Thoughts following the John Ryan Murphy for Aaron Hicks trade

This ball was caught. (Presswire)
This ball was caught. (Presswire)

The Yankees made their first significant move of the offseason yesterday afternoon, trading John Ryan Murphy to the Twins for Aaron Hicks. It came the day before the one year anniversary of the Francisco CervelliJustin Wilson swap, which was the first significant move of last offseason. Anyway, I have some thoughts to share.

1. I think this was a really smart trade for the Yankees, and overall it was a good trade for both the Yankees and Twins. Know how I know that? Fans of both teams hate it. I’ve seen plenty of Yankees fans complain about giving up a potential starting catcher for a fourth outfielder — just click the RAB comments! — and plenty of Twins fans complain about trading a guy with star caliber tools for a backup catcher. You’ve got to give something to get something, you know? I’m a huge Murphy fan, irrationally so, but Brian McCann is signed for another three years. Murphy’s value to the Yankees was limited to backup catcher who maybe takes over as the starter in four years, when he’s one year away from free agency. Rather than sit on him in that low impact role, the Yankees used Murphy to get another young player who fit the roster better. It’s a fair trade in terms of player value in my opinion and the deal really helps both teams. “I wasn’t going to trade John Ryan Murphy for an old guy,” said Brian Cashman to Billy Witz yesterday. Amen.

2. Following the trade, Cashman told reporters the Yankees view Hicks as “an everyday player” — for what it’s worth, Cashman also called Murphy an “everyday catcher” — which could easily lead you to believe another move is in the works, potentially a Brett Gardner trade. “It provides us flexibility as we move forward to do some things but that’s not why I did the trade,” said Cashman to Erik Boland. I don’t know if adding Hicks makes a Gardner trade more likely, but, if nothing else, the Yankees are now better equipped to replace Gardner. Hicks can at least provide high end defense and crush left-handed pitchers, so the Yankees could pair him with lefty hitting Slade Heathcott or Mason Williams or Ben Gamel in a dirt cheap platoon, and maybe squeeze something like +2 WAR out of them. There’s always a chance Hicks, who will spend all of next season at 26, blossoms into something more too. Carlos Gomez is as tooled up as anyone and he didn’t start to figure it out until age 26, and didn’t really break out until age 27. Sometimes it takes time. Like Gomez, Hicks has the kind of natural ability clubs are willing to be patient with.

3. As for trading Gardner, I don’t love the idea but I’m certainly not opposed to it. It depends on the return, like any other trade. A good young pitcher or a second baseman makes the most sense. Prospects? Eh, they don’t really do anything for me. I would be opposed to trading Gardner if the main goal is to clear up payroll space, however. That wouldn’t sit well with me. For starters, Gardner is not exactly expensive, averaging $13M a year for the next three years. That’s Melky Cabrera and Michael Bourn money these days. Also, they’re the Yankees. Trading one of your best players to rework payroll when the payroll hasn’t significantly increased in ten years would be a really bad look. I mean, geez. The team’s payroll was $208.3M in 2005 and $217.8M in 2015. The average MLB payroll climbed from $73.3M in 2005 to $125.4M in 2015. So yeah. It’s one thing to not raise payroll commensurate with league-wide inflation. It’s another to start trading good players to make sure payroll continues to remain steady when you’re a huge market club with a six-year-old ballpark. I don’t think the Yankees would salary dump Gardner, but if part of the thinking is clearing money to make other moves, that’s a problem. The Yankees shouldn’t be pinching pennies after getting a postseason gate.

4. Even if the Yankees keep Gardner, Hicks figures to see an awful lot of playing time next season. Chris Young appeared in 140 games (!) this past season and batted 356 times. Garrett Jones, Heathcott, and Williams combined for another 119 plate appearances as outfielders. Joe Girardi said he plans to find a way to keep his players fresher and more productive next season, which I’m sure means extra rest, so Hicks will play a ton. The job description is fourth outfielder, but it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which Hicks bats 400+ times next year. One injury and he’s an everyday guy.

Sanchez. (Presswire)
Sanchez. (Presswire)

5. Does this trade happen if Gary Sanchez doesn’t mash this summer and continue mashing in the Arizona Fall League? (Coincidentally, Sanchez hit his seventh AzFL homer yesterday literally moments after the Murphy-Hicks trade was announced.) At this time last year Sanchez was coming off a good but not great year in Double-A, and questions about his defense and maturity persisted. His glovework took a bit of a step forward this summer and his maturity improved tremendously according to various reports. Sanchez began to take his career more seriously. (His wife had a kid late last year. I can’t help but wonder how much becoming a father led to the improved maturity.) If all of that doesn’t happen, the Yankees might not view him as a viable big league option — “I think Gary Sanchez can play in the big leagues this year. Whether he will or not we’ll have to wait and see,” said Cashman to Boland yesterday — making them more hesitant to part with Murphy. Either way, Sanchez made some significant progress this year and is on the cusp of a big league job. The talent in the farm system is starting to catch up to the MLB roster, allowing the team to make moves like Murphy-for-Hicks.

