Same All-Star reliever but with minor concerns [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

For the last three years, I have essentially marked games as wins in my mind whenever Dellin Betances comes in. Sure, there have been a few blown saves here and there, but for the most part, the Yankees win when Dellin comes into the game whether they lead or are tied.

And it isn’t just his pure performance. He’s fun to watch, too. That nasty breaking pitch surely haunts the dreams of every hitter in the AL East and sends Yankee fans home happy. That’s even before you get to his fastball.

What does Betances — who turns 29 on Thursday — have in store for 2017? Let’s take a look.

All-Star stuff with some concern

Betances, when he gets to utilize his stuff to the best of his ability, is unhittable and it’s memorizing. He walks a few too many batters (3.5 per 9 career and in 2016) and his hits rose to 6.7 per 9 last year, but his pure stuff is still beautiful.

His fastball averaged 98.42 mph in 2016, which is just silly good. It doesn’t hurt that he has an above-average 2509 RPM spin rate. It’s surprising considering his September struggles, but his velocity actually jumped higher from August to September. Same for his curveball. When Betances really needs to hit another gear, he can. That 100 mph strikeout of Miguel Cabrera from 2014 is perhaps the best example. Or perhaps the 2016 All-Star Game.

And then there’s his curveball. It’s genuinely my favorite pitch going these days with all respect to Andrew Miller‘s slider. It sits in the mid-80s and just falls off the table. Even the best hitters in baseball — like Giancarlo Stanton — have zero idea what to do with it.

As he displayed in the WBC this spring, he’s among the best relievers in the game when he’s on. The Yankees’ AL East rivals know this all too well.

He throws his four-seamer (39.3) and his curve (55.3) about 95 percent of the time, occasionally mixing in a cutter. His curveball remained a behemoth in 2016, holding batters to a .371 OPS (14 wRC+) and accounting for 103 of his 124 strikeouts.

Hitters actually got to his fastball pretty well last year. They batted .350/.447/.563 (184 wRC+) against it, a mark much higher than previous years (124 wRC+ against in 2015 and 95 in 2014). He peaked as a pitcher in 2014 (his -21 wRC+ against for the curveball says more than enough), but the trend with his fastball is a bit concerning. It began in the later months of 2015 and continued throughout 2016. Luckily, he still has a dynamite curveball, yet it’s worth monitoring how hitters do against Betances’ normally overwhelming velocity in 2017.

One quick aside: If you want to see how dominant Betances can truly be, check out the ISO power against him, especially right-handed batters. On pitches on the inner third of the plate, righties literally had a .000 ISO. All singles and outs. Here’s the chart via Baseball Savant.

dellin-betances-1

Workload

If there’s one chief concern for Betances, it’s his workload. In his three full big league seasons, he’s pitched in at least 70 games and thrown at least 73 innings. His innings have decreased year-by-year (90 to 84 to 73) and his ERA has increased year over year, including more than doubling from 2015 to 2016 (1.50 to 3.08). There have certainly been times when Betances, cursed in part by his own success, has been overused as the Yankees try to sneak out close victories.

There is no better example than this past September. After Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller were dealt at the trade deadline, the closer role fell to Betances, a role which he is more than capable of filling. He may be more valuable as the stopper in the 7th and 8th innings, yet I think there are few people (maybe outside the front office) that believe Betances can handle the 9th. He surely has the stuff.

But the Yankees were in the midst of a playoff chase and they needed to hand him the ball as much as possible with plenty of save chances. Therefore, Joe Girardi used him on three straight days twice within an 11-day span. It started out just fine but ended with two straight losses, one because he couldn’t field the ball and the other simply because he was exhausted. That five-run ninth in Boston essentially finished the Yankees and also showed that Betances needed a rest. For the month, hitters were getting to not only his fastball but also hit curveball.

With Chapman’s return, Betances is obviously back in the middle innings, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to get much of a reprieve from important spots. He consistently comes in during the highest leverage situations, sometimes for more than one inning, and now has 217 games in the last three seasons in his recent past. Hopefully, Tyler Clippard, Adam Warren and the rest of the ‘pen will be able to handle some big innings because the big man needs a rest.

World Baseball Classic

Wasn’t it fun to watch Betances pitch in the WBC? He seemed to really enjoy himself while dominating hitters during the tournament. It was even better than when he takes down a set of National League All-Stars in the Midsummer Classic.

He threw five innings for the Dominican Republic, giving up six baserunners while striking out five batters. Basically normal Dellin. If you add in his two innings with the Yankees earlier in the spring, he’s only thrown two more innings than Aroldis Chapman and is just as ready for the season. Perhaps more?

This is just to say that the WBC doesn’t seem to have hurt Betances going into April and may even have him more prepared for opening day. Maybe have high-ish leverage innings earlier will benefit him early in the season but help wear him down later in the season. It remains to be seen.

Contract welp and minor flaws

Things really got ugly between Betances and the Yankees front office after his arbitration hearing in February. Randy Levine made some really boneheaded comments about Betances in an unnecessary conference call and created some significant tension between Betances and the club. That shouldn’t affect his performance on the field — baseball is a business after all — but it may make Betances think twice before re-signing long-term.

As for the arbitration hearing itself, the Yankees brought up Betances’ struggles fielding the ball and holding runners. These are legitimate issues for the big righty. He’s allowed extra runs to score because he’s been unable to throw the ball to the bases or prevent runners from stealing. Even Gary Sanchez with his laser from behind the plate was unable to throw out runners with Betances’ deliberate delivery.

