Curry: Indications are Yankees will not pursue Doug Fister

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

According to Jack Curry, indications are the Yankees will not pursue free agent right-hander Doug Fister. He’s said to be seeking a two-year deal worth $10M to $11M per season, and hey, in this market, who can blame him? You can’t get what you don’t ask for.

Fister, 31, battled injury and ineffectiveness last season. He had a 4.19 ERA (4.55 FIP) in 103 innings spread across 15 starts and ten relief appearances with the Nationals. His strikeout (14.0%) and ground ball (44.6%) rates were both way down as well. A forearm/flexor tendon injury sidelined him for a month at midseason.

Even at his peak, Fister was never much of a hard-thrower. He was one of those guys with a deep arsenal who located well and kept hitters off balance. Last year through, his fastball velocity dipped into the mid-80s as a starter, which is really scary (via Brooks Baseball):

Brooksbaseball-ChartA year ago at this time I thought Fister would be the Yankees’ top free agent target. For starters, they drafted him in the sixth round of the 2005 draft (he didn’t sign), so I figured he still had some supporters in the organization. Also, Fister is super tall (6-foot-8) and he never walks anyone (career 4.7 BB%), two traits the Yankees love.

Obviously the poor 2015 season changed everything. Fister is a reclamation project now, and reclamation project pitchers usually don’t sign with the Yankees unless they have no other option. (Think Bartolo Colon.) Yankee Stadium and the AL East is no place for a pitcher to rebuild value.

I do think Fister would be a good signing in the “you can never have too much pitching” sense, though it’s hard to see him as someone who moves the needle a whole lot. I do think he’s a bounceback candidate, but two years? Nah. The Yankees are said to be looking for a starter on a minor league contract. I don’t think they’ll do much more than that.

Guest Post: Masahiro Tanaka Can Anchor The Rotation

The following is a guest post from longtime reader Carlo Macomber, who goes by CoryWadeDavis in the comments. Carlo is a freshman at Colby College in Waterville, ME.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

There has been plenty of talk this offseason (and last season) about the injury questions in the Yankees starting rotation.  Perhaps the biggest one is Masahiro Tanaka.  Over and over again, Yankees fans have heard about Masahiro Tanaka’s minor tear in his UCL.  People have tried to claim he needed Tommy John Surgery, even though every doctor he visited advised against it.  Every pitch he threw once he returned caused Yankees fans everywhere to hold their collective breaths.  A return to the DL in 2015 once again had fans everywhere screaming for Tommy John Surgery.  Now, Tanaka had surgery earlier this offseason to remove a bone spur from his elbow.  Looking back at all of this, everyone’s reactions seem really crazy but somewhat justified.  Tanaka teased everyone in early 2014 by pitching like an MLB ace.  Every Yankees fan hopes that he can be that pitcher again.

While I cannot predict injuries, I believe that, when healthy, Tanaka can return to (at least) something close to his 2014 form.  And, the Yankees desperately need him to do just that.  We have all heard about Michael Pineda’s lengthy injury history since being traded to the Yankees in 2012.  Luis Severino, while showing great promise in his two-month debut in 2015, is 21 years old.  Young pitchers deal with growing pains and sophomore slumps, among other things. Nathan Eovaldi has even made himself into a question mark by missing the end of 2015 with a forearm injury.  And CC Sabathia, at this point, is best described as CC Sabathia (#BelieveInTheKneeBrace).

As a result, Brian Cashman has made it extremely clear this offseason that the Yankees have been looking to add a young starting pitcher with under three years of service time.  So far, this has not come to fruition.  However, at least to me, this does not mean that the Yankees rotation is destined for disaster next year.  Below, I present you with one positive outcome for the Yankees most important pitcher and why it could just happen in 2016.

Masahiro Tanaka: The Ace (or something close to it)

That’s right.  I’m telling you that Tanaka could pitch like he did for roughly 130 innings in 2014 before the elbow tear.  Well, not exactly, but I’m about to give you reasons to think Tanaka can approach that level of production over 180+ innings.

