The rotation has become a liability for the Yankees, but not the way everyone expected

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Two days ago the Yankees managed to split a doubleheader with the Astros even though their starting pitchers threw four innings total. Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka combined for the following line: 4 IP, 13 H, 11 R, 11 ER, 4 BB, 5 K. Goodness. The Astros did most of that damage against Tanaka in the night game, but Severino didn’t pitch well in the afternoon game either.

Those two duds, combined with CC Sabathia‘s recent crash, have left the Yankees with a 4.62 ERA (4.30 FIP) overall from their starting pitchers. They are averaging a healthy 5.72 innings per start — the AL average is 5.65 innings per start — which surprised me. We saw a lot of short starts early in the season and over the weekend. Overall though, the results haven’t been great. The rotation has been shaky, especially of late.

Coming into the season the rotation stood out as potential weakness, mostly because the back of the rotation was unsettled. The Yankees held a Spring Training competition for the fourth and fifth starter’s spots, plus CC Sabathia (age) and Michael Pineda (inconsistency) remained rolls of the dice. An abundance of options mitigated the risk somewhat, but still. There was a lot of uncertainty.

The one saving grace was supposed to be Tanaka, who was splendid last season and very nearly won the AL ERA title. He was supposed to be the ace. The rock. The guy Joe Girardi could send out there every fifth day and know he’d get a quality outing. That hasn’t been the case so far. Aside from the complete game shutout against the Red Sox, Tanaka has been mediocre at best and flat out bad at worst.

“I have to kind of look at some stuff and sort of analyze what I did,” said Tanaka to Brendan Kuty following Sunday’s disaster start. “There’s times like this during the season and you just have to battle through it. But they took some really good swings on some of my pitches and they were flat … I think the mechanical flaw we’ve been talking about earlier in this season, I think that has been fixed. I think it’s something different.”

Weirdly enough, when you look at the numbers, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong with Tanaka. His underlying performance looks awfully similar to last year in the super early going. Look:

K% BB% LD% GB% FB% Soft% Hard% Chase Rate%
2015 20.5% 4.5% 20.7% 48.2% 31.0% 18.5% 32.4% 37.6%
2016 17.7% 6.1% 17.0% 51.0% 32.0% 18.2% 31.1% 35.8%

The strikeout rate is down and the walk rate is up, but not so much so that it leads you to believe there’s something more than general early season randomness at play here. The batted ball data is nearly identical. Lots of grounders, lots of soft contact, a league average amount of hard contact. And Tanaka is again among the league leaders in chase rate. He’s had no problem getting hitters to go after pitches out of the zone. The velocity is fine too. From Brooks Baseball:

masahiro-tanaka-velocity

And yet, Tanaka is very clearly not performing like he did last season. He may be getting the same kind of contact and a lot of swings on pitches out of the zone, but the results are very different. Anecdotally, it seems Tanaka’s location hasn’t been nearly as good as it has been in the past, and when he makes a mistake, he pays for it dearly. It’s not often he makes a mistake pitch and gets away with it these days.

Whatever it is, Tanaka is not pitching up to expectations, and that is absolutely not part of the plan. The Yankees came into the season expecting him to be their ace, their one reliable starter. Everyone else figured to be hit-or-miss for whatever reason. Age, young pitcher jitters, Pineda-ism, whatever. Instead, Pineda has been New York’s most reliable starter so far this season, and Tanaka has been arguably the worst. Who saw that coming?

As long as he’s not hurt, I do think Tanaka will get himself back on track, hopefully sooner rather than later. That doesn’t excuse his performance to date though. It’s happened and it’s hurt the Yankees. It’s actually sort of remarkable he’s exited all but two of his starts (Opening Day and Sunday) with a lead despite a 5.80 ERA (5.34 FIP). He can thank the offense for that, of course.

The Yankees are fortunate Severino seems to be figuring some things out, Sunday’s start notwithstanding, and that Jordan Montgomery has been able to step right into the rotation and produce. They’ve helped prop up the rotation as Sabathia has struggled and Tanaka has gone through his worst stretch with the Yankees. The rotation right now has become a liability. That Tanaka is the biggest reason is the most surprising part.

DotF: Rutherford, Gilliam extend hitting streaks in Low-A win

Here are the day’s notes:

  • 1B Tyler Austin (foot) faced hitters in live batting practice for the first time today, according to his Twitter feed. He’s been out since fouling a ball off his foot very early in Spring Training. Farm system head Gary Denbo recently said Austin could begin a minor league rehab assignment later this week, as long as things go well the next few days.
  • 1B Ji-Man Choi (hamstring) and LHP Daniel Camarena (shoulder) are likely to miss a few weeks, Triple-A Scranton manager Al Pedrique told Shane Hennigan. With Austin, Choi, and 1B Greg Bird all injured, I wouldn’t expect 1B Chris Carter to be cut loose anytime soon.
  • UTIL Rob Refsnyder was sent back to Triple-A Scranton following last night’s game, the Yankees announced. He was up as the 26th man for the doubleheader. By rule, he had to be sent back down immediately after the game.
  • OF Isiah Gilliam was named the Low-A South Atlantic League Offensive Player of the Week. He went 11-for-23 (.478) with four doubles and two homers last week.

