Ivan Nova and the difficult road back from Tommy John surgery [2015 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Coming into the season the Yankees had several starting pitchers with injury concerns set to be in the rotation. Masahiro Tanaka (elbow), Michael Pineda (shoulder), and CC Sabathia (knee) all missed time with injury last year, and Nathan Eovaldi was something of a question mark as well after coming over from the Marlins. Chris Capuano and the unproven-as-a-starter Adam Warren were the backup plans.

The Yankees also had Ivan Nova slated to return from Tommy John surgery at some point in the first half. He had his elbow rebuilt in late-April last year, but the Yankees took it slow with his rehab, so he wasn’t scheduled to return to the rotation until late-May or June sometime. The team certainly wasn’t counting on Nova to come back and have an impact, but he was a viable big league arm who could provide some support in the second half. Turns out he wasn’t able to give them that.

The Rehab Trail

The Yankees did take it conservatively with Nova, so much so that he made the vast majority of his rehab starts in the controlled environment of Extended Spring Training. There the team could simply end an inning if Nova was out there too long, or they could send extra batters to the plate if he had a quick inning, stuff like that. Nova was really eased back into things.

I’m not sure how many ExST starts Nova made exactly, but it was enough that he was stretched out and able to throw 4.2 innings and 72 pitches in his first official minor league rehab start with High-A Tampa on June 8th. Five days later he threw six innings and 72 pitches for Triple-A Scranton, and six days after that he threw five innings and 84 pitches for the RailRiders. Nova allowed eight runs in 15.2 rehab innings, but the results weren’t important. It was important is that he felt healthy and strong, which he did.

Nova’s Return

After 14 months of rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, Nova returned to the rotation on June 24th, which pushed everyone back a day and gave the other starters extra rest. The line score says Nova was pretty good — 6.2 scoreless innings — but the red flags where there. While facing a dreadful Phillies team, Ivan walked more batters (two) than he struck out (one), got only seven swings and misses out of 92 pitches, and generated way more fly balls (15) than ground balls (eight).

That said, it was Nova’s first start back from major arm surgery, so he’s allowed to be rusty. I’m sure he was a little excited and overthrowing as well. Nova held the Angels to two runs in 5.1 innings next time out and actually fared pretty well in his first seven starts back, pitching to 3.10 ERA (4.29 FIP) in 40.2 innings. But again, the strikeout (14.7%), swing-and-miss (8.0%), and walk (8.2%) rates weren’t looking too hot. (His grounder rate did settle in at 52.8%).

Nova certainly wasn’t great when he first returned from Tommy John surgery but he was serviceable, and there was reason to believe he would get better as he got further away from surgery. I didn’t like that the Yankees moved Warren to the bullpen to make room for Nova, though at the time my concern had more to do with Sabathia staying in the rotation than Nova. Either way, Nova was back and taking the ball every fifth day.

The Crash & Burn

Those first seven starts were pretty good. The next seven? Yeesh. Nova got rocked during a seven-start span from August 8th to September 12th, pitching to an unsightly 7.46 ERA (5.69 FIP) in 35 innings. The strikeouts (12.9%), grounders (45.2%), and swing-and-misses (6.0%) all disappeared. Opponents hit .290/.362/.503 against Nova during this seven-start stretch. For reference, Manny Machado hit .286/.359/.502 this year.

Nova’s worst start during that stretch was September 12th, in the second game of a doubleheader against the Blue Jays. With the Yankees holding on to slim AL East hopes, Nova allowed six runs and recorded only five outs. It was brutal.

Nova never allowed fewer than three runs in any of those seven starts and the Yankees won only two of them. His season ERA went up almost every start during that stretch, from 3.10 to 3.52 to 3.57 to 3.72 to 4.50 to 4.50 (again) to 4.50 (again again) to 5.11.

The Yankees could no longer wait for Nova to snap out of his pitching slump. Their AL East chances were fading and even though they had a comfortable lead on a wildcard spot, they still needed to clinch the damn thing, and Nova wasn’t helping the cause. So, on September 16th, the Yankees demoted Nova to the bullpen.

Demoted, Temporarily

The demotion to the bullpen lasted only a few days. Tanaka felt a tug in his hamstring while running out a bunt against the Mets on September 18th, forcing him to miss a start. Nova was right back in the rotation without making a relief appearance. I don’t even think he warmed up in the bullpen at any point.

Nova allowed one run in 5.2 innings against the Blue Jays on September 23rd, eleven days after his last start. His final two starts after that were pretty crummy — four runs in seven innings against the Red Sox and then five runs in 5.2 innings against the Orioles. Tanaka had returned but the Yankees had to keep Nova in the rotation just to get Tanaka lined up for the wildcard game, and also because they had a doubleheader on the second to last day of the regular season.

All told, Nova posted a 5.07 ERA (4.87 FIP) in 17 starts and 94 innings after coming back from Tommy John surgery. The Yankees went 6-11 in those 17 starts, including 1-7 in his final eight starts. Nova’s ground ball rate (49.0%) and walk (8.0%) rates were fine — his walk rate was higher than usual because location is the last thing to come back following elbow reconstruction — but his strikeout (15.3%) and homer (1.24 HR/9) rates were ghastly. He was slightly better than replacement level (0.5 fWAR and 0.6 bWAR) and not any sort of second half pitching boost.

