Same All-Star reliever but with minor concerns [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

For the last three years, I have essentially marked games as wins in my mind whenever Dellin Betances comes in. Sure, there have been a few blown saves here and there, but for the most part, the Yankees win when Dellin comes into the game whether they lead or are tied.

And it isn’t just his pure performance. He’s fun to watch, too. That nasty breaking pitch surely haunts the dreams of every hitter in the AL East and sends Yankee fans home happy. That’s even before you get to his fastball.

What does Betances — who turns 29 on Thursday — have in store for 2017? Let’s take a look.

All-Star stuff with some concern

Betances, when he gets to utilize his stuff to the best of his ability, is unhittable and it’s memorizing. He walks a few too many batters (3.5 per 9 career and in 2016) and his hits rose to 6.7 per 9 last year, but his pure stuff is still beautiful.

His fastball averaged 98.42 mph in 2016, which is just silly good. It doesn’t hurt that he has an above-average 2509 RPM spin rate. It’s surprising considering his September struggles, but his velocity actually jumped higher from August to September. Same for his curveball. When Betances really needs to hit another gear, he can. That 100 mph strikeout of Miguel Cabrera from 2014 is perhaps the best example. Or perhaps the 2016 All-Star Game.

And then there’s his curveball. It’s genuinely my favorite pitch going these days with all respect to Andrew Miller‘s slider. It sits in the mid-80s and just falls off the table. Even the best hitters in baseball — like Giancarlo Stanton — have zero idea what to do with it.

As he displayed in the WBC this spring, he’s among the best relievers in the game when he’s on. The Yankees’ AL East rivals know this all too well.

He throws his four-seamer (39.3) and his curve (55.3) about 95 percent of the time, occasionally mixing in a cutter. His curveball remained a behemoth in 2016, holding batters to a .371 OPS (14 wRC+) and accounting for 103 of his 124 strikeouts.

Hitters actually got to his fastball pretty well last year. They batted .350/.447/.563 (184 wRC+) against it, a mark much higher than previous years (124 wRC+ against in 2015 and 95 in 2014). He peaked as a pitcher in 2014 (his -21 wRC+ against for the curveball says more than enough), but the trend with his fastball is a bit concerning. It began in the later months of 2015 and continued throughout 2016. Luckily, he still has a dynamite curveball, yet it’s worth monitoring how hitters do against Betances’ normally overwhelming velocity in 2017.

One quick aside: If you want to see how dominant Betances can truly be, check out the ISO power against him, especially right-handed batters. On pitches on the inner third of the plate, righties literally had a .000 ISO. All singles and outs. Here’s the chart via Baseball Savant.

dellin-betances-1

Workload

If there’s one chief concern for Betances, it’s his workload. In his three full big league seasons, he’s pitched in at least 70 games and thrown at least 73 innings. His innings have decreased year-by-year (90 to 84 to 73) and his ERA has increased year over year, including more than doubling from 2015 to 2016 (1.50 to 3.08). There have certainly been times when Betances, cursed in part by his own success, has been overused as the Yankees try to sneak out close victories.

There is no better example than this past September. After Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller were dealt at the trade deadline, the closer role fell to Betances, a role which he is more than capable of filling. He may be more valuable as the stopper in the 7th and 8th innings, yet I think there are few people (maybe outside the front office) that believe Betances can handle the 9th. He surely has the stuff.

But the Yankees were in the midst of a playoff chase and they needed to hand him the ball as much as possible with plenty of save chances. Therefore, Joe Girardi used him on three straight days twice within an 11-day span. It started out just fine but ended with two straight losses, one because he couldn’t field the ball and the other simply because he was exhausted. That five-run ninth in Boston essentially finished the Yankees and also showed that Betances needed a rest. For the month, hitters were getting to not only his fastball but also hit curveball.

With Chapman’s return, Betances is obviously back in the middle innings, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to get much of a reprieve from important spots. He consistently comes in during the highest leverage situations, sometimes for more than one inning, and now has 217 games in the last three seasons in his recent past. Hopefully, Tyler Clippard, Adam Warren and the rest of the ‘pen will be able to handle some big innings because the big man needs a rest.

