Measuring the improvement of Gary Sanchez’s defense

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Thanks to the John Ryan Murphy trade, Gary Sanchez will come to Spring Training with a very good chance to win the Yankees’ backup catcher job. Brian Cashman said he would like to “release the Kraken” a few weeks ago, indicating he wants Sanchez to be on the roster to begin his apprenticeship under Brian McCann. The job is his for the taking.

It feels like Sanchez has been around forever — he did sign back way back in 2009, after all — but he turned only 23 last month, and last season he was still 2.4 years younger than the average Double-A Eastern League player. Sanchez has always been a powerful hitter, that’s his calling card, so the focus of his work the last few years has been on the defensive side of the ball.

Measuring catcher defense is difficult as it is, and it has been close to impossible at the minor league level, though last week Baseball Prospectus introduced some new stats that help us paint a picture of minor league catcher defense. Here’s the primer, which is free. No subscription required. Long story short, the new stats measure pitch-framing, blocking, and throwing. All are expressed in runs saved, the standard currency of defense.

It goes without saying these new catching measures are not exact because no defensive measures are exact, especially at the minor league level. These are estimations more than anything, and for our purposes, that will work. I want to look at Sanchez’s defensive progress in general. Let’s dive into his year-by-year improvement.

2012: 68 games at Low-A and 48 games at High-A

Framing Runs Blocking Runs Throwing Runs FRAA CS%
not available -0.7 +0.0 -0.7 30%

(FRAA is Fielding Runs Above Average. It’s simply framing plus blocking plus throwing.)

Heading into the 2012 season, Baseball America (subs’ req’d) said the then-19-year-old Sanchez struggled to catch breaking balls, so much so that “some scouts believe he’s a lost cause as a receiver.” Their scouting report did say he had “plus arm strength,” which has been the one defensive constant throughout Sanchez’s career. The kid’s always had a rocket.

The numbers say Sanchez was slightly below average blocking balls in the dirt in 2012, and his throwing was average. (The combined average caught stealing rate for the South Atlantic League and Florida State League was 28% that year.) The knock on Sanchez’s throwing for most of his career was his release, not his arm strength. He took forever to get rid of the ball, and when you do that, the arm strength plays down.

At this point of his career, Sanchez was close to a bat-only prospect. He hit .290/.344/.485 (129 wRC+) with 18 homers in 116 total games that year, and holy crap, that’s incredible for a 19-year-old catcher in full season ball. It was very clear Sanchez could hit. His defense lagged big time.

2013: 94 games at High-A and 23 games at Double-A

Framing Runs Blocking Runs Throwing Runs FRAA CS%
+0.0 at Double-A -5.5 +2.5 -2.9 44%

Apparently scouts saw some improvement in Sanchez’s defense during that 2012 season. Baseball America (subs. req’d) said Sanchez had “solid athleticism and receiving skills” going into 2013, which is much better than the whole lost cause thing we read a few paragraphs ago. Baseball America again lauded Sanchez’s arm but did note he was “an erratic defender prone to lapses in receiving.”

The blocking numbers got much worse in 2013. Sanchez is a big guy — he’s listed at 6-foot-2 and 235 lbs. on the team’s official site right now, and he was a little chunky back in A-ball — and he’s not the most mobile catcher, so it was understandable why he struggled to block pitches in the dirt. He did reach Double-A that year, which is where pitchers start to combine stuff with command.

The throwing was very good, however. The combined average caught stealing rate for the Florida State League and Eastern League was only 31% that year, so Sanchez was far above that. The “he can really throw but his receiving sucks” defensive profile isn’t uncommon for young catchers — many of those guys end up on the mound if they can’t hit, like Kenley Jansen — and Sanchez fit the profile to a T.

2014: 110 games at Double-A

Framing Runs Blocking Runs Throwing Runs FRAA CS%
+6.8 -1.5 +1.9 +7.2 39%

The 2014 season is when we first started to see some generally positive defensive scouting reports on Sanchez. Before the season, Baseball America (subs. req’d) said he “still needs to work on blocking balls,” but his “arm has been rated as high as an 80 by some scouts.” And, for the first time, he “took charge behind the plate and was handling staffs with much more authority than in years past.”

We don’t have much framing data for 2012 or 2013 because it isn’t available for Single-A that far back, so the 2014 season is the first time we have a decent sample of framing data for Sanchez. And wow, he really performed well. I am still very skeptical of framing stats — especially for minor leaguers since there’s no PitchFX (they’re just estimations) — but it is obviously a valuable skill, and BP’s stats suggest Sanchez was really good at it a year ago.

