4/21 to 4/23 Series Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America)
(Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America)

It would be difficult to call the Yankees first homestand anything less than a riveting success, considering their 8-1 record, strong offense, and terrific all-around pitching. They’ll take the show back on the road for the next six games, beginning with a three-game set against the Pirates in what might just be the nicest ballpark in Major League Baseball.

The Last Time They Met

The Yankees hosted the Pirates for three games back in May of 2014, and took two out of three. They played a double-header that weekend, too, as the Friday night game was postponed due to inclement weather. A few points of interest:

  • Carlos Beltran had been placed on the disabled list the night before the series began, so Zoilo Almonte started all three games – he went 2-for-9 with a home run.
  • Eight of the pitchers who appeared for the Yankees are no longer with the team; that number is seven for the Pirates.
  • In the second game of the double-header, the Yankees played thirteen position players and four pitchers – only two (Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury) are still with the team.
  • The Yankees as a team were a strong 5-for-13 with runners in scoring position in the series, and scored three runs with two outs.

Injury Report

The Pirates are one of two teams (the Cubs are the other) that do not have any players on the disabled list. That being said, they will be without CF Starling Marte until July 18 at the earliest, as the 28-year-old was suspended for 80 games after testing positive for an anabolic steroid. While Marte had been in a bit of a slump to start the season, this is nevertheless a huge loss as he averaged 4-plus fWAR over the last four seasons; it will be interesting to see how they handle his absence going forward (their top prospect, CF Austin Meadows, is just a phone call away at Triple-A).

IF Jung Ho has yet to make his 2017 debut, as he is currently awaiting an appeal of his drunk driving conviction in South Korea, and has been unable to get his work visa as a result. The hearing isn’t until May 25 either, so his timetable to return is complete up in the air.

Their Story So Far

Marte’s suspension immediately became the story of the Pirates season, as he had already been placed firmly in the spotlight for taking over center-field duties from face-of-the-franchise Andrew McCutchen. They were viewed as a long shot to return to the playoffs in 2017 to begin with, and losing Marte is a serious blow to an offense that is already struggling immensely (80 wRC+, 3.3 runs per game).

Well that, and Ivan Nova somehow sporting a 2.25 ERA and 2.90 FIP despite striking out just 3.60 per 9 thus far (small sample size or not, that’s at least a little funny).

The Lineup We Might See

Prior to his suspension, Marte hit first or second in every Pirates game. In the games that he has not led off, Clint Hurdle has deployed three different hitters – and that has been his modus operandi, given that McCutchen is the only hitter that has not been moved around the lineup, batting third in every game. With that in mind, the Yankees will probably see a lineup that looks something like this:

  1. Adam Frazier, RF
  2. Josh Harrison, 2B
  3. Andrew McCutchen, CF
  4. Gregory Polanco, LF
  5. David Freese, 3B
  6. Francisco Cervelli, C
  7. Josh Bell, 1B
  8. Jordy Mercer, SS

The Pitchers We Will See

Friday (7:05 PM EST): LHP CC Sabathia vs. RHP Tyler Glasnow

Glasnow was a consensus top-25 prospect heading into 2017, and it isn’t difficult to see why. The 6’8″ righty struck out 31% of the batters he faced between Double-A and Triple-A last year, on the strength of a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and a big breaking curveball that sits around 80 MPH. Both pitches have been graded as plus to plus-plus, and his change-up shows some promise, as well. As is to be expected from a gigantic pitcher with tremendous stuff, though, Glasnow has struggled with his mechanics and control, resulting in poor walk rates in the minors and even worse totals in the majors. If you look at his stuff, size, and numbers and think of Dellin Betances, I don’t think anyone would hold it against you.

Last Outing (vs. CHC on 4/15) – 5 IP, 6 H, 6 R, 2 BB, 7 K

Saturday (4:05 PM EST): RHP Michael Pineda vs. RHP Jameson Taillon

It almost feels like a miracle that Taillon is in the majors right now. The 25-year-old missed all of 2014 and 2015 as a result of Tommy John Surgery, complications from said surgery, and a hernia during recovery, and there were rumblings that his stuff would never fully recover. He earned a surprising call-up in June of last year, after making just ten starts in the minors, and proved that he belonged almost immediately. All told, he pitched to the following line as a rookie – 104 IP, 20.3 K%, 4.1 BB%, 52.4 GB%, 3.38 ERA, 3.71 FIP. That is a terrific line for most anyone, let alone a pitcher that barely touched a baseball the two previous seasons.

Taillon’s bread and butter is his two-seamer, which sits just under 95 MPH. He pounds the bottom of the strik.ezone with it, and commands it incredibly well. He also throws a mid-90s four-seamer, a low-80s curve, and a mid-80s change-up; that last pitch is inconsistent, which has led to some issues against left-handed hitters, who have hit .261/.306/.401 against Taillon.

Last Outing (vs. CHC on 4/16) – 7 IP, 7 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 6 K

Sunday (1:35 PM EST): LHP Jordan Montgomery vs. RHP Ivan Nova

Nova has made 14 starts with the Pirates, and has posted borderline absurd numbers. In addition to his 2.87 ERA (144 ERA+), Nova has a minuscule 0.8% walk rate (and staggering 20 K/BB), as he has walked just 3 batters in 84.2 IP. As per PITCHf/x, his pitch selection hasn’t changed all that much overall (though he has thrown more fastballs overall this year, it’s only three starts), nor has his velocity – so we’ll just have to chalk this one up to Ray Searage’s black magic.

The stuff is essentially the same as when we last saw Nova in pinstripes – a couple of low-90s fastballs, a low-80s curve, a mid-80s change-up, and a rarely used mid-80s slider. It’s his suddenly stellar command that has made all the difference in the world.

