2017 Midseason Review: The Bullpen

(AP)
(AP)

The Yankees’ bullpen was supposed to be a strength in 2017 after it helped hold together the 2016 squad. Aroldis Chapman back, Dellin Betances still in middle relief and some intriguing young players.

And it looked like a continuation of 2016 early on. But things have quickly gone off the rails over the last month. Here’s a rundown of the top players in the Yankees’ pen so far this year.

Dellin Betances

Key Stat: 8.26 walks per nine innings

Betances has never been known for his pinpoint control, but he’s barely had an idea where the ball is going in recent weeks. Like many of the guys on the roster, reviewing Betances’ season is almost like reviewing two seasons.

Through the end of May, he was the Yankees’ best reliever as expected. In 17 1/3 innings, he struck out 32, walked nine, gave up eight hits and just one earned run. That’s an ERA of just 0.52. There’s a reason he just made his fourth straight All-Star appearance.

But his 11 innings since June began have been troubling. He’s walked 17 in 11 innings, allowing nine runs despite giving up just six hits (and still striking out 21). He blew multiple games (Toronto, Houston, Chicago come to mind).

He hasn’t looked anything like this since he first came up in 2011. Sure, he’s had walk issues (4.3 per nine in 2015), but this has been pretty absurd. 20.6 percent walk rate. He actually still has the same strikeout rate because his stuff is still there. Whether it’s been his nasty curve or his fastball, they’ve betrayed him at times. The Blue Jays game last week jumps to mind.

One issue that could have led to his lack of command has been his usage. From May 9 to May 21, he picked up just two outs. From June 3 to June 12, he pitched in just one game and got just one out. It’s nice to see a lesser workload for the big man who’s been overused at times in his career, but he needs to get into games more often. Part of his underuse was the injury to Chapman leading to Joe Girardi using Betances as a traditional closer.

Aroldis Chapman

Key Stat: 35 days on the disabled list

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Perhaps the worst nightmare of a team giving a reliever a five-year deal is them spending significant time on the DL with a shoulder injury. That fear was realized when Chapman went down with rotator cuff inflammation in May.

Chapman seemed off at start of the year. His velocity was down, although it wasn’t too worrisome at first. The big lefty usually doesn’t hit peak velocity until mid-season. Still, seeing him toy with his changeup more and throw *merely* in the high 90s was a caution flag. Beginning with his struggles against Boston on Apr. 26, he looked hittable. It came to a head when he blew a three-run lead during the Yankees’ 18-inning win in Chicago. He simply couldn’t put guys away, which may have been due to his lower velocity, down one mph across the board so far in 2017.

His stuff has looked good since he returned and his strikeouts are still there. His underlying stats (1.16 FIP, career worst strand rate) indicate that a second-half resurgence is likely. Yet this is certainly not what the Yankees imagined when they signed him to a long-term deal.

Let’s get to some of the weird stats. He has allowed zero home runs this year. He has a .426 BABIP but a 27.3 percent infield fly ball rate. His 2.09 GB-to-FB ratio is easily a career high (previous was 1.58 in 2016, never higher than 1.25 since 2011). Surely he’ll allow a home run at some point and some of the BABIP spike can be from more groundballs getting through, but it’s still a little different than the Chapman we expected.

Tyler Clippard

Key Stat: 12 meltdowns

Welp.

It hasn’t been a pretty last two months for Clippard. He started to fall apart right after I wrote that fans should appreciate the homegrown talent. Mike was very much on point saying that his lack of home runs would soon change (although I never thought otherwise), but it was tough to see things going quite this poorly, at least for me.

For two months, he was a seemingly reliable pitcher. There were some rough games, including a blown game against the Orioles in his second appearance. But he struck out batters at a career-best rate through two months and had limited walks and hard contact enough to earn high leverage spots. The red flags of his high strand rate (88.5 percent through May) and zero homers in May made it fairly obvious he wouldn’t maintain that level of effectiveness.

Still, it went south worst than expected. Way worse. One could have easily projected he’d give up more homers, but for him to completely fall apart was disheartening. Relievers are fungible and such is life.

From June 4 to July 7, he threw 11 1/3 innings, gave up 16 earned runs, walked 10 and surrendered five homers, culminating fittingly in a grand slam against the Brewers this weekend. That’s 7.9 walks and 4.0 homers per nine innings. His K-BB rate was 3.4 percent. Batters hit .298/.414/766 against him in that time. Before that, they hit a paltry .150/.244/.238.

At this point, one has to wonder whether he makes it through the season, let alone the month. His stuff seems to have had a little more life on it in recent games, but the results simply aren’t there and trotting him into high leverage situations right now is a costly mistake.

Adam Warren

Key Stat: 18.1 K-BB percentage

Warren has been one of the Yankees’ more reliable relievers this season and it’s started to earn him some spots ahead of Clippard since he returned from the DL last week. He missed 18 days with right shoulder inflammation, although it didn’t seem to be anything too serious. He’s jumped right back to form for the most part.

