Archive for Analysis
The dust is still settling following the end of the 2014 regular season, but the Yankees have already started their offseason by beginning contract talks with GM Brian Cashman. That’s the very first item on the winter agenda — finding a GM, whether it’s Cashman or someone else. Nothing can happen until the guy in charge is in place.
I have no interest in debating the merits of re-signing Cashman now. It’s pretty clearly going to happen regardless of what you or I think. Instead, I want to get a jump on the offseason and free agency by looking at how much money the Yankees will have to spend this winter. It should go without saying this is nothing more than an estimation. Salary figures are available but luxury tax calculations are complex and we really have no idea how much the Yankees can or are willing to spend. All we can have is their recent spending trends.
Anyway, if you’re worried the team may try to squeeze under the $189M luxury tax threshold in 2015 after back-to-back postseason-less years, don’t. Alex Rodriguez‘s hefty salary comes back on the books and last winter’s free agent signings make getting under the threshold all but impossible at this point. Ten players are either hitting free agency or retiring (Chris Capuano, Stephen Drew, Chase Headley, Rich Hill, Derek Jeter, Hiroki Kuroda, Brandon McCarthy, David Robertson, Ichiro Suzuki, Chris Young) but that still doesn’t leave the team with much wiggle room. Let’s break it down.
UNDER CONTRACT (ten players signed for $175.07M)
Players: A-Rod ($27.5M), CC Sabathia ($24.4M), Mark Teixeira ($22.5M), Masahiro Tanaka ($22.14M), Jacoby Ellsbury ($21.86M), Brian McCann ($17M), Carlos Beltran ($15M), Brett Gardner ($13M), Martin Prado ($10M), Brendan Ryan ($1.67M)
Just to be clear, those are luxury tax “hits” since that’s the most most important number to the Yankees. Each player’s actual 2015 salary may be different. The Yankees have ten players under contract next year and the scary thing is that they have no idea what they’re going to get out of A-Rod or Sabathia, plus they’ll be holding their breath every time Tanaka throws a pitch, at least for the first few weeks. Those ten players don’t come with much certainty.
The only contract option the Yankees have to worry about this offseason is Andrew Bailey’s club option. Forgot about him, didn’t you? The team signed him to a minor league deal last spring then rehabbed him from shoulder capsule surgery this summer with an eye on getting him in their 2015 bullpen. The option is valued at $2.5M, so not much but not nothing either. Bailey did not pitch at all this year — Joe Girardi confirmed Bailey had a “few setbacks” in his rehab back in August — and the option isn’t a slam dunk. He might have looked awful towards the end of his rehab, enough to scare the team away. We have no way of knowing.
Arbitration-Eligible (seven players)
Players: David Huff (first time), Michael Pineda (first time), David Phelps (first time, Super Two), Ivan Nova (second time), Esmil Rogers (second time), Francisco Cervelli (second time), Shawn Kelley (fourth time, Super Two)
The Super Two cutoff this offseason is projected to be two years and 133 days of service time according to MLBTR, so Phelps will qualify at two years and 156 days. He should clear the cutoff comfortably even if the projection is off a bit. The Yankees managed to prevent Pineda from becoming a Super Two last year by sending him to the minors when his rehab was complete in July, but there’s no more avoiding arbitration now. He’ll get a nice raise in his first time through even after missing all that time.
Huff and Rogers are non-tender candidates. Huff won’t get a big raise at all and, even though he pitched well this year (211 ERA+!), I don’t think he’s someone you go out of your way to keep. Rogers actually made $1.85M this past season and the Collective Bargaining Agreement says the Yankees can’t pay him less than 80% of that next year, or $1.48M. No player has ever had their salary reduced through arbitration either. The Yankees may like Rogers’ arm but there’s no way they’ll keep him at that salary.
Estimating arbitration salaries is damn near impossible, at least for me, but I’m going to ballpark it anyway:
- Pineda: $3M, up from $500k-ish (awesome when healthy, All-Star in 2011)
- Phelps: $2M, up from $500k-ish
- Nova: $3.8M, up from $3.3M (hurt all year)
- Cervelli: $1M, up from $700k
- Kelley: $2.5M, up from $1.765M
- Huff and Rogers non-tendered
Sound okay to you? MLBTR’s crazy accurate arbitration projections are still a few weeks away, so this will have to do for now. If you don’t like Cervelli and/or Kelley at those salaries, you still sign then them trade them, not non-tender them. They have some actual value. Not much, but some.
Anyway, my spit-balled arbitration numbers give us another $12M for five players on top of the $175.07M for ten players above, bringing us to $187.07M for 15 players. Considering I did nothing more than guess with those arbitration numbers, let’s round it up to $188M and go with that. Round numbers are easy. Like I said earlier, this is nothing more than an estimation. In a few weeks we’ll get a better idea of the arbitration salaries once MLBTR crunches the numbers.
Pre-Arbitration (18 players)
Players: Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, Jose Campos, Preston Claiborne, Ramon Flores, Shane Greene, Slade Heathcott, Bryan Mitchell, John Ryan Murphy, Eury Perez, Jose Pirela, Jose Ramirez, Antoan Richardson, Austin Romine, Gary Sanchez, Zelous Wheeler, Adam Warren, Chase Whitley
Richardson and Wheeler will likely be cut loose this winter, maybe Perez too. He is out of minor league options (I think) but could stick around all winter and come to camp to compete for a bench job. Then again, if the Yankees need a 40-man spot in the offseason, he’ll probably get the axe. Either way, the pre-arbitration guys who get knocked off the 40-man roster will be replaced by more pre-arbitration players (Rule 5 Draft eligible players, waiver claims, etc.), so the salary numbers are a wash.
