Thoughts following the series with the Blue Jays

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

The Yankees just wrapped up their best series of the season, sweeping three games from the Blue Jays at home. They’re now 2.5 games back of the second wildcard spot with 24 games to play. With the last place Rays coming to town for four games this weekend, the Yankees have a really great chance to close the gap even more. Anyway, here are some thoughts.

1. Aaron Judge‘s first few weeks as a big leaguer have not been pretty outside of a few home runs, and I think it’s good this is happening now rather than early next season. Could you imagine if the Yankees hadn’t called up Judge this year, then went into next season with him as Plan A in right field? It’s impossible to know if he’d struggle this much in that scenario, but some sort of adjustment period was always expected, and he’s going through it now. There’s a little less than a month left in the season and the Yankees can use it to further evaluate Judge. Hopefully he rakes and comes to camp as the starting right fielder. If he continues to struggle, perhaps it would be wise to throw him into the maybe pile with some others. Aaron Hicks, Tyler Austin, Rob Refsnyder, a free agent, whoever. Not calling Judge up now and then having him start next season like this would have been really ugly.

2. A thing that probably should happen: move Chase Headley up in the lineup. His April was dreadful. Inexcusably awful. He also went into last night’s game hitting .278/.346/.442 (109 wRC+) with 13 home runs in 102 games since the calendar flipped to May, and the Yankees could use all the offense they can get. Headley has seen some more time higher in the lineup recently, especially against lefties, but it might be time to take him out of the seventh and eighth spots for good. Without thinking about it too much, the best realistically possible lineup the Yankees could send out there probably looks like this:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. 3B Chase Headley
  5. SS Didi Gregorius
  6. 2B Starlin Castro
  7. DH Brian McCann
  8. 1B Tyler Austin
  9. RF Aaron Judge

The Yankees have wasted a lot of middle of the order at-bats on Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez this season. Headley’s been one of their best hitters for four months now, and I’d like to see them try to take advantage of that by not burying him at the bottom of the lineup. Maybe Headley is comfortable batting seventh and would wilt under the immense pressure of being the No. 3 hitter for the New York Yankees. I don’t think that’s the case though. He’s been hitting well. Give him some more responsibility.

3. As crazy as it sounds, the Yankees miss Hicks right now. They have a ton of players on the roster capable of playing right field (Judge, Austin, Refsnyder, Eric Young Jr.) but Hicks was able to move seamlessly between the three outfield spots, plus he’s a switch-hitter. All of those other guys are righties. (Young is a switch-hitter, but he was brought into run, not hit.) Hicks had a fine August and he was the team’s best all-around alternative to the struggling Judge. Heck, Brian Cashman all but admitted Hicks would be taking away at-bats from Judge if he were healthy. “If Aaron Hicks were up and running, you might see some different things happening. But since Aaron Hicks went down, that’s the way we’re going,” said the GM to Chad Jennings. Hicks is no savior, but the Yankees are worse off without him, even with all those extra outfielders on the roster.

(Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty)
(Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty)

4. Despite the recent trade chatter, I think it would make sense for the Yankees to keep McCann next season. It all depends on the trade offers, of course, but McCann’s not someone who should be dumped just for the sake of shedding (a portion of) his contract. Having two starting caliber catchers is a big luxury, especially when they hit from opposite sides of the plate and there are DH at-bats to be had. By all accounts McCann is a great teammate and Sanchez would benefit from having him around. Would I count on McCann to be the everyday DH? Absolutely not. But a half-time catcher and part-time DH? Someone who catches, say, 65-70 games and spend another 50 at DH? That could definitely work. This is probably something that is worth a longer post at some point down the line.

5. The Yankees saw the impressive Aaron Sanchez the other night and at this point they have to hope Luis Severino follows a similar career path as the young Blue Jays right-hander. That means impress during a second half cameo in year one, struggle as a starter and move to the bullpen in year two, then break out as a starter in year three. That’s what Sanchez has done and Severino is now two-thirds of the way there as well. Sanchez was a better prospect than Severino and both his stuff and command are better, so this isn’t a straight apples to apples comparison. We’re just hoping Severino’s development follows a similar timeline given everything that’s happened this year. He’s really, really important to the Yankees going forward.

