Second Baseman of the Future? [2015 Season Review]

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

For the first time in a long time, the Yankees leaned on their farm system for help this past season. Whenever a need arose, they dipped down into the minors, called someone up, and hoped for the best. It worked too. Several young players impressed in their limited time while others got a taste of the show, if nothing else.

Second baseman Rob Refsnyder was one of those players who got a taste of the big leagues this year, though not as much of a taste as many of us expected. The Yankees didn’t get a whole lot from second base this year, yet when Stephen Drew struggled for long stretches of time, the team never did make a change. It wasn’t until late in the season that Refsnyder really got a chance to help.

The Errors of Spring

The Yankees always say jobs are up for grabs in Spring Training, and while Drew wasn’t a significant road block at second base, it was unlikely Refsnyder would unseat him for the job in camp. Refsnyder appeared in 26 Grapefruit League games, the most of any player in camp, and he hit .364/.462/.568 with six doubles and nearly as many walks (eight) as strikeouts (ten). He mashed.

The problem: he did not catch the baseball, at all. There were questions about Refsnyder’s defense coming into the season, but geez, he committed six errors in 92 innings at second base in Spring Training. There were many different kinds of errors too. Throwing errors, ground ball errors, double play pivot errors, you name it. Errors are a bad way to evaluate defense, but the error total matched the eye test in camp. Refsnyder was bad in the field. Bad bad bad. He was going to have to play flawless defense to have any chance to make the team and it didn’t happen.

Return to Triple-A

Refsnyder returned to Triple-A Scranton to start the regular season and the errors continued. Three in his first four games, seven in his first 14 games, and eleven in his first 37 games. Gosh. “I want to be aggressive and on my terms,” he said later this summer, explaining the errors happened because he was too passive.

The errors stopped — that doesn’t necessarily mean his defense improved, but the errors stopped — and Refsnyder was hitting, though not as well as he had in previous years. His batting line sat at .275/.366/.380 (121 wRC+) with 14 doubles, five homers, a 10.7% walk rate, and a 12.9% strikeout rate in 71 games through the end of June. This is a guy who hit .300/.389/.456 (137 wRC+) in 77 Triple-A games last year, remember.

The First Call-Up

On July 10th, the Yankees finally called up Refsnyder to help out at second base. Drew’s batting line was sitting at .181/.253/.370 (67 wRC+) at the time and boy, we were all ready for Refsnyder. No one seemed to care his Triple-A production had slipped.

The Yankees called Refsnyder up because they were facing two lefties that weekend, Eduardo Rodriguez and Wade Miley. Refsnyder started both games, went 0-for-3 against Rodriguez, then went 2-for-4 with a home run the next day. He actually homered against a righty, not Miley.

That was the weekend before the All-Star break. Refsnyder hung around for the break, then started at second base in the first two games of the second half. The first game was against a lefty (Mike Montgomery), the second was not (Hisashi Iwakuma). Refsnyder went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts in the two games. His defense looked … uncomfortable. Let’s leave it at that.

The Yankees sent Refsnyder back down to Triple-A after his four-game cameo. There was some talk of attitude problems that never really got confirmed — and will never get confirmed, the Yankees aren’t the type of organization to throw someone under the bus like that — but whatever the reasoning, Refsnyder was sent back down and Drew returned to second base.

September Call-Up

Refsnyder spent just about the entire second half with Triple-A Scranton. He hit only .229/.296/.379 (92 wRC+) in 36 games after returning to the minors, which didn’t exactly help his case for a return to the big leagues. (The Yankees did pass on trading him for Ben Zobrist, however.) The Yankees eventually called Refsnyder back up, but not until September 1st, when rosters expanded.

Like many of this year’s call-ups, Refsnyder didn’t play a whole lot, especially at first. He was called up on September 1st, got a garbage time at-bat against the Blue Jays on September 11th, played one inning of defense as part of a double switch against the Mets on September 19th, then pinch-hit against the Mets on September 20th. That was all his action in the first three weeks after being called up.

