Game 120: Going for the Subway Sweep

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

The Subway Series has been pretty enjoyable so far this season, has it not? The games have been close and exciting, and of course the Yankees have won all three, so that’s fun. The Mets swept all four Subway Series games back in 2013, remember. Time to return the favor. Here is the Mets’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. CF Aaron Hicks
  3. RF Aaron Judge
  4. C Gary Sanchez
  5. SS Didi Gregorius
  6. 3B Todd Frazier
  7. 1B Tyler Austin
  8. 2B Ronald Torreyes
  9. RHP Luis Severino

Very nice weather in New York today, and it’ll continue tonight. The rain isn’t coming until early tomorrow morning. Tonight’s Subway Series finale will begin at 7:10pm ET, and you’ll be able to watch on YES and WPIX locally, and MLB Network nationally. Enjoy the ballgame.

Injury Updates: Garrett Cooper was placed on the 10-day DL with left hamstring tendinitis, the Yankees announced. That’s why Austin is back and in the lineup … Aroldis Chapman (hamstring) threw a bullpen session today and everything went well. He won’t be available tonight. The hope is he’ll be available tomorrow … Matt Holliday (back) and Starlin Castro (hamstring) will both begin rehab assignments tomorrow. Castro is going to Triple-A Scranton and Holliday is going to High-A Tampa.

Game 117: The Subway Series

(Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Cessa. (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

The roles have reversed from last year’s Subway Series, when the Yankees had just waved the white flag and the Mets were still chasing the playoffs. Both teams are reeling right now, though, and tonight’s pitching match-up represents something close to the bottom of the barrel for both teams. Nevertheless, this series represents an opportunity for the Yankees to get back on-track against a subpar team, with the added (and somewhat artificial) drama of an inter-borough rivalry.

Here’s the lineup that Luis Cessa will face tonight; and here’s the group that will square-off against Rafael Montero:

  1. Brett Gardner, LF
  2. Aaron Hicks, CF
  3. Aaron Judge, RF
  4. Didi Gregorius, DH
  5. Gary Sanchez, C
  6. Chase Headley, 1B
  7. Todd Frazier, 3B
  8. Ronald Torreyes, 2B
  9. Tyler Wade, SS

The first pitch is scheduled for 7:05 PM EST, and will be broadcast on both YES and ESPN (for those out of market fans).

Injury Updates: CC Sabathia (knee) threw a bullpen session today and was “very encouraged.” He’s expected to throw one more bullpen session, then come off the 10-day DL as soon as he’s eligible (Saturday) … Starlin Castro (hamstring) ran the bases today and is on track to begin a minor league rehab assignment Friday … Greg Bird (ankle) and Matt Holliday (back) both took batting practice again. Bird will begin a rehab assignment Wednesday.

Roster Move: To get Cessa on the roster, the Yankees sent down Caleb Smith.

Game 116: Rubber Game

Bat Gary 1-9 and maybe no one will notice. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Bat Gary in all nine spots and maybe no one will notice. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

The Yankees and Red Sox have split the first two games of this game three-game series, which means tonight’s series finale is the difference between being 3.5 games back in the AL East or 5.5 games back in the AL East come Monday morning. There are still 46 games to play after tonight, but at some point the Yankees have to stop treading water, you know? The division title is within reach. It’s not going to win itself though.

Now, the bad news: tonight the Yankees are facing Chris Sale, who has been the best pitcher in the AL all season. His numbers are insane: 2.57 ERA (1.98 FIP) with 36.5% strikeouts and 4.6% walks. HOWEVA, the Yankees have won both times they faced Sale this season. Don’t get me wrong, he pitched great (two earned runs in 15.2 innings), but eking out a win is possible against him. Here is the Red Sox lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. CF Aaron Hicks
  3. RF Aaron Judge
  4. DH Gary Sanchez
  5. 3B Todd Frazier
  6. SS Didi Gregorius
  7. 1B Chase Headley
  8. 2B Ronald Torreyes
  9. C Austin Romine
    LHP Jordan Montgomery

The weather was pretty much perfect for baseball all afternoon. Too bad this game had to be played tonight. It’s a little cloudy in New York right now, though there’s no rain in the forecast, and that’s the most important thing. Tonight’s game will begin at 8pm ET and ESPN will have the broadcast. Enjoy.