6. There’s an entire offseason ahead of us, but right now it looks like the Yankees are again going to open next season with a bunch of questions in the rotation. Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow has held up just fine this year, though the partial tear continues to hang over every pitch he makes. Chad Green‘s going to be coming off a pretty serious elbow injury. CC Sabathia‘s had a better season than I think anyone expected, but what happens with another year of wear and tear on his arm? Severino had zero success as a starter this season. Michael Pineda? I don’t even know where to start with him. No team has five sure things in their rotation. That’s unrealistic. But right now the Yankees have one in Tanaka. I’m curious to see what the offseason brings. The Justin Wilson trade was surprising and confusing at the time, but it looks like a good (and very necessary) trade right now. I wonder if the Yankees will strike a similar deal for more depth.

7. I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t a fan of the Jonathan Holder call-up. Still not, really. I applaud the Yankees for bringing up whoever they felt gave them the best chance to win. I’m just not convinced Holder is that guy despite his phenomenal season in the minors. Joe Girardi is typically slow to trust rookie relievers and I figured Holder wouldn’t get much of a chance to throw important innings. To Girardi’s credit, he’s been force-feeding young guys high-leverage work lately, specifically Ben Heller, so maybe Holder will get a greater opportunity the rest of the way and make a difference. I’m not counting on it happening though. The upcoming 40-man roster crunch is very real, and getting, what, ten innings at most from Holder doesn’t seem worth squeezing the roster even tighter. It’s not a bad move and the logic was sound. I just didn’t agree with it. That’s all.

8. You know who’s been sneaky good so far? Tommy Layne. The Red Sox released him last month, the Yankees picked him up, and he’s retired 16 of 22 left-handed batters in faced. One of the six baserunners was an infield single. The problem: Layne has only struck out one of those 22 lefties, and you’d like your left-on-left matchup guy to miss more bats than that. But still, the Yankees picked this guy up for nothing, and he’s filled a role that needed to be filled after the trade deadline. Matchups weren’t necessary when Dellin Betances was in the seventh and Andrew Miller was in the eighth. Now the Yankees need someone like Layne. He can pitch pretty much every single day — his pitch count the last 14 appearances: 9, 4, 14, 5, 16, 4, 8, 17, 2, 6, 4, 3, 6, 8 — and he provides a different look with his funky delivery. I don’t think he’s a long-term piece or anything like that, but for these last few weeks of the season, he’s stepped up and given the Yankees a nice boost.

DotF: Williams’ home run gives Scranton a Game One win

Some notes before we get to the first full day of playoff action in the minors:

  • RHP Eric Ruth and LHP Daniel Camarena were bumped up from Double-A Trenton to Triple-A Scranton, reports Matt Kardos. They’ll cover for RHP Bryan Mitchell and LHP James Pazos, who were called up yesterday. LHP Caleb Frare was moved up from High-A Tampa to Trenton and LHP Evan Rutckyj (elbow) was activated off the Double-A DL to fill the roster spots.
  • RHP Chance Adams earned a spot on Baseball America’s 2016 Minor League All-Star Team. He held hitters to a .169 batting average, second lowest by a qualified minor league starter since 1993. Adams had a 2.33 ERA (2.96 FIP) and a 29.1% strikeout rate in 127.1 total innings this summer, his first as a starter.
  • SS Gleyber Torres was included in today’s Prospect Report after picking up two doubles in Tampa’s Game One win yesterday. The second double drove in the game-winning run.

Triple-A Scranton (2-0 win over Lehigh Valley) they lead the best-of-five series one game to none

  • CF Mason Williams: 3-4, 1 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 K — didn’t hit a single home run in 43 regular season games after coming back from shoulder surgery this season, so, naturally, he hits the game-winning two-run home run in the eighth inning of the first playoff game
  • LF Clint Frazier: 0-4
  • 3B Donovan Solano, 1B Chris Parmelee & C Kyle Higashioka: all 1-4, 1 K
  • DH Cesar Puello: 1-4, 2 K
  • RF Jake Cave: 0-2, 1 BB
  • LHP Jordan Montgomery: 7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 5 K, 6/9 GB/FB — 65 of 92 pitches were strikes (71%) … he’s allowed four runs in 44 total Triple-A innings (0.82 ERA)
  • LHP Dietrich Enns: 2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 1/2 GB/FB — 22 of 30 pitches were strikes (73%) … he can’t start in the postseason because of his innings limit, so he’ll be the relief ace instead

[Read more…]

Sweep! Mitchell and Severino hold down the Blue Jays in 2-0 win

That was a satisfying series. Stressful, but satisfying. The Yankees, led by two young pitchers, shut out the high-scoring Blue Jays 2-0 on Wednesday night. This is their first three-game sweep of the season, believe it or not. This team is fun as hell right now, aren’t they? Nothing to lose, everything to gain.