Good news is that Betances is working on his flaws. He made a basic fielding play during the WBC (nothing major) and Sanchez did throw out a runner during one of Dellin’s early spring outings. If Betances could improve on those two flaws, it’d make him that much more dominant, both at preventing runners from getting on base and then from scoring.

He may not throw 105 mph, but Betances is pretty much everything you want in a reliever. High velocity, killer breaking pitch and general fantastic performance. The guy literally struck out over 15 batters per nine innings last season. However, he may not be quite as good as his out-of-this-world 2014-15 in 2017 and there are reasons to doubt him after a lesser 2016. Still, expect Betances to be an essential part of the Yankees’ bullpen in this season.

Chapman Returns [2017 Season Preview]

(Reinhold Matay | USA TODAY Sports)
(Reinhold Matay | USA TODAY Sports)

On the off-chance that you missed it, the Yankees gave Aroldis Chapman the largest contract ever handed out to a reliever back in December, re-solidifying the back of the bullpen that they had gutted (for the best of reasons) a handful of months prior. There’s something poetic about the fact that the team dealt its closer for a player that would become its best prospect, only to have those two on the same roster less than a year later. It makes a great trade look even better, regardless of the fact that re-signing Chapman shouldn’t influence one’s thoughts on the deal. But I digress.

An argument can be made that Chapman is the best reliever in baseball, which may well be stating the obvious. He finished 4th in the Majors in fWAR and 9th in RA9-WAR despite not throwing a pitch until May 9 (due to his suspension for domestic violence), ranking among the top-five in K%, K-BB%, ERA-, and FIP-. And this is nothing new for Chapman, either, as the southpaw leads all relievers in fWAR and RA9-WAR over the last five years. It’s telling that his 13.97 K/9 and 40.5 K% are his lowest marks since he took over for Francisco Cordero as the Reds closer following the 2011 season.

How does he do it?

Consistency Is Key

Chapman has not had anything short of a brilliant season since becoming a closer, with the only real variations being degrees of excellence. In the last five seasons he hasn’t struck out fewer than 40.5% of batters, nor has he allowed an ERA higher than 2.54 – and his averages in that stretch are 44.2% and 1.84, respectively. And this past season, when he posted that measly 40.5% strikeout rate, he offset it by posting a career-low walk rate of 8.1% (the first above-average mark of his career). I’ll take that trade-off.

It isn’t just consistency with his statistics, either. Take a look at his velocity:

chapman-velo

All of his offerings have remained steady since 2010 – his first full-season in the Majors, and they actually ticked up a bit last season. In fact, he showcased the second-best fastball velocity of his career in 2016 per Brooks Baseball, clocking in at 101.08 MPH. His slider and change-up velocity have been similarly metronomic, which is a great sign.

The movement on his pitches is consistent, as well, even if there are a few sections that stand out a bit more:

 

chapman-horizontal-movement chapman-vertical-movement

It is worth noting that he barely utilizes his change-up (less than 3% of his pitches were change-ups last year, per Brooks Baseball), so it makes some sense that it would be something of an outlier. He has tinkered with different grips, too.

Protecting His Elbow

Pitchers that throw hard and pitchers that throw a high percentage of sliders seem to be more prone to elbow injuries, if only anecdotally, and Chapman does both. Or, perhaps more accurately, he used to throw a high percentage of sliders.

chapman-pitch-selection

In 2014, nearly a quarter of Chapman’s pitches were sliders – and that appears to be the outlier in his time as a closer. Around 15% of his offerings were sliders last year, which placed him 72nd among the 130 relievers that threw at least 50 IP. And, to be fair, his slider usage ranked him 50th among 138 in 2014, so our perception of him as a slider-happy pitcher may be a bit of cognitive dissonance due to the wipe-out nature of the pitch.

That premium velocity has almost undoubtedly taken its toll, but focusing on fastballs could play a roll in Chapman remaining healthy. Whether that is a conscious decision or a matter of him sticking with what works is another question entirely.

What About The Playoffs?

Chapman came perilously close to adding his name to the list of curses that had plagued the Cubs franchise for over a century when he blew the save in Game 7 of the World Series, allowing a game-tying two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning. It was his third blown save of a postseason in which he posted an uncharacteristically high 3.45 ERA and 1.09 WHIP (and, no, the fact that those numbers would be good for most relievers isn’t lost on me).

The Cubs won the World Series, so all was forgiven. Does that mean that we should forget about Chapman’s intermittent struggles? Yes. Yes it does.

Between the regular season and playoffs, Chapman nearly matched his career-high in IP, doing so despite his shortened season. He pitched 13 times in 27 days in the playoffs, including three times in four days leading into Game 7. Despite this, his velocity was as steady as ever:

chapman-playoff-velo

The Cubs utilized Chapman exactly how they should have, and he may have been worn down somewhat in the process. That may give the Yankees a reason to be gentle with him early in the season, but it does not give much of a reason to be concerned about his abilities going forward.


The projection systems largely forecast the status quo for Chapman, albeit with what would be his highest ERA since 2013 (2.33 for Steamer, 2.34 for ZiPS, and 2.45 for PECOTA). That represents the safe route, factoring in a full season in a hitter’s park in a division full of potent offenses. Nevertheless, I expect Chapman to continue to be an elite closer in 2017.

The Four Young Rotation Candidates [2017 Season Preview]

Cessa. (Presswire)
Cessa. (Presswire)

Anyone with doubts about the Yankees and their commitment to the youth movement need not look beyond the rotation. Rather than bring in outside help over the winter, even a innings eating veteran on a one-year contract, the Yankees are planning to go with their young starting pitchers in 2017. They’re taking a leap of faith.

