Mailbag: Pitcher Trade Targets, Otani, Pineda, YES, Barbato

I’ve got eleven questions in the mailbag this week. RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is where you can send us questions, comments, links, or whatever else throughout the week.

Grendall Kaveman. (Jason O. Watson/Getty)
Grendall Kaveman. (Jason O. Watson/Getty)

Daniel asks: If the Yankees manage to contend this season, and they are in the market for a young, controllable starting pitcher, who do you think would be a realistic trade target other than the often-mentioned Quintana?

This question comes up every few months and it’s always worth revisiting because the Yankees will never not need pitching. And with next year’s rotation so up in the air, I’m sure we’re going to talk plenty about potential pitching targets in the coming weeks and months. Here are three non-Quintana possible pitcher trade candidates.

LHP Brandon Finnegan, Reds: He probably walks too many guys for the Yankees liking (11.4 BB% in 2016), but a four-pitch lefty who has shown signs of missing bats and getting grounders is always someone worth looking at. Finnegan turned 24 today — he’s three and a half months younger than Jordan Montgomery — and he won’t be a free agent until after 2021. The big question is whether the Reds consider him a long-term building block, or someone expendable as part of the rebuild.

RHP Kendall Graveman, Athletics: Graveman was part of the Josh Donaldson trade and he’s emerged as a solid starter while throwing basically the same pitch in the same spot over and over. If you’re going to throw only one pitch as a starter, sinkers at a knees is the way to go. Graveman is 26 and he won’t be a free agent until after 2020, but the A’s have a history of trading their best players once they start to get expensive through arbitration, and Graveman will be arbitration-eligible for the first time after the season.

RHP Vince Velasquez, Phillies: Supposedly the 24-year-old Velasquez has fallen out of favor with the front office a little bit, and his name popped up in trade rumors over the winter, so I guess he could be available. He throws hard and misses bats (27.6 K% in 2017) and the Yankees love that, but a lack of grounders (34.8 GB% in 2016) and an ugly injury history — Velasquez had biceps and shoulder woes last year, plus other arm issues in the minors — are red flags. Velasquez is under team control through 2021.

The Rockies seem to have more young starters than rotation spots, though they need as much pitching as they can get in Coors Field, so I bet they’ll hang onto it all. As always, pitchers on rebuilding clubs like the Brewers (Jimmy Nelson?) and Padres (uh, nevermind) can’t be ruled out either. Who knows who will be made available down the line? The Yankees love their prospects, though I expect them to cast a wide net for pitching. They’ll check in on anyone and everyone.

Eric asks: Hi – isn’t the debate over whether NYC is a Yankee or Mets town tiresome? I think both teams have a solid base and the floating fans go where there is more excitement at the moment.

Yes. It seems to be driven entirely by the media and Mets fans, specifically the 7 Line Army. Whatever floats their boat, I guess. The Mets are finally good again and the Yankees have hit a lull, so if there was ever a time to argue New York is a Mets town, this is it. At the end of the day, the Yankees are the most recognizable brand in sports, and it’ll be basically impossible for the Mets to match their popularity, either now or in the future.

David asks (short version): Like you, I find it hard to believe Otani will come to MLB this offseason and forego tens of millions of dollars. But let’s assume he does, can you speculate on how it plays out? I would think there’s no official announcement until the NPB season is over; will MLB teams trust back-channel info and sit out the Intl signing season to save pool dollars?

With Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish, we were left wondering whether they’d be posted right up until they were actually posted. We only saw rumors they could come over, nothing definitive. There was plenty of “their team might wait because they don’t think they’ll get enough money now” talk going around. Things might be different with Shohei Otani given the international hard cap, and teams kinda have to hope it is. They’ll need advance notice so they can plan their July 2nd activity. Otherwise they basically have to guess.