World Baseball Classic

Wasn’t it fun to watch Betances pitch in the WBC? He seemed to really enjoy himself while dominating hitters during the tournament. It was even better than when he takes down a set of National League All-Stars in the Midsummer Classic.

He threw five innings for the Dominican Republic, giving up six baserunners while striking out five batters. Basically normal Dellin. If you add in his two innings with the Yankees earlier in the spring, he’s only thrown two more innings than Aroldis Chapman and is just as ready for the season. Perhaps more?

This is just to say that the WBC doesn’t seem to have hurt Betances going into April and may even have him more prepared for opening day. Maybe have high-ish leverage innings earlier will benefit him early in the season but help wear him down later in the season. It remains to be seen.

Contract welp and minor flaws

Things really got ugly between Betances and the Yankees front office after his arbitration hearing in February. Randy Levine made some really boneheaded comments about Betances in an unnecessary conference call and created some significant tension between Betances and the club. That shouldn’t affect his performance on the field — baseball is a business after all — but it may make Betances think twice before re-signing long-term.

As for the arbitration hearing itself, the Yankees brought up Betances’ struggles fielding the ball and holding runners. These are legitimate issues for the big righty. He’s allowed extra runs to score because he’s been unable to throw the ball to the bases or prevent runners from stealing. Even Gary Sanchez with his laser from behind the plate was unable to throw out runners with Betances’ deliberate delivery.

Good news is that Betances is working on his flaws. He made a basic fielding play during the WBC (nothing major) and Sanchez did throw out a runner during one of Dellin’s early spring outings. If Betances could improve on those two flaws, it’d make him that much more dominant, both at preventing runners from getting on base and then from scoring.

He may not throw 105 mph, but Betances is pretty much everything you want in a reliever. High velocity, killer breaking pitch and general fantastic performance. The guy literally struck out over 15 batters per nine innings last season. However, he may not be quite as good as his out-of-this-world 2014-15 in 2017 and there are reasons to doubt him after a lesser 2016. Still, expect Betances to be an essential part of the Yankees’ bullpen in this season.

One more year of #TANAK [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

With pitchers these days, there are no givens. One day, you may have an ace. The next, a player you’re paying for the next 12-18 months is rehabbing an elbow tear with uncertainty as to whether he’ll ever be the same.

The closest thing the Yankees have to a sure thing in their starting rotation is Masahiro Tanaka. Even he comes with the giant caveat of a partial tear of the all-important UCL, but beggars in the pitching market can ill-afford to be choosers. Every five days, #TANAK inches you closer to your TV screen or forces you to pay that much more attention in your seat. He’s the closest thing we’ve seen this side of CC Sabathia‘s latest extension to an ace.

So what does the 28-year-old starter from Japan have in store for 2017? Let’s take a look, shall we?

200 inning plateau

It’s tough to define aces by an exact ERA, FIP or strikeout rate. However, with big-time starting pitchers, there’s always been a sort of mystical question as to whether they can handle 200 innings in a time when elbow injuries are so prevalent. To this point, the answer for Tanaka has been no but barely. See, he threw exactly 199 2/3 innings last season. That is literally as close as you can get to 200 without actually, you know, getting there.

What prevented him from hitting that arbitrary landmark was a flexor mass strain in his right elbow. He likely would have pitched in the Yankees’ Game 162 if they were still in the postseason chase, but those hopes had evaporated days earlier. The Yankees would obviously like to see Tanaka get through a full season, but 31 starts last year was certainly a welcome sign after 44 over his first two years.

In terms of reaching 200 innings next year, Tanaka is easily the most likely among the Yankees’ starters. He goes deeper into games (6.44 innings per start) than any of their other pitchers and the others are either on innings limits, haven’t thrown full MLB seasons before, or are veterans with injury concerns of their own. Days when Tanaka pitches are the best ones for the bullpen because he can usually hand the ball right to the elite back-end relievers.

