Yankeemetrics: Kings of the Comeback (Wild Card & ALDS)

(AP)
(AP)

Wild, wild win
From a nightmare start to a very happy ending, the Yankees used their relentless power bats to overcome a debacle on the mound in a crazy Wild Card Game victory. With the win, the Yankees snapped a five-game postseason losing streak, which was tied for the second-longest in franchise history.

Luis Severino produced one of the worst playoff starts ever, becoming the third starter in franchise history to give up three or more runs while getting pulled before recording two outs in a postseason game. The others were Art Ditmar in the 1960 World Series and Bob Turley in the 1958 World Series.

Down 3-0 before even swinging a bat and your ace is in the showers? No big deal for this Yankees team: they had the second-most wins when their opponent scored first during the regular season (36). Yet still, this victory was nearly unprecedented in major-league history. Only once before had a team won a postseason game in which their starter lasted 1/3 of an inning and allowed at least three earned runs – the Pirates in Game 7 of the 1925 World Series against the Washington Senators.

The game quickly became a battle of the bullpens and the relief crew responded with a historic performance. Chad Green, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle and Aroldis Chapman allowed just one run while striking out 13, the most strikeouts ever by a bullpen in a winner-take-all playoff contest.

Robertson’s epic outing deserves a couple #FunFacts. He’s the first Yankee reliever to throw at least 3 1/3 scoreless innings and strike out five guys in the playoffs since Mariano Rivera in Game 2 of the 1995 ALDS, and just the third reliever in major-league postseason history do that in a winner-take-all game. The other two? Pedro Martinez (1999 ALDS) and Walter Johnson (1924 World Series).

Aaron Judge put an exclamation point on the comeback with a two-run laser shot into the leftfield seats that gave the Yankees a 7-4 cushion in the fourth. Adding to his ever-growing legendary rookie campaign, he became the youngest player in franchise history to go deep in his first career postseason game. Judge also became the second-youngest Yankee to homer in a sudden-death playoff win; the other dude was a 20-year-old Mickey Mantle in Game 7 of the 1952 World Series. #NotClutch

(Newsday)
(Newsday)

Overmatched in Cleveland
The Yankees offense was a complete no-show in Game 1 of the Division Series as they were dominated from start to finish by the AL’s best team. Not only were they blanked, 4-0, but they had only three hits, the seventh postseason game all-time that the Yankees were shut out on three hits or fewer.

Adding in the 14 strikeouts, and the Yankees entered the MLB record books – in the worst possible way. This was the fifth time in major-league playoff history that a team scored zero runs, had no more than three hits and struck out at least 14 times. The Yankees are the owners of two of the five games: Thursday night and 2010 ALCS Game 3 vs Rangers. Welp.

Trevor Bauer used his nasty fastball-curve combo to throw one of the most dominant playoff pitching performances ever against this franchise. Bauer, Pedro Martinez (1999 ALCS Game 3) and Cliff Lee (2010 ALCS Game 3) are the only starters to allow no runs and two hits or fewer while striking out at least eight Yankees in a postseason game.

While the Yankees bats went M.I.A., Sonny Gray was a mess on the mound. He really struggled with his command, issuing four walks, hitting a batter and throwing a wild pitch. Only one other Yankee pitcher crammed all that into a single playoff appearance: Jack McDowell in the 1995 ALDS.

Even worse, Gray gets our Obscure Yankeemetric of the Series with this #NotFunFact: only one other starter in major-league postseason history walked four guys, hit a guy and tossed a wild pitch while pitching fewer than four innings: Ramon Ortiz (Angels) in the 2002 ALDS … against the Yankees.

(Getty)
(Getty)

No challenge, no win
Speechless.

The Yankees have suffered plenty of heart-breaking and frustrating losses this season, yet somehow Game 2 managed to top them all, zooming to first place in the W.L.O.T.S. (Worst Loss of the Season) standings. How improbable was this loss?

  • The five-run blown lead was tied for their second-largest in the postseason; the last time they gagged a five-run lead in the playoffs was the 2002 ALDS (Game 3) against the Angels. And it was the first time ever the Indians erased a deficit of five-plus runs to win a playoff game.
  • Scoring eight runs, fueled by three homers, should have been enough offense to win this game. Before Friday’s loss, the Yankees were 14-0 all-time in the postseason when scoring at least eight runs and going deep three times in a game.
  • It was just the second time the Yankees lost a postseason game on the road in the 13th inning or later. It’s probably best to not mention the other one (Game 5 of 2004 ALCS vs. the Red Sox). Sorry.

And still, sometimes, baseball is predictable. This was the third extra-inning playoff contest between these two teams — and the Yankees have now lost all three.

Obviously the major pivot point of the game was the non-challenge by Joe Girardi in the sixth inning. Before we get to the numbers, Girardi’s non-challenge was clearly an inexcusable mistake given the circumstances. Anyways, here’s a couple stats related to the at-bat.

First, Chad Green had faced 190 left-handed batters in his career entering Game 2, and had hit exactly one of them (Chris Davis last year). And Francisco Lindor’s grand slam was the first extra-base hit that Green had allowed with the bases loaded in his career. Second, the Yankees challenged six hit-by-pitch calls in the regular season, which was the most of any team (they ranked 13th in total challenges with 42). And overall, the Yankees 75 percent success rate on all challenged plays this season was the best in the majors.

