Looking for positive signs amid Greg Bird’s early season slump

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Remember Spring Training? It was a fun time. The Yankees were winning on a near daily basis, the prospects were all playing well, and a now healthy Greg Bird looked like a budding middle of the order force. Bird hit .451/.556/1.098 during Grapefruit League play, and he led all players in homers (8) and extra-base hits (16). If nothing else, he looked healthy after missing last season with shoulder surgery.

Because baseball can be a jerk, Bird has followed up his monster Spring Training performance with a dreadful start to the regular season. He’s hitting .104/.204/.229 (23 wRC+) in 54 plate appearances, and basically all his success has come in one game, that 3-for-3 with a home run and a double effort against the Cardinals last Sunday. We all hoped that would be the start of big things for Bird. Instead, he’s gone 1-for-19 (.053) since. Woof.

Players go through slumps all the time. Sometimes right out of the gate to start the season. It’s not often a talented young player hits .104/.204/.229 in a span of 54 plate appearances, however. When they do that, they tend to find themselves back in Triple-A. The Yankees are clearly giving Bird some rope here. To me, the biggest red flag so far has been this:

greg-bird

That’s Matt Andriese blowing a 92 mph fastball right by Bird. He’s late on it. Second straight pitch too! Bird swung and missed at a nearly identical fastball the previous pitch. We saw Bird punish all sorts of fastballs in Spring Training. He was turning around 97 mph heaters like it was no big deal. Now he’s getting beat by 92 mph fastballs in the zone? Yikes.

Here, for reference, are all the fastballs Bird has swung at and missed this season, via Baseball Savant:

greg-bird-fastball-whiffs

Swinging and missing at back-to-back 92 mph fastballs from Andriese two Thursdays ago was not an isolated incident. Bird has been doing it pretty much all month. Pitchers haven’t needed Aroldis Chapman velocity to get Bird to swing and miss at a fastball. Anything at 92 mph and above has given him trouble, even when it’s out over the plate.

As bad as Bird as been, there are some positive trends in his game that suggest maybe he’s getting closer to snapping out of it. You have to squint your eyes a little, but the trends are there. The question is whether they’re meaningful this early in the season and in this few plate appearances. For example, here are Bird’s strikeout rate and contact rate on pitches in the zone, via FanGraphs:

greg-bird-plate-discipline

Okay, that’s a start. The strikeout rate is coming down and the contact rate on pitches in the zone is going up.  Earlier this year Bird was making contact with fewer than 50% of his swings against pitches in the strike zone. That is unfathomably awful. When the pitch was in the zone, Aaron Judge managed to make contact with 74.3% of his swings last year, and Judge was terrible last season.

So while Bird couldn’t handle Andriese’s 92 mph heat two weeks ago, he has gradually been doing a better job getting the bat on the ball and avoiding strikeouts since then. That’s sort of a prerequisite for being a good baseball player. Making contact. Bird has a healthy 9.3% walk rate, but walks alone are not enough. He needs to do a better job making contact, especially on pitches in the zone, and he’s started to do that. Progress!

Making contact is one thing. Lots of players can do that. Pete Kozma can do that. Making quality contact is another. Quality contact is what separates good hitters from everyone else. Simply getting the bat on the ball isn’t enough. You have to be able to drive it too. Here is Bird’s hard contact rate, again via FanGraphs. It also shows a recent uptick:

greg-bird-hard-contact

Here’s something that surprised me: Bird has a 48.4% hard contact rate this season. That’s really freaking good. The MLB average is 31.1%. Going into yesterday’s games 228 players had batted at least 50 times this season, and only 13 had a higher hard-hit rate than Bird. Judge, who has been hitting mammoth home run after mammoth home run, has a 47.7% hard contact rate. This is a big deal. Bird is coming back from major shoulder surgery and he’s impacting the baseball. Good news!

Those two graphs are connected, of course. Bird is hitting the ball harder because he’s making more contact on pitches in the zone. And, as always, Bird is getting the ball airborne. His 30.0% ground ball rate is well below the 44.3% league average and ranked 18th lowest among those 228 hitters with at least 50 plate appearances prior to yesterday’s games. Hitting the ball hard in the air is Bird’s thing. Hit the ball hard in the air and extra-base hits will come. Bird is still doing that. Remember this?

greg-bird-fly-out

Bird hit a fly ball there Saturday afternoon. He hit the ball hard and he hit it in the air, and it was just short of the wall. Bird also had a line drive back up the middle taken away Sunday when Ivan Nova stuck out his glove and caught it. Bird has been dreadful so far this year. No doubt about it. But I can’t help but feel there’s a little bad luck in his .133 BABIP (!), especially given his hard contact rate.