We didn’t know Drew was dealing with a concussion at the time. Dustin Ackley was playing well and had assumed the second base job, though the Yankees were scheduled to face a lot of lefties at the end of the season, so Joe Girardi gave Refsnyder an opportunity. The team faced seven lefty starters in their final eleven games of 2015. Refsnyder started all seven.

In those seven games, Refsnyder went 9-for-24 (.360) with two doubles, a home run, three walks, and three strikeouts. The home run was pretty significant too. It provided a big insurance run on the night the Yankees clinched their first postseason berth since 2012.

Refsnyder’s defense looked better in September than it did in the limited look in July — Girardi did say after the season the team was pleased with the defensive progress Refsnyder made after being sent down in July — though there was clearly still some room for improvement. The bat was too good to ignore though.

During his 16 games with the Yankees, Refnsyder authored a .302/.348/.512 (130 wRC+) batting line with two homers in 47 plate appearances. It’s not much, but Refsnyder is a guy who will have to hit his way into the lineup, and he did that in the second half. He hit .271/.359/.402 (123 wRC+) in 117 Triple-A games as well.

Refsnyder played so well down the stretch that he started the wildcard game against Dallas Keuchel and the Astros, though he went 0-for-3, like a few too many of his teammates. Still, the fact he was in the lineup in the wildcard game was pretty telling. Refsnyder won Girardi over pretty quickly.

Looking Ahead to 2016

Reports indicate the Yankees are “leaning toward” playing Refsnyder and Ackley at second base in 2016, but we’ll see. It’s tough to believe anything any team says this early in the offseason. If nothing else, Refsnyder showed the Yankees he’s a viable platoon bat who won’t absolutely kill them in the field. It wouldn’t shock me if Refsnyder was the starting second baseman next year. It also wouldn’t shock me if he was part of a platoon, if he started the year at Triple-A, or if he got traded. So there you go.

Mailbag: Raburn, Sanchez, Schwarber, O’Day, Profar, Rios

Got 14 questions for you in this week’s mailbag. Our email address is RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com. Use that to send us any and all questions, comments, links, etc.

Raburn. (Ronald Martinez/Getty)
Raburn. (Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Alex asks: How about Ryan Raburn for our lefty mashing 4th outfield spot?

I was surprised the Indians let Raburn go. It was only a $3M option — to be fair, $3M to the Indians is not the same as $3M to the Yankees — but he seems tradeable at that salary. Raburn has hit lefties very hard since landing in Cleveland. He hit .325/.415/.589 (173 wRC+) against them this year and .278/.364/.514 (142 wRC+) in three years with the Tribe. Raburn is not young (34) and he’s strictly a corner outfielder now — he hasn’t played third base since 2011 and has only 17 innings at second since 2012 — so there’s not a ton of versatility there. He could work as a fourth outfielder though, sure.

Marc asks: After reading the Sanchez post, do you think his huge summer and fall make him a preseason Top 100 prospect? If so, how many other Yankees join him on that list?

I do. I thought Gary Sanchez should have been a top 100 prospect last year, but alas. He’s not top 10 or top 25 or anything crazy like that, but he belongs in the back half of a top 100 list for sure. Luis Severino and Greg Bird graduated to the big leagues this summer, so they won’t be on any prospect lists next season. In addition to Sanchez, Aaron Judge and Jorge Mateo are safe bets to appear on top 100 lists next spring. James Kaprielian might sneak on a few since he seems to have some very big fans.

Michael asks: What would you think of Anibal Sanchez as a potential trade target? Tigers have a bloated payroll. He’s a potential bounce back candidate. Would only be a two year commitment.

I think the Tigers are more likely to keep Sanchez and try to win next year. Before pulling the trigger on a trade, you’d have to figure out why he went from 0.38 HR/9 and 4.6 HR/FB% from 2013-14 to 1.66 HR/9 and 16.0 HR/FB% in 2015. His velocity is fine but he had on-and-off shoulder problems this year, which could have caused his stuff to flatten out. If Sanchez is not fully healthy, or at least not as strong as he was a few years ago, he might not be a bounceback candidate at all. He might just be in decline. Sanchez has two years and $38.6M left on his contract. Based on this quick glance, I say avoid.

