CC Sabathia: The Solid Mid-Rotation Starter [2017 Season Preview]

(Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports)
(Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports)

A bit over a year ago, CC Sabathia‘s job security was very much in question – and for good reason. From 2013 through 2015, the former ace pitched to a 4.81 ERA (121st among 132 qualified SP in that stretch, and 20% below-average) and 4.40 FIP (118th, 7% below-average), and missed time due to injuries, poor performance, and alcoholism (for which he sought treatment after the 2015 season). Joe Girardi and Co. were open in their discussions of the fifth starter training camp battle between Sabathia and Ivan Nova, and there seemed to be a very real chance that the big man would open the season in the bullpen.

That didn’t happen, of course, and the Yankees were rewarded with a rock solid campaign from Sabathia. Heading into the 2017 season, he once again feels like an integral piece to the rotation. How did we get here?

Lest We Forget, We Almost Didn’t

It was only four starts, but Sabathia was bad in April (21.1 IP, 25 H, 11 BB, 15 K, 5.06 ERA, 4.04 FIP), and the calls for him to head to the bullpen grew louder. The aforementioned Nova threw four strong innings in relief in the second game of the season, Sabathia was decidedly mediocre in his first start, and the memories of the Spring Training competition were still fresh. Had it not been for Nova imploding in two of his next four appearances, I still wonder if he would have ended up switching places with Sabathia.

Suddenly, An Ace

The calendar turned to May, and Sabathia rediscovered his mojo. Over the next seven starts, he posted three scoreless outings, pitching to the following line: 44 IP, 29 H, 16 BB, 41 K, 0.82 ERA, 2.94 FIP. And he looked good doing it, as he allowed just one home run and worked his way out of jams like the Sabathia of old.

There were plenty of signs that this wasn’t sustainable, including a 4.20 xFIP, 90.3 LOB%, and 2.4% HR/FB – but that didn’t stop most of us from buying in, at least a little bit. Sabathia’s name popped-up in All-Star discussions, and it felt as though the Comeback Player of the Year award was made with this sort of circumstances in mind. A backslide was all but certain to come, yet watching him dominate was a sight for sore eyes. And maybe, just maybe, a corner had been turned.

The Inevitable Backslide

Maybe not.

Sabathia followed-up his red hot six week stretch by allowing at least five earned runs in four straight games, and looked an awful lot like his 2013 through 2015 incarnation. Over the next eight weeks, he allowed a 6.78 ERA (5.33 FIP) over 65.0 IP, surrendering 13 HR in 11 starts (1.80 HR/9). His season ERA jumped from 2.20 to 4.49, and the hand-wringing returned.

This is how it looked in graph form:

sabathia-era-fip

And, as was the story of his three previous seasons, his successes and failures were tied closely to gopheritis:

sabathia-hr-9

Things weren’t looking so hot in the dog days of summer. Until…

A New Hope

On August 23, Sabathia dominated a stout Mariners lineup (one that finished second in the Majors in wRC+ in 2016) for seven innings, allowing just 3 hits, 1 run, and 1 walk, while striking out seven. That was the start of a fine closing stretch to the year, over which he tossed 49.1 IP of 2.37 ERA ball with above-average peripherals (21.4 K%, 7.1 BB%, 54.3 GB%). His final start was an exclamation point on that stretch, as he held the Red Sox to 1 run and 6 base-runners in 7.1 IP, striking out 8 – including David Ortiz swinging in the second inning.

All told, Sabathia finished the season with 179.2 IP, a 3.91 ERA (8% above-average), 4.28 FIP (3% above-average), 2.6 fWAR, and 3.0 bWAR. Or, phrased differently, a perfectly reasonable season from a mid-rotation starter.

Why The Recap?

To this point, my post is more of a 2016 review than a 2017 preview. That is a bit necessary, though, as it is demonstrative of the ups and downs that an aging pitcher faces. It also serves as a reminder that Sabathia was back to being a revelation at season’s end, even if his year was almost equally split between awesome and awful, with little in between.

Now, onto the meatier portion of the preview.

How Did He Do It?

