The small things added up in Yankees’ Game Four win

Slip 'N Slide (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Slip ‘N Slide (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Whenever you have a big win, some big things have to go your way. A homer here, a double there, a strikeout here, a double play there. This all kind of goes without saying.

But there are also the little things that change everything. The borderline strike call. The tiny bit of experience you have against the opposing pitcher. The fielder being shaded a foot this way or that.

In Game 4, the big ones are obvious. The Aaron Judge hits (MVP!), Gary Sanchez‘s double and really any hit from the seventh inning on. Chad Green and Aroldis Chapman keeping the Astros relatively silent. But I wanted to break down or simply note a few of the small details that changed the complexion of the contest and led to perhaps the Yankees’ biggest win since Nov. 4, 2009.

1. Sitting on McCullers’ curve: Going into Game Four, Judge had about as good a feel against Lance McCullers as any Yankee hitter. He was 2 for 4 with a double and a walk against the righty in five career plate appearances and walked in one of his first two PAs on Tuesday.

McCullers is obviously a curveball-first pitcher, especially in Game 4, as he should be with that good a curve. But Judge has seen it well and McCullers has actually avoided the curve against Judge this year, often using his fastball and change. He’d only led off with a curve for a strike once, his first AB against Judge back in May.

But Judge is a smart hitter and knew to keep looking for it. It doesn’t take an MVP to hit a hanging curve, but it takes a good hitter to be waiting for the right pitch. He got his first pitch curve over the plate and took advantage.

2. The ABs against Chris Devenski: The Yankees have figured out Devenski. Some credit definitely goes to the Yankees’ advance scouts, including former reliever Matt Daley, who Suzyn Waldman mentioned on the WFAN postgame as involved in watching the Astros the last month or so.

Maybe the league has figured out Devenski and he just needs to adjust. Or maybe it’s just a rough stretch. The changeup master seems to have lost some steam in recent months and his three at-bats against Yankee batters were a perfect example.

The Bombers know to wait for his fastball and spit on his offspeed stuff, which he hasn’t been throwing for strikes. Didi Gregorius lined an 0-1 fastball for a triple (more on this in a second), Gary Sanchez got a 2-1 fastball and drove it to right and Greg Bird spat on a nice 2-2 change before drawing a walk. Bird did swing through a 2-1 change, but he made the adjustment.

3. Defensive non-replacement: In case you forgot, the Yankees lost a game to the Astros on May 11 this year because A.J. Hinch went to Jake Marisnick as a defensive replacement in left field and he threw out Jacoby Ellsbury at the plate. Marisnick is a very solid corner outfielder and would have been welcome for the Astros in the later innings.

But he’s out for this series after fracturing his thumb in September. That’s part of why Cameron Maybin was in left field to miss Greg Bird’s double on Monday and Marwin Gonzalez was in left on Tuesday. Gonzalez is a fine hitter and solid fielder, but has below average foot speed. If Hinch has Marisnick, he likely puts him in left starting in the seventh, when he would have had a chance to flag down Didi’s triple for an out. Or hold him at second. Either way, an injury to a backup on another team in September could have made a difference tonight.

4. Cutting down Gurriel: Backing up a moment, I just wanted to quickly mention the cut-off on Yuli Gurriel’s three-run double. Todd Frazier does a good job of cutting the ball, surely aided by his teammates, and getting Gurriel in a rundown. Finely executed rundown with the putout by Judge coming in from right field. The big man helping in all sorts of ways! The play helped keep the game at 3-0 for the moment and was a nice team effort.

5. Chase Headley and Joe Musgrove’s cutter: Musgrove tried a backdoor cutter to Headley to start the eighth-inning at-bat and missed. Headley mentioned postgame that he kept it in his mind that Musgrove may go back to it. Sure enough, he did on 2-2 and Headley lined it into left-center. That’s just smart baseball from Headley.

