Prospect Profile: Matt Sauer

(@MLBPipeline)
(@MLBPipeline)

Matt Sauer | RHP

Background
Sauer, 18, grew up in Southern California and attended Righetti High School in Santa Maria. (It’s named after Ernest, not Dave.) This spring he had a 0.98 ERA with 142 strikeouts in 78.1 innings, plus he hit .427/.504/.555 in 135 plate appearances. Sauer was more of an interesting sleeper than a bonafide prospect on the summer showcase circuit in 2016, then a breakout senior year put him in the conversation as a potential first round pick.

Prior to the 2017 draft both Baseball America and MLB.com ranked Sauer as the 28th best prospect in the draft class, while Keith Law (subs. req’d) had him a little lower on his board at 67th. The Yankees selected Sauer with their second round pick, the 54th overall selection, and signed him to an above-slot $2,497,500 bonus. They gave Sauer the savings from first rounder Clarke Schmidt’s below-slot bonus to keep him away from Arizona, where he would have had a chance to be a two-way player.

Pro Debut
The Yankees assigned Sauer to one of their rookie level Gulf Coast League affiliates after signing. He made six starts, allowing nine runs (seven earned) in 11.2 innings with 12 strikeouts and eight walks. That works out to a 5.40 ERA (3.68 FIP) with 21.1% strikeouts and 14.0% walks. The Yankees had Sauer participate in Instructional League after the season, which is standard protocol for new draftees.

Scouting Report
Sauer is very much an arm strength/raw stuff prospect right now, not a polished pitcher. He stands 6-foot-4 and 195 lbs., and his fastball sits mostly 92-95 mph and will touch 97 mph. The pitch has some run back in on right-handed hitters. Last summer Sauer was throwing 88-91 mph in showcase events. His velocity blew up this spring after he bulked up over the winter, with the help of former pro pitcher John Thomas, as Josh Norris explained.

A low-to-mid-80s slider is Sauer’s primary secondary pitch, and he also has a power overhand curveball that shows promise, but lags behind the slider. Sauer doesn’t have much of a changeup, which isn’t uncommon for top high school arms. They never need a changeup to dominate prep competition.

The biggest knock on Sauer is his stiff delivery and long arm action, which hinders his command and has some projecting him as a reliever long-term. He strikes me as a candidate to pitch from the stretch full-time, even as a starter, a la Stephen Strasburg and Yu Darvish. An abbreviated stretch-like windup could work too, similar to Noah Syndergaard and Jon Gray (and Bryan Mitchell).

The Yankees drafted Sauer based on his raw tools, namely his arm strength, his athleticism, and his slider and curveball. Now they have to develop him into a pitcher. Someone who can repeat his delivery, locate consistently, and throw a reliable changeup to keep left-handed hitters off balance.

2018 Outlook
I think it’s pretty obvious Sauer will be held back in Extended Spring Training next year before joining one of the short season leagues when their seasons begin in late-June. Rookie level Pulaski seems like the most likely destination, though Short Season Staten Island is another possibility if the Yankees are willing to let Sauer play against mostly college kids. Either way, I do not expect him to jump right into full season ball next season. There is too much mechanical work to be done right now.

My Take
As risky as he is, I think Sauer is the best prospect the Yankees drafted this year, and one of the five or six best pitching prospects in their pitching rich system. The delivery and command issues are very real, but this is a young pitcher who needs to figure some things out, not an older guy who had it and lost it. He’s a prospect, not a finished product. If the Yankees can iron out his mechanics — a big IF, obviously — Sauer could rocket up prospect rankings in the near future. If it clicks, it’ll click big.

Sonny with a Lack of Run Support [2017 Season Review]

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Going into Spring Training this year, the Yankees really had no idea what their 2018 rotation would look like. Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia were going to be free agents, Masahiro Tanaka could opt out this winter, and the other two spots were wide open. The hope was Luis Severino would grab one of those spots and run with it. The other spot? Who knows.

Now, ten months later, four of the five rotation spots are ostensibly accounted for the next two years. Severino broke out this year, Tanaka didn’t opt out, and Jordan Montgomery grabbed that wide open rotation spot. The fourth starter was a trade deadline pickup. The Yankees imported right-hander Sonny Gray from the Athletics in a midseason trade. The trade details:

That’s three of my top 12 prospects coming into the season — I was the low man on Fowler too, most ranked him in the top ten — to Oakland for a pitcher who threw 117 innings with a 5.69 ERA (4.67 FIP) around forearm and lat injuries last season. Of course, Kaprielian had Tommy John surgery in April and Fowler blew out his knee in July, and Mateo didn’t hit much the previous year and a half, so it was almost an all damaged goods trade.

Prior to the trade Gray threw 97 innings with a 3.43 ERA (3.25 FIP) in 16 starts with Oakland, which was considerably better than his 2016 output but also not quite as good as his 2015 effort (2.73 ERA and 3.45 FIP), which earned him a third place finish in the AL Cy Young voting. In his final six starts with the A’s, Gray allowed six earned runs and held opponents to a .164/.215/.271 batting line. Now let’s dive into his time in pinstripes.

Late Season Walk Problems

The Yankees welcomed Gray to the team by committing three errors behind him in his very first inning in pinstripes. Three errors in the span of four batters to start the game. Cool, cool. Sonny took the loss that game — he allowed four runs (two earned) in six innings — partly because of the errors, but mostly because Corey Kluber struck out eleven in the one-run complete game.

