Archive for Pitching
Thanks to today’s rainout, the Yankees will skill David Phelps‘ scheduled start and instead keep the rotation on turn, the team announced. That means Hiroki Kuroda will start tomorrow night’s game as originally planned. Phelps will have to start sometime in the next five days, obviously.
More importantly, the Mariners announced they are using the rainout to push their starters back a day and give everyone extra rest, which means lefty Roenis Elias will start Thursday’s series finale rather than Felix Hernandez. Oh happy day. That’s a really nice break for the Yankees.
The Yankees have been without Michael Pineda for five games now thanks to his pine tar related suspension, and they’re going to be without him for at least another month. Pineda suffered a Grade I strain of the right teres major muscle in his back on Tuesday while throwing a simulated game in Tampa, the team announced last night. He was working to stay sharp and stretched out during the suspension.
Before we go any further, here is where that teres major muscle is located, since I know you’re all wondering:
It’s technically not part of the shoulder but it sure looks close enough to me. Close enough that the Yankees will probably be extra cautious during Pineda’s rehab given his history of shoulder problems. The perfectly healthy Clayton Kershaw suffered the same injury right before Opening Day and he just made his first minor league rehab start the other day. That 3-4 week timetable the Yankees gave for Pineda sure seems pretty optimistic to me, but I’m no doctor.
Either way, Pineda is going to be out for the foreseeable future, meaning David Phelps is in the rotation for another few weeks. Vidal Nuno has already made two starts, one because of a doubleheader and another because of Ivan Nova‘s season-ending Tommy John surgery. In the span of about two weeks, the team’s sixth and seventh starters have become their fourth and fifth starters. That’s never good, especially since this isn’t a short-term thing. Help is not on the way for another few weeks.
Despite his pine tar indiscretions and limited pitch count, Pineda was pitching like an ace for the Yankees early this season and that will be very missed. Phelps has been pretty miserable so far this year, allowing seven runs on 18 base-runners and three homers in only 11.2 innings. He wasn’t any good as a starter last season either (4.93 ERA in 65.2 innings), so it’s not like he has some great track that’ll make us feel all warm and fuzzy. Going from Pineda to Phelps is a huge downgrade. At the same time, going from Nova to Nuno might actually be an upgrade because Nova was so terrible before blowing out his elbow.
The bigger issue is that the Yankees don’t have their usual stable of reliable veterans to fall back on. Masahiro Tanaka is the truth, man. That guy’s a stud. CC Sabathia isn’t though. He was nice enough to remind us of that last night. His two previous starts were pretty darn good, yet last night was the reminder that his adjustment from power pitcher to crafty veteran will not be smooth. After years of being a workhorse, the Yankees might have to treat him as only a five-inning pitcher to maximize his effectiveness. Hiroki Kuroda has had an uneven start to the season and we’re still waiting for him to turn it around.
It wasn’t more than two weeks ago that the Yankees’ rotation was the clear strength of the roster. Tanaka and Pineda were pitching like aces, Sabathia was starting to find himself, and Nova was healthy with some reason to believe he’d turn his rough start around. Now? Now it’s Tanaka and pray for rain. And that’s scary. The strength of the club is suddenly a weakness, and a poor rotation can undermine a team’s chances of contention pretty quickly. This game, man. It’s cruel. Things can change in an instant.
With two long relievers in the rotation, the Yankees have been carrying guys like Chris Leroux and Bruce Billings in the bullpen. That isn’t going to cut it. The core relievers are going to get worn out in a hurry. Al Aceves has been very good in limited Triple-A time (1.98 ERA and 2.43 FIP in 13.2 innings), and even though he hasn’t been an effective big leaguer in two years, he’s a better option that Leroux, Billings and Shane Greene, none of whom have had MLB success. Trying to squeeze something out of Aceves in long relief seems like a better plan than trying the same with Leroux. At least it does to me. I’d like to see those two trade places.
