The Yankees and 2017’s major awards

(Adam Hunger/Getty)
(Adam Hunger/Getty)

For the first time in a very long time, the Yankees have legitimate candidates for each of baseball’s major awards this season. Even in 2009, the Yankees did not have a Rookie of the Year candidate. They had MVP (Mark Teixeira) and Cy Young (CC Sabathia) candidates, but not a Rookie of the Year candidate. Their best rookie that year, by WAR, was Brett Gardner, and he had only 284 plate appearances as the fourth outfielder.

In recent years the voting body seems to be doing a better job handing out the awards, which really just means the voting results closely match my hypothetical ballot. There is no right or wrong with this stuff. The voting criteria is intentionally vague, so it’s up to the individual voter to decide. It is what it is. So anyway, with the regular season winding down, let’s take a look at where the various Yankees place in this year’s award races.

Most Valuable Player

The first six or seven weeks after the All-Star break were not pretty, but a ferocious September has Aaron Judge right back in the thick of the MVP race. I see six serious AL MVP candidates right now: Judge, Jose Altuve, Corey Kluber, Jose Ramirez, Chris Sale, and Mike Trout. Trout missed too much time with his thumb injury to win. The voters are going to hold that against him. Kluber and Sale have to deal with the anti-pitcher bias the exists in MVP voting, and as good as Ramirez has been, Altuve and Judge have superior numbers. Considerably superior numbers, really.

MVP is not only a performance award. It’s a performance plus narrative award. Both the Astros and Yankees are going to the postseason, so that’s not going to sway the vote in Judge’s or Altuve’s favor. On one hand, you could argue the Yankees would’ve won the AL East if not for Judge’s slump. On the other, you could argue the Astros have such a huge lead in the AL West that they would’ve won even without Altuve. Hmmm.

Statistically, Judge has a slight edge overall, but obviously Altuve has been excellent as well. Let’s compare quickly:

  • AVG: Altuve (.347 to .284)
  • OBP: Judge (.421 to .413)
  • SLG: Judge (.622 to .552)
  • wRC+: Judge (171 to 161)
  • XBH: Judge (77 to 66)
  • HR: Judge (50 to 24)
  • SB: Altuve (32 to 9)
  • DRS: Judge (+10 to +3)
  • fWAR: Judge (+7.8 to +7.4)
  • bWAR: Altuve (+8.3 to +7.8)

Fun fact: that +7.8 fWAR leads all of baseball. Judge jumped over Sale (+7.7) this week. Altuve has hit for a much higher average — he’s only the fifth player in the last 70 years with 200+ hits in four straight seasons, joining Hall of Famers Kirby Puckett and Wade Boggs, future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki, and, uh, Michael Young — and yet Judge still has him beat in on-base percentage. Judge strikes out a ton more (30.7% to 12.8%) but also walks a ton more too (18.6% to 9.0%). Altuve is a greater threat on the bases while Judge saves more runs in the field. Pretty amazing.

My favorite thing about this AL MVP debate is how it shows two very different players can be among the game’s best. Judge and Altuve couldn’t be any more different, both in terms of their physical size and the shape of their production. Judge is a monster power hitter while Altuve is a pint-sized contact machine. Will Altuve’s size give him an edge in the MVP race? Don’t doubt the voting body’s ability to come up with a “he overcame greater odds” narrative. There’s also the “Judge isn’t clutch!” storyline that has become a thing.

Judge with runners in scoring position: .255/.381/.621 (146 wRC+)
Altuve with runners in scoring position: .310/.400/.450 (129 wRC+)

Judge in high-leverage situations: .235/.345/.498 (95 wRC+)
Altuve in high-leverage situations: .318/.400/.477 (138 wRC+)

Ultimately, I do think Altuve is going to win MVP because he had a more consistent season from start to finish, which essentially means Judge’s second half slump will cost him, even with the big September. I suppose if the Yankees rally to steal the AL East these next few days, that could shift things in Judge’s favor, but nah. I think Altuve wins with Ramirez and Judge finishing second and third in either order.

Also, another fun fact: the Yankees have more than one player worthy of MVP votes. Gary Sanchez is hitting .280/.346/.537 (131 wRC+) with 33 homers despite missing a month, and he’s thrown out 38.3% batters of faced. There are ten spots on the MVP ballot and I expect Sanchez to get a handful of down ballot votes. Putting him in the top five would be tough, but the 5-10 range? Hell yeah he’ll get votes. Maybe Didi Gregorius too. And Luis Severino. There’s always some down ballot weirdness. Judge is a legitimate MVP candidate. Gary is going to get some votes too.

Cy Young

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Pretty amazing that we’re talking about Severino as a Cy Young candidate, isn’t it? And not as a down ballot candidate who might get a few votes. A bonafide Cy Young candidate. Kluber and Sale are off in their own little stratosphere and they’re going to finish first and second in the Cy Young voting in either order. (Kluber’s probably going to win.) Severino is the best of the rest. Check out his ranks among the 57 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title:

  • IP: 193.1 (16th)
  • ERA: 2.98 (8th)
  • FIP: 3.07 (7th)
  • K%: 29.4% (6th)
  • BB%: 6.5% (16th)
  • K/BB: 4.51 (8th)
  • GB%: 50.6% (5th)
  • fWAR: +5.8 (4th)
  • bWAR: +5.5 (9th)

What a season for Sevy. He’s been so good overall. So, so good. The Cy Young ballot runs five players deep, not ten like the MVP, and I imagine Kluber and Sale will be first and second on every single ballot. That leaves the 3-5 spots for Severino, Justin Verlander, Carlos Carrasco, Marcus Stroman, and Craig Kimbrel. Plus whoever else lands a stray vote (Jason Vargas has 17 wins!). My guess is Verlander sneaks ahead of Severino and finished third in the voting behind Kluber and Sale, and Severino finishes fourth.

