Game 153: The Final Road Series

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The final road series of the season is upon us. Well, I guess the Yankees could make the postseason and play a wildcard game on the road, but they’re basically going to have to run the table for that to happen. I’d be pretty cool with a season-ending ten-game win streak, wouldn’t you? One thing at a time though. Get the win tonight and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. Here is the Blue Jays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  3. DH Gary Sanchez
  4. 1B Billy Butler
  5. SS Didi Gregorius
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. RF Aaron Hicks
  8. C Austin Romine
  9. 2B Ronald Torreyes
    RHP Bryan Mitchell

It’s cool and cloudy in Toronto tonight. No idea if the Rogers Centre roof will be open or closed. We’ll find out soon enough. Tonight’s game will begin at 7:07pm ET. You can watch on YES locally and ESPN2 nationally. Enjoy the game.

Injury News: Starlin Castro (hamstring) won’t return this series but could be play during the homestand. I imagine the team’s place in the postseason race will be a factor in Castro’s return.

Game 149: Don’t get swept, please

(Darren McCollester/Getty)
(Darren McCollester/Getty)

The last week has been a disaster for the Yankees. I don’t think that’s an overstatement. They won seven straight to climb to within one (one!) game of a wildcard spot last week, but since then the Yankees have lost six of seven, including each of their last four games. More than a few of those games were winnable too. Brutal.

The math says the Yankees are still alive in the postseason race and that’s cool. We still have reason to watch. The fact of the matter is their rotation isn’t good enough, the lineup isn’t deep enough, and the middle relief isn’t reliable enough. We’ve known that since April. Last week sure was fun though, right? Here’s the Red Sox’s lineup and here’s the Triple-A Scranton I mean Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. 3B Ronald Torreyes
  3. DH Gary Sanchez
  4. 1B Billy Butler
  5. SS Didi Gregorius
  6. C Brian McCann
  7. 2B Donovan Solano
  8. CF Mason Williams
  9. RF Rob Refsnyder
    LHP CC Sabathia

Now, the bad news: the forecast stinks tonight. The internet tells me it’s supposed to start raining around 9pm ET in Boston and keep raining until tomorrow afternoon. Hopefully that’s wrong and they can get the game in tonight. Having to squeeze in a makeup game at some point would stink. Anyway, tonight’s game is scheduled to begin at 8pm ET and you can watch on ESPN. Enjoy.

Injury Updates: Starlin Castro (hamstring) as a Grade I strain and Jacoby Ellsbury (knee) has a bone bruise, the Yankees announced. They’ll remain in New York for treatment and join the Yankees in Tampa on Tuesday. The team says Ellsbury is day-to-day. They didn’t give a timetable for Castro. There’s only two weeks left in the season, so there’s a decent chance he’s done for the year. Sucks … Chase Headley has some back tightness, which is why he’s on the bench.

Roster Moves: Solano has been called from Triple-A Scranton, obviously. He’s in the lineup. He had a fantastic season for the International League champion RailRiders. Chad Green was transferred to the 60-day DL to clear a 40-man roster spot for Solano … Anthony Swarzak (shoulder) was activated off the 15-day DL. Try to contain your excitement.

Starlin’s Power-Fueled, Moderate Bounceback

(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)
(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)

If any one player on the Yankees encapsulates the frustration that is baseball, it’s Starlin Castro at the plate. Like the game itself, Castro’s time at the plate can be endlessly joyful or maddeningly frustrating. But also like baseball itself, the truth with Castro falls somewhere in the middle. Is he as bad as his Alfonso Soriano-reminiscent at-bats of chasing anything breaking? Probably not. Is he as good as he was his first week in pinstripes? Probably not. As a whole picture, though, it’s hard to argue that Castro is a prettier one to look at than the last two years of the likes of Jayson Nix and Stephen Drew.

2016 has been a modest recovery type year for Castro, after being abysmal in 2015 (and 2013, with a good year sandwiched in between). While a 96 wRC+ isn’t anything to throw a parade over, it’s a big upgrade for him over the mark of 80 that he had last year. He’s also set career highs with 20 homers and a .166 ISO. Starlin’s .273 batting average represents a jump of only eight points from 2015’s mark and his jump in OBP–from .296 to .304–is equally small. The real bump for this slight bounceback (which may be ending soon thanks to yesterday) comes from his power. His ISO has jumped .056, leading to a .064 jump in slugging to .439, a career high by one point over 2014’s number of .438.

