The case for giving Jacob Lindgren more time in Triple-A

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

A little more than one month into the regular season, lefty relief prospect Jacob Lindgren has dominated with Triple-A Scranton, pitching to a 1.65 ERA (1.60 FIP) in 16.1 innings. He’s struck out 31.4% of batters faced and gotten a ground ball on 75.6% of balls in play. His numbers since being the Yankees’ top draft pick (second round) last year are mind-boggling: 40.2 K% and 78.3 GB%.

The 22-year-old Lindgren has dominated minor league hitters the same way he dominated college hitters with Mississippi State. The Yankees selected him with the 55th overall pick last year, and when you select a reliever that high, you’re taking him because you expect him to have an impact and soon. I’m not sure Lindgren is another Andrew Miller, that’s a lofty comparison, but he’s not far off either. He’s a lefty with a great slider who can get both lefties and righties out.

And yet, despite his pro ball dominance, Lindgren remains in Triple-A while the big league team cycles through guys like Chris Martin, Chasen Shreve, Esmil Rogers, and Branden Pinder. I thought Lindgren belonged on the Opening Day roster and last month I said the Yankees are going to have to call him up soon just to challenge him so he can continue his development. That is still true now, I’m not backtracking, but I am going to play devil’s advocate and make a case for leaving Lindgren in Triple-A a little longer.

From 2004-08 — a five-year sample close to the present but far enough away that we know how these guys turned out — a total of ten college relievers were taken in the first, supplemental first, or second round. Like Lindgren, they were all expected to be fast-moving back-end of the bullpen guys. Future closers and setup men with the future coming very soon after the draft. Here’s the list:

Drafted MiLB IP before MLB debut MLB IP and WAR
Bill Bray 1st 2004 (MTL) 78.2 197.1 and 2.4 (retired)
Huston Street supp. 1st 2004 (OAK) 26 606 and 14.0 (and counting)
Craig Hansen 1st 2005 (BOS) 12.2 93.2 and -1.9 (out of baseball)
Joey Devine 1st 2005 (ATL) 26 88.1 and 2.0 (out of baseball)
J.B. Cox 2nd 2005 (NYY) 219 N/A (out of baseball)
Chris Perez 1st 2006 (STL) 85 379.1 and 4.4 (and counting)
Casey Weathers 1st 2007 (COL) 191 (and counting) N/A
Eddie Kunz 1st 2007 (NYM) 68.1 2.2 and -0.2 (out of baseball)
Josh Fields 1st 2008 (SEA) 176.2 98.2 and 0.0 (and counting)
Daniel Schlereth 1st 2008 (ARI) 31 93 and 0.0 (and counting)

This list doesn’t include Brett Cecil, a 2007 first rounder who was a reliever in college the Blue Jays tried to convert into a starter.

Two of those ten reached their ceilings as legitimate late-inning MLB relievers: Street and Perez, and Perez is already pretty close to washed up, so his success didn’t last very long. Eight of the ten got to MLB but most of them had little to no impact — only five of the ten are still active! — and that’s the risk with relievers. If they fall short of their ceilings, they have very little value.

Not counting Cox (got hurt in the minors) and Weathers (hurt and control issues), the average is 63 innings in the minors before their MLB debut for those college relievers, and that is skewed a bit by Fields, who had control issues for a few years before figuring it out. Four made it to MLB in fewer than 41 innings, Lindgren’s career total, but only Street had staying power among those four.

The common thread here: most of those relievers were called up within a year of being drafted and thrust into intense late-inning roles. Both Hansen and Devine were up with the big league team weeks after being drafted, Street made the team out of Spring Training the following year, and Schlereth was up the following May. They’re the most extreme examples.

Hansen was a September call-up but the other three were asked to be late-inning guys right away. Heck, Devine was the Braves postseason roster in 2005, a few weeks after being drafted. Perhaps it was too much, too soon? Making the jump and adjusting to the MLB level is really hard. Making that jump with the pressure of being a high draft pick and then being asked to pitch high-leverage innings right away is an awful lot to take in at once.

