Category: Players Page 1 of 21

An appreciation of Tommy Kahnle

There’s a good chance that we’ve seen the last of Tommy Kahnle as a member of the Yankees. With Tommy John surgery on the table, the 30 year-old righty will miss the rest of this season and likely most — if not all — of 2021. Had he remained healthy, Kahnle would have hit free agency following the 2021 season. That means the Yankees are all but certain to non-tender him this offseason since (a) he probably won’t pitch next year and (b) the team won’t have his rights after that season anyway.

Losing Kahnle is a big blow to the Yankees bullpen this year and next. Save for a rough 2018, he’s been excellent since he returned to the organization that originally drafted him way back in 2010. The Yanks re-acquired Kahnle, who they lost in the 2013 Rule 5 draft, alongside David Robertson and Todd Frazier in July of 2017. At the time, that deal was more viewed as the D-Rob trade and the return of “Houdini”. But as time has passed, Kahnle has clearly become the headliner of the swap.

At first glance, Kahnle’s career numbers with the Yankees aren’t eye-popping. He has a 4.01 ERA in 112 1/3 innings pitched, after all. However, that’s inflated by 2018’s 6.56 ERA as I hinted at before. That year, Kahnle spent time on the shelf with shoulder tendinitis and was later optioned to the minors due to ineffectiveness. His other two stretches with the team though? Excellent. Take a look:

Statistic2017 (post-trade)2019

Were there better relievers on the roster? Sure. But those are some elite numbers, particularly from Baseball Prospectus’s DRA metric which had Kahnle as the third-best reliever in baseball last year.

As great as Kahnle has been, I can’t help but wonder if the best was still yet to come. It was only last year that Kahnle really discovered just how brilliant his changeup is.

Kahnle’s changeup usage finally surpassed his fastball usage last season. And if his one appearance this year was any indication, he was ready to lean into it even more. He can throw it over and over and over again and not worry about hitters catching on to him. Part of that has to be opponents’ respect for his mid-to-high 90s fastball as well, but he also has the ideal arm action to deceive and movement on the pitch to make hitters flail.

It stinks that we won’t be able to find out how dominant Kahnle could have been going forward. Alas, we can always remember the good times. I’ve noted his strong regular season numbers, but Kahnle also deserves a ton of admiration for his postseason excellence. He pitched well in both the 2017 and 2019 postseasons (didn’t appear in 2018). In all, Kahnle recorded a 2.33 ERA in 19 1/3 October innings which included a few remarkable performances that should be highlighted. Let’s dive into them.

We’ll start with none other than Kahnle’s first postseason outing: the 2017 Wild Card game against the Twins. As you recall, this one turned into a bullpen game once Luis Severino clearly did not have it. Kahnle entered with two outs in the sixth inning, after Chad Green and D-Rob tossed 5 1/3 innings of relief. To the highlight reel:

The biggest out was the first out. With two outs in the sixth and two inherited runners aboard, Joe Mauer was the tying run at the plate. Kahnle induced a deep flyout to left that Brett Gardner ran down. Including that at-bat, Kahnle was dominant. He faced seven Twins and retired all of them. I still get pumped seeing Kahnle hop off the mound after completing his outing.

Tommy Tightpants also played a huge role in the ALDS, namely Game 4. Down 2-1 in the series, but ahead 7-3 in the eighth inning, Joe Girardi summoned Dellin Betances to hold down the fort. Unfortunately, Dellin walked the first two batters he faced. In came Kahnle. I’ve embedded his appearance here, but if it doesn’t work for you, fast forward to 14:59:

Kahnle escaped the jam and threw another perfect outing. He struck out five of six batters faced. Just utter brilliance in a big spot once again.

In the ALCS against the cheating Astros, Girardi went to Kahnle four times. His first three relief apperances were very good: in sum, five innings, two hits, two walks, three strikeouts, and no runs allowed. Unfortunately, his outing in Game 7 wasn’t so great (three runs in 1 1/3 frames). I’m not going to lament it though because (a) he was clearly out of gas from frequent usage and (b) Houston cheated.

Let’s move to the 2019 postseason, where Kahnle was stellar again (two runs in eight innings). It didn’t get off to a great start: he gave up a solo shot to Miguel Sano is Game 1 of the ALDS that cut the Yankees’ lead to one run, but that didn’t matter as the Yanks pulled away later in the game. Tommy went on to throw 6 1/3 shutout innings across six appearances thereafter; two against Minnesota and four times against Houston.

