Betting on a Bounce Back [2017 Season Preview]

(Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports)

On the heels of a relatively solid offensive season in which he posted a 109 wRC+ with 20 HR in just 426 PA, Matt Holliday has the look and feel of a hitter that can offer so much more. Some of this is undoubtedly based on his reputation (he was, by wRC+, a top-10 hitter as recently as 2013, and a top-30 hitter in 2014), as well as the hope that a healthy, more rested version of the 37-year-old will be more productive. There are several indicators that Holliday will improve relative to his 2016 season, or, at the very least, stall the effects of Father Time for one more year.

Batting Average on Balls in Play

What stands out the most among a slew of career-lows for Holliday may well be his .253 BABIP. Prior to 2016, Holliday had never posted a BABIP lower than .298, and his career norm sat at .335 (the same mark that he posted in 2015). Much of this can be explained away by career-high groundball rate and a career-low line drive percentage – but how much?

Attempts at calculating an accurate predictive version of xBABIP (expected BABIP) haven’t been all that great thus far, but the folks at FanGraphs keep on trying. Progress has certainly been made, and enough so that it isn’t entirely inane to plug-and-play with the latest and greatest in their formulas. Using the methodologies outlined in those three separate posts, we find that Holliday’s xBABIP ranged anywhere between .300 and .345 … which is a testament to how rough these equations are, but I digress.

If we take the low end of those samples and give Holliday a .300 BABIP for 2016 and treat all of the extra hits as singles, his numbers look significantly better (obviously). Instead of a .246/.322/.461 slash line with a 109 wRC+, he would’ve hit .281/.353/.484 with a 120-ish wRC+. All this for an extra nine or ten singles.

This is far from perfect analysis, to be sure, as the quirks and inconsistencies of xBABIP cannot be ignore – but it is demonstrative of the simple fact that a bit more favorable treatment from the luck dragon can change things dramatically.

Hitting the Ball Hard

As Mike pointed out when the signing was made official, Holliday hit the snot out of the ball in 2016. To wit:

[H]is hard contact rate (38.5%) was comfortably above the MLB average (31.4%) and his career average (35.6%). In fact, among the 375 players to put at least 100 balls in play this past season, Holliday had the third highest average exit velocity (94.7 mph). Only Nelson Cruz (95.9 mph) and Giancarlo Stanton (95.1 mph) were better. Miguel Cabrera (94.5 mph) was fourth. That is some good company. Also, according to Mike Petriello, Holliday put 42.5% of his balls in play at 100 mph or better, the fourth best rate in baseball. Exit velocity isn’t everything — it’s possible to hit a 100 mph pop-up, you know — but it’s not nothing either. Holliday can still strike the ball with authority.

A hard contact rate generally correlates with strong offense, with 19 of the top 30 posting a wRC+ of 120 or better in 2016, and all but one sitting above league-average. This is a normal split, going all the way back to 2010 (the first year for which we have this data). There are varying degrees of offensive prowess sprinkled throughout the list of the hardest-hitters in baseball, so it isn’t necessarily predictive of anything other than solid-average offense – but it’s a good sign nevertheless.

Statcast’s exit velocity tells a similar story. There are few bad hitters among those that hit the ball with authority, but there is little predictive value beyond that.

The Yankee Stadium Boost

Or, phrased differently, the promise of having a new home ballpark.

Holliday was significantly better away from Busch Stadium last season, batting .297/.363/.554 with 11 of his home runs coming on the road. His splits were relatively steady heading into 2016, so it’s possible that this was merely a one year blip. However, it’s also possible that a park that limits power (particularly right-handed power) finally began to catch up to an aging hitter. Yankee Stadium is much friendlier to all hitters, and will greatly benefit a slugger that drives the ball to all fields, like so:

plot_hc_spray

Power to all fields will play in any park, and Yankee Stadium is particularly advantageous for a hitter of Holliday’s caliber. And the fact that he still showed an all-fields approach with power in what amounted to the worst season of his career is certainly encouraging. So is the fact that all three of his Spring Training home runs have gone to the opposite field.

