The Yankees are getting power from premium positions to make up for their outfield

(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)
(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)

Three years ago the Yankees made a decision to prioritize defense over offense in the outfield. They spent big to sign Jacoby Ellsbury, then a few months later they committed a market value extension to Brett Gardner. Yeah, they also brought in Carlos Beltran to play right field, but the other two outfield spots were occupied to players known more for their gloves and legs than their bats.

Fast forward to today, and things have played out pretty much exactly as expected. Ellsbury and Gardner have declined offensively as they get further into their 30s, meaning their defense is that much more important. Neither is the defender they were three or four years ago either, though I do think both are still comfortably above-average. As planned, it’s defense over offense.

The Ellsbury and Gardner contracts made it clear the Yankees were going to have to get power from their infield, because two of the three starting outfielders weren’t going to hit many balls over the fence. (Ironically enough, Gardner’s power spiked and his 33 homers from 2014-15 were 29th among all outfielders.) That is even more true today, as Ellsbury and Gardner have declined.

Infielders with power — especially middle infielders — can be hard to find, but the Yankees have managed to do it. Didi Gregorius joined the 20-home run club Tuesday night, about three weeks after Starlin Castro did the same thing. The Astros (Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa), Mets (Asdrubal Cabrera, Neil Walker), Nationals (Danny Espinosa, Daniel Murphy), and Rays (Logan Forsythe, Brad Miller) are the only other teams to get 20+ homers from both middle infielders in 2016.

A year ago Didi and Castro combined for 20 homers total — Gregorius hit nine and Castro hit eleven with the Cubs — and now they are able to put up those numbers individually. Sure, Yankee Stadium definitely helps, but these guys are both 26 as well, and entering what should be the best years of their careers. A power spike at this age isn’t uncommon. Also, I’m pretty sure the ball is juiced, so let’s check this out quick:

Castro: 57 ISO+ in 2015, 81 ISO+ in 2016
Gregorius: 50 ISO+ in 2015, 76 ISO+ in 2016

ISO+ is the same basic idea as OPS+. It’s the player’s ISO relative to the league ISO with a park factor applied — I used the handedness park factors at StatCorner — where 100 is league average. Anything lower is below-average and anything higher is below-average.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Adjusting for ballpark and the the increase in power around the league, Castro and Gregorius are still below-average power hitters this season. But! Compared to last season, they’ve both made improvements. Castro essentially went from 57% of the league average power output to 81%. Gregorius jumped from 50% to 76%. There’s real development behind their power. It’s not all Yankee Stadium and juiced baseballs.

In addition to the middle infield, the Yankees are also getting a ton of power from their catchers. In fact, they have two catchers with 19+ homers. Again: two catchers with 19+ homers! That’s pretty awesome. The team’s biggest power sources — catcher and middle infield — are positions not normally associated with power, which is a big positive. Going forward, having Gregorius and Castro up the middle with Gary Sanchez behind the plate will be very nice in terms of dinger expectancy.

The problem this season has been the lack of power from other positions. We knew Gardner and Ellsbury weren’t going to hit many home runs, but the Yankees have gotten very little from first base and DH, the two most premium power positions. When it’s all said and done, the Yankees will (probably) miss the postseason this year not because Dellin Betances blew some saves or Chase Headley had a bad April. It’s because Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez were complete non-factors.

Hopefully young players like Greg Bird and Aaron Judge can help provide some more pop going forward. Right now the Yankees are getting their power from the middle infield and behind the plate, which is a good building block. It’s also necessary because Gardner and Ellsbury aren’t the hitters they once were, and when you have two defense-first players in the outfield, the offense has to come from somewhere else. The Yankees are starting to get that production from elsewhere.