Gray allowed no more than two earned runs in his first five starts and seven of his first eight starts with the Yankees — at one point this year he allowed no more than two earned runs in eleven straight starts, the longest such streak in baseball in 2017 — and on September 12th, he threw his best game with the Yankees. He held the Rays to two runs in eight innings at Citi Field. The offense didn’t give him any support (more on that in a bit), so he ended up taking the loss, though it wasn’t his fault. Sign me up for two runs in eight innings every day of the week.

Through his first eight starts with the Yankees, Gray had a 2.66 ERA (4.14 FIP) and only once did he allow more than two earned runs. Only two times did he fail to complete at least six innings, and one of those two times he threw 5.2 innings. Gray was pretty much exactly as advertised. The Yankees had a chance to win every game he pitched.

Sonny’s last three starts of the regular season were a slog, mostly because he had trouble locating and worked himself into trouble with walks. Gray walked ten batters in his final three regular season starts and 14.2 innings, and he also ran into some home run trouble. The Red Sox tagged him for three homers on September 1st. The Rays hit two on September 12th and two more on September 28th. Gray allowed nine homers in six September starts after allowing ten homers from April through August.

The walks were a bit more worrisome than the home runs because a) home runs are going to happen in Yankee Stadium, and b) it wasn’t just the raw walk totals. Gray was behind in the count often and his pitch count was getting elevated. Those problems continued in Game One of the ALDS, as Gray walked four in 3.1 innings. So that’s 14 walks (and 12 strikeouts) in the span of four starts and 18 innings. Yikes.

Those walks combined with his generally slow pace earned Gray the “nibbler” tag even though walks had never really been a problem for him before, and his overall zone rate was basically league average the last few years. There are few things more annoying than pitchers who don’t throw strikes and pitchers who work slowly. Sonny managed to combine the worst of both worlds in his final few starts. That wasn’t fun.

I think the late season walk problem was more than likely the result of some mechanical issues and/or a result of the homers, which might’ve scared Gray out of the strike zone a bit. The biggest thing to me is health. As long as Gray is healthy, I’m not worried about the walks. I expect them to come down. Most pitchers run into a control rough patch every now and then — Tanaka never walks anyone, but he walked five in a four-inning start this year — and Sonny just so happened to have one late in the year.

Gray was able to rebound in his ALCS Game Four start — after the rough ALDS Game One outing, the Yankees pushed Gray as far back as possible in the ALCS — holding the Astros to two runs (one earned) on one hit and two walks in five innings plus two batters.

All told, Sonny posted a 3.72 ERA (4.87 FIP) in eleven starts and 65.1 innings with the Yankees after the trade. The walks and dingers in September really screwed up his fielding independent numbers.

A Lack Of Run Support

In terms of pitching style, Gray reminds me a lot of Hiroki Kuroda. He throws the kitchen sink at you — Gray throws four pitches at least 15% of the time each (four-seamer, sinker, curveball, slider) and a fifth (changeup) 6% of the time — but he has power (93.8 mph average fastball), so it’s not like he’s out there throwing slop. And, as David Adler explained, Sonny has multiple versions of each pitch because he varies the break and spin on everything. Kuroda was the same way.

Gray is also similar to Kuroda in that his team never scores any damn runs for him. The Yankees never seemed to score for Kuroda. They sure as heck didn’t score for Gray this year. The Yankees scored 39 runs total in Gray’s eleven starts this year — nine of those 39 runs came in one game — or 3.55 runs per game. They scored 819 runs in their other 151 games, or 5.42 runs per game. Good grief.

I don’t know where it started, but there was this “the Yankees don’t score runs for Gray because he works so slowly” narrative that was floating around for a while. It’s true that Gray works slowly — he averaged 28.4 seconds between pitches this season, most in baseball among the 58 pitchers who threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title — but is that the reason the Yankees didn’t score? Are the position players thrown so out of whack by his pace that they can’t hit?

I decided to make a graph. Here is pitcher pace plotted against run support for the 131 individual pitchers who qualified the ERA title the last two years. There are some duplicates in here — there’s a 2016 Kluber and a 2017 Kluber, etc. — but this is just a real quick plot for season review purposes.

pace-vs-run-support

The R² of the trendline is 0.00004. In English, that means there is basically zero correlation between a pitcher’s pace and the run support he receives. Shocking, I know. Who would’ve guessed run support is not a pitcher skill? The whole “he doesn’t get run support because he works so slowly” narrative always struck me as one those things someone said to explain something they couldn’t otherwise explain, and it sounded just plausible enough that people bought it.

I have no idea why the Yankees didn’t score runs for Gray. I have no idea why the Yankees didn’t score runs for Kuroda either. Sometimes pitchers just don’t get run support. It happens. Across full seasons too. It’s annoying. Believe me, I know. I’m sure Gray knows too. The guy has thrown 21.1 postseason innings in his career, and in those 21.1 innings, his team has scored zero (0) runs with him on the mound. What the hell? He’s cursed. Cursed by the run support gods.

2018 Outlook

The Yankees traded for Gray to improve their 2018 and 2019 chances as much as their 2017 chances. He is under control for another two seasons, which is pretty awesome. When healthy, Gray is really good. He’s a bulldog with a deep repertoire who takes video game stuff to the mound more often than not. The Yankees don’t need him to be the ace — that’s up to Severino and Tanaka — but Sonny has the potential to pitch at that level.