Did you notice Bird’s positive trends — the improved hard contact rate and contact rate in the zone — started at roughly the same time? That all started when Bird came back from the nagging ankle injury and that illness. He spent five straight days on the bench earlier in the season due to the ankle and the illness. Since he’s returned, Bird is making more contact and hitting the ball harder. Coincidence? Maybe! But yeah, probably not. He’s probably healthier now than he was on Opening Day.

There is no denying Bird has been awful in the early going this season. And if he continues to be awful, the Yankees will have no choice but to consider sending him to Triple-A to get things straightened out. I don’t know when they’ll have that conversation. Maybe next week, maybe next month, or maybe at the All-Star break. But it’ll have to happen eventually if this continues. Sending Bird out there day after day to get his lunch handed to him helps no one.

At the same time, we are starting to see the old Greg Bird at the plate, even if the results aren’t there yet. He’s making more contact on pitches in the zone. He’s hitting the ball hard and he’s hitting it in the air. He’s talking his walks. I’d be worried if Bird was still missing hittable fastballs, or if he was beating the ball into the ground. That’s not happening now. At least not as often as it did a few weeks ago. Small sample size caveats always apply in April and that is no different here. We have to reach a little bit because Bird has been so bad, but there are some reasons to believe he is inching closer to getting out of this early season funk.

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.

Yankeemetrics: We’re Going Streaking (April 14-16)

(Getty)
(Getty)

Comeback kids
Behind the improved pitching of Masahiro Tanaka, and the power of Starlin Castro and Austin Romine, the Yankees opened their 2017 Interleague slate on Friday night with a 3-2 come-from-behind win over the Cardinals. This was the Redbirds first visit to the new Yankee Stadium, making the Padres the only team that hasn’t visited the Bronx since 2009.

Masahiro Tanaka entered this matchup having allowed just one run in 21 innings (0.43 ERA) over three Interleague starts at Yankee Stadium. That was the lowest ERA in the majors by any pitcher with two career home Interleague starts … until the third batter of the game, Matt Carpenter, crushed a two-run homer to give the Cardinals an early 2-0 lead.

He settled down after that rocky first frame, retiring 10 straight at one point, before faltering again in the seventh. Tanaka has now given up 13 runs in three outings this season – a number he didn’t reach until May 10 last year in his seventh start of the 2016 campaign.

Castro quickly evened the scored with a two-run blast in the bottom of the first. It was Castro’s 11th game-tying or go-ahead homer in pinstripes, two more than every other Yankee since the start of last season.

Romine then delivered the eventual game-winner, a solo homer in the bottom of the second to put them ahead 3-2. It was the first time in his career he went deep to give the Yankees a lead.

(AP)
(AP)

Sabathia > Father Time
CC Sabathia produced a vintage performance in Saturday’s 3-2 Yankee victory, throwing 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball, while picking up his his 225th career win on Jackie Robinson Day. That moved him past Hall-of-Famers Jim Bunning and Catfish Hunter for sole possession of 66th place on MLB’s all-time wins list.

Sabathia also lowered his ERA to 1.47, the third-lowest of his career through his first three starts of a season; the only better marks were in 2011 (1.45) and 2005 (0.92).

The Yankees needed Sabathia’s masterpiece because their offense remained stuck in neutral for much of the game. They went 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position, left 12 men on base and tied a franchise record with 17 strikeouts (done three times previously). Somehow, the Yankees are now 2-1-1 all-time when striking out 17 times in a game.

Cardinals right-hander Carlos Martinez was both utterly dominant and laughably wild at times on Saturday afternoon, finishing with one of the most bizarre pitching lines you’ll ever see: 11 strikeouts, eight walks, four hits, three runs allowed.

He’s the first pitcher to walk at least eight guys and fan at least 11 batters since Randy Johnson in 1993, and the first to do that against the Yankees since Bob Feller in 1937.

