Yankeemetrics: It’s getting late early [April 25-27]

Nasty Nate (Tim Heitman/USA Today Sports Images)
Nasty Nate (Tim Heitman/USA Today Sports Images)

Near No-No Nate
Nathan Eovaldi‘s chance to make history fell just short on Monday night, but he still established a new level of pitching dominance for Yankee starters this season and helped the team start its road trip with a 3-1 win over the Rangers.

Eovaldi dominated the Rangers lineup, holding them hitless through six innings until Nomar Mazara led off the top of the seventh with a single. He finished with a stellar line of seven-plus innings, no runs, two hits, six strikeouts and one walk, becoming the lone Yankee starter to produce a scoreless outing in 2016. His Game Score of 77 also set a new benchmark for the rotation.

He consistently got ahead in the count, and while pitching with the advantage, was able to get hitters to chase his diving splitter out of the zone. The Rangers went 0-for-12 in at-bats ending in his split-fingered fastball; six of those outs were swinging strikeouts, and five were harmless grounders. His command of his slider was just as impressive: he threw 19 of them, 17 for strikes, and none resulted in a hit.

Although Eovaldi missed out on etching his name in the record books, he did put himself on a couple lists with some pretty good names. The last Yankee to throw at least seven shutout innings while giving up no more than two hits against the Rangers in Texas was Ron Guidry (1980). It was also his eighth straight game with at least six strikeouts, the longest streak by a Yankee right-hander since Roger Clemens in 2001.

From best to worst
One day after Eovaldi spun a gem, Luis Severino produced the exact opposite – a terrible performance in which he was pummeled by the Rangers’ bats and allowed twice as many runs (six) as innings pitched (three). Severino’s Game Score of 20 was the worst for any Yankee starter this season, and it was also the shortest outing for any pinstriped starter.

The Rangers ultimately cruised to a 10-1 victory, handing the Yankees their worst loss in Arlington since a 13-3 beating on August 21, 2001.

The most frustrating part was that numerous times the Yankees seemed thisclose to escaping an inning with no harm done, but were stung by several crushing two-out hits. Nine of the 10 runs allowed by the Yankees came with two outs, continuing a troubling trend for the team.

After Tuesday’s disaster, they had surrendered 49 two-out runs, by far the most of any AL team (the Tigers were second with 39), and the Yankees easily led the league in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS allowed with two outs.

Dead Bats Society
Following their 3-2 loss on Wednesday night, there are few words left to describe the magnitude of the Yankees’ near-historic offensive struggles this season, so let’s just recap with some facts (because numbers never lie):

• Yankees have scored 72 runs, their fewest thru 20 games since 1990. And that season ended … um, not good.
• They’ve tallied two runs or fewer in 10 of 20 games, the most for any Yankee team this early into the season since 1966. Yuck.
• Yankees are the only major-league team this season that’s scored two-or-fewer runs in at least half of their games. Disgusting.
• They’ve scored three runs or fewer 15 times this season. Over the last 100 years, no other Yankee club has ever done that more times in the team’s first 20 games. Ugh.
• Since their game in Detroit was postponed on April 10, the Yankees have played 15 games and scored more than four runs just once. Gross.

On a more positive note, A-Rod returned from his oblique injury and produced his best game of the season, going 3-for-3 with a homer, double and single. It was his 543rd career double, tying Tony Gwynn for 32nd place all-time. Next up on the list is The Captain, Derek Jeter, with 544. A-Rod also scored his 1,000th run as a Yankee, the 12th player in franchise history to reach that milestone, and is one of nine players to total at least 1,000 runs and 1,000 RBIs in pinstripes. The other guys? Mattingly, Bernie, Jeter, Yogi, Mantle, DiMaggio, Ruth and Gehrig.

Despite rough start, it’s still too early to send Severino to Triple-A

(Rick Yeatts/Getty)
(Rick Yeatts/Getty)

With a Game Score of 20, Luis Severino had the worst start of his relatively brief big league career last night. The Rangers tagged him for six runs on seven hits and two walks (one intentional) in only three innings of work. He struck out one and got only four swings and misses out of 74 pitches. It was not good. Texas really did a number on him.

