The Fill-in Starting Pitchers [2017 Season Review]

Cessa. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Cessa. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

Although they went into Spring Training with two open rotation spots and physical concerns with the other three spots, the Yankees made it through the 2017 season using only eleven different starting pitchers. Only ten teams used fewer. Furthermore, the Yankees had only eight pitchers make at least five starts this year. Those eight pitchers accounted for 158 of the Yankees’ 162 starts this season.

Pitching depth is a necessity in baseball, not a luxury, and the Yankees got some decent production out of their depth arms this year. Given how often pitchers get hurt, the performance of your sixth or seventh starter can very easily be the difference between a postseason berth and a long offseason. Times to review the three starters who drew the most fill-in starts during the 2017 season.

Luis Cessa

It wasn’t until mid-June that the Yankees were forced to use a sixth starter for the first time. A hamstring injury sent CC Sabathia to the disabled list, and while Cessa’s overall Triple-A numbers weren’t great (4.15 ERA and 4.40 FIP in 65 innings), he’d allowed only five runs in his previous three starts and 20 innings. He was the hot hand. Plus he lined up perfectly with Sabathia’s rotation spot.

Cessa made three starts while Sabathia was sidelined, during which he allowed eleven runs on 13 hits and six walks in 13.2 innings. One start was okay (three runs in five innings) while the other two were bad (four runs in four innings, four runs in 4.2 innings). Joe Girardi kept the leash short with Cessa — he averaged only 82 pitches in those three starts, all Yankees losses — which was understandable.

The Yankees kept Cessa around as a long reliever following Sabathia’s return, and he pitched fairly well in that role, allowing six runs in 14.2 innings across five appearances. One real disaster outing against the Reds (three runs in one inning) skew the numbers a bit. Cessa tossed 4.2 scoreless innings against the Blue Jays on July 4th and 3.1 scoreless innings against the Rays on July 30th.

Following a quick stint in Triple-A, Cessa returned to the Yankees in mid-August, making a spot start against the Mets on August 14th when Sabathia’s knee acted up. He allowed two runs in 4.2 innings and had to be pulled after throwing 66 pitches with what appeared to be a back injury. Cessa would not pitch again this season. He was placed on the disabled list the next day with what the Yankees called a rib cage injury. It was season-ending.

In five spot starts this season Cessa pitched to a 5.82 ERA (6.25 FIP) and held hitters to a .256/.360/.535 batting line in 21.2 innings. In five relief appearances, he had a 3.14 ERA (4.83 FIP) and a .259/.333/.389 opponent’s batting line in 14.1 innings. (Cessa also had a 3.46 ERA and 3.86 FIP in 78.1 Triple-A innings.) Pretty bad all around, save those long relief outings against the Blue Jays and Rays.

I am a Cessa fan — I know that puts me in the extreme minority — because I like his athleticism (former shortstop!), I like his velocity (averaged 95.4 mph and topped out at 99.5 mph in 2017), and I like that he throws four pitches. That said, Cessa shelved his curveball and changeup as the season progressed and started to lean heavily on his fastball and slider:

luis-cessa-pitch-selection

The swing-and-miss rate on Cessa’s slider this year: 21.4%. The MLB average is 16.9%. The whiffs-per-swing rate on Cessa’s slider this year: 43.2%. The MLB average is 35.2%. When you’re getting empty swings like that on your slider, why bother messing around with a curveball and changeup, especially when you’re trying to stick around and establish yourself in the big leagues?

Cessa will turn 26 in April and he has a minor league option remaining for next season, so he figures to again be an up-and-down depth arm in 2018. He doesn’t want to become Bryan Mitchell. That good arm/bad results guy who runs out of options without having carved out a role in the big leagues. Depending how the rotation depth chart shakes out, the Yankees might be best served by putting Cessa in the bullpen full-time next year, and letting him air it out with an upper-90s fastball and a swing-and-miss slider. He just might surprise you.

Jaime Garcia

Jaime. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)
Jaime. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)

Despite strong overall results, the rotation was enough of a concern at the trade deadline that the Yankees added two starters, not one. Michael Pineda went down with Tommy John surgery, Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery were piling up innings, and Sabathia’s knee is an ongoing concern. So, on July 30th, the Yankees traded pitching prospects Dietrich Enns and Zack Littell to the Twins for veteran southpaw Jaime Garcia. They then traded for Sonny Gray the next day.

Garcia made his Yankees debut on August 4th and it did not go well. Not at all. He allowed six runs (five earned) in 4.2 innings in Cleveland. Yuck. After that though, Jaime reeled off a six-start stretch in which he pitched to a 2.97 ERA (4.67 FIP) in 30.1 innings. Girardi had a short leash and didn’t let Garcia face the middle of the lineup a third time often, but hey, that’s a serviceable six-start stretch. Coincidentally enough, Jaime’s best game as a Yankee came against the Twins, his former team, on September 18th.

Nine strikeouts and one unearned run on four hits and one walk in 5.2 innings against the team chasing you for the top wildcard spot. Could you imagine if Garcia had pitched like that in a postseason race against the Yankees after they’d traded him? Good gravy. The hot takes would burn down the internet. Garcia helped the Yankees sweep the Twins that series, which effectively ended the race for the top wildcard spot.

Jaime made eight starts for the Yankees after the trade — they used a quasi-six-man rotation for parts of September, so at one point Garcia went 13 days between starts — throwing 37.1 innings with a 4.82 ERA (4.87 FIP) overall. Not great, but they, the Yankees needed the pitching depth, and the six-start stretch in the middle was fine. Garcia was on the ALDS and ALCS rosters and he did get into a postseason game, tossing 2.2 hitless mop-up innings in Game One against the Indians, sparing the other relievers in the loss. (The bullpen was shot after the Wild Card Game, remember.)