Because the hard cap makes this a level playing field financially — teams still have to pay the $20M release fee, and every single one of them can afford it, don’t believe otherwise — this becomes more of an old fashioned sell job. You’ll have to sell Otani on the team and the ability the win, the ballpark, the city, the fans, the whole nine. (And promise to let him hit?) My guess right now is Otani will not come over this offseason and will instead announce he is coming over next year. That gives MLB teams a chance to plan ahead, and it’ll also put the Dodgers, Cubs, Cardinals, Astros, Nationals, and others back in the mix. (Those teams are limited to $300,000 bonuses this year due to prior spending penalties.)

Big Mike's big ovation. (Al Bello/Getty)
Big Mike‘s big ovation. (Al Bello/Getty)

Mike asks: During the home opener, a stat was fed to the booth: Pineda was throwing 20% changeups this time vs. 4% usually. 1) This was certainly not Austin Romine‘s idea, was it? 2) Does it strike you as a possible magic bullet?

I’ll answer the second question first: no. I don’t believe there’s a magic fix for Michael Pineda or any pitcher for that matter. I think Monday was just Pineda having a great day. Nothing more. I’ve seen enough of this guy to know better than to read too much into one start. If he does it again, and again after that, and again a few more times after that, I’ll start to buy into it. For now, it was just a good day for Pineda.

As for the first question, it’s possible the changeups were Romine’s idea, though neither he nor Pineda said anything about increased usage of his changeup after Monday’s game. Romine caught Pineda six times last season and he had a 3.82 ERA in 35.1 innings. With Gary Sanchez and Brian McCann, Pineda had a 5.00 ERA. Here is last year’s pitch selection by catcher:

IP Fastballs Sliders Changeups
McCann
84 52.4% 39.3% 8.3%
Romine 35.1 51.9% 41.0% 7.1%
Sanchez 56.1 51.2% 43.3% 5.5%

Romine did call for the changeup more often than Sanchez, but not by much. We’re talking roughly three extra changeups every two starts. That doesn’t mean Romine won’t push the changeup on Pineda this year, of course. Pitching plans and approaches change. Like I said earlier, I’ve watched this guy pitch enough to know it’s not wise to think something clicked because he had a great start. He’s done this before. I need to see more before buying in even a little.

Zev asks: Did the Yankees potentially lose an entire year of service time for Jordan Montgomery by pitching him on the 12th instead of the 16th?

Yes, actually. That’s assuming he spends the rest of the season in the big leagues, which I don’t think is a safe bet given the way the Yankees shuttle pitchers in and out. In the world of baseball 172 days equals a full year of service, though the regular season actually runs 183 days each year, so you have to keep a player down 12 days to ensure they finish the season with 171 days of service time, thus delaying free agency. (Most teams wait a few extra days to be safe and also be less obvious about it.)

The Yankees called Montgomery up on April 12th, the 11th day of the season, so he was kept down for ten days. Two more days in Triple-A this season will push Montgomery’s free agency back from the 2022-23 offseason to the 2023-24 offseason. That is a lifetime away in pitcher years. My guess is Montgomery will end up spending those two extra days in Triple-A at some point, probably much more than that, but I wouldn’t worry about it. He’s ready, let him pitch. I’m not going to sweat a non-top pitching prospect’s service time.

Update: The new Collective Bargaining Agreement stretched the season to 187 days. They added some extra off-days at the MLBPA’s request. I forgot about that. So that means prospects have to be kept down 16 days to delay free agency, not 12. Not a huge difference, but a difference nonetheless.

Arjun asks: How much do you think minor league versus major league scouting reports affect performance of pitchers who get promoted? I would assume that scouting reports are far more detailed and poured over at the major league level. Is there a lot of adjusting for pitchers to understand how to use those scouting reports to their advantage?

Scouting reports in the minors are pretty detailed. Not as detailed as they are in MLB simply because there’s more data available about big leaguers, but clubs get in-depth reports in the minors. I absolutely think having better scouting reports helps young pitchers in the big leagues, but keep in mind this cuts both ways — the hitters have better scouting reports on the pitchers too. And, ultimately, the pitcher still has to execute. You can have the best and most detailed scouting reports in the world, but if you hang a slider, it won’t matter.

Mickey asks: Have you noticed a change to the center field camera from last season to this season? It seems to be more center than in years’ past. Possibly due to the renovations at Yankee Stadium?

