Barbato looks like a keeper, not a shuttle candidate, so far this season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Coming into Spring Training, Johnny Barbato was an afterthought in the competition for an Opening Day bullpen spot. At least I thought so. The Yankees had a ton of bullpen candidates in camp, many of them with big league experience, and I figured they would get first dibs. Instead, Barbato out-pitched them all in camp, and won a spot on the roster.

Seven games into the season, Barbato already looks like a power reliever with some staying power, not someone who will spend his summer tracking mileage between Scranton and the Bronx. (Expense reports are such a pain.) His regular season numbers (3.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 5 K) are great, but they’re also still meaningless because the sample is so small. Barbato’s stuff and ability to locate is what makes him look so promising.

“First pitch was 95-96 mph. Second pitch was a buckler and I usually don’t buckle on breaking balls. Next pitch ground ball to first. Three pitches. Not a fun at-bat,” said Chris Colabello to George King when asked about facing Barbato following Wednesday’s game. Barbato allowed a two-out walk in an otherwise clean inning that night, and because the Yankees scored in the next half-inning, he picked up his first career win. That’s always cool.

New York acquired Barbato from the Padres for Shawn Kelley last offseason. He was a pretty big deal as a prospect back in the day — San Diego gave Barbato a $1.4M bonus as a sixth rounder in 2010 — because of his live arm, but he never did pick up a changeup, so he had to move to relief. Here is Baseball America’s scouting report (no subs. req’d) following the trade:

He pitches with mid-90s velocity and verve, attacking hitters with a live fastball that sinks and runs as it nears the plate. He throws a true curveball in the high 70s that features extreme break through the zone, and he locates and mixes his two pitches well enough to boast a career strikeout rate of 9.2 per nine innings.

That matches up with what we’ve seen from Barbato early this season and in Spring Training, right? The fastball is lively and his curveball has some very nice bend to it. (Here’s the GIF.) And he has verve. Verve is always good. The scouting report refers to Barbato as a two-pitch pitcher, however. There is no mention of his slider, a slider we’ve seen this year. To the action footage:

Johnny Barbato SL

I do enjoy the little bunny hop following the release. Nice touch. I guess that’s the verve the scouting report was talking about.

Anyway, that’s a slider. Fight me if you think otherwise. I guess maybe it could be a cutter, but it’s no mid-90s four-seamer and it for sure is not a 70-something mile an hour curveball. That’s a pitch that is unaccounted for in the scouting reports. (There’s no mention of the slider in Baseball America’s write-ups over the years.)

That pitch also did not exist until this year according to PitchFX, albeit in limited looks. The Padres hold Spring Training in Arizona, and several Cactus League ballparks are outfitted with PitchFX. Barbato also pitched in the Arizona Fall League a few years back. Here is the very limited PitchFX data we have on Johnny Boombatz, via Brooks Baseball:

Johnny Barbato pitch selectionSee? The slider has come out of nowhere. It’s very possible Barbato was throwing it in the minors last year, but I can’t find any record of it. This appears to be a new pitch Barbato has added at some point since the trade, and that’s pretty cool. The Yankees are known to teach cutters — David Robertson is the best example, but others like Ian Clarkin and Manny Banuelos added the pitch as well — so it wouldn’t be unprecedented if Barbato added a similar pitch since the trade.

Right now Barbato is coming out of the bullpen with a mid-90s four-seamer, his trademark upper-70s curveball, and this new cutter/slider (slutter?) thing at 88-89 mph or so. He throws all three pitches regularly — he’s thrown 21.0% curves and 22.6% slutters so far — and his swing-and-miss rate is a healthy 15.7% in the super duper early going. Joe Girardi seems to trust Barbato too; he brought him into the sixth inning of a tie game against the Blue Jays on Wednesday. The first batter he faced was Troy Tulowitzki.

Last season the Yankees shuttled young relievers in and out of the bullpen every time a fresh arm was needed. And, for the most part, none of the shuttle relievers did anything to distinguish themselves. It’s a tough job, I get that, but no one came out throwing fire and left you wanting to see more. They came up, threw a few innings, then were sent back out and no one really cared. None of those guys did enough to impress the brain trust and stick around.