Game 150: The Final Stretch

(Brian Blanco/European Press)
(Brian Blanco/European Press)

Thirteen games in 13 days. That’s all the Yankees have left this season barring a damn near historic run to the postseason. For them to have any shot at the playoffs, this series against the last place Rays is a must-sweep. One game a time though. Get a win tonight and snap the five-game losing streak. Let’s start there. Here is the Rays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. RF Aaron Hicks
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. DH Billy Butler
  5. 1B Mark Teixeira
  6. SS Didi Gregorius
  7. 2B Ronald Torreyes
  8. 3B Donovan Solano
  9. CF Mason Williams
    RHP Michael Pineda

The internet tells me it’s cloudy and grossly humid in St. Petersburg, but it’ll be a cool 70-something degrees inside Tropicana Field. Tonight’s game will begin at 7:10pm ET and you can watch on YES. Enjoy.

Roster Move: As you can see from the lineup, Hicks (hamstring) was activated off the disabled list. He’d been out close to three weeks. No other move was required because rosters are expanded.

Injury Update: Jacoby Ellsbury (knee) is still sore but he said he’s hopeful he will play tomorrow. He’s available to pinch-hit tonight … Chase Headley (back) is not available at all. His back locked up on him in Boston. The Yankees play their next seven games on turf, so if Headley does return to the lineup this week, it might only be as the DH. We’ll see.

News: The Yankees announced they will honor Teixeira with a pregame ceremony prior to the final game of the season, on Sunday, October 2nd.

Game 149: Don’t get swept, please

(Darren McCollester/Getty)
(Darren McCollester/Getty)

The last week has been a disaster for the Yankees. I don’t think that’s an overstatement. They won seven straight to climb to within one (one!) game of a wildcard spot last week, but since then the Yankees have lost six of seven, including each of their last four games. More than a few of those games were winnable too. Brutal.

The math says the Yankees are still alive in the postseason race and that’s cool. We still have reason to watch. The fact of the matter is their rotation isn’t good enough, the lineup isn’t deep enough, and the middle relief isn’t reliable enough. We’ve known that since April. Last week sure was fun though, right? Here’s the Red Sox’s lineup and here’s the Triple-A Scranton I mean Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. 3B Ronald Torreyes
  3. DH Gary Sanchez
  4. 1B Billy Butler
  5. SS Didi Gregorius
  6. C Brian McCann
  7. 2B Donovan Solano
  8. CF Mason Williams
  9. RF Rob Refsnyder
    LHP CC Sabathia

Now, the bad news: the forecast stinks tonight. The internet tells me it’s supposed to start raining around 9pm ET in Boston and keep raining until tomorrow afternoon. Hopefully that’s wrong and they can get the game in tonight. Having to squeeze in a makeup game at some point would stink. Anyway, tonight’s game is scheduled to begin at 8pm ET and you can watch on ESPN. Enjoy.

Injury Updates: Starlin Castro (hamstring) as a Grade I strain and Jacoby Ellsbury (knee) has a bone bruise, the Yankees announced. They’ll remain in New York for treatment and join the Yankees in Tampa on Tuesday. The team says Ellsbury is day-to-day. They didn’t give a timetable for Castro. There’s only two weeks left in the season, so there’s a decent chance he’s done for the year. Sucks … Chase Headley has some back tightness, which is why he’s on the bench.

Roster Moves: Solano has been called from Triple-A Scranton, obviously. He’s in the lineup. He had a fantastic season for the International League champion RailRiders. Chad Green was transferred to the 60-day DL to clear a 40-man roster spot for Solano … Anthony Swarzak (shoulder) was activated off the 15-day DL. Try to contain your excitement.

Jacoby Ellsbury leaves game with right knee injury

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Jacoby Ellsbury left this afternoon’s game with a right knee injury, the Yankees announced. He hurt himself crashing into the wall trying to make a catch in the seventh inning. Ellsbury stayed in initially, but he was removed after the inning. He’s heading for tests. Here’s the play:

At this point even a minor injury could end Ellsbury’s season. The Yankees are already without Aaron Hicks (hamstring) and Aaron Judge (quad), so they’re running short on outfielders. They could end up with Mason Williams in center and Rob Refsnyder in right full-time the rest of the way.

