Yankees place trust in Mitchell and Severino to bolster rotation

Mitchell. (David Banks/Getty)
Mitchell. (David Banks/Getty)

Tomorrow, top pitching prospect Luis Severino will join the rotation and make his big league debut with the Yankees. I wouldn’t call it a long-awaited debut — Severino zoomed through the minors and wasn’t much more than an “intriguing arm” at this point two years ago — but that doesn’t make it any less exciting. The Yankees haven’t had a pitching prospect of this caliber make his debut since Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Kennedy in 2007.

Severino is getting a chance to help the Yankees because the team didn’t acquire any pitching depth at the trade deadline, and he’s the next best option. Bryan Mitchell made a spot start Saturday for the same reason. Severino is replacing the injured Michael Pineda in the rotation, and I would bank on Mitchell making another few starts before the end of the season. The Yankees play 16 games in 16 days starting next week, and I’m sure they’ll use a spot sixth starter at some point.

“Some of the offers that were coming our way, I’ll be honest, whether it played out this way or not, I’d rather try relying on the Mitchells and Severinos than bring in somebody that’s got more experience but maybe less ability with more money attached to it,” said Brian Cashman to Chad Jennings following the trade deadline last week. “Although (money)’s not necessarily an issue for us, in the assessments, it’s like, you know what, I’d rather go this route with these kids than go do that.”

Those are some pretty strong words! Cashman basically said they project Mitchell and Severino to have more impact down the stretch than whoever they were discussing at the deadline, at least in terms of cost (prospects plus salary) relative to production. Considering Mitchell and Severino are relative unknowns — yeah, we know the numbers and the scouting reports, but we have no idea what they’ll do taking a regular rotation turn in the bigs — the team is showing a ton of faith in them.

The Yankees have turned to their young players to fill needs all season, whether it was outfielders or especially bullpen help, and that will continue in the second half with Severino and Mitchell. That’s fun! It’s also kinda scary because they’re basically the last line of rotation depth. The Yankees could stick Adam Warren back in the rotation if necessary, and Chris Capuano is sitting in Triple-A, but that’s about it. Unless you want to see Kyle Davies.

The good news is the Yankees do have a nice lead in the AL East — they’re 5.5 games up in the division and FanGraphs says their postseason odds are well over 90% — and rosters expand four weeks from today, so the pitching depth issue (which may not be an issue at all!) won’t last much longer. Get through these next four weeks with Mitchell and Severino, then add a bunch of extra arms on September 1st. That seems like the plan.

The Yankees don’t necessarily need impact from Mitchell and Severino, though I’m sure they’d take it. Mitchell showed some seriously nasty stuff on Friday night, so it’s easy to dream on him, but you can’t expect him to carry the staff. Same with Severino. Rotation stalwarts like Masahiro Tanaka, Ivan Nova, Nathan Eovaldi, and healthy Pineda will be counted on for impact. Mitchell and Severino just need to hold their own and provide innings. Don’t Chase Wright it, basically.

“We’ll augment the roster with a lot of these power arms that we have in the system,” said Cashman. They’ve done it all season with the bullpen — eight different relievers have made their MLB debut with the Yankees already this season — and now they’re taking the next step and doing it with the rotation. I’m sure resisting the urge to get a more established arm at the deadline was tough, but the Yankees showed a lot of faith in Mitchell and Severino by not making a move. Now it’s up to those two to capitalize on the opportunity and show the team they made the right call.

Cashman: Severino will make next start with the Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

After not picking up any pitching help at Friday’s trade deadline, top pitching prospect Luis Severino will be called up to make his next start with the Yankees, Brian Cashman told reporters this afternoon. Joe Girardi and Larry Rothschild will map out the exact date at some point, though Girardi did say Severino will make his MLB debut during the Red Sox series next week. Severino last started Wednesday.

