Yankeemetrics: Many questions, no answers [July 18-21]

(USA Today Sports)
(USA Today Sports)

The winning formula
Inconsistency has been the theme of this year’s Yankees team, but they have been remarkably consistent in one thing: their winning formula. Combine solid starting pitching with justenough offense to get a slim lead thru six innings, and then unleash their high-powered, flame-throwing bullpen trio to seal the victory.

The plan worked to perfection on Monday night as the Yankees opened their series against the AL East-leading Orioles with a 2-1 win.

Alex Rodriguez sparked the lineup with a towering home run to left field in the second inning. It was just his second homer at Yankee Stadium this season. A-Rod entered the game with a .226 slugging percentage in home games, the second-worst in the majors among players with at least 100 plate appearances.

The blast was his 69th against the Orioles, breaking a tie with Harmon Killebrew for the fifth-most hit against the franchise. The four guys ahead of him are Babe Ruth (96), Lou Gehrig (92), Jimmie Foxx (87) and Ted Williams (80).

And one more milestone for A-Rod: that homer was also his 1,578th hit in a Yankee uniform, passing Wally Pipp for 17th place on the franchise all-time hits list.

Aroldis Chapman’s blazing fastball was in peak form as he closed out the game for his 19th save. Per Statcast, his 1-2 pitch to J.J. Hardy reached 105.1 mph, matching the fastest pitch ever recorded by Statcast dating back to 2008. Chapman also threw a pitch that went that fast on Sept. 24, 2010 to Tony Gwynn, Jr.

Chapman hit 104 mph on three other pitches in the inning, and Ryan Flaherty actually put one of those heaters in play … barely. Chapman’s 0-2 fastball to him was clocked at 104.9 mph and broke his bat, resulting in an easy grounder for the final out of the game. That was the fastest pitch put in play by a batter in the Statcast era (since 2008).

(Getty)
(Getty)

#TeamBuy
A funny thing happened on the way to the Trade Deadline … the Yankees decided to build some momentum and hold off the cries to SELL!!! for another day as they routed the Orioles, 7-1.

Starlin Castro has hardly been a consistent run producer during his debut campaign in pinstripes, but he’s definitely come up huge at times this season. His two-run blast in the second inning gave the Yankees an early 2-0 lead they wouldn’t relinquish in this must-win game.

It was his 11th homer of the season (matching his total from last year) and his sixth that gave the Yankees a lead. That’s the most go-ahead homers of any Yankee this season.

Jacoby Ellsbury made sure the fans in the Bronx would witness history on Tuesday night when he reached base via catcher’s interference for the ninth time this season, breaking the major-league record set by Roberto Kelly in 1992. The number becomes even more ridiculous when you consider that every other player in the American League has combined for six catcher’s interferences this season.

Huge Mike
The Yankees continued their desperate push toward contender status with another victory and another dominant performance from their pitching staff on Wednesday night. It was their fourth straight win overall and the fourth game in a row they allowed no more than one run and no more than five hits.

This is the first time since 1932 that the Yankees have put together a four-game win streak at home, giving up one run or fewer and five hits or fewer in each game.

pineda
(Getty)

The Yankees took an early 1-0 lead thanks a leadoff triple by Brett Gardner and a Carlos Beltran sac fly in the bottom of the first. That snapped a franchise-record 23-game scoreless streak in the first inning dating back nearly a month. Remember, this is a team that last year led the majors with 125 runs scored in the first frame.

Carlos Beltran capped off the scoring, too, with a solo homer in the eighth inning to give the Yankees a 5-0 lead. It was his 20th homer, making him just the second switch hitter to hit 20 home runs in his age-39 season or older. Eddie Murray reached that milestone in both 1995 and 1996, at age 39 and 40.

Michael Pineda spun a gem as he pitched six scoreless innings for his first win since June 7. He featured a nasty, sharp slider that baffled the Orioles lineup, netting him a whopping 18 whiffs and six of his eight punch outs. The 18 swings-and-misses are the most that any pitcher has gotten with a slider in any game this season, one more than Clayton Kershaw had against the Blue Jays on May 7.

Back to losing
The Yankees had their confidence-boosting four-game win streak snapped on Thursday afternoon, failing to complete the sweep thanks to a listless 4-1 loss. Their all-too-familiar anemic offense mustered just one run on five hits, the 20th time in 95 games that they’ve been held to no more than a single run. The only other AL team with 20 games of zero or one run scored this season is the last-place Tampa Bay Rays.

CC Sabathia had little to celebrate on his 36th birthday as his downward spiral deepened with another discouraging outing (four runs, seven hits, 6 2/3 innings). He’s now given up at least seven hits and four runs in each of his last six starts, the first time in his career he put together a six-game streak with that many hits and runs allowed in each game.

