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Mailbag: Game 3 starter, voids from 2019, James McCann in free agency, and short-season evaluations

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Another week, another mailbag to open. Four questions to address today. As always, send yours to viewsfrom314 [at] gmail [dot] com. We answer our favorites each week. Let’s get to it.

Kenny asks: James Paxton being shut down again is disappointing. If the playoffs started tomorrow, is it absurd to have Deivi García be the third starter after Gerrit Cole and Masahiro Tanaka? This would be in lieu of a resurgent JA Happ and a struggling Jordan Montgomery.

To be precise, Paxton won’t throw again for a couple of days after feeling some soreness Wednesday. I wouldn’t say he’s shut down, though things certainly aren’t looking good for him. It’s probably not worth counting on him to contribute much, if at all, the rest of the way.

Now to the question. I’m not so sure the Yankees would go with a traditional starting pitcher in a hypothetical Game 3 in the first round. Remember, it’s a best-of-three series to open up the postseason. There’s a distinct possibility that the Yankees (or any other team) go the opener/bullpen game route instead. Of course, a lot of that depends on how much the ‘pen is used in the first two games of the series. Or, even better, the Yankees would just win those first two games and call it a series.

If the bullpen game isn’t an option, I’d strongly favor Deivi at this point. So no, it’s not absurd to think he’s deserving of it over Happ or Monty. It sure sounds like Aaron Boone believes García can do it too:

“I know he wouldn’t flinch at the opportunity…I’m totally confident, forget the pitching part of it, that he can handle any situation you throw him in. Hard to predict where we’ll be three weeks from now and just what exactly we’ll look like. But he’s certainly putting his name in those conversations because of his performance.”

Happ certainly has pitched better lately (2.59 ERA in last four starts), but I do not love the idea of putting the season in his hands. I’m still scarred from his 2018 ALDS performance, I guess. But it’s not just that. We’ve seen far more bad than good since last year with Happ, and even with a good run of late, who’s to say that he doesn’t have another dud?

Montgomery has pitched himself out of the conversation thanks to his last two outings. He still has time to turn the ship around, but there’s no way he’d get the ball if the season ended today. So, it pretty much comes down to Deivi or Happ in the traditional starter route.

All this isn’t to say that García wouldn’t have a bad game. He’s not invincible, of course. But at the same time, I’d rather lose with a more talented pitcher on the mound. Not a 37 year-old who’s mostly struggled over the last two seasons.

Andrew asks: Not having Encarnación, Maybin, and Didi really hurt the depth of this lineup. Would it be safe to say Didi would be the player that would currently help this lineup that’s been decimated by injuries?

I think that’s pretty safe to say. The combination of Tyler Wade, Thairo Estrada, and Jordy Mercer have hit .177/.266/.248 in 128 plate appearances this season. Didi, meanwhile, has hit .273/.333/.469 in 160 opportunities for the Phillies. That’s a massive difference! The Yankees middle infield depth is putrid and its something we’ve discussed on this here blog since the offseason. So of course, Gleyber Torres and DJ LeMahieu missed time with injuries which forced inferior players to get opportunities.

While Maybin and EE would be nice to have right now, they aren’t missed as much as Gregorius. As bad as Mike Tauchman and Mike Ford have been this year, I wouldn’t say it was totally unreasonable for the Yankees to believe they were good depth for this season. They performed well last year when called upon. Would I have preferred some extra insurance in those spots? Yes, but it’s not as egregious as doing nothing to shore up the middle infield after letting Didi go. Also, consider this: if the Yankees brought back Maybin (or brought in someone else as outfield depth), there’s a chance Clint Frazier is still toiling away at the Alternate Site.

We’ve never seen Wade or Thairo exhibit any success at the big league level. To count on either of them as insurance up the middle was a big mistake. And again, that’s not in hindsight. Wade came into 2020 with a lifetime .197/.268/.298 (53 wRC+) in 241 big league trips to the plate. Estrada carried a .250/.294/.438 (91 wRC+) line last season in 69 opportunities. Even if the Yankees liked those two more than most, to not grab some sort of big league insurance was foolish. If you’re not willing to spend $14 million to bring back Gregorius, OK, but at least do something. How about Cesar Hernandez? José Iglesias?

Richard asks: Do you think the Yankees might have an interest in signing James McCann as insurance this offseason with how Gary Sánchez has struggled the past two years? If so, what would a hypothetical contract look like?

