How much do the Yankees need to limit Jordan Montgomery’s workload anyway?

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

Last week the Yankees sent Jordan Montgomery down to Triple-A for one specific reason: to control his workload. Jon Morosi reported Montgomery would pitch on seven days rest going forward and have his innings capped within his starts. Five innings seems to be the organizational standard. It’s easier to manipulate a pitcher’s workload like that in Triple-A than MLB.

“We are going to shorten some outings down there just to cut back a little bit,” said Joe Girardi to George King last week, after Montgomery was sent down. “We do have somewhat of a concern that if he got over 180 innings, where he would be? There was no innings set, but the number was about 180 and the innings are always more stressful here.”

Plans change, of course. The Yankees lost both CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka to injuries last week, so they had to call Montgomery back up to fill out the rotation. The plan to control his workload had to be put on hold because the Yankees are fighting for a postseason spot and their pitchers keep getting hurt. Winning is the priority. Once Tanaka and Sabathia return, the Yankees will be in better position to cut back on Montgomery’s innings.

Here’s the thing though: how much do the Yankees really need to cut back on Montgomery’s workload? Obviously they know him better than we outsiders, so if they believe they need to take it easy on him the last few weeks of the season, I’m not going to doubt them. I’m more or less thinking out loud right now. Here are Montgomery’s innings totals over the years:

  • 2014: 107.2 innings (college and minors)
  • 2015: 134.1 innings (minors)
  • 2016: 152 innings (minors)
  • 2017: 126 innings and counting (minors and MLB)

Nice, steady progression. Montgomery is a very big and very durable guy — he’s never missed a start, not in high school or college or pro ball — and the Yankees want to keep it that way, so they’re not going to put him at risk of injury through overwork this year.

Now, that all said, let’s do the math here quick. Montgomery started Sunday night, in the 116th game of the season. If he were to start every fifth game from here on out, he’d make nine starts the rest of the season. If he were to average six innings in those nine starts, he’d finish the season at 180 innings on the nose, which is the cap the Yankees seem to have set for him. Convenient! A few things:

1. 180 innings is not a hard cap. The Yankees did not come out and say Montgomery will be limited to 180 innings this year. Girardi said there is “somewhat of a concern that if he got over 180 innings where he would be,” meaning would he be running on fumes and at risk of injury? I’m surprised Girardi threw out that 180 innings number, to be honest. The Yankees have steered clear of revealing workload limits the last few years because there’s nothing good that can come from it. Point is, things are going to be touch and go. The Yankees might want to get to Montgomery to 180 innings, but if he hits a wall at 160, he hits a wall at 160.

2. Averaging six innings per start isn’t easy. My little back of the envelope calculation has Montgomery getting to 180 innings by averaging six innings per start in his final nine starts of the season. Averaging six innings per start is hard! He’s averaging 5.50 innings per start now. Only ten times in 22 starts has Montgomery completed six full innings. The AL average is 5.58 innings per start. Sixty-five pitchers have made at least 20 starts this year and only 28 of them are averaging six innings per start. There’s some wiggle room in my little “six innings per start for nine starts” assumption.

3. What about the postseason, dummy? The Yankees have not played well the last few weeks overall, but they are still in postseason position and very much in the race. Heck, they’re still in the division race. It might not seem like it, but they are within striking distance (4.5 games back) with seven head-to-head games to go against the Red Sox. It’s doable. Unlikely, but doable. The Yankees have a lot to play for these final seven weeks.

Two things about the postseason and Montgomery’s workload. One, the Yankees have to actually get to the postseason before this is a problem. Can’t put the cart before the horse. If the Yankees need to max out Montgomery’s workload to get to the postseason and he’s not available for the playoffs, so be it. And two, I think the Yankees would take the reins off in October and let him pitch no matter what, as long as he’s still effective. Flags fly forever.

* *

On paper, it seems Montgomery’s workload might not be that big of an issue down the stretch. If the target is 180 innings, he figures to have innings to spare even if he starts every fifth game from here on out. The caveat here is that Montgomery might show signs of fatigue (i.e. ineffectiveness) before reaching 180 innings, and he might be completely unavailable for the postseason should the Yankees qualify. The Yankees will deal with that when the time comes.

As much as we and the Yankees are focused on the here and now, this is all about the future. Montgomery looks like a keeper and the Yankees want to keep him healthy and productive. Young mid-rotation starters are awfully valuable. Guys with Montgomery’s numbers will cost you about $15M a year in free agency. His health and workload will have to be monitored as we approach the end of the season, though right now, it’s entirely possible any restrictions might now be much of a factor after all.

