TAMPA, Fla. — Giancarlo Stanton said it best the other day: These six weeks in spring training are about getting ready for the real entertainment — the 162 games that begin on March 29.
But spring training is entertaining as well! You should go! Take a vacation, quit your job, drop out of school, bring your dog, do whatever it takes. In particular, get down to George Steinbrenner Field. The Yankees have a new manager, a new slugger and some exciting young kids fighting for jobs. Before you start sweating those Gary Sanchez mound visits in the regular season, there is must-see action taking place in Florida as the Yankees kick off their spring schedule Friday against the Tigers.
Here’s what the Bronx Bombers have going on in the Grapefruit League:
Stanton and Aaron Judge taking their first cuts
It all starts with these sultans of swat. Stanton hit 59 home runs last year with the Marlins, while Judge hit 52 as a rookie. Can they challenge the record for home runs by teammates? Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle combined for 115 home runs in 1961 with the Yankees. That might seem like a possibility, but the over/under betting line in Vegas is only 87½, suggesting it’s a long shot to get to 115. Remember, the only players to hit 50-plus home runs in consecutive seasons are Babe Ruth, Ken Griffey Jr. and three players tainted by performance-enhancing-drug allegations — Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez.
Take the over. Even if spring home runs don’t count.
Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar fighting to make the Opening Day roster
We love rookies! Torres is Keith Law’s No. 5 prospect and Andujar is No. 54. While the trade for Brandon Drury makes it less likely the Yankees open with both rookies in the infield — GM Brian Cashman indicated the primary intent is to play Drury at third base — it should make for some intriguing competition.
“I think they’re both going to be tremendous players,” manager Aaron Boone said Tuesday. “I love who they are. You can tell they enjoy being on the baseball field. You can tell they’re confident in their ability, the way they move around, yet there’s a humility about them.”
Torres is healthy after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing elbow last summer. While he said he feels “like a little kid with a new toy,” he has also played just 55 games above Class-A and last played on June 17. There could be some rust, so some time in Triple-A wouldn’t be a surprise, even aside from the issue of keeping him in the minors for service-time reasons.
“Performance matters to a degree, but it’s a super small sample size … so I feel like if either one of those guys were to make our Opening Day roster, it would be clear in our eyes and probably somewhat of a consensus that there’s no denying these guys belong on the club,” Boone said.
The outfield defensive alignment playing out
OK, you want to watch Judge and Stanton hit, not play the field. But defense is important, too, and you can’t play two right fielders. Plus, they’re both good defenders, and not just in the proverbial “he moves really well for a guy that big” sense. Both ranked in the top five in the majors in defensive runs saved in 2017.
This much we know: While Stanton and Judge have both joked about playing center field — “You know, I’m primarily a center fielder,” Judge cracked, referring to his college days — Boone said that’s one thing we won’t see. What does pain Boone is moving one of them from right field. “I struggle with the fact that we’re taking any or both of them out of their comfort zone if we flirt with left field,” he said.
Boone has hinted that Brett Gardner, who played 151 games last season, might sit a little more often against lefties after hitting .209/.299/.291 against them last season. When Gardner doesn’t start or when Sanchez DHs, Judge or Stanton will have to play left. Best guess: Given Stanton’s history of injuries, he spends more time at DH than Judge, and when he plays the field, he goes to right field with Judge playing left.
Then there’s Jacoby Ellsbury, the fifth wheel in the four-man outfield/DH setup. Considering that Boone said “Aaron Hicks became a dude last year,” the implication seems to be that Hicks is the starting center fielder. So come watch Aaron Hicks be a dude.
Boone beginning to fill out the lineup card
Here’s the thing with spring lineups: Don’t pay too much attention to them, especially early on. We know Stanton thrived in the 2-hole with the Marlins in 2017, slugging .675 in 110 games batting second. Judge’s best numbers also came when he was hitting second. Boone said the plan is to have one hit second every game — we just don’t know which one.
“That’s one thing that’s a starting point for me,” Boone said. “Whether that’s Giancarlo or whether that’s Aaron, that remains to be seen. We’ll see how it shakes out. But obviously similar skill sets, the ability to get on base with the high power. I definitely like one of them in the 2-hole, most or all the time.”
Educated guess: Judge hits second, Stanton third and Sanchez cleanup. Judge had the higher on-base percentage and is the better baserunner, so if he’s going to draw 100-plus walks again, hitting in front of Stanton makes sense. But there’s no wrong decision here. It’s also possible Boone breaks up the three righties by hitting Greg Bird or Didi Gregorius cleanup.
