Teixeira, Gregorius, Gardner among Gold Glove finalists


Earlier today, Rawlings announced the finalists for the 2015 Gold Glove Awards at each position. Three Yankees are among the finalists for AL Gold Gloves: Mark Teixeira at first base, Didi Gregorius at shortstop, and Brett Gardner in left field. All of the finalists can be seen right here.

Teixeira is up against Eric Hosmer, who won the last two AL Gold Gloves at first base, and Mike Napoli. Last year Teixeira’s defense slipped a bit — he looked rusty after missing most of 2013 due to wrist surgery — but he rebounded this year and was stellar. Hosmer figures to win based on reputation and stuff, but Teixeira has a legitimate chance to take home the Gold Glove.

As for Gregorius, he is up against Xander Bogaerts and Alcides Escobar, so a first timer is guaranteed to win the AL Gold Glove at short this year. Gregorius had a real shaky start to the season, both at the plate and in the field, but he turned things around in May and was outstanding the last few months. His defense was really excellent at times. Here’s a totally necessary highlight reel:

Gregorius actually ranked second among full-time AL shortstops in DRS (+5) and UZR (+7.4), behind only Francisco Lindor (+10 and +10.5, respectively), who is apparently ineligible for the Gold Gloves because he didn’t play enough innings at the position this year. Didi might actually win the Gold Glove. How about that?

Yoenis Cespedes, who only played half the season in the AL, and Alex Gordon are Gardner’s competition in left field. Gardner had a strong season in left but not as good as previous years, I thought. The defensive stats say he’s closer to average these days rather than far above. Gordon has won the last four AL Gold Gloves in left and will probably win again, not that it’s undeserved. He’s outstanding in the field.

The Yankees haven’t had a Gold Glove winner since Teixeira and Robinson Cano in 2012. Teixeira has five career Gold Gloves, including three with the Yankees (2009, 2010, 2012). The Yankees haven’t had an outfielder win a Gold Glove since Bernie Williams way back in 2000. Seems unlikely Gardner will get it this year, but you never know. Teixeira and Gregorius appear to have legitimate chances to win.

The Gold Glove winners will be announced in two weeks, on November 10th. Here is the selection and voting criteria, if you’re interested. Managers and coaches vote for Gold Gloves but there is also a statistical component, which is relatively new.

The Shortstop of the Present, the Shortstop of the Future [2015 Season Review]


Last season, Yankees icon Derek Jeter called it a career and retired following a first ballot Hall of Fame worthy 20-year career. Jeter announced his plan to retire in Spring Training, so it was no surprise, yet replacing him was going to be a daunting task. The Yankees had no one in the farm system ready to step in at shortstop and the free agent market offered only imperfect solutions.

Rather than open their wallets for someone like Asdrubal Cabrera or swing a trade for a proven veteran like Jimmy Rollins, the Yankees went for youth, acquiring Didi Gregorius from the Diamondbacks in a three-team trade that sent Shane Greene to the Tigers. Greene was pretty good for the Yankees last year. It was a risky move. At the time of the trade, Didi was only 24 years old with a career 84 wRC+ and a reputation for being a standout defender. Gregorius was the shortstop of the future? No, Gregorius is the shortstop of the present and future.

The Pursuit

First things first: the Yankees did not simply pull Didi’s name out of a hat last winter when looking for a shortstop. They’ve been pursuing him for years. We first heard the Yankees connected to Gregorius during the 2013 Winter Meetings, when there was talk of a three-way trade involving Brett Gardner (!) and Justin Masterson. There were also some more rumors at the 2014 trade deadline.

Jon Heyman reported special advisor Gene Michael loved Gregorius while Brendan Kuty reported pro scout Eric Chavez and third base coach Joe Espada were big believers as well. Chavez played with Didi with the Diamondbacks while Espada spent the last few seasons in the front office and scouted Gregorius in Triple-A. Lots of people vouched for Didi, and the Yankees finally pulled the trigger on the trade on December 5th, a week before the Winter Meetings.

