2015 Minor League Awards

The Staten Island Yankees won their division in 2015. (Robert Pimpsner)
The Staten Island Yankees won their division in 2015. (Robert Pimpsner)

Moreso than at any other point in the last, I dunno, 10-15 years or so, the Yankees dipped into their farm system for help this summer. Whether it was the bullpen shuttle, injury replacements, or late-season call-ups, the Yankees showed faith in the young players and have largely been rewarded at the Major League level. That alone qualifies 2015 as a good season for the farm system.

The Yankees welcomed yet another affiliate to the organization this year in the rookie level Pulaski Yankees. The team’s eight (!) domestic full season affiliates went a combined 422-403 (.512) this summer, giving them back-to-back winning seasons in the minors. (The system had an overall losing record in 2013 for the first time in at least 30 years.) None of the affiliates won a championship but Pulaski, Short Season Staten Island, and Triple-A Scranton all qualified for the postseason. Staten Island advanced to the Championship Series.

Now that the postseason is over, it’s time to hand out some awards for the minor league season. As always, these awards are totally subjective and completely meaningless. I have no authority whatsoever. This is just my look back at the season with recognition for those who played well. This isn’t any sort of top prospects list. It’s a best performers list regardless of prospect status. That make sense? Good.

Here are my 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 awards posts. Hard to believe I’ve been doing this nine years already. Time flies, man.

Minor League Player of the Year: OF Ben Gamel
After spending the last two seasons as a light-hitting, somewhat interesting outfield prospect at High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton, the 23-year-old Gamel broke out in 2015 and was the best player in the farm system from start to finish. He hit .300/.358/.472 (138 wRC+) in 129 games with Triple-A Scranton and led the system in both hits (150) and extra-base hits (52). Gamel ranked third in doubles (28), first in triples (14), eighth in homers (ten), and second in plate appearances (592). His defense reportedly improved as well, so much so he took regular turns in center field down the stretch for the RailRiders. If there was voting for this award, I think it would be unanimous. Gamel was that much better than everyone else in the system in 2015.

Minor League Pitcher of the Year: RHP Luis Severino
Severino is in the big league rotation right now, but he spent the majority of the season in the minors and finished the year with the 19th most innings in the system (99.1) despite getting called up in early-August. The 21-year-old had a 2.45 ERA (2.45 FIP!) with Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton this summer, striking out 24.8% of batters faced while walking only 6.8%. Among the 25 pitchers who threw at least 80 innings in the system this summer, Severino ranked fourth in strikeout rate and third in K/BB ratio (3.63). The guys ahead of him are all older, pitched at a lower level, or both. Even in an abbreviated minor league season (abbreviated for a good reason, of course), Severino was the best pitcher in the organization this year. Honorable Mention: RHP Brady Lail and LHP Jordan Montgomery

Minor League Hitter of the Year: C Gary Sanchez
By self-imposed rule, the winner of my Minor League Player of the Year award is not eligible for the Hitter or Pitcher of the Year award, because that would be boring. Gamel would win this too. Sanchez, 22, gets the hitter honors instead after hitting .271/.329/.476 (131 wRC+) with 23 doubles and 18 home runs in 96 games split between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton. Even though it feels like he has been around forever, Sanchez was still two and a half years younger than the average Eastern League player this year. He was eighth in doubles and second in homers in the system — his 18 homers were fourth most among catchers in the minors, the leader had 20, and the three guys ahead of Sanchez all played at least 12 more games — despite, you know, being a catcher. Catching is hard. Honorable Mention: OF Aaron Judge and 1B Greg Bird

Breakout Player of the Year: RHP Rookie Davis
A 3.86 ERA in 130.2 innings doesn’t jump out at you, but the 22-year-old Davis broke out this summer thanks to his greatly improved command and control. He went from middling strikeout (19.1%) and walk (7.6%) numbers with Low-A Charleston in 2014 to a very good strikeout rate (23.5%) and an excellent walk rate (4.7%) with High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton in 2015. That 3.86 ERA comes with a 2.47 FIP, 11th lowest among the 569 pitchers to throw at least 100 innings in the minors this year. Simply put, Davis improved his prospect stock more than any other player in the system this summer, and that’s why he gets the award. Honorable Mention: RHP Domingo Acevedo and RHP Cale Coshow

