Chad Green’s need for a third pitch is obvious after his first big league start

(Norm Hall/Getty)
(Norm Hall/Getty)

Thanks to Luis Severino‘s triceps injury, rookie right-hander Chad Green made his MLB debut last night, allowing six runs (four earned) on eight hits and a walk in four-plus innings against the Diamondbacks. He struck out five and allowed two homers. It wasn’t the worst first career start by a Yankee, but it wasn’t great either.

Despite the numbers, I thought Green’s raw stuff looked pretty good most of the game. His fastball was consistently in the mid-90s and he showed a sharp — albeit inconsistent — mid-80s slider at times as well. Here’s the PitchFX info for his outing, via Brooks Baseball:

Chad Green pitch selection

Getting six whiffs on 30 total swings against the fastball is really good! The slider … not so much. Green threw 19 sliders and only eight were strikes, though, to be fair, home plate umpire C.B. Bucknor seemed to have a tight zone all night. Both teams had some borderline calls not go their way.

What we don’t see in the PitchFX data is a third pitch, or more precisely a second offspeed pitch. The scouting report on Green says he started throwing a splitter last season but we sure didn’t see it last night. Arizona’s left-handed batters went 4-for-10 with only one strikeout and three swings and misses against Green. The lack of a second secondary pitch was a clear weakness.

This was never more obvious than during Jake Lamb’s fifth inning at-bat with runners on first and second. Green got ahead in the count 0-2 against the left-handed batter, but he had nothing to put Lamb away, so eventually the count ran full, then bam. Homer.

Chad Green Jake Lamb

(PitchFX classified a slider as a curveball for whatever reason. The manually classified data at Brooks Baseball corrected it.)

If there was ever a time to show the splitter, that was it. Green was facing Lamb for the third time — Lamb had a hit in each of his first two at-bats — and he had him in an 0-2 count with two runners on base in a tie game. It didn’t even need to be a good splitter. It only needed to be something different to keep the hitter guessing.

Green’s slider has reportedly improved over the last few weeks thanks to some tinkering by Triple-A Scranton pitching coach Tommy Phelps — “It seems to have some more depth, which is important. Obviously he’s got a very good fastball, and it’s got some sink to it,” said Joe Girardi to Wally Matthews — and that’s good. Improving a breaking ball is a positive. He’s going to need more than that slider to remain in the rotation long-term though.

Left-handed batters have punished Green in the minors — they hit .299/.355/.451 against him in a full season at Double-A last year — so this is an ongoing problem. The scouting report says he has a splitter, and I’m sure he does somewhere, but we didn’t see it last night and it hasn’t kept even minor league lefties at bay. I was impressed by Green’s fastball/slider combination overall against the D’Backs. That won’t be enough though. He’ll need to show a third pitch more often to have success as a starter going forward.

Rotation and middle relief remain problems as the offense starts to turn things around

(Norm Hall/Getty)
(Norm Hall/Getty)

For the first four or five weeks of the season, the Yankees sank like a stone in the standings because the offense was unable to get much of anything going. The struggled to score night after night and it wasn’t one or two guys who were short-circuiting the offense. Everyone except Starlin Castro was a problem for a few weeks there.

Thankfully the offense has started to right the ship, even considering the two runs scored in last night’s loss. The Yankees have won eight of their last 13 games and they’ve scored five runs or more six times in those 13 games. They did it only five times in the first 24 games of the season. It’s not much, but it’s progress. The offense is trending in the right direction, by and large.

The pitching, on the other hand, has been an issue pretty much all season. Masahiro Tanaka has been very good overall and the back end of the bullpen has been ridiculous, but that’s about it. The CC Sabathia/Ivan Nova rotation spot has been fine too I guess, and while Nathan Eovaldi has had his moments, he’s still super unpredictable from start to start. He’s great one night and he can’t get out of the fifth inning five days later.

