Scouting the Free Agent Market: Left-Handed Relievers

noboone.jpg (Justin Edmonds/Getty)
noboone.jpg (Justin Edmonds/Getty)

The Yankees came into the offseason seemingly determined to land a big money closer, and they did exactly that two weeks ago, when they inked Aroldis Chapman to a five-year contract. Chapman joins Dellin Betances and Tyler Clippard in the bullpen, probably Adam Warren too. The remaining bullpen spots are up for grabs with a whole bunch of young pitchers in the running.

Reports indicate the Yankees are still looking to add bullpen help — well, every team is looking for bullpen help, but you know what I mean — particularly a left-hander. They were in touch with Brett Cecil before he signed with the Cardinals, and they had interest in Mike Dunn before he signed with the Rockies. Here is New York’s lefty reliever depth chart at the moment:

  1. Aroldis Chapman
  2. Tommy Layne
  3. Chasen Shreve
  4. Richard Bleier
  5. Dietrich Enns

Chapman is the closer and won’t be used in left-on-left matchup situations in the middle innings. Right now Layne is that guy, and while he did nice work for the Yankees this past season, I’m not sure he’s someone they could count on going forward. The other three guys aren’t all that reliable either. They might prove to be next summer, but right now, I can’t imagine anyone wants to go into the season with one of those three as the top middle innings southpaw.

The current free agent class is not very good, especially now that most of the top players are off the board, but it does offer a few quality left-handed bullpen options. They won’t come cheap — Cecil got four years and Dunn got three years, so yikes — which might keep the Yankees out of the market all together. Still though, if a nice opportunity presents itself, the Yankees could pounce. Let’s review the available options.

Jerry Blevins

Blevins. (Greg Fiume/Getty)
Blevins. (Greg Fiume/Getty)

2016 Performance: Blevins, 33, spent the 2016 season with the Mets and pitched to a 2.79 ERA (3.05 FIP) in 42 innings spread across 73 innings, which tells you how he was used. He held left-handed hitters to a .250/.313/.324 (.283 wOBA) batting line against with 31.0% strikeouts, 7.1% walks, and 49.3% grounders. Blevins was actually much more effective against righties (.245 wOBA), but that was a big outlier compared to the rest of his career (.312 wOBA).

2016 Stuff: As with most relievers, Blevins is a two-pitch pitcher who relies on his fastball and breaking ball, in this case a curve. He has thrown a changeup on occasion in the past, but it’s not a big part of his arsenal. Here’s the PitchFX data from his past season. This numbers are against lefties only since we’re looking at matchup guys:

% Thrown Avg Velo Whiff% GB%
Fastball 63.0% 89.9 4.2% 59.5%
Curveball 35.7% 71.3 25.6% 32.0%

The fastball swing-and-miss rate is below-average (MLB AVG: 6.9%) while the curveball swing-and-miss rate is comfortably above-average (MLB AVG: 11.1%). Blevins got a ton of grounders with his fastball this year (MLB AVG: 37.9%), always has, while his curve is the opposite. It has a lower than average ground ball rate (MLB AVG: 48.7%) and has throughout his career.

The Skinny: There are very few consistently reliable matchup left-handers in baseball and Blevins is one of them. Since reaching the show for good in 2012, he’s held lefty batters to a sub-.285 wOBA four times in five years. Despite his success this year, Blevins isn’t effective against righties, and there’s nothing to indicate this year’s success was anything more than sample size noise (he faced only 65 righties). If the Yankees want a pure specialist, Blevins is one of the best out there.

J.P. Howell

2016 Performance: Last offseason Howell exercised a $6.25M player option in his contract to remain with the Dodgers. The 33-year-old had a 4.09 ERA (3.50 FIP) in 50.2 innings and 64 appearances overall, and lefties roughed him up pretty good too: .299/.340/.412 (.328 wOBA) with 21.4% strikeouts, 3.9% walks, and 66.7% grounders. Righties had success against Howell this year as well (.304 wOBA). Just a year ago he held lefties to a .237 wOBA, however.

