Whatever the batting order, it’s the hitters themselves that will determine whether the Yankees lineup is any good this season. Joe Girardi could put them in the perfect 1 through 9, but if key players don’t perform up to their abilities, the offense simply won’t work. Hitters don’t have to be at their absolute peak to become valuable assets again, but key hitters reverting back toward key career stats would be a good strong step in the right direction.
If these specific players could bounce back in these specific ways, it would make a big difference.
MARK TEIXEIRA – Slugging percentage
Last season: .398
Teixeira has acknowledged that he’s probably not going to be a .300 hitter at this stage of his career. The shift has taken away a lot of his hits, and he’s just not a .300/.400/.500 guy anymore. But in 2012 — his last healthy season before last year — Teixeira slugged .475. That would have been the 12th-heighest slugging percentage in the American League last season. And it’s not that Teixeira absolutely can’t do that any more (he was slugging .474 at the end of June before a brutal second half). Power is at a premium these days, and Teixeira doesn’t have to be a great overall hitter to be a productive run producer.
BRIAN MCCANN – OPS vs. RHP
Last season: .633
McCann actually hit pretty well against lefties last season. Even exceeded his career numbers against them. What he did not do is hit against right-handers. He’d typically crushed them, but last season McCann slugged less than .400 with a sub-.300 on-base percentage against right-handers. Blame it on the shift. Blame it on the transition. Blame it on a bad year fully of lofty expectations. For whatever reason, McCann simply didn’t hit right-handers. Now that the American League East has lost several left-handed starters — including standouts Jon Lester and David Price — McCann should be able to feast on a bunch of righties in the division. Improve his splits, and McCann should significantly improve his production.
CARLOS BELTRAN – RBI
Last season: 49
Because of the elbow injury, it’s hard to know what to make of Beltran’s capabilities at this point. Was last year’s diminished slash line the product of age or injury? As recently as 2013, Beltran was still an .830 OPS guy. In his career he’s typically hit for a good average, hit for good power, and played a role in the middle of the order. That’s why he’s averaged more than 100 RBI per 162 games. Clearly RBI is not really an individual statistic. It depends heavily on playing time, and it depends on the rest of the lineup, and that’s why it’s such a key stat for Beltran. However he does it — through raw power or clutch hits or simply an abundance of opportunities — another 100 RBI season from Beltran would indicate that he’s stayed healthy and stayed in a lineup that’s generating plenty of run-scoring chances. As a guy the Yankees will surely count on in the middle of the order, a lot of Beltran RBI would be a good sign for the entire Yankees team.
JACOBY ELLSBURY – Stolen bases
Last season: 39
This is just a guess, but if Ellsbury is back at the top of the order (focusing on getting on base and creating havoc) rather than hitting in the middle (focusing on driving in runs and being a typical No. 3 hitter), I bet he’ll steal more bases this season. I might be completely wrong — and certainly a 39-steal season isn’t bad by any measure, it was the second-most in the American League — but a higher number of stolen bases would seem to indicate a better job getting on base and a willingness to run. In each of Ellsbury’s two highest-steal seasons, he’s had a .355 on-base percentage, which is 27 points higher than his on-base percentage last season. Stolen bases are hardly an absolute proof of Ellsbury’s productivity — he also had 39 steals in 2011, which was easily his overall best season — but a lot of steals in 2015 could be a sign of several things for the Yankees: It would suggest Ellsbury’s getting on base a lot, and that someone else hitting well enough in the middle of the order that Ellsbury gets to stay in his more-natural No. 1 or 2 spot.
STEPHEN DREW – Batting average on balls in play
Last season: .194
At times, BABIP is considered a measure of luck. If a typically good hitters has abnormally bad numbers, then a low batting average on balls in play could be an indication that he’s a few inches away from typical production. In the case of Drew, last year’s abnormally low BABIP could also be explained by his abnormally low line drive percentage. His home runs per fly ball were also down, as were his infield hits. His strikeout rate was significantly higher than usual. All of that could be an indication that Drew wasn’t simply unlucky last season, he simply wasn’t as prepared, making weaker contact when he made contact at all. Surely the Yankees aren’t banking on Drew being a dominant offensive player, but they’re obviously banking on him being better than last season’s .162/.237/.299. Better and more consistent contact should help.
CHRIS YOUNG – OPS vs. LHP
Last season: .561
Similar to the McCann situation, but from the opposite side of the plate and in a much smaller role. Even with that strong month of September, Young’s splits last season were not at all what’s come to be expected. He was alright against right handers, but he was brutal against lefties. Given all of the left-handed hitters in the Yankees regular lineup — and the presence of Garrett Jones as left-handed outfield option off the bench — Young’s role this season seems to be entirely in a platoon situation, bringing some right-handed balance to a team that leans to the left. Whether he’s in the lineup against lefties or coming off the bench to pinch hit for Drew or Didi Gregorius, Young could have a real impact if he’s able to make the most of his limited playing time against left-handers.
Associated Press photos
I believe I was 13 years old when Steven Spielberg made Jurassic Park, and because I was 13 years old, I absolutely loved it. The dinosaurs were cool — dinosaurs are always cool — Jeff Goldblum laid out the movie’s central message with a not-so-subtle line:
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
I thought of that line because among the challenges for new Yankees hitting coach Jeff Pentland — among the challenges for any hitting coach, really — is the question of how to handle defensive shifts that have become commonplace throughout baseball. Is it possible to teach a shift-susceptible player to go the other way? And if it can be done, should it be done?
