Keeping the slider down can help Severino get to the next level in 2016

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees currently have six starters for five rotation spots, yet of the five, only Luis Severino did not miss time with an injury last season. The 22-year-old came up in August and made eleven mostly excellent starts, and now he’s slated to be a full-time member of the rotation in 2016. That’s exciting. The Yankees haven’t had a young MLB pitcher this promising in almost a decade.

Severino is still just a kid of course, and inevitably there will be growing pains at some point. That’s just the way it is. Hitters will adjust to him and he’ll have to adjust back, and then they’ll do it all over again, hopefully for years and years and years. Severino had a 2.89 ERA (137 ERA+) in his 62.1 innings last year, but his 1.3 HR/9 and 4.37 FIP show there is room for improvement.

“Oh, he could get better. The consistency of his pitches. The command of his fastball. And all of that will happen has he smooths out his delivery, which it seems like he has quite a bit,” said pitching coach Larry Rothschild to Brendan Kuty. Severino flew through the minors — he made 65 starts and threw 320.2 innings in the minors, which is nothing — so of course he’s going to have to work on consistency and things like that.

Severino came to the big leagues billed as a three-pitch pitcher and we saw exactly that last year. He’s got a lively fastball, a promising slider, and a changeup that fell off the table when he threw it properly. Looking over the PitchFX data, there are plenty of positives to take from last season (MLB averages in parentheses).

% Thrown Avg. Velo. Whiff% GB%
Fastball 51.4% 95.8 (92.4) 8.2% (6.9%) 45.3% (37.9%)
Slider 34.1% 89.6 (84.2) 8.9% (15.2%) 58.1% (43.9%)
Changeup 14.6% 88.6 (83.3) 19.3% (14.9%) 63.2% (47.8%)

Almost all of that looks good. Severino throws all three pitches regularly and they all have well-above-average velocity, and they all get a lot of ground balls too. The fastball and changeup generated swings and misses at an above-average rate as well. The slider? Not so much.

The swing-and-miss rate on Severino’s slider was a real eyesore last season. It was far below the league average, which seems impossible after watching him live, but the numbers don’t lie. “His third pitch is a mid-80s slider thrown with power, which still takes a back seat to his fastball and changeup but projects as solid average when he’s finished developing,” said Baseball America (subs. req’d) in their scouting report prior to 2015.

The slider — specifically the ability to get whiffs with the slider — is something Severino could really improve going forward. Don’t take that as a knock. Severino was pretty awesome last season. Imagine how much more awesome he can be if he can start generating some more empty swings with his slider. He knows it’s something that can be improved too.

“My breaking stuff (can improve). Pounding the zone, throwing strikes. Getting down in the zone, throwing my breaking ball down in the zone,” said Severino to Kuty when asked about how he can get better going forward. Getting the ball down is always a good idea, and Severino ostensibly did a good job of that considering his overall ground ball rate (50.9%), but take a look at his slider pitch locations specifically (click for a larger view):

Luis Severino slider locations

That’s an awful lot of sliders up and in the zone. Ideally Severino would bury the slider down and away to righties and down and in to lefties. Last summer David Laurila culled some quotes about backup sliders, which are surprisingly effectively because they’re hard to pick up and they don’t move the way the hitter expects …

Adam Warren backup slider

… but Severino wasn’t throwing backup sliders. He was simply missing his spot, especially when you consider how many sliders were up and away to lefties. (It took me way too long to find an example of an effective backup slider. Nothing from Severino, nothing from Michael Pineda, nothing from Masahiro Tanaka, so down the line I went until I got to the now departed Adam Warren.)

Give the effectiveness of his fastball and changeup, the slider figures to be a focal point for Severino going forward, both in Spring Training and continuing into the season. The pitch has pretty good action, we saw it last year, but right now Severino elevates it a little too often, which causes problems. Once he is able to consistently locate his slider down, he’ll get more swings and misses, and it could also improve the effectiveness of his fastball. Nathan Eovaldi’s fastball played up once he emphasized the splitter. Same could happen with Severino and an improved slidepiece.

