Nova to make season debut Wednesday, Yankees going to six-man rotation for time being

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It’s official: Ivan Nova will return to the rotation and start Wednesday’s series finale against the Phillies. Joe Girardi told reporters the news this afternoon. Adam Warren, who is also lined up to start Wednesday, will start Thursday instead. Everyone else is getting pushed back a day and the Yankees will use a six-man rotation for the time being. Girardi said he doesn’t anticipate that lasting beyond next week, however.

Nova, 28, had Tommy John surgery last April and the team took a conservative approach with his rehab, partly because so many other pitchers around the league have needed second Tommy John surgeries the last year or two. Some, including Dr. James Andrews, have speculated the recent spike in second elbow reconstructions stems from an overly aggressive rehab following the first Tommy John surgery.

After making a bunch of Extended Spring Training starts, Nova pitched to a 4.02 ERA in three official minor league rehab starts, one with High-A Tampa and two with Triple-A Scranton. Reports said he looked good even though his last start (five runs in five innings) was rough. Command is the last thing to return following Tommy John surgery and it was never Nova’s strong suit anyway. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous about his first few starts back.

The Yankees don’t have an obvious candidate to remove from the rotation. Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, and Warren have all pitched well, CC Sabathia isn’t going anywhere because of his contract, and Nathan Eovaldi will stay in the rotation for developmental reasons. Heck, who’s to say Nova isn’t the team’s sixth best starter right now?  These things have a way of working themselves out. For now, a six-man rotation it is.

Pitching plans show the Yankees wisely have their eyes on the big picture

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last night, Michael Pineda turned in arguably his best start of the season, which is pretty impressive when you consider he struck out 16 batters in a game last month. Big Mike carved through the Marlins with his mid-90s electricutter and the best slider command he’s had since the 16-strikeout game. It was Pineda at his best. Overwhelming dominance.

Five days ago Pineda suffered through arguably his worst start of the season by allowing six runs on nine hits in only 4.1 innings against the Orioles, the same Orioles he struck out 16 times a few weeks ago. His slider wasn’t behaving and his location was terrible, hence all the damage. Perhaps not coincidentally, last night’s start came on normal rest while the start in Baltimore came on eleven days rest.

“There’s days he hasn’t had his slider and he’s been on regular rest. So there is no answer to this, as much as you guys want one. There is no exact science,” said Joe Girardi to Ryan Hatch last night when asked about Pineda dominating on normal rest and struggling with extra rest.”These guys are creatures of habit, but sometimes you have to make adjustments. You have off days that you have to adjust to.”

The Yankees didn’t skip Pineda’s start two weeks ago for the heck of it. They did it because they’re trying to keep him healthy, and because he threw 124.2 total innings from 2012-14 following major shoulder surgery. Pineda has already thrown more big league innings this season (81.1) than he did last season (76.1) and we’re only halfway through June. Again: major shoulder surgery in the not too distant past!

Pineda is not the only pitcher who is having his workload monitored. Masahiro Tanaka‘s next start has been pushed back to give him an extra day of rest, something the team is trying to do as much as possible this year. They aren’t so concerned about his exact innings total, they’re just playing it safe with the partial ligament tear in his elbow. Adam Warren, a reliever turned starter who is two starts away from exceeding last year’s innings total, has also had some starts pushed back in recent weeks.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees are clearly looking at the big picture here and are willing to lose the battle (Pineda vs. the Orioles) to win the war (Pineda the rest of the season) with their rotation. Having Pineda, Tanaka, Warren, and whoever else around and not just healthy, but productive as well in the second half is far more important than one or two starts right now, before the halfway point of the season. Skipping that start seems to have resulted in a poor outing for Pineda against the O’s. The hope is it will lead to an effective Pineda in September and October.

