Room for Improvement: Alex Rodriguez

This post is the first of something I hope becomes a series over the next few weeks/months, detailing things certain players could work on heading into the new season.

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

By almost any account, the 2015 season was great for Alex Rodriguez. Not only did he come back from suspension and injuries to lead the team in home runs, but the Summer of Al greatly defied even the wildest expectations the most optimistic of fans, analysts, and observers could’ve imagined for Rodriguez. And, it’s probably fair to say that he won over a good deal of hearts and minds that he may not have previously won over. Despite those rousing successes, there is at least one area Rodriguez needs to work on as he prepares for 2016.

Using the good old eye-test, it was clear A-Rod had a bit of a hole in his swing during the 2016 season. His 23.4% strikeout rate was the highest he’s ever had in a full season, “bested” only by partial seasons in 2013 (23.8%), 1995 (28.2%), and 1994 (33.9% in just 59 PA). Of course, Rodriguez was able to counter that with robust power and a great walk rate; his .235 ISO was his highest mark since 2010 (.236) and his walk rate of 13.5% was his best since 2009 (15%). You can deal with a high volume of strikeouts so long as you’re getting at least one of those things–walks or power–back in exchange. This is why Jayson Nix infuriated me so much, but I digress.

The noticeable hole in A-Rod’s swing appeared to come on certain pitch types in a certain location. Every time he had two strikes on him, it seemed that pitchers were going with soft and/or breaking stuff low and away, and Alex was chasing each time, leading to that relatively high strikeout rate. If he take a look here, we can see this supposition backed up by the numbers. Al had a high whiff/swing percentage on changeups, sliders, and curveballs, each clocking in at at least 42%. This gives us pitch type, but it doesn’t quite give us the location. Let’s take a look at A-Rod’s zone profile by whiff/swing and see what we can find.

(Courtesy: BrooksBaseball.Net)
(Courtesy: BrooksBaseball.Net)

We see some pops of red (high whiff/swing%) in the top left of the chart–so up and in, out of the zone–but my eye is drawn to the lower right of the chart, those two boxes lowest and right-most where we see sky-high whiff/swing percentages of 59.32 and 65.91. Recall the pitch types Rodriguez struggled to make contact against: changeups, sliders, and curveballs. Those are pitches that fit into these high-volume whiff zones when we consider that Rodriguez is a right-handed batter. Whether it’s a right-handed pitcher trying to get him to swing over sliders and curves low in the zone or a left-handed pitcher trying to go backdoor with all three of those pitch types, those locations are prime for attacking righties.

Alex has always had a good eye and still managed a good walk rate and good power, even while chasing the low and breaking stuff. If he can iron that out and get a handle on it–and, let’s be honest, with his work ethic and dedication to the game, he’s capable of doing that–he’ll have a great shot at replicated 2015 during the 2016 season.

Thanksgiving Weekend Open Thread

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. This is definitely one of my favorite holidays of the year. Love the food. Cooking it, eating it, the leftovers … I love pretty much everything other than cleaning it all up. I hope you and everyone you’re with has a great Thanksgiving. It’s a pretty cool day.

Barring any breaking news, I don’t plan to post much the rest of this week, so this is your open thread for the next few days. Enjoy the holiday and go forget about baseball for a little while. That’s my plan. Talk about whatever you like here. Happy Thanksgiving.

Sherman: Yankees have let teams know Nova is available

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

The Yankees have let teams know Ivan Nova is available this offseason, according to Joel Sherman. They brought his name up during talks with the Reds about Johnny Cueto at the trade deadline, but that didn’t work out. Sherman says the Yankees are now looking to include Nova in a package for young pitching with several years of team control remaining.

Nova, who turns 29 in January, will be a free agent next offseason, and I suppose it’s not impossible for him to pitch his way into a qualifying offer. That seems unlikely though. One or two starters would have to get hurt for Nova to get a rotation spot. There’s a good chance the Yankees will lose Nova for nothing next winter if they don’t trade him at some point.

Sherman says the Yankees are trying to sell Nova as a healthy and motivated pitcher, which isn’t a bad idea. He’s getting further away from Tommy John surgery and pitching well next season means a handsome free agent contract, and I’m sure that will be on his mind. Those are also reasons to keep Nova, right? There’s no such thing as too much pitching.

Nova was terrible this year, pitching to a 5.07 ERA (4.87 FIP) in 94 innings. He’s had a really rocky career, mixing awful first halves with excellent second halves in both 2011 and 2013. He was also abysmal in 2012. Legitimately one of the worst pitchers in baseball. The overall result is a 4.33 ERA (4.29 FIP) in 631.2 career innings, good for a 96 ERA+.

