On one episode of Baseball Prospectus’s old podcast, Up and In, Kevin Goldstein bet Jason Parks “a hundred bucks” that the Yankees would finish at or above .500 for at least the ensuing 10 seasons. In each of the two seasons since, the Yankees have allowed more runs than they have scored, but finished with winning records. I wonder if Parks ever gives KG crap about that. This will be the year, I’m guessing, that sends them both thumbing through their employee manuals to find out if paying off an old bet about a team that hasn’t employed either (or receiving said payment) constitutes a violation of some kind.
How do they score runs? Are they notably home-run dependent? Notably light on power? Is their lineup predicated on depth, or on huge production from a few stars?
The Yankees scored 33.0 percent of their runs via homers in 2014, the lowest rate for them since 1997. As a team. they had a .255 True Average (TAv, Baseball Prospectus’s proprietary all-inclusive offensive stat), higher than the team mark in 2013 but lower than every other figure since 1991. Those titans who hit at least 201 home runs each year from 2009-12? Yeah, they’re gone. And the ones who aren’t gone, of course, are the ones the Yankees wish were gone: Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira.
Two years of nearly unbroken absence and the haziness of the aging curve for legends pushing 40 make predicting Rodriguez’s future virtually pointless. Teixeira, on the other hand, is an easy read. He’s a good (and once, but no longer, great) slugger with decreasing mobility, moving into the phase of his career where health is uncertain, but decline is inevitable. It might not be linear, but the trend arrow points distinctly downward from here. The same can be said, to varying degrees, of Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran. We don’t know how much to discount each player’s future based on their ugly recent past, but history tells us that the floor is starting to slant ever more steeply downward, and the ceiling remains flat and fixed. There are four lineup spots earmarked for players with way more downside than upside, even if the names attached to the profiles give us good reason to think the upside might pay off.
That makes the other spots crucial. Specifically, I believe that the most important players to the 2015 Yankees will be two or the least-discussed big-money New York outfielders in history: Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner.
Ellsbury’s is the easy story to tell. He hit free agency at 30, but thanks to fantastic speed, a strong showing in the Postseason and a reputation as a player just now shaking off injury trouble, he was treated like a younger player. Maybe that’s the proper way to do things; we know one-dimensional sluggers make for bad long-term free-agent investments, but rangy center fielders are a different breed. At any rate, Ellsbury did a lot of things just the way he had done them for the Red Sox the previous year. He stayed healthy, he played good defense, he ran the bases very well. He maintained his strikeout and walk rates almost perfectly. That apparent stability in strike-zone control belied a change to a more aggressive approach, though, especially within the strike zone. That meant more early contact and fewer deep counts, but also his lowest rate of reaching base on balls in play since his injury-riddled and badly truncated 2010 season. Despite about 30 percent more plate appearances with men on base, Ellsbury lost 45 points of BABIP. Some of that is natural regression, some of it is bad luck and some of it is Yankee Stadium, but part is also that Ellsbury was hitting pitchers’ strikes a bit more often.
As for Gardner, there’s a bit more into which we must dig. On July 1, Gardner appeared headed for a typical Gardner season, plus a little bit of the spare power he picked up in 2013. He was hitting .286/.357/.425, with 15 stolen bases in 18 tries and a healthy .353 BABIP. Then, somehow, he caught a heater. From July 1 through the road trip that carried the Yankees past the trade deadline, Gardner hit .278/.378/.598, clubbing eight home runs (he’d only had even entering the month). The capstone on that hot streak was a Sunday night game in Boston, in which Gardner had both a two-out, bases-loaded double and a tie-breaking sixth-inning home run. He appeared to have found a new dimension of value, by focusing on lifting the ball more often, especially to right field.
Then, suddenly, that was gone. Gardner hit .185/.232/.306 from the time the Yankees got home from Boston through the end of the season. He drew only nine walks in 174 plate appearances. September was especially atrocious: Gardner struck out in over 26 percent of his plate appearances, saw his line-drive rate plummet into single digits, started popping the ball up a lot and rolling a lot of balls over to the right side of the infield. Gardner has never had a month anywhere near as bad as the very last one he played.
Normally a smart hitter, Gardner seems a good bet to figure out that he’s not the power hitter he happened to turn into for one month this summer, and to regain his solid approach in 2015. If he doesn’t, though, the Yankees are in a lot of trouble. Chase Headley will be good. Didi Gregorius will be bad. Second base is a total mystery, but without much about which to be optimistic. If the Yankees are going to score enough runs to stay competitive, they’re going to do so by getting more than .330ish OBPs out of the two fleet-footed left-handed hitters in the top third of their batting order.