The workload manipulation is only going to continue these next few weeks, so it would be nice if Pineda figured out how to remain effective in starts with extra rest. That’s an adjustment he has to make. The Yankees may use a six-man rotation when Ivan Nova returns and they figure to insert a spot sixth starter several times down the stretch — they were prepared to start Bryan Mitchell this Saturday until Nathan Eovaldi‘s short start on Tuesday, allowing him to come back on short rest. My guess is Mitchell will still end up taking a few rotation turns later this year.

There is definitely a time and a place for focusing on the here and now, especially with the AL East so tight. The Yankees aren’t at that place right now. There is still 60% of the season to be played and they have to be cognizant of their starters’ physical limitations and do their best to keep everyone healthy and sharp all season. If that means sacrificing some starts now a la Pineda against the Orioles, then so be it. The big picture is far too important right now.

Nova’s return coming at just the right time for the Yanks

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Nothing is set in stone yet, but all signs point to Ivan Nova rejoining the Yankees after making his second minor league rehab start with Triple-A Scranton later today. The Yankees do need to see how he feels after that start, how his arm bounces back, all that stuff, but so far his rehab has gone very well and by all indications Nova will be activated off the DL very soon.

“We’re pretty encouraged with where he’s at right now. The sink on his fastball, his changeup, his curveball, we’re pretty encouraged. I didn’t say he would be ready after (today). I said we would evaluate him,’’ said Joe Girardi to George King earlier this week. “I think you evaluate where he is after each start, how built up he is. He should be able to give you 90 pitches the next time, 85 to 90 pitches, and then you just look at his stuff.”

Fitting Nova back onto the roster is one of those problems that isn’t a problem because there’s no such thing as too much pitching. The Yankees don’t have an obvious candidate to take out of the rotation because the five guys in the rotation have been pretty good for a few weeks now. The easy move would be sticking Adam Warren back in the bullpen, especially now that Andrew Miller is on the DL, but man, he’s been so good as a starter of late. I’d hate to see them pull the plug on Warren in the rotation when he’s pitching so well.

There’s also the six-man rotation option, which the Yankees have been talking about since before Spring Training and might now have the necessary pieces to pull it off. We weren’t even sure if they had five viable starters back in March. Remember that? Four of their five starters have been league average-ish or better and the fifth has a massive contract that ensures he’ll remain in the rotation until his arm falls off. Like it or not, CC Sabathia is not losing his rotation spot to Nova.

The Yankees started a stretch of 20 games in 20 days yesterday, and they’ve already skipped Michael Pineda once this season to control his innings. Warren’s innings have to be monitored as well and, as good as he’s been, the Yankees still have to be careful with Masahiro Tanaka. Giving him an extra day whenever possible is a good idea, and now the Yankees can possibly do that thanks to Nova’s return.

“We know that we’re going to need to insert a starter somewhere. We know that,” said Girardi to Chad Jennings earlier this week when asked about using a sixth starter to give the other starters extra rest during this stretch of 20 games in 20 days. “Do you do it twice? Maybe. Maybe we have to do it twice. We just have to see how the guys are doing and how they’re responding.”

Assuming Nova comes back well and a six-man rotation is a viable strategy during this stretch of games, the only concern would be making it work with the roster. The Yankees aren’t going to shed a reliever and use a six-man bullpen, everything they’ve done over the last few years shows they prefer having extra arms, which means a three-man bench. A backup catcher (John Ryan Murphy), a backup infielder (Brendan Ryan), and a backup outfielder (Garrett Jones or Mason Williams).

Williams has minor league options, Jones doesn’t, and that’s pretty much the deciding factor there. The Yankees don’t figure to cut Jones for Williams no matter how well Williams performs in the next week or so before Nova returns. Jones has started hitting of late after that brutal April. A three-man bench is less than ideal, though it might only be temporary until the Yankees get through these next 20 days.

“We just know we have a number of different guys that we’ve got to find ways to protect,” said Brian Cashman to Maria Guardado. “There’s other avenues to do it. If everybody’s healthy, you could always play with a six-man rotation, if Nova’s back and everyone’s in line. But we’re just trying to find ways to manage it properly so everybody keeps that full tank of gas and doesn’t have fatigue set in too easily, because when fatigue sets in, injuries can happen.”

