2014 Season Review: Lefty rotation fodder

(Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
(Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

From 2009 through 2012, CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte were the only lefties to start games for the Yankees. That’s a little odd, considering the huge number of random lefties that got spot starts from 2004 through 2008. So odd, in fact, that I made a Sporcle quiz that no one has even the slightest chance of completing.


The Yankees broke that four-year drought in 2013, when David Huff and Vidal Nuno combined for five starts. Heading into 2014, Nuno was in the running for a rotation spot. He understandably lost out to Michael Pineda. But when Ivan Nova went down with an elbow injury, Nuno lined up for the next start. It was his.

And it was a disaster.

You could be charitable and say sure, Nuno had some not terrible starts here and there. For instance, he lasted 6.1 innings in a 1-0 win against the best-record-in-baseball Angels. There were five shutout innings against the Rays in April.

The Yankees did have something of a reason to believe Nuno could help. He pitched well during his brief MLB stint in 2013, which followed a lights-out performance in AAA. In 2012 he cruised through A+ and AA with a 2.54 combined ERA and a 3.82 K/BB ratio. He didn’t have the stuff of an ace, but as a #5 starter it seemed he might cut it.

Cut it he might. Just not in New York. What stood out in his 14 starts was an alarming home run rate. In four of those 14 starts he gave up multiple homers, including three twice. In other words, when he’s off even a bit hitters can take advantage. Out in Arizona, another hitters’ park, he allowed a homer in nine of his 14 starts.

In other words, the Yankees might have given up a useful starter who, at the time of the trade, had five and a half years of team control. Yet they got back Brandon McCarthy, who seemed to find himself while wearing pinstripes. For a team with perpetual sights on contention, the trade was a coup for the Yankees. If they can re-sign McCarthy there will be no reason to ever look back on this one.

For a while it seemed as though the Yankees would forge ahead with a five-righty rotation. But in late July, three weeks after trading Nuno, they acquired Chris Capuano from the Rockies. And so the Yankees traded away a mediocre lefty and picked one up for cash considerations. Given the acquisition of McCarthy, that sounds like a great trade-off.

(Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
(Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

Yet Capuano did play a valuable role down the stretch. Rarely did he dazzle, but he also rarely had a breakdown. (The exception being his 0.1 inning, four-run start against Tampa, which he redeemed in his very next start by pitching six shutout innings against them.) Never did he allow more than four runs in a start, and three times he allowed none. It’s more than anyone expected from a guy who couldn’t hack it on the last-place Red Sox.

Were it not for the huge number of starting pitcher injuries, the Yankees might not have even needed Capuano. They wouldn’t have run Nuno out there for so many starts. But when three fifths of your Opening Day rotation is on the DL by May 15, with two of them done for the year, you have to reach deeply into the pitching well. With a healthy Sabathia (potentially a problem of his own) and a healthy Pineda, chances are David Phelps takes over for Nuno. If Phelps still gets hurt in that scenario, there’s Shane Greene.

All told, the lefty fodder combination of Nuno and Capuano didn’t perform too too badly. They combined to pitch 143.2 innings to a 4.89 ERA, which is essentially what Mike Minor did. Given the unreasonable number of injuries to the staff, they could have done a lot worse.

The Yankees’ Five Biggest Outs of 2014

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Yesterday we looked at the Yankees’ five biggest hits of the season, so now it’s time to turn around and look at their five biggest outs. Not offensively, defensively. These are the most important outs the pitching staff and the defense recorded this past season. Again, we’re going to use win probability added (WPA) because it’s nice and easy. Perfect? No. Good for an exercise like that? You bet.

Unlike big hits, big outs are a little less dramatic. Watching an outfielder catch a fly ball or a second baseman field a routine grounder isn’t as exciting as watching a hit fall in and someone run around the bases in a big spot. But outs are important too, and given all the close games the Yankees played this year, they had more than their fair share of important outs. Here are the 2010 and 2012 biggest outs posts. I guess I never did one for 2011 and 2013. I’m such a slacker.

t-5. May 9th: Warren, McCann team up for strike ‘em out, throw ‘em out double play (video, 1:27-1:35)
t-5. August 7th: Shane Greene gets Victor Martinez to bang into twin killing (video above, 0:51-0:59)