The Promise of Spring

Coming into Spring Training, the Yankees talked about platooning Gregorius with Brendan Ryan at shortstop, which was their way of lowering expectations. They always seem to do that with notable pickups. Gregorius was very impressive in Spring Training, hitting .271/.308/.458 in 20 Grapefruit League games while flashing some serious leather. It was a very promising first impression. There was definitely some excitement about Gregorius given his play in the spring.

The Ugliness of April

Most fans aren’t wackos like me who obsessively watch Spring Training games, so Gregorius didn’t make his real first impression until the regular season started. And boy, was his first impression bad. Gregorius went 0-2 at the plate and was hit by a pitch on Opening Day, and, with the Yankees trailing 6-1 with two on and two outs in the eighth, Didi was thrown out trying to steal third base.

Where was he going? Who knows. It was an awful and pointless stolen base attempt given the game situation, with the Yankees desperately in need of as many base-runners as possible. The bad base-running decisions continued in the coming days as well. Most notably, Gregorius was caught taking too big a turn around first base on his first hit of the season, and was thrown out wandering too far away from the bag.

It wasn’t just the base-running blunders either. Gregorius didn’t hit a lick in April — he put up a .206/.261/.238 (36 wRC+) batting line with only two extra-base hits (both doubles) in 69 plate appearances during the season’s first month — and his defense was shaky as well.

It wasn’t so much physical errors in the field — Didi did make three errors in April, but only one was a routine play, the other two were tough plays he failed to complete — but mental mistakes. Gregorius cut off a throw from the outfield and didn’t make the relay throw home, allowing a run to score. He slid to stop a hard-hit grounder and still tried to turn the double play rather than going for the sure out at first. Stuff like that.

The first month of the Didi Gregorius era was not pretty. Fans at Yankee Stadium chanted “Der-ek! Je-ter!” every time he made a mistake, others wanted him benched with Stephen Drew moving to shortstop, and others wanted him sent to Triple-A. It was understandable! Gregorius looked awful in every phase of the game in April. Aside from sitting him against some tough lefties later in the month, the Yankees stuck with Didi.

The Rise of Didi

Gregorius’ early season slump continued into mid-May — he was hitting .204/.269/.241 (41 wRC+) as late as May 17th — and the calls for a demotion only grew louder. The bad base-running mistakes stopped though, and his defense did improve quite a bit, but the offense was non-existent. Didi wasn’t hitting righties, wasn’t hitting lefties, wasn’t hitting for average, wasn’t drawing walks, wasn’t hitting for power, nothing. He contributing nothing at the plate.

The Yankees had Alex Rodriguez work with Gregorius on his defense early in the season, and they again turned to veteran players to help their young shortstop, this time offensively. Hitting coach Jeff Pentland enlisted A-Rod and Carlos Beltran to help Gregorius, and their message was essentially this: be more selective at the plate and taking batting practice as seriously as game at-bats. “Alex and Carlos had a big hand in talking to Didi,” said Pentland.

The results came almost immediately. Didi went 2-for-4 on May 20th, hit his first home run of the season in the next game, then hit his second home run of the season the game after that. He finished May on a 10-for-37 (.270) run and kept hitting into the summer months. In July and August, Gregorius was a legitimate threat the plate.

Didi Gregorius monthly splits

Didi slumped like the rest of the Yankees in September, but his overall performance at the plate took a huge step forward after working with A-Rod and Beltran. After bottoming out with that 41 wRC+ on May 17th, Gregorius hit .281/.331/.403 (101 wRC+) with nine home runs in 458 plate appearances the rest of the season. That is pretty awesome. He finished the year with a .265/.318/.370 (89 wRC+) batting line. The league average shortstop hit .256/.307/.375 (85 wRC+) in 2015.

