Starlin Castro, The New Yankees, and Theories

By: James Scott

Brian Kersey/Getty Images
Brian Kersey/Getty Images

The Yankees made their second serious offseason addition with the trade of Adam Warren and Brendan Ryan for Starlin Castro of the Cubs at the winter meetings.

This Yankee team is not what fans in the Bronx have seen in a long time.

No, I’m not talking about the lack of spending (it’s a problem). I’m talking about a younger Yankees team. A type of team that could lead to multiple championships.

How’d they get young so fast?

Everybody knows the whole “Yankees are a veteran team,” “They are an old team,” etc. etc.  Well, while all that talk was going on, the Yankees quietly made themselves a younger team.

Since the Montero trade the Yankees have completed a plethora of deals where flawed replaceable players from the Yankees were traded for former top prospects who haven’t lived up to their hype.

Yet.

The team has been stockpiling young talent. Even hanging on to their top prospects for once [other than Montero and Jackson]. The following is a list of players currently in the Yankees organization who meet these qualifications: They are, or will be, MLB ready during the 2016 season. They have appeared on top 50 prospect lists, while also currently under the age of 28 (28-32 are prime years):

Dellin Betances, Michael Pineda, Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, Gary Sanchez, Starlin Castro, Aaron Judge, Dustin Ackley, Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, and Aaron Hicks.

Starting pitching prospect James Kaprielian might join a top 100 prospect list come spring, which is of note due to his also being a 2016 MLB talent (projections have him in MLB by the end of the season.) Also of note: Didi Gregorius, Jacob Lindgren, Greg Bird, and Nathan Eovaldi were
top 100 prospects and are currently MLB ready under the age of 28. Bird would probably crack the top 50 if he hadn’t used up his rookie eligibility last year. Jorge Mateo, a shortstop in the low minors for the Yankees and expected to make his debut at some point late in 2017, is ranked in the top 25 prospects in MLB right now. Lower level starter Domingo Acevedo might crack the top 100 list this spring, and is on track for a 2017 debut as well.

This is an overwhelming amount of young talent. Not every one of these players will break out, but the sheer quantity of talent means that there will be a few stars who come out of this group. Let’s take a moment and look at the deals themselves that got the team here.

  • Shane Greene, a middling prospect starter, was sent from the Yankees to the Tigers. The Tigers sent players to Arizona, and Didi Gregorius, a young former top prospect shortstop with elite defense and potential to hit for power, went to the Yankees. Gregorius was the fifth best defensive shortstop last year and a top offensive shortstop down the stretch.
  • Jesus Montero, a mashing top 10 prospect in baseball who, unfortunately had zero defensive ability, was traded from the Yankees to the Mariners for the young former top prospect, Michael Pineda. Pineda ranked fourth best in the AL last year in strikeout-to-walk ratio.
  • Martin Prado, a super utility player, and David Phelps, an average long man, were traded from the Yankees to the Marlins for Nathan Eovaldi. Eovaldi, a young innings eater is currently ranked second in MLB among starters in average fastball velocity.
  • Ramon Flores, a left fielder who some view as a fourth outfielder, and Jose Ramirez, an injury prone relief prospect, were traded from the Yankees to the Mariners for Dustin Ackley, a former top prospect and number two overall pick. Ackley retooled his swing after the trade and hit .306/.352/.694 over the last month [small sample size].
  • John Ryan Murphy, a decent catcher who was blocked on the depth chart from playing every day, was traded from the Yankees to the Twins for Aaron Hicks. Hicks, a five tool former top prospect center fielder looked like he was starting to break out last year. He is also now viewed as the best defensive outfielder in the entire organization and he crushed lefties last year to a .307/.375/.495 line. Hicks’ upside is as a Carlos Gomez type player.
  • Adam Warren, a number 3 starter/set up man, and Brendan Ryan, a defensive specialist who can’t hit at all, were traded from the Yankees to the Cubs for Starlin Castro. Castro, a shortstop who can play second base, is on pace for 3,000 career hits with 991 as a 25 year old.To me these trades look like highway robbery. Take note that [other than Montero] none of the players dealt had the ceiling of a star and all of the players who have returned have that ceiling. Cashman seriously looks like one of the best in the business when it comes to trades at this point.

