2014 Season Review: Dealin’ Dellin

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Man, Dellin Betances had to travel a long and hard road to get to where he was in 2014, namely being a deserving All-Star and arguably the best relief pitcher on the planet. The Yankees drafted him way back in the eighth round of the 2006 draft, gave him a $1M bonus to pass on a commitment to Vanderbilt — that was before the draft got borked — and waiting patiently as he battled injury and (occasionally extreme) control problems in the minors.

Here, let’s take a moment to soak in Dellin’s minor league career to fully understand where he’s coming from:

Year Age Lev ERA G GS IP H R ER HR BB SO HBP WP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9
2006 18 Rk 1.16 7 7 23.1 14 5 3 1 7 27 1 2 0.900 5.4 0.4 2.7 10.4
2007 19 A- 3.60 6 6 25.0 24 11 10 0 17 29 2 3 1.640 8.6 0.0 6.1 10.4
2008 20 A-Rk 3.92 25 24 121.2 100 64 53 9 62 141 11 11 1.332 7.4 0.7 4.6 10.4
2009 21 A+ 5.48 11 11 44.1 48 29 27 2 27 44 2 3 1.692 9.7 0.4 5.5 8.9
2010 22 A+-AA 2.11 17 17 85.1 53 25 20 4 22 108 4 6 0.879 5.6 0.4 2.3 11.4
2011 23 AA-AAA 3.70 25 25 126.1 102 61 52 9 70 142 10 7 1.361 7.3 0.6 5.0 10.1
2012 24 AAA-AA 6.44 27 26 131.1 144 107 94 13 99 124 12 20 1.850 9.9 0.9 6.8 8.5
2013 25 AAA 2.68 38 6 84.0 52 25 25 2 42 108 7 8 1.119 5.6 0.2 4.5 11.6
8 Seasons 3.99 156 122 641.1 537 327 284 40 346 723 49 60 1.377 7.5 0.6 4.9 10.1
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/4/2014.

There’s a lot going on there, and a lot of it isn’t good. Betances was damn near out of baseball in May 2013 before the Yankees permanently shifted him to the bullpen, hoping the shorter outings would better allow him to repeat his delivery and locate. The decision paid off immediately as Betances dominated for Triple-A Scranton the rest of the season and impressed during his September call-up.

For the first time in his eight full seasons as a professional baseball player, Betances came to Spring Training this year with a chance to win a big league job. There was an opening in the bullpen, and while he was the best choice for the spot on paper, he had to come to camp to show last season’s bullpen success was no fluke first. His career had been way too up-and-down to hand him anything. Dellin had a minor league option left. The Yankees could have easily sent him to Triple-A.

Betances showed up to Tampa in the spring and won that bullpen spot with ease. He only struck out eleven in 12.1 Grapefruit League innings, but it felt like a lot more. More importantly, Dellin was locating his fastball — in addition to flat out blowing it by hitters, of course — and dropping his breaking ball in for called strikes. The outing that appeared to cement his place in the big league bullpen came on March 23rd, when he struck out Jose Bautista and got Edwin Encarnacion to fly out harmlessly to left with the bases loaded.

When the regular season started, Betances was the second-to-last man in the bullpen, ahead of only Vidal Nuno. David Robertson was locked into the closer’s role and Shawn Kelley, Adam Warren, and David Phelps all had more big league time among the setup candidates. Betances made his first appearance of the year in the team’s very first game, striking out two in a perfect inning of work with the Yankees down six runs in the seventh inning. That’s as low-leverage as it gets.

Three days later, Betances entered a game the Yankees were leading by three runs with two outs in the eighth. He walked the first man he faced (Bautista) before getting the next (Encarnacion) to ground out to end the inning. The Yankees scored an insurance run in the top of the ninth, so Joe Girardi sent Dellin back out for the bottom half, but he walked the leadoff man on four pitches and that was that. The leash was short. Robertson came in to close out the game.

Dellin climbed the bullpen totem pole over the next few weeks, allowing three runs while striking out 21 of 47 batters faced in his final eight appearances and 12 innings of April. By mid-May he had established himself not as Girardi’s primary eighth inning guy, but as a multi-inning middle reliever who routinely got five or six outs at a time. His coming of age moment, if you will, came on May 15th against the Mets, when he struck out six of seven batters faced with the Yankees leading 1-0.

From that moment on, Girardi regularly turned to Betances in the game’s biggest situations and used him as a multi-inning high-leverage reliever. It was awesome. It was the perfect role. The kind of role we talk about all the time even though it never really happens because relief pitcher-ing is hard. Betances struck out 35 of 70 batters faced — half! — at one point from mid-May through mid-June, and he went into the All-Star break with a 1.46 ERA (1.36 FIP) and a 40.8% strikeout rate in 55.1 innings across 40 appearances.

Red Sox manager John Farrell named Betances to the AL All-Star Team — he was the only non-closing reliever named to the AL team — though he was one of three pitchers who did not pitch in the game, along with Mark Buehrle and David Price. It was disappointing but not really a bad thing given his first half workload. Betances threw a ton of important innings in the first half and a little four-day rest in mid-July was the best thing for him in the grand scheme of things.

After the All-Star break, it appeared Girardi and the Yankees made the conscious decision to limit Dellin’s workload in the second half. After recording four outs or more 24 times in the first half, he was asked to do it only eleven times after the All-Star break. His effectiveness never waned but the Yankees were simply being careful with someone who quickly emerged as a top asset. Betances settled into a tradition eighth inning role in late-July and for the most part stayed their through the end of the season.

