Yanks not planning to use sixth starter this turn through the rotation

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

Despite talking for weeks about getting Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and the other starters extra rest whenever possible early in the season, the Yankees are not planning to use a sixth starter this turn through the rotation, Joe Girardi told reporters yesterday. Everyone will stay on turn and pitch on normal rest this week.

“Right now we have Tanaka pitching Thursday,’’ said Girardi to George King. “I didn’t plan it that way, it’s kind of the way it worked out. I think we will check on workloads and see how guys are doing … If a couple of our starters have difficult days, you might plug (a sixth starter) in before they pitch.’’

Tanaka threw 85 low-stress pitches in seven dominant innings Saturday afternoon. He was removed from the game after sitting in the dugout during a long seven-run inning for the offense, not because he was ineffective or his pitch count climbed too high. Tanaka hasn’t started on regular rest at all this year, either in the regular season or Spring Training.

Adam Warren (80 pitches), Michael Pineda (92 pitches), and Sabathia (98 pitches) didn’t crack 100 pitches in their most recent starts either. In fact, only once in 13 games has a Yankees starter thrown 100+ pitches this season. That was Nathan Eovaldi in his last start (101 pitches). Eovaldi is starting tonight with an extra day of rest thanks to last Thursday’s off-day.

Chase Whitley, Bryan Mitchell, and Kyle Davies seem like the most obvious sixth starter candidates at this point of the season. Whitley is scheduled to start for Triple-A Scranton tomorrow and is the only one of those three lined up to pitch before the big league rotation turns over, so he’s the only possible sixth starter candidate this week if the Yankees do choose to use one.

The Yankees are not off again until next Thursday, so following the upcoming turn through the rotation, both Tanaka and Pineda would also make their next starts on regular rest unless the team uses a sixth starter. That’s a full week away though. We’ll see what happens after the weekend.

Silver Lining: CC Sabathia shows he still has something left in loss to Tigers

Changeup! (Presswire)
Changeup! (Presswire)

The Yankees dropped last night’s series opener to the Tigers in a pretty annoying way — they jumped out to an early 1-0 lead, didn’t build on it, then watched as Detroit used some less than well struck balls to rally for two runs in seventh. An annoying loss, no doubt, but it’s still just one loss. Before you know it that game will fade from memory and blend into the glob of baseball we forget each season.

The loss did come with a silver lining, however, and that of course was CC Sabathia‘s complete game performance. He allowed those two runs on seven singles and three walks, and it wasn’t until that seventh inning that the high-powered Tigers had a runner reach second base. Sabathia struck out five, threw 62 of 98 pitches for strikes (63%), got nine swings and misses, and 12 of the 21 balls put in play against the big lefty were on the ground. Solid performance all around.

Unlike his first two starts, when his velocity gradually faded as the game progressed (first start, second start), Sabathia held his velocity all night last night despite the cold, windy, rainy conditions. He hit 90.7 mph in the first at-bat of the game and 91.7 mph in the last. There was no drop-off. Here’s the velocity graph via Brooks Baseball:

CC Sabathia Tigers velocity

Most pitchers lose a little something in the later innings, it’s normal, but for a guy who’s lost noticeable fastball oomph with age, sustaining velocity all night was a very encouraging sign for Sabathia. His margin for error is relatively small as it is, and if he’s able to avoid having that margin for error get even smaller when his pitch count climbs north of, say, 70 pitches, the more effective he’ll be overall.

I thought Tigers manager Brad Ausmus did Sabathia a bit of a favor by loading his lineup with right-handed hitters — all nine players in his lineup were righties — because it allowed him to stick with the same approach all night: fastballs to both sides of the plate and changeups down and away. He threw only eleven sliders out of 98 pitches (11%) after throwing 28% sliders in his first two starts. The lack of a lefty hitter allowed Sabathia to get in a rhythm and stick with one approach all night.

