Michael Pineda, Nate Eovaldi, and the struggle to manage contact

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Three nights ago Nathan Eovaldi threw the best game by a Yankee this season. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning and finished the night with two hits allowed in seven scoreless frames. Eovaldi has dazzled at times earlier this season, but it was always followed by the One Bad Inning. He avoided that bad inning Tuesday night.

“Uncomfortable swings. You can tell how good a guy is by the reaction of the hitters. They were swinging at pitches in the dirt. They were swinging at pitches over their heads,” said Mark Teixeira to Randy Miller after the game. “It’s just an uncomfortable at-bat. He’s throwing 97-98. When he needs to throw a strike on the corner, he does. But when he needs to put guys away with tough offspeed pitches in the dirt or high fastballs, he did that as well.”

Eovaldi’s raw stuff and potential are obvious. He’s one of the hardest throwing starters in baseball, and he’s developed a pretty nasty splitter over the last year or so. On Tuesday he mixed in a quality slider as well. Eovaldi’s impressive stuff has not yet translated to consistently impressive results, but every so often he has a game like Tuesday that reels you back in. Most of his starts are spent pitching around hits and trying to find a way to put guys away with two strikes.

Over the years we’ve learned things like strikeouts, walks, and home runs — stuff the pitcher can directly control — are more predictive than traditional stats like wins and ERA and WHIP. That’s DIPS Theory, something the Yankees buy into big time. They targeted Eovaldi because from 2012-14, he whittled his FIP down from 4.13 to 3.59 to 3.37. The team likes high strikeout rates and low walk rates, and the more velocity, the better. Intuitively that’s a no-brainer, but not every team emphasizes it as much as the Yankees.

As valuable as FIP (and xFIP and SIERA and all that) can be, there are exceptions to the rule. Guys like Bronson Arroyo and Mark Buehrle proved over hundreds and thousands of innings they can outperform their FIP. They did a better job preventing runs than their peripheral stats would lead you to believe. On the other side of the coin, guys like Ricky Nolasco and Edwin Jackson underperformed their FIP. They didn’t prevent runs as well as their strikeout, walk, and homer rates suggested they could.

The exceptions exist because pitchers do have some control over the quality of the contact they allow. Some pitchers, like Arroyo and Buehrle and Mariano Rivera, were able to consistently miss the barrel of the bat and generate weak contact. They did it through location, late movement, and general craftiness. The Nolascos and Jacksons of the pitching world struggle to miss the sweet spot.

Based on what we’ve seen the last few years, Eovaldi and rotation mate Michael Pineda fit into the Nolasco/Jackson category. They’ve underperformed their FIP because have a hard time managing contact:

Eovaldi: 4.22 ERA and 3.44 FIP in 179 innings from 2015-16
Pineda: 4.68 ERA and 3.61 FIP in 182.2 innings from 2015-16

Their strikeout and walk rates are great! But when they make a mistake, hitters square it up and drive the ball with authority. Pineda and Eovaldi don’t get weak contact. Not like Buehrle and Arroyo and other guys.

Here’s a plot of the 99 pitchers who have thrown at least 150 innings since the start of last season. You’ve got FIP on the x-axis and BABIP on the y-axis. BABIP tells us how often the ball falls in for a hit when hitters do make contact, so it covers all the at-bats that don’t end in a strikeout or walk (or homer). You can click the image for a larger view.

2015-16 BABIP vs FIP

“Luck” has become such a crutch word in sabermetric writing — nowadays it’s “sequencing,” which is usually code for “I can’t explain this” — but there absolutely exists some element of plain ol’ luck in baseball. We’re talking about a round ball and a round bat and a big swath of grass. Sometimes weird stuff happens. That’s what makes it fun.

Pineda and Eovaldi, as you can see in the plot, find themselves among a group of pitchers who have posted low FIPs but high BABIPs since the start of the last season. They’re right next to A.J. Burnett, which is a tad disheartening. Those guys have the sexy strikeout and walk rates, but when hitters make contact, the hits are falling in. The true greats — Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke, etc. — run low FIPs and low BABIPs.