“That’s the rub,” Pentland said this morning. “Do you change them, or do you let them keep doing it? The only thing I try to tell them is, if we’re going to do anything, let’s do it in Spring Training. Once the season starts, it’s very difficult to even think about changing swings. You’re always tinkering and fine tuning, and you’ve got older guys (so) you’re not inventing the wheel here. You’re not making wholesale changes. If I tried to do that, they’d shut me out in a heartbeat. These guys have been around, they know what they’re doing and they know how successful they’ve been. You’d be surprised how open-minded most of them are. I’ve got my work cut out for me as far as them getting to know me and trust me. Then we go from there. If we’re not making any adjustments at all, then I’m not doing my job.”
For the Yankees, Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann stand out as key middle-of-the-order run producers who tend to pull the ball. Teams shift against them, and those shifts have cost them hits. The question is whether it’s worthwhile for these guys to go the other way more often, potentially raising their batting averages, but perhaps taking away the pull power that made them All-Star sluggers in the first place.
On the right is a Brooks Baseball chart of McCann’s career spray angles. Little surprise that he’s shown an obvious tendency to hit groundballs to the right side — that’s why teams are shifting in the first place — but the chart also shows that last season he showed a significant uptick in balls hit the other way. He seemed adjust to the shift by hitting more groundballs up the middle and to the opposite field.
The result was the worst offensive season of his career.
“As far as hitting the ball the other way, that’s something I’ve definitely done going into spring training,” McCann told MLB Network earlier this offseason. “And then a month into the season you look up and you sacrifice power and driving the baseball. Or at least I do. That’s the line I have to walk. I’ve hit a certain way for a long, long time.”
Here’s what Teixeira told Dan Barbarisi about beating the shift:
“You beat the shift by hitting line drives,” Teixeira said. “Don’t hit ground balls. If you hit a slow ground ball in the hole, you don’t deserve a hit. It’s a rollover. With line drives, yeah, every now and then you hit a line drive at somebody, but that’s baseball.”
There are obvious benefits to changing an approach and beating the shift, but it may be that the next generation of players — the guys who have faced shifts throughout the minor leagues — are better equipped to make those changes. Veteran guys like Teixiera and McCann got to the big leagues by hitting a certain way, and making a drastic change in the name of adding a few singles could do as much harm as good.
“We’ll talk about it,” Pentland said. “The player has to buy in, No. 1. We’ve got four or five weeks of spring training, and obviously I’m going to pick their minds. The shift becomes almost a mental block sometimes. It’s not only the Yankees, it’s a lot of teams that are going through that situation. You can’t completely change players, but we certainly could talk about it and work on it and make them understand. Sometimes you’ve got to think more in the middle of the diamond rather than focus on so much pull. But obviously that’s something between me and the player.”
Associated Press photo
On the 40-man: Brian McCann • 01.13.15
We’ll keep looking at the Yankees 40-man roster with a look at the team’s starting catcher for the foreseeable future.
Age on Opening Day: 31
Acquired: Signed last November
Added to the 40-man: Officially added to the roster last December
In the past: The Braves second-round pick in 2002, McCann was part of a wave of homegrown players who filled key roles in Atlanta through much of the past decade. He’s a seven-time all-star, five-time Silver Slugger and gets favorable reviews from his pitching staff. Pitch framing information suggests he’s helping the pitching staff by getting borderline strikes, however his offensive numbers plummeted in his Yankees debut last season. Yankees have to hope his eight September home runs were a sign of things to come.
Role in 2015: While the Yankees have good, young catching on the horizon — including John Ryan Murphy perfectly poised for a big league role this season — McCann is clearly the everyday guy behind the plate. While he struggled offensively last season, his left-handed power swing should be a nice fit for Yankee Stadium. Along with Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira, McCann will be key to the Yankees run production. The team made several additions this winter, but their middle-of-the-order remains much the same.
Best case scenario: Last season was simply an adjustment. McCann had previously spent his entire professional career in the Braves system, and it simply took him a while to get used to the New York environment. The defensive shifts got in his head, learning a new pitching staff took its toll, and McCann wasn’t nearly as good as he can be. Best case scenario is that 2015 is a return to 2011 when McCann last won a Silver Slugger award for slugging .466 with 24 homers.
Worst case scenario: Last season was an adjustment, alright. It was an adjustment by defensive strategists who found a way to beat McCann’s pull tendency. Hitters can’t always make drastic changes in the middle of the career, and it turns out that McCann is one of those guys who can’t adjust to beat the shift. He’ll still hit some homers, but a sub-.700 OPS is the norm at this point.
What the future holds: Signed through 2018 with a team option for 2019, McCann isn’t going anywhere. Even with Murphy graduated to the big leagues and Gary Sanchez ready for Triple-A, McCann’s job as the everyday catcher seems secure for the next few years. If durability becomes an issue, he could — in theory — shift to first base or designated hitter, but McCann was signed to be a catcher, and the job will be his until it’s crystal clear someone else is a better option.