The Yankees lost Starlin Castro to a hamstring injury earlier in the game, so they lost two regulars in the span of four innings or so. That would hurt more if the team hadn’t bombed out of the postseason race this week. The exact nature of Ellsbury’s injury is unknown, but we’ll find out soon enough.

Yankeemetrics: It’s getting late early [Sept. 12-14]

(AP)
(AP)

Growing pains
On Monday night, the Yankees hit another speed bump in their surprising three-week sprint to the playoffs, getting hammered by the Dodgers, 8-2. It was an all-around sloppy game, where — for the most part — their fielders didn’t field well, their pitchers didn’t pitch well and their hitters didn’t hit well. The Yankees hit the trifecta, I guess.

Bryan Mitchell was not nearly as effective as he was in his debut last week against the Rays when he tossed five scoreless innings, getting hit hard early before being pulled in the third inning after giving up six runs on eight hits. He did get burned by two costly errors from a couple of his fellow Baby Bombers (Judge and Sanchez), so only two of those six runs were earned.

It had been more than five years since a Yankee pitcher gave up at least four unearned runs in fewer than three innings pitched. The last guy to do it was Bartolo Colon on July 14, 2011 against the Blue Jays. Colon didn’t make it out of the first inning thanks to a two-out error by Eduardo Nunez (NunEEEEEEE!) that loaded the bases and ultimately resulted in an ugly eight-run frame.

Richard Bleier saved the bullpen and held the Dodgers scoreless through the seventh with four hitless innings. You have to go back more than 15 years to find the last Yankee reliever to pitch at least four innings without allowing a hit at Yankee Stadium, when Todd Erdos did so against the Mets on June 6, 1999. The starting pitchers in that game? Al Leiter and Roger Clemens.

Aaron Judge did his best to try to make up for his untimely error by crushing a monster 436-foot shot into the left-center bleachers in the fifth inning, a ball that left his bat at 115.2 mph. Judge the only Yankee over the last two seasons — since Statcast tracking began — to hit a fair ball that far (436 feet) and that hard (115.2 mph).

(NY Post)
(NY Post)

Bench mob leads the way
The $200 million Little Engine That Could kept its postseason dreams alive — for one day, at least — and snapped out of its mini two-game funk with a resounding 3-0 win over the Dodgers on Tuesday night.

CC Sabathia held LA’s lineup in check with a truly turn-back-the-clock effort. He threw 6 1/3 shutout innings and gave up just three hits while striking out seven. It was a stellar outing that might be surprising given Sabathia’s late-season fade, but less improbable when you consider the pre-game matchup numbers. The Dodgers are the worst-hitting team against left-handed pitchers in the majors this season, ranking last among all teams in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS versus southpaws.

The hero on the offensive side was Jacoby Ellsbury, who replaced an injured Aaron Judge in the fifth inning and then delivered the Yankees’ latest clutch hit two frames later. Ellsbury won a nine-pitch battle with Dodgers reliever Ross Stripling, pummeling a full-count breaking ball into the right field seats to break a scoreless tie in the seventh.

He is just the third Yankee over the last two decades to hit a go-ahead homer in the seventh inning or later in an at-bat of nine-or-more pitches; Curtis Granderson (Sept. 17, 2011 vs. Blue Jays) and Derek Jeter (June 9, 2004 vs. Rockies) are the others.

Didi Gregorius (pinch-hitting for Ronald Torreyes) followed up Ellsbury with his own solo homer on the very next pitch, completing a historic sequence of longballs in the Bronx. Gregorius and Ellsbury became the first set of Yankees in 60 years to come off the bench and hit back-to-back homers in a game.

Moose Skowron and Tommy Byrne (who also got the win with 4 1/3 scoreless innings in relief) were the last pair to do it on July 14, 1957 against the White Sox. Byrne was one of the best power-hitting pitchers in franchise history, slugging .393 with 11 homers in 425 at-bats as a Yankee in the 1940s and ‘50s. Among Yankee pitchers with at least 60 at-bats for the team, he ranks second in slugging percentage behind Bullet Joe Bush (.449).

