How to handle Chris Sale’s dominance of the Yankees

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

On Thursday, the Yankees get their first crack at Boston Red Sox ace Chris Sale. However, there’s a fair amount of familiarity between Sale and the Yankees.

If you’re not familiar with the numbers, they’re gaudy, to say the least. In 53 1/3 innings against the Yankees, Sale has surrendered just 32 hits, 12 walks and 4 HBPs while striking out 61 batters and allowing just 13 runs (seven earned). That’s good for a 1.17 ERA and a WHIP of .820. Sale has the lowest ERA of any pitcher in MLB history with at least 50 innings against the Yankees (h/t to Katie).

Unfortunately for the Yankees and their fans, Sale is going to be tacking on a lot more innings to that total over the next three years. With team options, the Red Sox have Sale under contract through 2019 and there’s nothing saying they couldn’t bring him back on a longer contract when that’s up. We’re talking about a pitcher with five All-Star appearances in the five seasons he’s been a starter, and he hasn’t finished lower than sixth in the Cy Young voting. That’s a keeper.

So what does this mean for the Yankees? What can the Bombers do to counteract the way-too-early favorite for AL Cy Young? Here are a few things to know about facing Sale.

1. Lefties are practically useless against him: Sale is a beast but especially vs. lefties. He’s given up 114 home runs in his career and just eight were hit by left-handed batters. While RHBs have a .228/.283/.370 line against him, lefties are far worse at .202/.258/.268. No power and no average.

In his seven starts against the Yankees, Sale has faced few lefties. The Yankees started three against him in 2012 and in the six starts since, haven’t started more than two. Typically, it’s been the lefties you don’t take out of the lineup, the Robinson Canos of the world. You have to try and load up on the platoon advantage to neutralize Sale because his size and motion are so difficult to pick up for a LHB.

This is why you acquire Chris Carter and Matt Holliday. Not just for Sale of course. For any tough lefty. Sale, David Price, etc. Having a veteran with some savvy in the middle of the order can counteract Sale … as much as you truly can counteract Sale. When Sale took the mound vs. NYY last May, it led to a distinctive lineup with Aaron Hicks leading off, Brett Gardner batting seventh and no Jacoby Ellsbury. Sale threw a complete game, but the point still stands. Maximize your potential by platooning like crazy. You may see a lineup that goes something like this.

1. Aaron Hicks, CF
2. Chase Headley, 3B
3. Matt Holliday, DH
4. Starlin Castro, 2B
5. Aaron Judge, RF
6. Chris Carter, 1B
7. Brett Gardner, LF
8. Austin Romine, C
9. Ronald Torreyes, SS

You have to sit one of Gardner or Ellsbury for Hicks here and moving the one lefty outfielder down the card makes sense, too. Last season’s lineup shows Joe Girardi is willing to do just that. He’s done some interesting things like put Yangervis Solarte in the five-hole as well. The lineups this season with Ellsbury batting fourth and so on have looked pretty peculiar, so Thursday’s lineup may just blend in.

2. Headley is key to hitting Sale: Headley has been much maligned at times during his stint in pinstripes, but boy can he hit Sale. He has the third highest OPS off Sale of any batter with at least 10 plate appearances. In 14 PAs vs. the 6-foot-5 southpaw, Headley is 5-for-13 with two home runs, a double and a walk.

Sale even helped Headley get back to being himself last season. After a horrible April and early May, Headley got his second extra-base hit of 2016 off Sale with this home run.

Girardi has put Headley near the top of the lineup card with Sale on the mound, both in 2015 and 2016. His first homer off Sale came back in 2014 during an interleague series between the White Sox and Padres.

The point being, Headley is really important here. I’m not sure I expected to be saying that, but here we are. Headley has similar numbers off the person I would say is Sale’s most logical current comparable, Madison Bumgarner. He has three home runs and 10 hits in 36 at-bats off Mad Bum. Go figure.

