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Wild Card Round Game 1: All you could ask for

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That was ideal, was it not? The Yankees clobbered Cleveland in Game 1 of this best-of-three series, 12-3. The offense was all over Shane Bieber and Gerrit Cole mowed down his opponent. It’s not like the Yankees needed to blow out Cleveland to feel comfortable, either. In fact, this one felt over after Aaron Judge’s two-run blast on the fourth pitch of the game. An early lead with Cole on the hill against a scuffling Cleveland offense? Just what the doctor ordered. Let’s break it down.

The bats took Bieber off his gameplan immediately. The Yankees’ offense may have been frustrating and inconsistent during the regular season, but that was far from the case tonight. Intimidated by the presumptive American League Cy Young winner? Not a chance. The Bombers took a 2-0 lead four pitches into this one. It completely took Shane Bieber off his game. DJ LeMahieu led off with a single and Aaron Judge followed with this:

That was quick. Bieber had come out firing all fastballs and the Yankees made him pay immediately. The right immediately shied away from his heater thereafter.

Bieber threw 27 fastballs the rest of the game, or 26.7 percent of his final 101 pitches. He’s not necessarily a fastball dominant pitcher as he used the pitch just over 37 percent in the regular season, but still. The Yankees scared him off the pitch.

Cleveland’s ace had a chance to settle down after a scoreless second and two relatively quick outs in the third inning. But instead, the Yankees’ relentless offense made him pay. Bieber fell behind Aaron Hicks 3-0, got it to 3-2, but then walked him. Up came Luke Voit:

Not a fastball, but rather, a cutter right down the pipe. Voit made him pay to give the Yanks a 3-1 lead.

The Yanks tallied a couple of more runs against Bieber in the fourth. Brett Gardner jumped a first pitch fastball for an RBI double and DJ LeMahieu delivered an RBI single up the middle against a heater too. The Yankees may not have seen Bieber’s fastball much, but when they did, they pounced. And they weren’t done jumping on Bieber’s fastball there. Gleyber Torres delivered the knockout blow in the fifth.

That was the end of Bieber’s night. 4 2/3 innings and 7 runs for the starter with a 1.77 ERA this season. Welp!

The offense didn’t let Bieber capitalize on his curveball, either. As impressive as it was to see the Yankees punish Bieber’s sporadically thrown fastball, it was also great to watch them not flail at too many of Bieber’s curveballs. Opponents had a .095 batting average, .143 slugging percentage, and 51.5 percent whiff rate against his yakker this season. Tonight, it’s not what they did when they put the ball in play (1-for-6), but rather, what they did against it otherwise.

Sure, Bieber racked up four Ks on his breaking ball, but that doesn’t tell the story. They whiffed on 7 of 18 swings (39 percent) against the curve, well below his regular season rate. They also fouled it off 5 times. Plus, Bieber was only able to nab 3 called strikes on it. It simply just wasn’t his typical putaway pitch this evening.

Overall, Bieber went to his curveball on 36 percent of his pitches this evening, 10 percent higher than in the regular season. That would have been a decent plan tonight had his curveball been fooling Yankees’ hitters. Instead, the offense was locked in. They hunted fastballs while spoiling Bieber’s curveball.

Gerrit Cole. The offense really stole the show from Gerrit Cole tonight, who was brilliant in his own right. After the bats staked him with a 2-0 lead, Gerrit set in the tone in the bottom half of the first. A 1-2-3 inning including two strikeouts on 13 pitches. You knew it was on from there.

The only real trouble Cole faced this evening came against Josh Naylor (!?!), who came over in the Mike Clevinger trade. Naylor went 3-for-3 against Cole including a mammoth solo homer in the fourth inning. That came after Naylor doubled off the center field wall in his first faceoff with Cole.

Cleveland’s other run against Gerrit was a bit fortunate, but also gave Cole his biggest test of the night. The Yankees were up 3-0 and Cole had gotten to two outs with a runner on second in the third inning. César Hernández was up and the scalding-hot José Ramírez was on deck as the potential tying run. Hernández dribbled a grounder past Cole to Torres for an infield single, a batted ball that had a .210 expected batting average. Up came Ramírez.