The Stuff

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The good news is Nova’s stuff returned to where it was before Tommy John surgery. His fastball sat right in that normal 92-95 mph range and his curveball retained its velocity and depth as well. Nova throws both a sinker and a four-seamer but he’s basically a two-pitch guy, throwing fastballs and curveballs. He shelved his slider back before 2013, the season before he got hurt, and he’s never used his changeup more than 5% of the time or so.

Nova’s pitches had the same general velocity and movement as before surgery according to PitchFX, which really is great news. A lot of guys lose a little something following Tommy John surgery, and most pitchers can’t afford to lose stuff. Nova’s command was terrible this year though. When he missed, he missed out of the plate, and opponents punished him. There is no great way to measure command — walk rate measures control and that’s basic strike-throwing ability, command is the ability to locate precisely — but I think we all saw it. Nova missed his spots consistently.

Bad command is pretty common for guys coming back from Tommy John surgery, so Nova is hardly alone here. His stuff isn’t good enough to get outs on its own — the book on Nova has always been that he lacks deception in his delivery, so hitters can easily pick up the ball out of his hand — and we saw what happens when you combine Nova’s stuff with bad command this year. Ivan was an inconsistent starter before he blew out his elbow. After surgery, he was an inconsistent starter with an excuse.

Looking Ahead to 2016

This offseason Nova will be arbitration-eligible for the final time. He’s projected to earn only $4.4M next season, which is nothing. In fact, it’s already been reported the Yankees will tender Nova a contract rather than cut him loose as a non-tender. As bad as he was this year, I don’t see a reason to non-tender him. Pitching depth is a good thing, and with Nova you can at least hope he will improve as he gets further out from surgery.

Given his performance this year, I can’t imagine the Yankees will count on Nova to be part of their rotation next season. He’ll have to compete for a spot, perhaps along with Warren and someone like Bryan Mitchell. Nova could also be trade bait, though the Yankees would be selling low, and I’m not sure he has much trade value anyway. I’d rather keep Nova around and hope for rebound to league average-ness than take a shot on a Grade-C prospect or something. If he stays, Nova’s going to have to prove to the Yankees he belongs in the rotation.

Joe Girardi’s End-of-Season Press Conference: Ellsbury, Gardner, Rotation, Refsnyder, More

Earlier this morning at Yankee Stadium, Joe Girardi held his annual end-of-season State of the Yankees press conference. There was no major news announced — no coaches were fired, no players are having offseason surgery, nothing like that — which is a good thing, I suppose. Girardi instead reflected back on this season and looked ahead to next season.

The press conference was shown live on YES and you can watch the entire thing in the two videos above. Here are the highlights with some of my thoughts as well.

The Second Half Slump

  • On players getting worn down this year: “When I look at our club, we struggled down the stretch, to me more offensively than anything that we did. You can look at things a couple different ways. You could say ‘were they tired?’ I don’t know. Everyone during the season is going to get physically worn down … We do have a lot of players that are considered to be the prime age, we have some older players in Alex and Carlos.”
  • On possibly playing the veterans too much: “With the info in front of me and being prepared and having discussions with my coaches, we’re not so sure that it would have worked any better (had we done it differently). I did the best I could, is the bottom line.”
  • On having a different plan next year: “You always try to put a reason on certain things. Try to understand it, how you can learn from that, do you try to do something different next year? In these situations, it’s something I’ll think long and hard about this winter … For whatever reason some guys struggled in the second half, the last month, whatever it is.”
  • On Brian McCann‘s second half slump: “I’ll evaluate what I did with Brian McCann this year and see could you do it a little different next year to keep him physically strong.”

More than anything, Girardi seemed to indicate he believes his plan to rest players this season was correct given the information, but it didn’t work as hoped. He really seemed to emphasize reviewing what happened this year and coming up with a way to avoid the second half slump again, either through more rest or something else.

Girardi didn’t simply brush off the second half offensive slump as just “one of those things.” He acknowledged it as a real problem and made it clear he believes it can be corrected. He also said he needs to make sure the players buy into whatever plan they come up with going forward. How do they fix it next year? I have no idea. I came away with the impression that Girardi and Yankees will spent a lot of time this winter trying to come up with a way to keep their veterans productive all season in 2016.

Bullpen Struggles

  • On Dellin Betances in September: “I think he became a little human, that’s all. It’s not like he had a 4.00 ERA in those months. He still pitched pretty well … He had a human month. We’ve seen other great relievers have a human month.”
  • On overworking his key relievers: “As far as using them more than I would have liked, no. I paid attention to Dellin’s (workload) numbers in Triple-A, last year, and this year … Miller had a couple weeks off during the season. Wilson’s workload was not as much as Dellin’s.”
  • On Chasen Shreve‘s rough finish: “I think Shreve has a chance to be better because of the struggles he went through and (he) learned a lot about himself. For the first couple of months he was really good and a huge part of his bullpen. We have to figure out what happened, mechanically. There were probably some things that were a little bit off … I think it has a chance to really help him.”
  • On Adam Warren‘s value: “When Adam went back into our rotation it changed our bullpen dramatically. He made our bullpen deeper … He was as valuable as any pitcher we have because of the opportunities he gave us to win games.”
  • On the young relievers: “I think there’s a number of relievers who came up and got good experience … When you move (Warren) into the rotation, now you’re asking kids to do that. At times we were asking a lot of them. I think the experience they got was extremely valuable. It will help them in the future and give us more options. Did they struggle? Yes they did.”

