Yankees lack reliability in the rotation, but not upside

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

So far this offseason the Yankees have worked to improve their lineup (Starlin Castro), their bench (Aaron Hicks), and their bullpen (Aroldis Chapman). They’ve been looking for rotation help all winter, particularly a young starter they can control beyond 2017, but so far they’ve come up empty. With another seven weeks until Spring Training, the Yankees still have time to find another starter.

At the moment, the Yankees do have six starters for five spots, so they have some depth. I’d call it warm body depth rather than quality depth, but depth is depth. And the Yankees are going to need that depth too, because no team gets through a season using only five starters these days. Heck, teams are lucky if they get through a season using only seven starters. That’s the nature of the beast.

The concern with the rotation is the dubious health of the incumbent starters. Every one of them except Luis Severino missed time with an injury last season. All of them except Severino and CC Sabathia had an arm injury. Masahiro Tanaka is coming off surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow and Michael Pineda still hasn’t made it through a full season in one piece in his four years with the Yankees.

“I think there’s depth there but there’s questions about health,” said Joe Girardi at the Winter Meetings. “You have Tanaka coming off a minor surgery — I guess you can say there’s no surgery that’s really minor when it’s to a pitcher’s arm — you have Michael coming back after throwing a lot of innings last year. (Ivan Nova) should be better a year removed from his surgery. I think until you see him throwing in Spring Training and throwing the ball like he’s capable of, you wonder a little bit.”

The health concerns with the rotation are legitimate. The Yankees don’t have anyone they can reasonably count on to stay healthy and take the ball every fifth day without incident. Yes, all pitchers are injury risks, but you can safely pencil guys like David Price and Zack Greinke and Jeff Samardzija in for 30 starts a year. They have the track record of durability. The Yankees don’t have anyone like that. At least not with Sabathia at this point of his career.

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

What the Yankees do have, however, is a lot of upside in their rotation. I feel like this is getting overlooked this offseason. Tanaka is a true difference maker when healthy. He’s an ace on his best days, and even on his worst days he’s merely ordinary and not awful. Severino has all the potential in the world and we’ve seen Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi have extended stretches of dominance (Pineda in 2014, Eovaldi in 2015).

I don’t have high expectations for Sabathia, not even with the new knee brace, but at least Nova will be further away from Tommy John surgery. He’s been very up and down in his career. The ups have been really good though! The downs? Well they’re why he’s the sixth starter and not assured a rotation spot. And who knows, maybe the new knee brace is the magic cure-all Sabathia needs. Even becoming a league average innings eater would be a huge upgrade.

Tanaka turned 27 last month and is the third oldest of the team’s six starters. Sabathia is the elder statesman at 35 and Nova’s the second oldest. He’ll be 29 in two weeks. Pineda (26) and Eovaldi (25) are in their mid-20s and Severino’s just a kid at 21. It would be one thing if the Yankees had a rotation full of Sabathias — veteran guys trying to stave off Father Time and remain effective in their twilight years. That’s not the case. The rotation is pretty young aside from CC.

The best way to describe the Yankees rotation is boom or bust. There’s a lot of injury risk and the bust rate is quite high. Much higher than I think anyone feels comfortable with. There’s also the boom potential that is being ignored for whatever reason. Tanaka, Severino, Pineda, and Eovaldi are a helluva quartet. That’s three young power starters with swing-and-miss stuff — now that Eovaldi has the splitter — plus Tanaka, a master at getting hitters to chase.

The rotation as is doesn’t make me feel very comfortable because there are so many health question marks. I’m not sure adding a reliable innings guy would make me feel much better though. The Yankees may add a young controllable starter, but, for the most part, they’ll sink or swim with this rotation in 2016. The injury risk is scary. But don’t forget the upside either.

“I think our guys are capable of getting it done. But the thing is, you have to keep them out there for 30 to 32 starts,” said Girardi. “I think our rotation has a chance to be good. But we’ve got to keep them out there.”

