SSTN Weekly Mailbag: Hicks’ Struggles, Early Returns on Kluber And Taillon, And A Chapman Trad
By Andy Singer
Well, you can’t say that the first week and change of the season hasn’t been interesting. As much as I tend to be the guy at SSTN that takes a much longer range view of the team’s prospects, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little frustrated with what I’ve seen so far. Stunningly, Jay Bruce is every bit as bad at first base as I thought he’d be…and I was the low man on his defense. We’ve learned to live with generally poor defense from Luke Voit and Mike Ford at first base over the last couple of years (and before that Greg Bird, who wasn’t good defensively either), but Bruce is at least one or two orders of magnitude worse. Off the top of my head without any real analysis, I can think of 4-5 outs that he’s cost the team in a really short span of time. He doesn’t come close to providing enough offensively to make up for defense that poor, so the Yanks need to find another alternative, quickly. I also admit that I’m finally worried about Gleyber at SS, though if he can fix the throwing issues, I think the Yanks can find ways to cover for his limited range through clever positioning. I don’t like the sidearm angle he’s taking with a lot of throws, and I hope it doesn’t mean he’s hiding an injury…more likely though, I think he’s trying to hard to steer the ball as opposed to trusting his mechanics to do the work. Beyond that, the offense just isn’t clicking on all cylinders yet, but I’m not worried about it…yet. In the good news department, the pitching staff looks as good as I thought it could, and that bodes well for rest-of-season performance. Let’s keep our chins up and hope the short storm will pass in due time.
As always, thanks for the great questions, and keep them coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. In this week’s SSTN Mailbag, we’ll talk about Aaron Hicks’ struggles, early returns on Kluber and Taillon, and evaluate a trade proposal involving Aroldis Chapman. Let’s get at it:
Brad asks: Aaron Hicks looks really lost at the plate and there’s no way he should be batting 3rd right now. What can the Yankees do about it?
I am among the growing number of fans that believes that batting Aaron Hicks in the 3-hole is less than optimal. When he’s hot, I think there are worse guys that you could bat 3rd, but if we’re being brutally honest, the only reason Hicks is batting 3rd is to give the top of the order a little balance against right-handed pitching while putting a hitter that eats pitches between Judge and Stanton in the order. That fact was proven definitively when Brett Gardner (!) batted 3rd in a game earlier this week. My ideal lineup has Hicks batting 1st, but that’s neither here nor there.
Hicks’ approach has been very passive at least since he returned from his back injury in 2019. He was always selective at the plate, but Hicks has really doubled down on that approach in recent seasons, and it means that when he struggles, he turns into a “three true outcomes” hitter that doesn’t have enough power to justify the outcomes. Can the Yankees tweak his approach at the very beginning of the year? I’m not sure that’s advisable, since he has proven that he can have some success with the approach, which is good enough to make him a plus player when he plays good defense in CF. A change in approach this early could really tank him at the plate while damaging his confidence, which will only lead to an extension of lost at-bats.
Right now, I think adjusting the lineup to get Hicks in a better frame of mind might help more than removing him from the lineup. The unorthodox thing to do that might help would be to move him up in the order. Bat Hicks first in the lineup so that he has to get on-base by any means necessary. That will get him thinking like a hitter again, rather than as someone who needs to eat pitches between Judge and Stanton. The other move that could probably achieve similar goals would be to bat Hicks ninth in the order, and move Frazier, Torres, Urshela, and Sanchez up in some order. As we saw with Gary Sanchez in 2020, drastic early moves to give players a breather can have really disastrous impacts on a player’s confidence, and it’s too early to do that with Hicks.
Boone should put Hicks in position to just read and react at the plate to get him going again.
Brian asks: What did you think of Kluber and Taillon’s first starts?
I like starting with good news first, so I’m going to start with Taillon. I didn’t get to see all of Taillon’s start due to some obligations with my day job, but from the 3 innings I watched on replay in the middle of the night, I was very impressed with Taillon’s first MLB start in 700+ days. Most importantly, when the pressure and adrenaline of real games hit, all of Taillon’s mechanical adjustments stuck, which I think is going to be huge for his health and delivery repeatability. Taillon planted four-seam fastballs at the top of the zone with consistency, and used both his slider and curve to good results low and away from righties. I think both pitches will be real weapons this season, even though it’s rare to see a pitcher succeed with both a slider and a curve in their repertoire. Both pitches can be effective because Taillon throws them from similar arm slots, which hides his intent well. Taillon looks like his strikeout rate is primed to increase significantly from previous results in 2021. I really didn’t care that Taillon didn’t go deep into the game; I was way more concerned about seeing the quality of his stuff and his demeanor on the mound. Taillon passed with flying colors.
Kluber was about what I expected to see: a veteran pitcher with diminished velocity who uses guile and good breaking stuff to work his way in and out of trouble. Grading on a curve due to the fact that it was really cold out on the day of Kluber’s first start, I thought Kluber was great. However, I’m a bit concerned that Kluber struggled so mightily with locating his fastball. To me, it wasn’t an issue where Kluber couldn’t spot the pitch; he was that afraid of throwing pitches in the strike zone. That tells me that Kluber didn’t fully trust his stuff. I’ll be watching closely this afternoon when he faces the Rays to see if he still looks afraid to throw strikes.
Oscar asks: Trade Proposal – Aroldis Chapman to the San Diego Diego Padres for Jurickson Profar.
As much as relievers on large, long-term deals have lost value over the last few years, this trade is woefully short on value. Profar is basically a position-less rover who can do some good things at the plate and on the basepaths. I really like Profar, don’t get me wrong! But Profar likely could have been obtained for a song this offseason, and the Yanks didn’t bite. After shoulder injuries, Profar likely shouldn’t play SS anymore, so he’s basically a 2B/1B/OF at this stage.
The Yankee bullpen is thinner than in years’ past, so I think the team has to keep Chapman for now. Much as I was in favor of finding a deal for him in the past, I think his new splitter will keep him valuable for a little longer than I originally expected. Chapman is here to stay for awhile.