The Yankees and their uncanny ability to get opposing hitters to chase out of the zone

(Rob Carr/Getty)
(Rob Carr/Getty)

Last night, five days after manhandling the Athletics, Masahiro Tanaka got hit hard for the third time in his last four starts. He was behind everyone, and when he left a pitch out over the plate, the Orioles made him pay. We’ve seen a lot of that from Tanaka this season. His location wasn’t there and he didn’t have a finish pitch.

The O’s don’t have the most patient lineup in baseball. They have the fifth highest chase rate (31.7%) and the ninth highest swing rate (46.6%) in baseball, so they’re going to take their hacks. And yet, Tanaka could not get them to expand the zone and chase off the plate. From Baseball Savant:

masahiro-tanaka-oriolesNot many swings out of the strike zone there, especially on pitches down and away to righties. (The O’s had eight righties in the lineup tonight.) Luis Severino did a good job getting the Orioles to chase Tuesday, both with his slider and changeup. They’re a lineup prone to expanding the zone and chasing off the plate. It’s what they do.

For the Yankees, starts like last night’s are uncommon. Their pitching staff collectively excels at getting hitters to chase pitches out of the strike zone. No team in baseball is better at it, in fact. Here’s the chase rate leaderboard:

  1. Yankees: 34.1%
  2. Dodgers: 33.1%
  3. Astros: 32.3%

Pretty big gap between the Yankees and the Dodgers. This isn’t some fluky small sample size noise either. Well, it might be, but look at last season’s chase rate leaderboard:

  1. Yankees: 33.5%
  2. Astros: 32.1%
  3. Mariners: 32.0%

Again, there’s a huge gap between the Yankees and everyone else. The gap between No. 1 and No. 2 is the same as the gap between No. 2 and No. 14. From 2014-16, New York’s pitchers generated baseball’s highest chase rate at 32.6%. The Nationals were a distant second at 31.9%. The MLB average was 30.5% those years. The Yankees were well above that.

On an individual level, it’s no surprise the Yankees dominate the top of the chase rate leaderboard this year. Michael Pineda (40.3%), Jordan Montgomery (36.8%), and Tanaka (37.0%) have three of the five highest chase rates among qualified starters, alongside the great Zack Greinke (40.8%) and, uh, Clayton Richard (37.5%). Last season’s chase rate leaders:

  1. Michael Pineda: 37.8%
  2. Masahiro Tanaka: 37.6%
  3. Noah Syndergaard: 37.2%

Corey Kluber was a distant fourth at 35.4%. Go back to 2015 and Tanaka would have had the second highest chase rate in baseball at 36.6%, behind only Carlos Carrasco (38.7%), but he fell six innings short of qualifying for the ERA title.

Things are a little different among New York’s relievers this season when it comes to getting chases out of the zone — Jonathan Holder (41.6%) is third among all relievers and the only Yankee among the top 30 relievers in chase rate — though those guys haven’t thrown many innings. The starters have much more influence over the overall team chase rate.

Intuitively, getting hitters to chase out of the zone is a good thing. When they’re offering at pitches out of the strike zone, they’re usually either swinging and missing, or either getting jammed or hitting the ball of the end of the bat, resulting in weak contact. To wit:

  • 2017 swings on pitches in the zone: .301 AVG and .519 SLG
  • 2017 swings on pitches out of the zone: .177 AVG and .245 SLG

There is a pretty clear advantage to getting hitters to swing out of the strike zone. Every once in a while you’ll see a hard-hit ball on a pitch out of the zone, but it doesn’t happen often. When it does, you usually tip your cap to the hitter. Sometimes you get got.

It makes sense that Pineda and Tanaka would be near the top of the chase rate leaderboard given who they are as pitchers. For all his faults, Pineda has a nasty slider, and he gets hitters to chase it out of the strike zone. Those sexy strikeout and walk rates aren’t an accident. Tanaka, when at his best, excels at keeping hitters off balance and getting them to expand the zone, mostly with his splitter but also his slider. He usually doesn’t beat guys in the strike zone. He beats them on the edges.

Montgomery is new to the mix this season and it’s still a little too early to say anything definitive about him as a pitcher. He’s more Tanaka than Pineda in that he relies on a deep arsenal and messing with the hitter’s timing rather than blowing them away, though we don’t know if his sky high chase rate is the real him yet. Could be general baseball randomness. Pineda and Tanaka, on the other hand, have long track records with this stuff.