Gregorius did not only improve at the plate. He also improved in the field, as his incredible natural gifts — especially that throwing arm, gosh — became more and more evident each passing week. Gregorius showed he can range for the ball in either direction, charge it and make a barehand play, go back for a basket catch, the works. He can do it all on the field. Here’s a very necessary highlight reel:

That glove is why the Yankees the acquired Gregorius more than anything. Anything he gave them at the plate was going to be considered a bonus this year. The defense was the priority, and after that rocky start, he shined on both sides of the ball. Didi played a beautiful shortstop after those early season blunders. He went from being the guy no one wanted in the lineup to the guy everyone wanted the ball hit to with the game on the line. It was quite a turn around.

In retrospect, I underestimated the difficulty of replacing Jeter. Yes, Jeter was not very good last year, but he’s still Derek Jeter, and that’s an awfully tough act to follow. The pressure of replacing a legend seemed to overwhelm Gregorius early in the season and that’s understandable. Replacing Jeter was never going to be easy no matter who did it. By the end of the season, Didi looked way more comfortable on the field. Way, way more comfortable.

Situational Struggles

Although he improved as the season went on, Gregorius did struggle in so-called situational at-bats. For starters, he didn’t hit lefties at all. He put up a .247/.311/.315 (73 wRC+) batting line against southpaws, which isn’t a total disaster in terms of OBP, but it’s not good. The leverage-based stats show Gregorius also struggled in big spots.

Didi Gregorius situational stats

Gregorius is jumpy at the plate — he’s got happy feet, for sure — and that gives off the impression of being overly aggressive in those situational spots. I’m not all that concerned about his situational struggles — Gregorius had 56 plate appearances in high-leverage situations, that’s all — but it is something that can be improved. At the same time, we’re talking about a guy batting eighth or ninth. His performance in those spots shouldn’t be crucial to the team’s success.

Looking Ahead to 2016

Between his league average-ish offense (by shortstop standards) and strong defense, Gregorius ranked seventh among all shortstops in both fWAR (3.1) and bWAR (3.3) this season. He is clearly the shortstop of the present and the shortstop of the future. His play over the final four months of the season won him over with fans — “Di-di! Di-di!” chants became fairly common at Yankee Stadium — and Didi will be back at short next season, hoping to further improve his game. Gregorius was arguably the most promising development for the Yankees this summer.

Pineda and Eovaldi projected for largest arbitration raises in 2016

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
Big Mike is in line for a big raise. (Jim Rogash/Getty)

Now that the season is over, we can start to look forward and figure out which direction the Yankees will go this offseason. They could go big with free agents, they could do nothing and continue to trust their prospects, or they could have another trade-heavy offseason. I’m sure there’s a middle ground somewhere.

This offseason arbitration will be a major item for the Yankees. Some of their most important players are up for arbitration and due big raises, which will impact the overall payroll. Matt Swartz at MLBTR posted his annual arbitration projections earlier this week, and his model gets more and more accurate each year. There are still some big misses, that’s unavoidable, but overall the margin of error is within a few percent.

Anyway, let’s look at Swartz’s projections for New York’s nine arbitration eligible players. Yes, nine. The numbers in parentheses are each player’s service time, written (years.days). In the service time world, 172 days equals a year.

Sergio Santos (5.110) – $900K
Andrew Bailey (5.034) – $900K arbitration projection; has $2MM club option.
Ivan Nova (5.024) – $4.4MM
Michael Pineda (4.099) – $4.6MM
Dustin Ackley (4.087) – $3.1MM
Nathan Eovaldi (4.013) – $5.7MM
Adam Warren (3.036) – $1.5MM
Justin Wilson (3.035) – $1.3MM
Didi Gregorius (2.159) – $2.1MM

According to Tim Dierkes, the Super Two cutoff this year is 2.130, meaning Dellin Betances fell 52 days short of qualifying for arbitration. Super Twos are arbitration eligible four times instead of the usual three. Gregorius is a Super Two and arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter. He’s got a nice raise coming after making something near the league minimum in 2015.

