The Primary Back-Ups [2017 Season Review]

Romine. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Romine. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

If you would’ve told me that the Yankees would spend most of April with both Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius on the disabled list, I would have been shocked to learn that they were arguably the best team in baseball in the first month of the season. And, amazingly enough, that was the case. That was largely due to Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, Starlin Castro, Chase Headley, and Matt Holliday tearing the cover off of the ball for those four weeks – but Austin Romine and Ronald Torreyes did their part, too.

Austin Romine

Gary Sanchez left the game after straining his right bicep on April 8, and ended up spending twenty-one games on the disabled list. Romine was pressed into full-time duty as a result, and he did just about as well as one could expect. He slashed .281/.314/.406 (88 wRC+) with a couple of home runs while Sanchez was out, and garnered praise for his defense and handling of the pitching staff; whether or not that was earned is another story, of course. But I digress.

Romine was relegated to the bench when Sanchez returned, and his offense slipped dramatically in the more sporadic role. He hit just .194/.256/.248 (34 wRC+) in 182 PA the rest of the way, failing to go deep even once. Romine ended the season with a .218/.272/.293 slash line, and his 49 wRC+ and -0.6 fWAR were tied for the worst among the forty-nine catchers that amassed at least 200 PA. That didn’t stop some from calling for him to be the starting catcher, though, given Sanchez’s defensive woes and Romine’s reputation as a stout defender.

Is that reputation fair, though?

Baseball Prospectus breaks down catching into several categories, including framing runs, blocking runs, and throwing runs. Romine’s struggles with the running game are well-known, so it is no surprise to see that he was worth -1.2 throwing runs. However, he was also a negative in terms of blocking the ball in the dirt, as evidenced by his -0.3 blocking runs – and that’s a trend that has followed him from Triple-A to the majors. In reality, framing is Romine’s only real strength; and, as valuable as that is (he picked-up 4.1 runs last year, which is a borderline elite mark when adjusting for playing time), framing alone does not make a great catcher.

The ability to handle a pitching staff is kind of a nebulous quality. Pitch framing is a portion of that, as is calling the game – but the latter is all but impossible to measure. One factor that people tend to bring up in that regard is catcher ERA, flawed as that may be. For what it’s worth, Romine sported a 4.23 CERA last year, as compared to 3.45 for Sanchez.

All that being said – would it be an exaggeration to say that the most memorable aspect of his season was the punches he threw in August’s brawl against the Tigers?

Torreyes, apparently in a John Woo film. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Torreyes, apparently in a John Woo film. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Ronald Torreyes

Unlike Romine, Torreyes opened the season knowing that he would be starting for a stretch. Gregorius opened the season on the disabled list following a shoulder injury in the WBC, and Torreyes was in the lineup on Opening Day. He started 18 of the 20 games that Gregorius missed, batting .308/.308/.431 (93 wRC+) with a home run in 65 PA. He didn’t take a walk in that entire stretch, swinging at 61.9% of pitches along the way; for comparison’s sake, the league-average swing rate is 46.5%.

Torreyes moved back to the bench when Gregorius returned, but he ended up starting an additional 67 games the rest of the way, most of which came at second base while Castro was on the mend. And he did his best work at the keystone, slashing .327/.353/.426 (107 wRC+) in 177 PA while starting there. It’s difficult to take much, if anything, away from that – but most players do perform better with more consistent playing time. Torreyes has a limited ceiling on offense, to be sure, but he rose to the occasion with the Yankees needed him to start for an injured teammate.

He ended the season with a .292/.314/.375 (82 wRC+) slash line in 336 PA.

The defensive metrics all paint Torreyes as somewhere around average at second, third, and short, and that’s perfectly acceptable for a utility player. It’s difficult to fully trust the numbers, given the sample sizes, but that matches the eye test, as well. He’s a bit miscast as a full-time shortstop, but he’s far from an embarrassment there.

And who can forget the TOE-Night Show?

2018 Outlook

Austin Romine will be heading through arbitration for the second time, and MLBTR projects a $1.2 MM salary. I suspect that the Yankees will be looking to replace him this off-season in an effort to add a back-up that moves the needle in one way or the other, be it someone with a solid bat that can DH in a pinch (maybe Alex Avila), or one that is a legitimately strong defensive presence. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was in the organization on Opening Day, but that almost certainly isn’t the team’s plan.

And Torreyes may well be a lock to stick with the team for the time being. He can hit a little and play decent defense at the non-1B infield positions, and he’s still pre-arbitration. There might be upgrades available, but I don’t think the team will look to add salary for a position (or positions) that could be filled by Gleyber Torres. Torreyes’ time with the Yankees might be limited once the season begins, though.

The Many Walks of Dellin Betances [2017 Season Review]

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

As is often the case, the Yankees remade their bullpen during the course of the 2017 season. They traded for David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle, and Chad Green also emerged as a trusted setup man. It happens every single year. The bullpen going into the postseason never looks like the Opening Day bullpen. That’s baseball.

Over the last four seasons Dellin Betances has been the one constant in New York’s bullpen. Closers came and went and middle relievers came and went a lot more, yet Betances remained. He led all relievers in innings (247) and strikeouts (392) from 2014-16, and ranked third in WAR (+8.6). Dellin was among the very best of the best.

