Three Months of a Great Designated Hitter [2017 Season Review]

(Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
(Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

I had mixed feelings about the Yankees signing Matt Holliday so early in the off-season, given the breadth of options on the market and the salary that he would be paid. The signing of Chris Carter left me with something of a bitter taste in my mouth, as Carter came at a much cheaper price, as well as the promise of similar or better production; I even wrote a bit about it. I was never terribly concerned with Holliday’s potential to rebound, but it felt like strange roster construction. I was, of course, hilariously wrong about Carter this year. Holliday, however, was brilliant from the outset.

The First Three Months

It didn’t take too long for Matt Holliday to demonstrate his aptitude for hitting, as the 37-year-old reached base safely in eight of his first nine games. That stretch included his first home run as a Yankee (which came in game four), and a team record-tying five-walk game on April 9, and he looked dialed-in at the plate. Holliday earned his pinstripes a few weeks later, when he hit a walk-off three-run home run against the Orioles on April 28.

Holliday was batting .262/.402/.492 (141 wRC+) with 4 HR and 14 RBI when April came to an end, and was as big a part of the team’s success as any hitter this season aside from Aaron Judge. He was hitting, hitting for power, and drawing walks (19.5% BB), and the term “professional hitter” was thrown around with gusto whenever his name was mentioned.

He cooled off a little bit in May, slashing .260/.321/.521 (119 wRC+). His power was up – he hit 7 HR – but there were signs that he might be selling out for power. Holliday’s walk rate dipped to 6.6%, his strikeout rate increased by 7.4 percentage points, and his flyball rate jumped by 10.8 percentage points. It was a strong month, regardless, yet it did lead to a bit of caution.

And then Holliday returned to his all-around raking ways in June, batting .264/.386/.514 (140 wRC+), with 4 HR, 15.9% walks, and just 17.0% strikeouts. It was a fantastic month, and his normalized approach was a thing of beauty. His flyball rate jumped yet again, all the way up to 48.3%, but he was hitting the ball harder and taking more pitches, so nothing seemed to be amiss.

Holliday was placed on the DL with a viral infection on June 28, and would end up sitting out for the remainder of the first half. Despite that, he was among the best designated hitters in the game as of the break:

capture
(FanGraphs)

The numbers speak for themselves here, as Holliday was third at the position in wRC+, and just four off the home run lead despite missing two weeks of games in the end of June and early July. Given his age and injury history it made sense for the Yankees to give him as much time as possible to recover, and the hope was that that would allow him to return at full-strength.

Two Months of Injuries and Awfulness

Holliday returned from the disabled list on July 14, and went 0-for-4 against the Red Sox, but nobody read much into that – it was his first game back following a long lay off. And all seemed right in the world the next evening, when he played the hero by hitting a long home run off of Craig Kimbrel to tie the game at 1-1 and send it into extra innings.

And then he stopped hitting.

From July 14 through August 4 (85 PA), Holliday hit .136/.165/.198 (-13 wRC+) with 1 HR, 3.5% walks, and 28.2% strikeouts. His bat was slow, his power was non-existent, and he seemed to have no plan at the plate. Nearly 60% of Holliday’s batted balls were grounders, and he wasn’t hitting the ball with authority (23.8% hard-hit rate, against a 35.8% mark in the first half). Given all of that, it wasn’t shocking when he went back to the DL on August 5 with a back injury.

The End of the Line

Holliday returned to the lineup on September 2, and he came back with a vengeance. He went 2-for-6 with 2 HR, 4 RBI, 2 BB, and 0 strikeouts in his first two games, and he drove the ball with authority. Unfortunately, that was basically it for Holliday as an effective hitter, as he hit .226/.276/.340 (61 wRC+) with a home run in his last 15 regular season games. He had trouble catching up with velocity, and was very aggressive with precious little in the way of positive results. As a result of this, he ended up playing in just one postseason game, going 0-for-3 in Game 1 of the ALCS.

All told, Holliday hit .179/.225/.300 (34 wRC+) with 4 HR, 6.0% walks, and 28.5% strikeouts in the second half – and it wasn’t pretty. He hit .231/.316/.432 (98 wRC+) with 19 HR in 427 PA on the season, which was actually good enough to make him a middle of the pack DH overall. That’s faint praise – though, I do believe he could’ve been at least competent in the second half if he had been healthy.

2018 Outlook

Holliday played himself out of a meaningful playoff role and, taken in conjunction with his injury issues these last three years, may well be viewed as a scrap heap player as he hits free agency. It’s highly unlikely that he has a return engagement with the Yankees, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he spent most of the off-season looking for a job.

Matt Holliday doesn’t have a clear role in the ALDS

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

All but five players on the Yankees’ 25-man ALDS roster have played in this series.

Two of the five are the Game 3 and 4 starters, Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino, who will each pitch if the series gets to Monday. One is Jordan Montgomery, the break in case of emergency reliever or blowout mop-up man. Another is Austin Romine, the backup catcher.

And then there’s Matt Holliday. What’s his role again? That’s a good question.