As we might expect with a power surge, the increase is coming on Castro’s results from fly balls and line drives, the types of batted balls that tend to go for extra bases. On fly balls and line drives, Castro is hitting .441 with an .842 SLG, a .525 wOBA, and a 239 wRC+. Again, this is self-evident; he should be hitting for power on these batted ball types. What intrigued me about these numbers, though, is that they represent increases over 2014, his last good season. His ISO on FB + LD in 2014 was .309, which is much lower than the .401 mark he’s put up this year.

2014 and 2016 look pretty similar in terms of batted ball percentages for Castro, with one slight difference that helps explain the uptick in ISO. This year, Castro’s FB% has dipped slightly from the 2014 mark, but his HR/FB% has seen an uptick; he’s hitting fewer fly balls, but more of them are leaving the field than in a previous productive season.

(USA TODAY Sports)
(USA TODAY Sports)

Back in 2014, Castro generated power only from the inner part of the zone. That seems to have changed in 2016. We can see a lot more power coming from out over the middle and even on the outer half (up and away and middle out, both in the zone).

Maybe it’s something in the way he’s swinging or making contact, maybe it’s just the randomness that is baseball at times, but Castro is hitting with power he hasn’t quite seen before. He’s an up-and-down player, it would seem, and now he’s on an upswing. Can he carry that into 2017? Hopefully.

Update: Starlin Castro leaves game with hamstring strain

(Photo: AP)
(Photo: AP)

4:54pm: After the game, Joe Girardi told reporters Castro felt a “pop” in his hamstring, which is never good. He’s going to return to New York for tests.

3:51pm: Castro does indeed have a right hamstring strain, the Yankees announced. He’s heading for further tests. Here’s the play:

3:01pm: Starlin Castro left this afternoon’s game with an apparent right hamstring injury. He ripped a double into the gap in the fifth inning, then pulled up lame between first and second. Castro grabbed at his hamstring, so there’s no doubt that’s what’s aching. He was removed from the game immediately. Didn’t even lobby to stay in.

Ronald Torreyes came in to replace Starlin on the bases, and he and Rob Refsnyder would be the obvious candidates to take over at second. It’s worth noting veteran utility infielder Donovan Solano had a tremendous season in Triple-A, and with Scranton’s season over, he could be a short-term option. Creating 40-man roster space wouldn’t be tough.

The Yankees have not yet released an update by Castro, so stay tuned. This one seems like standard “hamstring strain and heading for an MRI” stuff. We’ll see. At this point, even a minor strain could end Castro’s season. That sucks.

Yankeemetrics: Broom, broom! [Sept. 5-7]

(NY Daily News)
(NY Daily News)

Tanaka’s milestone, Ellsbury’s surprising power
Backed by another solid outing from Ace Tanaka plus a couple key hits from Jacoby Ellsbury and Tyler Austin, the Yankees kept pace in the playoff chase with a critical 5-3 series-opening victory over the Blue Jays on Labor Day afternoon.

Jacoby Ellsbury, in an unlikely performance from the struggling center fielder, sparked the offense with a two-run homer in the first inning and an RBI single in the third. It was just the second time he went deep at home this year. Entering the week, his 190 at-bats at Yankee Stadium were nearly three times as many as any other player who had one or fewer homers at the ballpark (Austin Romine was next with 66 at-bats).

Tyler Austin also had a huge day at the plate, breaking out of a deep slump with a pair of doubles and two RBI. Only three other Yankee first baseman under the age of 25 have hit at least two doubles and drove in at least two runs in a game: Don Mattingly, Ron Blomberg and Lou Gehrig.

Masahiro Tanaka was hit hard early, but settled down and finished with a solid pitching line of two runs allowed on seven hits across six-plus innings. It was his 19th start this season giving up no more than two earned runs, which was tops among all American League pitchers through Monday’s games.

The Japanese star also earned his 12th win of the season, matching last year’s mark and one shy of his career-best in 2014. Yes, pitcher wins is a flawed stat, but its still a significant milestone for Tanaka. He is the fifth Yankee to win at least 12 games in each of his first three major-league seasons, along with Orlando Hernandez, Andy Pettitte, Hank Borowy and Johnny Brocoa.

