Archive for Pitching
The Yankees have added Chris Capuano to the active roster and designated Chris Leroux for the assignment, the team announced. Capuano, who acquired in a minor trade with the Rockies yesterday, will start tomorrow’s game. Shane Greene has been pushed back to Sunday and Chase Whitley is in the bullpen. The Yankees are still carrying eight relievers and three bench players, though I think that will change sometime soon. Jeff Francis‘ days may be numbered.
When the Yankees swung what was essentially a minor trade to add Brandon McCarthy two weeks ago, it was easy to scoff at the deal. The big right-hander had a 5.01 ERA and a 1.23 HR/9 at the time of the trade, numbers that weren’t any better than the 4.89 ERA and 1.59 HR/9 Nuno put up in his 14 starts, especially considering the difference in leagues. The Yankees desperately needed pitching and it appeared they acquired a band-aid, not a difference maker.
The 31-year-old McCarthy came with a track record though, something Nuno lacked. He pitched to a 3.29 ERA (3.22 FIP) with the Athletics from 2011-12, and while some of that is certainly related to pitching in the spacious O.co Coliseum, McCarthy also famously reinvented himself as a sinker-cutter pitcher after delving into sabermetrics. “I didn’t want to suck anymore,” he told Eddie Matz last April, so his focus shifted to limiting walks and keeping the ball on the ground. The cutter and sinker better allowed him to do that.
McCarthy signed a two-year contract worth $18M with the Diamondbacks during the 2012-13 offseason and, for whatever reason, Arizona asked him to shelve the cutter. This isn’t completely unheard of, there are a few cutter averse teams out there (the Orioles took it away from top prospect Dylan Bundy even though it is his best pitch), but it is weird. “It wasn’t something I totally agreed with,” McCarthy told Josh Thomson over the weekend, but I guess if the employer tells the employee to do something, he does it. Here is his pitch selection over the last few years:
|Cutter||Sinker||Curve||Four-Seam + Changeup|
|2011-12 with Athletics||41.3%||36.1%||18.9%||3.7%|
|2013-14 with D’Backs||23.6%||49.2%||20.1%||7.1%|
|2014 with Yankees||18.5%||52.5%||15.0%||14.0%|
There was a definite change in pitch selection when McCarthy joined the Diamondbacks. He had almost a 50/50 split between the cutter and sinker while in Oakland but was throwing roughly twice as many sinkers as cutters in Arizona. Obviously his sample size with the Yankees is two starts and that’s nothing, but it’s worth noting he threw more cutters in those two starts (37 total) than he did in his final eight starts with the D’Backs combined (36). The pitch was nonexistent during the end of his tenure with Arizona.
“I feel like myself again. [The D'Backs] didn’t want me throwing it any more. They wanted more sinkers away, but I feel like I need that pitch to be successful,” said McCarthy to John Harper over the weekend. “The Yankees came to me right away and said, ‘We need to bring the cutter back into play.’ They obviously looked back and saw, ‘when he’s good he was throwing cutters. When he’s not, he wasn’t.’ I was glad to hear it because I was going to tell them that anyway. It’s been frustrating because I felt like I’ve been throwing better this season than any other year.”
The Yankees had some insight into McCarthy before the trade even though he’s never played with anyone on the current roster or under someone on the coaching staff. Minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson held the same role with the Athletics while McCarthy was there, and in fact he once told Susan Slusser that McCarthy’s cutter grip was unlike anything he’d seen before. Patterson works with the team’s pitching prospects but I’m sure he was consulted before the trade given their existing relationship. It’d be foolish not to ask his opinion.
McCarthy does not need the cutter to be a put-away pitch or any kind of dominant offering, it just has to be another option. Something to bust lefties inside and something to keep hitters off the sinker. A different look, basically. McCarthy does need the pitch to be more than an average at best pitcher though. He clearly believes that, if nothing else. The cutter gives him another weapon and it’s hard to believe the D’Backs took it away from him in the first place. The Yankees are very smart to let McCarthy use his cut fastball and reintroducing that pitch might have landed them an above-average pitcher at a journeyman price.
When the Yankees acquired Brandon McCarthy from the Diamondbacks yesterday, they threw their rotation temporarily out of whack. Nuno and McCarthy were not scheduled to start on the same day — Nuno was supposed to start tonight’s series opener against the Indians while McCarthy lines up start tomorrow on normal rest — so the club has to dig up a spot starter. Not a huge deal, just something they have to deal with. (McCarthy will get an extra day of rest and make his Yankees debut on Wednesday, partly so Masahiro Tanaka can start as scheduled Tuesday and make two starts before the All-Star break.)