My single favorite plate appearance of the 2014 season came on August 5th, when Betances flat-out overpowered two-time reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera with the score tied in the top of the eighth. He got Miggy to swing over a breaking ball and through two 99-100 mph fastballs. It was swoon worthy. Check it out:

Dellin’s final appearance as a multi-inning super-reliever came on August 13th, as the Yankees were clinging to postseason hope in a game against the division rival Orioles. They were up 2-1 in the sixth inning when Girardi called on Betances, who struck out he side in the sixth and retired the side in order in the seventh. He went back out for the eighth with his pitch count at only 24, got the first out, then served up a game-tying solo homer to Jonathan Schoop. The Yankees lost the game when the rest of the bullpen melted down.

Betances finished the season with a 1.40 ERA (1.64 FIP) in 90 innings spread across 70 appearances. His strikeout (13.50 K/9 and 39.6 K%) numbers were off the charts, and he also posted very good walk (2.40 BB/9 and 7.0 BB%), homer (0.40 HR/9 and 6.0 HR/FB%), and ground ball (46.6%) rates. Betances led all full-time relievers in innings, strikeouts (135), WPA (+4.42), fWAR (3.2), and bWAR (3.7). His 35 appearances of at least four outs were the most in baseball by a wide margin (Warren was second with 29.)

The parallels between Betances’ career and Mariano Rivera‘s are kinda eerie. Both were starting pitching prospects who had their issues in the minors and didn’t break out until being moved into the bullpen full-time. They both had dominant first full seasons with the Yankees as a multi-inning setup man at age 26 — Betances broke Mo’s single-season reliever strikeout record (130 in 1996) this year — and like Rivera, Betances could wind up taking over as closer in his second year if the team’s veteran closer leaves via free agency. That doesn’t mean Betances will be the next Rivera of course, just that they’ve have freakishly similar careers to date.

What happens with Betances in the future is a conversation for another time. For now, let’s just appreciate his 2014 mastery, when he was unquestionably the most exciting thing about the Yankees from Opening Day through Game 162. Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda had their moments around their injuries, but Betances was there from start to finish. We were all upset every time the bullpen door opened and someone other than Dellin came running out even though we knew he couldn’t pitch everyday. Dealin’ Dellin was the rose that grew out of the cracks in the sidewalk that was the 2014 Yankees.

2014 Season Review: The Swingman

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

Way back in Spring Training, the Yankees held an honest-to-goodness competition for the fifth starter’s spot. Michael Pineda blew everyone out of the water in camp and won the job with ease, but he was a total unknown coming into the year due to his injuries. He has to prove he belonged in the rotation and that’s exactly what he did.

One of Pineda’s competitors for that fifth starter’s job was David Phelps, who has competed for a rotation spot in Spring Training in each of the last three years. Phelps had to settle for a bullpen gig and his role was undefined at the outset of the regular season. He was essentially the third setup option behind Shawn Kelley and Adam Warren before Dellin Betances broke out.

Phelps allowed one run in 1.1 innings in his first appearance of the season, then allowed three runs in two innings of work his next time out. He finally had a scoreless outing in his third appearance, when he recorded all of one out. His best and most memorable relief appearance of the season was his fourth, when he retired all seven Red Sox batters he faced with a 4-1 lead to earn his first career save. The bullpen was taxed and he stepped up in a big way.

Three days later, Phelps recorded his single biggest out of the season (+.174 WPA) by striking out Mike Carp with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning of a game the Yankees led 3-2. It was an eight-pitch at-bat and I remember it because of Phelps’ little fist pump/bunny hop celebration combo:

David Phelps

Phelps remained in the bullpen for the entire month of April — he had a 3.86 ERA and 5.79 FIP in 11.2 innings during the season’s first month — before moving into the rotation to replace the suspended/injured Pineda. His first start was pretty good — he held the Angels to one run in 5.1 innings while on a strict pitch count. Phelps’ next outing was not so good (four runs in five innings against the Brewers) but his next two after that were strong (five scoreless against the Pirates, seven innings of two-run ball against the White Sox).

After getting roughed up in three straight starts by his hometown Cardinals (five runs in six innings), the Mariners (six runs in six innings), and the Royals (seven runs in 5.2 innings), Phelps settled down and went on his best stretch as a big league starting pitcher. Beginning on June 13th, he posted a 3.29 ERA and 4.27 FIP in 54.2 innings spread across his next nine starts. He completed at least five innings in all nine starts and at least six innings in six of nine starts. Phelps’ best start of the season (71 Game Score) was the first of those nine starts (6.2 scoreless against the A’s):

The Red Sox clobbered Phelps for five runs in only two innings on August 3rd, and a day later he was placed on the 15-day disabled list with elbow inflammation. Joe Girardi told Wally Matthews the elbow had been bothering Phelps for “three or four weeks” before he had to placed on the DL. “We thought it was something we could manage, and he was managing. He was pitching well. It was just inflammation. But [against the Red Sox], for whatever reason, it bothered him.”

The injury ended Phelps’ stint as a starter in 2014. He pitched to a 4.28 ERA and 4.18 FIP in 17 starts and 96.2 innings from early-May through early-August, which isn’t sexy but is more than fine from your sixth starter. Phelps was really the team’s seventh starter when you think about it. Vidal Nuno got the call when the team first needed a spot starter and he stayed in the rotation after Ivan Nova blew out his elbow. It wasn’t until Pineda got hurt/suspended that Phelps moved out of the bullpen and into the rotation.

Phelps returned to the team in mid-September and spent the rest of the year working in relief only because there wasn’t enough time left in the season to stretch him back out to starter. He closed out the year with six not particularly good appearances (4.2 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 6 BB, 3 K) in low-leverage spots. The most memorable part of Phelps’ September was when he threw at Kevin Kiermaier of the Rays — he buzzed him inside but did not hit him — apparently in retaliation for Tampa hitting a bunch of Yankees that month. The benches cleared but nothing really came of it.

