A calm, rational discussion about the Yankees’ dumpster fire of a bullpen

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

In a season full of ugly bullpen meltdowns, the Yankees hit a new low last night. Three relievers combined to walk six of 13 batters faced, and another was hit by a pitch. Dellin Betances, working for the third straight day, couldn’t protected a one-run lead against the bottom of the lineup. Why was he working for the third straight day? Because he had to bail out Jonathan Holder with a five-run lead (!) Monday night.

Holder was sent down prior to yesterday’s game, though by then the damage had been done. Betances had to pitch Monday night and Holder himself has helped blow a few games these last few weeks. He’s not the only problem though. Hardly. He’s part of the problem. Not the problem. Here is the bullpen in June:

4.56 ERA
4.55 FIP
25.2 K%
12.3 BB%
1.29 HR/9

Can’t win like that. Can’t be done. Not with starters throwing fewer and fewer innings each passing season. Bullpens are far too important to get that performance for a month and come out unscathed. The Yankees were four games up in the AL East as recently as 16 days ago and now they’re one game back, and they’re lucky they’re still that close. June has been a terrible month for the Yankees overall and especially the relief crew.

So what do the Yankees do now? It’s easy to say they should designated this guy for assignment, send down that other guy, and call up those two prospects I really like. I wish it were that easy. Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman surely wish it was as well. Want to get this bullpen on track? Here are some possibly fixes.

1. Eight is too many. The Yankees have been carrying eight relievers for weeks now and I think it’s that’s too many. Even with a seven-man bullpen, that last guy gets used maybe once a week. Domingo German was brought into the eighth inning of a two-run game last night after pitching once in the previous nine days. How could you expect a kid who has never been a reliever before to be sharp after that layoff?

Removing an arm from the bullpen seems counterintuitive when no one can protect a damn lead, but less is often more. Shorten the staff to your seven best arms and make sure they each get enough work to stay sharp and ready to go. There’s a fine line between regular work and overwork, but Girardi is generally pretty good at toeing that line. Pick your seven best arms and let them carry the load. Eighth relievers only get used in blowouts, and in situations they’re unqualified to pitch, like German last night.

2. Get Betances to go back to the fastball. En route to blowing that game last night, Betances threw 21 pitches, and 13 of them were curveballs. Only six of the 13 were strikes too. Dellin has a great curveball! He’s also been leaning on it way too much lately. From Brooks Baseball:

dellin-betances-pitch-selection

This is something that goes back to last year. It’s not necessarily new. Throwing all those curveballs is fine when Betances can drop it in for strikes, but lately throwing it for strikes has been a problem, and he’s not adjusting. He’s been trying to force it in there anyway. Not good!

“I have to be able to rely on my fastball more. Probably got too breaking ball happy,” said Betances to Erik Boland following last night’s game, so he’s aware that all these curveballs can be a problem. Dellin has a great fastball. He was working for a third straight night last night and the pitch still averaged 97.5 mph and topped out at 98.2 mph.

Betances doesn’t have to shelve the curveball entirely. That would be silly. But I think he needs to start using his fastball more often — he’s at his best when he has close to a 50-50 mix a la 2014 and 2015 — because a) his heater is so good he’ll get swings and misses with it, and b) it’ll help keep hitters off the breaking ball.

3. Give Webb a shot. The Yankees have been trying to dig up a reliable left-handed middle reliever since last season and, for a while, Tommy Layne did the job. Chasen Shreve has been the guy last few weeks and he’s had his moments. He hasn’t been able to get back to where he was in the first half of 2014 and chances are he never will, though he has been better this season. Good, not great.

Webb is by no means a budding shutdown reliever — or maybe he is! — though the tools are there for him to contribute, and as something more than a left-on-left matchup guy too. He’s low-90s with the fastball and he throws both a slider and changeup regularly. It’s a starter’s repertoire in the bullpen. Webb throws strikes — he has a 34.1% strikeout rate and a 2.2% walk rate in Triple-A this year — and what more could you ask? Girardi would have killed for a reliever who could throw strikes last night.

Layne fizzled out and Shreve isn’t good enough to keep a middle relief spot uncontested. Webb did everything he had to do at Triple-A over the last four years, and the Pirates saw enough to give him a look in Spring Training as a Rule 5 Draft pick. Given the bullpen issues, the time to give the 26-year-old a chance is now. If it works, wonderful. If not, then you move on to the next guy. The Yankees have been there, done that with Layne and Shreve.

4. Consider Adams. I’m ready for the Yankees to stick Chance Adams, their top Triple-A pitching prospect, in the big league bullpen. I made this argument last week. Adams was a reliever in college and in his first partial season of pro ball, so he’s familiar with the role. He misses bats and he’s said to be a tough as nails competitor, and that’s never a bad thing. Adams has had success at Triple-A and there are plenty of reasons to believe he’s ready to help in some capacity.

Adams. (Presswire)
Adams. (Presswire)

I get that people are squeamish about putting a top starting pitcher prospect in the bullpen, but it’s really not that big a deal. Teams have been breaking in their young arms as relievers for decades. I know the Yankees seemed to botch things with Joba Chamberlain, but Luis Severino was in the bullpen last year, and look at him now. Severino doesn’t become the pitcher he is today without that stint in the bullpen last season. I absolutely believe that.