Like I said, as long as Gray is healthy, I don’t have any real worry that his late season walk problems will be a long-term issue. I think it was just one of those things. And the lack of run support … I dunno. I can’t explain it. The Yankees figure to again have a very good offense next season, and if Sonny makes 30 starts, chances are he’s going to get plenty of run support. I feel like Gray is really being overlooked right now. He’s an impact pitcher in the prime of his career and the Yankees got him while trading no one off their MLB roster. Couldn’t ask for anything more.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: Jake McGee

(Lachlan Cunningham/Getty)
(Lachlan Cunningham/Getty)

For much of the last 12 months or so, the Yankees have been looking for a reliable left-handed reliever, and they’ve come up empty. Not including closer Aroldis Chapman, the Yankees received 76 innings from lefty relievers this season, and in those 76 innings they had a 4.62 ERA (4.87 FIP). Yuck. Most of the blame goes to Chasen Shreve, who threw 45.1 of those 76 innings.

The Yankees again figure to look for a left-handed reliever this offseason, though it should be noted six of their seven bullpen spots are accounted for (Chapman, David Robertson, Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle, Adam Warren, Dellin Betances), and just about all of their righties can get out lefties. Kahnle is the only real exception. A middle innings southpaw isn’t a pressing need, but if the Yankees can find one, great.

Arguably the best left-handed reliever on the free agent market this winter is former Rays and Rockies southpaw Jake McGee, who’s spent time closing and setting up and doing basically everything there is to do in a bullpen these days. He’s a free agent for the first time, and given the perpetually growing importance of bullpens, he might cash in very big. Let’s see whether McGee is a fit for the Yankees.

Current Performance

With the Rays from 2012-15, the now 31-year-old McGee was lights out and arguably the best lefty reliever in the game aside from Chapman. He got Coors Fielded pretty hard the last two years though. His numbers since 2015:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 LHB wOBA RHB wOBA
2015 37.1 2.41 2.33 32.7% 5.4% 38.9% 0.72 .259 .228
2016 45.2 4.73 5.29 18.5% 7.8% 40.1% 1.77 .359 .388
2017 57.1 3.61 2.93 25.3% 7.0% 40.5% 0.63 .301 .255

Reliever performance fluctuates wildly. News at 11. In all seriousness, McGee’s introduction to Coors Field in 2016 was not pretty, and it probably didn’t help that he was dealing with nagging inflammation in his left knee all season.

As you’d expect, McGee’s performance the last two seasons was quite a bit better on the road away from Coors Field than at home. Here are his 2016-17 splits:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 wOBA
Home 50.2 5.51 4.99 20.3% 7.4% 46.2% 1.78 .359
Road 52.1 2.75 3.00 24.0% 7.0% 34.0% 0.52 .284

Coors Field McGee was very bad. Road McGee looks an awful lot like the Rays version of McGee. Now, that said, I don’t think evaluating Rockies players is as simple as taking their road numbers and saying that’s who they really are. For starters, three of the other four NL West parks are big time pitchers’ parks. Secondly, there’s been some research showing Rockies players have been disproportionately hurt when they come down from altitude.

Generally speaking, McGee has been a very good reliever throughout his career, though his numbers the last two years have been skewed by Coors Field and also the nagging knee problem. Shewed how much? It’s hard to say. Whoever signs him will hope they get someone close to Road McGee and be happy if they get someone close to 2017 McGee.

Current Stuff

McGee is a very interesting pitcher. He throws almost nothing but fastballs. Three-hundred-and-twenty-two pitchers threw at least 100 innings from 2016-17. Here are the highest four-seam fastball usage rates from those 322 pitchers:

  1. Jake McGee: 88.9%
  2. Tony Cingrani: 83.5%
  3. Ryan Buchter: 80.3%
  4. Zach McAllister: 80.2%
  5. Aroldis Chapman: 78.5%

Huh, I’m kinda surprised four of the top five pitchers in four-seamer usage the last two seasons are lefties. McAllister is the only righty on that list.

Anyway, so yeah, McGee throws a lot of fastballs. More than five fastballs per 100 pitches more than any other pitcher the last two years. And you know what’s crazy? McGee’s four-seamer rate was even higher this season. It was 92.8% in 2017. McGee would regularly sit 96-98 mph with his heater with the Rays, though it’s more 94-96 mph these days.

jake-mcgee-velocity

McGee starting having knee trouble late in 2015 and you clearly can see the corresponding velocity drop in the graph. It was his left knee, his push-off knee, so he wasn’t able to generate the same velocity. This season, with a healthy knee, his velocity was more stable and closer to where it was while he was in Tampa. (Chances are he’ll never get it all the way back to where it was a few years ago because of wear and tear, etc.)

McGee’s fastball spin rate was almost exactly average the last two years — it was 2,258 rpm from 2016-17, and the league average was 2,261 rpm — and his fastball “rise” (+10.0 inches) was close to average as well (+9.3 inches). It doesn’t seem like it should be a dominant pitch, but because of the way McGee changes eye levels, he’s very successful. Check out his fastball swing-and-miss heat map:

jake-mcgee-fastball-whiffsElevated fastballs are a great swing-and-miss pitch, and McGee has it mastered. He pitches in, out, up, and down with his heater, then get hitters to chase upstairs with two strikes. Here’s one of his outings from this past season:

There is something of a Chad Green element to McGee’s fastball. Green throws his fastball a lot and hitters just can not hit it for whatever reason. The velocity is not overwhelming relative to the average reliever, and yet, no one can hit it. McGee’s fastball isn’t as effective as Green’s, but it’s close. It leaves you shaking your head. Throwing basically one pitch, a straight-ish four-seam fastball, that often against Major League hitters shouldn’t work, but it does for McGee.

