Archive for Pitching
One of the many reasons the Yankees failed to reach the postseason last year was the lack of help from the farm system. Outside of Adam Warren, who was a low-leverage swingman, no one came up from the minors and was able to contribute when the opportunity for playing time presented itself. David Adams and Austin Romine didn’t hit, and others like Zoilo Almonte and Vidal Nuno quickly went down with injuries.
This season has been a little different, thankfully. Dellin Betances has emerged as one of the very best relievers in baseball and a key late-inning piece in Joe Girardi‘s bullpen. John Ryan Murphy had a successful stint as Frankie Cervelli‘s injury replacement and Jose Ramirez is being a given a chance to contribute out of the bullpen right now. Others like Rob Refsnyder and Jose Pirela could get looks in the coming weeks.
Given all the pitching injuries, I think you could argue Chase Whitley has had the most impact out of the team’s homegrown players in 2014. It’s either him or Betances, though the rotation would be in much worse shape without Whitley than the bullpen would be without Betances. That’s what I think. Either way, both guys have been a big help and this is the type of production the Yankees weren’t getting from their system a year ago.
Whitley, 25, has a 2.51 ERA (2.58 FIP) in 33.2 innings and six starts this season, the 15th through 21st starts of his five-year career. It’s a really small sample, yeah, but I think it’s remarkable he’s done so well in a starting role (in MLB!) after being a reliever just about his entire life. Girardi has been careful with Whitley, limiting how often he’s faced the lineup a third time and keeping his pitch count tight after so many years in the bullpen, which can be annoying but is understandable.
Now, with all due respect to Whitley and the job he’s done, I think it’s important to add some context to his performance. He’s made six starts and the best lineup he’s faced has been the Twins and their team 99 wRC+. That was also the only start Whitley has made at home in hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium. (He held Minnesota to one run in five innings.) The Cardinals have a 92 wRC+ while the Mets, Cubs, Royals, and Mariners are bottom six offenses (81-87 wRC+ range).
Whitley’s two best starts have been his last two starts, when he held the Royals and Mariners to two runs in seven innings and 7.2 innings, respectively. As a team, the Royals have an 83 wRC+ in Kansas City while the Mariners boast an MLB worst 73 wRC+ at home in Seattle. Those are some favorable pitching conditions and Whitley did exactly what he was supposed to do in those games. I don’t want to take anything away from him, pitching is hard, it’s just important to fully understand what’s been going on.
The Yankees open a three-game series with the Blue Jays tomorrow night and Whitley is scheduled to start the second game. Toronto will be, by far, the best lineup he has faced in his short time as a big leaguer. They lead baseball with 92 homers — Whitley’s allowed just one dinger this year, a no-doubter by Logan Morrison last time out — and have a team 112 wRC+, also the best in baseball. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are elite sluggers, Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera high-end contributors, and Adam Lind is in the middle of his best season in forever. It’s a tough assignment.
Now here’s the thing: Whitley will face the Blue Jays on Wednesday, then he’s scheduled to face them again in Toronto next Monday. The Jays have a 116 wRC+ as a team at home, so it’s more or less a lineup full of David Ortizes (117 wRC+) whenever they’re in Rogers Centre. The Man in White has been putting in some overtime this season, I guess. Whitley is not only going to face the best hitting team in baseball next time out, he’s going to face them in back-to-back starts. It’ll be the first time a team sees him twice.
Whitley has effectively replaced Michael Pineda, giving the Yankees high-end performance in short, workload-controlled starts. He’s done it against a favorable schedule so far, but you can only pitch against who the schedule says you have to face. These next two starts against the Blue Jays will be the toughest test of Whitley’s brief career and, given where they sit in the standings, the Yankees need him to be sharp so they can climb back into the division race. The cakewalk against the Mariners, Mets, Royals, et al is over. Whitley’s about to be introduced to AL East baseball.
In the span of three weeks from late-April through mid-May, the Yankees lost three-fifths of their Opening Day rotation to serious injury. Ivan Nova is done for the year following Tommy John surgery, CC Sabathia is out for at least another few weeks with a degenerative knee condition, and Michael Pineda has already suffered a setback while battling a muscle problem in his shoulder. The Yankees will be lucky to get either Sabathia or Pineda back before the All-Star break at this point.