Cole bounced back to strike out Carlos Santana on three pitches to escape further damage. Naylor may have hit a homer in the next inning, but Cleveland never really threatened against the Yankees’ ace.

The Yanks’ $324 million man racked up 13 strikeouts in 7 innings. He threw 105 pitches and probably could have gone one more inning if necessary, but given the 9 run lead, there was no need to push it. If 13 strikeouts didn’t say it already: Cole had everything working. But in particular, this was the best fastball we’ve seen from him in 2020.

Cole’s fastball got hit a little harder than usual this year (.327 wOBA, 24.7 whiff rate). Last year, those marks were .254 and 37.6 percent. Tonight? Cole’s fastball looked like that 2019 version. Of the 55 he threw, Cleveland batters swung-and-missed 35 percent of the time. He did allow a couple of hard hits against the pitch (namely doubles by Ramírez and Naylor), but he also garnered three pop outs and a soft line out. Dominant.

His curveball was really working too. Of ten swings against it: five whiffs, three fouls, and two balls in play. The highest exit velo against it was 85.2 MPH. Very, very good. Also good? Five called strikes on it. Remember, Cole had some trouble throwing the curve for strikes earlier this season.

The slider and changeup were very effective too. He generated five whiffs on ten swings against the slider and another whiff on two hacks at the changeup. Neither the slider or changeup had an exit velocity against above 90.5 MPH.

Again, everything was working. A masterpiece, just as we had all hoped.

Leftovers

  • The decision to start Brett Gardner over Clint Frazier sure worked out. He scored twice and had three hits: an RBI double, a two-run homer to give the Yankees an 11-2, and a single in the ninth. Clint was great in the regular season even with a slow finish, but Boone’s decision to play the hot hand certainly made the manager look good. Don’t worry, Frazier is still the team’s left fielder next season. I don’t know what they do tomorrow, though.
  • How did Kyle Higashioka do? He certainly didn’t hurt the Yankees tonight in place of Gary Sánchez. Higgy had a single in four trips to the plate, though perhaps the most notably play was a throw he sailed into center field in the third inning on a wild pitch. A better throw might have nabbed Delino DeShields at second base and ultimately keep a run off the board that inning. Didn’t turn out to be a big deal, of course.
  • Luis Cessa pitched the eighth and ninth innings and allowed one run. Nice job by him to save the bullpen for tomorrow.

Game Two is at 7:08 p.m. EDT tomorrow. If we see the version of Masahiro Tanaka we’re used to seeing in the playoffs, the Yankees will wrap things up tomorrow and advance. Carlos Carrasco counters for Cleveland. A very good pitcher in his own right, but I can’t wait to see what the Yankees’ offense has in store after this evening. Have a good night everyone.

Thoughts after the Yankees fall to .500

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How’s everyone feeling about the Yankees this season? Great, right? Yup, feels wonderful to be 21-21 after a 16-6 start. The Yankees are in the midst of as terrible of a run as I can recall, though I’m also spoiled as a person born in 1990. It’s hard to be optimistic about the current team turning things around, by the way. Here’s what’s on my mind now that the Yankees are barely hanging on to a playoff spot.

The Yankees may need to accelerate the returns of Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, and/or Gio Urshela. There are 18 games remaining and it’s increasingly likely that the Yankees only chance at a playoff spot is the 8th seed. There are still a ton of games left against Toronto, so I suppose the Yankees could still sneak into second place division spot (currently three games back), but it’s getting more difficult to imagine that working out. So, who would have thought the Yankees would have to hold off the Orioles, Mariners, and Tigers to make the playoffs this year?

Just incredible. And that brings me to the players on the injured list. I think Yankees (reasonably) assumed that the current roster would have no issues holding off these teams. That’s why we’ve seen patience in bringing back guys like Stanton (who’s way past his original timetable). But now we’re at the point where the team can’t be much more patient. The Yankees need the likes of Stanton, Judge, and Urshela back in this punchless lineup. This current roster *should* be able to maintain the 8th seed, but it’s officially too close for comfort.

