Update: Stewart has strained ligaments in foot following hit-by-pitch

Monday: Stewart has some strained ligaments on the top of the foot. He thinks it happened when he tried to get out of the way of the pitch that hit him. “I was able to get through it, get [Hiroki Kuroda] through the game, and that’s what we were trying to do … Get that done and get somebody else in there,” said Stewart to Chad Jennings. There is no fracture and he is likely to miss just a few games rather than a few weeks.

Sunday: Chris Stewart left this afternoon’s game in the sixth inning after being hit by a pitch in the left foot in the third inning. The Yankees are calling it a bruise and are sending him for precautionary x-rays. Stay tuned for updates, etc.

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A popular gripe that’s worth considering

(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)
(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

If the Yankees are serious about successfully completing the Hail Mary pass that is their playoff hopes, they’ll need to win for the remainder of the season. For the first time all season, they’ve had a roster that resembles something competitive, despite still not being at full strength. Last week, Joe discussed a couple ways the team could improve their chances as it pertains to the pitching staff.

Today, I’m here to discuss another idea that seems to be gaining popularity — specifically, upgrading the lineup from within. It’s time for Joe Girardi to give Austin Romine more opportunities. This doesn’t necessarily mean Romine has to be the full-time catcher after this year; if the team wants to pursue the likes of Brian McCann, by all means, they should. We’re talking right now.

Let’s start with Chris Stewart. Through 277 plate appearances this season, he’s batted .231/.305/.302 (.276 wOBA, 68 wRC+). He’s managed four home runs all season (.070 ISO) and has been valued at 0.8 fWAR. He doesn’t walk a ton and doesn’t strike out a ton, but he also doesn’t really get on base. I’m not claiming he’s a bad catcher, but I don’t think he’s cut out to be the main guy.

It seems pretty clear by this point that the team values his defensive contributions. In terms of fielding metrics, FanGraphs lists him at 4.3 Fld (based on UZR) which is good but not great. Even though I personal question the legitimacy of fielding metrics in general, particularly as they pertain to catchers, I’m willing to concede that Stewart is probably a capable catcher defensively in general (though he has only thrown out 28% of base runners which is slightly below average, and it seems like he’s bobbled more pitches than one would expect out of a defensive-oriented guy).

What’s interesting though about Stewart is that he’s basically been utilized far more this season than he ever has throughout his career at the MLB level. In 2011, he started 67 games with the Giants (183 plate appearances), which was significantly more than he had prior with any of his former teams (the Padres, Yankees, Rangers, and White Sox). This year, he’s already played in 86 games (and counting), and has already accumulated about 100 more plate appearances (and counting). Anecdotally, Stewart has looked gassed at times. If this theory is indeed true, it would make sense that he would be struggling by this point in the season. After all, he does play a very demanding position.

Interestingly enough, Stewart’s splits seem to support this theory to some degree. Through the first half of the year, Stewart produced a .283 wOBA (73 wRC+). While the first half of the season wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, the second half of the year (at least thus far), by comparison, has been considerably worse (.260 wOBA, 57 wRC+). Although Stewart has picked up his production in August, his July was completely abysmal (.200 wOBA, 16 wRC+). Hilariously, his lone home run this month was the first one he hit since May. Although August has been better for Stewart (.316 wOBA, 96 wRC+), he’s also had several more breathers.

On the other hand, Romine is young, healthy, available and has shown increasing value of late. Of course it’s a gamble; I’m sure the fact that he was awful early on in the season hasn’t inspired a ton of confidence in Girardi either. I think the team is in a position though where it has to take risks that could pay off if they’re serious about remaining in the hunt – even if those risks only provide incremental benefit.

Admittedly, Romine’s overall season stats aren’t exactly inspiring (.227/.271/.327, .265 wOBA, 61 wRC+, 0.1 fWAR). He’s hit one home run, walks very little (5.0 BB%), strikes out at a fair pace (25.6 K%) and has been graded as below average defensively (-0.2 Fld), though the same caveats about defensive metrics apply to Romine as well, in addition to the small sample size disclaimer (23% caught stealing rate for what that’s worth).