The injuries have forced the team to dip deep into their pitching reserves. With Adam Warren entrenched as a late-inning setup man, the Yankees pulled both Vidal Nuno and David Phelps out of the bullpen and called up converted reliever Chase Whitley. Those three plus Masahiro Tanaka and Hiroki Kuroda have made up the Yankees’ rotation for about a month now. Needless to say, Nuno being third on the team in innings pitched (58) through 63 games was not part of the plan.
And yet, despite some ugly bumps in the road, the three replacement starters have actually done a pretty good job for the Yankees. At least on a rate basis. Here’s how the three have fared since moving into the rotation:
|Starts||Innings||IP per Start||ERA||FIP||K%||BB%||Opp. OPS|
Phelps has taken a pounding his last three starts (18 runs in 17.2 innings), but, even with that, the three replacement starters have a 4.13 ERA and 3.56 FIP in 119.2 innings. That’s pretty good. The average AL starter has a 4.08 ERA and 3.92 FIP this season, so these guys are in the neighborhood of league average. League average is good! Especially when taking about a team’s sixth, seventh, and eighth starters.
The issue isn’t necessarily their performance on a rate basis. The problem is the third column in the table, their innings per start. (I guess that’s technically the fourth column. Whatever.) These three are barely averaging 5.1 innings per start, which is a total drain on the bullpen. In their 22 combined starts, they’ve failed complete six innings 14 times. They’ve failed to complete five innings six innings. On average, Joe Girardi has had to ask his bullpen to get 11 outs whenever these guys pitch. That’s too much. We’re talking about three rotation spots here.
The Yankees have gotten 343 innings out of their starters this season, ninth most out of 15 AL teams. Their relievers have thrown the fifth most innings at 191.2, primarily because these three are not taking the ball deep into the game. Part of that is simple ineffectiveness, part of it is getting stretched out (Nuno and Phelps had to build up their pitch count when they first moving into the rotation), and part of it is Girardi’s reluctance to let them face the opposing lineup a third time. It’s all understandable, but it doesn’t lessen the demand on the bullpen.
I’ve said this before but it’s worth repeating: with three five-and-fly starters in the rotation, the Yankees need a veteran long man Girardi can abuse. Someone he can use for 40 pitches one night, 25 the next, and 55 two nights after that. Alfredo Aceves was that guy for a little while, but he stunk and now it’s Wade LeBlanc. I love Jose Ramirez and want to see him get a chance as much as the next guy, but not under those circumstances. Let someone who doesn’t have a future in the organization deal with that workload. It sounds cruel, but that’s baseball. Aceves and LeBlanc aren’t stupid, they know this might be their last chance to stay in MLB, so they’ll take the ball whenever asked.
The Yankees have gotten generally solid work from Whitley, Phelps, and Nuno, and, more than anything, the best way the team can help them is by scoring more runs. Score some more runs and Girardi will probably be more open to letting them face the lineup a third time, sparing the bullpen a bit. (Remember, the team handled Pineda careful early in the season, so he won’t exactly soak up innings whenever he gets healthy.) It would be nice if these three guys could start recording another two or three outs per start, but, considering the circumstances, they’ve been solid. The rotation situation could have really spun out of control following the injuries. These guys didn’t let it.
In his first eleven starts of the season, Masahiro Tanaka has been dominant and one of the very best pitchers in all of baseball. I expected him to be very good this year, but not this good. No adjustment period, no bumps in the road, nothing. Even his bad starts are still pretty good. Tanaka’s been the rock in the rotation and he’s making the Yankees look very, very wise for their much-criticized $175M investment.
In his first eleven starts of the season, Tanaka has faced ten different teams. The only team he has faced more than once is the Cubs of all teams. An interleague rival the Yankees won’t see for another three years. There are still seven AL clubs that have yet to see the former Rakuten Golden Eagles ace. The schedule has worked in Tanaka’s favor and he’s had the element of surprise going for him in all but one of his starts.
Tanaka’s worst start of the season was that second game against the Cubs two weeks ago. He allowed four runs (three earned) on eight hits in six innings, the only time he’s allowed more than three earned runs in an outing. It was raining for a good chunk of that game remember, and the rain surely could have affected his performance. He didn’t look all that comfortable on the mound, I remember that much. That said, the Cubs acknowledged seeing Tanaka once before did help them out.
“If you look at the first game, we were having trouble hitting the ball out of the infield. If a guy is throwing the ball down, you’re going to hit a ground ball,” said catcher John Baker to David Lennon. “Our goal was, when we get something up in the strike zone, to get a swing off. Whether it’s the first pitch or 0-and-2, we were looking more up as opposed to for our pitch. Generally, across the board with the lineup, I think we executed it pretty well.”