The Yankees are going to need Severino to pitch effectively this season in order to contend, even though he just turned 22 and will have to endure the usual growing pains associated with young pitchers. His workload will be monitored, stuff like that. Severino’s stuff is very good as it is, but there is an obvious way he can improve the effectiveness of his slider, and that’s by keeping it down in the zone. If he can begin to do that consistently, he’ll inch closer to his ceiling as a frontline starter.

Eovaldi plans to work on his curveball in Spring Training, but it may not be worth the effort

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The 2015 season was something of a developmental year for Nathan Eovaldi. The Yankees acquired him from the Marlins expecting him to hold down a regular rotation spot, and he did that, but they also wanted pitching coach Larry Rothschild to tinker with some things in hope of getting Eovaldi to the next level. His natural gifts are obvious. The results did not match though.

Last season’s big project was the split-finger fastball. Eovaldi came over from Miami with a huge fastball — he threw the six fastest pitches in baseball among non-Aroldis Chapman pitchers in 2015 — and iffy secondary stuff, so the Yankees wanted to give him a swing-and-miss pitch. Rothschild had Eovaldi begin the season with a forkball just so he could get accustomed to the grip before shortening him up to a traditional splitter grip.

Once he switched to the splitter, the results improved greatly. The date of the switch is fairly obvious when looking at Eovaldi’s velocity. In the middle of June the splitter/forkball (splorkball?) went from averaging 85.5 mph to 89.8 mph. The pitch added roughly 4 mph from one start to the next.

Nathan Eovaldi splitter velocityWith the forkball grip Eovaldi had a 4.95 ERA (3.95 FIP) with a 15.8% strikeout rate and a 49.0% ground ball rate in 76.1 innings. With the splitter grip he had a 3.46 ERA (2.90 FIP) with a 20.2% strikeout rate and a 55.8% ground ball rate in 78 innings. The splitter changed everything. Eovaldi was comfortable throwing the pitch — he threw the forkball 10.9% of the time and the splitter 29.7% of the time — and his results improved considerably.

Having a full season of splitter grip Nathan Eovaldi in 2016 is pretty exciting. The development is not going to stop there through. Last week Eovaldi told Chad Jennings he intends to focus on his curveball this spring in an effort to add another reliable secondary pitch.

“Towards the end of the season last year I really developed pretty good control of my split,” he said. “This offseason it’s been great. I’m going to be using that more, of course. The fastball, too. Then, working on the curveball a little bit more, as well.”

The splitter was a new pitch for Eovaldi. The curveball is not. He threw one as an amateur, he threw one in the minors, and he’s thrown out throughout his big league career. Over the last four seasons Eovaldi has thrown the curve anywhere between 8.8% of the time to 9.4% of the time per PitchFX. He got one (1) strikeout on a curveball last season and it wasn’t even that good of a pitch:

Nathan Eovaldi curveball

Chris Davis was looking for something else and Eovaldi froze him with a not great bender up in the zone. It’s loopy and just sorta rolls in there. Hooray for the element of surprise.

Anyway, the curveball was clearly Eovaldi’s fourth best pitch last season behind his fastball, splitter, and slider. It was his third best pitch until the split-finger knocked it down a peg on the depth chart. Given the results over the years, de-emphasizing the curveball is a smart move:

Velo Whiff% GB% Opp. AVG Opp. ISO
2012 75.3 4.8% 36.7% .278 .222
2013 78.3 6.6% 68.2% .310 .138
2014 76.8 10.9% 53.3% .246 .098
2015 76.2 6.8% 50.0% .286 .107
MLB AVG 77.8 11.1% 48.7% .208 .116

Eovaldi’s curveball has not been an effective pitch at all. He’s been able to get some ground balls with it, but the lack of swings and misses is a problem, as evidenced by the opponent’s batting average against the pitch. The curveball used to be Eovaldi’s third best pitch. Now it’s his fourth. That’s where it belongs.

