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

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

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

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

Catcher: 2007 Jorge Posada

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

First Base: 2009 Mark Teixeira

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

Second Base: 2012 Robinson Cano

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

Shortstop: 2009 Derek Jeter

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

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

Third Base: 2007 Alex Rodriguez

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

Left Field: 2010 Brett Gardner

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

Center Field: 2011 Curtis Granderson

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

Right Field: 2010 Nick Swisher

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

Designated Hitter: 2009 Hideki Matsui

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starting Pitchers

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

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

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

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

Relief Pitchers

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

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

Three pitchers and a contract year

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

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

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

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

The Opt-out

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

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

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

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

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

One more year?

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

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

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

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

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

The question mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday Links: Betances, Tanaka, Proposed Rule Changes

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

This is the penultimate weekend without baseball games until November. Pretty great, isn’t it? The Yankees will play their first Grapefruit League game two weeks from yesterday. Thank goodness. Anyway, here’s some news and notes to check out this weekend.

Yankees, Betances set for arbitration hearing Friday

According to George King, the Yankees and Dellin Betances are scheduled to have their arbitration hearing this coming Friday, February 17th, in St. Petersburg. “Nothing has changed, we haven’t talked. We have no intention of talking. It’s not close. Somebody else will make the decision,” said Brian Cashman. Betances is seeking $5M while the Yankees countered with $3M, which, as far as I can tell, would still be a record salary for a first year arbitration-eligible setup man.

Since the arbitration hearing is Friday, chances are the three-person panel will announce their ruling Saturday morning. That’s usually how it goes. The hearing is one day and the ruling is announced the next. Maybe they’ll wait until Monday because it’s the next business day. Eh, whatever. Each side will state their case at the hearing and the panel will pick either the $5M or $3M for Dellin’s salary in 2017. Nothing in-between. My guess is the Yankees win. (There have been six arbitration hearings around the league so far and each side has won three, for what it’s worth.)

Tanaka not thinking about opt-out

Earlier this week, Masahiro Tanaka told Dan Martin he hasn’t put much thought into whether he will use his opt-out clause after the season. “Obviously, I’m aware of what my contract says, but it’s something I put aside going into the season,” he said. “You can’t really be thinking about that while you go through the season. I’m really focused on this season. When the time comes after the season, then I’ll probably have a chance to think about that more.”

Back in 2012, we heard CC Sabathia say pretty much the exact same thing when his opt-out was looming. It’s the best possible answer, right? “I’m only focused on trying to win, not my contract.” That’s what everyone wants to hear. These guys are human beings though. Of course Tanaka is aware a big season would mean a shot at a(nother) monster contract. We’ve been through this before with Sabathia. The opt-out is going to be a thing all year.

MLB considering new extra innings rules

According to Jeff Passan, MLB will test new and impossibly stupid extra innings rules in rookie ball this season, assuming Joe Torre, the league’s chief baseball officer, signs off. Under the new rule, a runner would be placed at second base at the start of every inning after the ninth. The goal is, obviously, to cut down on extra innings and eliminate games that last long into the night.

“Let’s see what it looks like,” said Torre. “It’s not fun to watch when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing a utility infielder in to pitch. As much as it’s nice to talk about being at an 18-inning game, it takes time. It’s baseball. I’m just trying to get back to that, where this is the game that people come to watch. It doesn’t mean you’re going to score. You’re just trying to play baseball.”

One, position players pitching is fun! Two, it doesn’t happen all that often anyway. And three, they have this rule in many amateur leagues and international tournaments. Every inning plays out the same: they start with a runner at second, the first batter bunts him to third, and the second batter is intentionally walked to set up the double play. Every single time. It’s terrible and horrible and I hope this rule change never ever ever comes to MLB.

Now, that said, I could understand implementing this in the minors as a way to avoid overusing pitchers. Maybe make them play 12 innings, allowing each team to go through the lineup one more time, then put a runner at second? This should never come to MLB though. Forget that. I like that commissioner Rob Manfred is open to new ideas. That’s great. This one though? Bad. No thanks.

MLB proposed changes to intentional walks, strike zone

In addition to the stupid extra innings rule, MLB has formally proposed changes to intentional walks and the strike zone, reports Jayson Stark. The ball is now in the MLBPA’s court. Neither side can implement a rule change unilaterally. Both MLB and the MLBPA have to sign off. For what it’s worth, Passan hears there’s no chance the players will approve any changes to the strike zone.