That spot start will go to right-hander Shane Greene, the Yankees announced. He will be on normal rest after last pitching for Triple-A Scranton on Wednesday. I assume Jim Miller will be dropped from the roster to clear a spot rather than Bruce Billings simply because Billings is stretched out and can go 100+ pitches if necessary. The bullpen is pretty taxed and keeping the extra long man around sure seems like a good idea.
Greene made his MLB debut earlier this season and it was a disaster — five batters faced, three walks, three unearned runs, one out — though that came after a few weeks of being jerked between the show and Triple-A. That appearance came on April 24th and up to that point he had thrown only thrown 2.2 innings and 52 pitches during the regular season. Add in the usual MLB debut jitters and it’s easy to understand why he was wild.
That will not be the case tonight, at least hopefully not. Greene has been making a regular turn in the RailRiders rotation for weeks now, so he is fully stretched out and able to go through his usual routine. No irregular pitching schedule, no sitting in the bullpen for weeks on end, nothing like that. Greene’s overall numbers in Triple-A are not all that good (4.61 ERA and 3.39 FIP) but he has been much better of late, allowing six earned runs (1.93 ERA) with a 23/10 K/BB in 28 innings across his last five starts.
If Greene can come up and give the Yankees the bare minimum quality start (three runs, six innings), I’ll be thrilled. I’m sure the team would be as well, considering how things have been going for most of the rotation. Six innings from someone other than Tanaka feels like a minor miracle these days. The rotation after Greene is a little unsettled at the moment. Tanaka will start Tuesday and McCarthy on Wednesday, but Thursday’s starter is officially listed as TBA. That’s Chase Whitley‘s spot.
“Right now [Whitley will] be in the bullpen until we get this ironed out,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings following yesterday’s game. “If we don’t need him out of the bullpen, he could start again for us. A lot of this depends on tomorrow … Every opportunity is an opportunity to shine and get more opportunities.”
If Whitley isn’t need out of the bullpen these next few days, he’ll make the start on Thursday. If they do need him, David Phelps would presumably move up and start Thursday on normal rest. Then they’d need a spot starter for Saturday (Hiroki Kuroda goes Friday), which could be Greene again. Point is, the bullpen is such a mess right now that Whitley could wind up pitching in relief at some point soon. I’m guessing that’s something that wouldn’t happen or even be considered if he hadn’t gotten destroyed in his last three starts. If he was still pitching like he was a few weeks ago, he’d remain in the rotation no questions asked.
So now, even with McCarthy theoretically providing some stability in place of Nuno, the Yankees still have one questionable rotation spot in Whitley. The All-Star break is coming next week and that will give the team a much-needed chance to catch its collective breath and reset the staff, but beyond that the job should be considered up for grabs. If Greene pitches well tonight, he could very well assume that rotation spot with Whitley, the career reliever, remaining in the bullpen. Girardi said it himself: “every opportunity is an opportunity to shine and get more opportunities.”
The benefit to keeping Greene in the rotation is potentially two-fold. One, it would improve the rotation compared to what Whitley has given them the last three times out. That’s the only way Greene would remain in the rotation anyway, if he pitches well enough to get another chance. Two, Whitley has been a reliever his entire life, so it’s a familiar role for him, plus now he’s stretched out. He could step in and serve as another two or three-inning guy for the middle innings. That would be a huge improvement over the Miller/Jose Ramirez/Matt Daley revolving door we’ve seen lately.
The Yankees have taken some steps to shake up their roster over the last week or so, specifically replacing Yangervis Solarte, Alfonso Soriano, Ramirez, and Nuno with McCarthy, Miller, Billings, and Zelous Wheeler. The Miller and Billings moves are only temporary, plus the team will need to call up another position player to replace Soriano in the coming days, so the shakeup isn’t complete. Outside of a handful of spots at the top of the rotation and in the back of the bullpen, the current pitching staff is full of opportunity. If you pitch well, you’ll get a chance to remain with the team and play a role. Whitley has done it already and now it’s Greene turn to try to carve out a niche for himself.