So the question begs to be asked: why have the Yankees consistently posted an elite chase rate in recent years? One possible answer is this is all one big coincidence and there’s nothing really to it. Can’t rule that out. I don’t that’s it though. Do something once and it’s a fluke. Do it year after year, like the Yankees leading the league in chase rate, and it’s a trend. Again, the Yankees have baseball’s highest chase rate since 2014. That covers thousands and thousands of innings.

Why do the Yankees consistently post elite chase rates? I think it’s by design. They value swings on pitches not over the plate, so they design their pitching staff accordingly, and they create their daily game plans to get those swings out of the zone. That seems much easier said than done, like everything else. To make hitters chase, you need to make your balls look like strikes, and it takes a certain level of talent to have the movement and command to do that consistently.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this. I just find it fascinating the Yankees have been able to lead the league in getting chases out of the zone for several years now. This almost certainly isn’t a fluke. It’s intentional. And there’s an obvious benefit to getting swings out of the zone too, especially since the Yankees play in an unforgiving ballpark and in an unforgiving division with other unforgiving ballparks. Being able to get swings on pitcher’s pitches is a nifty little skill the Yankees seem to have perfected.

The 2018 rotation is starting to take shape for the Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

How many teams have a comparable young position player core to the Yankees? The Cubs and Astros for sure. The Dodgers? I suppose so with Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger. They’re in the conversation. Point is, there aren’t many teams with an Aaron Judge and a Gary Sanchez at the MLB level, a Greg Bird working his way back, and a Gleyber Torres and a Clint Frazier in Triple-A. It’s pretty awesome.

The pitching staff is another story. The Yankees have sneaky good pitching depth in the farm system, though coming into the season, the future of the big league rotation was uncertain. It still is, really. Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia will become free agents after the season, and Masahiro Tanaka can opt-out as well. The holdover youngsters from last season (Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, Bryan Mitchell, Chad Green) offered promise. That’s about it.

Now, two months into the 2017 season, next year’s rotation is beginning to take shape. Who knows how things will play out the rest of the season, but at least things are moving in a positive direction. So far two things are true that we hoped would be true when everyone reported to Tampa in February:

  1. Severino can bounce back from his rough 2016 season and be a dominant starter.
  2. Jordan Montgomery can be a cheap and serviceable rotation piece.

We all kinda thought and hoped those two things would be true, but we didn’t know they would be true. And we still don’t, really. The evidence is pointing in that direction though. Severino has been very good overall and occasionally brilliant, such as last night. He’s been even better in 2017 than he was in 2015 in more ways than one. Severino looks like an entirely different pitcher than last season.

“Really good again. If we wouldn’t have pushed him the other day I probably would have left him in,” said Joe Girardi following last night’s game (video link). “… He had a lot of depth to his slider tonight. I thought his fastball, he hit a lot of locations with it … You feel good when he takes the mound. You really do. Because of the stuff that he has. I’ve seen the improvement in his slider. It has a lot more depth. And when he has the depth to it, it’s really tough to hit.”

Montgomery, despite Monday’s clunker, has been solid through his first nine big league starts. The walks are kinda annoying (8.9 BB%) though I think it’s only a matter of time until those come down. Montgomery has a long track record of throwing strikes. He’s walking a few too many right now because many rookie pitchers walk a few too many. That’s how it goes. The most important thing is you can see Montgomery sticking in an MLB rotation. He has the tools to do it.

The Yankees went into Spring Training with a lot of pitching inventory and that’s good because you need depth, but they were still trying to sort out who can help them, both short and long-term. Who can they build around going forward? Who can soak up some innings to get them through the coming season? Those questions had to be answered. And so far this season, Severino sure looks like a keeper. Montgomery does too, even if he doesn’t offer the same upside.

Make no mistake, the Yankees are not out of the woods yet. They still have three more rotation spots to figure out going forward. At least right now they have a pretty good idea that Severino and Montgomery will be two of their five starters heading into next season. As recently as two months ago it wasn’t clear where those two fit in. Now they’re part of the solution both this year and the future.

Jordan Montgomery’s Adjustment

(Elsa/Getty Images North America)
(Elsa/Getty Images North America)

The Yankees season has largely been a story of adjustments. Or, perhaps, the greatest questions regarding the roster have revolved around adjustments: how would the league adjust to Gary Sanchez? Could Aaron Judge adjust to the majors? Could Luis Severino re-adjust to being a starting pitcher? How would Dellin Betances adjust to his career as an astronaut? And so on. For the most part, these questions have yielded positive answers, small sample sizes be damned (and dissipating at a rapid pace, to boot).

