Joe Girardi names CC Sabathia fifth starter

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

As expected, Joe Girardi officially named CC Sabathia the fifth starter this afternoon, according to the various reporters with the Yankees in Miami. Ivan Nova will shift to the bullpen for the time being. Sometimes you can predict baseball, Suzyn.

Sabathia, who last pitched Tuesday, will pitch in an instrasquad game tomorrow in Tampa to stay sharp. He’ll then join the team in New York and start next Saturday’s game in Detroit. The rotation is officially Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, Luis Severino, and Sabathia in that order, not that the order really matters.

Nova did out-pitch Sabathia this spring, but Sabathia out-pitched Nova last year, plus he’s the veteran making $25M a year. Money talks. There were a ton of reasons not to believe the Yankees when they said the fifth starter’s spot would be decided by a true competition in Spring Training.

The way I see it, it’s only a matter of time until Nova winds up in the rotation anyway. Teams never make it through a season with only five starters, and the Yankees have a risky rotation. Tanaka (forearm), Pineda (forearm), Eovaldi (elbow), and Sabathia (knee) all missed time with injuries in 2015.

The Yankees won’t say it, but the rotation is already lined up for the regular season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Opening Day is only ten days away now. Soon the mundane monotony of Spring Training will be replaced by meaningful games that have a real impact on the standings. We can celebrate wins and lament losses. The very best and the very worst thing about baseball is that it’s every day. Soon the every day games will mean something.

Joe Girardi and the Yankees have not yet announced their rotation for the start of the season, which is not a big deal at all, though they do seem to be going to great lengths to keep the rotation order secret. The team claims the fifth starter’s spot is up for grabs and the closest Girardi has come to announcing Masahiro Tanaka will start Opening Day is that we “could surmise” it.

“We’ve kind of thought about (the rotation order), but because we had so many things we were dealing with when we came back this spring, we didn’t have anything set in stone,” said Girardi to Chad Jennings yesterday. “We’re starting to try to line them up. Obviously you have to figure out who your Opening Day guy is, and then you go from there. We have to iron out the fifth starter situation, too. We don’t have an exact order yet, but we’re happy with where the guys are.”

The rotation is not like the lineup. You can’t just move pieces into different spots on different days. Pitchers are on schedules and they have their throw days, they need a certain amount of rest, all that stuff. Especially this late in Spring Training. It’s a little too late in the game to be shifting pitchers around and disrupting schedules, you know? This is how the rotation is lined up at the moment:

Tuesday, March 22nd: Luis Severino (Nathan Eovaldi in a minor league game)
Wednesday, March 23rd: Tanaka
Thursday, March 24th: CC Sabathia
Friday, March 25th: Ivan Nova
Saturday, March 26th: Michael Pineda
Sunday, March 27th: Severino or Eovaldi (guessing Eovaldi starts to give Severino an extra day of rest)
Monday, March 28th: Severino or Eovaldi
Tuesday, March 29th: Tanaka and Sabathia in split squad games
Wednesday, March 30th: Nova
Thursday, March 31st: Pineda and a spot starter (Bryan Mitchell?) in split squad games
Friday, April 1st: Severino or Eovaldi (would have to be whoever starts the 27th)
Saturday, April 2nd: Severino or Eovaldi
Sunday, April 3rd: off-day

That lines Tanaka up to start Opening Day, April 4th, with an extra day of rest, which the Yankees prefer. April 5th is the typical post-Opening Day off-day, then Pineda is lined up perfectly to start the second game of the season on April 6th. He’s currently two days behind Tanaka on the spring schedule. Severino and Eovaldi are then lined up for the third and fourth game of the season — I’m guessing the veteran Eovaldi starts before the kid Severino — then Sabathia or Nova are in line for the fifth game. Make sense?