Associated Press photo
Looking for a re-do on the Yankees roster • 11.08.14
Last winter, the Yankees added nearly a half-billion dollars in new contracts, but they refused to give a 10-year deal to their best player. The Yankees reluctance with Robinson Cano seemed to be a clear attempt to avoid repeating past mistakes (specifically, an attempt to avoid the pitfalls of one other decade-long contract).
Of all the current regrets on the roster, I think it’s a safe bet that Alex Rodriguez’s contract is the one the Yankees would most like to void if they could. Three more years at basically $20 million a year for a guy who might be a non-factor on the field? That’s pretty bad, and that’s before factoring in all of the off-the-field problems. Total mess.
But if the Yankees could magically get out of one other current obligation, which would it be?
I’m going to assume the Yankees feel good about the Brett Gardner extension, considering he’s coming off a strong season and looks like a relative bargain. They also probably don’t have much regret about two more years and $22 million left on Martin Prado’s deal, if only because it’s a relatively small contract that isn’t going to cripple their payroll. The Brendan Ryan contract also is not the sort of thing that creates many payroll problems.
So, of the other multi-year contracts on the Yankees roster — non-Rodriguez division — which are you second guessing most?
Contract: Five years, $122 million (plus a vesting option)
What’s left: Two years (plus the vesting option)
This is the triple crown of contract concerns: Age, performance and injury. And that vesting option is based on shoulder injury, not a knee or elbow injury, so that option could vest despite the current concerns. Pitchers are always risky investments, and while there was very little doubt the Yankees would extend Sabathia back in 2011. He was good again in 2012, but the contract has been a problem ever since. If Sabathia can become a steady middle-of-the-rotation arm for the remaining years, the Yankees will surely be happy with that production at this point. The rotation now belongs to Tanaka and Michael Pineda.
Contract: Eight years, $180 million
What’s left: Two years
I’ve written before that if you go back to that 2008 offseason, Teixeira was exactly the kind of player worth a long-term investment. He was consistent, he was terrific on both offense and defense, there was little indication he’d ever have to abandon his position, and he was — perhaps most importantly — always healthy. One great years, though, and things started to slide in a big way. To me, Teixeira is the strongest example of why all long-term contracts are giant risks. If he hits for power like he did the first three months of 2014, and carries that through a full season, Teixeira can still be plenty productive for the Yankees. There are a lot of red flags at the moment, though.
Contract: Three years, $45 million
What’s left: Two years
This is a relatively short and relatively inexpensive contract, but because of Beltran’s age and overwhelming unproductive season, I think the Yankees would back out of his deal before they’d back out of some others. Losing Beltran might open right field for a free agent like Melky Cabrera or Nelson Cruz. This isn’t a contract that’s going to cripple the Yankees payroll for an extended period of time, but it’s a contract that looked bad just two months into its first season.
Contract: Five years, $85 million (plus a club option)
What’s left: Four years (plus the club option)
Even after a brutal first season in New York, I’m not sure the Yankees would be desperate to get out of this contract. After another year like this year, it might be a different story, but McCann seemed to show some signs of significant improvement late in the year. He also helped get a strong season out of a patchwork pitching staff, and I think that has to count for something. That said, the fact the Yankees are deep in upper-level catching prospects means they have some young and cheap alternatives behind the plate. I doubt the Yankees are too bothered by the McCann deal at the moment, but that first year certainly didn’t go as planned.
Contract: Seven years, $153 million (plus a club option)
What’s left: Six years (plus the club option)
In his first year after coming from the Red Sox to the Yankees, Ellsbury’s performance was more or less in keeping with his past production. He hit the second-most home runs of his career, put up a slash line pretty close to his career numbers, and more or less provided the same speed and defense that the Yankees had seen from afar. The only immediate regret in the Ellsbury contract is that there are so many years left. Any contract of this length is worth second guessing. Which brings us to…
Contract: Seven years, $155 million
What’s left: Six years (with a player opt out after 2017)
My guess is that the Yankees don’t regret this deal. Yes, Tanaka’s elbow could go out at any moment, but that’s basically true of any pitcher. Bigger risk with Tanaka, obviously, but they also signed a legitimate front-line starter who’s Japanese numbers carried over to the big leagues. That’s a big deal, and a young ace is nearly impossible to find. Even with the injury risk, that’s a guy worth signing for big money. That said, this is a lot of money and a lot of years for a guy who broke down midway through his first season.
Associated Press photos
Election day in the Yankees clubhouse • 11.04.14
It’s election day, so let’s have some fun with that!
I’m not going to say that I hope you all voted today. I’ll say instead that I hope you got yourself educated on the issues, really looked into the candidates and the possibilities, and then voted. That’s the way to take the responsibility seriously.
This blog post is one way to not take it seriously.
Remember being a senior in high school and voting on class personalities? If not, I’m sure you at least understand the reference. It’s not like voting for a senator or voting for an amendment. It’s done with a sense of having a good time, and that’s what this blog post is about. Here are a few suggestions for the leading candidates for various class superlatives on the current Yankees roster.