Heading into Tuesday night, we wondered how Jordan Montgomery would adjust to facing the Royals for the second time in six days. It was the first time that a major league lineup would see Montgomery twice, and it had an added layer of seeing how he would fare follow the worst start of his young career (5 IP, 4 H, 5 R, 3 BB, 4 K). The Royals are a bad offensive team – the worst in baseball on the season – but they have been heating up, and Montgomery is still a rookie. It may well have been the biggest test this side of his debut this season.

By now you know that Montgomery responded with a gem of a performance, pitching to the following line: 6.2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 6 K. The lone blemish on that line was a solo shot by Lorenzo Cain in the 7th inning, the result of a 93 MPH that caught too much of the plate. It was nevertheless his best start to-date, and he outpitched Royals ace Danny Duffy. All of this raises a question, though – what changed in the last week?

The short answer is pitch selection and pitch location. Let’s look into Montgomery’s offerings on May 18:

(Brooks Baseball)
(Brooks Baseball)

Montgomery threw 83 pitches the first time he faced the Royals, and just over half of those (42) were some variety of fastball. He picked up just seven whiffs on the day, largely due to the fact that he threw just 11 sliders. As per PITCHf/x, his slider is worth 2.55 runs per 100 thrown and has a 22.1% swinging strike rate, which makes it his best pitch by a fairly comfortable margin. With that in mind, take a look at Tuesday night’s start:

(Brooks Baseball)
(Brooks Baseball)

This time around, 41 of his 98 pitches were fastballs, and he threw more than twice as many sliders (which led to twice as many swings and misses). Montgomery threw fifteen more pitches this time around, and essentially all of them were sliders. It was a completely different mix of pitches, and it helped to keep the Royals off-balance; and the results were excellent.

It wasn’t just a matter of throwing more sliders, though. Montgomery was also far more successful in keeping the ball around the edges, as well as in the bottom-third of the strike-zone.

 

(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)

In the first outing, Montgomery was, to oversimplify, throwing the ball down the middle or outside of the zone. And, given that most the pitches he threw were fastballs or change-ups, it’s no surprise that he was hit, and hit hard.

(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)

Montgomery threw a few too many pitches near the heart of the plate both times around, but he was clearly living on the edges far more often on Tuesday night. He was also pounding right-handed hitters down-and-in (and lefties down-and-away), and it worked quite well. The majority of his pitches move, and he has shown the ability to locate most of them well-enough, so the latter plot is exactly what you’d expect to see when Montgomery is on his game.

The usual “it’s only one game” caveat applies here, yet it is encouraging to see Montgomery make such a significant adjustment from one game to the next. He went with what has worked best for him this season, and held the Royals to 1 run in 6.2 IP. On most nights, that would be a winning effort – but I digress. One of the most often cited pluses on Montgomery’s scouting report was his pitchability, and that was on full display for at least one night.

Why are the Yankees sticking with eight relievers?

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

For the last 15 days, the Yankees have had eight men in their bullpen.

At first, it was out of necessity. The team was coming off an 18-inning marathon with the Cubs and had to play a two-game series starting the next day. Making a move to add a long reliever — in this case Chad Green — was a prudent move after everyone but Tommy Layne was used on that Sunday night/Monday morning vs. the Cubs.

But two days later, the team had an off-day. They had optioned Rob Refsnyder, the obvious 25th man, to make room for Green, so he wasn’t available for a call-up. However, the team still had/has Mason Williams ready to call-up and an open 40-man roster spot to utilize for an extra position player, should they see the need.

By this time, it’s obvious they don’t see the need. They’re fine with a three-man bench as it provides them the luxury of eight relievers. It’s likely they’ll go back to a four-man bench with Tyler Austin comes off the 60-day DL either later this month or in early June, but that would mean another week or so with this peculiar arrangement. And it truly is a luxury as they aren’t all necessary.

When you look at the composition of the bullpen right now, there are the guys that are being used consistently and with purpose; Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard, Adam Warren and Jonathan Holder each have their roles right now and are minimally influenced by another man in the bullpen. Chad Green has taken on Warren’s long-man-in-close-game role and has been quite solid in said role.

