Archive for Analysis
The mailbag is our Friday staple, but this week we received a question worth its own post.
Jonathan asks: Hey Mike, have you noticed any change in Mark Teixeira‘s stance so far? He’s standing up much more straight with less of a crouch and his hands are starting in a lower position.
I hadn’t noticed anything different until I read Jonathan’s question the other day, so I paid extra attention during Tuesday night’s game against the Mariners. Sure enough, it looks like Teixeira has changed his setup at the plate. To the action GIFs:
That is 2013 on the left and 2014 on the right, both homerun swings (not that the outcome matters much, but just in case) and both at Yankee Stadium so the camera angle is the same. I’m not much when it comes to media editing and all that, but I did my best to sync the two GIFs at the moment his front foot hits the ground.
There are definitely some differences between last year and this year, as Jonathan pointed out. Four that I see, in fact.
- Closed Stance: Teixeira’s front foot was further away from the plate than his back foot last season. He’d been like his entire career. The same is still true this year, but it isn’t nearly as exaggerated.
- More Upright: Look at his knees. He was in a bit more of a crouch last season. This year he’s standing close to straight up.
- Lower Hands: They wind up in the same place once he starts to load his swing, but Teixeira has brought his hands out in front of his body before the pitch is delivered. Before they were almost behind his head.
- Follow-Through: Last year Teixeira still had his big one-handed follow-through. This year it’s a more compact two-handed follow-through.
Do those adjustments sound familiar? They should. You’re a bad fan if they don’t. (Not really.) Those are the same exact adjustments Curtis Granderson made when he revamped his batting stance in August 2010 and turned into one of the game’s premier power hitters almost literally overnight. Here’s a pair of screen caps from a post I wrote about Granderson’s overhaul back in the day:
Granderson’s very first at-bat of the 2010 season is on the left (homer off Josh Beckett!) and an at-bat from August 2010 is on the right. It’s from the series immediately after he went through his crash course with hitting coach Kevin Long, so right after Curtis went through the overhaul.
The camera angle isn’t the same but you can see Granderson closed his stance and dropped his hands, pretty drastically too. Much more than Teixeira. (Lower hands is a classic adjustment players make in an effort to get their bat moving quicker.) He is not standing more upright, though he did replace his one-handed follow-through with a two-handed follow-through. I’m not going to make a GIF of that; I trust you remember Grandy following through with two hands these last few years.
Kevin Long noticed that Teixeira had been letting the bat go early when he hit lefty, protecting his right wrist in the process. Teixeira said he fell into that habit last year when he tried to play through the injury, but until Long picked it up on video earlier in the week, he didn’t realize it was still happening.
“Lefthanded, mentally I have to continue to remember that it’s healthy now and even though it might be a little bit tight, and every now and then it’s a little bit sore, I can still take that full swing,” Teixeira said. “It was unbelievable how early I was letting go of my (left) hand to protect the (right) wrist. Just really a bad mechanical thing.”
Long and Teixeira worked on the adjustment in the cage and during batting practice, but it wasn’t until Thursday’s game against the Pirates in Bradenton that the first baseman truly felt he let loose during his lefthanded at-bats.
“It looked like a whole different animal,” Long said. “The problem is it wasn’t allowing him to drive the ball and he was cutting his swing off. I can’t tell you how positive the Bradenton game was for him and for us.
That’s the kinda thing I read in Spring Training and completely ignore. We hear that sorta stuff everyday and most of it means nothing, both short and long-term. Teixeira has noticeably revamped his stance though, and both he and the hitting coach talked about making adjustments back in camp. The early returns are positive too: .231/.375/.487 (140 wRC+) with three homers in 48 plate appearances this season, including two homers in his last two games. Suddenly that little blurb from March seems more meaningful.
Teixeira is a switch-hitter, but his left-handed swing has been the concern in recent years. I didn’t bother to look to see if he changed his righty stance as well. He never stopped mashing lefties (144 wRC+ from 2011-13), so there was never a reason to worry about him from that side of the plate. Teixeira’s production against righties took a hit though (104 wRC+ from 2011-13), plus a right wrist injury is more worrisome for a lefty hitter. The front arm is the power arm, so if any part of that is compromised, it’s tough to drive the ball. Teixeira has hit those two homers off righty pitchers the last two games, which is encouraging.
Will the adjustments Teixeira made this year be as effective as the ones Granderson made in 2010? Man that would be so cool. It is the same basic stuff, after all. Closed stance, lower hands, two-handed follow-through, etc. That said, no. Probably not. Granderson’s fix was 95th percentile stuff. Turning into a 40+ homer guy with a few mechanical tweaks is damn near the best case scenario. I wouldn’t expect the same results from Teixeira just because they made the same adjustments. They are two different players at two different points of their careers.
Still, can this new stance help Teixeira regain some of his lost production as a left-handed batter? It’s possible and I hope so. There’s really no way of knowing at this point though. Teixeira wasn’t bad in his last full, healthy season (116 wRC+), he just wasn’t as good as he had been during his prime. The easiest way for him to improve his overall production is to improve against righties, and these recent changes could help him do just that. Hopefully this recent power surge is a sign of things to come and an indication Teixeira’s new batting stance is paying real dividends.
Thanks to Friday night’s beatdown at the hands of the Angels, Hiroki Kuroda is sitting on an unsightly 5.28 ERA (4.26 FIP) in 29 innings through five starts this year. Obviously one disaster outing like that one will skew numbers this early in the season, but Kuroda did go into that start with a 4.07 ERA (3.58 FIP) in 24.1 innings. The runs allowed are a bit higher than what we’re used to seeing from the right-hander, the fielding independent stuff right in line with past years.
