Austin Romine, Gary Sanchez, and the Yankees’ pitching staff

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Later today Gary Sanchez will begin a minor league rehab assignment with Triple-A Scranton, and, if all goes well the next few days, he could rejoin the Yankees in time for the start of their road trip Friday. Sanchez played four games and four innings before hurting his biceps taking a swing at Camden Yards. Fortunately it was nothing structural with his shoulder or elbow.

Losing Sanchez seemed devastating at the time. The Yankees started the season slowly, and while Sanchez had yet to really get going at the plate, taking away ostensibly their best hitter felt like a recipe for disaster. Instead, the Yankees have gone 14-5 since the Sanchez injury and have averaged 5.55 runs per game. Turns out all they had to do to start winning was lose a guy who hit 20 homers in one-third of a season last year. Who knew?

The Yankees have thrived without Sanchez thanks in large part to fill-in catcher Austin Romine. Romine was pushed into everyday duty for the first time in his big league career and he’s responded by hitting .315/.350/.463 (125 wRC+), including going 4-for-6 with two walks and no strikeouts with runners in scoring position. How about that? Romine has been a godsend these last few weeks. Can’t say enough about the job he’s done.

The offense only tells part of the story though. The Yankees sport a solid 3.51 ERA, which ranks fourth in all of baseball. (It was a 3.35 ERA prior to yesterday’s loss.) Since the Sanchez injury the pitching staff has a 3.38 ERA in 176 innings overall, including a 3.60 ERA in 140 innings with Romine behind the plate. Run prevention has been the surprise of the season so far. I don’t think anyone saw this coming.

“He’s done a really good job with our pitching staff. He’s very bright and he knows what he’s doing back there, and he understands how to call a game,” said Joe Girardi over the weekend when asked about Romine’s work behind the plate. “Sanchez is our No. 1 guy here, but Romine has played excellent. He could be a No. 1, too. I believe in the kid and he’s played really well.”

As Girardi said, Sanchez is the No. 1 catcher, and whenever he gets healthy he’ll step in behind the plate. He’s a cornerstone type of player. Sanchez showed us what he is capable of last year, and it’s basically what Aaron Judge is doing now, only as a catcher. Romine knows the deal — “All I want to do as a backup player that gets thrust into that kind of position is do well for the team and show them that you belong,” he said over the weekend — and will go back to being the backup when Sanchez returns.

With Sanchez’s return looming, it’s fair to wonder what it means for the pitching staff. The pitchers have performed very well with Romine behind the plate, and now the Yankees will be throwing a wrench into that. Here’s the thing though: evaluating a catcher’s impact on the pitching staff is tough. Nearly impossibly to isolate, at least right now. At the end of the day, it is still up to the pitcher to execute. Calling the best game in the world won’t help if Michael Pineda is still hanging two-strike sliders, you know?

Here are the facts. These are the numbers with Romine and Sanchez catching since the start of last season to give us the largest possible sample size:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% HR/9
with Romine 492.1 3.77 3.74 22.1% 7.4% 1.08
with Sanchez 353 4.39 4.29 23.1% 8.0% 1.48

In a relatively limited sample — the average starting catcher catches about 1,000 innings each season — New York’s pitchers have been quite a bit more effective with Romine behind the plate than Sanchez. Sanchez has a small edge in strikeout rate and that’s basically it. And he’s better at throwing out runners too, but that’s another matter for another time.

The difficult part is determining how much, exactly, the catcher is contributing to those numbers. Like I said before, you could call the best game in the world and whisper the sweetest nothings into the pitcher’s ear during mound visits, but, at the end of the day, the catcher isn’t throwing the pitch. All the catcher can do is offer suggestions and try to guide the pitcher one way or the other. He can’t make him execute.

