Game 46: Build on the Blowout

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

The Yankees snapped their ugly six-game losing streak with a 14-1 blowout win over the best team in baseball yesterday afternoon. That was a game everyone needed. That sort of win is an anomaly though, especially against a club like the Royals. It’ll never be the norm.

The good news is a win like that can be major confidence booster. Hopefully it’ll springboard the club towards another extended stretch of winning. The 2015 Yankees seem to be pretty streaky — they started terribly, got crazy hot, then went cold in an instant — and it’s time for another round of winning. I hope it is, anyway. Here is Kansas City’s lineup and here is New York’s lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. CF Chris Young
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. 3B Chase Headley
  6. RF Carlos Beltran
  7. 2B Stephen Drew
  8. C John Ryan Murphy
  9. SS Didi Gregorius
    RHP Adam Warren

It’s starting to feel like summer around here. The temperate is again in the 80s today and there are only a few clouds in the sky. Nice night for baseball. Tonight’s game will begin just after 7pm ET and you can watch live on WPIX. Enjoy.

Injury Update: Jacoby Ellsbury (knee) is still getting treatment and has not yet resumed any sort of baseball activity. “He’s walking around in a brace every day and doing treatment. We have not progressed past that yet,” said Joe Girardi to George King yesterday.

All-Star Voting Update: MLB released the first AL All-Star Game voting update today and boy oh boy are Royals fans stuffing the ballot box. See it here. No Yankees lead at their positions but McCann (fourth), Teixeira (third), A-Rod (third) are among the top five at their respective positions. Ellsbury (7th), Gardner (11th), and Beltran (12th) are among the top 20 outfielders. A-Rod needs more support, folks. He’s nearly a million votes behind Nelson Cruz! Here’s the ballot. The last All-Star Game without a Yankee in the starting lineup was 1999, by the way.

Start Times Updates: The Yankees announced their games on June 21st (Tigers), August 23rd (Indians), and September 27th (White Sox) will all start at 1:05pm ET. They had been listed at TBA. They’re all Sunday games, so ESPN didn’t flex them into the 8pm ET slot, basically. Hooray for that.

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Jacoby Ellsbury likely to miss more than 15 days with knee sprain

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Following last night’s game, Joe Girardi told reporters Jacoby Ellsbury is likely to miss more than the minimum 15-day DL stint due to his right knee sprain. Ellsbury suffered the injury when he caught a cleat on a swing and said the injury is on the outside of his knee. Girardi added surgery will not be required. That’s all we know at this point.

“It’s basically, he’s on the 15-day DL. Do I think we’ll get him back in 15 days? No. Do I think it’ll be a long DL stint? No,” said Girardi, according to Brendan Kuty. “But, as I’ve said all along, it’s going to depend on how he responds to the treatment and with the speed being a big part of his game, we’ll just have to see what he’s doing.”

Depending on the severity, a knee sprain could require anywhere from two weeks to two months to heal. Maybe longer. We’re just going to have to wait and see. Since Ellsbury is a speed player and this is a leg injury, the Yankees have to make sure he’s 100% before returning. I mean, that’s always true, but you catch my drift.

Slade Heathcott figures to play quite a bit in Ellsbury’s absence, at least against righties with Chris Young playing against lefties. Brett Gardner has slid into the leadoff spot with Carlos Beltran taking over as the number two hitter. Problem is Stephen Drew and Didi Gregorius are batting seventh and eighth instead of eighth and ninth now, respectively.

Ellsbury is the Yankees’ best all-around player and one of their best hitters, so losing him for any length of time is really bad. Even the minimum 15 days was going to be tough. I have no idea what Girardi means when he says Ellsbury will be out longer than that, but hopefully it’s not much longer. I’m as excited to see Heathcott as anyone, but geez, no Ellsbury is a huge blow.

Game 42: Big Mike Back Home

BIG MIKE IS HERE

The Yankees are finally back home in the Bronx. They played 15 of their last 19 and 25 of their last 35 games on the road — not surprisingly, they’ve played the most road games in MLB — but are now home for a six-game homestand, which starts tonight against the Rangers. Nineteen of their next 31 games will be at Yankee Stadium.