Looking just at position players going deep in consecutive at-bats after not starting the game, the last Yankees to do that were Bob Serv and Elston Howard on July 23, 1955 in a 8-7 loss against the Kansas City A’s.

(USA Today Sports)
(USA Today Sports)

Yankees get Kershaw’d
The Yankees stumbled again in their desperate push to make the playoffs, losing another mistake-filled game to the Dodgers on Wednesday.

Two errors in the ninth led to the only two runs of the game, both of them unearned, as the team from the west coast left the Bronx with a 2-0 victory. This was just the third time in the last 20 years that the Yankees lost a game in which they didn’t allow an earned run. The other two similarly ugly losses occurred in a three-day span in 2014, against the Royals on September 5 and 7.

Playing their final non-division game of the season, the Yankees wrapped up their Interleague schedule at 8-12, clinching their second-worst Interleague record in franchise history. The only year they had a worse mark against NL teams was 1997 when they went 5-10.

Led by an efficient and utterly dominant performance from Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers completely shut down the Yankee bats. The Best Pitcher on the Planet struck out five, walked none and allowed one hit, needing just 64 pitches to get through five scoreless innings.

In the 94-year history of Yankee Stadium, just two other starting pitchers have finished with a line of zero walks, at least five strikeouts and no more than one hit allowed in a game against the Yankees. The first was Hank Aguirre for the Tigers on August 3, 1960 and the second was Pedro Martinez in his epic 17-strikeout, 1-hitter on Sept. 10, 1999.

Youth has helped the Yankees get back into the race, but they have veterans in important places too

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

Even after two straight losses, the Yankees are still only two games back of the second wildcard spot with 19 games to play. FanGraphs puts their postseason odds at a slim 9.6% as of this writing, but hey, that’s better than the 2.3% they were at nine days ago. Those odds can change real quick from one day to the next.

At 24-15, the Yankees have the second best record in the AL since selling buying for the future at the trade deadline. (The Royals are 25-14.) Gary Sanchez has had a monumental impact, Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin have had their moments, and young hurlers like Luis Cessa and Bryan Mitchell contributed too. The Yankees would not be where they are without these kids.

As productive as many of them have been, the young players are not the only reason the Yankees have climbed back into the wildcard race. That was never going to be the case. The Yankees weren’t going to call up a bunch of prospects and let them carry the team into October. Some of the holdover veterans have contributed too, and in fact, the Yankees have veteran players in very important spots.

Front of the Rotation

It’s easy to forget Masahiro Tanaka is still only 27 years old, isn’t it? He’s two months younger than Chris Archer and five months younger than Jacob deGrom. And yet, despite his relative youth, Tanaka is very much a veteran pitcher. He’s thrown 477 innings with the Yankees on top of over 1,300 with the Rakuten Golden Eagles, with whom he won a championship and a pair of Sawamura Awards (Cy Young equivalent).

There’s something reassuring about having a veteran ace on the staff. During his heyday from 2009-12, you knew CC Sabathia was going to go out every fifth day and give the Yankees a quality outing. Even his bad starts weren’t that bad. We watched Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina do the same for years and years. That’s Tanaka now. He’s very good, rarely bad, and every fifth day he’s going to give the Yankees a good chance to win. (Remember when he couldn’t pitch on normal rest? He’s allowed six runs in 31.1 innings in his last five starts on normal rest.)

Back of the Bullpen

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

At this point Dellin Betances qualifies as a veteran, right? I think so. This is only his third full season, but he’s already been a three-time All-Star, and Dellin’s been throwing high-leverage innings for well over two years now. Relievers don’t have the longest career life span in this game. Betances is a grizzled veteran compared to most bullpen guys.

