Buying at the trade deadline [2017 Season Review]

Without the 2017 deadline, there's no thumbs down! (Getty Images)
Without the 2017 deadline, there’s no thumbs down! (Getty Images)

In 2016, the Yankees sold at the trade deadline, signaling time for a rebuild. A year later? The tables had turned with the Yankees as buyers looking to bolster a club already in playoff contention.

Through two big deals and a few smaller ones, Brian Cashman was able to give the Bombers an extra boost they needed for the stretch run, October and beyond.

July 19
Yankees receive: Todd Frazier, David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle
White Sox receive: Blake Rutherford, Tyler Clippard, Ian Clarkin and Tito Polo

In one move, the Yankees solved multiple problems. Need another corner infielder in case Greg Bird doesn’t come back? There’s Frazier. Need to bolster the bullpen that’s gotten slightly overused? Robertson and Kahnle. It was a perfect move.

It did cost the Yankees, but not irreparably. They had to deal Rutherford just a year after drafting him in the first round. While he has plenty of potential, he’s yet to show any power. Clarkin and Polo likely wouldn’t have been protected in the Rule 5 draft, so they were expendable (Clarkin was added to the White Sox’ 40-man, Polo was not after getting hurt in the Arizona Fall League).

And somehow Tyler Clippard got himself traded to the Astros and won a World Series ring. Go figure.

We’ve already written about Frazier, D-Rob and Kahnle‘s respective impact in our season review series, but each has potential impact beyond this season. Robertson is under contract for 2018 while Kahnle won’t be a free agent until 2021. That’s a lot of value, even if the Yankees don’t re-sign the ToddFather.

As far as 2017, they each filled their roles to a tee. Frazier fixed the Yankees’ last hole in the lineup and brought energy to the club (Thumbs Down!). Robertson and Kahnle were studs down the stretch and in the postseason.

July 30
Yankees receive: Jaime Garcia
Twins receive: Dietrich Enns and Zack Littell

Garcia represented a fill-in for the Yankees’ rotation, an extra arm to allow Jordan Montgomery to throw fewer innings in the second half. As a rental, there was no expectation of him sticking around and it’s not like the Yankees expected him to start in the postseason.

He ultimately gave the Yanks 37 1/3 kinda-sorta average innings over eight forgettable starts before throwing 2 2/3 innings in ALDS Game 1. Remember that outing? He wasn’t bad, walking two and striking out three while absorbing eight outs.

Enns made two appearances for the Twins, allowing four runs (three earned) on seven hits over four innings. He was probably getting DFA’d or outrighted in the offseason, so he was highly expendable.

Littell less so. The 22-year-old righty acquired for James Pazos had a remarkable year between High-A and Double-A in 2017. Between the Yankees’ and Twins’ organizations, he threw 157 innings, struck out 142 and had a 2.12 ERA while going 19-1.

He is a new member of the Twins’ 40-man roster. He may not have made the Yankees’ roster this offseason, but he could be someone the Yanks regret dealing.

Playoff Sonny (Abbie Parr/Getty)
Playoff Sonny (Abbie Parr/Getty)

July 31
Yankees receive: Sonny Gray and International Bonus Pool Money
Athletics receive: Dustin Fowler, James Kaprielian and Jorge Mateo

This deal made all the sense in the world. Getting 2.5 years of Gray for three prospects, two of whom were injured and one likely blocked.

Who knows if Kaprielian can stay healthy at this point? He has the stuff to pitch in the majors if he ever does stay on the mound, but that’s seeming less and less likely. Fowler had a pretty bad knee injury and the Yankees had Clint Frazier, not to mention Gardner, Judge, Hicks and Ellsbury in the majors (and now Giancarlo!).

Mateo seemed to have broken out after reaching Double A Trenton, but he was blocked by plenty of outfielders, just like Fowler.

So the Yankees dealt from a position of strength and added Gray, who had two playoff starts after a solid end to the season. He had some homer issues, but he’s still a good middle-of-the-rotation starter for the Yankees and much more affordable than similar arms on the current free-agent market. Even with the strong potential of all three players given up, it’s a deal the Yankees should make every time.