Tanaka did indeed leave some pitches up in the zone against the Cubs — here is the pitch location for the eight hits, six of which were belt high — and he paid for it. They still couldn’t lay off the splitter, swinging at 18 of the 23 he threw, missing nine times. That 50% whiff rate is basically identical to the splitter’s 49.2% whiff rate for the season. He just made some bad pitches and he paid for them. That’s baseball.
One thing we’ve seen from Tanaka in his first eleven starts is that he will leave some pitches up in the zone, but he’s had a tendency to get away with them. There have been a lot of swing-throughs on handing sliders and just plain old called strikes on pitches up in the zone. Here is Tanaka’s pitch location heat map for the season. The darker the red, the more pitches in that particular zone compared to the league average:
So yeah, compared to the rest of the league, Tanaka has definitely left more pitches basically in the middle third of the strike zone and higher. The PitchFX data backs up the eye test in this case. That many pitches up in the zone is generally a bad idea, but I also think Tanaka’s unpredictability — PitchFX says he’s thrown eight different pitches this year, including four at least 20% of the time each — allows him to get away with those pitches more often than the average pitcher. I don’t know how we could go about investigating that, it’s just a thought.
Tanaka will face the Athletics tomorrow, the Mariners next Tuesday, and then the Athletics again the following Sunday, barring rainouts and whatnot. After that, the Yankees play 15 straight games against AL East rivals, teams that have already seen Tanaka once this year. So, after these next two starts against the A’s and Mariners, he’ll run into a stretch of games against clubs he has already faced. The element of surprise will be gone. Those teams will have a first-hand scouting report and experience seeing him, which tips the scale in the other direction slightly.
Everything in baseball is designed to give the pitcher the advantage. Hitters need four balls to draw a walk but pitchers only three strikes to make an out. The offense needs to travel four bases to score a run yet the pitcher only needs three outs to end the inning. Heck, the pitcher even stands on a mound raised above the rest of the playing field. The pitcher controls the at-bat and it’s up to the hitters to first make the adjustment to him, not the other way around. If what worked for Tanaka the first time through the league works again, then he has no reason to change.
If it doesn’t work though, I think he has more than enough weapons to adjust and remain a top flight starter. I mean, is Tanaka going to maintain a 2.06 ERA and 2.52 FIP all season? No, probably not. Even in this offensively starved era that is still an unrealistic standard for a guy in a tiny ballpark in the AL East. Tanaka does have two put-away offspeed pitches in his slider and (especially) splitter, plus he’s shown he will pitch to both sides of the plate and dot the edges. And the dude has no fear too. That’s not nothing. The second time through the league is coming up and it will be a test for Tanaka. He has the tools to succeed though. His success to date is no fluke.
As expected, right-hander Chase Whitley will start Thursday’s game in place of the injured CC Sabathia, Joe Girardi announced. Alfredo Aceves has pitched in relief in each of the last two games, taking him out of the running. The Yankees will need to make a 40-man roster move to accommodate Whitley, but that won’t be difficult. Aceves can dropped from the roster and Bruce Billings (forearm) could land on the 60-day DL.
Whitley, 24, had a 2.39 ERA (1.72 FIP) in 26.1 innings across six starts and one relief appearance for Triple-A Scranton this year. He was originally drafted as a reliever and spent most of his career in the bullpen, up until late last season. Whitley has not thrown more than 88 pitches in a start this season (more than 78 pitches only once), so it’s probably not reasonable to expect 100+ pitches out of him Thursday. Given the current state of the pitching staff, he has a chance to stick around for a while if he pitches well.
It was what, three or four weeks ago that the starting rotation was the clear strength of the Yankees’ roster? Even with CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda struggling through the early part of the season, everyone felt great about what they were seeing from Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda. Ivan Nova has not gotten hurt yet and I think the general belief was that he’s be fine in time. The rotation looked like a real strength.
Now, as the Yankees approach the quarter point of the season, the rotation is in shambles. Nova blew out his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery. Michael Pineda got suspended and then hurt his back, and just yesterday we learned he’ll need longer than the original 3-4 week timetable to return. On Sunday, the Yankees lost Sabathia for at least two weeks due to fluid in his twice surgically repaired right knee. The official word was knee inflammation.
