Yankees may be able to improve their offense by swinging at the first pitch more often in 2016

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

Last week was Retro Week here at RAB, and a trademark of that 1996 Yankees team was their relentless offense. That was the trademark of the entire late-90s dynasty, not just the ’96 team. They’d work the count, grind out at-bats, then get into the soft underbelly of the opposing team’s bullpen. It was an incredibly effective strategy. The offense was fun to watch and not fun to face.

Baseball has changed over the last 20 years, and while working counts and grinding out at-bats is never a bat strategy, middle relievers aren’t a bad as they once were. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever before in general, plus teams are matching up more often, so they’re putting their middle relievers in the best position to succeed. Middle relievers now are more effective than they were two decades ago, generally speaking.

But still, we’re conditioned to think working the count is the great way to generate offense even though middle relievers are no longer pushovers. Working the count is good, but there are other ways to generate offense, including swinging early in the count. In fact, the Yankees as a team should maybe consider swinging early in the count — and by early in the count I mean the very first pitch — more often this coming season.

Last year the Yankees swung at the first pitch in 6.14% of their plate appearances compared to the 7.36% league average. Only the Red Sox (5.77%) swung at the first pitch less often. The Yankees as a team hit .303 with a .198 ISO when swinging at the first pitch last year, and .248 with a .169 ISO following the first pitch of the at-bat. The MLB averages were a .340 average and a .213 ISO on the first pitch, and .248 with a .144 ISO thereafter.

That makes sense, right? Hitters swing at the first pitch when they get a really good pitch to hit. Plenty of guys go up to the plate hunting a first pitch fastball or curveball or whatever based on the scouting reports. That’s one of the reasons Brett Gardner‘s power has spiked the last few years. He started ambushing first pitch fastballs. And these days pitchers are throwing more first pitch strikes than ever before. Look:

Zone First Pitch Strike Rates

Do you see what’s going on there? Over the last few seasons — this goes back to 2008, the start of the PitchFX era — pitchers are throwing more first pitch strikes but fewer pitches in the zone overall. It’s a trend too. First pitch strike rate and overall zone rate are headed in opposite directions and have for a few seasons now. Chances are the first pitch of the at-bat will be in the zone. After that? The numbers say it is likely to be out of the zone.

PitchFX data says pitchers throw a first pitch fastball roughly two-thirds of the time, and that’s held pretty constant over the years. I actually though it would be higher than that, but two-thirds of the time it is. I’m sure it’s different for each pitcher. Some guys probably throw a ton of pitch fastballs while others pitch backwards with breaking balls. Masahiro Tanaka seems like a guy who throws a lots of first pitch breaking ball, but I digress.

For the sake of having the information readily available, here is how the returning regular Yankees fared when swinging at the first pitch in 2015, via Baseball Reference:

Carlos Beltran 59 22 7 1 2 .386 .373 .649 1.022 .351 125
Brett Gardner 37 13 2 0 1 .382 .389 .529 .918 .353 108
Alex Rodriguez 62 16 5 0 4 .271 .306 .559 .866 .218 89
Brian McCann 42 11 3 0 2 .282 .310 .513 .822 .237 82
Chase Headley 65 19 5 0 2 .302 .292 .476 .768 .270 70
Didi Gregorius 83 23 5 0 2 .295 .317 .436 .753 .273 70
Jacoby Ellsbury 70 21 2 0 2 .309 .304 .426 .731 .284 65
Mark Teixeira 48 13 6 0 1 .277 .271 .468 .739 .255 63

New addition Starlin Castro put up a .328/.317/.552 (91 OPS+) batting line in 61 plate appearances when he swung at the first pitch last season. Keep in mind we’re talking about a very small sample of plate appearances here. I don’t think these splits have much year-to-year predictive value at all. I don’t think “good first pitch hitter” is a thing that exists.

Anyway, hitters generally do much more damage when they swing at pitches in the zone for pretty obvious reasons. When you swing at something out of the zone, you’re either reaching or getting jammed, and it’s tough to drive a ball with authority that way. Last season batters hit .300 with a .202 ISO on pitches in the zone. It was a .188 average and a .075 ISO on pitches out of the zone. So yeah. Swing at stuff in the zone. And based on PitchFX data, the first pitch of the at-bat is much more likely to be in the zone than any other pitch in the at-bat.

This isn’t to say hitters should always swing at the first pitch. That’s a bad idea. Pitchers aren’t stupid. They’ll pick up on it quickly and adjust. But swinging at the first pitch a little more often isn’t a bad idea. Like I said, only one team swung at the first pitch less often than the Yankees last year, and the Yankees will have almost the same exact lineup in 2016 than they did in 2015. Castro’s the only new regular. They can change the scouting report a bit and start punishing pitchers when they try to steal a strike with a first pitch heater.