Rest, Rest, and Even More Rest

Holliday should not (and hopefully will not) have to play the field all that often this year, if at all. The Yankees have five players listed as outfielders on the 40-man roster, and that does not include Tyler Austin, Jorge Mateo, Rob Refsnyder, and Ronald Torreyes, all of whom could play out there in a pinch, nor does it include those outfielders that stand to open the season in Triple-A and could easily be added (Dustin Fowler, Clint Frazier, Jake Cave, etc). The depth at first base is strong, as well, albeit in a different manner, as probable back-up/platoon player Chris Carter could conceivably start for several teams.

Playing regularly at DH should help keep Holliday rested, and protect him from the nagging sort of injuries that have hampered his last two seasons. He has a bit of experience playing DH, for what it’s worth, batting .260/.340/.535 with 9 HR in 144 PA scattered across his career; such a small, spread out sample size may not mean much, but it lends a sliver of optimism that he can adjust to the routine of the position.


Two weeks ago, I discussed second-guessing the Matt Holliday signing due to the way the marketplace for designated hitters unfolded. That was never intended to be a question of Holliday’s potential, however, as I am a strong believer in his ability to have a strong season for the Yankees. The average DH had a 115 wRC+ last season, and he wasn’t all that far off in a down year. That should be well within reach for a mostly healthy Holliday, with a dash of luck.

Even in worst case, Holliday an improvement over 2016 DH situation

alex-rodriguez-matt-holliday-getty-split-slide
(Getty)

On Friday, Domenic raised the interesting question of whether the Yankees jumped the gun in signing Matt Holliday. While he was cheaper in total cash outlay than Kendrys Morales, he earned substantially more than some other DH options, including Chris Carter, who the Yankees still signed on top of Holliday.

But there’s one thing that I think is without a doubt: Holliday brings more to the table than 2016 Alex Rodriguez (duh) and will bring a substantial improvement in the Yankees’ DH situation this season, even in the worst case scenario. Yet how much Holliday will bring in surplus value is another question entirely (and whether it is worth $13 million is an extra question on top of that).

If we’re going to get into how much extra value he’ll bring, first you need to set the baseline: A-Rod‘s 2016 season. Man, that was just a huge disappointment. His 2015 season was perfect in many regards considering expectations and then he came back with a complete dud, failing to reach 700 home runs and getting a barely ceremonious release in August. In total, A-Rod hit .200/.247/.351 (56 wRC+) in just 243 plate appearances.

Because he played in just 65 games, that opened up nearly 90 games worth of DH at-bats (remember: 10 games in National League parks with pitchers hitting). Therefore, the baseline isn’t entirely Rodriguez. His general ineptitude opened the door for DH starts for many players. Carlos Beltran (148), Brian McCann (122), Gary Sanchez (72), Billy Butler (20) and Mark Teixeira (16) all got at least 15 plate appearances without needing to take the field.

While A-Rod having more success would have benefited the Yankees’ win-loss record, it would have hurt Sanchez’s development time or cut in further to McCann’s at-bats when Sanchez was called up. It also means the Yankees likely don’t sign Butler (probably a good development), Beltran is slightly less productive with the extra need to play the field and Aaron Hicks receives less of a chance to develop with Beltran taking starts away in right field. All of that is to say A-Rod’s struggles and eventual release opened the door for some strong positives for the Yankees.

As a whole, the Yankees’ designated hitter ‘position’ produced a paltry -1.5 bWAR, the worst in baseball. The position, in 642 plate appearances, had a .261/.312/.450 line. They also had -2.0 WAR in right field, which was in part due to Beltran only getting 232 plate appearances there.

I see very few scenarios where the Yankees post that poor a performance at DH in 2017, mostly thanks to Holliday. This factors in the idea that last season was likely the worst of his career and he seems to be on the decline. After all, he is 37 years old and can’t be far from retirement. Still, despite the decline, he still hit .246/.322/.461 (109 wRC+), which isn’t outstanding but certainly above average. He produced the lowest WAR of his career (0.7 fWAR, 0.3 bWAR) and the Cardinals as a team had a -1.4 WAR in left field with Holliday getting most of the at-bats there.