McGee’s other pitch is an upper-70s slurve — there’s one in the video above — that is more of a curveball than a slider, though the break is somewhere in between the two pitches. It’s a show-me pitch. McGee will throw one or two per outing just to keep hitters honest. This is a fastball only pitcher who is going to challenge hitters with his heater. Country hardball.

Injury History

As with most pitchers in their 30s, McGee does have an injury history. I’ve already told you about the knee. McGee pitched on a torn meniscus in 2015 and had surgery late in the season, which led to the inflammation in 2016. The knee did not bother him at all this season. His other notable injuries:

  • Tommy John surgery in June 2008.
  • Surgery to remove a loose body from his elbow in April 2015.
  • Two weeks on the disabled list with a back strain in late-July/early-August 2017.

Something for everyone. Arm injury? Check. Lower body injury? Also check. Back injury? Another check. I suppose the good news is there’s nothing chronic here. McGee hasn’t have elbow or back or knee problems year after year after year. For the most part, his injuries were isolated incidents.

Contract Estimates

Coming into this exercise I expected to reference the four-year, $30.5M contract Brett Cecil signed with the Cardinals last offseason quite a bit, but the two most popular contract projections have McGee getting less:

Hmmm. I think the FanGraphs Crowdsourcing is going to be closer to the actual number. Cecil ($7.625M), Darren O’Day ($7.75M), Joakim Soria ($8.33M), and Brad Ziegler ($9M) all recently signed contracts in the $7.5M to $9M annual salary range. Heck, Ryan Madson was out of baseball from 2012-14, and he was able to turn a good 2015 season into a three-year deal worth $7M annually. The going rate for a good free agent reliever is $8M or so a year nowadays.

Perhaps McGee’s recent knee and back trouble limit his market, or teams really hold his Coors Field performance against him, and he falls into the $6M per year range like MLBTR projects. That strikes me as a really good deal. McGee at $18M from 2018-20 or Cecil at $22.75M from 2018-20? Yeah, I know which one I’m picking. Three years and $8M annually sounds about right to me. Maybe McGee even gets a fourth year. It only takes one team to make that crazy offer, after all.

Does He Make Sense For The Yankees?

Yeah, I think so. Definitely. McGee is used to pitching in a tough environment — going from Coors Field to Yankee Stadium will probably feel like a relief to him — and he’s familiar with the AL East after spending all those seasons with the Rays. He’s a strikeout pitcher without a massive platoon split, so he wouldn’t need to be sheltered as a straight left-on-left matchup guy.

It is completely reasonable to wonder how effective McGee will be once he inevitably starts to lose some fastball. He’s already losing some fastball, in fact. His average velocity was 95.4 mph this past season, down from 97.5 mph just three years ago. What happens when McGee is averaging 93.5 mph, or 92.0 mph? Throwing 90% fastballs might not work so well at that velocity.

My guess is the Yankees are not eager to spend $8M or so per season on another reliever given their current bullpen situation. Not with the luxury tax plan in place. Maybe if McGee can be had at $6M annually, they’ll pounce. I think the luxury tax plan and the fact the Yankees are already quite strong in the bullpen will send them looking for a bargain lefty, not a high-priced one like McGee. He’s a fit, but he’s not a fit. Know what I mean?

Tuesday Night Open Thread

The Yankees have added another name to their managerial candidates list. Multiple reports today indicate Carlos Beltran will interview for the job tomorrow. Beltran has said he wants to manage, plus he knows the organization and many players with the team from his time in pinstripes, which I can’t imagine will hurt his chances. If nothing else, I doubt communication will be a concern here. Beltran and Alex Rodriguez co-managers. Let’s do it.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The (hockey) Rangers and Islanders are both playing, and there’s a bunch of college hoops on the schedule as well. Talk about those games, Beltran as a managerial candidate, or anything that isn’t religion or politics here. Have at it.

Billy McKinney and the Yankee Stadium short porch

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last week, prior to the Rule 5 Draft protection deadline, the Yankees added three recently acquired prospects to the 40-man roster. The first and most notable is Gleyber Torres, who came over in the Aroldis Chapman trade and is arguably the best prospect in the minors. Albert Abreu, who has a case for being the top right-handed pitching prospect in the system, came over in the Brian McCann trade and was added the 40-man as well.

The third recently acquired prospect is outfielder Billy McKinney, a 2013 first round pick — he was the 24th overall selection, taken two picks before Eric Jagielo — who went from the Athletics to the Cubs in the Jeff Samardzija trade, then from the Cubs to the Yankees in the Chapman trade. A knee injury sabotaged his 2016 season, though this year, McKinney bounced back with a .277/.338/.483 (124 wRC+) line and a career high 16 homers in 124 games at Double-A and Triple-A.

The Yankees like McKinney enough to bring him to Spring Training as a non-roster player earlier this year — he had a knack for hitting homers in the middle of mid-game interviews — and before adding him to the 40-man roster last week, they had him spend time at first base in the Arizona Fall League. They’re looking for a way to get his left-handed bat into the lineup. Maybe not right away, but down the road at some point. The more positions he can play, the better.