In April, he was mostly a long reliever despite being in short relief to end 2016. In seven appearances to start the year, he had six of at least four outs and four of seven-plus outs. He came in with the team ahead or behind, keeping games within reach or preventing any comebacks.

After Chapman’s injury, he moved into short relief as Girardi’s 7th-inning game. He had three blown leads but was competent, bringing a 2.23 ERA into his stint on the DL beginning June 16.

What has he had working for him? His strikeout and walk rates are both career bests. He’s utilized his slider more (up 12 percent) while decreasing the usage of his other offspeed stuff. While that doesn’t necessarily account for his better control, it could be the reason he’s struck out more batters.

There is a red flag: His 2.9 percent HR/FB rate. He’s bound to let some balls leave the yard in the second half. He has an increased groundball rate and GB/FB ratio, which could help explain part of that.

Since returning to the Yankees last July, he has a 2.59 ERA in 66 innings with batters slashing .191/.260/.298 against him. It’s been a nice welcome back.

Chad Green

Key Stat: 34.7 percent strikeout rate

Green. (Getty)
(Getty Images)

Since coming up for the first time in May, Green has been a revelation in relief. He’s mostly filled in with Warren’s old role of the multi-inning reliever, throwing 33 innings in 17 games, including one brief start.

Green displayed his potential last year in the rotation and was one of the last cuts in spring training‘s battle for the fifth starter role. He’s struck out batters at every level but his fastball-slider combo seemed best suited for relief (S/O against to Mike, who called it).

Perhaps his biggest flaw in 2016 was his performance against lefties, who posted a 1.014 OPS against the righty. He actually has a slight reverse split in 2017 in a small sample, giving up just four hits in 35 at-bats vs. LHBs. He’s introduced his cutter more at times but he’s also just relied more on his four-seamer, throwing it over 60 percent of the time the last two months.

His flyball has increased, but HR/FB way down from 25 percent to 9.4, much closer to league average. The 25 percent last year seemed like somewhat an outlier. Even a few more homers won’t spoil his 1.91 ERA too much

Overall, he’s blowing people away with mid/upper 90s fastball and his top notch slider, sporting a 5.25 K/BB ratio. He looks more and more like a late inning reliever and his ability to throw multiple innings increases his value moving forward.

Jonathan Holder

Key Stat: 5 meltdowns in 32 games

Holder earned a spot in the bullpen this spring after making a brief call-up in September. After pitching mostly in mop-up duty to start the year, he slowly inched his way into a few higher leverage spots, but he never rose too high in the bullpen pecking order. His best outings came in the Cubs series, when he earned a win in the first game before throwing three shutout innings in relief during the 18-inning affair.

As stated above, he had a few meltdowns. He was tossed into a one-run game against the Orioles Apr. 30 and handed the Orioles a 4-2 lead against the heart of the order. He allowed the Royals to blow a game open in May. And he received a blown save and a loss during the cursed West Coast trip.

In the minors, Holder made his name for his high strikeout rate. His 22.9 percent K rate in 2017 isn’t bad, but it’s not quite what he was doing in the minors. The team still seems high on the 24-year-old and he’s been solid this year. Not spectacular, but fine in low-leverage relief.

It’s easy to forget because he was sent down for a while and didn’t factor into many decisions, but he’s thrown the third-most relief innings for the Yankees behind Warren and Clippard. In the second half, he’ll surely get another chance to stick in the majors.

15 pitchers have seen time in relief for the Yankees this season. Not quite the shuttle of past years, though they’ve shuffled through multiple guys in recent weeks. Chasen Shreve has seemed to stick as the token lefty with Tommy Layne gone and he’s been … pretty average. Better than last year, but not near his dominant summer of 2015. I’m a believer in Bryan Mitchell and Domingo German as potential relievers, but they likely won’t see much time in the eight-man pen.

With Clippard’s struggles, the Yankees surely will be in the market for a reliever. For now, they’ll have to hope for better second halves from Chapman and Betances alongside continued success from Warren and Green.

Let’s have the innings limit conversation the Yankees say they haven’t had yet

Sevy. (Presswire)
Sevy. (Presswire)

Two nights ago Luis Severino chucked seven innings of one-run ball against the White Sox, striking out a career high 12 in the process. He was awesome. (The bullpen less so.) Severino has been New York’s best starting pitcher all year — that includes the Mets! — and after his rough 2016 season, this is the guy everyone hoped to see. The top of the rotation ability is there and we’re seeing it consistently.

Severino, who is the youngest pitcher on the roster at 23 years and 129 days old, leads the Yankees with 94.1 innings pitched this season. He threw 151.1 innings last year between Triple-A and MLB, down slightly from the 161.2 innings he threw in 2015. Severino is on pace to blow by that number and set a new career high in innings this year, and that’s good! You want to keep building him up.

