Spring Training continues this afternoon with Masahiro Tanaka‘s fourth Grapefruit League start. He looked excellent the first three times out, striking out 13 with no walks and three hits allowed in nine scoreless innings. Last year at this time Tanaka was coming back from surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow. There are no such concerns this year. He’s looked really good so far.
In other news, the Yankees are set to play their top two prospects (Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier) in today’s game, plus their most MLB ready starting pitcher prospect (Jordan Montgomery) will come out of the bullpen as well. Roster cuts are being made by the day. Enjoy watching these guys while you can, folks. We won’t get to see them too many more times before they’re sent across the street to minor league camp. Here is the Tigers’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:
- LF Brett Gardner
- CF Jacoby Ellsbury
- C Gary Sanchez
- DH Matt Holliday
- 1B Greg Bird
- 3B Chase Headley
- RF Rob Refsnyder
- 2B Ronald Torreyes
- SS Gleyber Torres
RHP Masahiro Tanaka
Available Pitchers: LHP Jordan Montgomery, LHP Chasen Shreve, LHP Jason Gurka, and RHP Jonathan Holder are all scheduled to pitch today. RHP Matt Wotherspoon, RHP Dillon McNamara, RHP Eric Ruth, and LHP Caleb Frare are all up from minor league camp to serve as the extra arms.
Available Position Players: C Kyle Higashioka, 1B Ji-Man Choi, 2B Donovan Solano, SS Pete Kozma, 3B Ruben Tejada, LF Clint Frazier, CF Tyler Wade, and RF Billy McKinney will be the second string off the bench. C Radley Haddad, IF Abi Avelino, OF Dustin Fowler, and UTIL Wilkin Castillo are the extra players. Haddad and Avelino are up from minor league camp for the day.
The Yankees made the 45-minute trip inland to Lakeland for this afternoon’s game. The weather report tells me there won’t be a cloud in the sky for this afternoon’s game. It will be a tad chilly, however. This afternoon’s game will begin shortly after 1pm ET. If you’re in the Tigers’ home market, you can watch on FOX Sports Detroit. If not, you can watch on MLB Network and MLB.tv, even in the New York market. Enjoy the game.
We’ve got a dozen questions in the mailbag this week, the penultimate mailbag before Opening Day. As always, use the RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com email address to send us anything.
Zachary asks: I used Baseball Musings lineup tool and ZiPS/Steamer/ATC projections to try to find the best 2017 lineup for the Yankees. No matter the numbers I used, the tool insisted that Matt Holliday leading off would produce the best run-scoring lineup in 2017. Thoughts on that? Is it something you would do as manager? Can you see Joe doing something that radical?
The lineup tool is a bit outdated — the model is based on research from 2006 — and all it does it put the highest OBP player in the leadoff spot. If two players are within a few OBP points of each other, it’ll give the higher SLG player more at-bats. When I put together the All-RAB Era Team a few weeks back, the lineup analysis tool stuck 2007 Jorge Posada in the leadoff spot because he led those players in OBP. Just about every projection system has Holliday leading the Yankees in OBP by a point or two over Brett Gardner.
There’s no chance Joe Girardi will bat Holliday leadoff. He’s a veteran middle of the order guy and that’s where Girardi will hit him. If I were manager, I wouldn’t bat Holliday leadoff either. For starters, I don’t think Holliday will actually out-OBP Gardner. Secondly, that’s a waste of Holliday’s pop. If you have two players with similar OBPs, I say bat the guy with power a little lower in the order so there are more men on base when he hits. The Cubs are planning to bat Kyle Schwarber leadoff and Ben Zobrist cleanup. That seems completely backwards to me. If you think Schwarber is a 30-homer guy, you’re setting him up to hit a lot of solo homers by batting him behind the pitcher.
Paul asks: There are several examples of prospects who have seen their mph tick up with the Yankees. Is this normal for other teams? Is it just kids’ bodies maturing, or do the Yankees have some advantage in their training program that maximizes fastball speed?
