Searching for signs of life from Carlos Beltran’s bat using MLBAM’s new exit velocity data

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

After sitting in favor of Chris Young last night, Carlos Beltran is hitting .171/.222/.268 (33 wRC+) in 45 plate appearances so far this season. He’s yet to hit a home run and in general his bat seems lifeless. Beltran turns 39 on Friday and he looks every bit the part of a washed up ex-slugger. We saw this firsthand with Alfonso Soriano last season — when it goes, it can go in a hurry. Soriano hit 34 homers in 2013 and was completely cooked in 2014.

Beltran started last season very well before the bone spur in his elbow became an issue, which ostensibly hurt his performance the last three or four months of the season. He had the elbow cleaned out in the offseason, rehabbed all winter and early in Spring Training, then got into Grapefruit League games in early March. Counting the spring, Carlos has now had 90 plate appearances since having his elbow fixed, and he’s looked good for basically none of them.

Joe Girardi finally bumped Beltran down in the lineup earlier this week — I’m pretty sure that had more to do with Alex Rodriguez‘s hot start than Beltran’s poor performance though — but that only helps so much. The Yankees need Beltran to hit. If he doesn’t hit, he’s completely useless, because he doesn’t play defense or run the bases like he once did. Because of his track record and the $30M or so the team owes him though the end of next season, expect Beltran to get a nice long leash to show he isn’t washed up.

“There’s nothing that I see that’s necessarily (wrong). Does his bat speed look different to me? No. Just he’s gotten off to a slow start and hopefully the consistent at-bats will get him going,” said Joe Girardi to Brendan Kuty last week when asked about Beltran’s early season slump. Hitting coach Jeff Pentland told George King that Beltran “is a little frustrated right now because I don’t think he is used to struggling,” and cautioned he doesn’t “want to overload him with mechanical things because sometimes you fool with the mind and it turns into something more serious.”

Last year, MLB Advanced Media tested a new tracked system in three ballparks (Citi Field, Miller Park, Target Field) that records every movement on the field. The ball, the defenders, you name it. It’s the backbone of StatCast. The system was installed in all 30 parks this season, and, for the very first time, we now have precise batted ball velocity and distance data at our fingertips. MLBAM makes the data available via Gameday and it can be parsed just like PitchFX. It’s a gold mine.

So, now that this data is available, let’s use it to see if Beltran is showing any signs of life with his bat in the very early going this season. It stands to reason that if Carlos is getting closer to snapping out of his early season slump — regardless of whether it is due to his age, his elbow, sample size, whatever — he would be hitting the ball harder in recent days. Right? You always hear announcers say a player is getting close to breaking out of a slump when he starts making loud outs.

It seems like we haven’t seen many loud outs from Beltran this year, but we don’t have to rely on anecdotal evidence anymore. We have MLBAM’s batted ball data now. Here is Beltran’s exit velocity through the first two and a half weeks of the new season (via Baseball Savant):

Carlos Beltran batted ball velocity

There is no upward trend (the trendline shows a very slight downward trend, in fact), so no, Beltran isn’t hitting the ball any harder now than he was the first few days of the season. His hardest hit ball this season left the bat at 103 mph, which he’s done twice. A-Rod has hit a ball 103+ mph six times, for comparison. Beltran’s average batted ball velocity of 87.9 mph ranks 91st out of the 159 batters with at least 20 at-bats this season.

That might not necessarily be bad! Guys like Kyle Seager (88.1 mph), Matt Kemp (87.8 mph), Pablo Sandoval (87.5 mph), and Jacoby Ellsbury (87.4 mph) are near Beltran on the batted ball velocity leaderboard and no one is calling them cooked. (At least not yet!) The league average exit velocity is approximately 88.2 mph, so these guys are right in that neighborhood. A couple of well-struck line drives tonight and tomorrow and they’ll be over the league average.

It’s important to remember this information is all new and we don’t know a whole lot about it yet. How long does it take to stabilize? Ten batted balls? Fifty? A thousand? What happens when the weather warms up? How volatile is it year to year? How well does it actually correlate to performance? These are all questions we can’t answer yet, so for now we can’t use this data to say anything definitive other than “Player X is hitting the ball this hard.”

