So far, so good with Headley’s throwing in Spring Training

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Coming into Spring Training, one of the most important storylines in Yankees’ camp was Chase Headley‘s throwing. The team’s third baseman really struggled on defense last season, particularly when it came to making routine throws, and it’s something he needs to iron out before the regular season. “I’m not panicked that all of a sudden I forgot how to catch and throw a baseball,” he said after reporting to camp last month while also acknowledging a need to work on his throwing.

One week into the Grapefruit League campaign, Headley has played four games and 21 innings at third base, and all four games have been televised. He’s had nine defensive chances — one pop-up and eight grounders — and he handled all nine with no problems. The stats are totally meaningless though. I’m more interested to see Headley’s throwing mechanics and his body language this spring since those were obvious issues a year ago, when he looked tentative and short on confidence.

So far this spring Headley’s throwing looks … well … it looks normal. He looks like a normal third baseman who steps into the throw and fires across the diamond. Here’s one play from over the weekend, for example:

Chase Headley throw

The ground ball was right to Headley, so it was as routine as it gets. He scooped the ball, checked the runner at second, then threw a dart over to first base. There’s conviction behind the throw. That was lacking at times last season, sometimes very much so. It was an obvious problem. Headley lacked confidence in his throwing.

“The mental side of the game is as important or more important, so when things are going well it’s easy to be confident, easy to just kind of let things happen,” said Headley last month. “And when things aren’t going well, our natural instinct is to correct it and focus even more but sometimes that’s not the way to fix it. I wouldn’t say I was overly mental about it but certainly when you’re playing well and you’re confident, it’s much easier to be confident.”

Does the one random play I decided to GIF plus seven others not shown here mean Headley is over his throwing issues? Of course not. He’s going to have to work to get his throwing back on track all spring and probably continue working on it into the season too. For now, I’m encouraged because I’ve seen throws with conviction and a player who’s simply reacting, not thinking. That’s the way it should be.

James Kaprielian and the Value of Struggling in the Minors

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Yesterday afternoon, 2015 first round pick and the Yankees’ top pitching prospect James Kaprielian made his second appearance of the Grapefruit League season. It was almost like two separate outings. In his first inning, Kaprielian carved up three legitimate big leaguers (Yoenis Cespedes, Lucas Duda, Neil Walker) with ease. In his second inning, some non-roster players tagged him for four runs (two earned) on four hits and two walks.

No one likes to see their favorite team’s top prospects struggle in Spring Training, even if we all know the games don’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. Did he make it through the outing healthy? If yes, it was a good day. That’s pretty much all that matters from a performance standpoint. After yesterday’s game, Kaprielian told reporters it was good to get smacked around in his second inning of work.

“It’s good to get punched around a little bit,” he said to Brendan Kuty.”I want to keep my confidence obviously but these are good hitters. They’re going to hit mistakes. If you leave mistakes out there too much they’re going to get hit around. But it happens. It’s all part of the experience. All I have to do is work on what I can work on this week and control what I can control and get out there and do what I can for next outing.”

All the major scouting publications are in agreement Kaprielian has a chance to move quickly through the minors as a polished college pitcher with a solid four-pitch arsenal, and if you watched his first inning yesterday, it was easy to believe. The talk he could appear in the big leagues late this season didn’t seem crazy. And then Kaprielian’s second inning of work served as a reminder that hey, this is a 22-year-old kid fresh out of college.

That rough second inning of work was an unfamiliar experience for Kaprielian. He won a College World Series championship as a freshman at UCLA and was the best pitcher in the Pac-12 as a sophomore and junior. Kaprielian had nothing but success in college …

James Kaprielian UCLa

… and he performed well in the minors last season. He cruised in his first Grapefruit League outing the other day (six up, six down) and had an easy first inning yesterday. Then bam, things unraveled. The defense failed to make some plays behind him and Kaprielian made some mistake pitches. That’s baseball. It happens.

A rough inning like Kaprielian’s second inning yesterday can be a positive developmentally, assuming the pitcher takes it that way. All players are going to struggle at some point, even the game’s truly elite players. The best players are the ones who can make adjustments quickly and right the ship. Kaprielian hasn’t dealt with much failure in his career and he hasn’t been forced to make those adjustments. Not yet, anyway.

I’m a firm believer in performance struggles being a positive development tool. Players will fail and you want them to fail for the first time in the minors, where they can learn to make those adjustments as soon as possible and in games that don’t count. It doesn’t always happen that way. Some players are simply too good and are never challenged in the minors. Phil Hughes didn’t experience failure until he got to Yankee Stadium, for example.

