2014 Season Review: Whitley & The Long Men

The Yankees opened the season with three players capable of serving as a long reliever. Adam Warren held the job just last year, David Phelps did it the year before that, and Vidal Nuno has always been more of a multi-inning guy than a lefty specialist. Warren quickly settled into a short relief role and both Phelps and Nuno were in the rotation due to injuries before long, so the Yankees went from having three potential long men to zero by time May rolled around. They cycled threw some collection of arms this summer. Time to review the long relievers.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Chase Whitley

Last winter, every other team in baseball passed over Whitley in the Rule 5 Draft. By mid-May, the career reliever was starting games for the Yankees because their rotation was so devastated by injuries. The team moved Whitley into the rotation full-time this year after a nice run of Triple-A spot starts late last year, and he earned the call-up by pitching to a 2.39 ERA (1.72 FIP) in 26.1 innings across six starts.

Whitley held the Mets to two hits and two walks in 4.2 innings in his MLB debut, and six days later he limited the Cubs to just one run in 4.1 innings. Joe Girardi understandably had a very quick hook, pulling the right-hander after 74 and 71 pitches, respectively. It wasn’t until his third start that he topped 90 pitches (he threw 91, to be exact). He allowed three runs five innings against the Cardinals.

Next time out, Ace Whitely was born. Whitely struck out six Twins and allowed just one run in five innings on June 1st, then he held the Royals and Mariners to two runs in seven innings and 7.2 innings in his next two starts, respectively. A five-inning, two-run outing against the Blue Jays followed that. After his first seven MLB starts, Whitely had a 2.56 ERA (2.74 FIP) in 38.2 innings. It was exactly what the Yankees needed given their rotation situation.

The wheels came crashing off the bus in Whitley’s eighth start, which was also the first time he faced a team for the second time. The Blue Jays clobbered him for eight runs on eleven hits and three walks in only 3.1 innings of work. The Red Sox punished Whitely for five runs in four innings next time out, then the Twins got to him for four runs in three innings. After allowing eleven runs in his first seven starts, he allowed 17 runs in his next three starts.

The Yankees pulled Whitley from the rotation after that — the Brandon McCarthy trade and Shane Greene call-up made that possible — and he settled into a long relief role. Whitely threw 26.2 innings in his final 14 appearances after being yanked from the rotation while also spending some time back in Triple-A. He had a 5.40 ERA (4.44 FIP) in those 14 outings. Here is a quick breakdown of Whitley’s season split into two parts:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB% Opp. OPS
First 7 Starts 38.2 2.56 2.74 16.6% 2.6% 43.8% 2.1% .615
After That 37.0 8.03 5.59 19.7% 8.1% 46.8% 25.0% 1.030
Total 75.2 5.23 4.14 18.2% 5.5% 45.6% 12.0% .831

Even when Whitley was at his best during those first seven starts, I think we were all waiting for the other shoe to drop. His stuff was good but not great — he’d break off a few nice sliders or nasty changeup every once in a while, but every pitcher does that — and it just seemed like it was only a matter of time before the league got a book on him and made adjustments. It happened fairly quickly and Whitley became unusable in non-mop-up situations. Those first seven starts though, they were excellent and a big help to the team at the time.

Alfredo Aceves

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

When the Yankees took all three of Phelps, Warren, and Nuno north out of Spring Training, they grabbed Aceves off the scrap heap to replace the depth in Triple-A. Someone needed to soak up all those extra innings and teams routinely sign veterans they can abuse so the actual prospects don’t get overworked. Fans (myself included) were pretty happy Aceves was back simply because of what he did in 2009. He built up a lot good will that season.

Aceves started the year in Triple-A and made three starts with the RailRiders before being called up to the Yankees in early-May. He made his triumphant return to the pinstripes on May 4th, when CC Sabathia got knocked around by the Rays and failed to complete the fourth inning. Aceves picked him up with 5.1 scoreless innings of relief, striking out five and allowing only three hits. It was vintage Aceves, the kind of stuff we saw back in 2009. Suddenly it looked like the Yankees had someone who could fill that revolving door in the back of the bullpen.

That didn’t happen though. Aceves was legitimately terrible after that first appearance. He pitched in nine more games with the Yankees and allowed runs in seven of them. In 14 total innings he managed to put 24 men on base, allow 14 runs, and serve up six (!) homers. After giving up two homers in his June 2nd appearance, Aceves, who is eccentric at best and downright crazy at worst, threw inside at several Mariners players, so much so that pitching coach Larry Rothschild had to go out to the mound to tell him to stop.

Aceves’ second stint in pinstripes ended after that appearance. The team designated him for assignment, he returned to Triple-A to make a handful of relief appearances, then was suspended 50 games for a failed drug test. Not performance-enhancing drugs, a drug of abuse. Reportedly cocaine. The Yankees released him after the suspension was over. Aceves had a 6.52 ERA (6.29 FIP) in 19.1 innings across ten games with the team. Let us never speak of this again.

