The best seasons at each position by a Yankee during the RAB era

2007 A-Rod was a hell of a thing. (NY Daily News)
2007 A-Rod was a hell of a thing. (NY Daily News)

RAB celebrated its tenth birthday Monday. Tenth! I can’t believe it. Ben, Joe, and I started this site as a hobby and it grew into something far greater than we ever expected. The site has been around for a World Series championship, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez getting to 3,000 hits, Mariano Rivera becoming the all-time saves king … we’ve seen lots of cool stuff these last ten years. Thank you to everyone who has been reading, no matter how long you’ve been with us.

For the sake of doing something a little out of the ordinary, let’s look back at the best individual seasons at each position by Yankees players during the RAB era. Who had the best season by a catcher? By a right fielder? That sorta stuff. We launched on February 20th, 2007, so this covers the 2007-16 seasons. Come with me, won’t you?

Catcher: 2007 Jorge Posada

Very easy call behind the plate. Posada had the best offensive season of his career in 2007, hitting .338/.426/.543 (157 wRC+) with 20 home runs in 589 plate appearances. He caught 138 games that year — it was Jorge’s eighth straight season with 120+ starts behind the plate — and went to his fifth and final All-Star Game. Posada also finished sixth in the MVP voting. By bWAR (+5.4) and fWAR (+5.6), it was the third best season of his career behind 2003 (+5.9 and +6.0) and 2000 (+5.5 and +6.1). Honorable mention goes out to 2015 Brian McCann and 2016 Gary Sanchez. (Sanchez’s +3.0 bWAR last year is second best by a Yankee catcher during the RAB era.)

First Base: 2009 Mark Teixeira

Another easy call. Teixeira’s first season in pinstripes featured a .292/.383/.565 (142 wRC+) batting line and AL leading home run (39), RBI (122), and total bases (344) totals. He went to his second All-Star Game and won his third Gold Glove at first base as well. Teixeira was the MVP runner-up to Joe Mauer, though Teixeira and the Yankees swept Mauer and the Twins in the ALDS en route to winning the World Series. Got the last laugh that year. Both bWAR (+5.0) and fWAR (+5.1) say Teixeira’s 2009 season was far and away the best by a Yankees first baseman since RAB became a thing. Honorable mention goes to a bunch of other Teixeira seasons.

Second Base: 2012 Robinson Cano

The only question at second base was which Cano season to pick. His run from 2009-13 was truly the best five-year stretch by a second baseman in franchise history. Cano hit .313/.379/.550 (149 wRC+) with 33 homers in 2012 while playing 161 of 162 regular season games. He set new career highs in homers, slugging percentage, total bases (345), bWAR (+8.7), and fWAR (+7.6) while tying his previous career high in doubles (48). Robbie was a monster. He went to his third straight All-Star Game and won his third straight Gold Glove, and also finished fourth in the MVP voting. The club’s best season by a non-Cano second baseman during the RAB era belongs to Starlin Castro. Quite the drop-off there, eh?

Shortstop: 2009 Derek Jeter

The Captain circa 2009. (Paul Bereswill/Getty)
The Captain circa 2009. (Paul Bereswill/Getty)

As great as Teixeira was in 2009, he wasn’t even the best player on his own infield that year. The Yankees flip-flopped Jeter and Johnny Damon in the batting order that season and the Cap’n responded by hitting .334/.406/.465 (130 wRC+) with 18 home runs and 30 steals in 35 attempts as the leadoff man. It was also the first (and only) time in Jeter’s career the fielding stats rated him as above-average. I remember thinking Derek looked noticeably more mobile in the field. That was the year after Brian Cashman reportedly told Jeter the team would like him to work on his defense after finding out Joe Torre never relayed the message years ago. The 2009 season was the second best of Jeter’s career by fWAR (+6.6) and third best by bWAR (+6.5) behind his monster 1998-99 seasons. The Cap’n was an All-Star that year and he finished third in the MVP voting behind Mauer and Teixeira.

Third Base: 2007 Alex Rodriguez

The single greatest season by a Yankee not just during the RAB era, but since Mickey Mantle was in his prime. I went to about 25 games that season and I swear I must’ve seen A-Rod hit 25 home runs. He went deep every night it seemed. Rodriguez hit .314/.422/.645 (175 wRC+) that summer and led baseball in runs (143), home runs (54), RBI (156), SLG (.645), OPS+ (176), bWAR (+9.4), and fWAR (+9.6). All that earned him a spot in the All-Star Game (duh) and his third MVP award (second with the Yankees). A-Rod received 26 of the 28 first place MVP votes that year. The two Detroit voters voted for Magglio Ordonez. For reals. What an incredible season this was. I’ve never seen a player locked in like that for 162 games. Alex was on a completely different level than everyone else in 2007.