We all know he’s dealing with a partial tear in his UCL, so his elbow is always a concern here. Projections are mixed for Tanaka. Steamer has him throwing 205 innings over 32 starts while ZIPS has him at 165 2/3 innings over 27 starts. PECOTA has just 176 1/3 innings and an unseemly 4.18 ERA. Truly all over the place.

A true No. 1?

Tanaka does what you want for a pitcher: He strikes batters out, avoids walks and pitches efficiently deep into games. The question above is so hard to pin down. As far as performance, he’s been a No. 1 starter for the Yankees, particularly last season. He won his last seven decisions. He had a 4.58 K-to-BB ratio. A 3.07 ERA (3.51 FIP) in basically 200 innings and kept the Yankees in essentially every game he started.

One of his big concerns after 2015 was his home run rate. That fell in 2016, going from 16.9 percent of fly balls turning into homers to just 12 percent. His ground ball rate reached a career-high 48.2 percent. His line drive percentage fell as well.

One concern is his decreasing strikeout rate. I’ll get into his stuff below, but his pure strikeout rate has decreased each year from 26 percent in 2014 to 20.5 percent in 2016 while his walk rate slightly increased from 3.9 to 4.4 percent. He’s still pretty solid with his control, but it’s something to look out for next year.

Lastly, he’s looked pretty darn good this spring. It doesn’t mean all that much. However, it’s a great sign. Take his start from last week: four perfect innings with seven strikeouts. That’s ace-type performance. Grapefruit League competition has taken a hit with the WBC going on and that Tigers lineup he faced was no exception. Still, it’s worth hoping that his early success can roll over into Opening Day in Tampa.

Repertoire

At the end of 2016, Tanaka’s fastball and sinker were at a career-low in terms of average velocity with his four-seamer averaging 91.11 mph. His fastball lost velocity as the year progressed and have also lost velocity year over year. Take, for instance, his average velocity on his pitches each of the last three years via Brooks Baseball.

tanaka-mph

Tanaka legitimately has six pitches that he throws at least five percent of the time. He relies most heavily on his sinker, splitter and slider, in that order last season. His sinker rose significantly in usage with his four-seamer and cutter seeing decreases. Perhaps that is because of the velocity decrease and him needing to keep hitters off balance. That increased sinker usage also helps explain his increase in groundball percentage last season.

Tanaka’s sinker and splitter were his most effective last season, eliciting the lowest ISO power against and some of his lowest batting averages against. His splitter and his less-used slider provide the most whiffs per swing.

Contract Question

Everyone knows about Tanaka’s opt-out. That was the price to pay for Tanaka in order to entice him away from the Cubs in 2014 and now the proverbial chickens will come home to roost in a little more than seven months. As with the rest of the veterans in the rotation, Tanaka can be a free agent at the end of this season.

The question of whether he opts out is a complicated one. Tanaka, 29 in November, would theoretically be in the prime position to cash in with a free agent market starved for proven pitchers. The problem is his elbow. Anyone who signs him would get a chance to look at his UCL and that might be something Tanaka chooses to avoid. Maybe his elbow gives out this season and this is all moot.

However, if Tanaka pitches well this season and perhaps even clears the 200-inning hurdle, there are many, many dollars telling him and agent Casey Close he should opt out. In the case he opts out, the Yankees face the choice of paying top dollar for a pitcher with a potentially serious elbow injury in the near future (the team knows better than anyone outside of Tanaka what his elbow looks like) or letting go their No. 1 starter. These days, most pitchers face some sort of arm injury in their future, but whether Tanaka is worth the risk is a tricky question.

For now, it’s one more year to enjoy the Yankees’ top starting pitcher.

Adam Warren’s bullpen success will work against him in the rotation competition

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Grapefruit League season is less than one week old now, though the competition for the fourth and fifth starter’s spots is already well underway. Four of the five candidates (Luis Cessa, Bryan Mitchell, Luis Severino, Adam Warren) have already pitched in an exhibition game, and the other, Chad Green, will get the ball later today. There’s still five weeks left in camp to sort this competition out.