Spring Training is the best time to toy with pitches and Eovaldi’s smart to work on his curveball this spring. I do wonder whether the pitch is worth the effort, however. This is a pitch he’s been throwing his entire career — we’re talking hundreds of innings here — and Eovaldi has not yet been able to refine it to the point of reliability. Perhaps Rothschild can help. I guess we’ll find out this spring.

The addition of the splitter was huge for Eovaldi last year because it gave him the swing-and-miss offering he desperately needed. It also knocked his slider down a peg, which is good, because his slider isn’t great either. The split gave Eovaldi a legitimate put-away pitch. Here is what Eovaldi was worked with once he switched from the forkball grip to the splitter grip. League averages are in parentheses.

% Thrown Velo. Whiff% GB% Opp. AVG Opp. ISO
FB 44.0% 98.2 (92.4) 7.3% (6.9%) 44.1% (37.9%) .262 (.271) .094 (.180)
SPL 28.7% 89.7 (84.3) 16.8% (14.9%) 69.9% (47.8%) .211 (.223) .023 (.132)
SL 19.6% 85.4 (84.2) 11.7% (15.2%) 50.9% (43.9%) .278 (.223) .058 (.136)
CB 7.8% 76.9 (77.8) 4.5% (11.1%) 40.0% (48.7%) .273 (.208) .000 (.116)

The splitter gave Eovaldi a bonafide above-average pitch. It got whiffs and grounders, and he threw it a lot. Perfect. His fastball was also a tick above average as well. Both his slider and curveball were below-average though, with the slider showing some more promise thanks to the ground ball ability.

Eovaldi’s curveball wasn’t good at anything. Didn’t get grounders, didn’t get whiffs, nothing. He didn’t throw it much at all and for good reason. It’s not a good pitch. I wonder if Eovaldi is best off scrapping his curveball entirely — or using it even less, maybe as nothing more than a surprise pitch he throws once or twice a game early in the count when hitters sit fastball — and focusing his efforts on his slider this spring.

The way I see, Eovaldi will primarily be a fastball/splitter pitcher going forward. Those are his top two weapons for pretty obvious reasons. He needs a third pitch, definitely, and his slider is ahead of his curveball. It is right now and has been his entire career. Remember, we’re talking about a third pitch here. It doesn’t need to be great, just something hitters respect. The slider is much closer to that right now than the curve.

There’s nothing wrong with playing around with different pitches in Spring Training. It’s the perfect time to do it. And who knows, maybe Rothschild will tweak Eovaldi’s curveball grip and the pitch turns into a hammer. It’s unlikely but stranger things have happened. Unless the curve does take a step forward these next few weeks, it’s not a pitch worth emphasizing in the regular season. Stick with the fastball, splitter, and some sliders. The curve is trouble.

Spring Notes: Tanaka, Sabathia, A-Rod, Castro, Nova, Davis

Those shirts! (The Asahi Shimbun/Getty)
Those shirts! (The Asahi Shimbun/Getty)

Pitchers and catchers are due to report to Spring Training in just six days. Many — or most, it seems — are already in Tampa though, so some early camp notes are starting to trickle in. This is good. I am ready for baseball. Here’s a roundup of recent news and notes from Tampa.

Tanaka begins throwing, may be behind other starters in camp

Masahiro Tanaka has gotten back on a mound after having surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow in October. According to Ronald Blum, Tanaka threw a bullpen session at Yankee Stadium last week in front of pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Bryan Hoch says Tanaka played catch in Tampa today. Afterwards he said he needs to “get innings in (to) see how I feel” before knowing whether he’ll be ready for Opening Day.

