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Followup on my 2015 Wishes

Prior to the start of last season, I considered each probable starter for the Yankees and made one wish for the upcoming season. Now that we’re rapidly approaching a new season and the dust has settled from the previous season, it’s time to see which Yankees lived up to my (completely unimportant) expectations.

THE PITCHERS

Masahiro Tanaka “That the arm holds up. Let other teams speculate about your health and distract their focus against you.”

Notice my hope was only about the health of his arm – not his contract, his performance, or whether or not he’s an ace. Tanaka did start more games (24) than he did last year (20), and as a result pitched more innings (154.0) than he did last year (136.1), including one of only two complete games thrown by Yankee starters in 2015. He had one trip to the DL which lasted from 4/28/15 to 6/05/15. (The year before, Tanaka was out from 7/6/14 to 9/21/14.)

Verdict: He pitched more, was injured less, and his arm did not fall off. Good!

Michael Pineda “Keep up the good work, Big Mike. And if you want to wear your hat a little straighter, I won’t complain.”

There were good days (Mother’s Day, when he struck out 16), and there were meh days (too many to mention). We saw a lot more of Pineda this year after his return from injury (160.2IP compared to 76.1IP last year), but yet only one example of really good pitching immediately comes to mind.

Verdict: …at least there was no pine tar!

CC Sabathia “Have a better season than I’m fearing you’ll have.”

I was really hard on CC – and I mean really hard. I predicted a loss every time he started because I was so confident opposing hitters would destroy him. For the first part of the season, that was true; in the first 24 games of the season he was 4-9 with a 5.27 ERA. Then came the blessed knee brace! In his final 5 starts of the season, Sabathia’s ERA dropped to 2.17 – much more like the workhorse we’re used to. He is now 35 years old and has thrown 2988.2IP and recorded 2,574K in his 15 year career. This was a difficult year for Sabathia personally and professionally, but even if his body wasn’t performing as he wanted it to, his heart was always 100% in it.

Verdict: Glad the end of the season was more like the old CC – and knee brace for MVP!

Nathan Eovaldi “Be that young pitcher no one expects to be great, and then dominate opposing teams.”

There’s a big difference between playing for the Miami Marlins, and playing for the New York Yankees. For example – Eovaldi had a 6-14 record in 2014 with the Marlins, and a 14-3 record this past season with the Yankees. His ERA in 2014 and 2015 are roughly the same while his starts and innings pitched were down slightly in 2015 due to injury. The numbers that really stood out to me were his 175 hits (down from 223), 72 runs (down from 107), and 72 ER (down from 97).

Verdict: He didn’t exactly dominate, but he’s a work in progress, and seems to be progressing well.

Adam Warren: “Be consistent and pitch well – there’s a reason you won this rotation spot – and don’t be one of the pitchers we have to worry about.”

Remember when Adam Warren was a starter? Those were my favorite Adam Warren days! I was fortunate enough to see two of his starts in person – one a narrow defeat and one a win. Of course later in the season Warren was moved to the bullpen where he proved to be just as effective. There was a certain amount of comfort in having him out there if a starter totally tanked (and not that Chris Capuano ever did…) because we knew he could give length. Or a spot start. Or really, whatever the Yankees asked of him, because he would do it. And he would do it well, and always without complaint.

Verdict: If anyone met and exceeded all my hopes for 2015, it was Adam Warren. I’ll miss him in pinstripes, but wish him tons of success with the Cubs.

THE INFIELDERS

Brian McCann (C): “You’ve had a year to settle in to a new environment – now it’s time to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s right field.”

There isn’t a huge difference in McCann’s stats in 2014 compared to 2015. He only hit three more HRs, but he did have 19 more RBIs. He had 20 more strikeouts, but also drew 20 more walks. He’s projected to have roughly the same kind of numbers for 2016.

Verdict: I’m not sure we can expect much more from Brian McCann as we’ve seen the last two seasons. That being said, I’m not at all disappointed with him.