Garcia was a rental. He’s a free agent now and there are no indications the Yankees may bring him back, though, to be fair, there are no indications the Yankees plan to do anything right now. Things have been pretty quiet the last few days. I suppose the Yankees could look at Jaime as a one-year candidate should they opt against bringing Sabathia back. I doubt it, but you never know.

Caleb Smith

(Stephen Brashear/Getty)
Smith. (Stephen Brashear/Getty)

Smith’s season started with the biggest opportunity of his career. He was in camp with the Cubs as a Rule 5 Draft pick. Chicago wanted him so much they worked out a trade with the Brewers to get him. In a prearranged deal, Milwaukee picked Smith in the Rule 5 Draft, then immediately traded him to their NL Central rivals for an undisclosed sum of cash. The Cubbies wanted Smith, but they had the last Rule 5 Draft pick and were worried he wouldn’t last, so they made the trade.

Things didn’t work out for Smith with the Cubs. He allowed three runs (all on solo homers) in 6.1 Cactus League innings and was returned to the Yankees at the end of camp. It was going to be tough for Smith to crack Chicago’s roster given their depth anyway, and once he started serving up dingers in Spring Training, that was that. The Cubs took a look, didn’t like what they saw enough to keep him, then sent him back to the Yankees.

The Yankees had Smith start the season back in Double-A — he spent the 2015 and 2016 seasons with Trenton — but moved him up to Triple-A Scranton a week into the season. He was lights out with the RailRiders. I’m talking 2.11 ERA (3.32 FIP) with 25.6% strikeouts in 15 starts and 89.2 innings before getting his first MLB call-up in July. The Yankees needed another long man and Smith was their pick.

Smith’s first big league outing went better than the line score indicates: 3 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 5 K. He retired the first six men he faced before things unraveled when some ground balls found holes in his third inning of work. The outing was good enough to earn Smith a spot start a few days later, in Pineda’s suddenly vacant rotation spot. He made two starts and neither went particularly well:

  • July 23rd at Mariners: 3.2 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 1 BB 2 K on 56 pitches
  • July 29th vs. Rays: 3.1 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 4 K on 71 pitches

Despite being a lefty with good velocity — Smith’s fastball averaged 93.6 mph and topped out at 97.1 mph during his brief MLB stint — and a good changeup, Smith struggled to put hitters away in his two spot starts, especially once the lineup turned over. Realistically, I don’t think there was anything he could do in those two starts to convince the Yankees they didn’t need Garcia and/or Gray. That he struggled made the decision to make the trades that much easier.

Smith went back to Triple-A for a few weeks after that before returning in mid-August as a reliever. In six relief outings to close out the season, he allowed eight runs in 8.2 innings, with opponents hitting .265/.359/.559 against him. A disastrous three runs, no outs appearance against the Rangers on September 8th skews his numbers a bit for sure. But still, Smith did not pitch all that well in the show. He threw 18.2 total innings with a 7.71 ERA (5.62 FIP).

Two weeks ago, as part of their annual 40-man roster cleanup, the Yankees traded Smith (and Garrett Cooper) to the Marlins for pitching prospect Mike King and $250,000 in Shohei Ohtani international bonus money. Smith wasn’t going to survive the 40-man roster purge and the Yankees got what they could for him. This is a good thing for him. Smith will turn 27 in July, and he figures to have a much better big league opportunity with Miami next year than he would with the Yankees. Hopefully things work out for him. He’s stuck with it for an awful long time in the minors.

Building the 2017 Wild Card Game roster

Think he makes the roster? (Adam Hunger/Getty)
Think he makes the roster? (Adam Hunger/Getty)

Although the Yankees are still mathematically alive in the AL East race, odds are they will go to the postseason as a wildcard team, and odds are they will host the Twins at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees have already punched their postseason ticket. Once the Red Sox clinch the AL East and the Twins clinch the second wildcard spot, everything will be set.

The Wild Card Game is, technically, its own postseason round. Teams set their 25-man Wild Card Game roster, then can make adjustments prior to the LDS. That leads to some unique roster construction. Why carry four or five starting pitchers for one game, for example? I’m a bit surprised MLB didn’t try eliminate that Wild Card Game roster rule. Or maybe they did try and were unsuccessful. Whatever.

Anyway, the Yankees carried 16 position players and nine pitchers on the 2015 Wild Card Game roster. For real. Like I said, there are better ways to use those last few roster spots than carrying extra starting pitchers. The Yankees are not guaranteed to follow the 16 position players and nine pitchers blueprint again, but it does give us an idea what to expect in advance of the Wild Card Game next Tuesday.

So, with that Wild Card Game now six days away, I figured this would be a good time to try to piece together the 25-man roster the Yankees could use for that winner-take-all affair. Really stinks the Yankees are going to win 90-ish games then have to play in that Wild Card Game, huh? Oh well. Can’t do anything about it. Let’s take a look at the potential Wild Card Game roster.

The Locks

This is the easiest group, so we might as well start here. These are the 18 players we all know will be on the Wild Card Game roster as long as they’re healthy.

Pretty straightforward, right? Right. I’m as annoyed by Dellin’s walks as much as anyone, but they’re not leaving him off the Wild Card Game roster in favor of … Chasen Shreve? Jonathan Holder? Ben Heller? Gio Gallegos? Another starter? Yeah, no. These 18 dudes will be on the Wild Card Game roster.