Call me Esmil. (Presswire)
Call me Esmil. (Presswire)

Esmil Rogers

The Blue Jays have made some shockingly bad trades involving catchers the last few years. First they shipped Mike Napoli to the Rangers for Frank Francisco (Frank Francisco!), then they sent Yan Gomes to the Indians for Rogers. Gomes has broken out and is now one of the better catchers in the game. Rogers wore out his welcome in Toronto in less than two years (5.06 ERA and 4.81 FIP in 158.1 innings), but the Yankees were intrigued enough to claim him off waivers at the end of July.

Because he had been working as a starter in Triple-A before the Blue Jays cut him loose, Rogers was nice and stretched out, which allowed Girardi to use him for three innings in his first appearance with the team. He held the Red Sox hitless in the three innings in his Yankees debut. Five days later, Rogers made a spot start filling in for the injured Phelps, and allowed just one run in five innings against the Indians. His first three appearances — there was a one-inning relief outing sandwiched between the three-inning debut and spot start — were enough to earn him some more responsibility.

After the spot start, Girardi used Rogers as a sixth and seventh inning type reliever, occasionally in the eighth inning as well if the rest of the bullpen was taxed. He made 15 appearances after the spot start and two were disasters — three runs and one out on September 16th, four runs and one out on September 28th — uglifying his stat line. Rogers had a 4.68 ERA (4.17 FIP) in 25 total innings with New York, but I thought he generally pitched better than that. He wasn’t great, but he wasn’t truly awful either. Most of the time, anyway.

Billings. (Presswire)
Dolla dolla Billings, y’all. (Presswire)

Bruce Billings

Billings was another one of those veteran arms for Triple-A — there were a lot of them this year, the Yankees didn’t have many actually pitching prospects in Scranton — though he did get called up to make one appearance with the big league team. He soaked up four innings against the Angels on April 25th, allowed four runs on four hits and a walk. Two of the four hits left the yard. Billings did strike out seven of 17 batters faced though. That’s cool. He was called up again at midseason before the team dropped him from the 40-man roster. Billings elected free agency and signed with the Dodgers, then spent the rest of the season in their Triple-A bullpen. Those for the four innings, Bruce.

Chris Leroux

Leroux was a starter with Triple-A Scranton at the start of the season, though he was unable to give the Yankees any length in his two appearances with New York. He allowed two unearned runs in one inning in his first game on April 29th, then he got clobbered for five runs in an one inning on May 2nd. That was in the 14th inning of this game, which you might remember because the Yankees made a spirited comeback to tie the game in the eighth and then again in the ninth to force extrainnings. Leroux was dropped from the roster soon thereafter and spent the rest of the summer either hurt or pitching for the RailRiders. What a summer of long men.

2014 Season Review: The Best Pitching Trade of the Season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It’s amazing that despite all their offensive problems in 2014, the Yankees were rather desperate for pitching help at midseason. Ivan Nova (elbow) and CC Sabathia (knee) were lost for the season, and at one point it sure looked like Michael Pineda (shoulder) would be as well. David Phelps was doing an admirable job filling in and Vidal Nuno had his moments, but the Yankees needed more stability. Masahiro Tanaka and Hiroki Kuroda were rocks in the rotation. The rest was a mess.

On July 6th, three and a half weeks before the trade deadline, Brian Cashman pulled the trigger on a straight one-for-one swap with the Diamondbacks that sent Nuno to Arizona for right-hander Brandon McCarthy. The two sides were reportedly talking for weeks before ex-D’Backs GM Kevin Towers decided to sell. The timing worked out well for New York too — two days after the trade and one day before McCarthy’s first start in pinstripes, Tanaka suffered the partially torn elbow ligament that essentially ended his season.

It easy to be skeptical about what McCarthy at the time of the trade. His 5.01 ERA in 109.2 innings with Arizona was a major eyesore, as was his 1.23 HR/9 (20.2 HR/FB%). He had a 4.53 ERA in 135 innings the year before, and his long history of shoulder problems was another red flag — McCarthy visited the DL with a shoulder issue at least once every year from 2008-13. His strikeout rate (7.63 K/9 and 20.2 K%) with the D’Backs was fine and both his walk (1.64 BB/9 and 4.3 BB%) and grounder (55.3%) rates were excellent. The Yankees were hoping to get the 3.82 FIP version of McCarthy, not the 5.01 ERA version.

In true 2014 Yankees form, McCarthy’s very first inning with the team was derailed by shaky infield defense (Mark Teixeira throwing error) that resulted in three unearned runs. The Indians put seven balls in play that inning and two were in the air, both caught for outs. It was a rally built on Teixeira’s error and ground balls with eyes. McCarthy settled down after that and allowed just one more run in the next 5.2 innings. The Yankees eventually won the game in 14 innings. Quite the hectic debut.

McCarthy held the Reds and Rangers to one run in six innings in each of his next two starts before the Rangers touched him up for four runs in six innings. After that, McCarthy allowed just seven runs (four earned) in 27.1 innings across his next four starts. His best start for the Yankees and on the season in general came on August 21st, when he struck out eight in a four-hit shutout against the Astros:

McCarthy, who throughout his career has been a bit homer prone, allowed just three balls to leave the yard in his first nine starts with the Yankees. That little bit of good fortune came to a crashing halt in Toronto on the final day of August, when McCarthy allowed three solo homers in the span of four batters to turn a 3-0 lead into a 3-3 tie in the seventh inning. The Bombers went on to lose the game 4-3. It was not McCarthy’s finest moment. Not at all.