Either way, Nova’s return is imminent and that’s a positive. The Yankees have some workloads to control this year and having him around to chew up innings will come in handy. And if the Yankees do stick Warren in the bullpen to replace Miller, as unfair as that would be, they have Nova ready to step in to the rotation spot. The rotation hasn’t been a weakness, but Nova’s return comes at a very convenient time for the Yankees. He gives them some options going forward, including a six-man rotation.

“There’s no strict plan as much as find ways at times to give people blows is basically what we’re going to try to do,” added Cashman. “But how we’re going to do it, we’re not sure just yet.”

A shorter leash could mean a more effective CC Sabathia

(Ezra Shaw/Getty)
(Ezra Shaw/Getty)

Later tonight CC Sabathia will make his 11th start in what has been, to date, the worst season of his career. Sabathia has a 5.67 ERA (4.20 FIP) in 60.1 innings so far, worse than the 5.28 ERA (4.78 FIP) he had in 46 innings before knee surgery last year, and worse than the 4.78 ERA (4.10 FIP) he had in 211 innings back in 2013, his last full healthy season. CC’s getting old and losing effectiveness. It happens.

The Yankees won’t and pretty much can’t take Sabathia out of the rotation. They owe him a ton of money through next season and possibly through 2017 depending on his vesting option, so they’re going to give him more than ten starts coming off knee surgery to show he has something left. And besides, even if the Yankees were willing to pull Sabathia from the rotation, they have no one to replace him right now. Chris Capuano? Nooope.

So, rather than replace Sabathia, the Yankees have to figure out a way to live with him and improve his performance. That’s much easier said than done — like I said, Sabathia’s getting up there in age (by baseball standards) and has a ton of miles on his arm, so he might be at the point of no return performance-wise — and I think the best way to do that right now is by shortening the leash. Check out Sabathia’s times through the lineup splits in his last two healthy seasons:

2015 2013
1st time thru lineup .274/.322/381 (102 OPS+) .238/.294/.388 (93 OPS+)
2nd time thru lineup .316/.337/.443 (113 OPS+) .278/.329/.475 (119 OPS+)
3rd time thru lineup .347/.360/.667 (170 OPS) .299/.354/.488 (122 OPS+)
4th time thru lineup .167/.250/.167 (14 OPS+) .281/.333/.391 (104 OPS+)

First of all, just ignore the numbers the fourth time through the lineup. They come from a very small sample of plate appearances (eight in 2015 and 70 in 2015) and typically the only time a pitcher faces the lineup a fourth time is when he’s pitching well, which is why the stats are better. I don’t even know why I included them.

Secondly, just about every pitcher performs worse each time through the lineup, so Sabathia is hardly unique. The league average OPS+ each time through the order goes from 97 to 106 to 109 to 114 this year, and that’s understandable. It’s not just getting more looks a pitcher and getting familiar with his stuff that day, but the pitcher is also more fatigued each subsequent turn through the lineup.

Sabathia is no different at this point of his career. He’s been about average the first time through the lineup this season, below-average the second time around, and a disaster the third time through. Sabathia’s pitch count splits show a similar pattern — the longer he’s in the game, the less effective he is:

2015 2013
Pitches 1-25 .217/.277/.333 (74 OPS+) .233/.291/.433 (103 OPS+)
Pitches 26-50 .350/.364/.383 (113 OPS+) .269/.314/.394 (102 OPS+)
Pitches 51-75 .299/.319/.507 (124 OPS+) .311/.348/.503 (134 OPS+)
Pitches 76-100 .380/.400/.760 (215 OPS+) .259/.335/.466 (114 OPS+)
Pitches 101+ .250/.250/.250 (50 OPS+) .309/.365/.412 (121 OPS+)

Again, pitchers around the league are less effective as their pitch count climbs, and Sabathia is no different. Specifically he’s been positively abysmal after pitch No. 75 this year. It was evident in his last start, when he allowed that game-tying two-run home run to Brett Lawrie on pitch No. 77. Sabathia retired just one of four batters faced after his pitch count eclipsed 75 against the Athletics.

