Mailbag: Minor League Starting Rotations

Left out. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Chris asks: Can we see a post on the Minor League rotations? So far I see them looking something like…

Scranton: Phelps, Warren, DJ Mitchell, Brackman, Noesi (assuming Nova makes the big club)
Trenton: Banuelos, Igawa, Betances, Stoneburner, Bleich
Tampa: Jairo Heredia, Jose Ramirez, Brett Marshall, Shaeffer Hall , Sean Black
Charleston: Bryan Mitchell, Gabe Encinas, DePaula, Cotham, and Rutckyj

I agree with your Triple-A rotation, though I don’t think they’ll line up in that order. Not that it matters, just sayin’. Kei Igawa won’t start in Double-A, he’ll do the swingman think out of the Triple-A bullpen yet again. If Nova doesn’t make the big league team, then I suppose Adam Warren would go back to Double-A. That would only be temporary anyway, he won’t stay there all season.

Jeremy Bleich is on his way back from major shoulder surgery, so he won’t be ready to start the season in any rotation, let alone Double-A. Hall pitched pretty damn well last season (2.61 FIP in 68 IP for Low-A then 3.30 FIP in 69 IP for High-A), so I expect him to jump up to Trenton. Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances are obvious locks for Double-A. That last spot could go to one of two guys: Craig Heyer or Cory Arbiso. Both did nice jobs after shifting into the rotation in the second half last year, and it really depends on what they do with Heyer (the actual prospect). If they move him back to the bullpen, his ultimate destination, it’ll be Arbiso. If not, then it’ll be Heyer.

Your High-A rotation is spot-on except for Hall. That spot will probably go to Josh Romanski, who signed early last year then pitched to a 3.44 FIP in 88.1 IP for Low-A Charleston last summer. He also made a three start cameo with Tampa at the end of the year and figures to go back there.

The Low-A rotation is interesting and completely unpredictable. I could see all those guys starting the year there, but I could also see none of them there. Rafael DePaula still hasn’t secured a visa, so he’s not even in the United States. Let’s count him out. Cotham is still coming back from labrum surgery and it’s unclear if he’ll be ready in time to start the season, so let’s count him out as well. The Yankees have been pretty reluctant in recent years when it comes to pushing high school pitchers into full season ball in their first full pro season, so I would be surprised if Encinas and Evan Rutckyj started in Charleston. Ditto Taylor Morton.

Mikey O’Brien had a fine stint with Short Season Staten Island last year (3.10 FIP in 60.2 IP), so he’ll probably get a Low-A assignment. Nik Turley will probably make his full season debut as well (3.18 FIP, 0 HR allowed in 61.2 IP with Staten Island last year), and I could see both of SI’s college guys – Zach Varce (2.61 FIP in 71.1 IP) and Shane Greene (3.38 FIP in 49 IP) – in Charleston as well. Greene actually finished last season with four starts there, so he’s a safe bet. The last spot could go to Dustin Hobbs, who made seven starts with the rookie level Gulf Coast League Yankees last year before making a pair with Staten Island. Evan DeLuca’s pretty raw and probably needs more time in Extended Spring Training.

Alright, so based on all that, here is my best guess at the rotations (in no particular order one through five)….

Triple-A: Noesi, Brackman, Warren, Mitchell, Phelps
Double-A: Banuelos, Betances, Stoneburner, Hall, Heyer
High-A: Heredia, Ramirez, Marshall, Black, Romanski
Low-A: O’Brien, Turley, Varce, Greene, Hobbs

That leaves guys like DeLuca, Morton, Encinas, Rutckyj, Brett Gerritse, and Matt Richardson for the short season league rotations, plus 2011 draftees. Trenton will clearly have the most exciting rotation, but Scranton isn’t far behind. Marshall and Ramirez are reason enough to pay attention to Tampa, and Charleston … hey, Gary Sanchez!

CC Sabathia’s two-seamer and ground ball rate

On Thursday Mike penned an ode to CC Sabathia: workhouse extraordinaire. It was a piece that focused on Sabathia’s durability and consistency, praising him for his extremely high level of performance over an extremely high workload. It was also a piece that Sabathia himself tweeted from his official Twitter account. Pretty cool, eh? There’s one aspect of Sabathia’s game that has gone relatively underreported though, even though relative is a very loose term in the Yankee media world. The change is CC’s increased ability to get groundouts.

