Update: Brian McCann leaves game with right calf injury

11:36pm: Following the game, Joe Girardi told reporters McCann had a cramp in his foot and it moved up into his calf, so they pulled him from the game. They won’t know anything more until tomorrow.

11:26pm: Brian McCann exited tonight’s game with an apparent right leg injury in the eighth inning. Replays showed him grabbing at his right calf and stretching his right foot, though he stayed in the game to finish the top of the eighth and bat in the bottom of the eighth as well. Joe Girardi and trainer Steve Donahue did come out to check on him.

McCann, 31, has been remarkably durable throughout his career by catcher standards. He had shoulder trouble from 2012-13 and the typical slate of day-to-day ailments associated with the position, but he never did miss time with any sort of right calf or foot injury. Of course, I’m not even sure that’s the problem. I’m guessing based on the replays.

The Yankees have not yet provided any update on McCann and we might not hear anything worthwhile until tomorrow. I’m president of the John Ryan Murphy fan club, but losing McCann would be a pretty big blow. Losing the starting catcher always is. Hopefully it was just a cramp or something else minor. We’ll find out soon enough.

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Lack of production from up-the-middle positions holding the Yankees back

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Back in the day, the late-1990s dynasty was built on excellent production from the up-the-middle positions. The Yankees were getting high-end production from Jorge Posada at catcher, Derek Jeter at short, and Bernie Williams in center. Chuck Knoblauch never did put up huge numbers with the Yankees like he did with the Twins, but he still had a .377 OBP as the starting second baseman from 1998-99.

Those four positions are the hardest to fill in baseball, historically. Third base is tough too, but not as tough. Quality first basemen and corner outfielders are plentiful. Catchers, middle infielders, and center fielders are not, which is why teams are more willing to sacrifice offense for defense at those positions. It’s really hard to find someone who can hit there, so at least get someone who will catch the ball.

Right now, the Yankees have too many defense-first — in some cases, defense-only — players at the four up-the-middle positions. Jacoby Ellsbury in center field is the team’s only up-the-middle player who has been solidly above-average on both sides of the ball so far this season. Brian McCann, Stephen Drew, and Didi Gregorius are providing defense but very little offense, especially the last two.

Position NYY Player NYY AVG/OBP/SLG Average MLB AVG/OBP/SLG
C McCann  .228/.279/.382 (78 wRC+) .235/.302/.363 (83 wRC+)
2B Drew  .188/.271/.350 (70 wRC+)  .262/.321/.391 (96 wRC+)
SS Gregorius  .204/.269/.241 (42 wRC+)  .248/.304/.361 (83 wRC+)
CF Ellsbury .324/.412/.372 (126 wRC+) .257/.319/.391 (96 wRC+)

Those are some really low bars and yet the Yankees are falling short at three of the four positions. Ellsbury’s been awesome at the plate, McCann’s hovering close to average for a catcher thanks to his power, and both Drew and Gregorius have been well-below-average. Those two haven’t hit at all. Like, not even a little. There’s not much of a reason to expect either guy to hit much going forward either, but at least Gregorius has youth on his side.

There’s no good way to measure defense this early in the season. You have to take any stats with a huge grain of salt because the sample is too small. Based on the eye test, all four players have been above-average defenders in my opinion, even considering McCann’s passed ball/wild pitch issues. Didi’s looked much more comfortable at short in recent weeks yet his early season brain farts are still hurting his reputation. He’s been really good in the field of late.

Overall though, the Yankees aren’t getting enough production from these four positions. It’s really just three positions because Ellsbury’s been great. It’s a bit unfair to lump him in here. The other three guys has been far from great though. McCann’s been okay but hardly what the Yankees thought they were getting. Drew and Gregorius have been miserable at the plate, bad enough that their defense probably doesn’t make up for it.

The Yankees have limited options to replace these guys, and the one guy they didn’t want to replace (Ellsbury) just landed on the DL. McCann’s contract ensures he will remain the starting catcher, and besides, finding a better catcher would be damn near impossible anyway. Quality catchers almost never hit the trade or free agent markets. Drew, on the other hand, is totally replaceable and the Yankees do have some internal second base candidates, namely Jose Pirela and Rob Refsnyder.