This does happen elsewhere, but it happens so often with the Yankees that I don’t think we can wave it off as a fluke at this point. James Kaprielian, Jordan Montgomery, Chance Adams, Taylor Widener, and Chad Green are among those who gained velocity after joining the organization. It must be something with the Yankees’ throwing program or training regimen, right? For what it’s worth, here’s what Eric Longenhagen said in his weekly chat this week:
: are you able to tell how the yankees’ development team is getting velocity boosts out of so many college arms? change in delivery, selective drafting, conditioning, or something else?
spring training games.: There seems to be a common arm action so I’d guess they have a way to teach it. It’s pretty cool. We’ll start talking about the Dodgers like this soon, I’m guessing. Like half a dozen of their guys were touching 95+ yesterday on Day 1 of minor league
That’s about the best answer I can give. When one or two guys add velocity, maybe it’s just a fluke. When five or six or seven (or more) do it, there’s probably something to it. Ever since Gary Denbo replaced Mark Newman as the farm system head in October 2014, the team’s player development seems to have taken a big step forward. It’s only been two seasons, but the top prospects aren’t stalling out and several lower profile guys are making big gains. It’s exciting.
Robert asks (short version): Hindsight is always 20/20 and I trust the front office (especially with cash almost fully in charge) but do you think there’s some regret from within trading solarte a few years back? He’s developed into a nice little player who can play multiple positions teams now seek.
Oh sure. I’m guessing the Yankees would like to take that trade back given what they know now. Yangervis Solarte isn’t a star or anything, but he’s hit .275/.330/.428 (110 wRC+) with +4.7 fWAR and +4.8 bWAR since the trade. Chase Headley has hit .256/.333/.379 (97 wRC+) with +6.9 fWAR and +5.9 bWAR during that time. The difference in their salaries are pretty substantial too. I do think Headley’s advantage in defense outweighs the difference in offense, but ultimately, it’s similar production at very different prices.
Remember though, at the time of the trade Solarte was a career minor league journeyman who hit well the first 40 games of the season (.336/.414/.521) before completely falling off (.180/.264/.256 the next 41 games) and having to be sent to the minors. There was reason to think the clock had struck midnight. What can you do? You win some and you lose some, and when your biggest trade mistake over the last three or four years is trading away Yangervis Solarte, you’ll be fine.
Anonymous asks: According to Baseball America, the Yankees had the 27th best prospects ranking in 2004. The following year Robinson Cano would have his rookie season, the first in a career that currently has him easily as one of the top 20 2B of all time, and likely top 5 by the time he retires. The system produced little else (CM Wang, Melky Cabrera, Tyler Clippard, Dioner Navarro.) Would you rather take that 2004 prospect group or the current one?
Oh man, that’s tough. On one hand you have a Hall of Fame caliber second baseman (Cano), an elite reliever (previous versions of Clippard), and a solid everyday outfielder (Melky) in addition to Chien-Ming Wang‘s two excellent years before his injuries. On the other hand you have everything guys like Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier and Aaron Judge and Kaprielian can become. They won’t all work out. We know that. But the sheer volume of prospects suggests the Yankees will get several quality players out of this group.
It’s hard for me to say no to a likely Hall of Famer, so I’ll take the 2004 group thanks to Cano. But! Keep in mind Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird are no longer prospect eligible. New York’s best non-prospect eligible young big leaguer in 2004 was, uh, Travis Lee? Seriously, try to find a quality young player on that roster. Sanchez and Bird are two pretty significant bats, and if you add them to the current farm system, I’d take it over the 2004 group. Otherwise I’ll hitch my wagon to Robbie Cano.
Seth asks: Which Yankee rookie could you possibly see winning ROY? What would need to happen or what kind of stat line do you think they would need to put up to win? Are there any early ROY favorites in the AL right now?
