Michael Pineda and the Luck Dragon [2017 Season Preview]

(Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY Sports)
(Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY Sports)

Over the last two seasons, seventy-six pitchers have thrown at least 300 IP. And, by at least one measure, Michael Pineda has been by far the most unlucky starting pitcher in baseball, with a 1.02 run difference between his ERA and FIP. The league-average gulf is 0.00, and only four pitchers are within half a run of Pineda (with Wade Miley and Gio Gonzalez coming closest, at 0.77).

Looking at it from another angle, his 111 ERA- (11% below-average) over the last two years ranks 69th within that group, while his 83 FIP- (17% above-average) places him 19th. The former metric puts him between Jeff Samardzija and Ubaldo Jimenez, whereas the latter ties him with Jeff Verlander and Zack Greinke; it’d be difficult to find two more distinct sets of pitchers to be a part of.

Luck, then, is a term that has been bandied about with Pineda quite a bit over the last two years. On some level, there remains hope that this is a long stretch of bad luck, and it’s easy to see why – he’s a 28-year-old whose strikeout and walk rates have placed him among elite company these last two years, after all. It’s never that simple, though.

The Good

There were plenty of things to like about Pineda’s 2016 season. The towering righty was in the top-ten in all of baseball in K% and K-BB%, and top-ten in the American League in strikeouts and FIP. His 45.8 GB% was a tick above league-average, he picked up swings on 37.8% of pitches outside of the strikezone (against a league-average of 30.3%), he allowed precious little contact (70.9%, versus a 78.2% league-average), and his fastball velocity jumped from 92.5 MPH in 2015 to 94.0 MPH last year.

In short, he regained lost velocity, racked up whiffs, limited walks, and kept the ball on the ground. What’s not to like?

The Bad

Pineda has earned a reputation for struggling to put hitters away, and that appears to be justified. As Mike pointed out in his season review:

And yet, with two strikes:

Pineda: .187/.246/.286 with a 47.6% strikeout rate
MLB Average: .176/.246/.276 with a 41.1% strikeout rate

The strikeout rate is nice, but Pineda’s overall numbers in two-strike counts are far too close to the league average pitcher for a guy with his stuff. Chad Green, whose slider isn’t nearly as good as Pineda’s, held hitters to a .135/.192/.281 batting line with two strikes. Those are the kind of numbers you’re looking for from Pineda.

This may be an issue with general pitch location, hanging sliders, sequencing, or any number of things, but the vast majority of above-average starting pitchers perform significantly better with two-strikes. It’s worth noting that this is something that Pineda is mindful of, and is said to be working on; a walk year would be a good time for him to make some improvements.

The Ugly

Batters teed off on all incarnations of Pineda’s fastball last year, batting .347 with a .619 SLG against the offerings (per Brooks Baseball). Or, phrased differently, batters turned into 2015 Bryce Harper when Pineda threw a fastball, which he did just over fifty-percent of the time. As per PITCHf/x it was the least-valuable pitch in baseball, checking in at -20.6 wFA (or 20.6 runs below-average).

That represents a significant drop-off from 2015, when the pitch was just 4.7 runs below-average, and may go a long way in determining how he ended up with a 4.82 ERA against a 3.80 FIP and 3.30 xFIP. Well, that, and the fact that his 1.38 HR/9 and 70.7 LOB% both ranked in the 20th percentile in all of baseball; this likely stems from his horrendous fastball, as well.

What made his fastball so bad? Location, location, location.

(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)

You see that red area, right in the middle of the strikezone? That’s where Pineda threw the majority of his fastballs last year; not on the black, not just outside the zone – right down the pike. It’s not too shocking that batters were able to hit .347 against the pitch with this in mind, particularly when you consider they hit .328 against it in 2015, when his location was incredibly similar.


The projection systems are bullish on Pineda, essentially buying into his strikeout and walk rates and forecasting significantly fewer home runs:

ZiPS – 156.2 IP, 9.4 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9, 3.96 ERA

Steamer – 152.0 IP, 9.4 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9, 3.51 ERA

PECOTA – 168.0 IP, 9.6 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9, 3.60 ERA

Steamer and PECOTA actually prefer Pineda to Masahiro Tanaka, which is … interesting, I suppose. Regardless, I would be thrilled with any of those lines, as even ZiPS would represent a slightly above-average pitcher (based on ERA), which would be a significant improvement upon Pineda’s two full seasons in pinstripes.

CC Sabathia: The Solid Mid-Rotation Starter [2017 Season Preview]

(Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports)
(Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports)

A bit over a year ago, CC Sabathia‘s job security was very much in question – and for good reason. From 2013 through 2015, the former ace pitched to a 4.81 ERA (121st among 132 qualified SP in that stretch, and 20% below-average) and 4.40 FIP (118th, 7% below-average), and missed time due to injuries, poor performance, and alcoholism (for which he sought treatment after the 2015 season). Joe Girardi and Co. were open in their discussions of the fifth starter training camp battle between Sabathia and Ivan Nova, and there seemed to be a very real chance that the big man would open the season in the bullpen.

That didn’t happen, of course, and the Yankees were rewarded with a rock solid campaign from Sabathia. Heading into the 2017 season, he once again feels like an integral piece to the rotation. How did we get here?