Four young starters are vying for two rotation spots this spring: Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, and Luis Severino. We still don’t know which way the team is leaning — “I would say (no one is ahead). I think we’re going to have some long meetings about this,” said Joe Girardi over the weekend — though I get the feeling Severino came into Spring Training as a favorite for one spot.

Regardless of who gets the two rotation spots on Opening Day, history suggests the Yankees will need all four of these guys to make starts at some point. The Yankees haven’t used fewer than eight starters in a season since the strike-shortened 1994 season, when they used seven. They’ve averaged slightly more than ten starters per season the last three years. So yeah, the depth is good. Let’s preview these four young arms.

Luis Cessa

What does he have the others don’t? A fourth pitch and a ton of athleticism. Cessa, 25 in April, is a former shortstop and his athleticism is evident in his easy, repeatable delivery. More importantly, Cessa throws four distinct pitches. We saw all of them last season during his big league debut. Setting aside his eight relief outings last season, here are the numbers from Cessa’s nine starts (MLB averages in parentheses):

% Thrown Avg Velo Whiff% GB%
Fastball 48.6% 95.0 (92.1) 5.7% (6.9%) 35.0% (37.9%)
Slider 30.3% 85.4 (84.3) 21.8% (15.2%) 66.0% (43.9%)
Curveball 11.1% 80.2 (77.1) 4.8% (11.1%) 50.0% (48.7%)
Changeup 9.9% 85.0 (93.7) 13.3% (14.9%) 40.0% (47.8%)

The slider was Cessa’s go-to secondary pitch, but he also threw his curveball and changeup roughly 10% of the time each, so the four-pitch mix is there. As a result, his platoon split was relatively small: lefty batters had a .324 wOBA against him while righties had a .311 wOBA. None of the other rotation candidates threw four pitches as often as Cessa, and I don’t think any of them are as consistently in sync with their delivery as well.

Also, in the age of pitch counts, I should note Cessa was incredibly pitch efficient last year. He averaged only 14.7 pitches per inning and 3.69 pitches per plate appearance as a starter in 2016. The MLB averages are 16.8 and 3.95, respectively. Cessa managed to complete at least five innings in all nine of his starts while throwing 85+ pitches only three times.

What’s holding him back? A lack of strikeouts and #toomanyhomers, more than anything. Even with a slider that rated as well-above-average in swing-and-miss rate and ground ball rate, Cessa had a mere 17.1% strikeout rate and a 45.0% ground ball rate in his 51.2 innings as a starter last year. Hitters tagged him for a 1.92 HR/9 (19.3 HR/FB%) and that’s way too high. Can’t do that and stay in the rotation.

Cessa has long had a reputation for being a strike-thrower and we saw it last season. He had a 3.9% walk rate in his nine starts. I wonder whether he’s someone who could benefit from throwing a few more pitches out of the zone, especially in two-strike counts. Not everything needs to be over the plate, you know. That could lead to more strikeouts and fewer homers allowed. Just an idea. But yeah, too few strikeouts and too many homers. Those are the two things Cessa will look to improve this summer.

Chad Green

Green. (Presswire)
Green. (Presswire)

What does he have the others don’t? Good question! I’m not sure, exactly. Possibly an overpowering fastball? Green, who turns 26 in May, is one of several pitchers who added velocity after joining the Yankees within the last few years, and last season his heater averaged 95.4 mph and topped out at 99.2 mph. His four-seamer generated a swing and a miss a whopping 16.2% of the time, which is nearly triple the league average rate. Green’s fastball: it’s good. (Bet you didn’t realize he had a 26.3% strikeout rate last season, did you? )

I’d also argue that among the four pitchers in this post, no one improved their stock more over the last 12 months than Green. He’s trending in the right direction. He added some oomph to his fastball, improved the quality of his slider with help from pitching coach Larry Rothschild last spring, and he added a cutter while down in Triple-A. Green came to New York with a fastball and an okay slider. Now he has a bigger fastball, a better slider, and a brand new cutter. Neat.

What’s holding him back? The complete lack of a changeup. Green has tried both splitter and changeup grips and so far he’s been unable to find something that works. Because of that, he has nothing to combat left-handers aside from cutters in on the hands. Last summer lefties hit .287/.351/.663 (.421 wOBA) with nine homers in 95 plate appearances again Green. Yikes. That’s a 3.74 HR/9 (34.6 HR/FB%). Yikes.

Clearly, the goal for Green this season will be improving his changeup. Or his splitter. Either one works. He needs something to keep left-handed hitters off balance, because busting them inside with cutters only works so much. Green needs that soft offspeed pitch to keep them guessing. I’m not sure he has much of a chance to be a big league starter without one. His fastball and slider are good enough that, at worse, Green should be a pretty nice reliever. Obviously the Yankees hope he can be something more than that.

Bryan Mitchell

Mitchell. (Presswire)
Mitchell. (Presswire)

What does he have the others don’t? The potential for a truly dominant pitch. Mitchell’s curveball is arguably the best curveball in the organization. It’s a power bender that averaged 81.9 mph last season with a well-above-average spin rate, which points to the potential for swings and misses and grounders. Don’t sleep on Mitchell’s mid-90s four-seamer and low-90s cutter either. His raw stuff is very impressive.

Also, the soon-to-be 26-year-old Mitchell has performed the best among the rotation candidates, both this spring and last season. I get the sense that’s going to factor into the team’s decision. So far this spring Mitchell has struck out 12 and walked three in 14.1 innings. He’s allowed no more than one run in three of his four appearances. Last year Mitchell threw 25 innings across five starts with the Yankees, during which he had a 3.24 ERA (4.23 FIP). I don’t think the Yankees will base their decision on those numbers, but I do think they’ll be considered.