Working the count and driving up the pitcher’s pitch count is awesome. The Yankees won a lot of titles doing exactly that. The game is changing though, and getting into the bullpen isn’t as effective as it was 20 years ago, especially in the postseason when teams use only their best relievers. Gardner started hunting first pitch fastballs a few years back and his power output nearly doubled. If the rest of the lineup picks their spots and jumps on the first pitch a little more often, the result could be a nice boost for the offense in 2016.

Raissman: Sterling, Waldman agree to new contracts

(Wall Street Journal)
(Wall Street Journal)

According to Bob Raissman, John Sterling and Susan Waldman have agreed to a new two-year contracts to stay on as radio voices of the Yankees. Raissman says negotiations with Sterling were “somewhat acrimonious,” but the Yankees were committed to bringing the duo back.

Sterling and Waldman just completed their 12th season together. Sterling is an iron man, he hasn’t missed a game in 27 years, and last year he said he is “never going to retire. I don’t understand why people would.” Waldman replaced Michael Kay in the radio booth when Kay joined the YES Network.

I enjoy Sterling and Waldman though I don’t listen to many games on the radio. Sterling does seem to be making more mistakes or simply missing more plays nowadays than he did a few years ago. The Yankees reportedly do not have hiring or firing power over the radio booth, but they do have input, and apparently they wanted Sterling and Waldman back for at least another two years.

Yankees rank 13th in Keith Law’s farm system rankings

Judge. (Presswire)
Judge. (Presswire)

Earlier today at ESPN (subs. req’d), Keith Law published his annual farm system rankings. The rebuilding Braves take the top spot with the Dodgers and Twins rounding out the top thee. The Angels rank 30th, and Law says they have “by far the worst system I’ve ever seen.” Poor Billy Eppler.

The Yankees rank 13th, which is pretty good considering they graduated Greg Bird and Luis Severino to the big leagues last season. Here is Law’s blurb on the Yankees:

The Aroldis Chapman deal didn’t make much of a dent in the system; the Yankees bought the troubled reliever with quantity rather than quality, and a strong draft in 2015 helped make up for some recent promotions.

Based on his chats in recent weeks and months, Law is pretty high on James Kaprielian, last year’s first round pick. Kaprielian plus Jorge Mateo and Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez is a really strong top prospect core. The Yankees also have a nice group of MLB ready talent in Rob Refsnyder, Bryan Mitchell, and all the relievers and outfielders.

Last year Law ranked the Yankees’ system 20th, so jumping up to 13th while graduating Severino and Bird (and trading Eric Jagielo) is pretty good. I’m pleasantly surprised. I figured the Yankees would find themselves in the 18-22 range somewhere this spring. That could still happen with the other rankings, of course, but Law likes the system.

Prospect Profile: Chance Adams

(Dallas Baptist)
(Dallas Baptist)

Chance Adams | RHP

Adams grew up in Scottsdale and attended Chaparral High School, where he both pitched and played third base. He helped the Firebirds to back-to-back state championships in 2011 and 2012, his junior and senior years. Adams was not much of a pro prospect at the time — Baseball America did not rank him among the top 500 prospects for the 2012 draft — so he went undrafted out of high school.

As a freshman at Yavapai College, Adams focused on pitching full-time and had a 5.40 ERA in 16 2/3 relief innings. He struck out 18 and walked eleven. He was draft-eligible again in 2013 since Yavapai is a two-year school, but he was still not much of a pro prospect, so he went undrafted. Baseball America (subs. req’d) did not rank Adams among the top 500 draft prospects overall or the top 45 prospects in Arizona.

The second year at Yavapai went much better. Adams moved into the rotation and had a 2.88 ERA in 56 1/3 innings with 62 strikeouts and 19 walks. He also managed four complete games. Baseball America (subs. req’d) again did not rank Adams among the top 500 prospects for the 2014 draft and again he went undrafted.

Adams transferred to Dallas Baptist for his junior season and moved into a full-time bullpen role. He had a 1.98 ERA with 83 strikeouts and 13 walks in 59 innings for the Patriots. Baseball America ranked Adams as the 245th best prospect in the 2015 draft class, and the Yankees selected him with their fifth round pick, No. 153 overall. He signed for a $330,000 bonus, just below the $342,000 slot value.