Holliday is no longer the designated hitter. That much is clear. The Yankees have flipped between Jacoby Ellsbury and Chase Headley at DH for the last week except during last Sunday’s meaningless game vs. the Jays. While starting Ellsbury at DH means no true backup outfielder, Joe Girardi has gone with him anyway.

Now 37-years-old, Holliday hasn’t played the outfield all year and there’s obviously no way he’s starting ahead of Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks or Aaron Judge. It’s highly doubtful the team feels comfortable with him playing the field, even at first base, which he played a few times early in the year. Greg Bird is the man at first, with Headley and Todd Frazier likely ahead of Holliday in the pecking order.

So where does Holliday fit in? In theory, he makes most sense pinch hitting (or starting) against left-handed pitching. He has normal splits, batting .220/.301/.418 (89 wRC+) vs. RHP and .267/.366/.477 (125 wRC+) vs. LHP.

The Indians have a rotation with 4-6 righties and no lefties. That means no starts.

So that leaves him as logically only worth pinch hitting against the two lefties on the Indians’ roster: former Yankees Andrew Miller and Tyler Olson. Olson pitched to only Ellsbury, Frazier and Gardner in the third/fourth inning on Friday, too early to go to a pinch hitter for Ellsbury.

Miller has pitched against the DH twice in this series. In the eighth inning on Thursday, Girardi kept Headley up there with none on and one out (he drew a walk). With Ellsbury coming up and none on, two outs in the eighth on Friday, Girardi pinch hit … Headley, not Holliday.

So in the most logical spot to use Holliday, Girardi chose Headley instead. It’s hard to quibble with the decision, too. Headley had walked vs. Miller the day before and was 5 for 7 with that walk against Miller in his career going into Friday night. Those numbers are hard to argue with.

That’s before you mention that Holliday is 0-for-4 vs. Miller and 0-for-1 vs. Olson in his career. He’s just 1-for-7 as a pinch hitter this year, 9-for-43 in his career. He doesn’t seem well-suited for the job he ostensibly fills.

So I repeat: What is his role on this roster? The Yankees could have used another pinch runner or an extra outfielder, which Tyler Wade or Clint Frazier could provide. They have DH covered. They aren’t facing many LHPs and Miller pitches well against both lefties and righties.

After being unable to play in National League parks early in the year, Holliday ironically makes the most sense in a series against an NL squad where pinch-hitting opportunities abound and all four playoff squads feature left-handed starters.

When asked on Saturday whether Holliday would play on Sunday, Girardi said, “We will continue to look at things and we’ll see.” He’s 1-for-4 with a single against Carlos Carrasco in his career, which is better than Headley’s numbers against the Indians’ starter. However, Ellsbury hits him well (8-for-21 with a triple, home run and two walks), so he makes the most sense to start.

And that likely leaves Holliday waiting on the bench once again, the 25th man on the 25-man roster. Maybe he finds his way into this series, facing Olson at an opportune time or being used to deke Terry Francona away from even going to the lefty. However, it seems like the Yankees could have put the spot to better use than a RHB without a clear position or role.

Six under-the-radar decisions that helped get the Yankees back to the postseason

Sir Didi. (Adam Hunger/Getty)
Sir Didi. (Adam Hunger/Getty)

In what was supposed to be a rebuilding transition season, the Yankees won 91 games and will play in the AL Wild Card Game tomorrow night. They remained in the hunt for the AL East title right up until the final weekend too. That’s pretty cool. Can’t say I saw this coming. This has been a fun six months, hasn’t it? Couldn’t have asked for a more enjoyable season.

Getting to the postseason and possibly maybe hopefully winning the World Series is the result of many, literally hundreds of decisions over a period of several seasons. It doesn’t happen quick. Some of the decisions that got the Yankees back to the postseason this year are obvious. Draft Aaron Judge with the 32nd pick in 2013 instead of literally anyone else. Trade for Sonny Gray and David Robertson. Sign CC Sabathia. Those are the obvious moves.

Many times it’s the not-so-obvious decisions, the multitude of easy-to-look decisions that are the difference between contending and just being okay. Don’t think much of that lightly regarded prospect thrown into a trade? Well sometimes that guy turns into Chad Green. Those are the moves and decisions that separate the contenders from the pretenders. Here are six of those not-so-obvious decisions that played a role in getting the Yankees back to the postseason.

Giving Denbo the keys to the farm system

The Yankees were never going to get back to being a perennial contender without developing players from within. You can’t build a winner through free agency anymore. Baseball has changed. And aside from a Brett Gardner here and a Dellin Betances there, the Yankees hadn’t developed an impact player since Robinson Cano as recently as two years ago. Things had to change and they did change.

Four years ago Hal Steinbrenner ordered what was essentially an audit of the farm system. The Yankees weren’t producing players and the owner wanted to know why. Hal’s evaluation of the system led to substantial changes. Coaches and player development personnel were replaced, and the minor league complex in Tampa was renovated. The status quo was not working so the Yankees changed the way they went about developing players.

