Regardless of what Brian Cashman says during radio interviews, the Yankees have very high hopes for Masahiro Tanaka. No team spends $155M on a guy unless they expect him to be an impact player. Sure, there may be an initial adjustment period coming over from Japan, but the Yankees are expecting Tanaka to slot in near the top of their rotation for at least the next four years.
Just about every scouting report we’ve seen these last few weeks says Tanaka owns a swing-and-miss splitter, arguably the best split-finger fastball in the world. That’s the pitch that separates him from the Kei Igawas and Kaz Ishiis of the pitching world and has everyone thinking he’ll be a number two-ish starter long-term. Despite that out-pitch splitter, Tanaka’s strikeout rate hasn’t been all that impressive in recent years:
The big league average was 7.6 K/9 and 19.9 K% last season, so striking out fewer than one-quarter of batters faced in NPB doesn’t exactly scream “ready to dominate MLB,” especially considering the downward trend in Tanaka’s strikeout rate. Having a swing-and-miss splitter that is racking up fewer and fewer strikeouts is a red flag, no doubt. We do have some explanation for the dropping strikeout rate though, courtesy of Keith Law (subs. req’d):
Tanaka used to pitch away from contact, but in the past two years, he has become more aggressive within the zone with his fastball, and his splitter is a solid 60 on the 20-80 scale.
According to Law, Tanaka essentially started pitching to contact these last few years. The hitters in Japan are not all that great, and it seems like he realized he didn’t need to nibble on the edges to succeed, he could simply pound the zone. That approach won’t work in MLB, or at least it won’t work as well. Tanaka will have to go back to living on the corners, and by all indications, he can do that.
Sticking to the edges of the plate should help increase Tanaka’s strikeout rate naturally — he is bound to get some favorable calls on borderline pitches, especially since Brian McCann and Frankie Cervelli are better than average pitch-framers — but other factors will work in his favor as well. First and foremost is the general hitting style around the league. Here’s something Buster Olney (subs. req’d) wrote a few weeks ago, with an assist from former Yankee Casey McGehee, who was Tanaka teammate with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2013:
McGehee believes that Tanaka will continue to improve pitching in the major leagues because the style of play suits Tanaka. The bottom of the lineups in Japan, McGehee said, are often rounded out with hitters whose goal is merely to fend off the forthcoming pitch. They’ll shorten their swing, foul the ball off, and survive to see another pitch. Hitters in the majors, McGehee noted, are more apt to look to do damage — to take bigger and more aggressive swings, in turn having plate appearances with few pitches.
The league average strikeout rate in Japan last year was 6.7 K/9 and 17.5 K%, so a large portion of the hitters definitely focused on simply making contract. The idea of hitters “whose goal is merely to fend off the forthcoming pitch” is not a thing that exists in MLB. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all trying to make contact, but the emphasis is on hard contact. Strikeouts are generally more accepted these days, as long as the trade-off involves a higher on-base percentage and more power.
The idea of a pitcher coming over from Japan and improving his strikout rate in MLB seems kinda silly — the competition level in NPB is clearly not the same as is in the big leagues — but it’s hardly unprecedented. Here are how the five most recent NPB imports fared after coming over to the States:
|MLB K%||Final NPB Season K%||Final Three NPB Seasons K%|
Chen is from Taiwan but he did pitch for the Chunichi Dragons in Japan from 2005-11 before signing with the Orioles. Anyway, aside from Dice-K, recent Japanese starters have maintained if not improved their strikeout rate after coming over to MLB. The hitters over here are better than the hitters in Japan, but they will also sell out for power and strike out more often. Furthermore, the bottom of the zone has expanded in recent years (as Jon Roegele recently explained), which should help Tanaka and his diving splitter.
There is one other thing to consider, and that is pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Rothschild came to the Yankees with a reputation for improving strikeout rates and that has held true during his time in pinstripes: Yankees pitchers had a 7.38 K/9 (19.2 K%) during the three years before Rothschild and a 7.80 K/9 (20.5 K%) in the three years with Rothschild. Obviously personnel has something to do with that, but veteran guys like CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte have seen their strikeout rate improve under Rothschild. Tanaka may do the same.
It’s pretty obvious why strikeouts are good, right? Nothing bad can happen when the ball is not put in play, and that is especially true for the Yankees, who could have a pretty ugly infield defense this year. Tanaka’s strikeout rate with Rakuten last year wasn’t anything special, but there are a number of reasons why he might whiff more batters in MLB going forward. His pitching approach, more aggressive hitters, the expanding zone, Rothschild, all of that and more can work to his advantage. Tanaka doesn’t necessarily need to strike a ton of guys out to be effective, but the more strikeouts he records, the better off he and the Yankees will be.