Putting Adams in the bullpen allows him to get his feet wet at the MLB level and learn how to get big leaguers out. That’s valuable experience! That will help a) the Yankees win games right now, and b) Adams succeed as a starter going forward. The Yankees could break him in as a reliever this year and consider him a rotation candidate next season. That is a perfectly reasonable development plan.

5. Be patient. Okay, this won’t be easy, but the Yankees have to remain patient and not completely tear things down because of a bad month. Overreacting is never good. The bullpen isn’t actually this bad. At least I don’t think it is. The relievers are in a collective funk right now. It happens. They can make some changes (Webb, Adams, etc.) though overall, they still need Betances and Aroldis Chapman to be their rocks, and Tyler Clippard to be not awful.

Adam Warren is expected back from the disabled list next week and he’ll going to help as long as his shoulder stays healthy. That’s tricky, but Warren has never not been solid for the Yankees. Also, Chad Green seems to be coming into his own as a reliever, so within a few weeks he could really find his footing and take off as a dominant bullpen arm. Making tweaks at this point makes sense. There’s also something to be said for trusting the guys in the bullpen to sort things out soon. We know these guys can be reliable because they were just a few weeks ago.

* * *

The Yankees are 11-14 overall in June — they’ve outscored their opponents by 39 runs this month, underscoring the general stupidity of baseball — and the bullpen is a big reason why. It’s not the only reason. Definitely not. But it is the reason that is most smacking us in the face. The offense has vanished for long stretches of time and the starters haven’t been great either. Don’t get me started on the baserunning either. Goodness. Those outs on the bases added up.

The bullpen situation, however, is not getting better. It’s getting worse. Just when you think they can’t sink to a new low, they go out and do what they did last night. The Yankees aren’t going anywhere with the bullpen performing like this. Changing some personnel, changing some roles, and changing some pitch selection could go a long way to getting things straightened out. And, if it doesn’t, the Yankees will have no choice but to really shake things up and go outside the organization for help.

White Sox 4, Yankees 3: The Bullpen Hates Us All

Boy, the Yankees stink right now. I mean really, really stink. The bullpen especially. Quick 1-2-3 innings are a thing of the past. The Yankees were one out away from a win Tuesday night, yet it turned into a 4-3 walk-off loss to the White Sox. Baseball is so stupid.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Death by Bullpen
What the hell happened to the bullpen? Everyone is going belly up at the same time. The Yankees managed to take a 3-1 lead into the eighth inning (more on that later) and three relievers faced 13 batters, and allowed eight to reach base. Seven didn’t have to take the bat off their shoulders. Seven! At least make them work for it dudes. The bullpen situation has become untenable.

Not everyone was available due to recent workloads, which meant the first guy out of the bullpen was Domingo German. He threw ten pitches. Two were strikes. Back-to-back walks sent German to the showers and brought Tyler Clippard into the game, who is pretty much the last guy anyone wants to see on the mound in a close game. His first four pitches? Balls. Walked the bases loaded with no outs. Inexcusable!

To Clippard’s credit, he escaped that jam while allowing just one run, which is close to the best case scenario there. He struck out Jose Abreu, got Avisail Garcia to fly out to shallow right, walked Todd Frazier to force in a run (argh), and struck out Matt Davidson to end the inning. After all that, the Yankees had a 3-2 lead! Considering the way the inning started, getting out with a lead was amazing.

In the ninth, the Yankees had the situation they would sign for every day of the week: Dellin Betances on the mound with a one-run lead. A quick ground out got the inning started. Then Betances lost the plate, something he has done far more frequently this year than he has in the past. A walk (Kevan Smith), a walk (Alen Hanson), and a hit batsman (Yolmer Sanchez) loaded the bases. Six of the first ten batters the bullpen faced drew walks. The 11th was hit by a pitch.

The death blow came with two outs, when Abreu pulled a ground ball single through the left side of the infield to score both the game-winning and go-ahead runs. Brett Gardner‘s throw from left field was good, but there was no way he was going to get the speedy Hanson at the plate. The final line on the bullpen: 1.2 IP, 1 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 6 BB, 2 K, 1 HB. German and Clippard were bad, but bottom line, Betances has to protect a one-run lead against the bottom of lineup, even if he is pitching for the third straight day. Please shoot this bullpen into the sun.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Kids Shall Lead Them
For the first seven innings the Yankees couldn’t do much of anything against Jose Quintana and, weirdly, Anthony Swarzak. On two occasions they had a walk followed immediately by a first pitch double play. Is that not the most annoying thing in baseball? It wasn’t until Didi Gregorius beat out a squibber to third with two outs in the fourth that the Yankees had a hit, and that was the only time they had two runners on base simultaneously until the eighth.

The go-ahead rally started with a Tyler Wade walk. How about that? In his first big league at-bat — he pinch-hit for Rob Refsnyder — Wade worked a walk against former Yankees farmhand Tommy Kahnle. Jacoby Ellsbury then beat out an infield single to put runners on first and second. Two batters later, Aaron Judge shot a hard-hit grounder back up the middle to score Wade and knot things up 1-1. Gary Sanchez, the next batter, split the right-center field gap to score both Ellsbury and Judge, giving the Yankees a 3-1 lead. Hooray homegrown Yankees! They’re cool.