Warren, 29, has by far the most big league experience among the five rotation candidates. He’s thrown more MLB innings (354.2) than the other four guys combined (315), and he’s had more success too. A 3.63 ERA (3.96 FIP) and +4.5 bWAR in 354.2 innings is nothing to gloss over. The problem? The vast majority of Warren’s big league time has come as a reliever, which works against him in the spring rotation competition.

“I have been around these coaches long enough that they know what I am capable of doing, what I can do in the rotation and in the bullpen,” said Warren to George King recently. “I was talking to Larry (Rothschild) the other day and he said it could hurt you (that’s you’ve had success) out of the bullpen and you are flexible. Maybe I can go out there and pitch good enough to make them put me in the rotation. I do know (bullpen success) is going to hurt me, but that is a good thing as well.”

Warren has had only one extended stint as a starter in the big leagues, with the Yankees in 2015. He threw 96 innings in 17 starts and had a 3.66 ERA (3.92 FIP). The Yankees moved him back to the bullpen when Ivan Nova returned from Tommy John surgery even though Warren a) had the lowest ERA among the team’s starters at the time, and b) had a 3.04 ERA in his previous nine starts. Not the best decision there, but what’s done is done.

That all said, the best time to try Warren in the rotation may already be in the rear-view mirror. The Yankees are going young, and while Warren is not old by any means, he does turn 30 in August and will be a free agent after next season. Cessa, Green, Mitchell, and Severino are all 25 or younger with long-term team control. At this point in time it makes the most sense for the Yankees to give the kids the chance to start before a veteran player.

Warren is a very useful super utility reliever — he’s basically the perfect fourth bullpen option behind Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, and Tyler Clippard — because he’s versatile and his arm is resilient. He bounces back well after pitching back-to-back days, throwing multiple inning, stuff like that. That’s really valuable with bullpens becoming so much more important. Warren would love to start and I understand why. Ultimately, it’s best for the Yankees to go with the kids.

Yankees smart to look at Niese as a reliever, but they should keep an open mind about starting

(Jennifer Stewart/Getty)
(Jennifer Stewart/Getty)

The Yankees made what will likely be their final free agent signing before Opening Day this weekend, inking veteran southpaw Jon Niese to a minor league contract. He pitched with a bad knee for much of last season and it showed in his numbers. A healthy Niese — he passed his physical yesterday, so he’s healthy — could be a nice little pickup. The minor league deal means there’s no risk anyway.

Niese, who is still only 30 and will spend the entire 2017 season at that age, has been a starting pitcher most of his career, though he’s also pitched in relief. The Mets used him out of the bullpen during the 2015 postseason, and last year the Pirates moved him into a relief role because he pitched so poorly as a starter they had no other choice. Point is, Niese has experience as a starter and reliever, and versatility is always appreciated.

The Yankees, however, are looking at Niese strictly as a bullpen option in Spring Training, Joe Girardi confirmed yesterday. Despite the wide open fourth and fifth starter spots, the veteran Niese isn’t a consideration for the rotation. That surprised me. Here’s what Girardi said, via George King:

“(The bullpen is) how we envision using him,’’ Girardi said. “He’s one of those guys, if he’s in the bullpen, he can do left on left or he can give you distance. As of right now, we aren’t looking at him as a starter. We have the five guys vying for the two spots. We would look at him more long and short.’’

On one hand, I’m glad the Yankees are sticking with the youth movement and prioritizing the young pitchers in the rotation race. On the other hand, why wouldn’t you at least see what Niese looks like in Spring Training games before ruling him out for a starting job? What if he comes out firing BBs with a healthy knee and forces the issue? No one thought Bartolo Colon would throw well in Spring Training 2011, then his first pitch was 95 mph.

