David Phelps & Spring Training Buzz

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The pitching staff has been the focus of Spring Training so far and rightfully so. The Yankees made two big name pickups this offseason and those players have been under the microscope (though the Michael Pineda coverage has gone from intense to flat out absurd), plus Phil Hughes has some serious questions to answer after his disastrous 2011 campaign. Mariano Rivera didn’t help matters by hinting at retirement his first day in Tampa, and neither did David Robertson‘s foot injury.

While all that has been going on, the team’s minor league pitching depth has been quietly plugging along and getting outs. The quartet of Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, Brett Marshall, and D.J. Mitchell had not allowed a single run this spring (combined 19.2 IP) until Banuelos got knocked around yesterday, but it’s another minor league hurler that has apparently piqued some interest. Courtesy of Joel Sherman

One Yankees player getting some buzz among scouts is David Phelps, who on Tuesday night against Boston continued his good vibrations by striking out five of the 10 Red Sox he has faced.

Both the Yankees and a few scouts noted to me that Phelps has ticked his fastball up to the 92-93 mph range. And a particularly impressed scout said that has raised his profile because the righty already had good aptitude and competitiveness on the mound.

Phelps, 25, has allowed one unearned run in seven innings this spring, striking out seven. He ranked 12th on my list of the team’s top 30 prospects thanks to his four-pitch mix and MLB readiness, though I’m not entirely sure what the big deal is with his fastball getting up to 92-93. Baseball America had him throwing 92-95 mph way back in their 2010 Prospect Handbook, though I suppose they could have been wrong. Maybe he lost a little velocity following the shoulder tendinitis that shelved him for close to two months last summer. Who knows, but whatever is going on, people around the game are starting to take notice.

The Yankees added Phelps to the 40-man roster this past offseason to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, though they were prepared to call him up for a spot start in mid-June before the Brian Gordon signing. I’m not entirely sure who the Yankees would call up first for a such a start at the moment, I go back and forth between Phelps and Mitchell depending on the day. Adam Warren is in that mix as well, but he’s at the disadvantage of not being on the 40-man. In reality, a call-up will have just as much to do with the schedule as it does performance. Whoever’s lined up to pitch that day will be the frontrunner.

It’s nice to hear that Phelps is generating some buzz during a time when most reporting focuses on what a player is not rather than what he is, but we’ve known about him for a while now. The Yankees could use him (and others) in a variety of ways — starter, reliever, trade bait — so they have a pretty nice core of minor league pitching depth. The best case scenario calls for us to see none of these guys in 2012, but that’s next to impossible. The more attention these guys get, the better.

Open Thread: 3/14 Camp Notes

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

The Yankees lost to the Blue Jays 7-5 this afternoon, and the biggest news of the day was Freddy Garcia’s right hand contusion. Thankfully x-rays came back negative after he got hit by an Edwin Encarnacion line drive. Freddy allowed two runs in three innings, including an Encarnacion homer. Manny Banuelos got roughed up pretty bad, allowing four runs on three hits and two walks in one inning of work. One of those hits was an Encarnacion homer. That guy really did some damage today.

Yankees’ center fielders went a combined to go 4-for-5 today, with Curtis Granderson (pair of doubles) and Dewayne Wise picking up two knocks each. Mark Teixeira also singled to the opposite field off a right-handed pitcher, so hooray for that. Frankie Cervelli, Doug Bernier, and Cole Garner all doubled, accounting for all of the club’s extra-base hits. D.J. Mitchell hit two batters in three otherwise perfect innings, recording four outs with strike three and five others on the ground. Not bad. Here’s the box score and here’s the latest from Tampa.