Kuroda faced 25 Angels on Friday night and ten had hits, including six in two-strike counts. He allowed just seven two-strike hits total in his first four starts. Kuroda was having problems with his offspeed stuff in his previous start against the Rays, but he worked through that and turned in a representative outing (three runs in 5.2 innings). He had the same issue against the Angels but couldn’t limit the damage.
“Overall my command was bad and all my pitches weren’t good,” said Kuroda to Brian Heyman following Friday’s game. “Right now, there are certain pitches that are inconsistent. I need to make an adjustment and get them back. The biggest thing is to improve the quality of my breaking ball.”
Kuroda does throw the occasional curveball but his slider is his go-to breaking ball. Has been for years. He uses the pitch mostly against righties (duh) while relying on his splitter against lefties (also duh), so it makes sense the righty-heavy Angels smacked him around on Friday. Same-side hitters have tagged Kuroda for a .351 wOBA in the early going this year, up from .266 last season. When the finish pitch isn’t there, it’s tough to put batters away. Same applies to every pitcher ever.
Here are the details on Kuroda’s slider:
|% Thrown||% In Zone||% Swings||% Whiffs||Horiz. Mvmt||Vert. Mvmt||mph|
|2012||30.0%||33.6%||45.4%||16.5%||1.3 in.||3.2 in.||84.3|
|2013||25.1%||33.2%||46.0%||16.1%||0.5 in.||3.3 in.||84.5|
|2014||14.0%||36.9%||40.0%||13.9%||1.3 in.||3.3 in.||84.1|
The movement and velocity of Kuroda’s slider is right in line with his first two seasons as a Yankee — the 0.5 inches of horizontal movement last season is the outlier compared to the rest of his career, according to Brooks Baseball — but he’s throwing considerably fewer of them this year, which suggests a lack of faith in the pitch. Kuroda admitted his slider hasn’t been good and pitchers tend to shelve pitches they are struggling to execute. When he has thrown it, he’s catching more of the plate and hitters aren’t swinging and missing.
Kuroda is not overpowering and he uses his slider as a chase pitch, both to get swings and misses and weak contact. He outperformed his FIP and posted a below league-average BABIP every year from 2011-13, classic signs of a guy who generates weak contact. Kuroda is a unique pitcher in more ways that one. Now that his slider isn’t behaving as it normally does, he isn’t getting those whiffs and certainly isn’t getting weak contact. When he’s been hit, he’s been hit hard.
The question now is why is his slider being so fickle? It could be any number of reasons and there’s no way we could possible know from where we sit. Could be mechanics, could be the cold weather, could be something else. Age is an obvious concern — “I don’t know. This is the first time I’ve been 39,” he quipped to Andrew Marchand when asked if he’s getting to be over the hill — but Kuroda’s stuff doesn’t appear to be diminished at all. His velocity and movement are fine, he’s just not executing and locating. When he struggled late last year, Kuroda was making his pitches and still getting beat. He just isn’t making his pitches right now, especially with the slider.
Kuroda doesn’t lack a good fastball but he is definitely more of a crafty pitcher than a power pitcher. He needs all three of his fastball, slider, and splitter to be effective, and when one or more of those pitches doesn’t behave, he’s in for a real grind. The inability to locate his slider juuust off the plate to righties has left him without one of three primary weapons, and that’s no way to succeed in the AL East. Kuroda has to make an adjustment — it’s entirely possible he won’t be able to make that adjustment at his age, but I’m not going to say that is the case after five starts — and get back to being a true three-pitch pitcher, otherwise he’s in for more rough outings.
As you know, last season was the worst of CC Sabathia‘s career. By a lot. He was legitimately one of the worst pitchers in the game after being no worse than comfortably above-average for the better part of a decade. Sabathia’s ability to bounce back — not necessarily to an ace, just to something better than terrible — is pretty important to the team’s chances to contend this summer, even with Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda throwing so well early on.
Sabathia’s first four starts this year have been a mixed bag but they have gotten progressively better: six runs in six innings, four runs in six innings, four runs in seven innings, and two runs in seven innings. He has pitched very well early in his last three starts before allowing some runs in the later innings. There have definitely been multi-inning stretches where he was in total control, but we’ve yet to see an entire start like that. Hopefully it’s coming soon.
Unsurprisingly, Sabathia’s oft-discussed velocity did not bounce back this year. It never does. Once velocity goes it tends to stay gone. His four-seam fastball has averaged only 89.6 mph in his first four starts, down from 91.3 mph last year. I suspect that will tick up a little bit in the summer months as it usually does. How has Sabathia attempted to compensate for his missing heater? By simply throwing it less. He has de-emphasized his four-seamer. Look at his pitch selection courtesy of Brooks Baseball:
Sabathia has incorporated a cutter this season but he rarely uses it, only a handful of times per game. He is throwing slightly fewer sliders and slightly more changeups, but nothing crazy. That’s probably a function of the small sample size more than anything. The big difference comes with the fastballs. Sabathia is throwing way fewer four-seamers than at any other time with the Yankees and he’s throwing a ton more sinkers, basically twice as many as he threw from 2011-13. That’s a big difference.
Sabathia is not necessarily using fastballs less, but now he is cutting them and especially sinking them more often. That doesn’t make him unique either. Not even close. That is an adjustment most veteran pitchers will make later in their careers. From Chris Cwik:
The added movement is likely one of the reasons we’ve seen veteran pitchers start using the sinker more often, according to PITCHf/x guru Harry Pavlidis. “As you lose velocity you need to add something,” says Pavlidis. “Movement is a good choice. So you’ll have older pitchers who lose velocity and adjust, or guys who are fringy and realize they can get a new edge, even if their velocity is still intact.”
