Open Thread: March 24th Camp Notes

The Yankees are a team of Grapefruit League destiny. They won again today, this time rallying for two runs in the bottom of the ninth. Minor league camp call-up du jour Trey Amburgey had the walk-off single. The Yankees have won 20 spring games for the first time since winning 24 in 2009. You know what that means, right? Anyway, right field candidates Aaron Hicks and Aaron Judge both had singles. Judge also threw a runner out the plate. Hicks ain’t the only outfielder on the roster who can throw.

On the mound CC Sabathia moseyed on through 5.1 innings of two-run ball. An inordinate number of ground balls found holes during the two-run second inning. Sabathia struck out one. Dellin Betances retired both batters he faced in his first outing back from the World Baseball Classic, and Luis Severino chucked three scoreless innings. He fanned five. Here are the box score and video highlights, and here are the rest of the notes from Tampa:

  • Following today’s game Joe Girardi announced Sabathia will start the second game of the season. Michael Pineda will start the third. Pretty much what I expected. The Rays, meanwhile, announced Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, and Alex Cobb will start their first three games in that order. The Yankees open the regular season with a three-game set in Tampa. [Bryan Hoch, Marc Topkin]
  • The Yankees announced another round of roster cuts today: Luis Cessa was optioned to Triple-A and Ji-Man Choi, Dustin Fowler, Clint Frazier, Jason Gurka, and Billy McKinney were reassigned to minor league camp. So I guess that takes Cessa out of the rotation (and bullpen) mix. I count 39 players still in big league camp. Oh, and if you missed it earlier, the Diamondbacks returned Rule 5 Draft pick Tyler Jones.
  • The Yankees had a brief on-field ceremony prior to today’s game to present last year’s Scranton RailRiders with their championship rings. Here are some photos. Pretty cool ring. Scranton beat El Paso (Padres) in last year’s Triple-A Championship Game.
  • Shane Hennigan has the day’s minor league lineups. Heart eyes at the top of the Double-A Trenton lineup. Hitting coach Alan Cockrell said he’s working with Jorge Mateo to widen his stance, which has “kept him on the ball better.” [Brendan Kuty]
  • Tyler Austin said he’s going to be in a walking boot another two weeks. Once healthy, he’s essentially going to have to go through Spring Training to get ready, so he might not return until early-May. Sucks. [Hennigan]
  • Tyler Clippard is back in camp following the World Baseball Classic. Also in camp: Hideki Matsui! He’s there as guest instructor. Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett was in camp today too. The Yankees have brought in coaches from other sports to give motivational speeches and whatnot over the years. [Kuty, Mike Mazzeo]
  • The Yankees are home against the Blue Jays tomorrow afternoon. Adam Warren is lined up to start. That game will be on YES and MLB.tv.
  • And finally, the Yankees will reveal their 2017 commercials next week. I’ve been hoping they had some coming. Neat.

This is the open thread for the night. MLB Network will cover the Yankees as part of their 30 clubs in 30 days tour tonight at 10pm ET, so keep an eye out for that. Also, this afternoon’s game will be replayed on YES (10pm ET) and MLB Network (2am ET), if you’re interested. MLB Network has the Orioles and Twins live right now, plus the Islanders and Nets are playing, and there’s March Madness as well. Talk about anything here as long as it’s not politics or religion.

Hicks, Romine and the rest of the part-timers [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

While the Yankees have plenty of new starters littered around its lineup, they appear to have a very similar bench to the one they fielded in 2016. They have the same fourth outfielder, the same backup catcher and, chances are, the same utility infielder. If it wasn’t the signing of Chris Carter and Tyler Austin‘s preseason injury, it would be essentially identical to the bench with which the team ended last season.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the individuals who will make up the Yankees’ Opening Day bench as well as a few players that could fill roles later in the season. (Disclaimer: I didn’t go into Gleyber Torres here. That’s worth another post entirely.)