I do think the Yankees will strongly consider adding another catcher this winter. I wrote about this my thoughts piece a few days ago. McCann will probably come at a price above the team’s comfort level, though. I think he gets something along the lines of the Travis d’Arnaud contract. Atlanta signed him for two years and $16 million last offseason.

d’Arnaud got that deal thanks to a strong finish with the Rays last season. He started off slowly with the Mets, got DFA’d, was with the Dodgers for literally one plate appearance, and then was shipped to the Rays. In Tampa Bay, d’Arnaud hit .263/.323/.459 (107 wRC+) with solid defense. That brought him into free agency as a 30 year-old, the same age McCann is for his impending trip to the open market.

McCann’s bat has been really good since last year, but it wasn’t until this year that his defense (particularly framing) vastly improved. That’s quite possibly the result of having elite defensive backstop Yasmani Grandal as a teammate now. Anyway, McCann posted a 109 wRC+ in 476 plate appearances last year and has a 163 mark in 79 this season, so the bat seems pretty good. Pair that with improved glovework and you’re probably looking at the d’Arnaud deal. I don’t think the Yankees will spend that on a catcher to play three times a week. McCann probably wants a full-time gig anyway.

As an alternative, I wonder if the Yankees can pry Tyler Flowers away from Atlanta. He’s been terrific for them since 2016, albeit never really playing much more than 50 percent of the time. Flowers has put up at least 2 WAR annually, mainly from the glove, but the bat isn’t a total zero. He’s got a 118 wRC+ this year in 54 plate appearances, though he’s probably closer to the 88 and 95 marks he put up in the last two seasons. And at 34, he’s probably looking at something similar to the $4 million he signed for this season. The Yankees should be in on something like that.

Eric asks: If you were the front office trying to figure out how to improve the team over the offseason, what are the metrics (or other indicators of performance) that you would take seriously despite the weird season?

You know what: I’m not so sure this short season changes the way teams evaluate players as much as we might think. In this day and age, teams are looking at health, Trackman/Hawkeye/Statcast/Rapsodo data, and scouting evaluations to support decision-making. I don’t think 60 games vs. 162 games changes that.

For example, the Yankees have seen James Paxton without his best velocity all season and he’s now dealing with a flexor strain. That’s got to be a huge red flag for his impending free agency. I presume that’ll be enough for the team to walk away from him this winter.

Then there’s someone like Sánchez, whose .121/.230/.327 line has so many people wanting him out of the organization. And yet, the elite underlying exit velocity, barrel percentage, and hard hit percentage numbers still exist. Is that enough for the Yankees to try to get him right for 2021? Probably.

Ultimately, everything boils down to talent level. Now that teams have metrics that are intended to be a proxy for talent, that’s what they’re gonna keep on using.

Yankees decline Edwin Encarnación’s 2020 option

Now that the World Series has finished, offseason business has gotten underway. And in no surprise, the Yankees chose to decline Edwin Encarnación‘s $20 million option for 2020. He’s now a free agent. Encarnación receives a $5 million buyout.

Though nobody expected EE to be a Yankee at any point this year, he served a valuable purpose this summer given the array of injuries the team suffered. He was terrible in the postseason, but who knows how healthy he was.

In 44 regular season games after the trade with Seattle, Encarnación hit .249/.325/.531 (121 wRC+) and belted 13 dingers. He finished the playoffs with a .161/.278/.258 batting line, which was propped up by a strong first two games of the ALDS.

With Luke Voit, Mike Ford, and Greg Bird on the 40-man roster, and all three (namely Voit and Bird) healthy for 2020, there really wasn’t any room for EE to remain in pinstripes. The parrot will play elsewhere next season.

Edwin Encarnación, the (regular season) hero we didn’t ask for [2019 Season Review]

Gleyber parroting Edwin’s signature home run trot.

The entire baseball world eagerly anticipated the Yankees landing another starting pitcher or two before the July 31st trade deadline. Instead, the Yankees didn’t bolster their rotation via trade. In fact, their only significant trade of the season didn’t involve a major league pitcher at all. Rather than minimizing a weakness, the Yankees added to its biggest strength: offense. Nobody knew that the Yankees actually needed Edwin Encarnación to overcome a staggering number of injuries.

Encarnación delivered pretty much what everyone expected post-acquisition. In all, he hit .249/.325/.531 (121 wRC+) with the Bombers and belted 13 dingers in 197 plate appearances. His postseason left a lot to be desired, but who knows how healthy he actually was in October. It certainly left many with a sour taste in their mouths, and understandably so, but EE was a boon to the offense for much of the summer.