Santos is an obvious non-tender candidate. Even if the Yankees wanted to keep him around, they’re better off non-tendering him and re-signing him to a minor league contract since he’s going to miss most of next season while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. There is no 60-day DL in the offseason and there’s no reason to have a injured journeyman reliever like Santos clogging up a precious 40-man roster spot.

Bailey is also a non-tender candidate and his contract situation is slightly more complicated thanks to that $2M club option. I know he’s a former All-Star and all that, but I didn’t see anything in September that made me think Bailey is worth $2M next season. The Yankees can decline the option and instead take him to arbitration, where he’s projected to earn a mere $900,000. I could see cutting him loose entirely or going to arbitration. I’d be surprised if the Yankees picked up the option.

Pineda and Eovaldi are both entering their second arbitration year. Pineda earned $2.1M this season and has the biggest projected raise at $2.5M. Eovaldi is right behind him with a $2.4M projected raise. That is fairly standard for good but not great starters going through arbitration for the second time. Given the fact both Pineda and Eovaldi spent time on the DL with arm injuries in 2015, I’m guessing the Yankees will not explore a long-term extension with either this winter.

Smackley. (Presswire)
Smackley. (Presswire)

Like Pineda and Eovaldi, Ackley is entering his second arbitration year and he’s projected for a mere $500,000 raise. His arbitration case is slightly different because he signed a Major League contract with the Mariners after being drafted, which means Ackley’s salary was higher in his first few years as a big leaguer. He made $1.5M in 2013, his final pre-arbitration year. Most players are making something close to the league minimum that year. His arbitration salary last season was based on that $1.5M. Still, that projected $3.1M salary for Ackley in 2016 is fine. The Yankees didn’t trade Ramon Flores and Jose Ramirez to get Ackley only to non-tender him after the season. Besides, he hit in September!

Warren and Wilson are getting typical raises for middle relievers going through arbitration for the first time. Warren’s salary is slightly higher because he spent some time as a starter, and being a starter pays. Had he remained in the rotation all season, his projected arbitration salary likely would have climbed north of $2M. Maybe the Yankees will throw Warren a bone and pay him more than projected after jerking him around this year. I wouldn’t get my hopes up if I were Warren though. This is a business, after all.

And finally, Nova’s the most interesting arbitration case because he was both hurt (rehab from Tommy John surgery) and bad (5.07 ERA and 4.87 FIP) in 2015. That projected $4.4M salary works out to a $1.1M raise over his 2015 salary, which is quite small for a starting pitcher entering his third arbitration year. Joel Sherman says the Yankees will not non-tender Nova, and as bad as he was this year, that makes sense. Paying $4.4M for a depth arm is nothing, and at least with Nova you can say he might improve as he gets further away from Tommy John surgery. At the very least, the Yankees could tender him a contract then trade him. Don’t cut him loose for nothing.

Arbitration salaries are based on old school stats. Wins, saves, home runs … stuff like that. The players are compared to others at their service time level and they argue they deserve X while the team argues they deserve less than X. The Yankees haven’t been to an actual arbitration hearing in years, not since Chien-Ming Wang in 2008, and there’s no reason to think they’ll go to one this offseason. Chances are everyone who needs to be signed this winter will be signed.

Refsnyder, Heathcott, Sanchez all make Wildcard Game roster

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Rosters for the 2015 AL wildcard game were due at 10am ET this morning, and shortly thereafter the Yankees officially announced their 25-man squad for their first postseason game in three years. Here is the Astros’ roster and here is the Yankees’ roster for tonight’s winner-take-all game at Yankee Stadium:

RHP Dellin Betances
LHP Andrew Miller
RHP Bryan Mitchell
RHP Ivan Nova
LHP James Pazos
RHP Luis Severino
RHP Masahiro Tanaka
RHP Adam Warren
LHP Justin Wilson