Fourth Outfielder

It appears like it’ll be Aaron Hicks as the extra outfielder again this year. I’m someone who really believes in his potential. It’s been over a year since the Yankees dealt John Ryan Murphy, a player I enjoyed watching an irrational amount, for Hicks in a deal that seemed to make sense for both teams. The Yankees needed a fourth outfielder and had a catcher of the future (Hi Gary Sanchez) while the Twins needed a catcher and had a center fielder of the future (Byron Buxton). A potential win-win.

Well, it didn’t work out that well for either team. Murphy simply didn’t hit in Year 1 in Minnesota while Hicks hasn’t quite panned out yet in New York. To be fair, both players are still relatively young, but time is running out for them to prove themselves. Let’s focus on what Hicks brings to the table as he gets another chance to prove himself.

Hicks, 27, has always been close to an 80 in one tool: his arm. It’s a cannon. He’s also pretty fast. Combine that and he makes for a solid fielder, although his routes to balls have been rough at times. He can still man each spot in the field well, but he’s been relegated mostly to the corners to start this spring.

And then there’s his bat. He took a clear step back from 2015 to 2016, going from .256/.323/.398 (96 wRC+) to .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+). That’s doesn’t cut it. A switch-hitter, Hicks came in with a reputation as a better right-handed bat than a lefty. He actually improved from the left side (79 wRC+ to 86 wRC+) but went from a .307/.375/.495 (138 wRC+) line to a paltry .161/.213/271 (25 wRC+) from the right. That’s pretty dumbfounding. His exit velocity¬†actually increased from 90.1 to 90.8 mph from the left side and his strikeout rate fell (his walk rate did too), but his BABIP plummeted from .368 to .176.

That could indicate a potential improvement for Hicks, who seemed to struggle with the lack of regularity concerning his role last year (he improved in the second half when Carlos Beltran was traded). However, he may not get consistent starts again this year with Aaron Judge presumably manning right field. Therefore, the Aaron Hicks project may reach a crossroads this season when he becomes arbitration eligible for the first time after this season.

Beyond Hicks, Mason Williams is the only other outfielder on the 40-man roster. Williams has 51 MLB plate appearances over the last two years. When healthy, he is plenty fast to man center field and seems like he can hit for average. Health will be key for the 25-year-old as he tries to make the roster for good at some point.

Clint Frazier and Dustin Fowler will be in Triple A to start the year. They’re both 22 and will need more at-bats in Scranton before they can earn a role in the majors. Frazier, being the better prospect, may be more likely to force his way to the majors this summer.

Backup catcher

Austin Romine returns as the backup catcher with a different starter ahead of him. Gary Sanchez, as Mike eloquently covered, is the face of the franchise now and it stands to reason that Romine could see fewer starts this season than last. Romine played 50 games at catcher, started 40, while starting two games at first base and four at designated hitter. Chances are, the latter six starts go away with younger and healthier options at 1B and DH, but who knows? I wouldn’t have bet on multiple Romine starts away from catcher last year.

Romine was fine as the bench backstop in 2016 and was much better than his first stint in 2013, when he was backing up Chris Stewart. He batted .242/.269/.382 (68 wRC+) and was better against southpaws. That allowed him to get more starts early in the season when Brian McCann was struggling against lefties. Now, with Sanchez as the starter, Romine will still get once or twice-a-week starts yet it’s hard to see him getting to take advantage of platoon advantages quite as often. That may lead to a worse batting line despite no decline in talent or performance.

The other catcher on the 40-man is Kyle Higashioka. Higashioka was finally healthy in 2016 and rode that to a 20-homer season. He has legitimate power, which has been conveyed plenty of times this spring. The Yankees likely won’t take Higashioka with them on Opening Day — they’d have to DFA Romine — but he’ll only be a bus trip away in Scranton.