The best internal candidate to replace Gregorius is, well, Drew. Besides, given Didi’s age and ability, he’s someone the Yankees should stick with this year and ride out every growing pain. Give him a chance to play everyday and see what happens. The first 40 games of 2015 aren’t going to write the story of his time in pinstripes. The Yankees just got done playing a Royals team littered with players who struggled early in their careers before figuring it out, after all. Sometimes it takes time.

The Yankees have gotten great production from first base, left field, and DH this season, which has helped cover for the underwhelming non-Ellsbury up-the-middle numbers. Carlos Beltran and Chase Headley are kinda sorta starting to hit too, which will help even more, though the Ellsbury injury hurts. One step forward, one step back. It wasn’t long ago that the Yankees were getting top of the line production from the up-the-middle positions. Now they’re barely getting average production and it’s one of the reason they haven’t been able to get out in front of a wide open AL East.

Yankees finalize Opening Day roster with latest round of roster moves

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

3:25pm: The Yankees have officially announced their Opening Day roster. It is exactly as presented below. No surprises.

10:00am: The Opening Day roster has been slowly coming together over the last several weeks, and yesterday afternoon the Yankees made the roster all but official with their latest round of moves, including Austin Romine being designated for assignment. Here is the 25-man roster the Yankees will take into the regular season tomorrow:

CATCHERS (2)
Brian McCann
John Ryan Murphy

INFIELDERS (7)
Stephen Drew
Didi Gregorius
Chase Headley
Garrett Jones
Gregorio Petit
Alex Rodriguez
Mark Teixeira

OUTFIELDERS (4)
Carlos Beltran
Brett Gardner
Jacoby Ellsbury
Chris Young

STARTERS (5)
Nathan Eovaldi
Michael Pineda
CC Sabathia
Masahiro Tanaka
Adam Warren

RELIEVERS (7)
Dellin Betances
David Carpenter
Chris Martin
Andrew Miller
Esmil Rogers
Chasen Shreve
Justin Wilson

DISABLED LIST (4)
Chris Capuano (quad) — retroactive to March 27th
Ivan Nova (Tommy John surgery) — retroactive to March 27th
Jose Pirela (concussion) — retroactive to April 2nd
Brendan Ryan (calf) — retroactive to April 1st

Pirela was placed on the 7-day concussion DL while Capuano, Nova, and Ryan were all placed on the regular old 15-day DL. Petit takes Romine’s spot on the 40-man roster, which is full. The Yankees can transfer Nova to the 60-day DL whenever they need another 40-man spot since he’s not expected to return until June. Romine, Petit, and the DL assignments were the moves announced yesterday.

Despite those injuries, the Yankees made it through Spring Training as the healthiest team in the AL East, just as we all expected. The rest of the roster is pretty straight forward. Warren was named the fifth starter a few days ago and it was clear Shreve and Martin were going to make the Opening Day roster once Chase Whitley was optioned to Triple-A. Joe Girardi is planning to use Betances and Miller as co-closers to start the season, which is pretty cool. Hopefully it works as planned. Carpenter and Wilson figure to be the sixth and seventh inning guys.

As always, the 25-man roster is going to change throughout the course of the season. Quite a bit too. Petit figures to be replaced by Pirela or Ryan, whoever gets healthy first, and those bullpen spots belonging to Shreve and Martin could be revolving doors given the team’s relief pitcher depth. That includes Capuano, who could wind up working in relief if Warren fares well as the fifth starter. For now, this is the group of Yankees to start the new season.

2015 Season Preview: The Power, Defense, and Leadership of Brian McCann

Opening Day is five weeks from today. Between now and then, we’re going to preview the 2015 Yankees by looking at what the team needs from individual players and what they can realistically expect.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The first year of Brian McCann‘s five-year contract did not go according to plan last season. The just turned 31-year-old backstop did lead the Yankees with 23 home runs and play solid to excellent defense, but he hit just .232/.286/.406 (92 wRC+) overall and had too many no impact games. Everyone kept waiting for McCann’s bat to come around but it never happened.

Year two will be different, we hope. McCann was coming over from a different league last season and had to learn basically everything. New pitchers on his staff, new opposing pitchers, new ballparks, new coaches, the whole nine. He also had to deal with the pressure of receiving the largest free agent catcher contract in baseball history. I can’t imagine that was not in the back of his mind.

“(Coming to the Yankees) was the best decision I’ve made. Just to be able to lace ’em up for this organization is amazing,” said McCann to Ken Davidoff last month. “I didn’t play as well as I should have (in 2014). I didn’t get off to a good start. I had some mechanical flaws in my swing, and it took me four months to get it ironed out. It really did.”