Does the manager use pinch-hitters and platoons liberally? Does the team have the platoon advantage in an especially large or small percentage of their plate appearances?
Only the Indians and Athletics held the platoon advantage in a higher percentage of their 2014 plate appearances than the Yankees’ 70 percent. That was thanks, in some part, to the switch-hitters they happened to have on hand, although three such batters (Teixeira, Beltran and Headley) should remain regulars when the season begins. However, they have also used their financial advantage to amass unusual depth, not necessarily by taking would-be regulars and turning them into bench fodder, but by always securing some of the best platoon candidates available at the lower tiers of the market.
With Chris Young (.278 TAv against left-handed pitchers since 2012) and Garrett Jones (.282 against righties) on hand, the Yanks will continue to have great bench options available for Joe Girardi, if he wants them. New York also has left-handed batters at shortstop (Gregorius), second base (Drew) and catcher (McCann), where those are often hard to find, so their platoon rate should remain sky-high.
What is the team’s collective approach? Do they look to take a large number of pitches? Does the manager put on the 3-0 green light very often? Are players benched or criticized by management for striking out too much? Are they more than usually given to fouling pitches off?
Would you believe that the Yankees made contact on a higher percentage of their swings than any other team in baseball last season? It’s true. They also swung at one of the five lowest aggregate rates of any team in the league. They’re patient, but now that they’re not built around the long ball, they’re becoming more proactive. No team swung at more total pitches in 3-1 counts than the Yankees last season. They’re selectively aggressive, as the pedants say.
Does the manager call for steals and hit-and-runs often? Is the team aggressive in taking the extra base on hits and outs? Do they lay down sacrifice bunts with unusual regularity, or irregularity?
Only the Royals stole bases more efficiently than the Yankees last season. New York swiped 112 bases, and were caught only 26 times. Most of those thefts were concentrated in Ellsbury and Gardner, though. (They combined for 60 steals.) They were, by contrast, the worst team in all of MLB at taking the extra base on hits.
Where are the pressure points? Who might need to be replaced? What will their optimal batting order be? Is it likely to be adhered to?
Lineup building can be tricky when a roster leans this far to one side. The Yankees’ five best hitters are, in some order, Beltran, Ellsbury, Gardner, Headley and McCann. Of those, Beltran and Headley are switch-hitters, and the other three are pure lefties. The temptation, then, might be to place Beltran and Headley second and fourth, so as to break up the meat of the order in terms of handedness. For my money, though, the Yanks would be better off simply putting their two fast, on-base-oriented outfielders at the top of the order, and not sweating the platoon problem. Ellsbury and Gardner both acquit themselves well against southpaws anyway, but if a smoke-throwing lefty specialist were ever to come stomping in with the two of them due, Young would make a perfect pinch-hitter. Call it a trap, laid for the opposing manager who might try to get too cute in the seventh inning.
My proposed batting order might go:
- Brett Gardner – LF
- Jacoby Ellsbury – CF
- Chase Headley – 3B
- Brian McCann – C
- Carlos Beltran – RF
- Mark Teixeira – 1B
- Garrett Jones – DH (Alex Rodriguez against LHP)
- Stephen Drew – 2B
- Didi Gregorius – SS
Are park factors a large or small consideration? Does the team’s park favor a particular batter type or handedness? Will the schedule or overall level of competition they face vary widely from the league average?
Yankee Stadium augments home runs, but isn’t a huge boon to overall offense. Fly-ball hitters get a little extra value. Fly-ball pitchers are often beaten and bloodied. In general, the AL East is full of such parks, where outfield defense is modestly important but the most important thing is to have batters who can lift the ball, and pitchers who can stop the other team from doing the same.
What is their balance between pitching and fielding? How is responsibility for keeping runs off the board apportioned?
The outfield is full of aging guys who have very high established levels of defensive performance, but whose current talent level is well below those bench marks. They’re sufficient there. In the infield, Didi Gregorius seems to be average, perhaps a little worse, at shortstop. That is to say, they’ll be much better at shortstop than they were in 2014. The other positions are mixed bags. There are no current or future Fielding Bible Award contenders on this roster.
That said, they’re relatively reliant on that uninspiring group of fielders, because yikes, the pitching staff. In 2014, five teams had exactly six pitchers clear 100 innings pitched. Fifteen—fully half the league—had exactly five such hurlers. Nine teams had four. The Yankees, and the Yankees alone, had three. That’s not the punchline, though. The punchline is that of those three 100-inning marathon men, one is now pitching in his native Japan, one was traded to the Marlins this winter, and one is in camp with the team—still holding together his partially torn UCL with a clothes pin. Lest you think I’ve drawn a needlessly cruel cutoff line, New York was also the only team to have only one pitcher (Hiroki Kuroda, the one who’s now back in Japan) surpass 140 innings pitched.