Rookie of the Year

There is no mystery here. Judge is going to win Rookie of the Year and he should win unanimously. The whole “first ever rookie to hit 50 freaking home runs” thing clinched it, if there was any lingering doubt. There was that weird “Andrew Benintendi might steal Rookie of the Year!” narrative a few weeks back but lol to that. The AL rookie fWAR leaderboard:

  1. Aaron Judge: +7.8
  2. Jordan Montgomery: +2.6
  3. Matt Chapman: +2.3
  4. Mitch Haniger: +2.3
  5. Andrew Benintendi: +2.1

Yeah. Judge is going to win in a landslide. I fully expect Judge to get basically all the first place votes, Benintendi to get basically all the second place votes, then the third place votes — there are only three spots on the Rookie of the Year ballot — get split between Montgomery, Chapman, Haniger, Matt Olson, Bradley Zimmer, Scott Alexander, and a few others.

Chad Green, by the way, is not rookie eligible, otherwise it would’ve been interesting to see whether he grabbed some third place votes. Green threw only 45.2 innings last season — the rookie limit is 50 innings — but he does not qualify as a rookie this year due to service time. Womp womp.

Manager of the Year

Moreso than any other award, the Manager of the Year is a narrative award. How the heck do you evaluate a manager? They all make seemingly silly bullpen and lineup decisions. We don’t get to see their work behind the scenes in the clubhouse either. For all intents and purposes, the Manager of the Year is the “manager of the team that most exceeded expectations” award. That’s been the prevailing theme the last few seasons.

The Yankees, pretty clearly, have exceeded expectations this season. By a lot. Many pundits, myself included, as well as the various projection systems pegged the Yankees for something like 80-82 wins. Some a little higher, some a little lower. Basically no one had them winning 90-ish games with the second best run differential (+197) in baseball. By the “team that exceeded expectations” standard, Joe Girardi should get a ton of Manager of the Year votes.

Now, here’s the problem: the Twins exist. They lost 103 games last season! Now they’re going to the postseason as the second wildcard team. That’s an amazing turnaround. I fully expect Paul Molitor to win Manager of the Year because of that. I mean, how could you vote against him when the team accomplishes that? Girardi has received Manager of the Year votes every season since 2009 and I have no reason to believe that streak will end this year. I just think it’s unlikely he’ll beat out Molitor. Maybe Girardi will finish second in the voting?

Comeback Player of the Year

The Yankees do not have a Comeback Player of the Year candidate. Their best comeback player is, uh, Adam Warren? It’s probably him. Severino is just a young kid breaking out. He’s not a comeback player. I imagine Mike Moustakas is the Comeback Player of the Year favorite. He went from playing only 27 games last season due to a torn ACL to setting the franchise single-season home run record this year.

Gold Gloves

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Sanchez won’t win the Gold Glove at catcher because of the passed balls, even with his above-average framing and throwing numbers. That means the Yankees only have three Gold Glove candidates: Judge, Gregorius, and Gardner. First base and third base turned over at midseason, and center field was a bit of a revolving door. Second base? No. Sorry, Starlin Castro. But no. Some numbers for the hell of it:

  • Gardner: +13 DRS (1st among all left fielders)
  • Gregorius: +0 DRS (39th among all shortstops, and lol)
  • Judge: +10 DRS (4th among all right fielders)

Gregorius won’t win the Gold Glove because Andrelton Simmons and Francisco Lindor exist. Judge won’t win the Gold Glove because Mookie Betts exists. Gardner might win the Gold Glove in left field though. He won it last year, and Alex Gordon, his longtime competition for the award, has faded big time the last two years. It’ll come down to Gardner, Benintendi, Eddie Rosario, and Justin Upton. Gardner’s got a good shot for his second straight Gold Glove, I think.

* * *

Keep in mind these are regular season awards. The ballots are due following the end of the regular season but before the start of the postseason. Judge is definitely going to become the first Yankee to win Rookie of the Year since Derek Jeter in 1996. That much is obvious. He has a chance — I wouldn’t call it a great one, but a chance — to win MVP as well, which would be the first for the Yankees since Alex Rodriguez in 2007. Sabathia finished in the top four of the Cy Young voting three straight years from 2009-11, and Severino could finish that high in the voting this year.

Just the fact we’re talking about Judge as an MVP candidate — in addition to being the runaway Rookie of the Year favorite — and Severino as a Cy Young candidate is pretty awesome. Coming into the season, I think we were all hoping they’d shake off last season’s disappointing big league stints and begin to establish themselves as building blocks going forward. They did that and more. Best case scenario seasons for both of them. Really. Winning any kind of award, or just finishing high up in the voting, would be the cherry on top of an already amazing season.