Of those 18 players, only Betances and Warren are locks to be on the Opening Day roster. Greene is a good bet to make the team in some capacity. Something would need to happen with Cervelli for Murphy or Romine to crack the big league roster. Claiborne and Whitley are classic up-and-down depth arms while Perez, Pirela, and Flores could compete for a bench job, I suppose. The rest — Banuelos, Heathcott, Ramirez, and Sanchez — are ticketed for the minors.
Like most other teams, the Yankees have a sliding scale for pre-arbitration salaries based on service time and awards voting, stuff like that. Warren and Betances won’t make the league minimum next season even though the Yankees could technically renew their contracts at that salary. There’s a relationship aspect to this. You don’t want to upset players and agents by cheaping out with pre-arbitration salaries. Conservatively assuming $600k each for Warren, Betances, and Greene puts us at $189.8M for 18 players with this roster:
|McCann||1B Teixeira||LF Gardner||Tanaka||Betances|
|2B Prado||CF Ellsbury||Pineda||Warren|
|DH||SS Ryan||RF Beltran||Sabathia?||Kelley|
Some of those open spots can and presumably will be filled internally. Claiborne or Mitchell or Ramirez or Jacob Lindgren or Nick Rumbelow or any number of other reliever could work their way into the bullpen. Maybe Bailey and Huff too. Pirela or Perez could squeeze onto the bench. The Yankees do have some options in house but no long-term answers to any of those question marks. There’s no shortstop to push Ryan to the bench, for example.
Aside from an injury-fueled outlier in 2013, the Yankees have opened the season with a payroll in the $195M to $210M range every year since 2008, give or take a few million here or there. That $189.8M covers 18 MLB roster players, though there will be another 15 players on the 40-man roster but not the active 25-man roster that count against the luxury tax. They’re usually estimated at $2M (they earn lower salaries in the minors). There’s also $12M or so in benefits every team must play. Now we’re up to $203.8M for 17 active roster players plus Nova.
If the Yankees are going to stick to that $210M or so payroll limit, they have very little room to maneuver this winter. They need a shortstop (pushing Ryan to the bench), preferably another starter (pushing Phelps or Greene to the bullpen), and miscellaneous depth pieces at the absolute minimum. Retaining David Robertson and adding another starting caliber infielder at second and/or third base seem like two items that should be pretty high on the offseason to-do list as well.
The Yankees don’t have nany pieces to offer in a cash-clearing trade either. Dealing Cervelli or Kelley is nothing more than rearranging furniture at their salary levels. Same with Phelps or even Pineda. To clear some real money, they’d have to trade Gardner or Prado, two of their three or four best offensive players. How do you trade them and realistically improve the team? I’m sure it’s possible. I just don’t see how. It would take some creativity and luck — not many clubs are willing to take on useful big money pieces in exchange for useful low-cost pieces. The Yankees are generally the salary dumpees, not the salary dumpers.
George King recently reported the “early industry vibe is the Yankees aren’t going to spend big money this winter” and I totally buy that. Seems completely plausible after spending all that money last winter and winding up with a worse record and fewer runs scored. They took their shot(s) last offseason and may now focus on tinkering rather than overhauling. And, to be honest, the Yankees aren’t one or two big free agents away from contending either. Figuring out how to get this club back on the right track without ballooning payroll will be one heck of a task for Cashman & Co.
The regular season ends six days from now, which means the voting for the various league awards will soon end as well. The voting ends after the regular season but before the postseason — what happens in October has no bearing on anything. These are regular season awards, as it should be.
The Yankees are an extreme long shot to make the postseason and teams that don’t make the playoffs tend not to have major awards winners. That’s not always the case — Alex Rodriguez was the 2003 AL MVP on the last place Rangers, for example — just most of the time. Don’t get mad at me. That’s the way the voters vote. The Yankees do still have some candidates for each of the major awards this season, however. Let’s run them down.
Most Valuable Player
There is an excellent chance the Yankees will not have a player finish in the top ten of the AL MVP voting this year for the first time since 1996, when Mariano Rivera finished in 12th place. The lack of a truly elite player, a Robinson Cano or prime-age A-Rod or Derek Jeter, combined with their second straight postseason-less year all but eliminates anyone on the team from serious MVP consideration. The BBWAA has shown time and time again they prefer to vote for players on contending teams.
Now, that said, the MVP ballot is ten players deep and those last two or three slots are like the Twilight Zone. A lot of weird stuff happens there. Raul Ibanez received a tenth place MVP vote in 2012, remember. Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner have been the team’s two best players all year and I’m guessing they’ll combine for at least one down-ballot vote this year. Same with Dellin Betances and maybe David Robertson. The Yankees don’t have any serious MVP candidates this season but I feel comfortable saying someone on the roster will appear on a ballot.
Had he not gotten hurt, Masahiro Tanaka would have been an excellent Cy Young candidate alongside Felix Hernandez and Corey Kluber (and Chris Sale). The injury takes him right out of the running for the award, unfortunately. The Cy Young ballot is one five players deep and it would surprise me if Tanaka even managed to sneak on and grab one fifth place vote at this point. He simply missed too much time and there are too many good pitchers in the AL. Maybe Betances will grab a fifth place vote like Robertson did in 2011. Maybe. He is the club’s only real shot at being included in the Cy Young conversation this season.
Rookie of the Year
Believe it or not, the Yankees have never had two players receive Rookie of the Year votes in the same season. That is all but certain to change this year thanks to Tanaka and Betances. There are a lot of good rookies in the AL this year but Jose Abreu has lapped the field — I think he should win unanimously, this is a no-brainer in my opinion — so neither Tanaka nor Betances will win. I do think both are safe bets to garner multiple second and third place votes though. (The ballot is only three players deep.)
