The Baby Bombers [2016 Series Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

I don’t think it’s a stretch to call the 2016 trade deadline one of the most important periods in recent Yankees’ history. You probably have to go all the way back to the 2008-09 offseason for the last time the club made moves that so greatly impacted the future of the organization. The Yankees sold productive veterans at the deadline and not only added quality prospects, but they also opened big league playing time for young players.

Aside from Gary Sanchez, who had more impact than any other AL rookie position player in 2016, the two youngsters who most benefited from that suddenly available playing time were Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge. The Yankees traded Carlos Beltran, released Alex Rodriguez, and reduced Mark Teixeira‘s playing time, which created a path for Austin and Judge to play nearly everyday.

History on Day One

Austin and Judge both made their MLB debuts on the same day. August 13th, the day after A-Rod was released. They batted back-to-back in the starting lineup too. Austin hit seventh as the first baseman and Judge hit eighth as the right fielder. Sanchez was batting sixth as the DH. It was a hell of an afternoon.

In their first big league at-bats, Austin and Judge made history by becoming the first set of teammates to hit their first career home runs in their big league debuts in the same game. And they did it back-to-back. And in their first at-bats. Like I said, it was a hell of an afternoon.

Hilariously, Austin’s home run was one of New York’s shortest of the season while Judge’s was one of the longest. The Yankees went young in the second half this season and were rewarded immediately. Sanchez was a force for two months, and Austin and Judge did something historic in their debuts. That sure was fun, wasn’t it? The back-to-back jacks were one of the best moments of the season.

Clutch Homers & Sporadic Playing Time

This was an incredibly important season for Austin. Last year the 25-year-old hit .246/.320/.361 (96 wRC+) with nine home runs in the minors and was so bad he had to be demoted from Triple-A Scranton to Double-A Trenton at midseason. When September rolled around, the Yankees dropped Austin from the 40-man roster to create space for someone else. He went unclaimed on waivers, then went unpicked in the Rule 5 Draft. Ouch.

“You never want to go backward in this game but I think it was a great learning experience for me,” said Austin back in June. “This game humbled me very fast and I found out the hard way. I’m going to try and not let anything like that happen again and continue to work hard and go from there.”

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Greg Bird went down with shoulder surgery in February, and during Spring Training, Brian Cashman said Austin wasn’t even on the team’s radar as a potential first base solution. He was that far down the depth chart. Austin didn’t get an invite to big league Spring Training either. If he was going to get back on the 40-man roster and to the big leagues, he was going to have to earn it. The Yankees didn’t give him much of a look in camp.

When the regular season started, Austin returned to Double-A Trenton — this was the fifth straight year he’d spent time with the Thunder — and you know what? He didn’t exactly destroy the competition. Austin hit .260/.367/.395 (117 wRC+) with four homers in 50 games at Double-A. The Yankees only bumped him up to Triple-A because they called Chris Parmelee to the Bronx, and the RailRiders needed a first baseman.

Austin made the most of the opportunity. His game took off once he arrived in Triple-A in early-June. Austin hit .323/.415/.637 (201 wRC+) with 13 homers in 57 games with Scranton before called up to the Yankees in early-August. He hadn’t had that much success in the minors, even in a short stint, since his breakout 2012 season way back when. Austin forced the issue, exactly has the Yankees hoped. He made them take notice.

Things quickly went downhill for Austin following his debut home run. He fell into an ugly 5-for-36 (.139) slump with 13 strikeouts after that, which landed him on the bench for long stretches of time. The Yankees managed to climb back into the race in August and Teixeira simply gave the team a better chance to win at the time, so he played. Austin looked overmatched.

Joe Girardi gave Austin another look in early-September, and he wound up hitting two of the most important home runs of the season. On September 6th, Austin cracked a go-ahead two-run home run against noted ground ball machine Aaron Sanchez. It was his birthday too. Quite a way to turn 25, eh?

Two days later, Austin hit his third big league home run, this one a walk-off blast against the Rays. So, to recap, his first homer was part of the first set of back-to-back homers by rookies in their MLB debut, his second was a birthday blast, and his third was a walk-off. That’s a hell of a thing.

Austin hit two more home runs later in the month and finished his first big league stint with a respectable .241/.300/.458 (102 wRC+) batting line and five home runs in 90 plate appearances. Four of his five home runs gave the Yankees the lead. The other tied the game. All five were hit to right field in Yankee Stadium too. Austin showed off some serious opposite field power. Check out his spray chart, via Baseball Savant:

Tyler Austin spray chart

That’s a pretty interesting exit velocity spray chart. (Yes, I broke out an exit velocity spray chart.) Austin hit all of his home runs the other way, but he also pulled the ball with authority as well. He wasn’t a dead pull hitter and he wasn’t a pure opposite field guy either. Austin sprayed the ball all around. I don’t think that tells us much of anything in a 90-plate appearance sample, but it’s cool to see.

After being drafted as a catcher and dabbling at third base in the low minors, Austin is a pure first baseman at this point of his career. A first baseman who can play right field in an emergency situation. The Yankees ran him out there in right a few times late in the season and it was not pretty. I don’t recommend doing it often. Austin isn’t Teixeira at first base but he’s solid defensively. Makes all the plays he should make. He’s in the lineup for his bat though, not his glove.

With Teixeira retired, the Yankees now have a great big opening at first base, and Austin figures to come to Spring Training with a chance to win the job. It’ll be him and Bird, and you know what? The job could very easily go to both of them next season. I see them platooning and splitting time at first base and DH. A year ago Austin was so far off the radar that no team claimed him off waivers. The strong 2016 season and impressive display of opposite field pop put him in position to have a role with the Yankees doing forward.

The Adjustment Period

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

When the season started, Judge was in a very different yet similar place as Austin. Austin had played his way out of the picture while Judge was the Yankees’ top prospect, someone who was going to get every opportunity to succeed. That was the big difference between the two. Austin and Judge were also similar in that they were going to have to prove themselves before getting a big league opportunity. Neither would be handed anything.

