The catcher’s interference record is a symptom of Jacoby Ellsbury’s problem at the plate

... dude. (Presswire)
… dude. (Presswire)

Last year Jacoby Ellsbury shattered the very obscure single-season catcher’s interference record. He reached base 12 times (12 times!) because his swing hit the catcher’s glove. The previous record was eight by Roberto Kelly with the 1992 Yankees. There were 39 instances of catcher’s interference around the league last year and Ellsbury had nearly one-third of him. Hey, that’s why they gave him all that money, to smash records.

Anyway, Ellsbury has always had a knack for catcher’s interference — he has 26 in his career, second all-time to Pete Rose, who had 29 in 10,924 more plate appearances (!) — so it’s not a complete surprise he set a new record last year. But going from two or three catcher’s interferences a year to a dozen in one season is staggering. It’s like averaging 10-15 homers a year and then suddenly having a 60-homer season.

The catcher’s interferences were a fun running gag, and hey, any way Ellsbury can get on base helps the team. That said, they’re a symptom of a larger problem. Ellsbury’s swing is out of whack. He’s swinging too deep in the strike zone and not making good contact out over the plate. Hitting coach Alan Cockrell discussed this last week and said they’ve been working on it this offseason. From Bryan Hoch:

“For me, the biggest thing with Jacoby is moving his contact out front a little bit more,” Cockrell said. “I’ve never seen a guy hit the catcher’s mitt like he did. I think when Ells’ contact point was maybe three, four more inches more out front from where it is right now, he can stay on balls. We’re not looking for power production, but he can be a very, very productive hitter.”

“We looked at all the video from his really big year in Boston, and his contact point was probably three or four inches more,” Cockrell said. “So we tailored his cage routine and his maintenance work to where we’re moving contact — not a lot, not a foot and a half, but just three to four inches more in front of his body.”

As far as I know there’s no data on where the hitter makes contact within the zone. The point of contact is not something PitchFX records, and if Statcast has that data, I have no idea where to find it. Anecdotally this makes sense though. Ellsbury is not necessarily losing bat speed. His swing path is all screwed up. It’s too long in the back.

In theory, moving Ellsbury’s contact point up a few inches means there will be more leverage in his swing when the bat strikes the baseball, allowing him to better drive pitches. When he makes contact deep in the zone, there’s not much swing behind it, so he’s not impacting the baseball all that hard. At least that’s what I think is happening here, anyway. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Cockrell mentioned they’ve been working on this since last year, so it’s not a new development. They didn’t review tape after the season and discover the flaw. They’ve known about it a while but haven’t had much success fixing the problem. “It’s one of those midseason things that feels awkward, and it’s tough to go out and play every night and think about something like that. This is something that we’ll talk about in Spring Training,” said the hitting coach.

I’m not terribly optimistic Ellsbury will be an above-average hitter going forward. He’s hit .264/.326/.382 (95 wRC+) in nearly 1,800 plate appearances with the Yankees and ZiPS projects a .269/.324/.383 (97 OPS+) batting line in 2017. That sounds about right to me. I don’t think moving his contact point out a few inches will be a magic cure-all, and if Ellsbury can stay within 5% of league average next year offensively, I’ll take it.

The catcher’s interference record was a weirdly entertaining sidebar to the season, and while reaching base is a good thing, they were part of a much larger problem. Ellsbury is not anywhere close to the player the Yankees thought they were getting based on what they paid him, but if Cockrell can move his contact point up and turn some of those catcher’s interferences into base hits, it’ll help Ellsbury contribute more to the offense, and the Yankees could sure use it.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

We let the cat out of the bag on Twitter last night, but it’s time for the formal announcement on the site. We have (finally) completed our search for new writers. We’ve added two new members to the RAB team:

Thank you again to everyone who applied. There were a ton of quality submissions. Seriously. Whittling the list down was very difficult. And also thanks for your patience. It took us a good month to finalize things. Domenic and Steven will begin posting soon. Be sure to welcome them aboard.

Now that the official business is out of the way, this is tonight’s open thread. The Rangers, Knicks, and Nets are all playing, plus there’s a slew of college hoops games on as well. Talk about that stuff here.

Austin’s quick adjustment last season bodes well for 2017

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

Hands down, my favorite moment of last season was Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge socking back-to-back home runs in their first career at-bats. (Gary Sanchez‘s two-month rampage was awesome, but not really a “moment.”) The Yankees had just sold at the deadline and turned things over to the kids, and they provided instant gratification. That was such a fun afternoon.