Most Likely to Succeed – Jacoby Ellsbury
With good reason, we focus a lot on the uncertainty of the Yankees current roster (and we’re going to focus on it again in a few sentences), but it’s interesting to do the opposite. What’s the most reliable piece heading into next season? I’d argue it’s Ellsbury, who more or less lived up to expectation in his first season with the Yankees. Factoring in track record, injury concerns, age, and everything else, I’d say Ellsbury is as reliable as it gets for next season.
Least Certain to Succeed – Masahiro Tanaka
Not least likely to succeed, just least certain. There can be no doubt about Tanaka’s talent – the first half of his rookie year proved his stuff can be plenty effective against major league hitters – but we also know that his elbow ligament was slightly torn last season. We know he can succeed, just can’t be certain he’ll have a successful 2015.
Class President – CC Sabathia
It will probably be several years before we see another Yankees captain, and the current roster really has no one quite like Derek Jeter in terms of clear clubhouse leadership. Recognizing that reality — acknowledging there’s no natural fit for team captain — who carries all those qualities you think of in a Class President? I think Sabathia fits best. He’s most certainly respected, he’s incredibly well liked, and he’s been around almost as long as anyone in the room.
Class Clown – Brendan Ryan
This is not intended as a joke about Ryan’s talent or impact. This is intended literally to point out that he’s a bit of a goofball. In a clubhouse full of veterans, where the word stoic is far more applicable than silly, Ryan is a breath of fresh air. He was in good spirits despite rarely playing last season, and there were days he literally went bounding through the locker room laughing like a little kid. As long as it doesn’t cross the line from amusing to annoying, I tend to think a clubhouse needs a guy like that.
Teacher’s Pet – Martin Prado
Honestly, I’m kind of guessing here, but doesn’t Prado seem like exactly the kind of guy a manager could fall in love with? Willing and able to play anywhere in the field. Willing and able to hit basically anywhere in the lineup. Willing (and sometimes able) to play hurt. Does all of that with a real sense of professionalism. With good reason, I could see Prado becoming a Joe Girardi favorite.
Greatest Overachiever – Brett Gardner
Walk-on in college. Labeled a fourth outfielder throughout the minor leagues. Relegated to platoon playing time when he got to the big leagues. Even Gardner’s believers seemed to always acknowledge that he might not actually become an everyday guy, yet this season he landed a multi-year deal and led the Yankees in WAR (according to Baseball Reference; FanGraphs had him second). That’s defying expectation in a big way.
Greatest Underachiever – Brian McCann
At this point, I’m just piling on against a player who I still believe could be a really nice hitter next season (he was awfully good in September). But, the thing with McCann’s disappointing season is that it can’t be blamed on injury or age. Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira, Brian Roberts and Alfonso Soriano had some excuses in place. McCann never really had one — and to his credit, he never made one — for his disappointing year.
Most Anticipated – Michael Pineda
If we’re looking ahead to next year, then Rob Refsnyder might fit in this spot. If we’re looking beyond next year, then maybe Luis Severino or Aaron Judge. If we’re looking back to last year, then it’s surely Tanaka. But as a combination — last season, next season, and beyond — the anticipation of Pineda is difficult to overlook. The Yankees waited years to finally get him on the field, and they still haven’t seen what he can do in a full season.
Mr. Nice Guy – Adam Warren
Here’s the thing: If Adam reads this and sees a “Mr. Nice Guy” category, he’ll know that he’s going to win it. So will every one of his teammates. It’s not that there are a bunch of jerks in that room — Francisco Cervelli? Incredibly nice guy. Zelous Wheeler? Impossible to dislike. CC Sabathia? Ivan Nova? Brett Gardner? All invited to any dinner I’m attending. — but Warren’s a really, genuinely, nice guy. I don’t know how else to describe him. By the way, Chase Whitley might have been the choice here, but he’s made fun of Missouri football too many times. Total jerk, that guy.
Least Popular – Alex Rodriguez
I know, I know, this one is too easy. But who else fits this description, and what other distinction best fits this player? Rodriguez has gone beyond a lightning rod. At this point, he’s simply a cautionary tale about bad contracts, and performance enhancing drugs, and poor public relations decisions. Rodriguez will probably be booed a lot next year, but if he hits, I bet he’ll be cheered again.
Life of the Party – Dellin Betances
Not in the usual sense. Betances isn’t the life of the party because he’s an over-the-top personality (he’s actually pretty subdued for the most part). He’s the life of the party because he was surely the best thing about last season, and he’s one of the absolute bright spots heading into next season. If you want to look at the roster and find an undeniably good thing, a young success story like Betances — who’s not tied to a bad contract, who’s still in his 20s, who came up through the minor league system, who still has an exciting future — is about as good as it gets for the Yankees right now. The life of the party brings excitement when things get dull, and that’s certainly what Betances is doing.
Associated Press photos
The stage was set, and the crowd here at Yankee Stadium knew it. Tying run on base. Lefty on the mound. Derek Jeter at the plate. It was a chance for farewell heroics, but Zach Britton threw three straight sinkers and Jeter went down swinging to end the game that put the Yankees right on the verge of playoff elimination.
“You’re thinking that he’s going to hit a home run or he’s going to hit a ball in the gap and we’re going to tie the score,” Joe Girardi said. “You see what happens. It didn’t happen, unfortunately, but you have a pretty good feeling when he’s up there.”