But beyond those five guys, there hasn’t been much to do. Tommy Layne and Chasen Shreve, the two lefties, have thrown just 4 1/3 and five innings, respectively, over a combined nine appearances. With few lefty-laden lineups with which to deal, there simply isn’t much work for the duo. They’ve pitched in the same game twice, mostly as mop-up guys.

Giovanny Gallegos was used in a similar fashion, taking mop-up innings and helping the team get by during the Astros doubleheader. He’s more of a 1-2 inning guy anyway, so the team called up Bryan Mitchell in his spot.

Mitchell (Adam Hunger/Getty Images)
Mitchell (Adam Hunger/Getty Images)

This seems like a poor use for Mitchell. Mitchell had been getting stretched out in Triple A and would be ready to call on as a spot starter. With the rotation’s struggles, that seems like it may be on the horizon, particularly with few off-days upcoming. And with an eight-man bullpen, an extra long reliever is superfluous. Green and Warren can both go multiple innings. Even if you say that Warren is now a one-inning reliever, the nominal ‘7th-inning guy’, you still have both Shreve and Layne sitting in the bullpen with little recent mileage most nights. They can take the long relief on any given night. With the current arrangement, Mitchell neither has a role nor a chance to develop further despite his ability to be either a solid back-end starter or quality reliever if given the opportunity.

The main reason to keep the eight-man bullpen going would be with the struggles in the rotation. Masahiro Tanaka has had a few short starts in a row, same with Luis Severino, while Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia have been the ones getting consistently through 6-7 their last few times out. The rotation has gone from 5.93 innings per start in April to 5.45 this month. This opens up about an inning every other game, yet that seems hardly enough to justify an extra reliever when the team was still barely using its last reliever when they had seven in April. If the innings trend continues to go down, both this season and in the future, an eight-man bullpen may become more of the norm to help spread innings among a taxed bullpen, but that isn’t the Yankees reality right now.

Eight relievers were fully necessary during the doubleheader, but the team was also allowed to call up an extra man for the roster. If the team wants another long reliever but needed an extra position player right now, they could either jettison Layne or option Shreve to call up Tyler Webb, who has been effective in Scranton since he was returned from his Rule 5 stint with the Pirates, and use Mitchell’s spot for a position player. Still, you run into the same issues with Webb that you did with Mitchell, as the team already has capable long men and at least one other lefty ready to go.

The question does need to be asked: Would the spot be better utilized for another position player? Ultimately, it seems like there hasn’t really been a role for an extra position player. Perhaps they should have had Kyle Higashioka up vs. Tampa last Friday with Gary Sanchez feeling off — thereby allowing them to pinch hit for Austin Romine in a big spot — but a roster spot for one at-bat, maybe a couple innings of defense, doesn’t seem like a better use than 4 1/3 innings.

So with the last 15 days, the Yankees have shown how little they utilize the 25th spot on their roster at the moment. With Greg Bird and Tyler Austin out and few ready-to-use and effective position players on the 40-man roster, the team seems more than content to get by the eighth reliever. Perhaps, this is a glimpse into the future of baseball yet, for now, it doesn’t seem like an efficient use of resources, although there may not be a better use within simple reach.

The Masahiro Tanaka Problem

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

All things considered, it’s pretty incredible the Yankees are where they are even though Masahiro Tanaka has legitimately been one of the worst pitchers in baseball so far this season. Among the 94 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the batting title, Tanaka ranks 91st in both ERA (6.56) and FIP (6.07). Yankees starters have a 4.61 ERA (4.51 FIP) this year. Yankees starters other than Tanaka have a 4.10 ERA (4.00 FIP). Yeesh.

Tanaka hasn’t looked right pretty much all season, at least aside from the shutout in Boston, but things have been especially bad the last two times out. Especially bad as in 14 runs on 16 hits, including seven home runs, in 4.2 innings. This goes beyond the usual “he had a few bad starts” stuff. We are officially in Big Problem territory here. Something is not right with Tanaka. The question is what? No one seems to know.

Here’s the weird part: Tanaka’s contact allowed is nearly identical to last season. I mean, it’s clearly not identical given the results, but look at the batted ball data:

LD% GB% FB% Soft% Hard% Avg. Exit Velo
2016 20.7% 48.2% 31.0% 18.5% 32.4% 88.2
2017 17.4% 49.7% 32.9% 18.5% 32.7% 89.4

A quick glance at that tells you everything is fine, no need to worry, Tanaka will be back to normal in no time. La la la, I can’t hear your screams.