Dellin Betances searching for the strike zone
This Yankees bullpen is illegal in 17 states, but Betances almost has to prove himself all over again this spring. The big right-hander made his fourth straight All-Star team, but he had trouble throwing strikes, with 44 walks in 59⅔ innings. Not only was he wild, but it was the lightest workload of his career. By the end of the 2017 season, he was so low on then-manager Joe Girardi’s pecking order that he pitched just one inning in the American League Championship Series. Betances admitted he entered last season in a bad frame of mind after losing his arbitration case (and hearing team president Randy Levine call him a “victim” in a scheme to get non-closers paid more than fair market value).
Still, Betances is a dominant presence and had the sixth-highest strikeout rate among relievers. For his career, he has averaged 14.4 K’s per nine innings, and batters hit just .141 off him in 2017. Of course they hit only .141! A 6-foot-8 monster throwing 99 mph who didn’t always know where the ball was going. So come to Steinbrenner Field to see whether Betances is earning his way into Boone’s trust.
The next generation of Yankees starters climbing the mound
The rotation is pretty much set — Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray, CC Sabathia and Jordan Montgomery in some order — but nobody makes it through a season with five starters, so spring training will be an opportunity for some of the young starters to make an impression. Chad Green will be stretched out as a starter, but his best role remains as a multi-inning weapon, so that leaves a young wave of potential starters: Chance Adams, Luis Cessa, Domingo German, Domingo Acevedo and Justus Sheffield. That could be the Triple-A rotation — one better than, say, the Miami Marlins will run out there.
Sheffield was having none of that idea. “I want to pitch in the Bronx,” he told me. Sheffield is a baseball rat, a kid who Tim Naehring, the team’s VP of baseball operations, said has the “it” factor. Sheffield is a lefty with a three-pitch arsenal and fastball touching 96 in the Arizona Fall League. He pitched in Double-A last year and could be in the majors quickly when his command improves.
Boone’s managerial style taking shape
As Boone has constantly stressed, spring is about getting individual players ready for the regular season. We already know he’s going to be much more personable than Girardi and make a stronger connection to the players — that’s why he was hired in the first place. He’s going to rely on and trust his coaching staff. The real test will come when the real games start and a player is unhappy about his playing time, or when Boone uses a certain reliever instead of another and gets criticized for that decision. Until then, everybody is happy and ready to play some ball.
Toronto Blue Jays to again make temporary home in Buffalo, report says
After two months in Florida, the vagabond Toronto Blue Jays are again ready to take flight in June and make their temporary home in Buffalo, New York, according to a report.
The Blue Jays will return to Sahlen Field on June 1 against the Miami Marlins, Sportsnet reported Wednesday. They played the first two months of the season at TD Ballpark — their spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida — because of Canadian government restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.
Toronto last played at home at Rogers Centre, with its 49,000-person capacity, on Sept. 29, 2019.
The Blue Jays played home games during the shortened 2020 season at Sahlen Field — home of their Buffalo Bisons Triple-A farm team — and went 17-9. The Canadian government didn’t allow the team to play at home because of the risk of spreading COVID-19 due to frequent travel required during a baseball season.
The Blue Jays, who have 10 games remaining in Dunedin, are 14-14 and are in fourth place in the AL East through Tuesday’s games.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Where does Atlanta Braves pitcher Huascar Ynoa’s big night rank among other pitchers who rake?
If only all these position players could hit as well as Atlanta Braves pitcher Huascar Ynoa, we wouldn’t be hyperventilating about the feeble state of batting averages across the major leagues. The 22-year-old right-hander has now homered in consecutive starts, including a grand slam in Tuesday’s 6-1 victory over the Nationals. Two starts ago, he doubled and hit an RBI single. He’s 5-for-13 for the season with a .385 average and six RBIs.
He has more home runs and RBIs than Francisco Lindor, as many RBIs as Mookie Betts, more home runs than DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres combined. He’s scored as many runs as Starlin Castro and Miguel Cabrera. Heck, since April, Ynoa is 5-for-8 with three extra-base hits while his MVP teammate Freddie Freeman is 8-for-41 with three extra-base hits.
Not bad for a guy who had three professional at-bats entering the season, all in the minors in 2019 (he struck out all three times).
Facing hard-throwing Nationals reliever Tanner Rainey on Tuesday with two outs, the bases loaded and Atlanta up 2-0 in the sixth inning, Ynoa crushed an 0-1, 95-mph fastball 427 feet to center field, finishing with a one-handed follow through worthy of Manny Machado. He crossed home plate with a big smile on his face.
