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Mailbag: Aaron Hicks, Clint Frazier, Assessing Aaron Boone, & More

Pretty!

Happy Friday, everyone. The Yankees lost a stinker yesterday – god I hate that damn extra innings rule – but look better overall. Let’s hope they can beat up the lowly Tigers this weekend.

It’s time for another mailbag before the game starts, of course. As always, send your questions to viewsfrom314@gmail.com to be considered for a future edition. We choose our favorites each week and run them on Friday. To the questions!

Steven Asks: At what point do we put aside small sample sizes and begin to question the entire team’s approach to hitting?

This is a good question. A lot has changed about the way the media and fans discuss baseball over the last 20 years. Perhaps the biggest change is the obsession with small sample size analysis – and VF314 is no exception. We discuss small samples all of the time, particularly as it relates to the early season. There are a few reasons for this.

The first is that baseball is a marathon, with ups and downs. Teams go through malaises at some point in a year. Remember in 2019, when the Yankees starters couldn’t get a single out? You might not! That’s because it occurred in August of a very fun year where the Yanks handily won the division. This year’s April offensive drought will likely be more memorable simply because it came at the beginning of the season. It’s like 2005, where the Yanks started 11-19. Early season struggles are memorable. It’s just human nature.

The second is that things change fast. Last week, I wrote a post that detailed how the Yankees could not buy a hit. They were hitting .205/.296/.334 (83 wRC+) with negative WAR, 28th “best” in the league. Just eight days later, the team is up to .216/.310/.369 (98 wRC+) with 2.3 WAR, which is 20th in the league. This may not seem like much – it’s still far below expectations – but it’s real progress. The point is that the Yankees improved 8 ranks offensively in eight days – and they weren’t exactly tearing the cover off the ball. These things are fluid. Next week, it will be even more different.

But at what point does a sample stop being small, though? I feel like that doesn’t get discussed as much. It’s going to vary a bit. There are mathematical models that show the variance for each statistic, but those really range. I start paying closer attention around 100 plate appearances, personally. That is outside the window of the so-called Voros Law, which says that any MLB player can be anything in 60 at-bats. You probably need another 50 or so plate appearances before you can really get conclusive, though. But 100 PA is a good marker, at least subjectively, to start determining what trends are real. That means roughly mid-May.

Still, that is not a hard rule. Remember, Derek Jeter hit .168/.255/.232 in April 2004, across 108 plate appearances. He was fine overall and even ended the year hitting .292/.352/.471. Baseball is a weird sport, but the least you can do is try not to get fired up over the first month of the season. Crazy stuff happens.

Zach Asks: We’re seeing better at-bats from a lot of guys now, but when you look at the outfield, Clint Frazier and Aaron Hicks are still struggling. Which of the two, if either, do you worry about from a long-term perspective?

From happier days.

It’s true. They’re both mired in some vicious slumps right now. Here are each of their lines:

  • Aaron Hicks: .139/.233/.266 (47 wRC+) in 90 plate appearances
  • Clint Frazier: .150/.292/.250 (67 wRC+) in 72 plate appearances

Those are some ugly lines! No doubt about it. Remember what I said above, though. It’s still early, even if they both look mostly lost at the plate. Clint is making significant adjustments to his stance and logged a multi-hit game just two days ago. He also logged a 149 wRC+ literally last season. To me, the Clint struggles feel like a simple slump. I don’t think that he’s necessarily a true-talent 149 wRC+ hitter or anything, but he’s likely an above-average bat. Early season slumps are early season slumps.

Of the two, I think it’s fairer to worry a bit more about Hicks. He did have Tommy John surgery after 2019, after all, and he’s on the wrong side of 30. Still, I am not concerned with Hicks, who is generally the most underrated current member of the Yankees. I think he is a very good hitter – all he’s done while healthy since 2017 is hit – and he will turn it around. He is still managing to walk even in this slump, during which it has not seemed like he has good command of the strike zone. I’m confident that he’ll snap out of the slump.