The Bullpen

The Pirates bullpen looks quite different this season, as three of their top-five most utilized relievers in 2016 (Mark Melancon, Jared Hughes, and Neftali Feliz) are no longer with the team. Longtime Pirate Tony Watson has taken over as the closer, with Daniel Hudson and Felipe Rivero handling the seventh and eight innings. The group currently has a 4.47 ERA, but that is heavily skewed by Antonio Bastardo’s 20.25 ERA.

Yankees Connection

Would it be hyperbole to call the Pirates Brian Cashman‘s favorite trading partner? The two teams have completed five trades since 2012, when the Yankees sent A.J. Burnett packing in exchange for Exicardo Cayones and Diego Moreno. Most recently, Johnny Barbato was sent to Pittsburgh in exchange for cash or a player to be named later. Beyond that, we have:

  • Francisco Cervelli, now in his third season as the Pirates starting catcher;
  • Chris Stewart, now in his third season backing up Cervelli (and his fourth season with the team);
  • The aforementioned Nova;
  • Gerrit Cole, who was drafted by the Yankees in the first round of the 2008 draft, but chose to attend UCLA instead.

Who (Or What) to Watch

The prospect lover in me is stoked to see Tyler Glasnow on Friday night, and you should be, too. He’s wild at times, but his stuff is simply incredible, and he’s one of the few prospects/rookies with a semi-legitimate claim at a top-of-the-rotation ceiling. It isn’t always pretty – but he’ll pop the radar gun, and buckle some knees.

4/17 to 4/19 Series Preview: Chicago White Sox

(Jason Miller/Getty Images North America)
(Jason Miller/Getty Images North America)

The Yankees are in the midst of what may well be the closest thing to a perfect homestand that anyone could reasonably expect. There have been injuries and ups and downs, to be sure – but most everything is trending in the right direction, and one can’t ask for much more. The similarly rebuilding/reloading White Sox are next up on the docket.

The Last Time They Met

These two teams were significantly different the last time they met last July. The White Sox hosted the Yankees for a three-game set beginning on the Fourth of July, just three weeks prior to the Yankees hoisting the white flag. The Southsiders took two of three, despite trotting out James Shields in one of those wins, and with both Chris Sale and Jose Quintana sitting for the series. A few notes:

  • The Yankees went 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position in the first game of the series, an 8-2 loss. They seemed poised to make a comeback in the 8th, when they were down just 6-2 and Brian McCann and Starlin Castro (who went 4-for-4 with 2 doubles) reached safely to open the inning … and then Didi Gregorius (who also made three errors), Chase Headley, and Aaron Hicks struck out swinging in back-to-back-to-back at-bats.
  • The Yankees won the second game 9-0, cranking out 20 hits in the process. Alex Rodriguez (1-for-6) was the only starter to not reach base at least twice.
  • Michael Pineda started game three and went ‘Full Pineda’ in the second inning – he retired the first two batters, and then posted the following sequence: 1B-BB-1B-2B-2B. And then it was 4-o. They would go on to lose 5-2.

Injury Report

The 24-year-old Carlos Rodon, a popular breakout pick for 2017, is on the disabled list with a left biceps bursitis. White Sox fans are collectively holding their breath until he returns, which should be sometime in May. Starting catcher Geovany Soto was put on the DL just last week, as well, and will not be back for this series.

Melky Cabrera sat out this past weekend’s series against the Twins on paternity leave, to witness and celebrate the birth of his fourth child. He is slated return against the Yankees, though.

Their Story So Far

The White Sox were in what felt like a holding pattern for the better part of a decade. They were too close to contention to rebuild, it seemed, yet they had not made the playoffs since 2008 and few bought them as legitimate contenders. After finishing below .500 for the fourth consecutive season, however, the front office decided to blow it up this past offseason. They shipped ace Chris Sale to the Red Sox and Adam Eaton to the Nationals, and were still shopping Jose Quintana, David Robertson, Todd Frazier, and most everyone else over the age of 30 when the season began. Their farm system vaulted from bottom-five to top-five in the process, and it stands to get even better around this year’s trade deadline.

As a result of this, 2017 is a transitional season, and we will probably see top prospects Lucas Giolito, Yoan Moncada, Reynaldo Lopez, and others take their lumps at the big league level sooner rather than later. For now the White Sox are a 6-5 team on the strength of the best run prevention (2.71 ERA) in the American League.

The Lineup We Might See

Manager Robin Ventura has utilized fairly similar lineups thus far, with the only real changes coming due to injuries and Cabrera’s paternity leave. Barring something unforeseen, the Yankees will probably see a lineup that looks something like this:

  1. Tyler Saladino, 2B
  2. Tim Anderson, SS
  3. Melky Cabrera, LF
  4. Jose Abreu, 1B
  5. Todd Frazier, 3B
  6. Avisail Garcia, RF
  7. Matt Davidson or Cody Asche, DH
  8. Omar Narvaez or Kevan Smith, C
  9. Leury Garcia or Jacob May, CF

Those last three slots might seem like cop-outs on my part, but the White Sox have been going with the hot hand at those positions, as nobody has stood out as of yet. None of those players have ever stood out in the past, either, which of course means that one will do serious damage against the Yankees this week.

The Pitchers We Will See

Monday (7:05 PM EST): LHP Derek Holland

Three years ago, the Rangers appeared to have unearthed a gem in Holland. The southpaw was coming off a 4.3 fWAR age-26 season, on the strength of 213 IP, 21.1 K%, 7.2 BB%, and a 120 ERA+, seemingly putting together all the flashes of potential he had shown for parts of four seasons. Unfortunately, injuries saw him miss the majority of 2014 and 2015, and he had an ineffectual at best 2016. The Rangers bought him out this off-season, and the White Sox signed him for $6 MM to eat innings at the back of the rotation.

