Chapman Returns [2017 Season Preview]

(Reinhold Matay | USA TODAY Sports)
(Reinhold Matay | USA TODAY Sports)

On the off-chance that you missed it, the Yankees gave Aroldis Chapman the largest contract ever handed out to a reliever back in December, re-solidifying the back of the bullpen that they had gutted (for the best of reasons) a handful of months prior. There’s something poetic about the fact that the team dealt its closer for a player that would become its best prospect, only to have those two on the same roster less than a year later. It makes a great trade look even better, regardless of the fact that re-signing Chapman shouldn’t influence one’s thoughts on the deal. But I digress.

An argument can be made that Chapman is the best reliever in baseball, which may well be stating the obvious. He finished 4th in the Majors in fWAR and 9th in RA9-WAR despite not throwing a pitch until May 9 (due to his suspension for domestic violence), ranking among the top-five in K%, K-BB%, ERA-, and FIP-. And this is nothing new for Chapman, either, as the southpaw leads all relievers in fWAR and RA9-WAR over the last five years. It’s telling that his 13.97 K/9 and 40.5 K% are his lowest marks since he took over for Francisco Cordero as the Reds closer following the 2011 season.

How does he do it?

Consistency Is Key

Chapman has not had anything short of a brilliant season since becoming a closer, with the only real variations being degrees of excellence. In the last five seasons he hasn’t struck out fewer than 40.5% of batters, nor has he allowed an ERA higher than 2.54 – and his averages in that stretch are 44.2% and 1.84, respectively. And this past season, when he posted that measly 40.5% strikeout rate, he offset it by posting a career-low walk rate of 8.1% (the first above-average mark of his career). I’ll take that trade-off.

It isn’t just consistency with his statistics, either. Take a look at his velocity:

chapman-velo

All of his offerings have remained steady since 2010 – his first full-season in the Majors, and they actually ticked up a bit last season. In fact, he showcased the second-best fastball velocity of his career in 2016 per Brooks Baseball, clocking in at 101.08 MPH. His slider and change-up velocity have been similarly metronomic, which is a great sign.

The movement on his pitches is consistent, as well, even if there are a few sections that stand out a bit more:

 

chapman-horizontal-movement chapman-vertical-movement

It is worth noting that he barely utilizes his change-up (less than 3% of his pitches were change-ups last year, per Brooks Baseball), so it makes some sense that it would be something of an outlier. He has tinkered with different grips, too.

Protecting His Elbow

Pitchers that throw hard and pitchers that throw a high percentage of sliders seem to be more prone to elbow injuries, if only anecdotally, and Chapman does both. Or, perhaps more accurately, he used to throw a high percentage of sliders.

chapman-pitch-selection

In 2014, nearly a quarter of Chapman’s pitches were sliders – and that appears to be the outlier in his time as a closer. Around 15% of his offerings were sliders last year, which placed him 72nd among the 130 relievers that threw at least 50 IP. And, to be fair, his slider usage ranked him 50th among 138 in 2014, so our perception of him as a slider-happy pitcher may be a bit of cognitive dissonance due to the wipe-out nature of the pitch.

That premium velocity has almost undoubtedly taken its toll, but focusing on fastballs could play a roll in Chapman remaining healthy. Whether that is a conscious decision or a matter of him sticking with what works is another question entirely.

What About The Playoffs?

Chapman came perilously close to adding his name to the list of curses that had plagued the Cubs franchise for over a century when he blew the save in Game 7 of the World Series, allowing a game-tying two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning. It was his third blown save of a postseason in which he posted an uncharacteristically high 3.45 ERA and 1.09 WHIP (and, no, the fact that those numbers would be good for most relievers isn’t lost on me).

The Cubs won the World Series, so all was forgiven. Does that mean that we should forget about Chapman’s intermittent struggles? Yes. Yes it does.

Between the regular season and playoffs, Chapman nearly matched his career-high in IP, doing so despite his shortened season. He pitched 13 times in 27 days in the playoffs, including three times in four days leading into Game 7. Despite this, his velocity was as steady as ever:

chapman-playoff-velo

The Cubs utilized Chapman exactly how they should have, and he may have been worn down somewhat in the process. That may give the Yankees a reason to be gentle with him early in the season, but it does not give much of a reason to be concerned about his abilities going forward.


