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:
|Player||wOBA vs. >= 95 MPH||xwOBA vs. >= 95 MPH|
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:
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.