Coincidental or not, the large lefty has historically struggled on his birthday as a major-leaguer. He’s now 0-3 with a 6.99 ERA in five starts on July 21 and his team has lost all five games.

2016 Midseason Review: The Outfielders

Now that the All-Star break has arrived, it’s time to look back and review the first half of the season. We’ve already looked at the catchers and infielders. Now it’s time to cover the outfielders.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees have been making an effort to get younger over the last 20 months or so, but the one place they’ve been unable to do so is the outfield. They’re locked into three veterans making good to great money, and despite their efforts to move one of them over the winter, the Yankees didn’t get an offer they liked.

Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran returned as the starting outfield this season, and all three have been among the most productive players on the team. In fact, along with Didi Gregorius and Brian McCann, I’d said they were three of the Yankees’ five most productive players in the first half. Let’s review their seasons.

Carlos Beltran: Still Great After All These Years

Last April, Beltran looked done. Like done done. He was 38 and coming off surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow, and he was caught so far between fastballs and offspeed stuff that it seemed like he was guessing at the plate. It was ugly. But, once the calendar flipped to May, Beltran raked the rest of the way, and it’s carried over into this season.

Beltran was, by no small margin, the team’s best hitter in the first half. He’s hitting .299/.338/.550 (132 wRC+) with 19 homers in 320 plate appearances, and he leads the Yankees in … drum roll, please … AVG, SLG, ISO, OPS, OPS+, wOBA, wRC+, doubles, homers, and RBI. Pretty much everything except OBP. (He’s fourth in OBP.) Carlos is 17th among the 167 qualified hitters in SLG and 21st in ISO, and he’s 19th among all players in homers. He hasn’t hit for this kind of power since he was in the prime of his career with the Mets.


Source: FanGraphsCarlos Beltran

The signs of aging are there. Beltran walks less (5.3%) and strikes out more (18.4%) than he did during his prime, and good fastballs have given him a hard time, but otherwise he’s still a very smart hitter with power who seems to have a knack for understanding how he’s being pitched. He’s even hitting lefties better than he has in years, putting up a 167 wRC+ against southpaws in 2016 after having a 75 wRC+ against them from 2014-15.

Beltran’s offense has been better than I think anyone could have reasonably expected. Even as good as he was from May through the end of the season last year, it wasn’t crazy to think the 39-year-old would slip some this year. That’s baseball. Instead, Beltran has been a monster at the dish and he has been since Opening Day, really. He hasn’t had any sort of extended slump this year. Most players will hit the skids for two or three weeks at some point. Not Carlos.

As you know, offense is pretty much the only Beltran provides these days. He doesn’t run well and he’s a terrible defender in right field. The Yankees have been able to give him more time at DH this year, first because Alex Rodriguez got hurt, and then because they’re flat out benching A-Rod. Beltran seems to be running better this year than the last two years, and call me a cynic, but I can’t help but that think that’s tied to his upcoming free agency. He’s playing for a contract and might be in a little better shape this year. Either well, Beltran has been the team MVP so far.

Second Half Outlook: One of three things will happen: One, the Yankees remain in the postseason hunt and they keep Beltran for a second half push. Two, the Yankees fall out of the race and trade Beltran to a contender at the deadline. Three, the Yankees don’t contend and don’t trade Beltran. Clearly, the third option would be the worst. I’d like to see the Yankees contend, but the team isn’t cooperating, which makes a trade the best outcome. Carlos definitely played his way into some nice trade value in the first half.

Jacoby Ellsbury: Separating The Player From The Contract

(Dustin Bradford/Getty)
(Dustin Bradford/Getty)

It’s impossible to look at Ellsbury and assess his play without thinking about his contract. He’s a good player making great player money, and so far this season Ellsbury has been exactly that: a good player. He owns a .279/.347/.398 (100 wRC+) batting line with four homers and 16 steals, and he’s stayed mostly healthy too. That’s always a question, unfortunately.

Ellsbury actually started this season rather slowly, hitting .235/.278/.341 (62 wRC+) with one homer and five steals in eight attempts in April. He’s since hit .297/.373/.421 (115 wRC+) with three homers and eleven steals in 15 chances. Ellsbury has also walked (9.9%) nearly as often as he’s struck out (10.7%). We haven’t seen the disruptive baserunning this year, which could be a product of age — 32-year-olds usually don’t run much — or a minor hip injury he dealt with earlier this season.

