Going from Saltalamacchia to McCann will be a big plus for Nathan Eovaldi

(Marc Serota/Getty)
(Marc Serota/Getty)

For the second time in four offseasons, the Yankees traded a player who was expected to be a prominent part of their lineup for a young starting pitcher yet to reach his 25th birthday. Three years ago it Jesus Montero for Michael Pineda. This offseason it was Martin Prado for Nathan Eovaldi. There were other players involved, but those were the principals.

Unlike Pineda, Eovaldi was coming off a disappointing season at the time of the trade, a season in which he led the NL with 223 hits allowed and posted an 87 ERA+ in 199.2 innings. There’s obviously more to the puzzle than that — Eovaldi did have a shiny 3.37 FIP, 27th best out of MLB’s 88 qualified starters — but in its most basic form, pitching is about limiting hits and runs. Eovaldi indisputably stunk at both last year.

The good news is that in the other 260.1 innings of his career, Eovaldi has allowed as many hits as innings pitched — as opposed to many more hits than innings pitched — with a 101 ERA+. He’s shown he can be effective at preventing hits and keeping runs off the board at a very young age, which bodes well for future. If Eovaldi had pitched like that in 2014, it would have taken much more to get him than Prado. The Yankees got him at a discount thanks to his poor year.

Clearly though, the Yankees are banking on Eovaldi improving going forward. They don’t want the 2014 version of him — though given the state of the rotation, I’m sure they want those 199.2 innings — and they don’t want the 2011-13 version either. They want someone better. And stuff like this …

Source: FanGraphsNathan Eovaldi

… suggests a better pitcher is on the way. It’s not a guarantee, but improving your FIP every year of your career is promising.

Since Eovaldi’s strikeout and home run rates have held fairly steady throughout his career, the FIP improvement comes in his walk rate, which has gradually dropped from 13.7% in 2011 to 5.0% in 2014. Young pitchers walk people. That’s what they do. They walk people and they get hurt. As they gain experience, they tend to walk less people (but still get hurt!) and that’s what’s happened with Eovaldi.

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild, pitching coordinator Gil Patterson, and whoever else will be charged with boosting Eovaldi’s strikeout rate, which sat at 16.6% last year and is 16.2% for his career. That’s comfortably below the league average, which topped 20% for the first time in 2014. Eovaldi has the stuff to get strikeouts, including a big fastball and a nice slider and an improving changeup, but so far the whiffs aren’t there. They have to be unlocked somehow.

One way the Yankees hope to unlock those strikeouts is Brian McCann. The Yankees were way ahead of the pitch-framing curve — they traded for framing god Jose Molina in 2007 and since then the only below-average framer they’ve had is Jorge Posada — and they clearly value the skill, so much so that they deluded themselves into thinking Chris Stewart could play regularly. McCann happens to be an excellent pitch-framer. Eovaldi’s old catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia? Not so much.

Here is the pitch-framing leaderboard for the 2014 season according to StatCorner:

1. Miguel Montero
2. Mike Zunino
3. Jonathan Lucroy

11. Brian McCann

105. Jarrod Saltalamacchia (out of 105!)

For a second opinion, here are the pitch-framing leaders according to Baseball Prospectus (again out of 105):

1. McCann!
2. Lucroy
3. Montero (Miguel, not Jesus)

92. Saltalamacchia

I intentionally omitted the runs saved values because I don’t trust them. Not enough to say this player is precisely X.X runs better than that guy anyway. I use framing metrics like I use all defensive stats: directionally. They tell me who’s good at it and who isn’t. Otherwise there’s no need to act as if a certain level of accuracy exists when it just isn’t there.

Anyway, McCann once again rated as one of the very best pitch-framers in baseball last summer. And after watching him all year, I totally buy it. Saltalamacchia, on the other hand, was very bad at framing borderline pitches. I didn’t watch him nearly as much as McCann a year ago, so I have to trust the StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus rankings when they say he’s a bad framer of pitchers.

