3/4 Camp Notes: Ryan, Teixeira, Austin, Nova

Mason Williams made this catch tonight.
Mason Williams made this catch tonight.

The totally meaningless Grapefruit League winning streak is over at four; the Orioles beat the Yankees 3-2 on Tuesday night. Here’s the box score. David Phelps was in “bend but don’t break” mode, getting knocked around pretty hard (five hits in 2.2 innings) but only surrendering one run. He escaped two on, no outs jams in both the first and second innings. Matt Thornton made his spring debut, throwing one pitch and retiring a lefty with a ground ball.

At the plate, both Jacoby Ellsbury and Derek Jeter went hitless in two at-bats. Ellsbury did draw a walk though, his fifth of the spring (only one strikeout). Carlos Beltran went 0-for-2 with a walk and a whiff. Frankie Cervelli opened the scoring with a solo tater and Spring Training superhero Yangervis Solarte plated another run with a single. Scott Sizemore went 1-for-2 in his spring debut and made a nifty diving stop at second base. Here’s the rest of the day’s news from Tampa.

  • Brendan Ryan was hit by a line drive in the left hand while running the bases during batting practice. He was looked at and is fine, so much so that he played in tonight’s game. “It’s sore but okay,” he said. [Andrew Marchand, Erik Boland]
  • Mark Teixeira did not take live batting practice as scheduled today because there was literally no one available to pitch. Vidal Nuno, Hiroki Kuroda, and Michael Pineda were among those to throw bullpens sessions. [Chad Jennings]
  • Tyler Austin played catch and took dry swings today for the first time since being shut down when his wrist flared up. He said it felt better than expected following the workout. [Jennings]
  • Ivan Nova and Phelps will start Friday and Saturday Saturday and Sunday, respectively. That means Nuno has been squeezed out of the spring rotation, at least for the time being. [Bryan Hoch]

The Yankees are on the road to play the Rays tomorrow afternoon, but that game will not be televised. Masahiro Tanaka will make his first start and second appearance of the spring on Thursday (CC Sabathia will throw a simulated game that day) while Michael Pineda will make his debut (in relief of Hiroki Kuroda) on Friday. Thursday’s game will be on television, Friday’s will not. For shame.

Spring Training Game Thread: Under The Lights

(Presswire)
Only in Spring Training. (Presswire)

For the first time this year, the Yankees are playing a night game. Only six of their 31 Grapefruit League will be played at night and that seems low to me, but whatever. Day baseball is better anyway.

Derek Jeter is playing back-to-back games for the first time this spring, though he will only serve as the DH for the first few innings tonight. Two at-bats is my guess. The back-to-back games is something of a milestone following last year’s leg injury fiasco. David Phelps, who I still think is the front-runner for the fifth starter’s job, is making his second start of the exhibition season.

The Orioles are in Tampa for tonight’s game after making the short trip up from Sarasota. As you might expect, their roster for the road night game is not exactly brimming with projected big leaguers. Jemile Weeks, Delmon Young, and starter Wei-Yin Chen are pretty much the only names casual fans may recognize. Here is Joe Girardi‘s starting lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. DH Derek Jeter
  3. RF Carlos Beltran
  4. 2B Brian Roberts
  5. 3B Eduardo Nunez
  6. C Frankie Cervelli
  7. SS Brendan Ryan
  8. 1B Russ Canzler
  9. LF Yangervis Solarte

And on the mound is the right-hander Phelps, who is likely scheduled for something like three innings or 45 pitches, whichever comes first.

Available Pitchers: LHP Matt Thornton, RHP Brian Gordon, LHP Cesar Cabral, RHP Chris Leroux, RHP Chase Whitley, and RHP Preston Claiborne are all scheduled to pitch. This will be Thornton’s spring debut. RHP Bruce Billings, RHP Graham Stoneburner, LHP Jeremy Bleich, and SwP Pat Venditte are also available if needed.

Available Position Players: C Gary Sanchez, 1B Francisco Arcia, 2B Scott Sizemore, SS Dean Anna, 3B Zelous Wheeler, LF Ramon Flores, CF Mason Williams, RF Antoan Richardson, and DH Brian McCann will all come off the bench. Sizemore will be making his spring debut. C Jose Gil, C Peter O’Brien, C John Ryan Murphy, IF Corban Joseph, UTIL Jose Pirela, OF Adonis Garcia, and UTIL Addison Maruszak are all available as well.