The projection systems largely forecast the status quo for Chapman, albeit with what would be his highest ERA since 2013 (2.33 for Steamer, 2.34 for ZiPS, and 2.45 for PECOTA). That represents the safe route, factoring in a full season in a hitter’s park in a division full of potent offenses. Nevertheless, I expect Chapman to continue to be an elite closer in 2017.

Michael Pineda and the Luck Dragon [2017 Season Preview]

(Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY Sports)
(Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY Sports)

Over the last two seasons, seventy-six pitchers have thrown at least 300 IP. And, by at least one measure, Michael Pineda has been by far the most unlucky starting pitcher in baseball, with a 1.02 run difference between his ERA and FIP. The league-average gulf is 0.00, and only four pitchers are within half a run of Pineda (with Wade Miley and Gio Gonzalez coming closest, at 0.77).

Looking at it from another angle, his 111 ERA- (11% below-average) over the last two years ranks 69th within that group, while his 83 FIP- (17% above-average) places him 19th. The former metric puts him between Jeff Samardzija and Ubaldo Jimenez, whereas the latter ties him with Jeff Verlander and Zack Greinke; it’d be difficult to find two more distinct sets of pitchers to be a part of.

Luck, then, is a term that has been bandied about with Pineda quite a bit over the last two years. On some level, there remains hope that this is a long stretch of bad luck, and it’s easy to see why – he’s a 28-year-old whose strikeout and walk rates have placed him among elite company these last two years, after all. It’s never that simple, though.

The Good

There were plenty of things to like about Pineda’s 2016 season. The towering righty was in the top-ten in all of baseball in K% and K-BB%, and top-ten in the American League in strikeouts and FIP. His 45.8 GB% was a tick above league-average, he picked up swings on 37.8% of pitches outside of the strikezone (against a league-average of 30.3%), he allowed precious little contact (70.9%, versus a 78.2% league-average), and his fastball velocity jumped from 92.5 MPH in 2015 to 94.0 MPH last year.

In short, he regained lost velocity, racked up whiffs, limited walks, and kept the ball on the ground. What’s not to like?

The Bad

Pineda has earned a reputation for struggling to put hitters away, and that appears to be justified. As Mike pointed out in his season review:

And yet, with two strikes:

Pineda: .187/.246/.286 with a 47.6% strikeout rate
MLB Average: .176/.246/.276 with a 41.1% strikeout rate

The strikeout rate is nice, but Pineda’s overall numbers in two-strike counts are far too close to the league average pitcher for a guy with his stuff. Chad Green, whose slider isn’t nearly as good as Pineda’s, held hitters to a .135/.192/.281 batting line with two strikes. Those are the kind of numbers you’re looking for from Pineda.

This may be an issue with general pitch location, hanging sliders, sequencing, or any number of things, but the vast majority of above-average starting pitchers perform significantly better with two-strikes. It’s worth noting that this is something that Pineda is mindful of, and is said to be working on; a walk year would be a good time for him to make some improvements.

The Ugly

Batters teed off on all incarnations of Pineda’s fastball last year, batting .347 with a .619 SLG against the offerings (per Brooks Baseball). Or, phrased differently, batters turned into 2015 Bryce Harper when Pineda threw a fastball, which he did just over fifty-percent of the time. As per PITCHf/x it was the least-valuable pitch in baseball, checking in at -20.6 wFA (or 20.6 runs below-average).

That represents a significant drop-off from 2015, when the pitch was just 4.7 runs below-average, and may go a long way in determining how he ended up with a 4.82 ERA against a 3.80 FIP and 3.30 xFIP. Well, that, and the fact that his 1.38 HR/9 and 70.7 LOB% both ranked in the 20th percentile in all of baseball; this likely stems from his horrendous fastball, as well.

What made his fastball so bad? Location, location, location.

(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)

You see that red area, right in the middle of the strikezone? That’s where Pineda threw the majority of his fastballs last year; not on the black, not just outside the zone – right down the pike. It’s not too shocking that batters were able to hit .347 against the pitch with this in mind, particularly when you consider they hit .328 against it in 2015, when his location was incredibly similar.


