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.


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.


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.

Examining Chase Headley’s defensive ‘slump’

(Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

Heading into the season, there was probably no major-league team that had more question marks than the Yankees. Can the starting rotation remain healthy and be effective? Can A-Rod be an everyday player after being out of baseball for a year? How will Didi Gregorius handle the pressure of replacing Derek Jeter? Can the middle-of-the-order bats (Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann) bounce back? Who will be the closer? And the list goes on and on and on …

If there was one thing that Yankees fans did not have to worry about – and a reason to be optimistic about the team’s chances to be a playoff contender – it was the expectation that the Yankees would have one of the league’s best defensive lineups in 2015. One of the key factors in that projection was that they’d get a full season of Chase Headley at third base. No player accumulated more defensive value at the hot corner last year than Headley, who also seemingly passed the eye test as one of the league’s best-fielding third baseman.


Six weeks into the season, the consensus is that Yankees defense has failed to live up to those lofty preseason expectations. Whether you prefer the traditional stats or the advanced metrics, the Yankees are one of the worst defensive teams in baseball, and their sloppy play has probably cost them at least a few wins already. They rank 24th in both Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), 22nd in fielding percentage and 19th in defensive efficiency.

While he’s not the only Yankee underperforming on defense, Headley’s poor stats so far are perhaps the most surprising. His struggles in the field are puzzling given his stellar defensive reputation, and history would suggest that this stretch of poor defense is just a short-term slump rather than a real decline in skill. Although defensive stats can be unreliable in small samples, they are still hard to ignore right now when all of them are in agreement that Headley has performed well below average this season.

The advanced metrics have not been kind to Headley this season. He’s already cost the team five runs with his glove, according to DRS, and UZR has him as the third-worst defensive player at the hot corner. Both of those numbers are also the worst among all Yankees at any position (min. 40 innings played).

Looking at the traditional fielding stats, Headley already has as many errors this season (8) in 39 games as he did all of last year in 127 games at third base, and six of those have been throwing errors – twice as many as he made in 2014.

It’s not just the errors that have been piling up. Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) tracks every batted ball fielded by a defender, and flags certain ones as “Defensive Misplays” — plays that were not scored an error but where the fielder clearly squandered the opportunity to make an out or allowed a baserunner to advance. Headley has seven Defensive Misplays this season, putting him on pace for nearly 30, which would be more than double his total from last year (13).


Digging deeper into the numbers, we can see the types of plays that have been the most troublesome for Headley. One of the reasons that Headley was so good at the hot corner was his ability to make a lot more plays down the line than the average player. Balls hit to that location are typically more damaging than others if they get past the defender, because they often scoot into the outfield corners or reach the wall and likely end up as extra-base hits. According to BIS, Headley made 13 more plays to his right than the average third baseman last season. That’s good! This year, he’s been essentially an average fielder on those same balls hit down the third-base line. Uh, not as good.

As we know, defensive stats are not perfect, and there a couple possible explanations for the regression in these numbers. It could be due to a change in positioning (though they do not include any balls in play where the infield is shifted); or Headley could be struggling to make plays because the balls he’s fielded have been hit really hard towards him (the average velocity of ground balls fielded by Yankee third baseman ranks fourth-highest in the majors this season).

So what does all this mean going forward? Given Headley’s excellent defensive reputation, the fact that he’s historically rated above-average in the advanced metrics, and the unreliability of defensive stats over a short time period, we can’t make any definitive statements about his defense right now. It’s hard to believe that his true defensive talent has declined in a sample of fewer than 40 games, so you have to expect that his numbers will eventually normalize over an entire season.

Headley himself said that he’s not worried about his defense. “I’ll get it cleaned up,” he told the media on Sunday. Let’s hope he’s right.

Game 35: Bounce Back

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Last night’s loss was rather disappointing. It’s tough to swallow a loss like that when a) the Yankees had Chris Archer on the ropes in the first inning, b) Nathan Eovaldi pitched so well, and c) the only reliever used was Dellin Betances. When all three of those things happen, it should typically result in a win. Last night, it didn’t. That’s baseball.

Thankfully, the Yankees have a chance to move on and get back in the win column tonight. They haven’t lost consecutive games in almost exactly a month now, since April 14-15 against the Orioles in Camden Yards. Last night’s loss notwithstanding, the Yankees are kicking some major butt right now, and good teams shake off a loss and don’t let it spiral into a three or four-game losing streak. Here is Tampa Bay’s lineup and here is New York’s lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Brett Gardner
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. C Brian McCann
  6. RF Carlos Beltran
  7. 3B Stephen Drewlet’s get weird
  8. 2B Jose Pirela
  9. SS Didi Gregorius
    RHP Adam Warren

Another night of rain is in the forecast for St. Petersburg. Good series to play indoors so far. Tonight’s game is scheduled to begin at 7:10pm ET and can be seen on YES. Enjoy the game, folks.

