The Third Wheel

(Christian Petersen/Getty)
(Christian Petersen/Getty)

That whole “New Year, New Me,” meme that we always see as the number turns on the calendar is not going to apply to the New York Yankees in 2017. Some of the names and faces may be different, but the big picture looks a whole lot like the one from last year. Questions about veteran bats like Mark Teixeira‘s, Alex Rodriguez‘s, and Carlos Beltran‘s have given way to questions about young players’ bats, like Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, Tyler Austin, and the returning Greg Bird. The rotation, as it seems to have been for a while, is far from secure. Leading the similarities, however, is a bullpen headed by a “Big Three,” though this year’s trio will be missing the best of the bunch in Andrew Miller. Replacing him, as he did at the trade deadline last year, is right hander Tyler Clippard.

Clippard pitched well in his 25.1 innings for the Yankees last year, striking out 24.3% of the batters he faced (9.24 K/9) and posting a 2.49 ERA (177 ERA+; 59 ERA-), though that is somewhat belied by a 4.05 FIP (99 FIP-), owed to a high walk rate of 10.3% (3.91 BB/9). In what is likely to be his first full season as a Yankee (provided he doesn’t get traded), Clippard is going to play an important role as gatekeeper to the superior Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman.

Given that the rotation isn’t likely to give much length, something I discussed last month, it’s possible that a lot of games are going to hinge on Clippard performing well in the sixth or seventh inning, holding onto tight leads to turn them over to Betances and Chapman. To mix metaphors, the success of the Yankees’ three-headed-monster may rely on its third wheel, represented by Clippard.

Unless the Yankees improve their rotation before the start of the season, though, they risk the team’s biggest strength being mostly mitigated from the start. While it’s obviously better to have a solid game-ending trio than to not have one, the importance of said trio is lessened when the rotation can’t provide quality or length and the lineup can’t thump its ways through thickets of poor starting to the meadows of high-scoring leads. This isn’t really a thing, but the team’s questionable starting pitching is a case of a weakness potentially turning a strength into something, well, less strong.

To cut back on some of the falling sky here, Clippard is still a good enough pitcher that I’m not too worried about him blowing leads before they’re put into more capable hands. I am worried, though, that he’ll be pressed into early service too often and that, as the season wears on, fatigue may set in. The Yankees need an innings eat to help make sure this doesn’t happen.

DotF: Winter ball season comes to an end

Last month, OF Clint Frazier called in to MLB Network to talk about 2016 and some things he’s been working on this winter. The video is above. “As far as physicality goes, I think my power’s still the best thing, but as we get further I think I’ve done a lot of work on my mental game right now and I think I’m in a good spot right now,” said Frazier when asked about his best attribute. Here are some other links and notes to check out:

  • The Staten Island Yankees are still the Staten Island Yankees. The name change as been put on hold, the team announced. Womp womp. “Over time it became clear that the approval and acceptance of the new name and artwork would take longer than initially anticipated,” said the release. The potential names (Bridge Trolls, Heroes, Killer Bees, Pizza Rats, Rock Pigeons) reportedly didn’t sit well with city officials.
  • In a mailbag column, Jim Callis teased his personal top 50 prospects list. He said SS Gleyber Torres is second, sandwiched between White Sox IF Yoan Moncada and Red Sox OF Andrew Benintendi. Hot damn. On Twitter, Callis added Frazier is 26th and OF Blake Rutherford is 37th. They’re his top three Yankees prospects.
  • Jonathan Mayo surveyed 20 executives about the best prospect in baseball. Benintendi received ten first place votes, most among any player, while Torres received two first place votes of his own. Moncada and Braves SS Dansby Swanson split the other first place votes.
  • In a separate piece, Mayo listed ten players who didn’t make MLB.com’s upcoming top 100 list, but could in the future. RHP James Kaprielian was one of the ten. “The good news is that he looked very good in the Arizona Fall League, and if he stays healthy in ’17, there should be more of that to come,” said the write-up.
  • Not surprisingly, Callis said the Yankees improved their farm system more than any other team in 2016. “The Yanks haven’t had this much talent in the Minors since Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams were developing in the early 1990s,” he wrote.
  • Mike Rosenbaum ranked the ten best prospects traded this offseason. Moncada tops the list, because duh. RHP Albert Abreu is eighth. “Abreu has the chance to pitch in the front half of a big league rotation based solely on stuff, and his control and command should improve as he learns to better repeat his delivery,” said the write-up.
  • And finally, sad news to pass along: LHP Alexander Figueredo was shot and killed in his native Venezuela back in November. He was only 20. Figueredo signed with the Yankees in 2013 and had a 1.89 ERA in 57 career innings, all in the Dominican Summer League. He didn’t pitch at all in 2016 due to a suspension. Our condolences go out to Figueredo’s family.