I thought Betances in particular had a really heavy workload between the sheer volume of innings (84, most among all relievers) and high-leverage work (1.64 Leverage Index when entering games, tenth highest among relievers). He has a long history of struggling to throw strikes, and his late season control issues could easily have been him fighting his mechanics, but I can’t imagine the workload helped. Dellin is crazy valuable and it’s tempting to use him four or five outs at a time, but boy, relievers just don’t work like that anymore.

As for the rest of the bullpen, yes, figuring out what the hell happened with Shreve will be a major item this winter. Shreve was awesome for much of the season, he really stepped up when Andrew Miller got hurt, but his finish was abysmal. They need to get first half Shreve back. I also agree that the young relievers got good experience this season, but I don’t think they can continue shuttling them back and forth again next year. It’s time to give one or two an extended opportunity. You’re not going to learn anything about them when they’re throwing two or three innings between being called up and sent back down every other week.

Ellsbury & Gardner

  • On Jacoby Ellsbury‘s knee injury: “Ellsbury felt good. He physically felt pretty good the second half. He did run into the wall (during the final homestand) and I think it affected his shoulder a bit … Speed guys are going to get beat up as much as anyone.”
  • On Brett Gardner being banged up and slumping in the second half: “I’ll look at how I used him. Some of the months he was so good it was unbelievable (and it was hard to take him out of the lineup) … We tried to get him rest. We try to give these guys rest.”
  • On Gardner’s lack of stolen bases after the first few weeks: “Part of it is he wasn’t on nearly as much, and teams pay attention to him obviously a lot. That’s probably something that needs to be addressed because we need that out of him … He never complained about his legs, but when a guy doesn’t steal as much, maybe he doesn’t feel physically 100%.”
  • On sitting Ellsbury in the wildcard game: “You know what, there’s a lot of hard decisions I have to make during the course of the season. At times I sat Gardner for Chris Young and at times I sat Ellsbury …  I went all through kind of scenarios … It came down to a body of work over the season against left-handers. I did what I thought was the best at the time. Did it work out? No.”
  • On having to possibly mend the fence with Ellsbury: “As far as fence mending, I guess that’s to be determined … Only time will tell. I thought we had a great conversation that day. I thought he had a great attitude that day.”

I was actually kinda surprised Girardi acknowledged Gardner’s lack of stolen bases — he did go 20-for-25 in steal attempts this year, for what it’s worth — as a problem. I figured he’d just brush it off. I’m not a huge stolen base guy, especially early in the game (I’d rather not risk losing the base-runner with the middle of the order due up), but if they can Gardner to be more aggressive next year, great!

The “mending the fence” question with Ellsbury was interesting. That’s an Ellsbury problem as far as I’m concerned, not a Girardi problem. Sitting Ellsbury was the right move in my opinion. Is he really going to hold a grudge after the season he had? If Ellsbury is upset with anyone, he should be upset with himself for putting Girardi in a position where he had to pick between him and Gardner in a winner-take-all game.

Injuries

  • On CC Sabathia‘s rotation status: “I thought when you look at his last seven or eight starts, once you look at his starts with his knee brace, things got better. He pitched much better. I think right now, you view him as a starter, you see how he physically bounces back again.”
  • On Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow and giving him extra rest between starts: “I think that’s another discussion we have to have. We had some physical concerns going into the season and I think we were trying to be proactive in that situation, but I think he answered the bell pretty well … I think he answered (questions about his elbow). I think he showed that was not an issue during the course of the season.”
  • On any offseason surgeries: “As of right now, I don’t think so … As we look at guys, Jake’s knee healed up fine, we didn’t have any issues … there’s nothing scheduled right now.”

Girardi did not address Sabathia’s stint in rehab at all. The answer about whether he is considered part of the rotation next year was purely performance and health (knee) based, and he gave the answer I expected. There’s no reason to think they’ll remove Sabathia from the rotation at this point as long as he’s physically able to take the mound.

The Young Players

  • On who we could see next year: “We feel Aaron Judge is going to make a big impact. We feel Gary Sanchez is going to make a big impact. We feel good about the improvements he made (in 2015) … You’ve got a Brady Lail … To me, when there’s talent, there’s an opportunity they’re going to have an impact for you. When you have players who are extremely talented, they get there before you anticipate, and that’s what happened this year.”
  • On Rob Refsnyder not getting a bigger opportunity: “The one thing as a club you always want to have is depth … If we would have kept Refsnyder — there were still some question marks that had to be answered about him, about playing the position, there were shifts taking place, we wanted to make sure (he was) complete aware of — we probably would have had to release someone and we weren’t ready to do that.”
  • On giving young kids playing time: “You don’t want a young player playing once or twice a week when there’s still development that has to happen. You don’t want to slow that down … John Ryan Murphy did very well. I thought he thrived in that situation.”
  • On trying Refsnyder and Murphy at other positions: “I don’t really see a Refsnyder going back to the outfield. I think we will continue to try to develop him as a second baseman. We believe his bat is going to play … Could you toy around with a Murphy playing a different position? I think you could. I think he’s athletic enough. I’m not opposed to that. I’m not opposed to doing anything if it has value and I think it’ll help us.”