P.J. asks: If the Padres do NOT pick up Clint Barmes option is he a better possibility for the Yankees as a backup SS instead of Ryan?

The Padres did indeed decline their $2M option for Barmes earlier this week. The 36-year-old hit .232/.281/.353 (75 wRC+) overall this past season, and that includes a .242/.299/.374 (85 wRC+) line against southpaws. Ryan had a 64 wRC+ overall and a 109 wRC+ against lefties. (I don’t expect him to do that again though.) They’re both good defenders but Barmes is strictly a shortstop — he’s played ten innings at third base since 2008 and 65 innings at second base since 2010. Ryan has already shown he can play all over the infield and even right field in a pinch. If anything, I’d say this is a lateral move. (The Yankees would still have to pay Ryan after releasing him too, remember.)

He looks like a Schwarber. (David Banks/Getty)
He looks like a Schwarber. (David Banks/Getty)

Kevin asks: Who would say no? Luis Severino for Kyle Schwarber.

This one of those “both teams would say no” trades. I think it favors the Yankees slightly but I am the low man on Schwarber. Some see a future MVP candidate, I see a a guy without a position and a significant platoon split. He’s going to destroy righties though. At the same time, some see Severino as a reliever. I myself have some doubts about his ability to hold his stuff for 180+ innings year after year, but don’t listen me, I’m wrong all the time. Also, I’m not sure where the Yankees would actually play Schwarber. Make him a catcher/first base/corner outfield/DH rover?

David asks: With all the talk about trading players with NTC, it makes me curious: how does it work? How far down the line does a team go in trade talks before seeing if the player is willing to waive it? I feel like we hear about it around the trade deadline when a team is out of the race and trying to dump salary for prospects, so isn’t so concerned about offending the player or PR fallout if the player refuses to waive the NTC, but no so much in the off-season.

I have no inside information on this. I’m guessing it’s on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes they might approach the player beforehand and other times they might get a little further along in the process. It depends on the player, I suppose. If the Yankees wanted to trade, say, CC Sabathia, I think they’d work the trade out to the point of near completion instead before looping him in. That way you can present him the entire trade and explain the thinking, etc. It might be a little disrespectful to ask Sabathia if he’s willing to waive his no-trade clause simply because you want to get rid of him but don’t have anything worked out yet. At the very least, you’d need to have a serious trade partner I think. For someone else, who maybe isn’t as tenured or ingrained as Sabathia, maybe you approach them ahead of time. I don’t really know.

Jordan asks: What would you think of Marlon Byrd as next year’s designated lefty-masher? He absolutely destroys lefties and, while he probably is a little more expensive than the reclamation-types they usually go for, he seems like a good fit (I don’t know that he’s in line for a starting gig at his age).

That could work, definitely. Byrd hit .271/.324/.496 (121 wRC+) against lefties this year and .292/.335/.519 (133 wRC+) against lefties since resurfacing with the Mets three years ago. I wouldn’t give him an everyday job at this point — he’s 38 and he hit .247/.290/.453 (100 wRC+) overall with declining defense this season — but the Chris Young role? Sure, that could work. Even if he continues to slip a bit and you get a .250/.310/.450 hitter against southpaws, that’s pretty great by bench player standards.

P.J. asks: Which relief pitcher would be a better option for the Yankees as a FA pickup and why, Clippard or O’Day?

Darren O’Day by far. I don’t know if Tyler Clippard was hurt this year or what, but his strikeout (29.5% to 21.3%) and walk (8.3% to 10.3%) rates both took huge steps back this summer. By time the postseason rolled around he couldn’t locate anything and his trademark pop-ups had all become fly balls and line drives. I don’t love O’Day — a guy approaching his mid-30s with a trick delivery scares me, he’s not too far away from being a righty specialist — but right now I’ll take him over Clippard, hands down. I don’t think the Yankees will hand out big money to a reliever this offseason though. If anything, they’ll trade for Craig Kimbrel or someone like that.

