Yankeemetrics: Kings of Kansas City (May 16-18)

(AP)
(AP)

Vintage CC
The Yankees kicked off the most grueling stretch of this early season – 20 games in 20 days – with one of their most complete and thorough performances so far. Power, pitching and defense were all on display in a satisfying 7-1 win over the Royals on Tuesday night.

The power was supplied by Gary Sanchez and Chris Carter, who each went deep and combined to drive in five runs.

Sanchez broke a scoreless tie in the third inning with a booming 428-foot homer, putting the Yankees up 3-0. It was his 23rd career homer in just his 69th game at the big-league level. The only player in major-league history to hit more homers before his 70th career game is White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu (25).

Carter tacked on two more runs with a deep blast to center in the fourth inning, punctuating his breakout 3-for-4 night at the plate. The list of Yankee first baseman to have at least three hits, including a homer, at Kauffman Stadium is a fun one: Lyle Overbay (2013), Tino Martinez (1998, 1999), Don Mattingly (1993), Steve Balboni (1983) and Chris Chambliss (1979). Welcome to the club, Chris!

Sure, chicks dig the longball, but the best story of the game was the strong bounce-back outing by CC Sabathia. The lefty had an ugly 9.58 ERA in his previous four starts entering this series, but delivered a vintage performance with 6 2/3 scoreless and efficient innings.

Sabathia checked off a couple notable milestones in the victory. It was his:

  • 109th win as a Yankee, tying Spud Chandler and Fritz Peterson for 15th place on the franchise all-time list
  • 13th win at Kauffman Stadium, matching the most wins by a visiting pitcher at the ballpark. Justin Verlander, Mark Buehrle and Bert Blyleven also have 13 wins there.

One of the key differences for Sabathia against the Royals was his ability to pitch inside to righties with his cutter. On the left, his cutter location to right-handed batters in his previous four starts from April 21-May 9; on the right, his cutter location to right-handed batters on Tuesday:

cc-cutter-rhb-combined

In his previous four starts, righties hit .346 and slugged .590 overall against Sabathia, including a .407 average and .741 (!) slugging percentage against his cutter. On Tuesday, the Royals right-handed batters went 3-for-16 overall and were 0-for-4 when putting a cutter in play against Sabathia.

(TNS)
(TNS)

Runs, runs, and more runs
Another night, another run-scoring bonanza for the Yankees. They pummeled the Royals on Wednesday, 11-7, their MLB-leading seventh game with more than 10 runs. That’s the same number of 11-plus-run games they had all of last year, and tied with the 1936 club for the second-most in franchise history through 37 team games.

Royals starter Jason Vargas entered the game with the lowest ERA in the league (1.01!), but was shelled early and often by the visitors – a result that shouldn’t have been surprising given his track record against the Bronx Bombers. After surrendering six runs in four innings, his ERA against the Yankees rose to 7.15, the highest by any active player with at least 35 innings pitched against them.

Aaron Hicks contributed to the offensive fireworks with two hits, including a three-run homer, and one walk. After Wednesday’s slate, he was one of 16 major-league players with at least 25 plate appearances and more walks (22) than strikeouts (17). The only other guy on the list with a higher slugging percentage than Hicks (.616) was Bryce Harper (.744).

Starlin Castro led the hit parade with two doubles and a single, his 18th multi-hit game of the season. Over the last 20 years, the only other Yankee to produce 18-or-more multi-hit games within the team’s first 37 contests was Alfonso Soriano, who did it in 2002 and 2003.

Throwback (to 2016) Thursday
The Yankees couldn’t complete the sweep of the last-place Royals, falling 5-1 on Thursday in a game where the offense was M.I.A. for much of the night. It would have been their first series sweep in Kansas City in nearly a decade (September 2007).

Didi Gregorius once again saved the Yankees from being shut out for the first time this season with a one-out RBI single in the ninth inning. They are still one of three teams that haven’t been blanked in 2017, along with the Nationals and Twins.

Although the Yankees have scored at least one run in every game, there’s been some close calls. This was the fourth time that the Yankees had zero runs through eight innings (also on April 18, May 5 and May 12), and this was actually the second time in less than a week that Gregorius was the hero. His RBI single in the ninth inning on May 12 against the Astros was the Yankees only run of that game.

(AP)
(AP)

Jordan Montgomery allowed a career-high five runs in five innings, and the big blow was Mike Moustakas’ three-run homer on a first-pitch slider in the fifth inning. Entering this game, batters were 6-for-34 (.177) with one extra-base hit (double) when putting Montgomery’s slider in play.

Royals starter Danny Duffy was brilliant as he mowed down the Yankee lineup, retiring the first nine batters — six of them via strikeout — before Jacoby Ellsbury‘s bunt single leading off the fourth inning.

