All Rise for the Best Power-Hitting Rookie in Baseball History [2017 Season Review]

(Getty)
(Getty)

Looking back on it now, it seems sorta silly Aaron Judge had to compete for the right field job in Spring Training. He went into camp having to beat out Aaron Hicks for the starting right field job, and given his strikeout filled MLB debut last year, it wasn’t unreasonable. The Yankees wanted Judge to win the job, it was pretty clear I thought, but a little competition never hurt anyone.

Now, eight months later, Judge is two weeks away from being named the AL Rookie of the Year, possibly unanimously, and from finishing in the top five of the AL MVP voting. There’s a good chance he’ll finish in the top three. He might even win! I still think it’ll end up going to Jose Altuve. The fact Judge is even in the conversation is pretty amazing. From Spring Training right field competition to MVP candidate.

Overall, Judge hit .284/.422/.627 (173 wRC+) with a rookie record 52 home runs — 52 home runs! — in 155 games this season. His 127 walks were also a rookie record. (So were his 208 strikeouts.) Judge led all players with +8.2 fWAR in 2017. That includes rookies and veterans, position players in pitchers. That one widely used metric rated Judge as the most valuable player in baseball this past season. Incredible.

Going into the season PECOTA’s 90th percentile projection, meaning its most optimistic projection, had Judge at .286/.384/.533 with 23 homers. He beat that by 29 homers and 132 OPS points. The Yankees qualified for the postseason this year and made it to within one game of the World Series thanks largely to Judge’s instant success. He didn’t reach the best case scenario. He beat it. Let’s dive into his 2017 season.

A New Year, A New Stance

It is no secret Judge is a flawed hitter. Those 208 strikeouts and 30.7% strikeout rate are an eyesore, no matter how many dingers he hits or how often he gets on base. Judge, to his credit, has worked hard to get better and constantly makes adjustments at the plate. That includes tinkering with his batting stance over the years. Here is 2016 Judge and 2017 Judge side-by-side:

aaron-judge-2016-vs-2017

Last year Judge was more upright and closed with his stance. This year he was much more open with his knees bent, plus he had his hands higher as well. Last year his hands were even with his shoulders. This year they were closer to even with his head. That means a little less load time to get his swing started, allowing him to get the bat into the strike zone quicker.

“It’s a project,” Judge said to Billy Witz at midseason, when talking about his swing and stance. “Ever since I got drafted by the Yankees, I’ve been working on my swing. So it’s just a culmination of all those things, and I’m finally starting to see some results.”

Even More Power Than Expected

Coming into the 2017 season, Baseball America (subs. req’d) rated Judge’s power a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale while MLB.com rated it a 60. They sold him short. And that’s okay! Scouts are always conservative with power. If you slap an 80 on a dude’s power, you better be right. Also, there’s a big difference between 80 raw power and 80 game power. Lots of guys can hit the ball a mile in batting practice. Can they hit the ball a mile in games?

Judge can hit the ball a mile in games. He showed it this year. The 52 home runs were nine (!) more than any other AL player — Khris Davis was second in the league with 43 dingers — and among the 68 players to hit at least 25 home runs this season, his average homer distance of 413 feet was sixth longest. His average exit velocity on all balls in play was 94.9 mph, far and away the best in baseball. Nelson Cruz was a distance second at 93.2 mph.

Here’s the thing though: Judge actually hit 55 home runs this season. He had one home run ruled a triple even though the ball was clearly heading over the fence when the fan reached out to catch it. For whatever reason the replay crew in New York decided to give him a triple on the play, not a homer.

Furthermore, Judge had home runs robbed by Jackie Bradley Jr. (video) and Melky Cabrera (video), so yeah. That’s three balls hit over the fence that did not become home runs for one reason or another. Judge accounted for the first and fourth longest homers in baseball this season, as well as the second, third, fourth, fifth, and eighth highest exit velocities.

All that power earned Judge a spot in the All-Star Game. In fact, he led all AL players in fan votes and started in the All-Star Game in right field. He batted third in the All-Star Game! How cool is that? Judge also won the Home Run Derby with shocking ease. Everyone else in the Home Run Derby, including Gary Sanchez, looked worn down by the end. Judge took easy batting practice swings for three rounds and won without even looking like he was trying.

My favorite thing about Judge? Beyond all the massive dingers? His spray chart. This is not your standard pull power hitter. Judge hits to all fields. And not just home runs either. All base hits. Here is his spray chart, via Baseball Savant:

aaron-judge-2017-spray-chart

Homers to all field, singles to all fields, everything to all fields. I’m going to say it again: Judge does not get enough credit for being such a good pure hitter. His massive frame almost prevents him from being the type of hitter he should be. With a little smaller frame and a tighter strike zone, I think he’d be a legitimate .300 hitter year after year. The fact he managed to hit .284 at his size and with a 30.7% strikeout rate is a testament to how hard he is to defend because of his ability to a) hit the ball really freaking hard, and b) hit the ball to all fields.

So yes, Baseball America and MLB.com did undersell Judge’s power, though I don’t blame them. No one was quite sure how Judge’s massive raw power would translate into games given his size and strike zone. Now we know the answer. The mammoth raw power equals massive game power. The 52 (55*) home runs are a new rookie record, and you need to see the all-time rookie home run list to really appreciate how insane 52 homers as a rookie is:

  1. Aaron Judge, 2017 Yankees: 52 homers
  2. Mark McGwire, 1987 Athletics: 49 homers
  3. Cody Bellinger, 2017 Dodgers: 39 homers
  4. Frank Robinson, 1956 Reds: 38 homers
  5. Wally Berger, 1930 Braves: 38 homers

Judge is the only rookie ever to hit 50 home runs. He was only the second rookie ever with 40 home runs. The internet tells me 18,853 men have played Major League Baseball throughout history. All of them were rookies at some point. None hit more home runs than Aaron Judge as a rookie. Also, Judge shattered the Yankees rookie homer record. The previous record: 29 by Joe DiMaggio in 1936. Yeah.

What we just witnessed was on the very short list of the best offensive seasons by a rookie in the history of the universe, thanks mostly to Judge’s near unmatched ability to hit the ball out of the park. I love Judge. I stuck with him as a top prospect even when so many others jumped ship last offseason. And I never in a million years thought he’d hit 50+ homers as a rookie. Is this real life?