As you know, both Austin and Judge slipped into slumps following their home runs because the big leagues are hard, especially when you’re just getting your first taste. Judge hit a few more mammoth homers along the way but his slump basically lasted until he suffered a season-ending oblique injury on September 13th. That was pretty lame. The good news is Judge is healthy and working on things this winter.

Austin, on the other hand, came out of his slump in September and finished the season strong, which included a handful of clutch late-inning home runs. Overall, Austin hit .241/.300/.458 (102 wRC+) in his 90 plate appearances with the big league team last summer, which isn’t too shabby for a kid getting his first taste of the show. Here’s a fun graph showing how Austin reached that 102 wRC+ at season’s end:

tyler-austin-wrc

He started with a bang, slumped hard for a bit, then gradually climbed his way back to respectability, all in a relatively short period of time. Austin recently admitted to Brendan Kuty he was trying to hit a home run each time he went to the plate early on, which got him out of whack mechanically. After some work with hitting coaches Alan Cockrell and Marcus Thames, Austin got back on track and finished strong.

“My head was flying out, swinging at everything — in and out of the zone,” said Austin to Kuty. “That’s not me. That was just me trying to hit a home run every time up and trying to pull anything I could. When I’m right, I can hit the ball out of the park using all parts of the field.”

We certainly saw that all fields power last season. Well, no, actually. That’s not true. Austin hit five home runs and all five were to the opposite field at Yankee Stadium. It really was an impressive display of opposite field power. We’ve yet to see Austin pull the ball over the fence, though I suspect it’s only a matter of time until that happens. The kid clearly has some power.

Austin was indeed swinging at everything early on — he went 3-for-31 with ten strikeouts immediately following the debut homer — before settling down and showing some semblance of plate discipline. Here are his in-zone and out-of-zone swing rates:

tyler-austin-swing-rates

His out-of-zone swing rate (O-Swing%) was sky high at first before coming back down to Earth. Austin managed to finish the season with a 30.7% swing rate on pitches out of the strike zone, which is almost exactly league average (30.6%).

As for pitches in the strike zone, Austin’s swing rate was a touch high for a bit before stabilizing. His overall 73.1% swing rate on pitches in the zone was quite a bit higher than the 63.9% average, though swinging at pitches in the zone isn’t a bad thing. The next step is learning to tell a hittable pitch in the zone from one you should lay off, such as a changeup at the knees likely to generate weak contact.

Getting to the big leagues was not easy for Austin, who at one point was designated for assignment and went through waivers unclaimed. And let’s not kid ourselves either, he’s close to a bat only prospect. Austin is not a good gloveman at first and he’s comfortably below average in right field. He’ll have to hit and hit big to have big league value, and the fact he made a quick adjustment to stop chasing out of the zone bodes well going forward.

The Yankees insist the first base job is up for grabs and will not automatically go to Greg Bird, though I’m sure if you could get an honest out of Brian Cashman & Co., they’d say they want Bird to take the job and run with it. Austin could very well be Bird’s platoon mate at first base while also seeing time in the outfield and at designated hitter. If he hits, they’ll get him in the lineup somehow.

Austin had to basically turn his entire career around last season just to get back to Triple-A, nevermind reach the big leagues for the first time. And now that he’s in the show and has had some level of success, he’ll be given the opportunity to remain on the roster. This is hard part. Keeping the big league job. Austin’s quick adjustments last year were nice to see, and he’ll have to keep making them to be part of the Yankees going forward.

Prospect Profile: Jordan Montgomery

(Jason Farmer/Scranton Times-Tribune)
(Jason Farmer/Scranton Times-Tribune)

Jordan Montgomery | LHP

Background
Montgomery, who turned 24 last month, grew up in the relatively small town of Sumter, South Carolina, about 40 miles outside Columbia. He was a star at Sumter High School and was named 2011 Gatorade State Player of the Year after going 11-0 with a 0.38 ERA and 114 strikeouts in 74.1 innings as a senior. Montgomery tossed a seven-inning shutout in the state championship game that year.

Despite a stellar prep career, Baseball America did not rank Montgomery among their overall top 200 prospects or even their top 40 prospects in South Carolina prior to the 2011 draft. He went undrafted that year and instead followed through on his commitment to the University of South Carolina, where stepped right into the rotation and was teammates with former Yankees farmhand Tyler Webb.