Adam asks: Do you think Cashman is likely to pursue Chapman and/or Kimbrel again this off-season? If so, who would you prefer and what’s the most you would give up?

Kimbrel because he’ll actually be available. I’m not quite sure what the Reds are doing — they reportedly listened to offers for Aroldis Chapman at the trade deadline, but the asking price was insane — but we know Kimbrel will be on the market. The Padres looked into trading him at the deadline and they need to clear some payroll this offseason to offset James Shields’ backloaded contract. The reported “Mateo plus some secondary stuff for Kimbrel and Jedd Gyorko” deal at the trade deadline seemed fair to me. Don’t you think? I’d do that. (I’d prefer Chapman to Kimbrel but we’re splitting hairs.)

Paul asks: Do you think the Rangers could make Profar available? Would love to take a chance on him for second base. What do you think the cost would be?

I don’t think they will. His value is way too low to trade him now. Jurickson Profar is still only 22, but he’s missed the last two seasons due to shoulder surgery, and he’s just now starting to play regularly in the Arizona Fall League. He’s doing well (.286/.372/.543) but is limited to DH duty because he can’t throw yet. Thinking about this from the Rangers’ point of view: Profar is way too talented to trade now. His value is too low. The smart move for them is to hold onto him, let him rehab, then see what happens when he’s fully healthy. I’d like the Yankees to take a chance on him for sure. I just can’t see Texas selling so low.

More like Profall amirite. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)
More like Profall amirite. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)

Rays asks: What would Starlin Castro cost the Yankees, assuming they’re interested? He’s expensive and has flaws — doesn’t walk much, barely adequate defender — but he’s young, can play both middle infield positions and balances the lineup with his right handed bat.

There’s a “Brett Gardner for Castro” movement going on right now — mostly in the RAB comments, really — that is crazy talk. I’m sorry Gardner had a bad second half, but Castro has hit .265/.305/.383 (89 wRC+) over the last three years and been close to replacement level overall due to his defense. I get that you’re buying his age 26-29 seasons, but good gravy. I’m not trading a solid at worst, above-average at best player (Gardner) for a bounceback candidate (Castro).

The Cubbies would definitely move Castro right now. They tried to move him at the trade deadline, and when they couldn’t, they benched him for a few days and moved him to second base. Castro has four years and $38M left on his contract and he’s gone backwards the last few years when he should be taking steps forward. Given the salary difference, I think I’d trade Rob Refsnyder for Castro straight up, and that’s probably as high as I’d go. Castro hasn’t hit the last few years, hasn’t played good defense ever, has a history of being a bit of a headache, and is owed some decent money.

Thomas asks: What about Alex Rios as a 4th OF? What type of contract would you expect him to get and what numbers (specifically against lefties) can we expect?

Rios gives me a “the Yankees sign him to be the fourth outfielder, everyone complains, then he inexplicably rakes” vibe for some reason. He had an awful regular season in 2015, hitting .255/.287/.353 (72 wRC+) overall and .229/.267/.303 (54 wRC+) against lefties. That said, his numbers against southpaws were really good the last few years.

AlexRios leftiesIf there was any way to reasonably expect the 2012-14 version of Rios against lefties, sign me up. But 2015 happened, and his overall game has been in decline for a few years, so we can’t just brush it aside. Maybe he’s not a true talent 54 wRC+ hitters against lefties all of a sudden, but he’s probably not a 141 wRC+ guy either.

Rios turns 35 in April and he’s definitely looking at a one-year contract. Signing him to be the fourth outfielder seems plausible if the Yankees believe he’ll be better able to help in a limited role.

Fred asks: Do you think the fact that Daniel Murphy’s defensive shortcomings proved so costly in the World Series will make the Yankees hesitant (or, should I say, even MORE hesitant) to hand the 2B job to the defensively-challenged Rob Refsnyder?

Nah, I don’t think the Yankees think like that. It might scare fans more, but the Yankees know Refsnyder’s defense is not an asset, and they’re aware of the potential consequences. Both Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi said they were happy with Refsnyder’s improvement after he was sent down in July, though I still don’t think the team considers him to be even an average defender. Murphy had some catastrophic errors in the World Series. It was bad. I don’t think Murphy fielding those balls would have made the Yankees any more comfortable with Refsnyder though.