The two most noticeable differences between 2014 Tanaka and 2015 Tanaka are his not huge but not insignificant drop in K% and his spike in HR/9.  Tanaka posted a 26% K rate in 2014 and a 22.8% rate in 2015.  Naturally, fans may become worried when their team’s best pitcher begins to strike out fewer hitters.  This means more balls are put into play, which can lead to bad things.  Tanaka’s batted ball profiles from the last two years, however, may show signs that his drop in K% is not a huge deal.

Year Soft% Med% Hard%
2014 17.6% 47.6% 34.8%
2015 19.3% 50.1% 30.6%

As you can see, Tanaka produced more soft contact last season and less hard contact.  This is obviously an encouraging sign.  If a pitcher is going to experience a decrease in K%, he better make sure the increased number of balls put into play are not hit overly hard.  Tanaka managed to do just that in 2015, which, if you choose to think positively and believe the trend will continue, may show signs that he can be ace-like with a slightly decreased K%.

Tanaka’s other noticeable difference from 2014, his spike in HR/9, definitely appears to be a more challenging obstacle in his quest of returning to ace status.  Tanaka’s HR/9 jumped from 0.99 in 2014 to 1.46 in 2015 (so basically from 1 to 1.5).  For a little context, Marco Estrada, who has long been considered to be HR prone, has a career HR/9 of 1.36.  It goes without saying that a team doesn’t want its top pitcher to have a worse HR/9 than Marco Estrada.

Let’s look at a little more batted ball data to see if there’s anything obvious contributing to this spike:

Year LD% GB% FB% HR/FB
2014 24.4% 46.6% 29.0% 14.0%
2015 19.2% 47.0% 33.8% 16.9%

The table shows a significant decrease in line drives surrendered by Tanaka, almost the same number of ground balls induced, a pretty significant increase in fly balls, and another noticeable increase in home runs per fly balls.  It’s clear that the line drives Tanaka surrendered in 2014 essentially “became” fly balls this past season.  On paper, this looks good; fewer line drives are turned into outs than fly balls.  However, Tanaka saw a lot of these fly balls turn into home runs.  This looks like a problem, but is it really one that will last?

The previous table revealed that Tanaka allowed less hard contact in 2015 than in 2014.  One would think that if a pitcher were to allow more fly balls that were also home runs, the fly balls would have to be hit very hard.  The data does not seem to back this up in Tanaka’s case, however.  More fly balls but less hard contact wouldn’t seem to equal that many more home runs.

With this information in mind, I think it’s certainly possible that Tanaka’s home run problem ends up as a one-year aberration.  I’m not sure if his Japanese stats mean much of anything at this point, but he never had a HR/9 of over 0.8 in Japan.

There seems to be reason to believe that his HR/9 will stabilize much closer to 1.0 as it was in 2014 than the 1.5 of 2015.  If this is indeed the case, and he can either maintain his increased soft contact or increase his K% again, I think it’s entirely possible that Tanaka can return to something approaching his pre-injury 2014 form.  That is, of course, if he can stay healthy for roughly a full season.  Will any of this actually happen?  We’ll have to wait and see.  Opening Day can’t get here soon enough!

Yankees, Gregorius avoid arbitration with $2.425M deal

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

Tuesday: The Yankees have officially announced the deal. It’s a non-guaranteed contract, which is standard for players during their years of team control. That just means they won’t have to pay him his full salary if they release him in Spring Training, but that ain’t happening.

Monday: The Yankees and Didi Gregorius have avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year contract worth $2.425M, reports Jack Curry. Last Friday was the deadline for teams and eligible players to file salary figures. Didi filed for $2.525M while the team countered with $2.3M, so they settled a bit above the midpoint.