In all seriousness, the biggest difference between 2016 Tanaka and 2017 Tanaka is this right here:

masahiro-tanaka-splitter

That’s the splitter Tanaka threw light hitting Jesus Sucre in the second inning Saturday, the splitter Sucre smashed back up the middle for a two-run double. That pitch is flat as a table. It spins and spins and spins, and does nothing. It stayed up and Sucre hammered it. We’ve seen plenty Tanaka splitters over the years. The pitch should dive down into the dirt. That one did nothing.

“When Spring Training ended he looked like he was back to before the injury. Now he doesn’t look the same,” said a scout to George King over the weekend. “He isn’t finishing his pitches, and he’s making mistakes with the fastball.”

For whatever reason Tanaka’s pitches have been much flatter this year, and it’s not just the splitter. We’ve seen him thrown some junky sliders too. Tanaka is not a blow-you-away pitcher. He succeeds by tricking hitters and keeping them off balance, and he can’t do that when his splitter and slider aren’t behaving. His fastball isn’t good enough to make up for the shortcomings of the secondary pitches. Never has been even though his velocity is fine. Everyone keeps saying Tanaka’s velocity hasn’t been the same since his 2014 elbow injury, but:

  • 2014: 92.8 mph average (96.6 mph max through May)
  • 2015: 92.8 mph average (96.2 mph max through May)
  • 2016: 92.1 mph average (95.5 mph max through May)
  • 2017: 92.9 mph average (95.8 mph max through May)

Tanaka’s velocity and overall pitch selection this season have been right in line with previous years. Much like the batted ball data, nothing has changed, and yet something has very clearly changed. The overall numbers say one thing. The individual pitches tell you another. Tanaka had no trouble getting ahead Saturday — he threw a first pitch strike to 13 of 21 batters, and went 0-2 on nine batters — but the finish pitch wasn’t there, and hasn’t been for much of the season.

With Tanaka, a bad start or string of bad starts are never just bad starts. They’re an indication of injury, right? The partially torn elbow ligament is in the back of everyone’s mind, and whenever he has a bad start or even just throws a bad pitch, it’s because of the elbow. That seems to be the most common reaction. Tanaka did something bad? Blame the elbow. Everyone insists Tanaka is healthy though. Tanaka, Joe Girardi, Larry Rothschild, everyone. “There’s no indication of (injury),” said Rothschild to Bryan Hoch over the weekend.

Having watched every one of his starts this season, Tanaka doesn’t look injured to me. Remember Aroldis Chapman‘s last few appearances? That’s an injured pitcher. A dude laboring and putting everything he has into each pitch just to get to his normal velocity. Tanaka is still throwing free and easy. His location sucks and he’s throwing more cement mixers, and I suppose that could be injury related, but I feel like there would be more red flags in that case. A dude pouring sweat on the mound (like Chapman) and throwing max effort. Tanaka hasn’t done that.

The way I see it, the Yankees have two realistic options with Tanaka right now:

1. Put him on the disabled list. The Yankees could stick Tanaka in an MRI tube and inevitably find something that would justify a trip to the disabled list. Every 28-year-old pitcher with nearly 2,000 career innings is bound to have something that doesn’t look right in his arm. The disabled list stint would be a time out, effectively. Tanaka could figure things out on the side while one of the club’s depth starters (Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, Luis Cessa, etc.) steps into the rotation for the time being. Perhaps he’d figure things out quickly and return after missing only one start. It is a ten-day disabled list now, after all.

2. Keep running him out there. This is what the Yankees are going to do, for now. Girardi confirmed yesterday that Tanaka will make his next start Thursday, as scheduled. Tanaka needs to pitch to get things straightened out. He can’t go sit on the couch for a week and expect everything to go back to normal. He needs to pitch to right the ship, and the Yankees are going to let him to continue to work on things in the MLB rotation. And who’s to say Tanaka won’t figure it out during his between-starts bullpen session this week and then dominate Thursday?

“We have to get him right … We need to continue to work at it. He’s not making the pitches he was last year,” said Girardi to Hoch. Rothschild told Brendan Kuty, “I think we need to go back to the basics. He likes to change some things occasionally, but I think it’s easier when things are going well to make some adjustments than it is when things are going bad and you try to make too many adjustments.”

