The two Aarons and thinking about a new top of the lineup

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Once upon a time, I was a lineup complainer. The lineup would be posted each day at 4pm-ish and I’d complain about it. So and so is hitting too low, this guy is hitting too high, why is bench player flavor of the week not playing, that sort of stuff. A few times a year the Yankees would play the “ideal” lineup. Otherwise it was the same story, day after day. The lineup stinks and I was Mad Online.

I’ve outgrown that, thankfully. Daily lineup complaints are no way to go through life. As long as Joe Girardi doesn’t do something crazy like bat his best hitter ninth (which he never does and would never do), whatever lineup he runs out there is fine with me. So this post shouldn’t construed as me complaining about the lineup. This is more of a rational discussion about the batting order nearly one-third of the way through the season.

For the most part, I think we can all agree on one thing regarding the lineup: Brett Gardner should lead off, and Chase Headley and Chris Carter should bat eighth and ninth, really in either order. I guess that’s three things. Anyway, that stuff is straight forward. Gardner is, yet again, one of the team’s best on-base players and count-workers. Headley and Carter have been terrible and should get the fewest at-bats. Simple, right? Right.

The few spots beyond Gardner are what I really want to discuss. This is my ideal top of the lineup right now, given the available personnel:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. CF Aaron Hicks
  3. RF Aaron Judge

The three outfielders, left to right. Gary Sanchez has been hitting second most of the season and I am totally cool with that. It works for me. Sanchez has looked a little jumpy at the plate the last few days, but I’m not worried. Hitters go through their ups and downs. Sanchez is one of the team’s best hitters, so by all means, hit him second. Josh Donaldson and Kris Bryant won MVPs hitting second in recent years. Power hitters can hit there too.

That said, I like Hicks hitting second over Sanchez right now because, well, Hicks has been the better hitter this season. The better overall hitter and, more importantly, the better on-base threat. Hicks has a .426 OBP this year. Sanchez has a .356 OBP. That’s still good! But it’s not .426. Batting Hicks second means more runners on base for Judge, who has inarguably been the Yankees’ best hitter this season.

Judge started the season hitting lower in the lineup and understandably so, but he’s forced his way up, and now he is in entrenched as the No. 5 hitter. Moving Judge up even further to the No. 3 spot means more at-bats. More at-bats over the course of the season, and a better chance to get Judge that one extra at-bat in an individual game. Through 48 team games the No. 3 spot has 14 more plate appearances than the No. 5 spot for the Yankees. That’s 14 more times Judge would have come to the plate in the late innings. It’s not nothing!

We’re not splitting atoms here. Hicks (.426), Judge (.419), and Gardner (.363) have the three highest OBPs on the Yankees. They make fewer outs than anyone else. Judge is also one of the game’s top power threats. Batting Gardner and Hicks first and second is, by far, the best way to get men on base for Judge. Batting these three atop the lineup also means they get the most at-bats, therefore giving the Yankees more chances to score.

Going with Gardner-Hicks-Judge atop the lineup and Headley-Carter at the bottom leaves you Sanchez, Starlin Castro, Matt Holliday, and Didi Gregorius for the 4-5-6-7 spots. What’s the best way to order them? I’m not sure there’s a wrong answer. I’d prefer hitting Sanchez fourth because I think he’s most likely to be an impact bat the rest of the season, but if you said the same thing about Castro or Holliday, I wouldn’t argue (much).

The important thing, as far as I’m concerned, is getting Judge more at-bats because because the guy is a monster, and the more he plays, the better the Yankees’ chances to win. Jacoby Ellsbury‘s concussion — Girardi said yesterday Ellsbury is still experiencing headaches, so he remains shut down indefinitely — ensures Hicks will be in the lineup everyday, and as long as he’s hitting like this, Hicks is the perfect No. 2 hitter. On-base ability, power, speed, switch-hitter, the whole nine. Perfect.

The lineup almost seems to write itself from there. Gardner leads off, Hicks hits second, Judge hits third. Your two best on-base players and your most devastating hitter. Sanchez, Holliday, Castro, and Gregorius add quality lineup depth through the No. 7 spot too. I get why Girardi hits Sanchez second, Holliday third, and Castro fourth. I do. But nearly 50 games into the season, it’s the clear the more Aaron Judge hits with men on base, the better. The lineup should be built in such a way that maximizes those opportunities.