Defensively, Ellsbury has settled in after a weirdly poor start to the season. His days as a Gold Glover are over and really, at some point during the life of his contract he’ll have to shift to left field. Not too many 33+ year olds are running around playing center at a high level these days. Ellsbury’s range is still good and his arm … well sometimes his throws reach the cutoff man on one hop. Let’s leave it at that.

Relative to his contract, Ellsbury is performing well-below expectations and he’s not likely to get better as he approaches his mid-30s. Relative to other center fielders, Ellsbury is a solid player who is worth a roster spot on a contending team. When he gets hot, he gets really hot and can raise hell with his bat and his legs. He’s just not someone you want to pay $20M+ a year. What’s done is done though. Ellsbury has shaken off that slow start and is one of the more productive players on the team.

Second Half Outlook: Last season Ellsbury started well, then crashed horribly after returning from a knee injury. He’s healthy now and the outlook going forward is much more promising. Ellsbury is a good all-around player, and now that he’s hitting second rather than leading off, he figures to get some more opportunities to do damage with men on base. For the Yankees to have any chance at the postseason, Ellsbury is probably going to have to play at an All-Star level in the second half. He’s vital to their success.

Brett Gardner: Same Ol’ Brett, Just Without The Power

Brett Gardner is one boring baseball player. He’s hitting .257 with a .353 OBP this season. Last year he hit .256 with a .343 OBP. His career averages? A .263 AVG and a .346 OBP. Boring! Outliers are much more fun. Gardner is reliably productive each and every year even though a large segment of the fan base seems to think otherwise.

The difference between 2016 Gardner and pre-2016 Gardner is his power, which was never his calling card anyway, but still. Look:


Source: FanGraphsBrett Gardner

Gardner hit his power peak at ages 29-31 thanks in part to former hitting coach Kevin Long, who got him to be a little more aggressive and hunt fastballs early in the count. Gardner’s power peak was basically a league average ISO, but this year he’s well below that with a .098 ISO. He’s hit five homers this year, his fewest in the first half since 2011, when he hit four. (Not counting his injury shortened 2012 season.)

Gardner’s power outage is tied directly to his ground ball percentage. He’s put a career-high 55.2% of his batted balls on the ground this year, up from 45.3% last year and 41.7% the year before. Furthermore, when he pulls the ball, Gardner is putting it on the ground 69.9% of the time. Two years ago it was 49.7%. That’s no way for a left-handed hitter to take advantage of Yankee Stadium‘s short right field porch.

Offensively, Gardner is doing just about everything he usually does except hit the ball out of the park. He’s hitting in the .255-.260 range, he’s drawing a ton of walks (11.6%), and he’s going to end up with 20+ steals again. The over-the-fence power isn’t there like it has been the last few years though. Don’t get me wrong, no one was expecting Gardner to swat 20+ dingers this year, but he might not even get to ten this season.

(Jason Miller/Getty)
(Jason Miller/Getty)

On top of the offense is Gardner’s defense, which remains comfortably above-average and actually seems better this year than it was the last two years. Maybe it’s just me. The various stats like UZR and DRS agree, but eh. Let’s not rely on half-seasons of defensive stats. Between the solid defense and team-leading OBP, Gardner is once again one of the most productive players on the Yankees. His power has gone missing, and the Yankees have compensated by putting him in the leadoff spot, where the lack of pop is less of an issue.

Second Half Outlook: Gardner has a recent history of fading in the second half, but as long as he’s healthy, I expect him to be rock solid. I suppose the Yankees could look to trade him as part of a deadline sell-off, though they figure to push Beltran a little harder in trade talks given his status as an impending free agent. As with Ellsbury, the Yankees will need Gardner to produce at a high level to make a run at a postseason spot.

Benching A-Rod against righties is a good start, but there are other lineup changes worth making

But that's not any of Al's business. (Presswire)
But that’s none of Al’s business. (Presswire)

Later today, Alex Rodriguez will return to the lineup after spending the last two days on the bench. He wasn’t hurt. The Yankees are looking for ways to improve the offense and sitting Alex against right-handers is the solution they came up with. With lefty Cole Hamels on the mound tonight, A-Rod will be back in there.

“It’s a hard decision. Alex has meant a lot to this club over the years, but right now we’re gonna do something a little bit different and see how it works,” said Joe Girardi to Howie Kussoy yesterday. “It’s been tough for him against right-handers. That’s why we’re looking at this … You perform, that’s the bottom line. We’re in the business of performing. Things change. Nothing is set in stone.”

Rodriguez certainly has struggled against righties this year. The demotion is not undeserved. He’s hit .200/.236/.348 (50 wRC+) with a 31.7% strikeout rate against them so far, and his at-bats have looked pretty bad. A-Rod can’t seem to lay off sliders away and is getting chewed up by good fastballs. Removing him from the lineup against righties is necessary and smart.