The single biggest change was the (forced) retirement of longtime vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman, who’d been running the farm system for 15 years. Brian Cashman tabbed Gary Denbo, who has done basically everything there is to do in baseball throughout his career, to replace Newman, and the difference has been staggering. The Yankees are not just producing MLB players, they’re producing stars.

How much credit does Denbo deserve for the farm system turnaround? It’s hard to say, exactly. Denbo did overhaul the minor league coaching staffs — even the beloved Tony Franklin, Double-A Trenton’s longtime manager, was moved into another role — and start Captain’s Camp, among many other things. The farm system went from frustratingly unproductive to pumping out quality big league players under his watch. More than the Yankees can roster, really.

I never thought the Yankees had a problem acquiring talent (aside from the Cito Culver and Dante Bichette Jr. picks). They had talent. But that talent was not developing into MLB players. That has changed since Denbo took over, and hey, maybe it’s all one giant coincidence. I don’t think that’s the case though. Denbo replacing Newman barely registered as a blip on the radar at the time, but in the grand scheme of things, it may have been the team’s most impactful move of the last five or six years.

Letting Severino pitch in relief

Sevy. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)
Sevy. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)

The 2016 season couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start for Luis Severino. Rather than emerge as a homegrown ace, the then-22-year-old struggled big time early in the season and eventually went down with a triceps injury. He threw 35 innings with a 7.46 ERA (5.52 FIP) in seven starts before the injury, then once he got healthy, the Yankees sent him down to Triple-A Scranton.

In 13 games with the RailRiders, Severino had a 3.49 ERA (2.60 FIP) in 77.1 innings, and he was sent down for the express purpose of improving his command and improving his changeup. The Yankees did bring Severino back to the big leagues eventually, but not as a starter. As a reliever. In eleven relief appearances he threw 23.1 innings with a 0.39 ERA (2.29 FIP) and was overwhelmingly dominant. Naturally, the calls to keep Severino in the bullpen came, but the Yankees knew better and moved him back into the rotation this year.

This season Severino emerged as that homegrown ace and I don’t think that happens without his bullpen stint last season. While working in relief Severino learned how to get MLB hitters out, learned to trust his overpowering stuff, and built confidence, and it carried over this year. He looks like a reliever pitching as a starter this season. He has that same attack attack attack mentality and a better idea of how to get outs.

Development is rarely linear. So many players experience ups and downs along the way, and last season was a down year for Severino. It wasn’t a lost year though. You hope young players learn something when they struggle and Severino absolutely did. He doesn’t become the pitcher he is today without going through everything he went through last year. I know we’re all still scarred from the Joba Rules and all that, but in this case, a stint in the bullpen turned into a major positive for Severino and the Yankees.

Beltran picks the Astros

Over the winter the Yankees had a clear opening for a veteran middle of the order bat. Someone to support the youngsters and take all those designated hitter at-bats. The Yankees wanted to bring Carlos Beltran back for that role. He was Plan A. Instead, Beltran decided to take a one-year contract worth $16M with the Astros.

“They really made an offer early, faster than any other team,” said Beltran to Brian McTaggart after signing with Houston. “At the same time, I took a look at the roster, and having an opportunity to play against them last year with the Rangers, this team is very, very close to winning and winning for a long time. The fact they were aggressive and went out there and really showed big-time interest, it wasn’t that difficult to make to make a decision.”

With Beltran off the board, the Yankees shifted gears and turned their attention to Matt Holliday, the other big name veteran bat who could be had a one-year contract. The Yankees have Holliday a one-year deal worth $13M four days after Beltran signed with the Astros, and, well:

  • Holliday: .231/.316/.432 (97 wRC+) and 19 homers
  • Beltran: .231/.283/.383 (76 wRC+) and 14 homers

Holliday has crashed hard in the second half, hard enough that it’s fair to wonder whether he belongs on the postseason roster, but his first half was incredible. He hit .262/.366/.511 (132 wRC+) with 15 homers in 68 games before the All-Star break. Beltran’s best 68-game stretch this season was a .246/.301/.442 line (96 wRC+) with eleven homers from May 3rd through August 6th. Yeah.

Between Holliday’s first half production and his reported impact on Judge and other young players, the Yankees are pretty fortunate Beltran decided to return to Houston. They wound up with a slightly cheaper player who was more productive on the field and also an asset in the clubhouse (which Beltran certainly is as well).

Diamondbacks put their faith in Ahmed and Owings

Nearly three years ago, then-D’Backs general manager Dave Stewart decided he was going to dip into his team’s shortstop depth to bolster their rotation. The club had three young shortstops, none older than 24, so there was some surplus. Arizona could trade one young shortstop and still have two others on the roster. And that’s exactly what they did. The shortstops they kept: Nick Ahmed and Chris Owings. The shortstop they traded: Didi Gregorius.