McCann did indeed finish strong, hitting eight of his 23 homers in September, but he still only had a .222 AVG and a .281 OBP that month. That doesn’t necessarily mean he didn’t iron out his swing, of course. Either way, McCann is being paid to be an impact player — on both sides of the ball at that — and the Yankees will need him to be one in 2015 to return to the postseason. Time to break down what the team needs from McCann and what he can actually provide.

Yankees Need: Offensive Impact

This goes without saying. McCann is going to hit in the middle order this coming season because he is the team’s top power threat — if not overall than at least left-handed — and has a history of being an above-average producer at the plate. He was a very consistent hitter from 2008-11 before hurting his shoulder in 2012, though he then rebounded to 2008-11 levels in 2013 following surgery. Then last year happened.


Source: FanGraphsBrian McCann

The Yankees don’t need McCann to put up huge numbers like Buster Posey. (Would be cool if he did though.) They just want the Braves version of McCann, the guy who hit .256/.336/.461 (121 wRC+) as recently as 2013, and with some consistency. Day-to-day consistency in baseball is a myth — no .300 hitter gets exactly three hits every ten at-bats for example, or even hits .300 every month — but they want to see McCann not be invisible for weeks at a time again. McCann is healthy and not yet all the way over the hill in catcher years. An offensive rebound is not totally out of the question.

McCann Can Provide: Power

We do know McCann can still hit the ball out of the park. He’s hit at least 20 homers every year since 2008 — only five others can say that — and his pull happy swing is tailored for Yankee Stadium. In fact, 19 of his 23 homers came at home last year. Yeah, road production was a major problem. McCann’s late season homer binge was, if nothing else, encouraging because it did indicate something had clicked. He was hitting the ball with more authority.

The problem is McCann might not be able to provide much offensively aside from power. He’s a left-handed pull hitter and one of the most shifted players in the game. But, as I wrote in our Season Review last year, McCann went the other way more often in 2014 than he had in any season since 2008. He was trying to beat the shift last year and the result was a lot of average-killing weak contact — his 45.1% fly ball rate was the second highest of his career and 11.1% of those fly balls were infield pop-ups, a career high. Lots of lazy fly balls last year.

At this point of his career hitting for a decent average probably is never happening again. Teams aren’t going to stop shifting against McCann just because he bunts or sneaks a few singles through the left side. They’re going to take away his strength and they effectively did that last year because McCann seemed to make such an effort to go the other way. I’d like to see him pull the ball more in 2015. Stick to his strengths and try to rip it through or (preferably) over the shift. A full season of trying to go the other way had disastrous results.

McCann’s walk rate plummeted to a career low 5.9% last season but I’m not too concerned about that, to be honest. His in (28.3%) and out (59.4%) of the zone swing rates were actually below his career averages (29.4% and 62.2%), and his strikeout rate (14.3%) and pitches per plate appearance rate (3.83) were both his lowest since 2008. McCann put a lot of balls in play early in the count last year, hence the low walk rate. It could also be a sign he was pressing last year and not being as patient as usual. I think McCann’s walk rate has a much better chance of returning to his career rate (9.1%) than his batting average (.272) in 2015.

Yankees Need: Quality Defense Behind The Plate

The Yankees very clearly place a high priority on catcher defense. The only below-average defender they’ve had behind the plate over the last seven or eight years was Jorge Posada. Everyone else was regarded as a strong defender and the available stats backed that up. McCann is no different.

Last season, McCann threw out a career best (by friggin’ far) 37.1% of attempted base-stealers and that ranked third among regular catchers behind only Yadier Molina (47.8%) and Russell Martin (38.5%). He also rated well at blocking pitches in the dirt and pitch framing according to the various metrics. McCann has been one of the best defensive catchers in the game in recent years and he took it to another level last season thanks to the improved throw-out rate. The Yankees expect more of the same this summer.

McCann Can Provide: Quality Defense Behind The Plate!

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Given his reputation and skill set, the only reason to think McCann will not again be a top notch defensive catcher in 2015 is sudden age-related decline. He might not throw out 37.1% of attempted base-stealers again, that’s a really big number, but other catchers have improved their throwing under Joe Girardi and Tony Pena (Frankie Cervelli, most notably) and McCann is now two full years removed from shoulder surgery. There’s reason to believe the throwing improvement is real. Otherwise available data has consistently rated him as excellent at framing pitches and blocking balls in the dirt. Defense is the one aspect of McCann’s game we don’t need to worry about.

