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Cameron Maybin needs to stay in the Yankees’ plans for now

Maybe the outfielder’s breakout is real, maybe it’s not, but the Yankees have to ride it out.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

One of the hard things about this era of baseball is figuring out when a player has made a real change, as opposed to having just experienced some hot streak or other less sustainable kinds of success. Players have access to so much information that they can make significant alterations to their game in short time-frames.

Enter Cameron Maybin. The MLB veteran was scooped up by the Yankees two months ago, one of several emergency options after the team’s historic rush of injuries. He was meant to be a fill in, but as we’ve said so often about the players on this team, he’s gone above and beyond that role.

After the end of play Wednesday, Maybin has a 139 wRC+ and career-high ISO, and as Katie details, he’s doing everything hitters need to do in 2019: hitting the ball hard, in the air. It’s a juiced-ball season, and the best way to take advantage of that is to get the ball up and let it carry - especially when you play in a hitter’s ballpark like Yankee Stadium.

There is one thing that I think is worth a note about Maybin’s performance so far this year, though:

Maybin HAS legitimately improved his performance, but that improvement is super-concentrated in his approach to fastballs. If the pitch isn’t a fastball, he’s whiffing more than any time in his career except for his rookie season.

He can’t really hit non-fastballs, and that’s probably a conscious choice. He’s 32 and has bounced around baseball; it wouldn’t be that surprising if he made the decision to sell out on fastballs, crush them as hard as he can, and worry about the other pitches later. He’s swinging at each pitch group at roughly the same rate as his career, so he’s seemingly focusing on the number one and driving it.

This opens up a potential weakness in his game: teams will isolate that fastball preference and pepper Maybin with offspeed and breaking offerings. That’s a very plausible outcome and it’s likely we see Maybin’s performance drop off to some extent. That’s not the end of the world, however, and here’s why.

The Yankees are very close to no longer needing to rely on castoffs to fill the outfield. Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Hicks are back, we are apparently days away from Aaron Judge’s return, and the choice before the Yankees now is who becomes the fourth outfielder in rotation: Brett Gardner or Mr. Maybin.

The two are actually closer than you might think in some categories - Gardner has a bit more power per hit, and is a little more disciplined. Maybin, on other hand, looks more projectable. He rates better in two of the three best “predictive” contact stats, with a higher xwOBA and higher hard hit rate, while being essentially tied in the third, max exit velocity.

We also know that Gardner tends to fall off hard in the second half of the season, with a career 87 tOPS+ in the second half, meaning he hits about 13% worse in the dog days and lead-up to the playoffs. Maybin hits about the same in each half, with a 99 tOPS+ in the second.

More importantly, the evidence exists that Maybin has made a fundamental change in his game, that focus on driving fastballs in the air. If he’s not starting every day, but filling in as the fourth outfielder, that exposure to offspeed and breaking pitches we discussed above becomes less of a risk. Combine that with the edge Maybin has in the more predictive contact stats, and it’s pretty clear he should be the main backup option, at least until his performance wavers.

The real edge that Gardner has is that the Yankees, so far, have been unwilling to slot Maybin in center field. Maybin’s played 18 games in left and 23 in right, while Gardner was the primary CF with Aaron Hicks out, and continues to spell him on days off. Maybe this is familiarity with Yankee Stadium III, maybe this is just a quirky decision, but if Maybin isn’t going to be in center field, his opportunities with this team take a real hit. He’s played center in some pretty deep ballparks, including Comerica and T-Mobile, so the Yankees should at least allow him a shot to play there in the Bronx.

I’m not going to speculate on Gardner’s future with the Yankees. The team seems dedicated to carrying 13 pitchers, so when they also have a backup catcher and infielder, there’s only one backup outfield slot left on the roster. For now, that should be Cameron Maybin’s spot, and it opens up a whole lot of uncomfortable questions for the only professional organization Brett Gardner’s ever known.