They seem to have caught lightning in a bottle thus far, though, as the now 30-year-old has thrown quality starts in his first two outings. The former sinkerballer now prefers a low-90s four-seamer, and mixes in a low-80s slider, an upper-70s curveball, and mid-80s change-up.

Last Outing (vs. CLE on 4/12) – 6 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 4 BB, 4 K

Tuesday (7:05 PM EST): RHP Miguel Gonzalez

Yankees fans might be more familiar with Gonzalez than any other fan base, as we have seen him take the mound for the opposing team fourteen times, posting a 3.80 ERA in 85.1 IP along the way. The last time we saw him was July 6, 2016, when he pitched to the following line: 7 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 3 K. This is his sixth season in the majors, and he has been a league-average starter (107 ERA+ in 726 IP) from day one. That’s not bad for a guy that the Orioles signed as a minor league free agent back in 2012.

Gonzalez is something of a junkballer, working with two 90ish MPH fastballs, a mid-80s change-up, a mid-80s slider, and a mid-70s curveball. He’ll show all five pitches in most of his starts, so it’s safe to call him a true five-pitch pitcher.

Last Outing (vs. CLE on 4/13) – 4.2 IP, 8 H, 3 R, 4 BB, 5 K

Wednesday (7:05 PM EST): RHP Dylan Covey

Covey was the 14th overall pick in the 2010 amateur draft, as one of the most highly rated high school talents in the class. During his physical, however, doctors discovered that he had Type 1 Diabetes, which led to Covey foregoing a $1.6 MM signing bonus in order to attend college and learn how to cope with his condition. He entered the 2013 draft, where the A’s took him in the fourth round, and he spent the first four years of his professional career in their organization. He was left unprotected in this year’s Rule 5 draft, on the heels of an injury-riddled 2016, and the White Sox scooped him up. And despite having just 29.1 IP above High-A, he made his big league debut last week.

The 25-year-old works off of a heavy sinker in the low-90s, which he uses to rack up grounders. He also throws a slider, a curve, and a change-up, all of which he commands fairly well. Covey won’t pick up many strikeouts, though.

Last Outing (vs. MIN on 4/14) – 5.1 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 1 K

The Bullpen

The White Sox bullpen has been lights out thus far, pitching to a 1.43 ERA in 37.2 IP. Robertson and set-up man Zach Putnam have combined to toss 12 scoreless innings so far, allowing 3 hits and 0 walks, while striking out 18. Their bullpen was solid-average across the board last season, and most of the key components are back this year.

Yankees Connection

This section was thought up by Mike, and largely because of how many current White Sox have ties to the Yankees. To wit:

  • Melky Cabrera played for the Yankees from 2005 through 2009;
  • David Robertson played here from 2008 through 2014;
  • Anthony Swarzak tossed 31 below replacement-level innings for the Yankees last year;
  • He never made it to the show in pinstripes, but Tommy Kahnle was in the organization from 2010 through 2013;
  • Jose Quintana was in the Yankees organization from 2008 through 2011, and has probably caused many sleepless nights for Brian Cashman (though, who knows what he would have become without Don Cooper?).

Who (Or What) to Watch

Shortstop Tim Anderson was a consensus top-fifty prospect heading into 2016, and he earned his call to the majors in June. He was pretty good the rest of the way, accumulating 2.4 fWAR in 99 games. Anderson managed a solid-for-the-position 95 wRC+ on the strength of a solid power/speed combination, but his meager 3.0 BB% led to doubts that he could sustain even that level of production. The early returns in 2017 are awful, but the talent is too tantalizing to turn away from.

4/14 to 4/16 Series Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images North America)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images North America)

It still seems strange to host a National League team as early as April 14, but year-round interleague play has been the norm since the Houston Astros moved to the AL West in 2013. This won’t be quite so jarring, though, as the superior league’s rules will be in-play.

The Last Time They Met

The Yankees visited the Cardinals back in May of 2014, winning two out of three against the defending National League champions. Hiroki Kuroda and Alfredo Aceves picked up the wins, and David Phelps took the loss. A few interesting notes:

  • Jacoby Ellsbury batted third in all three games (and went 5-for-12 with 2 walks, 3 runs, 3 stolen bases);
  • Eight pitchers took the ball for the Yankees, and only two (Dellin Betances and Adam Warren) are still in pinstripes;
  • The first game was an extra innings affair, in which Alfonso Soriano drove in what proved to be the game-winning run;
  • Brian Roberts went 5-for-13 with 2 doubles, a walk, and 3 runs scored in the series.

Injury Report

The Cardinals currently have four pitchers on the disabled list, none of which will pitch this series – Alex Reyes, John Gant, Tyler Lyons, and Zach Duke. Reyes, a consensus top-10 prospect, is the biggest loss on this list as he was expected to be a fixture in the team’s rotation this season (and for many seasons to come). He’ll miss the entirety of 2017 following Tommy John surgery.

Their Story So Far

St. Louis is currently 3-6, and have been outscored by 14 runs (34 runs scored, 48 allowed) thus far. They aren’t hitting (their 72 wRC+ ranks 28th in the Majors), and their bullpen has been downright atrocious, with a worst-in-baseball 7.86 ERA. And there was also this tomfoolery:

(Associated Press)
(Associated Press)

That isn’t a trick of the light or a Photoshop job – that’s a ball sticking to Yadier Molina’s chest protector. It was a short-lived scandal, as the league cleared Molina and the Cardinals of any wrongdoing relatively expeditiously, but that bit of comedy has been the highlight of their season.