The unexpected trade that paid dividends

To say the least, this trade came out of nowhere. The Yankees’ weren’t exactly yearning for offense, at least so it seemed. Sure, the Yankees were banged up, but no one foresaw the continuing injuries that would plague them throughout the entire season. Both Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton were within a week of returning, while Luke Voit (135 wRC+) and Clint Frazier (120 wRC+) were raking in the spots that EE could fill. Frazier wound up being the odd man out when Encarnación joined the team, much to a large swath of the fanbase’s chagrin.

As luck would have it, Edwin’s acquisition was fortuitous because an array of injuries were forthcoming. Stanton got hurt again, Voit went down in London, Aaron Hicks missed most of the second half, and Didi Gregorius struggled to regain his form. The Yankees needed EE more than they realized at the time of acquisition.

Encarnación got off to a slow start in pinstripes. His recorded a 48 wRC+ in his first 80 plate appearances and struck out in 28.8 percent of them. He did slug four homers, but he was basically an automatic out (.225 OBP).

Of course, a hitter of EE’s caliber can’t be held down for long. During a mid-July series in Tampa Bay, his fortunes turned around. From July 15th until August 3rd, when he fractured his wrist (more on that momentarily), Encarnación was a force at the dish. He hit .338/.427/.648 (179 wRC+) with 5 homers in 82 trips to the dish.

The breakout started with a huge game against the Rays on the 15th. The Yankees had a four game edge on Tampa Bay entering the game and in the 8th the score was even at 2. Up came EE to do this:

And out came the parrot. That dinger added 37.5 percent to the Yankees’ chances of winning, though Travis D’Arnaud erased that with a shocking 3-run homer against Aroldis Chapman later. In any event, it seemingly sparked EE’s torrid run.

Late summer injury bug

That hot streak was cut short, unfortunately. Encarnación took a Josh Smith pitch off the wrist and had to be removed:

Tests revealed a fractured wrist. Ugh. The Yankees suffered a myriad of injuries this year, and EE wasn’t allowed to be an exception, apparently. Remarkably, Edwin thought he’d be able to return in three to five weeks, which seemed very optimistic at the time. Turns out he was right. He rejoined the lineup on September 3rd against the Rangers and didn’t miss a beat: he went 2-for-4 with a dinger in a 10-1 Yankees blowout win.

But of course, that wasn’t the last injury Encarnación would suffer. Couldn’t be the 2019 Yankees without such an occurrence! Not that any injury is *good* timing, but the next one he suffered was certainly terrible timing. Not only was EE on a good run in September (153 wRC+ and 5 homers in 35 plate appearances), but the postseason was nearing.

It apparently happened when he started and stopped a swing against Detroit’s Matt Boyd. After walking, the Yankees took him out of the game. It was determined to be a strained oblique, and it ended his regular season. EE’s availability for the postseason also appeared in jeopardy, though the Yankees shed optimism about his return. Obviously, as we know now, he was able to make it back for the start of the ALDS.

Postseason woes

After Games 1 and 2 of the ALDS, I don’t think anyone expected Encarnación to collect just one hit the rest of the postseason. He doubled twice in Game 1 and notched two singles in Game 2. Surely, nobody was concerend about any lingering oblique issues after that.

He went 0-for-4 in Game 3, but no one cared at the time. The Yankees completed the sweep of the Twins and moved on to the ALCS.

But uh, Houston, we have a problem. EE was hitless in the first two games and struck out an astonishing six times. He did walk twice, at least. In Game 3, he doubled against Gerrit Cole (of all people), but didn’t reach base otherwise.

In Game 4, EE struggled again. Aside from another 0-for, he also made outs in big spots. Down 3-1 in the fifth with two outs against Ryan Pressly, he came up with the bases loaded but struck out to end the threat. Carlos Correa made it 6-1 in the bottom half of that inning and the game got away.

Aaron Boone benched Encarnación in favor of Stanton in Game 5, but EE returned to the lineup in Game 6. He went 0-for-3 with a walk and three strikeouts.

It was an ugly finish, no questions asked, but it’s fair to wonder how much his oblique may have been an issue. It didn’t seem like one at the start of the ALDS, but after what we saw against the Astros, it’s hard not to wonder. One of the decade’s best hitters looking completely overmatched was jarring, to say the least. That said, Brian Cashman believed he was completely healthy.

What’s next?

The Yankees have a team option on Encarnación’s 2020 season, which would pay him $20 million should they exercise it. EE is due a $5 million buyout if the team declines, though Seattle is on the hook for part of that amount as agreed upon in the trade.

I wouldn’t expect Encarnación back next season. With a crowded first base and designated hitter situation as it is, assuming everyone stays mostly healthy next year, he’s more of a luxury than a need.