2016 Stuff: Howell is another two-pitch reliever. He’s a sinker/curveball guy with kind of a funky delivery that adds some deception. Here’s how Howell’s stuff played against lefties in 2016:

% Thrown Avg Velo Whiff% GB%
Sinker 50.6% 85.9 4.7% 73.7%
Curveball 49.2% 79.1 11.7% 58.8%

Howell is a ground ball guy, not a bat-misser. Ground balls are fine, but when the guy’s primary job is to get out lefties, you’d like him to be able to do it without relying on his defense so much. A ground ball doesn’t help much when there is a runner on third with less than two outs. Howell is the not the type of pitcher who can come in and get you that strikeout.

The Skinny: Howell fell so far out of favor with the Dodgers this year that he wasn’t even on their postseason roster. Manager Dave Roberts went with rookie Grant Dayton and veteran Luis Avilan as his two lefty relievers in October. Howell is a finesse pitcher with no track record of big strikeout numbers, so there’s no reason to expect that going forward. Want him to get a lefty out? Chances are he’ll need his defense to make a play behind him.

Boone Logan

2016 Performance: Shoulder inflammation sidelined the 32-year-old Logan for two weeks at the end of May, and around that, he had a 3.69 ERA (3.23 FIP) in 46.1 innings and 66 appearances. He absolutely dominated lefties. They hit .139/.222/.255 (.215 wOBA) against him with 33.6% strikeouts, 7.6% walks, and 60.6% grounders. Nearly 70% of the lefties Logan faced this summer either struck out or hit the ball on the ground. Righties has more success against him, naturally (.305 wOBA).

2016 Stuff: As I’m sure you remember from his time with the Yankees, Logan is a four-seamer/sinker/slider pitcher with good velocity and a breaking ball that, when thrown right, is allergic to bats. Here are the numbers against lefties from 2016:

% Thrown Avg Velo Whiff% GB%
Four-Seam 31.7% 93.9 8.9% 42.9%
Sinker 12.4% 93.9 3.2% 70.6%
Slider 55.5% 84.2 27.8% 66.7%

Logan throws a ton of sliders, always has and always will. That pitch is the reason he’s in the big leagues. The slider gets a ton of swings and misses and a ton of grounders. The four-seamer gets an above-average amount of both too. Now that Dunn and Cecil are off the board, Logan is the only true power lefty remaining in free agency. He can throw the ball by hitters, which sure is a nice skill to have.

The Skinny: Logan never dominated lefties as thoroughly as he did this year. A season ago he held them to a .222/.349/.254 (.286 wOBA) batting line, which is nothing to write home about. His 2016 performance was a great big outlier compared to the rest of his career. That said, Logan has been generally serviceable against left-handed batters in his career, and his slider is probably the single best pitch among current free agent lefties.

Javier Lopez

Lopez. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty)
Lopez. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty)

2016 Performance: Lopez, the stalwart southpaw who was a key part of all those championship bullpens with the Giants, had a 4.05 ERA (5.40 FIP) at age 39 in 2016. He threw 26.2 innings across 68 appearances (lol), and lefties hit .208/.318/.316 (.289 wOBA) against him with 66.2% grounders and the same number of walks as strikeouts (11.2%). Righties absolutely clobbered Lopez this past season (.413 wOBA).

2016 Stuff: Lopez is a classic left-on-left matchup guy with little velocity, a sweepy breaking ball, and a funky sidearm delivery. The stereotypical LOOGY. PitchFX credits Lopez with both a slider and a curveball even though they’re the same pitch. He just varies the shape of his breaking ball. Anyway, here are the numbers against lefties from 2016:

% Thrown Avg Velo Whiff% GB%
Sinker 72.8% 85.0 6.2% 76.9%
Slider 21.3% 78.5 6.7% 50.0%
Curveball 5.4% 72.4 15.8% 0.0%

Well, the good news is Lopez is able to get ground balls with two pitches. Swings and misses though? It’s not happening. The curve, which is just a variation of his slider, got a good amount of whiffs, though he didn’t throw it all that much. Like Howell, Lopez is a guy who is going to put his defense to work to get outs.

The Skinny: Guys like Lopez scare the crap out of me. I know he spent all those years as a high-leverage matchup guy on championship teams, but, at this point of his career, Lopez is pushing 40 with no way to miss bats, even against lefties. The Giants had a miserable bullpen this past season and they’re walking away from a guy who was a key part of their bullpen through the title years. That’s kinda telling.

