Archive for CC Sabathia

Apr
21

The Reinvention of CC Sabathia

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(Scott Halleran/Getty)

(Scott Halleran/Getty)

As you know, last season was the worst of CC Sabathia‘s career. By a lot. He was legitimately one of the worst pitchers in the game after being no worse than comfortably above-average for the better part of a decade. Sabathia’s ability to bounce back — not necessarily to an ace, just to something better than terrible — is pretty important to the team’s chances to contend this summer, even with Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda throwing so well early on.

Sabathia’s first four starts this year have been a mixed bag but they have gotten progressively better: six runs in six innings, four runs in six innings, four runs in seven innings, and two runs in seven innings. He has pitched very well early in his last three starts before allowing some runs in the later innings. There have definitely been multi-inning stretches where he was in total control, but we’ve yet to see an entire start like that. Hopefully it’s coming soon.

Unsurprisingly, Sabathia’s oft-discussed velocity did not bounce back this year. It never does. Once velocity goes it tends to stay gone. His four-seam fastball has averaged only 89.6 mph in his first four starts, down from 91.3 mph last year. I suspect that will tick up a little bit in the summer months as it usually does. How has Sabathia attempted to compensate for his missing heater? By simply throwing it less. He has de-emphasized his four-seamer. Look at his pitch selection courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

Four-Seamer Sinker Slider Changeup Cutter
2009 44.5% 16.8% 19.9% 18.9% 0.0%
2010 45.1% 15.7% 22.2% 17.0% 0.0%
2011 45.3% 13.4% 27.2% 14.1% 0.0%
2012 39.4% 14.8% 32.1% 13.7% 0.0%
2013 42.3% 14.9% 27.5% 15.2% 0.0%
2014 30.1% 27.4% 24.0% 16.4% 2.2%

Sabathia has incorporated a cutter this season but he rarely uses it, only a handful of times per game. He is throwing slightly fewer sliders and slightly more changeups, but nothing crazy. That’s probably a function of the small sample size more than anything. The big difference comes with the fastballs. Sabathia is throwing way fewer four-seamers than at any other time with the Yankees and he’s throwing a ton more sinkers, basically twice as many as he threw from 2011-13. That’s a big difference.

Sabathia is not necessarily using fastballs less, but now he is cutting them and especially sinking them more often. That doesn’t make him unique either. Not even close. That is an adjustment most veteran pitchers will make later in their careers. From Chris Cwik:

The added movement is likely one of the reasons we’ve seen veteran pitchers start using the sinker more often, according to PITCHf/x guru Harry Pavlidis. “As you lose velocity you need to add something,” says Pavlidis. “Movement is a good choice. So you’ll have older pitchers who lose velocity and adjust, or guys who are fringy and realize they can get a new edge, even if their velocity is still intact.”

Former major-league pitcher Brian Bannister agrees. “As pitchers lose the capability to throw powerful four-seam fastballs they have to compensate somehow,” Bannister said. “If you look at most of the pitchers who are still around as they get older, they are throwing sinking fastballs and not power fastballs because it matches up with how their body feels.”

Sort through the list of pitchers who have used the sinker the most since 2011 and they are almost all veterans in the second half of their career. Jake Westbrook, Derek Lowe, Jason Marquis, Kyle Lohse, Hiroki Kuroda, Bronson Arroyo, guys like that. Sabathia isn’t throwing his sinker as much as those guys just yet, but don’t be surprised if he creeps closer and closer to the top of that list in the coming years. It only makes sense to shelve the straight four-seamer in favor of the sinking sinker as the radar gun readings become less impressive.

Emphasizing the sinker is not the only adjustment Sabathia has made early this year. He is also pitching inside more often. According to the truly amazing Baseball Savant, Sabathia has come inside to right-handed batters with 29.5% of his pitches this year. That is up from 25.8% last year and 24.2% from 2011-13. (He’s only faced 12 lefty batters this year so I won’t even bother with those numbers.) I remember Mike Mussina (or maybe it was David Cone) saying that you have to pitch inside more when you start to lose velocity, and Sabathia has done early in 2014.

Between the increased reliance on his sinker and busting righties inside more often, CC has changed his pitching style in a tangible way so far this year. He had to after last season. The velocity isn’t coming back and adjustments had to be made. I’m guessing this is just the start of those adjustments too. We might see more sinkers, more cutters, and more pitches inside as the season continues and he gets more comfortable. The progressively better starts might be an indication of that.

Because of who he is and his importance to the Yankees, everything Sabathia does this season will be watched closely. At least by me. I’m somewhat fascinated by the way pitchers age in general, going from hard-throwing youngsters with big stuff to savvy veterans who rely on their brains as much as their arms. Sabathia was not a “thrower” these last few years, the guy knows how to pitch, but that doesn’t mean adjusting to reduced velocity is easy. Throwing more sinkers (and cutters) and pitching inside appear to be tangible changes to his approach this year, changes he needs to make at this point of his career.

Categories : Analysis, Pitching
Comments (41)

Mike had some dental work done earlier today, and the rest of my day was busier than expected. We dropped the ball on the game thread, but it seemed to be a good luck charm for CC and the Yanks. The erstwhile ace won in Tampa Bay for the first time since 2010, and the Bombers turned a triple play behind him while also knocking out three home runs. It was, all around, a Solarte Party for a team that’s won five in a row.

CC’s Big Day

As Yangervis Solarte, Brian Roberts and Scott Sizemore turned a triple play in the second inning, CC shot his arms up in the air in celebration. The Yanks held a 4-0 lead, and for a minute, it looked like CC would crack. Yet, for the third time in his Yankee tenure, the infield turned a triple play. (The first involved A-Rod, Cano and Nick Johnson while the second was one of the zaniest rundowns you’ll ever see.) For a guy not known for his hot corner defense, Solarte had the presence of mind to head to the bag and flip to second. From there, it was nothing more than a routine play, and CC escaped.

From then on, it was relatively smooth sailing. A passed ball led to an unearned run while CC’s nemesis Sean Rodriguez lofted a home run in the 7th. By then, though, the Yanks led 8-1, and the Rays’ run was harmless. Sabathia again didn’t have much velocity on his fastball, but he hit his spots and changed speeds effectively. He ended the night throwing 72 of 107 pitches for strikes with six Ks.