Gregorius, 25, hit .265/.318/.370 (89 wRC+) with nine home runs last season, his first with the Yankees. He started the season really poorly — those first few weeks were kinda ugly — but settled down and played very well from May through the end of the season. His defense led to +3.1 fWAR and +3.3 bWAR. Gregorius was arbitration-eligible for the first of four times as a Super Two. He can’t become a free agent until after 2019.

The Yankees still have three unsigned arbitration-eligible players: Aroldis Chapman ($13.1M vs. $9M), Nathan Eovaldi ($6.3M vs. $4.9M), and Ivan Nova ($4.6M vs $3.8). Arbitration hearings will take place throughout February, though the two sides are free to discuss a contract of any size in the meantime.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: Tyler Clippard

(Mitchell Layton/Getty)
(Mitchell Layton/Getty)

It is now the middle of January, and several big name free agents remain unsigned. The market has picked up in recent days (Justin Upton, Chris Davis, Ian Kennedy, etc.) but there are still several quality players on the board. Thirteen of MLBTR’s top 50 free agents are still unsigned as of this writing, including three of the top 20.

One of those 13 players is former Yankee Tyler Clippard, who was involved in one of the most lopsided trades in recent memory. The Yankees shipped him to the Nationals for Jonathan Albaladejo in December 2007. Clippard went on to become an elite reliever while Albaladejo gave the Yankees 59.1 replacement level innings before being released in 2010. Not Brian Cashman‘s finest moment.

The Yankees improved the back-end of their bullpen by replacing Justin Wilson with Aroldis Chapman, but the middle innings did take a hit with the trade of Adam Warren. The club has a ton of internal candidates for the open bullpen spots, though outside of Chasen Shreve, none have had much MLB success in their careers. Could Clippard be part of the middle innings solution? Let’s look.

The Performance

Clippard, now 30, spent the 2008 season in the minors with the Nationals before breaking out as a reliever in 2009. From 2009-14 he led all relievers in innings (by a lot) and ranked sixth in WAR. Clippard was a high-leverage workhorse. Here’s what he’s done the last three years:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% HR/9 RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2013 71.0 2.41 3.82 26.6% 8.7% 1.14 .240 .232
2014 70.1 2.18 2.75 29.5% 8.3% 0.64 .191 .292
2015 71.0 2.92 4.28 21.3% 10.3% 1.01 .327 .211

Clippard is a proven FIP beater. Since becoming a full-time reliever in 2009 he has a 2.68 ERA and a 3.52 FIP in 524.2 innings. It’s not an accident. Clippard has demonstrated the ability to outperform his peripherals over a period of several years now.

How has he done it? By being an extreme fly ball pitcher who excels at getting hitters to pop the ball up on the infield. Clippard’s career ground ball rate is 27.9%, the second lowest among pitchers who’ve thrown at least 500 innings since batted ball data started being recorded in 2002. (Chris Young is the lowest at 26.4%.) His 15.6% infield pop-up rate is third highest during that time, behind Mariano Rivera (16.1%) and Al Leiter (15.7%).

Infield pop-ups are as close to an automatic out as it gets for balls in play. For much of his career Clippard has had an excellent strikeout rate and an excellent pop-up rate. Those are the two best possible outcomes for a pitcher. It’s no wonder why he’s been so successful. That’s a great formula.

Now, that said, Clippard’s strikeout rate took a big step back last season. He struck out close to 30% of batters faced the last few years before dropping down to a league average-ish strikeout rate in 2015. That’s kinda scary. Furthermore, his fly ball and pop-up rate declined as well.

BABIP GB% FB% LD% IFFB% HR/FB%
2013 .170 27.9% 55.8% 16.3% 18.8% 9.4%
2014 .251 36.9% 49.4% 13.7% 19.3% 6.0%
2015 .211 21.2% 60.6% 18.2% 13.3% 6.7%

The super low BABIP is the result of all the pop-ups. (His career BABIP is .232.) Last season Clippard posted a career high fly ball rate and his lowest pop-up rate in five years, which means more of those fly balls were traveling to the outfield. His HR/FB% didn’t spike, but he was giving up way more fly balls, hence the jump from a 0.64 HR/9 in 2014 to a 1.01 HR/9 in 2015.