Triple-A Scranton (8-4 win over Pawtucket in 12 innings, walk-off style)

  • 2B Tyler Wade: 2-4, 3 R, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 2 BB — second homer of the season and second homer in the last three days
  • CF Dustin Fowler: 4-5, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 3B, 2 RBI, 1 BB — tied the game with a two-out double in the ninth … had a chance to finish the cycle with a walk-off home run in the 11th — imagine doing that twice in the span of a month? — but they intentionally walked him … he’s up to .308/.353/.566 on the season
  • LF Clint Frazier: 0-5, 1 BB, 1 K — snapped the bat over his knee after the strikeout (here’s a GIF)
  • RF Mason Williams: 3-5, 1 R, 1 RBI
  • C Eddy Rodriguez: 2-5, 1 R, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 3 K — walk-off grand slam!
  • 2B Abi Avelino: 0-5, 1 K
  • LHP Caleb Smith: 5 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 6/2 GB/FB — 62 of 96 pitches were strikes (65%)
  • RHP Ernesto Frieri: 3 IP, 1 H, 0 , 0 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 2/2 GB/FB — 30 of 42 pitches were strikes (71%) … good Frieri showed up tonight

[Read more…]

Monday Night Open Thread

The Yankees have yet another off-day today. Good grief. It seems like the Yankees have had an off-day after every series this year. Enjoy it, I guess. Starting tomorrow, the Yankees begin a stretch of 20 games in 20 days and 33 games in 34 days. After today, there’s only three off-days between now and the All-Star break. Whole lotta Yankee baseball coming your way the next few weeks.

Here is an open thread for the evening. The failing New York Mets are on the West Coast and don’t play until later tonight. ESPN will show the Astros and Marlins, MLB Network will have a regional game later on, and there is NBA and NHL playoff action as well. Talk about those games, the Derek Jeter ceremony, or anything else here as long as it’s not politics or religion.

2017 Draft: Garrett Mitchell

Garrett Mitchell | OF

Background
Mitchell, 18, attends Orange Lutheran High School in Orange County, where he is hitting .294/.390/.435 this spring. He’s committed to UCLA. Mitchell was diagnosed with Type I diabetes as a child.

Scouting Report
Few players in the 2017 draft class offer as much raw athleticism at Mitchell. He’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 200 lbs., and he’s a great runner with a good throwing arm. Mitchell stands out more on defense right now, as he’s a no-doubt long-term center fielder who gets great reads and has no trouble covering gap-to-gap. At the plate, he has legitimate power in his left-handed bat, though his approach is rudimentary — he’s struck out 23 times in 101 plate appearances this spring, which is way way way too much for a prep prospect — and his swing can sometimes get unhinged. Mitchell works hard and is coachable. He is very much a project though. Whoever drafts him will do so betting on the athleticism.

Miscellany
As you might’ve guessed, opinions are split on Mitchell. He’s athletic but raw, and the Type I diabetes creates concerns about his durability. Mitchell has been dealing with the disease for years though, so he already knows how to take care of his body. Keith Law (subs. req’d) ranked Mitchell as the 28th best prospect in the draft class in his latest rankings while both Baseball America and MLB.com ranked him as the 53rd best prospect. The Yankees hold the 16th and 54th overall picks. They’re not afraid of rolling the dice on raw athletes (Austin Aune, for example), though my guess is they’d target Mitchell with their second round pick, that 54th selection, rather than their first.

Thoughts following Aroldis Chapman’s shoulder injury

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

The (first place!) Yankees have suffered their third notable injury of the still relatively young 2017 season. After playing without Gary Sanchez (biceps) and Didi Gregorius (shoulder) in April, the Yankees placed closer Aroldis Chapman on the 10-day disabled list yesterday with left rotator cuff inflammation. He’ll be shut down at least two weeks, and Brian Cashman acknowledged Chapman could miss a month. That bites. Time for some thoughts.

