quick 1-0 Astros lead.

It was the first time a Yankee allowed a first-pitch homer to the first batter of the game since the Jose Reyes took Hiroki Kuroda deep in Toronto on June 25, 2014, and just the 11th occurrence since pitch data became available in 1988. Of the 10 other instances, the only other Yankee pitcher who allowed no other runs besides that leadoff homer — like Pineda — was Jack McDowell on July 13, 1995 versus the Twins.

Austin Romine played the unlikely role of hero with a tie-breaking RBI double in the eighth inning. That was the first career go-ahead hit in the eighth inning or later for the backup catcher, who is hitting a robust .375 (12-for-32) with runners in scoring position this season, the best mark on the team through Monday.

Milestone alerts! Carlos Beltran’s double leading off the seventh inning was the 524th of his career, passing one Hall-of-Famer (Willie Mays) and moving into a tie for 44th place with another Hall-of-Famer (Ken Griffey Jr.). Up next is Ted Williams with 525 doubles.

Chase Headley’s game-tying single in the fifth inning was his 1,147th career hit, breaking the major-league record for most hits by a Colorado-born player. He surpassed Roy Hartzell, a Golden, CO native who played 11 seasons with the St. Louis Browns (1906-10) and the Yankees (1911-16). According to a 1914 New York Times article, Hartzell was the “handiest utility man the Yankees ever had…he has played every position on the club except battery positions.”

That was easy. (Photo: AP)
That was easy. (Photo: AP)

All aboard the win train
The Yankees sure are making it tough for Prince Hal to push the SELL! button. For a team that’s defined inconsistency, they’ve somehow caught an incredible wave of positive momentum at the most critical juncture of the season, beating the Astros again on Tuesday night. It was another comeback win fueled by dominant starting pitching, some timely hitting and a shutdown back-of-the-bullpen performance.

CC Sabathia posted his best start in more than a month, giving up two runs on four hits while pitching into the seventh inning. He snapped a six-game winless streak during which he allowed at least four runs in each outing. That matched the longest such streak of his career, which he also did in 2002.

Although Sabathia had posted an ugly 7.46 ERA in his previous six turns, it wasn’t like he was getting crushed every night. He still entered Tuesday’s game with the lowest average exit velocity allowed (85.8 mph) among pitchers with at least 200 batted balls in play, and then nearly matched that number against the Astros (86.8).

Dellin Betances pulled off another crazy Houdini act, getting out of a two-out bases-loaded jam in the eighth inning to help seal the win. Hitters are just 2-for-27 (.074) with ducks on the pond against Betances in his career, the second-lowest batting average allowed in that situation among active pitchers (min. 25 at-bats), behind only Pirates lefty Tony Watson (.069).

Aces down
The Yankees desperate playoff push hit a speed bump on Wednesday night as the Yankees squandered a golden opportunity to move within three games of the second Wild Card spot after losing to the Astros, 4-1.

Still, even with the disappointing defeat, the Yankees are 11-5 (.688) all-time at Minute Maid Park, their third-highest winning percentage at any ballpark, behind only Atlanta’s Turner Field (.857, 12-2) and Minnesota’s Target Field (.760, 19-6).

Rotation ace Masahiro Tanaka — who entered the game with a league-leading 1.50 ERA in nine road starts — allowed four runs in five innings and lost for just the third time in 21 starts this season.

The loss also snapped a streak of seven straight Yankee wins in games started by Tanaka, the team’s longest such streak since winning 12 games in a row with Ivan Nova (!) on the mound in 2011. Tanaka has now been tagged for 10 runs and 14 hits in 10 career innings at Minute Maid Park.

Prior to Tanaka’s sub-par performance, Yankee pitchers had allowed just 17 runs in their previous 10 games, their best 10-game stretch of run prevention since July 1998.

Brian McCann drove in the lone Yankee run in the fourth inning with his 15th home run. This is the 11th time in his career he’s hit than many homers in a season, a feat matched by only seven other catchers in MLB history: Carlton Fisk, Johnny Bench, Mike Piazza, Lance Parrish, Yogi Berra, Jorge Posada and Gary Carter.

