The pitfalls of recent rookies in the Yankees rotation

Hughes (Getty Images)
Hughes (Getty Images)

You don’t have to look far into the past to the last time the Yankees put a young starter in its opening day rotation. That is, of course, because Luis Severino – all of 22 years old at the time – made the Yankees’ rotation in 2016. It didn’t … well, it didn’t go all that great for him. He was in Triple A by mid-May and bounced between the minors, the major league rotation and the bullpen, where he was quite effective.

But you have to travel a little bit further back before then to the last time a true rookie made the Yankees’ rotation out of spring training. Ivan Nova did so in 2011 and Ian Kennedy did so in 2008. Because this has happened so few times in the last decade, I thought it might make sense to look back at these past examples for a glimpse into what the Yankees’ immediate future might look like.

After all, Jordan Montgomery and Chad Green are on the cusp of pulling off that feat this year. A fellow young starter in Severino claimed the other spot in the rotation. Therefore, in the Kennedy example, I’ll group in Phil Hughes, who had eclipsed the rookie limits in ’07 but was even younger in April of ’08 than Severino on opening day last season.

Let the look back begin.

2008

(Getty Images)
Kennedy (Getty Images)

’08 seems like the perfect reference point to the present day. The Yankees had two rotation spots open behind Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina and Chien-Ming Wang and they were Hughes and Kennedy’s spots to take, which they proceeded to do.

The Yankees’ current wave of optimism about its prospects comes primarily from its hitting, but at that time, it was because of the pitching. It’s really hard to emphasize just how excited fans (and the team) were about its pitching prospects. The team has three former first-round picks (add in Joba Chamberlain) that had shown glimpses of promise and seemed destined to be the team’s star starters/relievers.

Kennedy wasn’t a top of the rotation talent necessarily and Hughes was coming off a season with a hamstring injury, so there was some concern. However, Kennedy has impressed and Hughes had just won a playoff game. Of course these guys were going to hit the ground running. There was no way both would fall flat in their big opportunity.

Or, I guess there was. Hughes had six starts, no wins, and a 9.00 ERA in April. He didn’t make it out of the fourth inning in four of those starts. After his last start went on the disabled list with a cracked rib and wouldn’t appear in the majors again until September.

Kennedy’s start to the season went just as poorly. In nine appearances (eight starts) through the end of May, he went 0-3 with a 7.41 ERA. He only completed five innings a total of four times. In his first start, he gave up six runs and got just seven outs.

Perhaps the most disappointing moment happened when he resurfaced in the majors in August. He came up from the minors to replace an injured Chamberlain (Save the Big 3!) and gave up five runs in two innings to the Angels. He told reporters after the game he wasn’t too upset with the way he pitched, which angered many in his own clubhouse. It made some question, rightly or wrongly, whether he had the best mindset to make it through a major league season.

2011

(Getty Images)
Nova in the 2011 ALDS (Getty Images)

The failures of Kennedy and Hughes are a pretty sharp contrast to what happened for Ivan Nova. Nova was in no way the prospect that the duo were, to the point where he was claimed in the Rule 5 Draft by the Padres in 2008. He pitched in 10 games (42 innings) in 2010 and was fine. A 4.50 ERA, a low strikeout rate, but strong groundball numbers.

And at age 24 in ’11, he made the rotation. The Yankees had lost a few starters from the year prior and Nova was solid enough in the spring to earn the spot.

From there, he ran with it. He had some bad starts here and there, but for the most part would always complete five innings. He had a 5.82 ERA after April, but it went down every single month after that, culminating in a 3.70 ERA over 165 1/3 innings.

He really hit his stride over the last four months. He won his last 12 decisions, made it through five innings in each of his last 17 starts and made it through at least six in 13 of them. He didn’t allow more than four earned runs in an appearance after Apr. 15.

What are the takeaways from that? First off, it’s really important for Montgomery or Green to avoid a slow start. Getting off to even one solid appearance to begin the season will go a long way to finding one’s rhythm. They have a buffer of not needing to start until Apr. 16 in the majors, but Severino will need to go beginning with the Yankees’ second series against a solid Baltimore lineup. Staying healthy will also help because who knows if Hughes could have turned things around if he’d only stayed healthy. Heck, that’s probably a common refrain for his early Yankees’ tenure.