Jeter’s gone through a resurgence this home stand, and he had another hit tonight — an infield single — but there was no magic at the end. And the official end could come as early as tomorrow afternoon. The Yankees have been using the phrase “must win” for a while now, but at this point, it’s literally true.
One more Yankees loss — or one more Royals win — will end the Yankees playoff hopes. Even if the Yankees win the rest of their games, it still probably won’t be enough.
“Every game is must win,” Jeter said. “It’s been must win. That’s the approach that we have for a while now. Nothing changes. We must win tomorrow. That’s the way it’s basically been for a while.”
Because of who he is, because of what this home stand represents, there seemed to be an extra level of excitement for that final at-bat. The reporter next to me actually said, as soon as Brett Gardner stepped to the plate with two outs: You just know Gardner’s getting on base so that Jeter has a chance. And it was perfectly true. It really did feel that way. One way or another, it was going to come down to Jeter.
“I’m trying to extend the inning,” Jeter said. “That’s basically it. So he was better than me tonight and I may face him again. … For me, I’m trying to take the approach that I’m trying to play a game. I’ve told you guys, everything that’s happened, the fans have been special this entire year, especially these last few games that we’ve had here in New York. But we’re still trying to win games, so my approach doesn’t change.”
• In what was likely his final start of the year, Brandon McCarthy had his worst outing as a Yankee. He matched his season-high with three home runs, matched his Yankees-high with five earned runs, and 5.1 innings made this his shortest start since the trade. “If that’s the finishing one, then that one kinda sucks,” McCarthy said. “But I’ve thrown well, there’s been a lot of positives. But I felt like, at least tonight, I was able to not let it spiral out of control, when I was still fighting everything. But it’s not one I would like to have this time of year.”
• Although he walked no one, everyone seemed to agree that McCarthy’s biggest issue was command. It stemmed from mechanics that were slightly off, leaving the movement on his pitches unpredictable at times. “It was just a day where I never really felt like I had a feel for what I was doing,” McCarthy said. “Command of the pitches was okay at times, and then other times it let me down a little bit. I couldn’t find any consistent movement, and my sinker flattened out. Larry (Rothschild) talked about this: some of them just stayed straight, some of them were sinking. It was hard to be consistent and do what I wanted to do, and go with a certain plan of attack if you’re not able to execute.”
• Girardi on McCarthy: “It’s the first night maybe he didn’t quite have his command. He’s been really good with his command. He was pulling some sinkers, he left some balls up and got hurt. He missed with a cutter to Kelly Johnson. Of all he starts that he’s had, this was probably the one that he didn’t have his location.”
• Oddly, despite all the home runs and all the hits, McCarthy was able to strikeout eight without a walk. It was the fourth time this season — all with the Yankees — that McCarthy had at least eight strikeouts without a walk. “When he did throw the ball where he wanted to, he got people out,” Girardi said.
• On the whole, McCarthy’s time with the Yankees was pretty impressive, and his personality seems to fit here extremely well. McCarthy’s a free agent, and would seem like a strong target for this team. “I would prefer to be anywhere that I’m wanted,” he said. “But this would be a hard place to turn down.”
• Brian McCann has 23 home runs this season, and eight of them have come in the month of September. “I’ve been feeling good for a while,” he said. “Just not missing my pitch. Getting it and finding the barrel.”
• Most home runs McCann has ever hit in a single month was nine during July of 2012. His 23 homers this season are the most by a Yankees player whose primary position is catcher since Jorge Posada hit 23 in 2006.
• Jeter now has a seven-game hitting streak, which is the longest active streak for the Yankees. Despite going just 1-for-5 today, he’s still hitting .400 this home stand. He has two Yankee Stadium games left.
• Ichiro Suzuki is hitting .319 in 47 games since August 1 including .350 in 27 home games in that span.
• The Yankees pitching staff had 11 strikeouts today (11 by McCarthy, two by Betances, one by Robertson) which gave them 1,319 strikeouts for the year. That’s a new single-season franchise record, breaking the mark set in 2012. This was the seventh time this season that the Yankees struck out 10 without walking a batter.
• Yankees relievers have a 1.13 ERA in their past 14 home games.
• McCarthy has reached 200 innings in a season for the first time in his career. He got to exactly 200 before coming out in the sixth. He called it a “tremendous source of pride” to finally reach that number. Not a bad year to get there with free agency coming up.
• Final word to Jeter: “You always have to have confidence. We have confidence up until the game is over with, regardless of the score. You have to have confidence that we’ll come back and play an entire game. Confidence has always been there.”
Associated Press photos
You might not remember this, but there actually was a time when it seemed Mark Teixeira was going to have a pretty productive season. He’d been hurt at the very beginning of the year, but from April 24 to May 17, he hit nine home runs and slugged .686. He had 15 homers at the end of June, and that was despite missing some time with a few scattered injuries.
Problem is, that production didn’t last.
Similar thing happened with Carlos Beltran. He had an excellent first three weeks, then disappeared, then got hurt, then became incredibly productive again for three weeks right after the All-Star break.
Again, it didn’t last.
The middle of the Yankees lineup has searched for consistency all year — you’ve might have heard something about that — and has settled for nothing more than bursts of production that seem to disappear as quickly as they arrive.