The Lineup We Might See

Mike Matheny utilizes a few platoons, most notably at 2B (Kolten Wong vs. RHP, Jedd Gyorko vs. LHP) and in the corner OF spots (Matt Adams vs. RHP, Stephen Piscotty vs. LHP). They also give their players regular rest, which has led to them utilizing six different lineups in eight games (excluding the pitcher). Adding in a designated hitter throws a further wrinkle into guessing what we might see this weekend. Excuses aside, it will probably look something like this against Masahiro Tanaka on Friday and Michael Pineda on Sunday:

  1. Dexter Fowler, CF
  2. Aledmys Diaz, SS
  3. Matt Carpenter, 1B
  4. Matt Adams, DH
  5. Yadier Molina, C
  6. Jhonny Peralta, 3B
  7. Stephen Piscotty, RF
  8. Randal Grichuk, LF
  9. Kolten Wong, 2B

And something like this against CC Sabathia on Saturday:

  1. Fowler, CF
  2. Diaz, SS
  3. Carpenter, 1B
  4. Peralta, 3B
  5. Molina, C
  6. Piscotty, RF
  7. Jedd Gyorko, 2B
  8. Grichuk, LF
  9. Adams, DH

The Starting Pitchers We Will See

Friday (7:05 PM EST): RHP Michael Wacha

Wacha struggled mightily in 2016, posting career-worsts in K/9, K%, BB/9, HR/9, ERA, and FIP, and spending time on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation. While he has yet to live-up to the hype set by his NLCS MVP award as a rookie (2 GS, 13.2 IP, 7 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 13 K), he has otherwise been a solid cog in the Cardinals rotation for four-plus seasons. His biggest issue may well be staying healthy, but he’s still only 25-years-old.

He’s primarily a fastball/change-up guy, with a low-to-mid 90s fastball, low-90s cutter, and mid-to-high 80s change-up accounting for 90 to 95% of his offerings.

Last Outing (vs. CIN on 4/8) – 6.0 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 6 K

Saturday (1:05 PM EST): RHP Carlos Martinez

When Martinez first made his way to the show in 2013, it was as a reliever. And, despite his fantastic stuff and track record, there was always talk that his ultimate fate would be in the bullpen, as many believed that his 6’0″, 190 pound frame could not hold up to the rigors of full season in the rotation. Fast forward to today, and that sounds foolish at best as he produced 6.7 fWAR in 375 IP between 2015 and 2016 (along with a shiny 3.02 ERA). He keeps the ball on the ground (54.2% GB for his career) and racks up strikeouts (22.6 K%), and he’s still just 25.

Martinez throws a four-seamer and two-seamer, both in the mid-90s, a hard curveball in the low-to-mid 80s, and a mid-to-high 80s change piece. He picks up most of his strikeouts with the curve, though he also gets plenty of whiffs (15.4% last year, 21.6% in 2015) on his change-up.

Last Outing (vs. CIN on 4/9) – 5.0 IP, 6 H, 6 R, 1 BB, 3 K

Sunday (8:05 PM EST): RHP Adam Wainwright

If it seems as if Wainwright has been around forever, it’s probably because he kind of has. The 35-year-old has been in the Cardinals organization since 2003, having been acquired from the Braves alongside Jason Marquis in exchange for J.D. Drew. He began to show his age last season, posting the worst ERA of his career (4.62) by nearly a full run, as well as his worst FIP. There have been some suggestions that it was due to the rust from a lost 2015 season, but his ERA (4.49 to 4.79) and FIP (3.43 to 4.56) were much better in the first half. With a few surgeries and 2500-plus professional innings under his belt, it wouldn’t be shocking if this is who Wainwright is now.

Wainwright still works with three fastballs – a low-90s four-seamer, a low-90s sinker, and a mid-80s cutter – and a big breaking curveball. His velocity hasn’t dropped all that much, either, and he was never a hard-thrower.

Last Outing (vs. WAS on 4/10) – 4.0 IP, 11 H, 6 R, 2 BB, 3 K

The Bullpen

As I said above, the bullpen has been terrible thus far. The Cardinals currently have five relievers with an ERA over 6.00, including the $30 MM man Brett Cecil (13.50), and closer Seung Hwan Oh (9.64). The group has combined to allow six home runs in just 26.1 IP, and a lack of control (13 BB and 5 HBP) has only made matters worse. Their bullpen was middle-of-the-pack last year, and many of the pieces remain the same (Oh, Kevin Siegrist, Jonathan Broxton, Matt Bowman, and Trevor Rosenthal), and Cecil has essentially replaced the injured Zach Duke. One has to imagine that they’ll turn it around soon enough – let’s just hope it’s not this weekend.

Who (Or What) to Watch

Aside from Molina’s chest protector, of course.

Matt Carpenter is a personal favorite, as a player who is constantly reinventing himself. He didn’t make his professional debut until he was 23, and he was essentially a non-prospect (even as he decimated minor league pitching) right up until his rookie year. All that he has done since then is post a 132 wRC+ in 3000-plus big league plate appearances. Carpenter also retooled his approach after the 2014 season, with a bit more aggression and a larger uppercut in his swing, resulting in significantly more power without losing much of anything. And, just for fun, he stopped swinging at the first pitch of the game in 2016, swinging at just 13.4% of the first pitch in his plate appearances overall.

From the Yankees perspective, it might be fun to see how Matt Holliday reacts to playing his old team for the first time; though, it would’ve been a better moment if the series was in St. Louis.

The Four-Week Starting Catcher

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Shortly after Monday’s 8-1 drubbing of the Rays, the Yankees announced that Gary Sanchez would miss roughly four weeks with a strained brachialis muscle. All things considered, that isn’t terrible news – I was all but certain that he tore something on Saturday, given his reaction and the speed with which he was put on the disabled list, and visions of Greg Bird were dancing in my head. Comparatively speaking, Sanchez sitting out until May 8 or so is positively fantastic news.

In the interim, however, the Yankees lineup will be unquestionably weaker. Sanchez was expected to be the team’s best hitter heading into the season, and the drop-off from him to Austin Romine is larger than any other gap between starter and back-up on this roster. Romine is perfectly adequate as a reserve, but his limitations as a hitter become more glaring as he garners more plate appearances, and his defense is more good than great.