It’s been a few weeks since the last winter ball update because of the holidays, so we have some catching up to do. The regular season for the various winter leagues in the Caribbean are over, so these stats are final. That means this is the final winter ball update of the offseason. I’ll still post links and whatnot as they come along, but the next stats update won’t come until the minor league regular season begins in April. See you then.

The Arizona Fall League season ended in November. Torres became the young batting champion and MVP in league history. Here are the final stats.

Australian Baseball League

  • RHP Brandon Stenhouse: 6 G, 5.2 IP, 9 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 3 BB, 7 K, 1 WP (7.94 ERA and 2.12 FIP)

Dominican Winter League

  • IF Abi Avelino: 27 G, 12-53, 4 R, 1 2B, 5 RBI, 3 BB, 8 K, 1 CS, 1 HBP (.226/.281/.245)
  • SS Jorge Mateo: 20 G, 7-42, 8 R, 1 2B, 1 3B, 2 RBI, 3 BB, 10 K, 5 SB, 1 CS, 1 HBP (.167/.239/.238) — played his final game on November 26th … a three-game stint might have been the plan all along … either way, not the best finish to a tough 2016 for Mateo
  • RHP Anyelo Gomez: 3 G, 2.2 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 4 K (6.75 ERA and 1.50 WHIP)

Mexican Pacific League

  • OF Tito Polo: 18 G, 15-66, 13 R, 4 2B, 1 RBI, 5 BB, 19 K, 8 SB, 1 CS, 4 HBP (.227/.320/.288) — he got hurt, came back, then got hurt again … so it goes

No Yankees played in the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League (Puerto Rico) this year.

Venezuelan Winter League

  • IF Angel Aguilar: 19 G, 4-26, 7 R, 12 K, 1 SB (.154/.154/.154) — not the best winter ball showing after a tough regular season
  • C Francisco Diaz: 44 G, 25-126, 11 R, 5 2B, 2 3B, 5 RBI, 10 BB, 22 K, 1 SB, 1 CS, 1 HBP (.198/.263/.270)
  • RHP Luis Cedeno: 4 G, 2 GS, 11.1 IP, 13 H, 9 R, 7 ER, 6 BB, 7 K, 2 HR, 2 HB, 2 WP (5.56 ERA and 1.68 WHIP)
  • RHP David Kubiak: 9 G, 3 GS, 22 IP, 21 H, 15 R, 13 ER, 10 BB, 16 K, 1 HR, 3 HB, 3 WP (5.32 ERA and 1.91 WHIP)
  • RHP Mark Montgomery: 5 G, 3.2 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 3 K (7.36 ERA and 1.91 WHIP) — went unpicked in the Rule 5 Draft for the second straight year

Hot Stove Notes: Quintana, Lefty Reliever, Long-Term Deals

Quintana. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
Quintana. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

Seven weeks from today, the Yankees will open Grapefruit League play with a home game against the Phillies at the newly renovated George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. Seven weeks sounds much closer than it actually is. Anyway, the Yankees still have some offseason business to handle. Here are the latest hot stove rumblings.

White Sox not budging on Quintana

Left-hander Jose Quintana is still with the White Sox and the team is not budging on their asking price, reports Ken Rosenthal. They want tippy top prospects. The Yankees are among the teams in the mix for Quintana, but Rosenthal says they’re less inclined to deal their top prospects. Other clubs like the Astros and Pirates are more willing to go for it because they’re closer to contention.