After that little homer episode, McCarthy allowed just four runs in his next three starts before getting clobbered in his final outing of the season (five runs in 5.1 innings against the Orioles), something that was a common theme throughout the rotation. Pineda was the only one not to get lit up in his final start. Anyway, McCarthy’s stint in pinstripes ended with a 2.89 ERA (3.22 FIP) in 90.1 innings spread across 14 starts. His strikeout (8.17 K/9 and 22.2 K%), walk (1.30 BB/9 and 3.5 BB%), and grounder (49.1%) rates were all way better than average. His homer rate (1.00 HR/9 and 12.8 HR/FB%) was in line with his career average (1.04 HR/9 and 10.3 HR/FB%).

Soon after the trade, McCarthy told reporters the D’Backs didn’t allow him to throw his cutter, a key pitch in his arsenal when he transformed himself from a fastball/curveball pitcher to a cutter/sinker pitcher while with the Athletics a few years ago. “[Shelving the cutter] wasn’t something I totally agreed with,” McCarthy told Josh Thomson back in July.

“I feel like myself again. [The D’Backs] didn’t want me throwing it any more. They wanted more sinkers away, but I feel like I need that pitch to be successful,” said McCarthy to John Harper in July. “The Yankees came to me right away and said, ‘We need to bring the cutter back into play.’ They obviously looked back and saw, ‘when he’s good he was throwing cutters. When he’s not, he wasn’t.’ I was glad to hear it because I was going to tell them that anyway. It’s been frustrating because I felt like I’ve been throwing better this season than any other year.”

Now here’s where it gets interesting. Here is McCarthy’s pitch selection over the years, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

% Cutters % Sinkers % Curves % Four-Seamers
2011-12 with A’s 41.3% 36.1% 18.9% 3.7%
2013-14 with D’Backs 23.6% 49.2% 20.1% 7.1%
2014 with Yankees 18.8% 36.0% 20.9% 24.2%

McCarthy threw more cutters in his first two starts with the Yankees (37) than he did in his final eight starts with the D’Backs (36), but overall PitchFX says he threw fewer cutters in New York than he did Arizona.

There are two things going on here. At least I think there are two things going on here. One, McCarthy threw only 10.3% cutters with the D’Backs in 2014 before being traded (34.6% in 2013), so he actually did throw more cutters with the Yankees this year. Two, I think there are some PitchFX classification issues. The data at FanGraphs says he threw only 13.0% four-seamers with 45.6% sinkers and 20.4% cutters while in pinstripes. I think a bunch of those four-seamers are actually misclassified cutters, but I can’t confirm that. If that is the case, his pitch selection in the table above would much more closely resemble his time in Oakland, when he was awesome (3.29 ERA and 3.22 FIP).

McCarthy says he was using the pitch more often with the Yankees but the PitchFX data says otherwise, so I don’t know who to believe. I tend to believe the data at times like there, but there could be classification issues. It happens all the time, particularly with cutters, though they are usually mixed with sliders, with four-seamers. I really don’t know what’s going on here. Maybe McCarthy and the Yankees were just blowing smoke when they said he was throwing more cutters.

Anyway, here’s something neat (via Brooks):

Brandon McCarthy velocity

McCarthy added a ton of velocity this year. Across the board too, even his curveball was harder. His cutter went from 90.7 mph last year to 92.2 mph this year. His sinker went from 91.8 mph to 93.8 mph and his curve went from 79.1 mph to 82.3%. These are really big increases! McCarthy told Nick Piecoro back in Spring Training that he changed his offseason routine in an effort to avoid the DL, which he did in 2014 for basically the first time in his career. The velocity could simply be the result of having a healthy shoulder for the first time in years.

Regardless of what’s going on with the cutters and increased velocity and all that, McCarthy gave the Yankees a big shot in the arm after the trade and was borderline ace-like for 14 starts. It happened. It’s in the books. Worry about how he will perform in the future and if he’ll re-sign with the Yankees another time. There’s an entire winter to do that. For now, I just want to point out that even though both Jon Lester and David Price were traded at the deadline, McCarthy had the most impact of any pitcher traded this summer. It just wasn’t quite enough to get the Yankees back to the postseason.

2014 Season Review: Dealin’ Dellin

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Man, Dellin Betances had to travel a long and hard road to get to where he was in 2014, namely being a deserving All-Star and arguably the best relief pitcher on the planet. The Yankees drafted him way back in the eighth round of the 2006 draft, gave him a $1M bonus to pass on a commitment to Vanderbilt — that was before the draft got borked — and waiting patiently as he battled injury and (occasionally extreme) control problems in the minors.