Only three other Yankees have multiple hits off Sale: Carter, Castro and Hicks. Hicks is 4-for-12 with a double, Carter is 2-for-13 with a double and a homer, and Castro is 2-for-11. Unsurprisingly, Carter has struck out seven times vs. Sale. Ellsbury and Gardner are a combined 1-for-16 with two walks, a hit-by-pitch and nine strikeouts. Welp.

3. Time for the Baby Bombers: I’m unsure if the Yankees were trying to be cruel last May, but they had Gary Sanchez make his first MLB start as the DH facing Sale. You will no doubt be shocked to learn he went 0-for-4 with a strikeout.

However, this is where having a few young, dynamic, right-handed bats comes in handy. Sanchez may be hurt right now, but he’ll get more opportunities off Sale during the next few seasons. Sanchez, Judge and even Clint Frazier or Gleyber Torres can give the Yankees an element few teams have vs. Sale: An all-righty top of the lineup that can withstand him. They’ll surely have some troubles off him like Sanchez last May, but they’re NYY’s best shot. These guys will get plenty familiar with Sale over the next few years.

As for Greg Bird, it makes sense to bench him for Carter in terms of trying to win that day’s game. However, starting Bird vs. Sale would be interesting for the long-term. Giving him some at-bats against him now could give Bird a chance against him in future meetings, plus Bird has hit lefties well in his early MLB career.

4. If he wasn’t on the Red Sox/facing the Yankees, Sale would be a lot of fun to watch: Sale’s mesmerizing. His herky-jerky motion is not something you’d teach any kid and that may be part of what makes it so effective. It’s different and it’s been nearly impossible to hit. He’s a consistent Cy Young contender for a reason and despite a motion many in baseball would label a concern, he’s remained pretty healthy, making at least 29 starts in four of the last five seasons.

And he’s quite simply fun to watch. He strikes out guys with ease, averaging 227 strikeouts a year since he moved into the rotation. How many pitchers do you see make hitters look like this?

sale-strikeout-gif

Or make Sanchez look like this?

sale-strikeout-sanchez

The Yankees are going to have to contend with Sale for a while and we may as well enjoy the ride. Pedro Martinez had some dazzling performances against the Yankees in the late 90s/early 2000s and beating him was a joyous occasion. It’d be nice to have a pitcher-against-the-Yankees rivalry like that going again and Sale is a prime candidate to make that happen. And even when he inevitably adds a win or two to his record vs. the Bombers, you’ll still be able to see one of the best of this generation take the mound.

Poll: Finding a role for Chad Green

(Times Leader)
(Times Leader)

Eighteen games into the 2017 season, the surprise story for the Yankees has been their rotation. The five starters have a combined for a 4.05 ERA (4.00 FIP) in 104.1 innings, and they’ve been especially good over the last two weeks or so. Luis Severino looks like the 2015 version of himself, not the 2016 version, and rookie Jordan Montgomery has acquitted himself well. Masahiro Tanaka has been New York’s worst starter thus far, weirdly. That won’t last all season.

Beyond the current top five, the Yankees also have some pitching depth stashed away for emergencies. Adam Warren and Bryan Mitchell are in the bullpen and could be candidates to start at some point, if necessary. In Triple-A the Yankees have Chad Green and Luis Cessa, both of whom had stints in the rotation last season and handled themselves relatively well. Others like Daniel Camarena and Chance Adams could be options at some point too.

Early on the Yankees lined both Montgomery and Green up for the fifth starter’s spot simply to make sure they had two pitchers ready to go. They planned to wait until April 16th to use the fifth starter, but that didn’t happen. The Yankees decided to use their fifth starter, Montgomery, earlier to make sure everyone else in the rotation got an extra day of rest. I see no reason to regret that decision. The rotation has been pretty good lately.

