The (Chad) Green Monster [2017 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Fans and analysts have a very natural tendency to declare winners and losers immediately after a trade. In all sports. A deal gets made and wow it’s great for this team and terrible for that team. There is definitely something to be said for evaluating a trade using only the information available at the time it is made. Most deals take years to fully evaluate, however.

Two offseasons ago the Yankees traded Justin Wilson, one of their top bullpen arms, to the Tigers for two prospects most people didn’t know. Never heard of ’em. Luis Cessa went from the Mets to the Tigers in the Yoenis Cespedes trade a few weeks earlier, so maybe people had heard of him, but that’s it. The instant reaction to the trade: what the hell are the Yankees doing? It was pretty universal.

Now, two years later, the trade looks borderline genius for the Yankees. Wilson was very good for the Tigers the last two years — he stopped throwing strikes after getting traded to the Cubs for whatever reason (19 walks in 17.2 innings) — so it’s not like he flamed out immediately. The trade looks great because Chad Green, the real “who the heck is that guy?” piece of the trade, broke out as one of the best relievers in baseball this year.

Starting The Season In The Minors

Green started the 2017 season in High Class-A. True story. Jordan Montgomery won the fifth starter’s job, but the Yankees were planning to use April off-days to skip the fifth starter’s spot the first two times through the rotation, so Montgomery went to the minors. They had Montgomery and Green pitch on the same schedule just to have two fifth starter options available in case someone got hurt. The Triple-A Scranton and Double-A Trenton schedules didn’t line up, so to High-A went Green.

Green made one start with High-A Tampa, allowing one run on two hits and no walks in four innings while on a pitch count. The Yankees brought Montgomery to the big leagues sooner than expected to give their top four starters extra rest, at which point Green was bumped up to Triple-A Scranton. He made five starts with the RailRiders, pitching to a 4.73 ERA (2.59 FIP) in 26.2 innings. Ugh, the Yankees lost the trade!

It wasn’t until May 8th, when the Yankees needed a fresh long reliever following that 18-inning marathon at Wrigley Field, that Green was called up this season. It was expected to be a short-term thing. Soak up some innings until the other relievers were back at full strength, then go back down. Green threw a scoreless inning against the Reds the day after being called up, and five days later, he threw 3.2 nearly perfect innings against the Astros, allowing the Yankees to come back from a 3-1 deficit to earn an 11-6 win.

The Yankees eliminated the bullpen shuttle this season. After shuttling fresh arms up and down as necessary the last few years, they stopped doing it this year, so Green stuck around. Jonathan Holder and Chasen Shreve threw three innings apiece in that 18-inning game against the Cubs. In the past, they would’ve been on a plane to Scranton the next day. Instead, the Yankees kept them around the same way they kept Green around following his relief outing against Houston.

Four days after that hero relief outing against the ‘Stros, Green tossed three shutout innings against the Royals. Three days after that it was 1.2 scoreless innings against the Rays, and that was his first real taste of important innings. Joe Girardi brought Green into the sixth inning with a one-run lead and let him pitch the sixth and seventh. It was impossible not to notice Green’s strong work.

A little bump in the road came next. Green gave up two runs in 1.1 innings against the Athletics on May 28th, then one run in 2.2 innings against the Blue Jays  on June 1st. It was the first time he looked human out of the bullpen. Green rebounded by going ten up, ten down with five strikeouts against the Red Sox on June 6th. In his first month after being called up, Green had a 1.62 ERA (3.22 FIP) in seven appearances and 16.2 innings. He wasn’t going back down.

That Weird Spot Start

The Yankees made it all the way to June 11th, the 60th game of the season, before they needed to use a sixth starter. And they didn’t even need to use a sixth starter that game. They voluntarily used a sixth starter in order to push the struggling Masahiro Tanaka back one day, allowing him to face the Mike Trout-less Angels in Anaheim rather than the home run happy Orioles at Yankee Stadium.

Initial reports indicated Domingo German would get called up for the spot start. He lined up perfectly and he’d been pitching well in Triple-A, so it seemed like the obvious move. The Yankees changed course at the last moment, and decided to give Green the spot start instead. But! They still called up German anyway to serve as the just in case long man. It was … weird.

Green made the start, needed 53 pitches to allow two runs in two innings, then German came out of the bullpen to throw 2.2 scoreless mop-up innings in his MLB debut. They were good mop-up innings. The Yankees won that game 14-3. Aaron Judge hit a 495 foot homer. In the end, it all worked out. It was just a weird decision. Green was not fully stretched out, German was, yet they started Green and used German in relief. It was the last start Green would make this season. Possibly ever.

The Multi-Inning Dominance

It wasn’t until July that Girardi started to use Green in high-leverage spots regularly. His numbers were ridiculous — Green from June 25th to July 23rd: 16.2 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 26 K — but Girardi loves defined roles, and Green didn’t really have one. Aroldis Chapman was the closer and Dellin Betances and David Robertson were the setup men. Green pitched whenever those guys weren’t available, basically.

From June 12th (the day after the spot start) through the end of the season Green threw 50.1 innings across 32 appearances with a 1.61 ERA (1.27 FIP). He struck out 80 batters (42.8 K%) in those 50.1 innings and held opposing hitters to a .152/.211/.234 batting line against. On August 30th, Green became the first pitcher in history to strike out seven while facing no more than eight batters in an appearance. Hey, obscure history is still history!