Yankees Need: Leadership

Let’s face it, with Derek Jeter gone, the Yankees are going to have a leadership void this year. Maybe not all year, maybe someone will emerge as the new leader early in April, but right now there’s no Jeter in the clubhouse and that’s not negligible. Derek always seemed to be a lead by example type, not an in your face type, but leadership is leadership, and Jeter was undoubtedly a leader.

No one player is going to be able to replace Jeter’s intangible qualities. It’s just not going to happen and basically everyone in camp who has been asked about it has acknowledged that this year. Girardi, Brian Cashman, everyone. That includes McCann, who will be asked to fill some of the leadership void. He’s a catcher and catchers are expected to be leaders by default, but he’s also a veteran guy signed to a huge deal. Being asked to be a leader comes with the territory.

McCann Can Provide: Leadership, Probably

As outsiders, we usually know next to nothing about a player’s leadership ability. We all saw McCann stand up to Carlos Gomez and Jose Fernandez after they pimped some homers two years ago and that’s a leadership-y thing, but did anyone talk about him as a leader before that? We have no idea how popular McCann is with teammates or anything like that. I have no reason to doubt his ability as a leader, I’m sure he’ll step in to help fill some of the void with Jeter gone, though ultimately I have no idea how effective McCann is as a leader. That make sense? Intangibles are difficult to gauge and very easy to overstate. Without being around the team day in, day out, we can’t understand this stuff with any certainty.

The five most interesting Yankees ZiPS projections

2015 ZiPS

Early last week, as part of his annual series at FanGraphs, Dan Szymborski released his ZiPS projections for the 2015 Yankees. As always, projections don’t mean a whole lot of anything. They aren’t predictions — projections are an estimate of current talent level — and while ZiPS has historically been accurate on a macro level, there are always individual outliers. Projections are a completely objective look at a player and a conversation starter, that’s all.

The graphic above shows the rough WAR projections for the Yankees’ regulars. The team’s full ZiPS projections are right here, so check them out at your own convenience. I want to focus on five players with projections that stood out as interesting to me, either for good reasons or bad reasons. Let’s get to it …

Brian McCann: +3.0 WAR

Catcher defense is still very difficult to quantify and ZiPS doesn’t handle it well, so there’s no point in looking at McCann’s projected WAR. The most important thing is ZiPS sees him as a .249/.316/.431 (.325 wOBA) hitter this coming season, which is way better than the .232/.286/.406 (.306 wOBA) line he put up last year. It’s down slightly from his .252/.329/.441 (.332 wOBA) line with the Braves from 2011-13 but still in the same ballpark. That’s encouraging.

Remember, ZiPS knows all about McCann’s heavy career workload and catcher aging curves and all that. It knows that catchers McCann’s age tend to continue declining once they’ve started declining, yet it still expects him to bounce back in 2015. That’s because it sees his .231 BABIP last summer and knows it was out of line with his .283 career mark. That said, it only has him getting back to .260 BABIP. This 100% objective computer system doesn’t expect McCann to slide into uselessness just yet and for some reason I find that reassuring.

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

Didi Gregorius: +1.6 WAR

Defensive stats are sketchy and defensive projections are even sketchier. ZiPS pegs Gregorius as a +1 defender, which is actually better than his career UZR (-3.6) and DRS (0) numbers at short, but not in line with his reputation. Is it possible Didi’s defensive skills have been overstated? Oh hell yeah. It happens all the time, especially with players who can’t hit. But, as I explained a few weeks ago, the scouting reports and Inside Edge data make it seem Gregorius is a standout defender with a knack for the occasional mental mistake on routine plays. That is something that can be improved with experience, in theory.

Anyway, aside from the defense, ZiPS has Didi as a .251/.307/.369 (.295 wOBA) hitter and that sorta stinks. The league average shortstop put up a .251/.306/.363 (.297 wOBA) line last year though, so Gregorius is projected as almost a perfectly league average hitting shortstop. There’s nothing sexy about that, but Derek Jeter did hit .256/.304/.313 (.279 wOBA) last season, and that’s really really bad. Even at the league shortstop average, Didi will be a big upgrade at the plate. Add in even +1 defense, and he’s an even bigger upgrade. The Yankees got -2.3 WAR from their shortstops a year ago, easily the worst in baseball. Gregorius is looking very much like a multi-win upgrade even with the modest ZiPS projections.