Judge, now 24, reached Triple-A in the second half last season and struggled, hitting .224/.308/.373 (98 wRC+) with eight home runs and a 28.5% strikeout rate in 61 games. Experienced pitchers picked apart the inevitable swing holes that come with being 6-foot-7. Judge spent much of his offseason in Tampa, working the team’s minor league hitting coordinators, and he reworked his hitting mechanics quite a bit. Here’s a GIF I’ve posted a few times now:

Aaron Judge 2015 vs 2016That’s Spring Training 2015 on the left and Spring Training 2016 on the right. Judge added a bigger leg kick over the winter, and he also dropped his hands a bit. In fact, by time he arrived in New York, his hands were even lower. Judge kept dropping them and dropping them until he found a comfortable spot that more easily allowed him to get the bat into the hitting zone.

Judge started the Triple-A season fairly slowly, slow enough that some folks were saying his development had stalled out. He was sitting on a .221/.285/.372 (87 wRC+) batting line with seven home runs and a 26.2% strikeout rate through his first 50 games. That included an ugly 10-for-72 (.139) slump with 24 strikeouts. Judge looked overmatched, at least based on the box score, and there was reason to be worried.

That all changed pretty quickly. Following those tough 50 games, Judge went on an insane tear and hit .328/.463/.630 (216 wRC+) with nine home runs in his next 33 games. He dropped his strikeout rate to 18.8% and drew nearly as many walks (17.4%). That hot streak raised his season batting line to .261/.357/.469 (139 wRC+). Unfortunately, on July 8th, Judge suffered a sprained knee ligament and bone bruise diving for a ball in the outfield. The injury sent him to the DL for a little less than a month.

Judge returned in early-August, went 12-for-34 (.353) with three home runs in ten games with the RailRiders, then was called up to the Yankees. He not only hit a home run in his first big league at-bat, he also went deep the following day too. Judge hit home runs in back-to-back games to start his big league career. He had two hits in his third game as well.

Like Austin, Judge fell into a slump after his big debut, going 4-for-36 (.111) with 20 (!) strikeouts in his next eleven games after the hot start. Girardi gave Judge a few days off here and there, but, generally speaking, he was in the lineup everyday. The Yankees were willing to live with the growing pains even while the team scratched their way closer to a wildcard spot.

Judge’s season came to a premature end on September 13th, when he tweaked his oblique taking a swing. Obliques are tricky. They’re very easy to re-injury if they’re not allowed to heal properly. The Yankees shut Judge down for the season and the good news is he’s already healthy and reportedly again working in Tampa with the team’s hitting instructors.

All told, Judge hit .270/.366/.489 (147 wRC+) with 19 home runs and a 23.9% strikeout rate in 43 Triple-A games — that was his lowest strikeout rate since he was in Low-A two years ago (21.2%) — and .179/.263/.345 (63 wRC+) with three home runs and a 44.2% strikeout rate in 27 big league games. The good news: his hard contact rate was an insane 48.8%. (His soft contact rate was 9.3%!) Only Nelson Cruz had a higher average exit velocity.

Now, the bad news: Judge’s contact rate was only 59.7%. Only one of the 452 players to bat at least 90 times this season had a lower contact rate. It was Madison Bumgarner at 59.2%. So yeah. (Austin had the third lowest contact rate at 62.0%, by the way.) Here are the pitch locations of Judge’s swing and misses, via Baseball Savant:

Aaron Judge whiffs

Many of the empty swings came on pitches that move and were on the outer half or out of the zone entirely. Sliders, curveballs, that sort of thing. Not all of them though. Judge’s contact rate on pitches in the strike zone was only 74.3%, which ranked 447th among those 452 batters with at least 90 plate appearances. Contact was a clear issue during Judge’s relatively brief big league stint. No doubt about it.

This wasn’t entirely unexpected, however. Judge has a history of starting slow each time he’s promoted before making the adjustment and getting on track. He did it at Double-A and he did it at Triple-A. Now he has to do it in MLB. The good news is Judge has made those adjustments in the past. It’s easy to stereotype this guy as a big dumb masher who grips it and rips it, but that’s not the case. His hit tool is solid. “He’s got more feel to hit than one would expect for a man his size,” said Baseball America’s scouting report before the season.

Strikeouts are always going to be part of Judge’s game. You can only shorten your swing so much when you’re 6-foot-7. The hope is Judge will be able to trim his strikeout rate down into the 23.0% range down the road while tapping into his obvious power potential. Judge is also a sneaky good athlete for his size too. He’s not a liability in right field at all. Heck, he robbed a home run without even jumping. His arm is a rocket as well. The guy flicked his wrist and the ball carried from the warning track to second base.

The right field job is Judge’s for the taking. The Yankees want him to take it and run with it in Spring Training, and never look back. They’re also not going to hand him the job either. They have other outfielders. Cashman said Judge will have to earn his roster spot like everyone else and I believe it. A poor, strikeout heavy spring could land him back in Triple-A. Either way, Judge is clearly the right fielder of the future, and hopefully the future starts on Opening Day 2017.

Girardi’s End-of-Season Press Conference Recap: Youth Movement, Severino, Pitching

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Prior to Sunday’s season finale, Yankees manager Joe Girardi held his annual end-of-season press conference, during which he discussed the state of the franchise and where the team is heading in the future. Things like that. The usual, basically.

You can watch the entire 20-minute press conference right here, if you’re so inclined. I compiled what I thought were the most interesting tidbits and grouped them together below. I also added some thoughts, because why not? Here is our annual recap of Girardi’s end-of-season press conference. Brian Cashman‘s is Wednesday. That’s the most important one.