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 Trustâ„¢.

Sabathia’s injury gives Yankees a chance to line up their best starters for the upcoming Red Sox series

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

This weekend the Yankees will play their most important series of the season (to date), as they’ll host the first place Red Sox for a three-game set at Yankee Stadium. At worst, the Yankees will be six games back in the AL East at the start of the series. At best they’ll be two games back. There’s still more than seven weeks to go in the regular season, but the remaining head-to-head games against Boston are more or less going to decide the division title.

The Red Sox have already announced that Chris Sale will start in every remaining series against the Yankees, which isn’t surprising. The Yankees are actually 2-0 when facing Sale this season. Masahiro Tanaka threw the shutout against Sale in April, then the Yankees won that long 16-inning marathon last month after Matt Holliday‘s game-tying home run against Craig Kimbrel in the ninth.

Anyway, here are the tentative pitching matchups for this weekend’s series against the Red Sox. Teams usually don’t make their starters official until the day before the start of a new series, though this is how it lines up at the moment:

That TBA was CC Sabathia, who left last night’s start with right knee pain and seems destined to land on the disabled list. Both Sabathia and Joe Girardi admitted there’s a lot of concern. Sabathia was in a lot of pain and his knee has been pretty messed up for a few years now. It’ll be surprise if he doesn’t wind up on the disabled list, really. Hopefully the upcoming tests bring good news.

As for the Red Sox series, noticeably absent from the pitching matchups are Tanaka and Sonny Gray. Tanaka is scheduled to start tonight and Gray tomorrow night, so they’ll miss the Red Sox series. Those two plus Severino are the Yankees’ three best starters at the moment. I don’t think anyone will disagree with me there. In the most important series of the season (to date), you want them on the mound.

The thing is, the Yankees could have easily lined up their rotation to ensure Tanaka and Gray (and Severino) would face the Red Sox this weekend. Yesterday’s off-day and last week’s six-man rotation would have made it possible with no headache at all. No one starting on short rest, no call-up spot sixth starter, nothing like that. Here’s how the Yankees could have lined the rotation up:

  • Tuesday @ Blue Jays: Tanaka on normal rest after Monday’s off-day
  • Wednesday @ Blue Jays: Sabathia on extra rest
  • Thursday @ Blue Jays: Garcia on normal rest after Monday’s off-day
  • Friday vs. Red Sox: Gray on extra rest
  • Saturday vs. Red Sox: Severino with an extra day of rest after Monday’s off-day
  • Sunday vs. Red Sox: Tanaka on normal rest

In a nutshell, the Yankees would have used Monday’s off-day to flip Tanaka and Sabathia, and Garcia and Gray. That would’ve lined up Gray, Severino, and Tanaka for the Red Sox series in that order. Instead, the Yankees are currently scheduled to start Garcia this weekend even though the Boston’s offense performs better against lefties (100 wRC+) than righties (92 wRC+).

The Sabathia injury changes things, assuming he’s unable to make his next start and doesn’t make a miraculous overnight recovery. The Yankees are going to have to plug someone into the rotation to take his spot. Jordan Montgomery is the obvious answer, but you know what? It might not be him. The Yankees could decide to keep him in Triple-A and continue on with his limited workload plan. Other rotation options include Bryan Mitchell, who pitched well in long relief last night, and either Luis Cessa or Caleb Smith. And I suppose Chance Adams, but I don’t see that happening.

Someone has to replace Sabathia, but that someone doesn’t necessarily have to start the same day Sabathia would have started. Sabathia’s replacement, whoever it is, could start tomorrow against the Blue Jays, which would push Gray back to Friday and into the Red Sox series. Mitchell and Smith pitched last night, which means Cessa and Montgomery are the only options for tomorrow’s start. (Adams doesn’t line up either.) Instead of Garcia-Severino-TBA this weekend it would be Gray-Garcia-Severino. Much better, I’d say.

One thing to keep in mind is these two teams will play again next weekend. Three games at Yankee Stadium this weekend and three games at Fenway Park next weekend, with four games against the Mets in-between. Whatever the Yankees do to the rotation this weekend will impact how things line up next weekend. For example:

Stay on turn Use spot starter tomorrow
Thursday at Blue Jays
Gray TBA
Friday vs. Red Sox
Garcia Gray
Saturday vs. Red Sox
Severino Garcia
Sunday vs. Red Sox TBA Severino
Mon. to Thurs. vs. Mets Tanaka-Gray-Garcia-Severino TBA-Tanaka-Gray-Garcia
Friday at Fenway Park TBA Severino
Saturday at Fenway Park Tanaka TBA
Sunday at Fenway Park Gray Tanaka

The column on the right looks much better, no? The Yankees would be getting two Severino starts against the Red Sox rather than two starts from whoever ends up being the TBA. There’s no way to line up Gray, Tanaka, and Severino for both Red Sox series with doing something really crazy like using multiple spot starters, and no. Just no. Two starts from Severino and one each from the other four guys is greatly preferable to two starts from TBA and one each from everyone else.