There’s value in league average, especially since Nova is what, New York’s sixth starter at best right now? I can’t imagine anyone is opposed to the idea of trading Nova. If the Yankees can use him as part of a package to get a younger starter, great. If not, I don’t think holding onto him heading into 2016 would be the worst thing in the world.

Whitley & Mitchell: Spot Starters [2015 Season Review]

Because of the health concerns in their rotation, the Yankees planned to give their starters an extra day of rest whenever possible this season. Off-days helped but that wasn’t enough. The team would have to insert a spot sixth starter on occasion to make it work, which they did quite often this summer.

Following his hit or miss debut last season, Chase Whitley was dubbed the de facto sixth starter in camp, little did we know at the time. Later in the season Bryan Mitchell held that role. Both spent time both with the Yankees and in Triple-A Scranton as depth arms in 2015, and both missed time with injuries. Whitley’s was more serious and Mitchell’s was much scarier.

Whitley. (Presswire)
Whitley. (Presswire)

Ace Whitley

Had the Yankees held any kind of true roster competition in Spring Training, I’m pretty sure Whitley would have won a job on the pitching staff. The 26-year-old allowed two runs in 15.1 innings in camp, striking out 12 and walking only three. He made two starts and five relief appearances. Whitley was awesome during Grapefruit League play and it looked like he was going to be part of the Opening Day roster.

That wasn’t the case. The Yankees were planning to use him as their sixth starter, someone who would come up to make spot starts whenever the team needed an extra arm. That was his role. Sit and wait in Triple-A until everyone else needed a breather. Whitley made three effective starts with the RailRiders in April — he allowed four runs in 17 innings (2.12 ERA and 2.69 FIP) — before getting called up to make his first spot start.

On April 28th, Whitley held the Rays to one run in five innings. Unspectacular, but effective. What was supposed to be a one-start cameo turned into a regular rotation spot, however. Masahiro Tanaka was placed on the DL with a forearm issue the same day Whitley made his spot start, so the Yankees had to keep him in the rotation. Six days later, Whitley shut out the Blue Jays across seven masterful innings.

Whitley’s next start didn’t go so well — the Orioles scored five runs in 5.2 innings and took him deep three times — and the one after that was his final start of the season. In Tampa Bay on May 14th, after getting charged with three runs in 1.2 innings, Whitley walked off the mound with what proved to be a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Five days later, he had season-ending Tommy John surgery.

Whitley’s control disappeared in that final inning — he walked the final batter on four pitches and missed wide with several other pitches earlier in the inning, including one that went over everyone’s head to the backstop. Whitley later acknowledged his elbow had been bugging him for a few weeks, but he didn’t tell anyone and tried to pitch through it. At some point that night the ligament had had enough and snapped. So it goes.

In those four starts with the Yankees, Whitley had a 4.19 ERA (4.58 FIP) and soaked up 19.1 innings. By all accounts his rehab has gone well. The Yankees tried to sneak Whitley through waivers to remove him from the 40-man roster last week, but the Rays claimed him, so he’s no longer in the organization. The team has a bunch of these spare right-handers on the 40-man, so when time came to make space, the injured guy lost out.

The Yankees selected Whitley in the 15th round of the 2010 draft — he was a third baseman and pitcher in college, then the Yankees converted him to the mound full-time in pro ball — and got 95 innings of 5.02 ERA (4.23 FIP) ball out of him, which is essentially replacement level. Considering the expected return on a 15th round pick is basically nothing, Whitley was a nice little get for New York. So long, Ace. It’s been real.

Mitchell. (Presswire)
Mitchell. (Presswire)

Good Arm & Bad Results

When the season started, Mitchell was something like the seventh or eighth pitcher on the rotation depth chart. Chris Capuano got hurt in Spring Training, pushing Adam Warren into the rotation. Whitley was the sixth guy, and he got hurt almost exactly when Capuano returned. The question for Mitchell was whether the Yankees would go to him or Esmil Rogers whenever they needed a starter.

The Yankees never did need Mitchell to come up to make a start. At least not early in the season. He had a rough spring (nine runs in 12.1 innings) and started the season with Triple-A Scranton. Mitchell made 13 starts with the RailRiders and, predictably, was anywhere between very good and very bad. That’s his thing. He had a 2.79 ERA (3.07 FIP) in 67.2 innings in those 13 starts.

The Yankees called Mitchell up for the first time this season as part of the bullpen shuttle in late-June, when they needed a fresh long man. He made his first appearance with New York on June 20th and recorded one of those fancy three-inning saves in a blowout win. Mitchell stuck around for a bit after that, allowing two earned runs in 6.1 innings in his next four appearances, all in short-ish relief.

