Archive for Pitching
This past weekend, in his first outing of the spring, CC Sabathia chucked two scoreless and relatively uneventful innings against the Phillies. Uneventful unless you were watching the radar gun, of course. Sabathia topped out at 88 mph with his fastball on Saturday and sat mostly in the 86-88 mph range, which is far below what you want to see, even on March 1st. And everyone did see it thanks in no small part to the Michael Pineda velocity fiasco of 2012. The radar gun has become a focal point in Spring Training.
“My fastball is what it is. If it gets better, it will. If it’s not, it won’t. I can pitch. I’m fine. As long as I’m healthy I’ll be good,” said Sabathia to Chad Jennings after Saturday’s game because what is he supposed to say? No this is terrifying and I don’t think I’ll ever be effective again? C’mon now. It takes a lot of confidence and a certain level of arrogance to be an elite pro athlete, and part of that is never doubting your own ability despite signs of decline. Of course Sabathia is unconcerned about his fastball.
I am concerned about Sabathia’s fastball, however. Well, concerned isn’t the right word. I’m keeping my eye on it. That’s better. I wanted to go back and compare CC’s early spring velocity to past years, but there’s a bit of a problem: there isn’t any Grapefruit League pitch data out there. We’re limited to MLB.tv archives and the YES Network gun because there’s no PitchFX. Sabathia did not appear in a YES broadcast game until the middle of March in both 2012 and 2013, so we can’t even compare early spring velocities. We’re stuck lumping it all under a big “Spring Training velocity” umbrella. Here’s what we’re left with:
Sabathia did not pitch in a YES televised game in Spring Training 2011, so we can’t go back any further. I’m not sure how useful anything from pre-2012 would be anyway.
Just to give you an idea of how unprecise this is, Sabathia had one fastball clocked at 94 mph in the 2013 start and another clocked at 57 mph (!) in the 2012 game. I can buy 94 mph, but the most relevant thing is that he was consistently in that 89-90 range with a handful of 91s during the five-inning outing. I can’t buy 57 mph, but again, Sabathia was regularly in that 89-92 range with a smattering of 93s back in 2012. That’s what’s important.
Sabathia’s velocity in his first televised Spring Training game, as questionable as it may be given the source, was right in line with his PitchFX recorded April velocity in both 2012 and 2013. He held that Spring Training velocity through the season’s first month before adding another tick or two in the summer months, after the weather warmed up and he got into midseason form. That alone makes you want to see Sabathia get his heater closer to 90 mph this month.
Because of who he is and how important he is to the 2014 Yankees, Sabathia is going to be under the microscope this spring. His first outing was less than encouraging because his fastball was a little short, but it was only March 1st. I want to see how he looks after another outing or two before getting … well … concerned. I don’t think the fastball he showed on Saturday is full freakout worthy, but as much I hate Spring Training velocity watches, I don’t think we can simply sweep it under the rug just because it’s early-March either.
For what feels like the umpteenth straight year, the Yankees will hold a Spring Training competition to fill their final rotation spot. These competitions have been rigged in recent years — Joba Chamberlain in 2009, Phil Hughes in 2010, Ivan Nova in 2013 — but things feel legitimately wide open this spring. There are four guys vying for that fifth starter’s spot and I honestly would not be surprised if any one of the four walked away with the job. Here are the candidates.
Nuno, 26, jumped from independent ball to the big leagues in less than two years, pitching well (2.25 ERA and 4.50 FIP) in 20 innings spread across three starts and two relief appearances for New York early last season. A groin injury ended his season in early-June but Nuno did heal up in time to pitch in the Arizona Fall League after the season. He started the team’s first exhibition game of the spring against Florida State earlier this week, but that doesn’t mean anything as far as his standing in the competition.
Unlike the other three fifth starter candidates, Nuno is a left-hander, though I don’t think that gives him any kind of leg up. Sure, it would be nice to have another southpaw in the rotation given Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch, but the team has to focus on taking the best arm north at the end of camp regardless of handedness. Nuno has gotten results everywhere he’s pitched but his lack of a big league put away pitch is a negative — he threw 314 pitches with the Yankees last summer and batters swung and missed only 20 times, a well-below-average 6.4%. It’s not a big sample but it backs up the scouting report.
Whether he wins or loses the fifth starter job, we’re going to see Nuno in the big leagues at some point in 2014. I’m certain of that. Sixth and seventh starters will be needed — last time the Yankees went a full season with fewer than seven pitchers making at least two starts was 2003, and the last time before that was 1971 — and even if they aren’t, he could always wind up in a bullpen role. Second lefty, middle reliever, long man, you name it. Nuno doesn’t have a big ceiling but he will get another chance to help the team this year.
