Saturday Links: All-Star Game, Ellsbury, Prospects, DL

(Adam Glanzman/Getty)
(Adam Glanzman/Getty)

The Yankees and Red Sox continue their weekend series tonight at Fenway Park. Man, I hate Saturday night games. The game isn’t even on FOX but I blame them anyway. Blah. Anywho, here are some links to help you pass the time until first pitch.

2016 All-Star Game voting underway

It’s that time of the year again. Fan voting for the 2016 All-Star Game starters is underway and yes, it is ridiculously early. It is every year. Here’s the ballot. You’re allowed to vote up to 35 times per email address and the voting doesn’t end until June 30th, so you’ve got plenty of time to vote for Chase Headley over and over again.

Teams game-planning for Ellsbury’s catcher interferences

Already three times this season Jacoby Ellsbury has been awarded first base on a catcher’s interference. That’s unusual — there have been only three other catcher’s interference calls in all of baseball this season — but not for Ellsbury. Since 2008, his first full season, his 17 catcher’s interference calls are the most in baseball. No one else has more than 13.

Those 17 career catcher’s interference calls are fourth most in history, behind Pete Rose (29), Dale Berra (18), and Julian Javier (18). Ellsbury has proven to be so proficient at getting catcher’s interference calls that teams are now game-planning for it. From Jared Diamond:

It’s happened enough that Ellsbury has earned a reputation around the league. Hector Ortiz, the catching instructor for the Texas Rangers, said he normally teaches his catchers to set up at an arm’s length behind the batter. When the Yankees came to town this week, Ortiz took special care to warn his players about Ellsbury’s strange talent, and to prepare for it.

“If you’ve got a guy that is consistently dropping the head of the bat that way, then we want to be an arm and a half,” said Ortiz. “You talk about it, to get away. They move back and they stay away from that.”

I don’t think anyone is accusing Ellsbury of hitting the catcher’s mitt on purpose. That’s just his swing path and the way he lets the ball travel deep in the zone. Opponents are game-planning for it not only to keep Ellsbury off base, but also keep their catchers healthy. They don’t want anyone to reach out too far and wind up with broken fingers. What a weird skill.

Three Yankees among top 20 DSL/VSL prospects

Earlier this month the great Ben Badler posted his annual look at the top 20 prospects from the Dominican and Venezuelan Summer Leagues last season. It’s not a ranking, just an alphabetical list of 20 names. The Yankees have three of the top 20 thanks to the 2014-15 international spending spree. The article is behind the paywall, so I can’t give away too much. Here are the nuts and bolts:

  • SS Diego Castillo: “Castillo was one of the most polished, fundamentally sound players in the 2014 signing class, with excellent instincts in all phases of the game.”
  • OF Estevan Florial: “Florial has outstanding tools, with scouts hanging 70s on his speed and arm strength in center field. He has good bat speed and plus raw power, ranking second in the league in slugging.”
  • 3B Nelson Gomez: “Gomez (is) a physical righthanded hitter with huge raw power, though a lot of scouts were skeptical whether his swing-and-miss tendencies would allow his power to translate against live pitching.”

Castillo, 18, hit .331/.373/.444 (130 wRC+) in 56 DSL games last year. He signed for $750,000 and is a personal favorite as a deep sleeper. I’m a sucker for guys who are polished and instinctual at such a young age. Castillo should come stateside later this summer and play with one of the rookie Gulf Coast League affiliates, so prepare to hear much more about him in the coming weeks and years.

MLBPA pushing for 7-day DL

According to Joel Sherman, the MLBPA plans to push for a 7-day DL as part of the next round of Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations with MLB. Right now the league has 15-day and 60-day disabled lists, as well as a special 7-day DL for concussions only. That 7-day DL comes with all sorts of concussion protocol, including approval from MLB’s medical director before the player can be activated.

Sherman says the union has pushed for a 7-day DL in the past, though it never received approval from the owners. Apparently there’s concern teams would manipulate the system, perhaps by putting a starting pitcher on the 7-day DL to gain an extra roster spot when he isn’t scheduled to pitch for a few days. I could totally see the Yankees doing something like that with a sixth starter, couldn’t you?