Setting A New Standard For An Acceptable Strikeout Rate

Before the season, I took a quick look strikeout rates to see where the break-even point lies. How much is too much when it comes to strikeouts? I looked back and found that, based on recent history, a 25.0% strikeout rate seemed to be the cutoff point. Striking out in more than one-quarter of your plate appearances wouldn’t necessarily stop you from being a good hitter, but it would limit your ability to be a great hitter.

Then Judge went out and hit .284/.422/.627 (173 wRC+) with a 30.7% strikeout rate this season, which I still can’t believe actually happened. It defies everything we know about baseball. You’re not supposed to strike out that much and be that productive. Here is the single-season wRC+ leaderboard among players with a 30.0% strikeout rate:

  1. Aaron Judge, 2017 Yankees: 173 wRC+
  2. Chris Davis, 2015 Orioles: 149 wRC+
  3. Jack Cust, 2005 Athletics: 145 wRC+
  4. Kris Bryant, 2015 Cubs: 136 wRC+
  5. Adam Dunn, 2010 Nationals: 136 wRC+

The gap between No. 1 and No. 2 is the same as the gap between No. 2 and No. 19. Among players to put up a 173 wRC+ in a single season, the next highest strikeout rate behind Judge is 25.4% by Willie Stargell with the 1971 Pirates. No one else is over even 25.0%. This was, truly, one of the most unique offensive seasons in baseball history.

Judge’s strikeout rate spiked following the All-Star break, when he slipped into that ugly seven-week slump before recovering with a great September. His strikeout rate in July and August: 35.9%. And at one point he struck out in an MLB record 37 games. His strikeout rate the other four months: 28.1%. Still high! But not as high as July and August, when Judge hit .207/.359/.402 (102 wRC+) in 233 plate appearances. Even his ugly slump was basically league average because he took walks and still hit mistakes out of the park.

The story we heard: pitchers were burying Judge with breaking balls and offspeed pitches, and forcing him to adjust. Reality: Judge saw more fastballs in July and August than at any point in the season. For real. From FanGraphs:

aaron-judge-fastball-rate

Didn’t see that coming! Judge saw many more fastballs in the second half, particularly up in the zone. It wasn’t until he started socking dingers left and right in September that pitchers stopped challenging him with heaters. The Indians and Astros — especially the Indians — buried Judge with breaking balls in the postseason, obviously, and I can’t blame them. Judge was a very good breaking ball hitter in the regular season, but he still hit them worse than fastballs.

  • Judge vs. fastballs: .307 AVG and .386 ISO (MLB average: .274 AVG and .184 ISO)
  • Judge vs. breaking balls: .215 AVG and .215 ISO (MLB average: .217 AVG and .144 ISO)

Even the best breaking ball hitters hit breaking balls worse than the average hitter hits a fastball. Every team has seen more breaking balls in the postseason. That’s what pitchers do. They force you to hit the hard-to-hit bendy stuff when the stakes are high.

During the regular season though, it was the high fastball that gave Judge the most trouble. Look at his swing-and-miss rate heat map against fastballs, via Baseball Savant:

aaron-judge-whiffs-vs-fbUp in the zone. Every hitter has trouble with breaking balls down and away. Hitters have been swinging and missing and making outs on breaking balls down and away since breaking balls became a thing. Judge is no different than anyone else in that regard.

The high fastball though, that’s a different story. Judge has proven himself to be susceptible to high fastballs in his relatively brief big league career, and it’s pretty darn impressive pitchers are able to get the ball all the way upstairs on a hitter his size. High fastballs are a great swing-and-miss pitch in general. Against Judge, they’re the most effective way to attack him. If you want to beat him, do it up at his eyes.

Mike Trout had the same problem with high fastballs a few years ago and he was able to close that hole in his swing, mostly because he’s a baseball freak who doesn’t seem real half the time. That’s the thing about strikeouts though: they tend to come down over time. George Springer went from a 33.0% strikeout rate as a rookie in 2014 to a 17.6% strikeout rate in 2017. Giancarlo Stanton went from 31.1% strikeout rate as a rookie in 2010 to 23.6% strikeout rate in 2017.

There is plenty of precedent for high strikeout hitters cutting their strikeout rate as their careers progress, and that’s what the Yankees hope will happen with Judge. It doesn’t happen with everyone, of course. It takes a certain level of baseball aptitude and athleticism to make it happen, otherwise you end up with a Mark Reynolds/Chris Davis type who flails away forever. I see Judge as more of a Springer/Stanton type than a Reynolds/Davis type, but maybe I’m just a raging homer.

Either way, Judge broke baseball this season. Never before has a hitter been this productive while posting a strikeout rate that high. No one has even come close to doing it. Before the year I came up with 25.0% as an acceptable strikeout rate. Apparently the real answer is 30.0%. Yes, it would be grand if Judge could cut his strikeout some in the coming years. But, if not, he showed this year it’s possible to strike out that much and remain an offensive monster.

About All That “Clutch” Stuff

Why is it every great hitter seems to be dogged by questions about his ability to be clutch? Alex Rodriguez lived with it his entire career, from start to finish. There’s a weird “Kris Bryant isn’t clutch” movement in Chicago, if you can believe that. Even Trout deals with it to some degree. Judge is no different. Some numbers:

  • Judge with men on base: .267/.397/.605 (155 wRC+)
  • Judge with runners in scoring position: .262/.390/.624 (151 wRC+)
  • Judge in high-leverage situations: .250/.356/.521 (107 wRC+)

FanGraphs have a conveniently named “Clutch” stat that says Judge is literally the least clutch hitter on record, which is pretty silly. The Clutch stat compares hitters to themselves, not the rest of the league. So someone who hits .300 overall and .300 in high-leverage situations is deemed unclutch because they didn’t raise their game. Judge going from a 173 wRC+ overall to a 107 wRC+ in high-leverage situations — in 59 high-leverage plate appearances, I should note — says he’s incredibly unclutch. Hmmm.