Big Bats vs. Price

Offensively, the Yanks made tonight’s game look easy. The Rays opted to hold David Price back a day to face the AL East leaders, and it backfired. Price gave up six runs in five innings, and of the ten hits he allowed, six went for extra bases. The Yanks hit two triples in one inning, and Soriano and McCann went back to back in the 5th. After missing three games with a back injury, Brian Roberts went 3 for 5 with a double and a triple, and in the 9th, April superstar Yangervis Solarte lofted a Grant Balfour offering into the right field seats for his first Major League home run. Solarte, who had doubled earlier, is now hitting .373/.448/.569. It’s hard to imagine it will last, but it’s been a fun ride.

Odds and Ends

Carlos Beltran took a nasty spill when he ran full speed over the wall in right field. He seemed OK, but it sure would be nice if the Rays could afford a real warning track…Dellin Betances had a tough time throwing strikes in the 8th inning, but he still struck out three of the eight batters he faced. He threw only 16 of 31 pitches for strikes, but his stuff, when over the plate, is nearly untouchable. He now has 11 strike outs in 6.1 innings but 4 walks too…Derek Jeter is very quietly hitting .295 with a .380 OBP. With a .364 slugging, the power isn’t quite there, but I’ll take the average and OBP with no complaints…These two teams face off again tomorrow as Hiroki takes on Erik Bedard, making his first start of the year.

Categories : Game Stories
Comments (111)

Got seven questions in this week’s mailbag. A few other really good ones came in too, but I’m holding those back because I need more time to think about them. Use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us questions, links, comments, whatever.


Paul asks: Am I reading this FanGraphs article correctly? Yankees have gotten +25 strikes (from pitch-framing), a strike is worth .14 runs, 10 runs = 1 win, so the Yankees have gotten about 1/3 WAR from pitch-framing in the first week of the season? Or are these wins different from wins above replacement?

According to the article, the Yankees have gotten 25 extra strikes than expected due to pitch-framing so far this year, the most in baseball. That’s seems … reasonable, I guess? I don’t really know. Brian McCann is an elite pitch-framer and Frankie Cervelli has graded out well in his sporadic playing time over the years, so it stands to reason they would be near the top. That +25 strikes number is just an estimate in that post, remember.

Here is an older list of the run value of events, like singles and homers and sacrifice flies and a bunch of other stuff. It does not include called strikes though, so I’m not sure where that 0.14 runs per called strike number came from. I know Jeff Sullivan though and I trust he got it from somewhere reliable. So anyway, 25 extra strikes at 0.14 runs per strike works out to +3.5 runs total. FanGraphs says 9.386 runs equals one win these days, so the Yankees have “earned” 0.37th of a win through framing alone in 2014. That’s the straight forward math. A win is a win regardless of whether your starting point is replacement level or league average. In this case, the 25 extra strikes was compared to the league average.

There are two issues here, in my opinion. One, pitch-framing analysis still has a long way to go. I think it needs to be adjusted for umpire and for the pitcher, for starters. Maybe even treat it like a pitching stat and consider leverage. Two, that 0.14 runs per called strike number is an average for all situations, but not all called strikes are created equally. Turning a borderline pitch into a strike in a 3-2 count is more valuable than doing the same in a 3-0 count, for example. These win values we’re seeing from pitch-framing seem way too high to me — it’s basically the single most valuable thing in baseball, if you believe the numbers — but for a quick and dirty analysis, the FanGraphs stuff is fine. It’s interesting but I don’t think we can take these at face value yet.

JK5 asks: Do defensive metrics take ‘shifts’ into consideration? There was a play Jonathan Schoop (officially playing 3rd) made on a ball hit by McCann into shallow RF. Just reading the box score play-by-play would make one thing this play was a normal 5-3 putout, which it absolutely wasn’t. So Schoop’s range factor at 3b is helped by a ball hit nowhere near his normal position. So going forward, with increased ‘shifts’, are we gonna see sort of a manufactured rating for 3b (who are most often used as the primary ‘shifted’ fielder)?

Yes and no. Some defensive stats do recognize shifts, others don’t. As far as I know, UZR basically has an on/off switch. If there is no shift, the play is recorded the same way it always is. If the shift is on, the play is not recorded and ignored. DRS does not consider shifts and assumes the defender starts every the play wherever the league usually sets up at that position. That’s why Brett Lawrie had a good +4.5 UZR but an elite +20 DRS in 2012. UZR ignored all the times he was standing in shallow right on the shift while DRS thought he started all those plays at third base. I don’t know how (or if) Total Zone and FRAA handle shifts.

The problems are obvious here. With shifts becoming more prevalent, UZR is reducing its own sample size by ignoring plays with the shift. DRS is assuming third basemen have superman range, which is worse. That only adds to the uncertainty of defensive stats. I think they are best used directionally with a multi-year sample. They can give us an idea of who is good, who is bad, and who is average. The exact values though? I don’t think we can take them seriously. There’s no way you can say Shortstop A is a better defender than Shortstop B because he had a +5.7 UZR/+9 DRS from 2010-13 while the other guy was at +5.3 UZR/+7 DRS. They’re both good. Leave it at that.

Huh, third basemen don't stand there. (AP)

Huh, third basemen don’t stand there. (AP)

Dan asks: If the Yankees even had an average infield in terms of range, do you think Joe would be employing the shift as much? Now that they are flipping the third baseman and Derek Jeter during the shift, if Jeter makes a play when he’s the only one on the left side of the infield would he be the third baseman for purposes of scoring the game? He is the player furthest to the left side of the infield. Finally, how do the advanced stats take shifts into account? Thanks.

Just answered that last part, conveniently. As for the other questions, yes, I absolutely think the Yankees would still be shifting as much if they have rangier infielders. Heck, they might shift more if they had more mobile defenders. Like I said yesterday, the shift is here to stay. You’re playing Super Nintendo while everyone else is on Playstation 4 if you’re not shifting.

As for the position stuff, the defensive stats recognize everyone as whatever position they are playing. Jeter would still be a shortstop in the example Dan gave in his question. That’s why Lawrie’s DRS was so high a few years ago. He was still considered a third baseman while standing in shallow right, not a second baseman.