No one in their right mind is asking or expecting Pineda and Eovaldi to be Kershaw or Arrieta. It would be cool if they were, but come on. What the Yankees do want, however, are those two to do a better job managing the contact they allow. Mistake pitches happen. It’s part of baseball. Not every mistake should be hit 500 feet though. That’s the problem. When they miss their spots, they pay for it and pay big.

Eovaldi and Pineda are classic examples of good control/bad command pitchers. They throw plenty of strikes, we can see that in their low walk rates (7.0% and 3.4% since 2015, respectively), but they are unable to consistently locate on the edges. They’re throwing strikes, and unfortunately sometimes those strikes are right down the middle. Look at the heat map of Pineda’s fastball location since last season, via Brooks Baseball:

Michael Pineda fastball location

Good grief. There should not be that much red down the middle Michael! Eovaldi has a similar problem. He can throw strikes, but far too often they’re in hittable locations, and the batters make them pay. There’s a very fine line between a pitch being squared up and a pitch being nubbed off the end of the bat for weak contact. Eovaldi and Pineda have shown they can’t miss the sweet spot consistently. We see it pretty much every five days.

Command is one of those things that can be taught but is very difficult to learn. And really, there’s more to managing contact than command. Movement and deception play a huge role as well. The very best pitchers have all three. Pineda and Eovaldi have live arms. They’re also missing that something that allows them to be truly great, the thing that makes their run prevention numbers match their peripheral stats. Nolasco, Jackson, Burnett, and others had the same problem.

Because they’re still young and have power stuff, Pineda and Eovaldi are going to continue to get chances and big contracts as long as they stay healthy. It’s good to throw in the upper-90s like Eovaldi and it’s good to have a wicked slider like Pineda. Until they are able to do a better job managing contact and missing the barrel, either through improved command or increased movement or whatever, they seem destined to be the kind of pitchers who always leave you wanting more.

Yankeemetrics: It’s getting late early [April 25-27]

Nasty Nate (Tim Heitman/USA Today Sports Images)
Nasty Nate (Tim Heitman/USA Today Sports Images)

Near No-No Nate
Nathan Eovaldi‘s chance to make history fell just short on Monday night, but he still established a new level of pitching dominance for Yankee starters this season and helped the team start its road trip with a 3-1 win over the Rangers.

Eovaldi dominated the Rangers lineup, holding them hitless through six innings until Nomar Mazara led off the top of the seventh with a single. He finished with a stellar line of seven-plus innings, no runs, two hits, six strikeouts and one walk, becoming the lone Yankee starter to produce a scoreless outing in 2016. His Game Score of 77 also set a new benchmark for the rotation.

He consistently got ahead in the count, and while pitching with the advantage, was able to get hitters to chase his diving splitter out of the zone. The Rangers went 0-for-12 in at-bats ending in his split-fingered fastball; six of those outs were swinging strikeouts, and five were harmless grounders. His command of his slider was just as impressive: he threw 19 of them, 17 for strikes, and none resulted in a hit.

Although Eovaldi missed out on etching his name in the record books, he did put himself on a couple lists with some pretty good names. The last Yankee to throw at least seven shutout innings while giving up no more than two hits against the Rangers in Texas was Ron Guidry (1980). It was also his eighth straight game with at least six strikeouts, the longest streak by a Yankee right-hander since Roger Clemens in 2001.

From best to worst
One day after Eovaldi spun a gem, Luis Severino produced the exact opposite – a terrible performance in which he was pummeled by the Rangers’ bats and allowed twice as many runs (six) as innings pitched (three). Severino’s Game Score of 20 was the worst for any Yankee starter this season, and it was also the shortest outing for any pinstriped starter.

The Rangers ultimately cruised to a 10-1 victory, handing the Yankees their worst loss in Arlington since a 13-3 beating on August 21, 2001.