“Truth be told, I put a lot of work on my hitting spring training. I put a lot of emphasis on it,” Ynoa said through a translator after the game.
He said he’s not swinging for the fences, though.
“All I’m trying to do is get on base and let the real hitters do their thing. Obviously, even though that one felt good, it’s the same mentality. I’m just going up there trying to get a hit.”
Ynoa’s grand slam was the first by a pitcher since Anthony DeSclafani in June 2018. He’s the first pitcher to homer in back-to-back starts since Steven Matz in September 2018.
Ynoa wasn’t the only pitcher to do damage at the plate on Tuesday. White Sox starter Dylan Cease, playing an interleague game in Cincinnati, went 3-for-3 while also striking out 11 batters and allowing only one hit in six scoreless innings. He joins Jarrod Washburn as the only American League pitchers with a three-hit game since the introduction of interleague play and is the first AL pitcher with three hits and at least 10 strikeouts since Sam McDowell in 1969.
And he did it in the first at-bats of his professional career.
Cease didn’t even have his own hitting equipment — he used Jose Abreu‘s bat and Adam Engel‘s batting gloves. He said he hadn’t seen live pitching since his senior year of high school, which would have been back in 2014, so understandably he was more thrilled with his hitting than his pitching.
Career 1.000 BA and 1.500 SLG%. Is Dylan Cease the best hitter in Major League history? We’re just asking the question. pic.twitter.com/21R2osFDtA
— Chicago White Sox (@whitesox) May 5, 2021
As fun as the hitting results were, these are two young starters who need to perform on the mound to help their teams to the postseason. Ynoa wasn’t necessarily penciled into the rotation in the offseason, but with Mike Soroka injured at the outset of the season, he beat out Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson for the fifth spot in the rotation. He’s 3-1 with a 2.36 ERA with an impressive 38-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 34.1 innings.
The key: Throwing strikes. He averaged 4.1 walks per nine innings in his minor league career and walked 13 in 21 innings for the Braves last season. “He’s a big strong kid,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said after the game. “He has no fear and he has weapons. That’s a pretty good combination.”
Cease made 26 starts in 2019 and 2020, and while he had a 4.01 ERA last season, the underlying numbers were not good. He led the AL in walks and served up 12 home runs in 58.1 innings, with a poor 1.29 strikeout-to-walk ratio. After failing to go five innings in his first four starts, he’s now had back-to-back scoreless outings after throwing a seven-inning shutout against the Tigers in his previous star. Again, the key is throwing strikes: he’s had 20 strikeouts and just three walks in his past two games. Yes, the Tigers are a hapless bunch, but the Reds entered the game leading the majors in runs per game.
Still, it’s the hitting highlights that have us talking about these two — and it’s a reminder that this is likely the last season we’ll get to talk about pitchers hitting, at least other than Shohei Ohtani. It’s expected the designated hitter will return to the National League in 2022 and while we will lose moments like Ynoa and Cease provided on Tuesday, here’s where I remind you that pitchers are batting .108 this season and have struck out in over 46% of their plate appearances. Take out the sacrifice hits and that percentage trickles over 50%.
But it’s a good night to get nostalgic about memorable moments in pitcher hitting. Here are my 10 favorites, in no particular order:
1. Tony Cloninger: Two grand slams in one game
Cloninger went 3-for-5 with nine RBIs for the Braves in a 1966 game – which is tied with Adam Duvall for the franchise record for RBIs in one game. Cloninger was a pretty good hitting pitcher, hitting .192 with 11 home runs in his career (five in 1966).
2. Rick Wise: No-hitter AND two home runs
Talk about doing it yourself. Wise no-hit the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati and drove in three of the Phillies’ four runs in a 4-0 victory in a 1971 game. Wise hit .237 with six home runs that season.
3. Earl Wilson: Twice hit seven home runs in a season
A solid starter for the Red Sox and Tigers in the 1960s with 121 career wins, Wilson was one of the best hitting pitchers of all time, with a .195 average but 35 home runs in 740 at-bats. He hit .240/.299/.500 in 1966 with seven home runs and 22 RBIs and then hit .227 with seven home runs and 17 RBIs in 1968 (the Year of the Pitcher).
4. Jim Tobin: Three home runs in one game
The only pitcher to hit three in one game, Tobin did it on May 13, 1942 for the Boston Braves in a 6-5 victory over the Cubs.
5. Walter Johnson: .433 average in 1925
Arguably the greatest pitcher of all time, Johnson’s .433 average is the highest ever for a pitcher in a season (I set a cutoff of 50 plate appearances). More remarkably, it came when he was 37 years old.
