Archive for Pitching
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.
The Yankees came into the offseason needing at least two starting pitchers and so far they’ve added just one, re-signing Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year contract. He was the team’s best pitcher in each of the last two seasons and makes perfect sense on a one-year deal, but he is also the second oldest starter in the AL behind R.A. Dickey. Age brings a bevy of concerns.
Chief among those concerns is injury … well, both injury and recovery time. Older players tend to take longer to heal, that’s just the way the human body works. The Yankees have had a lot of health problems in recent years (both injuries and setbacks) thanks in part to their older roster. They’ve made their bed and have had to sleep in it when it comes to players getting hurt, and given their moves this winter, they’re content with rolling the dice again in 2014.
Last week, Jeff Zimmerman at FanGraphs published his annual starting pitcher DL projections, which have been shockingly accurate over the years. It’s not a specific injury projection (so and so will have a shoulder problem, etc.), just a projection of who will visit the DL next season based on their age and workload, as well as other factors like breaking ball usage and strike-throwing ability. It’s complicated, so click the link for the full explanation.
The Yankees only have three starters locked into spots next season: CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, and Kuroda. A bunch of young kids will compete for the fifth spot and that fourth spot figures to go to a pitcher to be acquired later. Not only are Sabathia (career-worst year in 2013), Kuroda (crashed hard late in 2013), and Nova (erratic has hell) performance concerns heading into next season, but they’re also DL risks according to Zimmerman’s data.
Sabathia: 47% chance of landing on DL
It wasn’t too long ago that Sabathia was baseball’s preeminent workhorse, and in some ways he still is — he is one of four pitchers to throw at least 200 innings in each of the last seven seasons (Justin Verlander, Mark Buehrle, and James Shields are the others). Over the last 26 months, however, CC has dealt with a torn knee menisicus, a groin strain, elbow stiffness, a bone spur in his elbow, and a hamstring strain. He has finished each of the last three seasons either injured or in need of offseason surgery. Sabathia is getting up there in years and he’s thrown a frickin’ ton of innings in his career, and he compounds the problem by not telling anyone he’s banged up until it gets really bad (he pitched through the knee, elbow, and hamstring problems). It’s no surprise his risk of landing on the DL is so high, 16th highest among the 128 projected pitchers.
Kuroda: 43% chance of landing on DL
Kuroda has avoided the DL since arriving in New York but he has dealt with fatigue late in each of the last two seasons, so much so that he stopped throwing his usual between-starts bullpen session in September. He had a shoulder problem in 2008, an oblique problem in 2009, and a concussion (hit by a line drive) in 2010. Kuroda has topped 195 innings in each of the last four seasons and 180 innings in five of his six seasons in MLB. His DL projection is the 34th highest thanks mostly to his age.
Nova: 41% chance of landing on DL
Coming up through the minors, Nova was a workhorse who rarely missed a start. He has been hurt in each of the last three seasons though, missing time with a forearm strain (2011), shoulder tightness (2012), and triceps inflammation (2013). That’s three arm-related injuries in the last three years, albeit minor non-structural injuries that shelved him no more than a few weeks at a time. Nova has youth on his side, but his DL projection is still the 45th highest out of the 128 projected pitchers.
* * *
Now, obviously, every pitcher is an injury risk. It comes with the territory. Some are riskier than others for a variety of reasons. The pitcher most likely to land on the DL next season according to Zimmerman is Bartolo Colon (64%), which makes sense given his age, injury history, and general portliness. He’s the only active pitcher over 60% (retired Andy Pettitte is at 63%). The pitcher least at risk is Madison Bumgarner (26%). The top free agent hurlers rank anywhere from not that risky (Ervin Santana, 34%) to moderately risky (Ubaldo Jimenez, 38%) to very risky (Matt Garza, 51%).
As for the Yankees, they have three of the 45 starters most at risk of visiting the DL next season, and that’s on top of their performance concerns. The team does have some nice back-end depth in David Phelps, Adam Warren, Michael Pineda, and Vidal Nuno, but three of those four guys spent at least a few months on the DL this past season themselves. Only Warren made it through the entire year healthy. The Bombers not only need to add a starter, they need to add a durable innings guy they can count on to take the ball every fifth day.