Because Nova is not coming back this season, Brian Cashman can begin looking for more permanent rotation help right away. Good luck finding a seller this time of the year though. Upgrading over Phelps and/or Nuno may be more difficult than we realize, especially since it is only late-April/early-May. Not many clubs are looking to shed spare starters right now. And besides, in recent years the Yankees have shown a willingness to be patient and try their internal options before going out into the trade market. I have no reason to think they will do something different now. Adding a starter is definitely more of a priority than it was two or three weeks ago, however.
Pineda’s suspension was only supposed to be a short-term thing that gave him an early-season breather, left the team a player short for ten games, and forced Phelps to make one spot start. Instead, the Yankees lost their second best pitcher to injury while he wasn’t even on the active roster. Nuno and Phelps are actually pretty good options compared to other number six and seven starters around the league, but they still aren’t guys you’d want in the rotation long-term. The Yankees suddenly have a rotation problem and will have to hope the guys already on the roster (and the offense!) can soften the blow while they wait for more options to become available.
Thanks to Friday night’s beatdown at the hands of the Angels, Hiroki Kuroda is sitting on an unsightly 5.28 ERA (4.26 FIP) in 29 innings through five starts this year. Obviously one disaster outing like that one will skew numbers this early in the season, but Kuroda did go into that start with a 4.07 ERA (3.58 FIP) in 24.1 innings. The runs allowed are a bit higher than what we’re used to seeing from the right-hander, the fielding independent stuff right in line with past years.
Kuroda faced 25 Angels on Friday night and ten had hits, including six in two-strike counts. He allowed just seven two-strike hits total in his first four starts. Kuroda was having problems with his offspeed stuff in his previous start against the Rays, but he worked through that and turned in a representative outing (three runs in 5.2 innings). He had the same issue against the Angels but couldn’t limit the damage.
“Overall my command was bad and all my pitches weren’t good,” said Kuroda to Brian Heyman following Friday’s game. “Right now, there are certain pitches that are inconsistent. I need to make an adjustment and get them back. The biggest thing is to improve the quality of my breaking ball.”
Kuroda does throw the occasional curveball but his slider is his go-to breaking ball. Has been for years. He uses the pitch mostly against righties (duh) while relying on his splitter against lefties (also duh), so it makes sense the righty-heavy Angels smacked him around on Friday. Same-side hitters have tagged Kuroda for a .351 wOBA in the early going this year, up from .266 last season. When the finish pitch isn’t there, it’s tough to put batters away. Same applies to every pitcher ever.
Here are the details on Kuroda’s slider:
|% Thrown||% In Zone||% Swings||% Whiffs||Horiz. Mvmt||Vert. Mvmt||mph|
|2012||30.0%||33.6%||45.4%||16.5%||1.3 in.||3.2 in.||84.3|
|2013||25.1%||33.2%||46.0%||16.1%||0.5 in.||3.3 in.||84.5|
|2014||14.0%||36.9%||40.0%||13.9%||1.3 in.||3.3 in.||84.1|
The movement and velocity of Kuroda’s slider is right in line with his first two seasons as a Yankee — the 0.5 inches of horizontal movement last season is the outlier compared to the rest of his career, according to Brooks Baseball — but he’s throwing considerably fewer of them this year, which suggests a lack of faith in the pitch. Kuroda admitted his slider hasn’t been good and pitchers tend to shelve pitches they are struggling to execute. When he has thrown it, he’s catching more of the plate and hitters aren’t swinging and missing.
Kuroda is not overpowering and he uses his slider as a chase pitch, both to get swings and misses and weak contact. He outperformed his FIP and posted a below league-average BABIP every year from 2011-13, classic signs of a guy who generates weak contact. Kuroda is a unique pitcher in more ways that one. Now that his slider isn’t behaving as it normally does, he isn’t getting those whiffs and certainly isn’t getting weak contact. When he’s been hit, he’s been hit hard.