The blocking was still below average but better in 2014 than it was in 2013, and the throwing remained excellent. I wouldn’t say Sanchez’s framing improved in 2014 — we don’t have any reliable numbers for 2012-13 — but it looks like his blocking ability did. Progress? Progress! At least based on this admittedly imperfect stats.

2015: 58 games at Double-A and 35 games at Triple-A

Framing Runs Blocking Runs Throwing Runs FRAA CS%
+3.0 +0.0 +0.0 +3.0 36%

The scouting report from Baseball America (subs. req’d) heading into last season said Sanchez’s arm “remains an impressive tool” while adding he is “still working to become more adept as a receiver and a blocker.” That jibes with the numbers so far. The throwing stats love him but the blocking stats haven’t.

The framing numbers came back to Earth a bit last year, but again, Sanchez’s blocking improved. He went from -5.5 blocking runs in 2013 to -1.5 in 2014 to +0.0 in 2015. At the same time, his throwing numbers have actually gotten worse. Sanchez’s caught stealing rate remains really good — the combined average for the Eastern League and International League was a 30% caught stealing rate in 2015 — but it has been trending down, and his throwing runs total has fallen from +2.5 to +1.9 to +0.0.

Interestingly enough, Eric Longenhagen (subs. req’d) saw Sanchez in the Arizona Fall League, and said he “showed signs of fixing the glacial way he rises from his crouch when he throws down to second base by often just eliminating the middle man and throwing from his knees.” Unconventional? Sure. But hey, if it works, great. I could have sworn MLB.com had video of such a throw, but apparently not. For shame. (If anyone finds it, let me know.)

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

After the 2015 season Baseball America (subs. req’d) said Sanchez has “an extremely strong arm” and has “spent years refining his receiving and blocking.” The scouting report also said he “still has some polish to add as a receiver,” which makes sense because, you know, he just turned 23. No one is a finished product at that age, especially not a catcher defensively.

Point is, Sanchez’s defense seems to have come a long way from “lost cause” based on the both the scouting reports and stats. The stats are still somewhat rudimentary of course, but they continue to get better with each passing year. That they match up with what the scouts are saying — blocking needs work, arm is great, etc. — is encouraging. We’re on the right track.

The Yankees value catcher defense highly — they’ve traded away bad glove catcher prospects like Jesus Montero and Peter O’Brien in recent years — and they’ve been very patient with Sanchez the last few seasons. His bat was always going to buy him time, and lately his defense appears to be improving as well, so much so the team was comfortable trading Murphy.

Sanchez figures to get his first real opportunity at the big league level this coming season, and surely the Yankees hope his glovework will improve even more under McCann, Joe Girardi, and Tony Pena. His bat will forever be his main tool. But, if he is able to settle in as even an average defensive MLB catcher, Sanchez will be an incredibly valuable asset for the Yankees.

Hicks, Ackley, and Sanchez poised to give the Yankees a strong bench in 2016

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Over the last few seasons benches have become a critical piece of a baseball team. Platoons are widespread, and with amphetamines (“greenies”) now on the banned substances list, players need a little more rest throughout the season. The bench used to be full of guys who only played when the starters got hurt. Now they’re full of players with strategic roles.

Quality benches can be hard to build, especially for a big market team like the Yankees, who have a roster loaded with big name (and big contract) players. No free agent bench player wants to sign with New York because they’re worried they won’t get much playing time. I don’t blame them. Look at Garrett Jones last season. He never played because Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira were healthy and productive.

The Yankees have had to grow their own reserve players or acquire them in trades over the last two decades or so. Either that or pick up reclamation project veterans and hope for the best. Think Darryl Strawberry and Eric Chavez. Same idea, just 16 years apart. Bench players are like relievers though. They do their work in inherently small samples, and their performance is very volatile from one year to the next.

Next season, the Yankees figure to carry three players capable of providing some thump off the bench in Gary Sanchez, Dustin Ackley, and Aaron Hicks. Sanchez is homegrown and the other two guys came over in the trades. The Yankees still have an open bench spot too, and depending how they feel about Starlin Castro‘s ability to play third, they could go in one of several different directions with that spot.

All three players will serve specific roles next season. Sanchez, who I must point out is not a lock for the backup catcher’s job, will likely give Brian McCann a rest against tough lefties thanks to his right-handed power. John Ryan Murphy was really awesome last season, but he doesn’t have Sanchez’s power. Sanchez is a threat to hit the ball out of the park every time he steps to the plate against a southpaw.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Ackley showed the kind of left-handed pull power that plays well in Yankee Stadium following the trade last year — he pulled six of his ten homers last summer, including all four with the Yankees (three at Yankee Stadium) — and his versatility means he’s an option in the outfield as well as at first and second bases. As we saw with Jones though, Ackley could wind up getting less playing time than expected if the veteran starters produce.