Following that disaster Severino is sitting on a 6.86 ERA (3.66 FIP) with 32 hits allowed in 19.2 innings on the season. The good news is he’s only walked three batters, and one of those was intentional, but he’s also struck out only 12. A 13.5% strikeout rate is really bad. Only seven pitchers have a lower strikeout rate, and they’re guys like Mike Pelfrey (9.1%) and broken Doug Fister (11.2%).

The story last night was the same as Severino’s first three starts: his location was terrible. David Cone had a really great breakdown of Severino’s mistakes on the YES broadcast, showing how he missed the target on some of the hits he allowed. He didn’t miss by a few inches. Severino was missing by the width of the plate and up in the zone. It doesn’t matter how hard you throw with location that poor.

“I thought he was up with his fastball. It seemed like the fastballs that they hit were between the thigh and the waist, and he had a hard time throwing his offspeed for strikes,” said Joe Girardi after the game (video link). “It kind of put him in a tough situation, and they definitely took advantage of it.”

Severino barely resembles the pitcher he was late last season even though the PitchFX data says his fastball is still sitting 97 mph with sliders and changeups around 90 mph. The hitters are telling you all you need to know. They’re squaring him up consistently and the strikeouts are much harder to come by. That’s concerning. This is a 22-year-old kid who increased his workload by 48.2 innings last year, remember. There could be a hangover effect.

It would be very easy and, frankly, justifiable for the Yankees to send Severino to Triple-A for some tune-up work after these four starts. They have a ready made rotation replacement in Ivan Nova and Severino has some very clear flaws to correct. He seems incapable of getting his slider down in the zone, and his fastball location has generally been crap. A trip to Triple-A lets him work on that stuff in a place where results don’t matter.

I think it’s a little too early to take that step though. For starters, Severino hasn’t gotten rocked every time out. One start ago he tossed six innings of two run ball, remember. Secondly, I’m a big believer in failure as a learning tool. Severino never struggled in the minors. The guy zoomed up the ladder because he dominated minor league hitters. Severino can lean on his fastball and have a lot of success with ol’ No. 1 and nothing else down there.

The minors were not much of a challenge for Severino. He is being challenged at the MLB level now and the hitters are telling him he has to adjust. That’s the name of the game. Make the adjustments and correct your flaws or you won’t be around long. By all accounts Severino is a hard worker and a kid with tremendous poise, so that’s not an issue. He just needs to fine-tune his game like so many other 22-year-olds.

“I’m sure it’s tough right now cause he’s probably never struggled until (he got to) this level,” added Girardi. “But that’s part of it, too. You have to fight in this game. This game is not easy. If it was easy, everyone would do it. Everyone gets knocked down in this game, and you have to get back up and you have to go to work.”

Yes, there is absolutely a point when Severino’s struggles will become too much and a trip to the minors is necessary. That’s true for every young player. I don’t think Severino is at that point yet. His stuff is firm and not he’s walking anyone, so this isn’t a kid who has been scared out of the strike zone and is getting himself into trouble by nibbling. Once that starts happening, you have to begin to worry about his confidence.

Severino’s start to the new season has been very disappointing. I can’t imagine anyone feels otherwise. Four starts is only four starts though. Severino didn’t go from MLB ready to Triple-A caliber in three weeks. His location must improve. It’s imperative. For now, the Yankees should let him work through his issues at the big league level. If the same problems persist in a few weeks, the team can reassess and see if a change needs to be made then.

Yankees want to see improvement from Severino, not just the offense, Thursday against the A’s

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

When a team struggles offensively, especially as much as the Yankees have struggled of late, it’s almost like nothing else matters. The bats have been comically bad these last few games, and there’s nothing in baseball more frustrating than not scoring runs. I’d rather watch a good offense/bad pitching team over a bad offense/good pitching team any day of the week.

As the offense has struggled, it’s been easy to overlook the way the rotation has started to turn the corner. The Yankees have had their starter complete six full innings — a very modest goal, of course — five times in the last seven games, and during that time the rotation has gone from a 5.97 ERA to a 5.01 ERA. Don’t get me wrong, that’s still not great, but it’s progress. They’re moving the right direction.

