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TWiYB: This week in Yankees baseball – Week 9

It’s been mostly roses for the 2017 Yankees, but now that we’re into month three of the baseball season, a few things stand out that are of concern.

After Aaron Judge’s power numbers slowed to a more human pace, his grand slam vs Oakland last weekend reminded everyone why he’s been the best active (poor Mike Trout) player in baseball this season. It didn’t take long for fans around baseball to fall in love with Judge, as evident by his massive lead in All Star votes.

We have also yet to see Gary Sanchez bust out. While El Gary could never live up to the herculean level he set for himself last summer, we saw a glimpse of The Kraken on Thursday in Toronto.

Despite their recent struggles, the Yankees are still in first place with a 31-20 record thanks to their blazing start. Since being 21-9 they are 10-11, and currently in the middle of a very important and difficult stretch. While May was mostly spent playing teams outside of their division, Monday’s matinee in Baltimore began 13 consecutive games against AL East opponents. The Yanks have been beaten-up by Baltimore and Toronto the last three seasons, especially on the road. If the Yankees are serious about winning the AL East for the first time since 2012, it starts and ends with their division match-ups.

Check out week 8 in Yankees baseball in case you missed it.

The Bald Bash Bros

Move over McGwire and Canseco, there’s a new dynamic duo in town. The beautifully buff and bald bros, Brett Gardner and Matt Holliday, had a mini home run derby in Baltimore on Tuesday night. Matty Muscles has always been a power hitter, so his two dingers should come as no shock, but Gardner’s power surge is one of the biggest surprises of the Yankees season.

Gardner, who notched his 1,000th career base knock on Thursday, is enjoying the best season of his career. His .892 OPS is 151 points higher than his career mark. That statistic doesn’t even being to tell the whole story, however. Since April 29, when Gardy launched his first two home runs of the season, he has a ridiculous 1.082 OPS. His .325 batting average on balls in play (BAbip) is in-line with his career average of .317, which indicates his hits are no fluke. Gardner is not getting lucky on weak contact, he’s simply crushing the ball.

Aaron Judge, who Gardner’s OPS during this stretch resembles, joked after Tuesday’s game that he was tired of Brett being a slap hitter and that he always knew he was capable of hitting for power.

That little ball of muscle is helping to carry the Yankees offense. We all know Gardner is a streaky player. He’s also notoriously a first half player (his career OPS is 97 points higher in the first half of seasons). So how long will his surge last?

The easy answer is not long. While Gardner has flashed power in the past (17 and 16 HR in 2014 and 2015, respectively), this hot streak is unlike anything we’ve seen from him before. The most power he’s displayed over a short stretch was from July 23 – August 3 of 2014 when he clubbed 6 homers. Eleven in a month is a different stratosphere, though.

When Gardner stops hitting home runs (because it will stop), let’s just hope the rest of the offense, namely Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird, is back and looking more like what we all expected in 2017.

Lets talk about Hicks

I mocked Brian Cashman roughly one thousand times over the past year for comparing Aaron Hicks to Jackie Bradley Jr. 2016 was a lost season for Hicks, who had a putrid .617 OPS in sporadic playing time as the Yankees’ fourth outfielder. Meanwhile, Bradley Jr. was enjoying the best season of his career, which included a 29-game hit streak in April and May. Fast forward one year and the roles are reversed; Hicks has shined for the Yankees while Bradley is trying desperately to dig himself out of a terrible start to the season.

Was trading Hicks even on the table this offseason? Not sure the Yankees would have received anything more than some big league chew in return after his 2016, but that’s all changed now. We knew Hicks was having a great season, but Thursday’s performance, which ended with 6 RBIs, made everyone stop and notice. Hicks is now batting .317/.437/.579 with 8 homers. The biggest transformation for Hicks has been his plate discipline; his 28 walks and .437 OBP rank in the top-10 for all outfielders. Hicks, who has started in CF during Jacoby Ellsbury’s absence, is still the Yankees fourth outfielder. The only difference is he is now embracing that role.

Hicks almost won the starting right field job over Judge in spring. After a few weeks we all laughed at that because Judge was leading (and is still leading) baseball in home runs, while Hicks was quietly going about his business. Now we’re seeing what Girardi and coaches saw in Tampa this spring — a different and more confident Aaron Hicks.

When Ellsbury returns Hicks will go back to being the fourth outfielder. That does not mean he won’t still get plenty of playing time, however. We’ve been teased with Hicks fielding grounders at first base, and Girardi will still use a lefty on the mound as a chance to get Hicks in the lineup. The four outfielders are all playing above expectations, creating a good problem for the Yankees.

And don’t forget, Hicks is a great golfer too. Shoutout ARod for reminding us every time Hicks stepped to the plate.

What the hell is wrong with Tanaka?

Oh how I miss the days of debating whether or not Masahiro Tanaka is a true ace. Now the discussion has shifted to: What’s wrong with him?