I could be wrong, of course, but I wouldn’t be super worried with either. If they’re both still producing at this level on June 1, then we can have a conversation. I wouldn’t bet on it, though.

Dan Asks: Can you provide an assessment of Aaron Boone as a manager, how you think his tenure with the Yankees has gone, and what the Yankees would need to do to move on from him?

Assessing a manager is very difficult from our vantage point. More than half of the job takes place off the field, and managers themselves probably have less decision-making power in 2021 than they have at any point in MLB history. Still, we can try to be at least somewhat objective. Let’s run though it.

In terms of results, Boone has been very good. The Yankees are 247-161 (.600) in his tenure, and they had their best individual campaign since the 2009 championship in 2019 – despite a barrage of injuries. Those are serious points in Boone’s favor. Despite the fact that it feels like Boone’s team’s underperform – I certainly felt this way in 2018 and 2020 – the results don’t really bear this out. By the numbers, at least, he’s delivered.

Another area to examine is his bullpen usage. I don’t mean on a day-to-day basis, either. Load management is both here to stay and also likely a decision Boone himself does not get to make. I mean over the long-haul: how is he using his best arms? Is he putting them in the right positions to best help the team? By this measure, too, Boone has been good. 16 pitchers have thrown at least 30 innings in relief since 2018. Here are the top 5, sorted by average leverage index at the time they enter the game:

  1. Aroldis Chapman: 1.56
  2. David Robertston: 1.41
  3. Zack Britton: 1.36
  4. Dellin Betances: 1.32
  5. Chad Green: 1.29

Is there anything you’d really change about that? I wouldn’t. Those are clearly the Yankees best relievers over the stretch, with Adam Ottavino and Tommy Kahnle just outside the top 5. At the bottom of the the list are names like Adam Warren, Luis Cessa, Stephen Tarpley, David Hale, and A.J. Cole. Again: that seems about right. This is a big point in Boone’s favor. Over the long-haul, he has used the bullpen exactly how you’d want him to, contrary to our day-to-day quibbles.

Still, I can’t fault anyone for thinking that the Yankees have been less than the sum of their parts overall. I think this pretty often, actually. They often seem to play pretty sloppy, making errors on routine plays, running into outs, and are sometimes unable to play situational baseball. To me, at least, a lot of that falls on the manager. They should, in the words of their skipper, “tighten that shit up.”

Anyway, I think the Yankees would need a real disaster season to move on from Boone. Either that or Boone just demands a much higher salary than they’re willing to pay, which is possible but unlikely. The Yankees dumped Joe Girardi, the last manager to take them to the Canyon of Heroes, after a surprise ALCS appearance. They brought Boone on to be the guy to steer the ship in the new era. I doubt they walk that back now.

Jason Asks: Is the championship window closing if they don’t win it all this year?

Yes and no. A championship window closes every year that you don’t win a World Series. It is why 2017 and 2019 sting so bad. They had a real chance, and in fact I thought a title was inevitable, in both years. The team is not getting younger, and regression is always possible. And it gets harder to replenish talent all of the time. At some point, you gotta win.

At the same time, the Yankees are always in a championship window, if they choose to be. They can spend as much money as anyone to plug holes and they don’t have to let bad contracts prevent them from doing so again. Not to mention, the Yanks have just $100 million on the books for 2023, so it’s not like they’re bogged down. And, while it pains me to say this to the many fans who inexplicably hate Brian Cashman, he has never produced a bad team. The Yanks will be good for a while, I suspect – but each year they go without reaching the promised land, the harder it will be to get there with this group. No doubt about it.

