Thoughts four weeks before pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

In just four weeks, Yankees pitchers and catchers will report to Spring Training in Tampa. We’re finally starting to see the light at the end of the offseason tunnel. Here are some random thoughts on a random Thursday.

1. So would you rather have Justin Upton for six years and $132.75M, or Jacoby Ellsbury for seven years and $153M? Yeah, me too. Ellsbury is two years into his contract and he’s hit .265/.324/.387 (97 wRC+) in a little over 1,100 plate appearances with the Yankees. The rationale behind these long-term deals is taking the high-end years up front and living with the ugly back-end, but the Yankees haven’t gotten the high-end years from Ellsbury. They’ve gotten one solid year and one bad year. So two of those all-important front years of the contract are gone. The Yankees aren’t getting them back. I’m not much of an Ellsbury fan, but I also don’t think that was the real him last season. He’s better than that. Either way, the team needs him to rebound and be a difference-maker going forward.

2. I mentioned this soon after the Yankees acquired Aroldis Chapman: the Yankees are about to have their fifth different primary closer in five seasons. What didn’t dawn on me at the time is not only are the Yankees going to have their fifth closer in five years, they’re going to have to their fifth awesome closer in five years. Look at this:

2012: Rafael Soriano
2013: Mariano Rivera
2014: David Robertson
2015: Andrew Miller
2016: Chapman

I can’t imagine another team has had that much year-to-year turnover of elite players at one position. Yeah, relievers are kinda in their own little world, but when teams find a dominant closer, they tend to stick with him as long as possible. The Yankees have intentionally changed closers the last two years. They had an awesome closer, then managed to find someone better. Then they did it again. Crazy.

3. Yesterday Hal Steinbrenner reiterated he doesn’t want to raise payroll any higher than it’s current level, which is par for the course these days. We’ve been hearing that for years. Part of that is self-serving — the fact Hal keeps saying that and hasn’t signing any big league free agents this offseason shows agents and opposing teams he means business, creating some negotiating leverage — and I get that, but man, no one wants to hear the owner bitch about payroll when the team has played one postseason game in three years. The Yankees aren’t going to raise payroll significantly and they’re almost certainly going to get under the luxury tax in the near future. Fine. Whatever. But maybe don’t remind fans about it all the time? That’s no way to reverse the decline in attendance and ratings.

4. Speaking of Hal, his “innocent until proven guilty” line when asked about Chapman yesterday is such a lame cop out. Here’s the full quote in case you haven’t seen it, via Ken Davidoff:

“I guess what I would say is, in this country, when allegations are brought against a person, that person is completely innocent until proven otherwise. Not the other way around,” Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ managing general partner, said at the Major League Baseball quarterly owners’ meetings. “I think we should keep that in mind right now. A lot of thought was put into it, but the benefits for the organization as a player, if you just look at the baseball side of it, [there’s] tremendous upside, needless to say.”

“Look, it’s a touchy subject,” Steinbrenner said. “But again, I would say: The man is innocent until proven otherwise. And I understand it’s a very sensitive subject, as rightfully so it should be. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

That doesn’t get said about a generic middle reliever. Heck, the generic middle reliever doesn’t even get acquired if he was involved in a situation like Chapman’s. Brian Cashman admitted the Yankees pounced on Chapman because the asking price dropped following the domestic violence incident and that’s gross as hell. The “innocent until proven guilty” line almost makes this seem like some kind of insignificant issue unworthy of a thoughtful response. Yuck. Make sure you check out Craig Calcaterra’s take on all this.

(Joe Robbins/Getty)
(Joe Robbins/Getty)

5. We’ve reached the point of the offseason when teams start looking for cheap free agent bargains. In recent years the Yankees have signed guys like Brian Roberts, Travis Hafner, Eric Chavez, and Raul Ibanez in late-January/early-February. History suggests the club will take a chance on a veteran player looking to hang around at some point soon. Looking over the list of free agents, the one player who stands out as a candidate for such a move is Jimmy Rollins. The Yankees tend to target former stars for these deals, guys who were true impact players back in the day, and Rollins is the only available free agent who really fits the ball. He hasn’t played a position other than shortstop since 2002 but is said to be open to a utility role if he can’t find a starting job somewhere. I dunno, this seems to pass the sniff test. Former star, switch-hitter, willingness to accept a reduced role … that’s the kind of player the Yankees tend to target on these bargain deals. Rollins would slide right into that final bench spot and be a true backup infielder.

