First inning dominance driving Yankees’ success early in 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game 19: Rubber Game

(Nate Shron/Getty)
(Nate Shron/Getty)

The Yankees and Mets split the first two games of the Subway Series and the games were pretty similar — one team beat up on the other team’s starter and put the game out of reach early. My guess is we’ll see a much closer game tonight. Just a guess. Here is the Mets’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

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

It was really nice out in New York earlier today but it got pretty cloudy by the late afternoon. There’s no rain in the forecast or anything like that though. Tonight’s game will begin just after 8pm ET and can be seen on YES. Enjoy.

Injury Updates: Jacoby Ellsbury (hip tightness) is feeling better but Joe Girardi told reporters he wants to give him an extra day. They’re planning to have him back in the lineup tomorrow … Brendan Ryan (calf) will begin playing in Extended Spring Training games next week.

Yankees finalize Opening Day roster with latest round of roster moves

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

3:25pm: The Yankees have officially announced their Opening Day roster. It is exactly as presented below. No surprises.

10:00am: The Opening Day roster has been slowly coming together over the last several weeks, and yesterday afternoon the Yankees made the roster all but official with their latest round of moves, including Austin Romine being designated for assignment. Here is the 25-man roster the Yankees will take into the regular season tomorrow:

CATCHERS (2)
Brian McCann
John Ryan Murphy

INFIELDERS (7)
Stephen Drew
Didi Gregorius
Chase Headley
Garrett Jones
Gregorio Petit
Alex Rodriguez
Mark Teixeira

OUTFIELDERS (4)
Carlos Beltran
Brett Gardner
Jacoby Ellsbury
Chris Young

STARTERS (5)
Nathan Eovaldi
Michael Pineda
CC Sabathia
Masahiro Tanaka
Adam Warren

RELIEVERS (7)
Dellin Betances
David Carpenter
Chris Martin
Andrew Miller
Esmil Rogers
Chasen Shreve
Justin Wilson

DISABLED LIST (4)
Chris Capuano (quad) — retroactive to March 27th
Ivan Nova (Tommy John surgery) — retroactive to March 27th
Jose Pirela (concussion) — retroactive to April 2nd
Brendan Ryan (calf) — retroactive to April 1st

Pirela was placed on the 7-day concussion DL while Capuano, Nova, and Ryan were all placed on the regular old 15-day DL. Petit takes Romine’s spot on the 40-man roster, which is full. The Yankees can transfer Nova to the 60-day DL whenever they need another 40-man spot since he’s not expected to return until June. Romine, Petit, and the DL assignments were the moves announced yesterday.

Despite those injuries, the Yankees made it through Spring Training as the healthiest team in the AL East, just as we all expected. The rest of the roster is pretty straight forward. Warren was named the fifth starter a few days ago and it was clear Shreve and Martin were going to make the Opening Day roster once Chase Whitley was optioned to Triple-A. Joe Girardi is planning to use Betances and Miller as co-closers to start the season, which is pretty cool. Hopefully it works as planned. Carpenter and Wilson figure to be the sixth and seventh inning guys.

As always, the 25-man roster is going to change throughout the course of the season. Quite a bit too. Petit figures to be replaced by Pirela or Ryan, whoever gets healthy first, and those bullpen spots belonging to Shreve and Martin could be revolving doors given the team’s relief pitcher depth. That includes Capuano, who could wind up working in relief if Warren fares well as the fifth starter. For now, this is the group of Yankees to start the new season.

March 18th Camp Notes: Ellsbury, Cuts, Rotation, Ryan

The Yankees pummeled the Braves 12-5 on Wednesday night. Masahiro Tanaka made his second start of the spring and was fantastic, allowing two hits in 3.2 scoreless innings, striking out three. He looked as strong as ever. Andrew Bailey made his spring debut — it was his first game action since July 2013 — and allowed an unearned run on two hits in an inning of work. The television gun had him at 92-93, which would be amazing after a torn shoulder capsule if true. His curveball was all over the place though. “Rusty” is the word I would use to describe how Bailey looked.

Didi Gregorius and Brian McCann led the way offensively. Didi went 3-for-3 with a triple and McCann went 2-for-2 with two walks and a two-run homer. Stephen Drew also mashed a two-run tater. Brett Gardner went 1-for-3 with a walk, Chase Headley went 1-for-2 with a walk, both Mark Teixeira and Garrett Jones went 1-for-3 with a double, and Chris Young went 1-for-3. Also, the Braves are going to be bad this year. Very, very bad. Here’s the box score, here are the video highlights, and here are the rest of the day’s notes from Tampa:

  • Jacoby Ellsbury went for an MRI and has been diagnosed with a low grade oblique strain, the Yankees announced. He’ll be shut down for the next seven days. Opening Day is 18 days away now, so there’s still time for Ellsbury to rest, heal up, and get ready for the start of the season. Any sort of setback might force him to start the regular season on the DL, however.
  • The Yankees announced another round of roster cuts following last night’s game. Branden Pinder was optioned to Triple-A Scranton, Gary Sanchez was optioned to Double-A Trenton, and Domingo German was optioned to High-A Tampa. Don’t ready anything into the level assignments, those are just the player’s workout group for the rest of spring. Greg Bird and Kyle Roller was both reassigned to minor league camp as well. I unofficially count 53 players still in big league camp.
  • The upcoming rotation: Esmil Rogers (Thursday), Adam Warren (Friday), Michael Pineda (Saturday), and CC Sabathia (Sunday). I assume Nathan Eovaldi will either throw a simulated game or pitch out of the bullpen one of those days. Also, Joe Girardi said Bryan Mitchell will make at least one more start this spring. One of the split squad games on April 2nd seems like a good guess. [Chad Jennings]
  • Brendan Ryan (mid-back sprain) is on track to return to game action on Friday. Some of the position players who didn’t make the trip for tonight’s game took batting practice back in Tampa, but there were no bullpens or throwing sessions scheduled. [Jennings, Brendan Kuty]
  • Lefty Jose DePaula is heading for an MRI on his shoulder after dealing with continued soreness. He’s had a ton of arm problems over the years, including shoulder tendinitis in 2013. DePaula has only thrown two innings during Grapefruit League play but had been throwing regular bullpen sessions. [Jennings, Kuty]

In case you missed it earlier, tonight’s game against the Braves will be replayed on MLB Network at 11pm ET. Tune in for Tanaka, if nothing else.

March 17th Camp Notes: Ellsbury, Bailey, Ryan, A-Rod

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees are playing the Blue Jays later tonight and CC Sabathia will be making his Grapefruit League debut. It will be the big man’s first game action since last May. That makes it a pretty important game by Spring Training standards. The regular game thread will be a long a little closer to first pitch. Until then, here are the day’s notes from camp:

  • Jacoby Ellsbury is day-to-day with a “mild, mild, mild, mild” right abdominal strain according to Joe Girardi, who isn’t too concerned. Ellsbury won’t play tonight or tomorrow. It’s the middle of March. No reason to push anything. Give Ellsbury whatever rest he needs plus an extra day for good measure [Dan Barbarisi]
  • Andrew Bailey is scheduled to make his spring debut tomorrow night. He hasn’t pitched in an actual game — Spring Training or otherwise — since July 2013. Masahiro Tanaka is scheduled to start tomorrow’s game, and others set to make the trip are Brett Gardner, Jacob Lindgren, and the entire projected starting infield. [Mark Feinsand, Brendan Kuty]
  • Bryan Mitchell and Andrew Miller both threw simulated games today. Esmil Rogers, Adam Warren, Nathan Eovaldi, David Carpenter, Ivan Nova, Chase Whitley, Vicente Campos, and Jose DePaula were among the small army of pitchers to throw bullpen sessions. Nova threw curveballs for the first time as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery. [Chad Jennings, Kuty, Pete Caldera]
  • During yesterday’s off-day, Brendan Ryan (mid-back sprain) took ground balls and did all sorts of hitting, including full batting practice. He’ll do the same today and is on track to play in a game later this week. [Feinsand, Jennings]
  • Girardi doesn’t seem to be in a rush to play Alex Rodriguez at first base this spring. “I am not sure, it’s something we will talk about,” Girardi said. “It is something we can do if we want. (Garrett) Jones is more than capable of playing there and we have to get him reps but I might throw (A-Rod) in there one or two games just to see.’’ [George King]

The Full Realization of Jacoby Ellsbury [2015 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Baseball’s free agent system is mostly backwards. Instead of paying for players in the primes of their careers, free agency forces teams to generally pay for past performance. While teams remain hopeful that these late-prime players can sustain performance and then decline gracefully, reality rarely complies.

Yet with Jacoby Ellsbury the Yankees paid $153 million not just for past performance, but for the hopes of improvement. All last winter we heard about Ellsbury’s potential to increase his power at Yankee Stadium.

He did exactly that, producing his best power numbers, including a .148 ISO, sixth-most among qualified center fielders, aside from his 2011 season.

Unfortunately, he didn’t live up to expectations in a few other ways. For instance, 2014 was his only full season with a BABIP below .300 (his previous low was .312, and that was in 2008). That meant fewer times on base. Combine that with his frequent appearances in the No. 3 lineup spot and it’s a recipe for somewhat fewer stolen bases than expected.

With a more defined role, and perhaps a twinge more luck, this could be the season that Ellsbury puts it all together.