Nathan Eovaldi: +1.1 WAR

To me, Eovaldi is the perfect example of a pitcher poised to exceed projections. ZiPS only knows the stats, remember. It doesn’t know Masahiro Tanaka has a tiny tear in his UCL, for example. It doesn’t know Chasen Shreve decided to throw harder last year. And it doesn’t know Eovaldi appeared to improve his changeup late last season or that he is going from an atrocious pitch-framer (Jarrod Saltalamacchia) to an elite one (McCann) or that pitching coach Larry Rothschild has a long history of improving strikeout rates. Those are three ZiPS ignored factors that could have a major impact going forward. Eovaldi is projected for a 4.51 ERA (4.16 FIP) and I wouldn’t be surprised if he outperforms that by a full run this coming season. Okay, fine, let’s say half-a-run instead. Either way, I like Eovaldi’s chances of exceeding ZiPS.

Justin Wilson: -0.1 WAR

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

So ZiPS isn’t a fan of New York’s new lefty middle reliever. Wilson has a 2.99 ERA (3.45 FIP) in 138.1 career innings and the projection system has him as a true talent 4.31 ERA (4.54 FIP) pitcher in 2015. His strikeout and walk rate projections (23.6 K% and 12.8 K%) are right in line with his 2014 performance (23.8 K% and 11.7 BB%), so the difference is all in home run rate. After allowing eight homers in his first 138.1 big league innings, ZiPS sees Wilson as an eight homers in 64.2 innings guy right now. That … seems weird.

Yes, Wilson is moving into a much more hitter friendly ballpark. Yankee Stadium had a 111 HR Park Factor last summer — that means it inflated homer production to 11% more than the league average — while PNC Park had an 88 HR Park Factor, so that’s a big difference. Enough to go from a 0.52 HR/9 from 2012-14 to 1.11 HR/9 in 2015? Maybe! That just seems like an exorbitant spike in homer rate, especially for a pitcher with a career 50.9% ground ball rate.

Reliever homer rates can be pretty volatile year to year because they inherently work in small samples, maybe 60-70 innings per year. One single homer results in a pretty big change in a reliever’s homer rate. Five dingers in 50 innings is 0.90 HR/9. Four is 0.72. Six is 1.08. Those are pretty big swings that result from one swing of the bat, one gust of wind, a couple degrees of temperature, stuff like that. ZiPS sees Wilson being replacement level because it expects him to start serving up long balls, but reliever homer rates are really volatile. The computer is being pretty pessimistic.

Bryan Mitchell: -1.3 WAR

Yikes. ZiPS pegs Mitchell for a 5.92 ERA (5.68 FIP) with mediocre strikeout (15.0 K%) and walk (11.5 BB%) rates, which isn’t good at all but not completely unexpected for a non-elite 23-year-old pitching prospect. The problem is Mitchell is more or less the team’s sixth starter. Maybe he’s more like the eighth starter behind Adam Warren and Esmil Rogers, but the point is he’s not all that far down the depth chart. ZiPS won’t have any impact on Mitchell’s real life performance, but geez, it would have been nice to see the system be a little more optimistic heading into the season.

Ranking the 40-Man Roster: Nos. 6-10

Over these next two weeks we’re going to subjectively rank and analyze every player on the Yankees’ 40-man roster — based on their short and long-term importance to the team — and you’re inevitably going to disagree with our rankings. We’ve already covered Nos. 11-14, 15-16, 17-19, 20-25, 26-31, and 32-40.

(Patrick Smith/Getty)
Miller. (Patrick Smith/Getty)

As we enter the top ten of our 40-man roster rankings, we’ve reached the cornerstone players. The guys who are under contract or team control for multiple years and are expected to be key contributors going forward. Everyday players, no-doubt starting pitchers, late-inning relievers. The core of the roster.

