Can Nick Rumbelow be the next Chase Whitley?

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees opened their season yesterday, and tomorrow night, the team’s four full season minor league affiliates will begin their seasons. That includes Triple-A Scranton, which will be the primary feeder team for the Yankees this summer. That’s where all the depth players are stashed. Starters, relievers, position players, all of ’em.

Thanks to the Bryan Mitchell injury and Luis Cessa opening the season in the big league bullpen, the RailRiders are a bit short on starters this year. Shane Hennigan reports Chad Green, who came over from the Tigers with Cessa in the Justin Wilson trade, will be on the mound for Triple-A Opening Day tomorrow. Later in the week Nick Rumbelow will get a Triple-A start.

Rumbelow, 23, is a reliever by trade. He made one start in three years at LSU, and all 100 of his minor league appearances have come out of the bullpen. Only twice has he thrown as many as three innings in an outing. Only five times has he actually turned a lineup over and faced ten or more batters. This isn’t just a spot start though. RailRiders manager Al Pedrique told Donnie Collins the team thinks Rumbelow has a chance to start.

Generally speaking, the best reliever-to-starter conversion candidates are guys with three pitches and some semblance of control. Rumbelow has a career 6.6% walk rate in the minors, which is an indication he can throw strikes, and both the scouting reports and PitchFX data confirm he has three pitches. Here are the numbers really quick (MLB averages in parentheses):

% Thrown Avg. Velo. GB% Whiff%
Fastball 57.6% 93.8 40.7% (37.9%) 6.9% (6.9%)
Changeup 29.7% 86.9 52.4% (47.8%) 19.5% (14.9%)
Curveball 12.7% 81.0 0.0% (48.7%) 2.9% (11.1%)

Remember, Rumbelow threw only 15.2 big league innings last season, so we’re not talking about a big sample size at all. This is more of a “this is what he threw last year” look rather than a “this is what you could expect going forward” look. The scouting report on Rumbelow said he was a fastball/curveball guy with a show-me changeup out of college, but over the last few years, the changeup has taken over as his second best pitch.

This at-bat from last September is one of those at-bats that just stuck with me because it really showed how much Rumbelow trusts his changeup. The Yankees were up by one, but the Rays had runners at the corners with two outs, and Evan Longoria was at the plate. Rumbelow went changeup (called strike), changeup (swinging strike), changeup (swinging strike) for the three-pitch strikeout to escape the jam. You have to be pretty confident in your changeup to triple up on it in a big spot against a hitter like Longoria.

Nick Rumbelow changeup

So yeah, Rumbelow trusts his changeup. At one point he trusted his curveball and he still might for all we know. It has since become his third pitch for whatever reason. The stuff and the control are there though. That’s the most important thing.

Two years ago the Yankees took another three-pitch reliever with control and turned him into a starter: Chase Whitley. Whitley, like Rumbelow, was a career reliever. In fact, Whitley was a third baseman and pitcher in college, so he wasn’t even a full-time moundsman until pro ball. The Yankees attempted the conversion and it worked. Whitley wasn’t an ace or anything, but he gave the Yankees 16 starts in two years. That’s not nothing.

As with Whitley, the question will be whether Rumbelow’s stuff drops off as a starter. Well, it’s not a really a question of “if” it drops off, but “how much.” Whitley went from sitting 92-94 mph as a reliever to 89-91 mph as a starter. Rumbelow is a 93-95 mph guy out of the bullpen. What happens if he becomes a 90-92 mph starter? Does it hurt the effectiveness of his changeup? There’s only one way to find out. You’ve got to see him start for yourself.

The Yankees came into the spring without a ton of Triple-A pitching depth. The Mitchell injury hasn’t helped matters, and Cessa in the bullpen means the Yankees have one less option for emergency situations. They do have a ton of relievers though, and when you have as many relievers as New York, it only makes sense to see if one or two of them can start. The guy with three pitches and some control is the obvious choice, right?