Duffy allowed just two more hits in seven scoreless innings while striking out 10. Duffy became the third Royals pitcher with double-digit strikeouts and no runs allowed against the Yankees, joining Tom Gordon (April 20, 1991) and Mark Gubicza (Aug. 17, 1986).

Friday Links: Top 100 Prospects, Mock Draft, Jeter, Luxury Tax

Montgomery. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
Montgomery. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

The Yankees and Astros continue their four-game weekend series with the second game later tonight. Here are a couple of strays links to check out in the meantime.

Six Yankees on BA’s latest top 100 list

The Baseball America crew released an updated top 100 prospects list this week, which is designed to “reflect the graduations of players who are no longer prospect-eligible and to tweak the rankings based on feedback we have received from scouts and coaches who have seen the prospects this year.” White Sox IF Yoan Moncada is atop the list. Six Yankees farmhands made the top 100:

2. SS Gleyber Torres (Preseason: 5th)
33. OF Clint Frazier (Preseason: 39th)
37. OF Blake Rutherford  (Preseason: 45th)
85. LHP Justus Sheffield (Preseason: 91st)
99. LHP Jordan Montgomery (Preseason: Not ranked)
100. RHP Chance Adams (Preseason: Not ranked)

OF Aaron Judge ranked 90th before the season and has since graduated to the big leagues. SS Jorge Mateo (85th) and RHP James Kaprielian (87th) both made the preseason list but have since dropped off. In a supplemental piece (sub. req’d), the Baseball America crew says Mateo fell out of the top 100 because he simply isn’t performing. He’s hitting .220/.270/.315 (67 wRC+) while repeating High-A ball. Kaprielian fell off because he blew out his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery. Duh.

I can’t say I ever expected to see Montgomery crack a top 100 prospects list, so it’s pretty cool he was able to sneak on. He’s walked a few too many in his brief big league time (11.7%), which is not uncommon for young pitchers. Otherwise Montgomery appears to have all the ingredients necessary to be a back-end starter long-term. Those guys are really valuable during their cheap pre-arbitration years. Montgomery has thrown 28.2 MLB innings so far, so he’s about four starts away from clearing the 50-inning rookie limit and graduating to MLB. This will probably be the only top 100 list he makes. I’m guessing he’s fine with that.

Keith Law’s mock draft v1.0

Keith Law (subs. req’d) released his first mock draft of the year earlier this week, and he has the Twins taking Louisville 1B/LHP Brendan McKay with the No. 1 pick. California HS SS/RHP Hunter Greene, the consensus top prospect in the 2017 draft class, is expected to slip to the Reds with the second overall pick. Lucky them. Law has the Yankees taking California HS 1B Nick Pratto with their first round pick, No. 16 overall. From Law:

Pratto seems to have separated himself as the best pure hitter among the high school crop this year, though high school first basemen taken high don’t have the greatest track record either.

Here’s my Pratto write-up. On paper, Pratto fits the Yankees. Scouting director Damon Oppenheimer has a known affinity for Southern California players, and the Yankees also have a thing for advanced high school bats. They pounced when Rutherford fell into their laps last year. Back in the day, before the bonus pools took the fun out of everything, they paid Greg Bird and Tyler Austin overslot bonuses when their polished bats slipped into the later rounds. The 2017 draft is a little more than five weeks away now.

Loria tried to trade for Jeter with Expos

Jeet & Vlad. (Nick Laham/Getty)
Jeet & Vlad. (Nick Laham/Getty)

Here’s a fun old trade rumor. According to Steven Marcus, Jeffrey Loria ordered general manager Jim Beattie to call the Yankees and make a trade offer for Derek Jeter back in 1999, when Loria owned the Expos. The offer: Vladimir Guerrero for Jeter. Fun! Here’s more from Marcus:

“Mr. Loria really wanted Jeter,’’ said Beattie, a former Yankees pitcher who now is a scout for the Blue Jays. “I kept telling him it wasn’t going to happen and he said, ‘Well, you have to make the call.’ I called (Brian Cashman) and at a point I said, ‘Jeffrey is really interested in Jeter.’ Cash said, ‘No, we’re not going to trade.’ I said, ‘I understand that. Just for conversation and I’m not even sure we would do this, would you trade him for Guerrero?’

“There was silence on the other end. He said, ‘Would you do that?’

“Cash said, ‘That’s a crazy offer, but I’m just not going to trade him. He is a franchise player for us and we’re not going to trade him.’ You could try to trade for him, but they weren’t going to trade him. Yeah, there was an effort.’’

This happened during the 1999-2000 offseason. Jeter, then 25, hit .349/.438/.552 (156 wRC+) with 24 home runs in 1999, in what very well might have been the best season of his career. Vlad was about to turn 25, and he’d hit .316/.378/.600 (139 wRC+) with 42 homers in 1999. This would have been the mother of all blockbusters. Young superstar for young superstar. Carlos Correa for Mookie Betts. Corey Seager for Kris Bryant. Something like that.