Today we’ll cover Nos. 6-10, which are something of a mixed bag with three position players and two pitchers. But, again, these guys are all going to play major roles for the 2015 Yankees as well as the 2016 and 2017 Yankees, if not longer. Maybe not the stars of the show, but the best of the supporting cast. To the next group of rankings …

No. 10: Andrew Miller

2015 Role: High-leverage reliever. Maybe even closer. It remains to be seen exactly how the late innings will shake out, though there is no doubt Miller will factor into the eighth and/or ninth inning somehow. He’s left-handed but no lefty specialist — Miller is a very high-strikeout pitcher who dominates both righties and lefties. Joe Girardi won’t have to worry about platoon matchups when using his new bullpen toy.

Long-Term Role: The same, high-leverage reliever. The Yankees gave Miller a four-year contract worth $9M annually to replace David Robertson — Robertson got a bigger contract from the White Sox and New York gained a draft pick in the process — which maybe wasn’t the most popular sequence of events, but it was a sound baseball move. At age 29, Miller should have multiple peak years remaining before fading into a LOOGY later in his career. Then again, relievers age differently than everyone else. Either way, Miller was given that contract to be a factor in the late innings.

No. 9: Chase Headley

2015 Role: Starting third baseman. Make no mistake, the Yankees didn’t re-sign Headley to be a part-time player and Headley didn’t come back to the Yankees to be anything less than the starter at the hot corner. There is no third base competition between Headley and Alex Rodriguez. The job is Headley’s. The Yankees have made it abundantly clear.

As the starting third baseman, Headley will be expected to be a two-way threat. His defense is his best tool and he’s well-above-average at third. We all saw it last year. Headley’s offense is more of a question. He hit .243/.328/.372 (103 wRC+) with 13 homers overall last year, down from .250/.347/.400 (114 wRC+) with 13 homers in 2013 and .286/.376/.498 (145 wRC+) with 31 homers during his career year in 2012. The 2012 version of Headley ain’t coming back, but the 2013 version sure would be nice.

Headley. (Elsa/Getty)
Headley. (Elsa/Getty)

Long-Term Role: The third base job is Headley’s going forward even with 2013 first rounder Eric Jagielo slated to open the season at Double-A. (Jagielo has to work on his glovework before we have to worry about him displacing Headley.) The Yankees gave Headley a nice four-year contract worth $52M that I think we’re going to look back on next offseason and say it’s one hell of a deal. There are no good third basemen set to hit free agency these next few years.

Ideally, Headley would slot in not as a middle of the order guy, but into the sixth or even seventh spot of the lineup. He did hit .262/.371/.398 (121 wRC+) with six homers in 58 games for New York after hitting .229/.296/.355 (90 wRC+) with seven homers in 77 games for the Padres last summer, and there’s no doubt moving from spacious Petco Park into tiny Yankee Stadium will help his offense. Headley is right in the prime of his career at age 30, and hopefully the guy we saw in the second half is the guy we’ll see the next four years. Maybe with more power too.

No. 8 Brett Gardner

2015 Role: Everyday left fielder and table-setter for the rest of the lineup. Derek Jeter‘s retirement means Girardi is free to use Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury — two leadoff hitters by trade — in the one-two spots of the lineup, in whatever order that may be. Gardner’s role is simple: catch everything in left and get on base for the middle of the order. If he hits 17 homers again like he did last year, great! But I don’t think that’ll happen.

Long-Term Role: Same thing, everyday left fielder and someone who hits high in the order. The Yankees finally got with the times and put an end to that silly “no extensions” rule last spring by signing Gardner to a four-year, $52M contract. That extension starts this year — the four-year contract was tacked on top of his existing one-year deal for 2014 — which means Gardner is locked up through his age 34 season. The Yankees have always spoken highly of him and they put their money where their mouth is last year.

Eovaldi. (Eliot J. Schechter/Getty)
Eovaldi. (Eliot J. Schechter/Getty)

No. 7: Nathan Eovaldi

2015 Role: Innings eater. Eovaldi, who turns 25 next month, will have a full-time rotation spot this coming season, though sticking a number on him (No. 2 starter, No. 3 starter, etc.) is pointless. He’s going to get the ball every fifth day and be counting on for innings, like the 199.2 he threw for the Marlins last year.

There’s more to the story though. In addition to eating innings, the Yankees will work with Eovaldi to get better results out of his high-end stuff. It’s a development year as well. No soon-to-be 25-year-old pitcher is a finished product. The Yankees acquired Eovaldi with the idea of getting good innings out of him now and great innings out of him later.