The Yankees will introduce Masahiro Tanaka at a press conference this afternoon and then pitchers and catchers will report to Spring Training on Friday, so the offseason is dangerously close to an end. Here are some thoughts as we wait for the 2014 season to get going.
1. At first, I thought it was pretty weird Alex Rodriguez dropped his various lawsuits and accepted his suspension over the weekend, but it makes more sense now that I think about it. First and foremost, A-Rod wanted to avoid having to testify under oath, which he already did once by storming out of his arbitration hearing. I know he denied everything on Mike Francesa’s show a few weeks ago, but doing it under oath is a different matter entirely. I’m sure Alex hopes to get back into baseball one day — I don’t know how realistic that is at this point, either as player or coach or broadcaster or whatever — and the whole scorched Earth approach isn’t conducive to returning to the game. The move caught me by surprise and it seems like Rodriguez simply came to his senses a few weeks too late.
2. Know how there are usually a ton of off-days in April? That isn’t the case this year. The Yankees play 13 straight games and 19 games in 20 days to start this season — ten of their first 19 games will either be indoors or in a park with a retractable roof (Houston, Toronto, Tampa) — so they’re going to need their fifth starter right out of the chute. The schedule doesn’t allow them to hide whoever wins the job until the end of the month or anything like that. I wouldn’t say this is a bad thing, necessarily, because all those off-days they should get in April will be spread out during the other months. It just means that whoever wins the fifth starter’s job has to be ready to go as soon as the regular season begins. There’s no grace period at the end of Spring Training.
3. As of right now, there are three bullpen spots up for grabs in camp, assuming either David Phelps or Adam Warren steps in as the long man. I’m interested to see if the Yankees use one of those spots on a second left-hander (Cesar Cabral?) because while carrying one would be rather useful with guys like David Ortiz and Chris Davis in the division, I think there’s a need to take the best relievers regardless of handedness. If the bullpen was a little stronger — let’s face it, Shawn Kelley and Matt Thornton are solid but not exactly shutdown relievers — it would be easier to squeeze that second southpaw in there. The Yankees don’t really have enough quality depth right now to get super specialized with bullpen roles.
4. My annual Preseason Top 30 Prospects List comes out on Thursday and the thing that stood out to me the most while writing it was all the turnover. Sixteen (!) players from last year’s list did not make this year’s list due to a variety of a reasons. Graduated to MLB, traded, released, poor performance, injury, whatever. More than half the players are new to the list and that’s pretty mind-blowing. They Yankees had three first round picks in last summer’s draft and a bunch of young international guys had strong stateside debuts last year, so that helped fill in the gaps, but it’s still crazy to see that much turnover in one year. It’s not a bad thing either, the team needed some change down on the farm.
5. Speaking of the Top 30, one prospect I am really looking forward to following this summer is third baseman Miguel Andujar. I just didn’t realize how good he actually is. The kid mashed in the Rookie Gulf Coast League last summer (.323/.368/.496 while repeating the level) and he has just about every tool other speed, plus he doesn’t turn 19 until next month. The Yankees will probably hold him back in Extended Spring Training before assigning him to Short Season Staten Island when the season starts in June, but there’s some serious breakout potential there. Andujar, who signed for $775k a few years ago, can do almost everything on the field and it might not be long before he follows Jesus Montero and Gary Sanchez as an internationally signed position player who becomes the team’s top prospect.
Happy birthday goes out to Hiroki Kuroda, who turns 39 today. He hasn’t just been the team’s best pitcher these last two years, he has legitimately been one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. On par with guys like Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish, David Price, and even Felix Hernandez if you stick to bWAR. The Yankees will need Kuroda to be as good as ever in 2014 as CC Sabathia looks to rebound from a dreadful season and Masahiro Tanaka makes the transition to MLB.
Here is your open thread for the evening. YES is showing Tanaka’s start against the Yomiuri Giants from last summer in its entirety (7pm ET), if you’re interested. The Olympics are on as well. Talk about whatever you like here. Have at it.
Via Darren Wolfson: The Yankees were one of several teams in inquire about Ervin Santana recently. Ken Rosenthal says the right-hander is finally progressing towards a deal, but Tim Dierkes hears talks still have a ways to go before anything is finalized.