Mark Teixeira (1B): “Don’t be stubborn: teams are going to shift, especially when you outright say you won’t try to beat the shift.”

For quite awhile early this season, it seemed like Tex’s approach to beating the shift was just to hit everything right over the shift. It didn’t seem to matter where anyone was standing on the field – he was just going to hit the ball right out of the park, probably yelling “I’ll show you!” as he rounded the bases.

Verdict: This is, by far, the most hilarious example of being proven wrong I can think of from this season!

Stephen Drew (2B): “Crack .200 for your batting average and look like you can play 2B.”

What an odd player Stephen Drew turned out to be. I’m not sure anyone in baseball history has ever hit 17HRs while only hitting .201 for the season (of course he had to add that extra .001 to his average, just to spite me). As for his fielding, I have to give him credit for switching positions after age 30. He’s demonstrated versatility playing 2B, SS, and 3B during the season, as well as having some (very random) power at the plate. He could be a very good utility infielder for the Nationals this year.

Verdict: He just barely broke .200 before he was shut down for injury the rest of the season. He certainly wasn’t the best 2B in MLB last year, but he also could have been a lot worse.

Didi Gregorius (SS): “Don’t get rattled by replacing one of baseball’s biggest stars on one of the largest stages in the world.”

I’ll admit I was hard on Didi early in the season. He had a bit of a rocky start with a mental errors (working with a former Gold Glove shortstop helped), but showed great improvement as the season went on.

Verdict: Do we all love Didi yet? I think we all love Didi!

Chase Headley (3B): “Keep the good New York momentum going.”

In his nine years in MLB, Chase Headley has made 83 errors at 3B. In the first eight years of his career, he had never made more than 13 errors in a single season (2010) and even won a Gold Glove with the Padres in 2012.

During the 2014 season, I was extremely judgmental of anyone who tried to play 3B – mostly because they were “replacing” my favorite player, but also because they were pretty terrible. When Headley came to New York, it was like a breath of fresh air. Finally, there was someone competent who could play 3B – and then he signed a four year contract as a free agent. Things were good!

But then came the 2015 season, and a career high 23(!!) errors. At times, I wondered if the Yankees might actually get better defense from 40 year old Alex Rodriguez.

Verdict: Biggest disappointment of 2015.

THE OUTFIELDERS

Brett Gardner (LF): “Be that gritty player who flies under the radar and leaves teams wondering “Where the hell did that guy come from?””

Gardner always has a rough second half of the season. At this point in his career, I’m not sure that will ever change. One thing I absolutely love about Gardner is that he always, always gives it all he’s got. He doesn’t often get the recognition he deserves, especially for someone who had to fight just to play college baseball and is now an everyday player for the New York Yankees.

Verdict: Gardy finally got the recognition he deserves, being selected to his first career All Star game at 31 years old.

Jacoby Ellsbury (CF): “Steal a ton of bases – and maybe another steal of home.”
Bonus wish: “Have a ridiculously good game against the Red Sox. Just explode offensively and defensively, and silence those Red Sox fans who claim they’re happy you left Boston.”

Early this season, I really thought it was going to be Ellsbury’s year – he started the season hot. In the first month and a half of the season, he hit .324 with 48 hits, 29 runs scored, and an impressive 14 stolen bases. Every time I turned a game on, he was running – and it was like a dream come true. This is the Jacoby Ellsbury I wanted to see!

When things seem too good to be true, they often are. On May 19, Ellsbury sustained a right knee injury and spent May 20 through July 8 on the disabled list. As luck would have it, he injured his knee in the first of two games in Washington, and of course I had tickets for the second game. (It wasn’t all bad news though – I was there for Slade Heathcott’s MLB debut!)

For the rest of the season, Ellsbury was okay. Average. Definitely far less exciting than he started the season. There was no amazing game against the Red Sox either.

Verdict: If I could only judge Ellsbury’s season up until May 19, it would be a big success.

Carlos Beltran (RF): “Do something to make me excited you’re on the team?”