Finding a second gear after a sizzling first act

(Elsa/Getty Images)
(Elsa/Getty Images)

There are always certain phases of the major league season. The highs and lows, the streaks and skids, fluctuating from month to month and week to week.

Unlike last season, the Yankees began 2017 on fire. The start seemed reminiscent of 2010, when the team got off to a roaring start coming off a championship. The funny thing about that 2010 team is they didn’t soar to a division title. They struggled. They blew their early division lead, gained it back and then lost it in the final weeks of the season, settling for a wild card.

I don’t mean to make a straight side-by-side comparison between the 2010 Yankees and the current squad, but the lesson is important: There are going to be lulls in the season and the team can’t let up, allowing a division rival to sneak ahead. This year, the Yankees likely won’t be overcome by a pesky Rays squad, but the Orioles and Red Sox are enough to handle.

And in April, the Yankees handled them well enough. They split their six games with the O’s and took both contests with the Sox. Considering they had to face AL Cy Young favorite Chris Sale and started 0-2 against the O’s, that’s a strong result.

It was all part of a magical month where everything seemed to go right. Aaron Judge, Starlin Castro, Chase Headley, among others, put up surprising numbers en route to a 15-8 record. The only thing perhaps more eye-catching was the rotation, which consistently worked deep into games despite most assuming it would be a liability going into the season.

That’s the catch: It wasn’t supposed to go that way. One would have assumed coming out of the spring that if the team caught fire early, it’d be on the backs of Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird and a knockout bullpen alongside Masahiro Tanaka as the ace. Well, Sanchez and Bird got hurt. Tanaka was off on Opening Day and despite a 5-3 record, hasn’t looked quite right since. The bullpen was quite good, perhaps even better than expected, but it was overshadowed and not asked to perform many herculean tasks.

And now that we’re late in May, phase two is well underway. The team is 6-8 in their last 14 dating back to May 8 and have seen some stinkers out of the rotation. Castro and Judge have looked more Earth-bound recently and Headley has crash landed. Early expectations have proved more prescient with the bullpen carrying a bigger load, Tuesday’s blown lead notwithstanding. Sanchez has taken off and so has Brett Gardner, who seems to have found the hitting stroke that earned him an All-Star appearance just a few seasons to go.

Despite this sub-par stretch, the Yankees still hold a 2.5 game lead in the division over the Orioles, 3.5 on the Red Sox. That lead is actually their largest this season.

But the team has an upcoming stretch that could help define them. After this homestand with the Royals and Athletics wraps up, they play 13 straight games in division, including six with the O’s and three with the Red Sox, all condensed into two weeks. You’re not going to win the division with a good two weeks, nor are you going to lose it with a lousy fortnight.

(David Banks/Getty Images)
(David Banks/Getty Images)

Yet this is the time when the Yankees need to begin figuring out who they are long-term, finding that second gear that can help carry them throughout the summer. The 11 wins by five or more runs have been nice and so have the standout starts from guys like Luis Severino and Michael Pineda, who would have castoffs this offseason if certain sections of the fan base had their way. But is this young crew really going to dominate all season? Is this team actually arrived ahead of schedule and not just showing glimpses of 2018 and beyond?

The team’s diverse set of skills in the lineup serves them well if sustained success is indeed in the cards. If, let’s say, Matt Holliday and Judge going into month-long slumps, the team can rely on hitters like Gardner or Didi Gregorius to carry them in a different way, not needing to pound home runs game-by-game.

It doesn’t hurt to have that sturdy backbone of a bullpen, which may end up as the defining positive for this team. Even with Aroldis Chapman out, Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard and co. are a force that can hold down most leads. With a few quality long relievers, the team can withstand a few 4-5 inning outings and keep the team within striking distance.

Or maybe the rotation with a rejuvenated Tanaka can lead the way. With Jordan Montgomery and CC Sabathia as strong back-end starters, perhaps Tanaka, Severino and Pineda can carry the team every five days and enable more winning streaks.