MLB proposed raising the bottom of the zone approximately two inches, which would undoubtedly increase offense. Jon Roegele’s research has shown the strike zone has increased downward in recent years. So not only are more low pitches being called strikes, but now hitters have to protect against them too, and pitches down below the knees are hard to hit with authority. Raising the zone would mean more hitter’s counts and more pitches in hittable locations.

The intentional walk rule change is simple: rather than making the pitcher throw four pitches, they issue a signal and the runner is sent to first automatically. I hate it. Intentional walks are a competitive play. Make the pitcher and catcher complete it. Pitchers are prone to losing the zone after intentional walks, plus we see a handful of wild pitches each year. Gary Sanchez did this last year:

There were 932 intentional walks in 2,428 games last season. It works out to one every 46.1 innings or so. I get MLB is looking to improve the pace of play, but this won’t help much. Intentional walks are too infrequent to make a meaningful change to the time of game. Want to improve pace of play? Cut down on mound visits. The catcher gets one per inning, per pitcher. That’s my proposed solution.

What are Baseball Prospectus’ new control and command tools telling us about Masahiro Tanaka?

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

All throughout the week, the fine folks at Baseball Prospectus are rolling out a slew of new pitching metrics. They’re attempting to measure things that were previously unmeasurable, like command and deception and the effects of pitch sequencing. Last year they revolutionized catcher defense stats, and now they hope to do the same with the guys on the mound.

Two of the tools the BP crew rolled out earlier this week are stats that serve as proxy measurements of control and command. Control is the basic ability to throw strikes. Command is the ability to throw quality strikes, meaning hit the corners of the zone and keep the ball out of the heart of the plate. You can have good control and bad command. Example: Michael Pineda. He rarely walks hitters, but he also struggles to keep the ball out of the middle of the zone.

The article explaining the new stats is free to read, so I recommend checking it out. In a nutshell, Called Strike Probability, or CS Prob, measures control by telling us the likelihood of a pitch being called a strike based on all the other pitches in that location around the league. Called Strikes Above Average, or CSAA, reflects command by telling us whether a pitcher is reliably hitting his spots. CSAA is adjusted for the catcher, umpire, the whole nine. It isolates the pitcher’s contribution to the called strike (or ball).

After scrolling through the leaderboards, the data told me pretty much exactly what I expected. Pineda rates very well in CS Prob and very poorly in CSAA. Dellin Betances rates below-average at both. I’m not sure that will surprise anyone. I was looking through various Yankees pitchers and it all made sense. And then I got to Masahiro Tanaka. Look where he ranks among pitchers to throw at least 100 innings:

Pitchers with 100+ IP CS Prob Rank CSAA Rank
2014 149 134th 32th
2015 141 123rd 10th
2016 144 78th 20th

According to the data, in each of his three seasons with the Yankees, Tanaka has ranked in the bottom half of the league in control but near the top of the league in command. That doesn’t make sense! Intuitively, a pitcher can have good control and bad command, but not bad control and good command. If you can command your pitches and dot the corners of the zone, surely you can throw strikes.

So obviously the CS Prob and CSAA data is wrong, right? The stupid made up numbers are broken and the statheads are ruining the game. Yeah, sure, that’s always possible. Before we jump to that conclusion, we should consider exactly what CS Prob and CSAA are attempting to tell us first. CS Prob is quite simply “how likely is it this pitch will be called a strike?” CSAA is a tad more complicated. From the primer article:

Traditionally command is understood as the ability to “hit your spots”—having the ball end up where you intend it to. Over the years this has been studied in numerous ways—most notably by attempting to determine how much the catcher moves his glove to receive a pitch. This is flawed because the catcher’s glove isn’t always the target, and we can’t know where the pitcher is truly intending the pitch to go.

What we can do is come at command from a different angle. A pitcher with good command should be more predictable for the catcher—their pitches often end up in the locations, and with the movement that the catcher expects. This skill results in easier receiving for catchers, and additional called strikes for the pitcher. Once we aggregate the data cross thousands of pitches, CSAA is able to tell us whether a pitcher is reliably hitting his spots.

That make sense? CSAA measures the extent to which the pitcher affects the likelihood of the pitch being called a strike. The BP crew admits CSAA is not a perfect measure of command, but they’ve found the CSAA leaderboard reflects command pitchers very well. Guys like Zack Greinke and Kyle Hendricks are the CSAA kings while others like Betances and Pineda rank among the league’s worst. It passes the sniff test.