There is a 7-day DL in the minors, and once upon a time MLB had 10-day and 21-day disabled lists. There’s nothing special about 15 days. It’s just a round number. I’m in favor of a shorter DL to give teams some more flexibility — the Yankees played with a 23-man roster for a few days this week because Alex Rodriguez and Aaron Hicks were banged up — though I understand there are some things to work out. It’s not quite as simple as it seems.

Yankees waste Tanaka’s strong start, lose 4-2 to Red Sox


Source: FanGraphs
That was the kind of game the Yankees are built to win. They were up two runs with seven outs to go and their vaunted bullpen was well-rested, yet five batters later the Red Sox were leading 4-2. That was the final score. The Yankees: they’re bad! It’s Friday night and I haven’t done one of these yet this season, so let’s recap with bullet points:

  • One Batter Too Long: Masahiro Tanaka was in total control for six innings Friday night. He held the BoSox to three singles in those six innings, then, in the seventh, the Red Sox strung together three hits to tie the game 2-2. Jackie Bradley Jr.’s two-out, two-run double off the Green Monster was the big blow. Dellin Betances was ready in the bullpen, but Joe Girardi stuck with Tanaka, and it backfired. Tanaka was pretty darn good though. The guy can’t do it all himself.
  • Dellin’s Dingers: For the second straight outing, Betances gave up a home run to a left-handed batter on a curveball. That’s something that never happened once prior to this season. This time David Ortiz got him for a two-run shot over the Monster in the eighth. Ortiz has been beating the Yankees for more than a decade now. No reason to think his final season would be different. Betances was not going to be perfect all season, but damn, this one stings.
  • Two Token Runs: Once again, the Yankees scored two runs and nothing more. This time they managed to get shut down by Henry Owens, a soft tossing lefty — he threw 33 fastballs out of 92 total pitches — with no command who tried like hell to give the Yankees the game. Alex Rodriguez hit a monster solo homer in the second and Brett Gardner singled in a run in the fifth. That’s it. The final 13 batters they sent to the plate made outs. Three hit the ball out of the infield.
  • Leftovers: Jacoby Ellsbury (single, two walks), Gardner (two singles), and Starlin Castro (single, triple) all reached base multiple times …  Castro was thrown out at the plate on Chase Headley‘s fly ball in the second. I have no idea why he was sent home. It was way too shallow … the Yankees scored two runs or fewer for the 11th time in 21 games. That’s really, really bad guys.

Here are the box score, video highlights, and updated standings. The Yankees shouldn’t be in panic or crisis mode yet, but it’s not early anymore, and this funk has been going on for nearly three weeks now. The AL East is going to be way too competitive this summer to keep giving up ground. Anyway, Michael Pineda and Rick Porcello is the scheduled pitching matchup Saturday night.

DotF: Heathcott returns, helps AAA sweep doubleheader

RHP Domingo Acevedo landed in the ninth spot on this week’s Prospect Hot Sheet. He struck out 13 and allowed three hits in eleven innings this week. Pretty, pretty good.

Triple-A Scranton Game One (6-4 win over Rochester in seven innings) makeup of the April 9th rainout

  • RF Aaron Judge: 2-4, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 RBI
  • CF Slade Heathcott: 1-4, 1 R, 1 3B, 2 RBI, 1 K — whacked the go-ahead two-run triple in the top of the seventh in his first game back from a hand injury
  • C Gary Sanchez: 1-3, 1 2B, 1 RBI, 1 BB
  • 1B Nick Swisher: 1-4, 2 K
  • DH Rob Refsnyder: 1-4, 1 R, 1 K
  • RHP Kyle Haynes: 4.2 IP, 1 H, 4 R, 2 ER, 5 BB, 3 K, 6/5 GB/FB — 49 of 91 pitches were strikes (54%) … weird pitching line
  • RHP Conor Mullee: 1 IP, zeroes, 1 K, 1/1 GB/FB — eight of 13 pitches were strikes (62%) … 15/1 K/BB in 10.1 innings for the three-time Tommy John surgery guy

[Read more…]

Game 21: Runs Would Be Cool

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

The search for offense has led the Yankees to Fenway Park. They’re in Boston this weekend and will play the first of three games against the Red Sox tonight. Will they score runs? Probably! Enough to win? Maybe! I sure hope so. The Yankees have won only four of their last 14 games and gosh, that’s awful.