The most frustrating part was that numerous times the Yankees seemed thisclose to escaping an inning with no harm done, but were stung by several crushing two-out hits. Nine of the 10 runs allowed by the Yankees came with two outs, continuing a troubling trend for the team.

After Tuesday’s disaster, they had surrendered 49 two-out runs, by far the most of any AL team (the Tigers were second with 39), and the Yankees easily led the league in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS allowed with two outs.

Dead Bats Society
Following their 3-2 loss on Wednesday night, there are few words left to describe the magnitude of the Yankees’ near-historic offensive struggles this season, so let’s just recap with some facts (because numbers never lie):

• Yankees have scored 72 runs, their fewest thru 20 games since 1990. And that season ended … um, not good.
• They’ve tallied two runs or fewer in 10 of 20 games, the most for any Yankee team this early into the season since 1966. Yuck.
• Yankees are the only major-league team this season that’s scored two-or-fewer runs in at least half of their games. Disgusting.
• They’ve scored three runs or fewer 15 times this season. Over the last 100 years, no other Yankee club has ever done that more times in the team’s first 20 games. Ugh.
• Since their game in Detroit was postponed on April 10, the Yankees have played 15 games and scored more than four runs just once. Gross.

On a more positive note, A-Rod returned from his oblique injury and produced his best game of the season, going 3-for-3 with a homer, double and single. It was his 543rd career double, tying Tony Gwynn for 32nd place all-time. Next up on the list is The Captain, Derek Jeter, with 544. A-Rod also scored his 1,000th run as a Yankee, the 12th player in franchise history to reach that milestone, and is one of nine players to total at least 1,000 runs and 1,000 RBIs in pinstripes. The other guys? Mattingly, Bernie, Jeter, Yogi, Mantle, DiMaggio, Ruth and Gehrig.

Thoughts on Thursday’s off-day

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Today is a well-timed off-day. Not for the Yankees. For my sanity. They’ll playing an awful brand of baseball right now. They just can’t score. Two runs or fewer nine times in the last 14 games? Good grief. Anyway, here are some thoughts.

1. At what point do we go from “the offense is struggling” to “the offense is bad?” Is there a certain number of games or anything like that? It takes a couple hundred at-bats for most key offensive stats to stabilize, but that’s for individual players, not teams. Point is, the offense has been pretty terrible since the end of the Detroit series — the Yankees are hitting .220/.289/.325 as a team with an average of 2.47 runs per game since then — and eventually you reach a point where it stops being a slump. I think the Yankees are better offensively than they have been the last two weeks or so. Much better. But with each passing game in which the bats look lethargic, a little more doubt creeps into my mind and I think maybe they just aren’t very good.

2. The Yankees have another off-day Monday, and I’d like to see them use it to skip Luis Severino‘s next start. That would be his day to start on normal rest. It lines up perfectly. They could skip him and keep everyone else on turn without having to pull any strings. Severino is struggling right now and the off-day would give him and the Yankees an opportunity to get in an extra bullpen session — an extended bullpen session, if necessary — to work on things. And besides, the Yankees are going to have to watch Severino’s workload this season, and skipping this start is a way to do that. Monday’s a chance to give Severino a little breather and time to work on some things. Taking advantage of it seems like it would be a smart idea.

3. Eleven days from now Aroldis Chapman‘s suspension will end, and he’ll join the Yankees to make the bullpen even better. Of course, if the offense continues to sputter the way it has these last few weeks, the three guys at the end of the game won’t have many leads to protect. I don’t want to call it a flaw, because having a dominant bullpen is a wonderful thing, but it’s a bit of a quirk that the Yankees can only take advantage of their greatest strength when the rest of the roster does its job. When you get blown out like they did Tuesday night, those great relievers are a total non-factor. The offense and rotation are going to have to step it up the rest of the way to ensure the Yankees can take full advantage of that tremendous relief crew.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