Young Luis Severino will make his third start of the season tonight, and the first two weren’t all that good. He allowed three runs on ten hits and no walks in five innings against the Tigers first time out, and last week the Mariners tagged him for four runs on eight hits and a walk in 5.2 innings. Two starts is two starts. Every pitcher is going to struggle at some point or another. It’s not a big deal yet.

Severino is a 22-year-old kid who came into the season with some clear developmental goals, most notably commanding his offspeed stuff a little better. He tends to leave his slider up in the zone more than anything. Here is the location of every slider Severino threw in his first two starts, via Baseball Savant:

Luis Severino sliders

Through two starts Severino has thrown 57 sliders, and opponents have more hits (nine) than swings and misses (five) against the pitch. Eight of the nine hits are singles (the other is a double), but still. That is: bad. Slider location is an obvious flaw Severino and pitching coach Larry Rothschild have to correct, and Severino is well aware of it.

“I think I’m trying too much. I’m pulling (my slider), not just throwing it, like I was in Spring Training,” said Severino to Brendan Kuty earlier this week. “I’m missing spots. I’m missing pitches. I’m not commanding my top stuff, and that’s the difference … I’ve been battling myself over there. I have to be better.”

Severino’s potential is so obvious when you watch him on the mound. He has true front of the rotation ability, but like any kid his age, he still has some things to work on. Unlike most kids his age, Severino has to work on them while pitching for the New York Yankees and being hyped up as the next great thing. That can be daunting, though I’ve been impressed by Severino’s poise in his 13 big league starts, and I think we can make those adjustments on the fly.

The story of tonight’s series finale against the Athletics is the offense. The Yankees need to get their bats going, if for no other reason than my sanity. Not scoring runs is just the worst. Severino’s start is a huge sidebar though. He’s struggled his first two times out and we all want to see that frontline ability we saw last year. Severino’s not just some kid they’re breaking in. He’s an important part of the team, and the Yankees need him to be successful.

Changeup was a big help for Pineda against the Athletics

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Tuesday night Michael Pineda turned in his best start of the young season, holding the admittedly offensively challenged Athletics to two runs in six innings. He had a long second inning thanks to some grounders that beat the shift, but otherwise the A’s didn’t put too much pressure on him. Big Mike had to grind through his previous starts against the Astros and Blue Jays.

“I thought he threw the ball pretty well tonight,” said Joe Girardi to Mark Feinsand after the game. “I thought he mixed his pitches. I thought his slider had good depth tonight. Sometimes too much, but that’s okay. I thought he threw the ball pretty well.”

As usual, Pineda attacked hitters with (cut) fastballs and sliders last night. That’s Pineda. He’s a fastball/slider guy. They’re his bread and butter. But, for the first time this season, Big Mike also leaned on his changeup Tuesday night, throwing eleven of them overall. He threw 12 changeups total in his first two starts.

“I’m feeling pretty good today on the mound,” said Pineda to Chad Jennings following his start. “I have better command today with my pitches. I’m doing good. The changeup is working good tonight and my slider too.”

Pineda threw ten of those eleven changeups to left-handed batters and he threw it to both start at-bats (two first pitch changeups) and finish hitters off (six when ahead in the count). The A’s put three of the eleven changeups in play (all outs) and only one went for a ball. That all sounds good, but look at the location (via Brooks Baseball):

Michael Pineda location

That’s a lot of blue dots out over the plate, and while it’s natural to think pitches in the zone are bad, that’s not necessarily the case. The entire point of the changeup is to disrupt timing. As long as the hitter is out in front and unable to square up the pitch, the changeup is effective. Sometimes they make contact and get a ball to dunk in for a hit. That’s just baseball being baseball.

Pineda threw those 12 total changeups in his first two starts and hitters took seven of them for balls. (Carlos Correa smashed another one off the damn restaurant in center field.) That’s not great. The changeup doesn’t help much if it doesn’t entice hitters to swing, not unless the plan is to sneak it by everyone for a called strike. I can’t imagine that would work long-term.

There is a balance to be struck here. Ideally Pineda would continue to use his changeup regularly and be able to get hitters to chase after it without throwing it over the heart of the plate. That’s hard! Command is not easy. If it was, everyone would have it. Pineda’s been working on his changeup since the Yankees acquired him — the shoulder injury threw a wrench into things — and he’s still working on it. It’s hardly a finished product.