Now that The Ugly chapter of this game has been written, let’s finish off with The Good. Remember, the Yankees pummeled the likely AL Cy Young winner, Corey Kluber, for six runs and seven hits. Gary Sanchez kick-started the offense with a two-run homer in the first inning. The 24-year-old is the youngest Yankee catcher to homer in a postseason (a 22-year-old Yogi Berra homered in the 1947 World Series as a pinch-hitter).

Aaron Hicks then sent Kluber to the showers with a three-run bomb in the third inning that put the Yankees ahead 6-3. That gave us a nice #FunFact: he joined Bernie Williams and Mickey Mantle as the only Yankee centerfielders to hit a tie-breaking, multi-run homer in the playoffs.

Finally, Greg Bird extended the lead to 8-3 with a towering shot to rightfield in the fifth. Bird and Sanchez became the second set of Yankee teammates under age 25 to homer in a postseason game. Joe DiMaggio and Charlie Keller also did it in Game 3 of the 1939 World Series.

(Getty)
(Getty)

It ain’t over ’til …
The Yankees staved off elimination with a dramatic 1-0 win in Game 3 on Sunday night, showing off their Fighting Spirit once again in this rollercoaster, never-say-die season.

It was the sixth 1-0 win in franchise postseason history and the third in a potential elimination game (also 2001 ALDS Game 3 and 1962 World Series Game 7). Their only other 1-0 playoff win in the Bronx was in Game 1 of the 1949 World Series against the Dodgers.

In contrast to the rest of this run-happy postseason, Game 3 was a classic – and unprecedented – pitchers duel. It was the first postseason game in major-league history where each starter allowed zero runs, no more than three hits and had at least five strikeouts.

Masahiro Tanaka delivered an ace-like performance for the Yankees, carving up the Indians lineup with his nasty, dive-bombing splitter and late-breaking slider. Considering the magnitude of the game, Tanaka’s gem becomes even more impressive and historic. A worthy #FunFact for our ‘Hiro: he is the first Yankee pitcher ever to toss at least seven scoreless innings, strike out seven-or-more guys and give up three hits or fewer in a potential postseason elimination contest.

Aroldis Chapman also came through in the clutch with a white-knuckle, five-out save to seal the win. Since saves became official in 1969, the only other pitcher in baseball history to record a save of at least five outs in a 1-0 win with his team facing postseason elimination was Mariano Rivera in Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS.

As brilliant as Tanaka and Chapman were, the Yankees couldn’t have won the game without the heroics of Greg Bird and his solo homer in the seventh off Andrew Miller. Two other Yankees have gone deep in the seventh inning or later of a postseason contest to break a 0-0 tie — Tommy Henrich in the 1949 World Series (Game 1) and Charlie Keller in the 1939 World Series (Game 4).

Finally, another #FunFact for the Birdman: he is the first player in major-league history to snap a 0-0 tie with a homer in the seventh inning or later and his team on the brink of being eliminated from the playoffs.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Stayin’ Alive
The never-say-die Yankees forced a winner-take-all Game 5 with a convincing 7-3 win at the Stadium on Monday night. The Yankees broke out of their mini-offensive slump with seven runs and were helped out by a sloppy Indians defense that led to six of them being unearned. This was just the second postseason game where a Yankee opponent allowed six or more unearned runs; the other was in Game 2 of the 1960 World Series against the Pirates.

Gary Sanchez added an insurance run in the sixth inning with a solo drive to right-center for his second homer of the postseason. Power-hitting young catchers shining in October is special; only four other backstops under age 25 have hit multiple homers in a single playoffs: Johnny Bench (1970, ’72), Javy Lopez (1995), Brian McCann (2005) and Yadier Molina (2006).

While the offensive fireworks were cool, the star of this game was Luis Severino. He bounced back from his disastrous Wild Card game outing with seven superb and gutty innings. Sevy is the second-youngest Yankee with nine strikeouts in any postseason game (trailing 22-year-old Dave Righetti in the 1981 ALDS). And he is only the fourth pitcher – of any age – in franchise history to win a potential elimination game while striking out at least nine guys. CC Sabathia (2012 ALDS Game 5), Bob Turley (1958 World Series Game 5) and Vic Raschi (1952 World Series Game 6) are the others.

(Getty)
(Getty)

#LoveThisTeam
The Yankees are Kings of the Improbable Comeback, winning Game 5 to become the 10th team in baseball history to overcome a two-games-to-zero deficit in a best-of-five series. Combined with their similar rally in the 2001 ALDS against the A’s, they joined the Red Sox as the only franchises to achieve this incredible feat twice.

Making this amazing victory even more impressive is that it came against a 102-win Indians club that was the AL’s best in the regular season. The Yankees are now 9-2 in postseason series against 100-plus-win teams, and their only losses were to the Reds in the 1976 World Series and the Cardinals in the 1942 World Series.

They’ve been at their best with their backs against the wall this entire season and especially in the playoffs, improving to 4-0 in potential elimination games and 2-0 in winner-take-all games in this postseason. It is the first time in franchise history they’ve won four games when facing elimination in a single postseason, and the first time they’ve won multiple winner-take-all games in a single postseason.

(New York Post)
(New York Post)

Didi Gregorius had a performance for the ages, lighting up the scoreboard early and often, with a solo homer in the opening frame and then going deep again in the third inning. He joined Jason Giambi (2003 ALCS Game 7) and Yogi Berra (1956 World Series Game 7) as the only Yankees with multiple homers in a winner-take-all postseason game. And … he’s the first shortstop in franchise history to go yard twice in any playoff game.