While Montgomery has held down the fifth spot, Green has been sitting in the minors as a depth arm, taking the ball every fifth day. He has a 2.05 ERA (1.90 FIP) with 31.8% strikeouts and 4.6% walks in 22 innings spread across four outings. This is nothing new for him, of course. Last season Green threw 94.2 Triple-A innings with a 1.52 ERA (2.17 FIP) and great strikeout (27.4%) and walk (5.8%) rates. He dominates at that level.

What we don’t know is whether Green can dominate — or even pitch at the league average rate — at the MLB level. Green will turn 26 next month, so he’s not a young kid, and when you’ve got a pitcher that age throwing that well in Triple-A, you’d hate to waste those bullets, so to speak. Why let him manhandle the minors when he could help you win at the big league level, you know? The Yankees have three options with Green.

Keep him in Triple-A

There’s nothing wrong with stashing Green in Triple-A for the time being. It stinks for him because he wants to be in the big leagues, but it makes sense for the Yankees, who will inevitably need a sixth starter at some point. They’d surely like to have Green (and Cessa) all ready to go when time comes.

Also, keep in mind the single biggest reason Green is in Triple-A is his changeup, or lack thereof. He’s worked to add a changeup (or a splitter) throughout his pro career and hasn’t had much luck. Last season big league lefties hit .287/.351/.663 (.421 wOBA) against him because he had nothing to disrupt their timing. His Triple-A numbers are great, but until the Yankees see progress with his changeup, they might not want to call Green up. Keep him in Scranton and tell him to throw 30 changeups a start until he’s needed in the Bronx.

Put him in the MLB rotation

The Yankees did this for a while last season because they had no other choice, basically. They lost Nathan Eovaldi to injury and Ivan Nova was traded away, and they needed starters. Green had a 5.94 ERA (6.09 FIP) in eight starts and 36.1 innings. That’s terrible, but last year is last year and this year is this year. Green has some MLB experience now and could use that experience to have more success his second try at the show. Happens all the time.

The question with this option is who does Green replace? No one in the current big league rotation deserves to be demoted. I suppose you could argue Green should replace CC Sabathia. Sabathia will be 37 in July and he’s an impending free agent with no real long-term future in pinstripes. The Yankees might bring him back on perpetual one-year contracts Andy Pettitte style, but that’s far from a guarantee. Green, on the other hand, is 25 and could have a long-term role here. The Yankees are in the middle movement, right? Go with the kid!

That’s not going to happen, of course. Sabathia pitched well enough last year and has pitched well so far this year, and let’s not kid ourselves, his $25M salary buys him some rope. If Green were to join the rotation for any reason other than trade or injury, it would almost certainly come at the expense of Montgomery, the low man on the rotation totem pole.

Put him in the MLB bullpen

Tyler Clippard and all his fly balls still make me nervous, but how good has the bullpen been so far? They collectively have a 1.39 ERA (2.10 FIP) in 51.2 innings. Very nice. There’s always room for improvement though, and Green has a big fastball — he averaged 94.4 mph with his heater as a starter in 2016 — and a promising slider. Let him air it out in short relief and very good things may happen. (I predicted they will!)

Making room in the bullpen would be pretty easy. Jonathan Holder, who is very clearly a favorite of the Yankees, has managed to put ten men on base in 5.1 innings despite not walking anyone. Impressive. Sending him down to Triple-A to clear room for Green is an easy move. The Yankees could also send Mitchell to Triple-A to stretch him back out to start as well. That’s an option too.

Point is, Green chances of success as a starter aren’t great right now because he doesn’t have a changeup. He does have a great fastball though — hitters swung and missed at his fastball 16.2% of the time last year, which is nuts (that’s basically triple the MLB average) — not to mention a useful slider. Green truly has the potential to overpower hitters as a reliever, and there’s no such thing as having too many of those guys in your bullpen.