2016 Midseason Review: The Infielders

Now that the All-Star break has arrived, it’s time to look back and review the first half of the season. We’ve already looked at the catchers. Now it’s time to tackle the infielders.

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

For years and years, the infield was the backbone of the Yankees. The 2009 infield was one of the greatest in history — the 2009 Yankees are one of only four teams in history with four +4 WAR infielders — but age and free agency has slowly chipped away at the greatness of the team’s infield the last few years. Over the last 20 months or so the club has had to rebuild three-fourths of that infield.

Only Mark Teixeira remains from that 2009 infield unit. Robinson Cano has been replaced by Starlin Castro at second base. Didi Gregorius took over at shortstop after Derek Jeter retired. Alex Rodriguez has given way to Chase Headley. There have been others along the way, but that’s where the Yankees are now. Headley, Gregorius, Castro, and Teixeira going around the horn. It’s an, uh, interesting group. Interesting is a good word. Let’s review the infield’s first half.

Mark Teixeira: What’s The Opposite of a Contract Push?

Holy moly, what a disastrous half-season for Teixeira. Not only has he missed time with injury — ongoing neck problems and cartilage damage in his knee, specifically — but he’s also not hitting. Teixeira went into the All-Star break with a .193/.272/.317 (57 wRC+) batting line and only seven homers in 243 plate appearances. Woof. Last year Teixeira hit .240/.350/.526 (133 wRC+) with 22 homers in the first half.

The drop off in production from Teixeira is a huge reason why the Yankees are only a .500 club and not a true contender at the All-Star break. He was expected to again put up big time power numbers and anchor the middle of the lineup. Maybe it was foolish to think Teixeira could approximate last year’s pace, especially after he spent the offseason rehabbing his shin fracture and not going through his usual routine.

Given the lack of home runs, it’s no surprise to see Teixeira has a (by far) career high 48.1% ground ball rate. His previous career high was 42.8% back in 2008. You’re not going to hit for power if you’re beating the ball into the ground, which Teixeira is doing often from both sides of the plate. He’s hitting .169/.248/.324 (51 wRC+) against righties and .237/.314/.303 (67 wRC+) against lefties.

The good news is Teixeira is still a shutdown defender in the field, which has been made all the more obvious by the parade of bad glovemen the Yankees have used to back him up this season. But when you’re a first baseman whose only redeeming quality is your defense, you’re a net negative. No amount of defense can make up for the offense Teixeira provided in the first half. He was so, so good last year. Now? Now I dread his at-bats.

This is the final season of Teixeira’s original eight-year, $180M contract, and even though Greg Bird‘s shoulder surgery has thrown a wrench into the long-term first base picture, it’s hard to see the Yankees bringing Teixeira back. He’s no longer a qualified offer candidate, and heck, he’s not even a trade candidate. The hope was Teixeira would mash some taters and be a decent trade chip should the Yankees not contend. Now they’re not contending and he’s not a trade chip. The worst of both worlds.

Second Half Outlook: You know, I have a hard time believing Teixeira will be this bad all season, but the guy is 36 and he does have a nagging neck problem and a compromised knee, so … maybe? I’m feeling optimistic and think Teixeira will be better in the second half, mostly by hitting more homers. He almost can’t be worse at this point. Either way, Teixeira is almost certainly entering his final half-season as a Yankees, and that’s kinda weird.

Starlin Castro: Testing The Limits of First Impressions

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

Boy, Castro made a really great first impression, didn’t he? He went 7-for-12 with two home runs and eight runs driven in during the opening series of the season, and he looked like someone who could hold down a middle of the lineup spot going forward. The Yankees had cycled through a lot of veteran mediocrity in the two years since Robinson Cano left. Castro appeared to be a long-term solution.

Instead, Starlin has hit .244/.283/.363 (69 wRC+) since that opening series, lowering his season batting line to .256/.293/.395 (81 wRC+) overall. That looks mighty similar to the .265/.296/.388 (80 wRC+) line he put up last season, doesn’t it? That’s not good! Castro is still only 26 years old, but his offensive production plateaued a few years ago, and there’s no real indication he’ll make the necessary adjustments to take a step forward. He’ll chase out of the zone at-bat after at-bat, game after game.