Left Field: 2010 Brett Gardner

With all due respect to Damon, who was outstanding for the 2009 World Series team, 2010 Gardner was better than 2009 Damon. Gardner hit .277/.383/.379 (112 wRC+) with five home runs and 47 steals that season to go along with his excellent defense. Damon, meanwhile, hit a healthy .282/.365/.489 (122 wRC+) with a career high tying 24 home runs and 12 steals in 2009. His defense was so very shaky though. Remember how he used to take those choppy steps that made it seem like he had no idea where the ball was? Both bWAR (+7.3 to +4.2) and fWAR (+6.1 to +3.6) say 2010 Gardner was better than 2009 Damon, but forget about WAR. Gardner got on base much more often and was the better baserunner. I think that combined with the glove more than makes up for Damon’s edge in power. Honorable mention goes to Matsui’s .285/.367/.488 (124 wRC+) effort with 25 home runs in 2007.

Center Field: 2011 Curtis Granderson

Remember how much Granderson struggled the first four and a half months of the 2010 season? He was hitting .240/.307/.417 (91 wRC+) with ten homers in 335 plate appearances prior to his career-altering pow wow with hitting coach Kevin Long that August. Granderson made some mechanical changes and hit .259/.354/.560 (144 wRC+) with 14 homers in 193 plate appearances the rest of the way. He went from a passable outfielder to one of the game’s top power hitters seemingly overnight. That success carried over into 2011, during which Granderson hit .262/.364/.552 (146 wRC+) with 41 home runs. He led the league in runs (136) and RBI (119), went to the All-Star Game, and finished fourth in the MVP voting. My man.

Right Field: 2010 Nick Swisher

We’re picking between Swisher seasons here, and I’m going with 2010 over 2012. Swisher managed a .288/.359/.511 (134 wRC+) line with 29 home runs in 2010, making it the best offensive season of his career. Add in right field defense that was better than Swisher got credit for, and you’ve got a +3.7 bWAR and +4.3 fWAR player. Right field lacks that big eye-popping season like the other positions during the RAB era. Swisher was reliably above-average but not a star.

Designated Hitter: 2009 Hideki Matsui

Happier times. (Al Bello/Getty)
Happier times. (Al Bello/Getty)

I came into this exercise with a pretty good idea who I’d have at each position, and I assumed 2009 Matsui would be the easy call at DH. Then when I got down to it and looked at the stats, I realized 2015 A-Rod was pretty much right there with him. Check it out:

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ HR XBH RBI bWAR fWAR
2009 Matsui 528 .274/.367/.509 127 28 50 90 +2.7 +2.4
2015 A-Rod 620 .250/.356/.486 130 33 56 86 +3.1 +2.7

That’s really close! Matsui hit for a higher average and got on-base more, though A-Rod had more power. A lefty hitting 28 homers in Yankee Stadium isn’t as impressive as a righty hitting 33, even when considering the 92 extra plate appearances. Since they’re so close, I’m fine with using the postseason as a tiebreaker. Matsui was excellent in October while A-Rod went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in the Wild Card Game loss to the Astros. Tie goes to the World Series MVP.

Now that we have our nine position players, I’m going to build a lineup, because why not? Lineups are fun. Here’s how I’d set the batting order:

  1. 2009 Derek Jeter
  2. 2012 Robinson Cano
  3. 2007 Alex Rodriguez
  4. 2009 Mark Teixeira
  5. 2007 Jorge Posada
  6. 2011 Curtis Granderson
  7. 2009 Hideki Matsui
  8. 2010 Nick Swisher
  9. 2010 Brett Gardner

Look good? It does to me. Dave Pinto’s lineup analysis tool tells me that lineup would average 6.87 runs per game, or 1,113 runs per 162 games. The modern record for runs scored in a season is 1,067 by the 1931 Yankees. (Several teams from the 1800s scored more.) The 1999 Indians were the last team to score 1,000 runs. They scored 1,009.

Starting Pitchers

Moooooose. (Nick Laham/Getty)
Moooooose. (Nick Laham/Getty)
IP ERA ERA+ FIP bWAR fWAR
2008 Mike Mussina 200.1 3.37 131 3.32 +5.2 +4.6
2009 CC Sabathia 230 3.37 137 3.39 +6.2 +5.9
2011 CC Sabathia 237.1 3.00 143 2.88 +7.5 +6.4
2012 Hiroki Kuroda 219.2 3.32 127 3.86 +5.5 +3.8
2016 Masahiro Tanaka 199.2 3.07 142 3.51 +5.4 +4.6

Chien-Ming Wang‘s 2007 season as well as a few more Sabathia seasons (2010 and 2012, specifically) were among the final cuts. Late career Andy Pettitte was steady and reliable, but he didn’t have any truly great seasons from 2007-13.