Lest We Forget, We Almost Didn’t

It was only four starts, but Sabathia was bad in April (21.1 IP, 25 H, 11 BB, 15 K, 5.06 ERA, 4.04 FIP), and the calls for him to head to the bullpen grew louder. The aforementioned Nova threw four strong innings in relief in the second game of the season, Sabathia was decidedly mediocre in his first start, and the memories of the Spring Training competition were still fresh. Had it not been for Nova imploding in two of his next four appearances, I still wonder if he would have ended up switching places with Sabathia.

Suddenly, An Ace

The calendar turned to May, and Sabathia rediscovered his mojo. Over the next seven starts, he posted three scoreless outings, pitching to the following line: 44 IP, 29 H, 16 BB, 41 K, 0.82 ERA, 2.94 FIP. And he looked good doing it, as he allowed just one home run and worked his way out of jams like the Sabathia of old.

There were plenty of signs that this wasn’t sustainable, including a 4.20 xFIP, 90.3 LOB%, and 2.4% HR/FB – but that didn’t stop most of us from buying in, at least a little bit. Sabathia’s name popped-up in All-Star discussions, and it felt as though the Comeback Player of the Year award was made with this sort of circumstances in mind. A backslide was all but certain to come, yet watching him dominate was a sight for sore eyes. And maybe, just maybe, a corner had been turned.

The Inevitable Backslide

Maybe not.

Sabathia followed-up his red hot six week stretch by allowing at least five earned runs in four straight games, and looked an awful lot like his 2013 through 2015 incarnation. Over the next eight weeks, he allowed a 6.78 ERA (5.33 FIP) over 65.0 IP, surrendering 13 HR in 11 starts (1.80 HR/9). His season ERA jumped from 2.20 to 4.49, and the hand-wringing returned.

This is how it looked in graph form:

sabathia-era-fip

And, as was the story of his three previous seasons, his successes and failures were tied closely to gopheritis:

sabathia-hr-9

Things weren’t looking so hot in the dog days of summer. Until…

A New Hope

On August 23, Sabathia dominated a stout Mariners lineup (one that finished second in the Majors in wRC+ in 2016) for seven innings, allowing just 3 hits, 1 run, and 1 walk, while striking out seven. That was the start of a fine closing stretch to the year, over which he tossed 49.1 IP of 2.37 ERA ball with above-average peripherals (21.4 K%, 7.1 BB%, 54.3 GB%). His final start was an exclamation point on that stretch, as he held the Red Sox to 1 run and 6 base-runners in 7.1 IP, striking out 8 – including David Ortiz swinging in the second inning.

All told, Sabathia finished the season with 179.2 IP, a 3.91 ERA (8% above-average), 4.28 FIP (3% above-average), 2.6 fWAR, and 3.0 bWAR. Or, phrased differently, a perfectly reasonable season from a mid-rotation starter.

Why The Recap?

To this point, my post is more of a 2016 review than a 2017 preview. That is a bit necessary, though, as it is demonstrative of the ups and downs that an aging pitcher faces. It also serves as a reminder that Sabathia was back to being a revelation at season’s end, even if his year was almost equally split between awesome and awful, with little in between.

Now, onto the meatier portion of the preview.

How Did He Do It?

What stands out the most about Sabathia’s season – aside from his actual statistics – may be best explained in graph form. To wit:

brooksbaseball-chart

 

He figured out a cutter, and he threw the hell out of it, essentially eliminating his four-seam fastball along the way. That pitch became his go-to offering against RHH, who hit .258/.325/.400 against Sabathia last year, after battering him to the tune of a .304/.363/.502 slash line in 2015 (.293/.349/.494 from 2013 through 2015). As per Brooks Baseball, righties hit just .222 against the cutter, with a .362 SLG; for comparison’s sake, they hit .300 with a .467 SLG against his four-seamer in 2015.

Sabathia also induced the second-best groundball percentage of his career (50.1%, compared to a league-average rate of 44.7%), and allowed his lowest hard contact percentage since 2011 (24.7%, versus the 31.4% league-average). His .288 BABIP was also his lowest in several years, but it wasn’t unsustainably so (the league-average was .298) – particularly when you factor in the grounders and weak contact.

There are also two factors that we can’t quite quantify – his adjustment to his new knee brace, and the recovery from alcoholism. Sabathia spent the entirety of 2016 adjusting to wearing a knee brace (and switching to a heavier at one point), and his ailing, balky knee played a large role in his struggles from 2013 through 2015. We don’t know exactly how alcoholism effected everything … but I’d be remiss to say anything less than sobriety is a good thing, and we should all be happy for Sabathia.


The projection systems are bearish on Sabathia, with ZiPS (4.57 ERA, 1.5 fWAR) and PECOTA (4.79 ERA, 0.6 WARP) seeing him slip back into his pre-2016 form. That isn’t terribly surprising, given his age, injury history, and three years’ worth or struggles, but there does appear to be tangible reasons to expect him to be closer to what we saw last year. Splitting the difference between 2015 and 2016 would leave him as a roughly league-average starter (98 ERA+), which represents my pragmatic prediction; and the Yankees and their fans should be happy with that.