6. Headley’s slide: This one, pictured above, was delightful at the start, scary in the middle and exhilarating at the end. How many times have the Yankees made outs on the bases this postseason? Feels like too many. This was less a bad baserunning play and more bad luck with Headley stumbling. He’s a smart baserunner and gets lucky that Carlos Correa doesn’t hold the ball a split-second longer to wait him out. Phew. This was a small one that was a big one if you know what I mean.

7. The non-called strike: Judge fouled off the first pitch from Ken Giles. Like every pitcher this postseason, Giles then went for an offspeed pitch away. However, he didn’t get the call.

(Screenshot)
(Screenshot)

Perhaps he should have. Perhaps this was karma from the baseball gods for all the bad calls Judge has seen at times this postseason. If the count goes 0-2, who knows if Judge can fight his way to tie the game? At 1-1, Judge maintained some control and it led to his big double. Also helps that he’s seen Giles a few times now dating back to the regular season and knew what the tough righty threw.

There were plenty other examples.  One pitch in his walk on Friday perhaps led to Gary Sanchez’s go-ahead double off Giles. Maybe Didi’s bunt on Monday changed the Astros’ defensive alignment to allow his seeing-eye single in the eighth. It’s hard to discern at times.

The Yankees need many more big hits, defensive plays and strikeouts to get through this series and another seven-game set. To accompany those, they’ll need some of these small ones to go their way as well.

The Astros’ bullpen may have some depth issues heading into the ALCS

Devenski (Elsa/Getty Images)
Devenski (Elsa/Getty Images)

During the 2017 season, the Houston Astros’ bullpen developed a strong reputation.

They posted the most fWAR in the first half of the season (4.9). For the whole season, they struck out a shade under 11 batters per nine innings and boasted five relievers who threw at least 40 innings and struck out at least 10 per nine. Ken Giles bounced back to his 2014-15 form and Chris Devenski emerged along with his signature changeup.

But when you look below the surface, the bullpen isn’t nearly as intimidating as they seemed early in the year.

In the second half, the Astros produced a 4.49 bullpen ERA with an elevated home run rate and the 20th highest fWAR. Granted, they acquired Tyler Clippard in August, so that could explain some of it, but it was also about their top relievers letting them down.

Giles was just as dominant, perhaps more so, down the stretch, so he should be exempted from this conversation. But batters seemed to adjust to Devenski somewhat as his K/9 fell by more than four Ks and his walks rose. He still held batters to a .198 average (38 points higher than the first half), but his ISO against rose from .134 to .232. Yikes.

But their reliable back-end of the bullpen from 2015 is no longer quite so usable. Luke Gregerson still strikes out a batter an inning, but he allowed 13 home runs, more than all but one MLB reliever this season. Devenski gave up 11 yet threw nearly 20 more innings than Gregerson. His walk rate is nearly a career-worst and was only used in the eighth inning of blowouts during the ALDS.

Will Harris has similarly been relegated to a lesser role despite having a solid season. He still sports a K-BB rate of over 25 percent and a 2.98 ERA. Yet A.J. Hinch refused to use him in big situations against the Red Sox in the ALDS. He got the eighth inning of Game 1 with a six-run lead and couldn’t even finish the inning after giving up back-to-back singles. He could have been part of the bridge to Giles in Game 4, but Hinch eschewed Harris for Justin Verlander.

Gregerson (Bob Levey/Getty)
Gregerson (Bob Levey/Getty)

Beyond those four, the Astros used just two other relievers beyond the Brad Peacock-Lance McCullers Jr. piggyback start in Game 3 and that was Joe Musgrove and Francisco Liriano. Liriano is just a matchup lefty for them and Musgrove is mostly a long man.

Hinch will simply have to go to Harris or others in key situations against the Yankees or keep his starters in, perhaps past their breaking points. He can’t use Verlander or Keuchel in relief until a winner-take-all situation in a seven-game series. Perhaps the Astros can out-hit the Yankees to the point where there aren’t too many high leverage innings for their middle relievers. However, I’d bet that we’ll see Hinch have to go to a reliever he doesn’t quite trust with a game on the line.