Castro’s glove has been solid at second, especially considering he’s been playing the position less than a full year. Yes, his double play pivot can be slow at times, though I’m hopeful that’ll improve with experience. Still though, the Yankees didn’t go out and get Starlin for his glove. They got him because of the belief he has untapped offensive potential. I mean, we’ve seen it. Castro hit .292/.339/.438 (117 wRC+) just two years ago. It’s in there. We just don’t see it often enough.

The first half-season of the Starlin Castro era has been underwhelming. He’s had his fair share of big games and important hits …

… but there are just too many empty at-bats to ignore. There are 167 hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title right now. Castro ranks 148th in walk rate (4.5%) and 146th in chase rate (36.0%). (He’s 150th in wRC+). He has the exact opposite approach the Yankees are known for, that patient, wear-you-down approach. Starlin makes himself an easy out far too often, and after more than 4,000 big league plate appearances, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever improve his approach.

Second Half Outlook: Something tells me Castro will continue to be the same frustrating — yet so obviously talented — player who does just enough to justify his lineup spot. He’s the type of player who leaves you wanting more. No doubt about it. Starlin’s contract runs through 2019, so unless the Yankees trade him (I don’t see that happening anytime soon), he’s not going anywhere for a while.

Didi Gregorius: The Emerging Cornerstone

Gregorius has not been the Yankees’ best hitter this season — that’s Carlos Beltran — but he has been their best all-around player, and I’m not even sure it’s close. The last month or so has been particularly impressive. Didi has hit .346/.379/.594 (157 wRC+) with seven homers in his last 34 games while playing his typically strong defense. (We’ll get back to the defense in a bit.)

Overall, Gregorius has authored a .298/.328/.468 (109 wRC+) batting line with a career-high eleven homers through 88 teams games. No, he doesn’t walk (3.5%), but he also never strikes out. His 11.0% strikeout rate is ninth lowest among those 167 qualified hitters. Two things have impressed me the most about Gregorius in the first half. First, his ability to spray the ball to all fields:


Source: FanGraphs
Gregorius does all his home run hittin’ to the pull side, which is understandable. He’s hardly the only guy who does that. Otherwise Didi sprays the ball all over the field. Singles and doubles to all fields. He’s shift-proof. It’s really impressive. It’s amazing to see how far Gregorius has come since early last season, when he looked like a deer in the headlights.

Secondly, Didi is suddenly a real threat against left-handed pitchers. He came to the Yankees as a career .184/.257/.233 (33 wRC+) hitter against southpaws, and last year those numbers “improved” to .247/.311/.315 (73 wRC+). Not so great. This year? This year Gregorius is hitting .360/.400/.440 (129 wRC+) in the admittedly tiny sample of 82 plate appearances against lefties.

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

No, the .371 BABIP won’t last forever, but I think we’ve seen legitimate improvement from Didi against southpaws. He hangs in better, he does a better job laying off breaking balls away, and he generally seems more comfortable. That applies to his entire game, really. Gregorius looks so much more comfortable in pinstripes this year. He’s playing with confidence. He really has come a long way in a short period of time.

Now, about his defense. Gregorius has all the tools to be a standout gloveman. We see them every single game. His hands are soft, he has big time range, and oh baby, that arm. Didi’s throws are so fun. At the same time, Gregorius has been more error prone this year. Specifically, it seems he’s bobbling more grounders than he did a year ago. I don’t think this is a long-term concern. Guys have defensive slumps the same way they have offensive slumps. We know Gregorius can play the hell out of shortstop because we’ve seen it.

Even with those errors, Gregorius is turning himself into a cornerstone type of player, someone who can handle the shortstop position for the next few years and be a real asset to the Yankees. Before I think the belief was Gregorius would catch everything at short and hit eighth or ninth. Now he looks like someone capable of hitting higher in the order and producing runs. Who would have guessed that last year? Didi’s development has been one of the best parts of this season, hands down.