The Yankees had Murphy work out at first base late in the season and he takes ground balls at third base regularly before games — he also played a little bit of third in the minors — and that might be worth exploring in the future. I like (love!) him behind the plate, but a little versatility wouldn’t hurt.

As for Refsnyder, one thing is becoming clear: the Yankees weren’t happy with his defense when he was called up in July, but they felt he improved after going to Triple-A and was more ready in late-September. The outfield is a waste of time to me. Put Refsnyder in the outfield and he’s just another guy. He has to remain at second to have the most value. Do the Yankees feel Refsnyder’s defense is ready for full-time play? That remains to be seen.

Also, it was interesting Girardi mentioned Lail by name. Lail, Judge, and Sanchez were the only prospects to get mentioned by name. Lail had some success in Triple-A this year and figures to be a call-up option next season. That Girardi is mentioning him by name — he mentioned Refsnyder and Severino by name at last year’s end-of-season press conference, for what it’s worth — indicated Lail is in the plans next year.

Improving Next Year

  • On the rotation: “I think you’re going to see improvement from our starting pitchers. Michael Pineda is not a rookie but it’s almost like he had to start over in a sense because this was the first time in a long time he was expected to take the ball every fifth day. Ivan Nova was coming off a major surgery where command was the last thing to come back … From a health standpoint, I feel a lot better about them.”
  • On the Yankees needing an ace: “Looking at Tanaka, I think he’s a top of line rotation pitcher. Is he a one or a two, I don’t know. I think Sevy has a chance to be a top of the rotation guy … We have five starters that give you a chance to win. That’s the most important thing.”
  • On young players taking a step forward: “I think a lot of those questions we had going into Spring Training have been answered. I think we saw improvement out of players over the course of the season, (like) Didi … We’ll have Severino for a full year, Michael has proved he can stay healthy … We have more pitchers we expect back and no more questions … I think there’s more depth in the organization.”
  • On Refsnyder at second base: “He played well. It’s a small sample. I thought he improved during Triple-A during the course of the season. You at him, you look at what’s available (at second base) and you make a decision … That’s something that will have to address this spring.”
  • On possible trades: “I think anything’s always possible. I do. But I’ve always said about trades, trades only work if both teams can agree. I’m sure that will be looked at.”

Not surprisingly, Girardi mostly deferred questions about offseason moves to the front office. That’s not really his place, though after eight years as manager, I assume he has input. It does seem like the Yankees will bank on their young players taking a step forward next year — not just their young players, but others like Nova bouncing back as he gets further away from surgery — and that’s not surprising. The Yankees stuck with their young players this year and it worked, for the most part. Why would they change it up?

Miscellany

  • On standing pat at the trade deadline: “I think when you look at the contributions (the kids) made, I think we made the right move. I know a David Price did extremely well in his 10-12 starts over there … But when I look at Severino’s body of work, I think we’re all pretty pleased. When I look at Bird’s body of work, I think we’re pretty pleased and glad we kept him.”
  • On A-Rod returning to the infield: “I imagine that he’s probably mostly going to be a DH going forward. That’s something that we’ll probably address over the winter … It’s probable he’s mostly a DH.”
  • On continuing to use a sixth starter next year: “Inserting a sixth starter every once in a while is not a bad, but it becomes something of an up and down shuttle … I think that’s something we really have to address too.”
  • On the coaching staff: “We haven’t even talked about that yet. I haven’t even been in the office until today … I haven’t even thought about that.
  • On his wish list for 2016: “It’s pretty plain and simple: win the World Series. Whatever it takes, that’s what my wish list is.”

Between his comments about Tanaka earlier and saying the spot sixth starter is “something we really have to address,” it seems like Girardi wants to get away from being so protective of the starters and turn them loose, at least more than they did this year. If nothing else, they definitely need more innings from the rotation next year. They can’t go through another season asking the bullpen for 10-12 outs a night.

Pineda and Eovaldi projected for largest arbitration raises in 2016

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
Big Mike is in line for a big raise. (Jim Rogash/Getty)

Now that the season is over, we can start to look forward and figure out which direction the Yankees will go this offseason. They could go big with free agents, they could do nothing and continue to trust their prospects, or they could have another trade-heavy offseason. I’m sure there’s a middle ground somewhere.

This offseason arbitration will be a major item for the Yankees. Some of their most important players are up for arbitration and due big raises, which will impact the overall payroll. Matt Swartz at MLBTR posted his annual arbitration projections earlier this week, and his model gets more and more accurate each year. There are still some big misses, that’s unavoidable, but overall the margin of error is within a few percent.