6. The backup catcher situation will be pretty interesting to watch the rest of the offseason. Something tells me we’re headed for another Spring Training competition, though this one may be more of a true competition than the ones we’ve seen the last few years. (Like last year, when it was Murphy’s job to lose but others were involved for show.) The Yankees do love strong defensive catchers, and maybe Sanchez has reached an acceptable level for them, but I don’t think they’d give him the job outright. Austin Romine could hang around longer than expected — he figured to be a 40-man roster casualty this offseason but now may stick around at least until Spring Training, in case there’s an injury — and the Yankees could look to sign a veteran backstop to a minor league contract for depth. Someone like Carlos Corporan or Jeff Mathis could be a fit. (Don’t laugh. Mathis is a great defender and has a reputation for being a top notch works with pitchers/leadership dude. There are worse veterans to have working with young pitchers in Triple-A.) Sanchez stepping into Murphy’s role as the backup catcher who starts almost exclusively against left-handed pitchers would be pretty damn awesome. I’m not sure that is the team’s plan right now. There’s still basically an entire offseason remaining and a lot can happen. It wouldn’t shock me if Sanchez started next season in Triple-A and Romine or someone else was backing up McCann.

7. As part of their youth movement over the last calendar year, the Yankees have targeted players with high-end ability who seemed to fall out of favor with their former teams. Hicks, Didi Gregorius, Nathan Eovaldi, and Dustin Ackley all fit into that group. The Twins got tired of waiting for Hicks’ tools to turn into production and they had Byron Buxton ready to step into center field, so he was made available to fill a need behind the plate. The Yankees gave up some pretty talented players to get those guys, but almost all of those trades were made using players at a position of depth. The only exception is Shane Greene, and, well, you’ve got to give up something that’ll hurt to get a 25-year-old shortstop these days. They had the catching depth to deal Murphy, had the outfield and bullpen depth to deal Ramon Flores and Jose Ramirez, and re-signing Chase Headley made Martin Prado expendable. This the Yankees version of rebuilding. It’s done on the fly. They look for guys with talent and ability who need a change of scenery, and so far it’s worth pretty well. Gregorius and Eovaldi were positives this summer and the early returns on Ackley were good. Hicks is next in line. Who else joins him this offseason?

Wednesday Night Open Thread

Well, the Yankees made their first notable move of the offseason today, trading John Ryan Murphy for Aaron Hicks. It’s tough to not see this as part of a larger series of moves, right? A Brett Gardner trade or something like that? I guess we’ll find out soon enough. I dug up a defensive highlight reel of Hicks from 2013. Couldn’t find anything more recent or anything that included offense. Sorry.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. Both the Knicks and Nets are in action. Otherwise you’re on your own for entertainment. Have at it.

Sherman: Yankees have discussed Brett Gardner trade with Mariners

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

The Yankees have had trade talks with the Mariners about outfielder Brett Gardner, reports Joel Sherman. Talks are not all that advanced and no deal is imminent. New Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto has reportedly been after Gardner for a while, dating back to his time as interim GM of the Diamondbacks in 2010. Seattle is trying hard to land an athletic center fielder this offseason.

“At the end of the day, I am legitimately really open to any idea,” said Brian Cashman to Bryan Hoch. “I’ve had a lot of bad ones, either thrown by me or on the receiving end from somebody else to me. But that’s what we’re here for, to throw a lot of (stuff) out there and see what sticks.”

Sherman says — not specifically related to a potential Gardner trade, just in general — the Yankees are seeking high-end starting pitching they can control beyond 2017. (Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, and Nathan Eovaldi can all become free agents after 2017.) He notes New York ramped up their scouting of Mariners lefty James Paxton at the end of the regular season and in the Arizona Fall League.

Paxton, 27, had a 3.90 ERA (4.31 FIP) in 67 innings for the Mariners this past season while missing roughly three months with a strained tendon in his left middle finger. He was limited to 74 innings last season (3.04 ERA and 3.28 FIP) due to a severe lat strain. Between MLB and the minors, Paxton has thrown only 160.2 innings from 2014-15 due to injuries.