Yankees Need: Consistency Atop the Lineup

In every scenario other than the one the 2014 Yankees faced, Ellsbury and Brett Gardner would have led off. But out of respect for Derek Jeter, the Yankees willfully made the lineup worse. His combination of .304 OBP and 15 GIDP left little for the middle of the lineup.

It took a Carlos Beltran injury to get both Ellsbury and Gardner into the top three lineup spots. Given the way Beltran was hitting when he got hurt, this was no boon. No matter how you view it, the Yankees harmed the team by batting Jeter second. They needed that consistency atop the order to give the depleted middle of the lineup a chance to drive in some runs.

Ellsbury Can: Provide Consistency Atop the Lineup

By the numbers, Ellsbury might not have been an ideal leadoff man last year. His .328 OBP was the lowest of any full season in his career. But that had more to do with a low BABIP than it did anything else — his walk rate was actually the highest in his career by a tick.

Looking through his full seasons in the leadoff spot, it’s pretty clear that he’s comfortable batting there. Joe Girardi moved him around out of necessity last year. Indeed, even with the Beltran injury he probably wouldn’t have moved out of the leadoff spot if Gardner had opened the season hitting second.

Having two fast guys who can get on base atop the lineup will help the Yankees in many ways that betrayed the 2014 team. I’m confident in Ellsbury’s ability to produce an OBP above .350 if he hits leadoff in 145 games. It’s what he’s done his whole career.

Yankees Need: Elite Outfield Defense

The 2015 Yankees are, by design, a run prevention team. While there’s hope that they’ll get more out of Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, and Mark Teixeira than they did in 2014, the offense still figures to be league average, perhaps a tick above, in even the best-case scenario.

Success will come and go based on the pitching staff and the defense behind it. Brian Cashman fortified his infield defense, adding Didi Gregorius‘s slick glove at short, an astronomical upgrade over Derek Jeter’s. Bringing back Chase Headley should help the offense, but will certainly help keep balls from reaching the outfield. Stephen Drew, too, should provide quality defense at second.

That leaves the outfield, where the Yankees equally need to prevent hits and runs. We learned that they pursued Jason Heyward, which would have given them, presumably, the best outfield defense in the league. With Carlos Beltran patrolling right, defense in left and, particularly, center become more important.

Ellsbury Can: Play Elite Defense

The eye test suggests Ellsbury played very good, if not elite, defense in center field last year. He’s smooth out there, which might make him look a bit better than he actually performs, but to my eye there were no noticeable deficiencies in his game.

The numbers had him in decline: UZR rated him as just above average while DR had him five runs below average. Both were his worst marks since 2009, and again I saw nothing to indicate that he was any worse. For what it’s worth, Baseball Prospectus’s FRAA, which does not use stringer-biased data, gave Ellsbury his best marks since 2008.

Once we start to get some of the Statcast data, I think it will bear out that Ellsbury is one of the league’s better defenders.

Yankees Need: Speed on the Bases

If you’re going to have two similarly profiled speedsters in the outfield, you better get some stolen bases out of them. Moreover, when you have a slow lineup like the Yankees, which lost its third and fourth highest stolen base producers from 2014, you need the guys atop the order to swipe some bags. And by some, I mean a ton.

No one in the infield is stealing any bases. Stephen Drew has a career high of 10, and that was in 2010. Chase Headley stole 17 in 2012, but hasn’t stolen that many total since. Gregorius cannot steal bases. I don’t need mention anyone else.

That leaves the base swiping to Gardner and Ellsbury.

Ellsbury Can: Lead the League in Stolen Bases

No, seriously. Ellsbury has thrice led the Al in stolen bases, including 2013. Despite sliding back to third in the order for much of 2014, he still swiped 39 bags, good for fifth-most in the majors.

If he bats leadoff every day, which he should, and improves his OBP from 2014, which he also should, it’s not difficult to imagine Ellsbury vying with Jose Altuve for the AL stolen bases crown.

The advantage of having Ellsbury and Gardner bat first and second is wreaking havoc with speed. Given Ellsbury’s history, I think he’ll hold up his end of the bargain.

Yankees Need: A Little Pop

Are the Yankees relying on Ellsbury to produce power numbers? No, not in the way they’re relying on the three questionable guys — Teixeira, Beltran, McCann — to hit some dingers. But this is a team that finished 10th in the AL in ISO last season. They’ll need pop wherever they can get it.

Ellsbury Can: Sock a Few Dingers

To repeat, part of the reason the Yankees paid Ellsbury is that they could project better power numbers at Yankee Stadium. He came through and produced the second-best ISO of his career, including 16 home runs. That’s more than the previous two seasons combined (though only half of his career year of 32 homers in 2011).

Settled into his spot, I think Ellsbury can hit 20 this year. At the very least I think he’ll hit 15, which is just fine for the Yankees. If they end up relying on Ellsbury to produce power numbers, many other things have gone wrong. In an ideal situation, he has more than enough power to help the team.