The easy to forget but still really important Ivan Nova

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Since Spring Training officially opened last week, all eyes have been on Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia. Well, at least the eyes that weren’t glued to Alex Rodriguez‘s every step. Tanaka and Sabathia are by far the biggest pitching stories in camp since they are both being counted on as rotation anchors and are coming off pretty serious injuries. It has not yet been a week, but so far, so good with those two.

Early in the morning yesterday, before Sabathia threw his second bullpen session of his spring, rehabbing righty Ivan Nova was at the team’s complex throwing his third bullpen as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery. It was a relatively light throwing session — 25 pitches, all fastballs — and he’ll likely throw another all fastball bullpen before introducing offspeed pitches. When the team breaks camp in early-April, Nova will stay behind to continue rehabbing in Tampa.

The Yankees have taken it very slow with Nova’s rehab so far — he had surgery in late-April, and according to Mike Dodd’s classic Tommy John surgery rehab article, Nova should have been throwing bullpens by October or November — and that is by design. A lot of pitchers have rushed back from elbow reconstruction in the last year or two only to need another procedure almost immediately. Cory Luebke and Daniel Hudson didn’t even complete the rehab from the first surgery when they blew out their elbows again. Brandon Beachy made it back for 30 innings. The Yankees are playing it safe.

“One good thing, you know you’re not going to be ready in April,” said Nova to Chad Jennings yesterday. “So you prepare yourself to be ready whenever they tell me. I don’t have to be thinking right now that I’ve got to be ready in April, so that’s kind of fortunate. I’m just taking it day by day, and I know that — I believe — a month before they think I’m going to be ready to go to the big leagues, they’re going to tell me. So that’s the time when I’m going to really prepare for that day.”

Because he’s been out of action for so long — Nova made only four starts last season before getting hurt — it’s been pretty easy to forget he exists. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess. That doesn’t make him any less important to the team, however. The Yankees have a risky rotation led by Tanaka and Sabathia, so getting Nova back healthy at midseason will be a boost to the starting staff. Hopefully an extra boost, not a “oh goodness we need him back as soon as possible” sort of boost.

Last year Jeff Zimmerman ran some numbers on performance before and after Tommy John surgery and confirmed that yeah, pitchers tend to struggle immediately after having their elbow ligament replaced. Their ERA increases 5.8% relative to projections, their walk rate increases 5.0%, and their strikeout rate drops 4.4%. It’s not until two years after surgery that they really get back to being themselves. Using that info, here’s a quick and dirty look at Nova’s projected performance for 2015:

ERA K% BB%
2013 Actual Performance 3.10 19.8% 7.5%
2014 Actual Performance 8.27 12.5% 6.3%
2015 ZiPS Projection 4.08 19.6% 7.2%
2015 ZiPS + TJS Penalty 4.32 18.7% 7.6%

Nova has been a perfectly league average pitcher overall so far in his career (career 100 ERA+!) though it’s been a roller coaster. He’s had some great years and some really bad years, including his brief four-start cameo in 2014. ZiPS, unsurprisingly, pegs him as a true talent league average pitcher for this coming season (99 ERA+) but it doesn’t know he had his elbow rebuild. Add in the Tommy John surgery penalty from Zimmerman’s research and he’s a projected below average pitcher, more like a 93 ERA+ guy.

What does that mean? Not a whole lot, really. I just think it’s important to remember the road back from Tommy John surgery can initially be a little bumpy. Pitchers on average have seen a slight performance dip, but each pitcher is a little snowflake that is different than everyone else. Thanks to the team’s conservative approach to his rehab, Nova could shake off the usual pre-Tommy John issues and return in June, picking up right where he left off in 2013. That would be sweet. Or maybe the performance dip hits him extra hard. We’ll find out when he gets back.

Personally, I hate relying on players coming back from major injury, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. New York’s rotation is what it is and I am comfortable saying with great certainty they are looking for upgrades at all times. Hopefully one pop up at some point. “Chris Capuano, fifth starter” is really “Chris Capuano, just keep us afloat until something better comes along.” That sometime just might end up being when Nova returns in May or June (likely June). Hopefully not, but it’s possible.