A few days ago, Joe Girardi confirmed Phelps will make the team in some capacity. If he doesn’t win the fifth starter spot he’ll go to the bullpen and perhaps be a one-inning setup reliever rather than a long man. The 27-year-old has done a little of everything in his relatively short MLB career, making 23 starts and 32 relief appearances these last two seasons. As you’d expect, he’s been better in relief:
Phelps did not pitch well as a starter last season (4.93 ERA in 65.2 innings) but he also missed more than two months with a forearm strain and subsequent setback, an injury that may have impacted his performance. His strikeout, walk, and ground ball rates all held steady from 2012-13, though his homer rate did drop from 1.26 HR/9 (13.6% HR/FB) two years ago to 0.83 HR/9 (8.9% HR/FB) last year, so there was some improvement in his game despite the inflated ERA.
Because he’s bounced back and forth between the rotation and bullpen, Phelps is still something of an unknown heading into 2014. He’s never been a starter for more than two months with the Yankees and we don’t know how well he’ll hold up starting every fifth day over a full season. Obviously he’s done it in the minors, but doing it in the big leagues is a little different. Phelps not only has the most MLB experience of the fifth starter candidates, I also think he is most likely to pitch well in whatever role he’s given. Will he be an ace or a shutdown reliever? No, probably not. But there’s value in being solid and reliable.
If you gave the Yankees — everyone from ownership to the front office to the coaching staff — a truth serum, I’m guessing they would all say they’re hoping Pineda grabs that last rotation spot and runs away with it in camp. The team has spent the last two years waiting patiently as the 25-year-old right-hander rehabbed from shoulder surgery and it finally looks like they will get some return from a trade that hasn’t worked out for either side thus far.
Of course, missing two years following major shoulder surgery makes Pineda a total unknown coming into this season. Sure, he did throw 40.2 innings across three minor league levels last summer, but those were rehab innings and they don’t really tell us anything useful. Early reports say Pineda has looked strong during bullpens and live batting practice session in camp but it’s bullpens and live batting practice. Take that information to heart at your own risk.
I think it’s important to remember that before the injury, Pineda was not a finished product. He didn’t have much of a changeup and he was very fly ball prone, which made him a questionable fit for Yankee Stadium. I highly doubt he developed a third pitch and became a ground ball guy during his rehab, but stranger things have happened. Pineda was a bit of a project at the time of the trade but now he’s a project coming off a major arm injury.
A healthy Michael Pineda can be a very good pitcher but the Yankees have not yet seen a healthy Michael Pineda in their uniform. If he impresses and wins a rotation spot in camp, great. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if the team went in another direction either, going with someone who isn’t as much of a wildcard while Pineda gets back into the groove of starting every five days in Triple-A, where results don’t matter. Either way, barring another injury or setback, I suspect we’ll finally see him pitch for the Yankees at some point this summer.
Of the four fifth starter candidates, Warren was the only one to make it through last season healthy. He really seemed to carve out a niche in long relief, pitching to a 3.39 ERA (4.32 FIP) in 77 total innings. Girardi used Warren as a one-inning setup man for a bit in September while David Robertson and Shawn Kelley were banged up, and he also made an impressive spot start (five scoreless innings on two days’ rest) in Game 161. Whenever the bell rang, he answered the call.
Warren, 26, was a starter his entire career up until last season. He threw all five of his pitches (four-seamer, two-seamer, slider, curveball, changeup) at least 11% of the time in 2013, so he won’t have to put extra work in this spring to regain feel for one of those offerings. Left-handed batters destroyed Warren last year (.387 wOBA and 5.13 FIP) and if that continues, his days as a starter won’t last long. It’s a big negative.
I think Warren is very similar to Phelps in that we don’t really know what he can do starting every five days in the big leagues, but the general sense is that he will help the team in some capacity. In fact, Girardi already confirmed he will be on the Opening Day roster, either as a starter or reliever. Warren might not be an impact starter but I’ve always liked him and thought he could be a very good short reliever. He’s going to play a role this year, that much is certain, it’s just unclear what role that ultimately will be.
* * *
The Yankees have all but confirmed Manny Banuelos will open the season in the minors, which makes sense after missing close to two full years with elbow problems. The 22-year-old still had to iron out some command issues before the injury and I assume that is still the case. Easing him back into things in an environment where wins and losses don’t matter seems best for his long-term development.
There are no other realistic fifth starter candidates other than the four guys above. The smart money is on all four pitching (if not starting) for the Yankees at some point this season, though they aren’t created equal. Pineda has the largest upside but he is also the biggest unknown because of his injury. Nuno seems to have the lowest upside of the bunch but he’s also the only lefty. Phelps and Warren are safe bets to be solid in some role yet we really don’t know what they can as full-time starters.
Remember, Spring Training competitions don’t end on Opening Day. Whoever wins the fifth starter’s spot in camp will have to pitch well in the regular season to keep the job. The Yankees have enough rotation depth that they can quickly pull the plug and try another pitcher if the guy who wins the final rotation spot doesn’t work out right away.