That’s not the only lineup change the Yankees can and should make, however. Everyone involved keeps saying they’re trying to contend — “We can’t keep treading water. I want to be a contender, not a pretender,” said Brian Cashman to Josh Thomson yesterday — yet they can’t maintain the status quo and expect different results. It’s almost July. Here are some other changes the Yankees should make.

Give Teixeira’s Knee A Break

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Even with Mark Teixeira going deep the last two days, my guess is Rob Refsnyder will be at first base against Hamels tonight. Not only is there the left-right thing, but the Yankees had a very long night last night, and Teixeira also just played three straight games after coming off the DL with a knee problem. Girardi said they plan to give Teixeira a little more rest just to make sure the knee doesn’t flare up again. Makes sense, right? Right.

The Yankees have to do something to get Refsnyder at-bats and Teixeira’s knee is going to need regular rest, so this works well. Maybe something like three games on and one day off for Teixeira? Or two games on, one game at DH, and one day off? That will be difficult if these homers the last two days are a sign Teixeira is snapping out of his season long funk, but the Yankees can deal with that when the time comes. The point is to get Refsnyder some more at-bats. The kid has to play.

Drop Castro In The Lineup

There are 168 players qualified for the batting title as of this morning. Starlin Castro ranks 156th with a .285 OBP. That is terrible. I know he’s hit some big dingers and has generally been better than Stephen Drew, but man, his at-bats are consistently the worst on the team. He hacks at everything. Execute a slider off the plate in a two-strike count and Starlin will go fishing, no doubt about it.

Castro’s hot start and consistent dinger production — not to mention his age and contract — has bought him a long leash in a fairly premium lineup spot. He’s been hitting fifth or sixth for a while now. That has continued even though others, specifically Didi Gregorius and Chase Headley, have out-hit Castro for weeks now. Here are some numbers since May 1st, a totally arbitrary date I picked because it’s the start of a month:

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ 2B HR BB% K%
Castro 209 .231/.260/.372 64 7 7 3.3% 19.1%
Gregorius 193 .311/.344/.443 110 10 4 4.1% 8.3%
Headley 183 .279/.344/.412 104 8 4 8.2% 21.9%

So yeah, Gregorius and Headley have been way more productive players for close to two months now. Benching Castro won’t (and shouldn’t) happen — he’s still only 26 and at least has a chance to be a building block player going forward — but dropping him in the lineup shouldn’t be off the table. Moving him behind Gregorius and Headley would be totally justifiable given their recent production.

Give Gardner & Ellsbury More Rest

Remember the plan to rest the regulars more often? The Yankees talked about it all offseason and in Spring Training. It hasn’t happened though. The team got off to a slow start, so Girardi kept running his regulars out there in an effort to get things turned around. As a result, Brett Gardner has started 64 of 75 games while Jacoby Ellsbury has started 61. That’s more than I think the Yankees originally planned.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Gardner and Ellsbury have slowed down of late. Gardner is hitting .273/.340/.295 (75 wRC+) over the last two weeks and Ellsbury is at .222/.255/.244 (32 wRC+). I don’t know if giving them one extra day on the bench a week while help things, but that was the plan coming into the season, right? That plan shouldn’t be abandoned, especially with the offense being so hit and (mostly) miss. It’s time to try something different.

I know most folks are done with Aaron Hicks but I’m nowhere near ready to give up on him. Clamoring for the Yankees to sell and wanting to move on from Hicks are conflicting ideas. I say give Gardner and Ellsbury that extra day of rest per week and stick Hicks in the lineup in their place. The two veterans get more rest and hopefully stay productive while Hicks gets some at-bats.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Bonus Non-Lineup Suggestion: Get Nova Out Of The Rotation

Ivan Nova stepped into the rotation a few weeks back and strung together three very good starts. The rotation was a total mess at the time and Nova did a really nice job calming things down. Props. Lately though, Ivan has been a mess, and following last night’s dud he owns a 5.32 ERA (5.07 FIP) on the season. That can’t continue. Chad Green has a 1.54 ERA (2.25 FIP) in 81.2 Triple-A innings and lines up to take Nova’s spot perfectly. The Yankees have plenty of dead weight in the bullpen they can cast aside, so put Nova back into a long relief role and give Green a chance to show what he can do.

* * *

Are the Yankees doing all they can right now to give themselves the best chance to win? I don’t think so, not if Refsnyder is sitting on the bench for three days at a time and Nova is taking a regular rotation turn. Benching A-Rod is a good move that figures to improve the offense. There’s more than can be done though, and the sooner the Yankees start making other changes, the better off they’ll be. Sitting A-Rod should be step one, not the only step.