Steve asks: Do you know of any good listing for a teams/GM’s trade history? I was just thinking, for example, how many deals the Yankees have done with the Pirates over the years, but was wondering if they were the team that hooked up with the Yankees the most recently or at least since Huntington/Cashman were both in their positions. Who has never done a trade with the Cashman-led Yankees (beyond waiver claims)? Questions like that.

I know of two sources. First, the Baseball Reference Trade Partners tool, which lets you pick two teams and see all of their trades. Here’s the Yankees and Pirates. They’ve hooked up for nine trades since 2006. The second is the MLBTR Transaction Tracker, which is way more customizable. You can search all transactions (trades, free agent signings, etc.) by team, by GM, by position, whatever. The data only goes back so far though, five years or so.

Cashman has made 13 trades with the Padres, his most with any team during his 17 years as GM. Here’s the list. Cashman has also made 12 trades with the Diamondbacks. Here’s that list. Not surprisingly, the fewest trades have been made with the Red Sox and Rays. One each. That’s it. The only Red Sox trade was Kelly Johnson for Stephen Drew, and the only Rays trade was cash for Nick Green, and that’s not even a real trade. Cashman has made at least one trade with every other franchise during his time as GM. The longest trade “drought” is with the Blue Jays. The last trade with them was the Raul Mondesi deal in 2002.

Thursday Night Open Thread

If you’re interested, CC Sabathia and his wife Amber will appear on Good Morning America tomorrow to discuss his recently completed stay in an alcohol rehab treatment center. Here’s the teaser trailer. I’ll embed the video in the Weekend Open Thread, assuming it becomes available at some point. I hope Sabathia’s doing well. Addiction is an awful, awful thing.

Here is your open thread for tonight. The Browns and Bengals are the Thursday NFL game, plus the Islanders are playing as well. Talk about those games or anything else right here.

Yankees re-sign minor league catcher Eddy Rodriguez

(Lynne Sladky/AP)
(Lynne Sladky/AP)

According to Matt Eddy, the Yankees have re-signed minor league catcher Eddy Rodriguez. This is notable because the Yankees figure to lose Austin Romine this offseason, putting Rodriguez fourth on the catching depth chart behind Brian McCann, John Ryan Murphy, and Gary Sanchez.

Rodriguez, 29, signed a minor league contract with the Yankees last offseason and it was the same situation: he was effectively Romine insurance. Romine slipped through waivers at the end of Spring Training and remained in the organization, so he was third on the catching depth chart and Rodriguez was fourth, with Sanchez still up and coming.

This past season Rodriguez started as Romine’s backup at Triple-A Scranton, then, once Sanchez was promoted at midseason, Romine was relegated to backup and Rodriguez was bumped down to Double-A Trenton. He’s not much of a hitter at all — Rodriguez hit .170/.202/.261 (28 wRC+) in 57 games and 188 plate appearances this summer.

As you’d expect, Rodriguez is still kicking around because he’s a strong defensive backstop. The Yankees value catcher defense very highly and that extends down into the minor leagues as well. Rodriguez has a little big league time under his belt, playing two games with the 2012 Padres. He actually went deep in his first at-bat.

The Yankees got pretty lucky last year. Both McCann and Murphy stayed healthy all season, which is uncommon. Catcher is a brutal position and injuries come with the territory. Sanchez really impressed last season but he is still not much of a defender. Rodriguez gives the Yankees a true gloveman for Triple-A.

Romine is out of minor league options and figures to be a 40-man roster casualty at some point this offseason. He can elect free agency since he has been outrighted once before, back in April. Romine would have been a minor league free agent this offseason had the Yankees not added him to the 40-man roster in September. He came up because Sanchez was nursing a hamstring problem and the team wanted a third catcher after rosters expanded.