Of course, Mitchell walked more batters (12) than he struck out (11) during his relatively brief big league cameo last year, so perhaps don’t read too much into the shiny ERA. Point is, Mitchell performed well from a “didn’t allow many runs” perspective, and it sure is easy to dream on his fastball/cutter/curveball combination.

What’s holding him back? Both command and a changeup, or the lack thereof. Mitchell doesn’t miss as many bats as you’d expect and he’s more hittable than his stuff would lead you to believe because his command is so poor. Throwing in the mid-90s is great! But if it’s over the plate, it’s going to get hit. And as pretty as his curveball is, it’s had a below-average swing and miss rate in all three of his MLB seasons. There’s a big disconnect between Mitchell’s stuff and his results, and that disconnect is due to poor command.

The changeup, I’d argue, is a bigger issue. You can carve out a successful career with below-average command, even as a starter. It’s doable. A.J. Burnett spent 17 years in the big leagues, won a pair of World Series rings, and banked over $140M with below-average command. Mitchell doesn’t have Burnett stuff, but he has pretty darn good stuff, and that should be enough to enjoy a big league career even without improving his command.

Without a changeup, however, Mitchell has to rely on his cutter to neutralize lefties, and his command isn’t good enough to rely on that one pitch consistently. Lefties hit .270/.372/.378 (.334 wOBA) against Mitchell last year and .274/.379/.415 (.350 wOBA) in his big league career overall. A right-hander who can’t get lefties out doesn’t have much of a chance to be a starter in Yankee Stadium. Mitchell has been working on his changeup for years — he’s tried a splitter as well — and so far nothing has taken. I wonder how much longer the Yankees will keep waiting before sticking him in the bullpen for good.

Luis Severino

Severino. (Presswire)
Severino. (Presswire)

What does he have the others don’t? Former top prospect status and, in theory, the most upside. That’s going to buy the just turned 23-year-old Severino plenty of opportunities and that’s why I think he’s favored to land a rotation spot right now. Now, to be fair, that’s not the only thing Severino has going for him. He’s got the big fastball, he’s got the wipeout slider, and at one point in time he had a very nice changeup as well. There was a reason Severino was a top prospect.

There’s also this: Severino has had, by far, the best stretch in the big leagues among these four players. Back in 2015 the Yankees called Severino up in the second half, and he had a 2.89 ERA (4.37 FIP) in eleven starts and 62.1 innings for a team in a postseason race. He had his issues with walks (8.6%) and strikeouts (1.30 HR/9), but what rookie pitcher doesn’t? Besides, Severino’s strikeout (22.0%) and grounder (50.3%) rates were impressive. Remember this guy?

That guy is really good! The Yankees remember that guy. They want him back. Severino, unlike Cessa and Mitchell and Green, has shown the ability to dominate big league hitters as a starting pitcher, albeit in 60-something innings two years ago. It’s more than the other guys have shown, however, and that’s going to work in Severino’s favor come decision time. He’s a former top prospect who gave everyone a taste of his upside in 2015. That can’t be ignored.

What’s holding him back? Once again, it’s command and a changeup, though unlike Green and Mitchell, Severino does actually have a changeup. Watch that video. There are more than a few in there. Severino lost confidence and/or feel for his changeup last season — he threw 12 changeups total in his final four starts after averaging 12 changeups per start in 2015 — and he’s working to get it back this spring. Not enough of his starts have been televised for us to get an idea of how he’s progressing, unfortunately.

As for the command, Severino’s location with his secondary stuff last year was a bigger issue than with his fastball. His fastball is so overpowering that he doesn’t need to be precise with it. He just needs to be close enough. With his slider, however, Severino left too may up in the zone and out over the plate early last season, which earned him a demotion back to Triple-A. The same was true with his changeup before he stopped throwing it all together.

This spring Severino made some slight changes to his mechanics — he’s breaking his hands closer to his body (GIF) — in an effort to improve his command and changeup. His issues aren’t a mystery. The Yankees and Rothschild have been working to get Severino back on track, and heck, he even spent some time with Pedro Martinez in the offseason. With the changeup, it’s about getting Severino back to where he was two years ago. Concerns about his command have existed for a while though, and ultimately his ability to improve that will determine whether he stays in the rotation long-term or winds up back in the bullpen, where he dominated last season.

* * *

We have to acknowledge these four pitchers are not necessarily in a rotation competition this spring. They’re in a pitching staff competition. It’s entirely possible one or more of them will wind up in the bullpen should they fail to secure a rotation spot. Like I said earlier though, I’d bet on all four guys making starts at some point during the summer. That’s usually how these things play out.

Assuming Masahiro Tanaka stays healthy and opts out, the Yankees have no established pitching under control beyond 2017. The hope is one or two or all four of these young starters emerge as viable long-term big league rotation options this coming season. They don’t need to become aces to have value. (Have you seen what average-ish mid-rotation guys are getting in free agency?) These four pitchers could help solve a lot of problems this season, though each of them has to figure some things out to make it happen.

Michael Pineda and the Luck Dragon [2017 Season Preview]

(Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY Sports)
(Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY Sports)

Over the last two seasons, seventy-six pitchers have thrown at least 300 IP. And, by at least one measure, Michael Pineda has been by far the most unlucky starting pitcher in baseball, with a 1.02 run difference between his ERA and FIP. The league-average gulf is 0.00, and only four pitchers are within half a run of Pineda (with Wade Miley and Gio Gonzalez coming closest, at 0.77).