Go down the list of Yankees who also pitched significant innings last year, and you see more of the same:
- Masahiro Tanaka (the Tommy John denier)
- David Phelps (the new Marlin)
- Brandon McCarthy (a mid-season trade acquisition who signed with the Dodgers as a free agent)
- Dellin Betances (who racked up a stunning 90 innings in relief, but was being shifted toward a more traditional, limited role even late last year)
- Shane Greene (more trade bait; now a Tiger)
- Adam Warren (a set-up man who had a nice, emergent 2014. I swear to God, the first thing the person sponsoring his Baseball-Reference page felt it necessary to write was, “Still with the team.”)
- Vidal Nuno (traded mid-season, for McCarthy)
This road only leads to heartbreak, so let’s stop there for now. You get the idea. The best and most important pitchers on last year’s team are now gone, or else should be counted upon to pitch less, worse, or both in the coming season. Just missing this list were Michael Pineda, David Robertson and Shawn Kelley. Pineda had a 1.89 ERA in 13 starts last season, but:
- It was 13 starts for a reason; Pineda is made of glass.
- He allowed a .235 BABIP and less than one home run for every 20 fly balls against him; and
- He was so afraid to pitch without pine tar as an illegal aid that he willfully violated a rule about which he had already been warned, leading to one of the more boneheaded suspensions in recent memory.
Robertson was an elite, inner-circle relief ace, but:
- He missed half of April with a groin strain, and only managed to pitch 64.1 innings for the full season; and
- He’s now a member of the Chicago White Sox.
Kelley struck out a lot of batters, over 30 percent of those faced for the second straight season, but:
- He’s an extreme fly-ball pitcher, which led to too many extra-base hits pitching for the Yankees, and contributed to a 4.53 ERA; and
- He’s now a member of the San Diego Padres.
New York did get an interesting young arm in the trade of David Phelps (and Martin Prado), landing Nathan Eovaldi and his big fastball. Eovaldi has 460 innings of utterly uninspiring work on his resume and is on his third organization, but he’s not totally without promise. Free-agent addition Andrew Miller should take Robertson’s place at the back end of the bullpen, more or less, and the team made a myriad of trades to ensure the strength of their relief corps. The problem is, they still have no path to winning any meaningful games that doesn’t involve 300 or more strong innings from CC Sabathia and Tanaka, combined, and that’s just not going to come close to happening.
Is the starting rotation generally a flat one, or one dominated by one or two aces? Does the manager allow his starters (or some subset of them) to go especially deep into games? Do the starters share common characteristics, or are there any philosophies the team’s pitching coach seems to drill into each?
This was, to some extent, answered above. The best way to say it is, once we know who will actually pitch for the team, and how much, the answers will reveal themselves. Tanaka went deep into several starts before his elbow injury claimed the second half of the season as its own. Sabathia has been a top-tier workhorse in the past. If those two are healthy, they’re ace caliber. That particular ‘if’ looms more than large for this team.
When the middle and late innings come, does the manager have a long or a quick hook? Does he often make multiple pitching changes during innings? Is he aggressive and aware of matchups? Is the bullpen strictly hierarchical? Is it dominated by a set-up man and closer, or are there a large number of usable, interchangeable arms?
Girardi has a quick hook with his starters, but isn’t afraid to ask his best relievers to stretch and get an extra out or three. That’s about as close to optimal bullpen deployment as modern managers get. He grew increasingly conventional in his use of the extraordinary Betances as 2014 progressed, so that situation bears watching, but for now, consider that Girardi will get as much out of his staff as any manager could.
Does the team deploy a large number of infield, or even outfield, shifts? Do they turn double plays well? Does the outfield control runners on hits into the gaps and on flyouts? Are any players out of position? If so, is it strategic, or does the team overestimate the defensive abilities of those players? Are any players on the bench used as late-inning defensive replacements?
Only the Astros and Rays shifted more frequently than did the Yankees in 2014. That helped paper over the defensive weaknesses of that team, and should do the same even for this somewhat improved version.
Does the primary catcher frame pitches well? Does he control the running game? Does the backup complement him, either by being excellent all-around or by doing things the starter does poorly?