I guess the good news is the Yankees have their best pitcher on the mound tonight with a rested bullpen behind him. Still though, the name of the game is offense. The Yankees have to start hitting like right now. We’re starting to reach the point where this isn’t a slump anymore. Here is the Red Sox’s lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Brett Gardner
  3. RF Carlos Beltran
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. DH Alex Rodriguez
  6. C Brian McCann
  7. 2B Starlin Castro
  8. 3B Chase Headley
  9. SS Didi Gregorius
    RHP Masahiro Tanaka

It is cloudy and chilly in Boston this evening, but there’s no rain in the forecast, so that’s good. Tonight’s game will start a little after 7pm ET. You can watch on YES locally and MLB Network nationally. Enjoy the game folks.

4/29 to 5/1 Series Preview: Boston Red Sox

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Even though April is just about over, the Yankees are only now about to play their third series against an AL East team this year. They’ve spent a lot of time playing the AL West already. Weird schedule this year. Anyway, the Yankees are up in Boston to Renew The Rivalry™ with the Red Sox this weekend. They’ll play three games — all night games too, blah — at Fenway Park.

What Have They Done Lately?

The schedule makers did the Red Sox a solid this year and scheduled them a four-game home-and-home interleague series with the Braves. Atlanta did actually win the series finale yesterday, which is one more game than I expected them to win. The BoSox are 12-10 with a +11 run differential in the early going.

Offense & Defense

The Red Sox were expected to score runs this season and they have done exactly that so far. They’re averaging 5.18 runs per game with a team 117 wRC+ in 2016. Their only injured position player is 3B Pablo Sandoval, who is out with a shoulder problem. He was awful last year and showed up to camp out of shape again this year. I’m guessing the Red Sox aren’t exactly rushing him back.

Ortiz. (Maddie Meyer/Getty)
Ortiz. (Maddie Meyer/Getty)

As always, manager John Farrell’s lineup is built around the still annoyingly productive DH David Ortiz (168 wRC+). I really can’t wait until he retires. RF Mookie Betts (112 wRC+), 2B Dustin Pedroia (156 wRC+), and SS Xander Bogaerts (121 wRC+) usually hit ahead of Ortiz in the lineup. That’s their standard top of the batting order. 1B Hanley Ramirez (87 wRC+) and 3B Travis Shaw (157 wRC+) have been hitting behind Ortiz.

The bottom of the lineup is occupied by LF Brock Holt (102 wRC+), CF Jackie Bradley Jr. (84 wRC+), and C Christian Vazquez (61 wRC+). Former Yankee OF Chris Young (59 wRC+) is the extra outfielder, IF Josh Rutledge (211 wRC+) is the extra infielder, and C Ryan Hanigan (65 wRC+) is the backup backstop. Boston is currently carrying 13 pitches for whatever reason. They’re dealing some rotation injuries and want the extra relievers around in case the fill-ins get knocked out early, I guess.

On defense, the BoSox have above-average defenders up the middle in Vazquez, Pedroia, and Bradley. Bradley and Vazquez are truly elite defenders. Bogaerts has improved over the last year or so but is still closer to average than great. Betts has looked lost at times in right — he’s made some great catches thanks to pure athleticism — and Holt’s been adequate in left. Shaw and Hanley are no bueno on the infield corners.

Pitching Matchups

Friday (7pm ET): RHP Masahiro Tanaka (vs. BOS) vs. LHP Henry Owens (vs. NYY)
Both Eduardo Rodriguez (knee) and Joe Kelly’s great stuff (shoulder) are on the DL, which is why the 23-year-old Owens joined the rotation last week. He allowed three runs on five hits and four walks in 3.1 innings against the Astros the other day in his only big league start of 2016. Owens had a 4.57 ERA (4.28 FIP) with an 18.8% strikeout rate, an 8.8% walk rate, a 34.7% ground ball rate, and a 1.00 HR/9 in 63 MLB innings last season. He sits a tick below 90 mph with both his four-seamer and sinker, and his bread and butter is a great upper-70s changeup. Owens will also mix in some low-70s curveballs. Guys with upper-80s fastballs need good command and Owens doesn’t have it. He doesn’t even have good control. He’s liable to walk himself into trouble and lay cookies over the plate. Patience is the key tonight.