Nova excelled in part because he avoided bad innings, keeping teams from knocking him out quickly. If a young starter can complete five innings, it goes a long way. Whether it’s Severino or Montgomery or whomever, it won’t necessarily be all about their strikeout rate or how many people they walk. Nova struck out few and walked a ton in his first month in ’08. Those things are still important, but we also need to wait for a definitive sample size.

Therefore, it’s important to put process over results for a little while, preach some patience for these young starters. Not many pitchers have a clean beginning to their first big opportunity and it will likely take a while before these guys can establish themselves in the majors, if they even truly do.

Yankees preparing Johnny Barbato for potential starting role with Triple-A Scranton

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Ah ha! I knew I was on to something. Right-hander Johnny Barbato recently told DJ Eberle the Yankees are preparing him for a potential starting pitcher role with Triple-A Scranton this season. The decision to make him a starter isn’t final yet, but Barbato is getting stretched out and has thrown multiple innings in each appearance this spring.

The Yankees optioned Barbato out and sent him to minor league camp earlier this month, so he’s been working out across at the street the last week or two. Here’s what Barbato and Triple-A Scranton manager Al Pedrique told Eberle:

“I think my spring’s been really good,” Barbato said. “They’re going to try to put me into the rotation and all of that stuff, so I’m trying to make sure I command all of those pitches to try to get into the fifth (or) sixth instead of going just one inning.”

“If everything works out, I’m assuming that he’s going to be in the rotation to start the season and go from there,” the Triple-A manager said. “I think he’s such a strong guy. For me, if he can manage the changeup and the breaking ball with the velocity that he has, I don’t see why he cannot be solid starter.”

Barbato, who came over from the Padres in the Shawn Kelley trade two years ago, made the Opening Day roster last season and had a 7.62 ERA (4.45 FIP) with 26.3% strikeouts in 13 relief innings with the Yankees. His first few outingz went well before the wheels came off. The 24-year-old had a 2.61 ERA (3.44 FIP) with 24.1% strikeouts in 48.1 innings with the RailRiders last year.

The Yankees didn’t give Barbato a September call-up last season, and that combined with the team’s depth and his good but not great Triple-A performance had me thinking Barbato was on the 40-man chopping block this offseason. Instead, the Yankees are looking at him as a possible starting pitcher. Go figure. Ken Davidoff spoke to farm system head Gary Denbo about Chance Adams recently and this quote stuck out to me:

“We got together as a group and decided that we’re going to take our best arms and put them in the starting rotation,” Denbo said. “We saw that Chance had three pitches that had a chance to be average or plus.”

That applies to Barbato as well, who has quality stuff and is held back by command more than anything. His fastball averaged 95.1 mph during his brief big league cameo last season, and he throws both a slider and a curveball. This spring Barbato has said he’s been working on a splitter, which would give him an offspeed pitch to combat left-handers.

Obviously Adams is the big success story, but he’s not the only reliever the Yankees have tried as a starter in recent years. Jonathan Holder started all season in 2015 before the team decided he was better suited for relief. Last year they intended to try both Nick Rumbelow and Tyler Webb as starters too. Rumbelow got hurt in his first outing of the season, but Webb made a handful of starts and extended relief outings in Triple-A.

Barbato’s command might not be good enough to start — his only real starting experience is a handful of starts in rookie ball and High-A back from 2011-13 — but there’s no real reason not to trying him in that role in Triple-A. If it works, great. If not, then they’ll put him back in the bullpen and try to get value out of him that way.

Cashman indicates Yankees will use off-days to skip fifth starter early in the season

Luis and Luis. (Presswire)
Luis and Luis. (Presswire)

With less than two weeks to go before Opening Day, the Yankees are still in the process of picking their fourth and fifth starters to start the season. So far none of the various rotation candidates has separated himself from the rest of the pack. I’m sure the Yankees have their internal preferences, but from a Spring Training performance standpoint, no one has looked great.

Based on recent comments by Brian Cashman, the fifth starter won’t be all that important early in the season. While talking to George King, Cashman indicated the Yankees intend to use all those early season off-days to skip their fifth starter the first two times through the rotation. Here’s what Cashman said:

“We have to lock in sooner than later,’’ the GM said. “And one of those guys isn’t going to pitch until the 16th [of April] with days off. We have to make some decisions soon and get people in the right spots whether it’s the bullpen or Scranton.’’

The Yankees have three off-days within the first ten days of the regular season, so not only can they skip their fifth starter the first two times through rotation, the four starters they do use will still get an extra day of rest between their first and second starts. April is always loaded with off-days because of potential weather issues. Here’s the schedule.

