Not The Weekly Mailbag: Injuries, Injuries…and Injuries
By Andy Singer
James Paxton Is Headed For The MRI Tube – Photo Courtesy of Andy Marlin, USA TODAY Sports
Just as Yankee fans were getting ready to sit back and watch the Yankees dominate their way through the remaining regular season schedule, 2020 decided to give us a 2019 throwback. It’s bad enough that the Yankees were thoroughly beaten by the Rays in this week’s sweep, bringing the Rays to within a half-game of the Yankees in the AL East, but the Yankees are now missing seemingly half of their roster in the blink of an eye. The Yankees may have one of the deepest rosters in baseball, but a team can only withstand so many injuries to the core of its lineup and pitching staff. As much fun as the 2019 season proved to be, the Yankees’ ability to withstand an astronomical number of injuries en route to an AL East title was driven by a fair amount of luck. While it may be possible to find some silver linings in the current spate of injuries through which the Yankees have endured, it remains an overall depressing week to be a Yankee fan.
Let’s take a look at the rundown:
Judge and Stanton
I want to start with some of the silver linings, because it only gets worse from here. On first glance, Judge and Stanton’s absence would seem to be the greatest detriments to the Yankees’ ability to win. Stanton was raking to begin the year, reminding Yankee fans of the guy that terrorized NL pitchers throughout his time with the Marlins. Stanton produced 185 OPS+ in 54 plate appearances with 3 HR. That’s the part that immediately jumps out, but more importantly, Stanton looked far more comfortable and disciplined at the plate than he had in years past, with a BB/K ratio that was nearly even at 10/11. According to Statcast, despite seeing an increased percentage of breaking balls from opposing pitchers in 2020 versus historical norms, Stanton has been more patient that at any previous time in his career, seeing his chase rate drop from 28+% in his first two years in pinstripes to 17.2%, while being a touch more passive on 1st pitches. Taken as a whole, I think it would have been reasonable to expect Stanton to continue with an All-Star caliber campaign out of the DH slot.
I don’t think I need to explain Judge’s place on the roster to anyone. Judge is in the inner-circle of players in the entire league when he’s healthy and playing regularly, as was the case to begin the season. Judge displayed typically excellent defense in RF, and while he was somewhat different at the plate from previous seasons, he was as good as he’s been since 2017. Judge was pulling the ball in more than 50% of plate appearances (up roughly 12-14% over historical norms) while displaying an aggressive approach at the plate, walking just 3 times in 68 plate appearances. It all added up to a torrid, MVP-caliber start for Judge, producing 9 HR and 1.2 bWAR.
So, where’s the silver lining? Certainly, we’d rather see Judge and Stanton in the lineup, but the Yankees should be pleased to find that they have every bit as much outfield depth as we projected prior to the start of the season. Mike Tauchman remains an excellent 4th outfielder, who could likely start for a non-championship caliber team. Tauchman shows good plate discipline, solid defense, and runs the bases really well with above-average speed. In fact, Tauchman has already added 5 stolen bases in this short season, adding a much needed dimension for this team.
Even more impressive has been Clint Frazier. Despite the fact that I’ve written in the past about Frazier’s likely projection as a solid, but unspectacular starter, I’ve always really liked the way he plays the game. I’ve secretly wanted Frazier to get a significant opportunity with the team to prove me (and others) wrong, and thus far, he’s doing just that. In just 30 plate appearances, Clint Frazier has already accumulated 0.5 bWAR. Even in a small sample size, he has shown significant growth at the plate. There was a lot of talk prior to the season about the mechanical adjustment Frazier made to his batting stance prior to the season, closing his stance significantly in an attempt to keep his eye in line with the pitcher and ball longer. This is one of the rare instances in which we are seeing the fruit of such a change. Frazier has been a different hitter this year, swinging a little less at pitches in the zone, but making contact on a whopping 90.9% of swings in the strike zone, up from career rates in the high-70s coming into the season. Frazier has also been much less aggressive on the first pitch, with his swing rate down on such pitches by almost 10%. Frazier’s 188 OPS+ and 2 HR is backed-up by the lowest K% of his career (15.4%, well below league-average) and the highest average exit velocity of his career at 93.6 MPH. To put the cherry on top, Frazier’s adventures in the outfield have been documented many times previously, but he has seemingly overcome some of those struggles this year. Both the eye test and the early metrics tell us that Frazier has been at least average defensively, if not better.
