Game 111: Score Runs This Isn’t Funny Anymore

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Okay, that series over the weekend was a nightmare. No positives to be taken from it. The offense was miserable, they had the off-day yesterday to clear their heads, and now it’s time to get back to scoring a boatload of runs. I mean, I’ll be happy with like four tonight, that could be enough to win, but I really want to see a crooked number. Big inning, everyone involved, the works. No runs is no fun.

Oh, and tonight is Luis Severino‘s second career start. Stupid offense kinda stole the spotlight away. Severino was good in his first start — he looked ridiculous at times and also looked like a 21-year-old rookie at times, that’s usually how it goes — but hopefully the first start jitters are out of the way so he can go out and shove against a depleted Indians lineup. They’ve traded some veteran bats in the last two weeks or so. Here is Cleveland’s lineup and here is New York’s lineup:

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

It has been raining in New York most of the day but not in Cleveland. It’s just cloudy and humid there. No wet stuff in the forecast. Tonight’s game will begin at 7pm ET — the Yankees have no more games outside the Eastern Time Zone, you know — and you can watch on YES. Enjoy.

Injury Updates: Michael Pineda (forearm) threw 25 pitches off a mound yesterday and had no problems. He’ll throw a full bullpen session Thursday … Chase Headley acknowledged his legs are a little banged up from foul balls and stuff. He is available tonight but they want to give him two days off.

2015 Midseason Review: The Mostly Bad New-Look Infield

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

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Falling Short On Both Sides Of The Ball

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

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

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

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

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

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Replacing A Legend

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

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

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

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

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

Okay So Maybe 2014 Wasn’t A Fluke

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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

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

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

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

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Welcome To New York, Brian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Game 85: Last Home Game Before The All-Star Break

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It’s the last home game of the first half. The Yankees are 24-16 with a +34 run differential at Yankee Stadium this season and only 21-23 with a -16 run differential on the road. The offense hasn’t exactly been firing on all cylinders the last few games, but the Yankees are clearly a much better team in their home ballpark this season. That short porch sure is friendly.

Masahiro Tanaka is making his last start before the All-Star break today and it has been an uneven first half for him. There were times he looked absolutely dominant, times he got smacked around, and off course the month long DL stint. Tanaka’s second half is going to have to be better than his first half for the Yankees to stay in the postseason hunt, I reckon. Hopefully he can finish the first half on a high note today. Here’s the A’s lineup and here’s the Yanks’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Brett Gardner
  3. DH Mark Teixeira
  4. C Brian McCann
  5. 1B Garrett Jones
  6. SS Didi Gregorius
  7. RF Chris Young
  8. 2B Stephen Drew
  9. 3B Cole Figueroa
    RHP Masahiro Tanaka

Not the greatest weather day for baseball. It was raining this morning and it’s supposed to rain again this afternoon, but not for another few hours. Shouldn’t be a problem unless the game goes into extra innings or something. This afternoon’s game will begin just after 1pm ET and you can watch live on YES locally and MLB Network nationally. Enjoy!

Injury Updates: Chase Headley (calf) had an MRI last night and it showed inflammation close to his knee. He feels much better but remains day-to-day … Brendan Ryan (back) will start a minor league rehab assignment today. It was supposed to start Friday but has been pushed up, I guess because the Yankees want to get Ryan back as soon as possible in case Headley’s injury lingers … If you missed it last night, CC Sabathia had his knee drained before the start of the homestand. Second time he’s had it drained since Spring Training.

Roster Move: So, based on the lineup, Figueroa is with the team now. Jose Pirela was sent down and Taylor Dugas was designated for assignment in corresponding moves, the Yankees announced. Figueroa, a left-handed batter, is having a great season with Triple-A Scranton (.317/.372/.415 and 130 wRC+ with 5.0 K% and 7.5 BB%) and he can play all over the infield. Makes more sense for the roster than Pirela with Headley banged up.

Game 84: The Return of Ellsbury and Miller

Yay good players. (Presswire)
Yay good players. (Presswire)

The Yankees made two big trades today! Well, no, not really. People just like to say getting someone back from the DL is like making a trade for whatever reason. Both Jacoby Ellsbury (knee) and Andrew Miller (forearm) have rejoined the team today, so they’re whole again. Or at least closer to being whole. They still have some dudes out with injury.

Miller and especially Ellsbury will be asked to contribute right away because the offense has had trouble scoring more than three runs a game lately and because CC Sabathia is back on the mound tonight. Sabathia has not pitched well at all this year — he’s made 16 starts and allowed fewer than four runs only six times — but he’s staying in the rotation, so the Yankees are hoping he turns in a surprisingly strong performance tonight. Hopefully Ellsbury and Miller can help pick up the slack. Here is the A’s lineup and here is the Yanks’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Brett Gardner
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. RF Chris Young
  6. C John Ryan Murphy
  7. SS Didi Gregorius
  8. 2B Jose Pirela
  9. 3B Gregorio Petit
    LHP CC Sabathia

Now, the bad news: It’s raining. Has been for most of the afternoon but it’s just light rain at the moment. There’s more rain in the forecast later tonight, though it appears there’s a big enough window to get the game in. We’ll find out soon enough, I suppose. First pitch is scheduled for a bit after 7pm ET. The game will be on YES. Enjoy.