We know for a fact Tanaka rarely walks batters — he had a 4.5% walk rate in 2016 and it’s 4.3% in his three MLB seasons — indicating good control. The guy throws strikes. Having watched him pitch with my own eyes the last three seasons, it seems Tanaka lives on the corners of the strike zone. Here, via Baseball Savant, is a heat map of his called strikes since 2014:

masahiro-tanaka-heat-map

Look at that. It’s beautiful. The dark splotches, which indicate where the majority of Tanaka’s called strikes are located, are on the edges of the strike zone. The lightly shaded areas indicate fewer pitches in that location, and for Tanaka, that includes the middle of the strike zone. Every pitcher wants to control the strike zone that way. Live on the corners, stay out of the middle of the plate. Here, I’m going to label the heat map to make things a little more clear:

masahiro-tanaka-heat-map-annotatedThat’s what you’re seeing in the heat map, essentially. If you’ve watched Tanaka pitch at all these last few years, you know he loves to throw that running two-seamer away to righties and in on lefties, and have it dart back over to plate to nip the corner for a called strike. Like this:

masahiro-tanaka-two-seamer

The pitch looks like it’s going to sail way outside to a right-handed hitter — or way inside to a lefty — before moving back over the plate to catch the corner. It’s a wonderfully effective pitch, and generally speaking, that’s the splotch on the left side of the heat map. The lower right blob is splitters — and possibly some sliders and curveballs too — and they’re pretty self-explanatory. They sometimes hit the bottom corner of the zone for a called strike, though they usually dive out of the zone for a swing and miss.

The CS Prob and CSAA data is not broken even though it’s indicating Tanaka has bad control but great command. Tanaka is just an outlier. We know he throws strikes. His consistently low walk rate is evidence of that. The assumption he has good command has always been based on our observations, but now we have some data telling us that yes, Tanaka is reliably hitting his spots. He lives on the edges of the plate, and because those pitches are less likely to be called strikes, his CS Prob rank is poor. But because he’s on the edges consistently, his CSAA is high. Make sense?

For most pitchers, their heat map of called strikes looks like a giant blob over the middle of the plate. Tanaka’s is the opposite. He keeps the ball out of the middle of the strike zone — not all the time, of course, but much more than most — and instead works the edges. That’s why he’s so successful despite not having a blow-you-away fastball. Tanaka is an artist on the mound. We’ve seen it the last three years. Now the CS Prob and CSAA data is confirming what our eyes have been telling us.

Masahiro Tanaka will not play in the 2017 World Baseball Classic

(Getty)
(Getty)

While speaking at an event in Japan on Monday, Masahiro Tanaka confirmed he will not participate in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, according to the Associated Press. He didn’t given a specific reason for his decision. “Taking various things into consideration, it would be difficult so I will not participate,” he said. The tournament begins March 6th.

Tanaka, who was part of Japan’s roster in both the 2009 and 2013 WBCs, said he wanted to pitch in the 2017 event back in December. Apparently something changed his mind since then, perhaps even the Yankees. That said, the Yankees had no control over the situation. They couldn’t prevent Tanaka from participating in the WBC. Brian Cashman confirmed it.

Japan released a partial roster late last month that included 19 players, but only one big leaguer: outfielder Nori Aoki. The Associated Press report says the rest of the roster is expected to be made up of players from Nippon Pro Baseball. Japan has used big leaguers in the past, most notably Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka, but they’ve gotten away from that in recent WBCs. Their entire 2013 WBC roster was NPB players.

The WBC added a new rule this year that allows each team to add two pitchers to the roster after each round of the tournament, which is pretty blatantly an attempt to get Clayton Kershaw to commit to Team USA and pitch in the Championship Game at Dodger Stadium should they advance. Kershaw would be able to spend Spring Training with the Dodgers and then make the one quick WBC start.

Anyway, when the WBC announced that rule change, I wondered whether Japan would attempt to woo Tanaka (and Yu Darvish?) to pitch in the later rounds of the tournament, should they advance. That new rule is a good way for teams to get big name pitchers to commit to the WBC and add some excitement while allowing the players to remain in Spring Training with their big league team for most of March.

At some point very soon the 16 WBC teams will announce their official rosters for the tournament. Right now Dellin Betances is the only Yankee to commit to the event, as far as we know. He’ll pitch for the Dominican Republic. Minor leaguers Tito Polo and Carlos Vidal figure to play for Colombia after suiting up for the qualifying tournament last spring. The Yankees have other WBC candidates too.