* * *

My guess is the Yankees will keep Green in Triple-A for the time being. Things with the pitching staff are going well right now and hey, why fix what isn’t broken? Eventually the Yankees will need another arm, and when they do, Green will be among the first considered. I want to know what you would do with Green, however. What’s the best course of action with this soon-to-be 26-year-old right-hander?

What should the Yankees do with Chad Green?
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Luis Severino is showing why the Yankees were smart to stick with him as a starter

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

The pitching line does not do Luis Severino justice. Last night he was charged with four runs in eight innings, though it was one run through six innings before the White Sox rallied for three runs in the seventh. Those three runs came after Pete Kozma booted what appeared to be an easy double play ball. At the very least, Kozma should have gotten one out. Instead, he got none.

Severino should not get a pass for allowing the three-run home run to Avisail Garcia because, my goodness, it was a horrible pitch. He left a cement mixer slider here:

luis-severino-avisail-garcia

Dude. You can’t leave a hanging slider there. Severino made a terrible pitch and he paid the price. That home run was basically the difference in the game. A 1-0 deficit in the late innings is a heck of a lot different than a 4-0 deficit.

That home run pitch to Garcia was also Severino’s only terrible pitch of the night, or at least that’s how it seemed. He struck out ten in eight innings and also generated ten ground ball outs. Severino faced 28 batters total and only five (five!) hit the ball out of the infield. He did a nice job holding down an admittedly weak White Sox lineup aside from the Garcia dinger.

Three starts into 2017, Severino has a mediocre 4.05 ERA in 20 innings, but the underlying stats are more important. In those 20 innings Severino has 27 strikeouts and only two walks, as well as a 50.0% ground ball rate. That’ll play, young man. Keep in mind this is the same pitcher who had an 18.8% strikeout rate and a 6.6% walk rate as a starter last year. Those numbers are 35.5% and 2.6% this year, respectively.

Now, I don’t think anyone expects Severino to maintain those strikeout and walk rates because basically no pitcher does that — Clayton Kershaw came close last season! (31.6 K% and 2.0 BB%) — but the fact he’s missing bats, limiting walks, and getting grounders early on is very encouraging. Severino really does look like a completely different pitcher. The guy we saw in 2016 is gone.

There are two big differences between the Severino we’ve seen so far this year and the Severino we saw last year. One, his changeup. He’s actually using it! He threw 12 changeups last night and eleven changeups in the start before that. (I’d tell you know many he threw in his first start if Trackman had, you know, recorded the data.) That’s on par with what he did in 2015. About a dozen changeup per game. Last year he lost confidence in the pitch and threw 12 total in his final four starts.

And two, his confidence. That’s not something we can quantify. It’s something we have to observe. Severino is throwing with conviction this year and he’s aggressively attacking hitters. He’s not nibbling and not shaking off the catcher. He’s getting the ball and throwing it. It’s almost like Severino has taken his reliever mentality from last season out to the mound as a starter this year. That’s how he looks. Like an amped up reliever as a starter.

Considering how bad Severino was as a starter last season and how great he was as a reliever, I totally understand why many folks wanted to keep him in the bullpen. I get it. I do. A kid struggles as a starter, shows lights out stuff in relief, and it’s tempting to just keep him there because hey, bullpens are important too. Why mess with success? Pair him with Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman and turn it into a six-inning game. Surely Adam Warren could be a competent fifth starter while Severino dominates in relief, right?

The Yankees never stopped believing in Severino as a starter though, and it certainly doesn’t hurt his case that the team is short on established arms under contractual control beyond this season. They need starters long-term and Severino, who turned only 23 in February, has by far the highest upside among the club’s young arms. Guys like Bryan Mitchell and Luis Cessa and Chad Green have shown promise, but not as much as Severino. Not close, really.

Three starts into the season, which is obviously a tiny little sample size, Severino looks like a very different pitcher than the guy we saw last year. He looks like the guy we saw in 2015. Better in some ways, really. This level of overall aggressive plus confidence in his changeup are two things that were desperately missing last year. Severino has gotten off to a great start this season and he’s justifying the club’s faith in him as a starting pitcher. Now it’s time to build on this start going forward.