6. The Tigers designated infielder Jefry Marte for assignment yesterday to clear a 40-man spot for Upton. The former Mets farmhand hit .275/.341/.487 (139 wRC+) with 15 homers in 95 Triple-A games last season, then went deep four times in 90 plate appearances with Detroit in his MLB debut. Marte, 24, is a first and third baseman, though he’s generally considered a below-average gloveman. But still, he’s young, he has power from the right side, and plays the corner infield. He seems like a worthwhile pickup for the Yankees. Even if he doesn’t land on the roster in that final bench spot, Marte has options and he’s someone worth stashing in Triple-A. He certainly seems like better use of a 40-man roster spot than generic lefty Tyler Olson given the organization depth chart.

7. On paper, I think this is the best Yankees roster since 2012. It’s the most exciting roster in terms of “hey look at all the young guys” since … I guess 2008? When Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy were in the rotation and Joba Chamberlain was in the bullpen? That didn’t work out so well, but that’s the risk with young guys. At some point you have to let them sink or swim. The Yankees did that with Didi Gregorius last year and were rewarded. Next year they’ll have a full season of Luis Severino and presumably Gary Sanchez. There’s upside in the rotation, the bullpen is absurd, and even bench guys like Dustin Ackley and Aaron Hicks are more exciting than typical bench fodder. I don’t know if the starters will stay healthy or if the veteran guys will hit or if the young players will be as good as expected. I do know I’m looking forward to watching this team more than I have at any point in the last three seasons.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

I enjoyed this post by Torii Hunter at the Players’ Tribune. He wrote about his journey to the big leagues — he and a teammate slept in a rental car for a week in Double-A while waiting to get paid — and what it was like when he finally got there. Minor league conditions have improved but they still generally suck. That first taste of the show makes players never want to go back.

Here is the nightly open thread. The Knicks and Nets are both playing, plus there’s a whole bunch of college hoops on as well. You folks know how these threads work by now, so have at it.

Hal Steinbrenner: “I’m not comfortable with the payroll being too much higher than it is now”

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Today, at the quarterly owners’ meetings in Coral Gables, Hal Steinbrenner told reporters he doesn’t want payroll to climb much higher than it is right now. “I’m not comfortable with the payroll being too much higher than it is now,” he said to Jon Heyman and Bob Nightengale. “(But) we’ve surprised people in the past.”

This isn’t a surprise, right? Payroll has held relatively steady for a decade now even though the new Yankee Stadium opened in 2009 and MLB signed ginormous new national television deals two years ago. To be fair, the Yankees do pay a ton in luxury tax and revenue sharing each year. But still, payrolls around the league are going up while New York’s remain static.

Back of the envelope calculation: the Yankees currently have $223.6M on the books for next season per Cot’s, assuming Aroldis Chapman and Ivan Nova win their arbitration cases. Add in the rest of the 40-man roster and the $12M or so each team has to contribute towards player benefits, and the payroll for luxury tax purposes is around $240M right now.

The Yankees finished last season with a $241.15M payroll for luxury tax purposes and are again right at that number. The salary they took on in the Chapman and Starlin Castro trades replaces what they shed in Chris Capuano, Stephen Drew, Chris Young, and Garrett Jones after the season. Also, the Yankees still haven’t signed an MLB free agent this winter.

You don’t have to look any further than the Yankees roster to understand why spending huge on free agents all the time isn’t a great idea. That said, I think it’s fair to say the team is not leveraging its financial might as well as they should. The rest of the league is catching up financially, so the market advantages of being a New York team are going to waste.

