A Guide to Possible SS Target: Jung-Ho Kang

(Richard Heathcote/Getty)
(Richard Heathcote/Getty)

It’s safe to say the the Yankees have a glaring hole at the shortstop position following Derek Jeter’s retirement. There are options in free agency (Stephen Drew, Asdrubal Cabrera, etc.) and in trades (Didi Gregorious? Starlin Castro? Elvis Andrus?) to fill the position. However, there is an intriguing unknown commodity that can arise as an option: SS Jung-Ho Kang of the Nexen Heroes in the Korean Baseball Organization.

Reports have indicated Kang will not be posted until “after the Winter Meetings,” which are next week. Two Korean pitchers have already been posted to the big league teams — LHP Kwang-Hyun Kim and LHP Hyeon-Jong Yang — and it looks like the Kang market is not in a huge rush. In fact, with two of the big infield names (Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez) gone in the free agent market, Kang will get more attention from teams that will look to bolster their infield.

The shortstop has been interested in moving over to majors for awhile. In an article from Newsis from Dec. 2013, Kang expressed desire to face pitchers “like Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman,” saying “I am confident in the power versus power matchup.” The article also mentions that Kang’s favorite players are Alex Rodriguez and Miguel Cabrera, two Major League infielders who are known for their power displays — something Kang aspires to be in the majors.

Speculation of the Yankees looking at Kang isn’t surprising given their positional need and the team’s history of tapping into Asian talents. Just like Masahiro Tanaka, Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa, Kang would be expected to be ready to contribute to the ML team. However, Kang differs in that he is a positional player. There definitely have been hitters that enjoyed immense (Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui) to considerable (Norichika Aoki) success coming from their nation’s league to MLB, but the track record of Asian infielders in MLB isn’t too pretty.

In past few years, two of the top Japanese infielders went stateside — Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Hiroyuki Nakajima — and neither lived up to the hype. Nishioka, who had hit .346/.423/.482 in 2010 for Chiba Lotte of NPB before signing with the Twins, totaled an awful .503 OPS in 233 AB in two years with Minnesota. Hiroyuki Nakajima, an eight-time NPB All-Star with the Saitama Seibu Lions, never played in majors during his two-year contract with the Athletics that just terminated, hitting a total of .682 OPS in Triple-A and Double-A. In the past, other Japanese infielders like Kaz Matsui, who once hit for a 1.006 OPS in the 2002 season, also did not perform as expected. One player who turned out to be a solid contributor was 2B Tadahito Iguchi, who played for the World Series Champs 2005 White Sox and posted a solid 3.5 fWAR that year. But the overall history of Asian infielders in U.S. is too shaky to feel confident about Kang’s success as a major leaguer.

Kang is the best position player in Korean Baseball Organization right now. As the starting shortstop for the Nexen Heroes (based in Seoul), Kang demolished pitching in 2014. In 117 games, Kang put up a .356/.461/.739 slash line, good for a whopping 1.200 OPS. He also had 78 extra base hits, with 40 of them being homers. Many consider KBO to be lesser in talent than NPB, but those are still very impressive numbers. Here are his career stats:

Year Age Tm G PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2006 19 Hyundai 10 21 1 3 1 0 0 1 0 1 0 8 .150 .150 .200 .350
2007 20 Hyundai 20 15 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 5 .133 .133 .133 .267
2008 21 Woori 116 408 36 98 18 1 8 47 3 1 31 65 .271 .334 .392 .726
2009 22 Woori 133 538 73 136 33 2 23 81 3 2 45 81 .286 .349 .508 .857
2010 23 Nexen 133 522 60 135 30 2 12 58 2 2 61 87 .301 .391 .457 .848
2011 24 Nexen 123 504 53 125 22 2 9 63 4 6 43 62 .282 .353 .401 .754
2012 25 Nexen 124 519 77 137 32 0 25 82 21 5 71 78 .314 .413 .560 .973
2013 26 Nexen 126 532 67 131 21 1 22 96 15 8 68 109 .291 .387 .489 .876
2014 27 Nexen 116 497 102 147 36 2 39 115 3 3 67 106 .354 .457 .733 1.189
9 Seasons 901 3556 469 914 193 10 138 543 51 28 386 601 .298 .382 .502 .885
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/2/2014.