The other trades

– While the Yankees picked up bonus money in the Gray deal, they also dealt two possible Rule 5 picks for extra money in July. They dealt RHPs Matt Wotherspoon and Yefry Ramirez to the Orioles for a lot of Baltimore’s pool as the O’s don’t really wade into the international market.

Considering the fact that Shohei Ohtani is now a Los Angeles Angel, these moves didn’t quite work out. The Yankees can still use some of the pool on other prospects, including the few remaining ex-Braves, but they couldn’t reel in the big fish of the international market and are left holding a little too much bonus money. Oh well.

– In exchange for Rob Refsnyder, the Yanks acquired Double A first baseman Ryan McBroom in mid-July. Refsnyder had been DFA’d and McBroom was a non-prospect. He did fill a hole as depth after the team had run through multiple first basemen in the majors. McBroom had previously hit some homers against the Trenton Thunder, so it was good to get him out of the opposing dugout.

– Along the same lines as the McBroom deal, the Yankees dealt LHP Tyler Webb for Garrett Cooper. Cooper filled in for Chris Carter/Greg Bird for a month or so before going down with injuries. Webb gave up a grand slam on literally his first pitch with the Brewers. Seriously!

– Lastly, at the waiver deadline, the Yankees acquired Erik Kratz from the Cleveland Indians to be their depth catcher. He had two hits in two at-bats, produced 0.1 WAR and mostly rode the bench before being outrighted off the roster this offseason.

2018 Outlook

For next year, the Yankees still have Gray, Kahnle and Robertson as well as, to a lesser extent, McBroom and the bonus pool money. McBroom is hitting over .400 in Mexico right now!

But at the 2017 deadline, Cashman acquired a starter and two late-inning relievers for 2018. He has plenty of prospects left if he wants to add further at next season’s deadline.

As for the prospects traded away, it’ll be nice to see what Fowler can do in the majors this year. The rest of the prospects dealt are either further away from the show or are unlikely to even reach the majors in 2018. Regardless, monitoring their development from afar will be a pleasant side gig for Yankees fans.

Sonny with a Lack of Run Support [2017 Season Review]

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Going into Spring Training this year, the Yankees really had no idea what their 2018 rotation would look like. Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia were going to be free agents, Masahiro Tanaka could opt out this winter, and the other two spots were wide open. The hope was Luis Severino would grab one of those spots and run with it. The other spot? Who knows.

Now, ten months later, four of the five rotation spots are ostensibly accounted for the next two years. Severino broke out this year, Tanaka didn’t opt out, and Jordan Montgomery grabbed that wide open rotation spot. The fourth starter was a trade deadline pickup. The Yankees imported right-hander Sonny Gray from the Athletics in a midseason trade. The trade details:

That’s three of my top 12 prospects coming into the season — I was the low man on Fowler too, most ranked him in the top ten — to Oakland for a pitcher who threw 117 innings with a 5.69 ERA (4.67 FIP) around forearm and lat injuries last season. Of course, Kaprielian had Tommy John surgery in April and Fowler blew out his knee in July, and Mateo didn’t hit much the previous year and a half, so it was almost an all damaged goods trade.

Prior to the trade Gray threw 97 innings with a 3.43 ERA (3.25 FIP) in 16 starts with Oakland, which was considerably better than his 2016 output but also not quite as good as his 2015 effort (2.73 ERA and 3.45 FIP), which earned him a third place finish in the AL Cy Young voting. In his final six starts with the A’s, Gray allowed six earned runs and held opponents to a .164/.215/.271 batting line. Now let’s dive into his time in pinstripes.

Late Season Walk Problems

The Yankees welcomed Gray to the team by committing three errors behind him in his very first inning in pinstripes. Three errors in the span of four batters to start the game. Cool, cool. Sonny took the loss that game — he allowed four runs (two earned) in six innings — partly because of the errors, but mostly because Corey Kluber struck out eleven in the one-run complete game.

Gray allowed no more than two earned runs in his first five starts and seven of his first eight starts with the Yankees — at one point this year he allowed no more than two earned runs in eleven straight starts, the longest such streak in baseball in 2017 — and on September 12th, he threw his best game with the Yankees. He held the Rays to two runs in eight innings at Citi Field. The offense didn’t give him any support (more on that in a bit), so he ended up taking the loss, though it wasn’t his fault. Sign me up for two runs in eight innings every day of the week.