The Yankees owe Gardner $39.5M through 2018 while Paxton is under team control through 2019. In a world where Colby Rasmus is expected to land a three-year deal worth $42M, Gardner at three years and $39.5M is pretty damn reasonable. The Yankees would clear payroll — why are the Yankees worried about clearing payroll? — and add another injury prone starter to the pile with a deal like this, which may or may not be under discussion.

In a vacuum, I think Gardner for Paxton is close to the ballpark but not quite in it. The Mariners would have to sweeten the deal somewhat. Gardner is solidly above-average for his position and Paxton is little more than potential. And no, trading Gardner then signing a free agent like Jason Heyward does not mean the Yankees should settle for less in return for Gardner. His trade value doesn’t change.

Anyway, I’m sure the Yankees have received plenty of calls about Gardner this offseason, and since he’s pretty much the only veteran on the team with actual trade value, expect to continue seeing his name in trade rumors this winter. That they acquired another outfielder this afternoon in Aaron Hicks only adds fuel to the fire.

Yankees trade John Ryan Murphy to Twins for Aaron Hicks


Let the roster makeover begin. The Yankees have traded catcher John Ryan Murphy to the Twins for outfielder Aaron Hicks, both teams announced. It’s a straight one-for-one trade. Brian Cashman told reporters at the GM Meetings he first proposed the swap to Minnesota a few weeks ago.

In a nutshell, both teams traded from a position of depth to fill a need. The Twins had a ton of outfielders but no viable catcher, and Murphy figures to get an opportunity to start in Minnesota. That wasn’t happening in New York because of Brian McCann. Hicks replaces Chris Young as a lefty mashing fourth outfielder at the very least, but he has the potential to grow into much more.

Hicks, 26, is a former top prospect — peaked at No. 19 on Baseball America’s top 100 list in 2010 — who has struggled to find his way at the MLB level. He is a career .225/.306/.349 (82 wRC+) hitter in 928 big league plate appearances, but he did start to figure it out in 2015, hitting .256/.323/.398 (97 wRC+) overall and .307/.375/.495 (139 wRC+) against lefties. Interestingly, Hicks is a switch-hitter who two years ago stopped hitting left-handed due to a lack of confidence. He then went back to switch-hitting this year.

In the field, Hicks is a borderline elite defender — he’s almost certainly the best defensive outfielder in the organization now — capable of playing all three outfield spots. He also has a rocket arm. Hicks did this at Yankee Stadium two years ago:

Statcast says Hicks was one of five outfielders to make at least three 100 mph throws this past season, and he didn’t even play everyday. What a novel idea, an outfielder who can throw. Hicks is also a stolen base threat. The tools are high-end but the production has yet to match. It’s easy to understand why the Yankees grabbed him. Hicks has a lot of ability and major upside.

Murphy, 24, is a career .267/.311/.374 (88 wRC+) hitter in 284 MLB plate appearances over the last three years. He put up a .277/.327/.406 (99 wRC+) line as McCann’s backup this past season, including .266/.314/.456 (108 wRC+) against lefties. Murphy’s a good defender and a pretty likable dude, though it was difficult to see how he could be anything more than a backup for the Yankees with McCann signed through 2018.

Hicks is under team control through 2019 and will be arbitration-eligible for the first time next offseason. Murphy is under control through 2020 and it looks like he’ll be right on the Super Two bubble, so he might be arbitration-eligible for the first of four times next year. The Yankees are getting four years of team control while the Twinkies are getting five.

The move could mean Gary Sanchez steps in as the backup catcher, but I don’t think that’s a given. It could mean Austin Romine sticks around a little longer, or the Yankees go outside the organization for a veteran backup. Sanchez mashed this season — he’s still mashing in the Arizona Fall League — but his defense is rough around the edges. Some more time in Triple-A wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Anyway, the Yankees continue to target young players with tools and upside. Over the last year they’ve brought in Didi Gregorius, Nathan Eovaldi, and Dustin Ackley, three young guys who seemed to fall out of favor with their former teams, and Hicks was in a similar situation with the Twins. I’m the world’s biggest Murphy fan and I’ll miss him, but I get it. The Yankees are adding upside while dealing from a position of depth.

Yankees trade utility man Jose Pirela to Padres for righty Ronald Herrera

Ronald Herrera1
(San Diego Union Tribune)

The Yankees have traded utility man Jose Pirela to the Padres for right-hander Ronald Herrera, the team announced. Herrera is not on the 40-man roster, so the Yankees clear a spot with the trade. They now have 38 players on the 40-man roster.