Hicks is the new addition to the bench after coming over from the Twins in the Murphy trade. He’s a switch-hitter and a high-end athlete with excellent defensive chops. Chris Young was an awesome fourth outfielder last season, though I’m not sure how realistic it is to expect him to repeat that performance. Hicks is a better defender and he hit southpaws hard himself last year (139 wRC+), and there are signs he may be on the verge of a breakout.

“I think Hicks has a chance to help (the veterans) in spelling them and keeping them healthy and strong,” said Joe Girardi in the Winter Meetings last month. Girardi and Brian Cashman have both indicated they see Hicks as an everyday type player who will play a lot going forward. (Young batted 356 times last year, remember. The fourth outfielder gets a lot of work.) He’s going to start against lefties and play defense in the late innings at a minimum.

Last year the Yankees appeared to have a very strong and powerful bench thanks to Young and Jones, two veterans with pop. Young worked out, Jones didn’t. So it goes. Hicks and Ackley add much more athleticism to the roster and more versatility as well, without sacrificing much offensive production, if any. I think there’s a chance going from Murphy to Sanchez will be a step down next year, but Sanchez at least offers big upside. Growing pains are part of development.

The trio of Sanchez, Ackley, and Hicks are poised the give the Yankees a very strong bench with power, speed, athleticism, and defense. (For what it’s worth, ZiPS projects them for 4.4 WAR combined.) There’s some real upside with this group, which is usually not the case with bench guys. That doesn’t mean they’ll all work out, benches are weird like that, but the Yankees are in the middle of this quasi-rebuild, and part of it is upgrading the reserves. It’s not often the Bombers have carried bench players with this sort of potential.

Incorporating Gary Sanchez and the need to reduce Brian McCann’s workload going forward

(Mitchell Layton/Getty)
(Mitchell Layton/Getty)

Last month, when the Yankees shipped John Ryan Murphy to the Twins for Aaron Hicks, it created a clear path for Gary Sanchez to get Major League playing time. If not right away next season, then at some point in the near future. Murphy is no longer around representing an obstacle. A big league roster spot is Sanchez’s for the taking.

“I really like Gary Sanchez. I’m hopeful with his high-end ability he can be a big positive impact on (Joe Girardi‘s) lineup choices on a weekly basis, as he chooses when to rest (Brian McCann),” said Brian Cashman to reporters at the Winter Meetings earlier this month. “And we face so many left-handers that it’s nice to have that type of power bat. I’d like to unleash the Kraken — which is Gary Sanchez — on our roster in 2016 if I can, and see if he can do some real positive damage for us.”

Sanchez, who turned 23 earlier this month, had a big regular season between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton, putting up a 137 wRC+ with 18 homers. (He’s averaged 19 homers per 120 games in full season ball in his career.) He reportedly did some growing up and put himself in position to be a big league option. That definitely was not the case at this time last year. Sanchez’s maturation and development made Murphy expendable.

As with Murphy this past season, getting Sanchez playing time will be a bit of challenge because McCann is going to start. Eh, challenge probably isn’t the right word. I think a veteran like McCann can be very beneficial for a young catcher like Sanchez — “I’m extremely excited to work with him and see his tools on a daily basis and try to help him get better,” said McCann to Jack Curry recently (video link) — but going from playing everyday to playing once or twice a week can be a tough adjustment.

The Yankees do, however, need to start paying some more attention to McCann’s workload. That isn’t to say Girardi has been oblivious to it — Girardi’s an ex-catcher, after all, he know when McCann needs a rest — it’s just that McCann will be 32 in February and he’s been a starting catcher for eleven seasons now. He’s been behind the plate for nearly 11,000 regular season innings. That’s a lot of wear and tear.

McCann may have started to show some of that wear and tear this past season, when he hit .200/.306/.395 (91 wRC+) in the second half and .174/.301/.279 (64 wRC+) in September. He started 43 of 55 games in May and June — that’s a 127-start pace across a full 162-game season — before Girardi started to scale back and give Murphy a little more playing time in July and August. McCann was a workhorse early in the season.

(Kevin C. Cox/Getty)
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty)

“You know, you try to keep it around somewhere between 100-120 games, 120 is pushing it a little bit,” said Girardi when asked about McCann’s 2016 workload at the Winter Meetings. “He wants to play every day, and sometimes I’ve got to tell him, ‘You’re going to take a day here.’ But I think you see how he’s doing … I know his bat is important to us and I have to keep him healthy.”

Sanchez is a natural platoon made for McCann just like Murphy was this past season. Starting Sanchez against southpaws next season — assuming he and not someone else is the backup catcher, of course — ensures McCann regular rest and puts Sanchez in position to do the most damage. It also gives him something of a set schedule, which all players appreciate. Sanchez can look at the upcoming pitchers and get an idea of exactly when he’ll play.