Anyway, let’s look at Swartz’s projections for New York’s nine arbitration eligible players. Yes, nine. The numbers in parentheses are each player’s service time, written (years.days). In the service time world, 172 days equals a year.

Sergio Santos (5.110) – $900K
Andrew Bailey (5.034) – $900K arbitration projection; has $2MM club option.
Ivan Nova (5.024) – $4.4MM
Michael Pineda (4.099) – $4.6MM
Dustin Ackley (4.087) – $3.1MM
Nathan Eovaldi (4.013) – $5.7MM
Adam Warren (3.036) – $1.5MM
Justin Wilson (3.035) – $1.3MM
Didi Gregorius (2.159) – $2.1MM

According to Tim Dierkes, the Super Two cutoff this year is 2.130, meaning Dellin Betances fell 52 days short of qualifying for arbitration. Super Twos are arbitration eligible four times instead of the usual three. Gregorius is a Super Two and arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter. He’s got a nice raise coming after making something near the league minimum in 2015.

Santos is an obvious non-tender candidate. Even if the Yankees wanted to keep him around, they’re better off non-tendering him and re-signing him to a minor league contract since he’s going to miss most of next season while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. There is no 60-day DL in the offseason and there’s no reason to have a injured journeyman reliever like Santos clogging up a precious 40-man roster spot.

Bailey is also a non-tender candidate and his contract situation is slightly more complicated thanks to that $2M club option. I know he’s a former All-Star and all that, but I didn’t see anything in September that made me think Bailey is worth $2M next season. The Yankees can decline the option and instead take him to arbitration, where he’s projected to earn a mere $900,000. I could see cutting him loose entirely or going to arbitration. I’d be surprised if the Yankees picked up the option.

Pineda and Eovaldi are both entering their second arbitration year. Pineda earned $2.1M this season and has the biggest projected raise at $2.5M. Eovaldi is right behind him with a $2.4M projected raise. That is fairly standard for good but not great starters going through arbitration for the second time. Given the fact both Pineda and Eovaldi spent time on the DL with arm injuries in 2015, I’m guessing the Yankees will not explore a long-term extension with either this winter.

Smackley. (Presswire)
Smackley. (Presswire)

Like Pineda and Eovaldi, Ackley is entering his second arbitration year and he’s projected for a mere $500,000 raise. His arbitration case is slightly different because he signed a Major League contract with the Mariners after being drafted, which means Ackley’s salary was higher in his first few years as a big leaguer. He made $1.5M in 2013, his final pre-arbitration year. Most players are making something close to the league minimum that year. His arbitration salary last season was based on that $1.5M. Still, that projected $3.1M salary for Ackley in 2016 is fine. The Yankees didn’t trade Ramon Flores and Jose Ramirez to get Ackley only to non-tender him after the season. Besides, he hit in September!

Warren and Wilson are getting typical raises for middle relievers going through arbitration for the first time. Warren’s salary is slightly higher because he spent some time as a starter, and being a starter pays. Had he remained in the rotation all season, his projected arbitration salary likely would have climbed north of $2M. Maybe the Yankees will throw Warren a bone and pay him more than projected after jerking him around this year. I wouldn’t get my hopes up if I were Warren though. This is a business, after all.

And finally, Nova’s the most interesting arbitration case because he was both hurt (rehab from Tommy John surgery) and bad (5.07 ERA and 4.87 FIP) in 2015. That projected $4.4M salary works out to a $1.1M raise over his 2015 salary, which is quite small for a starting pitcher entering his third arbitration year. Joel Sherman says the Yankees will not non-tender Nova, and as bad as he was this year, that makes sense. Paying $4.4M for a depth arm is nothing, and at least with Nova you can say he might improve as he gets further away from Tommy John surgery. At the very least, the Yankees could tender him a contract then trade him. Don’t cut him loose for nothing.

Arbitration salaries are based on old school stats. Wins, saves, home runs … stuff like that. The players are compared to others at their service time level and they argue they deserve X while the team argues they deserve less than X. The Yankees haven’t been to an actual arbitration hearing in years, not since Chien-Ming Wang in 2008, and there’s no reason to think they’ll go to one this offseason. Chances are everyone who needs to be signed this winter will be signed.

Refsnyder, Heathcott, Sanchez all make Wildcard Game roster

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Rosters for the 2015 AL wildcard game were due at 10am ET this morning, and shortly thereafter the Yankees officially announced their 25-man squad for their first postseason game in three years. Here is the Astros’ roster and here is the Yankees’ roster for tonight’s winner-take-all game at Yankee Stadium:

PITCHERS (9)
RHP Dellin Betances
LHP Andrew Miller
RHP Bryan Mitchell
RHP Ivan Nova
LHP James Pazos
RHP Luis Severino
RHP Masahiro Tanaka
RHP Adam Warren
LHP Justin Wilson

CATCHERS (3)
Brian McCann
John Ryan Murphy
Gary Sanchez

INFIELDERS (7)
2B/OF Dustin Ackley
1B Greg Bird
SS Didi Gregorius
3B Chase Headley
2B Rob Refsnyder
DH Alex Rodriguez
IF Brendan Ryan

OUTFIELDERS (6)
RF Carlos Beltran
CF Jacoby Ellsbury
LF Brett Gardner
OF Slade Heathcott
PR Rico Noel
OF Chris Young

I’m glad the Yankees took only nine pitchers. There’s really no need for more than that. Plus it’s not like the Yankees are swimming with options right now. CC Sabathia is unavailable after checking into rehab and next in line is probably Andrew Bailey, who wasn’t too good during his September cameo.