Mitchell Returns
Welcome back to the big leagues, Bryan Mitchell. Go face the Blue Jays in homer happy Yankee Stadium with only 21 minor league tune-up innings under your belt. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, and truth be told things did come close to unraveling a few times, but Mitchell was able to bear down and escape each jam he faced. The result: five scoreless innings. Five! Who expected that? No one, that’s who.

The Blue Jays had their best chance to score against Mitchell in the third inning, which he started by walking No. 8 hitter Melvin Upton and No. 9 Kevin Pillar. That generally leads to bad things. Luckily Devon Travis smashed a hard-hit ground ball to Chase Headley, who started the 5-4-3 double play. A ground out by Josh Donaldson ended the inning. Mitchell’s only 1-2-3 inning was his last, the fifth.

All told, Mitchell allowed four hits and two walks in his five innings, and it could have easily been only two hits had Tyler Austin not come down with a case of the Trumbos in right field. Mitchell used mostly fastballs to keep the Blue Jays in check — his 80 pitches were broken down into 64 fastballs and 16 curveballs — including a filthy cutter that averaged 93.4 mph. Also, he got ten ground outs and only three air outs. What more could you want from the kid? Way to go, Bryan.


Two Runs Are More Than Enough
The Yankees had a chance to score in the very first inning thanks to a Brett Gardner single and an error by Travis. It was a tough error; Didi Gregorius hit a hard grounder up the middle, Travis ranged to his right to field it, but his flip to second for the force out was wide of the base. Very difficult play. Should have been a hit. Mark Teixeira struck out to end the inning, so the Yankees couldn’t capitalize. Blah.

Both runs scored in the third inning and they scored in very different ways. Starlin Castro started the scoring with a solo home run, his career-high 20th. Marcus Stroman left a slider up and bam, dinger time. Stroman was shook after that, because the next three Yankees reached base. Gregorius poked a double to left, Teixeira worked a walk after falling behind in the count 0-2, and Brian McCann pulled a run-scoring single through the shift. All of that happened with two outs. All of it.

After the homer, five of the next eight Yankees to bat reached base. They very nearly scored a third run in the fourth inning, but Jacoby Ellsbury‘s opposite field double barely hopped over the wall, forcing Gardner to stop at third. He would have scored from first base easily on the play, especially with two outs. Heck, replays showed he was rounding third when the ball hopped over the wall. Alas. Two runs was all the Yankees got and it was one more than they needed.

Bullpen Ace
As soon as Mitchell walked Upton and Pillar in the third inning, Joe Girardi had Luis Severino up in the bullpen. His plan was clear. Whenever Mitchell was done, Severino was coming in. He wasn’t needed until the sixth, after Mitchell allowed a leadoff double to Troy Tulowitzki. Severino retired Donaldson (fielder’s choice), Edwin Encarnacion (ground out), and Jose Bautista (strikeout) to strand the runner. The Bautista strikeout if GIF-worthy:

Luis Severino Jose Bautista

Severino remained in and threw scoreless seventh and eighth innings as well. Once the Yankees got the lead, that was the plan all along. Get whatever you can out of Mitchell, the ride Severino as long as possible. He allowed one hit and one walk in his three scoreless innings of relief, striking out three. His final out was the scariest; Encarnacion flew out to the right field warning track with a man on base in the eighth. That was the tying run right there.

In six total games as a reliever, Severino has faced 51 batters and allowed two hits. Two! Two hits and four walks in 14.1 innings equals a 0.42 WHIP, which is decent. Severino has struck out 17 of those 51 batters, or 33.3%. The kid should absolutely be given a chance to start next season, but if the rotation doesn’t work it, it sure looks like he can be a dominant reliever. Closer du jour Tyler Clippard stuck out two in a perfect ninth. What a nice game on the mound.