Street is one of the very few who was able to have all that dumped on his plate and still thrive. Chad Cordero did the same thing way back in 2003 before blowing out his arm. They’re the exception, not the rule, yet that’s what the expectation seems to be for relievers taken high in the draft. Get to MLB and dominate right away. It hasn’t worked all that often, however, and I’m sure the Yankees have this in mind with Lindgren. This quote from scouting director Damon Oppenheimer last summer sticks out (emphasis mine):

“I kind of leave those decisions for other people. My job’s just to bring the talent into the system. But we just think as a group that he does have the capability of moving through the system hopefully quickly. Whether he’s good enough to go pitch in the big leagues right away, somebody else will make that decision. But he’s obviously advanced. He’s obviously gotten out really good hitters. There’s some history with guys doing this, but there’s also some history with guys getting to the big leagues as relievers too quick and it doesn’t last. We’d like to get impact and longevity from him, not just something that’s real quick.”

Do the Yankees want Lindgren in the big leagues dominating right now? Of course. But they also want Lindgren to have a long career and that’s the priority. They want him to be the next Huston Street, not the next Craig Hansen or Daniel Schlereth. And if that means leaving him in the minors longer than fans originally expected to make the transition as painless as possible, then they seem willing to do that. It might not work! But they’re trying.

Like many of those 2004-08 college relievers, Lindgren has the stuff to get big league hitters out right now, less than one full year after being drafted. Pitchers can survive on stuff alone if necessary, but there’s more to being a successful long-term big leaguer than stuff. Kids making the transition from college to pro ball have to learn how to deal with the day in, day out grind, how to prepare to pitch every day and not just on the weekends, and learn how to cope with failure as much as anything.

Personally, I think relievers — especially slider happy relievers like Lindgren — are so unpredictable and tend to have such short shelf lives that I’d like to see the Yankees get as much out of Lindgren as possible before things go south, whenever that is. If the team feels the best way to maximize Lindgren’s career is to take it slow and keep him in Triple-A longer than his performance warrants, that’s fine too. The track record of college relievers being rushed to MLB is pretty terrible and the Yankees are trying to avoid adding another name to that list.

First inning dominance driving Yankees’ success early in 2015

Why are the Yankees so great in the first inning? These two. (Presswire)
Why are the Yankees so great in the first inning? These two. (Presswire)

Last night the Yankees did something for the ninth time in 13 games this month: they scored in the first inning. Nine times in 13 games! They’ve now scored in the first inning in 16 of their 35 games this year, with last night’s game breaking a tie with the Padres for the most in MLB. New York has scored 36 runs in the first inning in 2015, eight more than any other team.

On the other side of the coin, the Yankees allowed a run in the first inning last night for only the third time in 13 games this month. They’ve allowed a run in the first inning eleven times in 36 games this season, which ranks middle of the pack — 16th fewest in MLB and seventh fewest in the AL. Their 16 first inning runs allowed are the tenth fewest in baseball, so when they do allow the other team to score in the first, it’s usually just one run.

Between their first inning offensive dominance and their average first inning run prevention, the Yankees have the best first inning run differential in baseball at +20. The Orioles have the next best at +11. The Athletics and Pirates are the only other teams in double-digits. More often than not, the Yankees are getting off to a great start and playing from ahead. They’re forcing the other club to play catch-up right from the start.

Usually individual innings splits are pretty meaningless. No one says “this guy is a good fourth inning hitter.” That doesn’t exist. If anything, we’d look at performance the second and third time facing a pitcher. The individual innings mean very little. Now, that said, there’s a pretty obvious explanation for the Yankees’ first inning offensive excellence: Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner.

The first inning is the only inning in which Ellsbury and Gardner are guaranteed to bat. And not just bat either, they’re guaranteed to lead off. They aren’t coming up with two outs and the bases empty or something like that. They’re starting the inning and setting the table for everyone else. Ellsbury and Gardner have been dominant atop the lineup this year, total game-changers, and they’re always going to bat in the first inning.

The run prevention angle is a little different. As a whole, the Yankees have a league average rotation this year. The group has a 3.93 ERA (3.63 FIP) overall, a touch better than the 4.13 ERA (4.04 FIP) league average thanks mostly to Michael Pineda. Hitters have a 118 OPS+ the first time facing a Yankees starter this year, which applies to the first inning. The team’s average rotation is facing the other team’s best hitters (in theory) in the first inning, and the result is basically middle of the pack run prevention.