Looking ahead to the 2018 luxury tax payroll situation

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Right now, everyone in Yankeeland is focused on locking down a postseason spot, and understandably so. They’re going to clinch a wildcard spot very soon and the AL East title isn’t completely out of reach. The Yankees have been to the postseason once in the last four seasons, and that was a wholly unsatisfying Wild Card Game shutout loss in 2015. No one wants to see that again.

In the front office though, Brian Cashman and his staff are surely already in 2018 planning mode. Yes, they’re focused on the postseason race too, but they never stop looking for ways to improve, and in mid-to-late September, that means looking ahead to the offseason. It’s a weird dynamic. There’s only so much the front office can do to help the 2017 Yankees at this point. The roster is built. Now it’s up to the players to perform.

Once we get into offseason mode and start thinking about how the Yankees will adjust and improve their roster for next season and beyond, the $197M luxury tax threshold is going to hang over every discussion, every move. Hal Steinbrenner has made it clear he wants to get under the threshold and 2018 is, by far, the best chance the Yankees have had to do it in quite some time. They hoped to do it in 2014, but missing the postseason in 2013 changed things.

So, with that in mind, I figured we might as well break down the current 2018 luxury tax payroll situation, just to see where the Yankees stand heading into the offseason. The short version: they should have a nice chunk of change to spend this winter. The long version: well, let’s get to that now. Here’s a 2018 payroll breakdown.

Guaranteed Contracts

Might as well start with the elephant in the room. Tanaka might opt-out of his contract. He also might not! My guess right now is he will opt-out. I’d say it’s 90/10 right now in favor of opting out or leveraging the opt-out into an extension, CC Sabathia style. For now, Tanaka is under contract next season, so you have to include him in any payroll projection. If he opts out, you adjust. Those seven contract above total $108.42M toward next year’s luxury tax payroll.

The Yankees are shedding Sabathia’s contract ($25M annually for luxury tax purposes) as well as Matt Holliday‘s pricey one-year commitment ($13M) after the season. The good news: that’s $38M freed up! The bad news: they have to replace Sabathia and Holliday somehow. Michael Pineda ($7.4M), Todd Frazier ($12M pro-rated), Jaime Garcia ($12M pro-rated), and Chris Carter ($3M) are among the smaller commitments coming off the books as well. All told, roughly $52M worth of veterans will be leaving the luxury tax payroll this offseason, not counting Tanaka.

Arbitration-Eligible Players

Erik Kratz will be arbitration-eligible for the third time this offseason as well, though he’s as good as gone. He’ll be among the first players (if not the first player) designated for assignment when time comes to clean up the 40-man roster. I suspect Shreve will be a 40-man casualty as well. He’s out of minor league options, and when a middling up-and-down reliever runs out of options, they tend to get cast aside for the next optionable up-and-down arm. Such is life.

Anyway, the Yankees have a pretty sizeable arbitration class. Gregorius could end up earning north of $8M next season while Gray should clear $6M. What’ll happen with Betances? He went to his fourth straight All-Star Game this year and, even with the walks this season, his track record puts him among the best relievers in the game. Also, he went 10-for-11 in saves while filling in for Chapman, and saves pay in arbitration. Even if Dellin were to go to arbitration and lose again, I think he’s looking at $5M or so next season.

Warren, Romine, and Kahnle won’t get huge raises given their roles and track records — Warren might get $3.5M or so, but the other guys won’t get much more than $1M — though I have no idea what’ll happen with Hicks. He was outstanding in the first half this year, then hurt and kinda crummy in the second half. Tough to value him. I’d say $3M seems like a possibility. Based on my guesstimates, the Yankees are looking at $25M to $30M in arbitration salaries next year, not counting Shreve. Add that to the guaranteed contracts and we’re at $138.42M total. Let’s call it $140M flat.

Miscellany

  • Dead money ($5.5M): Portion of Brian McCann‘s salary
  • Eleven pre-arbitration-eligible players ($5.995M): $545,000 league minimum each
  • Remaining 40-man spots: $2M estimated
  • Player benefits: $12M estimated

The other big contract the Yankees are shedding after the season: Alex Rodriguez. The Yankees paid him $21M to hang out with Jennifer Lopez this year and he counted against the luxury tax at $27.5M. Woof. That $27.5M worth of dead money on the luxury tax payroll is gone. The Yankees are still paying part of McCann’s salary, but that’s it. No other payments to players no longer on the roster.

Unloading the Sabathia and A-Rod contracts is the biggest reason next year will be the best chance the Yankees have had to get under the luxury tax in quite some time. The second biggest reason? The pre-arbitration-eligible players. Homegrown All-Stars Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Luis Severino will all make something close to the league minimum next year. It won’t be exactly the league minimum — the Yankees have a sliding salary scale based on service time with escalators for awards, etc. — but it’ll be relative peanuts. Among those three, Judge figures to get the largest 2018 salary for several reasons …

  1. He was the AL’s leading vote-getter for the All-Star Game.
  2. He’s probably going to lead the AL in home runs.
  3. He’s going to win Rookie of the Year, possibly unanimously.
  4. He’s going to finish in the top ten of the MVP voting. Maybe top five.

… but even then his salary will be in the six-figures. The largest pre-arbitration salary ever went to Kris Bryant this year. The Cubs gave him $1.05M. All he had to do was win Rookie of the Year one year, then MVP and the World Series the next. Mike Trout is the only other member of the $1M pre-arbitration club, so yeah. Point is, the Yankees have a great chance to get under the luxury tax threshold next year because their three best players will make something close to the league minimum. What a huge, huge advantage.

