Where does each 2017 Yankee hit the ball the hardest?

(Rich Gagnon/Getty)
(Rich Gagnon/Getty)

Ever since Statcast burst on to the scene last year, exit velocity has become part of the baseball lexicon. It’s everywhere now. On Twitter, in blog posts, even on broadcasts. You name it and exit velocity is there. Ten years ago getting velocity readings of the ball off the bat felt impossible. Now that information is all over the internet and it’s free. Free!

Needless to say, hitting the ball hard is a good thing. Sometimes you hit the ball hard right at a defender, but what can you do? Last season exit velocity king Giancarlo Stanton registered the hardest hit ball of the Statcast era. It left his bat at 123.9 mph. And it went for a 4-6-3 double play because it was a grounder right at the second baseman.

That’s a pretty good reminder exit velocity by itself isn’t everything. Launch angle is important too, as is frequency. How often does a player hit the ball hard? One random 115 mph line drive doesn’t tell us much. But if the player hits those 115 mph line drives more than anyone else, well that’s useful.

The Yankees very clearly believe in exit velocity as an evaluation tool. We first learned that three years ago, when they traded for Chase Headley and Brian Cashman said his exit velocity was ticking up. Former assistant GM Billy Eppler once said Aaron Judge has top tier exit velocity, and when he reached he big leagues last year, it showed. Among players with at least 40 at-bats in 2016, Judge was second in exit velocity, so yeah.

With that in mind, I want to look at where each projected member of the 2017 Yankees hits the ball the hardest. Not necessarily on the field, but within the strike zone. Every swing is different. Some guys are good low ball hitters, others are more adept at handling the inside pitch, and others can crush the ball no matter where it’s pitched. Not many though. That’s a rare skill. Those are the Miguel Cabreras of the world.

Also, I want to limit this to balls hit in the air, because as we saw in the Stanton video above, a hard-hit grounder is kinda lame. Hitting the ball hard in the air is the best recipe for success in this game. The average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives last season was 92.2 mph, up ever so slightly from 91.9 mph in 2015. I’m going to use 100 mph as my threshold for a hard-hit ball because, well, 100 mph is a nice round number. And it’s comfortably above the league average too.

So, with that in mind, let’s see where each Yankee hit the ball the hardest last season (since that’s the most relevant data), courtesy of Baseball Savant. There are a lot of images in this post, so the fun starts after the jump. The players are listed alphabetically. You can click any image for a larger view.

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Yankees considering splitting Ellsbury and Gardner in the lineup, but I’ll need to see it to believe it

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Three offseasons ago the Yankees committed significant dollars to reshape their offense. After years of relying on the home run (not a bad thing!) and playing station-to-station baseball (a bad thing), New York invested big in a pair of speedsters. Jacoby Ellsbury was brought on board as a free agent and Brett Gardner was retained with an extension. That’s $205M worth of table-setters right there, with three-quarters of that money going to Ellsbury.

The attempt to diversify the offense hasn’t worked as hoped. In the three years since the signings, the Yankees ranked 20th, second, and 22nd in runs per game. The year they ranked second was the year zombie Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez rose from the dead to hit a combined .252/.357/.513 with 64 homers in just under 1,100 plate appearances. It wasn’t because Ellsbury and Gardner raised hell atop the lineup.

Derek Jeter‘s retirement tour kept him glued to the No. 2 lineup spot in 2014, but over the last two years, Ellsbury and Gardner have batted first and second in whatever order in 200 of 324 possible games, or 62%. Needless to say, building the top of the lineup around their speed hasn’t worked as planned for a number of reasons, and as a result, the Yankees are now considering breaking up the Gardner-Ellsbury combo.

“We’ve kicked it around (since) the second half last year,” said Brian Cashman during a YES Network interview earlier this week (video link). “Is it best to split them up? Who should really bat leadoff? Those type of things. And I’m sure those will pop back up this Spring Training. It could stay that way. It’s ultimately going to be Joe’s call … I think Joe’s going to get a better feel when he sees everything in camp — if it’s all healthy — and who’s best for that two-hole, then where’s the best guy slot after that. We’ll see how it plays.”

Changing the lineup can sometimes be really simple and at other times really complicated. Splitting up Gardner and Ellsbury is one of those times when it’s complicated, I think. There are a lot of ramifications up and down the lineup, and even in the clubhouse as well. There’s a lot going on here, so let’s break it down bit by bit.

1. Of course Gardner, not Ellsbury, should bat leadoff. Ellsbury has the more lucrative contract and is the bigger name, but Gardner is the better player and better hitter, and therefore the better fit for the leadoff spot. Consider their offensive numbers over the last few years (defense doesn’t matter when it comes to lineup spots):

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ HR XBH SB-CS BsR
2016 Gardner 634 .261/.351/.362 97 7 35 16-4 +7.3
2016 Ellsbury 626 .263/.330/.374 91 9 38 20-8 +2.7
2014-16 Gardner 1,926 .259/.340/.395 105 40 130 57-14 +18.5
2014-16 Ellsbury 1,762 .264/.326/.382 95 32 110 80-22 +14.1

Ellsbury steals a few more bases and hits for a slightly higher average, and that’s about it. Gardner is better at everything else, including all the other aspects of baserunning (BsR). The most basic job of the leadoff man is to get on base, and Gardner has a higher on-base percentage than Ellsbury over the last year (.351 to .330), the last two years (.347 to .324), the last three years (.340 to .326), the last four years (.341 to .333), the last five years (.341 to .331) … on and on we could go.