What stands out the most about Sabathia’s season – aside from his actual statistics – may be best explained in graph form. To wit:

brooksbaseball-chart

 

He figured out a cutter, and he threw the hell out of it, essentially eliminating his four-seam fastball along the way. That pitch became his go-to offering against RHH, who hit .258/.325/.400 against Sabathia last year, after battering him to the tune of a .304/.363/.502 slash line in 2015 (.293/.349/.494 from 2013 through 2015). As per Brooks Baseball, righties hit just .222 against the cutter, with a .362 SLG; for comparison’s sake, they hit .300 with a .467 SLG against his four-seamer in 2015.

Sabathia also induced the second-best groundball percentage of his career (50.1%, compared to a league-average rate of 44.7%), and allowed his lowest hard contact percentage since 2011 (24.7%, versus the 31.4% league-average). His .288 BABIP was also his lowest in several years, but it wasn’t unsustainably so (the league-average was .298) – particularly when you factor in the grounders and weak contact.

There are also two factors that we can’t quite quantify – his adjustment to his new knee brace, and the recovery from alcoholism. Sabathia spent the entirety of 2016 adjusting to wearing a knee brace (and switching to a heavier at one point), and his ailing, balky knee played a large role in his struggles from 2013 through 2015. We don’t know exactly how alcoholism effected everything … but I’d be remiss to say anything less than sobriety is a good thing, and we should all be happy for Sabathia.


The projection systems are bearish on Sabathia, with ZiPS (4.57 ERA, 1.5 fWAR) and PECOTA (4.79 ERA, 0.6 WARP) seeing him slip back into his pre-2016 form. That isn’t terribly surprising, given his age, injury history, and three years’ worth or struggles, but there does appear to be tangible reasons to expect him to be closer to what we saw last year. Splitting the difference between 2015 and 2016 would leave him as a roughly league-average starter (98 ERA+), which represents my pragmatic prediction; and the Yankees and their fans should be happy with that.

Gleyber Torres could help the Yankees in 2017, but a few things need to happen first

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

All things considered, this has been one of the most exciting Spring Trainings I can remember. The Yankees are winning and leading the league in home runs, and that’s always fun even if we are talking about meaningless Grapefruit League games. Most of the young prospects are thriving too. Seriously, we haven’t seen anyone looked overmatched this month. It’s been fun.

Gleyber Torres, the just turned 20-year-old wunderkind who came over in the Aroldis Chapman trade, has authored a .478/.480/1.043 batting line with five doubles, one triple, and two home runs in 25 Grapefruit League plate appearances this far. Both home runs were hit to the opposite field, and the first was pretty ridiculous. Torres reached out and poked a two-strike fastball off the plate from actual big leaguer Justin Wilson into the right field stands:

Impressive. Gleyber’s physical gifts are obvious and he looks like a big leaguer given his quiet confidence and the way he carries himself. Sometimes when you see a young kid in big league camp for the first time, he’s got that deer in the headlights look. Not Torres. He’s good and he knows it. He carried himself like he belongs because guess what? He does. Fewer minor leaguers offer as much promise.

“He’s mature for his age,” said Joe Girardi to Dan Martin earlier this week. “He puts good at-bats up one after another. And he uses the whole field. He’s a good-looking young hitter … I don’t think he’s fazed by the situation. He’s just here to play. He’s definitely showing people what he can do.”

At some point fairly soon, the Yankees will send Torres to minor league camp and he’ll begin the season with Double-A Trenton. Gleyber was the youngest player in the Low-A Midwest League on Opening Day 2015 and he was the second youngest player in the High-A Carolina League on Opening Day 2016. When Opening Day 2017 rolls around, he’ll be one of the two or three youngest players in the Double-A Eastern League as well.

As I noted a few weeks ago, prospects similar to Torres tend to shoot up the minor league ladder. Both Carlos Correa and Xander Bogaerts started their age 20 season in Double-A and ended it in the big leagues. Addison Russell and Javier Baez were in the big leagues very early in their age 21 season after starting the previous season at Double-A. It’s hard to hold down an insanely talented young player like this. They force the issue.

Is it possible for Torres to reach the big leagues and help the Yankees in 2017? Yes, I think it is, and I tend to err on the side of “be patient with the kids.” Special talents comes with special timetables. A few things need to happen before Gleyber can help the Yankees this coming season, of course.