Barbato has already stood out in a way none of the shuttle relievers did last season. He took advantage of an opportunity in Spring Training and he’s carried that performance over into the regular season. He’s throwing strikes — it’s not uncommon for even the most polished minor leagues to lose the zone a bit early in their MLB careers — and missing bats. It’s early, but so far Barbato looks like someone who should stick around and not ride the shuttle.

Even at age 40, it’s too early to worry about A-Rod’s slow start

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Following last night’s 0-fer, Alex Rodriguez is now 3-for-22 (.136) on the young season. He did hit a home run against the Tigers over the weekend, though he’s also struck out eight times. A-Rod was pretty great last season. But when a 40-year-old with two surgically repaired hips starts slow, there’s going to be concern it’s more than a slump. That’s just the way it is.

The very first thing I look at when an older player slumps is the quality of his at-bats. A few years back, when Derek Jeter was nearing the finish line, he was clearly cheating fastball and jumping on anything near the hitting zone early in the count. Same with Ichiro Suzuki. The quality of their at-bats suffered because their reaction time wasn’t the same, so they had to speed up their bats and sit on the heater. They were at a disadvantage.

Anecdotally, A-Rod’s at-bats have seemed fine so far this season. It’s tough to explain what exactly constitutes a “quality at-bat,” but you know one when you see it. Hitters swing at strikes, spit on pitcher’s pitchers, that sort of thing. Here are some numbers to help put some of this into context:

2015 Walk Rate: 13.5%
2016 Walk Rate: 15.4% (11.1% career, 8.7% MLB average)

2015 Chase Rate: 25.1%
2016 Chase Rate: 27.7% (25.7% career, 29.9% MLB average)

I’ve felt Rodriguez has been doing a good job laying off pitches out of the zone this first week and a half of the season, and it’s good to see the numbers confirm what my eyes are telling me. His plate discipline numbers are right in line with last year and his career averages. He’s not jumping at the plate and chasing out of the zone.

Also, A-Rod is still hitting the ball hard. Wednesday night is a pretty good example of how the batting line can be deceiving right now. Rod went 0-for-4 but hit the ball hard three times: twice to the right fielder and once to the second baseman. Good contact but he hit it to the wrong spot. It happens. That’s baseball.

Baseball Info Solutions has A-Rod’s hard contact rate at 28.6% right now, which almost exactly matches the league average (28.7%). His soft contact rate is 0.0%. Literally zero. BIS says Alex has yet to make weak contact in 2016. Statcast has his average exit velocity at 95.9 mph. Last year it was 92.1 mph. His line drive and fly ball rates are 35.7% and 42.9%, so he’s getting the ball in the air too. I’m going to put this in the very simplest of terms: Alex hit ball good. That’s as basic as you’re going to get. His contact has been loud so far.

Of course it’s still early in the season and all of this can change in an instant. Right now we’re just looking for scary signs. Some sort of evidence Rodriguez’s game is slipping. And, really, you don’t have to look too hard to find it: his contact rate is 68.8% on pitches in the zone and 62.0% overall. Last year it was 77.7% and 70.2%, respectively. The league averages are 85.0% and 76.8%. That’s the red flag to watch.

Alex is a DH and a DH only at this point, so if he doesn’t hit, he’s pretty useless. Unlike last year, when he came out of the gate on fire, he’s started a bit slow this season. If Joe Girardi wants to drop A-Rod in the order — flipping him and Carlos Beltran seems like the obvious move — I say go for it. It’s an easy enough move to make and I can’t imagine anyone would have a problem with that. He dropped him in the order late last year, remember.

Otherwise I think it’s too early to worry about Alex. His contact rate is down, but he’s swinging at the pitches he’s supposed to swing at, and his contact has been solid. I’d be more concerned if A-Rod wasn’t driving the ball and wasn’t showing any kind of feel for the strike zone. Beltran was a disaster last April and the Yankees were rewarded for their patience with him. They’d be smart to remain patient with A-Rod now.

Yankees drop the second game of the series 7-2 to Happ’s arm and Jays’ bats

Like it’s always been said, any game with this Toronto Blue Jays team is never going to be easy. After winning a fun one yesterday, the Yankees went down rather haplessly tonight 7-2. On a positive note: Michael Pineda looked much better tonight and, well, Ronald Torreyes kept hitting. It was largely unspectacular, let’s go with that.