Prior to last night’s drubbing at the hands of the Blue Jays, Chase Whitley had been a pleasantly surprising contributor in the wake of the rotation injuries. He rarely took the ball deep into games, but he went into Monday night with a 2.56 ERA (2.70 FIP) in 38.2 innings across seven starts. That’s really good. That he got roughed up so much in Toronto and still owns a solid 4.07 ERA (3.16 FIP) in 42 innings tells you how good he was before last night.
Whitley, of course, did not become a full-time starter until the very end of last season, when he made a handful of spot starts for Triple-A Scranton. Last night was his 22nd career professional start since being drafted in 2010. That’s all. This guy was a third baseman for most of his college career and a full-time reliever in the minors as recently as ten months ago, which makes his pre-Monday success as an MLB rotation member that much more impressive.
Therein lies something of a problem. Because Whitely has been a reliever for most of his life, he has never spent a full season as a starter and dealt with that type of workload before. The season is not even halfway over and Whitely is already rapidly approaching his career-high in innings pitched. Here is his career innings breakdown:
|2011||107.2||0||91||0||16.2 (Az Fall League)|
Whitely has already thrown more innings this year than last year, mostly because he spent the first seven weeks of 2013 on the disabled list with an oblique problem. He’ll probably surpass his 2012 innings total before the All-Star break and his career-high innings total — which was set three years ago now — either late next month or in early August, barring injury or something.
I’m sure you’re all familiar with the “Verducci Effect” and the concept of controlling a young pitcher’s workload in an effort to reduce future injury risk. It’s common sense and teams do it every single year. The idea of a 30-inning year-to-year increase being the magic number is a little outdated, but there is definitely a point when a workload increase becomes too much. That usually applies to pitchers younger than Whitley, who turned 25 less than two weeks ago.
Because he was not a top prospect — remember, Whitley went undrafted in the Rule 5 Draft just last December — and there is a pretty strong likelihood he is currently enjoying the best stretch of his career, I’m not concerned about monitoring Whitley’s workload to reduce future injury risk. That’s not to say the Yankees should run him into the ground, they do still have a responsibility to try to keep him healthy, but he isn’t as much of a priority as someone like, say, Ian Clarkin or Luis Severino. That’s just baseball.
My biggest worry about Whitley’s workload is plain ol’ fatigue. He might just run out of gas sometime in the second half, when he approaches 130 or 140 or 150 or whatever number of innings. We don’t know when or even if it will happen. But, just looking at him as a guy who has thrown more than 100 innings in a season twice in his life, it’s not unreasonable to think he’ll hit a wall at some point. Whitley’s never started for an extended period of time before and he’s about to enter uncharted workload waters.
In a perfect world, the Yankees would use off-days to skip Whitley’s starts (or at least push them back a few days) whenever possible to help keep him fresh. They could call up a sixth starter for the day and skip one of his starts that way. They could even give him a little two-week vacation on the disabled list; that’s another way they could control his innings and try to keep him fresh later in the season. The Yankees can’t do any of that though because they’re stretched so thin for pitching. They don’t have that sixth starter to call-up and they need to use off-days to give their other pitchers an extra day whenever possible as well.
CC Sabathia will face hitters in a live batting practice session today and is expected to pitch in a minor league rehab game this weekend, but he is still several weeks away. Michael Pineda can’t even get healthy enough to play catch these days, so the Yankees should just forget about him. If he manages to get healthy and pitch at some point, wonderful. But don’t count on him. A trade? That seems inevitable, but it doesn’t seem like it will happen anytime soon. Once it does happen, Vidal Nuno (the obvious candidate to lose his rotation spot) can be used as a spot starter to give Whitley occasional rest.
Right now, Whitley is pitching well as a starter and the Yankees should ride that out as long as possible. He’s a young guy and he’s big and strong (listed at 6-foot-3 and 215 lbs.), plus he has what looks like a relatively low-effort delivery to me, so maybe he’ll be able to hold up deep into the season. That would be awesome. Whitley is at risk of hitting a wall in the second half though, only because he has never really started before and his workload is going to be pushed far behind his previous limits. It’s just another reason the Yankees need to add a starter and soon.
One of the many reasons the Yankees failed to reach the postseason last year was the lack of help from the farm system. Outside of Adam Warren, who was a low-leverage swingman, no one came up from the minors and was able to contribute when the opportunity for playing time presented itself. David Adams and Austin Romine didn’t hit, and others like Zoilo Almonte and Vidal Nuno quickly went down with injuries.