Utility infielder

The backup infielder job looks like it is Ronald Torreyes‘ job to lose again this year. Torreyes was a bit of a surprise to claim the spot last year out of the spring, but he held onto it all year. He’s the perfect bench player: He makes plenty of contact, can play every infield position (and the outfield corners in a pinch) and seems to be a good presence around the club. He doesn’t hit for power — do you remember his home run last year? I barely do — but the Yankees would gladly sign up for another .258/.305/.374 line from the part-timer.

It seems highly unlikely that Torreyes won’t break camp with the team. Pete Kozma and Ruben Tejada have each been fine yet unimpressive in their brief spring stints and it may be tough to top the incumbent. Donovan Solano is another non-roster invitee and has been away from the club playing for Colombia in the World Baseball Classic. He did have a solid cup of coffee with the Yankees last fall.

Tyler Austin

austin low five
(Getty)

As we covered in the Greg Bird preview post, Carter will receive a lot of the righty at-bats at first base this season, likely platooning with Bird. Before Carter’s signing, many thought that role would be filled by Tyler Austin. That idea went fully down the tubes with his preseason injury (fractured left foot) which will prevent him from playing most of the spring.

Austin provided real power in his 90 plate appearances in the majors last year, particularly the other way. He did strike out 36 times. For now, the 25-year-old first baseman likely starts the season in extended spring training or goes straight to Scranton, waiting for a call-up. You can almost surely count on Austin playing with the Yankees at some point.

Rest of the 40-man

Remember when Rob Refsnyder was the talk of the town in 2015? Part of that was just a clamoring for anyone but Stephen Drew, but Refsnyder also provided promise that he could hit at the big league level. However, he didn’t come quite as advertised and his 2016 was a disappointment. Given 175 plate appearances last season, he showed nearly no power and had a disappointing .250/.328/.309 line. Without a serious showing with his bat, Refsnyder doesn’t have a role in the majors, hence the Yankees’ willingness to trade him. Can he prove to be more than just a Quad-A player? It’s tough to see right now.

Miguel Andujar hasn’t played above Double A before, so he will need some experience in Scranton before he can be considered for a long-term role. His fielding has been a bit rough at times this spring, so that’s something for him to work on in Triple A. Still, he’s a top 10 third base prospect according to MLB.com and a potential future piece, albeit not likely before September this year.

The man furthest from the majors on the 40-man roster is Jorge Mateo, a top five Yankees prospect depending on the source. Mateo probably doesn’t factor into the Yankees’ plans in 2017, but he would make the ideal pinch runner in September. That’s about the extent to his role in the majors as far as I can tell.

Open Thread: March 10th Camp Notes

The Grapefruit League juggernaut marches on. The Yankees beat the Phillies this afternoon thanks to home runs by Chase Headley (three-run) and Aaron Judge (solo). Judge hit three Yankee Stadium homers in the game, but only one actually left the yard. The other two were caught on the right field warning track. Keep working on that opposite field stroke, Aaron.

Not the best start for rotation candidate Chad Green. He threw two scoreless innings, but also allowed two hits and three walks. Only 21 of his 43 pitches were strikes, per Erik Boland. He was pretty wild. Chance Adams had a vintage David Robertson outing (three walks, three strikeouts, no runs) while Justus Sheffield pitched around three hits and two walks in two scoreless innings. He fanned three. Here are the box score and video highlights, and here are the rest of the day’s notes from Tampa:

  • Good news: Joe Girardi confirmed James Kaprielian‘s next outing will be in a Grapefruit League game. He threw a three-inning simulated game today, so he won’t pitch this weekend. A quick overview of next week’s schedule: Monday (off-day), Tuesday (road game, no TV), Wednesday (home on YES), Thursday (road game, no TV), Friday (road game on MLB Network). Hopefully Kaprielian pitches Wednesday. He’d be on normal rest from today’s sim game. [Mike Mazzeo]
  • Clint Frazier had to cut his hair today to conform to the team’s 40-year old hair policy. “I like my hair but I love playing for this organization more,” he said. Frazier and Girardi agreed it had become a distraction. A distraction! Only the Yankees could make something fun a distraction. In all seriousness though, Frazier’s hair was donated to an organization that creates wigs for kids with cancer, and that’s a great cause, so good work. [Bryan Hoch, Pete Caldera]
  • Hoch has the pitching assignments and hitting/fielding groups for those who didn’t play in today’s game. Johnny Barbato, Aroldis Chapman, and Dietrich Enns all threw bullpen sessions. Luis Cessa, not Green, was scheduled to start today’s game, but he had a fever last night and was scratched. Cessa will throw a simulated game tomorrow instead. [Hoch]
  • The Yankees will be at home against the Tigers tomorrow afternoon. That game will be on YES. Masahiro Tanaka lines up to start.

Here is tonight’s open thread. I’m posting this a little earlier than usual because Team USA is playing their first World Baseball Classic game tonight. They’ll face Colombia at Marlins Park at 6pm ET on MLB Network. Pretty good pitching matchup too: Chris Archer vs. possible future Yankee Jose Quintana. Donovan Solano and Tito Polo are in the lineup for Colombia. MLB Network will have another WBC game on later tonight as well (Venezuela vs. Puerto Rico at 9pm ET). It’s cute they still budget only three hours for nationally televised baseball games. Anyway, the Nets are also playing and there’s a whole bunch of college basketball on too. Talk about those games or anything else right here, as long as it’s not religion or politics.

Tyler Austin’s injury opens a door a bit for Rob Refsnyder

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees suffered their first major injury of the year last week, when Tyler Austin fouled a pitch into his left foot during batting practice and suffered a fracture. He’ll be out at least six weeks. His chances of making the Opening Day roster weren’t great to begin with following the Chris Carter signing. Now Austin has no chance to break camp with the team.

The injury somewhat clarified the first base position battle, a position battle that includes both first base as well as one bench spot. Carter signed a guaranteed big league contract and was always going to be part of the Opening Day roster. Nothing changed there. Here’s the rest of the pecking order for this position battle:

  1. Greg Bird
  2. Tyler Austin
  3. Rob Refsnyder
  4. Ji-Man Choi

Austin was next in line behind Bird. That seemed pretty clear. Refsnyder figures to be ahead of Choi simply because he’s already on the 40-man roster, and also because he’s a little more versatile. Choi has outfield experience, though he really should be limited to first base only. You can stick Refsnyder in right and he won’t kill you defensively, plus he can handle second base in a pinch. That gives him an edge over Choi.

It’s no secret the Yankees want Bird to take that first base job and run with it. Carter gives the club a viable platoon partner for all those tough AL East lefties (Chris Sale, David Price, etc.) and also some insurance in case Bird does need more time to get his swing back. That insurance is already proving useful thanks to Austin’s injury. I told you these things have a way of working themselves out, right? Right.

Austin’s injury opens the door for Refsnyder a little bit. He’s now next in line for a call-up, whether that’s due to an injury early in the season or even on Opening Day should the Yankees not deem Bird big league ready. Austin was first in line for any roster opening. Now it’s Refsnyder, at least until Austin is healthy. (Mason Williams is out with an inflamed patella, which also works in Refsnyder’s favor.)

I don’t think Refsnyder’s chances of making the Opening Day roster are all that good, not unless there’s an injury, but now he could be the first call-up option when help is needed. Austin is going to miss at least six weeks, the Yankees say. It could be longer. And once he’s healthy, he’ll essentially have to go through Spring Training to get ready for the season. He won’t pick up a bat and be ready to go.

Six weeks from the time of the injury is basically Opening Day. The Yankees are fortunate it happened at the very start of camp and not near the end. Austin could be healthy come the start of the season, and then after a few weeks of minor league at-bats to get game ready, he’ll again be a big league option. With any luck, that will all happen in April. Until then, Refsnyder is Plan A among New York’s minor league depth players.