Furthermore, Gardner sees a heck of a lot more pitches than Ellsbury. That is kinda the secondary job of the leadoff man, right? To work the pitcher and prolong the at-bat so everyone else in the lineup gets an idea of what’s coming? Right. Gardner saw 4.09 pitches per plate appearance last season, 29th most in baseball. Ellsbury saw 3.73 pitches per plate appearance, which was 108th most. Gardner has a big advantage over the last three years too (4.23 to 3.73).

Looking ahead, both Steamer (.340 OBP to .324 OBP; 101 wRC+ to 91 wRC+) and ZiPS (.330 OBP to .324 OBP; 104 OPS to 97 OPS+) project Gardner to both get on base more often and be a better overall hitter than Ellsbury this coming season. Unless you’re one of those folks who believes the quality of a leadoff hitter can be measured exclusively by his stolen base total, there’s no statistical argument to be made Ellsbury deserves the leadoff spot over Gardner.

2. Okay smarty pants, who bats second then? The second spot in the lineup is an important one. Old school baseball folks will say that spot should go to a bat control guy who can hit behind the runner, hit-and-run, things like that. New schoolers believe your best overall hitter should hit second because he’ll get more at-bats than he would hitting third or fourth, plus he’d bat with more men on base than he would as the leadoff hitter.

Ellsbury fits the mold of an old school No. 2 hitter. He struck out only 13.4% of the time last year (career 13.6 K%), the 25th lowest strikeout rate among the 146 hitters qualified for the batting title. Ellsbury is most certainly not New York’s best hitter though. That’s probably Gary Sanchez. (I wouldn’t be completely shocked if, say, Greg Bird out-hits Sanchez in 2017.) Girardi has batted power hitters second in the past, most notably Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher, but I have a hard time believing he’d do it with Sanchez. He seems entrenched as the No. 3 hitter.

So if Gardner is leading off, Sanchez is hitting third, and Ellsbury is moving down in the lineup, who is the best candidate to hit second? My nomination: Chase Headley. He’s a better on-base player than Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro — Headley had a .331 OBP last year whereas Didi and Starlin were at .304 and .300, respectively, and ZiPS suggests more of the same in 2017 — but he probably won’t pop 20-something homers like those two. He’s better in a table-setting role. Gregorius and Castro are better used killing rallies with homers a bit lower in the order.

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

Ultimately, the Yankees don’t have a great No. 2 hitter candidate. Ellsbury has the bat control but is a below-average hitter overall. Castro and Gregorius don’t get on base much. Headley and Sanchez (and Bird and Matt Holliday) are really slow. Aaron Judge strikes out too much. You know who’d theoretically be a nice fit as the No. 2 hitter? Aaron Hicks. Switch-hitter with some pop who can run, doesn’t strike out a ton (18.8 K% in 2016), and will draw walks (8.3%). Of course, Hicks has a lot to prove before becoming a serious consideration for a premium lineup spot.

The lineup is going to change throughout the season, it always does, and it’s entirely possible Ellsbury will emerge as the best possible candidate for the two-hole. Headley seems like the best fit right now because, even though he lacks top of the order speed, he’ll get on base and hit for more power than Ellsbury, plus he’s a switch-hitter, which creates some matchup headaches for opposing managers. Headley has batted second for the Yankees before, 49 starts there the last two years, so it wouldn’t be new to him. He’s my suggestion until a better option emerges.

3. Will Girardi actually move Ellsbury down in the lineup? I can think of 153 million reasons why Ellsbury will remain the leadoff hitter in 2017. Like or not (not!) contract status absolutely plays a role when teams make decisions. It’s one thing to bench a wholly ineffective A-Rod, or slide Brian McCann to DH when Sanchez starts socking dingers left and right. It’s another to drop a guy in the lineup when you owe him $90M over the next four years.

Now, to be fair, Girardi did bench Ellsbury in the AL Wildcard Game two years ago, which I’m sure was difficult even though it was unquestionably the right move at the time. And Girardi did scale back the playing time of his veterans last year (A-Rod, McCann, Teixeira) without the clubhouse breaking into mutiny. Say what you want about Girardi’s on-field management skills. The Yankees have been largely distraction free the last few seasons. He seems to do a wonderful job managing the clubhouse.

Perhaps then demoting Ellsbury lower in the lineup — by demoting I mean dropped to the bottom third of the batting order, not, say, third or fifth — would not be a problem. Ellsbury accepts the demotion, uses it as motivation, and plays his way back to the top of the lineup. (Or demands a trade!) That would be the best thing for everyone. That said, there are too many years and too many dollars left on Ellsbury’s contract for me to think this will actually happen. I’m going to need to see this one to believe it.