CC entered the league as a young buck, a mere 20 years old, and for the first three years of his career averaged a groundball percentage in the low 40% range. He bottomed out at 39.3% in 2004, a year in which he also registered the lowest GB/FB ratio of his career (0.96). In 2005 he saw his groundball rate jump to nearly 50%, giving him a career high 1.61 GB/FB ratio, but the numbers settled back in around 45% for the next three years before dropping to 42% in his 2009 campaign with the Yankees. 2010 was a different story. While his strikeout rate slid down to around 7.5 batters per nine innings he registered a groundball rate of over 50% for the first time in his career, a rate good for 4th best amongst AL left-handers and nearly identical to the rate of Phillies’ pitcher Roy Halladay.

It would be unwise to make too much of this, as this could prove to be a momentary blip in the radar like 2005. But there are some interesting questions as to how and why Sabathia ended up notching 70 more ground balls in 2010 than he did in 2009. Part of the explanation could be a slight change in repertoire. In 2007 and 2008 Fangraphs’ Pitch F(x) source shows Sabathia featuring primarily a four-seam fastball (around 60%), a changeup (18%), a slider (19%) and a curveball (averaging 2%). In 2009 though it started classifying some of those four-seam fastballs as two-seamer, and Sabathia registered a 3.1% for the two-seam fastball. In 2010 it saw an even bigger jump, and Sabathia registered a 14.0% two-seamer and just a 47% for the four-seamer. Texas Leaguers’ Pitch F(x) database saw something similar, showing Sabathia throwing a sinker 3.2% of the time in 2009 and 14.1% of the time in 2011.

So there are a few obvious questions. For one, is Sabathia actually throwing a two-seamer/sinker? Secondly, has he started throwing it more often recently? Thirdly, is it responsible for the uptick in ground balls? The answer to the first question is the easiest: yes. Aside from the support received from the Pitch F(x) database, Sabathia by his own admission throws what he terms a “two-seamer”. He mentioned it in 2009 when the Yankees acquired Curtis Granderson, stating that his approach to Granderson was “two-seamers in to keep him honest, then get him out away”. He also brought up his two-seamer as recently as last week, after the simulated game, saying that his two-seamer was “doing what it’s supposed to do”. This part of the equation is clear: Sabathia throws both a four-seam and a two-seam fastball.

Unfortunately, the answer to the second question is far more murky. We know that there are questions surrounding Pitch F(x) classification. In 2010 many pitchers saw increases in their two-seamer and cutter rates, a fact likely due to an alteration in the classification algorithm rather than a sudden league-wide change in repertoire. As Pitch F(x) guru Mike Fast put it in June of last year, “Ross has made significant updates to this algorithm every year, and one of the most noticeable impacts is that the percentage of pitches classified as two-seam fastballs has increased with each update. This does not mean that the pitchers themselves have changed anything about their pitch selection or the movement on their pitches.” Fast recommends examining the relevant velocity vs. spin charts for the pitcher so that it becomes possible to see whether a new cluster of pitches has emerged or whether the system is simply re-labelling an existing pitch as something new. Sabathia’s 2009 velocity vs. spin chart is available here; his 2010 velocity vs. spin chart is available here. Obviously there is a greater preponderance of sinkers in 2010 than there is in 2009, although that’s to be expected. We do know that the pitch is distinct from the four-seam fastball in both horizontal and vertical movement. It remains unclear, though, as to whether this constitutes a new (within the past two years) development or is simply the product of Pitch F(x) becoming more detailed and accurate about the types of pitches pitchers throw.