Early in the offseason Brian Cashman said he “would not recommend” the Yankees trade several top prospects for a high-end starter because they’re not one piece away from contention and need to build a young core. That was the logic behind passing on Chris Sale and that’s why they’re not gung-ho about Quintana. Maybe the extra year of control changes things, but it doesn’t seem so. That’s too bad. I really like Quintana. He’d be a wonderful addition.

Yankees still seeking lefty reliever

According to Jon Heyman, the Yankees are among the teams still in the market for a left-handed reliever. They’ve been looking for a lefty bullpen arm basically all offseason, so Heyman’s report isn’t coming out of nowhere. At the moment, New York’s lefty reliever depth chart looks like this:

  1. Aroldis Chapman
  2. Tommy Layne
  3. Chasen Shreve
  4. Richard Bleier
  5. Dietrich Enns
  6. Joe Mantiply
  7. Jason Gurka

Maybe flip Shreve and Bleier, but that’s it. Chapman is in his own little world as the closer — he won’t be used in a matchup situation in the seventh inning, for example — so the depth chart really starts with Layne. I’m not 100% convinced the Yankees need another lefty, but, if they’re determined to sign one, there are a few interesting free agents. Boone Logan and Jerry Blevins are the best of the lot.

Yankees not focusing on short-term additions

After signing Matt Holliday, the Yankees are not willing to deal prospects for short-term upgrades, said Cashman during a recent MLB Network interview (video link). “We’re very protective of the work we’ve done thus far, and we don’t want to do anything at the expense of a short-term gain. We want to make sure it’s for long-term efforts as well. And as we’ve seen since last winter, the price of doing business trade-wise is extremely high,” said the GM.

This kinda circles back to Quintana, who is under control through 2020 and qualifies as a long-term buy. Would the Yankees like to have him? Of course. But they’re not willing to give up top prospects to get him. Chapman is now under control for five years (well, three because of the opt-out) but the Yankees only had to give up cash to get him. If they could get Quintana for just cash, they’d do it. Trading top prospects for anything short of an established young player with several years of cheap control was never going to happen this winter.

Cashman: A-Rod invited to Spring Training as instructor

(Justin K. Aller/Getty)
(Justin K. Aller/Getty)

According to Christian Red, Brian Cashman confirmed the Yankees have invited Alex Rodriguez to Spring Training as an instructor. His special advisor role runs through the end of this year. “He’s certainly invited to participate in Spring Training, but Alex is also free to do as he pleases, if he wants to try and keep playing,” said Cashman.

There has been no indication A-Rod wants to continue playing — he’s living the dad life on social media — and even if he wanted to, who’s going to sign him? Rodriguez hasn’t been an effective hitter since August 2015 and free agency is loaded with righty sluggers. Teams would sign Mike Napoli or Chris Carter before A-Rod. Heck, the Yankees chose Billy Butler over A-Rod late last year.

“Alex is enjoying his time off and looking forward to heading to Spring Training to work with the young guys as he has said all along,” said Ron Berkowitz, A-Rod’s spokesman, to Red. That sure seems to indicate Rodriguez is done playing and plans to report to Spring Training to help out as an instructor in a few weeks.

Although A-Rod’s official title is “special advisor,” his role is to work with young players, so he’s more like a special instructor. The Yankees had Rodriguez at Instructional League last September to work with several of their top prospects, including Clint Frazier, Jorge Mateo, and Blake Rutherford.

A-Rod at Instructs. (@AROD)
A-Rod at Instructs. (@AROD)

“We welcome the opportunity for him to impact our young players at Spring Training,” added Cashman. “Alex would work directly for Hal (Steinbrenner). All the parameters have been vocalized and they remain the same from last year. He’s got a life to live too, and I’m sure he’s going to have a lot of opportunities in broadcasting, in business. People will be tugging him in a lot of different directions.”

The Yankees bring a ton of guest instructors to Spring Training each year. A ton. A-Rod’s arrangement is pretty unique though. He was released as a player and the Yankees gave him this special advisor role, essentially so they can extract some value out of the $21M they’ll pay him in 2017. Most guest instructors stick around camp for a few days before heading home. Will Rodriguez be around longer than usual? I guess we’ll find out pretty soon.