McKinney, who turned 23 in August, is never going to be much of a defender. He’s a bat-first prospect whose innate hitting ability got him drafted in the first round and earned him a $1.8M signing bonus. A bat-first prospect who doesn’t hit gets thrown into a trade as the third piece for a guy like Chapman. A bat-first prospect who does hit works on a new position in the Arizona Fall League and gets added to the 40-man after the season.

In McKinney, the Yankees added a prospect who very well might have a swing tailor made for Yankee Stadium. I have no doubt that was a consideration when asking for him in the trade. McKinney’s a lefty hitter who has not only shown a tendency to pull the ball, but pull the ball in the air. Here’s one of the ten home runs he hit for Triple-A Scranton this summer:

McKinney opened his hips and looked to yank that ball to right field. He wasn’t trying to filet a single over the shortstop’s head or find a gap. That was a swing designed to do exactly what McKinney did, and that’s hit the ball out of the park.

Perhaps the home run and the swing in the video was a function of the game situation. The RailRiders were already up 10-4 in the fifth inning and had the bases loaded with one out. If there was ever a time to get a little selfish and swing for the fences, that’s it. Then again, look at this home run swing from Spring Training:

See? I told you McKinney had a knack for mid-interview home runs during the spring. He hit like three of them.

Anyway, yeah, that’s the same type of swing from the previous video. McKinney opened up …

billy-mckinney-swing

… and was looking to get around quick on the ball and drive it to right field. That is not a man trying to stay inside the ball, let it travel deep in the strike zone, then slap it the other way. McKinney wants to pull the ball with authority. And that is completely cool with me. I know people freak out these days when a left-handed hitter pulls the ball because of the shift, but it’s okay. I promise.

McKinney’s tendency to pull the ball has existed throughout his minor league career. And again, it’s not just pulling the ball. It’s pulling the ball in the air. The easiest way to hit a home run, basically. Some quick numbers:

Levels Pull % Middle % Oppo % Ground Ball %
2014 A+ 44.2% 24.3% 31.5% 41.1%
2015 A+ & AA 46.2% 23.4% 30.4% 44.4%
2016 AA 43.7% 25.3% 31.0% 43.4%
2017  AA & AAA 46.3% 25.4% 28.3% 35.0%

That is a lot of balls hit in the air and a lot of balls hit to the pull field. And this season, his big breakout year, McKinney posted the highest pull rate (barely) and the lowest ground ball rate (by a lot) in his four full minor league seasons. Not coincidentally, he shattered his previous career high in homers. His previous career high was eleven dingers in 126 games in 2014. This year he hit 16 in 124 games at higher levels.

Yankee Stadium of course rewards left-handed hitters who pull the ball in the air with regularity, and that’s something McKinney has done very well in his career to date. Will he be able to do it against Major League pitching? Well, no one knows. That’s the mystery. We’re not going to know until McKinney gets an extended audition at the big league level. Life would be pretty boring if we could predict prospects and baseball.

The Yankees do not appear to have an opening for McKinney. They’re five deep in the outfield (Jacoby Ellsbury, Clint Frazier, Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge) and two deep at first base (Greg Bird, Tyler Austin), not that McKinney has much experience at first. He played only eleven games at first in the AzFL. The lack of an obvious opening doesn’t matter though. Injuries happen, and if you perform, they’ll make room for you. It’s that simple.

For now, McKinney bounced back from his knee injury and down 2016 season — he fouled a pitch into the knee and suffered a small fracture, similar to Mark Teixeira‘s shin three years ago — and earned a spot on the 40-man roster. He’s forcing the Yankees to make room for him. And his ability to drive the ball to right field as a left-handed hitter is well-suited for Yankee Stadium, so even if he settles in as a platoon bat long-term, he could do real damage in the Bronx.

Houdini Returns [2017 Season Review]

(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Nearly three years ago to the day, the Yankees signed Andrew Miller to a four-year, $36 MM deal, effectively (or so we thought) ending David Robertson‘s career in pinstripes. It was a sensible move, as the team stood to save $2.5 MM per year against what Robertson would end up signing for in Chicago, while also picking up a draft pick (which turned into Kyle Holder). It was an odd feeling nevertheless to see the heir to Mariano Rivera pack up and go – and it was an equally great feeling to see him back in the Bronx.

A New Fireman In Town

When Robertson was brought back into the fold, it was made abundantly clear that he would be utilized in whatever capacity the Yankees needed. The always-endearing Robertson said that he didn’t need a defined role out of the bullpen, and Joe Girardi utilized him as such. He entered his first game back in the 7th inning (striking out the side), and then pitched the eighth in back-to-back games. Robertson’s next two appearances came in the 9th in non-save situations, and then it was back to the 8th for a game. And then his next eight appearances started like this: 9th, 6th, 8th, 7th, 6th, 8th, 9th, 7th. Here’s the breakdown of Robertson’s regular season appearances with the Yankees, by the inning in which he entered:

  • 5th inning: 1
  • 6th inning: 3
  • 7th inning: 6
  • 8th inning: 14
  • 9th inning: 5
  • Extra innings: 1

Were it not for Dellin Betances‘ struggles, which necessitated Robertson becoming the steadying presence in the 8th, we may well have seen the numbers around that inning increase even further. And, more importantly, he thrived in the absence of a designated inning.