  • Gregorius from 2015-17: .276/.313/.432 (98 wRC+) and +9.6 WAR
  • Ahmed from 2015-17: .228/.276/.351 (60 wRC+) and +1.9 WAR
  • Owings from: 2015-17: .255/.291/.387 (72 wRC+) and -0.5 WAR

To be fair, the D’Backs acquired Robbie Ray in the Gregorius trade, and Ray is pretty damn awesome. He threw 162 innings with a 2.89 ERA (3.72 FIP) and 32.8% strikeouts this season, and went to the All-Star Game. The trade worked out for them from the “get a young starter” perspective. The Yankees did not have a young starter to trade with the D’Backs directly, which is how the Tigers got involved. Then-Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski loved Shane Greene and served as an intermediary.

Gregorius is now a highly productive member of the Yankees because the D’Backs considered him expendable. That’s why he’s wearing pinstripes. They liked Owings and Ahmed more and identified them as their best chance to develop a shortstop of the future. “Didi has been one of the most talked-about players (in trades) for us. Looking at the possibilities for things we could do, it really came down to eventually, ‘How can we fill a need?'” said Stewart to Nick Piecoro after the trade. The D’Backs got their starter, so credit to them. That decision helped get the Yankees to where they are today.

Not making the easy move for the fifth starter’s spot

Monty. (Jamie Squire/Getty)
Monty. (Jamie Squire/Getty)

When Spring Training started, the Yankees had two open rotation spots. As it turned out, one was earmarked for Severino — didn’t I say that all offseason long? I did — leaving the fifth spot up to a good ol’ Grapefruit League competition. The fifth starter candidates: Green, Luis Cessa, Bryan Mitchell, and supposedly Adam Warren, though I never bought Warren as a rotation candidate. That group was the baseball equivalent of a shrug emoji.

Ultimately, none of the fifth starter candidates won the job. Jordan Montgomery shocked the world in camp, outpitched everyone, and won the job. The Yankees could’ve very easily gone with Cessa or Green or Mitchell, all of whom were already on the 40-man roster and had MLB experience, but no, they went with Montgomery. Johnny Barbato was the 40-man roster sacrificial lamb and Montgomery was the fifth starter.

What was expected to be a revolving door of fifth starters — when is it ever not a revolving door? — was instead steady and reliable production from Montgomery, especially in the first half. He finished the regular season with a 3.88 ERA (4.06 FIP) in 155.1 innings after pitching to a 3.65 ERA (4.05 FIP) in 91.1 first half innings. Montgomery led all rookie pitchers with +2.8 fWAR, all after coming into the season as a rotation afterthought.

There’s a pretty good chance Montgomery will not even be on the postseason roster, but make no mistake, he played a vital role in getting the Yankees back to October. He earned his spot in Spring Training and, truth be told, the only reason he had to be sent to Triple-A in the second half was to control his workload. Montgomery gave the Yankees what they’ve been seeking for years: a no nonsense starter to solidify the back of the rotation.

Going with Torreyes on the bench

It wasn’t that long ago that Rob Refsnyder was a pretty big deal around these parts. He put up very good numbers in the minors, and for the first few years of the post-Cano era, the Yankees had a revolving door at second base. The scouting reports said Refsnyder’s defense stunk, we all knew that, but wouldn’t the offense make up for it? After all, the Yankees were running guys like Brian Roberts and Stephen Drew out there.

The Yankees never believed in Refsnyder as much as the fans, so much so that when a bench spot was open last spring, they didn’t take him north. Refsnyder had a decent enough camp and was learning third base to increase his versatility. Instead, the Yankees decided to go with Ronald Torreyes, who had been in four different organizations in the previous ten months. They went with Torreyes because he could do what Refsnyder couldn’t: catch the ball.

Turns out, Torreyes had more to offer offensively as well. Refsnyder has never hit much in his various MLB stints — he authored a .170/.247/.216 (22 wRC+) batting line with the Yankees and Blue Jays this year — and he still doesn’t have a position. Torreyes, meanwhile, has settled in as a reliable utility infielder, one who filled in at shortstop and second base while Gregorius and Castro were injured earlier this year.

  • Torreyes while Didi was on DL: .308/.308/.431 in 19 games
  • Torreyes while Castro was on DL (two stints): .302/.321/.389 in 38 games

Does he draw walks? No. Does he hit for power? No. Does he even steal bases? No, not really (two all season). What Torreyes does do it get the bat on the ball (12.8%), and that prevents him from falling into deep and prolonged slumps. He’s a .300 hitter (well, .292 to be exact) and it is an empty .300, but .300 is .300, and we’re talking about a bench player. A bench player who can play all over the infield and start for a few weeks at a time if necessary.

Also, let’s not forget the off-the-field value Torreyes brings to the table. He’s a high-energy player who is universally beloved in the clubhouse. He’s a Grade-A glue guy and that is absolutely important. It’s a long season, man. Teams need players who can keep everyone loose and make it fun to go to the ballpark. Torreyes does that. He’s a solid utility player on the field and a great clubhouse guy behind the scenes.

Last spring Refsnyder was the trendy pick for that bench spot. He’d done all he needed to do in the minors to earn a chance, at least offensively and at least in the eyes of the fans, and it seemed like he would get the call. Instead, the Yankees went with the relatively unknown Torreyes, and his more functional skill set. This season he started for long stretches of time while Gregorius and Castro were out, and his production during those stints as a starter helped get the Yankees back to October.