While Didi provided the power, Brett Gardner brought the grit. He won a grueling 12-pitch battle with Cody Allen in the ninth inning, lacing an RBI single into right field to give the Yankees a three-run cushion with three outs to go. Remarkably, it was the longest at-bat of his career that G.G.B.G. ended with a hit.

CC Sabathia was lights-out through four innings before getting into trouble in the fifth, but still finished with nine strikeouts. That matched his career postseason high that he set in the deciding Game 5 of the 2012 ALDS. Sabathia is just the fourth pitcher in major-league history to whiff at least nine guys in a winner-take-all game twice in his career. The others? Bob Gibson, Curt Schilling and Justin Verlander.

Aroldis Chapman sealed the win with two near-perfect innings and entered the record books with this remarkable #FunFact: He is the first pitcher in postseason history to save a winner-take-all game by throwing at least two hitless innings and striking out four or more guys.

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We will see you Friday night!

The optimal bullpen usage for yet another winner-take-all

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

The Yankees will play on Wednesday just their sixth game of the postseason, yet it will be their second winner-take-all. Unlike the first one, this game will likely ride more on the starting pitchers with the performances of CC Sabathia and Corey Kluber looming large.

However, with the way Joe Girardi has managed his bullpen over the last eight days, we have seen a variety of different game options after the starter. In their last two wins, it’s been ‘Rely on the starter and then go to the big guns.’ The win over the Twins was the routine ‘Get 26 outs of top four relievers’ game. You know, basic stuff we see all the time.

And we’ve also gotten a taste of every reliever in this series outside of Jordan Montgomery, who will likely be the long man in late extra innings on Wednesday.

So with that in mind, here’s my take on the optimal use of the pen.

1. Make the same decision with CC as in Game 2: Girardi caught flak for many things after Game 2. Rightfully so. But pulling Sabathia early wasn’t as big a mistake. You only have to go back to the last Monday of the regular season for a game where Sabathia was left in a little too long and let the opposing team back in the game.

And this time, the Yankees have a more rested bullpen to get the final few innings, especially if Sabathia can get two times through the order. Once you’re into the fifth or the sixth, CC should probably be batter-to-batter except in the extremely unlikely case of a 6+ run lead.

2. If Chad Green warms up early, he needs to come in early: This one is simple and worked to a tee in the Wild Card Game. Girardi got Green hot in the first and then went to him and rode him into the third. With four days off, Green should be able to do something similar if the situation calls for it.

But if Green gets hot in those first few innings, he better come in or he likely goes to waste. Green warmed up in the second and third innings in Game 2 but didn’t come in until the sixth. That’s a good 80-plus minutes or so after sitting down. It’s no wonder he seemed off.

We saw the same thing with Alan Busenitz in the Wild Card Game. I know, I know, not nearly as reliable a reliever. But the Twins got him warm in both the first and second inning and he didn’t come in until there were bases loaded and two outs in the seventh. That’s a lot of downtime and it thus makes sense that he threw four straight balls to walk in a run.

So hopefully Girardi doesn’t repeat this mistake. It’s better off skipping Green if he warms while CC gets out of early trouble than having Green warm, throw a ton of warmup pitches over the course of a few innings and then sit, just to come in off of his game.

3. Ride Robertson, Kahnle and Chapman (duh): At this point, I have no idea what the Yankees can get out of these three, but they need to seize every last drop in Game 5. A Houston series or beyond is irrelevant right now.

Here are their lines through five games:

  • Robertson: 3 G, 5.1 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 8 K, 87 pitches
  • Kahnle: 3 G, 5 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 6 K, 59 pitches
  • Chapman: 3 G, 4.2 IP, 5 H, 1 BB, 9 K, 81 pitches

Kahnle’s thrown fewer pitches (and those numbers!) but also pitched most recently. Are two days off enough for full throttle Robertson and Chapman? You have to figure Chapman can get you at least three outs. Robertson, too. Between the three, they should be able to get the last four innings. Maybe five.

How do you tell who’s up for what? That’s gotta be a gut feel for Girardi, who needs to be willing to pull them too early rather than too late. You’ve still got Adam Warren, Masahiro Tanaka and Sonny Gray after them if needed. But we should see at least Chapman at some point and probably all three of these big guns.

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

4. Avoid Betances: Dellin Betances can’t come into this game. He just can’t. It’s tough to see Betances struggling like this. His command just isn’t there and he needs to be at the very back of the bullpen. Probably behind Montgomery and Jaime Garcia. Would you feel comfortable with him in extras? Not ahead of Warren or one of the starters.

The Baseball America podcast brought up the question of whether he should even be on a possible ALCS roster and it’s unfortunate that it’s a valid question to raise. But until the ALCS roster is something worth discussing, Betances shouldn’t be pitching, even in a blowout.

5. Get by without the starters until extras: It’s really tempting to go with Tanaka after how he looked on Sunday. However, you never know how someone who hasn’t relieved will react to that situation. With the depth of this bullpen, the Yankees can survive without finding out what they can get from Tanaka or Gray (or Severino) until extra innings. If Sabathia struggles, Green and Warren are fine long men to get you to the fourth/fifth. Once you’re in extras, it’s all hands on deck in a pure scramble.

Building the 2017 Wild Card Game roster

Think he makes the roster? (Adam Hunger/Getty)
Think he makes the roster? (Adam Hunger/Getty)

Although the Yankees are still mathematically alive in the AL East race, odds are they will go to the postseason as a wildcard team, and odds are they will host the Twins at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees have already punched their postseason ticket. Once the Red Sox clinch the AL East and the Twins clinch the second wildcard spot, everything will be set.