Ben asks: Seems like early scouting reports on Dante Bichette Jr. suggested he would need to move to the OF at some point in his MiLB career. Seeing as how he is DH’ing so much due to the presence of Eric Jagielo, don’t you think now would be a good time to make the move? They’re not doing him any favors DH’ing him this regularly.

I think the bat is the most important thing for Bichette. He always was and always will be a bat-first prospect, and they have to get him to start hitting more than anything. (He went into last night’s game hitting .235/.458/.353 in six games.) They can stick him in left field or at first base a little later down the line. Right now, the most important thing is for Bichette to get his swing, his timing, his balance, his whatever else on track so he can produce at the plate. He is a huge reclamation project and they need to focus all their time and energy on his bat. It’s the most important thing for him.

Nick asks: If Aaron Judge and Jagielo tear it up do you think the Yankees should keep moving them up or let them finish the year at the level they are at?

Definitely move them up. They are two college hitters who spent three years as starters at major college programs. Those aren’t the guys you hold back. I fully expect Jagielo to end the year with Double-A Trenton and Judge to earn a promotion to at least High-A Tampa at some point. I think it’s possible he’ll go from Low-A Charleston to Tampa to Trenton this summer. I think the Yankees generally move their prospects a little too fast — ever notice how their prospects come to the big leagues still in need of refinement while the Cardinals and Rays call up guys who are so polished? Compare how much time they’ve spent in the minors — but these are two guys who should move up the ladder quick. Especially Jagielo.

(Eric Christian Smith/Getty)

(Eric Christian Smith/Getty)

Jeff asks: Would the Yankees be better served to have a quicker hook with CC Sabathia on the mound? I understand a lot of the value he has is as an innings eater, but it comes down to which would be better: ~200 league average or slightly below league average innings, or ~170-180 slightly above league average innings.

You know, I’m not sure. Is Sabathia at 90-100 pitches worse than, say, a fresh Dellin Betances or Vidal Nuno? I guess that depends on the day and how Sabathia has fared during those first 90 pitches. There is an obvious benefit to limiting his workload at this point, saving bullets and all that stuff, but an individual game is a different animal than the big picture. Even during his awful 2013 season, Sabathia really wasn’t less effective from pitches 76+ than he was from pitches 1-75. I know he got knocked around in the final inning of his start last week, but that’s one game. If the Yankees had a deeper and higher quality bullpen, I think the answer would be closer to yes. Since they don’t, I’m not sure.

Bill asks: The Yanks had three different players steal a base on Sunday, none of whom was Jacoby Ellsbury. When was the last time the Yanks had steals from four different players in the same game?

It’s actually not that uncommon and I didn’t think it would be. We’ve seen quite a few games in recent years where the Yankees just had the opponent’s battery down pat. They knew the pitcher’s move, knew the catcher’s arm, and were running wild. We saw it last Friday, when they stole four bases off Dustin McGowan in his 2.2 innings of work (and didn’t attempt another steal after he left the game).

Anyway, the Yankees have had at least four different players steal a base in a game 15 times this century, including six times in the last three years. They had six (!) different players steal a base in one game against the Red Sox just last September. Here’s the box score. Pretty clear they knew they could run on Ryan Lavarnway. Here is the list of all 15 games with at least four players stealing a base since 2000 for you to dig through.

Categories : Mailbag
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(Scott Halleran/Getty)

(Scott Halleran/Getty)

The Yankees dropped their season-opener to the Astros on Tuesday for more than a few reasons, including a rebuilt offense that didn’t show up until about the seventh inning. CC Sabathia shoulders most of the blame because he was awful, allowing six runs in six innings. Doesn’t matter who you’re playing, climbing out of a 6-0 hole is tough for any lineup.

That game really was a tale of two Sabathias. He was abysmal in those first two innings, allowing all six runs on six hits, including two homers and two doubles. Over his final four innings, Sabathia kept Houston off the board and held them to a walk and two singles, one of which didn’t leave the infield. Five of his six strikeouts came in those final four innings and only one of the 14 batters he faced after the second hit the ball in the air. Sabathia was terrible the first two innings and pretty damn good the final four.

As I mentioned yesterday, the mid-start turn-around was so drastic that you have to think some kind of adjustment was made. Maybe Sabathia did it on his own, maybe pitching coach Larry Rothschild pointed something out, maybe it was Brian McCann. We’ve seen CC struggle early in a start before figuring it out before, so Opening Day wasn’t that unique, but it was especially noticeable on Tuesday. For what it’s worth, Sabathia chalked it up to adrenaline.

“It got out of hand early,” said CC to Chad Jennings after the game. “That’s been the toughest thing for me. I do get so excited. I feel like I’m a kid again. I would sleep in my uniform if I could the night before Opening Day. I think it’s just the nervousness, the jitters, wanting to start the season off good so bad, I end up pitching bad.”

It’s very possible Sabathia’s adjustment was simply calming down, but whatever it was, it should show up in the results somewhere. His velocity held steady all game — his fastball averaged 89.7 mph on Tuesday, down from 90.3 mph on Opening Day last year — and while Sabathia said he starting throwing his new cutter in the later innings, PitchFX didn’t pick any up. Maybe the system is broke, maybe the cutting action was so big they were classified as sliders. Who knows?

Whenever Sabathia struggles, it seems like it’s because he misses his location. That sounds obvious, I know. Sure, he gives up the occasional hit on a pitcher’s pitch like everyone else, but the Astros punished him early because he was missing out over the plate. I’m going to point this out again:

Jesus Guzman L.J. Hoes homers

Those are the homers by Jesus Guzman (left) and L.J. Hoes (right). Dexter Fowler swatted a similar pitch to center, leading off the game with a double. Belt high offerings right out over the plate. That’s no way to pitch.

So did Sabathia’s location improve in innings three through six? To the PitchFX data:

Sabathia Opening Day Location

Just to be clear, that is looking from the catcher’s perspective.

