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.

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.