Will the Yankees actually start Sabathia in the fifth game of the season? It’s possible, sure. They would also have the option to start him earlier, perhaps in the third game of the season, given the way the schedule is laid out. Tanaka, Pineda, and Sabathia started the first three games of last season in that order. I guess Sabathia’s place — assuming he gets the rotation job, of course — could depend on the matchups. Would the Yankees rather have him face the Astros at home in the first series of the season, or the Tigers in Detroit in the second series?

My educated guess right now is the Yankees will start the season with Tanaka on Opening Day, followed by Pineda, Eovaldi, Sabathia, and Severino in that order. Should Nova actually beat out Sabathia for a rotation spot, as unlikely as that may be, I think he would be the fifth starter and Severino the fourth. I still have a hard time believing that will happen, but who knows. Maybe the Yankees will stash Sabathia on the DL to give him an extra long Spring Training.

In the grand scheme of things, the rotation order on Opening Day doesn’t mean a whole lot. The rotation at the end of the season and heading into the postseason is far more important. The Opening Day start is more ceremonial than anything. The Yankees are keeping their rotation a bit of a secret right now, which is fine. Given the way the pitching schedule is laid out right now though, it’s easy to see how things line up. Now the Yankees just have to make it official.

Ivan Nova is showing off a slightly new delivery in Spring Training

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

By any measure, the 2015 season was close to a disaster for Ivan Nova. He returned from Tommy John surgery at midseason and had a 5.07 ERA (4.87 FIP) in 94 innings, which temporarily cost him his rotation spot in September. His strikeouts were down and lefties crushed him. It was not a good year at all.

After a season like that, a pitcher and his pitching coach are going to look for answers. It’s reasonable to expect Nova to improve as he gets further away from Tommy John surgery, sure, but that can’t be the only solution. Nova and pitching coach Larry Rothschild had to figure something out, and it appears that something is a slightly revamped delivery. Here is 2015 Nova (on the left) vs. 2016 Nova (right):

Ivan Nova 2015 vs. 2016

Nova is no longer going over his head during his delivery. I can’t tell if that’s the only difference, but it is the most obvious difference. Nova was not bringing his hands over his head in last Wednesday’s start against the Mets, his only other televised outing of the spring, so this has been going on for a while now. It wasn’t a spur of the moment thing last night.

As far as I can tell, neither Nova nor Rothschild has talked about the reworked delivery with reporters this spring, so we’re stuck guessing why the changes were made. How exactly does keeping his hands at his chest during his delivery help Nova? In my totally amateur opinion, this right here looks like the biggest benefit of Nova’s new mechanics:

Ivan Nova 2015 vs. 2016 head

When Ivan brought his hands over his head, he turned his head down toward the ground for a few moments. With his new mechanics, Nova is able to keep his head forward and his eyes on the target the entire time. Before he would pick up his target, begin his delivery, look at the ground, then pick up the target again. Now he never takes his eyes off the catcher.

That … seems like kind of a big deal? We’ve all played catch before. When you focus on your target you tend to be more accurate. At least I do. I don’t know if this is the reason behind the mechanical change, but it does seem like a benefit. Nova no longer has to pick up his target in the middle of his delivery. And considering the majority of his issues are command related (fat pitches over the middle of the plate) and not stuff related, this might be a big help.

We’ll see. We’ll see if it helps and we’ll see if Nova sticks with it. Nova and Rothschild have clearly identified this as some kind of potential solution. Remember, Ivan had been bringing his hands over his head his entire career. Now he’s no longer doing it and that’s a big deal. There’s a lot of muscle memory that has to be changed. Making an adjustment like this is not as easy as it looks.

Nova has thrown well so far this spring (two runs in nine innings), and while he may not have a rotation spot come Opening Day, he’ll inevitably get a chance to start this summer. If these new mechanics help him be effective, Nova stands to make himself a lot of money as a free agent next winter.