Green finished the regular season with a 1.83 ERA (1.75 FIP) and 103 strikeouts in 69 nice innings. If we remove that one kinda pointless spot start, here’s where Green ranked in various categories among the 150 relievers who threw 50+ innings this season:

  • ERA: 1.61 (5th)
  • FIP: 1.75 (4th)
  • ERA-: 37 (5th)
  • FIP-: 38 (3rd)
  • K: 100 (5th)
  • K%: 41.0% (3rd)
  • BB%: 6.6% (30th)
  • fWAR: +2.3 (6th)
  • bWAR: +2.7 (10th)

In terms of total value, Green was a top ten reliever in baseball this season despite not being called up until May 8th, 30 games into the season. On a rate basis, he was a top five reliever in baseball. Maybe top three. He was that good. He was basically the second coming of 2014 Betances. Betances had a 1.40 ERA (1.64 FIP) in 2014. Green had a 1.61 ERA (1.75 FIP) as a reliever this year. Ridiculous.

Dellin’s walk problems, Adam Warren‘s poorly timed back injury, and Girardi’s general indifference to Tommy Kahnle meant Green went into the postseason as the No. 3 reliever. And Girardi needed him right away. One out into the Wild Card Game. The Twins jumped on Luis Severino early and Green came out of the bullpen to get maybe the two biggest outs of the season. Minnesota was up 3-0 and had runners on second and third with one out in the first inning. Green struck out Byron Buxton and Jason Castro to stop the bleeding.

Falling behind 3-0 in the first inning of a winner-take-all game really stinks, but an early 3-0 deficit is manageable. Falling behind 4-0 or 5-0 though? That’s when things start to get scary. Once you’re no longer able to take the lead with a grand slam, you’re in trouble. Green got two enormous outs to strand those runners at second and third, giving the Yankees a chance to make the comeback they ultimately made.

Green had a notable hiccup in Game Two of the ALDS, retiring only one of the four batters he faced and allowing that crushing grand slam to Francisco Lindor, following Girardi’s non-challenge. He did not pitch again in the series, though in the ALCS, he got right back up on the horse and allowed one unearned run in 6.1 innings while striking out seven Astros. The ALDS Game Two blip was pretty bad. Everything else about Green’s postseason was great.

The Best Fastball In Baseball, Maybe

Green was incredible this season. What made him incredible is pretty … incredible. Green is not quite a one-pitch pitcher, but he is close. He threw his fastball 76.5% of the time this season, one of the highest rates in baseball. This year 222 pitchers threw at least 200 fastballs. Here is the fastball whiffs-per-swing leaderboard:

  1. Chad Green: 39.8%
  2. Craig Kimbrel: 39.1%
  3. Josh Hader: 38.8%
  4. Corey Knebel: 34.0%
  5. Jacob deGrom: 32.5%
    (MLB average: 20.1%)

No pitcher got more empty swings with his fastball this season than Green. His whiffs-per-swing rate was nearly double the league average. Furthermore, consider what happened when batters did actually make contact and put Green’s fastball in play (minimum 50 fastballs in play):

  • AVG: .120 (3rd lowest behind Ryan Madson and Darren O’Day)
  • ISO: .083 (17th lowest)
  • wOBA: .136 (3rd lowest behind Madson and O’Day)
  • xwOBA: .184 (3rd lowest behind O’Day and Madson)

When hitters swung at Green’s fastball, they missed more than they did against any other fastball in baseball. And when they did did make contact with Green’s fastball, they did basically no damage. That’s how you dominate with one pitch. Miss bats and get weak contact. Do one of those things and you’re in good shape. Do both and you’re one of the most effective pitchers in the game.

Now what, exactly, makes Green’s fastball so great? Velocity? Sure, though averaging 96.1 mph and topping out at 99.8 mph like Green did this year is hardly unheard of these days. Turn on any random game on a given night and you’ll probably see one or two guys come out of the bullpen throwing that hard. Spin rate? Yeah, probably. Green’s average fastball spin rate of 2,487 rpm was 13th highest among those 222 pitchers who threw 200+ fastballs in 2017.

Deception? Almost certainly, and this factor interests me most. The average perceived velocity of Green’s fastball, which tells us how fast the pitch looks to the batter when accounting for spin and extension and all that, was 96.1 mph. Identical to his actual average velocity. And yet, that whiffs-per-swing rate and xwOBA, man. There’s something going on here. I think it might be right here …

chad-green-deception

… when Green’s arm disappears behind his back during his delivery, that gives hitters problems. The ball disappears behind Green’s back then bam, he explodes forward and the fastball is right on you with all that velocity and spin. I could be completely and totally wrong, and probably am. I’m just looking for possible explanations here. Something about Green makes his fastball even more effective than the high-end velocity and elite spin would lead you to believe. Whatever it is, it helped Green emerge as a dominant reliever and a bullpen fixture for the Yankees in 2017.

2018 Outlook

The Yankees, as they always do when a starter-turned-reliever has success, will have Green come to Spring Training as a starting pitcher next year. I don’t think it’ll work for reasons I’ve detailed several times already (no changeup, only an okay slider, lack of grounders, etc.) but there’s no harm in trying it in camp. That’s exactly when you should experiment. Get Green stretched out to four or five innings and see what happens.

More than likely Green will wind up back in the bullpen at some point, where he’ll again be a key setup man alongside Robertson and a hopefully fixed Betances. His ability to go multiple innings — Green recorded at least four outs in 29 of his 39 relief appearances this year, and at least six outs 16 times — is incredibly valuable, especially with starters throwing fewer and fewer innings with each passing season, and I hope the next manager recognizes that and uses Green accordingly.