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild told Dan Martin Tanaka’s “throwing program was right on target,” though Brian Cashman was a bit more conservative. “He will enter Spring Training maybe a little behind for precautionary reasons. He may be behind going off the bullpen from the beginning, but he is healthy. There are no issues, there are no hiccups,” said the GM to George King.

CC Sabathia was behind the other starters in Spring Training 2013 after having surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow early during the 2012 offseason. He was ready to start the season on time; the club limited his bullpen work early in camp, and had him make his first few spring starts in controlled minor league games rather than regular Grapefruit League games. Tanaka could do the same this spring. We’ll see.

“When you pitch a good game, you’re the hero,” said Tanaka, who worked out with his former Rakuten Golden Eagles teammates in Japan this offseason, to Brad Lefton. “When you have a bad game, everyone says, ‘Something’s wrong with the elbow.’ There’s no way to handle it other than to just accept that’s the way it’s going to be. If you want to stop such talk, then you just have to go out and keep winning ballgames.”

Sabathia and his knee are feeling great

You can file this in the classic early Spring Training everything is awesome category: CC Sabathia’s knee feels great and he’s doing very well following his stint in an alcohol treatment center, he told Laura Albanese and Mark Feinsand. “I feel great and I’ve been working hard for the last three months and I’m ready to go,” said Sabathia. “I’m excited … This is the best I’ve felt in three years.”

Sabathia, now 35, usually throws year round, but he took a month off from throwing a baseball while in rehab. He’s been throwing off a mound for three weeks now. “I’m definitely in a good place. You’ve never got this thing beat; it’s always there and I’m always going to be a recovering alcoholic, but I’m in a good place,” he said. “This is my 16th year in the big leagues and you can take it for granted. This whole experience has put a new lease on my career and the way I’m viewing it.”

I’d be lying if I said I have even medium high hopes for Sabathia this coming season — I’ve done the “overly optimistic about CC” thing a few times these last three years — but I’m glad he feels great and his alcoholism recovery is going well. That goes beyond baseball and he’ll be fighting it the rest of his life. On the field, if the new knee brace allows Sabathia to give the Yankees, say, 180 league average innings in 2016, that would be an enormous upgrade over what he gave them from 2013-15.

Cashman reiterates A-Rod will be a DH only

As if it was not already clear, Cashman reiterated the Yankees see Alex Rodriguez as a DH and a DH only going forward. “You’ve got to stop asking Alex questions,” said Cashman to Billy Witz. “He’s not playing any position anymore. He’s a DH. He’s a very productive DH. For us to get maximum value out of Alex Rodriguez, he’s going to only DH. If we have to put him in the field somewhere, we’re in trouble.”

I wish the Yankees would at least entertain the idea of giving Alex some time at first base in Spring Training, but obviously that’s not going to happen. Greg Bird is done for the season, leaving Dustin Ackley as the backup first baseman. It would be nice if A-Rod were at least capable of being an emergency fill-in at first base for a few innings. Alas. The DH spot is his and his alone.

Castro will play some third base in Spring Training

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

As expected, the Yankees will have Starlin Castro play some third base in Spring Training this year, Cashman told Ryan Hatch. Castro has not played third since rookie ball years and years ago, and that was only a handful of games. He’s played shortstop most of his career, so he is familiar with being on the left side of the infield. Castro moved to second base last August, and I’m not sure giving him another new position to learn right now is the best idea, but we’ll see.

“It’s too early to tell (if he can handle third), so we’ll take the time in Spring Training,” said Cashman. “If (he) can swing over and play some third for us and spell Chase (Headley), that’s a huge benefit for roster flexibility, but if he can’t, we’re not going to force it … If it’s something he’s not comfortable with we’re certainly not going to force that either. But we’ll certainly find out when we get to know him a little better and see how he looks.”