The rotation is in rough shape right now with Michael Pineda (elbow) on the DL and CC Sabathia (dehydration) temporarily out of action — Girardi said there is no date for Sabathia to resume baseball activities at the moment — so the Yankees are turning to Severino, who they refused to trade prior to the deadline. This doesn’t figure to be a spot start. Severino will get a chance to stick.

“Only if we needed it, and only if he earned it. Well, he’s earned it, and we need it,” said Brian Cashman to Chad Jennings when asked about the decision to call up Severino. “So we’ll see what the next step for this youngster is. He moved really fast through the system and obviously had a lot of success. We’ll see what the next level is going to be like for him and hopefully he can contribute and add into the cast of characters.”

Severino, 21, has a 2.45 ERA (2.45 FIP!) with 24.8 K% and 6.8 BB% in 99.1 total innings this year, including a 1.91 ERA (2.53 FIP) in 61.1 innings at Triple-A Scranton. Baseball America ranked him as the 35th best prospect in baseball before the season and the 17th best prospect in baseball in their midseason update a few weeks ago. Severino is a mid-90s fastball guy with a promising slider and changeup.

I’ve speculated that Severino only has about 50 or so innings left before hitting his limit this year — he threw 113.1 innings at three levels last year — but Cashman said that is not the case. “He doesn’t have any (limit) … We prepared for this,” said the GM to Erik Boland and Mark Feinsand. My guess is Severino does have an innings limit and the Yankees don’t want to make it public. That’s smart. As we’ve seen with Joba Chamberlain and Stephen Strasburg, making innings limits public can turn into quite the distraction.

As with all young pitchers, I’m skeptical of Severino’s ability to come up and make an impact right away — he’s thrown more than five full innings only 18 times in 65 career starts; how will he navigate the third time through a big league lineup? — but at this point, with no trade for a pitcher, calling Severino up is a move that had to be made. He was crushing Triple-A and the Yankees have a need in the rotation. It’s time.

More pitching depth a must at the trade deadline even if it creates a roster squeeze

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Know who the Yankees miss? Chase Whitley. Don’t get me wrong, he’s was exactly a critical part of the pitching staff, but Whitley was the de facto spot sixth starter and a useful depth arm. Joe Girardi admitted the team’s plan for Whitley this year was to keep him stretched out in Triple-A and use him as a spot starter to give the regular rotation members extra rest on occasion. They haven’t been able to do that since Ace Whitley blew out his elbow.

Thanks in part to Whitley’s injury, as well as the general injury risk in the rotation, the Yankees should look to add pitching depth at the trade deadline. I mean, every team should, right? That is especially true for these contending Yankees because guys like Masahiro Tanaka (elbow), Michael Pineda (shoulder), and CC Sabathia (knee) carry more injury risk than most other starting pitchers. Ivan Nova has been rather uneven in his return from Tommy John surgery as well.

The question is not whether they should add pitching depth, but how do they fit it on the roster? Sabathia isn’t coming out of the rotation, and even if he did, the Yankees would simply move him to the bullpen and not off the roster entirely. Same with Nathan Eovaldi. He’s in the rotation. The only flexible spots in the bullpen belong to Bryan Mitchell and Chris Capuano, and I get the feeling the Yankees aren’t going to cut ties with Capuano only because he’s fine for the long man role and could always start if necessary.

With Whitley out, you could argue New York’s sixth (Adam Warren), seventh (Capuano), and eighth (Mitchell) starters are in the big league bullpen. That leaves either Luis Severino or Esmil Rogers as the next in line spot starter whenever one is needed. That’s … not ideal. Severino has dominated Triple-A but he’s not someone you want to jerk around. Whitley was perfect for that spot starter role because he could go up and down with no real concern for his long-term development.

So the Yankees have something of a roster crunch on their hands. They could always option Mitchell to clear a roster spot — man, hasn’t he looked great in short relief though? — but otherwise there’s not much flexibility, not if the Yankees are committed to Sabathia as a starter. The should definitely acquire an extra starter to protect themselves against injury down the stretch, but where does that guy fit? Trading for, say, Johnny Cueto means either Sabathia or Eovaldi (or Nova?) goes to the bullpen and that seems so very unlikely.