This season Betances was pushed out of the Circle of Trust™ or, rather, he pushed himself out of the Circle of Trust™ by walking way too many hitters. He threw 59.2 innings with a 2.87 ERA (3.23 FIP) and 38.3% strikeouts this year, numbers that are objectively great. Now here is the bottom of the walk rate leaderboard among the 355 pitchers to throw at least 50 innings in 2017:

350. Justin Wilson: 14.1%
351. Alex Meyer: 14.4%
352. Tyler Glasnow: 14.4%
353. Carl Edwards Jr.: 14.5%
354. Adam Ottavino: 16.1%
355. Dellin Betances: 16.9%

Dead last. Highest walk rate in baseball. Betances walked 44 batters in those 59.2 innings and, to further exacerbate things, he also hit eleven batters. Only six pitchers hit more batters then Betances this year and all six are starters. Between the walks and hit batsmen, that’s 55 free baserunners in 59.2 innings. Brutal. Let’s review Dellin’s season.

An All-Star First Half

Betances was an All-Star this season! And deservedly so. In his first 26 appearances and 24.1 innings of the year, Betances pitched to a 1.11 ERA (1.35 FIP) with 46 strikeouts. He allowed an earned run on April 8th, in his second appearance of the season, and he didn’t allow another one until June 22nd, in his 25th appearance of the season. It was typical Betances. He even threw an Immaculate Inning along the way. Nine pitches, nine strikes, three strikeouts.

There’s no one else in baseball quite like Good Betances. He’s so big and he throws so hard, and he has that wicked breaking ball to go with it. I don’t know how anyone ever gets a hit off this guy.

Aroldis Chapman missed a month with a shoulder injury in the first half and, while he was sidelined, Betances stepped in as closer and went 6-for-6 in save chances. Usually I worry Dellin pitches too much. When he was married to the ninth inning, the problem was he didn’t pitch enough. At one point Betances made four appearances in the span of 24 days. A few too many times he sat in the bullpen being held back for the save situation while the wholly ineffective Tyler Clippard coughed things up. It was: annoying.

Betances is the only reliever selected to each of the last four All-Star Games and one of only four pitchers overall who can make that claim. Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Dellin Betances. Basically the three best starters in the world and Betances. It would be wrong to say Dellin was bad all season. He was lights out in the first half and he earned that All-Star Game selection.

A Walk-Filled Second Half

The walk problems first surfaced in early July, right before the All-Star break, when Betances walked eleven of 22 batters faced across a five-appearance span. Then he settled back down and walked only seven of the next 78 batters he faced, which spanned 20 appearances. It appeared those extreme walk problems were only temporary.

Chapman lost the closer’s job due to ineffectiveness in late August and Betances again stepped in to close, not Robertson. He nailed down his first four save opportunities, but in the fifth, Dellin walked the generally un-walk-able Tim Beckham with two outs, then hung a curveball Manny Machado swatted for a walk-off homer.

That was pretty bad. It was also the end of Betances’ time as closer. Chapman resumed ninth inning duty and Betances was relegated to mop-up duty. Joe Girardi would pick and choose his spots, though often had a short leash. Two batters was the standard leash. After the walk-off homer, Betances walked six batters in his final seven innings of the season.

Understandably, Girardi had an extremely short leash with Betances in the postseason. He was pretty great in Game One of the ALDS (three up, three down, three strikeouts) and again in Game Two of the ALDS, at least in his first two innings of work. He retired the first six men he faced before the Indians scored in his third inning of work, when he was looking a little run down. Betances was pulled after two walks in ALDS Game Four and again after two walks in ALCS Game Three. He wasn’t the very last guy in the bullpen, but he was close.

As the season progressed and it was clear Betances was having trouble throwing strikes, opponents took a very simple approach against him. They didn’t swing. Microphones even caught Bryce Harper during the All-Star Game saying there is no need to swing against Betances. Opponents bet that he couldn’t throw three strikes before he threw four balls, and if he did, it meant he was locked in and they wouldn’t hit him anyway. A graph:

dellin-betances-swing-rate

Just don’t swing. And the weird thing? Betances threw (slightly) more pitches in the zone as the season progressed. His season 46.4% zone rate was exactly league average. The MLB average was 46.4% pitches in the zone this year. Exactly league average.

That’s an average though, and Dellin’s walk problems seemed to come and go on a game-by-game basis. One day he’d struggle to get the ball even close to the plate, then next time out he’d pump strikes and dominate. The bad days were very bad. There were still good days mixed in though. That’s part of what made it so frustrating. Betances would still go out once or twice a week and look like the best reliever in baseball.

With Betances, this is all mechanical. He has a very long history of control problems. In 2012, the year before the Yankees decided to move him to the bullpen, Betances walked 99 batters and 15.7% of batters faced in 131.1 minor league innings. His career minor league walk rate is 12.3%. It’s not like this is a control artist who suddenly lost the plate. This is a guy with a history of control problems having control problems.

Betances being untrustworthy absolutely had an impact in the postseason. Girardi had lean on Robertson more than I think he would’ve liked, ditto Green and Kahnle. Good Betances could’ve taken some innings away from those guys, and who knows how things play out? Then again, the Yankees couldn’t score a run in Houston to save their lives, and to me that caused their ALCS downfall. Not an overworked setup crew. Whatever. Bottom line, Betances walked too many guys this season. Way, way too many guys, and it hurt the Yankees in multiple ways.

2018 Outlook

I would be surprised if the Yankees traded Betances this offseason. Brian Cashman is not one to sell low, and Dellin’s trade value is the lowest it’s been since his 2014 rookie season. The walk problems were extreme this year and he’s also making good money through arbitration. A walk prone non-closer reliever who is making something close to closer money and is two years from free agency won’t generate a huge return.

