We are now only two weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting to Tampa to begin Spring Training 2019. It is so close and yet not close enough. The first Grapefruit League game is three weeks and four days away. Can’t wait. Here are some scattered thoughts on this Wednesday morning.
1. The Yankees are set in the late innings. It’ll be Aroldis Chapman in the ninth with Dellin Betances, Zach Britton, Chad Green, and Adam Ottavino setting him up. That leaves Jonathan Holder and the two other bullpen spots to handle everything else, and the more I think about it, the more I expect Tommy Kahnle and Luis Cessa to get those final two spots. (Given the roster right now, anyway.) That doesn’t mean Kahnle and Cessa will keep those spots all season. Just that I think they’ll get them on Opening Day. Being out of minor league options is part of it. Neither can be sent to Triple-A without passing through waivers and I don’t think either would clear. All things being equal, might as well preserve the pitching depth early in the season. Kahnle was legitimately excellent in 2017 and should be given an opportunity to show whether he can do it again, and I don’t mean eight or nine Grapefruit League innings. Give him some time in regular season games and see what’s up. As for Cessa, the Yankees have given him chance after chance, and I assume that means they like him. Last year the Yankees did not allow a starter to throw 100 pitches until April 22nd, their 20th game of the season, and in all likelihood they will ease their starters into things again. That means they’ll need a long man and Cessa can be that long man. Anyway, that’s my guess right now, that Kahnle and Cessa will get the final two bullpen spots out of Spring Training. I doubt they’ll keep them all season because that’s just the way things work. Eventually a bullpen spot or two will turn into a revolving door.
2. Speaking of bullpen roles, last week Ottavino said he expects to see a lot of right-on-right matchup work, though I’m not sure if that was him speculating, or revealing what he’d been told by the Yankees. “We have some guys who have a little more strength versus left-handed hitters, even though they’re right-handed pitchers, like Chad Green and Dellin Betances. I’ve been pretty tough on righties in my career, so I expect to get a lot of righty-on-righty matchups given our bullpen depth,” he said to Dan Martin. First of all, if that is Ottavino speculating, it’s pretty neat he’s already looking into his new teammates to learn their strengths and weaknesses. Secondly, other than Betances, who is the guy I want on the mound in a big spot against any hitter, Ottavino is the obvious candidate to face tough righties. His slider is devastating. Last season he held righties to a .138/.231/.236 (.215 wOBA) batting line with a 39.4% strikeout rate. He was good against lefties (.252 wOBA and 32.4 K%) and outstanding against righties. When Mookie Betts or J.D. Martinez or Tommy Pham or Vlad Guerrero Jr. come up before Dellin’s assigned inning, I want Ottavino on the mound, not Green or Britton. Those guys are good too, don’t get me wrong, but Ottavino is one of the top right-on-right bullpen options in baseball. That’s how the Yankees should use him. That he can hold his own (more than hold his own, really) against lefties is a nice bonus. Ottavino said he expects a lot of right-on-right work and that’s how Aaron Boone and the Yankees should plan to use him. That’s how he’s most valuable.
3. One last point on Ottavino: Does anyone really care about his Babe Ruth comments? Ottavino was asked about them during his introductory conference call last week and it’s been presented as a potential problem in several places (like here and here and here). The general theme in those pieces is Ottavino dissed Babe Ruth and is therefore already on the fan base’s bad side, so he better pitch well, otherwise he’s really going to hear boos. I mean, really? Here are the Ruth comments, via Ron Blum:
“I had an argument with a coach in Triple-A about Babe Ruth’s effectiveness in today’s game,” Ottavino told MLB.com’s Statcast podcast. “And this was like 10 years ago. I said, look, Babe Ruth, with that swing, swinging that bat, I got him hitting a buck-40 with eight homers.”
“And he’s like, ‘Are you nuts? Babe Ruth would hit .370 with 60 homers,’” Ottavino went on. “And I’m like, I would strike Babe Ruth out every time. I’m not trying to disrespect him, rest in peace, shout out to Babe Ruth. But it was a different game. I mean the guy ate hot dogs and drank beer and did whatever he did, and it was just a different game.”
