Yankees have rotation help on the way with Nova not far behind Capuano on rehab trail

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last night, left-hander Chris Capuano threw 72 pitches across 4.2 innings for Triple-A Scranton in his second minor league rehab start as he works his way back from a spring quad injury. Earlier this week Joe Girardi told George King they “would like to get (Capuano) to 90 pitches and see where we are at” before activating him off the DL, so Capuano figures to make at least one more rehab start before joining the Yankees.

Ivan Nova also continued his rehab from Tommy John surgery yesterday, throwing two innings in an Extended Spring Training game. Girardi told reporters everything went fine and Nova remains on track to join the team sometime in June. He could throw in another ExST game or two before beginning an official 30-day minor league rehab stint. Nova’s rehab has gone extremely well to date. No issues whatsoever.

Between Capuano and Nova, the Yankees have a pair of starting pitchers on the rehab trail and not too far from factoring into the MLB pitching staff. That doesn’t even include Masahiro Tanaka, who resumed throwing yesterday. It seems like Capuano will return first with Nova and Tanaka returning around the same time in a few weeks. Obviously lots can go wrong between now and then, but at least things are going well now.

Fitting them back onto the staff is a classic “worry about it when the time comes” situation. Chase Whitley has pitched well in his two starts yet we saw last year how quickly that can unravel. Adam Warren has pitched well enough in his first stint as a full-time starter but the numbers confirm what our eyes seem to be telling us — going through the lineup the second and third time has been a bit of a problem. Who knows what the rotation will look like in a week or two.

“It just gives us a lot more depth, which I think is really important during the course of a long season,” said Girardi to Vince Mercogliano yesterday, referring to Capuano and Nova moving closer to a return. The rotation has been fine overall, with the non-Michael Pineda starters typically doing just enough to keep the Yankees in the game. Capuano and Nova may or may not improve things, but at least they’ll give the Yankees options, something they’re running short on at the moment.

Chase Whitley to be called up to make spot start Tuesday

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

Right-hander Chase Whitley will be called up to make a spot start this coming Tuesday, Joe Girardi told reporters this afternoon. The Yankees have been talking about using an occasional sixth starter to give the rotation extra rest whenever possible for weeks now, and this will be the first time they actually do it.

Nathan Eovaldi is starting tonight and Adam Warren will start tomorrow, in the series opener against the Rays. With Whitley going Tuesday, it means Masahiro Tanaka will pitch Wednesday and Michael Pineda will start the series opener at Fenway Park on Friday. Thanks to Whitley and Thursday’s off-day, Pineda will have two extra days of rest.

Whitley, 25, has a 2.12 ERA (2.85 FIP) in three starts and 17 innings for Triple-A Scranton this year. He’s thrown as many as 89 pitches in a game this year and will be on one extra day of rest Tuesday. Whitley had a 4.60 ERA (3.69 FIP) in 12 big league starts last year, but the first seven were great (2.56 ERA and 2.74 FIP) and the last five were awful (8.18 ERA and 5.36 FIP).

It’ll be interesting to see how the Yankees get Whitley onto the roster. Send down Chase Shreve then call up, say, Branden Pinder or Matt Tracy after the spot start? The Yankees have no shortage of bullpen call-up options. It could simply come down to who is rested and ready to pitch Wednesday, assuming Whitley does go back down after the spot start.

Starters finally giving the Yankees innings and sparing the bullpen

Sabathia leads the Yankees in innings, just like the good ol' days. (Presswire)
Sabathia leads the Yankees in innings, just like the good ol’ days. (Presswire)

Heading into Spring Training, the Yankees had plenty of reasons to be concerned about their rotation. Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda all missed significant time with injuries last season, Nathan Eovaldi was making the NL-to-AL transition, Chris Capuano is Chris Capuano, and Adam Warren had never held down a full-time big league rotation spot. Question marks were abound.

The Yankees lost Capuano to a quad injury early in camp and they took it very easy on Tanaka and Sabathia this spring, bringing them along slowly for completely understandable reasons. They’re also hoping to give them an extra day of rest between starts this month whenever possible, even if it means using a spot sixth starter. So far so good — everyone has stayed healthy aside from Capuano and they’ve all shown flashes of effectiveness, if nothing else.

One thing the Yankees were not getting from their rotation in the early going this season is length. New York’s starters completed six innings of work just three in the first ten games of the season — Pineda did it twice (6 IP and 6.1 IP) and Sabathia did it once (7 IP) — and they were averaging only 5.3 innings per start, which is no good. It’s no surprise the team’s bullpen has thrown the fourth most innings in baseball this season (55.0). (The 19-inning game skews things but those innings happened and contributed to the bullpen workload.)