Via Andrew Marchand: The Yankees are planning to hold a competition between David Phelps, Adam Warren, Michael Pineda, and Vidal Nuno in Spring Training for the fifth starter’s job. This isn’t much of a surprise — Brian Cashman said the team is looking to add two starters even though they lost three to free agency (Hiroki Kuroda has since returned, so they only need one more starter now). I was hoping they’d bring in some veteran competition, but alas.
The Yankees have a knack for holding rigged competitions in camp (Phil Hughes as fifth starter in 2010, the catcher situation in 2013) but I do think this one is wide open. Phelps might have a leg up because he has the most big league experience of the group, but if Pineda shows up to Tampa and blows everyone away, I bet he’d get the job. Same with Warren and Nuno. Either way, the odds are strongly in favor of all four of these guys being needed in the rotation at some point next summer. Getting through the year using only five starters isn’t something you can reasonably expect.
It has now been two full seasons since the trade, and Michael Pineda has yet to throw a single meaningful pitch for the Yankees. A torn labrum required surgery in May 2012 and sidelined him until July 2013, when he was activated off the DL and optioned to Triple-A for more seasoning. He was sidelined with shoulder stiffness a handful of starts later and was shut down for the year. That labrum injury is a career-changer.
“Michael Pineda finished healthy,” said Brian Cashman during his end-of-season press conference. “The biggest and most important thing [was] to allow Michael after, say, a 13-month rehab — or between rehab and pitching and stuff for well over a year straight plus — that the rest was the biggest thing that he’d benefit from. So obviously we shut him down as a healthy player in the end.”
Pineda will turn 25 in January and at this point, the Yankees have absolutely no idea what he can provide at the big league level. Andy McCullough spoke to a scout who saw Pineda in the minors this year and labeled him a “back-end” starter with a “sluggish demeanor” and “unreliable command and mechanics.” Was that the result of being exhausted after pitching and rehabbing for a year straight? I hope so, but I’m not very optimistic he will be able to get back to the form that allowed him post historically great strikeout and walk rates for a rookie pitcher in 2011.
“I was very happy with everything he did, so I certainly see him being able to [contribute in 2014],” said minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson, who watched over Pineda’s rehab this summer, to McCullough. “I was happy with the way he located his fastball, with some life on it. He threw some good, sharp breaking balls. [He threw his] changeup with good depth and hand speed.”
In ten minor league games this year — two with High-A Tampa, two with Double-A Trenton, six with Triple-A Scranton — Pineda struck out 41 (23.8%) and walked 14 (8.4%) with a 3.32 ERA (~3.75 FIP) in 40.2 innings. Promising, no doubt about it, but you can’t really take too much from minor league games for a rehabbing pitcher. As the scout said to McCullough, Pineda often had to lean on his slider quite a bit to put away minor leaguers. If you want to see what he looks like these days, here’s video of his July 6th start with the RailRiders, his first start after being activated off the DL and officially optioned to the minors:
Minor league video isn’t exactly plentiful, so that’s the best we have. Here’s the rest of his 2013 video archive if you’re interested — it’s mostly interviews and fielding plays and one-batter clips. Still better than nothing I suppose. Pineda did throw a few nice sliders in the video above, for what it’s worth. Not much really; definitely not enough to make me feel any more confident in his ability to help the big league team next season.
“He’ll compete for a job in Spring Training.” added Cashman. “He’s got options and I don’t think it’s healthy for anybody to guarantee anything, so I’m not going to sit here just because he’s Michael Pineda and we have high hopes and say ‘hey, we can pencil him into our rotation.’ He’s got to obviously show that he can stay healthy, and that he’s effective while he’s pitching. We certainly hope that’s going to be the case, but I’m not going to sit here and guarantee anything on that either. It certainly would go a long way towards solving some problems if that was the case.”