This of course is a dumb problem. Making room for a good pitcher is not a “problem.” It’s a minor nuisance. Someone’s feelings will be hurt and you move on. Warren went through it already. The Yankees do need to acquire more pitching at the trade deadline; the guys in the rotation have too many healthy questions to ignore. If that means someone undeserving like Mitchell gets squeezed to Triple-A, so be it. These things always have a way of working themselves out and you’d rather have “too much” pitching than not enough.

Pushing CC Sabathia’s start back was an easy call, but it’s still only a temporary solution

(Stephen Dunn/Getty)
(Stephen Dunn/Getty)

Late last week the Yankees announced CC Sabathia would not start as scheduled this past Sunday, and would instead get the ball today. Ivan Nova started Sunday on normal rest thanks to last Thursday’s off-day. Sabathia will start on eight days’ rest tonight, and, of course, he wasn’t thrilled with the decision. He’s a competitor, he wants to pitch.

“Don’t ask me what I’m working on,” said Sabathia to Zach Braziller last week. “It is up to them. Whatever they think is best is the schedule (is the one) that I’m following. It’s a break that I probably need, I guess. Take a step back, look at some things, try to be ready on Wednesday … It’s a good to get a break for my body, for sure.”

The team framed the decision as a chance to give Sabathia extra rest and extra time to work on things in the bullpen. “It gives him a few extra days. He’s been a guy that’s thrown every fifth day or sixth day,” said Joe Girardi to Andrew Marchand when the announcement was made. That was as predictable a response as it gets from Girardi, who protects his players as much as any manager in the game.

Sabathia may be getting some extra rest and time to work on things, but it’s clear what’s really happening here. The Yankees used their recent off-days to make sure Sabathia not only makes just one start before the All-Star break rather than two, but also to ensure he makes that start against the Athletics rather than the division rival Rays and Red Sox. It’s a no-brainer move. They had to do it.

The Yankees are sheltering Sabathia like a fifth starter because that’s what he is, their fifth best starter. (Really their sixth best starter, but let’s not get started with that again.) They’re putting him in position to hurt the team less. Like it or not, the Yankees are unwilling to pull Sabathia out of the rotation right now, so this it the next best thing. Keeping him away from division rivals and spacing out his starts as much as possible. It would have been foolish not to do it.

This is only a temporary measure, of course. The Yankees can use off-days and the All-Star break to limit Sabathia to one start in a 27-day span (!) if they really want — he started on July 29th, will start tonight, and they won’t need a fifth starter after the break until July 26th — but then what? They will have successfully avoided using their worst start for close to a month — I have a hard time thinking they’ll actually limit Sabathia’s starts that much — though that’s not a solution. It’s a band-aid.

Perhaps this is step one in the process of removing Sabathia from the rotation. Something like that won’t happen in an instant. That would be humiliating and there’s a gentler way to do it. It could be a gradual process and pushing this start back is the start of that process. Maybe next they’ll outright skip one of Sabathia’s starts using an off-day. I’m not saying that’s the right way to go about removing him from the rotation — ripping the band-aid off is almost always preferable to slowly peeling it away — but that could be the thought process.

For now, the team’s plan for Sabathia seems to be nothing more than hope. Hope something clicked in the bullpen during this recent break, hope he finds a way to be a competent starter going forward, hope he doesn’t hurt them as much as he has already this season. I love Sabathia, he’s been a great Yankee, but man, he has a 5.06 ERA (79 ERA+) in his last 352 innings now. That’s brutal. Pushing his start back was an easy decision and maybe that’s a stepping stone to a more drastic move in the future.