Herrera, 20, had a 4.08 ERA (4.13 FIP) with a 16.8% strikeout rate and a 6.8% walk rate in 145.2 innings between High-A and Double-A last season. Pretty impressive he reached Double-A and held up under such a big workload at such a young age. San Diego originally acquired Herrera from the Athletics in the Kyle Blanks deal a few years ago.

Baseball America did not rank Herrera among the Padres’ top 30 prospects in their 2015 Prospect Handbook. didn’t have him in the team’s top 30 either. Here’s a snippet of Baseball America’s scouting report from their free trade write-up:

Herrera’s not particularly physical, standing only 5-foot-10, and does not have much projection left, but he’s very athletic with an easy-to-repeat delivery. With the fastball, he shows above-average command to both sides of the plate and touched 94 mph while sitting 90-93. Herrera also throws a cutter and a big, soft curveball. But the change this season came when Herrera began to trust the fastball more, setting up the cutter and curve, instead of trying to trick hitters, as one evaluator said … Herrera doesn’t miss many bats but doesn’t walk many and limits damage.

Pirela, 25, has hit .255/.275/.367 (72 wRC+) in 44 games and 103 plate appearances with the Yankees over the last two seasons. He’s mashed at the Triple-A level — .311/.362/.435 in 195 games — and offers versatility, but he’s not a good fielder and probably isn’t anything better than a right-handed bench bat. If nothing else, this shows the Yankees feel comfortable with Rob Refsnyder as a second base option.

Players have to be added to the 40-man roster by next Friday to be protected from the Rule 5 Draft, and Pirela seemed like a possible roster casualty to clear space. Rather than drop him from the roster and lose him for nothing, the Yankees turned him into a slightly interesting non-40-man arm. Not much more to say than that.

The Value and Versatility of Adam Warren [2015 Season Review]

AdamWarrenIt’s easy to forget Adam Warren received his first extended big league opportunity because of Phil Hughes. Hughes suffered a minor back injury late in Spring Training two years ago, forcing David Phelps into the rotation. That freed up the long man spot and opened the door for Warren to be on the 2013 Opening Day roster.

Since making that Opening Day roster two years ago, Warren has worn all sorts of hats for the Yankees. He’s been a spot starter, a long man, a middle reliever, a setup man … Warren did a little of everything for the Yankees the last two seasons. And, once again, Warren did a little of everything for the Yankees in 2015. He was one of the most valuable pitchers on the staff.

An Opportunity in Spring

Warren came to Spring Training stretched out as a starter, but, even with Phelps traded to the Marlins, there was no obvious rotation spot available. CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, and Nathan Eovaldi were locked into the top four spots, and depth signing Chris Capuano had a leg up on the fifth spot after pitching admirably down the stretch last season.

Then, on March 11th, Capuano took a misstep covering first base and suffered a Grade II quad strain. He was going to start the season on the DL, opening a rotation spot for Warren. Well, the Yankees tried to pass it off as a competition between Warren and Esmil Rogers, but c’mon. Warren allowed five runs in 16.2 innings across five Grapefruit League starts. He looked like Adam Warren. Uneventful spring, really.

Reliever or Starter?

Warren opened the season as the fifth starter and the first few times out, he looked very much like a reliever masquerading as a starter. He struggled after turning the lineup over and he wasn’t efficient at all. Warren threw 31 innings in his first six starts — that’s fewer than five innings plus one out per start — with 13 walks and 16 strikeouts. Only once in those six starts did he have more strikeouts than walks. (Really.)

It’s hard to believe there was a time we were waiting for Capuano to return to Warren could shift back to the bullpen, but it happened. Unfortunately Masahiro Tanaka landed on the DL with a forearm injury, so Capuano took his spot, not Warren’s. That actually worked out well. Warren settled in as a starter in May, allowing three runs in seven innings against the Rays on May 13th. It was his seventh start of the season and the first time he completed six innings of work, nevermind seven.

From that point on, Warren was arguably the most reliable pitcher in the rotation. Tanaka was hurt, Sabathia was struggling, Eovaldi still hadn’t figured out the splitter, Pineda was have a tough time after the 16-strikeout game, and Capuano was Capuano. Warren had a 2.96 ERA (4.10 FIP) in eight starts and 51.2 innings from May 13th through June 25th. His best start came on May 26th against the Royals. He held them to one run on two hits in 6.1 innings.

Through June 25th, Warren owned a 3.59 ERA (4.17 FIP) in 14 starts and 82.2 innings. April was rough, but eventually he settled into a groove and pitched very well for about six weeks there. Considering he was the team’s sixth starter coming into the season, things were working out pretty damn well.