And that’s before you dissect the ALDS performance of the two relievers he does trust. Devenski and Giles combined for 5 1/3 innings and allowed five runs on seven hits. They struck out five and walked none. The latter part is encouraging yet they didn’t shut the door.

Terry Francona relied upon more relievers than Hinch and he was still stretched thin at times by the Yankees’ offense. As evidenced by Todd Frazier and Brett Gardner in the ninth on Wednesday, the Bombers will take every pitch and wait out mistakes. They were able to get the Indians’ starters out after an average of 12 outs. The Astros won’t have the luxury of going to a deep bullpen for long innings and will need their rotation to go long, thus emphasizing the importance of the Yankees’ long at-bats against the starters.

A key to look for: Devenski’s reverse split. Thanks to his changeup, he holds lefties to a .110/.178/.236 line compared to righties batting .238/.314/.448 against him. If he comes in against a lefty/switch-hitter heavy part of the lineup, he’s more likely to excel. If he’s asked to face one or two of Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge and co., he could be in for trouble.

If the Yankees can’t hit Keuchel, Verlander and the other Astros starters, the potentially soft underbelly of the Houston bullpen won’t matter. But if this series goes anything like the Indians series, this series might come down to a few at-bats from relievers who haven’t seen high leverage outings recently … and for good reason.

Scouting the Trade Market: Houston Astros

Musgrove. (Bob Levey/Getty)
Musgrove. (Bob Levey/Getty)

According to multiple reports, the Astros are prepared to do something big this offseason. They had a breakout 2015 season, winning 86 games and beating the Yankees in the AL Wildcard Game before losing to the Royals in the ALDS. Rather than build on that success in 2016, they slipped to 84 wins and fell five games short of a postseason berth. They want to wipe that disappointing 2016 season from their memories.

So far this winter Houston has been connected to big name players like Edwin Encarnacion and Miguel Cabrera. More realistically, the Astros are also said to have interest in Yankees catcher Brian McCann, who has been deemed expendable thanks to the emergence of Gary Sanchez. Jason Castro is a free agent and the ‘Stros want a veteran backstop who can lead the staff and also provide some offense. McCann can do exactly that.

The Yankees are reportedly willing to eat up to half the $34M remaining on McCann’s contract to facilitate a trade, but if they do that, they want a better package in return. Makes sense. Pitching is said to be the top priority this offseason and I’m guessing that will be the focus in any McCann trade. McCann has a full no-trade clause, so he’s in control here. There are indications he will approve a trade to the Astros because they figure to contend and he’ll be able to DH. We’ll see.

Despite all their tanking over the years, Houston’s farm system is not loaded with talent at the moment. They’ve got plenty of good prospects, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not like the Yankees will be sifting through a farm system as deep as, well, their own. Here are some ‘Stros youngsters who could pique New York’s interest as they work through a McCann trade. The players are listed alphabetically and all scouting reports come from MLB.com.

RHP Chris Devenski

Background: Devenski, 26, was a 25th round pick by the White Sox in 2011. The next year he was sent to the Astros as the player to be named later in the Brett Myers trade. Devenski worked as both a starter and reliever in the minors, and after making his MLB debut as a starter this season, he settled into a relief role and had a 2.16 ERA (2.34 FIP) in 108.1 innings. Only Michael Fulmer bested Devenski in fWAR (3.0 vs. 2.8) and bWAR (4.9 vs. 2.8) among AL rookie hurlers.

Scouting Report: “The key to his success is his plus changeup, which allows him to get swings and misses from lefties and righties alike despite having otherwise fringy stuff. Devenski’s fastball operates at 89-91 mph and tops out at 93. He also has a curveball that he can throw for strikes. Devenski can’t overpower hitters, but he keeps them off balance and doesn’t beat himself with walks or homers.”

Why Should The Yankees Want Him? Devenski has the tools to start thanks to his three pitches and good control. His velocity ticked up as a reliever — he averaged 92.3 mph and topped out at 97.6 mph in 2016 — but even at 89-91 mph he can have success turning a lineup over multiple times, especially if he maintains his 4.9% walk rate. The upside here is a cheap back-end starter with the fallback option of a pretty good reliever.