Shane Greene has had a nice year but I would be very surprised if he received any votes. There are too many other good rookies in the league (Collin McHugh, Matt Shoemaker, George Springer, Marcus Stroman, Yordano Ventura, etc.) for him to get serious consideration. That doesn’t take away from what he’s done this year. This just isn’t a good year to be a good but not great rookie in the so-called Junior Circuit.
Manager of the Year
The Manager of the Year award has morphed into the “manager whose team most exceeded expectations” award, so Joe Girardi won’t win. I’m guessing the award will go to either Ned Yost of the Royals or Lloyd McClendon of the Mariners, depending on which non-Athletics team wins a wildcard spot.
The Manager of the Year ballot is only three names deep and it’ll be tough for Girardi to get even a third place vote this year given his competition. I’m guessing at least one BBWAA member will give him a vote based on the team’s ability to linger in the wildcard race until the final week of the season though. After all, nine of 15 AL managers received at least one Manager of the Year vote last season.
Comeback Player of the Year
This one will be interesting. If Jeter put together nothing more than a decent season, say hitting .280 with a .340 OBP and no power, I think he would have won the Comeback Player of the Year award easily. Mariano Rivera won last year and deservingly so, but, even if he had been merely good instead of excellent, I think he would have won anyway for sentimental reasons.
Jeter’s brutal August and pre-current homestand September really dragged down his season numbers (.256/.304/.313) and it will be hard for voters to look the other way. Melky Cabrera and Albert Pujols stand out as two deserving Comeback Player of the Year candidates, so there is no lack of competition. Maybe Jeter will win on the strength of sentimental votes, but I don’t think it’s a slam dunk at all.
A sabermetric component was added to the Gold Glove voting a few years ago, but it only counts as 25% of the vote. The other 75% is still based on the league’s managers and coaches. Whether they admit it or not, offense still has some impact on the voting, though it has gotten better in recent years.
Right off the bat, we can completely eliminate the entire infield. I mean, maybe Jeter will get a sentimental vote, but I can’t see it at this point. Gardner is a good left field Gold Glove candidate — they used to hand out three general outfield Gold Gloves, but they are position specific now — but Alex Gordon has this one in the bag. He’s outstanding in left and his offense won’t hurt his case either. Yoenis Cespedes might also get more votes than Gardner because of his throwing arm.
Ellsbury has been stellar in center field all season though the numbers hate him for whatever reason: -6 DRS, +1.1 UZR, and +0 Total Zone. I don’t get it. That doesn’t match up with the eye test at all. The various defensive stats always seem to hate Yankees center fielders. Maybe because Gardner takes plays away from them. Anyway, Ellsbury has some stiff Gold Glove competition in Mike Trout, Jackie Bradley Jr., Adam Jones, Leonys Martin, and Desmond Jennings. I think the chances of Ellsbury winning the Gold Glove are better than the chances of any Yankee winning any other award, but I would bet on the field with this many qualified candidates.
Yeah, no. You actually have to hit to win a Silver Slugger and not many Yankees did that this year. Gardner and Ellsbury have been the team’s two best hitters and they aren’t beating out Gordon or Trout, respectively. Nevermind the other candidates around the league. As far as the Yankees are concerned this year, the most exciting part of the awards voting will be seeing where Tanaka and Betances finish behind Abreu for the Rookie of the Year award. Jeter’s possible Comeback Player of the Year and Ellsbury’s possible Gold Glove are the only other items of note.
The odds were stacked against them to open September, and they haven’t helped their cause. By playing mere .500 ball at a time when every win is crucial, the Yankees have dropped from 3.5 games back from a tie for the second Wild Card to five games back.
Cleveland and Detroit now sit between them and the postseason. Toronto rides their heels in a virtual tie. The offense can’t generate any runs. The Yankees’ chances don’t look great, even with 21 games remaining.
People love to estimate how many wins it’ll take to put them into October play. Will they need to win 17 of 21? More? To make up five games in just three weeks is a pretty tall order any way you slice it.
The Yanks can forget about the AL East. While eight — EIGHT — of their remaining games are against the Orioles, they simply cannot expect a second-half-2009-against-the-Red-Sox performance. Even if they did, by some miracle, sweep the O’s, those games alone would only get them within two of the AL East crown.
On the Wild Card front, the Yankees have the misfortune of not playing any teams ahead of them the rest of the way. The best chances they had to beat up on the competition came with their recent series against Detroit and Kansas City, and they dropped two of three in both. Oops.
But I’m not here to argue what they could have done and didn’t do. What we all want to know is what comical scenarios will it take for the Yankees to actually make the postseason?
Let’s start with some semi-reasonable expectations. To date the Yankees have a .518 win percentage. Let’s say they get reasonably hot and play close to .600 ball the rest of the way, going 12-9. Seattle, current holders of the second Wild Card spot, would have to go 6-13 the rest of the way after playing .552 ball all season. And that’s while Cleveland goes at best 11-9 and Detroit goes at best 6-12.
(Which would be great for Dave Pinto’s massive tie scenario.)
Clearly, the Yanks will have to get super hot in order to stand an inkling of a chance. If Seattle, Detroit, and Cleveland play .500 ball the rest of the way — which is about as reasonably bad as you can project. (We’ll go one game under, for odd-numbered games remaining.) That would make the final standings:
Just to tie, the Yankees would have to go 15-6. The odds of even doing that are pretty long. A quick glance shows the Yankees having nowhere near that good a stretch previously this season. My eye sees a 10-4 stretch as being their best to date.
This isn’t meant to bury the Yankees. We’re fans, with no control on the outcome of the games. Anything other than hope is pretty ridiculous. But it sets some solid expectations going forward. The worst the Yankees can reasonably play the rest of the way is 15-6 ball, a .714 win percentage.
We keep tally starting tonight.