4. Since we’re on the subject of the bullpen, I want to say I’m a wee bit worried about Johnny Barbato‘s early season workload. Maybe worried is too strong a word, but it’s definitely not something to be overlooked. He started the season by throwing nine innings in the first 14 games — there was a week and a half stretch where he was pitching every other day — and right now Barbato is at 10.2 innings in 20 team games. He did throw 67.1 innings last year, but there’s a big difference between minor league innings and big league innings as a quasi-setup man. We saw it with Chasen Shreve last year. His workload wasn’t anything crazy on the surface, yet he was still out of gas come September. It’s as much mental fatigue as it was physical fatigue. Hopefully once Chapman returns Joe Girardi can scale back on Barbato’s usage a tad, just to avoid burnout late in the season.

5. I’ve said this before and it’s worth repeating: the Yankees have to be 100% honest with themselves at the trade deadline this year. If they’re out of the race or a long shot to make the postseason, they have to trade impending free agents like Chapman, Mark Teixeira, and Carlos Beltran and not try to fake contention. What qualifies as out of the race? That depends, really. Four games back with one team ahead of you is way different than four games back with four teams ahead of you. The Yankees are trying to get younger and become more flexible, and part of that plan should be unloading veteran players with expiring contracts when you’re fading out of the race. Shedding the salary after the season isn’t good enough.

Two runs still aren’t enough; Yankees drop series finale 3-2 to Rangers

You’re not going to believe this, but the Yankees struggled to score Wednesday night. I know. Crazy. Yet another lifeless night from the bats resulted in a 3-2 loss to the Rangers in the series finale. The Yankees won the first game and still managed to lose the series. Good job, good effort.

You get high-fives for participating now. (Ronald Martinez/Getty)
You get high-fives for participating now. (Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Two Token Runs (Again)
For the ninth time in the last 14 games, the Yankees were held to two runs or fewer. Nine times in 14 games. That’s truly pathetic. The Yankees are playing garbage baseball right now. It’s the opposite of exciting. It’s boring as hell and I find myself spending more time clicking around MLB.tv than actually watching the Yankees whenever they bat. Five or six games is a slump. Fourteen? Nope.

The Yankees scored their first run in the second inning — they did hold a lead, believe it or not — when Starlin Castro came through with a two-out single to score the runner from third. The Yankees had men on first and second with no outs earlier in the inning, but Brian McCann banged into a first pitch double play to throw a wrench into things. They almost wasted another opportunity, but Castro took care of business.

The second run? An A-Bomb from A-Rod. Alex Rodriguez clobbered a Martin Perez changeup into the left field seats in the fourth inning. That knotted the game up at 2-2. Alex also snuck a ground ball double inside the first base bag in the sixth. That was the team’s final base-runner until the ninth inning. Ten of the last eleven and 15 of the last 18 men they sent to the plate made outs. Gross.

I suspect we’re going to hear a lot of talk about the Yankees struggling against left-handed pitchers Thursday — seven of the last nine starters they’ve faced have been lefties, and they have two more coming this weekend — but you know what? A Major League team needs to hit southpaws once in a while. There have been too many weak at-bats lately. In fact, 12 of the 34 men they sent to the plate saw no more than two pitches. Yuck. This offense is offensive.

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Just Good Enough
After failing to complete five innings in his previous two starts, CC Sabathia gave the Yankees the bare minimum quality start Wednesday, holding the Rangers to three runs on five hits and three walks in six innings. That’s about as good as it can get for Sabathia these days. He struck out five and actually retired nine in a row at one point. That was probably his best stretch of the season.

The Rangers scored their first run because of some fundamental mistakes by the Yankees. Ryan Rua led off the second inning with a single, then went first-to-third Rougned Odor’s single to center. Jacoby Ellsbury tried to throw Rua out at third for some reason — he was safe by a mile — allowing Odor to scamper to second. Ellsbury has to hit the cutoff man to keep the double play in order there.