Brian McCann
John Ryan Murphy
Gary Sanchez

2B/OF Dustin Ackley
1B Greg Bird
SS Didi Gregorius
3B Chase Headley
2B Rob Refsnyder
DH Alex Rodriguez
IF Brendan Ryan

RF Carlos Beltran
CF Jacoby Ellsbury
LF Brett Gardner
OF Slade Heathcott
PR Rico Noel
OF Chris Young

I’m glad the Yankees took only nine pitchers. There’s really no need for more than that. Plus it’s not like the Yankees are swimming with options right now. CC Sabathia is unavailable after checking into rehab and next in line is probably Andrew Bailey, who wasn’t too good during his September cameo.

Both Severino and Nova started Saturday, so they aren’t fully available tonight. Today is their usual between-starts throw day, so they can probably give an inning or two, maybe three if they’re really efficient, but I doubt it would be much more than that. Obviously the plan is Tanaka to Wilson to Betances to Miller. Anything other than that is probably bad news.

Sanchez had only two garbage time at-bats at the end of the regular season, and the fact he is on the roster suggests the Yankees may start Murphy against the left-hander Dallas Keuchel. Murphy starts, McCann takes over once Keuchel is out of the game, and Sanchez is the emergency catcher. Sanchez could also be a pinch-hitter or DH option if A-Rod gets lifted for Noel at some point.

The rest of the roster is pretty self-explanatory. As I said this morning, I think Young will start tonight’s game, likely in place of Gardner. Young has good career numbers against Keuchel and Joe Girardi loves his head-to-head matchups. Gardner figures to come off the bench as soon as Keuchel is out of the game though. With any luck, no one outside the starting lineup and big three relievers will be used.

Building the Wildcard Game Roster: Position Players


The Yankees are in position to clinch a wildcard spot very soon, possibly tonight, so it’s time to start thinking about the wildcard game roster. Earlier today we sorted through the pitching staff, trying to figure out which ten or eleven pitchers the Yankees will carry in the wildcard game. It was easier said than done.

Ten or eleven pitchers — my guess is ten, but you never know — leaves 14-15 position player spots to fill. Joe Girardi will have a decent-sized bench at his disposal, but ideally it won’t come into play too much. The starting lineup will decide the game. As we did with the pitchers, let’s go through the position player group and try to figure out who will be on the wildcard game roster next Tuesday.

The Locks

This is the easy part …

Catcher: Brian McCann, John Ryan Murphy
First Base: Greg Bird
Second Base: ???
Shortstop: Didi Gregorius
Third Base: Chase Headley
Outfield: Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran
Designated Hitter: Alex Rodriguez

That’s nine of the 14-15 position player spots right there and they’re all self-explanatory right? Right. That is eighth-ninths of the starting lineup and the backup catcher. All easy calls. Next.

Second Base

For most of the summer, Stephen Drew and Brendan Ryan platooned at second base. That is no longer the case. Drew has been dealing with some dizziness/concussion issues that may end his season, but even before that Dustin Ackley wrestled the starting job away from him. Ackley got some playing time, hit right away, and he’s continued to play against right-handers.

Meanwhile, Rob Refsnyder has started each of the Yankees’ last four games against left-handed starters, not Ryan. Chances are Refsnyder will start against lefties Wade Miley, Rich Hill, and Wei-Yin Chen the next three days too. Like Ackley, he got a few at-bats, got some hits, and has received more playing time. That Drew/Ryan platoon was together for 140 games or so. The last 16 have gone to Ackley/Refsnyder.

Smackley. (Presswire)
Smackley. (Presswire)

At this point there is no doubt Ackley will be on the wildcard roster. The rest of the guys is where it gets tricky. Refsnyder is starting against lefties, but would the Yankees actually start him in the wildcard game if they face, say, Dallas Keuchel or Scott Kazmir or Cole Hamels? I get the sense Girardi would stick with Ackley in that situation and just roll with his best player.