Mailbag: Untouchable Prospects, Santana, Bautista, HOF

Welcome to the first RAB mailbag of the new year. We’ve got 14 questions for you this week. As always, the place to send your questions is RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com.

Andujar. (Not No. 79.) (Leon Halip/Getty)
Andujar. (Not No. 79.) (Leon Halip/Getty)

Dan asks: They say a team needs to know which prospects to trade and which to hold onto when making deals. Who would you say are the top 5 prospects we should try to hold on to and who are the top 5 who you could cope with losing if they were dealt? Just to clarify, I’m not talking about organizational players, I’m talking about actual prospects who you think are less likely to work out.

I’ve written this a few times myself. The Yankees have a great farm system right now, arguably the best in baseball, but of course everyone won’t work out. That’s baseball. In a perfect world you keep the good ones and trade the bad ones before they have a chance to show they’re not going to make it. Sell high, as they say.

Of course, it’s damn near impossible to tell which guys are going to work out and which ones will bust. Being able to predict the future would make life boring. Personally, I’d be most willing to part with position players with contact issues and/or defensive questions, and most pitchers (due to injury risk). So, based on that, here are my lists:

I’d put Justus Sheffield in the keeper pile because among of the Yankees’ best pitching prospects, he’s the healthiest and most advanced. A healthy Kaprielian would be an easy call over Sheffield, but Kaprielian missed almost the entire 2016 season with an elbow issue, and that’s scary.

Mateo is a difficult one because he didn’t have a great 2016 season and he did strike out a fair amount in High-A (21.3%), especially for a guy whose game is going to be putting the ball in play and running like hell. The tools are incredible though, probably the best in the system, and he still is only 21. He’s a keeper for me.

I should make it clear that just because I have those five players listed in the “trade” category, it doesn’t mean I want them gone. I’d prefer to hold on to Frazier and Judge because they’re potential middle of the order bats close to MLB. I’m just saying that in a potential blockbuster trade, say for Jose Quintana, I’d prefer to trade them before the others.

Frank asks: I just finished reading an article on FanGraphs and noticed that Michael Pineda had a 3.2 fWAR and Jake Arrieta had a 3.8 fWAR in 2016. Can you explain how this even remotely makes sense?

It’s good to slap together a quick WAR primer every now and then. There are two major versions of WAR: FanGraphs (fWAR) and Baseball Reference (bWAR). For pitchers, fWAR is based on FIP, which only looks at strikeouts, walks, and home runs. It eliminates balls in play based on the assumption the pitcher has no control over whether his defense makes the play. Nowadays we know some pitchers are better at limiting hard contact than others, which affects whether the defense can make the play, so FIP is a bit outdated.

bWAR is based on actual runs allowed, not FIP. That’s why Pineda (4.82 ERA) had +1.2 bWAR in 2016 while Arrieta (3.10 ERA) was at +3.4 bWAR. Pineda has always had incredible strikeout and walk rates, so his FIP is consistently lower than his ERA. fWAR overrates Pineda. Anyone who’s watched him the last three years knows he’s prone to fat mistake pitches and is far more hittable than the strikeout and walk numbers would lead you to believe. I use bWAR almost exclusively for pitchers. Tell me what happened, not what theoretically should have happened.

Lucas asks: B-Ref says Ellsbury had the 2nd best Defensive season of his career last year. Just from watching him he seemed to have really fallen off last year. What gives?

The defensive metrics were all over the place with Jacoby Ellsbury last year for whatever reason. Here are the numbers:

  • DRS: +8 (third best season out of ten)
  • UZR: +0.7 (seventh best season)
  • FRAA: -14.5 (worst season)
  • Total Zone: +1 (sixth best season)
  • Defensive WAR: +1.2 (second best)

Yeah, I don’t know either. My eyes told me Ellsbury was still a solid defensive center fielder last season, though not as good as he was two or three years ago. That’s normal. He turned 33 in September and guys tend to slow down at that age. Johnny Damon‘s transition to left field started at age 33 and he was there full-time within a year. Ellsbury figures to make a similar transition soon enough, which is another reason Brett Gardner almost has to be traded.