Even more ridiculous is that he did this all in just 5 1/3 innings. Martinez is the only pitcher in major-league history to have 11-or-more strikeouts and eight-or-more walks in a game and not make it out of the sixth inning.

Seventh Heaven
The Yankees completed the sweep of the Cardinals on Sunday with a convincing 9-3 win, extending their win streak to an MLB-best seven games. They now have two sweeps in two home series this season, after notching just three sweeps in 26 home series in 2016.

The victory also pushes their Yankee Stadium record to 6-0, the second time in the Wild Card era (since 1995) they’ve won their first six games at home. It also happened in 1998, a season that ended … yeah, pretty sweet.

(USA Today Sports)
(USA Today Sports)

Greg Bird broke out of his brutal season-opening slump in style, as he reached base in all four plate appearances with a home run, double, single and a walk (hey, a triple short of the cycle!).

Prior to his second-inning homer, Bird was hitless in his previous 20 at-bats, and had just one hit and a whopping 13 strikeouts in 30 trips to the plate this season. Entering Sunday, his batting average (.038), slugging percentage (.077) and OPS (.244) were each the worst among the 237 MLB players with at least 30 plate appearances this season.

Bird’s homer was his first since Oct. 1, 2015, making him the 10th different Yankee in 2017 to go yard. That’s tied with the Tigers, Rays and Brewers for the most players with at least one homer this season.

Chase Headley continued to swing a hot bat, pushing his batting average above .400 and notching his seventh multi-hit performance of the year. He’s the first Yankee third baseman since Bobby Murcer in 1969 to have seven multi-hit games this early into the season (first 12 team games), and joins Derek Jeter (2010, 2012) as the only Yankees at any position to do it in the last decade.

Michael Pineda followed up his near-perfecto with another excellent outing, showing a hint of the consistency that has so far eluded him during his Jekyll-and-Hyde career in pinstripes. It was just the second time as a Yankee that he pitched at least seven innings and surrendered no more than two runs in back-to-back games (also May 5-10, 2015).

Unaccording to Plan

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

Two weeks of baseball are almost in the books and, as always, they’ve been predictably unpredictable. For the Yankees, that’s manifested itself in two divergent paths thus far: CC Sabathia‘s pitching and Greg Bird‘s “hitting.”

Despite the apparent completion of his reinvention project last year, what we’d get in 2017 from Sabathia was certainly no sure thing. A pitcher as good and smart as he is could repeat what he did in 2016, but a pitcher as old as he is could just as easily fall apart. So far, it’s been the former and CC has done a great job in his starts, even pitching into the eighth yesterday.

Last year, CC leaned mostly on the cutter. In this year’s few offerings, CC has been leaning more on the sinker than he did last year. Additionally, the handful of changeups he’s found this year have been successful, leading to whiffs 33% of the time overall and 66% per swing. It’s too early to tell and all that stuff, but things are looking good for CC. It’s not often a pitcher develops again and who knows what could happen next, but I’ve never been one to bet against Sabathia.

#GREGBIRD (Presswire)
#GREGBIRD (Presswire)

On the other side of the coin is Greg Bird, who can hardly buy what even looks like a good plate appearance these days, let alone a hit. Would this stretch be markedly less noticeable if it happened in the middle of the season? Definitely. Is it concerning, at least a little bit, that Bird looks so lost at the plate? Yes.

After a hot spring in which he looked fantastic–and had similar results–it’s disappointing to see Bird struggling so much. Of course, it is still way early and just as Sabathia can fall down, Bird can climb up. Pretty much everything has been a disaster for Bird, but I find it hard to believe he’s going to keep whiffing this much on his swings.

Compared to 2015, Bird is swinging at similar rate, but he’s chasing out of the zone about four percent more. This has led to a four percent drop in zone swing percentage, too. When he has swung in the zone this year, though, it hasn’t mattered much. There’s the aforementioned whiffing problem, which as led to a zone contact rate of 53.1%; league average is just around 86%. Whether it’s timing, mechanics, or lack of pitch recognition, something is vexing Bird.

For both of these players, even if their results have been opposite of each other and opposite of expectations, there is still plenty of time. Sabathia and Bird both have the talent and the know how to succeed at their respective levels. Though it’s a positive thing with Bird and potentially a negative thing with Sabathia, we’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop. We know it’s coming, but what the footprint looks like is a mystery.