One more year of #TANAK [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

With pitchers these days, there are no givens. One day, you may have an ace. The next, a player you’re paying for the next 12-18 months is rehabbing an elbow tear with uncertainty as to whether he’ll ever be the same.

The closest thing the Yankees have to a sure thing in their starting rotation is Masahiro Tanaka. Even he comes with the giant caveat of a partial tear of the all-important UCL, but beggars in the pitching market can ill-afford to be choosers. Every five days, #TANAK inches you closer to your TV screen or forces you to pay that much more attention in your seat. He’s the closest thing we’ve seen this side of CC Sabathia‘s latest extension to an ace.

So what does the 28-year-old starter from Japan have in store for 2017? Let’s take a look, shall we?

200 inning plateau

It’s tough to define aces by an exact ERA, FIP or strikeout rate. However, with big-time starting pitchers, there’s always been a sort of mystical question as to whether they can handle 200 innings in a time when elbow injuries are so prevalent. To this point, the answer for Tanaka has been no but barely. See, he threw exactly 199 2/3 innings last season. That is literally as close as you can get to 200 without actually, you know, getting there.

What prevented him from hitting that arbitrary landmark was a flexor mass strain in his right elbow. He likely would have pitched in the Yankees’ Game 162 if they were still in the postseason chase, but those hopes had evaporated days earlier. The Yankees would obviously like to see Tanaka get through a full season, but 31 starts last year was certainly a welcome sign after 44 over his first two years.

In terms of reaching 200 innings next year, Tanaka is easily the most likely among the Yankees’ starters. He goes deeper into games (6.44 innings per start) than any of their other pitchers and the others are either on innings limits, haven’t thrown full MLB seasons before, or are veterans with injury concerns of their own. Days when Tanaka pitches are the best ones for the bullpen because he can usually hand the ball right to the elite back-end relievers.

We all know he’s dealing with a partial tear in his UCL, so his elbow is always a concern here. Projections are mixed for Tanaka. Steamer has him throwing 205 innings over 32 starts while ZIPS has him at 165 2/3 innings over 27 starts. PECOTA has just 176 1/3 innings and an unseemly 4.18 ERA. Truly all over the place.

A true No. 1?

Tanaka does what you want for a pitcher: He strikes batters out, avoids walks and pitches efficiently deep into games. The question above is so hard to pin down. As far as performance, he’s been a No. 1 starter for the Yankees, particularly last season. He won his last seven decisions. He had a 4.58 K-to-BB ratio. A 3.07 ERA (3.51 FIP) in basically 200 innings and kept the Yankees in essentially every game he started.

One of his big concerns after 2015 was his home run rate. That fell in 2016, going from 16.9 percent of fly balls turning into homers to just 12 percent. His ground ball rate reached a career-high 48.2 percent. His line drive percentage fell as well.

One concern is his decreasing strikeout rate. I’ll get into his stuff below, but his pure strikeout rate has decreased each year from 26 percent in 2014 to 20.5 percent in 2016 while his walk rate slightly increased from 3.9 to 4.4 percent. He’s still pretty solid with his control, but it’s something to look out for next year.

Lastly, he’s looked pretty darn good this spring. It doesn’t mean all that much. However, it’s a great sign. Take his start from last week: four perfect innings with seven strikeouts. That’s ace-type performance. Grapefruit League competition has taken a hit with the WBC going on and that Tigers lineup he faced was no exception. Still, it’s worth hoping that his early success can roll over into Opening Day in Tampa.

Repertoire

At the end of 2016, Tanaka’s fastball and sinker were at a career-low in terms of average velocity with his four-seamer averaging 91.11 mph. His fastball lost velocity as the year progressed and have also lost velocity year over year. Take, for instance, his average velocity on his pitches each of the last three years via Brooks Baseball.

tanaka-mph

Tanaka legitimately has six pitches that he throws at least five percent of the time. He relies most heavily on his sinker, splitter and slider, in that order last season. His sinker rose significantly in usage with his four-seamer and cutter seeing decreases. Perhaps that is because of the velocity decrease and him needing to keep hitters off balance. That increased sinker usage also helps explain his increase in groundball percentage last season.

Tanaka’s sinker and splitter were his most effective last season, eliciting the lowest ISO power against and some of his lowest batting averages against. His splitter and his less-used slider provide the most whiffs per swing.

Contract Question

Everyone knows about Tanaka’s opt-out. That was the price to pay for Tanaka in order to entice him away from the Cubs in 2014 and now the proverbial chickens will come home to roost in a little more than seven months. As with the rest of the veterans in the rotation, Tanaka can be a free agent at the end of this season.

The question of whether he opts out is a complicated one. Tanaka, 29 in November, would theoretically be in the prime position to cash in with a free agent market starved for proven pitchers. The problem is his elbow. Anyone who signs him would get a chance to look at his UCL and that might be something Tanaka chooses to avoid. Maybe his elbow gives out this season and this is all moot.

