Jordan Montgomery was sent to Triple-A and that was the plan all along

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Following yesterday afternoon’s win the Yankees announced they’ve sent Jordan Montgomery down to Triple-A Scranton, which gets the team back to a normal five-man rotation. They haven’t announced who is coming up to replace him, but I’d bet on it being a boring eighth reliever. Maybe Bryan Mitchell so Adam Warren and Chad Green don’t have to throw mop-up innings? We’ll see.

The decision to send Montgomery down comes after a strong start against a very good Indians team. Montgomery held them to one run in five innings and needed only 65 pitches to do it. Joe Girardi pulled him because he said he felt it was time to go to his rested bullpen in a close game, so he did. And hey, it worked it. The bullpen put up zeroes for four innings and the Yankees won. They really needed that win.

Sending Montgomery down after such a strong performance tells us the Yankees planned to send him down all along. They used a six-man rotation last week to give everyone a little extra rest, but they don’t want to do it long-term, and Montgomery is the odd man out. He pitched well last time and Jaime Garcia didn’t, yet Garcia remains. Why? Because the Yankees don’t base decisions on one game or one start. I mean:

  • Montgomery since July 1st: 5.29 ERA (4.26 FIP) in seven starts and 34 innings
  • Garcia since July 1st: 4.88 ERA (2.47 FIP) in five starts and 31.1 innings

Montgomery was pretty terrible in July. He made six starts and could only get through five full innings three times. I assume that tough month was one reason the Yankees went out and got two starters at the trade deadline even though they only had one open rotation spot. Montgomery seemed to be hitting a bit of a rookie wall there. It’s okay. It happens.

Two things about this decision. One, it’s not permanent. Montgomery will be back soon enough. I’m guessing we’ll see him again before rosters expand on September 1st. Two, the Yankees need to keep Montgomery’s workload in check. (Luis Severino‘s too, and that’s why I think Montgomery will be back pretty soon.) Sending Montgomery to Triple-A makes it easier to space out his starts and cap him at five innings or whatever they want to do. Wins and losses don’t really matter down there.

Also, if you’re into such things, sending Montgomery down for at least ten days allows the Yankees to “buy” an extra year of control. Right now Montgomery is due to become a free agent at age 30 during the 2022-23 offseason. Ten days in the minors pushes that back to age 31 and the 2023-24 offseason. I don’t think that’s a big deal or motivation for the demotion at all. Buy the extra year for elite prospects. Everyone else isn’t worth the hassle.

Anyway, Montgomery was sent down and the Yankees will (presumably) give him a bit of a breather so he can be ready to help them down the stretch and into September. You know they’re going to need him. They were either going to have to find a way to keep him fresh and rested at the MLB level, which is hard to do, or they could do it in Triple-A. Garcia allows them to do it in Triple-A. There’s not much more to it than that.

Sonny Gray and the move from Oakland Coliseum to Yankee Stadium

(@Yankees)
(@Yankees)

Later tonight right-hander Sonny Gray will make his first start with the Yankees after coming over from the Athletics prior to Monday’s trade deadline. He’ll face the same Indians team he held scoreless over six innings just three weeks ago. I’m sure Gray will feel some “first start with his new team” butterflies and all that, but one start is just one start. As long there are (many) more good starts than bad starts, the Yankees will be happy.

Gray is making the move from Oakland Coliseum to Yankee Stadium, which is going from one extreme on the ballpark spectrum to the other. Oakland Coliseum is pitcher friendly thanks to the spacious outfield, the tall outfield walls, and all that foul territory. Yankee Stadium is pretty much the exact opposite. Short porch, not much foul territory, so on and so forth. Gray’s moving from a big time pitcher’s park to a big time hitter’s park.