That being said, perhaps we should be talking about the drop-off from Sanchez to Kyle Higashioka instead. The 26-year-old was officially called-up on Sunday, and made his big league debut in the 9th inning of the home opener, catching the last three outs of the game. Joe Girardi has been noncommittal about the team’s plans, hinting at the nebulous ‘shared duty,’ so the playing time split appears to be up in the air.

How should the Yankees handle it?

The Case for Romine

Romine has played 123 games behind the plate in the Majors, and has been a solid presence defensively. He throws out would-be basestealers at a roughly league-average rate, and his pitch framing abilities are passable at worst (0.7 framing runs in his career). The deeper you dig into the numbers, the more average he seems – and that’s just fine. It’s not nearly as good as Sanchez, but he’s not hurting the team behind the dish, either.

That modicum of defensive value is just about all that you’ll get from Romine, though. He slashed .242/.269/.382 (68 wRC+) last year, and has hit .219/.256/.324 (53 wRC+) in his career. And while he’s only had 371 PA at this level, it’s difficult to envision him getting much better, given his age (28) and minor league numbers (.251/.307/.371 in 811 PA at Triple-A). Those aren’t terrible numbers for a back-up catcher, but it represents a severe drop-off from Sanchez, and a sizable dip from the average catcher (87 wRC+ for the position in 2016).

It is possible that we should look into how Romine handles pitchers, though. Much was said on Monday about how beautifully he worked with Michael Pineda, and there could be something to that. After all, Big Mike was at his best when he pitched to Romine last year:

pineda

There are several problems in working with a sample size such as this, as it ignores the ballpark and the quality of the competition (among other things), but it jibes with Romine’s reputation of knowing how to handle the pitching staff. And it isn’t just Pineda, either – Masahiro Tanaka posted better strikeout, walk, and home run rates while throwing to Romine. CC Sabathia had an unsightly 6.85 ERA with Romine as his battery mate, but he also managed 23 strikeouts against just 4 BB in 23.2 IP, so it wasn’t all bad.

It’s difficult to draw a clear-cut point about Romine’s work with the pitching staff, given the aforementioned sample sizes and sampling issues in general, but there’s a certain level of certainty that comes with him. That certainty may only be that he won’t actively hurt the team – but it’s something to cling to.

The Case for Higashioka

Higashioka hit .293/.355/.509 (136 wRC+) in 256 PA at Double-A last year, and .250/.306/.514 (131 wRC+) in 160 PA at Triple-A. That level of offense is unknown to Romine at any level of professional baseball, and it came in Higashioka’s first healthy season … ever, basically. The 26-year-old missed time every year from 2012 through 2015, with a litany of ailments and injuries, including Tommy John Surgery in 2013. It’s been a long road to the show.

While 2016 represented a heretofore unknown level of production for Higashioka, there are reasons beyond the injuries to suspect that it wasn’t a simple fluke. He has long drawn praise for owning a solid hit tool and above-average raw power, and he has always maintained strong contact rates in the minors (16.4 K% across all levels). He’s known as an aggressive hitter, and that shone through at Triple-A last year – but a career 8.1% walk rate isn’t too shabby, and he managed a 10.2% walk rate at Double-A prior to his promotion. The injuries hindered his development arc significantly, and his production last year may exaggerate his offensive potential, but the bat has always been Higashioka’s calling card.

Higashioka looked comfortable in Spring Training this year, as well, slashing .296/.406/.630 in 32 PA. There were rumblings that he had earned himself the back-up job, given all that had happened since the beginning of 2016, but Romine’s lack of options and the desire for Higashioka to continue to develop (more on that in a bit) made the team’s decision fairly easy.

Analyzing Higashioka’s defense is a bit tricky, given his lack of experience at the highest level. Scouting reports credit him for moving well behind the plate, and ding him for a weak throwing arm (and this was even before TJS). Baseball Prospectus credits Higashioka for 16.3 framing runs between Double-A and Triple-A last year, which is excellent, and he threw out 30% of attempted basestealers, which is right around average. Minor league defensive numbers are a bit shaky, but it seems reasonable to say that he’s at least an average-ish defender.

The key to all of this, however, might just be development. Higashioka is the team’s back-up of the future; that doesn’t sound sexy, but it could mean a larger role if the team gives Sanchez more time at DH to keep him healthy while keeping his bat in the lineup. Sitting on the bench for four weeks isn’t going to do much to prepare Higashioka for that role, nor is it going to give the Yankees a great idea as to what he can do.


In my mind, the decision should be relatively easy for the Yankees – Higashioka should be playing everyday, regardless of the level. If he’s going to be on the big league roster for the next four weeks, he should start the majority of those games. It may sound weird to talk about developing a 26-year-old, and for a back-up role at that, but it makes more sense than calling him up to sit behind a known replacement-level commodity.

Opening Week Overreaction: The Struggles of Sanchez and Bird

(John Raoux/AP)
(John Raoux/AP)

To say that Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird had a disappointing opening series would be a fairly strong understatement. The duo combined to bat .077/.143/.115 against the Rays this week, and by fWAR’s reckoning they’ve already cost the Yankees -0.4 wins. It’s a less than ideal start to the season, to say the least – particularly for two players that are being counted on to be cornerstones of the team’s offense this year. And it feels more surprising than might normally be the case, given Sanchez’s utter dominance in August and September last year, and Bird’s Spring Training performance (lest we forget that he was arguably the best hitter in baseball in March).

As was the case when I wrote about Masahiro Tanaka earlier this week, I offer a brief disclaimer: this is a minuscule sample size. It’s three games against a good pitching staff in one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the majors. There’s no reason to worry at this juncture. However, it is worth taking a look to see if there are any trends that may explain this mini-slump.