“I know they expect big things from me,” said Nova to Bryan Hoch yesterday. “I know I’ve had an up and down career so far, but I know what I’m able to do. I just have to put things straight and hopefully by the time I have everything in line, I can contribute to the team and win some games.”

For Nathan Eovaldi, not all adjustments will be physical

(NY Daily News)
(NY Daily News)

Earlier this week in our little poll, RAB readers voted right-hander Nathan Eovaldi as the Yankees’ most important pickup of the offseason. (He received 40% of the 2,500+ votes.) He beat out the likes of Chase Headley, Didi Gregorius, and various relievers because he’s a hard-throwing starter with obvious upside and three full years of team control remaining. He’s a rotation building block going forward.

Although he already has 79 career starts and 460 big league innings under his belt, Eovaldi is still just a kid. He turned 25 less than two weeks ago. He’s almost two full years younger than reigning NL Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom. He’s younger the all five of the top five finishers in last year’s AL Rookie of the Year voting. At his age, Eovaldi is far from a finished product, and the Yankees know that. He’s a work in progress.

“He kind of defies some of the logic with the analysis, as far as velocity and location and then giving up so many hits,” said pitching coach Larry Rothschild to Billy Witz over the weekend. “I’ve watched the tape, but I want to sit and watch during the game and try to figure out, how do you eliminate that? There’s not any great explanation.”

Eovaldi throws very hard — his fastball averaged 95.5 mph last year, fifth highest among the 88 qualified starters — and he doesn’t really walk many batters (5.0 BB% in 2014), yet he led the NL in hits allowed last season (223 in 199.2 innings) and only struck out 16.6% of batters faced, well below the 20.4% league average. An argument can be made all those hits were the product of bad luck (.323 BABIP was fourth highest among qualified starter), especially since his batted ball profile held steady.

Clearly though, there’s some kind of disconnect here. You’d expect someone who throws as hard as Eovaldi to strike out more batters, especially since he throws so many strikes. Eovaldi ranked 32nd out of those 88 qualify starters in first pitch strike percentage (62.9%) last year and he ranked 21st in percentage of 0-2 counts (22.0%), right alongside noted control artists like Jon Lester (22.3%), Zack Greinke (22.0%), and Doug Fister (21.8%). Getting in favorable counts wasn’t a problem.

Getting strike three has been an issue and Eovaldi knows that — “That’s one of the big issues I’ve had, not being able to finish the batters off. I try and do too much,” he said to Mark Feinsand recently — so he spent the weekend working on elevating his fastball with Rothschild, according to Chad Jennings. High fastballs are an excellent swing-and-miss pitch due to effective velocity. High fastballs look faster to the hitter and make it appear like they have less time to react.

There’s also an experience component to this that’s tough (impossible?) to quantify. It’s been said Eovaldi tries to throw harder when he’s in a jam like many pitchers his age, but the numbers don’t back that up. According to Baseball Savant, Eovaldi’s fastball has averaged 95.5 mph with the bases empty in his career, 94.9 mph with men on base, and 95.3 mph with runners in scoring position. Batters have a 94, 108, and 115 OPS+ against him in those situations, respectively.

The radar gun might not say Eovaldi is trying to throw harder in big spots — remember, trying to throw harder doesn’t automatically result in throwing hard. The result could be the same velocity but a “rushed” delivery and therefore bad location — but that doesn’t necessary mean the game doesn’t speed up on him in certain situations. Baseball is hard, man. It’s even harder when you’re young. It can be overwhelming.

“Sometimes, I think (his competitiveness) takes him into territory where he needs to back off a little bit, and not be not competitive, but get it under control. Or not always run it into the middle of everything. Step off and gather yourself and not try to necessarily power yourself through the inning,” said Rothschild to Witz. That sounds like a pitching coach describing a pitcher who needs to learn how to slow the game down in certain spots.

I’m not going to quote Yogi Berra here but you all know the saying. Eovaldi has the natural gifts — the big fastball, the solid slider, the work-in-progress changeup — but his development into a top flight pitcher will take more than physical adjustments. There’s a mental component to the game that can be easy to overlook but is also really important. I’m not saying Eovaldi is stupid or anything. He’s just a young kid and the game can spiral out of control on occasion. It’s normal. Learning to slow things down and stay in control will be an important part of his development, and that’s not something we can stick a number on.

