What a week for the Yankees! On the one hand, they made an acquisition that vaulted them to division favorites and championship contenders, but on the other, they reverted back to the sloppy and sluggish baseball that plagued them for 6-weeks in June and July.
Before we get into it, I first want to promise not to make any Sonny puns. That’s my vow to you and I am going to stick to it.
Obviously the news that the Yankees landed Sonny Gray was the biggest of the week. For my instant reaction the night it went down, listen to episode #161 of The Bronx Pinstripes Show.
Last week in Yankees baseball featured the Yankees finding their mojo, Severino’s progression, and some Sonny Gray pre-trade pros and cons.
Welcome to New York
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On Wednesday, Gray posted a string of tweets explaining how he’s always wanted to wear the Yankees pinstripes. Before his start on Thursday, he posted posted on The Players’ Tribune that he could not be happier to be a Yankee.
“The pennant race … that’s something I’m especially excited about. I’m not much for talking about myself — but if there’s one thing I could say as an introduction to Yankee fans, I think it would be this: I’m a competitor.”
So far, so good for Sonny Gray in New York. He’s saying all the right things: Always wanted to wear the pinstripes — check! Loved the 2009 Yankees for the way they won — check! Competitor — check!
What’s a player supposed to say when he gets traded to a new team? Even if they always hated the organization or can’t stand the fans in that new city, they can’t say it. But Gray is really laying the Yankees love on thick, so he’s either a great bullshit artist or really means it. I’m assuming the later, for now.
Gray’s debut was solid: 6 innings, 4 hits, 2 ER, 6K, 3BB. Defense hurt him in first, but he rebounded. Kluber has simply silenced Yankees.
Ok, so his first start in pinstripes didn’t exactly go as planned. Three errors by the Yanks in the first inning kind of set the tone for the entire night, and with the way the offense is struggling, you knew it was going to be an uphill battle against Corey Kluber.
But before we get to the offensive issues (believe me, we’ll get to them), there were positives from Sonny’s first start as a Yankee. He got weak contact from a lineup that has already faced him twice this season, and if his infielders didn’t make two atrocious errors on easy grounders, who knows how the game would have turned out. Gray was making his first start in 9 days and was probably over-amped, but did not show any signs of tiring until late in his outing.
Was it a perfect start? No. He allowed a 2-out rally in the 6th that sealed the game for Cleveland, but again, I liked what I saw from him for most of the game. Jomboy put it best: the Yankees failed Sonny Gray, Sonny Gray didn’t fail the Yankees.
Return of the Evil Empire
After the trade for Sonny Gray went down on Monday, CC Sabathia said “We’re back to the same old Yankees. The goal is to win the World Series. We’re here now.”
Last July, with the aging Yankees hovering around .500, it was evident that the team could not win a World Series, or even make a legitimate push for the playoffs. At the trade deadline the Yankees sold for the first time since I’ve been watching baseball, and CC and his veteran teammates had to face the reality that the franchise was in rebuild mode. Fast forward to today — just one year later — and that “rebuild” seems to have been done at warp speed because the Yankees are a real contender to win the 2017 World Series.
Before the Yankees 6-week skid they were playing like one of the best teams in baseball, but any fan who followed the team everyday knew they had major holes. The bullpen was back-end heavy, the rotation was a roll of the dice, and first base was a black hole. With three trades Brian Cashman solved those problems and ninja’d the Yankees into being the AL East favorites.
We’ve already talked about the deal with Chicago that brought David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, and Todd Frazier to the Bronx. It solidified the bullpen so Girardi never had to make the decision between Tyler Clippard, Jonathan Holder, or Chasen Shreve in a key spot again, and it allowed the Yankees to move Chase Headley to first base where he is (believe it or not) producing.
Despite that move, the Yankees still had an up-hill battle for October because their rotation was a mess. Other than the All Star Luis Severino, the staff could not be counted on. Despite Sabathia’s performance this season, his age makes him a question mark moving forward. Jordan Montgomery is a rookie and currently reminding everyone of that fact with the way he’s pitched since the break. Masahiro Tanaka is the biggest mystery on the team this year because he has looked more like Michael Pineda, who the Yankees lost to Tommy John surgery. The last turn in the rotation was being filled with Caleb Smith and Luis Cessa, who I’ve affectionately renamed CAAAleb and CessAAA.
Cashman first added Jaime Garcia, a lefty who can be categorized as “serviceable.” Serviceable is one of those baseball terms that only fans of the game know; it means the pitcher does not suck but isn’t going to wow you either. Garcia has a 4.29 ERA in 19 games with the Braves and Twins this year. He’s a ground-ball pitcher, which is important at Yankee Stadium. The biggest thing Garcia has going for him is that he is not Smith or Cessa, who have combined to give up 25 earned runs in 41.2 innings this year. Had the Yankees only added Garcia, it would have been an upgrade, but not have changed the 2017 outlook.