Yanks facing the challenge of monitoring Luis Severino’s workload in 2016

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

During his annual end-of-season press conference, Joe Girardi said one of the ways the Yankees expect to improve next season is by having a full year of Luis Severino. Severino came up in early-August this past season and gave the team 62.1 innings of 2.89 ERA (4.37 FIP) ball. He was no worse than the Yankees’ second best starter down the stretch. It was pretty cool.

The Yankees will indeed have a full season of Severino in 2016, at least in the sense that he will be with the big league team from Day One. The team will have to monitor his workload to some extent, and unlike last season, the Yankees won’t be able to take advantage of his minor league time. Last summer they limited Severino to short starts in Double-A and Triple-A to make sure enough innings were left for the MLB team.

“I don’t know if there’s a limit, if there is, it’s very short. I don’t know how many innings he ended up with this year, I think 140-ish,” said Girardi at the Winter Meetings last week when asked about Severino’s workload. “We’ll have to watch him, because the rigors of a big league season is different than a minor league season because it’s longer, but I don’t expect a huge limit on him.”

Severino threw 161.2 total innings in 2015, an increase of 48.2 innings from 2014. The Verducci Effect, which says no pitcher should increase their workload by more than 30 innings from one year to the next, is a bit outdated, though obviously there is a point where a big workload increase is dangerous. Every pitcher is different though. The Yankees were comfortable letting Severino increase his workload by 50-ish innings in 2015.

Would the Yankees let Severino increase his workload by another 50 innings next year? That seems unlikely. I can’t imagine they’ll let this kid throw ~210 innings in his age 22 season. Only ten guys have done that in the last quarter century. In fact, if the Yankees let Severino throw even 170 innings next year, he’ll join a pretty exclusive club. Only 25 pitchers have thrown 170 MLB innings in their age 22 season since 2000.

Based on everything I’ve seen the last few years, I’m not sure there’s a good way to limit a pitcher’s workload at the big league level. Well, other than being out of contention and shutting him down in September. That works fine. Skipping starts, short starts … every method comes with its own headaches. Figuring out how to do it with Severino will be a challenge. The Yankees will need him to contend but can’t run him into the ground either.

The Yankees used a spot sixth starter whenever possible this past season and I have no reason to think they won’t do it again next year. That’s one way to control Severino’s workload. I also think the All-Star break is a pretty good opportunity to give a young guy an extended break. It would be possible to give Severino a breather from July 6th until July 19th thanks to the break. It could be July 5th until the 20th with a sixth starter.

Either way, this is something the Yankees will have to address this summer. They did a good job controlling Severino’s workload this season because he started the year in the minors. That won’t be the case next season. The Yankees will have to balance his long-term health with contention, because Severino will be a very important part of the team in both 2016 and beyond.

Cashman says Warren is “going to come in as a starter” next season

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

As expected, Brian Cashman confirmed Adam Warren will come to camp next season as a starting pitcher, reports Erik Boland. “(He is) going to come in as a starter. That would be the plan,” said the GM. There is no reason not to bring Warren or Bryan Mitchell or whoever to Spring Training stretched out as a starter next year. No-brainer.

Warren, 28, has come to Spring Training as a starter for a few years now, so this is nothing new. The difference now is Warren actually received an opportunity to start this past season — he was in the Opening Day rotation thanks to Chris Capuano‘s quad injury — and showed he can do it.

In 17 starts this summer, Warren had a 3.66 ERA (3.92 FIP) in 96 innings. That includes his rough April, when he struggled to complete five innings and walked almost as many batters as he struck out. Warren really settled in after that first month and went on a nice run for a few weeks before moving back into the bullpen.

“I want to be a starter,” said Warren to Jack Curry recently. “I really wasn’t sure going into last season whether I wanted to be a starter or a reliever, and obviously I got the opportunity to start and I really fell in love with it. Fell in love with getting to see hitters three or four times and thinking through at-bats and what pitches you want to throw.”

At the moment, I’d say the 2016 rotation will include Masahiro Tanaka, Nathan Eovaldi, Michael Pineda, Luis Severino, and CC Sabathia in whatever order. That’s assuming everyone is healthy and there’s no big offseason trade, stuff like that. Warren and Ivan Nova are the depth starters.