Long-Term Role: Frontline starter, or close to it. That might be a little too much to ask. I’m sure the Yankees would be thrilled if Eovaldi developed in a consistent above-average innings eater, a guy good for 200+ innings and, say, a 3.50-ish ERA. They paid a good price to get him in a five-player trade with the Marlins – second baseman Martin Prado and the generally reliable David Phelps — and control Eovaldi’s rights through 2017. The plan is to get good innings this year and dominant innings by 2017. Eovaldi’s development is critical to the future of New York’s rotation.

No. 6: Brian McCann

2015 Role: Starting catcher and middle of the order power source. McCann’s first year in pinstripes was a mostly disappointing mixed bag. His defense was very good — he threw out 37.2% of attempted base-stealers and again ranked as one of the game’s elite pitch-framers — as expected, and while he provided power at the plate (team-high 23 homers), his overall .232/.286/.406 (92 wRC+) line was less than hoped.

This coming season, the soon-to-be 31-year-old McCann will again handle everyday duties behind the plate. The Yankees are also hoping for a rebound at the plate, that his poor 2014 season was simply the result of moving to a new league and having to learn an entirely new pitching staff. With any luck, McCann will be more comfortable this time around and get back to being the guy he was with the Braves, who put up a 119-123 wRC+ four times in five years before coming to New York. He’s expected to drive in runs and lots of ’em.

McCann. (Elsa/Getty)
McCann. (Elsa/Getty)

Long-Term Role: There are four years left on McCann’s contract and the reality is that there aren’t many everyday catchers at age 34+, which McCann will be in the last year of his contract. Since 2000, only 41 catchers age 34 or over have managed 400+ plate appearances in a season, and most of them were flat out awful. Here’s the list.

At some point the Yankees will have to scale back on McCann’s workload behind the plate, and it could start this year. That doesn’t mean he won’t be in the lineup — McCann could always DH, and, as we saw last year, the team is open to sticking him at first for a day — just that they have to protect him from the wear and tear of catching. They knew that going into the contract.

So, McCann’s long-term role is starting catcher and mentor to John Ryan Murphy, the obvious in-house candidate to take over as the No. 1 catcher down the road (unless Gary Sanchez shows marked improvement behind the plate this year). The perfect world scenario would be a Girardi/Jorge Posada-esque apprenticeship, where McCann’s time behind the plate gradually decreases and Murphy increases these next four years. No matter how many games he catches, McCann’s power is an important competent for the team’s offense.

Coming Wednesday: Nos. 3-5. Three young players, all with less than two full years of MLB experience, expected to be part of the core of the next great Yankees team.

Going from Saltalamacchia to McCann will be a big plus for Nathan Eovaldi

(Marc Serota/Getty)
(Marc Serota/Getty)

For the second time in four offseasons, the Yankees traded a player who was expected to be a prominent part of their lineup for a young starting pitcher yet to reach his 25th birthday. Three years ago it Jesus Montero for Michael Pineda. This offseason it was Martin Prado for Nathan Eovaldi. There were other players involved, but those were the principals.

Unlike Pineda, Eovaldi was coming off a disappointing season at the time of the trade, a season in which he led the NL with 223 hits allowed and posted an 87 ERA+ in 199.2 innings. There’s obviously more to the puzzle than that — Eovaldi did have a shiny 3.37 FIP, 27th best out of MLB’s 88 qualified starters — but in its most basic form, pitching is about limiting hits and runs. Eovaldi indisputably stunk at both last year.

The good news is that in the other 260.1 innings of his career, Eovaldi has allowed as many hits as innings pitched — as opposed to many more hits than innings pitched — with a 101 ERA+. He’s shown he can be effective at preventing hits and keeping runs off the board at a very young age, which bodes well for future. If Eovaldi had pitched like that in 2014, it would have taken much more to get him than Prado. The Yankees got him at a discount thanks to his poor year.

Clearly though, the Yankees are banking on Eovaldi improving going forward. They don’t want the 2014 version of him — though given the state of the rotation, I’m sure they want those 199.2 innings — and they don’t want the 2011-13 version either. They want someone better. And stuff like this …


Source: FanGraphsNathan Eovaldi

… suggests a better pitcher is on the way. It’s not a guarantee, but improving your FIP every year of your career is promising.