As a first year player in 2012, Montgomery pitched to a 3.62 ERA in 74.2 innings spread across 13 starts and two relief appearances. He struck out 57 batters and walked only ten. That earned him a spot on the Freshman All-American Team. Montgomery threw eight scoreless innings against Arkansas to help put South Carolina in the College World Series Finals, where they lost to Rob Refsnyder‘s Arizona Wildcats.

The following season Montgomery emerged as the staff ace by throwing 79 innings of 1.48 ERA ball. He struck out 64 and walked 18. The Gamecocks did not advance to the College World Series in 2013, but Montgomery did keep their season temporarily alive by shutting out North Carolina in the Super Regionals. He allowed four hits in the game. Montgomery was named Gamecocks MVP and to the SEC Academic Honor Roll.

As a junior in 2014, Montgomery threw a collegiate career high 100 innings with a 3.42 ERA while striking out 95 and walking 29. He was again named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll. Baseball America ranked Montgomery as the fourth best 2014 draft prospect in South Carolina and the 120th best prospect in the draft class overall. The Yankees selected him in the fourth round (122nd overall) and signed him quickly for a full slot $424,000 bonus.

Pro Career
The Yankees took it easy on Montgomery after the draft and limited him to only 19 innings in his pro debut. He had a 3.79 ERA (2.30 FIP) with 20 strikeouts and six walks in those 19 innings split between the rookie Gulf Coast League and Short Season Staten Island. All told, Montgomery threw 119 innings in 2014.

The following season the Yankees assigned Montgomery to Low-A Charleston, but that didn’t last very long. He was promoted to High-A Tampa after only nine starts, and he remained with Tampa the rest of the season. Montgomery had a combined 2.95 ERA (2.61 FIP) with 24.1% strikeouts and 6.6% walks in 134.1 innings at the two levels in 2015.

This past season Montgomery started at Double-A Trenton, where he remained most of the summer. It wasn’t until early August that he was bumped up to Triple-A Scranton. He finished the year with a 2.19 ERA (2.91 FIP) with 22.7% strikeouts and 7.7% walks in 152 total innings. Montgomery set a RailRiders’ record with a 29.2-inning scoreless streak, and he got the win in the Triple-A Championship Game over El Paso (Padres).

Scouting Report
Montgomery is a big dude at 6-foot-6 and 225 lbs., and he’s been gradually adding velocity over the years. He sat in the mid-80s in high school, got up to 88-90 mph for most of his college career, then lived in the 90-92 mph range in pro ball in 2015. Last year his velocity climbed again, this time into the 93-95 mph range, and he held that velocity all season and deep into starts. How about that?

That 93-95 mph fastball is Montgomery’s straight four-seamer. He also throws a sinker that is more of a low-90s offering, as well as a cutter right around 90 mph. His best pitch is a sinking changeup in the low-80s. Montgomery also has a quality curveball, so he’s a true five-pitch pitcher. As you’ll see in this video, he throws from an extreme over-the-top arm slot:

Montgomery is a good athlete and he repeats his delivery very well for someone his size. He has no problem filling the strike zone and the guy never misses a start. He’s been healthy all throughout his amateur and pro career. The Yankees love that Montgomery has thrived in pressure games — SEC baseball is incredibly competitive — and that he’s a very diligent worker.

2017 Outlook
The Yankees will surely bring Montgomery to big league camp as a non-roster invitee this spring, and while I would bet against him winning an Opening Day roster spot, it’s all but guaranteed he’ll make his MLB debut at some point this summer. Montgomery will return to Triple-A for the time being and continue to fine tune things until his time comes. It’s important to note he is not on the 40-man roster yet, which could work against him. Others like Dietrich Enns and Ronald Herrera could get the call first.

Miscellany
I don’t mean this as a slight, but I didn’t think too much of Montgomery when he was first drafted. I thought maybe he could be a left-handed version of Adam Warren, a successful big program college starter who finds success as a big league swingman, but since then Montgomery has added a cutter and gained considerable velocity, improving his long-term outlook dramatically. He’s gone from swingman candidate to no-doubt starter in his two full pro seasons. It’s hard not to love that.