Last night’s 12-2 loss was the fourth time in the last seven games the Yankees have allowed at least seven runs. They rank 20th among all teams in ERA (4.48) and 18th in FIP (4.12). The rotation is 24th in ERA (5.01) and 19th in FIP (4.44). That’s bad. Legit bad. Not “bad but you can squint your eyes and it’s okay” bad. I mean bad bad. The middle innings are a question and rotation is a straight up liability.

The offense was always going to improve at some point because the Yankees are not nearly as bad as they looked. They weren’t going to hit .100-something with runners in scoring position all year and guys like Mark Teixeira, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Chase Headley weren’t going to slump forever. Is the offense a powerhouse? Of course not. But April was just an awful slump. It wasn’t representative of the team’s true ability.

I’m not so sure about the rotation though. We’ve been talking about Eovaldi’s and Michael Pineda‘s potential for weeks and months — we’ve been talking about it since last year, basically — and yeah, that potential exists, but the only thing those two have proven at this point is the ability to be consistently inconsistent. You go into each start hoping for a strong outing and are completely unsure if you’ll get it.

Sabathia has probably been the Yankees’ second best starter this year, which is as much praise for Sabathia as it is a knock against the rest of the rotation. Luis Severino was a total disaster before getting hurt. Severino’s awfulness has been the real rotation killer. Everyone expected him to take a step forward this year and emerge as a rock for the rotation. The opposite has happened. Now guys like Nova and Chad Green are being forced into action.

The Yankees, as it stands right now, do not have the pitching to be a legitimate contender. Tanaka is awesome and the back of the bullpen is as good as it gets. The other eight pitching roster spots leave an awful lot to be desired. And there’s not much the Yankees can do about it right now either. They can swap out some relievers, but, at the end of the day, it’s going to come down to Pineda and Eovaldi being difference makers. Severino righting the ship as well.

We’re approaching the quarter point of the season and the sample size ain’t so small anymore. The rotation has been one of the ten worst in baseball overall and the pitching staff as a whole isn’t much better. It shows in their record in blowouts: the Yankees are 5-11 in games decided by four or more runs. They seem to win close games by turning things over to the end-game relievers and lose blowouts because the rest of the staff is so shaky.

The offense is the main reason the Yankees are 16-21, their worst record through 37 games since starting 15-22 in 1995. They were unable to put runs on the board for far too long. The pitching might be what prevents the Yankees from climbing out of this early season hole though. They’re allowing 4.62 runs per game on average, and that is simply too much to overcome on a consistent basis.

Drifting release points costing Betances deception, but it hasn’t mattered yet

(Patrick Smith/Getty)
(Patrick Smith/Getty)

After 122 starts and parts of eight seasons in the minors, the Yankees finally pulled the plug on Dellin Betances as a starting pitcher in Triple-A four years ago. His control problems were not going away — he walked 99 batters in 131.1 innings in 2012 — and there’s only so long you can wait for a guy to figure things out. It was time to make a change, so to the bullpen Betances went.

Dellin has been a revelation out of the bullpen. He dominated Triple-A as a reliever in 2013, made the Yankees out of Spring Training in 2014, and has remained a mainstay in the Circle of Trust™ ever since. His numbers over the last three seasons are just insane: 1.53 ERA (2.09 FIP) with 40.3% strikeout rate. Betances leads all relievers in strikeouts (293) — Andrew Miller is second with 226 (!) — and is second in bWAR (+7.5) behind Wade Davis (+7.8) since 2014. He’s been phenomenal.

Betances dominates hitters with an upper-90s fastball and a curveball that is the very definition of a knee-buckler. We’ve seen more than a few hitters jelly leg at the pitch only to watch it dart down the middle for a called strike. The fact Betances is also 6-foot-8 and releasing the ball that much closer to the plate helps things as well. As does the way he “tunnels” his pitches, meaning he throws the fastball and curve from the same spot.