Ultimately, Girardi’s words don’t matter that much. They don’t lock the Yankees into anything. If Niese comes out and looks fantastic in camp, the Yankees always have the option of re-evaluating things and looking at him as a starting pitcher. Plans change. For what it’s worth, Niese is willing to do whatever. “I’m here to pitch to the best of my ability and make the team … Whatever the role, I want to make the ballclub,” he said to King.

I’m excited to see the young pitchers this year — and let’s be realistic, all those guys will get chances this season, that’s the way the pitching cookie often crumbles — though I also think the Yankees should keep an open mind about using Niese as a starter. If he’s healthy, he could be pretty useful in that role given his ground ball tendencies. Also, he is only 30, so if he has success as a starter, the Yankees could look to keep him around in 2018 (and beyond?).

Furthermore, the young guys are all going to be on some sort of workload limit. I don’t know what the exact innings number will be — Luis Cessa let the kids with 147.1 innings in 2016 — but the number definitely exists. For all of them. The Yankees will have to monitor their workloads all summer, and not everyone will be able to follow the 2015 Luis Severino blueprint. Niese could help manage those workloads by making spot starts and whatnot.

My guess is Niese is going to be have to blow people away to get rotation duty at any point this year. If you’re expecting him and the kids to give you similar production, the kids should be the priority. And they will be with the Yankees. I’m pretty sure about that. I do think the Yankees should keep an open mind about Niese as a starter this year, but for now, looking at him as a bullpen option is an okay move. Development of the young arms is more important long-term.

Bryan Mitchell: Starter or reliever?

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

There are rarely real battles for important rosters spots in Yankees Spring Training. Sure, there’s usually a race for the utility infielder spot or the last spot in the bullpen, but we don’t often see a significant role up for grabs. However, from the outside looking in, it appears that the competition for the No. 4 and 5 spots in the rotation is an honest-to-goodness competition.

As Mike wrote last Wednesday, how that battle shapes up could very well shape the Yankees’ bullpen. After all, you have more than two guys fighting for just two spots. That brings me to Bryan Mitchell. Mitchell very likely would have played a larger role — initially in the bullpen — for the 2016 Yankees if he didn’t injure his toe towards the end of the camp. He ultimately made just five appearances, all starts coming in September. Now he could see himself on the outside looking in at a rotation spot to begin the year.

Mitchell in a lot of ways seems like an afterthought, but he’s a pitcher with some real talent. After all, pitchers with a mid-to-high 90s fastball and power curveball don’t grow on trees. (He has a third pitch but more on that later). While he has a 4.52 ERA in 65 2/3 big-league innings, he’s shown enough stuff and performance to make me believe he can be viable MLB pitcher. The question becomes: Is he a starter or a reliever?

Case for Mitchell the reliever

Mitchell, who will turn 26 on April 19, only really has one season with bullpen experience, that being his 2015 campaign, in which he split time between Triple A and the majors. In 29 2/3 innings, Mitchell struck out 29 batters but had an ugly 6.37 ERA. That doesn’t tell the whole story. Through Aug. 17, Mitchell had a 3.86 ERA over 21 innings (15 1/3 in relief) and had been effective, particularly in low-leverage multiple-inning outings.

His Aug. 11 game was his best. Coming into the 12th inning of a tied game on the road, Mitchell marched through the Indians order, struck out five, allowed two hits and two walks (one intentional) but worked himself out of trouble and kept Cleveland off the board. It was a gutsy performance by a rookie thrown into a tough situation.

And then it all fell apart his next appearance. Asked to make a spot start on Aug 17, Mitchell took a line drive from Eduardo Nunez off the face in the second inning. He somehow only missed 11 days, but his performance cratered afterward, allowing 12 runs in his last 10 appearances. He walked over a batter an inning and gave a glimpse of where his game can go wrong.

Still, though, Mitchell showed a lot before his broken nose. He can clearly give the team length, something they will need out of the bullpen with their current rotation, and he had cut down on his walks for the most part, something that has always been an issue for him. MLB.com gave his control a 40 grade prior to the 2015 season while ranking him 14th among Yankees prospects. However, they were pretty positive on his raw talent, saying he had “some of the best stuff” in the system and saying that he “should be able to carve up hitters” with his fastball and curveball.