High-leverage and runner in scoring position stats fluctuate wildly from year-to-year because they’re all small sample sizes. Over time, each hitter’s numbers in those situations tend to even out with his career numbers. As far as I’m concerned, there’s a runner in scoring position every time Judge steps to the plate because of his power. He’s a threat to put a run on the board even when the bases are empty. If you don’t want Judge at the plate in a big spot, that’s your thing. I want him up there because he’s one of the most devastating offensive forces in baseball.

Defense & Baserunning

I don’t think the average fan — not the average Yankee fan, the average baseball fan who follows their team most closely — doesn’t realize how good Judge is in the field and on the bases. He’s a finalist for the right field Gold Glove, and while Gold Gloves are kinda stupid, it’s not undeserved. Some fielding numbers:

  • UZR: +6.1 runs saved (sixth among all right fielders)
  • DRS: +9 runs saved (fifth among all right fielders)
  • Total Zone: +19 plays above average (third among all right fielders)

The available data says Judge is a top five-ish defensive right fielder. Those stats account for his range and his throwing arm, which is a rocket. Among right fielders with at least 100 fielding chances, Judge’s 54.3% hold rate was third best in baseball. That means runners did not attempt to take the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) against Judge 54.3% of the time. The MLB average is 47.7%.

On the bases Judge went 9-for-13 (69%) stealing bases, and his extra base taken rate was 44%, above the 40% league average. Both FanGraphs (+0.0 runs) and Baseball Prospectus (-0.1 runs) say he’s an average baserunner, and I don’t know about you, but being an average baserunner at that size seems pretty good to me. Guys that big tend to be slow as hell. One thing though: I am totally cool with Judge never stealing a base again. Look at this slide:

Can we not with that? Judge is listed at 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds. Those slides are like a car crash. In my opinion — which is based on zero evidence, I should note — the risk (injury) is not worth the reward (extra 90 feet). I appreciate the effort and doing what you can to help the team win. But those slides at that size are dangerous. Let’s stick to adding value on the bases by going first-to-third and things like that, mmmkay?

2018 Outlook

The hope going into this season was Judge would make the transition from right fielder of the future to right fielder of the present, and show signs of becoming a middle of the order bat. He did that before the end of May. Judge is under control through 2022 and he won’t even be arbitration-eligible until 2020, so the Yankees have him dirt cheap for the foreseeable future. He’s one of the best bargains in baseball.

What’s the goal going forward? More consistency, for one. Avoiding that big ugly midseason slump would be cool. Look at his wRC+ graph, via FanGraphs:

aaron-judge-wrc

Avoiding that dip in the middle sure would be nice going forward. That big dip is likely why Altuve, not Judge, will win MVP. Cutting down on the strikeouts too. That is the obvious flaw in Judge’s game — arguably the only flaw in his game — and given his size and strike zone, he’s always going to strike out a bunch. But if he can bring that 30.7% strikeout rate down around 25.0%, or maybe even 20.0% to 22.0% in time, it’ll serve him well long-term. Experience will help with that, and if nothing else, Judge has shown he can take instruction and make adjustments.

Gardner and Judge named 2017 Gold Glove finalists

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Once again, Brett Gardner is one of three finalists for the AL Gold Glove award in left field. MLB and Rawlings announced the Gold Glove finalists today, and in addition to Gardner, Aaron Judge is a finalist in right field as well. Neat. Here are all the Gold Glove finalists.

Gardner won his first Gold Glove last season and is a finalist for the fourth time in his career (2011, 2015-17). He’s up against Alex Gordon and Justin Upton, and with Gordon beginning to fade and no longer getting by on reputation, Gardner has a pretty good chance to win the award for the second straight season. It certainly wouldn’t be undeserved.

As for Judge, this is his first time as a Gold Glove finalist (duh), and he’s up against Mookie Betts and Kole Calhoun. Betts is probably going to win, but I’m glad Judge is at least a finalist. The man is so much more than monster home runs. He’s a very good defensive right fielder and I’m happy to see him get some recognition.

Didi Gregorius could’ve easily been a Gold Glove finalist at shortstop, though the AL shortstop crop is crowded, and he was unable to crack the top. That’s not surprisingly considering he missed a month with an injury. Elvis Andrus, Francisco Lindor, and Andrelton Simmons are up for the AL Gold Glove at short. Yeah. Also, Masahiro Tanaka is a snub. He’s a great fielder.

Prior to Gardner last season, the last Yankees to win a Gold Glove were Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano, both in 2012. I think Gardner has a pretty good chance to win again this season. Judge will probably lose out to Betts, but whatever. The Gold Glove winners will be announced Tuesday, Nov. 7th.

Reviewing RAB’s ten bold predictions for the 2017 season

Thanks for making me look smart, Chad. (Bob Levey/Getty)
Thanks for making me look smart, Chad. (Bob Levey/Getty)

Sadly, the 2017 Yankees season came to an end Saturday night, with a loss to the Astros in Game Seven of the ALCS. On one hand, falling one win short of a World Series spot sucks always and forever. On the other hand, the 2017 Yankees were a pretty awesome team. I haven’t had this much fun following the Yankees in a long time. I won’t forget this season.

Back in March, four days before Opening Day, I made ten bold predictions for the 2017 Yankees season. And now that the season is over, it’s time to go back and see how I did. One thing this exercise taught me: I need to go bolder next year. Most of this year’s bold predictions were more mild than bold. Eh, whatever. This was my first crack at this. Now I know better for next season. To the bold predictions review!

1. Pitchers not currently on the 40-man roster will combine for 30+ starts.

Yeah, I probably should’ve gone with something like 50+ starts instead of 30+ starts if I wanted to be bold. Here is the games started leaderboard among players who were not on the 40-man roster as of the bold predictions post:

  1. Jordan Montgomery: 29
  2. Sonny Gray: 11
  3. Jaime Garcia: 8
  4. Caleb Smith: 2

That is 50 starts — 50 starts! — by pitchers who weren’t on the 40-man roster at the end of Spring Training. Nearly one-third of the season. The Yankees had some serious questions at the back of their rotation this year, though I figured guys like Luis Cessa, Bryan Mitchell, and Chad Green would get most of the chances to fill in since they were already on the 40-man. That didn’t happen. Cessa, Mitchell, and Green combined for seven starts this season — five by Cessa and one each for Mitchell and Green.