Once again, we have a tie for fifth place. And, technically, each one of these plays involves two outs because they’re double plays, but we’ll count them as one to make life easy. The Yankees led the May 9th game against the Brewers by the score of 4-2 in the seventh inning when Masahiro Tanaka allowed back-to-back one-out singles. In came Warren, who helped escape the inning by fanning Overbay, his ex-teammate. Jordan Schafer was running on the pitch and McCann threw him out. Beautiful. A little less than three months later, Greene had runners at the corners with one out in the sixth inning against the Tigers. The Yankees were nursing a 1-0 lead at a time when they were weren’t scoring a whole lot of runs. Martinez, who finished third in MLB with a 166 wRC+ this season, jumping on an 0-1 sinker and banged into an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play. Both double plays were worth +0.19 WPA.

4. May 11th: Warren strikes out Overbay (no video)

Same series, same matchup, different game. In the series finale in Milwaukee, the Yankees and Brewers were tied at 5-5 in the bottom of the ninth after Mark Teixeira clubbed a game-tying solo homer off Francisco Rodriguez in the top half. Overbay stepped to the plate with a runner at third and one out after Rickie Weeks doubled and moved to third on a wild pitch. All Overbay needed to do was hit the ball in the air and the game was over. Instead, Warren threw him five straight changeups (!) and got him to swing through three of them for the big strikeout. There’s no easily accessible video anywhere but I assure you it looks like almost every other “left-handed batter swinging over a right-handed changeup” you’ve ever seen. The strikeout was the second out of the inning and it registered +0.20 WPA, but ultimately it didn’t matter. Two pitches later, former Yankee Mark Reynolds singled through the left side of the infield for the walk-off win. Wah wah.

3. July 29th: David Robertson gets Adrian Beltre to fly out

This was either the best worst game or the worst best game of the season. I can’t decide. The Yankees were up 1-0 after one inning. Then they were down 3-1 after three innings. Thanks to a seven-run sixth and a two-run seventh, they had a nice 10-4 lead. Then the Rangers scored four runs in the bottom of the seventh to make it 10-8, but that was fine, the Yankees scored two more in the top of the eighth to stretch their lead to 12-8. Texas scored a run in the eighth and the Bombers took a 12-9 lead into the ninth.

Robertson started the ninth with a strikeout (cool!) before Leonys Martin slapped a one-out single (no!). Then Robinson Chirinos drew a walk to bring the tying run to the plate. Yuck. Rougned Odor moved the runners up with a ground out, then Robertson walked Shin-Soo Choo to load the bases because that’s pretty much the only thing Choo does. Elvis Andrus followed with a single to center, scoring Martin and pinch-runner Dan Robertson to cut the lead to 12-11. Alex Rios drew a walk to reload the bases and set things up for Beltre. Robertson did get ahead in the count 0-2 on Beltre, but three straight balls followed. Bases loaded, two outs, bottom of the ninth, full count … and Beltre unloaded on an inside fastball. I thought it was gone off the bat. I really did. Instead, Brett Gardner retreated in left, turned back towards the infield, and caught the routine fly ball for the 27th out. Ex-frickin-hale. That fly ball was worth +0.27 WPA.

2. August 3rd: Robertson gets lucky

They say it’s lucky to be better than good, but sometimes you have to be both. The Yankees and Red Sox were playing one of their typical ESPN Sunday Night Games, which meant a back and forth game with a lot of runs that somehow resulted in a one-run game in the ninth. This time the Yankees were on the good end of that one-run lead. Robertson came in to protect an 8-7 lead and immediately walked the leadoff man — light-hitting rookie catcher Christian Vazquez — on four pitches. Not ideal.

Luckily for Robertson, the Red Sox and Chase Headley bailed him out. Brock Holt sliced a hard line drive to left field, but Headley was perfectly positioned and snared what looked like a double into the corner off the bat. Pinch-runner Mookie Betts took off on the pitch, so Headley was able to double him off first base easily. The twin-killing was worth +0.28 WPA. Robertson got Dustin Pedroia to ground out weakly to second base to end the game as the next batter, preserving the win. He’s pitched his way out of so many jams over the years. About time the defense paid him back.