6. Dave McNally: World Series grand slam
The only pitcher to hit a grand slam in the World Series, McNally home run came for the Orioles against the Reds in Game 3 in 1970. Interestingly, the only other pitcher grand slam in postseason history came 10 days earlier from Orioles teammate Mike Cuellar.
7. Terry Forster: .397 career average
David Letterman made him famous when he once called the longtime reliever a “fat tab of goo,” but Forster could hit – not that he got many opportunities. Over 16 seasons, he went 31-for-78, although he never hit a home run. He put the ball in play, striking out just nine times in 86 plate appearances.
8. Wes Ferrell: Nine home runs in 1931
A six-time 20-game winner, Ferrell is regarded as the best hitting pitcher of all time, non-Babe Ruth or Ohtani division. He hit .280 in his career with 38 home runs, including a .319/.373/.621 line in 1931 with nine home runs and 30 RBIs.
9. Mike Hampton: seven home runs in 2001
Probably the best hitting pitcher of recent decades, Hampton hit .311 for the Astros in 1999, .291 with seven home runs for the Rockies in 2001 (three of those on road, FYI), .344 for the Rockies in 2002 and even .324 in his last full season with the Astros in 2009. He hit .246 with 16 home runs in his career. Madison Bumgarner has more home runs (19 to 16), but he’s hit .177.
And finally, No. 10, the greatest hitting moment ever for a pitcher … you know what’s coming …
You know, given the way the Mets are hitting in 2021, maybe it’s time to bring a certain slugger out of retirement.
New York Yankees fans bring inflatable trash cans, costumes and more in first chance to boo Houston Astros
Many New York Yankees fans spent the pandemic searching for an outlet to express their anger over the trash can-banging scheme of the Houston Astros. On Tuesday night, with Houston making its first trip to the Bronx since news of the scandal broke, fans finally received their chance to rain boos down on the 2017 World Series champions.
Here are the stories behind some of the signs and sights from fans, finally able to express the resentment that has boiled up over the past year in quarantine. It didn’t hurt that New York won, 7-3.
“New York never forgets”
Jack Turner (pictured left): “They got away with no fans last year, but New York is coming out tonight. New York never forgets.”
Jack Genesi: “It’s a collective hate against the Astros and it definitely even goes deeper into the integrity of the game. They affected a lot of players outside of them cheating. It goes deeper than just winning the World Series. We brought a trash can lid that they took away at the game because they said it could be used as a weapon.”
“We want to beat the cheaters”
Chico Heano: “It’s plastic (the trash can necklace) and security let me have it. That’s what they were doing when they were getting signals when they were playing, so we wanted to show that we can do signals too. I come here every night and every game but I had to be here tonight for sure because we want to beat the cheaters. We got it from a store that was selling them. I got it in some place in the Bronx. Some girl got it for me.”
“I have been waiting to go to this game for over a year and a half”
A passionate Yankees fan wears an Oscar the Grouch costume complete with trash can so he can bang on it while the Astros are batting. Sadly, the fan was not allowed into the stadium with the costume.
David Taub (pictured at center, holding sign up): “The costume came from Amazon. It was about $90 and I ordered it and it was three weeks in backorder so I made sure to order it early. I had this game penciled in for a long time. Since the schedule came out. I have been waiting to go to this game for over a year and a half, waiting for the Astros to come.
“I was waiting on line and they had a new policy that came today. I actually came on Sunday. I showed the manager a picture (of the costume) and he said I could bring it. I paid a lot of money for the costume. I came in today and they said they had a new policy and that they couldn’t allow costumes in and they made me leave the line and remove it. It’s hiding right now in the grass. I hid it somewhere around the stadium.”
“She’s the MVP. … She snuck it in.”
Betsy Rivera: “We actually snuck it in. I actually had to put it inside my waist trainer. I had to take off my waist trainer, put it in, put back on my waist trainer and then go to the bathroom, take off my waist trainer and re-inflate it not once but twice. He had to go up and get it back, and before the end of the game, we’re going to blow it back up one last time and show the Astros that we are the f—ing team.”
Alvin Aquino: “The first time, they told us that we have to deflate it or they are going to kick us out of the ballpark. The second time, I went to get a drink and somehow she inflated it. I came back and security told us again that we couldn’t do that. My girlfriend is a f—ing crazy Yankee fan. Security brought the manager. We got it back and they told us to deflate it front of him. She’s the MVP. … She snuck it in.”
Rivera: “They couldn’t tell me anything. I could’ve been pregnant, but I’m not that fat.”
Aquino: “I wish I had brought my Altuve stuffed doll because I wanted people to throw it in there.”
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