Appreciating Chasen Shreve and his nasty splitter

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

When the Yankees acquired Chasen Shreve this offseason, he was widely considered just another young, controllable power arm to provide depth possibly in the big leagues or at Triple-A. He wasn’t on either the Braves or the Yankees top-10 prospect lists this winter, and even after he won a spot in the bullpen out of spring training, it was expected he’d be just a mop-up guy behind the other more established relievers on the team.

Few people could have predicted Shreve’s breakout campaign and the elite numbers he’s put up in the first three months: 1.87 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and .165 batting average allowed in 33 2/3 innings.

Perhaps the most impressive part of his season is the work Shreve has done in the game’s most important and pressure-filled moments. He has faced 36 batters with runners in scoring position and allowed a total of four singles in those plate appearances. Of the 28 batters he’s matched up with in high-leverage situations, just three have gotten hits, each of them singles. He has inherited 17 runners when the score has been within three runs, and let just two of those guys score. There’s not much more you could ask for in a guy that has gradually risen in the bullpen pecking order and taken on the critical “fireman” role recently.

How could such an unheralded prospect with only a dozen major-league innings under his belt entering this season become such a valuable and trusted member of the Yankees bullpen?

The key has been the development of a nasty split-fingered fastball to complement his four-seamer and slider. It has allowed him shut down batters from both sides of the plate — righties have a .441 OPS against him — and made him into a go-to reliever regardless of the situation.

One of the reasons his splitter has been such a dominant pitch is its extreme downward movement. The splitter disappears down out of the zone as it approaches the plate, generating a ton of stupid-looking whiffs and even more worm-burning grounders. Among the 30 guys who have thrown at least 100 splitters this year, only four have gotten more drop on those pitches than Shreve.

Remember this strikeout to escape a bases-loaded jam against the Angels last month? Erick Aybar is still having nightmares…

ezgif.com-crop (4)

Because of that diving action, he’s able to consistently locate his splitter below the knees, where batters have virtually no chance of getting any good wood on the pitch. He’s thrown a ridiculous 90 percent (135 of 152) of his splitters in the lower third of the zone or below this season. Here’s what that looks like, in heatmap-form:

Chasen Shreve

Another reason for the success he’s had this season is the 9-mph separation he’s now getting between his splitter and four-seam fastball, after ramping up the velocity on his heater last season when he debuted with the Braves. The improvement in his fastball has made his splitter so much more effective, because the two pitches are basically indistinguishable at their release points, but couldn’t look more different to the batter when they cross the plate.

Let the numbers speak for themselves:

shreve splitter

To say the pitch is unhittable would hardly be an understatement. He has thrown 152 split-fingered fastballs and just one of those pitches resulted in a hit: on April 10, Hanley Ramirez lined a hanging first-pitch splitter to left field for a single. That’s it. Among pitchers that have thrown 100-or-more splitters this season. none have allowed a lower batting average (.029) or slugging percentage (.029) than Mr. Shreve.

Not only is the pitch unhittable, but it’s also nearly untouchable. Batters have come up empty on more than half their swings against the pitch, and his whiff percentage of 53 percent is the highest among anybody that’s thrown at least 10 splitters this year.

When they do manage to put it into play, it’s gone nowhere: one line drive, one fly ball, three infield pop-ups, and 12 grounders. He has the highest pop-up rate, lowest line drive rate, second-lowest fly ball rate and fourth-highest ground ball rate on split-fingered fastballs in the majors this season (min. 100 pitches).

Is that good? Um … yes.

When Andrew Miller returns from the disabled list, the Yankees will have arguably the deepest bullpen in the league, capable of shutting down any lineup in baseball. And the one of the most important pieces of the puzzle — the glue that holds the ‘pen together, the bridge to Betances/Miller — just might be Mr. Chasen Shreve.

From low-leverage reliever to critical bullpen arm in just a few months’ time, he is now fully enshrined in Girardi’s Circle of Trust™. It’s hard to imagine the Yankees would be in first place on July 7 without the lanky southpaw from Las Vegas and his filthy split-fingered fastball.