Game 70: Back Home

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees are back home for a nine-game homestand following that six-game trip through Colorado and Minnesota last week. Thanks to some scheduling weirdness, they’re going to again play the Rockies and Twins this week. Hopefully it goes better than it did last week. Going 3-3 against those two teams is no way to climb back into the postseason race. Here’s the Rockies’ lineup and here’s the Yanks’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. RF Carlos Beltran
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. C Brian McCann
  5. 2B Starlin Castro
  6. SS Didi Gregorius
  7. 3B Chase Headley
  8. CF Aaron Hicks
  9. 1B Rob Refsnyder
    RHP Ivan Nova

Not the best weather in New York today. It’s been cloudy all day and there is a tiny little bit of rain in the forecast, but not until much later tonight. It shouldn’t interrupt the game. Tonight’s game will begin at 7:05pm ET and you can watch on WPIX. Enjoy.

Injury Update: Jacoby Ellsbury is out with some sort of stomach illness. Joe Girardi said he expects him to be back in the lineup tomorrow.

All-Star Updates: The fourth AL All-Star fan voting update was released today and, unsurprisingly, no Yankees are in line to start the game. McCann dropped to fourth among catchers and Beltran jumped up to tenth among outfielders. Here’s the latest update and here’s the ballot.

Yankeemetrics: The terrible Twinkies [June 16-19]

(Getty)
(Getty)

Sabathia heating up
There haven’t been many enjoyable things to watch with this year’s Yankees team, but one of them undoubtedly is the masterful, turn-back-the-clock season of CC Sabathia.

He continued his brilliance on Thursday, working out of several jams to pitch six innings of one-run ball in the Yankees’ 4-1 win over the Twins. He put 10 guys on base but stranded nine of them, consistently generating weak ground ball outs to end rallies and finish off innings. His ground ball rate of 70.6 percent was his highest in a start this season.

Sabathia also dialed up the heat on his pitches and seemed to get stronger as the game wore on. His cutter (91.5 mph), sinker (93.3 mph) and slider (82.4 mph) each had their highest average velocities in a game this season, and he maintained that velocity as he approached 100-plus pitches late into his outing.

The large lefty now has a 0.82 ERA in his last seven starts, the lowest among all pitchers with at least 30 innings since the start of May through Thursday. Sure, that’s an arbitrary endpoint, but consider this: Clayton Kershaw’s best ERA over a seven-start span this year is 0.81 and his best seven-game mark last year was 0.82.

Didi Gregorius provided the margin of victory with a tie-breaking three-run homer in the seventh inning off lefty specialist Fernando Abad. The Twins reliever entered the game having allowed only three hits in 30 at-bats against lefty hitters this season, and had yet to surrender a longball to anyone. Didi, of course, entered the game with the best batting average among left-handed batters against left-handed pitchers in MLB this season — and won the strength-versus-strength battle.

The blast was also his second three-run homer in three games, which gives us this #funfact: Didi is the first Yankee shortstop to hit multiple three-run home runs in a three-game span since Roy Smalley, who hit two of them in a game against the Royals on Sept. 5, 1982.

Tanaka time
There’s nothing like a trip to the Twin Cities to cure those losing-streak blues. The Yankees continued to pound a bad Twins team on Friday night, winning 8-2 thanks a balanced offense that scored early and often to support a stellar performance by Masahiro Tanaka.

Tanaka bounced back from a rough start last week against the Tigers, throwing eight innings of one-run ball with five strikeouts and no walks. It was his 11th game allowing two earned runs or fewer, the most such starts among all American League pitchers through Friday’s slate.

The outing also marked his fifth straight start on the road with at least six innings pitched and no more than one earned run allowed. Only one other pitcher in franchise history has fashioned a streak like that in a single season: Whitey Ford, who did it in 1950, 1963 and 1964.

(AP)
(AP)

Comeback kids
Down 4-0 heading into the eighth inning, Saturday’s game seemed destined to end in another frustrating loss. But then the Twins remembered who they were (a very bad baseball team), the Yankees remembered where they were playing (Target Field; aka Yankee Stadium Midwest), and their bats came alive to spark another late-inning rally. In the end, the Bronx Bombers had their first win this season when trailing after seven innings.

Alex Rodriguez — who was riding a season-high 11-game homerless streak entering this game — cut the deficit in half with a two-run blast in the seventh inning. That hit gave him 5,795 career total bases, passing Babe Ruth (5,793) for sixth place on the all-time MLB list.