When it comes to the sixth starter, Warren might be at a disadvantage because he’s shown he can excel in a short relief role. Nova hasn’t pitched in relief a whole lot in his career and has never worked as a true one-inning guy. That might put him ahead of Warren on the rotation depth chart. We’ll see.

“I feel like (starting) suits my game better. I really enjoy doing that,” added Warren. “Getting the opportunity to at least compete as a starter is really something I’m really working hard for this offseason and really focusing on to come in to Spring Training to really impress.”

The Five Biggest Outs of the 2015 Season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Yesterday morning we looked at the five biggest hits of the 2015 Yankees season, and we did it two ways: the nerdy way with WPA and I guess what you would call the emotional way, which was based on my gut feel. Baseball wouldn’t be fun without emotion.

Today we’re going to look at the biggest outs of the season. Pitching outs, I mean. I don’t know why anyone would want to relive a bunch of Yankees hitters making crippling outs. Unlike the biggest hits post, I’m not going to bother with WPA for the biggest outs. It doesn’t work as well. The biggest outs are usually, like, +0.30 WPA, if that.

So instead this list of the five biggest outs is my subjective ranking. You’re welcome to disagree because there is no right answer. As you might suspect, these outs all came in the late innings of close games with runners on base. The kind of situation where a hit (or walk) changes the entire complexion of the game. Here’s my top five.

5. October 1st: Betances clinches a wildcard spot. (box score)
In the grand scheme of things, this wasn’t one of the most critical at-bats of the season. The Yankees were playing the last place Red Sox, and they were leading by three runs when Dellin Betances took the mound of the ninth. (Andrew Miller needed the night off for workload reasons.) Also, Dellin didn’t exactly face Murderer’s Row either: Deven Marrero, Sandy Leon, and Josh Rutledge. There’s like half-a-big leaguer in there.

But anyway, this out was big because it clinched the team’s first postseason berth since 2012. It was also the 10,000th win in franchise history. If that’s not a big out, I don’t know what is. To the video:

Betances making a hitter look silly. I wouldn’t have wanted the Yankees to clinch a postseason spot any other way.

4. June 2nd: Wilson dives to turn two. (box score)
Okay, so this is cheating. This was actually two outs, not one, but they were part of a double play, so there’s no sense in breaking it up. On top of that, they were part of a really nifty play. It wasn’t a routine 6-4-3 twin-killing or anything like that. The Yankees and Mariners were in extra innings, Seattle got a leadoff man on base, then Rickie Weeks popped up a bunt. This ensued:

The Yankees had lost 13 of their last 19 games, including three of four to the lowly Athletics, and it was easy to think another loss was imminent after Kyle Seager led the inning off with a single. Lots of bad things had been happening, you know? Instead, Wilson made a tremendous play to turn two, the Yankees eventually won, and off they went.

3. June 5th: Betances avoid catastrophe against the Angels. (box score)
This was the worst win of the season, if that makes sense. The Yankees punished Jered Weaver and took a nice, comfortable 8-1 lead into the ninth. When it was over, it was 8-7 and the Angels had the tying run at third base. They scored six runs in the ninth and were a great Didi Gregorius play away from tying things up.

Boy, that inning was a total mess, and it was a total team effort. There was some sloppy defense, Esmil Rogers being Esmil Rogers, and even Betances struggled as well. Dellin retired only two of the six batters he faced, after all. That would have been a Very Bad Loss, especially since the Yankees were 8-13 in their last 21 games and sorta reeling.

2. September 22nd: Betances gets Encarnacion to miss by several feet. (box score)
Late season Betances wasn’t all that fun because he walked a ton of dudes down the stretch. A ton. In this game, which the Yankees lead 3-2 heading into the eighth, Dellin walked two batters as part of a chaotic inning. It went single, bunt, strikeout, walk, walk to load the bases. All of that happened against the top of the Blue Jays order too.

