The Collapse of Tyler Clippard [2017 Season Review]

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

When you blog about baseball as much as I do, you need to keep a list of topics and notes handy. I can’t tell you how many great ideas I’ve come up with in the middle of the night only to forget them in the morning. I used to keep everything jotted down in a notebook. Now I use Google docs because I can access it anywhere on my phone. How did we ever live before the internet and smart phones?

Not everything on my list gets turned into a post. I’d say maybe 70% of the stuff I jot down gets turned into a post. Most of the stuff I don’t write up is just dumb. It sounds good in my head, the when I sit down to write it up, I realize how stupid it is. Some unwritten topics are assumptions that are wrong. Are the Yankees swinging more often in 3-0 counts? Turns out the answer was yes. Many assumptions are wrong though. Most are recency bias.

One of the worst things in the blogging game is having a great topic rendered moot because you wait too long to write it up. Every time we write up a Scouting The Market post, I make sure to get it on the site as soon as possible because I don’t want the player to get traded or the free agent to sign before it goes live. I’ve lost a few posts like that. Joe Blanton two years ago. Even Matt Holliday last year. (I was able to repurpose that into a thoughts post though.)

My biggest regret this season was waiting too long to turn the “the Yankees need to stop giving Tyler Clippard high-leverage innings before he starts blowing games” topic on my list into an actual post. It was on my list for weeks. Since the middle of April. The warning signs were all there. I just never wrote it up. Then bam, Clippard was giving up dingers and blowing games left and right. It would have been prescient. But I waited too long.

* * *

Clippard started the 2017 season well enough. He took a 1.64 ERA (3.07 FIP) into June and his 32.6% strikeout rate was quite strong. Opponents were hitting .156/.253/.247 against him. Clippard did blow two games in those two months, most notably turning a 5-4 lead into a 6-5 loss to the Orioles on April 7th, in the fourth game of the season, when Seth Smith took him yard.

Blowing two games in two months isn’t the end of the world. That’s about what I’d expect pretty much any reliever to do. Everyone has an off night now and then. Clippard was the third man in the bullpen behind Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances, and when Chapman went on the disabled list with a shoulder problem in mid-May, Clippard took over eighth inning duty while Betances closed. Not ideal, but it could be worse, right?

That 1.64 ERA and .156/.253/.247 batting line hid a troubling trend, however. Clippard’s infield pop-ups were continuing to turn into fly balls. He’s always been an extreme weak pop-up pitcher. Allowing batters to hit the ball in the air isn’t the problem when it barely leaves the infield. At his best, Clippard’s infield pop-up rate was near 20%. Just last season it was 25.3%. There’s a reason he has a career .239 BABIP. All those pop-ups are easy outs.

In April and May this season, Clippard’s pop-up rate was 13.6%, down from 25.3% last year and 18.5% from 2013-16. Fewer pop-ups and the same number of ground balls equals more legitimate fly balls and line drives. And, when combined with his lowest soft contact rate (20.0%) in years, the result was a lot of deep fly balls. In April and May, they were going for outs. That would not continue forever in the Year of the Home Run.

* * *

Clippard’s troubles started almost immediately in June. In his second outing of the month, he allowed a game-losing eighth inning home run to Josh Donaldson in Toronto. It was as annoying as it was predictable. Annoyingly predictable.

That loss, I felt, was on Joe Girardi more than Clippard. Yeah, Clippard gave up the homer, but he shouldn’t have even been in that situation in the first place. He’s an extreme fly ball pitcher and the Blue Jays were sending Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Kendrys Morales to the plate in the eighth inning of a tie game. Basically their three best home run hitters. Betances, who was still in his first half FU mode at the time, should’ve been in the game, but closers are for closin’.

Anyway, Clippard blew another game a week later, that one against the Angels. Two days after that he allowed a run against the Athletics. What came next was the coup de grace. The end of Clippard’s time as a high-leverage reliever. Or even a medium leverage reliever. Across three appearances from June 20th through June 24th, Clippard did this: 1.1 IP, 8 H, 9 R, 9 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 2 HR. Three runs, one out against the Angels on June 20th. Two runs, no outs against the Angels on June 21st. Four runs, three outs against the Rangers on June 24th.