That’s where the crux of the “Mitchell should be a reliever” argument lies. Both his fastball and curveball are plus pitches and he would be able to shorten his repertoire in the bullpen, cutting out his ineffective changeup. His fastball has hit 98 in the bullpen. If he can set hitters up with his fastball, his curveball can be a nice one-two punch as his out pitch.

It’s easy to make a lot of Adam Warren comparisons here, probably too easy. Warren is a definite success story for the Yankees while Mitchell hasn’t proven himself yet. For 2017, Mitchell would be more likely to emulate 2013 Warren than 2014-15 Warren. That means his value in relief is likely to be maximized by his ability to produce multiple quality innings rather than needing high leverage situations that Warren excelled in over the 2014-15 seasons. The Yankees seem to be taken care of at the moment in the backend of the ‘pen.

Case for Mitchell the starter

Why does Mitchell work in the rotation? Beyond a fastball that still sits in the mid-90s throughout his starts (dips to 94.6 third time through the order), Mitchell has developed his cutter as a more effective secondary pitch. He still uses his four-seamer 43 percent of the time, but he actually used his cutter more often than his curveball (24.7 to 21.4 percent) in 2016. His curveball was still his out-pitch, but Mitchell utilized his cutter as a swing-and-miss secondary pitch more often as the opposing lineup turned over.

The sample size is key to note: We have only 65 2/3 major league innings of data from Mitchell, about 55 percent as a starter and the rest as a reliever. His cutter, which was his best pitch by wRC+ against in 2016, showed improvement statistically from year over year in that sample, a sign that Mitchell might be more than just a two-pitch pitcher. However, it could easily be noise rather than a major breakthrough. We need to see a full season of him in the majors before you draw any real conclusions on his cutter.

If you tend to believe the 2016 number more than anything, Mitchell can be a viable back-end starter. He had two scoreless outings (with seven walks in 12 innings), two less than stellar starts and one quality start where he took the loss. The five games were against the Blue Jays (2x), Red Sox (2x) and Dodgers, so he had to face some stiff competition along the way.

Conclusion?

When I began this exercise, I thought Mitchell was best suited for relief. Part of that is definitely the Cleveland game from 2015 sticking in my mind. I still lean that way, but I’m certainly curious as to what he would do at the end of the rotation. Is his cutter a real solid weapon or is that reading too much into too few data points? Remains to be seen.

Make no mistake: Mitchell isn’t a future ace. Yet in all but the best of rotations, the No. 4 and 5 pitchers are going to have some major warts. For Mitchell, it’s his control. If he sticks as a starter, he’ll have to conquer the ability to throw strikes more consistently. Even if that doesn’t happen, Mitchell has the makings of a strong reliever who can help make up for the Yankees’ lack of length from their starters.

The mental side of Michael Pineda’s two-strike, two-out issues

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Aside from Dellin Betances, arguably no pitcher in the Yankees organization has better raw stuff than Michael Pineda. He sits in the mid-90s with his cutter even after shoulder surgery, and his slider is allergic to bats. Pineda ranked seventh among the 73 qualified starters with a 27.4% strikeout rate last season. He was fifth with a 10.61 K/9. That speaks to the sheer quality of his stuff.

And that’s a big reason why Pineda is so frustrating. His cutter/slider combination is so obviously excellent, yet the results don’t match. He’s more hittable than his stuff would lead you to believe. Shaky command definitely explains some of the disconnect between his stuff and results. A nasty slider is no good when you hang it right out over the plate, something Pineda did far too often last season.

There is also a mental component to pitching, and while I hate focusing on it — bad results means he’s stupid, right? (as if a clubhouse can be confused for a Mensa meeting) — it is definitely part of the game. Focus is important, especially for a pitcher when things start to go south. Pineda had some big time problems with two strikes and two outs last year, and at one point pitching coach Larry Rothschild said it was a matter of focus.