Following a brief return to Triple-A Scranton around the All-Star break — the Yankees wanted Mitchell to stay stretched out, so he was send down to make two starts — Mitchell was called back up to join the Yankees in early-August. He made a spot start against the White Sox on August 1st and allowed four runs in four innings on a limited pitch count. The Yankees then moved him back into long relief.

Mitchell’s best outing of the season came against the Indians on August 11th, when he threw three scoreless innings in extra innings, striking out five. In his next appearance, another spot start, Mitchell took a line drive to the face in what was a really scary scene.

Mitchell escaped with only a small nasal fracture, which was actually good news, all things considered. He didn’t have a concussion or any other neurological damage, and the ball managed to avoid his eyes and jaw. It hit the bill of his cap before deflecting into his nose.

Amazingly, Mitchell returned to the mound only eleven days later. He spent some time on the 7-day concussion DL while going through tests, but otherwise he was back on the mound in short order. Mitchell wasn’t any good after that, but at least he was healthy and back on the mound.

In ten appearances after the line drive, Mitchell allowed 12 runs on 13 hits and ten walks in 8.2 innings. He struck out only seven and opponents hit .333/.480/.513 against him. Yikes. Mitchell was not included on the wildcard game roster, because duh, and he finished the regular season with a 6.37 ERA (4.75 FIP) in 29.2 big league innings spread across two starts and 18 relief appearances.

It’s definitely possible the whole line drive to the face thing affected Mitchell’s performance down the stretch. If not physically then mentally. He could have been pitching tentatively because he feared getting hit again, something like that. Although he escaped with a relatively minor injury, that’s a really scary incident and it could have shaken him up. The fact he was able to physically pitch eleven days later was impressive, but that doesn’t mean he was ready to go mentally.

Anyway, the Yankees sent Mitchell to Puerto Rico to play winter ball this offseason, to make up some innings after spending so much time in the bullpen this summer. He’s thrown 21.2 innings in five starts (4.15 ERA) in winter ball so far but is struggling with control (14/12 K/BB), though that isn’t uncommon. Mitchell’s got a great arm but location continues to be an issue.

Next season will be Mitchell’s final minor league option year, so he has to stick in MLB for good in 2017 to be exposed to waivers. I expect the Yankees to bring him a camp as a starter and then send him to Triple-A Scranton to continue working as a starter next season, but a full-time move to the bullpen may be in the cards at some point. We’ll see.

After ten years, Yankees’ stagnant payroll is an issue that can no longer be ignored

This place is only six years old. (Presswire)
Oh what a lovely new ballpark you have. (Presswire)

Over the last 15 years, baseball has experienced incredible growth as an industry, with MLB revenue climbing from $3.4 billion in 2000 to north of $8 billion in 2015. They might even be over $9 billion at this point. Attendance is as good as it’s ever been, television contracts are enormous (at least for teams that don’t own their own network), and MLBAM is a media juggernaut.

Baseball is extremely healthy right now and, as a result, teams are spending more than ever on players. According to the USA Today salary database, the average MLB payroll has gone from $52.8M in 2000 to $65.8M in 2005 to $83.7M in 2010 to $114.8M in 2015. The average payrolls have more than doubled over the last 15 years. That’s incredible! The Yankees specifically have gone from a $92.8M payroll in 2000 to a $213.4M payroll in 2015.

That only tells part of the story, however. New York’s payroll increased $23.1M on average each year from 2000-05. They went from that $92.8M payroll in 2000 to a $208.3M payroll in 2005. That’s insane. The team’s payroll has held fairly steady over the last ten years though. It was $208.3M in 2005 and $213.4M in 2015 according to USA Today’s numbers, which I’m certain are not 100% accurate, but are good enough for our purposes. Here’s a graph:

2000-15 MLB Payrolls

The Yankees have added some significant revenue streams over the last ten years. First and foremost, the new Yankee Stadium opened in 2009. That’s kind of a big deal. Then, in November 2012, a significant percentage of the YES Network was sold to News Corp. for hundreds of millions of dollars over a span of several years. And finally, MLB recently signed new national television contracts with FOX and TBS, more than doubling each team’s take. All of that additional revenue has not led to a payroll increase.

Of course, the Yankees have some significant expenses as well, including revenue sharing and the luxury tax. (They’re also paying off the new ballpark.) They’ve paid something along the lines of $20M annually in luxury tax for a few years now, and who knows how much they’re playing in revenue sharing. A Forbes article says the Yankees paid $95M (!) in revenue sharing in 2013. That’s ridiculous. Then again, the same article says the team led MLB with $461M in revenue that year. (That’s after revenue sharing and bond payments on the ballpark.) Forbes had the team’s revenue at $277M in 2005.