Of course, there is the risk of aggravating an injury by bringing back a player too soon. We’ve already see that with Judge this season. That very well could happen again. That said, would you rather miss the playoffs without getting Stanton/Judge/Urshela back within the next week? Or would you rather miss the playoffs taking getting them back as soon as possible?

Mike Tauchman should not hit sixth. I really do not understand why Aaron Boone penciled in Tauchman sixth in the lineup last night. I get that there are a lot of guys not hitting in this lineup, but Tauchman looks terrible at the plate. Naturally, he came up in a couple of big spots yesterday.

The Yankees had Taijuan Walker on the ropes in the first inning. Tauchman came up with the bases full and two outs and worked the count to 3-1. Here’s what he did:

That’s an eminently hittable fastball in a fastball count. Tauchman could do nothing but hit a soft fly ball to left center.

He came up again with the bases loaded in the fifth. He lifted a sac fly to left for the Yankees’ only run of the game.

I’ll give him a little credit for going with that splitter away to left, but man, I would have rather had a more dangerous hitter up. Miguel Andújar, anyone? At least he’s shown some life of late.

Again, I just can’t fathom hitting Tauchman sixth. He has shown absolutely no power (.063 ISO) this season and constantly misses hittable fastball. He’s literally batting .000 on fastballs over the heart of the plate. It’s not like he’s been that unlucky either with a .192 xBA and .336 xSLG in that location.

Reaction to Brian Cashman’s team meeting. I gotta say, I didn’t love the idea of Cashman addressing the team before a JA Happ start. It’s preferable to do so with a better pitcher on the mound. But hey, credit to Happ for pitching well yesterday. The offense was yesterday’s letdown.

It sounds like Cashman struck the notes you’d expect him to. Per Cashman’s press conference, he emphasized his belief in the current roster and reminded them that everyone in the room was brought in for a reason. What else is he gonna say?

The GM also noted that there’s no help coming (duh). The trade deadline has passed and the Yankees stood pat. Similar to what he said a little over a week ago, Cashman noted that the prices were just too high and would have subtracted current big league contributors (i.e. Clint Frazier, Deivi García, and/or Clarke Schmidt). But even if he won’t admit it, I’m sure Cashman would like a mulligan. I can’t imagine all trade possibilities required one of the three mentioned above to be sent packing. We can’t know for sure, though.

In any event, talk is cheap and this roster just isn’t performing. A pep talk is nice and all, perhaps needed, but it can only do so much with the likes of Tauchman, Tyler Wade, Mike Ford, and Thairo Estrada needing to play so much. It’s not gonna snap Gary Sánchez, Gleyber Torres, or Brett Gardner out of their slumps.

I feel like I’m rambling a bit here, but I guess I’m just trying to reiterate the frustration about this team’s depth. We often point to the absence of Didi Gregorius this year, but let’s not forget that this team also had Cameron Maybin and Edwin Encarnación around last summer. Those are three big losses that Cashman did absolutely nothing to address. It’s great to have confidence in who’s on the roster already, but sheesh, it sure would have been nice to have a little more cushion. It’s too late the fix that now. Literally all Cashman can do is try to light a fire under the guys currently in the clubhouse.

On the future at catcher and following the Dodgers. There really are no excuses to make for Sánchez. He’s been atrocious at the plate and his defense has taken a step back. Save for a hot start last year, Gary’s been mired in offensive problems since 2018 and it’s concerning. His bat has always been his carrying tool, but it’s been a while since his incredible run from 2016-2017. Unsurprisingly, there’s plenty of clamoring to find someone new to replace him long-term. I’m sure the cries for impending free agent J.T. Realmuto will be loud this winter.