Between his 17 starts and 15 relief appearances, Phelps had a 4.38 ERA and 4.41 FIP in a career-high 113 innings in 2014. His strikeout rate (7.33 K/9 and 18.5 K%), walk rate (3.66 BB/9 and 9.3 BB%), homer rate (1.04 HR/9 and 10.8 HR/FB%), and ground ball rate (41.2%) were all decidedly mediocre. League average or worse across the board. Phelps was actually more effective against lefties (.314 wOBA) and at home (.327 wOBA) than against lefties (.356 wOBA) and on the road (.338 wOBA), which is weird. Pretty much the opposite of what I expected.

Phelps is now three years into his big league career and he’s established himself as a swingman who won’t kill you as a spot starter for a month or two. His career performance as a starter (4.34 ERA and 4.16 FIP in 219.2 innings) isn’t all that different than his performance as a reliever (3.84 ERA and 4.32 FIP in 79.2 innings), so he’s yet to stand out in either role and make you think that’s where he belongs. That’s fine though. Swingmen get no glory but they are a necessary part of the pitching staff. Phelps was more than capable when pressed into duty this season as well as the last three seasons overall.

2014 Season Review: The Disappointing Brian McCann

Wasn't much to clap about this year, Brian. (Al Bello/Getty)
Wasn’t much to clap about this year, Brian. (Al Bello/Getty)

The post-Jorge Posada years have been a shock to the system for a generation of Yankees fans. For more than a decade we watched Posada compensate for his poor defense with huge offensive numbers, including a ridiculous .283/.386/.492 (131 wRC+) batting line from 2000-09. As a catcher! Jorge will one day have his number retired and get more than a few Hall of Fame votes, yet I still feel he is somehow underrated by the masses.

Anyway, the Yankees transitioned into the post-Posada years with Russell Martin, who was excellent defensively and slightly better than the league average catcher offensively (97 vs. 94 wRC+) from 2011-12. Martin was no Posada, but he was a perfectly capable starting catcher. When he jumped shipped and joined the Pirates prior to the 2013 season, the Yankees tricked themselves into thinking Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart could hold down the fort. Cervelli got hurt less than a month into the season and Stewart had a 57 wRC+ in way too many plate appearances (340).

The Yankees weren’t going to make that mistake again. Stewart was traded a few hours before last winter’s non-tender deadline to, coincidentally, the Pirates to serve as Martin’s backup. Austin Romine was still around following his disappointing year as Stewart’s backup, and John Ryan Murphy wasn’t quite ready for full-time duty after his breakout 2013 season, so the Yankees plugged their catching hole the way they plug most roster holes: they threw money at it.

On November 23rd of last year, the team agreed to a five-year contract worth $85M with free agent Brian McCann. The contract was the largest ever given to a free agent catcher and fourth largest for a catcher overall, behind Joe Mauer ($184M), Buster Posey ($164M), and Mike Piazza ($91M). It was a touch more than the five-year, $75M extension the Cardinals gave Yadier Molina two years ago. McCann’s contract also includes a sixth year vesting option with surprisingly favorable terms — he basically has to be a starting catcher from 2017-18 for the option to kick in.

McCann was a known commodity heading into free agency. He made seven All-Star teams during his nine years with the Braves — Posada only made five All-Star teams in his career — and was widely regarded as the best power-hitting catcher in the game. McCann hit 20+ homers every year from 2008-13 and seven times in his eight years as Atlanta’s starting catcher. He was also very durable, starting at least 110 games behind the plate in seven of those eight years. The only exception was 2013, when he started 91 games because he didn’t make his season debut until May following offseason shoulder surgery.

The right shoulder injury — he had a torn labrum and some cartilage damage — bothered McCann throughout the 2012 season, when he hit a career-worst .230/.300/.399 (87 wRC+) with 20 homers in 121 games. He showed the injury was behind him by hitting .256/.336/.461 (121 wRC+) with 20 homers in only 102 games in 2013, which was identical to the 121 wRC+ he put up from 2009-11, the three years before the shoulder injury. The Yankees looked McCann over during his pre-signing physical, talked up his toughness and leadership, and the deal was done.

As you know, McCann was a massive disappointment his first season in New York. He hit .232/.286/.406 (92 wRC+) with 23 homers — McCann led the team in dingers, though that’s more of an indictment of the rest of the roster than a credit to him — and it took a huge September (121 wRC+ and eight homers) to get his season numbers up even that high. Given the injuries to Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran, McCann’s was the team’s only regular middle of the order presence this summer and he didn’t produce as expected. At all.

We all know what happened with McCann and the Yankees this season, so there’s no sense in reliving it all step by step. Instead, let’s look at some specific parts of his game to see where things went wrong as well as the little bit that went right.

The Shift

Because he’s a left-handed pull hitter, opposing teams shifted against McCann all summer long. Certainly every time he was at the plate with the bases empty, and also sometimes with men on base. I remember seeing a graphic on a late-season broadcast (I think it was an ESPN Sunday Night Game, I forget exactly) that said McCann was one of the two or three most shifted against hitters in the game. I believe it.

Naturally, the shift was blamed for McCann’s poor offensive year by lots and lots of people. Lots. It was too easy. Too convenient. Except, you know, teams have been shifting against McCann for years and years. Don’t believe me? Here’s video of McCann beating the shift way back in May 2009:

Teams have been shifting against McCann for at least five seasons now and it obviously didn’t prevent him from putting up big numbers while with the Braves. He hit .281/.349/.486 (119 wRC+) during that 2009 season, for example.

Now, here’s another thing about the shift: McCann went the other way in 2014 far more than he had at any point in the last five years. Again, it’s easy to pin his struggles on his inability to adjust and go the other way, but McCann did adjust. Or at least he tried to adjust. Look at his ball in play numbers:

% Pull % Center % Opposite
2008 46.4% 31.3% 22.3%
2009 48.6% 30.7% 20.8%
2010 46.2% 33.2% 20.6%
2011 45.1% 35.1% 19.8%
2012 47.5% 33.9% 18.6%
2013 48.6% 31.5% 19.9%
2014 44.1% 33.4% 22.5%

McCann put more balls in play (95) and had more hits (30) to the opposite field in 2014 than he had in any season since 2008 (100 and 30). He averaged only 73 balls in play and 18 hits to the opposite field from 2009-13. His .316 BABIP the other way was his highest since 2006 (.378). McCann even laid down a few bunts — he bunted three balls in play and had one hit — and I couldn’t tell you how many times he tried to bunt only to have the ball go foul. More than I care to count.