The question now is why is his slider being so fickle? It could be any number of reasons and there’s no way we could possible know from where we sit. Could be mechanics, could be the cold weather, could be something else. Age is an obvious concern — “I don’t know. This is the first time I’ve been 39,” he quipped to Andrew Marchand when asked if he’s getting to be over the hill — but Kuroda’s stuff doesn’t appear to be diminished at all. His velocity and movement are fine, he’s just not executing and locating. When he struggled late last year, Kuroda was making his pitches and still getting beat. He just isn’t making his pitches right now, especially with the slider.
Kuroda doesn’t lack a good fastball but he is definitely more of a crafty pitcher than a power pitcher. He needs all three of his fastball, slider, and splitter to be effective, and when one or more of those pitches doesn’t behave, he’s in for a real grind. The inability to locate his slider juuust off the plate to righties has left him without one of three primary weapons, and that’s no way to succeed in the AL East. Kuroda has to make an adjustment — it’s entirely possible he won’t be able to make that adjustment at his age, but I’m not going to say that is the case after five starts — and get back to being a true three-pitch pitcher, otherwise he’s in for more rough outings.
Through the first three weeks of the season, the starting rotation has been the clear strength of the Yankees’ roster. The lineup and bullpen have been solid overall too, don’t get me wrong, but the starting staff has really stood out to me. That rotation took a hit yesterday when it became all but official that Ivan Nova will have Tommy John surgery, ending his season. He was not particularly good before getting hurt but those are still some big shoes to fill. Nova has shown he can be excellent for weeks at a time.
The first opportunity to fill those shoes is going to Vidal Nuno, almost by default. The southpaw made a rainout/doubleheader necessitated spot start on Sunday and he lines up perfectly to fill Nova’s spot thanks to Monday’s off-day. Nuno pitched well on Sunday (five shutout innings against the Rays) and I’m sure the rotation outlook would look much different if he got bombed. It might be David Phelps or heck, even Al Aceves making the start if Sunday didn’t go well.
Nuno was part of the four-headed fifth starter competition in Spring Training but I felt he was the long shot. That he pitched so well in camp and was still the first one eliminated from the competition makes me think I wasn’t wrong. And yet, he somehow he is the first loser of that competition to land in the rotation during the regular season. Things just fell into place for him. Adam Warren has taken over as a key setup man and Phelps was needed in middle relief, leaving Nuno for the spot start. He took advantage on Sunday.
Joe Girardi didn’t mince words when announcing the 26-year-old Nuno would remain in the rotation — “He is our fifth starter now,” he said to reporters prior to last night’s game — and we all know Nova isn’t coming back anytime soon. That rotation spot is wide open and it’ll go to whoever performs the best. Nuno gets a head start on the in-house competition and that’s big. He has a chance to not give the other guys chances. If he pitches well, he’ll keep the job no questions asked. It’s the opportunity of a baseball lifetime.
Remember, Nuno is a former 48th round pick who was toiling away in an independent league before hooking on with New York a few years ago. He’s had to overcome some seriously long odds to get where he is — starting pitcher for the New York frickin’ Yankees! — and I doubt the magnitude of this opportunity is lost on him. Can his soft-ish tossing ways allow him to turn over a lineup multiple times every fifth day in the AL East? Maybe, maybe not. He’s going to get a chance to show everyone if it does despite looking like little more than the team’s eighth starter just three weeks ago.
As you know, last season was the worst of CC Sabathia‘s career. By a lot. He was legitimately one of the worst pitchers in the game after being no worse than comfortably above-average for the better part of a decade. Sabathia’s ability to bounce back — not necessarily to an ace, just to something better than terrible — is pretty important to the team’s chances to contend this summer, even with Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda throwing so well early on.
Sabathia’s first four starts this year have been a mixed bag but they have gotten progressively better: six runs in six innings, four runs in six innings, four runs in seven innings, and two runs in seven innings. He has pitched very well early in his last three starts before allowing some runs in the later innings. There have definitely been multi-inning stretches where he was in total control, but we’ve yet to see an entire start like that. Hopefully it’s coming soon.