The Yankees keep saying CC Sabathia is not a lock for the rotation, but I don’t believe them

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Yesterday afternoon, in his second start of the spring, CC Sabathia was roughed up for three runs (two earned) on five hits, a walk, and a hit batsman in only 1.2 innings of work. His defense didn’t help matters — Sabathia himself made an error on a would-be inning-ending tapper back to the mound, then the inning snowballed — but there was still a lot of loud contact and two-strike foul balls.

It’s only Spring Training, so the actual results don’t hurt the team in any way. It was still discouraging to see Sabathia have the same problems — long at-bats, loud contact, inability to handle righties — that have plagued him the last two or three years. “I’m 35 years old. I’ve thrown a lot. We’re here trying to win, so it is what it is,” he said to Mark Feinsand after the game. “I’m just going out and getting work, getting ready. We’ll see what happens.”

Following the game Joe Girardi was inevitably asked whether Sabathia has a rotation spot locked up, and Girardi gave the same answer he gave all winter: “We’re going to take what we feel is the five best. Bottom line,” he said. If nothing else, that gives off the impression Sabathia is not guaranteed a rotation spot. Spring competition is a good thing, even among veterans. I just don’t buy it at all. Not for a second. For a few reasons.

Sabathia wasn’t one of their five best starters last year

It was pretty clear Sabathia was not one of the Yankees’ five best starters last season, yet when the time came to make room for Ivan Nova, it was Adam Warren who went to the bullpen. Warren is gone, meaning there’s even less competition for the fifth starter’s spot. It’s Sabathia vs. Nova, and Sabathia was better last season. Better ERA (4.73 to 5.07), better FIP (4.68 to 4.87), better strikeout rate (18.9% to 15.3%), better walk rate (6.9% to 8.0%).

There’s always a chance Nova’s performance will improve as he gets further away from Tommy John surgery. That’s the hope, anyway. At the same time, the Yankees and everyone else have expressed confidence in Sabathia’s new knee brace, especially since he pitched so well late last season. Point is, the Yankees showed last season they’re willing to stick with Sabathia. Actions speak louder than words, and when they needed to open a rotation spot last year, they sent a more effective pitcher to the bullpen and kept running Sabathia out there every fifth day.

Sabathia might actually be one of their five best starters this year

Here’s a not so fun twist: Sabathia just might be one of the five best starters in the organization right now. ZiPS prefers Nova to Sabathia (0.9 to 0.2 WAR), but both Steamer (1.6 to 0.8 WAR) and PECOTA (0.9 to 0.5 WARP) prefer Sabathia. And again, Sabathia out-pitched Nova last year, and Warren is no longer around as proven depth. Bryan Mitchell is likely next in line for a rotation spot. You don’t have to try real hard to envision a scenario in which Sabathia out-pitches both Nova and Mitchell in 2016.

$25M

That’s how much the Yankees owe Sabathia this season. That’s not reliever money. It’s ace starter money, and while Sabathia is no longer an ace, not too many owners would be happen marginalizing a player with that kind of salary. I’m sure the money was part of the reason Sabathia remained in the rotation last year. The Yankees want to get their money’s worth.

If nothing else, the money is a tiebreaker. When the final rotation spot comes down to one guy making $25M and another guy making $4.1M (Nova), and you’re not confident in either being even league average, the dude making $25M is going to get the job. Sabathia is a sunk cost. The Yankees owe him that money no matter what, but chances are they’re going to want to try to salvage the investment as much as possible.

The Yankees don’t base major decisions on Spring Training

I can’t remember the last time the Yankees based a major decision on Spring Training. They’ll use it to sort out bench spots or the final few bullpen spots, that sort of thing, but a major decision like a rotation spot? Nope. They tend to go into Spring Training with everything planned out and adjust only if necessary due to injury or a trade, something like that.

That’s smart. Spring Training is a terrible time to make decisions. We see it each and every year. A player comes in, wins a roster spot with a strong showing in March, then reverts back to his previous self in the regular season. The reverse is true as well. A player struggles in camp then rights the ship in the regular season. There are way too many variables in Spring Training — sample size, the caliber of competition, players working on things, etc. — to take performance seriously.