However, if Tanaka pitches well this season and perhaps even clears the 200-inning hurdle, there are many, many dollars telling him and agent Casey Close he should opt out. In the case he opts out, the Yankees face the choice of paying top dollar for a pitcher with a potentially serious elbow injury in the near future (the team knows better than anyone outside of Tanaka what his elbow looks like) or letting go their No. 1 starter. These days, most pitchers face some sort of arm injury in their future, but whether Tanaka is worth the risk is a tricky question.

For now, it’s one more year to enjoy the Yankees’ top starting pitcher.

Hicks, Romine and the rest of the part-timers [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

While the Yankees have plenty of new starters littered around its lineup, they appear to have a very similar bench to the one they fielded in 2016. They have the same fourth outfielder, the same backup catcher and, chances are, the same utility infielder. If it wasn’t the signing of Chris Carter and Tyler Austin‘s preseason injury, it would be essentially identical to the bench with which the team ended last season.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the individuals who will make up the Yankees’ Opening Day bench as well as a few players that could fill roles later in the season. (Disclaimer: I didn’t go into Gleyber Torres here. That’s worth another post entirely.)

Fourth Outfielder

It appears like it’ll be Aaron Hicks as the extra outfielder again this year. I’m someone who really believes in his potential. It’s been over a year since the Yankees dealt John Ryan Murphy, a player I enjoyed watching an irrational amount, for Hicks in a deal that seemed to make sense for both teams. The Yankees needed a fourth outfielder and had a catcher of the future (Hi Gary Sanchez) while the Twins needed a catcher and had a center fielder of the future (Byron Buxton). A potential win-win.

Well, it didn’t work out that well for either team. Murphy simply didn’t hit in Year 1 in Minnesota while Hicks hasn’t quite panned out yet in New York. To be fair, both players are still relatively young, but time is running out for them to prove themselves. Let’s focus on what Hicks brings to the table as he gets another chance to prove himself.

Hicks, 27, has always been close to an 80 in one tool: his arm. It’s a cannon. He’s also pretty fast. Combine that and he makes for a solid fielder, although his routes to balls have been rough at times. He can still man each spot in the field well, but he’s been relegated mostly to the corners to start this spring.

And then there’s his bat. He took a clear step back from 2015 to 2016, going from .256/.323/.398 (96 wRC+) to .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+). That’s doesn’t cut it. A switch-hitter, Hicks came in with a reputation as a better right-handed bat than a lefty. He actually improved from the left side (79 wRC+ to 86 wRC+) but went from a .307/.375/.495 (138 wRC+) line to a paltry .161/.213/271 (25 wRC+) from the right. That’s pretty dumbfounding. His exit velocity actually increased from 90.1 to 90.8 mph from the left side and his strikeout rate fell (his walk rate did too), but his BABIP plummeted from .368 to .176.

That could indicate a potential improvement for Hicks, who seemed to struggle with the lack of regularity concerning his role last year (he improved in the second half when Carlos Beltran was traded). However, he may not get consistent starts again this year with Aaron Judge presumably manning right field. Therefore, the Aaron Hicks project may reach a crossroads this season when he becomes arbitration eligible for the first time after this season.

Beyond Hicks, Mason Williams is the only other outfielder on the 40-man roster. Williams has 51 MLB plate appearances over the last two years. When healthy, he is plenty fast to man center field and seems like he can hit for average. Health will be key for the 25-year-old as he tries to make the roster for good at some point.

Clint Frazier and Dustin Fowler will be in Triple A to start the year. They’re both 22 and will need more at-bats in Scranton before they can earn a role in the majors. Frazier, being the better prospect, may be more likely to force his way to the majors this summer.

Backup catcher

Austin Romine returns as the backup catcher with a different starter ahead of him. Gary Sanchez, as Mike eloquently covered, is the face of the franchise now and it stands to reason that Romine could see fewer starts this season than last. Romine played 50 games at catcher, started 40, while starting two games at first base and four at designated hitter. Chances are, the latter six starts go away with younger and healthier options at 1B and DH, but who knows? I wouldn’t have bet on multiple Romine starts away from catcher last year.

Romine was fine as the bench backstop in 2016 and was much better than his first stint in 2013, when he was backing up Chris Stewart. He batted .242/.269/.382 (68 wRC+) and was better against southpaws. That allowed him to get more starts early in the season when Brian McCann was struggling against lefties. Now, with Sanchez as the starter, Romine will still get once or twice-a-week starts yet it’s hard to see him getting to take advantage of platoon advantages quite as often. That may lead to a worse batting line despite no decline in talent or performance.

The other catcher on the 40-man is Kyle Higashioka. Higashioka was finally healthy in 2016 and rode that to a 20-homer season. He has legitimate power, which has been conveyed plenty of times this spring. The Yankees likely won’t take Higashioka with them on Opening Day — they’d have to DFA Romine — but he’ll only be a bus trip away in Scranton.

Utility infielder

The backup infielder job looks like it is Ronald Torreyes‘ job to lose again this year. Torreyes was a bit of a surprise to claim the spot last year out of the spring, but he held onto it all year. He’s the perfect bench player: He makes plenty of contact, can play every infield position (and the outfield corners in a pinch) and seems to be a good presence around the club. He doesn’t hit for power — do you remember his home run last year? I barely do — but the Yankees would gladly sign up for another .258/.305/.374 line from the part-timer.