However, any comparison between Holliday’s performance totals last year and potential performance this year needs to factor in his defense. He was dreadful in left field last season while starting 82 games there and his fielding likely is a big factor in the -1.4 WAR for the Cards. Barring a rash of injuries, the Yankees don’t have to worry about the seven-time All-Star as anything but a hitter. If he is playing the field on anything of a regular basis, this whole post is thrown out the window because something has gone seriously wrong in the Bronx.

Assuming Holliday is able to stick to DH and maybe, just maybe, a few games in the field during National League play, there’s a solid chance he’s much healthier than towards the end of his time in St. Louis. He only played 183 games combined over the last two seasons and the injuries no doubt affected him at the plate. If he only needs to focus on his bat and doesn’t need to expend energy in the field, he should be a healthier and, therefore, better version of what he’d otherwise be in 2017.

And that leads to some optimistic projections for 2017 from Steamer and PECOTA.

ZiPS: .244/.325/.447 with 14 HR in 329 PA
Steamer: .271/.357.470 with 21 HR in 505 PA
PECOTA: .262/.352/.447 with 19 HR in 495 PA

ZiPS, as you can see, projects Holliday to continue his decline. That’s not unreasonable. All three systems had A-Rod hitting a lot better last season than he did but still had him declining, and sometimes an older hitter just falls off in an instant. Declines aren’t always gradual.

The best case scenario for Holliday is something along the lines of A-Rod’s 2015 season. That’ll happen if he stays healthy and really takes to the DH role. There are some signs pointing to this type of bounce back. Holliday was better in the second half last season. He also was at his best (.368/.385/.868 with five HR) in his eight games as the Cardinals’ DH. Holliday also gets the chance to play 81 games in the hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium.

In this type of scenario, Holliday could anchor the Yankees’ lineup and warrant consideration to bring him back in 2018. The most likely case — a slightly above average but not great Holliday — is still a welcome improvement over last season and would bring stability to DH.

But there is the worst case scenario and ZiPS hints at it. However, I’d argue even the worst case with Holliday is still better than the Bombers’ 2016 DH situation. On one hand, you have Holliday getting injured. That’s not such a big deal for the team for two reasons; The Yankees have Chris Carter as a ready-made replacement and could also hand at-bats to developing younger players like Tyler Austin, Aaron Judge, etc. Heck, they could also use the spot to give Sanchez days off from the field like last year.

The other worst case is Holliday declining significantly. That wouldn’t be optimal, but he’s only under contract for one season unlike A-Rod from last year. Because of the limited investment (in years, not dollars), the team could move on and give away those ABs, which could perhaps be put to better use on a team in transition. A truly significant Holliday decline could help put a fork in the Yankees’ playoff hopes, but a more modest decline is much more likely.

On top of his performance, Holliday is renowned for his clubhouse presence. Who knows if it is more or less than what Rodriguez or Beltran brought to the table while they DH’d? Regardless, that alone isn’t worth $13 million and it may be tough for him to live up to the contract. But have no fear: It almost definitely doesn’t get worse than last season.

Poll: Second-Guessing the Matt Holliday Deal

(MLB.com)
(MLB.com)

When the Yankees signed Matt Holliday to a one-year, $13 MM deal back in December, the consensus was largely positive. Or, at the very least, a bit better than lukewarm. Holliday was coming off of a down year and was soon to be 37-years-old, but he was probably the best DH option this side of Edwin Encarnacion (who would require a large commitment and a surrendered draft pick) and Carlos Beltran. And that’s before you factor in his reputation as a great teammate and mentor for younger players (insert joke about ‘veteran presents’ here), which was undoubtedly a consideration for the Yankees in the midst of their youth movement.