“I need to have better focus when I’m pitching. I need to finish after I get two outs. When I get two outs or two strikes, I need to finish,” said Pineda to George King earlier this week. “(Rothschild) always tells me, ‘You have a good fastball, a good slider and good changeup. You need to focus, especially with two outs.'”

Looking at Pineda’s career overall, his issues with two strikes and two outs are limited to last season. He had no such trouble in those situations in his previous big league seasons. Here are the numbers (Pineda didn’t pitch in MLB in 2012 or 2013 due to his shoulder surgery):

Two Strikes Two Outs
2011 .136/.203/.210 (59 OPS+) .233/.298/.316 (77 OPS+)
2014 .176/.200/.239 (73 OPS+) .176/.186/.318 (48 OPS+)
2015 .202/.244/.349 (86 OPS+) .227/.263/.362 (76 OPS+)
2016 .187/.246/.286 (104 OPS+) .325/.383/.598 (172 OPS+)
MLB AVG .176/.246/.276 (100 OPS+) .241/.319/.395 (100 OPS+)

OPS+ provides important context. Pineda held hitters to a .187/.246/.286 batting line with two strikes last year and wow that sounds great, except the league average was .176/.246/.276. A guy with Pineda’s slider should not be league average in two-strike counts. He should perform like, well, the 2011-15 versions of Pineda. That guy had no trouble with two strikes or two outs.

Now just because Pineda had no trouble with two strikes and two outs in the past does not necessarily mean last year’s issues were a fluke. Confidence is important, and if his confidence took a hit last season, it could still need to be rebuilt this year. Something like this could snowball pretty easily. Get two quick outs, then a bloop falls in, and all of a sudden it’s “here we go again.”

“It’s hard to look at the (stats) with the stuff he has. We continue to remind him to finish innings. Two-out runs seem harder to recover from than solo homers (earlier in the inning),” said Joe Girardi to King. Rothschild added Pineda “tried harder to do more” to close out innings.

I can definitely buy that. There were times last season when Pineda seemed to try so hard to execute a perfect two-strike pitch — rather than just focusing on making a quality pitch — that he messed up and hung it out over the plate. Not every pitch needs to be perfect, especially when the hitter is on the defensive with two strikes. How do you get Pineda out of that mode? Damned if I know. That’s up to Girardi, Rothschild, and Pineda to figure out.

Last season Pineda allowed 52 of his 98 runs with two outs, or 53%. That is completely and totally bonkers. The league average is 36%. Pineda with a league average number of two-outs runs allowed would have had a 3.99 ERA in 2016, not a 4.82 ERA. That’s a huge difference! We’re talking about getting that one last out here. Get the out and the threat is over. Its impact can be enormous.

Because Pineda’s problems with two outs and two strikes were limited to last season, I’m hopeful he can get over them going forward. That doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done on the mental side. Of course there is. This problem won’t fix itself. Getting over the hump is a win-win. The Yankees will get a more effective Pineda in 2017 and Pineda will put himself in a good position heading into free agency after the season.

The Yankees could follow the 2015 Luis Severino blueprint with James Kaprielian in 2017

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Luis Severino and James Kaprielian, two of the best young pitchers in the Yankees organization, are looking to rebuild value this season. Severino had big league success in 2015 before struggling big time as a starter in 2016. Kaprielian, meanwhile, was sidelined for most of the 2016 regular season by a pretty significant elbow issue. Both are talented and looking to rebound this summer.

When the Yankees selected Kaprielian with their first round pick two years ago, he was billed as a quick moving college starter who could possibly reach the big leagues late in 2016. It didn’t happen because of the elbow injury, but the Yankees brought him to Spring Training as a non-roster player last year, which was the first time in at least a decade they brought their first round pick to big league camp for his first pro season. They were eager to see him.