2. Judge finishes in the top three of the Rookie of the Year voting.

Well, technically we don’t know the answer to this yet since the awards haven’t been announced yet, but yeah. Aaron Judge is going to be named AL Rookie of the Year. It should be unanimous, but you never know. The rookie WAR leaderboard:

  1. Aaron Judge, Yankees: +8.2
  2. Cody Bellinger, Dodgers: +4.0
  3. Paul DeJong, Cardinals: +3.0
  4. Matt Chapman, Athletics: +2.7
  5. Jordan Montgomery, Yankees: +2.7

If Judge doesn’t win AL Rookie of the Year, it’ll be a travesty.

3. A pitcher other than Tanaka, Betances, and Chapman makes the All-Star Team.

I am 3-for-3 so far. Luis Severino made the All-Star Team this season. And he made it clean. He wasn’t an injury replacement or a Final Vote guy or anything. He was an original member of the AL All-Star roster. In the bold predictions post I guessed Michael Pineda would be the pitcher other than Masahiro Tanaka, Dellin Betances, and Aroldis Chapman to make the All-Star Team. I don’t know why anyone listens to me.

4. Green emerges as the next great Yankees reliever.

I am proud of this one. I believed Green had the tools to be a very effective reliever, mostly because his fastball generated so many swings and misses, even as a starting pitcher last season. His slider is just okay and his changeup basically doesn’t exist. I figured he’d eventually end up in the bullpen at some point, impress while airing it out for an inning or two at a time, and eventually enter the Circle of Trust™. That is pretty much exactly what happened. I’d be lying if I said I expected Green to be this good, but I had a feeling there was a potentially dominant reliever hiding in there somewhere. This is why people listen to me, I guess. Every once in a while I luck into looking smart.

5. Neither Sanchez nor Bird will lead the Yankees in home runs.

Remember Greg Bird‘s Spring Training? He was a monster and it looked like he was about to have a huge season. That’s why I included him in this bold prediction. Obviously the ankle injury changed things. Gary Sanchez was ridiculous during his two-month cameo last year, and pretty much everyone expected him to be the team’s best hitter this summer. The 2017 Yankees home run leaderboard:

  1. Aaron Judge: 52
  2. Gary Sanchez: 33
  3. Didi Gregorius: 25
  4. Brett Gardner: 21
  5. Matt Holliday: 19

In the bold predictions post I picked Starlin Castro to lead the Yankees in homers in 2017. For real. Here’s what I wrote:

I’m boldly predicting Sanchez and Bird will finish second and third on the Yankees in home runs, in either order. Judge could sock 25+ dingers, which would probably be enough to lead all rookies, though I don’t think he’ll lead the Yankees either. Not Matt Holliday or Chris Carter either. My pick? Starlin Castro. Boom. Castro turned 27 last week and is at the age where maximum power output could be reasonably expected. He set a career high with 21 dingers last year, and now that he’s entering his second year with the Yankees and is presumably more comfortable with things, I’m saying he’ll get to 30 this year.

Castro finished sixth on the team with 16 home runs, though he spent two stints on the disabled list with hamstring injuries. Otherwise he would’ve cleared 20 homers easily, maybe even 25. And he still wouldn’t have been even halfway to Judge. Yeah, technically I got this bold prediction right, but the Castro pick is kinda embarrassing. I’m ashamed.

6. The Yankees do more buying than selling at the trade deadline.

Remember when we were all talking about the Yankees as sellers? Good times. The Yankees sold at last year’s trade deadline, and they weren’t projected to be all that good this season, so of course we thought they might sell again. Tanaka, Betances, Holliday, Gardner, and others represented potentially tradeable pieces.

Ultimately, the Yankees bought at the trade deadline with two big trades and one smaller deal. A quick recap:

Don’t forget about the Tyler Webb for Garrett Cooper blockbuster. All buying, no selling.

7. Ellsbury, not Gardner, is the outfielder traded away.

Nope. Neither was traded away. The outfielder traded away was, uh, Fowler? Poor Dustin. His injury was definitely the worst moment of the season. Once the injury happened, part of me hoped the Yankees would make the postseason and invite him to throw out the first pitch at some point. That would’ve been cool. The Yankees traded him instead. This business is cruel.

8. Rutherford will take over as the No. 1 prospect in the organization.

Nope. Rutherford was traded too, so he can’t be the No. 1 prospect in the organization. That said, even if he hadn’t been traded, he wouldn’t have taken over as the top prospect, even with Gleyber Torres blowing out his non-throwing elbow and needing Tommy John surgery. Rutherford did not have a good season overall:

  • With the Yankees: .281/.342/.391 (113 wRC+) with two homers, 18.1 K%, 8.2 BB%
  • With the White Sox: .213/.289/.254 (63 wRC+) with no homers, 15.4 K%, 9.6 BB%
  • Overall (all at Low-A): .260/.326/.348 (98 wRC+) with two homers, 17.3 K%, 8.6 BB%

I certainly wouldn’t give up on Rutherford based on a disappointing first full season as a pro. The kid is still incredibly talented and it could click next year. He’s not a better prospect than Torres though. This bold prediction didn’t come true. (MLB.com currently ranks Gleyber as the top prospect in baseball with Rutherford sitting at No. 39, for what it’s worth.)

9. The Yankees will have the most productive DH spot in baseball.

For the first two and a half months of the season, this one was looking pretty good. Holliday had a fantastic start to the season. Then he got sick and just stopped hitting in mid-June, two things that may or may not be related. Here is where the Yankees ranked among the 15 AL teams in DH production:

  • AVG: .235 (11th)
  • OBP: .327 (4th)
  • SLG: .429 (5th)
  • OPS+: 105 (3rd)
  • HR: 28 (5th)

The Mariners had the most productive DH spot pretty much across the board thanks to Nelson Cruz. They were first in AVG (.288), first in SLG (.547), first in OPS+ (148), first in homers (39), and second in OBP (.374). Only the Indians were better in OBP (.391).

10. The Yankees will spend more days in first place than last year.

I kinda cheated with this one. The Yankees spent zero days in first place last year. They didn’t win the AL East this season, though they did spend 62 days in first place, more than 2013 (17 days), 2014 (24 days), and 2016 (zero days) combined. (They spent 100 days in first place in 2015.) I closed the bold predictions post with this:

Even with the questions at the back of the rotation, I believe this team is better than last year, and it’ll show when they get off to a better start in April. They’ve had some trouble keeping their head above water early on the last few seasons.