Travis Wood

2016 Performance: Unlike the other guys in this post, Wood has had success as a starter in his career. He made nine starts for the Cubs as recently as 2015 before moving to the bullpen full-time. This past season the 29-year-old had a 2.95 ERA (4.54 FIP) in 61 innings and 77 appearances. Wood was excellent against lefties, holding them to a .128/.208/.239 (.203 wOBA) batting line with 19.2% strikeouts, 9.2% walks, and 38.4% grounders. (And a .143 BABIP.) Righties hit him pretty hard though (.362 wOBA).

2016 Stuff: Even in relief, Wood used three pitches against lefties this summer. He attacked them with two fastballs (four-seamer and cutter) and a breaking ball (slider). And every once in a while he spun a curveball, but not often. Here’s how his stuff played against same-side hitters in 2016:

% Thrown Avg Velo Whiff% GB%
Four-seam 58.3% 91.5 9.8% 26.4%
Cutter 23.2% 87.7 6.2% 55.6%
Slider 13.7% 82.7 14.3% 53.3%

Whereas Logan has one excellent pitch in his slider, Wood has three good pitches but no truly dominant offering. I find it interesting Wood attacks lefties primarily with a four-seamer and cutter and not his slider. Does he front door the cutter? Or aim it at the outside corner and let it cut off the plate? Intrigue!

The Skinny: The free agent pitching market is so thin right now that I wonder if a team will look to sign Wood as a starter. He opened the 2015 season in the Cubs rotation and made at least 26 starts each year from 2012-14, so he has a lot of experience in that role. Either way, I don’t buy him being a true talent .203 wOBA pitcher against lefties, not with those strikeout and ground ball numbers, and especially without Chicago’s defense behind him. That doesn’t mean he’s a bad pitcher. I just don’t think Wood is really as good as he was in 2016.

* * *

To me, Blevins and Logan and Wood are at the head of the class here. Howell and especially Lopez are players I wouldn’t consider on anything more than a minor league deal. There are an awful lot of red flags with those two. Blevins is reliable, Logan brings that nasty slider, and Wood might have a chance to be something more than a pure left-on-left matchup guy.

As always, it’s going to come down to cost. Bullpen help is not cheap these days. Cecil signed for four years and $7.625M annually. Dunn received $6.33M per year across three years. Remember when the Yankees gave Matt Thornton two years and $7M total and it seemed kinda crazy? Those days are long gone. Decent middle relief help will cost you $6M a year or more. The Yankees might not be willing to commit that much to a lefty reliever, especially with no true shutdown guy available.

Monday Night Open Thread

Update on the search for a comment moderator and possibly a new writer(s): We received a ton of submissions and writing samples over the weekend. Way more than I expected. I’ve only just started to scratch the surface of reviewing them. The holidays are coming up, so my spare time is limited for the foreseeable future. My hope is to start replying to folks soon after New Years. Thanks to all those who applied.

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Panthers and Redskins are the Monday Night Football game, there are a handful of college basketball games on the schedule, and that’s it. None of the local hockey or basketball teams are in action. You all know what to do here, so do it.

AP: Yankees owe $27.4M in luxury tax for 2016 season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

According to Ronald Blum, the Yankees owe $27.4M in luxury tax for the 2016 season. That means their payroll for luxury tax purposes was $243.8M this summer. The Yankees are taxed 50% on every dollar over the $189M luxury tax threshold. Their actual payroll based on 2016 player salaries was $224.5M, up ever so slightly from $223.6M last year.

The Yankees have paid the luxury tax every single year since the system was implemented back in 2003. They paid $26M in tax last year and $18.3M in tax in 2014. Their total luxury tax bill over the last 14 seasons is $325M, far and away the most in baseball. The Dodgers, who owe $31.8M this year, are the second highest luxury tax payer since 2003. They’ve paid $113M total.

Hal Steinbrenner has made it no secret he hopes to get under the luxury tax threshold at some point soon. It won’t happen in 2017. It’s much more likely to happen in 2018, when the threshold rises to $197M and the Yankees will be free of several big contracts, most notably Alex Rodriguez‘s and CC Sabathia‘s. Possibly Masahiro Tanaka‘s too, depending on his opt-out.