The Yankees have a history of saying a spot is up for grabs when it really isn’t, and this feels exactly like that. Girardi saying they’re “going to take what we feel is the five best” is as much about motivating Nova as it is letting Sabathia know they need him to pitch better. In the end, everything the Yankees have done the last few years points to Sabathia getting a rotation spot over Nova. The only way I see CC not being in the rotation this summer is injury.

Tipping pitches a possible but unlikely reason for Chasen Shreve’s struggles at the end of 2015

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Chasen Shreve was very good last season. And then he was very bad. For the first four and a half months of the season he was truly outstanding, giving Joe Girardi a very good fourth option in the bullpen. Then it all fell apart in the middle of the August. Shreve allowed ten runs on 21 hits (five homers!) and 14 walks in his final 12.2 innings of 2015. Yuck.

There is no shortage of theories why Shreve struggled so much late in the season. He was fatigued. The league caught up to him. It was all bad luck. Everyone has a theory and no one knows if they’re actually right. Lately the idea Shreve was tipping his pitches has gotten some press — Joel Sherman wrote about it (twice) and Ryan Hatch asked Larry Rothschild about it — and that’s as good a theory as any.

Shreve is a three-pitch pitcher but his fastball and splitter are his main weapons. He does throw a slider too, just not very often. It’s a surprise pitch, basically. Not a real weapon. Shreve uses his fastball to set up his splitter and vice versa. Pretty simple formula. Here are some numbers:

Chasen Shreve FB SPL

What really stands out is how often Shreve threw his splitter in the zone in August and September (and October). The splitter is designed to finish out of the zone. The pitcher releases it, the batter reads fastball in the zone, starts his swing, then the pitch falls off the table. When thrown properly, the split might be the most devastating pitch in the sport.

For whatever reason Shreve threw a lot of splitters in the zone at the end of the season, and that’s not where the pitch is supposed to be. That suggests a mechanical issue, or maybe fatigue, but tipping pitches? I’m not sure it jibes with that. When a pitcher tips his pitches, he tells the hitter what is coming, not where it’s coming. And even if he did tell them where it was coming, it requires a lot of skill to actually throw it there. Command is hard.

For the sake of thoroughness, here are two GIFs of Shreve from October, in the second to last game of the season. The pitch on the right is a fastball and the pitch on a left is a splitter. If you can spot some sort of difference in his set position or delivery that may be tipping the pitch to the hitter, you’re better at this than I am.

Chasen Shreve FB SPLT

Shreve missed his spot with both pitches though not necessarily in a bad way; he got the fastball a little too far inside and the splitter finished down in the dirt. He didn’t miss out over the plate. Of course, this is a sample of two pitches. Shreve did a lot of missing over the plate down the stretch.

Rothschild told Hatch he believes Shreve simply wore down last season, though that could be pitching coach speak for “I’m not telling you anything.” It’s certainly possible he was tipping his pitches. You can never rule it out, but it often feels like crying wolf. Every time a pitcher struggles unexpectedly, oh well he must be tipping his pitches. We hear it constantly.

Fatigue does seem like the most logical explanation. I don’t think Shreve got lucky for four and a half months then it all caught up to him. He didn’t get bad overnight. Shreve likely wore down, which threw his mechanics out of whack and resulted in poor location, hence all the extra splitters in the zone. He couldn’t get the same finish on the pitch. Fatigue would be the cleanest explanation. An offseason of rest and he’s as good as new.

The real Chasen Shreve is probably somewhere between the awesome pitcher he was from April through mid-August and the bad pitcher he was from mid-August through the end of the season. It’s up to Shreve and Rothschild to figure out what happened. For now, Shreve’s performance most of last season earned him some rope, and I think he’s got a leg up on one of those open bullpen spots.