Now it’s Brian McCann who’s starting to hit a little bit and trying to make it last.
“It seems like it was a long, long time ago (that the numbers were so bad),” McCann said. “I feel like I put together a couple good months. I’m getting better. That’s the plan. It’s such a long season, it took me a little bit longer to get going with the bat than normal.”
McCann hit .287 in July and he slugged .453 in August. After last night’s four-hit outburst, he’s now homered in three straight games at Yankee Stadium, and he’s hit six home runs in his past 17 games overall.
Of McCann’s 17 home runs this season, 15 have come at Yankee Stadium. It’s not a great trend, but in the short term, it’s not the worst thing considering the Yankees play 15 of their last 25 games at home. And three of their final road games are at Tropicana Field, where McCann has one of his two road homers this season.
“Obviously the short porch in right helps,” McCann said. “But to have so many at home and not many on the road, it’s strange. … I’m not sure (if the stadium affects approach). In BP, you don’t have to hit the ball that hard to get it out. You go on the road, maybe you’ve got to swing a little bit harder. I haven’t really dove into why that is.”
McCann, Teixeira and Beltran are each signed beyond this season, so the Yankees will have a full winter to dive into why exactly those trusted middle-of-the-order hitters failed to maintain any sort of offensive consistency. For the time being, they would have to be happy with another burst of production that carries through September and — with some luck — in to October.
Associated Press photo
Before CC Sabathia hurt his knee, before Michael Pineda went down with a shoulder injury, and long before Masahiro Tanaka tore his elbow ligament, Hiroki Kuroda finished the month of April with a 5.28 ERA. He was 39 years old, he’d been brutal down the stretch last year, and it was worth wondering whether Kuroda had finally run out of steam. For a moment, he was actually one of the Yankees more significant rotation concerns.
Since his second May start, thought, Kuroda’s had a 3.43 ERA. At a time when the Yankees rotation has desperately needed some sort of stability, Kuroda’s been basically the exact same source of consistency that he was the past two years.
“Some of the other years he’s been here, his April has been a little bit inconsistent,” manager Joe Girardi said. “So I felt like maybe he’s going through the (typical) April. He didn’t have his arm strength, didn’t have a slider. There was a little bit of a concern about that, but you saw it come around in May which put that all to rest.”
This rotation has been a stunning source of strength for the Yankees, and much of the credit has gone to the replacement starters. The Yankees have been kept afloat by the arrival of Shane Greene, the trade for Brandon McCarthy, the return of Pineda, the scrap-heap addition of Chris Capuano, the short-term boost of Chase Whitley, and the injury-shortened improvement of David Phelps.
In all of that, Kuroda has been overshadowed, but he led the way in tonight’s win to snap this three-game losing streak. He’s won his last three decisions, and he’s gone at least six innings with no more than two runs in each of his past four starts. Kuroda faded down the stretch the past two seasons, but this year he seems to be at his best near the end.
Kuroda said he’s been throwing fewer pitches between starts all year, and he skipped a bullpen heading into this start. He’s just trying to stay strong and avoid that familiar slide.
“Especially last year, I didn’t have a good month of September,” he said. “So I just wanted to change that, and I just wanted to contribute to my team. … I don’t know exactly what’s working, to be honest with you, but because I have to do my everyday workout to get my work in, and because I cannot skip a rotation turn or start, I just want to make sure I stay active.”
Kuroda has pitched into the sixth inning in 13 of his past 14 starts, and the last time he allowed more than four runs — earned or unearned — was way back on April 25.
“He just had another start that he’s had all year long,” Brian McCann said. “I feel like he’s been so consistent day in and day out, pitch after pitch. He just keeps making them.”
Standing at his locker postgame, Martin Prado sounded frustrated but at least a little bit optimistic. He considered the MRI largely precautionary, and he said a day of nothing but treatment seems to have done at least some good for his strained left hamstring.
“I think we made a little progress today,” he said. “We’ll see how I respond tomorrow. We did everything we could today to make some progress. … Tomorrow we’re going to, I heard, we’re going to do some activities. Hit and do everything normal to see how I react.”
Seems unlikely that Prado will play tomorrow, but he seems to think this should be — or at least could be — a fairly short-term issue.
“I know that I’ll probably miss just one or two days and not the rest of the season, so I was trying to be smart about it,” he said. “I don’t feel it walking. I feel, actually, normal. But when you’re playing, it’s not like I’m going to say I’m going to play 50 percent. I have to go 100 percent or I can’t play. We’ll see tomorrow. I’ll try to do everything I can to get back in the game.”
• We’ll get into all the good things the offense did in a bit, but first: the first-inning rundown debacle. “Gardy did not get a good jump and he has to stop,” Girardi said. “Jeet had third base easy. Gardy has to stop there, and running into two outs — I wasn’t real happy about it, but we made up for it and that mistake didn’t cost us dearly, fortunately.”
• If you missed the play, it was a double steal, and the Red Sox threw to second instead of third. Because of his bad jump, Gardner stop short of the bag, tried to get into a rundown to let Jeter score, but Jeter never broke for home, ventured too far off third base, and the Red Sox ultimately threw over to get him out. They then fired to second, and Gardner was out as well. Just brutal.