Sabathia is the gold standard for Yankees starting pitchers during the RAB era. From 2009-12, he was the club’s best pitcher since guys like Pettitte, Mussina, David Cone, and Roger Clemens around the turn of the century. Mussina had that marvelous farewell season and Tanaka was awesome last year. Kuroda? He was the man. One-year contracts don’t get any better than what he did for the Yankees.

The Yankees haven’t had an all-time great pitcher during the RAB era, a Clayton Kershaw or a Felix Hernandez, someone like that, but they had four years of a bonafide ace in Sabathia plus several other very good seasons. Everyone in the table except Kuroda received Cy Young votes those years. Sabathia finished fourth in the voting in both 2009 and 2011.

Relief Pitchers

IP ERA ERA+ FIP bWAR fWAR
2008 Mariano Rivera 70.2 1.40 316 2.03 +4.3 +3.2
2009 Mariano Rivera 66.1 1.76 262 2.89 +3.5 +2.0
2011 David Robertson 66.2 1.08 399 1.84 +4.0 +2.6
2014 Dellin Betances 90 1.40 274 1.64 +3.7 +3.2
2015 Dellin Betances 84 1.50 271 2.48 +3.7 +2.4
2015 Andrew Miller 61.2 2.04 200 2.16 +2.2 +2.0
2016 Dellin Betances 73 3.08 141 1.78 +1.1 +2.9

So many great relief seasons to choose from. I had to leave out several Rivera seasons (2007, 2010, 2011, 2013), several Robertson seasons (2012-14), a Miller season (2016), a Rafael Soriano season (2012), and even a Phil Hughes season (2009). Remember how great Hughes was in relief in 2009? Hughes and Rivera were automatic that year. The Yankees have been blessed with some truly excellent relievers these past ten years. The great Mariano Rivera retired and somehow they have replaced him seamlessly. We’ve seen some amazing performances since launching RAB.

Open Thread: February 14th Camp Notes

Spring Training has begun. Pitchers and catchers reported to Tampa today — the position players are due to arrive Saturday — and Joe Girardi held his annual start-of-spring press conference this morning. Part of the press conference is above. The rest of the videos are right here. As expected, Girardi all but confirmed Masahiro Tanaka will be the Opening Day starter. That was the only real news from the press conference. Otherwise it was the usual. Here is this year’s first set of camp notes:

  • Dellin Betances has been excused from workouts until his salary situation is resolved. He and the Yankees are scheduled to have their arbitration hearing Friday. The ruling is usually handed down the following day. Next Wednesday, February 22nd, is the mandatory reporting date for players participating in the World Baseball Classic, like Betances. [Brendan Kuty]
  • Luis Severino dropped ten pounds over the winter — the Yankees thought he was too bulky last year, remember — and acknowledged he needs to emphasize his changeup. He’s made a slight change to his mechanics and now breaks his hands closer to his body, which he said helps his changeup. “I came here to be a starter,” said Severino. [Jack Curry, Billy Witz]
  • CC Sabathia is perfectly healthy following his minor offseason knee surgery. It was a routine cleanup procedure that was scheduled well in advance. Sabathia reiterated he intends to continue pitching beyond this season as long as he’s healthy. “If I’m healthy, I’m going to play as long as I can,” he said. [Meredith Marakovits, Curry]
  • Since Chad Jennings is no longer covering the Yankees, we might not get daily reports on who is throwing bullpen sessions and hitting in the cage and whatnot. That’s a shame. Severino and Adam Warren threw live batting practice yesterday, so they’re ahead of schedule. (Warren seems to be ahead of schedule every year.) Tanaka threw a bullpen session. [George King]
  • The Yankees have added righty J.R. Graham and lefty James Reeves to their list of non-roster players, the team announced. I didn’t even realize Graham was still in the organization. I thought he became a minor league free agent after last season. Huh. Anyway, there are now 65 players in big league camp.
  • The Chris Carter signing is still not official — someone will have to be dropped from the 40-man roster to make room for him — but he is in camp and has a locker. He’ll wear No. 48. [Erik Boland]
  • Here are the Spring Training uniform numbers, via Bryan Hoch. Nos. 13, 21, and 25 were not issued. I have no idea what the Yankees are planning to do with No. 21 long-term.
  • Among this year’s guest instructors are Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher, Hideki Matsui, Ron Guidry, Willie Randolph, Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, Lee Mazzilli, and Stump Merrill. [Hoch]
  • And finally, the renovations at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa are still underway. Here’s a photof the place at the moment, via Mike Mazzeo.

Good to have the camp notes back, isn’t it? They’ll get more exciting in the coming days and weeks, I promise. Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. Both the Devils and Islanders are playing, and there’s some college basketball on as well. Talk about anything that isn’t religion or politics right here.