The Youth Movement

  • On expectations Girardi had for the kids going into 2016: “I was pretty convinced in my mind that (Gary) Sanchez would help us at some point this year. When you look at Aaron (Judge), I thought he had a possibility of helping. I was not sure about Tyler (Austin) just because — the year before was pretty good — he had some physical issues. He was making a position change. But I’ve been really pleased with the way he’s adapted to first base. I hope he’s going to continue to get better. He works really hard and he’s done some things that at times I’ve been surprised what he’s done for us.”
  • Do you have to manage kids differently than veterans? “You manage every group somewhat different because they’re different types of players, but yes. I mean, obviously with (veterans) they’ve been through a lot … You have a history of how they handle those experiences and maybe those slumps. You’re not sure how (young players are) going to react and what they are capable of being, the situation, how they’re going to handle it. But again, you manage differently depending on their strengths and weaknesses.”
  • Who is Girardi looking forward to seeing in 2017? “(I’m) most excited to see some guys that I haven’t seen a lot of. I’m not sure who’s going to be in my 40-man roster either … There are some guys I haven’t seen because of the trades we’ve made. And next year could be an interesting Spring Training as a WBC year.”
  • On expectations for Gary Sanchez next year: “My hope is the expectations aren’t so large that no matter what he does, he can’t reach those expectations. But I think you can expect a talented player and a good player to go out there and improve.”

The expectations for Sanchez next season will be interesting. Interesting and scary. The kid hit like Babe Ruth for three weeks, and as good as Gary is, it’s completely unrealistic to expect him to do that again. Expectations for Luis Severino got out of control last season. I don’t think that contributed to his poor season, but a lot of fans set themselves up for disappointment by expecting an instant ace.

Hopefully Sanchez can be a middle of the order bat next season. I’m sure the Yankees will count on him to be exactly that. But asking him to be one of the best hitters on the planet again, especially across a full season, is not fair at this point. The learning curve for catchers can be steep. Sanchez hitting, say, .270/.320/.450 with 25 homers in 2017 would make him one of the best hitting catchers in baseball. I also feel like many folks would consider that a disappointment.

The Offense

  • On situational hitting: “As far as the situational hitting, when I said at times we didn’t hit well, that was a big part. Situational hitting with runners in scoring position, we did not do a good job. There are years that are better years than other years, and the teams that score runs are the teams that do really well in that category, and that’s something that we learned last season.”
  • On the offense wearing down late in the season: “I mean, guys get beat up physically and they get run down in the month of September, and we’re not the only team that goes through that … Your pitching needs to remain constant and sometimes they have to pick each other up. But you know, there’s definite problems. I feel that this club is capable (of having a good offense). I think they’re capable.”

I’m honestly not too worried about the situational hitting. That stuff is so unpredictable from one year to the next. A year ago the Yankees hit .256/.341/.465 (114 wRC+) with runners in scoring position and this year it was .228/.308/.350 (73 wRC+) even though they had the same damn lineup most of the season. As far as moving runners over and that stuff … if the Yankees start obsessing over that, they deserve what they get.

There’s no need to overthink this. Get as many quality above-average hitters as possible, and let the rest take care of itself. Want good hitters with runners in scoring position? Then get good hitters overall. The correlation is pretty damn strong. The Yankees have gone defense over offense at a few too many positions (center, left, short, third) and it’s dragging down the offense overall. The Yankees don’t need better situational hitters. They just need better hitters.

Luis Severino’s Future

  • Is he a starter or reliever? “I think it’s really up to him and the way he pitches. If he’s going to be a starter, commanding the fastball is extremely important. Changeup is coming. Slider is much improved (from earlier this season) … My expectation is he’s still going to be a starter.”
  • Does his final role need to be determined soon? “When you look at the way things went down, he was stuck in the bullpen (because that’s where we needed him). He’s fairly young and aggressive. He’s going to make a case. We’re going to work here with him.”

At no point this season did Severino look like a capable Major League starter. Not once. Not in April, not in his brief August cameo, and not in September. He looked great in relief though. That said, the kid will be 23 in February, and it’s way too early to think about a move to the bullpen full-time. Let him start next season. All season. If that means he has to go to Triple-A, so be it.

Severino’s issues are mostly command related. He admitted he lost confidence in his changeup this year, but he has a pretty good one. We saw it last year. He just lost a feel for it. Severino needs to get comfortable with his changeup again, and do a better job locating pretty much everything. The Yankees could let him work on that in the big leagues next year. I say let him earn it. If the command and changeup don’t look good in camp, Triple-A it is. I’m not counting on Severino to be a big piece of the puzzle next year.

The Upcoming Offseason

  • On the biggest area of need: “(I will) sit down with Brian and let him handle those questions. You know he is the architect of the team. My job is to get the most out of the players, and I don’t want to speak before we’ve had a chance to talk … The other thing is, you know, we talk about it and the players start to wonder how we think about them, and I don’t think that’s fair.”
  • Do they need rotation help? “Well I think we have good players if we stay healthy, but that doesn’t happen very often so I’m sure we will look into that as well.”

Listening to Girardi the last few days, it seems pretty clear he believes the Yankees need to improve everything. The offense, the defense, the pitching staff … all of it. You can’t look at the 2016 Yankees and point to one problem area of the roster. Yes, the offense was the main culprit, but the back of the rotation and the middle of the bullpen were weak too. So was the defense at times. The baserunning too. So bad. So, so bad.

How do the Yankees overhaul most of the roster? Well, plugging in young players is a good start, plus many of the big contracts will soon be off the books. Others like Brett Gardner and Brian McCann could be traded this offseason. The Yankees underwent a lot of change this past season. I don’t think that’s going to stop anytime soon. I think this was only the beginning.