Second Half Outlook: My guess is Gregorius’ numbers against lefties will come back to Earth a bit while his numbers against righties — he’s hitting .277/.303/.478 (102 wRC+) against northpaws — tick up a tad. Maybe not in terms of power, but the average and on-base ability. Remember, Gregorius really hit his stride in the second half last season. This is a guy who’s hit .294/.334/.441 (107 wRC+) over the last calendar year. This isn’t a small sample. This is who he has become. Keep building on that, Didi.

Chase Headley: The April That Can’t Be Forgotten

Chase Headley was so unbelievably bad in April that it doesn’t matter what he does the rest of the season. Everyone’s going to think he stunk this year. Headley hit .150/.268/.150 (21 wRC+) in the season’s first month. No extra-base hits! It was one of the worst months at the plate ever. In fact, in terms of OPS+, Headley had the second worst April in franchise history by a player with at least 50 plate appearances. He had a 21 OPS+ and Roger Peckinpaugh had 16 OPS+ in April 1918. So yeah.

And yet, almost as soon as the calendar flipped to May, Headley began hitting to his career averages. Look at his monthly splits:

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ 2B HR BB% K%
April 71 .150/.268/.150 21 0! 0! 14.1% 19.7%
May 93 .298/.355/.440 113 3 3 7.5% 18.3%
June 102 .275/.343/.418 103 5 2 8.8% 24.5%
July 35 .281/.343/.531 131 2 2 8.6% 37.1%

I guess the Yankees finally replaced the guy wearing No. 12 with the real Chase Headley on May 1st. April Headley stinks. Get that guy outta here. May through July Headley has been pretty damn cool though. He’s hit .285/.348/.444 (111 wRC+) in 230 plate appearances from May 1st onward, and currently owns a .255/.329/.378 (90 wRC+) line overall. Considering where he started, that’s pretty freakin’ good.

Of course, April happened and we can’t just ignore it. It cost the Yankees games in the standings. How many? That’s up for debate. There’s no debate he was a major drag on the offense that first month. The good news is Headley has turned it around and he did it relatively quickly. He had the one bad month and that was it. It’s not like he’s Teixeira, who’s still looking to get on track offensively heading into the All-Star break.

(Norm Hall/Getty)
(Norm Hall/Getty)

Speaking of turning things around, how about Headley in the field? He was not good defensively at all last season. He basically forgot how to throw. It was hard to watch. Headley seemed to be developing the yips, and in year one of a four-year contract, that’s scary as hell. Thankfully, after an offseason of work, Headley’s defense has bounced back in a big way this summer. He throws with conviction, and he’s also sure-handed at the hot corner.

Given Gregorius’ bobble issues and Teixeira’s in-and-out-of-the-lineup-ness, Headley has probably been the Yankees’ best and most reliable defender this season. Certainly on the infield, anyway. That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? Props to Headley for climbing out of that defensive rut. He worked hard at it and is back to being an above-average gloveman at third base. Between the defense and his offense since May 1st, Headley’s been solid this year.

Second Half Outlook: I’m a Headley believer, have been for years, and I think the guy we’ve seen since May 1st is the real him. Maybe not 111 wRC+ good offensively, but close. I think he’ll settle in around a 100 wRC+ and continue to be an asset in the field. That said, the Yankees are probably going to need more from Headley in the second half to get back into the race. No matter what he does, his performance in April will ensure he’s viewed as having had a bad year come the end of the season.

Yankeemetrics: Escape from The Jake [July 7-10]

(USA Today Sports)
(USA Today Sports)

Derek and Didi
Thursday’s game in Cleveland not only marked the Yankees’ final series before the All-Star break, but was also the start of a crucial, season-defining 14-game gauntlet against the AL’s cream of the crop: three first-place squads (Indians, Orioles, Rangers) and a wild-card team (Red Sox).

If their performance over the next few weeks is going to dictate whether they declare themselves as contenders or pretenders in this year’s playoff race, then at least the Yankees began this critical stretch with a bang.

Despite this matchup looking like a complete mismatch on paper — the AL’s best pitching staff (3.61 ERA entering Thursday) versus the AL’s second-least productive offense (.707 OPS entering Thursday) — the Yankees somehow rallied from an early deficit and held off a late comeback bid by the Indians to escape with a 5-4 win.