Back to the Bullpen

Tanaka returned from his forearm injury on June 3rd and Ivan Nova returned from Tommy John surgery on June 24th, so suddenly the Yankees had six starters for five spots. (Capuano had been demoted to the bullpen.) The Yankees decided to stick with Nova and send Warren back to the bullpen, where he was so effective from 2013-14. At the time of the demotion, Warren had the lowest ERA among the club’s starters.

“I took it about as well as you can take it,” said Warren to reporters after the demotion. “I was a little frustrated at first because I want to be a starter. They sat down and talked to me about it and I understood where they were coming from, I told them I’m not going to be unhappy out of the bullpen. I enjoyed being out of the bullpen the last couple of years. I’m not upset by any means. For me it’s just getting back to a bullpen routine. You knew the six-man rotation was not going to last, just playing the numbers game I felt this was going to happen sometime.”

Girardi took advantage of Warren being stretched out by asking him to throw 2+ innings in five of his first eleven bullpen appearances. Of course, Warren was also pitching in low-leverage situations more often than not for some reason. At one point from late-June into early-July, he entered six consecutive games in these situations:

sixth inning down four
seventh inning up 14
sixth inning up ten
sixth inning down two
sixth inning down four
seventh inning down two

Not a whole lot of important innings there. The Yankees had a great end-game trio in Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, and Justin Wilson, but those couldn’t pitch every day, and for some reason Warren wasn’t being used to pick up the slack. I dunno, it was weird.

By time July and August rolled around, Warren had settled back into a true one-inning relief role. He threw 32.2 innings across 25 appearances after being sent back to the bullpen, pitching to a 2.51 ERA (2.76 FIP). Both his strikeout (26.6%) and walk (6.2%) rates were significant better than they had been as a starter earlier in the season (16.0 K% and 7.7 B%). Warren was excellent. That was no surprise though. He was excellent out of the bullpen from 2013-14.

Whatever You Need, Skip

The Yankees ran into some rotation trouble at the end of the season. Eovaldi had to be shut down with elbow inflammation and Tanaka pulled a hamstring, so they had no choice but the use Warren as a starter. He made three starts with a limited pitch count in mid-September, allowing six runs in 13.1 innings.

The bullpen was full of extra arms thanks to expanded rosters, but the Yankees still needed someone to go out and soak up some innings as a starter. Warren again did that. On October 1st, the Yankees needed something else from Warren. The bullpen was taxed and they needed someone to bridge the gap between Sabathia and Betances, the day’s designated closer.

With the Yankees looking to clinch their first postseason berth in two seasons, Warren came out of the bullpen against the Red Sox and held them to one hit and one walk in three scoreless innings. He took the ball from Sabathia and gave it directly to Betances.

The final month of the 2015 season was the Adam Warren Experience in a nutshell. He dominated as a short reliever in early-September, filled in for a few starts in the middle of September, then gave the Yankees a big long relief outing in early-October. Warren is a bullpen jack of all trades. He’s the closest thing the Yankees have had to Ramiro Mendoza since Ramiro Mendoza.

That three-inning outing against the Red Sox was Warren’s final appearance of the 2015 season. He was on the wildcard game roster and was presumably the next man out of the bullpen had the game gone to extra innings. Warren closed out the season with a 3.29 ERA (3.59 FIP) in a career high 131.1 innings across 17 starts and 26 relief appearances. Both bWAR (2.7) and fWAR (2.2) say he was one of the four most valuable Yankees pitchers in 2015.

“Every good club that I’ve been on has seemed to have a guy like Adam Warren that is able to do so many different things for you as a pitcher,” said Girardi at the end of the season. “His value has been as big as any pitcher that we have in that room … He’s invaluable.”

Looking Ahead to 2016

After three seasons of doing whatever the Yankees needed, Warren will finally earn something more than the league minimum in 2016. He’s arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason and is projected for a $1.5M salary next year. Barring a surprise trade, Warren will again come to Spring Training as a starter next season. What will be his role during the regular season? A little of everything seems like a safe bet once again.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Jeff Samardzija


At the moment, the Yankees have seven starters for five rotation spots. That includes Ivan Nova and Adam Warren, who are depth arms and not oh gosh we need to clear a rotation spot for him arms. Masahiro Tanaka is coming off offseason elbow surgery, however, and the trio of Nathan Eovaldi (elbow), CC Sabathia (knee), and Michael Pineda (forearm) all got hurt in the second half.