Miscellany

  • On Masahiro Tanaka‘s improvement: “What he improved on was the amount of innings and starts, and staying healthy — we’re shutting him down in a sense, if (Saturday’s game) meant something, he would have started — so I think that’s a big improvement. And just keep moving forward in that sense. I thought he played well, and when you can count on 200 innings every year, I think it’s the best thing.”
  • On Mark Teixeira‘s final game: “You know, I saw him earlier today and he was smiling and seemed very happy. And I think this day is going to be filled with every type of emotion. I think there’s going to be happiness, there’s going to be sadness, and there’s going to be appreciation for having the opportunity to play this game and to play here and play in front of the fans.”
  • What move would Girardi like to do over? “I was asked yesterday about, are there any decisions that I want like to have a chance to redo? I said no because I don’t have hindsight. I make decisions based in real time. I make decisions based on information that I have. And then you have to deal with the human element. So you know, in every play, in every case, you could second guess if you want to.”
  • On selling at the trade deadline: “I understood why they they traded veterans away. I mean, we were in a situation where we weren’t getting it done. And I think Brian’s job is (evaluate the team), but he also has to look at the future … As an organization, we thought it was in our best interest to make trades to try and get back to the World Series.”
  • Does the World Series or bust mantra need to change? “No, no. I think you should all set your goals. You know I don’t think you should be satisfied with just making the playoffs.”
  • Girardi’s message to fans: “We will do everything we can to bring a championship here. That’s everyone’s job in this organization.”

Girardi’s comments on the trade deadline were pretty interesting. He seemed excited about all the young players and also disappointed that the Yankees were forced to sell. As he said, the goal is to win the World Series every year, and the Yankees had to sell because they were far from World Series contenders. Selling was a result of the team’s failure to perform, and ultimately that (or at least part of that) falls on Girardi.

Don’t expect the goal to change, either. Girardi was clear about that. The Yankees are going to try to win next season, even while incorporating younger players into the lineup. Those things don’t always work well together, not unless every position player comes up and hits like 2016 Sanchez while every pitcher performs like 2015 Severino. I’m curious to see what gets prioritized next year, the development of young players or winning.

Yankeemetrics: The final series [Sept. 30-Oct. 2]

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

The Pineda Puzzle
One day after they were officially eliminated from the playoff race, the Yankees flopped in an ugly 8-1 loss on Friday night.

The offense was M.I.A. with just three singles, while going 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position. It was their 16th game without an extra-base hit, the most in the majors through Friday, and their AL-high 35th game scoring one run or fewer.

It was also their 11th game with three hits or fewer — no team in MLB had done that more this season through Friday — and the first time the Orioles held the Yankees to no more than three hits at Yankee Stadium since August 14, 2007.

Michael Pineda made his final start of 2016, and his Jekyll-and-Hyde performance (5 runs, 4⅓ innings, 5 strikeouts) against the Orioles was a fitting end to Pineda’s perplexing and season.

He finished with a career-best 207 strikeouts (that’s good!) and a career-worst 4.82 ERA (that’s bad!) while going 6-12 in 32 starts. His 4.82 ERA is the fifth-highest by any MLB pitcher ever with at least 200 strikeouts in a season, and his .333 win percentage is the second-lowest among that group.

And that’s not the worst of his puzzling, boom-or-bust campaign: Pineda allowed a whopping .784 OPS this year, the highest in major-league history for a guy that also struck out 200-or-more batters in a season.

austin low five
(Getty)

Party at Austin’s
The Yankees bounced back from their lackluster series-opening loss with a resounding 7-3 victory on Saturday, preventing the Orioles from clinching a playoff spot on the penultimate day of the season.

Typical of this up-and-down Yankee season, the game featured a number of encouraging signs for the future while also re-affirming some potential concerns heading into 2017.

The bad news? Luis Severino continued his baffling string of disappointing pitching performances as a starter, giving up three runs on five hits before being pulled in the fourth inning. He ended up with a 8.50 ERA in 11 starts, the highest ERA as a starter by any pitcher in franchise history with at least 10 starts in a season.

If there’s a silver lining in Severino’s poor showing as a member of the rotation it’s this: the highest single-season starters’ ERA in MLB history (min. 10 starts) belongs to Roy Halladay, who posted a 11.13 ERA in 13 starts in 2000; three years later, he won the first of his two Cy Young Awards.

The good news? Two of the more unheralded Baby Bombers continued their unexpected trend of clutch hitting performances, with Tyler Austin and Austin Romine fueling the Yankees’ late-game offensive explosion and comeback bid.

Austin knotted the score at 3-3 in the seventh inning with his fifth homer of the season, and the 406-foot blast was eerily similar to each of the others he’s hit in the majors. All five of them have: been at Yankee Stadium, gone out to right-center or right field, and either tied the game or gave the Yankees a lead.

Four of his five longballs have also come in the seventh frame or later, giving him the most go-ahead and/or game-tying homers on the team this season through Saturday. Even more impressive is this feat: Austin is the only Yankee rookie in at least the last 75 years to hit four go-ahead and/or game-tying homers in the seventh inning or later.

Romine then capped off the Yankees rally with a tie-breaking, two-run single in the eighth inning, his 16th hit in 44 at-bats with runners in scoring position this year. His .364 batting average in that situation not only leads the team, but would be the best by any Yankee with that many at-bats in a decade, since Derek Jeter hit .381 with RISP in 2006.

Game 162
And so the 2016 season comes to an end, fittingly the same way it began, with a loss at Yankee Stadium.

The Yankee bats were shut down by the newest Yankee killer, Kevin Gausman, who dominated the Yankees this season with just five earned runs surrendered across 41 innings. Among pitchers to make at least five starts against the Yankees in a season, Gausman’s 1.09 ERA is the lowest since Brewers lefty Mike Caldwell’s 0.99 mark in 1978, when he three shutouts in five starts versus them.

Brian McCann‘s solo homer in the fourth inning was the Yankees lone source of offense for much of the afternoon, and it was a significant one for the catcher, his 20th of the year. He is the fourth catcher (who played at least 50 percent of their games at the position) in major-league history with double-digit 20-homer seasons, joining Mike Piazza, Johnny Bench, and Yogi Berra. It was also his ninth straight season with at least 20 homers; among catchers, only Yogi and Piazza ever had a streak like that.

 

tex goodbye

McCann joined his backstop teammate, Gary Sanchez, in the 20-homer club, making the Yankees just the third team in major-league history to have two guys, who played catcher in at least half their games, hit 20-plus homers in the same season. The other clubs to do this were the 1961 Yankees (Johnny Blanchard and Elston Howard) and 1965 Milwaukee Braves (Gene Oliver and Joe Torre).