This is one of those things that makes too much sense not to happen. I hope it is. I was a bit surprised the Yankees didn’t flip-flop Sabathia and Tanaka this week — again, starting Tanaka last night and Sabathia tonight would have allowed Tanaka to face the Red Sox this weekend and next, rather than just next weekend — so who knows. Maybe the Yankees don’t care that much about optimizing their rotation for the two series against Boston and will remain on turn. I hope that’s not the case.

The Sabathia injury stinks. It really does. Sabathia looked genuinely upset and concerned about his future following the game last night, and that absolutely sucks. CC is forever cool in my book. The one thing the injury does is give the Yankees another chance to rearrange their rotation and make sure Gray faces the Red Sox this weekend, and Severino faces them this weekend and next. They had a chance to line up their ideal rotation with Monday’s off-day and didn’t take it. Now they get a second chance.

Sabathia going on the disabled list means either Montgomery or Cessa could come back up before spending the requisite ten days in the minors to make that spot start tomorrow, pushing Gray back. That’s how this is all made possible. The disabled list stint is needed to bypass the ten-day rule. The Yankees are four games back with 51 games to play, so they can’t afford to fall too much further behind Boston. The Yankees should do whatever they can to make sure their best pitchers start as many of those remaining ten head-to-head games against the Red Sox as possible.

The near inevitability of a six-man rotation in September

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

Last week, after acquiring Sonny Gray and Jaime Garcia at the trade deadline, the Yankees went with six starters for one turn through the rotation. That gave everyone a little extra rest, which I’m sure they all appreciated. It’s August and it’s hot, and the innings are starting to pile up. Any time you have a chance to give the starters a breather, you do it.

The Yankees sent Jordan Montgomery to Triple-A following Sunday’s game, which means the six-man rotation is no more. They said it was a one-time thing and they stuck to it. The Yankees are back to a five-man rotation for the foreseeable future. And I think it’s only temporary. Once September rolls around and rosters expand, I think it’s all but certain the Yankees will go to a full-time six man rotation. For two reasons, mostly.

1. The Yankees really value that extra rest. The overall league numbers say pitchers perform better with extra rest. Throughout MLB this season, pitchers have a 4.54 ERA (4.35 FIP) on normal rest. That drops to a 4.34 ERA (4.10 FIP) with an extra day of rest. That’s league-wide, however, and not every single pitcher responds well to short rest. For all the talk about Masahiro Tanaka pitching better with extra rest, it’s not really true:

Tanaka on normal rest (2017): 4.50 ERA and 3.55 FIP
Tanaka on extra rest (2017): 5.27 FIP and 4.97 FIP

Tanaka on normal rest (career): 3.53 ERA and 3.54 FIP
Tanaka on extra rest (career): 3.48 ERA and 3.89 FIP

At this point though, the “Tanaka pitches better with extra rest” myth has been repeated so much and for so long that I’ve given up hope people will realize it isn’t true. Score this a win for FAKE NEWS.

Anyway, forget about the numbers for a second. The Yankees have shown they value that extra day of rest with their actions. They’ve given their starters get that extra day whenever possible the last few seasons. There’s no reason to expect that will change now. And, really, it’s not about performance. It’s about health. Tanaka has a partially torn elbow ligament. CC Sabathia is 37 with a bad knee. Gray has had some injuries the last 18 months. Garcia’s injury history is ugly. That’s why they want to give them extra rest.

2. Montgomery and Severino are heading into uncharted workload territory. I’ve written about this already. The Yankees surely have some innings limit in mind for both guys — maybe that number is higher than you’d think given their career workloads to date, but the number exists — though that’s an overly simplistic way of looking at this. Long-term health is a concern, no doubt. But so is short-term effectiveness.

The Yankees are in the postseason race and they don’t want to run into a situation where Montgomery and especially Luis Severino hit a wall in September because they’re running out of gas. As young and as strong as these two guys are, neither has pitched a full MLB season yet. Pitching deep into September with more innings on your arm than ever before can be difficult. A six-man rotation and extra rest along the way would help mitigate the fatigue risk.