Healthy Ivan Nova could help the Yankees as a depth arm in his contract year

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

By any objective measure, the last two seasons have been a disaster for Ivan Nova. He was limited to 21 starts and 114.2 innings from 2014-15, his age 27-28 seasons, because of Tommy John surgery, and during those 114.2 innings he had a 5.65 ERA (5.24 FIP). Obviously the surgery and performance are related to some degree. Nova wasn’t healthy in 2014 and he was shaking off the rust in 2015.

Nova, now 29, reported to Spring Training last week as the sixth starter on the depth chart. Brian Cashman all but confirmed whoever doesn’t win a rotation job in camp will be the long man to start the season, and right now Nova is that guy. Being the sixth starter stinks, but it’s not all bad. Inevitably the Yankees are going to need a sixth starter. Last season 25 of the 30 teams had six starters make at least ten starts.

Regardless of role, the 2016 season is huge for Nova on a personal level because it’s his contract year, and I’m sure he wants that Ian Kennedy money next winter. Baseball pays very well, but, relatively speaking, Nova has not yet cashed in big. He received an $80,000 bonus as an amateur out of the Dominican Republic, made next to nothing in minors, and will earn a total of $8.2M or so during his six years of team control.

“He’s getting ready for his free-agent walk year. If there’s going to be a time for him to put his best foot forward, if he’s on a salary drive, this would be the year for it. Hopefully we’ll benefit from it,” said Cashman to Brendan Kuty earlier this month. Money is a great motivator and baseball players are human. Of course they put forth their very best effort in their contract years. There’s no reason to think Nova will be any different.

Nova does not have a rotation spot at the moment, though I figure that opportunity will come in time. What he does have going for him is health, at least to the extent any pitcher can have health in their favor. Nova will open the season roughly 23 months out from Tommy John surgery, and typically it takes pitchers a few months to get all the way back from elbow reconstruction. Everyone is different of course, but many need a little time to get back to normal.

“We felt that we would see a different guy this year. I was impressed with his bullpen today. I saw an arm that was very quick, probably better than any point we saw last year. I think the time off really helped him and you will see a different guy,” said Joe Girardi to George King yesterday. The other day Nova himself told Chad Jennings his arm feels “lighter” this spring than it did last season.

Even before the Tommy John surgery, Nova was unpredictable and his career had a lot of ups and downs. He had a 3.70 ERA (4.00 FIP) in 165.1 innings in 2011. Then he had a 5.02 ERA (4.60 FIP) in 170.1 innings in 2012. And then he had a 3.10 ERA (3.47 FIP) in 139.1 innings in 2013. It was impossible to know which Nova would show up start to start, nevermind year to year. Like lots of other young pitchers, Nova’s performance was volatile.

The Yankees spent much of the offseason exploring trades for Nova despite their questionable rotation depth, and I don’t blame them. It’s hard to count on him to be reliable and it’s possible the team will lose him to free agency for nothing next offseason. That said, I do think keeping Nova was a smart move. No one blew the Yankees away with an offer and Ivan figures to be more valuable to the team as a depth arm than any middling prospect he’d return in a deal.

Given his history, it’s easy to be skeptical of Nova’s ability to help the Yankees in 2016. I’d be lying if I said I was confident he’ll be a valuable member of the staff. I do know the Yankees are almost certainly going to need him to step in to make some starts at some point, and that alone makes him pretty important. That he’s further removed from Tommy John surgery and presumably motivated by his upcoming free agency at least gives us some reason to think Nova will be able to perform much better this season than he did last.

Keeping the slider down can help Severino get to the next level in 2016

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees currently have six starters for five rotation spots, yet of the five, only Luis Severino did not miss time with an injury last season. The 22-year-old came up in August and made eleven mostly excellent starts, and now he’s slated to be a full-time member of the rotation in 2016. That’s exciting. The Yankees haven’t had a young MLB pitcher this promising in almost a decade.