Why Should The Yankees Stay Away? There are reasons to believe Devenski is not as good as he was this past season. I can’t help but look at his 33.5% ground ball rate and 0.33 HR/9 (3.5 HR/FB%) and think that’s probably not going to last long-term, especially not for a dude with an 89-91 mph fastball as a starter in a small ballpark like Yankee Stadium. That doesn’t mean Devenski can’t still be valuable with, say, a 1.00 HR/9 as a starter, it just means his 2016 performance probably isn’t who he will be going forward.

RHP Michael Feliz

Background: The 23-year-old Feliz originally signed with the Athletics as an amateur out of the Dominican Republic, but his contract was voided after he failed a drug test. The Astros scooped him up, he served his 50-game suspension, and he’s since blossomed into a hard-throwing righty. Feliz received a cup of coffee last year and spent the entire 2016 season in Houston’s bullpen, where he had a 4.43 ERA (3.24 FIP) with a great strikeout rate (35.2%) and an okay walk rate (8.2%) in 65 innings.

Scouting Report: “His fastball sits in the mid 90s and gets up to 98 mph. His slider is his best secondary offering, and his changeup gives him a third quality offering. He mostly works around the zone, but his delivery will need more refinement before he truly commands all of his pitches. If he can make the necessary adjustments, he’ll have all the makings of a frontline starter.”

Why Should The Yankees Want Him? Feliz has good size — he’s listed at 6-foot-4 and 230 lbs. — and tremendous raw stuff, though he didn’t throw his changeup a whole lot in relief this year. The natural ability is there, as is the potential to start long-term. A 23-year-old kid with this kind of arm is always worth pursuing.

Why Should The Yankees Stay Away? Like many young kids with big arms, Feliz lacks overall command and it’ll come down to improving his delivery. That’s not easy to do. Also, some other scouting reports, such as Baseball America‘s (subs. req’d), aren’t as enthusiastic about his slider and changeup as MLB.com. Feliz has talent. He is need of refinement though, and he may not be ready to step into the rotation next season.

RHP Francis Martes

Background: Martes went to the Astros in the Jarred Cosart trade with the Marlins, when he was still in rookie ball. He’s since developed into one of the game’s top pitching prospects. Martes, 20, had a 3.30 ERA (2.73 FIP) with a 25.0% strikeout rate and a 9.0% walk rate in 125.1 Double-A innings this summer, where he was more than four years younger than the average Texas League player. MLB.com currently ranks him as the 29th best prospect in baseball.

Scouting Report: “(Martes) now operates at a consistent 93-95 mph with a peak of 98. His breaking ball improved even more significantly last year, becoming a devastating power curveball. His changeup is in its nascent stages but shows some promise. Martes’ control also got a lot better during his first full year with his new organization … (He’s emerged as) a potential frontline starter.”

Why Should The Yankees Want Him? Martes is one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, and he’s nearly MLB ready. He figures to start next season at Triple-A and could earn a midseason call-up, regardless of whether he’s with the Yankees or Astros or whoever. The fastball/curveball combination points to a future at the front of a big league rotation.

Why Should The Yankees Stay Away? As with most 20-year-old pitching prospects, Martes is still rough around the edges. He doesn’t have much of a changeup, and that’s a pretty big deal. His control isn’t all that great either. Martes is very exciting. That fastball/curveball combo is as good as it gets. But until he refines his changeup and strike-throwing ability, it’s hard to think he’ll be an effective MLB rotation option.

RHP Joe Musgrove

Background: The Blue Jays drafted the 23-year-old Musgrove with the 46th overall pick in the 2011 draft, then traded him to the Astros in the ten-player J.A. Happ trade at the 2012 deadline. (Ten-player J.A. Happ trade!) Musgrove was a borderline top 100 prospect coming into 2016. He made his MLB debut in August and had a 4.06 ERA (4.18 FIP) with nice strikeout (21.5%) and walk (6.3%) rates in 62 innings spread across ten starts and one relief appearance.