4. Don’t forget, a Gardner trade is still possible. The Yankees can split Gardner and Ellsbury up by dropping one, preferably Ellsbury, lower in the lineup. They could also split them up by trading Gardner (or, again, preferably Ellsbury, but nah). Gardner has been on the trade block for more than a year now and reports indicate the Yankees continue to field offers. He remains a Yankee though, and until he’s traded, we have to proceed as if he’ll be around. This is just a reminder that a Gardner trade could make Ellsbury the leadoff hitter by default.

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

5. So what actually is the best lineup? Good question! Moving Ellsbury, who has been 5% worse than the league average hitter over the last three seasons, down in the lineup makes perfect sense. Except when you look at the rest of the roster and realize the Yankees aren’t exactly loaded with high-end hitters. It’s not like they still have Swisher hitting eighth or something like that. I’d say this is the best possible lineup right now:

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

That allows Ellsbury to act as a second leadoff hitter, so to speak. After the first inning, he’d still be setting the table for Gardner and Headley and Sanchez. He just wouldn’t do it in the first inning. There are a lot of questions in that lineup — will Judge stick with the team on Opening Day or go to Triple-A? is Bird healthy and productive? etc. — but that seems like the best order.

Now, based on last year and his overall tendencies, this is the lineup I’m guessing Girardi would run out there if the Yankees do decide to split up Ellsbury and Gardner:

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

Don’t ask me why, that just seems very Girardi-ish to me. Gregorius saw plenty of time in the middle of the lineup last year, and Castro was elevated to second on more than a few occasions. (Fifteen times, to be exact.) Sixth is low enough that Ellsbury is not getting premium at-bats but still high enough not to insult him. Then you’ve got the two kids in Bird and Judge, then Headley, who Girardi never bothered to elevate in the lineup for an extended period of time last summer even though he hit .269/.344/.426 (107 wRC+) in the final 135 games of the year.

Like I said earlier, I’m going to need to see Ellsbury dropped in the lineup before I believe it. Consider me skeptical. I half expect Gardner to be the one who gets demoted to seventh or eighth or whatever. It’s good the Yankees have been discussing this for a while now, since the second half of last season according to Cashman, now we just need to see if it leads anywhere. If there were one year left on Ellsbury’s deal and more viable top of the lineup alternatives on the roster, I’d be more optimistic about the chances of him being dropped. For now, I’m not expecting much.

Attendance, the Shift, and Other Random Stats [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

At long last, our 2016 Season Review series comes to an end today. Every year I wrap the season review up with a post on some random stuff I found interesting or caught my eye or whatever. Just stuff that’s worth touching on but isn’t worth a full post, you know? Some quirky stats and whatnot. Time to put a bow on the season review. Here’s our last little bit of 2016 coverage.

Attendance

Attendance at Yankee Stadium was down this season. We all saw it. We watched on television. It wasn’t entirely unexpected either, even after the wildcard berth a year ago. The Yankees have been mostly mediocre the last few seasons and that doesn’t exactly sell tickets. Here are the attendance numbers the last few seasons, via Baseball Reference:

  • 2012: 3,542,406 (43,733 per game) — swept in ALCS
  • 2013: 3,279,589 (40,489 per game) — Mariano Rivera‘s final season
  • 2014: 3,401,624 (41,995 per game) — Derek Jeter‘s final season
  • 2015: 3,193,795 (39,430 per game) — lost Wildcard Game
  • 2016: 3,063,405 (37,820 per game) — missed postseason with no farewell tour

It’s worth noting the Yankees were second in the AL in total attendance this season behind the Blue Jays (3,392,099) and sixth in all of MLB in attendance. It’s not like they were near the bottom of the league or even middle of the pack. Relative to the rest of the league, attendance was very good this year. Relative to Yankees’ standards, attendance was down. Especially considering the attendance numbers are tickets sold, not tickets used. There were large swaths of empty seats late in the season.

On a per game basis, the Yankees’ attendance this past season was their lowest since drawing 36,484 fans per game in 1998. Not too many folks wanted to see a 114-win juggernaut, I guess. In all seriousness, the relatively low 1998 attendance is because there is a lag between team performance and attendance change, historically. Got a great team? The big attendance spike comes the following season, not that season. (The 1999 Yankees drew 40,651 fans per game.) That’s because most tickets are sold before the season and early in the season.

The Yankees made the Wildcard Game last year and there were reasons to feel good about the team coming into 2016, but they got off to a slow start, slow enough that they sold at the deadline. That’s a pretty significant event that could have an impact on attendance. Sure enough, the Yankees drew 38,588 fans per game before the trade deadline and 36,515 per game after the deadline. Can’t say a drop of 2,000 fans per game surprises me. The team essentially threw in the towel.

It’s possible if not likely attendance will drop again next season, even though a mediocre team with young players is far more exciting than a mediocre team loaded with veterans in my opinion. Given their attendance this year, it’s not unreasonable to think the Yankees could draw fewer than 3,000,000 fans in 2017 for the first time since 1998. If it happens, it happens. Whatever.