Didi Gregorius sparked the rally in the fifth inning with his 10th homer of the season, setting a new career-high and further cementing himself potentially as the team’s next superstar infielder. The list of Yankee shortstops (guys who played at least 75 percent of games at the position) to hit double-digit homers before the All-Star break is a short one: Derek Jeter (six times), Roy Smalley (1983), Frankie Crosetti (1936) … and now Sir Didi.

Hanging Chad
In a season filled with inconsistency, it was only fitting that the Yankees failed to build any momentum following their exciting win on Thursday and were clobbered by the Indians the next night, 10-2.

The game was essentially over after the first inning as Cleveland battered Chad Green for three homers and four runs before he could even get three outs. Carlos Santana led off the game with a homer to right field, and then three pitches later Jason Kipnis took Green deep to put the Yankees in an early 2-0 hole.

(AP)
(AP)

Green became just the fourth Yankee pitcher in the last 75 years to give up back-to-back homers to start a game. The last guy to do it was Hiroki Kuroda on Sept. 25, 2014 vs. the Orioles, and the others were Ted Lilly (June 6, 2001 vs. Orioles) and Catfish Hunter (June 17, 1977 vs. Red Sox).

The Indians weren’t done crushing Green’s batting practice fastballs, though. Lonnie Chisenhall went yard later in the first inning, giving Green the honor of being the sixth Yankee since 1930 to allow three homers in the first inning of a game. The rest of this illustrious list: A.J. Burnett (2010), Ron Guidry (1987), Catfish Hunter (same as above), Wade Blasingame (1972) and Hank Johnson (1932).

And Mike Napoli put an exclamation point on Green’s miserable night when he smoked a 3-2 pitch to deep left center field that nearly hit the scoreboard. It traveled 459.6 feet per Statcast, the second-longest home run allowed by a Yankee pitcher since 2008 (when Statcast began measuring batted ball distance).

Green’s final line was seven runs, five hits and four homers allowed in 4 1/3 innings. The last Yankee to surrender at least four homers against the Indians was Scott Sanderson on April 17, 1992, and the last guy to do that in Cleveland was Dennis Rasmussen in 1987.

(AP)
(AP)

Extra, extra
For the second time in three games the Yankees rallied to beat the Indians, 7-6 in 11 innings, stealing another thrilling victory on Saturday afternoon against the AL’s second-best team.

It was the Yankees’ first extra-inning win of the season, making this the latest into the season by date that the Yankees recorded their first win in extras since 1940, when they didn’t get one until July 17 … also against the Indians.

Brian McCann ripped the game-winning hit in the decisive frame with a booming RBI double off the wall in right field to break a 6-6 tie. He earned our ridiculous #Funfact Yankeemetric of the series: The last Yankee catcher with a extra-inning, go-ahead hit in Cleveland was Elston Howard, who belted a tie-breaking solo homer in the 11th inning off Luis Tiant on Sept. 23, 1964 in a 4-3 Yankees win.

Brett Gardner capped off the Yankees second rally of the game with a go-ahead, bases-clearing triple in the sixth inning to stake the Yankees to a brief 6-5 lead. Gardner entered the game with just 10 RBI in 60 at-bats with runners in scoring position this season; his rate of one RBI every six at-bats with RISP was the worst among the 199 players that had at least 50 at-bats with a man on second and/or third heading into the weekend.

Hey there, .500
The Yankees will head into the All-Star break on a winning note, riding the momentum of an impressive — and improbable — series win over the AL Central-leading Indians. By taking of three of four against one of the best teams in the league, the Yankees improved to 44-44, a fitting mark at the mid-point given that they’ve danced around the .500 mark for much of the season.

(AP)
(AP)

This is the 24th straight year the Yankees will enter the second half of the season with a .500 or better record, dating back to 1993. In that span no other team has even posted 20 non-losing first-half seasons, with the Cardinals, Braves and Red Sox each at 19.

