Yankees Thoughts: ‘Are You Ever Happy?’

Responding to social media comments for the Twins and Cubs series

What an adventurous week. The Yankees overcame poor starts from Jameson Taillon and Nestor Cortes and the worst start of Gerrit Cole’s career to take two out of three from the Twins. Then they got a taste of what life would be like if they played in the NL Central and got to face the Cubs 19 times a year, sweeping them in the Bronx and outscoring them 28-5 in three games.

I’m combining the Thoughts from both the Twins and Cubs series into one Super Thoughts with a different format in which I will respond to mentions and comments to me from social media over the last week.

Here are 10 thoughts on the Yankees.

Kyle Higashioka literally makes John Flaherty look like Johnny Bench. He is a dreadful baseball player.

1. Sometimes I think John Flaherty thinks he was Johnny Bench with the way he talks about his approach to hitting on YES. Now Flaherty wasn’t a complete zero at the plate (he did have respectable years in 1996, 1997 and 1999) like Higashioka is, but he wasn’t who he portrays either.

Higashioka doesn’t belong on the Yankees. He’s not a major-league player. But for some reason the Yankees have stood behind his poor career production and let their manager choose him as the team’s regular catcher at various times over the last few seasons (and in the postseason) and even planned on him being their regular catcher in 2023.

The Yankees acquired Jose Trevino less than a week before Opening Day and had Ben Rortvedt not gotten hurt in spring training, Trevino might have started the season in Triple-A and still be there. The Yankees were smart to sign Trevino. They lucked into his breakout season saving them from a disaster in which Higashioka is playing even more than he already is. And Higashioka is playing a lot.

Despite Trevino’s All-Star-worthy season, Boone has continued to divide the starting catching role 50/50.

June 12: Higashioka
June 11: Trevino
June 10: Higashioka
June 9: Trevino
June 8: Higashioka
June 7: Trevino
June 6: Trevino
June 4: Higashioka
June 3: Trevino
June 2 (Game 2:): Higashioka
June 2 (Game 1): Trevino
May 31: Trevino
May 29: Higashioka
May 28: Trevino
May 27: Higashioka
May 26: Trevino
May 25: Higashioka

And so on.

2. During Friday’s game, Higashioka came to the plate the first time against the left-handed Wade Miley, and the YES broadcast booth talked about how Higashioka was in the lineup because of his ability to hit left-handed pitching. David Cone brought up Higashioka’s horrific numbers before saying there could be a “positive regression to the mean” for Higashioka, as if his season has been a product of bad luck. Higashioka struck out on three pitches.

In his second plate appearance, he flew out to center field. In his third, he struck out on three pitches again. In his fourth, he lined out to center. In his fifth, he flew out to left. When his sixth plate appearance came up in the bottom of the 13th, Aaron Boone pinch hit Trevino for him. Higashioka has been pinch hit for a lot this season, but it has always been for the regular, everyday player on the bench getting unnecessary rest. For the first time, Boone pinch hit for Higashioka with Trevino. A catcher for a catcher. It was the first time Boone has ever done anything that would present Higashioka in a negative light. Trevino came through with the game-winning single, but Boone doesn’t deserve credit for the move since Higashioka should have never been starting in the first place.

On Sunday, Trevino was a late scratch from the lineup due to a minor injury. Higashioka got the start and went 3-for-5 with two home runs. One of the two home runs came against a 35.1-mph pitch from a position player. It was Higashioka’s best game of the season, even if it deserves an asterisk the size of the Armitron clock atop the scoreboard next to it. With the “big” day, Higashioka is still only hitting .172/.225/.280 on the season. (He was hitting .148/.206/.193 before Sunday). Trevino is hitting .309/.356/.505 and has been the superior defensive catcher as well, and it’s not even close.

The 50/50 divide can’t continue. Higashioka is as close to an automatic out at the plate as there is in baseball since no one with his numbers would continue to get regular at-bats.

Boston’s offense is red-hot now. I’m very intrigued the next time Gerrit Cole faces them.

3. The Yankees’ starting pitching has been the collective MVP of the team this season and the reason why they are 41-16 with the best record in baseball. Aaron Judge’s actual MVP season and the combined performance of Clay Holmes, Michael King and Clarke Schmidt have also played a major role in the Yankees’ success over the first one-third of the season, but it’s the starting pitching that has been the most important aspect of the team.

Gerrit Cole is supposed to be the sure-thing in the rotation. Through two months, he has been the Yankees’ worst starter. That’s not to say he’s actually the Yankees’ worst starter, but in a little more than one-third of the season he has been. The Yankees’ two worst starts this season have come from him with the first being his April 19 debacle in Detroit and the second being Thursday night in Minnesota.