One thing we know the catcher can do for his pitcher is turn borderline pitches into strikes with his receiving ability. As long as human umpires are calling balls and strikes, pitching-framing will be a real and valuable skill. We can quibble with the exact worth of pitch-framing all day. I don’t think anyone would argue it’s not a real thing though. We see it every day. Here are the pitch-framing numbers dating back to last season, via Baseball Prospectus:

  • Romine: -1.1 runs (-2.3 runs per 1,000 innings caught)
  • Sanchez: +1.7 runs (+4.8 runs per 1,000 innings caught)

The small sample size numbers tell us Sanchez has been better than Romine at presenting those borderline pitches in a way that leads to the umpire calling them a strike more often. I feel like the opposite is true based on the eye test. Sanchez seems to stab at the ball from time to time rather than receive it calmly and present it to the umpire. Maybe I’m wrong. Who knows? The numbers say I am.

That, right there, is pretty much the extent of how we can analyze a catcher’s impact on the pitcher. The personal relationships they build, they way they talk pitchers through things, we can’t quantify that. That doesn’t mean it has no value! It absolutely does, we just can’t measure it. A lot of what we’re hearing today boils down to “the Yankees are pitching well and Romine deserves credit,” because that’s how these things usual work. Backup catchers tend to have their defense and ability to work with pitchers talked up (Nichols Law), and Romine is no different.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Remember last season when Sanchez first came up? He was praised for going out to the mound and taking control of the game despite being a young catcher. Sanchez would go out there and set things straight with a veteran pitcher. People ate it up. But it seems no one stopped to think that maybe it wasn’t such a good thing. Maybe those mound visits meant Sanchez and the pitcher had a hard time getting on the same page, hence all the mound visits. We have no idea how well these guys work together because we’re not part of the conversation. The pitcher’s performance gets projected onto the catcher. That’s all.

This is what’s going to happen: At some point the Yankees are going to start to allow more runs because this is not a true talent 3.51 ERA pitching staff. They’re playing over their head a bit. The league is going to get another look at Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery soon, fatigue will set in, stuff like that. The Yankees had a 4.16 ERA last season and I do believe they’re better than that because Severino seems to be figuring some things out, and also because I think Montgomery is better than the back-end starters they used in 2016. That said, I’d be shocked if they finished the season with a 3.51 ERA. I’d sign up for that right now if possible.

A some point the Yankees will begin to allow more runs, and when that happens, Sanchez is going to get the blame. The pitchers worked so great with Romine and now they have Sanchez and they’re just not on the same page! They can’t find the same dynamic. The Yankees should consider making Sanchez the designated hitter (or first baseman?) and starting Romine behind the plate because it’s best for the pitching staff. Prepare to hear all of it. It’s coming.

Romine very well might work better with the pitching staff and be the smart choice behind the plate from that point of view. Here’s the thing though: Sanchez is the future behind the plate. He’s a potential All-Star catcher and building block player for the Yankees going forward. The goal shouldn’t be putting Romine behind the plate because he works better with pitchers. The goal should be working with Sanchez and helping him get better at working with pitchers. That should be the priority going forward, and I think it will be.

The Yankees are off to a very nice start at 15-9, but, as they said all winter, they’re a team in transition. And part of that is helping Gary Sanchez develop into a better all-around catcher. Transitioning him from a bad defender into a good defender, so to speak. Romine has done a phenomenal job filling during Sanchez’s injury. He’s been awesome. But when Sanchez is healthy, he will rightfully take over as the starting catcher, even if it is not necessarily the best thing for the pitching staff in the short-term.

A Funny Thing Happened

(Adam Hunger/Getty)
(Adam Hunger/Getty)

It wasn’t supposed to go like this. The Yankees were supposed to be more fun to watch this year with a trio of young, exciting hitters in the lineup and a high-upside starter in the rotation. Then the starting shortstop got hurt. Then one of the trio got hurt. Then one of the trio started off the year terribly. But a funny thing happened: the fun kept coming and the Yankees began…winning?

If we told you that the Yankees would literally miss Didi Gregorius and Gary Sanchez for pretty much the entire month of April and that Greg Bird would do, well, what Greg Bird has “done” in April, there’s no way you’d be able to guess that the Yankees would end the season’s first month with the league’s best record and run differential. Regardless, that’s the case and it is just downright awesome.