Don’t count on Realmuto coming aboard, though. We have heard his name come up in rumors with the Yankees over the years, even when Gary was playing well, but I don’t expect the Yankees to pay up after splurging on Gerrit Cole last winter. That said, I do expect the Yankees to bring in some catching insurance. I know the team likes Kyle Higashioka, but I think they need something more. It would behoove the team to have two starting-caliber catchers kind of like the Dodgers do (Will Smith and Austin Barnes). They more or less split duties and I think it allows the two of them to stay fresh all season. It’s not lost on me that there are not many starting-caliber catchers available, of course. Getting another is much easier said than done.

It just may not make sense for catchers to play, say, 120 or 130 games anymore. It’s too much on their legs. That’s why such a move might be good for Gary too, especially if he can rediscover his offensive ability and be useful at DH on days he doesn’t catch. Here’s what’s out there other than Realmuto in free agency:

  • Alex Avila
  • Jason Castro
  • Robinson Chirinos
  • Tyler Flowers
  • James McCann
  • Yadier Molina
  • Wilson Ramos
  • Austin Romine
  • Kurt Suzuki
  • Stephen Vogt
  • Mike Zunino

Not particularly exciting! But a lot of these guys are probably better than Higashioka and would be playable 3-4 days a week. Tyler Flowers and James McCann are first to mind for me, personally.

Now, as for Higgy: he’s out of options so the Yankees would risk losing him unless they carry three backstops. It’s a tricky situation, but something the Yankees should consider. They need a little bit more insurance behind Gary.

Thoughts on an off day as players walk out across professional sports

No baseball for the Yankees today, but there are five games on the schedule against the Mets this weekend. I have a few things on my mind at the moment that are Yankees-related, so let’s get to them here:

1. The Yankees stink right now, but it’s hard to get flustered by it. The Yankees had a downright dreadful day yesterday. Not only did they lose both games of the doubleheader in Atlanta, but it looks like they may be without Aaron Judge once again. It’s all frustrating, but frankly, it all pales in comparison to what’s going on in this country right now. I’m really having a hard time getting worked up about all of the Yankees’ injuries and the team’s five game losing streak, because it’s just not a big deal.

Yesterday, we saw the players in NBA and WNBA take the lead in deciding to walk out and not play scheduled games. Some entire MLB teams and some individual players on other teams followed. Exhausted by constant violence against Black folks and professional leagues’ empty gestures, players started to take things into their own hands. Not the Yankees, however, which was disappointing albeit unsurprising. The news about the Milwaukee Bucks striking began to unfold toward the end of the first game of the Yankees-Braves doubleheader. Maybe there wasn’t enough time between games for the teams to discuss the issue at hand. Eh. As Randy tweeted yesterday, thirty minutes is more than enough time to make a decision.

Maybe the Yankees will take a stand this weekend. Bobby tweeted about the reach the team has and the impact it could have. There’s no doubt about that. I’m not holding my breath, though. Need I remind you the affiliations this front office has? Plus, the Mets, who the Yankees will face this weekend, didn’t take a stand yesterday and left one player to speak on his own: Dom Smith. Although Smith played yesterday, we saw some teams play while one of its own Black players chose to sit out (Jason Heyward with the Cubs).

I love baseball and the Yankees and I selfishly want to keep watching them play this season. It’s admittedly been a distraction for me from everything going on in the world. But Clinton Yates’ piece today for The Undefeated make an important point: expecting Black athletes to perform for the sake of our entertainment while they are in anguish is wholly unfair. And responding with something like: “what does a walkout actually accomplish?” is absurd to ask as well. It doesn’t have to accomplish anything immediately. As Yates writes:

Which gets to the question that keeps coming up: What does this solve? What do you want? Maybe they don’t know. They shouldn’t have to. A collective bereavement pause on the league might be what everyone needs anyway. Lord knows how tough 2020 has been on everyone. But the point is that should be good enough.

2. If you haven’t rage-closed your browser yet (good riddance), here’s a Yankees thought: the team should sign recently released Brock Holt. Matt wrote about Holt back in the offseason and much of what he said still applies. In fact, one sentence from Matt’s piece really stands out to me: “The predictability he offers is preferable to the upside of Tyler Wade and Thairo Estrada”. This rings particularly true with Gleyber Torres and DJ LeMahieu sidelined.