As you may notice, he has power. According to Keith Law, who ranked Kang as the No. 15 free agent in his top 50 free agents list, the shortstop has a “swing that will generate legit plus power.” Law also notes that Kang’s swing is more of a “power swing” than for contact. Here’s a video of all of his 40 regular-season homers from this season. A lot of his dingers are pulled but there are some that go to dead center or to right. He has good enough power to hit home runs to any part of the field, and that is what makes him desirable to scouts and fans.

How will Kang hit in the majors? While the shortstop did hit for a high .356 average, he also struck out 106 times in 117 games, the third most in the league. His BABIP in 2014 is .398 — a rate that certainly shouldn’t be expected when he transitions to MLB. He also shows a league above-average plate discipline — his 13.6 BB% ranks eighth in league. I expect that to go down and strikeout rate (21.2%) to go up as he moves to the majors. How much? I’d say it depends on how well he adapts on seeing Major League-caliber pitches.

Relatively high strikeout rates and a high batting average tells me that he has an aggressive power swing approach most of the time — while he can be fooled by certain pitches, his bat speed and control is good enough to be deadly when he makes contacts. It is a plus that he’s been able to draw walks as well. The challenge for him in majors will be laying off more advanced secondary pitches, challenging faster and more difficult fastballs, facing more advanced set of pitches overall, etc.

In 2014, only one qualified shortstop put up an OPS higher than .800 (Hanley Ramirez with .817) with two between .750 and .800 (Jhonny Peralta at .779 and Starlin Castro at .777). If Kang can put up one around .750, barring a league-wide offensive explosion, he could be considered as one of the top hitting shortstops in ML, which would be deemed quite valuable in the market. Can Kang hit well against Major-League caliber pitchers? A 1.200 OPS to .750-ish is quite a sink, but keep in mind a good amount of Asian hitters never became competent on hitting ML-level fastballs and breaking balls and completely tanked. Also, it should be noted that not all ML scouts think his power will translate in states. According to Joel Sherman, MLB executives aren’t sure how his power will do in states considering that “competition in Korea is inferior to even that in Japan.” The only way to find out how he will do in majors is for him to actually play over stateside and see the results.

Kang’s defense has been a topic of ambivalence for the scouts. As I have mentioned, the history of Asian infielders in ML is not great. The history of Asian shortstops, by the way, is even worse. The aforementioned Nishioka and Nakajima have been failed projects. Kaz Matsui, who won four Mitsui Gold Glove Awards in Japan, became such a defensive liability that the Mets converted him to second base. Munenori Kawasaki has been a solid ML shortstop, but he has suffered with hitting. Kang, while possessing a strong arm, has gathered doubts with range. Law wrote that Kang is “not as fleet foot as you would want a shortstop to be.”

The Korean infielder’s homefield, the Mokdong Stadium, uses artificial turf, which makes fielding grounders easier due to the smooth surface. Unfortunately, there are no in-depth fielding data from Korean Baseball Organization a la Ultimate Zone Rating to give more analysis for his range. The consensus is that he is not the most mobile shortstop but he gets a good read of ball off the bat and has a strong arm. It also remains to be seen if Major League teams see him something other than shortstop. Third base and second base are definite possibilities, as Kang has played in those two spots before becoming the starting shortstop for the Heroes.

Another factor to consider: Kang has been quite durable. Since becoming a regular in 2008, he never missed a significant amount of playing time due to injuries, though he will have to play a chunk of more games in a ML season (128 games per season in KBO). What also works to his advantage is that he is younger than most of the infielders named in the trade and free agent markets. The infielder will turn 28 this upcoming April. If his tools translate well into the majors, a team that signs him may enjoy the best years of his career. But then again, it is a big “if.”

Two other Korean players posted this winter — the lefties Kim and Yang — did not garner as much of a posting fee as their respective teams had hoped. The Padres bid $2 million for Kim, and though the high bid for Yang is not yet reported, it is speculated to be less than that since the Kia Tigers decided not to let the pitcher go. While Kim and Yang are not the same caliber of pitcher as Hyun-Jin Ryu (whom the Dodgers bid $25 million to the Hanhwa Eagles for), the amounts were quite low for the teams to confidently let go of their top pitchers. But it does speak for the scouts’ opinion of how well they would survive in the majors.

As for Kang, I do think that the Nexen Heroes will get more than the Tigers and Wyverns for their pitchers. First off, there’s the pedigree of an infielder with power being in the prime time of his career. With Hanley and Sandoval off the market, two of the biggest bats and infielders are out, which makes Kang an attractive non-trade option for teams that are willing to gamble some money. While the scouts don’t love him ubiquitously, I bet some do see him as a Major League starter talent.