The Wild Card Game is, technically, its own postseason round. Teams set their 25-man Wild Card Game roster, then can make adjustments prior to the LDS. That leads to some unique roster construction. Why carry four or five starting pitchers for one game, for example? I’m a bit surprised MLB didn’t try eliminate that Wild Card Game roster rule. Or maybe they did try and were unsuccessful. Whatever.

Anyway, the Yankees carried 16 position players and nine pitchers on the 2015 Wild Card Game roster. For real. Like I said, there are better ways to use those last few roster spots than carrying extra starting pitchers. The Yankees are not guaranteed to follow the 16 position players and nine pitchers blueprint again, but it does give us an idea what to expect in advance of the Wild Card Game next Tuesday.

So, with that Wild Card Game now six days away, I figured this would be a good time to try to piece together the 25-man roster the Yankees could use for that winner-take-all affair. Really stinks the Yankees are going to win 90-ish games then have to play in that Wild Card Game, huh? Oh well. Can’t do anything about it. Let’s take a look at the potential Wild Card Game roster.

The Locks

This is the easiest group, so we might as well start here. These are the 18 players we all know will be on the Wild Card Game roster as long as they’re healthy.

Pretty straightforward, right? Right. I’m as annoyed by Dellin’s walks as much as anyone, but they’re not leaving him off the Wild Card Game roster in favor of … Chasen Shreve? Jonathan Holder? Ben Heller? Gio Gallegos? Another starter? Yeah, no. These 18 dudes will be on the Wild Card Game roster.

Locks, If Healthy

Aaron Hicks (oblique) returned last night and Adam Warren (back) is expected back soon. At one point earlier this season it seemed Hicks would start the Wild Card Game, maybe even hit first or second, but not anymore. The injury and Jacoby Ellsbury’s late season resurgence put an end to that. He’ll be on the Wild Card Game roster as the fourth outfielder though, as long as he’s healthy. Warren will of course be on the roster as well. Again, as long as he’s healthy. Health is the only reason these two wouldn’t be on the Wild Card Game roster. They’re on, so add them to the locks and that’s already 20 players.

The Extra Starters

Like I said, the Yankees carried only nine pitchers on the 2015 Wild Card Game roster. That’s typical. It’s one game, not a series, so there’s no need to carry all five starters. The Yankees figure to carry the scheduled starter (duh), a backup starter in case the scheduled starter is unable to go for whatever reason (hurt during warmups, sick before the game, etc.), and an extra starter should things go crazy in extra innings. Three starters seems like the right amount to me.

Severino is on track to start the Wild Card Game with one extra day of rest. That’s the easy part. Who backs him up? That will depend as much on the pitching schedule as anything. Whoever starts the final regular season game Sunday won’t be on the Wild Card Game roster Tuesday, for example. Right now, Sonny Gray lines up to pitch the day of the Wild Card Game on normal rest and Jordan Montgomery is on track to pitch that day with two extra days of rest. Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia, meanwhile, would be on short rest that day.

Sonny. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
Sonny. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Because of the schedule, Gray and Montgomery seem like the obvious candidates to be the backup starters behind Severino. I suppose Jaime Garcia could be in the mix given how he dominated the Twins last week, though I think that’s unlikely. The Yankees could always call an audible and change the rotation this week, but that would surprise me. They’ll have their best ready to go in Severino. Assuming Warren is healthy, Severino plus Gray and Montgomery gets the Yankees to nine pitchers and 22 players on the roster overall.

The Final Bench Spots

The 12 locks plus a hopefully healthy Hicks gets the Yankees to 13 position players, leaving three open spots should the Yankees again go the 16 position players plus nine pitchers route. Realistically, there are five candidates for those three roster spots: Miguel Andujar, Tyler Austin, Clint Frazier, Erik Kratz, and Tyler Wade. Garrett Cooper didn’t even get a September call-up, so I he’s not a postseason roster candidate. Ditto Kyle Higashioka.

I think Austin is on the postseason roster for sure. He’d give Joe Girardi a right-handed power bat on bench and, just as importantly, a backup first baseman should Bird (or Headley) get lifted for a pinch-runner. You don’t want to give up the DH or have to play Holliday at first base in the Wild Card Game. Austin’s righty power and ability to play first base (and right field in a pinch) seems pretty clearly worth a Wild Card Game roster spot in my opinion. Easy call.

Wade, even though he basically never plays, strikes me as someone who has a leg up on a Wild Card Game roster spot as well. He’d give the Yankees coverage all around the infield and can play left field in a pinch as well. Also, he can run. Crazy fast. Maybe the Yankees don’t consider him a designated pinch-runner option — they didn’t acquire that player this September — but still, the situation could present itself, and Wade is the closest thing the Yankees have to a true burner available. I think he’s on the roster as the 24th or 25th player.

Frazier’s roster fate could be tied to Hicks. If Hicks re-injures the oblique or simply can’t get going these next few days, Frazier would be the obvious candidate to serve as the fourth outfielder in the Wild Card Game. I love Frazier, but I’m really hoping Hicksie is on that Wild Card Game roster. He’s such a weapon when right. The Yankees could always carry Hicks and Frazier, in which case Frazier’s role would be extra righty bat, fifth outfielder, and potential pinch-runner. Frazier is low key fast as hell. That could come in handy at some point during a close game.