Injury Updates: Greg Bird (ankle) will begin a minor league rehab assignment Wednesday while Starlin Castro (hamstring) will begin one Friday … Matt Holliday (back) took batting practice today. I guess that means he’s inching closer to a return.

Roster Move: The Yankees sent down Gio Gallegos and called up Caleb Smith, the team announced. Smith was scheduled to start for Triple-A Scranton today, so he’s available for very long relief, which I hope is not necessarily. Joe Girardi said Luis Cessa is tentatively scheduled to start in Masahiro Tanaka‘s place tomorrow.

Game 110: Severino Sunday

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

As crummy as the Yankees — the offense in particular — have looked over the last six days, it’s pretty amazing they come into today’s series finale with a chance to split a four-game series against the defending AL champs. I’m not sure scoring two runs and hanging on for dear life is a sustainable strategy, but it worked last night. Maybe it’ll work again today. I’d prefer a stress-free blowout win. Those are cool.

The six-man rotation comes to an end this afternoon, at least in theory, as Luis Severino makes his first start since that five-inning, 116-pitch grind against the Tigers on Monday. Hopefully he’s feeling good after the extra day of rest. Severino’s numbers are out of this world this year: 2.98 ERA (2.91 FIP) with 28.2% strikeouts, 6.5% walks, and 51.5% grounders. Man. Go get ’em Sevy. Here is the Indians’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. DH Brett Gardner
  2. LF Clint Frazier
  3. SS Didi Gregorius
  4. RF Aaron Judge
  5. 1B Chase Headley
  6. 3B Todd Frazier
  7. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  8. 2B Ronald Torreyes
  9. C Austin Romine
    RHP Luis Severino

Another cool and cloudy day in Cleveland. Not exactly a picturesque day for baseball, but it’ll do. This afternoon’s series finale will begin at 1:10pm ET and YES will have the broadcast. Enjoy.

Roster Move: Matt Holliday was placed on the 10-day disabled list with a left lumbar strain, the Yankees announced. Not sure how long he’ll be sidelined, but given the way he’s been hitting, the Yankees aren’t losing much. Garrett Cooper was called up from Triple-A Scranton to fill the roster spot. How unexciting.

Injury Update: Greg Bird (ankle) is going to hit in the cage today, and the plan to take full batting practice and begin fielding/baserunning drills next week.

Game 109: My Kingdom For Some Runs

(David Maxwell/Getty)
(David Maxwell/Getty)

The 2017 season is now two-thirds of the way complete. The Yankees begin the final third of the season tonight three games back in the AL East and 1.5 games up on a wildcard spot, which isn’t a bad place to be. Could be better, could be worse. Beats being several games out like the last few years.

Now the Yankees just need to offense to snap back into shape. They’ve scored six runs in their last four games, all losses, and three of those four games were started by Anibal Sanchez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Trevor Bauer. Yuck. Struggling to score against those guys would be understandable in, like, 2013. Not 2017. End the losing streak, fellas. Here is the Indians’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. 3B Chase Headley
  3. RF Aaron Judge
  4. SS Didi Gregorius
  5. DH Gary Sanchez
  6. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  7. 3B Todd Frazier
  8. 2B Ronald Torreyes
  9. C Austin Romine
    LHP Jordan Montgomery

It is cool and partly cloudy in Cleveland this evening. Not a bad night for baseball, aside from the fact it’s Saturday. Weekend night games are the worst. Anyway, tonight’s game will begin at 7:10pm ET and you’ll be able to watch on YES locally and MLB Network nationally. Enjoy the game.

Injury Update: Matt Holliday tweaked his lower back taking a swing last night and could be placed on the disabled list. I look forward to the Yankees played shorthanded for three or four days before putting Holliday on the disabled list, then rushing Aaron Hicks back from his rehab assignment to fill the roster spot.

With Aaron Hicks on the mend, the Yankees will soon have to make some roster and playing time decisions

(Jamie Squire/Getty)
(Jamie Squire/Getty)

Later tonight nominal fourth outfielder Aaron Hicks will start a minor league rehab assignment with Triple-A Scranton. He’s been sidelined since June 26th with a right oblique strain. Oblique injuries are really tricky. They’re very easy to reaggravate. And because Hicks is a switch-hitter, he and the Yankees had to be extra careful during his recovery and rehab.

