Pineda, Nova, and Nunez agree to 2012 contracts

Via George King, the Yankees have agreed to one-year contracts with Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova, and Eduardo Nunez. None of the three were free agents or anything like that, but they were not yet eligible for arbitration and the team could have renewed their contracts at pretty much any salary they wanted. Pineda signed for $528,475, Nova for $527,200, and Nunez for $523,800. The minimum salary this year is $480k thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Cory Wade, another pre-arb guy, signed for $500k ($508,925 according to King) back in January. The deadline to sign these guys was actually last Friday, so it’s safe to assume the Yankees also worked out one-year deals near the minimum with Chris Dickerson, Frankie Cervelli, and every other pre-arb guy on the 40-man roster.

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2012 Season Preview: Regression Risks

(Nick Laham/Getty)

Anytime a team wins 97 games, a lot has to go right. Some young players need to take steps forward and do more than expected, some established players have to have career years, and some other players must surprise and come out of nowhere with solid performances. It takes a total team effort to win that many games, from the nine-figure number one starter to the last guy on the bench clinging to his roster spot by the skin of his teeth.

The Yankees had a number of players provide better than expected production last year, none moreso than Bartolo Colon. He returned to MLB after the year-long hiatus and a half-decade of injury trouble to throw 164.1 innings of better than average pitching in the AL East at age 38. It was the definition of a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately, not all of those surprise performances are sustainable. Some of those guys might take a step backwards in 2012.

Freddy Garcia
The Yankees got lucky with Sweaty Freddy last year, at least in the sense that he held up all season without his surgically repaired shoulder giving out. He was a pretty extreme fly ball guy (just 36.4% grounders) who didn’t give up many homers (0.98 HR/9 and 8.2 HR/FB%) because he has a serious knack for weak contract. Hitters pop-up his slop at a pretty high rate — 11.9% infield fly ball rate with a 10.7% career rate — which helps keep the ball in the park.

Garcia is a major outlier in terms of his pitching style, and he doesn’t really fit under the umbrella of modern pitcher analysis. Mark Buehrle is the same way. The concern with Freddy going forward is the decreased usage of his changeup (19.9% in 2011 after 34.1% in 2010), which allowed left-handed batters to hit him harder (116 sOPS+) than they did the year before (108). If he’s unable to hold down right-handers again (101 sOPS+ in 2011 after 130 in 2010), he could be in for a whole world of hurt. Garcia could stand to use the changeup a little more next season to keep lefties at bay.

(REUTERS/Pichi Chuang)

Curtis Granderson
Granderson is a very unique case. His performance improved overnight back in August 2010 (almost literally), but we have tangible evidence explaining his newfound success. Grandy overhauled his stance and swing mechanics – specifically switching to a two-handed follow through for better bat control — with hitting coach Kevin Long’s help, allowing him to tap into his natural power and improve his performance against southpaws. We’ve seen 945 plate appearances of MVP caliber performance (including playoffs) since the overhaul, hardly a small sample.

It’s easy to write off Granderson’s power spike as a product of New Yankee Stadium, but that’s not the case. Since the overhaul he’s hit 30 homers with a .322 ISO at home and 25 homers with a .266 ISO on the road. The performance is better at home, but that’s still serious power on the road. The newfound pop jumped Granderson’s HR/FB ratio up over 20% (20.5% to be exact) for the first time in his career, which is rarefied air. Only eight hitters have sustained a 20%+ HR/FB ratio over the last five years (min. 2,000 PA), and they’re basically the eight best pure power hitters in baseball (Ryan Howard, Mark Reynolds, Carlos Pena types). Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun, Joey Votto, and Miguel Cabrera do not make the cut.

Grandy ‘s power output isn’t something many hitters are able to repeat these days. Only six players have put together back-to-back 35+ homer seasons over the last five years, and only two of the six have been over the age of 30. That doesn’t mean Curtis won’t do it again, he certainly has a lot going for him (like Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch), but it’s not crazy to think he’ll be unable to repeat his 40+ homer effort again in 2012.

Ivan Nova
You can’t say enough good things about what Nova did for the Yankees last season, particularly upon his return from Triple-A. He improved his slider and started missing some bats, which will be important for him going forward. As with every young pitcher, Nova’s game could step a back next season just because he’s still figuring things out, but there is a very specific reason why it’s possible his performance will suffer in 2012. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say his performance is likely to suffer, not just possible.