I was hoping we’d get a true center field camera this season now that the center field area has been renovated, but alas, it did not happen. The main YES camera angle is still offset a tad. Here is this year’s camera angle and last year’s:

yes-camera-2016-vs-2017

It looks a little closer to true center field, but not quite all away. That’s about as close as they can get it anyway. They’d have to get the camera higher up to avoid having the pitcher blocking the plate with a dead center angle, and if they do that, the camera guy is going to be in front of the center field scoreboard. I guess I’ll just be envious of all the teams with true center field cameras.

Kevin asks (short version): With today’s news that Barbato was released to make room for Jordan Montgomery, it got me thinking about the Jose Quintana decision. I can see he was released on November 2, 2011 with a number of other players. Does that mean he was not included on the 40 man roster for Rule 5? Is it possible to look at who the Yankees kept instead of him?

The Yankees did not release Quintana. He became a minor league free agent. Typically a player needs to play six years before qualifying for minor league free agency, but if he gets released before that, he can become a minor league free agent after every season going forward. That’s what happened with Quintana. He originally signed with the Mets, spent a few years in their farm system, then got released after failing a drug test and getting suspended. The Yankees scooped him up and he spent parts of four seasons in the farm system.

Quintana became a minor league free agent following the 2011 season, a few weeks before his 23rd birthday. The Yankees added five players to the 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft that offseason: David Phelps, D.J. Mitchell, Zoilo Almonte, David Adams, and Corban Joseph. All five were top 30 prospects at the time. Brandon Laird was also on the 40-man roster that winter. Who knows whether Quintana would become what he is today had he remained with the Yankees — probably not since joining the White Sox changed his entire career path — but the Yankees goofed letting him go. Plain and simple. No one bats 1.000 in this game.

Mike asks: At what point do statistics become significant? Obviously the answer is “it depends” but when can we start to take success (or struggles) seriously?

It depends on the stat. Some stabilize and become reliable more quickly than others. Off the top of my head, strikeout rate is the fastest one, for both pitchers and hitters. That stabilizes pretty quickly. The FanGraphs Glossary has a good breakdown of reliable sample sizes for different stats. I’d love to see similar info for PitchFX stats like whiff rate for individual pitches, etc. One day, maybe. It’s possible to acknowledge a player is having a great start (Aaron Judge) or bad start (Greg Bird) after only a few games without saying “this is who he is now.” Ideally, I’d wait until the end of April before digging deeper.

Barbato. (Presswire)
Barbato. (Presswire)

Brent asks: Was dfa ing barbato the best choice? Seemed like he might have upside as a reliever and were starting a project converting him to a starter? Would refsnyder or someone else be a better option and will we permanently lose barbato?

I have no idea what will happen with Johnny Barbato next, though optionable relievers with a history of missing bats tend to get scooped up on waivers. My guess is we see a trade involving cash or a player to be named later in the coming days. I figured Barbato would be a 40-man roster casualty soon — not getting a September call-up last year was pretty telling — and I’m actually surprised he lasted this long. I thought he would go over the winter.

The Yankees have four healthy position players on the 40-man roster and not in MLB right now: Miguel Andujar, Jorge Mateo, Rob Refsnyder, and Mason Williams. Andujar and Mateo aren’t call-up candidates yet, so Refsnyder is the infield depth and Williams is the outfield depth. That’s it. The Yankees have enough pitcher call-up candidates (Luis Cessa, Dietrich Enns, Gio Gallegos, Chad Green, Chasen Shreve, etc.) but only one infielder. Cut Refsnyder, then you’ll have to cut someone else to call-up an infielder should someone get hurt. Simply put, it’s much easier for the Yankees to replace Barbato than Refsnyder.

Dan asks: When a minor leaguer gets Tommy John surgery, at what point do we consider him being “back” in the minors versus making rehab starts in the minors? To put it another way if Kaprelian starts a game next June in low-A is he “rehabbing” or is he back? It’s not like he has to build up arm strength to help out the big league team. They could theoretically have him pitching no more than 3 innings at a time for several months next year.