Betances, wild as ever, fell behind in the count 2-0 to Edwin Encarnacion, so this was the danger zone. It was getting bad. Dellin rebounded to get called strike one, then Encarnacion swung through a heater to even the count 2-2. Betances dropped the hammer on him next for the strikeout. A hammer way out of the strike zone. Look at this:

Jeff Sullivan used to put together posts looking at the wildest swings — swings on pitches the furthest out of the strike zone according to PitchFX, basically (here’s an example) — and I have to think Encarnacion’s hack would make the end-of-season post. I mean, come on:

Dellin Betances Edwin Encarnacion

Missed it by that much. Betances escaped the inning with the 3-2 lead intact thanks to the strikeout and the Yankees eventually won the game in ten innings. The win brought the team to within 2.5 games of first place in the AL East with a little more than a week left in the season. It was part of their last gasp.

1. August 14th: Miller wins 12-pitch battle against Tulowitzki. (box score)
The biggest hit and the biggest out of the season both came in the same game. The Yankees were trying to run down the Blue Jays in the AL East and not doing a very good job of it, but, in this game, Carlos Beltran came off the bench to give the Yankees a 4-3 lead with a seventh inning three-run pinch-hit home run. It was clutch, as they say.

There were still nine outs to get after the Beltran home run, and Ivan Nova (!) and Betances were able to get three each with minimal scariness. The ninth inning went to Miller, who was still struggling after the coming off the DL. In fact, he blew his first save of the season in his previous appearance. The inning started with a fly out, but then a walk, a single, and a wild pitch followed.

The Blue Jays had the tying run at third base and the go-ahead run at second base with one out and the top of the order due up. Miller was able to strike out Ben Revere for the second out — Miller struck out 21 of the 47 lefty batters he faced this year (44.7%) — before getting locked into a grueling 12-pitch at-bat with Troy Tulowitzki. Miller went after him with sliders inside and fastballs away. Here’s the pitch plot via Brooks Baseball:

Andrew Miller Troy Tulowitzki

That view is from the catcher’s perspective. Tulowitzki took Pitch 1 down and in for a called strike, took all three fastballs for balls, and fouled off everything else before swinging and missing at Pitch 12. He might not have missed it either, I think he foul tipped it into Brian McCann‘s glove.

I could have sworn I remember seeing a video of this entire at-bat somewhere, but I guess I’m wrong. I can find no such thing. The final pitch will have to do, though that really fails the capture the intensity of the at-bat.

Those are two of the elite players at their positions locked in a thrilling battle during which it felt like the season — or at least the AL East title — was on the line every pitch. The at-bat was so big that nearly one out of every ten people in Canada watched it. Miller won. That was the at-bat of the season right there.

(For what it’s worth, the WPA on that strikeout was +0.24, the second largest out of the season. The largest? The strikeout of Revere at +0.30 WPA.)

Building the Wildcard Game Roster: Pitching Staff

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

At some point soon, possibly later today, the Yankees will officially clinch their first postseason berth in three seasons. It’s only a wildcard spot, sure, but a wildcard spot is better than nothing. Both the Royals and Giants went to the World Series after being wildcard teams last year, remember.

The wildcard game is considered its own distinct playoff round, which means it gets its own 25-man roster. It’s not a regular season game, so no expanded rosters with September call-ups, but the Yankees would also be able to change their roster prior to the ALDS, should they advance. They can build a roster specifically for the wildcard game.

There have been 12 wildcard teams since the current system was put in place in 2012, and those 12 teams averaged 9.67 pitchers on the roster. Three teams carried eleven pitchers, three carried ten, five carried nine, and one carried eight. There’s no need to carry all the extra starting pitchers, so teams have taken advantage and expanded their benches.

Whoever starts Game 162 for the Yankees on Sunday won’t be on the wildcard roster. There’s no reason to carry him since they won’t be available for the wildcard game on Tuesday. It also wouldn’t make sense to carry the Game 161 starter since he’d be on two days’ rest in the wildcard game. Right now Luis Severino and Michael Pineda are lined up to start Games 161 and 162, respectively, though that can change.

Joe Girardi and the Yankees love to match up with their relievers, so my guess is they end up carrying ten or eleven pitchers in the wildcard game. I’d be surprised if it was any fewer but I suppose it is possible. Which ten or eleven pitchers should the Yankees carry in the wildcard game? Let’s try to figure it out. Later today we’ll tackle the position player side of things.

