Archive for Pitching
Two games into his MLB career, Masahiro Tanaka looks very much like the number two starter he was expected to be when he left the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Yeah, he has shown a penchant for the long ball, but he has also struck out 18 of 56 batters faced (32.1%) while walking only one (1.8%). He leads the league in swing and miss rate (17.2%) and in getting hitters to chase out of the zone (43.9%), both by comfortable margins.
Obviously the element of surprise is working in Tanaka’s favor. Most MLB hitters have never faced him before, and while they can watch all the video and read all the scouting reports in the world, there’s no substitute for standing in the box and seeing him for yourself. Tanaka definitely has an advantage right now, but eventually that element of surprise will go away. That’s okay though! He’s not going to turn into Sidney Ponson once the book gets out. Or maybe he will. Who knows? Whatever.
Anyway, one thing I’ve noticed about Tanaka in his two starts is that he is very unpredictable. I don’t mean his performance, I mean his pitch selection. It seems like he will throw almost anything in any count, but that’s just what I’ve seen, or at least what I think I’ve seen. I always think back to this whenever I’m writing about anecdotal stuff. PitchFX can tell us more about Tanaka’s pitch selection than my memory, so with a big assist from Brooks Baseball, here is how he has pitched in various situations in his two starts:
I was originally planning to include a table with the pitch selection breakdown by count, but that was a mess of numbers and in some cases the sample was only a handful of pitches. It was too much information. Breaking it down like I did above works much better, trust me. (If you must see the individual count info, you can do it via the Brooks link above.)
The first thing that stands out to me is how Tanaka has pitched with the count even. The cutter is his clear sixth pitch but otherwise he will throw his four-seamer, sinker, slider, and splitter interchangeably in those situations. The curveball lags behind slightly. How do you prepare for that if you’re a hitter? You can’t sit on a pitch with the count even. You can get lucky and guess right, sure, but there’s no pattern there. You’re just as likely to see a straight four-seamer as you are his trademark splitter.
When he gets ahead in the count, Tanaka tends to lean on his slider and especially his splitter, understandably. Those are his out pitches and when you’re ahead, you try to finish hitters off. He still throws plenty of fastballs in those counts, enough to keep hitters honest. When he’s behind, it tends to be mostly fastballs, which is pretty common. Tanaka has still thrown at least four different pitches at least 10% of the time regardless of whether he’s ahead in the count, behind in the count, or even.
So yeah, my memory didn’t lie. Tanaka has been very unpredictable with his pitch selection in his two starts. That doesn’t mean he will pitch this way forever, but that’s what has happened so far. I tend to think unpredictability is a good thing when it comes to pitching, but there is also an argument to be made that Tanaka’s splitter is so good that he shouldn’t bother screwing around with his other pitches in certain situations. Here’s a quote from one scout, courtesy of Baseball Prospectus (no subs. req’d):
“Without a doubt the splitter is a difference maker; it could very well be the best in the game. But I have concerns about the way he nibbles at the plate and drives up his pitch counts at times. He also gets a little too reliant on the fastball as well, using it instead of the splitter too often when he’s ahead of the count. He does have velocity, but it’s not nearly the same caliber of putaway pitch as the splitter. Why eat ground chuck when you’ve got filet in the fridge?”
Tanaka has averaged only 3.54 pitches per plate appearance in his two starts, the 79th lowest among 93 qualified starters. The first two innings of his two starts have been rough, but he’s averaged 3.43 pitches per plate appearance in the first and second inning. It’s 3.60 pitches per plate appearances from the third inning onward. This does not necessarily mean the scout is wrong. Tanaka has had some extended at-bats (like everyone else) and perhaps he could cut down on those by emphasizing the splitter.
The early inning struggles have been annoying, but Tanaka has pitched very well overall against two tough lineups in his two starts. Hitters haven’t seen him and that’s a distinct advantage, and the fact that he mixes pitches and uses his arsenal so well makes him even more unpredictable. Even though he is only 25 years old, Tanaka definitely has a “crafty veteran” element to his pitching style, and it’s a lot of fun to watch.
Through the first seven games of 2014, the story of the Yankees’ season has been the offensive struggles of the new-look middle of the order. Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Alfonso Soriano have yet to produce with any kind of consistency, and as a result the team has had some problems scoring runs. Eventually those guys will come around and the Yankees will score more runs. At least I think they will. They’re not hitting early in the season and things tend to stand out during the first week of April.