There is nothing quite like the first few days of Spring Training, before position players even show up to camp. Pitchers aren’t doing much more than throwing in the bullpen or facing hitters during live batting practice, yet they all seem to look great and are poised for a big season. Just the other day Blue Jays manager John Gibbons told John Lott that Brandon Morrow “looks like a good, strong, starting, durable pitcher.” If that’s not a sign of early Spring Training optimism, nothing is.
The Yankees, of course, are no different. John Ryan Murphy (weird) told Andrew Marchand that Masahiro Tanaka was “very impressive” during his second bullpen session yesterday and that’s great. It doesn’t really mean anything though. Hitters will tell us how impressive Tanaka is once he gets into an actual game in a few weeks. But still, this is the time of year when everyone gets excited about everything and so far the team’s new high-priced right-hander looks as good as advertised.
Tanaka is not the only pitcher in camp who is something of an unknown. Not even close, really. In fact, I consider Michael Pineda an even bigger unknown after missing two years due to major shoulder surgery. At least Tanaka spent the last few seasons pitching against a reasonably high level of competition. Pineda has thrown two bullpen sessions since Spring Training opened last Friday — including 35 pitches on Monday — and he has looked great, because of course.
“I thought the ball was coming out easier [than last spring],” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings on Monday. “I know he’s had time to clean up a couple things too, mechanically, in this two-year span. He just looked like it came out free and easy to me. Didn’t look like he put a ton of effort into it, or that he was overthrowing it. … To me, it looked different than what I saw a couple years ago when he got hurt and was pitching in games. I’m anxious to see him obviously get in some games in the next 12 days or so.”
Pineda is the perfect example of how this time of year lends itself to getting excited about a player, no matter what hurdles they have to clear. He hasn’t thrown a Major League pitch in two years and he wasn’t exactly a finished product before he got hurt either. Remember how he needed to develop a changeup and was fly ball prone? Those issues didn’t disappear as he rehabbed from shoulder surgery. Pineda says he’s the same guy he was before the injury — “I’m feeling so strong. I’m feeling good power … I’m throwing the same. Mechanics the same. Everything is the same. All pitches are the same. I’m the same Michael Pineda,” he said to Jennings — which means there is still development to be done before he lives up to his potential.
And yet, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about Pineda in 2014. He is finally healthy, first and foremost. He turned only 25 just last month. During that 2011 season with the Mariners, he became the only rookie pitcher in baseball history with a 9.0+ K/9 and sub-3.0 BB/9. That’s really impressive. Michael Pineda finally being healthy and in position to help the Yankees this year is exciting even if so many questions remain.
There will be plenty of time to worry and fret about Pineda and every other part of the Yankees over the next few months. Trust me, it’ll happen. Pineda will have back-to-back crappy starts at some point and we’ll all wonder if he’s breaking down again. The Yankees will lose like four games in a row and we’ll all worry things will never turn around. That’s just the nature of the beast. This time of year is different though. This is the time of year when everything is a reason to be excited, including Pineda’s early bullpen work.
The new Yankee Stadium has been open for five full seasons now, more than enough time to definitively say it is a hitter’s park, especially for left-handed hitters. The short porch in right is shorter than it was across the street, so we’ve seen plenty of balls that looked like routine fly outs go over the fence for the cheap homer. Anecdotally, I think the short porch has benefited the Yankees much more than it’s hurt them since 2009.
Because of that potential for the cheap homer, the Bombers have emphasized getting ground balls since the new park opened. The staff has gradually progressed from a 42.3% ground ball rate in 2009 to a 44.9% ground ball rate last year. Ground balls will again be a focus this year, and pitching coach Larry Rothschild has his staff focusing on the bottom of the zone early in camp. From Joel Sherman:
In bullpen sessions this year, pitching coach Larry Rothschild has introduced a technique he used in previous locales, but not with the Yankees — he has a yellow string that crosses the bottom of the strike zone and he actually is encouraging his pupils to hit the string.
Pounding the bottom of the zone should lead to more ground balls just because it’s tough to lift a ball at or below your knees, though the occasional golf shot is unavoidable. Whether this new drill actually leads to an increased grounder rate during the regular season remains to be seen, but hey, at least they’re trying.
In addition to an increased ground ball rate, emphasizing the bottom of the zone may also have a side effect: more called strikes. In a long but must read piece, Jon Roegele explained last month that the shape of the strike zone has changed during the PitchFX era. The zone is increasing in overall size but the corners are coming in while the bottom of the zone has expanded downward. Here are two heat maps from his post:
Grey means no change in the percentage of called strikes from 2008 (first full year of PitchFX) to 2013 while white means fewer called strikes and black means more called strikes. Again, the corners are coming in while the bottom of the zone gets bigger and bigger. You can click the image for a larger view, or, even better, click the link and read Roegele’s post for the entire analysis. It’s great stuff.