The easy answer here is that his ERA (3.70) was lower than his FIP (4.01) and he’s doomed to regress, but that’s not necessarily the case. The concern is Nova’s performance with men on base, specifically with regards to the long ball. He faced 293 batters with men on base last year, and he allowed exactly zero homers. Not one. All 13 homers he allowed last summer were solo shots. His ground ball (54.1%) and strikeout (5.47 K/9 and 15.7 K%) rates were slightly higher with men on than with the bases empty (51.7 GB%, 5.22 K/9, and 12.7 K%), but not enough to explain the whole zero homers thing.

Avoiding homers is absolutely a skill, but avoiding homers specifically with no one on base is not. Pitchers tend to lose some effectiveness when pitching from the stretch — .318 wOBA against with men on but .313 with the bases empty — and Nova is no exception. Playing half his games in hitter friendly Yankee Stadium means he’ll inevitably allow some homers with men on base. Those multi-run dingers will do a number on the ol’ ERA, which is why his performance is likely to take a step back in 2012. At some point, someone will take him deep with ducks on the pond.

(REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine)

David Robertson
Robertson was out of this world good last season, using a new cutter to generate ground balls (46.3%) in addition to his usual high strikeout ways (13.50 K/9 and 36.8 K%). He allowed just one homer all season (a solo shot to J.J. Hardy in late-August), stranded a whopping 89.8% of the baserunners he allowed, and struck out 14 of the 19 men he faced with the bases loaded. The Houdini nickname certainly isn’t misplaced.

With Robertson, there isn’t one specific thing you can point to that would lead you to believe his performance will take a step back next year. Maybe it’s his 2.3% HR/FB rate, that’s probably the most obvious. Really, it’s just a matter of him being so insanely good that he can’t maintain the pace. Only 19 qualified relievers have managed a sub-2.00 FIP season over the last ten years, and exactly two of them did it more than once: Eric Gagne (2002 & 2003) and Hong-Chih Kuo (2008 & 2010). Mariano Rivera is not one of the 19. At 4.73 BB/9, Robertson has the highest walk rate of the group, and not by a small margin. Last year’s Kenley Jansen is the only guy within one walk per nine of him. D-Rob’s really really good, but my gosh, it would be something if he was that good again.

Cory Wade
The Yankees got 39.2 strong innings out of Wade last season, grabbing him off the scrap heap when injuries started to thin out the relief corps. He limits walks (1.82 BB/9 and 5.1 BB%) and strikes out just enough guys (6.81 K/9 and 19.1 K%) to remain effective despite big time fly ball (just 38.7% grounders) and homerun (1.13 HR/9) tendencies. Like Nova though, Wade enjoyed a ton of success with men on base last season. Perhaps a little too much.

Only 8.8% of the men to who reached base against Wade came around to score a year ago, well below the league average rate (27.5%). You’d expect a fly ball guy to have a lower than normal BABIP, but a .222 BABIP with men on base is lower than even the most optimistic of expectations. Once Wade gets some more opportunities to pitch with men on base — he faced just 64 batters with men on in 2011 — his performance will come back to Earth and he’ll allow a few more runs, especially as someone prone to the long ball. Another near-2.00 ERA across a full year’s worth of appearances would be a total shocker. Thankfully, Wade has a minor league option left and the Yankees have a number of bullpen alternatives at their disposal.

Yankees, Cory Wade agree to contract for 2012

Via Jon Morosi, the Yankees and Cory Wade have agreed to a non-guaranteed one-year deal worth $500k for next season, or $20k over the league minimum. Wade was not a free agent and he fell a few weeks shy of qualifying for salary arbitration, so the Yankees were able to renew his contract at basically whatever salary they wanted. Wade did a fine job after being plucked off the scrap heap at midseason, pitching to a 2.04 ERA and a 3.76 FIP in 39.2 IP. He figures to again serve as one of Joe Girardi‘s primary pre-seventh inning relievers.

Aside: I don’t know for sure because this stuff is next to impossible to confirm, but it appears as though Wade has a minor league option remaining. If so, he can go to the minors without a hitch next year. Hooray for flexibility.