The Yankees don’t trust Andujar’s defense at third base right now — they’ve made that clear given how little he’s played there so far — and he can’t play any other positions, so he doesn’t have much to offer in the Wild Card Game. He’d be an extra righty bat and emergency third baseman. That’s it. Kratz? Don’t be surprised if he’s on the roster. The Yankees carried three catchers in the 2015 Wild Card Game — Sanchez, who had two September at-bats in 2015, was on the Wild Card Game roster that year — and they could do so again, just for an emergency. You know we’re in for at least one Wild Card Game roster surprise, right? Right.

If Hicks and Warren are healthy enough to make the Wild Card Game roster, and it sure looks like that’ll be the case, I think those final three position player spots wind up going to Austin, Kratz, and Wade. Austin hits, Wade fields and can run, and Kratz is there for peace of mind. Here’s a recap of the 25-man roster we’ve talked out in this post:

Catchers Infielders Outfielders Starters Relievers
Sanchez Bird Austin Severino (SP) Betances
Romine Castro Ellsbury Gray Chapman
Kratz Frazier Gardner Montgomery Green
Gregorius Hicks Kahnle
DH Headley Judge Robertson
Holliday Torreyes  Wade Warren

Austin and Wade are more utility players than true outfielders, but I stuck them in the outfield section for easy table building purposes. The Twins are going to start a right-hander no matter what in the Wild Card Game — the only lefty in their rotation is up-and-down depth guy Adalberto Mejia, and he sure as heck isn’t starting that game — so I imagine Bird will be in the starting lineup and Holliday will not. Holliday has been pretty terrible against righties lately.

The Yankees, of course, don’t want to use their 25-man roster in the Wild Card Game. They’d like to stick with their nine starting position players and three, maybe four pitchers, tops. That would be the ideal Wild Card Game scenario. The rules say you have to carry a 25-man roster though, and you knows, maybe those 23rd and 24th and 25th players on the roster end up being a factor. No one plans for it to happen that way, but baseball can be weird sometimes.

Saturday Links: Cave, McKinney, Gardner, Robertson, Top Tools

McKinney. (Times Leader)
McKinney. (Times Leader)

The Yankees and Orioles will continue their four-game series with the third game later this afternoon. That’s a 4pm ET start for whatever reason. Here’s some notes and links to check out in the meantime.

Yankees planning to add Cave, McKinney to 40-man

According to Joel Sherman, the Yankees plan to add outfielders Jake Cave and Billy McKinney to the 40-man roster this offseason. Unless they trade them first, of course. McKinney, who came over in last year’s Aroldis Chapman trade, will be Rule 5 Draft eligible this December. Cave is due to become a minor league free agent, so he’ll have to be added to the 40-man pretty much right after the World Series. McKinney doesn’t have to be added until late-November.

Cave, 24, hit .305/.351/.542 (145 wRC+) with a career high 20 home runs this season. He reportedly made some swing changes in an effort to get the ball airborne more often, which explains the career high home run total, career low ground ball rate (43.1%), and career high strikeout rate (26.3%). The 23-year-old McKinney hit .277/.338/.483 (124 wRC+) with 16 homers this year. Both he and Cave split the season between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton. I’m not sure either guy is a long-term piece for the Yankees, but you can’t lose them for nothing either, so on the 40-man they will reportedly go.

Several Yankees among Law’s best tools

Last month Keith Law published his rankings of the best tools in baseball (hitting, fielding, pitching). Best hit tool, best power, best fastball, so on and so forth. I always enjoy lists like this. Anyway, several Yankees pop up in the various categories, so let’s round ’em up:

  • Best Power: Aaron Judge (second to Joey Gallo)
  • Best Fastball: Aroldis Chapman (second to Chris Sale)
  • Best Splitter: Masahiro Tanaka (first)
  • Best Curveball: David Robertson (fourth behind Corey Kluber, Lance McCullers Jr., Aaron Nola)
  • Best Catcher Arm: Gary Sanchez (fourth behind Willson Contreras, Jorge Alfaro, Yadier Molina)
  • Best Outfield Arm: Aaron Hicks (second to Bryce Harper)

The only real surprise to me is no Luis Severino in the best fastball category. (The top five was Sale, Chapman, James Paxton, Joe Kelly, and Justin Verlander.) Nothing else seems out of place to me. Sorta bold prediction: Chad Green tops the best fastball list next year, unless the only criteria is velocity. Green’s fastball is ridiculous.

Gardner, Robertson nominated for awards

Within the last few weeks MLB and the MLBPA announced nominees for two prestigious awards. Brett Gardner is the Yankees’ nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award while Robertson has been nominated for the Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award. Both awards are decided by fan voting, which seems ridiculous, but whatever. Here is the Marvin Miller Man of the Year ballot. Voting for the Roberto Clemente Award doesn’t begin until October. Here are the nominees.

The Roberto Clemente Award is giving annually to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.” Curtis Granderson won the award last year and Derek Jeter won in 2009. As for the Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award, that one goes to the player “whose on-field performance and contributions to his community inspire others to higher levels of achievement.” Granderson won that last year too. Mariano Rivera won it in 2013. Congrats to Gardner and Robertson. Just getting nominated for these awards is an honor.

MLB, NPB negotiating new posting agreement

Before Shohei Otani can come over to the big leagues, Major League Baseball and Nippon Pro Baseball must first agree to a new posting system. The release fee system, which brought Tanaka to MLB four years ago, had to be renewed each year, and earlier this year MLB requested a renegotiation. There’s technically no posting system in place right now, so there’s no official way for Otani to leave Japan for MLB.