Anyway, Rothschild has emphasized the bottom of the zone this spring and it figures to help the Yankees both get ground balls and called strikes. Throwing strikes is hard though, especially to precise locations. It’s unlikely the entire pitching staff will suddenly start throwing everything right at the knees, but all it takes is one pitcher taking advantage of the bottom of the zone for this work to be worth it.
Regardless of what Brian Cashman says during radio interviews, the Yankees have very high hopes for Masahiro Tanaka. No team spends $155M on a guy unless they expect him to be an impact player. Sure, there may be an initial adjustment period coming over from Japan, but the Yankees are expecting Tanaka to slot in near the top of their rotation for at least the next four years.
Just about every scouting report we’ve seen these last few weeks says Tanaka owns a swing-and-miss splitter, arguably the best split-finger fastball in the world. That’s the pitch that separates him from the Kei Igawas and Kaz Ishiis of the pitching world and has everyone thinking he’ll be a number two-ish starter long-term. Despite that out-pitch splitter, Tanaka’s strikeout rate hasn’t been all that impressive in recent years:
The big league average was 7.6 K/9 and 19.9 K% last season, so striking out fewer than one-quarter of batters faced in NPB doesn’t exactly scream “ready to dominate MLB,” especially considering the downward trend in Tanaka’s strikeout rate. Having a swing-and-miss splitter that is racking up fewer and fewer strikeouts is a red flag, no doubt. We do have some explanation for the dropping strikeout rate though, courtesy of Keith Law (subs. req’d):
Tanaka used to pitch away from contact, but in the past two years, he has become more aggressive within the zone with his fastball, and his splitter is a solid 60 on the 20-80 scale.
According to Law, Tanaka essentially started pitching to contact these last few years. The hitters in Japan are not all that great, and it seems like he realized he didn’t need to nibble on the edges to succeed, he could simply pound the zone. That approach won’t work in MLB, or at least it won’t work as well. Tanaka will have to go back to living on the corners, and by all indications, he can do that.
Sticking to the edges of the plate should help increase Tanaka’s strikeout rate naturally — he is bound to get some favorable calls on borderline pitches, especially since Brian McCann and Frankie Cervelli are better than average pitch-framers — but other factors will work in his favor as well. First and foremost is the general hitting style around the league. Here’s something Buster Olney (subs. req’d) wrote a few weeks ago, with an assist from former Yankee Casey McGehee, who was Tanaka teammate with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2013:
McGehee believes that Tanaka will continue to improve pitching in the major leagues because the style of play suits Tanaka. The bottom of the lineups in Japan, McGehee said, are often rounded out with hitters whose goal is merely to fend off the forthcoming pitch. They’ll shorten their swing, foul the ball off, and survive to see another pitch. Hitters in the majors, McGehee noted, are more apt to look to do damage — to take bigger and more aggressive swings, in turn having plate appearances with few pitches.
The league average strikeout rate in Japan last year was 6.7 K/9 and 17.5 K%, so a large portion of the hitters definitely focused on simply making contract. The idea of hitters “whose goal is merely to fend off the forthcoming pitch” is not a thing that exists in MLB. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all trying to make contact, but the emphasis is on hard contact. Strikeouts are generally more accepted these days, as long as the trade-off involves a higher on-base percentage and more power.
The idea of a pitcher coming over from Japan and improving his strikout rate in MLB seems kinda silly — the competition level in NPB is clearly not the same as is in the big leagues — but it’s hardly unprecedented. Here are how the five most recent NPB imports fared after coming over to the States:
|MLB K%||Final NPB Season K%||Final Three NPB Seasons K%|
Chen is from Taiwan but he did pitch for the Chunichi Dragons in Japan from 2005-11 before signing with the Orioles. Anyway, aside from Dice-K, recent Japanese starters have maintained if not improved their strikeout rate after coming over to MLB. The hitters over here are better than the hitters in Japan, but they will also sell out for power and strike out more often. Furthermore, the bottom of the zone has expanded in recent years (as Jon Roegele recently explained), which should help Tanaka and his diving splitter.
There is one other thing to consider, and that is pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Rothschild came to the Yankees with a reputation for improving strikeout rates and that has held true during his time in pinstripes: Yankees pitchers had a 7.38 K/9 (19.2 K%) during the three years before Rothschild and a 7.80 K/9 (20.5 K%) in the three years with Rothschild. Obviously personnel has something to do with that, but veteran guys like CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte have seen their strikeout rate improve under Rothschild. Tanaka may do the same.
It’s pretty obvious why strikeouts are good, right? Nothing bad can happen when the ball is not put in play, and that is especially true for the Yankees, who could have a pretty ugly infield defense this year. Tanaka’s strikeout rate with Rakuten last year wasn’t anything special, but there are a number of reasons why he might whiff more batters in MLB going forward. His pitching approach, more aggressive hitters, the expanding zone, Rothschild, all of that and more can work to his advantage. Tanaka doesn’t necessarily need to strike a ton of guys out to be effective, but the more strikeouts he records, the better off he and the Yankees will be.
When pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training on Friday, the Yankees will have more than a few jobs up for grabs. The last bench spot is up in the air, ditto about four bullpen spots. The fifth starter’s spot is wide open as well, since the team opted to go internal rather than add a low-cost veteran like … I dunno. Paul Maholm or Jason Hammel, I guess. David Phelps is among those who will compete for that last rotation spot these next few weeks.
“It’s good to have somebody pushing you,” said Phelps to Anthony McCarron last week. “We’re not going to root against each other, because if we all do well, our team does better … I would obviously love to be a starter. I think I’m capable. I just have to go out and show what I’m capable of. If it’s not that, I don’t have a problem pitching out of the bullpen. But at the same time, I do want to start. It’s what I’ve done my whole career up until the last couple years.”
Adam Warren, who was solid as the team’s swingman last summer, will also be in that fifth starter’s competition. So will Vidal Nuno, who has the least big league experience of the candidates but is also left-handed, and lefty starters are always nice to have given Yankee Stadium’s short right field. Barring some suprise late additions, Michael Pineda will be the fourth and only other starter competing for a spot in camp, nearly two full years after having surgery to repair a torn labrum.
“I don’t know what we are going to get from him, but we have hope,” said Brian Cashman to Kevin Kernan last week, talking about Pineda. “This just has to play itself out. He has to perform April through September, and it has to be in New York and not in Trenton. The reports are good now, but he has to continue to progress and do it in a Major League setting. We certainly would love to get him back.”
The Yankees have held some rigged Spring Training competitions in the past (fifth starter in 2010, catcher in 2013) but I honestly don’t think anyone has a leg up in this year’s rotation race. Phelps has the most big league experience of the bunch but he’s only been in the league two seasons. Pineda was an All-Star in 2011 but he hasn’t thrown an MLB pitch in two years now. Nuno is a finesse lefty without a big league out pitch and Warren really seemed to find a niche in the bullpen last summer. Any of those four guys could walk away with the job and I wouldn’t be surprised. For what it’s worth, ZiPS doesn’t see much of a difference between these guys anyway:
|Projected K/BB||Projected ERA||Projected FIP|
Projections don’t really mean much of anything, though I do think the ZiPS numbers do a good job of showing just how tight this race is. There is no obvious favorite for the fifth starter spot given what he know right now and that makes it kinda fun in my opinion. Rigged competitions ruin the surprise.
Now, that said, would it be better for the Yankees if Pineda shows up to camp and looks like the guy he was with the Mariners before the trade? Absolutely. With all due respect to the other three rotation candidates, Pineda has (by far) the highest ceiling of the bunch and a strong rebound from shoulder surgery would be an amazingly positive development for both the 2014 Yankees as well as the 2015-17 teams. He is the only pitcher in history to post a 9+ K/9 with a sub-3 BB/9 in his rookie season, so his ability to control the strike zone while missing bats is especially rare.
The other three fifth starter candidates all have the ability to help at the big league level — they all have already, to some degree — but I think we can all agree none of those guys offers the impact potential of Pineda. That potential may have disappeared with the shoulder surgery, we won’t know what he can do until he gets out there, but Spring Training should give us a decent idea of what he is capable of nearly two years removed from the procedure. There is no clear favorite for that last rotation spot, but the no doubt best case scenario is Pineda showing up to camp and looking like the guy he was before the shoulder surgery.
Thanks to the busy offseason, Brett Gardner will be the Yankees’ only player in both the 2013 and 2014 Opening Day lineups, and he’ll be at a different position. All of that roster turnover is a good thing given how poor the team’s offense was last summer. The Yankees will score some more runs this year, but that isn’t the only part of the team that will change with the new additions. The defense will as well, especially on the infield.
Last year’s Yankees boasted above-average defenders in Gardner, Robinson Cano, Lyle Overbay, and Ichiro Suzuki. Chris Stewart was solid but I’m referring to the four infielders and three outfielders, the guys who handle the majority of balls in play. Jayson Nix was reliable but unspectacular while Vernon Wells and Eduardo Nunez were negatives. The defensive stats say the 2013 Yankees were a better than average defensive team (+21 DRS and +12.5 UZR) but Gardner is the only returning starter now that Ichiro has been pushed into a bench role.
Cano and Overbay have been replaced by Brian Roberts and Mark Teixeira, Nix and Nunez by Derek Jeter and Kelly Johnson, and Wells by Jacoby Ellsbury. The only clear upgrade there is Ellsbury, who is an elite defender. Teixeira has always been stellar in the field and I don’t think his wrist injury will impact his glovework much, if at all. Johnson has been generally above-average at second throughout his career but he is moving to third, where he has only 118 innings of experience. Roberts has been more or less an average defender at second but has barely played the last few years, so who knows what he can do defensively. Jeter has clearly been below-average in the field for a while now, even before the leg injuries.