Jeter is a no-doubt Hall of Famer and chances are Vlad will get in at some point as well — he fell 15 votes short of induction this past winter — though you can understand why the Yankees said no. They’d just won their third World Series title in the past four years, and Jeter was the face of the franchise. Also, shortstops like Jeter are harder to find than corner outfielders like Guerrero. Still, fun! Loria is a native New Yorker who has made it no secret he admires the Yankees. It’s no surprise he tried to acquire their franchise player once upon a time.

Yankees projected to cut luxury tax bill

According to Ronald Blum, the Yankees are projected to cut their luxury tax bill by nearly $20M this season. Calculations from the commissioner’s office put the team’s luxury tax bill at roughly $9M right now, down from the $27.4M they paid last year. The Yankees are taxed at the maximum 50% rate, so that combined with the $195M threshold suggests their payroll for luxury tax purposes is $213M right now.

Keep in mind the luxury tax payroll is subject to change based on call-ups and send downs, as well as any midseason trades. The Yankees could very well end up buying at the deadline, which would increase payroll. And heck, they could also end up selling again should they fall out of the race. Masahiro Tanaka and Dellin Betances would be their top trade chips, and dealing them would save more luxury tax. The team’s goal is, of course, to get under $197M luxury tax threshold next year, once the monster Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia (and Tanaka?) contracts are off the books.

Yankeemetrics: Rocky road trippin’ (April 21-23)

(Getty)
(Getty)

The Bad, the Ugly and the Awful
Last year the Yankees went 3-7 on their road Interleague slate, tied with the Twins for the worst record among AL teams … and the trend continued into 2017 after dropping the series opener in Pittsburgh, 6-3, on Friday night.

All the momentum and confidence built up from a strong 8-1 homestand came to a screeching halt thanks to a mix of bad pitching (see below), sloppy defense (two unearned runs) and a lack of clutch hitting (0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and 11 men left on base).

CC Sabathia was knocked around early, allowing a lead-off homer on the third pitch he threw and another longball in the second frame, putting the Yankees in 4-0 hole after two innings. Although he settled down and was able to gut through three more innings without allowing another run, he still was tagged for his worst outing of the season.

For whatever reason, Sabathia’s fastball (sinker/cutter) velocity was down significantly from his first three starts, averaging 88.2 mph compared to 90.6 in his first three starts combined …

brooksbaseball-chart-1

… and stuff-wise, each of his fastballs had much less “ride” on Friday, averaging just 7.1 (sinker) and 1.3 (cutter) inches of horizontal movement compared to 11.9 (sinker) and 3.7 (cutter) in his first three starts.

brooksbaseball-chart-2
Unsurprisingly, the Pirates crushed Sabathia’s diminished hard pitches, going 5-for-14 with two homers when putting his fastballs in play. In his first three starts, batters hit .244 and slugged .317 against Sabathia’s sinker/cutter combo.

The Pirates did their best to give the Yankees a chance to win, committing three errors, while the Yankees weren’t credited with an official RBI on any of their three runs scored. It was just the sixth time in franchise history they scored as many as three runs in a game with zero RBI. The last time it happened was May 2, 1989 in a 5-3 loss to the Royals.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Love these Komeback Kids
The Yankees got back in the win column with their sixth comeback win of the season, this time erasing a 3-0 deficit after five innings and cruising to an 11-5 victory.

Starlin Castro ignited the first rally with a three-run homer in the sixth inning that knotted the score at 3-3. It was his 25th longball with the Yankees and the 12th one that either tied the game or gave the Yankees the lead – that’s three more than any other Yankee over the last two seasons.

Ronald Torreyes then followed with a two-run double to give the Yankees their first lead, 5-3, in the sixth. Torreyes finished with four hits and two RBI, giving him 13 RBI through the team’s first 17 games. The only other Yankee shortstops with that many RBIs this early into the season were Derek Jeter (1999, 2006) and Frankie Crosetti (1936).

After the Pirates came back to tie the score, Chris Carter delivered his first True Yankee Moment®, belting a tie-breaking, pinch-hit homer in the eighth inning – his first time going deep in pinstripes. He is just the fourth Yankee pinch-hitter with a go-ahead homer in an Interleague game, joining Travis Hafner (2013 vs Arizona), Eric Chavez (2012 vs Mets) and Clay Bellinger (2000 vs Braves).

Aaron Judge then put the icing on the cake, connecting for yet another moonshot deep into the left field bleachers at PNC Park. Statcast measured the blast at career-high 457 feet with an exit velocity of 115.6 mph. Since his debut on Aug. 13, 2016, he has hit three homers traveling at least 445 feet. In that span (and through Saturday), only Justin Upton could match Judge in 445-plus foot homers.