Six-man rotation is a conversation worth having for the Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Today is the final day of the offseason. Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to officially report to Spring Training tomorrow, though more than a few Yankees are already in Tampa working out at the team’s complex. Tomorrow it’ll be official though. Like officially official. Spring Training is about to begin, folks.

Down in Tampa yesterday, pitching coaching Larry Rothschild told Bryan Hoch the Yankees plan to discuss using six starters early in the season, in April and possibly May. They briefly used a six-man rotation at the end of last season — obviously it’s easier to pull off with expanded rosters — and as early as last August we heard it was something the team was considering for 2015.

“It’s a result of some of the stuff that’s gone on over the last few years, not just here, but everywhere,” said Rothschild to Hoch. “We’re aware of situations here and early in the season, we need to get these guys through these stretches. Being that possibly early in the spring, some of them aren’t going to be able to throw a lot, we’re going to need to build them up too and give them the extra days when we can.”

A six-man rotation seems ambitious — the Yankees might have a hard time cobbling together five starters by the end of Spring Training based on the injury risk in the current rotation — though there’s no harm in discussing it. It might be unconventional, but baseball has been trending towards using pitchers less and less over the last, I dunno, 30-40 years or so. This is the logical next step. Let’s look at this a little deeper.

What Are The Benefits?

In the most basic terms, the less a pitcher pitches, the less likely he is to get hurt. The Yankees have two major injury risks in the rotation in Masahiro Tanaka (elbow) and CC Sabathia (knee), and pitching every sixth day instead of every fifth could help keep them on the field. I’m certain that’s what the Yankees are thinking. They want these guys to get through the entire season in one piece.

Pitchers in Japan work just about once a week and, according to Eno Sarris, they’ve undergone Tommy John surgery less than half as often as their MLB counterparts. Eno also spoke to Brian Bannister, a former big leaguer who spent time in Japan, and he said the extra time off does help while also noting NPB training methods are much different. “The recovery process in Japan is very deliberate with massage and soaking in alternating hot/cold water common,” he said. This isn’t as simple as “six-man rotation = less elbow injuries because look at NPB.” The preparation is different too.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Okay, now here is the important part: reducing the risk of injury is not guaranteed. Tanaka’s elbow has already been compromised and it could be that there’s nothing that can be done to improve his chances of staying on the field. The doctors have already given him the okay to pitch in games. If his elbow’s going to give, it’s probably going to give regardless of whether he’s starting every fifth day or every sixth day. Same with Sabathia’s knee. The Yankees could go through all the trouble of using a six-man rotation and these guys could still get hurt again.

Using a six-man rotation will ostensibly help the Yankees keep their starters healthy, and that’s a good thing. Their starters are actually pretty good when they’re healthy and they want those guys to make as many starts as possible. At this point a six-man rotation would be reactive instead of proactive — Tanaka and Sabathia (and Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova) have already suffered their major injuries. They’d just be trying to stop them from getting worse.

What About The Rest Of The Roster?

A six-man rotation means either a three-man bench or a six-man bullpen. The extra roster spot has to come from somewhere. If the Yankees go with a three-man bench, it means one of Chris Young, Garrett Jones, or Brendan Ryan won’t make the roster because one spot needs to go to a backup catcher, and I find cutting one of those guys unlikely. They all make seven figures. Maybe someone gets hurt in camp — Alex Rodriguez or Mark Teixeira, for example — opening a spot and making a three-man bench doable.

More than likely though, the Yankees would use a six-man bullpen based on their current roster. Adam Warren and Esmil Rogers — one of whom could end up the sixth starter — are both capable of throwing multiple innings, as is Dellin Betances. Justin Wilson isn’t a lefty specialist, he can throw a full inning. (A LOOGY has no place in a six-man bullpen.) The Yankees have the personnel to swing a six-man bullpen, especially since Joe Girardi is so meticulous about rest and keeping his relievers fresh. Plus they have the bullpen depth in the minors to make call-ups when necessary.