Since Eovaldi’s strikeout and home run rates have held fairly steady throughout his career, the FIP improvement comes in his walk rate, which has gradually dropped from 13.7% in 2011 to 5.0% in 2014. Young pitchers walk people. That’s what they do. They walk people and they get hurt. As they gain experience, they tend to walk less people (but still get hurt!) and that’s what’s happened with Eovaldi.

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild, pitching coordinator Gil Patterson, and whoever else will be charged with boosting Eovaldi’s strikeout rate, which sat at 16.6% last year and is 16.2% for his career. That’s comfortably below the league average, which topped 20% for the first time in 2014. Eovaldi has the stuff to get strikeouts, including a big fastball and a nice slider and an improving changeup, but so far the whiffs aren’t there. They have to be unlocked somehow.

One way the Yankees hope to unlock those strikeouts is Brian McCann. The Yankees were way ahead of the pitch-framing curve — they traded for framing god Jose Molina in 2007 and since then the only below-average framer they’ve had is Jorge Posada — and they clearly value the skill, so much so that they deluded themselves into thinking Chris Stewart could play regularly. McCann happens to be an excellent pitch-framer. Eovaldi’s old catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia? Not so much.

Here is the pitch-framing leaderboard for the 2014 season according to StatCorner:

1. Miguel Montero
2. Mike Zunino
3. Jonathan Lucroy

11. Brian McCann

105. Jarrod Saltalamacchia (out of 105!)

For a second opinion, here are the pitch-framing leaders according to Baseball Prospectus (again out of 105):

1. McCann!
2. Lucroy
3. Montero (Miguel, not Jesus)

92. Saltalamacchia

I intentionally omitted the runs saved values because I don’t trust them. Not enough to say this player is precisely X.X runs better than that guy anyway. I use framing metrics like I use all defensive stats: directionally. They tell me who’s good at it and who isn’t. Otherwise there’s no need to act as if a certain level of accuracy exists when it just isn’t there.

Anyway, McCann once again rated as one of the very best pitch-framers in baseball last summer. And after watching him all year, I totally buy it. Saltalamacchia, on the other hand, was very bad at framing borderline pitches. I didn’t watch him nearly as much as McCann a year ago, so I have to trust the StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus rankings when they say he’s a bad framer of pitchers.

Eovaldi faced 854 batters last season and Saltalamacchia was behind the plate for 536 of them, or 63%. He had a 16.2% strikeout rate and a 5.4% walk rate with Salty. With backup catcher Jeff Mathis, who the numbers say is an average to slightly above-average pitch-framer, it was a 17.3% strikeout rate and a 4.4% walk rate. (If we remove intentional walks, the walk rates are 3.5% to 5.1% in favor of Mathis.)

Every pitcher in the world would benefit from having a good pitch-framer behind the plate, though Eovaldi might stand to benefit more than most because he lives on the outside corner to righties/inside corner to lefties. Here is the strike zone breakdown of his pitch locations and called strike rates last year. The views are from the catcher’s perspective.

Pitch locations on the left, called strike locations on the right. (click to embiggen)
Overall pitch locations on the left, called strike rates on the right. (click to embiggen)

Eovaldi got only an average number of called strikes just inside the corner on the left-handed batter’s side of the plate — it was basically a 50/50 chance — and a below-average number of called strikes (hence the blue squares) just off the plate on that side. That’s a problem for him because look at his pitch locations, his comfort zone is away from righties and inside to lefties. (That is skewed somewhat because he’s a slider pitcher and sliders break towards that side of the plate.)

Based on the pitch-framing data, McCann will help Eovaldi get many more called strikes in general, and especially on that corner of the plate because that’s where Eovaldi throws the majority of his pitches. It should be a significant number of extra strikes considering Saltalamacchia is one of the game’s worst pitch-framers and McCann is one of the best. This means not only more called strike threes, but more 1-1 counts turned into 0-2 counts, more 2-1 counts turned into 1-2 counts, more first pitch strikes, more stuff that makes hitters defensive.

I have zero doubt the framing upgrade from Saltalamacchia to McCann is a major reason why the Yankees believe they can unlock Eovaldi’s potential. McCann’s pitch-framing alone — projected backup catcher John Ryan Murphy has rated well as a pitch-framer during his brief MLB time, for what’s it worth — won’t get Eovaldi’s strikeout rate to match his stuff, but it will definitely help. As long as he keeps living on that left corner of the plate, the Yankees’ catching tandem will help Eovaldi much more than Miami’s.