It was the sixth time in 2017 that Judge ripped a ball with an exit velocity of at least 115 mph, making the leaderboard of 115-plus mph batted balls this season through Saturday … well, pretty ridiculous:

  • Aaron Judge: 6
  • Joey Gallo: 2
  • Rest of MLB: 9

Supernova’d
As good as the Yankees have been in the Bronx, they’ve been just as bad away from the friendly confines. After dropping the rubber game on Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Yankees fell to 0-3 in road series this season.

Ivan Nova — in his first start against the Yankees since being traded away last summer — got some sweet revenge against his former team as he allowed one run in seven efficient innings. It was the ninth time in 15 starts (60%) with the Pirates that Nova gave up one earned or fewer; he did that in just 25 percent of his 118 starts with the Yankees.

(USA Today Sports)
(USA Today Sports)

Jordan Montgomery continued to show poise on the mound and a knack for pitching out of trouble in another impressive outing. Making his third career start, the 24-year-old rookie scattered seven hits across six innings, surrendering two runs. The Pirates had one hit in seven at-bats with runners in scoring against Montgomery, who has held batters to a .118 average (2-for-17) with a man on second and/or third in his three starts.

The Yankees had plenty of chances to win the game but repeatedly came up empty. Notably, they loaded the bases with one out in the ninth but Aaron Hicks struck out and then Pete Kozma grounded out to end the game.

This was not an ideal situation for Hicks: he is now 2-for-27 (.074) with the bases loaded in his career, the second-worst mark among active players (min. 25 at-bats). And Kozma is just a bad hitter: his .148 batting average overall since the start of 2015 is better than only two non-pitchers that have at least 100 at-bats in the last three seasons (Craig Gentry, .139 and Erik Kratz, .117).

Yankeemetrics: Whiteout in the Bronx (April 17-19)

(Getty)
(Getty)

The Judge and The Mick
The White Sox were the latest team to try and slow down the Yankees juggernaut, a feat that seemed improbable based on their recent struggles at the House That Jeter Built.

The White Sox entered this series with a 7-20 record at the new Yankee Stadium, the second-worst win percentage (.259) by any American League team (only the Angels, 8-24, were worse). The Yankees made sure they didn’t improve that mark on Monday with a 7-4 win in the series opener.

Matt Holliday broke the game open with a monster three-run, 459-foot home run in the third inning. It was the fourth-longest homer by any Yankee in the Statcast era (since 2015), behind three homers by A-Rod in 2015. With an exit velocity of 113.9 mph, it was also the third-hardest hit homer in that span behind an A-Bomb in 2015 (116.5) and an Aaron Judge blast last year (115.2).

Judge joined the powerball party in the fifth inning, extending the lead to 7-0 with his fourth home run of the season. He’s just the second Yankee outfielder under the age of 25 to hit four homers within the team’s first 13 games. The other? Oh, just some guy named Mickey Mantle in 1956.

Jordan Montgomery picked up his first major-league win, showing the same toughness and poise he displayed last week during his debut, pitching out of jams in the first and sixth innings. Overall this season, he’s allowed just one hit in 10 at-bats (.100) and struck out four batters with runners in scoring position.

Adam Warren relieved Montgomery, and kept his Hidden Perfect Game intact until he walked Tyler Saladino with two outs, snapping a streak of 22 straight batters retired to start the season.

Warren is the only Yankee pitcher since at least 1913 to not allow a baserunner in any of his first four appearances, while retiring more than 10 batters during the streak (Warren set down 20 batters in a row during his first four games).

(Getty)
(Getty)

Eight is Enough
All good things must come to an end … Thanks to an anemic showing by the Yankee offense and an unexpected masterful performance by White Sox journeyman pitcher Miguel Gonzalez on Tuesday night, the Yankees lost their first game since April 8 and suffered their first home loss of the season.

The Yankees eight-game win streak was tied for their second-longest in April in franchise history, bettered only by a 10-gamer in 1987. And their 7-0 start at Yankee Stadium was just the sixth time they had won their first seven home games; the good news is that of the previous five seasons it happened (1943, 1949, 1951, 1987, 1998), four ended with the Yankees hoisting a World Series trophy.

Gonzalez held the Yankees to just four infield singles and one run in his 8 1/3 innings of work on a frosty night in the Bronx. How unlikely was this standout performance?

He had been winless in his previous 18 road starts entering the game, which was the longest active streak among major-league pitchers. And it had been over three decades since a White Sox pitcher allowed one-run-or-fewer and four-hits-or-fewer in an outing of more than eight innings at Yankee Stadium: Neil Allen was the last to do it, tossing a two-hit, no-strikeout (!) shutout in July 1986.