A Chance To Get Creative

That last part about call-ups is where it gets interesting. The sixth starter doesn’t have to be one starter, it could be a collection of starters. For example, Bryan Mitchell could make the start, then be sent down to Triple-A for an extra reliever, say Chris Martin. Then, when that rotation spot comes up again, Martin goes down and Chase Whitley comes up. (Mitchell couldn’t come up because of the ten-day rule.) Then after Whitley’s start, he goes back down in favor of a reliever, say Jacob Lindgren this time. When the rotation spot comes up again, Lindgren goes down and Mitchell comes up. Rinse, repeat. Make sense?

If the Yankees want to keep both Warren and Rogers in the bullpen so they can be used for multiple innings — a good idea with a six-man bullpen — Mitchell and Whitley could work in tandem as the sixth starter, pitching on the same schedule and alternating starts in MLB and Triple-A. Jose DePaula could be part of this arrangement too. He’s got an option left. It sounds great in theory because it allows the Yankees to keep a full seven-man bullpen most of the time with the sixth starter only on the roster the days he’s needed. These are people though, remember. Imagine being Mitchell or Whitley and having to do all that traveling from Triple-A to MLB for a day or two every other week. It would really suck and could impact performance.

How’s The Schedule Look?

Usually the month of April is cluttered with off-days because of weather concerns, enough that teams can often avoid using their fifth starter for a rotation turn or two. Off-days allowed the Yankees to avoid using their fifth starter (Freddy Garcia) until the 13th game of the season in 2011, after three full turns through the rotation. The Yankees won’t have that luxury this year. Here’s the April schedule from the official site:

April 2015 Schedule-001

The regular season starts on April 6th, the Yankees have the token “in case it rains on Opening Day off-day” on the 7th, then they play eight games in eight days. So right off the bat they need their fifth and potentially sixth starter. Following the off-day on the 16th, they play 13 games in 13 games, so again, there’s no chance to hide the fifth and sixth starter. After that off-day on the 30th, they play 17 games in 17 days.

Point is, there is no chance to skip the fifth and/or sixth starter early this season, and that might be part of the reason why the Yankees are considering a six-man rotation. The scheduled off-days don’t really allow for much extra rest early in the season and they want to make sure Tanaka, Sabathia, and everyone else gets a little breather in April. A six-man rotation is the only way to do it.

Okay, So What’s The Downside?

A six-man rotation does sound wonderful. As I mentioned though, it messes with the rest of the roster by taking a spot from the bench or bullpen. It also means fewer starts from your top starters. Starters average 32.4 starts in a five-man rotation and only 27 starts in a six-man rotation across a 162-game system. For the Yankees, that means five or so fewer starts each from Tanaka and Pineda, their best pitchers. Of course, without a six-man rotation, those two could end up making way fewer starts due to injury.

The idea of using a six-man rotation is more complicated than it seems. First of all, the Yankees would have to find six starters worthy of being in a big league rotation, which isn’t all that easy. It also screws with the rest of the roster and any health benefits aren’t guaranteed. It is a conversation worth having though. The Yankees have undoubtedly done more research on six-man rotations that us, and if they have reason to believe it will reap real benefits, then it’s a plan worth putting into place.

Eppler confirms Esmil Rogers is coming to Spring Training as a starter

Call me Esmil. (Presswire)
Call me Esmil. (Presswire)

This isn’t surprising: assistant GM Billy Eppler has confirmed right-hander Esmil Rogers will report to Spring Training stretched out and prepared to work as a starting pitcher. “I don’t know, I think you just walk into it with an open mind and just see. I think you just let it all play out. You usually don’t have to end up making the call. Situations and the players will make the call for you,” said Eppler to Chad Jennings.

Rogers, 29, worked as a starter in winter ball this offseason, allowing six runs in 11.2 innings (4.63 ERA) while striking out 18 and walking four. He has a 5.50 ERA (4.72 FIP) in 225.2 career innings as a starter at the MLB level, though most of that damage came when he was stuck pitching for the Rockies in Coors Field from 2019-12 (6.24 ERA and 4.87 FIP in 114 innings). Still, his track record as a big league starter isn’t very good.

Rogers did make one fine spot start for the Yankees last season (one run in five innings) and there’s really no reason not to bring him to camp as a starter. New York has a lot of injury risk in their rotation and it’s better to have Rogers stretched out and ready to go just in case. He can always slide back into the bullpen if need be. At best, I think Esmil is the team’s seventh starter behind the regular five and Adam Warren.