That deception has been an underrated part of Dellin’s dominance these last few years. That deception, the ability to tunnel pitches from the same release point, has been fading, however. Here are his vertical and horizontal release points by month, via Brooks Baseball:

Dellin Betances vertical release point Dellin Betances horizontal release point

See how nice and tight together Dellin’s release points were back in 2014? The fastball and curve came from the exact same spot. So not only was the heater coming in at 98+ mph and the curveball breaking like mad, it was close to impossible to read the pitch out of his hand. Betances released both pitches from the same spot and hitters basically had to guess whether it would stay true (fastball) or break (curve). That’s why so many hitters buckled against the curve. It looked like a high fastball.

Last year Dellin’s release points started to gradually drift apart, and that has continued early season. He releases his fastball from one place and the curveball from another. Here’s a GIF showing his release points by year.

Dellin Betances release points

Again, back in 2014 his release points where right on top of each other. That’s good! Last year Dellin’s release point on the curve started to fade a little towards the third base side. This year the two release points don’t overlap at all. Astute hitters will pick up on this and have a better idea of what’s coming. (I’m not saying it’s easy to read his release points, but it’s possible.)

The called strike rate on Betances’ curveball dropped from 26.1% in 2014 to 22.2% last year. In the super early going this year his curve has a 25.2% called strike rate, so while it has ticked up from last season, we have to keep in mind this is a small sample. He’s thrown 143 curves this year. One outing could chance that 25.2% drastically in either direction.

Betances has thrown his curveball for a strike roughly 41% of the time since the start of 2014 and that rate has held steady. So has the rate of misses when hitters swing. That number is right around 50%, which is out of this world. Even with his release points drifting apart, Betances is still insanely good because his stuff is so overwhelming. He could tell hitters his curveball is coming and lots of them still wouldn’t be able to hit it.

As long as Betances isn’t hiding an injury, and there’s no reason to think he is, the change in release points is not an issue right now. And it might never be. I do think this is something to keep an eye on going forward though. Most pitchers gradually drop their arm slot over time because of wear and tear, but Betances is only doing it with his curve, not his fastball. He’s a guy who has fought his mechanics his entire career, remember. If Betances’ release points continue to drift apart, it could give hitters that much more of a fighting chance against him.

There’s a lot at stake with Nova’s return to the rotation

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last night, Ivan Nova made his first start in place of the injured CC Sabathia, and it went … okay. Not great, not bad. He was serviceable. One run on six hits and a walk in 4.2 innings isn’t awful, especially since he was on a pitch limit. That’s about as good as you can expect from your sixth starter in his first start out of the bullpen.

“It was a good night for me. I faced the last batter and saw 81 pitches and I knew I was coming out,” said Nova to Dan Martin after the game. Joe Girardi added, “He did a tremendous job. I hated that I had to pull him out. I was hoping he would get a double play with the last batter to get the win, but it wasn’t meant to be.”

Sabathia beat out Nova for the fifth starter’s job in Spring Training and he’s been pretty good in the early going. The Yankees hope he can return following the minimum 15 days on the DL, but that’s no guarantee, so Nova is in the rotation for the foreseeable future. There’s quite a bit at stake here in the meantime.

  1. Wins. Duh. If Nova pitches poorly, the Yankees probably won’t win because the offense has been stinky. The team needs all the wins they can get right now.
  2. A Rotation Spot. Nova may be replacing Sabathia, but that does not necessarily mean he’ll automatically go back to the bullpen when CC is activated. Nova wants to make the Yankees think long and hard about sending Luis Severino to Triple-A.
  3. Trade Value. This is more relevant to the Yankees than Nova. The better Ivan pitches, the more the team could get for him in a trade at the deadline if it comes to that.
  4. Free Agent Stock. This is more relevant to Nova than the Yankees. Nova’s going to be a free agent after the season, so the better he pitches, the more he can demand on the open market.

This stint in the rotation, however long it may be, is a big opportunity for Nova. He has a lot to gain as an impending free agent. Ivan has to pitch well to keep his rotation spot and maximize his free agent stock. And, ironically, pitching well could land him in another uniform via trade come July.

Money is a great motivator, and by MLB player standards, Nova hasn’t made much of it in his career. His career earnings check in at a bit under $9M, so you know he’s hoping to land that huge payday after the season. Pitching well during this stint as Sabathia’s replacement is Nova’s first step in building free agent value.