Only once has Joe Girardi allowed his starter to throw 100+ pitches this year — Eovaldi threw 101 pitches against the Orioles last week — though that is partially by design. Like I said, the team is trying to take it easy on everyone early in the season, so Girardi isn’t necessarily letting them pitch as deep as they normally would. Of course, some early season starts were ugly and leaving the starter out there for 100+ pitches wasn’t doable. They were getting knocked around.

Over the last five games though, the last turn through the rotation, the starter has completed seven innings of work three times and come within one out of completing six innings the other two times. Tanaka and Eovaldi both completed seven innings and Sabathia threw an eight-inning complete game. Pineda and Warren both labored in their 5.2-inning starts but still managed to take the ball deeper into the game than the rotation had averaged in the first ten games of the year.

The Yankees have gotten seven innings from their starting pitcher four times in the last eight games and six innings five times in the last nine games. After averaging 5.3 innings per start through the first ten games, they’ve raised their season average to 5.8 innings per start through 15 games. The AL average is 5.6 innings per start right now, so the Yankees are just above that mark and they’re trending in the right direction.

As we’ve seen so far this season, the Yankees have a pretty dynamic bullpen, particularly at the end of games with Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. Not many clubs are using relievers as good as David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve in mop-up innings like New York did last night. Pitchers like that are logging setup innings for many clubs around the league. I mean, how many teams could afford to send someone like Shreve to Triple-A for ten days to get a fresh arm?

As good as that bullpen is, Girardi and the Yankees don’t want to use it as much as they’ve had to so far this year. Miller has already recorded a four-out save and a five-out save, and they don’t want outings that long to become the norm. The longer the starters can go, the easier it is on the bullpen, and the more effective the club’s key relievers will be late in the season. The Yankees weren’t getting many innings from their starters the first two turns through the rotation, but this last turn though was much better and it’s lightened the load on the bullpen considerably.

Yanks not planning to use sixth starter this turn through the rotation

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

Despite talking for weeks about getting Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and the other starters extra rest whenever possible early in the season, the Yankees are not planning to use a sixth starter this turn through the rotation, Joe Girardi told reporters yesterday. Everyone will stay on turn and pitch on normal rest this week.

“Right now we have Tanaka pitching Thursday,’’ said Girardi to George King. “I didn’t plan it that way, it’s kind of the way it worked out. I think we will check on workloads and see how guys are doing … If a couple of our starters have difficult days, you might plug (a sixth starter) in before they pitch.’’

Tanaka threw 85 low-stress pitches in seven dominant innings Saturday afternoon. He was removed from the game after sitting in the dugout during a long seven-run inning for the offense, not because he was ineffective or his pitch count climbed too high. Tanaka hasn’t started on regular rest at all this year, either in the regular season or Spring Training.

Adam Warren (80 pitches), Michael Pineda (92 pitches), and Sabathia (98 pitches) didn’t crack 100 pitches in their most recent starts either. In fact, only once in 13 games has a Yankees starter thrown 100+ pitches this season. That was Nathan Eovaldi in his last start (101 pitches). Eovaldi is starting tonight with an extra day of rest thanks to last Thursday’s off-day.

Chase Whitley, Bryan Mitchell, and Kyle Davies seem like the most obvious sixth starter candidates at this point of the season. Whitley is scheduled to start for Triple-A Scranton tomorrow and is the only one of those three lined up to pitch before the big league rotation turns over, so he’s the only possible sixth starter candidate this week if the Yankees do choose to use one.

The Yankees are not off again until next Thursday, so following the upcoming turn through the rotation, both Tanaka and Pineda would also make their next starts on regular rest unless the team uses a sixth starter. That’s a full week away though. We’ll see what happens after the weekend.

Silver Lining: CC Sabathia shows he still has something left in loss to Tigers

Changeup! (Presswire)
Changeup! (Presswire)

The Yankees dropped last night’s series opener to the Tigers in a pretty annoying way — they jumped out to an early 1-0 lead, didn’t build on it, then watched as Detroit used some less than well struck balls to rally for two runs in seventh. An annoying loss, no doubt, but it’s still just one loss. Before you know it that game will fade from memory and blend into the glob of baseball we forget each season.

The loss did come with a silver lining, however, and that of course was CC Sabathia‘s complete game performance. He allowed those two runs on seven singles and three walks, and it wasn’t until that seventh inning that the high-powered Tigers had a runner reach second base. Sabathia struck out five, threw 62 of 98 pitches for strikes (63%), got nine swings and misses, and 12 of the 21 balls put in play against the big lefty were on the ground. Solid performance all around.