Locks, If Healthy

Aaron Hicks (oblique) returned last night and Adam Warren (back) is expected back soon. At one point earlier this season it seemed Hicks would start the Wild Card Game, maybe even hit first or second, but not anymore. The injury and Jacoby Ellsbury’s late season resurgence put an end to that. He’ll be on the Wild Card Game roster as the fourth outfielder though, as long as he’s healthy. Warren will of course be on the roster as well. Again, as long as he’s healthy. Health is the only reason these two wouldn’t be on the Wild Card Game roster. They’re on, so add them to the locks and that’s already 20 players.

The Extra Starters

Like I said, the Yankees carried only nine pitchers on the 2015 Wild Card Game roster. That’s typical. It’s one game, not a series, so there’s no need to carry all five starters. The Yankees figure to carry the scheduled starter (duh), a backup starter in case the scheduled starter is unable to go for whatever reason (hurt during warmups, sick before the game, etc.), and an extra starter should things go crazy in extra innings. Three starters seems like the right amount to me.

Severino is on track to start the Wild Card Game with one extra day of rest. That’s the easy part. Who backs him up? That will depend as much on the pitching schedule as anything. Whoever starts the final regular season game Sunday won’t be on the Wild Card Game roster Tuesday, for example. Right now, Sonny Gray lines up to pitch the day of the Wild Card Game on normal rest and Jordan Montgomery is on track to pitch that day with two extra days of rest. Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia, meanwhile, would be on short rest that day.

Sonny. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
Sonny. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Because of the schedule, Gray and Montgomery seem like the obvious candidates to be the backup starters behind Severino. I suppose Jaime Garcia could be in the mix given how he dominated the Twins last week, though I think that’s unlikely. The Yankees could always call an audible and change the rotation this week, but that would surprise me. They’ll have their best ready to go in Severino. Assuming Warren is healthy, Severino plus Gray and Montgomery gets the Yankees to nine pitchers and 22 players on the roster overall.

The Final Bench Spots

The 12 locks plus a hopefully healthy Hicks gets the Yankees to 13 position players, leaving three open spots should the Yankees again go the 16 position players plus nine pitchers route. Realistically, there are five candidates for those three roster spots: Miguel Andujar, Tyler Austin, Clint Frazier, Erik Kratz, and Tyler Wade. Garrett Cooper didn’t even get a September call-up, so I he’s not a postseason roster candidate. Ditto Kyle Higashioka.

I think Austin is on the postseason roster for sure. He’d give Joe Girardi a right-handed power bat on bench and, just as importantly, a backup first baseman should Bird (or Headley) get lifted for a pinch-runner. You don’t want to give up the DH or have to play Holliday at first base in the Wild Card Game. Austin’s righty power and ability to play first base (and right field in a pinch) seems pretty clearly worth a Wild Card Game roster spot in my opinion. Easy call.

Wade, even though he basically never plays, strikes me as someone who has a leg up on a Wild Card Game roster spot as well. He’d give the Yankees coverage all around the infield and can play left field in a pinch as well. Also, he can run. Crazy fast. Maybe the Yankees don’t consider him a designated pinch-runner option — they didn’t acquire that player this September — but still, the situation could present itself, and Wade is the closest thing the Yankees have to a true burner available. I think he’s on the roster as the 24th or 25th player.

Frazier’s roster fate could be tied to Hicks. If Hicks re-injures the oblique or simply can’t get going these next few days, Frazier would be the obvious candidate to serve as the fourth outfielder in the Wild Card Game. I love Frazier, but I’m really hoping Hicksie is on that Wild Card Game roster. He’s such a weapon when right. The Yankees could always carry Hicks and Frazier, in which case Frazier’s role would be extra righty bat, fifth outfielder, and potential pinch-runner. Frazier is low key fast as hell. That could come in handy at some point during a close game.

The Yankees don’t trust Andujar’s defense at third base right now — they’ve made that clear given how little he’s played there so far — and he can’t play any other positions, so he doesn’t have much to offer in the Wild Card Game. He’d be an extra righty bat and emergency third baseman. That’s it. Kratz? Don’t be surprised if he’s on the roster. The Yankees carried three catchers in the 2015 Wild Card Game — Sanchez, who had two September at-bats in 2015, was on the Wild Card Game roster that year — and they could do so again, just for an emergency. You know we’re in for at least one Wild Card Game roster surprise, right? Right.

If Hicks and Warren are healthy enough to make the Wild Card Game roster, and it sure looks like that’ll be the case, I think those final three position player spots wind up going to Austin, Kratz, and Wade. Austin hits, Wade fields and can run, and Kratz is there for peace of mind. Here’s a recap of the 25-man roster we’ve talked out in this post:

Catchers Infielders Outfielders Starters Relievers
Sanchez Bird Austin Severino (SP) Betances
Romine Castro Ellsbury Gray Chapman
Kratz Frazier Gardner Montgomery Green
Gregorius Hicks Kahnle
DH Headley Judge Robertson
Holliday Torreyes  Wade Warren

Austin and Wade are more utility players than true outfielders, but I stuck them in the outfield section for easy table building purposes. The Twins are going to start a right-hander no matter what in the Wild Card Game — the only lefty in their rotation is up-and-down depth guy Adalberto Mejia, and he sure as heck isn’t starting that game — so I imagine Bird will be in the starting lineup and Holliday will not. Holliday has been pretty terrible against righties lately.

The Yankees, of course, don’t want to use their 25-man roster in the Wild Card Game. They’d like to stick with their nine starting position players and three, maybe four pitchers, tops. That would be the ideal Wild Card Game scenario. The rules say you have to carry a 25-man roster though, and you knows, maybe those 23rd and 24th and 25th players on the roster end up being a factor. No one plans for it to happen that way, but baseball can be weird sometimes.

Yankeemetrics: Welcome to October (Sept. 22-24)

(AP)
(AP)

Bad News Yankees
Instead of building on the positive momentum from their sweep of the Twins early in the week, the Yankees opened their weekend series in Toronto with a mistake-filled blowout loss, 8-1, to the Blue Jays.