Hal has maintained his plan is to get under the luxury tax threshold in the near future, which would save the team tens of millions of dollars in luxury tax and revenue sharing. The Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in December, and I assume the $189M threshold will go up with the next CBA. After getting under in 2017, the team could increase payroll substantially. We’ll see.

Cashman confirms Yankees will use 25th roster spot as a revolving door

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

On the position player side of things, the Yankees have only one open roster spot right now: the final bench spot. They have their eight starting position players, a full-time DH, and three bench players. (The exact identity of the backup catcher is undecided at this time, but we have a good idea who it will be.) That final bench spot is the only wide open position right now.

The Yankees have made it clear they intend to try Starlin Castro at third base, and his ability to handle the hot corner will play a role in that final bench spot. If Castro can back up Chase Headley, the Yankees can go in any direction with that last roster spot. If he can’t, then they’re going to need a backup third baseman. For now, the Yankees are proceeding as if Castro can play third, and they’re planning to use the last bench spot as a revolving door.

“If Castro can (play third), it gives us so much more flexibility with that 25th man on the roster,” said Brian Cashman during a recent YES Network interview (video link). “The 25th man could very well be a 13th pitcher. As we all know, our starting rotation isn’t seven, eight, nine-inning pitchers on a consistent basis, so having maybe the access to that 13th up-and-down guy or maybe an extra position player that you can utilize in a different way.”

Aside from Castro playing third, the Yankees will need optionable pitchers and position players to make this work. They have a ton of pitchers who can be sent up and down, that’s not a problem, but things are a bit more limited on the position player side. Right now, the only position players on the 40-man roster with options are Gary Sanchez, Rob Refsnyder, Greg Bird, Lane Adams, Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, and Ben Gamel. A catcher, two right side infielders, and four outfielders. Not the most diverse group.

The Yankees have signed several infielders to minor league contracts this winter (Pete Kozma, Donovan Solano, Jonathan Diaz) and could call those guys up if necessary, though sending them down requires exposing them to waivers. That’s not a huge deal — no one’s going to miss them if they get claimed — but it would remove a body from the infield mix and subtract depth. The Yankees are kinda short on upper level infielders as it is.

Either way, the only way this plan works is if Castro can play third. He has minimal experience there, but he’s young and athletic, and is used to playing the left side of the infield. It could happen. “If (Castro at third) doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work,” added Cashman. “Then we’ll adjust and adjust accordingly and find an alternative who can handle that side of it for us, and then obviously we won’t be playing around as much with that 25th spot.”

I like the idea of a rotating 25th roster spot. The Yankees had a bullpen shuttle last season and it worked in the sense that the team always had a fresh reliever or two, though none of those guys had much of an opportunity to show what they can do. They seem to want to take it to another level this year with a rotating bench spot. Flexibility is good! But I think I’d prefer it if someone stood out from the pack and grabbed that bench spot full-time.

McCann wants to improve his batting average, but it may not be possible at this point

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Like many of his teammates, Brian McCann had a tremendous first half last season before fading down the stretch. He hit .259/.331/.471 (117 wRC+) in the first half, but only .200/.306/.395 (91 wRC+) in the second half. The end result was a still solid .232/.320/.437 (105 wRC+) batting line.

McCann has been a Yankee for two full seasons now, and during that time he’s hit .232/.303/.421 (99 wRC+) in 1,073 plate appearances. That’s not great overall, but that 99 wRC+ ranks 11th among the 31 catchers with at least 600 plate appearances over the last two years, and his 49 homers are eight more anyone else. (Buster Posey is second with 41.)

The 2014 season seemed to be something of an adjustment period for McCann, who joined a new team in a new city and a new league, and had to learn a new pitching staff. It was a lot to take in. He appeared more comfortable last season, and his offensive production ticked up. Now McCann wants to take it up another notch. Here’s something he told Steven Marcus over the weekend:

But McCann wasn’t satisfied with his .232 batting average. “I don’t like looking up there and seeing I’m hitting around .230,’’ he said Friday from Orlando, Florida, where he was participating in a charity golf tournament. “I’ve got to get better. I’d like to hit .300 with 30 [homers]. I’m searching. That’s my mindset.’’