As such it remains difficult to answer the third question, whether this pitch is responsible for the ground balls. Sabathia certainly got more ground balls in 2010, so if Sabathia is indeed throwing more two-seamers then it would certainly provide a solid explanation for why his ground ball rate jumped over 50% for the first time in 2005. This will be an interesting question to monitor in 2011, and it would certainly provide clarification if a reporter could get CC to talk about his changing approach to hitters. Is he actively trying to get more ground outs? Is he accomplishing that goal by throwing more two-seamers? As he gets older, it will be harder and harder for CC to maintain the elite strikeout rates he’s managed in the past. If he’s able to adjust and compensate for that by getting more ground balls then he may find his longevity as an elite pitcher extended by a few years.

Open Thread: The rotation begins to take shape

(AP Photo)

Following today’s tie with the Blue Jays, Joe Girardi announced that A.J. Burnett will start the second game of the season with Phil Hughes to follow as the number three. The last two spots are still up in the air, but Freddy Garcia (6 IP, 5 R today) will get one more chance to show what he’s got before a final decision is made. Manny Banuelos will pitch on Monday, but his running mate Dellin Betances was sent to minor league camp. There’s a pretty good chance that we’ll know the identities of the four and five by Friday, and my money’s on … Bartolo Colon and Ivan Nova, but that is subject to change. By the hour.

Anyways, here is your open thread for the night. Enjoy.

Setting the record straight

One of the more exciting aspects to the offseason has been the emergence of Manny Banuelos as one of the game’s premier pitching prospects. Last week he debuted nationally, giving everyone but fans in the tri-state area the opportunity to get a good look at him. Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein put together a significant writeup of Banuelos. Ultimately he concluded that Banuelos’ stuff was MLB-ready, but that Banuelos wasn’t ready from an innings and durability standpoint to handle the major leagues. He then concluded his article with a rather odd dig at the approach of Brian Cashman and the Yankees’ front office to the offseason:

In the end, the question of Banuelos’ readiness is less about the prospect and more about the failures of the Yankees to shore up their rotation in the offseason by putting all their eggs in the baskets of Cliff Lee and the anticipated return of Andy Pettitte. “If A.J. Burnett is their number five starter, everyone is happy in Yankees land,” said the National League executive. “If they signed Lee; if Pettitte came back, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Just because the Yankees [screwed] up this off-season doesn’t mean they should sacrifice this kid in the process.”

This is a criticism of Cashman has been bandied about frequently since Pettitte retired. Yet the question remains: what exactly would these critics have liked Cashman to do differently? Did the Yankees really screw up this off-season? It’s true that there were plenty of pitchers available in the free agent and trade markets this winter. So did Cashman err by not landing them? Let’s review, keeping in mind that Lee signed with the Phillies on December 15, 2010.

Ted Lilly: A perpetually underrated fly-ball lefty, Lilly signed a big extension with the Dodgers on 10/16/10. The Yankees never had a chance.

Hiroki Kuroda: Another personal favorite, Kuroda never actually hit the free agent market either. He resigned with the Dodgers on 11/15/10 during the Dodgers’ exclusive negotiating window prior to free agency. When he signed, he said he didn’t need to listen to any other offers once the Dodgers told him they wanted him back.

Jorge De La Rosa: Signed with the Rockies for 2 years and $21.5M with a player option for $11M on 12/3/10. His strikeout rates have always been intriguing, but one could justifiably be concerned about how his career 4.5 BB/9 would play in the AL East. Like Lilly and Kuroda, De La Rosa signed before Lee chose the Phillies.

Shaun Marcum: The Blue Jays traded Marcum to the Brewers on 12/5/10 in exchange for infielder Brett Lawrie. Marcum is currently shut down with shoulder tightness and has never thrown more than 159 innings in a single year.

Aaron Harang: Coming off several poor years, Harang signed a low-money contract with the Padres on 12/6/10.

These are the pitchers whom the Yankees missed out on by waiting on Cliff Lee. Of these, only Marcum could have possibly been a decent upgrade for the Yankee rotation (since Lilly and Kuroda never actually hit the free agent market). However, there are justifiable concerns about his injury history and durability, not to mention the fact that it hardly made sense for Cashman to acquire a starter by trade while he was waiting on Lee and Pettitte to decide.

