Open Thread: 2/26 Camp Notes

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

Another day of Spring Training workouts is in the books. We’re only five days away from the first Grapefruit League game now. Here is the latest from Tampa:

  • The big story of the day was Masahiro Tanaka‘s third bullpen session of the spring. He threw 40 pitches with increased intensity and had no issues. “I was throwing with more force than the last bullpen. As far as hitting the spots, location, it was better than the last one as well,” he said. Larry Rothschild was pleased and Tanaka will throw again in a few days. [George King]
  • Bryan Mitchell and Chase Whitley also threw bullpens while Adam Warren and Andrew Miller were the notables to throw live batting practice. There’s a very large group of pitchers scheduled to throw tomorrow, including CC Sabathia, Andrew Bailey, Chris Capuano, David Carpenter, Dellin Betances, Nathan Eovaldi, and Jacob Lindgren. [Chad Jennings]
  • Today was the first full squad workout and everything went without a hitch. All the position players took batting practice, the infielders took infield practice, the outfielders too outfield practice, etc. That includes Alex Rodriguez, who supposedly had the day’s most impressive batting practice session. [Jennings]
  • Brian Cashman confirmed that yes, A-Rod will be on the Opening Day roster. He also said his relationship with Alex is fine and he’s sick of talking about him. Cashman believes the situation has been addressed and the questions have been answered. [Brendan Kuty, Ryan Hatch, Dan Barbarisi, Andrew Marchand]
  • Remember the minor ankle injury that sidelined Jacoby Ellsbury at the end of last season? He took three weeks off to rest at the start of the offseason and it hasn’t bothered him since. [Mark Feinsand]

This is the nightly open thread. The (hockey) Rangers are playing and there is some college hoops on as well. That’s it. Use this thread to talk about anything anything and everything.

Mark Teixeira is not going to focus on beating the shift and that’s okay

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

Position players reported to Spring Training yesterday and one of the first to talk was Mark Teixeira, who is now entering his seventh year as the team’s first baseman. Teixeira went into the winter saying he needed to get stronger following his first full year after wrist surgery, and he claims to have done that with a diet change and more weight lifting. Hopefully it works. We’ll see.

One thing Teixeira said he will not do is focus on trying to beat the shift this coming season. The shift is a hot topic around the game right now and Teixeira has been hurt by it as much as any hitter, particularly when he’s hitting from the left side of the plate. That said, he’s not going to change his approach. He’ll focus on hitting the ball over the shift, not around it.

“We’ve talked about it ad nauseam. Every time I try to slap the ball the other way, it doesn’t go well for anybody,” said Teixeira to Chad Jennings. “That’s what the other team wants. They want to take a middle-of-the-order power hitter and turn him into a slap hitter. So if I can hit more home runs, more doubles, walk more, that takes care of the shift. I don’t want to ground out to second base. That’s not what I’m trying to do up there.”

Teixeira has tried changing his approach to counteract the shift before, most notably early in the 2012 season, and the result was a bunch of weak fly balls to left field. He eventually abandoned the plan during a late-May trip out to the West Coast. Before the trip, Teixeira hit .229/.305/.371 in 118 plate appearances as a left-handed batter. After the trip, he hit .246/.346/.480 in 208 plate appearances as a lefty.

After coming to camp that year telling anyone who would listen he was going to beat the shift, Teixeira gave up trying to the other way before the end of May because it wasn’t working for him. He used to be an all-fields hitter, but he’s not anymore for whatever reason. That’s the reality of the situation. At that point in 2012, Teixeira was at his best when he tried to pull the ball, so that’s what he did. Three years and one wrist surgery later, it’s hard to think he’ll be better able to go to the other way.

It’s easy to forget Teixeira was actually pretty good in the first half of last season. He hit .241/.341/.464 (125 wRC+) before the All-Star break, including .254/.330/.513 as a left-handed batter. After the break though, Teixeira only hit .179/.271/.302 (62 wRC+) overall and a very weak .151/.265/.262 as a lefty batter. First half Teixeira was really good and he sure as heck wasn’t trying to beat the shift. He says he wore down in the second half — hence the focus on getting stronger this winter — and the numbers back it up.

At this point of his career, two months away from his 35th birthday and two years after wrist surgery, Teixeira is what he is. He can still be a productive player even with the shift, he showed that in the first half of last season and also in the second half of 2012, so he should stick to what works. Brian McCann spent all last year trying to beat the shift and, like Teixeira early in 2012, the result was a lot of weak contact. This is Teixeira’s reality now. Trying (again) to change his approach will likely result in decreased performance and that only makes things worse.