Eovaldi faced 854 batters last season and Saltalamacchia was behind the plate for 536 of them, or 63%. He had a 16.2% strikeout rate and a 5.4% walk rate with Salty. With backup catcher Jeff Mathis, who the numbers say is an average to slightly above-average pitch-framer, it was a 17.3% strikeout rate and a 4.4% walk rate. (If we remove intentional walks, the walk rates are 3.5% to 5.1% in favor of Mathis.)

Every pitcher in the world would benefit from having a good pitch-framer behind the plate, though Eovaldi might stand to benefit more than most because he lives on the outside corner to righties/inside corner to lefties. Here is the strike zone breakdown of his pitch locations and called strike rates last year. The views are from the catcher’s perspective.

Pitch locations on the left, called strike locations on the right. (click to embiggen)
Overall pitch locations on the left, called strike rates on the right. (click to embiggen)

Eovaldi got only an average number of called strikes just inside the corner on the left-handed batter’s side of the plate — it was basically a 50/50 chance — and a below-average number of called strikes (hence the blue squares) just off the plate on that side. That’s a problem for him because look at his pitch locations, his comfort zone is away from righties and inside to lefties. (That is skewed somewhat because he’s a slider pitcher and sliders break towards that side of the plate.)

Based on the pitch-framing data, McCann will help Eovaldi get many more called strikes in general, and especially on that corner of the plate because that’s where Eovaldi throws the majority of his pitches. It should be a significant number of extra strikes considering Saltalamacchia is one of the game’s worst pitch-framers and McCann is one of the best. This means not only more called strike threes, but more 1-1 counts turned into 0-2 counts, more 2-1 counts turned into 1-2 counts, more first pitch strikes, more stuff that makes hitters defensive.

I have zero doubt the framing upgrade from Saltalamacchia to McCann is a major reason why the Yankees believe they can unlock Eovaldi’s potential. McCann’s pitch-framing alone — projected backup catcher John Ryan Murphy has rated well as a pitch-framer during his brief MLB time, for what’s it worth — won’t get Eovaldi’s strikeout rate to match his stuff, but it will definitely help. As long as he keeps living on that left corner of the plate, the Yankees’ catching tandem will help Eovaldi much more than Miami’s.

Yankees sign Stephen Drew

(Alex Goodlett/Getty)
(Alex Goodlett/Getty)

Wednesday, 10:28am ET by Mike: Drew will receive $500,000 for his 450th, 500th, and 550th plate appearances, according to Buster Olney. So the only way Drew will come close to reaching the $1.5M in incentives is if he actually plays well enough to stay in the lineup regularly.

Tuesday, 9:41pm ET by Joe: The Yankees have signed Stephen Drew to a one-year, $5 million deal, reports Jon Heyman of CBS News. Incentives could increase the deal to $6 or $7 million.

It was but a few hours ago that Drew’s name last appeared on this site, citing a Heyman report that the Yankees were “peeking” at Drew as an option for second base. It now appears he’ll start there, barring a horrible Spring Training or injury.

It might appear signing Drew blocks Rob Refsnyder, but that’s simply not the case. If Refsnyder forces the issue, it will be hard for the Yankees to hold him back for the sake of Drew. The $5 million Drew earns accounts for about 2 percent of the payroll. He’s not a make-or-break player. He’s a guy who has performed well in the past — a 95 career OPS+ and 111 in 2013, both of which are pretty nice for a middle infielder this day in age — who gives the Yankees some depth.

If Refsnyder wows everyone in Spring Training, they’ll find a spot for him. It might not be on the Opening Day roster, but if he’s hitting (and improves his defense at 2B) they’re not just going to let him toil all season in AAA if he can outperform Drew or even Didi Gregorius.

Which brings up another point: Drew also provides some shortstop depth. If Gregorius flops, Drew can slide in. That opens a spot for Refsnyder. He could also cover Gregorius against left-handed pitching — he has a .668 career OPS against lefties, which is nothing great but at the same time much better than Gregorius.