Thoughts prior to the 2017 non-tender deadline

One of these three might get non-tendered tomorrow. (Presswire)
One of these three might get non-tendered tomorrow. (Presswire)

Tomorrow is the deadline for teams to offer contracts to their pre-arbitration and arbitration-eligible players. It’s the non-tender deadline. A brand new batch of free agents will hit the market, though there’s a reason these guys become free agents. They get non-tendered because they’re damaged goods (injured pitchers, usually) or their salary has eclipsed their on-field worth. Anyway, I have some thoughts, so let’s get to ’em.

1. Might as well start with the non-tender deadline. The Yankees do not have any obvious non-tender candidates. MLBTR listed Austin Romine as a non-tender candidate, though I do not get the sense the Yankees are eager to make a change at backup catcher. I suspect their internal defensive metrics indicate Romine is a heck of a lot better than the public metrics and the eye test would leave you to believe. Plus he seems like a genuinely good dude and the Yankees value having a good clubhouse. Maybe they’ll do the non-tender/re-sign to a minor league deal trick to clear up a 40-man spot? I think Kyle Higashioka (optionable catcher with power) and Gio Gallegos (optionable reliever with great Triple-A numbers) would find Major League deals elsewhere, so they’re not non-tender/re-sign candidates. I mean, if Colten Brewer got a Major League deal, Gallegos would too. Maybe the Yankees can do it with Tyler Austin? Free agency is always flooded with first base types, plus Austin knows he’s always another Greg Bird injury away from a call-up. My guess is Austin would look for a fresh start elsewhere. The non-tender deadline figures to pass tomorrow without the Yankees doing much of anything. They’ll probably tender all their players and that’ll be that.

2. Bold prediction: the Yankees will have their managerial search wrapped up by the end of next week, then they’ll hold the introductory press conference at the Winter Meetings the following week. That gives them this week and next week to wrap up the first (New York) and second (Tampa) rounds of interviews and make a decision. Is it weird that naming a manager six weeks after canning the old manager qualifies as a bold prediction? It kinda is. The managerial search has been shockingly slow-moving. The GM Meetings and Thanksgiving slowed things down a bit, for sure, but the Yankees do seem to be taking their sweet time with this. Like I said two weeks ago, I don’t see the prolonged managerial search as a bad thing. Or even as a good thing. It’s just a thing. I do think the longer it goes on, the worse it looks. The optics are bad. It makes the Yankees look indecisive, and look like they’re having a hard time finding a qualified candidate. I’ve seen plenty of “the Yankees screwed up when they fired Joe Girardi without having a replacement in mind!” comments on social media and whatnot. I don’t agree with that — how often does a team fire a manager and have his replacement already picked out anyway? — though that’s the sentiment. It looks bad. Hopefully the Yankees wrap this up soon, pick a great manager, and we can all move on to bigger and better things.

3. I think Brian Cashman not having a contract is weirder than the Yankees not having a manager at this point. Hal Steinbrenner said Cashman is working on what amounts to a handshake agreement during the owners’ meetings two weeks ago, and that’s the last update we received. There’s no reason to think Cashman won’t be back though. He’s running the managerial search — Hal wouldn’t let Cashman do that if there were any chance he wouldn’t be back — and the Yankees sent out a press release this week promoting Cashman’s annual rappel down the Landmark Building in Stamford as part of the Heights & Lights Festival, so they certainly aren’t acting like Cashman might leave. Cashman and Hal are probably haggling over money. Cashman might be pushing for Theo Epstein money ($10M+ annually) and Hal is countering with Andrew Friedman money ($7M annually). Something like that. It’s just weird this is taking so long. Cashman’s previous contracts always came together fairly quickly. This one is dragging out for some reason, and that it’s happening at the same time as the prolonged managerial search makes it a little curious.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

4. My hunch coming into the offseason was that the Yankees and CC Sabathia would hammer out a new contract fairly quickly, though that hasn’t happened. I still think Sabathia is coming back though. It makes too much sense not to happen. He’s still effective and he doesn’t want to leave while the Yankees could use the rotation depth and wouldn’t have to worry about any sort of adjustment period. The fact he should come fairly cheap helps too. Still no deal though. Two things about that. One, there has been very little free agent activity overall this winter, so it’s not like everyone else is signing while Sabathia sits and waits. And two, I get the feeling a “CC we really want you back, but we need to take care of some other stuff first, so let’s touch base in a few weeks” conversation has already taken place. The Yankees need to hire a new manager, build a new coaching staff, re-sign Cashman, and work through Shohei Ohtani’s rapid fire free agency. Once they do that, they can circle back to Sabathia and hammer out a deal. I think he’s coming back. I hope he comes back. CC is the man.