Unsurprisingly, Sabathia’s oft-discussed velocity did not bounce back this year. It never does. Once velocity goes it tends to stay gone. His four-seam fastball has averaged only 89.6 mph in his first four starts, down from 91.3 mph last year. I suspect that will tick up a little bit in the summer months as it usually does. How has Sabathia attempted to compensate for his missing heater? By simply throwing it less. He has de-emphasized his four-seamer. Look at his pitch selection courtesy of Brooks Baseball:
Sabathia has incorporated a cutter this season but he rarely uses it, only a handful of times per game. He is throwing slightly fewer sliders and slightly more changeups, but nothing crazy. That’s probably a function of the small sample size more than anything. The big difference comes with the fastballs. Sabathia is throwing way fewer four-seamers than at any other time with the Yankees and he’s throwing a ton more sinkers, basically twice as many as he threw from 2011-13. That’s a big difference.
Sabathia is not necessarily using fastballs less, but now he is cutting them and especially sinking them more often. That doesn’t make him unique either. Not even close. That is an adjustment most veteran pitchers will make later in their careers. From Chris Cwik:
The added movement is likely one of the reasons we’ve seen veteran pitchers start using the sinker more often, according to PITCHf/x guru Harry Pavlidis. “As you lose velocity you need to add something,” says Pavlidis. “Movement is a good choice. So you’ll have older pitchers who lose velocity and adjust, or guys who are fringy and realize they can get a new edge, even if their velocity is still intact.”
Former major-league pitcher Brian Bannister agrees. “As pitchers lose the capability to throw powerful four-seam fastballs they have to compensate somehow,” Bannister said. “If you look at most of the pitchers who are still around as they get older, they are throwing sinking fastballs and not power fastballs because it matches up with how their body feels.”
Sort through the list of pitchers who have used the sinker the most since 2011 and they are almost all veterans in the second half of their career. Jake Westbrook, Derek Lowe, Jason Marquis, Kyle Lohse, Hiroki Kuroda, Bronson Arroyo, guys like that. Sabathia isn’t throwing his sinker as much as those guys just yet, but don’t be surprised if he creeps closer and closer to the top of that list in the coming years. It only makes sense to shelve the straight four-seamer in favor of the sinking sinker as the radar gun readings become less impressive.
Emphasizing the sinker is not the only adjustment Sabathia has made early this year. He is also pitching inside more often. According to the truly amazing Baseball Savant, Sabathia has come inside to right-handed batters with 29.5% of his pitches this year. That is up from 25.8% last year and 24.2% from 2011-13. (He’s only faced 12 lefty batters this year so I won’t even bother with those numbers.) I remember Mike Mussina (or maybe it was David Cone) saying that you have to pitch inside more when you start to lose velocity, and Sabathia has done early in 2014.
Between the increased reliance on his sinker and busting righties inside more often, CC has changed his pitching style in a tangible way so far this year. He had to after last season. The velocity isn’t coming back and adjustments had to be made. I’m guessing this is just the start of those adjustments too. We might see more sinkers, more cutters, and more pitches inside as the season continues and he gets more comfortable. The progressively better starts might be an indication of that.
Because of who he is and his importance to the Yankees, everything Sabathia does this season will be watched closely. At least by me. I’m somewhat fascinated by the way pitchers age in general, going from hard-throwing youngsters with big stuff to savvy veterans who rely on their brains as much as their arms. Sabathia was not a “thrower” these last few years, the guy knows how to pitch, but that doesn’t mean adjusting to reduced velocity is easy. Throwing more sinkers (and cutters) and pitching inside appear to be tangible changes to his approach this year, changes he needs to make at this point of his career.
The Yankees got some very bad pitching news over the weekend. Ivan Nova left Saturday’s start with a sore elbow, and a subsequent MRI revealed a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. He will be re-evaluated in New York today and, based on how these things have gone for other pitchers around the league, it’s very likely Nova will need Tommy John surgery in the near future. The procedure would end his season and delay the start of his 2015 campaign as well.