Pure Dominance

Take a moment to marvel at Robertson’s regular season line with the Yankees:

35 IP, 14 H, 12 BB, 51 K, 1.03 ERA, 442 ERA+, 2.10 FIP, 38.6 K%, 9.1 BB%, 54.4 GB%

Dominant doesn’t really begin to cover it, does it? This was Robertson at his absolute best, as he racked up whiffs, kept his walks at a more than manageable level, and kept the ball on the ground when hitters did manage to make contact. He didn’t allow a run over his final fifteen appearances (18 IP), either. This was a better version of the pitcher that earned an All-Star nod and down ballot Cy Young and MVP votes in 2011, and it was glorious.

It was also a slightly different version of Robertson. Consider his pitch selection over his ten-year career:

brooksbaseball-chart

Over the first nine-plus years of his career, between 65 and 80% of Robertson’s offerings were cutters. Upon returning to the Yankees, however, he settled into a 50/50 split (or thereabouts) between his cutter and his curveball – and it obviously paid huge dividends. The contrast grew even more stark in the playoffs, when his curveball became his go-to pitch:

brooksbaseball-chart-1

It will be interesting to see how his approach changes when the 2018 season rolls around.

The Playoffs

Robertson was one of the team’s many heroes in the Wild Card game, holding down the fort for 3.1 IP. He entered with the bases loaded in the third, and allowed one of the runners to score, but he was fantastic the rest of the way. He also gave us this immortal image, as we all felt Gary Sanchez‘s pain:

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

The rest of the postseason didn’t work out as well for Robertson, unfortunately. He blew a save in game two of the ALDS against the Indians, and was absolutely shelled by the Astros in game six of the ALCS. He did fine work in between, including a tremendous effort in the decisive game of the ALDS, and was far from the blame for the series loss as a whole (he didn’t take a loss or surrender a lead), but it was a disappointing end to an otherwise stellar reunion.

That being said, my lasting memories of season one back in pinstripes will be the dominance.

2018 Outlook

Robertson is under contract for $13 MM in 2018, the last year of his deal. The Yankees always have a lot of moving parts in the bullpen, so it remains to be seen how he will be deployed, but I don’t see him being traded. With Chad Green potentially earning a look in the rotation and Dellin Betances figuring things out, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if he opened the season as the set-up man.

Shohei Ohtani wants to be wooed in writing, so let’s take a crack at putting together the Yankees’ recruiting letter

(Getty)
(Getty)

At some point soon, likely by the end of the weekend, the Nippon Ham Fighters will post ace-slash-slugger Shohei Ohtani for the 30 MLB clubs. He’ll have 21 days — not the usual 30 days — to select a new team because the MLBPA doesn’t want him holding up the free agent market. The fact Ohtani won’t have to negotiate a contract will help expedite things. The Collective Bargaining Agreement limits him to a minor league deal.

Although Ohtani has not yet been posted, he and his representatives started the courting process by giving the 30 MLB teams homework. According to Ronald Blum, last week Ohtani and his agent Nez Balelo asked teams for written reports explaining why he should sign with them. Unusual! But whatever. Here are the details, from Blum:

Balelo’s memo asks for a team to evaluate Ohtani’s talent as a pitcher and as a hitter; to explain its player development, medical training and player performance philosophies and facilities; to describe its minor league and spring training facilities; to detail resources for Ohtani’s cultural assimilation into the team’s city; to demonstrate a vision for how Ohtani could integrate into the team’s organization; and to tell Ohtani why the team is a desirable place to play.

Each team was asked to provide its answers in both languages as soon as possible. Clubs were told not to include any financial terms of a possible contract.

I assume Ohtani and Balelo will use the reports to whittle down their list of potential destinations before meeting with clubs face-to-face, possibly at the Winter Meetings in Orlando in two weeks. If Ohtani is indeed posted this weekend, he’ll have a week to receive and review the written reports, a week to meet with teams face-to-face, and a week to make his decision. That’s the rough timetable.

The Yankees are expected to pursue Ohtani aggressively, at least as aggressively as this format allows, so of course they’re going to submit a written report. So, with that in mind, how about we take a crack at building what amounts to the team’s recruiting letter? Let’s go item by item.

Evaluation As A Pitcher

Ace caliber. High-end velocity — Ohtani has broken his own record for the fastest pitch in Japanese baseball history several times, reportedly topping out at 102 mph in 2016 — combined with two legitimate put-away secondary pitches (splitter and slider) point to top of the rotation ability. Ohtani has multiple weapons to miss bats and miss the sweet spot of the bat, so in addition to strikeouts, we expect lots of soft contact too.

Furthermore, given the differences in the way the game is played in MLB and NPB, we expect Ohtani’s strikeout rate to improve going forward. Hitters in Japan are more contact-oriented than they are over here. The league average strikeout rate in Japan was 19.3% this season. It was 21.6% in MLB. Hitters swing and miss more often here, which will inevitably improve Ohtani’s strikeout rate and overall performance. Consider Masahiro Tanaka:

  • 2013 in Japan: 22.3% strikeouts
  • 2014 in MLB: 26.0% strikeouts

An immediate uptick. The hitters are more aggressive, plus pitching coach Larry Rothschild has a history of improving strikeout and walk rates.

Speaking of walks, this past season Ohtani walked 19 of the 105 batters he faced (18.1%), which we attribute more to the nagging ankle and quad problems than a deficiency in control. Ohtani’s walk rate during his stellar 2016 campaign was 8.2%, roughly league average. Because he’s so athletic and able to repeat his delivery, his control and command will improve as Ohtani gains experience. The walks will come down.