I was hoping there would be a big blob of blue pitches over the middle of the pitches and a bunch of red on the edges, but no dice. That would have been cool. Sabathia threw 99 pitches in the start, including 50 in the first two innings and 49 in the final four, so the sample is split right down the middle. That’s convenient. There are two things going on in this graph that I want to look at specifically, so let’s make life easy:

Sabathia Opening Day Location1

Like I said, two things I want to look at, hence the colored ovals. To the details:

Yellow Oval: The Astros had eight right-handed or switch hitters in the lineup, so these pitches are more or less in the wheelhouse. Belt high and right out over the plate. Sabathia threw seven pitches in this general area in the first two innings, resulting in the two homers, Fowler’s double, Jason Castro’s run-scoring fielder’s choice, a foul ball, a called strike, and a swing and a miss. In innings three through six, he threw only two pitches in this area, getting a foul ball and a swing and miss. If you want to count that one extra pitch at the top of the zone that’s hiding under the yellow oval, that’s another swing and miss. So yes, Sabathia did a better job of staying out of the danger zone in those final four innings.

Blue Oval (or cyan, whatever): I’m not going to count pitches and look at individual results here. I’m pointing this part of the strike zone out because it’s the outer half of the plate and generally the bottom half of the zone. With those eight righty bats in the lineup, that where you’d want a left-hander to pitch, down and away. Sabathia didn’t throw too many pitches down there in the first two innings — he was really all over the place in those two innings, geez — but he did a much better job of locating the ball down and away in his final four innings. Getting the ball out of the wheelhouse and instead burying it down there is a surefire way to improve performance.

Location is very important but it is just one piece of the pitching pie. I also want to look at whether Sabathia changed up his pitch mix as the game progressed, so here’s the breakdown:

Batters Faced 1st Pitch FB FB% CH% SL%
Innings 1-2 13 6 40.0% 24.0% 36.0%
Innings 3-6 14 9 55.1% 20.4% 24.5%

That is … the exact opposite of what I expected. I thought Sabathia would have thrown fewer fastballs and particularly fewer first-pitch fastballs in those last four innings. Instead, he threw more fastballs than he did earlier in the game. He really pounded the zone with his heater late. Very surprising, at least to me. I guess he just got into a groove and was better able to drive the ball down and away to all those righties.

At some point between the second and third innings, something happened that helped Sabathia better locate his pitches, particularly his fastball. The PitchFX data confirms this. We have Point A (innings 1-2) and Point B (innings 3-6), but no knowledge of Sabathia got there. Maybe he did just calm down. Maybe it really is that simple. I can’t help but think some kind of mechanical adjustment was made, something that helped him get the ball down and get it on the outer half of the plate against righties.

“I just think it was a matter of relaxing. I didn’t want to go out and overthrow and be all over the place, but I think backing off didn’t help either so I got to find a place in the middle where I can pitch good,” said Sabathia to Jennings and Jorge Castillo. “I’ve got 34, hopefully, more starts left. I’m definitely not going to pitch like I did tonight in the first two innings. I know I can pitch, and I know I can get guys out. I feel great. I’m not going to beat myself up about this.”

Sabathia has always been super-accountable and when he struggled last year, he crushed himself after every start. Tuesday though? Eh, no big deal, I’ll be fine. I wonder if that is a function of knowing the problem and knowing how to solve it. Sabathia stunk last year and he always seemed to be looking for a fix. There were no answers and he as clearly frustrated. This year, it seems like he knows what was wrong in those first two innings and knows the solution. He found it in the middle of the start. That he didn’t tear into himself after the game may be an indication that is the case.

Let’s not try to soften the blow here, Sabathia was terrible overall on Opening Day. He didn’t give the Yankees much of a chance at all. That he turned it around literally between innings and settled down is encouraging. We don’t know what changed, but something did. I guess there’s always a chance nothing changed too. We are talking about the Astros. It’s early in the season though and this is the time for optimism, so let’s say he fixed something. Sabathia has a big test against the Blue Jays on Sunday, so we ‘ll get to see if whatever adjustment was make between the second and third innings on Tuesday is a sustainable formula for success.

Categories : Analysis, Pitching
Comments (23)
(Scott Halleran/Getty)

(Scott Halleran/Getty)

I know I just did a thoughts post yesterday, but there’s a bunch of stuff going on after Opening Day and none of it is worth a full post. This is the worst time of the season because we know the samples are still way too small to mean anything, but what else are we supposed to talk about? Baseball, man. It can be cruel.

1. I’m really curious to know what adjustment CC Sabathia made after the second inning last night. There had to be something, he looked like a completely different pitcher in his last four innings than he did his first two. Joe Girardi told Dan Barbarisi his pitches were cutting early and Sabathia told Bryan Hoch he was too amped up, but that doesn’t help us any. If there was a tangible adjustment made, that’s good. You want to be able to point to something specific for the improvement, something real. Everything gets magnified on Opening Day, that’s just the way it is, and Sabathia was far from impressive on Tuesday. I am looking forward to seeing his next outing though. Something changed after that second inning.

2. The offense was mostly a no show on Opening Day, but I thought Mark Teixeira looked really good. He hit a ball to the warning track in his first at-bat, ripped a line drive to right that sliced just foul in his second time up, then slapped a single the other way later in the game. He also drew a walk and saw 18 total pitches in four trips to the plate. Teixeira said he is still a little apprehensive about his surgically repaired wrist at the end of camp, which is a concern for obvious reasons, but he didn’t show it last night. He swung hard, made some solid contact, and he’s seeing the bell wall. Does that mean he’ll be fine going forward? Who knows. This one game, those four at-bats, were encouraging.

3. I’m fully on board with batting Brett Gardner seventh after being on the fence about it at first. Yeah, he would serve as the second leadoff man by batting ninth, but I think batting him seventh does a better job of helping the middle of the order. Gardner’s whole thing is not making outs, and by batting him closer to the middle of the lineup, he’ll get more of an opportunity to extend rallies and cap them off. The middle of the order is the key to everything; Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson aren’t going to generate much offense no matter where they slot into the lineup. Batting Gardner two spots higher to get that one extra good hitter behind Teixeira and Alfonso Soriano gives them more of a chance to turn rallies into runs. Instead of being a leadoff guy, he’ll be expected to drive in some runs. Plus he might get an extra at-bat once in a while.