Given how much effectiveness Sabathia loses the third time through the lineup and with his pitch count at 75+, a shorter leash could help limit the damage. Sure, it would probably make him a five-inning pitcher instead of a six-inning pitcher, but what if it shaves a run off his ERA? Or even just half a run? Sabathia would also be able to pitch with more intensity earlier in the game, which could improve his performance as well.

The biggest problem with shortening up Sabathia’s leash is the extra stress it puts on the bullpen, specifically a middle relief crew that hasn’t been all that good this year. Capuano being available as a second long man would help with the increased workload, but again, that means more Capuano innings. There are going to be days when the Yankees simply need Sabathia to chew through six or seven innings to rest the bullpen, so auto-pulling him the third time through the lineup isn’t so cut and dried.

The Yankees are used to Sabathia being a workhorse and taking the ball deep into the game every fifth day. Even with his struggles the last three years, he’s averaged 6.1 innings per start, so he always spared the bullpen a bit. Sabathia takes pride in being a workhorse and he should, because it’s a hell of an accomplishment. At this point of his career though, Sabathia doesn’t have the tools to be effective once the lineup turns over a third time.

CC almost certainly won’t ever be an ace again, but if the Yankees pick and choose their spots to get him out of the game earlier than usual, it could help Sabathia be more productive than he has been so far this season.

Poll: Fitting Masahiro Tanaka back onto the roster

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Tomorrow afternoon the Yankees will welcome arguably their best pitcher and inarguably one of their most important players back from the DL, as Masahiro Tanaka returns to the rotation after missing a month with wrist tendinitis and a minor forearm strain. Tanaka will be limited to 80 pitches after making just two Triple-A rehab starts, but, at this point, 80 pitches from Tanaka is preferable to none. That goes without saying.

Joe Girardi has already said Chris Capuano will move into the bullpen to make room for Tanaka in the rotation, which isn’t surprising. Adam Warren has been too good his last four starts to remove him from the rotation. They owe it to themselves to see if he can be a cheap, reliable starter going forward. The Yankees do still have to fit Tanaka on the 25-man roster, and there are several ways they can do that. They have two candidates to bump down to Triple-A and three candidates they could drop from the roster all together. Here’s a quick overview of said options.

Option No. 1: Demote Lindgren

These are presented in no particular order, but this seems like a natural place to start since Jacob Lindgren is the low man on the pitching staff totem pole. He’s been in the big leagues for about a week now and has allowed six of 15 batters faced to reach base (.400 OBP). Lindgren may be the team’s top bullpen prospect, but bullpen prospects usually have to wow in order to stick around. Had Lindgren dominated those first 15 batters, the decision to send him around would be much tougher. For now, he’s the low man in terms of service time and that guy tends to get demoted whenever a spot is needed.

Option No. 2: Demote Shreve

Shreve has arguably been the team’s third best reliever this season, pitching to a 2.49 ERA (3.14 FIP) in 21.2 innings. He’s struck out 23 of 84 batters faced (27.4%), and heading into last night’s game he’d held right-handed batters to a .162/.212/.286 batting line thanks to his splitter. Shreve is no lefty specialist. The Yankees would be crazy to send him down, except they did it once already this year, when they needed a fresh arm in April. (Of course Shreve had not yet shown he was a bullpen weapon at that point.) Shreve is too valuable to send to Triple-A, even temporarily, but he has options and doesn’t have the prospect pedigree of Lindgren, which could work against him.