New hitting coach Alan Cockrell says Brett Gardner played through wrist injury in 2015


This past season was a tale of two seasons for Brett Gardner. He was tremendous in the first half, hitting .302/.377/.484 (137 wRC+) with ten home runs and 15 stolen bases, which earned him a spot in the All-Star Game. Brett was the only AL player with at least ten homers and 15 steals at the break.

Then, in the second half, Gardner hit a weak .206/.300/.292 (66 wRC+) with only six home runs and five steals. That 66 wRC+ ranked 146th out of 156 qualified hitters in the second half. Gardner was one of the best outfielders in baseball before the All-Star break and one of the very worst afterwards. It was a real uneven season.

During a conference call with reporters yesterday, new hitting coach Alan Cockrell said Gardner played through a wrist injury this past season, which may have hurt his performance. Cockrell served as assistant hitting coach last year and was promoted to the main job earlier this week.

“I know that that bothered him off and on the entire year,” said Cockrell. “I know he was getting some cortisone and some things like that to try to help him, and they did in spurts, but you can only get three (cortisone shots) in a year … (Gardner) downplayed it and I probably shouldn’t up-play it when he downplayed it, but facts are facts. If you don’t have your hands, it’s tough to hit.”

Gardner was hit by a pitch six times this season, including twice in the right wrist. They both happened within a few days of each other too: Aaron Loup plunked him on April 8th, then Wei-Yin Chen got him a few days later on April 13th. None of the other four hit-by-pitches involved Gardner’s wrist. (Yes, I went back through and checked.) Here are the two wrist shots:

Brett Gardner wrist HBPs

On April 13th Gardner took the Chen pitch to the wrist in the first inning and stayed in the game, but he squared around to bunt in his next two-bats because he wasn’t comfortable swinging. Stephen Drew pinch-hit for Gardner in the seventh inning and hit that go-ahead grand slam, so that was cool.

Gardner went for x-rays after the game and they showed only a bone bruise, no fracture. An MRI confirmed the bone bruise diagnosis a few days later. Gardner sat out the next few games, returned to the lineup on April 18th, then mashed the rest of the first half before falling apart after the All-Star break.

We don’t know when Gardner received the cortisone shots. It’s possible they were bunched together in the first half, which kept him productive. Then once he exhausted his three shots, his game fell apart. Who knows. A lingering wrist injury would definitely explain the lack of production. You can’t hit if your hands aren’t strong.

Gardner has had some hit-by-pitch related right wrist injuries in the past. Clayton Kershaw hit him with a pitch back in 2010 …

… and Gardner played hurt the rest of the year. Again, his performance suffered. Gardner needed debridement surgery on the wrist after the season. He hasn’t had any sort of surgery this year, as far as we know.

Gardner didn’t say anything about his wrist in the second half or after the season. I totally forgot he got hit in the wrist until a few days ago, when I wrote the biggest hits post and researched Drew’s grand slam. Cockrell brought it up because he was asked about Gardner’s swoon, and hey, a wrist injury is a perfectly valid explanation.

In fact, I hope it was the wrist, because that would be an easy answer. If Gardner performed like that while being perfectly healthy … yeesh. The wrist at least potentially explains things. I have a very hard time believing Gardner went from an All-Star to a true talent sub-replacement level hitter overnight.

Not Big Mike or Small Mike, more like Medium Mike [2015 Season Review]


Michael Pineda‘s four years with the Yankees have been eventful, to say the least. He missed the 2012-13 seasons following shoulder surgery, then pitched brilliantly in limited action around a lat strain last year. Despite the injury, what Pineda showed last summer was pretty encouraging. His fastball had life, his slider was nasty, and his changeup was promising.

The 2015 season was supposed to be Big Mike‘s coming out party. He was finally healthy, with the shoulder surgery far in the rear view mirror. What we saw last year was very exciting and it was not hard to dream up a scenario where Pineda was the ace of the staff and one of the game’s most dominant arms. We saw flashes of that this year. Mostly though, we saw inconsistency.

Dominance in Spring

Pineda has had some pretty eventful Spring Trainings with the Yankees. He was overweight and ultimately hurt in 2012. The next year he was still coming back from shoulder surgery and didn’t pitch at all. Last year he came to camp healthy and it was something of a feeling out process. No one knew what to expect from Pineda after two lost years.