Add in Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren, and each of the Yankees’ three end-game relievers has been around the block. Veteran relievers melt down just as easily as rookies (see: Nathan, Joe), but there’s always going to be the element of the unknown with kids. How do they handle intense late-season games with postseason implications? There’s less wiggle room in the eighth and ninth innings because there’s not much time to score any necessary runs. The more unpredictability you can take out of the bullpen, the better.

Top of the Lineup

As we’ve seen over the last three weeks or so, Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury really ignite the offense when they’re both hot at the same time. The Yankees look like an entirely different team when those two are causing chaos. It’s imperative they stay hot for the Yankees to reach the postseason, and when it comes to setting the table for the offense, the Yankees have two veteran leadoff men. They need them too; none of their young players fits the leadoff hitter mold. I guess maybe Mason Williams, though asking him to do that right away seems like too much, too soon.

In the Clubhouse

Even after their sell-off, the Yankees kept most of their leadership core intact. Andrew Miller and Carlos Beltran are gone, ditto Alex Rodriguez, but team leaders like Sabathia, Gardner, Brian McCann, and Mark Teixeira remain. Both McCann and Teixeira have had their roles reduced and that’s surely tough for a veteran player. They haven’t complained though. They continue to go about their business and help the young players. Young players are great! You need them to win these days. There also needs to be a leadership core in place to help those young players develop into winners, if not immediately than down the road.

* * *

At the end of the day, talent reigns supreme. It doesn’t matter how many veterans you have or where they fit on the roster if the performance is there. Can having experience and good leadership help that talent translate into good performance more frequently? I firmly believe the answer is yes. The Yankees have turned their season around because their young players have (mostly) performed and brought a lot of energy to their team. The veterans still play a big role though, and they still occupy some very important spots on the roster.

The end of Didi’s slump and four others things that must happen for the Yankees to make the postseason

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

Against all odds, the Yankees remain in the postseason race with less than three weeks to go in the regular season. They lost yesterday, but prior to that they won seven straight and 13 of their previous 17 games. The Yankees are two games back of the second wildcard spot and FanGraphs puts their postseason odds at 13.5%. They were 2.3% eight days ago.

As well as the Yankees have played recently, with seemingly a different player stepping up each night, they’re going to need to be even better over the final 20 games to sneak into the postseason. The schedule only gets more difficult from here on out. New York’s best chance to make the playoffs involves continuing their current play and getting some more from a few players on the roster. Here are five things I think need to happen to maximize the team’s postseason chances.

Gregorius snaps out of his slump

Didi Gregorius has been, rather easily, the Yankees’ best all-around position player this season. His 17 home runs are nearly double his previous career high (nine last year), and he’s still making a lot of contact and playing strong defense. I was skeptical when the Yankees acquired Didi because I didn’t believe in his bat. Boy was I wrong.

As good as Gregorius has been this season, he’s been slumping hard this month, going 3-for-34 (.088) with eight strikeouts and zero unintentional walks in September. Slumps happen, but with Didi it seems like fatigue might be a factor as well. His bat looks a little slow, and even in the field there’s been some moments when his first step wasn’t as quick as usual.

A day off could do Gregorius some good — the Yankees are ten games into a 17 games in 17 days stretch — though it is tough to get him out of the lineup given what he does defensively. We all love Ronald Torreyes, but he’s no Didi. No one is expecting Gregorius to hit five homers in a ten-game span like he did in late-June/early-July. The Yankees do need more offense from him than they’ve been getting this month, however.

Gardner and Ellsbury stay hot

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Overall, both Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury have had disappointing seasons atop the lineup for the Yankees. Gardner’s power has disappeared, and up until recently, Ellsbury wasn’t getting on base all that much. Disappointing middle of the order veterans like Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez are the main reason the Yankees have had a below-average offense this year. The two guys at the top of the lineup aren’t without fault though.

