Chase Headley’s Chances For A Rebound, Offensively & Defensively [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Here’s a weird, random fact: the Yankees have had four different Opening Day third basemen in the last four years. It was Alex Rodriguez in 2012, Jayson Nix in 2013, Kelly Johnson in 2014, and Chase Headley in 2015. This year Headley will become the first player to start consecutive Opening Days at the hot corner for New York since A-Rod started three straight from 2010-12.

The Yankees re-signed Headley last offseason because Rodriguez can’t play third base anymore. The Yankees didn’t even wait to find out if he could in Spring Trianing. He was coming off his suspension last winter and had another hip surgery in his recent past, plus he was pushing 40, so the Yankees needed someone else at third. They brought back Headley because he had been one of the better third baseman in the game over the previous few years. From 2012-14:

  1. Miguel Cabrera — 19.0 fWAR
  2. Adrian Beltre — 17.2
  3. Josh Donaldson — 15.6
  4. David Wright — 15.3
  5. Chase Headley — 15.3

If you prefer bWAR, it’s the same five names, only with Miggy and Beltre flipped. If you want to limit it to 2013-14 only to remove Headley’s career 2012 season, he’s still top ten among all third basemen. Headley played rather well after coming over at the 2014 trade deadline and he seemed to fit exactly what the Yankees needed, namely a switch-hitting bat and good defense.

Last season Headley fell short on both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively. He hit .259/.324/.369 (91 wRC+) with eleven homers overall, making it his worst offensive season as a full-time player. Headley also committed a career-high 23 errors — his previous career high was 13 — and seemed to develop the yips, which turned routine throws into adventures. Needless to say, the Yankees are hoping for a big bounce back from their third baseman in 2016.

Can He Throw?

Headley’s ten fielding errors were a career high last season, but the throws were far more worrisome. It wasn’t just the errors, it was the number of poor throws overall, many of which Mark Teixeira saved at first base with his scooping ability. The throws weren’t just off-line either. Headley looked very tentative:

Chase Headley error

That is a third baseman lacking confidence. This all came out of nowhere too. Headley has been one of the best defensive third basemen in the game throughout his career and he was fantastic in the field with the Yankees after the trade two years. You’re lying if you say you saw this coming.

“More than anything, it’s just footwork. Footwork related stuff,” said Headley to Jack Curry (video link) recently when asked about his defensive work with third base/infield coach Joe Espada this spring. “Trying to keep my feet going … Just trying to clean that up a little bit and that’ll help some of the throwing issues I have last year.”

Headley hasn’t had any defensive miscues this spring, though we are talking about only 21 total chances in 55 innings, which is not enough to say whether he’s back on track in the field. Especially since not all of those 55 innings have been broadcast somewhere for us to see. I guess no errors in 21 chances is better than a few errors, but it doesn’t help us much going forward.

Looking at Headley’s career, last season was the outlier. He’s been a very good defender throughout his career and he suddenly forgot how to throw in 2015. The goal this season isn’t to take a bad defender and make him good. The goal is to take a previously good defender and get him back on track after a down season. Defense is like everything else in baseball. Players have slumps and bad years.

There is definitely a mental side to this — Headley admitted to losing confidence in the field last year — and that can be tough to overcome. And if Headley can’t get over his throwing issues, that’s a big problem because the Yankees don’t have a true third base alternative. (Sorry, I don’t think 36 spring innings mean Rob Refsnyder‘s ready to play the position regularly at the MLB level.) Like it or not, the Yankees need Headley.

If the throwing issues persistent, it won’t be the result of a lack of effort. Headley has been putting in extra work since last summer to sort this out, and Curry said Headley and Espada are out on a back field working on his defense pretty much every day this spring. I have no idea if he can get his throwing in order. There’s no way to put a number on this. All you can do is hope 2015 was truly an aberration and Headley will go back to being the player he was prior to 2015.

Is He Going to Hit?

Twenty third basemen qualified for the batting title last season, and among those 20, Headley ranked 15th in AVG (.259), 12th in OBP (.324), 19th in SLG (.369), 18th in ISO (.110), and 19th in wRC+ (91). He was among the worst offensive regulars at the position a year ago. The lack of power was a big part of it too. Here is his ISO over the years (Headley became a regular in 2009):


Source: FanGraphsChase Headley

No one in their right mind expected Headley to repeat his career 2012 season after re-signing with the Yankees. But something close to his 2013-14 performance (108 wRC+) was reasonable. Earlier in his career Headley’s lack of power could be blamed on Petco Park, at least in theory. From 2009-11, those pre-peak years, he had a .101 ISO at home and a .133 ISO on the road, so the split wasn’t huge.

Headley now calls Yankee Stadium his home park, and Yankee Stadium is a great place to hit for power, especially if you’re left-handed. Headley hit six of his eleven homers in the Bronx last season, and five of the six came as a left-handed hitter. Overall though, he was actually a better hitter on the road (98 wRC+) than at home (84 wRC+), which is pretty weird. Maybe that’s a reason to expect a rebound offensively. It’s tough for a hitter to be average-ish on the road and bad at home in Yankee Stadium two years in a row.