A Dozen For Sevy
Also cool: Luis Severino. He struck out a career high 12 in seven innings, allowing just one run on six hits and no walks. The run he allowed was kinda dumb too. Smith jam-shotted a leadoff single the other way to right, then two batters later Sanchez found a hole with a single to right field. Chicago had runners on first and second with one out and when Abreu reached out and poked a quality 2-0 fastball …

luis-severino-jose-abreu

… inside the first base bag and down the right field line for a run-scoring double. Bah. Good pitch. Abreu got enough wood on it and it stayed fair. Baseball is so stupid sometimes. Especially of late.

That was the only run Severino allowed. He struck out the last three batters he faced and was overpowering. He retired the final nine batters he faced and 12 of the final 14 batters he faced following the Abreu single. Severino has been great all season and he was great again Tuesday night. Wins are stupid, but the bullpen has now blow six potential wins for Severino. He can’t do it all himself.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Leftovers
Welcome to the big leagues, Tyler Wade. He drew that walk in his first at-bat to spark the go-ahead rally. He also played an inning in left field — after he was called up to play second base, naturally — and struck out in his second at-bat, though it was a tough eight-pitch at-bat. Kid’s gonna be a hell of a ballplayer. Can’t wait to see more.

Judge and Gregorius each had two hits while Ellsbury, Sanchez, and first baseman Austin Romine had one each. Judge, Sanchez, Wade, Tyler Austin, and Ronald Torreyes drew walks. The Yankees went 3-for-8 (.375) with runners in scoring position, which is easily my least favorite stat in baseball, yet I still pass it along because I hate myself.

Did I mention the bullpen has been dog poop? Good grief. The last two nights: 3.2 IP, 7 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 8 BB, 4 K, 1 HB. They’ve hit DEFCON 1. Something has to give here. They can’t keep running out the same guys and expecting different results. At some point Brian Cashman and the front office have to make changes. This ain’t working.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
Head over to ESPN for the box score and updated standings, and MLB.com for the video highlights. We have a Bullpen Workload page. Here’s the win probability graph:


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
This four-game series continues Wednesday night with the third game. Masahiro Tanaka and Carlos Rodon are the scheduled starting pitchers. Rodon will be making his first start of the year. He’s been out with a biceps issue.

DotF: Littell dominates, Mateo makes AA debut in Trenton win

A few quick notes to get us started:

  • As expected, SS Jorge Mateo was moved up from High-A Tampa to Double-A Trenton, and IF Abi Avelino was moved up from Double-A Trenton to Triple-A Scranton. Also, IF Angel Aguilar has been moved up from Low-A Charleston to High-A Tampa as well, the team announced. That’s all one big chain reaction to Starlin Castro getting hurt and SS Tyler Wade being called up to MLB.
  • RHP Clarke Schmidt, this year’s first round pick, told Matthew Martell his Tommy John surgery rehab is going well. He expects to begin throwing in roughly two months. Schmidt had surgery in May. “They said the time frame should be about September for me to start throwing again. Right now, it’s just slight mobility work and easing back into it. The progressions have come quickly, so I can tell everything’s going well so far,” he said.
  • I missed this yesterday, but RHP Domingo Acevedo was included in Baseball Prospectus’ Monday Morning Ten Pack (subs. req’d) “(Saying) there’s a ton of violence in the delivery feels almost kind. There’s bad head movement, a ton of torque, and a severe fall-off at the end. I just don’t think it’s repeatable thirty or more times a year for 100 pitches. I do think he could be a heck of a reliever letting it fly for an inning or two,” said the write-up.

Triple-A Scranton‘s game was suspended due to rain with one out in the top of the second. It’ll be completed tomorrow. Stinks a RHP Chance Adams start was washed away. OF Dustin Fowler did hit a home run before the rain came. Here’s the video. Here’s the box score. I’ll update the stats when they finish the game tomorrow.

Double-A Trenton (10-4 win over Richmond)

  • SS Jorge Mateo: 2-5, 1 R, 3 K, 1 CS — both hits were infield singles … nice little Double-A debut
  • 2B Thairo Estrada: 2-5, 1 R, 1 SB
  • CF Rashad Crawford: 1-4, 2 R, 2 RBI
  • LF Zack Zehner: 3-4, 2 R, 1 2B, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 1 SB — the 2015 18th round pick is quietly hitting .292/.386/.412 this year
  • RHP Zack Littell: 6 H, 3 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 BB, 10 K, 2 WP, 4/3 GB/FB — 59 of 97 pitches were strikes (61%) … ten strikeouts in seven innings of one-run (unearned) ball in his first Double-A start, now ten strikeouts in six shutout innings in his second Double-A start
  • RHP Nick Rumbelow: 1.2 IP, 1 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 2/2 GB/FB — 24 of 38 pitches were strikes (63%) … first runs allowed in eight appearances since coming back from Tommy John surgery

[Read more…]

Game 75: Win it for Starlin

(Matt Hazlett/Getty)
(Matt Hazlett/Getty)

The Yankees are down yet another player. Starlin Castro was indeed placed on the 10-day disabled list with a right hamstring strain today. He left last night’s game with the injury. Castro joins Aaron Hicks (oblique), CC Sabathia (hamstring), Adam Warren (shoulder), and Greg Bird (ankle) on the shelf. Also, Matt Holliday is still out with his mystery illness/allergic reaction.