* * *

Using a six-man rotation now, with a 25-man roster, would be pretty difficult, which is why I think it’ll wait until rosters expand in September. Here’s what Joe Girardi told Randy Miller about a potential six-man rotation last week:

“In theory it sounds great, but now you (would) have six relievers and six starters,” Girardi said. “You get rid of one of your relievers that can give you distance, it puts you in a bind. If the commissioner would let me add another man on the roster and then you have 26, I’d really think about it … You’ve got to remember, too, that most pitchers are used to going on a five-man rotation. It might help one guy and screw up the other four. That’s a problem.”

Injuries and ineffectiveness have a way of changing plans in a hurry, but right now, I think the Yankees are planning to use a true six-man rotation once September rolls around and carrying an extra starting pitcher wouldn’t mean sacrificing a bench player or reliever.

As it stands, the Yankees have six big league caliber starting pitchers, and that’s really good. You’d rather than too many that not enough. The Yankees are going to use those six starters too. Montgomery might be in Triple-A now, but that’s only temporary. He’ll be back before you know it. Once rosters expand, using a six-man rotation makes an awful lot of sense given the physical and workload concerns in the rotation. It makes so much sense that I fully expect it to happen.

Jordan Montgomery was sent to Triple-A and that was the plan all along

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Following yesterday afternoon’s win the Yankees announced they’ve sent Jordan Montgomery down to Triple-A Scranton, which gets the team back to a normal five-man rotation. They haven’t announced who is coming up to replace him, but I’d bet on it being a boring eighth reliever. Maybe Bryan Mitchell so Adam Warren and Chad Green don’t have to throw mop-up innings? We’ll see.

The decision to send Montgomery down comes after a strong start against a very good Indians team. Montgomery held them to one run in five innings and needed only 65 pitches to do it. Joe Girardi pulled him because he said he felt it was time to go to his rested bullpen in a close game, so he did. And hey, it worked it. The bullpen put up zeroes for four innings and the Yankees won. They really needed that win.

Sending Montgomery down after such a strong performance tells us the Yankees planned to send him down all along. They used a six-man rotation last week to give everyone a little extra rest, but they don’t want to do it long-term, and Montgomery is the odd man out. He pitched well last time and Jaime Garcia didn’t, yet Garcia remains. Why? Because the Yankees don’t base decisions on one game or one start. I mean:

  • Montgomery since July 1st: 5.29 ERA (4.26 FIP) in seven starts and 34 innings
  • Garcia since July 1st: 4.88 ERA (2.47 FIP) in five starts and 31.1 innings

Montgomery was pretty terrible in July. He made six starts and could only get through five full innings three times. I assume that tough month was one reason the Yankees went out and got two starters at the trade deadline even though they only had one open rotation spot. Montgomery seemed to be hitting a bit of a rookie wall there. It’s okay. It happens.

Two things about this decision. One, it’s not permanent. Montgomery will be back soon enough. I’m guessing we’ll see him again before rosters expand on September 1st. Two, the Yankees need to keep Montgomery’s workload in check. (Luis Severino‘s too, and that’s why I think Montgomery will be back pretty soon.) Sending Montgomery to Triple-A makes it easier to space out his starts and cap him at five innings or whatever they want to do. Wins and losses don’t really matter down there.

Also, if you’re into such things, sending Montgomery down for at least ten days allows the Yankees to “buy” an extra year of control. Right now Montgomery is due to become a free agent at age 30 during the 2022-23 offseason. Ten days in the minors pushes that back to age 31 and the 2023-24 offseason. I don’t think that’s a big deal or motivation for the demotion at all. Buy the extra year for elite prospects. Everyone else isn’t worth the hassle.

Anyway, Montgomery was sent down and the Yankees will (presumably) give him a bit of a breather so he can be ready to help them down the stretch and into September. You know they’re going to need him. They were either going to have to find a way to keep him fresh and rested at the MLB level, which is hard to do, or they could do it in Triple-A. Garcia allows them to do it in Triple-A. There’s not much more to it than that.

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.

Checking on Aroldis Chapman’s fastball spin rate

(Rich Gagnon/Getty)
(Rich Gagnon/Getty)

Friday night the Yankees had a win ripped away when Aroldis Chapman failed to retire even one of the five batters he faced, and blew his third save in 12 opportunities. A few of the nine saves he did nail down were a bit dicey as well. Chapman rebounded with scoreless innings Saturday and Sunday, though so far this season, he has not been the overwhelming force the Yankees thought they signed.