If Refsnyder’s not going to start the game, then what’s his role? Pinch-hitter against a lefty reliever. That’s all. I guess he could pinch-run too, but there figure to be other guys on the roster to do that. Refsnyder’s not going to come in for defense. Pinch-hitter against a lefty is a big deal though! It could be the difference in the late-innings of a close game. Given the extra bench spots, I think Refsnyder’s in.

With Ackley and Refsnyder on the roster, the Yankees will need to carry a shortstop-capable backup infielder. Neither of those guys can play short. Not even in an emergency. That leaves a spot for Drew or Ryan. In a vacuum, I’d take Drew over Ryan eight days a week and twice on Sundays. But Drew isn’t healthy and we shouldn’t count on him getting healthy before the wildcard game. He’s still dealing with this dizziness/concussion stuff and has been for almost two weeks now. That puts Ryan on the wildcard game roster along with Ackley and Refsnyder.

The Pinch-Runner

Rico Noel will be on the wildcard game roster. I’m sure of it. One of the benefits of shrinking the pitching staff in the postseason is creating an open roster spot for someone just like Noel. A burner who can come off the bench to pinch-run in the late innings of a close game. Look at Rico run:

The kid can fly and his speed can potentially have a huge impact in the wildcard game. The Yankees brought Noel up this month strictly to pinch-run and I fully expect him to be on the postseason roster. Remember, they carried Freddy Guzman on the postseason roster in 2009 for this exact reason. Noel’s on the wildcard roster. I have no doubt about it.

(Since he wasn’t called up until September 1st, Noel will technically have to be an injury replacement. The Yankees have two position player injury spots available thanks to Mark Teixeira and Mason Williams.)

The Backup Outfielder

Noel will be on the wildcard game roster but he’s not really a backup outfielder. He’s a pinch-runner and that’s all. (The scouting reports indicate Noel is a pretty good defender, but the Yankees haven’t used him defensively all that much.) The Yankees will still need to carry a legitimate backup outfielder if for no other reason than to replace Beltran for defense in the late innings. Chris Young, who is the only righty hitting outfielder on the roster, held that job all season and I expect him to be on the wildcard roster. I know he’s stumped lately, but there’s no reason to think the Yankees won’t carry Young in October. In fact, I’m not sure how you can look at the 39-man active roster and saying Young doesn’t belong on the wildcard game roster. He’s in.

The Final Roster Spot

We still have one last roster spot to fill. The nine locks above plus Ackley, Refsnyder, Ryan, Noel, and Young gets us to 14 position players. I suppose the Yankees could carry eleven pitchers, but I doubt it. It was hard enough coming up with ten pitchers worth a spot on the wildcard roster. One last position player makes sense.

There’s no point in carrying three catchers, so Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez are out. The remaining candidates are Jose Pirela and Slade Heathcott, assuming Drew is indeed done for the year. With Refsnyder on the roster, there’s no need for Pirela, another righty hitter. Yeah, Pirela can play the outfield if necessary, but he’s an emergency option out there only. Noel and Ackley are available as emergency outfielders. I also think Pirela would have played more this month if he was a serious wildcard game roster candidate.

Slade. (Presswire)
Slade. (Presswire)

That leaves it between Heathcott and a possibly but not likely healthy Drew. If Drew is not over high dizziness/concussion symptoms by next week, this questioned gets answered for us. In the unlikely event Drew is healthy though, would it make sense to carry another infielder or another outfielder? I think an extra outfielder makes more sense. Between Ackley, Refsnyder, and Ryan, you’ve got the second base starter and two backups. The only backup outfielder is Young considering Noel’s job is pinch-running.

Heathcott gives the Yankees another potential pinch-runner — he’s no Rico, but he’s faster than Young or Refsnyder — and another quality defender, as well as a left-handed bat on the bench. In fact, Drew and Slade are the only possible lefty bats off the bench, and one’s hurt. Besides, if Drew is healthy, it’s Ryan or Heathcott, not Drew or Heathcott. I’d take Heathcott over Ryan.