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

Big Mike

Unlike against the Astros, Pineda had his slider working tonight. Especially early on, he really had it going, showing a very sharp downward movement that made it near impossible for hitters to catch up.

For instance:

 

That doesn’t mean his outing went all too well though. In the second, the Jays drew first blood. With two outs with Russell Martin at first, Pineda uncorked a fastball right down the middle to Ryan Goins that got clobbered to right-center for an RBI double. 1-0 Toronto.

Ryan Goins struck again in the fifth. Pineda walked Justin Smoak to start the inning. Goins saw the first pitch fastball and drove it towards the left field fence for a double. With runners on second and third, Torreyes bounced a throw to first on a Kevin Pillar grounder and Mark Teixeira couldn’t handle it: an E-6 and a 2-1 Jays lead. With runners on first and third, Josh Donaldson grounded into the double play to make it two outs but a runner came home for a 3-1 Toronto lead anyways.

His final line – 6.0 IP, 5 H, 3 R (2 ER) 3 BB, 6 K – is not his best nor worst line but I’ll say this: he gave Yankees a chance to win today. Unfortunately, their bats did not come up potent against J.A. Happ tonight.

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

The Few Activities of Yankee Bats

J.A. Happ wasn’t spectacular – he allowed ten baserunners in six innings pitched – but he did the job. He induced two double plays, struck out four (including A-Rod twice), did not give up big hits with RISP, etc. It remains to be seen if his late-season performance boost with the Pirates is fluke or not (7-2 with 1.85 ERA) but if his adjustments hold true long-term, the Jays have themselves a nice starter. 

In the top of fifth, Torreyes led off with a double past third base. Austin Romine hit a single to center that put the runners on first and third with no out. Jacoby Ellsbury popped out innocuously to third but Aaron Hicks hit an RBI ground out to drive a run in, 1-1. A run engineered by Torreyes and Romine, how about that? 

The Yankees got a run back in the eighth against the former Yankee draftee Drew Storen (34th rounder in 2007). With one out, Teixeira hit a fastball right down the middle to the right field foul pole to make it 3-2.

And well, those were all the scoring activities they had. The Bombers hit 1-for-7 in RISP situations tonight, leading to seven runners left on base in total. That’s not what you want. There are nights where you score sixteen runs and there are those where you go away quiet like this. It’s baseball.

Digging the Hole

Right after the Yankees scored a run in the top of eighth, they allowed much more. Joe Girardi turned to Ivan Nova for the bottom of eighth. Nova, on his previous appearance, threw for a pretty solid four-inning save. Tonight, nothing went right for him.

On the first pitch, he allowed a double to Donaldson. A wild pitch advanced the reigning AL MVP to third but it didn’t matter – Jose Bautista snared a double to drive him in. Nova retired Edwin Encarnacion on a ground out but Troy Tulowitzki singled to right to bring Bautista home. Michael Saunders banged a double off the left field wall to put two runners in the scoring position and both of them came in with a Russell Martin sac fly and Ryan Goins RBI single. When it was all said and done: a four-run inning and a 7-2 Jays lead.

On the next frame, former Yankee farmhand Pat Venditte came in and threw a three-up-three-down frame to end the game.

Leftovers

How about Ronald Torreyes? As Michael Kay said “He’s a hitting machine!” Tonight, he went for 2-for-4, bringing his season average to .667 with an OPS of 1.667. I can’t say I’m confident that he’ll keep it going but he’s making a nice case for a long-term roster spot.

A bullpen arm who pitched tonight not named Ivan Nova – Kirby Yates – threw a solid scoreless inning tonight. Yates came in the bottom of seventh, threw 14 pitches and struck out two. He was the only Yankee pitcher tonight that retired Ryan Goins (went 3-for-4 with 2 RBI’s tonight) when he struck out the Jays second baseman on three pitches, therefore earning a temporary superhero status.

Box Score, WPA, Highlights and Updated Standing

Here are tonight’s box score, updated standings, WPA and video highlights. 


Source: FanGraphs


The series tied at 1-1, so you know what that means. Tomorrow’s game will be a rubber match between the Yankees and Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre. Nathan Eovaldi will take the mound against Marcus Stroman. It should be a fun one.

DotF: Scranton ekes out a win behind Haynes, Pinder

In case you missed it earlier, the Yankees’ minor league deal with 1B/OF Nick Swisher is now official. He’s expected to be in the Triple-A Scranton lineup tomorrow.