Kaprielian struggled yesterday and it sounds like he understands it’s a chance to get better. It’s a learning experience. He’s going to go to the minors at the end of Spring Training and begin his march to the big leagues, and of course the Yankees hope he gets there as soon as possible. That’s the goal, after all. A little adversity — I mean on-field adversity, Kaprielian’s had plenty of off-the-field adversity already — along the way wouldn’t be a bad thing as long as it helps Kaprielian learn what it takes to be successful at the next level.

Open Thread: March 9th Camp Notes

Good news! The Yankees didn’t lose today. Bad news: they didn’t win either. The Yankees and Mets played to a 4-4 tie in ten innings this afternoon. Kyle Higashioka and Sebastian Valle hit back-to-back home runs off actual big leaguer Antonio Bastardo to tie the game in the top of the ninth. Didi Gregorius, Chase Headley, and Aaron Hicks each had one hit while Dustin Ackley had two. Ackley hit a third ball on the screws for an out too.

Top pitching prospect James Kaprielian was charged with four runs (two earned) in 1.2 innings, though his defense didn’t help much. He retired Yoenis Cespedes, Lucas Duda, and Neil Walker in his first inning of work before things unraveled in the second. Ivan Nova allowed three hits in three scoreless innings and I thought he looked pretty sharp. Nick Goody and Johnny Barbato each fanned one in a perfect inning. Jacob Lindgren danced in and out of danger in the bottom of the tenth. Here is the box score, here are the video highlights, and here are the notes from a slow day in Tampa:

  • Brett Gardner (wrist) took batting practice again today and everything went well. He’s inching closer and closer to getting into a game. Not much else happened back at the complex this afternoon. IF Pete Kozma (back) will make his Grapefruit League debut tomorrow, but Donovan Solano (back) is still shut down for the time being. [Chad Jennings]
  • The Yankees will play a pair of split squad games tomorrow (both will be televised) and Starlin Castro will play shortstop for the first time in the road game. 1B Chris Gittens, IF Cito Culver, IF Chris Gittens, 3B Miguel Andujar, OF Tyler Austin, OF Mark Payton, and OF Juan Silva will be brought up from minor league game to make the trip as well. [Ryan Hatch, Jennings]

Here is the nightly open thread. This afternoon’s game will be replayed on SNY (not YES) at 7pm ET, if you’re interested. MLB Network will show a different game on tape delay later tonight, plus both the Knicks and Islanders are in action. Talk about whatever here.

YES Network doesn’t anticipate deal with Comcast before Opening Day

(MLB.tv screen grab)
(MLB.tv screen grab)

According to Ryan Hatch, people with the YES Network “don’t anticipate Comcast’s returning YES to its programming lineup in time for Opening Day.” YES and Comcast are currently in a rights fee dispute. Comcast doesn’t want to pay the team’s asking price to carry the network, basically.

YES and Comcast operated without a contract for much of last season. They agreed to a fee, and as soon as the season ended, Comcast dropped YES citing a decline in ratings. Richard Sandomir reports YES actually dropped their subscriber fee from $5.93 last year to $5.36 this year.

“We’re telling people that this isn’t going to settle. Hope is not a strategy. You have to find another provider,” said YES president Tracy Dolgin to Sandomir. “We’re already into Spring Training. There’s a real chance of missing both Opening Day and the season. To me this is a huge thing.”

Similar rights fees disputes have been settled in court, though there’s no indication the YES-Comcast dispute is heading that way. The Dodgers are about to enter year three of their rights fees dispute. Non-Time Warner customers in Los Angeles haven’t been able to watch the team since 2013.

Telling fans to switch cable providers strikes me as an attempt to put some pressure on Comcast before the season. I imagine that will catch their attention. YES will be available for in-market streaming this year, but you need to subscribe through your cable provider, so it’s not an alternative to Comcast.

Masahiro Tanaka and the Quest for 200 Innings [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

We’ve learned quite a bit about Masahiro Tanaka over the last two seasons. First and foremost, he’s as good as any pitcher in the league when he’s at his best. Tanaka has the ability to dominate any lineup. Remember his complete game win over the powerhouse Blue Jays in August? Of course you do:

We’ve also learned that even when Tanaka is not at his best, he’s still pretty good. He’s made 44 starts for the Yankees the last two seasons and he’s allowed more than three earned runs only nine times. He’s allowed more than two earned runs only 20 times. That’s two or fewer earned runs in 24 of 44 starts. Pretty good. Tanaka very rarely has a disaster start. In fact, he’s failed to complete five innings only twice in two years. He went four innings on Opening Day last year, and he had that 1.2 inning disaster in Fenway Park to close out the 2014 season.