The forecast for Tampa tonight calls for cloudy skies and temperatures in the upper-60s but not rain, thankfully. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05pm ET and the game can be seen live on YES, MLB Network, and MLB.tv. Enjoy.

AP: El Duque joins Yankees as minor league pitching instructor

Via the AP: Orlando Hernandez has joined the Yankees as a Spring Training minor league pitching instructor. The 48-year-old retired in 2011 and last pitched in the big leagues in 2007. This will be El Duque’s first coaching gig as far as I can tell and he’s slated to remain in Tampa for several weeks. Since he’s working with minor leaguers, I wonder if Hernandez will stick around for all or part of Extended Spring Training as well.

2014 Season Preview: The Erstwhile Ace

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It is in no way an exaggeration to say CC Sabathia was one of the worst pitchers in baseball last season. Out of the game’s 81 qualified starters, he ranked 76th with a 4.78 ERA and 72nd with 0.3 bWAR. He also led the league with 112 earned runs allowed. Last season was the worst of Sabathia’s career by a large margin and it was a big reason why the team failed to qualify for the postseason for only the second time in 19 years.

Why did Sabathia struggle so much in 2013? There is no shortage of theories. He lost too much weight, he lost too much velocity, he had offseason elbow surgery, all the innings are catching up to him, his mechanics were out of whack … on and on we could go. Sabathia never made excuses and pitching coach Larry Rothschild blamed it on inconsistent mechanics that led to too many pitches out over the plate. My guess? All of it. All of that stuff and more contributed to his poor year.

That disastrous 2013 season is in the past now. Sabathia is now more than a full year out from elbow surgery and he remade his body this winter, shedding bad weight and adding muscle in hopes of building power and stamina. He looks marvelous and in better shape than he’s ever been as a Yankee, but that was also true last spring, just not to the same extent. Physical condition is not going to be excuse, not that it ever was. CC is always going to be a big guy, that’s just his body type, but now he is slightly less big.

In his first Spring Training outing on Saturday, Sabathia came out firing 88 mph bullets that raised a little red flag but are not really freakout worthy yet. It was his first Grapefruit League start and we’ll re-evaluate his fastball when he builds up some more arm strength and gets another start or two under his belt. Sabathia’s velocity has steadily declined in recent years …

CC Sabathia's velocity

… and there is little reason to think that will stop. That’s the reality of being a 33-year-old workhorse who will top the 3,000 career innings (regular season and postseason) mark this summer. Once the fastball starts to go, it tends to continue going. Reversing the velocity decline is just not something that happens. The best the Yankees and Sabathia can hope for is halting the decline and maintaining this level of velocity for a little while longer.

Lefties who can pump 94-96 mph consistently — like Sabathia a few years ago — are the exception. Lefties who sit right around 90 are the rule. That’s Madison Bumgarner (91.2 mph in 2013), C.J. Wilson (90.9), Cliff Lee (90.4), and Mike Minor (90.4) velocity, and that foursome combined for a 3.06 ERA and a 3.12 FIP in 841 innings last year. Sabathia averaged 91.3 mph with his fastball last season and even if he loses another mile an hour this year, it should still be enough.

At his peak from 2007-12, CC maintained an ~8 mph separation between his fastball (93.7 mph) and changeup (86.0 mph). Last year it was only a 6.5 mph separation and that’s a big difference. That’s the difference between squaring a pitch up and hitting it off the end of the bat or flat out swinging and missing. Linear weights reflect the reduced effectiveness of his changeup (-8.3 runs saved in 2013 after +35.6 from 2007-12), a pitch that his been one of his most dangerous weapons the last seven years or so.

Of course, velocity and separation between the fastball and changeup is only one small piece of the pitching pie. Sabathia’s location flat out stunk last season, anecdotally because his arm slot wavered (he admitted as much) and his pitches cut back over the plate. According to Baseball Heat Maps, a whopping 39.2% of Sabathia’s pitches were over the heart of the plate last season, up from 30.7% in 2012 and 31.7% from 2011-12. That’s a big, big deal. He averaged 104.25 pitches per start last season, so we’re talking an extra nine pitches (!) over the heart of the plate per start on average. Big deal. Really big deal.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Improving on last season’s performance will require a number of things. Sabathia’s not finding more velocity so just forget about that. He needs to improve his location first and foremost. I’m not sure there is any way you can improve performance quicker than by not throwing the ball in the hitter’s wheelhouse. If Sabathia can get back to living on the corners and at the knees, it doesn’t really matter if he’s throwing 85 or 95. Easier said than done, obviously. Regaining that 8-ish mph separation between the fastball and changeup is another key.