Those seven starters come with seven question marks — Nova stunk this year, Warren has never spent a full MLB season as a starter, Luis Severino is a 21-year-old kid — and while adding rotation help may not be a top priority this offseason, it would make sense to at least explore the market. After all, the Yankees had those seven guys this past season and they still needed Chase Whitley, Chris Capuano, and Bryan Mitchell to make some starts.

The 2015-16 free agent class is loaded with starters. You’ve got aces, mid-rotation guys, reclamation projects, you name it. We haven’t seen a free agent class this deep with arms in a very long time. One of those arms is right-hander Jeff Samardzija, who is coming off a disappointing season but nevertheless is expected to receive a significant contract this winter. The Yankees have already been connected to him. Let’s dive in.

Recent Performance

Like I said, the soon-to-be 31-year-old Samardzija had a disappointing 2015 season with the White Sox. The idea players cost themselves money with poor performance gets thrown around too much — no, those two bad weeks in September won’t kill a guy’s free agent value — but Samardzija definitely did. He was potentially looking at $100M+ this offseason. Anyway, here are his last three years.

2013 213.2 4.34 3.77 23.4% 8.5% 48.2% 13.3% .309 .342
2014 219.2 2.99 3.20 23.0% 4.9% 50.2% 10.6% .279 .292
2015 214.0 4.96 4.23 17.9% 5.4% 39.0% 10.8% .302 .357
2013-15 647.1 4.09 3.73 21.4% 6.3% 45.6% 11.5% .297 .332

Okay, so which one is the real Samardzija? Is it the guy who was okay at best in 2013, the guy who was an ace in 2014, or the guy who led the league earned runs and total bases allowed in 2015? For some reason I feel like the answer is none of the above. The truth is probably somewhere between 2014 and 2015, which is an incredibly wide range of possible outcomes.

I think it’s important to note the White Sox had one of the worst defenses in baseball this season, which surely contributed to Samardzija’s trouble preventing runs. They turned relatively few balls in play into outs behind him. The bad defense doesn’t explain a five percentage point drop in strikeout rate or the ten (!) percentage point drop in ground ball rate*, however.

* Samardzija went from 0.82 HR/9 last year to 1.22 HR/9 this year, and that’s all due to the sudden lack of ground balls. His HR/FB% rate was basically identical those two years.

Let’s take a deeper look at at the type of contact Samardzija has given up the last few seasons and see what’s going on there.

GB% FB% LD% IFFB% Pull% Oppo% Soft% Hard%
2013 48.2% 31.4% 20.4% 10.1% 36.5% 23.0% 17.8% 28.2%
2014 50.2% 30.5% 19.3% 10.6% 38.0% 24.4% 19.9% 24.7%
2015 39.0% 39.8% 21.2% 10.1% 40.2% 26.4% 18.7% 26.7%
2013-15 45.6% 34.1% 20.3% 10.2% 38.3% 24.7% 18.8% 26.5%
MLB AVG 45.3% 33.8% 20.9% 9.5% 39.1% 25.7% 18.6% 28.6%

Samardzija’s hard and soft contact rates have been right in line with the league average the last few years. Same goes for pull and opposite field rates. If there was a lot of hard contact or a spike in pull rate — suggesting hitters were getting around quicker on his stuff — it would be a significant red flag.

Fly balls are not necessarily a bad thing — most fly balls are catchable, routine plays — and Samardzija has gotten a bit more infield pop-ups than the league average pitcher the last three years. Pop-ups are almost as good as strikeouts. They’re as close to a sure out as there is in this game. Still, Samardzija’s ground ball rate fell and his fly ball rate climbed big time in 2015, and that’s something we can’t ignore.

Something caused those changes in Samardzija’s fly ball and ground ball rates this year. They’re just the symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself. Samardzija’s stuff and pitch mix may have the answers, or at least point us in the right direction.

The Stuff

At this point of his career Samardzija is a true five-pitch pitcher. He stopped toying around with a changeup and a curveball a few years ago, instead settling on a splitter and slider as his go-to secondary pitches. Three different fastballs — four-seamer, sinker, cutter — round out his repertoire. Here’s a real quick average velocity breakdown from Brooks Baseball:


That’s a pretty significant drop in four-seamer velocity, right? Samardzija lost 1.3 mph off his heater last season. The velocity drop on his other pitches — sinker (.52 mph), slider (.97 mph), cutter (.64 mph), splitter (.90 mph) — is not as severe but is still notable. Samardzija was still one of the hardest throwing starters in baseball last season, that’s important to remember, but there was enough of a velocity drop across to board to make you notice.