Three pitchers and a contract year

(Maddie Meyer/Getty)
(Maddie Meyer/Getty)

The Yankees’ 2017 rotation is on the precipice of change.

The main reason anyone would state that is due to the rebuild/transition and the newfound reliance on young arms. The Yankees will be handing as many as two spots in the 2017 rotation to younger pitchers like Luis Severino or Chad Green, and there are some strong pitching prospects on the way in 2018 and beyond.

Perhaps the biggest potential change will be with the three veteran starters. In an intriguing twist, all three — Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia — are in contract seasons of one form or another. However, each faces a different kind of contract year as each step into a crucial season which could decide the next stage of their careers.

The Opt-out

When the Yankees signed Tanaka in 2014, the opt-out at the end of the 2017 season was a long way away. Now, as has been discussed, it will be a major storyline for this entire season.

How could it not be? Tanaka has been undoubtedly the Yankees’ best starter for the last three seasons and will presumably be that again this year. He has established himself as one of the best starters in the American League and just had his most impressive season in terms of combined performance and health. Sure, he may give up one too many home runs every once in a while, but he is a force on the mound and we now know he can get through 200 innings (or 199 2/3 innings, but who’s counting?). The photo above is of him fielding because he’s a strong fielder, a smaller but important aspect of his game.

Tanaka will be 28 years old for the entire 2017 season and turns 29 on Nov. 1, just in time for free agency. For a pitcher in his prime, that is just about the perfect time to hit the market, particularly one that has so few solid starters making it there. Here’s the issue: His elbow could tear at any moment. He has made it through the last two seasons just fine, but it’s a concern for every Yankees fan that Tanaka’s elbow is too fragile to be worth another long-term commitment.

If Tanaka uses his opt-out, he would have to undergo a physical with any team he signs with and that would include a peek at his ole UCL to see whether it is holding up. Is that worth the risk for him? Probably. Most pitchers have some wear and tear with the ligament and it’s not likely to be that much different. He’ll still get a long-term commitment from someone, quite possibly the Yankees, if he stays healthy in 2017, a big if for a pitcher with a partial UCL tear.

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

One more year?

Believe it or not, Sabathia is about to begin his ninth season with the Yankees and his next win will make it so he has more wins with the Yanks than he did with Indians. We are now five seasons removed from his last All-Star appearance and it’s pretty clear the CC of old is not the CC of now. The 36-year-old lefty with eight 200-inning seasons doesn’t seem all that likely to post another one.

The good news is that he’s coming off his best season since that All-Star season in 2012. Shocking to many, he was actually an above-average pitcher for 180 innings in 2017, taking a page out of the Andy Pettitte book of aging gracefully. Using a cutter like his former teammate, Sabathia has regained the ability to get righties out at a decent enough clip after a few years of the platoon advantage destroying him. He’s actually effective and can get through six innings against the toughest of lineups in the AL East.

Similar to Pettitte, Sabathia is on the downside of his career and could be done at any moment. Guys don’t usually go out on top and some just fall apart without a moment’s notice. He’s going year-to-year and whether there is a spot in the rotation for him depends on his ability to keep up his 2016 numbers and hold off the prospects for another year. If CC can provide another year of 30 starts and an ERA around 4.00, he’d be worth another one-year deal, right? He’d have to settle for well less than his current $25 million salary, but that’s to be expected.

Sabathia was raised on the west coast, so perhaps he’d be inclined to go back to the opposite coast in free agency, but he’s lived in the New York area for nearly a decade now and seems to enjoy to his current digs. Another solid season and it’s not hard to see him in pinstripes for his age-37 season as well.

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

The question mark

OK, so what do we expect out of Pineda in 2017? It’s really tough to pin down exactly what the 6-foot-7 righty can provide in his fourth season with the Yankees. Last year, he was the third best out of these three veterans (is it fair to call Pineda a vet now?) with a 4.82 ERA, but his 3.79 FIP was quite solid. In fact, it was his second straight season lagging well behind his FIP (4.37 ERA, 3.34 FIP in 2015).

Basically, Pineda is a sabermetric nightmare. The guy who strikes out opponents at an extremely high clip (best K per 9 in the American League last year) and doesn’t walk many is exactly what teams desire in their starters and what has led to his low FIP. Yet Pineda can’t seem to turn his sterling peripherals into, you know, actual performance. He’ll have games like this one or this one where he puts everything together and is the ace many thought he could be back in 2012. Or he’ll give up hit after hit with shaky command and be pulled five runs into a loss.

It’s not like he doesn’t have the stuff. His fastball-slider combo can be downright unhittable when he’s going. 16 strikeouts unhittable. And his peripherals will have many believing he can turn around his high BABIP numbers and become elite like he was for eight starts in 2014. That turnaround might have to come in another uniform if he can’t pull it off this season.