It has to be done carefully, however. Severino is still a young man and he’s a very important part of the Yankees’ long-term future. He could be fronting the rotation as soon as next season. Heck, he’s doing it right now. The Yankees will be careful with Severino and their other young pitchers because it’s the smart thing to do. And yet, earlier this week Joe Girardi told Brendan Kuty the Yankees have not yet discussed innings limits. Why don’t we do that now?

This is not just about Severino, remember. Jordan Montgomery is in the big league rotation as well, and the Yankees have a few other young pitchers in Triple-A who need to have their workloads monitored. The Verducci Rule, which says no pitcher under 25 should increase his workload more than 30 innings from one year to the next, is outdated. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Every pitcher is different and their workload limits should be tailored to their specific needs.

Last week I wrote about both Domingo Acevedo and Chance Adams as bullpen options, and in that post I looked at their workload situations. I guesstimated Adams could throw 160 innings this year while Acevedo is a tick behind at 140 innings or so. Here are the innings totals for the team’s other young arms over the years:

Cessa German Green Mitchell Montgomery Severino
2014 118.1 123.1 130.1 114 107.2 113
2015 139.1 0 148.2 126.2 134.1 161.2
2016 147.2 49.2 140.1 45 152 151.1
2017 so far 77.1 68.0 58 41 86.2 94.1
2017 pace 164.2 145 123.2 87.1 184.2 201

The Yankees have other young pitchers who could be call-up candidates, like Caleb Smith and Brady Lail, but those six in the table plus Adams and Acevedo seem to be the go-to options in whatever order. Heck, the six guys in the table are all in the big leagues right now. Anyway, let’s talk these workload situations out, shall we?

1. Are the Yankees really going to let Severino throw 200 innings? My guess is no. They might let him throw 180 innings, though pushing him up over 200 regular season innings doesn’t seem all that smart. (All bets are off in the postseason. It’s pedal to the metal in October.) Severino is too young and too important to the franchise long-term to put his health at risk. My guess is the Yankees have a soft innings cap in mind and will monitor Severino in the second half. They’ll work in extra rest days whenever possible and watch for signs of fatigue. And if he keeps throwing well, great. Getting to 200 innings is difficult to do anyway.

2. Cessa and Montgomery are in great shape. Both pitchers have been built up quite well over the years. Montgomery hasn’t missed a start since high school, and he’s got that big frame (6-foot-6 and 225 lbs.) that makes you think he’ll be able to chew up innings year after year. He’s on pace for 185-ish innings and that in no way seems to be a problem. That is the next step for Montgomery given his workloads the last few years.

As for Luis Cessa, he approached 150 innings last season, which in theory puts him in line for 180-ish innings this year. The thing is he spent some time in the bullpen earlier this year, and also as part of a six-man rotation with Triple-A Scranton, so his current innings total isn’t has high as you’d expect in late June. Most pitchers have about 17 starts left this season, and if Cessa averages six innings per start, that’ll get him to 180 innings almost on the nose. What are the chances of him making 17 starts and averaging six innings per start? Seems small.

Montgomery’s workload is in good shape because he’s been built up well the last few years. Cessa’s workload is in good shape because he’s been built up well and because his current innings total isn’t as high as most other full-time starters at this point of the season. He’s starting at a lower baseline from here on out.

3. Green might never start a game again. Chad Green is similar to Montgomery and Cessa in that he’s been built up well the last few years. He threw between 130-150 innings each year from 2014-16. Green would have thrown more last year and finished closer to 160 innings had he not come down with a season-ending elbow issue in September. The Yankees could probably ask him for 170 or so innings this year without a problem.

Here’s the thing though: Green is working as a reliever and has been for a while, and he’s really starting to find a home in the bullpen. His fastball plays up and he’s able to hide the fact he doesn’t have much of a changeup. I know Green made that one spot start a few weeks ago, but I don’t see that happening again. He’s been too good in relief and the bullpen has been too crummy overall to take him away. The Yankees surely sketched out some sort of workload limit for Green coming into this season. Now that he’s in the bullpen, he won’t come close to hitting it (whatever it is), and that’s okay.

Green. (Getty)
Green. (Getty)

4. Injuries complicate things. Both Domingo German and Bryan Mitchell had pretty serious injuries in recent seasons, which complicates their workload situations. German missed all of 2015 and the first half of 2016 with Tommy John surgery. This is his first full season with his new elbow ligament and I doubt the Yankees are going to push him all that hard. His previous career high are those 123.1 innings in 2013. That number, or something close to it, might be his limit this season. German is on pace for 145 innings right now, though the longer he stays in the bullpen, the less likely he is reach to that number.

Mitchell, meanwhile, broke his toe covering first base in Spring Training last year. It was a dumb, fluke injury that sidelined him for four months and cost him plenty of innings. He’ll exceed last year’s innings total within the next week. That said, Mitchell is 26 and this is his final minor league option year. It’s put up or shut up time, you know? That plus the fact he’s been over 100 innings several times in the past leads me to believe the Yankees are just going to let him keep throwing. They won’t be reckless about it, of course, but they’ll let him pitch. Also, remember, Mitchell has been in the bullpen for much of the season, so his current innings total is lower than it would be had he been starting.