A bit over two months later, however, the Yankees signed Chris Carter – a player whose best role would be that which Holliday was slated to play. The immediate reaction revolved around DINGERS!, but was followed promptly by questions about when and where the 30-year-old would play. His $3.5 MM salary (along with an extra $500,000 in bonuses based on plate appearances) is veritable chump change to this team (if not all organizations at this point in time, given the influx of cash into Major League Baseball), so it might not matter if he’s riding the bench more often than not. Moreover, there are always injuries: Tyler Austin succumbed to a broken foot already, Greg Bird missed the entirety of 2016 with a torn labrum in his shoulder, and the aforementioned Holliday has missed 50-plus games in each of the last two seasons. Phrased differently, opportunities for playing time are never too far away in the big leagues.

All that being said, the Carter signing – and the subsequent discussions – reminded me of the criticisms hurled at the Blue Jays when they signed Kendrys Morales to a 3-year, $33 MM deal. The signing happened what felt like hours after free agency opened, and was greeted with derision as much better options (including their own Encarnacion) remained on the market. It only looked worse in the weeks to come, as comparable-at-worst DH options were scooped up on cheap one-year commitments, eventually turning disastrous when Encarnacion signed with the Indians for 3-years, $60 MM. If it wasn’t clear that the Blue Jays jumped the gun way back in November, it certainly was once the new year rolled around.

And so the question becomes whether the Yankees jumped the gun with Holliday.

It’s a bit different here, on a few levels. The Yankees are not striving to contend this year, so Holliday’s off-the-field qualities mean a bit more to them. Moreover, they didn’t prevent themselves from signing a better option to a comparably superior deal. Carter was better than Holliday last season, but that doesn’t quite matter because (1) they still signed Carter, and (2) the projection systems see them as a toss-up.

Should we be looking at the opportunity cost differently, though?

Holliday will likely earn $9.5 MM more than Carter this year. If the Yankees could have signed Carter to this deal all along, it stands to reason that they would have had at least another $9.5 MM to spend – if not the full $13 MM, considering that Holliday’s deal didn’t prevent them from signing Carter. With that extra money they could have signed Brett Anderson as a reclamation project, or Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey, or Jason Hammel to solidify the back of the rotation (or both Anderson and Hammel). Or they could have signed one of Anderson and Jerry Blevins (or Hammel and Blevins, if they had the full $13 MM to spend). There are several permutations out there that would have improved their rotation and bullpen.

This is laden with assumptions, of course. I’m comfortable saying that the Carter deal could have come to fruition regardless, given that the Brewers couldn’t get anything for him at the trade deadline or prior to non-tendering him, but everything else is guesswork. Even so, it seems clear that the Yankees could look better as a whole with Carter as the starting DH and between $9.5 MM and $13 MM invested elsewhere.

Did the Yankees act too soon by signing Holliday?
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The Yankees lost some lefty power, but does it matter?

Getty Images
(Getty Images)

The Yankees lost a lot of veterans over the last year, whether to trade, retirement or release. While it has enabled the team to undergo a much-needed youth movement, it also signifies a significant loss in left-handed power. Lefty power isn’t a be-all, end-all. Just look at the 2015-16 Blue Jays and the success they had with Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.

Yet nearly all of the Yankees’ teams since Babe Ruth have been built around powerful lefty (or switch) hitters and they have a home stadium built to match. After all, lefties have the platoon advantage most of the time and strong lefty pull hitters can make mince meat of Yankee Stadium. Therefore, it’s worth looking into whether the Yankees can maintain that or if it will even matter with the team’s new additions.

What they’ve lost

In 2016, the lineup had Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Didi Gregorius, all lefties or switch-hitters, all hit 20+ home runs in pinstripes. Now, the first three names on that list are either retired or playing for the Astros. That leaves a major hole in the middle of the Yankees’ lineup without similar players to fill it.

And those weren’t the only lefties in the lineup. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury combined for just 16 home runs after 33 between the pair as recently as 2014. Chase Headley, despite going without an extra-base hit until mid-May, still hit 11 homers from the left side. In total, thanks to the contributions of those above and a few others, 101 of the team’s 183 homers came from lefty batters, many taking advantage of the short porch in right field.