The Locks

Might as well start with the easy ones to get them out of the way. Masahiro Tanaka will start the wildcard game — he will return from his hamstring injury tonight and start with “no restrictions” (no pitch count, basically), putting him in line for the wildcard game with an extra day of rest — and we know Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, and Justin Wilson will be in the bullpen. That’s four of the ten or eleven spots right there. You can be sure Girardi would prefer not to use anyone other than those four in the wildcard game too.

If Tanaka’s hamstring acts up tonight, my guess is the Yankees would rearrange their weekend rotation and go with either Severino or Pineda in the wildcard game. (Likely Severino given Pineda’s dud last night.) CC Sabathia is starting tomorrow night and would be able to start the wildcard game on regular rest, though I’d be surprised if he got the call. Yes, Sabathia has pitched better of late, and he is the team’s highest paid starter, but the Yankees wouldn’t even run him out there against the Blue Jays in a regular season game. In a winner-take-all wildcard game? It would surprise me to see him out there if better options available (i.e. Severino).

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Safe Bet

Given their need in middle relief and the fact they have four other starters for the postseason rotation, it makes perfect sense for Adam Warren to be on the wildcard game roster and ready for middle innings work. He is currently stretched out to 80+ pitches and lined up to start Friday, which means he’ll be on three days’ rest for the wildcard game. The Yankees could always cut Friday’s start short — say three innings or 50 pitches, something like that — to make sure Warren is fresh for Tuesday. Unless someone gets hurt and Warren has to remain in the postseason rotation, I expect him to be on the wildcard game roster. He’s too good not be in the bullpen for that game. So five of the ten or eleven pitching spots are claimed.

Whither Shreve?

Considering how well he pitched for most of the season, it’s hard to believe Chasen Shreve‘s postseason roster spot is now in question. He’s been that bad in recent weeks. Girardi has already reduced his high-leverage work, so Shreve’s falling out of favor. Once the Yankees clinch, Girardi and the Yankees absolutely should use Shreve as much as possible these last few regular season games to try to get him sorted out, and those last few outings could easily determine his wildcard roster fate. Right now, given his overall body of work, my guess is he’s on the roster.

The Extra Starters

Tanaka is going to start the wildcard game but it would also make sense to carry an extra starter or two in the bullpen, at the very least to serve as a long relief option in case things get crazy in extra innings. As I said, Sabathia would be on full rest for the wildcard game and could serve as the extra starter. Ivan Nova is another candidate — he started Monday and probably won’t start again during the regular season — but I think it’s more likely Nova starts Saturday or Sunday, leaving Severino or Pineda available for the wildcard game. I have a hard time thinking Nova will be on the wildcard game roster, but I guess it’s possible. Do the Yankees need one or two extra starters? I guess that depends how the rest of the roster shakes out. For now I’m thinking Sabathia and another starter will be in the wildcard game bullpen.

The Rest of the Rest

Assuming Warren, Shreve, and two spare starters are on the wild card roster, the Yankees still have two or three pitching spots to fill to get their staff up to ten or eleven. They have no shortage of candidates, that’s for sure. Andrew Bailey, James Pazos, Branden Pinder, Nick Rumbelow, Chris Capuano, Bryan Mitchell, Chris Martin, Caleb Cotham, and Nick Goody are all on the active roster at the moment. Those last two or three arms will come from that group.

Process of elimination: Goody is out because he’s barely pitched in September, making only two appearances. He seems to be at the very bottom of the Triple-A reliever depth chart. Martin is basically one rung higher — he’s made five appearances this month and three lasted one out. He’s out too. Mitchell looked pretty sharp in short relief earlier this season but has not been all that effective since taking the line drive to the face. Can’t afford to risk his wildness in a winner-take-all game. He’s out.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

That leaves Bailey, Pazos, Pinder, Rumbelow, Capuano, and Cotham. Bailey is a Proven Veteran™ who Girardi has tried to squeeze into some tight spots of late. Sometimes it’s worked (last Friday against the White Sox), sometimes it hasn’t (last Wednesday in Toronto). Pazos and Capuano are lefties, and I thought it was interesting Capuano was used in a true left-on-left matchup situation Monday night (he struck out both batters). He warmed up again for a similar spot last night, but did not enter the game. Pazos has been okay — lefties are 2-for-7 with a walk against him this month — but not great. The next few days could be telling. If we see Capuano get more lefty specialist work, he’ll probably be the guy.