Beltran and Sabathia are similar in that I really expected zero from either of them. The difference between the two is that I actually feel bad for judging CC so harshly. I’m still not wildly impressed with Beltran.

In all fairness, his bat did heat up later in the season and often at key moments of the game. But the defense was terrible. Every joke about Beltran riding a Rascal around right field were completely justified. Outs turned into hits. Running looked nothing short of pathetic. At this point in his career, Beltran probably is best suited as a DH, but on this current roster, it’s just not possible.

Verdict: The excited moments were few and far between, but there were a few.

THE DESIGNATED HITTER

Alex Rodriguez (DH): “Don’t blow it.”

Remember when Alex Rodriguez returning from his suspension was the worst thing that could ever happen to baseball? We’ve come a long way.

Over the past year, he’s shown tremendous growth personally and professionally. We saw a man who, at forty years old, finally seems to be comfortable in his own skin – and proved he can still play professional baseball after spending the better part of the last two years watching from a distance. He has said and done all the right things, allowing many people to forget just how much they hated him just a year ago.

Verdict: No words could accurately express how happy I am to see this version of Alex Rodriguez.

 

The regular season starts in just a few short weeks! Hopefully, I’ll have a whole new list of hopes and dreams for this year’s team. Stay tuned!

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How to Keep Refsnyder

Yankee fans have been calling for – and praying, hoping, and wishing for – Rob Refsnyder to be called up to the Major League. Friday night, we heard he would be playing – and starting – on Saturday and Sunday in Boston. After two starts in the newly dawning Rob Refsnyder era, are Yankee fans satisfied?

In this very small sample size, Yankee fans have been (seemingly) pleased, at least as far as I can tell. Sunday’s game was particularly exciting for fans who saw not only Refsnyder’s first major league hit (a single to right field), but also his first major league home run. The home run was not only a beautiful two-run shot over the Green Monster at Fenway Park, but ultimately won the game for the Yankees with a final score 8-6.

Going into the All Star break, we’re riding a wave of Rob Refsnyder excitement – so much so, that many fans are declaring Stephen Drew’s days in pinstripes are over, or at very least numbered. I hope to see Yankee prospects be promoted and succeed just as much as anyone else, but in Refsnyder’s case, we can’t get too excited too quickly. He has been in the major leagues for two days – and is 24 year old converted outfielder who’s offense has been his weakness. As is the case with any rookie, he will struggle – and it’s important for fans not to give up on Refsnyder the moment he becomes the least bit shaky (as so many did with Didi Gregorius).

Assuming Ref plays well enough the Yankees just can’t demote him, what happens then? How do we keep him on the roster, and who is there if/when he does struggle?

As the roster is right now, the backup option would obviously be Stephen Drew. His bat has obviously been awful, but he has shown he’s capable of playing a decent second base. As I’ve said before, I have to give Drew credit for learning a new position late in his career, and especially for doing so successfully. But, shortly after the All Star break, the Yankees also have utility infielder Brendan Ryan returning from injury. Ignoring all other roster moves (Carlos Beltran will also be returning around the same time), this gives the Yankees three middle infielders for two roster spots.

The main battle will be for second base – Chase Headley is locked in at third base as Didi Gregorius is at shortstop. Let’s assume Refsnyder wins the second base job (since so many of us want him to anyway), and the Yankees are forced to chose between Drew and Ryan. My vote for backup infielder has to go to Stephen Drew.

As is often the case, money comes first. Ryan signed a contract for 2 years $4 million (2014-2015) while Drew signed this off season for 1 year $5 million (2015). Ryan is less expensive, but the Yankees would be more willing to drop a $2-2.5 contract than a $5+ contract.

In offensive and defensive categories, Stephen Drew beats Brendan Ryan in career batting average, and in fielding percentage at second base, shortstop, and even third base.