1. August 7th: Robertson get a double play from Miggy

That’s right, two of the Yankees’ five (well, six, really) biggest outs of 2014 came in the same game, in the span of about four innings. Greene made that 1-0 lead stand up through eight innings, but Joe Girardi send him back out for the ninth and he allowed a first pitch leadoff single to Ian Kinsler. That ended Greene’s afternoon and brought Robertson into the game.

Once again, Robertson walked the first man he faced, though this time it was a good hitter (V-Mart) on five pitches instead of a bad hitter on four. Miguel Cabrera, who was not in the starting lineup that day due to his various nagging injuries, came off the bench to pinch-hit for J.D. Martinez. Even with those injuries, it was not exactly a comfortable situation. Robertson left a fastball out over the plate to Cabrera, but he hit the top of the ball and grounded it back up the middle. Second baseman du jour Brendan Ryan fielded it cleanly, stepped on second for the force, then fired to first for the double play. Here’s the WPA graph:


Source: FanGraphs

That little spike in the ninth inning is the walk to V-Mart and the double play. The double play ball was worth +0.31 WPA, which is pretty ridiculous for a pair of outs. It takes a lot to record a high WPA on a defensive because the odds are always in favor of an out being made. Kinsler moved to third on the play and was stranded there when Don Kelly lined out softly to Ryan to end the game as the next batter. No surprise that Robertson was on the mound for the three (really five) biggest outs of the year. His job is to get precisely those outs.

Thursday’s other farewell: Hiroki Kuroda likely making final start in pinstripes

(Alex Goodlett/Getty)
(Alex Goodlett/Getty)

Later tonight, Derek Jeter will play his final home game at Yankee Stadium. We’ve known this was coming for months now but I still can’t believe it. I grew up watching Jeter’s career from start to finish and I’m finding it impossible to imagine a world in which he isn’t the shortstop of the Yankees. I’m certain tonight will be memorable regardless of the weather forecast. Everything Jeter does is memorable.

Tonight’s game will also feature another, much less celebrated farewell. Hiroki Kuroda is set to make what will likely be the final start of his Yankees career and possibly his MLB career. He has flirted with retirement in each of the last two offseasons and he’s already started doing it again this year. Sure, there is a chance he could return, but the feeling all season has been that the Yankees will move on from Kuroda now that he’s approaching 40 and his effectiveness is staring to wane.

It’s fitting Kuroda’s final start will be (understandably) overshadowed by Jeter’s farewell tonight. Just about everything he’s done in pinstripes has been overshadowed. The day the Yankees signed him was the also day the day they shipped Jesus Montero to the Mariners for Michael Pineda. When Kuroda re-signed with the team after that season, it was overshadowed by Andy Pettitte announcing he wanted to return for one more year. When he re-signed again this offseason, it was the same day Robinson Cano bolted for Seattle and Carlos Beltran became a Yankee.

Getting overshadowed is what Kuroda does, but the fact is he has been the team’s best and most reliable pitcher since first putting on pinstripes. There were always starters getting more attention — CC Sabathia in 2012, Ivan Nova in 2013, Masahiro Tanaka and Pineda in 2014 — but Kuroda was the stalwart in Joe Girardi‘s rotation. He missed one start in three years with the Yankees, and that was when they shut him down after being eliminated last September and sent out a spot starter in Game 162.

Kuroda was remarkably consistent these last three seasons — 2012-14 WHIP: 1.16, 1.16, 1.17; 2012-14 FIP: 3.86, 3.56, 3.58; 2012-14 K/BB: 3.27, 3.49, 3.91 — and he was truly one of the best pitchers in baseball, even with his late-season fades in 2012 and 2013. Here is where he ranks among his peers since joining New York (min. 300 IP, 131 qualifiers):

Innings Starts ERA ERA+ FIP WHIP K/BB bWAR fWAR
Kuroda 612 96 3.46 117 3.67 1.165 3.52 11.7 11.0
MLB Rank 12th t-8th 36th t-26th t-44th 22nd 29th t-13th 17th

Kuroda has been no worse than a top 15-20 starter these last three years when you look at the whole picture, his effectiveness on a rate basis and the bulk innings he provided. He went 7+ scoreless innings in 14 starts over the last three years, the fourth most in baseball behind Clayton Kershaw (20), Adam Wainwright (19), and Felix Hernandez (15). In his only two postseason starts with the Yankees, Kuroda allowed two runs in 8.1 innings (2012 ALDS) and three runs in 7.2 innings (2012 ALCS). He struck out 14 and walked one.