Beyond those three, there’s also Jordan Montgomery providing cheap rotation innings and Chad Green dominating out of the bullpen at little cost. And Ronald Torreyes serving as the cheap utility infielder. Now, here’s the thing: I said eleven pre-arbitration players, but that’s not correct. Seven guaranteed contracts plus seven arbitration-eligible players (not counting Shreve) gets us to 14 roster spots, so the Yankees need eleven guys to fill out the roster.

They’re not going to fill all eleven spots with pre-arbitration-eligible players, however. They’re probably going to sign a pitcher to replace Sabathia (or re-sign Sabathia himself) and probably add a veteran bat to replace Holliday and/or Frazier (or re-sign Frazier himself), plus who knows what else. Judge, Sanchez, Severino, Montgomery, and Green are pre-arbitration locks. Torreyes figures to still be around and there will probably be a few cheap bullpeners too (Ben Heller? Jonathan Holder?). Inevitably the Yankees will sign some veterans though.

Alright, so when we add all that together, the guaranteed contracts plus arbitration and pre-arbitration players plus the dead money plus the miscellaneous expenses (benefits, other 40-man guys) we get roughly $165M. The luxury tax threshold is $197M next year, so the Yankees are left with $32M or so to play with. It’ll be about $55M if Tanaka opts out, which I think will happen. That would be $55M to replace Tanaka, Sabathia, Holliday, and Frazier, plus other miscellaneous upgrades.

* * *

Because the Yankees appear to have $32M to spend this offseason — I say appear because this is all one giant estimate — even if Tanaka doesn’t opt-out, I wonder whether they’ll look to lock up some of their young players to long-term extensions. If a player does sign an extension, next year’s luxury tax hit becomes the average annual salary of the contract. So giving Sanchez, say, six years and $45M would give him a $7.5M luxury tax hit rather than his league minimum salary. That’s a pretty big deal.

At the same time, signing young players to multi-year extensions that buy out future arbitration and free agent years is generally great for business. There are always exceptions — some guys get hurt or just stop hitting and the contract becomes a dud, that’s baseball — but more often than not, teams are glad they signed their players. The sooner the better too. Salaries only go up the longer you wait. The Yankees have five obvious extension candidates and I’d rate them in this order, in terms of priority:

  1. Sanchez: You don’t let young catchers who hit like this get away. I don’t care how many passed balls he allows. Sign him and enjoy having the game’s top hitting catcher for the next decade.
  2. Gregorius: He’ll be a free agent following the 2019 season, and the only reason I don’t have him above Sanchez is all the young shortstops in the system. Gleyber Torres, Tyler Wade, Thairo Estrada, etc. Still, a shortstop who is above-average on both sides of the ball and is as wonderful as Didi is off the field is worth keeping.
  3. Gray: Like Gregorius, Gray will be a free agent following the 2019 season. I am normally cool with going year-to-year with pitchers because of the injury risk, and I’d probably wait another year with Gray, but there is some urgency here. He’s not under control for that long.
  4. Judge: I have no idea how this dude will age because of his size. It’s such a unique profile. Also, the Yankees already have Judge under team control through his age 30 season, so they’re getting his prime. It’s not like he’s due to become a free agent at age 26 or something.
  5. Severino: Pitchers break, man. Severino is at the bottom because the Yankees have him through the 2022 season. He’s not hitting the open market anytime soon. Going year-to-year is fine with me. The Yankees did that with Chien-Ming Wang and saved millions when he broke down. They can afford to pay big arbitration raises, if necessary.

Steering clear of big money free agents — that doesn’t mean staying away from free agents entirely, just the super expensive ones — would give the Yankees enough payroll space to sign one or two of their young cornerstone players to a long-term contract, which will potentially save millions down the road. Short-term pain (higher luxury tax during pre-arbitration years) for long-term gain (below market salaries in the future). The Yankees signed Robinson Cano to an extension through his arbitration years and first few free agent years and didn’t regret it for a second.

Personally, I don’t think the Yankees are going to sign anyone long-term until they get under the luxury tax threshold and reset their luxury tax rate, which is currently the maximum 50%. Once they do that, they’ll be in much better position to lock up their own players (Sanchez, Judge, Severino, etc.) and spend big for free agents (coughBryceHarpercough). The Yankees have some payroll space to play around with this offseason, though they won’t spend wildly like they did during the 2013-14 offseason. This is their best chance to get under the luxury tax threshold and they’re not going to miss it.

Subtracting velocity has been key to Luis Severino’s improved changeup

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Regardless of what happens the rest of the year, this has been an overwhelmingly positive season for the Yankees and their youth movement. Both Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez emerged as bonafide middle of the order thumpers in their first full MLB seasons, and Luis Severino bounced back from a disappointing 2016 season to become a legitimate Cy Young candidate. He’s going to finish in the top five of the voting. Maybe top three.

What’s the difference between 2016 Severino and 2017 Severino? A lot of things, really. First and foremost, I think his command is so much better. Command is not something we can measure — walk rate is a control stat, not a command stat — it’s something we have to see. Based on my observations, Severino is doing a much better job locating on the edges of the plate, and just off the plate. He made a lot of middle-middle mistakes last year.