The Yankees figure to keep Betances and try to rebuild him, both his mechanics and his confidence, which is something they’ve had to do before in the minors. Now they have to do it in the big leagues. The Yankees are in position to go into next season with Dellin as the sixth reliever in their seventh man bullpen, so it’s not like they’ll need him to soak up high-leverage innings from the get-go. They can work to get him back to form, and that’s the goal. Get the Good Betances back.

The Stopgap Third Baseman [2017 Season Review]

(Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
(Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

The Yankees acquisition of Todd Frazier served as a reminder of just how quickly Brian Cashman works. Jon Heyman reported that the team was interested in Frazier (and David Robertson) on July 16, and Frazier (and Robertson and Tommy Kahnle) were acquired less than forty-eight hours later. In the grand scheme of things, it was the move that signaled that the Yankees would be buyers this year, filling the gaping void at first base and doubling-down on a dominant bullpen – and it worked out quite well.

Who Said Anything About First Base?

A revolving door at first and a seemingly endless stream of rumors demonstrated just how unsettled the Yankees infield was well into July, and Frazier’s name had popped-up in that respect more than a few times. Most every outlet viewed his acquisition as a move made to stabilize first base, but it only did so in a roundabout way, as Frazier did not play a single inning there for the Yankees. Instead, he took over as the starting third baseman, with Chase Headley and his questionable-at-best defense moving across the diamond.

It shouldn’t have come as a shock that Frazier manned third base, though. Headley had been a poor defender at the position more often than not as a Yankee, and this organization has prided itself on strong glovework in recent years. Frazier, on the other hand, has been a strong (albeit occasionally error-prone) third baseman for the better part of his career; to wit, he has a 6.0 UZR/150 and 6.5 DRS/150 in 6900 innings at the position. And he played the part following the trade, saving 6 runs in 539.2 innings by DRS’ reckoning.

He Was Who We Thought He’d Be At The Plate

Frazier was batting .207/.328/.432 (104 wRC+) with 16 HR in 335 PA prior to the trade. That’s not too far off of his 2016 season, wherein he hit .225/.302/.464 (104 wRC+) with 40 HR in 666 PA. He was a useful thumper, to be sure, but not the middle of the order threat that all of those home runs would suggest. It was worth noting, though, that his walk rate had jumped rather dramatically, from 9.6% in 2016 to 14.3% with the White Sox this year, which helped make up for his dip in batting average. Luckily for the Yankees, they didn’t need him to be a big-time run producer – they just needed stability. And he gave them a bit more.

He started out slow following the trade, slashing a powerless .216/.356/.297 (87 wRC+) to close out July. Frazier had just one extra base hit in his first two weeks with the team, and it almost felt like more of the same. His bat was better in August, but still a bit disappointing – he hit .221/.352/.395 (104 wRC+) with 4 HR. The power was coming back, but it was still a tick under what we expected.

And then the calendar flipped to September, and Frazier’s bat came alive. He slashed .225/.385/.521 (139 wRC+) with 6 HR and nearly as many walks (15) as strikeouts (17) in the season’s last month, as he helped the Yankees wrap-up home field advantage in the Wild Card game. He was also the standard-bearer for the team’s love of the thumb’s down celebration, and the de facto cheerleader from the bench down the stretch and throughout the playoffs.

All told, Frazier hit .222/.365/.423 (114 wRC+) with 11 HR in 241 PA in pinstripes.

2018 Outlook

Todd Frazier is a free agent as of this writing, but he has made his interest in returning to the Yankees fairly clear; whether or not the Yankees have room on the roster (and/or payroll) to retain his services is another issue entirely. I would be surprised if Frazier ended up back in pinstripes next year, as the team preps its full-court press for Shohei Otani, and likely hopes to have room on the roster for Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar if and when they are ready for a shot. Stranger things have happened, but I just don’t think Cashman and Co. see it as a fit.

The homer-prone ace with a flourishing finish [2017 Season Review]

ALCS Game 5 (Al Bello/Getty Images)
ALCS Game 5 (Al Bello/Getty Images)

After a strong 2016, it’s hard to argue that Masahiro Tanaka‘s overall numbers in 2017 weren’t disappointing. He pitched to a 4.74 ERA (107 ERA-) and allowed 35 home runs, fourth worst in baseball. Still, with the way he closed out the year, the 29-year-old starter left Yankees fans with a smile on their faces heading into next year.

Flailing in the first half

Tanaka was the perfect example of why spring training means next to nothing. He had arguably the best spring of any pitcher in baseball, then fell flat in first game of the year. He allowed five of the first six batters to reach in Tampa before allowing a pair of homers later in the game. Overall, he lasted just eight outs and gave up seven runs. Yikes.

He picked up his game towards the end of the month, closing his April with a shutout of the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Outdueling Chris Sale, he only struck out three yet never allowed Boston to threaten while inducing plenty of weak contact.

But that wasn’t a sign of things to come. May treated Tanaka poorly. He allowed four runs or more in all but one of his six starts, including six runs or more in three of them. On Derek Jeter Day (and Mother’s Day), he allowed eight runs in 1.2 innings vs. Astros. Luckily, he wouldn’t have to face them again, right?

In a nine-start stretch from May 2 to June 17, he allowed 18 home runs. Yikes. That included four (!) three-homer games. It seemed like every game had a few balls crushed, even at spacious road parks like Oakland-Alameda Coliseum.