(I should note Tyler Webb will also start for the RailRiders this year. He started some back in college but has been a full-time reliever the last four years. Webb is another guy with three pitches and control. I like Rumbelow quite a bit more as a prospect, however, plus he’s already on the 40-man roster, which I think gives him a leg up when call-up time comes.)

For now, Rumbelow as a starter is nothing more than an experiment. There’s no reason not to try it out at this point. There’s no downside since the conversion is taking place in Triple-A. The games are meaningless. That said, if he has to come up to join the rotation at some point this summer, chances are something either went very right or very wrong. (For what it’s worth, Whitley made only eleven Triple-A starts before being called up.)

If Rumbelow can hack as a starter, even as a replacement level sixth starter type like Whitley, it’ll be a nice little boost to the team’s rotation depth. And if it doesn’t work, Rumbelow can go right back to where he started in the bullpen. The Yankees have had some success with the reliever-to-starter conversion in the recent past, and they are lacking starters and loaded with relievers, so it only makes sense to try it with Rumbelow.

Joe Girardi names CC Sabathia fifth starter

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

As expected, Joe Girardi officially named CC Sabathia the fifth starter this afternoon, according to the various reporters with the Yankees in Miami. Ivan Nova will shift to the bullpen for the time being. Sometimes you can predict baseball, Suzyn.

Sabathia, who last pitched Tuesday, will pitch in an instrasquad game tomorrow in Tampa to stay sharp. He’ll then join the team in New York and start next Saturday’s game in Detroit. The rotation is officially Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, Luis Severino, and Sabathia in that order, not that the order really matters.

Nova did out-pitch Sabathia this spring, but Sabathia out-pitched Nova last year, plus he’s the veteran making $25M a year. Money talks. There were a ton of reasons not to believe the Yankees when they said the fifth starter’s spot would be decided by a true competition in Spring Training.

The way I see it, it’s only a matter of time until Nova winds up in the rotation anyway. Teams never make it through a season with only five starters, and the Yankees have a risky rotation. Tanaka (forearm), Pineda (forearm), Eovaldi (elbow), and Sabathia (knee) all missed time with injuries in 2015.

The Yankees won’t say it, but the rotation is already lined up for the regular season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Opening Day is only ten days away now. Soon the mundane monotony of Spring Training will be replaced by meaningful games that have a real impact on the standings. We can celebrate wins and lament losses. The very best and the very worst thing about baseball is that it’s every day. Soon the every day games will mean something.

Joe Girardi and the Yankees have not yet announced their rotation for the start of the season, which is not a big deal at all, though they do seem to be going to great lengths to keep the rotation order secret. The team claims the fifth starter’s spot is up for grabs and the closest Girardi has come to announcing Masahiro Tanaka will start Opening Day is that we “could surmise” it.

“We’ve kind of thought about (the rotation order), but because we had so many things we were dealing with when we came back this spring, we didn’t have anything set in stone,” said Girardi to Chad Jennings yesterday. “We’re starting to try to line them up. Obviously you have to figure out who your Opening Day guy is, and then you go from there. We have to iron out the fifth starter situation, too. We don’t have an exact order yet, but we’re happy with where the guys are.”

The rotation is not like the lineup. You can’t just move pieces into different spots on different days. Pitchers are on schedules and they have their throw days, they need a certain amount of rest, all that stuff. Especially this late in Spring Training. It’s a little too late in the game to be shifting pitchers around and disrupting schedules, you know? This is how the rotation is lined up at the moment:

Tuesday, March 22nd: Luis Severino (Nathan Eovaldi in a minor league game)
Wednesday, March 23rd: Tanaka
Thursday, March 24th: CC Sabathia
Friday, March 25th: Ivan Nova
Saturday, March 26th: Michael Pineda
Sunday, March 27th: Severino or Eovaldi (guessing Eovaldi starts to give Severino an extra day of rest)
Monday, March 28th: Severino or Eovaldi
Tuesday, March 29th: Tanaka and Sabathia in split squad games
Wednesday, March 30th: Nova
Thursday, March 31st: Pineda and a spot starter (Bryan Mitchell?) in split squad games
Friday, April 1st: Severino or Eovaldi (would have to be whoever starts the 27th)
Saturday, April 2nd: Severino or Eovaldi
Sunday, April 3rd: off-day