The Shift

Over the last few seasons the Yankees have become one of the most shift happy teams in baseball. According to the fancy Baseball Info Solutions data I have access to through CBS, the Yankees used the seventh most shifts in baseball this season, though they were close enough to bunch of other teams that they were a few more David Ortiz and Chris Davis at-bats away from being third.

Overall, New York’s performance with the shift was not great, at least according to the data we have. Chances are the team sees something different with their internal data. Here are the numbers, via FanGraphs:

No Shift All Shifts Traditional Shifts Non-Traditional Shifts
Yankees .284 .304 .301 .329
MLB AVG .298 .297 .298 .293

A shift qualifies as a traditional shift if one of three things happens: three infielders on one side of the infield, two players are significantly out of position, or one infielder is playing in the outfield. If any of those three conditions are met, it’s a traditional shift. Anything else is considered non-traditional.

Anyway, those numbers in table are both AVG and BABIP. They’re identical because strikeouts, walks, and home runs are not included in the shift data. Interestingly enough, the overall MLB batting average was essentially the same when there was a shift and no shift on this past season. You’d think batting average would be lower with the shift since that’s the whole point, but nope.

For the Yankees though, their overall AVG/BABIP allowed with the shift employed was 20 points higher than without the shift. That’s backwards. The whole idea is bringing down your AVG/BABIP allowed by using the shift. This could be a statistical blip, but last season the Yankees allowed a .292 AVG/BABIP without the shift and .322 with. The year before it was .298 vs. .299, and the year before that it was .302 vs. .304.

Over the last two seasons the Yankees have allowed a much higher AVG/BABIP while employing the shift than without, according to the numbers we have. That’s a problem! The shift should be helping your pitchers, not your opponent. I don’t know what the problem is either. Bad positioning? Pitchers not executing? A bad pitching plan? It could be many things. This has happened two years running now. The shift upped the opponent’s AVG/BABIP by 20 points this season. Last year it was 30. 30!

Does this mean the Yankees should stop shifting all together? Of course not. That’s an overreaction. Intuitively, placing your defenders where the batter is most likely to hit the ball is a very smart thing to do. I’m surprised it took teams so long to start doing it regularly. For all we know the AVG/BABIP numbers we have above are wrong. Remember, this stuff is being recorded by human stringers watching video, so there is scorer bias.

I’m not sure I fully buy the huge gap in AVG/BABIP the last two years, but based on the eye test, I won’t argue with anyone who says the Yankees allow more hits with the shift on than without. If the numbers we have are even close to right, this is something that has to be fixed. Can’t keep shooting yourself in the foot like that.

Ellsbury and the First Pitch

Ellsbury. (Presswire)
Ellsbury. (Presswire)

One thing I neglected to mention in Jacoby Ellsbury’s season review was his propensity to swing at the first pitch this season. He became such an extreme first pitch hacker at times that even Michael Kay noticed and commented about it. Here are the numbers, with an assist from Baseball Savant:

  • 2013: Swung at the first pitch in 23.9% of all plate appearances.
  • 2014: 27.6%
  • 2015: 31.0%
  • 2016: 30.5%
  • MLB AVG in 2016: 28.3%

Those are all instances in which Ellsbury swung at the first pitch. It includes balls in play, foul balls, and swings and misses. If he swung at the first pitch, it’s included in those numbers regardless of outcome. That isn’t just the percentage of first pitches put in play.

Ellsbury didn’t swing at more first pitches this year than last year. Fewer actually, but by a tiny little amount. Compared to two and three years ago though, Ellsbury is swinging at way more first pitches these days. Swinging at the first pitch is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, I advocated for doing it more often coming into the season. Many times the first pitch of the at-bat is the best one to hit. Why let it go by? It’s not like starters pitch deep into games these days. You’re going to get to the bullpen eventually.

Swinging at the first pitch so often wouldn’t be so bad if Ellsbury had hit well in those situations. He hit .298 with a .131 ISO on the first pitch in 2016. That seems pretty good, especially compared to his overall season numbers (.263 AVG and .111 ISO). The problem is the league averages were a .346 AVG and a .236 ISO on the first pitch this year. Ellsbury was well below that. He rolled over and grounded out to second on a ton of first pitches.

Ellsbury has never been a guy who works deep counts. (He actually set a new career high with 54 walks in 2016.) He’s up there to swing and that’s fine. Hits are better than walks. He just hasn’t hit much the last two years, and when you’re not producing as expected, a lot of quick one-pitch outs gets mighty frustrating. Had Ellsbury hit, say, .350 with a .200 ISO on the first pitch, I don’t think anyone would care. But when his numbers are that far below league average, it gets old in a hurry.

Differences of Opinion on Baserunning

Depending who you ask, the Yankees were either one of the better baserunning teams in baseball this season, or one that was below average. They were successful with 77% of their stolen base attempts, fifth best in baseball, but they also attempted only 94 steals, which was 23rd most among the 30 teams. The Yankees took the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) only 37% of the time, the fourth lowest rate in baseball.