While the Kang posting will not be a subject to a $20 million cap as it applies to NPB players, I don’t think teams will have to break serious bank to win. Nakajima, who hit for .300 average and 20 HR power in NPB, gathered only a $2 million posting fee for the Seibu Lions (from the Yankees, actually. But they didn’t sign him). Nishioka, who had a breakout 2010 with the Chiba Lotte Marines by hitting a .346/.423/.482, garnered a $5.32 million bid from the Twins, not a small amount but not intriguing either.

Of course, Kang is a different player than those two. But given that the top hitters in NPB were not treated top-notch, I don’t know if Kang, from KBO (considered in a lower level of play than NPB by many), would garner much more. Also, I assume many Major League scouts and teams are aware that KBO had a high-octane offense season.  His 40 homers are very impressive — especially as a shortstop — but before this past season, his career-high was 25 in 2012. Did he actually tap into his true power potential or is it a by-product of the bat-heavy KBO season?

C.J. Nitkowski of FOX Sports, who played with Kang in the second half of the 2010 season, is calling for a range of $5-8 million in posting with a “reasonable big league contract” to acquire Kang. Ryan Sadowski, another former major leaguer who played in Korea, wrote for Global Sporting Integration that he expects around $6-9 million range, citing that Kang has the “raw power necessary” despite the offensive outburst in the league. Sadowski also notes taht the Yankees probably monitored on Kang while looking at the IFA signee, SS Hyo-Jun Park.

I’d say I agree with both Nitkowski and Sadowski’s outlook. Kang’s salary for 2014 was around $378,000, which is less than the MLB minimum of $500,000. Nishioka (3 yr, $9.25 million) and Nakajima (2 yr, $6.5 million) both got a ML contact around $3 million per year and that would be a huge raise over Kang’s KBO salary. For comparison’s sake, the highest paid player in KBO, 1B Tae-Kyun Kim, was paid around $1.35 million in 2014. It is possible that Kang may get a figure quite different than Nakajima or Nishioka’s, but I don’t think he’ll get any close to Ryu’s 6 year, $36 million contract.

Assuming that Kang is willing to settle for a two or three-year contract, the possible amount of total money to get the shortstop, including the posting fee, could be anywhere between $12 million to $20 million. If Kang turns out to be a middle infielder that can hit in the neighborhood of .750 OPS and provide an acceptable defense for two or three years, it will be a good investment. I don’t think money would be a problem for the Yankees to get Kang. But are they willing to invest much on a KBO shortstop that has seen zero Major League action? We shall see. My bet at this moment is that the team will work the hardest towards acquiring a shortstop that’s already in the Major League market, whether it be via trade or free agency. If the Yanks can get a known commodity that is sure to produce in 2015 and beyond, great! If New York don’t acquire anyone until the posting starts, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to monitor if the team will bid on Kang.

Yankees non-tender Slade Heathcott, Jose Campos, and David Huff

Heathcott before he crashed into someone, probably. (Presswire)
Heathcott before he crashed into someone, probably. (Presswire)

3:16pm: The Yankees have announced the three non-tenders, so they’re official. Officially official.

12:27am: The Yankees non-tendered outfielder Slade Heathcott, right-hander Jose Campos, and left-hander David Huff prior to Tuesday’s midnight deadline, according to Joel Sherman. All of the team’s other pre-arbitration and arbitration-eligible players received a contract tender, it appears. The Yankees now have 36 players on the 40-man roster.

Heathcott, 24, was limited to only nine games with Double-A Trenton this past season due to knee surgery. He’s had a ton of shoulder and knee problems — including multiple surgeries on each — throughout his career and has only played in 309 minor league games since being the 29th overall pick in the 2009 draft, the pick the Yankees receive as compensation for not signing Gerrit Cole in 2008.

The 22-year-old Campos missed all of 2014 due to Tommy John surgery. He missed most of the 2012 season with elbow problems as well. Campos was the second player New York received in the Michael Pineda-Jesus Montero trade, though he’s only thrown 111.2 innings since the deal, all in Low Class-A. Like Heathcott, he was added to the 40-man roster last winter to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft.