Eh, it’s hard to say, and I’m not sure it’s all that important either. Chances are the Yankees will have James Kaprielian make his first few appearances in Extended Spring Training, so once he pops back up with one of the minor league affiliates, that’s when you’ll know the team believes he’s ready for more intense competition. Those first few starts are going to be rehab starts no matter what. I’m not sure there will be a moment we can say Kaprielian is “back” the way Ivan Nova came back from Tommy John when he returned to the MLB team. Hopefully he gets through his rehab well and comes back a better pitcher. That’s all I’m worried about.

Sweep! Severino dominates, Hicks goes deep twice in 3-2 win over Rays

Sweep! The Yankees picked up their fourth straight win Thursday night, this one a 3-2 victory over the Rays. They came back from what many seemed to believe was an insurmountable one-run deficit based on what I saw in our comments and on Twitter. Fighting Spirit! The Yankees have won their first three home games for the first time since 2006. Also, their +12 run differential is second best in the AL as of this writing. Neato.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

A-A-Bombs From A-A-Ron
Aaron Hicks has been a Yankee for one season and two weeks, and in that time, he’s shown three 80 tools on the 20-80 scouting scale. First, his throwing arm. It’s a rocket. Two, his walk-up music. Tonight he walked up to Return of the Mack all four at-bats. Last year he used Dead Prez. And three, he has a way of shutting people up. It’s a very Stephen Drew-ish quality, I’d say.

Don’t get me wrong, Hicks has been terrible for much of his time in pinstripes and he’s earned the criticism, yet every time it begins to pile up, he goes out and does some big things. On Thursday night against the Rays, those big things were a pair of home runs. One from each side of the plate. He opened the scoring with a first inning solo homer against righty Matt Andriese, and he turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead with a seventh inning two-run shot against left Xavier Cedeno. Both homers came in 1-1 counts and they were crushed. Gone off the bat.

The second home run was obviously the big one, though there isn’t really an interesting story to it. Cedeno just hung the hell out of a breaking ball and Hicks clobbered it, which is exactly what he should have done. Just a terrible pitch all around. Hicks is the first Yankees to go deep from both sides of the plate in one game since (who else?) Mark Teixeira. Teixeira last did it in July 2015. Hicks was only in the lineup because Brett Gardner is still banged up following that nasty collision yesterday, and he came through. Nice work, A-A-Ron.

Of course, the Yankees needed that seventh inning home run to take the lead because they blew some opportunities earlier in the game. In the third inning they had runners on first and second with one out, but Starlin Castro went down on strikes. In the fourth they had runners at second and third with two outs, but Ronald Torreyes lined out. There was some baserunning silliness in that fourth inning too. Chase Headley was held up at third on Austin Romine‘s double even though Steven Souza’s throw was way up the line, then Headley failed to score on a wild pitch.

Watching the game live, I thought the hold at third on the double was smart. Souza got to the ball quickly and threw it in. By time it was clear the throw was well off the mark, Headley was already retreating to third base. Andriese backed up the play well too. The wild pitch though? Yeesh. Headley should have scored on that. The Yankees also wasted a leadoff double in the sixth, and a leadoff walk/wild pitch combo in the eighth. Groan. They went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position but won away, because dingers. Dingers dingers dingers.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Seven Strong From Sevy
That was, by a not small margin, Luis Severino‘s best start since 2015. I thought it was a mistake to send him back out for the sixth inning to face the middle of the lineup a third time, but Severino responded with three strikeouts sandwiched around a harmless single. Shows what I know. He then went out for the seventh inning and added two more strikeouts plus a pop-up. His eleven strikeouts are a new career high.

The end result was two runs allowed on five hits and one walk in seven innings. The only real negative is that Severino got beat by the bottom of the lineup. A walk and an infield single in the second inning set up No. 9 hitter Jesus Sucre to drive in Tampa’s first run with a single. Then, in the fifth, Severino missed his spot badly with a 2-2 pitch and gave up a solo homer to No. 8 hitter Peter Bourjos. Look where Romine wanted the pitch and where it ended up:

luis-severino-peter-bourjos

Eh, not great Luis. Giving up two-strike dingers to dudes like Peter Bourjos is less than ideal. Severino still needs to work on limiting those mistakes because he missed his spot quite a bit in this game, especially in the early innings, but the sheer quality of his stuff allowed him to get away with it.