Last night’s come from ahead loss to the Astros dropped the Yankees to four games back of the second wildcard spot with 39 games to play. Insurmountable? Of course not. Long shot? It sure feels like it. FanGraphs puts the team’s postseason odds at 6.3% while Baseball Prospectus has them at 5.4%. ESPN has them at 3.3%, if you want another measure. Point is, New York’s chances of playing in October are growing smaller by the day.
The series opening loss to Houston was the third time the Yankees lost to the Astros in four meetings this year. We’re talking about an opponent that has lost at least 106 games in each of the last three years, a level of performance so pathetic that this year’s 94-loss pace represents a 17-win improvement (!) from 2013. And yet, the Yankees are 1-3 against the Astros in 2014. Four games tell us nothing about the talent level of these two teams, but they do count in the standings and they’ve hurt the Bombers.
Obviously, this is baseball and any team can beat any team on any given day. We all know that. But if you’re a team like the Yankees, one with plans of contending, then you’ve got to rack up some wins against bad teams like the Astros. Especially at home. They failed to do that last night and lost even more ground in the standings. Unfortunately, this extends beyond Houston. Here’s how the Yankees have fared against the teams with the ten worst winning percentages in baseball this year:
- Mets: 2-2
- White Sox: 2-2
- Red Sox: 8-5
- Twins: 4-3
- Cubs: 3-1
- Astros: 1-3
- Rangers: 4-3
(They have not and will not play the Phillies, Diamondbacks, and Rockies this season.)
That works out to 24-19, or a .558 winning percentage. That’s a 90-win pace over a full season. Pretty good, right? Well, not really. The rest of the league has a .573 winning percentage against bottom ten teams. The AL East leading Orioles have a .629 winning percentage against bottom ten teams. The Tigers and Mariners are essentially tied for the second wildcard spot and they have .565 and .500 winning percentages against bottom ten teams, respectively, which is why they’re battling for the second wildcard and aren’t higher in the standings, same as the Yankees.
The old adage says you’re supposed to hold your own against the good teams and beat the snot out of the bad teams, but baseball’s changed. Every team is a bad team these days, or at least it feels that way. There are two or three very good teams (zero truly great teams, though) and I’d say five or six awful teams. Every other club is scrunched together in the middle, beating up on each other. Those games against bad teams are a separator. Whoever does the best job of actually getting wins against the teams “you’re supposed to beat” will have a leg up on the competition. The Yankees haven’t done that this year and it’s hurt them in the standings.
A lot has gone wrong for the Yankees this year, mostly pitching injuries and some really bad offensive performances. It seems like they’ve been playing catch up all season. One thing goes right, two things go wrong. Dropping three of four to Astros stings. So does splitting four games with the Mets and winning only four of seven against both the amazingly terrible Twins and Rangers. There is no such thing as an easy win in baseball, but the Yankees have let some very winnable games against bad teams slip away (like this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, and last night) and that’s part of the reason why they’re facing such a big deficit in the race for a postseason spot.
From 2009-13, no team in baseball had more wins (258) or a better winning percentage (.637) in their home ballpark than the Yankees. They dominated in Yankee Stadium, outscoring their opponents by more than one full run per game (1.002 runs per game, to be exact) in the Bronx over that five-year stretch. The team had a home field advantage and knew out to use it.
That home field advantage has not existed in 2014. The Yankees came into the All-Star break at a mediocre 47-47 overall due in part to their inability to win consistently at Yankee Stadium — they are 18-23 at home and have been outscored 192-147 in the process. That’s an average of 1.10 runs per game. They have the fifth lowest home winning percentage (.439) in baseball and they’ve also been out-homered 58-47 on their own turf. That’s just not something that should happen. A team should be built for its home park.
Earlier this week, Buster Olney (subs. req’d) subjectively ranked the remaining schedules of each contender, putting the Yankees tenth out of 17 teams. (Tenth most difficult remaining schedule, seventh easiest, that is.) That ranking is based primarily on the New York’s 41 remaining home games, the most in baseball. Here is Olney’s blurb:
10. New York Yankees
Home/away: A whopping 41 games at home (including the first 10 games after the All-Star break); 27 on the road.
Games against teams with records of .500 or better: 34
Schedule notes: The Yankees’ rotation injuries will hurt them, but if playing many games at home provides any kind of an advantage, manager Joe Girardi‘s team will certainly have it. The Yankees also have six games left in July against Texas, and three in August against the Houston Astros.
Big finish: After a seven-game homestand against the Jays and Orioles, the Yankees close out their regular season in Boston.
Beyond the Box Score says the Yankees have the second easiest remaining schedule among AL teams in terms of opponent’s winning percentage. If you prefer a more analytical approach, Jeff Sullivan used projected WAR to analyze the remaining schedule and found the Yankees have the toughest second half schedule in the AL. Not by much, but the toughest based on his method nonetheless. That’s not reassuring.
Anyway, it should be obvious where I’m going with this: the Yankees need to play better at home in the second half. It’s a must if they want to at least challenge for a postseason berth and not throw in the towel on Derek Jeter‘s final season. The schedule works in their favor in that they have so many remaining home games, so the opportunity will be there. Now they have to hold up their end of the bargain and capitalize.
Now, it’s not just one reason why the Yankees have struggled at home. They average only 3.56 runs per game with a team 94 wRC+ in Yankee Stadium, both below-average and middle of the pack. On the other hand, they allow 4.66 runs per game at home with a team 4.15 FIP, which is awful. Both are among the bottom five marks in the league. They’re not scoring enough runs and they’re allowing too many runs. Losing Baseball 101.