As many have said and written and noted, the last few years of watching the Yankees have, at times, felt like a chore. They were okay, but not really good. And while it was still baseball and thus fun to us, there was something missing. Something ineffable and indescribable that made the nightly ritual seem a bit a of a slog. Now, each night at 7, we have something to look forward to that will actually engage, energize, and excite us in ways we’re not really used to as Yankees fans.

Sure, we’re used to winning, used to being at the top–even if the team hasn’t been that of late–but seeing a young group lead the team is a distant memory for fans of my generation, who may have been just a touch too young to really get what was going on in the mid-late 90’s, despite enjoying all the winning.

(Adam Glanzman/Getty)
(Adam Glanzman/Getty)

Given what we know about baseball and about this specific team, there’s going to be an instinct inside of us to wait for the shoe to drop. That shoe is probably going to drop soon–despite how it’s gone, it’s hard to imagine this team keeping this up all year–but we should remember to live in the moment for this team. Let’s keep enjoying the hell out of every Judge home run. Let’s keep getting pumped for every Severino strikeout. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for Greg Bird and welcome back Gary and Didi.

Speaking of Gary and Didi, I want to end this on something I noticed during yesterday’s game. After Judge’s home run, he was sitting atop the bench, flanked on his right by Sanchez and on his left by Didi. They were talking, presumably about the homer or the game, and just…laughing. This belies my ‘stay in the moment’ sentiment, but I could go for about ten more years of those three guys laughing and buddying it up in the dugout after big homers and big outs. That moment encapsulated the feeling of this season so far: fun. Who knows what’s coming today and after as we turn the calendar to May, but this April ride has been absolutely fantastic. Indeed, a funny thing happened on the way to a rebuild.

 

Game 22: Follow-Up

(Adam Hunger/Getty)
(Adam Hunger/Getty)

The best and worst thing about baseball is that they play every single day. The Yankees mounted a huge comeback for a fun and memorable win last night, and roughly 14 hours later, they’re back at it this afternoon with another game. Baseball never lets you enjoy the highs long, eh?

Anyway, the Yankees have a chance to do something today they haven’t done since August 22, 2015: have sole possession of first place in the AL East. The Yankees and Orioles are both 14-7 right now — the Yankees have a huge edge in run differential, for what it’s worth (+38 to +6) — so a win today means first place. That’d be cool. Just keep winning series though. Win series and everything will work out. Here is the Orioles’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. 3B Chase Headley
  3. DH Matt Holliday
  4. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  5. 2B Starlin Castro
  6. SS Didi Gregorius
  7. RF Aaron Judge
  8. 1B Greg Bird
  9. C Austin Romine
    RHP Michael Pineda

We had some pretty serious thunderstorms overnight here in New York, but it’s cleared up and the weather is fine for the game. Hot, humid, and a little cloudy. This afternoon’s game will begin a little after 1pm ET. YES will have the broadcast. Enjoy the game.

Injury Update: Gary Sanchez (biceps) threw to the bases for the first time today and everything went well. He’s on track to start his rehab assignment Tuesday with Triple-A Scranton.

Game 20: Sale vs. Tanaka

(Maddie Meyer/Getty)
(Maddie Meyer/Getty)

The Yankees have alternated wins and losses since the eight-game winning streak was snapped last week, and if they’re going to put together their first set of back-to-back wins since the streak, they’ll need to beat the best tonight. Chris Sale, Boston’s prized offseason pickup, will face the Yankees for the first time as a Red Sox this evening. He’s been phenomenal in the early going, as usual. This’ll be tough.

On the bright side, the Yankees will counter Boston’s ace with their ace tonight, at least in theory. Masahiro Tanaka has gotten progressively better each time out this season, though he doesn’t seem to be all the way back to his 2016 form just yet. The Yankees will need Tanaka to be on top of his game tonight against Sale. It’s the old Pedro Martinez approach. Match zeroes with Sale then beat the bullpen. Here is the Red Sox’s lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Aaron Hicks
  3. 3B Chase Headley
  4. DH Matt Holliday
  5. 2B Starlin Castro
  6. RF Aaron Judge
  7. 1B Chris Carter
  8. C Austin Romine
  9. SS Ronald Torreyes
    RHP Masahiro Tanaka

Better weather tonight than last night in Boston. It’s still cold and cloudy, but it shouldn’t be foggy or wet. Tonight’s game will begin shortly after 7pm ET. You can watch on YES locally and MLB Network nationally. Enjoy the game.