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15 Comments

  1. Mungo

    I’d be pleased as can be if Boone was removed and replaced with Showalter, but there’s little chance that will happen. Showalter was none for his preparation. It’s why when Gene Michael would bring Steinbrenner for his visits to the minors, the only manager he would allow Steinbrenner to meet with was Showalter. Buck knew all the players through the system, not just his team, and he knew he had to be prepared to answer any question Steinbrenner would toss out there. That’s how Showalter got the job as Yankee manager. Stick told George no one else wanted the job. It wasn’t true, but it allowed Michael to insert Buck in the job. He did it again to get Cashman the job as GM. Gene Michael may have been the only senior executive, perhaps outside of eventually Cashman, who could manage George. The problem is I don’t know if Showalter and Cashman mesh. Both strong willed. Both want to run the show. Showalter would take all the analytics, but in the end, he would manage the team on the field the way he saw fit. I don’t believe that would work in Cashman’s universe.

  2. Kevin

    Chapman says he can pitch more than one inning. With extra innings a thing now. He just strikes out the side and throwing heat. They take him out. He could of at least pitched one more batter. Hard to bunt off that heat. And if he strikes him out then you have improved your position. If you must bring another arm he will be in a better spot.

  3. dasit

    jay bruce’s batting average after his first 30 MLB plate appearances: 591

    at no time is any player hitting to their “true” ability. they’re either hot or cold. true ability can only be measured by season-long (or larger) sample sizes. unfortunately for judge, true ability doesn’t matter if you can’t stay on the field

  4. Jason

    Thanks for answering a pretty loaded question Bobby. It definitely gets tougher every year they aren’t winning, and my hopes with the group get lower every year. Can’t wait for them to prove me wrong.

    Gonna sneak a question in here since I can’t recall if you guys talked about it, who is your dark horse player this year that will carry us?

  5. Bubba Crosby's Left Cleat

    Aaron Hicks has a career .235 batting average as a Yankee, in significantly more robust offensive environments than we’re seeing now. His BA, SLG, and OBP have declined every year (*except OBP last year in a very small season when he was coming back from injury, it’s out of line with his career).

    I’m not sure there’s any evidence he -isn’t- declining. There’s a break even point with contact as we’ve seen with Hicks and Sanchez, if you can’t get a hit around ~23% of the time you aren’t respected as a hitter and the bottom tends to fall out of the contact rate, which we are possibly seeing with Hicks.

    Hicks also has more than 1 K/game, something he’s never had in his career.

    Besides “he’s not THAT old” and “he has been good in the past,” are there any actual signs pointing to him not being cooked?

  6. Mike Cassier

    Losing confidence in Frazier. I was his biggest supporter. Problem is above his shoulders. Immature. Hit and run? Never. Not much speed. Can’t get a bunt down. Poor in the clutch. They know how to whiff. Man on 2nd no outs. 2 executed bunts and the run scores without a hit. No discipline and it starts with the G.M. They are becoming predictable and hard to watch.

  7. Brent Lawson

    Where I live, I have to watch the Yankees on the Baltimore station.
    I am going to disagree with you about the extra innings rule. As Jim Palmer, HOF Pitcher and amazing baseball announcer said, it is equal for both teams. If you watched Wade try to bunt, I can understand why you don’t like the rule.
    Rules fair, Wade choked.

    Just another Boone Blunder, team cannot play fundamental baseball.

    Fundamental baseball requires the player to focus and practice, but I guess it is more important “to let them rest, give them a day.”

    Once again, tell me you have heard this before, Judge is out of the lineup. All Rise

  8. Wire Fan

    Boone is a puppet for Cashman and the analytics group, i don’t see him.going anywhere anytime soon.

    I firmly believe the analytics group is feeding him the lineups, determining rest days, determining when a 6th starter is used, determining use of an opener and determining what relievers are available each day. While Boone may theoretically have final say, I think he is just doing the front offices bidding. I think he is mainly just doing PH, defensive subs and pitching changes on his own.

    I’ve soured a bit on Cashman, but do still think he is a better GM than most. It is hard to evaluate some of his moves when clearly the LT mandates from above are tying his hands. Then again it is the GMs job to deal with a budget – it is just not clear if the FO changes direction where it is hard to plan. The obsession with left handed power seems like a blind spot recently and has led to a bunch of bets on garbage hitters who can occasionally run into a HR and a very poorly constructed bench.