Yankees must make tough, yet necessary decision with CC Sabathia

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees lost to the Angels last night, mostly because the bats didn’t show up, but also because CC Sabathia allowed four runs in 7.1 innings against one of the lowest scoring teams in baseball. And the worst part? When Sabathia walked off the mound after being pulled in the eighth, I found myself saying he wasn’t all that bad. That’s where things are right now with the team’s former ace.

Last night’s loss has Sabathia sitting on a 5.59 ERA (4.58 FIP) in 95 innings. The 5.59 ERA ranks 94th out of the 98 qualified starters in baseball this season. That’s after Sabathia ranked 76th out of 81 qualified starters with a 4.78 ERA back in 2013, his last full healthy season. He now has a 5.06 ERA in his last 352 innings dating back to Opening Day 2013. No, ERA isn’t the only or best way to evaluate a pitcher, but the goal is to keep runs off the board, and CC hasn’t done it for three years now. We should all be able to agree on that.

The Yankees are 6-10 when Sabathia starts this season and 35-26 when anyone else starts. Sometimes that happens because a guy isn’t getting any run support and is a tough luck loser a bunch of times, but that isn’t the case here. Sabathia has pitched poorly and his starts are rarely winnable. He’s the weak link in a six-man rotation that will soon be trimmed down to five. It couldn’t be any more obvious.

There is no indication the Yankees are considering removing Sabathia from the rotation — late last night the team announced Nathan Eovaldi, not Adam Warren, will start Wednesday, indicating Warren’s going to the bullpen — and that’s a problem. His enormous contract is dictating his roster spot, not his performance, which to be fair is not unique to the Yankees and Sabathia. It’s happening elsewhere around the league. Still, the AL East is incredibly tight …

AL East Standings 062915

… and it sure looks like it will remain that way all season. This is going to be a really fun race, and the Yankees are hurting themselves by keeping Sabathia in the rotation. It’s going to hard enough to contend against the Orioles, Rays, and Blue Jays as it is. But doing it while running one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball out there every fifth day? When a better option — Warren has a 3.59 ERA (109 ERA+), lowest in the rotation! — is available? It’s illogical.

Removing Sabathia from the rotation is a difficult move from a personal standpoint — he’s done a lot of good for the Yankees over the years and, by all accounts, he’s a leader in the clubhouse, and it’s never easy to demote a player like that to a lesser role. It’s embarrassing. It’s also necessary sometimes. The Giants sent Tim Lincecum to the bullpen last summer and are likely to do it again in the coming days, for example. The Yankees are at that point with Sabathia.

Perhaps there’s a compromise to be made here. Perhaps the best move in the short-term is a phantom DL trip to give Sabathia a little 15-day vacation. Who knows, maybe he’ll welcome it and see it as an opportunity to work on some things. It’s not just a physical break either, it’s a mental break from what I’m sure has been a very tough season (tough few seasons, really). A two-week breather could do some good. Of course, unless the DL trip is a magic cure and helps Sabathia turn the clock back to 2012 or so, all it does it delay the inevitable. It’s not a real solution.

Either way the Yankees are rapidly approaching a breaking point with Sabathia. Actually, I’d say they’re already there and have been since Ivan Nova returned and legitimately gave the Yankees five starters better than Sabathia. This is an organizational failure. It’s not on Joe Girardi. It’s on Brian Cashman and perhaps those above him if Hal Steinbrenner & Co. want Sabathia in the rotation because of his contract. Girardi can’t be expected to make the decision and carry out the plan on his own. Not with someone like Sabathia. The brain trust has to be involved.

For now, Sabathia is not helping the Yankees win games and they don’t have the luxury of giving him time to straighten things out. They’ve already given him too much time. Sabathia is not much of an asset to the Yankees any more, he’s a sunk cost, and if the team wants to put itself in the best position to return to the postseason, he shouldn’t be in the rotation at all. The sooner they’re willing to swallow that pill, the better off they’ll be.