The benefit here is obvious. Being able to avoid your fifth starter until the 12th game and 15th day of the season frees up a roster spot, typically for an extra reliever. And that reliever could be the fifth starter. Let’s say the Yankees go with Luis Cessa as the fifth starter. They’d be able to use Cessa in long relief once or twice within the first ten days of the season, then let him start that April 16th game, the first time a fifth starter is needed.

Nowadays the Yankees try to give their regular starters an extra day of rest as often as possible, which is why I thought they might stick with five starters right out of the gate. It would keep the workloads light before ramping things up in mid-April. I guess that’s not much of a concern so early in the season though. It’s more of a concern at midseason, when off-days are harder to come by.

I should probably note that by skipping the fifth starter, the third starter will start the home opener on April 10th. I have no idea whether the Yankees care about that honor, but, if they do, I’d bet on CC Sabathia getting the ball. That means Michael Pineda would slot in behind Masahiro Tanaka as the No. 2 starter. Whatever. Point is, no fifth starter the first two times through the rotation. Thanks, off-days.

Going beyond the top relievers [2017 Season Preview]

(Gett Images)
Layne. (Getty Images)

Over the last few days, we’ve covered the four key cogs in the Yankees’ bullpen machine: Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Adam Warren and Tyler Clippard. If healthy, each will take up the main roles in Joe Girardi‘s ‘pen and be called upon for the most important innings this season.

But the bullpen features far more than four guys. There will be at least seven on opening day. The Yankees had 20 different relievers pitch in at least one game last season. They had 26 the year before (24 if you take out position players).

So let’s take a look at the rest of the bullpen. Chances are, far more than the guys listed below will log time in relief, but these are the ones that jump out with a chance right now.

The veteran pick-up

Frieri circa 2014. (Christian Petersen/Getty)
Frieri. (Christian Petersen/Getty)

Last week, the Yankees added Ernesto Frieri on a minor league deal. Frieri didn’t pitch at all in 2016 after an awful spring with the Phillies, but he played for Colombia in the World Baseball Classic. While there, he tossed two shutout innings against the Dominican Republic, even striking out Nelson Cruz.

Frieri, just 31 years old, was a pretty solid reliever from 2010-13, highlighted by a 2.32 ERA and 23 saves with the Padres and Angels in 2012. However, he was barely usable in 2014-15 with the Angels, Pirates and Rays with his ERA ballooning as high as 7.34 in 2014. At his best, he utilizes his mid-90s fastball to get hitters out, mixing in a slider and the occasional change or curve.

He’s a real wild card for the Yankees’ pen. There’s a solid chance he’ll make the team (seven batters into spring, he has six strikeouts and one HR allowed) but what he does from there is anyone’s guess. His velocity seems to have returned after falling a bit in 2014-15 and could be the secret to an improved Frieri.

The lefties

Girardi loves his southpaws, so one has to figure there will be at least one on the roster at all times, if not two. That’s not including Chapman, who won’t be used as a matchup lefty and is the definitive closer.

First up is Tommy Layne. Layne, 32, is a classic LOOGY, much better against lefties than righties. He tosses a lot variations of fastballs alongside a slider and curveball to produce some strikeouts. He was perfectly fine in 29 games for the Yankees in 2016 and it’s not outlandish to expect him to have another mid-3.00 ERA with a few too many walks and struggles against righties. Again, classic LOOGY.

Behind him lie a few different options, namely Chasen Shreve and Jon Niese. Niese, 30, has started most of his career and has succeeded at primarily keeping the ball on the ground. He’d provide a solid option as both another lefty and as a long man, two roles Girardi has said he sees Niese filling. He is coming back from a knee injury that he struggled with last season, so a healthy Niese would be an interesting piece.

We all know about Shreve. He was dominant for a couple months in 2015 with his low-90s fastball and changeup before becoming a liability late in ’15 and shuffling between the bullpen and the minors in 2016. The 26-year-old southpaw isn’t a LOOGY with the changeup as an out-pitch, but hitters appeared to figure out his off-speed offerings over the last couple seasons.

Two pitchers who reached Triple A last season are also in the mix for roles this summer, if not earlier. Jordan Montgomery and Dietrich Enns each played roles in Scranton’s success last fall and looked solid in Double A Trenton before that. Enns was added to the 40-man roster this winter. Lefties hit Enns slightly better than righties last season and the soft-tossing southpaw may not be best suited for a role as a LOOGY.