Severino, on the other hand, was the rare fast moving international amateur free agent. He went from the rookie Gulf Coast League to the big leagues in two calendar years. That’s pretty incredible. Were the Yankees perhaps overly aggressive with him? Yeah, I think that’s possible, but when Severino was blowing hitters away as thoroughly as he was, it’s tough to hold him back. And after he was called up in 2015, it sure looked like a smart move.

There is again talk Kaprielian, despite the injury, could reach MLB later this year. Obviously staying healthy is the primary goal. If he only makes it to Triple-A this year, so be it. That’ll put him in position to help in 2018 and that’s perfectly fine. Staying healthy is priority No. 1 here. If Kaprielian does that, it’ll be a successful season regardless of whether he actually makes it to the Bronx at some point.

The Yankees surely are at least planning for the possibility of Kaprielian reaching MLB this year though, right? Of course they are. They consider just about everything, just like they did two years ago, when Severino was a potential  second half call-up candidate. The team put together a plan to make that happen, and if it came to fruition, great! If not, they’ll adjust. Thankfully it worked it out.

The 2015 Severino plan could apply to 2017 Kaprielian. What plan is that, you ask? As a young pitcher with a workload limit, the Yankees conserved Severino’s innings early in the season so they could turn him loose in the second half. Brian Cashman admitted that was the plan and I wrote an entire post about it. Here is Severino’s workload by level in 2015:

IP per Start Pitches per Start
Double-A 4.8 75.5
Triple-A 5.6 88.3
MLB 5.7 93.1

Severino had one disaster start in the big leagues (2.1 IP, 6 R) that is skewing the results a bit. Remove that start and he averaged six innings and 95.3 pitches per start in MLB in 2015. Point is, the Yankees started Severino slow and gradually increased his workload as the season progressed. That way he didn’t hit his workload limit in, say, early-September.

The Yankees could follow the same blueprint with Kaprielian this year. In fact, earlier this week Kaprielian told Jack Curry he anticipates being on an innings limit early in this season, though the team hasn’t told him their plans yet. Chances are they haven’t made a final decision. There are two benefits to this:

  1. Conserving innings so Kaprielian won’t hit his workload limit at an inopportune time later in the season, which we just discussed.
  2. Easing Kaprielian back into things after the elbow issue. He was healthy enough to pitch in the Arizona Fall League and that’s great, but he Yankees don’t want to push him too much, too soon.

We’ve seen plenty of clubs run into problems with their young starters in recent years. There’s the infamous Stephen Strasburg shutdown in 2012. Others have had starts skipped or been moved to the bullpen in September. That sort of thing. There really is no easy way to control workloads. It’s a headache. A necessary evil.

Conserving innings in the minors like the Yankees did with Severino in 2015 and could do again with Kaprielian in 2017 works because it happens in the minors. Limiting a starter to, say, five innings and 75 pitches each time out for two months doesn’t really work at the big league level. Not when you’re trying to win games. In Double-A though? Who cares. It’s about development.

The key difference between Severino then and Kaprielian now is the fact Severino opened the 2015 season at Double-A. Kaprielian will likely begin this coming season at High-A. I don’t think that’s a huge deal though. Maybe that means Kaprielian won’t make his MLB debut in August like Severino in 2015. The plan still works though. Limit his innings early — Kaprielian should carve up High-A ball, he might be there long — and turn him loose later.

Now that I think about it, it’s entirely possible the Yankees will use the 2015 Severino plan with several minor leaguers in 2017. I thought of Kaprielian first because he’s the organization’s top pitching prospect. But what about Chance Adams and Jordan Montgomery? They’ll be on some sort of workload limit this year too. Limiting their Triple-A innings in April and May potentially buys them more big league time in August and September.

Like it or not, workload limits are part of baseball now. Teams spend a lot of money on these kids — the Yankees gave Kaprielian a $2.65M bonus two years ago — and they want to protect their investments, and make sure they get as much out of them as possible. Keeping Kaprielian healthy this year is the top priority, but it is possible he will reach the big leagues, and if he does, the Yankees want to be ready. They don’t want to have to shut him down early.