• Before the game, Kevin Long actually talked about the fact the Yankees have run themselves into too many outs this season. “How many times have you seen it happen this year where we’ve run ourselves out of an inning or we do something like that?” Long said. “It’s happened 8-to-10 times. That’s a lot.” When it happened again, Girardi addressed the Yankees base running issues. “Sometimes it’s overaggressiveness,” Girardi said. “You look at the one we did last night, it’s not picking up the runner in front of you. It’s not like these guys aren’t experienced, and they know what they need to do. Sometimes it’s just a matter of playing too hard and trying too hard (that causes the team) to make mistakes.”
• On the offensive bright side: Brian McCann. He has homered in a career-high three straight home games. He matched his career-high with four hits, something he’s now done 11 times (last time was July 6 of last year). “I was covering both sides of the plate, working counts and swinging at strikes,” he said.
• McCann’s now hit 17 home runs this season, and 15 of them have come at Yankee Stadium. Two other players in franchise history have hit 15 of their first 17 Yankees home runs in home games: Joe Sewell in 1931-32 and Oscar Gamble in 1976. That’s according to Elias. Oddly enough, I did not know that off the top of my head.
• Jacoby Ellsbury had a triple and a sacrifice fly and is now hitting .415 with two doubles, two triples and four home runs in his past 14 games.
• Dellin Betances struck out two batters in a scoreless eighth inning. He now has 122 strikeouts in 81 innings this season and has a good chance to be the Yankees season leader in strikeouts while pitching the entire season out of the bullpen. He’s tied Goose Gossage for the second-most reliever strikeouts in a season (Gossage did it in 134.1 innings in 1978). The record is 130 set by Mariano Rivera in 107.2 innings 1996.
• Also a bunch of strikeouts tonight for Kuroda, who tied a season-high with eight strikeouts. He also did that in May against the Angels. This was his fourth career start of at least seven innings with at least eight strikeouts and no walks. He did that once in 2008, once in 2009, and twice this year.
• Both Kuroda and Girardi had kind words for McCann’s ability to work with Kuroda through these strong outings. “He has a great idea what the pitchers stuff is and how it equates to getting each hitter out,” Girardi said. “Sometimes you can say, ‘Well, (the batter) is not a good changeup hitter.’ Well if you don’t have a changeup, that becomes an issue, so you have too find another way to get hitters out and I think Brian is very good at knowing what he needs to do with Hiro and the type of stuff he has and figuring out how to get outs.”
• Because Detroit lost, the Yankees gained a game and now trail by four games for the second wild card. “It’s impossible not to watch (the scoreboard),” Girardi said. “It’s human nature. You watch it all year long. We’re baseball people, that’s what we do. There’s always that curiosity, but obviously you know what’s going on.”
• Final word goes to McCann: “It’s big. At this point, our mindset here is to just win as many games as we can. We’ve got one month to turn it on and we plan on doing that.”
Associated Press photos
When a team is winning, a $20 horsehead mask bought on Amazon feels like good luck.
When a team has lost two of three in a tight wild card race, a one-run loss feels like rock bottom.
“That’s about as bad as I’ve felt walking off a mound in my career,” Shawn Kelley said.
Surely a misplaced slider on August 28 isn’t the low point of Kelley’s career, but I have no doubt it’s going to feel that way on the flight to Toronto. Three days ago, the Yankees had won five straight and Kelley’s goofy horsehead had become an unlikely team mascot. Now the team has lost two of three and fallen to three games behind both the Tigers and Mariners for the second wild card.
“We need to win every single game,” Derek Jeter said. “I don’t know how else to say it. That’s the approach we need to have. We’re in this position because of how we’ve played up to this point. So we are where we are, and now we need to win.”
As you might expect, there was a definite sense of lost opportunity in the Yankees clubhouse postgame. There were line drive outs. Brian McCann’s near home run was blown just foul. Kelley was one out away from escaping the ninth-inning jam.
When things are going well — when masks are good luck charms, and the team is winning, and 90s hip-hop is blasting in the clubhouse — there’s a real sense that games like this will eventually turn in the Yankees favor. But today, there was no laughing and no music blasting. And that horse mask was nowhere to be found.
“I didn’t watch (the game-winning hit),” Kelley said. “I just put my head down and walked off the field. It would’ve been a nice surprise if he would’ve (caught it), but I assumed it was a homer.”
• To be clear, off the bat I felt certain Alex Avila’s game-winner was a home run. I never thought Ichiro Suzuki had a shot at it until he closed the gap and came fairly close to a full-sprint catch at the wall. Ichiro was close, but I have a hard time suggesting he misplayed it. I’m mostly stunned he got that close. “It’s a do-or-die play,” Ichiro said. “I just went to where I thought the ball was going to be.”
• Girardi on whether Ichiro had a shot to make the catch: “It’s really hard for me to see once it gets out there. I heard him hit the wall, and I think I heard the ball hit the wall. I can’t tell you what exactly happened, but the bottom line is that it ended up being a base hit.”
• Kelley struck out both Nick Castellanos and Torii Hunter on fastballs, and he gave up both the Victor Martinez and Avila base hits on sliders. Surprised he went slider in that two-out situation against Avila? “No, that’s his bread-and-butter pitch,” Girardi said. “He also made some pretty good pitches with some sliders during some of the at-bats too.”