There are really only two candidates for 2017: Judge and Green. Others like Torres and Frazier probably won’t spend enough time in the big leagues to be serious Rookie of the Year candidates. (If Sanchez couldn’t win Rookie of the Year doing what he did last year, how could Gleyber or Frazier?) Judge and Green could very well spend the entire season in the big leagues and in prominent roles. Judge as the starting right fielder and Green as a starting pitcher. Playing time is important.
The Rookie of the Year award tends to skew towards position players — Michael Fulmer, Jacob deGrom, Jose Fernandez, and Jeremy Hellickson are the only starters to win the award since 2007 — so I think Judge’s chances of winning the award are better than Green’s. He’ll be in the race if he gets his strikeouts under control and smacks, say, 25 dingers or so. When it’s all said and done, the power numbers will get Judge votes, not WAR. (Sanchez, Bird, Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, and Bryan Mitchell aren’t Rookie of the Year eligible anymore. Too many at-bats and innings.)
That said, Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi is the odds on favorite to be the AL Rookie of the Year right now. He’s got a full-time lineup spot and he’s annoyingly good. I suppose White Sox righty Lucas Giolito should be considered a Rookie of the Year candidate, though he hasn’t looked very good since being called up. My sleeper pick: Athletics righty Jharel Cotton, who has a rotation spot locked up. I could see him putting up nice numbers in that ballpark.
Ethan asks: Hey Mike! I was looking back at the old Top 30 Prospects lists from MLB.com, and saw that Refsnyder hit his peak at #4 in the Yankees’ system in 2015 when they had only 2 players in the Top 100. Just wondering with the current system having 7 Top-100 players, where do you think Refsnyder would be placed if he was at his prospect peak?
Those were the days, eh? When a good but not great prospect like Rob Refsnyder was among the five best prospects in the system. For the record, the highest Refsnyder ever ranked on my top 30 lists was No. 6 in 2016. That ranking was based more on his probability of being a solid big leaguer than pure upside. Refsnyder at his prospect peak would have ranked no higher than 15th on this year’s top 30. Way too many players with more upside in the system to rank him any higher. I think there’s a chance Refsnyder will still be able to carve out a career as a righty platoon bat, but he’s going to have to start hitting for power. Below-average defenders who only hit singles aren’t a hot commodity, you know?
Elliot asks: For the first time since following you guys, Gary Sanchez isn’t even a candidate for the minor league spotlight (sidebar) this season. With all of the deadline moves and graduations last lear, who gets your vote? Torres? Frazier? Kaprielian? Mateo? What options!!!
I’ll post the annual Prospect Watch poll a few days before Opening Day. I don’t want to post it early and have someone get hurt or traded, and have to do it all over again. And like you said, there are a ton of good candidates this year. Torres, Frazier, Kaprielian, Blake Rutherford, Justus Sheffield, Jorge Mateo, Miguel Andujar, on and on it goes. In most years someone like Adams or Dustin Fowler would be prime Prospect Watch fodder. I’m not even sure I’ll include them in the poll at this point. No, I don’t believe in the Prospect Watch curse — the little pixels in the RAB sidebar don’t have those kind of powers — so it’ll again be a choice among the top prospects, and gosh the Yankees sure do have lots of them.
Nico asks: Sorry if I missed this, but does Spring Training offensive performance appear to correlate at all with regular season offensive performance? I know it won’t be a exact correlation, but still – would be good to know how much stock to put into the yankees’ ST dominance.
Alas, there’s very little correlation between Spring Training performance and regular season performance. And that applies to everything. Team record, offense, pitching, the whole nine. Lance Rinker and Neil Paine ran the numbers and found a tiny little correlation between spring and regular season offensive performance. So tiny that it’s basically insignificant. Bird probably won’t have a 1.500 OPS during the regular season, sadly.
There have also been a ton of studies (like this one, this one, and this one) showing spring win-loss records don’t mean much either. My go to example: the 2001 Mariners had the second worst Spring Training record among AL teams (13-19), and then went 116-49 during the regular season. The only AL team with a worst spring record that year? The Yankees, who went 9-20 in the spring, won 95 games during the regular season, then beat the Mariners in the ALCS. The Yankees are hitting well and winning games this spring and that’s cool. It doesn’t tell us much about the upcoming season, unfortunately.