EE turns 37 is January, but doesn’t seem near the end, so another American League team will surely find him plenty of time at DH. Despite his age and a couple of injuries, he recorded a 129 wRC+ and swatted 34 homers in under 500 trips to the dish. That’ll get him a job somewhere.

Some last ditch ideas to wake up the Yankees’ offense

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Last night felt like a must win, though tonight is actually the Yankees’ first must win game of 2019. It’s do or die. Win or go home. You know all the clichés by now. Let’s get some more of the obvious out of the way: the Yankees need James Paxton to pitch like he did down the stretch in August and September. But more importantly, they also need the offense to snap out of its funk. The savages we grew to love over the summer have suddenly disappeared.

Tonight, the bats will have to wake up against Justin Verlander, which is no easy feat. And at this point, with the team having scored six runs in the last three games, a little shake up may be necessary. Nothing drastic or out of desperation, but there are clearly a number of things simply not working. Namely:

New York Yankees Batting Table
Name AB H BA OBP SLG
Edwin Encarnacion151.067.222.133
Brett Gardner152.133.235.133
Didi Gregorius162.125.125.125
Gary Sanchez172.118.118.294
Gio Urshela152.133.188.333
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/18/2019.

It’s hard to win any game, let alone a best-of-seven, when five lineup regulars have turned into pumpkins. A few in this group probably need to be relieved for Game 5, because they either haven’t performed and/or have had horrific at bats while doing so. Here are a few things the Yankees may try:

Giancarlo Stanton needs to play – if not, he needs to be replaced

Aaron Boone said before yesterday’s loss that he envisioned Stanton as a designated hitter option for tonight’s affair. Well, it’s now or never. Edwin Encarnación has looked terrible this series and could sit tonight (though Gio Urshela’s situation could change that – more on that shortly). JV carved up EE in Game 2, and as I wrote earlier this week, it’s not totally surprising.

On the left is Edwin’s xwOBA based on pitch location. On the right is how Verlander pitched EE in Game 2. The only ball Edwin put into play was a weak fly out on a pitch up and out of the zone. He’s just a bad matchup against Verlander (not that many hitters are good matchups for him).

Stanton had a strong Game 1 and had a good approach during the ALDS. Who knows how much his quad is affecting him, but I have to imagine he’s going to be in the lineup tonight. And if he can’t, the Yankees really need to plug in Luke Voit or Mike Ford. I really don’t want to lose Giancarlo if the Yankees can stage a comeback from down 3-1, but at this point, the Yankees can’t wait any longer if he’s still hurting.

If Stanton has to be shelved, do they go to Ford or Voit? I think Ford has a really strong case over Voit, despite the limited major league track record.

PlayerwOBA vs. >= 95 MPHxwOBA vs. >= 95 MPH
Mike Ford.599.431
Luke Voit.373.369

Ford’s numbers and zone charts point to him being a favorable matchup against a hard-thrower like Verlander. Plus, there’s the short porch at Yankee Stadium that he can take advantage of.

Bench Gio Urshela

The Gio we knew and loved from the regular season has really cratered this series. He stung some balls in Game 1, including a homer, but he’s generally looked awful ever since. We know how great he is with the glove, but at this stage, the Yankees need to prioritize offense over defense. And I say that the day after the team had an embarrassing game in the field.

Sitting Urshela means that DJ LeMahieu would have to slide over to third base. It would also mean that Edwin Encarnación (or Ford or Voit) would have to play first base. I know I just wrote about how badly EE has looked at the plate in the previous section, but I’d still rather see the slumping established veteran play over the struggling limited track record guy.

Sit Gardner for Cameron Maybin or move Gardy down in the lineup

This suggestion isn’t a must by any means, but I think there’s a sliver of upside. Even though Gardner has run out of steam (has the de-juiced ball hurt him?), I still trust him to deliver productive at bats. Last night’s first inning bases loaded walk was one of them. Nonetheless, the Yankees should consider starting Maybin over Gardner.

Maybin’s very good against high velocity pitches and pitches up in the zone as I outlined earlier this week. Since 2017, Maybin has a .383 wOBA and .382 xwOBA against pitches greater than or equal to 95 MPH. Gardner is just at .364 and .312, respectively. Both singled off Verlander in Game 2, for whatever that’s worth (nothing).

To be honest, I doubt we see this swap. It’s an idea, but I’m not sure if it’s a good message to send to the team to suddenly bench its longest tenured player. But, at the minimum, Gardner should be moved down. He’s probably better suited hitting in the bottom third of the order than the middle third.