* * *

Girardi said the Yankees have not discussed a workload limit for Montgomery and Severino, though I don’t buy that. Of course the team kick things around before the season. They do it with everyone. The Yankees and Girardi just don’t want to tell us what those limits are because there’s nothing to be gained from it. We’ve seen some ugly workload situations the last few years. Stephen Strasburg, Matt Harvey, etc. The Yankees want to avoid a situation like that, so they’re not going to tell us the workload limits. I don’t blame them.

Severino is going to be the young pitcher to watch going forward, for more reason than one. For starters, he’s awesome! Secondly, he’s on pace to top 200 innings as a 23-year-old, and the list of 23-year-olds to throw 200+ innings in recent years is a mixed bag:

  • Julio Teheran (221 innings in 2014)
  • Madison Bumgarner (201.1 innings in 2013)
  • Patrick Corbin (208.1 innings in 2013)
  • Clayton Kershaw (233.1 innings in 2011)
  • Trevor Cahill (207.2 innings in 2011)
  • Felix Hernandez (238.2 innings in 2009)
  • Jair Jurrjens (215 innings in 2009)
  • Chad Billingsley (200.2 innings in 2008)

Bumgarner, Kershaw, and Felix are great! Both Corbin and Jurrjens broke down almost immediately after their age 23 seasons, however. Billingsley and Cahill stayed productive a few more years before falling apart. Teheran endured a down age 24 season before getting things straightened out at age 25. Perhaps Severino will be the next Bumgarner or Kershaw or Felix. But do the Yankee want to risk him becoming Corbin or Jurrjens?

Severino threw enough innings the last two seasons that stretching him to 180 or so innings this year is not outrageous. And my guess is he has more of a soft cap. Like I said, the Yankees will watch him and look for signs of fatigue, and scale back when appropriate. The good news is both Montgomery and Cessa are in great shape with their workloads, ditto Mitchell to some degree, so if the Yankees do need to scale back on Severino at some point, they have the arms to cover those starts and innings.

The biggest workload limits are probably attached to German (Tommy John surgery in the not-too-distant past), Adams (converted reliever), and Acevedo (had some injuries last year). If we do see the Yankees shut someone down because they’ve thrown enough this year, it’s probably going to be one (or more) of those three. The guys on the big league roster are in good shape. That doesn’t mean the Yankees can throw caution to the win and let them pitch forever. It just means the chances of an innings cap related headache in September are relatively small.

A check in on Masahiro Tanaka’s spin rates

(Adam Hunger/Getty)
(Adam Hunger/Getty)

Overall, this has been a trying season for Masahiro Tanaka. Given all the success he had in Japan and in his first three seasons with the Yankees, this has to be the most difficult season of his career. This is the first time he’s really struggled. I don’t mean for one or two starts. For an extended period or time. The All-Star break is only two weeks away, and he’s sitting on a 5.74 ERA (5.27 FIP) in 84.2 innings. Yuck.

Last time out Tanaka was excellent, striking out nine in eight shutout innings against the Rangers. He allowed three singles and two walks. That’s all. We’ve seen some flashes of brilliance from Tanaka this year, so we know it’s still in there. We just haven’t seen it consistently. Hopefully that start against Texas was a sign of things to come. Given how the season has played out, it’s way too early to say Tanaka has turned the corner.

Anecdotally, it seems Tanaka’s problems stem from his splitter and slider, his two go-to pitches. He’s not overpowering by any means. He succeeds by keeping hitters off balance with the splitter and slider. This year, for whatever reason, those two pitches haven’t behaved properly. Sometimes they do! And when they do, Tanaka has a start like he did against the Rangers. When they don’t, it’s a Home Run Derby.

For the most part, whenever Tanaka has allowed home runs this year, they’ve come on pitches that didn’t do what they were supposed to do. That usually how it works, right? Rather than dive out of the zone, those pitches stay up and get hammered. Here are the pitch locations of the 21 (!) home runs Tanaka has allowed in 2017, via Baseball Savant:

masahiro-tanaka-home-run-locations

Five of those 21 home runs have come on splitters and four have come on sliders, and, as you can see in the plot, those pitches were left up. There’s no bad luck here. We haven’t seen someone go down and golf a diving splitter into the short porch or something like that. No, when Tanaka has been taken deep, it’s been a bomb on a pitch sitting middle-middle.

Since Tanaka has had trouble getting his splitter and slider to do what they’re supposed to do for much of the season, I figured it would be a good idea to look at the spin rate of each pitch. Spin rate is similar to velocity in that it’s not everything there is to pitching. It’s one tool in the shed. Spin rate could, possibly, shed some light on why the slider and splitter aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do. So let’s get to it, shall we?