What Went Right: Noesi, Wade, and Ayala

(AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

We’ve seen it every year of the Joe Girardi era. The Yankees finish the season with a bullpen that looks a whole lot different than the one they started the year with, and 2011 was no exception. Injuries and poor performance always play a part in that, but it’s also a two-way street. The guys that do the replacing have to perform well enough to stick around. Let’s look at three surprise contributors to the team’s bullpen this past season…

Hector Noesi

The Yankees rotation was a bit of a mess early in the season, leaving the bullpen to pick up a lot of slack. Guys like Amaury Sanit and Buddy Carlyle came and went, but when the Yankees first called up Noesi on April 13th, he didn’t pitch. He sat around in the bullpen until being sent back down nine days later. Noesi re-emerged from the minors on May 13th, and this time he got his chance. His first appearance came five days later,and he responded by throwing four scoreless frames in extra innings against the Orioles to earn his first big league win.

Noesi continued to get looks in long relief, including a six inning, two-run outing against the Red Sox on June 7th, and he even worked some one inning, higher leveraged spots from time to time. Two late season starts while the Yankees were lining up their playoff rotation didn’t go so well, but he made a strong impression by posting a 4.09 FIP in 56.1 IP overall. His swing and miss rate (9.4%) was strong enough to forecast improvement to his 7.19 K/9 going forward, no matter what role he’s given. The Yankees have Noesi on a strict pitch count in winter ball as he makes up for all the innings he lost while pitching out of the bullpen.

Cory Wade

(Elsa/Getty Images)

Signed to a minor league pact after being released by the Rays in mid-June, Wade made just a single appearance for the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate before being summoned to the big leagues. He made a great first impression by retiring the first 12 men he faced in pinstripes, and with both Joba Chamberlain and Rafael Soriano on the shelf with elbow injuries, Wade quickly stepped into the seventh inning role.

All told, Wade pitched to a 2.04 ERA with a 3.76 FIP in 39.2 IP for the Yankees. He was true to form with a low strikeout rate (6.81 K/9), low walk rate (1.82 BB/9), a high homerun rate (1.13 HR/9), getting by with dead fish changeups and lazy fly balls. Wade had a rough finish to the season, allowing back-to-back walk off hits to the Mariners and Blue Jays in mid-September before surrendering Dan Johnson’s game-tying homer with two outs in the ninth inning of a final game of the season, but that’s not enough to erase all the good. Wade is still under team control for another four years, including at the league minimum in 2012, so the Yankees did a fine job of plucking a solid middle relief option off the scrap heap.

Luis Ayala

One of many players the Yankees brought to camp on minor league contracts, Ayala had a strong showing in Spring Training (one run, nine strikeouts, zero walks in 11.1 IP) and earned one of the last Opening Day roster spots. A mid-April lat strain sent him to the DL, but Ayala returned in early-May and was arguably the best last-guy-in-the-bullpen in baseball. He racked up a 2.09 ERA (4.19 FIP) in 56 IP, relying on his 50% ground ball rate to survive.

We joked all year about how Ayala was the worst sub-2.00 ERA pitcher in history (he had a sub-2.00 ERA until the last game of the season), but he truly was a solid pitcher given how he was used. His 0.89 gmLI (Leverage Index when entering games) ranked 117th out of the 134 qualified relievers, meaning he did most of his work in low-leverage, blowout situations. Someone has to throw those innings though, and Ayala did a fine job when called upon. It would be a surprise if he returned next season (this is exactly the kind of guy you get rid of a year too soon rather than a year too late), but Ayala was a positive contributor to the 2011 Yankees.

Yankees announce ALDS roster

Here is the Yankees’ ALDS roster:

Infielders: Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Eduardo Nunez, Eric Chavez

Outfielders: Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher, Andruw Jones, Chris Dickerson

Catchers: Russell Martin, Jesus Montero

DH: Jorge Posada

Starters: CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia

Relievers: Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, Rafael Soriano, Cory Wade, Boone Logan, Luis Ayala, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes

Losing Al Aceves

Photo credit: Jim Mone/AP

The bullpen was not in great shape. Brian Bruney had been lights out, but he’d also gotten hurt. Jose Veras, who showed plenty of potential in the second half of 2008, had an aversion to leaving men on base. Damaso Marte couldn’t keep the ball in the park. Edwar Ramirez‘s changeup magic had worn off. All told it added up to a horrific month for the Yankees bullpen: a 6.46 ERA, 5.41 FIP, and 4.53 xFIP through the first month of 2009. If that team was going to contend it had to improve the bullpen. With one move at the end of April it accomplished just that.