P.J. asks: I realize it’s premature since 2017 hasn’t even started but jumping ahead to next winter’s FA class. Do you think the Yankees would have any interest in Carlos Santana as a DH on say a 3 or 4 year deal @ $15MM per? The roster spot would be open and he really isn’t blocking any Yankee player.

I love Santana. One of my favorite hitters in the game. Last season he hit .259/.366/.498 (132 wRC+) with 34 home runs and exactly as many walks as strikeouts (99 each, or 14.4% of his plate appearances). Santana will turn 31 shortly after Opening Day and he’s been a consistent 20+ homer/90+ walk player. And he switch-hits. That’s cool. Matt Holliday is on a one-year contract, so the Yankees have an opening at DH going forward, and Santana could also spent time at first base as well. He’d be a nice caddy for Greg Bird going forward.

Slamtana. (Ezra Shaw/Getty)
Slamtana. (Ezra Shaw/Getty)

Next winter’s free agent class is loaded with power corner bats again and I wonder if Santana will get stuck waiting for a contract a la Mark Trumbo, Mike Napoli, and Chris Carter this year. The qualifying offer will approach $18M next year and I’m not sure the Indians will risk it, especially since there’s a chance Santana won’t sign a $50M+ contract. In that case Cleveland would only get a supplemental third round draft pick, not a first rounder. I definitely have interest in Santana though. Dude can rake.

Al asks: If the Dodgers are willing to trade a premium prospect for a RH second baseman, why don’t the Yankees gauge their interest in Castro? I’m not down on Castro, but if the Yankees could get De Leon or Bellinger, that might be a smart move. We could live with Refsnyder or Utley for a year until one of the middle infield prospects is ready.

The Yankees aren’t getting a premium prospect for Starlin Castro. They traded Adam Warren to get him last year. What did Castro do in 2016 to raise his stock from Warren to someone like Jose De Leon? He hit a career high 21 homers and that’s about it. His (lack of) approach will still drive you nuts, and now he’s more expensive and another year closer to free agency. The Dodgers are willing to trade De Leon (and others) for Brian Dozier because Dozier is a considerably better player than Castro. Castro’s not worth a premium prospect at all. If a team offers one, the Yankees should trade him immediately. It’d be a great one-year flip.

Brady asks: I’m reading reports that Bautista would sign a 1 year deal at or above the QO threshold (~$17M). That’s a very good player on a short term contract. I know the outfield is crowded, but how do you not make a 1/17 offer? What are the draft ramifications?

The free agent compensation rules are the same this offseason, so the Yankees would have to surrender their first round pick (16th overall) to sign Bautista. I don’t want the Yankees anywhere near him, even on a one-year contract. That’s a move you make when you’re ready to win the World Series right now, not when you’re trying to develop your next young core. Signing the 36-year-old Bautista means the 24-year-old Judge has to go back to Triple-A, and that’s not something a smart rebuilding team does. And you know what else? Not many people like Bautista either, especially around these parts. Let’s stick with the young, exciting, likable players. Could be cool.

Dave asks (short version): Am I crazy to think that adding Robertson & Quintana makes us a solid Wild Card contender?

They very well might. Jose Quintana could be as much as a five-win upgrade over whichever young kid he replaces in the rotation, and David Robertson over the last guy in the bullpen could be another win as well. Maybe two. Assuming the Yankees don’t give up anything off their MLB roster in the trade, Quintana and Robertson could represent an additional 5-7 wins in 2017. I think the Yankees are somewhere in the 82-84 win range right now. Add those two, and suddenly the Yankees are looking at a win total in the 87-91 win range, which means postseason contention.

Mark asks: If Sabathia pitches to the tune of 10-12 wins and a 4.00 era in 2017, is it worth offering him $8m 1 year deal for 2018? I picture him being the sort of Kuroda/Pettitte type to keep signing 1 year deals if he is feeling well and continues to master the art of pitching. Or do you think he has made enough money that there isn’t enough incentive to keep playing? He doesn’t seem like the David Cone type, pitch until they take the jersey away.