If the Yankees sell this season – an unlikely possibility with the Steinbrenners not wanting to do so in back-to-back years – Pineda could be nice chip for the Yankees and fetch a couple prospects, even if they’re at a lower level as with the Ivan Nova trade. The most likely scenario is that Pineda is in the Yankees’ rotation all season, for worse or for better.

So what does his future look like? Like Tanaka, he’ll be 28 for the entire 2017 campaign before turning 29 next offseason. Unlike his righty counterpart, he’s looking for his first long-term contract. He’ll earn $7.4 million and will have made over $15 million in his career through the end of this season. However, he certainly will be searching for a long-term deal. He’ll be one of the better pitchers hitting the market, particularly for a team thinking they can turn his strikeout-walk ratio into gold. If he pitches similarly to his 2015-16, he’ll still likely be in line for at least a 3-year, $30 million deal on his lowest end. The pitching market is a seller’s market.

One way or another, this will likely be the last time we see Tanaka, Pineda and Sabathia headline a Yankees rotation. That’s not to say it can’t happen in 2018, but a lot of things would have to break right. Sabathia could be staring down the last season of his career. Tanaka could be heading for greener pastures or for a surgeon’s table. And how do you solve a problem like Pineda?

Last season became the final year of the old guard among the hitters with Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Brian McCann, among others, playing their final games as Yankees. I don’t think there will be an overhaul quite like that in the rotation, but as with the stable of prospects on their way from Scranton, it’ll be fascinating to watch how the veterans perform with all eyes on them.

CC Sabathia hopes to continue pitching beyond 2017

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

Hands down, one of my favorite things about last season was CC Sabathia‘s resurgence. It was tough watching him struggle the last few years, but last season Sabathia developed a cutter and made the transition to finesse pitcher. Hopefully he gives the Yankees more of the same this coming season. They’ll need it to contend.

Not surprisingly, Sabathia recently told Pete Caldera that as long as he’s healthy and feeling good, he plans to continue playing. This is the time of year when we begin to hear stories like this. CC was also surprisingly non-committal about remaining with the Yankees long-term even though his family lives in New Jersey full-time.

“If anything, it made me want to play as long as I can. As long as I’m healthy and feeling good, I want to play,” said Sabathia when asked about Mark Teixeira‘s and Alex Rodriguez‘s farewells. “I don’t think there would be anything sentimental (about 2017 possibly being my final season as Yankee). If it’s my last year (here), I’m sure I’ll pitch here again, whether it’s in a different uniform or whatever.”

Usually we hear players say they want to wear pinstripes the rest of their careers. I know Teixeira said that last year, when he was still in “I want to play until I’m 40” mode. It’s kinda refreshing to hear Sabathia be so candid. He knows this is a business, he’s been through free agency and all that before, and he understands the business could lead to him pitching elsewhere after 2017.

The Yankees are in need of pitching beyond 2017 since both Sabathia and Michael Pineda will be free agents after the season, plus Masahiro Tanaka can opt-out. Hopefully a few of the kids emerge as reliable rotation options this year. That would be cool. And even if it happens, there’s always room for a veteran innings guy on the staff. I can’t imagine the Yankees ever going with five kids in the rotation.

Sabathia’s new cutter and knee brace, not to mention his sobriety, give us some tangible reasons to believe his success last year was sustainable. He’ll never be an ace again, but if he can be a league average starter for 170+ innings, that’s a nice little rotation piece. If he has another solid season, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the Yankees try to bring Sabathia back in 2018, presumably on a one-year deal. Hard to think of a better one-year veteran.

Monday Notes: Sabathia, Tanaka, WBC, Otani

(Adam Hunger/Getty)
(Adam Hunger/Getty)

The 2017 Winter Meetings are in full swing down at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center just south of Washington, DC. Here are the day’s Yankees-related rumors and here are some other bits of news and notes.

Sabathia doing well after knee surgery

At a charity event over the weekend, CC Sabathia told Evan Drellich he is doing well following right knee surgery earlier in the offseason. His throwing program is set to begin today. Sabathia had what the Yankees called a “routine clean-up” procedure on his knee after the season, the knee that has given him all that trouble in recent years. The procedure was planned well in advance. It wasn’t a surprise or anything.

Sabathia, 36, is entering the final year of his contract, and he’s probably the second best starter on the team right now. I know if the Yankees were facing a must win game and my choices to start were Sabathia or Michael Pineda, I’d go with Sabathia. Don’t know about you. Sabathia reinvented himself as a cutter pitcher this summer and had his best season since 2012. I’m hopeful the new approach will allow him to remain effective at least one more year. Given his age and all those innings on his arm though, you never really know.