Eppler also reiterated Warren is coming to camp as a starter as well. David Phelps was scheduled to come to camp as a starter before he was traded to the Marlins in the Martin Prado/Nathan Eovaldi swap. Minor league righty Bryan Mitchell is another rotation candidate and the Yankees recently signed veteran righties Scott Baker and Kyle Davies to add some extra rotation depth.

Severino could help in 2015, but Yankees shouldn’t count on him making an immediate impact

(Trenton Thunder)
(Trenton Thunder)

At this point it goes without saying the Yankees have some major injury risks in their rotation heading into next season. We’ve been talking about it all winter. CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, and Masahiro Tanaka were all hurt for significant periods of time last year and Ivan Nova is still on the mend from Tommy John surgery. There’s no way to feel comfortable with this group from a health standpoint.

Of course, the Yankees did actually deal with a ton of rotation injuries last year, and they were still able to cobble together a decent staff. At one point five of the six best starters in the organization (Sabathia, Pineda, Tanaka, Nova, David Phelps) were all on the disabled list, yet Brian Cashman & Co. dug up a Chris Capuano here, found a Brandon McCarthy there, and made it work. Even with the injuries, the rotation had the fourth highest fWAR in baseball (14.9). It helps that no one can hit anymore.

As with Shane Greene last summer, the Yankees will inevitably have to dip into their minor league pitching reserves at some point this summer, and it appears Bryan Mitchell is first in line for a call-up after making his MLB debut last year. Chances are the team will need more than one fill-in starter though. That’s just baseball. Getting through a season using only five or six starters never happens these days. Add in the Tanaka, Sabathia, and Pineda injury risk and the Yankees are even more likely than most to need extra starters.

New York’s top prospect heading into the 2015 season is soon-to-be 21-year-old right-hander Luis Severino, who is the team’s best right-handed pitching prospect since pre-2008 Joba Chamberlain. In their midseason updates, Baseball America and MLB.com ranked Severino as the 34th and 62nd best prospect in baseball, respectively, and he’s only climbed further up those rankings since. You will find no argument that he is one of the top pitching prospects in all the land.

The Yankees have very clearly put Severino on the fast track — he made 14 starts for Low-A Charleston, four for High-A Tampa, and six for Double-A Trenton in 2014 — and there’s little reason to think they’ll slow him down now. I don’t expect him to start the season with Triple-A Scranton but he’ll be there soon enough, likely by May or at the latest June. Once he’s there, it’s only a matter of time before he gets the call to the show. The Yankees usually don’t let their top pitching prospects spend much time in Triple-A. It’s just a quick stop on the way to MLB.

There is a very clear path for Severino to join the big league team at some point in 2015, likely around midseason after a last little bit of token fine-tuning in the minors. His performance speaks for itself — he had a 2.46 ERA (2.40 FIP) at those three levels last year — but we can’t forget there is more to prospecting that stats. Severino himself admitted he needs to improve his command of the outer half of the plate and the consistency of his slider at MLB’s Rookie Development Camp recently. Here, look:

Improving location and the consistency of his breaking ball are real issues Severino has to address and things that can be improved and worked on in the minors, where wins and losses don’t matter. Severino might be able to get by without pitching to both sides of the plate or by hanging a bunch of sliders against minor leaguers, but the big leagues are unforgiving. Execution is more important than potential.

Even if Severino does master the outside corner and learn how to throw his slider where he wants, when he wants, there is still the issue of his workload. Severino threw 44 innings plus some unknown amount in Extended Spring Training in 2013 and then 113.1 total innings in 2015. That puts him on track for what, 150 innings in 2015? Maybe 160 if you really want to push it? Perhaps that will be enough — Greene threw 145 innings last year, but only after that weird April in which he went up-and-down a bunch of times and never really pitched (6.1 total innings in April — but more than likely it only makes Severino a temporary solution until he has to be shut down.

The workload is just something the Yankees and Severino will have to deal with. I hope they have learned from the Joba fiasco in late-2009 and will simply shut young pitchers down when they approach their innings limit rather than try something silly like 35-pitch starts or something like that. (My goodness that was such a mess.) There are innings Severino will be able to contribute to the big league team before the shutdown, but only a finite amount, and the quality of those innings is a total unknown.