Former major-league pitcher Brian Bannister agrees. “As pitchers lose the capability to throw powerful four-seam fastballs they have to compensate somehow,” Bannister said. “If you look at most of the pitchers who are still around as they get older, they are throwing sinking fastballs and not power fastballs because it matches up with how their body feels.”
Sort through the list of pitchers who have used the sinker the most since 2011 and they are almost all veterans in the second half of their career. Jake Westbrook, Derek Lowe, Jason Marquis, Kyle Lohse, Hiroki Kuroda, Bronson Arroyo, guys like that. Sabathia isn’t throwing his sinker as much as those guys just yet, but don’t be surprised if he creeps closer and closer to the top of that list in the coming years. It only makes sense to shelve the straight four-seamer in favor of the sinking sinker as the radar gun readings become less impressive.
Emphasizing the sinker is not the only adjustment Sabathia has made early this year. He is also pitching inside more often. According to the truly amazing Baseball Savant, Sabathia has come inside to right-handed batters with 29.5% of his pitches this year. That is up from 25.8% last year and 24.2% from 2011-13. (He’s only faced 12 lefty batters this year so I won’t even bother with those numbers.) I remember Mike Mussina (or maybe it was David Cone) saying that you have to pitch inside more when you start to lose velocity, and Sabathia has done early in 2014.
Between the increased reliance on his sinker and busting righties inside more often, CC has changed his pitching style in a tangible way so far this year. He had to after last season. The velocity isn’t coming back and adjustments had to be made. I’m guessing this is just the start of those adjustments too. We might see more sinkers, more cutters, and more pitches inside as the season continues and he gets more comfortable. The progressively better starts might be an indication of that.
Because of who he is and his importance to the Yankees, everything Sabathia does this season will be watched closely. At least by me. I’m somewhat fascinated by the way pitchers age in general, going from hard-throwing youngsters with big stuff to savvy veterans who rely on their brains as much as their arms. Sabathia was not a “thrower” these last few years, the guy knows how to pitch, but that doesn’t mean adjusting to reduced velocity is easy. Throwing more sinkers (and cutters) and pitching inside appear to be tangible changes to his approach this year, changes he needs to make at this point of his career.
Two games into his MLB career, Masahiro Tanaka looks very much like the number two starter he was expected to be when he left the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Yeah, he has shown a penchant for the long ball, but he has also struck out 18 of 56 batters faced (32.1%) while walking only one (1.8%). He leads the league in swing and miss rate (17.2%) and in getting hitters to chase out of the zone (43.9%), both by comfortable margins.
Obviously the element of surprise is working in Tanaka’s favor. Most MLB hitters have never faced him before, and while they can watch all the video and read all the scouting reports in the world, there’s no substitute for standing in the box and seeing him for yourself. Tanaka definitely has an advantage right now, but eventually that element of surprise will go away. That’s okay though! He’s not going to turn into Sidney Ponson once the book gets out. Or maybe he will. Who knows? Whatever.
Anyway, one thing I’ve noticed about Tanaka in his two starts is that he is very unpredictable. I don’t mean his performance, I mean his pitch selection. It seems like he will throw almost anything in any count, but that’s just what I’ve seen, or at least what I think I’ve seen. I always think back to this whenever I’m writing about anecdotal stuff. PitchFX can tell us more about Tanaka’s pitch selection than my memory, so with a big assist from Brooks Baseball, here is how he has pitched in various situations in his two starts:
I was originally planning to include a table with the pitch selection breakdown by count, but that was a mess of numbers and in some cases the sample was only a handful of pitches. It was too much information. Breaking it down like I did above works much better, trust me. (If you must see the individual count info, you can do it via the Brooks link above.)
The first thing that stands out to me is how Tanaka has pitched with the count even. The cutter is his clear sixth pitch but otherwise he will throw his four-seamer, sinker, slider, and splitter interchangeably in those situations. The curveball lags behind slightly. How do you prepare for that if you’re a hitter? You can’t sit on a pitch with the count even. You can get lucky and guess right, sure, but there’s no pattern there. You’re just as likely to see a straight four-seamer as you are his trademark splitter.
When he gets ahead in the count, Tanaka tends to lean on his slider and especially his splitter, understandably. Those are his out pitches and when you’re ahead, you try to finish hitters off. He still throws plenty of fastballs in those counts, enough to keep hitters honest. When he’s behind, it tends to be mostly fastballs, which is pretty common. Tanaka has still thrown at least four different pitches at least 10% of the time regardless of whether he’s ahead in the count, behind in the count, or even.
So yeah, my memory didn’t lie. Tanaka has been very unpredictable with his pitch selection in his two starts. That doesn’t mean he will pitch this way forever, but that’s what has happened so far. I tend to think unpredictability is a good thing when it comes to pitching, but there is also an argument to be made that Tanaka’s splitter is so good that he shouldn’t bother screwing around with his other pitches in certain situations. Here’s a quote from one scout, courtesy of Baseball Prospectus (no subs. req’d):
“Without a doubt the splitter is a difference maker; it could very well be the best in the game. But I have concerns about the way he nibbles at the plate and drives up his pitch counts at times. He also gets a little too reliant on the fastball as well, using it instead of the splitter too often when he’s ahead of the count. He does have velocity, but it’s not nearly the same caliber of putaway pitch as the splitter. Why eat ground chuck when you’ve got filet in the fridge?”