Right now we’re all working on assumptions. Hitting the ball hard is better than not hitting the ball hard, that much is obvious, but do hitters actually hit the ball harder as they get closer to snapping out of a slump? It’s way too early to say with this data. It would have been encouraging to see Beltran is hitting the ball harder recently but I’m not sure it would have meant anything anyway. Beltran being below the league average — even slightly — is not surprising though. It confirms what our eyes have been telling us the first 14 games of 2015.

Chris Young, Garrett Jones give the Yankees the power off the bench they’ve lacked since 2012

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

From 2013-14, the Yankees hardly qualified as the Bronx Bombers. The Yankees had their worst set of back-to-back offensive seasons since the early-1990s and a shortage of power was a main culprit. The team hit 200+ homers 12 times in 13 years from 2000-12 — including a franchise record 245 homers in 2012 — before falling to 144 homers in 2013 and 147 homers in 2014. The 101-homer drop from 2012-13 is the largest from one year to the next in baseball history.

The lack of power stemmed from a little of everything — injuries, roster construction, age, you name it. Mark Teixeira missed just about the entire 2013 season and Curtis Granderson was limited to only 61 games in 2013, for example. Ichiro Suzuki became a regular, Chris Stewart spent a year as the starting catcher, Robinson Cano left as a free agent, Alfonso Soriano went from great to done in an offseason, Alex Rodriguez was suspended … the decline in a power was the result of many things.

As much as the starting lineup was hurting for power the last two years, the bench provided no help whatsoever. The projected bench heading into last season was Frankie Cervelli, Ichiro, Brendan Ryan, and Eduardo Nunez, who lost the job to Yangervis Solarte in Spring Training. Those four combined to hit nine homers — six by Solarte — in 960 plate appearances in 2014. The 2012 projected bench (Stewart, Jayson Nix, Ben Francisco, Brennan Boesch) hit only eleven homers in 746 plate appearances.

Power off the bench just wasn’t a thing the Yankees had on the roster the last two seasons after carrying players like Andruw Jones (27 HR in 491 PA from 2011-12), Eric Chavez (18 HR in 488 PA from 2011-12), Marcus Thames (12 HR in 237 PA in 2010), and Eric Hinske (7 HR in 98 PA in 2009) as reserve players in recent years. Go back to the late-1990s and the Yankees always had guys like Darryl Strawberry, Shane Spencer, Jim Leyritz, and Ruben Sierra on the roster. Someone who could come off the bench and be a threat to hit the ball out of the park.

After those two powerless years from 2013-14, the Yankees brought in some bench pop this offseason in Chris Young and Garrett Jones, who have already contributed four homers (all by Young) and ten extra-base hits off the bench through 14 games. Jones has yet to go deep but it’s only a matter of time until that happens as a lefty pull hitter playing his home games in Yankee Stadium. He’s shown throughout his career that he can hit the ball out of park. Young has been excellent since arriving in New York last September and has filled in more than capably when Brett Gardner (wrist) and Carlos Beltran (illness) missed time last week.

Young and Jones have both contributed off the bench in the early going but I don’t think that means they should get more playing time. Both are the type of player who would get exposed with more at-bats at this point of their careers. They have holes in their swings, can swing-and-miss with the best of ‘em, and they do their very best work against fastballs. Give them more playing time and we’ll go from liking their contributions off the bench to wanting them out of the lineup in a hurry. They’re not regulars at this point of their careers.

So far in the early going, Young in particular has served the Yankees very well in his role as fourth outfielder. He’s hit and hit for power, something the team hasn’t gotten off the bench in recent years. Jones hasn’t had much of a chance to play yet, though he already has a three-hit game to his credit and has played first base as well as right field. After two years of getting little offense from their reserve players, Young and Jones have given the Yankees some nice early returns and have added an element of power off the bench the team sorely lacked from 2013-14.

DotF: Jagielo goes deep as Trenton hangs on for a win

Triple-A Scranton (6-1 loss to Lehigh Valley)

  • LF-RF Slade Heathcott: 2-4
  • RF Ramon Flores: 0-0, 1 HBP — left the game after being hit by the pitch in the first inning … hopefully it’s nothing serious
  • 2B Rob Refsnyder: 0-4, 1 RBI
  • DH Tyler Austin: 0-4, 1 K
  • LHP Eric Wooten: 5 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 3 K, 6/2 GB/FB — 48 of 75 pitches were strikes (64%)
  • RHP Branden Pinder: 1 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 3 K — 20 of 25 pitches were strikes (80%) … tough day, first he gets send out and then he gets hit around