Tanaka wants to pitch in WBC

Even after pitching in the 2009 and 2013 events, Masahiro Tanaka would like to pitch in the World Baseball Classic next spring, he told the Japan Times. “There’s been no development (in my roster status), but of course I have the motivation (to play),” he said. Tanaka threw 9.1 innings across one start and seven relief appearances in the 2009 and 2013 WBCs. He won the title with Japan in 2009.

Japan nor any other team has released their final 2017 WBC roster. Those aren’t due until January. Interestingly enough, Japan did not take any MLB players in the 2013 WBC. Not even Ichiro. It was all NPB players. It’s unclear if that’s a new policy or just a one-time blip. They did use MLB players in the 2006 and 2009 WBCs. If Tanaka wants to pitch, the Yankees can’t stop him. I don’t like the idea of him throwing intense innings in March any more than you do. Blah. Tanaka is one of several Yankees who could wind up playing in the WBC.

Otani hopes to come to MLB next offseason

According to the Japan Times, Nippon Ham Fighters ace Shohei Otani has told the team he wants to be posted next offseason. He signed a new one-year contract with the (Ham) Fighters over the weekend, ensuring he won’t be posted this winter, but next winter is apparently his target. “I know that the club will respect my will whenever I decide I want to go (to MLB). It is pleasing to get that support and I’m thankful for it,” said Otani.

Otani, who has been working out with Tanaka this offseason, is the best player in the world not under contract with an MLB team. You could argue he’s the best hitter and pitcher not in MLB. Otani will turn 23 in July, meaning he will be subject to the international hard cap put in place by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. My guess is MLB and the MLBPA will agree to make Otani exempt from the hard cap. Either that, or he’s going to come over when his earning potential is severely limited.

The Reinvention of CC Sabathia [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The end of CC Sabathia‘s contract has not been pretty and I’m not sure any of us are surprised. The Yankees went into the contract — and the contract extension following 2011, at that — knowing they were paying for the great years up front and would have to live with the ugly years at the back-end. Sabathia pitched very well from 2009-12 before all the wear and tear began to take their toll.

We’ve spent the last few years hoping. Hoping Sabathia would figure out how to pitch with diminished stuff and hoping he’d regain some effectiveness. He didn’t have to be an ace anymore. But league average would have been nice. Heck, it would have been an upgrade. Sabathia had a 4.81 ERA (4.40 FIP) in 424.1 innings from 2013-15, after all. We came into this season hoping again. This time, those hopes and prayers didn’t go for naught.

The Spring Competition

The Yankees hold competitions in Spring Training every year and most of them are rigged. Some are legitimate, but they’re usually for bench or bullpen spots. Rarely do the Yankees leave a rotation spot or a regular lineup spot up for grabs in camp. That’s why it was a little tough to believe them when they said Sabathia would have to compete for a rotation spot in camp. It was Sabathia vs. Ivan Nova.

Early during Grapefruit League play, Nova thoroughly out-pitched Sabathia. He allowed two runs in his first three spring starts and nine innings. Sabathia allowed ten runs in 7.1 innings in his first three starts. The Yankees insisted it was a true competition, and Nova was in the lead. Then he allowed ten runs in his next two starts and nine innings while Sabathia finished well, and that was that.

Even if this was a true competition, I’m sure the Yankees wanted Sabathia to win. They wanted nothing more than to see Sabathia grab a rotation spot and run with it. They were paying him a ton of money for things he’s done in the past, and they badly hoped he would contribute something this year. Sabathia finished the spring strong while Nova hit a bump in the road, so the veteran southpaw got the job.

“There was a lot of discussion,” said Joe Girardi at the end of camp. “A lot of it came down to CC’s September last year. He’s been there so many times. As I said, the decision that sometimes you make in April is not necessarily what happens in May. And I gotta tell you: it was really hard and it was not a decision that we were trying to prolong or not try to inform the players.”

Re-Emergence of the Ace

The Yankees did indeed slot Sabathia in as their fifth starter to open the regular season, and his first start was … okay. Not great, not terrible. Just okay. He allowed three runs on four hits and four walks in six innings against the Tigers. By fifth starter standards, that was okay. The rest of April was not. Sabathia allowed 12 runs on 25 hits and eleven walks in his first four starts and 21.1 innings. He struck out 15. That’s a 5.06 ERA (4.04 FIP).

The calls to remove Sabathia from the rotation — if not outright release him in the final guaranteed year of his contract — grew louder with each passing start. The problem was Michael Pineda and Luis Severino. They were much worse than Sabathia — Pineda had a 6.33 ERA (5.29 FIP) in April, Severino a 6.86 ERA (3.71 FIP) — so he was, at best (worst?), third in line to be removed from the rotation.