Prior to the injury the 27-year-old Hicks was enjoying a breakout season, a breakout season that had him in the All-Star Game conversation. He hit .290/.398/.515 (145 wRC+) with ten homers and nearly as many walks (15.3%) as strikeouts (17.4%) before getting hurt. Among the 281 players with at least 200 plate appearances this season, Hicks ranks 14th in OBP and 19th in wRC+. He was awesome.

Since Hicks got hurt, a whole lot has changed. The Yankees lost for the seventh time in nine games to blow their division lead the day Hicks got hurt. Now the Yankees have won seven of their last nine games to climb back in the AL East race. They’re still only a half-game back following last night’s loss. Also, Jacoby Ellsbury returned from the disabled list and has since been relegated to fourth outfielder duty, both by his play and Clint Frazier‘s play.

Simply put, when Hicks got hurt, the Yankees were trending down and it was not pretty. Now, with Hicks nearing a return, the Yankees are winning games and they’ve added several new players to the roster. Frazier came up from the system and all the trades brought in Todd Frazier, Jaime Garcia, Sonny Gray, David Robertson, and Tommy Kahnle. Hicks is returning to a much better and more formidable team.

Because he’s missed more than a month and because he’s a switch-hitter with two swings to hone, my guess is Hicks will need more than one or two rehab games. The plan might be to have him rejoin the team next Friday at the start of the next homestand. That would give him eight days worth of minor league games. Hopefully that’s enough. We’ll see. Whenever Hicks is ready to come back, the Yankees will have to make some roster decisions.

Opening A Roster Spot

If Clint goes down, we riot. (Elsa/Getty)
If Clint goes down, we riot. (Elsa/Getty)

At the moment the Yankees are carrying a three-man bench with a backup catcher (Austin Romine), a backup infielder (Tyler Wade), and a backup outfielder (Ellsbury). They’re also carrying six starters and seven relievers, and for at least one turn through the rotation, the Yankees will use all six starters. They say they’re going back to a five-man rotation after that. Does that mean Jordan Montgomery to Triple-A? Garcia to the bullpen? Both are possible.

The easiest way to open a roster spot for Hicks would be sending down that 13th pitcher (whoever it is) and getting back to a normal four-man bench. As much as you may want them to, the Yankees are absolutely not going to release Ellsbury this year. At the very least, the Yankees are going to wait until the offseason to see whether they can unload him in a salary dump trade first. Saving even $4M or $5M a year on his contract is better than nothing.

The other option, which Brian Cashman has floated, is sending down Frazier. Man, if that happens, I will be Mad Online. I can’t see it happening at this point. Frazier has been productive and the Yankees are in it to win it now. You don’t go out and trade all those prospects only to turn around and send down Frazier, who has had an impact in his short time as a big leaguer. That’s not putting the best roster on the field.

Remember, once upon a time the Nationals said they were calling up Bryce Harper only temporarily. Then he hit the snot out of the ball for a few weeks and they had to keep him around. Frazier is not Harper, but he is really good, and he is forcing the team’s hand here. He’s done enough to stick. The Yankees may have planned to send Frazier down when Hicks is ready, but plans have to be flexible. Plans change.

Now, that all said, one thing to keep in mind here is that September isn’t far away. Assuming Hicks returns for the start of the homestand next Friday — again, that’s just my assumption, not something the Yankees have confirmed — the Yankees could send Frazier down for three weeks, then bring him right back when rosters expand on September 1st. Reevaluate the roster situation at that time to figure out the best outfield alignment. It’s an option. I hate it, but it’s an option.

So, as things standing right now, the best way to get Hicks back onto the roster is to send down that 13th pitcher, likely either Montgomery or Chasen Shreve. No one else is going down. The other options are release Ellsbury (nope) or send down Frazier (please no). An injury could change things — Matt Holliday back on the disabled list with his mystery illness? — but right now, I’d say it’s drop the 13th pitcher or bust for Hicks.

Finding Playing Time

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

This interests me much more than opening a roster spot. Hicks was out of this world before the injury, and because of that, he belongs in the lineup once he gets healthy. So does Frazier. So does Brett Gardner and Aaron Judge. I know Judge has slumped since the All-Star break, but does anyone actually want him out of the lineup? No way. He could snap out of it at any moment. No one busts out of a slump sitting on the bench.

As it stands the Yankees have four outfielders who deserve to play everyday (Hicks, Frazier, Gardner, Judge) and a fifth outfielder on the 29th richest contract in baseball history. I’m glad the Yankees and Joe Girardi have reduced Ellsbury’s playing time. It needed to happen. Now they’re looking at the possibility of completely burying Ellsbury on the bench as the seldom used fifth outfielder. The right move? Sure. An awkward situation? Yup.