So the Yankees didn’t take the extra base all that often — obviously that is largely due to personnel, because guys like Brian McCann and Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez aren’t burners — but they were sneaky efficient at stealing bases. They just didn’t do it often. Here’s what the all-encompassing baserunning metrics say:

Hmmm. Which one is correct? I lean towards BRR myself. The eye test told me the Yankees were not a good baserunning team overall, mostly because they had so many slow players. They didn’t take the extra base often, didn’t advance on wild pitches and similar opportunities all that much, and they didn’t steal often either.

The difference in BsR and BRR boils down to the way the two stats are calculated. Both essentially compare the team’s actual baserunning success to their expected baserunning success — how often does a runner go first-to-third on a single hit to that location? That sort of thing. BRR includes some more adjustments for ballparks and things like that, which are important.

You’re welcome to feel differently, but I agree with the BRR number more than the BsR number based on everything I saw this season. The Yankees weren’t a great baserunning team at all in 2016. Teixeira, A-Rod, and McCann are all gone though, and with the new infusion of younger players, this number will hopefully tick up in the future. Baserunning is a weird thing. It’s easy to overlook but it’s very obviously important, and it can often be the difference in an individual game. It’s something the Yankees can improve going forward, for sure.

Dellin Betances isn’t the only Yankee who could play in the 2017 WBC

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

In a few weeks baseball players all around the league will leave their teams in Spring Training to participate in the fourth edition of the World Baseball Classic. Pool play begins March 6th in South Korea, and the tournament will end with the Championship Game at Dodger Stadium on March 22nd. Here is the full 2017 WBC schedule.

The 16 countries do not have to finalize their WBC rosters until January, though we already know Dellin Betances will pitch for the Dominican Republic. He committed to them recently. Betances was on Team USA’s preliminary roster but instead choose to honor his family by pitching for the Dominican Republic squad. So far he’s the only Yankees player to commit to the WBC.

The Yankees are not as star-laden as they once were — a few years ago a case could have been made their entire starting infield belonged in the WBC — so they don’t figure to send a ton of players to the WBC next spring. Chances are Betances won’t be the only Yankee to participatein the event, however. In fact, farmhand Dante Bichette Jr. already played for Brazil in the qualifying round in September. Who knew? (Brazil did not advance.)

So, as we wait for the commitments to trickle in and the final rosters to be announced, lets look at the Yankees who could wind up joining Betances and participating in the WBC. Keep in mind the WBC is not limited to big league players — some countries can’t field an entire roster of MLB players, hence Bichette playing for Brazil — and the rosters are 28 players deep, not 25, so there are extra spots.

Canada: Evan Rutckyj

Rutckyj, who recently re-signed with the Yankees as a minor league free agent, was the team’s 16th round pick back in 2010. The Braves took a look at him this past spring as a Rule 5 Draft pick, but Rutckyj failed to make the Opening Day roster and instead returned to the Yankees. He struck out 14 in 11.2 innings around a relatively minor elbow procedure during the 2016 regular season.

Only eleven pitchers born in Canada have appeared in the big leagues over the last three years — only seven did so in 2016 — and five of those eleven threw fewer than 20 innings. Three of the other six are now retired (Erik Bedard, Jeff Francis, Phillippe Aumont). Rutckyj, who grew up across the river from Detroit in Windsor, has had some Double-A success as a reliever and could make a Canada roster that has been heavy on minor league pitchers in previous WBCs.

Colombia: Tito Polo, Carlos Vidal

Colombia clinched their first ever WBC berth by winning their qualifying round back in March. They won a pool that included France, Spain, and Panama. Both Polo and Vidal were on Colombia’s roster for the qualifying round and chances are they will be on the actual WBC roster as well. Only six Colombian-born players appeared in MLB in 2016, one of whom was Donovan Solano and none of whom were an outfielder like Polo and Vidal.

Vidal, 20, has spent most of his career with the various short season league teams in New York’s farm system. He went 2-for-8 with a double and played in all three qualifying games in March. Polo, 22, came over from the Pirates in the Ivan Nova trade. He was Colombia’s extra outfielder in the qualifying round. He appeared in two games as a a pinch-runner and defensive replacement and did not get an at-bat. Both Vidal and Polo figure to play in the WBC in March.

Dominican Republic: Gary Sanchez (Starlin Castro?)

WBC teammates? (Rich Schultz/Getty)
WBC teammates? (Rich Schultz/Getty)

Over the last three seasons, the leader in bWAR among Dominican-born catchers is Welington Castillo. Sanchez is second. For all the great baseball players to come out of the Dominican Republic, the island hasn’t produced much catching talent in recent years. Their catching tandem in the 2013 WBC was Francisco Pena, Tony’s son, and Carlos Santana, who is no longer a catcher.

The Dominican Republic’s current catching pool includes Sanchez, Castillo, Pena, Pedro Severino of the Nationals, and Alberto Rosario of the Cardinals. I have to think they want Sanchez and Castillo there. Then again, Tony might want Francisco on the roster, and I’m sure the Yankees would rather Sanchez spend his first Spring Training as the No. 1 catcher learning the pitching staff.