Both Severino and Nova started Saturday, so they aren’t fully available tonight. Today is their usual between-starts throw day, so they can probably give an inning or two, maybe three if they’re really efficient, but I doubt it would be much more than that. Obviously the plan is Tanaka to Wilson to Betances to Miller. Anything other than that is probably bad news.

Sanchez had only two garbage time at-bats at the end of the regular season, and the fact he is on the roster suggests the Yankees may start Murphy against the left-hander Dallas Keuchel. Murphy starts, McCann takes over once Keuchel is out of the game, and Sanchez is the emergency catcher. Sanchez could also be a pinch-hitter or DH option if A-Rod gets lifted for Noel at some point.

The rest of the roster is pretty self-explanatory. As I said this morning, I think Young will start tonight’s game, likely in place of Gardner. Young has good career numbers against Keuchel and Joe Girardi loves his head-to-head matchups. Gardner figures to come off the bench as soon as Keuchel is out of the game though. With any luck, no one outside the starting lineup and big three relievers will be used.

Building the Wildcard Game Roster: Pitching Staff

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

At some point soon, possibly later today, the Yankees will officially clinch their first postseason berth in three seasons. It’s only a wildcard spot, sure, but a wildcard spot is better than nothing. Both the Royals and Giants went to the World Series after being wildcard teams last year, remember.

The wildcard game is considered its own distinct playoff round, which means it gets its own 25-man roster. It’s not a regular season game, so no expanded rosters with September call-ups, but the Yankees would also be able to change their roster prior to the ALDS, should they advance. They can build a roster specifically for the wildcard game.

There have been 12 wildcard teams since the current system was put in place in 2012, and those 12 teams averaged 9.67 pitchers on the roster. Three teams carried eleven pitchers, three carried ten, five carried nine, and one carried eight. There’s no need to carry all the extra starting pitchers, so teams have taken advantage and expanded their benches.

Whoever starts Game 162 for the Yankees on Sunday won’t be on the wildcard roster. There’s no reason to carry him since they won’t be available for the wildcard game on Tuesday. It also wouldn’t make sense to carry the Game 161 starter since he’d be on two days’ rest in the wildcard game. Right now Luis Severino and Michael Pineda are lined up to start Games 161 and 162, respectively, though that can change.

Joe Girardi and the Yankees love to match up with their relievers, so my guess is they end up carrying ten or eleven pitchers in the wildcard game. I’d be surprised if it was any fewer but I suppose it is possible. Which ten or eleven pitchers should the Yankees carry in the wildcard game? Let’s try to figure it out. Later today we’ll tackle the position player side of things.

The Locks

Might as well start with the easy ones to get them out of the way. Masahiro Tanaka will start the wildcard game — he will return from his hamstring injury tonight and start with “no restrictions” (no pitch count, basically), putting him in line for the wildcard game with an extra day of rest — and we know Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, and Justin Wilson will be in the bullpen. That’s four of the ten or eleven spots right there. You can be sure Girardi would prefer not to use anyone other than those four in the wildcard game too.

If Tanaka’s hamstring acts up tonight, my guess is the Yankees would rearrange their weekend rotation and go with either Severino or Pineda in the wildcard game. (Likely Severino given Pineda’s dud last night.) CC Sabathia is starting tomorrow night and would be able to start the wildcard game on regular rest, though I’d be surprised if he got the call. Yes, Sabathia has pitched better of late, and he is the team’s highest paid starter, but the Yankees wouldn’t even run him out there against the Blue Jays in a regular season game. In a winner-take-all wildcard game? It would surprise me to see him out there if better options available (i.e. Severino).

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Safe Bet

Given their need in middle relief and the fact they have four other starters for the postseason rotation, it makes perfect sense for Adam Warren to be on the wildcard game roster and ready for middle innings work. He is currently stretched out to 80+ pitches and lined up to start Friday, which means he’ll be on three days’ rest for the wildcard game. The Yankees could always cut Friday’s start short — say three innings or 50 pitches, something like that — to make sure Warren is fresh for Tuesday. Unless someone gets hurt and Warren has to remain in the postseason rotation, I expect him to be on the wildcard game roster. He’s too good not be in the bullpen for that game. So five of the ten or eleven pitching spots are claimed.

Whither Shreve?

Considering how well he pitched for most of the season, it’s hard to believe Chasen Shreve‘s postseason roster spot is now in question. He’s been that bad in recent weeks. Girardi has already reduced his high-leverage work, so Shreve’s falling out of favor. Once the Yankees clinch, Girardi and the Yankees absolutely should use Shreve as much as possible these last few regular season games to try to get him sorted out, and those last few outings could easily determine his wildcard roster fate. Right now, given his overall body of work, my guess is he’s on the roster.