Luis Severino‘s final line (four runs allowed) underscored the dominance he showed in striking out 10 guys, including six with his devastating slider. Overall, the pitch has been a key weapon for him this season: of the 31 two-strike sliders he’s thrown, 13 have resulted in strikeouts, good for a 41.9 percent slider “putaway rate” that ranks second behind only Noah Syndergaard (43.5%) among starters.

Coupled with his 11-strikeout game in his previous start, Severino became the youngest Yankee with back-to-back double-digit strikeout games since lefty Al Downing in 1963. Even more impressive is this golden nugget:

At the age of 23 years and 57 days, Severino is the youngest pitcher in franchise history with at least 10 strikeouts and no walks in a game.

A new win streak
Death, taxes … and the Yankees beating the White Sox at Yankee Stadium. Three things you can pretty much count on these days. With their 9-1 victory in the rubber game on Wednesday night, the Yankees are now unbeaten (10-0-2) in their last 12 home series against the White Sox. The last time they lost a series in the Bronx to the Pale Hose was Aug. 8-10, 2005.

Masahiro Tanaka didn’t have ace-like stuff but still delivered his best performance of the season, limiting the White Sox to one run on six hits in seven innings. He’s now won six straight home starts dating back to last season, setting a record at the new Yankee Stadium. The last Yankee pitcher to win six starts in a row at home was Chien-Ming Wang in 2006.

Aaron Judge did Aaron Judge things once again, crushing a towering homer into to the left field bleachers in the fifth inning to give the Yankees a 8-1 lead. The absolute bomb went an estimated 448 feet and left his bat at 115.5 mph. His assault on the Statcast record books continues unabated:

  • The distance of 448 feet is a career-high for Judge, and is the third-longest homer at Yankee Stadium in the Statcast era (since 2015).
  • The exit velocity of 115.5 mph makes it the hardest-hit homer by any player at Yankee Stadium in the Statcast era.
  • Judge now has six batted balls with an exit velocity of at least 115 mph in pinstripes; since 2015, all other Yankees have combined to hit three batted balls with an exit velocity of 115-plus mph.

The starting rotation has been a strength during the Yankees’ seven-game winning streak

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Five games into the 2017 season, everything that could go wrong with the Yankees was going wrong. Their young hitters were struggling, the rotation was providing neither bulk innings nor quality innings, and their greatest strength (Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman) was rendered moot because the rest of the team wasn’t doing its job. The Yankees lost four of their first five games and looked every bit as bad as their 1-4 record suggested.

Fast forward a week, and the Yankees are now riding a seven-game winning streak heading into tonight’s series opener against the rebuilding White Sox. This winning streak started with a late-inning comeback win over the Orioles last Sunday, the kind of game you can easily build a “turning point!” narrative around, and has continued with back-to-back three-game sweeps of the Rays and Cardinals.

Winning seven straight games requires a team effort. The Yankees have not been carried offensively by one player. There seems to be a new hero every night. Aaron Judge hit home runs in three straight games at one point. Aaron Hicks had a two-homer game last week. Last night Greg Bird snapped out of his slump and got in on the fun too. The bullpen has been great as well, even on days Betances and Chapman were unavailable.

One constant during this seven-game winning streak has been strong starting pitching, and given how things played out in those first five games of the season, I didn’t think we’d be able to consider the rotation a strength so soon. The starters have pitched well and they’ve also pitched deep into games, lightening the workload on the bullpen. Here’s the rotation game log for the winning streak:

Date & Opponent Starter IP H R ER BB K HR
April 9th @ Orioles CC Sabathia 6 6 3 2 4 3 0
April 10th vs. Rays Michael Pineda 7.2 2 1 1 0 11 1
April 12th vs. Rays Jordan Montgomery 4.2 5 3 2 2 7 1
April 13th vs. Rays Luis Severino 7 5 2 2 1 11 1
April 14th vs. Cardinals Masahiro Tanaka 6.1 5 3 3 2 5 1
April 15th vs. Cardinals CC Sabathia 7.1 3 1 1 1 6 1
April 16th vs. Cardinals Michael Pineda 7 6 2 2 1 6 1
Totals 46 32 15 13 11 49 6

That’s a seven-game stretch with a 2.54 ERA and a 4.45 K/BB ratio for the starters. They also have a 0.93 WHIP, if WHIP is your thing. Furthermore, the Yankees have gotten at least six innings from their starter in all but one of those seven games, with the only exception being Montgomery’s big league debut. Joe Girardi said he was on a pitch count — Montgomery threw 89 pitches that day after throwing no more than 77 pitches in Spring Training or the minors — plus a kid making his MLB debut tends to have a short leash.