Given the injury and how he finished the season, I think the Yankees have to go into next season expecting nothing from Pineda and taking whatever he gives them as a bonus. That was pretty much the case this year — it would be nice if threw a ton of innings and was effective, but they shouldn’t count on him to provide that. It seems likely the club will have at least one rotation spot up for grabs in camp, with guys like Pineda and Vidal Nuno and Adam Warren all competing for the job. If Pineda wins it, great. But he can’t stop them from looking for pitching help or be considering any kind of solution at this point.
A little less than a year ago, CC Sabathia had surgery to remove a bone spur from his left elbow. Apparently he had been pitching with the spur since his days with the Indians, but it wasn’t until just last season that it started to bother him. The human body is weird like that. The spur was removed with a relatively minor arthroscopic procedure and that was that.
There really is no such thing as a minor surgery though, is there? I’ve never had one, but surgery changes stuff. It changed Sabathia’s elbow last October, but it also changed something else. Something that went mostly overlooked: his offseason routine. Sabathia couldn’t throw on his usual schedule because he was rehabbing, and in fact the rehab process took so long that he was on a modified schedule in Spring Training. We’re talking about a 12-year veteran here. A guy who is presumably set in his ways.
“I didn’t really notice the difference until we got into the middle of April,” said Sabathia to Andy Martino, referring to how the change in his offseason routine affected him in actual games once the season got underway. “My arm strength just wasn’t where it needed to be. It wasn’t hurting or anything. I just didn’t have the strength … I usually start throwing in November, so I kind of never stop throwing. That keeps my arm strength, and that’s something I was really missing over the year. Being able to get back to that routine, I think it will help a lot.”
I guess this is where I insert the obligatory velocity graph, huh? Okay, fine:
So yeah, Sabathia’s velocity was way down early in the season before gradually climbing back into the 92-94-ish range as the weather warmed up. You knew that already. At his age and with all those innings on his arm, I’m not even sure getting back to his typical offseason routine will help his velocity all that much. It might slow down the decline — in case you haven’t noticed: once a guy starts losing velocity, he tends to keep losing it — but it won’t stop it and it sure as hell won’t reverse it.
I’m not really interested in what a regular offseason routine will do for Sabathia’s velocity, however. I’m curious to know what it will do for his command. That seemed to be the bigger issue last season. A 90-91 mph fastball is more than enough to get hitters out, especially as a left-hander with a good changeup and knockout slider, but Sabathia really seemed to struggle with his location this season. Lots of pitches were left up the zone or out over the plate or on the inner half. In the wheelhouse, basically. That’s why batters slugged .445 (!) against him.
Does throwing all winter help Sabathia maintain his mechanics better throughout the season? I don’t think there’s any possible way to know that, at least not from a fan’s perspective. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild mentioned Sabathia was dropping his arm at times this summer and that was causing his pitches to flatten out, but is that something throwing more over the winter can correct? Arm strength doesn’t just refer to velocity, it could refer to stamina and being able to keep your arm in the proper slot for 100+ pitches instead of say, 75 pitches.
“We’re going to do some stuff earlier. Next month, build into a long-toss program as soon as [the Grade II hamstring strain] heals, and then go from there,” said Rothschild. “He’s going to have to probably hit it a little bit harder than normal, where last winter he couldn’t at all. We’ve talked about it, and he’s going to do some stuff earlier, and try to build some arm strength, and correct some problems that he has had. Whether he gets back to the full velocity that he used to have or not, he is still going to be able to pitch at a pretty high rate.”
Pitchers … well, baseball players in general, really, are creatures of habit. They’ve all got their set routines during the season and that carries right over into the offseason. They like to do things a certain way. Sabathia’s offseason was disrupted by his surgery last offseason and outside of the whole arm strength/lack of velocity thing, there’s no telling how (or if) it impacted his mechanics and command. The raw stuff CC showed this year — the fastball(s), changeup, slider combination — was plenty good enough, but not without improved location. That has to be the focus going forward, not the radar gun.