Clippard going into that three-game stretch: 2.22 ERA and a .160/.257/.300 opponent’s line in 28.1 innings. Clippard coming out of that three-game stretch: 4.85 ERA and a .214/.307/.446 opponent’s line in 29.2 innings. It went south quick. It wasn’t just all the hard contact either. Clippard had nothing to put hitters away. His trademark changeup had become a batting practice fastball. Walks went up and swings and misses went down.

tyler-clippard-walks-and-whiffs

Clippard allowed four runs in 1.2 innings against the Brewers on July 7th, in a game Girardi just let him wear it in a mop-up situation. He threw two scoreless innings after the All-Star break, one with the Yankees down one in the eighth inning and one with the Yankees up three in the seventh. Girardi needed to use Clippard in the seventh that day because it was the first game of a doubleheader and the Yankees and Red Sox played 16 innings the day before. The bullpen was running on fumes. Following that outing, Clippard was sitting on a 4.95 ERA (5.00 FIP) in 36.1 innings.

* * *

For various reasons, the super bullpen the Yankees are always trying to build had not come to fruition. Chapman was struggling, Betances started walking everyone at midseason, Jonathan Holder couldn’t seize a job, and Clippard had proven unreliable. Fortunately Chad Green stepped up and prevented the relief corps from being a total disaster, but yeah, the bullpen was a bit of a sore spot at midseason. Help was needed.

On July 19th, two weeks before the trade deadline, the Yankees sought to strengthen their bullpen by acquiring two pitchers who were among the top ten relievers in baseball up to that point: David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle. Two former Yankees. Well, former Yankees prospect in Kahnle’s case. The Yankees got the White Sox to throw Todd Frazier in as well. Former first round Blake Rutherford was the headliner going to Chicago.

Also included in that trade was Clippard. He was included to offset salary and nothing more. The rebuilding White Sox weren’t thinking Clippard could put them over the top and into the postseason. They took him on to offset salary, and their hope was he’d perform better in their uniform, and they could flip him later. And you know what? That’s exactly what happened.

In three weeks and change with the ChiSox, Clippard pitched to a 1.80 ERA (2.26 FIP) in ten innings. How about that? Chicago cashed him in as a trade chip and sent him to the Astros for, well, cash. If you’re a hard tanking team, not having to pay Clippard is better than having to pay Clippard. And with Houston, Clippard pitched to a 6.43 ERA (5.09 FIP) in 14 innings. He was not on their postseason roster in any round. Clippard’s season in a nutshell:

tyler-clippard-era-fip

Good enough early on, a total disaster in the middle, a dead cat bounce with the White Sox, and more ugliness at the end. Clippard finished the 2017 season with a 4.77 ERA (4.57 FIP) in 60.1 innings. And with a World Series ring! Once a champ, always a champ. Good for Clippard.

* * *

When the Yankees first traded Clippard away all those years ago, they did so thinking they’d upgraded their bullpen by acquiring Jonathan Albaladejo. That didn’t work out so well. It didn’t work out at all. When they reacquired Clippard last year, they did so to maintain some semblance of respectability after selling at the trade deadline. And by and large, it worked. Clippard was basically free and and he pitched well enough last year.

This year things completely fell apart for Clippard, which was the direction things had been trending for a few years now. The outs weren’t as easy to get as they were in his prime, the ball was leaving the yard a little more often, and all those weak pop-ups were becoming few and far between. The second time the Yankees traded Clippard away, they did it for a clear bullpen upgrade. Alas, he was only a throw-in in the trade, not the centerpiece. The Yankees had to trade away Rutherford, last year’s first rounder, partly because Clippard imploded.

There is no 2018 outlook for Clippard because the Yankees aren’t going to bring him back. I mean, I suppose they could since there is an open bullpen spot, but nah. That ship has sailed. It’s not fair to pin not winning the AL East on him, but damn, the Yankees fell short by two games and Clippard was charged with five blown saves (in the seventh and eighth innings) and took five losses in his half-season with the Yankees. He did plenty of damage before being traded away.

Mailbag: Braves Prospects, Rule 5 Draft, Kinsler, Appel, Judge

No, it’s not Friday, but it is Thanksgiving week and I have family obligations the next few days. It was either post the mailbag today or not at all this week, so today it is. We’ve got eleven questions this week. RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is the mailbag email address.

Maitan. (Getty)
Maitan. (Getty)

Many asked: Will the Yankees sign any of the international prospects the Braves just lost?