Sir Didi and Bird

If all went according to plan in 2017, Gregorius and Greg Bird would cement themselves as Yankees regulars for the foreseeable future. Headley, Ellsbury and Gardner will all be 33 for most of the upcoming season, so it’s tougher to see them rebound and provide a strong power surge. So we look to the youthful duo.

It’s worth questioning whether Gregorius, who had only 22 career dingers before last year, can sustain his power surge. He improved on pitches located essentially anywhere, but where he really improved was his power on inside pitches. It’s spelled out through his isolated power in 2015 vs. 2016, via Baseball Savant.

didi-iso-zone-2015-vs-2016
2015 (left) vs. 2016 (right)

While he began the spring with a home run, he’s still not exactly a home run hitter. Some of those home runs last year were line drives that snuck out and he pulled all 20 of his dingers, benefiting from the short porch. Craig Goldstein broke down Gregorius’ 2016 power surge at Baseball Prospectus (subs. required) and says it very well could be a one-year blip.  For what it’s worth, the Yankees believe he can maintain his power, even if the home runs don’t necessarily come, and he did also post a career-high in doubles last season.

As for Bird, the 24-year-old first baseman has the task of replacing Teixeira in the middle of the Yankees’ order. First base is the one spot where the Yankees could find improved power for a LHB, but there is also reason to fret that may not happen. Greg Bird hit 11 homers with a .268 ISO in 178 plate appearances in 2015, but now he’s working his way back from shoulder surgery. Did the surgery sap some of his power? Time will tell and his spring will be important to knocking off some of the inevitable rust (his two doubles on Monday are a good sign).

Righties in the middle

Beyond Bird, there were no lefty hitters added to the Yankees lineup. Maybe Gardner or Ellsbury could bounce back and hit double-digit home runs again. It’s certainly possible that, with extended playing time, this is the year Aaron Hicks puts it together and fulfills his potential.

However, it’s more than likely any uptick in slugging would come from righty Bombers, of which there are plenty candidates. Namely Chris Carter, Matt Holliday, Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge.

Carter mashes lefties more than righties, making him an obvious platoon candidate with Bird, but he still hit 29 homers and posted a more than respectable .487 slugging percentage against RHPs in 2016. Furthermore, he used the opposite field more against RHPs while pulled the ball against LHPs, a sign Carter can utilize the short porch more than one might expect. Here’s his spray heatmap vs. RHPs via Baseball Savant (and here’s the link to the same vs. LHPs).

chris-carter-heatmap-vs-rhp

Matt Holliday, the team’s new everyday DH, has hit — with the exception of 2015 — 20 home runs every season since 2005. Like Carter, he hit for more power against lefties but was still above league average against same-sided pitchers.

Sanchez and Judge are tougher enigmas to crack. Sanchez’s slump to end 2016 indicates he won’t put up nearly the same numbers as he did in August last year. Then again, how exactly was he supposed to replicate that anyway? For what it’s worth, Sanchez hit righties much better than lefties, making up for the lack of platoon advantage McCann provided vs. RHPs. Judge, meanwhile, has more than enough power regardless of opponent but needs to cut down on strikeouts to stay in the lineup.

Does it matter?

Surely the Yankees will hit fewer homers from the left side. But their addition of right-handed power, particularly batters who can use the opposite field, will help make up for that. This will help correct the team’s issues against southpaws that plagued them last season (.253/.317/.391 vs. LHP as compared to .256/.323/.414 league average). With a division littered with lefty starters (eight, including potentially four on the Red Sox alone), the Yankees may be able to turn a 2016 weakness into a strength. As mentioned above, you can be right-handed heavy like the Blue Jays recently were and still be able to rack up extra bases.