Those offensive issues are overshadowing another early theme: the starting rotation has been commanding and dominating the strike zone. In the first seven games, the Yankees’ starters have a 35/7 K/BB in 43 innings, which works out to a 5.00 K/BB ratio. Only the Giants (5.14) have been better. Furthermore, Ivan Nova issued five of those seven walks in his lone start, during which he was very wild and had no feel for his curveball. Exclude him, and the other four starters have a 34/2 K/BB in 37.1 innings, or an absurd 17.00 K/BB ratio.
Obviously that’s a small sample and we’re cherry-picking by excluding Nova, yadda yadda yadda. Still, 34 strikeouts and two walks in 37.1 innings is pretty ridiculous. I mean, yeah, a 17.00 K/BB ratio is unsustainable over a full 162-game season, but I’m not looking to draw any conclusions from this. I just wanted to point out how stellar the starters have been at commanding the zone. It’s a real thing that happened and it’s pretty amazing. These guys aren’t giving out free passes at all.
Now, here’s the thing: this isn’t happening by accident. The Yankees have sought out strong K/BB pitchers in recent years. In the three years before coming to New York, CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda had 4.51 and 3.36 K/BB ratios, respectively. Masahiro Tanaka had an absurd 7.06 K/BB ratio during his final three years with the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Pineda had a 3.15 K/BB during his one season with the Mariners. Nova is the only real exception; he came into 2014 with a career 2.26 K/BB ratio. From 2011-13, the league average for starters was a 2.47 K/BB ratio, for reference.
I think pitching coach Larry Rothschild has something to do with this as well. He came to the Yankees with a reputation for improving strikeout and walk rates — I keep pointing back to these studies, which are definitely due for an update (that’s a post for the offseason, I think) — and he’s continued to do that in New York, for the most part. Sabathia is one example: he had a 20.6% strikeout rate and a 7.4% walk rate in the two years before Rothschild, and a 23.4% strikeout rate and 5.8% walk rate in the first two years with Rothschild. The Yankees target pitchers who command the strike zone well, then they turn them over to their pitching coach, who helps maximize that ability. It’s wonderful.
Two things the Yankees can not change are their ballpark and their division. They’re stuck with Yankee Stadium’s short porch, and they’re stuck playing in the hitter happy AL East. They can control their pitching staff though, at least to some extent, so they’ve targeted pitchers who don’t hurt themselves with walks and generally keep the ball on the ground. (Grounders are actually something of a problem considering the infield defense.) The rotation has taken the whole “no walks” thing to an extreme in these first seven games, and while they won’t keep up this pace all year, this group has pounded the zone early. It’s a big reason why the Yankees acquired these guys, and it’s a big reason why they’ve won four of their last five games.
The Yankees dropped their season-opener to the Astros on Tuesday for more than a few reasons, including a rebuilt offense that didn’t show up until about the seventh inning. CC Sabathia shoulders most of the blame because he was awful, allowing six runs in six innings. Doesn’t matter who you’re playing, climbing out of a 6-0 hole is tough for any lineup.
That game really was a tale of two Sabathias. He was abysmal in those first two innings, allowing all six runs on six hits, including two homers and two doubles. Over his final four innings, Sabathia kept Houston off the board and held them to a walk and two singles, one of which didn’t leave the infield. Five of his six strikeouts came in those final four innings and only one of the 14 batters he faced after the second hit the ball in the air. Sabathia was terrible the first two innings and pretty damn good the final four.
As I mentioned yesterday, the mid-start turn-around was so drastic that you have to think some kind of adjustment was made. Maybe Sabathia did it on his own, maybe pitching coach Larry Rothschild pointed something out, maybe it was Brian McCann. We’ve seen CC struggle early in a start before figuring it out before, so Opening Day wasn’t that unique, but it was especially noticeable on Tuesday. For what it’s worth, Sabathia chalked it up to adrenaline.
“It got out of hand early,” said CC to Chad Jennings after the game. “That’s been the toughest thing for me. I do get so excited. I feel like I’m a kid again. I would sleep in my uniform if I could the night before Opening Day. I think it’s just the nervousness, the jitters, wanting to start the season off good so bad, I end up pitching bad.”
It’s very possible Sabathia’s adjustment was simply calming down, but whatever it was, it should show up in the results somewhere. His velocity held steady all game — his fastball averaged 89.7 mph on Tuesday, down from 90.3 mph on Opening Day last year — and while Sabathia said he starting throwing his new cutter in the later innings, PitchFX didn’t pick any up. Maybe the system is broke, maybe the cutting action was so big they were classified as sliders. Who knows?