That brings us to Sonny Gray, who is the best starter the Yankees have acquired mid-season since David Cone in 1995. Then, Coney helped propel the Yankees to the playoffs for the first time in fourteen years and turned them into a World Series contender. Now, Gray hopes to do the same thing.
Sonny Gray is not an ace. He is a number-2 who has pitched like a number-1 in the past. At 27-years old with team control through 2019, Gray is very valuable to the Yankees who traded three of their top-7 prospects to get him.
The positives on Gray far outweigh the negatives. As I said, the Yankees control him for two and a half more seasons. Three months ago the Yankees rotation for 2018 had no certainties. Tanaka, Pineda, and Sabathia were all potential free agents, and Severino and Montgomery were unknowns. Now, with the addition of Gray, the Yankees can build their rotation around Sevy, Monty, and Sonny in 2018 and ’19.
The Yanks are also acquiring a hot pitcher. Before his start on Thursday, Sonny had the third lowest ERA in baseball since June 25 and was on a 62.2 inning stretch where he struck out 63 batters. Like Garcia, Gray is also a ground-ball pitcher; his 54.4% ground-ball rate is the 12th best in baseball since 2013, and his 4-pitch mix make him a tough at bat for anyone.
That time Sonny Gray took David Ortiz for a ride in the batters box 💪👊 pic.twitter.com/iR0URgLoW2
Gray does come with some negatives, however. First of all, he wasn’t the best starting pitcher available. The Cubs snatched-up Jose Quintana a few weeks ago, who also had a friendly contract, and Yu Darvish went to the Dodgers. Darvish was probably the “nastiest” pitcher available, but he would have been a costly 2-month rental.
The biggest concern with Gray is his injury history. In May of 2016 he went on the DL with a strained trapezius, which can be chalked-up as a fluke muscle pull. Later that season he suffered a strained right forearm, and then had a strained right shoulder that sidelined him during the spring of this year. Gray is small compared to some other big-name pitchers, and naturally that comes with an injury stigma. The good news for the Yankees is Gray has been healthy and pitching his best baseball since returning from the DL early in 2017.
Sonny makes sense for the Yankees who are trying to compete now but still mindful of the big picture. Even though they traded a number of highly-ranked prospects to bolster their current squad (Blake Rutherford, Jorge Mateo, James Kaprelian, and Dustin Fowler), the Yankees still have the 7th-best farm system according to Baseball America. It’s good to have those Damn Yankees back.
Amidst the trade excitement was the Yankees offense disappearance over the last week. Not only did the team lose a series to the 8-games under .500 Detroit Tigers, but the offense managed to score just 2 runs runs off Anibal Sanchez and Jordan Zimmermann, who each sport ERA’s in the mid-5.00s.
The most frustrating issue with the Yankees offense is the number of runners they leave on base and in scoring position. As a team they’re leaving 3.69 men in scoring position per game, good for 5th worst in the league. Between Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday’s three losses, they went 3-for-29 with RISP and failed to produce runs from third base with less than 2-outs. Those runs could have shifted the outcome of each game.
Earlier in the season many times I wrote that the Yankees relied too heavily on the home run. I feared that once the power dried up, so would the the runs. Two of the biggest power bats in the first half for the Yankees — Aaron Judge and Matt Holliday — are in horrific slumps right now. Two other major first-half run producers — Starlin Castro and Aaron Hicks — are sidelined with injuries. Those four players combined for an insane 149.5 wRC+ in the first half of the season. In other words, collectively they were 50% better than a league average player. So far in the second half they have produced a 33 wRC+, which is categorized by FanGraphs as “awful.”
If you remove Castro and Hicks from the equation because they have barely played in the second half, you find two craters in the lineup in Judge and Holliday. Judge has a measly 67 wRC+ since the break, which is hard to imagine considering how prodigious he was in the first half. Holliday has been even worse; his -7 wRC+ is so bad it’s hard to quantify. If I have this straight, Holliday has been 7% worse than a player who is 100% worse than a league average player. He’s minus a league average player with a little 7% cherry on top. For a little context, Chris Carter managed a 73 wRC+ in the first half for the Yankees.
What does this all mean? It means the Yankees most important hitters are either hurt or stink right now. (I suppose I could have told you that to start and skipped the last two nerdy paragraphs, but I needed to lay it all out to really drive home the point.)
Clint Frazier has given the Yankees a needed boost, Chase Headley’s production has been a nice surprise, and it’s cute every time Ronald Torreyes gets a big hit, but the reality is that without the big thumpers in the middle of the order carrying the offense, the Yankees don’t score enough runs to win.