The Yankees went 15-8 with a +43 run differential in April, the best record in the AL. And off they went.

Yankeemetrics: Sweet season, bitter ending (ALCS)

I want to thank everyone for being such great followers, fans and readers during this incredible season. It’s been a wild and crazy ride, and your loyal support has meant so much to me and the rest of the RAB crew. The Chase for 28 begins today. #Lovethisteam

(USA Today Sports)
(USA Today Sports)

Trouble in Texas
Riding a huge wave of momentum following their epic comeback against the Indians, the Yankees flat-lined in the ALCS opener, losing 2-1 and digging themselves into an early series hole yet again. They were flummoxed by Dallas Keuchel, who also made a little history along the way:

  • He is the fourth pitcher to hold the Yankees without a run and strike out at least 10 guys in a postseason game, joining Cliff Lee (2010 ALCS), Randy Johnson (2001 World Series) and Pedro Martinez (1999 ALCS)
  • Combined with his 2015 Wild Card Game masterpiece (6 innings, 0 runs, 7 strikeouts), Keuchel is the first pitcher ever to strike out at least seven guys and allow no runs in back-to-back playoff starts against the Yankees

The Yankees wasted their one big scoring opportunity in the fifth inning when Aaron Judge laced a single into left field and Greg Bird was thrown out at home plate trying to score from second. We’ll let Bird explain the play in his own words: “I’m too slow,” Bird told reporters after the game. “Wish I was a little faster. That’s baseball.”

Hard to argue with that analysis. Bird is the second-slowest Yankee according to Statcast’s Sprint Speed metric, ahead of only Chase Headley. Bird tried to make up for his rally-killing blunder with a two-out solo homer in ninth that trimmed the deficit to 2-1. The 399-foot drive was notable because, with the Yankees down to their last out, he saved them from being blanked and produced our first Obscure Yankeemetric of the Series:

The last Yankee to hit a postseason homer with two outs in the ninth to prevent a shutout was … yeah, you guessed it … Scott Brosius in Game 5 of the 2001 World Series. Of course, Brosius also had Jorge Posada on second base at the time, and the outcome was much much different.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Deja vu in Texas
More heartbreak, more losses for the Yankees on Saturday as they dropped a second straight excruciating game by the score of 2-1, this time via Carlos Correa’s game-ending double, and put themselves in yet another 0-2 series hole.

It was their second walk-off loss in October, making this only the second postseason in franchise history they’ve dropped two games in walk-off fashion. The other year was 2004.

What makes the two-games-to-nil deficit so crushing – and historic – is the double-whammy effect of losing two close contests while getting outstanding pitching in both matchups. Only one other team in postseason history lost each of its first two games of any series by one run while giving up no more than two runs in each game. In the 1950 World Series, the Phillies lost by scores of 1-0 and 2-1 Games 1 and 2 to the Yankees, who eventually finished them off in a sweep.

They were dominated again by an Astros starter, as Justin Verlander tossed a masterful 13-strikeout complete game while giving up one run. Only four other pitchers have gone the distance while striking out at least 13 Yankees in the postseason: Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax (1963 World Series) and Bob Gibson (1964 World Series), plus Dodgers righthander Carl Erskine in the 1953 World Series.

Combined with Keuchel’s 10-strikeout gem in Game 1, they are the first set of teammates with back-to-back double-digit strikeout games against the Yankees in a playoff series.

One of the few Yankee highlights was Tommy Kahnle‘s brilliant and near-perfect two-inning performance. Coming off his ALDS Game 4 outing when he retired all six batters faced, Kahnle joined Mariano Rivera (1996, 2003) and Goose Gossage (1978) as the only Yankees with back-to-back postseason games of at least two hitless innings pitched.

(New York Post)
(New York Post)

Home sweet home
A return to the Bronx was the perfect elixir for the ice-cold Yankee bats, which broke out of their mini-slump in a 8-1 blowout Game 3 win. More importantly, the victory snapped a miserable seven-game losing streak in ALCS contests, which was the second-longest in MLB postseason history, and trailed only a 10-game slide by the Red Sox from 1988-1999.

Todd Frazier ignited the offensive outburst in the second inning when he golfed a 95-mph fastball at his shins into the right-field seats for his first career postseason homer. While it is remarkable that the homer left his bat at 100 mph and went an estimated 365 feet, the fact that it found the seats was nearly as shocking:

Per Statcast data, a batted ball with an exit velocity of 100 mph a and launch angle of 21 degrees produces a homer just six percent of the time. And per Hittrackeronline.net, given weather conditions of 70 degrees and no wind, the hit would have cleared the fences in only one ballpark.

So let’s give Frazier a nice #FunFact shout-out for that improbable blast: he is the first Yankee third baseman to homer with at least two men on base in a postseason game since … Scott Brosius’ three-run, go-ahead homer off Trevor Hoffman in the eighth inning of Game 3 of the 1998 World Series.

Aaron Judge capped off the offensive fireworks with a screaming liner over the left-field fence in the fourth inning that plated three runs to make it 8-0. The only other time the Yankees hit multiple three-run homers in a postseason game was when Lou Piniella and Graig Nettles each did it in Game 2 of the 1981 ALCS against the A’s.

Perhaps no player on the Yankees has personified their Fighting Spirit more than CC Sabathia, who delivered yet another vintage clutch performance. He tossed six shutout innings – amazingly, his first career scoreless postseason outing – and bolstered his season-long reputation as The Stopper: Sabathia improved to 10-0 with a 1.69 ERA in 13 starts following a Yankee loss in 2017.

At the age of 37, Sabathia has thrived by working the edges of the zone and generating tons of weak contact. Among starters (min. 300 batted balls), no pitcher had a lower opponent average exit velocity than Sabathia (83.9 mph) during the regular season and his soft-contact rate was the fifth-highest (min. 140 IP). He used that formula on Monday, too, with an average exit velocity allowed of 73.7 mph, the lowest by any starter in a postseason game since Statcast began tracking the data in 2015.