Whenever Sabathia struggles, it seems like it’s because he misses his location. That sounds obvious, I know. Sure, he gives up the occasional hit on a pitcher’s pitch like everyone else, but the Astros punished him early because he was missing out over the plate. I’m going to point this out again:
Those are the homers by Jesus Guzman (left) and L.J. Hoes (right). Dexter Fowler swatted a similar pitch to center, leading off the game with a double. Belt high offerings right out over the plate. That’s no way to pitch.
So did Sabathia’s location improve in innings three through six? To the PitchFX data:
Just to be clear, that is looking from the catcher’s perspective.
I was hoping there would be a big blob of blue pitches over the middle of the pitches and a bunch of red on the edges, but no dice. That would have been cool. Sabathia threw 99 pitches in the start, including 50 in the first two innings and 49 in the final four, so the sample is split right down the middle. That’s convenient. There are two things going on in this graph that I want to look at specifically, so let’s make life easy:
Like I said, two things I want to look at, hence the colored ovals. To the details:
Yellow Oval: The Astros had eight right-handed or switch hitters in the lineup, so these pitches are more or less in the wheelhouse. Belt high and right out over the plate. Sabathia threw seven pitches in this general area in the first two innings, resulting in the two homers, Fowler’s double, Jason Castro’s run-scoring fielder’s choice, a foul ball, a called strike, and a swing and a miss. In innings three through six, he threw only two pitches in this area, getting a foul ball and a swing and miss. If you want to count that one extra pitch at the top of the zone that’s hiding under the yellow oval, that’s another swing and miss. So yes, Sabathia did a better job of staying out of the danger zone in those final four innings.
Blue Oval (or cyan, whatever): I’m not going to count pitches and look at individual results here. I’m pointing this part of the strike zone out because it’s the outer half of the plate and generally the bottom half of the zone. With those eight righty bats in the lineup, that where you’d want a left-hander to pitch, down and away. Sabathia didn’t throw too many pitches down there in the first two innings — he was really all over the place in those two innings, geez — but he did a much better job of locating the ball down and away in his final four innings. Getting the ball out of the wheelhouse and instead burying it down there is a surefire way to improve performance.
Location is very important but it is just one piece of the pitching pie. I also want to look at whether Sabathia changed up his pitch mix as the game progressed, so here’s the breakdown:
|Batters Faced||1st Pitch FB||FB%||CH%||SL%|
That is … the exact opposite of what I expected. I thought Sabathia would have thrown fewer fastballs and particularly fewer first-pitch fastballs in those last four innings. Instead, he threw more fastballs than he did earlier in the game. He really pounded the zone with his heater late. Very surprising, at least to me. I guess he just got into a groove and was better able to drive the ball down and away to all those righties.
At some point between the second and third innings, something happened that helped Sabathia better locate his pitches, particularly his fastball. The PitchFX data confirms this. We have Point A (innings 1-2) and Point B (innings 3-6), but no knowledge of Sabathia got there. Maybe he did just calm down. Maybe it really is that simple. I can’t help but think some kind of mechanical adjustment was made, something that helped him get the ball down and get it on the outer half of the plate against righties.
“I just think it was a matter of relaxing. I didn’t want to go out and overthrow and be all over the place, but I think backing off didn’t help either so I got to find a place in the middle where I can pitch good,” said Sabathia to Jennings and Jorge Castillo. “I’ve got 34, hopefully, more starts left. I’m definitely not going to pitch like I did tonight in the first two innings. I know I can pitch, and I know I can get guys out. I feel great. I’m not going to beat myself up about this.”
Sabathia has always been super-accountable and when he struggled last year, he crushed himself after every start. Tuesday though? Eh, no big deal, I’ll be fine. I wonder if that is a function of knowing the problem and knowing how to solve it. Sabathia stunk last year and he always seemed to be looking for a fix. There were no answers and he as clearly frustrated. This year, it seems like he knows what was wrong in those first two innings and knows the solution. He found it in the middle of the start. That he didn’t tear into himself after the game may be an indication that is the case.
Let’s not try to soften the blow here, Sabathia was terrible overall on Opening Day. He didn’t give the Yankees much of a chance at all. That he turned it around literally between innings and settled down is encouraging. We don’t know what changed, but something did. I guess there’s always a chance nothing changed too. We are talking about the Astros. It’s early in the season though and this is the time for optimism, so let’s say he fixed something. Sabathia has a big test against the Blue Jays on Sunday, so we ‘ll get to see if whatever adjustment was make between the second and third innings on Tuesday is a sustainable formula for success.
The Yankees finalized their Opening Day roster over the weekend and made somewhat surprising choices to round out the bullpen and bench. Vidal Nuno won the final bullpen spot while Yangervis Solarte beat out Eduardo Nunez for the final bench spot. I say somewhat surprising because neither of those moves felt impossible, just unlikely. At least they did to me.