John asks: The “problem” of too many shortstops has been talked about a lot here on RAB. Are the yankees showing their hand this spring in terms of where the expect Torres to wind up? It seems that with Didi gone at the WBC Torres has been getting way more action at second than at short. If Torres plays well this season in the minors at second, what are the chances he’s starting at second for the yanks on opening day in 2018?
Torres has played many more innings at short (42.1) than at second (16) this spring, and I don’t think it’s a secret what the Yankees are doing with their shortstops. They want to increase their versatility because a) versatility is good, and b) it’ll allow them to get everyone into the lineup at once. Chances are the best Yankees teams in 2018 and beyond feature both Torres and Didi Gregorius, and, well, how are you supposed to get them into the same lineup? The same goes for Mateo (center field) and Tyler Wade (outfield). I do think there’s a chance Gleyber will reach MLB in 2017, which would presumably set him up to be on the 2018 Opening Day roster. At which position? Who knows. The Yankees seem to be trying to figure that out themselves.
Nathan asks: How interesting or uninteresting, or competitive, would this team be? Sanchez at C, Bird at 1b, Wade at 2nd, Didi at SS, Gleyber at 3b, Frazier in LF. Fowler in CF and Judge in RF. On personal level, I don’t know if they’d be good, but I think they’d be fun as heck to watch, and easy to cheer for.
Very interesting and not terribly competitive, I don’t think. You’ve got five rookies in the lineup plus two non-rookies playing their first full MLB season, and history (and common sense) tells us there will be growing pains. Even Mike Trout struggled in his first attempt at the big leagues (.220/.281/.390 in 40 games in 2011). They would be fun to watch though. That’s for sure. The lineup includes lots of exciting young guys who play with a ton of energy and you’re right, they’d be easy to root for. Chances are that lineup wouldn’t be very good in 2017, but they sure would be entertaining.
Andrew asks: I know backup catcher isn’t that big of a deal. But with Derek Norris being released by Washington, he’s better than Romine right? Worth it to sign him to a league minimum deal since Washington already on the hook for the rest?
I wouldn’t be a league minimum deal. Like every other pre-arbitration and arbitration-eligible player, Norris was on a non-guaranteed contract. The Nationals released Norris earlier this week on the last day teams could release players with non-guaranteed contracts and only pay them 30 days termination pay. Norris will receive roughly $688,000 of his $4.2M salary, and he can now sign a contract of any size with any team. Players who have been released from guaranteed contracts and are still being paid are the guys you can sign for the pro-rated portion of the league minimum. That doesn’t apply to Norris.
As for the question, yes I’d absolutely prefer Norris to Austin Romine for the backup catcher spot. Is that the job Norris wants though? Hard to think he wants to spend his age 28 season stuck behind Sanchez when several clubs could offer more playing time behind the plate. The White Sox, Angels, Rays, Diamondbacks, and Brewers could all offer Norris their starting catcher job. Perhaps the job market will be so dry Norris would be willing to sign a cheap deal with the Yankees to back up Sanchez, but I can’t see it. These seems like one of those “he makes sense for the Yankees but the Yankees don’t make sense for him” deals.
I haven’t seen either guy run enough this spring to form a solid opinion. I’ll go with Carter because he has youth on his side. I’ll roll the dice with the 30-year-old over the 37-year-old. Neither Carter nor Holliday will be in the lineup for their speed though. They’re there to sock dingers. I wonder who’d win a footrace between Sanchez and Bird? They’re both young and in shape, though neither is fleet of foot. Make it happen, Yankees.