It’s great McCann isn’t satisfied and wants to perform better next season. That’s the mindset every player should have. McCann’s been a Yankee for two seasons, and during those two seasons he’s been a great hitter for about four months total. The rest were just okay or flat out bad.

Improving the batting average might not be possible at this point of McCann’s career, however. For starters, the vast majority of players see their batting average decline as they get older. That’s natural. Reversing the aging process ain’t easy, especially for a catcher. Secondly, McCann is an extreme fly ball and pull hitter. He has been for a few years now.

AVG BABIP FB% Pull% Hard% Soft%
2012 .230 .234 41.2% 47.5% 32.5% 16.9%
2013 .256 .261 42.3% 48.6% 35.3% 12.7%
2014 .232 .231 45.1% 44.1% 31.0% 15.2%
2015 .232 .235 47.2% 50.1% 31.5% 15.2%
2012-15 .236 .239 44.1% 47.4% 32.4% 15.1%
MLB AVG
.254 .299 45.3% 39.1% 28.6% 18.6%

McCann is a .236 hitter with a .239 BABIP over his last 1,962 plate appearances. His fly ball rate has increased in each of the last three seasons and it’s now higher than the league average. His pull rate has been way higher than the league average for years now. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — McCann still hits the ball very hard, and when you pull the ball hard in the air, extra-base hits tend to happen. McCann’s .187 ISO from 2012-15 is way higher than the .150 league average.

At the same time, hitting the ball in the air so often can be a BABIP killer. Most fly balls are easy outs. Don’t believe me? The league average BABIP on fly balls was .073 in 2015. .073! Pulling the ball as a left-handed hitter means lots of shifts, and we’ve seen plenty of those when McCann is at the plate in recent years. It’s wrong to attribute his batting average decline solely to the shift, but it is absolutely a big factor. So are the fly balls.

Outside of some good ol’ ball in play luck, McCann would have to overhaul his swing and approach to improve his batting average. He’d have to cut down on all the fly balls and start using the left side of the field a little more. That’s not Brian McCann. That’s asking him to be something he is not. We’re talking about a guy on the wrong side of 30 who is already dealing with some age-related decline. Not to mention all the wear-and-tear of catching.

I’m glad McCann is not satisfied hitting in .230s. I also hope he doesn’t try to change his swing and approach. That can lead to even more problems. McCann is what he is at this point of his career, and that’s the best power hitting catcher in baseball. It’s not impossible for him to improve his batting average going forward, just really unlikely, and the Yankees can’t afford to have McCann tinker and be something less than his absolute best.

Aroldis Chapman is much more than a big fastball

(Getty)
(Getty)

Whenever you think about Aroldis Chapman, your mind immediately jumps to his fastball. And for good reason. He’s the hardest thrower in baseball history and there’s just something super exciting about seeing that 100 on the scoreboard. It’s still special, even with velocity at an all-time high around the league.

There’s much more to Chapman than velocity readings though. He’s got an interesting backstory — he was the first of the recent wave of huge money Cuban players — and he does in fact have other pitches besides the fastball. It’s easy to understand why everyone talks about the velocity, but there is more to Chapman than that. Much more.

The Stride

Last season Chapman’s fastball averaged 100.4 mph. Averaged. He topped out at 104.5 mph according to PitchFX. And, believe it or not, his fastball actually plays faster because of his long stride. Chapman is listed at 6-foot-4, and his stride is among the longest in the game, so he releases the ball closer to the plate than most pitchers. Check out this video from 2012:

That’s crazy. It’s not enough that the guy is throwing 100 mph on the regular. He’s also got that long stride and is right on top of the hitter when he releases the ball. That can’t be a comfortable at-bat at all. How are you supposed to catch up to the heat? Well, I guess you aren’t. There’s a reason opponents have hit .167 against his fastball over the last five seasons.

