The 2014 season review series began yesterday with a look back at the infield. They were a sad, slow, frustrating group for most of the season. They didn't hit well or field well. The best contributions came from players who weren't expected to do anything or weren't on the roster at the start of the season (Solarte, Headley, Prado), and the biggest letdowns came from the players who had the highest hopes/expectations attached to them (Teix, McCann).
While the general expectations for the infield were low from the beginning, they were much higher for the starting outfield. That group was rebuilt in the offseason, with 2 big outside free agent signings joining an extended homegrown talent to form one of the potentially most balanced and talented outfields in baseball. It didn't quite work out that way, as team-wide injury problems prevented this group from ever performing in the roles they were expected to.
Best- Mad Speed, Yo
The addition of Jacoby Ellsbury and the pairing of him and Brett Gardner gave the Yankees one of the best 1-2 speed tandems in baseball. The Yankees said they wanted to get faster and they needed to get better on defense. The Ellsbury-Gardner duo helped both of those causes. Despite what the sabermetrics numbers say, both Ellsbury and Gardner passed the eye test in the outfield and covered the gaps better than any other Yankee outfield duo I can think of. They also gave Joe multiple options at the top of his lineup as table setters and their 60 combined stolen bases were among the highest totals for any 2 teammates in baseball.
Worst- Nagging Injuries
Unfortunately, both Ellsbury and Gardner were bitten by the injury bug at various points during the year and those injury problems lingered throughout the season. Ellsbury battled foot problems early, a hamstring strain late, and Joe said multiple times throughout the year that he was "beat up.". He went through more than 1 stretch of really cold hitting, which could be partially attributable to his injuries.
Gardner suffered an abdominal strain after the All-Star break that slowed him on the basepaths and really affected his production at the plate in the later months. He had a .668 OPS in August, a .486 in September, and 11 of his 14 misses games came in those 2 months. Gardner also only stole 2 bases a month for each month after May. Having more speed on paper was great, but the benefit of that speed on the field was hindered by those nagging health problems. And don't forget about all the physical maladies accumulated by Beltran.
Best- Improved Power From Unexpected Sources
In addition to the plus defense and stolen bases, Ellsbury and Gardner both provided some additional power to a lineup that was sorely lacking in that department. Ellsbury's 16 home runs were his second best season total behind his 2011 outlier, as was his .148 ISO. Interestingly enough, only 7 of the 16 home runs came at home, so it wasn't even like his numbers got fattened up by the short porch in YS3.
Gardner's 17 dingers was a new career high by more than double his previous high of 8, which he set last year. He hit 4 in June and 7 in July, when he posted an insane (for him) .580 SLG, and at one point it looked like he was going to be a shoo-in for a 20-20 season. His seasonal ISO and SLG numbers were also career bests and a much needed pickup for the slacking middle of the order. Whether they were intentionally trying to hit for more power or not, both Gardner and Ellsbury stepped up in that capacity and did so without completely eliminating the speed parts of their games.
Worst- Old Man Beltran
Now to the limping, sore-elbowed, 37-year-old gorilla in the room, Carlos Beltran. Signed in response to the Cano exit, he was expected to fill in that lost run-producing spot at the top of the order. It was known and accepted that he wasn't the player he was in his prime, but if he could repeat what he did in 2013 for St. Louis, that would help make up for the loss of the Yankees' best bat. In short, he didn't even come close. Beltran finished the year with a .233/.301/.402 slash line, the worst values in each category since his injury-plagued 2000 season. That old theme was on full display again this season, as Beltran battled a bone spur in his right elbow and missed a lot of time due to it. He also took a nasty fall over a railing in Tampa in mid-April that he was never the same after, and missed time with a concussion when he got hit with a batted ball in BP.
He didn't look all that great fielding his position or running the bases earlier in the year when he was
healthy healthier, and he looked worse and worse as the year went on. We'll see next year how much the bone spur really contributed to the statistical decline, but bone spur or not, the Yankees did not get the Beltran of old in 2014. They just got an old Beltran.
Best- Peak Brett Gardner
The final numbers (.256/.327/.422) don't pop out at you, and we'll always have to wonder what could have been were it not for that ab strain, but there was a time in the middle of the season when Brett Gardner was one of the best and most fun players to watch in all of baseball. He hit .287/.358/.500 in June and .273/.352/.580 in July. On August 4th, his season batting line was .286/.364/.468. Gardner almost single-handedly carried the Yanks for stretches in the summer and it was awesome. From a mostly unheralded fringe prospect to a light-hitting 4th outfielder to a full-time starter to the leadoff hitter and best player on the most famous franchise in all of American sports. Gardner got paid before the season and he rewarded the Yankees for that investment. He put the full package of skills together this year and showed what kind of player he's built himself into in his 7 years in the show. So glad he wasn't traded.
Worst- Hitting Out of Position
If only he could have been doing it from a better spot in the batting order. Whether it was their own injuries, injuries to other players, or the respect paid to The Captain for his 20 years of loyal service, the Yankee outfielders were rarely hitting in the spots they should have been this season. Gardner spent time at the bottom of the order early on, then hit leadoff for most of the summer while Ellsbury batted third. Beltran bounced around between the 3rd and 6th spots in the order as his elbow would allow and never settled into any kind of regular run-producing role. When Joe did finally make the swap with Ellsbury and Gardner, it ended up being too little too late.
The best option for this trio would have been Ellsbury 1, Gardner 2, and probably Beltran 3. Without checking I don't think there was ever a single game when that happened. Ellsbury and Gardner did what they could to produce from spots they weren't always familiar in, and there were times were both of them were red hot in those spots. But they aren't the type of hitters who can consistently produce the way a #3 hitter is expected to and in some regard the shuffling of roles and out-of-place lineup spots probably made it more difficult for them.
Getting Ellsbury back to the leadoff spot full-time and Gardner behind him will be an important step in turning the offense around in 2015. Their combination of speed and power should serve to better set the table for the middle of the order and create more run-scoring opportunities.
** Coming up tomorrow- The Rotation. **