I’m guessing the Yankees will try to re-sign both Heathcott and Campos to minor league contracts if they didn’t work out deals ahead of time. Non-tendering them is the easiest way to get them off the 40-man roster since they don’t have to pass through waivers, which they would have to do if they were released or outrighted. Despite their injuries, Heathcott and Campos are young enough that they would probably get plucked off waivers.

Huff, 30, had a 1.85 ERA (4.00 FIP) in 39 innings for New York after being re-acquired from the Giants at midseason, which is pretty good by “last guy in the bullpen” standards. MLBTR projected Huff to earn only $700k through arbitration in 2015, though the Yankees have built up quite a bit of upper level lefty bullpen depth in Justin Wilson, Jose DePaula, Jacob Lindgren, and Tyler Webb. Huff’s 40-man spot is better used elsewhere.

Report: Yankees avoid arbitration with Esmil Rogers

Call me Esmil. (Presswire)
Call me Esmil. (Presswire)

7:50pm: Jon Heyman reports the one-year deal is worth $1.48M with only $750k guaranteed. So they reduced Esmil’s salary as much as allowed by the Collective Bargaining Agreement and only half of it is guaranteed. I’m still surprised they didn’t non-tender him though.

7:20pm: The Yankees have agreed to a contract with right-hander Esmil Rogers to avoid arbitration, according to Ben Nicholson-Smith. Terms of the deal are unknown at this point. This is surprising. Rogers was a pretty obvious non-tender candidate, though apparently the Yankees felt like he was worth keeping around.

Rogers earned $1.85M this past season and was projected to earn $1.9M through arbitration in 2015 by MLBTR. I’m guessing he agreed to a lower salary, otherwise the team would have non-tendered him. By rule, a player can not sign for less than 80% of his previous year’s salary, so the contract with Rogers won’t be for less than $1.48M.

It’s worth noting these one-year contracts for pre-arbitration and arbitration-eligible players are not guaranteed. The Yankees could release Rogers any time before mid-March and only have to pay him 30 days termination pay. If they release him after mid-March but before Opening Day, it’s 45 days termination pay. The Yankees dumped Chad Gaudin this way a few years back.

Rogers, 29, had a 5.72 ERA (4.73 FIP) in 45.2 innings split between the Yankees and Blue Jays in 2014. That includes a 4.68 ERA (4.17 FIP) with an 8.28 K/9 (21.7 K%) in 25 innings with New York after being claimed off waivers on trade deadline day. Rogers does have a nice fastball/slider combo, so I guess he’ll remain in the mix as a depth arm.

Tuesday Night Open Thread

Earlier today, Buster Olney (subs. req’d) posted his list of the top ten relievers in baseball. Craig Kimbrel unsurprisingly claimed the top spot, and was followed in order by Aroldis Chapman and Wade Davis. Yankees free agent target Andrew Miller ranks fourth, current Yankee Dellin Betances ranks fifth, and potential ex-Yankee David Robertson ranks sixth. I can’t help but dream about seeing all three of those guys in pinstripes next year, but I don’t think it’ll happen. Sure would be cool though.

This is your open thread for the evening. The Knicks and Nets are playing each other and both the Devils and Islanders are in action as well. There’s also the usual slate of college basketball. Talk about anything and everything here.

Quiz!: Here’s a fun quiz to kill some time. You have to name every player who spent at least five seasons as Derek Jeter‘s teammate. I got 27 of 32 and missed one that was fairly obvious. Not super obvious, but I should have gotten it. Enjoy!

2014 Season Review: Importing a Rival

Jacoby Ellsbury
(AP Photo)

The Yankees absolutely needed to add at least one outfielder last offseason, but Jacoby Ellsbury didn’t seem to fit the bill. Brett Gardner had just finished his first full season as center fielder, and it was the best of his career. Why add a player with a similar skill set when other players could have added a different dynamic?

Specifically, Shin-Soo Choo made the most sense. While he and Ellsbury were both atop the outfielder free agent market, Choo hit for power. Outside of 2011, Ellsbury never had. Since the 2013 Yankees hit the second fewest home runs in the AL, 101 fewer than they hit in 2012, it seemed as though they’d have benefited from a player with a career .177 ISO over one with a .142 ISO (and much lower outside of 2011’s fluke .231 ISO).

While the Yankees did consider both players, they preferred Ellsbury and landed him with an aggressive offer. That didn’t end their pursuit of Choo, though, as they did make him a seven-year, $140 million offer. But he rebuffed them. And that was a good thing.