Roster Moves: Both Ramon Flores and Nick Rumbelow were sent down to Triple-A Scranton to make room for Ellsbury and Miller, the Yankees announced. Not unexpected.

Injury Updates: Chase Headley is day-to-day with a sore calf … Brendan Ryan (back) has resumed baseball activities and could begin a minor league rehab assignment soon … Mason Williams (shoulder) has renewed soreness after throwing, so his rehab has been slowed down. Surgery is not being considered at this time … Slade Heathcott (quad) is still shut down. He’s not close to returning.

All-Star Update: According to MLB’s update, Brett Gardner is currently fourth in the AL Final Vote voting. There is basically no chance anyone other than Mike Moustakas wins based on the way Royals fans stuffed the ballots for the starters. Here’s the ballot anyway … No Yankees will be in the Home Run Derby, unsurprisingly. Here are the participants.

Update: Chase Headley leaves game with groin injury

10:42pm: Headley left the game because he felt nauseous after the shot the groin, Joe Girardi told reporters. Yup. He’s day-to-day.

8:47pm: Chase Headley left tonight’s game with an injury, apparently. Headley whiffed while attempting to field a ground ball in the third inning and the ball hit him right in the biscuits, though he did stay in to complete that inning plus one more after that. The Yankees haven’t provided any sort of update yet.

The Yankees do not have a backup third baseman, so losing Headley would be really bad, errors or no errors. Alex Rodriguez is the full-time DH now, which means either Brendan Ryan, Gregorio Petit, Jose Pirela, or mostly likely Stephen Drew would get the nod at third if Headley has to miss any time. Hopefully not.

Chase Headley, the clutch Yankee

(Richard Perry/The New York Times)
(Richard Perry/The New York Times)

There are a ton of ways you can slice-and-dice Chase Headley’s first full season in the Bronx. Unfortunately, most of them paint the picture of a player having one of the worst statistical seasons of his career, both offensively and defensively, and performing well below preseason expectations.

He’s on pace to post the lowest walk rate, on-base percentage and OPS of his career (excluding his cup-of-coffee season in 2007), and is just a few ticks away from career-worsts in batting average and slugging percentage. Overall, his park- and league-adjusted production is 16 percent worse than the average major-league hitter, a stunning reversal from both last season with the Yankees (21 percent better) and his career entering this year (14 percent better). Yuck.

And that’s just what he’s done this season at the plate.

In the field, he’s already matched his career-high in errors (13) — barely one-third of the way through the schedule — and he’s cost the team a whopping eight runs on defense (per Defensive Runs Saved). This surprisingly sloppy glovework comes on the heels of being ranked as one of the best fielding third baseman in baseball last year, and is really shocking given his stellar defensive reputation throughout his career.

But there’s a very good reason why every Yankee fan should thank Brian Cashman for signing Headley this winter:

Headley has performed better in clutch situations than any other Yankee hitter this season, and has raised his game when the stakes are the highest.

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First let’s take a look at the most basic “clutch” situation — hitting with runners in scoring position. Headley boasts a .308/.350/.635 in those plate appearances, one of the top three slash lines on the team. That’s pretty darn good.

Then, let’s add a little pressure and look at “close and late” at-bats, which is defined as the seventh inning or later with the batting team ahead by one, tied, or has the tying run on base, at bat or on deck. Headley checks in with the team’s second-best batting average (.290) and on-base percentage (.389), and third-highest slugging percentage (.387). Bravo, Chase.

Finally, let’s see Headley performs in all high-leverage situations. Leverage is basically an attempt to quantify how tense and suspenseful any single at-bat is in a game. For example, there is a lot more on the line — in terms of winning or losing — when a batter steps to the plate trailing by a run in the ninth inning with two outs, compared to a similar at-bat in the third inning or if you are ahead by five runs.

Headley has the highest batting average (.333), slugging percentage (.625) and OPS (1.010) in high-leverage situations on the team. Boom! He’s producing at a level 83 percent better (!) than the average guy, a top-25 mark among all qualified players in the Majors this season.

It’s not only that Headley had performed really, really well in these high-pressure situations. The other part of the story is that Headley is also having perhaps the worst offensive season in his career, yet he’s come up huge for the Yankees in the biggest spots. Hitting .333 in high-leverage at-bats when you are hitting .245 overall is not the same as doing that when you are hitting .333 overall. The first guy is, by this definition, clutch; the second guy is … just awesome. How clutch, though?

FanGraphs has a statistic that attempts to measure this nebulous “Clutch” term, by comparing a player’s production in high-leverage situations to his context-neutral production. Headley has by far the highest Clutch score on the Yankees, and also one of the top-15 marks in baseball.