The projection systems are bullish on Pineda, essentially buying into his strikeout and walk rates and forecasting significantly fewer home runs:

ZiPS – 156.2 IP, 9.4 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9, 3.96 ERA

Steamer – 152.0 IP, 9.4 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9, 3.51 ERA

PECOTA – 168.0 IP, 9.6 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9, 3.60 ERA

Steamer and PECOTA actually prefer Pineda to Masahiro Tanaka, which is … interesting, I suppose. Regardless, I would be thrilled with any of those lines, as even ZiPS would represent a slightly above-average pitcher (based on ERA), which would be a significant improvement upon Pineda’s two full seasons in pinstripes.

CC Sabathia: The Solid Mid-Rotation Starter [2017 Season Preview]

(Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports)
(Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports)

A bit over a year ago, CC Sabathia‘s job security was very much in question – and for good reason. From 2013 through 2015, the former ace pitched to a 4.81 ERA (121st among 132 qualified SP in that stretch, and 20% below-average) and 4.40 FIP (118th, 7% below-average), and missed time due to injuries, poor performance, and alcoholism (for which he sought treatment after the 2015 season). Joe Girardi and Co. were open in their discussions of the fifth starter training camp battle between Sabathia and Ivan Nova, and there seemed to be a very real chance that the big man would open the season in the bullpen.

That didn’t happen, of course, and the Yankees were rewarded with a rock solid campaign from Sabathia. Heading into the 2017 season, he once again feels like an integral piece to the rotation. How did we get here?

Lest We Forget, We Almost Didn’t

It was only four starts, but Sabathia was bad in April (21.1 IP, 25 H, 11 BB, 15 K, 5.06 ERA, 4.04 FIP), and the calls for him to head to the bullpen grew louder. The aforementioned Nova threw four strong innings in relief in the second game of the season, Sabathia was decidedly mediocre in his first start, and the memories of the Spring Training competition were still fresh. Had it not been for Nova imploding in two of his next four appearances, I still wonder if he would have ended up switching places with Sabathia.

Suddenly, An Ace

The calendar turned to May, and Sabathia rediscovered his mojo. Over the next seven starts, he posted three scoreless outings, pitching to the following line: 44 IP, 29 H, 16 BB, 41 K, 0.82 ERA, 2.94 FIP. And he looked good doing it, as he allowed just one home run and worked his way out of jams like the Sabathia of old.

There were plenty of signs that this wasn’t sustainable, including a 4.20 xFIP, 90.3 LOB%, and 2.4% HR/FB – but that didn’t stop most of us from buying in, at least a little bit. Sabathia’s name popped-up in All-Star discussions, and it felt as though the Comeback Player of the Year award was made with this sort of circumstances in mind. A backslide was all but certain to come, yet watching him dominate was a sight for sore eyes. And maybe, just maybe, a corner had been turned.

The Inevitable Backslide

Maybe not.

Sabathia followed-up his red hot six week stretch by allowing at least five earned runs in four straight games, and looked an awful lot like his 2013 through 2015 incarnation. Over the next eight weeks, he allowed a 6.78 ERA (5.33 FIP) over 65.0 IP, surrendering 13 HR in 11 starts (1.80 HR/9). His season ERA jumped from 2.20 to 4.49, and the hand-wringing returned.

This is how it looked in graph form:

sabathia-era-fip

And, as was the story of his three previous seasons, his successes and failures were tied closely to gopheritis:

sabathia-hr-9

Things weren’t looking so hot in the dog days of summer. Until…

A New Hope

On August 23, Sabathia dominated a stout Mariners lineup (one that finished second in the Majors in wRC+ in 2016) for seven innings, allowing just 3 hits, 1 run, and 1 walk, while striking out seven. That was the start of a fine closing stretch to the year, over which he tossed 49.1 IP of 2.37 ERA ball with above-average peripherals (21.4 K%, 7.1 BB%, 54.3 GB%). His final start was an exclamation point on that stretch, as he held the Red Sox to 1 run and 6 base-runners in 7.1 IP, striking out 8 – including David Ortiz swinging in the second inning.

All told, Sabathia finished the season with 179.2 IP, a 3.91 ERA (8% above-average), 4.28 FIP (3% above-average), 2.6 fWAR, and 3.0 bWAR. Or, phrased differently, a perfectly reasonable season from a mid-rotation starter.

Why The Recap?

To this point, my post is more of a 2016 review than a 2017 preview. That is a bit necessary, though, as it is demonstrative of the ups and downs that an aging pitcher faces. It also serves as a reminder that Sabathia was back to being a revelation at season’s end, even if his year was almost equally split between awesome and awful, with little in between.