Regardless of whether Al Aceves or Chase Whitley or someone else starts in place of Sabathia on Thursday, the Yankees will already be using their eighth different starting pitcher of the season. Aceves was with Triple-A Scranton ten days ago and the Orioles in Spring Training, not re-joining New York until he opted out of his contract with Baltimore when he was informed he did not make the team. Whitley is in his third year at Triple-A and was passed over in the Rule 5 Draft in December, but hey, he struck out eleven last time out. He’s as good a candidate as anyone to join the rotation.
We know Nova is done for the year and Pineda has already been pushed back once. Given the nature of his injury and its proximity to his surgically repaired shoulder, expect the team to be very cautious in the coming weeks. Sabathia has shown throughout his career that he never makes excuses and will pitch through pain. He did it when he tore his meniscus in 2006 and 2010, he did when the bone spur in his elbow acted in up 2012, and he did it last September when he blew out his hamstring. Say what you want about his performance on the mound, but Sabathia has always been super accountable and a team first guy. That he finally said something about the knee indicates it was really bothering him.
“That’s why I didn’t want to say anything,” said Sabathia to Chad Jennings, referring to the Nova and Pineda injuries. “But I think I was doing more damage to the team than helping the team by trying to hide it … I didn’t know what was making it swell up. Obviously, you know, it got pretty big on me after the start Sunday and after the start last night. So of course, I was getting a little nervous … I’m not going to make excuses or anything, but I felt it yesterday, and I just wanted to say something and let Stevie (Donohue) know.”
David Phelps and Vidal Nuno have only made a handful of starts between them, and they’ve yet to throw even 90 pitches in a start. Part of that is not being stretched out, part of it is being ineffective. Phelps threw 87 pitches in his first start but only 70 last time out because he was getting roughed up. Nuno has thrown between 69-82 pitches in each of his last four starts, so if he’s still building his pitch count, it’s been a slow process. It seems more likely Joe Girardi & Co. are limiting Nuno’s exposure, which makes sense considering he’s been hit hard the second and third time through the lineup this year. Nuno’s margin for error is pretty small as it is. Giving hitters a third look at him seems like a bad idea.
Maybe the knee injury was the cause of Sabathia’s ineffectiveness and he’ll return from the disabled list and be a serviceable starter, perhaps even something more. Maybe Pineda’s injury was just a bump in the road and he’ll return next month and dominate again. Maybe Aceves really is as good as he looked last Sunday and will solidify the starting staff. That’s a lot of maybes, and when we’re talking about pitchers, two of which are hurt, counting on those maybes to work out is risky business.
The pitching staff is stretched thin as it is and the Yankees are starting to run out of internal options. Trading for a starter seemed kinda silly weeks ago, but it’s suddenly looking like a necessity. No one is ready to start selling pieces yet, so the team is going to have to ride out Nuno and Aceves for another few weeks. That really scares me with an inconsistent offense (especially since Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann are invisible) and a ghastly team defense (particularly on the infield). That rotation has suddenly turned into a glaring weakness and the Yankees are running out of options.
I’ve been at this for a little while now, and one thing I’ve learned over the years is that there is a friggin’ ton of bad information out there. The bad information outnumbers the good information by like, a factor of a hundred at this point. It’s terrible. Sorting through the nonsense is exhausting. It really is. What are you going to do though? It’s all in the game.
International players in particular fall victim to bad information because there isn’t much information out there to begin with. Even in this age of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, we still don’t know a whole lot about non-MLB players. The tiny little bit of information we have gets extrapolated out and before you know it, Yoenis Cespedes is a five-tool superstar when he’s more like a solid, two-tool everyday outfielder. It happens all the time.
To date, I don’t think we’ve seen anything out of Masahiro Tanaka that we didn’t hear about in the weeks and months leading up to his free agency. Actually, I guess I should say we haven’t seen Tanaka not do something he was said to be able to do in the weeks and months leading up to free agency. That make sense? We’re not waiting to see the gyroball or anything like that. Tanaka has been as advertised.
One thing that stood out to me before the Yankees signed Tanaka was this statement by Darrell Rasner, the former Yankee who was Tanaka’s teammate with the Rakuten Golden Eagles the last few years. Here’s what Rasner told Sweeny Murti back in January:
SM: When you say he has an extra gear, you mean an extra 3 or 4 miles per hour to get somebody out?