Nova wants to start, because duh

Ivan Nova, who is currently sixth on the rotation depth chart, told Martin he wants to start this year but will pitch out of the bullpen if necessary. “I’m a starting pitcher. I’m not a reliever, but if that’s what they tell me to do, that’s what I’ve got to do,” he said. “If I feel bad going to the bullpen, what’s that going to change?”

The Yankees sent Nova to the bullpen briefly last September, but he never did make a relief appearance and instead moved back into the rotation when Tanaka pulled his hamstring. I firmly believe Nova is going to end up making something like 20-25 starts this year. One or three of the other starters will get hurt and he’ll be the guy to step in. The sixth starter always works more than expected, it seems.

Nova, now 29, had a 5.07 ERA (4.87 FIP) in 94 innings after coming back from Tommy John surgery last year. He didn’t blame his struggles on the elbow — “Whatever happened last year wasn’t because of the Tommy John. I just didn’t pitch good. If I didn’t feel good, I would have said it,” he said — but I do think it’s fair to expect him to improve as he gets further away from the procedure. That’s common. This is also Ivan’s contract year too. I’m sure he’s extra motivated to pitch well, and the Yankees will happily take it if he does.

Beltran, McCann do not want to play first base

Although both Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann have briefly played first base for the Yankees, neither wants to do it going forward, they told Anthony McCarron and Brendan Kuty. “No, no, no. I would do anything. Except (play first). It’s a different animal,” said Beltran. McCann added “I don’t think they want me over there. I don’t move too good. I don’t think they want that.”

Both Beltran and McCann have played some first base in pinstripes, so they’re clearly not opposed to the idea, but they don’t want to do it regularly. I understand that. The Yankees shouldn’t want Beltran or McCann to do it at all. Ideally Mark Teixeira stays healthy at first base and mashes taters all season with Ackley backing him up. If it gets to the point where Beltran has to play first, something very bad has happened. By the way, Beltran told Hatch he dropped ten pounds this offseason and joked he “might try and steal some bases this year.”

Cashman confirms Yankees have spoken to Davis

In the wake of Bird’s injury, the Yankees have indeed spoken to free agent Ike Davis, Cashman confirmed to Anthony Rieber. “We’ve talked to Ike Davis. That’s all I can tell you, really. We’ve talked to a lot of people,” said the GM. “Again, in terms of the Greg Bird scenario, we clearly have a need for an everyday first baseman at Scranton. So anybody that we feel is of quality and can fit that bill and is interested and willing to play in Scranton, then we’re going to have those conversations with a number of different people. But we have talked to Ike as well.”

Ken Davidoff says Davis is expected to sign a minor league contract — not necessarily with the Yankees — at some point soon. Davis, 28, hit .229/.301/.350 (83 wRC+) with three homers in 74 games for the A’s last season. He is a year removed from a 109 wRC+ season, however. Davis is a dead pull lefty hitter with power, making him a very good third string first base candidate for the Yankees. At this point of the offseason, he’s the best option to replace Bird in Scranton. Steve Simineri explained why the Yankees should side Davis in a guest post recently.

Cashman confirms Yankees unlikely to start the season with a six-man rotation

(Tom Pennington/Getty)
(Tom Pennington/Getty)

With each passing year, there is more and more talk the Yankees may use a six-man rotation going forward. Maybe not all season, but part of the season. The team went to great lengths to give their starters extra rest whenever possible last summer — Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, and Nathan Eovaldi made 63 of their 107 starts with extra rest (59%) — and I’m sure that will be the case this coming season too.

At the moment, the Yankees intend to start the 2016 season with a normal five-man rotation, Brian Cashman confirmed to Bryan Hoch. “Right now, it’s more likely that we go the conventional route and have five starters,” said the GM. “And whoever is the loser out of that battle for five spots would potentially be a long man in the ‘pen, waiting in the wings. But who knows? We’ll have to wait and see.”