Luis Cessa started and it did not go well. He allowed four runs on six hits and a walk in only 1.2 innings. Eek. Bryan Mitchell helped his rotation case by striking out five and allowing one run in three innings. James Kaprielian made his Grapefruit League debut late in the game and fanned three in two scoreless innings. He walked one and allowed no hits. Erik Boland heard from scouts Kaprielian’s fastball sat 95 mph and touched 96 mph. Too bad we couldn’t see it. Today’s game wasn’t televised, so there are no video highlights. Here’s the box score and here are the rest of the notes from Spring Training:
- Following today’s game, Williams was optioned to Triple-A and Kaprielian was sent to minor league camp, the Yankees announced. There are still 47 players in big league camp by my unofficial count, including the just signed Ernesto Frieri. Williams being sent down may bode well for Aaron Judge. If Judge were to go to Triple-A so Hicks could play right field, Williams would be the obvious fourth outfielder candidate.
- Not surprisingly, Joe Girardi said Austin Romine has a “leg up” on Kyle Higashioka for the backup catcher’s job. I’m pretty sure this is the first time the Yankees have even acknowledged a backup catcher competition. Anyway, everything pointed to Romine being the guy. [Bryan Hoch]
- Pitching coach Larry Rothschild has been working with Luis Severino to slow down his delivery this spring. “I wasn’t rushing to the plate,” said Severino following his start Tuesday. [Dan Martin]
- The Yankees will be on the road to play the Tigers tomorrow afternoon. That game will be on MLB Network and MLB.tv. Masahiro Tanaka is lined up to start.
This is the open thread for the night. MLB Network will have the Dominican Republic vs. Venezuela live at 10pm ET, plus every local hockey and basketball team is in action except the Rangers. Also, March Madness started today, so there’s plenty of college hoops on tonight. Talk about those games or anything else here, as long as it’s not religion or politics.
6:14pm ET: Jon Heyman says Frieri will make $800,000 at the big league level. The contract also includes incentives based on appearances and games finished in case, you know, he becomes the closer or something.
6:00pm ET: As expected, the Yankees announced today they have signed veteran right-hander Ernesto Frieri to a minor league contract. He’ll be in big league camp as a non-roster player. Frieri worked out for the team recently and was in the clubhouse yesterday, at which point it was pretty obvious a deal was in the works.
Frieri, 31, did not pitch in 2016. He was in camp with the Phillies, got released, remained unemployed all summer, then threw in winter ball in Venezuela. Frieri struck out one in two scoreless innings with Colombia during the World Baseball Classic, and PitchFX says his fastball averaged 95.0 mph.
Once upon a time Frieri was a quality late-inning reliever with the Padres and Angels, throwing 229.1 innings with a 2.79 ERA (3.45 FIP) and 32.4% strikeouts from 2010-13. He wasn’t very good with the Angels, Pirates, and Rays from 2014-15 though (6.37 ERA and 5.76 FIP). Even at his best, Frieri walked a lot of batters (career 10.9% walk rate).
Joe Girardi told Dan Martin that Frieri is “going to get an opportunity here,” and as a non-roster invitee, he carries no risk. He’ll throw a few innings in Grapefruit League games, and if he looks good, the Yankees will keep him. If not, they’ll move on. I’m not too optimistic Frieri will help the Yankees, but there’s no such thing as too much pitching.
Barring injury or a last minute Spring Training trade, when the 2017 regular season begins, the Yankees will have Brett Gardner in left field and Jacoby Ellsbury in center field. That’s been the regular arrangement for three years now. The Yankees will have some things to figure out once prospects like Clint Frazier or Dustin Fowler are ready, but that’s not a pressing issue.
Both Gardner and Ellsbury are 33 and will turn 34 later this year. Gardner in August, Ellsbury in September. They’re at the age — beyond it, really — when everything usually begins to slip. Offense, defense, speed, everything. Soon-to-be 34-year-old baseball players are rarely as productive as they were in their 20s. Such is life. The Yankees will have to navigate their declines in the coming years.