If CC Sabathia pitches effectively in 2017 and is open to returning on a one-year contract in 2018, the Yankees should totally bring him back. They’re going to need the pitching, and Sabathia would be the perfect one-year contract candidate. The Yankees know him and vice versa, so there would be no adjustment period, and Sabathia would be a pretty great clubhouse guy to have around the kids. He’s basically Andy Pettitte at this point. If he wants to keep pitching and is effective, then keep putting those one-year contracts in front of him. There will always be room in the rotation for a solid veteran starter, especially a lefty in Yankee Stadium.

Kenny asks: Mike, you have mentioned a lefty reliever as a small priority (even though I think Layne is more than fine, remember the Toronto game?)but what about Charlie Furbush? Converted starter with AL experience and a funky delivery who would probably come cheap off of a season where he didn’t pitch because of rotator cuff issues.

The Mariners traded Pineda, Cliff Lee, and Doug Fister all within 18 months of each other, and pretty much all they had to show for those trades was Furbush. Brutal. Furbush was pretty darn good for Seattle from 2012-15, pitching to a 3.23 ERA (3.02 FIP) with 27.9% strikeouts and 8.2% walks in 175.1 innings, but he missed the entire 2016 season with shoulder problems and was non-tendered last month. He’s worth a minor league contract, sure, but the Yankees aren’t in position to guarantee him a roster spot. Not after the shoulder injury and not with 40-man roster space at a premium. Aside from Boone Logan and Jerry Blevins, healthy Charlie Furbush is probably the best lefty reliever in free agency right now, but is healthy?

Furbush. (Joe Sargent/Getty)
Furbush. (Joe Sargent/Getty)

Joe asks: These days it seems that pitching prospects don’t get taken seriously unless they throw 95. Is there anyone coming up through the Yankee system who has the potential to be another Jimmy Key- meaning someone who may turn into a quality starter without lighting up any radar guns?

Not really. Ian Clarkin and Dietrich Enns are probably the closest thing to a Jimmy Key type in the system right now. Depending which scouting report you read, Clarkin’s fastball hovers around 90 mph these days, down a few ticks from before his elbow injury in 2015. Enns has never been a hard-thrower. He’ll top out at 91 mph on his best days. Neither Clarkin nor Enns has Key’s pinpoint control and dead fish changeup, so don’t expect them to match his success. Teams look for prospects who throw hard because a) you can’t teach it, b) velocity gives you more margin for error, and c) pitchers lose velocity as they age, so the guys who are sitting in the upper-80s in their early-20s might not have much staying power in the show.

Paul asks: What kind of year would Holliday have to have for the Yankees to consider offering him a qualifying offer?

I don’t think it’s possible. I mean, yeah, I suppose Holliday could have a freak .330/.500/.750 season like Barry Bonds or something, but that won’t happen. The Yankees are going to pay luxury tax in 2017, and per the terms of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, they will only be able to receive a draft pick after the fourth round for any qualifying free agent. The upside of getting a draft pick after the fourth round (140th overall range) isn’t nearly great enough to risk having a soon-to-be 38-year-old Holliday accept the $18M or so qualifying offer next winter. Way too much risk, not enough reward. Even a bounceback to his 2014 levels (.272/.370/.441/132 wRC+) wouldn’t make him qualifying offer worthy.

Mark asks: I wanted to ask a question regarding former top prospects who seemingly have fallen out favor, namely Mason Williams and guys like Jake Cave, etc. Do guys like these have any trade value left? Or, are they a wait and hold to see if they can gain value in the future? Another Yankees blog (sorry I’ve been seeing other blogs on the side) suggested that they move Mason Williams for some pitching which seems absolutely ridiculous to me.

They have close to zero trade value. Cave just went unpicked in the Rule 5 Draft. Any team could have had him and kept him — as a two-time Rule 5 Draft guy, he could have elected free agency rather be returned to the Yankees, at which point his new team could have just re-signed him with no strings attached — and yet no one did. Williams is going to be 26 in August and his track record of excellence is very short. He’s got a major shoulder injury in his recent history too. Who is giving up a pitcher for him? I mean a decent pitcher, not a similar busted prospect. Williams is more valuable to the Yankees as a depth option than anything he could realistically fetch in a trade. It’s not 2012 anymore. Guys like Williams and Cave have a negligible amount of trade value.