So what’s the draw you may ask? It’s simple; Romine is the hot bat and has been for a while. If he cools off, fine, sub him out without blinking. But for now, take advantage of him and get offense from a position traditionally void of offensive production. During Romine’s eight games started in July, he produced a .385 wOBA (143 wRC+). In August, through eight games he’s improved further (.395 wOBA, 150 wRC+). Am I claiming Romine is the next Posada? Of course not, nor do I have those expectations. I’m just saying give the kid’s bat a chance with more frequency as Stewart really hasn’t giving the team any incentive not too.

Of course, the small sample size disclaimer applies to Romine’s offensive contributions as well. But isn’t it worth considering the idea at this point? At the very least, if Girardi wants to approach this matter conservatively, he could always just level out the playing time between the two catchers rather than giving Romine the starting gig altogether. It may not be desirable for those two players on am emotional level, but it may be what’s best for the team. Changing the roles of Stewart and Romine probably won’t be the ultimate factor that decides the fate of the season, but if it could help, the team should consider it. Unfortunately, it seems like Girardi isn’t quite as sold on the idea.

The future needs to be now behind the plate

I have something to show you:

Chris Stewart spray chart

That is Chris Stewart‘s spray chart since the All-Star break (via Texas Leaguers). You know how they set up those short little outfield fences behind the infield for charity softball games or whatever? I think Stewart would have hit like two homeruns since the break using those fences. According to the batted ball data at FanGraphs, he hasn’t hit a fly ball since August 3rd (!).

This isn’t much of a surprise, of course. Stewart has never hit in his career and no one expected him to this year, yet he’s still somehow falling short of expectations at .219/.296/.279 (60 wRC+). Among the 33 catchers with at least 200 plate appearances this year, Stewart ranks 30th in offensive output. As an added bonus, he’s stopped throwing out base-runners — opponents are 13-for-15 (87%) in stolen base attempts against him since the All-Star break. He’s worn out. It happens when a guy who hasn’t started more than 85 games behind the plate since 2005 catches 70 of your first 117 games.

Austin Romine, meanwhile, has shown some signs of life since the All-Star break after being completely unplayable in the first half. He’s gone 8-for-23 (.348) with some power (three doubles and a homer) since the break and that’s kinda cool. Romine also had a few nice games at the plate immediately prior to the Midsummer Classic and has actually thrown runners out of late — four steals and four caught stealings since the break. It’s not much, but when you’re talking about a 24-year-old kid who missed basically half of each of the last two seasons with back problems, it’s encouraging. A silver lining in these rough last few weeks.

“He’s been swinging the bat pretty good,” said Joe Girardi to Mark Feinsand last week when asked about upping Romine’s workload down the stretch. “I might give him a little bit more playing time here and there. Stew’s still going to catch a lot, but he’s been swinging the bat pretty good.”

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

To Girardi’s credit, Romine has started seven of the team’s last 17 games. But that’s not really enough. Stewart is generally bad at this baseball thing and now he’s even worse at it because he’s out of gas. Romine should play more and not just two or three times a week. He should take over as the starter — three-fifths of the rotation has pitched so poorly that they don’t even deserve the luxury of a personal catcher, so that’s not an issue — and that’s it. See what happens. He won’t continue to hit .348 the rest of the way, but he can actually hit the ball in the air and still play pretty good defense.

There’s a pretty good chance Romine might stink at baseball too. Baseball is hard, especially as a young catcher. It took Yadier Molina three years to get his OPS over .700 and seven years to get it over .750, for example. But there’s also a chance Romine might not stink at baseball. It was just last year that Baseball America said his “defense still could make him New York’s long-term future catcher, with the offensive upside of a .270 hitter with 10 homers annually.” That’s pretty good by catcher standards. Certainly better than Stewart, who we know isn’t anything special because he’s 31 and hasn’t been anything special his entire career.