That’s a luxury Sabathia won’t have every start but teams do still stack their lineups with righties again him — only six of the 53 batters he faced in his first two starts were lefties, and even last season only 31 of 209 batters faced were lefties (15%). Sabathia’s changeup is super important because he always faces a ton of right-handed batters and last night was an opportunity to really dig in and work on that pitch, which was an issue in his first two starts (opponents hit .308 against it).

Coming into the season, we really had no idea what to expect from Sabathia following knee surgery and 257 pretty ugly innings from 2012-13 (4.87 ERA and 4.22 FIP). His three starts have gotten progressively better — five runs in 5.2 innings, four runs in seven innings, two runs in eight innings — and there are other positive signs as well, including the way he held his velocity and used his changeup last night. The loss stunk, that’s baseball, but the Sabathia we saw last night can be an effective pitcher. CC is trending in the right direction earlier this season, for sure.

Nathan Eovaldi and the Non-Fastball

Process and results. In the past few years, those have become (sometimes annoying) buzzwords in baseball. All of us, at some point, have used the term, whether earnestly as I have when describing the second Javier Vasquez trade, or ironically in poking a bit of fun at the Astros. That doesn’t mean that we can’t find meaning in the phrase, though, like in CC Sabathia‘s two not-as-bad-as-the-box score-would-suggest starts and Nathan Eovaldi‘s start on Thursday night in Baltimore.

In terms of the process, how Eovaldi went about things against the Orioles’ lineup, things weren’t all that different from his first start of the season against the Red Sox. On that night, Eovaldi threw 44 fastballs and 50 non-fastballs, broken up between what Brooks identified as one changeup, 26 sliders, 11 curveballs, and 12 splitters. During his second start , Eovaldi threw 45 fastballs and 56 non-fastballs (37 sliders, 17 curveballs, and two splitters). But the feeling was completely different.

While watching the game on Thursday, I couldn’t help but feel that Eovaldi was much more confident in his breaking stuff, more willing to use it in big spots or just to use it overall. In that first start, the breaking stuff seemed rudimentary at best with iffy location and not the sharpest of movement. However, Thursday, it seemed much crisper to my amateur eye. This was especially evident in the bottom of the third inning when his first five pitches of the inning, to Everth Cabrera and Adam Jones, were all breaking balls. Cabrera saw only breaking pitches in his at bat and struck out swinging; Jones saw a mix, but his at bat ended on a breaking ball he grounded fairly weakly to Didi Gregorius, who booted the ball at short. I mention this inning because it specifically lent to the good feeling I got from Eovaldi’s non-fastballs. The results lived up to that promise; let’s take a look at the pitch results section for Eovaldi’s two starts to examine my claim a little bit more closely.

When we look at these sections, I want to pay attention to two columns: whiffs and balls in play (no outs). Against Boston, Eovaldi ended 13 at bats with fastballs. 12 of those were swung on, with each one being put into play, resulting in four non-outs. The other 12 at bat-ending pitches were seven sliders, two curveballs, and three splitters. They all had something in common with the fastball: no whiffs, meaning he didn’t end a single at bat with a swing-and-a-miss against the Boston batters. This is a complete contrast with Thursday’s start. In Camden, the O’s put just 14 balls into play compared to the 22 against the Red Sox. More encouraging, though, were the seven whiffs he generated, five on his slider alone to go along with one each on a fastball and a curveball. As opposed to start number one in which his lone strikeout was a backwards K in the scorebook, seven of his nine strikeouts in start number two were swinging, mostly on breaking stuff.

The Eovaldi-centered narrative coming into this season focused on his secondary pitches; the improvements he makes (or doesn’t make) on the non-fastballs will determine whether or not he takes the next step as a big time pitcher. Thursday night gave us a glimpse at what’s possible when Eovaldi has his non-fastball pitches working. Keeping this up–confidence in the breaking ball and generating whiffs–means good process. And, generally, good process leads to good results.

Biggest issue for Masahiro Tanaka is trust in his elbow, not fastball velocity

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Yesterday afternoon, the Yankees opened the 2015 season with a 6-1 loss to the Blue Jays. Masahiro Tanaka started out very strong, with dominant first and second innings, then quickly unraveled and allowed five runs (four earned) in the third. He pitched into and out of danger in the fourth and left the game after 82 pitches, the last 50 or so of which were pretty high-stress.