5. Spin rate, particularly curveball spin rate in the wake of Tom Verducci’s article on the Astros, is all the rage these days — you are forewarned, there might be a “the Yankees and their use of spin rate” post coming at some point — so I’ve been toying around with Statcast leaderboards the last few weeks. One-hundred-and-seventy-five pitchers threw at least 150 curveballs this season. Here’s where various Yankees (and one ex-Yankee) rank in average curveball spin rate:

9. Sonny Gray: 2,890 rpm
10. Jonathan Holder: 2,879 rpm
19. Dellin Betances: 2,807 rpm
23. Jaime Garcia: 2,797 rpm
37. Bryan Mitchell: 2,725 rpm
45. David Robertson: 2,685 rpm
(MLB average: 2,489 rpm)

One, I’m surprised Robertson does not rank higher. Two, is it a coincidence the Yankees acquired two (three, really) curveball spin rate darlings at the trade deadline? Surely availability had something do with it — only five starters were traded in the week prior to the deadline (Gray, Garcia twice, Yu Darvish, Jeremy Hellickson, Trevor Cahill) — but Gray and Garcia seem to fit the mold. Three, is Mitchell’s curveball spin rate the reason he wasn’t a 40-man roster casualty prior to the Rule 5 Draft protection deadline? He’s been pretty bad in the big leagues overall (4.94 ERA and 4.26 FIP in 98.1 innings) and he’ll be out of minor league options next year, yet he’s still on the 40-man. And four, Holder’s spin rate and minor league performance is probably going to keep getting him chances. Spin rate isn’t everything — many of the curveball spin rate leaders the last two years are pretty crummy pitchers — but it is clearly something teams value. I don’t think it is any way a coincidence so many Yankees who use a curveball as their primary secondary pitch have such high spin rates. (Notable exception: Jordan Montgomery and his below average 2,375 rpm curveball.)

6. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the MLBPA lately given all the Ohtani stuff. For all intents and purposes, baseball has a salary cap. The new luxury tax rules are so harsh — teams can be hit with a luxury tax rate as high as 95% under certain conditions — that no owner will ever allow the front office to get close to that threshold, so it’s effectively a salary cap. Draft and international spending is capped now too. Everything is capped and somehow the union let it happen. Good luck uncapping it. I think one of the MLBPA’s top priorities during the next round of CBA talks (beyond hiring an actual labor professional to represent them) is getting the minimum salary raised substantially. Teams are building around young players and eschewing big money free agents more than ever, so make sure those young players get paid. The league minimum will be $545,000 in 2018. It was $490,000 five years ago. That’s an 11% increase. Meanwhile, MLB revenues went from $8 billion five years ago to north of $10 billion this year. That’s more than a 25% increase. Get the young players their piece of the pie. The minimum salary will be $555,000 in 2019, then players will get cost of living adjustments in 2020 and 2021 before it’s time to bang out a new CBA. I’d like to see the MLBPA push for a minimum salary closer to $1M. Push for $1M and settle for like $750,000 or so. The more young players make early in their careers, the less likely they are to sign long-term extensions, and that means more talent gets pumped back into free agency, which raises salaries for everyone.

Wednesday Night Open Thread

Happy Birthday, Mariano Rivera. He turns 48 today. Time flies, man. Rivera is so very clearly the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history — Trevor Hoffman, the only other man with 600+ saves, allowed 38 more runs than Mo in 194.1 fewer innings in his career — and he will be Hall of Fame eligible for the first time next winter. He’ll get in on the first ballot. No doubt about it. Rivera was my favorite Yankee of the dynasty years and I’m pretty sure I will never be as confident in another closer as I was in Mo. There have been lots of one-year Riveras. I don’t think we’ll ever see someone do what he did for nearly two decades though. The longevity is what separates Mo from everyone else.

Anyway, here is an open thread for the evening. The Knicks and Nets are playing and there’s a bunch of college basketball on as well. That’s about it. Talk about anything other than politics and religion here.

Manager/Coaching Staff Search Notes: Beltran, Thomson, Paul

Beltran. (Bob Levey/Getty)
Beltran. (Bob Levey/Getty)

It has now been four weeks and six days since the Yankees parted ways with Joe Girardi, and prior to today they’d conducted only five managerial interviews. The GM Meetings and Thanksgiving slowed things down a bit, but this has certainly been a slow-moving process. Here’s the latest managerial search and coaching staff news.

Yankees interview Beltran

As expected, the Yankees did indeed interview Carlos Beltran for their managerial opening today, the team announced. Beltran retired as a player earlier this month and said he wants to stay in baseball and hopefully manage one day. Not counting player-managers, he would be only the fourth person to go from playing one year to managing the next if he were to get the job, joining Yogi Berra, Joe Adcock, and Gil Hodges.

Beltran has long been considered a future manager because he’s a top notch clubhouse dude with a long history of taking young players under his wing. (He mentored Aaron Judge in Spring Training 2016.) It doesn’t seem communication would be an issue with Beltran at all. Is he familiar with analytics? That’s a big question. I don’t love the idea of hiring someone with zero coaching or managerial experience. If the Yankees do name Beltran their manager, I hope they’d bring in an experienced bench coach (and coaching staff in general) to help him out.

Yankees will interview at least one more managerial candidate

According to Mike Mazzeo, the Yankees will interview at least one more managerial candidate after Beltran. It’s possible they will interview several more candidates, in fact. Earlier this month both Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner indicated the Yankees would interview fewer than ten candidates total. Beltran is the sixth, and the next interview would be the seventh. Can’t imagine there will be many more after that.

Most of the managerial candidates the Yankees have interviewed have come out of left field — Rob Thomson was no surprise, and Hensley Meulens getting an interview wasn’t that unexpected, but everyone else? not many saw them coming — so your guess is as good as mine as to who the Yankees will interview next. Maybe Triple-A Scranton manager Al Pedrique? Matt Kardos says Pedrique hasn’t been contacted about an interview yet. Maybe Cashman’s longtime pal Trey Hillman, assuming Hillman has an out in his contract with the SK Wyverns in Korea?