• Kelley on the first-pitch slider to Avila: “I got the outs I wanted to get, and then just overthrew a slider and left it up. Avila can hit that pitch. Most guys can.”
• Everyone involved seem to think McCann had a two-out, three-run home run in the top of the ninth. It seemed fair initially, but it eventually wound its way just foul. “I did (think it would stay fair),” McCann said. “It just kept going. I don’t know if the wind took it or what. It would have been nice if it stayed fair, but it didn’t.”
• Girardi said it “wasn’t a consideration” to use Dellin Betances for two innings tonight, and he indicated that it had nothing to do with using Betances last night. “You feel good about (Kelley) on the mound, especially the way he’s been throwing the baseball,” Girardi said. Kelley’s past five games leading into this one: 4.1 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 7 K.
• Another pretty good start by Hiroki Kuroda, who has a 3.28 ERA in his past nine games. “I think I was pretty consistent with my splits,” Kuroda said. “I was able to be effective against the right-handers with my split.”
• We’re not into September yet, but Kuroda seems fairly confident that he can finish this season stronger than he did last year. “Yes, I had a bad second half last year and I am conscious of that,” he said. “I try to be different this year.” Kuroda has done things like limit the pitches he throws between starts in an effort to stay strong down the stretch.
• What made rookie Kyle Lobstein so effective? Girardi actually said the Yankees hit the ball better today than they did against David Price. “From the game that I saw, we swung the bats better than we did yesterday,” he said. “We just hit balls at people. That’s unfortunate. One inning we lined out three times. That’s part of the game, and we’re able to put a number of hits together and that’s why we didn’t score, but I actually thought we swung the bats well.”
• Jacoby Ellsbury had one hit, an RBI single. he’s hitting .462 in his past 10 games. Carlos Beltran is also fairly hot lately. He had two hits including a double and is batting .375 on the current road trip. This was his 27th multi-hit game of the season.
• This was the 42nd time the Yankees were limited to two runs or less this season. Little surprise they’re 7-35 in those games.
• Final word to Brett Gardner: “If we make up one game per week we’ll be in good shape at the end. I feel like we’re playing better baseball. Our pitching has been pretty consistent and they give us a chance to win ballgames. We’re headed in the right direction. It’s disappointing today, but we have another game tomorrow so we can’t get too down. We’ll keep grinding away.”
Associated Press photos
Here’s what Derek Jeter said last night about being a designated hitter:
“I don’t DH much. You go in the cage between at-bats. That’s about it. It’s not something that I do a lot of. To be honest with you, I’m not sure how people do it. I just run out of things to do. Fortunately, I think (Saturday) might be my second time this year. I don’t do it that often.”
Well, now Jeter’s the DH for a second day in a row, and with Carlos Beltran cleared to play the outfield — and with two awfully good defensive shortstops on the roster — there’s a chance Jeter will see even more DH days down the stretch.
“I don’t know,” Joe Girardi said. “I’ve talked about, now that we’ve got Carlos in the outfield, we could rotate the DH a little bit more. I’ll still DH Carlos plenty, but felt it was a chance to give Jeet a week where he could catch up.”
When the Yankees kick off next week’s home stand, Jeter’s past six days will have included three days off plus two days at designated hitter. That’s a pretty good amount of rest for a 40-year-old shortstop, and while Girardi wouldn’t commit to just how often Jeter will DH in the future — he said he’ll rotate the DH days, and that Beltran will stick get quite a few of them — the roster does seem pretty well designed for Jeter to get at least occasional days — if not regular days — out of the infield.
“Not thinking too much of it,” Girardi said. “Figure it’s a chance to do it (these two days). Turf can be rough on people. We’re going to get into another long stretch, so I chose to do it that way.”
• One day after his 25-pitch bullpen, Masahiro Tanaka played catch today and seems perfectly fine. “He felt good,” Girardi said. “He played catch today, so he’s scheduled for another bullpen next week. I’m not sure what day. Next bullpen he’ll start to spin some stuff.”
• By the way, saying Tanaka is going to “spin some stuff” doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll start throwing splitters next week. “I’m not sure if he’ll throw a split,” Girardi said. “They talked about him spinning some curveballs. I’m not sure exactly if he’s going to throw a slider or what else he’s going to throw. We want him to spin some on some flat ground before he does it off a mound.”
• As expected, Brian McCann is off the disabled list and back at catcher. He missed slightly more than a week because of a concussion. Seems fine now. “It makes (the lineup) deeper, and obviously it’s a guy that has power,” Girardi said. “It’s really good to be able to put him back there because, any time someone goes through something like he went through, we’re always concerned. But he feels good and he’s back in there.”
• Austin Romine has been optioned back to Triple-A.
• Did having Beltran limited to DH keep Girardi from resting key players the past few months? “It worked out,” Girardi said. “Thinking of guys I might have DHed a little bit — I might have given Gardy one DH day in there, and Ellsbury one DH day in there, but not a whole lot.”
• Girardi said he would “absolutely” play Martin Prado in right field again.
• Hiroki Kuroda didn’t get through the fifth inning his last time out. “He didn’t really have a very good split that day, I didn’t think,” Girardi said. “That’s an important pitch for him.”
Associated Press photos