The show must go on though. Every team deals with injuries and no one feels bad for the Yankees. The Yankees did get back in the win column last night, though not before the bullpen made things unnecessarily interesting. I could really go for a blowout win. When’s the last time the Yankees had one of those? The bloodbath series against the Orioles, I guess. Here is the White Sox’s lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. 3B Chase Headley
  3. RF Aaron Judge
  4. C Gary Sanchez
  5. SS Didi Gregorius
  6. DH Tyler Austin
  7. 2B Ronald Torreyes
  8. 1B Austin Romine
  9. LF Rob Refsnyder
    RHP Luis Severino

It’s a bit cloudy in Chicago and on the cool side. There’s no rain in the forecast though, and that’s the most important thing. This evening’s game will begin at 8:10pm ET and YES will have the broadcast. Enjoy the game.

Injury Updates: Castro has a Grade I strain. There’s no word on an exact timetable, but those usually take 2-3 weeks. Sometimes even less … Holliday went for tests but still doesn’t feel right. If it lingers another day or two, he could be placed on the disabled list … Austin’s hamstring is sore, which is why he’s the designated hitter tonight.

Roster Moves: In addition to placing Castro on the disabled list, the Yankees also sent down Jonathan Holder, and called up both Tyler Wade and Tyler Webb. The Yankees already had an open 40-man roster spot for Wade, so no other move was required. Technically Webb replaces Castro on the roster since the injury allows the Yankees to get around the ten-day rule. Wade is replacing Holder. The active roster is now 16% Tylers.

A check in on Masahiro Tanaka’s spin rates

(Adam Hunger/Getty)
(Adam Hunger/Getty)

Overall, this has been a trying season for Masahiro Tanaka. Given all the success he had in Japan and in his first three seasons with the Yankees, this has to be the most difficult season of his career. This is the first time he’s really struggled. I don’t mean for one or two starts. For an extended period or time. The All-Star break is only two weeks away, and he’s sitting on a 5.74 ERA (5.27 FIP) in 84.2 innings. Yuck.

Last time out Tanaka was excellent, striking out nine in eight shutout innings against the Rangers. He allowed three singles and two walks. That’s all. We’ve seen some flashes of brilliance from Tanaka this year, so we know it’s still in there. We just haven’t seen it consistently. Hopefully that start against Texas was a sign of things to come. Given how the season has played out, it’s way too early to say Tanaka has turned the corner.

Anecdotally, it seems Tanaka’s problems stem from his splitter and slider, his two go-to pitches. He’s not overpowering by any means. He succeeds by keeping hitters off balance with the splitter and slider. This year, for whatever reason, those two pitches haven’t behaved properly. Sometimes they do! And when they do, Tanaka has a start like he did against the Rangers. When they don’t, it’s a Home Run Derby.

For the most part, whenever Tanaka has allowed home runs this year, they’ve come on pitches that didn’t do what they were supposed to do. That usually how it works, right? Rather than dive out of the zone, those pitches stay up and get hammered. Here are the pitch locations of the 21 (!) home runs Tanaka has allowed in 2017, via Baseball Savant:

masahiro-tanaka-home-run-locations

Five of those 21 home runs have come on splitters and four have come on sliders, and, as you can see in the plot, those pitches were left up. There’s no bad luck here. We haven’t seen someone go down and golf a diving splitter into the short porch or something like that. No, when Tanaka has been taken deep, it’s been a bomb on a pitch sitting middle-middle.

Since Tanaka has had trouble getting his splitter and slider to do what they’re supposed to do for much of the season, I figured it would be a good idea to look at the spin rate of each pitch. Spin rate is similar to velocity in that it’s not everything there is to pitching. It’s one tool in the shed. Spin rate could, possibly, shed some light on why the slider and splitter aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do. So let’s get to it, shall we?

The Splitter

Let’s get a few things out of the way first. One, spin rate is expressed in revolutions per minute even though it takes less than half-a-second for a pitch to reach the plate. Two, spin rate data only goes back to 2015, so that’s as far back as I went. I’d like to compare Tanaka’s pre- and post-partially torn elbow ligament spin rates, but alas. Can’t be done. And three, I looked at the spin rates on a month-by-month basis. Start-by-start is extreme overkill. Here are Tanaka’s splitter spin rates:

masahiro-tanaka-splitter-spin-rate

The spin rate on Tanaka’s splitter is down noticeably from last season, when he was one of the top pitchers in the American League. Spin rate is complicated though. More spin (and less spin) means different things for different pitches. High spin on a fastball correlates well to swings and misses while a low spin rate correlates well to ground balls, for example.