Still, it’s worth wondering if the team has traded struggles vs. southpaws for something worse, a lack of power vs. RHPs, who make up the majority of what the team will face. The team as a whole was just 12th in the AL in slugging last season. Therefore, it’s reliant on young players like Bird and Gregorius as well as the team’s RHBs to fill in the power gap or else the Yankees won’t be able to live up to the Bronx Bomber nickname in this transitional season.

Even without many lefty power hitters, the Yankees will still be able to take advantage of the short porch

Carter. (Dustin Bradford/Getty)
Carter. (Dustin Bradford/Getty)

Once the new Yankee Stadium opened and it became clear the short right field porch was even shorter than it had been at the old ballpark, the Yankees started to build their roster around left-handed pull hitters. I mean, they’d always done that, but there was an increased emphasis for sure. It made complete sense too. You tailor your roster to your ballpark since that’s where you play the majority of your games. Every team does it.

The Yankees sought left-handed pull hitters whenever possible. When they needed a short-term designated hitter, they signed guys like Nick Johnson and Raul Ibanez and Travis Hafner. Filling out the bench? They brought in Kelly Johnson and Eric Chavez. Brian McCann‘s pull power from the left side of the plate was one of the biggest reasons the Yankees signed him. No doubt about it.

At the moment the Yankees have three left-handed hitters in their projected 2017 lineup: Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Didi Gregorius. Greg Bird can make it four should he win the first base job in Spring Training, and he’s the only one of those four you’d truly consider as a power hitter, right? Gregorius hit 20 homers last season and that was awesome, but I don’t think anyone is counting on him to be a big run producer going forward.

The Yankees actually have more power from the right side of the plate right now. Chris Carter, who will play first base on the days Bird does not, smacked 41 home runs last year. He’s hit the eighth most homers in baseball since 2014. Gary Sanchez, Matt Holliday, and Starlin Castro all topped 20 homers in 2016. Sanchez and Holliday didn’t even play full seasons. Aaron Judge hit 23 homers in 120 games between Triple-A and MLB.

For the first time in as long as I can remember, the Yankees lineup leans towards the right side of the plate. Go back throughout history and most successful Yankees teams had big lefty bats, from Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to Reggie Jackson and Graig Nettles and Chris Chambliss to Paul O’Neill and Tino Martinez. Left-handed power and patience is the franchise’s trademark. That isn’t the case so much right now.

“The power is not prevalent from the left side. That is the way the dominoes have shaken out,” said Brian Cashman to Joel Sherman recently. “There is no think-tank, philosophical change to get away from lefty power. It is how it has shaken out as we tried to upgrade each individual position.”

If the Yankees wanted lefty power, they could have added it this offseason. They could have brought in Pedro Alvarez and Brandon Moss instead of Holliday and Carter, for example. Or maybe Adam Lind and Luis Valbuena. There were left-handed pull hitters on the market this winter waiting to be signed. The Yankees went righty instead of lefty, probably because Holliday is a better pure hitter than those guys and Carter has more power than all of them.

The team’s lack of left-handed power — Carter hit more homers than Gardner, Ellsbury, and Gregorius (and Bird) combined in 2016 (41 to 36) — does not mean the Yankees will be unable to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch in 2017. Last year we saw Castro drive the ball to right field with authority. Holliday and Carter have been doing it for years as well. Check out their line drive and fly ball rates by direction from 2014-16:

LD+FB% to Pull LD+FB% to Middle LD+FB% to Oppo
Carter 51.8% 80.0% 90.1%
Castro 31.3% 51.6% 74.5%
Holliday 33.9% 54.3% 77.9%
MLB AVG for RHB 33.7% 35.3% 51.1%

When Carter has hit a ball the other way over the last three seasons, it’s been a fly ball or a line drive more than nine times out of ten. That sounds ridiculous, and it is, but it’s not unheard of. Other top right-handed power hitters like J.D. Martinez (90.1%), Kris Bryant (88.6%), and Mike Trout (88.0%) are in the same neighborhood. The best power hitters are the ones who hit the ball out to all fields.