A quick search shows 40 instances (featuring 31 different players) of a pitcher age 21 or younger starting at least five games in a season for an AL team since the turn of the century, and, of those 40, only 17 had a league average or better ERA. Just four have done it since 2007. Here’s the list. It’s not often pitchers this young get a somewhat extended shot in MLB, and those who do are rarely more than serviceable. It’s one thing if the Yankees call up Severino in 2015. It’s another if they call him up hoping he makes an impact rather than simply allowing him to get his feet wet.

Believe me, I would love nothing more than to see the Yankees bring up a hotshot pitching prospect and have him dominate this coming season. And with all due respect to Greene, I don’t mean someone like him. Someone like Severino, who is among the best pitching prospects in the game and could be a rotation fixture for years to come. That would be amazing. I don’t see how anyone could realistically expect that though. Severino might get a chance to help the Yankees in 2015, but if it comes in a spot where they need him to make a difference, he’ll be coming up under the wrong circumstances.

Bullpen depth could lead to Adam Warren working as a starter in 2015

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Even after losing David Robertson to free agency and trading away Shawn Kelley (and losing Preston Claiborne on waivers), the Yankees have a ton of upper level bullpen depth at the moment. Andrew Miller replaced Robertson, the just acquired David Carpenter replaces Kelley, and the team also added lefty Justin Wilson in the Francisco Cervelli trade. The Yankees seem to have more relievers than bullpen spots at the moment. Look:

That’s 16 17 pitchers for 14 bullpen spots — seven in MLB and seven in Triple-A — and I still feel like I’m forgetting someone. (Update: Forgot Wilson!) Obviously it isn’t that simple — DePaula, Mitchell, and Whitley could all wind up in the Triple-A Scranton rotation, we have no idea if Pinder and Burawa can get MLBers out consistently, etc. — but the point stands. On paper, the Yankees have a ton of bullpen depth right now.

What the Yankees don’t have is a lot of rotation depth. The rotation right now is Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, and Chris Capuano in whatever order, but both Tanaka (elbow) and Sabathia (knee) have major injury concerns. No pitcher is a lock to make it through Spring Training healthy, though it is especially true for those two. Pineda isn’t exactly known for his durability either.

Because of the rotation concerns, the Yankees told Warren to come to Spring Training as a starter and prepared to compete for a rotation spot. (They told David Phelps the same before he was traded away.) In fact, I bet they told Rogers the same thing. He’s been a starter before, including last season in Triple-A with the Blue Jays (and one spot start with the Yankees), so there’s no reason not to stretch him out. It doesn’t hurt anyone and gives the team options in camp.

Warren did a nice job as a swingman in 2013 and really seemed to find himself in short relief last year, when his velocity ticked up and he missed more bats than ever. He was a starter his entire career before the 2013 season though, and I’m sure that if you asked him, he’d like to be a starter once again. That’s where the money is at, after all. I’m certain he sees the injury questions in the rotation as a big opportunity this coming year.

Warren has made three career big league starts (6.97 ERA and 6.83 FIP) but the numbers are skewed heavily by his disastrous six-run, 2.1- inning MLB debut back in 2012. He made two spot starts in 2013 and both went fine — two runs in three innings while on a strict pitch count in the first, five shutout innings in the second — plus he also made several strong multi-inning relief outings, including five of at least four innings (four runs in 23.1 innings in those five outings).

That really doesn’t tell us a whole lot about what Warren can do as a starter in 2015 though. Those long relief appearances have selection bias — the reason he was in there 4+ innings is because he was getting outs, they wouldn’t have left him in that long if he was getting hammered — and 2013 Adam Warren isn’t the same as 2015 Adam Warren. He has more experience now and is presumably more comfortable in the league. That matters.

Even as a short reliever last year, Warren threw three pitches (four-seamer, slider, changeup) regularly while also throwing some curveballs and cutters, according to Brooks Baseball. He definitely has enough pitches to start, the question is whether his stuff is good enough to turn over a lineup multiple times. The answer could easily be yes, especially now in this no offense era, and that after his success last season he is more willing to attack hitters and better understands how to maximize his arsenal. Like I said, experience matters.