Second, confidence. Last season it appeared Severino got scared out of the strike zone at times, and a little fastball shy. And who could blame him? He was young and getting hit hard. This year he looks like a dominator on the mound. He’s oozing confidence and you can tell he knows he’s in command of the game. There is no doubt in my mind last year’s success out of the bullpen contributes to that. He took the bullpen mentality to the rotation.

And third, his changeup. Severino always had a quality changeup coming up through the minors. We saw it in 2015. Last year he didn’t have much success with the pitch, and as a result he basically stopped throwing it late in the year. Even when he moved back into the rotation. He’d throw one or two per start, maybe. Back in 2015 he threw 10-20 changeups per start. Last season he made eleven starts and threw double-digit changeups only five times.

This season Severino is again sitting the 10-20 changeup range, and he’s throwing more and more changeups as the season progresses. Heck, he threw 29 changeups in a game against the Red Sox back in July. That never would’ve happened last year. The thing that has caught my eye about Severino’s changeup, especially the last few weeks, is the velocity. Here is his changeup velocity by start with error bars showing the minimum and maximum velocities, via Brooks Baseball:

luis-severino-changeup

In 2015 and 2016, Severino’s changeup sat right around 90 mph and didn’t deviate too much from that velocity. His slowest changeup from 2015-16: 85.5 mph. His fastest changeup from 2015-16: 94 mph, and I’m pretty sure that’s a mistake. PitchFX must has classified a fastball with a little extra sink on it as a changeup. His second fastest changeup from 2015-16 was 91.7 mph, so yeah, that’s probably it.

For all intents and purposes, Severino’s changeup velocity range was 85 mph to 92 mph from 2015-16. This year, as you can see from the error bars in the graph, he’s thrown his changeup down around 80 mph in several starts, with a few in the 70s as well. Look at his last few starts in particular. Severino has been throwing his changeup anywhere from 80 mph to 90 mph. Heck, Severino threw a 79.0 mph changeup and a 90.1 mph changeup in the same at-bat Saturday. From Baseball Savant:

luis-severino-nomar-mazaraLast year I thought part of Severino’s problem was the lack of separation between his pitches. I’m pretty sure I wrote that somewhere, but I can’t seem to find it now. Whatever. (Update: Here it is!) Anyway, everything Severino threw was hard. It was all 90 mph and above, for the most part. Throwing hard is great, but big league hitters can time velocity if you give them enough time adjust, and when everything (fastball, slider, changeup) comes in around the same velocity, it’s that much easier to time.

This year Severino is achieving much greater velocity separation between his fastball and changeup. His average fastball is 97.7 mph. That’s ridiculous. It’s also the highest average fastball velocity among pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title by nearly one full mile an hour. (Chad Kuhl is second at 96.9 mph. No, really.) Catching up to 97.7 mph is hard enough. Now imagine doing it when the pitcher could bust out a low-80s (or even upper-70s) changeup. That’s how aces are made. We’re talking about a 15-20 mph separation between the fastball and changeup. That’s enormous. The league average is 9.1 mph.

Severino’s success this season — there’s basically nothing that could happen the last two and a half weeks that would take him off Cy Young ballot at this point — is the result of many things. Improved command, more confidence, experience, natural growth, and an improved changeup. That pitch was a non-factor for him much of last season. This year it is a legitimate weapon, and it’s only his third pitch. The fastball-slider combination is damn near elite. Add in a changeup that is approaching Bugs Bunny status, and there’s every reason to believe this version of Severino is here to stay.

The Same, but Different: Luis Severino in 2017

(Gregory Shamus/Getty)
(Gregory Shamus/Getty)

Tonight, the Yankees conclude their most important series of the year. A win in this tilt against the Red Sox would pull them to within 3.5 games of the AL East with a month left to play and maintain–or improve–their wild card lead against the annoyingly hard-charging Minnesota Twins. It’s a game in which you’d love to have your best on the mound and, fortunately, the Yankees do in Luis Severino. A year ago, if I told you that you’d want Severino starting the biggest game of the biggest series of the year, would you have believed me?

Severino has been nothing short of super this year. If it weren’t for Chris Sale being Chris Sale and Corey Kluber being, well, Corey Kluber, Severino might have a shot at the Cy Young Award, something inconceivable last season. Looks like he’ll have to settle for a top-5 (hopefully top 3) finish, barring any big changes from either pitcher. The promise we saw back in 2015 is finally coming to fruition. So what happened? More of the same, in a way.

His arsenal hasn’t changed from 2015-2016 until now; he’s still throwing a fastball, a slider, and a changeup. His usage for this year is slightly different. Like most Yankee pitchers this year, he’s dealing his fastball a little less, which has led to a necessary bump in usage of his other pitches: around a two percent increase in changeup usage and around a one percent increase in slider usage. The results form this change have been fantastic.

He’s getting batters to chase those same pitches more, with a career high 33.3% O-Swing rate. He’s getting batters to miss those pitches more with a career low 74.6% contact rate; his slider has been the main cause of this, jumping from a 24.78 whiff per swing rate in 2015-16 to a 34.02% rate in 2017. That same slider has also seen a massive jump in ground ball rate, from an already solid mark in the mid-50’s all the way up to 63.64. Perhaps the most important factor, though, is an obvious one for 2017, given the context of the majors: home runs.