Through his first eight starts with the Yankees, Gray had a 2.66 ERA (4.14 FIP) and only once did he allow more than two earned runs. Only two times did he fail to complete at least six innings, and one of those two times he threw 5.2 innings. Gray was pretty much exactly as advertised. The Yankees had a chance to win every game he pitched.

Sonny’s last three starts of the regular season were a slog, mostly because he had trouble locating and worked himself into trouble with walks. Gray walked ten batters in his final three regular season starts and 14.2 innings, and he also ran into some home run trouble. The Red Sox tagged him for three homers on September 1st. The Rays hit two on September 12th and two more on September 28th. Gray allowed nine homers in six September starts after allowing ten homers from April through August.

The walks were a bit more worrisome than the home runs because a) home runs are going to happen in Yankee Stadium, and b) it wasn’t just the raw walk totals. Gray was behind in the count often and his pitch count was getting elevated. Those problems continued in Game One of the ALDS, as Gray walked four in 3.1 innings. So that’s 14 walks (and 12 strikeouts) in the span of four starts and 18 innings. Yikes.

Those walks combined with his generally slow pace earned Gray the “nibbler” tag even though walks had never really been a problem for him before, and his overall zone rate was basically league average the last few years. There are few things more annoying than pitchers who don’t throw strikes and pitchers who work slowly. Sonny managed to combine the worst of both worlds in his final few starts. That wasn’t fun.

I think the late season walk problem was more than likely the result of some mechanical issues and/or a result of the homers, which might’ve scared Gray out of the strike zone a bit. The biggest thing to me is health. As long as Gray is healthy, I’m not worried about the walks. I expect them to come down. Most pitchers run into a control rough patch every now and then — Tanaka never walks anyone, but he walked five in a four-inning start this year — and Sonny just so happened to have one late in the year.

Gray was able to rebound in his ALCS Game Four start — after the rough ALDS Game One outing, the Yankees pushed Gray as far back as possible in the ALCS — holding the Astros to two runs (one earned) on one hit and two walks in five innings plus two batters.

All told, Sonny posted a 3.72 ERA (4.87 FIP) in eleven starts and 65.1 innings with the Yankees after the trade. The walks and dingers in September really screwed up his fielding independent numbers.

A Lack Of Run Support

In terms of pitching style, Gray reminds me a lot of Hiroki Kuroda. He throws the kitchen sink at you — Gray throws four pitches at least 15% of the time each (four-seamer, sinker, curveball, slider) and a fifth (changeup) 6% of the time — but he has power (93.8 mph average fastball), so it’s not like he’s out there throwing slop. And, as David Adler explained, Sonny has multiple versions of each pitch because he varies the break and spin on everything. Kuroda was the same way.

Gray is also similar to Kuroda in that his team never scores any damn runs for him. The Yankees never seemed to score for Kuroda. They sure as heck didn’t score for Gray this year. The Yankees scored 39 runs total in Gray’s eleven starts this year — nine of those 39 runs came in one game — or 3.55 runs per game. They scored 819 runs in their other 151 games, or 5.42 runs per game. Good grief.

I don’t know where it started, but there was this “the Yankees don’t score runs for Gray because he works so slowly” narrative that was floating around for a while. It’s true that Gray works slowly — he averaged 28.4 seconds between pitches this season, most in baseball among the 58 pitchers who threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title — but is that the reason the Yankees didn’t score? Are the position players thrown so out of whack by his pace that they can’t hit?

I decided to make a graph. Here is pitcher pace plotted against run support for the 131 individual pitchers who qualified the ERA title the last two years. There are some duplicates in here — there’s a 2016 Kluber and a 2017 Kluber, etc. — but this is just a real quick plot for season review purposes.

pace-vs-run-support

The R² of the trendline is 0.00004. In English, that means there is basically zero correlation between a pitcher’s pace and the run support he receives. Shocking, I know. Who would’ve guessed run support is not a pitcher skill? The whole “he doesn’t get run support because he works so slowly” narrative always struck me as one those things someone said to explain something they couldn’t otherwise explain, and it sounded just plausible enough that people bought it.