Most importantly, if Drew is bad the Yankees will replace him. It might take a while, given how long it took them to cut ties with Alfonso Soriano and Brian Roberts last season. Hopefully they’ve learned from that and will take a more Randy Winn-like approach if Drew’s performance resembles that of Winn in 2010. The deal is for just one year, so it’s not as though he’s blocking Refsnyder for three or four seasons.

The 40-man roster is currently full, so the Yankees will have to make a move before making the Drew signing official. My bet is that they DFA Brendan Ryan and go with Jose Pirela as the utility guy.

Tuesday Night Open Thread

Earlier today, four new players were elected to the Hall of Fame, including longtime Yankees nemesis Pedro Martinez. Pedro was otherworldly at his peak, especially the 1999-2000 seasons, but this is a Yankees blog, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the final game of Martinez’s career was played at Yankee Stadium. Game Six of the 2009 World Series, to be specific. You all remember that one. I know you do. So long, Pedro. It was fun to watch you pitch and more fun to watch the Yankees beat you.

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Devils and Islanders are both playing, plus there’s college basketball on as well. Talk about those games, the Hall of Fame announcement, or anything else right here.

Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz all elected to Hall of Fame

A Hall of Famer, but not because of his time in pinstripes. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
A Hall of Famer, but not because of his time in pinstripes. (AP)

The Hall of Fame has four new members. On Tuesday, the BBWAA announced Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz have all been inducted into Cooperstown. This is the first time four players have been inducted in one year since 1955 (Joe DiMaggio, Gabby Hartnett, Ted Lyons, Dazzy Vance) and the first time three pitchers were inducted in one year in history.

Biggio fell two votes short of induction last year, and historically when a player misses by that narrow a margin, he gets in comfortably the next year. That’s what happened here — Biggio appeared on 82.7% of the ballots this year, well more than the 75% necessary for induction. The full voting results are available at the BBWAA’s site.

Johnson is an inner-circle Hall of Famer and appeared on 97.3% of the ballots, the eighth highest voting total of all-time. He spent two seasons with the Yankees and is presumably going into the Hall of Fame as a Diamondback. Arizona signed him to a four-year contract in 1999 and he won four straight Cy Youngs from 1999-2002, so yeah. Pedro and Smoltz appeared on 91.1% and 82.9% of the ballots, respectively.

The Yankees had some pretty great battles against those three over the years, including beating Smoltz’s Braves in the 1996 and 1999 World Series. Johnson bested the Yankees in the 1995 ALDS and 2001 World Series and is simply one of the best pitchers ever, arguably the best lefty ever. Pedro … man did he and the Yankees share some memorable moments. His 17-strikeout one-hitter at Yankee Stadium on September 10th, 1999 is one of the most dominant pitching performances I’ve ever seen:

Former Yankees Tim Raines (55.0%), Roger Clemens (37.5%), Mike Mussina (24.6%), Gary Sheffield (11.7%), Aaron Boone (0.4%), Tom Gordon (0.4%), and Tony Clark (0%) all fell well short of induction. Boone, Gordon, and Clark drop off the ballot because they received fewer than 5% of the vote.

In his final year of Hall of Fame eligibility, Don Mattingly received only 9.1% of the vote, so he exhausted his 15 years on the ballot and was not inducted to Cooperstown. He topped out at 28.2% of the vote during his first year of eligibility back in 2001 and has sat closer to 13% over the last decade or so, including only 8.2% last year.

Down the line, Mattingly could be eligible for induction via the Expansion Era Committee, which meets every three years to identify and vote on Hall of Fame candidates who started their careers after 1972. The Expansion Era Committee did not elect anyone this winter and will meet again in 2017. I love Donnie Baseball as much as anyone, but I don’t think he’s a Hall of Famer and I don’t think he’ll get in via the Expansion Era Committee either.

Among the first-time-eligible players set to jump on the ballot next year are Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Edmonds, Trevor Hoffman, and Billy Wagner. No notable ex-Yankees though. Jorge Posada is set to appear on the ballot for the first time the year after that, giving me two years to prepare to the mother of all Hall of Fame campaigns.