The April schedule includes a ton of off-days, as usual, so the Yankees will be able to give their starters plenty of extra rest without jumping through too many hoops early in the season. In fact, whoever starts Opening Day will be able to make each of his first four (and five of his first six) starts on extra rest thanks to scheduled off-days. I assume Tanaka will get the ball on Opening Day, but we’ll see.

Here is a real quick and dirty tentative rotation schedule for April. The Yankees must be looking forward to all those early-season off-days this year. Check this out:

April rotation schedule

The Yankees will be able to have their starter on extra rest 16 times (!) in the first 20 games. They won’t have to use a starter on normal rest until April 17th, the 12th game of the year. And doesn’t that April 27th game sure look like the perfect time to use a spot sixth starter? It would give the rest of the rotation two extra days of rest before their next starts thanks to the off-day on the 28th.

That all looks pretty good to me. Tanaka is coming off surgery to remove a bone spur, so the Yankees will want to take it easy on him early next year. Eovaldi’s season ended early due to an elbow issue as well. Sabathia’s knee flared up again in September and Pineda hasn’t pitched a full season since 2011. Luis Severino figures to be the other starter and he’ll be on some sort of innings limit. The Yankees have good reason to want to give these guys extra rest.

Of course, we’re getting way ahead of ourselves here. The Yankees have to get through Spring Training with five healthy starters before they can start mapping out rotation schedules and possible dates to use a sixth starter. “I think if you can give guys extra rest, that’s always a benefit,” added Cashman. “But theory and practicality, that’s where the rubber meets the road. We have a long way to get to before that really is a legitimate option or not.”

I’m sure we’ll hear more about the possibility of a six-man rotation in the coming weeks. It’s unavoidable. It’s what people talk about when there’s nothing else to talk about. That talk will only grow louder if the Yankees do manage to trade Brett Gardner or Andrew Miller for a starter in the coming weeks. I don’t think it’ll happen, but you never know. No one expected Alex Rodriguez to become a Yankee on this date in 2004, right? Right.

Current bench may make it easier for Yankees to use a six-man rotation in 2016

Ackley. (Mike Stobe/Getty)
Ackley. (Mike Stobe/Getty)

Last year the Yankees made it no secret they wanted to give their starters extra rest whenever possible. That meant not using off-days to skip the fifth starter and inserting a spot sixth starter whenever possible. Almost all of their projected starters had some kind of health concern, none bigger than Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow, and the Yankees were trying to prevent further injury.

It’s difficult to say whether the plan worked. The foursome of Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, and Nathan Eovaldi combined to make 107 starts, including 63 on extra rest (59%). All four got hurt at some point — Tanaka and Pineda had forearm problems, Sabathia’s knee acted up, and Eovaldi’s elbow barked in September — and only Tanaka was comfortably above-average.

Overall, the Yankees rotation had a 4.25 ERA (4.04 FIP) last season and maybe things would have been worse had they not given their four main starters extra rest. The Yankees had good intentions. Whether they got the desired results is another matter. Either way, it seems likely the team will again try to give their starters extra rest in 2016. New health concerns exist, plus Luis Severino will presumably have some sort of innings limit.

“I think there’s depth there but there’s questions about health … I think our guys are capable of getting it done,” said Joe Girardi when asked about his rotation at the Winter Meetings last month. “But the thing is, you have to keep them out there for 30 to 32 starts. I think our rotation has a chance to be good, but we’ve got to keep them out there.”

Teams are using pitchers less and less these days, and it feels like only a matter of time until the six-man rotation is widespread. Several teams, including the Dodgers and Phillies, used a six-man rotation for part of September last season, when it was easier to pull off thanks to expanded rosters. That’s the tricky part of a six-man rotation: you either need a short bullpen or a short bench to make it work.

The Yankees right now have the kind of bench that can make a six-man rotation work. They’ll have a backup catcher, presumably Gary Sanchez but possibly Austin Romine, plus Aaron Hicks as the backup outfielder and Dustin Ackley as the utility guy. Starlin Castro is currently slated to back up Didi Gregorius at second and Chase Headley at third, with Ackley filling in at first and second. They have every position covered, at least in theory.