I have no idea why the Yankees didn’t score runs for Gray. I have no idea why the Yankees didn’t score runs for Kuroda either. Sometimes pitchers just don’t get run support. It happens. Across full seasons too. It’s annoying. Believe me, I know. I’m sure Gray knows too. The guy has thrown 21.1 postseason innings in his career, and in those 21.1 innings, his team has scored zero (0) runs with him on the mound. What the hell? He’s cursed. Cursed by the run support gods.

2018 Outlook

The Yankees traded for Gray to improve their 2018 and 2019 chances as much as their 2017 chances. He is under control for another two seasons, which is pretty awesome. When healthy, Gray is really good. He’s a bulldog with a deep repertoire who takes video game stuff to the mound more often than not. The Yankees don’t need him to be the ace — that’s up to Severino and Tanaka — but Sonny has the potential to pitch at that level.

Like I said, as long as Gray is healthy, I don’t have any real worry that his late season walk problems will be a long-term issue. I think it was just one of those things. And the lack of run support … I dunno. I can’t explain it. The Yankees figure to again have a very good offense next season, and if Sonny makes 30 starts, chances are he’s going to get plenty of run support. I feel like Gray is really being overlooked right now. He’s an impact pitcher in the prime of his career and the Yankees got him while trading no one off their MLB roster. Couldn’t ask for anything more.

After deep playoff run, the Yankees will again have to monitor pitcher workloads in 2018

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

At some point in the coming days, we’ll find out whether the Yankees need to add one starting pitcher this offseason, or two. The deadline for Masahiro Tanaka to opt-out of his contract is Saturday, and if he opts out, the Yankees will need to replace Tanaka and CC Sabathia. If he doesn’t opt out, the Yankees will only have to replace Sabathia. And they very well could replace Sabathia with Sabathia. Re-signing him seems like a definite possibility.

As things stand right now, the only thing we know for sure about the 2018 rotation is that it will include Luis Severino, Sonny Gray, and Jordan Montgomery. My guess is both Chad Green and Adam Warren will come to Spring Training stretched out as starters, though the smart money is on both going back to the bullpen. Luis Cessa and Domingo German will be around as depth, plus Chance Adams and maybe Justus Sheffield will debut at some point in 2018 as well.

This year the Yankees had to monitor the workloads of all their starting pitchers for different reasons. Severino and Montgomery are young pitchers gradually increasing their workloads. The Yankees have handled Tanaka with kid gloves since his 2014 elbow injury. Sabathia’s knee is an ongoing concern. Gray has had some injury problems in recent years as well, so giving him extra rest from time to time was a priority.

And, as things stand now, the Yankees are again going to have to monitor the workloads of their starters next season thanks to their deep postseason run. Severino and Montgomery threw more innings this season than ever before. By a lot too.

  • Severino: 209.1 total innings (previous career high: 161.2 innings in 2015)
  • Montgomery: 163.1 total innings (previous career high: 139.1 innings in 2016)

The Yankees were so concerned about Montgomery’s workload — big league innings are not the same as minor league innings because there’s more stress and intensity involved — that they went out and added Jaime Garcia so they could send Montgomery to Triple-A to control his innings there. Severino seemed to tire out a bit in the postseason. I thought he was noticeably fatigued in the fourth inning of ALCS Game Six.

This isn’t just about raw innings totals though. Montgomery and especially Severino pitched deeper into the year than ever before. The Yankees were one game away from the World Series! That means a shorter offseason recover. And this applies to the veterans too. Tanaka and Sabathia, should they come back, as well as Gray will miss out on a few extra weeks to rest this winter because of the postseason run.

The whole World Series hangover phenomenon is not new. Pitchers who pitch deep into the postseason and have shorter offseasons than usual have been coming back the next year and struggling for a long time now. That’s part of what made Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera so great. Those guys played seven-month seasons, not six-month seasons, because the Yankees were always in the playoffs. Yet they never broke down physically.

As much as we’d like them to turn out that way, the Yankees can’t proceed under the assumption Severino and Montgomery are essentially unbreakable like Pettitte and Rivera. This year they had to be careful with their workloads eclipsing their previous career highs. Next year they’ll have to worry about any lingering effects from those big workloads this year, and well as the shorter offseason that comes with going to Game Seven of the ALCS.