Gary Sanchez

Sanchez does not have an extra-base hit yet. That isn’t shocking in and of itself – most every hitter in Major League Baseball will have several such stretches throughout the season. Sanchez went six straight games without an extra-base hit in September; it just didn’t stand out as much because he was hitting .374/.441/.798 when that streak started, and could do no wrong. It’s much easier to shine a light on such a stretch when it opens the season, and leaves a hitter slashing .071/.071/.071.

What could be causing this, aside from luck, random variation, and every small sample size caveat you can think of?

It’s interesting to note that Sanchez has yet to go to the opposite field. He was a pull-heavy hitter in 2016, with just 15.1% of his batted balls going the other way – but he’s pulling nearly two-thirds of balls in play to left this year (an increase of 9.5 percentage points), and going up the middle more. The shift-savvy Rays are undoubtedly aware of his preexisting tendency to pull the ball, and played him as such in the opening series … and it seems as though Sanchez played right into their hands.

Sanchez is also swinging at more pitches (from 44.9% last year to 54.2% this year), and making more contact (from 71.1% to 75.0%). That seems indicative of bad luck for Sanchez, as more balls in play oftentimes means more hits – especially when the ball is hit hard. And, as per FanGraphs, he’s hitting the ball harder than last year, and significantly so as his soft contact rate has dropped by 9.4 percentage points to a ridiculously low 9.1%. Despite this, his BABIP sits at .091.

The extra swinging may be indicative of Sanchez pressing (as is the fact that he hasn’t taken a walk yet), but it isn’t a sign of impatience. He’s swinging at fewer pitches outside of the strikezone (32.8% in 2016 against 24.1% this year), and he’s seeing a robust 4.5 pitches per plate appearance. That 4.5 P/PA mark would have placed him third in all of baseball last year, and puts him 30th among 199 qualified hitters at this point.

It is difficult to really dig into Sanchez’s numbers and find something disconcerting, with the possible exception of his ignorance as to the opposite field. And, even then, he thrived in 2016 by hammering the ball to the pull side.

Greg Bird

Despite his impressive 2015 debut, monster Spring Training, and undeniable hype, Bird was always entering 2017 as something of an unknown. He missed all of 2016 with an injury that has a spotty track record for recovery, and we seem to forget that he had played a total of 80 games above Double-A (34 at Triple-A and 46 in the majors) prior to this year. The projection systems were all over the place as a result, with ZiPS forecasting a middling .234/.307/449 line, PECOTA sitting in the middle at .244/.328/.457, and Steamer tossing out an optimistic .264/.346/.489. He was great at Triple-A and with the Yankees, but it was a long time ago over a small-ish sample size.

There are a few red flags in the even smaller sample size that is 2017, though. As per PITCHf/x, Bird has a horrendous 40.0% contact percentage, and is whiffing on 22.2% of his swings. Both marks would have been the worst in baseball last year, and both are in the bottom-ten this year (his contact percentage is dead last). His strikeout rate has dropped by 1.2 percentage points when compared to 2015, even as strikeout rates have risen by over two percentage points; he’s also swinging at fewer pitches overall, and seeing plenty of pitches (4.5 P/PA). It isn’t all bad on this front.

That being said, unlike Sanchez, Bird does not seem to be making good contact. His hard- and medium-hit rates have dropped precipitously, and he’s making soft contact on 37.5% of the balls he puts in play. That helps to explain his .083 BABIP, as does the fact that (per FanGraphs) he’s yet to hit a line drive. This could be a classification, of course, but the eye test confirms that he hasn’t quite driven the ball yet. Oddly enough, all of his batted balls have gone to center or left thus far, making him the anti-Sanchez in that regard.

The lack of pulled balls could be encouraging in and of itself, as the shift was something of a problem for Bird in 2015. Would mentioning small sample sizes here be beating a dead horse?


This was supposed to read as an overreaction, which is generally pessimistic. However, it is difficult to parse these numbers and not see how influenced they are by the simple fact that the duo has combined for 28 plate appearances in three games. It’s still the first week of the season, they’re both just 24-years-old, and they’re both supremely talented hitters with some measure of success in the show (however brief it may have been). And some of the underlying numbers serve as a testament to bad luck more so than anything else.

Even so, it would be lovely if their bats could wake up with gusto this weekend.

Opening Week Overreaction: Tanaka’s First Start

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

We are now a bit more than forty-eight hours removed from the worst start of Masahiro Tanaka‘s stateside career. That distinction is not necessarily hyperbole, mind you, as it represents his lowest Game Score (11) in pinstripes, as well as the most earned runs (7) he has allowed in a single game. Prior to Sunday’s outing, that ignominious title went to his September 27, 2014 start against the Red Sox, when he pitched to the following line: 1.2 IP, 7 H, 7 R (5 ER), 2 BB, 2 K, 17 Game Score. That was in Fenway Park (a much more hitter-friendly park), albeit against what amounted to their second-string lineup. I leave it up to you to determine which was worse.

Prior to delving into the details of his Opening Day start, allow this to serve as a disclaimer – this is a sample size of one game. As much as I’d love to dial up the snark and drudge up memories of the defunct “What’s Wrong With Mariano Week” tradition, it’s simply too early to do that. If he struggles his next time out, however…

All that being said, the first place to look is velocity. We know that many (if not most) pitchers gain velocity as the weather begins to warm up, and muscles, tendons, and ligaments are loosened back into game shape. It should never come as a surprise when a pitcher’s fastball is lacking a bit of pep in the early goings as a result. In this case:

tanaka-opening-day-velo

His fourseamer, sinker, and cutter sat in the 90 to 92 MPH range, his splitter was just under 88 MPH, his curve sat at about 79 MPH, and his slider was a tick over 84 MPH. Let’s compare that to 2016:

tanaka-2016-velo

It’s not all that different. In fact, the velocity on every pitch but his curveball was up on Sunday, as compared to his 2016 season as a whole. And it’s worth noting that his fourseamer averaged 90.25 MPH and 90.72 MPH in his first two starts last season, too.