  • Michael Pineda has changed his between-start routine. He now throws his bullpen session two days before starts rather than three, which is what he did with the Mariners last year and is most comfortable with. Joba Chamberlain, Hiroki Kuroda, Rafael Soriano, Dellin Betances, and Matt Daley all threw their scheduled side sessions today. [Chad Jennings]
  • David Robertson jogged on a treadmill for 30 minutes today and didn’t feel any pain or soreness in his right foot. There’s a pretty good chance he’ll throw a bullpen session this weekend. [Jennings]
  • Nick Swisher left today’s game with minor tightness in his right groin. It doesn’t sound like a big deal though, just a precaution. I’ll worry if we don’t see him for a few days. [Mark Feinsand]
  • George Kontos was scheduled to appear in his first game of the spring this Friday, but he’ll instead throw another round of live batting practice tomorrow and probably get into a game at some point over the weekend. [Jennings]

Here is your open thread for the night. The Nets and Mike D’Antoni-less Knicks are both playing tonight, and MLB Network will be airing some games as well. Talk about whatever you like here, go nuts.

Update: X-rays negative after comebacker forces Garcia from game

Update (4:53pm): The Yankees have announced that Garcia’s x-rays came back negative. No word on how long he’ll be out, but I’m sure he’ll get a few days off just to make sure everything’s okay.

Update (2:24pm): Via Marc Carig, the team announced that Garcia has a right hand contusion and is being taken for precautionary x-rays. That was fast.

2:19pm: Freddy Garcia left this afternoon’s game against the Blue Jays after taking an Edwin Encarnacion line drive to his right (pitching) hand. He immediately walked off the mound with the trainer and headed to the clubhouse. He may only be penciled in as the sixth starter/swingman, but Sweaty Freddy is a pretty nice piece of pitching depth. We’ll update with more as it’s available.

Gardner takes home second straight Fielding Bible Award

For the second straight year, Brett Gardner has won the 2011 Fielding Bible Award as the game’s best defensive left fielder. He received nine of ten first place votes and one second place vote (behind Carlos Gonzalez). His points total (99) was the highest by any player at any position. Tony Gwynn Jr. was a distant second with 74 points. It doesn’t directly factor into the voting, but Gardner had the highest UZR (+25.2) and DRS (+22) in baseball last season, regardless of position.

Mark Teixeira (fourth), Robinson Cano (seventh), Alex Rodriguez (eighth), Russell Martin (fifth), and Hiroki Kuroda (sixth) all received votes at their respective positions.

Was consistency really Brett Gardner’s problem in 2011?

You know how if you repeat a word enough times, it loses all meaning to you? That’s the way I feel about the word consistency coming from baseball circles. That seems the solution to everything: Player A just needs to be more consistent (with the optional addendum, “in his approach”). Problem is, consistency is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in a game as complex as baseball. At least, consistentcy as we commonly understand it.

No player will get a hit exactly three times in each set of 10 at-bats. No player hits a home run once every 17 plate appearances. Baseball is a game of streaks and slumps. Players help their teams immensely when they’re hot, and they hurt them when they slump. Even the best players aren’t immune to periodic slumps. It’s just the nature of the game.

Still, it seems as though some players are more prone to streaks and slumps than others. Take Nick Swisher for example. When you watch every game, it seems clear that he goes through periods of extraordinary production, followed by periods where he makes outs almost every at-bat. Last year it was easy to get the impression that Brett Gardner was likewise prone to streakiness. In an article on MLB.com, Bryan Hoch gets quotes from Joe Girardi, Kevin Long, and Gardner himself seemingly admitting that Gardner’s streakiness is a problem. But was that really the issue in 2012?

Again, it’s hard to determine exactly what everyone means by consistency. But a glance at Gardner’s 2011 game log makes it appear that streakiness was something of an issue. To start the season Gardner went 9 for 62 (.145) with four walks. He was also caught stealing in half of his six attempts. But after a 3 for 4 performance in a 12-3 rout of the White Sox Gardner broke out. From that point, April 28th, through mid-August he hit .314/.397/.429 in 374 PA. Again, look at his game logs during that period. it lingers in the .330 and .340 levels through May, mostly because he had to compensate for his poor start. But then it starts to creep up.

From June through mid-August he was consistently in the .350 to .360 OBP range. Yes, his numbers spiked and dipped a bit, but again, all ballplayers experience those little peaks and valleys. It seemed that Gardner was, indeed, rather consistent throughout this period. He was even more consistent on the base paths, successfully stealing a base in 80 percent of his 41 attempts. Unfortunately, he then slumped his way to the finish line, hitting .175/.281/.246 through his final 146 PA. He claims that he felt fine as the season wore on — “the best I’ve ever felt at the end of a season,” he said — but that didn’t translate into performance.