Here, let’s take a moment to soak in Dellin’s minor league career to fully understand where he’s coming from:

Year Age Lev ERA G GS IP H R ER HR BB SO HBP WP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9
2006 18 Rk 1.16 7 7 23.1 14 5 3 1 7 27 1 2 0.900 5.4 0.4 2.7 10.4
2007 19 A- 3.60 6 6 25.0 24 11 10 0 17 29 2 3 1.640 8.6 0.0 6.1 10.4
2008 20 A-Rk 3.92 25 24 121.2 100 64 53 9 62 141 11 11 1.332 7.4 0.7 4.6 10.4
2009 21 A+ 5.48 11 11 44.1 48 29 27 2 27 44 2 3 1.692 9.7 0.4 5.5 8.9
2010 22 A+-AA 2.11 17 17 85.1 53 25 20 4 22 108 4 6 0.879 5.6 0.4 2.3 11.4
2011 23 AA-AAA 3.70 25 25 126.1 102 61 52 9 70 142 10 7 1.361 7.3 0.6 5.0 10.1
2012 24 AAA-AA 6.44 27 26 131.1 144 107 94 13 99 124 12 20 1.850 9.9 0.9 6.8 8.5
2013 25 AAA 2.68 38 6 84.0 52 25 25 2 42 108 7 8 1.119 5.6 0.2 4.5 11.6
8 Seasons 3.99 156 122 641.1 537 327 284 40 346 723 49 60 1.377 7.5 0.6 4.9 10.1
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/4/2014.

There’s a lot going on there, and a lot of it isn’t good. Betances was damn near out of baseball in May 2013 before the Yankees permanently shifted him to the bullpen, hoping the shorter outings would better allow him to repeat his delivery and locate. The decision paid off immediately as Betances dominated for Triple-A Scranton the rest of the season and impressed during his September call-up.

For the first time in his eight full seasons as a professional baseball player, Betances came to Spring Training this year with a chance to win a big league job. There was an opening in the bullpen, and while he was the best choice for the spot on paper, he had to come to camp to show last season’s bullpen success was no fluke first. His career had been way too up-and-down to hand him anything. Dellin had a minor league option left. The Yankees could have easily sent him to Triple-A.

Betances showed up to Tampa in the spring and won that bullpen spot with ease. He only struck out eleven in 12.1 Grapefruit League innings, but it felt like a lot more. More importantly, Dellin was locating his fastball — in addition to flat out blowing it by hitters, of course — and dropping his breaking ball in for called strikes. The outing that appeared to cement his place in the big league bullpen came on March 23rd, when he struck out Jose Bautista and got Edwin Encarnacion to fly out harmlessly to left with the bases loaded.

When the regular season started, Betances was the second-to-last man in the bullpen, ahead of only Vidal Nuno. David Robertson was locked into the closer’s role and Shawn Kelley, Adam Warren, and David Phelps all had more big league time among the setup candidates. Betances made his first appearance of the year in the team’s very first game, striking out two in a perfect inning of work with the Yankees down six runs in the seventh inning. That’s as low-leverage as it gets.

Three days later, Betances entered a game the Yankees were leading by three runs with two outs in the eighth. He walked the first man he faced (Bautista) before getting the next (Encarnacion) to ground out to end the inning. The Yankees scored an insurance run in the top of the ninth, so Joe Girardi sent Dellin back out for the bottom half, but he walked the leadoff man on four pitches and that was that. The leash was short. Robertson came in to close out the game.

Dellin climbed the bullpen totem pole over the next few weeks, allowing three runs while striking out 21 of 47 batters faced in his final eight appearances and 12 innings of April. By mid-May he had established himself not as Girardi’s primary eighth inning guy, but as a multi-inning middle reliever who routinely got five or six outs at a time. His coming of age moment, if you will, came on May 15th against the Mets, when he struck out six of seven batters faced with the Yankees leading 1-0.

From that moment on, Girardi regularly turned to Betances in the game’s biggest situations and used him as a multi-inning high-leverage reliever. It was awesome. It was the perfect role. The kind of role we talk about all the time even though it never really happens because relief pitcher-ing is hard. Betances struck out 35 of 70 batters faced — half! — at one point from mid-May through mid-June, and he went into the All-Star break with a 1.46 ERA (1.36 FIP) and a 40.8% strikeout rate in 55.1 innings across 40 appearances.

Red Sox manager John Farrell named Betances to the AL All-Star Team — he was the only non-closing reliever named to the AL team — though he was one of three pitchers who did not pitch in the game, along with Mark Buehrle and David Price. It was disappointing but not really a bad thing given his first half workload. Betances threw a ton of important innings in the first half and a little four-day rest in mid-July was the best thing for him in the grand scheme of things.

After the All-Star break, it appeared Girardi and the Yankees made the conscious decision to limit Dellin’s workload in the second half. After recording four outs or more 24 times in the first half, he was asked to do it only eleven times after the All-Star break. His effectiveness never waned but the Yankees were simply being careful with someone who quickly emerged as a top asset. Betances settled into a tradition eighth inning role in late-July and for the most part stayed their through the end of the season.