If velocity wasn’t an issue, perhaps it was pitch selection. Take a look at Tanaka’s mix from Sunday:

tanaka-opening-day-pitch-selection

And compare it to 2016:

tanaka-2016-pitch-selection

Painting in broad stokes, Tanaka’s pitch selection has been all over the place. It’s even more glaring on a start-to-start basis, which makes it difficult to glean much of anything from it. This may be a simple matter of Tanaka going with whatever feels the best on any given day, which isn’t terribly surprising for a pitcher with such a diverse repertoire.

It’s also interesting to note that Tanaka picked up whiffs on 17.9% of his pitches, per FanGraphs, which is well above his career norm of 11.8%. On a more granular level, BrooksBaseball has a whiff rate of 15.35% of his fourseamer, 9.09% on his sinker, and 33.33% on his splitter on Sunday (his three most-utilized pitches); those numbers last year were 5.45%, 4.69%, and 17.62%, respectively.

What about his location?

(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)

The majority of his pitches were thrown on the edges of the strikezone (if not outside), so it isn’t as if he was grooving everything down the middle. That didn’t stop the Rays from hitting him hard, though, as his 53.8% hard contact percentage allowed was more than 20 percentage points above his career norm.

If there is an explanation for this, aside from small sample size bad luck, it may well be that the horizontal movement on his pitches was far removed from the norm:

tanaka-horizonal-movement

The differences are fairly dramatic across the board (and this is true on a start-by-start level, too), which may have resulted in pitches drifting into the sweet spot of the bat more often than pure location would show us. Or it may have meant that Tanaka’s mechanics were a bit off, leading him to tip his pitches. Or it could mean that he was experimenting with new grips. Or it could mean that BrooksBaseball is way off. The possible explanations are essentially endless.

In the end, it simply boils down to a bad start (a shocker, I know). He didn’t leave too many pitches over the middle, but those that he did were hammered – Logan Morrison’s home run came on a pitch right down the middle, for example, and Evan Longoria’s bomb was off of a splitter that caught way too much of the corner. These things happen. That is a small comfort, to be sure, but silver linings abound, with his velocity and movement appearing to be quite strong.

Here’s hoping he puts it back together next time out.

The Rest of the AL East [2017 Season Preview]

There has been an interesting bit of parity in the AL East this decade, as every team has won the division crown in the last seven years. The Red Sox appear to be the standard-bearer, with both ZiPS and PECOTA projecting them to repeat as division champs – but both also have at least four of the five teams sitting at .500 or better, and at least one team winning a Wild Card slot. While the smart money may be on the Red Sox, this division should be among the most competitive (and exciting) in the game once again.

(Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports)
(Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports)

Baltimore Orioles

2016 Record: 89-73

Notable Additions: Welington Castillo, Seth Smith

Notable Subtractions: Yovani Gallardo, Steve Pearce, Matt Wieters

Buck Showalter’s team is something of a perennial overachiever at this point, beating projection systems and milking middling talents for all their worth. They’ve made the playoffs in three of the last five years, and consistency within the organization may have something to do with that.

The 2016 Orioles were the epitome of a station-to-station team last year, finishing first in home runs by a comfortable margin (their 253 home runs were 28 ahead of the second-place Cardinals) and dead last with just 19 steals (16 fewer than the 29th place team, which happens to be those same Cardinals – it must be a bird thing). That doesn’t figure to change in 2017, as the team’s powerful core remains intact, and new additions Welington Castillo and Seth Smith combined for two stolen base attempts between the 2015 and 2016 seasons. The offense will once again be headlined by Future Yankee Manny Machado, Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, and Adam Jones; it may be worth noting that Jones is coming off of his worst season since his rookie year, and will turn 32 this summer.

Possible Opening Day Lineup:

  1. Hyun Soo Kim, LF
  2. Manny Machado, 3B
  3. Chris Davis, 1B
  4. Mark Trumbo, DH
  5. Seth Smith, RF
  6. Adam Jones, F
  7. Jonathan Schoop, 2B
  8. Welington Castillo, C
  9. J.J. Hardy, SS

The Orioles pitching staff was surprisingly average last year (98 ERA-, 99 FIP-, 102 xFIP-), but much of that owes to the team’s extraordinary bullpen. Zach Britton and his 0.54 ERA led the way, but Brad Brach (2.05 ERA) and Mychal Givens (3.13 ERA) were great, as well, as the unit combined for a 79 ERA- (21% above-league-average). The rotation was mostly a mess, though, with only Kevin Gausman and Chris Tillman posting ERAs under 4.50. There is some potential there, with former top prospect Dylan Bundy finally getting healthy and showing promise, but the bullpen will likely carry a heavy load once more.

Possible Rotation:

  1. Kevin Gausman
  2. Chris Tillman (currently injured)
  3. Dylan Bundy
  4. Wade Miley
  5. Ubaldo Jimenez
  6. Mike Wright

Closer: Zach Britton

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Boston Red Sox

2016 Record: 93-69

Notable Additions: Mitch Moreland, Chris Sale, Tyler Thornburg

Notable Subtractions: Clay Buchholz, Yoan Moncada, David Ortiz, Travis Shaw, Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara, Brad Ziegler

David Ortiz made his Red Sox debut fourteen years ago, in the team’s second game of the 2003 season. He started at first base and batted fifth, going 0-for-6 with 2 BB in a 16-inning affair against the then-Devil Rays. The rest is, and I apologize for the cliche, history. This year represents the beginning of a new era for the Red Sox, if not the division as a whole, and they still appear to be the team to beat, thanks to a strong farm system and a blockbuster deal.