The Trackman system, which remains hit or miss, says Severino threw a whopping 28 changeups out of 104 total pitches in this game, and based on what I saw, that seems right. He threw it a ton. (It helped that the Rays had five lefties in their starting lineup.) Severino has a good changeup! We saw it in 2015. He lost confidence in it last year though and basically stopped throwing it. Now that he’s using it again, hitters can’t sit fastball/slider, and, well, you saw the results tonight. Very encouraging start to the year for Severino.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Leftovers
Dellin Betances made a mess of things in the eighth inning. He walked Sucre and allowed a single to Corey Dickerson to put runners on the corners with no outs, then he kicked it into overdrive. Strikeout of Kevin Kiermaier, strikeout of Evan Longoria, weak tapper up the line by Brad Miller. Inning over, runners stranded. Betances brought the pain after the first two batter reached. He was untouchable. Aroldis Chapman did was Aroldis Chapman does in the ninth.

The Yankees continue to get nice production from the bottom of the lineup. Romine had two hits, including a loud double off the right field wall that wasn’t too far from sneaking over for a cheap Yankee Stadium homer. Torreyes had a hit as well. Romine and Torreyes went 3-for-8 as the No. 8 and 9 hitters. Hicks had the two homers and both Castro and Headley had hits.

Greg Bird returned to the lineup and he still looks completely lost. He was late on several of Andriese’s 92 mph fastballs. It was not pretty. Bird went 0-for-4 with 3 strikeouts — he is 0-for-12 with eight strikeouts in his last three games — though at least the one time he did make contact, it was hard. He lined out to left field. Hopefully he snaps out of it soon. It’s only been 22 plate appearances with an injury and an illness mixed in.

Congrats to Aaron Judge. He is now the answer to a trivia question. In the ninth inning he became the first Yankee to be intentionally walked using the new automatic intentional walk rule. He stepped in the box, Rays manager Kevin Cash gave signal, and Judge went to first. It was … weird. Look away for a moment and you missed it. Judge then got picked off first with a snap throw from the catcher. Womp womp.

And finally, Castro won (lost?) the “last regular to draw a walk” race. He beat Jacoby Ellsbury by a few innings. Ellsbury drew his first walk of the season — it was only his second three-ball count of the season! — in the fifth inning. Castro drew his first walk in the eighth. (I should note Torreyes hasn’t walked yet, but he’s only a temporary regular. I still consider him a bench player.)

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
Head on over to ESPN for the box score and MLB.com for the video highlights. ESPN also has the standings, but it’s a little too early to check those every night. Here’s the win probability graph:


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
An interleague series! First of the year. The St. Louis Cardinals are coming to town for three games this weekend. This will be their first visit to the new Yankee Stadium and only their second visit to New York as part of interleague play. Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Wacha are the schedule starters for Friday night’s series opener. Wacha-Tanaka rolls off the tongue nicely. Anyway, RAB Tickets can get you in the door for that game, or any other game this season.

DotF: Adams finally allows a hit in Trenton’s win

In case you missed it earlier, RHP James Kaprielian will indeed undergo Tommy John surgery. That stinks. He’ll have the procedure next Tuesday. See you next summer, Kap.