Kahnle played a big role in Game 2 of the Houston series — you know, the game JA Happ (!!!) gave up a walkoff in the 11th. Ugh. Anyway, Kahnle came in the fifth inning of this one with the score tied at two to clean up Adam Ottavino’s mess. With two on and two out, Kahnle did this to Yordan Álvarez:

He followed that up with 1-2-3 sixth and seventh innings to preserve the 2-2 tie. Just a great performance. Aaron Boone continued to go to him the rest of the series, though it proved costly toward the end, not unlike Girardi in 2017.

Kahnle pitched well in losses in Games three and four and was called upon again in Game 5. Though Kahnle was credited with a hold in Game 5, he had to be bailed out by Zack Britton after allowed two of three hitters to reach base. It may have been a sign that Kahnle was worn out. Nonetheless, Boone called on Kahnle in Game 6 for his third day of work in a row and fifth appearance of the series. He entered with the Yankees trailing 3-2 in the sixth and gave up a run within the first three batters he faced, though he managed to escape without further damage.

Now, aside from Kahnle’s dominance in the regular season and postseason, he was also simply a fun player to follow. He’s a little out there to say the least:

This, by the way, came AFTER Kahnle stopped drinking five red bulls per day. The guy has energy for days. Look no further than the gif at the top of this post, or this tarp slide from last year:

If it was any other year, we’d probably still see Kahnle’s face here and there during the season while he rehabs from surgery. But unfortunately, given the pandemic, he won’t be able to stick around the clubhouse. His presence will certainly be missed in there, perhaps just as much as he’ll be missed on the mound.

If and when the Yankees non-tender Kahnle this winter, I’m sure it won’t be hard for the righty to find a new home. There’s precedent for TJS guys getting contracts in the offseason, such as Nate Eovaldi a few years back. In any event, if for some reason he couldn’t find a new club, the Yankees still are on the hook for his rehab. Now, I’d love to see the Yanks work out a deal to keep Kahnle around, but I don’t expect it. The organization is a pipeline for relief arms and I suspect they’ll decide to move on. For Kahnle’s sake, I hope he has a successful and smooth recovery so he can continue his excellent work in relief.

Adam Ottavino seeks a rebound from last posteason [2020 Season Preview]

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It feels a bit weird to churn out another season preview at the moment. As Bobby argued this morning, the beginning of the regular season should be delayed. It absolutely stinks that it’s come to this point — I think we all need something to look forward to given the current events — but postponement looks like the smart move. Better to get a handle on things now than for COVID-19 to cause a midseason stoppage.

Anyway, at some point hopefully not too long from now, Adam Ottavino will trot in from the bullpen for his first regular season appearance. Year one of his three year deal was mostly a success, though he seemingly ran out of steam once the postseason came around. The Brooklyn-native had an excellent 1.90 ERA in 66 1/3 regular season frames, though his high walk rate (14.1 percent) kept his FIP up at a still-good 3.44.

Once October rolled around, Ottavino struggled. Aaron Boone called upon Otto eight times, but the righty only recorded ten outs. Whether it was fatigue or unusual usage (he basically became a ROOGY), the 34 year-old floundered in the playoffs.

Ottavino enters 2020 with a clean slate, though he assuredly wants to get the bad taste of the postseason out of his mouth. There’s little doubt that he’ll be very effective once again, though that doesn’t mean he can’t get better. If he and the Yankees can answer some or all of the following questions, Ottavino can have a better 2020 from wire to wire.

Can he get lefties out?

Aaron Boone changed the way he used Ottavino quite dramatically in the postseason last year. After facing lefties and righties all season, Ottavino became a righty specialist. In retrospect, it made sense. The righty reliever had a 142 tOPS+ against left-handed hitters compared to a 79 tOPS+ against righties. tOPS+, for those unfamiliar, measures a player’s split against their overall performance. That said, his sOPS+ (performance in a split vs. league in same split) was 100 against lefties, making him league average in those situations. Not terrible, but there’s still a huge gap in performance depending on who he faced.

Ottavino’s historically been better against righties, which isn’t a surprise. He’s got a funky delivery, lower arm angle, and an absolutely nasty slider. Those same features also make him a bit easier to see from the left side of the plate.

Good luck with that!

Still, the difference in his performance against either side wasn’t always a stark as 2019. In 2018, Ottavino was terrific against left-handers. He was still better against righties, as evidence by his tOPS+ split of 119/85. However, lefties hit .179/.319/.241 against him in ’18, or a 57 sOPS+. So we know he’s capable.

Here’s the interesting thing: some of the underlying data against left-handed hitters hasn’t changed. Last season, hard hit percentage and exit velocity against are virtually were virtually the same as 2018 against lefties.

However, Ottavino struggled to miss bats against left-handers last season. His whiff percentage and strikeout rate dropped by 6 and 11 percent, respectively.