Unlike his first two starts, when his velocity gradually faded as the game progressed (first start, second start), Sabathia held his velocity all night last night despite the cold, windy, rainy conditions. He hit 90.7 mph in the first at-bat of the game and 91.7 mph in the last. There was no drop-off. Here’s the velocity graph via Brooks Baseball:

CC Sabathia Tigers velocity

Most pitchers lose a little something in the later innings, it’s normal, but for a guy who’s lost noticeable fastball oomph with age, sustaining velocity all night was a very encouraging sign for Sabathia. His margin for error is relatively small as it is, and if he’s able to avoid having that margin for error get even smaller when his pitch count climbs north of, say, 70 pitches, the more effective he’ll be overall.

I thought Tigers manager Brad Ausmus did Sabathia a bit of a favor by loading his lineup with right-handed hitters — all nine players in his lineup were righties — because it allowed him to stick with the same approach all night: fastballs to both sides of the plate and changeups down and away. He threw only eleven sliders out of 98 pitches (11%) after throwing 28% sliders in his first two starts. The lack of a lefty hitter allowed Sabathia to get in a rhythm and stick with one approach all night.

That’s a luxury Sabathia won’t have every start but teams do still stack their lineups with righties again him — only six of the 53 batters he faced in his first two starts were lefties, and even last season only 31 of 209 batters faced were lefties (15%). Sabathia’s changeup is super important because he always faces a ton of right-handed batters and last night was an opportunity to really dig in and work on that pitch, which was an issue in his first two starts (opponents hit .308 against it).

Coming into the season, we really had no idea what to expect from Sabathia following knee surgery and 257 pretty ugly innings from 2012-13 (4.87 ERA and 4.22 FIP). His three starts have gotten progressively better — five runs in 5.2 innings, four runs in seven innings, two runs in eight innings — and there are other positive signs as well, including the way he held his velocity and used his changeup last night. The loss stunk, that’s baseball, but the Sabathia we saw last night can be an effective pitcher. CC is trending in the right direction earlier this season, for sure.

Nathan Eovaldi and the Non-Fastball

Process and results. In the past few years, those have become (sometimes annoying) buzzwords in baseball. All of us, at some point, have used the term, whether earnestly as I have when describing the second Javier Vasquez trade, or ironically in poking a bit of fun at the Astros. That doesn’t mean that we can’t find meaning in the phrase, though, like in CC Sabathia‘s two not-as-bad-as-the-box score-would-suggest starts and Nathan Eovaldi‘s start on Thursday night in Baltimore.

In terms of the process, how Eovaldi went about things against the Orioles’ lineup, things weren’t all that different from his first start of the season against the Red Sox. On that night, Eovaldi threw 44 fastballs and 50 non-fastballs, broken up between what Brooks identified as one changeup, 26 sliders, 11 curveballs, and 12 splitters. During his second start , Eovaldi threw 45 fastballs and 56 non-fastballs (37 sliders, 17 curveballs, and two splitters). But the feeling was completely different.

While watching the game on Thursday, I couldn’t help but feel that Eovaldi was much more confident in his breaking stuff, more willing to use it in big spots or just to use it overall. In that first start, the breaking stuff seemed rudimentary at best with iffy location and not the sharpest of movement. However, Thursday, it seemed much crisper to my amateur eye. This was especially evident in the bottom of the third inning when his first five pitches of the inning, to Everth Cabrera and Adam Jones, were all breaking balls. Cabrera saw only breaking pitches in his at bat and struck out swinging; Jones saw a mix, but his at bat ended on a breaking ball he grounded fairly weakly to Didi Gregorius, who booted the ball at short. I mention this inning because it specifically lent to the good feeling I got from Eovaldi’s non-fastballs. The results lived up to that promise; let’s take a look at the pitch results section for Eovaldi’s two starts to examine my claim a little bit more closely.

When we look at these sections, I want to pay attention to two columns: whiffs and balls in play (no outs). Against Boston, Eovaldi ended 13 at bats with fastballs. 12 of those were swung on, with each one being put into play, resulting in four non-outs. The other 12 at bat-ending pitches were seven sliders, two curveballs, and three splitters. They all had something in common with the fastball: no whiffs, meaning he didn’t end a single at bat with a swing-and-a-miss against the Boston batters. This is a complete contrast with Thursday’s start. In Camden, the O’s put just 14 balls into play compared to the 22 against the Red Sox. More encouraging, though, were the seven whiffs he generated, five on his slider alone to go along with one each on a fastball and a curveball. As opposed to start number one in which his lone strikeout was a backwards K in the scorebook, seven of his nine strikeouts in start number two were swinging, mostly on breaking stuff.