Scouting Report: “Musgrove takes advantage of his big, physical frame to throw his low-to-mid-90s fastball from a good downhill plane. He mostly attacks hitters with his fastball and pounds the zone with it, creating plenty of ground ball outs. He also has a good curveball and some feel for his changeup, but both of his secondary offerings still need more refinement … He has all the makings of a future workhorse starter.”

Why Should The Yankees Want Him? The MLB.com scouting report doesn’t mention what Baseball America (subs. req’d) calls “plus command/control,” which allows everything to play up. Musgrove is a no-doubt starter long-term thanks to his ability to locate four pitches — PitchFX has him throwing a slider in addition to the fastball/curveball/changeup in the scouting report, and you can that slider in the video — and that’s exactly what the Yankees are looking for.

Why Should The Yankees Stay Away? There aren’t many reasons, really. Musgrove is not a budding ace or anything. His ceiling isn’t sky high. He’s more likely to settle in a solid mid-rotation pitcher, which is perfectly fine. Not exciting at all, but fine.

RHP David Paulino

Background: Like Martes and Musgrove, the 22-year-old Paulino was acquired in a trade when he was still in rookie ball. The Astros got him as the player to named later in the Jose Veras trade with the Tigers in 2013. Paulino was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery at the time. This season he had a 1.91 ERA (2.32 FIP) with 28.6% strikeouts and 5.4% walks in 94 innings split between Double-A and Triple-A. Paulino made his MLB debut in September and allowed four runs in seven innings. MLB.com currently ranks Paulino as the 70th best prospect in baseball.

Scouting Report: “(Paulino) came back from his elbow reconstruction to operate at 93-95 mph and hit 98. His curveball also has improved significantly, becoming a legitimate power breaking ball and giving him a second pitch that grades as well above-average when at its best. Paulino has made strides with his changeup too, and he had no problem regaining his control after Tommy John surgery … He has frontline-starter ceiling but also little track record.”

Why Should The Yankees Want Him? Paulino’s raw stuff is electric. Mid-90s gas, a bat-missing curveball, and an improving changeup, all with decent control. On top of that, the kid is listed at 6-foot-7 and 215 lbs., so he’s a big intimidating presence on the mound who gets great extension out in front. It’s very easy to dream on Paulino and envision him becoming a top of the rotation starter.

Why Should The Yankees Stay Away? Injuries, for starters. Paulino had Tommy John surgery in 2013, and that along with some other issues limited him to 106.1 total innings from 2011-15. Also, Paulino was suspended for a month this past season for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Like Jorge Mateo, but a longer suspension. Even if the suspension doesn’t bother you and you’re willing to overlook the injuries, the bottom line is this kid has thrown 203.1 innings over the last six years. Total. That’s an awful lot of development time missed.

OF Kyle Tucker

Background: The only position player in this post was the fifth overall pick in the 2015 draft. Tucker, 19, is the younger brother of Astros outfielder Preston Tucker. Kyle hit .280/.354/.433 (125 wRC+) with ten homers and 33 steals, plus promising strikeout (16.6%) and walk (9.8%) rates, in 122 games between Low-A And High-A this season. MLB.com currently ranks him as the 49th best prospect in baseball.

Scouting Report: “Tucker makes consistent hard contact thanks to fast hands, a balanced left-handed swing and a mature approach. He also has plenty of raw power and could deliver 20 homers per season once he fills out his lanky 6-foot-4 frame … (Tucker) profiles best in right field. He has solid arm strength and speed, though he figures to lose a half-step once he matures physically.”

Why Should The Yankees Want Him? Because he’s one of the best pure hitting prospects in the minors, that’s why. Tucker is not quite Christian Yelich but it’s the same basic skill set. Quick hands and a sweet lefty swing that generate oodles of hard contact. The Yankees have a ton of outfielders in their farm system, but that doesn’t matter. Tucker is better than pretty much all of them. He’s the best prospect in Houston’s system in my opinion and therefore the best non-big leaguer the Yankees would be able to pry loose in a McCann trade.