Porcello. (Rich Gagnon/Getty)
Porcello. (Rich Gagnon/Getty)

Saturday (7pm ET): RHP Michael Pineda (vs. BOS) vs. RHP Rick Porcello (vs. NYY)
Porcello’s second season with the Red Sox has gotten off to a much better start than his first season. He has a 3.51 ERA (4.12 FIP) in four starts and 25.2 innings, and his 29.2% strikeout rate is by far a career high. Porcello also has a 4.9% walk rate and a 50.0% ground ball rate, though his 1.75 HR/9 is an eyesore. Lefties have historically hit him a lot larder than righties. Porcello, 27, uses a sinker right around 90 mph as his main fastball, and so far this season he’s preferred his low-80s changeup to his low-70s curveball. He’ll also throw some mid-80s cutter/slider things. With Porcello, it’s all about the sinker. If he’s commanding it at the bottom of the zone, he’ll dominate. If he’s doing anything else, he’ll get knocked around.

Sunday (8pm ET): RHP Nathan Eovaldi (vs. BOS) vs. LHP David Price (vs. NYY)
We started doing these series preview posts at RAB back in 2011, and during these last five years and one month, I think we’ve written about Price as an opposing starter more than any other pitcher. Has to be, right? It’s either him or Chris Tillman. The Yankees never seem to miss Price (or Tillman) whenever they play whatever team he happens to be playing for at the time.

Anyway, Price’s tenure in Boston has gotten off to an uneven start. He has a 5.76 ERA (2.44 FIP) in 29.2 innings, and he currently has a career high strikeout rate (35.4%) and a career low ground ball rate (36.1%). His walk (6.2%) and homer (0.91 HR/9) rates are higher than they have been in four or five years now. Price, 30, has never had much of a platoon split because his stuff and command are so good. He’s sitting around 93 mph with his four-seamer and sinker, and about 88 mph with his cutter. His velocity is actually down noticeably from last year (via Brooks Baseball):

David Price velocityPrice uses a low-80s changeup as his main secondary pitch, and he’ll also mix in a few low-70s curveballs per start. There’s no messing around here though. Price throws his three fastballs about 70% of the time combined. He throws hard and he dares you to hit it.

Bullpen Status

New president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski went out and made some big trades this offseason to improve his bullpen, which was an obvious team weakness last year. One of his trade pickups, RHP Carson Smith, has been on the DL all season with a forearm injury. The other, RHP Craig Kimbrel, has already had some high-profile meltdowns. Here’s the bullpen:

RHP Matt Barnes: 11.1 IP, 14 H, 6 R, 4 ER, 6 BB, 13 K, 1 HR (0 pitches Thurs., 19 pitches Weds.)
RHP Heath Hembree: 9 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 11 K, 0 HR (15 pitches Thurs., 0 pitches Weds.)
RHP Craig Kimbrel: 10 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 5 BB, 18 K, 2 HR (0 pitches Thurs., 0 pitches Weds.)
LHP Tommy Layne: 5 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 6 K, 1 HR (23 pitches Thurs., 11 pitches Weds.)
RHP Pat Light: 1 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 0 HR (0 pitches Thurs., 0 pitches Weds.)
LHP Robbie Ross. Jr.: 10 IP, 10 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 9 K, 1 HR (0 pitches Thurs., 0 pitches Weds.)
RHP Junichi Tazawa: 8.2 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 11 K, 1 HR (0 pitches Thurs., 0 pitches Weds.)
RHP Koji Uehara: 9.1 IP, 3 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 4 BB, 9 K, 0 HR (0 pitches Thurs., 0 pitches Weds.)

Like Joe Girardi, Farrell likes to assign his relievers set innings whenever possible. Kimbrel is the closer, Uehara is the eighth inning guy, and Tazawa is the seventh inning guy. That’s the formula. Layne is the left-on-left specialist and Ross is more of the long man lefty. Barnes is the low leverage middle reliever and Hembree has kinda come out of nowhere to pitch well.

The Yankees had an off-day yesterday, so their bullpen is as fresh as it’s going to get one month into the season. Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller have each had three straight days off, so they’re good to go. Our Bullpen Workload page will tell you all you need to know about the team’s relief corps.

Are the Yankees being too passive at the plate?

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

It seems one of the biggest universal pet peeves in baseball is swinging at the first pitch when the pitcher is struggling to throw strikes. In the second inning two nights ago the Yankees had runners at first and second with no outs after Martin Perez walked Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, then Brian McCann swung at the first pitch and grounded into a double play. That took the wind out of everyone’s sails.