The starting rotation has been a strength during the Yankees’ seven-game winning streak

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Five games into the 2017 season, everything that could go wrong with the Yankees was going wrong. Their young hitters were struggling, the rotation was providing neither bulk innings nor quality innings, and their greatest strength (Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman) was rendered moot because the rest of the team wasn’t doing its job. The Yankees lost four of their first five games and looked every bit as bad as their 1-4 record suggested.

Fast forward a week, and the Yankees are now riding a seven-game winning streak heading into tonight’s series opener against the rebuilding White Sox. This winning streak started with a late-inning comeback win over the Orioles last Sunday, the kind of game you can easily build a “turning point!” narrative around, and has continued with back-to-back three-game sweeps of the Rays and Cardinals.

Winning seven straight games requires a team effort. The Yankees have not been carried offensively by one player. There seems to be a new hero every night. Aaron Judge hit home runs in three straight games at one point. Aaron Hicks had a two-homer game last week. Last night Greg Bird snapped out of his slump and got in on the fun too. The bullpen has been great as well, even on days Betances and Chapman were unavailable.

One constant during this seven-game winning streak has been strong starting pitching, and given how things played out in those first five games of the season, I didn’t think we’d be able to consider the rotation a strength so soon. The starters have pitched well and they’ve also pitched deep into games, lightening the workload on the bullpen. Here’s the rotation game log for the winning streak:

Date & Opponent Starter IP H R ER BB K HR
April 9th @ Orioles CC Sabathia 6 6 3 2 4 3 0
April 10th vs. Rays Michael Pineda 7.2 2 1 1 0 11 1
April 12th vs. Rays Jordan Montgomery 4.2 5 3 2 2 7 1
April 13th vs. Rays Luis Severino 7 5 2 2 1 11 1
April 14th vs. Cardinals Masahiro Tanaka 6.1 5 3 3 2 5 1
April 15th vs. Cardinals CC Sabathia 7.1 3 1 1 1 6 1
April 16th vs. Cardinals Michael Pineda 7 6 2 2 1 6 1
Totals 46 32 15 13 11 49 6

That’s a seven-game stretch with a 2.54 ERA and a 4.45 K/BB ratio for the starters. They also have a 0.93 WHIP, if WHIP is your thing. Furthermore, the Yankees have gotten at least six innings from their starter in all but one of those seven games, with the only exception being Montgomery’s big league debut. Joe Girardi said he was on a pitch count — Montgomery threw 89 pitches that day after throwing no more than 77 pitches in Spring Training or the minors — plus a kid making his MLB debut tends to have a short leash.

Pineda has been the pitching star during his seven-game winning streak. He retired the first 20 batters he faced in the home opener last Monday, and last night he gave the Yankees another seven strong innings. In a way, last night’s game was more impressive. Pineda had everything working in the home opener, and when that happens, he’s untouchable. Last night he ran into some trouble early, including allowing a two-out run in the second inning, but he settled down and pitched deep into the game. And when Yadier Molina took him deep to start the seventh inning, Pineda shook it off and retired the next three batters without incident. There was no unraveling this time.

“I didn’t think his slider was as sharp as the other day, but he found a way to get through seven innings,” said Girardi after the game. “His stuff got better after the second inning. Fastball and changeup was good. He gave up the one run with two outs, but then he settled down after that and threw a good game. It’s important because you want him to keep building and get some momentum, because he had a hard time doing that last year.”