[Read more…]

Offense tacks on late, Yankees and Eovaldi beat Tigers 5-2

After an annoying loss Monday night, the Yankees rebounded with a 5-2 win over the Tigers on Tuesday. The offense scored early and tacked on late, and for the second straight game, the Yankees got a very good outing from their starting pitcher against a tough Detroit lineup. New York has won six of their last nine games.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

One Run Ain’t Enough
The first six innings of Tuesday’s game felt a lot of the first six innings of Monday’s game. The Yankees scored an early run on a Mark Teixeira extra-base hit (a double to score Brett Gardner in the first) and nursed that 1-0 lead into the seventh while blowing an opportunity or two along the way, just like Monday. Except instead of never tacking on to that one run, the offense was able to plate three insurance runs in the seventh inning Tuesday.

The Yankees scored their second and third runs on solo homers — one by Chris Young and one by Stephen Drew. Neither was a bomb but hey, they all count. Given the cold weather and on again, off again rain, I’m not sure hitting a bomb was possible at Comerica Park on Tuesday. The fourth run was manufactured with speed. Jacoby Ellsbury singled, stole second, moved to third on Gardner’s infield single, then scored on a wild pitch. A single and an error created a much-appreciated fifth run in the ninth.

After Monday night, the 4-0 lead (and later 5-1) felt like 10-0. I mean, I know it’s never really that close against a team as good as the Tigers — the ninth inning was a nice reminder, eh? — but it felt like a huge relief after watching the Yankees try to hang on to those 1-0 leads the last two nights. They could have added more runs in the eighth — the first two runners reached but Drew (pop-up), Gregorio Petit (strikeout), and Ellsbury (pop-up) couldn’t capitalize — but they ultimately didn’t need ‘em. Runs are cool. I like runs.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Nasty Nate In Your Area
Nathan Eovaldi‘s three starts in pinstripes have gotten progressively better. He took the ball into the eighth inning on Tuesday night — Joe Girardi yanked him with his pitch count sitting at 94 following a leadoff double in the eighth — and held the high-powered Tigers to one run on eight hits and a walk. The run scored after the Yankees took their 4-0 lead and was the result of a double, a wild pitch, and a sac fly. That was all the Tigers got off the starter.

Eovaldi was helped out by a real nice play by Teixeira, who went home with Anthony Gose’s chopper in the third inning rather than try for the double play or just take the out at first. (The runner was caught in a rundown between third and home and eventually tagged out.) Gose is too quick, so a double play wasn’t happening, and I’m not even sure Teixeira could have beaten Gose to first base after coming in to field the chopper. Saved a run early in the game and really helped Eovaldi settle into.

Eovaldi had just one 1-2-3 inning but was bailed out by four double plays, including one he started after catching a line drive hit at his chest. It was one of those “the ball caught him” plays. Eovaldi recorded 17 of his 21 outs on the infield and while he did allowed eight hits in seven innings, more than a few of them were ground balls through holes created by the shift. The Yankees really suck at shifting. For the first time as a Yankee, Eovaldi seemed in control of a game and he did it against a great offense. Nice job, Nate.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Leftovers
Dellin Betances retired three straight after replacing Eovaldi to strand a runner at second in the eighth. He threw ten pitches and four were fastballs. Not a big sample but he still seems to be leaning on that breaking ball. Chris Martin struck out two and allowed two hits before giving way to not-the-closer Andrew Miller, who walked two batters (the second walk forced in a run!) before getting the final out for his fifth save in five chances. Never easy.

The Yankees had eight hits and they all came from four players: Gardner and Drew had two apiece, Teixeira had one hit, and Young had three hits. Young went 3-for-3 with a homer and two walks. He’s been awesome. The rest of the lineup went a combined 0-for-20. The Yankees drew eight walks and only struck out five times. Is that good? That seems good.

Brian McCann tried to bunt to beat the shift in the third inning but failed. Kyle Lobstein, who kept the Yankees off-balance with soft stuff for six innings, fielded the ball and threw him out with ease. Why McCann bunted with a man on first and two outs, I have no idea. Two outs! Swing the bat in that spot.