Carlos Beltran was undoubtedly the Yankees’ first-half MVP, thanks to his tremendous power and consistency at the plate, leading the team in homers, doubles, RBI, batting average, slugging percentage and OPS. He is just the second Yankee in his age-39 season or older to finish the first half with a slugging percentage of .550 or better. The other was Babe Ruth, who slugged .562 before the break in 1934.

Andrew Miller has been arguably the most valuable pitcher on the Yankees staff thus far, featuring video game-like stats that haven’t been duplicated by anybody before this year. He is the only player in major-league history to pitch at least 35 innings in the first half and post an ERA below 1.50, a strikeout rate of at least 15.0 per nine innings and a WHIP below 1.00.

Benching A-Rod against righties is a good start, but there are other lineup changes worth making

But that's not any of Al's business. (Presswire)
But that’s none of Al’s business. (Presswire)

Later today, Alex Rodriguez will return to the lineup after spending the last two days on the bench. He wasn’t hurt. The Yankees are looking for ways to improve the offense and sitting Alex against right-handers is the solution they came up with. With lefty Cole Hamels on the mound tonight, A-Rod will be back in there.

“It’s a hard decision. Alex has meant a lot to this club over the years, but right now we’re gonna do something a little bit different and see how it works,” said Joe Girardi to Howie Kussoy yesterday. “It’s been tough for him against right-handers. That’s why we’re looking at this … You perform, that’s the bottom line. We’re in the business of performing. Things change. Nothing is set in stone.”

Rodriguez certainly has struggled against righties this year. The demotion is not undeserved. He’s hit .200/.236/.348 (50 wRC+) with a 31.7% strikeout rate against them so far, and his at-bats have looked pretty bad. A-Rod can’t seem to lay off sliders away and is getting chewed up by good fastballs. Removing him from the lineup against righties is necessary and smart.

That’s not the only lineup change the Yankees can and should make, however. Everyone involved keeps saying they’re trying to contend — “We can’t keep treading water. I want to be a contender, not a pretender,” said Brian Cashman to Josh Thomson yesterday — yet they can’t maintain the status quo and expect different results. It’s almost July. Here are some other changes the Yankees should make.

Give Teixeira’s Knee A Break

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Even with Mark Teixeira going deep the last two days, my guess is Rob Refsnyder will be at first base against Hamels tonight. Not only is there the left-right thing, but the Yankees had a very long night last night, and Teixeira also just played three straight games after coming off the DL with a knee problem. Girardi said they plan to give Teixeira a little more rest just to make sure the knee doesn’t flare up again. Makes sense, right? Right.

The Yankees have to do something to get Refsnyder at-bats and Teixeira’s knee is going to need regular rest, so this works well. Maybe something like three games on and one day off for Teixeira? Or two games on, one game at DH, and one day off? That will be difficult if these homers the last two days are a sign Teixeira is snapping out of his season long funk, but the Yankees can deal with that when the time comes. The point is to get Refsnyder some more at-bats. The kid has to play.

Drop Castro In The Lineup

There are 168 players qualified for the batting title as of this morning. Starlin Castro ranks 156th with a .285 OBP. That is terrible. I know he’s hit some big dingers and has generally been better than Stephen Drew, but man, his at-bats are consistently the worst on the team. He hacks at everything. Execute a slider off the plate in a two-strike count and Starlin will go fishing, no doubt about it.

Castro’s hot start and consistent dinger production — not to mention his age and contract — has bought him a long leash in a fairly premium lineup spot. He’s been hitting fifth or sixth for a while now. That has continued even though others, specifically Didi Gregorius and Chase Headley, have out-hit Castro for weeks now. Here are some numbers since May 1st, a totally arbitrary date I picked because it’s the start of a month:

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ 2B HR BB% K%
Castro 209 .231/.260/.372 64 7 7 3.3% 19.1%
Gregorius 193 .311/.344/.443 110 10 4 4.1% 8.3%
Headley 183 .279/.344/.412 104 8 4 8.2% 21.9%

So yeah, Gregorius and Headley have been way more productive players for close to two months now. Benching Castro won’t (and shouldn’t) happen — he’s still only 26 and at least has a chance to be a building block player going forward — but dropping him in the lineup shouldn’t be off the table. Moving him behind Gregorius and Headley would be totally justifiable given their recent production.