Castro and Holliday don’t hit as many line drives and fly balls when going the other way as Carter, but they’re still way above the league average for right-handed batters. Roughly three out of every four balls they’ve hit to right field over the last three seasons have been airborne. Want to take advantage of the short porch as a right-handed hitter? You’ve got to get the ball in the air when you go the other way, and Carter, Castro, and Holliday are all very good at it.

(Last year, after Tyler Austin hit his walk-off home run against the Rays, I noted how rare it is for a right-handed batter to hit an opposite field home run on an inside pitch. Only eleven righties had done it up to that point last year, and three are now Yankees: Austin, Carter, and Holliday.)

Holliday. (Jennifer Stewart/Getty)
Holliday. (Jennifer Stewart/Getty)

Now, here’s the rub: those three don’t hit the majority of their batted balls the other way. When they do hit the ball to right field, it tends to be in the air, but like most hitters they mostly hit back up the middle and to the pull side. Since 2014 only 23.0% of Carter’s batted balls were to right field. It was 29.9% for Holliday and 22.5% for Castro. This is important context. It’s not like these three are hitting every other ball to right field. It’s just that when they do go to right field, they often do so in the air. That’s good given the short porch.

During their brief big league cameos last season we saw Sanchez and Austin, as well as Judge, hit home runs to right field. All five of Austin’s big league homers were opposite field shots at Yankee Stadium. Sanchez hit two out to right field and Judge hit one. Their scouting reports coming up as prospects indicated those guys have opposite field power, especially Sanchez and Judge, so what we saw last year wasn’t out of character.

The Yankees aren’t very left-handed at the moment. Their best lefty power hitter is Gregorius by default, though a healthy Bird would take over that title. The good news is the Yankees do have plenty of power from the right side, including several righties who are equipped to take advantage of the short right field porch given their tendency to hit the ball in the air the other way. They’ll be able to use the short porch without all the annoying grounders pulled into the shift.

Attempting to “Optimize” the Lineup

Using one of these guys probably won't help much nowadays.
(Using one of these guys probably won’t help much nowadays.)

Even though it’s something we will never have control over, and even though it’s something that doesn’t matter much at the end of the day, we as fans love to obsess over lineup construction. I’ve probably written as many posts about it in my illustrious writing career as I have about any other topic. Forgive me for dipping into that shallow pool again, but in the days leading up to the pitchers and catchers report date and Spring Training proper, most of the other pools have been completely drained.

The new conventional wisdom says that the most important spots in your lineup are numbers 1, 2, and 4, so your best hitters ought to go there. I don’t think I’m taking a big leap of faith here when I assume that the Yankees’ three best hitters this year will be some combination of Matt Holliday, Gary Sanchez, and probably Brett Gardner. To be fair, I’m getting an assist from ZiPS on this one, which projects those three to have the highest wOBAs on the team at .329; .342; and .321 respectively. A note: Aaron Judge is also projected for a .329 wOBA, but we’ll get to him later.

For lineup spot one, you want your best OBP guy who’s also fast, so that obviously goes to Brett Gardner. No need to consider anyone else, really, as he’s got the best on-base skills on the team and is still fast, even if he doesn’t steal as much. He can use his speed to take extra base when the hitters behind him–who are more powerful–knock the ball into the gaps, and that has just as much value as steals.

The New School (as if this theory is still new) generally states your best overall hitter should go second. By ZiPS projected wOBA, that’s Gary Sanchez. However, he also has the highest projected slugging at .490 and the second highest ISO at .235. Those signs point to him being in the number four slot to take better advantage of his power. This leaves Matt Holliday–who also comes withe some pop–and his slightly better on base skills (his projected OBP beats Sanchez’s .325 to .313) to take up the two spot and Sanchez for the clean up spot.

Looking to the future. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Looking to the future. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

That leaves the three spot for someone like Aaron Judge, a slugger who’s not likely to be a high OBP guy, but will also come up with the bases empty and two outs quite often. Given that, putting his power at the third spot in the lineup–he’s projected for the highest ISO on the team at .244 and a .473 SLG, second highest on the team.