The new Collective Bargaining Agreement raised the luxury tax threshold and also revised the penalties, adding a special tier for extreme offenders. Teams over the threshold at least three straight years, including $40M+ over the threshold the last two years, are hit with a 95% tax. Goodness. Getting under the threshold would reset New York’s tax rate and save a boatload of cash.

Luxury tax checks are due to the commissioner’s office by Saturday, January 21st. The money goes towards player benefits and MLB’s Industry Growth Fund, and, starting next season, luxury tax money will also be used to fund player retirement accounts. It’ll also be redistributed to teams that did not pay luxury tax. How about that?

A record six teams received luxury tax bills this year. Along with the Yankees and Dodgers, the Red Sox ($4.5M), Tigers ($4M), Giants ($3.4M), and Cubs ($2.96M) also have to pay. Boston and San Francisco are second-time offenders taxed at 30%. The Tigers and Cubs are first-time offenders. They were taxed at 17.5%.

The Yankees are likely to get fewer borderline pitches with Gary Sanchez behind the plate in 2017

(Joseph Garnett Jr./Getty)
(Joseph Garnett Jr./Getty)

Gary Sanchez is no longer the catcher of the future. He’s the catcher of the present. The Yankees made it official earlier this offseason, when they traded Brian McCann to the Astros for two Single-A pitching prospects and salary relief. They’re handing the catching reins over to Sanchez and he’ll be the centerpiece of the youth movement.

As we saw this past season, the 24-year-old Sanchez can be a true middle of the order impact hitter. Is he going to continue producing like Babe Ruth going forward? Probably not. It’s unrealistic to expect that kind of production all the time. Especially from a catcher. But his bat has always been his calling card and the Yankees are counting on Sanchez to hit and hit big going forward.

Defensively, there have long been questions about Sanchez behind the plate. His arm is, obviously, a cannon. One of the best I’ve ever seen. There are other aspects of catching though, such as blocking balls in the dirt and general receiving, and that stuff generated questions about Sanchez’s defense. He’s improved, but as we saw in 2016, he’s still rough around the edges. That’s okay. He’s still learning.

The Yankees were among the first teams in emphasize pitch-framing — Ben Lindbergh, a former Yankees intern, wrote about the fellow intern who stumbled on the value of framing back in 2009 — which is still a relatively new phenomenon in the sabermetric world. I mean, we all know it’s a valuable skill. We just didn’t know how valuable, and really, we still don’t fully understand it. The numbers are still being refined.

McCann came to the Yankees with a reputation for being a top notch pitch-framer, a reputation he maintained throughout his time in New York. Sanchez? Well, we don’t know too much about his pitch-framing skills yet because he just got to the big leagues. Minor league pitch-framing data exists, but it’s even more dubious than Major League numbers. Here are McCann’s and Sanchez’s 2016 pitch-framing numbers (MLB only for Sanchez):

McCann per StatCorner: +0.51 calls per game
McCann per Baseball Prospectus: +1.84 runs per 1,000 chances

Sanchez per StatCorner: -0.15 calls per game
Sanchez per Baseball Prospectus: +0.73 runs per 1,000 chances

On a rate basis, McCann is a better pitch-framer than Sanchez and not by a small margin either. Both StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus rate McCann as one of the top framers in the game. Sanchez is closer to middle of the pack. Not terrible, not great. Just … average-ish.

Let’s try to visualize the difference between McCann’s pitch-framing and Sanchez’s pitch-framing. With an assist from Baseball Savant, here are all the called strikes with McCann behind the plate this season and all the called strikes with Sanchez behind the plate. Again, this is MLB only for Sanchez. I created a GIF and overlaid the strike zone plots to make the comparison easier:

mccann-sanchez-framing

Do you see the difference? McCann’s strike zone is a little wider on the edges of the plate, though I suspect that might have as much to do with sample size as it does his framing ability. The bottom of the strike zone is what really caught my attention. Based on the data, Sanchez didn’t get nearly as many called strikes at (or below) the knees as McCann.

Framing a borderline pitch requires good technique as much as it does hand and wrist strength. The catcher has to receive the pitch, hold it firm, and subtly pull it into the strike zone as necessary. Too much movement is a bad thing. Here are McCann and Sanchez framing two fastballs in the same spot. McCann, on the left, got the strike. Sanchez didn’t.

mccann-sanchez-framing

Again, those fastballs are in the same spot — the coordinates are damn near identical, per PitchFX — yet McCann got the call and Sanchez did not. Sure, we could blame the umpire for missing the borderline call, but look how the two catchers frame that pitch. McCann receives it nice and quietly. Sanchez stabbed down with a big recoil to get back into the strike zone. He didn’t present it well for the umpire. McCann did.