Revenue is up and expenses are up, but payroll has held steady for a decade now. To be fair, the Yankees have spent a lot of money on things not directly related to the roster the last few years. The team beefed up their pro scouting and statistical analysis departments, the Himes complex in Tampa was upgraded with major renovations a few years ago, and of course there was the unprecedented international spending spree a few years ago. Who knows what else has gone on behind the scenes?

But still, something isn’t adding up here. Annual revenue increased nearly $200M from 2005-13 according to Forbes — their numbers are estimations, it should be noted — yet payroll has not changed. Has all the extra revenue gone to increased expenses and behind-the-scenes stuff? I suppose it’s possible, but man, that’s really hard to believe. Especially when Hal Steinbrenner has been wearing out that “you don’t need a $200M payroll to win the World Series” line. He’s made it very clear he doesn’t want to spend more money.

The Yankees are in the game’s largest market and they are the biggest brand in the sport — if not all sports — and that comes with its advantages, specifically money. Lots and lots of money. Look at that graph above. From 2003 to 2011 or so the Yankees blew the rest of the league out of the water with their payroll. That isn’t the case anymore. The rest of the league is catching up, so the Yankees are not taking advantage of their market. They’ve done the rest of the league a favor and leveled the playing field, and it’s showing in the standings. The Yankees haven’t finishing closer than six games back of the AL East winner since 2012.

That is the intention of the luxury tax and revenue sharing system, of course. After all, the luxury tax is officially called the Competitive Balance Tax. It’s meant to level the playing field and as far as the Yankees are concerned, it appears to be working beautifully. Hal doesn’t want to pay the tax. He’s made that abundantly clear. And I get that. The luxury tax is dead money. The Yankees have been writing an eight-figure check for a few years now for … nothing. The money does nothing. It goes into MLB’s Central Fund and that’s it. It’s an investment with no return.

It’s one thing to pass on some free agents because of the luxury tax. Over the last few offseasons the Yankees have only spent whatever has come off the books, little if anything more. But now the Yankees have apparently reached the point where Brett Gardner and Andrew Miller — two of their very best players — are reportedly being made available. There are baseball reasons to trade them, but it’s also financially motivated too. The Yankees didn’t shed much money this year, so they can’t afford any significant free agents, meaning the best way to add talent is by trading some of their best players.

That is screwed up, man. The thought of trading players as good as Gardner and Miller because spending money on free agents is not permitted is screwed up. It’s one thing when you can’t sign a free agent because payroll won’t increase, but once you start trading away good players to make things work financially, then it’s really a problem. Shouldn’t this concern the MLBPA? The Yankees haven’t increased payroll in ten years. I feel like the union should consider that a problem.

The Steinbrenners own the Yankees and they’re free to do whatever they want with the team, the same way I own this stupid blog and am free to do whatever I want with it. And fans are free to disagree with the team’s direction. When payroll stands still for a decade even though a new ballpark opened (!) and the News Corp. deal happened and the league itself keeps setting revenue records, it’s not hard to understand why fans might be unhappy. Now there’s talk about trading good players because signing expensive free agents is not an option? Holy mackerel.

The Yankees don’t have to go out and sign the biggest free agents. You needn’t look beyond their roster to see why that can be a really bad strategy. There’s a point of diminishing returns too, where every dollar you spend brings fewer and fewer wins to the roster. I thought the Yankees were beyond that point a few years ago, but with payroll holding steady and the team winnings 84-87 games the last three years, they’re not there any more. There are some obvious ways the Yankees could spent money this winter and add a lot of wins to the roster.

For a few years in the mid-to-late-2000s it was difficult to see how a static payroll was hurting the Yankees. The rest of the league was still so far behind it didn’t matter. Now though, in 2015 heading into 2016, it couldn’t be any more obvious the league is getting more competitive and the Yankees are no longer in a class of their own. They were kings of the sport and now they’re much closer to everyone else.

The Steinbrenners don’t have to up payroll. It’s their team and they can do what they want. But they also can’t ignore how failing to keep up with league-wide inflation — a modest goal, I’d say — is hurting their chances to field one of those “championship caliber teams” Hal is always talking about. The longer the Yankees’ payroll remains stagnant, the better it is for the rest of MLB.

Tuesday Night Open Thread

Forgot to mention this last week: the late Yogi Berra will be honored with the President Medal of Freedom, the White House announced. Apparently the ceremony was today. The Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor and recognizes “especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” Beyond his baseball career, Yogi served in World War II, established a scholarship at Columbia, and was involved with a learning center in New Jersey that provided educational programs to 29,000 students annually. Willie Mays will also receive the Medal of Freedom. That’s quite an honor.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. None of the local hockey or basketball teams are in action, so if you’re jonesin’ for some sports, you have to settle for college basketball. You folks know how these open threads work by now, so have at it.