That brings us back to the idea of consistency, which seems no easier to define after examining Gardner’s 2011. His poor performances seem to come in the form of bookends, but does that mean he’s more consistent than we perceived? I don’t think so. Timing is an odd concept in baseball, and it often affects our perception. Two guys could have the same numbers during the course of a month, but we’ll view the guy who had a hot first half in a different light than we do the guy who had a hot second half. Yet they contributed roughly equally to their teams performances.

It’s difficult to work on an abstract concept such as consistency, especially in a game that is chock full of randomness. It sounds great, and makes for attention-grabbing headlines. But chances are Gardner has more specific, concrete things to work on: bunting, offering at pitches he can slap past infielders, and other things an undersized outfielder must do to succeed. If that makes him more consistent, all the better.

2012 Season Preview: The Strikeout Kings

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

A pitcher can do nothing better than record strike three. Strikeouts take the defense right out of the equation, meaning hits, errors, weird bounces, and everything else is impossible. It’s not an accident that pitchers with high strikeout rates traditionally have lower ERAs since keeping the ball out of play means nothing bad can happen.

The Yankees had the American League’s best strikeout staff in 2011, leading the circuit with 7.54 K/9 and 19.7 K%. At 8.46 K/9 and 22.2 K%, the bullpen missed more bats than any other unit in the league, which is a great way to protect leads in the late innings. At least part of that high strikeout rate had to do with the arrival of pitching coaching Larry Rothschild, who has a history of improving strikeout rates. The Yankees figure to again have a dominant strikeout staff in 2012, one that could be even better than last year given a new arrival and good health.

CC Sabathia
After posting a mid-7.0 K/9 in each of his first two years in pinstripes, Sabathia had the second best strikeout season of his career in 2011. His 8.72 K/9 and 23.4 K% were the sixth and fifth best marks in the AL, respectively. During one stretch from late-June to late-July, CC struck out 72 batters in 54.2 IP across seven starts, good for an 11.85 K/9 and 35.5 K%. He tied his career-high by striking out 13 Brewers on June 30th, and just about a month later he set a new career-best by fanning 14 Mariners.

The strikeout boost appears to have come from an increased usage of his slider, as Sabathia broke out his top offspeed offering 26.6% of time in 2011 after using it no more than 18.5% from 2008-2010. Batters did not make contact on 40.9% of the swings they took against the pitch (54.6% vs. LHB), which is just ridiculous. His changeup drew a swing and miss 33.2% of the time as well. That’s just silly, the guy’s offspeed stuff was just unhittable last year. With any luck, that’s something Rothschild has instilled in Sabathia and it’ll carry over into this year.

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Michael Pineda
Few pitchers were better at getting strike three last season than Pineda. The young right-hander struck out 9.11 batters per nine with a 24.9 K%, the seventh and sixth best rates in all of baseball. Right-handed batters had a three-in-ten chance of being struck out by Pineda, which isn’t terribly surprising given his lethal fastball-slider combo. Even his 20.7 K% against left-handers is pretty strong, impressive for a guy that doesn’t really have a changeup. Batters missed 39.3% of the time they swung at his slidepiece.

Pineda is working on that changeup now, but maintaining a strikeout-per-inning rate is a very tough to do regardless of ballpark or division. His strikeout rate might take a step back in 2012 just because it’s hard to ring up that many guys each time out, but Pineda has more than enough stuff to miss bats regularly. An 8.0 K/9 and 22.0 K% going forward is more than doable. If he improves that changeup to the point where it’s a usable third pitch, the sky is the limit for team’s new hurler.

Boone Logan
This might be a bit surprising, but Logan has missed a ton of bats during his two years as a Yankee. Last year he posted a 9.94 K/9 and 24.9 K%, the former of which was a top ten mark among AL relievers (min. 40 IP). His strikeout rates against left-handed batters — 11.20 K/9 and 28.8 K% — were among the very best by southpaw relievers. Over the last two years, Logan owns a 9.26 K/9 and 23.7 K%. Boone can be maddening at times, but he uses his fastball-slider stuff to regularly prevent hitters from putting the ball in play. There’s not much more you can ask from your lefty specialist.