New pace of play rules mean several Yankees will have to make adjustments in Spring Training

There will be less standing around in 2015. (Presswire)
There will be less standing around in 2015. (Presswire)

Late last week, MLB and the MLBPA announced a series of rule modifications designed to improve baseball’s pace of play. A few league executives were quoted as saying they aren’t necessarily trying to shorten games, they’re trying to eliminate some of the downtime within games. They don’t want players standing around and fans reaching for their phones between pitches, basically.

The biggest rule modification now requires hitters to essentially keep one foot in the batter’s box if they take a pitch. They can’t watch a pitch go by, step out, fix their gloves, take some practice swings, then get back in the box. If they want to adjust their batting gloves, they have to do it in the box. The MLBPA signed off on the rule changes — MLB can’t just unilaterally make rule changes, the players have to agree — but not everyone loves them.

“It seems like every rule goes in the pitcher’s favor. After a pitch, you got to stay in the box? One foot? I call that bulls—,” said David Ortiz to Gordon Edes yesterday. “When you come out of the box, they don’t understand you’re thinking about what the [pitcher] is trying to do. This is not like, you go to the plate with an empty mind. No, no, no. When you see a guy, after a pitch, coming out of the box, he’s not just doing it. Our minds are speeding up.”

A few prospects in the Arizona Fall League — the one foot in the box rule and several others were tested during the AzFL — said they felt rushed during their at-bats and didn’t love the new rule, so Ortiz is not alone. He claims he doesn’t step out for the sake of stepping out, he steps out to refocus and dig through his mental toolbox to figure out what pitch might be coming next. It would be easy to bash Ortiz on a Yankees blog but I totally believe him. I’m guessing he is far from the only hitter who steps out to refocus in the middle of an at-bat.

So that got me wondering about Yankees players who might not like the new pace of play rules. Both hitters and pitchers since now there will be some pressure on the pitcher to throw the ball because the batter is in the box waiting. There’s no real way to quantify something like this, and I’m not Tampa so I can’t ask the players about it myself, but we can look at each player’s pace. Pace being the average amount of time that passes between pitches within their at-bats as measured by PitchFX. Here’s the data:

Player 2014 Pace Career Pace Pitcher 2014 Pace Career Pace
Alex Rodriguez lol 23.8 Chris Capuano 25.4 22.8
Jacoby Ellsbury 24.3 22.1 David Carpenter 25.3 24.3
Brett Gardner 23.9 23.4 Masahiro Tanaka 25.1 25.1
Stephen Drew 23.7 21.7 Adam Warren 24.8 22.7
Garrett Jones 23.3 22.6 Justin Wilson 24.5 24.2
Chris Young 23.3 21.9 Ivan Nova 24.1 22.1
Didi Gregorius 23.1 22.7 Dellin Betances 23.0 22.6
Chase Headley 22.2 21.6 CC Sabathia 22.7 23.7
Brian McCann 22.0 21.7 Michael Pineda 22.4 21.4
Mark Teixeira 21.7 20.8 Andrew Miller 21.9 20.4
Carlos Beltran 21.5 21.0 Nathan Eovaldi 20.6 20.6

The pace data matches the eye test. Anecdotally, McCann and Teixeira are pretty good at staying in the box during an at-bat and not wondering around after taking a pitch. Gardner, on the other hand, seems to step out and take a practice swing after each pitch. Tanaka certainly wasn’t the quickest worker on the mound last year and Nova seemed to be taking more time than usual — his pace sat right around 22.1 seconds from 2010-13 — maybe because his elbow was barking.

By and large, the Yankees have some really slow workers on the roster. The average pace in MLB last year was 23.0 seconds, and 13 of the 22 players listed in the table were at or above that last year. The Yankees as a team had a 23.0-second pace at the plate and a 23.6-second pace on the mound in 2014. Without the pace of play rule changes, those rates might have gone up this season. They’re a slow working group.

On an individual level, Ellsbury, Gardner, and Drew look like the hitters who will have to make the biggest adjustment staying in the box after taking a pitch. They’ll have to overcome that feeling of being rushed and it could be a piece of cake. Something they conquer in an afternoon. Who knows? The new pace of play changes probably won’t make much difference to Headley, McCann, Teixeira, and Beltran based on their paces.