So far Gray has made just one career start at Yankee Stadium, back in 2015 when the held the Yankees to three runs in seven innings. If you’re using that to forecast how Gray will perform going forward, stop. It’s meaningless. It’s one start. One start against a lineup …

sonny-gray-lineup

… Gray will never face again. That one start tells us nothing useful. There’s not a pitcher alive who wouldn’t see their numbers get worse moving from Oakland Coliseum to Yankee Stadium. They are very different ballparks and very different run-scoring environments. You have to adjust your expectations accordingly knowing how hitter friendly Yankee Stadium can be.

Now, that all said, there are reasons to believe Gray is built to succeed in Yankee Stadium. First and foremost, Gray is a ground ball pitcher, and the next ground ball I see hit over the short porch will be the first. Among the 99 pitchers who have thrown at least 90 innings this year, Grays ranks seventh with a 56.7% ground ball rate. Since the start of the 2014 season, he’s fifth with a 54.6% ground ball rate. Ground balls are good.

Get that many ground balls over that long a period of time and it’s not a fluke. What makes Gray’s consistently above-average ground ball rate impressive is that he doesn’t do it with one pitch. Many great ground ball pitchers have that heavy sinker they use to pound the bottom of the zone. Gray gets ground balls with multiple pitches. Here are his 2017 numbers:

  • Four-Seam Fastball: 63.3% grounders (37.8% league average)
  • Two-Seam Fastball: 62.1% grounders (51.5% league average)
  • Slider: 51.4% grounders (44.8% league average)
  • Changeup: 45.5% grounders (49.5% league average)
  • Curveball: 32.1% grounders (47.7% league average)

The two fastballs and the slider have been comfortably above-average ground ball pitches. The changeup, his least used offering (6.5% in 2017), is a tick below-average. The curveball has been well-below-average at getting ground balls this season, though that’s an outlier. Gray’s curveball had a 46.5% ground ball rate last year. It was 52.3% the year before that and 53.5% the year before that.

Even if Gray’s curveball is permanently broken as a ground ball pitch — batters have put his curveball in play only 25 times this season, so I’m betting it’s sample size noise — he still takes three above-average ground ball pitches to the mound on any given day, plus a fourth that is average-ish. He’s not someone who, when he needs a ground ball, has to throw his two-seamer. Or has to throw his slider. He has more than one option.

Secondly, Gray is really good against left-handed batters. A righty who can’t keep lefties in check is going to have a really hard time in the Bronx. His numbers against lefties:

BF AVG/OBP/SLG wOBA K% BB% GB% HR/9 Hard%
2014 489 .219/.300/.339 .289 20.7% 9.6% 58.0% 0.76 25.2%
2015 425 .208/.275/.303 .260 21.9% 8.0% 56.3% 0.68 26.7%
2016 256 .280/.329/.427 .325 19.1% 6.3% 51.6% 0.91 28.6%
2017 191 .220/.277/.335 .269 23.0% 7.3% 57.4% 0.58 26.3%

Gray was injured and bad all around last season, against both righties and lefties. When healthy from 2014-15 and in 2017, he’s been very good against left-handed batters, especially at keeping the ball on the ground and limiting hard contact. (The MLB average is a 32.1% hard contact rate.) Preventing lefties from getting the ball airborne is imperative in Yankee Stadium.

As you’d expect, Gray uses his slider more against righties and his changeup more against lefties, otherwise his fastball and curveball usage is the same against all hitters. That curveball is the difference-maker. It’s a high-quality pitch Gray can throw for strikes or bury in the dirt for swings and misses, and he throws it at any time. Many starters are fastball-breaking ball against same-side hitters and fastball-changeup against guys on the other side of the plate. Gray is fastball-cuveball-slider against righties and fastball-curveball-changeup against lefties.