Best Pro Debut: OF Trey Amburgey
This was not an easy call. Several 2015 draftees and international free agent signees has big debuts in their first taste of pro ball, but Amburgey, New York’s 13th round pick this summer, was better than all of them. The 20-year-old from Florida’s east coast hit .335/.388/.502 (161 wRC+) with 12 doubles, six triples, five homers, and 21 steals in 25 attempts (84%) in 62 games for the Rookie GCL Yankees and Short Season Staten Island. Amburgey also had a solid 15.5% strikeout rate in his first summer as a professional. What a beast. Honorable Mention: OF Carlos Vidal and SS Wilkerman Garcia

Comeback Player of the Year: LHP Dietrich Enns
Enns, 24, blew out his elbow last May, had Tommy John surgery, and returned to the mound this June. In 58.2 carefully monitored innings across 12 starts and one relief appearance, Enns posted a 0.61 ERA (2.39 FIP) with a very good strikeout rate (23.7%) and an acceptable walk rate (8.6%) considering location is usually the last thing to come back following elbow reconstruction. Almost 1,900 pitchers threw at least 50 innings in the minors this year (1,393 to be exact). None had a lower ERA than Enns. Honorable Mention: OF Slade Heathcott and OF Mason Williams

Bounceback Player of the Year (started slow, finished strong): 2B Gosuke Katoh
Last season was very rough for Katoh, who followed up his brilliant pro debut with the Rookie GCL Yankees in 2013 with a .222/.345/.326 (96 wRC+) batting line with Low-A Charleston in 2014. Katoh, 20, returned to the River Dogs this year, and hit a weak .161/.264/.202 (42 wRC+) in 39 games before the Yankees pulled the plug. They sent him back to Extended Spring Training for a few weeks before assigning him to the new Rookie Pulaski affiliate. With Pulaski, Katoh hit .287/.426/.416 (143 wRC+) with nine doubles, five homers, 49 walks (!), and 61 strikeouts in 59 games. The end result is a .240/.365/.331 (104 wRC+) batting line on the season. Considering how he started with Charleston, that’s pretty incredible. Honorable Mention: 3B Miguel Andujar and LHP Caleb Smith

Most Disappointing Player of the Year: OF Tyler Austin
This was supposed to be The Year. The year Austin was finally healthy, finally able to prove himself at Triple-A, and maybe even get called up to the show. Instead, he was dropped from the 40-man roster earlier this month to make room for a September call-up, and sailed through waivers unclaimed. Ouch. Austin, 24, hit .235/.309/.311 (82 wRC+) in 73 games with the RailRiders before being demoted to Double-A Trenton, where he hit .260/.337/.455 (128 wRC+) in 21 games. That all works out to a .240/.315/.343 (92 wRC+) batting line with only 21 extra-base hits in 94 games. Yeesh.

All-Minor League Teams

First Team Second Team Third Team
Catcher Gary Sanchez Austin Romine Kyle Higashioka
First Base Greg Bird Chris Gittens Kane Sweeney
Second Base Jose Pirela Rob Refsnyder Thairo Estrada
Shortstop Jorge Mateo Tyler Wade Wilkerman Garcia
Third Base Eric Jagielo Cole Figueroa Donny Sands
Outfield Ben Gamel Trey Amburgey Austin Aune
Outfield Aaron Judge Jake Cave Dustin Fowler
Outfield Carlos Vidal Nathan Mikolas Jhalan Jackson
Starting Pitcher Luis Severino Rookie Davis Jonathan Holder
Starting Pitcher Brady Lail Chaz Hebert Cale Coshow
Starting Pitcher Jordan Montgomery Joey Maher Eric Ruth
Relief Pitcher Nick Goody Caleb Cotham Conor Mullee
Relief Pitcher Evan Rutckyj Alex Smith Johnny Barbato

Lifetime Achievement Award: C Austin Romine
Believe it or not, the 26-year-old Romine is the fifth longest tenured homegrown player in the Yankees organization. Only Ivan Nova (signed in 2004), Brett Gardner (drafted in 2005), Dellin Betances (drafted in 2006), and Jose Pirela (signed in 2006) have been with the Yankees longer than Romine, who was New York’s second round pick in the 2007 amateur draft out of a California high school.