Tanaka shifted from the first base side of the pitching rubber to the third base side Saturday, an adjustment he’s made in the past, but obviously it didn’t help. He’s trying though. Tanaka said all thoughout Spring Training his mechanics weren’t where they need to be, and we all kinda laughed him off because he was dominating. Maybe we should have paid more attention? If he’s not hurt, this has to be something mechanical. What else would it be?

As long as he’s not injured, I think Tanaka will get things straightened out because he’s too good and too smart a pitcher not too. We’ve seen him go through rough patches in the past — nothing like this, but one or two rough starts in a row, that sort of thing — and he always bounced back well. The Yankees and Tanaka need to figure out exactly what is wrong first, and so far that’s proving to be quite the challenge. No one has an answer yet, and that’s the scariest part.

An appreciation for the unconventionally successful Tyler Clippard

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

Many relievers live off intimidating opposing hitters. Aroldis Chapman comes at you with 100+ mph and a changeup that hits 90. Dellin Betances can touch 100 and has a curveball that can’t be touched when he’s on. Former Yankee Andrew Miller comes at you with his 6-foot-7 frame and tosses his signature slider with a fair dose of imposing fastballs.

Tyler Clippard doesn’t really fit that category. But that hasn’t stopped the Yankees now-setup man from not only carving out a solid career, but continuing to excel at 32.

Thoughts of doom crept in when Clippard was traded to the Yankees at last year’s deadline. A flyball pitcher at Yankee Stadium? A guy seemingly on the downside of his career having a sub-par season? Yikes. The idea that he would replace Miller seemed laughable. For me personally, I had most recently seen Clippard struggle in the 2015 postseason for the Mets, leaving an impression that was at least somewhat misleading.

But his 3+ months back in pinstripes have been fine. Actually, better than fine. He’s thrown 40 2/3 innings over 46 appearances, allowing just nine earned runs while striking out 47 batters. That’s good for a 1.99 ERA and 10.4 K per nine. His ERA had steadily climbed since his 2014 All-Star appearance and he was typically worse in the second half, so his resurgence has been surprising and that much more rewarding and exciting. This is a homegrown talent returning to the Bronx and thriving, even if it’s been less than a full year’s worth of work.

And it doesn’t hurt to have a goofy guy who seems to be genuinely nice getting big outs for you, adding to the overall Clippard experience.

He goes out there with a top-notch changeup and a fastball with some “rising” action, a quality slider and splitter, and all of this plays up in part thanks to his quirky motion. It’s not something to teach your kids, but you can’t say it doesn’t work.

Don’t get me wrong, he can terrify you with some of his appearances. We’re still talking about a flyball pitcher in a park that plays very small. He’s typically off to fast starts (2.50 and 2.14 ERA in first two months, respectively for his career) before the summer air aids a few more flyballs in their pursuit of becoming home runs in June and July. His 2016 return was all rosy in August until hiccups came in September.

We were indoctrinated early in 2017 about his potential pitfalls when he earned a loss against the Orioles with a two-run homer allowed to Seth Smith. And don’t act like you weren’t biting your nails on the edge of your seat during his save against the Cardinals. Perhaps the best example of how the Clippard experience can frustrate is the Adam Jones catch from March’s World Baseball Classic. Clippard’s “Oh my” reaction was all of us in that moment.

But he also turns it on at times. He changed the complexion of the 18-inning win vs. the Cubs, ending the 9th inning rally before striking out the side in the 10th. Watch the video below: He utilizes his entire arsenal to create three punchouts.

Compared to most team’s “7th inning guy”, Clippard is light years ahead. Some teams would even kill for him to be their setup man.

Which, coincidentally, is where he’ll be for the next month, taking the 8th with Betances closing. We were spoiled last year with No Runs DMC. Miller is gone and Chapman is hurt, although the Yankees hope he’ll be back in a month or so. However, Clippard is adept. He’s certainly a non-traditional back-end reliever with below-average velocity, but he’s out here with career-best strikeout and walk rates in 2017.

The Tyler Clippard renaissance will only last so long. He has a .161 BABIP and a 98 percent strand rate. His home runs per fly ball are actually up vs. last season, but his 1.17 ERA isn’t going to hold and it would be foolish to expect it. He’s going to blow at least a game or two, but, then again, so does every reliever.