DR: I’m talking like an extra 10! I watch him pitch at 88-89 or 90-91, and then I’ll see him jump up to 98-99 when he needs it. I saw him do this (last) year, and there was one game that really stands out to me. I wanna say it was the eighth or ninth inning and he was 140 pitches in and he needed a strikeout, and he jumped it from that 90 to about 98-99 and punched the guy out. It’s just impressive watching the guy, his mentality and his know-how on pitching, especially being so young.
This sounds like a something that could be totally made up, right? We hear about guys cranking it up a notch in big situations quite a bit but it seems like few actually do it.
Anecdotally, I feel like I have seen Tanaka reach back and bring something extra in important spots during his first six starts, but this is 2014. Anecdotal evidence is for suckers. We can test this stuff. First, let’s keep it simple and look at Tanaka’s results. Here is how he’s fared in situations with varying degrees of pressure:
First things first: take a second to soak in those numbers with runners in scoring position. Hitters had an 0-for-17 stretch against Tanaka in those spots until Ryan Hanigan slapped a ground ball off Kelly Johnson‘s glove on Saturday. When it comes to runners in scoring position, Tanaka is the Yankees’ offense of pitchers. I don’t even care that the performance came in a super small sample — the reason I didn’t use low/medium/high-leverage stats instead is because Tanaka has faced only nine batters in high-leverage spots — it happened and it’s amazing.
Anyway, Tanaka has performed much better with runners on base than he has with the bases empty to date. That isn’t proof that he kicks it into another gear in big spots, but it does support the theory. At least somewhat. Obviously Tanaka isn’t going to sustain a 53.1% strikeout rate and a 75.0% ground ball rate with men in scoring position (lol) because no one does that. I would expect him to be less effective in those spots going forward only because he couldn’t possibly be any better.
The results have been excellent, but when I think of a pitcher reaching back for something extra in big spots, I think of increased velocity. That’s what everything thinks, right? Rasner’s claim that Tanaka can reach back for “an extra 10!” is completely far-fetched — if a pitcher could really do that, he’s probably doing his team and himself a disservice by not doing it more often — but the idea that he throws harder when he really needs an out is not. There are a few guys around the league who can do it, with Justin Verlander jumping to mind.
Courtesy of the amazing Baseball Savant, here is Tanaka’s pitch selection and average velocities in those same three situations:
Those percentages do not add up to 100% simply because Tanaka throws too many different pitches and I didn’t include them all. PitchFX has recorded eight different pitches from Tanaka this season, though the four-seamer, sinker, splitter, and slider are his four main offerings. The others (cutter, two-seamer, changeup, curve) aren’t used nearly as often, so I’m leaving them out. It’s just too much information.
Across the board we see that Tanaka has indeed thrown harder with guys on base, especially when they’re in scoring position. The increase in the average velocity of his four-seamer, sinker, and splitter is roughly one mile an hour with men in scoring position while the slider jumps two full miles an hour. The increases with men on base in general are smaller but they still exist, especially with the fastball and slider. The average fastball velocity increase with men on base is only 0.2 mph across the league. It’s 0.4 mph with runners in scoring position. Tanaka’s fastball has jumped +0.8 mph with men on and +1.2 mph with men in scoring position. The other pitches have shown even smaller velocity increases around the league, so Tanaka is very much unique.
Tanaka has thrown ten pitches at 94+ mph this year and eight have come with men on base. The two exceptions were a pair of 2-2 fastballs to Brock Holt (95.2 mph) and Grady Sizemore (94.7 mph). Both were fouled off and they were Tanaka’s fastest and fourth fastest pitches of the season, respectively. Here’s the fun part: the pitch to Holt was in the seventh inning (96th pitch), the pitch to Sizemore in the eighth (103rd). Tanaka was really amped up in Boston — ten of his 12 fastest pitches of the season came against the Red Sox — and he was throwing his hardest when his pitch count was approaching or over 100. That qualifies as a guy who ramps it up in big spots to me.
Through his first six starts, Tanaka has shown signs of having that “extra gear” we heard so much about before he joined the Yankees. It is just six starts though, his first six in the big leagues. He admitted to being excited and nervous before both his first overall start and first home start, and I’m sure he felt a little something before his other four starts as well. If Tanaka continues to reach back for more in big situations later in the season, after he has some more innings under is belt and has had more time to adjust to the five-man rotation, then I think we’ll know this is a skill he actually possesses and not just a piece of bad misinformation we heard before Tanaka came over to MLB.
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.