Looking at it from another angle, his 111 ERA- (11% below-average) over the last two years ranks 69th within that group, while his 83 FIP- (17% above-average) places him 19th. The former metric puts him between Jeff Samardzija and Ubaldo Jimenez, whereas the latter ties him with Jeff Verlander and Zack Greinke; it’d be difficult to find two more distinct sets of pitchers to be a part of.

Luck, then, is a term that has been bandied about with Pineda quite a bit over the last two years. On some level, there remains hope that this is a long stretch of bad luck, and it’s easy to see why – he’s a 28-year-old whose strikeout and walk rates have placed him among elite company these last two years, after all. It’s never that simple, though.

The Good

There were plenty of things to like about Pineda’s 2016 season. The towering righty was in the top-ten in all of baseball in K% and K-BB%, and top-ten in the American League in strikeouts and FIP. His 45.8 GB% was a tick above league-average, he picked up swings on 37.8% of pitches outside of the strikezone (against a league-average of 30.3%), he allowed precious little contact (70.9%, versus a 78.2% league-average), and his fastball velocity jumped from 92.5 MPH in 2015 to 94.0 MPH last year.

In short, he regained lost velocity, racked up whiffs, limited walks, and kept the ball on the ground. What’s not to like?

The Bad

Pineda has earned a reputation for struggling to put hitters away, and that appears to be justified. As Mike pointed out in his season review:

And yet, with two strikes:

Pineda: .187/.246/.286 with a 47.6% strikeout rate
MLB Average: .176/.246/.276 with a 41.1% strikeout rate

The strikeout rate is nice, but Pineda’s overall numbers in two-strike counts are far too close to the league average pitcher for a guy with his stuff. Chad Green, whose slider isn’t nearly as good as Pineda’s, held hitters to a .135/.192/.281 batting line with two strikes. Those are the kind of numbers you’re looking for from Pineda.

This may be an issue with general pitch location, hanging sliders, sequencing, or any number of things, but the vast majority of above-average starting pitchers perform significantly better with two-strikes. It’s worth noting that this is something that Pineda is mindful of, and is said to be working on; a walk year would be a good time for him to make some improvements.

The Ugly

Batters teed off on all incarnations of Pineda’s fastball last year, batting .347 with a .619 SLG against the offerings (per Brooks Baseball). Or, phrased differently, batters turned into 2015 Bryce Harper when Pineda threw a fastball, which he did just over fifty-percent of the time. As per PITCHf/x it was the least-valuable pitch in baseball, checking in at -20.6 wFA (or 20.6 runs below-average).

That represents a significant drop-off from 2015, when the pitch was just 4.7 runs below-average, and may go a long way in determining how he ended up with a 4.82 ERA against a 3.80 FIP and 3.30 xFIP. Well, that, and the fact that his 1.38 HR/9 and 70.7 LOB% both ranked in the 20th percentile in all of baseball; this likely stems from his horrendous fastball, as well.

What made his fastball so bad? Location, location, location.

(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)

You see that red area, right in the middle of the strikezone? That’s where Pineda threw the majority of his fastballs last year; not on the black, not just outside the zone – right down the pike. It’s not too shocking that batters were able to hit .347 against the pitch with this in mind, particularly when you consider they hit .328 against it in 2015, when his location was incredibly similar.


The projection systems are bullish on Pineda, essentially buying into his strikeout and walk rates and forecasting significantly fewer home runs:

ZiPS – 156.2 IP, 9.4 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9, 3.96 ERA

Steamer – 152.0 IP, 9.4 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9, 3.51 ERA

PECOTA – 168.0 IP, 9.6 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9, 3.60 ERA

Steamer and PECOTA actually prefer Pineda to Masahiro Tanaka, which is … interesting, I suppose. Regardless, I would be thrilled with any of those lines, as even ZiPS would represent a slightly above-average pitcher (based on ERA), which would be a significant improvement upon Pineda’s two full seasons in pinstripes.

CC Sabathia: The Solid Mid-Rotation Starter [2017 Season Preview]

(Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports)
(Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports)

A bit over a year ago, CC Sabathia‘s job security was very much in question – and for good reason. From 2013 through 2015, the former ace pitched to a 4.81 ERA (121st among 132 qualified SP in that stretch, and 20% below-average) and 4.40 FIP (118th, 7% below-average), and missed time due to injuries, poor performance, and alcoholism (for which he sought treatment after the 2015 season). Joe Girardi and Co. were open in their discussions of the fifth starter training camp battle between Sabathia and Ivan Nova, and there seemed to be a very real chance that the big man would open the season in the bullpen.

That didn’t happen, of course, and the Yankees were rewarded with a rock solid campaign from Sabathia. Heading into the 2017 season, he once again feels like an integral piece to the rotation. How did we get here?

Lest We Forget, We Almost Didn’t

It was only four starts, but Sabathia was bad in April (21.1 IP, 25 H, 11 BB, 15 K, 5.06 ERA, 4.04 FIP), and the calls for him to head to the bullpen grew louder. The aforementioned Nova threw four strong innings in relief in the second game of the season, Sabathia was decidedly mediocre in his first start, and the memories of the Spring Training competition were still fresh. Had it not been for Nova imploding in two of his next four appearances, I still wonder if he would have ended up switching places with Sabathia.

Suddenly, An Ace

The calendar turned to May, and Sabathia rediscovered his mojo. Over the next seven starts, he posted three scoreless outings, pitching to the following line: 44 IP, 29 H, 16 BB, 41 K, 0.82 ERA, 2.94 FIP. And he looked good doing it, as he allowed just one home run and worked his way out of jams like the Sabathia of old.