Option No. 3: Designate Carpenter

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

We’re now almost one-third of the way through the 2015 season, and thus far David Carpenter has a 4.91 ERA (5.33 FIP) in 18.1 innings. Girardi has been using Carpenter often in an effort to get him back on track — he’s appeared in eight of the team’s last 16 games — but it just hasn’t happened. On one hand, Carpenter has been the team’s least effective middle reliever. On the other, he was pretty damn good with the Braves the last two years (2.63 ERA and 2.88 FIP) and is under team control through 2017 as an arbitration-eligible player, and you’d hate to give that up after only 18.1 bad innings. Then again, what good are those years of control if he stinks? This is a player who’s in his sixth organization already. If nothing else, Carpenter has pitched his way into fringe roster territory and any discussion about designating him for assignment isn’t undeserved. (Carpenter is out of minor league options and can’t go to Triple-A without passing through waivers, and even though he’s been bad this year, he’d get claimed in a heartbeat.)

Option No. 4: Designate Rogers

The Yankees very clearly like something about his Esmil Rogers — to his credit, he does have good stuff and his arm seems resilient — and he started the season well, allowing just four earned runs in his first 16.1 innings. He’s since allowed 13 earned runs in his last 14.2 innings, so his ERA (4.94) and FIP (4.77) suddenly resemble his 2012-14 marks (4.91 and 4.35, respectively). Every team needs a long man and Esmil usually isn’t deciding games, he’s just mopping them up, but the Yankees have some other long man options who could be better, include Capuano.

Option No. 5: Designate Capuano

Capuano has pitched to a 6.39 ERA (4.20 FIP) in three starts since coming back from his quad injury and he does have experience in a relief role, but cutting ties with Capuano all together is possible if the Yankees think he’s done. They already have four lefties in the bullpen and might not want to add another. Then again, Capuano can start, and rotation depth probably isn’t something the Yankees should be giving away at this point. Plus his $5M salary could be factor. Everyone else in this post is making peanuts. Money has a way of buying extra time on the roster.

* * *

It goes without saying that Warren, Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, Nathan Eovaldi, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances are locked into their roster spots, and I think the Justin Wilson is more safe than not as well. Those other five pitching staff slots are not as safe and any one of the five could wind up going to make room for Tanaka. Lindgren or Shreve could find themselves in Triple-A or one of Rogers, Carpenter, or Capuano could find themselves out of the organization entirely. What’s the best way to get Tanaka back onto the roster?

How should the Yankees clear a roster spot for Tanaka?

Tanaka joining Yankees out west, expected to return to rotation next week

(Scranton Times-Tribune)
(Scranton Times-Tribune)

Earlier today, Joe Girardi told reporters Masahiro Tanaka is flying west today to meet the Yankees in California, and he is expected to return to the rotation early next week. “In a perfect world he would start sometime in Seattle,” said Girardi, referring to the team’s three-game series with the Mariners from Monday through Wednesday.

Tanaka, 26, has been out exactly one month now with wrist tendinitis and a minor forearm strain. He’s made two Triple-A rehab starts — one good, one not so good — and was able to get his pitch count up to 62 yesterday, in his second start. Girardi said Tanaka will be limited to 80 pitches in his return next week.

First off all, hooray Tanaka! The Yankees have played it very safe with their ace and they’ve insisted the injury was minor the entire time. Tanaka was reportedly upset at being placed on the DL too. There’s no reason to think they’re rushing him back or that they’re being too aggressive. He’s healthy. He’s just not stretched out.

Secondly, I’m interested to see how they get Tanaka on the roster. Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia will start Monday and Tuesday, and they’re not coming out of the rotation, but Chris Capuano is starting Wednesday and the Yankees are off Thursday. Will Tanaka replace Capuano in the rotation? Or just push him back?

As far as the 25-man roster spot, the easy move would be sending Jacob Lindgren back to Triple-A, but I hope that doesn’t happen. Chasen Shreve could (undeservingly) get sent out, or Esmil Rogers or David Carpenter could be cut loose with Capuano or Adam Warren sliding into the bullpen. Intrigue! We’ll find out soon enough.

Can Michael Pineda rebound against the Royals?

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

Michael Pineda was the model of consistency for the first 20 games of his pinstriped career. He never gave up more than three runs in consecutive outings, and he’d never had a “disaster” start where he allowed more runs than innings pitched (except for his pine tar-shortend game last year).