Pineda has been the pitching star during his seven-game winning streak. He retired the first 20 batters he faced in the home opener last Monday, and last night he gave the Yankees another seven strong innings. In a way, last night’s game was more impressive. Pineda had everything working in the home opener, and when that happens, he’s untouchable. Last night he ran into some trouble early, including allowing a two-out run in the second inning, but he settled down and pitched deep into the game. And when Yadier Molina took him deep to start the seventh inning, Pineda shook it off and retired the next three batters without incident. There was no unraveling this time.

“I didn’t think his slider was as sharp as the other day, but he found a way to get through seven innings,” said Girardi after the game. “His stuff got better after the second inning. Fastball and changeup was good. He gave up the one run with two outs, but then he settled down after that and threw a good game. It’s important because you want him to keep building and get some momentum, because he had a hard time doing that last year.”

Amazingly enough, Tanaka has been the Yankees worst starting pitcher in the super early going this year. I didn’t expect to write that at any point this season. His three starts have gotten progressively better — at one point in his last start he retired 17 of 19 batters — but he still looks a little off. Tanaka’s location has not been nearly as good as it usually is so far this year, particularly with his fastball. Check it out, via Brooks Baseball:

masahiro-tanaka-fastball-location

You can click the image for a larger view, which is probably a good idea. Anyway, that is 2016 on the left and 2017 on the right, and we’re looking at Tanaka’s fastball location from the catcher’s point of view. Last year Tanaka lived down in the zone and to his arm side with his heater. This year he’s over the plate and up in the zone more often, and he’s paid dearly for some missed locations already.

Tanaka said all throughout Spring Training he wasn’t right mechanically and I don’t know about you, but I kinda brushed it off because he was dominating. Obviously that was a mistake. I know we’re conditioned to think “Tanaka isn’t pitching well oh no is his elbow hurt?” nowadays — isn’t it awful? man it’s awful — but there’s no reason to think he’s hurt. He’s throwing as hard as he usually does and he’s still going out there every fifth day. Sometimes pitchers fall out of whack mechanically and their location suffers. Tanaka is so darn good that I think it’s only a matter of time until he gets back on track. We saw signs of it in his last start.

Point is, when Tanaka is your worst starting pitcher, even for a 12-game stretch early in the season, that means you must be getting some pretty good work from your other starters. And the Yankees have. Sabathia has been awesome so far, Pineda’s last two outings were impressive, Montgomery showed some positive signs in his start, and Luis Severino has looked far better this year than he did any time as a starter last year. Severino’s improvement and development is incredibly important to the Yankees long-term. He’s part of the new young core.

For now, the starting pitchers are on a roll and have more or less carried the Yankees through this seven-game winning streak. We know it won’t last forever. At some point someone will have a dud start, or the Yankees will need a sixth starter, something like that. That’s baseball. The rotation was an easily identifiable weak spot coming into the season, though right now, there are indications this unit can be a strength, or at least not a glaring weakness.

Yankeemetrics: Home Sweep Home (April 10-13)

(AP)
(AP)

#HugeMike
The Yankees 115th home opener nearly ended up as one of the most memorable in franchise history, as Michael Pineda flirted with a perfect game and gave fans much to cheer about on a gorgeous Monday afternoon at the ballpark.

Pineda is equal parts fantastic and frustrating, enigmatic and electric, dazzling and depressing. And just two starts into the 2017 season, he’s displayed both sides of his Jekyll-and-Hyde talent:

Less than a week after a miserable season-opening outing (3⅔ innings, 4 runs, 8 hits), Pineda was brilliant and dominated the same Rays lineup, retiring the first 20 batters he faced until Evan Longoria drilled a double into the left field corner with two outs in the seventh inning.

Armed with his wipeout slider, pinpoint command of his fastball and an effective changeup, Pineda whiffed 11 and allowed just two hits in 7⅔ innings. Pineda is the first Yankees pitcher to throw six perfect innings to start the team’s home opener, and also the first Yankees pitcher with double-digit strikeouts and no walks in the first home game of the season.

Before Pineda, the last Yankee in any game to pitch at least seven innings, get 11-plus strikeouts and allow no more than two baserunners was Mike Mussina in his epic near-perfecto against the Red Sox on Sept. 2, 2001.

Pineda was in complete control of nearly every at-bat, starting off 17 of the 25 batters with an 0-1 count, getting to 0-2 or 1-2 against 16 of those guys, and he got himself into a three-ball count just twice. A career-best nine of the 11 strikeouts came on his slider, which generated 11 whiffs on 20 swings.

pineda-k-vs-rays

Last year Pineda’s slider had a 46.2 percent swing-and-miss rate, fifth-best among starting pitchers (min. 500 pitches), and his 146 strikeouts with the slider ranked second behind Chris Archer (151).

Pineda’s gem wasn’t the only good news to come out of Monday’s win. The offense exploded for eight runs, thanks to the power bats of Aaron Judge, Chase Headley and Starlin Castro. While Judge’s homer was a majestic bomb that went 397 feet, Headley’s and Castro’s dingers barely cleared the fences. In fact, under normal conditions, their hits wouldn’t have been homers in any of the other 29 ballparks.