Last season the Yankees had -12 first inning run differential and the year before that it was a staggering -33 first inning run differential. The 2013-14 Yankees were constantly playing from behind, it seemed. This year’s squad is the exact opposite — they’re scoring in the first inning on the regular and taking the lead. They’re taking control of the game right from the start and that changes everything. Teams play a little differently when they’re behind. We see it every night.

With Ellsbury and Gardner atop the lineup, I don’t think the Yankees’ first inning offensive success is any sort of fluke. If they’re not the best one-two lineup punch in baseball, they’re on the very short list. It’s either them or Kole Calhoun and Mike Trout in Anaheim. Either way, those two generate so much offense for the Yankees, and it starts right in the first inning. The pitching has been solid as a whole, not great but not terrible, but average pitching plus Ellsbury and Gardner equals a major first inning advantage for the Yankees, and it’s a big reason why they’re off to such a strong start in 2015.

Stephen Drew quickly emerges as backup third baseman as Yankees look for ways to keep A-Rod in the lineup

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Even prior to last season’s suspension, staying on the field has been a bit of a problem for Alex Rodriguez later in his career. He played 664 of 972 possible games from 2008-13 — he hasn’t played more than 140 games in a season since 2007 — due to a variety of injuries, ranging from the very minor (pulled calf in 2010) to the very major (hip surgery in 2009 and 2013).

The Yankees and Joe Girardi have limited A-Rod to mostly DH duty this season — he’s started 27 games at DH, two at third base, and one at first — knowing his 40th birthday is two months away and those two hip surgeries are not far in the rear-view mirror. And yet, Rodriguez is still dealing with a minor hamstring issue, suffered when he legged out that triple over the weekend. His bat is too valuable and they have to do what they can to keep him healthy.

So, in an effort to keep A-Rod in the lineup, he is no longer being considered Chase Headley‘s backup at third base. Stephen Drew spent some time working out at the hot corner in recent days and was thrown into the fire last night, getting the start at the hot corner. Girardi confirmed this is all because they’re looking to scale back Rodriguez’s time in the field. “We’re just thinking of keeping him at DH mostly,” said the skipper to Mark Feinsand.

Drew had never played third base as a pro before last night but didn’t seem too concerned about manning the hot corner — “I’ll be fine. You’ve got to do it sometime, right?” he said to Feinsand — after all, he had never played second base until the Yankees ran him out there last summer. He spent a few days taking ground balls at third and wasn’t really tested last night. Had one kinda sorta tough play. That was it.

Didi Gregorius played ten innings at third base last year, his only time at the hot corner in his career, but I understand why the Yankees didn’t try him at third. He’s settled in nicely at shortstop after a rocky start and he could possibly be a long-term solution there. Drew’s the guy you move around, the guy on a one-year contract trying to hang on. Jose Pirela, the other third base candidate on the roster, has played only 14 career minor league games at third.

There’s nothing wrong with having Drew or anyone else take ground balls at third base before games — guys work out at other positions all the time — though it was a surprise to see him start a game at the position so soon. The real issue is A-Rod’s lack of flexibility. He’s hitting very well, so the Yankees want him in the lineup every day, but the only real way to do that is by keeping him at DH. That means fewer DH days for the defensively challenged and also old Carlos Beltran, for Brian McCann, for everyone.

Only a handful of teams have full-time DHs these days. It’s basically just the Yankees, Red Sox (David Ortiz), Tigers (Victor Martinez), Athletics (Billy Butler), and Royals (Kendrys Morales). Everyone else uses a rotating DH and MLB seems to be moving in that direction. The Yankees did it the last three or four years in fact. They can’t do it now because of A-Rod, and now his apparently inability to play third even part-time gives Girardi even less maneuverability.

That said, if eliminating Rodriguez’s time in the field is the best way to keep him in the lineup on a regular basis, then that’s what they have to do. A-Rod has very quickly re-established himself as a core piece of the offense. If using Drew at third base is the best way to keep Alex healthy and in the lineup, so be it.