My single favorite plate appearance of the 2014 season came on August 5th, when Betances flat-out overpowered two-time reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera with the score tied in the top of the eighth. He got Miggy to swing over a breaking ball and through two 99-100 mph fastballs. It was swoon worthy. Check it out:

Dellin’s final appearance as a multi-inning super-reliever came on August 13th, as the Yankees were clinging to postseason hope in a game against the division rival Orioles. They were up 2-1 in the sixth inning when Girardi called on Betances, who struck out he side in the sixth and retired the side in order in the seventh. He went back out for the eighth with his pitch count at only 24, got the first out, then served up a game-tying solo homer to Jonathan Schoop. The Yankees lost the game when the rest of the bullpen melted down.

Betances finished the season with a 1.40 ERA (1.64 FIP) in 90 innings spread across 70 appearances. His strikeout (13.50 K/9 and 39.6 K%) numbers were off the charts, and he also posted very good walk (2.40 BB/9 and 7.0 BB%), homer (0.40 HR/9 and 6.0 HR/FB%), and ground ball (46.6%) rates. Betances led all full-time relievers in innings, strikeouts (135), WPA (+4.42), fWAR (3.2), and bWAR (3.7). His 35 appearances of at least four outs were the most in baseball by a wide margin (Warren was second with 29.)

The parallels between Betances’ career and Mariano Rivera‘s are kinda eerie. Both were starting pitching prospects who had their issues in the minors and didn’t break out until being moved into the bullpen full-time. They both had dominant first full seasons with the Yankees as a multi-inning setup man at age 26 — Betances broke Mo’s single-season reliever strikeout record (130 in 1996) this year — and like Rivera, Betances could wind up taking over as closer in his second year if the team’s veteran closer leaves via free agency. That doesn’t mean Betances will be the next Rivera of course, just that they’ve have freakishly similar careers to date.

What happens with Betances in the future is a conversation for another time. For now, let’s just appreciate his 2014 mastery, when he was unquestionably the most exciting thing about the Yankees from Opening Day through Game 162. Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda had their moments around their injuries, but Betances was there from start to finish. We were all upset every time the bullpen door opened and someone other than Dellin came running out even though we knew he couldn’t pitch everyday. Dealin’ Dellin was the rose that grew out of the cracks in the sidewalk that was the 2014 Yankees.

2014 Season Review: The Swingman

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Way back in Spring Training, the Yankees held an honest-to-goodness competition for the fifth starter’s spot. Michael Pineda blew everyone out of the water in camp and won the job with ease, but he was a total unknown coming into the year due to his injuries. He has to prove he belonged in the rotation and that’s exactly what he did.

One of Pineda’s competitors for that fifth starter’s job was David Phelps, who has competed for a rotation spot in Spring Training in each of the last three years. Phelps had to settle for a bullpen gig and his role was undefined at the outset of the regular season. He was essentially the third setup option behind Shawn Kelley and Adam Warren before Dellin Betances broke out.

Phelps allowed one run in 1.1 innings in his first appearance of the season, then allowed three runs in two innings of work his next time out. He finally had a scoreless outing in his third appearance, when he recorded all of one out. His best and most memorable relief appearance of the season was his fourth, when he retired all seven Red Sox batters he faced with a 4-1 lead to earn his first career save. The bullpen was taxed and he stepped up in a big way.

Three days later, Phelps recorded his single biggest out of the season (+.174 WPA) by striking out Mike Carp with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning of a game the Yankees led 3-2. It was an eight-pitch at-bat and I remember it because of Phelps’ little fist pump/bunny hop celebration combo:

David Phelps

Phelps remained in the bullpen for the entire month of April — he had a 3.86 ERA and 5.79 FIP in 11.2 innings during the season’s first month — before moving into the rotation to replace the suspended/injured Pineda. His first start was pretty good — he held the Angels to one run in 5.1 innings while on a strict pitch count. Phelps’ next outing was not so good (four runs in five innings against the Brewers) but his next two after that were strong (five scoreless against the Pirates, seven innings of two-run ball against the White Sox).

After getting roughed up in three straight starts by his hometown Cardinals (five runs in six innings), the Mariners (six runs in six innings), and the Royals (seven runs in 5.2 innings), Phelps settled down and went on his best stretch as a big league starting pitcher. Beginning on June 13th, he posted a 3.29 ERA and 4.27 FIP in 54.2 innings spread across his next nine starts. He completed at least five innings in all nine starts and at least six innings in six of nine starts. Phelps’ best start of the season (71 Game Score) was the first of those nine starts (6.2 scoreless against the A’s):

The Red Sox clobbered Phelps for five runs in only two innings on August 3rd, and a day later he was placed on the 15-day disabled list with elbow inflammation. Joe Girardi told Wally Matthews the elbow had been bothering Phelps for “three or four weeks” before he had to placed on the DL. “We thought it was something we could manage, and he was managing. He was pitching well. It was just inflammation. But [against the Red Sox], for whatever reason, it bothered him.”