Give Gardner & Ellsbury More Rest

Remember the plan to rest the regulars more often? The Yankees talked about it all offseason and in Spring Training. It hasn’t happened though. The team got off to a slow start, so Girardi kept running his regulars out there in an effort to get things turned around. As a result, Brett Gardner has started 64 of 75 games while Jacoby Ellsbury has started 61. That’s more than I think the Yankees originally planned.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Gardner and Ellsbury have slowed down of late. Gardner is hitting .273/.340/.295 (75 wRC+) over the last two weeks and Ellsbury is at .222/.255/.244 (32 wRC+). I don’t know if giving them one extra day on the bench a week while help things, but that was the plan coming into the season, right? That plan shouldn’t be abandoned, especially with the offense being so hit and (mostly) miss. It’s time to try something different.

I know most folks are done with Aaron Hicks but I’m nowhere near ready to give up on him. Clamoring for the Yankees to sell and wanting to move on from Hicks are conflicting ideas. I say give Gardner and Ellsbury that extra day of rest per week and stick Hicks in the lineup in their place. The two veterans get more rest and hopefully stay productive while Hicks gets some at-bats.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Bonus Non-Lineup Suggestion: Get Nova Out Of The Rotation

Ivan Nova stepped into the rotation a few weeks back and strung together three very good starts. The rotation was a total mess at the time and Nova did a really nice job calming things down. Props. Lately though, Ivan has been a mess, and following last night’s dud he owns a 5.32 ERA (5.07 FIP) on the season. That can’t continue. Chad Green has a 1.54 ERA (2.25 FIP) in 81.2 Triple-A innings and lines up to take Nova’s spot perfectly. The Yankees have plenty of dead weight in the bullpen they can cast aside, so put Nova back into a long relief role and give Green a chance to show what he can do.

* * *

Are the Yankees doing all they can right now to give themselves the best chance to win? I don’t think so, not if Refsnyder is sitting on the bench for three days at a time and Nova is taking a regular rotation turn. Benching A-Rod is a good move that figures to improve the offense. There’s more than can be done though, and the sooner the Yankees start making other changes, the better off they’ll be. Sitting A-Rod should be step one, not the only step.

Batting average isn’t everything, but the lack of it is really hurting the Yankees

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

Last night, in the series opening loss to the Blue Jays, the Yankees were held to two runs or fewer for the 21st time in 50 games this season. No AL team has more games with no more than two runs in 2016. The Yankees were also held to five hits or fewer for the 11th time in 50 games. That’s the third most in the league.

It’s no surprise then that the Yankees came into Tuesday with the second fewest runs scored (192) and the second lowest runs per game average (3.84) in the AL. Only the lowly Twins (187 and 3.74) are worse. The offense has been a big problem overall this season, and, not coincidentally, their team batting average (.233) is the lowest it’s been through 50 games since 1969, as noted by our Katie Sharp. Check out last night’s lineup:

Yankees batting averages

Three players in the starting lineup were hitting over .250 and five of the nine were hitting below .230. That’s almost the regular lineup too. Aaron Hicks was starting in place of Alex Rodriguez, and, sadly, Hicks’ .198 average is an upgrade over A-Rod‘s .170 average. Otherwise that’s the starting lineup. That’s pretty close to what Joe Girardi would send out there in a winner take all wildcard game tomorrow.

Obviously batting average is not the only — or best — way to evaluate offense. Walks and hitting for power matter too. Batting average is not nothing though. We’ve reached the point where batting average has become underrated. The best thing a hitter can do at the plate is not make an out, and hits are always better than walks. Always always always. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Walks should supplement hits, not replace them.

The Yankees as a team really stink at hitting for average. Look at that lineup and tell me how many players have a lower batting average than what you’d reasonably expect coming into the season. Brett Gardner? Sure. He’s not a true talent .217 hitter. He hit .259 last year and .265 in over 3,000 plate appearances since becoming a regular in 2010. Mark Teixeira doesn’t really hit for average anymore but .195 is low even for him.