I’m not quite sure where Refsnyder fits in the big picture long-term, and it’s entirely possible he doesn’t fit anywhere. This is his final minor league option year, so keeping him as depth is a no-brainer. The Yankees will be able to send him up and down as many times as they want. He offers a little versatility and, if nothing else, will grind out an at-bat offensively. Refsnyder may not have an inside track on an Opening Day roster spot, but the Austin injury does improve his chances of seeing the Bronx early in the season.

Tyler Austin out at least six weeks with fractured foot

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees have suffered their first injury of the year. Earlier today Joe Girardi told reporters in Tampa that Tyler Austin will miss a minimum of six weeks with a fracture in his left foot. He suffered the injury when he fouled a pitch into his foot during batting practice. Austin will be in a boot for the next three weeks.

As these things tend to do, the Chris Carter situation has worked itself out. I don’t mean to make light of Austin’s injury. It really sucks. Point is, depth is a good thing, and the Yankees brought Carter on board just in case something like this happened. Losing Austin does cost the team a good piece of first base and outfield depth, however.

Austin, 25, hit .241/.300/.458 (102 wRC+) with five home runs during his 31-game big league cameo last season. He also hit .294/.392/.524 (161 wRC+) with 17 homers in 107 games between Double-A and Triple-A to earn the call-up. Austin struggled quite a bit the last few years before getting his career back on track in 2016. It was fun to watch.

This is a fluke injury, and the timing means once Austin’s foot heals, he’s still going to need time to get ready for game action. He basically has to go through Spring Training. I suppose the good news is this happened early in camp. Six weeks from today still isn’t Opening Day. Hopefully Austin will be ready to go at some point in April.

Austin’s quick adjustment last season bodes well for 2017

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Hands down, my favorite moment of last season was Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge socking back-to-back home runs in their first career at-bats. (Gary Sanchez‘s two-month rampage was awesome, but not really a “moment.”) The Yankees had just sold at the deadline and turned things over to the kids, and they provided instant gratification. That was such a fun afternoon.

As you know, both Austin and Judge slipped into slumps following their home runs because the big leagues are hard, especially when you’re just getting your first taste. Judge hit a few more mammoth homers along the way but his slump basically lasted until he suffered a season-ending oblique injury on September 13th. That was pretty lame. The good news is Judge is healthy and working on things this winter.

Austin, on the other hand, came out of his slump in September and finished the season strong, which included a handful of clutch late-inning home runs. Overall, Austin hit .241/.300/.458 (102 wRC+) in his 90 plate appearances with the big league team last summer, which isn’t too shabby for a kid getting his first taste of the show. Here’s a fun graph showing how Austin reached that 102 wRC+ at season’s end:

tyler-austin-wrc

He started with a bang, slumped hard for a bit, then gradually climbed his way back to respectability, all in a relatively short period of time. Austin recently admitted to Brendan Kuty he was trying to hit a home run each time he went to the plate early on, which got him out of whack mechanically. After some work with hitting coaches Alan Cockrell and Marcus Thames, Austin got back on track and finished strong.

“My head was flying out, swinging at everything — in and out of the zone,” said Austin to Kuty. “That’s not me. That was just me trying to hit a home run every time up and trying to pull anything I could. When I’m right, I can hit the ball out of the park using all parts of the field.”

We certainly saw that all fields power last season. Well, no, actually. That’s not true. Austin hit five home runs and all five were to the opposite field at Yankee Stadium. It really was an impressive display of opposite field power. We’ve yet to see Austin pull the ball over the fence, though I suspect it’s only a matter of time until that happens. The kid clearly has some power.

Austin was indeed swinging at everything early on — he went 3-for-31 with ten strikeouts immediately following the debut homer — before settling down and showing some semblance of plate discipline. Here are his in-zone and out-of-zone swing rates:

tyler-austin-swing-rates

His out-of-zone swing rate (O-Swing%) was sky high at first before coming back down to Earth. Austin managed to finish the season with a 30.7% swing rate on pitches out of the strike zone, which is almost exactly league average (30.6%).