In 2015 (1.30 HR/9) and 2016 (1.39), the long ball was a big problem for Luis. But, even with struggles in 2016, he’s managed to drop his HR/FB% from 17.3 to 16.4 to 15.1. That leaves his HR/9 this year at 1.05, still perhaps a touch high, but not too bad considering the rest of his stellar numbers. Despite a slight increase in HR rate with his slider (8.62 up from 8.00 in ’15-’16), both the fastball and changeup have seen drops. All three have become positive pitches.

We knew Sevy had a great fastball from day one and that it was his secondary stuff that would dictate his success. Despite it being his roughest pitch, Severino is 9th in the majors this year in terms of run value per 100 pitches with his changeup. He ranks 14th with his slider. We could argue, then, that his ‘lesser’ pitches have surpassed his calling card.

Luis Severino has been nothing short of incredible this year, especially in the light of a horrific year in 2016. He’s turned himself around and made himself into one of the best pitchers in the AL, despite not changing all too much about himself as a pitcher. Here’s hoping that tonight is his signature performance in an already amazing year.

Still Cause for Concern

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

A little over a month ago, I wrote that things were looking bleak for (then) closer Aroldis Chapman. Since then, things haven’t exactly gone well. He’s lost that closer’s spot and, like he has for most of the season, he just hasn’t looked quite right at all. The return to normalcy for Chapman just hasn’t happened (yet?) and it’s still somewhat baffling as to why.

His fluky high swing and contact numbers are still fluky high and haven’t really corrected themselves. What stands out here is that Chapman is generating fewer swings but batters are making more contact than they ever have against him. For the second year in a row, well over half of his pitches (around 54% both times) have been in the zone. Previously, he sat around just 48-49% in the zone. With a pitcher like Chapman, who has incredible stuff, you’d assume living in the zone wouldn’t be too bad, especially since he had success last year. This year, though, as it seems to have been at every turn, that’s not the case.

Let’s take a look first at Chapman’s slider, a pitch he’s used slightly more often this year, though it’s had–for the first time–slightly negative value.

chapzone17sl

 

My first impression is that the slider isn’t getting as much bite as it used to. Ideally, a lefty throwing a slider wants the pitch down and away against lefties and bearing down and in against righties, which isn’t really happening. Those big red spots in the middle portions of the zone could hit at why Chapman’s slider hasn’t been as effective this year. Pitches in those areas, even sliders, are going to get hit. Last year’s heatmap for the slider shows a lot more action in that low, glove side zone where you want a slider as a lefty.

The slider location, though, is sill just one piece of the puzzle. Is there a mechanical issue? Is there a physical issue? Is there a confidence issue? It’s hard to tell this year. As Mike has pointed out frequently, moments of complete, Chapman-level dominance have been few and far between this year, and I can’t remember the last one offhand. I’m running out of ways to say this is all worrying so, I’ll just keep saying it that plainly: this is all worrying. Unless Chapman is hurt and not speaking up or is just supremely hungover from the World Series run with the Cubs last year, this is going to make the next four-plus years very difficult to watch. You never want to root for an injury, but at this point, we almost have to hope Chapman is at least a little hurt so this can have some sort of easy explanation.

But there’s the other easy explanation: maybe he’s just…done. Baseball is cruel enough sometimes that players–even ones as relatively young as Chapman–can just lose it in the blink of an eye. If that’s the case, Chapman and the Yankees are going to be walking in some dark woods together while this contract unfolds.

Chad Green and one of baseball’s most dominant fastballs

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees, thanks largely to young players like Aaron Judge and Luis Severino, have a chance to return to the postseason this year and a chance to win their first AL East title since 2012. Judge and Severino have been the headliners, though others like Gary Sanchez and Jordan Montgomery have been key contributors as well. The young kids are driving this bus.

Among those young players is 26-year-old right-hander Chad Green, who I suppose isn’t really that young by baseball standards, but is in his first full MLB season. He’s locked himself into a bullpen spot, and if not for the David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle trade, he’d be seeing much more high-leverage work. It’s a big time luxury to be able to use Green in the middle innings rather than saving him for the seventh or eighth.

So far this season Green has a 1.74 ERA (2.28 FIP) with 39.0% strikeouts and 7.0% walks in 46.2 innings, almost all out of the bullpen. (He did make one two-inning spot start.) He’s been as good as Dellin Betances was in 2014. Green relies heavily on his fastball like so many other relievers, though his fastball is not like most others. It’s unlike any other fastball, really. Check out the fastball swing-and-miss leaderboard. This is whiffs-per-swing, not whiffs-per-total fastballs thrown (min. 100 fastballs):

  1. Chad Green: 40.3%
  2. Justin Wilson: 38.7%
  3. Craig Kimbrel: 38.4%
  4. Dellin Betances: 37.3%
  5. Tyler Clippard: 35.8% (?!?)

Holy Yankees/ex-Yankees. Think they value the ability to generate swings and misses with the fastball? Of course they do. We’ve know that for a while now. The Yankees love their power arms. Anyway, the MLB average is 19.7% whiffs-per-swing on the fastball this year, and Green is the only pitcher in baseball to double that rate. The gap between him and Wilson, the guy he was traded for and the No. 2 pitcher on the list, is pretty significant.

The whiffs-per-swing rate is incredible and what makes it so interesting to me is the velocity. Green has very good velocity, though his fastball not an overpowering triple-digit heater like Betances’ or Kimbrel’s or Aroldis Chapman‘s. His fastball is averaging 95.7 mph this year and he’s topped out at 98.2 mph. Dellin’s average fastball is 98.4 mph this year. Kimbrel’s is 98.7 mph. Chapman’s is 100.1 mph. And yet, none get as many whiffs-per-swing as Green.