MLB wrapped up their investigation into the Braves and their shady international dealings under former GM John Coppolella yesterday, and they hammered them. Absolutely hammered them. Among other things, the Braves will be limited to $10,000 bonuses during the 2019-20 international signing period, and their 2020-21 signing period hard cap will be reduced by 50%. Oh, and a dozen players they signed last year are now free agents. Among them:

  • SS Kevin Maitan (No. 2 international prospect per MLB.com)
  • C Abraham Gutierrez (No. 25)
  • SS Yunior Severino (No. 26)
  • 3B Yenci Pena (No. 29)

All told, the 12 players who became free agents yesterday cost the Braves around $20M, and they’re gone now. (The players get to keep the money.) Commissioner Rob Manfred’s statement said “the signing process (for these players) will be communicated to MLB Clubs under separate cover,” and there are some restrictions. Ben Badler has the details:

The players will have restrictions on their free agency. They will be eligible to sign with another club for another signing bonus beginning on Dec. 5 up until Jan. 15. After Jan. 15, the player is still allowed to sign but cannot receive an additional signing bonus. Only the amount of the signing bonus beyond $200,000 will count toward a team’s signing bonus pool. Players are allowed to re-sign with the Braves, but if they choose to do so, they must wait until May 1 to sign with them and can’t receive an additional signing bonus.

Maitan is the big name here. MLB.com currently ranks him as the 38th best prospect in baseball and their scouting report says “his ceiling has been put side-by-side with the likes of Miguel Cabrera and Chipper Jones.” Maitan is only 17, and he didn’t exactly tear the cover off the ball during his pro debut this summer — he hit .241/.290/.340 (72 wRC+) with a 27.8% strikeout rate in 42 rookie ball games — but still, talent is talent.

There are conflicting reports out there, though it seems the Yankees have somewhere between $3.5M and $3.7M in international bonus money available right now. That’s after getting another $250,000 in the Marlins trade the other day. As far I’m concerned, the Yankees should prioritize Shohei Ohtani with that money, because he’s a potential impact player who is ready to help the Yankees win right now. These international kids are all teenagers.

Now, if the Yankees don’t land Ohtani, they should absolutely turn around and try to sign Maitan and any other top international prospects still on the market. (Raimfer Salinas and Antonio Cabello are the top two 2017-18 kids still available.) The Yankees traded for all that international bonus money for a reason. They’re going to spend it. Hopefully on Ohtani or Maitan. Or Ohtani and Maitan! That’d be cool. I’d focus on Ohtani, and if that doesn’t happen, shift gears to Maitan and everyone else.

Paul asks: Who do you think the Yankees are likely to lose in next month’s Rule 5 draft? And, if it was up to you, are there any changes you would make regarding who the Yankees did and did not protect?

They’ll likely lose some pitchers, with J.P. Feyereisen, Anyelo Gomez, and Nestor Cortes the top candidates to get picked. Feyereisen and Gomez can bring it in relief, and at some point Nasty Nestor’s numbers will earn him a look. I could see him throwing like 120 innings for his hometown Marlins next year. I would be surprised if Mike Ford got popped. Only three first basemen have been picked in the Rule 5 Draft the last 20 years and none stuck. Teams stick to pitching and the skill positions in the Rule 5 Draft. Heck, established big league first basemen have a hard time finding jobs in free agency (Chris Carter last year, etc.). Ford has only played 25 games at Triple-A. I wouldn’t change anything the Yankees did as far as their protection. I didn’t expect them to protect Jonathan Loaisiga given his injury history and general lack of experience, but hey, if they think he would’ve been taken, it’s worth trading Garrett Cooper or Ronald Herrera or whoever to make room for him.

Paul asks: Following up on your “Thoughts Following the Rule 5 Protection Day Deadline” article, what changes would you make to the Rule 5 Draft to prevent teams from selecting talented players who are clearly not ready for MLB and then hanging onto them all season (i.e., Cordoba and Torrens)? It doesn’t seem right that teams can do this. It surely can’t be the best option for the player to ride the bench much of the season when they are in their peak development period.