Regardless of whether Alfonso Soriano or Carlos Beltran is in right, it’s clear the strong part of the Yankees’ team defense is their outfield. Gardner, Ellsbury and a potted plant would rate as one of the best defensive outfields in the game. The infield is a different story. Unless Brendan Ryan gets more playing time than expected, Teixeira will be their only obviously above-average defender on the infield. If Johnson shows his inexperience at third while Jeter and Roberts show their age at short and second, the infield could actually be pretty terrible defensively in 2014.
Therein lies the problem. Thanks to homer friendly Yankee Stadium, the Yankees have geared their pitching staff towards ground ball pitchers. That makes sense. Ground balls don’t go over the short porch for homers. Here are the team’s seven 40-man roster pitchers with at least two years of MLB experience:
|2013 GB%||2011-13 GB%|
Kelley is the only one of the seven who is an extreme fly ball pitcher. The other six guys have sat right around league average or been comfortably above. Adam Warren (45.3%) and Preston Clairborne (44.8%) were average ground ballers last season while Michael Pineda (36.6%) was a big time fly ball pitcher with the Mariners in 2011. That was two years and one major shoulder surgery ago, so who knows what he’ll do this year. Masahiro Tanaka could be a ground ball pitcher because of his diving splitter or he could be a fly ball guy like Dan Haren, his most popular comp. We won’t know until he pitches in an actual MLB game.
There is a pretty big disconnect between the strengths of the pitching staff and the team’s defense. The Yankees’ best defenders are in the outfield but three (perhaps all five depending on Tanaka and the outcome of the fifth starter competition) of their starters and two of their late-game relievers tends to keep the ball on the ground. Kelley and probably Pineda will love the Gardner-Ellsbury outfield but the other key members of the staff are going to hate the infield defense behind them, unless they learn how to make sure everything is hit towards Teixeira. I’d bet against it.
Fly balls have gotten a pretty bad rap in recent years, especially since the new Yankee Stadium opened. Yes, fly balls do occasionally go over the fence for homers, but they’re also relatively high-percentage outs when they stay in play, especially with Gardner and Ellsbury on the roster. Ground balls don’t go for homers but they do find holes for base hits. Given the crop of infielders and the team’s uncanny ability to use defensive shifts at the wrong time (confirmation bias, but you know what I’m talking about), there figure to be a lot of grounders sneaking through for hits and leading to extended rallies in 2014. The starters will wind up throwing more pitches and that means the questionable middle relief crew will see more innings in general.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much the Yankees can do to improve their infield defense at the moment. They could play Johnson at second and Ryan at short, but we all know Jeter will play the field as long as he’s physically in one piece. Other infield candidates who may sneak onto the roster are unlikely to offer much help — Nunez can’t field, Scott Sizemore is coming off two knee injuries, and Dean Anna isn’t considered a strong defender — so the team is stuck with what they have. Asking the pitchers to change their styles to get more fly balls is not realistic, but they could emphasize strikeouts. They’ll have to in big situations this summer because converting ground balls into outs will be no sure thing this summer.
Ivan Nova‘s relatively short big league career has been a bit of a rollercoaster. He was okay during the first half of 2011 (4.12 ERA) and dominant in the second half (3.18 ERA). The 2012 season was atrocious from start to finish (5.02 ERA), and that carried over into early 2013 (5.16 ERA in April and May). But, after returning from a brief DL stint and a trip to the minors, he was again dominant and arguably the best pitcher on the staff the rest of the season (2.70 ERA). This graph tells the story:
Yeah, these last three years have been pretty up and down for Nova, but that’s okay. Not every young guy comes into the league and dominates right away like Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey. Most young pitchers take their lumps before learning what works for them and how to make the necessary adjustments. Heck, some guys never learn that stuff. It’s just the way it goes. Pitching is hard.
To his credit, Nova has already shown the ability to make some adjustments. That excellent second half in 2011 came after he started using his slider more often. When he was demoted to Triple-A last season, he focused on his curveball and rode that pitch to a successful second half. I don’t think anyone would question the quality of Nova’s stuff — he shows some nasty, nasty stuff when he’s on — but learning how the command it well and get by on days when one or two pitches aren’t working has been a challenge. Again, that’s part of the learning process.
Now, that said, Nova turned 27 earlier this month and he’s about to enter his fourth full season with the Yankees. He’s also earning some decent money ($3.3M in 2014) now that he’s gone through arbitration for the first time as well. The learning process never stops, but Nova is at the point where that rollercoaster ride should end and he puts together a consistent and productive season, from Opening Day through Game 162. The days of posting an ugly first half and going to Triple-A for a wake-up call before finding success down the stretch should be in the past. They have to be — Nova is out of minor league options and can’t go to Triple-A without passing through waivers.