For a splitter, a low spin rate is actually better. A lower spin rate equals more tumbling action, and that leads to both more grounders and swings and misses. The higher the spin on a splitter, the more it acts like a true fastball. In theory, spin rate says Tanaka’s splitter this year should be getting more grounders and whiffs than last year because it has less spin, and:

  • 2016: 33.2% whiffs per swing and 65.1% grounders per ball in play
  • 2017: 41.5% whiffs per swing and 63.8% grounders per ball in play

Well look at that. Tanaka’s swing and miss rate on his splitter is up 8.3 percentage points from last year. That’s pretty significant. Going from 33.2% whiffs to 41.5% whiffs is huge. (The MLB average on splitters is 34.4%.) The ground ball rate is down 1.3 percentage points, which is relatively tiny. For all intents and purposes, the grounder rate has held steady since last year while the swing and miss rate has gone up quite a bit.

Okay, so what the hell does that mean? I’m not sure, exactly. But! This is actually good news, right? Or maybe it would be better to say this is not bad news. I’d be worried if Tanaka’s splitter spin rate jumped a bunch this year. That would indicate far more “straight” splitters, or hangers. On a macro-level, the splitter is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. On a micro-level, some individual splitters are not, and those are the ones getting hit a long way. Those are the mistake pitches.

The Slider

masahiro-tanaka-slider-spin-rate

Kinda interesting the league average slider spin rate keeps climbing, isn’t it? High slider spin rate correlates very well to swing and misses, though there’s basically no correlation with ground ball rate. A high spin slider gets as many grounders as a low spin slider. Weird.

Anyway, it sure looks like teams have really started emphasizing slider spin the last few seasons, and Tanaka’s slider spin rate has climbed along with the league average. It’s gotten better and better with each passing month so far this season. Not coincidentally:

  • April: 26.8% whiffs per swing
  • May: 44.9% whiffs per swing
  • June: 45.9% whiffs per swing

As Tanaka’s slider spin rate has gone up, hitters have come up empty with more of their swings against the pitch. The MLB average swing and miss rate on sliders is 34.9% this year, and Tanaka has been well above that in April and May. It’s probably not a coincidence then that Tanaka’s four highest strikeout totals this season have come within his last six starts.

Tanaka’s slider spin rate this season is good news. It’s getting better and the pitch is missing more bats. Similar to the splitter and a high spin rate, I’d be worried if Tanaka’s spin rate on his slider was way down. Overall, it’s been great. It’s those one or two (or three or four) mistake pitches per start that have cost him dearly. Limiting those is the key going forward, which is something we probably already knew, huh? Yeah.

* * *

All things considered, the spin rates on Tanaka’s splitter and slider are right where they should be so far this season. That’s good! That’s at least an indication he’s not broken for good. I never really through that was the case though. If it were, Tanaka wouldn’t throw these random great starts every once in a while. This leads me to believe his problems are mechanical, which is what he’s said since Spring Training. Funny how that works.

With Tanaka, he can never be a normal pitcher and just struggle. Every time he has a bad game or a bad stretch of games or hell, even throws a bad pitch, it’s because of the elbow. Always the elbow. That’s lazy though. We’re better than that. If Tanaka’s elbow were acting up, he wouldn’t be able to spin the baseball the way he normally does, and right now the overall spin rates on his slider and splitter show no red flags.

Scouting the Trade Market: Gerrit Cole

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

One thing has become abundantly clear the last few weeks: the Yankees need pitching. All types. Starters, relievers, lefties, righties, the whole nine. Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery look like long-term keepers, though the remainder of the rotation is up in the air. CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda will be free agents after the season, and who knows what’ll happen with Masahiro Tanaka‘s opt-out.

The Yankees have the flexibility to fill out their rotation in multiple ways. Enough money is coming off the books after this season that they could sign a free agent or two. They also have the prospects to promote from within and/or make a trade. Brian Cashman and his staff will explore every avenue. That’s what they do. If a high-end starter with long-term control becomes available, they’ll get involved. I’m sure of it.

One such starter who may be made available at the deadline — but not definitely — is Pirates right-hander Gerrit Cole, who the Yankees drafted in the first round in 2008. Cole didn’t sign, went to UCLA for three years, then came out as the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft. You know the story. That won’t stop the Yankees from pursuing Cole in a trade. There’s not enough quality pitching out there to hold grudges. Let’s break down Cole as a trade target.

The Performance

Somehow this is already Cole’s fifth season in the big leagues. He made his MLB debut in June 2013 and he has been in Pittsburgh’s rotation ever since. Here are his numbers over the years, real quick:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2013 117.1 3.22 2.91 21.3% 6.0% 49.1% 0.54 .294 .275
2014 138 3.65 3.23 24.2% 7.0% 49.2% 0.72 .294 .326
2015 208 2.60 2.66 24.3% 5.3% 48.0% 0.48 .283 .266
2016 116 3.88 3.33 19.4% 7.1% 45.6% 0.54 .285 .371
2017 96.1 4.11 4.57 19.7% 6.0% 46.7% 1.59 .285 .367

Two things immediately stand out. Well, three things, really. One, Cole is in the middle of his worst big league season, both in terms of ERA and FIP. Two, he’s been very home run prone this year. I mean, every pitcher has been home run prone, but Cole especially so. He’s allowed one additional homer per nine innings pitched compared to the last few seasons.