I like Warren most as a short reliever and I can’t say I’m confident he can turn over a lineup multiple times, but there is no harm in seeing what he does as a starter in Spring Training. Remember, this doesn’t have to be a permanent thing either. The team may only need him to start until Ivan Nova returns at midseason, perhaps as early as May. Warren was an important part of the relief crew last year but the Yankees do now have enough bullpen depth to replace him. Moving him into the rotation is much more viable now than it was a year ago.

Nathan Eovaldi’s new old pitch

Changeup grip! (Presswire)
Changeup grip! (Presswire)

Late last week, the Yankees pulled off a surprising trade that bolstered their rotation but weakened their offense. It was surprising not because of what they received — we all knew the Yankees needed rotation help, and the free agent market lacks quality non-elites at this point — but because of what they gave up. Trading Martin Prado seemed unlikely because of his bat and versatility.

The Yankees received the hard-throwing Nathan Eovaldi in the trade and by now you’ve heard that he’s a guy with great stuff and not the results to match. He throws very hard and has a sharp slider, but his strikeout rate is below the league average. The Yankees didn’t acquire a finished product. The 24-year-old Eovaldi is still a project. If he was a finished product, it would have cost a lot more to acquire him.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of this post, here’s some background info: Eovaldi’s from Houston — he and Nolan Ryan are the only big leaguers to come out of Alvin High School — and was drafted by the Dodgers in the 11th round of the 2008 draft. He had Tommy John surgery as a high school junior, so scouts never really saw him at 100% as a senior. Los Angeles grabbed him, developed him, got him to MLB, then traded him to Miami for Hanley Ramirez. Two and a half years later, he’s a Yankee. That’s the Nate Eovaldi story.

Since the trade last week we’ve learned Eovaldi is basically a 2.5-pitch pitcher, relying heavily on his high-octane four-seamer and slider while mixing in a handful of curveballs. He’s toyed with a cutter, a sinker, and a changeup through the years. Here’s his pitch selection throughout his MLB career, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

Nathan Eovaldi pitch selection

Eovaldi went back and forth between MLB and Triple-A a few times in 2011 and early in 2012 before being traded to Miami at the deadline. He had been in the Marlins rotation since the trade. As you can see in the graph, Eovaldi’s settled in as that fastball-slider with a few curveballs pitcher the last two seasons after some early-career tinkering. The cutter is completely gone and both the sinker and changeup rarely make an appearance these days.

Because of that, I thought this recent quote from Marlins catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was particularly interesting. Here’s what Saltalamacchia told Nick Cafardo after Eovaldi was dealt to New York:

“At the end of the year he figured out how to throw a new pitch that is really going to help him. He throws hard and all of his pitches are hard, so this new pitch will help that out because he’s got a fastball rotation with split action.”

A new pitch, huh? This is the time of year — it’s a little early, actually, but close enough — when we hear all about pitchers adding a new pitch and guys being in the best shape of their life and all that. The usual fodder that makes for fun optimistic stories heading into Spring Training. Very rarely do these changes mean anything — Jason Collette kept track of “new pitches” in Spring Training earlier this year, there were a lot of ’em — but the stories are always out there.

It’s not often we hear about a pitcher adding a new pitch during the season though, and that’s what Saltalamacchia said happened. “At the end of the year (Eovaldi) figured out how to throw a new pitch,” according to his catcher. But, when you look at the pitch selection graph above, there’s no new pitch. That’s discouraging. But wait! Eovaldi spoke to Anthony McCarron after Friday’s trade and said this (emphasis mine):

Now, he says, “I want to throw first-pitch strikes with off-speed stuff, even use it on a 2-1 count or 1-and-2. I’m working on my changeup a lot more this offseason, just mixing it in to my repertoire. Last year, toward the end, it helped me out a lot. I want to keep locating the fastball, then use my slider and curve more and have a better mix.”

Saltalamacchia says it was a new pitch while Eovaldi says it was actually his changeup. Looking at the pitch selection graph above, Eovaldi did throw more changeups at the end of the 2014 season after more or less shelving the pitch during the summer months. In fact, he threw 19 changeups in his final four starts of the season after throwing 19 changeups in his previous 12 starts combined, including zero changeups total in the four starts prior to his final four starts. It seems like the new pitch Saltalamacchia was talking about was actually just an old pitch, the changeup. A new old pitch.