If the Yankees are unwilling to extend Tanaka, they have to put him on the trade market right now

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Five years ago the Yankees played the entire summer knowing their best starting pitcher could opt-out of his contract and leave as a free agent after the season. This coming season, they’re going to do the exact same thing. Masahiro Tanaka‘s opt-out clause is going to loom over the 2017 season the same way CC Sabathia‘s loomed over the 2012 season.

The circumstances are different yet similar. The 2012 Yankees were expected to contend, and sure enough they won 95 games and went to the ALCS. The 2017 Yankees are kinda sorta in a rebuild, but they’re still trying to win, so much so that they spent $13M on a designated hitter and a heck of a lot more on a closer this offseason. The 2012 and 2017 outlooks may be different, but ultimately, the Yankees are still fancying themselves contenders.

A few weeks ago I wrote the Yankees should explore an extension with Tanaka this offseason, and that remains my preference. Yeah, I know, the elbow!!!, blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda, but Tanaka is several years younger now than Sabathia was when he signed his extension, and I think there’s a pretty good chance Tanaka will age better than Sabathia given their body types and pitching styles. It’s in the post. Go ready it.

Anyway, earlier this week Brian Cashman confirmed that no, the Yankees have not discussed exploring a contract extension with Tanaka this offseason. They haven’t even discussed it internally, nevermind approach Tanaka’s representatives about a deal. Mike Mazzeo has the quote:

“We have a significant contract with Masahiro Tanaka,” Cashman said Tuesday night at the opening of Orangetheory Fitness in Manhattan. “Hopefully he has a great year, and then he’ll have a decision to make. If he doesn’t, then he won’t. I think he pitched like a Cy Young award candidate last year, and I certainly hope he does so again this year. But at this point we’ve had no discussions internally to pursue any kind of extension.”

It doesn’t surprise me at all the Yankees have yet to discuss extending their staff ace. That’s not really their style. The only three players they’ve extended before free agency over the last 10-15 years are Robinson Cano, Brett Gardner, and Sabathia, and Sabathia was literally minutes from opting out when he agreed to his extension. The Yankees waited until the last possible moment.

Assuming the Yankees don’t reverse course and sign Tanaka to an extension, I see this playing out one of four ways:

  1. Tanaka pitches well and doesn’t opt-out. (Nope.)
  2. Tanaka pitches poorly or gets hurt and still opts out. (Also nope.)
  3. Tanaka pitches well and opts out.
  4. Tanaka pitches poorly or gets hurt and doesn’t opt-out.

I would be very surprised if Tanaka pitches poorly while being perfectly healthy this coming season. He’s never not been really good when actually on the mound. Sure, the elbow might finally give or whatever, but as long as he’s on the bump, history tells us he’ll be effective. Health is a bigger variable than performance for me. As long as he stays healthy, he’s opting out.

Under no circumstances can the Yankees go into the upcoming season planning to let Tanaka walk as a free agent next winter. If they try to re-sign him and fail because another team blows their offer out of the water, so be it. But if the plan is to play out the season with Tanaka, then let him walk because the elbow is just too much of a red flag, it would be complete madness. It would be so insane that I’m confident it won’t happen.

Remember, under the terms of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Yankees can only receive a draft pick after after the fourth round (after the fourth round!) for Tanaka or any other qualified free agent next offseason. You can’t let Tanaka go for that. That pick has so little value. If the Yankees are wary about an extension — remember, they know Tanaka and his elbow better than anyone — then they have to be willing to trade him.

Think about it. The free agent class is so very weak right now. It was weak at the start of the free agency, and now that Rich Hill and Ivan Nova are off the board, the pickin’s are slim. Jose Quintana is available and the asking price is high, which is scaring away some teams. Tanaka is not as valuable as Quintana because of his contract status and injury history, but the Yankees could still get a significant piece or two for him. No doubt.

The Astros stand out to me as the perfect trade partner. Houston has gone all-in this offseason and they’re said to be in the mix for Quintana. They just don’t want to give up the prospects Chicago is seeking. I get it. Tanaka would satisfy their need for a frontline starter and do so at a lower price, plus they have Brian McCann, the guy who has caught Tanaka the last three years. The learning curve would be much smaller. Those two know each other.

Either way, the sooner the Yankees make a decision about Tanaka’s future, the better. Are they going to extend him? Great, then get down to business right now and try to avoid waiting until Tanaka has all the leverage like Sabathia did following his 2012 season. Are they unwilling to extend him? That’s fine too, as long as the Yankees put him on the trade market right now. Waiting until the deadline is risky.