Montgomery — who is potentially in play for a spot in the rotation on opening day, let alone a relief spot — isn’t on the 40-man roster yet. Similar to Enns, Montgomery had a reverse split last year, although neither lefties or righties hit him well. He throws from a high arm slot and has a solid change-up and would be a solid long reliever if he isn’t a starter.

Righties with a taste

Heller (Getty Images)
Heller. (Getty Images)

Both Ben Heller and Jonathan Holder got chances last September to help the Yankees bullpen and neither particularly impressed. Heller, a 25 year old who came over in the Andrew Miller trade, throws in the upper 90s with his fastball and mixes in an effective slider. Despite his 6.43 ERA in seven big league innings, he’s certainly someone to keep an eye on because he has the stuff to be effective. He’s posted strong strikeout numbers everywhere in the minors, solid enough to mask occasional issues with walks. I’d expect him to be one of the first relievers called up this spring, if not someone on the roster opening day after a lights-out spring (one run, 8 ks in 9 2/3 innings with 6 BB).

Like Heller, Holder couldn’t seem to have his strikeout numbers translate in his short big league stint (8 1/3 innings). He also uncharacteristically struggled with control. Still, his fantastic strikeout rates (101 Ks in 65 1/3 innings last year over three levels) are the reason he was added to the 40-man roster early at 23 years old. He’s likely behind Heller but still a solid option this spring/summer.

Long man

The Yankees’ have a series of young pitchers competing for the final rotation spots right now and only two will walk away with said spots. Therefore, the rest will be relegated to Triple A or to spots in the bullpen. Frieri’s addition to the team makes it less likely the team brings two of those losing out north — or actually south 20 miles from Steinbrenner Field to Tropicana Field — for opening day.

Still, there is likely one spot, if not two, for those who lose out. Let’s say Luis Severino and Bryan Mitchell get the rotation spots. It’s easy to see Luis Cessa take the long-man role while Chad Green and Montgomery go to Triple A. The latter two would still be likely to see time in the majors and could be see it quickly considering the bullpen shuttle of recent years.

40-man roster and beyond

Barbato (Getty Images)
Barbato. (Getty Images)

There is a gaggle of relievers that got opportunities to show off their stuff this spring with the Yankees, way too many to go through in detail. Johnny Barbato and Gio Gallegos are both on the 40-man and closest to the majors.

Further down the 40-man, Yefrey Ramirez and Domingo German both have strikeout worthy stuff, but they’re starters at the moment and haven’t pitched above Single A. Ronald Herrera, acquired for Jose Pirela a couple years ago, has all of five innings above Double A.

Off the 40-man roster, it’s worth paying attention to a few names. Nick Rumbelow, outrighted off the 40, is coming off Tommy John surgery and once showed promise for a middle relief role. Joe Mantiply — a southpaw who was claimed off waivers, DFA’d and then re-signed to a minor league deal this winter — has solid strikeout rates in the minors but hasn’t thrown much above Double A. Finally, J.P Feyereisen was acquired in the Miller deal with Heller and co. and was solid as a fireman for Double A Trenton in the MiLB playoffs last year. Could be something down the road and I wouldn’t be shocked if he is seen in the majors for a stint this summer.

Jordan Montgomery and the prospect of an Opening Day roster spot

 (Presswire)
(Presswire)

Later today left-hander Jordan Montgomery will make his first Grapefruit League start as the Yankees begin to bear down and really evaluate  their Opening Day roster candidates. They have two open rotation spots and two open bullpen spots, and lots of guys competing for them. Montgomery has pitched his way into Opening Day roster consideration these last few weeks.

“(Getting the start Thursday) makes me feel that I’m here for a reason and that they want me here, so I’m just going to try to keep getting better and working hard and preparing myself the right way,” said Montgomery to Mike Mazzeo last week, after throwing the final four innings in the team’s no-hitter (lol). “I’ve been working toward that my whole life, so I’m just going to try to keep getting better.”

The Yankees have a loaded farm system, and while Montgomery is not one of the big names, he came into the spring as their most MLB ready starting pitcher prospect. Last season the 24-year-old southpaw had a 2.19 ERA (2.91 FIP) with 22.7% strikeouts and 7.7 % walks in 152 total innings between Double-A and Triple-A. Do that and you’re going to be on the big league radar. No doubt about it.

