2014 Season Review: Brendan Ryan and the Random Infielders

Remember last season, when the Yankees had a revolving door at shortstop just about all summer? They had seven players start at least five games at short at year ago. This summer it was only four players, and two of them made fewer than nine starts. The Yankees still cycled through a healthy collection of random backup infielders in 2014, though thankfully it was not as substantial a group as 2013. Let’s recap their seasons.

Zero on the scoreboard? Shocking. (Jim Rogash/Getty)
Zero on the scoreboard? Shocking. (Jim Rogash/Getty)

Brendan Ryan

Giving Ryan a two-year contract with a player option for a third year definitely flew under the radar as a LOLWTF move last offseason. I mean, I get it, the Yankees had to protect themselves in case Derek Jeter‘s ankle and legs couldn’t hold up, but still. One year in, that’s a weird contract even though it only pays him peanuts. You don’t see players like this get multi-year contracts all that often.

Ryan, 32, actually started this past season on the disabled list after hurting his back in Spring Training — he suffered a pinched nerve in his upper back during drills, then re-aggravated it sitting on the bus during a long Grapefruit League road trip — and he didn’t join the team until early-May. He was a seldom used backup infielder, appearing in only 49 games and starting only 33. Ryan hit a weak .167/.211/.202 (12 wRC+) with no homers, four walks, and 30 strikeouts in 124 plate appearances. He had two (2) multi-hit games.

The Yankees did get their money’s worth out of Ryan defensively by playing him at all four infield spots. Yes, that includes first base. The image of Ryan playing first while Jeter plays short will forever be my lasting memory of the 2014 Yankees. Everything was just so backwards. Ryan is still a quality gloveman but he is clearly no longer elite defensively. That’s sort of the problem. He can’t hit — he’s never hit and never will — and if he’s not going to dominant defensively, then he’s not really worth a roster spot. Of course, if the 2015 season started today, Ryan would be the starting shortstop.

Zelous Wheeler

Because of Jeter’s lost 2013 season, Alex Rodriguez‘s suspension, and Robinson Cano‘s free agency defection, the Yankees hoarded some infielders on minor league contracts last winter. The 27-year-old Wheeler was one of those players, and he put himself on the map with a strong Spring Training and an excellent (132 wRC+) first few weeks with Triple-A Scranton. The Yankees called him up in early-July when Yangervis Solarte played his way down to the minors, and in his very first MLB game, Wheeler did this:

Not a bad way to start your big league career, no? Wheeler swatted another solo homer a week later and didn’t do much else offensively the rest of the season, finishing the year with a .193/.230/.298 (43 wRC+) batting line in 62 plate appearances. He went back down to Triple-A at one point and was recalled in August.

Wheeler is actually still on the 40-man roster, though now that I think about it, it isn’t all that surprising. First off the Yankees have some open 40-man spots, so it’s not like they need to get rid of someone, but also the infield is one giant question mark. They don’t have a second baseman, a third baseman, or a shortstop right now. Wheeler could always go to the minors and I guess he’s worth keeping around as depth for the time being.

Dean Anna

Man, what a season this was. Guys named Dean Anna and Yangervis Solarte actually made the Opening Day roster. The Yankees acquired Anna from the Padres in the offseason — they sent reliever Ben Paulus to San Diego, and he had a 4.65 ERA (4.49 FIP) while repeated High-A this summer — and he beat out Eduardo Nunez for the spare infielder’s job in Spring Training. Both he and Solarte did, fair and square.

Anna, 27, played very sparingly in April, though he did record his first career hit in his first career game, a single off Jeremy Jeffress. Anna took Clay Buchholz deep for his first career homerun a week later, though that wasn’t the highlight of his time in pinstripes. One day after sparing the bullpen and throwing a scoreless inning in a blowout loss (video), Anna drew a bases loaded walk in the 12th inning to give the Yankees a 2-1 lead over the Rays:

I wish there was video of the entire at-bat somewhere. It was great. Anna saw eight pitches, fouled off a few tough sliders, and took some others for balls. You can even see Mark Teixeira say it in the video, “that’s a great at-bat.” Ken Singleton said the same thing.