“When I got hurt and went to Tampa [for rehabilitation], I really thought about what I want to do and what I want to be. I forgot about the past and focused on doing what I have to do,” said Nova to Ken Davidoff last September, after his complete-game shutout against the Orioles. It certainly appeared as though the figurative light bulb had turned on late last year, but I felt the same way in the second half of 2011. Maybe I’m being overly harsh, but Nova has given me some reason to doubt whether that success last year will carry over into this coming season.
At this point, three full years into his big league career, we still don’t know what Nova is. Is he the guy who’s slung to a 3.00 ERA for a half-season on two occasions? Or the guy with a 5.something ERA for the season and a half in between? Reality is probably somewhere in the middle and that’s fine. He has shown he can get ground balls and strikeouts, two skills that are a pretty good recipe for success. Chris Moran took an in-depth look at why Nova might be ready to emerge as a steady rotation presence earlier this winter, but we need to see that emergence actually happen.
The Yankees spend a boatload of money to make Masahiro Tanaka the centerpiece of their rotation going forward, and now they need Nova to shed the “enigma” label and become Tanaka’s running mate as CC Sabathia declines. I wouldn’t call this a make-or-break year, but the time has come for Nova to stop being an interesting young pitcher and become a reliable member of the rotation. This is the year for him to show the team he is a building block and not just more back-end fodder.
By any measure, Kei Igawa was one of the biggest busts in Yankees history. The team spent a total of $46M to acquire him ($26M posting fee and then a five-year, $20M contract) during the 2006-07 offseason, and in return they received a 68 ERA+ in 71.2 big league innings. Igawa made his final appearance in pinstripes in June 2008 and spent most of those five years in the minors.
“It was a disaster. We failed,” said Brian Cashman to Bill Pennington in July 2011 when asked to evaluated the southpaw’s tenure with the team. According to NPB Tracker, Igawa told the Japanese version of the Wall Street Journal that Cashman and the team’s coaching staff had to ask him what his best pitch was during their first meeting. It became clear then and is obvious now the Yankees didn’t do their homework before investing $46M in the lefty. Failed might be an understatement.
For the first time since the Igawa fiasco, the Yankees finally dipped back into the Japanese talent pool last week, signing right-hander Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year contract worth $155M. The $20M release fee means the total investment is $175M, or nearly four times what they put into Igawa. Tanaka is younger and has been statistically better than Igawa was when the team signed him, but, more importantly, the Yankees made sure not to repeat their mistake and actually did their homework this time.
“We started evaluating [Tanaka] back in 2007,” said Cashman to reporters (including Andy McCullough) during a conference call last week. “So clearly we’ve been scouting over in Japan for quite some time. The evaluations on him started on him back in 2007. Certainly paid attention to him back in the 2009 WBC, when we were first able to evaluate him with a Major League baseball, against Major League hitters. This year we were at 15 of his games, including the WBC, and we sent a Major League scout from the U.S. to evaluate him in the playoffs as well.”
Tanaka was an 18-year-old rookie with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2007, so the Yankees have essentially watched him grow from a just-graduated high schooler into the best pitcher in the world who wasn’t employed by a Major League team. “By 2009, the Yankees were drooling over Tanaka and imagining what it would be like to have him in their rotation,” wrote Jack Curry following the deal. Here’s some more from his post:
Across the last few seasons, the Yankees have studied Tanaka’s impressive exploits on the mound and have seen a fierce competitor, someone that reminds them of CC Sabathia. The Yankees interviewed Andruw Jones, Casey McGehee and Darrell Rasner, former Yankees who all were teammates with Tanaka, and heard superb reports about his demeanor and toughness. By the time the Yankees made their offer to Tanaka, they had 11 different scouting evaluations from members of their organization.
When that many people evaluate a player, there are bound to be differences of opinion. It’s no surprise then that we heard one unnamed team official recently say: “Just because he had great success over there doesn’t mean he’s going to be lights out here. We’ll find out soon enough, but it’s not like he’s a sure-fire thing. I’d like to think so, but I’m not convinced.” Those differences of opinion are a good thing. There should always be someone challenging the popular opinion and forcing them to look deeper, especially when talking about a deal of this magnitude.
“We made a determined effort to put ourselves in the position to know as much as we possibly could, in the event that he was ever posted,” added Cashman. “So this has been a long, drawn-out process, not just from the financial negotiating standpoint that’s taken since he was posted. But obviously making sure that we were in a position that in the event a talent such as his became available that we were able to make recommendations accordingly, based on the scouting assessments.”
Based on various reports, several other clubs had interest in Tanaka and were offering contracts in excess of $100M, including the pitching-wise Dodgers, White Sox and Diamondbacks. The Cubs supposedly made an offer similar to the Yankees’ but refused to include the opt-out clause after the fourth year, which is why they lost out. They aren’t ready to contend immediately and didn’t want to lose him right as their window opened. Those teams all spent time scouting Tanaka and thought enough of him to make significant offers, so the Yankees aren’t the only team to consider him an impact starter. (Just FYI: The next highest bid for Igawa was $15M by the Mets.)