Yanks let another game slip away, waste Warren’s effort in 3-2 loss to Rays

For the first time since April 14-15, the Yankees have lost consecutive games. T’was a good run. Wednesday’s 3-2 loss to the Rays was very similar to Tuesday’s loss — the Yankees took the lead early, never added on any more runs, and couldn’t hang on. Grumble grumble.

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Score Early, Not Often
Once again, the Yankees took control of the game early with a pair of first inning runs. Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner started the game with walks and eventually came around to score on singles by Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann in the first inning. Nice early 2-0 lead! Carlos Beltran struck out looking and Stephen Drew flew out to center, so the score remained 2-0.

The Yankees never did score again even though Nathan Karns didn’t settle in like Chris Archer did Tuesday. Two runners were stranded in the second, one runner was stranded in the fourth, another two were stranded in the fifth, and one runner was left on base in the sixth, seventh, and eighth. The opportunities were there! The biggest came in the fifth, when Teixeira was thrown out at the plate on Beltran’s single. That was a questionable send by third base coach Joe Espada and not just in hindsight. Kevin Kiermaier’s got a great arm and Teixeira’s … well … Teixeira.

Every starter reached base at least once aside from Drew, who played third base and had one misplay. I wouldn’t even call it a misplay, just a hard play he didn’t make. (But Chase Headley probably does.). Ten hits for the Yankees but none for extra bases. Tough to score when you have to string together singles. We learned that the last two years, eh? The dozen strikeouts and home plate umpire Dan Iassogna’s bottomless strike zone didn’t help either. Seriously, look at the strike zone plot. Very low zone. Ain’t all Iassogna’s fault though.

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Seven Strong
This one started off really shaky for Adam Warren. Steven Souza Jr. hit his fourth pitch of the night over the fence in center field for a solo homer and four of the first eight batters he faced reached base. Doubles by new Yankees killer Logan Forsythe and Asdrubal Cabrera knotted game up 2-2 in the second, and a Joey Butler bloop single plated the third run. I thought it was catchable, but with Beltran and Jose Pirela trying to run it down … eh.

Back-to-back two-out singles followed in the third inning, then it was a one out walk and single in the fourth, so Warren was again teetering on the edge of a big inning. He’s a capital-B battler though. Say what you will about Warren’s effectiveness as a starter. There’s no denying he’s a bulldog though. Warren was able to bear down, escape the third and fourth innings, then retired all nine batters he faced in the fifth through seventh innings.

Warren set new career highs with seven innings pitched — he hadn’t even complete six innings in any of his first six starts of the season — and seven strikeouts. Three runs on seven hits and a walk in seven innings is much better than what Warren had been giving the Yankees and is perfectly acceptable for what amounts to the team’s sixth starter. Too bad the offense didn’t give him more help. Warren did a helluva job.

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Leftovers
This sounds completely ridiculous given the last three weeks or so, but Andrew Miller pitched the eighth inning because he needed the work. He hadn’t pitched since last Friday. Miller struck out the side on ten pitches. Ten pitches? Guess he was rusty.

Didi Gregorius was awarded a stolen base but it was pure luck — catcher Bobby Wilson tried to catch him taking too big a lead off second, so Didi took off for third and Cabrera’s throw to Evan Longoria at the bag was off-line. Run didn’t score though.

I understand why Joe Girardi pinch-hit Headley for Pirela rather than Drew in the eighth inning — replace the rookie, not the veteran, blah blah blah — but I didn’t like it. Drew’s not hitting, Pirela kinda is. Better chance to score by having Headley and Pirela hit than Drew and Headley in my opinion.

And finally, sorry for the late recap. I was sorta busy watching something else.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
Here are the box score, video highlights, and updated standings. Our Bullpen Workload and Announcer Standings pages are things that exist as well. Here’s the loss probability graph:


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
The four-game series finally concludes Thursday night, when Chase Whitley and Erasmo Ramirez will be on the mound. Apparently Ramirez is starting despite throwing two innings out of the bullpen on Monday. These aren’t your older brother’s Rays, the team that seemed to run a great young starter out there every day.