(Baseball Savant)

As you can see, he became pretty sinker-reliant vs. lefties last season. Perhaps because they had better success against his slider than usual. Which is odd, because his slider has neutralized lefties in recent seasons too:

YearwOBA vs. LHBxwOBA vs. LHB

Weird! All prior data suggests that Ottavino can deploy his slider very effectively against lefties, so what gives? It’s hard to say. I’d like to believe it was a fluke, though the xwOBA against suggests otherwise.

Even so, I’d like to see the righty try to re-establish his slider against lefties. It’s unequivocally his best pitch regardless of what side the batter stands, so he should try to avoid shelving it. He’s had plenty of success with it in the past, so it’s not time to give up on the pitch against lefties yet.

Should the Yankees lighten his workload?

If the season is delayed due to COVID-19, this won’t be quite as much of a concern. Nonetheless, as long as the season is still officially a go, let’s look at this as if all 162 games willbe played.

Ottavino pitched a lot last year. He appeared in 73 games, two short of his career-high 75 in his final season with Colorado. That’s not 2004 Paul Quantrill level, but it’s still less than ideal.

The Yankees were able to taper Ottavino’s workload down the stretch last season. Through July 31st, the righty had appeared in 51 of the team’s 107 games, or a 77 appearance pace. From there on out, Ottavino was summoned 22 times, or a 65 appearance pace over a full season. I have to imagine the Yankees would prefer the latter in 2020.

Hopefully, the addition of Gerrit Cole along with the emergence of another multi-inning reliever (Jonathan Loaisiga, please) can reduce some of the pressure the Yankees’ bullpen faces. In 2019, Ottavino and others had no choice but to save the Yankees’ starters from shorter outings. The Bombers may still run into that situation again this year, especially with Luis Severino and James Paxton out for extended periods, but Cole should mitigate that to some degree.

It’s not that the 34 year-old isn’t up to the task of another 70-plus outings, but rather, cutting back would be the smart course of action. Whether or not fatigue was an issue for him come last postseason is up for debate, but he certainly didn’t pitch well.

Will he be able to keep his walk rate in check?

As previously noted, Ottavino finished 2019 with a 14.1 percent walk rate. That’s pretty bad! It was seventh-worst among qualified relievers and 67 percent higher than the league average walk rate. Yet, Ottavino’s control wasn’t bad all season.

(Baseball Savant)

By the second half of last season, the reliever was able to get his walk rate down to a far more reasonable level.

Ottavino will probably never develop good control, but if he can keep his walk rate closer to where he was in the second half of 2019, he’s a better bet going forward. Obvious statement, I know. It’s just that the righty posted a career high 87.8 percent strand rate last season and no prior years really come close. Chances are that rate regresses a bit this season, so limiting baserunners by free pass will help mitigate some of the regression.

Now, with fewer walks also came fewer strikeouts for Ottavino toward the end of last year. His strikeout rates, from April to September, progressed as follows: 31.1, 30, 40.9, 32.6, 27.9, 26.3. Now, I don’t think this has anything to do with Ottavino walking fewer batters. It’s not like Ottavino was throwing more pitches in the strike zone in order to avoid base on balls and thereby giving opponents more pitches to hit. Aside from a 44.4 percent zone rate in June, the righty’s zone rate hovered right around 50 percent all season. It’s just that his whiff rate declined as the season went on, which is a bit peculiar. Again, might want to chalk that up to workload fatigue.

In any event, a lower walk rate doesn’t have to mean fewer strikeouts for number zero. In 2018, Ottavino managed a 11.7 percent walk rate while punching out a career best 36.3 percent of batters faced. Granted, it’s not easy to just go out and match what he did in 2018, but it’s certainly possible. Ottavino can probably get away with another free pass rate similar to 2019’s, but I’d expect his good fortune to lessen a bit in return. It’ll be hard to repeat a 1.90 ERA and 87.8 percent strand rate with another walk percentage north of 14.

2020 Outlook: What They’re Saying

Here is what the projections are saying going into the season:

  • PECOTA (70 IP): 10.9 K/9, 4.3 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9, 3.46 ERA, 4.01 FIP, 0.7 WARP
  • ZiPS (59 1/3 IP): 12.7 K/9, 5.3 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9, 3.49 ERA, 3.89 FIP, 0.7 WAR
  • Steamer (68 IP): 11.1 K/9, 4.6 BB/9, 1.4 HR/9, 4.33 ERA, 4.40 FIP, 0.4 WAR

I don’t think it’s a surprise that the projections are bearish on Ottavino. His walk rate is pretty scary and these systems don’t take that lightly. PECOTA and ZiPS still think his run prevention skills will be solid, albeit not at the level of 2019. Steamer thinks he’ll be pretty lackluster all around.