Out of all the guys on the bullpen shuttle, Pinder has spent the most time on the big league roster this year while both Rumbelow and Cotham seemed to get chances to grab hold of a middle relief spot at various points. Neither really did. Both have shown flashes of being useful. Flashes shouldn’t be enough to get them on the wildcard roster though. Right now, I believe both Bailey and Capuano will make the wildcard roster with the caveat that Capuano could get smacked around in the coming days and lose his spot. In that case I think they’d take Pazos as the emergency lefty specialist.

The mechanics of getting Bailey on the roster are simple. He was in the organization before August 31st, so he’s postseason eligible, but he didn’t get called up until September 1st. That means he has to be an injury replacement. The Yankees have three pitching injury spots to play with: Chase Whitley, Sergio Santos, and Diego Moreno. (The injury replacements have to be pitcher for pitcher, position player for position player. No mixing and matching.) Whitley and Santos had Tommy John surgery while Moreno had bone spurs taken out of his elbow. Bailey replaces one of them. Pazos would get one of the other two spots if he makes the roster.

Nathan Eovaldi (elbow) is in the middle of a throwing program but has already been ruled out for the wildcard game. The hope is he can join the bullpen should the Yankees advance to the ALDS. Probably should have mentioned that earlier. Anyway, so after all of that, here’s my ten-man pitching staff guesstimate for the wildcard game:

Righties
Bailey
Betances
Nova (or Severino or Pineda)
Tanaka (starter)
Warren

Lefties
Capuano
Miller
Wilson
Sabathia
Shreve

That might be it right there. The Yankees don’t have to carry an 11th pitcher. Ten is plenty — especially since both Sabathia and Nova/Severino/Pineda would be available for super long relief — and is right in line with the previous 12 wild card teams. If they do carry an 11th reliever, I think it would be a righty just to even things out. So … Cotham? Girardi has used him in some big-ish situations of late. Either way, the 11th pitcher’s role on the wildcard roster would be what, 25th inning guy?

The ten-man pitching staff includes Tanaka (the starter) and two extra starters for long relief purposes, giving Girardi a normal seven-man bullpen. For one individual game, that should be plenty. The pitching game plan is pretty simple too, right? Get at least five innings from Tanaka, then turn it over to Wilson, Betances, and Miller. Warren is the next “trusted” reliever. If Girardi has to start dipping into guys like Capuano or Bailey or Shreve, something’s gone wrong.

Yankees now have the flexibility to line Masahiro Tanaka up for wildcard game

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last night Ivan Nova, not Masahiro Tanaka, started the Yankees’ series finale against the Blue Jays. Tanaka suffered a Grade I right hamstring strain running the bases last Friday, and although he said he could have started last night, the Yankees played it safe. “I can’t say 100 percent, but I believe he will (make his next start),” said Brian Cashman to George King earlier this week. “He felt he could have pitched Wednesday.”

The Yankees are 3.5 games back of the Blue Jays in the AL East following last night’s loss (three in the loss column), and there are only eleven games remaining in the regular season. Catching (and passing) Toronto is not impossible, just very unlikely. FanGraphs puts New York’s odds of winning the division at a mere 6.2%, and those odds have taken an embarrassing tumble over the last few weeks:

ALE odds 092315

Sheesh. This just completed series in Toronto was the Yankees’ big chance to climb back into the AL East race and they didn’t take advantage. So it goes. The Blue Jays are the better team and they deserve the division title. That’s been made abundantly clear over the last few weeks.

The Yankees remain a postseason caliber team, however. They’re four games up on the Astros for the top wildcard spot (five in the loss column) and five games up on the Twins for a wildcard spot in general (also five in the loss column). The magic number to clinch a playoff spot is a mere seven. Even if the Yankees go 5-6 in their last eleven games, the Twins need to go 11-1 just to tie and force a Game 163 tiebreaker. Again, it’s not impossible, just really unlikely.