Did the shift hurt McCann this season? Of course it did. Among the 132 batters who pulled at least 150 balls in play this year, McCann ranked 132nd with a .194 BABIP. Dead last. (Pablo Sandoval was second worst with a .206 BABIP.) Was the shift the reason he had such a poor debut season with the Yankees? Not entirely. He attempted to go the other way and the result was a lot of weak contact, especially pop-ups. McCann hit more lazy fly balls this year, especially to left and center fields, than I can ever remember seeing a left-handed batter hit. It reminded me of Teixeira in 2012, when he focused on going the other way and the result was a bunch of weak fly balls, so he abandoned the approach midseason.

Joe Girardi said the Yankees will emphasize beating the shift in Spring Training — good luck with that, still unnamed new hitting coach — but McCann is a 30-year-old veteran with almost 5,000 plate appearances in the big leagues. Maybe they can teach this old dog a new trick and get him to consistently beat the shift without turning him into a singles hitter. I’ll believe it when I see it. I think McCann simply needs to go back to doing what made him so successful with the Braves and pull the ball even more. He spent 2014 trying to go the other way and he result was the worst non-injury season of his career.

The Plate Discipline

Along with blaming the shift, I think my favorite generic baseball complaint is “he strikes out too much.” It’s so predictable too. Power hitter like McCann is struggling? He strikes out too much. Except McCann didn’t strike out much this year. His 14.3% strikeout rate was both right in line with his 14.5% career average and well-below the 20.4% league average. Fifty-seven players hit 20+ homers this year and four had a lower strikeout rate than McCann: Posey (11.3%), Albert Pujols (10.2%), Michael Brantley (8.3%) and Victor Martinez (6.6%). That’s it.

Just because McCann didn’t strike out much does not mean his plate discipline was an issue, however. His 5.9% walk rate was a career-low — his previous career-low was 6.3% way back in 2007, his second full year in the league — and way down from the 9.9% walk rate he posted from 2011-13. The weird thing is that McCann’s swing numbers were not out of line with the last few years:

Brian McCann plate discipline

Nothing unusual there. Typical year-to-year fluctuations but otherwise McCann’s in and out of the zone swing rates this season were right in line with the last few years and his career averages. It would have been a red flag if he had suddenly swung at 33% of the pitches he’d seen out of the zone (O-Swing%) or something, but that’s not the case.

McCann did not swing more this summer, but he did swing more often. His pitches per plate appearance average dropped to 3.83 this year, down from 4.06 last year and 3.99 from 2011-13. McCann simply swung a bit earlier in the count, and when you swing earlier in the count, you’re not going to draw many walks. In fact, he saw only 110 three ball counts in 538 plate appearances this year (20.4%), down from 25.4% last year and 23.1% from 2011-13. Explaining why McCann put the ball in plate earlier in the count this season is a fool’s errand. It could simply be an anomaly, or could be the result of moving into a new league with a new team and a new hitting coach. Whatever the reason, it led to fewer walks and fewer times on base given what was happening when he did put the ball in play.

The Splits

One of the many reasons the Yankees pursued McCann was his left-handed power, which fit perfectly in Yankee Stadium. There was talk of him hitting 40+ homers in Yankee Stadium, though I always though that was far-fetched. Thirty dingers did seem doable, and the fact that he still managed to swat 23 homers while having such an overall poor year supports that.

McCann’s 23 homeruns came with a .174 ISO, which was down a bit from the .189 ISO he posted from 2011-13. (It’s worth noting Yankee Stadium isn’t a good doubles park, which dragged down his ISO a tad.) His 12.2% HR/FB rate was right in line with his career average (12.7%) but way down from his 2011-13 numbers (14.3%). That’s after moving from spacious Turner Field into cozy Yankee Stadium too. McCann hit .242/.288/.496 (115 wRC+) with 19 (!) of his 23 homers at home, so he was particularly awful on the road (.221/.285/.306, 67 wRC+ and four homers).

The weird and kinda scary thing is McCann also didn’t hit right-handed pitchers at all this year. He put up a .256/.349/.452 (118 wRC+) line against righties from 2011-13, but this it was only .209/.272/.360 (76 wRC+) this summer. I mean, holy cow. His .292/.324/.526 (137 wRC+) batting line against southpaws was far better than his .245/.286/.417 (92 wRC+) performance the last three years. McCann’s been vulnerable to a quality lefty specialist throughout his career, but not in 2014. (I remember writing back in Spring Training that starting Cervelli against guys like David Price and Jon Lester was a good way to get McCann regular rest this summer.)

When the Yankees signed McCann, it seemed like a safe bet that he’d rake at Yankee Stadium and against right-handed pitchers just given his career to date and how well his swing fit the ballpark. He did mash in the Bronx, but he was dreadful on the road and shockingly bad against righties. I suspect his success against lefties is small sample size noise (145 plate appearances) and not some kind of revelation at age 30. Improving against righties is a must next season because chances are McCann won’t repeat that performance against same-side pitchers. We have all winter to discuss that though.

Catchers, man. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Catchers, man. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

The Defense

For all the offensive struggles, McCann was a rock behind the plate and an exceptional defender. He threw out 29 of 78 attempted base-stealers, a 37.2% success rate that was by far a career-high. McCann threw out a miserable 23.1% of attempted base-stealers from 2011-13, well-below the 28% league average. Only Yadier Molina (47.8%) and Martin (38.5%) had a better throw-out rate among the 22 catchers who caught at least 800 innings in 2014.