I think there’s good reason to be optimistic about Ottavino entering this season, whenever it begins. His stuff is still nasty as ever and it looks like the Yankees realized they needed to slow down his usage toward the end of last season. Plus, I’m not ready to write him off against left-handed hitters even though he struggled against them last season. He still has a history of success against them, even if he’s still far better against righties. All told, expect Ottavino to be a key cog in a yet again dominant Yankees bullpen.

Better late than never: Gerrit Cole’s first year in pinstripes [2020 Season Preview]

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There’s been a little bit of doom and gloom so far in Yankees’ camp. The injury bug has bit the team yet again with guys like Luis Severino, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton on the shelf. Yet, this Yankees team is still fantastic. A big reason for that? The team finally reeled in its self proclaimed white whale over the winter: Gerrit Cole.

It’s been a long time coming for Gerrit, of course. He’s been a Yankees fan his entire life, as I’m sure we’ll hear about many times this season. Moreoever, he’s been just out of the Bombers reach on multiple occasions: from passing on signing after the 2008 draft and trade pursuits. Better late than never, of course. Cole is now perhaps the best pitcher in the world, and better yet, he’s on the Yankees.

There are, understandably, quite high expectations for Cole and the Yankees this season. The 29 year-old righty was viewed as the franchise’s missing piece, so now it’s World Series or bust for this year’s club. The path has become a little more difficult given some of the injuries the team has already suffered, but that doesn’t change the ultimate goal. Gerrit will have to play a huge part to get the Yankees back on top.

Fortunately, it shouldn’t be difficult for Cole to deliver what the Yankees need from him. The Yankees can basically set it and forget it: he should be dominant all year long without much help needed. Even though it’s hard to imagine him falling short of expectations statistically, there are still a few storylines worth exploring in his debut year in the Bronx. Let’s get to it.

Is there anything he can improve upon?

The main reason the Yankees brought in Cole is because he’s already great. One of the sport’s best pitchers, in fact. Cole’s not a project like acquisitions past such as Nathan Eovaldi. Nonetheless, Cole didn’t achieve greatness by being complacent. He assuredly is trying to get better. But from my meager perspective, it’s really hard to find something Cole could improve upon.

If you squint though, there is something that Cole could get better at: limiting hard contact and home runs. It’s a little silly to ask this because Cole is already good at these things, but he’s not at elite levels like other facets of his game.

Cole went from allowing 0.85 home runs per nine in 2018 to 1.23 last season. The 2019 number looks a little high at first glance, but considering the hitting environment last season, it’s actually 15 percent lower than league average. That said, Cole’s 2018 mark was 30 percent lower than average. So I guess you can say he’s trending in the wrong direction. And gosh, if his outing against Detroit yesterday tells us anything, it’s only going to get worse!

Please don’t take that seriously.

Anyway, Cole actually improved his Statcast batted ball profile year-over-year. In 2018, his exit velocity and hard hit percentage were in the 25th and 11th percentile, respectively. That’s pretty bad! But last year, he improved to the 66th and 57th percentile in those marks. That makes his home run “spike” peculiar. It certainly seems like he ran into some bad luck: his 16.9 percent home run to fly ball rate was a career high and up from 10 percent a year prior.

There’s also Cole’s new home ballpark to consider compared to Houston. Yankee Stadium is known for its short porch, the namesake for this here blog, but Houston’s pretty darn homer friendly itself. Yet, last year, the Bronx Bombers’ home was 25th in its home run park factor. Meanwhile, Houston was the sixth-most homer friendly park. Seems like an anomaly more than anything for Yankee Stadium, as it was 6th in 2018 while Houston was 12th. In any case, Cole probably won’t benefit (or be hurt much) by the home park move.

From 2013 through 2016, Cole never allowed more than 0.72 homers per nine. The game has changed and so has Cole the pitcher since then, so I don’t expect him to revert to those marks. That said, I’d like to think he’s bound for some regression this season in terms of home runs allowed. Regression isn’t the same as improvement in terms of skill level, but it’s still something that can go in Cole’s favor. So in an indirect way, yes, Cole can get better in 2020.

What can other Yankees learn from Cole?

The Yankees have a new age pitching coach in Matt Blake, but that doesn’t mean Cole’s acumen won’t rub off on the rest of the organization. Even though Cole was one of the top pitching prospects in baseball since high school, it took him a while to unlock his full potential. He had some good years with the Pirates, but it wasn’t until 2018 — his sixth year in the majors — that Cole lived up to his ace potential.

Cole already seems like a very cerebral pitcher and has shown a willingness to be a leader and teacher, which is great news for the rest of the staff. Check this out:

Look, no one is going to throw Cole under the bus in a video like the above. Still, just listen to what some of those other pitchers said. It’s hard not to get excited when you hear one of the Yankees’ top prospects, Clarke Schmidt, glow over Cole’s presence in camp.