Romine was a significant prospect at one time — he made Baseball America’s annual top 100 prospects list in both 2010 (No. 86) and 2011 (No. 98) — who has instead become a solid depth catcher who spent parts of four seasons in the big leagues. That includes the 2013 season, when he got an extended look as Chris Stewart’s backup (!). The Yankees removed Romine from the 40-man roster at the end of Spring Training this year and he then hit a solid .260/.311/.379 (99 wRC+) with seven homers in 92 games for Triple-A Scranton.

In parts of nine minor league seasons with the Yankees, Romine hit .270/.326/.396 (102 wRC+) with 58 home runs in 689 games and 2,832 plate appearances. His best full season was his first, when he put up an impressive .300/.344/.437 (120 wRC+) batting line with 10 homers in 104 games as the everyday catcher for Low-A Charleston. Romine did that as a 19-year-old catcher in his first full pro season. He was big time back then.

Things never did work out for Romine and the Yankees, though he became a solid organizational catcher who saw time in the big leagues and deserves credit for working with the young pitchers in the farm system. Guys like this are too often overlooked for their roles in the minors.

Yankeemetrics: Stayin’ Alive in Tampa (Sept. 14-16)

(AP Photo)
(AP Photo)

Summer of Slade
No-hit through seven innings by a pitcher with a 6.20 ERA in his previous four starts and down to their last out in the ninth inning, the Yankees somehow rallied for a stunning win over the Rays on Monday night.

This most improbable comeback happened only because a guy with more than 3,000 hits did something he’d never before done in his 21 major-league seasons (more on that later), and a rookie who hadn’t gotten a major-league at-bat since May 27 sent the first pitch he saw into the seats for the game-winning homer.

Erasmo Ramirez completely shut down the Yankees bats, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning before a leadoff single by Carlos Beltran ruined his chance at history. He left after giving up that one hit in 7 2/3 innings, the longest outing with one or fewer hits allowed in a game against the Yankees by a Rays pitcher.

A-Rod then saved the Yankees from a potential season-crushing loss with his two-out game-tying double in the top of the ninth inning. It was his 3,060th career hit — but the very first one that tied a game with two outs in the ninth inning. #ClutchRod

Two batters later, No. 72 delivered a first-pitch fastball into the left field seats to give the Yankees a 4-1 lead and the Most Important Win of The Season. How rare (and clutch) was that blast?

Slade Heathcott is the first Yankee with an two-out, tie-breaking home run in the ninth inning of a September game during a pennant race since … Graig Nettles on Sept. 23, 1977 against the Blue Jays. The Yankees had a slim 1.5-game division lead heading into that contest with less than two weeks left on the schedule. Let’s hope this 2015 season has a happy ending just like the 1977 version.

No relief
The Yankees came crashing back down to earth in Tuesday’s 6-3 loss, as their rally fell just short in the ninth inning despite bringing the tying run to the plate.

They held a one-run advantage heading into the bottom of the sixth inning, and things were looking good, but the bullpen imploded and the Rays held on for the win. Before this game, the Yankees were 52-7 (.881) when taking a lead into the sixth inning. That’s actually pretty darn good, considering the league average win percentage in those situations is .829.

Greg Bird would have been the hero if not for the bullpen deciding to give up runs. His two-run homer in the fourth inning turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead. That was his sixth homer of the season — and five of those six gave the Yankees the lead.

Sevvy’s back
The Yankees won the rubber game on Wednesday night thanks to another solid performance from Luis Severino and just enough offense to produce a 3-1 victory. They ended up going 12-6 against the Rays in 2015, their best season record vs. Tampa Bay since 2006.