Now, onto the meatier portion of the preview.

How Did He Do It?

What stands out the most about Sabathia’s season – aside from his actual statistics – may be best explained in graph form. To wit:

brooksbaseball-chart

 

He figured out a cutter, and he threw the hell out of it, essentially eliminating his four-seam fastball along the way. That pitch became his go-to offering against RHH, who hit .258/.325/.400 against Sabathia last year, after battering him to the tune of a .304/.363/.502 slash line in 2015 (.293/.349/.494 from 2013 through 2015). As per Brooks Baseball, righties hit just .222 against the cutter, with a .362 SLG; for comparison’s sake, they hit .300 with a .467 SLG against his four-seamer in 2015.

Sabathia also induced the second-best groundball percentage of his career (50.1%, compared to a league-average rate of 44.7%), and allowed his lowest hard contact percentage since 2011 (24.7%, versus the 31.4% league-average). His .288 BABIP was also his lowest in several years, but it wasn’t unsustainably so (the league-average was .298) – particularly when you factor in the grounders and weak contact.

There are also two factors that we can’t quite quantify – his adjustment to his new knee brace, and the recovery from alcoholism. Sabathia spent the entirety of 2016 adjusting to wearing a knee brace (and switching to a heavier at one point), and his ailing, balky knee played a large role in his struggles from 2013 through 2015. We don’t know exactly how alcoholism effected everything … but I’d be remiss to say anything less than sobriety is a good thing, and we should all be happy for Sabathia.


The projection systems are bearish on Sabathia, with ZiPS (4.57 ERA, 1.5 fWAR) and PECOTA (4.79 ERA, 0.6 WARP) seeing him slip back into his pre-2016 form. That isn’t terribly surprising, given his age, injury history, and three years’ worth or struggles, but there does appear to be tangible reasons to expect him to be closer to what we saw last year. Splitting the difference between 2015 and 2016 would leave him as a roughly league-average starter (98 ERA+), which represents my pragmatic prediction; and the Yankees and their fans should be happy with that.

Betting on a Bounce Back [2017 Season Preview]

(Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports)

On the heels of a relatively solid offensive season in which he posted a 109 wRC+ with 20 HR in just 426 PA, Matt Holliday has the look and feel of a hitter that can offer so much more. Some of this is undoubtedly based on his reputation (he was, by wRC+, a top-10 hitter as recently as 2013, and a top-30 hitter in 2014), as well as the hope that a healthy, more rested version of the 37-year-old will be more productive. There are several indicators that Holliday will improve relative to his 2016 season, or, at the very least, stall the effects of Father Time for one more year.

Batting Average on Balls in Play

What stands out the most among a slew of career-lows for Holliday may well be his .253 BABIP. Prior to 2016, Holliday had never posted a BABIP lower than .298, and his career norm sat at .335 (the same mark that he posted in 2015). Much of this can be explained away by career-high groundball rate and a career-low line drive percentage – but how much?

Attempts at calculating an accurate predictive version of xBABIP (expected BABIP) haven’t been all that great thus far, but the folks at FanGraphs keep on trying. Progress has certainly been made, and enough so that it isn’t entirely inane to plug-and-play with the latest and greatest in their formulas. Using the methodologies outlined in those three separate posts, we find that Holliday’s xBABIP ranged anywhere between .300 and .345 … which is a testament to how rough these equations are, but I digress.

If we take the low end of those samples and give Holliday a .300 BABIP for 2016 and treat all of the extra hits as singles, his numbers look significantly better (obviously). Instead of a .246/.322/.461 slash line with a 109 wRC+, he would’ve hit .281/.353/.484 with a 120-ish wRC+. All this for an extra nine or ten singles.

This is far from perfect analysis, to be sure, as the quirks and inconsistencies of xBABIP cannot be ignore – but it is demonstrative of the simple fact that a bit more favorable treatment from the luck dragon can change things dramatically.

Hitting the Ball Hard

As Mike pointed out when the signing was made official, Holliday hit the snot out of the ball in 2016. To wit:

[H]is hard contact rate (38.5%) was comfortably above the MLB average (31.4%) and his career average (35.6%). In fact, among the 375 players to put at least 100 balls in play this past season, Holliday had the third highest average exit velocity (94.7 mph). Only Nelson Cruz (95.9 mph) and Giancarlo Stanton (95.1 mph) were better. Miguel Cabrera (94.5 mph) was fourth. That is some good company. Also, according to Mike Petriello, Holliday put 42.5% of his balls in play at 100 mph or better, the fourth best rate in baseball. Exit velocity isn’t everything — it’s possible to hit a 100 mph pop-up, you know — but it’s not nothing either. Holliday can still strike the ball with authority.