The Yankees know this, of course. Remember the Javy Vazquez trade? The second one? The Yankees made that trade because Sabathia, Pettitte, and A.J. Burnett worked hard in 2009 and pitched into November en route to the World Series championship. The Yankees wanted an innings eater to help lighten the load on the other guys. So they went out and got Vazquez, who at the time had just thrown 190+ innings for the tenth straight season to bolster the back of the rotation.

Now, the Vazquez trade didn’t work out in 2010. He stunk. But the idea was sound. Get another innings eater for the back of the rotation so it’s easier to pull Sabathia, Pettitte, and Burnett a little earlier than usual without overtaxing the bullpen following their long 2009 seasons. That’s where the Yankees are now. Their starters just threw a ton of innings and pitched deep into October, and there might be a carryover effect in 2018.

Perhaps the need to add rotation depth this winter isn’t as great as it was following 2009. The farm system is much richer now. Cessa, German, Adams, and Caleb Smith are basically MLB ready. Back in 2009, their best MLB ready pitching prospects were, uh, Ivan Nova? Zach McAllister? Good big leaguers! But the farm system was much thinner, and the Yankees didn’t have an Adams waiting, that top pitching prospect, or a Sheffield not far behind.

I’ve always been a pitching depth guy. Bring in as many viable starters as possible and don’t worry about where they all fit, because odds are you’ll need all of them at some point anyway. If the Yankees re-sign Sabathia, retain Tanaka, and bring in a veterans innings dude who pushes Montgomery to Triple-A to start 2018, I wouldn’t lose any sleep. Montgomery would be back in MLB before you know it. The long season and big workloads are something the Yankees have to be cognizant of next year, and that could mean making another Vazquez-esque trade.

MLBTR’s arbitration projections and a potential Didi Gregorius extension

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Over the next few weeks and months, the Yankees and every other team will tweak their roster in an effort to contend in 2018. Some teams are more serious about contention than others. The Yankees are ready to win, they showed it this year, and they’ll try to do it next season while getting under the $197M luxury tax threshold.

A few weeks ago Matt Swartz at MLB Trade Rumors posted his annual arbitration salary projections, and because the Yankees have a large arbitration class — nine players total, including several key contributors — their salaries will be a big factor in getting under the luxury tax threshold. These players are a bargain relative to what they’d get on the open market, though their salaries add up. Here are the arbitration projections:

Swartz’s model is pretty darn accurate overall. It has trouble with outlier players — Tim Lincecum damn near broke the thing when he went into his first arbitration year with two Cy Youngs — though it gets us in the ballpark and often much closer. Let’s dive into the projections a bit.

1. It’s time to consider a Gregorius extension. Didi has emerged as a true core player for the Yankees. He’s an above-average hitter and an above-average defender, and he’s a big part of the clubhouse culture. Gregorius can become a free agent following the 2019 season, and I think it’s time the Yankees start thinking about signing him long-term. He’s only 27 and quality in-their-prime shortstops are awfully hard to find.

The Jean Segura extension is a perfect benchmark for Gregorius. Segura signed his five-year, $70M deal earlier this year, two years prior to free agency at age 27, the exact same point of his career as Gregorius is right now. Look at the numbers:

Segura in year prior to extension: .319/.368/.499 (126 wRC+) and +5.0 WAR
Gregorius in year prior to extension: .287/.318/.478 (107 wRC+) and +3.9 WAR

Segura career: .280/.319/.396 (91 wRC+) and +8.6 WAR
Gregorius career:
.266/.313/.413 (94 wRC+) and +11.5 WAR

Segura had the better platform year prior to signing his extension, though Gregorius has the better body of work overall. That five-year extension worth $70M is the benchmark for Didi. The market has been set.

The problem with an extension is the luxury tax. If Gregorius gets the $9M arbitration projection, he counts as $9M against the luxury tax threshold. Give him the Segura extension, and he counts as $14M (the average annual value of the contract) against the luxury tax threshold, and saving $5M is a big deal. Then again, signing Didi now could equal tens of millions in savings later. An extension has to be a serious consideration.

2. Betances and the Yankees might be in for a messy hearing again. Had Betances won his arbitration hearing last year, he could’ve been looking at a $6.5M to $7M projection this offseason, and we might have been talking about him as a non-tender candidate right now. Instead, the Yankees won, and you can see how arbitration savings add up.