The Yankees sent Anna to Triple-A when Michael Pineda was suspended for the pine tar incident — the suspension forced them to play with a 24-man roster, so they sent down Anna and called up a pitcher to replace Pineda — and he spent the rest of his time in the organization there before being designated for assignment in early-July to clear a 40-man spot for Wheeler. The Pirates claimed Anna off waivers and he spent the rest of the season with their Triple-A club. Anna hit .136/.200/.318 (38 wRC+) in 25 plate appearances with the Yankees.

Jose Pirela

Unlike everyone else in this post, Pirela is actually homegrown. The 24-year-old spent most of the last three years tearing the cover off the ball in Double-A, and he opened this past season with Triple-A Scranton. Pirela hit .305/.351/.441 (117 wRC+) with ten homers and 15 stolen bases in 130 games with the RailRiders but did not get called up on September 1st. He wasn’t on the 40-man roster but would have been eligible for minor league free agency  after the season (again), and the team opted against adding him to the roster.

This looks like ... not the right way to hit. (Presswire)
This looks like … not the right way to hit. (Presswire)

That all changed when Martin Prado‘s season unexpectedly ended due to an emergency appendectomy in mid-September. The Yankees did indeed call up Pirela after that, though he sat on the bench for about a week before finally getting into a game. He tripled off Wei-Yin Chen in his first career plate appearance — it was a bomb off the wall in left-center, I thought it was gone off the bat — and sliced a single to right next time up. Pirela went 2-for-3 with the triple in his first career game and was a mainstay in the lineup after that, starting six of the team’s final seven games and coming off the bench in the seventh.

All told, Pirela went 8-for-24 (.333) with a double and two triples (149 wRC+) during his brief time in pinstripes at the end of the year. He started three games at DH and the final three games of the seasons at second base, after the Yankees had been eliminated. Pirela is one of those guys who has done nothing but put up great numbers in the minors even though the scouting reports aren’t glowing. The Yankees were able to re-sign him when he became a minor league free agent last winter, but after his strong season in Triple-A, another team might have offered more opportunity this offseason. Adding him to the 40-man will keep him in the organization, and, right now, Pirela has the inside track for a big league job in 2015, either at second base or on the bench.

Scott Sizemore

Sizemore was part of that group of infielders the Yankees brought in as minor league free agents last winter. The 29-year-old spent most of the season with Triple-A Scranton but did get called up to New York a few times, going 5-for-16 (.313) with three doubles and eight strikeouts (107 wRC+). He also drove in four runs in his limited time, which is kinda neat. Sizemore had a 108 wRC+ in Triple-A, was released at the end of July, then re-signed a few days later. He spent a bunch of time on the disabled list with an unknown injury as well as on the restricted list with some kind of off-the-field problem. In a season of mostly forgettable random infielders, Sizemore was the most forgettable.

2014 Season Review: Cervelli & The Backups

(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)
I will miss using this photo. (Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)

Once again, the Yankees held a faux-competition in Spring Training, this time for the backup catcher’s job behind Brian McCann. Francisco Cervelli, John Ryan Murphy, and Austin Romine were competing for the job, though we all knew it was Cervelli’s barring something unexpected. All three seemed to play in every Grapefruit League game as the Yankees showcased them for possible trades, but instead they kept all three. Cervelli opened the year as McCann’s backup and both Murphy and Romine reported to Triple-A.

Francisco Cervelli

This past season was a typical Cervelli season. He put up very good numbers and not just by backup catcher standards — he hit .301/.370/.432 (128 wRC+) with two homers in 162 plate appearances. Cervelli also got hurt, which has unfortunately become the norm for him. He suffered a Grade II hamstring strain running out a ground ball on April 14th and was not healthy enough to return until June 17th. A series of migraines — the Yankees confirmed it was not a concussion — kept Frankie on the bench for two weeks in September as well.