Returning from the Yankees’ hellish, mid-June West Coast trip, Tanaka put together a few dominant starts to end first half (not to mention him striking out 18 during two starts on that trip). He matched Yu Darvish out-for-out on June 23, tossing eight shutout innings while striking out nine. He held the Blue Jays to one run in seven innings before a less-than-stellar outing against the Brewers to close the first half with a 5.47 ERA.

Resurgence for #TANAK

But he would only fall so far. Tanaka lowered his ERA in six consecutive starts soon after the break, beginning with a near-perfect start against Tampa Bay in July at home. He hadn’t allowed a baserunner for 5.2 innings before allowing a single to Adeiny Hechavarria. He’d give up a homer to Lucas Duda, but struck out 14 and allowed just the one run in eight innings.

Tanaka held both the Mariners and Red Sox to one run in seven innings in consecutive starts before a clunker in Texas. After see-sawing between great and bad starts in September, he finished his regular season on the highest of notes, striking out a career-high 15 and surrendering just three hits in seven shutout innings against the Blue Jays.

For the season, tanaka struck out a career-best 194 while seeing his velocity increase across the board. His swinging strike rate was easily his best.

(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)

However, his other peripherals (walks/HRs) and his hit rates both worsened en route to a poor regular season. Still, consecutive seasons of 30+ starts for a pitcher with injury concerns is a milestone nonetheless.

A dominant postseason

It’s easy to forget about regular season struggles when you ace your way through the postseason. With the Yankees facing elimination in ALDS Game 3, Tanaka gave them exactly what they needed for seven scoreless innings. He splittered the Indians to death and allowed just four baserunners. He got out of his only jam (started by an Aaron Judge-aided triple) with a pair of strikeouts, including one of Jay Bruce, who had hurt the Yankees significantly in Games 1 and 2. It was just a marvelous outing from the veteran starter.

Tasked with beginning ALCS Game 1, he allowed just five baserunners in six innings, but it wasn’t enough against a dominant Dallas Keuchel. His two runs allowed came on a string of hits in the fifth inning. He went away from his splitter and kept Houston off balance with his four-seamer. Regardless of the defeat, it went a lot better than his start against the same squad in May.

And then there was his Game 5 start. No offense to the Jays or Rays regular season games, or any other Tanaka start for that matter, but this was his best start since coming over from the NPB considering the circumstances. He put the Yankees one game from the World Series and put himself in line for ALCS MVP. Still relying on the fastball, he kept the ball on the ground and struck out eight. Still miss the moments when we could think about him vs. Clayton Kershaw in WS G1.

Side notes

Just a couple things to mention about Tanaka’s season. First, he continued to decrease his straight fastball usage, this year by four percent from 31.6 to 27.6 percent of the time. He upped his slider and cutter usage to make up for it and now throws the slider more often than the four-seamer. He uses his splitter just 1.3 percent less than his four-seam fastball.

Second, his home-road splits were stark. Having better stats at home is common. But for a homer-prone pitcher whose home games take place at Yankee Stadium? It’s surprising that he would have a 3.22 ERA, 112 Ks and 15 homers in 95 innings at home vs. a 6.48 ERA, 82 Ks and 20 homers in 83.1 innings on the road.

Finally, just wanted to mention that Tanaka remains a strong fielder. Pitcher fielding is such a small part of the job that it can be overlooked and he’s never been a finalist for a Gold Glove. However, he is very smooth off the mound and has made just one error in his four years in New York.

2018 Outlook

Figured I’d be writing this with Tanaka as a free agent, but as you likely know, he opted into the final three years of the deal. Three years for $67 million seems like less than he would have received on the open market, so it’s a solid deal for the Yankees. One has to wonder if his camp was worried about his medicals, but his elbow has held up just fine the last three years, so hopefully it will continue to do so for a long while.

Based on his entire tenure in pinstripes, it seems like Tanaka’s poor first half of 2017 is an outlier rather than a harbinger of bad seasons to come. The way he returned to form and then dominated in the postseason displayed the Tanaka we expected out of the spring. And if there was any doubt he could pitch in a big game, this October erased those worries completely.

For next year, Tanaka should be back at the front of the rotation alongside Luis Severino … and maybe Shohei Otani. He remains as homer-prone as ever but has learned to pitch effectively even if he gives up a long ball or two.

The Catcher of the Future becomes the Catcher of the Present [2017 Season Review]

(Abbie Parr/Getty)
(Abbie Parr/Getty)

Because he packed a season’s worth of production into two months last year, it can be a little easy to forget the 2017 season was the first full MLB season of Gary Sanchez‘s career. He usurped Brian McCann as the starting catcher late last year and so convinced the Yankees he was ready for full-time catching duty that they traded McCann over the winter. They didn’t keep the veteran safety net.

Sanchez, who is three weeks away from his 25th birthday, left zero doubt he is not only the catcher of the present for the Yankees, but a centerpiece of their new core. He missed a month with a biceps injury early in 2017 and still hit .278/.345/.531 (130 wRC+) with 33 homers in 122 games. Thirty-three different catchers had at least 300 plate appearances this season. Here are Sanchez’s ranks:

  • AVG: .278 (7th)
  • OBP: .345 (9th)
  • SLG: .531 (2nd behind Kurt Suzuki (?!?))
  • wRC+: 130 (1st)
  • HR: 33 (1st)
  • XBH: 53 (1st)
  • fWAR: +4.4 (1st)
  • bWAR: +4.1 (1st)

At worst, Sanchez has established himself as the best power-hitting catcher in baseball. Only seven players have hit more homers than Sanchez since he was called up for good last August 3rd. That’s among all players, not only catchers. Sanchez missed a month and he’s still hit more homers (53) since last August 3rd than guys like Nolan Arenado (52), Edwin Encarnacion (51), and Kris Bryant (51). He beat Giancarlo Stanton in the first round of the Home Run Derby this year (in Miami)! And that bat drop.

gary-sanchez-bat-drop

At best, Sanchez has established himself as one of the two or three best all-around catchers in baseball. Yes, that includes defense. Buster Posey remains the gold standard among two-way catchers. Sanchez is much closer to challenging him for that title that a lot of people seem to realize. By this time next year, the crown could be he is. Let’s review Gary’s first full big league season.