  • Dellin wins last year: $5M in 2017 + $6.5M guesstimate in 2018 = $11.5M total
  • Yankees win last year: $3M in 2017 + $4.4M projected in 2018 = $7.4M total

That $2M in savings last year turns into $4.1M in savings from 2017-18. Arbitration uses the prior year’s salary as a baseline for a raise, so any savings compound over the years. Last year’s arbitration hearing win over Betances may end up saving the Yankees close to $10M from 2017-19. That’s a big chunk of change.

Last year’s arbitration hearing was reportedly ugly, uglier than these things usually are, and team president Randy Levine only made things worse when he ripped Dellin in a conference call afterward. I have no idea whether there is still any bad blood between the two sides, but I suppose another hearing is possible this year.

And here’s the thing: Betances still has a really good case. All the walks this year won’t hurt him much in arbitration because the system isn’t built that way. Saves and strikeouts count. Dellin doesn’t have many saves, but he struck out 100 batters yet again this season, he finished with a sub-3.00 ERA (2.87 to be exact), and he went to his fourth straight All-Star Game. Those are all points in his favor. I’m not sure how this will play out. Whatever happens, hopefully it’s not as ugly as last year.

3. Shreve might stick around until Spring Training. The Yankees spent last offseason and pretty much the entire pre-deadline regular season looking for a reliable left-handed reliever, and they came up empty. I get the sense they’re going to spend the winter looking for a lefty again. For now, Shreve is the in-house option, and his $900,000 projected salary is nothing.

Keep in mind arbitration-eligible players are on non-guaranteed contracts. They can be released in Spring Training and only be paid 30 days or 45 days termination pay, depending when they get cut. The Yankees could sign Shreve, keep him around, see if they come up with a better lefty, and if they do, they could drop him for a fraction of his salary in camp. Harsh, but it happens every year around the league. It’s easy to think Shreve, who is out of minor league options, will be a 40-man roster casualty this winter. Don’t be surprised if he sticks around though.

4. Kratz is a goner. Obvious statement is obvious. The Yankees acquired Kratz to be the third catcher in September only because Kyle Higashioka was injured at the time. He’ll be the very first player dropped from the 40-man roster once space is needed, which will be later this month when the roster has to be set for the Rule 5 Draft. Kratz won’t even make it to the non-tender deadline. Such is the life of a journeyman. Hey, at least he got to hang around with the team during the postseason. He traveled with the club all through the ALDS and ALCS.

5. My estimates were pretty good, actually. A few weeks back I looked at the 2018 payroll situation with regards to the luxury tax. I estimated $25M to $30M for the arbitration eligible players, not including Kratz or Shreve, and Swartz’s model projects this group at $28.5M. Hey, I’m getting kinda good at this.

Add that $28.5M projection to the other contract commitments as per my post a few weeks ago, and we get $163.5M already on the books for next season. It’ll drop to $141.4M should Masahiro Tanaka opt out, which most RAB readers expect to happen. Point is, the Yankees will have about $35M under the $197M luxury tax threshold to play with this winter, assuming Tanaka sticks around. If he doesn’t, it’s closer to $60M. Having that much wiggle, to me, means the Yankees should get serious about signing Didi long-term.

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.

Sonny Gray must get his control back on track for the Yankees to have a chance in Game Four

(Gregory Shamus/Getty)
(Gregory Shamus/Getty)

Last week, when the Yankees lined up their ALCS rotation, they opted to start trade deadline pickup Sonny Gray in Game Four even though he started Game One of the ALDS and could’ve started Game One of the ALCS. The Yankees had Gray throw an extended three-inning simulated game on Thursday to stay sharp, though he’s still going 12 days between postseason appearances.

There are a few reasons the Yankees lined up their ALCS rotation the way they did. One, Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino are their two best pitchers — Severino because of the way he’s thrown all year, Tanaka because of the way he’s thrown lately — and they wanted them going up against Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander in Games One and Two. Two, the Yankees trust CC Sabathia in a Game Seven situation, so they lined him up for that start.

And three, Gray has simply not pitched all that well lately. His first eight starts in pinstripes went great, as he threw 50.2 innings with a 2.66 ERA (4.14 FIP). Gray’s final three regular season starts did not go well (7.36 ERA and 7.38 FIP), and in his ALDS start, he allowed three runs in 3.1 innings before getting the hook. The problem, again, was his control. Gray walked four and struck out two in that ALDS start. In his last four starts, and he has 14 walks and 12 strikeouts in 18 innings. Yikes.