While this sudden ability to throw out base-runners could be nothing more than a one-year fluke, it’s worth noting McCann would not be the first catcher to improve his throwing under Joe Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena. Cervelli in particular improved his throwing greatly under their tutelage. Romine and Murphy improved as well. There’s also the health factor — he was now a full year away from shoulder surgery and his strength may have full returned. Who knows how long the shoulder was bothering him while in Atlanta? McCann did throw out 30.0% of attempted base-stealers back in 2010, after all.

Behind the plate, Bojan Koprivica’s work says McCann should have allowed 62 passed pitches (passed balls plus wild pitches) based on his workload this year, but he only allowed 39. Koprivica’s stats put McCann at +4.0 runs saved by blocking pitches, fourth best in baseball. Pitch framing data at StatCorner has McCann at +11.4 runs saved through framing, 11th best in baseball and sixth best among regular catchers. Catcher defense is a very difficult thing to quantify and I don’t love these stats yet, so I won’t make too big a deal about them. McCann scored well and my eyes told me was a pretty damn good behind the plate. That about sums it up.

McCann did more than catch though. He also played first base for the first time in his career. It wasn’t a one or two-game emergency stint either. It was supposed to be when Teixeira when on the disabled in April, but McCann wound up playing 16 games at first this year, including eleven starts. He came into 2014 with literally zero innings at first base in his career, Majors or minors. His inexperience was very evident at times — McCann’s biggest blunders came when it was unclear if he should play a weak ground ball or retreat to the bag and let either the pitcher or second baseman field it — and that’s to be expected. McCann was a decidedly below-average first baseman but I’m not going to hold that against him. The team put him in an uncomfortable situation and he did what he could.

* * *

There’s really no way to sugarcoat it: McCann’s first season in pinstripes was a major disappointment. The most memorable moment of his year was pinch-running for Derek Jeter in Game 162 after the Cap’n singled in his final career at-bat. Yeah. The Yankees expected McCann to be a middle of the order force in addition to providing top notch defense behind the plate, but instead he was a highly paid defensive specialist who rarely had an impact at the plate.

McCann’s late-season homer binge was encouraging heading into the offseason, though it wasn’t nearly enough to salvage his season. With another four years and $68M left on his contract, as well as the team’s continued need for more offense, the Yankees have to hope McCann’s first season in pinstripes was the result of changing leagues and having to learn a new pitching staff. Not some sort of irreversible decline.

2014 Season Review: The Fifth Outfielder Who Played Too Much

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Last offseason, the Yankees sought to improve their offense by signing big name free agents, and that led to both Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran wearing pinstripes. With Brett Gardner earmarked for left field and Alfonso Soriano in tow, Ichiro Suzuki was suddenly a man without a job. Not a full-time job anyway.

Ichiro had been relegated to a fifth outfielder’s role before pitchers and catchers even reported to Spring Training. He was going to be a pinch-runner and defensive replacement specialist. That’s pretty much it. To his credit, Ichiro didn’t complain about being forced into a low-profile role when Spring Training rolled around, at least not publicly.

“This is a place where the greatest players gather and play, so I’m really excited to play with those guys,” he said to Chad Jennings in February. “Obviously with the additions, I’m going to have to find a place for myself, but I worked hard this offseason. I worked on a lot of things, and throughout Spring Training, hopefully those things will come together and we’ll see where it goes from there.”

After the Yankees unsuccessfully tried to trade him — they offered to eat $4.5M of his $6.5M salary to send him to the Astros — Ichiro started three of the first six games of the season because Ellsbury’s calf was barking, and he went 6-for-13 (.462) in those three starts. He appeared in 32 of the team’s next 40 games, but 20 of those appearances came as a late-inning defensive replacement. Three other appearances came as a pinch-runner.

Suzuki batted only 69 times in the first 46 games of the season and he was damn good: .369/.406/.431 (139 wRC+). He had settled into his new role wonderfully. It was very reminiscent of the 1996-2000 Yankees, who had former greats like Tim Raines and Wade Boggs excelling in reduced roles because they accepted them. They weren’t jonesin’ for more playing time.

In late-May, the bone spur in Beltran’s elbow flared up and Soriano’s season-long slump started to become untenable. Ichiro’s playing time soon went up and his production went down as a result. Beginning with May 23rd, he started 45 of the team’s next 56 games and hit .236/.294/.279 (60 wRC+) during that time. That’s more or less what you’d expect considering he .262/.297/.342 (71 wRC+) as a full-time player last season and was now a year older.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees put an end to the “Ichiro as an everyday player” experiment at the trade deadline by acquiring Martin Prado with the intention of playing him in right field. Of course, that never really happened. Prado wound up spending a bunch of time at second base because Stephen Drew was so bad, so Ichiro played right field whenever Beltran’s elbow prevented him from throwing, which was basically all the time.

Even after the Prado trade, Ichiro still started 34 of the team’s final 54 games, including 19 starts in 26 September games. He actually hit quite well during that time, putting up a .312/.331/.384 (99 wRC+) batting line in 130 plate appearances. Suzuki finished the season with a .284/.324/.340 (86 wRC+) batting line and one homer in 385 plate appearances. His strikeout rate was a career-high by far at 17.7%. His previous career high was 11.7% in 2010.

Because of Beltran’s elbow and Soriano’s general awfulness, Ichiro started 94 games this past season despite opening the year as the fifth outfielder. He seemed to play better — both coming off the bench and in spot starts — in that role. Once he started playing everyday, it got a little ugly. Ichiro’s defense has slipped over the years — he’s still solidly above-average, no doubt — and it was even more noticeable in 2014. The guy turned 41 yesterday. What do you expect?