The rationale behind the moves is simple. Joe Girardi insisted they would take the best pitchers for the bullpen and that’s what they did by choosing Nuno over guys like Matt Daley and Cesar Cabral. Having three stretched out relievers (Nuno, David Phelps, Adam Warren) allows them to take it easy on Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda early in the season. Solarte flat out outplayed Nunez in camp, plus he’s a switch-hitter, more versatile (can play left field), and more reliable defensively. See? Simple.
So now rather than opening the season on the big league bench, Nunez will start with Triple-A Scranton, presumably playing shortstop everyday. Maybe he’ll move around the infield a bit. With Nuno in the show, the Yankees brought back Al Aceves to fill out the Triple-A pitching staff. He’ll join prospect Shane Greene and veterans Brian Gordon, Chris Leroux, and Bruce Billings in the rotation, though it’s been reported Chase Whitley will also get a rotation spot. We’ll see.
With the rosters set at both the big league and Triple-A level, we finally have a clear picture of the team’s depth. It takes a lot more than 25 players to get through a 162-game season, so the extra 15 guys on the 40-man roster are really important. You know that. Nunez may be gone now, but there’s a pretty good chance he will resurface at some point in 2014. Here is the position player depth chart:
|MLB Starter||MLB Backup||AAA Depth|
Eventually Brendan Ryan will join the infield mix. He’ll start the season on the DL with a back problem, and Brian Cashman recently said he will miss more than the minimum 15 days. How much longer? Who knows. Backs have a way of staying hurt. Whenever he does get healthy, Ryan figures to replace either Dean Anna or Solarte on the bench. Those two won jobs in spring, but they have to continue playing well to keep them.
Anyway, compared to last season, the Yankees have much more position player depth. Obviously that has to do with all the injuries they dealt with in 2013. Guys like Nunez and Ichiro Suzuki were playing everyday last year. This season they are, at best, the third option at their positions. Austin Romine went from MLB backup to Triple-A backup. Scott Sizemore is an almost identical player to Jayson Nix, who played damn near everyday last season. Those types of players are Plan C now, not Plan A.
The pitching staff is a little more straight forward, especially the bullpen. Daley and Leroux pitched well enough in camp to put themselves near the front of the call-up line while Aceves has a track record with the organization. Given his, um, unpredictable personality, that is not necessarily a good thing for him. Greene and when healthy Jose Ramirez are younger options. Cabral is the obvious choice whenever a left-hander is needed. The Yankees didn’t have many bullpen problems last year, though with Mariano Rivera, Boone Logan, and Joba Chamberlain gone, they’ll need their depth a bit more this season.
The rotation depth is a little more unclear. Nuno seemed likely to go to Triple-A to be the sixth starter, but instead he’ll be with the big league squad. In a perfect world, the Yankees would keep him, Phelps, and Warren all stretched out, but that’s not practical. If all of those guys manage to stay stretched out to 80+ pitches, that means the rotation has been a mess and the bullpen is being called on often. Keeping one stretched out is doable, they did it with Warren last year. But two or three guys? That’s not going to happen.
Aceves might be the sixth starter now, but I think the Yankees are taking a simple “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” approach to their rotation depth. They’ll worry about it when the time comes and see what the available options are. Maybe they can pull Nuno or Phelps out of the bullpen, maybe Greene forces the issue, maybe they grab someone off the scrap heap like they did with Gordon three years ago. They might not need a sixth starter until May or June. No sense in worrying about it now.
Don’t get me wrong, we all wish the starting infield was better, but the combination of good health and offseason additions have given the Yankees much more depth for the start of 2014, especially on the positive player side. They’re going to need it too, it’s inevitable. The rotation picture is a little unclear beyond the top five but that’s okay. It’s not like the team doesn’t have options, it’s just that those options are being used in bullpen roles right now so the best possible combination of 25 players are on the Opening Day roster.
It took a little longer than we all would have liked, but Michael Pineda has finally earned a spot in the Yankees’ rotation. He was officially named the fifth starter yesterday, sending David Phelps to the bullpen for the time being. Pineda didn’t win the job by default, he won it fair and square by pitching well in camp and, most importantly, showing he was healthy. His delivery was free and easy, unlike two springs ago.
“He threw extremely well. It was what we wanted to see from him. He improved with each outing, and at times was dominant. We really liked what we saw,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings. “We weren’t sure what we were going to get from Michael. You look at a lot of other years, maybe one of those guys makes it as your fifth, because they all threw extremely well. But Michael, we thought, probably had the best spring.”