Anyway, Jim Allen recently broke down the latest posting system proposals. In both proposals, the compensation paid to the player’s former NPB team would be a percentage of the money he receives from an MLB team. It’s basically 15% up to a maximum of $20M. So, for example, if the Yankee were to sign Otani for $2M, they’d pay the Nippon Ham Fighters a $300,000 release fee. Needless to say, NPB teams are not having it. Under the now expired system, the NPB team sets the release fee ($20M max) and the MLB tam pays it when they sign the player.

The Yankees need Aroldis Chapman closing down the stretch

(Steven Ryan/Getty)
(Steven Ryan/Getty)

Aroldis Chapman improbably pitched poorly enough this season to lose the closer job, but that doesn’t lessen his importance to the team.

His August was pretty dreadful as he allowed 14 baserunners and eight runs (three home runs) in eight innings, proving unreliable and forcing Joe Girardi to take him out of the closer’s role.

But after getting six days off after taking a loss on Aug. 25 vs. the Mariners, Chapman came back with a return to form starting with a low leverage outing against Boston on Sept. 1.

And now he’s back where he needs to be for the Yankees to be successful. You definitely don’t have to like Chapman, but he’s still essential to the Yankees’ postseason chances. While David Robertson and Dellin Betances can capably close, the team needs Chapman as their ninth inning man. Here’s why:

1. The contract: Let’s get this reason out of the way. In terms of the 2017 team, his contract is irrelevant. He’s a sunk cost and Girardi should go to his best relievers without worrying about the future.

But you can’t ignore the $68.8 million he’s owed after this season. With the Yankees aiming to get under the luxury tax, they need their top earners to play at a high level. Before Betances receives a raise via arbitration this winter, the Yankees will have $33.3 million tied up in their top three relievers.

They’ll have at least two openings in their rotation and trading either Robertson or Betances to both save money and fill a rotation spot would make some sense, although it’d be painful to trade one of those fan favorites. However, the front office can’t feel comfortable making that type of deal if Chapman continues to pitch like he did in August.

2. Weaponize the bullpen: Beyond Chapman’s contract, the return of something approximating his 2016 form would make the Yankees a deadly force this postseason.

Picture it: You can turn to Luis Severino in the Wild Card Game and feel comfortable going to the bullpen as early as the third or fourth inning, not that he would. Even without Adam Warren, Girardi can use Chad Green and get innings out of Robertson, Betances and Chapman in any one game, turning any early lead into wins with his cadre of relievers.

And with Severino teaming with Sonny Gray and Masahiro Tanaka, the team has the ability to get relatively deep into games. That means Robertson and Betances can work as firemen and clear the way for Chapman. That’s certainly what Brian Cashman was dreaming up after the trade deadline. It just hasn’t worked out in the last 1.5 months because Chapman and now Betances have had rough patches.

How Chapman performs also could affect how Chad Green is used in the playoffs. He could be a caddy for the No. 4 starter, but he’s probably best used in the same way they’ve used him recently, taking early high leverage situations and then reeling off multiple innings. Warren can do this, too, but with him out, Green is the go-to first reliever out of the pen for any short outing.

If Chapman is August Chapman, that’s irrelevant. The Yankees then likely need Green as a late inning reliever, even with Tommy Kahnle in the pen, and Chasen Shreve could be the one coming in early this October. That’s not ideal.

Green (Patrick Smith/Getty)
Green (Patrick Smith/Getty)

3. Roster flexibility: Chapman in top form also enables the Yankees to carry more position players in a postseason series. Right now, the team appears set to go with 14 position players and 11 pitchers, adding Jordan Montgomery or someone like him as the long man in addition to all the names mentioned above. If Warren is out, then Shreve or Garcia could find their way onto the roster.

With Chapman pitching like he has this September (5.1 IP, 2 H, 2 BB, 10 K), the team can worry less about the last reliever on the roster and instead add a pinch runner like Tyler Wade or extra hitter in Tyler Austin, if not both.

The Bombers didn’t maintain much roster flexibility this season, often going with eight relievers. They should buck that trend for a series (Wild Card Game is a different animal), but you may need that 12th pitcher if one of your key cogs is unreliable, thus moving everyone up an inning.

4. Betances and Robertson as dual Andrew Millers: As they’ve proven plenty of times, both Betances and Robertson can close. It gets a little dicey at times with Betances and his 16.9 percent walk rate, but he tends to get the job done, recently outings notwithstanding.

This kind of piggybacks on point No. 2, but can you imagine how these two can be used if one isn’t tied to the ninth inning? Sure, it could end up being a traditional 7-8-9 of Robertson-Betances-Chapman, but Girardi has shown glimpses of a willingness to use his relievers more like Terry Francona has deployed his bullpen.

Take Monday and Wednesday for example: With his pitchers one out from a win, Girardi instead turned to two of his best relievers — Robertson and Green, respectively — to face Evan Longoria in a key situation. That’s not something we’ve seen all too often from Girardi and it’s a welcome sign.

The September roster expansion helped enable him to do that, but Chapman’s resurgence does as well. He’d do the Green move again for sure, but I feel Robertson would have been tied into later innings in a 5-1 game on Monday if Betances is the only other top reliever he trusts at the end.