For the 2017 season overall, Gray had an 8.4% walk rate, which was essentially league average (8.5%) and just a tick above his career rate (7.9%). As the season progressed though, his walk rate kept climbing.

sonny-gray-walk-rate

Hmmm. Why has Gray been walking more batters lately, particularly in his last four starts? That’s tough to answer from here, and it could be a combination of many things. His mechanics are out of whack. He’s hiding an injury. Giving up home runs at Yankee Stadium scared him out of the strike zone. He’s trying to be way too precise in an effort to impress his new teammates and coaching staff and fans. Who knows?

The walks themselves aren’t the only problem. Gray has been falling behind in the count a lot as well lately, which puts hitters on the advantage. During these last four starts Gray has faced 86 batters, and by my count, 21 saw a hitter friendly 2-0 or 3-1 count, and more than a few of those 21 saw a 2-0 count and a 3-1 count in the same at-bat. Gray went to a 2-0 or 3-1 count on 17.0% of batters faced during the regular season. The MLB average is 17.1%. Over these last four starts, Gray is at 24.4%.

From watching him pitch over the years — not just with the Yankees, but with the A’s as well — Gray is the type of pitcher who doesn’t need to hit his spots perfectly to get good results. He has good velocity and everything he throws moves, helping him avoid the barrel. Gray can aim for a quadrant of the strike zone, let it rip, and let his natural movement do the work. Being precise with all that movement can be difficult.

Whatever the cause of these walks and recent control problems, this much is clear: the Astros won’t let those free baserunners go unpunished. Well, that’s not necessarily true. The Yankees did walk eight batters in Game Three last night and only one scored. (For real.) I just wouldn’t count on that happening again, giving the Astros so many free passes and escaping unscathed. As good as New York’s pitching has been in the ALCS, Houston’s lineup feels like a sleeping giant.

Now, this isn’t to say Gray should just fire it in there middle-middle to avoid walks, because that’ll create a completely different set of problems. But continuing to fall behind in the count and either walking people or going 2-0 and 3-1 is a recipe for trouble. We’ve seen it in Gray’s last four starts and the stakes are a lot higher now. To keep the Astros in check, Sonny has to attack and stay in the strike zone, something he’s done throughout his career, just not lately.

Tanaka, Severino, Sabathia will start Games 1-3 of ALCS

(Jason Miller/Getty)
(Jason Miller/Getty)

Earlier this evening, the Yankees announced Masahiro Tanaka will start Game One of the ALCS tomorrow night in Houston. He will be followed, in order, by Luis Severino, CC Sabathia, and Sonny Gray.

Here are the pitching matchups for ALCS:

  • Game One: Tanaka vs. Dallas Keuchel
  • Game Two: Severino vs. Justin Verlander
  • Game Three: Sabathia vs. TBA
  • Games Four: Gray vs. TBA

Both Tanaka and Severino will be on normal rest for their first ALCS starts. The Yankees trusted Sabathia with their ALDS Game Five start and, if the ALCS goes seven games, he’d get the ball in Game Seven as well. Gray has had some walk problems lately, so it’s not too much of a surprise the Yankees are pushing him back.

I thought maybe the Yankees would try to push Tanaka back to Game Three so he could pitch at home given his big home-road splits, but I’m glad they didn’t. Does Tanaka give you the best chance to win Game One given the available options (Tanaka, Gray, or Severino on short rest)? Yes, he does. Then start him.

As for Gray, his Game Four start will come 12 days after starting Game One of the ALDS. Joe Girardi said Gray will throw a three-inning simulated game today to stay sharp, and it’ll also allow him to work on anything. That means he won’t be available in relief in Games One or Two, however. Gray can’t go 12 days between throwing though. The simulated game is a must.

The Tanaka vs. Keuchel game is of course a rematch of the 2015 Wild Card Game. That one didn’t go so well for the Yankees. Not because of Tanaka specifically — he allowed two runs in five innings in that game, which isn’t terrible — just in general. The 2017 Yankees are better than the 2015 Yankees, thankfully.