A hard contact rate generally correlates with strong offense, with 19 of the top 30 posting a wRC+ of 120 or better in 2016, and all but one sitting above league-average. This is a normal split, going all the way back to 2010 (the first year for which we have this data). There are varying degrees of offensive prowess sprinkled throughout the list of the hardest-hitters in baseball, so it isn’t necessarily predictive of anything other than solid-average offense – but it’s a good sign nevertheless.

Statcast’s exit velocity tells a similar story. There are few bad hitters among those that hit the ball with authority, but there is little predictive value beyond that.

The Yankee Stadium Boost

Or, phrased differently, the promise of having a new home ballpark.

Holliday was significantly better away from Busch Stadium last season, batting .297/.363/.554 with 11 of his home runs coming on the road. His splits were relatively steady heading into 2016, so it’s possible that this was merely a one year blip. However, it’s also possible that a park that limits power (particularly right-handed power) finally began to catch up to an aging hitter. Yankee Stadium is much friendlier to all hitters, and will greatly benefit a slugger that drives the ball to all fields, like so:

plot_hc_spray

Power to all fields will play in any park, and Yankee Stadium is particularly advantageous for a hitter of Holliday’s caliber. And the fact that he still showed an all-fields approach with power in what amounted to the worst season of his career is certainly encouraging. So is the fact that all three of his Spring Training home runs have gone to the opposite field.

Rest, Rest, and Even More Rest

Holliday should not (and hopefully will not) have to play the field all that often this year, if at all. The Yankees have five players listed as outfielders on the 40-man roster, and that does not include Tyler Austin, Jorge Mateo, Rob Refsnyder, and Ronald Torreyes, all of whom could play out there in a pinch, nor does it include those outfielders that stand to open the season in Triple-A and could easily be added (Dustin Fowler, Clint Frazier, Jake Cave, etc). The depth at first base is strong, as well, albeit in a different manner, as probable back-up/platoon player Chris Carter could conceivably start for several teams.

Playing regularly at DH should help keep Holliday rested, and protect him from the nagging sort of injuries that have hampered his last two seasons. He has a bit of experience playing DH, for what it’s worth, batting .260/.340/.535 with 9 HR in 144 PA scattered across his career; such a small, spread out sample size may not mean much, but it lends a sliver of optimism that he can adjust to the routine of the position.


Two weeks ago, I discussed second-guessing the Matt Holliday signing due to the way the marketplace for designated hitters unfolded. That was never intended to be a question of Holliday’s potential, however, as I am a strong believer in his ability to have a strong season for the Yankees. The average DH had a 115 wRC+ last season, and he wasn’t all that far off in a down year. That should be well within reach for a mostly healthy Holliday, with a dash of luck.

The Frustrating Chase Headley [2017 Season Preview]

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

To say that Chase Headley‘s first full season in pinstripes was a disappointment would be something of an understatement. Fresh off of a solid 123 wRC+ and stellar 2.8 fWAR in 58 games with the Yankees in 2014, expectations for Headley were at least a bit high – and the resultant 4-year, $52 MM contract that he inked that off-season didn’t help matters. He responded with, as Mike detailed this time last year, the worst season of his career, posting his lowest wRC+ ever, and his worst WAR since moving to third full-time after the 2009 season.

The existence of Jacoby Ellsbury prevented Headley from becoming the focus of the Yankees fanbase’s collective ire, but there was quite a bit of discussion about the three years remaining on his deal, and Rob Refsnyder learning the hot corner was far more newsworthy than it otherwise would (or should) have been. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that 2016 was a make or break year – in hindsight or otherwise – but the word ‘albatross’ was thrown around at least a bit.

And Headley, of course, responded with a borderline carbon copy of his 2015 season in the batter’s box:

pvgsxt9

Even with an improved walk rate and a bit more pop, Headley remained a below-average hitter (comfortably below the positional wRC+ of 106 in 2016), ranking 21st among qualified third basemen in wRC+. This may just be who he is as he enters his age-33 season, but there are some positives beneath the surface.