Pineda is still so young, turning only 25 back in January, but he also missed most of the last two seasons following shoulder surgery. That’s a lot of missed development time and lost experience. Losing your age 23 and 24 seasons hurts, no doubt about it. Pineda hasn’t had a chance to improve his changeup and he hasn’t had the opportunity to gradually build up his innings total like most young pitchers. The Yankees, however, do not seem all that concerned about him physically.
“He does not have an innings limit on him,” added Girardi. “We will watch how he’s doing and we’ll make judgments on what we have to do. This is a guy that has been to 175 innings before, so we know that he’s capable of handling that. It’s just, we’ve got to see how he’s responding.”
Pineda threw only 40.2 innings last season (plus an unknown amount in Extended Spring Training) but he did throw 171 innings for the Mariners back in 2011. I’m not sure how relevant that number is now after the shoulder surgery and completely lost 2012 season. It seems like the Yankees would want to ease him back into things given the nature of his injury, and despite Girardi’s comment, I think they will. It would really surprise me if they ran him out there with no regard for his workload.
While Pineda’s surgically repaired shoulder is the real concern here, fatigue can be just as problematic. His shoulder might be totally healthy, but he may still simply run out of gas in August or September following the long layoff. I don’t think you can throw 171 innings one year, 40.2 innings over the next two years, then jump right back up to 180+ after that. Maybe Pineda can, who knows. Late-season fatigue is a concern and that’s why guys like Phelps and Adam Warren will be important.
The Yankees went through an innings management nightmare with Joba Chamberlain a few years ago and more recently we’ve seen Stephen Strasburg’s workload become a daily topic. The Nationals were up front with everything and they had to answer questions about it every time he pitched. Maybe the Yankees are trying to avoid that distraction. If there’s no limit, there are no questions to answer. Pineda’s workload obviously has to be monitored given his injury and layoff, the Yankees just seem to be playing it cool.
The rotation order for the start of the 2014 season is set. Joe Girardi announced on Tuesday that Michael Pineda will be the team’s fifth starter, falling behind CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, and Masahiro Tanaka. Girardi also said Pineda “does not have an innings limit on him,” which is surprising following shoulder surgery. Maybe that’s just their attempt to avoid a Strasburg-ian season-long distraction.
With Pineda in the rotation, both David Phelps and Adam Warren will shift into the bullpen, though they will not necessarily be long relievers. Girardi confirmed Vidal Nuno will also be considered for a relief role. Because of the way the schedule shakes out, the Yankees will need Pineda right away this year. No off-days to skip his spot. Tanaka and Pineda will make their first starts of the season in Toronto from April 4-5, then their Yankee Stadium debuts from April 9-10 against the Orioles and Red Sox, respectively.
Pineda, 25, has missed most of the last two seasons following shoulder surgery, but he came to camp healthy this spring and pitched very well, allowing only three runs (two earned) with a 16/1 K/BB in 15 innings across four appearances. His fastball has sat mostly in the 88-91 range, but he’s touched 92-94 and his slider has been ridiculously sharp. Pineda did not magically develop a changeup while on the DL the last two years, so that part of his game is still very much a work in progress.
The Yankees have used at least eight starters every year since 1975 and I have no reason to think 2014 will be any different. No team gets through the season with five guys. Phelps, Warren, and Nuno will all presumably start games at some point, just like they last season. Hopefully the team doesn’t need to dip any deeper into the pitching well beyond those three. Obviously Sabathia and Kuroda are a bit of a concern given their 2013 performance and age, respectively, but the other three starters are all young and full of potential. It’s exciting.
As expected, Joe Girardi announced CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, and Ivan Nova will start the team’s first three games of the regular season. Well, he didn’t really come out and announce it, but the rotation for the rest of the week indicates that will be the case. This lines up Kuroda for the home opener. Masahiro Tanaka figures to slide in as the number four starter with either Michael Pineda or David Phelps as the five. Obligatory reminder that the rotation order on Opening Day means nothing.
I know it’s only Spring Training, but man oh man has Michael Pineda looked good. He looks healthy, his delivery is free and easy, his slider is still vicious, and his fastball gone from topping out at 92 mph in his first outing to topping out at 94 mph in his third. It has only been three games and a total of nine innings, but it’s hard not to be encouraged and excited by what Pineda’s done these last few weeks. He looks as good as we could have possibly hoped.