Girardi has also been known to use personal catchers at times — Jose Molina and A.J. Burnett is the most notable example, but he also used to pair Frankie Cervelli with CC Sabathia — and Sanchez could get playing time that way. Luis Severino‘s the obvious candidate here. Severino threw to Sanchez with Double-A Trenton the last two years and again with Triple-A Scranton this year. There’s familiarity there.

Either way, Sanchez now has an obvious long-term role with the organization, and his arrival coincides perfectly with what figures to be the back-end of McCann’s career. The Yankees can begin to scale back on McCann’s workload — an inevitability for all veteran catchers — and incorporate Sanchez into the lineup at a comfortable pace. In 2016, that could mean platoon work against lefties and perhaps a stint as Severino’s personal catcher.

Aaron Judge claims top spot on Baseball Prospectus’ top ten Yankees prospects list

Judge. (Presswire)
Judge. (Presswire)

Prospect season is in full swing now. One day after Baseball America published their top ten Yankees prospects list, the crew at Baseball Prospectus did the same. For BP, the top ten list plus the write-up for the top prospect are free. Everything else is behind the paywall. Here’s the top ten:

  1. OF Aaron Judge
  2. SS Jorge Mateo
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. RHP James Kaprielian
  5. OF Dustin Fowler
  6. 2B Rob Refsnyder
  7. RHP Drew Finley
  8. 3B Eric Jagielo
  9. RHP Brady Lail
  10. LHP Ian Clarkin

Again, as a reminder, both RHP Luis Severino and 1B Greg Bird are no longer prospect eligible, which is why they’re not on the list. They both exceeded the rookie playing time limits this past season.

Judge, Mateo, Sanchez, and Kaprielian are very clearly the top four prospects in the organization right now, as I said yesterday. We could argue the precise order until we’re blue in the face, but those are the four guys. It’s them, then everyone else right now.

The BP gang appears to be quite high on Fowler — “If he isn’t an everyday center fielder at the highest level, he could be a very good fourth outfielder,” said the write-up — and I’m glad to see someone shares my Finley affection. I’m not sure Finley’s a top ten guy, but he’s close.

Both Jagielo and Clarkin were understandably dinged in the rankings after losing so much time to injury in 2015, but the BP crew opted not to ignore their ceilings. I don’t know where Jagielo will play long-term, but he can mash. Clarkin didn’t have surgery and showed his pre-injury stuff in the Arizona Fall League.

“Recent success with early-round draft picks and aggressive tactics in the July 2nd market have given the Yankees a deep system with a healthy mix of almost-ready major-league regulars and teenagers with loud tools,” said the write-up, which also listed SS Wilkerman Garcia, OF Leonardo Molina, C Luis Torrens, 3B Dermis Garcia, and LHP Jacob Lindgren as other interesting prospects to watch. One of those things is not like the others.

The Baseball Prospectus feature also includes a ranking of the top ten players in the organization age 25 or younger. Severino sits in the top spot, followed by Judge, Mateo, Sanchez, Bird, Kaprielian, Fowler, Refsnyder, RHP Bryan Mitchell, and LHP Chasen Shreve. SS Didi Gregorius, 2B Starlin Castro, and RHP Nathan Eovaldi all missed the age cutoff by a few weeks and weren’t eligible for the 25 and under list.

Of nothing else, the 25 and under list shows how much better shape the Yankees are in right now than a year ago. Last year Molina was in the top ten under 25 list and, uh, no. This year eight of the ten are either in MLB or will be very soon. “The Yankees of the future likely won’t take shape for a year or two at least,” said the write-up, “but if the end of 2015 was any indication, we’ll get an increased glimpse into its promise in 2016.”

Jorge Mateo tops Baseball America’s top ten Yankees prospects list

Mateo. (Main St. Rock)
Mateo. (Main St. Rock)

Baseball America’s annual look at the top ten prospects in each organization continued today with the Yankees and their improving farm system that figures to take a hit in the rankings. As always, the list and intro essay are free, but the individual scouting reports are not. You need a subscription for those. Here’s the top ten, as ranked by Josh Norris:

  1. SS Jorge Mateo
  2. C Gary Sanchez
  3. OF Aaron Judge
  4. RHP James Kaprielian
  5. RHP Domingo Acevedo
  6. RHP Rookie Davis
  7. SS Tyler Wade
  8. 2B Rob Refsnyder
  9. SS Wilkerman Garcia
  10. OF Dustin Fowler

As a reminder, neither RHP Luis Severino nor 1B Greg Bird are prospect eligible. They both exceeded the rookie playing time limits — 130 at-bats for position players and 50 innings for pitchers — this past season. Severino threw 62.1 innings and Bird had 167 at-bats in the big leagues.