Heyman: Yankees still monitoring second base options, including Stephen Drew

(Darren McCollester/Getty)
(Darren McCollester/Getty)

No surprise here: Jon Heyman reports the Yankees are still keeping an eye on the second base trade and free agent markets, including Stephen Drew. The club has indicated they will let Rob Refsnyder and Jose Pirela (and others) compete for the second base job in Spring Training, but Brian Cashman & Co. wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t look at other available options.

The free agent middle infield market is pretty thin now that Asdrubal Cabrera has signed with the Rays. There’s Drew, Kelly Johnson, Nick Punto, Rickie Weeks, Gordon Beckham, Everth Cabrera, and … that’s pretty much it. We saw Drew and Johnson in pinstripes last year and we’ve looked at Beckham, Weeks, and Cabrera as free agent options this winter. Punto … meh.

The trade market is more exciting. With Asdrubal signed, the Rays are widely expected to trade Ben Zobrist, who would be a great fit for the Yankees just like he would be a great fit for literally every other team in baseball. He’ll cost quite a bit though, plus he’s only a one-year rental, and I’m not sure Cashman will trade a bunch of prospects for a year of Zobrist after emphasizing youth. Then there’s the whole “trade with a division rival” thing.

Other second base trade options could include Chase Utley, Aaron Hill, and maybe Daniel Murphy. I thought there’d be more. Utley has given no indication he will waive his no-trade clause despite the Phillies’ rebuild and Hill was very bad (78 wRC+) last year. Plus he’s owed $24M over the next two years. The Mets have a ready-made second baseman in Dilson Herrera but insist they will keep Murphy, which could be posturing. He’s another one-year rental.

There really aren’t many good (nevermind great) second base targets out there, either in free agency or in trades, especially since Zobrist and Utley seem unattainable for different reasons. The idea of a very young and inexperienced double play combination makes me nervous, but at this point of the offseason I don’t see a realistically acquirable second baseman I’d prefer over Refsnyder or Pirela. Time to ride or die with the kids.

Thoughts at the start of the new year

Moose ain't making the Hall of Fame this year. (Presswire)
Moose ain’t making the Hall of Fame this year. (Presswire)

The holidays are behind us and a new year is now underway. Pitchers and catchers are due to report in 46 days, and before you know it, there will be real live baseball to enjoy. Granted, it’ll be Spring Training baseball, but those games are fun in their own way. Here are some thoughts at the start of 2015.

1. The Yankees have had a very busy offseason so far, making six trades and signing two notable free agents. I find it interesting that in three of those trades the Yankees received more players than they gave up. The three exceptions were all one-for-one swaps — Didi Gregorius/Shane Greene, Frankie Cervelli/Justin Wilson, and Shawn Kelley/Johnny Barbato. They received three players for Martin Prado and David Phelps, two players for Manny Banuelos, and one player for straight cash homey (Gonzalez Germen). Even by letting David Robertson walk and signing Andrew Miller, the club gained a player via the draft pick compensation. Usually the Yankees are the team giving up more players than they’re receiving. The Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson, and Javier Vazquez trades are recent examples. They’ve focused on adding more youth to the roster this offseason and they’ve also added more depth to the organization overall, especially in the bullpen. That means more help from within during the season to cover for injuries/ineffectiveness and also more trade chips.

2. The Yankees have added youth this winter, and they’ve done it by acquiring players with MLB experience, not prospects. Gregorius has a little more than a full season of big league time under his belt. Eovaldi, despite being only 24, has thrown 460 career innings in the show and Wilson is over 130 himself. Even guys like John Ryan Murphy and Chasen Shreve have big league time. It’s not much, but they’re not coming in with no idea of what to expect. Despite all this roster turnover and the emphasis on youth, the only true rookie with zero MLB experience on the roster come Opening Day figures to be second baseman Rob Refsnyder, assuming he beats out Jose Pirela for the job. Prospects are great, everyone loves a good farm system, but they are still just prospects and they’ll break your damn heart time and time again. Other teams — most notably the Athletics but also the Marlins — have rebuilt in recent years by getting big league players in trades. It speeds up the rebuilding process and removes some of the risk. The jump from the minors to MLB has never been tougher than it is right now thanks to all the information teams have. Guys like Gregorius, Eovaldi, and Wilson have already made that jump.