Holt really struggled for the Brewers this year, which led to his release. He hit .100/.222/.100 in 36 plate appearances. Pretty terrible, but also a ridiculously small sample size to cut someone on. I guess the 13-15 Brewers wanted to shake things up. Holt is almost certainly not that bad though, and should be an immediate upgrade over Wade and Estrada.

Holt batted .286/.366/.407 (106 wRC+) for the Red Sox in 662 plate appearances across 2018 and 2019. He’s not going to hit for power, but he makes plenty of contact and gets on base frequently. Holt offers plenty of versatility too. He can play all over the infield and outfield. And it’s not like he’s faking it at those positions — he’s a good defender too. Last year, Holt was in the 80th percentile of defenders in Statcast’s Outs Above Average. Most of that credit comes from his time at second base, but Statcast also grades him as an above average glove at shortstop. The Yankees may not be able to sign Holt, but it would shock me if they didn’t try to.

3. On Aaron Judge, hurt again. I think our tweets from earlier today says about all that needs to be said:

Remember, Judge argued to avoid the injured list entirely. So much for that. While it’s often seen as admirable to play through pain, this just isn’t one of those instances. It’s detrimental to the club because now he could be out longer than initially anticipated.

4. Trade deadline priorities. One starting pitcher came off the market this afternoon: Taijuan Walker, who the Mariners traded to the Blue Jays. If you listened to our podcast this week, you’d know that Randy and I weren’t too keen on Walker anyway. The Yankees still have four days to address the pitching staff, however. There are really only two guys that I think are a) available and b) could make an impact: Lance Lynn and Dylan Bundy. Mike Clevinger certainly would make an impact, but I’m not certain he’s actually available and I don’t think it’d be a good idea to bring him into the clubhouse.

Starting pitching shouldn’t be the only target for the front office, though. The Yankees should go after some middle infield help too, especially if they don’t sign Brock Holt. Not that Holt would have a huge offensive impact, but almost any bat is going to be a fairly substantial upgrade over Tyler Wade in the lineup. One other middle infielder that comes to mind: Freddy Galvis of the Reds. Good defender at shortstop, has some power, and is purely a rental. Cincy is 11-17 and may be sellers anyway. I might go in more depth in a trade target piece, but if not, he’s one guy to keep in mind.

Judge or Lindor? Why not both?

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Yesterday, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal weighed in on a potential choice the Yankees could face soon:

No decision is necessary just yet. But if I were running the Yankees, I’d think twice about signing the oft-injured Aaron Judge to a monster extension. Instead, I’d consider taking that money and going hard after Francisco Lindor when he becomes a free agent after the 2021 season.

I won’t give away the details of Rosenthal’s rationale since it’s behind a paywall. The gist of his argument is that Judge’s long-term health is murky, the team is loaded with outfielders, and have a ton of salary commitments already. Rosenthal believes Lindor might be the team’s better option as it’s next splurge. Not only is Lindor great in his own right, but he’s also younger and has a healthier track record. None of Rosenthal’s points are wrong, per se. But as you might have expected us to say, why can’t the Yankees have both?

Let’s address Rosenthal’s biggest concern: Judge’s health. Frankly, I can’t deny that it worries me too. He’s on the injured list yet again after playing in just 112 and 102 of the team’s games in each of the last two seasons. He probably would have played a similar total this year if not for the pandemic because of his broken rib and collapsed lung. The only real “bad luck” injury was the wrist fracture on a hit by pitch in 2018. Otherwise, we’ve seen a couple of muscle strains and that broken rib (which to his credit, he played through at the end of 2019). I suppose the rib fracture could be bad luck too. That said, it worries me that an impact play like that in right field could hurt him again.

Depending on your WAR metric of preference, Judge was a five-win player in 2018 and 2019 in spite of missing so many games. There aren’t many outfielders who do that in a full season! If you could only pencil in Judge for 115 games annually but knew you’d get 5 WAR a pop, I think you’d be thrilled. And with guys like Mike Tauchman and Clint Frazier around to fill the void, those other games aren’t exactly being filled by scrubs. The caveat: Judge needs to be healthy when it matters most in October.