Until May 15 (5 1/3 IP, 5 R, 10 H, 1 K) and May 22 (6 IP, 7 R, 8 H, 4 K) happened.

It’s definitely not time to press the panic button after just two poor starts, but this (extremely) mini-slump is somewhat noteworthy because it’s the first time Pineda has struggled in back-to-back outings since joining the Yankees.

With Pineda facing the Royals again this afternoon — the same lineup that clobbered him less than two weeks ago — let’s take a look inside the numbers to see what’s gone wrong for the right-hander in his last two turns, and how he can get back on track against the best team in baseball on Wednesday.

*******

Here’s a quick overview of his first seven starts this season compared to his last two:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% HR
Last 2 11 1/3 7.15 4.82 9.3% 1.9% 2
First 7 46 1/3 2.72 1.91 29.5% 1.6% 3

The most shocking number in the table above is the huge drop in his strikeout rate. Sure, that 30 percent figure is skewed a bit by the 16-strikeout game. But the fact that he’s had his two lowest strikeout totals of the season in his last two games is really hard to ignore.

Predictably, batters are making more contact against Pineda in his past two games (83 percent) compared to his first seven (77 percent), but that doesn’t completely explain the lack of whiffs. Almost all of the increase in that contact rate is on pitches outside the zone — the pitches that he normally uses to get strikeouts.

Contact % O-Swing % O-Contact % Z-Contact %
Last 2 82.9% 34.8% 71.0% 87.5%
First 7 76.5% 32.3% 56.9% 86.5%

So while Pineda is still generating above-average swing rates on those out-of-zone offerings, hitters haven’t been fooled by his stuff and he’s not missing as many bats with those pitches.

Over his last two games, his signature slider has hardly been the wipeout pitch that made Pineda such a dominant force on the mound to start the season. He’s lost about an inch of horizontal movement on his slider, making it easier for hitters to square up on the pitch. After getting batters to whiff on 19 percent of his sliders in his first seven games, that rate has plummeted to just nine percent since then.

pineda whiffs animate

Another concern related to this lack of strikeouts is his inability to finish off hitters when ahead. Pineda is actually getting into more favorable counts now, but he hasn’t been able to execute those put-away pitches.

Opponents are 5-for-8 against him in pitchers’ counts over the last two games, a situation that the Royals really took advantage of when they crushed Pineda on May 15. The game was decided in the sixth inning as Pineda allowed two doubles and a triple to three of the first four batters he faced — unsurprisingly, each of those extra-base hits came on a 1-2 pitch from the right-hander.

The other obvious problem for Pineda recently is that he’s simply been more hittable, and he’s given up nearly as many runs in his last two outings (12) as in his first seven (14). Let’s break it down, good-bad-ugly style:

• The good: he’s still generating ground balls at the exact same rate (53 percent);
• The bad: he’s traded a few fly balls for line drives;
• The ugly: he’s really struggled when pitching from stretch:

After limiting batters to a .230 average with runners on base in his first seven starts, they are 8-for-20 (.400) over the last two games. Even worse, Pineda has stranded just 43 percent of baserunners during this mini-slump, a drop of more than 30 percentage points from the first month of the season (78 percent). Not being able to get that big strikeout in those key scoring situations has really hurt him recently.

******

While there are some reasons to be optimistic that Pineda will be able to rebound today against the Royals — he’s still getting a ton of grounders, showing excellent control and limiting walks — he will definitely be challenged by Kansas City’s high-contact lineup and powerful lefty bats.

Pineda, who held opposite-handed batters to a .200 average in his first seven outings, has been hit hard by lefties in his last two starts. They are a combined 10-for-24, and he’s allowed identical 5-for-12 lines against both the Royals (May 15) and Rangers (May 22).

If Pineda can’t contain the Royals’ quartet of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon and Kendrys Morales — three lefties and a switch-hitter — it could be another long afternoon for the Yankees and their budding staff ace.