This season has been a little different, thankfully. Dellin Betances has emerged as one of the very best relievers in baseball and a key late-inning piece in Joe Girardi‘s bullpen. John Ryan Murphy had a successful stint as Frankie Cervelli‘s injury replacement and Jose Ramirez is being a given a chance to contribute out of the bullpen right now. Others like Rob Refsnyder and Jose Pirela could get looks in the coming weeks.
Given all the pitching injuries, I think you could argue Chase Whitley has had the most impact out of the team’s homegrown players in 2014. It’s either him or Betances, though the rotation would be in much worse shape without Whitley than the bullpen would be without Betances. That’s what I think. Either way, both guys have been a big help and this is the type of production the Yankees weren’t getting from their system a year ago.
Whitley, 25, has a 2.51 ERA (2.58 FIP) in 33.2 innings and six starts this season, the 15th through 21st starts of his five-year career. It’s a really small sample, yeah, but I think it’s remarkable he’s done so well in a starting role (in MLB!) after being a reliever just about his entire life. Girardi has been careful with Whitley, limiting how often he’s faced the lineup a third time and keeping his pitch count tight after so many years in the bullpen, which can be annoying but is understandable.
Now, with all due respect to Whitley and the job he’s done, I think it’s important to add some context to his performance. He’s made six starts and the best lineup he’s faced has been the Twins and their team 99 wRC+. That was also the only start Whitley has made at home in hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium. (He held Minnesota to one run in five innings.) The Cardinals have a 92 wRC+ while the Mets, Cubs, Royals, and Mariners are bottom six offenses (81-87 wRC+ range).
Whitley’s two best starts have been his last two starts, when he held the Royals and Mariners to two runs in seven innings and 7.2 innings, respectively. As a team, the Royals have an 83 wRC+ in Kansas City while the Mariners boast an MLB worst 73 wRC+ at home in Seattle. Those are some favorable pitching conditions and Whitley did exactly what he was supposed to do in those games. I don’t want to take anything away from him, pitching is hard, it’s just important to fully understand what’s been going on.
The Yankees open a three-game series with the Blue Jays tomorrow night and Whitley is scheduled to start the second game. Toronto will be, by far, the best lineup he has faced in his short time as a big leaguer. They lead baseball with 92 homers — Whitley’s allowed just one dinger this year, a no-doubter by Logan Morrison last time out — and have a team 112 wRC+, also the best in baseball. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are elite sluggers, Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera high-end contributors, and Adam Lind is in the middle of his best season in forever. It’s a tough assignment.
Now here’s the thing: Whitley will face the Blue Jays on Wednesday, then he’s scheduled to face them again in Toronto next Monday. The Jays have a 116 wRC+ as a team at home, so it’s more or less a lineup full of David Ortizes (117 wRC+) whenever they’re in Rogers Centre. The Man in White has been putting in some overtime this season, I guess. Whitley is not only going to face the best hitting team in baseball next time out, he’s going to face them in back-to-back starts. It’ll be the first time a team sees him twice.
Whitley has effectively replaced Michael Pineda, giving the Yankees high-end performance in short, workload-controlled starts. He’s done it against a favorable schedule so far, but you can only pitch against who the schedule says you have to face. These next two starts against the Blue Jays will be the toughest test of Whitley’s brief career and, given where they sit in the standings, the Yankees need him to be sharp so they can climb back into the division race. The cakewalk against the Mariners, Mets, Royals, et al is over. Whitley’s about to be introduced to AL East baseball.
In the span of three weeks from late-April through mid-May, the Yankees lost three-fifths of their Opening Day rotation to serious injury. Ivan Nova is done for the year following Tommy John surgery, CC Sabathia is out for at least another few weeks with a degenerative knee condition, and Michael Pineda has already suffered a setback while battling a muscle problem in his shoulder. The Yankees will be lucky to get either Sabathia or Pineda back before the All-Star break at this point.
The injuries have forced the team to dip deep into their pitching reserves. With Adam Warren entrenched as a late-inning setup man, the Yankees pulled both Vidal Nuno and David Phelps out of the bullpen and called up converted reliever Chase Whitley. Those three plus Masahiro Tanaka and Hiroki Kuroda have made up the Yankees’ rotation for about a month now. Needless to say, Nuno being third on the team in innings pitched (58) through 63 games was not part of the plan.