On the mound, pretty much the entire staff will need to speed things up a notch thanks to the new rules, especially Capuano and Tanaka. Sabathia’s an interesting case because he’s been working faster and faster as he’s gotten older. When he first got to the Yankees in 2009, he was pushing a 25-second pace. He’s gradually knocked that down to less than 23 seconds. I guess the wily veteran has slowly been an adopting a “get it and throw it” mentality.

Eovaldi works very fast for a starter. His pace last year was the 15th quickest out of the 88 qualified starters, and this sort of ties into what we talked about yesterday, his need to slow the game down on occasion. The pace of play rule changes might not matter all that much to Eovaldi based on how quickly he usually works, but he is a guy who might be able to benefit from taking another second or two to catch his breath and collect himself in big spots.

MLB and MLBPA approved the rule changes last week in part because they want to give the players all of Spring Training to adjust. Shaving a second or even half a second off the time a player takes between pitches might not seem like much, but baseball players are creatures of habit, and they’ve been doing things their way for a long time. The Yankees in general have a slow working roster, so there will be a lot of adjustments to make. That doesn’t mean there will be negative results, it’s just something that has to be done.

Heyman: Yankees are “confident” they can void A-Rod’s home run milestone bonuses

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

As much as they wish they could, the Yankees are unable to avoid the three years and $64M left on Alex Rodriguez‘s contract following last year’s suspension. They are attempting to void the $30M in historic home run milestone bonuses however, and Jon Heyman reports the team is “confident” they will be able to get out of the five $6M bonuses.

Long story short, the wording of the marketing agreement — it’s a marketing agreement, not a player contract, because MLB contracts do not allow bonuses based on stats like homers and RBI — allows the Yankees to say the homers are not be historic due to Alex’s performance-enhancing drug history. Here’s more from Heyman:

Yankees people are said to be confident A-Rod wouldn’t prevail in the expected skirmish over the $30 million, not only because of their belief that his drug missteps have rendered his marketing value nil, but also because of the phrasing in the agreement that requires that the Yankees “designate” the historic home runs as milestones, and perhaps even more importantly, the potential to call him to the stand under oath should he challenge their decision to refuse to pay, as is his right.

The clause, at one point, reads, “The Yankees are under no obligation to exercise its right to designate a historical accomplishment as a milestone provided that its decision is made in good faith and in accordance with the intent of the parties in the covenant.”

Heyman says A-Rod even contacted Scott Boras because he could be a witness in a potential grievance hearing. Boras was Alex’s agent at the time and negotiated the homer bonuses, but he reportedly declined to help Rodriguez even though he would be able to make a commission on the bonuses. (A-Rod fired Boras a few years ago.)

Boras might not back Rodriguez during a potential legal battle, but the union sure would. They legally have to because Alex is a member. It doesn’t matter that he sued them — the suit was eventually dropped, but still — last year as part of his scorched earth tour. Besides, the MLBPA doesn’t want to set any sort of precedent by allowing a team to void an agreement with a player.

Anyway, I’m no lawyer, but it sounds like the Yankees are going to say they decided in good faith the homers are not historic and more or less dare A-Rod to come after them and potentially testify under oath. The bonuses are pretty obviously historic though. The specific milestones (homers 660, 714, 755, 762, 763) in the agreement correlate to tying the four highest homer totals in history and taking over as the home run king. I mean, duh.

In reality, we’re talking about one $6M bonus. A-Rod is six homers away from tying Willie Mays on the all-time list with 660 dingers, but getting to 714 homers to tie Babe Ruth seems like a long shot. Alex would have to hit 60 homers from ages 39-41 after hitting 41 homers from 35-38. Doable? Sure. But it is unlikely at this point of A-Rod’s career. Is it worth the trouble to save $6M? Probably. But proving the milestone homers are not historic sounds like a tall order.

Only wrong answer at top of the lineup is one that doesn’t include Ellsbury and Gardner

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

On the very first day of camp last week, Joe Girardi held his annual start of Spring Training press conference and discussed the importance of settling on a lineup, among other things. “Figuring out our batting order I think is something important, because there are some people we don’t know exactly where they are at, and there are obviously some new people in camp,” he said.

The middle of the lineup is where the most questions exist. Figuring out the best way to align the three through seven spots with Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, Chase Headley, and Alex Rodriguez will be Girardi’s toughest challenge, and he needs to see those guys in games before making a decision. The top and bottom of the lineup should be relatively easy. Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner at the top, Didi Gregorius and Stephen Drew at the bottom. Boom, done.