(Mike Stobe/Getty)

(Mike Stobe/Getty)

4. I am wrong all the time, about everything, yet I’m still surprised at how wrong I’ve been about this last bench spot stuff. Literally every step of the way. I thought they’d take Scott Sizemore, then when it was clear he was out of the running, I thought they’d take Eduardo Nunez. When they didn’t take Nunez, I thought they’d keep him in Triple-A as insurance. Instead, he was designated for assignment yesterday to make room on the roster for Yangervis Solarte. Wrong, every step of the way. Even by my terrible standards, that’s amazing. The Yankees don’t have much shortstop depth now — Addison Maruszak figures to be the starter in Triple-A with Nunez gone — especially with Brendan Ryan out for a few weeks, so they’ll probably have to keep an eye on the waiver wire for an extra body.

5. Dellin Betances is going to be my favorite sidebar this season. He was great in relief last year, very good in Spring Training, and just electric last night. Betances has been in the farm system for an eternity and he’s had a ton of ups and downs, and we’ve watched them just about every step of the way. It’s great to finally see him find some sustained success and a niche in the bullpen. His stuff is obviously excellent, and now that he’s throwing strikes regularly, Betances can be a late-inning force. There is plenty of opportunity in the bullpen with a clear path to higher leverage seventh and eighth inning work, so this is a good time for everything to be clicking. Very much looking forward to seeing more.

6. As a team, the Yankees saw 138 pitches in last night’s game. That isn’t a huge number, but out of their 150 nine-inning games last year, they saw 138+ pitches only 72 times. Less than half the time. The 2014 offense had a bad day on Opening Day and yet they still saw pitches at a higher rate than last year’s squad. Roberts did the heavy lifting with 20 pitches in his four trips to the plate while Gardner, Teixeira, and Soriano saw 18 apiece. That was by far the worst part of the 2013 offense. They made a ton of outs and they were mostly quick outs, two or three pitch at-bats. This group isn’t like the 2004-12 lineups or anything, but they make the pitcher work for whatever he gets. It’s refreshing.

Categories : Musings
Comments (121)

As expected, Joe Girardi announced CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, and Ivan Nova will start the team’s first three games of the regular season. Well, he didn’t really come out and announce it, but the rotation for the rest of the week indicates that will be the case. This lines up Kuroda for the home opener. Masahiro Tanaka figures to slide in as the number four starter with either Michael Pineda or David Phelps as the five. Obligatory reminder that the rotation order on Opening Day means nothing.

Categories : Asides, Pitching
Comments (30)
Number four in the rotation, number one in our hearts. (Mike Carlson/Getty)

Number four in the rotation, number one in our hearts. (Mike Carlson/Getty)

One thing I’ve come to understand over the years is the order of the starting rotation at the beginning of the season means very little. It’s all symbolism. The Opening Day start usually goes to a veteran who has been with the team a while, not necessarily the best pitcher. Being designated as the staff ace and actually pitching like an ace are two different things. Scheduled off-days and rain-outs throw a wrench into the rotation after a few weeks and the order gets all mixed up anyway. It’s fun to talk about, but the importance is small.

Spring Training ends in less than two weeks — the final Grapefruit League game is next Saturday — and the Yankees have started to line up their rotation for Opening Day and the start of the regular season. I’m sure it has actually been plotted out and planned for a few weeks now, but now that we can see the light at the end of the Spring Training tunnel, the plan is a little more concrete. Courtesy of Chad Jennings, here is the rotation through the weekend according to Joe Girardi:

Wednesday: Ivan Nova
Thursday: David Phelps
Friday: CC Sabathia
Saturday: Masahiro Tanaka
Hiroki Kuroda in a minor league game
Sunday: Michael Pineda

With Vidal Nuno and Adam Warren nowhere to be found, it’s likely both have already made their final starts of the spring. That makes sense, they always seemed to be the distant third and fourth contenders for the final rotation spot. Girardi confirmed Warren will make the team in some capacity a few weeks ago, so he’s headed to the bullpen. Nuno could very well wind up in Triple-A as the sixth starter.

Michael Pineda has been fantastic this spring with the obvious caveats: he’s coming off major shoulder surgery, it’s mid-March, he isn’t stretched out all the way, he hasn’t faced the greatest lineups, etc. Everything we’ve seen so far is encouraging and even though Girardi stopped short of anointing him the fifth starter — “The other guys are throwing pretty well too. We’ve got to figure out what’s best for our team as a whole,” he said to Bryan Hoch yesterday — it sure seems like Pineda is the favorite to start the season in the rotation, relegating David Phelps to the bullpen. So, with that in mind, here’s how next week’s rotation lines up:

  • Monday, March 24th: OFF DAY (Nova throws a simulated or minor league game)
  • Tuesday, March 25th vs. Phillies: Phelps on regular rest
  • Wednesday, March 26th @ Blue Jays: Sabathia on regular rest
  • Thursday, March 27th @ Pirates: Kuroda on regular rest
  • Friday, March 28th vs. Marlins: Tanaka with one extra day of rest
  • Saturday, March 29th vs. Marlins: Nova on regular rest, Pineda???
  • Sunday, March 30th: OFF DAY

According to Jennings, Girardi “hinted that someone will pitch at the complex” during the Monday’s scheduled off-day. Nova lines up perfectly for that day, so he seems to be the guy. Phelps, Sabathia, and Kuroda follow with their final Grapefruit League starts on regular rest, then Tanaka goes with one extra day. The team has said they are planning to give him the extra day here and there. It’s also worth noting that regardless of whether he starts Thursday or Friday (or Saturday or Sunday for that matter), Tanaka will have faced only one AL club this winter (the Twins this coming Saturday). I doubt this was a coincidence. The Yankees kept him hidden from the direct competition while still getting him innings against MLB caliber hitters. Clever.

Anyway, following Tanaka’s start, Nova closes out the Grapefruit League schedule on regular rest next Saturday. What happens with Pineda at that point is anyone’s guess. He could come out of the bullpen to replace Nova, he could throw a simulated game, or he could start a minor league game. The Yankees have options. Pineda will be working on one extra day of rest Saturday and it’s good to give him that little break following his surgery and long rehab. They have to take it easy on him and not work him too hard, too soon.