  9. DanGer

    Any other time of year, these would just be a slump dragging numbers down.

    Judge hit .185/.353/.326 across 116 PA in August 2017 and still finished at .284/.422/.627*.

    DJ and Gleyber just broke the 100 PA mark this week. Hell, in a matter of days DJ went from .250/.333/.338 to .272/.362/.359 by going 5 for 12 with 3 walks.

    *in what should have been an MVP year, but let’s not go there right now…

  10. Frankie Ho-Tep

    Just bear with me here, but I’ve always equated the Cashman criticism with that of Eli Manning in the twilight of his career when SOME fans and those in the media were eager to move on. I always said, “You’ll appreciate him when he’s gone.”

    I feel this way doubly for Brian Cashman. I shudder when I think of the day Cashman is no longer running baseball operations for the Yankees. That being said, I realize certain criticisms are valid – the Yankees have been utterly unable to develop effective starting pitching relative to the league, full stop. And no organization has done less with more than the Yankees. We’re talking one championship in 20 years. This current iteration of the Yankees has plainly fallen short of expectations, seeing the Astros, Red Sox and Dodgers (the only other teams on the Yankees’ level during this period) all win championships.

    So it may soon be time to “go in a different direction” or “bring in a new set of eyes” to replace Cashman. I just know I personally will be nervous as hell if and when that happens.

  11. MJ

    I don’t think disliking Cashman is “inexplicable” at this point. The man has his strengths and his weaknesses and I think, after 23+ seasons as the GM, it’s fair to say that (1) he doesn’t seem capable of improving upon his weaknesses and (2) no one should ever stay in one job forever. The Yanks could use someone who might get more out of the farm system, especially in the starting pitching department.

    Especially in this era of Hal, where the Yanks project a less ambitious image than the used to, getting a guy that can construct Tampa/Atlanta type rosters at half the cost of the Yankees seems like a good way to go. Imagine what the Yanks could do with $200M in the Tampa/Atlanta mold. I’d sign up for that.

    • Frankie Ho-Tep

      Not sure what you’re trying to get at here. The Tampa/Atlanta mold? You mean spend less money? I think you mean developing more from the farm system as a cheaper way to construct the roster, but that’s exactly what the Yankees are doing. Where do you think Severino, Betances, Robertson, Kahnle, Gardner, Judge, Andujar, Sanchez, Romine, Higashioka and others came from?

      They’ve also used their farm system to trade for long-term and short-term impact players such as Britton and Lance Lynn. And then there’s their near flawless targeting of young, cost-controlled players like Voit, Torres, Hicks and Urshela, trading for them and having them flourish here.

      Not sure what else would make you happy. I personally think they’ve been unable to develop starting pitching. That’s my only real criticism…other than the frustrating underperformance of this team perpetually.

      • MJ

        I don’t think we’re saying different things here. I specifically cited “someone who might get more out of the farm system, especially in the starting pitching department” as you did.

        Cashman has his strengths too, as I wrote in my post above. Though I didn’t specifically cite them, I’d count identifying others’ cast-offs (Voit/Urshela) as one of them.

        The reason I mentioned Atlanta and Tampa was not to say the Yanks should reduce payroll but to look to those clubs’ excellence in both scouting and development. While I think the Yanks excel at scouting, something’s amiss in the minors with the team’s inability to develop long-term starting-caliber players.

        I’d also point out that Cashman’s track record in the draft is pretty spotty.

        I get that the playoffs have expanded, the postseason has elements of randomness, etc., but other GM’s have been fired for less. Cashman has had 23 years, the benefit of (stagnant but generous) $200M payrolls, and still hasn’t produced but one pennant winner since 2004 (17 seasons). I think it’s time to see what a well-regarded voice from another organization might be able to do with the same resources. I’m not saying Cashman sucks, again, I’m clearly on the record as saying there are things he does well. I just think it’s time to move on because the Yankees seem to be running in place.

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