And yet, despite some ugly bumps in the road, the three replacement starters have actually done a pretty good job for the Yankees. At least on a rate basis. Here’s how the three have fared since moving into the rotation:
|Starts||Innings||IP per Start||ERA||FIP||K%||BB%||Opp. OPS|
Phelps has taken a pounding his last three starts (18 runs in 17.2 innings), but, even with that, the three replacement starters have a 4.13 ERA and 3.56 FIP in 119.2 innings. That’s pretty good. The average AL starter has a 4.08 ERA and 3.92 FIP this season, so these guys are in the neighborhood of league average. League average is good! Especially when taking about a team’s sixth, seventh, and eighth starters.
The issue isn’t necessarily their performance on a rate basis. The problem is the third column in the table, their innings per start. (I guess that’s technically the fourth column. Whatever.) These three are barely averaging 5.1 innings per start, which is a total drain on the bullpen. In their 22 combined starts, they’ve failed complete six innings 14 times. They’ve failed to complete five innings six innings. On average, Joe Girardi has had to ask his bullpen to get 11 outs whenever these guys pitch. That’s too much. We’re talking about three rotation spots here.
The Yankees have gotten 343 innings out of their starters this season, ninth most out of 15 AL teams. Their relievers have thrown the fifth most innings at 191.2, primarily because these three are not taking the ball deep into the game. Part of that is simple ineffectiveness, part of it is getting stretched out (Nuno and Phelps had to build up their pitch count when they first moving into the rotation), and part of it is Girardi’s reluctance to let them face the opposing lineup a third time. It’s all understandable, but it doesn’t lessen the demand on the bullpen.
I’ve said this before but it’s worth repeating: with three five-and-fly starters in the rotation, the Yankees need a veteran long man Girardi can abuse. Someone he can use for 40 pitches one night, 25 the next, and 55 two nights after that. Alfredo Aceves was that guy for a little while, but he stunk and now it’s Wade LeBlanc. I love Jose Ramirez and want to see him get a chance as much as the next guy, but not under those circumstances. Let someone who doesn’t have a future in the organization deal with that workload. It sounds cruel, but that’s baseball. Aceves and LeBlanc aren’t stupid, they know this might be their last chance to stay in MLB, so they’ll take the ball whenever asked.
The Yankees have gotten generally solid work from Whitley, Phelps, and Nuno, and, more than anything, the best way the team can help them is by scoring more runs. Score some more runs and Girardi will probably be more open to letting them face the lineup a third time, sparing the bullpen a bit. (Remember, the team handled Pineda careful early in the season, so he won’t exactly soak up innings whenever he gets healthy.) It would be nice if these three guys could start recording another two or three outs per start, but, considering the circumstances, they’ve been solid. The rotation situation could have really spun out of control following the injuries. These guys didn’t let it.
In his first eleven starts of the season, Masahiro Tanaka has been dominant and one of the very best pitchers in all of baseball. I expected him to be very good this year, but not this good. No adjustment period, no bumps in the road, nothing. Even his bad starts are still pretty good. Tanaka’s been the rock in the rotation and he’s making the Yankees look very, very wise for their much-criticized $175M investment.
In his first eleven starts of the season, Tanaka has faced ten different teams. The only team he has faced more than once is the Cubs of all teams. An interleague rival the Yankees won’t see for another three years. There are still seven AL clubs that have yet to see the former Rakuten Golden Eagles ace. The schedule has worked in Tanaka’s favor and he’s had the element of surprise going for him in all but one of his starts.
Tanaka’s worst start of the season was that second game against the Cubs two weeks ago. He allowed four runs (three earned) on eight hits in six innings, the only time he’s allowed more than three earned runs in an outing. It was raining for a good chunk of that game remember, and the rain surely could have affected his performance. He didn’t look all that comfortable on the mound, I remember that much. That said, the Cubs acknowledged seeing Tanaka once before did help them out.
“If you look at the first game, we were having trouble hitting the ball out of the infield. If a guy is throwing the ball down, you’re going to hit a ground ball,” said catcher John Baker to David Lennon. “Our goal was, when we get something up in the strike zone, to get a swing off. Whether it’s the first pitch or 0-and-2, we were looking more up as opposed to for our pitch. Generally, across the board with the lineup, I think we executed it pretty well.”