How does Sabathia go about improving his location and the effectiveness of his changeup in 2014? Damned if I know. That’s up to Sabathia and Rothschild to figure out. The problems could be mechanical or the result of the elbow surgery — he underwent a biomechanical analysis over the winter and things checked out okay, for what it’s worth — or they could be the result of muscling up and trying to manufacture velocity. Overthrowing is a great way to miss spots. Again, it’s probably a little of everything.

Maybe I’m just a raging homer, but I truly believe Sabathia can rebound and be an effective starter for the Yankees this summer. He has to make several adjustments first and even if he does, I still think it’s unlikely he’ll ever get back to peak CC form, that Cy Young caliber ace. Simply being not one of the worst pitchers in baseball like last year seems reasonable to me though. A guy who can give the team 200+ innings of 3.70-ish ERA ball is still really valuable, even if it is not what we’re used to seeing from Sabathia.

I don’t know if the Yankees can make the postseason in 2014 with a good but not great performance from Sabathia, but I do know they have almost no chance of going to the playoffs if he pitches like he did a year ago. Even with Masahiro Tanaka and Hiroki Kuroda around to anchor the rotation, I believe a rebound from the club’s erstwhile ace is a necessity for contention this season.

Guest Post: Five Big Ideas from the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

The following is a guest post from long-time reader Alex M. He attended the recent Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and in a two-part series will outline a few themes from the conference and their application to the Yankees.

MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

The 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is akin to Mecca for the mathematically inclined sports fan. Featuring esteemed panelists, including current athletes, coaches and front office personnel, the conference provided a forum to showcase advances in analytics across the sporting world. In particular, five* big ideas stand out for their potential to reshape our understanding of baseball going forward.

1) Disconnect Between the Availability of Information and Application on the Field – To date, the application of statistics and other analytics in sports has been primarily focused on roster construction. Going forward, new streams of data will increase the potential for in-game management. From tandem pitching to reliever usage and defensive shifts, the goal of GMs and coaches across sports will be to translate analytically-derived strategies (defensive shifts) into execution on the field (player placement and pitch selection).

2) Health Analytics as The Holy Grail– On panels covering every major American sport, health analytics, the ability to predict and prevent injuries, was consistently emphasized as “the holy grail.” Despite advances, pitcher injury rates have remained unchanged over the last 20 years, which teams hope to address through biomechanical analysis and load monitoring. Yankees fans were exposed to biomechanical analysis recently when CC Sabathia visited Dr. James Andrews to compare his delivery over time.

3) Potential for More Efficient Drafting – An interesting anecdote from the conference was about the recent tendency of the Houston Rockets to draft players with a big arm-span-to-height ratio, as chronicled in David Epstein’s book The Sports Gene. The bias towards longer wingspans highlights the variety of information teams use to assess players, and also how difficult it is to judge a draft as an outsider. Three areas where teams are making advances in evaluating draft choices include biomechanical analysis, improved comparable player projections, and, perhaps most importantly, train-ability assessments.

4) Batted Ball Profiles Have More Predictive Value than We Realized – The Houston Astros have recognized that not all line drives are created equally. By measuring the vector and speed of the ball off the bat, the Astros have been able to associate individual batted balls with a run expectancy that is highly predictive. Tracking the ball off the bat allows teams to develop individual park factors for players, potentially improving player valuations in trades or free agency. SABR President Vince Gennaro specifically cited Brian McCann as benefiting from Yankee Stadium compared to Turner Field.

5) Batter Strategies to Counter Improved Pitching and Defense – On the baseball analytics panel, multiple speakers expressed surprise at the relatively limited response of hitters to the increased use of defensive shifts. Based on the data, hitters should bunt and attempt to place hits more to overcome extreme shifts and pitching strategies. A second area for improvement is in valuing position versatility, which provides flexibility in roster construction, consistently affords platoon advances and accelerates injury recovery.

Advances in data collection, analytics and on-field implementation are happening across every major sport. The five big ideas outlined above all have the potential to improve our understanding of baseball as fans and also the performance of our favorite team. Next week, I’ll discuss applications of the next big things in sports analytics to the Yankees.