Another reason Gray won’t suffer too much from the move from the Oakland Coliseum to Yankee Stadium? He doesn’t rely on pop-ups. There’s sooo much foul territory in Oakland. Balls that land behind the dugouts in many ballparks are caught for outs at the Coliseum. Those cheap outs have allowed dudes like Tommy Milone and Jesse Chavez to function as viable starters for the A’s, but nowhere else. Here is Gray’s pop-up spray chart overlaid on Yankee Stadium, via Baseball Savant:

sonny-gray-pop-ups

That covers 2014-17, so that’s 641 innings worth of pop-ups there. You can count on one hand the number that were outs at Oakland Coliseum but would have been in the seats elsewhere. Will Gray lose some easy foul pop-up outs given the smaller foul territory at Yankee Stadium? Of course. But he wasn’t relying on them for success anyway. He’s a ground ball/strikeout guy. Not a pop-up guy.

One last thing to keep in mind — and this is not ballpark specific — is the Yankees are a substantially better defensive team than the Athletics. Remember how much the A’s kicked the ball around during the two series with the Yankees? The A’s might be the worst defensive team in baseball this season.

A’s DRS: -50 (30th among all MLB teams)
A’s UZR: -42.0 (30th)
A’s Defensive Efficiency: 0.706 (14th)

Yankees DRS: -5 (16th)
Yankees UZR: +4.9 (11th)
Yankees Defensive Efficiency: 0.711 (6th)

Gray’s ability to get ground balls with multiple pitches and use those pitches to neutralize left-handed batters are why it appears he is well-suited for Yankee Stadium despite being a short (5-foot-10) right-handed pitcher. He’s very unique in that regard. Not many pitchers that size can get ground balls. That the Yankees are a far superior defensive team to the A’s is icing on the cake. More of those grounders will be turned into outs.

As far as pitching well in New York and the AL East, I’m not concerned about Gray at all. He has a lot of weapons and he’s extremely competitive. The only concern I have with Gray is his health. As long as his arm stays in one piece, I think he’s going to be very effective for the Yankees, and I don’t think it’ll take long for him to become a fan favorite. Moving from Oakland Coliseum to Yankee Stadium will hurt his performance because it would hurt anyone’s performance. Gray has the tools to minimize the ballpark related damage, however.

Checking on Aroldis Chapman’s fastball spin rate

(Rich Gagnon/Getty)
(Rich Gagnon/Getty)

Friday night the Yankees had a win ripped away when Aroldis Chapman failed to retire even one of the five batters he faced, and blew his third save in 12 opportunities. A few of the nine saves he did nail down were a bit dicey as well. Chapman rebounded with scoreless innings Saturday and Sunday, though so far this season, he has not been the overwhelming force the Yankees thought they signed.

The single biggest difference between Chapman this year and the Chapman of the past has been a decline in swings and misses. Chapman threw 56 total pitches in his three appearances in Boston and generated one (1) swing and miss. He’s gotten eleven swings and misses in his last eight appearances and 148 pitches, or 7.4%. His career swing and miss rate is 17.3%. This year it’s 12.5%. The MLB average is 10.4%. Something has gone awry here.

The first thing we all thing about with Chapman is fastball velocity, and so far this year his velocity has been fine. His fastball is averaging 100.0 mph on the nose and he’s topped out at 103.3 mph. Last year he averaged 101.1 mph and the year before it was 100.4 mph. And yet, look at the rate of misses he’s generating per swing with his fastball. This is whiffs-per-swing, not whiffs-per-total pitches:

  • 2015: 41.0% (18.5% league average)
  • 2016: 32.8% (18.8% league average)
  • 2017: 25.1% (19.7% league average)

That’s not great. The league average keeps creeping up each year while Chapman’s whiffs-per-swing rate with his fastball is dropping noticeably. He’s down nearly 40% from 2015. Chapman isn’t missing bats like he once did and he knows it. He doesn’t know why though. “Actually, that’s a good question. I’m going to go back and try to see footage and why because I honestly don’t know why,” he said to Brendan Kuty over the weekend when asked about the lack of whiffs.