The Yankees tried and failed to trade Nova over the winter and I think that’s a good thing. He wasn’t good last season and his trade value was at an all-time low. I think he is more valuable as a depth arm than anything he could have realistically fetch in a trade. They’re fortunate they have him now with Severino struggling and Bryan Mitchell hurt, and the possibility exists for him to increase his value. Moving Nova for the sake of moving him never did make much sense to me.

For now, Nova is in the rotation and he’s still getting stretched back out. The single most important thing at the moment is winning games. The Yankees dug themselves quite a hole and need Nova to do more than hold down the fort. They need him to thrive to help them make up ground. And if he does thrive, that’s opens a lot of doors, both in the rotation and in terms of trade and free agent value.

More cutters and fewer four-seam fastballs have helped Sabathia regain some effectiveness in 2016

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Seven months ago CC Sabathia left Camden Yards and entered an alcohol treatment center. Last night Sabathia pitched in Camden Yards for the first time since rehab and he had his best start of the season, holding the Orioles scoreless over seven innings. Sabathia has been through it all as a baseball player. I’m sure last night’s game was as special as any win in his career.

“It’s a big contrast from me standing in this locker room last time. To be able to go out and get us a win felt great,” said Sabathia to Chad Jennings after the game. Joe Girardi added, “I’m sure it meant a lot. I kind of thought about it as we came into the ballpark and it was his day to pitch. The circumstances were a little bit different (last time). I’m sure it meant a lot. It meant a lot to this club.”

Through five full rotation turns Sabathia has been New York’s second best starting pitcher behind Masahiro Tanaka. Only Tanaka has a better ERA (2.87 to 3.81) and a better FIP (2.78 to 3.53) among the team’s five starters. That’s pretty surprising considering the Yankees made Sabathia compete for a rotation spot in Spring Training, or at least they said Sabathia had to compete for a rotation spot.

The changeup was Sabathia’s best pitch last night — the O’s missed eight times on 13 swings against the change — but it’s another pitch that has allowed him to have this success early on: the cutter. Sabathia has been toying with a cutter on and off for years now, and for most part it was just talk. He would say he was working on it and then throw maybe one or two per start. Now he’s committed to it. From Brooks Baseball:

CC Sabathia pitch selection

Notice the cutter has more or less replaced the four-seam fastball in Sabathia’s arsenal. In fact, PitchFX says he’s thrown 13 four-seam fastballs all season. He threw 27 cutters just last night. It’s for the best too. Last season opponents hit .300 with a .167 ISO against Sabathia’s four-seamer. The league averages were .269 and .175 last year, respectively. “Stop throwing an ineffective pitch” is a good strategy as long as you have a way to compensate.

The cutter has given Sabathia a way to compensate. He doesn’t throw hard anymore — Sabathia hasn’t thrown a pitch over 92.4 mph all season — so the extra movement is crucial. So is the location. More than ever before, Sabathia has to disrupt the hitter’s timing and keep them guessing. “That’s exactly what happened,” said Girardi after last night’s game. “Just kind of keep guys off balance. Try to out-think them and make some good pitches.”

Once again per Brooks Baseball, here is the strike zone heat map of Sabathia’s cutter location this season. This is from the catcher’s point of view and, in a nutshell, the brighter the red, the more cutters in that location. The brighter the blue, the fewer cutters in that spot.

CC Sabathia cutter locations

Sabathia is getting the cutter right in on the hands of right-handed batters to jam them and even back them off the plate. He did that last night and it set up all those swings and misses on changeups away. The O’s had seven right-handed hitters in their starting lineup and it played right into Sabathia’s cutter/changeup plan. It’s might not be a coincidence that in the other two starts in which he completed six innings, the Tigers and Rangers had eight and seven righties in the lineup, respectively.

Last year right-handed hitters meant bad news for Sabathia. They hit .304/.363/.502 (.370 wOBA) against him in 2015, so Sabathia essentially turned every righty hitter he faced into Manny Machado (.286/.359/.502/.370). That’s bad. So far this season CC has not been great against righties, but he has been a bit better.