* As RAB previously reported, MLB Advanced Media’s new Player Tracking System offers fans and front offices a treasure trove of new data. Through a $300M capital investment, MLB will be rolling out network infrastructure in stadiums that will improve our understanding of defense, baserunning, and to a lesser extent offense and pitching. Most affected will be our assessment of defense with new data including first step time, first step efficiency (angle taken relative to optimal angle), route efficiency, speed, acceleration and turnaround on a throw back into the infield. Our understanding of baserunning will also be profoundly affected with data on runner leads, reaction times, route efficiency, speed at every step and acceleration. In a game of inches, MLBAM has figured out a way to measure the inches that determine the outcome of games.

Sabathia’s velocity is worth watching this spring

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

This past weekend, in his first outing of the spring, CC Sabathia chucked two scoreless and relatively uneventful innings against the Phillies. Uneventful unless you were watching the radar gun, of course. Sabathia topped out at 88 mph with his fastball on Saturday and sat mostly in the 86-88 mph range, which is far below what you want to see, even on March 1st. And everyone did see it thanks in no small part to the Michael Pineda velocity fiasco of 2012. The radar gun has become a focal point in Spring Training.

“My fastball is what it is. If it gets better, it will. If it’s not, it won’t. I can pitch. I’m fine. As long as I’m healthy I’ll be good,” said Sabathia to Chad Jennings after Saturday’s game because what is he supposed to say? No this is terrifying and I don’t think I’ll ever be effective again? C’mon now. It takes a lot of confidence and a certain level of arrogance to be an elite pro athlete, and part of that is never doubting your own ability despite signs of decline. Of course Sabathia is unconcerned about his fastball.

I am concerned about Sabathia’s fastball, however. Well, concerned isn’t the right word. I’m keeping my eye on it. That’s better. I wanted to go back and compare CC’s early spring velocity to past years, but there’s a bit of a problem: there isn’t any Grapefruit League pitch data out there. We’re limited to MLB.tv archives and the YES Network gun because there’s no PitchFX. Sabathia did not appear in a YES broadcast game until the middle of March in both 2012 and 2013, so we can’t even compare early spring velocities. We’re stuck lumping it all under a big “Spring Training velocity” umbrella. Here’s what we’re left with:

First Televised ST Game April May-Sept.
2014 86-88 (March 1st) ? ?
2013 89-90 (March 15th) 89.8 90.7
2012 89-92 (March 16th) 91.8 92.9

Sabathia did not pitch in a YES televised game in Spring Training 2011, so we can’t go back any further. I’m not sure how useful anything from pre-2012 would be anyway.

Just to give you an idea of how unprecise this is, Sabathia had one fastball clocked at 94 mph in the 2013 start and another clocked at 57 mph (!) in the 2012 game. I can buy 94 mph, but the most relevant thing is that he was consistently in that 89-90 range with a handful of 91s during the five-inning outing. I can’t buy 57 mph, but again, Sabathia was regularly in that 89-92 range with a smattering of 93s back in 2012. That’s what’s important.

Sabathia’s velocity in his first televised Spring Training game, as questionable as it may be given the source, was right in line with his PitchFX recorded April velocity in both 2012 and 2013. He held that Spring Training velocity through the season’s first month before adding another tick or two in the summer months, after the weather warmed up and he got into midseason form. That alone makes you want to see Sabathia get his heater closer to 90 mph this month.

Because of who he is and how important he is to the 2014 Yankees, Sabathia is going to be under the microscope this spring. His first outing was less than encouraging because his fastball was a little short, but it was only March 1st. I want to see how he looks after another outing or two before getting … well … concerned. I don’t think the fastball he showed on Saturday is full freakout worthy, but as much I hate Spring Training velocity watches, I don’t think we can simply sweep it under the rug just because it’s early-March either.

Nine Yankees make Baseball America’s top 100 also-rans list

When Baseball America released their annual top 100 prospects list last month, the Yankees only had two representatives, and one (RHP Masahiro Tanaka) isn’t really a prospect. C Gary Sanchez was the only true prospect to make the list but he was far from the only Yankees’ farmhand to receive consideration. In fact, nine others were within shouting distance of the top 100.

J.J. Cooper published the top 100 also-rans list today, meaning the players who appeared on the personal top 150 prospects lists of the various editors but not the final top 100. The nine Yankees: OF Aaron Judge (one vote, peaked at #150), 3B Eric Jagielo (four, 131), 2B Gosuke Katoh (one, 147), 1B Greg Bird (one, 97), LHP Ian Clarkin (one, 135), C John Ryan Murphy (two, 122), RHP Luis Severino (one, 150), OF Mason Williams (six, 90), and OF Slade Heathcott (six, 89). Seems like Williams and Heathcott were the closest to the top 100, understandably so.