With this latest dominant outing, Sabathia also extended his playoff run of stingy pitching in front of the hometown crowd. He has a 1.61 ERA in seven postseason starts at Yankee Stadium, with two earned runs or fewer in each of those games. The only other Yankee pitcher that can match his streak of seven straight postseason starts at home and no more than two earned runs allowed is Whitey Ford.

(AP)
(AP)

Bedlam in the Bronx
The Comeback Kings struck again on Tuesday night as this never-say-die, no-quit team staged yet another stunning late-game rally to beat the Astros 6-4 in a Game 4 thriller. Down 4-0 with nine outs to go? No problem!

This was the Yankees first postseason win in the Bronx when trailing by at least four runs since Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. They’ve also made a habit of overcoming big deficits in the postseason, regardless of venue. Since the start of 2009, their five playoff wins when trailing by at least three runs at any point in the game are the most of any team in that span.

The unbelievable comeback wouldn’t have been possible without a dazzling performance on the mound by Sonny Gray. He was charged with two runs (one earned) and held the Astros to one hit before hitting the showers in the sixth, yet he got stuck with a no-decision because the Yankee bats were lifeless through the first six frames. Gray has now thrown 21 1/3 innings in the playoffs over four starts and received exactly zero runs of support while in the game.

Let’s get back to the incredible rally, which was sparked by a solo homer from Aaron Judge in the seventh. He drilled a first-pitch curveball 427 feet into Monument Park, an impressive feat given his struggles against curves this postseason. Since the start of the Division Series and prior to the home run, Judge had seen 57 curveballs, and hit none of them in fair territory. This is how it broke down:

29 called balls
14 called strikes
14 swings
12 whiffs
2 fouls

Judge later added to his growing October Legend with a game-tying double – off a slider! – in the eighth inning. Let’s reward Judge with another #FunFact: He’s the second Yankee age 25 or younger to have consecutive playoff games with at least one homer and two RBI. The other is a fella named Lou Gehrig, who did it in the 1928 World Series.

Finally, Gary Sanchez went from Goat to Hero with one swing of the bat when he smoked a go-ahead double into the right-centerfield gap for a 6-4 lead. Before that clutch hit, Sanchez was 0-for-13 in the series and hitless in his last 18 at-bats, the longest drought without a hit of his major-league career.

El Gary earns our Obscure Yankeemetric of the Series for his game-winning heroics. Only three other Yankees have hit a tie-breaking double in the eighth inning or later of a postseason game: Thurman Munson (1977 World Series Game 1), Tino Martinez (1996 ALCS Game 3) and Alex Rodriguez (2009 World Series Game 4).

(NJ.com)
(NJ.com)

Masterful Masahiro
The Yankees continued their magical October run in the Bronx with a drama-free 5-0 win over the Astros in Game 5.

They pummeled ex-Yankee-killer and former postseason ace Dallas Keuchel, who entered the game with the lowest career ERA (1.09) against the Yankees of any pitcher in baseball history (min. 50 IP) and the lowest postseason career ERA (1.69) of any active starter (min. 25 IP). He no longer holds those titles after getting battered on Wednesday by the unstoppable Bronx Bomber bats.

Gary Sanchez led the way with two run-scoring hits, an RBI single in the fifth and a solo blast in the seventh. That homer was his third of the postseason, as he matched two of his fellow Baby Bombers (Greg Bird and Aaron Judge) and Didi Gregorius for the team lead.

The Yankees are the first team in major-league history to have three players age 25 or younger hit at least three home runs in the same postseason. And this is the first postseason in Yankees history they’ve had four players – of any age – with three-plus homers.

Aaron Judge drilled a double down the left-field line in the third inning to score Brett Gardner for his team-leading 10th RBI of the playoffs. He joined a 25-year-old Manny Ramirez in 1997 as the youngest corner outfielders to drive in at least 10 runs within a postseason.

(New York Post)
(New York Post)

The true superstar of the game was the Yankees latest ace on the mound, Masahiro Tanaka. He dialed up another gem, blanking the Astros over seven brilliant innings while scattering three hits and striking out eight. Combined with his nearly identical effort in Game 1 of the Division Series, Tanaka joined Roger Clemens (2000) as the only Yankees with multiple starts of at least seven scoreless innings and three hits or fewer allowed in the same postseason.

Tanaka has put together a stellar postseason resume with a 1.44 ERA and 0.80 WHIP in four career starts. Most impressively, he’s given up no more than two runs and no more than four hits in each of those games. The only other pitcher in baseball history that can match Tanaka’s dominance – two or fewer runs and four or fewer hits allowed – in each of his first four postseason starts was Blue Moon Odom for the Oakland A’s in 1972.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Bump in the road
The series headed south for the final two games and the Yankees found themselves in trouble again deep in the heart of Texas.

They lost 7-1 in Game 6, tied for their second-largest loss in a potential clinching game on the road …. and you probably want to forget the largest (a 15-2 blowout in Game 6 of 2001 World Series in Arizona). Making the loss even more miserable was the fact that the Astros were winless in their five previous playoff games at home when facing elimination.

The Astros bats exploded for seven runs on eight hits against the normally tough Yankees pitching staff, which had actually been on an incredible run dating back to the middle of the Division Series. They’d held the Indians and Astros to no more than six hits in eight straight games from ALDS Game 3 through ALCS Game 5, the longest such streak by any team in MLB postseason history.

Still, they could have nearly pitched a perfect game and it wouldn’t have mattered given how dominant Justin Verlander was once again with his team on the brink of a long winter. He tossed seven scoreless innings with eight strikeouts, racking up a bunch of notable feats:

  • First player in major-league history to pitch three consecutive scoreless starts of seven-plus innings with his team facing postseason elimination.
  • Third straight playoff start against the Yankees giving up no more than one run (dating back to 2012 ALCS Game 3), the only pitcher ever to have a streak like that against the Yankees in October.
  • Combined with his 13-strikeout performance in Game 2, he is the fourth pitcher to strike out at least 20 Yankees in a single postseason series. Bob Gibson (31, 1964 World Series), Curt Schilling (26, 2001 World Series) and Sandy Koufax (23, 1963 World Series) are the others.