And three, left-handed batters have really hit Cole hard since the start of 2016. He’s still the same ol’ Gerrit Cole against righties, but after performing very well against lefties from 2013-15, Cole hasn’t been able to keep them in check since the start of last season. I’m sure the home runs have something to do with that — again, everyone is giving up more homers these days — but it’s still a red flag. Here’s the batted ball data against lefties, via FanGraphs:

gerrit-cole-vs-lhb

So yeah, home runs have definitely been a problem. Nearly one-quarter of all fly balls Cole has given up to lefties have left the yard this season. That’s insane. Lefties aren’t getting the ball in the air that much more often against Cole, but they are pulling the ball and make hard contact more often. That makes sense. Most hitters have their most power when they pull the ball.

Cole has already allowed 12 home runs — 12! — to left-handed batters this season. He allowed 16 total from 2013-16. Hit Tracker data says only five of those 12 home runs were “Just Enoughs,” meaning the ball cleared the fence by fewer than ten vertical feet. Those barely got over the fence. The other seven qualifies as “No Doubt” and “Plenty,” meaning they were bombs. Not cheap home runs. Hmmm.

If you’re reading this, you know a right-handed pitcher who has trouble keeping left-handed batters in the park is bad news in Yankee Stadium. The short right field porch is only going to exacerbate that home run problem. Is this fixable? Or is this who Cole is now? That’s something the Yankees will have to consider before pursuing a trade.

The Stuff

Cole has five distinct pitches, but he is more of a four-and-a-half pitch pitcher than a true five-pitch pitcher. His curveball is basically a get-me-over pitch he’ll use to steal a strike now and then. It’s not a put-away pitch like his slider and changeup. And his fastball, for that matter. Here are the average velocities, via Brooks Baseball:

gerrit-cole-velocity

Yep. Cole throws hard. We knew that already. His four-seamer and sinker are both consistently over 95 mph — he’s topped out at 100.2 mph with the four-seamer and 99.7 mph with the sinker this season — while the slider and changeup are both a touch shy of 90 mph. Cole is Severino, basically. Everything he throws is hard. A power pitcher all the way.

Reading about pitches and seeing them in action are two very different things, so here’s some video:

Because of the issues with left-handed hitters the last two years, it’s worth digging a little deeper here. PitchFX and Trackman data shows Cole is throwing fewer four-seam fastballs to lefties this year and more of everything else. Cole may have changed his pitch selection a bit after last season, or this could be sample size noise. If he did change his pitch selection against lefties intentionally, it’s not really working. They’re taking him deep on the regular this year.

Here are the swing-and-miss rates by lefties against Cole’s various pitches, via Brooks Baseball:

gerrit-cole-whiff-vs-lhb

Just about everything is down from where it was from 2013-15, the years Cole more than held his own against lefties. The curveball is way down, though he has only thrown 91 curveballs to lefties this season. That’s not much. Then again, he threw 91 curves to lefties all of last season. He is throwing that pitch more often to batters on the other side of the plate and they are not swinging and missing much at all.

The changeup and slider are the important pitches here. Especially the changeup, though Cole will also back foot his slider to lefties. The slider is still getting plenty of empty swings relative to previous years. The changeup? Not so much. Only two of those 12 home runs by lefties have come against the changeup, but if the pitch is not on par with previous years, hitters don’t have to worry about it as much. It has an effect on Cole’s entire arsenal.

Something has gone awry here. Cole’s stuff is relatively unchanged, yet he’s been unable to keep left-handed batters in check since the start of last season. Just about all 12 of the home runs he’s allowed to lefties this year have come on pitches right out over the plate (via Baseball Savant) …

gerrit-cole-home-run-locations

… so obviously location is an issue. Tanaka has given up a ton of dingers this season. Why? Because he’s left too many pitches out over the plate. That’s the easy part. Why has he left more pitches out over the plate? In Tanaka’s case, we can see his slider and splitter haven’t been breaking as much as usual. I haven’t watch Cole as closely as I’ve watched Tanaka the last few seasons. I don’t know if he’s simply missing his spots, or if his pitches are backing up.

I suppose the important thing here is that Cole is still throwing hard and he’s still using his his four-and-a-half pitches. When the velocity starts to slip or a guy starts to stay away from one pitch entirely, it’s a big red flag. That hasn’t happened with Cole. His issues with left-handed hitters are very real, especially his home run problems. As long as Cole’s stuff is still there, there’s reason to hope those issues can be fixed.

Injury History

Cole, who will turn 27 in September, has been on the disabled list twice in his career, and both stints came last season. He missed a month with a biceps strain, then his season ended in late-August with elbow inflammation. The Pirates were out of the race and they decided to play it safe, and shut their ace down completely. Cole healed up over the winter and had a normal Spring Training, and his elbow has been fine since.

The fact Cole had two arm injuries as recently as last season is sorta scary, and that could also explain the issues with lefties last season. If his arm was aching, he might not have had the same finish on his pitches. That, of course, wouldn’t explain his problems with lefties this season, assuming his arm is not hurt now. Point is, Cole had been perfectly healthy up until last season, when his biceps and later his elbow started barking.