That’s probably it, right? You could argue Starlin Castro is better than a .250 hitter, though he did hit .265 in over over 1,800 plate appearances from 2013-15, and a 15-point swing in either direction is still within the range of “that’s baseball.” I guess you could argue Chase Headley is better than a .229 hitter too, but eh. That might be pushing it even as good as he’s been in May (.284/.348/.425) and after hitting .259 last year.

Point is, that is close to the normal for the offense in terms of batting average. Gardner and Teixeira (and A-Rod) are underperforming expectations that’s really it. Everyone else is pretty much where you’d expect them to be. Combine the lack of batting average with the lack of power — nine homers combined for Teixeira and Rodriguez through 50 games, woof — and you get, well, one of the worst offenses in the league.

It is harder right now to get a base hit than it has been at any point since the mound was lowered in 1969. I’m talking around the league, not just the Yankees. The MLB batting average is .252 right now. It was .262 when the Yankees won the World Series in 2009. A ten-point drop league-wide in seven years is huge! Go back ten years to 2006 and the league batting average was .269. There’s roughly 165,000 at-bats in MLB each season. The difference between a .269 average and a .252 average is over 2,800 hits. That’s crazy.

All sorts of things are contributing to the decline in offense and batting average. The infield shift is an obvious reason, but it’s not the only reason. More specialized relievers, the expanding strike zone, super detailed scouting reports, the increase in velocity — the MLB average fastball velocity is 92.3 mph this year, up from 90.9 mph in 2008, the first full year of PitchFX — all of that stuff has led to the decline in batting average.

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

Since the start of last season the Yankees have been, by far, the most shifted team in baseball. They’ve had 1,792 at-bats with the shift on since the start of last year. The Mariners are a distant second at 1,402 such at-bats. The shift has definitely played a role in the team’s inability to hit for average. Teixeira and Brian McCann are the most obvious victims, but shift-able switch-hitters like Headley and Carlos Beltran have been hurt too.

I’ve come to realize shifts are like strikeouts. You can have one guy in your lineup who will strike out 180+ times a year, maybe two if you really want to push it, but any more than that is a major problem. Same with the shift. One or maybe two shift-able hitters is fine. But five or six like the Yankees have at times? Nope. It doesn’t work. It’s too difficult to sustain rallies that way. We’ve seen too many rallies die on grounders hit to shallow right field the last few seasons.

The Yankees are — and have been for a few years now — one of the better contact teams in baseball, believe it or not. Their team 19.4% strikeout rate is sixth lowest in baseball. It was 19.1% from 2014-15, fifth lowest in baseball. There’s good contact and bad contact though, and the fact that they have the eight highest ground ball rate (47.7%) and 11th highest soft contact rate (19.8%) this year is bad news. Their MLB low .265 BABIP isn’t an accident. Weak grounders tend to go for outs, especially when you lack team speed like the Yankees.

There’s also this: the Yankees are old. Old hitters lose bat speed, which is why Beltran and Teixeira and A-Rod are no longer the hitters they once were. Even players in their early 30s like Gardner and Headley and Jacoby Ellsbury begin to slip. The team’s two under-30 regulars are Castro and Didi Gregorius, and let’s face it, they’re flawed hitters. They both tend to swing at everything. Aside from Gardner and Teixeira (and A-Rod) getting out of their slumps, there’s not much reason to expect the Yankees to post a higher batting average going forward.

The Yankees have focused on acquiring left-handed hitters who can take advantage of the short right field porch at Yankee Stadium and that intuitively makes sense. It doesn’t seem to have worked all that well, however. Going forward, in terms of overall team building, the best approach may be to focus on hitters with the skills to hit for average, then let any power boost from the ballpark come naturally.

Forget about hitting .300 for the second. Among players with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, the Yankees haven’t had a .285 hitter since Robinson Cano in 2013. The last regular other than Cano and Derek Jeter to hit .285+ for the Yankees was Nick Swisher in 2010 (.288). Batting average isn’t the only thing that matters. We know that. It also can’t be ignored either. The 2016 Yankees couldn’t make it any more obvious.