AVG/OBP/SLG wOBA K% BB% GB% Hard% Soft%
2015 vs. RHB .304/.363/.502 .370 16.2% 7.5% 47.0% 30.9% 15.3%
2016 vs. RHB .290/.350/.391 .328 16.8% 6.9% 47.3% 26.3% 26.3%

A .290 average and a .350 OBP still isn’t good, obviously, but righties haven’t hit for the same extra base power. The big increase in soft contact rate is most encouraging. Righties haven’t been squaring up as many pitches against Sabathia so far this season and that’s because he is now pounding them inside with cutters. He’s jamming them and missing the sweet spot. That wasn’t happening with the four-seamer.

Coming into this season Sabathia was viewed as the fifth starter and for good reason. He simply hasn’t been all that good in recent years. Tanaka has been the unquestioned staff ace, but Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi continue to be consistently inconsistent, and Luis Severino has been shockingly bad early on. Through five starts Sabathia has stepped up and been rock solid for the Yankees, thanks partly to his new knee brace and also to a new cutter, one he actually throws.

Poll: The Next Step with Luis Severino

(Patrick Smith/Getty)
(Patrick Smith/Getty)

Last night, young right-hander Luis Severino made his fifth start of the season, and once again he was not good. He allowed four runs (three earned) in six innings and made a pair of carbon copy errors when he dropped a toss from Mark Teixeira because he was looking for first base rather than looking the ball into his glove. It was not a pretty night.

Through five starts Severino ranks 95th out of 101 qualified starters with a 6.31 ERA. His 4.44 FIP is better but still not good; it ranks 72nd out of those 101 pitchers. Also, his 13.8% strikeout rate ranks 94th. There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Severino has been bad this season. You really have to squint your eyes for positives. (He has the tenth lowest walk rate at 4.3%, so yay?)

“If necessary,” said Brian Cashman to Chad Jennings yesterday afternoon when asked about the possibility of sending Severino to Triple-A. “If we feel that’s what has to take place, that’s definitely an avenue that’s open. Hopefully it doesn’t have to come to that, but if that’s what’s in his best interest, and therefore our best interest, that’s something I have no problem doing.”

After another rough start, the talk about sending Severino to the minors is only going to continue. The Yankees have a ready made rotation replacement in Ivan Nova, or, if you prefer, they could call up either Luis Cessa or Chad Green from Triple-A Scranton since both have pitched well overall. When a young pitcher struggles, he gets sent back to the minors. That’s the way it’s always been.

A week ago I said it was a bit too early to send Severino to Triple-A. Now, after another rough outing, a strong case can be made on both sides. There’s an argument to be made for sending Severino down and an argument to be made for keeping him here. I’m not convinced there’s a right answer at the moment either. Let’s look at the two sides.

The Case For Keeping Severino Around

The rough start to this season can make it easy to forget just how dominant Severino was in the minors. From 2014-15 he had a 2.45 ERA (2.42 FIP) with a 26.4% strikeout rate and a 6.3% walk rate in 212.2 minor league innings. He climbed from Low-A to Triple-A in the span of about 14 months. Severino allowed more than three runs only three times in 43 starts from 2014-15. He allowed more than two runs only ten times. Dominant.

Severino has mastered the minors. He can go down to Triple-A and overwhelm hitters with his fastball alone, and that doesn’t accomplish much developmentally. Severino, like everyone else ever, needs to be challenged to continue his development, and it was not until he got to the big leagues that he was challenged consistently.

As best I can tell, most of Severino’s issues right now are location related. He’s missing his spots and not by an inch or two either. I refer you back to Mark Trumbo’s first home run last night:

Luis Severino Mark Trumbo1

Yeah, Brian McCann wanted it down and away, and Severino threw it up and in. That’s a mistake you can get away with in the minors when you throw 95+ like Severino. Big league hitters will make you pay for that pitch. Triple-A hitters often do not. That pitch shows up as a K in the minor league box score and that K leaves out all the important stuff.