To me, the biggest issue with the Rule 5 Draft is the way it sets different deadlines for “readiness” based on the way the player was acquired. Drafted out of college? You’ll be Rule 5 Draft eligible at 24. Drafted out of high school? Rule 5 Draft eligible at 22. Sign as an international free agent? Rule 5 Draft eligible at 21. How is that fair? It’s not only unfair, it actively hurts players who turn pro as a teenager by expecting to be MLB ready at such a young age. Gleyber Torres will be out of minor league options by time he’s 24. A college draftee won’t run out of options until he’s 27. I’d like to see a uniform Rule 5 Draft eligibility age. Set it at 23. If you’re not on the 40-man roster by time your age 23 season comes around, you’re Rule 5 Draft eligible, no matter how or when you’re acquired. That ensures players who turn pro as a teenager have plenty of time to develop. That’ll lead to fewer Luis Torrens and Allen Cordoba (and Loaisiga) situations.

Middle infielder Todd Frazier. (Presswire)
Middle infielder Todd Frazier. (Presswire)

Alex asks: Why when employing the shift would DiDi and Frazier swap positions with 2 strikes? I noticed this during the playoffs, not sure if the same was true during the regular season.

The Yankees have been doing that for years. They did it when Chase Headley was playing third base as well. When the Yankees employ the infield shift, Gregorius stays on the shortstop side of the second base and the third baseman moves over to the second base side. With two strikes, they switch. Girardi explained that’s because of the bunt. Hitters are less likely to bunt against the shift with two strikes. When the hitter does not have two strikes, the Yankees want Gregorius on the left side of the infield because he can cover more ground and is better able to come in on the bunt. When the batter has two strikes, they put the third baseman over there because the hitter is going to swing away, and is more likely to pull it to the right side of the infield (given his hitting tendencies), so they want Gregorius over there. Got all that?

Jason asks: Are we moving towards a time where a Manager and GM are the same person, a la Bill Parcells wanting to buy the groceries and cook the dinner? It feels like this Yankees manager search is simply finding a mouthpiece for Cashman’s voice.

No way. Each job is too big of a commitment and comes with too much responsibility to give it to one person. There’s a reason GMs have multiple assistants and managers have all sorts of coaches. It’s impossible for one person to do the job. One person doing both jobs? No. And I wouldn’t want that even if it were possible. Managers and players can get pretty close, and that emotional tie can skew decisions. It’s good to have the GM at a distance making decisions without any personal relationships getting in the way. All this stuff about Brian Cashman wanting a manager who will be his mouthpiece is really overblown. Every front office gives the manager information and expects him to digest it and disseminate it to the players in a way they can understand. The Yankees want someone who can do it better than Joe Girardi.

Eric asks: What would you say the new bottom 5 or so players of the 40 man roster are? Based on your thoughts column are Mitchell and Shreve the first two to go should the Yankees make a move?

Hmmm. Right now, I’d say Gio Gallegos, Bryan Mitchell, Chasen Shreve, Austin Romine, and Jake Cave are the bottom five players on the 40-man roster, in some order. I’d unload Romine first, though I suspect Gallegos would be the first to go given the team’s right-handed pitching depth. Mitchell or Shreve could be traded before then. The Yankees could get something for them, I’m sure. They got something for Herrera. They’ll get something for Mitchell or Shreve. Also, I’m not sure how eager the Yankees are to find a new backup catcher. Romine’s chances of sticking on the 40-man roster all winter and coming to camp as the favorite to back up Gary Sanchez are annoyingly high.

Robert asks: Any interest in Ian Kinsler for Yankees?

Nah. Not now. Kinsler is 35 and he just had the worst offensive season of his career, which is usually a bad combination. Could he bounce back next season? Sure. Am I willing to take on his $11M salary and trade a prospect(s) to find out if he’ll bounce back? Nope. Kinsler has played second base his entire career aside from an emergency two-inning stint at third base back in 2012, so I don’t think you can expect him to step right into a utility role and thrive. Maybe DH? Okay, but I’d want more than a .236/.313/.412 (91 wRC+) line from my DH. I don’t see a fit here.

Appel. (Presswire)
Appel. (Presswire)

John asks: Mark Appel, worth a minor league deal or even a 40-man spot?

Minor league deal? Yes. A 40-man roster spot? No. Should the Phillies put Mark Appel on waivers, I’d claim him and then immediately designate him for assignment, hoping he’d clear waivers and stay in the organization as a non-40-man player. Appel was terrible again this past season, throwing 82 Triple-A innings with a 5.27 ERA (5.42 FIP) around a shoulder injury. He has a career 5.06 ERA (4.41 FIP) in 375.1 career minor league innings. Yuck.