He Remembered How to Play Defense

The worst aspect of Headley’s 2015 was his defense. The former Gold Glover made 23 errors, nearly doubling his previous career-high of 13 (set in his first year at the position), posting a fielding percentage twelve points below the league-average. Twenty players qualified for the Gold Glove at the hot corner in 2015, and Headley ranked 15th in Defensive Runs Saved 15th in UZR/150, 19th in fielding percentage, and 20th in errors (with career-worst marks across the board). And, given the lasting impressions of his throwing issues and the agreement between advanced and old-fashioned metrics, he was just as bad as those numbers suggest.

Last year represented a defensive about-face for Headley, as he improved across the board to a staggering extent. If you prefer basic statistics, he made 13 fewer errors, and improved his fielding percentage from .946 to .974. If advanced metrics are more your speed, his DRS jumped from -6 to 7, and his UZR went from -3 to 6.6.

Put simply, he looked far more comfortable at the position (and much more like the guy that the Yankees acquired in the Summer of 2014).

What About His Bat?

Headley ended 2015 with a whimper, batting .179/.252/.223 (32 wRC+) between September and October. That impotence continued into 2016, as he hit just .150/.268/.150 (22 wRC+) in April, and did not pick up his first extra base hit until May 12.

Things started to improve dramatically from there, and Headley swung a hot bat for the next two and a half months. Selective endpoints are tricky, to be sure, but he batted .293/.360/.482 with 10 HR (127 wRC+) from May 12 through the end of July, and hopes started to rise.

And then he hit .232/.322/.361 with 4 HR (83 wRC+) over the last two months, coming full circle in replicating his 2015 season. Here’s a visualization of his streakiness:

capture

His 2016 breaks down as an awful month and a half, two and a half very good months, and two well below-average months … which is actually quite similar to his 2015 (even if the order is a bit different):

capture

So where are those positives that I mentioned?

As I mentioned earlier, Headley’s walk rate improved by 1.7 percentage points, and his ISO jumped from .110 to .133. Both marks are skewed somewhat, as league-averages jumped, as well, but Headley’s improvements were notable nonetheless. He also started running the bases again, picking up 8 SB and adding 3.9 runs per BsR, which is something that he simply didn’t do in 2015. And most everything else (including his swing percentages) eked closer to his career norms.


If we buy into Headley’s sustained mid-season hot streak and the signs that he’s trending back towards his career norms, it stands to reason that he could bounce-back to being a league-average hitter. Interestingly enough, PECOTA sees something that suggests a modest improvement, projecting a .251/.333/.400 slash line with 16 HR, good for a .259 TAv. For reference, a .260 TAv is average, and Headley’s marks in 2015 and 2016 were .245 and .248, respectively.

It’s certainly reasonable to expect Headley to continue to play defense at a high level, and I think he’ll do that. And if his bat can find its way into league-average territory – which I remain split on – he could be a 3 win player in 2017. I’d be thrilled with that, and I’m sure the Yankees would be, too.

A Couple of Middle Infielders in Their Prime [2017 Season Preview]

(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

There seems to be a strong consensus that 2016 was a breakout season for Didi Gregorius, and something between a disappointment and a shrug of the shoulders for Starlin Castro. This is unsurprising, considering that the former set career highs (nearly) across the board, whereas the latter failed to have the change of scenery bounceback that many expected – but is it fair? Consider their offensive production last year:

castro-gregorius-fg
(FanGraphs)

Their numbers were virtually indistinguishable. Gregorius struck out significantly less, to be sure, but it’d be difficult to find two more comparable players otherwise (much less a duo that mans the same middle infield). It feels like cognitive dissonance to an extent.

The comparison shouldn’t end there, of course, as Gregorius was the superior base-runner, adding between four and eight extra runs depending on your metric of choice, and he played the more difficult position (both were subpar defenders by most measures, though the eye and reputation tests tell another story entirely for Gregorius). As a result of these factors, Gregorius had a comfortable lead in both fWAR (2.7 to 1.1) and bWAR (2.2 to 1.2). He was undoubtedly the better player, but the similarities remain striking.

With Gleyber Torres setting the world ablaze, Tyler Wade in Triple-A, and Jorge Mateo still earning some prospect love, the Yankees are certain to be watching the performances of Castro and Gregorius closely. And if they see an opportunity to improve the team with a cheaper, internal option, they might just take it.