Thomson to interview with Phillies

Thomson. (Brian Blanco/Getty)
Thomson. (Brian Blanco/Getty)

At some point this week Thomson will interview with the Phillies for their bench coach vacancy, reports Sweeny Murti. Thomson was the first managerial candidate the Yankees interviewed, and he said he wants to stay with the team even if he doesn’t get the job, but he’s going to cover his bases and interview elsewhere in case things with the Yankees fall through. If nothing else, interviewing with the Phillies might give Thomson some leverage to use against the Yankees when it comes time to talk contract, for whatever role.

Thomson has been with the Yankees since the early 1990s and he’s held a variety of coaching and front office roles. He knows the organization inside and out. And, as Joel Sherman recently noted, Thomson has run Spring Training for the Yankees for a while now, and their camp is arguably the most organized and well run in baseball year in and year out. Thomson has obvious and considerable value to the Yankees, in my opinion. Even if the Yankees don’t name him manager, keeping him in a no-brainer, especially if they hire a rookie skipper.

Paul joins the Angels

Minor league catching coordinator Josh Paul has left the Yankees to join the Angels as Mike Scioscia’s bench coach, the club announced. Paul played for the Halos from 2004-05, and I’m sure he and GM Billy Eppler have a relationship dating back to their time with the Yankees. Scioscia’s contract is up after 2018. Maybe Eppler is grooming Paul to take over? Catching coordinator to bench coach is a big jump.

Paul, who had been with the Yankees since his playing career ended in 2008, was speculated as a potential managerial candidate soon after Girardi was let go. He never did get an interview though, and I’m sure that contributed to his decision to join the Angels. That and the fact he got promoted to bench coach. Hard to turn that down after years of coaching and instructing in the minors. Paul worked with all catchers in the minors and was highly regarded, which is why he was considered a potential managerial candidate and another team named him bench coach.

Prospect Profile: Matt Sauer

(@MLBPipeline)
(@MLBPipeline)

Matt Sauer | RHP

Background
Sauer, 18, grew up in Southern California and attended Righetti High School in Santa Maria. (It’s named after Ernest, not Dave.) This spring he had a 0.98 ERA with 142 strikeouts in 78.1 innings, plus he hit .427/.504/.555 in 135 plate appearances. Sauer was more of an interesting sleeper than a bonafide prospect on the summer showcase circuit in 2016, then a breakout senior year put him in the conversation as a potential first round pick.

Prior to the 2017 draft both Baseball America and MLB.com ranked Sauer as the 28th best prospect in the draft class, while Keith Law (subs. req’d) had him a little lower on his board at 67th. The Yankees selected Sauer with their second round pick, the 54th overall selection, and signed him to an above-slot $2,497,500 bonus. They gave Sauer the savings from first rounder Clarke Schmidt’s below-slot bonus to keep him away from Arizona, where he would have had a chance to be a two-way player.

Pro Debut
The Yankees assigned Sauer to one of their rookie level Gulf Coast League affiliates after signing. He made six starts, allowing nine runs (seven earned) in 11.2 innings with 12 strikeouts and eight walks. That works out to a 5.40 ERA (3.68 FIP) with 21.1% strikeouts and 14.0% walks. The Yankees had Sauer participate in Instructional League after the season, which is standard protocol for new draftees.

Scouting Report
Sauer is very much an arm strength/raw stuff prospect right now, not a polished pitcher. He stands 6-foot-4 and 195 lbs., and his fastball sits mostly 92-95 mph and will touch 97 mph. The pitch has some run back in on right-handed hitters. Last summer Sauer was throwing 88-91 mph in showcase events. His velocity blew up this spring after he bulked up over the winter, with the help of former pro pitcher John Thomas, as Josh Norris explained.

A low-to-mid-80s slider is Sauer’s primary secondary pitch, and he also has a power overhand curveball that shows promise, but lags behind the slider. Sauer doesn’t have much of a changeup, which isn’t uncommon for top high school arms. They never need a changeup to dominate prep competition.

The biggest knock on Sauer is his stiff delivery and long arm action, which hinders his command and has some projecting him as a reliever long-term. He strikes me as a candidate to pitch from the stretch full-time, even as a starter, a la Stephen Strasburg and Yu Darvish. An abbreviated stretch-like windup could work too, similar to Noah Syndergaard and Jon Gray (and Bryan Mitchell).

The Yankees drafted Sauer based on his raw tools, namely his arm strength, his athleticism, and his slider and curveball. Now they have to develop him into a pitcher. Someone who can repeat his delivery, locate consistently, and throw a reliable changeup to keep left-handed hitters off balance.

2018 Outlook
I think it’s pretty obvious Sauer will be held back in Extended Spring Training next year before joining one of the short season leagues when their seasons begin in late-June. Rookie level Pulaski seems like the most likely destination, though Short Season Staten Island is another possibility if the Yankees are willing to let Sauer play against mostly college kids. Either way, I do not expect him to jump right into full season ball next season. There is too much mechanical work to be done right now.

My Take
As risky as he is, I think Sauer is the best prospect the Yankees drafted this year, and one of the five or six best pitching prospects in their pitching rich system. The delivery and command issues are very real, but this is a young pitcher who needs to figure some things out, not an older guy who had it and lost it. He’s a prospect, not a finished product. If the Yankees can iron out his mechanics — a big IF, obviously — Sauer could rocket up prospect rankings in the near future. If it clicks, it’ll click big.