There are some definite red flags here. Clippard’s strikeout and infield pop-up rates dropped while his walk rate increased. That’s bad, especially for a guy who’s endured such a big workload. It suggests Clippard wasn’t fooling hitters as well as he has the last few seasons. Right now this is just a one year sample. Whoever signs him will hope it isn’t the start of a trend.

The Stuff

Clippard has more or less shelved his little cutter/slider in recent years, so he’s now basically a two-pitch pitcher: low-90s heater and a split-changeup hybrid right around 80 mph. That split-change has helped him neutralize lefties throughout his career. No one has bothered to make a 2015 Clippard highlight video, so here’s a really short video from late-July:

It’s important to note Clippard has tremendous deception in his delivery, which helps his stuff play up. You can see it in the video — he’s all arms and legs (he’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 200 lbs.), and he hides the ball very well. The radar gun says 91-92 mph but hitters seem to react like it’s 95-96. That deception is a big reason why he’s been so good.

The only significant red flag in Clippard’s stuff is the swing-and-miss rate on his split-change, which dropped to 15.3% last season after sitting around 21.0% from 2012-14. That’s still an above-average whiff rate — the average whiff rate on changeups is 14.9% — but it’s not nearly as good as before. Clippard’s velocity has held fairly steady over the years too.

Watching him pitch over the years, I think Clippard’s biggest problem last season was his location. His stuff seemed good enough, he just had trouble throwing to the desired target. His first pitch strike rate dropped to 55.8% after sitting closer to 63.0% for a few years, so he was behind in the count more often, which could explain the diminished the effectiveness of his split-change.

Injury History

This will be short: Clippard has never been on the DL. He missed one game with lower back tightness in September, and way back in 2011 he missed three games with what was described as shoulder fatigue. Clippard’s had no arm problems since and he’s never had any kind of significant injury in general.

Contract Projections

I have to think Clippard and his agent came into the offseason hoping for an Andrew Miller contract. Clippard’s been an elite reliever for a few years now, so he has the track record, and he’s been durable. That’s probably the best case scenario, but the free agent reliever market stunk this winter, and Clippard was arguably the biggest name.

The only contract estimate we have for Clippard comes from MLBTR. They pegged him for three years and $18M. Five relievers have signed contracts of at least three years this offseason: Shawn Kelley (three years, $15M), Tony Sipp (three years, $18M), Ryan Madson (three years, $22M), Joakim Soria (three years, $25M), and Darren O’Day (four years, $32M). I have to think Clippard’s holding out for at least three years, right?

Things have been extremely quite around Clippard this winter. His archive at MLBTR includes only six posts since the start of November, and three are blurbs mentioning the Mets are open to re-signing him to a one-year contract. That’s all. I’m sure there’s plenty going on behind the scenes, but geez, very little public interest in Clippard.

Wrapping Up

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

I’m mentioning Clippard as a possible target because there has been so little interest in him this offseason. Spring Training is only a month away and he might be more open to a one or two-year contract. The Yankees aren’t going to spend big on a free agent, that much is clear, but what if Clippard will take a one-year deal at $5M or so? Or a two-year deal at $10M with an opt-out?

The Yankees do have three open bullpen spots as it is — it could be four come Opening Day if Aroldis Chapman is suspended — and Clippard would give the team some quality middle relief depth. I do think the declining strikeout, walk, and pop-up rates are a sign of decline more than a one-year blip, but on a low cost contract, it’s worth the chance. Clippard could be a real difference maker.