There were plenty of signs that this wasn’t sustainable, including a 4.20 xFIP, 90.3 LOB%, and 2.4% HR/FB – but that didn’t stop most of us from buying in, at least a little bit. Sabathia’s name popped-up in All-Star discussions, and it felt as though the Comeback Player of the Year award was made with this sort of circumstances in mind. A backslide was all but certain to come, yet watching him dominate was a sight for sore eyes. And maybe, just maybe, a corner had been turned.

The Inevitable Backslide

Maybe not.

Sabathia followed-up his red hot six week stretch by allowing at least five earned runs in four straight games, and looked an awful lot like his 2013 through 2015 incarnation. Over the next eight weeks, he allowed a 6.78 ERA (5.33 FIP) over 65.0 IP, surrendering 13 HR in 11 starts (1.80 HR/9). His season ERA jumped from 2.20 to 4.49, and the hand-wringing returned.

This is how it looked in graph form:

sabathia-era-fip

And, as was the story of his three previous seasons, his successes and failures were tied closely to gopheritis:

sabathia-hr-9

Things weren’t looking so hot in the dog days of summer. Until…

A New Hope

On August 23, Sabathia dominated a stout Mariners lineup (one that finished second in the Majors in wRC+ in 2016) for seven innings, allowing just 3 hits, 1 run, and 1 walk, while striking out seven. That was the start of a fine closing stretch to the year, over which he tossed 49.1 IP of 2.37 ERA ball with above-average peripherals (21.4 K%, 7.1 BB%, 54.3 GB%). His final start was an exclamation point on that stretch, as he held the Red Sox to 1 run and 6 base-runners in 7.1 IP, striking out 8 – including David Ortiz swinging in the second inning.

All told, Sabathia finished the season with 179.2 IP, a 3.91 ERA (8% above-average), 4.28 FIP (3% above-average), 2.6 fWAR, and 3.0 bWAR. Or, phrased differently, a perfectly reasonable season from a mid-rotation starter.

Why The Recap?

To this point, my post is more of a 2016 review than a 2017 preview. That is a bit necessary, though, as it is demonstrative of the ups and downs that an aging pitcher faces. It also serves as a reminder that Sabathia was back to being a revelation at season’s end, even if his year was almost equally split between awesome and awful, with little in between.

Now, onto the meatier portion of the preview.

How Did He Do It?

What stands out the most about Sabathia’s season – aside from his actual statistics – may be best explained in graph form. To wit:

brooksbaseball-chart

 

He figured out a cutter, and he threw the hell out of it, essentially eliminating his four-seam fastball along the way. That pitch became his go-to offering against RHH, who hit .258/.325/.400 against Sabathia last year, after battering him to the tune of a .304/.363/.502 slash line in 2015 (.293/.349/.494 from 2013 through 2015). As per Brooks Baseball, righties hit just .222 against the cutter, with a .362 SLG; for comparison’s sake, they hit .300 with a .467 SLG against his four-seamer in 2015.

Sabathia also induced the second-best groundball percentage of his career (50.1%, compared to a league-average rate of 44.7%), and allowed his lowest hard contact percentage since 2011 (24.7%, versus the 31.4% league-average). His .288 BABIP was also his lowest in several years, but it wasn’t unsustainably so (the league-average was .298) – particularly when you factor in the grounders and weak contact.

There are also two factors that we can’t quite quantify – his adjustment to his new knee brace, and the recovery from alcoholism. Sabathia spent the entirety of 2016 adjusting to wearing a knee brace (and switching to a heavier at one point), and his ailing, balky knee played a large role in his struggles from 2013 through 2015. We don’t know exactly how alcoholism effected everything … but I’d be remiss to say anything less than sobriety is a good thing, and we should all be happy for Sabathia.


The projection systems are bearish on Sabathia, with ZiPS (4.57 ERA, 1.5 fWAR) and PECOTA (4.79 ERA, 0.6 WARP) seeing him slip back into his pre-2016 form. That isn’t terribly surprising, given his age, injury history, and three years’ worth or struggles, but there does appear to be tangible reasons to expect him to be closer to what we saw last year. Splitting the difference between 2015 and 2016 would leave him as a roughly league-average starter (98 ERA+), which represents my pragmatic prediction; and the Yankees and their fans should be happy with that.

One more year of #TANAK [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

With pitchers these days, there are no givens. One day, you may have an ace. The next, a player you’re paying for the next 12-18 months is rehabbing an elbow tear with uncertainty as to whether he’ll ever be the same.

The closest thing the Yankees have to a sure thing in their starting rotation is Masahiro Tanaka. Even he comes with the giant caveat of a partial tear of the all-important UCL, but beggars in the pitching market can ill-afford to be choosers. Every five days, #TANAK inches you closer to your TV screen or forces you to pay that much more attention in your seat. He’s the closest thing we’ve seen this side of CC Sabathia‘s latest extension to an ace.

So what does the 28-year-old starter from Japan have in store for 2017? Let’s take a look, shall we?

200 inning plateau

It’s tough to define aces by an exact ERA, FIP or strikeout rate. However, with big-time starting pitchers, there’s always been a sort of mystical question as to whether they can handle 200 innings in a time when elbow injuries are so prevalent. To this point, the answer for Tanaka has been no but barely. See, he threw exactly 199 2/3 innings last season. That is literally as close as you can get to 200 without actually, you know, getting there.