Injury Update: Didi Gregorius (shoulder) will be activated off the disabled list tomorrow. Hooray for that … Gary Sanchez (biceps) will begin a minor league rehab assignment next week, likely with Triple-A Scranton next Tuesday, Brian Cashman said. Hooray for that too. Hoorays all around.

Game 19: Measuring Stick?

(Justin K. Aller/Getty)
(Justin K. Aller/Getty)

The Yankees are off to a nice little 11-7 start to the season — their +30 run differential is still the best in baseball — and they’ve done it while getting basically nothing from Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, and Didi Gregorius. I’m excited to see this team at full strength. I don’t know if they’re good enough to make the postseason, but at least they’re far more interesting to watch nowadays.

Anyway, rain turned this three-game series at Fenway Park into a two-game series, and because this is Yankees-Red Sox, everything is overblown. I’ve seen this series called a measuring stick for the Yankees. These two games against the AL East favorite will tell us whether they’re for real or not! I mean, no? One series doesn’t mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, but still, it sure would be nice to pick up a pair of wins in Boston. One game at a time though. Here is the Red Sox’s lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. 3B Chase Headley
  3. DH Matt Holliday
  4. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  5. 2B Starlin Castro
  6. RF Aaron Judgehow about a couple homers to celebrate his 25th birthday?
  7. 1B Greg Bird
  8. C Austin Romine
  9. SS Ronald Torreyes
    RHP Luis Severino

The weather still isn’t great in Beantown. It was raining on and off all day, though it looks as though there will be a big enough window to get the game in. It’ll be cold and cloudy in the meantime. This evening’s game will begin a little after 7pm ET. You can watch on YES locally and ESPN nationally. Enjoy.

Injury Updates: Didi Gregorius (shoulder) is on track to return this coming weekend, Joe Girardi said. He could be back in the lineup as soon as Friday. I’m guessing the Yankees want to see how he makes it through his rehab games tonight and tomorrow before making any decisions … Gary Sanchez (biceps) is throwing from a distance of 120 feet and has started hitting in the batting cage, so his rehab is coming along well.

Game 17: Still no DH

(Justin K. Aller/Getty)
(Justin K. Aller/Getty)

Four days ago the Yankees lost to the White Sox to snap their eight-game winning streak. They rebounded the next day with a blowout win. Last night the Yankees dropped the series opener to the Pirates due in part to some sloppy defense. How will they rebound today? Hopefully with another blowout win. That’ll be tough with no designated hitter, but whatever. It’s doable.

Anyway, the point is the Yankees have played well the last two weeks or so, and losses happen. Making sure a loss is just a loss and not the start of the losing streak is pretty damn important if the Yankees, who currently have the fifth best postseason odds in the AL, are going to sneak into the playoffs. Just keep winning series. Keep winning series and good things will happen. Here is the Pirates’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Aaron Hicks
  3. 3B Chase Headley
  4. 2B Starlin Castro
  5. RF Aaron Judge
  6. 1B Greg Bird
  7. C Austin Romine
  8. SS Ronald Torreyes
  9. RHP Michael Pineda

Not a great weather day in Pittsburgh. It’s cold and cloudy, and there might be some on and off rain throughout the game. Today’s game will begin at 4:05pm ET and you can watch on WPIX. Enjoy.

Injury Update: Gary Sanchez (biceps) continues to make progress with his rehab. He made 25 throws from 60 feet and another 25 from 90 feet today. Sanchez was also scheduled to hit off a tee for the first time at some point today. He’s been taking dry swings. Now he’ll hit an actual baseball.

Marketing the Yankees’ present with the past and the future

(Steven Tydings/River Ave. Blues)
(Steven Tydings/River Ave. Blues)

With the New York Yankees brand, the past is always present. But should the future take precedent?