There are two problems here, the run creation and run prevention, which is true for the team overall. The offense actually seems like it’ll be easier to fix. A big part of that is getting both Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran going, something that has to happen if the team wants to contend anyway. The pitching … well that’s a different matter. Masahiro Tanaka‘s injury is a devastating blow and there’s no way to replace him. Brandon McCarthy is a good fit for Yankee Stadium as an extreme ground ball pitcher, plus new rotation Shane Greene is a big ground baller as well. Another trade feels inevitable.
The Yankees have been hit hard by injuries (especially pitching injuries) this year and they were able to tread water through the first half. Continuing to tread water is not good enough though. If the Yankees want to push for a postseason berth — and there are no indications they will do anything but that right now — they have to starting playing better immediately. That starts at home in Yankee Stadium. Their first ten games after the All-Star break are in the Bronx and that is the perfect time to turn the home field disadvantage around.
As we discussed in our Midseason Grades post earlier today, Brian McCann has been a huge disappointment in his first half-season as a Yankee. He is hitting only .239/.294/.377 (83 wRC+) overall despite a strong road trip (13-for-39) heading into the All-Star break. The Yankees didn’t guarantee this guy $85M over five years to hit like that. They expected him to do damage and he has not done that.
In the middle of the road trip we learned McCann had made some changes to his stance and swing mechanics with the help of hitting coach Kevin Long. Minor changes, of course, no one is going to overhaul a seven-time All-Star after a bad half-season, but changes nonetheless. When you struggle for 80-something games, it’s time to start tinkering.
“I’m no longer toe-tapping,” explained McCann to Erik Boland last week. “I’ve gotten wider, I’ve gotten more into my base and basically I’ve been doing four or five unnecessary movements to get to the baseball.”
So, first things first, here is the side-by-side comparison of McCann with the toe-tap (left) and McCann without the toe-tap. I’m not the most tech savvy person, but I did my best to sync the GIFs at the moment his front foot hits the ground:
The toe-tap is pretty noticeable. It also looks like his stance is a little more closed and he isn’t jerking his hands towards his body before his swing, but I’m not sure if that’s something he’s worked to change or if it’s just something that happened on this one swing. The toe-tap is there on the left (game on June 20th) and gone on the right (July 2nd) though, that’s clear and McCann confirmed it was intentional.
Thanks to the magic of MLB.tv, I went back through the archives and found that McCann’s first game without the toe-tap was June 27th, the first game of the home series against the Red Sox, when Vidal Nuno unexpectedly pulled 5.2 scoreless innings out of his behind. McCann did not play on the 26th (team off-day) and he did not play on the 25th either (personal off-day), so he had two consecutive days off and was probably working with Long on these mechanical changes.
“I made some big changes in my swing,” added McCann while talking to Jorge Castillo yesterday. “I just broke down film. I finally got to the point where things that I’ve been doing in the past weren’t working. Long kind of hit the reset button and basically broke down my swing and showed me what I was doing wrong, and I’ve been simplifying my swing.”
McCann actually went 2-for-4 with a double on June 24th, but he went into that game in an 0-for-9 and 4-for-27 (.148) slump. His batting line sat at .223/.284/.360 (76 wRC+) through 268 plate appearances following that game, he took the next two days off, and has hit .310/.339/.448 (115 wRC+) in 68 plate appearances without the toe-tap since. That’s the guy the Yankees thought they were signing, more or less.
Now, courtesy of the amazing Baseball Savant, here are McCann’s spray chart heat maps with (left) and without (right) the toe-tap:
He’s pulling the ball more! Well, kinda. I know everyone wants McCann to hit the ball the other way because it’s aesthetically pleasing and it beats the shift — McCann already has 20 opposite field hits this year, more than he did in each of the last three seasons — but he’s much more effective when he pulls the ball. He was losing hits to the shift even when he was focused on going the opposite field anyway. Might as well just stick to his strengths and try to yank the ball down the line to right. That’s who he is. Embrace it.
I don’t really know how the toe-tap helps McCann but I assume it’s a timing thing. Get your front foot down earlier and you’ll be better able to see the ball and have a better base underneath you for you swing. That sounds like something that might be right, right? Who knows. All I know is that McCann and Long worked to eliminate that toe-tap and he’s been much more productive since. It might be anything more than a coincidence. I hope it’s not. McCann was very good on the road trip and getting him back to being the guy he was all those years in Atlanta would be the best possible offensive upgrade the Yankees could make in the second half.
The Yankees officially wrapped up the first half of the 2014 season last night with a 4-3 extra innings loss to the Rays. They currently own a decidedly mediocre 41-40 record with an awful -33 run differential that ranks ninth worst in the game. It feels like this team loses nothing but blowouts and wins nothing but close games, last night notwithstanding. Nothing comes easy.
Now that the season is halfway complete, I want to look back and compare the team’s current position to where they were last year at this point. Last year’s squad, as you know, was decimated by injuries (especially on the position player side) and only the second Yankees team to miss the postseason in 19 years. Here is a quick nuts and bolts comparison of the last three half-seasons:
|W-L||RS||RA||Run Diff.||AVG||OBP||SLG||ERA||FIP||Def. Efficiency|
|’13 1st Half||42-39||310||326||-16||.239||.302||.379||3.87||3.68||0.692|
|’13 2nd Half||43-38||340||345||-5||.246||.312||.372||4.00||3.90||0.692|
|’14 1st Half||41-40||326||359||-33||.252||.316||.382||4.00||3.82||0.697|
Right now, this year’s club is marginally better than the team the Yankees trotted out there in the second half last season despite a worse record. They’ve performed slightly better at the plate — the difference is basically a few points of batting average, which hasn’t translated to more runs — and in the field and almost identically on the mound. The first half of this year has gone much better offensively and much worse run prevention-wise than the first half of last season.