You Can’t Spell Kraken Without Rake

Coming into the season, I was among those who thought Sanchez had no chance to continue last season’s pace, and he didn’t. Gary put up a .299/.376/.657 (171 wRC+) batting line with 20 homers in only 53 games last year. Doing that again seemed impossible. That isn’t to say I thought Sanchez would be bad. I just didn’t expect him to be that good again. And he wasn’t. But he was still great!

What impressed me most about Sanchez this year was how, in four of his five healthy months, he was dominant offensively. And I mean dominant. Not pretty good or a tick above average. Gary was a force pretty much all season aside from a July swoon. His month-by-month splits:

  • April: .150/.190/.300 (23 wRC+) in five games before the injury
  • May: .293/.398/.440 (130 wRC+)
  • June: .307/.390/.659 (175 wRC+)
  • July: .231/.273/.396 (69 wRC+)
  • August: .287/.347/.648 (157 wRC+)
  • September: .303/.354/.528 (134 wRC+)

At one point in August, when most catchers are starting to wear down a bit in the dog days of summer, Sanchez swatted nine homers in the span of 12 games, including the second longest home run in baseball in 2017, a 493-foot moonshoot at Comerica Park. He started 117 total games between catcher and DH and only 24 times did he fail to reach base.

High-leverage situations? Sanchez hit .390/.422/.561 (162 wRC+). Men in scoring position? He hit .281/.356/.477 (118 wRC+). Gary’s go-ahead two-run double in Game Four of the ALCS is on the short list of the biggest hits of the season. It certainly felt like the biggest at the time.

The only real knock against Sanchez offensively — well, aside from his total lack of baserunning value, which comes with the territory with catchers — is that he tends to get a little pull happy and expand the zone. There’s nothing wrong with being a pull hitter! Pulling the ball has such a stigma attached to it these days because of the shift. All batters hit the ball the hardest when the pull it. That’s okay.

Sanchez led all qualified hitters in pull rate (51.6%) this season — Carlos Santana (51.4%), Brian Dozier (50.4%), and Rougned Odor (50.3%) were the only other hitters with a pull rate over 50% in 2017 — and when he struggles, it’s almost always because he gets pull happy and starts chasing everything. His swing rate on pitches out of the zone gradually increased as the season progressed, even as pitchers threw him fewer pitches in the zone.

gary-sanchez-plate-discipline

On one hand, that seems bad. Pitchers threw fewer pitches in the zone as the season progressed and Sanchez chased more and more. On the other hand, Sanchez raked in August and September, so maybe it’s not that big a deal? Gary is certainly capable of going the other way. Look at the video of the ALCS Game Four double again. He split the right-center field gap. Sanchez also homered to right field in Game Four of the ALDS.

Again, this was Gary’s first full big league season, the first time he went threw the league multiple times and the first time he had pitchers adjust to him and had to adjust back. His strikeout (22.9%) and walk (7.6%) rates certainly weren’t unwieldy. Sanchez is just a young hitter who has to learn when to stop being so pull happy. There’s nothing wrong with being a pull hitter and I wouldn’t try to change anything. What Gary is doing works, so keep doing it. As he gains experience and figures out how pitchers are attacking him, he’ll be even more dangerous.

Throwing & Framing

We all know Sanchez can hit. He’s a great hitter regardless of position and an elite hitter for a catcher. His defense is quite divisive, however. Everyone agrees he’s a great thrower, right? Right. Sanchez threw out 23 of 60 basestealers this season, or 38%. The league average is 27%. Remember when he threw out Brock Holt with a one-run lead in the ninth inning on August 19th? It was flawless.

Only Tucker Barnhart (44%), Yan Gomes (42%), and Martin Maldonado (39%) threw out basestealers at a higher rate than Sanchez among the 17 catchers with at least 800 innings caught this year. And it’s not only that Sanchez threw out a high percentage of basestealers this year. His arm is so good teams don’t even try running against him. The stolen base attempt leaderboard:

  1. Cardinals: 86 (Yadier Molina)
  2. Indians: 87 (Gomes)
  3. Yankees: 91 (Yo Soy Gary)

And that’s with Sanchez missing a month and Austin Romine‘s miserable throwing arm — Romine threw out only 10% (!) of basestealers in 2017 — filling in as the starter for a month. As long as Gary stays on the field, teams may attempt fewer steals against the Yankees next season than any other team. His arm is that good. Teams don’t even bother testing him much of the time.

There is more to catcher defense than throwing out basestealers, obviously. Sanchez was either comfortably above-average or comfortably below-average at pitch-framing this season, depending who you ask.

Hmmm. I trust Baseball Prospectus more only because I know more about their methodology, though I was surprised to see Sanchez rated so well at pitch-framing. He ranks 19th among all catchers. That isn’t to say I thought Sanchez was a bad framer. Bad framers stick out like a sore thumb. Those dudes are easy to spot. I thought Gary was closer to average based on the eye test, which is what you get when you average out Baseball Prospectus and StatCorner.