Sonny with a Lack of Run Support [2017 Season Review]

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Going into Spring Training this year, the Yankees really had no idea what their 2018 rotation would look like. Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia were going to be free agents, Masahiro Tanaka could opt out this winter, and the other two spots were wide open. The hope was Luis Severino would grab one of those spots and run with it. The other spot? Who knows.

Now, ten months later, four of the five rotation spots are ostensibly accounted for the next two years. Severino broke out this year, Tanaka didn’t opt out, and Jordan Montgomery grabbed that wide open rotation spot. The fourth starter was a trade deadline pickup. The Yankees imported right-hander Sonny Gray from the Athletics in a midseason trade. The trade details:

That’s three of my top 12 prospects coming into the season — I was the low man on Fowler too, most ranked him in the top ten — to Oakland for a pitcher who threw 117 innings with a 5.69 ERA (4.67 FIP) around forearm and lat injuries last season. Of course, Kaprielian had Tommy John surgery in April and Fowler blew out his knee in July, and Mateo didn’t hit much the previous year and a half, so it was almost an all damaged goods trade.

Prior to the trade Gray threw 97 innings with a 3.43 ERA (3.25 FIP) in 16 starts with Oakland, which was considerably better than his 2016 output but also not quite as good as his 2015 effort (2.73 ERA and 3.45 FIP), which earned him a third place finish in the AL Cy Young voting. In his final six starts with the A’s, Gray allowed six earned runs and held opponents to a .164/.215/.271 batting line. Now let’s dive into his time in pinstripes.

Late Season Walk Problems

The Yankees welcomed Gray to the team by committing three errors behind him in his very first inning in pinstripes. Three errors in the span of four batters to start the game. Cool, cool. Sonny took the loss that game — he allowed four runs (two earned) in six innings — partly because of the errors, but mostly because Corey Kluber struck out eleven in the one-run complete game.

Gray allowed no more than two earned runs in his first five starts and seven of his first eight starts with the Yankees — at one point this year he allowed no more than two earned runs in eleven straight starts, the longest such streak in baseball in 2017 — and on September 12th, he threw his best game with the Yankees. He held the Rays to two runs in eight innings at Citi Field. The offense didn’t give him any support (more on that in a bit), so he ended up taking the loss, though it wasn’t his fault. Sign me up for two runs in eight innings every day of the week.

Through his first eight starts with the Yankees, Gray had a 2.66 ERA (4.14 FIP) and only once did he allow more than two earned runs. Only two times did he fail to complete at least six innings, and one of those two times he threw 5.2 innings. Gray was pretty much exactly as advertised. The Yankees had a chance to win every game he pitched.

Sonny’s last three starts of the regular season were a slog, mostly because he had trouble locating and worked himself into trouble with walks. Gray walked ten batters in his final three regular season starts and 14.2 innings, and he also ran into some home run trouble. The Red Sox tagged him for three homers on September 1st. The Rays hit two on September 12th and two more on September 28th. Gray allowed nine homers in six September starts after allowing ten homers from April through August.

The walks were a bit more worrisome than the home runs because a) home runs are going to happen in Yankee Stadium, and b) it wasn’t just the raw walk totals. Gray was behind in the count often and his pitch count was getting elevated. Those problems continued in Game One of the ALDS, as Gray walked four in 3.1 innings. So that’s 14 walks (and 12 strikeouts) in the span of four starts and 18 innings. Yikes.

Those walks combined with his generally slow pace earned Gray the “nibbler” tag even though walks had never really been a problem for him before, and his overall zone rate was basically league average the last few years. There are few things more annoying than pitchers who don’t throw strikes and pitchers who work slowly. Sonny managed to combine the worst of both worlds in his final few starts. That wasn’t fun.

I think the late season walk problem was more than likely the result of some mechanical issues and/or a result of the homers, which might’ve scared Gray out of the strike zone a bit. The biggest thing to me is health. As long as Gray is healthy, I’m not worried about the walks. I expect them to come down. Most pitchers run into a control rough patch every now and then — Tanaka never walks anyone, but he walked five in a four-inning start this year — and Sonny just so happened to have one late in the year.

Gray was able to rebound in his ALCS Game Four start — after the rough ALDS Game One outing, the Yankees pushed Gray as far back as possible in the ALCS — holding the Astros to two runs (one earned) on one hit and two walks in five innings plus two batters.

All told, Sonny posted a 3.72 ERA (4.87 FIP) in eleven starts and 65.1 innings with the Yankees after the trade. The walks and dingers in September really screwed up his fielding independent numbers.

A Lack Of Run Support

In terms of pitching style, Gray reminds me a lot of Hiroki Kuroda. He throws the kitchen sink at you — Gray throws four pitches at least 15% of the time each (four-seamer, sinker, curveball, slider) and a fifth (changeup) 6% of the time — but he has power (93.8 mph average fastball), so it’s not like he’s out there throwing slop. And, as David Adler explained, Sonny has multiple versions of each pitch because he varies the break and spin on everything. Kuroda was the same way.

Gray is also similar to Kuroda in that his team never scores any damn runs for him. The Yankees never seemed to score for Kuroda. They sure as heck didn’t score for Gray this year. The Yankees scored 39 runs total in Gray’s eleven starts this year — nine of those 39 runs came in one game — or 3.55 runs per game. They scored 819 runs in their other 151 games, or 5.42 runs per game. Good grief.