1. Chapman admitted yesterday his shoulder has been barking for a few weeks now, including during that ugly outing in Boston, but he pitched through it and assumed it would get better with treatment. It sounds kinda dumb and risky — why pitch through discomfort in your throwing shoulder?!? — but my guess is this sort of thing happens all the time. Stick any pitcher in an MRI tube and you’ll find some inflammation or tendinitis. No one is ever truly 100% during the season. Chapman said it wasn’t until Friday that the discomfort became too much to bear, which is when he finally said something. It’s pretty amazing he was still getting his fastball up into triple digits even with a balky shoulder — since the Boston game, Chapman has thrown roughly one-quarter of his fastballs at 100+ mph, topping out at 101.6 mph — which is another reminder this guy is a physical freak. He’s so strong and athletic that even a bum shoulder couldn’t stop him from throwing harder than, like, 99% of all pitchers.

2. I absolutely believe Chapman’s current shoulder woes could be the product of his postseason workload last year. The World Series hangover phenomenon is very real. Chapman threw a lot of intense innings last season — he threw 73.1 total innings in 2016, one out short of his career high, and he did that despite being missing April with his suspension — and also had a much shorter offseason. More work, less time to recover. Chapman wouldn’t be the first pitcher to suffer through a World Series hangover and he won’t be the last. I’m not saying Cubs manager Joe Maddon was wrong to ride Chapman so hard during the postseason. I would want Joe Girardi to do the exact same thing in that situation. It’s just that the workload happened and Chapman may be dealing with the consequences now. The Yankees were well aware of the risks when they signed him. Hopefully spending a few weeks on the disabled list will knock this all out and Chapman will feel as good as new when he returns.

3. It goes without saying the Yankees should be ultra-cautious with Chapman and I’m sure they will be. He is six weeks into his massive five-year contract, and they don’t want to push him too hard and risk a potentially minor injury turning into something more severe. It’s better to lose Chapman for a few weeks now than many weeks later, you know? Chapman said yesterday what he feels now is similar to what he felt in 2011, when he missed roughly six weeks with shoulder inflammation. I guess that’s kinda reassuring? He’s been through this before and knows what to expect, plus, when he returned from the disabled list in 2011, he showed no ill-effects. He went back to being a flame-throwing monster on the mound. Still, aside from the Greg Bird situation, the Yankees are almost always conservative with injuries, especially with pitchers, and I’m sure that will be the case here. Chapman is too important and owed too much money to rush him back.

4. Girardi confirmed yesterday Dellin Betances will take over as the closer and that doesn’t surprise me at all. When faced with similar situations in the past, Girardi has typically bumped everyone in the bullpen up a notch on the depth chart, and that’s what’ll happen here. I know Betances struggled as the closer last September — weird how everyone seems to have forgotten he was nails as the closer in August, isn’t it? — but I believe that was more workload related than role related. Betances has been throwing high-leverage innings for the Yankees for more than three years now. No reason to think he’ll suddenly stop getting outs because he’s pitching an inning later than usual. Losing Chapman bites because he’s great and the Yankees will be without a top notch reliever. They won’t suffer in the ninth inning though. Betances will be fine. The difference will show up in the middle innings, when someone like Adam Warren won’t be available because he’s taken over as the seventh inning guy.

5. That all said, I wonder whether it would be smart to let Tyler Clippard close rather than Betances. Clippard could start the ninth inning fresh with no one on base, allowing Betances to remain a setup man and potentially put out fires in the seventh inning on occasion. Clippard could do that too — he’s gotten four outs twice in his last five appearances — but, frankly, Betances is the more dominant pitcher, and I’d rather see the Yankees avoid bringing Clippard into an inning with men on base given his extreme fly ball tendencies. That’s asking for a multi-run homer, especially at Yankee Stadium. Clippard as closer and Betances in the fireman setup role may be the most optimal bullpen deployment. Then again, Betances has hit a wall the last two Septembers, so maybe limiting him to one-inning closer outings now allows him to remain effective deeper into the season. Hopefully Clippard and Betances (and Warren) are lights out and who pitches when isn’t a big deal. I just worry we’re going to see seventh or eighth inning leads evaporate with Betances sitting in the bullpen, being held back for the save situation.

Yankeemetrics: Bronx Bummer (May 11-14)

(AP)
(AP)

Game of Inches
Entering Thursday the Astros and Yankees were baseball’s two best teams, separated by just .001 in the win percentage column, so it was fitting that the first game of the series was decided on the final play, by mere inches.

Down two runs in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and two men in scoring position, Gary Sanchez lined a single through the left side of the infield; Aaron Hicks scored easily from third base but Jacoby Ellsbury – racing home from second – was thrown out at the plate as the potential game-tying run.

Those types of rally-killing outs on the bases have been piling up for the Yankees this season. It was the sixth baserunning out at home plate by a Yankee this season, tying the Red Sox for the most in the AL through Thursday, and one shy of the major-league-leading Marlins.

Yet, the heart-wrenching nature of this play is actually quite rare: This was just the third time since 1930 that a game ended on a base hit with a Yankee being thrown out at home as the potential game-tying run.