While there won’t be an expanded roster in October, there will be enough off days to keep nearly everyone fresh. And that leaves Girardi to throw Robertson or Betances into any situation on any night. A flamethrowing and effective Chapman allows him to not worry about who he has left at the end. It also means he can pull either of his firemen if they’re ineffective as he did on Wednesday. Betances’ control problems are, therefore, less of a concern.

It’s tough to say which Chapman we’ll see next outing, let alone next month. Up until this April, he constituted just about the safest bet of any reliever, but that’s been thrown into question with his 3.71 ERA, multiple blown saves and lesser heat.

But if he continues to look more or less like a reliable reliever for the stretch run, even if he isn’t dominating quite the same, it’s worth keeping him in the closer role. And yes, you could go without a closer entirely, using any reliever in any situation, but the Yankees remain unlikely to eschew that tradition entirely. Assuming they don’t, Chapman is the man they need in the job if they’re going to make a run at a 28th title this fall.

The Yankees lack a reliable lefty specialist, but they probably don’t need one either

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Since the start of this past offseason, the Yankees have reportedly been looking for a reliable left-on-left reliever. They looked for one all winter and again before the trade deadline, but came up empty. Tommy Layne (remember him?) started the season in that role before pitching his way off the roster. The Yankees haven’t had a true lefty specialist since.

Chasen Shreve has spent the bulk of the summer on the big league roster and he’s not really a lefty specialist, and Joe Girardi doesn’t use him like one. Shreve has been throwing one or two innings in lopsided games for a few weeks now. He’s essentially a short relief mop-up man, not a matchup guy. This is why:

  • Righties against Shreve (career): .208/.301/.412 (.307 wOBA)
  • Lefties against Shreve (career): .248/.336/.428 (.329 wOBA)

Shreve is a fastball-splitter pitcher. He lacks that quality breaking ball he can sweep across the plate to get left-handed hitters to chase, hence his career-long reverse split. Shreve doesn’t have the tools to be a left-on-left matchup guy. Asking him to do that would be to ignore his skill set and focus only on handedness.

The Yankees have two other left-handed relievers on the roster right now: Aroldis Chapman and Caleb Smith. Smith is a long man who has the same problem as Shreve as a fastball-changeup pitcher. He doesn’t have that put-away breaking ball. Chapman has lost his closer’s job and would be the most overqualified lefty specialist in history based on his career accomplishments. The Yankees are trying to get him back on track so he can pitch full innings in close games, not match up in the middle innings.

I suppose the Yankees could always make a rare September trade for a lefty reliever — they did make a September trade for Brendan Ryan in 2013, after Derek Jeter got hurt — but I doubt that’ll happen. Besides, that player wouldn’t be eligible for the postseason roster anyway. He could help in September but not October. The Yankees do not have a reliable left-on-left reliever right now — even Chapman has had some issues with lefties lately — and, truth be told, they really don’t need one, because:

(vs. LHB) AVG/OBP/SLG wOBA K% BB% GB% HR/9
Dellin Betances .116/.269/.151 .216 46.2% 11.5% 55.3% 0.00
Chad Green .143/.200/.286 .211 50.7% 6.7% 18.8% 0.87
David Robertson .171/.240/.284 .228 37.5% 8.3% 52.9% 1.09
Adam Warren .211/.268/.293 .237 24.4% 7.3% 45.5% 0.47

Aside from Tommy Kahnle, who hasn’t had much success against lefties this year (.318 wOBA), the Yankees top right-handed relievers are all very effective against lefties. Betances and Robertson have been better against lefties than righties this year, at least in terms of wOBA, and both Green and Warren have been great against opposite hand batters too. I know Green’s shockingly low 18.8% ground ball rate against lefties is a little scary, but I’ll live with it when it comes with a 50.7% strikeout rate. He doesn’t get squared up often anyway.

The Yankees aren’t desperate for a left-on-left matchup reliever right now because they have four righties who can get out lefties. And here’s the important part: Girardi seems to understand that. Girardi leaves all those guys in to throw full innings, often more in the cases of Green and Warren. He doesn’t get cute trying to match up with a lefty. He didn’t do it when they had Layne and he’s not doing it now. That’s good. Stick with your best arms rather than try to force something for the sake of handedness.

Looking ahead to the postseason — the Yankees have to get there first, of course — potential opponents do have some quality left-handed hitters. The Indians have Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley, at least when they’re healthy. The Astros have Brian McCann. The Red Sox have Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Mitch Moreland. The Twins have Joe Mauer, Max Kepler, and Eddie Rosario. The Orioles have Chris Davis and Seth Smith. The Angels have Kole Calhoun. So on and so forth.

Potential postseason opponents have strong lefties in their lineup, so it would’ve been nice to add a quality left-handed specialist at some point. It’s a little too late though, and besides, in the late innings of a close game, who do you want facing Brantley or Benintendi or Davis, some lefty specialist or Robertson or Betances or Green? Exactly. Give me the high-end righties over the matchup lefties. That’s what we’re going to see down the stretch and that’s why I don’t think the lack of a reliable lefty specialist is that big a deal.