The power is what it is, especially since Headley has never been a great power hitter and he’s now over 30. More interesting to me are his strikeout and walk rates. Last season he had his lowest walk rate (7.9%) since becoming a regular, but also his second lowest strikeout rate (21.0%). (His previous low was 20.6% in 2010.) The PitchFX data shows Headley is not chasing more pitches or anything like that. He’s just making more contact nowadays.

Chase Headley plate discipline

Headley’s swing rate on pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%) was actually a career low last season, so no, the career-low walk rate was not the result of chasing more pitches. His contact rate, both overall (Contact%) and on pitches in the zone (Z-Contact%) were the highest they’ve been in years, so he was putting the ball in play more often. When you put the ball in play, you don’t walk or strike out as much.

The problem was the quality of Headley’s contact wasn’t great last summer. His 27.8% hard contact rate exactly matched the league average in 2015, but it was down from the 35.6% hard contact rate he posted from 2012-14. The real problem: Headley’s soft contact rate was 17.4%, which is still better than the league average (18.6%), but was way up from is 12.6% soft contact rate from 2012-14. (He had a 35.3% hard contact rate and a 12.2% soft contact rate from 2013-14, if you want to remove his career year.)

As with his throwing and defense, 2015 was an outlier for Headley offensively compared to his recent seasons. Maybe it was an adjustment year? A year ago at this time we were all talking about Brian McCann possibly rebounding after his adjustment period. Yeah, Headley spent some time with the Yankees in 2014, but not that much time. Who knows. You can’t rule anything out when trying to figure out how a player will perform going forward.

* * *

My guess is Headley rebounds with the glove but not so much with the bat this year. Perhaps he can get back to being a league average-ish hitter. I’m not sure will happen without the power though. I can’t say I’m supremely confident, but I do feel pretty good about Headley bouncing back on defense. He’s worked hard at it, he looks okay in camp, and his track record is pretty long. Like I said, this is a good defender who had a bad year, not a true talent bad defender. I think the glovework will be there, and the Yankees are going to need it to be there, because they don’t have any great alternatives.

The New Second Baseman [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees have committed to a youth movement over the last 18 months or so, though they’ve done it in a unique way. Sure, they’re bringing up their own prospects from the minors and giving them a chance, but they’ve also traded for young players who fell out of favor with their former teams for whatever reason. Didi Gregorius, Nathan Eovaldi, and Dustin Ackley were all acquired that way. Aaron Hicks too.

The most-notable and perhaps the riskiest such acquisition came at the Winter Meetings in December, when the Yankees shipped Adam Warren (and Brendan Ryan!) to the Cubs for Starlin Castro. Castro’s young and he’s had some very good seasons in his career. The Yankees also gave up a very valuable piece in Warren, someone Joe Girardi called “as big as any pitcher that we have in that room” last October.

The Castro trade was the first time the Yankees gave away a player they’re really, truly going to miss in one of these out of favor trades. Yeah, you could have argued they would really miss Shane Greene at the time of the Gregorius trade, but Greene was not nearly as established as Warren. Warren has been getting big outs for the Yankees for a few years now, and he’s been doing it in a variety of roles. That was a big piece of depth to give up.

Brian Cashman & Co. saw Starlin as too good to pass up, however. He’s 25 years old — Castro turns 26 this Thursday — with strong defensive chops at second base, offensive promise, and a team-friendly contract that can max out at $53M over the next five seasons. Those types of players rarely become available, and when they do, the asking price is usually much higher than an Adam Warren type. Warren will be missed, no doubt about it, but this was a deal the Yankees had to make.

Castro’s first impression has been great — he is 12-for-27 (.444) with two dingers so far this spring — though we all know Grapefruit League numbers don’t mean much, if anything. I guess it’s better than struggling in camp. After the trade Starlin instantly became part of what the Yankees hope is their next core, along with Gregorius, Luis Severino, Dellin Betances, Greg Bird, and some others. What does 2016 have in store? Let’s preview.

So Which Castro Will The Yankees Get?

There’s a reason the Cubs made Castro available. They didn’t trade him out of the kindness of their heart. Starlin’s stock has dipped in recent years because his offense has gone backwards since his promising debut back in 2010. Here is his wRC+ by year. Remember, 100 is league average and the higher the number, the better.

2010: 99
2011: 109
2012: 100
2013: 74
2014: 117
2015: 80

A 99 wRC+ at age 20 then a 109 wRC+ at age 21 is the kind of stuff you see from future stars. Not many players produce at that clip at such a young age, especially middle infielders. Since then Castro has had one league average year, one well-above-average year, and two well-below-average years. He barely outproduced Stephen Drew (76 wRC+) last season.

Last year Castro hit .265/.296/.375 overall, though it was split into .236/.271/.304 (53 wRC+) in 435 plate appearances as the starting shortstop, and .353/.374/.588 (161 wRC+) in 143 plate appearances as the starting second baseman. Small sample noise? Possibly. There were also adjustments made, however. Castro said he worked with Chicago’s hitting coaches to close his stance during his four days on the bench between going from short to second:

Starlin Castro stance

“Just moved my front leg,” said Castro to Meredith Marakovits over the winter (video link). “I think my front leg was just too open and I just tried to pull the ball. That’s why at the beginning of the season, I hit a lot of ground balls to third and to short. It’s not the type of player that I am. I just always hit the ball to the middle and right field. The adjustment that I did, I just closed the stance a little bit more and that helped me a lot to drive the ball to the opposite way.”