It’s good to be home, but geez, the Yankees really need to win tonight. They’ve lost seven of their last eight games and haven’t won a non-CC Sabathia start since Michael Pineda struck out 16 Orioles nearly two weeks ago. Big Mike is on the mound tonight and he is the undisputed staff ace while Masahiro Tanaka is on the DL. Time for the ace to end the three-game losing streak and start the homestand off right. Here is the Rangers’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. RF Carlos Beltran
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. C Brian McCann
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. 2B Stephen Drew
  8. SS Didi Gregorius
  9. CF Slade Heathcott
    RHP Michael Pineda

It was absolutely gorgeous in New York earlier today, but some clouds have rolled in and it’s pretty gloomy right. There’s a very tiny little bit of rain in the forecast but nothing that will impact the game. First pitch is set for 7:05pm ET and can be seen on YES locally and MLB Network nationally. Enjoy the game.

Injury Updates: No timetable yet for Jacoby Ellsbury (knee), who will see the team doctor tonight … Masahiro Tanaka (wrist, forearm) will throw 65 pitches in his next Triple-A rehab start on Wednesday … Chris Martin (elbow) is playing catch and getting close to throwing off a mound … Gregorio Petit (hand) still is unable to swing a bat.

Game 41: Slade’s Debut

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

This day has been a long-time coming. The Yankees selected Slade Heathcott out of a Texas high school with the 29th pick in the 2009 draft — the compensation pick they received for failing to sign Gerrit Cole in 2008 — and tonight he can finally say he’s a big leaguer. To say the road from Texarkana to the Bronx was rocky would be a massive understatement.

Heathcott, now 24, had a turbulent upbringing and hit rock bottom soon after being drafted, when he battled alcoholism and even missed a flight to Instructional League because he’d been out drinking. The Yankees sent Heathcott to Alcoholics Anonymous in April 2010, and while that helped him deal with his substance abuse issues, Slade’s body started to betray him. Multiple knee and shoulder surgeries limited Heathcott to 306 minor league games from 2010-14. He played nine last year due to knee problems.

Now, after being non-tendered in the offseason and returning to the organization on a minor league contract, Heathcott is with the Yankees, having impressed in Spring Training and again during his stint with Triple-A Scranton. It has been almost six years since the Yankees drafted Heathcott, and during those six years he went from multimillionaire first round pick to an underdog. Tonight, all the hard work finally pays off. He’s in the show. Give ’em hell, Slade.

Here is the Nationals lineup — Jordan Zimmermann is starting for Washington, not A.J. Cole, so boo to that — and here is the Yankees lineup. Heathcott is on the bench for his first game:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. RF Carlos Beltran
  3. 1B Mark Teixeira
  4. C Brian McCann
  5. 3B Chase Headley
  6. 2B Stephen Drew
  7. CF Chris Young
  8. SS Didi Gregorius
  9. RHP Adam Warren

It’s cloudy and cool in Washington, so not perfect weather, but there won’t be any rain. That’s coming tomorrow. The Yankees are getting out of town just in time. Tonight’s game will start a bit after 7pm ET and you can watch on YES. Enjoy.

Roster Moves: As expected, Chase Whitley (elbow) was transferred to the 60-day DL to clear a 40-man roster spot for Heathcott, the Yankees announced. The team still has another 60-day DL candidate in Brendan Ryan (calf, hamstring) should they need another 40-man spot.

Injury Updates: Jacoby Ellsbury (knee) said the injury is to the outside of his knee and he is wearing a brace. He’ll see the team doctor on Friday and they won’t know his timetable until then. For what it’s worth, Joe Girardi said the injury is “not something that requires surgery” … Ivan Nova (elbow) threw four innings and 42 pitches in an Extended Spring Training game on Monday. He’ll make another ExST start on Saturday and could begin an official 30-day minor league rehab stint after that … Ryan has resumed baseball activities in Tampa.

Lack of production from up-the-middle positions holding the Yankees back

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Back in the day, the late-1990s dynasty was built on excellent production from the up-the-middle positions. The Yankees were getting high-end production from Jorge Posada at catcher, Derek Jeter at short, and Bernie Williams in center. Chuck Knoblauch never did put up huge numbers with the Yankees like he did with the Twins, but he still had a .377 OBP as the starting second baseman from 1998-99.