Ichiro told reporters after the season that he wants to continue playing, presumably because he wants to get 3,000 hits in MLB (he’s 156 away). He also cryptically referred to some clubhouse issues after Game 162 — “Obviously there’s a lot of things that go on that the fans and the media can’t see, that goes on inside (the clubhouse), but what I can say is that the experiences I had this year, those experiences are going to help me in the future,” he said to Brendan Kuty — though it’s unclear if he was referring to a widespread problem or his own unhappiness.

In all likelihood, the Yankees and Ichiro will go their separate ways this offseason. He’ll look for more playing time and the team has cheaper fifth outfielder options in Eury Perez and Ramon Flores, among others. Ichiro was pretty awesome in the second half of 2012 and again as a part-time player in 2014, but everything in between was not so good. Needing him to play so much this past season definitely contributed to the Yankees missing the postseason for the second straight year.

2014 Season Review: Broken at 1B without a backup

(Elsa/Getty Images)
(Elsa/Getty Images)

How durable was Mark Teixeira when the Yankees signed him after the 2008 season? Since his debut in 2003 he’d played in fewer than 145 games just once, when he appeared in 132 in 2007. He’d been on the DL just twice, totaling 41 games.

Even after he joined the Yankees, Teixeira stayed on the field. He averaged 155 starts from 2009 through 2011. Even in 2012 he didn’t miss a game until August. But that started a cascade.

As Teixeira tells it, the cascade actually started many years earlier, back in his Georgia Tech days. He broke his right ankle, causing him to miss considerable time. While he stayed on the field afterward, he feels, according to this Men’s Journal article, that the injury caused “a chronic overloading of the muscles and joints on his left side.”

An athlete in his prime can compensate and play through such issues.

An athlete at age 32? That’s a completely different story. While Teixeira took care to diagnose and rehab his underlying problems in the off-season before 2013, his efforts didn’t help him avoid a wrist injury that cost him essentially the entire season.

As we saw in 2014, Teixeira hasn’t shown much in the way of physical improvement since late 2012. Maybe missing a season left him out of game shape. Maybe he took it too easy on his surgically repaired wrist. Maybe the way he chose to rebuild his body wasn’t ideal. Whatever the case, Teixeira looked more broken down in 2014 than he did in even 2013. At least then he had a specific injury.

In 2014 Teixeira’s injuries ran the gamut:

  • Hamstring strain (his only DL stint)
  • Groin tightness
  • Wrist inflammation (to be expected)
  • Ribcage tightness
  • Back strain
  • Wrist soreness again (first the left, then the right)

And that’s not to mention the three games he missed when a catcher stepped on his finger, necessitating stitches. Not that it was his fault. (Well, other than him being slow enough that there was a play at the plate.)

All in all the injuries cost Teixeira 33 games (by Baseball Prospectus’s count). He started just 120.

He also produced the worst non-injury-decimated season of his career. His 101 OPS+ was a point lower than the 102 OPS+ he produced in his 2003 rookie campaign.

It’s not as though no one saw this coming. How much could the Yankees have reasonably expected from Teixeira after his late 2012 and 2013 season woes?

A lot, apparently, seeing as they didn’t bring in anyone as his backup.

The implicit vote of confidence cost the Yankees. Here’s a list of players who took reps at first base — previous games in parenthesis, 2014 games following.

Kelly Johnson (3) 27
Brian McCann (0) 16
Chase Headley (2) 7
Francisco Cervelli (0) 5
Brendan Ryan (0, duh) 5
Carlos Beltran (0) 1
Scott Sizemore (0) 2
Austin Romine (0 – though 13 at AAA in 2014) 1

To put that in clearer terms: the Yankees used eight players with a combined five games of MLB experience at first base — including six of whom had never played first in the majors — in 64 games.

Oops?

As was the case at second base, it’s not as though the Yankees had a ton of options to sign as a backup first baseman. They’d also need a candidate who can play another position, since there is no room on the roster for a dedicated backup first baseman. Someone like Lyle Overbay just wouldn’t make sense (especially when he has a chance at more playing time in Milwaukee). Mark Reynolds might have, but apparently he saw an opportunity for more time in Milwaukee as well.

Carlos Pena? He wasn’t half bad with the Astros last year — though he ended up being toast this year. Postseason Hero Travis Ishikawa was free to sign when Teixeira went on the DL in April. He had, uh, three games of outfield experience before this year. Pulling Doug Mientkiewicz out of retirement?

If we were still doing season reviews in the what went right/what went wrong format, clearly first base would have gone wrong. But the issue is as much the lack of a backup as it is Teixeira himself.

Given his failing health, it was a huge stretch to imagine that Tex could have started 150 games. I don’t think the Yankees planned on that. Yet given Tex is guaranteed to be in the lineup when healthy, they might have found trouble attracting a backup first baseman.

In terms of the effects on 2015 and beyond, though, Teixeira presents the largest problem. The Yankees can create a more solid backup plan this off-season. What they can’t do is replace Teixeira. They simply have to hope that, like David Ortiz and Jose Bautista before him, Teixeira fully recovers now that he is a full year removed from wrist surgery.

A man can dream, though. A man can dream.

(Difficult challenge: In the comments, don’t talk about: releasing Teixeira, how Tex is “soft,” how he always blames something other than himself. Seriously. You’ve beat all those, and more, to death.)

2014 Season Review: The Greene Monster

(Scott Iskowitz/Getty)
(Scott Iskowitz/Getty)

The Yankees were saddled with a ton of position player injuries last year, including Mark Teixeira‘s wrist, Curtis Granderson‘s forearm (and hand), and Derek Jeter‘s ankle. The result was far too much playing time for guys like Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells, and Eduardo Nunez. The offense stunk. It was a lot worst than it was in 2014.

This past season, pitching injuries were the problem. Ivan Nova (Tommy John surgery) and Michael Pineda (shoulder) each made four starts in April before landing on the disabled list for several months. CC Sabathia‘s knee gave out on him in May. Then, right before the All-Star break, Masahiro Tanaka suffered a partially torn elbow ligament that essentially ended his season. Four-fifths of the team’s Opening Day rotation was on the disabled list by early-July.