That numbers don’t show a drastic change in Castro’s batted ball direction — he had a 41.2% pull rate with the open stance and a 39.2% pull rate with the closed stance last year, so it wasn’t that big a difference — but he did hit the ball substantially harder. His open stance hard contact rate was 21.6%, which is far below the 28.6% league average. With the closed stance it was a 29.2% hard contact rate, right in line with a 29.1% hard contact rate he had during his 117 wRC+ season in 2014. Here are Castro’s average exit velocities by zone, via the intimidatingly great Baseball Savant:

Starlin Castro exit velocities

Starlin was only able to really drive pitches middle-away with his open stance last year. Once he closed it up in August, Castro was able to do a better job pulling his hands in to get to that inside pitch. We have to be aware that this is a small sample of data — again, he only had 143 plate appearances once he moved to second and closed his stance — though for that limited bit of data, Castro closed a hole in his swing on the inner half.

There is also definitely something to be said for having confidence and being comfortable on the field. That can absolutely impact performance. In Chicago, Castro was the guy for a long time. The Cubs won 97 games and were swept in the NLDS in 2008. They won only 83 games in 2009 and missed the postseason. Castro debuted in 2010, a 75-win season, and he was the face of the team’s rebuild. He was the next great Cub, and his success from 2010-11 only added more pressure. That’s a lot to take in at a young age.

With the Yankees, Castro is just one of the guys. Yeah, he’s very important in the long-term, but this season he’s going to hit near the bottom of the lineup and only be expected to help the offense, not carry it. This is a fresh start and of course he wants to impress his new team and his new fans. He’s not expected to be the face of the franchise though. Castro’s coming in with a clean slate and that can be a very good thing mentally.

We’ve seen the raw talent — Starlin hit a ball over the friggin’ batter’s eye last week (video) — and this is a player who is one season removed from a .292/.339/.438 (117 wRC+) batting line. The Yankees would sign up for that in a second. Castro is young, he has natural ability, he appeared to close a hole in his swing late last year, and now he no longer has to be The Man in the lineup. Those are all positives. Last year was rough overall. Now Starlin has a fresh start.

Second Base, Not Third

Cashman talked about trying Castro at third base as soon as the trade was made, though that plan was short-lived. The Yankees pulled the plug before he even had a chance to play a Spring Training game at the hot corner. He did nothing more than work out there in infield drills. That’s probably for the best. Castro is still learning second base, after all. He only played 258 innings there last year.

After spending his entire big league career at shortstop, Starlin said everything felt “backwards” once he moved to the other side of the bag, though he added it only took a handful of games to get comfortable. The numbers at second (+2 DRS and -0.8 UZR) are useless given the sample size, so we don’t have much reliable data. This play from earlier this month …

… shows that if nothing else, Castro has range and a strong arm, which you’d expect from an ex-shortstop. Can he make use of that range and arm consistently? That’s the big question. How is his double play pivot? Turning two at the bag is totally different as a second baseman than it is as a shortstop. The shortstop can see the play develop in front of him. The second baseman has to go in blind with the runner at his back.

“(His defense) will be significantly better because of the athleticism and putting Castro at second base, he has the ability to be a very good defensive player. Second base is a little easier for a guy like him,” said one scout to George King. Keith Law also said he would bet Castro is “above-average to plus” at second base. So if nothing else, there are two people on Earth who believe Starlin has the tools for be a real asset defensively on the right side of second base.

There are reasons to believe Castro will be a very good defender at second base, if not right away then in time, as he gains experience. I’m guessing we’ll see a wide range out of plays at second this year. Some truly spectacular plays and some goofs on routine plays, perhaps because Castro is still learning the nuances at second. The early returns at second last season were generally promising, both defensively and offensively. The Yankees want their new second baseman to build on that in 2016.

The Three Questions Facing Brett Gardner [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The last 12 months have been pretty eventful for Brett Gardner. He had a phenomenal first half last season, good enough to get him to his first All-Star Game. He then struggled big time in the second half, so much so that he (and the rest of the Yankees) were booed in the wildcard game. Then, after the season, Gardner’s name was floated in constant trade rumors over the winter.

The Yankees never did trade Gardner though, so he again reported to Spring Training as the starting left fielder and a key offensive table-setter. Even with that disastrous second half, Gardner hit .259/.343/.399 (105 wRC+) with 16 homers and 20 steals in 2015, plus he played strong defense. He’s no longer a Gold Glove caliber defender, but he is an asset in the field. Gardner’s two-way play is pretty darn valuable. There are still some questions heading into 2016. Big questions.

Is His Wrist Okay?

Little did we know, Gardner suffered a bone bruise in his left wrist making a catch during the wildcard game last fall. Here’s the video if you can’t remember the play:

The bone bruise lingered all through the offseason — perhaps that’s why the Yankees were unable to make a trade? — and was still an issue when Gardner reported to Spring Training. “We’ll start him out of the gate slow. Just more of a safe route,” said Brian Cashman earlier this spring. He added recent tests had shown “significant” improvement.