Those four positions are the hardest to fill in baseball, historically. Third base is tough too, but not as tough. Quality first basemen and corner outfielders are plentiful. Catchers, middle infielders, and center fielders are not, which is why teams are more willing to sacrifice offense for defense at those positions. It’s really hard to find someone who can hit there, so at least get someone who will catch the ball.

Right now, the Yankees have too many defense-first — in some cases, defense-only — players at the four up-the-middle positions. Jacoby Ellsbury in center field is the team’s only up-the-middle player who has been solidly above-average on both sides of the ball so far this season. Brian McCann, Stephen Drew, and Didi Gregorius are providing defense but very little offense, especially the last two.

Position NYY Player NYY AVG/OBP/SLG Average MLB AVG/OBP/SLG
C McCann  .228/.279/.382 (78 wRC+) .235/.302/.363 (83 wRC+)
2B Drew  .188/.271/.350 (70 wRC+)  .262/.321/.391 (96 wRC+)
SS Gregorius  .204/.269/.241 (42 wRC+)  .248/.304/.361 (83 wRC+)
CF Ellsbury .324/.412/.372 (126 wRC+) .257/.319/.391 (96 wRC+)

Those are some really low bars and yet the Yankees are falling short at three of the four positions. Ellsbury’s been awesome at the plate, McCann’s hovering close to average for a catcher thanks to his power, and both Drew and Gregorius have been well-below-average. Those two haven’t hit at all. Like, not even a little. There’s not much of a reason to expect either guy to hit much going forward either, but at least Gregorius has youth on his side.

There’s no good way to measure defense this early in the season. You have to take any stats with a huge grain of salt because the sample is too small. Based on the eye test, all four players have been above-average defenders in my opinion, even considering McCann’s passed ball/wild pitch issues. Didi’s looked much more comfortable at short in recent weeks yet his early season brain farts are still hurting his reputation. He’s been really good in the field of late.

Overall though, the Yankees aren’t getting enough production from these four positions. It’s really just three positions because Ellsbury’s been great. It’s a bit unfair to lump him in here. The other three guys has been far from great though. McCann’s been okay but hardly what the Yankees thought they were getting. Drew and Gregorius have been miserable at the plate, bad enough that their defense probably doesn’t make up for it.

The Yankees have limited options to replace these guys, and the one guy they didn’t want to replace (Ellsbury) just landed on the DL. McCann’s contract ensures he will remain the starting catcher, and besides, finding a better catcher would be damn near impossible anyway. Quality catchers almost never hit the trade or free agent markets. Drew, on the other hand, is totally replaceable and the Yankees do have some internal second base candidates, namely Jose Pirela and Rob Refsnyder.

The best internal candidate to replace Gregorius is, well, Drew. Besides, given Didi’s age and ability, he’s someone the Yankees should stick with this year and ride out every growing pain. Give him a chance to play everyday and see what happens. The first 40 games of 2015 aren’t going to write the story of his time in pinstripes. The Yankees just got done playing a Royals team littered with players who struggled early in their careers before figuring it out, after all. Sometimes it takes time.

The Yankees have gotten great production from first base, left field, and DH this season, which has helped cover for the underwhelming non-Ellsbury up-the-middle numbers. Carlos Beltran and Chase Headley are kinda sorta starting to hit too, which will help even more, though the Ellsbury injury hurts. One step forward, one step back. It wasn’t long ago that the Yankees were getting top of the line production from the up-the-middle positions. Now they’re barely getting average production and it’s one of the reason they haven’t been able to get out in front of a wide open AL East.

First inning dominance driving Yankees’ success early in 2015

Why are the Yankees so great in the first inning? These two. (Presswire)
Why are the Yankees so great in the first inning? These two. (Presswire)

Last night the Yankees did something for the ninth time in 13 games this month: they scored in the first inning. Nine times in 13 games! They’ve now scored in the first inning in 16 of their 35 games this year, with last night’s game breaking a tie with the Padres for the most in MLB. New York has scored 36 runs in the first inning in 2015, eight more than any other team.