So that second gear doesn’t necessarily have to look all that different from the first one. It can be a continuation. But in order for the Yankees to sustain their early success, they’ll need to figure out just what makes this team special and utilize those defining characteristics in the crucial weeks ahead.

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).

Yankeemetrics: Bronx Bummer (May 11-14)

(AP)
(AP)

Game of Inches
Entering Thursday the Astros and Yankees were baseball’s two best teams, separated by just .001 in the win percentage column, so it was fitting that the first game of the series was decided on the final play, by mere inches.

Down two runs in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and two men in scoring position, Gary Sanchez lined a single through the left side of the infield; Aaron Hicks scored easily from third base but Jacoby Ellsbury – racing home from second – was thrown out at the plate as the potential game-tying run.

Those types of rally-killing outs on the bases have been piling up for the Yankees this season. It was the sixth baserunning out at home plate by a Yankee this season, tying the Red Sox for the most in the AL through Thursday, and one shy of the major-league-leading Marlins.

Yet, the heart-wrenching nature of this play is actually quite rare: This was just the third time since 1930 that a game ended on a base hit with a Yankee being thrown out at home as the potential game-tying run.

The last time it happened was August 12, 1987 against the Royals when Wayne Tolleson was nailed at the plate trying to score from first on Roberto Kelly’s double to left field. Before that, you have to go back all the way to May 9, 1930 against the Tigers, when Tony Lazzeri was thrown out trying to score from second on Bill Dickey’s single.

Ellsbury was also involved in the Yankees only other run, when he got a catcher’s interference call with the bases loaded in the fifth inning. It was his 28th catcher’s interference, one shy of tying Pete Rose for the all-time MLB record. Of course, Rose is also the all-time record-holder in career plate appearances (15,890), while Ellsbury ranked 960th in that stat (5,084) through Thursday.

In yet another oddity, it was the first time in his career that Ellsbury got a catcher’s interference call with the bases loaded. And it had been more than two decades since any Yankee did that – the last one was by Pat Kelly in 1992 against the A’s.

(Newsday)
(Newsday)

Dead Bats Society
The Yankees offense went into a deep freeze on a chilly Friday night in the Bronx, barely avoiding a shutout in a listless 5-1 loss to the Astros. Didi Gregorius‘ RBI single with two outs in the ninth kept the Yankees as one of three teams (Twins, Nationals) that haven’t been blanked this season.

Brian McCann delivered the big blow for the Astros when he clubbed a three-run homer in the fourth inning to break a scoreless tie. It was his 47th homer at Yankee Stadium since 2014, the most home runs hit by any player at the Stadium in that span – and 12 more than the next guy on the list (Carlos Beltran, who also was sitting in the visiting dugout this weekend).

Lance McCullers dominated the Yankee lineup with a devastating mix of 95-mph fastballs and knee-buckling curves, holding them to zero runs on four hits over six innings while striking out seven and walking none. That seems good, eh? McCullers (23 years, 222 days) is the youngest pitcher ever to throw at least six scoreless, walk-free innings with seven-plus strikeouts in his first road appearance against the Yankees.

(AP)
(AP)

Comeback kings strike again
The Yankees kicked off Mother’s Day/Derek Jeter Night with a slump-busting, 11-6 come-from-behind win in the first game of Sunday’s double-header. It was their eighth victory when trailing by at least two runs, the second-most in baseball this season.

The first rally came in the fourth inning and was sparked by a couple longballs off the bats of Starlin Castro and Aaron Judge. Castro’s two-run homer knotted the score at 3-3, his fourth game-tying homer of the season, which matched Freddie Freeman for the most in the majors. Judge’s go-ahead, 441-foot solo blast to dead-center was his MLB-leading sixth home run of at least 430 feet in 2017, two more than any other player.

The second and decisive rally came in the seventh inning, when the Yankees erupted for six runs to erase a 6-4 deficit. The biggest blow was a tie-breaking, bases-loaded triple by Chase Headley. In the last 20 years, the only other Yankee with a go-ahead, bases-clearing triple in the seventh inning or later was Bernie Williams on June 21, 2005 against Tampa Bay.