Sure, you can lament the fact that he’s been pretty mediocre overall; but you can also celebrate the fact that Headley has contributed positively in the most critical at-bats this season.

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Now, the big caveat in this whole discussion is that while these various clutch metrics do a good job of describing what’s happened in the past, they do very little to predict the future.

So instead of trying to analyze why Headley has performed like Bryce Harper in high-leverage situations, or debate whether he can sustain his clutch hitting, let’s just sit back and enjoy the ride. There are a lot of reasons to be disappointed in how much Headley has under-performed this season, but there’s also one big reason to be happy he’s on the team and his bat is in the lineup every day.

Chasing a Rebound

Even before they acquired him last season, Chase Headley was a player on the minds of Yankee fans for a long time. A switch hitter with power and patience, wallowing the Petco Pitcher’s Paradise, he seemed the perfect fit for the Yankees, even before considering his reputedly elite glove at third base. Many people, myself included, thought getting Headley at any point before free agency was something of a pipe dream. Like many other things I’ve said about baseball, I was quite clearly wrong about that.

When he joined the Yankees last season, Headley did about what was expected: provide good defense and get on base (12.9 BB%) and hit for a little bit of pop (.136). Mostly, he righted the ship at third base, which had been taking on an entire ocean of water in the absence of Alex Rodriguez. So far this year, through Friday, 6/5, Headley isn’t hitting all that great, and has had some hiccups in the field (along with a glut of spectacular plays, though). His line sits at .254/.305/.395, good for a .306 wOBA and a 93 wRC+. That’s not all that great to begin with, and it looks a little worse when compared to the average Major League third baseman , who’s wOBAing .318 and wRC+ing 102. It seems that we’ve been waiting for a big breakout from Headley and it seems like it hasn’t exactly arrived–at least at first glance. Looking a bit deeper, we’re smack in the middle of a month-long rebound from Headley.

From Opening Day through May 10, the day his OPS bottomed out at .633, Headley hit just .224/.280/.353, ‘good’ for a wOBA of just .295. His BABIP was a fairly low .274 and his ISO was just .129, both off from his career marks of .329 and .143 respectively. On May 11th, however, Headley started a hot streak that is ongoing. That day, he went 2-4 with a homer and four batted in to kick off a stretch that’s seen him hit .294/.337/.447, a .338 wOBA. His ISO in that stretch is .159, over his career average and over the average ISO for a 2015 third baseman (.155). As I’m fond of saying, there’s the ‘what,’ now let’s look for the ‘how.’ How did Headley start turning things around? Using the same date ranges as before (4/6-5/10 and 5/11-6/05), let’s jump into the batted-ball data that the ever-awesome Brooks Baseball provides for us.

In the early part of the season, Headley was getting eaten alive by fastballs, sinkers, and changeups. That’s a bad thing no matter what; it’s even worse when those are the three pitch types you see the most. He hit just .234; .167; and .167 against them respectively, with ISOs of .149; .000; and .056 respectively. Those marks are as ugly as his overall line was for that stretch of time. His BABIPs against those pitch types were also low: .278; .188; .231.  Since then, things have improved. From 5/11-6/05, Headley has reamed fastballs at a .393 clip with a .607 SLG (.214 ISO) and a .435 BABIP.  This marked improvement on ol’ number one has been sparked by a change in batted-ball type for Headley.

During this hot-stretch, Headley has gotten more grounders, line drives, and home runs (per fly balls/line drives) against fastballs than he did in April and early May. We know that grounders and line drives are way more likely than fly balls to be hits, so that helps explain the big uptick in average and BABIP. The increased home run totals speak for the jump in ISO. Similar things have happened against sinkers and changeups for Headley, too.

He’s hitting fewer grounders on balls in play against sinkers now (57.14%) than before (62.50%), which plays against what pitchers aim to do when they throw sinkers. And though he still hasn’t left the yard on a sinker (0.00 HR/FB+LD on sinkers for the year), he’s been hitting a higher portion of them, 33.33% to 18.75% for line drives.

Of the changeups Headley put into play in the first part of the season, he pounded 92.31% of them into the ground, which plays right into what pitchers are hoping for when they throw a change. The other 7.69% were line drives. Those totals have been altered quite a bit in the May-June hot streak as he’s lowered the ground ball rate t0 33.33% and upped the line drive rate to 41.67%. The most impactful change, though, has been that of the changeups he’s put into play (25% rate total), 25% of them have gone for homers. He’s gone from being mastered by changeups to mastering them right out of the park.

The rebound we wanted from Headley in early May seems to have arrived and is continuing as I write this and as you read it. What he’s hitting during this stretch is probably the upper bound of what we can expect from him as a hitter and may be hard to sustain. However, this is what we envisioned when we saw Headley traded to the Bronx last summer, something that made us pretty happy. Hitting like this would make that aforementioned pipe dream a reality.