Samardzija’s pitch selection the last three years is pretty interesting. Most guys who throw five pitches really throw like three pitches and occasionally flash the other two. That’s not the case with Samardzija. He throws all five regularly. Here’s the data, again via Brooks Baseball:

Jeff Samardzija pitch selection

Samardzija threw all of his pitches at least 12.7% of the time last year and didn’t throw one more than 24.7% of the time. He doesn’t throw the splitter to righties and he doesn’t throw the slider to lefties, which makes sense, but otherwise Samardzija uses everything. This isn’t Tanaka throwing that slow curveball four or five times a game, for example.

I am not at all surprised to see Samardzija threw his cutter significantly more often last season. White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper is renowned for teaching the cutter and getting his pitchers to emphasis it. Cooper taught Jose Quintana and Gavin Floyd a cutter in recent years and turned their careers around. Samardzija always threw a cutter, but he nearly doubled his usage of the pitch this season from just two years ago.

And perhaps that is part of the problem. The additional cutters — and additional sliders, I’m guessing some of those sliders were cutters that maybe broke more than usual and wound up being classified as sliders — came at the expense of sinkers more than anything, and hey, that might explain the sudden drop in Samardzija’s ground ball rate. Then again, his grounder rate was down across the board, on all his pitches. Again via Brooks Baseball:

Jeff Samardzija ground ball rates

MLB Averages: Four-seam (37.9%), sinker (49.5%), slider (43.9%), cutter (43.0%), splitter (47.8%).

So much for the idea that fewer sinkers led to fewer grounders. Well, no, that is true to a certain extent for Samardzija, but the ground ball inducing ability took a step back with all five of his pitches last season. That is tied to the velocity loss at least somewhat. How much, exactly? I don’t think we can say.

Cutters have a reputation for sapping arm strength — Eno Sarris wrote a great piece about this back in April — and I guess there’s something to the idea of scaling back on Samardzija’s cutter usage going forward. That could lead to increased effectiveness overall and maybe a slight bump in velocity, but I don’t think we can say that with any certainty.

For the sake of completeness, let’s look at the swing-and-miss rates of Samardzija’s various pitches, once again with the help of Brooks Baseball:

Jeff Samardzija whiff rates

MLB Averages: Four-seam (6.9%), sinker (5.4%), slider (15.2%), cutter (9.7%), splitter (14.9%).

Samardzija’s four-seamer is a great swing-and-miss pitch. It was this past season even with that lost velocity. There’s something to be said for having the ability to throw a fastball by a hitter. It’s a great skill to have. Samardzija also gets a better than average whiff rate on his sinker and cutter, but the slider and splitter? Comfortably below average.

Lefties hit Samardzija hard this past season and the swing-and-miss rate on his splitter dropped off big time. I’m guessing those two things are related. Is it possible the reduced effectiveness of the split-finger fastball is tied to the increased cutter usage? Sure. It takes (slightly) different mechanics to throw different pitches, and suddenly throwing more cutters than ever could have affected his other pitches.

One thing we have to keep in mind: Samardzija still has pretty nasty stuff. He still throws very hard despite the velocity loss, he uses five pitches regularly, and he misses bats with his fastball. This isn’t a guy going out there with Freddy Garcia stuff.

Injury History

Samardzija has never been hurt in his pro career. Not even in the minors. No arm injuries, no pulled hamstrings, no stubbed toes, nothing. He’s a big — listed at 6-foot-5 and 225 lbs. — strong guy and an incredible athlete, all of which points to durability. Any pitcher can get hurt at any time, but there’s nothing in Samardzija’s history that will make you cringe.

Furthermore, Samardzija turns 31 in January but he has significantly fewer innings on his arm than the other top free agent starters. He split his time between football and baseball in college, and he spent the 2008-11 seasons working mostly in relief with the Cubs. Buster Only (subs. req’d) had a great little nugget in yesterday’s blog post.

Among the upper-tier starting pitchers in this year’s free-agent class, Samardzija has easily thrown the fewest pitches in the majors, partly because he served as a reliever his first four years with the Cubs. Here’s where he compares with other top free-agent starters in total MLB pitches during the regular season:

Zack Greinke: 33,189 pitches
Johnny Cueto: 22,786
David Price: 22,724
Jordan Zimmermann: 16,793
Jeff Samardzija: 15,906

Greinke is the oldest of the group by several years, hence that big workload. Price and Cueto have been workhorses throughout their careers, so it makes sense they’re essentially tied for second. Zimmerman has thrown more pitches than Samardzija despite missing a season due to Tommy John surgery.