Adding in Tanaka’s impressive strikeout numbers puts him in even more exclusive company. Among all major-league players to debut since the end of World War II, only six others have reached at least 12 wins and 135 strikeouts in each of their first three seasons: Ricky Romero, CC Sabathia, Hideo Nomo, Dwight Gooden, Dennis Eckersley and Tom Seaver.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Birthday bombs and snow cone catches
Tuesday’s crazy win was a harrowing roller-coaster ride of emotions, filled with a ton of wild swings in win probability and a bevy of tense moments, resulting in yet another season-saving victory for the Yankees. Let’s recap the emotional victory in the only way that we know how, Yankeemetrics-style:

Tyler Austin delivered the first game-changing highlight, celebrating his 25th birthday with a monster two-run homer in the bottom of the seventh for a 3-2 lead. The list of Yankee first baseman to hit a homer on their birthday is a fun one: Austin, Shelley Duncan, Don Mattingly and Lou Gehrig. Austin also became the first Yankee to homer on his 25th birthday since Tom Tresh in 1963.

(AP)
(AP)

The Yankees are now 38-10 when a player homers on their birthday (since 1913) and have won their last 15 (!) such games. The last time they lost was May 29, 1992 when Charlie Hayes went deep in a 8-3 loss to the Brewers on his 27th birthday.

After the Blue Jays snatched the lead back in the top of the eighth, the Yankees quickly erased the deficit when Didi Gregorius smoked a triple to deep center, tying the game at 4-4. Before Didi, the last Yankee with a game-tying triple in the eighth inning or later at Yankee Stadium was Mariano Duncan in 1996.

Castro capped the rally with a sac fly to make it 5-4. It was the third go-ahead sac fly by a Yankee in the eighth inning or later this year, matching their total from the past three seasons (2013-15) combined. Castro is responsible for two of those three sac flies, and is the only player in the majors this season with multiple go-ahead sac flies in the eighth or later.

Finally, with the bases full and two outs in the ninth, Brett Gardner made an incredible leaping catch at the wall to seal the victory. With that ridiculous grab, Gardner increased his defensive Plus-Minus rating — a fielding stat devised by Bill James that estimates the number of plays the player made above/below the number that an average fielder would make, according to the video scouts — to +16, which ranked second among all left fielders this season (Adam Duvall, +22).

Aaron Judge kept the seventh inning comeback bid alive with a key single ahead of Austin; however, his monumental struggles to make contact continued as he struck out twice, extending his run of multiple-strikeout games to nine. That’s the longest such streak by any major-league player over the last 100 seasons.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Three times a charm
The long pinstripe nightmare is finally over as the Yankees completed their first three-game sweep of the season with a 2-0 shutout in the series finale. Before Wednesday’s momentum-building victory, they were 0-7 in the third game of a three-game set after taking games one and two. It was also their first sweep of a team with a winning record; their only other sweeps were four-gamers against the A’s and Angels.

Starlin Castro staked the Yankees to an early lead with a bullet line drive that just barely cleared the fences in left field. It was his 20th home run of the season, joining Robinson Cano, Alfonso Soriano and Joe Gordon as the only Yankee second basemen to hit 20-plus homers in a season.

Tyler Clippard sealed the win with a 1-2-3 ninth inning for his first save with the team this year. He is the eighth Yankee to record a save in 2016, matching the 1979 and 1980 clubs for the most players with a save on any Yankee pitching staff since the save rule became official in 1969.

Luis Severino continued his dominance out of the bullpen with three more brilliant shutout innings after replacing Bryan Mitchell in the sixth. Here are his video-game-like numbers as a reliever: 14 ? innings pitched, 51 batters faced, zero earned runs and two hits allowed. Yup, opponents are “hitting” .044 (2-of-45) against Severino The Reliever. That’s easily the lowest batting average allowed by any relief pitcher that’s faced a minimum of 15 batters this season.

Yankeemetrics: The Great Escape [Aug. 29-31]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Too little, too late
The Yankees fleeting playoff hopes hit a speed bump on Monday night as their late-inning comeback fell short in Kansas City, losing 8-5 to Royals.

Following another confounding outing by Michael Pineda and another middle-relief implosion, the Yankees found themselves down seven runs after the seventh inning, and despite battling back to twice getting the tying run at the plate, they couldn’t get the decisive hit.

After a four-run rally in the eighth pulled the Yankees within three runs, Mark Teixeira grounded out to end the inning with a man on first and second. That predictable #RISPFAIL dropped his batting average with runners in scoring position and two outs to .100 (4-for-40), the third-lowest among all players with at least 40 at-bats this season.

Starlin Castro also had a chance to be the hero in the ninth inning when came up with two outs and two men on. Kelvin Herrera threw him three straight curves; Castro took the first two for strikes then whiffed on the third one in the dirt for the final out. Castro’s line on curveballs this season fell to 6-for-52 (.115), the second-lowest batting average against the pitch in MLB (min. 50 at-bats).