Then, with one out, Hanser Alberto tapped a weak grounder back to Sabathia, who glanced at Rua before tossing over to first for the out. Two mistakes there. One, Sabathia did not look Rua back long enough, then he flipped a lollipop throw over to Mark Teixeira at first. As soon as CC turned around to throw to first, Rua took off for home and scored. The good news is McCann was able to get Odor at third on the play, but yeah. Bad fundies, guys. Ellsbury didn’t keep the double play in order and Sabathia played the weak grounder way too casually.

The other two runs Sabathia allowed were the result of walks. He walked the No. 9 hitter on four pitches to lead off the third inning, then allowed the run on Adrian Beltre’s two-out single. Sabathia walked Odor on five pitches with two outs in the sixth, then Elvis Andrus tripled him in on a ball Carlos Beltran couldn’t cut off in the gap. I know Beltran is not what he once was in the field, but geez, that looked like a makeable play. Just knock it down and keep Odor at third.

Well, anyway, I would happily take three runs in six innings from Sabathia all season long. As long as he keeps the Yankees remotely in the game and doesn’t burn out the bullpen, I’m happy. What more could you ask at this point?

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Leftovers
A-Rod returned to the lineup after spending a few days on the shelf with an oblique issue, and he went 3-for-3 with a double and a homer. He also drew a walk. Al’s batting line went from .145/.242/.273 (44 wRC+) to .190/.288/.379 (89 wRC+) in four plate appearances. Not too shabby.

The bullpen was good, as usual. Johnny Barbato got five outs and Chasen Shreve got one out, and they did not allow a base-runner. It would be nice if they could hand these guys a lead once in a while, you know? There’s too much “try to keep it close so the offense has a chance to come back” going on.

Castro had two hits while Beltran and McCann had one hit apiece. The top four spots in the lineup went a combined 1-for-15 (.067) and the wrap-around 8-9-1-2 portion of the lineup went 0-for-14. This is getting ridiculous. I look forward to hearing Joe Girardi say they were hitting the ball hard but weren’t getting breaks again.

And finally, A-Rod’s fourth inning homer was his 1,000th run as a Yankee and his 100th home run in what is now called Globe Life Park. It was also his 690th career dinger, so he’s ten away from 700. Does that qualify as a marketable milestone?

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
Head on over to ESPN for the box score and MLB.com for the video highlights. Here are the updated standings. Also make sure you check out our Bullpen Workload and Announcer Standings pages. YES has used six different booth combinations in seven series so far. Here’s the loss probability graph:


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
The Yankees have an off-day tomorrow, then they begin a three-game series with the Red Sox on Friday. Masahiro Tanaka and Henry Owens is the scheduled pitching matchup for the series opener at Fenway Park.

DotF: Starting pitchers rule the day in the minors

The video above is the highlights from Double-A Trenton’s combined no-hitter last night. The performance earned RHP Ronald Herrera a spot in Baseball America’s daily prospect report, so make sure you check that out. It’s not behind the paywall. Also, Joel Sherman spoke to a scout who praised Herrera. Don’t miss that either.

Triple-A Scranton (2-0 loss to Lehigh Valley)

  • CF Ben Gamel: 1-3, 1 BB, 1 CS — he’s been on base 19 times in the last nine games
  • RF Aaron Judge: 0-4, 2 K
  • DH Gary Sanchez, 1B Nick Swisher & 2B Rob Refsnyder: all 1-4 — Sanchez struck out once, Refsnyder twice … Refsnyder also committed a fielding error
  • LF Cesar Puello: 0-1, 1 K, 2 HBP — first game off the DL … he was out with a concussion after being hit in the back of the head with a swing … he explained to Brendan Kuty how it happened
  • RHP Chad Green: 6.2 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 9 K, 5/4 GB/FB — 71 of 105 pitches were strikes (68%) … his best start of the season so far
  • LHP James Pazos: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 1/0 GB/FB — nine of 12 pitches were strikes

[Read more…]

Game 20: Rubber Game

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

It doesn’t feel like it, but the Yankees are in position to win their second straight series tonight. They took two of three from the Rays over the weekend, and they won the first game of this series against the Rangers before dropping the second. Tonight is the rubber game. Getting the win and taking two of three would be mighty cool.