Also, Chapman is gaining velocity. Most guys who throw 100 mph do it very early in their careers, and it’s gone by time they reach 24 or 25 years old. Even relievers. A triple-digit fastball doesn’t last long-term, historically. That is not the case with Chapman. He’s throwing harder now than he did two, three, four years ago. I mean, look:

Aroldis Chapman fastball velocityI laughed. I saw that graph and I literally laughed out loud. The term freak of nature is so overused these days, so when you come across an actual freak of nature like Chapman, it doesn’t have the same meaning. That sucks. This guy does things no other human has ever done. It’s not normal. And he’s going to do it in pinstripes next year.

The Slider

Believe it or not, Chapman does indeed have pitches other than his fastball. He also throws a slider with pedestrian velocity relatively to his fastball — the slider averaged 87.6 mph last summer. That’s a pretty significant velocity separation, which leads to swings like this:

Aroldis Chapman slider slowmo

The hitter gets geared up for that triple-digit fastball — which plays up because of his stride! — and then the pitch makes a right turn when it gets halfway to the plate. When hitters swung at Chapman’s slider last season, they missed 51.2% of the time. Hitters were more likely to come up empty than make contact against the slidepiece. Insanity.

The Changeup

A fastball and a slider is plenty for most relievers, especially if they throw as hard as Chapman. That didn’t stop him from adding a changeup, however. Chapman relied on his fastball/slider combo up until the 2014 season, when he gradually began to mix in some changeups. He’s gotten more and more comfortable with the pitch and now throws it about 8% of the time. Not much, but enough that hitters have to respect it.

As you’d expect, Chapman uses the changeup primarily against righties. He goes after lefties with the fastball/slider and righties with the fastball/changeup. This is the movement Chapman is able to get on his changeup, which averages 88.7 mph:

Aroldis Chapman changeup slowmo

The hitter gears up for the fastball because they have no choice but to gear up for the fastball, but then the changeup drops off the table. Hitters missed with 56.8% of their swings against the changeup last season. As far as third pitches go, that’s as good as it gets.

The Pitch Mix

When you throw 100 mph all the time, I have to imagine the temptation is rather high to throw nothing but fastballs. And you know what? Chapman did throw almost nothing but fastballs earlier in his career. He threw the heater 87.7% of the time back in 2012. Over the last few seasons Chapman has begun to rely a little more on his slider and changeup:

Aroldis Chapman pitch selection

Chapman is still throwing his fastball three out of every four pitches, so it’s not like he’s abandoning the pitch, but he is breaking out the slider and changeup a little more often. The result is a bit more efficiency and substantially more weak contact. Chapman set a career-low in pitches per plate appearance last season (4.21), and his soft contact rate was by far his best in years:

Aroldis Chapman contact rates

Striking everyone out is super cool, and Chapman still racks up an incredible amount of strike ’em outs, but now he’s getting some more weak contact and more quick outs with the slider and change. That’s a good thing for him personally. Think of it as self-preservation. The fewer high-stress pitches, the better. The Yankees only figure to have Chapman for one year, so they aren’t too concerned about his career long-term, as callous as that sounds.

Chapman is not a one-trick pony. He’s always going to be known as the guy with the best fastball in history, but there’s more to him than that. Chapman’s fastball plays faster because of the stride, he also has a slider, and in recent years he added a changeup as well. He’s not as much of a thrower as people seem to think. Chapman’s become a much more well-rounded pitcher the last few years.

Tuesday Night Open Thread

Sad news to pass along from the world of baseball writing: Juan C. Rodriguez, a Marlins beat writer for the Miami Sun Sentinel, passed away earlier this week following a battle with brain cancer. He was only 42. I met Juan at the Winter Meetings a few years ago and he went out of his way to help a lowly blogger like me even though he had no reason to do so. He was a super nice guy and a total pro. Here’s the crowdfunding page to help his family pay the medical bills.

This is tonight’s open thread. The Rangers and Devils are both playing, plus there’s a bunch of college basketball as well. Talk about those games or anything else right here.

(Side note: Luis Severino really bulked up based on that video, huh?)