Cervelli threw out a below-average 25% of attempted base-stealers and other stats say he was better than average at blocking pitches in the dirt (+0.9 runs) and framing borderline pitches (+1.47 runs per game). Like I said, typical Cervelli season. He showed promise with the bat and glove but again suffered a significant injury that limited his playing time. Cervelli has played in parts of seven (seven!) seasons with the Yankees and we still don’t know who he really is. Can he sustain that level of offense and defense over a full season? It’s trendy to say Cervelli could start for half the teams in the league but health is a skill and he doesn’t have it.

The Yankees officially put an end to the Cervelli era yesterday by trading him to the Pirates for hard-throwing left-hander Justin Wilson. The move saves them a little cash, frees up the backup catcher’s spot for a younger player, and gives them another bullpen option. Pittsburgh has a tremendous training staff and excels at keeping players healthy as Ben Lindbergh explained this summer, and they’ll have their hands full with Cervelli. I’ll miss his goofiness more than anything. The Yankees can be a bit dull and uptight, but Frankie played with a lot of energy and made me laugh. That alone made him worth a roster spot in my book.

John Ryan Murphy

When Cervelli went down with the hamstring injury, the Yankees called up Murphy to serve as McCann’s backup for three months. He started out very well, going 11-for-27 (.407) with some pretty big knocks to drive in runs, but he cooled off after that and finished his limited tour of duty with a .284/.318/.370 (93 wRC+) batting line and one homer in 85 plate appearances.

Murphy. (Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Murphy started 21 games behind the plate and appeared in 30 overall. He threw out only two of 12 base-stealers (17%) and was below-average at blocking pitches in the dirt (-0.8 runs), but he only caught 201 innings. That’s not much at all. StatCorner says he saved +0.18 runs per game with his framing, same as framing god Yadier Molina. I think that says more about the sample size and imprecision of the stats than Murphy.

As far as 30-game looks go, Murphy was about as good as you could expect from a 23-year-old catcher in his first extended taste of the show. The Yankees rave about his defensive work and they aren’t the only ones. Most reports identify him as a big league caliber gloveman, if not now then soon. The Cervelli trade creates a clear path for Murphy to take over as McCann’s backup, though, as we all know, the Yankees like to hold fake Spring Training competitions to keep the pressure on.

Austin Romine

If Murphy getting the call over Romine when Cervelli got hurt didn’t convince you Romine had fallen on the organizational depth chart, the fact that he didn’t even get a September call-up should have. The Yankees declined to call Romine up on September 1st and only called him up later in the month when Cervelli missed time with his migraines. Romine did appear in seven games this past season, going 3-for-13 (.231) with a double and throwing out the only runner who tried to steal a base against him.

After spending last season as the team’s regular backup catcher, Romine was nothing more than an afterthought in 2014. The Yankees had him work out at first base in Triple-A as a way to improve his versatility — “Catching is my passion. But if they threw me at first, so be it. I can do it if it gets me in the lineup,” said Romine to Brendan Kuty in September — but that doesn’t figure to improve his standing in the organization all that much. Injuries and a lack of offensive development have stalled Romine’s career. Unfortunately for him, the Yankees have a lot of catching depth, even after the Cervelli trade.

2014 Season Review: Kuroda’s Final Season?

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Just as we all expected, the only pitcher from the Opening Day rotation to avoid the disabled list this past season was the 39-year-old who had an abysmal end to the 2013 season. Hiroki Kuroda was, once again, the rock in Joe Girardi‘s rotation, taking the ball every fifth day as CC Sabathia (knee), Ivan Nova (elbow), Michael Pineda (shoulder), and eventually Masahiro Tanaka (elbow) went down with injuries. Even the replacements were getting hurt, like David Phelps (elbow).