And yet, despite Pineda’s strong showing, he isn’t the big pitching story of the spring. Masahiro Tanaka has come over from the Rakuten Golden Eagles and after only a few weeks of camp, it feels like he’s been here for years. The transition has appeared to be seamless — I’m sure it’s been difficult for him, how could it not? — and his outings have matched the scouting reports. He throws strikes, has a wipeout splitter, and an underrated slider. When he’s gotten in jams, he’s cranked it up a notch, something we heard he’ll do long before he signed on the dotted line. As with Pineda, Tanaka has looked as good as we could have possibly hoped.
Flying under the radar this spring has been Ivan Nova, at least to some extent. Following yesterday’s outing he now has 21 strikeouts and two walks in 19.2 Grapefruit League innings, and I think the most impressive thing was the way he made adjustments mid-start and rebounded from a terrible first inning against the Astros a week or two ago. It was the kind of bad inning that used to spiral out of control, but instead Nova righted the ship and put together a good start. He’s been healthy and he’s been throwing the ball well. It’s been a strong spring for Ivan.
“I’ve seen a guy that’s come into spring training that, it seems like he realizes how good he can be,” Girardi said. “And I think that’s important. I think for all young players, there’s that doubt always a little bit, can I do this on a consistent basis? Can I do it start after start, or game after game if you’re a position player? Do I need to look over my starter? Is there someone always doubting what I can do? I think he’s realized that, you know what, I can be pretty good.”
Joe Girardi said that to Chad Jennings yesterday and was referring to Nova, but he could have easily been talking about Pineda or Tanaka. All three came to camp with something to prove and they’ve answered every question along the way. Just about everything has gone according to plan with these three and that’s pretty great. Usually when you’re talking about three pitchers — I guess this applies to any type of player, really — one will slip up somewhere along the lines. Two out of three is a pretty good success rate in baseball.
But all three guys have done everything they’ve needed to do in Spring Training and it’s really exciting. It’s really exciting for 2014 and for the Yankees going forward, because all three of these guys are young. Nova is the oldest and he just turned 27 in January. Pineda turned 25 that same month and Tanaka turned 25 back in November. The Yankees have an older roster in general and the other two members of the rotation are up there in age — Hiroki Kuroda just turned 39 and CC Sabathia is about 75 in pitching years given all the mileage on his arm — but these three fellas are all right smack in their prime or about the enter the prime of their careers. I’m going to use the word again: exciting.
This is Spring Training and the time of the year for overwhelming and occasionally irrational optimism. I don’t know how any Yankees fan could look at Pineda, Tanaka, and Nova these last few weeks and not start dreaming about a rotation built around their young power arms for the next few years. We know there are going to be bumps in the road, they’re inevitable, but right now everything is going right and that’s something the club needed in Spring Training. The pieces of the next great Yankees rotation are in place. We’ve know that because seen ‘em with our own eyes these last few weeks.
One thing I’ve come to understand over the years is the order of the starting rotation at the beginning of the season means very little. It’s all symbolism. The Opening Day start usually goes to a veteran who has been with the team a while, not necessarily the best pitcher. Being designated as the staff ace and actually pitching like an ace are two different things. Scheduled off-days and rain-outs throw a wrench into the rotation after a few weeks and the order gets all mixed up anyway. It’s fun to talk about, but the importance is small.
Spring Training ends in less than two weeks — the final Grapefruit League game is next Saturday — and the Yankees have started to line up their rotation for Opening Day and the start of the regular season. I’m sure it has actually been plotted out and planned for a few weeks now, but now that we can see the light at the end of the Spring Training tunnel, the plan is a little more concrete. Courtesy of Chad Jennings, here is the rotation through the weekend according to Joe Girardi:
With Vidal Nuno and Adam Warren nowhere to be found, it’s likely both have already made their final starts of the spring. That makes sense, they always seemed to be the distant third and fourth contenders for the final rotation spot. Girardi confirmed Warren will make the team in some capacity a few weeks ago, so he’s headed to the bullpen. Nuno could very well wind up in Triple-A as the sixth starter.
Michael Pineda has been fantastic this spring with the obvious caveats: he’s coming off major shoulder surgery, it’s mid-March, he isn’t stretched out all the way, he hasn’t faced the greatest lineups, etc. Everything we’ve seen so far is encouraging and even though Girardi stopped short of anointing him the fifth starter — “The other guys are throwing pretty well too. We’ve got to figure out what’s best for our team as a whole,” he said to Bryan Hoch yesterday — it sure seems like Pineda is the favorite to start the season in the rotation, relegating David Phelps to the bullpen. So, with that in mind, here’s how next week’s rotation lines up:
- Monday, March 24th: OFF DAY (Nova throws a simulated or minor league game)
- Tuesday, March 25th vs. Phillies: Phelps on regular rest
- Wednesday, March 26th @ Blue Jays: Sabathia on regular rest
- Thursday, March 27th @ Pirates: Kuroda on regular rest
- Friday, March 28th vs. Marlins: Tanaka with one extra day of rest
- Saturday, March 29th vs. Marlins: Nova on regular rest, Pineda???