It seems highly unlikely that Torreyes won’t break camp with the team. Pete Kozma and Ruben Tejada have each been fine yet unimpressive in their brief spring stints and it may be tough to top the incumbent. Donovan Solano is another non-roster invitee and has been away from the club playing for Colombia in the World Baseball Classic. He did have a solid cup of coffee with the Yankees last fall.

Tyler Austin

austin low five
(Getty)

As we covered in the Greg Bird preview post, Carter will receive a lot of the righty at-bats at first base this season, likely platooning with Bird. Before Carter’s signing, many thought that role would be filled by Tyler Austin. That idea went fully down the tubes with his preseason injury (fractured left foot) which will prevent him from playing most of the spring.

Austin provided real power in his 90 plate appearances in the majors last year, particularly the other way. He did strike out 36 times. For now, the 25-year-old first baseman likely starts the season in extended spring training or goes straight to Scranton, waiting for a call-up. You can almost surely count on Austin playing with the Yankees at some point.

Rest of the 40-man

Remember when Rob Refsnyder was the talk of the town in 2015? Part of that was just a clamoring for anyone but Stephen Drew, but Refsnyder also provided promise that he could hit at the big league level. However, he didn’t come quite as advertised and his 2016 was a disappointment. Given 175 plate appearances last season, he showed nearly no power and had a disappointing .250/.328/.309 line. Without a serious showing with his bat, Refsnyder doesn’t have a role in the majors, hence the Yankees’ willingness to trade him. Can he prove to be more than just a Quad-A player? It’s tough to see right now.

Miguel Andujar hasn’t played above Double A before, so he will need some experience in Scranton before he can be considered for a long-term role. His fielding has been a bit rough at times this spring, so that’s something for him to work on in Triple A. Still, he’s a top 10 third base prospect according to MLB.com and a potential future piece, albeit not likely before September this year.

The man furthest from the majors on the 40-man roster is Jorge Mateo, a top five Yankees prospect depending on the source. Mateo probably doesn’t factor into the Yankees’ plans in 2017, but he would make the ideal pinch runner in September. That’s about the extent to his role in the majors as far as I can tell.

Betting on a Bounce Back [2017 Season Preview]

(Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports)
(Kim Klement | USA TODAY Sports)

On the heels of a relatively solid offensive season in which he posted a 109 wRC+ with 20 HR in just 426 PA, Matt Holliday has the look and feel of a hitter that can offer so much more. Some of this is undoubtedly based on his reputation (he was, by wRC+, a top-10 hitter as recently as 2013, and a top-30 hitter in 2014), as well as the hope that a healthy, more rested version of the 37-year-old will be more productive. There are several indicators that Holliday will improve relative to his 2016 season, or, at the very least, stall the effects of Father Time for one more year.

Batting Average on Balls in Play

What stands out the most among a slew of career-lows for Holliday may well be his .253 BABIP. Prior to 2016, Holliday had never posted a BABIP lower than .298, and his career norm sat at .335 (the same mark that he posted in 2015). Much of this can be explained away by career-high groundball rate and a career-low line drive percentage – but how much?

Attempts at calculating an accurate predictive version of xBABIP (expected BABIP) haven’t been all that great thus far, but the folks at FanGraphs keep on trying. Progress has certainly been made, and enough so that it isn’t entirely inane to plug-and-play with the latest and greatest in their formulas. Using the methodologies outlined in those three separate posts, we find that Holliday’s xBABIP ranged anywhere between .300 and .345 … which is a testament to how rough these equations are, but I digress.

If we take the low end of those samples and give Holliday a .300 BABIP for 2016 and treat all of the extra hits as singles, his numbers look significantly better (obviously). Instead of a .246/.322/.461 slash line with a 109 wRC+, he would’ve hit .281/.353/.484 with a 120-ish wRC+. All this for an extra nine or ten singles.

This is far from perfect analysis, to be sure, as the quirks and inconsistencies of xBABIP cannot be ignore – but it is demonstrative of the simple fact that a bit more favorable treatment from the luck dragon can change things dramatically.

Hitting the Ball Hard

As Mike pointed out when the signing was made official, Holliday hit the snot out of the ball in 2016. To wit:

[H]is hard contact rate (38.5%) was comfortably above the MLB average (31.4%) and his career average (35.6%). In fact, among the 375 players to put at least 100 balls in play this past season, Holliday had the third highest average exit velocity (94.7 mph). Only Nelson Cruz (95.9 mph) and Giancarlo Stanton (95.1 mph) were better. Miguel Cabrera (94.5 mph) was fourth. That is some good company. Also, according to Mike Petriello, Holliday put 42.5% of his balls in play at 100 mph or better, the fourth best rate in baseball. Exit velocity isn’t everything — it’s possible to hit a 100 mph pop-up, you know — but it’s not nothing either. Holliday can still strike the ball with authority.

A hard contact rate generally correlates with strong offense, with 19 of the top 30 posting a wRC+ of 120 or better in 2016, and all but one sitting above league-average. This is a normal split, going all the way back to 2010 (the first year for which we have this data). There are varying degrees of offensive prowess sprinkled throughout the list of the hardest-hitters in baseball, so it isn’t necessarily predictive of anything other than solid-average offense – but it’s a good sign nevertheless.