The difference between this season’s team and the one that closed out last season is very small, which is a big problem. The 2013 Yankees were hit hard by injuries and scrambled for replacements all summer. This year’s team added over $500M worth of contracts to the roster and have not benefited from them in the standings at all. Masahiro Tanaka‘s been outstanding, Jacoby Ellsbury‘s been very good, and just about every other offseason addition has been terrible. Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran have truly been $30M+ worth of dead weight through 81 games.
The problem is two-fold. Not only is like, half the roster underperforming, but now the Yankees are locked into even more big money contracts with even less roster flexibility. They drew a lot of criticism for having an old, expensive, declining, veteran-based roster a year ago, yet they doubled down on that over the winter. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I don’t think. It only looks really bad when those guys underperform, which is something young players are certainly capable of doing as well. The Yankees needed better players this past offseason, not necessarily younger players. That got neither (in terms of actual, on-field performance).
The Yankees are only 2.5 games out of a playoff spot with half-a-season to play and I think the best thing that can happen to them right now is some kind of streak. Either win a whole bunch of games or lose a whole bunch of games. They have 13 games remaining before the All-Star break and either winning or losing about eleven of them would provide some clarity before the trade deadline. The standings say this team is still in contention, but man, watching them day after day does not inspire confidence. Going on some kind of run, either good or bad, puts the front office in a better position to make decisions before July 31st.
Of course, I fully expect the Yankees to go about 7-6 in these next 13 games and be in just about the same position they are right now. That’s what they’ve been doing all season. Whenever they’ve had a chance to beat up on some direct competition or take advantage of a soft part of the schedule, they’ve broken even. If they continue to do that, they’ll look to add pieces at the deadline, perhaps aggressively so because missing the postseason a second straight year will really take a bite out of the bottom line. There is bound to be some desperation setting in and I have a hard time seeing how that can be good.
The Yankees have been wholly underwhelming this season and the numbers bear that out, especially compared to last year. Outside of about five players (Tanaka, Gardner, Ellsbury, Dellin Betances, David Robertson), I don’t find this team to be particularly enjoyable to watch either. That’s just my opinion. They took steps to improve on last year’s performance over the winter and by and large those moves have backfired. The shape of the production may be different, but overall the team is simply not any better than last year’s mess.
The Yankees just wrapped up a nine-game road trip through two time zones and return home this week with five wins in the bank. It was a good trip, not a great trip. Stealing one of those last two games from the Athletics would have been awesome, but they are the best team in baseball. What are you going to do? Considering the injury-riddled rotation and mostly sputtering offense, winning five of nine works fine for me.
The road trip was not at all good for infielder Yangervis Solarte, who had four total hits in the nine games. All four came in back-to-back games in Kansas City. Solarte went hitless in his final 19 at-bats on the trip, though his recent slump extends further back than that — over the last calendar month he’s hitting only .208/.269/.313 (60 wRC+) in 105 plate appearances. That’s just bad. That’s what you’d expect from … well, a journeyman infielder who signed a minor league contract.
Despite the slump, Solarte is still hitting .274/.347/.420 (113 wRC+) on the season, which is a reminder of just how excellent he was a few weeks ago. I don’t think anyone realistically thought he could maintain the 144 wRC+ he posted through April or even the 131 wRC+ he posted through May. That’s Josh Donaldson/Hanley Ramirez production. I’ll be more than thrilled if Solarte manages to produce at a 113 wRC+ clip from here on out.
Sort through his day-by-day graphs page on FanGraphs and you can see Solarte’s gradual return to Earth pretty clearly. The AVG, OBP, SLG, BABIP, and wOBA graphs are all moving in the wrong direction, the walk rate slightly less so. The strikeout, K/BB, and ISO graphs show little change. They’ve held steady even through this slump and that’s encouraging. The one graph that stood out to me was the batted balls. Check it out:
The green line is ground balls, the blue is fly balls, and the red is line drives. Solarte’s ground ball and fly ball rates have been moving in opposite directions, which is sorta weird because his ISO has held steady. Usually when a hitter stops hitting the ball in the air, he stops hitting for extra bases. Maybe it’s just a small sample thing. Solarte isn’t fast and won’t beat out many infield singles (he has three infield hits all season, including this one), so it makes sense that the increase in ground balls has led to decreased production overall.
One thing that has impressed me about Solarte — really more than anything — is his approach. His 11.6% strikeout rate is much better than the league average (20.3%) and his 9.6% walk rate is a touch better than average (8.0%) as well. He has swung at only 27.9% of pitches outside the strike zone, a tick below the 29.3% average. Has that changed at all during the slump? Here are Solarte’s plate discipline stats broken down into ten-game chunks because ten is a nice round number:
Solarte has gradually swung at fewer pitches in the strike zone as the season has progressed, and lately he’s offered at more pitches out of the zone as well. That’s not really a good combination. Swing at strikes and lay off balls is a pretty good rule of thumb. Furthermore, Solarte has not only swung at more pitches out of the zone these last 22 games, but he’s made more contact with those pitches as well. Unless you’re a total freak like Vlad Guerrero, it’s really tough to made hard contact with a pitch out of the zone. Usually the hitter is reaching and either grounding out weakly or popping the ball up.
As Joe wrote two weeks ago, it is very rare for a player to make his MLB debut at age 26 and stick around for a few years. At least rare among non-Cuban players. Dan Uggla and David Eckstein have both done it, and Solarte is more Eckstein than Uggla in terms of his high-contact, low-power playing style. Every little slump makes you wonder if this is the end — for what it’s worth, Solarte has hit much better at Yankee Stadium, so coming back home this week could help jump start his bat — but Solarte has rebounded each previous time. A little less hacking at pitchers’ pitches would help get him back in line this time. That might not be his only problem right now, but it is part of it.