The Extra Starters

Tanaka is going to start the wildcard game but it would also make sense to carry an extra starter or two in the bullpen, at the very least to serve as a long relief option in case things get crazy in extra innings. As I said, Sabathia would be on full rest for the wildcard game and could serve as the extra starter. Ivan Nova is another candidate — he started Monday and probably won’t start again during the regular season — but I think it’s more likely Nova starts Saturday or Sunday, leaving Severino or Pineda available for the wildcard game. I have a hard time thinking Nova will be on the wildcard game roster, but I guess it’s possible. Do the Yankees need one or two extra starters? I guess that depends how the rest of the roster shakes out. For now I’m thinking Sabathia and another starter will be in the wildcard game bullpen.

The Rest of the Rest

Assuming Warren, Shreve, and two spare starters are on the wild card roster, the Yankees still have two or three pitching spots to fill to get their staff up to ten or eleven. They have no shortage of candidates, that’s for sure. Andrew Bailey, James Pazos, Branden Pinder, Nick Rumbelow, Chris Capuano, Bryan Mitchell, Chris Martin, Caleb Cotham, and Nick Goody are all on the active roster at the moment. Those last two or three arms will come from that group.

Process of elimination: Goody is out because he’s barely pitched in September, making only two appearances. He seems to be at the very bottom of the Triple-A reliever depth chart. Martin is basically one rung higher — he’s made five appearances this month and three lasted one out. He’s out too. Mitchell looked pretty sharp in short relief earlier this season but has not been all that effective since taking the line drive to the face. Can’t afford to risk his wildness in a winner-take-all game. He’s out.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

That leaves Bailey, Pazos, Pinder, Rumbelow, Capuano, and Cotham. Bailey is a Proven Veteran™ who Girardi has tried to squeeze into some tight spots of late. Sometimes it’s worked (last Friday against the White Sox), sometimes it hasn’t (last Wednesday in Toronto). Pazos and Capuano are lefties, and I thought it was interesting Capuano was used in a true left-on-left matchup situation Monday night (he struck out both batters). He warmed up again for a similar spot last night, but did not enter the game. Pazos has been okay — lefties are 2-for-7 with a walk against him this month — but not great. The next few days could be telling. If we see Capuano get more lefty specialist work, he’ll probably be the guy.

Out of all the guys on the bullpen shuttle, Pinder has spent the most time on the big league roster this year while both Rumbelow and Cotham seemed to get chances to grab hold of a middle relief spot at various points. Neither really did. Both have shown flashes of being useful. Flashes shouldn’t be enough to get them on the wildcard roster though. Right now, I believe both Bailey and Capuano will make the wildcard roster with the caveat that Capuano could get smacked around in the coming days and lose his spot. In that case I think they’d take Pazos as the emergency lefty specialist.

The mechanics of getting Bailey on the roster are simple. He was in the organization before August 31st, so he’s postseason eligible, but he didn’t get called up until September 1st. That means he has to be an injury replacement. The Yankees have three pitching injury spots to play with: Chase Whitley, Sergio Santos, and Diego Moreno. (The injury replacements have to be pitcher for pitcher, position player for position player. No mixing and matching.) Whitley and Santos had Tommy John surgery while Moreno had bone spurs taken out of his elbow. Bailey replaces one of them. Pazos would get one of the other two spots if he makes the roster.

Nathan Eovaldi (elbow) is in the middle of a throwing program but has already been ruled out for the wildcard game. The hope is he can join the bullpen should the Yankees advance to the ALDS. Probably should have mentioned that earlier. Anyway, so after all of that, here’s my ten-man pitching staff guesstimate for the wildcard game:

Righties
Bailey
Betances
Nova (or Severino or Pineda)
Tanaka (starter)
Warren

Lefties
Capuano
Miller
Wilson
Sabathia
Shreve

That might be it right there. The Yankees don’t have to carry an 11th pitcher. Ten is plenty — especially since both Sabathia and Nova/Severino/Pineda would be available for super long relief — and is right in line with the previous 12 wild card teams. If they do carry an 11th reliever, I think it would be a righty just to even things out. So … Cotham? Girardi has used him in some big-ish situations of late. Either way, the 11th pitcher’s role on the wildcard roster would be what, 25th inning guy?

The ten-man pitching staff includes Tanaka (the starter) and two extra starters for long relief purposes, giving Girardi a normal seven-man bullpen. For one individual game, that should be plenty. The pitching game plan is pretty simple too, right? Get at least five innings from Tanaka, then turn it over to Wilson, Betances, and Miller. Warren is the next “trusted” reliever. If Girardi has to start dipping into guys like Capuano or Bailey or Shreve, something’s gone wrong.

Yankees move Ivan Nova to the bullpen

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees have removed Ivan Nova from the rotation, Joe Girardi told reporters this afternoon. Nova will be used out of the bullpen going forward. He is not available tonight but will be starting Friday. Girardi said the decision was purely performance related.