I wouldn’t say Mateo moving into the top spot is surprising, though I don’t necessarily agree with it. Moving him ahead of Sanchez and especially Judge means fully buying into his projection. The scouting reports say Mateo “could be an above-average shortstop” while Sanchez “profiles as a front-line catcher,” yet the shortstop in Single-A is ranked above the catcher in Triple-A (or MLB). Eh, whatevs. I’m guessing the gap between No. 1 and No. 3 is pretty small anyway.

The team’s top four prospects — in whatever order — are pretty obvious. If you have anyone other than Mateo, Sanchez, Judge, and Kaprielian in the top four, you’re overthinking it. After the top four is where it gets interesting and I honestly have no idea who New York’s fifth best prospect is right now. Norris slots Acevedo in at No. 5 and he’s the next great divisive Yankees prospect. Some see him as an ace in the making and others see a big guy with a big fastball and not much else.

Davis and Wade both made nice strides this past season and Refsnyder is Refsnyder. We know all about him by now. Garcia had the best debut from the team’s massive 2014-15 international haul and the scouting report says he “has the potential to be a five-tool player, with some scouts even giving him future average power.” Fowler, a 2013 draftee, was a two-sport guy in high school who is starting to figure out this baseball thing now that he’s playing it full-time.

LHP Ian Clarkin and 3B Eric Jagielo stand out as the most notable omissions. Clarkin (elbow) was hurt all season before getting some innings in the Arizona Fall League, so it’s understandable to drop him. I’m not sure I’d drop him all the way out of the top ten, but to each his own. Jagielo probably isn’t a third baseman long-term, though he mashed at Double-A this summer before jamming his knee sliding into home plate and having surgery. I like Wade, but give me Clarkin and Jagielo before him.

The Yankees actually got some help from their farm system this past season, and the graduations of Severino and Bird all but guarantee the team will place lower in the various organizational rankings in 2016 than they did in 2015. Losing two high-end talents like Severino and Bird hurts. Then again, the farm system lost them for the right reason, not because they stalled out in the minors. Sanchez, Judge, Refsnyder and possibly Davis are the top ten prospects in position to help the Yankees in 2016.

The Good, the Bad, and the Funny of 2016 ZiPS Projections

2016 ZiPS

Yesterday morning, 2016 ZiPS projections for the Yankees were released over at FanGraphs. There are an awful lot projection systems out there but ZiPS has emerged as the most reliable — especially when it comes to translating minor league or overseas performance — of the bunch. Dan Szymborski’s system is pretty rad.

Anyway, projections are always fun to look at, though you have to take them with a grain of salt. (Those are the WAR projections in the image above.) Remember, projections are not predictions of what the player will do next season. They’re just an attempt to estimate the player’s current talent level. Got it? Good. Here are some Yankees projections that caught my eye for one reason or another.

Aaron Judge

Judge has maybe the most LOL worthy projection, and I mean that in a nice way, not a ZiPS is stupid way. The system him pegs him for 30 home runs … and a 35.0% strikeout rate. That’s just perfect. Judge still has some work to do to combat soft stuff away and I think if the Yankees did stick him in the show right now, he would strike out 30% of the time or more. Then again, 30 dingers! That’s fun. No other Yankee projects for 30 homers.

Greg Bird

In terms of OPS+, Bird projects as the best hitter in the organization right now. ZiPS has him at .252/.324/.486 (122 OPS+) with 26 dingers in 2016. Mark Teixeira (119 OPS+) and Alex Rodriguez (115 OPS+) are the only other players close to Bird. I can buy this. Bird showed a lot of Yankee Stadium friendly pull power in his cameo this year (eleven homers in 46 games) though I do worry teams will LOOGY the hell out of him. Then again, the only non-Yankee lefty starters in the AL East right now are David Price, Eduardo Rodriguez, J.A. Happ, Drew Smyly, and Matt Moore. Not exactly Murderer’s Row of southpaws there aside from Price.

Starlin Castro vs. Rob Refsnyder

Projection for Castro: .274/.310/.405 (98 OPS+) with 2.2 WAR. Projection for Refsnyder: .248/.318/.395 (98 OPS+) with 1.9 WAR. That’s basically the same! I’m not sure if I buy that though. I’d bet on Castro outproducing Refsnyder by a pretty decent margin if given the same playing time. There’s also the “they acquired Castro because they think he’s going to get a lot better” thing. Either way, the objective projection system sees Castro and Refsnyder as basically equal.

Oh, and by the way, ZiPS projects a .253/.310/.415 (100 OPS+) batting line for Dustin Ackley next season. Am I the only one who would sign up for that right now, no questions asked? Ackley’s hit .238/.298/.365 (89 OPS+) in his last 1,900 plate appearances.