Castro’s ability to play third is the X factor. If he can play the position on occasion, a three-man bench and six-man rotation could actually work. If Castro can’t play third though, the Yankees will need to carry a fourth bench player to back up the hot corner, blowing this whole plan up. It’ll be interesting to see how the Yankees use Castro in Spring Training. That’s the time and place to give him reps at third base if they’re serious about using him there.

It’s also possible the six-man rotation would lead to a revolving bullpen or bench spot. The Yankees can carry six relievers or three bench players depending on their needs at the time. Bullpen’s taxed? Call up an extra reliever and send down a bench guy. Position player banged up? Carry the fourth bench player and only three relievers. That plan involves having optionable relievers and bench guys. We know the Yankees have the former. The latter? Yeah, but not as much.

“We could have an open bench spot. Maybe we use that with a revolving door with position players and/or pitching, depending on what our needs are,” said Brian Cashman to Chad Jennings earlier this week. Sounds like we might see a bench player shuttle in addition to a bullpen shuttle next season. That would make it a bit easier for the Yankees to employ a six-man rotation, though it would still create a roster headache. That’s unavoidable.

I don’t think the Yankees will use a true six-man rotation next season. I think we’re still a few years off from that, thankfully. I do think the team will try to get their starters extra rest whenever possible though, again by using a spot starter on occasion. Ivan Nova could be that guy if he stays stretched out as the long man, or the job could belong to Bryan Mitchell or Luis Cessa. Plans like this have a way of being thrown out of whack though.

If the Yankees do decide to use a six-man rotation at some point in 2016, even temporarily during a long stretch of games with no off-day, the current bench could allow them to do so with relative ease. It all depends on Castro’s ability to play third base. His ability to do so would give the Yankees a ton of flexibility and roster possibilities.

Yankees need Michael Pineda and his improved changeup to emerge as rotation anchor in 2016

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

When the Yankees acquired Michael Pineda from the Mariners four years ago, he was a 22-year-old kid coming off a very good rookie season who also had room for improvement. Pineda possessed a rare combination of power and precision. He had mid-90s heat and a wipeout slider, both of which he commanded very well. The command is what separated him from other young hurlers.

Shoulder surgery put Pineda’s career and development on hold. He didn’t pitch at all in 2012 and barely pitched in 2013. It wasn’t until 2014 that Big Mike actually appeared in a game for the Yankees. (He pitched in the minors in 2013.) Everything the Yankees wanted to work on with Pineda was put on the back burner, specifically his changeup. He wasn’t healthy and he didn’t pitch for almost two years. How could he work on developing a pitch?

Pineda, who will turn 27 in less than two weeks, was able to stay reasonably healthy this past season, throwing 160.2 innings in 27 starts. The results were disappointing (4.37 ERA and 90 ERA+) but Pineda did show flashes of brilliance, such as the 16-strikeout game and his 3.34 FIP. His strikeout (23.4%) and walk (3.1%) rates were excellent, and, for the first time in his career, his ground ball rate (48.2%) was above-average.

Back in 2011 Pineda generated a ground ball on only 36.3% of balls in play, which is very low. It was 39.1% during his brief big league stint in 2014. Pineda’s improved changeup appears to be the key to all those ground balls in 2015 — he threw the pitch only 6.2% of the time in 2011. Last year it was 11.4%. This is the changeup Pineda takes to the mound with him these days:

Michael Pineda changeup

That one randomly selected changeup was elevated a bit, but the hitter was way out in front, and that’s kinda the point of a changeup. Pineda has definitely gained consistency with the pitch and it appears he has more confidence in it as well. That confidence part is really important. Remember how Nathan Eovaldi took off once he began to feel comfortable with his splitter and use it regularly? It makes a big difference.