The Yankees can force Severino to work on specific things in the minors — you need to throw this many down and away sliders per start, etc. — though they’ll never be able to replicate the MLB atmosphere. The intensity and the quality of the competition is totally different. Severino could go down, dot the corners with sliders for a month, then come back up and struggle again because it’s a much different game in the show.

Remember, Severino is only 22 years old. He’s a young 22 too. His birthday is in February, so he’ll spend the entire season at that age. He still has a lot to learn, and it seems Severino has learned all he can in the minors given the success he had. The next phase of his development is learning how to get big league hitters out, and that’s not something you can do in Triple-A.

The Case For Sending Severino Down

Let’s start with this: Severino is not pitching well and these games count, so the Yankees should swap him out for a more effective pitcher. That’s pretty simple, right? At the end of the day, results are the only thing that matters in MLB. It’s all about wins and losses, and the current version of Severino is not getting the results that help the Yankees win.

Beyond that, the Yankees can more easily target specific deficiencies in Severino’s game in the minors. They can have him throw X number of whatever per start in Triple-A regardless of situation because the final score doesn’t matter. Sending players to the minors is not about stats. The Yankees won’t send Severino down, watch him pitch to a 2.00 ERA for six weeks, then call him back up because the results are good. Nope. You send a player down to work on specific things, and once the necessary improvement is there, the player comes back up.

There’s also the confidence factor to consider. Severino is only human. He’s struggling, and when you’re a young player who is experiencing failure for the first time, it can be easy to get down on yourself. Imagine how Severino must of have felt last night after giving up two dingers and making those two errors. That has to be tough. An assignment to Triple-A gives him a chance to catch his breath and experience some success again.

* * *

Right now big league hitters are telling Severino he has to make adjustments to stick around, and the Yankees must decide whether they want him make those adjustments in the Bronx or in Scranton. We’re at the point now where having his conversation is not unwarranted. After one or two bad starts? Nah. Too soon to talk about it. But after five? Yeah, this is a thing now. What side of the argument are you on?

Should should the Yankees do with Severino?

Michael Pineda, Nate Eovaldi, and the struggle to manage contact

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Three nights ago Nathan Eovaldi threw the best game by a Yankee this season. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning and finished the night with two hits allowed in seven scoreless frames. Eovaldi has dazzled at times earlier this season, but it was always followed by the One Bad Inning. He avoided that bad inning Tuesday night.

“Uncomfortable swings. You can tell how good a guy is by the reaction of the hitters. They were swinging at pitches in the dirt. They were swinging at pitches over their heads,” said Mark Teixeira to Randy Miller after the game. “It’s just an uncomfortable at-bat. He’s throwing 97-98. When he needs to throw a strike on the corner, he does. But when he needs to put guys away with tough offspeed pitches in the dirt or high fastballs, he did that as well.”

Eovaldi’s raw stuff and potential are obvious. He’s one of the hardest throwing starters in baseball, and he’s developed a pretty nasty splitter over the last year or so. On Tuesday he mixed in a quality slider as well. Eovaldi’s impressive stuff has not yet translated to consistently impressive results, but every so often he has a game like Tuesday that reels you back in. Most of his starts are spent pitching around hits and trying to find a way to put guys away with two strikes.

Over the years we’ve learned things like strikeouts, walks, and home runs — stuff the pitcher can directly control — are more predictive than traditional stats like wins and ERA and WHIP. That’s DIPS Theory, something the Yankees buy into big time. They targeted Eovaldi because from 2012-14, he whittled his FIP down from 4.13 to 3.59 to 3.37. The team likes high strikeout rates and low walk rates, and the more velocity, the better. Intuitively that’s a no-brainer, but not every team emphasizes it as much as the Yankees.

As valuable as FIP (and xFIP and SIERA and all that) can be, there are exceptions to the rule. Guys like Bronson Arroyo and Mark Buehrle proved over hundreds and thousands of innings they can outperform their FIP. They did a better job preventing runs than their peripheral stats would lead you to believe. On the other side of the coin, guys like Ricky Nolasco and Edwin Jackson underperformed their FIP. They didn’t prevent runs as well as their strikeout, walk, and homer rates suggested they could.