And finally, I wasn’t joking when I said the Yankees suck at the shift. They came into the game allowing a .314 BABIP on ground balls. The MLB average is .238. Good grief. Ban the shift because the Yankees stink at it.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
Here are the box score, video highlights, and updated standings. Also make sure you check out our ultra-important Bullpen Workload page and much less important Announcer Standings page. Here is the win probability graph:


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
The Yankees and Tigers will play game three of this four-game series on Wednesday night. Fifth starter Adam Warren draws perennial Cy Young contender David Price. Fun!

Game 14: Bounce Back

Some guy did a back flip before the first pitch last night. (Leon Halip/Getty)
Some guy did a back flip before the first pitch last night. (Leon Halip/Getty)

The Yankees dropped a very winnable game in last night’s series opener against the Tigers. Winnable because of CC Sabathia, mostly. You’re not going to beat this Detroit team scoring just one run most nights. Oh well, nothing they can do about it now. The Yankees just have to turn the page and try to get back on track tonight. They have won five of their last eight games, after all. Things are going okay.

Nathan Eovaldi is making his third start in pinstripes tonight and he’s looking to build on his last start, when he fanned nine in only five innings. Of course, three runs and eleven base-runners in five innings kinda stinks, so he needs to improve on that too. If Eovaldi keeps missing bats, the number of runs and base-runners should eventually come down. Here is the Tigers’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Brett Gardner
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. C Brian McCann
  6. RF Chris Young
  7. 3B Chase Headley
  8. SS Stephen Drew
  9. 2B Gregorio PetitKyle Lobstein is pretty much exactly the kind of lefty I think Didi Gregorius should be left in the lineup to face, but I guess Joe Girardi disagrees

    RHP Nathan Eovaldi

The weather in Detroit tonight is a lot like last night: rainy, cold, and windy. It rained earlier this afternoon but is supposed to stop before game time. There might be some drizzle during the game though. First pitch is scheduled for 7:08pm ET and can be seen on YES locally and MLB Network nationally. Enjoy the game.

Roster Move: The Yankees have recalled Chasen Shreve and optioned Branden Pinder to Triple-A, the team announced. Shreve was sent down following the 19-inning game and his ten days in the minors are up. Welcome back, Chasen.

Yanks not planning to use sixth starter this turn through the rotation

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Despite talking for weeks about getting Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and the other starters extra rest whenever possible early in the season, the Yankees are not planning to use a sixth starter this turn through the rotation, Joe Girardi told reporters yesterday. Everyone will stay on turn and pitch on normal rest this week.

“Right now we have Tanaka pitching Thursday,’’ said Girardi to George King. “I didn’t plan it that way, it’s kind of the way it worked out. I think we will check on workloads and see how guys are doing … If a couple of our starters have difficult days, you might plug (a sixth starter) in before they pitch.’’

Tanaka threw 85 low-stress pitches in seven dominant innings Saturday afternoon. He was removed from the game after sitting in the dugout during a long seven-run inning for the offense, not because he was ineffective or his pitch count climbed too high. Tanaka hasn’t started on regular rest at all this year, either in the regular season or Spring Training.

Adam Warren (80 pitches), Michael Pineda (92 pitches), and Sabathia (98 pitches) didn’t crack 100 pitches in their most recent starts either. In fact, only once in 13 games has a Yankees starter thrown 100+ pitches this season. That was Nathan Eovaldi in his last start (101 pitches). Eovaldi is starting tonight with an extra day of rest thanks to last Thursday’s off-day.

Chase Whitley, Bryan Mitchell, and Kyle Davies seem like the most obvious sixth starter candidates at this point of the season. Whitley is scheduled to start for Triple-A Scranton tomorrow and is the only one of those three lined up to pitch before the big league rotation turns over, so he’s the only possible sixth starter candidate this week if the Yankees do choose to use one.

The Yankees are not off again until next Thursday, so following the upcoming turn through the rotation, both Tanaka and Pineda would also make their next starts on regular rest unless the team uses a sixth starter. That’s a full week away though. We’ll see what happens after the weekend.

Ramon Flores is forcing the issue, but the Yankees don’t have a spot for him

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

This spring, all eyes were on prospects Rob Refsnyder, Aaron Judge, and Greg Bird when Grapefruit League play opened. They’re three of the Yankees’ very best prospects and all could be in the big leagues sooner rather than later, especially Refsnyder. All three of them had strong Spring Trainings as well, at least offensively. This was a good spring to prospect watch. That’s for sure.