Here’s where it gets interesting: is it better for the Yankees to bat Ellsbury leadoff and Gardner second, or vice versa? They are two extremely similar offensive players. If you don’t believe me, look:

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ HR BB% K% SB/CS wRC+ RHP wRC+ LHP
2014 Ellsbury 635 .271/.328/.419 107 16 7.7% 14.6% 39/5 97 130
2014 Gardner 636 .256/.327/.422 110 17 8.8% 21.1% 21/5 116 96
2012-14 Ellsbury
1,594 .282/.336/.412 104 29 7.2% 14.3% 105/12 109 96
2012-14 Gardner
1,283 .266/.338/.418 110 25 8.8% 20.9% 47/15 111 106

Like I said, they’re almost the same damn player. Ellsbury hits more singles, strikes out less, and steals more bases. Gardner draws more walks and hits for more power. Neither has a crippling platoon split either. (Girardi has said he has no problem batting them back-to-back even though they’re both lefties.) The end result is two players with almost identical offensive value overall.

Over the years, all sorts of statistical analyses have shown the best hitter should bat second, but when you have two guys this similar, deciding whether to bat Ellsbury leadoff and Gardner second or vice versa comes down to a matter of preference. We have to start nitpicking. They’ve both gotten on base at the same rate, so the default “he has a higher OBP so he should bat leadoff” tiebreaker doesn’t even apply.

I see it this way: Ellsbury not only steals more bases, he’s also the more aggressive base-stealer. We’ve all seen Gardner sit around and wait until the third or fourth or fifth pitch of the at-bat to take off. It’s annoying. Ellsbury gets on and goes. Ellsbury and Gardner get on base at the same rate, but Ellsbury will get himself to second base quicker, and that’s who I want leading off.

In addition to that, Gardner has a bit more power — he had a higher ISO than Ellsbury last year (.166 vs. .148) and over the last three years (.152 vs. .130) — and batting him second means there should be a few additional runners on base when he bats. That will help turn some of those solo homers — Gardner hit 17 homers last year and 14 were solo shots because he batted leadoff and the eight/nine hitters (Ichiro Suzuki, Brian Roberts, etc.) weren’t getting on — into multi-run blasts.

On the other side of the argument, we could say Ellsbury strikes out less than Gardner, meaning Girardi could be a little more creative with the better bat control guy hitting second. More hit-and-runs, that sort of thing. It’s an old school mentality but the Yankees are going to have to manufacture more runs that way this year. The three-run homers aren’t coming like they used to and Ellsbury’s contact skills (and both his and Gardner’s speed) is a weapon they can use.

Ellsbury was forced to hit third last year due injuries and whatnot, but he is totally miscast in that role. He’s at his best creating havoc in a table-setting role. Same with Gardner to slightly lesser degree. Unless the season gets underway and one guy is drastically outproducing the other, there’s no clear cut answer as to whether Ellsbury or Gardner should bat leadoff. The only wrong answer is the one where someone other than these guys hits first or second.

Open Thread: 2/25 Camp Notes

Coach Mo. (Presswire)
Coach Mo. (Presswire)

Position players reported to Spring Training today — everyone arrived on time and everyone passed their physicals, no issues this year — and a special guest instructor showed up as well: Mariano Rivera. “I’ve decided to come back,” he joked. He’ll be in camp for ten days or so. The odds Rivera could come back this year and dominate are like, 95%, right? Right. Here is the rest of the day’s news from Tampa:

  • It was a pretty light day on the mound. Esmil Rogers (live batting practice) and Justin Wilson (bullpen session) were the only no doubt Opening Day roster guys to throw. All the catchers took batting practice and Carlos Beltran went through a full workout. The rest of the position players begin working out tomorrow. [Chad Jennings]
  • Mark Teixeira said he lost 15 lbs. of fat and gained 13 lbs. of muscle this offseason by changing his diet — “No gluten. No dairy. No sugar. No fun.” — and getting back to lifting heavy weights. He feels much stronger than last year. Oh, and Foul Territory is not coming back. Lame. [Jack Curry, Brendan Kuty, Jennings]
  • Alex Rodriguez spoke to Joe Girardi and will work out at first base this spring. “I’d run through a wall for Joe,” he said. Girardi said he is planning to play A-Rod in the first or second Grapefruit League game next week. [David Lennon, Erik Boland]
  • Quote of the day from new hitting coach Jeff Pentland: “I’m only a good hitting coach if we have good players. I’m not a fool to think I’m better than the players.” [Boland]

Here is your nightly open thread. The Knicks, Nets, and Devils are playing, and there’s a ton of college hoops on as well. Talk about those games or anything else here.