Building the 2017 Wild Card Game roster

Think he makes the roster? (Adam Hunger/Getty)
Think he makes the roster? (Adam Hunger/Getty)

Although the Yankees are still mathematically alive in the AL East race, odds are they will go to the postseason as a wildcard team, and odds are they will host the Twins at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees have already punched their postseason ticket. Once the Red Sox clinch the AL East and the Twins clinch the second wildcard spot, everything will be set.

The Wild Card Game is, technically, its own postseason round. Teams set their 25-man Wild Card Game roster, then can make adjustments prior to the LDS. That leads to some unique roster construction. Why carry four or five starting pitchers for one game, for example? I’m a bit surprised MLB didn’t try eliminate that Wild Card Game roster rule. Or maybe they did try and were unsuccessful. Whatever.

Anyway, the Yankees carried 16 position players and nine pitchers on the 2015 Wild Card Game roster. For real. Like I said, there are better ways to use those last few roster spots than carrying extra starting pitchers. The Yankees are not guaranteed to follow the 16 position players and nine pitchers blueprint again, but it does give us an idea what to expect in advance of the Wild Card Game next Tuesday.

So, with that Wild Card Game now six days away, I figured this would be a good time to try to piece together the 25-man roster the Yankees could use for that winner-take-all affair. Really stinks the Yankees are going to win 90-ish games then have to play in that Wild Card Game, huh? Oh well. Can’t do anything about it. Let’s take a look at the potential Wild Card Game roster.

The Locks

This is the easiest group, so we might as well start here. These are the 18 players we all know will be on the Wild Card Game roster as long as they’re healthy.

Pretty straightforward, right? Right. I’m as annoyed by Dellin’s walks as much as anyone, but they’re not leaving him off the Wild Card Game roster in favor of … Chasen Shreve? Jonathan Holder? Ben Heller? Gio Gallegos? Another starter? Yeah, no. These 18 dudes will be on the Wild Card Game roster.

Locks, If Healthy

Aaron Hicks (oblique) returned last night and Adam Warren (back) is expected back soon. At one point earlier this season it seemed Hicks would start the Wild Card Game, maybe even hit first or second, but not anymore. The injury and Jacoby Ellsbury’s late season resurgence put an end to that. He’ll be on the Wild Card Game roster as the fourth outfielder though, as long as he’s healthy. Warren will of course be on the roster as well. Again, as long as he’s healthy. Health is the only reason these two wouldn’t be on the Wild Card Game roster. They’re on, so add them to the locks and that’s already 20 players.

The Extra Starters

Like I said, the Yankees carried only nine pitchers on the 2015 Wild Card Game roster. That’s typical. It’s one game, not a series, so there’s no need to carry all five starters. The Yankees figure to carry the scheduled starter (duh), a backup starter in case the scheduled starter is unable to go for whatever reason (hurt during warmups, sick before the game, etc.), and an extra starter should things go crazy in extra innings. Three starters seems like the right amount to me.

Severino is on track to start the Wild Card Game with one extra day of rest. That’s the easy part. Who backs him up? That will depend as much on the pitching schedule as anything. Whoever starts the final regular season game Sunday won’t be on the Wild Card Game roster Tuesday, for example. Right now, Sonny Gray lines up to pitch the day of the Wild Card Game on normal rest and Jordan Montgomery is on track to pitch that day with two extra days of rest. Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia, meanwhile, would be on short rest that day.

Sonny. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
Sonny. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Because of the schedule, Gray and Montgomery seem like the obvious candidates to be the backup starters behind Severino. I suppose Jaime Garcia could be in the mix given how he dominated the Twins last week, though I think that’s unlikely. The Yankees could always call an audible and change the rotation this week, but that would surprise me. They’ll have their best ready to go in Severino. Assuming Warren is healthy, Severino plus Gray and Montgomery gets the Yankees to nine pitchers and 22 players on the roster overall.

The Final Bench Spots

The 12 locks plus a hopefully healthy Hicks gets the Yankees to 13 position players, leaving three open spots should the Yankees again go the 16 position players plus nine pitchers route. Realistically, there are five candidates for those three roster spots: Miguel Andujar, Tyler Austin, Clint Frazier, Erik Kratz, and Tyler Wade. Garrett Cooper didn’t even get a September call-up, so I he’s not a postseason roster candidate. Ditto Kyle Higashioka.

I think Austin is on the postseason roster for sure. He’d give Joe Girardi a right-handed power bat on bench and, just as importantly, a backup first baseman should Bird (or Headley) get lifted for a pinch-runner. You don’t want to give up the DH or have to play Holliday at first base in the Wild Card Game. Austin’s righty power and ability to play first base (and right field in a pinch) seems pretty clearly worth a Wild Card Game roster spot in my opinion. Easy call.