That lines Tanaka up to start Opening Day, April 4th, with an extra day of rest, which the Yankees prefer. April 5th is the typical post-Opening Day off-day, then Pineda is lined up perfectly to start the second game of the season on April 6th. He’s currently two days behind Tanaka on the spring schedule. Severino and Eovaldi are then lined up for the third and fourth game of the season — I’m guessing the veteran Eovaldi starts before the kid Severino — then Sabathia or Nova are in line for the fifth game. Make sense?

Will the Yankees actually start Sabathia in the fifth game of the season? It’s possible, sure. They would also have the option to start him earlier, perhaps in the third game of the season, given the way the schedule is laid out. Tanaka, Pineda, and Sabathia started the first three games of last season in that order. I guess Sabathia’s place — assuming he gets the rotation job, of course — could depend on the matchups. Would the Yankees rather have him face the Astros at home in the first series of the season, or the Tigers in Detroit in the second series?

My educated guess right now is the Yankees will start the season with Tanaka on Opening Day, followed by Pineda, Eovaldi, Sabathia, and Severino in that order. Should Nova actually beat out Sabathia for a rotation spot, as unlikely as that may be, I think he would be the fifth starter and Severino the fourth. I still have a hard time believing that will happen, but who knows. Maybe the Yankees will stash Sabathia on the DL to give him an extra long Spring Training.

In the grand scheme of things, the rotation order on Opening Day doesn’t mean a whole lot. The rotation at the end of the season and heading into the postseason is far more important. The Opening Day start is more ceremonial than anything. The Yankees are keeping their rotation a bit of a secret right now, which is fine. Given the way the pitching schedule is laid out right now though, it’s easy to see how things line up. Now the Yankees just have to make it official.

Ivan Nova is showing off a slightly new delivery in Spring Training

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

By any measure, the 2015 season was close to a disaster for Ivan Nova. He returned from Tommy John surgery at midseason and had a 5.07 ERA (4.87 FIP) in 94 innings, which temporarily cost him his rotation spot in September. His strikeouts were down and lefties crushed him. It was not a good year at all.

After a season like that, a pitcher and his pitching coach are going to look for answers. It’s reasonable to expect Nova to improve as he gets further away from Tommy John surgery, sure, but that can’t be the only solution. Nova and pitching coach Larry Rothschild had to figure something out, and it appears that something is a slightly revamped delivery. Here is 2015 Nova (on the left) vs. 2016 Nova (right):

Ivan Nova 2015 vs. 2016

Nova is no longer going over his head during his delivery. I can’t tell if that’s the only difference, but it is the most obvious difference. Nova was not bringing his hands over his head in last Wednesday’s start against the Mets, his only other televised outing of the spring, so this has been going on for a while now. It wasn’t a spur of the moment thing last night.

As far as I can tell, neither Nova nor Rothschild has talked about the reworked delivery with reporters this spring, so we’re stuck guessing why the changes were made. How exactly does keeping his hands at his chest during his delivery help Nova? In my totally amateur opinion, this right here looks like the biggest benefit of Nova’s new mechanics:

Ivan Nova 2015 vs. 2016 head

When Ivan brought his hands over his head, he turned his head down toward the ground for a few moments. With his new mechanics, Nova is able to keep his head forward and his eyes on the target the entire time. Before he would pick up his target, begin his delivery, look at the ground, then pick up the target again. Now he never takes his eyes off the catcher.

That … seems like kind of a big deal? We’ve all played catch before. When you focus on your target you tend to be more accurate. At least I do. I don’t know if this is the reason behind the mechanical change, but it does seem like a benefit. Nova no longer has to pick up his target in the middle of his delivery. And considering the majority of his issues are command related (fat pitches over the middle of the plate) and not stuff related, this might be a big help.