So what should be expected of the Yankees current double play combination in 2017?

Starlin Castro

The only real constant in Castro’s career to-date has been his inconsistency. Plotting his year-to-year wRC+ results in a fairly wicked looking roller coaster:

castro-wrc

Put that all together and you have a roughly league-average hitter, with a 162 game average of .280/.318/.408 (96 wRC+) and 13 HR. Both ZiPS (.272/.305/.419 with 18 HR) and PECOTA (.268/.308/.415 with 16 HR) project more of the same in 2017, which makes sense at this point in his career. Castro is still quite young, as he won’t be 27 until March 24, but he has 4374 Major League plate appearances under his belt, and he has regressed more so than anything else of late.

Just last week, however, Mike dug into a potential breakout season for Castro, discussing the reasons for optimism, which essentially boil down to past success, harder (and better) contact, greater comfort at the keystone, and his age. In the end, Mike thinks that a .300/.340/.475 line is within the realm of possibility; it’s tough to disagree, given that he hit .307/.341/.432 in 2011 and .292/.339/.438 in 2014, and just showcased the best power of his career last year. I wouldn’t expect that level of production – but it wouldn’t shock me, either.

This does feel like a big year for Castro, at least insofar as his pinstriped career is concerned. He’s no longer cheap, as he’ll earn an average of just under $11 MM over the next three years, but he’s far from untradeable, given his age and ability to play an up-the-middle position. Another middling season might result in him playing elsewhere in 2018, as it’s no secret that he is (or was) available in trade talks this off-season.

Didi Gregorius

Projecting Gregorius’ 2017 is an incredibly difficult task, as the shape of his production has changed dramatically over his four full-ish seasons. Keeping in mind that his 2012 season was a 21 PA cup of coffee, take a look at the following:

didi-plate-discipline

In 2013 – his first full-ish season – Gregorius walked in 9.2% of his plate appearances, which was comfortably above the league-average walk rate of 7.9%. He swung a bit more often than the average player by about 4 percentage points, but his strikeout rate was better than average and his 91 wRC+ as a 23-year-old shortstop was more than acceptable.

Fast forward to the end of 2016, and Gregorius looked like a completely different player. His 3.2% walk rate was 5 percentage points below average, his 13.7% strikeout rate was 7.4 percentage points above average, and he swung at 55.4% of pitches thrown his way (the highest among all qualified shortstops, and tied for 6th in the Majors). His gradually developed aggression resulted in the best season of his career.

Much of the discussion about Gregorius’ 2017 revolved around his 20 home runs, which nearly matched his total of 22 in 1302 PA from 2012 through 2015. The most glaring improvement last season, however, came against LHP. Heading into 2016, the Dutch shortstop was a career .214/.282/.272 hitter (52 wRC+) against southpaws, and it seemed as though he may have to be platooned. There were signs of life in 2015, as a 74 wRC+ might just be playable with his defense, but it was still far less than ideal.

And then he hit .324/.361/.473 (126 wRC+) against LHP last year, striking out in just 7.5% of those plate appearances. He also walked in just 2.5% of that 161 PA sample size, posting an uncharacteristic .331 BABIP along the way. It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for a player to solve same-handed pitchers as he enters his prime, but we need more evidence to prove that he did just that.

Neither ZiPS (.262/.308/.404, 15 HR) nor PECOTA (.259/.309/.400, 14 HR) sees Gregorius repeating his 2016, though both do see him sustaining a bit of his power surge. At the same time, though, projections do not always take into account tangibles changes in approach over a short-term, which may well be the case with the Yankees shortstop.

What about their defense?

In an ideal world, the Yankees middle infield defense would be an embarrassment of riches. Castro was somewhere between a below-average and fringe-average defensive shortstop, and one would expect his tools to play-up as he slides down the defensive spectrum. And Gregorius was a legitimate prospect largely due to his potential Gold Glove defense, and his reputation is still that of a plus defender. If only it were that simple.

By Defensive Runs Saved and UZR/150, 2016 was Castro’s worst defensive season. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, as he had all of 258 innings at second prior to the 2016 calendar year, but there was some sense that his defense backslid as the year wore on. His acclimation to the Bronx and the position may well lead to a sizable step forward in defensive value this year, and that might just be the most important aspect in reviving his overall stock.