The Splitter

Let’s get a few things out of the way first. One, spin rate is expressed in revolutions per minute even though it takes less than half-a-second for a pitch to reach the plate. Two, spin rate data only goes back to 2015, so that’s as far back as I went. I’d like to compare Tanaka’s pre- and post-partially torn elbow ligament spin rates, but alas. Can’t be done. And three, I looked at the spin rates on a month-by-month basis. Start-by-start is extreme overkill. Here are Tanaka’s splitter spin rates:

masahiro-tanaka-splitter-spin-rate

The spin rate on Tanaka’s splitter is down noticeably from last season, when he was one of the top pitchers in the American League. Spin rate is complicated though. More spin (and less spin) means different things for different pitches. High spin on a fastball correlates well to swings and misses while a low spin rate correlates well to ground balls, for example.

For a splitter, a low spin rate is actually better. A lower spin rate equals more tumbling action, and that leads to both more grounders and swings and misses. The higher the spin on a splitter, the more it acts like a true fastball. In theory, spin rate says Tanaka’s splitter this year should be getting more grounders and whiffs than last year because it has less spin, and:

  • 2016: 33.2% whiffs per swing and 65.1% grounders per ball in play
  • 2017: 41.5% whiffs per swing and 63.8% grounders per ball in play

Well look at that. Tanaka’s swing and miss rate on his splitter is up 8.3 percentage points from last year. That’s pretty significant. Going from 33.2% whiffs to 41.5% whiffs is huge. (The MLB average on splitters is 34.4%.) The ground ball rate is down 1.3 percentage points, which is relatively tiny. For all intents and purposes, the grounder rate has held steady since last year while the swing and miss rate has gone up quite a bit.

Okay, so what the hell does that mean? I’m not sure, exactly. But! This is actually good news, right? Or maybe it would be better to say this is not bad news. I’d be worried if Tanaka’s splitter spin rate jumped a bunch this year. That would indicate far more “straight” splitters, or hangers. On a macro-level, the splitter is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. On a micro-level, some individual splitters are not, and those are the ones getting hit a long way. Those are the mistake pitches.

The Slider

masahiro-tanaka-slider-spin-rate

Kinda interesting the league average slider spin rate keeps climbing, isn’t it? High slider spin rate correlates very well to swing and misses, though there’s basically no correlation with ground ball rate. A high spin slider gets as many grounders as a low spin slider. Weird.

Anyway, it sure looks like teams have really started emphasizing slider spin the last few seasons, and Tanaka’s slider spin rate has climbed along with the league average. It’s gotten better and better with each passing month so far this season. Not coincidentally:

  • April: 26.8% whiffs per swing
  • May: 44.9% whiffs per swing
  • June: 45.9% whiffs per swing

As Tanaka’s slider spin rate has gone up, hitters have come up empty with more of their swings against the pitch. The MLB average swing and miss rate on sliders is 34.9% this year, and Tanaka has been well above that in April and May. It’s probably not a coincidence then that Tanaka’s four highest strikeout totals this season have come within his last six starts.

Tanaka’s slider spin rate this season is good news. It’s getting better and the pitch is missing more bats. Similar to the splitter and a high spin rate, I’d be worried if Tanaka’s spin rate on his slider was way down. Overall, it’s been great. It’s those one or two (or three or four) mistake pitches per start that have cost him dearly. Limiting those is the key going forward, which is something we probably already knew, huh? Yeah.

* * *

All things considered, the spin rates on Tanaka’s splitter and slider are right where they should be so far this season. That’s good! That’s at least an indication he’s not broken for good. I never really through that was the case though. If it were, Tanaka wouldn’t throw these random great starts every once in a while. This leads me to believe his problems are mechanical, which is what he’s said since Spring Training. Funny how that works.

With Tanaka, he can never be a normal pitcher and just struggle. Every time he has a bad game or a bad stretch of games or hell, even throws a bad pitch, it’s because of the elbow. Always the elbow. That’s lazy though. We’re better than that. If Tanaka’s elbow were acting up, he wouldn’t be able to spin the baseball the way he normally does, and right now the overall spin rates on his slider and splitter show no red flags.

Whether he’s out short-term or long-term, the Yankees have options to replace CC Sabathia

(Sean M. Haffey/Getty)
(Sean M. Haffey/Getty)

The Yankees lost more than just a game last night. The game is whatever. Losses happen, even frustrating ones. In the grand scheme of things, losing CC Sabathia to a hamstring injury is a much greater concern than one loss in the standings. Sabathia has been rock solid overall this season, and his steadiness is important to the rotation. The Yankees will miss him.

“It is a little sore,” said Sabathia to George King after last night’s game. “It happened on (my) second to last pitch, I felt it grab. I thought maybe it was a cramp, but when I went to push off, it hurt and didn’t feel good … It’s sore, hopefully I wake up, and it feels better.”

At some point later today we’ll learn the severity of Sabathia’s hamstring injury, and man, I really hope it’s nothing serious. Miss one or two starts, that sort of that thing. That would be ideal. Either way, minor injury or major injury, the Yankees will have to replace Sabathia in the rotation in the short-term in some way. And no, I don’t think it will be Chance Adams.