Career Batting:  .234 Ryan   .252 Drew
2B Fielding %:   .977             .982
SS Fielding %:   .978             .979
3B Fielding %:   .942            1.000
*Drew played only 13 innings at 3B
** Ryan has also played 1B and OF positions

That isn’t to say Brendan Ryan doesn’t have value as a utility infielder – his numbers really aren’t awful and there’s something to be said for a player who can fill in at so many different positions. He does have a big problem staying healthy, and has already had multiple trips to the DL this season already. It seems likely that as he ages, his trips to the DL will only increase.

Earlier this season, Joe Girardi more or less declared that Stephen Drew would be the backup at third base if Chase Headley was unable to play or needed a day off. At the time, the focus was more about what that meant for Alex Rodriguez – that Girardi was essentially saying he would not use him in the field (a choice that has been beneficial for both Rodriguez and the Yankees so far). But the peculiar thing about Girardi using Drew as the backup third baseman is that he already was – and until Refsnyder or anyone else definitively proves otherwise – the every day starting second baseman.

Jose Pirela is a possible substitute at second or third – if he hadn’t been sent back to Scranton late last week. Gregorio Petit is also a possibility, although his performance has been underwhelming at best. He was also signed in an emergency backup one of the times Brendan Ryan was put on the DL earlier this season. Assuming there will soon be an overabundance of middle infielders on the Yankees roster, there really is no need for Petit. If the Yankees are set on keeping him, they could send him back to Scranton – but they could also just as easily cut their ties to him completely.

With Pirela already sent to Scranton, and Petit and Ryan removed from the roster (by trades or any other means), that leaves Stephen Drew as the utility infielder for the Yankees. I am confident he can play shortstop, second base, and now third base in an emergency (although, I wouldn’t mind if he had a few more innings of work at third before giving a full vote of confidence).

Girardi said Drew would be Headley’s backup, which leaves second base open and Refsnyder recently added to the roster… (For what it’s worth, Girardi also spoke to Drew privately about Refsnyder before the call up was announced.) Perhaps Girardi was foreshadowing a move he knew was coming, or maybe it’s all just a wild coincidence. Either way, Rob Refsnyder made an impression in two short days, and will definitely make this an interesting All Star break for the Yankees front office.

Pitchers and HBPs

A few months ago, I wrote about catchers – how complex their position actually is and my admiration for anyone voluntarily playing that position. In the piece, I alluded to a similar admiration for pitchers.. While catchers have to be versatile (in a single word), pitchers have to be precise. (Obviously, since pitchers are out there to throw strikes and get outs, not to walk batters and give up runs.)

According to the Major League Baseball rule book, the strike zone is defined as: “that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap.” While there is no specific measurement, and each umpire has their own strike zone (sometimes for each pitcher/team), it’s still a small target from 60 feet away at 80-90 (sometimes up to or over 100) mph. It takes incredible talent and accuracy just to throw the baseball, not to mention the added challenge of an MLB batter standing there waiting for the pitch. It’s really an incredible action.

Sometimes, that incredible accuracy fails a pitcher and an errant pitch will hit the batter. Even the best pitchers hit batters. On the list of pitchers HBPs, Hall of Famer (and arguably the best pitcher in the history of the game) Walter Johnson ranks #4 with 205 hit batters in his 21 year career. Cy Young is #12 with 161 hit batters in 22 years and has a pitching award named after him. Greg Maddux, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame this past summer, hit 137 batters in a 23 year career.

What if the batter is intentionally hit by a pitch? Whether it’s good baseball or not is debatable., and sometimes an opinion might change based on the teams and players involved. Personally, I am against it in all situations.

First, it takes away from the pitcher’s talent. Any pitcher, whether I like them and their team or not, has my respect for being able to do that job. Pitching isn’t easy! I have never been able to pitch (in my youth softball leagues) and I certainly would never be able to pitch at a major league level like these guys do. To purposely hit a batter, rather than pitching to them and working toward an out, is a waste of talent. It may spark strong reactions from players, fans, and umpires – but no matter what the emotional reactions are, they’ve still put a man on base who wasn’t there before. There’s a chance the batter might have gotten to first (or further) anyway, but that intentional hit removes any possibility of getting the out before the batter reaches base.