At the same time, if Clippard is open to a low cost deal, why would he come to the Yankees? Yankee Stadium and the AL East is not a place for pitchers looking to build value on short-term deals, especially not fly ball pitchers. And Clippard’s not oblivious, he knows he would be no better than fourth on the bullpen depth chart behind Chapman, Miller, and Dellin Betances.

Clippard is a potential fit for the Yankees but the Yankees are not a fit for Clippard. If he’s going to take a relatively small contract, he’s going to go somewhere with a big ballpark and where he’d be no worse than the primary setup man. There are still way too many clubs in need of bullpen help right now to think Clippard’s price has dropped so low that he’d settle for an undesirable situation in the Bronx.

Monday Night Open Thread

If you have some free time, I recommend checking out this post by Brayan Pena at The Players’ Tribune. He details his defection from Cuba years ago — he literally climbed out of a bathroom window to escape — and his return to the country last month as part of MLB’s goodwill tour. I can’t imagine what it must be like to leave your family behind like that. Pretty incredible stuff.

This is tonight’s open thread. The Nets are playing tonight and there’s some college hoops on as well, so talk about those games, Pena’s article, or anything else right here.

Betances looking forward to Chapman helping reduce his workload

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

It’s no secret Dellin Betances has endured a huge workload the last two seasons. He’s thrown 174 innings the last two years, nearly 20 more than any other reliever, and most of those innings were high-leverage situations. Dellin hasn’t just been throwing a lot of innings, he’s been throwing a lot of high-intensity innings.

Betances is a physically massive human — he’s listed at 6-foot-8 and 265 lbs. on the team’s official site — and the workload hasn’t really hurt his performance much. Yeah, he struggled throwing strikes late last season, but he has a history of control problems, so it wasn’t totally out of the ordinary. Fatigue may have been a factor. We just can’t say so definitively.

Either way, ideally Dellin’s workload would not be quite as high as it has been going forward. Relievers don’t throw 85+ high-stress innings year-after-year anymore. Aroldis Chapman will assume some of those high-leverage innings, and Betances said he’s looking forward to having the team’s new closer lighten his load a bit.

“It’s exciting, obviously,” said Betances to Meredith Marakovits when asked about Chapman (video link). “And I think that will help my workload as well, having Chapman there … I think everything will fall into place. Whatever the team needs me to do to help them win, I’ll be ready.”

I think Joe Girardi and the Yankees would like limit Betances to somewhere in the 70-75 inning range going forward, which is still pretty high by reliever standards. Only 19 relievers threw 70+ innings in 2015. Dellin’s shown he can handle a larger than usual workload, and that’s something the Yankees should take advantage of when possible.

Girardi likes to assign his relievers specific innings and it seems like Betances will take over as the seventh inning guy in 2016. That’s not set in stone, but I think it’s heading in that direction. That’s a good spot for Betances because Girardi can use him to get a few outs in the sixth inning on occasion as well. Justin Wilson didn’t do that much last year.

Betances is a big guy and he will turn 28 during Spring Training, so he’s not a young prospect. That doesn’t mean his workload can be brushed aside either. The Yankees want Dellin to help them win not only in 2016, but also in 2017, 2018, and 2019 as well. He’s a core member of the roster, and using Chapman to help lighten the load on Betances is a big positive.

Andrew Miller is the key to the Yankees’ arbitration case with Aroldis Chapman

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

Last Friday the Yankees filed salary arbitration figures with four of their six eligible players prior to the 1pm ET deadline. Michael Pineda ($4.3M) and Dustin Ackley ($3.2M) signed new deals while Aroldis Chapman, Nathan Eovaldi, Didi Gregorius, and Ivan Nova filed salary figures. The two sides can still discuss a deal of any size. Friday was not a hard deadline for a 2016 contract.