- Sunday, March 30th: OFF DAY
According to Jennings, Girardi “hinted that someone will pitch at the complex” during the Monday’s scheduled off-day. Nova lines up perfectly for that day, so he seems to be the guy. Phelps, Sabathia, and Kuroda follow with their final Grapefruit League starts on regular rest, then Tanaka goes with one extra day. The team has said they are planning to give him the extra day here and there. It’s also worth noting that regardless of whether he starts Thursday or Friday (or Saturday or Sunday for that matter), Tanaka will have faced only one AL club this winter (the Twins this coming Saturday). I doubt this was a coincidence. The Yankees kept him hidden from the direct competition while still getting him innings against MLB caliber hitters. Clever.
Anyway, following Tanaka’s start, Nova closes out the Grapefruit League schedule on regular rest next Saturday. What happens with Pineda at that point is anyone’s guess. He could come out of the bullpen to replace Nova, he could throw a simulated game, or he could start a minor league game. The Yankees have options. Pineda will be working on one extra day of rest Saturday and it’s good to give him that little break following his surgery and long rehab. They have to take it easy on him and not work him too hard, too soon.
With that all laid out, here’s how the rotation lines up the following week:
- Monday, March 31st: OFF DAY
- Tuesday, April 1st @ Astros: Sabathia with one extra day of rest
- Wednesday, April 2nd @ Astros: Kuroda with one extra day of rest
- Thursday, April 3rd @ Astros: Nova on regular rest
- Friday, April 4th @ Blue Jays: Tanaka with two extra days of rest
- Saturday, April 5th @ Blue Jays: Pineda with two extra days of rest
Nova’s the only guy who wouldn’t make his first start of the season with extra rest and since he’s young and healthy (and not coming over from Japan), he probably needs the extra rest the least. Pineda could throw a simulated game or pitch in a minor league game on Sunday the 30th instead of Saturday the 29th, allowing him to make that first regular season start on one extra day of rest rather than two. There is such a thing as too much rest, remember. He can get out of rhythm or something like that. Tanaka is used to starting with six days of rest, so the two extra days should be no big deal to him.
The Yankees have indicated Tanaka will start the fourth game of the season rather than the third for two specific reasons. One, they want to split him and Kuroda up since they have very similar styles as fastball/splitter/slider pitchers. (It’s not just a racial thing, you know.) Two, they want to give Tanaka extra rest when they can, and by starting him in the fourth game, he’ll be able to make his third start of the season with an extra day of rest. If he starts the third game of the season, he’d have to make both his second and third starts with normal rest. Anything to help the transition.
Sabathia was pretty terrible last season but he’s getting the nod on Opening Day for past performance. The guy was pretty awesome from 2009-12. Like I said before, the Opening Day start is a novelty more than anything. It doesn’t have any kind of real value to the team. The Game One starter for a postseason series, now that actually matters. Opening Day? Nah, not worth getting upset over. The rotation is all lined up for the start of the season and everyone who needs an extra day or two of rest will get it, and that’s it the most important thing.
It wasn’t all that long ago that it felt like a miracle whenever a Yankees’ starter completed six full innings of work. At least it felt like a miracle to me. In fact, from 2006-08, the team’s starters completed six full innings only 284 times out of 486 regular season games, or 58%. Over the last three seasons, that number is 67%. Doesn’t seem like a big difference, but it is one extra start of 6+ innings out of every ten games.
Thankfully things have changed in recent years and I think the reasons are obvious. The Yankees haven’t only added better starters over the last few seasons, but they’ve added more durable starters as well. They’ve been getting not just more innings, but more quality innings, and in turn the workload on the bullpen has been reduced. It makes the entire staff better when the starter can go deep into the game.
This coming season, the Yankees again figure to have a few starters who can be counted on to soak up innings and complete those six innings of every five days. Given the questionable state of the middle of the bullpen, having the starter take the ball deep into the game will be more important to the club in 2014 than it was at any point in the last few years. Who is going to eat up those innings? Let’s preview.
Let’s get this out of the way early: Sabathia was terrible last year. The reasons are whatever the reasons are, but the bottom line is that he ranked 76th with a 4.78 ERA and 72nd with 0.3 bWAR out of 81 qualified starters. Terrible. From 2009-12, even bad Sabathia starts were hardly disasters, usually something like four runs in six innings than six innings in four innings. That wasn’t always the case last summer.