Would Ottavino strike out Ruth every time? No, probably not, but I imagine he’d strike him out much more often than not. Ruth never saw mid-90 fastballs and he certainly never saw a breaking ball like Ottavino’s. Humans are bigger, stronger, and faster now than they were a century ago. Ruth was historically great relative to his era. In this era, I’m not sure he gets out of Single-A ball. Anyway, back to the original question. Does anyone really care about this? I feel like Ottavino’s comments are getting more attention in the media than among fans. I think (most) fans are willing to admit that yeah, present day Ottavino would dominate back in the day Ruth. Had Ottavino said he’d strike out Derek Jeter or Don Mattingly every time, well, that’s different. That would annoy people. Babe Ruth though? I’d like to think the coverage outweighs the actual concern here. If Ottavino stinks, he’ll get booed. That’s just the way it is. I can’t imagine enough folks are so bothered by the Ruth comments that Ottavino will hear boos even when pitching well. What a non-story.
4. The Yankees have signed an awful lot of players to minor league contracts this offseason. More than usual, it seems. Might as well dig up the numbers. Here are the players with big league time who joined the Yankees on a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training the last few years:
- 2019 (8): Rex Brothers, Billy Burns, Danny Coulombe, Danny Farquhar, David Hale, Drew Hutchison, Ryan Lavarnway, Gio Urshela
- 2018 (5): Danny Espinosa, David Hale, Erik Kratz, Wade LeBlanc, Jace Peterson
- 2017 (6): Wilkin Castillo, Ji-Man Choi, Jason Gurka, Pete Kozma, Donovan Solano, Ruben Tejada
- 2016 (8): Carlos Corporan, Tyler Cloyd, Jonathan Diaz, Pete Kozma, Vinnie Pestano, Eddy Rodriguez, Donovan Solano, Anthony Swarzak
- 2015 (5): Andrew Bailey, Scott Baker, Cole Figueroa, Nick Noonan, Eddy Rodriguez
Eh, I’m mistaken. When you average six such non-roster invitees from 2015-18, including eight in 2016, having eight in 2019 isn’t crazy. I guessing eight this year stands out to me because the Yankees only had five last year. Does this mean anything? It could. The Yankees have some injured 40-man roster players who will either not participate in Spring Training (Didi Gregorius, Jordan Montgomery) or be limited (Jacoby Ellsbury, Ben Heller), and they need players to fill in the gaps. Also, the farm system is not what it was in recent years. Last year the Yankees didn’t need a second non-roster outfielder like Matt Lipka because they had Billy McKinney and Jake Cave. They didn’t need four extra relievers like this year because Heller was healthy and Gio Gallegos and Cody Carroll were still in the organization. That’s the way it goes. The Yankees graduated several top prospects to the big leagues and traded several others for MLB help. Now they have to replenish their Triple-A depth with (slightly more than usual) minor league contract deals.
5. A few weeks ago Lindsey Adler (subs. req’d) passed along word the Yankees hired Dillon Lawson away from the Astros to be their new minor league hitting coordinator. He’ll help create and implement hitter development strategies in the farm system. Lawson, who joined Houston from the University of Missouri, has extensively researched pitch recognition, and was called the “hitting coach of the future” by one of his former Astros colleagues for his data-driven philosophies and state of the art training methods. From Adler:
The understanding that some hitters have a better eye for recognizing what pitch is coming than others is not new. (Southern Illinois professor) Dr. Fadde and Lawson have attempted to analyze that advantage, and make it a skill that can be specifically developed in hitters.
One of the most effective tools is having hitters watch video of pitches being thrown, then cutting off the feed before the pitch completes its trajectory. The hitter is asked to guess what type of pitch type they saw. Ideally, a hitter should be looking for indicators like a wrist looking skinnier for the pronation of a curveball or slower arm action for a changeup.