Tanaka’s velocity was a hot topic both before and after the game. It has been for a week or two now. Tanaka said in Spring Training he’s not focused on velocity because he’s throwing more sinking two-seamers, then he doubled down on Saturday by saying he doesn’t expect the velocity to return. Nothing was lost in translation. Tanaka made it clear velocity is a secondary concern this season.

PitchFX says Tanaka averaged 92.5 mph and 91.1 mph with his four-seamer and sinker yesterday, respectively, down negligibly from 92.7 mph and 91.4 mph last year. He did top out at 94.5 mph yesterday, so it’s not like he was out there with Jered Weaver velocity. Most pitchers add a tick or to as the season progresses and the weather heats up, and if Tanaka hadn’t done so much talking about his velocity this spring, we wouldn’t have even noticed it yesterday.

What stands out to me more than the raw radar gun readings is this: 27. Tanaka threw 27 fastballs out of 82 total pitches yesterday. Five four-seamers and 22 sinkers. That’s all. Before the elbow injury last year, Tanaka threw about 40% fastballs and 60% offspeed pitches. Yesterday it was roughly 30% and 70% overall and even more drastic late in his outing — only six of Tanaka’s final 33 pitches were fastballs (18%). He flat out abandoned his heater.

When asked about his lack of fastballs after the game, Tanaka said it was “because they were being hit,” which makes sense. It wasn’t just actual hits either. There were a lot of foul balls and balls in play off his four-seamer and sinker as well. The Blue Jays didn’t swing and miss once at those 27 four-seamers and sinkers, so they were getting the bat on his fastball each time they swung.

Clearly Tanaka is tentative with his fastball right now. Is it mental or physical? Who the hell knows. Considering he did reach back and top out 94.5 mph yesterday, my guess is mental. After the elbow issue last year, I would totally understand if Tanaka was hesitant to cut it loose. Heck, I had a tooth fixed last year and I didn’t chew on that side of my mouth for months even though the dentist said it was fine. I get it.

The weird part of all this is Tanaka is apparently holding back with his fastball but is still willing to throw sliders and splitters seven out of every ten pitches. We’ve heard for years and years that sliders and splitters are bad for the elbow, especially when thrown a lot, so if Tanaka is still concerned about his elbow, you’d expect him to throw fewer non-fastballs, not more. Right? Tanaka abandoning his splitter would be a major red flag. Tanaka abandoning his fastball is just weird.

As good as his offspeed pitches are — Tanaka threw 55 non-fastballs yesterday and got a dozen swing and misses (22%), which is outstanding — Tanaka can’t go through the season throwing 30% fastballs. No non-knuckleballer can. The lowest percentage of fastballs thrown by a non-knuckleball qualified starter during the PitchFX era is 35.5% by … wait for it … 2008 Mike Mussina. Even late-career Moose and his mid-80s gas threw more fastballs on average than Tanaka yesterday.

Hopefully yesterday’s game was just step one for Tanaka. Step one towards feeling normal and trusting the elbow. Like I said, I totally understand why he would be tentative to cut it loose, but this can’t last forever. Hopefully as the season progresses and he realizes that hey, I’m healthy, Tanaka will gain more faith in his fastball and get back to being where he was before the injury last year. The guy we saw yesterday was a reliever. Not someone who can turn a lineup over multiple turns. The Yankees need much more than that from Tanaka.

“Physically, he seems to be fine,” said pitching coach Larry Rothschild to Chad Jennings yesterday. “I’ve watched him between starts all spring, play catch in between, and he’s building arm strength still. We went slow early in the spring, knowing that it’s going to be a work in progress, really. I think he’s holding his own right now. This isn’t the results that you anticipate or want, but I think you have to be reasonable the way you look at things. He is building arm strength and will continue to. There were positives with the split today, it was really good, and I think you’ll see him — as he stays healthy, you’ll see him pitch the way he has in the past.”