Pro Debut
The Yankees did not screw around with Adams. He signed quickly and they sent him to Short Season Staten Island. After four appearances with the Baby Bombers, the Yankees moved him up to Low-A Charleston. After five appearances with the RiverDogs, Adams was bumped up to High-A Tampa. All told, Adams threw 35.1 relief innings at three levels after signing last year. He had a 1.78 ERA (1.75 FIP) with 45 strikeouts (31.7%) and nine walks (6.3%).

Scouting Report
Last spring at Dallas Baptist, the 21-year-old Adams was a low-90s fastball guy with an inconsistent cutter as his primary secondary pitch. His velocity jumped into the 93-96 mph range in pro ball — he reportedly ran his fastball up to 99 mph with Staten Island — and the Yankees helped him turn the cutter into a true slider. Here’s some video:

Adams made some progress with his changeup after signing, so much so the Yankees will apparently give him a chance to start next season. He’s not particularly tall — listed at 6-foot-0 and 215 lbs. — and getting downward plane on his fastball has been challenge. There’s a decent chance he’ll be fly ball prone going forward, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Adams, who as best I can tell has never had any injury issues, uses a full windup in relief and his control is fine. After spending the spring as a low-90s fastball/cutter pitcher at Dallas Baptist, Adams finished the 2015 pro season as a mid-90s fastball/slider guy with an okay changeup.

2016 Outlook
The Yankees do have a recent history of moving college relievers into the rotation — they did it last year with 2014 sixth rounder Jonathan Holder, for example — so I don’t doubt they’re planning to try Adams as a starter in 2016. Either way, starter or bullpen, he seems likely to begin the 2016 season back with High-A Tampa. Adams might stay there all season if he remains in the rotation. If he works as a reliever, he could zoom up the ladder and possibly even make his MLB debut late in the season. That’s the very best case scenario though.

My Take
I like Adams as a prospect and kinda wish the Yankees would just leave him in the bullpen, but I suppose they do have a ton of upper level relievers, so they have the depth to try him as a starter. Now’s the time to do it, early in his career. I’m interested to see if the mid-90s velocity sticks going forward — probably not as a starter, but who knows — because if it does, it changes his outlook considerably. At 91-93 mph he was interesting. At 94-96 mph he was dominant. The Yankees know how to get power arms to MLB quickly and Adams could be next in line.

The Bryce Harper Endgame

Right ballpark, wrong uniform. (Presswire)
Right ballpark, wrong uniform. (Presswire)

As you know, the Yankees are the only team in baseball that has not yet signed a Major League free agent this offseason. They have taken on some money in the Starlin Castro and Aroldis Chapman trades — about $23.5M for luxury tax purposes in 2016 — but otherwise they’ve limited their spending. Once again the team focused on trades.

Next offseason the Yankees are going to start to shed some of their expensive long-term contracts. Mark Teixeira ($22.5M per year) and Carlos Beltran ($15M) will come off the books next offseason, then CC Sabathia ($23.4M) and Alex Rodriguez ($27.5M) will join them the following year. Possibly Masahiro Tanaka ($22.1M) as well if he stays healthy and opts out of his contract.

We know Hal Steinbrenner & Co. want to get under the luxury tax in the near future, and those expiring deals will help the Yankees accomplish that goal. Doing so would reset the team’s tax rate and entitle the Yankees to some revenue sharing rebates. Getting under the tax threshold potentially equals tens of millions of dollars saved. It’s a substantial sum. Last week Jeff Passan had some details on New York’s financial situation:

Now, we’ll get to that, though first it’s imperative to understand how and why the Yankees are looking years down the road when deciding to sit out this offseason. And it’s best to start with two numbers: $508 million and $8.1 million. The Yankees’ yearly revenues in the most recent franchise valuations by Forbes were $508 million, and their operation income – money in the black – was $8.1 million. That is not a lot, not when New York’s revenues exceed the second-place Dodgers’ by more than $100 million.

If reason No. 1 (to pass on free agents) was minimal profit, No. 2 is every bit as important: the fear of the unknown. And with baseball ready to begin negotiating a new collective-bargaining agreement soon, the unknown is palpable. New York has no idea what percentage of its revenue it will be sharing with lower-revenue teams. Currently, the tax rate assessed to every team is 34 percent of local revenue, and that pool is split evenly among the 30 teams. High-earning teams pay what amounts to another 14 percent on top of that. The Yankees give more in revenue-sharing dollars than every other team, and it’s not particularly close. With the gap between the richest and poorest teams as significant as ever, they could give even more, something they’ll surely resist.