This road trip north of the border has been a nightmare for the Bombers in recent years. Following Friday’s defeat, they guaranteed themselves yet another season-series loss in Canada. The last time the Yankees had a winning record at the Rogers Centre was 2009.

Much of the blame for this embarrassing loss falls on the brutal performance by Masahiro Tanaka. Terrible Tanaka was in peak form as he coughed up eight runs (seven earned) on six hits, three of which cleared the fences. Here’s a quickish recap of the ugly numbers after his latest disaster outing:

  • 35 homers allowed are tied with Phil Hughes (2012) for the second-most in Yankees history, behind Ralph Terry’s 40 in 1962. Oh, how times have changed: Terry was an All-Star, started 39 games, threw 298 2/3 innings and even got a few MVP votes that season, while Tanaka is at 29 starts and 177 1/3 innings.
  • Five games with three or more homers allowed leads MLB this season, and is tied with Catfish Hunter (1977) for the most in a season in Yankees history.
  • Five games with at least seven earned runs matches the most in a season by any Yankee pitcher, a mark he shares with A.J. Burnett (2010) and Red Ruffing (1934). Remember, folks, Tanaka had never given up more than six earned runs in any of his 75 career starts entering this year.

The final pitch he threw was a hanging 0-2 slider with the bases loaded in the sixth inning, that Ryan Goins drilled into the seats in right-center. It was the second grand slam he’s surrendered this year, and – you guessed it – he had never given one up prior to 2017. Even worse is the fact that Goins was 0-for-22 against Tanaka entering that at-bat, and had never even hit a flyball or line drive in his career against him!

Finally, there’s this stat that sums up Tanaka’s Jekyll-and-Hyde 2017 campaign: Through Friday, he was the only pitcher in MLB this season that had five games with at least three homers allowed. He was also the only pitcher in the majors that had thrown multiple games with at least 13 strikeouts and no walks.

Aaron Judge was a one-man offensive machine, producing the team’s only run and two of their three hits. His 469-foot booming shot into the second deck in the first inning was the longest homer at the Rogers Centre this season, and tied for his second-longest of the season. Through Friday, he was the only player in baseball to hit three homers of 469-plus feet this year.

(New York Post)
(New York Post)

The clinching
It’s official. The Yankees punched their ticket to the postseason party with a comeback win, 5-1, on Saturday afternoon.

It was fitting that the clinching victory came in a game where the Yankees had to rally, after the Blue Jays took a 1-0 lead in the third inning. This was the Yankees 34th win when their opponent scored first, tied for the most in the majors through Saturday.

Sonny Gray tossed six strong innings and limited Toronto to one run on four hits, as he continued his six-week stretch of gutty performances on the road. It was his ninth road start in a row with two earned runs or fewer allowed, the longest streak among AL pitchers this season.

Greg Bird earned the hero’s cape when he golfed a 91-mph cutter into the right-field seats in the fifth inning, putting the Yankees ahead 3-1. Bird is no stranger to delivering big hits: eight of his 17 career homers have given the Yankees the lead. Among Yankees with at least 10 home runs since Bird’s debut in 2015, his “go-ahead homer percentage” of 47.1% is the second-best, trailing only … Jacoby Ellsbury (47.8%)!

We’ll also give Bird our Obscure Yankeemetric of the Series: This was the second time he’s hit a clutch homer on the road against the Blue Jays; the only other Yankee first basemen with multiple go-ahead homers in Toronto are Jason Giambi and Don Mattingly.

[Because this is a stats post, I’ll note that Aaron Judge reached the 200-strikeout mark in the first inning, breaking the rookie record set by Kris Bryant in 2015. I’ll also mention that Bryant won the Rookie of the Year Award that season.]

(Getty)
(Getty)

The post-clinching
Less than 24 hours after a rousing playoff-clinching victory, the Yankees played like they were still hung over from the late-night celebration. Not only did they lose the rubber game of the series, but the loss also gave them a disappointing 40-41 record on the road this season as they head home for the final week of games.

This is the second year in a row they’ve been below .500 away from the Bronx, the first time in more than two decades they’ve done that. The last time it happened came during the dark ages, a seven-season stretch of road mediocrity from 1987-93.

Jaime Garcia put the Yankees in an early hole, giving up a home run to Teoscar Hernandez on the second pitch he threw. It was the 10th lead-off bomb the Yankees have surrendered this season, the most they’ve ever allowed in a single season in franchise history.

Garcia remains winless in eight starts as a Yankee, tied for the second-longest such streak by any pitcher to begin his pinstriped career over the last 100 seasons. The only longer streak belongs to Steve Trout, who failed to get a win in his first nine starts after a mid-season trade in 1987.

To say that Garcia lacked command would be an understatement. Not only did he throw a wild pitch and walk three of the 14 batters he faced, but more than half (33 of 60) of his pitches were called balls. His strike percentage of 45 percent is the lowest by any Yankee starter that threw 60-plus pitches in an outing since at least 2000 (as far back as we have complete pitch-by-pitch data).

Once again Aaron Judge was the lone shining star in the lineup, belting his 47th and 48th homers this season. He’s now one shy of the major-league home run rookie record set by Mark McGwire in 1987, and also continued his climb up some impressive franchise leaderboards:

  • The only Yankee right-handed batter to hit more longballs in a season is A-Rod, who hit 54 during his 2007 MVP campaign.
  • The 48 homers are the third-most by a Yankee in his age-25 season or younger, trailing Babe Ruth (54 in 1920) and Mickey Mantle (52 in 1956).
  • At the age of 25 years and 151 days, he is the second-youngest Yankee to reach six multi-homer games in a season, behind a 24-year-old Mickey Mantle in 1956.
  • He now has 11 homers in September, the third time this season he’s hit double-digit longballs in a calendar month. The last Yankee to match that feat was Roger Maris in 1961, who had four months with at least 10 homers during his record-setting 61-homer campaign.