Judge should return as soon as his IL stint is finished, while we likely won’t see Stanton until mid-September. The Yankees certainly miss Judge and Stanton, but Tauchman and Frazier have been excellent in their stead.
Now, we start getting to the hard stuff. There is no replacing DJLM in the Yankee lineup. He plays great defense, and is one of the few modern hitters who could legitimately hit .400 in a shortened season. The lineup has a significant hole up at the top when LeMahieu isn’t around.
His replacements, Thairo Estrada and Tyler Wade, are fine defensively. Offense is another story. It’s time for me to admit that Tyler Wade is not likely to ever hit MLB pitching consistently. I’ve been about as big a Tyler Wade fan as there is out there given the impact he could have on the bases if he made contact and walked a lot, but I just don’t see any progression in that department.
Estrada is a fine ballplayer, who will likely eventually start for a 2nd-division team. Estrada slashes line drives, but really doesn’t walk much, and strikes out too often for his limited power profile. As much as I like Estrada, no one will confuse him for LeMahieu.
The Yankees will be without LeMahieu through early September, at least. It’s going to feel like a long wait.
Gleyber’s likely replacements are the same cast of characters that are filling in for DJLM. We don’t know yet how bad Torres’ hamstring injury is yet, as MRI results are not due back until later today, but even though Gleyber has struggled this year, the drop-off from Gleyber to Estrada or Wade is huge. My fingers are crossed that Torres is merely day-to-day.
Britton was a rock in the bullpen in Chapman’s absence, picking up 8 saves and stabilizing the back of the Yankee bullpen. Just in time for Chapman’s return, Britton is on the 10-day IL with a hamstring strain. As much as I have advocated for seeing the collection of high-octane Yankee kids in a variety of bullpen roles this season, there’s no question but that losing Britton is a real loss.
The Yankees will have to see if some collection of Luis Cessa, Nick Nelson, Ben Heller, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Jonathan Holder can fill the Britton’s shoes next to Green, Ottavino, and Chapman.
2020 could not be a worse year for James Paxton. He has struggled mightily on the hill this year following back surgery earlier this Spring while seeing a stunning drop in velocity. I’ll include the graph, because it’s disturbing to even look at:
James Paxton Average Pitch Velocity, Courtesy of Baseball Savant (Click to Enlarge)
That’s what 3.3 MPH of velocity loss looks like. I have opined previously that Paxton must be nursing an un-diagnosed injury…it upsets me that I was right. Following yesterday’s start, Paxton is stepping into the MRI tube to take a look at his elbow and forearm.
I can’t help but wonder how the shutdown affected Paxton this year. Paxton rehabbed back surgery away from Yankee trainers and medical staff, and returned with decreased velocity and with mechanical issues related to his stride and release. Anything I could say is speculation, but it certainly makes sense that arm injuries can occur if mechanics aren’t monitored closely in a large human’s recovery from relatively serious surgery. I’m not blaming Paxton here; I really feel for the guy. I think Paxton is a victim of circumstance.
Obviously, we don’t know how serious the injury is yet, but it sure sounds ominous. I’ve written previously that we can’t count on Paxton for anything this year, and I stand by that statement. The Yankees need to supplement the rotation, fast. Clarke Schmidt is a good start, and I expect his call-up any hour now. The Yankees also need to get involved in the trade market, as much as one exists, to supplement the rotation.