Not coincidentally, the team’s recent strong play coincides with both Ellsbury and Gardner getting hot. Ellsbury has gone 9-for-27 (.333) with two homers, four walks, and only one strikeout during this recent 7-1 stretch while Gardner is 10-for-26 (.385). Their combined on-base percentage is .417. During the 13-5 stretch, Ellsbury has hit .311/.394/.541 and Gardner has hit .317/.386/.350.

Gardner’s power still hasn’t resurfaced, but he has been hitting for average and getting on base the last three weeks. Ditto Ellsbury. The Yankees look like an entirely different team when these two are hot at the same time. We’ve seen it at various points the last three seasons. Gardner and Ellsbury continuing to set the table like they have been the last few weeks is essential to getting the Yankees into the postseason.

Betances and Clippard be automatic

At this point Joe Girardi‘s bullpen pecking order is clear: Dellin Betances is the closer (duh) and Tyler Clippard is the eighth inning guy. For a little while after the trade deadline Clippard was the seventh inning guy, but he and Adam Warren have flipped spots, which is for the best. Warren is better able to go multiple innings, which means Girardi won’t hesitate to use him to put out fires in the sixth inning, if necessary.

The Yankees seem to play nothing but close games these days — eight of their last 13 wins have come by no more than three runs and seven have come by no more than two runs — and that doesn’t figure to change, which means Betances and Clippard are going to have to be perfect in the last two innings, meaning protect every lead. The Yankees can’t afford to led late leads slip away and the two righties are the last line of defense out of the bullpen. When they’re handed a lead, it has to hold up.

Pineda becomes a reliable second starter

Right now the Yankees have a bonafide ace in Masahiro Tanaka and four other guys in the rotation who don’t make you feel all that comfortable. Maybe comfortable isn’t the right word. They’re just unpredictable from start to start. CC Sabathia is in the twilight of his career, Bryan Mitchell and Luis Cessa are just kids, and Michael Pineda is one of the most enigmatic pitchers in all of baseball.

Pineda is also one of the most talented pitchers in baseball — it’s good to be 6-foot-7 with a mid-90s cutter and a wipeout slider — and I think he has the best chance to emerge as a second reliable starter these last three weeks. The problem is Pineda has given Girardi no real reason to trust him. We all saw Girardi pull Pineda one out short of qualifying for the win with a five-run lead the other night.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

As bad as the offense has been for long stretches of time this season, it seems more likely the rotation will be the Yankees’ downfall these final few weeks. Ivan Nova‘s been traded and both Nathan Eovaldi and Chad Green got hurt, meaning the Yankees have no choice but to rely on two rookies and a fading Sabathia. Pineda is young and he’s in what should be the prime of his career. He’s the club’s best hope for second solid starter.

One of the kids contributes from the bottom of the lineup

The Yankees committed to their youth movement last month and the kids have really improved the team, not only on the field, but in the dugout. The Yankees seem more energetic than they have been in years. It’s fun to watch. Gary Sanchez has been a monster who is rightfully hitting in the middle of the lineup. Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge, two other rookies, have had a tougher go of it. Here are their MLB numbers:

Austin: .224/.274/.414 (81 wRC+), 3 HR, 6.5 BB%, 35.5 K% in 62 plate appearances
Judge: .177/.258/.316 (53 wRC+), 3 HR, 9.0 BB%, 43.8 K% in 89 plate appearances

Both have shown signs of coming around of late, especially Austin, but the fact remains both have been negatives at the plate since being called up. (Judge has at least improved the right field defense.) If the Yankees were well out of the race like many expected them to be this month, running both kids out there everyday would be no big deal. The experience is the most important thing.

The Yankees need impact to get the postseason though, and it would be a huge help if either Austin or Judge started to figure things out and contribute from the bottom of the lineup. It would be cool if both did it, but let’s not get greedy. One of the two getting locked in would lengthen the lineup and make the offense that much dangerous. The kids are a big reason the Yankees are remotely close to a playoff spot right now, and if they’re going to sneak into the postseason, rookies like Austin and Judge will have to be a driving force.