Okay, so great, Eovaldi threw a bunch more changeups late in the season. That doesn’t really mean anything in and of itself. The Marlins were basically out of contention in September and that’s when pitchers tend to tinker, when the games don’t matter. Let’s not focus on the number of changeups Eovaldi threw but instead look at the pitch itself. Here are the pitch details through the years, again courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

% Vel Whiff % GB% Hor. Mvmt Vert. Mvmt Hor. Loc Vert. Loc
2012 6.2% 85.6 9.9% 42.4% -6.86 6.60 0.88 -0.42
2013 1.7% 88.0 3.6% 0.0% -8.01 5.06 0.69 -1.17
2014 (starts 1-29) 2.8% 88.0 5.0% 52.9% -7.64 4.32 0.45 -0.57
2014 (starts 30-33) 6.0% 90.0 21.1% 100.0% -7.75 4.01 -0.90 -1.43
MLB AVG 10.1% 83.2 14.9% 47.8% -1.40 4.50 ? ?

Before we get into the data, I will again point out we are dealing with a very small number of pitches. Like I said, Eovaldi threw 19 total changeups in those last four starts. Anytime you deal with a sample this small, there can be some major weirdness. For example, if Eovaldi’s changeup is suddenly a true talent 21.1% whiff/100.0% ground ball pitch, it would be the best pitch in baseball history. At least one of the best. I’m guessing that’s not really the case.

Alright, so anyway Eovaldi has added a little velocity to his changeup over the years and the horizontal movement has more or less remained steady. (The negative number means it moves away from lefties and in to righties.) The vertical movement can be confusing — the smaller the number, the more the pitch moves downward. (Curveballs are well into the negatives, for example.) So Eovaldi’s changeup actually had about 2.5 more inches of downward movement at the end of 2014 than it did in 2012. He also did a better job of locating the pitch on the outer half to lefties (horizontal location) and down in the zone (vertical location).

I went through the MLB.tv archives hoping we’d be able to see the difference in Eovaldi’s changeups over the years, so here are two GIFs. The one on the left is from July 2012 (Eovaldi’s very first start with the Marlins) and the one on the right is from his second-to-last start of 2014 (his last was on the road and I wanted to use the same camera angle):

Nathan Eovaldi 2012 and 2014 changeups

First off, long live the dead center field camera. Isn’t it great? Secondly, those changeups look different! I mean, kinda. The 2012 changeup (86.5 mph/-6.58 horizontal movement/+7.86 vertical movement) doesn’t do much of anything. It just kind of floats in there. The 2014 changeup (89.7/-10.31/+1.61) has a little action on it. It actually moves down and away from the lefty hitter. The 2012 pitch almost looks like a cutter. These visuals are fun and somewhat useful, just keep in mind this is a totally random sample of two pitches.

Okay, so now what? Eovaldi and his former catcher both acknowledged something was different at the end of this past season, and it seems to be his changeup. PitchFX data confirms Eovaldi didn’t just throw his changeup more often this September, he also threw it harder*, with more downward movement, and with better location down-and-away from lefties. The swing-and-miss and ground ball rates were way, way better in the limited sample as well. That’s what we know.

* A 90 mph changeup is rare but remember Eovaldi throws very hard. His fastball averaged 95.5 mph this past season and routinely touched 97-98 mph. As hard as his changeup is, the pitch still has a lot of velocity separation from his fastball.

What we also know is that Eovaldi has gotten hammered by lefties throughout his career. They hit .293/.330/.438 (.336 wOBA) against him this past season and .288/.350/.421 (.338 wOBA) against him in his career. That can’t continue going forward, at least not if Eovaldi wants to be something more than a mid-rotation pitcher known more for his innings-eating than his effectiveness. Finding a way to combat hitters of the opposite hand is imperative.

Obviously the Yankees envision Eovaldi eventually becoming much more than what he is right now. It’s similar to the Michael Pineda trade — the Yankees are hoping he can stabilize the rotation in the short-term and front it in the long-term. An improved changeup can help Eovaldi neutralize left-handed batters and possibly allow him to take that next step towards the front of the rotation. What he showed in September is promising. We know there’s a good changeup in there somewhere. Turning it into a consistent and reliable weapon will be a point of emphasis going forward.