And yet, despite all his struggles, Sabathia still managed to throw 200+ innings for the seventh straight year. Mark Buehrle, James Shields, and Justin Verlander are the only pitchers who can make that claim. Sabathia’s 211 innings were the 16th most in baseball, and he completed six full innings in 24 of his 32 starts. He completed seven full innings 17 times, the 12th most in baseball. CC’s effectiveness is waning but he remains a workhorse of the first order, someone the Yankees can rely on to spare the bullpen every five days. I have very little doubt he will continue to eat innings in 2014.
An oblique strain and a concussion caused Kuroda to miss nearly three full months in 2009, but he’s thrown at least 196 innings in the four seasons since. He’s also thrown at least 200 innings in each of the last three seasons. Kuroda, true to his workhorse form, completed six innings 24 times and seven innings 14 times in his 32 starts last season. Remember when I said the Yankees were not just getting more innings, but more quality innings out of their starters in recent years? That describes Kuroda perfectly.
Both the Yankees and Kuroda have indicated they will look for ways to lighten the load on their top right-hander this summer, mostly because he’s 39 years old and has faded late in each of the last two regular seasons. How will they accomplish that? I have no idea. Maybe they won’t send him out for that one extra inning, maybe they’ll use off-days to give him extra rest, maybe they’ll do that and more. Kuroda may intentionally be turned into a 180-inning starter this year, which is still a ton of innings even if it falls short of the hallowed 200-inning plateau.
After three televised Grapefruit League outings, we still don’t really know what to expect out of Tanaka this coming season. We know the scouting report and all that, but until he gets on a big league mound and pitches every fifth day in the regular season, there’s just no way to know what he can give the Yankees in 2014. He could be great, he could be awful, he could be something in between.
What we do know is that Tanaka was pretty durable during his time with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan, missing a little bit of time with shoulder inflammation in 2008, 2009, and 2012. Tanaka threw 212 innings last season and has averaged 203.2 innings per season over the last three years, which works out to 7.9 innings per start. That was pitching ever seventh day and not a pace he will maintain in MLB, but it shows Tanaka is used to pitching deep into the game.
The Yankees have indicated they will try to work some extra rest in for Tanaka throughout the season, and may start him in the fourth game of the season rather than the third for that very reason — an off-day means his second start would come with an extra day of rest as the number four starter rather than regular rest as the number three. Can he give the team six or so innings every time out? I hope so, but he have to see how efficient he is first. The club will try to give their new starter some extra rest here and there, but make no mistake, he’s being counting on for lots of high-end innings right away.
It wasn’t until his sixth professional season, when he took a comebacker to the ankle in July 2011, that Nova missed a scheduled start. He was insanely durable throughout his minor league career, and he’s thrown at least 140 innings every season since 2008. Nova did miss three weeks with shoulder inflammation in 2012 and four weeks with triceps inflammation in 2013, so he’s not an ironman, but by and large he’s been an innings guy throughout his career.
The question now is whether Nova can be counted on an innings eater in 2014. It’s not just the two relatively minor arm problems the last two seasons, it’s the unpredictability of his performance as well. He’s been very up and down over the last three seasons, not an uncommon problem for a young starting pitcher. Nova’s a big guy (listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 lbs.) and his delivery seems to be pretty smooth, two traits that portend workhorseishness. Can he make the jump to become a consistent 180+ or even 200+ innings guy this season? I hope so. Nova’s is a pretty important piece of the franchise going forward and taking that next step would be a nice development.
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The Yankees have said Michael Pineda will have an innings limit because, well, duh. Of course he will. The kid threw 171 innings for the Mariners a few years ago but it’s hard to think that number means anything after a major shoulder surgery and two lost years. They have to be careful and build Pineda back up slowly. In no way should he be counted on to chew up innings, even if the bullpen was taxed the night before.
David Phelps (94.1 IP), Adam Warren (77 IP), and Vidal Nuno (45 IP) all threw fewer than a hundred innings in 2013, but none of them are particularly young (Nuno is the youngest at 26) and they all have multiple 100+ inning seasons to their credit (Phelps and Warren have multiple 150+ inning seasons). I think the Yankees would let all three throw upwards of 150 innings this season, maybe more depending on how they’re performing.
Sabathia (performance), Kuroda (age), Tanaka (transition), and Nova (unpredictable) all come into the season with questions but they all have the ability to be top-notch innings guys. This isn’t some far-fetched idea either, we’re asking these guys to do something they did just last year and over the last several years as well (aside from Nova). The benefits of having durable starting pitchers is obvious and the Yankees are in line to have several of them in 2014.