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Surprising springs: A cautionary tale of unlikely Yankees performances

As the annual exhibition games approach, a friendly reminder that while it’s fun to speculate, strong springs don’t always portend success.

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles
Greg Bird looks on at a hit in 2019, his last major league season with the Yankees. Bird developed a reputation as a spring star.
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

In some ways, the World Series feels like it was yesterday; the offseason went by in a flash as fans were treated to dramatic storylines including the “Arson Judge” saga and not one, not two, but three Carlos Correa contracts. Regardless of the speed with which it passed, though, the offseason saw a lot of change — change that many of us fans and writers can’t wait to evaluate on the playing field. Grapefruit League play begins next week and with it, rampant speculation about velocity declines, who’s in the best shape of their lives, offseason medical procedures, and performance against extremely varied competition.

That’s not to say that spring training statistics are entirely useless; despite the wide-ranging quality of the opposition and constant tinkering with new pitches and stances, there is evidence that rate-based statistics from the spring like walk and strikeout percentages can portend regular season success (or lack thereof). But largely, spring training should be treated as more supplement than star when it comes to predicting the upcoming season. So, think of Grapefruit League action as less of a harbinger and more of an enjoyable activity to tide you over until the real season begins. With that in mind, let’s have some fun looking back on some of the most impressive and/or surprising springs from Yankees in recent years, selected largely arbitrarily and according to my whims.

5) 2014 Francisco Cervelli

Written off after injuries and his role in the Biogenesis PED scandal the year before, Cervelli was competing with Austin Romine for a spot on the roster behind Brian McCann at the time. Romine, a former second-round pick, had a solid pedigree, but the Yanks couldn’t ignore Cervelli’s eye-popping offensive numbers that spring. The 28-year-old slashed .405/.450/.811 in 37 at bats, bashing four homers, a double, and a triple. This showing foretold an offensive breakout; the backstop had previously hit six percent worse than league average by measure of wRC+ across his career, but in the 2014 regular season, he was 30 percent better than the league over 162 plate appearances. In 2015, he put up 5.9 WAR, but it was sadly for the Pirates as the Yankees dealt him before the season for lefty Justin Wilson.

4) 2016 Kirby Yates

A lot of fans might not recall the eventual relief ace’s short tenure with the Yankees. The Bombers purchased the right-hander from Cleveland in January 2016, and he rewarded them with 11 strikeouts against only one walk and two hits across eight scoreless spring frames. On the heels of this performance, he made the team to start the year. He would go on to appear in 41 games but, despite a solid 3.43 xERA (which takes into account quality of contact), he pitched to just a 5.23 ERA across 41.1 frames.

The key for Yates, it turned out, was the development of a splitter. He drew inspiration for the pitch from his Yankees staff-mates in 2016 — primarily Masahiro Tanaka and Nathan Eovaldi — but unfortunately never tested out the new weapon in pinstripes. The Angels plucked the right-hander off waivers from the Yanks, though they would ultimately pass him up too. The Padres claimed him next, and they were finally able to harness the splitter’s potential.

3) 2016 Chasen Shreve

Shreve came over from Atlanta prior to the 2015 season alongside David Carpenter in exchange for former top prospect Manny Bañuelos. During his first year in pinstripes, Shreve pitched to a 3.09 ERA, though his unimpressive 5.09 BB/9 and 1.94 K/BB ratios indicated probable regression. The next spring, however, the southpaw was able to cast some worries aside by tossing 10 scoreless frames, allowing just one hit and a lone walk against eight strikeouts.

In the 2016 regular season, Shreve kept his walk rate lower at 3.55 per nine but unfortunately a decrease in strikeouts and an elevated home run rate led to a 5.18 ERA. He wouldn’t put things together until 2017, when the walks went back up but so did the strikeouts. Shreve then parlayed his punchouts into a 3.77 ERA and more sustainable success; he maintained these gains through the next half season, and the Yankees leveraged this value in order to package him with fellow reliever Giovanny Gallegos in exchange for Luke Voit at the trade deadline.

2) 2017 Greg Bird

Previously named to the all-time Yankees spring training team, Bird was known to crush in Florida but never lived up to his potential in the regular season aside from a sterling rookie cameo in 2015. However, at least part of the letdown was due to some poor injury luck; contextualizing a dominant spring showing in 2017 was the fact that he had missed all of the previous regular season with a torn labrum in his shoulder. Nevertheless, he excited fans by slashing a cartoonish .451/.556/1.098 with seven doubles, eight homers, a triple, and a 12 to 10 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 51 spring training at bats. Yet, Bird slashed just .190/.288/.422 across 170 regular season plate appearances sandwiching a nearly four-month absence due to foot surgery. He put up another OPS over 1.000 in spring training in 2019, but he continued to struggle in the regular season, never again reaching even a .700 OPS as he dealt with more foot issues.

1) 2022 Kyle Higashioka

The glove-first backup catcher had put up some gaudy power numbers in the minors, with 37 homers and 37 doubles across 181 career Triple-A games. But I don’t think anyone expected a show as masterful as the one he put on last spring when he slashed .423/.464/1.231 in 26 at bats. Higgy nearly matched Bird’s home run total, bashing seven to the first baseman’s eight, in just barely more than half the at bats. Due to the lockout shortening the spring, Higgy’s seven dingers also led the Grapefruit League. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this performance, though, was that Higs didn’t homer in the regular season until mid-June, losing the starting job to Jose Trevino in the process.

Through June 10th, before that first homer, Higashioka slashed just .148/.206/.193. From then on, without the pressure of his homer-less stretch, he slashed .277/.302/.511. Perhaps he can recapture that end-of-season form for this year’s Yankees. His swing will be something to keep an eye on this spring, though as this list of near-misses and never-quite-made-its indicates, we should take even an impressive Yankees spring with a mountain of salt. Who knows, the pressure a strong spring brings with it might even be a regular season detriment.