Over the last few seasons the Yankees have made a habit of carrying surprise Spring Training performers in their Opening Day bullpen. Last year Luis Cessa, Johnny Barbato, and Kirby Yates made the Opening Day roster. The year before it was Chris Martin and Chasen Shreve. The year before that it was Vidal Nuno, and the year before that it was Cody Eppley. The last few Opening Day bullpens have been weird, man.

Montgomery is an actual prospect like Cessa, not a journeyman like Yates, though the point stands. If you impress in camp, the Yankees will take you north for the regular season. Today’s start will be pretty important for Montgomery. It’s a chance to really state his case for an Opening Day job. It’s there for the taking. A few thoughts on this.

1. Forget about the Spring Training numbers. Oftentimes when a young guy unexpectedly emerges in Spring Training and wins a regular season roster spot, his numbers knock your socks off. That is not the case with Montgomery: 10.1 IP, 7 H, 7 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 5 K in four appearances. Those are good numbers, but not holy cow this guy needs to be on the roster numbers.

First of all, who cares about Spring Training stats? Montgomery has come out of the bullpen in each of his four appearances, so he’s faced plenty of minor league hitters late in games this spring. We know he can get minor leaguers out. Today’s start will be a chance to face a few more big league players. Secondly, Montgomery’s numbers are worse than they should be because there was some defensive funny business behind him his first two times out.

Montgomery has not necessarily impressed with his numbers and performance. He’s impressed the coaching staff by locating his three fastballs (four-seamer, sinker, cutter) and two non-fastballs (curveball, changeup) well, by repeating his delivery well, and by not unraveling when things don’t go his way. Montgomery has a very calm, stoical presence on the mound. Managers like that.

2. Montgomery doesn’t have any bullpen experience. Between college and pro ball, Montgomery has made 98 starts and six relief appearances over the last five seasons. Girardi said they’re looking at Montgomery more as a reliever than a starter — “I think as more of a bullpen guy, but I’m open to anything,” he said to Dan Martin — and that’ll be a new experience for him. He’s never been a full-time reliever. Not in college, not in pro ball.

That’s not enough of a reason to not take Montgomery north as a reliever, of course. It’s just an acknowledgement of an adjustment he’ll have to make. Even this spring Montgomery knew exactly when he was entering the game and when to start warming up pitcher usage is so regimented. That’s rarely the case during a meaningful regular season game. If the Yankees do carry Montgomery in the bullpen, he’ll have to figure out a warm-up routine that works.

3. Montgomery might not be a great left-on-left matchup guy. For whatever reason, there’s always the temptation to use a left-handed pitcher in left-on-left matchup situations out of the bullpen. Montgomery might not be well-suited for such a role because his best pitch is his changeup, a pitch that is typically used against hitters of the opposite hand. That’s why lefties (.230/.308/.353) had more success against him than righties (.233/.287/.303) last summer.

Montgomery’s curveball is a quality offering, though it’s not a dominant pitch. Use him as a left-on-left guy and the Yankees will be asking Montgomery to either a) abandon his best pitch, or b) use his best pitch against lefties, which is probably not something he’s done much throughout his career. You know as well I that Girardi loves his matchups. Loves loves loves them. Shoehorning Montgomery into left-on-left duty might not work out too well.

4. The more multi-inning relievers, the better. Now, despite that last section, I don’t think Girardi will use Montgomery as a matchup reliever. I think he’d use him as a true long man, especially at first when he’s still getting his feet wet. Perhaps he pitches well enough that he enters the Circle of Trust™ and becomes almost a left-handed Adam Warren, that middle innings guy who can give you five or six outs when necessary.

Anyway, the point is Montgomery is someone who can give you multiple innings, and carrying multiple multi-inning relievers is becoming a necessity, not a luxury. Aside from Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees can’t count on their starters to pitch deep into games. Carrying someone like Montgomery to help share the relief workload stemming from all those five-and-fly starts could really come in handy. Again, this isn’t a luxury anymore. Teams need guys like this with starters throwing fewer and fewer innings.

5. Hey idiot, why not make him a starter? Good question, fellow idiot. I do think the Yankees will consider Montgomery a rotation option, especially since none of the rotation candidates have separated themselves from the pack yet. My gut still says Luis Severino is all but assured of a rotation spot, though that still leaves another spot open. It would be silly for the Yankees to not consider Montgomery for the rotation, right? Right.