3. Now, that said, I think it’s very likely the 2015 Yankees will be worse with Gregorius and Eovaldi than they would have been with Greene and Prado. Same with Murphy instead of Cervelli. These moves aren’t all geared towards 2015, however. For the first time in a very long time, dating back to the pre-Derek Jeter era, the Yankees appear to have one eye on this coming season and one eye on the future. And don’t get me wrong, I get it, the team had an aging Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada on the roster and tried to maximize the end of their careers. I totally understand going all-in from 2007 or so through 2014. There’s a time and a place for focusing on the here and now. The Yankees are no longer there. They need to start looking ahead and guys like Gregorius and Eovaldi help accomplish that. The 2015 Yankees may be worse off, but I think the 2016 and beyond teams are in better shape after this offseason. A lot better shape, really.

Oh no, a player who smiles. (Andy Lyons/Getty)
Oh no, a player who smiles. That means he doesn’t care! (Getty)

4. As for Gregorius, I feel like he’s somehow gotten underrated in recent weeks. And this is coming from someone who isn’t all that optimistic about his long-term offensive potential. But there seem to be a lot of people acting like he’s Brendan Ryan or Ramiro Pena, someone like that, which is nuts. Gregorius, in his 191 MLB games, has hit .262/.332/.411 (102 wRC+) with a 14.2% strikeout rate against right-handed pitchers, and that’s pretty good for a guy expected to hit eighth or ninth. Yankees’ shortstops hit .226/.277/.298 (58 wRC+) against righties from 2013-14. I’m going to repeat that: Yankees’ shortstops hit .226/.277/.298 (58 wRC+) against righties from 2013-14. Even if Gregorius’ true talent against righties is the .247/.304/.402 (91 wRC+) line he put against them in 2014, he’s a huge upgrade over what the team has been getting at shortstop. He’s on the right side of the platoon and his defense is leaps and bounds better than anything the Yankees have had in years. Gregorius is no star, and I remain skeptical about his bat going forward, but the bar has been set so low at shortstop that it’s hard to believe he’ll be anything but a multi-win upgrade as soon as 2015. His impact is being underrated.

5. The 2015 Hall of Fame class will be announced at 2pm ET today (here’s the ballot) and I think four players are getting in: Craig Biggio, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, and John Smoltz. (For what it’s worth, all four are currently tracking over the 75% threshold). I count 15 players I would vote for right now, but since the voting max is ten, five would get hung out to dry. My ten: Johnson, Pedro, Biggio, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell, and Mike Mussina. Smoltz, Curt Schilling, Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez, and Sammy Sosa would be left on the cutting room floor. (I would have voted for Mark McGwire in the past, but I’ve come around on the idea of him not being Hall worthy.) I understand the strategy of not voting for Johnson and Pedro and giving the votes to other players since those two are getting in anyway — that’s what Mike Bernardino did — but I’m not comfortable doing that. Maybe I’ll change my mind in a few years. As you can tell, I don’t really care about PED stuff or cheating in general. Players have cheated for over a century and as long as there is baseball, players will cheat. Doctored baseballs, doctored bodies, whatever. It would be nice if players didn’t cheat, but they do and it’s not the BBWAA’s place to “punish” these guys. I see the Hall of Fame as a record of the game’s all-time greats and I don’t think we can simply ignore the parts we don’t like.

Monday Night Open Thread

On this date in 1920, the Yankees officially completed their purchase of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox for $100,000 plus a $350,000 loan. He hit .349/.484/.711 (209 OPS+) with 659 home runs during his 15 years in pinstripes, 311 more dingers than any other player during that time (Lou Gehrig was second with 348). Ruth was quite good at this baseballing thing, I’d say.

This is your open thread for the night. Both the Knicks and Nets are playing, plus there’s some college basketball on as well. Talk about those games, the Ruth trade sale, or anything else right here. Have at it.