After Lee signed with Philadelphia, spurning New York for a younger team (ahem),  there were really only two pitchers Cashman could have acquired: Zack Greinke and Carl Pavano. Cashman pursued Pavano, going as far as to make him a significant offer for one year. Pavano rejected it. As for Greinke, Cashman met with him and even listened to Greinke make an appeal for Cashman to acquire him, but he ultimately decided against it. Of all the options, is really the only decision with which one could quarrel. Yet this is why you pay your GM the big bucks. He’s responsible for weighing the performance risk of the potential target (which he judged to be high) against the cost of acquiring the target (which we know to be high).

Ultimately it made sense for Cashman to wait on Lee and  Pettitte despite the risk that neither of them would be donning the Yankee pinstripes this season. He really had no other choice to go all-in on these two pitchers. Was he supposed to fill his starting pitcher slot with the Kevin Correias and Jorge De La Rosas of the league while Lee and Pettitte were still out there? What happens if Lee and Pettitte both want to join the club? The risk of wasting a roster slot with a subpar pitcher was not worth forgoing the potential payoff of a rotation of Sabathia, Lee, Hughes, Pettitte and Burnett.

The alleged “screw-up” of the Yankee front office this season is more a function of things out of Cashman’s control: the timing of the trades, the timing of Lee and Pettitte’s decisions, and the relatively bare starting pitching market. One is certainly entitled to second-guess the front office, but aside from disagreeing with Cashman on whether Greinke would be a good fit in New York the criticism seems unfounded. As unenthusiastic as fans are about the prospect of Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia in the Yankees rotation to start the year, there wasn’t a whole lot Cashman could do otherwise to prevent it. Sometimes things just don’t go your way.

No issues for Joba, Feliciano during bullpen sessions

Via Marc Carig & Chad Jennings, Joba Chamberlain‘s bullpen session went just fine today. The right-hander said his mechanics were a-okay and he feels 100% following his strained oblique. Assuming he doesn’t wake up in crippling pain tomorrow, chances are his next pitching appearance will come in a game. Good news.

Elsewhere on the bullpen front, Pedro Feliciano downplayed his dead arm – now being termed triceps tightness – and said it was nothing more than normal Spring Training soreness. The lefty tested his moneymaker at 80% effort in the bullpen this morning. Everything went well and he’ll throw another in a few days. Boone Logan, meanwhile, will pitch in tomorrow’s game, so the back spasms weren’t bad at all.

ST Game Thread: Another look at Banuelos

(AP Photo)

This afternoon could be the last time we get to see Manny Banuelos for a while, unless you plan on trekking down to Trenton at some point this summer. Brian Cashman remains adamant that both Banuelos and Dellin Betances will begin the year at the Double-A level, though Joe Girardi indicated that both will probably get one more appearance in with the big boys before heading down to minor league camp. The regular season is less than two weeks away, so there’s only so many innings to go around.

Banuelos is scheduled to pitch at some point today, but that probably won’t come until after Freddy Garcia makes his latest case for a rotation spot and Mariano Rivera does his thing for an inning. Here’s the lineup…

Derek Jeter, SS
Eduardo Nunez, LF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Robbie Cano, 2B
Jorge Posada, DH
Andruw Jones, RF
Austin Romine, C
Melky Mesa, CF

Available Pitchers: Freddy Garcia, Mariano Rivera, Manny Banuelos, Mark Prior, Luis Ayala, Steve Garrison, Eric Wordekemper, Ryan Pope, and Wilkins Arias.

Available Position Players: Jesus Montero (C), Eric Chavez (1B), Kevin Russo (2B), Doug Bernier (SS), Ronnie Belliard (3B), Ramiro Pena (LF), Justin Maxwell (CF), Jordan Parraz (RF), and Gustavo Molina (DH).

Today’s game will be broadcast on the YES Network, with first pitch scheduled for 1:05pm ET. If you miss it because you were spending this lovely Saturday afternoon outside, it will be rebroadcast by both the MLB Network and YES later this evening. Enjoy.