Interestingly enough, the various stats say Gardner and Ellsbury both had their best defensive seasons in several years in 2016. That surprised me. I though the opposite would be true. The quick numbers:
You’ll have a hard time convincing me Gardner cost the Yankees nearly 40 (!) runs in the field from 2013-15 as FRAA alleges, but that’s why it’s good to look at several metrics. Generally speaking, the four main defensive stats say Gardner and Ellsbury were better in 2016 than they were in 2015 and on a rate basis from 2013-15. That’s the direction the numbers are pointing.
If you’ve watched the World Baseball Classic at all, you know there’s a new Statcast metric out called Catch Probability, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: how likely is it this ball will be caught? Here are the nuts and bolts of catch probability, via MLB.com:
With Statcast tracking the exact start position on the field for each fielder and also measuring the hang time of each batted ball, the two most important pieces of data to define the difficulty of a catch opportunity are: 1. How far did the fielder have to go? 2. How much time did he have to get there?
Accordingly, each tracked batted ball to the outfield is assigned an expected Catch Probability percentage — relative to comparable catch opportunities in the Statcast era — based on distance needed and opportunity time. The more time a fielder has to react to a ball and the less distance needed to reach it, the higher the Catch Probability.
Seems simple enough, right? This is only the first pass at a catch probability metric, remember. I’m sure there will be ballpark and other adjustments added as time goes on. Catch probability drops batted balls into five buckets:
- One Star Outs: Catches made at least 91% of the time.
- Two Star Outs: Catches made 75-90% of the time.
- Three Star Outs: Catches made 51-74% of the time.
- Four Star Outs: Catches made 26-50% of the time.
- Five Star Outs: Catches made 0-25% of the time.
One Star Outs are your routine cans of corn. The plays every outfielder should make even if he’s, say, late career Carlos Beltran or Matt Holliday. Five Star Outs are the most difficult plays. The fly balls and line drives that rarely get caught by even the best defenders. The math may be gory behind the scenes, but catch probability is easy to digest on this end.
We have two years of Statcast data available and therefore two years of catch probability. The defensive stats in the table above tell us both Gardner and Ellsbury were better defensively in 2016 than 2015. Does catch probability agree? Let’s look. (Shout out to the indispensable Baseball Savant for the data.)
|One Star Outs||Two Star Outs||Three Star Outs||Four Star Outs||Five Star Outs|
Those Three Star Outs jump out at you, eh? Gardner went from making those catches, the ones that are made 51-74% of the time, at a 50.0% rate in 2015 to a staggering 94.4% rate in 2016. Only two players had a higher Three Star Out catch probability last year: Mookie Betts and Desmond Jennings, who were both at 100.0%.
Therein lies part of the problem: sample size. Jennings played only 65 games last year due to injury and he had only only six Three Star Out catch opportunities. Gardner, who played full-time both seasons, had only 14 Three Star Out opportunities in 2015 and 18 in 2016. He made seven of those plays in 2015, hence the 50.0% catch probability. Last year he made 17 of 18.
So, with that in mind, here again are Gardner’s catch probabilities, this time with the number of opportunities added to provide more context:
|One Star Outs||Two Star Outs||Three Star Outs||Four Star Outs||Five Star Outs|
|2015||100.0% (37)||81.5% (27)||50.0% (14)||46.7% (15)||16.7% (30)|
|2016||100.0% (36)||75.0% (16)||94.4% (18)||21.4% (14)||12.1% (33)|
The number of catch opportunities varies wildly from player to player. Adam Eaton had 65 One Star Out opportunities in 2016. Gardner had 36. They both played everyday, but one guy had nearly twice as many cans of corn hit his way than the other. Obviously the pitching staff plays a part in this. New York’s pitching staff generated way more strikeouts (23.1%) and ground balls (46.9%) than Chicago’s (20.5% and 43.1%), hence fewer opportunities for Gardner than Eaton.