Carlos Beltran then tied the game with an opposite-field homer in the eighth inning off Kevin Jepsen. His 18 homers are the most by any Yankee age 38 or older this early into the season, one more than Babe Ruth had through 68 team games in 1933.

Jacoby Ellsbury capped the comeback win with a bases-loaded RBI single in the next frame. It was the first time since joining the Yankees three seasons ago that he delivered a go-ahead hit in the ninth inning.

Aroldis Chapman made things interesting in the ninth inning as he tried to close out the game. He surrendered back-to-back two-out homers to Eduardo Escobar and Kurt Suzuki, which sliced the lead to 7-6, before he eventually got the save. Suzuki’s shot came off a 102 mph fastball, the fastest pitch ever hit for a home run by any player in the Pitch F/X era (since 2008).

(AP)
(AP)

Sweep-less in Minneapolis
As much as the Yankees have dominated the Twins in Minneapolis recently, they couldn’t complete the four-game sweep this weekend, blowing an early lead and losing 7-4 on Sunday afternoon.

The Yankees entered the final game of this series with a 19-5 record in the regular season at Target Field (and 2-0 in the postseason), a mark that was notable in several ways. It was the:

  • highest win percentage at Target Field by any AL team
  • highest win percentage at any stadium by any team since 2010 (when Target Field opened)
  • highest win percentage for the Yankees at any park over the last 100 seasons (min. 20 games)

The loss was even more improbable given the opposing starter, Ervin Santana, who had a 7.71 ERA in his previous five outings this season and who hadn’t beaten the Yankees since August 1, 2008. His streak of 11 straight starts without a win against New York was the longest active winless streak versus the team by any starting pitcher.

Brian McCann broke out of his hitting slump in style, crushing two homers deep into the right-field seats and beyond; according to Statcast, they traveled 421 and 450 feet. Since 2008 (as far back as Statcast has batted ball distance), the only other Yankee with two homers of at least 420 feet in the same game was A-Rod on July 25 last season, also at Target Field against the Twins.

Yankeemetrics: Buried in Baltimore [June 2-5]

#TrueYankee (AP Photo)
#TrueYankee (AP Photo)

Refsnyder to the Rescue
The Yankees halted their mini-three-game skid with a 5-4 win against the Tigers on Thursday night. If not for Rob Refsnyder, the mood on the Yankees flight from Detroit to Baltimore would have been remarkably different.

Refsnyder played a starring role in the biggest moments of the game, starting with his leadoff double in the sixth inning which broke up Matt Boyd’s unlikely no-hit bid. The 25-year-old went on to score the tying run two batters later on Jacoby Ellsbury‘s sacrifice fly, and then two frames later, he delivered a tie-breaking RBI single to give the Yankees a 2-1 lead.

It was Refsnyder’s first career go-ahead RBI, and the first go-ahead RBI in the seventh inning or later by a Yankee second baseman against the Tigers since Alfonso Soriano on June 1, 2003.

Refsnyder’s heroics might have stolen the headlines, but it was Michael Pineda‘s strong bounceback performance on the mound that made sure the Yankees had a chance to win this game. Pineda entered Thursday with the league’s highest ERA among qualified pitchers (6.92), and in his previous four starts had surrendered a whopping 20 earned runs and 30 hits in 20 1/3 innings.

So, of course, Pineda pitched his best game of the season, allowing one run in 5 2/3 innings with eight strikeouts and no walks. He dominated the Tigers lineup with his wipeout slider, which generated 14 whiffs on 22 swings, a season-best 64 percent whiff rate for the pitch. Per Statcast data, Pineda now has 97 total swings-and-misses on his slider this season, second only to Clayton Kershaw among all major-league pitchers.

(AP Photo)
(AP Photo)

A trip to the (Not) Charm City
Baltimore has mostly been a miserable place for the Yankees in recent years — they entered this series with a 9-22 record at Camden Yards since 2013, their worst mark at any AL ballpark — and did little to reverse that trend in the series opener.

On a day when the Yankee bats surprisingly came alive, it was their recently-excellent starting pitching and normally-lockdown bullpen that struggled in Friday night’s frustrating 6-5 loss.

Nathan Eovaldi, 5-0 with a 2.03 ERA in his previous five starts, was charged with five runs in 5 1/3 innings; the mortal version of Dellin Betances coughed up the game-winning run in the seventh.

A-Rod and Carlos Beltran did their part in sparking the offense with homers in consecutive at-bats in the fourth inning. They are just the third pair of teammates aged 39 or older to hit back-to-back home runs in major-league history. The others were Ted Williams and Mickey Vernon for the Red Sox on Sept. 21, 1957 and Jeff Kent and Luis Gonzalez for the Dodgers on April 29, 2007.