The Yankees had nine hits total, including two each by Gardner and Ellsbury. Every starter had a hit except Teixeira and Austin Romine, and Teixeira drew a walk. Romine was the only one who failed to reach base. It was not a great night for the bats, but the pitching staff was able to pick them up. That has to happen from time to time.

The Orioles, Tigers, and Astros all lost on Wednesday, which means the Yankees gained ground on each of the three teams ahead of them in the wildcard race. Awesome. The Yankees are 2.5 games back with 24 to play. If nothing else, this team looks poised to play meaningful baseball for a few more weeks. I’ll take it.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
ESPN has the box score, has the video highlights, and ESPN has the updated standings. Don’t miss our Bullpen Workload and Announcer Standings pages either. The first one is actually kinda useful. Here’s the win probability graph.

Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
One AL East rival leaves the Bronx and another comes in. The Rays will be in town for a four-game weekend series starting Thursday night. CC Sabathia and Alex Cobb, who just returned from Tommy John surgery, are the scheduled starters for the series opener. RAB Tickets can get you in the door for that game or any of the other 12 home games left on the schedule.

Game 138: Seriously, finish the sweep this time

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

The Yankees have already clinched the series win over the Blue Jays, their first against Toronto since last August. It’s their first series win against the Blue Jays in Yankee Stadium since September 2014. The Yankees haven’t swept the Blue Jays in either ballpark since June 2014. The pitching matchups that series: Masahiro Tanaka vs. Marcus Stroman, Chase Whitley vs. Mark Buehrle, and David Phelps vs. Drew Hutchison. Yeah, it’s been a while.

On paper, the Yankees are at a big disadvantage tonight. Bryan Mitchell is making his season debut after throwing only 21 tune-up innings in the minors following his freak Spring Training toe injury. Just a few days ago Joe Girardi said the Yankees would like to give Mitchell more time in the minors, yet here it is. Also, Dellin Betances and Adam Warren won’t be available tonight, and Tyler Clippard‘s not exactly well-rested either. If the Yankees are going to pick up their first three-game series sweep of the season (!), they’ll really have to earn it. Here is the Blue Jays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  3. 2B Starlin Castro
  4. SS Didi Gregorius
  5. 1B Mark Teixeira
  6. DH Brian McCann
  7. 3B Chase Headley
  8. RF Tyler Austin
  9. C Austin Romine
    RHP Bryan Mitchell

It’s another cool and overcast day in New York. Same weather as yesterday. There’s a tiny little bit of rain in the forecast, even less than last night, when it was misty for a few innings. Tonight’s series finale will begin at 7:05pm ET and you can watch on YES. Enjoy.

Injury Update: Chad Green does not need Tommy John surgery. Yesterday’s dye contrast MRI showed his elbow ligament is intact. He only has to rehab the flexor tendon strain and is expected to be ready to go for Spring Training. Green was placed on the 15-day DL and I’m not sure why with rosters expanded, but whatever.

Like McCarthy’s cutter, the Yanks brought back Clippard’s slider after trade with Diamondbacks


Barring an improbable run to the postseason, the 2016 Yankees will be remembered for selling at the trade deadline, something they hadn’t done in nearly three decades. Three productive veterans and Ivan Nova were dealt for a total of 12 prospects and Adam Warren. There’s an entire generation of Yankees fans who don’t know anything but contention and win at all costs. This was a big change.

The Yankees also snuck in one buyer trade at the deadline, acquiring ex-Yankee Tyler Clippard from the Diamondbacks for Vicente Campos. It was kind of a weird move but an understandable one. The Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman trades left gaping holes in the back of the bullpen, so Clippard (and Warren) were brought in to lend Dellin Betances a hand. It’s not like they gave up much to get Clippard, after all. (Campos just suffered another major arm injury, which really sucks.)

In his one month and one week with the Yankees, Clippard has taken over as the team’s primary eighth inning guy, and has allowed just one earned run in 15 innings. His strikeout (26.2%), walk (9.8%), and ground ball (34.3%) rates with the Yankees are right in line with his career norms (26.9%, 10.0%, 28.3%). The only difference so far has been the lack of home runs; Clippard has a career 1.07 HR/9 (8.6 HR/FB%) and in his 15 innings in pinstripes he’s at 0.60 HR/9 (4.8 HR/FB%).