Cole’s performance on Thursday was the worst of his career, and one of the worst I have seen in my life, and I was in Fenway Park the night Chase Wright gave up back-to-back-to-back-to-back home runs on Sunday Night Baseball to the Red Sox nearly 15 years ago. Cole began his night by allowing back-to-back-back home runs, and in 2 1/3 innings, he allowed five home runs and seven earned runs. Anyone pitching that badly would be startling, but for someone like Cole it was hard to believe. For who he’s supposed to be and his status, pedigree and reputation, it was one of the worst starts of all time for a pitcher of that caliber.

Cole is supposed to be an ace. In theory, he is, but in theory, he isn’t letting the entire Twins lineup go into the second deck off him. Cole is an ace … when he’s facing the league’s worst teams. If he’s on the mound against a weak team like Kansas City or Baltimore, he’s who you would expect him to be. If he’s on the mound against Boston or Tampa Bay or Toronto or Minnesota, well, he’s anything but an ace.

Here is Cole’s line this season against the Red Sox, Blue Jays, White Sox, Rays and Twins (four teams expected to reach the postseason):

24.1 IP, 24 H, 17 R, 17 ER, 8 BB, 31 K, 9 JR, 6.29 ERA, 1.315 WHIP

And here is Cole’s line this season against the Tigers, Guardians, Royals, Rangers and Orioles:

42.2 IP, 31 H, 10 R, 10 ER, 9 BB, 53 K, 2 HR, 2.11 ERA, 0.984 WHIP

4. The difference between the two is appalling. Cole won’t see a team from that second group in October (unless the Guardians have a miracle summer). And everything is about October, especially since the Yankees are 44-16 and are headed to October.

Cole will undoubtedly get the ball in Game 1 of any series. Cortes could finish with a sub-1.00 ERA and be on his way to a unanimous Cy Young vote, and he still won’t get the ball in Game 1 of the playoffs. (If that did happen, the Yankees would cite Andy Pettitte always being a Game 2 starter as the reason why Cortes isn’t starting before Cole in a playoff series.)

It will be hard to trust Cole in October. I didn’t trust him last October, and four batters into his wild-card game performance, the Yankees were down 2-0 and never recovered. (Hamstring issue or not, he took the ball and there are no excuses if you take the ball.) His inability to pitch well against the teams the Yankees are likely to see in October is upsetting, and he needs to be better. A lot better. His next start will come against the Rays next week at the Stadium, and while he pitched well against them a couple of weeks ago at the Trop, he still let a missed third strike call ruin his day as he unraveled and gave away the game after that.

Cole dominating teams from that second group is supposed to be a given. Pitching well against teams from that first group is also supposed to be a given.

I’m surprised Hicks knew it was gone. How does he remember what a home run looks like?

5. Aaron Hicks hit a two-run, game-tying home run on Thursday night against the Twins in what was his biggest moment of the season. The home run was his second of the season, so he now has the same amount as Higashioka (in 83 more plate appearances), one more than Tim Locastro (in 172 more plate appearances), three less than Trevino (in 83 more plate appearances) and four less than Matt Carpenter (157 more plate appearances).

Hicks has one double to go along with his two home runs for a grand total of three extra-base hits in 2022. The season is 60 games and 37 percent complete. The man who went out of his way to say he wanted to be a 30/30 player in 2022 is on pace for 5.4 home runs and 13.5 steals. So I guess he could be looking at joining the 5/14 club, an exclusive club of which they are only a few thousand members.

How has Isiah-Kiner Falefa been really bad? What metric?

6. Umm, every metric? Let’s take a look at Kiner-Falefa’s offensive breakdown:

OK, not every metric. He’s really fast (86th percentile) and doesn’t strike out (97th percentile). But he can’t square up pitches (1st percentile), doesn’t hit the ball hard (9th and 12th percentiles), swings at pitches outside the strike zone (14th percentile) and rarely walks (33rd percentile).

Add in his fielding in which he struggles to make routine plays and has me trusting him as much as I did Gleyber Torres at short, and I’m beginning to wonder if the Yankees would be better off putting Torres back there and making Kiner-Falefa a bench player. Because that’s what Kiner-Falefa should be: a bench player. Maybe the Angels will completely fall out the face and the Yankees can re-acquire Bronx native Andrew Velazquez. He’s not going to give you anything at the plate, but he will make every play in the field, so at least he will do one thing really well, which is more than Kiner-Falefa gives the Yankees.