Amazingly enough, Tanaka has been the Yankees worst starting pitcher in the super early going this year. I didn’t expect to write that at any point this season. His three starts have gotten progressively better — at one point in his last start he retired 17 of 19 batters — but he still looks a little off. Tanaka’s location has not been nearly as good as it usually is so far this year, particularly with his fastball. Check it out, via Brooks Baseball:

masahiro-tanaka-fastball-location

You can click the image for a larger view, which is probably a good idea. Anyway, that is 2016 on the left and 2017 on the right, and we’re looking at Tanaka’s fastball location from the catcher’s point of view. Last year Tanaka lived down in the zone and to his arm side with his heater. This year he’s over the plate and up in the zone more often, and he’s paid dearly for some missed locations already.

Tanaka said all throughout Spring Training he wasn’t right mechanically and I don’t know about you, but I kinda brushed it off because he was dominating. Obviously that was a mistake. I know we’re conditioned to think “Tanaka isn’t pitching well oh no is his elbow hurt?” nowadays — isn’t it awful? man it’s awful — but there’s no reason to think he’s hurt. He’s throwing as hard as he usually does and he’s still going out there every fifth day. Sometimes pitchers fall out of whack mechanically and their location suffers. Tanaka is so darn good that I think it’s only a matter of time until he gets back on track. We saw signs of it in his last start.

Point is, when Tanaka is your worst starting pitcher, even for a 12-game stretch early in the season, that means you must be getting some pretty good work from your other starters. And the Yankees have. Sabathia has been awesome so far, Pineda’s last two outings were impressive, Montgomery showed some positive signs in his start, and Luis Severino has looked far better this year than he did any time as a starter last year. Severino’s improvement and development is incredibly important to the Yankees long-term. He’s part of the new young core.

For now, the starting pitchers are on a roll and have more or less carried the Yankees through this seven-game winning streak. We know it won’t last forever. At some point someone will have a dud start, or the Yankees will need a sixth starter, something like that. That’s baseball. The rotation was an easily identifiable weak spot coming into the season, though right now, there are indications this unit can be a strength, or at least not a glaring weakness.

Montgomery showed the Yankees just about everything they wanted to see in MLB debut

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the first time this season, the Yankees used their fifth starter Wednesday afternoon. It happened a little ahead of schedule too. The Yankees planned to wait until April 16th to use their fifth starter, but with Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia having to work harder than usual over the weekend, they decided to give them extra rest. That’s how Jordan Montgomery wound up making yesterday’s start.

Montgomery beat out the other fifth starter candidates in Spring Training — Montgomery was more of a long shot for the job at the start of camp — and he pitched well in his MLB debut. Not great, not awful. Three runs allowed (two earned) on five hits and two walks in 4.2 innings before hitting his pitch count. The third run scored courtesy of a Starlin Castro error while Bryan Mitchell was on the mound.

“I thought he did a pretty good job,” said Joe Girardi following yesterday’s game. “I didn’t think he had great command of his fastball today, but I thought he did a really good job of pitching out of some jams. They had a number of opportunities to score, and they just scored really in that first inning, in a sense. Very pleased with what he did.”

Girardi confirmed Montgomery will get another start in five days — that lines him up to pitch Monday’s series opener against the rebuilding White Sox — which sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s really not. The Yankees could have easily sent Montgomery back to Triple-A following yesterday’s game, called up an extra reliever — or an extra outfielder with Brett Gardner banged up — for the time being, then gone with Chad Green next time the fifth starter is needed.

I’m always inclined to grade a pitcher on a curve when he makes his first big league start because inevitably there are nerves involved. That said, I thought Montgomery did some things yesterday that were very encouraging and bode well going forward. Four things, specifically.

1. He pitched inside. All throughout baseball, pitching inside is becoming something of a lost art. I’m not saying pitchers should bean batters or anything like that, but command the inside corner of the plate and get the hitter to move his feet a bit. Don’t let him look out over the plate all game.