I’m happy to rag on the Astros all day, every day, but we have to give them credit for helping Cole get to the next level. Perhaps part of that was getting away from the Pirates’ organization, but still. Cole went from solid mid-rotation starter to ace from 2017 to 2018. The quality of his entire arsenal jumped in transition, particularly spin rates:

(Baseball Savant)

The secret sauce may be pine tar, as Trevor Bauer has insinuated before, but this is a pretty incredible jump from one season to the next. This is the sort of thing that Cole may be able to help other pitchers on the staff with in order to get more out of their repertoires.

Take Jordan Montgomery, for instance. Take spring training radar guns for what they’re worth, but he’s hit 95 on a few occasions in Grapefruit League action. That’s out of character for him. Monty worked in the low 90s pre-Tommy John surgery. Maybe he simply has a fresh arm without a full season’s workload on it since 2017 or maybe Blake unlocked something. But hey, there’s always the possibility that Cole rubbed off on him to some degree.

It’s going to be impossible to quantify what Cole means for other pitchers in the organization, and that’s fine. It certainly seems like the team has taken a big leap forward, especially if you listen to what Sonny Gray and CC Sabathia discussed on a recent episode of R2C2. Cole is certainly a part of that, too. Some of the tricks of the trade that he learned while in Houston can stand to benefit plenty of other Yankees.

How long will it take him to get comfortable with a new catcher?

Sure didn’t take long for some fans to concern troll about Gary Sánchez and Cole’s rapport! Sheesh. As Lindsey tweeted, if this is you, chill out!

Like any new pitcher-catcher battery, it’s going to take time to learn each other’s tendencies. That’s why Gerrit and Gary are working diligently together to do so. I’m sure the same exact thing is happening with Kyle Higashioka and Cole, though the media isn’t going to make a fuss about Higgy’s relationship with Cole because he’s the backup catcher.

Nonetheless, I’m sure there’ll be more pieces down the line about the Cole-Sánchez combination. Likely after a bad start or two for Cole, which is inevitable. Everyone has a bad day at the ballpark from time to time. I’m sure the fact that Martín Maldonado was Cole’s catcher last year won’t help, either. Remember, the Yankees were connected to him in free agency at one point.

Ultimately, the important thing to understand is that it will take time for Cole to get on the same page with Gary and Higgy. And that’s OK! They have all of spring training to do that. Be patient, everyone. And don’t fall for the various tropes and clickbait about Sánchez, who I assure you is very, very good.

2020 Outlook: What they’re saying

Here is what the projections are saying going into the season:

  • PECOTA (200 IP): 13.7 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 0.95 HR/9, 2.52 ERA, 2.64 FIP, 5.3 WARP
  • ZiPS (200 IP): 12.6 K/9, 2.25 BB/9, 1.22 HR/9, 3.10 ERA, 2.98 FIP, 6.4 WAR
  • Steamer (202 IP): 12.5 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 1.24 HR/9, 3.25 ERA, 3.16 FIP, 6.1 WAR

Beautiful. Just beautiful, especially the PECOTA one. In any event, no one really needs the projections to tell us that Cole is going to be arguably the best pitcher in baseball in 2020. We’ve seen it with our very eyes for the past two years. These forecasts just confirm why the Yankees broke the bank to bring in their white whale.

We’re now just under three weeks out from Cole’s official debut in pinstripes: March 26th at Camden Yards. Since it’s against the lowly Orioles, I expect nothing short of a perfect game with 20 strikeouts.

It’s funny how Cole’s debut will come in Baltimore, similar to CC Sabathia’s back in 2009. That one didn’t go so well if you recall. Sabathia was knocked out of the game in the fifth inning after allowing six runs. Nonetheless, the rest of 2009 worked out pretty well for Sabathia and the Yankees, didn’t it? I sure wouldn’t mind a similar coincidence in 2020. Year one of a big name free agent starting pitcher and a World Series title? Not bad at all. No pressure, Gerrit. Though as he said, pressure is a privilege. It’s going to be a fun season of Cole in pinstripes.

Brett Gardner looks to deliver an encore [2020 Season Preview]

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No one could have foreseen Brett Gardner’s offensive performance last season. When he trudged to the finish in 2018, it seemed like his career was entering its final stages. Instead, he followed that up with the best offensive season of his big league career. Granted, just about everyone put up numbers never seen before thanks in part to the juiced ball. Still, Gardner was awfully impressive at the dish.