Injury Updates: Masahiro Tanaka (wrist, forearm) will throw his next bullpen session on Friday. He had no issues today after throwing yesterday … Chase Headley is “pretty beat up” according to Joe Girardi, hence the day off.

With McCann and Beltran starting to come around, it’s time for Chase Headley to join the party

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

The Yankees have won 18 of their last 24 games, and during that stretch they’ve done just about everything well. The bullpen has been excellent, the team defense has been very good, the non-Michael Pineda rotation has been good enough, and the offense is much improved from the last two years. The Yankees are the fourth highest scoring team in baseball with an average of 4.85 runs per game. That’s up almost a full run per game from 2013-14 (3.96 R/G).

For most of April the Yankees relied heavily on Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner to generate offense. They still do, but for that first month, those two had to get on base if the club wanted to have any chance to score. Ellsbury and Gardner got on and someone drive them in. If that didn’t happen, the Yankees didn’t score very much. Those two carried the offense.

Lately, the Yankees have been getting some more contributions from the lower part of the lineup. Carlos Beltran, who looked as close to done as it gets for several weeks, is now 12-for-37 (.324) with two homers this month and is showing some real signs of life. Hopefully it’s not just a mirage. Brian McCann has rediscovered his power stroke as well, clubbing three homers in his last 13 games after hitting one in his first 14 games. Getting those two going was really important.

The very bottom of the lineup is a different matter. There’s not much the Yankees can or should do about Didi Gregorius. They have to give him an extended trial at shortstop because he could, maybe, possibly, be a long-term solution at the position. That means living with the growing pains now. Didi’s hitting a powerless .254 with a .333 OBP in his last 18 games, which is fine for a number nine hitter in my book. Jose Pirela figures to steal some at-bats from number eight hitter Stephen Drew, which should help the lineup as well.

That leaves third baseman Chase Headley, typically the seventh place hitter between McCann/Beltran and Drew/Gregorius. Headley is hitting .233/.285/.383 (83 wRC+) in 130 plate appearances this season, with the second highest strikeout rate (22.3%) and the second lowest walk rate (6.2%) among the team’s regulars. He does have a knack for big hits (169 wRC+ in high-leverage spots!), but, overall, the Yankees were counting on more from Headley.

No one came into the season expecting Headley to repeat his stellar 2012 season (145 wRC+), but it was fair to expect a repeat of his 2013-14 campaigns (109 wRC+), especially since he hit .262/.371/.398 (121 wRC+) during his short time in pinstripes last year. Instead, he has the third lowest average exit velocity (84.69 mph) on the team even after last night’s homer. Given that, it doesn’t seem his .273 BABIP with approach his .310 mark from 2013-14 mark anything soon.

The good news is Headley’s plate discipline hasn’t changed despite the drop in walk rate. A change in approach would be a big red flag. He isn’t swinging at any more pitches out of the zone (25.0% after 27.0% from 2013-14) and isn’t making less contact (80.8% after 76.9% from 2013-14). The contact and approach are there. The quality of the contact isn’t for some reason. For what it’s worth, Headley has been a second half hitter since becoming a full-time player in 2009.

First Half Second Half
2009 .232/.308/.366 (88 wRC+) .293/.377/.421 (122 wRC+)
2010 .269/.319/.367 (92 wRC+) .257/.337/.387 (105 wRC+)
2011 .299/.391/.401 (127 wRC+) .247/.306/.390 (98 wRC+)*
2012 .267/.368/.413 (124 wRC+) .308/.386/.592 (170 wRC+)
2013 .229/.330/.359 (100 wRC+) .280/.371/.458 (135 wRC+)
2014 .226/.296/.350 (88 wRC+) .265/.367/.402 (121 wRC+)

* Missed six weeks after breaking a finger sliding into a base.

Does that mean Headley is guaranteed to start hitting later in the season? Of course not. It’s a career long trend though and that’s something we have to acknowledge. Slow starts — slow first halves, really — are nothing new for Headley. Even with last night’s homer, what Headley is doing so far this year is right in line with what he’s done early in every other year as an everyday player.

“It’s fun to just be another guy in the lineup. I feel like guys aren’t game planing against just me. There’s other guys in the lineup they have to worry about,” said Headley to Ryan Hatch recently, referring to no longer having to be The Man offensively, like he did with the Padres all those years. “If you’re going to do that, there are other guys who can get you. There’s consequences with that.”

Headley’s defense has been excellent so far this year, every bit as advertised, but his offense has undoubtedly been a disappointment to date. Hopefully the big game last night is a sign he is breaking out of it. His lack of offense hasn’t really hurt the Yankees yet, and both McCann and Beltran are starting to pick up some of the slack, but the Yankees need Headley to get back to his career norms so the offense can fire on all cylinders.