The expectation is the Yankees will go back to spending big on free agents in a few years, once some of the big contracts are off the books, the luxury tax rate has been reset, and the terms of the next CBA are known. I don’t know when the Yankees will spend big or exactly how much they’re planning to spend, but I’m sure it’ll happen. They’re not going let all that money come off the books and save all that cash on luxury tax and not put at least a big chunk of it back into the team.

That brings us to Bryce Harper, the just-turned-23-year-old wunderkind of the Washington Nationals. Harper silenced all of his critics last season with a historic .330/.460/.649 (195 OPS+) batting line and 42 homers. Here is the full list of players who had a 180 OPS+ or better season at age 22 or younger: Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, and Bryce Harper. That’s it. Harper’s 42 dingers are the most of the trio. People ripped Harper when he hit “only” .272/.351/.465 (121 OPS+) from 2012-14, but that’s not possible anymore. He’s a megastar.

Harper is now three years from free agency and he is a Scott Boras client, so it’s a damn near certainty he will hit the open market. If the Nationals want to approach him about a long-term extension, they’d have to start their offer at Giancarlo Stanton’s massive 13-year, $325M contract. That’s the starting point. Stanton is awesome, but Harper is younger and better than Giancarlo was at the time of his deal. More than likely it’ll take something closer to $400M to get Harper and Boras to the negotiating table.

There are still three years between now and then, but Harper is the odds on favorite to become the first $40M a year player in baseball history. Whatever we think it’ll take to sign him is probably too low. In all seriousness, I expect Boras to ask for something like 15 years and $600M in three years. He’s going to want to smash records with Harper, not beat them by $1M or $2M. Remember when A-Rod was a free agent way back when? His ten-year, $252M deal was exactly double the richest sports contract at the time (Kevin Garnett’s $126M deal). Boras brokered that deal for Alex and he’ll want to do something similar with Harper.

It’s impossible to ignore the timing of all this. The Yankees have all these contracts coming off the books and are very likely to get under the luxury tax at some point in the next two or three years, right as Harper hits the open market. The club will have this huge financial windfall at the same time a generational talent becomes available for nothing but cash (and presumably a draft pick). Not just a generational talent, a generational talent in the prime of his career; Harper will turn 26 the October of the offseason of his free agency.

Personally, I do not believe the decision to get under the luxury tax and have enormous future payroll flexibility is tied to Harper’s free agency. It’s a coincidence. Hal has been talking about getting under the luxury tax for years now (the original plan was to do it in 2014, remember), long before it was clear Harper was a superstar of the first order. I do, however, believe the Yankees are very aware Harper is likely to become a free agent in three years, and that they’re going to be in a better place financially at the time, putting them in position to sign a marquee free to what will surely be a record contract.

That said, planning for a free agent three years into the future is foolish. Yes, teams do need to plan ahead, but you can’t plan that far ahead with any sort of certainty. Way too much can and will change between now and then. The Yankees can have their eye on Harper down the line and also understand it’s unlikely to happen. Realistically, what are the chances Harper will be a Yankee come the 2019 season? 25%? Even that seems high. Maybe 50% is the absolute best case scenario right now?

“You can’t predict free agency multiple years out,” said Brian Cashman to Chad Jennings earlier this offseason. “I can’t project availability. Obviously if you turn the clock back and look at projecting (David) Price’s availability, (it was impossible to know), would he be healthy? He’s been with three teams since. It’s such a guessing game when you go through that process that far out to forecast.”

Assuming the Yankees do achieve this goal of financial flexibility and Harper remains a star, going after Harper in three years is a total no-brainer. The Yankees brand is built on stars and winning, and a player as good and as young as Harper is someone you absolutely go all-out to acquire. They don’t come along very often at all. He’s the guy you make a $400M+ offer on day one of free agency to let other teams know you aren’t screwing around. Just drop the hammer the first day and let two-thirds of the league know they shouldn’t even bother making a phone call to Boras.

Those are two pretty big assumptions though, right? The financial flexibility and Harper hitting free agency as a megastar stuff. It’s have financial flexibility AND Harper becomes a free agent AND Harper is still a star. All of that has to happen, and it very well might. But it goes to show how much can change between now and then. It wouldn’t take much to derail this plan. I hope the Yankees get Harper in three years, but the Yankees can’t plan on him being the endgame for this financial flexibility. He’s not the driving force behind the team’s austerity, but man, the timing sure does work out well.

Tuesday Night Open Thread

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Knicks are playing their first game with their new coach, and both the Devils and Islanders are in action too. There’s also some college hoops on the schedule as well. You folks know how these things work by now, so have at it.