Early in this season, the Yankees’ marketing near the stadium has brought the team’s historic past to the forefront. After two seasons where the souvenir cups featured current players, the new cups contain a smattering of World Series logos. Ads at the subway stops near Yankee Stadium highlight the 27 championships. Furthermore, the team has begun selling stadium-exclusive hats corresponding to each World Series win with unique details for each era.

When you think about the Yankees’ brand over the years, this makes a lot of sense. The brand has always been built upon a winning atmosphere. With a ridiculous number of championships has come an overwhelming number of fans scattered across the country but concentrated especially in New York. There is little doubt which is the No. 1 baseball team in the hearts of most New Yorkers.

And diehard fans identify with this sense of winning. They even demand it. They come to the park both due to a connection to the past and an expectation the current product will live up to the established expectations. But the diehard fans make up the 25-30 thousand spectators that will come to the park rain or shine, win or lose, championship or no.

So at least part of any marketing campaign each season needs to be focused on how to bring in the casual fan. The one who could live with themselves if they don’t make it to Yankee Stadium each year, let alone every month or game. Beyond simply going to the stadium, these are the fans that may only follow and watch the team a little, paying extra attention if the team is winning.

Does an appeal to a past filled with winning work on these casual fans? This, after all, is what the brand already is, so you’re emphasizing what you already have and not extending the brand. That isn’t a bad thing. Extending a brand further can dilute it and the accentuation on championships makes plenty of sense from a marketing perspective. However, I don’t know if this brings that extra 10-20K to the stadium. This is because I am a Yankees and baseball junkie and far from a casual fan.

The way I tried thinking about this was from the perspective of a Yankee fan considering a trip to Citi Field. I am not a Mets fan by any means, but if I’m in the city and the Mets are the only game in town, I’ll certainly consider it. I don’t think an appeal to the Mets’ past would get me to the stadium, but they don’t have the same past as the Yankees, making this an unfair comparison. A general Mets advertisement would make me consider the ride to Citi Field when I otherwise wasn’t considering it, but I would need something more to get me there.

In the recent past, that something extra has been the Mets’ pitching. I can say definitively that I went to Citi Field with the express purpose of seeing Matt Harvey in 2015. By that time, he was no longer a rookie or burgeoning star but a more established part of the team well into his third big league season.

But my trip to see Harvey made me think that maybe a marketing push around exciting young talent could work better than an appeal to nostalgia.

The Yankees don’t have the established talent of the Mets’ rotation right now or the flashy everyday veteran star of a Yoenis Cespedes. What they do have is some of the most exciting young position players who could potentially man the middle of the lineup for the next decade. For a baseball fan, that’s an exciting proposition. For a Yankee fan, even a casual one, that should be even more appealing, the chance to ostensibly get in on the ground floor of a new Yankee evolution.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

So a marketing push behind, let’s say, Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge and Greg Bird could set you up for the future. The team already utilizes their breakout potential in some YES ads and it’s not like they’re absent from the Yankees’ marketing materials. However, if you further establish the star power of those young players, it can help you down the road if they’re everything they’re made up to be. It would create a connection with fans, including the non-consistent ballpark goers, that you can play off of for years. It could potentially be the same as connecting fans with Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter in 1996 and riding that all the way to 2014 and beyond.

But this can really backfire, too. I go back to the Harvey example. He was dreadful last year and that can create a bad taste in fan’s mouths. Or what about the ill-fated Dan & Dave Reebok commercials from before the 1992 Olympics. Relying on unestablished athletes can blow up in your face. What if the first baseman you’re advertising heavily starts the year 1 for 20? Or your catcher of the future injures his arm and is out for a month? Not many people are going to be excited about a cup or t-shirt of a player who appears to be a marginal talent.

So there are easy reasons not to go all-in on the youth movement. The risk is high despite the potential reward and the possible reality that youth talent may bring more casual fans to the park. Still, it’s not hard to imagine a near future with a slightly more than life-sized billboard of Aaron Judge dominating Time’s Square. With the dad jokes aside, the future of Yankees’ marketing seems to be on the current team, but the past may be the best present for now.