While those three were doing their thing and others like Slade Heathcott, Luis Severino, and Jacob Lindgren were flashing their ability, outfielder Ramon Flores flew under the radar and had a productive spring. His overall Spring Training numbers weren’t great (.239/.314/.413 in 51 plate appearances) but he finished very strong, going 7-for-18 (.389) with two doubles and a homer in the final two weeks, when big leaguers were getting most of the playing time.

Flores was one of the last cuts from big league camp and he went to Triple-A Scranton, where he hit for the cycle on Opening Day and had a two-homer game a week later. He has a .271/.340/.625 (188 wRC+) batting line with four homers in 53 plate appearances in the very early going, and has hit .251/.340/.473 (134 wRC+) with eleven homers in 324 Triple-A plate appearances overall since the start of last year. Flores would have played more with the RailRiders last summer had he not suffered a fluke ankle injury running the bases and missed more than two months.

Two years ago I aggressively ranked Flores as the fifth best prospect in New York’s system — Baseball America has never ranked him higher than 12th in the system (also prior to 2013), for what’s it worth — and said he is “a classic foul line-to-foul line hitter who will need to add some strength to turn his gap power into over-the-fence power down the road.” Well the over-the-fence power has started the arrive. Flores hit nine homers in only 68 total games last year after hitting six homers in 136 games in 2013 and seven homers in 132 games in 2014. And he’s already got four homers in eleven games this year. Development!

I consider Flores more of a high probability prospect than a high ceiling prospect, someone who is more likely to spend ten years in the league as a platoon left-handed hitting corner outfielder than someone who goes to a few All-Star Games at his peak. He’s a Seth Smith type, basically. That’s okay! That’s a very useful player and someone the Yankees should be happy to have only the phone call away in Triple-A. You need depth players like that. The cheaper and more homegrown they are, the better.

The problem is the Yankees have no real spot for Flores on the roster. Not now and probably not next year either. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury are two of the best players on the team, and, like it or not, Carlos Beltran‘s contract and track record mean he’s going to have a very long leash. It’s not going to take one injury for Flores to get a chance with the Yankees, it’ll probably take two injuries because Chris Young and Garrett Jones are ready to step in if an outfielder gets hurt. It could happen, sure, but a lot needs to go wrong.

Right now Flores should be at the front of the line for a call-up, but there are other outfielders right behind him on the depth chart. Tyler Austin is also in Triple-A and has the advantage of batting right-handed, which the Yankees need more (both short and long-term) than another lefty like Flores. Judge is in Double-A and expected to be an impact player, not a role player like Flores. Jake Cave is also putting up numbers is Double-A and can legitimately play center field, unlike Flores. Heathcott and Mason Williams are trying to salvage their careers as well. Flores is at the front of the call-up line, but for how long?

These days we follow prospects from the day they sign their first pro contract, so it feels like Flores has been around forever, but he just turned 23 last month. He’s exactly one year younger than Refsnyder, who is considered the shiny new toy with two years and change of pro ball to his credit. Flores does have only 73 career games at Triple-A to his credit, so a few more weeks with the RailRiders wouldn’t be the end of the world, but, both short and long-term, it’s tough to see where Flores fits with the Yankees unless they do something unexpected like cut Beltran or trade Gardner. Flores is a quality player who doesn’t fit the current roster.

A trade is always possible but I’m not sure what the Yankees could get in return for someone like Flores, who’s cheap and figures to be productive but is unproven at the MLB level and doesn’t play a hard-to-fill position. The Tigers traded a similar player in Matt Joyce to the Rays for three years of Edwin Jackson during the 2008-09 offseason, but Joyce hit .252/.339/.493 (116 OPS+) with 12 homers in 92 big league games in 2008. He had some sort of MLB track record. Flores doesn’t and it’s hard to see how he’ll get much of a chance to prove himself in New York anytime soon.

“(Flores is) a guy who’s definitely on our radar. If something was to happen to one of our outfielders, I think he’d be a pretty strong candidate (to be called up),” said Joe Girardi to Ryan Hatch in Spring Training, and I totally believe it. Flores is the obvious call-up candidate if an outfielder hits the DL, but getting called up and actually playing are different things. Gardner and Ellsbury have to play, Young has earned some more playing time, and Beltran’s leash is long. In just about any other organization, Flores would be forcing his way onto the MLB roster right now. Instead, he’s stuck with the Yankees, where it’ll take multiple injuries or a surprising trade of a veteran to get a chance.