Gardy received a well-deserved raise for the 2020 season and is slotted as the club’s everyday center fielder until Aaron Hicks returns. After that, Gardner should slide over to left field regularly presuming his performance doesn’t fade. Decline is always a concern for someone Gardner’s age — he’ll turn 37 in August — but there’s no question he’s kept himself in great physical shape. He’s played in at least 140 games annually since 2013.

It’s hard to imagine Gardner repeating what he did in 2019, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be a valuable contributor to the team. Hitting aside, Gardner’s defense has always remained a strong point. Plus, and perhaps more importantly, he’s a significant presence in the clubhouse. Now with CC Sabathia in retirement, Gardner’s role as a leader is further emphasized. He’s now the last vestige of that 2009 championship team, as odd as that sounds.

Will his power return?

Take a look at the following marks that Gardner set career-bests in last year, all related to his power output:

Statistic2019Previous Best (Year)
HR2821 (2017)
ISO.253.166 (2014)
SLG.503.428 (2017)
Pull%46.4%40.2% (2014)
FB%38.2%36.7% (2014)
HR/FB19.3%13.5% (2017)
Meatball Swing%*64.7%59.1% (2015)

*Only dates back to Statcast’s availability (2015).

Never say never, but it’s very doubtful that Gardner approaches last year’s marks. Regression and age-related decline get to everyone. Gardner won’t be an exception. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean he can’t remain a threat to go deep.

The physical baseball will certainly play a role in Gardner’s power output come the regular season. It certainly helped him last year. Whether it’s the same ball, a juicier one, or a deadened one, there are still some positives from last year that may be indicative of continued power.

Approach will be key. Gardner’s always been patient at the dish and maintained that last season in spite of some more aggression. In particular, the longtime Yankees outfielder swung at nearly two-thirds of what Statcast defines as meatballs (essentially right in the hitter’s sweet spot). That was up nearly ten percent from 2018 and quite easily was a career high. As long as he continues attacking pitches in the heart of the zone, Gardner should be able to continue hitting for power.

Lifting and pulling the ball was huge, too. Speedsters like Gardy have often been encouraged to put the ball on the ground, but things have changed in the era of launch angles. Hitting more fly balls, particularly as a left-handed hitter at Yankee Stadium, is a recipe for success. Gardner maximized that last season and maintaining a similar batted profile can help him come close to last year’s power performance.

Can he stay strong all season?

It took a long time, but Gardner finally bucked a career-long trend of fading during the dog days of summer in 2019. He finished the year on fire after looking toast late in 2018 and early 2019. Now it’s just a matter of whether that’s a blip or something Gardner can repeat in 2020.

The easy thing to say is that last year was a blip on the radar. And not only has he typically stumbled toward the finish, he’s also not getting any younger. He’ll turn 37 in August and have already spent a bunch of the season at the more demanding center field position. In other words: it’s a lot to ask of Gardner t to not wear down again.

But hey, it’s fun to imagine that 2019’s second half (124 wRC+) Gardner is the real deal from here on out. Sure, the odds are against him holding off his usual second half swoon (and age-related decline). Then again, maybe there’s some sort of adjustment to his preparation or tweak to his regimen that improved his endurance in 2019.

On the bright side, the Yankees shouldn’t need Gardner as much in the second half this season. Key word: shouldn’t. That assumes good health for Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton come the second half. That’s a pretty big assumption to make, unfortunately.

Is this the end of the Gardy Party?

The Gardy Party began back in 2005, when the Yankees drafted him. Now, 2020 will be his 16th season with the organization. It could be his last:

In other words, Gardy plans to do what his friend Sabathia wanted to do last year: retire a champion. Or does he? Playful banter or not, nothing’s set in stone, especially considering that the Yankees hold an option to retain Gardner in 2021. In a formal interview setting with the New York Post, Gardner shared his view on his future:

At this point, I’m just kind of taking things one year at a time. I’ve really always looked not too far into the future, obviously. The contract that I signed, the Yankees have a team option on me for next year. In a perfect world for me, I stay healthy and have a good season and they pick that option up and I come back and do it all over again. For me, I’m just focused on this current season and literally taking things one day at a time, trying to get prepared for a season. I know it sounds cliche, but I kind of learned that from some guys that I’ve played with along the way, that when you’ve been around this long, there’s no sense in looking too far into the future, really. You don’t know how much longer it’ll last, so really just enjoy every minute of it.


You can flip that response around to a fan’s perspective, too. Enjoy watching Gardner this season and worry about his potential retirement later.

2020 Outlook: What They’re Saying

Here is what the projections are saying going into the season:

  • PECOTA (525 PA): .234/.313/.401, 17 HR, 95 DRC+, 1.8 WARP
  • ZiPS (531 PA): .247/.327/.414, 16 HR, 97 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR
  • Steamer (523 PA): .246/.327/.422, 17 HR, 99 wRC+, 1.9 fWAR

There’s a consensus here. All expect Gardner to be a slightly below average hitter while still offering some value in the field. None of these are exciting, especially off of one of Gardner’s finest campaigns, but it’s difficult to expect too much more from a soon-to-be 37 year-old.