Aaron Judge helped the Yankees avoid the embarrassment of getting blanked with a mammoth solo blast in the eight inning, his third homer in the ALCS and fourth of the postseason. His four total dingers set the rookie franchise record for a postseason, while he joined Alex Rodriguez (2009 ALCS) and Hank Bauer (1958 World Series) as the only Yankee right-handed batters to go deep at least three times in a single playoff series.

The game turned into a rout thanks to a rare implosion by David Robertson in the eighth inning. He faced four batters, who went homer-double-single-double before he was pulled. His final line – four runs, four hits, no outs – was ugly and historic: Robertson is the only Yankee ever to cough up at least four runs and four hits while recording zero outs in a postseason game.

(New York Post)
(New York Post)

You can’t win them all …
The Yankees magical, rollercoaster season finally came to an end thanks to a 4-0 Game 7 loss on Saturday night in Houston. Their comeback mojo expired, the Fighting Spirit went dry and this never-say-die team was unable to survive another do-or-die game. Still, what the Yankees were trying to accomplish, defying all expectations to make the World Series under the toughest circumstances, would have been such an incredible and rare feat. Consider these odds:

  • Only two teams have ever defeated 100-win teams in both the Division Series and League Championship Series (2001 Yankees and 1998 Padres)
  • The Yankees were the fifth team to play the maximum number games in the LDS and LCS in the Wild Card era — only one of those five were able to win both series (2012 Giants)
  • Only two teams have ever comeback from multiple 0-2 series deficits in the same postseason (1981 Dodgers, 1985 Royals), and neither of those teams faced two 100-win teams, which was the unprecedented task facing the Yankees

Ultimately, the Yankees inexplicable road/home splits sealed their fate this postseason. Saturday’s blanking was the second time they were shut out in the playoffs — the other was Game 1 of the ALDS in Cleveland — making this the first postseason in franchise history they suffered two shutouts on the road. They were held to one run or fewer for the fourth straight road game, tied for the second-longest such streak in MLB postseason history, trailing only the Brooklyn Dodgers’ six-gamer from 1916-20.

The Yankees somehow finished 1-6 on the road while going a perfect 6-0 at home in the playoffs. They are the fourth team ever to complete a postseason with a 6-0 or better record at home. That’s good! The other three clubs (2008 Phillies, 1999 Yankees, 1987 Twins) each won the World Series. That’s … less than good.

Regardless of the bittersweet ending, this season was so so much better than good.

Glow and Grow

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Before we begin, a sincere thanks to you, dear readers, for following along during the season and the playoffs. We all appreciate your day in, day out support and couldn’t do any of this without you. Please continue to read, share, and support the–frankly–great work that goes on here. Yankees Only. 

Reflection and feedback are key to our growth in anything we do. Whether we’re students or professionals in whatever field, we don’t move forward unless we take stock of what’s happened, how it happened, why it happened, and what to do next. When the Yankee organization goes through this process, they’ll have plenty to be happy about.

I said it all year. You said it all year. Everyone said it all year. This was not supposed to be ‘the year’ for the Yankees. This was supposed to be a year in which they won 85 games if everything clicked right. Everything clicked way right and they won 91 games and took one of the two best teams in the AL to seven games in the ALCS. Despite the repetition, I don’t think this can be said enough. What the Yankees did this year is nothing short of shocking in the best possible way.

They led the league in homers. They were second in runs. Top three in AVG/OBP/SLG. Their pitchers were third in ERA and fourth in strikeouts.

Aaron Judge? An MVP type season. Gary Sanchez? A 24 year old catcher with 30 homer power and the ability to throw out nearly 40% of base stealers. Luis Severino? A Cy Young caliber season. Chad Green? The next Dellin Betances. Greg Bird? A great playoff run to inspire hope for 2018. Clint Frazier? Forced his arrival early and showed flashes of brilliance in his cup of coffee.

What was the worst thing that happened to this team? Michael Pineda‘s injury? As sad as it was to see Big Mike go down, they didn’t miss him. Matt Holliday‘s second half of doom? It didn’t sink the team. Chris Carter? Total disaster, but they recovered.

2017, in so many ways, was glowing for the Yankees. They do have things to improve, mainly Dellin Betances remembering he’s Dellin damn Betances and fixing whatever ailed him for the last month or so of the season. They have to figure out their third base situation and the outfield logjam.

For this team, there is room to grow. For this team, the future is bright. We got an unexpectedly great taste this year, and hopefully, this is just the appetizer. While baseball will break your heart more often than not, this team looks to be set up for long-term success.

The World Series or bust mentality has certainly gone away in the last few years, and that’s a good thing. Despite that, expectations were the lowest for this team than they had been in years. Not only did the Yankees beat those expectations, they shattered them. If anyone–friend, family, foe–tells you that this year was a disappointment, a failure, laugh at that person. This was probably the most fun season the Yankees have had since 2009 and there should be many more just like around the corner.

The small things added up in Yankees’ Game Four win

Slip 'N Slide (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Slip ‘N Slide (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Whenever you have a big win, some big things have to go your way. A homer here, a double there, a strikeout here, a double play there. This all kind of goes without saying.

But there are also the little things that change everything. The borderline strike call. The tiny bit of experience you have against the opposing pitcher. The fielder being shaded a foot this way or that.

In Game 4, the big ones are obvious. The Aaron Judge hits (MVP!), Gary Sanchez‘s double and really any hit from the seventh inning on. Chad Green and Aroldis Chapman keeping the Astros relatively silent. But I wanted to break down or simply note a few of the small details that changed the complexion of the contest and led to perhaps the Yankees’ biggest win since Nov. 4, 2009.

1. Sitting on McCullers’ curve: Going into Game Four, Judge had about as good a feel against Lance McCullers as any Yankee hitter. He was 2 for 4 with a double and a walk against the righty in five career plate appearances and walked in one of his first two PAs on Tuesday.

McCullers is obviously a curveball-first pitcher, especially in Game 4, as he should be with that good a curve. But Judge has seen it well and McCullers has actually avoided the curve against Judge this year, often using his fastball and change. He’d only led off with a curve for a strike once, his first AB against Judge back in May.

But Judge is a smart hitter and knew to keep looking for it. It doesn’t take an MVP to hit a hanging curve, but it takes a good hitter to be waiting for the right pitch. He got his first pitch curve over the plate and took advantage.