Adam Warren officially named fifth starter, finally

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

As expected, Joe Girardi officially named Adam Warren the fifth starter this afternoon, according to all the reporters in Tampa. Warren out-pitched the competition in Spring Training and it was especially obvious he had won the job after Esmil Rogers was moved to the bullpen last week.

Warren, 27, has made just three starts in his big league career, one of which was his disastrous six-runs, 2.1-inning MLB debut in 2012. He also started two games on limited pitch counts in 2013. Those three starts don’t really tell us a whole lot about what Warren can do as a starter in 2015, however.

Interestingly enough, Warren’s career path is rather old school. Teams used to break young pitchers in as a relievers before moving them into the rotation all the time back in the day. Warren has gained a lot of experience while in the bullpen the last two years and hopefully it helps him now that he’s in the rotation.

Masahiro Tanaka has already been named the Opening Day starter. He’ll be followed in order by Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, Nathan Eovaldi, and Warren. Chris Capuano will still be out several weeks with his quad injury, and if Warren pitches well in April, Capuano could wind up in the bullpen once healthy.

Masahiro Tanaka named Opening Day starter, rotation order announced

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

As expected, Masahiro Tanaka was officially named the Opening Day starter by Joe Girardi this morning, according to the many reporters in Tampa. He will be followed in order by Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, Nathan Eovaldi, and the fifth starter to open the season. Girardi declined to name the fifth starter but all signs point to it being Adam Warren.

Sabathia has started the last six Opening Days for the Yankees. The team’s last Opening Day starter before him was Chien-Ming Wang in 2008. Yeah, it’s been a while. It was clear Sabathia would not get the Opening Day nod when it was announced he is scheduled to start tomorrow’s game. The schedule doesn’t line up. Sabathia has played in 14 MLB seasons and has started Opening Day in eleven of them. That’s kinda nuts.

As for Tanaka, he is not only the team’s best pitcher, but starting Opening Day allows him to get an extra day of rest prior to his second and third starts of the season thanks to scheduled off-days on April 7th and 16th. The Yankees have said they would like to get him extra rest whenever possible, especially early in the season thanks to the whole elbow issue. The club won’t need to use a sixth starter to make that happen for at least a few weeks.

Believe it or not, Tanaka only started one Opening Day with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan, so this will be his second career Opening Day start and first in pinstripes. Hideo Nomo (2000 Tigers, 2003-04 Dodgers), Daisuke Matsuzaka (2008 Red Sox), and Hiroki Kuroda (2009 Dodgers) are the only other Japanese pitchers to start Opening Day in MLB history. Yu Darvish was slated to start Opening Day for the Rangers this year before blowing out his elbow.

The Yankees open the regular season at home against the Blue Jays on April 6th. Toronto has not yet announced their rotation but apparently Drew Hutchison is lined up for Opening Day. I’m guessing R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle will follow in some order. The Yankees play three games against the Jays then three games against the Red Sox at home before going out on a ten-game road trip through Baltimore, Tampa Bay, and Detroit to start 2015.

Capuano injury, plan for Tanaka could change way Yanks build early-season bullpen

Whitley on the Opening Day roster might not be far-fetched. (Presswire)
Whitley on the Opening Day roster might not be so far-fetched. (Presswire)

Last week the Yankees lost projected fifth starter Chris Capuano for several weeks with a Grade II right quad strain. Capuano is the team’s most replaceable starter but that doesn’t mean the loss is insignificant. Someone else has to fill that rotation spot now and chances are it will be someone who was slated to open the year in the bullpen, either Adam Warren or Esmil Rogers, most likely. The loss will be felt somewhere.

The Yankees have also been discussing using a six-man rotation early in the season — not necessarily a strict six-man rotation, but rather strategically using a sixth starter on occasion to give the other guys rest. That makes sense considering Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda all have some kind of health concern. In fact, the team is planning to use Tanaka specifically every sixth day early in the season, according to Kevin Kernan.

The Yankees have a plan to keep Masahiro Tanaka as healthy as possible, and that means giving him an extra day of rest now and during the season so he pitches every sixth day.