Game Eight: Montgomery’s Debut

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The fifth starter competition is officially over, just a little earlier than everyone expected. The Yankees were planning to wait until April 16th to use their fifth starter, but after Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia had to work hard in their starts over the weekend, the club decided to give them an extra day. Jordan Montgomery arrives today as the fifth starter. It will be his MLB debut.

Montgomery wasn’t exactly a prime contender for the fifth starter’s spot in Spring Training, but he outpitched everyone ahead of him in the pecking order, which is why he’s getting a shot today. The Yankees still have Chad Green and Luis Cessa in Triple-A, plus Bryan Mitchell is in the bullpen, so Montgomery will have to pitch well to keep this rotation spot. Here is the Rays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Aaron Hicks
  3. DH Matt Holliday
  4. 1B Chris Carter
  5. 2B Starlin Castro
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. RF Aaron Judge
  8. C Kyle Higashioka
  9. SS Pete Kozma
    LHP Jordan Montgomery

Not the best weather in the Bronx this afternoon. It rained on and off for much of the morning, though that’s cleared out now. It’s still cloudy and windy though. This afternoon’s game will begin at 1pm ET — I have no idea why this is a 1pm ET start, it’s not a getaway day for either team — and you can watch on YES locally and MLB Network nationally. Enjoy the game.

Injury Updates: Greg Bird (ankle, flu) is doing much better. He’s out of the lineup today because the Rays are starting a left-hander, not because he’s still hurting or sick … Didi Gregorius (shoulder) started taking swings recently, so he’s progressing with his rehab … James Kaprielian (elbow) had his visit with Dr. Neal ElAttrache yesterday. Still no update though.

Roster Move: To get Montgomery on the 40-man roster, the Yankees have … done nothing yet. Still no announcement. They’re waiting until the last minute, apparently. designated Johnny Barbato for assignment, the team announced. Chasen Shreve was sent down Monday to get Montgomery on the 25-man roster.

Five things we’ve learned about the Yankees one week into the 2017 season

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

For the third time in the first nine days of the 2017 season, the Yankees have an off-day today. This one is a happy off-day. They won the home opener convincingly yesterday, one day after rallying late to beat the Orioles in Camden Yards. The Yankees are 3-4 through their first seven games of the new season. Not great, but considering they were nine outs away from a 1-5 record through six games fewer than 48 hours ago, I’ll take it.

The first week of the season is the best time to watch baseball because woo baseball’s back! We’ve been waiting all winter for this. The first week is also the worst time to analyze baseball because the sample sizes are tiny. Our eyes lie to us these first few days. Not everything needs a large sample size though. We can make some observations after only seven games, and I’m going to do that right now. Here are five things, in no particular order, we’ve learned about the 2017 Yankees through the first week of the new season.

The new Sabathia is sustainable

Seven games into the season, CC Sabathia has been unquestionably the best starter in the rotation, allowing three runs total in eleven innings in his two starts. He chucked five shutout innings in his first start and allowed three runs in six innings next time out, and both starts were reminiscent of last season. Sabathia danced in and out of danger and did a nice job limiting hard contact. The Orioles got to him with a bunch of soft line drives to the shallow outfield Sunday.

Last year the 36-year-old Sabathia reinvented himself after being wholly ineffective from 2013-15, mostly by adding a cutter and doing a better job neutralizing right-handed batters. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. Sabathia is having more success against righties because of the cutter. He’s always been good against lefties — he’s not as effective as he once was against them, but he’s still able to keep them in check — but righties hit him hard the last few years. We’re talking .304/.363/.502 (.370 wOBA) in 2015. Yikes.

MLB switched from PitchFX to Trackman this season and there have been some pitch classification issues early on — I had an entire Dylan Bundy post at CBS get borked by classification issues — so for some reason Sabathia’s cutters are being classified as four-seamer fastballs. Watching the games though, you can see he’s throwing a cutter, not a straight four-seamer. Here’s how he’s pitched righties through two starts, via FanGraphs (view is from the catcher’s perspective):

cc-sabathia-vs-rhb

Cutters — four-seamers according to Trackman, but nah — inside and everything else outside. Same as last year. And it’s working too. Sabathia has had two solid starts and he’s held righties to a .212/.333/.212 (.266 wOBA) batting line early on. (He won’t be that good against righties all season, obviously.) That Sabathia has already been able to carry over last season’s approach and success is encouraging. His days as an ace are over. We know that. Based on last season and the first two starts this year, Sabathia can still be a serviceable big league starting pitcher.