Tanaka has averaged only 3.54 pitches per plate appearance in his two starts, the 79th lowest among 93 qualified starters. The first two innings of his two starts have been rough, but he’s averaged 3.43 pitches per plate appearance in the first and second inning. It’s 3.60 pitches per plate appearances from the third inning onward. This does not necessarily mean the scout is wrong. Tanaka has had some extended at-bats (like everyone else) and perhaps he could cut down on those by emphasizing the splitter.
The early inning struggles have been annoying, but Tanaka has pitched very well overall against two tough lineups in his two starts. Hitters haven’t seen him and that’s a distinct advantage, and the fact that he mixes pitches and uses his arsenal so well makes him even more unpredictable. Even though he is only 25 years old, Tanaka definitely has a “crafty veteran” element to his pitching style, and it’s a lot of fun to watch.
The Yankees dropped their season-opener to the Astros on Tuesday for more than a few reasons, including a rebuilt offense that didn’t show up until about the seventh inning. CC Sabathia shoulders most of the blame because he was awful, allowing six runs in six innings. Doesn’t matter who you’re playing, climbing out of a 6-0 hole is tough for any lineup.
That game really was a tale of two Sabathias. He was abysmal in those first two innings, allowing all six runs on six hits, including two homers and two doubles. Over his final four innings, Sabathia kept Houston off the board and held them to a walk and two singles, one of which didn’t leave the infield. Five of his six strikeouts came in those final four innings and only one of the 14 batters he faced after the second hit the ball in the air. Sabathia was terrible the first two innings and pretty damn good the final four.
As I mentioned yesterday, the mid-start turn-around was so drastic that you have to think some kind of adjustment was made. Maybe Sabathia did it on his own, maybe pitching coach Larry Rothschild pointed something out, maybe it was Brian McCann. We’ve seen CC struggle early in a start before figuring it out before, so Opening Day wasn’t that unique, but it was especially noticeable on Tuesday. For what it’s worth, Sabathia chalked it up to adrenaline.
“It got out of hand early,” said CC to Chad Jennings after the game. “That’s been the toughest thing for me. I do get so excited. I feel like I’m a kid again. I would sleep in my uniform if I could the night before Opening Day. I think it’s just the nervousness, the jitters, wanting to start the season off good so bad, I end up pitching bad.”
It’s very possible Sabathia’s adjustment was simply calming down, but whatever it was, it should show up in the results somewhere. His velocity held steady all game — his fastball averaged 89.7 mph on Tuesday, down from 90.3 mph on Opening Day last year — and while Sabathia said he starting throwing his new cutter in the later innings, PitchFX didn’t pick any up. Maybe the system is broke, maybe the cutting action was so big they were classified as sliders. Who knows?
Whenever Sabathia struggles, it seems like it’s because he misses his location. That sounds obvious, I know. Sure, he gives up the occasional hit on a pitcher’s pitch like everyone else, but the Astros punished him early because he was missing out over the plate. I’m going to point this out again:
Those are the homers by Jesus Guzman (left) and L.J. Hoes (right). Dexter Fowler swatted a similar pitch to center, leading off the game with a double. Belt high offerings right out over the plate. That’s no way to pitch.
So did Sabathia’s location improve in innings three through six? To the PitchFX data:
Just to be clear, that is looking from the catcher’s perspective.
I was hoping there would be a big blob of blue pitches over the middle of the pitches and a bunch of red on the edges, but no dice. That would have been cool. Sabathia threw 99 pitches in the start, including 50 in the first two innings and 49 in the final four, so the sample is split right down the middle. That’s convenient. There are two things going on in this graph that I want to look at specifically, so let’s make life easy:
Like I said, two things I want to look at, hence the colored ovals. To the details:
Yellow Oval: The Astros had eight right-handed or switch hitters in the lineup, so these pitches are more or less in the wheelhouse. Belt high and right out over the plate. Sabathia threw seven pitches in this general area in the first two innings, resulting in the two homers, Fowler’s double, Jason Castro’s run-scoring fielder’s choice, a foul ball, a called strike, and a swing and a miss. In innings three through six, he threw only two pitches in this area, getting a foul ball and a swing and miss. If you want to count that one extra pitch at the top of the zone that’s hiding under the yellow oval, that’s another swing and miss. So yes, Sabathia did a better job of staying out of the danger zone in those final four innings.
Blue Oval (or cyan, whatever): I’m not going to count pitches and look at individual results here. I’m pointing this part of the strike zone out because it’s the outer half of the plate and generally the bottom half of the zone. With those eight righty bats in the lineup, that where you’d want a left-hander to pitch, down and away. Sabathia didn’t throw too many pitches down there in the first two innings — he was really all over the place in those two innings, geez — but he did a much better job of locating the ball down and away in his final four innings. Getting the ball out of the wheelhouse and instead burying it down there is a surefire way to improve performance.
Location is very important but it is just one piece of the pitching pie. I also want to look at whether Sabathia changed up his pitch mix as the game progressed, so here’s the breakdown:
|Batters Faced||1st Pitch FB||FB%||CH%||SL%|
That is … the exact opposite of what I expected. I thought Sabathia would have thrown fewer fastballs and particularly fewer first-pitch fastballs in those last four innings. Instead, he threw more fastballs than he did earlier in the game. He really pounded the zone with his heater late. Very surprising, at least to me. I guess he just got into a groove and was better able to drive the ball down and away to all those righties.