After barely throwing his changeup in his first two starts, Pineda leaned on the pitch against the A’s last night, and it helped him have his best outing of the season. The change is never going to become his No. 1 weapon, his fastball and slider are too good, but using it often enough to keep hitters guessing could help Big Mike find some sustained success, something he continues to chase in pinstripes.

A little extra velocity makes a big difference for Tanaka

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

Through three starts, Masahiro Tanaka‘s season has been a microcosm of his entire Yankees’ career: very good overall, occasionally great, rarely bad, and better than he seems to get credit for. Tanaka’s sitting on a 3.06 ERA (3.08 FIP) with 16 strikeouts, five walks, and a career high 65.3% ground ball rate through 17.2 innings in 2016.

Yesterday’s win was Tanaka’s best outing of the season. He held the Mariners to three runs (two earned) in seven innings, and it could have been a) one or two runs if not for some defensive funny business, and b) eight innings if the Yankees did not have such a stupid good bullpen. A rock solid outing once again.

Tanaka had something Sunday he did not have in his first two starts: a fastball that averaged north of 90 mph. He’s been pitching heavily off his sinker, perhaps in response to last summer’s home run issues, and the pitch averaged 89.9 mph in his first start and 90.2 mph in his last second start. Yesterday it averaged 91.9 mph. The bump is noticeable (via Brooks Baseball):

Masahiro Tanaka velocityTanaka jokingly credited the warm weather for the velocity bump following yesterday’s game, but otherwise he chalked it up to building arm strength as he gets deeper into the season. That’s pretty typical. Most pitchers add velocity as the season progresses, especially since so many teams are taking it easy in Spring Training. April has almost become Phase Two of Spring Training.

“I think his arm is getting stronger,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings yesterday. “Obviously the weather was pretty good today, but for the starters, you’d like to say you have them built up to where they’re supposed to be by Game One, but I think you risk working them too hard in Spring Training. Understanding it’s a long season, they sort of pace themselves.”

The benefit of the added velocity showed up in Tanaka’s performance yesterday, though you have to go beyond his overall numbers to see it. The extra oomph allows his trademark splitter to play up, making the pitch even more devastating. Look at his swing-and-miss totals so far this season:

April 5th vs. Astros: 29 splitters, five whiffs (17.2%)
April 12th vs. Blue Jays: 28 splitters, six whiffs (21.4%)
April 17th vs. Mariners: 44 splitters, 14 whiffs (31.8%)

Tanaka threw lots more splitters yesterday than in his first two starts because the Mariners are so left-handed — they had seven lefties and one switch-hitter in the starting lineup — and that’s his go-to pitch against lefties. Last year he had a 20.6% whiff rate on his splitter. Back in 2014 it was 29.1%. (The MLB average is right around 15%.) He had eleven swings and misses on his splitter in his first two starts combined. Those 14 yesterday are a new career high.

Obviously there is more to getting swings and misses on the splitter than fastball velocity — command and arm action are the big ones — but it definitely helps. The fastball sets up the split. The hitter is supposed to read fastball in the zone out of the pitcher’s hand and start his swing before the split dives into the dirt. More velocity means the hitter has even less time to react and discern between fastball and splitter.

“I think velocity is a big thing,” said Brian McCann to Jennings yesterday. “When you’re throwing 92, 94, and your best out pitch is a split, everything plays up. As a hitter, you have to make your decision quicker, and you’re going to get a lot more swings and misses.”

We saw exactly that yesterday. Tanaka had the extra velocity and the Mariners had trouble getting the bat on that splitter, at least compared to the Astros and Blue Jays last week. His splitter is so good that the pitch is effective even when he’s living in the 88-90 mph range with his heater, but that little bit of extra velocity can be the difference between good and great.

I didn’t expect Tanaka’s fastball to jump almost two miles an hour from one start to the next, but it did yesterday. As the weather warms up and Tanaka continues to build arm strength, he should add even more velocity, which will only make him more formidable. Yesterday was a very positive development.

“Obviously the weather, that does play (into it) a little bit,” added Tanaka. “But I think we’re getting a little bit more deeper into the season, a couple of weeks, so I think the strength is coming together. It’s starting to build up, so it’s a positive.”