Through the first month or so of the season, I’m not sure anyone on the roster has been more disappointing than Brian McCann. The backstop has started his Yankees career with a 56 wRC+ in the first five-ish weeks, which ranks 177th out of 188 qualified hitters and dead last out of 15 qualified catchers. Chris Stewart had a 58 wRC+ last season, remember. The Yankees basically swapped Stewart for a balder, more expensive version in McCann. He’s been that bad so far.
As the fine broadcasters at the YES Network are wont to remind us day after day, inning after inning, the infield shift is widespread throughout baseball these days and McCann is one of its most popular targets. He was one of the most shifted against hitters in baseball last season and the same is true again so far this year. That was to be expected. Other teams weren’t going to stop shifting against McCann just because he was wearing a new uniform.
The shift has taken more than a few hits away from McCann this season and again, that is expected. Teams wouldn’t shift if they didn’t work. His .204 BABIP is a career low, especially when compared to his other healthy seasons (.234 before shoulder surgery in 2012), and down quite a bit from last season’s .261 BABIP. This isn’t all because of the shift — 8.3% of his plate appearances have ended with an infield pop-up this year, the fifth highest rate in baseball. Infield pop-ups are pretty much automatic outs and death to BABIP. His career pop-up rate prior to 2014 was only 4.0%, so this is way out of the norm.
Between the increased pop-up rate, the career low (by far) 3.5% walk rate, the career high (by far) 34.8% swing rate on pitches out of the zone*, and the ol’ eye test, I’m pretty comfortable saying McCann is pressing like hell at the plate. He’s trying to squeeze sap out of the bat. It happens. New team, new city, fat new contract, no beard, it’s understandable. Players press. McCann isn’t the first and he sure as hell won’t be the last. We’ve seen flashes of the productive power-hitting catcher the Yankees signed, but he hasn’t shown up consistently yet. It’ll happen, hopefully very soon.
* McCann’s strikeout rate (11.3%) is far below the league average and his best since 2008, so it’s not like he’s having trouble putting the ball in play.
Getting back on track, other clubs have been shifting against McCann quite a bit this season and lately it seems like he’s making an effort to go the other way. He’s always been a dead pull power hitter and that’s a big reason why he was so attractive to the Yankees, but lately I feel like we’ve seen more attempts to go to the opposite field. It doesn’t always work, but the attempt is there. Remember this?
McCann had three hits in that game and all three were to left field. I remember he ripped a line drive foul ball in that direction as well. Obviously a double to the wall is an extreme example of beating the shift by going the other way, but McCann did attempt a simple bunt towards third base to beat the shift on Monday. Here’s the play if you didn’t stay up late for the West Coast game:
The bunt went foul — it’s not easy to bunt Major League pitching, you know — but McCann made the attempt. He tried to beat the shift in the most basic way possible: by rolling the ball to where the defenders aren’t standing. That’s all a bunt is.
I didn’t watch enough of McCann during his time with the Braves to know whether these attempts to beat the shift are new or something he’s been trying for years. I would greatly prefer the former and hope this is a new development. Thankfully, we can check that. With an assist to the intimidatingly great Baseball Savant, here are some numbers on McCann’s tendencies to pull the ball or hit it the other way over the last few seasons. The table doesn’t include last night’s game because stupid West Coast:
|Total Pitches Pulled||Away Pitches Pulled||Total Pitches Other Way||Away Pitches Other Way|
First, some explanations are in order:
- Total Pitches Pulled: Percentage of all pitches pulled to the right side of the infield or to right field. McCann saw 452 pitches prior to last night and he pulled 35 of them to the right side of the field, or 7.7%.
- Away Pitches Pulled: Percentage of pitches on the outer third or off the plate away that were pulled to the right side. McCann saw 270 pitches in those locations and pulled 15 of them to the right side, or 5.6%.
- Total Pitches Other Way and Away Pitches Other Way are the same thing, only with pitches that were hit towards the left side of the infield or left field. Got it? Easy enough.
This season, either consciously or through the mirage of small sample size, McCann has been pulling fewer pitches to the right side of the field. He’s going the other way more often and that is especially true with pitches away from him, the ones you’re supposed to serve to the opposite field for a Nice Piece of Hitting. More than a few players (coughMarkTeixeiracough) will still try to pull those pitches and wind up rolling over on them, hitting a weak grounder right into the teeth of the shift.
We’ve seen McCann roll over on outside pitches this year, everyone does it, but he is doing it less often than he had the last few years. He’s taking those pitches to left field nearly twice as often as he had from 2011-12. I’m not going to bother looking at inside pitches because inside pitches are supposed to be pulled and pulled for power. Not everyone is Derek Jeter, who is going to the Hall of Fame because of his ability to pull his hands in and drive those pitches the other way. You want McCann to pull inside pitches because that’s how he can do some real damage.
Anyway, this is good! I think. We still need to wait a few more weeks to make sure this newfound tendency to go the other way is not just sample size noise, which is always possible. The data matches what my eyes were telling me though. McCann is indeed trying to hit the ball the other way more often. That could absolutely be contributing to his early season slump too. It’s a change in approach and sometimes those changes take time. McCann’s been hitting one way his entire life and now he appears to be changing it up. Of course there are going to be some bumps in the road.
Are teams going to stop shifting McCann because he’s hitting the ball the other way more often? Nope. Here are his spray charts. He still a pull-first hitter who yanks a ton of ground balls and line drives to the right side of the field and teams will stack their defense accordingly. McCann does appear to be making an attempt to go the other way more, particularly with pitches on the outer third of the plate. That will change how teams pitch him more than the defensive alignment. The most important thing is that he is hitting more balls away from the shift. The first few weeks of McCann’s tenure in New York have been ugly, no doubt about it, but there seems to be some serious work going on behind the scenes, and that could have positive results in time.