Wade, even though he basically never plays, strikes me as someone who has a leg up on a Wild Card Game roster spot as well. He’d give the Yankees coverage all around the infield and can play left field in a pinch as well. Also, he can run. Crazy fast. Maybe the Yankees don’t consider him a designated pinch-runner option — they didn’t acquire that player this September — but still, the situation could present itself, and Wade is the closest thing the Yankees have to a true burner available. I think he’s on the roster as the 24th or 25th player.

Frazier’s roster fate could be tied to Hicks. If Hicks re-injures the oblique or simply can’t get going these next few days, Frazier would be the obvious candidate to serve as the fourth outfielder in the Wild Card Game. I love Frazier, but I’m really hoping Hicksie is on that Wild Card Game roster. He’s such a weapon when right. The Yankees could always carry Hicks and Frazier, in which case Frazier’s role would be extra righty bat, fifth outfielder, and potential pinch-runner. Frazier is low key fast as hell. That could come in handy at some point during a close game.

The Yankees don’t trust Andujar’s defense at third base right now — they’ve made that clear given how little he’s played there so far — and he can’t play any other positions, so he doesn’t have much to offer in the Wild Card Game. He’d be an extra righty bat and emergency third baseman. That’s it. Kratz? Don’t be surprised if he’s on the roster. The Yankees carried three catchers in the 2015 Wild Card Game — Sanchez, who had two September at-bats in 2015, was on the Wild Card Game roster that year — and they could do so again, just for an emergency. You know we’re in for at least one Wild Card Game roster surprise, right? Right.

If Hicks and Warren are healthy enough to make the Wild Card Game roster, and it sure looks like that’ll be the case, I think those final three position player spots wind up going to Austin, Kratz, and Wade. Austin hits, Wade fields and can run, and Kratz is there for peace of mind. Here’s a recap of the 25-man roster we’ve talked out in this post:

Catchers Infielders Outfielders Starters Relievers
Sanchez Bird Austin Severino (SP) Betances
Romine Castro Ellsbury Gray Chapman
Kratz Frazier Gardner Montgomery Green
Gregorius Hicks Kahnle
DH Headley Judge Robertson
Holliday Torreyes  Wade Warren

Austin and Wade are more utility players than true outfielders, but I stuck them in the outfield section for easy table building purposes. The Twins are going to start a right-hander no matter what in the Wild Card Game — the only lefty in their rotation is up-and-down depth guy Adalberto Mejia, and he sure as heck isn’t starting that game — so I imagine Bird will be in the starting lineup and Holliday will not. Holliday has been pretty terrible against righties lately.

The Yankees, of course, don’t want to use their 25-man roster in the Wild Card Game. They’d like to stick with their nine starting position players and three, maybe four pitchers, tops. That would be the ideal Wild Card Game scenario. The rules say you have to carry a 25-man roster though, and you knows, maybe those 23rd and 24th and 25th players on the roster end up being a factor. No one plans for it to happen that way, but baseball can be weird sometimes.

Looking Ahead to the 2018 Roster

(Leon Halip/Getty)
(Leon Halip/Getty)

First of all, let’s take a moment to congratulate the Yankees on securing a playoff spot in 2017. This team was expected to maybe compete for the second wild card spot if everything broke their way, and now they’re on track to win 90 games. That’s fantastic. Much to what I’m sure is the chagrin of fans of other teams and organizations, the Yankees’ rebuild lasted about as long as it takes to microwave a burrito. For exceeding expectations and cementing their spot as one of the last standing after the marathon that is the baseball season, this team deserved every drop of beer and champagne last night. To see a team that was this fun achieve something so unexpected is a delight and I’m beyond ecstatic for the players.

Now, let’s look ahead for a bit, hopefully into a future that includes raising a 28th World Series banner. On Friday, Mike looked at the payroll and budget situation for 2018. Using his template, let’s examine the potential 2018 roster as it ‘stands’ now. Like Mike, I’m going to assume Masahiro Tanaka will opt out of his current deal, bad start Friday night and all.

In his post, Mike listed the players needing to be replaced as Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Todd Frazier, and Matt Holliday. Of those, Tanaka is obviously the hardest to replace. If he does go, that task may be impossible because no free agent starters are of his caliber. The rotation would be in an okay spot considering they’d be leading with Luis Severino and Sonny Gray. A bit of improvement from Jordan Montgomery makes him into a third starter. Between the minor league system and some small time deals on the (not so hot) free agent market could round out the rotation decently. Considering how much of a question the rotation was this time a year ago, the Yankees could afford to go in with one that isn’t great and ride the lineup and bullpen like they did for a lot of this year.

Of the pitchers they’re (probably) losing, Sabathia is more likely to return on a small contract, maybe with some innings incentives. He’s said he wants to pitch for a winning team, and the Yankees are likely to be one. Tapping him to anchor the back of the rotation means the Yankees could take some innings risks with others in the fourth spot between CC and Monty.