The Eovaldi-centered narrative coming into this season focused on his secondary pitches; the improvements he makes (or doesn’t make) on the non-fastballs will determine whether or not he takes the next step as a big time pitcher. Thursday night gave us a glimpse at what’s possible when Eovaldi has his non-fastball pitches working. Keeping this up–confidence in the breaking ball and generating whiffs–means good process. And, generally, good process leads to good results.

Biggest issue for Masahiro Tanaka is trust in his elbow, not fastball velocity

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Yesterday afternoon, the Yankees opened the 2015 season with a 6-1 loss to the Blue Jays. Masahiro Tanaka started out very strong, with dominant first and second innings, then quickly unraveled and allowed five runs (four earned) in the third. He pitched into and out of danger in the fourth and left the game after 82 pitches, the last 50 or so of which were pretty high-stress.

Tanaka’s velocity was a hot topic both before and after the game. It has been for a week or two now. Tanaka said in Spring Training he’s not focused on velocity because he’s throwing more sinking two-seamers, then he doubled down on Saturday by saying he doesn’t expect the velocity to return. Nothing was lost in translation. Tanaka made it clear velocity is a secondary concern this season.

PitchFX says Tanaka averaged 92.5 mph and 91.1 mph with his four-seamer and sinker yesterday, respectively, down negligibly from 92.7 mph and 91.4 mph last year. He did top out at 94.5 mph yesterday, so it’s not like he was out there with Jered Weaver velocity. Most pitchers add a tick or to as the season progresses and the weather heats up, and if Tanaka hadn’t done so much talking about his velocity this spring, we wouldn’t have even noticed it yesterday.

What stands out to me more than the raw radar gun readings is this: 27. Tanaka threw 27 fastballs out of 82 total pitches yesterday. Five four-seamers and 22 sinkers. That’s all. Before the elbow injury last year, Tanaka threw about 40% fastballs and 60% offspeed pitches. Yesterday it was roughly 30% and 70% overall and even more drastic late in his outing — only six of Tanaka’s final 33 pitches were fastballs (18%). He flat out abandoned his heater.

When asked about his lack of fastballs after the game, Tanaka said it was “because they were being hit,” which makes sense. It wasn’t just actual hits either. There were a lot of foul balls and balls in play off his four-seamer and sinker as well. The Blue Jays didn’t swing and miss once at those 27 four-seamers and sinkers, so they were getting the bat on his fastball each time they swung.

Clearly Tanaka is tentative with his fastball right now. Is it mental or physical? Who the hell knows. Considering he did reach back and top out 94.5 mph yesterday, my guess is mental. After the elbow issue last year, I would totally understand if Tanaka was hesitant to cut it loose. Heck, I had a tooth fixed last year and I didn’t chew on that side of my mouth for months even though the dentist said it was fine. I get it.

The weird part of all this is Tanaka is apparently holding back with his fastball but is still willing to throw sliders and splitters seven out of every ten pitches. We’ve heard for years and years that sliders and splitters are bad for the elbow, especially when thrown a lot, so if Tanaka is still concerned about his elbow, you’d expect him to throw fewer non-fastballs, not more. Right? Tanaka abandoning his splitter would be a major red flag. Tanaka abandoning his fastball is just weird.

As good as his offspeed pitches are — Tanaka threw 55 non-fastballs yesterday and got a dozen swing and misses (22%), which is outstanding — Tanaka can’t go through the season throwing 30% fastballs. No non-knuckleballer can. The lowest percentage of fastballs thrown by a non-knuckleball qualified starter during the PitchFX era is 35.5% by … wait for it … 2008 Mike Mussina. Even late-career Moose and his mid-80s gas threw more fastballs on average than Tanaka yesterday.

Hopefully yesterday’s game was just step one for Tanaka. Step one towards feeling normal and trusting the elbow. Like I said, I totally understand why he would be tentative to cut it loose, but this can’t last forever. Hopefully as the season progresses and he realizes that hey, I’m healthy, Tanaka will gain more faith in his fastball and get back to being where he was before the injury last year. The guy we saw yesterday was a reliever. Not someone who can turn a lineup over multiple turns. The Yankees need much more than that from Tanaka.

“Physically, he seems to be fine,” said pitching coach Larry Rothschild to Chad Jennings yesterday. “I’ve watched him between starts all spring, play catch in between, and he’s building arm strength still. We went slow early in the spring, knowing that it’s going to be a work in progress, really. I think he’s holding his own right now. This isn’t the results that you anticipate or want, but I think you have to be reasonable the way you look at things. He is building arm strength and will continue to. There were positives with the split today, it was really good, and I think you’ll see him — as he stays healthy, you’ll see him pitch the way he has in the past.”