Statcast’s exit velocity tells a similar story. There are few bad hitters among those that hit the ball with authority, but there is little predictive value beyond that.

The Yankee Stadium Boost

Or, phrased differently, the promise of having a new home ballpark.

Holliday was significantly better away from Busch Stadium last season, batting .297/.363/.554 with 11 of his home runs coming on the road. His splits were relatively steady heading into 2016, so it’s possible that this was merely a one year blip. However, it’s also possible that a park that limits power (particularly right-handed power) finally began to catch up to an aging hitter. Yankee Stadium is much friendlier to all hitters, and will greatly benefit a slugger that drives the ball to all fields, like so:

plot_hc_spray

Power to all fields will play in any park, and Yankee Stadium is particularly advantageous for a hitter of Holliday’s caliber. And the fact that he still showed an all-fields approach with power in what amounted to the worst season of his career is certainly encouraging. So is the fact that all three of his Spring Training home runs have gone to the opposite field.

Rest, Rest, and Even More Rest

Holliday should not (and hopefully will not) have to play the field all that often this year, if at all. The Yankees have five players listed as outfielders on the 40-man roster, and that does not include Tyler Austin, Jorge Mateo, Rob Refsnyder, and Ronald Torreyes, all of whom could play out there in a pinch, nor does it include those outfielders that stand to open the season in Triple-A and could easily be added (Dustin Fowler, Clint Frazier, Jake Cave, etc). The depth at first base is strong, as well, albeit in a different manner, as probable back-up/platoon player Chris Carter could conceivably start for several teams.

Playing regularly at DH should help keep Holliday rested, and protect him from the nagging sort of injuries that have hampered his last two seasons. He has a bit of experience playing DH, for what it’s worth, batting .260/.340/.535 with 9 HR in 144 PA scattered across his career; such a small, spread out sample size may not mean much, but it lends a sliver of optimism that he can adjust to the routine of the position.


Two weeks ago, I discussed second-guessing the Matt Holliday signing due to the way the marketplace for designated hitters unfolded. That was never intended to be a question of Holliday’s potential, however, as I am a strong believer in his ability to have a strong season for the Yankees. The average DH had a 115 wRC+ last season, and he wasn’t all that far off in a down year. That should be well within reach for a mostly healthy Holliday, with a dash of luck.

Didi Gregorius is ready to help all the young shortstops in the Yankees’ farm system

(Sung Min Kim/River Avenue Blues)
(Sung Min Kim/River Ave. Blues)

A bit after the Netherlands-Israel World Baseball Classic match at the Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, a group of Taiwanese reporters flocked towards the Netherlands dugout as Didi Gregorius stepped outside of the dugout. As one of the reporters finished an interview, she giddily asked Gregorius for a selfie because she “wants to prove that she actually talked to him.” Gregorius easily obliged. He (and I) probably knew that the reporter probably wanted one with him regardless because he is Didi Gregorius, a young and rising figure who plays for the famed New York Yankees.

Gregorius spent the past week in Seoul as a member of the Kingdom of the Netherlands team for the 2017 World Baseball Classic. After one of the exhibition matches, Gregorius and several teammates went out and he posted on his Instagram stories a selfie of themselves at a shopping mall.

“I was just walking around,” he said. “You gotta experience everything when you’re in a different country. I’ve never been (in Korea) so you gotta walk around and see what they got.”

The Korean baseball fans — and many others who traveled to see the games in Seoul — however, got to see what Gregorius has to offer. Gregorius, after hitting a home run in his first Spring Training at-bat this year, did not seem to lose his power stroke in Pool A play of the World Baseball Classic. In three games and twelve at-bats, he has hit for a 1.083 OPS, hitting three doubles and knocking in three. One of the doubles, which came in the bottom of eighth in the game against Taiwan, tied the game up at five and Netherlands went on to walk-off in the ninth to clinch the second round trip to Tokyo.

Gregorius also barely missed a home run earlier in the game, as the ball hit the wall just a few feet shy of being in the seats. It might as well as been a home run in many other ballparks, as the Gocheok Sky Dome is rated below-average for home run rates. Last night, in the Tokyo Dome, Gregorius clobbered a big home run for the Netherlands:

However, Gregorius never looks for home runs when he steps into the box. He is aware of last year’s power surge and the expectations that came with it. But when asked if he changed his offseason training regimen to increase power, he immediately shook his head and gave a firm response.

“If I hit a home run, I hit a home run,” Gregorius said. “But I’m just trying to drive the ball, try to hit it gap to gap — left field line, right field line — I’m a line drive hitter. If they go out, they go out, but nothing’s going to change.”

Indeed Didi is a line drive hitter. He’s always had a line drive swing that Yankee scouts loved even when his bat did not play out for the Diamondbacks in 2014 (.226/.290/.363 in 299 PA). After hitting for a .276/.304/.447 line with 20 home runs with 70 RBI in 2016 while still displaying slick fielding ability, he’s established himself as one of the most fun AL shortstops to watch.