Any batter hit by a pitch – intentional or not – is at increased risk for injury; even the weakest and slowest pitch can hurt. Consider the pitches that hit Yankees’ Chase Headley and Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton: both on September 11, 2014 and both (in my opinion) accidental hits. Without a doubt, Headley sustained less injury than Stanton, but both cases are examples of what kind of physical injuries a wild pitch can cause.

Headley was hit in the chin by a 98mph fastball from Rays’ closer Jake McGee. In the video, you can see McGee is stunned and says a few choice words to express that. Chris Young later hit a 3-run homework off McGee to win the game for the Yankees, quite possibly a result of the closer still being shook up after the hit. While he was lucky enough not to suffer any fractures or serious injuries, Headley did not play again until September 15. Even then, he wore a special attachment to his batting helmet to protect his jaw, and had noticeable bruising on his chin, neck, and apparently onto his chest (even though Rays’ managed Joe Maddon said the pitch only “grazed” Headley).

Stanton’s hit by a fastball from Brewers’ Mike Fiers was obviously worse. Immediately after being hit, Stanton fell to the ground and Fiers – along with the rest of the Brewers’ and Marlins’ – looked stunned. Medical staff transported Stanton off the field and to a hospital near Miller Park in Milwaukee, where he was found to have multiple facial fractures, dental damage, and a laceration requiring several stitches. He recovered well and documented it on social media, although he did not play another game during the 2014 season.

While I am against purposely hitting a batter with a pitch, I do understand the pitcher’s motivation. They’re often throwing at the batter in retaliation for something he did against them, their team, or baseball. For example, when Red Sox pitcher Ryan Dempster intentionally hit Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez in August 2013, it was a clear demonstration of Dempster’s disapproval of Rodriguez’s involvement with PEDs and subsequent suspension (Rodriguez was playing while awaiting a suspension appeal). Most baseball fans and players were unhappy with the situation – there were loud boos in Fenway Park when Rodriguez came up to bat, and loud cheers when Dempster finally hit him – but the hit did nothing more than prove a point.

Dempster’s first pitch went behind Rodriguez (point made), the next two were inside (we really get it now), and the fourth consecutive pitch hit Rodriguez in the side (who didn’t see that coming?). Later in the game, Rodriguez hit a homerun off Dempster, the Yankees went on to win 9-6 (Boston was winning 2-0 at the time when Rodriguez was plunked), and two days later MLB gave Dempster a five game suspension. Again, any MLB pitcher has my respect (whether he plays for my least favorite team or not), but Dempster could have used his abilities in a better way. Rodriguez had just made his 2013 debut less than two weeks before the incident; he wasn’t in the middle of an MVP season and was not the threat at the plate he once was. In all reality, he could have been an easy out.

If the best pitchers in the game hit batters, and any pitcher risks seriously injuring a batter with an unintended wild pitch, purposely throwing at a batter could easily do just the same. Major league pitchers are incredibly talented and intelligent. Not only do they have to have the physical ability to throw, but they also have to have the mental ability to know each batter and pitch to their strengths and weaknesses. If a pitcher truly wants to make a point, go ahead and pitch inside to brush the batter off the plate. Throw a wild pitch that is completely out of the strike zone and has no risk of hitting the batter.

Regardless of who is standing in the batter’s box and what they’ve done (and there can be some real assholes standing there), they’re still human. It is their career as much as it is the pitcher’s. Any pitcher, especially at the major league level, is better than throwing at a batter. Save the baserunner, don’t risk unnecessary injury to the opposing player, and do what a pitcher does best. If pitchers want to make a point and embarrass a batter, they should do so with the talent and precision they already have. Throwing at an opposing player diminishes those skills.

Off Season Thoughts

Baseball friends…it’s already December and the off season is in full swing. The Winter Meetings have passed and there have been big roster moves. The countdown to spring training and Opening Day have gotten a little closer and we can start to set our expectations for the 2015 season.