In case you don’t understand how bad Tanaka has been, here are some numbers to drive the point home. After his 7 run, 9 hit performance on Wednesday, Tanaka’s ERA ballooned to 6.34 which is the 3rd-worst in Major League Baseball for all qualifying pitchers. He is tied with Bartolo Colon, who made his big league debut when Tanaka was 8-years old, for the most earned runs allowed this season at 43. His ERA+, because maybe — just maybe — Tanaka has had some back luck, is 3rd-worst in baseball. Hits allowed: 6th-worst in baseball. Opponent slugging percentage: 3rd-worst in baseball. Now you see?

There are a few scenarios being discussed as to why Tanaka has struggled so much. Here are the most popular theories:

Tanaka throws better to Austin Romine: This one got my blood boiling, which you already know if you listen to The Bronx Pinstripes Show. There are few things in baseball I hate more than pitchers needing personal catchers. I think it’s a sign of mental weakness. I know (many people told me) that Greg Maddux, an all time great, had a personal catcher. Jon Lester, who helped lead the Cubs to the World Series last year, needed a personal catcher. Mike Mussina apparently needed a personal catcher in 2008, although he didn’t need one up until then. Randy Johnson and AJ Burnett also needed one while they pitched for the Yanks. I did not, and do not, put Tanaka in the category of needing a personal catcher.

Tanaka’s numbers throwing to Sanchez vs Romine are baffling, however:

with Romine catching: 7 G, 42.1 IP, 3.19 ERA, .226/.268/.384

with Sanchez catching: 5 G, 18.1 IP, 12.27 ERA, .422/.480/.822

His pitching line throwing to Romine looks more like the Tanaka we’ve seen since 2014. While the sample size throwing to Sanchez is small and bloated from his horrendous outing vs Houston on Derek Jeter night, it is startling. But I do not think it’s the reason, or really even a factor, as to why Tanaka is struggling.

Last season Tanaka was brilliant with Sanchez behind the plate. In 7 games he had a 1.94 ERA in 46.1 IP which was actually better than his lines with Romine and Brian McCann. So what changed this year, Sanchez or Tanaka? It is simplifying things too much to say the cause of Tanaka’s struggles is the pitcher/catcher battery.

Tanaka is distracted: As we all know, Tanaka can opt-out of his contract following the season. He is owed another $67 million through 2020, but considering the lack of free agent starting pitchers this coming winter, he can do better.

Back in early April the Yankees squashed rumors about Tanaka’s contract situation and if they’d pursue him should he opt-out. Is it affecting his performance? Does he feel added pressure to be perfect to maximize his value on the open market? These are legitimate questions to ask as the season wears on and Tanaka’s contract continues to loom, but do not explain why Tanaka has been so unrecognizable this year.

Tanaka isn’t healthy: This is the most interesting scenario and the one I think holds the most weight. Cashman had a good line last week when he said “We’ve done CSI: The Bronx on him a number of times” and are convinced Tanaka is not injured. But I’m sorry, I cannot forget about Tanaka’s UCL tear and his decision to forgo Tommy John surgery in 2014. Since then Yankees fans have been waiting for the other shoe to drop. It almost did in 2015 when Tanaka went on the DL with wrist and forearm soreness, and again last year when his season ended one start too early because of a strained flexor mass in his elbow.

The first thing people point to when a Tanaka injury is brought up is velocity. Look, he’s still throwing in the mid-90s! I think Aroldis Chapman proved you can still throw hard when injured. Just use the eye test — Tanaka’s pitches don’t have the same life and are getting hit harder than ever before. Don’t like the eye test? Here’s some actual proof:

According to FanGraphs, Tanaka’s two best pitches are his splitter and slider. From 2014-16 he threw those pitches 58% of the time. This season he is throwing them a combined 47% of the time, while relying more on his 4-seam fastball which is getting pounded. He is also missing location badly with the heater, which leads to more deep counts and meatballs in the middle of the strike zone.

Right handed hitters, who have been eaten-up by Tanaka’s split and slider in the past, are now slugging a hefty .599 off him while lefties have a nice round .500 slugging percentage. Tanaka has always been bitten by the home run, but they were usually solo shots because of his impeccable command. This year he’s allowing more baserunners which are leading to back-breaking home runs like we saw vs Houston and in Baltimore.

The main questions I have are: Why is Tanaka throwing his two best pitches less often? And why is he missing location with his fastball more than usual?

Two weeks ago the Yankees said Tanaka’s issue was mechanical. He shifted to the third base side of the rubber and that did nothing. I get that mechanical issues can’t be solved over night, but could these mysterious mechanical issues be caused by an injury of some sort? Could an injury be preventing him from fixing them? Is it affecting his command or making him rely on the 4-seam fastball? Those issues, not who is catching him or his contract situation, are why Tanaka has been the Yankees worst pitcher in 2017.

 

Follow me on Twitter: @Andrew_Rotondi

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