All pitchers have wear and tear on their arms by time they reach their 30th birthday and Samardzija is no exception, but his arm has not endured the workload of other top free agent starters because he split his time between two sports as an amateur and spent significant time as a reliever after first reaching the show. That may mean he’ll hold his stuff into his mid-30s, a little longer than you’d normally expect.

Loose Yankees Ties

Two of the reasons the Yankees have been connected to Samardzija are pitching coach Larry Rothschild and special advisor Jim Hendry. Rothschild was Samardzija’s first pitching coach with the Cubs and Hendry originally drafted, signed, and developed Samardzija when he was Cubs GM. So the Yankees have some firsthand knowledge of him.

That said, Rothschild only spent parts of three seasons with Samardzija, and he wasn’t moved into the rotation until two years after Rothschild left the Cubs. Hendry was fired as Cubs GM the year before Samardzija moved into the rotation. The relationships might not be as close as you’d expect. If nothing else, Rothschild and Hendry should be able to give the Yankees some knowledge about Samardzija as a person. His work ethic, that sort of stuff.

Contract Projections

The White Sox made Samardzija the qualifying offer last week and I expect him to reject it before Friday’s deadline, even after his down year. Samardzija should have no trouble beating that $15.8M guarantee on the open market. I know the pitching class is deep and there are plenty of alternatives, but basically every team besides the Mets is looking for rotation help this winter. The demand is still greater than the supply. Samardzija will get his.

Anyway, in addition to a hefty contract, whoever signs Samardzija will have to forfeit their highest unprotected draft pick thanks to the qualifying offer. For the Yankees, that is their first rounder, tentatively scheduled to be No. 22 overall. Here are some contract projections for Samardzija:

Based on those three, Samardzija is expected to receive roughly $17M a year for four or five years. That’s basically the A.J. Burnett contract (five years, $82.5M), which is fitting because Samardzija and Burnett can both tantalize you with their stuff and frustrate you with their results.

Remember though, it has been seven years since Burnett sign his contract with the Yankees. The market has changed a lot since then. Paying a starter $17M a year now is not the same as doing it back then. Back in 2009 only four pitchers had contracts with an average annual value of $16M+. This past season 18 pitchers had a contract worth that much annually. So yeah.

Wrapping Up

Samardzija’s best attribute is his durability. He’s never been hurt, he’s logged 210+ innings in each of the last three years, his arm is fresh, and he consistently pitches deep into games. Samardzija completed seven innings in 19 of his 32 starts this past season. The Yankees as a team had their starter complete seven innings only 35 times in 2015.

Also, Samardzija’s stuff took a slight step back this past season, though it could be tied to his increased cutter usage. He still flashes brilliance and dominates on occasion. Samardzija had four starts with a 75+ Game Score this season. The Yankees as a team had ten. Lots of innings and occasional brilliance doesn’t equal an ace, but I don’t think anyone is looking at Samardzija as an ace anyway. Four or five years and $17M per year isn’t ace money anymore.


At this point I think Samardzija is what he is. Signing him and expecting his game to take a significant step forward probably isn’t realistic. He might — I think he will, not might — be better than he was this year simply because he figures to have a more competent defense behind him going forward, but I wouldn’t count on ever seeing the 2014 Samardzija again either. He’s talented and durable and the results leave you wanting more.

The Yankees love big power pitchers who don’t walk anyone — I think Samardzija’s improved walk rate the last two years is the result of an athletic pitcher getting locked into his mechanics — and Samardzija fits the bill. He’s also played for a team in a big market with intense media in the Cubs — shouldn’t his Notre Dame football experience count too? — and has an old school give me the damn ball bulldog mentality.

“Back in the day, the game was left in the starter’s hands,” said Samardzija to David Laurila in July 2014. “If the starter pitched well, he was given his 120 pitches. The game was decided by the starting pitchers. It’s different now and I think that’s unfortunate. When you get into tough situations, regardless of your pitch count, a lot of times a reliever is brought in. I understand why – it’s to preserve the game — but you have to keep your relievers’ arms fresh too. I like the idea of the starters deciding what happens in the game.”

I think the Yankees can use rotation help, and I’m sure if you gave the front office a truth serum, they’d say they want to find a way to upgrade the starting staff as well. If nothing else, it would be nice to have one guy you could count on to chew innings every fifth day, right? Asking the bullpen to get 10-12 outs a night is no way to go through a season (again). Samardzija can give you those innings.

Sinking four or five years and $17M annually into Samardzija to be an innings dude who is ideally your second or third best starter might be tough to swallow, but I think it is fair market value. If the Yankees intend to avoid huge money free agent contracts — like the one David Price will get, for example — Samardzija might just be their best option in free agency.