Personally, December has been a difficult month for me and many people close to me for many reasons – which is why I haven’t written anything in more than two weeks. While dealing with these difficulties, I’ve of course followed baseball news and have some thoughts on the off season so far. Some of these topics could be an entire post themselves, but here are the highlights –

Corey Kluber wins the A.L. Cy Young Award

Cleveland is my hometown, and I couldn’t be more excited about this. Throughout the season, a friend and I often discussed the possibility of Kluber winning and both thought that if it didn’t happen this year, it never would. No, we don’t have psychic abilities and have no idea how his career will progress from here, but it was a gut feeling for both of us. Unfortunately, I do not see the Indians being a big threat in 2015 – but I do believe they will be a decent team. Kluber winning the Cy Young is great for team morale, and great for the city of Cleveland. (I’m over Lebron’s “coming home” – it’s time to get excited about Kluber/the Indians.)

Nelson Cruz signs with the Seattle Mariners

There’s a lot I could say about this, and not much of it is good. It’s not that I have anything against the Mariners, or free agency, or even any of the details of the deal (4 years, $57 million). It does piss the Orioles fan in me off that he didn’t seem to give much consideration to staying in Baltimore after they were seemingly the only team who would sign him after his PED suspension.

Nick Markakis signs with the Atlanta Braves

This move hurts – it’s like your best friend is moving away. I’m not sure there was any other guy on the team more well liked and respected than Markakis. Since he was drafted by the Orioles, he’s been a solid part of the team and, along with his wife, has been very involved with the community. He seems like an all around nice guy. I fully expected him to retire as an Oriole and see him at team celebrations in the future beside Cal Ripken. Going to Atlanta means going home for him, but he will truly be missed in Maryland. Fans have already said they were putting their Markakis shirts away – for now – but that his name would always be popular in Baltimore. To me, that shows just how well this guy is liked here.

New York Yankees trade Shane Greene to the Detroit Tigers

I’m not sure what it was about the kid, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching Greene pitch this year! Obviously, the Tigers also really liked him, and I definitely understand his trade value. Aside from a few rough patches (which I attribute to age and inexperience in the major league), he was a pretty solid pitcher for the Yankees. I saw a lot of potential in him and expected him to continue to develop into a strong pitcher – and still do, although he’ll be doing so for another team.

David Robertson signs with the Chicago White Sox

At the top of my off season wish list was for the Yankees to resign Robertson. (I wrote about how that should have actually happened months ago.) Of all days, it was my birthday when I woke up to see the report that Robertson signed with the White Sox – of all teams in Major League Baseball. (There are two MLB teams I hate – the Red Sox, and the White Sox.) The only thing that made me hate this deal more was hearing reports that the Yankees met with Robertson/his representative(s) only to tell him they would not be making him an offer. I’m not saying he’s the best pitcher in the world, and I’m not even sure he’s worth the money he will be making ($46 million for 4 years), but he was a product of the Yankees farm system and learned from the greatest closer ever. While I love Brett Gardner, it’s a little disappointing to think he’s the only veteran homegrown Yankee.

Chase Headley signs with the New York Yankees

This deal makes a lot of sense. Headley may not be the most outstanding third baseman in history, but he was very reliable after being traded from the Padres. Something very important he brings to the team that no stat can reflect is his enthusiasm – which most of the team seemed to seriously lack last year. He seems like a great guy to have in the clubhouse and was one of the first players to celebrate any victory last season. With Francisco Cervelli gone, the team needs someone who will get excited and fire up other teammates.
What I dislike about this deal is the intense focus on what it means for Alex Rodriguez. While I am one of the biggest Rodriguez fans ever, Headley’s return really isn’t about him (and so far he’s said nothing – so he isn’t making it about himself). Of course this is a topic that would eventually be discussed. Instead of overshadowing Headley’s return with speculation about Rodriguez’s future, just let Headley have his day. The Rodriguez story will inevitably come up again, but for now it should be about Chase Headley, his return, and what he will bring to the team.

There’s still plenty of off season left, but just remember – spring training is getting a little closer each day!