Severino bounced back from the worst outing of his short major-league career by holding the Rays to just one run in 5 2/3 innings. He now has five starts allowing one earned run or fewer within his first eight major-league games. The last Yankee to begin a career like that was Tiny Bonham, who debuted in August 1940 and went 9-3 with a 1.90 ERA in 12 starts down the stretch. (He threw 10 complete games, including three shutouts, and somehow even got a down-ballot MVP vote.)

Jacoby Ellsbury snapped his massive hitting slump with a first-inning single off Chris Archer. Before that hit, he was in an 0-for-25 rut that included five straight games without a hit. Ellsbury is the only Yankee center fielder in the last 100 seasons with five consecutive games going 0-for-4 or worse at the plate.

Only a handful of Yankees had ever put together a streak like that, regardless of position, and the last two were Ichiro in 2013 and Derek Jeter in 2004 — two guys that combined for more than 6,000 major-league hits.

The fact that Ellsbury was able to end that streak against Archer wasn’t surprising. He is now 16-for-24 (.667) in his career against the Rays’ ace, easily his best batting average vs. any pitcher he’s faced at least 20 times, and the highest average against Archer by any batter that has faced him more than 10 times.

Thoughts on Thursday’s off-day


Today is the Yankees’ final off-day of the 2015 season. The close the regular season with 17 games in 17 days starting tomorrow. This season really flew by, didn’t it? The race for a postseason spot should be a pretty good one. Here are some miscellaneous thoughts.

1. If you had told me back in Spring Training the Yankees would be three games back in the AL East and 3.5 games up for the first wildcard spot with 17 games to play, I would have taken it in a heartbeat. There were plenty of reasons to be skeptical about Yankees chances coming into the season. At the same time, if you would have told me that on, say, July 25th, I would have been kinda annoyed. The Yankees are exceeding expectations this season in the big picture, but expectations re-calibrate, and when they had that seven-game lead halfway through the season, my focus shifted to the AL East title. Yes, I’m glad the Yankees are in postseason position right now. I’ve greatly missed October baseball. It’s also pretty annoying their seven-game lead has turned into a three-game deficit. That sucks.

2. At this point, I think it’s clear the Yankees made the right move keeping their top prospects at the trade deadline. That has nothing to do with how Luis Severino and Greg Bird have performed since being called up either. Once they had that seven-game lead, I was all-in on 2015 and hoping the Yankees would be open to trading a top prospect or two for a legitimate difference-maker to improve their chances. They had obvious needs (pitching, second base, etc.) and there were some potentially huge upgrades out there. Now though, I’m not sure David Price or Ben Zobrist or Craig Kimbrel or whoever would have been enough to prevent them from falling out of first place. (Price might have since he wound up with the Blue Jays, but I don’t think we can say that with any certainty.) The offense has slowed, the bullpen has hit a wall, the rotation is shaky … there’s too much going wrong for me to believe one or two trades would have been enough to stay in first place. Keeping Severino and Bird and whoever else was the right move, in hindsight.

3. Moving Ivan Nova to the bullpen had to happen. The Yankees are in a postseason race and he’s been way too ineffective to keep running him out there this late in the season. I wouldn’t waste any time trying to figure out what the move means for Nova and the Yankees going forward either. This looks very much like a short-term move designed to improve the team’s chances right now, in late-September 2015. That’s all. Next year and beyond is another matter the two sides will deal with at a later time. With any luck, Nova will emerge as a reliable reliever to help improve a bullpen that has become quite shaky of late. That would be really cool. He couldn’t stay in the rotation though. Guys who allow 29 runs in a 35-inning span like Nova has his last seven starts don’t get to stay in the rotation in a postseason race. Smart move that improves the Yankees’ chances of playing in October. That’s all there is to it.