(Getty)
(Getty)

#RE2PECT2JETER
The excited buzz and loud cheers lingering from the Stadium crowd following Derek Jeter’s number retirement ceremony were quickly silenced when George Springer stepped into the batter’s box and led off the game with a home run. That sparked a six-run first inning for Houston and paved the way for a deflating 10-7 loss by the Yankees.

Masahiro Tanaka was clobbered amid a chorus of boooooos, producing the worst start of his major-league career. He matched career-worsts in innings pitched (1 2/3) and homers allowed (4), while surrendering a career-high eight runs, and etching his name in the record books — for the wrong reason.

Tanaka became the first pitcher in Yankees history to give up at least eight earned runs and four home runs in a game while pitching fewer than two innings.

Three of those home runs came in the first inning, putting the Yankees in a huge early hole that even the Comeback Kings couldn’t dig out of. Going back to 1950 (as far back as Baseball-Reference.com has mostly complete play-by-play data), the Astros are the only visiting team to hit three-or-more home runs in the first inning of a game at Yankee Stadium.

As horrible as this game ended up, we can still end this Yankeemetrics on high note by honoring The Captain with the ultimate #JeterFunFact.

Here’s the list of players in major-league history to compile at least 3,000 hits, 250 homers, 350 stolen bases and 1,300 RBIs in a career: Derek Sanderson Jeter.

Yankeemetrics: Bronx Bombers invade Wrigley (May 5-7)

Air Gardy. (Presswire)
Air Gardy. (Presswire)

It Ain’t Over ‘Til Its Over
The Comeback Kings struck again as the Yankees pulled off yet another stunning late-game come-from-behind victory on Friday afternoon against the Cubs.

Trailing 2-0 in the top of the ninth with two men on base and two outs, Brett Gardner drilled a 2-2 slider into the right field bleachers to give the Yankees the lead; Aroldis Chapman got the final three outs to secure the most improbable win.

How unlikely was this rally? The last time the Cubs lost a game in this scenario – protecting a two-or-more-run lead in the ninth – was nearly three years ago, on May 21, 2014 at Wrigley Field … against the Yankees.

Or maybe it wasn’t so unlikely, given the refuse-to-lose mojo of the 2017 Yankees. Entering Saturday’s slate, they were one of just three teams this season with multiple wins when trailing by at least two runs entering the ninth inning (Padres and Angels were the others).

Before Gardner went deep, he was a pathetic 3-for-20 (.150) with zero extra-base hits after the sixth inning, and hitless in five at-bats in the ninth inning this season.

Gardner’s home run was not just shocking, it was one for the record books. Only six other times since 1930 has a Yankee hit a go-ahead homer in the ninth inning with two outs and trailing by at least two runs. That list includes: Mark Teixeira (2016), Alex Rodriguez (2010), Don Mattingly (1985), Chris Chambliss (1976), Bobby Murcer (1969) and Bobby Richardson (1962).

A-Rod‘s three-run homer in the top of the ninth on Sept. 17, 2010 in Baltimore is the only other instance in the last quarter-century that a Yankee pulled off that feat when down to their final strike, like Gardner.

And, finally, this was the third time in the last 75 years that the Yankees were one out away from being shut out, and then hit a go-ahead home run. Incredibly, the hero in the two previous games was the same guy – Bobby Murcer – who erased a 1-0 deficit on June 14, 1980 in Oakland and a 2-0 deficit on August 5, 1969 against the Angels with ninth-inning, game-changing homers.

Hot hot Hicksy. (EPA)
Hot hot Hicksy. (EPA)

No comeback needed
One night after perhaps the most dramatic win of the season, the Yankees authored one of their least dramatic wins of the season, taking a 5-0 lead in the top of the first inning en route to an 11-6 victory on Saturday. The win gave them their fourth straight series victory, something they never did last year.

Sure, the Yankees and Cubs don’t match up often, but it’s still fun to note that the last time the Yankees scored 11-or-more runs against the Cubs was in Game 4 of the 1932 World Series, a 13-6 series-clinching win at Wrigley Field. The 3-4 hitters in that lineup were Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig; for Ruth, it was the last World Series game of his Hall-of-Fame career (h/t Mark Simon, friend of Yankeemetrics).