“The next outing, I may end my career there. Who knows?” said Kuroda to Chad Jennings following his start last Friday. “For now, I still have a job to do, which is to finish this season. I don’t really put too much time on (thinking about what’s next). It’s something I need to think about once I finish my responsibilities here.”

During his three years in New York, Kuroda was consistently solid, occasionally brilliant, and rarely bad. He was almost like the position player version of Hideki Matsui, fitting the team in a way that made it seem like he had been with the Yankees for years and years. Kuroda was obviously excellent on the field but he also carried himself with class and represented the team with dignity. Forgive the cliche, but he was a True Yankee in every way.

Kuroda’s tenure in pinstripes will likely come to an end tonight, overshadowed by Jeter’s farewell. That’s fine though. He’s been overshadowed and somewhat underappreciated ever since he arrived in New York. That’s his thing. Hopefully he gets a moment in the spotlight and a big ovation when he walks off the Yankee Stadium for what figures to be the final time tonight. Kuroda has been a great pitcher and a damn good Yankee these last three seasons, and he deserves a little send-off of his own.

Plenty of positive signs in Tanaka’s return to the rotation

(Andy Marlin/Getty)
(Andy Marlin/Getty)

Even though they’re a long shot to make the postseason, yesterday afternoon’s win over the Blue Jays was one of the most important games of the season for the Yankees. Masahiro Tanaka returned to the rotation after missing more than three months with a partially torn elbow ligament, an injury that usual requires Tommy John surgery. But, because his tear was small (supposedly less than 10%), doctors recommended rehab.

Tanaka threw a handful of bullpen sessions and pitched in three simulated games while rehabbing, but nothing can simulate real game action. It’s one thing to feel good while throwing without much adrenaline against a bunch of teenage minor leaguers in Tampa. It’s another to feel good while facing actual big leaguers looking to do damage in front of a packed stadium with 50,000 fans in attendance.

“I was able to go pretty strong today, so I’m relieved. I feel that I was able to do all of the things that I wanted to do,” said Tanaka to Vince Mercogliano following yesterday’s start. “Obviously (the elbow felt) way better today (compared to the last start before going on the DL). I don’t remember exactly when, but gradually as the game went on, I guess I forgot about it.”

To my untrained eye, Tanaka looked like, well, he looked like Masahiro Tanaka. His fastball velocity was down a bit but I expected that after the long layoff. He didn’t have a whole lot of time to build arm strength. Tanaka not only did not shy away from his breaking pitches — the pitches that supposedly put the most stress on the elbow — he actually shook off Brian McCann to get to his slider and splitter on several occasions. He threw them in situations he would normally throw them. Here’s a quick breakdown of his pitch selection, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

Four-Seamer Sinker Splitter Slider Curve
Pre-Injury % 22.0% 19.3% 25.8% 21.5% 5.4%
Per-Injury Velo. 92.8 91.6 87.4 84.1 74.6
Sunday % 25.7% 27.1% 21.4% 10.0% 15.7%
Sunday Velo. 90.2 90.2 85.5 81 73.2

I wouldn’t obsess over Tanaka’s pitch selection from yesterday’s start since it was just one start. A short 70-pitch start at that. What he lacked in sliders he made up for in curveballs — “My curveballs were pretty sharp today, so that’s why I was throwing that a lot … I wanted to go out there and check all of my pitches,” Tanaka said to Mercogliano — and his four-seamer and splitter usage was in line with the rest of the season. It would have been a red flag if Tanaka had thrown, say, 80% fastballs and just few splitters or sliders, something that may have indicated he was nursing the elbow. That isn’t the case though. If he was trying to protect the elbow in some way, it doesn’t show in his pitch selection.

Tanaka’s biggest issue on the afternoon was his location. This guy was damn near pinpoint with his command earlier in the season, but yesterday his ability to locate was nowhere to be found, especially in the early inning. It did get a little better as the game wore on, though it never got back to what he showed earlier in the season. Tanaka was missing with fastballs by the full width of the plate at times:

Missed the target by thaaat much.
Missed the target by thaaat much.