Chapman filed a $13.1M salary figure, which is a touch more than the $12.9M projection MLBTR’s model spit out. The Yankees, meanwhile, filed a $9M salary figure. That represents a mere $950,000 raise for Chapman. Here’s what I wrote when the filing figure news broke:

First thought: Chapman should probably take the Yankees to a hearing. He made $8.05M last season. Would the arbitration panel really side with the Yankees and award him a raise of less than $1M after he saved 33 games with a 1.63 ERA (1.94 FIP) and 116 strikeouts in 66.1 innings in 2015? Seems really unlikely. The other third year arbitration-eligible closers (Kenley Jansen, Drew Storen, Mark Melancon) all received raises of at least $2.5M on Friday. I guess the Yankees think Chapman’s earning potential will be dragged down by the domestic violence incident.

Jonathan Papelbon holds almost every arbitration record for relievers, and he received a $12M payday in his final season of eligibility back in 2011. Chapman is looking to break that record and he’s not being unreasonable. Reliever salaries have increased significantly since 2011 and Chapman has been as good as any closer in history the last few seasons.

As I said Friday, it appears Chapman has a pretty good case should this thing go to an arbitration hearing next month. The Yankees, it seems, are using Andrew Miller as their salary reference point for Chapman. Free agent contracts are fair game for salary comparisons for players in their final arbitration year as Jeff Passan noted, and the team’s $9M filing figure matches the average annual value of Miller’s contract.

Chapman has very few peers statistically. Miller happens to be one of them. That they’re both left-handed gives the comparison even more validity. We’re talking about the two best lefty relievers in baseball here. (Okay, maybe two of the three best along with Zach Britton.) Here’s what Chapman and Miller did last season, the most important season during contract talks:

IP Saves ERA FIP K% BB% fWAR bWAR
Miller 61.2 36 1.90 2.16 40.7% 8.1% 2.0 2.2
Chapman 66.1 33 1.63 1.94 41.7% 11.9% 2.5 2.7

Pretty damn similar. Similar innings total, similar saves total, similar strikeout rate, WAR is in the same ballpark. Miller has the edge in walk rate but Chapman has him beat in ERA and FIP. The comparison is not crazy. Chapman was a bit better last summer but Miller isn’t too far behind him. He is one of Chapman’s few peers.

That comparison with Miller seems to be the basis of the Yankees’ $9M filing figure. Should this thing go to a hearing, they’re probably going to argue Miller is a comparable pitcher and he signed a deal worth $9M per season, so that’s what Chapman deserves in his final year of arbitration. At least that’s what I think is happening. I’m not sure how else they could have come up with that $9M number.

The Miller-Chapman comparison works for the 2015 season and that’s about it. Go back further and it’s advantage Chapman in a huge way, which is why he’s in position for a record arbitration salary in the first place. Miller has been an elite reliever for only two seasons now — you could argue two and a half seasons based on his work in 2013 — Chapman’s been doing it for four years.

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

Saves pay, especially in arbitration. Miller has 37 career saves and he had one when he became a free agent. Chapman has 146 career saves. That’s going to be the argument Chapman’s side makes should this go to a hearing. Miller got that $9M per year contract in free agency as a setup man. David Robertson, another elite reliever who had only one year as a closer under his belt when he became a free agent, landed a contract worth $11.5M annually that same offseason. That will work against the Yankees.

The Yankees aren’t stupid. They feel they have a strong argument to support that $9M filing figure and can win a hearing if necessary. From the outside, it looks like they filed way too low — again, we’re talking about a $950,000 raise for one of the best relievers in the game coming off a great season — low enough that Chapman’s side may not have much incentive to discuss a one-year contract smaller than their $13.1M filing figure these next few weeks.

Maybe the Miller comparison will stand up in front of the three-person arbitration panel, which tends to be not well-versed in sabermetrics. (Arbitration is a very antiquated process.) The fact fellow third year arbitration-eligible closers like Jansen, Storen, and Melancon all received raises north of $2.5M this offseason — Melancon’s $4.25M raise is a record for an arbitration-eligible reliever — does not bode well for the Yankees should this get to a hearing.