I know Appel was the No. 1 pick in 2013 — and the No. 8 pick in 2012! — but he is not that guy anymore. Hasn’t been for a while. His stuff has taken a step back and his command just isn’t good. You’re banking on the pedigree, basically. Who will be a more valuable player the next five years, Appel or Bryan Mitchell? I’d take Mitchell. If you can stash Appel in the system as a non-40-man roster player, great. I wouldn’t sweat missing out on him at all.

Dana asks: Some Yankees offseason previews are saying they need to replace Holliday at DH. With Clint Frazier and possibly Andujar and even Ellsbury fighting for at-bats, can’t they just leave the DH spot open and rotate guys into it?

I think that’s where the Yankees are heading. A rotating DH. That allows them to get their fourth outfielder regular playing time, which will come in handy if they trade Jacoby Ellsbury and carry Frazier on the roster. Also, a rotating DH potentially opens playing time for Miguel Andujar and Torres down the line. And regular rest for Aaron Judge (and his surgically repaired shoulder) and Sanchez and Greg Bird. There is definitely value in having that big bat and a set DH, and that’s what I’d prefer, honestly. I think the Yankees are going for a rotating DH, however, at least next year, when they’re still looking to get their young guys regular at-bats.

Sam asks: I’m curious your thoughts on what would’ve happened if Judge played in the NL. Do you think he would’ve won MVP over Stanton? He is still on the Yankees, but imagine if they played in the NL. I’ve never been a big believer in the anti-Yankee bias when it comes to awards, but as you’ve said a few times, this year more than ever it seemed like writers were finding reasons not to vote for Judge.

Interesting! The NL MVP race was extremely close. Giancarlo Stanton edged out Joey Votto by two points. Two points! Paul Goldschmidt was a distant third. Their seasons head-to-head, with Jose Altuve added for good measure:

aaron-judge-giancarlo-stanton-joey-votto-paul-goldschmidt-jose-altuve

Both Judge and Altuve were quite a bit better than any of the three NL MVP finalists, plus their teams made the postseason. Goldschmidt was only NL MVP finalist from a postseason team.

I think, with Altuve out of the way, Judge would’ve beat out the three NL MVP finalists to win the award. No, he didn’t chase 60 homers like Stanton, but going deep 52 times is nothing to sneeze at either. I think Judge’s advantage in OBP and the fact he played for a postseason team would overcome his slump, and land him the NL MVP award.

Jerome asks: What would be a reasonable leash for the new manager in regards to job security? Now that expectations are raised, how many years will he last without bringing home a World Series title?

It’s difficult to say. Are the Yankees not winning the World Series because winning the World Series is hard, or are they underperforming each year with certain players falling short of expectations? There’s a big difference between underperforming and just getting beat in a short series. I mean, yes, at some point the new manager has to win. But if the Yankees are competitive each year and falling short, it’ll probably buy him more time than a disappointing team with young players going backwards, that sort of thing. I don’t think Cashman and the Yankees want to get in the habit of changing managers every two or three years if they’re not winning the World Series. I think the new manager gets at least four years as long as the Yankees are a great team that isn’t winning the World Series because weird stuff happens in short playoff series.

MLB, NPB, MLBPA agree to new posting system, paving the way for Ohtani to come over this offseason

(AP)
(AP)

Shohei Ohtani will indeed get a chance to play in Major League Baseball next season.

MLB, NPB, and the MLBPA agreed to a new posting system prior to tonight’s deadline, according to multiple reports. Ohtani will be grandfathered in under the old posting agreement this offseason, meaning the Nippon Ham Fighters will receive a $20M release fee. The new posting agreement will take effect next offseason.

According to Joel Sherman’s Twitter feed, the new posting system includes a graduating posting fee scale based on the player’s contract. The payment to the player’s former team in Japan is now based on how much the player receives. Here’s the breakdown:

  • 20% for contracts $25M or less ($5M max).
  • 17.5% for contracts from $25M to $50M ($8.75M max).
  • 15% for contracts over $50M.
  • 25% for all minor league contracts.

Starting next season the posting window will be open from November 1st through December 5th. The player will have 30 days to negotiating a contract once he is posted. Ohtani will have only 21 days to negotiate a contract this winter, however. The union wants to wrap this up quick so it doesn’t hold up the rest of the free agent market.

The 30 MLB owners must ratify the new posting system by next Friday, though that is considered a formality. Once that happens, Ohtani can be posted. “(The) entire process will be worked through sooner rather than later,” said a source to Mark Feinsand. So I guess that means Ohtani could be posted as soon as next weekend.