Four outfielders who deserve to play means the return of the outfield rotation, I assume. Gardner will sit against lefties and I guess Frazier and Judge will take turns sitting against tough righties. Hicks will get days off here and there as well. All four of those guys should play as much as possible, and it’s up to Girardi to make it work. Ellsbury will have to be limited to pinch-runner and spot start duty. There’s really no other way to use him.

The wildcard here is the DH spot. Holliday has been pretty terrible for weeks now. If he continues to be terrible, it’s entirely possible the Yankees will scale back on his playing time, freeing up DH at-bats for the four regular outfielders and Ellsbury. “We continue to talk about it … (He) has had some good at-bats, but he really hasn’t gotten back on track. I think he will but it hasn’t happened yet,” said Girardi to George King when asked about Holliday’s slump recently.

The best case scenario is having too many good players. The Yankees don’t want to sit Holliday to open DH at-bats for other players. They want Holliday to mash, Hicks to mash, and Judge and Frazier and Gardner to mash. And they want Ellsbury to mash too. The more good players, the better. Take the depth and the production and enjoy it while it lasts. Realistically, that won’t happen. It’s very rare that everyone is hitting at the same time. That’s baseball.

Once Hicks returns, the Yankees will have to go back to the four-man outfield rotation, and maybe make it a five-man outfield/DH rotation should Holliday not get back on track. There’s really no other way to do it. None of the three current outfielders deserve to be taken out of the lineup, yet Hicks played too well before his injury to go to the bench. The Yankees have to play him to see whether that was for real. Early season Hicks was the best non-Judge hitter on the team, remember.

* * *

For now, Hicks’ return is at least a few days away and maybe more than a week away. Tonight will only be his first rehab game after more than a month on the shelf. A lot could change between now and the time Hicks is ready to be activated. Someone could get hurt, Frazier could play his way down to Triple-A, someone could get traded … who knows? Hopefully the Yankees have to make some tough decisions when Hicks returns. That’ll mean everyone is playing well and no one deserves to lose playing time or a roster spot.

Aaron Judge, Matt Holliday, and two very different slumps

(Presswire)
What is going on with this fist bump. (Presswire)

Last night, as the Yankees beat the Tigers for their seventh win in the last eight games, rookie masher Aaron Judge clubbed his MLB leading 34th home run, breaking a tie with Giancarlo Stanton. Judge is having a monster rookie season overall, hitting .303/.429/.639 (179 wRC+) with those 34 homers in 101 games, though he hasn’t been all that good lately. He’s hitting only .169/.333/.373 (79 wRC+) with a 34.7% strikeout rate since the All-Star break.

Also last night, Matt Holliday went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts, though he did draw an important walk that loaded the bases with no outs and led to the Yankees scoring four runs in the fourth. Holliday, like Judge, has struggled in the second half. He’s hitting .130/.164/.188 (-14 wRC+) with a 30.1% strikeout rate since the break. Yikes. Go back to June 12th and Holliday is hitting .133/.205/.248 (17 wRC+) in his last 28 games.

There’s no doubt both Judge and Holliday have struggled recently, and watching the games, my eyes tell me these are different types of slumps. Judge’s timing seems to be off ever so slightly. He’s flying open a bit and missing some pitches he should crush. His strikeout rate is up but he hasn’t expanded the zone too much. I mean, his walk rate since the All-Star break is 20.0%. That doesn’t happen when a hitter starts swinging at everything out of the zone. Here is his chase rate:

aaron-judge-chase-rate

This year Judge’s worst 15-game rolling average was a 33.9% chase rate two weeks ago. The MLB average is a 30.8%. Judge peaked at a not-so-high 33.9% chase rate and has brought it down since. His season average is a 26.0% chase rate, which is excellent. There are 164 hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title this year and Judge has the 29th lowest chase rate despite being 6-foot-7 and having so much strike zone to cover.

Also, the quality of Judge’s contact has been pretty good during this slump. In the first half of the season 62.0% of Judge’s batted balls were either a line drive or a fly ball, and his average exit velocity was an MLB best 96.2 mph. Since the All-Star break, more than two-thirds of Judge’s batted balls (67.7%, to be exact) are either a line drive or a fly ball, and his average exit velocity is 94.7 mph, again the highest in MLB.