Severino is still just a kid of course, and inevitably there will be growing pains at some point. That’s just the way it is. Hitters will adjust to him and he’ll have to adjust back, and then they’ll do it all over again, hopefully for years and years and years. Severino had a 2.89 ERA (137 ERA+) in his 62.1 innings last year, but his 1.3 HR/9 and 4.37 FIP show there is room for improvement.

“Oh, he could get better. The consistency of his pitches. The command of his fastball. And all of that will happen has he smooths out his delivery, which it seems like he has quite a bit,” said pitching coach Larry Rothschild to Brendan Kuty. Severino flew through the minors — he made 65 starts and threw 320.2 innings in the minors, which is nothing — so of course he’s going to have to work on consistency and things like that.

Severino came to the big leagues billed as a three-pitch pitcher and we saw exactly that last year. He’s got a lively fastball, a promising slider, and a changeup that fell off the table when he threw it properly. Looking over the PitchFX data, there are plenty of positives to take from last season (MLB averages in parentheses).

% Thrown Avg. Velo. Whiff% GB%
Fastball 51.4% 95.8 (92.4) 8.2% (6.9%) 45.3% (37.9%)
Slider 34.1% 89.6 (84.2) 8.9% (15.2%) 58.1% (43.9%)
Changeup 14.6% 88.6 (83.3) 19.3% (14.9%) 63.2% (47.8%)

Almost all of that looks good. Severino throws all three pitches regularly and they all have well-above-average velocity, and they all get a lot of ground balls too. The fastball and changeup generated swings and misses at an above-average rate as well. The slider? Not so much.

The swing-and-miss rate on Severino’s slider was a real eyesore last season. It was far below the league average, which seems impossible after watching him live, but the numbers don’t lie. “His third pitch is a mid-80s slider thrown with power, which still takes a back seat to his fastball and changeup but projects as solid average when he’s finished developing,” said Baseball America (subs. req’d) in their scouting report prior to 2015.

The slider — specifically the ability to get whiffs with the slider — is something Severino could really improve going forward. Don’t take that as a knock. Severino was pretty awesome last season. Imagine how much more awesome he can be if he can start generating some more empty swings with his slider. He knows it’s something that can be improved too.

“My breaking stuff (can improve). Pounding the zone, throwing strikes. Getting down in the zone, throwing my breaking ball down in the zone,” said Severino to Kuty when asked about how he can get better going forward. Getting the ball down is always a good idea, and Severino ostensibly did a good job of that considering his overall ground ball rate (50.9%), but take a look at his slider pitch locations specifically (click for a larger view):

Luis Severino slider locations

That’s an awful lot of sliders up and in the zone. Ideally Severino would bury the slider down and away to righties and down and in to lefties. Last summer David Laurila culled some quotes about backup sliders, which are surprisingly effectively because they’re hard to pick up and they don’t move the way the hitter expects …

Adam Warren backup slider

… but Severino wasn’t throwing backup sliders. He was simply missing his spot, especially when you consider how many sliders were up and away to lefties. (It took me way too long to find an example of an effective backup slider. Nothing from Severino, nothing from Michael Pineda, nothing from Masahiro Tanaka, so down the line I went until I got to the now departed Adam Warren.)

Give the effectiveness of his fastball and changeup, the slider figures to be a focal point for Severino going forward, both in Spring Training and continuing into the season. The pitch has pretty good action, we saw it last year, but right now Severino elevates it a little too often, which causes problems. Once he is able to consistently locate his slider down, he’ll get more swings and misses, and it could also improve the effectiveness of his fastball. Nathan Eovaldi’s fastball played up once he emphasized the splitter. Same could happen with Severino and an improved slidepiece.

The Yankees are going to need Severino to pitch effectively this season in order to contend, even though he just turned 22 and will have to endure the usual growing pains associated with young pitchers. His workload will be monitored, stuff like that. Severino’s stuff is very good as it is, but there is an obvious way he can improve the effectiveness of his slider, and that’s by keeping it down in the zone. If he can begin to do that consistently, he’ll inch closer to his ceiling as a frontline starter.