So the Yankees took it slow with Gardner, and it wasn’t until this Wednesday that he played in a Grapefruit League game. Gardner went 0-for-2 and, most importantly, he felt fine afterwards. He did have his wrist wrapped in ice after the game according to Brendan Kuty, but that’s not really surprising. Gardner’s still receiving treatment. They call it “prehab.” Many players literally sit in a tub of ice water after games to help their bodies recover.

Last season Gardner battled wrist trouble after being hit with two pitches in a short period of time, thought that was the other wrist. He took the two pitches to the right wrist. Now the left is acting up. So far he seems to be doing well in camp — Gardner progressed from hitting off a tee to hitting in a cage to batting practice to live batting practice to a game — and that’s good news. Wrist injuries are always scary though, and if this thing lingers into the season, it could really impact Brett’s production.

Is He Going To Steal More Bases?

Back in 2010, his first full season as a big league player, Gardner stole 47 bases and finished third in the AL behind Juan Pierre (68) and Rajai Davis (50). The next year he stole 49 bases and tied with Coco Crisp for the league lead. Gardner lost almost the entire 2012 season to injury, but from 2013-15, he stole only 24, 21, and 20 bases. That’s still a healthy amount. It’s just not an eye-popping number.

Gardner attempted a stolen base in 24.6% of his opportunities — a stolen base opportunity is define as being on first or second base with the next base unoccupied — from 2010-11, well above the 5.6% league average. From 2013-15, his attempt rate dropped to 10.9%, which is still above the 6.7% league average, but not by much. (Teams are attempting more steals as offense declines.) Gardner’s success rate is still fantastic (78% from 2013-15), he just doesn’t run as often.

“I can’t necessarily pinpoint what it is, but obviously I was a little less aggressive,” said Gardner to Mark Feinsand. “You can’t steal 40-something bases if you don’t try to steal 40-something bases. I think all that starts with getting on base more often, trying to get my OBP north of .350 and doing a good job of being consistent and setting the table for these guys at the heart of the order … I think for the most part I’ve done a good job of trying to do that and being smart about when we run but we’re always looking for ways to improve.”

The general lack of steals and Gardner’s hesitation when stealing bases has earned him the “bad base-runner” label, which is a load of crap. Brett takes the extra base (first-to-third on a single, move up on a wild pitch, etc.) at a rate far better than the league average (48% from 2013-15; average is 39%), and his +14.9 base-running runs are the 13th most in baseball since 2013. Gardner’s a very good base-runner. The lack of steals doesn’t make him bad.

Stealing bases is a young man’s game. The 2016 season will be Gardner’s age 33 season, and only seven players have stolen 30+ bases in their age 33 season since 2000. (Only one has stolen 40+ bases.) Expecting Brett to get back to stealing 40+ bases like he did from 2010-11 is unrealistic. Players his age rarely do it. The stolen base aging curve (via Mike Podhorzer) doesn’t lie:

Stolen Base Aging Curve

The blue line represents all players. The red line represents players who had at least one season with 20+ steals in their career, like Gardner. Historically the peak ages for steals are 23-27. After that, it’s a steady decline. Or in the case of former speedsters, a rather steep decline. The speed just isn’t there any more and all those years of stealing bases and diving back into first base on pickoff throws take a toll.

Remember, Gardner has had injuries to both wrists in the last 12 months, and stealing bases is dangerous. It’s a good way to get stepped on or jam your fingers or whatever. I can’t imagine the Yankees are eager to have Gardner attempt a bunch of stolen bases after nursing a bone bruise in his wrist for the last five months. Gardner says he wants to be a little more aggressive this year and that’s fine. At this point of his career he’s a 20-25 stolen base guy though. Nothing more.

How Does He Avoid Another Bad Second Half?

There’s no sugarcoating it: Gardner’s second half slump last season was brutal. He hit .206/.300/.292 (66 wRC+) after the All-Star break, which ranked 146th out of 156 qualified hitters in terms of wRC+. Wrist problems or not, Gardner was awful in the second half, and it has become a bit of a pattern.

First Half Second Half
2013 .272/.338/.422 (109 wRC+) .274/.354/.403 (110 wRC+)
2014 .279/.353/.424 (122 wRC+) .218./286/.417 (95 wRC+)
2015 .302/.377/.484 (137 wRC+) .206/.300/.292 (66 wRC+)
Career .283/.360/.421 (115 wRC+) .236/.326/.351 (88 wRC+)

Gardner had no dip in performance in the second half of 2013. In 2014 he had a pretty substantial dip, and in 2015 it was even bigger. He lost 71 points of wRC+ between the first and second halves this year. Sheesh. Gardner has been hurt the last two second halves — he had the wrist problem after the hit-by-pitches in 2015, and in 2014 he played through an abdominal injury so severe it required offseason surgery — but no one wants to hear that because it sounds like an excuse.

Regardless of what happened from 2014-15, the Yankees and Joe Girardi have said they want to find a way to keep Gardner (and everyone else) productive all season, and they hope to do that with extra rest. Aaron Hicks was brought in to be the fourth outfielder, and since he’s a switch-hitter, Girardi can play him against both righties and lefties. Chris Young was awesome last season, but you did not want him at the plate against a right-handed pitcher.