At some point Clippard will give up a dinger or two because that’s what he does. He’s a very unique pitcher. He thrives on getting weak contact, mostly in the form of pop-ups, and he does it primarily with deception. The guy is all arms and legs with his delivery. Even at his peak with the Nationals, Clippard would live in the 93-94 mph range and bump 96 mph on occasion. Nowadays he sits 91-92 mph and will top out at 94 mph. That’s what happens to 31-year-old workhorse relievers.

Last year, in an effort to combat velocity loss, Clippard started toying around with a slider while with the Athletics. He used it during his short stint with the Mets, but, after signing with the Diamondbacks in the offseason, the slider went in his pocket. It was very rarely used. Since returning to New York, Clippard has again started using that slider as a regular part of his arsenal (via Brooks Baseball):

Tyler Clippard slider curveball usage

Clippard has always been a fastball/changeup pitcher and he always will be. They’re by far his two best pitches. He changes speeds and eye levels with high fastballs and low changeups. A slower curveball used to be his third pitch, but since the start of last season, he’s shelved it in favor of this new slider. Well, except for his few months with the D’Backs, that is.

Why did Clippard put the slider in his pocket with Arizona? Who knows. They’re not exactly a brilliantly run organization over there. Remember, when the Yankees acquired Brandon McCarthy a few years ago, he said the D’Backs told him to stop throwing his cutter. New York let McCarthy throw the cutter and boom, his performance improved dramatically. Who knows why the D’Backs do what they do. They’re a mess over there.

Anyway, Clippard threw 27 sliders with the Yankees in August, one fewer than he threw in his four months with the D’Backs. He threw eight sliders in two appearances in Baltimore over the week, more than he threw in three of his four months with Arizona. This isn’t a new pitch. It’s an old pitch Clippard has reintroduced after not throwing it most of the year. Here’s one of the sliders he threw over the weekend:

Tyler Clippard slider

First things first: that’s a bad pitch! Clippard didn’t hang it over the plate, but he missed his spot by a mile and was fortunate to get a swing through. Backup sliders like that tend to be effective swing-and-miss pitches because hitters don’t expect them and the movement is very unnatural. Too bad no one can throw them consistently.

I posted the GIF of that slider specifically because the fine folks at MASN showed a slow motion replay after the strikeout, in which you can get a look at Clippard’s grip:

Tyler Clippard slider grip

That’s a slider grip. We can deduce that. It’s definitely not a changeup grip. PitchFX will misclassify pitches on occasion, and I was worried that maybe some of Clippard’s changeups were being misclassified as sliders, but no, that’s a slider. That’s not a changeup grip and we know it wasn’t a fastball based on the movement and velocity. It’s also not a curveball because his fingers are behind the baseball and not coming around. It’s a slider. It is. Trust me.

As you’d expect, Clippard has thrown most of his sliders to right-handed batters. They haven’t swung and missed at it much — only twice in fact, so that GIF above is one of the two — so I’m sure the Yankees and Clippard are hoping that will come. The good news is his hard contact rate against righties dropped from 33.3% with the D’Backs to 22.2% with the Yankees, though the sample is obviously small. That’s something the slider can help improve.

At this point we still don’t know how much the slider has helped Clippard, if it’s helping at all. Adding another pitch seems like it can only help, but if it’s not that effective and you start getting beat on it, it’s a problem. Clippard is still a fastball/changeup pitcher and chances are he always will be. He’s in the wily veteran phase of his career, and slider is a surprise pitch. Something new to keep hitters guessing.

Brian McCann can help the Yankees overcome their recent power outage

Sep 6, 2016; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees designated hitter Brian McCann (34) hits a solo home run against the Toronto Blue Jays inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Last night the Yankees smacked three home runs en route to their thrilling 7-6 win over the Blue Jays. A team hitting three homers in a game isn’t all that unusual in and of itself, especially in Yankee Stadium, but this is a team that hit three home runs total in their previous eight games. Not coincidentally, the Yankees were only 4-4 in those eight games.

The three homers in those eight games belonged to Jacoby Ellsbury, who dropped one into the short porch Monday, and Aaron Judge and Starlin Castro. Judge and Castro went deep in Kansas City. Somehow the Yankees failed to hit a home run in three games against the Orioles pitching staff in Camden Yards over the weekend. They’ve actually gone five straight games without a homer at that ballpark dating back to June, so yeah.