In what has become an all-too-familiar tale for a Pineda start, the enigmatic right-hander showed flashes of dominance but ultimately the results in the box score were disappointing. He got rocked early, giving up three runs on five hits in the first inning, then retired 15 (!) straight batters in the second through sixth innings, before being removed in the seventh after giving up singles to the first two men he faced (who both eventually scored).

Pineda’s struggles in the opening frame are nothing new; after Monday’s disaster, he was tied for the most first-inning hits allowed and the second-most first-inning earned runs allowed, and his 7.62 first-inning ERA was the second-highest in the majors (min. 20 starts).

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Just call him Chasen Houdini
The Yankees pulled off one of their most stunning and nerve-wracking wins of the season on Tuesday, edging out the Royals, 5-4, for a ginormous victory against one of the teams they’re chasing in the wild card race.

They were celebrating at the end of the game thanks to a clutch hit in extra innings by the oft-maligned Jacoby Ellsbury, and a remarkable Houdini act to seal the win by improbable closer Chasen Shreve.

Ellsbury drove in the game-winning run in the 10th with a two-out, bases-loaded infield hit. He improved to 6-for-11 (.545) with 12 RBI with the bases loaded this season, tied with Mike Trout for the best batting average in MLB (min. 10 at-bats).

Shreve notched his first career save after escaping a bases-loaded, one out jam in the bottom of the 10th by fanning Kendrys Morales on three pitches and then getting Salvador Perez to fly out to center.

Over the last 25 seasons, the only other Yankee pitcher to strike out a guy with the bases loaded while protecting a lead in extras was — unsurprisingly — Mariano Rivera. The G.O.A.T got Mark Reynolds to swing through strike three for the final out of a 6-5, 10-inning win in Arizona on June 23, 2010.

Lost in the drama of the final frame was another solid outing by Masahiro Tanaka, who was removed following the rain delay after throwing five innings of two-run ball with four strikeouts and no walks. He finished the month of August with a nearly flawless strikeout-to-walk ratio of 38-to-1 (!), with the lone walk coming on Aug. 24 against the Mariners.

Tanaka is the first Yankee pitcher since at least 1913 to complete a month with at least 35 strikeouts and no more than one walk. In fact, just three other major-league pitchers in that 104-season span have struck out 38 or more guys and walked one or fewer in a calendar month: Cliff Lee (54 K, 1 BB in Sept. 2013), Hisashi Iwakuma (39 K, 1 BB in July 2014) and Javier Vazquez (39 K, 0 BB in May 2005).

Trading an out for a win
It was deja vu for the Yankees on Wednesday as they enjoyed free baseball for a second straight night and again notched a huge win in extras. It marked the first time the Yankees have ever won back-to-back extra-inning games versus the Royals, and the first time they’ve done that versus any team since Sept. 21-22, 2012 against the A’s.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

With the win, the Yankees are now 22-9 in games decided by one run, the second-best record in MLB behind the Rangers (30-8!) this year. Their .710 winning percentage in one-run games would be the highest single-season mark in franchise history; the current record is held by the 1963 team, which went 36-17 (.679).

This time they rallied from a four-run deficit and finally took the lead in the top of the 13th when Brian McCann delivered a sac fly to left field, scoring Didi Gregorius to make it 5-4. It was the latest go-ahead sac fly by a Yankee since Bernie Williams lofted a walk-off fly out in the 13th inning against the Red Sox on May 3, 1995.

McCann’s heroics wouldn’t have been possible without an incredible performance by the bullpen. It was truly a team effort as six relievers combined for seven scoreless and hitless innings. This was the first time ever that the Yankees won a game where they used six different relievers who each got at least one out and allowed no hits.

How did we get this far into Yankeemetrics without mentioning Mr. Gary Sanchez? Let’s fix that. Despite going 1-for-5 on Wednesday, Sanchez still finished August with a .389 batting average and .832 slugging percentage in 24 games.

Over the past 100 years, two players in their age-23 seasons or younger have hit at least .375 and slugged over .825 in any calendar month (min. 100 plate appearances): Gary Sanchez and Joe DiMaggio in July 1937.

The Yankee offense has come to life in August, and it’s not all Gary Sanchez

(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)
(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)

Yesterday afternoon the Yankees were shut out by the Orioles and Kevin Gausman, which, unfortunately, has been all too common this season. They have no answer for Gausman at all. The young right-hander has made four starts against the Yankees this season and he’s held them to three runs in 27.2 innings. That’s a 0.98 ERA. He has a 4.41 ERA against all other teams. Sigh.