It’s a good thing the Yankees didn’t remove Sabathia from the rotation following his dreadful April, because over the next month and a half, he was an absolute monster. I’m talking six runs allowed (four earned) total in his next seven starts and 44 innings. He allowed zero earned runs in four of those seven starts. Sabathia’s best start came June 10th, when he chucked seven scoreless against the Tigers.

Following the dreadful April, Sabathia was sitting on a 2.20 ERA (3.30 FIP) through eleven starts and 65.1 innings on June 21st. There was All-Star Game talk, Comeback Player of the Year talk, Cy Young talk, all of that stuff. Sabathia emerged as the Yankees’ second best starter in the season’s first three months or so. He wasn’t the CC of old, but he chewed up innings and was very effective. It was awesome. Just awesome.

The Step Back to Reality

The regression monster came for Sabathia in late-June. All that success in May and early June was built around an unsustainably low home run rate. Sabathia had a 0.28 HR/9 (3.1 HR/FB%) in those first eleven starts and 65.1 innings and there was no chance that would last. Not in Yankee Stadium and not with the ball suddenly flying out of the park this year.

Sabathia allowed one home run on June 22nd, one on June 28th, two on July 4th, then nine total from July 9th through August 17th. A picture graph is worth a thousand words:

CC Sabathia home run rateYup. The home runs came and they came in bunches. From June 22nd through August 17th, a two-month stretch of games, Sabathia pitched to a 6.78 ERA (5.33 FIP) in eleven starts and 65 innings. He also allowed 13 home runs, which works out to a 1.80 HR/9 (18.8 HR/FB%). Remember that 2.20 ERA (3.30 FIP) on June 21st? It ballooned to 4.49 ERA (4.31 FIP) by August 17th. That was not fun.

The Strong Finish

Given the last few years, it was easy to think Sabathia’s strong start to the season was basically a low home run rate fluke. He didn’t pitch well at all from 2013-15, and what we saw from late-June through mid-August was more of the same. Those eleven good starts to open 2016 were the outlier. Sabathia had come back to Earth and would limp to the finish line as he had the previous three years.

That didn’t happen though. Sabathia finished the season quite strong. He allowed no more than one earned run in five of his final eight starts and pitched to a 2.37 ERA (4.20 FIP) overall. The ball was still leaving the yard (1.28 HR/9 and 17.1 HR/FB%) but that was going to happen given his home ballpark. The Yankees were fighting for their postseason lives and Sabathia gave them some huge outings, like when he threw seven shutout innings in Toronto on September 25th.

Of course, the Yankees lost that game because the offense never scored, but you can’t blame that on Sabathia. His season can be divided into three parts: eleven good starts, eleven bad starts, then eight good starts. That’s … pretty good? I’ll take what I am arbitrarily classifying as 22 good starts out of 30 total starts from late-career Sabathia any day of the week.

All told, Sabathia finished the 2016 season with a 3.91 ERA (4.28 FIP) in those 30 starts and 179.2 innings. That’s his lowest ERA since 2012 and his lowest FIP since 2013. He did it with an average strikeout rate (19.8%) and a good ground ball rate (50.1%), which is a pretty good recipe for success. Sabathia did walk a few too many (8.5%) and his home run rate finished at 1.10 HR/9 (12.6 HR/FB%), which is pretty normal.

I don’t think many will disagree with me when I say Sabathia’s rebound and spurts of excellence were one of the best parts of the 2016 season. This dude pitched his heart out for the Yankees for a lot of years, even when he wasn’t doing so well. There was never any question about his desire to win and commitment to the team. It was tough to watch him struggle these last few years, and it was awesome to see him have success again. How could you not love this guy?

The New CC Sabathia

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

This past season, we did not see the same Sabathia we saw from 2009-15. He made some changes over the last year, some of them rather significant, and they could explain his newfound success. Three stand out.

1. The new knee brace. Sabathia’s right knee is a wreck. He’s said it’s bone-on-bone at this point because all those years of his massive 6-foot-6, 300 lb. frame coming down on the knee, his landing knee, have taken their toll. Sabathia has had multiple surgeries, and for most of last season he pitched with a sleeve on his knee. It wasn’t much at all. He used it because it was comfortable.

Late last season Sabathia switched to a clunkier knee brace that provided more stability. His performance improved immediately and he continued to wear it this season. Everything in baseball starts from the ground up, even pitching. Pitching with a compromised lower half ain’t easy. Sabathia can now land more comfortably with the knee brace, and of course that’s going to help his performance. Imagine pitching through pain in your landing knee all the time.

2. The new cutter. This is a pretty big deal. Right-handed hitters absolutely annihilated Sabathia last season. They had a .304/.363/.502 (.370 wOBA) batting line against him. That’s close to MVP caliber. Sabathia needed something to neutralize righties, and his solution was a cutter. A cutter he actually threw. He’s messed around with the pitch in the past, but this year he stuck to it.