At some point between the second and third innings, something happened that helped Sabathia better locate his pitches, particularly his fastball. The PitchFX data confirms this. We have Point A (innings 1-2) and Point B (innings 3-6), but no knowledge of Sabathia got there. Maybe he did just calm down. Maybe it really is that simple. I can’t help but think some kind of mechanical adjustment was made, something that helped him get the ball down and get it on the outer half of the plate against righties.
“I just think it was a matter of relaxing. I didn’t want to go out and overthrow and be all over the place, but I think backing off didn’t help either so I got to find a place in the middle where I can pitch good,” said Sabathia to Jennings and Jorge Castillo. “I’ve got 34, hopefully, more starts left. I’m definitely not going to pitch like I did tonight in the first two innings. I know I can pitch, and I know I can get guys out. I feel great. I’m not going to beat myself up about this.”
Sabathia has always been super-accountable and when he struggled last year, he crushed himself after every start. Tuesday though? Eh, no big deal, I’ll be fine. I wonder if that is a function of knowing the problem and knowing how to solve it. Sabathia stunk last year and he always seemed to be looking for a fix. There were no answers and he as clearly frustrated. This year, it seems like he knows what was wrong in those first two innings and knows the solution. He found it in the middle of the start. That he didn’t tear into himself after the game may be an indication that is the case.
Let’s not try to soften the blow here, Sabathia was terrible overall on Opening Day. He didn’t give the Yankees much of a chance at all. That he turned it around literally between innings and settled down is encouraging. We don’t know what changed, but something did. I guess there’s always a chance nothing changed too. We are talking about the Astros. It’s early in the season though and this is the time for optimism, so let’s say he fixed something. Sabathia has a big test against the Blue Jays on Sunday, so we ‘ll get to see if whatever adjustment was make between the second and third innings on Tuesday is a sustainable formula for success.
We have more ways to evaluate baseball than ever before, yet it still feels like we’ve only seen the tip of the analytical iceberg. There are still so many aspects of the game we’re unable to fully understand or accurately measure.
On Saturday, at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, Major League Baseball Advanced Media introduced its new “player tracking” system that, basically, will measure everything that happens on the field. I’m not joking when I say everything. The ball, the fielders, the whole nine. Here’s more from Mark Newman (of MLB.com, not the Yankees’ front office):
The goal is to revolutionize the way people evaluate baseball, by presenting for the first time the tools that connect all actions that happen on a field to determine how they work together. This new datastream will enable the industry to understand the whole play on the field — batting, pitching, fielding and baserunning — and enable new metrics for evaluation by clubs, scouts, players and fans.
For instance, on a brilliant, game-saving diving catch by an outfielder, this new system will let us understand what created that outcome. Was it the quickness of his first step, his acceleration? Was it his initial positioning? What if the pitcher had thrown a different pitch? Everything will be connected for the first time, providing a tool for answers to questions like this and more.
You can see the system at work in the video above, though there is much more to it than that. Only three ballparks (Miller Park, CitiField, Target Field) will have the system up and running for this season, but the goal is to having it operational in all 30 parks by 2015. I’m surprised all of this information will be publicly available, to be honest. I thought it would be kept proprietary.
Needless to say, this new system will change the way the game is evaluated. The stuff we have now is good, but it doesn’t compare to detailed information on defensive routes, first step quickness, batted ball quality, and a million other things. There has not been a reliable way to accurately measure that sorta stuff until now. It’ll be a while until we have this data for the entire league and learning how to properly use it will take even longer, but man, this new system is a gold mine.
Regardless of what Brian Cashman says during radio interviews, the Yankees have very high hopes for Masahiro Tanaka. No team spends $155M on a guy unless they expect him to be an impact player. Sure, there may be an initial adjustment period coming over from Japan, but the Yankees are expecting Tanaka to slot in near the top of their rotation for at least the next four years.
Just about every scouting report we’ve seen these last few weeks says Tanaka owns a swing-and-miss splitter, arguably the best split-finger fastball in the world. That’s the pitch that separates him from the Kei Igawas and Kaz Ishiis of the pitching world and has everyone thinking he’ll be a number two-ish starter long-term. Despite that out-pitch splitter, Tanaka’s strikeout rate hasn’t been all that impressive in recent years:
The big league average was 7.6 K/9 and 19.9 K% last season, so striking out fewer than one-quarter of batters faced in NPB doesn’t exactly scream “ready to dominate MLB,” especially considering the downward trend in Tanaka’s strikeout rate. Having a swing-and-miss splitter that is racking up fewer and fewer strikeouts is a red flag, no doubt. We do have some explanation for the dropping strikeout rate though, courtesy of Keith Law (subs. req’d):
Tanaka used to pitch away from contact, but in the past two years, he has become more aggressive within the zone with his fastball, and his splitter is a solid 60 on the 20-80 scale.
According to Law, Tanaka essentially started pitching to contact these last few years. The hitters in Japan are not all that great, and it seems like he realized he didn’t need to nibble on the edges to succeed, he could simply pound the zone. That approach won’t work in MLB, or at least it won’t work as well. Tanaka will have to go back to living on the corners, and by all indications, he can do that.
Sticking to the edges of the plate should help increase Tanaka’s strikeout rate naturally — he is bound to get some favorable calls on borderline pitches, especially since Brian McCann and Frankie Cervelli are better than average pitch-framers — but other factors will work in his favor as well. First and foremost is the general hitting style around the league. Here’s something Buster Olney (subs. req’d) wrote a few weeks ago, with an assist from former Yankee Casey McGehee, who was Tanaka teammate with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2013:
McGehee believes that Tanaka will continue to improve pitching in the major leagues because the style of play suits Tanaka. The bottom of the lineups in Japan, McGehee said, are often rounded out with hitters whose goal is merely to fend off the forthcoming pitch. They’ll shorten their swing, foul the ball off, and survive to see another pitch. Hitters in the majors, McGehee noted, are more apt to look to do damage — to take bigger and more aggressive swings, in turn having plate appearances with few pitches.