1. Torres has to perform. Duh. Torres is not going to put himself in position to get called up by going out and hitting .250/.320/.375 at Double-A for two months. He’ll be facing the best minor league pitching he’s ever faced, and he’ll spend the first few months playing in the cold. Torres has played in cold weather before — the Cubs’ Low-A affiliate plays in South Bend, so yeah — but it doesn’t mean it won’t be a challenge in 2017. Bottom line, this is the single most important piece of the puzzle. Gleyber has to make the Yankees want to call him up with his performance.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

2. Torres will have to learn second base, and possibly third too. It’s difficult to see how Gleyber could unseat Didi Gregorius at shortstop, especially right now, this year. Injuries happen, they always do, but in a perfect world everyone is healthy. The Yankees had Torres play some second base last year and in the Arizona Fall League, and again this spring, and he’ll have to continue to learn the position in the minors this year. This isn’t rocket science. The more positions he can play, the easier it’ll be for the Yankees to get Torres into the lineup.

3. The Yankees must have an opening. This is important, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be a full-time opening either. The Yankees just need to have a plan for Gleyber when they do call him up, and that plan could be four starts a week instead of six. Remember, when they called up Greg Bird in 2015, the plan was to spell Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez a few times a week. That’s it. Teixeira’s injury forced Bird into regular playing time.

Now that I think about it, Gleyber’s path to MLB could resemble Bird’s pretty closely. Bird went to the Arizona Fall League in 2014 and was named MVP. He started 2015 in Double-A, earned a midseason promotion to Triple-A, then a few weeks later he was in the big leagues to lighten the load on Teixeira and A-Rod. Torres was named AzFL MVP last fall and he’s going to start this season in Double-A. A midseason promotion to Triple-A and a bump to MLB a few weeks later could be in the cards as well.

The Yankees could call Torres up with the intention of letting him spell Gregorius at short and Starlin Castro at second, and maybe even Chase Headley at third, though to this point Gleyber has not manned the hot corner in game. (He recently started working out there though.) There’s also the designated hitter spot as well. It sure seems like there’s a path to playing Torres four or five times a week at second (and third?) base, shortstop, and designated hitter in the second half of the season.

“I don’t really think about (making it to MLB),” said Torres to Martin. “I’m taking it a day at a time, trying to enjoy the moment. This is my first (big league) Spring Training. It’s a lot of fun, and I don’t want to get ahead of myself … This is the first time I’ve faced big league pitching. I’m surprised. I’m happy to be having really good results.”

I suppose the big variable in all this is the team’s performance. If the Yankees are a surprise contender, they might stick with what’s working for them. It’s not like Gregorius and Castro are older players who need regular rest, a la Teixeira and Rodriguez in 2015. But if the Yankees are out of it, or not close enough to the race to be a real threat, they could opt to bring Torres up to get his feet wet. That’s what they did with Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin last year.

For now, let’s remember Torres turned 20 three months ago and he’s yet to play above High Class-A. He’s having a marvelous Spring Training, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot. Gleyber has a chance to help the Yankees this season because he’s an extremely talented player with the skills to take his game to another level this summer. There are a few conditions that will have to be satisfied before the Yankees call Torres up, but it’s not out of the question that he could make his MLB debut in 2017.

March 15th Camp Notes: Romine, Frieri, Torres, Kaprielian

Another day, another win for the Yankees. They’re now 14-5 this spring. Greg Bird hit his fourth home run of the spring tonight, plus he added a single. Gary Sanchez had two hits and Gleyber Torres picked up a Little League double. It was a grounder that deflected off the third base bag into foul territory, away from the third baseman. Brett Gardner and Chase Headley had base knocks as well.