With the Team Netherlands, Didi is teammates with another young AL shortstop, Xander Bogaerts, whom Gregorius acknowledges is a better hitter “if you look at the numbers.” While they play for rival teams in the regular season, Gregorius and Bogaerts feel natural playing for a same squad.

“It does not feel weird to play with (Bogaerts) because I played with him when we were young,” Gregorius said. “It’s just fun because all people (on the team) are from back home representing Netherlands and Curacao. When we’re working together, we are a team. When we’re playing each other, we don’t know each other (laugh).”

Sure, the Red Sox may have a better-hitting shortstop right now, but the Yankees have some great shortstop talent in the minors that could impact the big league team in a few years. There’s of course Gleyber Torres and Jorge Mateo. Deeper down, there are Tyler Wade, Wilkerman Garcia, Kyle Holder, Hoy Jun Park, etc., all of whom signed as shortstops but could very well change positions in near future.

Despite the many shortstop talents in the system, Gregorius is not worried about his long-term outlook with the Yankees.

“I’m going to play my game,” Gregorius put it succinctly. “They are playing their game too. I cannot judge people on what they do and I cannot worry about it.”

Even if any of the younger talents land in the majors, Gregorius is planning to be an embracing “veteran.” “When we are on the team, we play together so there’s no competition between each other,” he said. “Why do I have look out for something that’s not even there right now? (To them) I’m a so-called veteran so they come to me and I pass along what A-Rod and all those guys taught me. I hope every young guy goes a long way because you want them to be successful.”

Gregorius, of course, was once in their shoes before. Breaking into the bigs in 2012, it took him until 2015 to be a solid regular and the work ethic that scouts raved about and guidance from older players took his play to the next level in 2016. Prior to that though, he has had to go back and forth between Triple-A and MLB in the both Reds and Diamondbacks systems. He is aware of the challenges of having to transition as an ML player and has the right intentions – guide them through the most crucial part of their career.

Not only Gregorius cares about the younger players, but also he has looked out for the fans during Pool A play of the World Baseball Classic. After Netherlands defeated Taiwan in a dramatic walk-off affair, he walked over to the Royal Diamond seats (the seats directly behind the home plate and by the dugouts in Gocheok) to sign each autographs for each fan and take selfies while his teammates had gone into the clubhouse to celebrate the win.

In each instance I have been around him, Gregorius is upbeat, smiling, not saying “no” to fans and generally being positive to whatever is in his sight. His positive attitude rings in his answer when asked what his 2017 goal is.

“Win a ring. That’s it,” he said. “We got a lot of talent and a lot of young guys coming up so wait for the season.”

All Rise for Aaron Judge [2017 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The first impression was as good as it gets. On the fourth pitch he saw as a big leaguer, Aaron Judge smoked a towering home run off the very top of the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar in center field at Yankee Stadium. The ball cleared the windows and very nearly made the seats. It was fun to see the power after reading all those scouting reports over the years.

The second impression wasn’t so good. In 94 plate appearances after that home run, Judge went 14-for-83 (.169) with three homers and 42 strikeouts before an oblique strain ended his season prematurely. Judge’s strikeouts were no surprise. He struck out a bunch in the minors and hey, a 6-foot-7 hitter has a pretty huge strike zone. Still, seeing a 44.2% strikeout rate in action is no fun.

Over the winter Judge went to work on his lower half and he came to Spring Training with a chance to win the right field job. Barring injury, it’s either Judge or Aaron Hicks, and I do believe this is a true competition, not one of those rigged ones we’ve seen over the years. So far this spring Judge has hit .310/.394/.586 with two homers and seven strikeouts in 33 plate appearances (21.2 K%), which is promising, but ultimately doesn’t mean much of anything.

There’s very little question the Yankees want Judge to be the right fielder of the future. Is he ready to be the right fielder of the present? My gut says the Yankees will indeed go with Judge over Hicks once the regular season rolls around, but what do I know. We’ll find out soon enough. Let’s preview Judge’s season, shall we? We shall.

What is an acceptable strikeout rate?

Well, that depends. It depends how much Judge produces when he does make contact. No, I don’t think there’s any way he can be productive with a 40-something-percent strikeout rate. The highest single-season strikeout rate in baseball history is 36.2% by current Yankee Chris Carter. He hit .223/.320/.451 (112 wRC+) with 29 homers in 585 plate appearances for the Astros that year.

Only six batters in history have struck out in one-third of their plate appearances while qualifying for the batting title, and two of the six failed to produce at a least average rate offensively:

  • 2013 Chris Carter: .223/.320/.451 (112 wRC+) with 29 homers and 36.2% strikeouts
  • 2010 Mark Reynolds: .198/.320/.433 (96 wRC+) with 32 homers and 35.4% strikeouts
  • 2012 Adam Dunn: .204/.333/.468 (115 wRC+) with 41 homers and 34.2% strikeouts
  • 2009 Mark Reynolds: .260/.349/.543 (127 wRC+) with 44 homers and 33.7% strikeouts
  • 1963 Dave Nicholson: .229/.319/.419 (111 wRC+) with 22 homers and 33.7% strikeouts
  • 2008 Mark Reynolds: .239/.320/.458 (97 wRC+) with 28 homers and 33.3% strikeouts

One of those things is not like the other. Anyway, there’s no precedent for an everyday player striking out as much as Judge did last year, mostly because you’d eventually get sent down or released if you struck out that much. Even the guys who struck out one-third of the time needed to hit for huge power and draw a ton of walks — 2008 Reynolds had the lowest walk rate among those six batters at 10.4% — to have value offensively.