Contract Situation

This is Cole’s first season of arbitration eligibility. He will earn $3.75M this year and remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2018 and 2019, so he’s a two-and-a-half year pickup. Trade for Cole at this year’s trade deadline and you get him for three postseason runs and two full seasons. That’s not super long-term control, but he’s not a rental either.

It is worth noting Cole is a devoted Scott Boras client and union guy, which means he is expected to chase down every last dollar when free agency comes during the 2019-20 offseason. That doesn’t necessarily mean he wouldn’t re-sign with the Yankees (or whoever trades for him) when the time comes. It just means they shouldn’t expect a discount. They’ll have to outbid everyone else.

(Also, Cole has all three minor league options remaining, though that means nothing. You’re not trading for this guy with the idea of sending him to the minors at some point. The options are close to meaningless.)

What Will It Take?

(Joe Sargent/Getty)
(Joe Sargent/Getty)

Plenty of high-end starting pitchers have been traded over the years, though not many have been traded at the deadline, and with two-and-a-half years of team control remaining. Most trades involving big time pitchers take place in the offseason. That leaves us very short on trade benchmarks. Here are some pitchers who were recently traded with two or three years of team control remaining:

  • Chris Sale (three years of control): Traded for a top five global prospect (Yoan Moncada), a top 25 global prospect (Michael Kopech), a top ten organizational prospect (Luis Alexander Basabe), and a top 30 organizational prospect (Victor Diaz).
  • Wade Miley (three years of control): Traded for a preseason top 50-100 global prospect (Allen Webster), a reclamation project former top 100 prospect (Rubby De La Rosa), and a organizational non-top 30 prospect (Raymel Flores).
  • Wade Miley (two years of control): Traded with an organizational top 30 prospect (Jonathan Aro) for a high-leverage MLB reliever with five years of control (Carson Smith) and a depth arm (Roenis Elias).
  • Nathan Eovaldi (two years of control): Traded with an organizational top ten prospect (Domingo German) and an MLB bench player (Garrett Jones) for an everyday MLB player (Martin Prado) and an MLB swingman (David Phelps).
  • Drew Smyly (two years of control): Traded for an organizational top ten prospect (Mallex Smith), an organizational top 30 prospect (Ryan Yarborough), and an organizational non-top 30 prospect (Carlos Vargas).

Yeah. I don’t think any of those trades help us figure out what it’ll cost to get Cole. The Pirates will push for a Sale package, no doubt, but that’s not happening. Sale is much better than Cole, has no injury history, and he came with three full seasons of control, not two-and-a-half.

Both Ken Rosenthal and Jon Morosi recently reported the Pirates have no plans to tear things down and start a rebuild, making it unlikely they will trade Cole. They will, however, listen to offers. It never hurts to listen. Cole’s value is down at the moment — like I said, this is his worst MLB season — and while the idea of buying low sounds wonderful, I doubt the Pirates move him for pennies on the dollar.

This is what I think will happen: the Pirates will market Cole as an ace because he performed like one in the not-too-distant past, and they’ll seek multiple top prospects. Their ideal package probably includes two top prospects plus two nice secondary pieces. Can they get that? Hey, who knows. It only takes one team to say yes. Last year’s injury issues and this year’s homeritis will give teams pause. No doubt.

I don’t think it would be unreasonable for the Pirates to ask for Gleyber Torres in a Cole trade, and of course the Yankees will say no, even after his Tommy John surgery. A case can be made the three best non-Torres prospects in the farm system are outfielders: Clint Frazier, Blake Rutherford, and Dustin Fowler. The Pirates don’t need outfielders. They have Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco signed long-term, and they’re trying to trade Andrew McCutchen to open a spot for their Austin Meadows, their own top outfield prospect.

That said, when you trade a guy like Cole, the focus should be on getting as much talent as possible, not filling specific needs. If an outfielder is the best prospect they’re offered, they should take him, and figure out the rest later. The Yankees might have to build a package around Frazier, a strong secondary piece like Fowler or Chance Adams, plus two other players. Maybe an organizational 10-20 prospect (Domingo German? Dillon Tate?) and a 20-30 prospect (Josh Rogers? Zack Littell?). I’m spitballin’ here.

Does He Make Sense?

It depends on two things. One, the cost. Of course. The Pirates may market Cole as an ace but he is not an ace right now. Not with the way he’s performing and not with the way he’s been unable to neutralize lefties and keep balls in the park. He can be ace. But he’s not right now. The supply and demand nature of the trade deadline — will another pitcher as talented as Cole be available? — could push the price up into ace territory.

And two, are the problems with home runs and lefties fixable? That’s a huge question. Sticking a pitcher who can’t limit home runs and can’t handle left-handed hitters in Yankee Stadium — not mention in the DH league and in a division with three other hitter’s parks — is asking for trouble. Acquire this version of Cole and there are valid reasons to believe he’ll perform worse, not better. You have to be very confident in your ability to fix him.

The Yankees need rotation help beyond this season and the more high-upside starters they acquire, the better. Cole absolutely has the ability to be a top ten-ish pitcher in the big leagues. Every team would love to get their hands on this guy. There are enough red flags (injuries, homers, lefties) to make me skeptical, however. The Yankees drafted Cole, so they like him, though I wonder if they still like him enough to part with some of their best prospects.

