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:

PITCHERS (9)
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

CATCHERS (3)
Brian McCann
John Ryan Murphy
Gary Sanchez

INFIELDERS (7)
2B/OF Dustin Ackley
1B Greg Bird
SS Didi Gregorius
3B Chase Headley
2B Rob Refsnyder
DH Alex Rodriguez
IF Brendan Ryan

OUTFIELDERS (6)
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

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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)
Drew/Ryan

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

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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.

Didi’s Improvement

(Ezra Shaw/Getty)
(Ezra Shaw/Getty)

If not for Alex Rodriguez‘s (mostly triumphant) return to pinstripes, the biggest narrative surrounding the Yankees this season would likely be Didi Gregorius and his attempt at replacing the beloved and legendary Derek Jeter. To say that talk of this has fully died down would be disingenuous as we hear it fairly frequently, mostly when the Yankees play on national broadcasts. Thankfully, Didi has worked hard at and succeeded in making those conversations positive, even if that wasn’t the case at first.

In the early going of this year, things were not looking great for Sir Didi. He was scuffling at the plate, hitting to just a .499 OPS during his first month as a Yankee. On top of that, he was flubbing plays in the field and making some poor decisions on the basepaths. He was pressing–and who could blame him? Going from the relative obscurity of playing for the Diamondbacks to the relative ubiquity of playing for the Yankees while replacing Derek Frickin’ Jeter would make any player, regardless of skill-level, press. As the season’s gone on, though, Didi has adjusted and looked more and more comfortable in the Bronx and a second-half surge at the plate has helped make that possible (along with fewer baserunning blunders and mostly stellar fielding–seriously, this dude’s arm is off the charts!).

Since the All-Star Break, Didi has hit .304/.333/.415. That hot streak didn’t just start after the (not really) midpoint of the season. If we extend back to July 1 to now, Didi is hitting .294/.333/.400. That’s ever-so-slightly off from the post-ASB pace, but it’s still solid, especially for a shortstop who’s as good a fielder as Didi’s proven himself to be. Let’s take a look into some batted ball numbers and see what we can find as a possible source for Didi’s improvement.

As it so often does, Didi’s improvement may start with the old number one. Since July, Didi’s seen a big increase in line drives per balls in play on fastballs: 33.33% compared to just 17.50% in April through June. Unsurprisingly, this has led to an increase in BABIP–.268 instead of .228–which has led to a slight increase in BA against fastballs, .239-.222. Also at factoring in here is a big drop in pop up percentage. In the early part of the season, Didi popped up on exactly 10% of the fastballs he put into play; that number is now hovering closer to 2%.

The non-fastball pitch Didi has seen most often this season has been the sinker, and he’s been productive against it all along. In the first few months of the season, he hit well against the pitch with a .298 batting average. However, from July on, he’s done even better. Currently, he’s hitting .556 (!) against the sinker. What’s interesting is that Didi has seen almost as many sinkers since July (104) as he did in all of April through June (156).

Didi’s ‘formula’ seems pretty simple: sting the ball a little bit harder and get some more hits because of it. I’m no scout–and it’s difficult and dangerous to draw such conclusions from data alone–but the harder contact, the more frequent line drives, and the less frequent pop ups (the trend from fastballs mirrored itself in sinkers, with a drop off in PU/BIP% of about 4%) seem to suggest that Didi’s leveled out his swing, which has led to an uptick in production. No matter what it is, the last two months have Didi have been great to watch (even if he’s been allergic to taking a walk) and let’s hope he settles in to his role even more.

 

Thanks to a little patience, the Yanks now have a standout defensive shortstop in Gregorius

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

This offseason, the Yankees seemed to have a very specific goal of improving the infield defense. It was really bad last year for several reasons, but three of four infielders became free agents in the offseason, so the Yankees had a clean slate. They could start fresh and bring in any type of players they wanted, and they prioritized defense.

The improved infield defense did not show up the first few weeks of 2015. Chase Headley made an alarming number of errors early on — 14 errors in the team’s first 60 games! — but has since settled in and played well (four errors in 58 games since). Stephen Drew never really had a defensive slump this year. He just hasn’t hit. Didi Gregorius, for a while, didn’t hit or field.

The start of the season was quite ugly for the team’s new shortstop. Gregorius wasn’t hitting — not that many expected him to have an impact at the plate — and he wasn’t fielding well either, specifically when it came to decision making. Looking back on it, it sure seems like replacing Derek Jeter was overwhelming at first. I was too quick to toss that aside as something that could wear on Gregorius.

“I just think he’s maturing as a player,” said Joe Girardi to Erik Boland last month when asked about Gregorius looking more comfortable. “He got off to a slow start and we’ve just kind of seen an upward kick the whole season and this has been his best month. I think June was better than May, May was better than April, and he continues to improve.”

Didi’s bat has come around — he’s hitting .257/.306/.340 overall and .278/.314/.377 since May 15th, and this year the league average shortstop is hitting .257/.304/.373 — and so has his defense. It feels like we see a play like this once a game nowadays:

Gosh, when was the last time we saw a regular Yankees shortstop make a play like that? Derek Jeter’s going to the Hall of Fame for his bat, not his glove, and he simply wasn’t able to make plays like that. That play is a single to left field with Jeter, especially late career Jeter, the guy Gregorius is replacing.

It wasn’t going to take much for Didi to be an upgrade over last year’s version of the Cap’n, both at the plate and especially in the field. Check out the defensive spray charts for 2014 Jeter and 2015 Gregorius:

Didi Gregorius Derek Jeter fielding spray chart

Gregorius has far more range to his left — some of that is due to the shift, but not all of it — and he’s been better at making tough plays. Notice the different shades of the dots. The dark green ones are the routine plays, according to Inside Edge. Everything else is a non-routine play, with red representing the toughest plays. Gregorius has way more light green, yellow, orange, and red dots in his spray chart than Jeter did all of last season. He’s not just making more plays, he’s making tougher plays.

The AL average is a .092 BABIP on ground balls hit towards the shortstop position this year. Against the Yankees it’s a .098 BABIP, but that’s for the entire season, and Gregorius was pretty bad in the field early on. Since the calendar flipped to May, when Didi first started to look comfortable in the field, it’s a .091 BABIP on ground balls hit to short against the Yankees. So it’s been below-average overall but better of late, so at least it’s moving in the right direction.

“For me, his head is in a better place,” third base coach Joe Espada told Brendan Kuty last month. “He’s more comfortable, he’s more relaxed. You start seeing the things I know he’s capable of doing. It’s more of the state of mind, and that’s why he’s performing, in my opinion, much better than the way he started.”

Those first few weeks were not pretty at all. Gregorius looked like he was in over his head and there was reason to think the Yankees might need to find a new shortstop in the offseason. Now? Now Gregorius is a borderline top ten shortstop by WAR and he’s trending in the right direction on both sides of the ball. His offense is about on par with the league average shortstop and his defensive ability is becoming a major asset.

The Yankees acquired Gregorius because of his glove first and foremost, and although it took a little while for his defensive tools to turn into consistent and occasionally spectacular outs, Didi has now transformed himself into a top notch gloveman at short. The Yankees have shown a lot of patience with young players this season, and for the most part they’ve been reward. No young player has rewarded their patience more than Gregorius.

2015 Midseason Review: The Mostly Bad New-Look Infield

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

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Falling Short On Both Sides Of The Ball

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

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

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

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

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

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Replacing A Legend

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

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

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

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

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

Okay So Maybe 2014 Wasn’t A Fluke

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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

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

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

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

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Welcome To New York, Brian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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