Clearly, Judge needs to cut down on his strikeouts and both he and the Yankees know that. That’s why he continues to work on his hitting mechanics. He’s changed his leg kick however many times over the last two years, plus he’s changed his hand position as well. If Judge fails, it won’t be due to a lack of effort. He’s working with the hitting coaches all season and offseason and trying all different things. Being a 6-foot-7 hitter is hard.

Strikeouts around baseball have ticked up over the last few years, mostly because pitchers are throwing harder than ever before, and also because there are more specialized relievers. Here’s a quick plot showing wRC+ vs. K% for all hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title over the last five seasons:

wrc-vs-k

There’s close to zero correlation between strikeout rate and offensive production, interestingly enough. Anyhow, looking at the graph, once you get beyond a 25.0% strikeout rate, there aren’t many dots above a 110 wRC+ or so. It seems striking out a lot won’t stop you from being a productive hitter, but it will reduce your chances of being a great hitter. Only 18 players since 2012 managed a 120+ wRC+ while striking out at least one-quarter of the time.

So I suppose that’s the magic number for Judge this year: 25.0 K%. Get the strikeout rate down there and he has a chance to be a quality offensive weapon for the Yankees. Judge struck out 24.7% of the time in the minors overall and 25.7% of the time at Triple-A (23.9% in 2016), so getting down to a 25.0% strikeout rate in the big leagues doesn’t seem impossible. Can he do it this year? That’s the million dollar question. The Yankees hope so. Getting down to 25.0% strikeouts in 2016 would be wonderful, but, if nothing else, we at least need to see a decline in strikeouts. Fanning four out of every ten plate appearances ain’t gonna cut it.

Exactly how much power are we talking?

A ton. We’ve seen it already. There was that aforementioned shot off the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar last year, and we all saw that ball Judge hit off the top of the scoreboard in his first spring game this year. His home run this past weekend really gives you an idea of how strong this guy is. There’s basically no effort in this swing:

Baseball America (subs. req’d) says Judge’s power “rates as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale” while MLB.com says it’s a 60. That’s really good! A hitter with 60 power can be expected to mash 25-30 homers a year. Someone with 70 power projects to hit 30+ dingers annually. The various projection systems love Judge’s power:

  • PECOTA: 20 homers in 468 plate appearances (26 HR per 600 PA)
  • Steamer: 17 homers in 378 plate appearances (27 HR per 600 PA)
  • ZiPS: 30 homers in 522 plate appearances (34 HR per 600 PA)

Only ten rookie hitters have qualified for the batting title while averaging 26+ homers per 600 plate appearances since 2000, and they’re guys like Albert Pujols, Mark Teixeira, and Prince Fielder. Basically the best power hitters of the century. The completely objective projection systems think Judge can produce at that level, at least when it comes to hitting the ball over the fence.

The Yankees haven’t had a rookie hit 25+ home runs since Bobby Murcer in 1969. Heck, prior to Gary Sanchez last year, the last Yankees rookie to hit even 20 homers in a season was Kevin Maas in 1990. If he makes enough contact — and that remains the big question — Judge could very well smack 25+ homers this summer. It’s not unreasonable, not given Yankee Stadium and the other hitter friendly AL East parks. Judge’s exit velocity on fly balls and line drives is elite. When he connects, he tends to do a lot of damage.

Don’t forget about his defense.

Given his size, power, and strikeout tendencies, it can be easy to stereotype Judge as a lumbering slugger. That’s not the case though. Judge is a very good athlete for his size and he has the skills to be a defensive asset in right field. He has a very strong arm …

… and he covers a decent amount of ground. He’s not going to be Brett Gardner out there in terms of range, but he won’t be Carlos Beltran either. “He’s a slightly above-average runner underway and plays average defense in right field with a well above-average throwing arm,” said Baseball America’s scouting report.

Judge doesn’t play station-to-station baseball despite being so damn massive. He offers some speed and will contribute with the glove in right field, especially since right field in Yankee Stadium is kinda tiny. So, even if he strikes out a bunch while finding his footing in the big leagues, Judge will still be able to provide value in the field. The big man is more well-rounded than you’d think.

* * *

What would qualify as a successful season for Judge? Geez, that’s tough. It’s about more than raw stats with Judge. Is he cutting down on the strikeouts? Is he showing a sound approach and recognizing how pitchers are attacking him? Judge is going to see a ton — a ton — of breaking balls down and away. It’s inevitable. Can he lay off more often than not?

The numbers might not be there, but if we see improvement with his approach and strikeout rate, it’ll be a positive. Judge is going to require patience, perhaps more than most prospects, though the potential reward is sky high. This dude can be a game-changing impact bat, and odds are he will get a chance to claim the long-term right field job this summer.