A +2 win season isn’t anything sexy. Yet, all things considered, it’s a solid projection at this stage of his career. The Yankees really need Gardy to hit on this forecast though, because they’ll already be without a good deal of production in the outfield to begin the campaign.

Hopefully, Gardner delivers an encore to his terrific 2019 campaign. I can’t say I’d bet on it, but I’m here for a late career power surge (as are you, I’m sure). The Yankees could really use a carryover effect from last year while the big boppers in Stanton and Judge are down for at least the first couple of weeks of the season.

Performance aside, I want to see Gardner go out on his own terms whether it’s this year or next. If I were in his shoes and the Yankees won it all this year, I’d be hard pressed to return in 2021. But I’m not him, of course. In any case, Gardner deserves the year-to-year treatment a la Andy Pettitte and Sabathia. He’s been here forever and done everything the organization could have asked for (and then some). World Series title or not, if Gardy wants to return after this year, I’m all ears.

Is Gio Urshela for Real? [2020 Season Preview]

Gio Urshela’s rise from minor league depth acquisition to a key player on one of baseball’s best rosters was perhaps the most improbable individual story in an improbable season for Major League Baseball. Known around the league as a defensive specialist, Gio didn’t just step into Miguel Andújar’s footsteps – he out hit them. He put up a magical .314/.355/.534 (132 wRC+) line for the Yankees last year in 132 games. There can be no doubt that Gio was an indispensable member of the 2019 team, playoff struggles aside.

His performance was so strong that it forced – or perhaps expedited – a move to put Andújar in the outfield. Still, Urshela has his skeptics. Quieting them will require a big year in 2020 to prove that he is more than a one-time fluke. Here are some of the big questions facing Urshela as we look ahead to 2020…

…but first, a brief aside. Let’s just watch one of Gio’s finest moments in 2019, when he walked off the Rays in May:

This was a fun game.

Randy and I were both at this game and were actually talking about launching this blog a few innings before this. So thanks, Gio, for making VF314’s launch even more exciting than it already was. Onto the questions!

Can He Repeat His Offensive Success?

A 462-foot HR from Urshela? C’mon now.

This, of course, is the obvious one. Urshela’s 2019 performance was so aberrant from his career norm that any serious forward-looking analysis must begin with “was this real?” I mean, look at this:

There are two massive spikes in the data-set, both in 2019. The second – by far the largest – was followed by a pretty significant decline. It seems only fair to point out that the decline brought Urshela right back to his career norm. In common statistical parlance, this is known as regression to the mean – and it is not something Urshela, nor his fans, should want to see. This all raises a pretty fundamental question: what the hell happened in 2019?

One thing is pretty clear: Urshela started hitting the ball much harder last year. It wasn’t exactly out of nowhere, either. When he emerged on the scene early last year, hitting coach Marcus Thames pointed out that Urshela made some vague tweaks to his Triple-A stance toward the end of 2018. Those changes caught the Yankees’ eye and told Thames, at least, that the performance was real.

Perhaps those changes underpin why Urshela started hitting the ball so much harder last year. His exit velocity, for example, jumped 5 mph year-over-year and his hard-hit percentage increased 30 percent. In graph form, this looks like this:

There was a pretty clear correlation between Urshela hitting the ball hard and finding offensive success in 2019. That shouldn’t be surprising! Hitting the ball hard is the fundamental goal for any hitter, of course. Still, I’d be remiss not to point out that the drop at the end of the year. That’s a bit worrisome because it maps right over his overall regression.

It’s hard to know what to make of this all, honestly. I’m of two minds. First, it’s very good that Urshela started hitting the ball hard last year – it provides some level of credibility to his success. He was not just hitting it where they ain’t, in other words, and there was a supposed mechanical tweak that preceded it. That’s all good! However, he also stopped hitting the ball hard at the end of the year, which could either be a slump or a return to career norms. It’s hard to say.

Finally, it’s impossible to decouple all of this from the fact that the baseball was so obviously juiced last year. That variable throws another layer of doubt into Urshela’s performance – and it leaves me wondering what sort of production he’ll be capable of in 2020.

Can He Keep the Ball in the Air?

I will miss David Price.

So, with all that out of the way, let’s get specific. One thing, in particular, seems to really make a difference for Urshela: keeping the ball in the air. He is not a particularly fast runner, so hitting the ball into the ground is not a skill that plays up for Urshela. That much is obvious from a deep dive into 2019.