Keep in mind Montgomery threw 152 total innings last season. He threw 134.1 innings the year before and 119 innings the year before that. The guy’s never missed a start. Not in college and no in pro ball. Montgomery’s innings have been built up nice and steadily, so much so that it’s not crazy to think you can pencil him in for 30 starts and 175 innings this season. That’s pretty cool. The workload management gymnastics could be kept to a minimum.

For what it’s worth, ZiPS pegs Montgomery as a 4.87 ERA (4.76 FIP) pitcher right now while PECOTA has him at 4.99 ERA (5.06 DRA). That would make him a +1 WAR pitcher, or thereabouts. And, truth be told, that wouldn’t be terrible for a rookie pitcher in Yankee Stadium. The completely objective computer systems are a little bearish on Montgomery right now. That’s okay. Computers are ruining the game anyway ya nerds.

* * *

We’re not talking about 20-year-old Gleyber Torres replacing the injured Didi Gregorius here. Montgomery is a polished 24-year-old pitcher with Triple-A experience who has been successful everywhere he’s played, and if the Yankees deem him one of their 12 best pitchers at the end of Spring Training, he should absolutely be on the Opening Day roster. There’s no reason to hold him back. Montgomery is ready to help, even if it’s in an unfamiliar role out of the bullpen.

“We like him a lot. We’ve said that all along,” said Girardi to Mazzeo last week. “He’s got a good breaking ball, a good changeup and throws on a downward angle, which we like. He’s different than a lot of lefties in a sense. He threw the ball very well today. We’re curious about him … We’re going to keep evaluating him.”

Same All-Star reliever but with minor concerns [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

For the last three years, I have essentially marked games as wins in my mind whenever Dellin Betances comes in. Sure, there have been a few blown saves here and there, but for the most part, the Yankees win when Dellin comes into the game whether they lead or are tied.

And it isn’t just his pure performance. He’s fun to watch, too. That nasty breaking pitch surely haunts the dreams of every hitter in the AL East and sends Yankee fans home happy. That’s even before you get to his fastball.

What does Betances — who turns 29 on Thursday — have in store for 2017? Let’s take a look.

All-Star stuff with some concern

Betances, when he gets to utilize his stuff to the best of his ability, is unhittable and it’s memorizing. He walks a few too many batters (3.5 per 9 career and in 2016) and his hits rose to 6.7 per 9 last year, but his pure stuff is still beautiful.

His fastball averaged 98.42 mph in 2016, which is just silly good. It doesn’t hurt that he has an above-average 2509 RPM spin rate. It’s surprising considering his September struggles, but his velocity actually jumped higher from August to September. Same for his curveball. When Betances really needs to hit another gear, he can. That 100 mph strikeout of Miguel Cabrera from 2014 is perhaps the best example. Or perhaps the 2016 All-Star Game.

And then there’s his curveball. It’s genuinely my favorite pitch going these days with all respect to Andrew Miller‘s slider. It sits in the mid-80s and just falls off the table. Even the best hitters in baseball — like Giancarlo Stanton — have zero idea what to do with it.

As he displayed in the WBC this spring, he’s among the best relievers in the game when he’s on. The Yankees’ AL East rivals know this all too well.

He throws his four-seamer (39.3) and his curve (55.3) about 95 percent of the time, occasionally mixing in a cutter. His curveball remained a behemoth in 2016, holding batters to a .371 OPS (14 wRC+) and accounting for 103 of his 124 strikeouts.

Hitters actually got to his fastball pretty well last year. They batted .350/.447/.563 (184 wRC+) against it, a mark much higher than previous years (124 wRC+ against in 2015 and 95 in 2014). He peaked as a pitcher in 2014 (his -21 wRC+ against for the curveball says more than enough), but the trend with his fastball is a bit concerning. It began in the later months of 2015 and continued throughout 2016. Luckily, he still has a dynamite curveball, yet it’s worth monitoring how hitters do against Betances’ normally overwhelming velocity in 2017.

One quick aside: If you want to see how dominant Betances can truly be, check out the ISO power against him, especially right-handed batters. On pitches on the inner third of the plate, righties literally had a .000 ISO. All singles and outs. Here’s the chart via Baseball Savant.

dellin-betances-1

Workload

If there’s one chief concern for Betances, it’s his workload. In his three full big league seasons, he’s pitched in at least 70 games and thrown at least 73 innings. His innings have decreased year-by-year (90 to 84 to 73) and his ERA has increased year over year, including more than doubling from 2015 to 2016 (1.50 to 3.08). There have certainly been times when Betances, cursed in part by his own success, has been overused as the Yankees try to sneak out close victories.