Ideally, here’s the lineup I’d run out tonight:

  1. DJ LeMahieu, 3B
  2. Aaron Judge, RF
  3. Aaron Hicks, CF
  4. Gleyber Torres, 2B
  5. Giancarlo Stanton , DH
  6. Gary Sánchez, C
  7. Edwin Encarnación, 1B
  8. Didi Gregorius, SS
  9. Brett Gardner, LF

Forget about “lanes”. Put your five most recently successful hitters one through five and hope six through nine wake up. Hopefully, Sánchez’s dinger last night was a start (and don’t you dare mention Austin Romine). As for the rest of that bottom portion – something’s gotta go in their favor eventually. It just has to come tonight, or else.

Lineup considerations for Game 3 vs. Gerrit Cole

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Last night, Aaron Hicks saw his first game action since August 3rd. He pinch hit for Cameron Maybin in the 10th inning against righty sidewinder Joe Smith. For what it’s worth, Hicks stung the ball. He grounded out sharply (103.5 MPH) to first base. I’ll take that as a positive sign for his health, though the real test will be if and when he needs to make a full effort throw from the outfield. There was no opportunity for that last night. Now, with the series tied 1-1 and Gerrit Cole looming in Game 3, will Hicks get his first start? If so, what would be the fallout?

As rusty as Hicks may be, he’s on the roster and unquestionably is one of the Yankees’ best nine lineup options in a vacuum. But, because of Brett Gardner’s resurgent 2019, there was no debate about whether to play him or Hicks in center field this series. Gardner’s been an offensive force and a steady hand defensively, whereas Hicks was a bit of a mystery coming into Houston. That said, there are a few things the Yankees could consider for Game 3 that would reshuffle things in the lineup.

Gardy’s been in a little bit of a rut since the end of the ALDS. Dating back to Game 3 of that series, he’s 3-for-13 with six strikeouts and no walks. A couple of those knocks came last night. I know that this is a small sample size, but I also wonder how much Gardner is hurt by the dejuiced baseball this October. He clearly benefited from it during the regular season. Is his brief slump and the ball difference enough to sit him in Game 3?

Of course, there’s a scenario in which both Hicks and Gardner start tomorrow. Much of that depends on Giancarlo Stanton’s health. Once that’s determined, the Yankees can decide how to fill center field, left field, and the designated hitter spots against Gerrit Cole. Perhaps they’ll consider how those guys fare against high velocity fastballs, which obviously Cole possesses:

PlayerwOBA vs. >= 95 MPHxwOBA vs. >= 95 MPH
Brett Gardner.364.312
Aaron Hicks.347.386
Giancarlo Stanton.342.351
Cameron Maybin.383.382
Edwin Encarnación.360.382

Those numbers above are since 2017. Everyone in this group has had good actual results against power fastballs, though Gardner is clearly the laggard in terms of expected outcomes. That, along with the deadened ball, could make him the odd man out if Stanton proves healthy.

Still though, even if Stanton is ruled out for Tuesday, there may be a case to start Hicks over Gardner. Maybin’s been spectacular against high octane heaters. He’s also notched four hits in nine opportunities against Cole. Small sample caveats and batter vs. pitcher noise apply here, but it’s just food for thought.

Another thing to consider: Cole loves to throw the high fastball. We saw a ton of that last night with Justin Verlander on the hill and we’ll likely see it again tomorrow. Here’s where Cole placed his four-seamers this season:

(Baseball Savant)

With his 97th percentile fastball velocity and 96th percentile spin rate, it’s no surprise that he works upstairs with his heater. He threw his four-seamer 51.6 percent of the time in the regular season, so the Yankees will probably see that pitch more often than not. So, let’s consider how the five lineup candidates noted above do against pitches up in the zone:

One brief note: Hicks’s and Stanton’s xwOBA zone plots are from 2018 in order to get a larger sample.

Based on this, it’s pretty clear that Gardner, Stanton, and Encarnación have a hard time with pitches up in the zone. EE seems to have it the worst — and we saw that last night against Verlander.

So, what will the Yankees do? Again, Stanton’s health will have a big impact. That said, I have a feeling that if Stanton’s ready to go, he’ll be the DH. Left field at Yankee Stadium is a lot bigger than in Houston, so it’d be risky to put him in the expanse of the Bronx. Plus, Edwin has had a rough series (0-for-8 with two walks and six strikeouts) and is clearly weak against pitches up in the zone. From there, it’s between Gardy, Hicks, and Maybin for the two outfield spots. Based on the numbers, Gardner looks like Gardner may well be the odd man out. Regardless of how Aaron Boone fills out his lineup card, Cole will be a tough opponent.

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