We’ll see. We’ll see if it helps and we’ll see if Nova sticks with it. Nova and Rothschild have clearly identified this as some kind of potential solution. Remember, Ivan had been bringing his hands over his head his entire career. Now he’s no longer doing it and that’s a big deal. There’s a lot of muscle memory that has to be changed. Making an adjustment like this is not as easy as it looks.

Nova has thrown well so far this spring (two runs in nine innings), and while he may not have a rotation spot come Opening Day, he’ll inevitably get a chance to start this summer. If these new mechanics help him be effective, Nova stands to make himself a lot of money as a free agent next winter.

The Yankees keep saying CC Sabathia is not a lock for the rotation, but I don’t believe them

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Yesterday afternoon, in his second start of the spring, CC Sabathia was roughed up for three runs (two earned) on five hits, a walk, and a hit batsman in only 1.2 innings of work. His defense didn’t help matters — Sabathia himself made an error on a would-be inning-ending tapper back to the mound, then the inning snowballed — but there was still a lot of loud contact and two-strike foul balls.

It’s only Spring Training, so the actual results don’t hurt the team in any way. It was still discouraging to see Sabathia have the same problems — long at-bats, loud contact, inability to handle righties — that have plagued him the last two or three years. “I’m 35 years old. I’ve thrown a lot. We’re here trying to win, so it is what it is,” he said to Mark Feinsand after the game. “I’m just going out and getting work, getting ready. We’ll see what happens.”

Following the game Joe Girardi was inevitably asked whether Sabathia has a rotation spot locked up, and Girardi gave the same answer he gave all winter: “We’re going to take what we feel is the five best. Bottom line,” he said. If nothing else, that gives off the impression Sabathia is not guaranteed a rotation spot. Spring competition is a good thing, even among veterans. I just don’t buy it at all. Not for a second. For a few reasons.

Sabathia wasn’t one of their five best starters last year

It was pretty clear Sabathia was not one of the Yankees’ five best starters last season, yet when the time came to make room for Ivan Nova, it was Adam Warren who went to the bullpen. Warren is gone, meaning there’s even less competition for the fifth starter’s spot. It’s Sabathia vs. Nova, and Sabathia was better last season. Better ERA (4.73 to 5.07), better FIP (4.68 to 4.87), better strikeout rate (18.9% to 15.3%), better walk rate (6.9% to 8.0%).

There’s always a chance Nova’s performance will improve as he gets further away from Tommy John surgery. That’s the hope, anyway. At the same time, the Yankees and everyone else have expressed confidence in Sabathia’s new knee brace, especially since he pitched so well late last season. Point is, the Yankees showed last season they’re willing to stick with Sabathia. Actions speak louder than words, and when they needed to open a rotation spot last year, they sent a more effective pitcher to the bullpen and kept running Sabathia out there every fifth day.

Sabathia might actually be one of their five best starters this year

Here’s a not so fun twist: Sabathia just might be one of the five best starters in the organization right now. ZiPS prefers Nova to Sabathia (0.9 to 0.2 WAR), but both Steamer (1.6 to 0.8 WAR) and PECOTA (0.9 to 0.5 WARP) prefer Sabathia. And again, Sabathia out-pitched Nova last year, and Warren is no longer around as proven depth. Bryan Mitchell is likely next in line for a rotation spot. You don’t have to try real hard to envision a scenario in which Sabathia out-pitches both Nova and Mitchell in 2016.

$25M

That’s how much the Yankees owe Sabathia this season. That’s not reliever money. It’s ace starter money, and while Sabathia is no longer an ace, not too many owners would be happen marginalizing a player with that kind of salary. I’m sure the money was part of the reason Sabathia remained in the rotation last year. The Yankees want to get their money’s worth.

If nothing else, the money is a tiebreaker. When the final rotation spot comes down to one guy making $25M and another guy making $4.1M (Nova), and you’re not confident in either being even league average, the dude making $25M is going to get the job. Sabathia is a sunk cost. The Yankees owe him that money no matter what, but chances are they’re going to want to try to salvage the investment as much as possible.