Last season the ball ended up on the ground 60.7% of the time when batters put Pineda’s changeup in play. Back in 2011 that number was only 42.9%. The league average for changeups has hovered around 47% the last few years. Pineda rarely threw his changeup four years ago, and when he did throw it, he didn’t get ground balls. Now he throws the pitch fairly regularly and it gets grounders. It’s no wonder why his overall ground ball rate spiked.

Pineda credits Felix Hernandez for helping improve his changeup — “I have learned a lot from (Felix). He has treated me very well, which I appreciate a lot,” he said to Geoff Baker back in 2011 — but it was the Yankees who got him to refine the pitch and have more confidence in it. After all, Pineda and Felix haven’t been teammates for five years now. Hernandez helped him early in the process. The Yankees did the rest of the work.

Adding ground balls to Pineda’s strikeout and walk rates is really exciting, though, as we saw last year, it doesn’t always lead to the best results. Big Mike was pretty hittable and I think at least part of that is due to him being around the plate so much. Pineda might be one of those guys who throws too many strikes. He could benefit from throwing some more two-strike waste pitches. Not everything needs to be over the plate, you know?

Anyway, even with all those hits allowed last season (176 hits in 160.2 innings), I’ll take my chances with Pineda if he continues to limit walks while racking up strikeouts and ground balls like he did last summer. The changeup helps him keep the ball on the ground, which is huge in Yankee Stadium and the AL East in general. And now that he’s developed that third pitch, the Yankees really need Pineda to emerge as a rotation anchor.

It’s no secret the Yankees have a bunch of health risks in their rotation — Pineda’s one of them! — and they don’t have much quality depth either, not with Adam Warren now on Chicago’s north side. Pineda is the only guy in the rotation who really stands out as having the potential to be much better in 2016 than he was in 2015. He’s creeping up on free agency too, remember. Big Mike has a chance to make himself some big bucks the next two years.

The Yankees acquired Pineda hoped he’d be at the front of their rotation by now. The shoulder injury threw a big wrench into everything, but right now he’s as healthy as he’s going to get, and he’s developed that changeup into a legitimate third pitch. The Yankees need Pineda to use that changeup to step up and become a rotation leader next season. It’s time.

Brian Cashman on adding a starter: “Our rotation is full”

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

For most of the offseason the Yankees have been looking for a starting pitcher, particularly a young starter they could control beyond 2017. Both Andrew Miller and Brett Gardner have been mentioned in trade talks for such a player, though no deal has taken place. A trade for a starter won’t happen either, if you take Brian Cashman‘s word for it.

“Our rotation is full,” said the GM to reporters during a conference call following last week’s Aroldis Chapman trade. The Yankees currently have six starters — Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Luis Severino, Nathan Eovaldi, Michael Pineda, and Ivan Nova — for five spots, though that group of players comes with an awful lot of health concerns.

Cashman has a history of saying one thing and doing another — “Bubba Crosby is our center fielder,” is the most notable example — and that makes him no different than any other GM. The Yankees can’t come out and say they want a starter. It would potentially make them look desperate and give other teams leverage in trade talks.

That said, the rotation has been full since the end of last season and the Yankees have still been looking for a young starter this winter. I doubt they’ve stopped trying to acquire one. A young starter is a perpetual shopping list item. It’s like toilet paper. You’re always going to need it. The Yankees will never not be looking for young pitching.

The current rotation is risky but it doesn’t lack upside. The Yankees have enough bodies for the rotation — Bryan Mitchell and Luis Cessa are other depth pieces — and can go into the season as is. They’re looking for a young starter mostly for a future, since everyone other than Severino can become a free agent at some point in the next two winters.

At the moment, my guess is no, the Yankees will not trade for any kind of significant rotation help the rest of the offseason. They might make a waiver claim or a minor league signing, something like that, but a significant free agent signing or trade probably won’t happen. The search for a young starter figures to continue into the regular season.