Thoughts following the Castro injury and Tyler Wade call-up

(Jon Durr/Getty)
(Jon Durr/Getty)

Another day, another injured Yankee. Last night Starlin Castro went down with a right hamstring strain and tests today will determine the severity. The Yankees are calling up Tyler Wade, arguably their best healthy infield prospect, to replace Castro, which seems to indicate he’s heading to the disabled list. Sigh. The Yankees are now without Castro, Aaron Hicks (oblique), CC Sabathia (hamstring), Greg Bird (ankle), Matt Holliday (illness), and Adam Warren (shoulder). I have thoughts, so let’s get to ’em.

1. I know we’re all excited to see Wade — well, I know I am, I don’t know about you — but losing Castro really bites. Even after cooling off these last few weeks like the rest of his non-Aaron Judge teammates, Starlin still owns a .315/.348/.486 (121 wRC+) batting line with 12 home runs. The Yankees will miss that. The offense seems to be snapping out of its recent funk — the Yankees have scored 12 runs the last two days, which is hopefully the start of something big — but it’s still not all the way back yet. Castro is an important complementary bat around Judge and Gary Sanchez. All these injuries mean the lineup simply is not as deep as it was a few weeks back. Stinks.

2. The Yankees aren’t calling Wade up to sit. I expect him to play second base pretty much every day while Castro is out — I wouldn’t be opposed to starting Ronald Torreyes against tough lefties, at least initially (the Yankees are going to see Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon the next two games, for what it’s worth) — which is probably the best thing for him. The Yankees are grooming Wade to be a super utility guy, someone who can play a different position every day, but that’s not easy! Veterans have a tough time doing that. Asking a kid to do it in his first taste of the show is less than ideal. Replacing Castro gives Wade a chance to play a familiar position day after day, and get his feet wet in the big leagues. Once he’s comfortable, the Yankees can start moving him around. The Starlin injury bites. There’s no doubt about that. The upside is Wade gets to step into the lineup and play one position, not be asked to move all around the field right away.

3. I think there’s a chance Wade is up for good. If he performs well as Castro’s replacement, the Yankees will keep him up as that super utility player. It’s not like the bench couldn’t use the upgrade. Heck, perhaps he’d get a second half audition at third base given the long-term need at the position. The Yankees have moved Wade all around the infield in his career and they introduced him to the outfield in the Arizona Fall League last year for this exact reason. To get him on the roster and into the lineup. They like him a lot. Point is, I don’t think this is necessarily an injury fill-in and nothing more. Wade will get a chance to earn a spot and stick with the team going forward. This is a great opportunity for him. It’s a chance to leave the minor leagues behind.

Wade and a friend. (Jon Durr/Getty)
Wade and a friend. (Jon Durr/Getty)

4. The roster move figures to be quite simple. Castro to the disabled list and Wade called up. There’s still an open 40-man roster spot with Chris Carter having been designated for assignment, so there’s no need to clear a spot. Castro to the DL, Wade up. Easy peasy. I do wonder, however, if the Yankees would use the Castro DL stint to get around the ten-day rule and bring Mason Williams back, then send Rob Refsnyder down for Wade. That would give the Yankees a true fourth outfielder — neither Williams nor Refsnyder figure to hit much, but at least Mason can go get it in the outfield — and they’re not going to need Refsnyder’s ability to play (“play”) second since Wade and Torreyes can cover every infield position. I suppose they could keep Refsnyder around as a right-handed platoon bat, especially with a bunch of lefty starters coming up, but meh. My guess is the straight Castro-Wade swap. Swapping out Refsnyder for Williams wouldn’t be a bad idea though.

5. I can’t help but wonder whether Gleyber Torres would be getting called up instead of Wade right now if he were healthy. Gleyber was playing second base in addition to third down in the minors, so the Yankees could have plugged him right into the lineup to replace Castro. Man, that would have been fun as hell, wouldn’t it? Alas. The Yankees always try to downplay expectations with their prospects — Brian Cashman said last week a Torres call-up hadn’t really crossed the team’s minds, but come on — but I absolutely believe they were prepping Gleyber for a second half call-up. Probably to play third base, though if an injury opened up second base or shortstop, he would have ended up there. Now there’s an injury at second base and Torres isn’t there to take over. /sobs

6. Don’t overlook the Jorge Mateo angle here. Abi Avelino is going from Double-A Trenton to Triple-A Scranton to replace Wade and Mateo is going from High-A Tampa to Double-A Trenton to replace Avelino. Mateo is hitting .240/.288/.400 (97 wRC+) this season, and going back to last year, he has a .249/.299/.387 (98 wRC+) batting line in 804 plate appearances at High-A Tampa. Not good! That said, I think there’s a chance the promotion will energize him a bit. I hope it does, anyway. I think the Yankees would love to see Mateo mash with Trenton and rebuild some value so they could trade him at some point, either at the deadline or in the offseason. Among all their top 100 caliber prospects, I always thought the Yankees considered Mateo the most expendable. Don’t ask me why. Just a hunch. Hopefully Mateo gets his act together with the Thunder and can contribute to the Yankees in some way down the line, either on their roster or as a trade chip.