Yankeemetrics: How sweet it is, Bombers sweep Twinkies (Sept. 18-20)

(AP)
(AP)

Who needs clutch hitting?
In what was billed as a potential Wild Card game preview, the Yankees struck first with a narrow 2-1 win in the series opener over the Twins. They overcame another massive RISPFAIL (0-for-12 with runners in scoring position) thanks to justenough power at the plate and a (mostly) lock-down performance on the mound.

Aaron Judge continued the steady climb out of his post-break slump with a first-inning solo bomb. It was his 28th home run in the Bronx this year, moving him into a tie for fourth place on the franchise single-season list for homers hit at home. A few guys named Gehrig (30 in 1934), Maris (30 in 1961), and Ruth (29 in 1928) are ahead of him.

After the Twins tied it in the fifth, Todd Frazier delivered a game-winning bases-loaded sac fly in the sixth inning. Here’s a “betcha didn’t know” stat: that was the Yankees’ 52nd sacrifice fly of the season, the second-most in the majors behind the Astros. The last time they finished first or second in sac flies was 20 years ago (!) when they hit an MLB-best 70 in 1997.

Jaime Garcia pitched his finest game in pinstripes, allowing one unearned run on four hits while striking out nine, before getting pulled with two outs in the sixth. He remained winless as a Yankee, though, giving us an excuse for another #KillTheWin Yankeemetric:

Garcia is the third pitcher over the last 100 seasons to not get a win in his first seven starts with the Yankees – the others were Steve Trout in 1987 and Mike Kekich in 1969 – but his 3.86 ERA is by far the best among that trio (both those other guys had ERAs way above 5.00 during their streaks).

The Yankees nearly wasted Garcia’s gem as Dellin Betances‘ control problems re-surfaced in an ugly eighth inning, during which three of the four guys he faced reached base without a hit (two walks, hit-by-pitch). Adding in the wild pitch he threw, and Betances gets our Obscure Yankeemetric of the Series.

Yes, it is very hard to cram all of that wildness into such a short outing. He is the first Yankee since at least 1912 to hit a guy, throw a wild pitch and issue multiple walks — while facing no more than four batters in a game.

Walks have always been a problem for Betances but he’s taken the hit-by-pitch issue to another level this year. It was the 10th time he hit a guy, becoming the first reliever in franchise history to plunk double-digit batters in a season. Betances had a total of nine hit-by-pitches in his major-league career before this year.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Don’t forget about the Elder Bombers
The Yankees continued to build momentum down the stretch with a 5-2 win on Tuesday, clinching their sixth straight series win. Over the last month, the only series they have lost was to the Indians (August 28-30) during their historic 22-game win streak.

The win also was their third in five games against the Twins in 2017, and with Wednesday’s finale being the only remaining matchup, the Yankees still haven’t lost a season series to the Twins since 2001. That is … good?

CC Sabathia battled through a shaky first inning, but recovered for one of his sharpest and most efficient starts of the season (77 pitches, six innings, two runs). Sabathia’s ability to come up huge in the most critical games has been well-documented here. And now we’ve got another “Big Game CC” stat to chew on: following Tuesday’s solid outing, he is 6-0 with a 1.25 ERA in seven starts against opponents with a .500 record or better this season. That’s the best record and lowest ERA in the majors among pitchers that have started at least five games against winning teams.

We’ve also got a Milestone Alert Yankeemetric for the big fella: his strikeout of Chris Gimenez to end the second inning was the 2,833rd of his career, moving him past Mickey Lolich for 18th place on the major-league all-time strikeout list, and third place among left-handers.

Most Strikeouts by LHP in MLB History
1. Randy Johnson – 4,875
2. Steve Carlton – 4,136
3. CC Sabathia – 2,836
4. Mickey Lolich – 2,832

Brett Gardner stuffed the stat sheet and provided the offensive spark at the top of the order, with three hits, two RBIs and a stolen base. The last Yankee leadoff batter to reach each of those totals in a game was Derek Jeter on July 9, 2011.

If that date sounds familiar …. yup, it was the Mr. 3000 game, when Jeter got his 3,000th hit against the Rays and produced one of the most iconic highlights in franchise history.

#TooManyHomers
The Bronx Bombers returned to their bread-and-butter winning strategy – explosive innings and dingers galore – in sweeping the Twins with a 11-3 win on Wednesday. It was their ninth sweep in 2017, nearly twice as many as they had last year (5).

If these teams do end up meeting for a one-game playoff in less than three weeks, the Yankees should like their chances based on recent history.

Their .721 winning percentage (44-17) in the regular season against the Twins since 2009 is the highest in any head-to-head matchup between any MLB teams (min. 25 games) over the past nine seasons. The Yankees’ domination extends to the postseason, too. They are 12-2 against the Twins in the playoffs – their best postseason record against any opponent (min. 10 games) in franchise history – and have won all four series played between the two clubs.

So … back to Wednesday’s game …. Not only did we get a ton of offensive fireworks to enjoy, but we also saw a bunch of rare, historical feats. Let’s dive into the stat madness!

(AP)
(AP)

Judge started the party with a two-run homer in the third inning, his 45th of the season. He is the second outfielder in baseball history with 45 homers and 115 walks in his age-25 season or younger. The other? Babe Ruth in 1920.