Gardner has played at least 1,150 innings in the outfield in five of the last six seasons, and the only time he didn’t was 2012, the year he barely played due to an elbow injury. That’s a lot of running around and fatigue is a very real factor, especially now that he’s approaching his mid-30s. I don’t know if there’s a magic number. Gardner has played 145+ games in five of the last six seasons, so maybe now he’s more of a 130 games a year player. That sound okay?

The key to avoiding another second half slump is health, first and foremost. Bad wrists or bad abdomens or whatever are no good for baseball playing. Managing fatigue is also important, and it’s up to Girardi to do that, because Gardner’s is not the kind of guy who will ask for a day off or give something less than his all on the field.

“I’m going to continue to play hard, but I am going to try to play smart. If it’s 13-2, don’t dive into first or run into a wall,” said Gardner to Kevin Kernan. “(Playing hard) got me to where I am today. I’m not going to turn the volume down.”

A Full Season of Nasty Nate? [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees saw two versions of Nathan Eovaldi last season. They saw the frustrating, hit prone version with good stuff and bad results. Then they saw the guy with swing and miss stuff and the ability to dominate a lineup. The difference was the splitter and the numbers do not lie: Eovaldi had a 4.95 ERA (3.95 FIP) with a 15.8% strikeout rate without the splitter and a 3.46 ERA (2.90 FIP) with a 20.2% strikeout rate with it.

Elbow inflammation ended Eovaldi’s season in early-September last year, though he healed up and was ready to go as a reliever had the Yankees advanced to the ALDS. (He didn’t have time to stretch out to start.) Eovaldi has been throwing 98-99 mph in his two Grapefruit League starts, so the elbow’s healthy. Now the Yankees can look forward to having a full season of the good version of Eovaldi, the guy with an out-pitch splitter. Here are three questions I have for 2016.

Can He Pitch Deeper Into Games?

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild had Eovaldi start the season with a true forkball so he could get used to having his fingers so far apart on the baseball. After a while he shortened him up to the splitter grip, which is when he took off. With the forkball grip, Nate averaged 3.78 pitches per plate appearance. With the splitter grip, he averaged … 4.06 pitches per plate appearance. The split didn’t make him more efficient.

Right now, it’s more than fair to say Eovaldi is a five and fly pitcher. He made 27 starts last year and he completed six full innings only eleven times. Nasty Nate was a drain on the bullpen. He was able to give some more length after learning the splitter, but not much more. That’s the next item on the development checklist. Learn how to pitch deep into games and become a 200-inning horse.

How does that happen? Eovaldi’s walk and overall strike rates are fine, so he’s not a guy who nibbles. He’s just a guy who gives up a lot of foul balls, and I’m not sure how to correct that. Change in pitch selection? Again, Eovaldi’s first pitch strike rate was good, so he has no trouble getting ahead in the count. He has to figure out how to finish hitters off in a timely fashion. This is something for Eovaldi and Rothschild to figure out. I’m just the messenger, you guys.

Is He Going To Use His Curveball?

When he reported to Spring Training, Eovaldi said he intends to work on his curveball in camp, though we haven’t really seen it yet. (Only two starts though.) I’m not sure working on a fourth pitch is worth the effort, but hey, if it’s something he can improve, great. The curve could be the key to getting some quicker outs and pitching deeper into games.

Eovaldi has two good pitches already in his fastball and splitter, and his slider is effective now that it’s his third pitch and not his second pitch. Spring Training is the time to mess around, though I feel like any time spent on the curveball would be better spent on the slider. The curve has been that bad all throughout his career, dating back to high school. Meh, I guess there’s no harm in trying. Maybe Rothschild can figure something else. Four-pitch Eovaldi would be something. I’d be happy with three good pitches Eovaldi.

Can He Keep The Ball In The Park Again?

Last summer Eovaldi allowed only ten homers in 154.1 innings, which is nutso. He allowed one more homer than Luis Severino in 92 more innings. Eovaldi had a 0.58 HR/9 and a 7.8 HR/FB% last year, which seems totally unsustainable in Yankee Stadium, except his career rates are 0.63 HR/9 and 7.1 HR/FB%. His home/road split was non-existent too:

Home: 0.57 HR/9 and 8.1 HR/FB%
Road: 0.59 HR/9 and 7.5 HR/FB%

Eovaldi’s ground ball rate was well-above-average last year (52.2%) but not insanely so. He’s not Dallas Keuchel or anything like that. (Keuchel in 2015: 61.7 GB%, 0.66 HR/9, 13.6 HR/FB%.) It’s weird. For all the hits he can give up, hitters rarely square Eovaldi up and hit the ball in the air with authority. His career homer numbers are fantastic, and we’re talking about a guy with over 600 career innings.

Would it be a surprise if Eovaldi’s home rate jumped this season simply because of Yankee Stadium? Of course not. A windy night could turn two lazy fly ball outs into two cheap short porch homers. Clearly though, Eovaldi has some kind of homer suppressing skill. Maybe it’s just the pure velocity; hitters can’t get around on Eovaldi’s fastball quick enough to really square him up. After all, most rallies against him look like this:

Nathan Eovaldi Red Sox rally2

Single after single, grounder with eyes after grounder with eyes. It almost seems like hitters get just enough of the pitch to find a hole, but not enough to do major damage. Even while pitching his home games in Yankee Stadium, Eovaldi held opponents to a .093 ISO last summer. Here is the full list of pitchers who held hitters to a sub-.100 ISO in 2015 (min. 150 IP):

  1. Jake Arrieta – .086
  2. Zack Greinke – .089
  3. Clayton Kershaw – .089
  4. Tyson Ross – .092
  5. Nathan Eovaldi – .093
  6. Gerrit Cole – .097
  7. Dallas Keuchel – .097
  8. Sonny Gray – .099

That is some company, eh? Keep doing that, Nate. This pitching thing will work out for you.