Rafael Soriano
The world’s most expensive setup man battled through injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness during his inaugural season in New York, but at least Soriano missed bats regularly. His 8.24 K/9 and 22.0 K% were essentially identical to his strikeout rates with the Rays in 2011 (8.23 K/9 and 24.1 K%) thanks to his fastball-cutter-slider repertoire. Right-handed batters swing and missed with 30.5% and 34.5% of the swings they took against his four-seamer and slider, respectively. That’ll work. With career marks of 9.49 K/9 and 26.4 K%, there is absolutely no reason to think a healthy Soriano will do anything but generate whiffs in the late innings this summer.

(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)

David Robertson
The king of the strikeout heavy staff, Robertson’s dominant 2011 season was built on his career-best strikeout rates: 13.50 K/9 and 36.8 K%. Both rates were top five among all big league relievers and the second best among AL relievers behind only Al Alburquerque (min 40 IP). Batters came up empty on 35.0% of the swings they took against his curveball, which is just ridiculous.

Robertson’s strikeout ways are nothing new. He’s never whiffed fewer than 10.40 batters per nine or 26.0% of the batters he’s faced in a single big league season, and he doesn’t discriminate either. Robertson’s strikeout rates against right-handers (11.19 K/9 and 28.9 K%) and left-handers (12.98 K/9 and 33.7 K%) are both through the roof. He’s already had a minor injury scare this spring, but assuming Robertson comes out of this bone bruise fine, he’ll again be counted on to lead the setup staff in 2012. The strikeouts will come pouring in.

Mariano Rivera
The greatest reliever of all-time saw his strikeout rate take a huge dip in 2010 (just 6.75 K/9 and 19.6 K%), but Rivera rebounded in a big way last season: 8.80 K/9 and 25.8 K%. Mo’s strikeout rate has actually improved with age, and his K/BB ratio has been quite literally off the charts for years now…

Rivera’s famed cutter has generated a swing and miss just 20.8% of the time during the PitchFX era (19.8% in 2011), which is relatively low compared to the primary pitch of most high strikeout relievers. Of course Mo has historically great command and generates an ungodly amount of called strikes; ~20% of the pitches he’s thrown during the PitchFX era have been called strikes, well above the ~16% league average. A little less than 11% of all the plate appearances against Rivera have ended with a called strike three during that time, again well above the league average (~4.5%). Strikeouts are great, but they’re even better when the hitter doesn’t bother to take the bat off his shoulders.

The 2012 New York Yankees All-Projection Team

Much of the 2012 Yankee offense's fortunes are riding on your shoulders, pal. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty)

After an offeason’s worth of projections, it’s finally time to aggregate everything and see just how good our beloved pinstripers look on paper. Loyal readers will recall I did this last year, as well.

Below you’ll see each player’s final 2011 line, along with their average 2012 projected line. In this instance, the average has been compiled from the eight major projection systems — Bill James, CAIRO, Oliver, Rotochamp, PECOTA, ZiPS, Steamer and Tango’s Marcel. Despite the variations in calculation method with each system along with the fact that they’re not all park- and league-adjusted, I’ve found that a straight average of the systems’ projections generally winds up being a fairly reasonable benchmark.

Additionally, I’ll repeat the immortal words of SG one last time: “Projections are inherently limited, so remember to take these for what they are. They are rough estimates of a player’s current talent level, and are not predictions.”

Offense

The Yankees will, for the umpteenth year in a row, feature a robust offensive attack in 2012, with no starter projected to have a below-league average (.316 in 2011, for your reference) wOBA. Derek Jeter looks to be the weakest component of the offensive attack, though he’ll outhit that .324 average projected wOBA if he comes anywhere close to replicating his second-half surge last summer. Derek’s high-water projection is James’ .333 wOBA, while ZiPS thinks Derek is essentially cooked, with a .309 projection.