These last two years have also shown us Tanaka’s health is a question. He was a workhorse in Japan, but he’s currently pitching with a partially torn elbow ligament and he had surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow over the winter. A forearm issue sidelined him for a month last year. Tanaka was limited to 136.1 innings in 2014 and 154 innings in 2015 due to the arm injuries. That’s the scary part; they’re all arm injuries. And yet, Tanaka says he’s ready to throw 200 innings this summer.

“I think I was able to clear some stuff out of (my elbow). I feel that it’s better this year compared to last year,” said Tanaka when he reported to Spring Training. The “stuff” he is referring to is the bone spur, which he insisted did not bother him during his starts. “As far as my conditioning goes, I’m at a pretty good place. I feel that for myself, I’m right where I want to be at this point.”

When Tanaka is healthy, he’s pretty good. Last year he had a 3.51 ERA (3.98 FIP) in those 154 innings — if WHIP is your thing, his 0.99 WHIP was the lowest in the AL among pitchers who threw at least 150 innings — and while that’s not ace-like, it’s pretty good for a dude with a partially torn UCL and a bone spur in his elbow. That said, there are some clear questions and concerns with Tanaka going forward.

How’s The Elbow?

From what I understand, ligaments do not heal themselves. The tear just doesn’t get worse. Tanaka has already pitched a season with his partially torn UCL and at this point he is one of the exceptions. Most players who attempt to rehab a partial tear never complete the rehab before undergoing Tommy John surgery. Tanaka is closer to Adam Wainwright and Ervin Santana, both of whom pitched several years with partial tears (Santana is still pitching with his), than guys like Matt Harvey and Drew Hutchison, who had to go under the knife before completing the rehab.

The ligament is going to hang over Tanaka’s every start going forward, and at some point his elbow may blow out. Maybe this year, maybe next year, maybe ten years down the line. No one knows when it’ll happen (that’s not going to stop a whole bunch of people from saying “I told you so!”). Last spring I was on edge with every pitch. That fear has faded, thankfully. Tanaka threw 154 innings with the partial tear last year. The rehab worked.

Beyond the ligament, the bone spur surgery is significant. The Yankees took it slow with Tanaka early this spring for obvious reasons, and so far everything is going well. During his first Grapefruit League start over the weekend, Tanaka was breaking off embarrasplitters like this:

If there are any lingering effects from the elbow surgery, we’ve yet to see them or hear about them. The Yankees went to great lengths to give Tanaka extra rest last season — he made 19 of his 24 starts with at least one extra day of rest — and I have no doubt that will be the case this year. He’s lined up to start Opening Day right now and yes, there is an extra day of rest between each spring start built into his schedule. Thanks to all the April off-days, Tanaka will be able to make his first four regular season starts with extra rest as well.

Tanaka’s elbow is healthy. The doctors have all cleared him and he’s completed all his rehab work. The partial UCL tear lingers uncomfortably in the back of everyone’s mind, and the bone spur surgery sucks in the sense that all surgeries suck, but there’s really nothing the Yankees can do other than give him extra rest and monitor him closely. That’s it. Pitchers get hurt. That’s what they do. Tanaka has managed to avoid catastrophic injury the last two years and hopefully that continues to be the case going forward. What else can you do?

Can He Keep The Ball In The Park?

When on the field last season, Tanaka posted very good strikeout (22.8%), walk (4.4%), and ground ball (47.0%) rates. He was equally effective against righties (.280 wOBA, 21.3 K%, 4.1 BB%) and lefties (.296 wOBA, 24.6 K%, 4.8 BB%) as well. Tanaka’s really good! I know a lot of people don’t want to believe it for some reason, but he is. I promise.

The only significant flaw in Tanaka’s game is his propensity to give up home runs. He allowed 25 dingers last season — 17 at Yankee Stadium and eight on the road — including a six-start stretch at midseason during which he gave up eleven homers in only 38.1 innings. Yikes. Tanaka also allowed two solo dingers to the Astros in the wildcard game. His 1.46 HR/9 was ninth highest among the 89 pitchers to throw at least 150 innings in 2015. His 16.9 HR/FB% was fourth highest.