Now, here’s the x-factor: Jaime Garcia. Even though he had his last start skipped, he’s going to end up starting against at some point during the regular season. It’s hard to see how he fits into a potential postseason rotation barring injury though. He has that killer breaking ball to neutralize lefties and could be a potential left-on-left matchup option. The numbers:

  • Righties against Garcia (2017): .263/.347/.441 (.335 wOBA) with 16.0 K% and 11.3 BB%
  • Lefties against Garcia (2017): .242/.277/.379 (.282 wOBA) with 26.3 K% and 3.9 BB%

Jordan Montgomery‘s numbers against lefties aren’t so great (.319 wOBA), plus he’s never pitched out of the bullpen before, which is why I don’t think he’s much of a lefty reliever candidate. Garcia has some bullpen experience — he relieved a bunch as a rookie and made two bullpen appearances last season — and besides, unlike Montgomery, the Yankees presumably aren’t worried about his long-term development. Garcia very well might be the team’s best option for a left-on-left matchup reliever in the postseason, should they decide they absolutely need one.

At this point in time, the Yankees do not have an obvious lefty specialist in their bullpen, and it’s really no big deal considering how effective their top righties are against lefties. A lefty specialist is one of those things teams would like to have but don’t absolutely need. Neither the Cubs nor the Indians had a lefty specialist last year. They just had really good relievers. That’s where the Yankees are. Who needs a lefty specialist when Robertson, Betances, Green, or Warren (or Chapman) could be getting those outs instead?

Recent elbow MRI yet another red flag for Aroldis Chapman

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

August is almost over and roster expansion is right around the corner, and at this point, it is completely clear the Yankees can not trust Aroldis Chapman in high-leverage situations. After giving Chapman the largest reliever contract in history over the winter, the Yankees have received 38.1 innings with a 4.23 ERA (3.08 FIP) in return, and have had to demote him out of the closer’s role. What a mess.

As you know, this isn’t simply a case of Chapman running into some bad luck with more bloops falling in and balls sneaking into the short porch for cheap Yankee Stadium homers. He looks basically nothing like the dominating Aroldis Chapman of the past six years. And it’s only getting worse. His swing-and-miss rate:

aroldis-chapman-swings-and-misses

Poor performance is one thing. Poor performance and injuries are another. Chapman missed roughly a month with shoulder inflammation earlier this year, and according to George King, Aroldis went for an MRI on his elbow Sunday. The MRI came back clean and Chapman was available to pitch Monday — “There was a little bit of discomfort. It was precautionary and they decided to do a test … It’s 100% fine,” he said to King — but still. Shoulder and elbow scares in year one of a five-year contract? Yikes.

Everyone is trying to figure out what’s wrong with Chapman and no one has the answer, not even the Yankees. They’re still searching. I don’t buy the “he’s getting hit harder because hitters are used to seeing 100 mph now” excuse for a second. How ridiculous is that? Luis Severino has no trouble throwing 98-99 mph heaters by hitters. Dellin Betances is still getting swings and misses with his fastball. I’ve heard a lot of silly baseball theories over the years. That one might be the silliest.

Last week Zach Kram, based on release point data and things like that, surmised Chapman might be pitching hurt. Maybe not hurt in the sense that he’s in pain and gutting through it. Hurt in that he’s not right physically even if there’s no real pain. It could be due to an underlying injury, or fatigue, or a World Series hangover, or general wear and tear. From Kram:

Throwing from a slightly lower arm slot, with a slightly more exaggerated elbow angle, is not per se an indicator of injury, and normally it could be attributed to a minor mechanical blip, the likes of which fellow Yankee—and new closer—Dellin Betances experienced earlier this summer. But combined with Chapman’s recent injury history, it represents a more serious sign of concern. In the book Complete Conditioning for Baseball, collegiate strength and conditioning coach Steve Tamborra writes, “There is no ideal angle between the arm and the head during the throwing motion, but pitchers tend to lower their angle when protecting a weak or injured shoulder.”

This is still just an observation, and it’s impossible to link it explicitly to Chapman’s struggles—again, his aggregate velocity and location are doing just fine, and both Chapman and Girardi contend that the lefty isn’t hurt. But it’s a new Chapman, and it’s a worse Chapman, so it’s reasonable to suppose that some connection exists.

Here’s the thing though: Chapman’s velocity and location are not doing just fine. There’s no way to measure location — Kram uses Chapman’s career high 54.3% zone rate as evidence his location is fine, which is dubious — but having watched him pitch all year, Chapman never hits his spot. He’s always been wild — that career 11.5% walk rate isn’t an accident — and this year it’s become more extreme. It seems like Aroldis has no real idea where the ball is going.

As for the velocity, the radar gun readings in general are fine. Chapman is averaging 100.1 mph with his fastball this season, which is down from 101.1 mph last year, but is right in line with the rest of his career. Now look at the fastball perceived velocity:

  • 2015: 100.8 mph (+0.7 mph from average)
  • 2016: 101.6 mph (+0.5 mph from average)
  • 2017: 100.4 mph (+0.3 mph from average)

Perceived velocity tells us how fast the pitch looks to the hitter when factoring in the pitcher’s extension and things like that. Chapman is a big guy, he’s listed at 6-foot-4 and 215 lbs., so he’s releasing the ball a little closer to the plate than the average hurler. For whatever reason though, his perceived velocity “gain” has been trending down.

In the grand scheme of things, losing 0.2 mph of perceived velocity from one year to the next might not be such a big deal, though the overall trend is disconcerting, and it’s one of those things that could be compounding Chapman’s issues. The lower release point and more exaggerated elbow angle (per Kram) combined with slightly lower velocity and shoulder and elbow woes is … unsettling. If not outright bad.

At this point, the hope is Chapman will get over whatever’s ailing him and contribute these final five weeks of the regular season and postseason. That’s the only way he can salvage what has been a pretty terrible first full season with the Yankees. And hopefully this recent elbow problem really is nothing, even if it might explain a whole lot.