The Yankees are among the teams who appear to value pitch-framing the most highly. They’re also among the best at churning out competent big-league catchers, which is an important and impressive skill. They’ve let Russell Martin walk away and traded Francisco Cervelli over the past two winters, netting important short- and long-term assets, and signed McCann in their stead because he’s such a strong framer (and left-handed batter). The Yankees seem to have 99 problems every spring, anymore, but catching still isn’t one.
Does the team’s home park impact their ability to prevent runs in any unique way? Is the park factor drastic? Is the square footage of the outfield significantly off the MLB norm?
Both Phelps and Kelley seem to have been traded because their fly-ball tendency made them untenable in Yankee Stadium. Phil Hughes failed there for the same reason. Being homer-prone truly is a death knell in the Bronx, in a way that it might not be elsewhere.
Is the farm system well-stocked? Have any recent performances or additions changed the perceived standing of that system? Are there players on hand, in the upper levels of the minors, who are ready to take over roles with the parent team in the event of injury? Are there players who make especially good potential trade chips?
The cupboard isn’t bare, anymore. It’s still sparse, but it seems to be open, and the Yankees are trying to fill it as quickly as possible. Their drafting has been better-regarded over the last three years or so than it had been before that. Their expenditures in the international free-agent market this past summer bordered on ridiculous. They should have gotten a big boost by adding Yoan Moncada, but they allowed themselves to be outbid, so that splash will have to wait. At this point, though the team always has usable players peppering its upper minor-league levels in a way other teams don’t, there’s little in the way of impact potential or trade bait in the system right now.
Speaking of injury, who is particularly fragile, or coming off off-season surgery that might impact their season? How deep is the team at the positions where they have injury-prone players?
The Yankees are old. Old teams are always in danger of dealing with a lot of injuries. In the Yankees’ case, things could get even more extreme. Tanaka’s fragile rehab process still carries risk of needing to be operated upon. Teixeira, Rodriguez, McCann and Drew leap out as major injury threats. Pineda and Sabathia each are injury risks at this point. No one is safe. The Yankees store up organizational depth by shelling out big bucks for Triple-A talent, but it wouldn’t be enough to save the team if injuries keep coming at the 2014 pace.
Is the team currently trying to win? Are they rebuilding or shooting for contention right away? Is their current course the most advisable one? Do they have payroll flexibility, either to make another addition before the season begins or to supplement the roster as needed during the campaign?
They certainly aren’t rebuilding. The Yankee Way seems to be taking on a new meaning, one more aligned with the modern model of building sustainable success, but that’s happening slowly. Too many contracts were on the books, binding the team to a certain level of aggressiveness each year. Their core is now McCann, Ellsbury, Gardner, Headley and Tanaka. Tanaka is 26. The others are just passing 30. They won’t win anything big with this group, unless they make the kind of major upgrade elsewhere that they declined to make this offseason. It’s a competitive core, though, and by the time decline really takes them down, there might be the first fruits of that improving Yankee farm system moving up to take their places.
What move (or moves) should they make as soon as possible, in order to bring their long-term goals into focus (without setting them back in regard to their short-term ones)? Make a recommendation.
Again, their financial commitments to the likes of Rodriguez, Sabathia, Teixeira and Beltran tie their hands somewhat. While the Yankees could always add payroll, there’s a threshold beyond which this generation of Steinbrenner is unwilling to simply take a bath on a bad investment. Those unproductive contracts are going to stay on the books, so the only thing for Brian Cashman to do is try to make them part of a winning team while the Yankees try to run out the clock on the deals. To that end, I recommend that he stop avoiding the issue of his brutal starting rotation and make the rare impact trade during Spring Training. It doesn’t have to be Cole Hamels. It just has to be a good pitcher. Jordan Zimmermann for Dellin Betances would be a neat little swap of huge short-term value for less concentrated, less certain long-term value. It might even make the Yankees a real contender in the AL East.
What’s likely to happen? Will the composition of the team change? Will they compete? Will they win anything? Make a prediction or two, as specific or as vague as you would like, but make a prediction.
Not much changes in Yankee town these days. If a legend isn’t on a retirement tour, the team is pretty boring, really. They’ll get a year older, a year more mediocre and a year further removed from their laudable streak of so many years reaching the playoffs, often even winning series or championships there. I’m among those who think the AL East’s parity is hiding its general quality. I think the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Rays will steamroll the Yankees. I’ll peg them for 76 wins, with only very small chances of their either getting lucky, staying healthy and reaching October, or falling so totally flat that they concede the point and trade away assets, leading to a 90-loss season.Next post: Season Preview Series, Part 14: Cleveland in a Box
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