Pinder. (Presswire)
Pinder. (Presswire)

4. The downside to the bullpen shuttle is that it didn’t give any of the young relievers a chance to emerge as a potential high-leverage option. Every time someone threw a few innings, the Yankees swapped them out for a fresh arm. Not every pitcher comes up and dominates right away. Most don’t, in fact. David Robertson debuted in 2008 and didn’t became all-world reliever David frickin’ Robertson until 2011, remember. It’s too late now, but next year the Yankees should try to keep one or two of these young relievers in the big leagues to see what they have to offer over an extended period of time. How else can they evaluate them? I don’t know if any of these relievers will be any good — my guess is Nick Goody will have a pretty nice impact at some point, and both James Pazos and Branden Pinder end up banking like $30M as part of their 15-year careers as boringly effective middle relievers — but the bullpen shuttle system didn’t give them much of a chance to show anything. Now they’re all being pressed into important situations and no one knows anything about them.

5. Assistant GM Billy Eppler appears to be the front-runner for the Angels GM job — he’s also going to interview for the Mariners GM job, reportedly — and it seems the Yankees are likely to lose him to another team now more than ever. If Eppler does get the Anaheim job, I’m curious to see what happens next. New GMs tend to poach some front office talent from their former organizations — Padres GM A.J. Preller hired a bunch of people away from the Rangers, for example — and I have no reason to think it would be different with Eppler. I don’t know nearly enough about the team’s front office hierarchy to guess who Eppler might try to poach or what the Yankees might do to replace him. That’s why I’m so interested to see what happens. Of course, I’d rather they not lose Eppler at all. By all accounts he’s a really smart guy and the pro scouting department cranked out low-cost producers like Luis Ayala, Bartolo Colon, and Eric Chavez under his watch a few years ago. We’ll see. The front office dynamics may change quite a bit this offseason. Or maybe they won’t change much at all.

Severino outduels Archer, Yankees win 3-1 and take the series

(Source: Getty)

Behind Luis Severino‘s big arm, the Yankees took tonight’s game 3-1 and the series against the Rays. Good to head to Flushing on a positive note, right? It was also good to see Severino have a solid outing after a rough one versus the Blue Jays. The lineup managed to score two off of Chris Archer and Greg Bird added an insurance monster home run for three total runs, which were good enough for tonight.

First two runs

Yankees struck first in the second. Carlos Beltran walked to lead off the inning and Bird hit a hard slider deep into the gap to drive in the first run. Bird advanced to third on a Chase Headley groundout but failed to score thanks to Didi Gregorius‘ ground out to first and Dustin Ackley‘s line out.

(Source: Getty)

The Yankees added another run in the sixth. With two outs and Brian McCann on first, Greg Bird walked on four pitches to put a runner on scoring position. Chase Headley followed it up with a soft single to left to drive McCann in. 2-0 Yankees. Nice to see the offense take advantage of opportunities like this especially when your young ace is dealing.


Luis Severino, a 21-year old thrown into the big leagues in the middle of a heated pennant race, had a nice bounceback outing tonight – 5.2 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 1 BB and 7 strikeouts, lowering his ERA to 3.12 in 43.1 IP, which is pretty awesome for a 21-year old in ML. Dare I say … he is like how I envisioned Phil Hughes would be back in 2007 when the righty was called up to the big leagues.

Unlike the previous start, when his command seemed to be a liability, Severino managed to avoid big hits (mostly) and strike hitters out. In the sixth inning, however, with one out and runner on first, Severino allowed a big fly ball to Steven Souza that hit the roof of the Tropicana Field, allowing the first and only run of the match. After striking out Nick Franklin for the second out of the inning, Joe Girardi took Severino out. That frame might not have gone as everyone had wanted, but the outing pleased a lot of people, that’s for sure.

Justin Wilson, who relieved Severino in the sixth, struck out Kevin Kiermaier to get out of the frame scoreless.

(Source: Getty)

Dellin Betances vs. Command

The Yankees ran into a bit of a scare in the bottom of seventh. After Justin Wilson got two quick outs, Girardi brought in Betances to get the last out of the frame. We’ve all seen this, right? Tonight, the process went quite more stressful than how it usually has.

After getting ahead 0-2, Betances totally lost the strike zone to walk the pinch-hitting Grady Sizemore. And then he went on to walk the next two batters – Evan Longoria and Logan Forsythe – to load the bases. Betances has run into some kind of rut with command lately.