Two starts into 2016, Masahiro Tanaka is pitching much differently than last year

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

All things considered, last night’s start was neither great nor terrible for Masahiro Tanaka. He could not get the Blue Jays to chase his offspeed stuff out of the zone — his 38.2% chase rate from 2014-15 was the best in baseball — which led to a ton of pitches early. Tanaka was able to grind it out and finish the night having allowed two runs in five innings.

Two things are clear now that Tanaka is two starts into the new season. One, he is not throwing as hard as last year. His velocity is down across the board compared to last April, both on average and at the high end.

April 2014: 93.5 mph average, 96.7 mph max
April 2015: 91.4 mph average, 94.1 mph max
April 2016: 90.6 mph average, 92.0 mph max

There was a lot of talk last season about Tanaka’s velocity being down following his elbow injury, but PitchFX shows his average fastball was identical both years (92.7 mph) and his maximum velocity was pretty close as well (96.7 mph to 96.3 mph). His fastball was down last April. By the end of the season, it was right where it was supposed to be.

This year his velocity is down even more. Tanaka figures to add velocity as the season progresses because pretty much every pitcher adds velocity as the weather warms up, so we just have to wait to see whether he can get his fastball back to where it was the last two years. For now, Tanaka is not throwing as hard as he did last two years.

The other thing we’ve seen out of Tanaka in his two starts so far is a heck of a lot of moving two-seam fastballs. I said I couldn’t remember him ever throwing that many two-seamers following his first start, and he was at it again last night. Look at his pitch selection (via Brooks Baseball):

Masahiro Tanaka pitch selectionTanaka threw his four-seamer and sinker (two-seamer) both roughly 20% of the time back in 2014. Last year it was 19% and 14% in favor of the four-seamer. This year? Tanaka has thrown 30% sinkers and only 3% four-seamers. He’s thrown five four-seam fastballs in his two starts. Five. Tanaka has clearly put the straight four-seamer in his pocket and is emphasizing his sinker so far.

As a result of all those sinking two-seamers, Tanaka’s ground ball rate is up to 57.1% in the super early going. His grounder rate was 47% the last two seasons. Two starts is nothing. It’s just neat to see this all making sense. Tanaka appears to be throwing more moving fastballs, the PitchFX data confirms what our eyes are telling us, and the result is more grounders, which is exactly what you’d expect.

Now, why is Tanaka throwing more two-seamers? That’s a different question. He was very home run prone last season (1.46 HR/9) and may have made the adjustment in an effort to keep the ball in the park. Also, let’s not forget Tanaka had a bone spur taken out of his elbow in October. He may feel more comfortable throwing the sinker than cutting loose with the four-seamer right now.

The Tanaka we’ve seen these first two starts is quite a bit different than the Tanaka we saw the last two years. His velocity is down relative to the last two Aprils and he’s sinking his fastball much more often, presumably intentionally. These changes are not necessarily a bad thing. He does have a 3.38 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP after two starts, after all. I think we’d all take those numbers across a full season.

Tanaka’s two seasons and two starts as a Yankee have been eventful, if nothing else. He’s rarely been bad — like bad bad, not last night bad — and yet he has not been truly dominant since before the elbow injury in 2014. Tanaka is not throwing as hard as he did last year and he is throwing way more sinking two-seamers. Is this is a two-start blip, or simply the latest new version of Tanaka?

Can Nick Rumbelow be the next Chase Whitley?

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees opened their season yesterday, and tomorrow night, the team’s four full season minor league affiliates will begin their seasons. That includes Triple-A Scranton, which will be the primary feeder team for the Yankees this summer. That’s where all the depth players are stashed. Starters, relievers, position players, all of ’em.

Thanks to the Bryan Mitchell injury and Luis Cessa opening the season in the big league bullpen, the RailRiders are a bit short on starters this year. Shane Hennigan reports Chad Green, who came over from the Tigers with Cessa in the Justin Wilson trade, will be on the mound for Triple-A Opening Day tomorrow. Later in the week Nick Rumbelow will get a Triple-A start.