Unlocking the mystery of Michael Pineda

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Along with the shiny ERA (1.89) and ridiculous strikeout-to-walk ratio (8.4), perhaps the most impressive part of Michael Pineda’s 2014 campaign was his consistency from start-to-start.

Game Score is a metric devised by Bill James that provides a quick-and-dirty evaluation of a pitcher’s start. Every pitcher begins a game with 50 points and then gets points added/subtracted based on innings pitched, strikeouts, walks, hits and runs allowed. 50 is average, anything above 90 is awesome, and anything below 10 is horrible.

Last year, Pineda posted an above-average Game Score in 11 of his 13 starts — the exceptions were the pine tar game in April and his September 11 start against the Rays when he allowed 10 hits and four runs in 7 1/3 innings (Game Score of 44).

Pineda’s 2015 season couldn’t be any more different. While he’s shown flashes of brilliance — the 16-strikeout gem against the Orioles, the one-hit masterpiece against the Marlins — he’s also had his share of clunkers. Six of his 14 starts have produced a Game Score under 50, including a career-worst Game Score of 5 in his most recent start on June 22. He’s basically been either a stud or a dud this season, and can go from elite to enigma in the blink of an eye.

Strap in, because this roller coaster ride is not for those with weak stomachs:

Pineda GmScr

The peaks and valley have become even more extreme in his last seven starts, which have resulted in the following game scores, starting with his May 15 outing against the Royals: 29, 37, 65, 57, 23, 75, 5. Yikes.

How can we explain this bizarre Jekyll-and-Hyde sequence from a pitcher that last year resembled a metronome (when healthy)?

A scout recently told John Harper of the New York Daily News that one reason for the huge disparity in Pineda’s performance lies in the inconsistent execution of his signature slider:

“His height creates an angle on the slider that hitters don’t usually see and when it has a sharp break they don’t hit it. But when he doesn’t have the tight spin and the sharp break, it hangs in the strike zone and it’s getting hit.”

This is what Prince Fielder can do with a hanging slider from Pineda:

ezgif.com-crop (2)

But Lorenzo Cain had no chance on this nasty slider from Pineda:

ezgif.com-crop (3)

Pineda’s last two starts have been a microcosm of his season. On June 17 against the Marlins he was at his absolute best, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning. Five days later against the Phillies, he pitched the worst game of his career.

Just as the scout noted, his slider was much flatter against the Phillies compared to his previous start, averaging nearly an inch less vertical movement and three-quarters of an inch less horizontal movement. Against the Marlins, his slider netted Pineda nine outs — including six strikeouts — with no hits allowed; the Phillies put six of his sliders in play and got three hits off the pitch.

But it wasn’t just a sloppy slider that doomed Pineda against the Phillies. Similar to his other disaster starts this season, he struggled to hit his spots with his cutter and batters pounded the poorly located pitches.

As you can see in the images below, he did a good job of avoiding the middle of the zone vs. the Marlins (on the top). But he threw far too many cutters (dark red dots) over the heart of the plate vs. the Phillies (on the bottom), who got seven hits and made just four outs against the pitch.

Pineda vs Marlins

pineda vs Phillies

When Pineda is at his best, he’s got a sharp slider and devastating cutter that makes him nearly unhittable. But at his worst, he’s forced to navigate lineups with flat sliders and batting-practice cut fastballs — a pitching arsenal that becomes crushable even against the worst offensive team in the majors. Although this inability to execute his pitches probably doesn’t completely explain Pineda’s inconsistency this season, it’s something that can’t be ignored.

Once tabbed as the future ace of the Yankees pitching staff, Pineda is now a mystery with the potential to either dominate or detonate when he steps on the mound. The question remains: can he find the consistent approach necessary to make him a true top-of-the-rotation starter?