“It’s something we’d like to do,’’ one Yankees official told The Post on Friday of keeping the rotation on a six-day spin.

Tanaka worked on a six-day schedule in Japan until signing with the Yankees last winter, and given his elbow situation, the extra day could be beneficial both short and long-term. April off-days and a strategic sixth starter will help the Yankees accomplish their goal of starting Tanaka every sixth day, though Capuano’s injury complicates things a little bit because it changes the bullpen construction.

Assuming Warren or Rogers replaces Capuano in the rotation — I think it’ll be Warren personally, but there are still three weeks of Spring Training to go — five of the seven bullpen spots are set:

  1. Dellin Betances
  2. Andrew Miller
  3. David Carpenter
  4. Justin Wilson
  5. Warren or Rogers
  6. ?
  7. ?

There are no shortage of candidates for those last two spots. Finding bodies won’t be difficult. The Yankees have the luxury of filling those spots any way they want because of all the available options. And with Capuano hurt and the Yankees wanting to start Tanaka every sixth day, the most practical way to fill both spots may be with long men. At least temporarily.

Baker. (Presswire)
Baker. (Presswire)

The thinking is one of those two long men — it would really be three long men in the bullpen when you include the Warren/Rogers spot — could step in as the sixth starter as needed to spell Tanaka (and the other starters) every so often. That would leave at least one more long man for other days, in case Warren/Rogers or any of the other starters go short. This isn’t rocket science, the more relievers in the bullpen who can throw multiple innings, the better.

Planning to carry multiple long men is one thing, but actually having multiple viable long men is another. The Yankees started last season with three relievers who could have been considered long relievers (Warren, David Phelps, Vidal Nuno), but that was a bit of an outlier. You don’t see many teams break camp with three guys like that. (I thought the Yankees would sent at least one to Triple-A to stay stretched out as the sixth starter, but nope.)

Here are the club’s long man candidates still in big league camp (listed alphabetically), assuming Warren and Rogers will be on the Opening Day roster in some capacity no matter what:

  • Scott Baker: Veteran guy who threw 80.2 generally ineffective innings (5.47 ERA and 4.78 FIP) for the Rangers last year. He’s thrown four innings across a pair of appearances this spring.
  • Kyle Davies: Threw 154.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A last year and hasn’t pitched in MLB since 2011. He’s thrown four innings in three appearances during Grapefruit League play.
  • Jose DePaula: DePaula has dealt with numerous injuries in recent years and was limited to 51.1 innings in Triple-A last year. He’s made just one appearance this spring, throwing two innings.
  • Bryan Mitchell: Eleven innings in MLB last year and another 103 in the minors. He threw 145.1 minor league innings back in 2013. Mitchell has thrown four innings in two appearances this spring.
  • Chase Whitley: Made the conversion from bullpen to rotation last year and threw a career high 107 innings, including 75.2 in MLB. He’s thrown seven innings this spring, appearing in three games.

We can group these five guys into three different … well, groups. The Yankees have nothing invested in Baker and Davies long-term. They’re older pitchers trying to hang on and the team will not hesitate to run them into the ground, then designate them for assignment. It sounds rough but that’s baseball. Baker and Davies aren’t stupid, they know where they are at this stage of their careers.

Mitchell is an actual prospect and the Yankees do have reason to protect him with an eye towards the future. Mitchell will turn 24 next month and he’s also the least MLB ready of the bunch despite making his debut last season. He could use some more Triple-A time for fine-tuning. DePaula and Whitley are somewhere in the middle. Not really potential pieces of the long-term puzzle like Mitchell but probably not guys the Yankees would abuse a la Baker and Davies either.

The Yankees don’t have to decide on those final bullpen spots for a few weeks and by then they should have a better idea of Capuano’s timetable. If he’s expected back relatively soon, within the first week or two of the regular season, they could opt to take a short reliever who can be optioned down when Capuano’s healthy to make life easy. If he’ll miss a few weeks and not return until closer May, carrying two long relievers like, say, Baker and Whitley early on could make sense if the Yankees intend to stick to their strategic sixth starter plan.