Gardner will be more aggressive on the bases

Over the last four seasons Brett Gardner‘s stolen base totals have fallen from 24 to 21 to 20 to 16. His stolen base attempts have declined from 32 to 26 to 25 to 20. Gardner is 33 now and players that age typically don’t run as much as they did earlier in their careers, but you can’t help but shake the feeling he (and Jacoby Ellsbury, for that matter) is capable of more on the bases.

“I definitely think we should be more aggressive and I need to be more aggressive. Not only hopefully do a better job of getting on base but when I do, I’m going to run a little more often, for sure,” said Gardner to Brendan Kuty back in Spring Training. And through seven games, Gardner has five steals in five attempts. He didn’t steal his fifth base until the team’s 27th game last year, and it wasn’t until the 36th game that he stole his sixth base.

Furthermore, Gardner is running early in the count. He’s had an annoying tendency to wait and wait and wait before stealing a bag, rather than going early and giving the hitter a better chance to drive him in. Gardner has stolen all five bases on the third pitch of the at-bat this year. You’d like him to go first or second pitch, but going on the third pitch is better than going fifth or sixth pitch, you know? He said he was going to be more aggressive on the bases and we’ve seen it so far.

“I talked to (Gardner) in Spring Training. Gave him a goal, basically,” said Joe Girardi following yesterday’s game. “Your job is to score 100 runs, and I don’t care how you get to the next base, but your job is to score 100 runs. If you do that, and Ells can do that, we’re going to have a pretty good offense. He’s run a lot, he’s swung the bat extremely well, he’s played defense extremely well, so he’s off to a great start.”

Ellsbury, meanwhile, has only one steal so far, but it was kind of a big one. He pinch-ran for Matt Holliday in the ninth inning of a tie game Sunday, and stole second on the very first pitch. Again, Gardner and Ellsbury are both 33 and will soon be 34. Their days of stealing 40+ bases a year are probably over. Speed typically doesn’t age well. They do seem to be capable of more than their 36 combined steals last season though, and they’re off to a nice start on the bases in 2017, especially Gardner.

Judge is adjusting to MLB pitching

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

The overall numbers are pretty awesome thus far: .261/.320/.565 (150 wRC+) with a double and two home runs. It’s still early, of course. More important than the raw numbers these first 25 plate appearances is how much more comfortable Aaron Judge looks so far this year compared to last year. Last season, when he fell into a two-strike count, Judge was basically in survival mode. Pitchers picked him apart and the result was a 44.2% strikeout rate.

So far this year Judge has struck out six times in 25 plate appearances, a 24.0% rate, and his approach looks so more better. He’s not chasing out of the zone as often. He’s doing a much better job laying off those breaking balls down and away, the pitch that gave him such a hard time time in 2016. Judge also isn’t swinging and missing at pitches in the strike zone nearly as much. Here are the quick numbers, which come with big ol’ sample size warnings:

  • Judge in 2016: 34.9% chase rate and 74.3% contact rate in the zone
  • Judge in 2017: 25.5% chase rate and 92.3% contact rate in the zone
  • MLB averages 2016-17: 30.8% chase rate and 86.4% contact rate in the zone

All throughout his career Judge’s tendency has been to struggle initially when he gets to a new level, then adjust and have success. He struggled big time last season after being called up. Sure, he mashed some long home runs, but the strikeouts piled up and were a major concern. How could they not be? We’ve yet to see that version of Judge this year, the one who can’t make contact. He’s provided some nice punch from the bottom third of the lineup.

“I think it’s important he contributes,” said Girardi yesterday. “Being a young player can be difficult at times, when you get off to slow starts. Maybe you’re not swinging quite as well as people think you should. There’s a lot of expectations placed on you. Anytime you’re able to contribute — and he’s contributed pretty big the last two days — I think it helps them relax a little bit.”

Seven games doesn’t tell us anything definitive about Judge this season. He could slip into a 4-for-40 with 25 strikeouts slump tomorrow. Early on though, he looks more comfortable at the plate, especially in two-strike counts, and that is really encouraging. He’s worked hard to make changes and put himself in the best position to succeed. We’re starting to see the results of that work now that he’s swinging and missing less often.