The offensive explosion on Saturday was led by the top of the order as Aaron Hicks and Starlin Castro combined to go 7-for-9 with five runs and six RBIs. Castro was 3-of-4, notching his AL-best 15th multi-hit game of the season. In the last 40 years, only two other Yankees produced that many multi-hit games within the team’s first 28 contests: Derek Jeter (2012) and Alfonso Soriano (2002, 2003).

Hicks’ performance was the statistical highlight of the night, as he went 4-of-5, including a homer, while driving in three runs and scoring three runs. The last Yankee center fielder to put up those numbers in any game – at least four hits, a home run, three RBIs, three runs – was Mickey Mantle on Aug. 6, 1961 against the Twins.

Yes, miracles do happen. (Getty)
Yes, miracles do happen. (Getty)

It’s over, finally
After way too many innings, way too many hours, way too many pitches, way too many strikeouts … the Yankees finished off the sweep of the Cubs on Sunday night (actually Monday morning).

It marked their first sweep of the defending World Series champs since July 14-16, 2006 against the White Sox, and the first time they’ve done that on the road since July 29-31, 2003 in Anaheim against the Angels.

The 18-inning affair was the longest game in Interleague history, longest game ever on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball (which began in 1990), and the longest in the majors this season.

It is the sixth time in franchise history the Yankees won a game of at least 18 innings and the first time since September 11, 1988 vs. the Tigers. The only other time they won a game this long on the road was a 22-inning marathon on June 24, 1962 in Detroit.

With the game going 18 innings, you’d think there would be a few more records set … and you would be correct.

  • The Yankee batters struck out 22 times, breaking the previous single-game franchise record of 17. And the Yankee pitchers struck out 26 Cubs, also obliterating the previous single-game franchise record of 19. Hooray!
  • The 26 strikeouts by Yankee pitchers matched a major-league record, set by the 1971 A’s vs. the Angels and the 2004 Angels vs. the Brewers.
  • This is the first game in MLB history where both teams each whiffed at least 21 times.
  • The 48 combined strikeouts by both teams is also a new single-game major-league record.
  • Yankees are the first team in major-league history to have four players (Castro, Didi Gregorius, Austin Romine, Chase Headley) go 0-for-7 or worse at the plate. Yes, they still won the game.

So how did we get there?

Luis Severino delivered an absolute gem, allowing one run in seven stellar innings. Twenty of his 21 outs came either groundballs (11) or strikeouts (9), and the one out he got in the air was a liner by Cubs starter Jon Lester. His final pitching line (4 hits, 1 walk, 9 strikeouts, 1 run, 7 innings) gives us our #FunFact Yankeemetric of the Week:

Only one other visiting pitcher as young Severino (23 years, 76 days) struck out at least nine batters, gave up no more than one run and allowed five or fewer baserunners in a game at Wrigley Field: Reds right-hander Jim Maloney, who delivered two such outings on August 21, 1962 and July 23, 1963.

Aaron Judge broke out of his mini-slump and gave the Yankees a 2-1 lead in the seventh with a tie-breaking RBI triple. It was the first go-ahead triple by any Yankee in nearly four years, when Travis Hafner hit one on April 27, 2013 to break a 4-4 tie in the seventh against the Blue Jays. Of course it was Pronk, just as we all predicted.

Aroldis Chapman came on in the ninth to protect a three-run lead, but eventually blew the save when he hit Anthony Rizzo with the bases loaded to even the score at 4-4. Chapman is the only Yankee pitcher since at least 1930 to give up the game-tying run in the ninth inning via a bases-loaded hit by pitch.

Finally, Castro reached on a fielder’s choice groundout, scoring Aaron Hicks from third. So the guy who went 0-for-8 was the hero of the night with the game-winning RBI.

I wish I could quit Starlin Castro

(Elsa/Getty Images North America)
(Elsa/Getty Images North America)

Starlin Castro is not a very good major league baseball player. This is something that precious few people would find shocking or inaccurate, and yet I feel the need to say it. His career 97 wRC+ is a bit above-average for a middle infielder, but, when combined with his subpar defense and middling to poor base-running it leads to an average of 1.8 fWAR per 150 games. If you squint, you can easily convince yourself that Castro is an average big leaguer – I just happen to take it a step further.