* * *

The Yankees have all sorts of injury questions in their rotation, so Eovaldi is one of their healthier starters by default. Masahiro Tanaka has the partial ligament tear in his elbow, CC Sabathia‘s knee is bone-on-bone, and Michael Pineda‘s shoulder was cut open not too long ago. Eovaldi is almost a decade removed from Tommy John surgery, and since then he’s only had a little inflammation here and there.

Eovaldi just turned 26 years old and he’s two years away from free agency. This is a big year for him. It’s the year to establish himself as a big time pitcher, someone who can use his splitter to get above-average results and throw a lot of innings. The Yankees go to great lengths to give their starters extra rest, so they’re doing their part. Now it’s time to see if the splitter really is the cure-all it seemed to be.

The Best No. 3 Reliever in Baseball [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Over the last three years, Dellin Betances has made the transition from control-challenged minor league starter to two-time All-Star setup man. He’s gone from busted prospect to indispensable big leaguer. This is the ten-year anniversary of Dellin’s draft year, you know. It’s been a long time coming.

Most teams would make a reliever of Betances’ caliber their closer. With the Yankees, Dellin is only their third best option in the bullpen behind Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. I mean, you could argue Betances is the best of the three, the same way you could argue Miller or Chapman is the best of three. They’re all awesome. Chapman is going to close though, and Miller is going to close during Chapman’s suspension, so I guess that makes Dellin the third option.

Either way, Betances will be a crucial part of the bullpen and a crucial part of the Yankees this summer. They’re built from the ninth inning forward. The plan to build a lead however possible — they have to out-score their own starting pitcher, so to speak — then turn it over to the bullpen. Dellin figures to be the first guy out of the bullpen most nights. Let’s look at three important aspects of his 2016 season.

Watch His Workload

Betances is a massive human — he’s listed at 6-foot-8 and 265 lbs. on the team’s official site, though I think he’s heavier than that (not in a bad way) — and he’s endured a heavy workload these last two years. He threw 174 innings from 2014-15, nearly 20 innings more than any other reliever in baseball, and Dellin admitted to being fatigued late last year. “I think that will help my workload as well, having Chapman there,” he said over the winter (video link).

Of course, Betances’ ability to throw a lot of innings is a huge part of his value, and the Yankees want to maintain that ability. Perhaps Chapman will be able to help here. Joe Girardi can use Betances for two innings one day, then be better able to give him that extra day of rest because Miller and Chapman will still be available. Throwing two innings at a time is not necessarily a bad thing. Throwing two innings and not getting enough rest is a bad thing.

Pitching is inherently dangerous. Pitching while fatigued is even more dangerous, and the Yankees want to make sure Betances is effective not only this season, but the next several seasons as well. Dellin’s in this for the long haul. Girardi has to figure out a way to balance winning now with Betances’ long-term health, which is not easy. Hopefully the Chapman pickup means Girardi can give Dellin that extra day of rest on occasion this season. It could go a long way.

What About The Walks?

In terms of performance, the only significant difference between 2014 Betances and 2015 Betances was his walk rate. His strikeout (39.6% vs. 39.5%) and ground ball (46.6% vs. 47.7%) rates were basically identical, yet his walk rate jumped from 7.0% in 2014 to 12.1% in 2015. It was especially bad early in the season and late in the season. Not so bad in the middle:

Dellin Betances walk rateBetances has a history of high walk rates, so this isn’t completely out of the ordinary. He walked 12.2% of batters faced in Triple-A in 2013, which was actually an improvement from his 15.7% walk rate at Double-A and Triple-A in 2012. Lots of walks is nothing new for Dellin, but that’s kind of a problem, right? You don’t want the high walk rate. We want Betances to get back to that 7.0% walk rate he had in 2014.

Tall pitchers have a long history of struggling to repeat their mechanics, leading to poor control. Randy Johnson didn’t post his first sub-10.0% walk rate until age 29, for example. Betances, who turns 28 next week, is on record saying working out of the bullpen helps him maintain his delivery because he pitches more often. He’s not throwing more innings, but he’s pitching more games, and the daily work helps him.

Betances was pretty awesome even with all the walks last season. Hopefully he can bring his walk rate down this year. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. With that big frame and that powerful delivery, I think Betances will always be prone to bouts of wildness. It comes with the territory, and as long as he keeps missing bats and getting weak contact, the walks won’t be a major problem.

Fireman

Over the last two years Girardi has shown a willingness to bring Betances into the middle of an inning to clean up another pitcher’s mess. He appeared in 74 games last year, and eleven times he entered in the middle of the inning with at least two runners on base. Twenty times he entered a game with either the tying or go-ahead run on base. When push came to shove, Dellin was on the mound.