Michael Pineda started and he was excellent, fanning eight in five perfect innings. I know the Phillies kinda stink, but his slider was razor sharp. Pineda would have carved up most lineups with the stuff he had tonight. Aroldis Chapman tossed a scoreless frame and Chad Green closed things out by allowing one run in three innings. Here are the box score and video highlights, and here’s the rest of the day’s news from Tampa:

  • Austin Romine left tonight’s game with a right hand injury. A wild pitch bounced in the dirt and clipped his hand. Romine had his hand behind his back, but the ball managed to bounce under his leg and jump up to get his hand. Go figure. Here’s the video. The Yankees haven’t announced an update yet. Hopefully it’s just a bad bruise or something. Update: The Yankees say x-rays came back negative on Romine’s hand. Exhale.
  • Veteran free agent right-hander Ernesto Frieri was in the clubhouse before the game and he’s expected to sign a minor league contract with the Yankees, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. He pitched for Colombia in the World Baseball Classic after not playing anywhere last year. PitchFX says Frieri’s fastball averaged 95.0 mph during the WBC. [Jack Curry]
  • Another round of roster cuts were announced: Johnny Barbato, Dietrich Enns, and Gio Gallegos were optioned to Triple-A, Miguel Andujar was optioned to Double-A, and Chance Adams was sent to minor league camp. There are 48 players still in big league camp by my unofficial count.
  • Gleyber Torres has started working out at third base. He’s not expected to play there this spring, but he is getting familiar with the position. It was only a matter of time. [David Lennon]
  • Bad news, folks: James Kaprielian will make his Grapefruit League debut tomorrow, not Friday. Tomorrow’s game will not be televised. Friday’s will be. Lame. Lame lame lame. [Erik Boland]
  • Bryan Hoch has the pitching assignments and hitting/fielding groups for everyone who didn’t play in tonight’s game. CC Sabathia threw a bullpen session and Adams threw a simulated game.
  • And finally, the Yankees announced Chris Carter was scratched from tonight’s game because he’s been traded to the Angels for Mike Trout. Or because he was sick. I forget. It was one of those.

The Yankees will be on the road to play the Blue Jays tomorrow afternoon and again, that game will not be televised. Hopefully Kaprielian gets into another game at some point before the end of spring. Time’s running out. Both Bryan Mitchell and Luis Cessa line up to pitch tomorrow.

Spring Training Game Thread: Pineda’s Third Start

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Grapefruit League season marches on tonight. Michael Pineda is making his third start of the spring overall and his first televised outing. This’ll be our first time seeing Big Mike in action since last year. His first spring start was pretty good. The second … not so much. Classic Pineda. Which guy will show up tonight? The guy with the nasty slider and a ton of strike ’em outs, or the guy with a nasty slider and a ton of hits allowed? Stay tuned!

What else is there to pay attention to tonight? I guess Chad Green, who is competing for a rotation spot and is scheduled to come out of the bullpen. He’s allowed one run in 5.2 innings this spring, but he’s also walked five and struck out three, which ain’t good. If I had to guess, I’d say Green lags behind the others in the rotation race right now. Here is the lineup the Phillies sent over and here are the players the Yankees will use:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. DH Matt Holliday
  5. 1B Greg Bird
  6. 2B Starlin Castro
  7. 3B Chase Headley
  8. RF Aaron Hicks
  9. SS Tyler Wade
    RHP Michael Pineda

Available Pitchers: LHP Aroldis Chapman, RHP Chad Green, RHP Ben Heller, LHP Chasen Shreve, and RHP J.R. Graham are all scheduled to pitch tonight. RHP Andrew Schwaab, RHP Eric Ruth, RHP Travis Hissong, and LHP Nestor Cortes are all up from minor league camp to serve as the extra arms.

Available Position Players: C Austin Romine, 1B Ji-Man Choi, 2B Ruben Tejada, SS Gleyber Torres, 3B Pete Kozma, LF Rob Refsnyder, CF Dustin Fowler, RF Billy McKinney, and DH Donovan Solano will be the second string off the bench. Solano is just back from the World Baseball Classic. C Kyle Higashioka, SS Jorge Mateo, 3B Miguel Andujar, OF Clint Frazier, OF Mason Williams, and UTIL Wilkin Castillo are the extra players.

Clear skies in Tampa tonight and the internet tells me it’s downright chilly. All I care about is rain and there’s none of that in the forecast. Tonight’s game will start at 6:35pm ET and you can watch on YES. There’s also MLB.tv and the FOX Sports Go app. Enjoy the game.