Rumbelow, 23, is a reliever by trade. He made one start in three years at LSU, and all 100 of his minor league appearances have come out of the bullpen. Only twice has he thrown as many as three innings in an outing. Only five times has he actually turned a lineup over and faced ten or more batters. This isn’t just a spot start though. RailRiders manager Al Pedrique told Donnie Collins the team thinks Rumbelow has a chance to start.

Generally speaking, the best reliever-to-starter conversion candidates are guys with three pitches and some semblance of control. Rumbelow has a career 6.6% walk rate in the minors, which is an indication he can throw strikes, and both the scouting reports and PitchFX data confirm he has three pitches. Here are the numbers really quick (MLB averages in parentheses):

% Thrown Avg. Velo. GB% Whiff%
Fastball 57.6% 93.8 40.7% (37.9%) 6.9% (6.9%)
Changeup 29.7% 86.9 52.4% (47.8%) 19.5% (14.9%)
Curveball 12.7% 81.0 0.0% (48.7%) 2.9% (11.1%)

Remember, Rumbelow threw only 15.2 big league innings last season, so we’re not talking about a big sample size at all. This is more of a “this is what he threw last year” look rather than a “this is what you could expect going forward” look. The scouting report on Rumbelow said he was a fastball/curveball guy with a show-me changeup out of college, but over the last few years, the changeup has taken over as his second best pitch.

This at-bat from last September is one of those at-bats that just stuck with me because it really showed how much Rumbelow trusts his changeup. The Yankees were up by one, but the Rays had runners at the corners with two outs, and Evan Longoria was at the plate. Rumbelow went changeup (called strike), changeup (swinging strike), changeup (swinging strike) for the three-pitch strikeout to escape the jam. You have to be pretty confident in your changeup to triple up on it in a big spot against a hitter like Longoria.

Nick Rumbelow changeup

So yeah, Rumbelow trusts his changeup. At one point he trusted his curveball and he still might for all we know. It has since become his third pitch for whatever reason. The stuff and the control are there though. That’s the most important thing.

Two years ago the Yankees took another three-pitch reliever with control and turned him into a starter: Chase Whitley. Whitley, like Rumbelow, was a career reliever. In fact, Whitley was a third baseman and pitcher in college, so he wasn’t even a full-time moundsman until pro ball. The Yankees attempted the conversion and it worked. Whitley wasn’t an ace or anything, but he gave the Yankees 16 starts in two years. That’s not nothing.

As with Whitley, the question will be whether Rumbelow’s stuff drops off as a starter. Well, it’s not a really a question of “if” it drops off, but “how much.” Whitley went from sitting 92-94 mph as a reliever to 89-91 mph as a starter. Rumbelow is a 93-95 mph guy out of the bullpen. What happens if he becomes a 90-92 mph starter? Does it hurt the effectiveness of his changeup? There’s only one way to find out. You’ve got to see him start for yourself.

The Yankees came into the spring without a ton of Triple-A pitching depth. The Mitchell injury hasn’t helped matters, and Cessa in the bullpen means the Yankees have one less option for emergency situations. They do have a ton of relievers though, and when you have as many relievers as New York, it only makes sense to see if one or two of them can start. The guy with three pitches and some control is the obvious choice, right?

(I should note Tyler Webb will also start for the RailRiders this year. He started some back in college but has been a full-time reliever the last four years. Webb is another guy with three pitches and control. I like Rumbelow quite a bit more as a prospect, however, plus he’s already on the 40-man roster, which I think gives him a leg up when call-up time comes.)

For now, Rumbelow as a starter is nothing more than an experiment. There’s no reason not to try it out at this point. There’s no downside since the conversion is taking place in Triple-A. The games are meaningless. That said, if he has to come up to join the rotation at some point this summer, chances are something either went very right or very wrong. (For what it’s worth, Whitley made only eleven Triple-A starts before being called up.)

If Rumbelow can hack as a starter, even as a replacement level sixth starter type like Whitley, it’ll be a nice little boost to the team’s rotation depth. And if it doesn’t work, Rumbelow can go right back to where he started in the bullpen. The Yankees have had some success with the reliever-to-starter conversion in the recent past, and they are lacking starters and loaded with relievers, so it only makes sense to try it with Rumbelow.