The injury ended Phelps’ stint as a starter in 2014. He pitched to a 4.28 ERA and 4.18 FIP in 17 starts and 96.2 innings from early-May through early-August, which isn’t sexy but is more than fine from your sixth starter. Phelps was really the team’s seventh starter when you think about it. Vidal Nuno got the call when the team first needed a spot starter and he stayed in the rotation after Ivan Nova blew out his elbow. It wasn’t until Pineda got hurt/suspended that Phelps moved out of the bullpen and into the rotation.

Phelps returned to the team in mid-September and spent the rest of the year working in relief only because there wasn’t enough time left in the season to stretch him back out to starter. He closed out the year with six not particularly good appearances (4.2 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 6 BB, 3 K) in low-leverage spots. The most memorable part of Phelps’ September was when he threw at Kevin Kiermaier of the Rays — he buzzed him inside but did not hit him — apparently in retaliation for Tampa hitting a bunch of Yankees that month. The benches cleared but nothing really came of it.

Between his 17 starts and 15 relief appearances, Phelps had a 4.38 ERA and 4.41 FIP in a career-high 113 innings in 2014. His strikeout rate (7.33 K/9 and 18.5 K%), walk rate (3.66 BB/9 and 9.3 BB%), homer rate (1.04 HR/9 and 10.8 HR/FB%), and ground ball rate (41.2%) were all decidedly mediocre. League average or worse across the board. Phelps was actually more effective against lefties (.314 wOBA) and at home (.327 wOBA) than against lefties (.356 wOBA) and on the road (.338 wOBA), which is weird. Pretty much the opposite of what I expected.

Phelps is now three years into his big league career and he’s established himself as a swingman who won’t kill you as a spot starter for a month or two. His career performance as a starter (4.34 ERA and 4.16 FIP in 219.2 innings) isn’t all that different than his performance as a reliever (3.84 ERA and 4.32 FIP in 79.2 innings), so he’s yet to stand out in either role and make you think that’s where he belongs. That’s fine though. Swingmen get no glory but they are a necessary part of the pitching staff. Phelps was more than capable when pressed into duty this season as well as the last three seasons overall.

2014 Season Review: The Disappointing Brian McCann

Wasn't much to clap about this year, Brian. (Al Bello/Getty)
Wasn’t much to clap about this year, Brian. (Al Bello/Getty)

The post-Jorge Posada years have been a shock to the system for a generation of Yankees fans. For more than a decade we watched Posada compensate for his poor defense with huge offensive numbers, including a ridiculous .283/.386/.492 (131 wRC+) batting line from 2000-09. As a catcher! Jorge will one day have his number retired and get more than a few Hall of Fame votes, yet I still feel he is somehow underrated by the masses.

Anyway, the Yankees transitioned into the post-Posada years with Russell Martin, who was excellent defensively and slightly better than the league average catcher offensively (97 vs. 94 wRC+) from 2011-12. Martin was no Posada, but he was a perfectly capable starting catcher. When he jumped shipped and joined the Pirates prior to the 2013 season, the Yankees tricked themselves into thinking Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart could hold down the fort. Cervelli got hurt less than a month into the season and Stewart had a 57 wRC+ in way too many plate appearances (340).

The Yankees weren’t going to make that mistake again. Stewart was traded a few hours before last winter’s non-tender deadline to, coincidentally, the Pirates to serve as Martin’s backup. Austin Romine was still around following his disappointing year as Stewart’s backup, and John Ryan Murphy wasn’t quite ready for full-time duty after his breakout 2013 season, so the Yankees plugged their catching hole the way they plug most roster holes: they threw money at it.

On November 23rd of last year, the team agreed to a five-year contract worth $85M with free agent Brian McCann. The contract was the largest ever given to a free agent catcher and fourth largest for a catcher overall, behind Joe Mauer ($184M), Buster Posey ($164M), and Mike Piazza ($91M). It was a touch more than the five-year, $75M extension the Cardinals gave Yadier Molina two years ago. McCann’s contract also includes a sixth year vesting option with surprisingly favorable terms — he basically has to be a starting catcher from 2017-18 for the option to kick in.

McCann was a known commodity heading into free agency. He made seven All-Star teams during his nine years with the Braves — Posada only made five All-Star teams in his career — and was widely regarded as the best power-hitting catcher in the game. McCann hit 20+ homers every year from 2008-13 and seven times in his eight years as Atlanta’s starting catcher. He was also very durable, starting at least 110 games behind the plate in seven of those eight years. The only exception was 2013, when he started 91 games because he didn’t make his season debut until May following offseason shoulder surgery.

The right shoulder injury — he had a torn labrum and some cartilage damage — bothered McCann throughout the 2012 season, when he hit a career-worst .230/.300/.399 (87 wRC+) with 20 homers in 121 games. He showed the injury was behind him by hitting .256/.336/.461 (121 wRC+) with 20 homers in only 102 games in 2013, which was identical to the 121 wRC+ he put up from 2009-11, the three years before the shoulder injury. The Yankees looked McCann over during his pre-signing physical, talked up his toughness and leadership, and the deal was done.