Wednesday Notes: Astros, Nats, Quintana, Prospects, A-Rod

Musgrove. (Presswire)
Musgrove. (Presswire)

The Yankees return to television tonight with a home game against the Phillies, thankfully. We haven’t seen them play since Saturday. Tonight’s game will start at 6:35pm ET and we’ll have a regular game thread at that time. Here are some bits of news to check out in the meantime.

Yankees scouted Astros, Nationals

According to Brendan Kuty, the Yankees had scout (Matt Daley!) in Port St. Lucie over the weekend when the Astros and Nationals visited the Mets. Righty Joe Musgrove started for Houston on Friday while righty Erick Fedde was on the mound for Washington on Saturday. Both pitchers allowed one hit and one walk in three scoreless innings in their outings. Musgrove struck out four. Fedde fanned one.

The Yankees have been connected to both Musgrove and Fedde over the last year or so, but only through speculation. Not hard “they want this guy” rumors. Musgrove was mentioned as a possible target during Brian McCann trade talks (I even wrote a Scouting The Market post) while Fedde’s name came up as a potential piece in an Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman trade at least year’s deadline. Obviously neither deal came to fruition.

We could connect some serious dots here. The Astros are said to want another high-end starting pitcher, and with Masahiro Tanaka‘s opt-out looming, could the Yankees move him? The Nationals don’t have a closer right now and gosh, Dellin Betances sure makes sense for them, no? That said, teams scout either other all the time, and this could be nothing. Still, with the Yankees perpetually seeking young controllable pitching, this report sure is interesting.

Nothing happening with Quintana

According to Jack Curry (video link), the Yankees have “nothing simmering, nothing very hot going on right now” with regards to trade talks with the White Sox about Jose Quintana. Quintana is very much available and last week we heard the White Sox have been scouting the Yankees this spring. See? Teams scout each other all the time. Anyway, point is there’s nothing imminent here, which isn’t surprising.

Quintana started against Team USA in the World Baseball Classic last week and was masterful, taking a no-hitter into the sixth before allowing a two-out single and hitting his pitch count. (The bullpen then blew it.) That said, Quintana’s stock didn’t go up or anything. Teams know he’s good. The only way one game can change a veteran pitcher’s trade stock is if he gets hurt. My guess is the White Sox will ramp up their efforts to trade Quintana pretty soon, before he goes all Tyson Ross on them or something.

FanGraphs releases top Yankees prospects, top 100 prospects lists

Over at FanGraphs, Eric Longenhagen recently released his top 33 Yankees prospects list as well as his top 100 prospects list for all of baseball. White Sox IF Yoan Moncada claims the top spot on the top 100. Here are the eight Yankees in the top 100:

7. SS Gleyber Torres
34. OF Clint Frazier
40. OF Blake Rutherford
53. RHP James Kaprielian
61. OF Aaron Judge
87. OF Dustin Fowler
91. SS Jorge Mateo
97. LHP Justus Sheffield

This is the only top 100 list Fowler has made this year. Interesting. As for the top 33 Yankees prospects list, gosh, it’s massive. I still haven’t finished reading the entire thing. I’m doing it bit by bit. The write-up covers 68 players total. 68!

“Fawning over the system’s obvious talent ignores its most fascinating aspect: the bizarre collection of pop-up arms. New York appears to be in possession of a player-development machine that has conjured several interesting pitching prospects seemingly out of thin air,” says the write-up, referring to guys like Jordan Montgomery, Chance Adams, and Chad Green, all of whom came to the Yankees as okay prospects and have since seen their stock rise considerably. Now hopefully some of these guys will turn into productive big leaguers.

Man of the people. (Chicago Tribune)
Man of the people. (Chicago Tribune)

A-Rod joins FOX full-time

Alex Rodriguez is officially a full-time broadcaster. Last week FOX announced A-Rod has joined the network and will “serve as a game analyst for select FOX MLB SATURDAY telecasts as well as feature reporter for FOX’s MLB pregame coverage and FS1 studio show MLB WHIPAROUND,” according to the press release. It doesn’t sound like he will be in the broadcast booth, does it? Sounds like a studio gig.

FOX owns a big chunk of the YES Network following the News Corp. deal a few years back, though it doesn’t sound like there will be any crossover work here. A-Rod will be on FOX and FOX Sports 1. Not YES. Lame. I assume Alex will continue his special advisor duties with the Yankees in the meantime. His agreement with the club called for him to remain in that role through the end of this year. Either way, A-Rod was really good on television the last two postseasons, and it was only a matter of time until some network scooped him up.