With Chapman in tow and Miller not traded, Girardi will have some more freedom to use Betances to put out fires in the middle innings. Girardi does like to assign his relievers specific innings and it would be easy to shoehorn Dellin in as the seventh inning guy, but I’m sure we’ll see him in the sixth inning a bunch of times too. Girardi has shown he will do that. Except now we’re going to see the starter handing the ball right to Betances. Not a middle reliever. Adding Chapman makes Betances available for middle innings and that’s huge. Lots of games are won and lost there.

The Closer Turned Setup Man [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It’s not often a closer loses his job after saving 36 games and posting the second highest strikeout rate in baseball. That’s exactly what happened to Andrew Miller this offseason, as the Yankees bumped him from the ninth inning in favor of new pickup Aroldis Chapman. Most players would be upset with the demotion if not outright angry. Not Miller.

“It wouldn’t be very welcoming on my end, or very appreciative on my end, toward a lot of people,” said Miller when asked about losing his closer’s job after reporting to Spring Training last month. “I don’t want to make (Joe Girardi‘s) life harder. I don’t want to make Aroldis’ life harder. You know, we all want to win. That’s something that all the veteran guys want, that’s their goal, and then hopefully the young guys see that and hopefully fall into line with that.”

Miller has had that same mentality since arriving in New York last year. His role is not important as long as he helps the team win. “For what they’re paying me, I’ll do anything,” he famously said to reporters after Girardi officially named him the closer last May. Lots of players say they’ll do whatever the team asks of them. We hear it all the time. Few seem as sincere as Miller.

Of course, the Yankees tried to trade Miller over the winter, even before acquiring Chapman. Well, maybe “tried to trade” isn’t the best way to put it. As far as we know they weren’t actively shopping him, but they did let teams know he was available at the right price, and that right price included a young starting pitcher. There were talks with the Astros about Vincent Velasquez and Lance McCullers Jr., plus rumors of the Dodgers and Cubs being interested.

Nothing happened, so Miller remains a Yankee and is about to begin the second season of what has already become a bargain four-year, $36M contract. It’s not often big money free agent reliever contracts look so good even one year in. Miller had a 1.90 ERA (2.16 FIP) with a 40.7% strikeout rate and an 8.1% walk rate in 61.2 innings last year despite missing a month with a forearm issue. That’s elite production worth more than $9M a year.

Miller actually added a tiny little bit of velocity last season, with his heater jumping from 94.9 mph in 2014 to 95.1 mph in 2015. His bread and butter is the slider though, a slider Miller actually threw more often than his fastball (54.8% to 45.2%) last year. Throwing that many sliders is generally not a good idea from a “keep your arm healthy” point of view. In a perfect world Miller would scale back his slider usage a tad going forward for the sake of self-preservation. Then again, fewer sliders likely means less success because the pitch is so good. Hitters look helpless against it.

The combination of the forearm issue and extreme slider usage — only Sergio Romo (58.8%), Al Alburquerque (55.6%), and Shawn Kelley (54.9%) threw a higher percentage of sliders among relievers in 2015 — are enough of a red flag to remind you Miller isn’t perfect. Relievers tend to go poof without warning as it is. Add in a previous arm injury — however minor it may have been — and a slider heavy approach and you’ve got someone who carries risk. Maybe that’s why the Yankees were open to trading him.

Either way, the Yankees have already announced Miller will close during Chapman’s suspension. Once Chapman returns, Miller will slide into a setup role and team with Dellin Betances to form what has a chance to be the best setup tandem in history. Ideally, Miller would face the tough lefties in the seventh or eighth inning while Betances faces the tough righties. It probably doesn’t matter though. They’re both so good against batters on either side of the plate.

Girardi has shown over the years that he likes to assign his relievers set innings. He likes to have an eighth inning guy and he likes to have a seventh inning guy whenever possible. Miller closed last season and the natural move would be to bump him back into the eighth inning. Girardi has also talked about using only two of the big three relievers in any given game to make sure one is always fresh the next day, though we’ll see what happens when the games begin. Miller doesn’t seem to care how he’s used as long as the team wins.

“I’m just trying to get ready. I’m trying to throw the ball as well as possible and then I’ll deal with the situations when we get to games. It’ll be a little bit of an adjustment but I don’t think it’ll be tough,” he said. “Whatever’s asked of us, we’ll be ready.”

The Latest New Closer [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees made a controversial trade this past offseason. It wasn’t controversial from a talent standpoint. In fact, this might the only trade during the RAB era in which everyone agrees the Yankees made out like bandits in terms of the talent exchanged. That never happens. Usually more than few folks are happy to say New York got fleeced. Not this time.

The trade: prospects Eric Jagielo, Rookie Davis, Caleb Cotham, and Tony Renda to the Reds for closer Aroldis Chapman. It’s a four-for-one swap that is essentially a two-for-one swap because Jagielo and Davis were the only actual prospects involved, though neither appeared on any of the top 100 lists published this spring. Cotham is a 28-year-old rookie and Renda went unpicked in December’s Rule 5 Draft.

The Yankees were able to acquire Chapman on the cheap because of a domestic dispute incident at his Miami home in October. Chapman had been traded to the Dodgers at the Winter Meetings — the two sides agreed to the deal — but Los Angeles walked away once the details of the incident came to light. Chapman allegedly choked and pushed his girlfriend, and he admitted to firing eight shots from a handgun in his garage.