He missed by a significant amount with several other pitches as well, both side-to-side and up-and-down. It wasn’t every pitch — he hit the glove and dotted the corners a bunch of times as well — but much more often than we saw in any of his pre-injury starts. Elbow problems usually result in poor location — a drop in velocity tends to indicate a shoulder problem — but I think this was simply rust. Tanaka mentioned he didn’t feel all the way back to normal following his last simulated game. The location is something to watch in his next start, sure, but I’m not concerned yet.

Most importantly, Tanaka looked like a healthy pitcher yesterday. He did not appear to be tentative — “He just went after it, the way you’re used to seeing him do,” said pitching coach Larry Rothschild to Brendan Kuty — and he didn’t labor in any way. Tanaka wasn’t taking a lot of time between pitches or anything like that, which pitchers will commonly do if they’re uncomfortable or not 100% physically. He looked like Masahiro Tanaka with bad control, and I think that represents the best case scenario for yesterday given the circumstances. The closer he looks to normal, the better.

Tanaka’s situation is a new experience for everyone. Well, at least to fans. The Yankees claim to have had pitchers in the organization successfully rehab a partial tear like this. We’ve never seen anything like this though. We’re used to seeing a tear — even a partial one — result in Tommy John surgery almost immediately. Everything about Tanaka is unique, from his background to the way he joined the team to his extreme competitiveness, and this injury is no different. Too many pitchers have gone down with Tommy John surgery in 2014, but based on everything we saw yesterday, it looks like Tanaka just might be the pitcher who beats it.

Yankees’ current 2015 rotation options full of uncertainty

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

On Sunday, Masahiro Tanaka will get back on the mound and pitch in the big league game for the first time since the week before the All-Star break. It will be the biggest step in his rehab from a partially torn elbow ligament, and, really, the best case scenario is seeing that the ligament won’t blow out the instant is it subjected to a game action stress level. It’s either going to blow out or not blow out, but even if it doesn’t, there is no guarantee it will stay intact going forward.

No matter what, Tanaka will head into next season as a big health question mark. The Yankees have to go into the offseason assuming the worst — that the elbow will give out at some point relatively soon — and act accordingly, meaning bringing in plenty of pitching depth. In fact, just about every big league caliber starter in the organization will carry uncertain health into next season if Hiroki Kuroda does not return. To wit:

  • CC Sabathia is coming off knee surgery after there were concerns he may need a career-threatening microfracture procedure.
  • Ivan Nova had Tommy John surgery on April 29th and the best case rehab scenario has him back on a big league mound in late-April 2015.
  • Michael Pineda is healthy right now but missed more than three months this year with a muscle problem in his back/shoulder. That’s on top of the shoulder surgery that cost him 2011-12.
  • David Phelps just missed a month with elbow inflammation after missing more than two months with a pair of forearm strains in the second half last year. He’s yet to show he can handle a full season’s workload.

And then there’s Tanaka’s elbow on top of all of that. We already know Nova will not be ready come Opening Day and the recent rash of pitchers who have had complications coming back from Tommy John surgery — with the last 14 months Daniel Hudson, Cory Luebke, and Jonny Venters all needed a second Tommy John procedure before completing the rehab from their first surgery — is a reminder that Tommy John is not fullproof. Several doctors, most notably Dr. James Andrews, have said the 12-month rehab may be too aggressive, so the Yankees might take is slow with Nova.

No one really knows what to expect out of Sabathia going forward, so at this point the safest bets to be healthy at the start of next season are Pineda and Phelps, and that is kinda scary because neither of them is all that durable. As I’ve said before, I think the Yankees need to focus on adding depth and multiple pieces to strengthen the roster for top to bottom this offseason. Adding one star caliber pitcher like Max Scherzer or Jon Lester will certainly help, but in the end those guys only fill one of five rotation spots while the other four remain questionable.

Priority number one this winter will clearly be improving the offense. It has to be. The patchwork rotation has done a fine job filling in this year but many of the rotation injuries are going to carry over to next year. In a perfect world I’d like to see Pineda and Phelps penciled in as the fifth and sixth starter again, respectively, but at the moment they are the team’s two healthiest starters under contract (or team control, really) for next year. Bringing in a starter to replace Kuroda this winter is the bare minimum. The Yankees have a lot of injury risks in the rotation and the offseason is the time to add some protection.