MLB approves wearable biometric device

For the first time MLB has approved a wearable on-field biometric device for players, reports Darren Rovell. The device, which is made by a company called WHOOP, is meant to be worn all day and night, and will record data on sleep, heart rate, recovery, strain, etc. It is not a mandated piece of equipment and teams can’t force their players to wear the WHOOP device. It is the player’s decision given the private data involved.

Clubs have been studying pitcher deliveries using biometrics for years now, though the WHOOP device extends beyond that. Teams are focusing more and more on rest and recovery, because nowadays having the most talent isn’t enough. You need the most talented players performing at their best as often as possible. Rest and recovery are part of that. The Yankees start their Spring Training workouts later in the morning to give players time to sleep in, plus they’ve looked for ways to improve travel in recent years too. I wonder how many players will wear the WHOOP device. It seems like the data could be really useful.

One more year of #TANAK [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

With pitchers these days, there are no givens. One day, you may have an ace. The next, a player you’re paying for the next 12-18 months is rehabbing an elbow tear with uncertainty as to whether he’ll ever be the same.

The closest thing the Yankees have to a sure thing in their starting rotation is Masahiro Tanaka. Even he comes with the giant caveat of a partial tear of the all-important UCL, but beggars in the pitching market can ill-afford to be choosers. Every five days, #TANAK inches you closer to your TV screen or forces you to pay that much more attention in your seat. He’s the closest thing we’ve seen this side of CC Sabathia‘s latest extension to an ace.

So what does the 28-year-old starter from Japan have in store for 2017? Let’s take a look, shall we?

200 inning plateau

It’s tough to define aces by an exact ERA, FIP or strikeout rate. However, with big-time starting pitchers, there’s always been a sort of mystical question as to whether they can handle 200 innings in a time when elbow injuries are so prevalent. To this point, the answer for Tanaka has been no but barely. See, he threw exactly 199 2/3 innings last season. That is literally as close as you can get to 200 without actually, you know, getting there.

What prevented him from hitting that arbitrary landmark was a flexor mass strain in his right elbow. He likely would have pitched in the Yankees’ Game 162 if they were still in the postseason chase, but those hopes had evaporated days earlier. The Yankees would obviously like to see Tanaka get through a full season, but 31 starts last year was certainly a welcome sign after 44 over his first two years.

In terms of reaching 200 innings next year, Tanaka is easily the most likely among the Yankees’ starters. He goes deeper into games (6.44 innings per start) than any of their other pitchers and the others are either on innings limits, haven’t thrown full MLB seasons before, or are veterans with injury concerns of their own. Days when Tanaka pitches are the best ones for the bullpen because he can usually hand the ball right to the elite back-end relievers.

We all know he’s dealing with a partial tear in his UCL, so his elbow is always a concern here. Projections are mixed for Tanaka. Steamer has him throwing 205 innings over 32 starts while ZIPS has him at 165 2/3 innings over 27 starts. PECOTA has just 176 1/3 innings and an unseemly 4.18 ERA. Truly all over the place.

A true No. 1?

Tanaka does what you want for a pitcher: He strikes batters out, avoids walks and pitches efficiently deep into games. The question above is so hard to pin down. As far as performance, he’s been a No. 1 starter for the Yankees, particularly last season. He won his last seven decisions. He had a 4.58 K-to-BB ratio. A 3.07 ERA (3.51 FIP) in basically 200 innings and kept the Yankees in essentially every game he started.

One of his big concerns after 2015 was his home run rate. That fell in 2016, going from 16.9 percent of fly balls turning into homers to just 12 percent. His ground ball rate reached a career-high 48.2 percent. His line drive percentage fell as well.

One concern is his decreasing strikeout rate. I’ll get into his stuff below, but his pure strikeout rate has decreased each year from 26 percent in 2014 to 20.5 percent in 2016 while his walk rate slightly increased from 3.9 to 4.4 percent. He’s still pretty solid with his control, but it’s something to look out for next year.