The homers are a problem. There is no denying it. The vast majority last season came on mistake pitches thigh high and right out over the plate. It’s not like he was making good pitches and getting burned anyway:

Masahiro Tanaka

Hit Tracker classified 17 of the 25 home runs as either “Plenty” or “No Doubt,” meaning they cleared the wall with plenty of room to spare. Tanaka fell victim to some Yankee Stadium cheapies like everyone else, but the majority of the dingers he allowed last year were true bombs. He made mistakes and he paid. This is the big leagues, yo.

No one pitch accounted for most of the home runs. Tanaka allowed eight homers on four-seam fastballs, six of sinkers, four on splitters, four on sliders, two on curveballs, and one on a cutter, and that kinda sorta mirrors his pitch usage. Tanaka’s a big boy. He knows he gave up an alarming number of home runs last season and he knows the problem is simply too many mistake pitches.

I feel Tanaka’s unpredictability — he does throw six different pitches, including five regularly — allows him to get away with more mistake pitches than most, but he’s not going to get away with all of them. For a guy without overwhelming velocity — his average fastball last year (92.0 mph) has faster than the year before (91.1 mph) despite what everyone seems to think — Tanaka can’t live in the middle of the plate. If he can limit the mistakes, he’ll limit the homers. Easier said than done, of course.

* * *

I don’t know about you, but I am very confident in Tanaka’s talent and his ability to be an above-average starter. The homers stink, but he’s so good at everything else that they usually don’t burn him. (Nineteen of the 25 dingers were solo shots.) My only concern is health. If Tanaka stays healthy, he’ll be good. If he doesn’t, the Yankees are in trouble. Getting to 200 innings would be incredible. If Tanaka throws that many innings he’ll get Cy Young votes. But, if he only ends up throwing 180 innings because the Yankees give him extra rest in an effort to keep him healthy, that works too.

Spring Training Game Thread: Meet the Mets

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees are in the second leg of their two-day trip to Florida’s east coast — most of the guys went out to dinner last night — and today they’ll take on the Mets in Port St. Lucie. It’s the battle of New York, or something like that. Grapefruit League bragging rights are on the line here.

Anyway, Ivan Nova is one of the few regulars on the trip and he’s getting the start this afternoon. More importantly, right-hander James Kaprielian will be coming out of the bullpen. Kaprielian was last year’s first round pick and this will be his first (only?) spring outing on television. Hooray for that. Here is the Mets’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. SS Didi Gregorius
  2. LF Aaron Hicks
  3. 3B Chase Headley
  4. 2B Dustin Ackley
  5. C Gary Sanchez
  6. DH Chris Parmelee
  7. 1B Deibinson Romero
  8. RF Cesar Puello
  9. LF Dustin Fowler
    RHP Ivan Nova

Available Pitchers: RHP James Kaprielian, RHP Johnny Barbato, RHP Nick Goody, RHP Branden Pinder, and RHP Mark Montgomery are all scheduled to pitch. LHP Jacob Lindgren, LHP James Pazos, LHP Richard Bleier, and RHP Tyler Cloyd are also available if necessary. Guess they drew the short straws and had to make the four-hour bus trip even though they aren’t scheduled to pitch.

Available Position Players: C Kyle Higashioka, 1B Sebastian Valle, 2B Ronald Torreyes, SS Jorge Mateo, 3B Rob Refsnyder, LF Jonathan Diaz, CF Lane Adams, RF Aaron Judge, and DH Austin Romine will be the second string off the bench. C Francisco Diaz, IF Tyler Wade, OF Ben Gamel, and OF Slade Heathcott are the extra players.

Nice afternoon for baseball at Tradition Field. A little cloudy but the temperature is going to hover right around 80 and there’s plenty of sunshine. There is no YES broadcast for today’s game, but it will be on SNY locally and MLB Network nationally. And MLB.tv everywhere. No MLB.tv blackouts in Spring Training. Enjoy the game.

Thoughts one week into the Grapefruit League season

Run Jorge run. (Presswire)
Run Jorge run. (Presswire)

The Yankees opened their Grapefruit League season one week ago today, and so far they’re 2-5 and have been outscored 37-25. Doomed? Doomed! When in doubt, the Yankees are doomed. Anyway, I have some random thoughts on this beautiful Wednesday in New York.