No Innings

ZiPS projects Masahiro Tanaka to lead the Yankees in innings with … 157.7. Yikes. Luis Severino is second with 154 innings. That just reflects the rotation’s health concerns — injury history is baked into the ZiPS algorithm — which are significant. After all, CC Sabathia led the team with only 167.1 innings this past season, so having no one reach even 160 innings next year would not be the most surprising thing in the world.

The Yankees need some arms. We’ve known this for weeks. This starting staff is risky as hell. Lots of upside and lots of downside, and when four of the five projected 2016 starters missed time with injuries in 2015, the downside outweighs the upside.

The Bullpen Shuttle

In terms of FIP, the best projection among the various bullpen shuttle relievers belongs to … Nick Goody at 3.68. Jacob Lindgren (3.73 FIP) is right there with him. Everyone else is at a 4.00-ish FIP or above. Lindgren and Goody lead the way with 29.5% and 27.3% projected strikeout rates, respectively. We all know about Lindgren, he was the top draft pick who zoomed to MLB, but Goody had a ridiculous 2015 season in the minors (1.59 ERA and 2.06 FIP with 33.2 K%). He might be getting overlooked as a potential bullpen factor in 2016.

The Comps

ZiPS works by comparing players to others with similar statistical profiles, so it spits out a list of comps for each player. The No. 1 comp is included in the FanGraphs post and I always enjoy these because they have a way of knocking you back down to Earth. Take Severino, for example. His No. 1 comp? Kris Benson. Benson was the first overall pick in the 1996 draft and a pretty big prospect back in the day.

Glancing at the list, Dellin Betances is the only Yankee to get a Hall of Famer as his No. 1 comp (Goose Gossage). Well, Pete Kozma drew a Leo Durocher comp, but that’s Leo Durocher the light-hitting infielder and not Leo Durocher the Hall of Fame manager. Andrew Miller drew a Billy Wagner comp and you could argue Wagner’s a Hall of Famer. Bird got a Roberto Petagine comp. Judge? He got Jesse Barfield. Gary Sanchez drew Todd Zeile and Eric Jagielo drew Mark Reynolds. Matt Nokes as the No. 1 comp for Brian McCann gave me a good laugh.

The Suddenly Productive Farm System [2015 Season Review]

Judge at the Futures Game. (Rob Carr/Getty)
Judge at the Futures Game. (Rob Carr/Getty)

This past season the Yankees received more production from their farm system than they did in any year since Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang arrived in 2005. And because of that, they’ll take a hit in the various farm system rankings next spring. Top prospects Luis Severino and Greg Bird graduated to MLB, as did the since traded John Ryan Murphy.

When you lose two high-end talents like Severino and Bird to the big leagues, your system is going to take a hit. That’s life. You’d rather the system take a hit because of graduations than failing prospects, and in recent years the Yankees were dealing with too much of the latter. With new farm system head Gary Denbo in charge, the system took a step forward this summer and gave the MLB team help, the kind of help that wasn’t always available in recent years. Let’s review the season on the farm.

The Top Prospect

Coming into the season it was debatable whether Severino or OF Aaron Judge was the Yankees’ top prospect. I went with Judge for a number of reasons, including the inherent injury risk with pitchers. Severino zoomed to the big leagues this summer while Judge split the season between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton, hitting .258/.332/.446 (124 wRC+) with 20 home runs in 127 total games.

Judge dominated the Double-A level (147 wRC+ with 12 HR in 63 games) but had a tougher time in Triple-A (98 wRC+ with 8 HR in 61 games), which isn’t all that uncommon. He was facing pitchers with big league experience for the first time and they picked him apart, mostly by taking advantage of his big strike zone — Judge is 6-foot-7, remember — with high fastballs and soft stuff away.

Contrary to what seems to be popular belief, Judge’s strikeout rate did not spike in Triple-A, at least not insanely so. He had a 25.3% strikeout rate at High-A, a 25.0% strikeout rate in Double-A, and a 28.5% strikeout rate in Triple-A. That’s three extra strikeouts per 100 plate appearances. Judge did have some ugly strikeout heavy slumps with the RailRiders, but overall the strikeout increase was not alarming.

That isn’t to say Judge’s strikeouts aren’t an issue. He’s always going to strike out a lot, he’s a huge guy with a big zone, but you’d rather see him hover around 25.0 K% rather than 28.0+ K% long-term. The power is there though. Judge hit three more homers and two more doubles in 2015 than 2014 despite getting 23 fewer plate appearances, playing against better competition, and playing in worse hitters parks.