Some of the reasons for the recent power outage are obvious. For starters, Gary Sanchez stopped being Babe Ruth and came back to Earth. That was bound to happen at some point. Also, the Yankees traded home run leader Carlos Beltran at the trade deadline — Beltran still leads the Yankees in dingers — and replaced him with Judge, who has popped three homers but mostly battled contact problems since being called up.

Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira have combined for 20 home runs this season after combining for 64 last season. Brian McCann, the team’s other veteran power source, has 17 dingers of his own, though last night’s blast was only his third of the second half. Three in 38 games and 153 plate appearances. McCann has only two doubles in the second half as well, which is why he’s slugging .294 since the All-Star break. Ouch.

McCann is not old like A-Rod and as far as we know he’s not beat up physically like Teixeira, who has been nursing neck and knee issues pretty much all season. He has changed roles though, shifting from catcher to DH when Sanchez arrived last month. Moving to DH full-time is a big adjustment for a veteran. A lot of them struggle with all the downtime, especially initially. It’s an entirely difference experience for a veteran player used to being in the field.

Remember, McCann has been a starting big league catcher since he was 21, so he’s used to being in on every single pitch. Now he goes 45 minutes between at-bats. There’s only so much video and batting cage work that can be done between at-bats to stay sharp too. “I’m getting used to it. When all you know is catching, it’s just a new routine. I’ve got to find a routine to work for me,” said McCann last month.

A quick glance at McCann’s first and second half splits don’t reveal too much. He’s not striking out more or hitting the ball in the air less. Nothing like that. Here are the numbers if you don’t believe me:

Brian McCann splits

Going from a 32.6% ground ball rate in the first half to a 36.3% ground ball rate in the second half is not meaningful. That’s just the normal ebb and flow of the season. McCann has a career 36.7% ground ball rate and so far this season he’s right in line with that number. A drastic increase in ground ball rate, say to 48% or so, would be a big red flag. That hasn’t happened.

The number that most caught my eye there is the 7.3 HR/FB% in the second half. That is tiny! McCann has a 13.4 HR/FB% in his three full seasons with the Yankees. That’s his true talent number. His average launch angle (18º vs. 20º) and average exit velocity (89.8 mph vs. 87.8 mph) have remained in the same ballpark from the first half to the second, so he’s still making similar contact. McCann laid into a pitch in Kansas City that looked gone off the bat …

Brian McCann fly ball

… before it got knocked down by the wind. That ball leaves the yard in Yankee Stadium or on a warm day at Kauffman Stadium. Stuff like that is how you go from a 15.9 HR/FB% in the first half to a 7.3 HR/FB% in the second half. I don’t want to call it bad luck, but this sure seems like one of those things that won’t last. Hopefully last night’s dinger is an indication the correction is coming.

For now, the Yankees are a little light on power unless Sanchez gets red hot again or Judge figures out how to stop striking out. Castro will sock a dinger every now and then, otherwise they’re stuck hoping Ellsbury or Brett Gardner or Didi Gregorius hook one into the short porch every once in the while. McCann is the team’s best left-handed power threat, and for the offense to be at its best the rest of the way, they need him to start hitting more balls out of the park more consistently.

As injuries continue to mount in the rotation, Luis Cessa is emerging as a keeper for the Yankees

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

His performance is easy to overlook given the rest of the game, but young righty Luis Cessa turned in his fourth straight impressive start for the Yankees last night. The 24-year-old former shortstop held that ridiculously great Blue Jays’ lineup to two runs on six hits and two walks in 5.1 innings, and his defense totally sabotaged him on the second run.

Cessa came over in the Justin Wilson trade over the winter, and he actually started the season in the Opening Day bullpen. He’s spent most of the year starting in Triple-A though, which he needed to do at that point of his development. In four starts since replacing the injured Nathan Eovaldi, Cessa has allowed nine runs (eight earned) and 25 baserunners in 23.1 total innings. That’s a 3.09 ERA and 1.07 WHIP from the what, seventh starter? Eighth?

“I had a little mistake in the first inning to (Edwin) Encarnacion, but after that I stayed with the same plan we had before the game with Larry (Rothschild) and Gary (Sanchez) and a couple coaches, and just make the pitches,” said Cessa after last night’s start (video link). “After (the homer), just continue fighting. Staying on the same page with Gary is the most important thing and we did a really nice job I think.”