The new face of the franchise might just be Mookie Betts, whose energy and big smile are reminiscent of Ortiz. Or it could be top prospect Andrew Benintendi, who looked right at home in 34 games in the Majors last year. Or it could be shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who just keeps getting better. Or it could simply be old standby Dustin Pedroia, who rebounded nicely from an injury plagued 2015. There’s no shortage of talent on offense, is what I’m getting at here – especially if the slimmed down Pablo Sandoval has figured things out.

Possible Opening Day Lineup:

  1. Dustin Pedroia, SS
  2. Andrew Benintendi, LF
  3. Mookie Betts, RF
  4. Handley Ramirez, DH
  5. Xander Bogaerts, SS
  6. Jackie Bradley Jr., CF
  7. Pablo Sandoval, 3B
  8. Mitch Moreland, 1B
  9. Sandy Leon, C

Rick Porcello had a brilliant 2016, and won a Cy Young for his efforts … and he just might be the third-best starting pitcher on this team, depending upon how well David Price’s rehab goes. Said rehab is the largest concern with the team right now, even though they do have a bit more depth than usual in the rotation. Price isn’t the only pitcher slated to open the season on the DL, either, as new set-up man Tyler Thornburg deals with shoulder and back soreness.

Possible Rotation:

  1. Rick Porcello
  2. David Price (currently injured)
  3. Chris Sale
  4. Drew Pomeranz
  5. Eduardo Rodriguez
  6. Steven Wright

Closer: Craig Kimbrel

(Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

Tampa Bay Rays

2016 Record: 68-94

Notable Additions: Jose De Leon, Wilson Ramos, Colby Rasmus, Mallex Smith

Notable Subtractions: Logan Forsythe, Drew Smyly

A bit over a week ago, the Rays signed two-time Gold Glove winner Kevin Kiermaier to a six-year contract extension worth a minimum of $53.5 MM. It was met with praise by the analytical community as a whole, due to his elite defense in center field and solid offensive production, and he’s still a few weeks shy of his 27th birthday. It seems that the team’s shrewd maneuvering with contracts of this nature did not leave with Andrew Friedman.

The Rays offense was a bit better on a rate basis than you probably remember last year, placing 12th in the Majors in wRC+. They still finished 24th in runs scored, but that may not have been reflective of the group as a whole. That may not mean a whole lot for 2017, though, as several of their best hitters (Steve Pearce and Brandon Guyer at the deadline, Logan Forsythe a few weeks ago) were traded away. Evan Longoria is still here though, the aforementioned Kiermaier managed 12 HR and 21 SB in just 105 games last year, and Brad Miller broke out in a big way; this won’t be a great group by any means, but there’s more than enough to build a competent lineup – particularly when Wilson Ramos and Colby Rasmus return from the DL. Their Opening Day lineup is in flux, so your guess is as good as mine as to who they’ll trot out there.

Possible Opening Day Lineup:

  1. Corey Dickerson, DH
  2. Kevin Kiermaier, CF
  3. Evan Longoria, 3B
  4. Brad Miller, 2B
  5. Logan Morrison, 1B
  6. Steven Souza, RF
  7. Tim Beckham, SS
  8. Mallex Smith, LF
  9. Derek Norris, C

The Rays stand to open 2017 with one of the youngest rotations in baseball, with all five of their projected starters clocking in at between 24 and 29-years-old on Opening Day. Alex Cobb is battling lingering back soreness now, and if he were to miss the start of the season that average age would dip even further, as the 28-year-old Chris Archer would become the old man of the group. And, despite injuries and inconsistency, this unit has a great deal of potential from top to bottom, and that’s with top prospect Jose De Leon opening the season in the minors. The worst in the AL bullpen is another story entirely, though Alex Colome was terrific as the closer last year.

Possible Rotation:

  1. Chris Archer
  2. Jake Odorizzi
  3. Alex Cobb
  4. Blake Snell
  5. Matt Andriese

Closer: Alex Colome

(Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)
(Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Toronto Blue Jays

2016 Record: 89-73

Notable Additions: J.P. Howell, Kendrys Morales, Steve Pearce, Joe Smith

Notable Subtractions: Joaquin Benoit, Brett Cecil, R.A. Dickey, Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Saunders

On November 11, 2016, the Blue Jays signed Kendrys Morales to a 3-year, $33 MM contract, seemingly moving away from at least one of Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion. A bit less than two months later, the Indians made that decision for them, signing Encarnacion to a 3-year, $60 MM deal (with a $25 MM team option for 2020). The difference in those deals isn’t insignificant, but their haste to lock-up an inferior 1B/DH has placed their offense under the microscope in the short term.

The offense remains in relatively good shape nevertheless. 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson is a formidable presence in the middle of the lineup, a Steve Pearce/Justin Smoak platoon at first will maximize the production from the position, and the declining duo of Bautista and Troy Tulowitzki is still more than adequate. The lineup is top-heavy, but it stands to be decent in every slot.

Possible Opening Day Lineup:

  1. Devon Travis, 2B
  2. Troy Tulowitzki, SS
  3. Josh Donaldson, 3B
  4. Jose Bautista, RF
  5. Kendrys Morales, DH
  6. Russell Martin, C
  7. Justin Smoak, 1B
  8. Kevin Pillar, CF
  9. Ezequiel Carrera, LF

The Blue Jays had a strong starting rotation last season, and that will be mostly intact in 2017 – R.A. Dickey will be replaced by Francisco Liriano, who was acquired by the team last summer. It will be difficult to replicate the health factor, as they had five pitchers make between 29 and 32 starts, but they have had that sort of luck a couple of years running. The rotation is backed-up by a mediocre bullpen, though off-season additions J.P. Howell and Joe Smith both come with strong track records.

Possible Rotation:

  1. Marco Estrada
  2. Aaron Sanchez
  3. Marcus Stroman
  4. J.A. Happ
  5. Francisco Liriano

Closer: Roberto Osuna