As fans, seeing McCann swing at the first pitch in that spot was frustrating, but players will tell you the first pitch might be the best one to hit in those situations. The pitcher doesn’t want to fall behind in the count again, so they lay a first pitch fastball in the zone, figuring the hitter might take it. They try to steal a strike when they’re struggling to locate. Unfortunately McCann hit into the double play and that was that.

The Yankees have struggled to score runs this season, and following Wednesday’s game I noted 12 of the 34 men they sent to the plate saw two pitches or less. They were swinging early and often that night. On the season though, only one team has swung less often than the Yankees. The Yankees have a 42.3% swing rate in 2016. The Brewers are at 41.4% and the MLB average is 45.6%. Let’s break it down a little further.

Z-Swing% Z-Contact% O-Swing% O-Contact%
Yankees 58.9% 91.4% 27.2% 62.7%
MLB AVG 63.4% 85.8% 29.3% 61.9%
NYY MLB Rank 30th 1st 6th 14th

Do you see what’s going on there? The Yankees have the highest contact rate in baseball on pitches in the strike zone (Z-Contact%), but they also swing at those pitches (Z-Swing%) less than any other team. They also don’t swing at many pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%). This is good! You want your players to a) make contact when they swing, and b) not chase stuff off the plate.

But dead last in swing rate on pitches in the zone? Those are the pitches you’re supposed to swing at. Last season the Yankees swung at 62.6% of the pitches they saw in the zone with largely the same lineup. The only difference is Starlin Castro instead of Stephen Drew. The Yankees were still a bottom five team in Z-Swing% last year — they were also top three with an 88.8 Z-Contact% — but the gap between 2015 and 2016 is pretty substantial.

The obvious caveat: it’s still early and this stuff can change in a hurry. (For what it’s worth, swing and contact rates do stabilize fairly quickly.) That said, I do wonder if the Yankees are perhaps being a bit too passive as a team, and are letting hittable pitches go by on occasion. Let’s look at some individual players really quick:

2015 Z-Swing% 2016 Z-Swing% Change from 2015-16
Mark Teixeira 65.8% 56.3% -9.5%
Brett Gardner 52.8% 44.0% -8.8%
Chase Headley 61.6% 54.5% -7.1%
Alex Rodriguez 66.6% 62.2% -4.4%
Jacoby Ellsbury 64.5% 60.7% -3.8%
Carlos Beltran 64.3% 61.0% -3.3%
Starlin Castro 64.9% 63.6% -1.3%
Brian McCann 56.5% 55.5% -1.0%
Didi Gregorius 71.7% 71.7% 0.0%

Every single player in the starting lineup except Gregorius is swinging at fewer pitches in the zone this season than they did a year ago. Most of them are swinging at considerably fewer pitches too. We’re talking a difference of three percentage points or more for most guys.

Now, again, the 2016 season is only 20 games old, and weird stuff happens in samples of 20 games. But the entire team has a lower Z-Swing%, so I wonder if that has something to do with the new hitting coaches. The Yankees replaced Kevin Long with the Jeff Pentland/Alan Cockrell tandem last year, then replaced Pentland/Cockrell with Cockrell/Marcus Thames this year. Cockrell was promoted to the main hitting coach to replace Pentland with Thames taking over as his assistant.

Is it possible for a new hitting coach(es) to instill a philosophy like “swing less?” I suppose so, but the Yankees are a pretty veteran team. These guys know what they’re doing at the plate. And even if the new coaches did preach swing less, what’s to be gained? A few more walks? Believe me, I know how important on-base percentage is, but the goal first and foremost is to get a hit, and letting hittable pitches go by is no way to do that.

The Yankees have the highest Z-Contact% and the lowest Z-Swing% in baseball, so it’s easy to say they should simply swing more often and the offense will come. I don’t think it’s quite that simple though. If they start swinging for the sake of swinging, their Z-Contact% rate is going to come down in a hurry. You want to swing at pitches in the strike zone but not necessarily every pitch in the strike zone.

I don’t have an answer to the question in the title. I’m inclined to say this is all small sample size noise and eventually the team’s Z-Swing% will climb upwards. I do think it’s fair to wonder whether the Yankees are taking too many hittable pitches. The players know they’re struggling to score, they feel the pressure, and sometimes you can overthink things and let good pitches go by. They’re not going to walk their way out of this slump though. A few more swings on pitches in the zone can’t hurt.