Triple-A Scranton (2-1 win over Lehigh Valley, walk-off style)

  • SS Tyler Wade: 1-4, 1 R
  • DH Clint Frazier: 0-4, 1 RBI
  • RF Rob Refsnyder: 2-3, 1 R, 2 RBI — had been 1-for-16 (.063) coming into this game
  • CF Mason Williams: 2-4, 1 2B — two two-hit games and four no-hit games on the young season
  • 1B Ji-Man Choi: 2-3, 1 RBI — walk-off sac fly
  • LHP Caleb Smith: 5 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 5 K, 4/2 GB/FB — 44 of 64 pitches were strikes (69%) … second career Triple-A appearance … he’s making the spot start because Johnny Barbato was lined up to pitch today, but he’s currently in DFA limbo
  • LHP Joe Mantiply: 3 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 1/3 GB/FB — 23 of 33 pitches were strikes (70%) … the Yankees stretch just about everyone out to multiple innings in the minors, even the left-on-left matchup guys
  • LHP Chasen Shreve: 1 IP, zeroes, 2 K, 1/0 GB/FB — ten of 16 pitches were strikes (63%)

[Read more…]

Game Nine: Sevy for the Sweep

Changeup! (Patrick Smith/Getty)
Changeup! (Patrick Smith/Getty)

For the first time this season, the Yankees are playing a night game at Yankee Stadium. I love day baseball as much as the next guy, but I’m looking forward to seeing a game under the lights in the Bronx for the first time this year. Now that all the home openers and early season off-days and all that are over, we’re getting into the daily grind of the 162-game series. A night game just feels … normal. I guess that’s the best word.

Anyway, the Yankees have won the first two games of this three-game series against the Rays, and tonight Luis Severino will take the mound with a chance to finish the sweep. Severino had his moments last time out and he seemed to throw a lot of changeups — I’d tell you how many exactly if, you know, Trackman had been working — so I’m curious to see if he does it again. Here is the Rays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Aaron Hicks
  3. DH Matt Holliday
  4. 2B Starlin Castro
  5. 3B Chase Headley
  6. 1B Greg Bird
  7. RF Aaron Judge
  8. C Austin Romine
  9. SS Ronald Torreyes
    RHP Luis Severino

The weather has been pretty much perfect in New York all day today, though it’s gotten cloudy tonight. There’s no rain in the forecast though. It’ll just be on the cool side. Tonight’s game will begin a little after 7pm ET. You can watch on YES locally and MLB Network nationally. Enjoy the game.

Injury Update: Brett Gardner (neck, chin) is available tonight and is doing much better following yesterday’s collision. Joe Girardi said Gardner could have started today, but he decided to give him the extra day.

Hal says the Yankees are open to buying at the trade deadline if they’re in the postseason race

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

After last season, it’s easy to understand why so many folks wonder whether the Yankees will again sell at the trade deadline this year. They were out of the race last summer and Brian Cashman convinced Hal Steinbrenner to sell, which was absolutely the right thing to do. As a result, the Yankees are loaded with young talent. It’s exciting.

Despite their current three-game winning streak, most see the Yankees as wildcard contenders at best this season. (The various projection systems have a hard time overlooking the shaky rotation, for what it’s worth.) The offense should be better than it was a year ago and a couple of the kid pitchers could surprise. I don’t think it would take that much to push this team into the postseason, though they’re not clear cut favorites.

And if the Yankees are in the race at midseason, Steinbrenner is open to adding pieces at the deadline to get the team over the hump. He said as much during a radio interview with Mike Francesa two weeks ago. Here’s what Hal told Francesa:

“I think we’re ready to contend. Now, things have to go somewhat right, obviously as with any team. The players who did well last year have to do well again. The young players who haven’t proven themselves need to. And we’ve got to stay healthy … If my family feels that we’re close and Cash feels that we’re close and we need a piece, we’ve never been afraid to go out and get it, and that’s not going to change.”

I bring this up because the last time the Yankees were in the race, they did very little at the trade deadline. They had a six-game division lead on the day of the 2015 trade deadline, and they very clearly needed another starting pitcher, yet no deal was made. The Yankees decided to hold onto their prospects because that was the smart move at the time.

Will that be the smart move this summer? The Yankees are so very deep with prospects that they could trade a few of them for big league help and still have one of the game’s top farm systems. And, as I’ve already said a few times, they’re going to have to trade some prospects this year. Either that or the Yankees are going to lose them for nothing in the Rule 5 Draft in the offseason. There are only so many roster spots to go around.