This old post has a rather vague description for the fifth spot in the lineup:

The Book says the #5 guy can provide more value than the #3 guy with singles, doubles, triples, and walks, and avoiding outs, although the #3 guy holds an advantage with homeruns. After positions #1, #2, and #4 are filled, put your next best hitter here, unless he lives and dies with the long ball.

The only guy who really fits this bill is the returning Greg Bird. Of the remaining players, he’s got the most power and probably the best batting eye. The only other option for this could be Chase Headley, but his power has waned enough that his on-base skills wouldn’t quite make up for it.

Spots six through nine are also a little broadly defined, with a stolen base threat occupying the six spot so he can be driven in by singles hitters behind him. Of the players left, Jacoby Ellsbury is the only stolen base threat. Behind him, you can slot one of Starlin Castro, then Didi Gregorius to avoid stacking the lefties too much. These guys bring a potential bonus because both did show some power last year. Chase Headley can bring up the rear, a switch hitter at the bottom to avoid any platoon snarls.

So our “optimized” lineup?

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

It’ll never happen this way, but I think that’s a pretty okay looking, if top heavy lineup. If you really wanted, you could swap Ellsbury and Gardner without too much difference and the same goes for Judge and Bird, probably. We’ve gotta remember, though, that little lineup adjustments like this don’t make a ton of difference over the course of the season and as long as the guys at the top aren’t at the bottom, everything’ll end up about the same. Still, on the even of the preseason, it’s fun to talk about.

Previewing the Right-Handed Power

(AP)
(AP)

Last year, the Yankees had a power problem from the right side of the plate. Alex Rodriguez did, well, poorly enough that he essentially retired early. As right-handers, Chase Headley and Mark Teixeira had wOBAs of .301 (86 wRC+) and .307 (90 wRC+) respectively with basement-level power: .082 ISO for Headley and .109 for Tex. Starlin Castro did okay with a 93 wRC+ as a righty batter, but once Carlos Beltran left, the Yankees were left with a power void on the right side.

All told, the Yankees hit .251/.305/.415/.720 as right-handers, with a .309 wOBA and a 90 wRC+, and an ISO of .164. The American League’s collective right-handers hit .261/.321/.430/.752 with a .323/101/.169 wOBA/wRC+/ISO split. Gary Sanchez‘s arrival — Ruthian in nature as it was — helped erase some of the stain of the Bombers’ poor performance from the right side and, hopefully, signaled things to come.

A full year of Sanchez will be (hopefully) complemented by the other right-handed power potential in the lineup in the persons of Aaron Judge and new addition Matt Holliday. Starlin Castro returns, obviously, and even if his slash line wasn’t so great, he still did provide over 20 homers, good for any right-hander, especially one at second base. Chase Headley joins them as a switch hitter, and hopefully he can bounce back to his career levels as a right-handed hitter (.319 wOBA/102 wRC+/.136 ISO).

The lineup will feature more balance this year, with those four above as the right side and Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, Didi Gregorius, and Greg Bird representing the left side of things. Looking things over, there’s really not a ton of power potential from either side. While Didi just had a breakout year with power, Ellsbury and Gardner aren’t going to be counted on for extra bases anymore. Bird certainly showed ability in 2015, but coming off of a shoulder injury, it’s easy to imagine some of his power being sapped.

Matt Holliday, then, becomes a very important part of 2017. Of any player on the team, he has the longest track record of solid performance, especially in the power department. Considering he’ll hit in either the three, four, or five spot in the lineup, his pop from the right side is paramount. As an aside, I’m very excited about Matt Holliday being on this team. I’ve long been a fan of his and definitely think he’s got enough left in the tank for a pretty big season.

It’s hard to count on a new guy and a couple of youngsters like Judge and Sanchez, but if those players stay their courses, things will be just fine. Judge has shown the ability to adapt to new levels and Sanchez seems to have the talent to adjust to new things; if they follow those tracks and Holliday keeps on keeping on, the right side of the plate will be much improved for the Yankees.