This year, Pineda showed up to camp with expectations for the first time in three years, and holy moly was he sharp in Spring Training. Pineda started five Grapefruit League games, allowed three runs in 19 innings, striking out 23 and walking just one. It was Spring Training, we all know the stats mean nothing, but damn. Big Mike killed it in March. It was hard to contain the excitement.

No. 2 Starter

The Yankees decided to start Pineda in the second game of the season, between Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia. They lost four of their first five games of 2015 and the one win was Pineda’s start, when he held the Blue Jays to two runs in six innings. He struck out six and walk one. Not a great start but serviceable. It was a cold and rainy night in the Bronx, so it was understandable.

Five days later the Orioles roughed up Pineda, scoring five runs on nine hits in 6.1 innings. He did strike out nine. His next start was okay (three runs in 5.2 innings against the Rays), but, after that, Pineda went on a four-start tear in which he looked like the budding ace the Yankees thought they were acquiring back in 2012.

On April 24th, Pineda outdueled Jacob deGrom and held the Mets to one run in 7.1 innings. Five days later he allowed two runs in 5.2 innings against the Rays, and six days after that he threw eight shutout innings against the Blue Jays in Toronto. Then, five days later on Mother’s Day, Pineda struck out 16 Orioles in seven masterful innings.

The 16 strikeouts were the most by a Yankee since David Wells struck out 16 Athletics on July 30th, 1997. They were the most by a Yankees right-hander since David Cone fanned 16 earlier that season, on June 23rd. There have been only six 15+ strikeout games in franchise history (Pineda, Wells, Cone, Ron Guidry, Whitey Ford, Bob Shawkey) and Pineda is the only one to do it in fewer than eight innings. Here’s the list.

The 16-strikeout game capped off a dominant four-start stretch in which Pineda allowed four runs on 22 hits and one walk in 28.1 innings. He struck out 34. Big Mike had a 2.72 ERA and a 1.90 FIP in his first seven starts and 46.1 innings of the season. Things were a little rocky early, but Pineda settled in and was starting to #shove on a consistent basis.

Small to Mid-Size Mike

Given how the rest of the season played out, it’s fair to wonder if Pineda exerted himself a little too much in that 16-strikeout game. He surrendered five runs in 5.1 innings next time out and showed nothing more than flashes of dominance the rest of the season. Pineda had some truly great starts down the stretch (like this one) but was generally inconsistent and mediocre, if not downright bad.

Following the 16-strikeout game, Pineda pitched to a 5.04 ERA (3.92 FIP) in 20 starts and 114.1 innings. His walk (3.7%) and strikeout (21.0%) strikes were excellent, and he was starting to get ground balls (46.5%), but Pineda was incredibly hit (.284 AVG and .330 BABIP) and home run (1.42 HR/9 and 17.0 HR/FB%) prone. He closed the season by allowing 35 runs in his final 54.1 innings. That’s not good.

Pineda did miss a little more than a month with a forearm muscle strain, the same injury that sidelined Tanaka and Andrew Miller for a month each earlier in the season. Pineda returned in late-August and finished the season healthy, so that’s good, but he struggled before getting hurt and again after getting hurt. The dominant Big Mike were all hoping to see never really showed up aside from that four-start stretch early in the season, which ended with the 16-strikeout game.

All told, Pineda finished the season with a 4.37 ERA (3.34 FIP) in 27 starts and 160.2 innings. His had great strikeout (23.4%) and walk (3.1%) numbers — Pineda had the third lowest walk rate (behind Phil Hughes and Bartolo Colon, the Yankees love their low walk guys) and the second highest K/BB ratio (behind Max Scherzer) among the 89 pitchers who threw at least 150 innings in 2015 — and got ground balls (48.2%) for the first time in his life.

The peripherals were magnificent. The actual preventing runs part? Not so much. Pineda was way too hittable this year for a guy with his stuff.