I was ecstatic when the Yankees dealt Adam Warren for Castro a year and a half ago. I saw a 25-year-old player that had shown flashes of greatness in his six seasons in the majors, and was just one season removed from a deserved All-Star appearance. And, given his age and overall contact-heavy approach, it wasn’t difficult to recall the 70s and 80s that scouts tossed on his hit tool back in 2010. He was a frustratingly inconsistent player, to be sure, but the talent was obvious, and he felt like the ideal ‘change of scenery’ type, given the new direction of the Cubs franchise and his status as the face of the failures of the previous several seasons.

This time last year, it seemed as though my optimistic outlook was paying off. Castro wrapped-up April batting .305/.345/.488, which was essentially his 2014 season with more power. Nothing screamed outlier, either, as his .324 BABIP was less than a handful of points higher than his career norm, his 5.7 BB% was in-line with his better seasons, as was his 12.6 K%, and his 15% HR/FB was explained by a few cheap home runs. And the power wasn’t what we were looking for anyway – it was always about Castro getting back to that .300 batting average range, and seeing what happened around it. Things were looking up.

And then he hit .244/.278/.370 for the next three months. His walk rate dropped by 1.7 percentage points, his strikeout rate jumped by nearly 8 percentage points, and his BABIP dropped down to .285. We watched Castro swing at everything between his shoulders and his ankles, and most anything that came within six inches of the strike zone. Is there hyperbole sprinkled in there? Yes, to some extent – but that’s what the Castro experience feels like. He rebounded in August and September, and that led to some positive buzz; but the damage was done.

Or so you’d think, as I’m finding myself gravitating right back into his corner.

As of this writing, Castro is batting .357/.400/.571, good for a 178 wRC+ – easily his best month in pinstripes, if not his career. It’s obviously unsustainable (note the .396 BABIP), but could we be seeing some tangible change? Maybe. Probably not … but maybe.

It all begins with his swing rates. As per FanGraphs, Castro is currently swinging at 32.5% of pitches outside of the strikezone (1.3 percentage points below his career norm), and 49.1% overall. Both are his lowest since 2014, and both are within striking distance of league-average; the aggressiveness is still there, but it has been toned down. For better or worse, however, we saw this last April, too:

(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)

Those charts are incredibly similar, and tell the same story – Castro loves to swing. And that includes swinging at pitches in on the hands, which may well be his kryptonite (announcers and fans have long lamented his propensity to be jammed inside). When everything’s working with his swing, he’ll pick up hits on those pitches; when it’s not, we see far too much weak contact.

What about the uptick in walks, though? Castro’s 6.7% walk rate would represent the high water mark of his career if it held, and it’s his best single month mark since July of 2014. That’s not great at face value, but it’s an improvement for the swing-happy second baseman. And there might just be something there, when you consider his swing percentages and his career-high 3.85 pitches per plate appearance.

That 3.85 P/PA mark is right around league-average, and represents a very real improvement from his 3.69 P/PA of 2016, and career rate of 3.68 P/PA. And that is something that we didn’t see last year, even in his hot April when he saw just 3.65 P/PA. While such a jump only represents an extra 130 or so pitches seen per season, it is nevertheless a positive indicator of a (potentially) more disciplined hitter.

There could also be something to Castro’s batted ball profile, as well. Castro is pulling the ball just 35.1% of the time, after sitting at or above 40% from 2014 through 2016. He’s also going the other way on 29.8% of batted balls, 3.8 percentage points above his career norm (and the second highest rate of his career). Given his average power, that’s a good way to take advantage of Yankee Stadium – especially when you factor in his continued uptick in flyballs and decrease in grounders.

Attempting to discern any real information from eighteen games and 75 plate appearances is something of a fool’s errand, and that oftentimes feels even more true with Starlin Castro. It is clear, though, that Castro has been a bit more disciplined this year, and that is contributing to his hot start. Moreover, prior successes (and scouting reports) tell us that the talent is there, and many of us have bought in, albeit to varying degrees. When talent and production meet in an age-27 season, the word ‘breakout’ comes to mind – but we’ve been fooled before.

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).