Montgomery pitched inside an awful lot yesterday, especially to right-handed batters. The home run he gave up to Rickie Weeks was a fastball that was supposed to be inside, but leaked back out over the plate. It happens. The new Trackman system has been hit or miss so far this season — the system recorded only 57 of Montgomery’s 89 pitches, so hit or miss is putting it nicely — and here’s what we have on Montgomery’s pitch locations against righties, via Baseball Savant:

jordan-montgomery-vs-rhbThere are a bunch of pitches missing there due to Trackman’s wonkiness, but Montgomery got in on righties with his fastball and also what the system is calling a slider. A few of them looked like cutters to me. Who knows? Whatever it was, it had a little bite to it and Montgomery threw it in on righties. He used it to fan Evan Longoria in the fifth inning:

jordan-montgomery-slider

That’s a nasty little pitch under the hands. The hitter can’t do anything with that other than foul it off. Point is, Montgomery did not hesitate to pitch righties inside — probably because he knows he needs to do that to be successful — with both a fastball and some sort of slider/cutter thing (slutter?). For a young guy making his first start, that’s impressive. Lots of times young kids will shy away from the inner half.

2. He got swings and misses. Last season in the minors Montgomery struck out 22.7% of the batters he faced, which is solid and nothing more. The year before he had a 24.1% strikeout rate. Chance Adams, for comparison, had a 29.1% strikeout rate last year. That’s more in line with what you’d expect to see from a legitimate big league pitching prospect.

Montgomery had no trouble missing bats Wednesday. Trackman says he recorded eleven swings and misses among the 57 pitches recorded, and during the YES game broadcast and postgame, both David Cone and Jack Curry said they counted 17 swings and misses out of Montgomery’s 89 total pitches. Remember how good Michael Pineda was Monday? He had 15 swings and misses out of 93 total pitches.

I wouldn’t count on Montgomery sustaining a 19.1% swing and miss rate because no one does that — Max Scherzer led all starters with a 15.3% whiff rate last year — but I think the tools are there to get strikeouts, specifically his slider and changeup. He used both pitches to get outs yesterday. Montgomery doesn’t have to be Scherzer when it comes to missing bats, but he can’t be a strict pitch-to-contact guy like a Twins pitcher either. Not in Yankee Stadium.

3. He kept his release point tight. If nothing else, Montgomery gives the hitter a very different look. He’s 6-foot-6 and he throws the ball right over the top, so it’s coming from an extreme downhill angle. The 57 pitches worth of Trackman data we have say Montgomery released the ball from, on average, seven feet above the base of the mound, which is pretty crazy. More importantly, the data shows he had a nice tight release point for all his pitches. From Brooks Baseball:

jordan-montgomery-release-points

That’s a thing of beauty. A lot of times you’ll see a pitcher drop down ever so slightly for his slider, or maybe vary his arm speed so much between his fastball and changeup that they have different release points, but not Montgomery. Not yesterday, at least. All his pitches come together to form a blob on the chart because he released them from the same spot. That adds deception and helps his pitches play up.

4. He pitched out of jams. Montgomery pitched in five separate innings yesterday and in only one, the second, did he set the side down in the order. The third and fifth innings were the most impressive to me even though Montgomery didn’t get a chance to finish the fifth because of his pitch count.

In the third the Rays put runners on first and second with one out on a single (Peter Bourjos) and a hit batsman (Kevin Kiermaier). Montgomery then struck out Longoria and Weeks to escape the jam. Then, in the fifth, he allowed a leadoff double to Steven Souza before rebounding to strike out Kiermaier and Longoria to end his afternoon. He made some pretty big pitches in sticky situations.

Jams are inevitable and with a young pitcher, especially one making his first career start, you kinda worry things will unravel. Montgomery has a reputation for being tough and unflappable on the mound, which serves him well in those spots. We saw it in Spring Training and we saw it again yesterday. It doesn’t mean he’ll pitch out of every jam. But it does show he won’t be overwhelmed.

* * *

The Yankees have plenty of fifth starter candidates — Green and Luis Cessa are waiting in Triple-A, most notably — so Montgomery is going to have to pitch well to remain in the rotation. All things considered, his first start went well, and he’ll get another chance to show he can do in five days. The Yankees are looking for help both now and for the future, and while acknowledging one start is just one start, I saw some encouraging signs from Montgomery during his MLB debut yesterday.