Combined with Starlin Castro‘s 21 homers and Didi Gregorius‘ 20 homers, the Yankees are the first team in baseball history to get at least 20 homers from four different players, who each played more than half their games at either catcher or the middle infield (shortstop and second base) positions.

And finally, Mark Teixeira closed the book on his 14-season big-league career, walking off the field in the seventh inning to a standing ovation while tipping his cap to the hometown fans.

There are many stats and superlatives that define his legacy as a major-leaguer, but perhaps this one best captures his unprecedented combination of power and defense, which makes him such a unique and special player among his peers: Teixeira is the only first baseman to finish his career with at least five Gold Gloves (awarded since 1957) and at least 400 homers.

Yankeemetrics: A bittersweet sweep [Sept. 27-29]

(AP)
(AP)

Still breathing
The Yankees staved off elimination on Tuesday night with a gutsy 6-4 win in the series opener, keeping their flickering postseason dreams alive, while snapping Boston’s 11-game win streak. This was the third time in the history of this rivalry that the Yankees beat a Red Sox team riding a win streak of more than 10 games; it also happened in 1909 and 1995.

The Baby Bombers carried the team from start to finish, delivering game-changing performances on the mound and at the plate. Luis Cessa pitched six strong innings of two-run ball, while Gary Sanchez opened the scoring with a first-inning two-run bomb and Tyler Austin capped it off with a tie-breaking two-run homer in the seventh.

Sanchez’s 407-foot shot was a historic one, the 20th time he went deep in just 51 MLB games. That matched the fewest career games needed to reach the 20-homer milestone by any major-league player, a mark he shares with outfielder Wally Berger of the 1930 Boston Braves.

He is the 10th rookie catcher in major-league history to hit 20 homers, and is the only Yankee in that group. Each of the other nine players — Wilin Rosario (2012), J.P. Arencibia (2011), Geovany Soto (2008), Mike Piazza (1993), Matt Nokes (1987), Joe Ferguson (1973), Carlton Fisk (1972), Earl Williams (1971), Rudy York (1937) — played at least 100 games during their rookie campaign.

Austin’s power-hitting feats haven’t been as prolific as Sanchez’s, but it’s hard to argue that anyone else’s homers on this team have been as impactful as Austin’s.

Each of his first four homers in the big leagues have given the Yankees a lead, with three of them coming in the seventh inning or later. Through Tuesday, he had more go-ahead, late-inning homers than any other Yankee this season, despite logging time in just 27 games since his call-up in early August.

Didi Gregorius also joined the homer party, ripping his 20th homer of the season into the right field seats to give the Yankees a 4-2 lead in the sixth. He and Starlin Castro are the first middle infielder duo (i.e., primary position is either shortstop or second base) in franchise history to reach the 20-homer milestone in the same season.

David Ortiz, playing his final series at Yankee Stadium, was hitless in five at-bats and whiffed on a 3-2 splitter from Tyler Clippard to end the game, stranding two guys in the ninth inning. This was his 255th career game against the Yankees (including playoffs), but it was the first time that he ever struck out to end the game with the tying run on base.

(AP)
(AP)

Refuse to lose
Down to their final out and on the brink of being officially eliminated from the postseason race on Wednesday, the Yankees rose from the dead with a stunning rally in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Red Sox, keeping their microscopic October dreams alive for another 24 hours.

In a season filled with so many heart-pounding victories, the Yankees 82nd win of the season might top them all in terms of the do-or-die circumstances of the game and the sheer miraculous nature of their comeback.

Trailing 3-1 with two outs in the ninth and the bases full, the soon-to-be-retired Mark Teixeira came to the plate and drilled a 99-mph fastball over the fences in center field for a game-ending homer that was historic in so many ways:

  • It was the first regular-season walk-off home run by Teixeira; his 408 career regular season homers entering the game were the most of any player in baseball history who’d never hit a walk-off shot.
  • The pitch was clocked at 98.95 mph, the fastest pitch he’s hit for a home run since July 17, 2009 when he went deep off a 99.0 mph fastball from Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya.
  • It was the ninth walk-off grand slam in franchise history, and the first since A-Rod’s memorable blast against the Orioles on April 7, 2007.
  • Only two other Yankees have ever hit a walk-off homer with the bases loaded against the Red Sox: Charlie Keller on August 12, 1942 and pitcher Red Ruffing on April 14, 1933.
  • Teixeira is the fourth Yankee to hit a walk-off slam with his team trailing at the time. The others are A-Rod, Jason Giambi (May 17, 2002 vs. the Twins) and Babe Ruth (Sept. 24, 1925 vs. the White Sox).
  • Teixeira and A-Rod are the only players in franchise history to hit a two-out, come-from-behind walk-off grand slam.
tex champ belt
(Getty)

Forgotten amid the wild and crazy ending is the fact that this was a classic pitchers duel for much of the night. Bryan Mitchell and Clay Buchholz matched zeroes on the scoreboard, as Mitchell threw seven scoreless innings and allowed two hits while Buchholz gave up one hit over six shutout innings.

It was just the third time since at least 1913 where both starters in a Yankee game went six or more innings, didn’t allow a run and surrendered two or fewer hits. The other two instances were on June 18, 2003 against the Rays (Roger Clemens and Victor Zambrano), and Sept. 20, 1958 against the Orioles (Don Larsen and Hoyt Wilhelm).

Good news, bad news
It was a bittersweet win for the Yankees on Thursday, as they completed the sweep over the Red Sox, but saw their playoff dreams extinguished too thanks to the Orioles beating the Blue Jays earlier in the night. Baltimore’s victory also guaranteed that the Yankees will end the season in fourth place in the AL East, their lowest divisional finish since 1992.