I find this interesting for a lot of reasons, including the fact Estevan Florial, the Yankees’ top prospect, has pitch recognition issues. I don’t think the Yankees hired Lawson specifically to help Florial — there are a lot of hitters in the minors who need to improve their pitch recognition — but it is certainly convenient the new hitting coordinator’s strength is the top prospect’s weakness. I’m not sure whether Lawson’s training methods fit under the “analytics” umbrella but they certainly appear to be new-school techniques. We know teams use analytics to identify free agent and trade targets. These days I find myself much more interested in how they use analytics to help their players get better. Maybe what Lawson does isn’t truly “analytics.” Point is, it is something new and modern, and now the Yankees are doing it. Helping your own players become better is the new thing these days and I’d love to learn more about the process behind it. I find it fascinating.
6. Now that he’s in the Hall of Fame, will the Yankees put Mike Mussina in the Monument Park? They don’t have to retire his number (No. 35 has been back in circulation for years) but perhaps a plaque would be in order? For what it’s worth, there are Hall of Famers who played a long time — a very long time — with the Yankees and are not in Monument Park. Dave Winfield doesn’t have a plaque or anything. Earle Combs played his entire career with the Yankees and he’s not in Monument Park. Tony Lazzeri and Waite Hoyt aren’t either. Mussina, as good as he was, never won a World Series with the Yankees nor a Cy Young. Heck, Mussina never even made an All-Star Game as a Yankee. (It’s true.) There are only two players in Monument Park who never won a World Series with the Yankees: Don Mattingly and Mel Stottlemyre, and Stottlemyre eventually won four rings as a coach. Mattingly is in Monument Park despite not having a ring because he was a great career-long Yankee and also because he was so beloved. There’s precedent for leaving a Hall of Famer out of Monument Park, even one who played with the Yankees as long as Mussina. I don’t think the Yankees will give him a plaque. I do hope they honor him with a day at Yankee Stadium though. Something more than a longer than usual intro at Old Timers’ Day.
7. Forget about denial, bargaining, and depression. I keep going back and forth between anger and acceptance with the Manny Machado and Bryce Harper situation. Those are my two stages of grief. Angry the Yankees appear content to pass on two prime-aged stars and acceptance that there’s nothing I can do about it. Just whatever, man. I try to stay pretty mellow about baseball — it’s baseball, it’s supposed to be fun, and getting mad about it doesn’t improve my life in any way — but the Machado and Harper thing is infuriating. It’s not just me either. My work at CBS exposes me to all 30 fan bases and they all seem to be angry about the overall state of baseball right now. Maybe it’s just my little social media bubble that feels that way and the majority of fans are a-okay with things. I’m not sure that’s the case. How is fans being angry good for the baseball? How is having so many teams not trying to compete good for baseball? How is this good for baseball:
Non-scientific poll: Has the fact there are so many unsigned high-profile MLB free agents such as Harper, Machado, Keuchel & Kimbrel kept you more interested/intrigued in the baseball offseason this year because of suspense or less because there is no movement on the big guys?
— Evan Grant (@Evan_P_Grant) January 29, 2019
Not that long ago MLB’s offseason was busy in November and December, and the early part of January, then quiet for a few weeks. The big free agents would sign and the top trade candidates would get moved during the Winter Meetings (or thereabouts), the top Scott Boras client would sign sometime in January, and then things slowed down and we all longed for Spring Training. Nowadays we wait and wait and wait for the the best free agents to sign. It’s not just Harper and Machado either. It’s Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel too, plus scores of mid-range free agents. It is exhausting and I think it’s bad for the game overall. MLB owners have turned their teams into get rich quick schemes and I think we’re starting to see some of the damage. Attendance has declined the last two years — league attendance dropped three million (!) from 2017-18 to its lowest level since 2003 — and now a seemingly growing portion of fans are getting sick of the offseason. Perhaps the league doesn’t care as long as the owners get rich. At some point though, MLB is going to have to do something to improve public relations, and it won’t be easy. There won’t be a Sammy Sosa/Mark McGwire home run chase to save them this time. I know commissioner Rob Manfred works for the owners, but he’s also supposed to be a steward of the game, and the state of things isn’t great and getting worse.