Yankees won’t try Starlin Castro at third base, want to “make sure he’s comfortable” at second

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Starlin Castro at third base experiment is over before it even had a chance to begin. Earlier today Joe Girardi told George King the team won’t try Castro at third because they want him to focus on preparing to play second base. “I don’t know if that is going to happen. We want to make sure he is comfortable at second,” said the skipper.

Castro, 25, moved to second base last August and has only played 258 career innings at the position, so it’s not like he’s a seasoned veteran there. He hasn’t played the hot corner since rookie ball years and years ago, and that was only a handful of games. Castro took ground balls at third during infield drills earlier in camp but he never did appear in a game at the position.

There are reasons to believe Castro can handle third, but letting him focus on second base is a smart move since it’ll be his primary position. Asking him to learn third might be too much, too soon. The Yankees could always revisit the plan in the future — in fact, I bet we’ll hear about Castro possibly playing third base next spring — but right now it’s been shelved.

This decision means the Yankees must use the fourth and final bench spot on a backup third baseman. That’s good news for Rob Refsnyder, who has looked good in his limited time at the hot corner and played there again today. Others like Pete Kozma (who also played third today), Donovan Solano, Ronald Torreyes, Jonathan Diaz, and Deibinson Romero are candidates for that bench spot.

The Yankees could still go outside the organization for third base help — there’s always a rash of small trades at the end of Spring Training as teams finalize their rosters — but right now it seems very likely the Yankees will carry Refsnyder on their Opening Day roster. The more he plays third base going forward, the better his chances to make the club.

CC Sabathia’s New Knee Brace and His Missing Back Foot Slider [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It has now been four years since CC Sabathia was last an above-average starter for the Yankees. He pitched to a 3.38 ERA (3.34 FIP) in exactly 200 innings in 2012 — he did that despite a bone spur in his elbow — and that fall he more or less carried the Yankees to the ALDS win over the Orioles. Sabathia allowed three runs and recorded 53 of 54 possible outs in his two ALDS starts. He was dominant.

Since then, injuries and general wear and tear have reduced Sabathia to near replacement level performance. He’s authored a 4.81 ERA (4.40 FIP) in 424.1 innings over the last three seasons, including a 4.73 ERA (4.68 FIP) in a team-leading 167.1 innings last year. Righties absolutely hammered him (.303/.352/.500 and a .370 wOBA) and his days of chewing up innings are long gone. Sabathia averaged only 5.77 innings per start in 2015.

The 2016 season is the final guaranteed season on Sabathia’s contract — he does have an option for 2017 that will vest as long as his shoulder stays healthy — and the Yankees have shown they will keep him in the rotation for better or worse. Sending Adam Warren to the bullpen last year when he had the lowest ERA on the staff tells us all we need to know about Sabathia’s standing. He’s owed a ton of cash and the Yankees are going to get their money’s worth.

And yet, in a weird way, there is a chance Sabathia will improve his performance this coming season. Is he ever going to be an ace again? No, of course not. But a return to respectability — getting even a league average performance out of Sabathia would be a big upgrade over the last three years — seems possible because of his new knee brace. He started wearing it late last year and had instant success in his final five starts.

“I feel great with it on. It’s kind of like a security blanket. If you watch me while I’m pitching, and you see me spinning off (the mound then you know I’m feeling my knee and it’s bothering me,” said Sabathia over the winter. “It really was two different seasons for me once I put the thing on and got comfortable and used to it. When I have the knee brace on, I can land and go towards the plate. It makes a huge difference in the way my pitches move, being consistent in the strike zone, and just knowing that I’m not feeling like I’m going to get hurt on every pitch.”

At his best, Sabathia used a mid-90s fastball to set up his impressive slider/changeup combination. I remember being surprised his changeup was so good when he first came to New York. I knew about the slider, that’s always been his go-to-put-away pitch, but the changeup was really good too. Lately, that slider has abandoned Sabathia, no doubt due to his general loss of velocity and age. Check out his vertical release point:

CC Sabathia release point

That’s what happens when you’re 35 years old and have nearly 3,000 big league innings on your arm. Sabathia’s release point has dropped over the years because he’s simply not strong enough to go any higher at this point, and when your release point changes, so does the movement on your pitches. The reduced velocity doesn’t help either. Sabathia once had a vicious mid-90s fastball/sharp slider combination. Now it’s more of an upper-80s fastball/sweepy slider combination. It’s not the same.

Let’s dig into some PitchFX data. Here are some measures of the effectiveness of Sabathia’s slider over the last four seasons, split between righties and lefties:

CC Sabathia slider

Sabathia’s slider is still pretty effective against lefties. The swing-and-miss rate has dropped from 24.8% to 15.6% the last four years, but 15.6% is still pretty good. (The league average is close to 15%.) Sabathia did hold left-handed batters to a .186/.235/.283 (.231 wOBA) batting line with a 29.2% strikeout rate and a 3.7% walk rate last year. That’s great. Not good, great. There are teams who would love those numbers from their well-paid lefty specialists.

Against righties though, Sabathia’s slider has become almost a non-factor. He doesn’t throw it nearly as often as he did four years ago because when righties swing, they never miss, and when they make contact, it tends to fall in for a base hit. That’s a good reason to abandon a pitch. The slider, the one devastating weapon that helped Sabathia bank hundreds of millions of dollars in his career, has been rendered useless when he faces batters of the opposite hand.

Glancing at the pitch location plots, it’s easy to see Sabathia is no longer able to throw his slider down-and-in to righties — the ol’ back foot slider, as it’s called — so he’s not getting those swings and misses. Check it out:

CC Sabathia slider location

Back foot sliders are supposed to look like a juicy fastball down the middle before they dart in under the hitter’s hands. Those plots are from the catcher’s perspective (you can click the image for a larger view) and Sabathia threw very few sliders down-and-in to righties last year. And it looks like when he did try to back foot a slider, it spun out in the middle of the plate.