Why Should The Yankees Stay Away? Aside from the fact Tucker is only 19 and in Single-A, meaning there’s still plenty of time for things to go wrong, I can’t think of one. I guess also because he doesn’t satisfy the Yankees’ long-term pitching needs?

* * *

The Yankees have had interest in righty Lance McCullers Jr. before, specifically last year during Andrew Miller trade talks, but the Astros shot that down. I assume McCullers is still off limits. The same is probably true of righty Forrest Whitley, Houston’s first round pick in this past summer’s amateur draft. Here is MLB.com’s top 30 Astros prospects list, if you want to sift through that some more.

I’d love to see the Yankees get Tucker in a McCann trade, but I don’t think it’s going to happen, even if they eat $17M of the $34M left on his contract. Out of everyone else in this post, Musgrove is the guy I hope the Yankees target. He has four pitches and good command, plus he got his feet wet at the MLB level this year, so he’s ready to step right into the rotation. It would be nice to have a young pitcher who is more than a good stuff/bad command guy one of these years, you know?

2015 Winter Meetings Open Thread: Thursday

The return of MFIKY? (Presswire)
The return of MFIKY? (Presswire)

The final day of the 2015 Winter Meetings is upon us, thankfully. I’m really for them to be over. The Rule 5 Draft will take place at 10am ET this morning and the Yankees will lose outfielder Jake Cave, in all likelihood. Maybe some others. There are some rumblings New York will make a pick of their own. They do have two open 40-man roster spots.

Here are Monday’s, Tuesday’s, and Wednesday’s open threads. Thursday is typically the slowest day of the Winter Meetings — most folks head home after the Rule 5 Draft — but I’m sure there will still be plenty of news and rumors out of Nashville. We’ll keep track of the day’s Yankees-related rumors right here. All time stamps are ET.

  • 10:00am: Following yesterday’s trade, Brian Cashman told reporters he’s not done making moves yet. “I’m also not done. I’ve got a lot of other conversations in play and we’ll see where that takes me,” said the GM. I mean, duh. It’s December 10th. Of course he’s not done. [Peter Caldera]
  • 10:00am: The Yankees are among the teams to check in on Rafael Soriano. Soriano, 35, threw 5.2 ineffective innings for the Cubs this year and was released at midseason. At this point of his career, Soriano’s a non-roster invite guy, not someone you guarantee a roster spot. [Jon Heyman]
  • 10:00am: The Yankees have their eyes on Astros lefty Reymin Guduan, Astros righty Chris Devenski, and Cardinals righty Luis Perdomo in the Rule 5 Draft. Guduan is a lock to be selected today because he’s a southpaw who throws 100 mph on the regular. [George King]
  • 10:26am: The Dodgers have moved on from Aroldis Chapman, understandably so, and they’re now “weighing” a run at Andrew Miller. With Ken Giles traded and Chapman persona non grata, Miller is by far the best available reliever on the market. [Jon Heyman]
  • 10:31am: The Twins were one of the other teams after Justin Wilson prior to yesterday’s trade. If they’re looking a lefty reliever, the Yankees still have plenty to offer. [LaVelle Neal]
  • 12:18pm: Cashman said he considers the bullpen and the roster in general “incomplete.” I’d say. “I’m intending to do more,” he added. [Bryan Hoch, Brendan Kuty]
  • 12:45pm: The Astros worked “extensively” on an Andrew Miller trade with the Yankees before turning to Giles. They gave up a pretty nice package of players for Giles. The Yankees really seem to be asking a ton for Miller. [Buster Olney]
  • 2:45pm: Talks between the Yankees and Dodgers about Andrew Miller have “no legs.” The Yankees continue to see a good young starter in return and Los Angeles doesn’t have one of those to offer. [Jon Heyman]

(Reminder: Your trade proposal sucks.)