The Yankees are stuck in the unenviable spot of having way too many old players and way too few young players. Their long-term catching outlook is promising with J.R. Murphy in Triple-A and Gary Sanchez in Double-A, but prospects are no sure thing, especially catching prospects. Look at Matt Wieters. Romine has shown actual signs of life at the Major League level these last few weeks and that’s an amazing thing. The Yankees should be thankful for it and they should give him every opportunity to show it isn’t a fluke. As crazy as it sounds, they might even have a long-term building block sitting right under their noses, which is something they desperately need regardless of position.

2013 Midseason Review: Grade D’s

We’ve spent some time dissecting the team’s performance through the first half of the year. Mike wrote about the A’s, the B’s, and the C’s. Notice he left me with the scrubs – the D’s!* Well, at least the D’s aren’t the F’s. Am I right?

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

David Phelps
I know some of you might protest our decision to give Phelps a “D” grade. Whether you’re lobbying to give him a “C” doesn’t make much of a difference though — it doesn’t change reality. He’s not been great overall despite some solid starts. It’s also funny, in a peculiar kind of way, how quickly the shine wears off of a guy.

Anyway, Phelps has pitched to a 5.01 ERA (3.85 FIP) and has been worth 1.1 fWAR thus far. He’s struck guys out at a decent rate (8.17 K/9) and hasn’t given up too many long balls (0.87 HR/9). Phelps has allowed a few too many free passes though (3.48 BB/9) and gives up more hits throughout his starts than one would ideally prefer.

Consistency has been the issue here. Despite several quality starts, Phelps has seen his numbers balloon thanks to some really awful games (particularly of late). He allowed four earned runs in 6.1 innings against Minnesota, nine runs against Baltimore (in 2.1 innings!), and four runs to the Mets in a third of an inning. On one hand you can look at Phelps a bit less critically when you consider that he is and always was expected to be a back of the rotation type of arm. One other hand, results are results. Sorry, David.

Phil Hughes
Getting tired of reading about Phil Hughes yet? Well, we all know the story here – frustrating inconsistency topped off by too many home runs surrendered (1.58 HR/9, here’s the list of pitchers with the most HR surrendered — good to know the Yankees have two guys cracking the top 15). Through 102.1 innings, Hughes has pitched to a 4.57 ERA (4.48 FIP), and has been valued at 0.9 fWAR. In terms of peripherals, he’s striking out 7.74 batters per nine and has limited the walks (2.29 BB/9).

Despite very legitimate concerns over next year’s rotation, it seems pretty clear the Yankees are willing to part ways with the once-heralded Hughes. If they don’t trade him for a bat by the deadline, they’ll give him the qualifying offer after the season, which he probably won’t accept. The funny thing is, as maddening as Hughes has been, he’s still capable of throwing the occasional gem and should he string together some solid starts through the remainder of the season, you know some team will decide he’s worth committing a lot of dollars and several years too. It’s a shame it hasn’t really worked out in New York but that’s how it goes sometimes.

Chris Stewart
This is a tough break for Chris. He’s basically producing at a reasonable level, I argue … for a backup catcher. The problem is he isn’t a backup catcher. After the Yankees elected to forego Russell Martin for Francisco Cervelli, the most obvious predicament in the world occurred. Cervelli was injured and the team had to figure out where to go from there. That’s when Chris Stewart stepped in as the every day guy.

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

So what happens to a guy like Chris Stewart when he’s forced to play day in and day out? Well over 197 plate appearances he’ll hit .241/.316/.306 (.282 wOBA, 77 wRC+, 0.8 fWAR). He’ll take a decent number of walks (9.1 BB%) and will put the ball in play frequently (14.2 K%). He’ll also hit for no power whatsoever (three home runs, 0.65 ISO). Defensively, I think he’s generally regarded favorably. Again, I would argue that none of these stats are necessarily bad, they’re just not good.

To put it in perspective, the Yankees catchers collectively rank twentieth in all of baseball in terms of fWAR (1.1), twenty-fourth in wRC+ (68), and twenty-fifth in wOBA (.275). Obviously, not all of this production is Stewart’s doing, though he’s logged far and away the most innings behind the plate. Basically, the production the Yankees have received from their catchers ranks in the bottom third of all of baseball in just about every meaningful category.