That should have been the end of the line for the Yankees, but Brian Cashman & Co. did an excellent job cobbling together a pitching staff in the second half, a pitching staff that kept the Yankees close enough to the second wildcard spot to keep everyone interested. Brandon McCarthy and Chris Capuano were brought in on low-cost deals, and another quality rotation piece came from the (gasp!) farm system.

* * *

With Pineda, Tanaka, and the now-healthy Manny Banuelos hogging the pitching spotlight in Spring Training, right-hander Shane Greene was able to fly under the radar despite pitching well in camp. He struck out ten, walked one, and got eleven ground ball outs against just two in the air in 7.2 innings of relief work. Yeah, it was Spring Training, but guys like Greene need to have strong Spring Trainings to open eyes. I remember one outing against the Phillies in particular, in which he was breaking off nasty sinking fastballs like this one:

Greene was one of the very last roster cuts in Spring Training, which meant he wasn’t able to get properly stretched out before joining the Triple-A Scranton rotation. He opened the regular season in Extended Spring Training just to get some more tune-up innings under his belt before joining the RailRiders in mid-April. Greene made two relief appearances in Triple-A before being called up to the big league team on April 24th to help their overworked bullpen.

That night, Greene made his MLB debut against the Red Sox in Fenway Park. It was a disaster. He came out of the bullpen with the Yankees up 12-2 in the seventh, faced five batters, walked three of them, and allowed three runs while getting only one out (a strikeout of Shane Victorino). All three runs were unearned because Jeter made an error behind him, but still. Only eight of Greene’s 22 pitches were strikes and he looked very much like the marginal pitching prospect who walked 11.7% of batters faced in the minors from 2011-12 before breaking out in 2013.

The performance earned Greene a trip back to Triple-A, where he (finally) joined the rotation and was able to start every fifth day. His first eight starts with the RailRiders were pretty terrible: 6.56 ERA (3.72 FIP) with a 1.91 WHIP (!) in 35.2 innings. That’s a ton of base-runners. Greene’s strikeout (17.2%) and walk (8.9%) rates weren’t anything special either. It was hard not to think he was coming back down to Earth after such a strong breakout season last year.

Greene’s next five starts were much better (1.93 ERA and 3.25 FIP) — he threw seven scoreless innings on June 27th then another six scoreless innings on July 2nd — and, given the injury riddled state of the MLB rotation, that was enough to earn him a call-up. It was supposed to be just a one-start cameo, but Greene pitched well (two runs in six innings) in his first career start and the team kept him around for one more start to give the rest of the rotation an extra day of rest. Five days later, he did this:

Tanaka suffered his injury between Greene’s first and second starts, so even if he hadn’t dominated the Orioles the weekend before the All-Star break, Greene would have stayed in the rotation anyway. That was a good thing because his next three starts weren’t particularly good (ten runs in 15.2 innings), which probably would have earned him a trip back to Triple-A had the Yankees not already tapped out their pitching depth. (He made three errors in one of those games, as I’m sure you remember.)

Greene shook off those three lousy starts and fired eight shutout innings against the Tigers on August 7th. Only twice in his next eight starts did he allow more than two runs — he did have a disaster start against the Red Sox on September 2nd, allowing six runs in 2.2 innings — before the Orioles hit him around in his final start of the season on September 24th (six runs in 3.2 innings). Here is Greene’s game log after being called up to join the rotation:

Rk Date Tm Opp Rslt IP H R ER BB SO HR HBP ERA BF Pit Str StS
2 Jul 7 NYY @ CLE W,5-3 6.0 4 2 2 0 2 1 1 2.84 22 88 56 3
3 Jul 12 NYY @ BAL W,3-0 7.1 4 0 0 2 9 0 0 1.32 27 106 65 15
4 Jul 21 NYY TEX L,2-4 5.2 5 4 4 1 5 0 1 2.79 26 113 73 13
5 Jul 27 NYY TOR L,4-5 5.1 8 3 3 2 2 1 0 3.28 24 86 56 7
6 Aug 2 NYY @ BOS W,6-4 4.2 6 3 3 2 5 1 0 3.68 22 96 52 3
7 Aug 7 NYY DET W,1-0 8.0 5 0 0 3 5 0 0 2.89 30 99 64 9
8 Aug 16 NYY @ TBR W,3-2 6.0 7 2 2 1 10 0 1 2.91 27 102 68 17
9 Aug 22 NYY CHW W,4-3 5.0 9 3 3 2 7 1 1 3.17 25 92 61 11
10 Aug 27 NYY @ DET W,8-4 7.0 5 2 2 1 8 1 1 3.09 29 101 69 12
11 Sep 2 NYY BOS L,4-9 2.2 6 6 6 3 3 2 1 3.88 18 67 38 4
12 Sep 7 NYY KCR L,0-2 5.0 5 2 0 3 4 0 0 3.57 22 90 54 10
13 Sep 13 NYY @ BAL W,3-2 5.1 7 2 2 1 9 1 0 3.56 23 112 71 13
14 Sep 18 NYY TOR W,3-2 6.2 3 0 0 2 6 0 0 3.24 24 105 73 10
15 Sep 24 NYY BAL L,5-9 3.2 7 6 6 3 5 0 0 3.78 21 73 49 8
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/22/2014.

That four-start stretch from August 7th through August 27th is when Greene really made his mark and solidified his standing as a member of the rotation. He had a 2.96 ERA (3.59 FIP) during his eight-start stretch from August 7th through September 18th, which is cherry-picking at its finest, but I don’t care. Greene was tremendous during that stretch and it looked like the Yankees had themselves a real live homegrown rotation stalwart.