That inability to throw back foot sliders to righties may be something that can be improved with the new knee brace if it does truly allow Sabathia to stay more in line with the plate, as he claims. There’s really nothing he can do about his reduced velocity and lowered arm slot, but if he can improve his location a bit and make that slider a weapon again, it could go a long way to helping Sabathia hold his own against righties.

The goal is not to get Sabathia back to the point where he dominates, though everyone would happily take that. Realistically, the goal is to simply be more effective against righties, and perhaps hold them to, say, a league average-ish .320 wOBA instead of a Machado-esque .370 wOBA. Sabathia can still have his way with lefties. If the knee brace can help him use the current version of his slider to keep righties off balance, it will be a big help to his overall performance.

Of course, beyond the on-field stuff, Sabathia is also coming off a stint in an alcohol treatment center, and while that sounds scary, it’s a good thing. Sabathia had a drinking problem — he’s been very open about it since checking into rehab — and he got help. He’s in a better place physically and (more importantly) mentally now. Does that mean he can stave off Father Time and become a better pitcher? Probably not. But it can’t hurt. It’s important that he got help though. Sabathia has to take care of himself and his family first and foremost. Pitching is secondary.

The Yankees are going to rely on Sabathia to lead their pitching staff in the clubhouse this year and contribute as much as he can on the field. Hopefully the new knee braces allows him to regain some effectiveness. Any little bit will help. At the least, the Yankees would like Sabathia to be a horse who soaks up innings every few days. I wouldn’t blame you if you expect Sabathia to have another season with an ERA near 5.00. The knee brace is a tangible reason why improvement is possible, however.

Spring Training Dual Game Thread: Two Games at the Same Time, Man

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

What’s better than a Yankees game? Two Yankees games! The Yankees are playing a pair of split squad games this afternoon and yes, there will be broadcasts for both. The big story of the day is Aroldis Chapman‘s spring debut. The team is bringing him along slowly due to his 30-game suspension, so he won’t pitch often this month. We might not see him again for another week or two after today.

The Yankees are playing two games but we’re only going to have one game thread for the afternoon. A dual game thread, if you will. Half the team is at home in Tampa to play the Blue Jays. The other half is 75 minutes south in Sarasota to play the Orioles. Here is the Blue Jays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup for the home game:

  1. 3B Pete Kozma
  2. RF Carlos Beltran
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. C Brian McCann
  6. LF Chris Denorfia
  7. 2B Jonathan Diaz
  8. SS Tyler Wade
  9. CF Dustin Fowler
    RHP Nathan Eovaldi

Available Pitchers: LHP Andrew Miller, RHP Dellin Betances, LHP Aroldis Chapman, RHP Diego Moreno, RHP Tyler Cloyd, and RHP Vinnie Pestano are all scheduled to pitch after Eovaldi. LHP Tyler Olson, RHP Nick Rumbelow, LHP Tyler Webb, and RHP Kirby Yates are the extra arms.

Available Position Players: C Santiago Nessy, 1B Sebastian Valle, 2B Jose Rosario, SS Abi Avelino, 3B Deibinson Romero, LF Cesar Puello, CF Ben Gamel, RF Lane Adams, and DH Aaron Judge will be the second string off the bench. C Gary Sanchez, IF Dan Fiorito, and OF Michael O’Neill are the extra players.

As you can see, the Yankees brought several players up from minor league camp to help fill out the split squad rosters. I guess should also point out Kozma (back) and Eovaldi (groin) are making their spring debuts today, huh? That’s kinda important. Well, one of them is. Anyway, here is the Orioles’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup for the road game:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. 3B Rob Refsnyder
  3. SS Starlin Castro
  4. RF Aaron Hicks
  5. C Carlos Corporan
  6. 1B Chris Parmelee
  7. LF Slade Heathcott
  8. 2B Ronald Torreyes
  9. DH Kyle Higashioka
    RHP Bryan Mitchell

Available Pitchers: RHP Kyle Haynes, LHP James Pazos, RHP Brady Lail, LHP Richard Bleier, and RHP Anthony Swarzak are all scheduled to pitch. The extra arms are RHP Vicente Campos, RHP Chad Green, LHP Matt Tracy, and three-time Tommy John surgery haver RHP Conor Mullee.

Available Position Players: C Austin Romine, 1B Chris Gittens, 2B Cito Culver, SS Jorge Mateo, 3B Miguel Andujar, LF Tyler Austin, CF Mark Payton, RF Juan Silva, and DH Eddy Rodriguez will come off the bench to replace the starters. C Francisco Diaz and IF Vince Conde made the trip as well.

Joe Girardi is actually with the road team in Sarasota this afternoon. He’s a trooper. He spent the last two days on Florida’s east coast and he’s back on the road already. I guess this means bench coach Rob Thomson is managing the home team. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild stayed in Tampa to watch Eovaldi and the big three relievers.

The weather in Tampa and Sarasota is basically the same. A little cloudy with temperatures in the low-80s. Good baseball weather. Both of this afternoon’s games will begin a little after 1pm ET. The home game against the Blue Jays will air on YES locally and MLB.tv everywhere. MLB Network will show the game on tape delay tonight. The road game against the Orioles will be shown on MASN in the O’s home market. If you’re not in that market, MLB.tv is your only option. As always, there are no MLB.tv blackouts in Spring Training. Enjoy both games, folks.

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

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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

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

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

Chase Headley throw

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

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

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

James Kaprielian and the Value of Struggling in the Minors

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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

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

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

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

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

James Kaprielian UCLa

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

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

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

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

Open Thread: March 9th Camp Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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