The Yankees can’t stop Gary from going to the WBC if he’s invited though. They might need Pena to pull some strings, which would be kind of a dick move. I’m sure Sanchez would love to play. Bottom line: Sanchez is arguably the best Dominican catcher in baseball right now and inarguably one of the two best. In what is intended to be a best vs. best tournament, Gary belongs on the Dominican Republic roster.

(For what it’s worth, Victor Baez reports Pena promised Sanchez he would be considered for the WBC team, but acknowledged things may change before the final roster is submitted.)

As for Castro, he has an awful lot of competition on the Dominican Republic middle infield. Robinson Cano is the presumed starter at second with someone like Jose Reyes or Jean Segura at short. Jonathan Villar, Jose Ramirez, Eduardo Nunez, Jhonny Peralta, and some others are WBC candidates too. Castro’s a possibility for the tournament but probably isn’t part of the club’s Plan A infield.

Japan: Masahiro Tanaka

Interestingly enough, not a single MLB player was on Japan’s roster for the 2013 WBC. Not even Ichiro Suzuki. They filled their entire roster with NPB players. Japan has had big leaguers on their roster in previous WBCs, including Ichiro and Daisuke Matsuzaka, just not in the last one. Will they invite big leaguers this time? I honestly have no idea. We’re going to have to wait and find out.

If Japan does want current MLB players, Tanaka figures to be near the top of their list. He’s one of the best pitchers in baseball and on the very short list of the best Japanese-born pitchers on the planet. The Yankees can’t stop Tanaka from playing in the 2017 WBC. Brian Cashman confirmed it during his end-of-season press conference. Needless to say, the thought of Tanaka suffering an injury during the WBC is enough to make you squeamish. The Yankees have already been through that once before, with Mark Teixeira and his wrist in the 2013 WBC.

For what it’s worth, Tanaka has participated in the WBC twice before. He was on Japan’s roster in both 2009 and 2013, throwing 9.1 total innings across one start and seven relief appearances. Maybe that was enough for Tanaka? Maybe he’s had his fill of the WBC — Japan won the 2009, so he has a championship — and would rather focus on the Yankees in Spring Training and putting himself in the best position to use his opt-out the team in the best position to win? Gosh, I hope so.

Mexico: Luis Cessa, Gio Gallegos

Fifteen pitchers born in Mexico have appeared in the big leagues over the last three seasons, and 13 of those 15 did so in 2016. The two exceptions are ex-Yankees: Manny Banuelos and Al Aceves. Banuelos is coming off another injury and Aceves spent the 2016 season in the Mexican League. Mexico figures to try to build their WBC rotation from a group that includes Marco Estrada, Julio Urias, Jorge De La Rosa, Yovani Gallardo, Jaime Garcia, and Miguel Gonzalez.

Cessa and Gallegos — fun fact: the Yankees signed Gallegos away from a Mexican League team as part of a package deal with Banuelos and Aceves in 2007 — could be candidates for Mexico’s bullpen. Especially Cessa since he has MLB experience. Gallegos might not get much consideration given the fact he has yet to pitch in the show. Roberto Osuna, Joakim Soria, and Oliver Perez are likely to be Mexico’s late-inning relievers, but they’re going to need other pitchers for middle relief, especially early in the tournament when starters have limited pitch counts.

Keep in mind both Cessa and Gallegos figure to come to Spring Training with a chance to win an Opening Day roster spot. Cessa will be among those competing for a rotation spot, which is kind of a big deal. Gallegos, who the Yankees added to the 40-man roster earlier this month to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, is trying to reach the show for the first time. As much as I’m sure both guys would love to represent their country in the WBC, they would be better off hanging around Spring Training and focusing on winning a roster spot with the Yankees at this point of their careers.

Netherlands: Didi Gregorius

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

The Dutch team has had to rely heavily on players from Honkbal Hoofdklasse, the highest level of pro ball in the Netherlands, to fill their WBC roster in the past. The same figures to be true this year. Only six Dutch players have played in MLB the last two years: Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons, Xander Bogaerts, Jonathan Schoop, Jurickson Profar, and Kenley Jansen. So, if nothing else, the Netherlands doesn’t have to worry about their infield or closer. They’ll need Honkballers in the outfield and rotation.

It’s entirely possible the Netherlands will look to take all five of those infielders to the WBC because, well, they’re the best players the country has to offer. Profar has played first base and Bogaerts has played third, so the starting infield could very well be those two on the corners with the other three guys splitting time up the middle and at DH. Gregorius was not on the 2013 WBC roster, and with his Yankees roster spot secure, he could jump at the opportunity to play for the Netherlands.

Team USA: Tyler Clippard (Brett Gardner? Jacoby Ellsbury?)