On May 4th, after the Red Sox knocked around Phil Hughes for four runs in four innings, Alfredo Aceves made his season debut. He had made his major league debut just a few months earlier, in August of 2008, and he had thrown a quality 30 innings by season’s end. The peripherals weren’t pretty — 3 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9 and just 4.8 K/9 — but the results impressed. Since the Yankees had a full rotation and bullpen to start the 2009 season he started in Scranton, but he was sure to take the shuttle at first opportunity. The poor bullpen provided that opportunity, and Aceves quickly filled the void.

His appearance against the Red Sox was good, not great, though he did manage to strike out seven in 4.1 innings. During his next few appearances he began to earn Joe Girardi‘s trust. He finished two straight games during Walkoff Weekend against Minnesota. He pitched two innings, three innings — whatever it took. He even threw four innings in relief of an ineffective Joba Chamberlain on July 5th, earning a save in the process. While he did hit a few rough patches later in the year, he was generally among the Yankees’ most effective relievers that year. His presence helped the Yankees go from worst bullpen in April to one of the best by season’s end.

During the 2009 season Aceves experienced back issues. They cropped up in late July, and bothered him through his rough patch in August. He stayed mostly healthy that year, though, but in 2010 he finally succumbed. While delivering a pitch against the Red Sox he aggravated his back and left the game. Reports of his rehab and recovery persisted throughout the season, but every time he got close he suffered another setback. But hey, he’s a pitcher and that kind of thing happens. Best to move on and try again next season, right?

There was no indication of what came next. Maybe it had to do with how he approached his rehab. Maybe there were unreleased details regarding the bike accident that broke his collar bone during the off-season. For whatever reason, the Yankees decided to not tender Aceves a contract this past off-season. It came as something of a shock, given how effective he’d been when healthy and how relatively little he’d cost. It’s not often that you see a player who makes less than a million dollars non-tendered.

Making matters worse, the Red Sox ended up signing Aceves later in the off-season. Things got worse still when Aceves went through a normal spring training and appeared perfectly ready to start the 2011 season. Rock bottom has come recently, as Aceves has been a key member of the Red Sox bullpen. In August he’s been at his best, allowing just two runs while striking out 18 and walking five in 14.2 innings. As a reliever this year he has a 2.15 ERA in 67 innings, holding opponents to a .190/.259/.326 line. It’s one reason that Boston’s bullpen has overcome the question marks it faced earlier in the season.

The Yankees aren’t necessarily missing Aceves’s presence in the bullpen. They rank third in the majors with a 3.02 ERA, and fourth with a 3.30 FIP (just a single point behind the Red Sox). They have their late innings covered by David Robertson and Rafael Soriano, and they have a band of other relievers who have stepped up and have pitched exceedingly well in their roles. In fact, if the Yankees had kept Aceves they might have missed out on one of their most effective relievers this season.

Cory Wade did not start the season in the Yankees’ farm system. In the off-season he signed a minor league deal with Tampa, but they did not recall him by his opt-out date. The Yankees, shorthanded in the bullpen after injuries to Soriano and Chamberlain, scooped him up and added him to the major league roster. In 28.1 innings he’s shown good stuff, resulting in a 2.22 ERA. He’s had the peripherals to go with it, too, a 3.43 FIP and 3.49 xFIP despite a below average strikeout rate. Aceves’s numbers line up comparably: 2.15 ERA, 3.80 FIP, and 4.27 xFIP as a reliever. With those numbers in mind, Wade just might be the better option in 2011. Yet if the Yankees had kept Aceves they might never have discovered this hidden gem. Maybe he would be the one helping Boston’s bullpen currently.

Losing Al Aceves was sad at the time, given all he had contributed in 2009. It hurt plenty when the Red Sox signed him, and hurt even worse when he started to help their bullpen. But it wasn’t all bad for the Yankees. They have one of the best bullpens in the league. Not only that, they discovered one of their most effective relievers at a time when they might not have, had Aceves been on the roster. This doesn’t excuse the Yankees’ decision; they refused to pay Aceves half a million, yet spent $8 million on Pedro Feliciano. But there is a silver lining in this. If they can knock around Aceves in this series, well, maybe the issue will finally lay at rest.