Let’s Talk About The Passed Balls

Now let’s get to the elephant in the room. Sanchez’s blocking was so bad at one point this season — Gary allowed five passed balls in a 12-game span in late-July/early-August — that the usually protective Joe Girardi called him out publicly. He never does that. Sanchez allowed a passed ball that let a run score in a loss to the Indians, and afterwards Girardi called him out.

“He needs to improve. Bottom line,” said Girardi after the game. “I don’t have a problem with his effort, but sometimes he shows his frustrations … He’s late getting down. That’s what I see sometimes, and it’s something we’ve been working on and we continue to work on. He’s capable of doing a better job.”

Not only did Girardi call Sanchez out, he benched him him for a few days, and he did it in such a way that got the message across without hurting the team. Gary sat the day after the passed ball, which was a day game after a night game, meaning he was probably going to sit anyway. The next day was an off-day, then the next day he was the DH. That’s three days away from catching but only one day out of the lineup, a day he was going to sit anyway.

Did the benching work? Only Sanchez can answer that. What we do know is that before the benching, Sanchez allowed 12 passed balls in 59 games, or one every 4.9 games. After the benching, he allowed four passed balls in 40 games, or one every ten games. Big improvement! I thought Gary’s best defensive stretch of the season came during the playoffs, particularly when he blocked the hell out of Masahiro Tanaka‘s splitters in Game Three of the ALDS.

Sanchez led all catchers with 16 passed balls — and he missed a month, remember — and his 53 wild pitches allowed were second most in baseball. I know wild pitches are, by definition, the pitcher’s fault, but an awful lot of passed balls and wild pitches are tough to define. It’s not clear whose fault it is. Surely some of those 53 wild pitches were on Sanchez. Either way, Gary let a lot of pitches get by him this year.

All told this season, 110 different players caught a game in the big leagues. Here is the bottom of the leaderboard of Baseball Prospectus’ catcher blocking metric:

106. Jonathan Lucroy: -2.3 runs
107. Mike Zunino: -2.6 runs
108. Gary Sanchez: -2.6 runs
109. James McCann: -2.8 runs
110. Wilson Ramos: -3.2 runs

Yep, bottom of the league. To be fair, the Yankees do not have the easiest pitching staff to catch. Sanchez (and Romine) had to contend with Tanaka’s splitters in the dirt, Sonny Gray and Jaime Garcia throwing nothing straight, David Robertson spiking curveballs, Dellin Betances having no idea where the ball is going most of the time, so on and so forth. According to Statcast, only four teams threw a higher percentage of pitches in the dirt than the Yankees this year.

Now, that said, there were many blockable pitches along the way that Sanchez did not block. And given the nature of blocking pitches in the dirt, it’s so very easy to blame them on Gary being lazy, and I hate that. He gets called lazy because he’s from the Dominican Republic and that garbage stereotype exists in baseball. I hate questioning effort level and the only time I do it is when it is particularly egregious. Andruw Jones jogging after balls in the gap in 2012 is the best recent example I can come up with of a Yankee straight up dogging it.

Sanchez, more than anything, has to improve his blocking technique. He has to better anticipate pitches in the dirt, get down quicker, and get himself square to the ball. Gary can do it! I know he can. He’s already come a very long way defensively in his career. Catching is hard, man. Especially for young catchers. Almost all of them struggle when they first get to the big leagues. Most struggle at the plate. Sanchez has struggled behind it.

And you know what? Even if Sanchez never improves his blocking and is among the league leaders in passed balls year after year after year, under no circumstances should the Yankees move Gary out from behind the plate. He’s a great thrower and at least an adequate framer, and of course his bat is elite for the position. Move him to first base or DH and he’s merely above-average. At catcher, he’s a cornerstone type. Keep him there. Keep him there keep him there keep him there. Keep him there.

2018 Outlook

Sanchez was outstanding this season. Yes, his blocking stunk, and no, he was not as good as he was during his 2016 cameo, but he was excellent overall. On the very short list of the best catchers in baseball, truly. There is no question the Yankees will go into next season with Sanchez as the starting catcher and a middle of the order hitter. He is the team’s best and most important hitter aside from Aaron Judge. I think he is their most indispensable player. The drop off from Sanchez to his replacement is greater than the drop off at any other position, I believe.

And here’s the thing: I think Sanchez is going to get better. I think there’s room for growth in his game, both offensively and defensively, and I think he’ll make those improvements as he gains experience. I expect Gary to become a better hitter once he understands what pitchers are trying to do to him and that getting so pull happy can be a detriment, and I think his blocking will improve too. Even with the blocking issues, Sanchez is a franchise catcher, and as good as he was in 2017, the talent is there for him to be even better. I believe it.

The King of Soft Contact [2017 Season Review]

(Gregory Shamus/Getty)
(Gregory Shamus/Getty)

It’s hard to believe CC Sabathia‘s time with the Yankees may very well be over. The 2017 season was the final guaranteed year on Sabathia’s contract — well, it was the vesting option year, not a guaranteed contract year — and he is currently a free agent able to sign with the highest bidder at a moment’s notice.