Kuroda’s first two years with the Yankees followed a similar blueprint. He was excellent from Opening Day through about mid-August before falling off down the stretch, mostly due to fatigue. It got to the point where Kuroda had to stop throwing his usual between-starts bullpen sessions to stay fresh in September. The late-season fade was much more severe in 2013 than 2012, which is why Kuroda was more of a question mark coming into 2014.

This past season though, Kuroda started out slowly and finished strong. It was the exact opposite of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. He had a 4.62 ERA (3.75 FIP) in his first eight starts and a 3.41 ERA (3.56 FIP) in his final 24 starts this summer, which worked out to a 3.71 ERA (3.60 FIP) overall. His usual slow September instead featured a 2.81 ERA (2.73 FIP) and was his strongest month of the season. In fact, let’s take a second to look at Kuroda’s monthly splits:

I Split W L ERA G GS IP H R ER HR BB SO HBP WP BF WHIP SO9 SO/W
April/March 2 2 5.28 5 5 29.0 34 19 17 4 6 18 0 1 125 1.379 5.6 3.00
May 2 1 4.00 6 6 36.0 41 21 16 5 5 31 2 2 158 1.278 7.8 6.20
June 1 2 3.52 5 5 30.2 24 12 12 2 9 18 0 0 119 1.076 5.3 2.00
July 2 2 3.38 6 6 40.0 39 16 15 4 7 26 3 6 167 1.150 5.9 3.71
August 2 1 3.45 5 5 31.1 24 12 12 1 8 19 1 4 126 1.021 5.5 2.38
Sept/Oct 2 1 2.81 5 5 32.0 29 11 10 4 0 34 1 0 125 0.906 9.6 34.00
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/11/2014.

Kuroda was better in May than he was in April, better in June than he was in May, and better in July than he was in June. August was a slight bump in the road, but Kuroda was then better in September than he was in July or August. He just got better and better as the season progressed, which is the exact opposite of what you’d normally expect from a veteran starter pushing 40, especially one who had stumbled to the finish the last two years.

Although he did get better as the season went along, Kuroda was not as good as he was from 2012-13 this past season. He was a little more shaky and his best starts were merely very good, not outstanding. According to Game Score, Kuroda’s two best starts of the season came in September, when he held the Red Sox to one run in seven innings on the 3rd (73 Game Score) and the Orioles to two runs in eight innings on the 25th (77 Game Score). Only two starts with a 73+ Game Score after having eight in both 2012 and 2013.

Kuroda recorded an out in the eighth inning in only two of his 32 starts after doing it in six of 32 starts last year and in eight of 33 starts the year before. He was still a workhorse who threw 199 total innings, the 18th most in the league, but he averaged only 6.22 innings per start, down a touch from 6.29 innings per start last year and 6.66 innings per start the year before. Again, Kuroda was still very good this past season, he was just not quite as good as he was his first two years in pinstripes.

Because he’s considered retirement in each of the last two winters and slipped a bit performance-wise this year, I and I think a lot of other people assumed this would be Kuroda’s final season. He’s a prideful guy and seems like the type who would retire before going through an ugly disaster year. If that is the case, Kuroda’s final start with the Yankees was overshadowed because it was also Derek Jeter‘s final home game, a game he won with a walk-off single. Girardi said he wanted to send Kuroda back out for the ninth inning in that game so he could get one last ovation from the Yankee Stadium faithful, but Kuroda declined.

“I was really grateful when he approached me to do that. But yesterday was meant for Jeter, so I didn’t want to take anything from him,” said Kuroda to Wally Matthews the next day. Girardi summed up Kuroda’s tenure in pinstripes by telling Matthews “Hiro’s meant a lot to our organization as well and has been a really good Yankee and a really good role model as well … Obviously he’s pitched well enough to pitch again if he wants. But that’s up to him. There comes a point in your life sometimes you say, enough’s enough.”