But Clippard is a pitcher worth enjoying for what he is. Clippard is an above-average reliever who won’t overpower or intimidate, but he’s beat expectations and he’s doing it in a Yankees uniform, coming full circle. If that’s not something to sit back and appreciate, then I don’t know what is. I suggest enjoying the ride.

The rotation has become a liability for the Yankees, but not the way everyone expected

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Two days ago the Yankees managed to split a doubleheader with the Astros even though their starting pitchers threw four innings total. Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka combined for the following line: 4 IP, 13 H, 11 R, 11 ER, 4 BB, 5 K. Goodness. The Astros did most of that damage against Tanaka in the night game, but Severino didn’t pitch well in the afternoon game either.

Those two duds, combined with CC Sabathia‘s recent crash, have left the Yankees with a 4.62 ERA (4.30 FIP) overall from their starting pitchers. They are averaging a healthy 5.72 innings per start — the AL average is 5.65 innings per start — which surprised me. We saw a lot of short starts early in the season and over the weekend. Overall though, the results haven’t been great. The rotation has been shaky, especially of late.

Coming into the season the rotation stood out as potential weakness, mostly because the back of the rotation was unsettled. The Yankees held a Spring Training competition for the fourth and fifth starter’s spots, plus CC Sabathia (age) and Michael Pineda (inconsistency) remained rolls of the dice. An abundance of options mitigated the risk somewhat, but still. There was a lot of uncertainty.

The one saving grace was supposed to be Tanaka, who was splendid last season and very nearly won the AL ERA title. He was supposed to be the ace. The rock. The guy Joe Girardi could send out there every fifth day and know he’d get a quality outing. That hasn’t been the case so far. Aside from the complete game shutout against the Red Sox, Tanaka has been mediocre at best and flat out bad at worst.

“I have to kind of look at some stuff and sort of analyze what I did,” said Tanaka to Brendan Kuty following Sunday’s disaster start. “There’s times like this during the season and you just have to battle through it. But they took some really good swings on some of my pitches and they were flat … I think the mechanical flaw we’ve been talking about earlier in this season, I think that has been fixed. I think it’s something different.”

Weirdly enough, when you look at the numbers, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong with Tanaka. His underlying performance looks awfully similar to last year in the super early going. Look:

K% BB% LD% GB% FB% Soft% Hard% Chase Rate%
2015 20.5% 4.5% 20.7% 48.2% 31.0% 18.5% 32.4% 37.6%
2016 17.7% 6.1% 17.0% 51.0% 32.0% 18.2% 31.1% 35.8%

The strikeout rate is down and the walk rate is up, but not so much so that it leads you to believe there’s something more than general early season randomness at play here. The batted ball data is nearly identical. Lots of grounders, lots of soft contact, a league average amount of hard contact. And Tanaka is again among the league leaders in chase rate. He’s had no problem getting hitters to go after pitches out of the zone. The velocity is fine too. From Brooks Baseball:

masahiro-tanaka-velocity

And yet, Tanaka is very clearly not performing like he did last season. He may be getting the same kind of contact and a lot of swings on pitches out of the zone, but the results are very different. Anecdotally, it seems Tanaka’s location hasn’t been nearly as good as it has been in the past, and when he makes a mistake, he pays for it dearly. It’s not often he makes a mistake pitch and gets away with it these days.

Whatever it is, Tanaka is not pitching up to expectations, and that is absolutely not part of the plan. The Yankees came into the season expecting him to be their ace, their one reliable starter. Everyone else figured to be hit-or-miss for whatever reason. Age, young pitcher jitters, Pineda-ism, whatever. Instead, Pineda has been New York’s most reliable starter so far this season, and Tanaka has been arguably the worst. Who saw that coming?

As long as he’s not hurt, I do think Tanaka will get himself back on track, hopefully sooner rather than later. That doesn’t excuse his performance to date though. It’s happened and it’s hurt the Yankees. It’s actually sort of remarkable he’s exited all but two of his starts (Opening Day and Sunday) with a lead despite a 5.80 ERA (5.34 FIP). He can thank the offense for that, of course.

The Yankees are fortunate Severino seems to be figuring some things out, Sunday’s start notwithstanding, and that Jordan Montgomery has been able to step right into the rotation and produce. They’ve helped prop up the rotation as Sabathia has struggled and Tanaka has gone through his worst stretch with the Yankees. The rotation right now has become a liability. That Tanaka is the biggest reason is the most surprising part.