P.J. asks: Is there a reason 20 year old Thairo Estrada might have been complete ignored by MLB Pipeline when they ranked the Yankees Top 30 Prospects back in August? And is there a chance he could make the list when they update their list in the next month or so?

Estrada was a victim of the system’s depth. MLB.com ranked him 28th in the system before 2016, so he was on the bubble anyway, then the Yankees went and made all those trades to bolster the system. I’m a huge Thairo fan, yet when I sketched out the first draft of my annual preseason top 30 prospects list, he didn’t make the cut. There’s just so much depth in the system right now. Estrada could definitely make it back into the top 30 at some point. Maybe not in Spring Training, but later in the season or next winter, once more prospects graduate and the system inevitably thins out a bit.

(Jamie Squire/Getty)
Javy. (Jamie Squire/Getty)

Mike asks (short version): Why are some retired players left off the Hall of Fame ballot? I noticed Javier Vazquez is not on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot and believe it or not, he had a career 53.9 fWAR which is 65th all time, but Tim Wakefield Is on it and his career fWAR was just 27.4. Both finished their careers in 2011. Of course I am not saying Vazquez is a HOFer or anything, but I’m wondering why he was left off but someone like Wakefield was put on.

First a player needs to spend ten years in the big leagues to be eligible for the Hall of Fame. Then they need to pass through a six-person screening committee (all BBWAA members) to actually be placed on the ballot. The screening committee determined Vazquez did not deserve to be on the Hall of Fame ballot, which was egregious. Vazquez is, by a huge margin, the greatest Puerto Rican born pitcher in MLB history. It’s not close. Some numbers:

  • Wins: 165 (Juan Pizarro is second with 131)
  • Innings: 2,840 (Jaime Navarro is second with 2,055.1)
  • Strikeouts: 2,536 (Pizarro is second with 1,522)
  • WAR: +43.3 (Roberto Hernandez is second with +18.5)

Vazquez isn’t a Hall of Famer, but holy crap how does the screening committee leave him off the ballot? Matt Stairs is on the ballot. Casey Blake is on the ballot. Arthur Rhodes is on the ballot. Vazquez belongs. So did Chan-Ho Park a few years ago. Park was the first Korean player in MLB history, yet he was left off the ballot. Hall of Famer? No. But at least deserving of being on the ballot. The screening committee generally does a good job. Vazquez and Park are the two major oversights in recent years.

Thursday Night Open Thread

Wanna work for the Yankees? They’re one of several teams looking to hire an in-game social media person. You’ll basically get paid to run the team’s Twitter account during games. Here’s all the info. Seven other teams are hiring too. I’m glad to see the Yankees are upping their Twitter game. Some other clubs are really funny and engaging on Twitter. (The Indians and Mariners jump to mind.)

Here is the open thread for the evening. The Nets are playing and there’s some college hoops on the schedule too. Pretty slow night. Good night for not sports. I’m watching Black Mirror these days and it is, uh, harrowing. Talk about whatever here.

Aroldis Chapman could be even more effective by being less predictable with his fastball

(Ezra Shaw/Getty)
(Ezra Shaw/Getty)

By any objective measure, Aroldis Chapman is one of the best relievers in baseball and most dominant single-inning forces in baseball history. Chapman has struck out 42.6% of the batters he’s faced in the big leagues, including 44.2% over the last five seasons, the highest rate in history by nearly two percentage points. Craig Kimbrel (40.7%) and Kenley Jansen (39.8%) are the only pitchers within nine percentage points of Chapman.

As good as he is, Chapman is not without his flaws as a pitcher. No player is perfect, after all. Chapman does walk a few too many hitters (career 11.6 BB%), and yeah, he’s made it known he prefers to work the ninth inning and only the ninth inning. Chapman can also be a bit predictable on the mound, especially when he falls behind in the count. (And since he walks so many batters, he’s behind in the count more often than the average pitcher.)