The league average strikeout rate in Japan last year was 6.7 K/9 and 17.5 K%, so a large portion of the hitters definitely focused on simply making contract. The idea of hitters “whose goal is merely to fend off the forthcoming pitch” is not a thing that exists in MLB. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all trying to make contact, but the emphasis is on hard contact. Strikeouts are generally more accepted these days, as long as the trade-off involves a higher on-base percentage and more power.
The idea of a pitcher coming over from Japan and improving his strikout rate in MLB seems kinda silly — the competition level in NPB is clearly not the same as is in the big leagues — but it’s hardly unprecedented. Here are how the five most recent NPB imports fared after coming over to the States:
|MLB K%||Final NPB Season K%||Final Three NPB Seasons K%|
Chen is from Taiwan but he did pitch for the Chunichi Dragons in Japan from 2005-11 before signing with the Orioles. Anyway, aside from Dice-K, recent Japanese starters have maintained if not improved their strikeout rate after coming over to MLB. The hitters over here are better than the hitters in Japan, but they will also sell out for power and strike out more often. Furthermore, the bottom of the zone has expanded in recent years (as Jon Roegele recently explained), which should help Tanaka and his diving splitter.
There is one other thing to consider, and that is pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Rothschild came to the Yankees with a reputation for improving strikeout rates and that has held true during his time in pinstripes: Yankees pitchers had a 7.38 K/9 (19.2 K%) during the three years before Rothschild and a 7.80 K/9 (20.5 K%) in the three years with Rothschild. Obviously personnel has something to do with that, but veteran guys like CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte have seen their strikeout rate improve under Rothschild. Tanaka may do the same.
It’s pretty obvious why strikeouts are good, right? Nothing bad can happen when the ball is not put in play, and that is especially true for the Yankees, who could have a pretty ugly infield defense this year. Tanaka’s strikeout rate with Rakuten last year wasn’t anything special, but there are a number of reasons why he might whiff more batters in MLB going forward. His pitching approach, more aggressive hitters, the expanding zone, Rothschild, all of that and more can work to his advantage. Tanaka doesn’t necessarily need to strike a ton of guys out to be effective, but the more strikeouts he records, the better off he and the Yankees will be.
Now that Masahiro Tanaka is officially a Yankee, we can finally stop talking about what it will take to land him and begin to focus on how he might actually … you know … pitch next season. Novel idea, I know. Unfortunately scouting reports and NPB stats don’t tell us much about how Tanaka will handle the transition from NPB to the AL East, nevermind the cultural change and all the off-the-field stuff he’ll have to deal with. It can be overwhelming.
Most reports have indicated Tanaka will be a number two starter in the big leagues and that means … I don’t know, really. Aces are pretty easy to identify; they’re the guys who have strung together a few years of truly elite production*. Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw, guys like that. You can see them a mile away. They’re in their own little world. Number twos are a little different, they’re a notch below the aces but still among the top 25-30 starters in the game. At least that’s what I think.
* That “strung together a few years” part is important in my opinion. It’s possible for a pitcher to have a random ace-like season (Esteban Loaiza!) but the true aces are the guys who do it year after year.
A few days ago Dan Szymborski (subs. req’d) ran Tanaka through his ZiPS system to come up with a projected performance over the life of the seven-year contract. Projections are not predictions, they’re just an estimation of a player’s true talent level. There’s wiggle room in each direction and that is especially true when talking about a pitcher making the transition from NPB to MLB. Here’s what the system spit out:
Let’s focus on 2014-17 since Tanaka can opt-out after the fourth year. They’re the only guaranteed years of the contract. ZiPS has Tanaka sitting in the 3.5-4.0 WAR range during those four years, averaging 3.8 WAR per seasons. Pitchers who have averaged roughly 3.8 WAR per year from 2011-12 include Kris Medlen, Jhoulys Chacin, Kyle Lohse, Zack Greinke, and Doug Fister. Those guys feel like number twos right? They were among the top 25 pitchers in baseball by WAR over the last two seasons, so they fit what we talked about a paragraph or two ago.
I suspect the general sense will be that Tanaka did not live up to expectations if he manages a 3.68 ERA and 3.8 WAR next season, but I think that would actually be pretty awesome in his first year stateside. ZiPS projected Yu Darvish for a 3.62 ERA and 4.5 WAR two years ago, a bit better than his actual 3.90 ERA and 3.9 WAR. The system was in the ballpark, at least. If Tanaka finishes with, say, a 4.00 ERA and 3.0 WAR in 2014, it would still be pretty good but I think most would say he failed to meet expectations, fair or not.
The projections shouldn’t be taken to heart, obviously. It is an objective measure based on historical data though, and that’s better than guessing, which is what we’d be doing otherwise. If Tanaka lives up to the projections and gives the team something close to 4.0 WAR during the first four years of his contract, he’ll have more than lived up to the contract. If he settles in as a 3.0 WAR pitcher instead, that’ll be fine too. Maybe not what we all expected but not bad by any means.
After weeks and weeks of waiting, we now know Alex Rodriguez has been suspended for the entire 2014 season. The team still owes him some salary and he will count a small amount against the luxury tax this year (as I explained earlier), but for the most part his massive $27.5M luxury tax hit has been wiped off the books. Plus they don’t need to worry about his first $6M homerun milestone bonus. You can bet the front office and ownership are rejoicing.
