2014 Season Review: The Obligatory Lefties

Thornton. (Presswire)
Thornton. (Presswire)

One thing has become very obvious over the last few years: the Yankees value having a left-hander in the bullpen. Two, preferably. Some teams don’t worry too much about carrying a southpaw, but not these Yankees. Joe Girardi likes to have a matchup lefty out there and the team has spent a lot of money trying to fill that spot. Remember Damaso Marte and Pedro Feliciano? Of course you do.

The 2014 season were no different, but, believe it or not, they only had 109 appearances by a left-handed reliever this year. That was the fifth fewest on baseball. At the same time, they had 56 lefty appearances of two or fewer batters faced, the fourth most in baseball. Girardi is definitely a fan of matching up for a batter or two if the opportunity presents itself. Let’s review the team’s surprisingly large collection of left-handed relievers from this past season.

Matt Thornton

The Yankees signed the 38-year-old Thornton to a two-year contract worth $7M last season, figuring he could still be a quality specialist even though his performance against righties had declined big time in recent years. He was one of the top relievers in the game regardless of handedness not too long ago. Maybe there was still some magic in there.

Thornton threw only 24.2 innings across 38 appearances with New York, so Girardi definitely used him as a matchup guy. His overall 2.55 ERA (2.73 FIP) is good but that’s not the best way to evaluate a lefty specialist. Thornton held same-side hitters to a .237/.306/.250 (.258 wOBA) batting line with a 17.2% strikeout rate, a 3.1% walk rate, and a 54.3% ground ball rate. Despite still having mid-90s heat, his swing-and-miss rate against lefties was a paltry 8.3%. That’s well-below-average. Also, he allowed 14 of 43 inherited runners to score (33%), including five of the last 12.

In early-August, the Yankees simply gave Thornton away for nothing. The Nationals claimed him off revocable trade waivers and New York opted not to pull him back, so they let him to go Washington on the claim. It was … weird. Girardi and Brian Cashman both confirmed the move was made to create roster and payroll flexibility. Thornton had a 0.00 ERA (2.51 FIP) in 11.1 innings for the Nats after the claim and quickly emerged as an important part of their bullpen.

Huff returned in 2014 ... with glasses! (Presswire)
Huff returned in 2014 … with glasses! (Presswire)

David Huff

The Yankees spent the first ten or so weeks of the season cycling through some amazingly bad long relievers, so, when the Giants decided to cut ties with Huff in mid-June, the Bombers jumped at the chance to re-acquire him. The minor trade cost New York nothing but cash.

Huff, 30, had a 6.30 ERA (4.38 FIP) in 20 innings for San Francisco, but he actually pitched pretty well in pinstripes. He chucked 39 innings across 30 appearances — so he was multi-inning guy, not a specialist — and posted a 1.85 ERA (4.00 FIP), holding lefties to a .250/.301/.279 (.266 wOBA) batting line with a 19.2% strikeouts rate and a 6.2% walk rate. Huff also stranded 16 of 17 inherited runners. What more do you want from a low-leverage lefty?

Rich Hill

After letting Thornton walk, the Yankees grabbed Hill off the scrap heap and he actually had two stints with the team. He came up in early-August, made six appearances, was designated for assignment, then was called back up when rosters expanded in September to make eight more appearances. All told, Hill faced 19 lefties with New York, striking out seven, walking two, hitting one, and allowing four hits. That’s a .250/.368/.250 (.298 wOBA) batting line. At one point in September he struck out six in a span of eight batters faced.

Josh Outman

Outman. (Presswire)
Outman. (Presswire)

Hill was designated for assignment in late-August to make room for Outman, who the Yankees picked up from the Indians because he was a so very slight upgrade. He faced ten left-handed batters in pinstripes and held them to one hit. He also struck out one. That works out to a .100/.111/.111 (.099 wOBA). If you extrapolate that out over 60 innings, Outman was, like, the best lefty reliever ever, man.

Cesar Cabral

Two years ago, Cabral almost made the Opening Day roster as a Rule 5 Draft pick before suffering a fractured elbow late in camp. He made four appearances with the Yankees this season and faced five lefties. One made contract (a hit), one drew a walk, one was hit by a pitch, and two struck out. As you may recall, Cabral allowed three runs on three hits and three hit batsmen in one ugly April outing against the Rays. He was designated for assignment after the game, eventually landed back in Double-A, and that was that.