The Forgotten Reliever

Jeter, Teixeira...... Wade, Nunez. (copyright Amanda Rykoff)

There are lots of cool things about Yankees pitching, AJ Burnett’s terrible hair notwithstanding. Mariano Rivera. Bartolo Colon. CC Sabathia. But you know what? These are all pretty big names in the scale of baseball, and especially when talking about general Yankee successes. When you consider the good fortune that Yankees pitching has had so far, there also needs to be some consideration given to some slightly smaller pitching names as well. I’m not even talking about strikeout/leverage machine (and 2011 All-Star) David Robertson or never-a-top-100 prospect (but 10-game winner) Ivan Nova.

How about Cory Wade? On the scale of successful ballplayers on the Yankees that no one talks about, he’s gotta be up at the top or near it. Wade was drafted in the 10th round by the Dodgers in 2004 and pitched a full reliever’s season in 2008 in the bigs, posting a pretty 2.27 ERA in 71 IP. However, after a slightly less impressive 2009, he spent the year bouncing between the Dodgers (where he posted a 5.53 ERA in 27.2 IP) and AAA Albuquerque. He was granted free agency after that and signed with the Tampa Bay Rays in November of last year, then was assigned to AAA Durham. There, he worked in relief, posting a sparkling 1.23 ERA and a pretty nice 3.34 FIP, to go alone with a K/BB ratio over 5. He did all of this in about 40 innings, and then used a clause in his contract to opt out on July 11th. This is where it gets good.

Let me set the scene for you. Rafael Soriano has just gone on the DL with elbow soreness and is not expected back until the All-Star Break. Joba Chamberlain has just gone on the DL two days before, with a strained flexor. Currently taking their places are the ever famous Jeff Marquez (minor league ERA: 3.97, FIP: 4.37) who has just been claimed off waivers from the White Sox, and Amauri Sanit (ERA: 5.21, FIP: 4.73) from AAA. Meanwhile, you are Brian Cashman, and your arch-enemies, the Rays, have just released a really good reliever from their system. That’s exactly what you need! Excellent! The Yankees signed Wade two days later, had him pitch 1.2 innings in SWB and then called him up to the big leagues.

Since then, Wade’s been nothing short of awesome. He’s a perfectly solid middle-reliever and has handled both high-leverage situations and garbage time equally well. In fact, out of his 21 appearances, he’s only posted a negative WPA in 4 of them, and has gone 2-0. His other numbers are similarly impressive, albeit the small sample of only 23.1 IP is worth nothing: 2.31 ERA, 3.09 FIP, 3.32 xFIP, 6 ER, 18 Ks. His 1.5 BB/9 and 6.9 K/9 are good for a healthy 4.5 K/BB ratio. His 79.2 LOB% is a bit high, but certainly within reason, and his .254 BABIP is the highest he’s ever had. 40.6% groundballs contributes.

Part of it is mental: as a Yankees fan, I feel comfortable watching Cory Wade pitch the sixth or the seventh in a one-run game. I feel like he is a safe guy to give the ball to despite the fact that I’ve never heard his name before this. But part of it is in the numbers: those are legitimately strong stats. He’s racked up about half a win in fWAR, which is nice to have in only 23 innings. He’s given up only six earned runs in that span. Plus, he’s not yet valuable enough to where Girardi is considering him a one-inning guy only: he’s had three outings where he threw two innings, and one more outing when he threw three. He also isn’t constrained to a particular role, such as an eight-inning guy or a closer. In a way, his namelessness contributes even more to his success.

As has been mentioned before, the Yankees have been extremely successful and extremely lucky when it comes to pitching this year, and this makes for endless words for us bloggers looking for something to talk about. As the season winds down, we’ll see more and more of how these players shape up come September and eventual October/playoff baseball. Cool thing is, your name doesn’t have any correlation to have could you can be. Throw strikes, get batters out, win. It all works the same no matter who you are: Mariano, Sabathia, or a castoff from the Rays.

(Yankees Baseball Daily helped me think this up. Check it out.)