Cessa is not without his flaws. He’s allowed five home runs in his four starts and ten (!) in his 42 big league innings, so that’s is an obvious problem. Also, Cessa has struck out only 15 of 94 batters faced as a starter, or 17.0%, and you’d like to see that come up at some point. Overall though, Cessa has given the Yankees four nice starts and there are reasons to believe he can be part of the rotation going forward.

1. He seems to handle adversity well. Cessa was able to face a weak Angels lineup in his first big league start, and the next time put the offense but eight runs on the board against the Orioles in the first two innings. They gave him a lot of breathing room. The Yankees were able to ease Cessa into the rotation with a start against a bad team and then a ton of run support. Perfect.

The last two starts have been a bit more challenging. The Royals roughed Cessa up for four runs in the first three innings last week, including two home runs. The Yankees needed him to soak up more innings since the bullpen was taxed, and Cessa was able to settle down and retire 12 of the final 14 batters he faced to complete six full innings. Last night he gave up a monster first inning homer to Encarnacion and shook it right off.

Those are the kind of situations that can quickly unravel for a young pitcher. Giving up four runs in three innings to the defending World Series champs can spiral out of control quick. Giving up a second deck dinger to someone like Encarnacion can scare a pitcher out of the strike zone or away from the pitch that was hit out, in this case a fastball. That didn’t happen. Cessa settled down and pitched effectively the rest of the way both times. Pretty impressive.

2. He uses four pitches regularly. When the Yankees acquired Cessa, the scouting report said he threw a slider and a changeup in addition to his mid-90s fastball. We’ve seen that and more. Cessa also throws a curveball, and he throws all four of his pitches regularly too. Here is his pitch selection in his four starts:

  • Fastball: 46.4%
  • Slider: 29.2%
  • Curveball: 15.3%
  • Changeup: 9.2%

I think we’ll see more changeups going forward too. The Angels and Blue Jays both threw right-handed heavy lineups at Cessa, so he didn’t need his changeup a whole lot in two of his four starts. Once he starts facing lefties we might see the changeup a bit more.

Either way, Cessa has thrown those four pitches regularly in his four starts, and that’s a big plus. A lot of times a young pitcher comes up with a fastball and a breaking ball he trusts, and he’ll still be trying to figure out a changeup. Cessa has a deep repertoire already. That’s more than half the battle.

3. He can hold his velocity deep into games. Unless you’re a freak like Eovaldi, most pitchers lose velocity within a start as their pitch count creeps up. It’s just fatigue. It happens. The guys who go from, say, 94 mph to 90 mph have the most trouble. Cessa loses velocity like everyone else, yet in his four starts this year, he’s been able to hold mid-90s into the sixth inning. From Brooks Baseball:

Luis Cessa velocity

So far Cessa has averaged 95.6 mph in the first inning and 94.4 mph in the sixth inning in his four starts. (He’s pitched into the sixth inning in all four starts and last night was the first time he didn’t complete the sixth.) Losing roughly one mile an hour is not insignificant, though it’s not a drastic either. Sitting 94.4 mph in the sixth is plenty good enough to get outs. Cessa’s a young man and he’s very athletic — he was a shortstop, after all — so it’s not a surprise he’s strong and able to retain most of his velocity as his pitch count increases.

4. He’ll pitch inside regularly. I’m not sure how we can quantify this, but anecdotally, Cessa seems very willing to pitch inside, especially to righties. It was especially noticeable in his start against the Angels. He had no problem coming inside to set up the pitch outside and get hitters to move their feet. Cessa wasn’t trying to hit anyone. He was just taking control of the plate. It’s refreshing to see. The Yankees collectively do not seem to do enough of that as a team.

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The Yankees have lost both Eovaldi and Chad Green to elbow injuries in recent weeks, plus they traded Ivan Nova, so they’ve had little choice but to give Cessa a starting spot. They’re running out of arms. He’s made the most of his opportunity so far, and he’s starting to look like a possible answer to the team’s search for controllable young pitching. Cessa won’t solve their depth issues by himself, no one will, but he does seem to have the ingredients necessary to be a big league starter. Even if he’s the fourth or fifth guy on the staff, that’s still pretty darn valuable.