The less than stellar showing at Triple-A ensures Judge will return to the RailRiders to start 2016 so he can work on controlling the strike zone a little better (his 9.8% walk rate was above-average, for what it’s worth) and laying off soft stuff off the plate. Judge has big power and his right field defense is easy to overlook. He’s a really good athlete with a strong arm who’s an asset in the field. Hiccup in Triple-A notwithstanding, Judge remains New York’s top prospect in my book.

Mateo. (Jerry Coli)
Mateo. (Jerry Coli)

The Big Name Breakout Prospects

It’s weird to consider C Gary Sanchez a breakout prospect because he’s been one of the best prospects in the organization for a few years now, but a few things finally clicked this year, mostly in terms of his maturity. It helped him reach the big leagues in September. Sanchez is now a candidate — if not the favorite — to replace Murphy as the Brian McCann‘s backup next summer.

SS Jorge Mateo, another one of the team’s top prospects, also broke out this past season in the sense that he played his first full season. The 20-year-old speedster hit .278/.345/.392 (114 wRC+) with a minor league leading 82 steals in 99 attempts (83% success rate) in 117 games with (mostly) Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa. No other player stole more than 75 bases this year. If you want to argue Mateo (or Sanchez) is the Yankees’ top prospect and not Judge, I’d disagree, but I’d understand.

A few years ago RHP Rookie Davis was an interesting name literally because of his name. His real name is William but a nickname like Rookie gets you noticed. Davis took a big step forward this year, especially with the command of his mid-90s heater/curveball combination. Walk rate is a control stat, not a command stat, though it is notable he cut his walk rate from 7.6% last year to 4.7% his year. Davis had a 3.86 ERA (2.47 FIP) in 130.2 innings with High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton.

OF Dustin Fowler, 20, also made the jump from sleeper to bonafide prospect this summer by hitting .298/.334/.394 (113 wRC+) with 20 doubles, five homers, and 30 stolen bases in 123 games at Low-A and High-A. He then had a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League. Fowler has been playing baseball full-time for only two years now — he was also a top football recruit in high school — and he’s starting to turn his power/speed/defense tool package into baseball ability.

And finally, the biggest breakout prospect of the summer was OF Ben Gamel, who’s spent the last few years as a depth player and not an actual prospect. Thee 23-year-old hit .300/.358/.472 (138 wRC+) with 28 doubles, 14 triples, ten homers, and 13 steals in 129 games, all at Triple-A. Gamel’s power finally started to blossom and he’s now a legitimate big league candidate. He and Davis were added to the 40-man roster last month.

The Emerging Depth

Farm systems will always be defined by their star power, that’s just the way it goes, though depth is important as well. The Yankees had several lower profile prospects — guys who don’t necessarily project to be stars but do have a chance to contribute at the big league level in a meaningful way — emerge this summer, including SS Tyler Wade, RHP Brady Lail, LHP Jordan Montgomery, RHP Cale Coshow, and RHP Domingo Acevedo.

Wade. (The Times of Trenton)
Wade. (The Times of Trenton)

Wade, 21, had an ugly 21-game cameo with Double-A Trenton (37 wRC+) late in the season after a strong showing with High-A Tampa (117 wRC+). He hit .262/.321/.333 (99 wRC+) in 127 total games overall in 2015 and is a contact-oriented left-handed hitting middle infielder with the defensive chops for either side of the second base bag. At the very least, Wade is in position to have a long career as a backup infielder.

The 22-year-old Lail is a major player development success for the Yankees. He was the team’s 18th round pick in the 2012 draft as an extremely raw high schooler from Utah. The Yankees have helped mold him into a four-pitch righty who is in position to give the team serviceable innings soon. Lail had a 2.91 ERA (3.51 FIP) in 148.1 innings for Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton in 2015, though he didn’t miss any bats (13.8 K%). He offers a fastball, curveball, cutter, and changeup. The ceiling is not all that high here, but Lail can help.

Unsurprisingly, the 22-year-old Montgomery was one of the best pitchers in the system this season, posting a 2.95 ERA (2.61 FIP) with very good strikeout (24.1%) and walk (6.6%) rates in 134 innings at Low-A and High-A. Montgomery spent three years in South Carolina’s rotation facing tough SEC lineups, so Single-A lineups were no challenge. He’s another four-pitch guy (fastball, cutter, curve, change) and we’ll find out if Montgomery is for real next season, when he heads to Double-A Trenton.

Coshow is an interesting prospect. For starters, the guy is listed at 6-foot-5 and 260 lbs., so he’s an intimidating presence on the mound. Secondly, he had a 2.45 ERA (2.80 FIP) with good strikeout (21.5%) and walk (6.2%) numbers in 114 innings at three levels in 2015. He topped out at Double-A. Coshow, 23, performed so well the Yankees moved him from a relief role into a starting role at midseason. He’s got a huge fastball, sitting 95-97 and hitting 100 mph in relief, and he backs it up with a wipeout slider. I don’t think Coshow’s a starter long-term, but gosh, that’s a nice looking relief prospect.