As you know, McCann was a massive disappointment his first season in New York. He hit .232/.286/.406 (92 wRC+) with 23 homers — McCann led the team in dingers, though that’s more of an indictment of the rest of the roster than a credit to him — and it took a huge September (121 wRC+ and eight homers) to get his season numbers up even that high. Given the injuries to Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran, McCann’s was the team’s only regular middle of the order presence this summer and he didn’t produce as expected. At all.

We all know what happened with McCann and the Yankees this season, so there’s no sense in reliving it all step by step. Instead, let’s look at some specific parts of his game to see where things went wrong as well as the little bit that went right.

The Shift

Because he’s a left-handed pull hitter, opposing teams shifted against McCann all summer long. Certainly every time he was at the plate with the bases empty, and also sometimes with men on base. I remember seeing a graphic on a late-season broadcast (I think it was an ESPN Sunday Night Game, I forget exactly) that said McCann was one of the two or three most shifted against hitters in the game. I believe it.

Naturally, the shift was blamed for McCann’s poor offensive year by lots and lots of people. Lots. It was too easy. Too convenient. Except, you know, teams have been shifting against McCann for years and years. Don’t believe me? Here’s video of McCann beating the shift way back in May 2009:

Teams have been shifting against McCann for at least five seasons now and it obviously didn’t prevent him from putting up big numbers while with the Braves. He hit .281/.349/.486 (119 wRC+) during that 2009 season, for example.

Now, here’s another thing about the shift: McCann went the other way in 2014 far more than he had at any point in the last five years. Again, it’s easy to pin his struggles on his inability to adjust and go the other way, but McCann did adjust. Or at least he tried to adjust. Look at his ball in play numbers:

% Pull % Center % Opposite
2008 46.4% 31.3% 22.3%
2009 48.6% 30.7% 20.8%
2010 46.2% 33.2% 20.6%
2011 45.1% 35.1% 19.8%
2012 47.5% 33.9% 18.6%
2013 48.6% 31.5% 19.9%
2014 44.1% 33.4% 22.5%

McCann put more balls in play (95) and had more hits (30) to the opposite field in 2014 than he had in any season since 2008 (100 and 30). He averaged only 73 balls in play and 18 hits to the opposite field from 2009-13. His .316 BABIP the other way was his highest since 2006 (.378). McCann even laid down a few bunts — he bunted three balls in play and had one hit — and I couldn’t tell you how many times he tried to bunt only to have the ball go foul. More than I care to count.

Did the shift hurt McCann this season? Of course it did. Among the 132 batters who pulled at least 150 balls in play this year, McCann ranked 132nd with a .194 BABIP. Dead last. (Pablo Sandoval was second worst with a .206 BABIP.) Was the shift the reason he had such a poor debut season with the Yankees? Not entirely. He attempted to go the other way and the result was a lot of weak contact, especially pop-ups. McCann hit more lazy fly balls this year, especially to left and center fields, than I can ever remember seeing a left-handed batter hit. It reminded me of Teixeira in 2012, when he focused on going the other way and the result was a bunch of weak fly balls, so he abandoned the approach midseason.

Joe Girardi said the Yankees will emphasize beating the shift in Spring Training — good luck with that, still unnamed new hitting coach — but McCann is a 30-year-old veteran with almost 5,000 plate appearances in the big leagues. Maybe they can teach this old dog a new trick and get him to consistently beat the shift without turning him into a singles hitter. I’ll believe it when I see it. I think McCann simply needs to go back to doing what made him so successful with the Braves and pull the ball even more. He spent 2014 trying to go the other way and he result was the worst non-injury season of his career.

The Plate Discipline

Along with blaming the shift, I think my favorite generic baseball complaint is “he strikes out too much.” It’s so predictable too. Power hitter like McCann is struggling? He strikes out too much. Except McCann didn’t strike out much this year. His 14.3% strikeout rate was both right in line with his 14.5% career average and well-below the 20.4% league average. Fifty-seven players hit 20+ homers this year and four had a lower strikeout rate than McCann: Posey (11.3%), Albert Pujols (10.2%), Michael Brantley (8.3%) and Victor Martinez (6.6%). That’s it.

Just because McCann didn’t strike out much does not mean his plate discipline was an issue, however. His 5.9% walk rate was a career-low — his previous career-low was 6.3% way back in 2007, his second full year in the league — and way down from the 9.9% walk rate he posted from 2011-13. The weird thing is that McCann’s swing numbers were not out of line with the last few years:

Brian McCann plate discipline

Nothing unusual there. Typical year-to-year fluctuations but otherwise McCann’s in and out of the zone swing rates this season were right in line with the last few years and his career averages. It would have been a red flag if he had suddenly swung at 33% of the pitches he’d seen out of the zone (O-Swing%) or something, but that’s not the case.

McCann did not swing more this summer, but he did swing more often. His pitches per plate appearance average dropped to 3.83 this year, down from 4.06 last year and 3.99 from 2011-13. McCann simply swung a bit earlier in the count, and when you swing earlier in the count, you’re not going to draw many walks. In fact, he saw only 110 three ball counts in 538 plate appearances this year (20.4%), down from 25.4% last year and 23.1% from 2011-13. Explaining why McCann put the ball in plate earlier in the count this season is a fool’s errand. It could simply be an anomaly, or could be the result of moving into a new league with a new team and a new hitting coach. Whatever the reason, it led to fewer walks and fewer times on base given what was happening when he did put the ball in play.