Jeff Francis

Confession: I totally forgot Jeff Francis was a Yankee. They acquired him in a very minor trade with the Athletics when they were desperate for pitching depth at midseason, and he somehow made not one, but two appearances in pinstripes. He threw a scoreless 14th inning in a late-July game against the Rangers — when Chase Headley hit the walk-off single in his first game with the team — and allowed a run in two-thirds of an inning against the Blue Jays a week later. They dropped Francis from the roster soon thereafter.

Wade LeBlanc

I did remember that LeBlanc was a Yankee this year! He made one appearance with the team. It went single, single, grounder to first, intentional walk, hit batsmen to force in a run, sac fly, ground out. The Yankees designated him for assignment to make room for Huff a few days later. I hope Wade LeBlanc goes into the Hall of Fame as a Yankee.

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Game 105: You Again

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

In recent years, playing the Rangers seven times in a ten-day span would have really, really sucked. They were varying degrees of dangerous from 2010-13, and playing them that many times in that short a period would have meant a worn out bullpen and a few losses.

Things are different now. The Rangers are terrible, like worst team in baseball terrible, so seeing them on the schedule seven times in a ten-day span was a welcome sight. That doesn’t guarantee wins, of course. Any team can beat any team on any given night, but I’m sure glad the Yankees are playing the 2014 Rangers and not the 2010-13 Rangers so many times in these ten days. Here is the Rangers lineup and here is the Yankees lineup:

  1. CF Brett Gardner
  2. SS Derek Jeter
  3. 1B Brian McCann
  4. DH Carlos Beltran
  5. 3B Chase Headley
  6. C Frankie Cervelli
  7. 2B Brian Roberts
  8. RF Ichiro Suzuki
  9. LF Zoilo Almonte
    RHP David Phelps

It is oppressively hot in the Dallas area and there are some thunderstorms in the forecast for later tonight. Nothing heavy like last week. There would be a delay, if anything. Not a postponement or shortened game. First pitch is scheduled for 8pm ET and you can watch on YES. Enjoy the game.

Roster Move: Prior to tonight’s game, the Yankees called up Zoilo Almonte and designated Jeff Francis for assignment, the team announced. They are back down to a normal seven-man bullpen and a four-man bench.

Injury Updates: Mark Teixeira (lat) feels fine and he will take regular batting practice on the field today. If that goes well, he will return to the lineup tomorrow …  Jacoby Ellsbury is fine. Just a routine day off. He’ll be back in the lineup tomorrow.

Yankees acquire Jeff Francis from Athletics

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

2:11pm: The Yankees have officially announced the trade. They get Francis and cash from the Athletics in exchange for a player to be named later. Jim Miller was designated for assignment to clear a 40-man roster spot. Francis still has to report to the team, so Matt Daley was recalled from Triple-A while they wait.

1:43pm: The Yankees have acquired left-hander Jeff Francis from the Athletics, according to Jerry Crasnick. He was designated for assignment following the Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammel trade earlier this week. No word on what New York is sending to Oakland, but it’ll likely be a player to named later or cash. Nothing significant.

Francis, 33, has a 5.89 ERA (3.67 FIP) in 18.1 innings for the Athletics and Reds this season. He had a 6.27 ERA (4.54 FIP) in 70.1 innings for the Rockies last summer. Don’t get excited by his FIP being lower than his ERA — Francis has underperformed his peripherals by at least 0.72 runs every year since 2009. He’s Vidal Nuno with less fastball. It’s probably not worth digging any deeper than that.

The Yankees simply need a warm body for the pitching staff at this point. Masahiro Tanaka went on the disabled list earlier this week and even with the Brandon McCarthy pickup, the team still has Shane Greene in the rotation and a TBA listed as Sunday’s starter. Francis can help get them through the weekend in one piece. Times are tough, man.

The obligatory “Injured Pitchers” post

With Cliff Lee officially a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, the Yankees are left trying to salvage their offseason by spreading their money around and shoring up several aspects of their team. There simply aren’t any other high-end starters on the market to go after. The process started with the now completed Russell Martin signing, and today Joel Sherman reported the Yanks will “try to pluck a veteran starter with good stuff but questionable health (off the free agent market) and have him pitch as long and as hard as he can, basically until his arm blows up or a better option comes along.