I don’t know where it started, but there was this “the Yankees don’t score runs for Gray because he works so slowly” narrative that was floating around for a while. It’s true that Gray works slowly — he averaged 28.4 seconds between pitches this season, most in baseball among the 58 pitchers who threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title — but is that the reason the Yankees didn’t score? Are the position players thrown so out of whack by his pace that they can’t hit?

I decided to make a graph. Here is pitcher pace plotted against run support for the 131 individual pitchers who qualified the ERA title the last two years. There are some duplicates in here — there’s a 2016 Kluber and a 2017 Kluber, etc. — but this is just a real quick plot for season review purposes.

pace-vs-run-support

The R² of the trendline is 0.00004. In English, that means there is basically zero correlation between a pitcher’s pace and the run support he receives. Shocking, I know. Who would’ve guessed run support is not a pitcher skill? The whole “he doesn’t get run support because he works so slowly” narrative always struck me as one those things someone said to explain something they couldn’t otherwise explain, and it sounded just plausible enough that people bought it.

I have no idea why the Yankees didn’t score runs for Gray. I have no idea why the Yankees didn’t score runs for Kuroda either. Sometimes pitchers just don’t get run support. It happens. Across full seasons too. It’s annoying. Believe me, I know. I’m sure Gray knows too. The guy has thrown 21.1 postseason innings in his career, and in those 21.1 innings, his team has scored zero (0) runs with him on the mound. What the hell? He’s cursed. Cursed by the run support gods.

2018 Outlook

The Yankees traded for Gray to improve their 2018 and 2019 chances as much as their 2017 chances. He is under control for another two seasons, which is pretty awesome. When healthy, Gray is really good. He’s a bulldog with a deep repertoire who takes video game stuff to the mound more often than not. The Yankees don’t need him to be the ace — that’s up to Severino and Tanaka — but Sonny has the potential to pitch at that level.

Like I said, as long as Gray is healthy, I don’t have any real worry that his late season walk problems will be a long-term issue. I think it was just one of those things. And the lack of run support … I dunno. I can’t explain it. The Yankees figure to again have a very good offense next season, and if Sonny makes 30 starts, chances are he’s going to get plenty of run support. I feel like Gray is really being overlooked right now. He’s an impact pitcher in the prime of his career and the Yankees got him while trading no one off their MLB roster. Couldn’t ask for anything more.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: Jake McGee

(Lachlan Cunningham/Getty)
(Lachlan Cunningham/Getty)

For much of the last 12 months or so, the Yankees have been looking for a reliable left-handed reliever, and they’ve come up empty. Not including closer Aroldis Chapman, the Yankees received 76 innings from lefty relievers this season, and in those 76 innings they had a 4.62 ERA (4.87 FIP). Yuck. Most of the blame goes to Chasen Shreve, who threw 45.1 of those 76 innings.

The Yankees again figure to look for a left-handed reliever this offseason, though it should be noted six of their seven bullpen spots are accounted for (Chapman, David Robertson, Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle, Adam Warren, Dellin Betances), and just about all of their righties can get out lefties. Kahnle is the only real exception. A middle innings southpaw isn’t a pressing need, but if the Yankees can find one, great.

Arguably the best left-handed reliever on the free agent market this winter is former Rays and Rockies southpaw Jake McGee, who’s spent time closing and setting up and doing basically everything there is to do in a bullpen these days. He’s a free agent for the first time, and given the perpetually growing importance of bullpens, he might cash in very big. Let’s see whether McGee is a fit for the Yankees.

Current Performance

With the Rays from 2012-15, the now 31-year-old McGee was lights out and arguably the best lefty reliever in the game aside from Chapman. He got Coors Fielded pretty hard the last two years though. His numbers since 2015:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 LHB wOBA RHB wOBA
2015 37.1 2.41 2.33 32.7% 5.4% 38.9% 0.72 .259 .228
2016 45.2 4.73 5.29 18.5% 7.8% 40.1% 1.77 .359 .388
2017 57.1 3.61 2.93 25.3% 7.0% 40.5% 0.63 .301 .255

Reliever performance fluctuates wildly. News at 11. In all seriousness, McGee’s introduction to Coors Field in 2016 was not pretty, and it probably didn’t help that he was dealing with nagging inflammation in his left knee all season.

As you’d expect, McGee’s performance the last two seasons was quite a bit better on the road away from Coors Field than at home. Here are his 2016-17 splits:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 wOBA
Home 50.2 5.51 4.99 20.3% 7.4% 46.2% 1.78 .359
Road 52.1 2.75 3.00 24.0% 7.0% 34.0% 0.52 .284

Coors Field McGee was very bad. Road McGee looks an awful lot like the Rays version of McGee. Now, that said, I don’t think evaluating Rockies players is as simple as taking their road numbers and saying that’s who they really are. For starters, three of the other four NL West parks are big time pitchers’ parks. Secondly, there’s been some research showing Rockies players have been disproportionately hurt when they come down from altitude.

Generally speaking, McGee has been a very good reliever throughout his career, though his numbers the last two years have been skewed by Coors Field and also the nagging knee problem. Shewed how much? It’s hard to say. Whoever signs him will hope they get someone close to Road McGee and be happy if they get someone close to 2017 McGee.