The easy to forget but still really important Ivan Nova

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Since Spring Training officially opened last week, all eyes have been on Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia. Well, at least the eyes that weren’t glued to Alex Rodriguez‘s every step. Tanaka and Sabathia are by far the biggest pitching stories in camp since they are both being counted on as rotation anchors and are coming off pretty serious injuries. It has not yet been a week, but so far, so good with those two.

Early in the morning yesterday, before Sabathia threw his second bullpen session of his spring, rehabbing righty Ivan Nova was at the team’s complex throwing his third bullpen as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery. It was a relatively light throwing session — 25 pitches, all fastballs — and he’ll likely throw another all fastball bullpen before introducing offspeed pitches. When the team breaks camp in early-April, Nova will stay behind to continue rehabbing in Tampa.

The Yankees have taken it very slow with Nova’s rehab so far — he had surgery in late-April, and according to Mike Dodd’s classic Tommy John surgery rehab article, Nova should have been throwing bullpens by October or November — and that is by design. A lot of pitchers have rushed back from elbow reconstruction in the last year or two only to need another procedure almost immediately. Cory Luebke and Daniel Hudson didn’t even complete the rehab from the first surgery when they blew out their elbows again. Brandon Beachy made it back for 30 innings. The Yankees are playing it safe.

“One good thing, you know you’re not going to be ready in April,” said Nova to Chad Jennings yesterday. “So you prepare yourself to be ready whenever they tell me. I don’t have to be thinking right now that I’ve got to be ready in April, so that’s kind of fortunate. I’m just taking it day by day, and I know that — I believe — a month before they think I’m going to be ready to go to the big leagues, they’re going to tell me. So that’s the time when I’m going to really prepare for that day.”

Because he’s been out of action for so long — Nova made only four starts last season before getting hurt — it’s been pretty easy to forget he exists. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess. That doesn’t make him any less important to the team, however. The Yankees have a risky rotation led by Tanaka and Sabathia, so getting Nova back healthy at midseason will be a boost to the starting staff. Hopefully an extra boost, not a “oh goodness we need him back as soon as possible” sort of boost.

Last year Jeff Zimmerman ran some numbers on performance before and after Tommy John surgery and confirmed that yeah, pitchers tend to struggle immediately after having their elbow ligament replaced. Their ERA increases 5.8% relative to projections, their walk rate increases 5.0%, and their strikeout rate drops 4.4%. It’s not until two years after surgery that they really get back to being themselves. Using that info, here’s a quick and dirty look at Nova’s projected performance for 2015:

ERA K% BB%
2013 Actual Performance 3.10 19.8% 7.5%
2014 Actual Performance 8.27 12.5% 6.3%
2015 ZiPS Projection 4.08 19.6% 7.2%
2015 ZiPS + TJS Penalty 4.32 18.7% 7.6%

Nova has been a perfectly league average pitcher overall so far in his career (career 100 ERA+!) though it’s been a roller coaster. He’s had some great years and some really bad years, including his brief four-start cameo in 2014. ZiPS, unsurprisingly, pegs him as a true talent league average pitcher for this coming season (99 ERA+) but it doesn’t know he had his elbow rebuild. Add in the Tommy John surgery penalty from Zimmerman’s research and he’s a projected below average pitcher, more like a 93 ERA+ guy.

What does that mean? Not a whole lot, really. I just think it’s important to remember the road back from Tommy John surgery can initially be a little bumpy. Pitchers on average have seen a slight performance dip, but each pitcher is a little snowflake that is different than everyone else. Thanks to the team’s conservative approach to his rehab, Nova could shake off the usual pre-Tommy John issues and return in June, picking up right where he left off in 2013. That would be sweet. Or maybe the performance dip hits him extra hard. We’ll find out when he gets back.

Personally, I hate relying on players coming back from major injury, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. New York’s rotation is what it is and I am comfortable saying with great certainty they are looking for upgrades at all times. Hopefully one pop up at some point. “Chris Capuano, fifth starter” is really “Chris Capuano, just keep us afloat until something better comes along.” That sometime just might end up being when Nova returns in May or June (likely June). Hopefully not, but it’s possible.

“I know they expect big things from me,” said Nova to Bryan Hoch yesterday. “I know I’ve had an up and down career so far, but I know what I’m able to do. I just have to put things straight and hopefully by the time I have everything in line, I can contribute to the team and win some games.”