It’s entirely possible Tanaka will be a bust like Igawa, just way more expensive. No one can truly know how he will handle the big leagues until he gets up on a mound in games that mean something. If Tanaka does flame out or merely settles in as a number four or five starter rather than the number two he is widely considered, it won’t be because the Yankees didn’t do their homework. They’ve been on him for years and were one of several teams to think highly of his combination or age, ability, and stuff. Igawa was a disaster, no doubt about it, but the Yankees seem to have learned from that experience. They won’t be caught with too little information again.
At some point in the next 80 hours or so, the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes will be over. He has until 5pm ET this Friday to sign with an MLB club, and that club might even be the Yankees. They reportedly made a fat nine-figure offer but so did four other clubs. There have been no serious indications about him leaning towards one team either. It’s a total mystery, amazingly.
The Yankees need Tanaka if they want to contend this coming season, but he is still only one pitcher. There are four other rotation spots to consider and one of them belongs to CC Sabathia, who, up until last year, was the sure thing. During his first four years in pinstripes, the club could count on their ace left-hander to take the ball every five days and provide a ton of high-end innings. Even his bad starts were rarely disasters.
That all changed last year. Sabathia was legitimately one of the worst starters in baseball in 2013, ranking 76th out of 81 qualified starters with a 4.78 ERA and 72nd with 0.3 bWAR. His 122 runs and 112 earned runs allowed were both the most in the game. A normal Sabathia season probably would not have been enough to get the Yankees into the postseason, but his performance was a big reason why the team was stuck home in October. It was ugly.
The list of potential reasons for CC’s sucky season is seemingly endless. He lost too much weight. He lost too much off his fastball. He had offseason elbow surgery. All the innings are catching up to him. Those are the most popular theories and I’m sure all four factor in somehow. I definitely think there is something to the idea of the elbow surgery throwing off his usual offseason routine, which Sabathia said he really noticed when his normal arm strength just wasn’t there in mid-April. That doesn’t figure to be an issue in 2014.
“I’ve been working out 100 percent, doing all my lifting and everything. I’ve felt fine,” said Sabathia to Bryan Hoch recently, referring to his season-ending hamstring injury. “I’ve been able to throw the whole winter. Last year, I had the surgery, so I wasn’t able to throw. I lost a bunch of weight all at one time. This year, it’s all about just getting stronger, building my strength back up and keeping my arm loose.”
Of course Sabathia was at his worst at midseason, after his velocity returned. His four-seam fastball averaged 92.3 mph during his disastrous nine-start run following the All-Star break (7.33 ERA and 4.80 FIP in 50.1 innings), velocity that was on par with his strong 2012 season (92.4 mph). There’s a lot more to pitching life than fastball velocity, and this seems like a good spot to mention Sabathia’s continually dropping release point (via Brooks):
That’s scary but also completely normal. Pitchers tend to drop their arms as they age because of all the wear and tear — the shoulder just isn’t strong enough to maintain a high release point after a couple thousand innings. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild mentioned several times last year that Sabathia would lose his release point and his pitches would start to cut (right out over the plate, unfortunately), and the PitchFX data backs that up. I’m not sure anything can be done to reverse this trend at this point. The solution might not involve raising his arm slot, but learning how to pitch with a lower arm slot.
Anyway, Sabathia has had a normal offseason this winter, a normal offseason that will hopefully boost his velocity and maybe help a bunch of other stuff. You can tell he’s been working hard these last few weeks because, well, look:
That photo is from former teammate Rickie Weeks’ wedding this past weekend. We’ve seen “CC is getting skinnier!” photos for like, three offseasons in a row now, but I think that one is the most startling. Not a bad way, just … wow. Sabathia told Ken Rosenthal he is “actually the same weight as I was last year, just a little more toned and a lot more strong,” so it wasn’t so much losing weight as it was turning bad weight (fat) into good weight (muscle). Still, you can’t look at the photo and tell me he doesn’t look way slimmer. Good for him.
“He’s been going full speed since before Halloween,” said trainer T.J. Lopez to Mike Puma. “This year he’s going to go into Spring Training in the best shape of his life … Having the year he had last year, he’s coming back really with a vengeance and he wants to prove something now, that he can do it.”
That’s a good thing. Everyone should want Sabathia to go out there with a chip on his shoulder and a desire to show last season was a bump in the road and not the start of a harsh decline. The Yankees need that Sabathia because the 2014 rotation will be full of question marks, with or without Tanaka. How will Tanaka or a similar pitcher handle the move into the AL East? Will Hiroki Kuroda shake off his rough finish? Will Ivan Nova find some consistency? What will David Phelps and various back-end arms contribute? It’s unlikely Sabathia can get back to his dominant, Cy Young caliber form from 2007-11, but a healthy and productive above-average starter will go a long way towards improving the Yankees this summer. It’s a necessity if they hope to contend.