There is no better example than this past September. After Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller were dealt at the trade deadline, the closer role fell to Betances, a role which he is more than capable of filling. He may be more valuable as the stopper in the 7th and 8th innings, yet I think there are few people (maybe outside the front office) that believe Betances can handle the 9th. He surely has the stuff.

But the Yankees were in the midst of a playoff chase and they needed to hand him the ball as much as possible with plenty of save chances. Therefore, Joe Girardi used him on three straight days twice within an 11-day span. It started out just fine but ended with two straight losses, one because he couldn’t field the ball and the other simply because he was exhausted. That five-run ninth in Boston essentially finished the Yankees and also showed that Betances needed a rest. For the month, hitters were getting to not only his fastball but also hit curveball.

With Chapman’s return, Betances is obviously back in the middle innings, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to get much of a reprieve from important spots. He consistently comes in during the highest leverage situations, sometimes for more than one inning, and now has 217 games in the last three seasons in his recent past. Hopefully, Tyler Clippard, Adam Warren and the rest of the ‘pen will be able to handle some big innings because the big man needs a rest.

World Baseball Classic

Wasn’t it fun to watch Betances pitch in the WBC? He seemed to really enjoy himself while dominating hitters during the tournament. It was even better than when he takes down a set of National League All-Stars in the Midsummer Classic.

He threw five innings for the Dominican Republic, giving up six baserunners while striking out five batters. Basically normal Dellin. If you add in his two innings with the Yankees earlier in the spring, he’s only thrown two more innings than Aroldis Chapman and is just as ready for the season. Perhaps more?

This is just to say that the WBC doesn’t seem to have hurt Betances going into April and may even have him more prepared for opening day. Maybe have high-ish leverage innings earlier will benefit him early in the season but help wear him down later in the season. It remains to be seen.

Contract welp and minor flaws

Things really got ugly between Betances and the Yankees front office after his arbitration hearing in February. Randy Levine made some really boneheaded comments about Betances in an unnecessary conference call and created some significant tension between Betances and the club. That shouldn’t affect his performance on the field — baseball is a business after all — but it may make Betances think twice before re-signing long-term.

As for the arbitration hearing itself, the Yankees brought up Betances’ struggles fielding the ball and holding runners. These are legitimate issues for the big righty. He’s allowed extra runs to score because he’s been unable to throw the ball to the bases or prevent runners from stealing. Even Gary Sanchez with his laser from behind the plate was unable to throw out runners with Betances’ deliberate delivery.

Good news is that Betances is working on his flaws. He made a basic fielding play during the WBC (nothing major) and Sanchez did throw out a runner during one of Dellin’s early spring outings. If Betances could improve on those two flaws, it’d make him that much more dominant, both at preventing runners from getting on base and then from scoring.

He may not throw 105 mph, but Betances is pretty much everything you want in a reliever. High velocity, killer breaking pitch and general fantastic performance. The guy literally struck out over 15 batters per nine innings last season. However, he may not be quite as good as his out-of-this-world 2014-15 in 2017 and there are reasons to doubt him after a lesser 2016. Still, expect Betances to be an essential part of the Yankees’ bullpen in this season.

One more year of #TANAK [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

With pitchers these days, there are no givens. One day, you may have an ace. The next, a player you’re paying for the next 12-18 months is rehabbing an elbow tear with uncertainty as to whether he’ll ever be the same.

The closest thing the Yankees have to a sure thing in their starting rotation is Masahiro Tanaka. Even he comes with the giant caveat of a partial tear of the all-important UCL, but beggars in the pitching market can ill-afford to be choosers. Every five days, #TANAK inches you closer to your TV screen or forces you to pay that much more attention in your seat. He’s the closest thing we’ve seen this side of CC Sabathia‘s latest extension to an ace.

So what does the 28-year-old starter from Japan have in store for 2017? Let’s take a look, shall we?

200 inning plateau

It’s tough to define aces by an exact ERA, FIP or strikeout rate. However, with big-time starting pitchers, there’s always been a sort of mystical question as to whether they can handle 200 innings in a time when elbow injuries are so prevalent. To this point, the answer for Tanaka has been no but barely. See, he threw exactly 199 2/3 innings last season. That is literally as close as you can get to 200 without actually, you know, getting there.