There is more to a fastball than velocity, of course. Location matters, as does spin rate. You want either a high spin rate or a low spin rate on a fastball. High spin equals swings and misses and low spin equals ground balls. When you’re in the middle, you get neither. Green’s fastball, as the whiffs-per-swing rate suggests, has one of the league’s highest spin rates. The 22nd highest among the 423 pitchers to throw 100+ fastballs this year.

  • Green’s fastball spin rate: 2,483 rpm
  • MLB average fastball spin rate: 2,258 rpm

One thing about Green we can’t quantify is the deception in his delivery, and I have no doubt that plays a role in his overall effectiveness and fastball dominance. He’s a big guy at 6-foot-3 and he lifts his leg up real high, and his arm action is pretty long in the back. There’s a lot going on before Green explodes forward and the hitter actually sees the ball. Good velocity plus good spin rate plus good deception equals a great fastball.

Also, the same way there’s more to a fastball than velocity, there’s more to a good fastball than swings and misses. If hitters are missing with 40% of their swings but squaring it up with the other 60%, how good is the fastball really? Not very. (That’s Clippard’s fastball, apparently.) According to expected wOBA (xwOBA), which is based on exit velocity and launch angle and things like that, hitters don’t do much damage even when they make contact with Green’s fastball. The fastball xwOBA leaderboard:

  1. Anthony Swarzak: .198 xwOBA
  2. Chad Green: .219 xwOBA
  3. Sean Doolittle: .219 xwOBA
  4. Seung-Hwan Oh: .227 xwOBA
  5. Tommy Kahnle: .228 xwOBA

Man, what in the world has gotten into Anthony Swarzak this year? Whatever got into Kahnle, I guess. Anyway, a .219 wOBA is “pitcher hitting” territory. The worst hitter with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, Alcides Escobar, has a .235 wOBA this year. Green’s fastball turns everyone into a worse version of Escobar, and boy does Escobar stink.

One thing I should note is that Green’s fastball didn’t suddenly get good this year. Most guys see their fastball tick up once they shift to relief, though that’s not necessarily what happened here. Green’s fastball showed similar traits last season, when he worked primarily as a starter:

  • 2016 average velocity: 95.4 mph (95.7 mph in 2017)
  • 2016 max velocity: 99.2 mph (98.2 mph in 2017)
  • 2016 whiffs-per-swing: 30.6% (40.3% in 2017)
  • 2016 spin rate: 2,471 rpm (2,483 in 2017)

Velocity and spin rate are similar — max velocity is down, weirdly enough — while the whiffs-per-swing rate was much lower last year, as a starter. It was still comfortably above-average, but not as good as this year. Also, last season’s Green’s fastball had a .346 xwOBA, which was almost exactly league average (.347 xwOBA). Not bad, not great, just … average.

I think the big improvements in whiffs-per-swing rate and xwOBA this year are entirely the result of the move into relief. The velocities and spin rates may be similar, but hitters aren’t seeing Green multiple times this year. He’s not turning a lineup over. He’s coming in for an inning or two at a time, airing it out, then leaving the game before the lineup turns over. There’s no second (and third) time through the order penalty.

Green throws his fastball roughly 70% of the time this season and I think he could even stand to throw it more, especially as a full-time reliever. He can’t thrown only fastballs, eventually hitters will catch on, but could he get away with, say, 80% fastballs? Maybe 85%? Green’s slider isn’t anything special. He dominates with his fastball. Either way, Green has found a home in the bullpen, where his elite fastball has made him into an overwhelming power reliever and a member of Joe Girardi‘s Circle of Trust™.

Sonny Gray and the move from Oakland Coliseum to Yankee Stadium

(@Yankees)
(@Yankees)

Later tonight right-hander Sonny Gray will make his first start with the Yankees after coming over from the Athletics prior to Monday’s trade deadline. He’ll face the same Indians team he held scoreless over six innings just three weeks ago. I’m sure Gray will feel some “first start with his new team” butterflies and all that, but one start is just one start. As long there are (many) more good starts than bad starts, the Yankees will be happy.

Gray is making the move from Oakland Coliseum to Yankee Stadium, which is going from one extreme on the ballpark spectrum to the other. Oakland Coliseum is pitcher friendly thanks to the spacious outfield, the tall outfield walls, and all that foul territory. Yankee Stadium is pretty much the exact opposite. Short porch, not much foul territory, so on and so forth. Gray’s moving from a big time pitcher’s park to a big time hitter’s park.

So far Gray has made just one career start at Yankee Stadium, back in 2015 when the held the Yankees to three runs in seven innings. If you’re using that to forecast how Gray will perform going forward, stop. It’s meaningless. It’s one start. One start against a lineup …

sonny-gray-lineup

… Gray will never face again. That one start tells us nothing useful. There’s not a pitcher alive who wouldn’t see their numbers get worse moving from Oakland Coliseum to Yankee Stadium. They are very different ballparks and very different run-scoring environments. You have to adjust your expectations accordingly knowing how hitter friendly Yankee Stadium can be.