As for pitches in the strike zone, Austin’s swing rate was a touch high for a bit before stabilizing. His overall 73.1% swing rate on pitches in the zone was quite a bit higher than the 63.9% average, though swinging at pitches in the zone isn’t a bad thing. The next step is learning to tell a hittable pitch in the zone from one you should lay off, such as a changeup at the knees likely to generate weak contact.

Getting to the big leagues was not easy for Austin, who at one point was designated for assignment and went through waivers unclaimed. And let’s not kid ourselves either, he’s close to a bat only prospect. Austin is not a good gloveman at first and he’s comfortably below average in right field. He’ll have to hit and hit big to have big league value, and the fact he made a quick adjustment to stop chasing out of the zone bodes well going forward.

The Yankees insist the first base job is up for grabs and will not automatically go to Greg Bird, though I’m sure if you could get an honest out of Brian Cashman & Co., they’d say they want Bird to take the job and run with it. Austin could very well be Bird’s platoon mate at first base while also seeing time in the outfield and at designated hitter. If he hits, they’ll get him in the lineup somehow.

Austin had to basically turn his entire career around last season just to get back to Triple-A, nevermind reach the big leagues for the first time. And now that he’s in the show and has had some level of success, he’ll be given the opportunity to remain on the roster. This is hard part. Keeping the big league job. Austin’s quick adjustments last year were nice to see, and he’ll have to keep making them to be part of the Yankees going forward.

Where does each 2017 Yankee hit the ball the hardest?

(Rich Gagnon/Getty)
(Rich Gagnon/Getty)

Ever since Statcast burst on to the scene last year, exit velocity has become part of the baseball lexicon. It’s everywhere now. On Twitter, in blog posts, even on broadcasts. You name it and exit velocity is there. Ten years ago getting velocity readings of the ball off the bat felt impossible. Now that information is all over the internet and it’s free. Free!

Needless to say, hitting the ball hard is a good thing. Sometimes you hit the ball hard right at a defender, but what can you do? Last season exit velocity king Giancarlo Stanton registered the hardest hit ball of the Statcast era. It left his bat at 123.9 mph. And it went for a 4-6-3 double play because it was a grounder right at the second baseman.

That’s a pretty good reminder exit velocity by itself isn’t everything. Launch angle is important too, as is frequency. How often does a player hit the ball hard? One random 115 mph line drive doesn’t tell us much. But if the player hits those 115 mph line drives more than anyone else, well that’s useful.

The Yankees very clearly believe in exit velocity as an evaluation tool. We first learned that three years ago, when they traded for Chase Headley and Brian Cashman said his exit velocity was ticking up. Former assistant GM Billy Eppler once said Aaron Judge has top tier exit velocity, and when he reached he big leagues last year, it showed. Among players with at least 40 at-bats in 2016, Judge was second in exit velocity, so yeah.

With that in mind, I want to look at where each projected member of the 2017 Yankees hits the ball the hardest. Not necessarily on the field, but within the strike zone. Every swing is different. Some guys are good low ball hitters, others are more adept at handling the inside pitch, and others can crush the ball no matter where it’s pitched. Not many though. That’s a rare skill. Those are the Miguel Cabreras of the world.

Also, I want to limit this to balls hit in the air, because as we saw in the Stanton video above, a hard-hit grounder is kinda lame. Hitting the ball hard in the air is the best recipe for success in this game. The average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives last season was 92.2 mph, up ever so slightly from 91.9 mph in 2015. I’m going to use 100 mph as my threshold for a hard-hit ball because, well, 100 mph is a nice round number. And it’s comfortably above the league average too.

So, with that in mind, let’s see where each Yankee hit the ball the hardest last season (since that’s the most relevant data), courtesy of Baseball Savant. There are a lot of images in this post, so the fun starts after the jump. The players are listed alphabetically. You can click any image for a larger view.

[Read more…]