I first noticed this during Chapman’s short stint with the Yankees last year, but he was here and gone so quick — Chapman was on the active roster only 76 days between his suspension and the trade — that I never got around to looking into it. Since he’s back for at least three and possibly as many as five years, it’s time for a deeper dive. Here is Chapman’s pitch selection over the last three years:

Fastball Slider Changeup
Count Even 71.6% 22.2% 5.4%
Pitcher Ahead 68.8% 19.5% 10.5%
Batter Ahead 84.8% 11.9% 2.0%

There are two obvious caveats here. One, every pitcher throws more fastballs when they’re behind in the count. Last season pitchers threw a fastball 64.4% of the time when they were behind in the count. It was 56.2% when the count was even and 48.4% when ahead in the count. And two, not every pitcher has Chapman’s fastball. No other pitcher does. He’s one of a kind. Life is good when you throw 100 mph on the regular.

Chapman, when he falls behind in the count and needs to even things back up, will lean on his high-octane fastball and understandably so. It’s the most dominant fastball in baseball history. There’s no point in keeping it in your back pocket. Aroldis is leaning on that pitch when behind in the count more and more with each passing year too. It was 80.5% fastballs three years ago, 84.6% two years ago, and 89.1% last year.

Again, Chapman’s fastball is historically great, so throwing more of them seems like a good idea. Look at his numbers when he’s been behind in the count the last three years though:

Count Even: .199/.216/.269 (40 OPS+)
Pitcher Ahead: .068/.071/.083 (-40 OPS+)
Batter Ahead: .263/.526/.391/ (93 OPS+)

When Chapman gets ahead in the count, forget it. Game over. Opponents have a .154 OPS (OPS!) against him when he’s gotten ahead in the count since 2014. Crazy. When the count is even, Chapman is still dominant. The hitter might as well be down 0-2.

But, when Chapman falls behind in the count, he’s damn near average. Keep in mind a 93 OPS+ in those situations still isn’t great for the hitter, but relative to Chapman’s standards, it feels like a miracle. Hitting .263 against a guy throwing that hard is impressive, and I can’t help but wonder whether Chapman’s predictability with the fastball plays into that. Sure, he throws extremely hard, but if hitters know it’s coming, their life gets a little easier.

The best way to look at this is by isolating Chapman’s fastball. Here’s how hitters have performed against his fastball in the various count states over the last three years:

AVG ISO Whiff% Foul%
Count Even .210 .060 15.7% 20.5%
Pitcher Ahead .059 .005 25.0% 24.7%
Batter Ahead .389 .185 13.9% 19.4%

I literally lol’d at the .005 ISO against Chapman’s fastball when he’s ahead in the count. Aroldis has allowed one extra-base hit against the heater when he had the count advantage over the last three seasons. One. It was a Garrett Jones double on an 0-2 fastball in August 2014. (I went back through MLB.tv to see if there was any defensive funny business, but no, it was a booming double off the top of the wall on a mistake fastball down the middle. So it goes.)

Anyway, hitters have had more success against Chapman’s fastball when he’s behind in the count. A lot more success. They’ve hit for more average and power, and swung and missed a heck of a lot less. (A 13.9% whiff rate on a fastball is still insanely good, I should note.) I thought maybe this would explain the foul balls too — Aroldis does seem to give up a lot of fouls, doesn’t he? — but apparently not. Either way, Chapman’s fastball is not nearly as effective when he’s behind in the count, yet that’s the pitch he’s throwing nine times out of ten in those spots.

Based on this, it’s fair to wonder whether Chapman would benefit from using his slider and changeup a bit more often when behind in the count. Not necessarily when he’s down 3-0 or anything like that, but in 1-0, 2-0, or 2-1 counts, when a ball doesn’t put a man on base? Why not? The goal is to put something else in the back of the hitter’s mind and change the scouting report. That’s why Chapman’s fastball is so good when he’s ahead in the count. He throws the most sliders and changeups in those spots and the fastball plays up. Right now, hitters can sit fastball when he’s behind.

This is nitpicking to the nth degree, of course. Chapman is historically great even while throwing all those fastballs when behind in the count, so he doesn’t have to change anything to remain effective. This is more a look at a way Chapman can be even better, which is pretty crazy to think about. Mixing in a handful of sliders and changeups when behind in the count, just a few to stop hitters from sitting heater, could make a pretty significant difference.