To replace The Todd and Arms Holliday, the Yankees may be able to kill two birds with one stone…in the person of Todd Frazier. As good as Holliday looked at the beginning of the year, he’s looked much less so lately and given their experience with him and Chris Carter this year, I think the team’ll look to be more flexible at DH. That is, they won’t opt for a strictly DH type; they don’t have one in house and unless Carlos Santana somehow leaves Cleveland (doubtful), an elite option doesn’t exist on the free agent market.

The best option, I think, is to re-sign Todd Frazier. I wasn’t wild about that idea when he was brought on, but having him on the team gives the Yankees insurance for both Greg Bird‘s health and Chase Headley‘s performance. Those three guys can rotate between third, first, and DH until someone really grabs the job by the horns. While Bird may be limited to first, Headley and Frazier can both play the corner infield spots and the combination of all three could lead to upwards of 100 walks and 60 homers in some combination; that would be well worth it.

It’s likely that the 2018 Yankees will look incredibly similar to the 2017 Yankees. A lack of turnover can be a bad thing–see the 2017 Mets–but this team doesn’t have many major holes to fill–outside of Tanaka–and there’s a solid base of talent in each facet of the roster. Things are looking up for next year. Now, let’s see how they take care of this year.

Yankeemetrics: Stayin’ Alive (Aug. 31-Sept. 3)

(Getty)
(Getty)

Old Man Ace + Baby Bombers = Win
The Yankees kicked off the Most Important Series of the Season® with a 6-2 romp over the Red Sox on Thursday night.

While other pitchers on the team have better pure stuff than CC Sabathia, there isn’t a guy the Yankees would rather have on the mound trying to halt a three-game slide while facing their hated division rival:

  • Sabathia is now 8-0 with a 1.44 ERA in 10 starts following a Yankee loss this season. That’s the best ERA among all MLB pitchers with at least six such starts through Thursday.
  • He went 4-0 with a 1.04 ERA in four starts against the Red Sox this season. That’s tied for the fifth-lowest single-season ERA by a Yankee against the Red Sox, among the nearly 200 guys that have made at least four starts vs them.
  • Only four other starters in franchise history won at least four games in a season versus Boston with an ERA as low as Sabathia’s: Spud Chandler (1943), Lefty Gomez (1934), Bob Shawkey (1923).
  • Sabathia has won five straight starts against the Red Sox dating back to September last year. Over the past 50 years, Mike Mussina (2001-02) and Sabathia are the lone Yankee pitchers to beat the Red Sox five starts in a row.

Gary Sanchez capped off another stellar August by going 2-for-5, hammering a game-tying solo homer in the third and then delivering a game-winning RBI single in the fifth. He finished with 12 homers in the month, producing a slew of cool statistical nuggets:

  • Sanchez is the fifth player under age 25 in franchise history to hit a dozen homers in any calendar month, joining Don Mattingly (Sept. 1985), Mickey Mantle (three times), Joe DiMaggio (twice), and Lou Gehrig (June 1927).
  • The only Yankee right-handed batters in the last six decades with 12-or-more dingers in a month are Sanchez and Alex Rodriguez (August 2005, April 2007).
  • Sanchez and Yogi Berra (1952) are the only catchers in franchise history with a dozen homers in a calendar month.
  • He is one of six Yankees to reach 12 homers in August. You might have heard of the other guys: A-Rod (2005), Mantle (1955, ’56), DiMaggio (1939) and Babe Ruth (1929).

Combined with his awesome August last year, Sanchez now has a 1.133 OPS in 52 career games in the month. Here’s a list of MLB players with the highest career August OPS (min. 100 plate appearances) over the last 100 seasons:

Name OPS
Babe Ruth 1.134
Gary Sanchez 1.133
Lou Gehrig 1.111

Slipping away
One up, one down …. the Yankees rollercoaster season kept chugging along on Friday night as they followed up an encouraging win with another lackluster loss.

(Getty)
(Getty)

The Red Sox got only five hits off Sonny Gray, but three of the them went over the fence and resulted in all four of the runs Boston scored in the game. That snapped Gray’s streak of 11 straight starts with no more than two earned runs allowed, the longest in the majors this season.

That the streak ended because he got burned by the longball was stunning: Gray entered the game with the majors’ lowest home run rate allowed (0.71 per 9 IP) among pitchers with at least 120 innings. Also prior to Friday, the Red Sox had hit the fewest homers in the AL and ranked 29th in MLB in percentage of runs scored via home runs (34.7%).

Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi continued his assault on Yankee pitching with a solo homer. It was his fifth dinger at Yankee Stadium in 2017, joining Jim Rice (1983) as the only Red Sox players to hit five homers there in a single season. More impressive, the 23-year-old became the youngest visiting player ever to go deep five times in a season at either version of the storied ballpark.

(AP)
(AP)

Ace ‘Hiro
In full desperation mode and facing perhaps their most critical game of the season so far on Saturday, the Fighting Spirit kicked in and the Yankees pulled off their latest and greatest Biggest Win of the Season®.

Masahiro Tanaka‘s transformation from dud to stud over the last two-plus months has been remarkable. His seven-inning, five-hit, one-run gem against the Red Sox gave him a 2.77 ERA over his last 12 starts, a massive turnaround from the 6.34 ERA he posted through his first 14 starts of the season.