Nova, 28, has a 5.11 ERA (4.92 FIP) in 14 starts and 75.2 innings this season following his return from Tommy John surgery. He’s been especially bad of late, allowing 29 runs and 59 base-runners in his last seven starts and 35 innings. Nova’s been getting worse as he gets further away from elbow reconstruction, not better.

This isn’t the first time the Yankees have yanked Nova from the rotation due to ineffectiveness. They did it in 2013 as well, when he had a 6.48 ERA after four starts. Nova made three relief appearances before rejoining the rotation that year, and, to his credit, he dominated down the stretch. Maybe the demotion was a wake-up call.

I’m curious to see how Girardi will use Nova going forward. Will he step into the old Adam Warren role as sort of a multi-inning guy who can pitch the middle innings or late in the game if necessary? Or will Nova be held back as a pure long man? There’s not much time left in the season. If he’s going to carve out a niche, he needs to do it soon.

Taking stock of Ivan Nova’s post-surgery performance

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

It’s often said pitchers coming back from Tommy John surgery are vulnerable to erratic performances as they regain arm strength and command of their pitches. When you combine that thinking with the notion that Ivan Nova’s career has largely been defined by periods of brilliance mixed in with extended stretches of mediocrity, it was probably inevitable that Nova was not going to be a model of reliability when he rejoined the pitching staff in late June.

Nova flashed signs of being that near-dominant pitcher in his season debut when he fired 6 2/3 scoreless innings against the Phillies, but two starts later was perhaps at his worst this season when he gave up four runs and had just one strikeout versus the Rays. And most recently against the Indians last week he put together another uninspiring start, allowing three runs before being pulled after five innings of work.

To his credit, Nova acknowledged that he’s had his ups and downs this season. “You’re going to have days like this,” Nova told the Associated Press after his dud on August 20. “Not going to feel perfect every time you go out there.”

Despite battling through bouts of inconsistency and posting a 3.72 ERA that is just barely above league-average (and a below-average 4.12 FIP), there are still a bunch of encouraging signs from Nova’s first 10 starts. Digging deeper into his numbers, there is a hint of optimism that he can be a viable starter for the Yankees as they battle for a playoff spot and the division crown in the final six weeks.

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The first thing you typically look for in a pitcher trying to come back from Tommy John surgery is changes in velocity and throwing mechanics. Nova passes that test with flying colors, as his velocity is on par with previous seasons and the release points on his pitches are unchanged. He’s averaging 93.3 mph on his four-seamer and sinker, nearly the same as his rookie season (93.4) in 2011 and his last healthy season (93.9) in 2013.

Brooksbaseball-Chart (3)

His signature curveball has also been really sharp, with a top-20 whiff rate (37 percent) and top-10 marks in both batting average against (.143) and slugging (.196). Maikel Franco is one of the top rookies in the NL this season, but he had no chance on this two-strike hook from Nova back on June 24:

q0kvn

Pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery often struggle with their control but that hasn’t been the case with Nova. His walk rate of 7.5 percent this season is identical to what he did from 2011-13 (7.7 percent), and although he’s throwing pitches out of the strike zone at a career-high rate of 58 percent, he’s also locating pitches in the heart of the zone at the lowest rate of his career (18 percent). It seems like he is still trying to get comfortable pitching on the edges of the zone, but he’s done a good job of avoiding mistakes and grooved pitches right down the middle.

Another good omen for Nova is that he’s back to being a ground ball machine, with a ground ball rate of 52.5 percent that almost matches his 2013 mark. His hard-contact and soft-contact rates are also his best since 2011, and he’s generating popups at a rate that is nearly double his previous career best.

nova contact

Despite those positive trends, one concern is that Nova’s strikeout rate is below his peak 2012-13 levels, and he seemingly hasn’t yet regained the feel for his four-seam fastball this season. Opponents are hitting .309 and slugging .546 in at-bats ending in his heater, and have whiffed on just seven percent of their swings against it.

Perhaps realizing its ineffectiveness, Nova has ditched his four-seam fastball recently in favor of the much more effective sinker that ranks fifth among starting pitchers in ground ball rate (68 percent).

Brooksbaseball-Chart (2)

The fact Nova has been able to make these adjustments mid-season is an excellent indicator that he’s evolving as a pitcher and getting closer to reaching his potential.

Another sign of his maturity is the way that he’s been able to get out of jams and pitch under pressure this season. Batters have a .151/.230/.236 line against him with runners in scoring position and he’s stranded nearly three-quarters of his baserunners so far.

Although Nova is far from a finished product and is still clearly trying to find his pitching rhythm post-surgery, he’s shown a lot of promise in his first 10 starts this season. He’s keeping the ball on the ground with his sinker, mixing in a nasty curveball when ahead in the count, and pitching with confidence and poise from the stretch.

There’s still one hurdle, however, that Nova has yet to overcome: the inconsistency that has defined not just this season, but his entire career. Sure, he can’t shed that label in single game. But a strong performance tonight against the Astros would not only be an encouraging sign of progress in Nova’s return from Tommy John surgery, but also a key step forward in his long-term development from a talented yet unpredictable pitcher into a reliable top-of-the-rotation starter.