The trade came with instant backlash. Brian Cashman admitted the Yankees made the deal because the Reds lowered their asking price after reports of the incident surfaced, so the team used a domestic violence investigation to benefit on the field, which is gross as hell. I hope they never ever ever do it again. Several women’s rights groups protested the trade and New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said the team should be boycotted.

People were (and still are, really) mad and it’s not difficult to understand why. Chapman was not arrested, but the allegations were ugly, and the possibility of a suspension loomed. Ultimately, no criminal charges were filed against Chapman and MLB suspended him 30 games under their new domestic violence policy. He agreed not to appeal the ban, likely because MLB threatened a longer suspension, which could have delayed his free agency.

Now that the investigations are complete and the suspension has been levied, Chapman and the Yankees can move forward and focus on baseball. They’ll have to come up with a plan to make sure he’s ready as soon as the suspension ends, though that shouldn’t be a huge deal. Chapman can pitch in Extended Spring Training games in the meantime. It’s not like he’s a hitter who needs to get his rhythm or a starter who has to get stretched out.

The addition of Chapman adds another elite reliever to a bullpen that already had two of them in Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. In fact, Betances, Chapman, and Miller rank first, sixth, and ninth in projected 2016 WAR among relievers according to ZiPS, respectively. Three top nine relievers is pretty awesome, especially since it could easily end up being three top five relievers. These guys are that good. Anyway, here’s some more on Chapman.

Chapman Is Insanely Good

There seem to be a lot of people trying to minimize Chapman’s impact for whatever reason. The Yankees went 66-3 when leading after six innings last summer and that’s really good. It’s a .957 winning percentage when the league average was .882. It’s also totally irrelevant. Last year is last year. This is a new year. The odds of the Yankees repeating a .950+ winning percentage when leading after seven this summer are substantially higher with Chapman on board.

Last season Chapman had a 1.63 ERA (1.94 FIP) with a 41.7% strikeout rate in 66.1 innings and it was only his third best season in the last four years. Chapman is replacing Justin Wilson in Joe Girardi‘s end-game trio and Wilson was very good last season. The Yankees don’t get to the postseason without him. Here is Chapman vs. Wilson:

Justin Wilson Aroldis ChapmanChapman was a lot better than Wilson last season and he projects to be a lot better than him this season. You needn’t look at the projection systems to understand Chapman is an upgrade. He’s a significant addition to the bullpen. That isn’t the say Wilson wasn’t good last year or won’t be good this year. It’s just that any objective measure tells you Chapman will be better.

There is a lot more to Chapman than his high-octane fastball. He’s got a good slider and a sneaky good changeup — hitters swung and missed 56.8% (!) of the time against his changeup last year — and his long stride makes his triple digit fastball play up. Chapman is a true freak of nature. Baseball has never seen anything like this guy before. It’s going to be a treat to watch him on the field this summer.

Another New Closer

Girardi announced Chapman will indeed close this season — Miller will close during the suspension, because duh — which isn’t surprising. Chapman has done nothing but close the last four years while Betances has proven invaluable as a fireman and Miller continues to express a willingness to pitch in any role. There’s no wrong answer here. Any of the three could close and would be awesome at it.

So, with Chapman set to close this year, the Yankees are about to have their fifth different closer in the last five years. Hard to believe after nearly two decades of Mariano Rivera, ain’t it? Check out the list:

2012: Rafael Soriano (while Mo was hurt)
2013: Rivera
2014: David Robertson
2015: Miller
2016: Chapman

That’s not just five different closers in five years, it’s five awesome closers in five years. Robertson probably had the worst season of a Yankees closer from 2012-15 and he had a 3.08 ERA (2.68 FIP). Most teams would kill to have a closer that good. That was New York’s worst closer in a very, very long time.

The crazy thing is this is almost all by design. Rivera’s injury was a dumb fluke, but otherwise going from Mo to Robertson to Miller to Chapman was all planned. It’s not like the Yankees had someone stink as closer and lose his job to someone else, which happens all around the league each year. Chapman will be the team’s fifth closer in five years and in no way is that a bad thing.

One & Done

All indications are Chapman will be a Yankee for one year and one year only. He will qualify for free agency after the season and the team doesn’t spend money these days, at least not on long-term deals. Chapman will have a chance to break Jonathan Papelbon’s record contract for a reliever (four years, $50M) next winter. I can’t imagine the Yankees will go there, especially not with one big money reliever already on the books.

The Yankees will be able to make Chapman the qualifying offer after the season and I think the only way they don’t tender the qualifying offer is catastrophic injury. A blown elbow or shoulder, something that will sideline him the entire 2017 season. That sort of thing. Even with a down year, I think the Yankees would be willing to roll the dice with a qualifying offer. Worst case scenario is they get Chapman back on a one-year contract in 2017. The big salary doesn’t scare them, it’s the multiple years.

So, barring injury, this trade will likely net the Yankees one year of Chapman (well, 132 games of Chapman) plus a supplemental first round draft pick after the season. That’s a pretty great return considering they gave up two good but not great prospects and no one off their big league roster. The Yankees took a massive PR hit with this trade. Hopefully Chapman’s on-field performance makes it all worth it.