With A-Rod suspended, it is once again time to look over the team’s payroll situation. As a reminder, the numbers listed are luxury tax hits, not actual 2014 salary. The two can be and often are different. For reference, here are Part One (last January), Part Two (August), Part Three (November), and Part Four (December) of the series.
- Under Contract ($153.766M): CC Sabathia ($24.4M), Mark Teixeira ($22.5M), Jacoby Ellsbury ($21.9M), Brian McCann ($17M), Hiroki Kuroda ($16M), Carlos Beltran ($15M), Derek Jeter ($12.81M), Ichiro Suzuki ($6.5M), Alfonso Soriano ($4M), Matt Thornton ($3.5M), A-Rod ($3.156M), Kelly Johnson ($3M), Brian Roberts ($2M), Brendan Ryan ($2M)
- Arbitration-Eligible ($14.8M projected): David Robertson ($5.5M), Brett Gardner ($4M), Ivan Nova ($2.8M), Shawn Kelley ($1.5M), Frankie Cervelli ($1M)
- Pre-Arbitration-Eligible: Zoilo Almonte, Dean Anna, Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, Cesar Cabral, Jose Campos, Preston Claiborne, Ramon Flores, Shane Greene, Slade Heathcott, David Huff, Bryan Mitchell, J.R. Murphy, Eduardo Nunez, Vidal Nuno, David Phelps, Michael Pineda, Jose Ramirez, Austin Romine, Gary Sanchez, Nik Turley, Adam Warren
- Potential Bonuses ($10.1M): Jeter (up to $7M based on awards), Roberts (up to $2.6M in incentives), Kuroda (up to $500k based on innings)
- Other ($12.085M): Benefits (approximately $12M), Kuroda’s translator ($85k)
Roberts’ one-year contract — Dan Connolly says it includes a $2M base salary plus $2.6M in plate appearance-based incentives — is not yet official but it will be very soon, so I’m including him. And yes, Kuroda’s translator counts against the luxury tax according to Dan Martin and Ken Davidoff. So silly.
The 15 players who are on the 40-man roster but not on the active 25-man roster are typically estimately at $2M-5M, so let’s go with $5M. Adding together everything above gives us a $195.751M payroll for luxury tax purposes for this coming season. If we say Jeter and Roberts are unlikely to trigger their bonuses but Kuroda will hit his, we’re still at $186.151M. It’s worth noting the players’ union expects Gardner’s salary to be “considerably higher” than projected by Matt Swartz’s model. We’re just going to have to wait to see about that.
That $186.151M gives the team just $2.849M to spend under the $189M luxury tax threshold. It also leaves them with this projected 25-man roster come Opening Day:
|McCann||1B Teixeira||LF Gardner||Sabathia||Robertson|
|2B Roberts||CF Ellsbury||Kuroda||Kelley|
|DH||SS Jeter||RF Beltran/Soriano||Nova||Thornton|
|Beltran/Soriano||3B Johnson||? (Phelps)||? (Warren)|
|C Cervelli||OF Ichiro||?|
Based on what we heard yesterday, that last bench ? is going to a low cost player like Nunez, Anna, Scott Sizemore, Corban Joseph, or Yangervis Solarte. Johnson’s flexibility means he’s the emergency fifth outfielder in any given game. Barring a surprise addition, the position player portion of the Opening Day roster is pretty much set aside from that forthcoming Spring Training competition.
The pitching staff is much more up in the air. We know the Yankees are pursuing Masahiro Tanaka but signing him is not a given. If they fail to sign him, Brian Cashman has indicated they could look for cheap starters a la Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon back during the 2010-11 offseason. What we do know is there will be a fifth starter competition in camp, so that guy will be cheap. I have Phelps in parentheses in the table just because he seems like the favorite for the job, but it could just as easily be Warren. I do expect both to be on the Opening Day roster though, one as a starter and one in the bullpen.
The last three bullpen ?s could all wind up going to cheap internal candidates and the Yankees have a ton of ‘em. Huff, Betances, Claiborne, Cabral, Nuno, Robert Coello, Brian Gordon, Matt Daley, David Herndon, on and on it goes. I would love to see the Yankees add one (preferably two) relievers with some more big league pedigree, someone like Grant Balfour or Luis Ayala or even Joel Hanrahan, who isn’t expected to return from Tommy John surgery until sometime in May or June. Cheaps bullpens are great, but a bullpen in which Kelley is the second best reliever makes me a wee bit nervous.
So let’s say that out of those seven total ?s, five will be filled internally. Sizemore, Phelps, Warren, Huff, and Betances. Sound good? Good. Those guys will all earn something close to the league minimum, meaning another $3M or so added to the payroll. That brings us up to $189.151M total with one rotation spot and one bullpen spot still open. So the Yankees are already over the luxury tax threshold without a full roster or money set aside for midseason call-ups and waiver claims and whatever else.
There is obviously some leeway here — my $5M assumption for the 15 non-active roster players is conservative — but it’s clear signing Tanaka will put the Yankees over the luxury tax threshold. No doubt about it. Going with a cheap starter and a moderately priced reliever like Ayala would also put them over the threshold. Heck, going cheap with that last rotation and bullpen spot still puts them right up against the threshold at the very least, if not over. And remember, Gardner’s salary may end up larger than projected and they’ll need to call guys up throughout the season. The only two ways the Yankees can realistically clear payroll is by trading Gardner or Ichiro, and they’d have to eat some cash to move the latter. Plus they’d have to pay players to replace them.