Vernon Wells
Remember when Wells hit .300 with six home runs through April? Remember when folks were wondering whether Cashman was actually a genius for taking on one of the worst contracts in all of baseball? Yep, that didn’t last long. In completely predictable fashion, Wells turned back into the pumpkin he’s been for years — that is to say a grossly overpriced fourth outfielder.

Overall, Big Vern has batted .238/.276/.371 (.282 wOBA, 73 wRC+, 0.1 fWAR). On the plus side, he’s been generally pretty good in the outfield defensively despite a few questionable plays of late. On the down side, he’s managed to hit only four home runs since April. He’s also hit in the heart of order basically all season, even during his putrid May slump.

Given the amount of exposure he’s seen thus far, it’s not surprising he’s shown noticeable splits either (batting .207 against righties). Back in late May, I wrote about Vernon and what we could expect moving forward. Long story short, the conclusion was that he most certainly wasn’t the player we saw in April, and hopefully also not the guy we saw in May. I think this still holds true. Unfortunately, what we can expect is a “D grade” player who was brought to the team out of necessity. Hopefully, he’ll be used more sparingly going forward when and if Curtis returns.

(Patrick Smith/Getty)
(Patrick Smith/Getty)

Travis Hafner
First, let me start by saying that I for one am shocked that Hafner has made it to this point. I was expecting Pronk to pull a Kevin Youkilis and suffer some season-ending injury after the first month or so. Surprisingly, he has generally kept himself in the lineup despite some nagging injuries here and there (most recently a foot contusion that happened during batting practice). Unfortunately (and much like Wells), Hafner has been lousy since May and he too, has shown noticeable splits as to be expected.

Overall, Pronk’s batting .218/.314/.407 (.317 wOBA, 97 wRC+) and has been worth exactly 0.0 fWAR through 277 plate appearances. He has knocked 12 balls out of the park though, which is second on the team to only Robinson Cano (though Lyle Overbay and Wells are right behind him with 11). Hafner continues to take his fair share of walks (11.2 BB%) while striking out at a fair pace (26.0 K%).

Pronk was brought on board for one thing: his job is to mash. The thinking was simple. As long as he’s healthy (or at least relatively healthy), he’ll hit the ball. This hasn’t really been the case though. He’s struggled a lot. He’ll need to turn it around for the rest of the season as the Yankees need some much needed depth in the batting the order.

*Mike did not stick me with the D’s. It just worked out that way because of timing. Actually, I claimed the F’s too.

Update: Chris Stewart leaves game with dehydration

9:47pm: Stewart left the game with dehydration, the team announced. I’m guessing he’ll be fine for tomorrow.

8:59pm: Chris Stewart left tonight’s game between the fourth and fifth innings for an unknown reason. He hit a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the fourth and there didn’t appear to be anything wrong, but he has been battling that nagging groin issue in recent weeks. Stay tuned for any updates.

2013 Season Preview: The Bench

Our season preview series wraps up this week with a look at the bullpen, the bench, and miscellaneous leftovers. Opening Day is one week from today.

The lesser of two catching evils. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
The lesser of two catching evils. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Previewing the bench will not be easy because we still — four days before Opening Day — have basically no idea who will fill these four spots. Sure, either Frankie Cervelli or Chris Stewart will be the backup catcher, but we don’t know which one yet. I’m guessing Joe Girardi has some kind of convoluted personal catcher situation planned; I feel like having two backup catchers on the roster is his managerial dream.

As for the backup outfield and infield spots … who knows right now? There are a lot of candidates for a few spots and the Yankees continue to look outside the organization for help. Given their massive 40-man roster logjam, a multi-player trade shouldn’t be ruled out at this point either.

