SSTN Weekly Mailbag: Volpe, IKF, And Starting Pitching!
So let me get this straight: I'm gone for a little more than two weeks, and everyone and their mother is on the IL and the team almost completely forgot how to hit a baseball? I'm not vain enough to think that the Yankees' struggles are the baseball gods' response to my inability to watch the team for most of the month of April, but if I didn't know better...it sure looks like it. Teams go through slumps, so the recent lack of offense in and of itself doesn't really concern me yet. What is getting to me is the giant swath of injured Yankees.
More than any fundamental disagreement with roster building strategy, my contention has been that the number one reason the Yankees have not been more competitive in their pursuit of a World Series title since 2019 is injury prevention and management. The Yankees seemingly have made real efforts to amend their personnel and internal policies around training and injury management, yet the problems have remained, much to the team's detriment particularly last season and early on this year.
As a Yankee fan, I can stomach it if the Yankees put a good team on the field and someone else just beats them. What is getting old and tired is constantly having to wonder, "what if the Yankees had a healthy roster?" I am often deferential in terms of personnel decisions, because the team has far more knowledge and data than anyone on the outside could possibly have. Where the team consistently fails is managing injuries.
Case and point: Aaron Judge came out of last night's game with hip discomfort, everyone's worst nightmare. But what did I read immediately following the game? That the Yankees were not going to send Aaron Judge for an MRI just yet. HUH?!?!?!? The Yankees just spent $360 million on their franchise centerpiece, and they're going to guess that he's going to be OK????? They did that a few years ago with Luis Severino, declining to immediately force him into the MRI tube...how did that work out? The Yanks lost Sevy likely for one additional season than needed. We can argue about roster building, but decisions like this continue to sink the Yankees, and I see zero growth on that front in the last 5-10 years. It's very frustrating.
Without any further huffing and puffing, thanks as always for your fantastic questions, and keep sending them in to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com (my feet are back on the ground for a while, so we shouldn't have any more disruptions). In this week's SSTN Mailbag, we'll talk about the Yankees' treatment of Anthony Volpe, Isiah Kiner-Falefa's early season usage, and the starting rotation! Let's get at it:
Larry asks: What do you think about the Yankees putting Anthony Volpe in the leadoff spot so early in the season? He didn't do anything to earn the spot and its a lot of pressure for a young kid.
We often like to think about sports as a meritocracy, but evidence abounds that it's just not the case. After all, Aaron Hicks is getting playing time on the current Yankees despite a lackluster effort (to put it lightly) and even worse results. Sports meritocracies rarely exist, so I think we should just get that idea out of our head in order to have a realistic conversation about Volpe's early season usage.
Obviously, I'm answering this question a couple of weeks after it was initially asked, so this answer might seem like a case of hindsight being 20/20, but I loved the idea to have Volpe hit lead-off. Realistically, the Yankees only had two options other than Volpe to bat lead-off: DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres. LeMahieu makes gobs of contact, but he still has enough pop that it's a bit wasteful to hit him in front of everyone. Torres has shown good patience this season, but again, his profile is not exactly an ideal fit for the lead-off spot. The lead-off hitter's job is to work counts, get on-base, and get into scoring position for the lineup's best hitters. Volpe was known in the minors for his ability to work counts, make excellent swing decisions, and he has shown in his limited MLB appearances that he can draw walks and steal bases. The other factor I liked was that batting Volpe lead-off would give Volpe a very specific job description at the plate early in his career, which on some level simplifies his approach at the plate, which frankly seemed a bit wild in the first two weeks of the season.
Batting 9th in 2023, Volpe batted .167/.302/.222, with one triple and a .525 OPS. Since moving to the lead-off spot, Volpe has hit .277/.393/.447, with 2 homers, 2 doubles, 2 stolen bases, and an .840 OPS. He just looks at home in that spot, and much like Spring Training, where he took the bull by the horns and grabbed the SS job, Volpe has risen to the occasion when given a job.
Sometimes, regardless of initial performance, you have to evaluate talent and put that talent in the best situation to succeed. For once, the Yankees have done that with Volpe, and it helps the rest of the lineup balance out nicely. LeMahieu, rather than being relied on up top to get on base, can drive runs in batting 5th, and Torres can either bat in the top of the order, or when everyone is healthy, add real depth to the bottom half of the order.
Volpe has proven that the Yankees can ask him to shoulder a load; nothing in his profile gives me pause about the Yankees giving him more responsibility early in his career.
Steve asks: What do you think about all of the playing time IKF is getting in CF?
I wish Bader was healthy so we could see less of IKF in the lineup, but if IKF is going to play, I actually think CF is his best position. I know that IKF has only played CF since Spring Training, but he appears to be a natural out there, and the early stats prove as much.
IKF has been brutal at 3B in a super small sample size, but Statcast credits him with 1 OAA and 3% Success Rate Added as a centerfielder. That matches my eye test. Additionally, IKF has already beaten his previous MLB-high for arm strength, throwing a ball 87.5 MPH, which is solid for someone in CF. CF gives a player more time to gather and load on a throw, something that IKF needs, and I think the position allows him to maximize whatever arm strength he has and utilizes his athleticism well.
I really don't see the point of playing IKF at 3B right now (or anywhere else on the infield, for that matter), given that the Yankees should do everything they can to see if the combination of Peraza, Cabrera, and DJ LeMahieu can be the answer there, allowing them to DFA Donaldson (probably a pipe dream, but a guy can dream, right?).
When Bader is healthy, I think IKF is a fine backup centerfielder who can put the bat on the ball at the bottom of the order, pinch run, or spell multiple infield positions in a pinch. That's a great role for him when everyone else gets healthy, and I think the only reason he's playing this much now is that the Yankees are so banged up.
Mike asks: The starting rotation outside of Nestor Cortes and Gerrit Cole has not been good, with the exception of two good starts from Jhony Brito. How would you handle the rotation going forward?
Options for the rotation have dwindled here in the early offing. Matt Krook and Deivi Garcia have been used out of the bullpen almost exclusively at Scranton (and both have been excellent generally, I might add), Randy Vasquez continues to be maddeningly inconsistent, though he still flashes the ability to be a good starter, Mitch Spence has been awful, and I don't think Clayton Beeter could be expected to work more than once through a batting order, as good as his stuff is.
So right now...I think the Yankees are stuck with what they have. I believe in Brito, and think he just needs to make an adjustment or two. Domingo German is who he is, and I don't see that changing.
The wildcard is Clarke Schmidt. If he can prove to be a 5-and-dive guy, who pitches well in those 5 innings, I think this rotation looks much more formidable until Rodon and Sevy return. I am skeptical of Schmidt's ability to start; always have been, and nothing I've seen thus far is moving me off of that opinion. However, maybe he can catch lightning in a bottle for a month or two, before the Yankees hopefully move him back to the bullpen. Without a depth move, the Yankees are stuck with the guys they have right now, which could be worse, but I think we are all hoping for better performances from Schmidt and Brito moving forward.