After signing with the Rangers, Choo got off to a scorching start, producing a 1.054 OPS in his first 120 PA. Way to go, Yanks, right? But then he started to experience ankle problems. From that 1.054 apex he fell precipitously, producing a .621 OPS in his next 409 PA, his season ultimately ending because of bone spurs in his elbow. He had surgery to remove them, and then surgery to repair his ankle.

It almost seems as though the Yankees dodged a bullet. In his very first season after signing a huge contract, Choo produced the worst full season of his career.

Ellsbury, for his part, produced decently in line with expectations. What he lacked in batting average he made up for with power. Everything else, from walks to stolen bases, is pretty much what we expected from him given his career numbers. It’s difficult to find someone disappointed with Ellsbury’s first season in pinstripes.

At the same time, he certainly didn’t produce to the level you expect from a guy who signs that big a contract. According to FanGraphs’s offensive runs above average, Ellsbury produced 10.6 runs, which ranked 60th in the majors — right next to Marcell Ozuna, if you’re among the 10 percent of our readership who even recognizes the name. Only 4.9 of those runs came from the plate (the other 5.7 were on the bases). Those 4.9 batting runs above average ranked 77th in MLB.

Ellsbury does provide value on defense, and I’m not sure any reasonable eyeball test could have rated him negatively in 2014. The fielding stats with bias* were a bit scattered on his performance. Total Zone credited him with 5 runs above average, 15th in MLB (4th in the AL) among center fielders. Defensive Runs Saved goes in the opposite direction, -5 runs, 12th in MLB. UZR credits him with a half run above average, 9th in the majors. Baseball Prospectus’s Fielding Runs Above Average, which does not use biased data, credited him with 12 runs above average (though I’m not sure where that ranks).

*Fielding stats with bias, meaning that they are influenced by a human stringer. These stringers judge the type of batted ball, among other factors. Colin Wyers wrote a neat little article explaining the flaws with current metrics.

If you give Ellsbury the benefit of the best defensive statistic, his season does look a bit better, about 4.6 WAR. With average defense he had 3.6 WAR. The difference is pretty stark: 3.6 WAR ranked 48th, while 4.6 would have ranked in the top 30.

So depending on how you view defense, Ellsbury had anywhere from a pretty good season to a damn fine one. Yet his shortcomings on offense, even compared to last year, were certainly disappointing. The hope was that he’d maintain his ~.350 OBP while adding a bit of power thanks to Yankee Stadium. While the latter happened, the former didn’t. Had they come together with elite defense, Ellsbury at $21.1 million would have been a steal.

I have to admit, when starting this I expected to describe a damn good season, a success in the first year of a long-term deal. Yet when looking a bit more closely at Ellsbury’s production, it really wasn’t up to expectations. Perhaps the common view of Ellsbury’s season has more to do with the failings of everyone else on offense rather than the expectations for him heading into this season and contract.

Caldera: Yankees haven’t shown much interest in Jed Lowrie or Asdrubal Cabrera

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

According to Pete Caldera, free agent infielders Jed Lowrie and Asdrubal Cabrera have “not gained much traction” with the Yankees this offseason. The winter has actually been rather quiet for both Lowrie and Cabrera so far even though most of the top free agent bats are already off the board. Neither player received a qualifying offer, by the way.

Lowrie, 30, hit only .249/.321/.355 (93 wRC+) with six homers in 566 plate appearances for the Athletics this past season. He had a great April (154 wRC+) but only mustered a 77 wRC+ the rest of the way. Lowrie is a switch-hitter who has been much better against righties the last three or four years, and he seems to have gotten over the injury problems that plagued him earlier in his career.

Cabrera put up a .241/.307/.387 (97 wRC+) batting line with 14 homers and ten steals in 616 plate appearances for the Indians and Nationals in 2014. He’s younger than you may realize — Cabrera turned 29 just last month — and, unlike Lowrie, he’s a switch-hitter with no significant platoon split the last few seasons. In two of the last three years, Lowrie and Asdrubal have been roughly equal at the plate:


Source: FanGraphsJed Lowrie, Asdrubal Cabrera

Now, the thing is neither Lowrie nor Cabrera is a shortstop these days. They’re both below-average defensively — Cabrera has a knack for flashy highlight reel plays that has inflated the perception of his defense — and better suited for second base at third point of their careers. Cabrera played second for Washington at the end of the season and Lowrie did it a whole bunch earlier in his career.