He dominated the Red Sox by pounding the bottom of the zone with a well-located mix of sharp sliders and splitters, generating a ton of weak contact and grounders. Per Fangraphs, half of the 22 balls in play against Tanaka were classified as “soft contact,” the highest rate in any of Tanaka’s 101 career starts. And Statcast tracked those batted balls with an average exit velocity of 78.8 mph, the lowest that Tanaka has allowed in the 81 starts he’s made in the Statcast era (since 2015). As you can see in the spray chart below, nearly everything the Red Sox hit was either in the infield or a weak fly ball:
masahiro-tanaka-9

Matt Holliday‘s overall numbers are well below his career standards, but he still has been a difference-maker in the lineup because of his ability to consistently deliver big, clutch hits. His tie-breaking, three-run homer in the sixth inning increased his slugging percentage with RISP to .671 this season, the fourth-best mark in the AL (min. 90 PA).

(AP)
(AP)

Victory with an exclamation point
The Yankees kept alive their dreams of an AL East title with an emphatic 9-2 win on Sunday night, cutting Boston’s division lead to 3 1/2 games with one month left in the season.

Chase Headley sparked the offensive explosion with a line-drive homer in the third inning. The wallscraper came on an 0-2 pitch from Chris Sale, making it one of the unlikeliest homers of the season. It was the 129th career homer allowed by Sale but just the fifth one that came on an 0-2 pitch. And it was just the third time in Headley’s career that he homered off an 0-2 pitch from a lefty, and the first since 2013.

The Yankees continued to pummel Sale in the next frame when Matt Holliday and Todd Frazier homered in consecutive at-bats to give the Yankees a 3-0 lead. It was the first time ever that Sale has allowed back-to-back homers in a game. Each of the three longballs that Sale coughed up came in a two-strike count — a remarkable feat by the Yankees considering that entering Sunday, Sale had allowed a slugging percentage of .167, the second-lowest mark in the majors (min. 200 batters faced).

Aaron Judge joined the homer party when he crushed a 469-foot bomb to left-center in the sixth inning. It was his 38th home run of the season, matching Wally Berger (1930) and Frank Robinson (1956) for the second-most ever hit by a rookie in major-league history; the only player with more is Mark McGwire with 49 in 1987.

Luis Severino bolstered his own Cy Young case with another dominant gem, holding the Red Sox to one unearned run on two hits while striking out nine. It was his 14th start surrendering no more than one run, the most such games by any pitcher in MLB this year.

Sevy also reach a significant milestone when he whiffed Sandy Leon for the final out of the fifth inning. It was his 200th strikeout of 2017, as he joined Al Downing (1964) as the only pitchers in franchise history to strike out at least 200 batters in a season at age 23 or younger.

Yanks activate Holliday, call up four others as rosters expand

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
Matt’s back. (Mike Stobe/Getty)

September roster expansion has arrived and the Yankees added five players to the active roster Friday. Matt Holliday was activated off the disabled list and Jordan Montgomery, Ben Heller, Bryan Mitchell, and Erik Kratz were all called up from Triple-A Scranton. Luis Cessa, who is out with a rib cage injury, was transferred to the 60-day DL to clear a 40-man roster spot for Kratz. The Yankees now have 30 players on the active roster.

Holliday has been out since August 4th with a back problem and, prior to that, he’d been dealing with an illness for weeks. He is hitting .229/.319/.430 (98 wRC+) with 16 home runs this season, but, in the 31 games prior to the back injury, he hit a weak .175/.263/.307 (51 wRC+) in 156 plate appearances. I’m curious to see how the Yankees use him. Will Holliday step back into the lineup as the full-time DH? Or will he see more time on the bench until he proves he deserves more at-bats? We’ll see.

Montgomery and Mitchell were locks to be called up — at least I thought they were — and I’m pleasantly surprised to see Heller get the call over Jonathan Holder. Holder got the call pretty much every time the Yankees needed a shuttle arm this summer, so I figured he’d come up on September 1st and Heller would remain in Triple-A. Instead, Heller is up and Holder is still down. Holder will be up soon enough though. Probably after the Triple-A postseason.

The Yankees acquired Kratz from the Indians in a cash trade yesterday and he’ll be the third catcher the final month of the season. Kyle Higashioka is currently on the Triple-A disabled list and he’s missed an awful lot time this year. Only 96 plate appearances all season. I imagine he’ll remain with Scranton through the postseason. Gary Sanchez and Austin Romine will serve their suspensions at some point, so Kratz is going to play a bit.

Garrett Cooper (hamstring) and Clint Frazier (oblique) are on the disabled list and figure to be activated at some point this month. There are eight players on the 40-man roster and not in the big leagues right now: Holder, Higashioka, Miguel Andujar, Tyler Austin, Domingo German, Ronald Herrera, Caleb Smith, and Tyler Wade. Austin, Smith, and Wade can’t come up yet because of the ten-day rule. The other guys will have to wait until the Triple-A postseason ends, I imagine.