Those kinds of pitchers are always plentiful on the free agent market, and they’re popular targets in the blogosphere because we dream of them being healthy and returning to what they once were. With Lee off the market and not in New York, it’s inevitable that we’ll have to look at some of these guys as potential targets, so let’s get it out of the way now. I’m going to do something a little different though, instead of actively campaigning for one or two players I’m just going to state the facts and let you decide who’s worth the gamble. Talk about ‘em in the comments…

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Jeff Francis

Francis is kind of the exception here because he isn’t actually coming off an injury. After missing the entire 2009 season due to shoulder surgery, the 29-year-old lefty did manage to make 19 starts (and one relief appearance) while pitching to a 3.88 FIP in 104.1 innings for the Rockies in 2010. His ERA was ugly (5.00), but we all know that isn’t the best way to judge performance. Francis is a generic soft-tossing command lefty, spotting a fastball, changeup, and curveball on the corners of the plate. He misses just enough bats (8.4% swing-and-miss rate, 5.8 K/9 since 2008) and doesn’t walk many guys (2.6 BB/9 career, removing intentional walks), and he also gets a pretty nice amount of ground balls (~45% over the last few years) as well. Francis’ margin for error is small, but the track record is there.

Brad Penny

The one-time Red Sox whipping boy made nine highly effective starts (3.40 ERA, 1.1 fWAR) for the Cardinals this year before a shoulder strain ended his season. Penny is a known quantity at this point; he’s struck out a touch more than five-and-a-half batters per nine innings over the last four seasons (~7% swings-and-misses) despite having the stuff to do more, and his walk rate has been below three per nine in five of the last seven years. Penny has always been a ground ball guy but took it to the extreme in St. Louis last year (52.8%), completely unsurprisingly given Dave Duncan’s track record. Like Francis, Penny does have World Series experience, and he did not have surgery for his injury, which is always a plus.

Chien-Ming Wang

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Ah yes, our old friend. Wang, now 30, was last an effective pitcher in June of 2008, when he infamously injured his foot running the bases in Houston. Surgery to repair damage to the capsule in his shoulder followed, and he was unable to reach the bigs for the Nationals in 2010 despite proclamations from his agent. Everyone reading this knows the deal with the Wanger, so I don’t need to get into the specifics. Extreme sinkerballer, lots of weak contact, won’t strike anyone out. Seen it, lived it, got a t-shirt.

Brandon Webb

Webb is the big name of the group, the former Cy Young Award winner than racked up 19.9 fWAR from 2006-2008, the second most in baseball. Now 31, Webb hasn’t pitched in what amounts to two seasons due to labrum damage, and reports out of Instructional League a few weeks ago had him sitting the low-80’s with his once devastating sinker (18.1% fly balls in his career, completely ridiculous). There’s a belief that those reports are overblown in an effort to keep his price down, however. We really don’t know what Webb is capable of right now; I don’t think he can rebound and be the beast (3.23 FIP from ’06-’08, again behind only CC) he once was. If he’s 60% of that guy though, it’d be an upgrade to the back of the Yankees’ rotation. For what it’s worth, Joel Sherman reported today that the Yankees “don’t like him all that much.”

Uh, where's the ball? (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Chris Young

Young is a rather unique pitcher, relying on extreme deception and size (dude’s 6-foot-10) rather than pure stuff. He missed all but four starts in 2010 due to a shoulder strain, and when he did pitch he averaged just five innings per start with a 3.88 FIP. His always pedestrian fastball dipped into the mid-80’s over the last two years, but he’s so big and hides the ball so well that it looks like he’s releasing the ball ten feet away from the batter. That’s how he’s managed an above average swing-and-miss rate (9.4%) and generally avoided getting clobbered. Young certainly benefited from Petco Park in San Diego, owning a 53% fly ball rate for his career, far and the away the highest in baseball during that time. His margin for error is microscopic these days.

* * *

Remember, these players are looking for one thing: an opportunity. Well, that and money, we can’t forget that. Those five guys are trying to reestablish their value, so they’ll join the team that gives them the best chance to accrue innings and prove they’re healthy and productive so they can go back out on the market next year and cash in. If that means a year with the Nats or Pirates, so be it. Don’t expect the Yanks to be able to sign two or three of them either, the more there are, the less of an opportunity they’ll have.

So which one is your preferred target? Any other that weren’t covered here?