1. I don’t get to many minor league games each year. Usually only a handful in Coney Island, where the Mets have their Short Season NY-Penn League affiliate, and maybe one or two in Trenton. Spring Training is definitely the best time for me to get eyes on Yankees prospects, and holy crap is Jorge Mateo exciting. You can read all the scouting reports and whatnat, but man, it’s something else to see 80 speed and sneaky power in action. I must have watched his triple ten times since last Wednesday:

I’m not going to change my opinion of Mateo as a prospect or anything based on the four of five Spring Training at-bats I’ve seen. I’m just saying it’s very exciting to see a skill set like that in action. He’s explosive on the field. I ranked Mateo as the No. 3 prospect in the system coming into camp and I stand by that, but I will bump him up to the top of the system in FARP (Fun Above Replacement Player).

2. The Yankees made it through the first week of Spring Training games with no injuries, thankfully. (No, I don’t believe in jinxes. Why do you ask?) Brett Gardner‘s coming back from a bone bruise but that’s a preexisting condition, so to speak. He came to camp hurt. Aside from that, Nathan Eovaldi‘s groin has been tight, though he’ll make his first start tomorrow, so it’s no big deal. Pete Kozma and Donovan Solano have been dealing with some back issues. That’s pretty much it. I always worry about injuries that first week of spring as players make the jump in intensity from drills to game action. So far, so good. The AL East might come down to which team stays healthiest this summer, and the Yankees do seem to have more injury risk than most teams. Getting through even one week of Grapefruit League games with no issues is a positive.

3. At this point I’m pretty convinced Bryan Mitchell will be in the bullpen come Opening Day. He’s making regular starts this spring and he’s been with the established big league players in workout groups, plus Joe Girardi has mentioned him by name as a candidate for the Super Utility Reliever role Adam Warren filled the last two years. (To be fair, Girardi mentioned Ivan Nova as a candidate for that role as well.) The Yankees have some Triple-A depth in case they need a spot starter at some point — Luis Cessa is on the 40-man roster and I figure he’s first in line for a call-up — so they can afford to carry Mitchell as a reliever. His ability to throw multiple innings is an obvious plus, though I really liked what I saw out of him in short relief last season, at least before he took the line drive to the nose. PitchFX has his fastball averaging 96.7 mph and topping out at 99.3 mph last year, and, well, this is his curveball:

Bryan Mitchell curveball1

Mid-90s gas and that bender is going to play in short relief. Mitchell has been unable to develop a reliable changeup over the years — he uses a cutter as his primary weapon against lefties — and this will be his final minor league option season, so he’s kinda running out of time. I get why he may be something of a long man out of the gate this year, but I am a Mitchell fan — I had him seventh on my Preseason Top 30 Prospects List, which is way higher than anyone else — and think he could emerge as a pretty good middle relief option behind the big three relievers by the end of the season. As soon as he realizes he doesn’t have to nibble because his stuff is good enough to overpower hitters in the strike zone, Mitchell could really be something.

4. Right now the rotation is lined up to go Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, and CC Sabathia come the start of the season. There are still a few weeks between now and Opening Day, so things can change, but Tanaka is lined up perfectly to start Opening Day and the other two guys are right behind him on the pitching schedule. That’s how things line up right now, and it makes sense because that’s the rotation the Yankees used to start last season. Eovaldi started the fourth game and Warren started the fifth game last year. This year it’ll probably be Eovaldi fourth and Luis Severino fifth. That’s fine with me. The Opening Day rotation order means nothing in the grand scheme of things. Bartolo Colon started Opening Day for the Mets last year and things worked out just fine for them. The rotation order at the end of the season and heading into the postseason is what really matters.

5. The Orioles agreed to sign Pedro Alvarez the other day — it’s a one-year deal at $5.75M with $1.5M in incentives, which is more than I thought he’d get at this point of the year — so they have yet another power bat in their lineup. Alvarez, Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Mark Trumbo, and Manny Machado could all legitimately top 30 homers this season. At the same time, the O’s have a lot of strikeouts in their lineup — Davis and Alvarez could combine for 90 homers and 450 strikeouts, like for real — but not the high on-base hitters to compensate. They were third in homers last year (217) but 26th in OBP (.307), which is why they finished only ninth in runs (713). Ninth is pretty good generally speaking, just not when you’re third in dingers. Alvarez and Trumbo aren’t going to help much in the OBP department. Between all the strikeouts — over the last three seasons Davis (31.0%), Alvarez (27.7%), and Trumbo (25.6%) rank second, fourth, and ninth in strikeout rate, respectively — and the guys with OBPs hovering around .300, it’ll be tough for the O’s to sustain rallies in 2015. They’re going to be the ultimate #toomanyhomers team. If they don’t hit the ball out of the park, they won’t score. They’ll have the offense people think the Yankees have.