With that all laid out, here’s how the rotation lines up the following week:

  • Monday, March 31st: OFF DAY
  • Tuesday, April 1st @ Astros: Sabathia with one extra day of rest
  • Wednesday, April 2nd @ Astros: Kuroda with one extra day of rest
  • Thursday, April 3rd @ Astros: Nova on regular rest
  • Friday, April 4th @ Blue Jays: Tanaka with two extra days of rest
  • Saturday, April 5th @ Blue Jays: Pineda with two extra days of rest

Nova’s the only guy who wouldn’t make his first start of the season with extra rest and since he’s young and healthy (and not coming over from Japan), he probably needs the extra rest the least. Pineda could throw a simulated game or pitch in a minor league game on Sunday the 30th instead of Saturday the 29th, allowing him to make that first regular season start on one extra day of rest rather than two. There is such a thing as too much rest, remember. He can get out of rhythm or something like that. Tanaka is used to starting with six days of rest, so the two extra days should be no big deal to him.

The Yankees have indicated Tanaka will start the fourth game of the season rather than the third for two specific reasons. One, they want to split him and Kuroda up since they have very similar styles as fastball/splitter/slider pitchers. (It’s not just a racial thing, you know.) Two, they want to give Tanaka extra rest when they can, and by starting him in the fourth game, he’ll be able to make his third start of the season with an extra day of rest. If he starts the third game of the season, he’d have to make both his second and third starts with normal rest. Anything to help the transition.

Sabathia was pretty terrible last season but he’s getting the nod on Opening Day for past performance. The guy was pretty awesome from 2009-12. Like I said before, the Opening Day start is a novelty more than anything. It doesn’t have any kind of real value to the team. The Game One starter for a postseason series, now that actually matters. Opening Day? Nah, not worth getting upset over. The rotation is all lined up for the start of the season and everyone who needs an extra day or two of rest will get it, and that’s it the most important thing.

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HIROK and TANAK. (Mike Carlson/Getty)

HIROK and TANAK. (Mike Carlson/Getty)

It wasn’t all that long ago that it felt like a miracle whenever a Yankees’ starter completed six full innings of work. At least it felt like a miracle to me. In fact, from 2006-08, the team’s starters completed six full innings only 284 times out of 486 regular season games, or 58%. Over the last three seasons, that number is 67%. Doesn’t seem like a big difference, but it is one extra start of 6+ innings out of every ten games.

Thankfully things have changed in recent years and I think the reasons are obvious. The Yankees haven’t only added better starters over the last few seasons, but they’ve added more durable starters as well. They’ve been getting not just more innings, but more quality innings, and in turn the workload on the bullpen has been reduced. It makes the entire staff better when the starter can go deep into the game.

This coming season, the Yankees again figure to have a few starters who can be counted on to soak up innings and complete those six innings of every five days. Given the questionable state of the middle of the bullpen, having the starter take the ball deep into the game will be more important to the club in 2014 than it was at any point in the last few years. Who is going to eat up those innings? Let’s preview.

(Stacy Revere/Getty)

(Stacy Revere/Getty)

CC Sabathia
Let’s get this out of the way early: Sabathia was terrible last year. The reasons are whatever the reasons are, but the bottom line is that he ranked 76th with a 4.78 ERA and 72nd with 0.3 bWAR out of 81 qualified starters. Terrible. From 2009-12, even bad Sabathia starts were hardly disasters, usually something like four runs in six innings than six innings in four innings. That wasn’t always the case last summer.

And yet, despite all his struggles, Sabathia still managed to throw 200+ innings for the seventh straight year. Mark Buehrle, James Shields, and Justin Verlander are the only pitchers who can make that claim. Sabathia’s 211 innings were the 16th most in baseball, and he completed six full innings in 24 of his 32 starts. He completed seven full innings 17 times, the 12th most in baseball. CC’s effectiveness is waning but he remains a workhorse of the first order, someone the Yankees can rely on to spare the bullpen every five days. I have very little doubt he will continue to eat innings in 2014.

Hiroki Kuroda
An oblique strain and a concussion caused Kuroda to miss nearly three full months in 2009, but he’s thrown at least 196 innings in the four seasons since. He’s also thrown at least 200 innings in each of the last three seasons. Kuroda, true to his workhorse form, completed six innings 24 times and seven innings 14 times in his 32 starts last season. Remember when I said the Yankees were not just getting more innings, but more quality innings out of their starters in recent years? That describes Kuroda perfectly.

Both the Yankees and Kuroda have indicated they will look for ways to lighten the load on their top right-hander this summer, mostly because he’s 39 years old and has faded late in each of the last two regular seasons. How will they accomplish that? I have no idea. Maybe they won’t send him out for that one extra inning, maybe they’ll use off-days to give him extra rest, maybe they’ll do that and more. Kuroda may intentionally be turned into a 180-inning starter this year, which is still a ton of innings even if it falls short of the hallowed 200-inning plateau.

Masahiro Tanaka
After three televised Grapefruit League outings, we still don’t really know what to expect out of Tanaka this coming season. We know the scouting report and all that, but until he gets on a big league mound and pitches every fifth day in the regular season, there’s just no way to know what he can give the Yankees in 2014. He could be great, he could be awful, he could be something in between.

What we do know is that Tanaka was pretty durable during his time with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan, missing a little bit of time with shoulder inflammation in 2008, 2009, and 2012. Tanaka threw 212 innings last season and has averaged 203.2 innings per season over the last three years, which works out to 7.9 innings per start. That was pitching ever seventh day and not a pace he will maintain in MLB, but it shows Tanaka is used to pitching deep into the game.

The Yankees have indicated they will try to work some extra rest in for Tanaka throughout the season, and may start him in the fourth game of the season rather than the third for that very reason — an off-day means his second start would come with an extra day of rest as the number four starter rather than regular rest as the number three. Can he give the team six or so innings every time out? I hope so, but he have to see how efficient he is first. The club will try to give their new starter some extra rest here and there, but make no mistake, he’s being counting on for lots of high-end innings right away.

Ivan Nova?
It wasn’t until his sixth professional season, when he took a comebacker to the ankle in July 2011, that Nova missed a scheduled start. He was insanely durable throughout his minor league career, and he’s thrown at least 140 innings every season since 2008. Nova did miss three weeks with shoulder inflammation in 2012 and four weeks with triceps inflammation in 2013, so he’s not an ironman, but by and large he’s been an innings guy throughout his career.