I’ve been at this for a little while now, and one thing I’ve learned over the years is that there is a friggin’ ton of bad information out there. The bad information outnumbers the good information by like, a factor of a hundred at this point. It’s terrible. Sorting through the nonsense is exhausting. It really is. What are you going to do though? It’s all in the game.
International players in particular fall victim to bad information because there isn’t much information out there to begin with. Even in this age of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, we still don’t know a whole lot about non-MLB players. The tiny little bit of information we have gets extrapolated out and before you know it, Yoenis Cespedes is a five-tool superstar when he’s more like a solid, two-tool everyday outfielder. It happens all the time.
To date, I don’t think we’ve seen anything out of Masahiro Tanaka that we didn’t hear about in the weeks and months leading up to his free agency. Actually, I guess I should say we haven’t seen Tanaka not do something he was said to be able to do in the weeks and months leading up to free agency. That make sense? We’re not waiting to see the gyroball or anything like that. Tanaka has been as advertised.
One thing that stood out to me before the Yankees signed Tanaka was this statement by Darrell Rasner, the former Yankee who was Tanaka’s teammate with the Rakuten Golden Eagles the last few years. Here’s what Rasner told Sweeny Murti back in January:
SM: When you say he has an extra gear, you mean an extra 3 or 4 miles per hour to get somebody out?
DR: I’m talking like an extra 10! I watch him pitch at 88-89 or 90-91, and then I’ll see him jump up to 98-99 when he needs it. I saw him do this (last) year, and there was one game that really stands out to me. I wanna say it was the eighth or ninth inning and he was 140 pitches in and he needed a strikeout, and he jumped it from that 90 to about 98-99 and punched the guy out. It’s just impressive watching the guy, his mentality and his know-how on pitching, especially being so young.
This sounds like a something that could be totally made up, right? We hear about guys cranking it up a notch in big situations quite a bit but it seems like few actually do it.
Anecdotally, I feel like I have seen Tanaka reach back and bring something extra in important spots during his first six starts, but this is 2014. Anecdotal evidence is for suckers. We can test this stuff. First, let’s keep it simple and look at Tanaka’s results. Here is how he’s fared in situations with varying degrees of pressure:
First things first: take a second to soak in those numbers with runners in scoring position. Hitters had an 0-for-17 stretch against Tanaka in those spots until Ryan Hanigan slapped a ground ball off Kelly Johnson‘s glove on Saturday. When it comes to runners in scoring position, Tanaka is the Yankees’ offense of pitchers. I don’t even care that the performance came in a super small sample — the reason I didn’t use low/medium/high-leverage stats instead is because Tanaka has faced only nine batters in high-leverage spots — it happened and it’s amazing.
Anyway, Tanaka has performed much better with runners on base than he has with the bases empty to date. That isn’t proof that he kicks it into another gear in big spots, but it does support the theory. At least somewhat. Obviously Tanaka isn’t going to sustain a 53.1% strikeout rate and a 75.0% ground ball rate with men in scoring position (lol) because no one does that. I would expect him to be less effective in those spots going forward only because he couldn’t possibly be any better.
The results have been excellent, but when I think of a pitcher reaching back for something extra in big spots, I think of increased velocity. That’s what everything thinks, right? Rasner’s claim that Tanaka can reach back for “an extra 10!” is completely far-fetched — if a pitcher could really do that, he’s probably doing his team and himself a disservice by not doing it more often — but the idea that he throws harder when he really needs an out is not. There are a few guys around the league who can do it, with Justin Verlander jumping to mind.
Courtesy of the amazing Baseball Savant, here is Tanaka’s pitch selection and average velocities in those same three situations:
Those percentages do not add up to 100% simply because Tanaka throws too many different pitches and I didn’t include them all. PitchFX has recorded eight different pitches from Tanaka this season, though the four-seamer, sinker, splitter, and slider are his four main offerings. The others (cutter, two-seamer, changeup, curve) aren’t used nearly as often, so I’m leaving them out. It’s just too much information.
Across the board we see that Tanaka has indeed thrown harder with guys on base, especially when they’re in scoring position. The increase in the average velocity of his four-seamer, sinker, and splitter is roughly one mile an hour with men in scoring position while the slider jumps two full miles an hour. The increases with men on base in general are smaller but they still exist, especially with the fastball and slider. The average fastball velocity increase with men on base is only 0.2 mph across the league. It’s 0.4 mph with runners in scoring position. Tanaka’s fastball has jumped +0.8 mph with men on and +1.2 mph with men in scoring position. The other pitches have shown even smaller velocity increases around the league, so Tanaka is very much unique.
Tanaka has thrown ten pitches at 94+ mph this year and eight have come with men on base. The two exceptions were a pair of 2-2 fastballs to Brock Holt (95.2 mph) and Grady Sizemore (94.7 mph). Both were fouled off and they were Tanaka’s fastest and fourth fastest pitches of the season, respectively. Here’s the fun part: the pitch to Holt was in the seventh inning (96th pitch), the pitch to Sizemore in the eighth (103rd). Tanaka was really amped up in Boston — ten of his 12 fastest pitches of the season came against the Red Sox — and he was throwing his hardest when his pitch count was approaching or over 100. That qualifies as a guy who ramps it up in big spots to me.
Through his first six starts, Tanaka has shown signs of having that “extra gear” we heard so much about before he joined the Yankees. It is just six starts though, his first six in the big leagues. He admitted to being excited and nervous before both his first overall start and first home start, and I’m sure he felt a little something before his other four starts as well. If Tanaka continues to reach back for more in big situations later in the season, after he has some more innings under is belt and has had more time to adjust to the five-man rotation, then I think we’ll know this is a skill he actually possesses and not just a piece of bad misinformation we heard before Tanaka came over to MLB.