Adams, the organization’s top Triple-A pitching prospect, has a 1.78 ERA (3.45 ERA) in 12 starts and 70.2 innings total this season. It feels inevitable that he will make his MLB debut this season. I just don’t think it will be right now, as in Sabathia’s next rotation turn, which is slated for Sunday. Even if Sabathia’s injury is serious, I don’t think Adams will get the call to pitch this weekend.

This is what I think will happen. The Yankees will place Sabathia on the disabled list today — Joe Girardi all but confirmed Sabathia is DL bound after the game yesterday — and they’ll use that to circumvent the ten-day rule and bring Domingo German back. They’ll then let German and Chad Green tag team Sunday’s start, with Girardi knowing full well he can empty his bullpen because Monday is an off-day.

Then, after the off-day, the Yankees will go through their regular four starters and reevaluate where they stand before they need to use a fifth starter again on June 24th. Maybe Sabathia will be able to come off the disabled list by then! That would be neat. It is a 10-day DL nowadays, remember. Maybe he’ll miss just the one start, and be able to return next week after sitting out a few days. That’s the best case scenario.

But, if Sabathia will need to miss more time, the Yankees will determine the next step when June 24th rolls around. That could mean rolling with Green/German again, or maybe turning Adams loose, or giving Luis Cessa a chance, or going with someone else entirely. Having options is cool. The most popular option, the one I think 95% of fans want to see, is Adams. The best and most sensible option is probably Green and German though. At least right now it is. The fact this is even up for debate is a good thing. Depth is wonderful.

Point is, I don’t think the Yankees are going to change the development plan of one of their top prospects to address a need at the big league level. I said the same thing about Gleyber Torres and third base. Sabathia being hurt doesn’t make Adams more MLB ready. He has some real development goals to accomplish this season, specifically improving his command, and doing that in the big leagues isn’t easy. I don’t think the Yankees will want to rush him, which leads me to believe it’ll be Green again.

Anyway, before the Yankees make any decisions, they have to see what the tests say and find out how long Sabathia will be sidelined. The severity of the injury is absolutely going to be a factor in their roster decisions. I know everyone wants to see Adams, and we very well might thanks to this injury, but my guess is the Yankees will use Green as a stopgap Sunday, then reevaluate things after the off-day.

Chad Green can be a better version of Adam Warren

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Chad Green is currently just a long reliever (and occasional spot starter), but he has the potential to be much more for the Yankees.

This season, Green has made eight appearances. He’s recorded at least four outs in all but one game and thrown at least two innings in five, including his Sunday start. He’s come in with the Yankees leading by three runs or fewer twice and with them down by two runs or fewer twice. Very few of those innings can be considered high leverage.

Simply put, he hasn’t been trusted to get the biggest outs, but he’s also had the opportunity to give the Yankees much-needed length at times to save the rest of the bullpen. He’s struck out 23 in 18 2/3 innings while sporting a 2.41 ERA.

It’s early, but his role looks strikingly similar to Adam Warren in 2013. Warren that season threw 77 innings over 34 games (two starts) and was the consistent long man for the team. He soaked up innings in losses (24 of them in all) and didn’t pick up a hold until Sept. 12, though it’s hard to say he wasn’t more than adequate in his role (3.39 ERA).

A year later, Warren earned himself an important middle innings role, moving up in the reliever food chain. As you surely know, he’s since maintained that role. He still takes multi-inning appearances on thanks to his background as a starter, but he’s primarily a middle reliever now and an effective one at that.

Warren (Getty Images)
Warren (Getty Images)

When looking at both Warren’s scouting report as a prospect and the report on Green, the similarities between the two are pretty clear: They both were considered potential starters who relied on their four-seam fastballs and solid sliders. Neither had established significant success with their changeups or their other non-slider offspeed pitches.

But they diverge in two significant ways. First, Green simply has better stuff. His fastball averages over 95 mph while Warren tops out around 95-96. Green’s slider has graded as above average while Warren’s was viewed as more an average offspeed offering. Baseball America had Green going into this season as a 50-grade prospect while they had Warren as a 45 going into 2012.

However, they had Warren as a 45-low and Green as a 50-high, indicating that Warren was at less risk to hitting his ceiling. Keep in mind, this was a time when Warren hadn’t reached the majors while Green already had 45 2/3 MLB innings. Green’s elbow injury at the end of last season definitely casts a shadow over him. Sprained UCLs and flexor tendons are nothing with which to trifle.

But Green’s potential reaches beyond Warren’s accomplishments. The 26-year-old righty may be simply the long man right now, but he’s also been quite effective (20 strikeouts and a 1.62 ERA in 16 2/3 innings). He finished with a 4.73 ERA last season yet had at least five strikeouts in six of his eight starts. His six innings of shutout ball with 11 strikeouts against the Blue Jays last Aug. 15 showed all of his potential.