What prevented him from hitting that arbitrary landmark was a flexor mass strain in his right elbow. He likely would have pitched in the Yankees’ Game 162 if they were still in the postseason chase, but those hopes had evaporated days earlier. The Yankees would obviously like to see Tanaka get through a full season, but 31 starts last year was certainly a welcome sign after 44 over his first two years.

In terms of reaching 200 innings next year, Tanaka is easily the most likely among the Yankees’ starters. He goes deeper into games (6.44 innings per start) than any of their other pitchers and the others are either on innings limits, haven’t thrown full MLB seasons before, or are veterans with injury concerns of their own. Days when Tanaka pitches are the best ones for the bullpen because he can usually hand the ball right to the elite back-end relievers.

We all know he’s dealing with a partial tear in his UCL, so his elbow is always a concern here. Projections are mixed for Tanaka. Steamer has him throwing 205 innings over 32 starts while ZIPS has him at 165 2/3 innings over 27 starts. PECOTA has just 176 1/3 innings and an unseemly 4.18 ERA. Truly all over the place.

A true No. 1?

Tanaka does what you want for a pitcher: He strikes batters out, avoids walks and pitches efficiently deep into games. The question above is so hard to pin down. As far as performance, he’s been a No. 1 starter for the Yankees, particularly last season. He won his last seven decisions. He had a 4.58 K-to-BB ratio. A 3.07 ERA (3.51 FIP) in basically 200 innings and kept the Yankees in essentially every game he started.

One of his big concerns after 2015 was his home run rate. That fell in 2016, going from 16.9 percent of fly balls turning into homers to just 12 percent. His ground ball rate reached a career-high 48.2 percent. His line drive percentage fell as well.

One concern is his decreasing strikeout rate. I’ll get into his stuff below, but his pure strikeout rate has decreased each year from 26 percent in 2014 to 20.5 percent in 2016 while his walk rate slightly increased from 3.9 to 4.4 percent. He’s still pretty solid with his control, but it’s something to look out for next year.

Lastly, he’s looked pretty darn good this spring. It doesn’t mean all that much. However, it’s a great sign. Take his start from last week: four perfect innings with seven strikeouts. That’s ace-type performance. Grapefruit League competition has taken a hit with the WBC going on and that Tigers lineup he faced was no exception. Still, it’s worth hoping that his early success can roll over into Opening Day in Tampa.

Repertoire

At the end of 2016, Tanaka’s fastball and sinker were at a career-low in terms of average velocity with his four-seamer averaging 91.11 mph. His fastball lost velocity as the year progressed and have also lost velocity year over year. Take, for instance, his average velocity on his pitches each of the last three years via Brooks Baseball.

tanaka-mph

Tanaka legitimately has six pitches that he throws at least five percent of the time. He relies most heavily on his sinker, splitter and slider, in that order last season. His sinker rose significantly in usage with his four-seamer and cutter seeing decreases. Perhaps that is because of the velocity decrease and him needing to keep hitters off balance. That increased sinker usage also helps explain his increase in groundball percentage last season.

Tanaka’s sinker and splitter were his most effective last season, eliciting the lowest ISO power against and some of his lowest batting averages against. His splitter and his less-used slider provide the most whiffs per swing.

Contract Question

Everyone knows about Tanaka’s opt-out. That was the price to pay for Tanaka in order to entice him away from the Cubs in 2014 and now the proverbial chickens will come home to roost in a little more than seven months. As with the rest of the veterans in the rotation, Tanaka can be a free agent at the end of this season.

The question of whether he opts out is a complicated one. Tanaka, 29 in November, would theoretically be in the prime position to cash in with a free agent market starved for proven pitchers. The problem is his elbow. Anyone who signs him would get a chance to look at his UCL and that might be something Tanaka chooses to avoid. Maybe his elbow gives out this season and this is all moot.

However, if Tanaka pitches well this season and perhaps even clears the 200-inning hurdle, there are many, many dollars telling him and agent Casey Close he should opt out. In the case he opts out, the Yankees face the choice of paying top dollar for a pitcher with a potentially serious elbow injury in the near future (the team knows better than anyone outside of Tanaka what his elbow looks like) or letting go their No. 1 starter. These days, most pitchers face some sort of arm injury in their future, but whether Tanaka is worth the risk is a tricky question.

For now, it’s one more year to enjoy the Yankees’ top starting pitcher.