Triple-A Scranton (1-0 win over Pawtucket)

  • CF Ben Gamel: 1-4, 1 2B, 1 K — 6-for-13 (.462) with two doubles and a triple in his last three games
  • RF Aaron Judge: 0-4, 2 K — first hitless game of the year … we’re still waiting for his first strikeout-less game of the year … he has ten strikeouts in 28 plate appearances so far (35.7%), which is obviously way too many … still early though
  • LF Slade Heathcott: 0-3, 1 BB, 2 K
  • 2B Rob Refsnyder: 1-4, 3 K
  • DH Cesar Puello: 0-1, 1 BB, 1 K, 2 HBP — guessing he’s about to lose some playing time to Swisher
  • RHP Kyle Haynes: 6 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 1 WP, 9/4 GB/FB — 58 of 88 pitches were strikes (66%) … the Yankees got him in the Chris Stewart trade with the Pirates a few years ago … I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take a trip or two on the shuttle this summer
  • RHP Branden Pinder: 3 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 4 K, 0/3 GB/FB — 32 of 48 pitches were strikes (67%) … eight strikeouts and no walks in five innings so far this year … this was his 12th outing of at least three innings in 159 career minor league appearances

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Game Seven: Big Mike in Toronto

BIG MIKE IS HERE

The Yankees picked up a big win — big by mid-April standards, anyway — in last night’s series opener against the Blue Jays, and it was the kind of game they’re built to win. The score was close, they scratched out the go-ahead run, then turned it over to the bullpen. They’ve already won a few high-scoring games this season. Last night was a grind-it-out win.

Michael Pineda is on the mound tonight, and he’s going to have to do a much better job locating his slider tonight if he wants to navigate that devastating Toronto lineup. Big Mike gave up three home runs to the Astros last week and all three were on spinners right out over the plate. Can’t do that. He needs to be better tonight. Six innings would be cool. Maybe even (gasp!) seven. Here is the Jays’ lineup and here is the Yanks’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Aaron Hicks
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. RF Carlos Beltran
  6. 2B Starlin Castro
  7. 3B Chase Headley
  8. SS Ronald Torreyes
  9. C Austin Romine
    RHP Michael Pineda

It’s another cold and cloudy day in Toronto, so expect the Rogers Centre roof to be closed again. Tonight’s game will begin a touch after 7pm ET and can be seen on YES. Enjoy the game, nerds.

Injury Update: Brian McCann (toe) is still sore, but he is available to pinch-hit and catch in an emergency. He took a foul tip off the foot last night … Luis Cessa suffered some kind of allergic reaction yesterday and his right eye was swollen shut, according to Marly Rivera. He was available to pitch, but only in an emergency. Cessa is on medication and doing fine now. He’s available tonight.

Chapman Update: Aroldis Chapman pitched in his first Extended Spring Training game this afternoon, according to Erik Boland and Bryan Hoch. He threw 15 pitches in a perfect inning, striking out two, and his fastball was up to 98 mph. OF Carlos Vidal, OF Jared Mitchell, and OF Estevan Florial were the unlucky minor leaguers who had to face him. Chapman is eligible to return May 9th.

Blue Jays Roster Update: Earlier today the Blue Jays called up ex-Yankees farmhand Pat Venditte, the switch-pitcher. Maybe we’ll get to see him tonight or tomorrow. That should be fun. Righty Arnold Leon was designated for assignment to clear a roster spot.

Update: Yankees sign Nick Swisher to minor league deal

(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

April 13th: Swisher’s minor league deal is official, reports Mark Feinsand. That means he passed the physical, which was no sure thing given his recent knee issues. Apparently three other teams were after him too. Feinsand says Swisher will join Triple-A Scranton and be in the lineup tomorrow.

“We believe in having depth in our organization,” said Joe Girardi to reporters the other day. “Swish was a good player, and has been a good player for a long time. If one of our guys was to go down, we don’t necessarily have a true first baseman. Swish is a guy that could do that, or he could play the outfield.”

April 9th: The recently released Nick Swisher is working out in Tampa and expected to sign a minor league deal with the Yankees, the team says. Swisher was released by the rebuilding Braves during Spring Training because they had no place for him on their roster.