The last time the Yankees bought at the deadline was 2014, when they were kinda sorta hanging around the postseason race and Cashman managed to acquire Brandon McCarthy, Chase Headley, Martin Prado, and Stephen Drew without giving up anything significant. Those were band-aid moves, essentially. Cashman could take a similar approach this summer, or go big and acquire a more significant piece.

Because of their farm system, the Yankees are in position to make a big splash at the trade deadline, assuming that is something Cashman and Steinbrenner feel is appropriate. That will depend on how the next three months shake out. Hopefully the Yankees will be in the race come July and we can all argue about who they should keep, who they should trade, who they should go after, etc.

Is Jacoby Ellsbury’s early production for real?

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Eight games into the season, you’re bound to see a few eye-popping stats. Aaron Judge‘s 1.072 OPS comes to mind. Adam Warren‘s six perfect innings or Chase Headley‘s .393 average also fit that description.

A little less eye-popping but nonetheless surprising has been the solid start for Jacoby Ellsbury. The Yankees’ starting center fielder has been beset with criticism over the last few seasons while he hasn’t lived up to the contract. Even stripping away the contract, Ellsbury hasn’t been quite up to expectations with league average (or worse) seasons as he approaches his mid-30s.

So his .321/.345/.500 (144 wRC+) batting line definitely stands out when it comes to the Yankees’ early producers. This, after all, comes after a .263/.330/.374 season and with many projection systems expecting more of the same. Quite simply, a guy entering his age 33 season isn’t supposed to have a resurgence like this.

Then there’s the obvious question: Is this a resurgence or simply a small sample? That’s the quandary I want to tackle.

There are some basic reasons to expect that it’s a small sample size lying to our faces. First, he has a 0.0% walk rate and a .333 BABIP. The walk rate isn’t going to stay that way, but it shows he may just be putting the ball in play more. It also underlines how early we are in the season. The BABIP, compared to .296 in 2014, .301 in 2015 and .295 and 2016, is a little high and may regress soon. His average is buoyed by a few infield hits and he has an infield hit percentage more than double his career rate. He has also seen a rise in his soft contact percentage.

But there has also been some improvement in there, whether or not it’s sustainable. In this small sample, his hard contact rate and line drive percentage both increased. At least one of those infield hits was a line drive off the pitcher and likely would have gotten through the infield without a deflection. Here’s a look at his spray chart. Most of his hard hit balls have been pulled, but there are a few liners elsewhere.

jacoby-ellsbury-1

Pitchers have pitched Ellsbury on the outside part of the plate more often than last year and the few times he’s gotten balls low and inside, he’s produced solid exit velocity. His exit velocity as a whole is essentially the same after 24 batted balls as it was after 415 such results in 2016.

But it’s extremely important to note that he hasn’t had a single catcher’s interference yet this season. This could actually be the most critical sign. Ellsbury worked with hitting coach Alan Cockrell to get more out in front with his swing after last season, moving his contact point forward as to avoid flirting with his own MLB record for CIs.

And therefore, we may have a tangible reason for this jump in performance.

The bulk of Ellsbury’s damage has come against Alex Cobb, the Rays righty who was much more effective against lefties when he wielded his changeup consistently pre-Tommy John surgery. Below are gifs of Ellsbury swings against Cobb, one last September that ended in a pop up to left field and one from opening day at Yankee Stadium this year which produced an RBI double.

2015
2016

2016
2017

These ABs take place against the same pitcher at the same stadium with approximately the same location on the final pitch. Ellsbury is in the same spot in the box with a similar set-up and stride in his lower half. The only thing that may be different, other than the result, is the swing path. It looks pretty similar, but I’m also not certain that Cockrell and Ellsbury’s adjustment is going to be that demonstrative. It may be quite subtle yet still still able to help Ellsbury pull the ball with a line drive rather than rather than being late to the ball and popping out.

And yes, I realize he popped out with the bases loaded yesterday. That was not a good at-bat, but it also came against a lefty and we haven’t yet seen whether Ellsbury has overcome his platoon struggles.