Take a look at his 15-game rolling averages, courtesy of FanGraphs, with his wRC+ mapped over his ground ball percentage. I think the relationship is fairly clear:

Now, this isn’t perfect by any means. It’s important to look at the scale for wRC+, which is quite high. From games 20-40, for example, Urshela was red hot while he was also pounding the ball into the ground. That’s important to keep in mind. But look at around game 100, when Urshela was impossible to get out. This was the hottest stretch of his career, mind you, and it was also when “holy crap, Gio Urshela is legit!” started entrenching itself in the narrative.

It’s pretty clear what was happening. He was extremely productive and it all seems to have begun right when he stopped hitting the ball into the ground. Adding a third dimension here only further clarifies this point – and helps explain why he found success early on in the year even with a high ground ball rate.

Check out what happens when you add hard-hit percentage into the equation:

At the beginning of the year, Urshela was hitting the ball extremely hard, helping make up for the fact he was also hitting it into the ground quite often. It’s how he found early-season success. But look at what happens after. He stopped hitting the ball as hard and starts hitting more grounders– resulting in a relative slump. When he gets red hot again, he hits relatively few grounders while hitting the ball very hard.

This is a very simple formula that’s obviously not easy to repeat. Aside from that 30-or-so game stretch, Urshela has never had those two things occur simultaneously. But it’s also clear just how important it is to him; once he started hitting the ball into the ground again, and subsequently less hard, he returned back into the hitter we all expected him to be.

I’m not sure what it is Urshela needs to do to replicate the best parts of 2019, but it’s clear what the outcomes are. One can only imagine that he’s working with Thames this spring to further tweak his swing and focus on hitting the ball into the air. As we’ve seen, when he does that, Gio can be a real force with which to be reckoned.

Can He Prove the Defensive Metrics Wrong?

This play is very pretty.

For some reason, advanced defensive statistics just don’t like Gio Urshela. Look, I get it: advanced stats are supposed to fill in gaps and hint at areas where our eyes may be deceiving us. Defense is one of those areas. For example, an outfielder may make a spectacular diving catch on a ball in center field that a better defender – one who is faster or got a better jump – may catch easily. That is the whole point of these stats.

I say all of this because I want to make it clear that I *get* what advanced stats try to do. I just don’t see it with Urshela, though, who clearly seems to be a player with range, a strong arm, and pretty good defensive wherewithal. The stats, though, disagree with me. UZR, DRS, and OAA all rank him as average to below-average with the glove. Statcast’s new stat, OAA, which I like quite a bit, found Urshela as the 75th-best infielder last year. (FRAA, Baseball-Prospectus’ metric, is a bit kinder to our man.) It doesn’t add up with what my eyes are saying.

Now, maybe my eyes are wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time, that’s for sure. But I am generally pretty skeptical of defensive metrics over a short sample – and yes, even a full season is a small sample for defensive metrics, let alone the tiny amount of playing time Urshela had prior to 2019 – so I think there’s still room for some doubt.

I’ve said this before, but I think there’s a pretty large gap between publicly-available defensive stats and the proprietary ones teams have. I can’t think of another reason why Urshela would have been employed without it unless team analysts are as fooled by their eyes are averages Joes like me can be. Given that Urshela played for both Cleveland and the Yankees, two successful and smart organizations, I’m going to go with the former. Perhaps 2020 will be the year the eye test aligns with the defensive metrics. Time, as they say, will tell.

What They’re Saying: 2020 Projections

All of this offensive uncertainty is pretty apparent from the projections, which are decidedly down on the Gio Dude. Here are the three big ones:

  • PECOTA: .265/.308/.427 (95 DRC+)
  • ZiPS: .282/.319/.461 (103 wRC+)
  • Steamer: .268/.312/.430 (94 wRC+)

Not exactly screaming confidence, eh? I think that’s borne out by the underlying data and by the fact that, for now, 2019 is a huge outlier. If, like me, you’re a bigger believer in his defensive value than the advanced stats are, then I think even these outcomes would be fine. The Yankees are going to hit whether Urshela does or not, but his defense can be a real difference-maker. Roughly league-average production plus good defense would be a pretty fine follow-up campaign for Urshela, even if it would inevitably disappoint some fans.

Overall, Urshela is one of the most interesting Yankees to watch in 2020. He emerged out of nowhere in 2019 and became a fan-favorite. Unlike Luke Voit in 2018, though, the underlying metrics aren’t as kind to him. There is still quite a bit of reasonable doubt in projecting Urshela’s 2020. I personally don’t know what to make of him. The range of outcomes here feels dramatic.

I am very excited to see what Urshela does, though – and if 2019 was any indication, he’ll surprise us all once more.

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