Current Stuff

McGee is a very interesting pitcher. He throws almost nothing but fastballs. Three-hundred-and-twenty-two pitchers threw at least 100 innings from 2016-17. Here are the highest four-seam fastball usage rates from those 322 pitchers:

  1. Jake McGee: 88.9%
  2. Tony Cingrani: 83.5%
  3. Ryan Buchter: 80.3%
  4. Zach McAllister: 80.2%
  5. Aroldis Chapman: 78.5%

Huh, I’m kinda surprised four of the top five pitchers in four-seamer usage the last two seasons are lefties. McAllister is the only righty on that list.

Anyway, so yeah, McGee throws a lot of fastballs. More than five fastballs per 100 pitches more than any other pitcher the last two years. And you know what’s crazy? McGee’s four-seamer rate was even higher this season. It was 92.8% in 2017. McGee would regularly sit 96-98 mph with his heater with the Rays, though it’s more 94-96 mph these days.

jake-mcgee-velocity

McGee starting having knee trouble late in 2015 and you clearly can see the corresponding velocity drop in the graph. It was his left knee, his push-off knee, so he wasn’t able to generate the same velocity. This season, with a healthy knee, his velocity was more stable and closer to where it was while he was in Tampa. (Chances are he’ll never get it all the way back to where it was a few years ago because of wear and tear, etc.)

McGee’s fastball spin rate was almost exactly average the last two years — it was 2,258 rpm from 2016-17, and the league average was 2,261 rpm — and his fastball “rise” (+10.0 inches) was close to average as well (+9.3 inches). It doesn’t seem like it should be a dominant pitch, but because of the way McGee changes eye levels, he’s very successful. Check out his fastball swing-and-miss heat map:

jake-mcgee-fastball-whiffsElevated fastballs are a great swing-and-miss pitch, and McGee has it mastered. He pitches in, out, up, and down with his heater, then get hitters to chase upstairs with two strikes. Here’s one of his outings from this past season:

There is something of a Chad Green element to McGee’s fastball. Green throws his fastball a lot and hitters just can not hit it for whatever reason. The velocity is not overwhelming relative to the average reliever, and yet, no one can hit it. McGee’s fastball isn’t as effective as Green’s, but it’s close. It leaves you shaking your head. Throwing basically one pitch, a straight-ish four-seam fastball, that often against Major League hitters shouldn’t work, but it does for McGee.

McGee’s other pitch is an upper-70s slurve — there’s one in the video above — that is more of a curveball than a slider, though the break is somewhere in between the two pitches. It’s a show-me pitch. McGee will throw one or two per outing just to keep hitters honest. This is a fastball only pitcher who is going to challenge hitters with his heater. Country hardball.

Injury History

As with most pitchers in their 30s, McGee does have an injury history. I’ve already told you about the knee. McGee pitched on a torn meniscus in 2015 and had surgery late in the season, which led to the inflammation in 2016. The knee did not bother him at all this season. His other notable injuries:

  • Tommy John surgery in June 2008.
  • Surgery to remove a loose body from his elbow in April 2015.
  • Two weeks on the disabled list with a back strain in late-July/early-August 2017.

Something for everyone. Arm injury? Check. Lower body injury? Also check. Back injury? Another check. I suppose the good news is there’s nothing chronic here. McGee hasn’t have elbow or back or knee problems year after year after year. For the most part, his injuries were isolated incidents.

Contract Estimates

Coming into this exercise I expected to reference the four-year, $30.5M contract Brett Cecil signed with the Cardinals last offseason quite a bit, but the two most popular contract projections have McGee getting less:

Hmmm. I think the FanGraphs Crowdsourcing is going to be closer to the actual number. Cecil ($7.625M), Darren O’Day ($7.75M), Joakim Soria ($8.33M), and Brad Ziegler ($9M) all recently signed contracts in the $7.5M to $9M annual salary range. Heck, Ryan Madson was out of baseball from 2012-14, and he was able to turn a good 2015 season into a three-year deal worth $7M annually. The going rate for a good free agent reliever is $8M or so a year nowadays.

Perhaps McGee’s recent knee and back trouble limit his market, or teams really hold his Coors Field performance against him, and he falls into the $6M per year range like MLBTR projects. That strikes me as a really good deal. McGee at $18M from 2018-20 or Cecil at $22.75M from 2018-20? Yeah, I know which one I’m picking. Three years and $8M annually sounds about right to me. Maybe McGee even gets a fourth year. It only takes one team to make that crazy offer, after all.

Does He Make Sense For The Yankees?

Yeah, I think so. Definitely. McGee is used to pitching in a tough environment — going from Coors Field to Yankee Stadium will probably feel like a relief to him — and he’s familiar with the AL East after spending all those seasons with the Rays. He’s a strikeout pitcher without a massive platoon split, so he wouldn’t need to be sheltered as a straight left-on-left matchup guy.

It is completely reasonable to wonder how effective McGee will be once he inevitably starts to lose some fastball. He’s already losing some fastball, in fact. His average velocity was 95.4 mph this past season, down from 97.5 mph just three years ago. What happens when McGee is averaging 93.5 mph, or 92.0 mph? Throwing 90% fastballs might not work so well at that velocity.

My guess is the Yankees are not eager to spend $8M or so per season on another reliever given their current bullpen situation. Not with the luxury tax plan in place. Maybe if McGee can be had at $6M annually, they’ll pounce. I think the luxury tax plan and the fact the Yankees are already quite strong in the bullpen will send them looking for a bargain lefty, not a high-priced one like McGee. He’s a fit, but he’s not a fit. Know what I mean?