The question now is whether Nova can be counted on an innings eater in 2014. It’s not just the two relatively minor arm problems the last two seasons, it’s the unpredictability of his performance as well. He’s been very up and down over the last three seasons, not an uncommon problem for a young starting pitcher. Nova’s a big guy (listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 lbs.) and his delivery seems to be pretty smooth, two traits that portend workhorseishness. Can he make the jump to become a consistent 180+ or even 200+ innings guy this season? I hope so. Nova’s is a pretty important piece of the franchise going forward and taking that next step would be a nice development.

* * *

The Yankees have said Michael Pineda will have an innings limit because, well, duh. Of course he will. The kid threw 171 innings for the Mariners a few years ago but it’s hard to think that number means anything after a major shoulder surgery and two lost years. They have to be careful and build Pineda back up slowly. In no way should he be counted on to chew up innings, even if the bullpen was taxed the night before.

David Phelps (94.1 IP), Adam Warren (77 IP), and Vidal Nuno (45 IP) all threw fewer than a hundred innings in 2013, but none of them are particularly young (Nuno is the youngest at 26) and they all have multiple 100+ inning seasons to their credit (Phelps and Warren have multiple 150+ inning seasons). I think the Yankees would let all three throw upwards of 150 innings this season, maybe more depending on how they’re performing.

Sabathia (performance), Kuroda (age), Tanaka (transition), and Nova (unpredictable) all come into the season with questions but they all have the ability to be top-notch innings guys. This isn’t some far-fetched idea either, we’re asking these guys to do something they did just last year and over the last several years as well (aside from Nova). The benefits of having durable starting pitchers is obvious and the Yankees are in line to have several of them in 2014.

Categories : Pitching
Comments (32)

Got eight questions for you this week, so most of the answers are short. Use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us questions, comments, links, whatever.

(Stacy Revere/Getty)

(Stacy Revere/Getty)

Matt asks: There has been much made, so far this spring and in the past, about CC Sabathia‘s decrease in velocity, which got me to thinking: What kind of contract do you think he would have received, had he been on the open market this past off-season?

This question came in a few days ago, so I’ve been mulling it over for a while, and … I have no idea. On one hand, Sabathia’s velocity is down and the chances of him being in a permanent decline are rather high. On the other hand, the dude is still a workhorse of the first order and his track record is as good as it gets. Sabathia is also super accountable and good in the community, making him the type of person teams want on their roster.

Given his age and workload and all that, I think Sabathia would have wound up with a shorter term deal for big dollars this winter. Not a four or five-year contract or anything like that. Something more along the lines of how the Giants handled Tim Lincecum. Would two years and $40M with a vesting option for a third year have worked? There are three years (plus a vesting option) and $71M left on Sabathia’s contract right now, so 2/40 wouldn’t be a huge step down. Just a pretty big one.

Brad asks: Most analysis at this point indicates that Michael Pineda (if healthy) will win the 5th starter job, while David Phelps and Adam Warren are favorites for bullpen spots. Wouldn’t it be more prudent to keep one of the latter two candidates stretched out in the AAA rotation?

I think that will be Vidal Nuno‘s role, the sixth starter in Triple-A. If both Warren and Phelps are in the bullpen, I assume one would be a traditional long reliever (likely Warren), and going from long relief to a starter isn’t too tough. Considering the state of the bullpen, I think the Yankees have to focus on taking the best arms north at the end of camp. Nuno will be in Triple-A as the extra starter, giving the team some freedom with Phelps and Warren.

Paul asks: What is the market for Stephen Drew at this point? Am I being a typical unrealistic greedy Yankee fan when I’m hoping/expecting him to join us soon?

There have not been many updates on Drew recently, other than his former Red Sox teammates speculating he wishes he had accepted the qualifying offer. The Yankees could obviously still use him on the infield, but the longer he goes unsigned, the less likely it is I think the Yankees will sign him. Drew would have to change positions — I’m guessed he’d move to third, not second — and that’s something he’d need to work on in Spring Training since he’s never played anywhere other than short. There is only about two weeks left in camp, so he’s running out of time to prepare for the position change. I’d love to see the Yankees sign him, but it’s clear it’s a long shot at this point.

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

Warren asks: So I was wondering how lead size effects base stealing. I feel like Brett Gardner in particular takes enormous leads compared to people of equal or lesser speed who steal more. I was wondering if there was a way to measure if he was taking such a large lead that it results in too much attention. He almost has to constantly be leaning back towards first. Is there any way to measure if other base stealers like Jacoby Ellsbury have more success by giving up a foot or two of lead to get a better jump?

Lead size definitely affects base-stealing. The bigger the lead, the more likely it is the pitcher will throw over. The more the pitcher throws over, the more the runner has to hurry back to the bag. The more he does that, the more tired he gets. The more tired he gets, the less likely he is to steal or steal successfully. The size of a player’s lead definitely plays a role in his base-stealing success.

How can we measure this? Other than going back and watching video of everytime a player was on base and taking a lead, I’m not sure. Hopefully this is something that MLBAM’s new player’s tracker system will cover because it is definitely a part of the game we don’t know a whole lot about. What’s the relationship between lead size and likelihood of a pickoff attempt? Is there such a thing as an optimal lead? Probably, I just have no idea what it is.

Eric asks: You can either have a starting pitcher who is guaranteed to strike everyone out once every five days, or a hitter who is guaranteed to hit a home run every time up. Which one would you choose?

I’ll take the hitter, no doubt about it. You can bat him as low as third and still guarantee he’d get no fewer than four at-bats in every game, so that’s at least four runs right there. I think that, over the course of the 162-game season, you would win more games scoring at least four runs every time out than you would by getting a guaranteed shutout (perfect game, really) every fifth day. Just my opinion. Not sure if there’s a way to test this mathematically.

Andrew asks: Do you think MLB will ever make and enforce a rule requiring identical field dimensions across baseball?

I do not think MLB would do it and I sure hope they don’t. One of my favorite things about baseball are the unique parks and dimensions. No other sport has that. MLB has minimum standards and things like that, but otherwise the shape and size of the field is up to the individual teams. It’s great, I love it.

Tucker asks: How strong of a push do you the think the Yankees will make next winter to sign Chase Headley? It seems inevitable to me.