There are very few pitchers like Ohtani in the world and the best comp we can come up with is Stephen Strasburg. Both have an upper-90s fastball and two wipeout secondary pitches. Strasburg throws a curveball and changeup whereas Ohtani throws a slider and splitter, but the quality of those pitches is similar. They’re bonafide out pitches. Strasburg was immediately successful in MLB and has never not been excellent when healthy. Based on his ability, Ohtani can do the same. This is a rare talent ready to be a true frontline pitcher immediately.

Evaluation As A Hitter

The numbers are great. We know that much. Ohtani really came into his own has a hitter in 2016, once he quit playing the outfield and focused on his offense as a DH. In the two years since, he’s hit .326/.411/.570 with 30 home runs in 613 plate appearances, roughly a full season’s worth. Consider Ohtani relative the league averages:

  • AVG: .326 (.255 average)
  • OBP: .411 (.317 average)
  • SLG: .570 (.381 average)

My quick calculation gives Ohtani a 198 OPS+ over the last two seasons. That’s great! As for the evaluation, we have three points to make about Ohtani’s potential as a hitter.

1. His swing is pretty sweet. Why is it we only say a left-handed batter has a sweet swing? We never say a righty has a sweet swing. Weird. Anyway, here’s a side view look at Ohtani’s swing:

There is some Bryce Harper-esque violence in that swing. Not bad violence like he’s all over the place and herky jerky. Violence against the baseball violence. Ohtani does get his front foot down a little early, and there is some length to his swing, which are two reasons some folks question whether he’ll be able to handle premium velocity. Personally, we think that the front foot issue is fixable — or adjustable, since it’s not actually broken — which will allow him to better handle hard stuff. To us, that swing does not look like the swing of a part-time player. That looks like the swing of a legitimate power threat.

2. He’ll love hitting in Yankee Stadium. According to the (outdated?) park factors at Yakyu Baka, the Sapporo Dome suppresses home runs more than all but one other park in Japan, making Ohtani’s power output that much more impressive. Yankee Stadium, meanwhile, is one of the most extreme home run ballparks in MLB, especially for left-handed hitters. Ohtani has shown the ability to hit the ball out of the park to all fields …

… but going from the Sapporo Dome to Yankee Stadium is going to lead to a considerable uptick in power for Ohtani. The Sapporo Dome is 328 feet down the right field line with a 19 foot wall while Yankee Stadium is 314 feet down the line with an eight-foot wall. Balls that are routine fly outs elsewhere falls into the first or second or third row at Yankee Stadium. Ohtani will love it.

3. He’s probably going to strike out a lot. As pretty as Ohtani’s swing may be, he did strike out in 26.3% of his plate appearances from 2016-17, and that’s in a league with an average 19.3% strikeout rate. Relative to the rest of the league, Ohtani struck out about as often as Aaron Judge. And hey, that’s okay! Judge struck out a lot and he was still a monster, so much so that he was runner-up for the AL MVP award. Others like Khris Davis (128 wRC+) and Domingo Santana (126 wRC+) struck out at similar rates relative to the league average this year and were very productive.

The fact of the matter is Ohtani has a tendency to swing and miss, and he’ll face a higher caliber of pitching in MLB than he did in NPB. There is so much more velocity on this side of the pond, especially in the bullpen where every team seems to have three or four guys who run it up to 97-98 mph. Also, Ohtani gets pitched around a lot in Japan and reportedly has a tendency to get frustrated and expand the zone when that happens. Such is the life of a young hitter. We think he’ll grow out of that.

The honest evaluation: Ohtani has significant power potential, especially in Yankee Stadium, but the swing-and-miss issues are real. We’re willing to live with the strikeouts in exchange for the power and everything else that comes with the package. The Yankees are not looking to overhaul Ohtani in order to cut down on the strikeouts. In the short-term, we envision him as a sixth or seventh place hitter who complements the big bats in the middle of the lineup. Long-term, we believe Ohtani has a chance to be a three-four-five type of hitter.

Player Development, Etc.

The Yankees’ recent player development track record speaks for itself. Within the last three years the farm system has produced the 2017 AL MVP runner-up and unanimous 2017 AL Rookie of the Year (Judge), the third place finisher in the 2017 AL Cy Young voting (Luis Severino), the 2016 AL Rookie of the Year runner-up (Gary Sanchez), the best rookie starter in baseball in 2017 (Jordan Montgomery), and a player who has hit 23 homers in 107 big league games (Greg Bird). Consider the production from homegrown players, via The Baseball Gauge:

  • Since Opening Day 2017: +12.9 WAR (1st in MLB)
  • Since Opening Day 2016: +21.8 WAR (1st in MLB)
  • Since Opening Day 2015: +27.1 WAR (7th in MLB)
  • Since Opening Day 2014: +42.8 WAR (9th in MLB)

The Yankees produce both stars and complementary players, and we have a knack for getting players to exceed their perceived ceiling. Was Judge expected to be a .284/.422/.627 hitter? Were people counting on Severino to be the first Yankees starter with a sub-3.00 ERA in two decades? How many had Chad Green becoming a top ten reliever?

In terms of philosophy, the Yankees are obsessed with power and athleticism. Power on the mound and power at the plate. At the same time, the philosophy has been to let players be themselves. No one is trying to turn Tyler Wade into a power hitter, you know? Emphasize strengths, build comradery (Captain’s Camp, etc.), and set high standards. The goal is to win everywhere. It’s not a coincidence the farm system had seven playoff teams and the highest combined winning percentage in the minors.