He can fan batters with his plus-velocity on his fastball/cutter while mixing in his strong slider. Whether or not he can be a long-term starter comes down to his ability to harness his other offspeed pitches. Lefties hit .287/.351/.663 against him last year, so the changeup is key to that end. For what it’s worth, he told Suzyn Waldman before Sunday’s start that he’s worked on the changeup to the point that hitters have to consider it. He’s been better against LHBs in 2017, albeit in a smaller sample size. Furthermore, he’s yet to go multiple times through a lineup.

However, based simply on the fastball and slider, he can be an effective late-inning reliever. Even the fastball alone got him through the heart of the Orioles’ lineup on Sunday when he didn’t have his best command. His ability to throw multiple innings adds to his overall effectiveness. And if he hits his ceiling, it can far surpass the reliability of Warren in the near future.

The time for Chance Adams to get an opportunity to help the Yankees is fast approaching

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Fifty-six games into the 2017 season, the Yankees are one of three teams to use only five starting pitchers this year. The Yankees, the Cardinals, and the Braves. That’s the list. And soon it’ll be only the Yankees and Cardinals. The Braves put Bartolo Colon on the disabled list two days ago and will call up top pitching prospect Sean Newcomb to start in his place this weekend.

At some point this year, possibly sooner rather than later, the Yankees will use a sixth starting pitcher. It’s inevitable in baseball these days. The question is whether they will use that sixth starter because they want to use one to give their other starters rest, or because they have to use one due to injury or poor performance. Obviously the former is much more preferable.

Whenever the time for a sixth starter comes, one of the names the Yankees are sure to consider is Chance Adams, arguably their top pitching prospect overall (eh) and inarguably their top pitching prospect at the Triple-A level (duh). Last time out Adams took a no-hitter into the fifth inning. The start before that, he struck out 12 in six innings.

So far this season the 22-year-old Adams has a 1.55 ERA (3.34 FIP) with 26.5% strikeouts and 10.4% walks in eleven starts and 64 innings split between Double-A and Triple-A. Last year he had a 2.33 ERA (2.96 FIP) with 29.1% strikeouts and 7.9% walks in 24 starts and 127.1 innings. To call the reliever-to-starter conversion a success would be a pretty big understatement. Adams has been great since joining the rotation.

While the overall numbers look nice, Adams is not a finished product sitting in Triple-A. He’s still working to improve his changeup to combat left-handers, and his walk rate is a wee bit too high, which pitching coach Larry Rothschild recently chalked up to subpar fastball command. He’s working on it though. Here’s what Rothschild told Brendan Kuty:

“I think everybody  — the guys who have been working with him in the minor leagues — I think he’s been talked to about that certainly when he was with us (in big league Spring Training). I think it’s just a natural maturation process. I think he’s perfectly capable of (improving his fastball command). I think at times, just watching the tape of him this year, where he’s been good.”

Can Adams help the Yankees right now? I think so, though I’ll admit I’m less confident in his ability to step right into a big league rotation and be consistently solid from the get-go the way Jordan Montgomery did. That’s not intended to be a knock on Adams! Montgomery was a really polished prospect who’s been a starting pitcher basically his entire life. Going through a lineup three times wasn’t that new to him.

Adams has the tools to help the Yankees soon as a starting pitcher, and like most young starters, chances are there will be some bumps along the way. That’s baseball. He’s got to get his feet wet at some point though, and I think that time is rapidly approaching. Joe Girardi shot down Adams replacing Montgomery in the rotation — “Really? Are you kidding me? Come on now,” said Girardi to Bryan Hoch when asked that over the weekend — so that won’t happen, nor should it.

On merit, the starting pitcher who most deserves to lose his rotation spot is Masahiro Tanaka, and even though I am in favor of giving him a little time out, I’m not sure it’ll happen. I think the odds are pretty good the Yankees will ride it out with him and hope he fixes things on the fly. In that case, pretty much the only way to get Adams’ feet wet in the big leagues is as a spot sixth starter. Call him up, make a start to give the guys a rest, then go back down.

There are some roster consequences to doing that, namely:

  1. Someone has to be designated for assignment to clear a 40-man roster spot.
  2. Someone has to be demoted to clear a 25-man roster spot, and they won’t be able to come back up for ten days.
  3. Adams would burn one of his three minor league options when he’s sent back down.

And maybe those things aren’t that big a deal. The Yankees could drop the wholly ineffective Tommy Layne from the roster, which would open both 25-man and 40-man spots, then call up any one of a number of players from Triple-A when Adams goes back down. Gio Gallegos, Luis Cessa, Ben Heller, etc. The Yankees would be tying up a 40-man spot for good though, so they’d lose some flexibility.

The minor league options thing might not be that big of a deal either. Should Adams go up and down these next three years, he’ll qualify for a fourth option because he’d burn his original three within his first five pro seasons. Also, if the Yankees need to think about using an option on Adams in 2020, something’s gone wrong. He should have established himself as a big leaguer by then. The 40-man is a bigger issue than the minor league options, I think.