The Nippon Ham Fighters have already announced their intention to post Ohtani. The Yankees supposedly have the most international bonus money available after acquiring an additional $250,000 from the Marlins earlier this week, though no one seems to know exactly how much. Apparently it’s $3.5M or so.

Multiple reports have indicated the Yankees plan to go hard after Ohtani, though given the international hard cap, the financial playing field is level. They can’t blow him away with a massive contract offer. They’ll have to sell him on the idea of being a Yankee, joining an up-and-coming team, and playing in great city. Who knows what Ohtani’s preferences are though.

Update: Jim Allen hears Ohtani is tentatively scheduled to be posted on Saturday, December 2nd. The day after the posting agreement has to be ratified. That means we’ll know Ohtani’s destination by Saturday, December 23rd. One month from today, basically.

Tuesday Night Open Thread

Earlier today Hall of Famer Joe Morgan sent a letter to the Hall of Fame voting body imploring them not to vote players connected to performance-enhancing drugs into the Hall of Fame. Two problems with that. One, there are already players who used PEDs in the Hall of Fame. Players used to pop amphetamines (“greenies”) like Skittles. And two, we can’t just erase the parts of history we don’t like. I watched the crap out of baseball during the so-called Steroid Era and I enjoyed the hell out of it. Those memories are real. Maybe as soon as Morgan provides a list of players who took PEDs — with evidence, of course — the voting body will consider listening to him.

Anyway, here is an open thread for the evening. None of the local hockey or basketball teams are in action, but there is a bunch of college basketball on the schedule, so that’s good. Talk about anything here other than religion or politics.

Aaron Judge undergoes left shoulder surgery, will be ready for Spring Training

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Turns out Aaron Judge wrapping his left shoulder with a big ice pack after each game in the second half was more than routine maintenance. Judge had arthroscopic surgery on the shoulder yesterday, the Yankees announced. The procedure “involved a loose-body removal and cartilage clean-up,” and his recovery will be completed in time for Spring Training.

Judge started wrapping his shoulder in the second half, at the same time as his slump, though of course he denied it had anything to do with his troubles at the plate. “It’s not affecting me at all,” he said on more than one occasion. Here’s a look at the ice pack following a game with the Red Sox on August 20th.

It’s impossible to say how much the achy shoulder contributed to Judge’s slump, if it contributed at all. He never made excuses, though the left shoulder is Judge’s front shoulder when hitting, and the front shoulder is the power shoulder. It might not have been a coincidence his hard contact rate dropped precipitously in the first few weeks of the second half.

aaron-judge-hard-contact

If the shoulder was bothering Judge, it didn’t show in September, when he hit .311/.463/.889 (233 wRC+) with 15 home runs, his most in any month. Achy shoulder or not, Judge still hit .284/.422/.627 (173 wRC+) with 52 home runs this season, and that is pretty awesome. That earned him the AL Rookie of the Year award (unanimously) and a second place finish in the AL MVP voting.

Although this surgery seems minor — it was arthroscopic, so they didn’t have to cut Judge open — every surgery is a risk, especially when it involves a major joint like the shoulder. Hopefully Judge’s rehab goes well and he comes back next season at full strength, because if this season was any indication, he’s pretty excellent even when his shoulder is barking.

The Other Excellent Rookie [2017 Season Review]

(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The Yankees headed into Spring Training with the fifth starter role entirely up in the air (that’s true of the fourth spot, as well, but now is not the time to discuss how awesome it was that Luis Severino went from “competing for a spot” to “finalist for the Cy Young Award”). Brian Cashman specifically mentioned that Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, Adam Warren, and Jordan Montgomery were in the mix, and the first four came into the season with at least five big league starts under their belt. Montgomery was the youngest and the least experienced, but it seemed likely he’d get the call eventually. Instead, he latched onto that slot in the rotation, and never let go.

An Impressive Spring Training

Cashman and Co. were not lying when they said that the fifth starter’s role was very much up for grabs, and Montgomery seized the opportunity. He appeared in six games, starting two, and pitched to the following line: 19.2 IP, 16 H, 3 BB, 17 K, 1.2 GB/FB, 3.20 ERA. Green had a much shinier 1.50 ERA, but Montgomery was trusted to throw more innings, and had much better peripherals – and so the job was his.