For what it’s worth, the FanGraphs Crowdsourcing results peg Lowrie and Cabrera for essentially identical three-year contracts worth $30M or so. Neither is a perfect solution for the Yankees but they need infielders badly. If the trade market comes up empty — that’s where it appears they are focused at the moment — and the team’s unwillingness to give Chase Headley more than three years pushes him out of town, these two guys are probably the best of what’s left. Yuck.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: David Robertson and Andrew Miller

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Yesterday morning we learned quite a bit about the free agent reliever market, specifically that the Yankees are in “serious pursuit” of Andrew Miller and are unwilling to give David Robertson a four-year deal. They’ve reportedly talked about trades involving bullpen help with the Marlins and Braves as well. The Miller and Robertson stuff is the big news though. It sure feels like one of those two will wear pinstripes next season.

As I said yesterday, I think the Robertson stuff is all posturing and they’re just trying to get his price down. The interest in Miller could be an attempt to apply some pressure as well. It goes without saying that both Robertson and Miller are excellent pitchers anyone would love to have in their bullpen. It makes perfect sense that the Yankees would have interest in both guys. But it sounds like it will only be one or the other, not both as much as I and everyone else would love it. Is one a better investment than the other? Let’s compare.

Recent Performance

Again, both Robertson and Miller are excellent. They’re elite relievers in the prime of their careers. Here are their 2014 seasons side-by-side:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB% BABIP WPA LHB wOBA RHB wOBA
Robertson 64.1 3.08 2.68 37.1% 8.9% 44.2% 15.6% .288 1.79 .201 .336
Miller 62.1 2.02 1.51 42.6% 7.0% 46.9% 8.6% .263 1.58 .211 .208

Miller was better than Robertson this past season in nearly every way. The only thing Robertson did better was get left-handed batters out, which is pretty amazing because he’s a righty and Miller’s the lefty with the all-world slider. Robertson’s cutter and curveball are really great in their own right too.

The difference between these two guys this year is that Miller never had a season this good before and Robertson hadn’t had one this bad — “bad” — since 2010, before his breakout 2011 effort. Robertson’s been dynamite for four years now. Miller spent a very long time trying to figure out his mechanics — he had a 5.54 ERA (5.12 FIP) as recently as 2011 — and it wasn’t until last year that he turned into a super reliever. He was very good in 2012 (3.35 ERA and 3.27 FIP), but 2013 was when he joined the tier of relievers Robertson has occupied since 2011.

Here are Robertson and Miller’s performances side-by-side over the last three years:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB% BABIP WPA LHB wOBA RHB wOBA
Robertson 191.1 2.59 2.59 33.0% 7.8% 46.9% 11.8% .302 5.61 .226 .318
Miller 133.1 2.57 2.37 37.0% 9.9% 47.8% 11.0% .283 2.69 .236 .258

Nearly identical. Miller has a slight edge in strikeout rate, Robertson a slight edge in walk rate. Miller’s platoon split is smaller. And, of course, Robertson has thrown more than 40% more innings. That’s not negligible. If we were to take Miller’s last ~190 innings to match Robertson’s total instead of the last three years, he’d have a 3.54 ERA and 3.27 FIP. (If we took Robertson’s last ~130 innings to match Miller’s total, he’d have a 2.55 ERA and 2.65 FIP.)

In the middle of the 2012 season, Robertson simply stopped walking guys. It was weird and pretty awesome. Throwing strikes was never his strong suit, but, out of the blue, he started pounding the zone and has done so since. Miller went through something similar that season though not as extreme. His walk problems were also much more severe than Robertson’s earlier in their careers:


Source: FanGraphsAndrew Miller, David Robertson

Long story short, Miller was better than Robertson in 2014 but Robertson’s track record as a top notch relief pitcher is nearly twice as long in terms of innings pitched. I think it’s pretty interesting Robertson has been better against lefties than Miller while Miller has been better against righties than Robertson. There’s a weird reverse platoon split thing going on.

Stuff Breakdown

Since they are relievers, it’s no surprise Robertson and Miller are basically two-pitch pitchers. They will both throw the occasional changeup but not often enough to be a factor. Robertson is a cutter/curveball pitcher — he’s all but abandoned the four-seam fastball in favor of the cutter at this point — while Miller is a four-seamer/slider pitcher. With an assist from Brooks Baseball, here is a comparison of their fastballs (FB) and breaking balls (BB).