The Yankees don’t base major decisions on Spring Training

I can’t remember the last time the Yankees based a major decision on Spring Training. They’ll use it to sort out bench spots or the final few bullpen spots, that sort of thing, but a major decision like a rotation spot? Nope. They tend to go into Spring Training with everything planned out and adjust only if necessary due to injury or a trade, something like that.

That’s smart. Spring Training is a terrible time to make decisions. We see it each and every year. A player comes in, wins a roster spot with a strong showing in March, then reverts back to his previous self in the regular season. The reverse is true as well. A player struggles in camp then rights the ship in the regular season. There are way too many variables in Spring Training — sample size, the caliber of competition, players working on things, etc. — to take performance seriously.

The Yankees have a history of saying a spot is up for grabs when it really isn’t, and this feels exactly like that. Girardi saying they’re “going to take what we feel is the five best” is as much about motivating Nova as it is letting Sabathia know they need him to pitch better. In the end, everything the Yankees have done the last few years points to Sabathia getting a rotation spot over Nova. The only way I see CC not being in the rotation this summer is injury.

Tipping pitches a possible but unlikely reason for Chasen Shreve’s struggles at the end of 2015

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Chasen Shreve was very good last season. And then he was very bad. For the first four and a half months of the season he was truly outstanding, giving Joe Girardi a very good fourth option in the bullpen. Then it all fell apart in the middle of the August. Shreve allowed ten runs on 21 hits (five homers!) and 14 walks in his final 12.2 innings of 2015. Yuck.

There is no shortage of theories why Shreve struggled so much late in the season. He was fatigued. The league caught up to him. It was all bad luck. Everyone has a theory and no one knows if they’re actually right. Lately the idea Shreve was tipping his pitches has gotten some press — Joel Sherman wrote about it (twice) and Ryan Hatch asked Larry Rothschild about it — and that’s as good a theory as any.

Shreve is a three-pitch pitcher but his fastball and splitter are his main weapons. He does throw a slider too, just not very often. It’s a surprise pitch, basically. Not a real weapon. Shreve uses his fastball to set up his splitter and vice versa. Pretty simple formula. Here are some numbers:

Chasen Shreve FB SPL

What really stands out is how often Shreve threw his splitter in the zone in August and September (and October). The splitter is designed to finish out of the zone. The pitcher releases it, the batter reads fastball in the zone, starts his swing, then the pitch falls off the table. When thrown properly, the split might be the most devastating pitch in the sport.

For whatever reason Shreve threw a lot of splitters in the zone at the end of the season, and that’s not where the pitch is supposed to be. That suggests a mechanical issue, or maybe fatigue, but tipping pitches? I’m not sure it jibes with that. When a pitcher tips his pitches, he tells the hitter what is coming, not where it’s coming. And even if he did tell them where it was coming, it requires a lot of skill to actually throw it there. Command is hard.

For the sake of thoroughness, here are two GIFs of Shreve from October, in the second to last game of the season. The pitch on the right is a fastball and the pitch on a left is a splitter. If you can spot some sort of difference in his set position or delivery that may be tipping the pitch to the hitter, you’re better at this than I am.

Chasen Shreve FB SPLT

Shreve missed his spot with both pitches though not necessarily in a bad way; he got the fastball a little too far inside and the splitter finished down in the dirt. He didn’t miss out over the plate. Of course, this is a sample of two pitches. Shreve did a lot of missing over the plate down the stretch.

Rothschild told Hatch he believes Shreve simply wore down last season, though that could be pitching coach speak for “I’m not telling you anything.” It’s certainly possible he was tipping his pitches. You can never rule it out, but it often feels like crying wolf. Every time a pitcher struggles unexpectedly, oh well he must be tipping his pitches. We hear it constantly.

Fatigue does seem like the most logical explanation. I don’t think Shreve got lucky for four and a half months then it all caught up to him. He didn’t get bad overnight. Shreve likely wore down, which threw his mechanics out of whack and resulted in poor location, hence all the extra splitters in the zone. He couldn’t get the same finish on the pitch. Fatigue would be the cleanest explanation. An offseason of rest and he’s as good as new.