The homer also gave him 100 RBIs for the year (he added RBI No. 101 later in the game on a sac fly), and when combined with his triple-digit-plus walk and run-scoring numbers, Judge has put himself in some very impressive company. Judge is the …

  • Fifth Yankee age 25 or younger with at least 100 RBI, 100 runs and 100 walks: Mickey Mantle, Charlie Keller, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth are the others
  • Second rookie all-time to with more than 100 walks, runs and RBIs, joining Ted Williams (1939)
  • Only right-handed batter in Yankees history to have a 100-walk, 100-RBI, 100-run season

Gary Sanchez then went back-to-back with Judge in the third, belting a mammoth 439-foot blast deep into Monument Park. Fifteen of his 32 homers this season have gone at least 425 feet, the highest rate (47 percent) among all players with at least 20 homers.

The Yankees turned the game into a rout with a six-run fourth inning, sparked by Jacoby Ellsbury‘s one-out triple. Ellsbury wasn’t part of the homer-fest, but he still got on base four times via a single, double, triple and a walk – and that performance is worthy of a #FunFact. Over the last four decades, just two other Yankee centerfielders have produced a game with at least one single, double, triple and a walk: Bernie Williams (1998) and Dave Winfield (1984).

The biggest blow in the fourth inning was delivered by Didi Gregorius. His three-run shot to cap off the scoring made him the only shortstop in franchise history with 25 homers in a season, surpassing the 24 that Derek Jeter hit in 1999.

Rotation shuffle confirms what we already knew: Luis Severino will start the Wild Card Game

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Over the weekend the Yankees shuffled their rotation under the guise of keeping CC Sabathia and his balky right knee off the turf in Toronto this coming weekend, and I’m sure there’s some truth to that. Sabathia aggravated the knee and had to go on the disabled list the last time he pitched at Rogers Centre. The last thing the Yankees want this late in the season is an injured pitcher.

“We are trying to keep CC off that turf, yes. Is his knee okay? Yes. Are there concerns always about his knee? Yes. It won’t change his amount of starts, but it will keep him off the turf,” said Joe Girardi when announcing the rotation change following Saturday’s win. “Right now we are (Jaime) Garcia, CC, and (Masahiro) Tanaka (against the Twins this week).”

The rotation shuffle does two things. One, it keeps Sabathia away from the turf in Toronto. And two, it means Luis Severino will not start this week against the Twins, the team closest to the Yankees in the wildcard race. No player on the Twins has ever faced Severino (seriously), so Minnesota would be going into the Wild Card Game blind, should they and the Yankees qualify. Reading scouting reports and watching video only helps so much. There’s no substitute for standing in the box.

I’ve seen a few people mention the rotation shuffle lines Severino up to start the Wild Card Game, but that’s not really the case. He was already lined up for the Wild Card Game and the shuffle changes nothing. Here’s how the rotation would’ve lined up before the shuffle and how it lines up now:

Old Rotation Plan Current Rotation Plan
9/17 vs. Orioles Sabathia Gray
9/18 to 9/20 vs. Twins Gray-Tanaka-Severino Garcia-Sabathia-Tanaka
9/21 off-day
9/22 to 9/24 @ Blue Jays Montgomery-Sabathia-Gray Severino-Montgomery-Gray
9/25 vs. Royals Tanaka Garcia
9/26 to 9/28 vs. Rays Severino-Garcia-Montgomery Sabathia-Tanaka-Severino
9/29 to 10/1 vs. Blue Jays Sabathia-Gray-Tanaka Montgomery-Gray-Garcia
10/2 off-day
10/3 Wild Card Game Severino (two extra days) or Gray (one extra day) Tanaka (one extra day) or Severino (normal rest)

I would bet against Garcia making that start in the makeup game against the Royals next Monday. Thursday’s off-day allows the Yankees to start everyone on extra rest next week anyway, and, more importantly, skipping Garcia lines Severino up to pitch the Wild Card Game with an extra day of rest. And it’s not just about the extra rest. That extra day is also an insurance policy in case there’s a rainout or something. If the Yankees do skip Garcia next Monday, the Game 162 start could go to Domingo German or Bryan Mitchell, assuming the game is meaningless. If it’s a must-win situation, you run Tanaka out there on normal rest.

Anyway, the Yankees were originally going to skip Garcia this turn through the rotation, which would’ve allowed them to start their three best pitchers against the Twins this week. They were ready in case the wildcard race was closer than it is and this series really meant something. Instead, the Yankees increased their lead over the Twins the last few days, so this series isn’t as important as it looked a week ago. It’s important! But the race isn’t as close as it was, and it gives the Yankees some flexibility.

“We’re planning on Tanaka for Wednesday, but I could change my mind,” said Girardi yesterday, hedging a bit and indicating Severino could indeed start against the Twins this week. I suppose that depends how tonight and tomorrow go, but, worst case scenario, the Yankees will be one game up on the Twins for the first wildcard spot and 3.5 games up on Angels the for a wildcard spot in general come Thursday morning.

Right now the Twins are the team the Yankees are mostly likely to face in the Wild Card Game — for all intents and purposes it’s down to the Twins and Angels because everyone else has fallen further back — so hiding Severino makes sense. Let them go into the Wild Card Game blind. At the same time, if things go wrong the next two days, the Yankees can still run Severino out there Wednesday to stop the bleeding. They have some flexibility.

Shuffling the rotation this week is as much as about Severino as it is Sabathia’s knee. He was already lined up to start the Wild Card Game, or at least close enough to being lined up that the Yankees could’ve made it happen at pretty much any point. Now the Yankees have a chance to make sure the Twins don’t see Severino before the Wild Card Game while still having the ability to throw him at Minnesota this week, if necessary. It was a small little move that could potentially yield big dividends.