Thankfully, games like that, in which the offense no-shows, have been rare this month. Very rare, in fact. Yesterday’s loss snapped the Yankees’ five-game streak of scoring at least five runs, the team’s longest such streak in three years. The Yankees scored 14 runs Friday night and another 13 runs Saturday. They scored 10+ runs six times in the first 126 games of the season, then did it back-to-back days this weekend.

Even with yesterday’s shutout loss, the Yankees have scored 133 runs in August, making it their highest scoring month of the season. There’s still three more games to play before September arrives too. Here is the Yankees’ month-by-month runs scored ranks among the 30 MLB clubs:

April: 74 (30th)
May: 119 (22nd)
June: 129 (13th)
July: 97 (23rd)
August: 133 (4th)

Not surprisingly, power has played a big role in the Yankees’ sudden run-scoring ability. They’ve hit 40 homers so far this month, ten more than any other month this season. (They hit 30 in both May and June.) Obviously the arrival of Gary Sanchez has played a huge role in the improved offense. He’s hitting .425/.489/.938 (274 wRC+) with eleven homers in 21 games this season since being recalled after the trade deadline.

Sanchez is not the only reason the offense has been much improved this month though. Remember, the Yankees traded away Carlos Beltran at the deadline, and he was their best hitter for much of the season. It’s not like they simply added Sanchez on top of what they already had. Several players have improved their performance this month as well. Three others in particular have mashed in August:

April to July August
Starlin Castro .256/.292/.395 (81 wRC+) .309/.337/.557 (135 wRC+)
Aaron Hicks .187/.251/.287 (41 wRC+)  .307/.342/.480 (121 wRC+)
Mark Teixeira .192/.269/.322 (58 wRC+)  .254/.359/.433 (116 wRC+)

That doesn’t include the red hot Ronald Torreyes, who has gone 14-for-26 (.538) with six doubles, a homer, a walk, and no strikeouts over the last week. He’s exactly the kind of high-contact hitter who can go on an insane BABIP-fueled run like this. Torreyes replaced Chase Headley at third for a few games while Headley nursed an Achilles injury, and he’s stayed in the lineup because he’s been so hot.

There are reasons to believe this is all legit too. Castro has always been a second half hitter; he has a career 86 wRC+ in the first half and 105 in the second half. Hicks is playing everyday again, something he wasn’t able to do for much of the first half. I know no one wants to hear it, but I truly believe the regular at-bats help get him on track. Teixeira? Well, he couldn’t possibly be that bad all season, right? I hope so. We have to hope and pray a little more with Teixeira than we do Castro and Hicks.

It hasn’t all been good news this month. That’s just the way it goes. Brett Gardner (78 wRC+) and Jacoby Ellsbury (85 wRC+) haven’t been great in August, which is kind of a problem because they hit first and second — directly in front of the molten hot Sanchez — most games. Brian McCann (77 wRC+) hasn’t done much either, and call-ups Aaron Judge (85 wRC+) and Tyler Austin (-11 wRC+) have cooled off following their big MLB debuts. You can’t really expect the kids to carry the offense though. Sanchez is the exception, not the rule.

Still, the point is the Yankees have multiple hitters locked in right now. Most of the season they were able to rely on Beltran and maybe one other hitter at any given time. Didi Gregorius was hot for a while. Then it was McCann. Then Headley. Then whoever. The offense never seemed to fire on all cylinders, and truth be told, it still doesn’t feel that way. At least now there’s more than one or two guys carrying to load. Sanchez has been getting the kind of help Beltran never received.

The Yankees beat up on some bad Orioles pitching Friday and Saturday night, which skews their August numbers a tad. They’re averaging 4.61 runs per game this month if you remove those two blowouts, which is still their second highest scoring month this year after June (4.78). Friday’s and Saturday’s games happened though. They count. Earlier this year the Yankees rarely beat up on bad pitching. They just did it on back-to-back days.

No one expects Sanchez to stay this hot the rest of the season. It’s pretty much impossible. Hopefully as he cools down others like Gardner and Ellsbury and McCann heat back up and create a deeper, more balanced lineup. Scoring runs can still be a struggle for the Yankees, we saw it yesterday, but they’ve done a much better job offensively of late. They’ll have to keep up this pace to continue climbing back into the postseason race.