David Ortiz said goodbye to the Yankees after going 0-for-1 with a walk in his two plate appearances in the series finale. His 53 home runs against the Yankees are tied with Hank Greenberg for the fourth-most all-time, and his 31 homers at Yankee Stadium are tied with Mickey Vernon for the second-most ever by a visiting player at the ballpark.

Although he’s tormented them over the past decade-plus, Ortiz went hitless in his final 14 at-bats against the Yankees, matching his longest stretch without a hit in this rivalry (also from Sept. 25, 2009 to April 7, 2010).

Making his 30th and final start of the season, CC Sabathia turned in a stellar performance, holding the Red Sox lineup to one run on four hits in seven-plus dominant innings. He earned his 223rd career win, passing former Mets southpaw Jerry Koosman for sole possession of 17th place among left-handed pitchers on MLB’s all-time wins leaderboard. Looking ahead to 2017, next up on the list of lefties is Whitey Ford, who won 236 games in his 16-season career.

Cashman says young players have to earn roster spots in 2017 because of course they do

Bird. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
Bird. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

To no surprise, Brian Cashman confirmed the Yankees will not simply hand their top young players roster spots next season. They’ll have to earn it. “May the best man win,” said Cashman to Brendan Kuty recently when asked specifically about first base in the wake of Mark Teixeira‘s retirement.

At this point it’s safe to say that yes, Gary Sanchez has earned his place on the 2017 Yankees. Not exactly going out on a limb here. He’s the only young guy who has forced the issue this season though. First base and right field are another matter, ditto the pitching staff. And the bench too, I suppose. There’s a lot going on here, so let’s break it all down.

1. Competition is good! There seems to be this sense that when you’re a rebuilding transitioning team, the best thing to do is throw the kids out there and let them sink or swim. I couldn’t disagree more. Yes, there comes a point when you have to run a young player out there everyday to help him develop, but handing players jobs? Nah. That should be reserved for the best of the best.

Besides, competition between young players is good and healthy. They push each other to get better and it helps foster that “be the best player you can be” mentality. That’s a good thing. “We want a team full of good players. That’s how we’re going to win games,” said Greg Bird to Kuty. “And that’s us competing or other people competing with each other makes us all better, than that’s what we want.”

2. There’s a wide range of outcomes at first base. A year ago at this time we were all thrilled about the future at first base, the same way we’re thrilled about the future at catcher right now. Bird burst onto the scene and played very well down the stretch last season. He wasn’t Sanchez, but he was pretty awesome. The Yankees really missed Bird this year. He would have helped at first base and DH big time.

Bird’s shoulder injury has created some questions about next season. How healthy will he be? How quickly will he be back at full strength? Will he ever get back to full strength? Bird told Kuty his shoulder feels great — “It’s stronger than what it was and it’s structurally sound now,” he said — and he’ll soon face live pitching in Instructional League and the Arizona Fall League, but until he gets out there everyday, we just can’t know what he’s capable of. This was a major injury.

With any luck, Bird will come back and pick up right where he left off last season, giving the Yankees a no-doubt answer at first base. There’s a chance he may need time at Triple-A to shake off the rust, however, in which case Tyler Austin becomes Plan A at first base. I guess? Austin or Rob Refsnyder. Maybe Brian McCann or Austin Romine? First base could be really good or really bad next season. Bird could rake or the Yankees could end up cycling through players all year in an effort to find a solution.

Judge. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Judge. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

3. Right field seems wide open. Give the Yankees a truth serum and I’m guessing they’d tell you they want Aaron Judge to take the right field job in Spring Training and run with it. Of their in-house options, he has the best chance to become a middle of the order bat one day. “He will have to earn his way on to next year’s roster. There are no absolutes. Without question, he’ll be better for the experience,” said Cashman to Andrew Marchand.

Judge struggled to make contact this season and he’s losing reps now due to the oblique injury, which stinks. That’s valuable development time, even if it is only three weeks. His primary competition figures to be Austin, Refsnyder, Aaron Hicks, and Mason Williams. And you know what? The right field job could fall on two players via platoon or some kind of time share. It would be awesome if Judge won the job. I feel like anything could happen in right field though. Hicks everyday, a Williams/Austin platoon, whatever.

4. A veteran backup plan feels like a must. The Yankees have brought in a veteran bench player to cover first base and right field the last two years, and it didn’t work either time. Garrett Jones didn’t hit last year and Dustin Ackley blew out his shoulder this year. Neither played all that much either because the Yankees had pricey veterans in the lineup. It was a smart use of a roster spot that didn’t work out.

Since the Yankees are poised to go young at first base and in right field next year, bringing in a veteran backup plan for depth again makes sense, and this time at-bats should be easier to come by. Veterans like Teixeira and Carlos Beltran get the benefit of the doubt and stay in the lineup no matter what. A struggling kid could see a little more time in the bench just to get a mental break now and then.

We can sort through potential candidates for this role in the offseason — I’ll be beating the Steve Pearce drum this winter, so get ready for it (yes I know he’s having elbow surgery) — though it’s worth noting the Yankees have some options for this role themselves. Perfect world scenario is what, Bird at first and Judge in right with Austin and/or Refsnyder backing up both positions? I guess so, but a little veteran depth to protect against a Bird setback/Judge whiff-fest would be nice.

5. Severino shouldn’t be guaranteed anything. Competition for a rotation spot or a few bullpen spots is nothing new. I can’t remember the last time the Yankees didn’t have some pitching spots up for grabs in camp. I’m sure that’ll be true next year as well. Chad Green, Luis Cessa, and Bryan Mitchell could all wind up competing for the fifth starter’s job, for example. That would be ideal, really.

Luis Severino presents an interesting case. He got hammered as a starter this season in two separate stints, but he’s also dominated out of the bullpen. The Yankees insist they don’t want to give up on him as a starter because he’s still so young and I believe them. But, because he was so bad a starter this season and lost feel for his changeup, Severino shouldn’t come to camp with a rotation spot locked up like he did this year. He should have to earn it like everyone else.