Speaking of Tauchman and Frazier — yes, the Yankees have in-house options to step in for Judge after 2022, when he becomes a free agent. But as good those two look, they’re not Judge and they almost certainly never will be. Plus, Tauchman is 1.5 years older than Judge. Frazier is a little more than a year younger, though. Hell, Jasson Dominguez might be ready for the show come 2023, but that’s a ways away from now. Who knows what happens between now and then.

Finally, we get to payroll. I think we’ve argued this ad nauseam, but the Yankees aren’t in dire straits as much as some may lead you to believe. There is a lot of money coming off the books this season, even if you consider the large arbitration raises for guys like Judge, Gary Sánchez, and Gio Urshela (among others). Masahiro Tanaka ($23M), JA Happ ($17M), James Paxton ($12.5M), DJ LeMahieu ($12.5M), and Brett Gardner ($12.5M) could all depart this winter. Now, it wouldn’t be great to lose that much talent, it’s just worth noting. Per Cot’s, these are the Yankees’ salary commitments through 2024:

  • 2021: $132M
  • 2022: $103M
  • 2023: $82M
  • 2024: $78M

Almost all of that is tied to Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton (but don’t forget, the Marlins are paying a. Of course, this doesn’t account for the larger arbitration increases for guys like Judge in 2021 and 2022, but still. There’s money to play with and it doesn’t have to be Judge or Lindor. It can be both.

Keep in mind that Judge might not be as expensive as you think. The Yankees can continue to go year-to-year in arbitration through the 2022 season. While that could cost them something like $40 million over the next two seasons, that’s a pittance for Judge’s production. Further, Judge becomes a free agent in advance of his age-31 season. This isn’t a Manny Machado or Bryce Harper free agency when guys sign for $300 million in their mid-twenties.

So, I’ve spent all this time talking about Judge’s health and the Yankees’ financial status without really talking about Lindor. He’s great and the Yankees should absolutely sign him after 2021. Move Gleyber Torres back to second base, and depending on what happens with LeMahieu in free agency, the Yanks can play either DJ or Urshela at third. Don’t forget about Luke Voit at first base. That probably would be the Yankees’ best infield since 2009.

It’s exciting to think about the prospect of Judge and Lindor in pinstripes, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It would be awfully fun to have both of them around, but the focus at the moment is winning this year and next. Unless there’s a trade, Lindor can’t help just yet.

Aaron Judge is Headed to the IL with a Calf Strain

Aaron Judge is going to the Injured List with a mild calf strain. It’s retroactive to August 12, which means the big fella could come back as early as next Saturday (8/22). Remember, Judge left Tuesday’s game with what was then described as “lower body tightness.” He did not play on Wednesday. Turns out that he got an MRI yesterday, and that revealed the strain:

If that is true – and it’s a big if at this point – then it’s good news. A Grade 1 calf strain is ultimately not that big of a deal, and it sure seems like the Yankees just want to prevent it from getting worse by Judge playing through it. (It seems like he wants to.) Obviously, the Yankees are in good shape for the playoffs. Being healthy then is really the key priority. It’s good to be proactive and take even minor things seriously.

On the other hand, this is yet another injury for the Yankees’ best player, and I think it’s more than fine to be frustrated by this development. It is also another soft tissue injury for the Yankees. I would list them all out but: 1) it would be too annoying and 2) it would definitely take too long to do. The point is that this is happening with way too much frequency. (And that’s if it’s really a small injury. The track record here is not exactly sterling.) Anyway, it’s more of the same for the Yankees in 2020:

In terms of on-field impact, it’s a huge blow. Judge is absolutely raking. He’s hitting .290/.343/.758 (192 wRC+) in 17 games so far in 2020. He was looking every bit like the MVP-caliber player he is, and his loss is a big one for the Yankees. I mean, this was his last at-bat:

Thairo Estrada is being recalled from the Alternate Site and will replace Judge on the roster. Let’s hope this is a minor thing and Judge is back in action soon. Ugh.

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