On the other side of the coin, the Yankees allowed a run in the first inning last night for only the third time in 13 games this month. They’ve allowed a run in the first inning eleven times in 36 games this season, which ranks middle of the pack — 16th fewest in MLB and seventh fewest in the AL. Their 16 first inning runs allowed are the tenth fewest in baseball, so when they do allow the other team to score in the first, it’s usually just one run.

Between their first inning offensive dominance and their average first inning run prevention, the Yankees have the best first inning run differential in baseball at +20. The Orioles have the next best at +11. The Athletics and Pirates are the only other teams in double-digits. More often than not, the Yankees are getting off to a great start and playing from ahead. They’re forcing the other club to play catch-up right from the start.

Usually individual innings splits are pretty meaningless. No one says “this guy is a good fourth inning hitter.” That doesn’t exist. If anything, we’d look at performance the second and third time facing a pitcher. The individual innings mean very little. Now, that said, there’s a pretty obvious explanation for the Yankees’ first inning offensive excellence: Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner.

The first inning is the only inning in which Ellsbury and Gardner are guaranteed to bat. And not just bat either, they’re guaranteed to lead off. They aren’t coming up with two outs and the bases empty or something like that. They’re starting the inning and setting the table for everyone else. Ellsbury and Gardner have been dominant atop the lineup this year, total game-changers, and they’re always going to bat in the first inning.

The run prevention angle is a little different. As a whole, the Yankees have a league average rotation this year. The group has a 3.93 ERA (3.63 FIP) overall, a touch better than the 4.13 ERA (4.04 FIP) league average thanks mostly to Michael Pineda. Hitters have a 118 OPS+ the first time facing a Yankees starter this year, which applies to the first inning. The team’s average rotation is facing the other team’s best hitters (in theory) in the first inning, and the result is basically middle of the pack run prevention.

Last season the Yankees had -12 first inning run differential and the year before that it was a staggering -33 first inning run differential. The 2013-14 Yankees were constantly playing from behind, it seemed. This year’s squad is the exact opposite — they’re scoring in the first inning on the regular and taking the lead. They’re taking control of the game right from the start and that changes everything. Teams play a little differently when they’re behind. We see it every night.

With Ellsbury and Gardner atop the lineup, I don’t think the Yankees’ first inning offensive success is any sort of fluke. If they’re not the best one-two lineup punch in baseball, they’re on the very short list. It’s either them or Kole Calhoun and Mike Trout in Anaheim. Either way, those two generate so much offense for the Yankees, and it starts right in the first inning. The pitching has been solid as a whole, not great but not terrible, but average pitching plus Ellsbury and Gardner equals a major first inning advantage for the Yankees, and it’s a big reason why they’re off to such a strong start in 2015.

Yankees’ improved offense starts at the top with Ellsbury and Gardner

And they have a special handshake. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
I bet they have a secret handshake only other fast guys know about. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

When the Yankees missed the postseason in both 2013 and 2014, the offense was the main culprit. Sure, there were other factors like injuries, bad team defense, and just an okay pitching staff, but the Yankees really struggled to score runs and it was the reason they lost more often than not. They hit .244/.307/.378 (88 wRC+) in over 12,000 plate appearances as a team from 2013-14. I mean, come on.

Thankfully the story has been much different so far this year. The Yankees are averaging 4.85 runs per game, up considerably from 3.91 runs per game last year and well-above the 4.19 league average. They’re hitting .244/.321/.418 (104 wRC+) as a team overall, which is oh so much better than what we sat through the last two seasons. Much of the improved offense is thanks to power — the Yankees have a team .174 ISO this after .134 from 2013-14.