Severino is in the bullpen right now because he gives the Yankees the best chance to win. That’s all there is to it. He hasn’t thrown his changeup much in relief — seven of his 200 pitches this month have been changeups, so yeah — and that’s kind of a problem. His development as a starting pitcher should be the priority in 2017. If that means more time in Triple-A, so be it. Severino shouldn’t be handed a spot just because. That would be a mistake.

The end of Didi’s slump and four others things that must happen for the Yankees to make the postseason

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Against all odds, the Yankees remain in the postseason race with less than three weeks to go in the regular season. They lost yesterday, but prior to that they won seven straight and 13 of their previous 17 games. The Yankees are two games back of the second wildcard spot and FanGraphs puts their postseason odds at 13.5%. They were 2.3% eight days ago.

As well as the Yankees have played recently, with seemingly a different player stepping up each night, they’re going to need to be even better over the final 20 games to sneak into the postseason. The schedule only gets more difficult from here on out. New York’s best chance to make the playoffs involves continuing their current play and getting some more from a few players on the roster. Here are five things I think need to happen to maximize the team’s postseason chances.

Gregorius snaps out of his slump

Didi Gregorius has been, rather easily, the Yankees’ best all-around position player this season. His 17 home runs are nearly double his previous career high (nine last year), and he’s still making a lot of contact and playing strong defense. I was skeptical when the Yankees acquired Didi because I didn’t believe in his bat. Boy was I wrong.

As good as Gregorius has been this season, he’s been slumping hard this month, going 3-for-34 (.088) with eight strikeouts and zero unintentional walks in September. Slumps happen, but with Didi it seems like fatigue might be a factor as well. His bat looks a little slow, and even in the field there’s been some moments when his first step wasn’t as quick as usual.

A day off could do Gregorius some good — the Yankees are ten games into a 17 games in 17 days stretch — though it is tough to get him out of the lineup given what he does defensively. We all love Ronald Torreyes, but he’s no Didi. No one is expecting Gregorius to hit five homers in a ten-game span like he did in late-June/early-July. The Yankees do need more offense from him than they’ve been getting this month, however.

Gardner and Ellsbury stay hot

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

Overall, both Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury have had disappointing seasons atop the lineup for the Yankees. Gardner’s power has disappeared, and up until recently, Ellsbury wasn’t getting on base all that much. Disappointing middle of the order veterans like Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez are the main reason the Yankees have had a below-average offense this year. The two guys at the top of the lineup aren’t without fault though.

Not coincidentally, the team’s recent strong play coincides with both Ellsbury and Gardner getting hot. Ellsbury has gone 9-for-27 (.333) with two homers, four walks, and only one strikeout during this recent 7-1 stretch while Gardner is 10-for-26 (.385). Their combined on-base percentage is .417. During the 13-5 stretch, Ellsbury has hit .311/.394/.541 and Gardner has hit .317/.386/.350.

Gardner’s power still hasn’t resurfaced, but he has been hitting for average and getting on base the last three weeks. Ditto Ellsbury. The Yankees look like an entirely different team when these two are hot at the same time. We’ve seen it at various points the last three seasons. Gardner and Ellsbury continuing to set the table like they have been the last few weeks is essential to getting the Yankees into the postseason.

Betances and Clippard be automatic

At this point Joe Girardi‘s bullpen pecking order is clear: Dellin Betances is the closer (duh) and Tyler Clippard is the eighth inning guy. For a little while after the trade deadline Clippard was the seventh inning guy, but he and Adam Warren have flipped spots, which is for the best. Warren is better able to go multiple innings, which means Girardi won’t hesitate to use him to put out fires in the sixth inning, if necessary.

The Yankees seem to play nothing but close games these days — eight of their last 13 wins have come by no more than three runs and seven have come by no more than two runs — and that doesn’t figure to change, which means Betances and Clippard are going to have to be perfect in the last two innings, meaning protect every lead. The Yankees can’t afford to led late leads slip away and the two righties are the last line of defense out of the bullpen. When they’re handed a lead, it has to hold up.

Pineda becomes a reliable second starter

Right now the Yankees have a bonafide ace in Masahiro Tanaka and four other guys in the rotation who don’t make you feel all that comfortable. Maybe comfortable isn’t the right word. They’re just unpredictable from start to start. CC Sabathia is in the twilight of his career, Bryan Mitchell and Luis Cessa are just kids, and Michael Pineda is one of the most enigmatic pitchers in all of baseball.

Pineda is also one of the most talented pitchers in baseball — it’s good to be 6-foot-7 with a mid-90s cutter and a wipeout slider — and I think he has the best chance to emerge as a second reliable starter these last three weeks. The problem is Pineda has given Girardi no real reason to trust him. We all saw Girardi pull Pineda one out short of qualifying for the win with a five-run lead the other night.

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

As bad as the offense has been for long stretches of time this season, it seems more likely the rotation will be the Yankees’ downfall these final few weeks. Ivan Nova‘s been traded and both Nathan Eovaldi and Chad Green got hurt, meaning the Yankees have no choice but to rely on two rookies and a fading Sabathia. Pineda is young and he’s in what should be the prime of his career. He’s the club’s best hope for second solid starter.

One of the kids contributes from the bottom of the lineup

The Yankees committed to their youth movement last month and the kids have really improved the team, not only on the field, but in the dugout. The Yankees seem more energetic than they have been in years. It’s fun to watch. Gary Sanchez has been a monster who is rightfully hitting in the middle of the lineup. Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge, two other rookies, have had a tougher go of it. Here are their MLB numbers:

Austin: .224/.274/.414 (81 wRC+), 3 HR, 6.5 BB%, 35.5 K% in 62 plate appearances
Judge: .177/.258/.316 (53 wRC+), 3 HR, 9.0 BB%, 43.8 K% in 89 plate appearances

Both have shown signs of coming around of late, especially Austin, but the fact remains both have been negatives at the plate since being called up. (Judge has at least improved the right field defense.) If the Yankees were well out of the race like many expected them to be this month, running both kids out there everyday would be no big deal. The experience is the most important thing.