The exceptions exist because pitchers do have some control over the quality of the contact they allow. Some pitchers, like Arroyo and Buehrle and Mariano Rivera, were able to consistently miss the barrel of the bat and generate weak contact. They did it through location, late movement, and general craftiness. The Nolascos and Jacksons of the pitching world struggle to miss the sweet spot.

Based on what we’ve seen the last few years, Eovaldi and rotation mate Michael Pineda fit into the Nolasco/Jackson category. They’ve underperformed their FIP because have a hard time managing contact:

Eovaldi: 4.22 ERA and 3.44 FIP in 179 innings from 2015-16
Pineda: 4.68 ERA and 3.61 FIP in 182.2 innings from 2015-16

Their strikeout and walk rates are great! But when they make a mistake, hitters square it up and drive the ball with authority. Pineda and Eovaldi don’t get weak contact. Not like Buehrle and Arroyo and other guys.

Here’s a plot of the 99 pitchers who have thrown at least 150 innings since the start of last season. You’ve got FIP on the x-axis and BABIP on the y-axis. BABIP tells us how often the ball falls in for a hit when hitters do make contact, so it covers all the at-bats that don’t end in a strikeout or walk (or homer). You can click the image for a larger view.

2015-16 BABIP vs FIP

“Luck” has become such a crutch word in sabermetric writing — nowadays it’s “sequencing,” which is usually code for “I can’t explain this” — but there absolutely exists some element of plain ol’ luck in baseball. We’re talking about a round ball and a round bat and a big swath of grass. Sometimes weird stuff happens. That’s what makes it fun.

Pineda and Eovaldi, as you can see in the plot, find themselves among a group of pitchers who have posted low FIPs but high BABIPs since the start of the last season. They’re right next to A.J. Burnett, which is a tad disheartening. Those guys have the sexy strikeout and walk rates, but when hitters make contact, the hits are falling in. The true greats — Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke, etc. — run low FIPs and low BABIPs.

No one in their right mind is asking or expecting Pineda and Eovaldi to be Kershaw or Arrieta. It would be cool if they were, but come on. What the Yankees do want, however, are those two to do a better job managing the contact they allow. Mistake pitches happen. It’s part of baseball. Not every mistake should be hit 500 feet though. That’s the problem. When they miss their spots, they pay for it and pay big.

Eovaldi and Pineda are classic examples of good control/bad command pitchers. They throw plenty of strikes, we can see that in their low walk rates (7.0% and 3.4% since 2015, respectively), but they are unable to consistently locate on the edges. They’re throwing strikes, and unfortunately sometimes those strikes are right down the middle. Look at the heat map of Pineda’s fastball location since last season, via Brooks Baseball:

Michael Pineda fastball location

Good grief. There should not be that much red down the middle Michael! Eovaldi has a similar problem. He can throw strikes, but far too often they’re in hittable locations, and the batters make them pay. There’s a very fine line between a pitch being squared up and a pitch being nubbed off the end of the bat for weak contact. Eovaldi and Pineda have shown they can’t miss the sweet spot consistently. We see it pretty much every five days.

Command is one of those things that can be taught but is very difficult to learn. And really, there’s more to managing contact than command. Movement and deception play a huge role as well. The very best pitchers have all three. Pineda and Eovaldi have live arms. They’re also missing that something that allows them to be truly great, the thing that makes their run prevention numbers match their peripheral stats. Nolasco, Jackson, Burnett, and others had the same problem.

Because they’re still young and have power stuff, Pineda and Eovaldi are going to continue to get chances and big contracts as long as they stay healthy. It’s good to throw in the upper-90s like Eovaldi and it’s good to have a wicked slider like Pineda. Until they are able to do a better job managing contact and missing the barrel, either through improved command or increased movement or whatever, they seem destined to be the kind of pitchers who always leave you wanting more.