Perhaps it’s fair to wonder if the organization has figured something out. Maybe there is something other than inexpensive contracts that gives young players value. Maybe something other than production and the promise of improvement is what the Yankees see in young players.

What if there is an extreme advantage in recognizing not so much the level of production from a young player, but the timing of when that production happens?

My guess is that the Yankees think players are more clutch at a younger age. This theory lines up with what I have seen first hand over the years.

For what it’s worth the team has shifted towards bringing in “clutch” players recently with the Beltran, Ellsbury, and McCann signings in the 2013 offseason. Beltran and Ellsbury have impressive playoff numbers and McCann statistically has been one of the most productive hitters with the bases loaded throughout his career.

The team has clearly valued situational players like this with an abundance of platooning (the Yankees had the platoon advantage more than any team in MLB last year), deep benches for late innings, and emphasizing arms (especially in the pen.) The team has even emphasized defense oriented players.

With the addition of Castro they now seem to value offensive versatility in a lineup and the ability to make hard contact consistently. Castro is a different kind of player than anyone else in the lineup. He’s a “if it looks good, swing” hitter, an approach that seems to work very well for him. The versatility of the lineup looks to make it difficult for pitchers to stick to their game plan. As far as making hard contact consistently Castro adds a plus BABIP to the team, (a statistic I have found correlates directly with clutch performance,) something much-needed. The Yankees were one of the most shifted teams in MLB over the last few years.

Why is BABIP a clutch performance indicator?

There seem to be three kinds of clutch hitters.The first is the hitter who is so good that it doesn’t matter what situation he’s in, he’ll produce just from being on another level talent wise than the pitcher. This typically happens in career years or with players who are dramatically better than the league (Trout, Harper, Rizzo, Goldschmidt etc.) But it’s important to note that not every year is a career year, which is a serious risk if you want to build a clutch team by adding this kind of player.

The second is the hitter who has a plan at the plate, great knowledge of the strike zone, doesn’t change anything no matter the situation, and has above average production at the same time with that mindset. He doesn’t get fazed, so his success in normal situations is mirrored in those clutch situations.

The third kind of clutch player is a player who has the approach of “if it looks good, swing” in situations without pressure. This same player also has a ton of success on the balls they put into play while putting the ball into play more than most players. He will have better production in clutch situations because he is more willing to swing, thus increasing contact rate. The success on balls in play therefore is amplified, unless a pitcher goes breaking ball heavy.

This is why Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) is a clutch statistic (especially when paired with a low strikeout rate [low strikeouts equals more contact)

After all, in how many post walk-off interviews have you heard a player say “I was just trying to make hard contact” or something of that sort. This is probably why old school baseball fans like batting average so much since batting average includes strikeouts.

There is another trend I’ve noticed about outfielders. Teams who have had plus outfield defense have had much better pitching–Cardinals and Pirates being the most prominent example of this theory at one end and the Padres and White Sox being the example on the other. The reason outfield defense might matter more makes a ton of sense. The hardest hit balls tend to go the farthest. I’m willing to bet that while more balls are hit to the infield, infield balls are hit slower on average and are easier to turn into outs. So it stands to say an elite defensive outfielder might save more runs than an elite defensive infielder. Probably why the Rays were the team that gave Kiermaier a legitimate shot in the show a few years back, and probably why Michael Taylor and Billy Hamilton were kept in the show despite not being able to hit at all this year. It’s probably why Lorenzo Cain was given so much playing time to turn into what he has and probably why Odubel Herrera was given a full season out of the gate, despite never playing in the high minors.

Another theory I have is based on the importance of team chemistry. An Oxford University study recently showed how team chemistry can contribute up to three additional wins over a full season. But the question is how do you make team chemistry? The study showed people bond on things they have in common. But this is not leading where you think. I believe players who used to have attitude issues and overcome them should actually play together. Why? Overcoming personality faults is difficult and demonstrates not only a commitment to being a better person but also a passion for being a better athlete. Every player I’ve seen overcome attitude problems has taken their game to another level, which shows commitment and a strong work ethic. A team of players with this kind of common purpose has a legitimate chance of bonding and working together in friendship and on the field. So maybe it’s not a terrible thing, despite some former personality issues, that the Yankees’ Mason Williams, Gary Sanchez, and Starlin Castro are all on the same team.

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