CC Sabathia pitch selection

Sabathia effectively replaced his straight four-seam fastball with a cutter. That little cutting action is often the difference between getting squared up and missing the barrel. Sabathia busted righties inside with the cutter all season, and the result was a .258/.325/.400 (.316 wOBA) batting line against. That’s not great, but it sure is a heck of a lot better than what he did against righties last season.

“I’m obviously throwing different pitches,” said Sabathia in August. “I throw the cutter, I throw the two-seamer. So, yeah, I’m a different pitcher than I was three, four years ago. It’s obviously helped that I’m healthy. I have more choices. I can use my changeup, I can throw the backdoor slider, my cutter, obviously. I’m more well-equipped with what I have now.”

3. His sobriety. At the very end of last season Sabathia left the Yankees and checked himself into rehab. Little did we know he had been battling alcoholism for years. Sabathia finally decided to do something about it and that’s great. Far too many people are afraid to ask for help. Sabathia did it despite the inevitable scrutiny that comes with being a Yankee, and yes, he was absolutely scrutinized.

It’s impossible to know how much Sabathia’s sobriety affected his on-field performance, but I have a hard time believing the impact is negligible. He’s in a better place mentally and emotionally, and physically too. How is that not going to translate on the field in some way? I don’t think Sabathia’s sobriety explains his newfound effectiveness entirely — the cutter and knee brace are important too — but I definitely believe it’s a factor.

Outlook for 2017

Sabathia stayed healthy this season — well, aside from a little groin issue in May — so his $25M option for next season vested. He’ll be back next year, and you know what? That’s not a bad thing. Expensive, sure, but this version of Sabathia provides some nice rotation stability. The Yankees need some of that. Given the weak free agent class, having the big lefty back in 2017 will be nice. So Hal Steinbrenner’s wallet will be a little lighter. Boohoo.

Right after the season Sabathia had a “routine” cleanup procedure on his troublesome right knee that was planned weeks in advance. Everything went well and he’s expected to be ready in plenty of time for Spring Training. The new cutter and knee brace (and sobriety) give me reason believe Sabathia can again be effective next season. There are tangible explanations why he pitched well this summer. That’s better than the wishcasting we did last the few years, that’s for sure.

Update: Qualifying offer will be $17.2M this offseason

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

October 13th: The qualifying offer is $17.2M this offseason, according to Jon Heyman. That’s a bit higher than initially expected. It doesn’t change anything for the Yankees though. Teixeira is their only free agent eligible for the qualifying offer and he retired, so yeah.

July 28th: According to Buster Olney, the qualifying offer for the upcoming offseason is estimated at $16.7M. That’s up from $15.8M last season and $15.3M the offseason before. The QO is a one-year deal set at the average of the top 125 salaries in baseball, and the deadline to make the offer is five days after the end of the World Series. Players then have seven days to accept or reject.

The Yankees only have one serious QO candidate: Carlos Beltran. He’s hitting .305/.347/.548 (134 wRC+) with 21 homers in 95 games this season, though his defense leaves much to be desired. I don’t think the Yankees should make Beltran the QO because he’ll probably accept it — who is giving a soon-to-be 40-year-old free agent $16.7M, even across two years? — and I don’t see that as a good thing for the reasons I outlined yesterday.

Mark Teixeira and Ivan Nova are New York’s only two other impending free agents, and based on what we heard earlier today, Nova will be traded prior to Monday’s deadline. Teixeira has been beyond awful this season, hitting .190/.270/.325 (59 wRC+) with nine homers in 71 games around a knee problem. A year ago at this time he looked like a QO candidate. Now? Now he can’t get off the team fast enough.

It’s also possible for CC Sabathia to become a free agent after the season, though that would require him to suffer a shoulder injury that would void his $25M vesting option for 2017. A healthy Sabathia is not a QO candidate at this point of his career. Sabathia with a shoulder injury? No chance. With Aroldis Chapman gone, Beltran is the Yankees’ only QO candidate. We’ll see what happens with him.

The QO offer entitles the team to a supplemental first round draft pick should the player reject the offer and sign elsewhere as a free agent. Signing a QO free agent means forfeiting your highest unprotected draft pick. It’s worth noting players who accept the QO can not be traded until June 1st of the following season, so if your plan is to make Beltran the offer and trade him if he accepts, it won’t fly. At least not immediately.

It’s worth noting the new upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement could change the QO system and I think that’ll happen, but chances are it’ll be minor tweaks rather than an overhaul. If MLB and the MLBPA reach an agreement before the end of the World Series, then the new system will presumably take effect. If not, the current QO system stays in place until the two sides announce any changes. The current CBA expires December 1st.