Even with A-Rod almost completely off the books, the Yankees are still going to wind up over the luxury tax threshold this summer. The only question is how much. As one team executive said recently, “We either have to be under $189M or up over $200M or more. Think how dumb it would look if we worked for a few years to get under $189M and we didn’t and we were at like $189M and just missed. Either we go under or way over.” Given their current payroll situation, it looks like they’ll be way over. Hooray for that.
At some point very soon, perhaps today, the Yankees will formally announce the signing of Carlos Beltran. The 40-man roster is full at the moment, so someone will lose their spot when Beltran puts pen to paper. The same will happen when Brian Roberts becomes official. Ditto Matt Thornton and another starter and a third baseman and a reliever or two.
Needless to say, the Yankees are going to have some tough decisions to make regarding roster spots in the near future. There are more pending contracts and still unaddressed needs than obvious designate for assignment/release candidates. Let’s sort through the roster (here’s the 40-man for reference) and attempt to figure out who is most expendable when 40-man spots are needed in the coming weeks.
Definitely Safe (19): Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, Slade Heathcott, Derek Jeter, Kelly Johnson, Shawn Kelley, Hiroki Kuroda, Brian McCann, J.R. Murphy, Ivan Nova, David Phelps, Michael Pineda, David Robertson, Brendan Ryan, CC Sabathia, Gary Sanchez, Alfonso Soriano, Mark Teixeira, Adam Warren
These nineteen players aren’t going anywhere for obvious reasons. They’re either key pieces of the big league roster or among New York’s top prospects. If any of these guys are traded, they’ll be traded for someone to help the big league team. Not a non-40-man roster candidate for a sake of clearing a roster spot.
It’s Complicated (1): Alex Rodriguez
The day will come when the Yankees dump A-Rod off the 40-man, but that day is not imminent. Not as long as the ruling for his appeal hearing — a ruling that could save the team tens of millions of dollars — is still pending.
Now, that said, Rodriguez would not count against the 40-man roster if he is suspended, so he could win up opening a spot anyway. The ruling is expected sometime next month and there are indications the Yankees won’t add another infielder until it comes down — makes sense since there is only one open position player slot on the roster at the moment — so either A-Rod or a player occupying his 40-man spot will man third come Opening Day. Like I said, it’s complicated.
Probably Safe (12): Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, Cesar Cabral, Jose Campos, Frankie Cervelli, Preston Claiborne, Shane Greene, Bryan Mitchell, Eduardo Nunez, Vidal Nuno, Jose Ramirez, Austin Romine
I don’t think you can say any of these folks are absolutely locked into the roster spots and untouchable, but it would be surprising if they were dumped to make room for someone else. Is it possible? Sure. Likely? Nah. There’s no such thing as too much pitching or catching depth, and the Yankees are in a position to cut loose an infielder like Nunez at this moment.
These are the guys who could legitimately lose their roster spot in the next few weeks. Ichiro is a useful fifth outfielder at this point but he doesn’t really have a role with the team outside of defensive replacement and pinch-runner. The Yankees have been shopping him in recent weeks and if the opportunity emerges to shed some salary, they’ll probably jump all over it.
Flores and Marshall had disappointing 2013 seasons and that’s probably enough to put them on the chopping block. They’re okay but not great prospects, the kinda guys who could slip through waivers. Turley is a notch above those two on the prospect totem pole and since he’s both left-handed and breathing, he’d definitely get claimed off waivers. He seems like an unlikely future roster casuality but I wouldn’t rule it out completely if things get tight.
Almonte and Anna are the “next in line” depth players. If (and when, really) an outfielder gets hurt next summer, Almonte will be called up to take his place. When an infielder gets hurt, it’ll be Anna. Maybe the Yankees feel comfortable with Heathcott and Nunez in those roles, but that MLB-ready depth is never a bad thing. Considering the current roster situation, it’s not unreasonable to think one of these two could be in jeopardy come February or so.
These two guys stand out as obvious candidates to lose their spots. Huff had a nice run as a swingman late in the season but he has a) not been mentioned as part of any kind of Spring Training competition, and b) been replaced as the lefty out of the bullpen by Thorton. As a soft-tosser in a tiny ballpark in the AL East with no track record of big league success, he’s exactly the kind of guy you want to dump too early rather than too late.
Wells, meanwhile, has been relegated to sixth outfielder status by the Ellsbury and Beltran signings. He doesn’t hit lefties (89 wRC+ vs. LHP in 2013) and his power completely vanished in mid-May last season. He also doesn’t play anything more than passable defense and isn’t particularly versatile. Wells is a man without a role now that he’s stopped hitting southpaws, making him a prime roster cut candidate. The fact that he counts as zero dollars against the luxury tax (the Yankees owe him $2.4M in real dollars next season) makes walking away a little easier to swallow.
* * *
Whenever the Beltran contract is made official, it would make sense that Wells would lose his 40-man roster spot as the corresponding roster move. The Yankees would still have Ellsbury, Beltran, Soriano, Gardner, and Ichiro at the big league level with Almonte slated for Triple-A. Cutting Wells for Beltran is so obvious and makes so much sense it probably won’t happen. I wouldn’t be surprised if they cut Huff instead.
Either way, both guys seem likely to lose their 40-man spots in the coming weeks given the roster crunch. After them, I would guess Marshall and Flores are most at risk of being cut. An Ichiro trade and/or an A-Rod suspension would both make life a little easier and give the team some added flexibility. Once Huff and Wells are gone, the Yankees are going to have to make some real tough decisions when it comes to fitting everyone on the roster heading into next season.