Tanaka did indeed leave some pitches up in the zone against the Cubs — here is the pitch location for the eight hits, six of which were belt high — and he paid for it. They still couldn’t lay off the splitter, swinging at 18 of the 23 he threw, missing nine times. That 50% whiff rate is basically identical to the splitter’s 49.2% whiff rate for the season. He just made some bad pitches and he paid for them. That’s baseball.
One thing we’ve seen from Tanaka in his first eleven starts is that he will leave some pitches up in the zone, but he’s had a tendency to get away with them. There have been a lot of swing-throughs on handing sliders and just plain old called strikes on pitches up in the zone. Here is Tanaka’s pitch location heat map for the season. The darker the red, the more pitches in that particular zone compared to the league average:
So yeah, compared to the rest of the league, Tanaka has definitely left more pitches basically in the middle third of the strike zone and higher. The PitchFX data backs up the eye test in this case. That many pitches up in the zone is generally a bad idea, but I also think Tanaka’s unpredictability — PitchFX says he’s thrown eight different pitches this year, including four at least 20% of the time each — allows him to get away with those pitches more often than the average pitcher. I don’t know how we could go about investigating that, it’s just a thought.
Tanaka will face the Athletics tomorrow, the Mariners next Tuesday, and then the Athletics again the following Sunday, barring rainouts and whatnot. After that, the Yankees play 15 straight games against AL East rivals, teams that have already seen Tanaka once this year. So, after these next two starts against the A’s and Mariners, he’ll run into a stretch of games against clubs he has already faced. The element of surprise will be gone. Those teams will have a first-hand scouting report and experience seeing him, which tips the scale in the other direction slightly.
Everything in baseball is designed to give the pitcher the advantage. Hitters need four balls to draw a walk but pitchers only three strikes to make an out. The offense needs to travel four bases to score a run yet the pitcher only needs three outs to end the inning. Heck, the pitcher even stands on a mound raised above the rest of the playing field. The pitcher controls the at-bat and it’s up to the hitters to first make the adjustment to him, not the other way around. If what worked for Tanaka the first time through the league works again, then he has no reason to change.
If it doesn’t work though, I think he has more than enough weapons to adjust and remain a top flight starter. I mean, is Tanaka going to maintain a 2.06 ERA and 2.52 FIP all season? No, probably not. Even in this offensively starved era that is still an unrealistic standard for a guy in a tiny ballpark in the AL East. Tanaka does have two put-away offspeed pitches in his slider and (especially) splitter, plus he’s shown he will pitch to both sides of the plate and dot the edges. And the dude has no fear too. That’s not nothing. The second time through the league is coming up and it will be a test for Tanaka. He has the tools to succeed though. His success to date is no fluke.
As expected, right-hander Chase Whitley will start Thursday’s game in place of the injured CC Sabathia, Joe Girardi announced. Alfredo Aceves has pitched in relief in each of the last two games, taking him out of the running. The Yankees will need to make a 40-man roster move to accommodate Whitley, but that won’t be difficult. Aceves can dropped from the roster and Bruce Billings (forearm) could land on the 60-day DL.
Whitley, 24, had a 2.39 ERA (1.72 FIP) in 26.1 innings across six starts and one relief appearance for Triple-A Scranton this year. He was originally drafted as a reliever and spent most of his career in the bullpen, up until late last season. Whitley has not thrown more than 88 pitches in a start this season (more than 78 pitches only once), so it’s probably not reasonable to expect 100+ pitches out of him Thursday. Given the current state of the pitching staff, he has a chance to stick around for a while if he pitches well.
It was what, three or four weeks ago that the starting rotation was the clear strength of the Yankees’ roster? Even with CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda struggling through the early part of the season, everyone felt great about what they were seeing from Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda. Ivan Nova has not gotten hurt yet and I think the general belief was that he’s be fine in time. The rotation looked like a real strength.
Now, as the Yankees approach the quarter point of the season, the rotation is in shambles. Nova blew out his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery. Michael Pineda got suspended and then hurt his back, and just yesterday we learned he’ll need longer than the original 3-4 week timetable to return. On Sunday, the Yankees lost Sabathia for at least two weeks due to fluid in his twice surgically repaired right knee. The official word was knee inflammation.