The last time it happened was August 12, 1987 against the Royals when Wayne Tolleson was nailed at the plate trying to score from first on Roberto Kelly’s double to left field. Before that, you have to go back all the way to May 9, 1930 against the Tigers, when Tony Lazzeri was thrown out trying to score from second on Bill Dickey’s single.

Ellsbury was also involved in the Yankees only other run, when he got a catcher’s interference call with the bases loaded in the fifth inning. It was his 28th catcher’s interference, one shy of tying Pete Rose for the all-time MLB record. Of course, Rose is also the all-time record-holder in career plate appearances (15,890), while Ellsbury ranked 960th in that stat (5,084) through Thursday.

In yet another oddity, it was the first time in his career that Ellsbury got a catcher’s interference call with the bases loaded. And it had been more than two decades since any Yankee did that – the last one was by Pat Kelly in 1992 against the A’s.

(Newsday)
(Newsday)

Dead Bats Society
The Yankees offense went into a deep freeze on a chilly Friday night in the Bronx, barely avoiding a shutout in a listless 5-1 loss to the Astros. Didi Gregorius‘ RBI single with two outs in the ninth kept the Yankees as one of three teams (Twins, Nationals) that haven’t been blanked this season.

Brian McCann delivered the big blow for the Astros when he clubbed a three-run homer in the fourth inning to break a scoreless tie. It was his 47th homer at Yankee Stadium since 2014, the most home runs hit by any player at the Stadium in that span – and 12 more than the next guy on the list (Carlos Beltran, who also was sitting in the visiting dugout this weekend).

Lance McCullers dominated the Yankee lineup with a devastating mix of 95-mph fastballs and knee-buckling curves, holding them to zero runs on four hits over six innings while striking out seven and walking none. That seems good, eh? McCullers (23 years, 222 days) is the youngest pitcher ever to throw at least six scoreless, walk-free innings with seven-plus strikeouts in his first road appearance against the Yankees.

(AP)
(AP)

Comeback kings strike again
The Yankees kicked off Mother’s Day/Derek Jeter Night with a slump-busting, 11-6 come-from-behind win in the first game of Sunday’s double-header. It was their eighth victory when trailing by at least two runs, the second-most in baseball this season.

The first rally came in the fourth inning and was sparked by a couple longballs off the bats of Starlin Castro and Aaron Judge. Castro’s two-run homer knotted the score at 3-3, his fourth game-tying homer of the season, which matched Freddie Freeman for the most in the majors. Judge’s go-ahead, 441-foot solo blast to dead-center was his MLB-leading sixth home run of at least 430 feet in 2017, two more than any other player.

The second and decisive rally came in the seventh inning, when the Yankees erupted for six runs to erase a 6-4 deficit. The biggest blow was a tie-breaking, bases-loaded triple by Chase Headley. In the last 20 years, the only other Yankee with a go-ahead, bases-clearing triple in the seventh inning or later was Bernie Williams on June 21, 2005 against Tampa Bay.

(Getty)
(Getty)

#RE2PECT2JETER
The excited buzz and loud cheers lingering from the Stadium crowd following Derek Jeter’s number retirement ceremony were quickly silenced when George Springer stepped into the batter’s box and led off the game with a home run. That sparked a six-run first inning for Houston and paved the way for a deflating 10-7 loss by the Yankees.

Masahiro Tanaka was clobbered amid a chorus of boooooos, producing the worst start of his major-league career. He matched career-worsts in innings pitched (1 2/3) and homers allowed (4), while surrendering a career-high eight runs, and etching his name in the record books — for the wrong reason.

Tanaka became the first pitcher in Yankees history to give up at least eight earned runs and four home runs in a game while pitching fewer than two innings.

Three of those home runs came in the first inning, putting the Yankees in a huge early hole that even the Comeback Kings couldn’t dig out of. Going back to 1950 (as far back as Baseball-Reference.com has mostly complete play-by-play data), the Astros are the only visiting team to hit three-or-more home runs in the first inning of a game at Yankee Stadium.

As horrible as this game ended up, we can still end this Yankeemetrics on high note by honoring The Captain with the ultimate #JeterFunFact.

Here’s the list of players in major-league history to compile at least 3,000 hits, 250 homers, 350 stolen bases and 1,300 RBIs in a career: Derek Sanderson Jeter.

Fan Confidence Poll: May 15th, 2017

Record Last Week: 2-4 (34 RS, 33 RA)
Season Record: 22-13 (201 RS, 148 RA, 22-13 pythag. record)
Opponents This Week: Mon. OFF, @ Royals (three games, Tues. to Thurs.), @ Rays (three games, Fri. to Sun.)

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