Yes, there will be growing pains with the kids

Spring Training sure was fun, wasn’t it? Greg Bird and Gary Sanchez hit the snot out of the ball and it was hard not to get excited about them hitting second and third in the regular season. Naturally, both have started the regular season slowly. Bird was off to a 1-for-16 (.063) start — the one hit was a bloop just inside the foul line — before getting sick over the weekend and sitting out a few games. Sanchez went 3-for-20 (.150) with a homer before landing on the disabled list with a biceps issue.

Fair or unfair, the combination of their first impressions — Bird in the second half of 2015 and Sanchez in the second half of 2016 — and dynamite springs raised expectations. The Yankees certainly expect Bird and Sanchez to be key contributors this year given their lineup positions. The first week of the season was a harsh reminder that yeah, these are two kids in their first full MLB season, and there will be bumps along the way. They’re better than they’ve shown so far. Much better. Ups and down come with the territory with young players though.

Carter is an imperfect bench piece

The Yankees were smart to pick up Chris Carter on the cheap at the end of the offseason because hey, 40-homer bats don’t grow on trees, plus no one knew what to expect from Bird. We still don’t know what Bird can do this season. I think he’ll be good, but I don’t know that. Adding Carter as a safety net was a nifty little low-cost addition. Dingers are cool. I like dingers.

At the same time, Bird showed his shoulder is sound in Spring Training and the Yankees are committed to playing him, which leaves Carter on the bench. Before Bird’s recent illness, Carter pinch-hit twice in the first four games of the season, and that’s it. He can’t do much else. He’s a first baseman (and designated hitter) only, so he offers no versatility, and given his splits, ideally he’d hit against lefties. There’s a very specific set of conditions that have to be met for Carter to play.

Bird is out sick now (and his ankle is acting up), so the Yankees are happy to have Carter as a temporary fill-in. When Bird is healthy though — and especially once he starts hitting, which is only a matter of time — Carter’s usefulness is limited. He basically gets to pinch-hit against lefties in the late innings, and even then he’s only going to pinch-hit for certain batters. Ronald Torreyes and Austin Romine, essentially. That’s about it. Meh.

Game Seven: Home Opener

Yay baseball. (RAB)
Yay baseball. (RAB)

After six months and six road games, baseball returns to Yankee Stadium today. Can you believe this is already the ninth year of the new Stadium? It still feels like the place just opened. Based on the way teams are going through ballparks these days, the Yankees are due for a new park in eleven years or so. The Yankees are 4-4 in home openers at the current incarnation of Yankee Stadium.

“You feel like the season is in full swing once you come home,” said Joe Girardi this morning. “Obviously you’re aware that it starts. I think everyone always looks forward to their home opener. You feel that there’s that advantage playing at home. You feel that your team is built for ballpark. You get to sleep in your bed and do those types of things. You feel like the season is underway.”

The Yankees are coming off a pretty excellent win over the Orioles yesterday and now they’re sending Michael Pineda to the mound, and gosh, who knows what he’s going to do from start-to-start. His first start last week did not go well at all, but Pineda is the kind of guy who can get hammered one day and strike out ten in seven scoreless innings five days later. Hopefully the good version of Big Mike shows up this afternoon. Here is the Rays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

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

The weather is spectacular in the Bronx today. Bright blue sky and temperatures in the mid-70s. Can’t beat it. The pregame ceremonies will being at roughly 12:40pm ET and I’m sure YES will have them. Joe Torre, Willie Randolph, and Tino Martinez are throwing out the ceremonial first pitches and will be honored for their roles in Team USA’s World Baseball Classic championship. Torre was the general manager and Willie and Tino were on the coaching staff. I wonder whether Tyler Clippard, who was in the USA bullpen, will be honored too. We’ll see. This afternoon’s game will begin a little after 1pm ET. You can watch on YES locally and MLB Network nationally. Enjoy the game.

Injury Updates: Greg Bird (ankle, illness) is available off the bench today, if necessary. He was available yesterday too, but Girardi said once the lead stretched to four runs, they decided to take it easy on him. Girardi also said Bird is sitting today more because of the illness than the ankle … Gary Sanchez (biceps) will see a doctor today and the Yankees will get a better idea about his timetable then. Girardi said Sanchez is feeling better and he’s more optimistic about the injury now than he was at the time it happened.