With the division title looking out of reach, the Yankees now have to focus on lining Tanaka up to start the wildcard game, assuming the hamstring is healthy, of course. The injury doesn’t seem like it will be a lingering issue — Tanaka will have a check-up today, then the Yankees will reportedly decide when to re-insert him into the rotation — but who knows with hamstrings. Hopefully Tanaka is back out there soon. It would be very bad if he wasn’t. He’s their most reliable starter by a mile.

Tanaka’s temporary hiatus does give the Yankees the freedom to re-insert him into the rotation whenever it is most convenient with regards to the wildcard game. The AL wildcard game is scheduled for Tuesday, October 6th, and given the way they’ve operated all season, I’m guessing the Yankees will want Tanaka to make that start with an extra day of rest. The numbers say he’s better on regular rest, but finding the extra day has been the priority all year.

Working backwards from the wildcard game, here’s what Tanaka’s schedule would look like with one extra day of rest for each start:

Thursday, September 24th vs. White Sox
Wednesday, September 30th vs. Red Sox
Tuesday, October 6th in wildcard game

So Tanaka would have to start tonight if the Yankees want to line him up for the wildcard game with an extra day of rest before each start. Obviously that won’t happen. He’s not pitching tonight. The Yankees could always “skip” tonight’s start against the White Sox and instead give Tanaka some extra time to let the hamstring heal, roll him out there against the Red Sox next Wednesday as a tune-up, then head into the wildcard game. That’s an option too.

Starting Tanaka on regular rest is another option and the Yankees have been more willing to do that down the stretch — he’s made his last two and three of his last four starts on normal rest after doing it just twice in his first 19 starts. Besides, Tanaka’s getting extra rest right now, right? The hamstring injury is giving him a little bit of a breather. An unintended breather, but a breather nonetheless. He might not need extra rest after this.

So again, working backwards from the wildcard game, here’s how Tanaka’s end-of-season schedule would shake out with each start coming on normal rest:

Saturday, September 26th vs. White Sox
Thursday, October 1st vs. Red Sox
Tuesday, October 6th in wildcard game

Of course, the Yankees could also let Tanaka make one start on extra rest and the other on normal rest. They’ve have to start Tanaka against the White Sox tomorrow to make that happen, then either start him next Wednesday (normal rest) or Thursday (extra rest) to line him up for the wildcard game.

The hamstring might dictate the team’s course of action down the stretch. My guess is the Yankees will want Tanaka to have extra rest at some point, either before his final regular season start or the wildcard game. He’d have to start tomorrow to make that possible. (Either that or Tanaka only makes one more regular season start, not two.) Will the hamstring allow that? The injury sounds minor but who knows. The last thing the Yankees need is Tanaka re-aggravating the injury and being unable to start the wildcard game.

Realistically, the Yankees have to focus on the wildcard game now. No, they’re not mathematically eliminated from the AL East yet, but a 3.5-game deficit with eleven to play is damn near impossible to make up. This series in Toronto was their best chance to get back into the race and it didn’t happen. So be it. Lining Tanaka up for the wildcard game is a priority now, and as long as the hamstring issue isn’t serious, the Yankees will be able to give him as much or as little rest as they want leading into the play-in game.

Sabathia is the right man at the right time for the Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

There were times earlier this season when you couldn’t help but wonder how CC Sabathia would ever get another out. He struggled not only in the first half of this season, but dating back to the start of the 2013 season. All those innings and an arthritic landing knee were starting to catch up to Sabathia in his mid-30s. Father Time, as they say, is undefeated.

Sabathia’s knee gave out last month, and you knew it was bad when he removed himself from the game without even lobbying to stay in or attempting a test pitch. This is a guy who pitched the Yankees to a division title with a bone spur in his elbow in 2012. He suffered a Grade II hamstring strain in September 2013 and finished the start. I can’t imagine how much knee pain he’s dealt with over the years. Sabathia’s performance has declined. His toughness? Never. He’s a warrior.