Last month we heard the Yankees requested Santana’s medical records, but that was before they signed Masahiro Tanaka and it was said to only be due diligence. The 31-year-old pitched quite well last season (3.24 ERA and 3.93 FIP) but he’s very fly ball and homerun prone, making him a bad fit for Yankee Stadium. Santana would be an upgrade over the team’s internal fifth starter candidates, though I would be surprised if the team spent that kind of money on another starter at this point. · (40) ·
Unless the Yankees surprisingly sign Stephen Drew, they will head into the regular season with Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson at second and third base, respectively. Brendan Ryan will probably see time all around the infield. The Yankees have indicated the last bench spot will go to another infielder, with 40-man roster guys like Eduardo Nunez and Dean Anna competing against non-roster invitees Russ Canzler, Corban Joseph, and Scott Sizemore.
“It hasn’t been a good two years,” said Sizemore to Kevin Kernan last week, referring to the left ACL he has torn twice in the last 24 months. “It was devastating really. After going through it the first time and feeling like I was ready to go, healthy, I felt like I was back on my way but obviously, two serious knee injuries, doubts crept into my mind if I was ever going to be able to play again … I’m feeling pretty good, getting back on the field feels great and I haven’t had any issues with the knee.”
Sizemore, who turned 29 last month, tore the knee ligament in Spring Training 2012 and then again last April, after playing only two regular season games with the Athletics. Before that he had shown quite a bit of promise with Oakland, hitting .249/.345/.433 (118 wRC+) with eleven homers and a 12.1% walk rate in 355 plate appearances following a midseason trade with the Tigers in 2011. It was the initial knee injury that led to the A’s moving Josh Donaldson from catcher to third base, so things worked out well for them.
The two lost years mean Sizemore will come to camp next week as a complete unknown. Sure, that 2011 effort with Oakland was promising, but it was only 355 plate appearances and that doesn’t mean much of anything. Baseball America (no subs. req’d) called him a “blue-collar grinder who comes to the park ready to play every day” and a potential “steady if not spectacular regular,” but that was four years ago now. Hitting is a rhythm and timing thing, and it can be very easy to lose that rhythm and timing if you spend two years rehabbing a knee injury.
“Throughout the rehab process, I kind of knew what to expect the second time around, so I really pushed myself even harder, being that I figured this was my last go-round,” added Sizemore. “I feel like I’ve had really good results so far. I haven’t had a lot of baseball experience in the last two years, but as far as a mental toughness standpoint, I’ve definitely learned to grind through some stuff and have a higher pain tolerance.”
Luckily for Sizemore, who is a second and third baseman by trade, the infield bar is rather low right now. Roberts hasn’t played much these last four years, and, when he has played, he hasn’t been all that good. Johnson has minimal experience at third base. If he plays anything like he did with the A’s in 2011, Joe Girardi will work Sizemore into the lineup everyday. Even if he comes back as a league-average hitter, someone with a little power and a healthy amount of walks, he’ll see regular playing time. There’s a lot of opportunity on the infield right now.
Of course, Sizemore would have to beat out Nunez and Anna and whoever else for that last bench spot in Spring Training before even getting that opportunity. That’s not a given. Not for a non-40-man roster guy coming off two major knee injuries. Nunez had a decent run after returning from a ridcage injury last July and Anna had a really strong year in Triple-A with the Padres, so they have their own cases for that bench job. I do think that, given his skillset and sliver of big league success, Sizemore could potentially help the Yankees the most if he’s healthy and shakes the rust off in camp. That is a rather big if, though.
When pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training on Friday, the Yankees will have more than a few jobs up for grabs. The last bench spot is up in the air, ditto about four bullpen spots. The fifth starter’s spot is wide open as well, since the team opted to go internal rather than add a low-cost veteran like … I dunno. Paul Maholm or Jason Hammel, I guess. David Phelps is among those who will compete for that last rotation spot these next few weeks.
“It’s good to have somebody pushing you,” said Phelps to Anthony McCarron last week. “We’re not going to root against each other, because if we all do well, our team does better … I would obviously love to be a starter. I think I’m capable. I just have to go out and show what I’m capable of. If it’s not that, I don’t have a problem pitching out of the bullpen. But at the same time, I do want to start. It’s what I’ve done my whole career up until the last couple years.”
Adam Warren, who was solid as the team’s swingman last summer, will also be in that fifth starter’s competition. So will Vidal Nuno, who has the least big league experience of the candidates but is also left-handed, and lefty starters are always nice to have given Yankee Stadium’s short right field. Barring some suprise late additions, Michael Pineda will be the fourth and only other starter competing for a spot in camp, nearly two full years after having surgery to repair a torn labrum.