Thankfully, he struck out James Loney in three pitches. Loney was Rays’ best hitter by far against Severino, going 3-for-3 against the 21-year old. But he didn’t stand a chance against Betances – a 82 mph curve for called strike, 98 mph fastball for called strike and whiffed on a 86 mph curve for a big, fat K.

Betances had a much more stress-free eighth. He allowed a leadoff single to Souza Jr. on the first pitch. Two pitches later, however, Franklin’s bunt lined softly to Headley’s glove and he doubled off Souza Jr. for a double play. Another two later, Kiermaier grounded out to end the inning – a five pitch eighth!


In the top ninth, with Andrew Bellatti pitching, Bird hit a 84 mph changeup way out of the park to extend the lead to 3-1. I have no idea how far that home run went but it was just absolutely crushed – it hit the back wall above the Tropicana sign above the right field seats. He’s no Mark Teixeira but after tonight’s game, he’s hit for a nice 127 wRC+ in 115 plate appearances.

Oh, and in the bottom ninth, Andrew Miller threw a clean 1-2-3 frame to close out the game. He’s just absolutely filthy – 14.56 K/9 with a 2.62 BB/9, those two say it all .

Box score, standings, highlights and WPA

Here’s tonight’s box score, updated standings, video highlights and WPA.

Source: FanGraphs

The Yankees have a day-off tomorrow and will face the Mets for a three-game series this weekend. That will be exciting, don’t you think?

Game 145: Escape from Tampa


The Yankees and Rays wrap up their season series tonight, and the final game of the season at Tropicana Field is always something to celebrate. It is, hands down, the worst ballpark I’ve ever visited. I appreciated the effort the ownership group has put into making the place fan friendly, but man, it just isn’t happening. It is a D+ baseball experience at best.

Anyway, the Yankees have already won the season series over the Rays, but tonight’s game has big picture importance. There are only 18 games left in the season and that three-game deficit in the AL East won’t erase itself. Too many winnable games have turned into losses of late. That needs to stop. Here is Tampa Bay’s lineup and here is New York’s lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Brett Gardner
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. C Brian McCann
  5. RF Carlos Beltran
  6. 1B Greg Bird
  7. 3B Chase Headley
  8. SS Didi Gregorius
  9. 2B Dustin Ackley
    RHP Luis Severino

It’s raining again in St. Petersburg, so good thing the Trop has a roof, I guess. Tonight’s game will begin a bit after 7pm ET and you can watch on WPIX. Enjoy.

Rotation Update: Joe Girardi announced Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, and CC Sabathia will start against the Mets this weekend, in that order. He did not commit to starting Tanaka against the Blue Jays next Wednesday, however. “We’ll have to see how he feels,” said Girardi … in case you missed it earlier, Ivan Nova has been moved to the bullpen.

Schedule Update: The Yankees announced the start time for game against the White Sox on Saturday, September 26th will be 4pm ET. The start time had previously been listed at TBA.

Yankees move Ivan Nova to the bullpen


The Yankees have removed Ivan Nova from the rotation, Joe Girardi told reporters this afternoon. Nova will be used out of the bullpen going forward. He is not available tonight but will be starting Friday. Girardi said the decision was purely performance related.

Nova, 28, has a 5.11 ERA (4.92 FIP) in 14 starts and 75.2 innings this season following his return from Tommy John surgery. He’s been especially bad of late, allowing 29 runs and 59 base-runners in his last seven starts and 35 innings. Nova’s been getting worse as he gets further away from elbow reconstruction, not better.

This isn’t the first time the Yankees have yanked Nova from the rotation due to ineffectiveness. They did it in 2013 as well, when he had a 6.48 ERA after four starts. Nova made three relief appearances before rejoining the rotation that year, and, to his credit, he dominated down the stretch. Maybe the demotion was a wake-up call.

I’m curious to see how Girardi will use Nova going forward. Will he step into the old Adam Warren role as sort of a multi-inning guy who can pitch the middle innings or late in the game if necessary? Or will Nova be held back as a pure long man? There’s not much time left in the season. If he’s going to carve out a niche, he needs to do it soon.