The real Chasen Shreve is probably somewhere between the awesome pitcher he was from April through mid-August and the bad pitcher he was from mid-August through the end of the season. It’s up to Shreve and Rothschild to figure out what happened. For now, Shreve’s performance most of last season earned him some rope, and I think he’s got a leg up on one of those open bullpen spots.

Healthy Ivan Nova could help the Yankees as a depth arm in his contract year

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

By any objective measure, the last two seasons have been a disaster for Ivan Nova. He was limited to 21 starts and 114.2 innings from 2014-15, his age 27-28 seasons, because of Tommy John surgery, and during those 114.2 innings he had a 5.65 ERA (5.24 FIP). Obviously the surgery and performance are related to some degree. Nova wasn’t healthy in 2014 and he was shaking off the rust in 2015.

Nova, now 29, reported to Spring Training last week as the sixth starter on the depth chart. Brian Cashman all but confirmed whoever doesn’t win a rotation job in camp will be the long man to start the season, and right now Nova is that guy. Being the sixth starter stinks, but it’s not all bad. Inevitably the Yankees are going to need a sixth starter. Last season 25 of the 30 teams had six starters make at least ten starts.

Regardless of role, the 2016 season is huge for Nova on a personal level because it’s his contract year, and I’m sure he wants that Ian Kennedy money next winter. Baseball pays very well, but, relatively speaking, Nova has not yet cashed in big. He received an $80,000 bonus as an amateur out of the Dominican Republic, made next to nothing in minors, and will earn a total of $8.2M or so during his six years of team control.

“He’s getting ready for his free-agent walk year. If there’s going to be a time for him to put his best foot forward, if he’s on a salary drive, this would be the year for it. Hopefully we’ll benefit from it,” said Cashman to Brendan Kuty earlier this month. Money is a great motivator and baseball players are human. Of course they put forth their very best effort in their contract years. There’s no reason to think Nova will be any different.

Nova does not have a rotation spot at the moment, though I figure that opportunity will come in time. What he does have going for him is health, at least to the extent any pitcher can have health in their favor. Nova will open the season roughly 23 months out from Tommy John surgery, and typically it takes pitchers a few months to get all the way back from elbow reconstruction. Everyone is different of course, but many need a little time to get back to normal.

“We felt that we would see a different guy this year. I was impressed with his bullpen today. I saw an arm that was very quick, probably better than any point we saw last year. I think the time off really helped him and you will see a different guy,” said Joe Girardi to George King yesterday. The other day Nova himself told Chad Jennings his arm feels “lighter” this spring than it did last season.

Even before the Tommy John surgery, Nova was unpredictable and his career had a lot of ups and downs. He had a 3.70 ERA (4.00 FIP) in 165.1 innings in 2011. Then he had a 5.02 ERA (4.60 FIP) in 170.1 innings in 2012. And then he had a 3.10 ERA (3.47 FIP) in 139.1 innings in 2013. It was impossible to know which Nova would show up start to start, nevermind year to year. Like lots of other young pitchers, Nova’s performance was volatile.

The Yankees spent much of the offseason exploring trades for Nova despite their questionable rotation depth, and I don’t blame them. It’s hard to count on him to be reliable and it’s possible the team will lose him to free agency for nothing next offseason. That said, I do think keeping Nova was a smart move. No one blew the Yankees away with an offer and Ivan figures to be more valuable to the team as a depth arm than any middling prospect he’d return in a deal.

Given his history, it’s easy to be skeptical of Nova’s ability to help the Yankees in 2016. I’d be lying if I said I was confident he’ll be a valuable member of the staff. I do know the Yankees are almost certainly going to need him to step in to make some starts at some point, and that alone makes him pretty important. That he’s further removed from Tommy John surgery and presumably motivated by his upcoming free agency at least gives us some reason to think Nova will be able to perform much better this season than he did last.