A-Rod breaks out
The Yankees used another unlikely offensive outburst — yes, it was unlikely for a team that began the weekend with the lowest batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage in the AL — to beat the Orioles, 8-6, on Saturday night. They piled up 16 hits, their most hits in a game at Camden Yards since Sept. 2, 2009.

A-Rod had his second three-hit game of the season and it was his RBI single in the ninth inning that might have been his most notable swing of the night. Vance Worley threw a two-strike slider that A-Rod sliced up the middle to score Aaron Hicks from second base. That was his first hit off a breaking pitch this season; he was 0-for-17 with nine strikeouts in at-bats ending in a curve or slider before that hit.

Jacoby Ellsbury scored the seventh run of the game on a well-executed double steal with Brett Gardner. It was the second time in 2016 that Ellsbury has stolen home, joining Chris Chambliss in 1977 as the only Yankees in the last 60 years with two steals of home in a single season.

The worst rain delay ever
For the second time in three games, the Yankees snatched defeat from the arms of victory. They had a 1-0 advantage in the eighth inning, and after sitting through a one-hour-and-37-minute rain delay, they blew the lead and suffered yet another brutal loss.

(AP Photo)
(AP Photo)
This one was different from the others, though equally gut-wrenching. For the first time this season, the Yankees lost a game when taking a lead into the eighth inning; they’re now 25-1 in that situation.

It also clinched their eighth straight series loss in Baltimore, a wholly depressing and unprecedented streak. This is the first time that the Yankees have dropped eight series on the road in the history of this rivalry, which dates back to 1903, including when the Orioles were the St. Louis Browns.

Moving on to more positive notes … CC Sabathia turned in another stellar, though inefficient, effort with just two hits allowed in five scoreless innings. He needed 111 pitches to get those 15 outs, because of several long at-bats and a career-high-tying six walks.

The last Yankee pitcher to walk at least six guys and not give up a run was A.J. Burnett on Aug. 7, 2009 against the Red Sox. (That was the 15th inning A-Rod walk-off homer game.) Ya know, sometimes you can predict baseball.

Sabathia has now pitched at least five innings and given up no more than three runs in each of his last nine road starts, the longest such streak by a Yankee pitcher since Ron Guidry had nine starts in a row like that spanning the 1977 and 1978 seasons.

Guest Post: The Still Good At Baseball Jacoby Ellsbury

The following is a guest post from Carlo Macomber, who goes by CoryWadeDavis in the comments. He’s previous written guest posts about Masahiro Tanaka and Didi Gregorius.

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Jacoby Ellsbury’s contract is horrible. Absolutely terrible. Ellsbury is not the type of player that should make over $21 million per season (Cot’s Contracts actually says he makes exactly $21,142,857.15 annually, which is oddly specific). This is not about Ellsbury’s contract, though. Nothing can be done about that at this point, and as Yankees fans, all we can hope is that Ellsbury plays close to his career averages. We should not (and cannot) expect him to perform like a $21 million per year player.

Now that the contract talk is out of the way, let’s look at Jacoby Ellsbury the baseball player. So far this year, Ellsbury has actually been pretty good! After hitting .257/.318/.345 (83 wRC+) in 501 PAs last year, Ellsbury is hitting .280/.344/.415 (108 wRC+) through June 1 (186 PAs) of this season. While his offensive numbers are not anywhere near his anomalous 2011 season when he had a 150 wRC+, this year’s batting line looks incredibly similar to his career .288/.343/.425 (106 wRC+) line. In other words, after being a well below average hitter in 2015, Ellsbury is (so far) back to being the above average hitter he has been for most of his career.

Perhaps the biggest difference between 2015 and 2016 Ellsbury is simply health. Although he did miss about a week with a hip injury this year, Ellsbury has been mostly healthy this season, which is already a noticeable difference from 2015. With this in mind, let’s look to see what Ellsbury has done differently baseball-wise in 2016.

1. He’s hitting the ball harder (for the most part)!

Ellsbury’s hard contact rate this year is at 26.3%, up from 21.1% last year, and very close to his career rate of 25.4%. This is a very good improvement! Interestingly, however, Ellsbury’s soft contact rate is also up. This season he is making soft contact 25.5% of the time, up from 24.1% last year, and well above his career rate of 19.5%. Ellsbury’s BABIP is not particularly high this season at .328, which is in line with his career BABIP of .319 (but higher than last year’s .301).