With Slade on the roster, the Yankees would have two backup infielders even without Drew (or Ryan), and Heathcott at least has a chance to contribute offensively and defensively. I mean, if Drew’s healthy and on the roster, what’s the point of Ryan? What does he offer in a winner-take-all game? I’d expect neither guy to actually play in the game, but, if pressed into action, it’s easy to see Slade having more potential impact than Ryan.

So after all of that, here’s the 25-man wildcard game roster we’ve kinda sorta pieced together today:

Catchers (2) Infielders (7) Outfielders (6) RHP (5) LHP (5)
McCann Bird Gardner Masahiro Tanaka (SP) Andrew Miller
Murphy Ackley Ellsbury Dellin Betances Justin Wilson
Gregorius Beltran Adam Warren Chasen Shreve
Headley Young Andrew Bailey Chris Capuano
A-Rod (DH) Heathcott Nova/Severino/Pineda CC Sabathia
Refsnyder Noel (PR)

Remember, the Yankees can change their 25-man roster prior to the ALDS should they advance, and they’ll have to change it too. They’d need to get more starting pitchers on the roster. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. One thing at a time.

That appears to be the best 25-man roster the Yankees can carry in the wildcard game. Maybe not the most talented, but the most useful given the circumstances. We’re not planning for a best-of-five or best-of-seven series. It’s one game. One stupid little game where anything can happen. Hopefully Girardi won’t have to use anyone beyond the nine starting position players, Beltran’s defensive replacement, Tanaka, and the big three relievers. That’s the best case scenario. If the Yankees need to dip any deeper into their wildcard game roster than that, then, well, just hang on tight.

Heathcott latest young player to come up big for Yankees in 2015


All things considered, last night’s win was the biggest of the season. The Yankees have been losing ground in the postseason race the last few weeks, so much so that the Rangers are as close to catching them for the first wildcard spot as the Yankees are to catching the Blue Jays in the AL East. They’re three games up on Texas and three games back of Toronto.

The Yankees were six outs away from being no-hit and one out away from an ugly 1-0 loss to last night. They instead rallied for a 4-1 win over the Rays, with the biggest blow coming from Slade Heathcott. He hit an opposite field (!) go-ahead three-run homer off Brad Boxberger in his first big league at-bat since May. It was huge. The Yankees need every win they can get right now.

Heathcott is just the latest young player to step up and help the Yankees this season. He’s not alone. Regulars like Didi Gregorius and Nathan Eovaldi have played huge roles after a rocky first few weeks in pinstripes. Others like Luis Severino and Greg Bird were called up in the second half to become regulars. John Ryan Murphy‘s been on the bench all season. And then there are guys like Heathcott, whose time with the team has been brief.

A total of 17 different players have been called up to make their MLB debut with the Yankees this year, and those 17 rookie players have combined for 1.5 WAR. That’s pretty good considering we’re talking about 178 plate appearances and 112 mostly low-leverage innings. The total performance doesn’t knock your socks off, but there are some big individual moments mixed in there that were pretty incredible. Signature moments, if you will.

Heathcott, obviously, hit his huge homer last night. Bird had his two-homer game against the Twins and also that go-ahead homer against the Orioles last week. Mason Williams went deep in his first big league game and had a two-double game against the Marlins. How many stellar defense plays did Ramon Flores make before he was traded away? I remember him saving a few runs in Oakland, like this one.

Severino stands out on the pitching side, clearly. He’s been pretty awesome aside from last Friday’s clunker. Others like Nick Rumbelow and Branden Pinder have chewed up some innings and occasionally gotten big outs when pressed into high-leverage work, and now James Pazos seems to be getting a chance in those situations. Caleb Cotham picked up the win last night and Diego Moreno had that brilliant, bullpen-saving outing in Texas.