The numbers and the eye test both indicate McCann is a better pitch-framer than Sanchez. Exactly how much better? That’s up for debate. I don’t think framing metrics are accurate enough to give us exact runs saved values myself, but to each his own. Either way, McCann is a better framer than Sanchez, and that’s going to affect the pitching staff going forward. The Yankees figure to get fewer borderline calls next year, particularly on pitches down in the zone.

Framing seems to be one of those things that can be taught, though maybe only to a point. At the end of the day, it’s an athletic move that requires a certain level of strength and athleticism and reflexes. Some have it, some don’t. If it could be easily taught, everyone would do it. The Yankees clearly value pitch-framing and I’m certain they’ll have Sanchez work on it going forward. Tony Pena and Joe Girardi are two pretty good catching mentors, I’d say.

Pitch-framing is a very real skill that does impact the pitching staff. The Yankees are poised to go young at the back of the rotation, and turning a few extra borderline pitches into strikes could be a big help. McCann’s advantage in framing might not be enough to make up for Sanchez’s advantage in, well, everything else, but when it comes to getting those borderline calls, it appears the Yankees will be worse off next season.

Fan Confidence Poll: December 19th, 2016

2016 Season Record: 84-78 (680 RS, 702 RA, 79-83 pythag. record), 5.0 GB of postseason spot

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Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the Features tab in the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?
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Anticipating the Adjustment

(Rich Gagnon/Getty)
(Rich Gagnon/Getty)

The world knows who Gary Sanchez is…and not just the baseball world. After his magnificent arrival in August, even the BBC got in on the action, profiling Sanchez’s sudden dominance at the plate. His profile, already large in Yankee and prospect circles at he beginning of 2016, looms even more so now that he placed second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting behind Detroit’s Michael Fulmer. AL pitchers are sure to have taken notice and will be determined to make 2017 a sophomore slump for Sanchez.

Regardless of how you do in your first real taste of the Majors, making adjustments is a part of making sure you go back for a second (and third, fourth, fifth…) bite; pitchers and coaches will always be looking to exploit weaknesses–real or perceived–and it’s up to young hitters to beat them to the punch in that regard. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what pitchers may do to adjust to Sanchez in his first full season as a big leaguer.

Below is a strike zone plot, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, detailing Sanchez’s ISO against pitches in various parts of the zone.

sancheziso

From that chart, it looks like when pitchers tried to tempt Sanchez with pitches on the outer half, he made them pay. Granted, pretty much every spot looks good; even the blue spots in the zone on the inner half have ISOs of .333; .200; and .429. Perhaps this means pitchers will be more reluctant to go outside against Sanchez, seeing that he has the ability to not only hit those pitches, but do so with authority. If they do go away, though, they need to do so out of the zone.

sanchezwhiffswing

Those are Sanchez’s whiff/swing numbers in various parts of the zone and it’s clear to see where there’s an issue: low and away. That’s where pitchers got Sanchez to swing and miss at high clips in 2016 and you can be sure they’re going to try to do that again; low and away is a winning spot for pitchers, regardless of the batter.

2016 showed us that Sanchez is capable of brilliance in a small stretch. Now, he’ll need to prove his steadiness over the course of an entire season. Given his pedigree–and what he did last season–there’s little reason to doubt him at this point. Baseball does happen, though, and ultimately we won’t know until, well, we know. So long as Sanchez makes his adjustments, he’ll be fine.

Weekend Open Thread

Some news: we’re looking for a comment moderator and possibly a new writer(s). And yes, we will pay. You’re not going to get rich — at least not until I get rich! — but you won’t write for free either. If you’re interested, send writing samples (game recaps, analytical stuff, whatever) and anything else you think will help your case to riveraveblues (at) gmail (dot) com. Needless to say, knowledge of the Yankees and general baseball rules are a must. Serious inquires only. Thanks.

Here is the open thread for the weekend. Talk about the offseason or whatever else right here. Just no politics or religion please. Thanks.