The Yankees aren’t shy about throwing prospects right into the fire. Luis Severino made his big league debut against the Red Sox. Gary Sanchez was called up for a game last May specifically to face Chris Sale. I suppose the Yankees could call up Adams to make a spot start against the Orioles this Sunday, the day he lines up to pitch, which would allow them push Tanaka back a day so he could face the lowly Angels in Anaheim on Monday. Not the worst idea.

Either way, I get the sense Adams is going to make his big league debut very soon, as in before the end of the month. Hopefully it is on the Yankees’ terms (he’s ready) and their hand isn’t forced (someone is out and they need a starter). The Yankees are going to give Adams every chance to be part of the rotation long-term, and part of the process is allowing him to get his feet wet this summer. His time is coming and soon.

Yankees have reached a tipping point with Masahiro Tanaka

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last night, for the fourth time in his last five starts, Masahiro Tanaka allowed at least five runs and put the Yankees in a pretty sizeable early hole. He’s also allowed multiple home runs in four of his last six starts. Five runs in five innings against the Red Sox gives Tanaka a 6.55 ERA (5.60 FIP) in 12 starts and 66 innings this season. It has been especially ugly of late.

As he’s gone through this brutal stretch lately, two problems have persisted for Tanaka. One, his location has been pretty terrible. The homers he’s giving up are on pitches right out over the plate. And two, his splitter and slider don’t have the same bite. Some do! But many are flat. Look at the home run Mitch Moreland hit last night:

That’s a slider and it does nothing. A total cement mixer. It spins and spins and that’s it. Tanaka doesn’t overpower hitters. Never has. He succeeds with movement and location, and hey, it’s worked out wonderfully for him for a long time. Now Tanaka has neither the movement nor the location, and, well, that’s you get a 6.55 ERA.

At this point, given the depth of Tanaka’s recent struggles, the Yankees have reached a point where they have to seriously consider making a change to their rotation. I was cool with maintaining the status quo two weeks ago. Then it was only back-to-back bad starts. Every starter does that at some point, right? Tanaka is no different.

Now it’s four bad starts in the span of five starts. The home run problem has become extreme — Tanaka has allowed 13 home runs in his last 23.2 innings (4.94 HR/9!) — and there’s no indication they’re going away. The Yankees have lost Tanaka’s last five starts and he’s been the biggest culprit in four of them. Something’s gotta give.

Okay, so now what? What do the Yankees do with Tanaka? Realistically, there are only three options:

  1. Place him on the phantom disabled list with a made up injury and give him time to figure things out on the side, or in minor league rehab games.
  2. Keep him on the active roster and skip his next start. Instead of carrying an eighth reliever, carry a sixth starter. Easy peasy.
  3. Keep him on the active roster and put him in the bullpen, and let him throw mop-up innings for the time being.

I have no idea which one is best for Tanaka. The phantom disabled list sounds great because it buys the Yankees an indefinite period of time to fix Tanaka … as long as he’s willing to play along. He’s a competitor and he wants to play. Sitting on the disabled list while healthy would not sit well with, like, 99.9% of all players, and they’d go to the union. It’s not quite as simple as it sounds.

Tanaka to me looks healthy. Maybe he’s not! But I’ve watched an embarrassing amount of baseball in my lifetime and I’ve seen my fair share of injured pitchers on the mound, and Tanaka doesn’t look injured. The velocity is there and his delivery is smooth. He looks like himself, just with crappier pitches. Injured pitchers don’t look like themselves.

I think Tanaka’s issues are 100% mechanical. Mechanical and confidence related. I don’t care who you or what you’ve accomplished in your career. Get hit around like this and your confidence is going to take a hit. As long as Tanaka is not hurt, I think he’ll figure this out. He’s too good and too smart of a pitcher not to. I don’t think he’s broken beyond repair. Not even close.

Remember, Tanaka didn’t look like himself at the start of the season, even when he was pitching reasonably well. His location wasn’t great and he was falling behind in the count a bunch, but he was able to grind through starts without letting them blow up. That hasn’t been the case lately. This is something that is getting progressively worse.

Because of that, I don’t see how the Yankees can send Tanaka out to the mound in five days, to face the same Orioles lineup that roughed him up for seven runs in 5.2 innings last week. We’ve kinda run out of excuses here right? The Austin Romine vs. Gary Sanchez narrative went away last time out. Last night put to the bed the extra rest idea too. He’s struggled at home and on the road as well.

So, call up whoever for a spot start against the O’s this weekend — I’d probably go with Luis Cessa rather than shuffle the 40-man roster to call up Chance Adams, only to burn an option when he goes back down — then reevaluate. If the Yankees want to get Tanaka back out there, he’ll get to start against the weak hitting Angels or Athletics on the West Coast next week. That’s much better than the Orioles at Yankee Stadium.

The scariest thing about Tanaka’s struggles is that no one seems to have an answer. Perhaps the Yankees have a diagnosis behind the scenes and are working on a solution without telling us. I hope that’s the case. Even then though, after this recent stretch, giving Tanaka a bit of a time out would be best. The Yankees are in contention! They should give themselves the best chance to win. Right now, Tanaka does not do that.