The Yankees won a World Series and were never truly bad during Sabathia’s nine years in pinstripes. Their worst season was 84 wins and, really, that’s not that bad. The leaderboard among Yankees pitchers from 2009-17:

  1. CC Sabathia: +28.4 WAR
  2. Masahiro Tanaka: +12.8 WAR
  3. David Robertson: +12.4 WAR
  4. Hiroki Kuroda: +12.0 WAR
  5. Mariano Rivera: +12.0 WAR

Even with the lean years from 2013-15, Sabathia has been far and away the Yankees’ best and most reliable pitcher the last nine years, and their best pitcher since peak Mike Mussina. The Yankees gave him a seven-year contract worth $161M back in the day, then essentially tacked on two years and $50M. Sabathia provided the team with $212.8M in production in exchange for that $211M in salary, per FanGraphs’ calculations. That doesn’t include the financial windfall the Yankees received following the 2009 World Series title, to which Sabathia contributed greatly.

Following those lean years from 2013-15, the now 37-year-old Sabathia reinvented himself as a cutter pitcher in 2016, and he used the same approach in 2017. His 2016 and 2017 seasons were shockingly similar on a rate basis:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9
2016 179.2 3.91 4.28 19.8% 8.5% 50.1% 1.10
2017 148.2 3.69 4.49 19.3% 8.0% 49.9% 1.27

Sabathia allowed a few more home runs in 2017 than 2016 because, well, everyone gave up more home runs in 2017 than 2016. Despite the increase in homers, Sabathia was able to lower his ERA this year because he had more success pitching out of jams — his strand rate went from 75.7% in 2016 to 79.0% in 2017 — and also because Joe Girardi had a quicker hook. Remember how many times he left Sabathia in only to watch him allow runs in his final inning last year? That didn’t happen as much this year. His innings per start average went from 5.99 to 5.51.

Let’s dig a little more into Sabathia’s generally awesome 2017 season.

Postseason Hero

Maybe hero is too strong a word. Aside from Tanaka though, Sabathia was the Yankees’ best starter in the postseason, and the team trusted him so much that they gave him the start in Game Five of the ALDS and Game Seven of the ALCS. Look at the game log:

  • ALDS Game Two: 5.1 IP, 3 H, 4 R, 3 ER,, 3 BB, 5 K
  • ALDS Game Five: 4.1 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 9 K
  • ALCS Game Three: 6 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 4 BB, 5 K
  • ALCS Game Seven: 3.1 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 1 K

There’s a story behind each of those starts. In ALDS Game Two, Sabathia allowed the four runs early, then settled down to retire eleven of the final 12 batters he faced. In ALDS Game Five, he dominated for four innings before the Indians were able to string together some singles in the fifth.

In ALCS Game Three, the Yankees scored early and often, and Sabathia did exactly what you want a veteran pitcher to do with a big lead. He worked quickly and kept the other team off the board, and got his offense back on the field. In ALCS Game Seven, when Sabathia clearly had no command, he somehow got through 3.1 innings while allowing just the one run.

It’s a damn shame the season ended in a Sabathia start given how well he pitched this season overall, though, to be fair, it’s hard to pin that loss on the big man. The offense scored one run total in Games Six and Seven of the ALCS. Five earned runs in 19 total innings in the postseason (2.37 ERA)? Sign me up. With Luis Severino up there in innings, Sonny Gray struggling to throw strikes, and Tanaka being a bit of an unknown going into the postseason given his rough 2017 overall, Sabathia was the steady hand in October.

King of Soft Contact

For years and years, Sabathia was a power pitcher who overwhelmed hitters with velocity, a wipeout slider, and the sheer intimidation factor that comes with being 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds. As the years and innings piled up, that approach no longer worked, so last year Sabathia scrapped his four-seam fastball entirely. He started throwing a cutter. From Brooks Baseball:

cc-sabathia-fastball-selection

The cutter did a few things for Sabathia. One, it gave him a way to bust right-handed hitters inside. Righties punished him from 2013-15, but once Sabathia was able to get in on their hands, he was able to keep them at bay. And two, it allowed him to miss the barrel more often. The straight four-seamer was getting squared up far too often. The subtle movement on the cutter makes it more difficult for hitters to get the sweet spot on the ball.

As a result, Sabathia traded hard contact for soft contact last year, and this year he was again one of the best contact managers in the league. Hitters had as much trouble making hard contact against Sabathia this season than they did against guys like Corey Kluber and Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw. Sabathia’s rates (min. 140 IP):

  • Soft Contact: 27.2% (sixth highest)
  • Hard Contact: 24.1% (fifth lowest)
  • Average Exit Velocity: 83.9 mph (lowest)
  • Average Launch Angle: 6.2° (12th lowest) (what’s this?)

Simply put, over the last two seasons Sabathia has made it very difficult to hit the ball hard against him. When he makes mistakes, they still get crushed. That’s true for everyone. Sabathia gave up a 470-foot homer to Manny Machado back in April. It was the 19th longest homer in baseball this season.

Sabathia has been able to limit those mistakes the last two seasons. From 2013-15, there were a few too many of those each time out. Now he keeps them to a minimum. Sabathia embraced the cutter and embraced the finesse pitcher within, which he absolutely had to do to be successful at this stage of his career. He’s transformed himself as a pitcher, and now that he’s done it for a second year in a row, we know it’s not a fluke. This is who Sabathia is now. He is one of the game’s best soft contact pitchers.

2018 Outlook

Like I said, Sabathia is a free agent right now, free to sign with any team at any time. He has made it perfectly clear he wants to remain in New York, however. “This is my home. I want to see this thing through. I want to come back here and finish things off. This is where I want to be,” said a very emotional Sabathia following Game Seven of the ALCS.

There are reasons the Yankees should re-sign Sabathia and reasons to stay away. They do need a fifth starter, and Tanaka not opting out means getting a big name like Yu Darvish or even Alex Cobb won’t happen without blowing up the luxury tax plan. Sabathia won’t cost a ton and won’t require a long-term contract, plus there won’t be an adjustment period of any kind. He knows the ropes and knows New York. Plug him into the rotation and go.