There’s still no word on whether Kuroda will play or retire next season, and even if he decides to play again, there’s no guarantee he will return to the Yankees. He could decide to pitch closer to his family’s home in Los Angeles, or he could return home for one final season in Japan. Either way, Kuroda was once again a very important part of the rotation, and the Yankees needed him more than ever this year due to the injuries. If this is it for him, I will miss watching him pitch and I greatly appreciate what he did these last three years. Baseball needs more people like Kuroda.

2014 Season Review: The Closer

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

I don’t envy whomever will replace Derek Jeter next season. That’s going to be a tough job. Remember when Tino Martinez was getting booed in 1996 simply because he wasn’t Don Mattingly and had the audacity to not hit like .350 in the first few weeks of the season? That’s what it’ll be like for Jeter’s replacement, only about ten times worse.

And yet, as bad as that will be, I think replacing Mariano Rivera this past season was a more difficult task. Why? Because a closer’s failures are far more memorable than a shortstops. If a position player boots a grounder or strikes out with the bases loaded, it sucks, but we move on quickly because another batter steps to the plate. But if a closer fails? Forget it. The failure stews overnight and into the next day. Into his next appearance whenever that may be, really.

Replacing Rivera this summer was not going to be easy but David Robertson did it seamlessly. If he would have come out of gate and blown, say, three of his first six save chances in April — which Mo did when he replaced John Wetteland in 1997, by the way — there would have been questions for weeks and months about whether he was the right guy for the job. Fair or not, those questions were going to be asked and they tend to linger. That’s the nature of the job. The ninth inning has taken on a mind of its own.

Instead of creating questions, Robertson nailed down his first nine save chances of the season and didn’t blow a game until late-May. At one point from early-June through late-August, he successfully converted 22 consecutive saves, the second longest such streak by any pitcher in 2014. (Huston Street saved 23 straight to start the year.) Robertson saved 39 games in 44 opportunities, an 88.6% conversation rate that bests Rivera’s in 2014 (86.3%) and from 2011-14 (87.5%).

Did Robertson have some major meltdowns? Oh yeah. Of course. That’s inevitable regardless of role. He turned a 5-4 lead into a 6-5 loss by serving up a two-run walk-off homer to Adam Dunn on May 23rd for his first blown save. The Twins managed to score five runs in two-thirds of an inning against Robertson on June 1st. He allowed a three-run homer to Chris Carter in the ninth inning of a tie game on August 19th. Robertson blew two crucial saves against the Orioles in the final weeks of the season, one of which set up Jeter’s walk-off single in his final home game. Relievers are going to give up runs. We just remember when the closer gives up runs the most.

Saves are the name of the game for closers — managers, including Joe Girardi, literally manage games around the stat these days — but there are far better ways to measure a reliever’s effectiveness. After all, protecting a one-run lead in Fenway Park is much different than being handed a three-run lead in sleepy Target Field, for example. I can feel the difference when I’m sitting at home and watching on television, so you know the guys on the mound can feel the difference too.

Thankfully, Leverage Index gives us a better idea of just how important each situation is. Robertson didn’t just lead all qualified relievers with an average 2.07 Leverage Index when entering the game (gmLI) in 2014, it was the highest gmLI by any reliever in the last three seasons. You have to go back to 2011 to find someone with a higher gmLI (Jordan Walden and Chris Perez were at 2.11 and 2.08 in 2011, respectively). Only five pitchers — well, technically four pitchers and five instances — had a higher gmLI in an individual season over the last ten years. Keep in mind that a 1.5 gmLI is considered high-leverage. So 2.07 is way up there.