The knee injury was potentially season-ending — both Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman admitted as much after the big lefty went for tests — but Sabathia never though about it that way. “No matter what, I was coming back. For sure,” he said to reporters following Sunday’s win over the Mets. As poorly as he’d pitched earlier this season, the Yankees needed Sabathia back too. Nathan Eovaldi landed on the DL and Ivan Nova pitched his way out of the rotation. They needed someone to help. Anyone.

That someone, as it turns out, is Sabathia. Since returning from the DL, Sabathia has allowed two earned runs in 17.1 innings across three starts, holding opponents to a .190/.292/.254 batting line. Three starts is three starts, we know better than to make too much out of that, but those three starts count. They’re in the bank. They helped the Yankees win games and improve their spot in the standings. Those three starts have had a real, tangible benefit.

The arthritic knee is severe enough that Sabathia admitted he will one day need knee replacement surgery — “Eventually, but that’s the price you pay,” he said to Barry Bloom — and right now he’s managing the condition with a new, clunkier knee brace. Before he was wearing more of a sleeve during his starts. Now it’s an actual brace that prevents (or limits, at least) bone-on-bone contact each time he throws a pitch.

“I think I needed the rest,” said Sabathia to Chad Jennings following Sunday’s game when asked about the knee injury and the new brace. “Obviously the brace has been helping. Just a few adjustments we made in the rehab, and I’ve been feeling pretty good, so hopefully I can keep that up … I don’t have to worry about every pitch. Or this pitch, if I’m trying to go in, if that’s going to hurt. I can just go out and throw my game and not have to worry about it.”

Sabathia pitched well in the handful of starts prior to his knee injury — he actually has a 2.56 ERA (3.69 FIP) in his last seven starts and 38.2 innings — though he admitted he stopped trying to protect the knee and decided to air it out before getting hurt. It worked for a while, his fastball velocity jumped a tick …

CC Sabathia velocity

… but eventually the knee acted up. I don’t know if Sabathia is airing it out with the new knee brace now — if he is, it isn’t showing up in his velocity, just look at the graph — but I’ve always felt location was his biggest issue the last few years, not raw velocity. Oh sure, there’s a big difference between 93-95 and 88-91, but whenever Sabathia got burned, it was because he missed his spot and left a pitch out over the plate.

With a 93-95 mph fastball, you can get away with some of those mistakes over the plate. That’s the advantage of velocity. More margin for error. That isn’t the case with 88-91 mph though, and Sabathia was paying for it dearly whenever he made a mistake. Since coming off the DL, those mistakes have been more infrequent. Here are Sabathia’s pitch locations in his last three starts (via Baseball Savant):

CC Sabathia pitch locations

The fastballs are bunched on the edges of the strike zone with much fewer in the middle of the zone. (Interestingly, it appears Sabathia uses his four-seamer to the gloveside and sinker to the armside.) At this stage of his career, that’s where Sabathia needs to live. On the edges of the zone. New knee brace or not, he really doesn’t have the raw velocity to pitch over the plate anymore.

If the new knee brace is allowing Sabathia to pitch pain-free (or even with reduced pain) and better maintain his mechanics, his recent performance might actually be sustainable and not a blip. (Alec Dopp wrote more about this yesterday.) He’s probably not a true talent sub-3.00 ERA guy — he wasn’t that in his prime, after all — but he could be better than what he was earlier this season. Even league average Sabathia would be huge at this point. That would be a major upgrade over what he’d been doing since the start of 2013.

Regardless of whether the new knee brace has led to tangible improvement or this is all just a dumb luck hot streak, Sabathia has stepped up of late and is now helping the Yankees get to the postseason. He’s the right man to help the rotation too. Sabathia’s a Grade-A competitor who cares so deeply about his teammates — “I think if anybody knows me, it hurts me more to let the team down than for myself,” he said to Wally Matthews — and has been through the late-season wars before. He knows what it takes to be ace, to bear the responsibility of being The Man. CC is the right man to give the staff a lift.

“I’ve always said that he’s important to us,” said Girardi to Jennings. “Because he’s been through this, and he’s a competitor. I’ve said, I didn’t think we were going to get him back, when he left that game. I really didn’t. But he did, and he’s important to us.”