For One Man, a Quiet Spring Training

Alex Rodriguez
"You pay attention to someone else. I'm gonna take a nap." (AP/Kathy Willens)

We’re about two weeks from Opening Day and we’ve had plenty of spring storylines to discuss, both of the important and eye-rolling variety. Joba is fat. Joba is injured. Manny Banuelos is amazing! Bartolo Colon is fat (but also good?). AJ Burnett is cured (or not)! Michael Kay’s endless angst regarding Posada’s move to DH. Derek Jeter’s contract. Derek Jeter’s house. Derek Jeter’s swing. And of course, Hank. No lull in Yankee baseball is apparently complete without Hank Steinbrenner opening his mouth and sticking his foot as far down his throat as it will go.

Hold on, there’s something missing. There’s something that we’ve all become accustomed to in our Spring Trainings and it’s not here. As a matter of fact, it seems like there is a noted absence of one particular quantity.

Where’s A-Rod?

Wait. You mean there’s absolutely no A-Rod scandal this spring? How about this offseason? Cameron Diaz, his girlfriend, fed him popcorn in his luxury Super Bowl suite? That’s it? The best you can come up with for Alex Rodriguez, destroyer of baseball, tradition-mauler extraordinaire, is his girlfriend fed him popcorn?

For years, we’ve become accustomed to Spring Training being about – or at least featuring, in some way – how Alex Rodriguez sucks. In 2007, it was about the 2006 ALDS, where he infamously got on base a grand total of twice in his fifteen plate appearances (.071/.133/.071): a single and a hit-by-pitch. If the Yankees had won, this probably would have been framed as The Yankees can win without A-Rod!, a narrative that we see every so often. Instead, they were effortlessly swept out of the ALDS by the magical 2006 Tigers, who beat them by four runs or more in three of the four games. It was, quite obviously, Rodriguez’s fault. Duh. In 2008, it was his World Series opt-out and subsequent massive contract signing (also a Hank news item), the Best Worst contract that we are still dealing with today and will be dealing with for a long, long time. 2009 was probably the worst, what with the steroid drama explosion combined with the hip surgery. Not only was Rodriguez going to come back old and feeble after his labrum was fixed, he was also obviously going to be incapable of hitting any more home runs – even though his leaked steroid use was during his Texas years. Even his 2009 postseason tear and finally achieving True Yankee™ status couldn’t stop the steroid drama from rolling into 2010, with the indictment of Dr. Galea in October.

For the first time in at least four years, we’re having an Alex-Rodriguez-drama-free Spring Training. It is glorious. It seems like this is work of his new PR team, which has adapted the much more fan-friendly campaign of having him hit a lot, look good, talk about how much he loves helping the team, and crack the most well-placed popcorn joke ever. I don’t actually know if he has a new public relations team for real, but it’s hard to argue with the change in results. Even if he sometimes comes off as being a bit fake, that’s certainly preferably to being a cheater (twice), unclutch, an attention whore, and/or only in it for the money.

The only thing we have to say about new and improved Alex Rodriguez is that he is thin and Cameron Diaz feeds him popcorn while he’s at the Super Bowl. That’s it? That’s really the only thing the massive Alex Rodriguez hate machine can come up with? Wouldn’t you want Cameron Diaz to feed you popcorn in your zillion dollar luxury suite for the Super Bowl? I suppose there’s always the standard fallbacks of his Best Worst contract and his down season that included thirty homers and 125 RBIs, but these are overplayed and overshadowed by more recent problems in both departments. The Rafael Soriano contract has taken over the spot for ‘most talked about bad contract,’ and Derek Jeter’s terrible season was far, far worse than A-Rod’s. To make things better for the superstar, Soriano is requesting not to pitch in games and Jeter is batting a measly .303/.343./364 in comparison to Rodriguez’s .406/.424/.906, with one home run in each of the past three games he’s played in. Here’s hoping that in 2012 Spring Training, we’ll be talking about how he hit a home run in each of the four winning World Series games and donated a bazillion dollars to charity.

While it’s safe to say A-Rod will never be ignored by the media, his relatively quiet, team-supportive attitude and absolute victory over the popcorn ‘scandal’ seems to predict that there’s a new Rodriguez in town. Without him stirring his own pot, the media is seemingly is finding less crap to talk about him. Instead, this new guy is interested in hitting a lot of home runs, winning another World Series and making as few waves as possible, and hey, what more can you ask for from a ballplayer?