The sample sizes cause us some problems. I’m hesitant to read too much into so few data points. Gardner’s Four Star Out catch probability dropped from 46.7% in 2015 to 21.4% in 2016, but we’re talking about 29 batted balls total across two seasons. We wouldn’t attempt to analyze 29 at-bats spread across two years, would we? Can’t do the same with defense. Anyway, I promised to look at both guys, so let’s get to Ellsbury now.
|One Star Outs||Two Star Outs||Three Star Outs||Four Star Outs||Five Star Outs|
|2015||93.9% (33)||91.7% (12)||75.0% (12)||68.8% (16)||26.1% (23)|
|2016||94.6% (37)||82.4% (17)||80.0% (20)||50.0% (16)||3.6% (28)|
Yeesh, look at that Five Star Out catch probability. Ellsbury made one such play in 28 opportunities last year. One! As with Gardner, there aren’t enough data points here to say anything definitive about Ellsbury and which way his defense is trending at this point of his career, but gosh, one catch in 28 opportunities? These numbers are a record of what happened on the field, remember. If a hitter goes 1-for-28 at the plate, it doesn’t mean he’s a true talent .036 hitter, but the 1-for-28 happened and it hurt the team.
Keep in mind Ellsbury hurt his knee in May 2015 and missed close to two months, and it’s possible if not likely the injury hampered him in the field after he returned. It sure seemed like the injury threw him out of whack at the plate. The same is possible in the field. Even then, Ellsbury’s catch probabilities were pretty good in 2015. Like Gardner, Ellsbury performed worse in three of the five catch probability categories from 2015 to 2016. And that means … I’m not sure. It could be normal year-to-year fluctuation.
* * *
As with the other defensive stats like DRS and UZR, it seems you need a sample of several seasons for catch probability to be reliable. I do think it’s a better measure of single-season defense than the other stats because Statcast more accurately measures the batted ball trajectory, the defender’s positioning, stuff like that. DRS and UZR are estimating.
So, while Ellsbury’s 1-for-28 effort on Five Star Outs in 2016 may not accurately reflect his true defensive ability given the limited amount of data, it did happen, and it did cost the Yankees runs. My eyes told me both Gardner and Ellsbury were still above-average defenders last season, Gardner moreso. Neither was as good as we’ve seen them in the past, I don’t think, and that makes sense given their ages. The various defensive stats say the opposite is true, that they were better than they’d been in previous years. I was hoping catching probability would clear that up for us, but alas. It’s just more information to consider, not a definitive answer.
A bit over a year ago, CC Sabathia‘s job security was very much in question – and for good reason. From 2013 through 2015, the former ace pitched to a 4.81 ERA (121st among 132 qualified SP in that stretch, and 20% below-average) and 4.40 FIP (118th, 7% below-average), and missed time due to injuries, poor performance, and alcoholism (for which he sought treatment after the 2015 season). Joe Girardi and Co. were open in their discussions of the fifth starter training camp battle between Sabathia and Ivan Nova, and there seemed to be a very real chance that the big man would open the season in the bullpen.
That didn’t happen, of course, and the Yankees were rewarded with a rock solid campaign from Sabathia. Heading into the 2017 season, he once again feels like an integral piece to the rotation. How did we get here?
Lest We Forget, We Almost Didn’t
It was only four starts, but Sabathia was bad in April (21.1 IP, 25 H, 11 BB, 15 K, 5.06 ERA, 4.04 FIP), and the calls for him to head to the bullpen grew louder. The aforementioned Nova threw four strong innings in relief in the second game of the season, Sabathia was decidedly mediocre in his first start, and the memories of the Spring Training competition were still fresh. Had it not been for Nova imploding in two of his next four appearances, I still wonder if he would have ended up switching places with Sabathia.
Suddenly, An Ace
The calendar turned to May, and Sabathia rediscovered his mojo. Over the next seven starts, he posted three scoreless outings, pitching to the following line: 44 IP, 29 H, 16 BB, 41 K, 0.82 ERA, 2.94 FIP. And he looked good doing it, as he allowed just one home run and worked his way out of jams like the Sabathia of old.