Shreve’s splitter has deserted him during recent skid


For most of the season, left-hander Chasen Shreve has been a middle innings weapon for Joe Girardi, often getting crucial outs in the sixth and seventh innings to get the ball to the big guys (literally and figuratively!) in the eight and ninth innings. From Opening Day through the end of July, Shreve had a 1.77 ERA (3.17 FIP) with a 27.0% strikeout rate in 40.2 innings. That is really, really good.

Lately though, Shreve has been a liability, and he hit what I hope is rock bottom in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, when he walked in three runs after inheriting a bases loaded jam. Since August 1st, the 25-year-old Shreve has a 4.02 ERA (7.62 FIP!) in 15.2 innings. He’s still striking out a ton of guys (25.6%), but he’s also walked 15 of 78 batters faced (19.2%). That’s bad. Shreve had a 9.7% walk rate prior to August 1st.

When the Yankees acquired Shreve in the offseason, he was billed as a fastball-slider pitcher who turned his career around last season by simply throwing harder. He stopped holding back for the sake of improved location. Shreve’s splitter, which we all now know is a huge reason for his success, was undersold or overlooked. That pitch made him a borderline relief ace for much of the season, capable of retiring both righties and lefties.

That split-finger pitch — and its sudden ineffectiveness — is behind Shreve’s recent struggles, it appears. In short, hitters aren’t offering at the pitch as often as they were earlier in the season, and when they do swing, they’re making contact. The swing-and-miss ability has disappeared and hitters aren’t chasing the pitch out of the zone. To the numbers on the splitter:

% Thrown Zone% Swing% Chase% Whiff%
April 20.7% 82.7% 45.5% 6.5% 21.2%
May 26.4% 79.2% 50.0% 8.8% 26.2%
June 35.1% 70.3% 38.5% 10.3% 23.1%
July 33.3% 70.2% 42.1% 10.5% 19.3%
August 38.8% 69.5% 47.8% 12.3% 19.6%
September 30.4% 72.2% 29.2% 3.8% 8.3%

(Swing% is just percentage of swings against the splitter. Chase% is swings at splitters out of the zone. Whiff% covers swings and misses on all splitters, in and out of the zone. Eno Sarris recently noted Shreve’s splitter has the second largest difference in whiff rate between pitches in the zone and out of the zone in baseball.)

In the simplest terms, the splitter works by looking like a fastball. The pitcher throws the pitch, the hitter reads fastball, his brain sends instructions to the rest of his body, he starts to swing at the fastball, then boom, the pitch drops off the table. Laying off a good splitter out of the zone is impossible — good splitters start as fastballs in the zone and don’t move out of the zone until the hitter starts his swing.

For some reason hitters have been picking up Shreve’s splitter in recent weeks, and they aren’t offering at the pitch as often. They aren’t swinging at it as much in general, and they definitely aren’t chasing it out of the zone either. During that disaster outing Saturday, Shreve threw six splitters and the Blue Jays swung at one. Josh Donaldson took this 1-2 splitter like he knew it was coming:

Chasen Shreve Josh Donaldson

Shreve’s inability throw his fastball for strikes — he threw 15 fastballs and only seven were strikes — hurt him more than anything Saturday. The splitter only works if you occasionally throw some fastballs in the zone to keep hitters honest. Big leaguers can hit almost any pitch if they know it’s coming.

The sudden ineffectiveness of Shreve’s splitter is likely the result of a combination of things. For starters, he’s been in the league for a full season now, so the book is out. Teams know the splitter is his out pitch. The element of surprise is gone. Secondly, Shreve simply isn’t throwing enough strikes with his fastball. Only 34.5% of his fastballs have been in the zone since August 1st. Yikes. He was up over 40% earlier this season. That little bit makes a big difference on the field.

With Adam Warren moving back into the rotation, the Yankees have a void in middle relief. They need someone to step up and help bridge the gap between the starter and the end-game trio of Justin Wilson, Dellin Betances, and Andrew Miller. Shreve was that guy for much of the season, but his recent performance has presumably knocked him down the depth chart a bit. The Yankees need Shreve to stop walking people first and foremost, and once he does that, his splitter should be a bit more effective.