The only real concern I have about Montgomery is his arm slot, and whether it’ll lead to a big platoon split because right-handed hitters get a good look at the ball. Right-hander Josh Collmenter has a similar arm slot and lefties have hit him pretty hard over the years. Montgomery was actually more effective against righties than lefties in the minors this year, though I wouldn’t read too much into that. We’ll just have to see how his arm slot plays in the show when the time comes. For now, Montgomery is a near MLB ready workhorse southpaw, and good gravy do the Yankees need one of those.

What are Baseball Prospectus’ new control and command tools telling us about Masahiro Tanaka?

(Maddie Meyer/Getty)
(Maddie Meyer/Getty)

All throughout the week, the fine folks at Baseball Prospectus are rolling out a slew of new pitching metrics. They’re attempting to measure things that were previously unmeasurable, like command and deception and the effects of pitch sequencing. Last year they revolutionized catcher defense stats, and now they hope to do the same with the guys on the mound.

Two of the tools the BP crew rolled out earlier this week are stats that serve as proxy measurements of control and command. Control is the basic ability to throw strikes. Command is the ability to throw quality strikes, meaning hit the corners of the zone and keep the ball out of the heart of the plate. You can have good control and bad command. Example: Michael Pineda. He rarely walks hitters, but he also struggles to keep the ball out of the middle of the zone.

The article explaining the new stats is free to read, so I recommend checking it out. In a nutshell, Called Strike Probability, or CS Prob, measures control by telling us the likelihood of a pitch being called a strike based on all the other pitches in that location around the league. Called Strikes Above Average, or CSAA, reflects command by telling us whether a pitcher is reliably hitting his spots. CSAA is adjusted for the catcher, umpire, the whole nine. It isolates the pitcher’s contribution to the called strike (or ball).

After scrolling through the leaderboards, the data told me pretty much exactly what I expected. Pineda rates very well in CS Prob and very poorly in CSAA. Dellin Betances rates below-average at both. I’m not sure that will surprise anyone. I was looking through various Yankees pitchers and it all made sense. And then I got to Masahiro Tanaka. Look where he ranks among pitchers to throw at least 100 innings:

Pitchers with 100+ IP CS Prob Rank CSAA Rank
2014 149 134th 32th
2015 141 123rd 10th
2016 144 78th 20th

According to the data, in each of his three seasons with the Yankees, Tanaka has ranked in the bottom half of the league in control but near the top of the league in command. That doesn’t make sense! Intuitively, a pitcher can have good control and bad command, but not bad control and good command. If you can command your pitches and dot the corners of the zone, surely you can throw strikes.

So obviously the CS Prob and CSAA data is wrong, right? The stupid made up numbers are broken and the statheads are ruining the game. Yeah, sure, that’s always possible. Before we jump to that conclusion, we should consider exactly what CS Prob and CSAA are attempting to tell us first. CS Prob is quite simply “how likely is it this pitch will be called a strike?” CSAA is a tad more complicated. From the primer article:

Traditionally command is understood as the ability to “hit your spots”—having the ball end up where you intend it to. Over the years this has been studied in numerous ways—most notably by attempting to determine how much the catcher moves his glove to receive a pitch. This is flawed because the catcher’s glove isn’t always the target, and we can’t know where the pitcher is truly intending the pitch to go.

What we can do is come at command from a different angle. A pitcher with good command should be more predictable for the catcher—their pitches often end up in the locations, and with the movement that the catcher expects. This skill results in easier receiving for catchers, and additional called strikes for the pitcher. Once we aggregate the data cross thousands of pitches, CSAA is able to tell us whether a pitcher is reliably hitting his spots.

That make sense? CSAA measures the extent to which the pitcher affects the likelihood of the pitch being called a strike. The BP crew admits CSAA is not a perfect measure of command, but they’ve found the CSAA leaderboard reflects command pitchers very well. Guys like Zack Greinke and Kyle Hendricks are the CSAA kings while others like Betances and Pineda rank among the league’s worst. It passes the sniff test.