There were plenty of signs that this wasn’t sustainable, including a 4.20 xFIP, 90.3 LOB%, and 2.4% HR/FB – but that didn’t stop most of us from buying in, at least a little bit. Sabathia’s name popped-up in All-Star discussions, and it felt as though the Comeback Player of the Year award was made with this sort of circumstances in mind. A backslide was all but certain to come, yet watching him dominate was a sight for sore eyes. And maybe, just maybe, a corner had been turned.
The Inevitable Backslide
Sabathia followed-up his red hot six week stretch by allowing at least five earned runs in four straight games, and looked an awful lot like his 2013 through 2015 incarnation. Over the next eight weeks, he allowed a 6.78 ERA (5.33 FIP) over 65.0 IP, surrendering 13 HR in 11 starts (1.80 HR/9). His season ERA jumped from 2.20 to 4.49, and the hand-wringing returned.
This is how it looked in graph form:
And, as was the story of his three previous seasons, his successes and failures were tied closely to gopheritis:
Things weren’t looking so hot in the dog days of summer. Until…
A New Hope
On August 23, Sabathia dominated a stout Mariners lineup (one that finished second in the Majors in wRC+ in 2016) for seven innings, allowing just 3 hits, 1 run, and 1 walk, while striking out seven. That was the start of a fine closing stretch to the year, over which he tossed 49.1 IP of 2.37 ERA ball with above-average peripherals (21.4 K%, 7.1 BB%, 54.3 GB%). His final start was an exclamation point on that stretch, as he held the Red Sox to 1 run and 6 base-runners in 7.1 IP, striking out 8 – including David Ortiz swinging in the second inning.
All told, Sabathia finished the season with 179.2 IP, a 3.91 ERA (8% above-average), 4.28 FIP (3% above-average), 2.6 fWAR, and 3.0 bWAR. Or, phrased differently, a perfectly reasonable season from a mid-rotation starter.
Why The Recap?
To this point, my post is more of a 2016 review than a 2017 preview. That is a bit necessary, though, as it is demonstrative of the ups and downs that an aging pitcher faces. It also serves as a reminder that Sabathia was back to being a revelation at season’s end, even if his year was almost equally split between awesome and awful, with little in between.
Now, onto the meatier portion of the preview.
How Did He Do It?
What stands out the most about Sabathia’s season – aside from his actual statistics – may be best explained in graph form. To wit:
He figured out a cutter, and he threw the hell out of it, essentially eliminating his four-seam fastball along the way. That pitch became his go-to offering against RHH, who hit .258/.325/.400 against Sabathia last year, after battering him to the tune of a .304/.363/.502 slash line in 2015 (.293/.349/.494 from 2013 through 2015). As per Brooks Baseball, righties hit just .222 against the cutter, with a .362 SLG; for comparison’s sake, they hit .300 with a .467 SLG against his four-seamer in 2015.
Sabathia also induced the second-best groundball percentage of his career (50.1%, compared to a league-average rate of 44.7%), and allowed his lowest hard contact percentage since 2011 (24.7%, versus the 31.4% league-average). His .288 BABIP was also his lowest in several years, but it wasn’t unsustainably so (the league-average was .298) – particularly when you factor in the grounders and weak contact.
There are also two factors that we can’t quite quantify – his adjustment to his new knee brace, and the recovery from alcoholism. Sabathia spent the entirety of 2016 adjusting to wearing a knee brace (and switching to a heavier at one point), and his ailing, balky knee played a large role in his struggles from 2013 through 2015. We don’t know exactly how alcoholism effected everything … but I’d be remiss to say anything less than sobriety is a good thing, and we should all be happy for Sabathia.
The projection systems are bearish on Sabathia, with ZiPS (4.57 ERA, 1.5 fWAR) and PECOTA (4.79 ERA, 0.6 WARP) seeing him slip back into his pre-2016 form. That isn’t terribly surprising, given his age, injury history, and three years’ worth or struggles, but there does appear to be tangible reasons to expect him to be closer to what we saw last year. Splitting the difference between 2015 and 2016 would leave him as a roughly league-average starter (98 ERA+), which represents my pragmatic prediction; and the Yankees and their fans should be happy with that.