Catcher
It’ll be either Stewart or Cervelli and the Yankees have indicated a pretty even playing time split (maybe more like 60/40), I think it’ll only be a matter of time before Frankie grabs the job outright. His throwing has been greatly improved and he’s a far better hitter (but still nothing special), the two things that stand out most about a catcher. If they start the year with a 55/45 or 60/40 split, I think sometime in mid-May it’ll be slanted about 75/25 in favor of Cervelli. The Yankees love Stewart but they love winning more, and playing a guy with a legit chance to post a .200s across the board slash line will only last so long given how much offense they lost elsewhere.

Ronnie has had a bit of an issue with walls in camp. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Ronnie has had a bit of an issue with walls in camp. (AP/Kathy Willens)

Backup Infielder
Derek Jeter‘s nagging ankle issues cleared up the backup infield situation quite a bit. Eduardo Nunez will open the season as the starter and that paves the way for Jayson Nix to make the team as his backup. There really isn’t much competition for this spot — veteran Gil Velazquez is the only other guy in camp who could play a passable shortstop at the big league level. Again, we shouldn’t rule out a trade, but Nix seems like a lock for a bench spot right now.

The real question is whether the Yankees want to carry two backup infielders like they have the last two years, Nix and a corner infield guy like Eric Chavez. The only real candidates for that Chavez role are Dan Johnson — who seems to have little chance of making the team at this point — and Ronnie Mustelier. The 28-year-old Cuban defector has had a good spring — mostly against Triple-A caliber pitching according to B-Ref’s OppQual stat — and has seen a bunch of time at third base lately, so he’s at least earning consideration from the team. I guess we shouldn’t rule about a two-headed first base platoon with Juan Rivera and Lyle Overbay, which would soak up that second infielder’s spot.

Backup Outfielder
Assuming Vernon Wells is penciled in as the everyday left fielder, the fourth outfielder’s spot is down to Brennan Boesch, Ben Francisco, Melky Mesa, Thomas Neal, and I guess Mustelier. Depending on whether they take a second backup infielder, it’s possible two of these guys will make the team. Mustelier makes the most sense really, since he could backup both the corner infield and corner outfield spots.

Boesch and Francisco presumably have a leg up on Mesa and Neal given their big league experience, and again, both could make the team. The Yankees were planning to open the season with three left-handed outfielders and a right-handed backup, and Boesch would give them that third lefty. He also has minor league options remaining and could be stashed in Triple-A. I’m not sure if Francisco has an out clause in his contract before the end of Spring Training, so sending him to the minors might not be an option. The Yankees will want to retain as much depth as possible given their rash of injuries.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Knocking on the Door
In addition to the guys mentioned above — Velazquez, Johnson, Mesa, Neal, etc. — the Yankees will have a handful of other bench options waiting in Triple-A Scranton. That is what the level is there for, after all. Austin Romine is the clear third catcher but would probably need an injury to earn a shot in the big leagues. He’s missed a lot of time these last two years with back problems and needs to play everyday.

Corban Joseph gives the team depth at second and third bases, though they had more before releasing David Adams yesterday. Zoilo Almonte is another warm body for the outfield mix, but he has never played above Double-A and will need some Triple-A time before coming to the show. He’s pretty much at the bottom of the outfield depth chart at the moment. Pretty much anyone who doesn’t win a bench spot will open the year in Triple-A as a backup plan. That’s who’s knocking on the door.

* * *

My opinion changes by the day/hour, but if the season started today I believe the Yankees would go with a four-man bench of Stewvelli, Nix, Mustelier, and Boesch with Francisco & Co. heading to Triple-A for the time being. The club could play finagle Phil Hughes‘ expected DL stint into a fifth bench player — Francisco would be the guy for that one, I assume — for the first few games of the season, but I don’t see that happening.

That four-man bench pretty much stinks. There is no speed to pinch-run — that would have been Nunez’s job before he forced into playing short everyday — and basically no versatility outside of Nix. Carrying Mesa over Boesch would address the speed issue while Mustelier is the only one who could offer real versatility. Barring an unexpected trade(s) these next few days, the bench figures to be a work in progress pretty much all season.