Even with Betances committing to the Dominican Republic, Team USA’s potential bullpen is insane. Zach Britton closing with Andrew Miller and Craig Kimbrel setting up, Wade Davis as the fireman, Mark Melancon and Tony Watson as the middle relievers … goodness. What are the odds of that happening though? Extremely small. Some of those guys are going to pass on the tournament. Happens every WBC.

The Team USA bullpen in 2013 included Kimbrel and, uh, Luke Gregerson? Tim Collins? Mitchell Boggs? Vinnie Pestano? Yup. Yup yup yup. Team USA’s leader in relief innings in 2013 was Ross Detwiler. So yeah. The odds of a super-bullpen are so very small. Clippard could be among the club’s Plan B or C relievers. Team USA is going to miss out on a ton of the top guys, no doubt, so who’s next in line? Clippard could be one of them.

Along those same lines, I suppose Gardner and/or Ellsbury could receive outfield consideration if enough top guys drop out. We already know Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are passing on the tournament. Team USA would need to receive a lot of “nos” before considering Ellsbury and Gardner for their outfield — they ranked 12th and 20th in bWAR among American-born outfielders in 2016 — but hey, you never know.

* * *

The Yankees are said to have interest in bringing Carlos Beltran back, and I have to think he will suit up for Puerto Rico in the WBC next spring. The next generation of Puerto Rican stars has arrived (Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez) but Beltran is still insanely popular in Puerto Rico, and he usually gives the people what they want. Aroldis Chapman, on the other hand, won’t pitch for Cuba regardless of whether he returns to the Yankees. No expatriates on the national team.

The Underwhelming Jacoby Ellsbury [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Three years ago, amid all the talk about getting under the luxury tax threshold, the Yankees committed over $400M to a quartet of free agents following the team’s disappointing 2013 season. I’d say three of the four free agents have been worth the money so far. Masahiro Tanaka, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran have done — or did, in Beltran’s case — more or less exactly as expected. Tanaka’s been hurt a few times, but pitchers do that.

Jacoby Ellsbury, the fourth of those four free agent signings, has not come particularly close to meeting the expectations that come with a massive seven-year contract worth $153M. The deal was market value at best and a gross overpay at worse, and right now it leans clearly towards the latter. Coming into the 2016 season, the hope was Ellsbury would rebound from a disappointing 2015 that seemed to get thrown out of whack by a May knee injury. It didn’t happen.

A Poor April, Then A May To Remember

Prior to last season’s knee injury, Ellsbury was a dominant leadoff man who was actually worth his contract for a short period of time. He hit .324/.412/.372 (125 wRC+) with 14 steals and nearly as many walks (11.2%) as strikeouts (13.5%) in his first 37 games before tweaking his knee taking a swing. Ellsbury landed on the DL, then returned in July to hit .224/.269/.322 (62 wRC+) in his final 74 games of the season before getting benched in the wildcard game.

Rather than come out of Spring Training hot this year like last year, Ellsbury hit a soft .235/.278/.341 (64 wRC+) in April, which was basically a continuation of what he did following the knee injury in 2015. At one point in April he went 4-for-27 (.148) with more doubles play grounded into (two) than extra base hits (one, a homer). Think about that. A speed guy getting doubled up twice as often as getting a hit for extra bases. Not even a hustle double or anything mixed in there.

To be fair, Ellsbury delivered one of the biggest highlights of the season on April 22nd, when he pulled off a straight steal of home against the Rays. There was no funny business here. No ball in the dirt, nothing like that. Ellsbury just took off for home and beat the throw. Check it out:

The Yankees had lost three straight games and seven of their last eight at the time, and they were having serious problems scoring runs. Ellsbury’s steal of home tied the game and the Yankees went on to win. It was early in the season, yes, but it was a huge play and a big game. Things were starting to spiral out of control there. Ellsbury made a big time play when the Yankees needed it the most. Props.

May was, by far, Ellsbury’s best month of the season. Maybe his best month as a Yankee. He has a tendency to get on insane hot streaks — I’m talking 15-for-25, 20-for-30, 25-for-40, stuff like that — and he got on one as soon as the calendar flipped to May, hitting .340/.410/.534 (155 wRC+) with two homers and seven steals in 30 games. (The hot streak carried over into early-June.)

The May (and early-June) hot streak brought Ellsbury’s season batting line up to .293/.353/.447 (116 wRC+) through 52 games and 214 plate appearances, and hey, that’s pretty awesome. The season was one-third complete and Ellsbury’s overall numbers were comfortably above-average. The production was a little uneven (poor April, great May), but that’s baseball. Day-to-day consistency doesn’t exist.

Another Fade, This Time Without The DL Stint

The hot start didn’t last. It never really does. Ellsbury went into the All-Star break with a .279/.347/.398 (103 wRC+) batting line and that’s not terrible. It’s not great either. It just kinda … is. In the game immediately prior to the All-Star break, Ellsbury smacked a big three-run home run against the Indians, one pitch after what should have been ball four was called strike two to extend the at-bat. Rookie ump Ramon DeJesus did the Yankees a solid there.