Lastly, he’s looked pretty darn good this spring. It doesn’t mean all that much. However, it’s a great sign. Take his start from last week: four perfect innings with seven strikeouts. That’s ace-type performance. Grapefruit League competition has taken a hit with the WBC going on and that Tigers lineup he faced was no exception. Still, it’s worth hoping that his early success can roll over into Opening Day in Tampa.

Repertoire

At the end of 2016, Tanaka’s fastball and sinker were at a career-low in terms of average velocity with his four-seamer averaging 91.11 mph. His fastball lost velocity as the year progressed and have also lost velocity year over year. Take, for instance, his average velocity on his pitches each of the last three years via Brooks Baseball.

tanaka-mph

Tanaka legitimately has six pitches that he throws at least five percent of the time. He relies most heavily on his sinker, splitter and slider, in that order last season. His sinker rose significantly in usage with his four-seamer and cutter seeing decreases. Perhaps that is because of the velocity decrease and him needing to keep hitters off balance. That increased sinker usage also helps explain his increase in groundball percentage last season.

Tanaka’s sinker and splitter were his most effective last season, eliciting the lowest ISO power against and some of his lowest batting averages against. His splitter and his less-used slider provide the most whiffs per swing.

Contract Question

Everyone knows about Tanaka’s opt-out. That was the price to pay for Tanaka in order to entice him away from the Cubs in 2014 and now the proverbial chickens will come home to roost in a little more than seven months. As with the rest of the veterans in the rotation, Tanaka can be a free agent at the end of this season.

The question of whether he opts out is a complicated one. Tanaka, 29 in November, would theoretically be in the prime position to cash in with a free agent market starved for proven pitchers. The problem is his elbow. Anyone who signs him would get a chance to look at his UCL and that might be something Tanaka chooses to avoid. Maybe his elbow gives out this season and this is all moot.

However, if Tanaka pitches well this season and perhaps even clears the 200-inning hurdle, there are many, many dollars telling him and agent Casey Close he should opt out. In the case he opts out, the Yankees face the choice of paying top dollar for a pitcher with a potentially serious elbow injury in the near future (the team knows better than anyone outside of Tanaka what his elbow looks like) or letting go their No. 1 starter. These days, most pitchers face some sort of arm injury in their future, but whether Tanaka is worth the risk is a tricky question.

For now, it’s one more year to enjoy the Yankees’ top starting pitcher.

Plate discipline is Dustin Fowler’s biggest weakness, and he’s working on it this spring

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Ever since last year’s trade deadline, nearly every conversation about the Yankees has focused on their farm system. It’s unquestionably one of the best in baseball, and we’ve seen much of that young talent this spring. The big names like Gleyber Torres and Aaron Judge have been excellent. Others like Billy McKinney have opened eyes too. It’s been a fun spring so far.

Outfielder Dustin Fowler has also been a standout this spring, going 7-for-23 (.304) with two triples and two steals. He’s also played a very nice center field aside from one hilarious miscue two weeks ago — the ball deflected off his glove and bonked Clint Frazier in the head — which had more to do with a lack of communication than some sort of skill deficiency. The young talent has been exciting in Spring Training and Fowler is one of the guys making it happen.

“He’s swung the bat well, he’s played good defense, he’s run the bases well,” said Joe Girardi to Bryan Hoch. “You kind of see a young man growing up in front of you. He had a tremendous year last year, for the age that he was in Double-A. That’s not always the easiest place to hit, the first couple months of the year, with the weather. It’s not really a hitter’s ballpark. He’s made some big, big strides.”

Fowler, who turned 22 in December, would receive more attention in a farm system not quite as deep as New York’s. The Yankees have a ton of prospects and it’s easy to overlook players as a result. Fowler was a three-sport guy in high school (baseball, football, wrestling) and he’s really blossomed since being the club’s 18th round pick in 2013. His ability is breaking through now that he is focusing on baseball full-time. And he’s had some help, of course.

“(Double-A Trenton hitting coach P.J. Pilittere) really changed my career from a hitting aspect,” said Fowler to Mike Mazzeo. “I was always a guy with my hands above my head, so he shortened me up, which allowed me to put the barrel on the ball more. Last year, my power numbers went up and my average went up a bit, so he’s helped me out getting shorter and making contact more.”