The Yankees are also benefiting from the best one-two lineup punch in baseball. Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner are both off to tremendous starts, especially hitting for average, getting on-base, and running the bases. The power isn’t really there, but that’s not their game. Look at these numbers:

AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ SB/CS K% BB%
Ellsbury .358/.433/.415 143 11/4 12.5% 9.2%
Average Leadoff Hitter .262/.320/.389 99 4.4/1.8 17.7% 7.1%
Gardner .309/.404/.444 141 8/1 12.4% 11.3%
Average No. 2 Hitter .261/.321/.405 105 1.1/0.6 18.3% 7.7%

The only other team in baseball getting something even remotely close to Ellsbury/Gardner production from the one-two spots this year are the Angels thanks to my boy Kole Calhoun (139 wRC+) and the amazing Mike Trout (167 wRC+). Calhoun recently spent a few days hitting lower in the order as Mike Scioscia tried to generate more offense too, so he hasn’t even been a full-time leadoff guy.

Of course, traditional lineup construction plays a big role in only one other team having two hitters his productive atop the lineup. Just about every team has two above-average hitters these days, yet managers continue to adhere to the whole “the best hitter bats third” theory. Teams are slowly starting to come around on batting their best hitters second — Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista have taken turns batting second for the Blue Jays, Joey Votto has batted second for the Reds, etc. — though it’s hardly common practice.

Joe Girardi deserves credit for batting his two best hitters in the top two lineup spots. It certainly helps that they are leadoff types who should hit near the top of the order, but Girardi could easily split them up saying he doesn’t like back-to-back lefties atop the lineup and no one would really question it. It’s sorta silly, yeah. It’s one of those things managers do though. Aside from occasionally sitting Gardner for Chris Young, Girardi has stuck with Ellsbury and Gardner atop the lineup.

“We definitely push each other,” said Brett Gardner to Chad Jennings earlier this week. “It’s a lot of fun hitting next to (Ellsbury) in the lineup. Feels like every time I come up, he’s on base. I feel like he makes me better, and hopefully he feels the same about me. Like I said, we push each other. We take a lot of pride in getting on base, and that’s our job at the top of the lineup. We feel like we’re two leadoff hitters, and we can get on base for those guys in the middle of the lineup and give them RBI opportunities.”

As a result of these two atop the lineup, the Yankees’ number three lineup spot has batted with at least one man on-base in 66 of 124 plate appearances this year, or 53.2%. Last year it was 44.8% and the league average is 45.0%. (The rate for the cleanup spot is nearly identical to last year and the league average, in case you’re wondering.) We’re talking about an improvement of nearly ten percentage points from one year to the next. Ellsbury and Gardner are table-setters and man, they couldn’t possibly be doing a better job right now.

Lineup protection is not a myth. It just exists in a different way than everyone’s been saying for the last century. The best protection is not having a great hitter behind you — that helps! but lots and lots of research has shown it doesn’t help that much — it’s having runners on base when you’re at the plate. MLB hitters have put up a .239/.299/.377 (90 wRC+) batting line with the bases empty this season and .262/.332/.407 (104 wRC+) with men on base this year. It’s not a sample size issue either. The league wide split was 93/101 last year and has been similar for years and years and years.

Batting with Ellsbury and/or Gardner on base is the best protection a Yankee can have this year and it’s not just because of those bases empty/men on base batting splits either. Those two guys are not typical base-runners. They draw attention when they’re on base because they’re threats to steal. Remember when Clay Buchholz threw over to first base even though Ellsbury was literally standing on the bag (twice!) a few weeks ago? That’s what they do to pitchers. They’re unnerving. I’m not sure it’s possible to quantify that but we see it game after game.

Last season the Yankees were hamstrung atop the lineup by Derek Jeter, a legacy Yankee the team was unwilling to drop in the order. Jeter’s an all-time great, we all know that, but the 2014 version of Derek hit .256/.304/.313 (73 wRC+) and snuffed out rallies on a nightly basis. That’s not happening this year. Girardi is able to use his two best hitters atop the lineup and the offense has benefited in a big way. The Ellsbury/Gardner duo is a legitimate game-changer and they’re a huge reason the offense has improved so much 27 games into 2015.

“They get our offense going,” Girardi said to Jennings. “That’s their job, and they’ve been really good at it. You look at the stretch we’ve been in, they’ve played extremely well. They had a tremendous weekend; a big part of our success in Boston, and we need it to continue. You can’t expect Jake to get on six times every night. It would be nice, but both of these guys have an ability to change the game in a lot of ways, and that’s what they’ve been doing.”