7. The Yankees need a better shortstop, but unfortunately, they aren’t likely to get one. They will likely play the entire season out with Kiner-Falefa at short and watch him weakly put balls in play and botch simple, routine plays in the field. At times it seems like Kiner-Falefa’s goal at the plate is to make an out as quickly as possible, and he’s really, really good at it. Normally, his at-bats are over after one or two pitches and after he grounded out to the left side or popped up in the infield or to the shallow outfield. In the field, I trust him at short as much as I trusted Torres and the Yankees were willing to screw up their entire roster construction and future plans to move Torres off short.

There’s a reason why the Rangers didn’t want to Kiner-Falefa at short or second, committing nearly a half-billion dollars to Corey Seager and Marcus Semien in the offseason. And there’s a reason why the Twins were so quick to trade him as long as Josh Donaldson’s money was attached to him … so they could use the freed up salary from Donaldson to sign Carlos Correa, a real shortstop.

The Yankees chose Kiner-Falefa as a 2022 stopgap to get them to Oswald Peraza or Anthony Volpe in 2023. (Peraza is hitting .204/.280/.343 in Triple-A, and Volpe is hitting .224/.320/.401 in Double-A, so that plan isn’t exactly going as hoped.) The Yankees need to upgrade short, but it’s unlikely they will.

Are you ever happy?

8. Yes, I’m always happy. I don’t know why people think I’m negative or pessimistic. Again, I’m a realist. If I tweet Aaron Hicks’ slash line (which is an embarrassment), I will get a reply that I’m being negative and should be happy the Yankees are 44-16 when all I tweeted was a simple slash line.

I’m sorry numbers hurt people’s feelings in the same way David Ortiz said he was he hurt people’s feelings for buying supplements during his 2009 performance-enhancing drugs press conference. If you’re upset about stats because the player in conversation is producing poor stats, maybe take off the Yankees pajamas you’re wearing and look at the team with less of a homer-ish view.

Relax, Neil. The team will be fine.

9. Unless Hicks or Joey Gallo completely turn around their seasons, the Yankees would need to upgrade an outfield spot. They can’t honestly think they are going to go into October with the possibility of Higashioka, Kiner-Falefa, Hicks and Gallo all in the same lineup. Then again, this is a team managed and run by the same people who thought the 2019 Yankees needed no upgrades or additions at the trade deadline.

Fans who believe the Yankees don’t need to do anything because they are 44-16 are foolish. The Yankees are 25-5 against the Orioles, Cubs, Guardians, Tigers, Royals and Angels. None of those teams will be playing in October. (I guess there’s a crazy outside chance the Guardians could make the playoffs, but does anyone truly think they are going to hold off the Twins or White Sox in their division, or the Blue Jays, Rays or Red Sox for a wild-card berth?)

The Yankees have been really good. They have the best record in baseball. They have the best run differential in baseball. They have the best pitching staff in baseball. They have also played one of the easiest schedules to date in baseball. That matters. They have also played an incredibly weak schedule to date. To their credit, they have taken care of business against the weak portion of their schedule, but in a short series, would any Yankees fan feel confident or comfortable against Toronto, Tampa Bay or Houston? I think the Yankees are much closer to being on equal footing with those teams than the standings would have you believe.

Yes, they will be “fine” in terms of playing baseball in October. The Yankees are going to October. At this point, if they played .500 baseball for their remaining 102 games, they would win 95 games. They could play 10 games under .500 (46-56) and win 90 games. The position they have put themselves in is remarkable. They are 28 games over. 500 with an eight-game loss column lead on the Blue Jays.

10. My biggest fear for the Yankees remains the offense disappearing in October, like it did in 2021 wild-card game, Game 5 of the 2020 ALDS, Games 2 through 6 of the 2019 ALDS, Games 3 and 4 of the 2018 ALDS, and all the road games in the 2017 ALCS. The Yankees have the best starting pitching they have had in years, and even without Aroldis Chapman, Jonathan Loaisiga and Chad Green, they still have the best bullpen in the league. It’s the offense that worries me.

Sure, the Yankees could upgrade Hicks, Gallo, Kiner-Falefa and Higashioka and still go to October and have their offense perform its annual disappearing act. That can’t be planned for. But what can be planned for is that the Yankees use the trade deadline to put themselves in the best possible position to be successful in October. They had the chance in the offseason and they failed to, so they have another opportunity between now and August 2 to enhance the roster and for the postseason. Being in first place in mid-June is great. Being in first place at the end of October is the goal.

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