(Gettty)
(Gettty)

#AllRise for The Judge
As bad as the Yankees have fared against the Orioles at Camden Yards in recent years, they’ve been just as good at Yankee Stadium against another AL East foe, the Tampa Bay Rays. Following Wednesday’s 8-4 win, they’ve now won eight straight home series over the Rays, their longest such streak against any opponent at the current Yankee Stadium.

The pregame chatter focused on the debut 24-year-old Jordan Montgomery, who became the first Yankee southpaw to start in his major-league debut since Chase Wright and Kei Igawa in April 2007.

Montgomery was impressive out of the gate, striking out the the first two Rays that came to the plate. The last Yankee to make his big-league debut as a starter and strike out the first and second guys he faced was Mariano Rivera on May 23, 1995 vs the Angels.

Montgomery finished with seven strikeouts in 4⅔ innings, the most punchouts by a Yankee lefty in his first career MLB appearance since Al Leiter struck out eight in 1987.

No Gary Sanchez, no Greg Bird, no problem. The Yankees offense continued to roll thanks to the third slugger in the Baby Bomber trio, Aaron Judge, who had two hits and drove in three runs on Wednesday. Judge showed off his ridiculous power on both the hits:

  • The first one was a bullet line-drive RBI single that tied the game in the sixth inning and rocketed off his bat at 116.5 mph. It was the fastest base hit of 2017 by any player, and gave him four exit velocities of at least 115 mph this season – while the rest of MLB had combined for seven such balls in play through Wednesday’s games.
  • The second hit was a 437-foot homer that gave the Yankees an 8-3 cushion in the seventh inning. It was his third homer of the season, making him just the fourth Yankee under age 25 with at least three home runs in the team’s first eight games. The others are the list are not bad: Derek Jeter (1999), Bobby Murcer (1969) and Mickey Mantle (1956).
(Getty)
(Getty)

Three Times a Charm
The Yankees won their fourth straight game on Thursday night, wiping away the bad taste of that awful 1-4 start as they climbed above .500 (5-4) for the first time this season. The victory also gave them their first sweep of three-or-more games against the Rays at Yankee Stadium since September 2009.

And how can we forget that the Yankees first sweep last season didn’t come until May 22 (four-gamer in Oakland), and that their first three-game series sweep happened on September 7 against the Blue Jays.

Aaron Hicks was the night’s biggest hero at the plate, belting two home runs, including the game-winner that flipped a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning. It was his third career go-ahead homer in the seventh inning or later, and all three have come in pinstripes and against a division rival (Thursday vs. Rays; Sept. 26, 2016 at Toronto; May 6, 2016 vs. Red Sox).

The switch-hitter Hicks made sure that Luis Severino‘s stellar performance on the mound wouldn’t be wasted and helped the young Dominican earn his first win as a starter since Sept. 27, 2015 vs the White Sox. Severino flashed the electric stuff he showed during his rookie year, limiting the Rays to two runs while fanning a career-high 11 batters in seven strong innings, and etching his name in the franchise record books.

At 23 years and 52 days old, he’s the youngest Yankee right-hander in the last 100 years with more than 10 strikeouts in a game. The only others younger than Severino with 11-plus Ks in a game were all lefties: Al Leiter (1988), Dave Righetti (1981) and Al Downing (1963, 1964).

Montgomery showed the Yankees just about everything they wanted to see in MLB debut

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the first time this season, the Yankees used their fifth starter Wednesday afternoon. It happened a little ahead of schedule too. The Yankees planned to wait until April 16th to use their fifth starter, but with Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia having to work harder than usual over the weekend, they decided to give them extra rest. That’s how Jordan Montgomery wound up making yesterday’s start.

Montgomery beat out the other fifth starter candidates in Spring Training — Montgomery was more of a long shot for the job at the start of camp — and he pitched well in his MLB debut. Not great, not awful. Three runs allowed (two earned) on five hits and two walks in 4.2 innings before hitting his pitch count. The third run scored courtesy of a Starlin Castro error while Bryan Mitchell was on the mound.

“I thought he did a pretty good job,” said Joe Girardi following yesterday’s game. “I didn’t think he had great command of his fastball today, but I thought he did a really good job of pitching out of some jams. They had a number of opportunities to score, and they just scored really in that first inning, in a sense. Very pleased with what he did.”

Girardi confirmed Montgomery will get another start in five days — that lines him up to pitch Monday’s series opener against the rebuilding White Sox — which sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s really not. The Yankees could have easily sent Montgomery back to Triple-A following yesterday’s game, called up an extra reliever — or an extra outfielder with Brett Gardner banged up — for the time being, then gone with Chad Green next time the fifth starter is needed.