Now, that all said, there are reasons to believe Gray is built to succeed in Yankee Stadium. First and foremost, Gray is a ground ball pitcher, and the next ground ball I see hit over the short porch will be the first. Among the 99 pitchers who have thrown at least 90 innings this year, Grays ranks seventh with a 56.7% ground ball rate. Since the start of the 2014 season, he’s fifth with a 54.6% ground ball rate. Ground balls are good.

Get that many ground balls over that long a period of time and it’s not a fluke. What makes Gray’s consistently above-average ground ball rate impressive is that he doesn’t do it with one pitch. Many great ground ball pitchers have that heavy sinker they use to pound the bottom of the zone. Gray gets ground balls with multiple pitches. Here are his 2017 numbers:

  • Four-Seam Fastball: 63.3% grounders (37.8% league average)
  • Two-Seam Fastball: 62.1% grounders (51.5% league average)
  • Slider: 51.4% grounders (44.8% league average)
  • Changeup: 45.5% grounders (49.5% league average)
  • Curveball: 32.1% grounders (47.7% league average)

The two fastballs and the slider have been comfortably above-average ground ball pitches. The changeup, his least used offering (6.5% in 2017), is a tick below-average. The curveball has been well-below-average at getting ground balls this season, though that’s an outlier. Gray’s curveball had a 46.5% ground ball rate last year. It was 52.3% the year before that and 53.5% the year before that.

Even if Gray’s curveball is permanently broken as a ground ball pitch — batters have put his curveball in play only 25 times this season, so I’m betting it’s sample size noise — he still takes three above-average ground ball pitches to the mound on any given day, plus a fourth that is average-ish. He’s not someone who, when he needs a ground ball, has to throw his two-seamer. Or has to throw his slider. He has more than one option.

Secondly, Gray is really good against left-handed batters. A righty who can’t keep lefties in check is going to have a really hard time in the Bronx. His numbers against lefties:

BF AVG/OBP/SLG wOBA K% BB% GB% HR/9 Hard%
2014 489 .219/.300/.339 .289 20.7% 9.6% 58.0% 0.76 25.2%
2015 425 .208/.275/.303 .260 21.9% 8.0% 56.3% 0.68 26.7%
2016 256 .280/.329/.427 .325 19.1% 6.3% 51.6% 0.91 28.6%
2017 191 .220/.277/.335 .269 23.0% 7.3% 57.4% 0.58 26.3%

Gray was injured and bad all around last season, against both righties and lefties. When healthy from 2014-15 and in 2017, he’s been very good against left-handed batters, especially at keeping the ball on the ground and limiting hard contact. (The MLB average is a 32.1% hard contact rate.) Preventing lefties from getting the ball airborne is imperative in Yankee Stadium.

As you’d expect, Gray uses his slider more against righties and his changeup more against lefties, otherwise his fastball and curveball usage is the same against all hitters. That curveball is the difference-maker. It’s a high-quality pitch Gray can throw for strikes or bury in the dirt for swings and misses, and he throws it at any time. Many starters are fastball-breaking ball against same-side hitters and fastball-changeup against guys on the other side of the plate. Gray is fastball-cuveball-slider against righties and fastball-curveball-changeup against lefties.

Another reason Gray won’t suffer too much from the move from the Oakland Coliseum to Yankee Stadium? He doesn’t rely on pop-ups. There’s sooo much foul territory in Oakland. Balls that land behind the dugouts in many ballparks are caught for outs at the Coliseum. Those cheap outs have allowed dudes like Tommy Milone and Jesse Chavez to function as viable starters for the A’s, but nowhere else. Here is Gray’s pop-up spray chart overlaid on Yankee Stadium, via Baseball Savant:

sonny-gray-pop-ups

That covers 2014-17, so that’s 641 innings worth of pop-ups there. You can count on one hand the number that were outs at Oakland Coliseum but would have been in the seats elsewhere. Will Gray lose some easy foul pop-up outs given the smaller foul territory at Yankee Stadium? Of course. But he wasn’t relying on them for success anyway. He’s a ground ball/strikeout guy. Not a pop-up guy.

One last thing to keep in mind — and this is not ballpark specific — is the Yankees are a substantially better defensive team than the Athletics. Remember how much the A’s kicked the ball around during the two series with the Yankees? The A’s might be the worst defensive team in baseball this season.

A’s DRS: -50 (30th among all MLB teams)
A’s UZR: -42.0 (30th)
A’s Defensive Efficiency: 0.706 (14th)

Yankees DRS: -5 (16th)
Yankees UZR: +4.9 (11th)
Yankees Defensive Efficiency: 0.711 (6th)

Gray’s ability to get ground balls with multiple pitches and use those pitches to neutralize left-handed batters are why it appears he is well-suited for Yankee Stadium despite being a short (5-foot-10) right-handed pitcher. He’s very unique in that regard. Not many pitchers that size can get ground balls. That the Yankees are a far superior defensive team to the A’s is icing on the cake. More of those grounders will be turned into outs.

As far as pitching well in New York and the AL East, I’m not concerned about Gray at all. He has a lot of weapons and he’s extremely competitive. The only concern I have with Gray is his health. As long as his arm stays in one piece, I think he’s going to be very effective for the Yankees, and I don’t think it’ll take long for him to become a fan favorite. Moving from Oakland Coliseum to Yankee Stadium will hurt his performance because it would hurt anyone’s performance. Gray has the tools to minimize the ballpark related damage, however.