Regardless of whether Al Aceves or Chase Whitley or someone else starts in place of Sabathia on Thursday, the Yankees will already be using their eighth different starting pitcher of the season. Aceves was with Triple-A Scranton ten days ago and the Orioles in Spring Training, not re-joining New York until he opted out of his contract with Baltimore when he was informed he did not make the team. Whitley is in his third year at Triple-A and was passed over in the Rule 5 Draft in December, but hey, he struck out eleven last time out. He’s as good a candidate as anyone to join the rotation.
We know Nova is done for the year and Pineda has already been pushed back once. Given the nature of his injury and its proximity to his surgically repaired shoulder, expect the team to be very cautious in the coming weeks. Sabathia has shown throughout his career that he never makes excuses and will pitch through pain. He did it when he tore his meniscus in 2006 and 2010, he did when the bone spur in his elbow acted in up 2012, and he did it last September when he blew out his hamstring. Say what you want about his performance on the mound, but Sabathia has always been super accountable and a team first guy. That he finally said something about the knee indicates it was really bothering him.
“That’s why I didn’t want to say anything,” said Sabathia to Chad Jennings, referring to the Nova and Pineda injuries. “But I think I was doing more damage to the team than helping the team by trying to hide it … I didn’t know what was making it swell up. Obviously, you know, it got pretty big on me after the start Sunday and after the start last night. So of course, I was getting a little nervous … I’m not going to make excuses or anything, but I felt it yesterday, and I just wanted to say something and let Stevie (Donohue) know.”
David Phelps and Vidal Nuno have only made a handful of starts between them, and they’ve yet to throw even 90 pitches in a start. Part of that is not being stretched out, part of it is being ineffective. Phelps threw 87 pitches in his first start but only 70 last time out because he was getting roughed up. Nuno has thrown between 69-82 pitches in each of his last four starts, so if he’s still building his pitch count, it’s been a slow process. It seems more likely Joe Girardi & Co. are limiting Nuno’s exposure, which makes sense considering he’s been hit hard the second and third time through the lineup this year. Nuno’s margin for error is pretty small as it is. Giving hitters a third look at him seems like a bad idea.
Maybe the knee injury was the cause of Sabathia’s ineffectiveness and he’ll return from the disabled list and be a serviceable starter, perhaps even something more. Maybe Pineda’s injury was just a bump in the road and he’ll return next month and dominate again. Maybe Aceves really is as good as he looked last Sunday and will solidify the starting staff. That’s a lot of maybes, and when we’re talking about pitchers, two of which are hurt, counting on those maybes to work out is risky business.
The pitching staff is stretched thin as it is and the Yankees are starting to run out of internal options. Trading for a starter seemed kinda silly weeks ago, but it’s suddenly looking like a necessity. No one is ready to start selling pieces yet, so the team is going to have to ride out Nuno and Aceves for another few weeks. That really scares me with an inconsistent offense (especially since Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann are invisible) and a ghastly team defense (particularly on the infield). That rotation has suddenly turned into a glaring weakness and the Yankees are running out of options.
I’ve been at this for a little while now, and one thing I’ve learned over the years is that there is a friggin’ ton of bad information out there. The bad information outnumbers the good information by like, a factor of a hundred at this point. It’s terrible. Sorting through the nonsense is exhausting. It really is. What are you going to do though? It’s all in the game.
International players in particular fall victim to bad information because there isn’t much information out there to begin with. Even in this age of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, we still don’t know a whole lot about non-MLB players. The tiny little bit of information we have gets extrapolated out and before you know it, Yoenis Cespedes is a five-tool superstar when he’s more like a solid, two-tool everyday outfielder. It happens all the time.
To date, I don’t think we’ve seen anything out of Masahiro Tanaka that we didn’t hear about in the weeks and months leading up to his free agency. Actually, I guess I should say we haven’t seen Tanaka not do something he was said to be able to do in the weeks and months leading up to free agency. That make sense? We’re not waiting to see the gyroball or anything like that. Tanaka has been as advertised.
One thing that stood out to me before the Yankees signed Tanaka was this statement by Darrell Rasner, the former Yankee who was Tanaka’s teammate with the Rakuten Golden Eagles the last few years. Here’s what Rasner told Sweeny Murti back in January:
SM: When you say he has an extra gear, you mean an extra 3 or 4 miles per hour to get somebody out?