And, as I inferred earlier, the advanced metrics cast Gregorius as a middling, if inconsistent defender. He was worth 5 DRS and 7.9 UZR/150 in 2015, but was below-average in both in his other three full-ish seasons. DRS pegged Gregorius as a -9 defender last season, meaning he nearly cost the team a win relative to the position. The truth may well be that he’s merely average, with his smooth actions and strong arm masking his inadequacies to the naked eye. Given the Yankees dedication to defense, you can be sure that they’re watching him closely.


With the exception of the rookies and comparably inexperienced players, I’m not sure that there are two more difficult Yankees to project – and Castro and Gregorius feel somewhat less certain than a few of those guys, as well. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that Castro improves a bit overall (owing largely to improvements on defense), Gregorius produces a similar total package (perhaps with a bit less power and a bit more glove) … and we’re regularly reminded that Torres is tearing it up in the minors.

Poll: Second-Guessing the Matt Holliday Deal

(MLB.com)
(MLB.com)

When the Yankees signed Matt Holliday to a one-year, $13 MM deal back in December, the consensus was largely positive. Or, at the very least, a bit better than lukewarm. Holliday was coming off of a down year and was soon to be 37-years-old, but he was probably the best DH option this side of Edwin Encarnacion (who would require a large commitment and a surrendered draft pick) and Carlos Beltran. And that’s before you factor in his reputation as a great teammate and mentor for younger players (insert joke about ‘veteran presents’ here), which was undoubtedly a consideration for the Yankees in the midst of their youth movement.

A bit over two months later, however, the Yankees signed Chris Carter – a player whose best role would be that which Holliday was slated to play. The immediate reaction revolved around DINGERS!, but was followed promptly by questions about when and where the 30-year-old would play. His $3.5 MM salary (along with an extra $500,000 in bonuses based on plate appearances) is veritable chump change to this team (if not all organizations at this point in time, given the influx of cash into Major League Baseball), so it might not matter if he’s riding the bench more often than not. Moreover, there are always injuries: Tyler Austin succumbed to a broken foot already, Greg Bird missed the entirety of 2016 with a torn labrum in his shoulder, and the aforementioned Holliday has missed 50-plus games in each of the last two seasons. Phrased differently, opportunities for playing time are never too far away in the big leagues.

All that being said, the Carter signing – and the subsequent discussions – reminded me of the criticisms hurled at the Blue Jays when they signed Kendrys Morales to a 3-year, $33 MM deal. The signing happened what felt like hours after free agency opened, and was greeted with derision as much better options (including their own Encarnacion) remained on the market. It only looked worse in the weeks to come, as comparable-at-worst DH options were scooped up on cheap one-year commitments, eventually turning disastrous when Encarnacion signed with the Indians for 3-years, $60 MM. If it wasn’t clear that the Blue Jays jumped the gun way back in November, it certainly was once the new year rolled around.

And so the question becomes whether the Yankees jumped the gun with Holliday.

It’s a bit different here, on a few levels. The Yankees are not striving to contend this year, so Holliday’s off-the-field qualities mean a bit more to them. Moreover, they didn’t prevent themselves from signing a better option to a comparably superior deal. Carter was better than Holliday last season, but that doesn’t quite matter because (1) they still signed Carter, and (2) the projection systems see them as a toss-up.

Should we be looking at the opportunity cost differently, though?

Holliday will likely earn $9.5 MM more than Carter this year. If the Yankees could have signed Carter to this deal all along, it stands to reason that they would have had at least another $9.5 MM to spend – if not the full $13 MM, considering that Holliday’s deal didn’t prevent them from signing Carter. With that extra money they could have signed Brett Anderson as a reclamation project, or Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey, or Jason Hammel to solidify the back of the rotation (or both Anderson and Hammel). Or they could have signed one of Anderson and Jerry Blevins (or Hammel and Blevins, if they had the full $13 MM to spend). There are several permutations out there that would have improved their rotation and bullpen.

This is laden with assumptions, of course. I’m comfortable saying that the Carter deal could have come to fruition regardless, given that the Brewers couldn’t get anything for him at the trade deadline or prior to non-tendering him, but everything else is guesswork. Even so, it seems clear that the Yankees could look better as a whole with Carter as the starting DH and between $9.5 MM and $13 MM invested elsewhere.

Did the Yankees act too soon by signing Holliday?
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