After a bit of a disappointing campaign with the stick in 2011, Brett Gardner should get on base more frequently assuming he gets his IFFB% closer to his career figure of a still-worse-than-league-average 14%, rather than last year’s 19.6% (which nearly lead the league). Rotochamp loves itself some Gardner, with a .343 projection, while Oliver is unimpressed and thinks Gardner will continue to hit the skids with a .320 wOBA.

Russell Martin projects for more OBP and less power than he showed in 2011, though I think we’ll see a stronger campaign from Russell in 2012, due in part to a presumed increased comfort level along with a desire for a substantial free-agent pact. James likes Martin for a high-water .355 wOBA — a level he’s only exceeded once — while Marcel has Martin falling to .311.

Both Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano are projected for significantly less-potent seasons, though in my opinion those are pretty conservative estimates and I feel comfortable expecting at least a .375 wOBA out of the Yankees’ two most potent offensive forces. Rotochamp likes Granderson at .379, while Marcel and Oliver are each at a much more bearish .351; Rotochamp also has the high-water projection got Cano at .369, while Steamer is at .355.

The Yankees’ two former heavyweights, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, are also expected to help continue to carry the offense. At .370, Tex actually has the most significantly improved average projected wOBA on the team, representing a .009 increase from his actual 2011 production. James likes Tex for a .382 wOBA; while Marcel has him at a non-park-adjusted .357 for the low-water mark. A-Rod‘s average .361 projected wOBA is exactly what he put up in 2011, although component-wise the systems see slightly more power for Alex and slightly less OBP. While at this point I don’t know that it’s reasonable to be disappointed with Alex posting another .361 wOBA year in his age 36 season, if he can stay healthy it also doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect a wOBA somewhere in the .370s or higher. Strangely enough, PECOTA — which doesn’t really like anyone, and generally saves most of its venom for aging veterans — actually boasts the most optimistic A-Rod forecast, pegging him for a .509 SLG and making him one of only 15 players in all of MLB the system even projects to SLG above .500 (Tex is in there, too). On the flip side, the ever-negative Oliver sees Alex regressing to a non-park-adjusted .350 wOBA.

If we plug each player’s projected OBP and SLG into Dave Pinto’s Lineup Analysis tool, we get a lineup projected to average roughly 5.3 runs per game against lefties (with Andruw Jones at DH), and the same against righties (with Ibanez at DH). The Yankees’ runs-per-game averages for the last five seasons starting with 2011 are 5.4, 5.3, 5.7, 4.9 and 6.0, so 5.3 for the starting lineup should be just fine.

Starting Pitching

Though Sweaty Freddy is expected to begin the year in the bullpen I’ve thrown him in for comparison’s sake. Unsurprisingly Freddy also projects as the least-effective of the six starting candidates. Despite a horrid season, most projection systems still love Phil Hughes, with Bill James going so far as to project a 3.71 ERA/3.82 FIP (albeit in 102 innings), while the ever-pessimistic PECOTA also appears to still be a Hughes fanboy, projecting a 3.84 ERA over 135 innings.

None of the systems think Ivan Nova can reproduce his 2011, although Marcel’s non-park-adjusted 3.88 ERA/3.89 FIP is the most optimistic. On the flip side, PECOTA thinks Nova’s a joke, with 156 innings of 5.03 ERA ball.

Both Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda‘s average projections seem eminently reasonable to me in the AL East; truly, if the Yanks can record a second straight season of three starters giving 100-plus innings of sub-4.00 ERAs (thanks to CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia) — something that hasn’t happened for the Yankees in back-to-back seasons since 2001-2002 — needless to say they will be in excellent shape.

For those interested in simulations, the most recent iteration of CAIRO (run over a month ago) had the 2012 Yankees as the best team in baseball, at 97-65 (five games ahead of Tampa Bay); Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA also has the Yankees with the best record in baseball, at 95-67 (five games ahead of Boston); and even THT’s get-off-my-lawn Oliver forecasting system has the Yankees with the best record in baseball, at 95-67 (three games ahead of Boston).

While, as per usual, many things will need to go the Yankees’ way for the team to reach these projections, it’s tough to quibble with a roster universally projected to be the best in baseball heading into the season.