There are two big differences between first half Aaron Judge and second half Aaron Judge. One, he is striking out more often (29.8% vs. 34.7%) and that’s because his swings and misses on pitches in the zone have increased. In the first half he had an 82.8% contact rate on pitches in the zone. Since the All-Star break it’s 75.8%. The increased strikeouts are the result of swinging and missing more in the strike zone, not chasing out of the zone.

And two, not as many of those well-struck line drives and fly balls are falling in for base hits. I’m not saying Judge has hit into bad luck or anything like that. I’m just stating a fact. Judge’s line drives and fly balls are resulting in more outs than they did earlier this season. Here on the numbers on his line drives and fly balls:

  • First Half: .655 AVG and .530 BABIP (.896 xwOBA)
  • Second Half: .489 AVG and .303 BABIP (.777 xwOBA)
  • 2017 MLB Average: .469 AVG and .408 BABIP (.549 xwOBA)

(BABIP is lower than AVG because home runs don’t count against BABIP. They’re not a ball in play. The defense can’t make a play on homers.)

xwOBA is the new Statcast hotness expected wOBA, which is based on launch angle and exit velocity and things like that. Judge has been getting the ball airborne since the All-Star break — again, 62.0% line drives and fly balls in the first half and 67.7% in the second half — yet the hits aren’t falling in as often. That’s baseball. We aren’t talking about a huge sample here, remember. Judge has put 34 balls in play since the All-Star break.

All of this is a long way of saying Judge is just slightly off at the plate. He hasn’t expanded the zone too much in the second half and when he does make contact, he’s still hitting the ball hard and he’s still hitting it in the air. The biggest issue has been the misses on pitches in the zone. Something’s off mechanically. You can blame the Home Run Derby if you want. That seems pretty lazy to me. (Judge’s slump started before the All-Star break.) Whatever it is, Judge is pretty great at making adjustments, and I think it’s only a matter of time until he gets straightened out.

As for Holliday, the eye test tells me he simply isn’t hitting the ball very hard these days. He isn’t hitting it hard and he isn’t getting it off the ground. A graph is worth a thousand words:

matt-holliday-contact

Yeah. That’s not good. It’s not just less hard contact. It’s less hard contact and more balls on the ground. Holliday’s ugly 28-game stretch started on June 12th, the first game of the West Coast trip in Anaheim. From Opening Day through June 11th: .375 xwOBA on all batted balls. Since June 12th: .276 xwOBA. That’s going from Anthony Rizzo (.378 wOBA) to Billy Hamilton (.276 wOBA).

So why has Holliday basically stopped hitting the ball hard? Two theories. One, he’s 37 and older hitters sometimes just stop hitting forever. We saw it with Alfonso Soriano three years ago, Alex Rodriguez two years ago, and Mark Teixeira one year ago. Or two, Holliday is still sick. Remember when he first came down with this mystery illness? It was out on that West Coast trip that started on June 12th. He first sat out a game in Oakland, in the second series on the trip, but who’s to say he hadn’t already been feeling it for a few days before that?

We’ve seen some older players go through miserable stretches in which they looked done — like done done — only to rebound later in the season. Raul Ibanez was pretty bad for most of the 2012 regular season before he started socking clutch dingers in September and October. Carlos Beltran looked completely washed in April and May in 2015 before turning it around and hitting like prime Beltran the rest of the season. Who’s to say Holliday can’t do the same?

With Judge, I see a hitter who is off a bit mechanically and missing hittable pitches. He hasn’t chased out of the zone too much, and when he puts the ball in play, it’s well-struck. With Holliday, I see a guy who flat out can’t hit the ball hard right now, and has a tough time hitting it in the air. That isn’t to say he’s broken forever. It doesn’t look very good right now though. These are two slumping hitters at different points of their careers slumping in different ways. One seems a tick off. The other makes you wonder if he’s done for good.

The Yankees have won seven of their last eight games while getting basically nothing from their three best first half hitters — Judge and Holliday have slumped, and Starlin Castro is on the disabled list — and that’s pretty impressive. The roster depth has picked those guys up. For the Yankees to win the AL East and make noise in the postseason though, they need Judge and Holliday (and Castro) to produce, so getting them to straighten things out is pretty damn important. I think Judge will figure it out soon enough. Holliday? I’m not so sure.