The single biggest difference between Chapman this year and the Chapman of the past has been a decline in swings and misses. Chapman threw 56 total pitches in his three appearances in Boston and generated one (1) swing and miss. He’s gotten eleven swings and misses in his last eight appearances and 148 pitches, or 7.4%. His career swing and miss rate is 17.3%. This year it’s 12.5%. The MLB average is 10.4%. Something has gone awry here.

The first thing we all thing about with Chapman is fastball velocity, and so far this year his velocity has been fine. His fastball is averaging 100.0 mph on the nose and he’s topped out at 103.3 mph. Last year he averaged 101.1 mph and the year before it was 100.4 mph. And yet, look at the rate of misses he’s generating per swing with his fastball. This is whiffs-per-swing, not whiffs-per-total pitches:

  • 2015: 41.0% (18.5% league average)
  • 2016: 32.8% (18.8% league average)
  • 2017: 25.1% (19.7% league average)

That’s not great. The league average keeps creeping up each year while Chapman’s whiffs-per-swing rate with his fastball is dropping noticeably. He’s down nearly 40% from 2015. Chapman isn’t missing bats like he once did and he knows it. He doesn’t know why though. “Actually, that’s a good question. I’m going to go back and try to see footage and why because I honestly don’t know why,” he said to Brendan Kuty over the weekend when asked about the lack of whiffs.

Since Chapman’s swing and misses are down significantly, I figured it would be worthwhile to check out his fastball spin rate. For fastballs, a high spin rate correlates well to swing and misses and a low spin rate correlates well to ground balls. You don’t really want to be average. You want to be high or low. Here, with an assist from Baseball Savant, is Chapman’s fastball spin rate by month since Statcast became a thing back in 2015:

aroldis-chapman-fastball-spin-rate-2015-17

Let’s start with the obvious: Chapman’s spin far has been well-above-average since Opening Day 2015. His worst spin rate month, June 2015, was still nearly 10% better than the league average. Chapman has a very high fastball spin rate and he usually generates a ton of swings and misses. That’s not a coincidence.

Now, compared to last year, Chapman’s fastball spin rate is definitely down. It declined every month from September 2016 through June 2017 before ticking back up this month. A spin rate decline is bad! At the same time, his fastball spin rate has declined back to where it was for much of 2015, when hitters missed with more than 40% of the swings they took against Chapman’s fastball. Hmmm.

Even with the gradual decline this year, I don’t see a big red flag with Chapman’s fastball spin rate. I’d be really worried if it dropped lower than it had been at any point the last two seasons and change. His fastball spin rate is down from last year and right in line with 2015, and Chapman was great in 2015. He’s within range here. That’s a good thing. You want Chapman to be Chapman, right? Right.

So, with his spin rate looking okay, we’re still left wondering why Chapman’s swing and misses are down this year. Joe Girardi chalked it up to everyone throwing hard now and hitters being more comfortable against big velocity, which I suppose could be true, but Luis Severino hasn’t had any trouble getting hitters to swing through his upper-90s heat. Dellin Betances is still getting a ton of whiffs with his fastball. That doesn’t really pass the sniff test.

The way I see it, there are four possible explanations for Chapman’s relative lack of swings and misses this year. One, he’s in permanent decline. That’s always possible. Humans aren’t meant to throw this hard for this long. Two, it’s just a slump. Sometimes ground ball pitchers can’t get ground balls and sometimes strikeout pitchers can’t get strikeouts. It happens. Three, Chapman is still not all the way back from his shoulder injury. It took Andrew Miller about a month to get back to normal following his forearm issue in 2015, remember.

And four, Chapman is dealing with a World Series hangover. He threw a lot of intense innings last postseason — 15.2 innings across 13 appearances, to be exact — and because the Cubs went to Game Seven of the World Series, Chapman had a shorter offseason recover. Game Seven was November 2nd and pitchers and catchers reported on February 14th. That’s not much of a break at all.

I think (hope) Chapman is going through a World Series hangover this year. He’s wouldn’t be the only one. Basically the entire Cubs rotation is dealing with it. If it is a World Series hangover, hopefully Chapman gets a second wind soon, or is 100% good to go next year at the latest. This is year one of a five-year contract, after all. Getting this version of Chapman in year one is kinda scary.

Chapman’s swings and misses are undeniably down this year, though his fastball spin rate is within its usual range, so that’s not a huge issue. Something is off though. I don’t know what. Maybe it’s a slump, maybe it’s a World Series hangover, or maybe he really is in permanent decline. Considering Chapman is only 29 and is super athletic and well built, as long as he’s healthy, I think he’ll be fine. Eventually. I don’t know when, exactly.