I’m always inclined to grade a pitcher on a curve when he makes his first big league start because inevitably there are nerves involved. That said, I thought Montgomery did some things yesterday that were very encouraging and bode well going forward. Four things, specifically.

1. He pitched inside. All throughout baseball, pitching inside is becoming something of a lost art. I’m not saying pitchers should bean batters or anything like that, but command the inside corner of the plate and get the hitter to move his feet a bit. Don’t let him look out over the plate all game.

Montgomery pitched inside an awful lot yesterday, especially to right-handed batters. The home run he gave up to Rickie Weeks was a fastball that was supposed to be inside, but leaked back out over the plate. It happens. The new Trackman system has been hit or miss so far this season — the system recorded only 57 of Montgomery’s 89 pitches, so hit or miss is putting it nicely — and here’s what we have on Montgomery’s pitch locations against righties, via Baseball Savant:

jordan-montgomery-vs-rhbThere are a bunch of pitches missing there due to Trackman’s wonkiness, but Montgomery got in on righties with his fastball and also what the system is calling a slider. A few of them looked like cutters to me. Who knows? Whatever it was, it had a little bite to it and Montgomery threw it in on righties. He used it to fan Evan Longoria in the fifth inning:

jordan-montgomery-slider

That’s a nasty little pitch under the hands. The hitter can’t do anything with that other than foul it off. Point is, Montgomery did not hesitate to pitch righties inside — probably because he knows he needs to do that to be successful — with both a fastball and some sort of slider/cutter thing (slutter?). For a young guy making his first start, that’s impressive. Lots of times young kids will shy away from the inner half.

2. He got swings and misses. Last season in the minors Montgomery struck out 22.7% of the batters he faced, which is solid and nothing more. The year before he had a 24.1% strikeout rate. Chance Adams, for comparison, had a 29.1% strikeout rate last year. That’s more in line with what you’d expect to see from a legitimate big league pitching prospect.

Montgomery had no trouble missing bats Wednesday. Trackman says he recorded eleven swings and misses among the 57 pitches recorded, and during the YES game broadcast and postgame, both David Cone and Jack Curry said they counted 17 swings and misses out of Montgomery’s 89 total pitches. Remember how good Michael Pineda was Monday? He had 15 swings and misses out of 93 total pitches.

I wouldn’t count on Montgomery sustaining a 19.1% swing and miss rate because no one does that — Max Scherzer led all starters with a 15.3% whiff rate last year — but I think the tools are there to get strikeouts, specifically his slider and changeup. He used both pitches to get outs yesterday. Montgomery doesn’t have to be Scherzer when it comes to missing bats, but he can’t be a strict pitch-to-contact guy like a Twins pitcher either. Not in Yankee Stadium.

3. He kept his release point tight. If nothing else, Montgomery gives the hitter a very different look. He’s 6-foot-6 and he throws the ball right over the top, so it’s coming from an extreme downhill angle. The 57 pitches worth of Trackman data we have say Montgomery released the ball from, on average, seven feet above the base of the mound, which is pretty crazy. More importantly, the data shows he had a nice tight release point for all his pitches. From Brooks Baseball:

jordan-montgomery-release-points

That’s a thing of beauty. A lot of times you’ll see a pitcher drop down ever so slightly for his slider, or maybe vary his arm speed so much between his fastball and changeup that they have different release points, but not Montgomery. Not yesterday, at least. All his pitches come together to form a blob on the chart because he released them from the same spot. That adds deception and helps his pitches play up.

4. He pitched out of jams. Montgomery pitched in five separate innings yesterday and in only one, the second, did he set the side down in the order. The third and fifth innings were the most impressive to me even though Montgomery didn’t get a chance to finish the fifth because of his pitch count.

In the third the Rays put runners on first and second with one out on a single (Peter Bourjos) and a hit batsman (Kevin Kiermaier). Montgomery then struck out Longoria and Weeks to escape the jam. Then, in the fifth, he allowed a leadoff double to Steven Souza before rebounding to strike out Kiermaier and Longoria to end his afternoon. He made some pretty big pitches in sticky situations.

Jams are inevitable and with a young pitcher, especially one making his first career start, you kinda worry things will unravel. Montgomery has a reputation for being tough and unflappable on the mound, which serves him well in those spots. We saw it in Spring Training and we saw it again yesterday. It doesn’t mean he’ll pitch out of every jam. But it does show he won’t be overwhelmed.

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The Yankees have plenty of fifth starter candidates — Green and Luis Cessa are waiting in Triple-A, most notably — so Montgomery is going to have to pitch well to remain in the rotation. All things considered, his first start went well, and he’ll get another chance to show he can do in five days. The Yankees are looking for help both now and for the future, and while acknowledging one start is just one start, I saw some encouraging signs from Montgomery during his MLB debut yesterday.