On the other hand, Sabathia is 37, and his balky right knee won’t get better. Sabathia has admitted he’ll likely need a knee replacement after his playing days are over. He did miss a few starts this season when the knee acted up. Also, Sabathia doesn’t pitch deep into games anymore. He’ll get through five and maybe six on a good day, and that’s pretty much it. As with all players this age, Sabathia could lose it any moment.

The offseason is still young and right now the Yankees seem to be focused on finding a new manager and coaching staff. That’s kinda important. Hard to make a good pitch to free agents when they don’t know who the manager or coaching staff will be. I get the sense Sabathia is in no rush to sign a new contract. I think he wants to see if things can be worked out with the Yankees, and if not, he’ll find a home elsewhere. If this is the end, Sabathia was a great Yankee. I hope he comes back for another season though.

Three Months of a Great Designated Hitter [2017 Season Review]

(Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
(Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

I had mixed feelings about the Yankees signing Matt Holliday so early in the off-season, given the breadth of options on the market and the salary that he would be paid. The signing of Chris Carter left me with something of a bitter taste in my mouth, as Carter came at a much cheaper price, as well as the promise of similar or better production; I even wrote a bit about it. I was never terribly concerned with Holliday’s potential to rebound, but it felt like strange roster construction. I was, of course, hilariously wrong about Carter this year. Holliday, however, was brilliant from the outset.

The First Three Months

It didn’t take too long for Matt Holliday to demonstrate his aptitude for hitting, as the 37-year-old reached base safely in eight of his first nine games. That stretch included his first home run as a Yankee (which came in game four), and a team record-tying five-walk game on April 9, and he looked dialed-in at the plate. Holliday earned his pinstripes a few weeks later, when he hit a walk-off three-run home run against the Orioles on April 28.

Holliday was batting .262/.402/.492 (141 wRC+) with 4 HR and 14 RBI when April came to an end, and was as big a part of the team’s success as any hitter this season aside from Aaron Judge. He was hitting, hitting for power, and drawing walks (19.5% BB), and the term “professional hitter” was thrown around with gusto whenever his name was mentioned.

He cooled off a little bit in May, slashing .260/.321/.521 (119 wRC+). His power was up – he hit 7 HR – but there were signs that he might be selling out for power. Holliday’s walk rate dipped to 6.6%, his strikeout rate increased by 7.4 percentage points, and his flyball rate jumped by 10.8 percentage points. It was a strong month, regardless, yet it did lead to a bit of caution.

And then Holliday returned to his all-around raking ways in June, batting .264/.386/.514 (140 wRC+), with 4 HR, 15.9% walks, and just 17.0% strikeouts. It was a fantastic month, and his normalized approach was a thing of beauty. His flyball rate jumped yet again, all the way up to 48.3%, but he was hitting the ball harder and taking more pitches, so nothing seemed to be amiss.

Holliday was placed on the DL with a viral infection on June 28, and would end up sitting out for the remainder of the first half. Despite that, he was among the best designated hitters in the game as of the break:

capture
(FanGraphs)

The numbers speak for themselves here, as Holliday was third at the position in wRC+, and just four off the home run lead despite missing two weeks of games in the end of June and early July. Given his age and injury history it made sense for the Yankees to give him as much time as possible to recover, and the hope was that that would allow him to return at full-strength.

Two Months of Injuries and Awfulness

Holliday returned from the disabled list on July 14, and went 0-for-4 against the Red Sox, but nobody read much into that – it was his first game back following a long lay off. And all seemed right in the world the next evening, when he played the hero by hitting a long home run off of Craig Kimbrel to tie the game at 1-1 and send it into extra innings.

And then he stopped hitting.

From July 14 through August 4 (85 PA), Holliday hit .136/.165/.198 (-13 wRC+) with 1 HR, 3.5% walks, and 28.2% strikeouts. His bat was slow, his power was non-existent, and he seemed to have no plan at the plate. Nearly 60% of Holliday’s batted balls were grounders, and he wasn’t hitting the ball with authority (23.8% hard-hit rate, against a 35.8% mark in the first half). Given all of that, it wasn’t shocking when he went back to the DL on August 5 with a back injury.

The End of the Line

Holliday returned to the lineup on September 2, and he came back with a vengeance. He went 2-for-6 with 2 HR, 4 RBI, 2 BB, and 0 strikeouts in his first two games, and he drove the ball with authority. Unfortunately, that was basically it for Holliday as an effective hitter, as he hit .226/.276/.340 (61 wRC+) with a home run in his last 15 regular season games. He had trouble catching up with velocity, and was very aggressive with precious little in the way of positive results. As a result of this, he ended up playing in just one postseason game, going 0-for-3 in Game 1 of the ALCS.

All told, Holliday hit .179/.225/.300 (34 wRC+) with 4 HR, 6.0% walks, and 28.5% strikeouts in the second half – and it wasn’t pretty. He hit .231/.316/.432 (98 wRC+) with 19 HR in 427 PA on the season, which was actually good enough to make him a middle of the pack DH overall. That’s faint praise – though, I do believe he could’ve been at least competent in the second half if he had been healthy.

2018 Outlook

Holliday played himself out of a meaningful playoff role and, taken in conjunction with his injury issues these last three years, may well be viewed as a scrap heap player as he hits free agency. It’s highly unlikely that he has a return engagement with the Yankees, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he spent most of the off-season looking for a job.