There is, however, one glaring deficiency in Fowler’s game. I mean, it’s tough to knock a left-handed batter who can get the bat on the ball (15.0 K% in Double-A in 2016), has some pop (.177 ISO), can run (25 steals), and can play above-average center field defense. But, in Fowler’s case, he just doesn’t walk. He had a 3.8% walk rate in a full season at Double-A last year, and in his career, it’s a 4.4% walk rate in nearly 1,500 plate appearances.

Minor league walk rates are fickle and not very predictive — there are so many pitchers in the minors who have no idea where the ball is going, plus most talented hitters drive something in the zone before taking four balls — but in Fowler’s case, the walk rate is emblematic of his approach. He’s a free swinger. Not a wild hacker who swings and misses a lot, but someone who swings at anything he can reach and puts it in play. From MLB.com’s scouting report:

Fowler makes repeated hard contact with a short, quick left-handed stroke. His bat speed, strength and plus speed give him 20-20 upside, though he’s still learning to be an efficient basestealer. To reach his offensive ceiling, he’ll need to get more selective at the plate because he walks infrequently and puts too many early-count pitches in play rather than waiting for one to drive.

The lack of walks and plate discipline hurts Fowler in two ways. One, it drags his OBP down. Duh. The guy hit .281 with a .311 OBP last year. It’s .279 and .313 for his career. Yeesh. Nice AVG, yucky OBP. And two, Fowler doesn’t get himself into as many hitter’s counts as you’d like. It’s possible he’d show even more pop with a few more 2-0 and 3-1 counts. Fortunately, Fowler recognizes this and is working on his plate discipline this this year.

“Get the walk rate up little bit, trying to figure out the zone a little bit better,” said Fowler to George King and Ken Davidoff when asked what he’s working on this spring. “It’s going to help me in the long run. It will help everything. Strikeout rate will be better, squared-up contact will be better … I’ve always been an aggressive hitter. Just picking pitches that are in the zone that (I should) probably take, get to the next pitch, get a little deeper.”

So far this spring Fowler has drawn three walks in 26 plate appearances. Yay? I guess. I wouldn’t read much into that. Unfortunately there is no PitchFX data for the Grapefruit League nor is there reliable swing rate data for Double-A, so we can’t look at Fowler’s approach more in-depth. It’s entirely possible he is showing more patience this spring and getting himself into better hitter’s counts — Fowler is hitting .304/.385/.478 in those 26 plate appearances, after all — but we need more information.

Fortunately, there is some evidence a player Fowler’s age (22) will see his walk rate improve as he gets into his mid-to-late-20s. Is it guaranteed to happen? Of course not. Being a free-swinger is in your DNA and it’s a difficult thing to change. It’s not impossible though. Here is a walk rate aging curve via Jeff Zimmerman:

bb-aging-curve

Keep in mind that aging curve is from 2014, so it could use an update. Point is, plate discipline is clearly something Fowler can improve, and it’s the kind of skill that could allow him to make the jump from good prospect to great prospect. The ability to drive the ball is there, as is the speed and defense, which makes for an exciting package of tools. Only plate discipline is lacking.

“(Baseball is) something I always loved and something I was really talented at … I believe in my abilities,” added Fowler while talking to Mazzeo. “I don’t really get into the hype and everything. I try to stay away from that as much as possible, but I believe in my abilities and I do everything I can on and off the field to help my career. Hopefully I can keep it going, stay healthy and get better and better.”

The Yankees, even with Jacoby Ellsbury under contract for all eternity (through 2020, to be exact), are going to need a new full-time center fielder fairly soon. Ellsbury will turn 34 this summer and not too many players that age man center full-time. Perhaps he’ll be an exception. If not, Fowler is the obvious candidate to get the first crack at being the new full-time center fielder given his career to date, and the fact he’ll begin 2017 in Triple-A. He’s on the cusp of the show.

The raw tools are there for Fowler to be an impact two-way player. He makes contact and will surprise you with his power, plus he can cover center field gap to gap. His ability to improve his plate discipline could very well determine whether he’s a nice bottom of the order player, or someone who could legitimately hit first or second for a contending team, and Fowler seems to be aware of that. Working the count and refining his approach seems to be a priority for him this year.