DR: I’m talking like an extra 10! I watch him pitch at 88-89 or 90-91, and then I’ll see him jump up to 98-99 when he needs it. I saw him do this (last) year, and there was one game that really stands out to me. I wanna say it was the eighth or ninth inning and he was 140 pitches in and he needed a strikeout, and he jumped it from that 90 to about 98-99 and punched the guy out. It’s just impressive watching the guy, his mentality and his know-how on pitching, especially being so young.
This sounds like a something that could be totally made up, right? We hear about guys cranking it up a notch in big situations quite a bit but it seems like few actually do it.
Anecdotally, I feel like I have seen Tanaka reach back and bring something extra in important spots during his first six starts, but this is 2014. Anecdotal evidence is for suckers. We can test this stuff. First, let’s keep it simple and look at Tanaka’s results. Here is how he’s fared in situations with varying degrees of pressure:
First things first: take a second to soak in those numbers with runners in scoring position. Hitters had an 0-for-17 stretch against Tanaka in those spots until Ryan Hanigan slapped a ground ball off Kelly Johnson‘s glove on Saturday. When it comes to runners in scoring position, Tanaka is the Yankees’ offense of pitchers. I don’t even care that the performance came in a super small sample — the reason I didn’t use low/medium/high-leverage stats instead is because Tanaka has faced only nine batters in high-leverage spots — it happened and it’s amazing.
Anyway, Tanaka has performed much better with runners on base than he has with the bases empty to date. That isn’t proof that he kicks it into another gear in big spots, but it does support the theory. At least somewhat. Obviously Tanaka isn’t going to sustain a 53.1% strikeout rate and a 75.0% ground ball rate with men in scoring position (lol) because no one does that. I would expect him to be less effective in those spots going forward only because he couldn’t possibly be any better.
The results have been excellent, but when I think of a pitcher reaching back for something extra in big spots, I think of increased velocity. That’s what everything thinks, right? Rasner’s claim that Tanaka can reach back for “an extra 10!” is completely far-fetched — if a pitcher could really do that, he’s probably doing his team and himself a disservice by not doing it more often — but the idea that he throws harder when he really needs an out is not. There are a few guys around the league who can do it, with Justin Verlander jumping to mind.
Courtesy of the amazing Baseball Savant, here is Tanaka’s pitch selection and average velocities in those same three situations:
Those percentages do not add up to 100% simply because Tanaka throws too many different pitches and I didn’t include them all. PitchFX has recorded eight different pitches from Tanaka this season, though the four-seamer, sinker, splitter, and slider are his four main offerings. The others (cutter, two-seamer, changeup, curve) aren’t used nearly as often, so I’m leaving them out. It’s just too much information.
Across the board we see that Tanaka has indeed thrown harder with guys on base, especially when they’re in scoring position. The increase in the average velocity of his four-seamer, sinker, and splitter is roughly one mile an hour with men in scoring position while the slider jumps two full miles an hour. The increases with men on base in general are smaller but they still exist, especially with the fastball and slider. The average fastball velocity increase with men on base is only 0.2 mph across the league. It’s 0.4 mph with runners in scoring position. Tanaka’s fastball has jumped +0.8 mph with men on and +1.2 mph with men in scoring position. The other pitches have shown even smaller velocity increases around the league, so Tanaka is very much unique.
Tanaka has thrown ten pitches at 94+ mph this year and eight have come with men on base. The two exceptions were a pair of 2-2 fastballs to Brock Holt (95.2 mph) and Grady Sizemore (94.7 mph). Both were fouled off and they were Tanaka’s fastest and fourth fastest pitches of the season, respectively. Here’s the fun part: the pitch to Holt was in the seventh inning (96th pitch), the pitch to Sizemore in the eighth (103rd). Tanaka was really amped up in Boston — ten of his 12 fastest pitches of the season came against the Red Sox — and he was throwing his hardest when his pitch count was approaching or over 100. That qualifies as a guy who ramps it up in big spots to me.
Through his first six starts, Tanaka has shown signs of having that “extra gear” we heard so much about before he joined the Yankees. It is just six starts though, his first six in the big leagues. He admitted to being excited and nervous before both his first overall start and first home start, and I’m sure he felt a little something before his other four starts as well. If Tanaka continues to reach back for more in big situations later in the season, after he has some more innings under is belt and has had more time to adjust to the five-man rotation, then I think we’ll know this is a skill he actually possesses and not just a piece of bad misinformation we heard before Tanaka came over to MLB.