2. The ABs against Chris Devenski: The Yankees have figured out Devenski. Some credit definitely goes to the Yankees’ advance scouts, including former reliever Matt Daley, who Suzyn Waldman mentioned on the WFAN postgame as involved in watching the Astros the last month or so.

Maybe the league has figured out Devenski and he just needs to adjust. Or maybe it’s just a rough stretch. The changeup master seems to have lost some steam in recent months and his three at-bats against Yankee batters were a perfect example.

The Bombers know to wait for his fastball and spit on his offspeed stuff, which he hasn’t been throwing for strikes. Didi Gregorius lined an 0-1 fastball for a triple (more on this in a second), Gary Sanchez got a 2-1 fastball and drove it to right and Greg Bird spat on a nice 2-2 change before drawing a walk. Bird did swing through a 2-1 change, but he made the adjustment.

3. Defensive non-replacement: In case you forgot, the Yankees lost a game to the Astros on May 11 this year because A.J. Hinch went to Jake Marisnick as a defensive replacement in left field and he threw out Jacoby Ellsbury at the plate. Marisnick is a very solid corner outfielder and would have been welcome for the Astros in the later innings.

But he’s out for this series after fracturing his thumb in September. That’s part of why Cameron Maybin was in left field to miss Greg Bird’s double on Monday and Marwin Gonzalez was in left on Tuesday. Gonzalez is a fine hitter and solid fielder, but has below average foot speed. If Hinch has Marisnick, he likely puts him in left starting in the seventh, when he would have had a chance to flag down Didi’s triple for an out. Or hold him at second. Either way, an injury to a backup on another team in September could have made a difference tonight.

4. Cutting down Gurriel: Backing up a moment, I just wanted to quickly mention the cut-off on Yuli Gurriel’s three-run double. Todd Frazier does a good job of cutting the ball, surely aided by his teammates, and getting Gurriel in a rundown. Finely executed rundown with the putout by Judge coming in from right field. The big man helping in all sorts of ways! The play helped keep the game at 3-0 for the moment and was a nice team effort.

5. Chase Headley and Joe Musgrove’s cutter: Musgrove tried a backdoor cutter to Headley to start the eighth-inning at-bat and missed. Headley mentioned postgame that he kept it in his mind that Musgrove may go back to it. Sure enough, he did on 2-2 and Headley lined it into left-center. That’s just smart baseball from Headley.

6. Headley’s slide: This one, pictured above, was delightful at the start, scary in the middle and exhilarating at the end. How many times have the Yankees made outs on the bases this postseason? Feels like too many. This was less a bad baserunning play and more bad luck with Headley stumbling. He’s a smart baserunner and gets lucky that Carlos Correa doesn’t hold the ball a split-second longer to wait him out. Phew. This was a small one that was a big one if you know what I mean.

7. The non-called strike: Judge fouled off the first pitch from Ken Giles. Like every pitcher this postseason, Giles then went for an offspeed pitch away. However, he didn’t get the call.

(Screenshot)
(Screenshot)

Perhaps he should have. Perhaps this was karma from the baseball gods for all the bad calls Judge has seen at times this postseason. If the count goes 0-2, who knows if Judge can fight his way to tie the game? At 1-1, Judge maintained some control and it led to his big double. Also helps that he’s seen Giles a few times now dating back to the regular season and knew what the tough righty threw.

There were plenty other examples.  One pitch in his walk on Friday perhaps led to Gary Sanchez’s go-ahead double off Giles. Maybe Didi’s bunt on Monday changed the Astros’ defensive alignment to allow his seeing-eye single in the eighth. It’s hard to discern at times.

The Yankees need many more big hits, defensive plays and strikeouts to get through this series and another seven-game set. To accompany those, they’ll need some of these small ones to go their way as well.

The Ghost of DH Future

The DH situation in picture form. (Ronald Martinez/Getty)
The DH situation in picture form. (Ronald Martinez/Getty)

The Yankees’ designated hitters in the playoffs have been way more ‘designated’ than they have been ‘hitters.’ It seems that no matter what name or number Joe Girardi calls for that spot in the order, it comes up empty. Chase Headley gave it a good try yesterday, robbed of a homer by Josh Reddick, and that–aside from one measly catcher’s interference by Jacoby Ellsbury (of course)–has pretty much been the extent of the offensive production by Yankee DHs against Minnesota, Cleveland, and Houston. Short of someone being injured and another player–Tyler Austin? Clint Frazier?–being added to the roster, there really isn’t much the team can do about the current DH situation aside from hope that someone runs into a pitch or two and gets out of this funk. The future of DH, though, is up in the air.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that Todd Frazier–current third baseman–makes the most sense at DH next year–though, really, this would Headley to DH as it seems the Yankees prefer Frazier defensively. This idea stems mostly from the fact that it’s unlikely the team will go with a full time DH as there aren’t many good full-time options and the team could have extra Greg Bird insurance. Frazier and the Yankees seem to like each other, but he’s going to be a free agent and will have that leverage in his back pocket. So do the Yankees, though, as it seems like Bird is back and healthy and Headley did have a decent season and is a good defender at third, also on a one year deal. Would Frazier settle for a one year deal? Probably not. With Miguel Andujar just about ready to be a Major League player and Gleyber Torres (hopefully) knocking on the door behind him, it may not be wise to stock this team with too many third base types. Granted, Headley or Frazier on a one year deal could be jettisoned, but that’s not necessarily what you want. The outfield situation may also complicate things.

As they do now, the Yankees will have four outfielders for three spots in 2018. Of course, they could flip one in a trade to free up room, but I’m still not sure there are viable markets for Brett Gardner and/or Jacoby Ellsbury. Aaron Judge isn’t going anywhere and Aaron Hicks earned a starting spot for next year with his play this year. Gardner is, fankly, better than Ellsbury. If the team is willing to let Ellsbury be a high-priced fourth outfielder, then they could get another player to DH, rather than rotating the outfielders in and out when they need a day.

The more I think about it, the more it might make sense to let Todd Frazier walk. He’s a great guy and I’ve enjoyed rooting for him in every way possible. But in terms of money and roster space, it might be best to let him go, shift Chase Headley back to third base, and roll with a rotating DH.