The Yankees need impact to get the postseason though, and it would be a huge help if either Austin or Judge started to figure things out and contribute from the bottom of the lineup. It would be cool if both did it, but let’s not get greedy. One of the two getting locked in would lengthen the lineup and make the offense that much dangerous. The kids are a big reason the Yankees are remotely close to a playoff spot right now, and if they’re going to sneak into the postseason, rookies like Austin and Judge will have to be a driving force.

Yankeemetrics: Stayin’ alive, against all odds [Sept. 8-11]

(AP)
(AP)

Another Baby Bomber earns his pinstripes
The surging, red-hot Yankees took another step towards making their once-laughable postseason dreams a reality as they celebrated yet another wild and crazy win on Thursday night against the Rays.

Their magical and improbable rise up the standings continued thanks to a dramatic two-out, walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth inning by Tyler Austin, the latest Baby Bomber to deliver in the clutch for these never-say-die Yankees.

With the Yankees down to their last strike before extras, Austin crushed a 3-2 fastball into the right-field seats, etching his name on several pages in the franchise record books with that game-winning blast. He is the:

  • only Yankee first baseman to ever hit a walk-off homer against the Rays
  • second Yankee since 1988 (when pitch data is available) to hit a walk-off shot on a full count with two outs; the other was Brian McCann on Aug. 24, 2014 vs White Sox
  • first Yankee rookie with a walk-off homer since Melky Cabrera on July 18, 2006 vs Mariners
  • first Yankee rookie with two-out walk-off home run since Bobby Murcer on Aug. 5, 1969 vs Angels

Austin wasn’t the only player to clear the fences in this game as a late-season Home Run Derby broke out at Yankee Stadium. Brian McCann hit two ultra-important homers, giving the Yankees a lead in the second and fourth innings of this back-and-forth contest.

Kevin Kiermaier and Steven Souza both went deep twice for the Rays, becoming the first set of outfielders homer twice in a game against the Yankees since the Braves’ Andruw Jones and Ryan Klesko on July 16, 1999. The last AL outfield pair to pull off the feat was Carl Yastrzemski and Bernie Carbo for the Red Sox on June 18, 1977.

Overall, this was the 17th time since 1913 that teammates have each hit two homers in a nine-inning game versus the Yankees, but it was just the third time that the Yankees actually won the game. The only other times it happened in that span were July 21, 2002 against the Red Sox and June 21, 1990 against the Blue Jays.

Tex message slams Rays
And then there was one …

The Yankees youth brigade has fueled this incredible and improbable late-summer run, but it was an aging veteran who stole the spotlight on Friday night and provided the decisive blow in the 7-5 victory that brought the Yankees to within a single game of the final playoff spot.

Thirty-six-year-old Mark Teixeira broke open the game with a grand slam in the fourth inning, giving the Yankees a 7-2 cushion. It was Teixeira’s 11th career bases-loaded home run; among switch-hitters, only Eddie Murray (19) has more in baseball history.

The crucial hit was also a significant milestone blast for Teixeira, his 203rd homer as a Yankee, tying him with Roger Maris for 15th place on the franchise list. And it was his 406th career homer overall, one shy of matching Duke Snider for 54th place on the major-league all-time list.

tanaka cap tip
This is real, folks
The implausible has suddenly turned into the believable. Backed by a masterful and brilliant performance from their ace, Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees continued their out-of-nowhere push to the playoffs with another win on Saturday afternoon.

They’ve now won seven straight and 14 of the last 16 games started by Tanaka, and are 22-7 in his starts overall; no team in baseball this season has won more games behind a single starting pitcher than the Yankees when Tanaka is on the mound (22).

Tanaka delivered another gem, taking a shutout into the eighth inning and finishing with the first double-digit strikeout, no-walk game of his MLB career. He got a season-high 20 swings-and-misses among the 102 pitches thrown, including 18 (!) with his splitter and slider, the most he’s ever generated on those two pitches combined in a single start.

The game was a pitchers’ duel until Jacoby Ellsbury snapped a scoreless tie with a two-run homer in the sixth inning off Chris Archer, which was perhaps the least shocking hit in the game. Ellsbury is now 19-for-34 (.559) versus Archer, his highest batting average against any pitcher he faced at least 15 times.

gary didi
(Getty)

The legend of Gary Sanchez kept growing on Saturday, too, when he crushed a 420-foot homer into the left-field bullpen, the 13th time he’s gone deep in the big leagues.

He tied the major-league record for the most homers in a player’s first 35 games (the others to do it are Wally Joyner, Mike Jacobs, Kevin Maas and Wally Berger), but Sanchez is the only one in that group that also had compiled at least nine other extra-base hits in those 35 games.

Yet that towering homer wasn’t even his most impressive feat. The Rays tried to intentionally walk him in the eighth, but Sanchez reached out and connected on a 52-mph pitch that he sent 407 feet to the warning track for a sac fly. It was easily the slowest pitch that anyone has hit at least 400 feet over the last two seasons (since Statcast began tracking distance/velocity).

The Sunday Letdown
The Rays finally cooled off the red-hot Yankees, who dropped the final game of the series, 4-2, snapping their seven-game win streak. Still, even with the loss, #TeamSell is 24-14 since August 1; in that span, only the Cubs and Royals have better records than the Yankees.

The Sunday Letdown was in full effect as the Bronx Bombers’ offense stalled and the homer-prone Luis Cessa couldn’t contain the Rays’ bats. This was the Yankees’ 51st game this season scoring two or fewer runs; that’s the most among all American League teams this season, and the Yankees’ most at the 142-game mark since 1990.

The Rays had just five hits off Cessa in 5⅔ innings, but three of them went over the fence, increasing his total to 13 home runs served up in 47⅔ innings this season. Of the 25 runs he’s surrendered this season, 20 have come via the longball. His rate of 2.45 homers allowed per nine innings would be the second-highest in a single season in franchise history among guys that pitched at least 40 innings, behind only Hideki Irabu’s 2.53 in 1997.