“I don’t know what we are going to get from him, but we have hope,” said Brian Cashman to Kevin Kernan last week, talking about Pineda. “This just has to play itself out. He has to perform April through September, and it has to be in New York and not in Trenton. The reports are good now, but he has to continue to progress and do it in a Major League setting. We certainly would love to get him back.”
The Yankees have held some rigged Spring Training competitions in the past (fifth starter in 2010, catcher in 2013) but I honestly don’t think anyone has a leg up in this year’s rotation race. Phelps has the most big league experience of the bunch but he’s only been in the league two seasons. Pineda was an All-Star in 2011 but he hasn’t thrown an MLB pitch in two years now. Nuno is a finesse lefty without a big league out pitch and Warren really seemed to find a niche in the bullpen last summer. Any of those four guys could walk away with the job and I wouldn’t be surprised. For what it’s worth, ZiPS doesn’t see much of a difference between these guys anyway:
|Projected K/BB||Projected ERA||Projected FIP|
Projections don’t really mean much of anything, though I do think the ZiPS numbers do a good job of showing just how tight this race is. There is no obvious favorite for the fifth starter spot given what he know right now and that makes it kinda fun in my opinion. Rigged competitions ruin the surprise.
Now, that said, would it be better for the Yankees if Pineda shows up to camp and looks like the guy he was with the Mariners before the trade? Absolutely. With all due respect to the other three rotation candidates, Pineda has (by far) the highest ceiling of the bunch and a strong rebound from shoulder surgery would be an amazingly positive development for both the 2014 Yankees as well as the 2015-17 teams. He is the only pitcher in history to post a 9+ K/9 with a sub-3 BB/9 in his rookie season, so his ability to control the strike zone while missing bats is especially rare.
The other three fifth starter candidates all have the ability to help at the big league level — they all have already, to some degree — but I think we can all agree none of those guys offers the impact potential of Pineda. That potential may have disappeared with the shoulder surgery, we won’t know what he can do until he gets out there, but Spring Training should give us a decent idea of what he is capable of nearly two years removed from the procedure. There is no clear favorite for that last rotation spot, but the no doubt best case scenario is Pineda showing up to camp and looking like the guy he was before the shoulder surgery.
2013 Season: 85-77 (637 RS, 671 RA, 77-85 pythag. record), didn’t qualify for playoffs
Top stories from last week:
- In a surprising twist, Alex Rodriguez dropped his lawsuits against MLB, the players’ union, and Bud Selig. He will accept his record 162-game suspension and not show up to Spring Training next week.
- Injury Updates: Derek Jeter (leg) has started taking live batting practice and fielding ground balls at shortstop. Mark Teixeira (wrist) has started facing live pitching in batting practice. Scott Sizemore (knee) feels good as he works his back from a torn ACL and Manny Banuelos (elbow) is completely ready to go.
- Stephen Drew wants a multi-year deal with an opt-out clause after the first year, but the Yankees still do not seem interested. A third base option came off the board when Jeff Baker signed with the Marlins. New York is not among the teams pursuing Suk-Min Yoon.
- The Yankees have renovated part of the minor league complex in Tampa and added a statistical analyst to the player development staff.
- Banuelos may be used out of the bullpen as soon as this season. The Yankees signed right-hander Cole Kimball to a minor league deal.
Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.
Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?
Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?
After auditing their unproductive player development system, the Yankees implemented some procedural changes earlier this offseason but did not make any significant personnel changes to their minor league staff. Long-time VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman was one of those expected to come under fire if changes were made. Anthony McCarron spoke to Newman and got some details about those procedural changes. Here’s the skinny:
- A new building has been added to the minor league complex in Tampa. It houses meeting rooms and a cafeteria, which I assume will help players with nutrition. A dormitory for prospects is currently being discussed and may be added as well.
- The four diamonds at the minor league complex are all being refurbished. “These fields have been here since Johnny Bench was an 18-year-old,” said Newman, referring back to when the Reds owned the complex.
- The Yankees have added a statistical analyst to work exclusively with the player development staff. Newman called that person a “PhD in advanced math and statistics” and said they have “some bright dudes here … (the system) is going to go back up, odds are.”
- Among the other staff additions are former Cubs manager Mike Quade, who will serve as an outfield/base-running coordinator, something Newman says they haven’t had “in a while.” Ex-minor league coach Jody Reed has rejoined the organization and will handle individual development plans for prospects.
- And finally, after fielding two teams in the Rookie Gulf Coast League last summer, the Yankees will again field two teams in the league in 2014. Nothing but good can come from that.