What prevented him from hitting that arbitrary landmark was a flexor mass strain in his right elbow. He likely would have pitched in the Yankees’ Game 162 if they were still in the postseason chase, but those hopes had evaporated days earlier. The Yankees would obviously like to see Tanaka get through a full season, but 31 starts last year was certainly a welcome sign after 44 over his first two years.

In terms of reaching 200 innings next year, Tanaka is easily the most likely among the Yankees’ starters. He goes deeper into games (6.44 innings per start) than any of their other pitchers and the others are either on innings limits, haven’t thrown full MLB seasons before, or are veterans with injury concerns of their own. Days when Tanaka pitches are the best ones for the bullpen because he can usually hand the ball right to the elite back-end relievers.

We all know he’s dealing with a partial tear in his UCL, so his elbow is always a concern here. Projections are mixed for Tanaka. Steamer has him throwing 205 innings over 32 starts while ZIPS has him at 165 2/3 innings over 27 starts. PECOTA has just 176 1/3 innings and an unseemly 4.18 ERA. Truly all over the place.

A true No. 1?

Tanaka does what you want for a pitcher: He strikes batters out, avoids walks and pitches efficiently deep into games. The question above is so hard to pin down. As far as performance, he’s been a No. 1 starter for the Yankees, particularly last season. He won his last seven decisions. He had a 4.58 K-to-BB ratio. A 3.07 ERA (3.51 FIP) in basically 200 innings and kept the Yankees in essentially every game he started.

One of his big concerns after 2015 was his home run rate. That fell in 2016, going from 16.9 percent of fly balls turning into homers to just 12 percent. His ground ball rate reached a career-high 48.2 percent. His line drive percentage fell as well.

One concern is his decreasing strikeout rate. I’ll get into his stuff below, but his pure strikeout rate has decreased each year from 26 percent in 2014 to 20.5 percent in 2016 while his walk rate slightly increased from 3.9 to 4.4 percent. He’s still pretty solid with his control, but it’s something to look out for next year.

Lastly, he’s looked pretty darn good this spring. It doesn’t mean all that much. However, it’s a great sign. Take his start from last week: four perfect innings with seven strikeouts. That’s ace-type performance. Grapefruit League competition has taken a hit with the WBC going on and that Tigers lineup he faced was no exception. Still, it’s worth hoping that his early success can roll over into Opening Day in Tampa.

Repertoire

At the end of 2016, Tanaka’s fastball and sinker were at a career-low in terms of average velocity with his four-seamer averaging 91.11 mph. His fastball lost velocity as the year progressed and have also lost velocity year over year. Take, for instance, his average velocity on his pitches each of the last three years via Brooks Baseball.

tanaka-mph

Tanaka legitimately has six pitches that he throws at least five percent of the time. He relies most heavily on his sinker, splitter and slider, in that order last season. His sinker rose significantly in usage with his four-seamer and cutter seeing decreases. Perhaps that is because of the velocity decrease and him needing to keep hitters off balance. That increased sinker usage also helps explain his increase in groundball percentage last season.

Tanaka’s sinker and splitter were his most effective last season, eliciting the lowest ISO power against and some of his lowest batting averages against. His splitter and his less-used slider provide the most whiffs per swing.

Contract Question

Everyone knows about Tanaka’s opt-out. That was the price to pay for Tanaka in order to entice him away from the Cubs in 2014 and now the proverbial chickens will come home to roost in a little more than seven months. As with the rest of the veterans in the rotation, Tanaka can be a free agent at the end of this season.

The question of whether he opts out is a complicated one. Tanaka, 29 in November, would theoretically be in the prime position to cash in with a free agent market starved for proven pitchers. The problem is his elbow. Anyone who signs him would get a chance to look at his UCL and that might be something Tanaka chooses to avoid. Maybe his elbow gives out this season and this is all moot.

However, if Tanaka pitches well this season and perhaps even clears the 200-inning hurdle, there are many, many dollars telling him and agent Casey Close he should opt out. In the case he opts out, the Yankees face the choice of paying top dollar for a pitcher with a potentially serious elbow injury in the near future (the team knows better than anyone outside of Tanaka what his elbow looks like) or letting go their No. 1 starter. These days, most pitchers face some sort of arm injury in their future, but whether Tanaka is worth the risk is a tricky question.

For now, it’s one more year to enjoy the Yankees’ top starting pitcher.

Hicks, Romine and the rest of the part-timers [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

While the Yankees have plenty of new starters littered around its lineup, they appear to have a very similar bench to the one they fielded in 2016. They have the same fourth outfielder, the same backup catcher and, chances are, the same utility infielder. If it wasn’t the signing of Chris Carter and Tyler Austin‘s preseason injury, it would be essentially identical to the bench with which the team ended last season.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the individuals who will make up the Yankees’ Opening Day bench as well as a few players that could fill roles later in the season. (Disclaimer: I didn’t go into Gleyber Torres here. That’s worth another post entirely.)

Fourth Outfielder

It appears like it’ll be Aaron Hicks as the extra outfielder again this year. I’m someone who really believes in his potential. It’s been over a year since the Yankees dealt John Ryan Murphy, a player I enjoyed watching an irrational amount, for Hicks in a deal that seemed to make sense for both teams. The Yankees needed a fourth outfielder and had a catcher of the future (Hi Gary Sanchez) while the Twins needed a catcher and had a center fielder of the future (Byron Buxton). A potential win-win.

Well, it didn’t work out that well for either team. Murphy simply didn’t hit in Year 1 in Minnesota while Hicks hasn’t quite panned out yet in New York. To be fair, both players are still relatively young, but time is running out for them to prove themselves. Let’s focus on what Hicks brings to the table as he gets another chance to prove himself.