The first order of business tonight: score some damn runs. The offense is not just bad right now, it’s boring. That’s the worst. Second order of business: get at least five innings from CC Sabathia. He’s fallen an out short of five innings in each of his last two starts. Third order of business: just win, baby. Here is the Rangers’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Brett Gardner
  3. RF Carlos Beltran
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. DH Alex Rodriguez
  6. C Brian McCann
  7. 2B Starlin Castro
  8. 3B Chase Headley
  9. SS Ronald Torreyes
    LHP CC Sabathia

Much better weather for the series finale tonight. It’s nice and sunny in the Dallas area, and there’s no wet stuff in the forecast as at all. Tonight’s game will start at 8:05pm ET and you’ll be able to watch on YES locally and ESPN nationally. Enjoy.

Injury Updates: Aaron Hicks (shoulder) is available to play tonight with no restrictions … Alex Rodriguez (oblique) is back in the lineup, obviously. With the off-day tomorrow, I’m surprised the Yankees didn’t give A-Rod one more day to make sure everything is back to normal.

Ban the shift? That’s a solution to a problem that might not even exist

The Dodgers used this shift back in 2014.
The Dodgers used this shift back in 2014.

Two nights ago Nathan Eovaldi lost a no-hitter in the seventh inning on a ground ball single to the shortstop position. The Yankees, as they often do, had an infield shift employed, so the shortstop was standing somewhere else. The ball scooted on through and the no-hit bid was over. So it goes.

Prior to last night’s game Joe Girardi was asked about the infield shift in general, and, to my surprise, he said he would like to get rid of them. Here’s what he said, via Dan Martin:

“It’s illegal defense, just like basketball,” he said. “Guard your man. Guard your spot. If I were commissioner, they’d be illegal. As long as it’s legal, I’m gonna play it.”

“I just think the field was built this way for a reason,” Girardi said. “Two on one side, two on the other.”

Girardi is entitled to his opinion and he’s certainly not the only person who would look to see shifts outlawed. I’m sure Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann would be in favor of them going away too. Lots and lots of left-handed batters have lost hits and batting average points and, by extension, dollars in their pocket because of the shift.

The rulebook says that with exception of the pitcher and catcher, defenders can position themselves anywhere in fair territory. Eliminating the shift would be a relatively easy fix. Second base creates a nice boundary, so MLB and the MLBPA could change the rules and force teams to play two infielders on each side of the bag. Boom. Problem solved.

I respectfully disagree with Girardi here. I’m not a fan of eliminating the shift. I’m not a fan of any rule change that would limit creativity within the game. Baseball, like everything else, is survival of the fittest. Players have to adapt to stay in the league and those who can’t get left behind. The game went through a seismic shift when breaking balls were first introduced because only a few players could hit them. After some time, hitters caught up.

Offense is down around the league these days for many reasons, and the shift is surely one of them. It is worth noting the league wide batting average on balls in play has not changed much over the years. The league has a .297 BABIP this year. It was .299 in 2015, .297 in 2010, .295 in 2005, and .300 in 2001. Since the strike in 1994, only once has the league BABIP fallen outside the .296-.303 range (.293 in 2012). The overall impact of the shift is overstated.

The shift has been around for years and yet it is still a relatively new phenomenon. Every team uses them to some extent, though a few holdouts have not fully bought in just yet. Teams haven’t yet had time to try to develop a generation of hitters to be shift beaters. The shift is still a baby. It’s still a little too early to be re-writing the rulebook for something that may fizzle out on its own in due time.

Creativity and innovation are good. I want teams to try to outsmart each other and come up with new ways to gain an advantage. It makes the game more competitive and more interesting, I think. We shouldn’t push aside something new because it goes against the way the game has been played for the last 150 years. Baseball is too old fashioned as it is. It could use some fresh ideas.