The Splits

One of the many reasons the Yankees pursued McCann was his left-handed power, which fit perfectly in Yankee Stadium. There was talk of him hitting 40+ homers in Yankee Stadium, though I always though that was far-fetched. Thirty dingers did seem doable, and the fact that he still managed to swat 23 homers while having such an overall poor year supports that.

McCann’s 23 homeruns came with a .174 ISO, which was down a bit from the .189 ISO he posted from 2011-13. (It’s worth noting Yankee Stadium isn’t a good doubles park, which dragged down his ISO a tad.) His 12.2% HR/FB rate was right in line with his career average (12.7%) but way down from his 2011-13 numbers (14.3%). That’s after moving from spacious Turner Field into cozy Yankee Stadium too. McCann hit .242/.288/.496 (115 wRC+) with 19 (!) of his 23 homers at home, so he was particularly awful on the road (.221/.285/.306, 67 wRC+ and four homers).

The weird and kinda scary thing is McCann also didn’t hit right-handed pitchers at all this year. He put up a .256/.349/.452 (118 wRC+) line against righties from 2011-13, but this it was only .209/.272/.360 (76 wRC+) this summer. I mean, holy cow. His .292/.324/.526 (137 wRC+) batting line against southpaws was far better than his .245/.286/.417 (92 wRC+) performance the last three years. McCann’s been vulnerable to a quality lefty specialist throughout his career, but not in 2014. (I remember writing back in Spring Training that starting Cervelli against guys like David Price and Jon Lester was a good way to get McCann regular rest this summer.)

When the Yankees signed McCann, it seemed like a safe bet that he’d rake at Yankee Stadium and against right-handed pitchers just given his career to date and how well his swing fit the ballpark. He did mash in the Bronx, but he was dreadful on the road and shockingly bad against righties. I suspect his success against lefties is small sample size noise (145 plate appearances) and not some kind of revelation at age 30. Improving against righties is a must next season because chances are McCann won’t repeat that performance against same-side pitchers. We have all winter to discuss that though.

Catchers, man. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Catchers, man. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

The Defense

For all the offensive struggles, McCann was a rock behind the plate and an exceptional defender. He threw out 29 of 78 attempted base-stealers, a 37.2% success rate that was by far a career-high. McCann threw out a miserable 23.1% of attempted base-stealers from 2011-13, well-below the 28% league average. Only Yadier Molina (47.8%) and Martin (38.5%) had a better throw-out rate among the 22 catchers who caught at least 800 innings in 2014.

While this sudden ability to throw out base-runners could be nothing more than a one-year fluke, it’s worth noting McCann would not be the first catcher to improve his throwing under Joe Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena. Cervelli in particular improved his throwing greatly under their tutelage. Romine and Murphy improved as well. There’s also the health factor — he was now a full year away from shoulder surgery and his strength may have full returned. Who knows how long the shoulder was bothering him while in Atlanta? McCann did throw out 30.0% of attempted base-stealers back in 2010, after all.

Behind the plate, Bojan Koprivica’s work says McCann should have allowed 62 passed pitches (passed balls plus wild pitches) based on his workload this year, but he only allowed 39. Koprivica’s stats put McCann at +4.0 runs saved by blocking pitches, fourth best in baseball. Pitch framing data at StatCorner has McCann at +11.4 runs saved through framing, 11th best in baseball and sixth best among regular catchers. Catcher defense is a very difficult thing to quantify and I don’t love these stats yet, so I won’t make too big a deal about them. McCann scored well and my eyes told me was a pretty damn good behind the plate. That about sums it up.

McCann did more than catch though. He also played first base for the first time in his career. It wasn’t a one or two-game emergency stint either. It was supposed to be when Teixeira when on the disabled in April, but McCann wound up playing 16 games at first this year, including eleven starts. He came into 2014 with literally zero innings at first base in his career, Majors or minors. His inexperience was very evident at times — McCann’s biggest blunders came when it was unclear if he should play a weak ground ball or retreat to the bag and let either the pitcher or second baseman field it — and that’s to be expected. McCann was a decidedly below-average first baseman but I’m not going to hold that against him. The team put him in an uncomfortable situation and he did what he could.

* * *

There’s really no way to sugarcoat it: McCann’s first season in pinstripes was a major disappointment. The most memorable moment of his year was pinch-running for Derek Jeter in Game 162 after the Cap’n singled in his final career at-bat. Yeah. The Yankees expected McCann to be a middle of the order force in addition to providing top notch defense behind the plate, but instead he was a highly paid defensive specialist who rarely had an impact at the plate.

McCann’s late-season homer binge was encouraging heading into the offseason, though it wasn’t nearly enough to salvage his season. With another four years and $68M left on his contract, as well as the team’s continued need for more offense, the Yankees have to hope McCann’s first season in pinstripes was the result of changing leagues and having to learn a new pitching staff. Not some sort of irreversible decline.