Nova was the team’s least effective pitcher so far this season — that could be the result of the injury, of course — so the Yankees will only have to replace their fifth starter. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a big loss or anything like that, but there’s a difference between losing Nova and losing one of the other starters. This blow is easier to absorb. What can the Yankees do to replace Nova? Several things, actually. Let’s look at this two different ways.
The Yankees have already placed Nova on the 15-day DL, so even if today’s re-evaluation brings best case scenario news, he’s going to miss a minimum of two starts. (Off-days could help the team out a bit.) Vidal Nuno pitched well in yesterday’s spot start (five scoreless innings) and today’s off-day allows him to step right into Nova’s rotation spot, if the team decides to go that way. I have to think they will based on yesterday’s work.
The other options on the big league roster are Adam Warren and David Phelps, both of whom competed for the fifth starter’s job in camp. Warren has settled into a one-inning setup role and even though the season is barely three weeks old, I think he’s there to stay. Even with David Robertson due to come off the DL tomorrow. Phelps has become more of a multi-inning, multi-purpose reliever. He works the middle innings, the late innings, whatever is needed. Kinda like 2009 Al Aceves. Both Warren and Phelps would need to be stretched back out, unlike Nuno.
The Triple-A options aren’t very good. The RailRiders have a mostly veteran retread rotation, and the only guy on the staff with any kind of big league success is, well, Al Aceves. He was last effective in 2011. I can’t imagine others like Brian Gordon, Bruce Billings, and Chris Leroux will get serious rotation consideration. Same with Manny Banuelos. (Billings has been quite good actually, with a 2.74 ERA and 2.67 FIP in 23 innings.) I can’t see any of these guys getting the nod over Nuno or Phelps right now. If anything, Aceves could be called up to fill a bullpen job, but that’s probably it. Nuno seems like the guy right now.
If Nova does indeed go down for the rest of the season — even avoiding surgery and successfully rehabbing the injury will sideline him for weeks if not months — I think the Yankees have to consider making a trade to bolster their rotation. Remember, Michael Pineda is going to have his workload monitored closely following shoulder surgery, plus we don’t really know what to expect out of Masahiro Tanaka late in the season now that he’s starting every fifth day for the first time in his life. Plus Hiroki Kuroda has shown a tendency to wear down late in the year. Adding some rotation help is never a bad idea.
When looking for trade candidates, the easiest thing to do is find impending free agents on non-contenders. There are fewer sellers at the deadline these days because of the second wildcard spot, so the pool of available players really shrinks. Teams like the Diamondbacks (Brandon McCarthy?), Astros (Jerome Williams?), and Cubs (Jason Hammel?) seem like safe bets to be terrible. The Marlins (Kevin Slowey?), Rockies (Jorge De La Rosa?), and Padres (Eric Stults?) are other potential sellers.
The big rotation trade candidate is the same guy it’s been for about three years now: Cliff Lee. We know the Yankees love him, he remains among the game’s truly elite pitchers, and at this point there is only ~$45M left on his contract through next year. It’s not a huge long-term commitment. (His deal does include a vesting option for 2016.) Lee is someone any team would love to add to their staff and he’d be ultra-overqualified to replace Nova. Even if the Phillies decide to sell, do the Yankees have the prospects to compete against offers from clubs like the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Rangers?
* * *
The upcoming rotation situation would have been much murkier had Nuno gotten bombed yesterday. But, because he pitched well, he’ll likely get another chance or three to fill-in for Nova. And who knows? Maybe Nuno is the long-term solution. If not, the Yankees can try Phelps. A trade is something I think they should consider no matter how well those two perform, but that can wait. It’s early in the season and the Yankees can afford to be patient with their internal options. Nova did not pitch well in his first four starts this year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he will be easy to replace.
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.