Greene finished the season with a 3.78 ERA and 3.73 FIP in 78.2 innings, which includes the ugly MLB debut out of the bullpen. He posted excellent strikeout (9.27 K/9 and 23.5 K%) and ground ball (50.2%) rates, and his walk rate (3.32 BB/9 and 8.4 BB%) was fine. Lefties did hit him a bit harder than righties — .281/.365/.400 (.345 wOBA) with a 30/18 K/BB against lefties and .240/.305/.356 (.297 wOBA) with a 51/11 K/BB against righties — which isn’t surprising since he’s basically a two-pitch pitcher, relying on that sinker and slider.

Those two pitches are very, very good though. Greene’s sinker averaged 93.9 mph this season, making it the third fastest sinker in baseball among pitchers who threw at least 70 innings this season. Only two relievers (Jeurys Familia and Tony Watson) had harder sinkers. Furthermore, the sinker had a 13.2% swing-and-miss rate and a 56.5% ground ball rate, both better than the league average for the pitch (5.4% and 49.5%, respectively).

Greene’s slider would sometimes come in at 87-88 mph, so PitchFX often classified it as a cutter. The slider had a 40.2% (!) swing-and-miss rate and a 45.4% ground ball rate, and again both were better than the MLB slider average (15.2% and 43.9%). Greene threw very few straight four-seamers and changeups in 2014 (~18% combined). He’s a sinker/slider pitcher and both the sinker and slider were above-average at getting whiffs and ground balls. That’s huge. Greene legitimately has two above-average pitches in his arsenal.

* * *

If not for Greene and the team’s other midseason rotation additions, the Yankees would have been knocked into irrelevancy in late-July. They kept them in the race longer than they should have been. McCarthy and Capuano were rentals who will become free agents in about a week. Their time in pinstripes may be short-lived.

Greene, on the other hand, will turn 26 next month. He emerged as a potential rotation building block going forward, even if he’s nothing more than a mid-rotation guy with a big platoon split. That has a lot of value. I won’t do it, but if you’re an optimist and you squint your eyes, maybe you can see the next Doug Fister (another former Yankees draft pick). That would be awesome.

Either way, Greene is a major player development success story for the Yankees. They drafted him in the 15th round of the 2009 draft and gave him a $100k signing bonus after only seeing him throw a handful of bullpens as he rehabbed from Tommy John surgery. The Yankees did a helluva job developing him over the years and getting him over his control issues. Now he’s a bonafide big league starter.

(Title comes from @JakeMHS, who has terrible opinions.)

2014 Season Review: Better than nothing from the keystone?

One of Roberts's final hits. ( Elsa/Getty Images)
One of Roberts’s final hits. ( Elsa/Getty Images)

Not gonna lie: The original title of this season review was “Nothing from the keystone.” It sure seemed that way, given that Stephen Drew and Brian Roberts combined for 458 of 631 total PA from the position. Add in Brendan Ryan for another 42 and it looks like a downright disaster.

Then I saw this, and I had to change my title.

Click for larger
Click for larger

The chart does not lie: Yankees second basemen ranked seventh in the AL for OPS. All I could think was:

To reiterate, Stephen Drew and Brian Roberts combined for 73 percent of the overall plate appearances at second base, and together produced a .603 OPS. That actually raises another decent question.

How the hell did the Yankees second basemen produce a .693 OPS if the guys taking 73 percent of the PA produced a .603 OPS? That 90 points has to come from somewhere.

1) Martin Prado is awesome. In his 63 PA as a 2B he had a 1.074 OPS. That moved the needle quite a bit.

2) Yangervis Solarte got 49 PA as a 2B and had a .777 OPS, which helped.

3) Jose Pirela had three hits, including a double and a triple, in 13 PA, so he and Dean Anna, who hit a home run as a 2B, topped off the tank.

Here’s where the effect on the field doesn’t quite line up with the aggregate stats. Prado excelled while playing 2B, but no matter his overall numbers (7 2B, 3 HR, both more than Drew in a little more than half the PA) he affected only 17 games. Drew and Roberts infected affected a combined 121 games with their .603 OPS.

So I suppose the title could be, “Nothing from the keystone most of the time.” That’s a little clunky. The question mark will suffice.

No matter what, the Yankees were going to be disappointed at second base this season. In 2013 they had the highest OPS in the AL at second base — by 119 points. Once Robinson Cano signed with the Mariners, what options did the Yankees have?

Mark Ellis? Plenty advocated for that, but go look at his B-R page. I’m not even going to link it here. It’s too offensive.

Omar Infante? Sure, he’s ready for a World Series appearance, his second in three years, but his OPS was 37 points lower than Roberts’s during the regular season. And Kansas City is paying him through 2017.

Trade? Since zero second basemen were traded from the time Cano signed through Opening Day, it’s tough to say that the Yankees missed any opportunities. Once Cano left, they had essentially no chance to field a decent second baseman.

Mike wrote glowingly of Prado in his season review, and for good reason. He not only provided offense in the second half, but will be around for the next two seasons. That’s the big 2014 story for the Yankees at second base: how it will affect 2015 and beyond.

I could spend a few paragraphs ripping Roberts and Drew, but what’s the point? We saw some brilliant moments out of Roberts, but we mostly saw an aging, oft-injured player on his last legs. (Roberts confirmed that by announcing his retirement last Friday.) We saw — well, we really saw nothing from Drew save for a few line drives towards the very end of the season.

What we saw from Prado, though, was a glimpse of what he might provide in 2015. It’s almost certain he’ll start the season at second base, with Alex Rodriguez, Chase Headley, or a combination thereof manning third base. He might move at some point, perhaps to the outfield, perhaps to third base, making room for Rob Refsnyder or Jose Pirela. However the situation shakes out, Prado gives them a level of versatility they’ve lacked in recent years.

There you have it: a positively spun review on what seemed like one of the worst positions for the 2014 Yankees. Next up on my plate: What the hell happened at first base. And yes, the first basemen produced a lower OPS than the second basemen.