Headley would be a really good fit as a switch-hitter with power, patience, and good defense at third base, there’s no doubt about it. I wonder if the Yankees will be open to signing another huge contract so soon though. Maybe if they somehow get rid of Alex Rodriguez and the money he’s owed, but otherwise if they were to sign Headley to something along the lines of six years and $108M (total guess), they’d have seven players making at least $17M in both 2015 and 2016. It works out to $146M for seven players each year. Unless the team increases payroll by quite a bit or their farm system suddenly starts cranking out players, I’m not sure if they would go for that. On paper, yeah Headley makes a ton of sense.

Jon asks: Given the relatively small contract for which he signed, do you think Aledmys Diaz would have been worth taking a flier on? The Yankees certainly have a bigger need for a young middle-infielder than the Cards. Maybe the guy isn’t that great but I’ll place my faith in the Cards scouting over the Yanks.

It seems pretty obvious Diaz just isn’t all that good, or at least teams don’t expect him to be all that good given his contract. The scouting reports said he might end up a utility infielder and that’s what he wound up with, utility man dollars. Just $2M annually. The Cardinals are obviously very well run by they aren’t infallible. The Yankees had him in for a workout and that’s more than they’ve done for any international player in a long time. It’s not like they didn’t do their homework.

Categories : Mailbag
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(Presswire)

(Presswire)

It is in no way an exaggeration to say CC Sabathia was one of the worst pitchers in baseball last season. Out of the game’s 81 qualified starters, he ranked 76th with a 4.78 ERA and 72nd with 0.3 bWAR. He also led the league with 112 earned runs allowed. Last season was the worst of Sabathia’s career by a large margin and it was a big reason why the team failed to qualify for the postseason for only the second time in 19 years.

Why did Sabathia struggle so much in 2013? There is no shortage of theories. He lost too much weight, he lost too much velocity, he had offseason elbow surgery, all the innings are catching up to him, his mechanics were out of whack … on and on we could go. Sabathia never made excuses and pitching coach Larry Rothschild blamed it on inconsistent mechanics that led to too many pitches out over the plate. My guess? All of it. All of that stuff and more contributed to his poor year.

That disastrous 2013 season is in the past now. Sabathia is now more than a full year out from elbow surgery and he remade his body this winter, shedding bad weight and adding muscle in hopes of building power and stamina. He looks marvelous and in better shape than he’s ever been as a Yankee, but that was also true last spring, just not to the same extent. Physical condition is not going to be excuse, not that it ever was. CC is always going to be a big guy, that’s just his body type, but now he is slightly less big.

In his first Spring Training outing on Saturday, Sabathia came out firing 88 mph bullets that raised a little red flag but are not really freakout worthy yet. It was his first Grapefruit League start and we’ll re-evaluate his fastball when he builds up some more arm strength and gets another start or two under his belt. Sabathia’s velocity has steadily declined in recent years …

CC Sabathia's velocity

… and there is little reason to think that will stop. That’s the reality of being a 33-year-old workhorse who will top the 3,000 career innings (regular season and postseason) mark this summer. Once the fastball starts to go, it tends to continue going. Reversing the velocity decline is just not something that happens. The best the Yankees and Sabathia can hope for is halting the decline and maintaining this level of velocity for a little while longer.

Lefties who can pump 94-96 mph consistently — like Sabathia a few years ago — are the exception. Lefties who sit right around 90 are the rule. That’s Madison Bumgarner (91.2 mph in 2013), C.J. Wilson (90.9), Cliff Lee (90.4), and Mike Minor (90.4) velocity, and that foursome combined for a 3.06 ERA and a 3.12 FIP in 841 innings last year. Sabathia averaged 91.3 mph with his fastball last season and even if he loses another mile an hour this year, it should still be enough.

At his peak from 2007-12, CC maintained an ~8 mph separation between his fastball (93.7 mph) and changeup (86.0 mph). Last year it was only a 6.5 mph separation and that’s a big difference. That’s the difference between squaring a pitch up and hitting it off the end of the bat or flat out swinging and missing. Linear weights reflect the reduced effectiveness of his changeup (-8.3 runs saved in 2013 after +35.6 from 2007-12), a pitch that his been one of his most dangerous weapons the last seven years or so.

Of course, velocity and separation between the fastball and changeup is only one small piece of the pitching pie. Sabathia’s location flat out stunk last season, anecdotally because his arm slot wavered (he admitted as much) and his pitches cut back over the plate. According to Baseball Heat Maps, a whopping 39.2% of Sabathia’s pitches were over the heart of the plate last season, up from 30.7% in 2012 and 31.7% from 2011-12. That’s a big, big deal. He averaged 104.25 pitches per start last season, so we’re talking an extra nine pitches (!) over the heart of the plate per start on average. Big deal. Really big deal.

(Presswire)

(Presswire)

Improving on last season’s performance will require a number of things. Sabathia’s not finding more velocity so just forget about that. He needs to improve his location first and foremost. I’m not sure there is any way you can improve performance quicker than by not throwing the ball in the hitter’s wheelhouse. If Sabathia can get back to living on the corners and at the knees, it doesn’t really matter if he’s throwing 85 or 95. Easier said than done, obviously. Regaining that 8-ish mph separation between the fastball and changeup is another key.

How does Sabathia go about improving his location and the effectiveness of his changeup in 2014? Damned if I know. That’s up to Sabathia and Rothschild to figure out. The problems could be mechanical or the result of the elbow surgery — he underwent a biomechanical analysis over the winter and things checked out okay, for what it’s worth — or they could be the result of muscling up and trying to manufacture velocity. Overthrowing is a great way to miss spots. Again, it’s probably a little of everything.

Maybe I’m just a raging homer, but I truly believe Sabathia can rebound and be an effective starter for the Yankees this summer. He has to make several adjustments first and even if he does, I still think it’s unlikely he’ll ever get back to peak CC form, that Cy Young caliber ace. Simply being not one of the worst pitchers in baseball like last year seems reasonable to me though. A guy who can give the team 200+ innings of 3.70-ish ERA ball is still really valuable, even if it is not what we’re used to seeing from Sabathia.

I don’t know if the Yankees can make the postseason in 2014 with a good but not great performance from Sabathia, but I do know they have almost no chance of going to the playoffs if he pitches like he did a year ago. Even with Masahiro Tanaka and Hiroki Kuroda around to anchor the rotation, I believe a rebound from the club’s erstwhile ace is a necessity for contention this season.

Categories : Players
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