And finally, the 21-year-old Acevedo is either one of the best prospects in the organization or just an interesting arm with a long way to go, depending who you ask. Acevedo had a 1.81 ERA (2.89 FIP) with a lot of strikeouts (26.6%) and an average number of walks (7.9%) in 49.2 innings with mostly Short Season Staten Island this summer. He’s another huge guy (6-foot-7) who has touched triple digits, and his changeup is pretty good too. Acevedo needs to figure out a breaking ball at some point to avoid a future in the bullpen.

The Reclamation Prospects

At this time last year both OF Mason Williams and OF Slade Heathcott were afterthoughts. Williams didn’t hit at all from 2013-14 and he was dogged by maturity issues. Heathcott simply couldn’t stay healthy. The two came to Spring Training healthy this year and with positive attitudes, and they put themselves back on the prospect map. Both made their MLB debuts in the first half. It might not sound like much, but Williams and Heathcott went from non-factors to the show in about six months. That’s pretty darn cool.

The Best of the Rest

The Yankees had to be pleased with what they saw from 3B Eric Jagielo (141 wRC+ with Double-A Trenton) before he jammed his knee sliding into home plate in June and had to have it scoped, ending his season. Jagielo’s defense is still a huge question, but the guy can hit, especially for power. IF Abi Avelino and IF Thairo Estrada both had nice seasons in the low minors — Avelino stole 54 bases and Estrada had a 108 wRC+ with Short Season Staten Island.

OF Rob Refsnyder, LHP Jacob Lindgren, and RHP Bryan Mitchell gave the Yankees some mileage at the big league level, and the team turned OF Ramon Flores and RHP Jose Ramirez into Dustin Ackley. The 2014-15 international spending spree added a bevy of prospects to the system and the 2015 draft added even more talent, with RHP James Kaprielian, SS Wilkerman Garcia, RHP Drew Finley, SS Hoy Jun Park, 3B Dermis Garcia, and RHP Chance Adams among the most notable new additions. Also, 2B Tony Renda came over in the David Carpenter trade.

The Disappointing Prospects

It’s not all good news, of course. Several prospects had disappointing seasons, most notably OF Tyler Austin. He hit .240/.315/.343 (92 wRC+) in 94 regular season games and was demoted from Triple-A Scranton to Double-A Trenton at midseason. The Yankees dropped Austin from the 40-man roster in September and he slipped through waivers unclaimed.

3B Miguel Andujar did the bad first half/good second half thing again, though the end result was a .243/.288/.363 (98 wRC+) line in 130 High-A Tampa games. At some point Andujar has to put together a full productive season. Bonus baby OF Leonardo Molina hit .247/.290/.364 (96 wRC+) while repeating the Rookie Gulf Coast League. Age is on his side though — Molina turned 18 in July. Yes, he’s still only 18. Austin, Andujar, and Molina were the biggest disappointments among the team’s top 30 prospects.

Clarkin. (MLB.com screen grab)
Clarkin. (MLB.com screen grab)

The Inevitable Injures

Injuries are part of baseball. That’s just the way it is. The Yankees had several high-profile prospects suffer significant injuries in 2015. LHP Ian Clarkin (elbow inflammation), C Luis Torrens (shoulder surgery), RHP Domingo German (Tommy John surgery), RHP Austin DeCarr (Tommy John surgery), and RHP Ty Hensley (Tommy John surgery) combined for zero regular season games played this year. Zero.

That is two of the top six, three of the top eleven, and five of the top 18 prospects in the organization according to my preseason rankings. (Four of the top seven pitching prospects!) Ouch. Literally and figuratively. On the bright side, Clarkin did avoid the zipper and was able to throw 24.2 innings in the Arizona Fall League. But still, that’s a lot of really good prospects going down with major injuries. The Clarkin and Torrens injuries really took a bite out of the system. They have the most upside.

* * *

Overall, the 2015 season was a big success for the Yankees’ farm system because they graduated some impact talent to the big leagues. Severino and Bird look like keepers and future core players. Murphy had a very good season before being traded a few weeks ago. Sanchez and Mateo emerged, Kaprielian was drafted, and Judge reached Triple-A.

The Yankees dipped into their farm system for help whenever possible this season, and I have to think that serves as motivation for the guys still in the minors. They see that if they stay healthy and produce, they’ll get a chance too. Calling up guys like LHP Matt Tracy and OF Taylor Dugas shows the Yankees will now give anyone and everyone an opportunity if they’re the right man for the job.