“The fact they let me come out here and work is great. It keeps me in the game, keeps me going strong, and I appreciate that. This place is like family,” said Swisher to Mark Didtler earlier today. “I still feel like I can do this.”

Swisher, 35, is primarily a first baseman these days after having surgery on both knees back in 2014. His mobility in the outfield is pretty much gone. Greg Bird is out for the season following shoulder surgery, and the Yankees currently have Chris Parmelee as first base depth in Triple-A.

Assuming the deal gets done, Swisher figures to head to Triple-A Scranton for a few weeks to show he’s healthy and productive. Chances are his contract will include some kind of opt-out date in which the team either has to call him up or cut him loose. That’s pretty standard in these situations.

Swisher has hit .204/.291/.326 (75 wRC+) the last two years. His $15M salary is being paid by the Indians and Braves, so the Yankees or any other team can sign him for a pro-rated portion of the league minimum. Low cost, no risk.

Swisher was super productive during his time with the Yankees from 2009-12, but right now expectations are low. He hasn’t been good since leaving New York.

Two starts into 2016, Masahiro Tanaka is pitching much differently than last year

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

All things considered, last night’s start was neither great nor terrible for Masahiro Tanaka. He could not get the Blue Jays to chase his offspeed stuff out of the zone — his 38.2% chase rate from 2014-15 was the best in baseball — which led to a ton of pitches early. Tanaka was able to grind it out and finish the night having allowed two runs in five innings.

Two things are clear now that Tanaka is two starts into the new season. One, he is not throwing as hard as last year. His velocity is down across the board compared to last April, both on average and at the high end.

April 2014: 93.5 mph average, 96.7 mph max
April 2015: 91.4 mph average, 94.1 mph max
April 2016: 90.6 mph average, 92.0 mph max

There was a lot of talk last season about Tanaka’s velocity being down following his elbow injury, but PitchFX shows his average fastball was identical both years (92.7 mph) and his maximum velocity was pretty close as well (96.7 mph to 96.3 mph). His fastball was down last April. By the end of the season, it was right where it was supposed to be.

This year his velocity is down even more. Tanaka figures to add velocity as the season progresses because pretty much every pitcher adds velocity as the weather warms up, so we just have to wait to see whether he can get his fastball back to where it was the last two years. For now, Tanaka is not throwing as hard as he did last two years.

The other thing we’ve seen out of Tanaka in his two starts so far is a heck of a lot of moving two-seam fastballs. I said I couldn’t remember him ever throwing that many two-seamers following his first start, and he was at it again last night. Look at his pitch selection (via Brooks Baseball):

Masahiro Tanaka pitch selectionTanaka threw his four-seamer and sinker (two-seamer) both roughly 20% of the time back in 2014. Last year it was 19% and 14% in favor of the four-seamer. This year? Tanaka has thrown 30% sinkers and only 3% four-seamers. He’s thrown five four-seam fastballs in his two starts. Five. Tanaka has clearly put the straight four-seamer in his pocket and is emphasizing his sinker so far.

As a result of all those sinking two-seamers, Tanaka’s ground ball rate is up to 57.1% in the super early going. His grounder rate was 47% the last two seasons. Two starts is nothing. It’s just neat to see this all making sense. Tanaka appears to be throwing more moving fastballs, the PitchFX data confirms what our eyes are telling us, and the result is more grounders, which is exactly what you’d expect.

Now, why is Tanaka throwing more two-seamers? That’s a different question. He was very home run prone last season (1.46 HR/9) and may have made the adjustment in an effort to keep the ball in the park. Also, let’s not forget Tanaka had a bone spur taken out of his elbow in October. He may feel more comfortable throwing the sinker than cutting loose with the four-seamer right now.

The Tanaka we’ve seen these first two starts is quite a bit different than the Tanaka we saw the last two years. His velocity is down relative to the last two Aprils and he’s sinking his fastball much more often, presumably intentionally. These changes are not necessarily a bad thing. He does have a 3.38 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP after two starts, after all. I think we’d all take those numbers across a full season.

Tanaka’s two seasons and two starts as a Yankee have been eventful, if nothing else. He’s rarely been bad — like bad bad, not last night bad — and yet he has not been truly dominant since before the elbow injury in 2014. Tanaka is not throwing as hard as he did last year and he is throwing way more sinking two-seamers. Is this is a two-start blip, or simply the latest new version of Tanaka?