Before & After

Like I said earlier, it’s fair to wonder if Pineda put a little too much into the 16-strikeout game, leading to his poor performance afterwards. Maybe he threw off his mechanics, maybe he was hiding an injury, or maybe it was something else all together.

Let’s look at some PitchFX graphs to see if we notice any sort of difference before and after that Mother’s Day gem, starting with good ol’ velocity. I’ve boxed out Pineda’s starts after the 16-strikeout game.

Michael Pineda velocity

Looks fine to me. Pineda added velocity as the season progressed, which is totally normal, then it tailed off a bit at the end of the season, around the forearm injury. This looks fine. Pineda was relatively consistent with his velocity before and after the 16-strikeout game before getting hurt.

Now let’s look at the horizontal movement of Pineda’s pitches since he’s a fastball/slider/changeup guy. The changeup goes left-to-right and everything else he throws seems to go right-to-left. Even his fastball is more of a cutter.

Michael Pineda movement

Okay, now maybe we’re on to something. Pineda’s slider lost horizontal movement as the season progressed. Going month-by-month, the pitched averaged 4.54 inches of break in April, then 4.00 in May, then 2.47 in June, then 1.31 in July, then -0.45 in August — that basically means he was throwing sloppy backup sliders more often than not — before rebounding to 1.32 in September.

The swing-and-miss rate on Pineda’s slider actually went up as the season progressed — it had a 17.5% whiff rate in April and peaked at 26.1% in August before the forearm injury — but the whiff rate on his fastball dropped. It went 7.8% in April to literally 0.0% in August. No swings and misses on the pitch that month.

A pitcher’s arsenal is not just a collection of individual pitches. They all play off each other. The fastball sets up the slider and vice versa. That’s what makes it so tough. The hitter reads fastball out of the hand, starts his swing, then the thing slides out of the way. Pineda’s slider was less slider-y as the season progressed, and it hurt his fastball more than anything.

The slider wasn’t sliding less just because. There’s a reason behind the change, and, looking at the PitchFX data, it appears Pineda’s arm slot changed after the 16-strikeout game. Check it out:

Michael Pineda release point1Oh boy. That first data point after the 16-strikeout game is pretty scary. Pineda’s vertical release point dropped significantly — four and a half inches according to PitchFX, to be exact — immediately after the 16-strikeout game. It bounced back for a few starts after that, then began to trend downward and zig zag all over the place around the forearm injury.

We don’t know if Pineda exerted himself a little too much on Mother’s Day. The PitchFX data shows his slider didn’t slide as much and his vertical release point dropped, but correlation does not equal causation. It could be a coincidence. Remember, we already talking about a pitcher who has had major shoulder surgery. His arm may never work the same across a full season.

Whatever it was, Pineda did not meet expectations this season. He wasn’t terrible, the overall numbers are okay, but the Yankees were expecting high-end performance from Pineda. He was being counted on to be one of the leaders of the staff. We saw flashes of that and nothing more.

Looking Ahead to 2016

Pineda is under team control as an arbitration-eligible player for another two years and there’s always a chance the Yankees could use him in a trade this offseason. For now, he’s penciled as one of the five starters next season, except now expectations may be tempered a bit.

Prince Fielder, not A-Rod, named AL Comeback Player of the Year

(David Banks/Getty)
(David Banks/Getty)

Earlier today MLB announced Prince Fielder, not Alex Rodriguez, has been named the 2015 AL Comeback Player of the Year. Matt Harvey was named NL Comeback Player of the Year. Pretty easy call there.

Fielder hit .305/.378/.463 (124 wRC+) with 23 home runs this season after missing most of last year following neck surgery. A-Rod hit .250/.356/.486 (129 wRC+) with 33 homers. They’re both full-time DHs too — Fielder played only 18 games at first base in 2015.

There is precedent for a player with performance-enhancing drug ties winning the Comeback Player of the Year. Jason Giambi won it in 2005 after being caught up in the BALCO scandal. He was not suspended like A-Rod, however.

Kendrys Morales and Ryan Madson were the other notable Comeback Player of the Year candidates. Rodriguez was the Yankees’ best chance at a major award winner. The other four major awards will be announced in two weeks.