Since Chapman’s swing and misses are down significantly, I figured it would be worthwhile to check out his fastball spin rate. For fastballs, a high spin rate correlates well to swing and misses and a low spin rate correlates well to ground balls. You don’t really want to be average. You want to be high or low. Here, with an assist from Baseball Savant, is Chapman’s fastball spin rate by month since Statcast became a thing back in 2015:

aroldis-chapman-fastball-spin-rate-2015-17

Let’s start with the obvious: Chapman’s spin far has been well-above-average since Opening Day 2015. His worst spin rate month, June 2015, was still nearly 10% better than the league average. Chapman has a very high fastball spin rate and he usually generates a ton of swings and misses. That’s not a coincidence.

Now, compared to last year, Chapman’s fastball spin rate is definitely down. It declined every month from September 2016 through June 2017 before ticking back up this month. A spin rate decline is bad! At the same time, his fastball spin rate has declined back to where it was for much of 2015, when hitters missed with more than 40% of the swings they took against Chapman’s fastball. Hmmm.

Even with the gradual decline this year, I don’t see a big red flag with Chapman’s fastball spin rate. I’d be really worried if it dropped lower than it had been at any point the last two seasons and change. His fastball spin rate is down from last year and right in line with 2015, and Chapman was great in 2015. He’s within range here. That’s a good thing. You want Chapman to be Chapman, right? Right.

So, with his spin rate looking okay, we’re still left wondering why Chapman’s swing and misses are down this year. Joe Girardi chalked it up to everyone throwing hard now and hitters being more comfortable against big velocity, which I suppose could be true, but Luis Severino hasn’t had any trouble getting hitters to swing through his upper-90s heat. Dellin Betances is still getting a ton of whiffs with his fastball. That doesn’t really pass the sniff test.

The way I see it, there are four possible explanations for Chapman’s relative lack of swings and misses this year. One, he’s in permanent decline. That’s always possible. Humans aren’t meant to throw this hard for this long. Two, it’s just a slump. Sometimes ground ball pitchers can’t get ground balls and sometimes strikeout pitchers can’t get strikeouts. It happens. Three, Chapman is still not all the way back from his shoulder injury. It took Andrew Miller about a month to get back to normal following his forearm issue in 2015, remember.

And four, Chapman is dealing with a World Series hangover. He threw a lot of intense innings last postseason — 15.2 innings across 13 appearances, to be exact — and because the Cubs went to Game Seven of the World Series, Chapman had a shorter offseason recover. Game Seven was November 2nd and pitchers and catchers reported on February 14th. That’s not much of a break at all.

I think (hope) Chapman is going through a World Series hangover this year. He’s wouldn’t be the only one. Basically the entire Cubs rotation is dealing with it. If it is a World Series hangover, hopefully Chapman gets a second wind soon, or is 100% good to go next year at the latest. This is year one of a five-year contract, after all. Getting this version of Chapman in year one is kinda scary.

Chapman’s swings and misses are undeniably down this year, though his fastball spin rate is within its usual range, so that’s not a huge issue. Something is off though. I don’t know what. Maybe it’s a slump, maybe it’s a World Series hangover, or maybe he really is in permanent decline. Considering Chapman is only 29 and is super athletic and well built, as long as he’s healthy, I think he’ll be fine. Eventually. I don’t know when, exactly.

2017 Midseason Review: The Bullpen

(AP)
(AP)

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

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

Dellin Betances

Key Stat: 8.26 walks per nine innings

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

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

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

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

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

Aroldis Chapman

Key Stat: 35 days on the disabled list

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

Tyler Clippard

Key Stat: 12 meltdowns

Welp.

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

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

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

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

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

Adam Warren

Key Stat: 18.1 K-BB percentage

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chad Green

Key Stat: 34.7 percent strikeout rate

Green. (Getty)
(Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan Holder

Key Stat: 5 meltdowns in 32 games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sevy. (Presswire)
Sevy. (Presswire)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green. (Getty)
Green. (Getty)

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

A check in on Masahiro Tanaka’s spin rates

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

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

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

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

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

masahiro-tanaka-home-run-locations

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

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

The Splitter

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

masahiro-tanaka-splitter-spin-rate

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

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

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

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

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

The Slider

masahiro-tanaka-slider-spin-rate

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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