Hicks, 27, has always been close to an 80 in one tool: his arm. It’s a cannon. He’s also pretty fast. Combine that and he makes for a solid fielder, although his routes to balls have been rough at times. He can still man each spot in the field well, but he’s been relegated mostly to the corners to start this spring.

And then there’s his bat. He took a clear step back from 2015 to 2016, going from .256/.323/.398 (96 wRC+) to .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+). That’s doesn’t cut it. A switch-hitter, Hicks came in with a reputation as a better right-handed bat than a lefty. He actually improved from the left side (79 wRC+ to 86 wRC+) but went from a .307/.375/.495 (138 wRC+) line to a paltry .161/.213/271 (25 wRC+) from the right. That’s pretty dumbfounding. His exit velocity actually increased from 90.1 to 90.8 mph from the left side and his strikeout rate fell (his walk rate did too), but his BABIP plummeted from .368 to .176.

That could indicate a potential improvement for Hicks, who seemed to struggle with the lack of regularity concerning his role last year (he improved in the second half when Carlos Beltran was traded). However, he may not get consistent starts again this year with Aaron Judge presumably manning right field. Therefore, the Aaron Hicks project may reach a crossroads this season when he becomes arbitration eligible for the first time after this season.

Beyond Hicks, Mason Williams is the only other outfielder on the 40-man roster. Williams has 51 MLB plate appearances over the last two years. When healthy, he is plenty fast to man center field and seems like he can hit for average. Health will be key for the 25-year-old as he tries to make the roster for good at some point.

Clint Frazier and Dustin Fowler will be in Triple A to start the year. They’re both 22 and will need more at-bats in Scranton before they can earn a role in the majors. Frazier, being the better prospect, may be more likely to force his way to the majors this summer.

Backup catcher

Austin Romine returns as the backup catcher with a different starter ahead of him. Gary Sanchez, as Mike eloquently covered, is the face of the franchise now and it stands to reason that Romine could see fewer starts this season than last. Romine played 50 games at catcher, started 40, while starting two games at first base and four at designated hitter. Chances are, the latter six starts go away with younger and healthier options at 1B and DH, but who knows? I wouldn’t have bet on multiple Romine starts away from catcher last year.

Romine was fine as the bench backstop in 2016 and was much better than his first stint in 2013, when he was backing up Chris Stewart. He batted .242/.269/.382 (68 wRC+) and was better against southpaws. That allowed him to get more starts early in the season when Brian McCann was struggling against lefties. Now, with Sanchez as the starter, Romine will still get once or twice-a-week starts yet it’s hard to see him getting to take advantage of platoon advantages quite as often. That may lead to a worse batting line despite no decline in talent or performance.

The other catcher on the 40-man is Kyle Higashioka. Higashioka was finally healthy in 2016 and rode that to a 20-homer season. He has legitimate power, which has been conveyed plenty of times this spring. The Yankees likely won’t take Higashioka with them on Opening Day — they’d have to DFA Romine — but he’ll only be a bus trip away in Scranton.

Utility infielder

The backup infielder job looks like it is Ronald Torreyes‘ job to lose again this year. Torreyes was a bit of a surprise to claim the spot last year out of the spring, but he held onto it all year. He’s the perfect bench player: He makes plenty of contact, can play every infield position (and the outfield corners in a pinch) and seems to be a good presence around the club. He doesn’t hit for power — do you remember his home run last year? I barely do — but the Yankees would gladly sign up for another .258/.305/.374 line from the part-timer.

It seems highly unlikely that Torreyes won’t break camp with the team. Pete Kozma and Ruben Tejada have each been fine yet unimpressive in their brief spring stints and it may be tough to top the incumbent. Donovan Solano is another non-roster invitee and has been away from the club playing for Colombia in the World Baseball Classic. He did have a solid cup of coffee with the Yankees last fall.

Tyler Austin

austin low five
(Getty)

As we covered in the Greg Bird preview post, Carter will receive a lot of the righty at-bats at first base this season, likely platooning with Bird. Before Carter’s signing, many thought that role would be filled by Tyler Austin. That idea went fully down the tubes with his preseason injury (fractured left foot) which will prevent him from playing most of the spring.

Austin provided real power in his 90 plate appearances in the majors last year, particularly the other way. He did strike out 36 times. For now, the 25-year-old first baseman likely starts the season in extended spring training or goes straight to Scranton, waiting for a call-up. You can almost surely count on Austin playing with the Yankees at some point.

Rest of the 40-man

Remember when Rob Refsnyder was the talk of the town in 2015? Part of that was just a clamoring for anyone but Stephen Drew, but Refsnyder also provided promise that he could hit at the big league level. However, he didn’t come quite as advertised and his 2016 was a disappointment. Given 175 plate appearances last season, he showed nearly no power and had a disappointing .250/.328/.309 line. Without a serious showing with his bat, Refsnyder doesn’t have a role in the majors, hence the Yankees’ willingness to trade him. Can he prove to be more than just a Quad-A player? It’s tough to see right now.

Miguel Andujar hasn’t played above Double A before, so he will need some experience in Scranton before he can be considered for a long-term role. His fielding has been a bit rough at times this spring, so that’s something for him to work on in Triple A. Still, he’s a top 10 third base prospect according to MLB.com and a potential future piece, albeit not likely before September this year.

The man furthest from the majors on the 40-man roster is Jorge Mateo, a top five Yankees prospect depending on the source. Mateo probably doesn’t factor into the Yankees’ plans in 2017, but he would make the ideal pinch runner in September. That’s about the extent to his role in the majors as far as I can tell.