DotF: Jagielo, Sanchez have huge games in Trenton’s win

RHP Luis Severino has been placed on the Double-A disabled list with a right middle finger injury, according to Matt Kardos. Severino had to leave his last start after only two innings with a blister. No real cause for concern. Blisters happen. The Yankees are playing it safe — and giving the Thunder a full roster — and hopefully Severino won’t miss much time.

Triple-A Scranton (3-1 loss to Norfolk)

  • LF Ramon Flores: 2-5, 1 K — 16-for-52 (.308) in his last 13 games
  • 2B Rob Refsnyder: 2-4, 2 2B, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 1 K — had a bit of a slow start in each of his three pro seasons so far, so maybe he’s just that type of hitter, like Mark Teixeira most of his career
  • DH Kyle Roller: 1-3, 1 BB, 1 K
  • RF Tyler Austin: 0-4, 2 K
  • LHP Matt Tracy: 6 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 3 K, 1 WP, 6/6 GB/FB — 50 of 92 pitches were strikes (54%)
  • RHP Jared Burton: 2 IP, 1 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 2 K, 0/2 GB/FB — 21 of 34 pitches were strikes (62%)

[Read more…]

Game 35: Bounce Back

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Last night’s loss was rather disappointing. It’s tough to swallow a loss like that when a) the Yankees had Chris Archer on the ropes in the first inning, b) Nathan Eovaldi pitched so well, and c) the only reliever used was Dellin Betances. When all three of those things happen, it should typically result in a win. Last night, it didn’t. That’s baseball.

Thankfully, the Yankees have a chance to move on and get back in the win column tonight. They haven’t lost consecutive games in almost exactly a month now, since April 14-15 against the Orioles in Camden Yards. Last night’s loss notwithstanding, the Yankees are kicking some major butt right now, and good teams shake off a loss and don’t let it spiral into a three or four-game losing streak. Here is Tampa Bay’s lineup and here is New York’s lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Brett Gardner
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. C Brian McCann
  6. RF Carlos Beltran
  7. 3B Stephen Drewlet’s get weird
  8. 2B Jose Pirela
  9. SS Didi Gregorius
    RHP Adam Warren

Another night of rain is in the forecast for St. Petersburg. Good series to play indoors so far. Tonight’s game is scheduled to begin at 7:10pm ET and can be seen on YES. Enjoy the game, folks.

Injury Updates: Masahiro Tanaka (wrist, forearm) will throw his next bullpen session on Friday. He had no issues today after throwing yesterday … Chase Headley is “pretty beat up” according to Joe Girardi, hence the day off.

2015 Draft: Drew Finley

Drew Finley | RHP

Background
Finley, 18, attends Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego, and he set the state’s single-game record with 20 strikeouts last month. Rancho Bernardo consistently produces high-end talent, including Alex Jackson (last year’s sixth overall pick) and Cole Hamels back in the day. The Yankees selected Gosuke Katoh out of Rancho Bernardo two years ago. Finley’s father David is currently the Dodgers’ vice president of amateur and international scouting after previous stints with the Marlins and Red Sox.

Scouting Report
At 6-foot-3 and 200 lbs., Finley is a classic projectable high schooler, one with an 88-91 mph fastball that is expected to add some oomph as he fills out. His best pitch is a 12-to-6 curveball with tight spin that is easy to project as an out pitch down the road. Finley also throws an advanced changeup — advanced by high school pitcher standards, anyway — with some fade down and away from lefties. His delivery is smooth and he has no issues throwing strikes.

Miscellany
Finley was ranked as the 24th, 57th, and 61st best prospect in the draft class by Keith Law (subs. req’d), MLB.com, and Baseball America in their latest rankings, respectively. For what it’s worth, in last week’s chat Law said he’s heard the Yankees are “big on Drew Finley for one of their extra picks,” which makes total sense. Scouting director Damon Oppenheimer is a Southern California guy who’s shown an affinity for Southern California pitchers over the years (Ian Kennedy, Gerrit Cole, Ian Clarkin, etc.). Finley doesn’t have ace upside, not unless his fastball jumps two grades as he fills out, but he throws strikes with three pitches, giving him long-term rotation ability.