We know for a fact Tanaka rarely walks batters — he had a 4.5% walk rate in 2016 and it’s 4.3% in his three MLB seasons — indicating good control. The guy throws strikes. Having watched him pitch with my own eyes the last three seasons, it seems Tanaka lives on the corners of the strike zone. Here, via Baseball Savant, is a heat map of his called strikes since 2014:

masahiro-tanaka-heat-map

Look at that. It’s beautiful. The dark splotches, which indicate where the majority of Tanaka’s called strikes are located, are on the edges of the strike zone. The lightly shaded areas indicate fewer pitches in that location, and for Tanaka, that includes the middle of the strike zone. Every pitcher wants to control the strike zone that way. Live on the corners, stay out of the middle of the plate. Here, I’m going to label the heat map to make things a little more clear:

masahiro-tanaka-heat-map-annotatedThat’s what you’re seeing in the heat map, essentially. If you’ve watched Tanaka pitch at all these last few years, you know he loves to throw that running two-seamer away to righties and in on lefties, and have it dart back over to plate to nip the corner for a called strike. Like this:

masahiro-tanaka-two-seamer

The pitch looks like it’s going to sail way outside to a right-handed hitter — or way inside to a lefty — before moving back over the plate to catch the corner. It’s a wonderfully effective pitch, and generally speaking, that’s the splotch on the left side of the heat map. The lower right blob is splitters — and possibly some sliders and curveballs too — and they’re pretty self-explanatory. They sometimes hit the bottom corner of the zone for a called strike, though they usually dive out of the zone for a swing and miss.

The CS Prob and CSAA data is not broken even though it’s indicating Tanaka has bad control but great command. Tanaka is just an outlier. We know he throws strikes. His consistently low walk rate is evidence of that. The assumption he has good command has always been based on our observations, but now we have some data telling us that yes, Tanaka is reliably hitting his spots. He lives on the edges of the plate, and because those pitches are less likely to be called strikes, his CS Prob rank is poor. But because he’s on the edges consistently, his CSAA is high. Make sense?

For most pitchers, their heat map of called strikes looks like a giant blob over the middle of the plate. Tanaka’s is the opposite. He keeps the ball out of the middle of the strike zone — not all the time, of course, but much more than most — and instead works the edges. That’s why he’s so successful despite not having a blow-you-away fastball. Tanaka is an artist on the mound. We’ve seen it the last three years. Now the CS Prob and CSAA data is confirming what our eyes have been telling us.

Tuesday Night Open Thread

Yesterday, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study looking at the effect of jet lag on baseball players. George Dvorsky has a good summary. The study found teams that travel west to east see their performance suffer much more than teams that travel east to west. We’re talking a lower winning percentage, batting average, runs scored, the whole nine. Over the last few seasons clubs have been looking for ways to improve travel and optimize sleep to avoid the effects of jet lag, though who knows if it’s actually working. Pretty interesting stuff. Check it out.

Here is the open thread for the evening. The Devils and the Islanders are both in action, and there are a bunch of college basketball games on as well. Discuss those games, the jet lag study, or anything else here. Just not politics or religion. Keep that outta here.

Morosi: Didi Gregorius expected to play in the 2017 World Baseball Classic

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

According to Jon Morosi, dedicated WBC newsman, Didi Gregorius is expected to play for the Netherlands in the upcoming 2017 World Baseball Classic. None of the rosters have been officially announced yet, though that should happen reasonably soon. The tournament begins March 6th and the Netherlands opens pool play in South Korea, so Didi has a long flight ahead of him.

There are currently six Dutch players in the big leagues, and Morosi says all of them will play in the WBC except Kenley Jansen. That means Gregorius will share an infield with Andrelton Simmons, Xander Bogaerts, Jurickson Profar, and Jonathan Schoop. The rest of the roster will be made up of players from Honkbal Hoofdklasse, the highest level of pro ball in the Netherlands.

Last week Bogaerts told Brian MacPherson he’s going to play third base at the WBC while Simmons mans shortstop, meaning Gregorius will either have to play second base (Schoop’s position) or designated hitter. It’s entirely possible Didi will end up getting starts at second, short, and DH in the tournament. We’ll see. He’s one of the team’s best players, so he’ll be in the lineup one way or another.

Gregorius did not play in any of the previous WBCs, and since his roster spot with the Yankees is secure, he has nothing to lose by playing in the event. It wouldn’t make sense for, say, Luis Cessa to go pitch for Mexico in the WBC when he’s trying to win a rotation spot with the Yankees, you know? Gregorius isn’t competing for his job. He knows he is New York’s starting shortstop.

The final WBC rosters will be announced in the coming weeks. We know Dellin Betances will pitch for the Dominican Republic and Masahiro Tanaka will not pitch for Japan, and that’s about it right now. The Yankees have a few other players who could represent their country in the WBC.