Robertson was pitching in incredibly important and pressure-packed innings all summer because the Yankees never score runs. They rarely blow games open. They won 84 games this past season and all 84 were by one-run. That’s a made up fact that feels true. Robertson pitched in all those tight situations and performed like he has since breaking out in 2011:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB% LOB% Whiff%
2011 66.0 1.08 1.84 36.8% 12.9% 46.3% 2.3% 89.8% 10.8%
2012 60.2 2.67 2.48 32.7% 7.7% 44.9% 9.6% 81.5% 9.9%
2013 66.1 2.04 2.61 29.4% 6.9% 50.9% 10.6% 87.5% 9.6%
2014 64.1 3.08 2.68 37.1% 8.9% 44.2% 15.6% 77.7% 11.9%

Robertson did have his highest ERA in the last four years in 2014, mostly because he a bit more homer prone and wasn’t quite as Houdini-ish as he has been in the past. His strikeout and swing-and-miss rates were outstanding — during a 33-appearance stretch from late-April through late-July, Robertson struck out 66 of 139 batters faced (47.5%) in 34.2 innings (17.13 K/9) — and both his walk and ground ball numbers were in line with recent years. There’s a little fluctuation year-to-year but that’s normal. Bottom line, Robertson was outstanding yet again.

Replacing Mariano Rivera figured to be a daunting task but Robertson made it look easy. He stepped right into the higher profile role and continued to be one of the very best relievers in the game. A lot of things went wrong with the Yankees this season, but the ninth inning was not one of them. I truly hope this was not Robertson’s final season in pinstripes, but, if it was, it was one hell of a swan song. Going from a low-profile 17th round draft pick to replacing Rivera and closing for the New York Yankees is some kind of story.

2014 Season Review: 12 charts that explain Carlos Beltran’s season

Carlos Beltran Season Review
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

This season review could be a simple two-paragraph summary of Beltran’s debut in pinstripes. Or it could be a monster tome like Mike’s review of Brian McCann.

Instead we’ll do this Vox Media style: 12 charts that explain Carlos Beltran‘s season. Because what’s more fun than looking at a bunch of depressing charts?

But first, an encouraging one.

(Charts from FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.)

Platoon split

Carlos Beltran 2014 Platoon Split

While Beltran’s elbow injury did seem to affect his overall numbers, perhaps it only really bothered him while batting right handed. His left-handed numbers aren’t all that bad.

Perhaps he could be useful in a platoon role next year? The Yankees did just bring Chris Young back to serve as their right-hand hitting fourth outfielder.

This trend seemingly started in 2013:

Carlos Beltran 2013 Platoon Split

Because his splits in 2011 and 2012 were much more even:

Carlos Beltran 2012 Platoon Split

Carlos Beltran 2011 Platoon Split

The loss of power against LHP is a huge dent in Beltran’s game. It appears that a platoon role might be the best case scenario for the future, although it’s difficult to see the Yankees sitting him against left-handed pitchers.

Another chart that illustrates his complete lack of power against left-handed pitching:

Carlos Beltran ISO Split

At the same time…

Beltran’s plate coverage as a left-handed batter declined quite a bit in 2014. Here’s his batting average heat map for 2012 and then 2013:

Beltran Left Handed Heat Map 12

Beltran Left-Handed Heat Map 13

And now 2014:

Beltran Left-Handed Heat Map 2014

That can’t bode well for his future productivity. Hopefully the elbow injury was mostly to blame and he can regain some of his plate coverage in 2015. Because if he’s going to decline further as a left-handed hitter, it’s hard to see his remaining value.

He’s not walking

Beltran 2014 Walk Rate

He might have improved on his 2013 rate, but in 2014 he still walked about league average. The Yanks clearly need him to get on base more often.

And there’s not much pop left

Beltran 2014 Batted Balls

Rising ground balls isn’t a problem, but if they’re coming at the cost of line drives, well, I don’t need to tell you that’s not good.

Remember when we were like, yeah Beltran?

Beltran April 2014

Derp

BeltranLater

There were brief periods of awesomeness for Beltran in 2014. He started off hot, and hit a hot streak coming out of the All-Star Break and into early July. But those streaks were short-lived. Most of the season Beltran played ineffectively. If it was due to injury, there is some hope for 2015. But for a 38-year-old, most of these charts portend trouble.