Jordan Montgomery’s big chance

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the first time this season, the Yankees have changed their pitching plans. Rather than wait until April 16th to use their fifth starter, Joe Girardi announced Jordan Montgomery will be called up to start Wednesday’s game, giving Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia an extra day to rest. They both worked hard in their starts over the weekend and the Yankees don’t want to push them too much, too soon.

The 24-year-old Montgomery will be making his MLB debut Wednesday after opening eyes in Spring Training. He wasn’t an unknown going into camp — at least not among the RAB faithful! — but he certainly wasn’t first in line for a rotation spot. Luis Severino, Bryan Mitchell, Luis Cessa, and Chad Green all made starts for the Yankees last year and were understandably considered the favorites.

Montgomery out-pitched all those guys in Spring Training, including Severino, who was named the fourth starter. He did enough to put himself in position for an early call-up — there’s a pretty good chance Montgomery would have been in the Opening Day rotation had the Yankees needed their fifth starter right out of the gate — and tomorrow afternoon he’ll make his first big league start. That’s exciting. And, needless to say, a huge opportunity for Montgomery, for a few reasons.

1. The Yankees need short-term rotation help. It will be Montgomery’s first MLB start! That’s always huge. Get a start, and you have a chance to impress and remain in the rotation. The Yankees can’t feel too comfortable with their current rotation situation, I imagine, and Montgomery has a chance to ease those concerns somewhat. The Yankees are the land of opportunity right now. They’re serious about this youth movement, so if you’re a young player and show you can help, they’ll make room for you. A job is there for the taking for Montgomery.

2. The Yankees need long-term rotation help too. This isn’t just about this season either. Michael Pineda and Sabathia will both become free agents after the season and Tanaka can opt-out too. None of the young guys have established themselves as long-term building blocks yet. I don’t think anyone expects Montgomery to be a top of the rotation starter or anything like that, but he has a chance to be a solid mid-rotation innings guy, and the Yankees will sign up for that right now. This is a chance to win a rotation spot now and for the next six years too.

3. The other guys are breathing down his neck. The rotation may be shaky right now, but the Yankees do have some depth. Severino is in the rotation and Mitchell is in the bullpen — so is Adam Warren, who could start if necessary — but Green and Cessa are waiting in Triple-A. Should Montgomery slip up at some point, the Yankees won’t hesitate to make a change. The fifth starter’s competition was never confined to Spring Training. It’s ongoing. Montgomery is getting the first chance to show what he can do as the fifth starter and he’ll have to pitch well to keep the job.

* * *

Last season Montgomery threw 152 total innings between Double-A and Triple-A, during which he had a 2.19 ERA (2.91 FIP). He spent three years in the rotation for a major college program, he throws five pitches and locates, and he hasn’t missed a start dating back to high school. Montgomery is as close to ready as a pitching prospect can get, and the Yankees won’t let a 40-man roster crunch stand in his way. There’s no sense in keeping him in Triple-A when he could help you at the MLB level, you know?

Tomorrow afternoon’s start is as much about the rotation going forward as it is giving Tanaka and Sabathia an extra day to rest. The Yankees are going with Montgomery over Cessa and Green (and Mitchell and Warren) because they think he’s is best able to help them win right now. It’s that simple. That chance to help the Yankees win now is also an opportunity for Montgomery to earn a rotation spot for the future. It’s something the other rotation candidates were unable to do last year.

Opening Week Overreaction: Tanaka’s First Start

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

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

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

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

tanaka-opening-day-velo

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

tanaka-2016-velo

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

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

tanaka-opening-day-pitch-selection

And compare it to 2016:

tanaka-2016-pitch-selection

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

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

What about his location?

(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)

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

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

tanaka-horizonal-movement

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

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

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