It’s not just about the rookies though. Like I said, Gregorius and Eovaldi have become rather big parts of the team, and both are only 25. Chasen Shreve was a trusted high-leverage reliever for much of the summer and he just turned 25 not too long ago as well. Gregorius, Eovaldi, Shreve, Bird, and Severino have played the largest roles among the Yankees’ crop of 25 and under players this season, though they’re far from the only one who’ve contributed.

Make no mistake, the Yankees are still a veteran team who are where they are because of guys like Alex Rodriguez, Brian McCann, Brett Gardner, and Carlos Beltran. The veteran dudes were always going to have to carry this team, and they have so far. The Yankees did make an effort to get younger this offseason, at least in moderation, and right now most of those moves have paid dividends. Heathcott’s homer last night was the latest example.

Learning to turn on inside pitches is the next challenge for Didi Gregorius

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

By and large, this season has been a success for Didi Gregorius. He had the unenviable task of replacing Derek Jeter — I underestimated the pressure of that job — and, after some early season hiccups, Gregorius has settled in and been an asset on both sides of the ball. His defense is clearly above-average at this point and his bat has come around as well.

Gregorius is hitting .272/.321/.372 (92 wRC+) overall this year and .298/.341/.411 (108 wRC+) since June 1st while the league average shortstop has hit .255/.304/.371 (84 wRC+) in 2015. If the post-June 1st version of Didi is here to stay, the Yankees have themselves one heck of a player. A 25-year-old left-handed hitting shortstop who is above-average on both sides of the ball? That’s pretty awesome. Considering how bad he looked in April, Gregorius now appears to be one heck of an asset.

One of the biggest reasons behind Didi’s midseason offensive breakout is his newfound ability to go the other way. We’ve all seen it these last few weeks. Gregorius was hooking everything to right field earlier in the season but now feasts on left-center field. They’re aesthetically pleasing hits. He strokes the ball to the opposite field and he’s found some success doing so. Someone deserves a lot of credit for the adjustment, whether it was Didi himself or the hitting coaches or someone else entirely.

The opposite field approach has worked splendidly for Gregorius the last few weeks, though there is a still way for him to take his offensive game to the next level: turning on the inside pitch. Here’s a strike zone plot of Didi’s batted ball velocity by pitch location. The darker the red, the more above-average the exit velocity. The brighter the blue, the more below-average (via Baseball Savant):

Didi Gregorius batted ball velocity strike zone

Gregorius can handle pitches down the middle or on the outer half of the plate. He’s learned to serve those balls to left field. But the inner half? Those pitches have tied him up this year and resulted is generally weak contact. This isn’t necessarily uncommon, hitting inside pitches is hard. (Throwing them is hard too!)

The Yankees just wrapped up a six-game road trip and during those six games Gregorius did indeed turn around some inside pitches and pull them with authority. He had 14 hits (!) on the six-game trip and eight were pulled to the right side of the field, including all three extra-base hits (one double, two homers). Look at the homer he hit in Atlanta:

The pitch was on the inner half of the plate, Gregorius got his bat around quickly, and drove the ball with authority to right field. Perfect. Exactly what you want a left-handed hitter to do with a pitch like that. (Here’s the strike zone plot showing the pitch was on the inner half.) The benefit of being able to turn on pitches like that is obvious for a lefty swinger in Yankee Stadium.

Now this is all much easier said than done. Being able to yank inside pitches to the pull field while still maintaining that opposite field approach is a tough thing to do. Usually only the great hitters can maintain that balance, so maybe it’s unfair and unrealistic to think this is something Gregorius will one day be able to do with regularity. Right now his power comes mostly from mistake pitches, and chances are that is how it will always be.

Gregorius has made a lot of progress this season already, however. He made the adjustment to go the other away and it’s paid huge dividends. Learning how to turn on inside pitches is the next step in his offensive development, and hey, if it doesn’t happen, so be it. This current version of Gregorius is pretty awesome as it is. At 25 years old though, and as a left-handed hitter playing his home games in Yankee Stadium, learning how to pull the ball could really turn Didi into something special.