Still, his early performance lends credence to the idea that he may have found something with his swing. It’ll take a lot more data to see for sure, but if there is anything real in Ellsbury’s improvement, it could be a significant boost for the Yankees with his contract running through 2020, not to mention it would be a major feather in the cap of Cockrell. At the very least, his strong production displays that he can still be a productive player at times, even if 2011 near-MVP Ellsbury is long gone.

James Kaprielian to undergo Tommy John surgery

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The 2017 season will be another lost year for the Yankees’ top pitching prospect. Right-hander James Kaprielian will indeed undergo Tommy John surgery, the Yankees announced this morning. Dr. Neal ElAttrache will perform the surgery next Tuesday. Brian Cashman strongly indicated surgery was coming while speaking to reporters yesterday.

“We met last night,” said Scott Boras, Kaprielian’s agent, to Mike Mazzeo. “And it was something where, after the discussion with the doctors and compiling the proper information and having a history with pitchers, you don’t want to send a pitcher out to the mound where he’s going to have something in the back of his mind that’s troubling him from start to start. The surgery allows us to alleviate those concerns.”

Kaprielian, who turned 23 last month, missed nearly the entire 2016 regular season with a flexor tendon strain, and Cashman said the same injury resurfaced this spring. Last year’s rehab essentially failed. Here’s a quick recap of Kaprielian’s timeline:

  • April 25th, 2016: Placed on the minor league disabled list with elbow pain after three starts with High-A Tampa.
  • June 28th, 2016: Diagnosed with a flexor tendon strain after the elbow continued to be a problem and did not show improvement. ElAttrache examined Kaprielian at the time.
  • October and November, 2016: Makes seven starts in the Arizona Fall League. PitchFX says his fastball averaged 95.7 mph and the scouting reports were glowing.
  • March, 16th 2017: Throws two innings in his only Grapefruit League appearance. The Yankees took it slow with Kaprielian in camp and limited him to simulated games early on.
  • March 26th, 2017: Throws 4+ innings in a minor league spring game, according to Josh Norris. As far as we know, that’s the last time he pitched before this latest injury.
  • April 6th, 2017: Elbow begins acting up again.

These days Tommy John surgery comes with a 14-16 month rehab, sometimes even 18 months. The days of a 12-month rehab are all but over. A few years ago a rash of pitchers needed a second Tommy John surgery and the industry seems to have concluded the 12-month rehab was too aggressive. Kaprielian figures to be out until midseason 2018 at the very least.

Between the flexor injury last year and the Tommy John surgery now, Kaprielian is essentially going to miss two full seasons, likely more depending on the length of his rehab. Throwing 45 total innings, all in High-A and the AzFL, from Opening Day 2016 through midseason 2018 is, obviously, really bad. That’s an awful lot of development time Kaprielian won’t be able to make up. Sucks, but what can you do?

Despite last year’s injury, Kaprielian was very highly regarded coming into the season. I was surprised at how high he ranked on the various top 100 lists this spring, and I’m pretty sure I wrote that a few times. Look at his placement on the various top 100 lists:

2016 Rank 2017 Rank
Baseball America top 100 Not ranked 87th
Baseball Prospectus top 101 Not ranked 58th
Keith Law top 100 87th 28th
MLB.com top 100 Not ranked 55th

Kaprielian missed most of last year with a major elbow problem and he still climbed on every single list. That’s how impressive he looked during his admittedly brief AzFL stint last year. He was healthy and throwing well. The same was true in Spring Training. Then something gave. Pitchers, man.

The Yankees selected Kaprielian with their first round pick (16th overall) in the 2015 draft and paid him an above-slot $2.65M bonus. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Kaprielian’s velocity ticked up his draft year at UCLA, and again in pro ball both after the draft and early in 2016. Velocity spikes seem to have a way of leading to elbow woes.

I suppose the good news is Kaprielian is a top of the line makeup and work ethic guy who will attack his rehab. Tommy John surgery has a high success rate, but it’s not perfect. If it fails with Kaprielian, I don’t think it’ll be due to a lack of effort on his part. Kaprielian has been through worse in his life. Hopefully everything goes well and he comes back a better (and healthier) pitcher next season.