Now, the obvious elephant in the room is the recent defection of farm system head Gary Denbo. He left to join old buddy Derek Jeter in Miami. Kevin Reese, who has worked in the front office since 2008, took over as the senior director of player development and we trust he will not only continue to lead a productive farm system, but even improve on it. The farm system has produced a lot of talent lately and there is more on the way.

Minor League & Spring Facilities

State of the art. Both George M. Steinbrenner Field and the Himes minor league complex in Tampa (yeah, yeah, we know) were renovated within the last two years. New fields, new workout rooms and weightlifting equipment, new video rooms, new training rooms, new cafeterias, new dorms for prospects, the works. The Spring Training and minor league complex are as modern as you’ll find.

Furthermore, PNC Field, home of Triple-A Scranton, was basically torn down and rebuilt in 2012. The Yankees do not anticipate Ohtani spending any time in the minors for developmental purposes, but if he’s down there for injury rehab, he can rest assured the ballpark is newly renovated and as close to big league caliber as it gets. Also, Arm & Hammer Park (Double-A Trenton) and Richmond Country Bank Ballpark (Staten Island Yankees) are among the most popular parks in the minors, and Calfee Park (Pulaski Yankees) underwent $9M in renovations less than three years ago.

Cultural Assimilation

(AP)
(AP)

The Yankees are no strangers to helping players transition from Japan to the United States. There’s been at least one Japanese-born player on the roster every season since 2003 aside from 2010-11. The Yankees helped Hideki Matsui and Tanaka transition to the United States and thrive on the field immediately. Hiroki Kuroda and Ichiro Suzuki also spent time in New York. Dealing with a Japanese-born superstar is nothing new.

Now, that said, everyone is different, and we know moving to a new country can be very overwhelming, especially in a city like New York. The good news is the five boroughs are home to the largest Japanese community on the East Coast, and there’s something for everyone here. Many young players live in the city, but if that’s not your thing, there are nearby suburbs in New Jersey and Westchester.

The cultural transition will be the most difficult part of coming to MLB. Not throwing a fastball or hitting a slider. It is important for Ohtani to be comfortable at home in order for him to be comfortable on the field, and the Yankees have as much experience helping a star Japanese player transition to life in the United States as any team in the league. Tanaka likes it here so much he declined to use his opt-out rather than pursue a larger deal elsewhere.

Integration Into The Organization

A few years back Ohtani would have been joining an aging Yankees roster that was trying to hang on more than take a step forward. Now, thanks to recent player development, we had the eighth youngest pitching staff (27.8 years) in baseball this season, and were middle of the pack in position player age (28.6). This was an older roster a few years ago that is now getting younger.

While we view Ohtani as a potential star and transcendent two-way player who could change the way teams build rosters and develop players, the Yankees wouldn’t be asking him to step into the lineup/rotation and be The Man from day one. That’s a lot of pressure to put on someone new to the league and new to the country. Instead, Ohtani can slide in and be part of the youth movement, not the youth movement.

Make no mistake, attention on Ohtani will be massive when Spring Training rolls around, not matter where he signs. That is unavoidable. The Yankees have some other great players who will draw attention away from Ohtani, namely Judge and Sanchez and Severino and Gleyber Torres, which will help. There is very much a “team first” mentality in the clubhouse and Ohtani will be viewed as one of the guys, not as bigger than everyone else.

We understand there may be some apprehension about joining the Yankees given the current managerial situation. (We don’t have one.) Players like to know who they’ll be playing for. Right now, we can’t tell you who that will be. All we can say is we’re looking for a manager who will take our collection of young players to the next level. Given the players we have, I reckon no other clubhouse in baseball is as prepared to welcome and help a star making the jump from Japan to MLB as the Yankees.

Why Play For The Yankees?

Well, this is the easy part. First of all, the Yankees are the most storied franchise in baseball. The history is everywhere you look. You’ll get to rub elbows with Reggie Jackson and Whitey Ford and Mariano Rivera on the regular. Secondly, Yankee Stadium is brand new and one of the most modern and state of the art ballparks in baseball. Older ballparks have a certain charm, for sure, but you can’t beat modern amenities.

Third, this Yankees team is a rapidly rising team that just blew past all projections to get to within one game of the World Series. Judge, Sanchez, Severino, and Bird are only the start. Torres is arguably the best prospect in baseball and Estevan Florial might be the best prospect in baseball 12 months from now. Just about every scouting publication ranks the farm system as one of the best and deepest in baseball.

Fourth, there is no better place to be a star athlete than New York. Judge just signed a big endorsement deal with Pepsi. Tanaka has millions in endorsement deals. Derek Jeter banked over $100M in endorsements. New York is basically the center of the universe. Succeed here and you will be rewarded handsomely, and not only in player contracts. New York sports stars become legends. You’ll have a chance to be remembered forever in Monument Park.

No other team in baseball can offer Ohtani the chance to pitch and hit regularly, the chance to win right away, the chance to play with a young roster (with more young players on the way), and the chance to enjoy all the other great things that come with being a star New York athlete. Players come here and they never want to leave, and many don’t. Many stay in the area after they retire as players. Matsui still lives in the Tri-State Area, in fact.

Playing in New York and for the Yankees is not for the faint of heart. Expectations are high here and the media can be a real pain in the ass. There is no better place to win though. Succeed here and you’ll be a legend. You’ll be beloved. The Yankees are the most recognizable brand in sports and baseball’s preeminent franchise. We believe Ohtani can change the game by being an impact player on both sides of the ball. What better way to reinvent the game than in pinstripes?