Yankeemetrics: Feeling right at home in Queens (Sept. 11-13)

(Getty)
(Getty)

Let the good times roll …
Riding the momentum of a three-game win streak, the Yankees headed back to the Northeast to play a “road series” against the Rays at Citi Field due to Hurricane Irma. Despite spotting the Rays an early 1-0 lead, the Yankees were unfazed by the early deficit, and thanks to an explosive five-run fourth inning, cruised to a relatively easy 5-1 win on Monday. This game-script has actually become a familiar one for the 2017 Yankees (ranks through Monday):

  • 31st win when the opponent scores first, the most among AL teams and tied for the second-most in the majors.
  • Of course, it also helps that it was the 80th game this season in which they allowed the first runs of the game; only the Phillies and Athletics have more games.
  • 23rd time they scored at least five runs in an inning, tied with the Nationals and Astros for the most 5-or-more-run innings in MLB this season.

Todd Frazier turned a pitchers duel into a rout with a three-run homer in the fourth inning to give the Yankees a 5-1 advantage. The likelihood of him simply getting a hit in that situation – runners on first and second – was low: Frazier entered the game hitting .176 with men on base, the second-worst average in the majors (min. 150 at-bats).

The guy on first when Frazier went deep was Jacoby Ellsbury, who reached base via catcher’s interference for the 30th time in his career, breaking the major-league record for that obscure stat. The mark was previously set by Pete Rose, who got his 29 catcher’s interferences in a major-league-record 15,890 plate appearances; Ellsbury’s 30th came in his 5,308th plate appearance.

The unsung hero of the game was David Robertson, who took over for CC Sabathia with one out in the fifth and two men on base. He got out of the jam by striking out the next two batters and then held the Rays scoreless over next two frames. It was the first time in his career he pitched more than two innings and the earliest he entered a game since April 9, 2011.

How was D-Rob able to dominate the Rays? He peppered the edges of the strike zone with his signature cutter/curveball combo:

robertson

And got a few key outs with his devastating breaking ball (two strikeouts and two groundouts). Robertson’s curve is so nasty because of its ability to get whiffs and grounders at ridiculously high rates. More than 200 pitchers this year have thrown at least 100 curveballs, and only one other – Craig Kimbrel – can match Robertson’s 50 percent whiffs-per-swing rate and his 60 percent groundball rate with the pitch.

… and then see the good times come to a screeching halt
Buckle up, folks, this is going to be a bumpy and exasperating rollercoaster ride down the stretch in September. After enjoying a few days of offensive bliss, the Yankee bats crashed back down to earth on Tuesday. They were held to three hits – and didn’t get a runner past first base after the first inning – in a listless and boring 2-1 loss.

Yes, another one-run loss. It was their 25th of the season, which leads the American League and is also more than twice as many as they suffered last year (12). With a record of 15-25 (.375) in games decided by one run, they are still on pace for the fourth-worst winning percentage in those games in franchise history.

(New York Post)
(New York Post)

They wasted another gem by Sonny Gray, who literally threw two bad pitches: his first one of the night, a 94 mph fastball up-and-away that Kevin Kiermaier deposited into the right-centerfield seats, and his 90th of the night, another elevated four-seamer that Adeiny Hechavarria clobbered for a tie-breaking solo homer in the eighth inning.

Kiermaier’s shot was the ninth leadoff homer allowed by the Yankees this season, which is one more than their pitchers gave up in 2015 and 2016 combined. For Gray, it was the first time in his career he surrendered a longball on the first pitch he threw in a game.

This lack of run support has become a recurring nightmare for Gray, who is 3-5 with a 2.66 ERA in eight starts with the team. In those five losses, they have scored a total of four runs. Tuesday’s heart-breaker was the fourth time as a Yankee that he got charged with a loss despite giving up no more than two earned runs. That’s the most such losses suffered by any starting pitcher in the majors since Gray made his first start in pinstripes on August 3. #KillTheWin

Gray certainly doesn’t deserve this fate, so let’s celebrate how terrific he’s been this season. It was his eighth consecutive road start allowing no more than two earned runs, the longest streak in the AL this season. The streak dates back more than three months, and during that stretch he’s posted a 1.99 ERA in those eight road starts, the best mark in the AL among guys with at least 35 innings pitched since June 1.

(AP)
(AP)

Survive and advance
Not even another massive RISPFAIL performance can stop the Fighting Spirit freight train that the Yankees have been riding this season. Despite leaving a small navy of runners on base and wasting a ton of scoring chances, the Yankees escaped with a 3-2 win on Wednesday to win their fourth straight series.

Joe Girardi went to The Binder early, yanking Jaime Garcia with two outs in the fifth inning after he’d only thrown 78 pitches and had allowed just one run at the time. This has become a signature call for Girardi this season — it was the 13th time a Yankee starter was removed before completing five innings, despite not giving up no more than two earned runs. That’s the most such starts by any AL team and tied with the Brewers for the MLB-high.

Yet you could hardly fault Girardi for an early hook with Garcia, given his massive splits when facing batters multiple times in a game (stats and ranks entering Wednesday):

  • 1st time through order: .542 OPS, ranked 15th out of 172 starters with at least 100 batters faced
  • 2nd time through order: .783 OPS, ranked 88th out of 171 starters with at least 100 batters faced
  • 3rd time through order: .989 OPS, ranked 114th out of 119 starters with at least 100 batters faced

[And it also helps when you have a Pitching Cyborg — aka Chad Green — with 99 strikeouts in 64 1/3 innings and a 1.96 ERA ready to go in the bullpen]

Brett Gardner — living up to his G.G.B.G. nickname — was the rare Yankee who came through in the clutch, driving in two runs with a bases-loaded single in the second inning that would end up as the game-winning hit. He is now 11-for-21 (.524) with the bases loaded since the start of last season, the best mark among any AL player with at least 20 at-bats and the second-best in MLB behind Daniel Murphy.