Tuesday Notes: Tanaka, WBC, London, Stottlemyre, ESPN

(Koji Watanabe/Getty)
Tanaka at the 2013 WBC. (Koji Watanabe/Getty)

We are right smack in the middle of the slowest time of the offseason. The baseball world is essentially on hold during the holidays, before the bargain shopping begins in January. Here are some bits of news to check out in the meantime.

Tanaka not on partial WBC roster

Team Japan has announced the first 19 players of their 28-man roster for the 2017 World Baseball Classic, reports Jason Coskrey, and Masahiro Tanaka is not among those 19 players. Outfielder Nori Aoki is the only MLB player on the roster. Two-way star Shohei Otani is the headliner, obviously. Final rosters are due sometime in January, which ain’t so far away anymore.

“Regarding MLB players, we are not going to announce where we are (in talks) and it’s all going to be announced when we actually announce (the final roster),” said Japan baseball secretary general Atsushi Ihara to Coskrey. “We don’t really have the timetable, but manager (Hiroki) Kokubo is saying that he wants to set it early.”

Tanaka, who pitched in both the 2009 and 2013 WBCs, has said he wants to pitch in the 2017 edition. The Yankees can’t stop their ace from participating. Brian Cashman confirmed it. Team Japan did not take MLB players in the last WBC, not even Ichiro, but Ihara’s comments and the fact Aoki is the on the roster suggests they’ll look to take a few this time around. We’ll see what happens with Tanaka.

Yankees, Red Sox could be headed to London

According to Michael Silverman, the Yankees and Red Sox could be headed to London to play a series next season. Hal Steinbrenner and Red Sox owner John Henry have been discussing the possibility for several years now. MLB has been looking to grow the game globally and the new Collective Bargaining Agreement includes provisions to play games outside the country.

“The Yankees have been at the forefront of suggesting that we bring the great game of baseball to London,” said Yankees president Randy Levine to Silverman. “There have been some meaningful attempts to do so, and we are hopeful and confident that we can play there soon. Playing the Red Sox in London would be a special and unique event.”

It’s no surprise the Yankees and Red Sox may end up playing overseas. They’re still baseball’s premier rivalry and will generate the most buzz. There are a ton of logistical issues to work out though. There’s the travel, first and foremost, and also the issue of gate receipts. One of the two teams is going to lose a handful of home games and associated revenue. Still, the Yankees playing in London would be pretty damn cool.

Stottlemyre doing better after health scare

Mel Stottlemyre, former Yankees pitcher and pitching coach, is doing better following a health scare last week, his wife Jean told John Harper. Mel’s son Todd wrote on Facebook his father was “in the hospital fighting for his life” last Friday. Stottlemyre has been fighting multiple myeloma, a type of bone marrow cancer, since 2000.

“He’s doing much better. We saw a big turnaround with Mel over the last 24 hours. He’s not in a life-threatening situation right now,” said Jean Stottlemyre to Harper. “It’s not the cancer. It was that he got sick from the chemo medicine. He was given antibiotics to fight infection and he’s responded well.”

Stottlemyre, who turned 75 last month, spent his entire playing career with the Yankees from 1964-74. Those were the “dark years” of the franchise, so Mel never did win a World Series as a player. He won his first ring as Mets pitching coach in 1986, and he added four titles as Yankees pitching coach from 1996-2005. Last year the Yankees surprised Stottlemyre with a plaque in Monument Park. It was one of the best moments of the season.

It was unclear whether Stottlemyre’s health would even allow him to make the trip from his home in Washington to Yankee Stadium for Old Timers’ Day last year. I’m glad to hear he’s doing well after that health scare last week. He’s been fighting cancer for close to two decades now, and he’s kicking its butt even at age 75. Go Mel.

Yankees to play four times on ESPN

A few days ago ESPN released their Sunday Night Baseball schedule for most of the first half, and, not surprisingly, the Yankees are featured more than a few times. They’re still a great draw. Here’s the schedule and here are the Sunday night broadcasts that will feature the Yankees:

  • April 16th: Cardinals at Yankees
  • May 7th: Yankees at Cubs
  • May 14th: Astros at Yankees
  • July 16th: Yankees at Red Sox

That May 14th game is the night the Yankees are retiring Derek Jeter’s number, though I’m not sure whether ESPN will show the ceremony. Probably not. YES will air the entire thing, I’m sure. As a reminder, the Yankees are going to play the very first game of 2017 on ESPN. They begin the season at 1pm ET on Sunday, April 2nd, on the road against the Rays. The next game that day begins at 4pm ET.