Ellsbury went 6-for-39 (.154) in his first eleven games after the All-Star break and never really did get back on track in the second half. His best stretch of the second half came in early-August, when he went 10-for-22 (.455) during a five-game span. Sometimes Ellsbury can stretch those hot streaks out for a few weeks. That one lasted five games.

Weirdly enough, Ellsbury did go on a bit of a power binge in late-August and early-September, swatting five home runs in the span of 22 games. That’s a 37-homer pace across a full 162-game season. The most notable of those five home runs came on September 13th against the Dodgers, and it was an seventh inning go-ahead blast. That was a fun game.

For some reason I thought that was a pinch-hit homer. It wasn’t. Ellsbury replaced Aaron Judge in the previous inning when Judge tweaked his oblique. (That was the injury that ended his season.) It wasn’t a pinch-hit homer but it was Ellsbury’s first at-bat of the game. Didi Gregorius followed with a pinch-hit homer in place of Rob Refsnyder. I guess that’s why I got confused.

Anyway, after that home run, Ellsbury went 12-for-58 (.207) to close out the regular season. He finished the year with a .263/.330/.374 (91 wRC+) batting line and nine homers in 626 plate appearances. His walk (8.6%) and strikeout (13.4%) numbers were nice, and he did steal 20 bases, but it took 28 attempts (71%). The Yankees paid Ellsbury a whole lotta money for league average offensive production in 2016.

No Longer A Speed Threat

At his peak, Ellsbury was an elite baserunner who created havoc every time he reached base. Just his presence on the basepaths changed the game. Pitchers had to pay attention to him and I’m sure that led to a few more fastballs for the guys at the plate. That’s the Ellsbury the Yankees thought they were signing. Someone who could diversify their offense by creating runs with his legs.

Nowadays Ellsbury is beyond his base-stealing prime — he turned 33 in September and stealing bases is not a skill that ages gracefully — and that’s not his fault. That’s just the normal aging process. If anything, blame the Yankees for giving a speed guy a seven-year contract (!) after his 30th birthday. What did they think would happen? Here are some baserunning numbers over the last few years.

SB-CS SBA% XBT% BSR BRR
2013 52-4 21.0% 42% 5.6 5.3
2014 39-5 22.2% 49% 4.1 -1.2
2015 21-9 13.3% 35% 0.9 4.2
2016 20-8 10.7% 32% 2.0 2.3

Ellsbury’s stolen base success rate has slipped the last few years and he’s also attempting fewer steals (SBA%) overall. It’s important to note a 10.7% steal attempt rate is actually really good — the league average is 5.5% — but it’s not what it was a few years ago. Top stolen base threats should be in the 10-15% range, ideally. Ellsbury was higher than that at his peak. This season he attempted steals half as often as just two years ago.

The stolen bases stand out the most because they’re the easiest aspect of baserunning to see, but to me the scariest number in that table is the extra-bases taken (XBT%). That’s going first-to-third on a single, scoring from second on a single, stuff like that. Ellsbury was at 32% this year. 32%! Beltran was at 30% this year. The MLB average is 42%. I mean, omgwtf. Why is it so low? Ellsbury didn’t just steal fewer bases, he took the extra base at a below-average rate too.

Injury could play a factor in this. Ellsbury missed a few days with a hip issue in mid-May and a lingering hip problem could easily explain any hesitation on the bases. We never heard that Ellsbury’s hip was aching all year, but who knows. He has a history of getting hurt and staying hurt, after all. Whatever it is, Ellsbury was not much of a weapon on the bases. Not stealing and not even taking the extra 90 feet on base hits. That’s a problem three years into a seven-year contract.

Still Strong In The Field

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

His bat and baserunning may be in decline, but Ellsbury remains a very good center field defender. I can’t imagine many folks will disagree with me there. Ellsbury actually had a rough start to the season in the field (remember all this?), but he shook all that off and turned in another comfortably above-average season in the field. That all the defensive stats spit out different numbers (+8 DRA, +0.7 UZR, +1 Total Zone, -14.5 FRAA) says more about the reliability of the numbers than it does Ellsbury.

Believe me, piling on Ellsbury would be very easy, but I can’t do it defensively. The stats — well, most of them, anyway — and the eye test tell me he remains a very good gloveman who saves the Yankees runs. Is he as good defensively as he was three or four years ago? Of course not. No player is. Age has sapped some of his speed. But he remains an asset out there. Defense is Ellsbury’s best attribute at this point, I’d say.

Outlook For 2017

Unloading Ellsbury and his contract should one of the team’s top priorities this offseason. It just seems so very unlikely the Yankees will be able to do that, not without eating a ton of money or taking on a bad contract in return. They’ve really painted themselves into a corner with this contract, which is a shame, because they have so many young MLB ready or near MLB ready outfielders.

There’s a non-zero chance the inability to move Ellsbury means the Yankees will have to instead Brett Gardner this offseason to clear roster space for younger players, which would be a shame, but what can you do? I went into this season hoping Ellsbury would rebound with good health after the knee injury last year. It didn’t happen. Now I don’t really know what to think. Maybe Ellsbury really is nothing more than a 90 wRC+ and +2 WAR player now.

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.