There were, of course, two factors that gave Montgomery something of an edge; or, at the very least, helped to make up whatever ground he would’ve lost by being a rookie. The first is that Cessa, Green, Mitchell, and Warren all had experience pitching out of the bullpen, and profiled better in that role, given their stuff. And the second is rather simple – he’s a southpaw. When your home ballpark is Yankee Stadium, the more left-handed starters you can muster, the better. A strong Spring Training, a track record of success in the high minors, left-handedness, and the lack of a high-end reliever profile all worked together to push Montgomery into the rotation.

Arriving A Bit Earlier Than Expected

The Yankees were slated to use Montgomery for the first time on April 16, as that was the first time that a fifth starter was necessary. Plans changed, as they often do, and they elected to give CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka an extra day of rest by starting Montgomery on April 12. It’s a relatively minor difference, to be sure – but I’m not sure that they expected Montgomery to be there for the long-haul from day one(-ish).

Montgomery turned in a solid start in his major league debut against the Rays, going 4.2 IP and allowing 5 hits, 2 earned runs, and 2 walks, while striking out 7. You can read more about that start in Mike’s game recap, but the key takeaway was that Montgomery did everything the team could have reasonably expected of him, and looked good in doing so. Or, phrased differently, he pitched well-enough to make that fifth starter’s spot his to lose.

A Consistent Force At The Back Of The Rotation

Montgomery stuck in the Yankees rotation for the rest of the season, with a small asterisk. He was sent down to Triple-A in the dog days of Summer to mitigate his workload; he made one three-inning start there, on August 24, and was back in the show six days later. That jaunt to the minors was sandwiched in the midst of his worst stretch of the season, where he seemingly hit the rookie wall. Montgomery went 17 innings over four starts, allowing 18 hits, 12 earned runs (6.35 ERA), 10 walks, and five home runs. It wasn’t pretty.

Up to that point, Montgomery had made 22 starts, pitching to the following line: 121 IP, 110 H, 38 BB, 115 K, 3.94 ERA, 3.94 FIP. Those ERA and FIP numbers may not look all that impressive, but his 89 ERA- and 87 FIP- show that both were comfortably above-average. His 22.8% strikeout rate and 7.5% walk rate were above-average, as well.

And he rebounded nicely after his rough patch, too. He closed out the season with three strong starts, totaling 17.1 IP, 12 H, 3 BB, 14 K, 0 HR, and a 1.04 ERA. It was a great end to a very good season, and a comforting sign that he had straightened himself out a bit.

Surprisingly, Montgomery’s stuff didn’t really sag as the season progressed:

brooksbaseball-chart

All five of his pitches stayed within a range of +/- a MPH on the season as a whole, excepting October – which may simply be an outlier, given that it was just one start. That is likely a product of Montgomery being accustomed to heavier workloads in the minors, as he only took a jump of 24 IP from 2016 to 2017; and it’s a good sign.

Trusting His Stuff

Montgomery’s pitch selection was somewhat inconsistent throughout the season, and it will bear watching going forward. I first noticed this back in May, when he followed-up the worst start of the season with the best (to that point), at least. It essentially boiled down to slider usage – he threw 11 the first time around, and 29 the next time out, and it was unhittable. For better or worse, though, his usage rate on all of his pitches was all over the place:

brooksbaseball-chart-1

The best explanation for this may simply be that he didn’t like to use his slider and curveball in the same game, as the usage of those pitches is close to a mirror image. He had great success with both pitches, though, so being able to deploy both in the same outing with confidence could pay dividends.

The Best Rookie Pitcher In Baseball

Put all of that together, and Montgomery was at the top of the charts for rookie pitchers, with the following overall line – 155.1 IP, 22.2 K%, 7.9 BB%, 88 ERA-, 2.7 fWAR, 2.9 bWAR. He led all rookie pitchers in both fWAR and bWAR, and finished fourth in innings pitched. An argument can even be made that he was the best non-Aaron Judge rookie in the American League, given that he was tied with Matt Chapman for second in fWAR, and didn’t derive a great deal of his value from a half-season’s worth of defensive metrics.

Regardless, that’s a hell of a rookie season from someone that may’ve been fourth or fifth on the pre-spring depth chart for the fifth starter’s slot.

2018 Outlook

Montgomery has more than earned a spot in the Yankees rotation and, barring some unforeseen blockbuster deal, I don’t see him anywhere else in 2018.