FBv FB% FB Whiff+ FB GB+ BBv BB% BB Whiff+ BB GB+
2013 Robertson 92.7 72.4% 71 111 82.0 26.9% 173 125
2014 Robertson 92.6 62.1% 72 95 83.9 35.0% 209 125
2013 Miller 96.0 56.7% 120 118 86.5 43.3% 137 148
2014 Miller 95.1 56.7% 110 117 85.0 42.6% 172 132

Whiff+ and GB+ are the swing-and-miss and ground ball rates of the individual pitches relative to the league average. It works like wRC+ and ERA+ and all that. 100 is average, the higher the number, the better. Got it? Good.

It surprised me that Robertson’s cutter has been comfortably below-average at getting swings and misses, though I do suppose he gets a lot of called strikes with the pitch. Miller has the much better fastball in almost every way — velocity, swings and misses, and grounders — but Robertson’s curve is the better breaking ball when it comes to getting empty swings. Miller’s slider has a small advantage at getting ground balls.

So, I guess the best way to explain this is Miller has the more dominant two-pitch mix but Robertson has the best individual pitch with his curveball. That make sense? Curveballs historically have a much smaller platoon split than sliders, but Miller’s slider is so damn good it doesn’t matter what side of the plate the hitter is on. He’s a lefty and that’s nice, but he’s far from a lefty specialist.

Injury History

Robertson and Miller are the same age — Robertson is 42 days older — and neither has had any kind of major arm injury, so that’s good. Robertson missed two weeks with elbow stiffness back in September 2009 but hasn’t had any trouble since. He’s been on the DL only twice in his career: 33 days for an oblique strain in 2012 and 15 days for a groin strain this past April. Nothing serious or chronic. Muscle pulls happen.

Miller’s only career arm injury is a bout with elbow inflammation in Spring Training 2012. He’s been on the DL five times in his career: 19 days for a hamstring strain in 2007, 49 days for patellar tendinitis in his right knee in 2008, 25 days for an oblique strain in 2009, 41 days for another hamstring strain in 2012, and 116 days for a Lisfranc injury in his left foot in 2013. The Lisfranc injury required season-ending surgery that forced him to miss the 2013 postseason.

Both guys have dealt with their fair share of pulls and grabs over the years, but, most importantly, neither has had any serious arm trouble. Miller has the more durable looking frame — he’s listed at 6-foot-7 and 210 lbs. while Robertson is only 5-foot-11 and 195 lbs. — yet his Lisfranc injury is by far the most serious injury between the two simply because he needed surgery, though he showed no ill effects in 2014 whatsoever. By reliever standards, these guys are pretty healthy. No major red flags at all.

Contract Estimates

Alright, so how much money are these guys going to end up getting when it’s all said and done? Based on what we heard yesterday, it seems inevitable both will get four years. Here is a roundup of estimates:

Robertson Miller
FanGraphs Crowdsourcing Three years, $10M AAV Three years, $8M AAV
Jim Bowden (subs. req’d) Three years, $13M AAV Three years, $8.5M AAV
Axisa’s Guess Four years, $12M AAV Four years, $9M AAV
Average 3.33 years, $11.7M AAV 3.33 years, $8.5M AAV

To be fair, the FanGraphs and Bowden predictions came weeks ago, before the market blew up and reports surfaced indicating Robertson and Miller were likely to get four years each. The AAV is the more important number there and I am pretty much in agreement with the FanGraphs crowd and Bowden. Using the average AAV spread across four years, we get $46.8M for Robertson and $34M for Miller. That seems reasonable to me.

The Yankees did make Robertson the qualifying offer, which he rejected. So if he were to sign with another team, New York would receive a supplemental first round pick in next June’s draft. They would not gain a pick for signing Miller (duh) nor do they have to forfeit anything for signing either Miller or Robertson. The only draft pick to consider is the one the Yankees would get is Robertson left. I don’t think free agent decisions should hinge on draft pick compensation, not when you’re talking about elite players at their position, but it could serve as a tiebreaker of sorts.

Wrapping Up

So, all of those words and tables and graphs tell us both Robertson and Miller are really freaking good. Picking between them is ultimately a matter of preference. They’re the same age and they’re both going to end up with four-year contracts. Do you prefer the big lefty with the much shorter track record of being elite on a slightly lower annual salary, or the short righty with a nice long track record at a higher salary? There’s a reasonable argument to be made either way. Let’s vote.

Assuming the Yankees will only sign one, who should it be?