On the one hand, Ellsbury is making more hard contact than last year (and is now in line with his career average). On the other hand, his soft contact is well above his career rate, yet he is still putting up a typical Ellsbury batting line without an astronomically high BABIP. It will be interesting to see how Ellsbury’s batted ball velocity and BABIP look as the season progresses, but as of right now, it all looks quite solid.

2. He’s striking out less.

Ellsbury’s K% last year was a career-worst 17.2%. A player like Ellsbury, who depends a lot on his speed, needs to put the ball in play as often as possible to be successful. He simply did not do that last season. This year, however, Ellsbury’s K% is down to 15.1%, much closer to his career rate of 13.6%, and nearly identical to his 2013 and 2014 rates (14.5% and 14.6%). It should also be noted that Ellsbury’s 2016 BB% of 7.5% is in line with his career rate of 7.0%. So, while Ellsbury’s hard contact rate is up this year, he is simply making more contact in general than he did last season, leading to a more typical batting line.

3. He’s swinging at better pitches.

Here is a graphic, from the catcher’s perspective, of the percentage of pitches in each location that Ellsbury swung at in 2015.

Jacoby Ellsbury 2015

Obviously, Ellsbury swung at high percentages of pitches in the zone, just as he should.  What stands out here, however, is how often he swung at pitches low and out of the zone, and, to a lesser extent, outside and off the place. In general, it is more difficult to hit pitches low and/or outside with authority, which, as evidenced by last seasons’ hard contact rate, Ellsbury did not do very well. On pitches in the bottom five squares of the graphic, Ellsbury hit 14 total line drives, compared to 52 ground balls last season. He also whiffed on 12 of the 21 pitches he swung at in the bottom right square. If Ellsbury is looking to hit the ball hard, which all players should be, laying off more of these low pitches would make sense. Of course, that is much easier said than done in the MLB.

Now, here is the same graphic, except for all pitches Ellsbury has seen this season through June 1.

Jacoby Ellsbury 2016 swings

Clearly, this is a much smaller sample size, but Ellsbury has at least started this season by swinging at fewer pitches low and out of the zone and outside and off the plate. In fact, Ellsbury has swung at a lower percentage of pitches in eight of the nine lowest and furthest outside squares. The only square of those nine with a higher swinging percentage this season is the one in the middle and outside. Ellsbury has continued to swing at pitches both in the zone and inside with high frequency, and these are the pitches that he should be looking to attack in order to hit the ball hard more often.

Offensively, Ellsbury has looked much more like himself so far this season. He is a good, not spectacular, hitter that uses his speed to put pressure on the other team. Last season, after he returned from the DL, Ellsbury looked like an absolute mess at the plate, and he started to swing at poor pitches. It appears that so far this season Ellsbury is being more selective at the plate, which has lead to better contact and fewer strikeouts! It is still possible (maybe likely?) that health is a key factor in his improvement. It is also possible that he made a mechanical adjustment. However, it is evident here that Ellsbury’s ability to swing at better pitches this year has certainly contributed to his success. I imagine that Ellsbury’s resurgence (through two months, don’t forget) is a combination of all three!

4. But what about defense?

While we all know that Ellsbury struggled offensively last season, he actually cost the team several runs defensively as well. Ellsbury has always had a poor arm. Anyone that has ever watched him throw can confirm this. Outfield arm runs, one of the components of the all-encompassing (but, of course, imperfect) defensive metric Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), says he cost the Yankees 2.1 runs last season, and 2.7 runs this season just because of his poor arm. What is more interesting, however, is that range runs, another component of UZR that measures how well and outfielder can get to balls hit near him, says Ellsbury cost the Yankees 2.0 runs. When all the components are added together, Ellsbury total UZR last season was -3.2 and his UZR per 150 games played was -5.6. This was only his second ever season with a negative UZR.

While his arm has already cost the Yankees 2.7 runs this year, Ellsbury range has improved considerably, and his overall UZR so far this year is +0.6. He is, hypothetically, on track for a UZR per 150 games played of +12.8, which would be a drastic improvement on both 2014 and 2015 but right near is 2013 level. While I do not expect Ellsbury to provide that much defensive value over the course of this season, the evidence is there to suggest that last year was an (injury-related?) aberration, and that Ellsbury is a valuable defensive player. (Last night’s error notwithstanding.)

Overall, Ellsbury is so far revealing that his 2015 season was the polar opposite of his 2011 season. Those two seasons deviate the most from his career averages but in opposite directions. His batting line this season is incredibly close to his career average, and his defense, according to UZR, is returning to a positive level, even if it is not close to his defensive peak. Ellsbury has looked like a good Major League Baseball player again this year, and Yankees fans everywhere should hope that Ellsbury continues to swing at good pitches, chase down fly balls in the outfield, and, of course, remain healthy!