The Yankees lack a reliable lefty specialist, but they probably don’t need one either

(Hannah Foslien/Getty)
(Hannah Foslien/Getty)

Since the start of this past offseason, the Yankees have reportedly been looking for a reliable left-on-left reliever. They looked for one all winter and again before the trade deadline, but came up empty. Tommy Layne (remember him?) started the season in that role before pitching his way off the roster. The Yankees haven’t had a true lefty specialist since.

Chasen Shreve has spent the bulk of the summer on the big league roster and he’s not really a lefty specialist, and Joe Girardi doesn’t use him like one. Shreve has been throwing one or two innings in lopsided games for a few weeks now. He’s essentially a short relief mop-up man, not a matchup guy. This is why:

  • Righties against Shreve (career): .208/.301/.412 (.307 wOBA)
  • Lefties against Shreve (career): .248/.336/.428 (.329 wOBA)

Shreve is a fastball-splitter pitcher. He lacks that quality breaking ball he can sweep across the plate to get left-handed hitters to chase, hence his career-long reverse split. Shreve doesn’t have the tools to be a left-on-left matchup guy. Asking him to do that would be to ignore his skill set and focus only on handedness.

The Yankees have two other left-handed relievers on the roster right now: Aroldis Chapman and Caleb Smith. Smith is a long man who has the same problem as Shreve as a fastball-changeup pitcher. He doesn’t have that put-away breaking ball. Chapman has lost his closer’s job and would be the most overqualified lefty specialist in history based on his career accomplishments. The Yankees are trying to get him back on track so he can pitch full innings in close games, not match up in the middle innings.

I suppose the Yankees could always make a rare September trade for a lefty reliever — they did make a September trade for Brendan Ryan in 2013, after Derek Jeter got hurt — but I doubt that’ll happen. Besides, that player wouldn’t be eligible for the postseason roster anyway. He could help in September but not October. The Yankees do not have a reliable left-on-left reliever right now — even Chapman has had some issues with lefties lately — and, truth be told, they really don’t need one, because:

(vs. LHB) AVG/OBP/SLG wOBA K% BB% GB% HR/9
Dellin Betances .116/.269/.151 .216 46.2% 11.5% 55.3% 0.00
Chad Green .143/.200/.286 .211 50.7% 6.7% 18.8% 0.87
David Robertson .171/.240/.284 .228 37.5% 8.3% 52.9% 1.09
Adam Warren .211/.268/.293 .237 24.4% 7.3% 45.5% 0.47

Aside from Tommy Kahnle, who hasn’t had much success against lefties this year (.318 wOBA), the Yankees top right-handed relievers are all very effective against lefties. Betances and Robertson have been better against lefties than righties this year, at least in terms of wOBA, and both Green and Warren have been great against opposite hand batters too. I know Green’s shockingly low 18.8% ground ball rate against lefties is a little scary, but I’ll live with it when it comes with a 50.7% strikeout rate. He doesn’t get squared up often anyway.

The Yankees aren’t desperate for a left-on-left matchup reliever right now because they have four righties who can get out lefties. And here’s the important part: Girardi seems to understand that. Girardi leaves all those guys in to throw full innings, often more in the cases of Green and Warren. He doesn’t get cute trying to match up with a lefty. He didn’t do it when they had Layne and he’s not doing it now. That’s good. Stick with your best arms rather than try to force something for the sake of handedness.

Looking ahead to the postseason — the Yankees have to get there first, of course — potential opponents do have some quality left-handed hitters. The Indians have Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley, at least when they’re healthy. The Astros have Brian McCann. The Red Sox have Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Mitch Moreland. The Twins have Joe Mauer, Max Kepler, and Eddie Rosario. The Orioles have Chris Davis and Seth Smith. The Angels have Kole Calhoun. So on and so forth.

Potential postseason opponents have strong lefties in their lineup, so it would’ve been nice to add a quality left-handed specialist at some point. It’s a little too late though, and besides, in the late innings of a close game, who do you want facing Brantley or Benintendi or Davis, some lefty specialist or Robertson or Betances or Green? Exactly. Give me the high-end righties over the matchup lefties. That’s what we’re going to see down the stretch and that’s why I don’t think the lack of a reliable lefty specialist is that big a deal.

Now, here’s the x-factor: Jaime Garcia. Even though he had his last start skipped, he’s going to end up starting against at some point during the regular season. It’s hard to see how he fits into a potential postseason rotation barring injury though. He has that killer breaking ball to neutralize lefties and could be a potential left-on-left matchup option. The numbers:

  • Righties against Garcia (2017): .263/.347/.441 (.335 wOBA) with 16.0 K% and 11.3 BB%
  • Lefties against Garcia (2017): .242/.277/.379 (.282 wOBA) with 26.3 K% and 3.9 BB%

Jordan Montgomery‘s numbers against lefties aren’t so great (.319 wOBA), plus he’s never pitched out of the bullpen before, which is why I don’t think he’s much of a lefty reliever candidate. Garcia has some bullpen experience — he relieved a bunch as a rookie and made two bullpen appearances last season — and besides, unlike Montgomery, the Yankees presumably aren’t worried about his long-term development. Garcia very well might be the team’s best option for a left-on-left matchup reliever in the postseason, should they decide they absolutely need one.

At this point in time, the Yankees do not have an obvious lefty specialist in their bullpen, and it’s really no big deal considering how effective their top righties are against lefties. A lefty specialist is one of those things teams would like to have but don’t absolutely need. Neither the Cubs nor the Indians had a lefty specialist last year. They just had really good relievers. That’s where the Yankees are. Who needs a lefty specialist when Robertson, Betances, Green, or Warren (or Chapman) could be getting those outs instead?