2012 Season Preview: The Strikeout Kings

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

A pitcher can do nothing better than record strike three. Strikeouts take the defense right out of the equation, meaning hits, errors, weird bounces, and everything else is impossible. It’s not an accident that pitchers with high strikeout rates traditionally have lower ERAs since keeping the ball out of play means nothing bad can happen.

The Yankees had the American League’s best strikeout staff in 2011, leading the circuit with 7.54 K/9 and 19.7 K%. At 8.46 K/9 and 22.2 K%, the bullpen missed more bats than any other unit in the league, which is a great way to protect leads in the late innings. At least part of that high strikeout rate had to do with the arrival of pitching coaching Larry Rothschild, who has a history of improving strikeout rates. The Yankees figure to again have a dominant strikeout staff in 2012, one that could be even better than last year given a new arrival and good health.

CC Sabathia
After posting a mid-7.0 K/9 in each of his first two years in pinstripes, Sabathia had the second best strikeout season of his career in 2011. His 8.72 K/9 and 23.4 K% were the sixth and fifth best marks in the AL, respectively. During one stretch from late-June to late-July, CC struck out 72 batters in 54.2 IP across seven starts, good for an 11.85 K/9 and 35.5 K%. He tied his career-high by striking out 13 Brewers on June 30th, and just about a month later he set a new career-best by fanning 14 Mariners.

The strikeout boost appears to have come from an increased usage of his slider, as Sabathia broke out his top offspeed offering 26.6% of time in 2011 after using it no more than 18.5% from 2008-2010. Batters did not make contact on 40.9% of the swings they took against the pitch (54.6% vs. LHB), which is just ridiculous. His changeup drew a swing and miss 33.2% of the time as well. That’s just silly, the guy’s offspeed stuff was just unhittable last year. With any luck, that’s something Rothschild has instilled in Sabathia and it’ll carry over into this year.

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Michael Pineda
Few pitchers were better at getting strike three last season than Pineda. The young right-hander struck out 9.11 batters per nine with a 24.9 K%, the seventh and sixth best rates in all of baseball. Right-handed batters had a three-in-ten chance of being struck out by Pineda, which isn’t terribly surprising given his lethal fastball-slider combo. Even his 20.7 K% against left-handers is pretty strong, impressive for a guy that doesn’t really have a changeup. Batters missed 39.3% of the time they swung at his slidepiece.

Pineda is working on that changeup now, but maintaining a strikeout-per-inning rate is a very tough to do regardless of ballpark or division. His strikeout rate might take a step back in 2012 just because it’s hard to ring up that many guys each time out, but Pineda has more than enough stuff to miss bats regularly. An 8.0 K/9 and 22.0 K% going forward is more than doable. If he improves that changeup to the point where it’s a usable third pitch, the sky is the limit for team’s new hurler.

Boone Logan
This might be a bit surprising, but Logan has missed a ton of bats during his two years as a Yankee. Last year he posted a 9.94 K/9 and 24.9 K%, the former of which was a top ten mark among AL relievers (min. 40 IP). His strikeout rates against left-handed batters — 11.20 K/9 and 28.8 K% — were among the very best by southpaw relievers. Over the last two years, Logan owns a 9.26 K/9 and 23.7 K%. Boone can be maddening at times, but he uses his fastball-slider stuff to regularly prevent hitters from putting the ball in play. There’s not much more you can ask from your lefty specialist.

Rafael Soriano
The world’s most expensive setup man battled through injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness during his inaugural season in New York, but at least Soriano missed bats regularly. His 8.24 K/9 and 22.0 K% were essentially identical to his strikeout rates with the Rays in 2011 (8.23 K/9 and 24.1 K%) thanks to his fastball-cutter-slider repertoire. Right-handed batters swing and missed with 30.5% and 34.5% of the swings they took against his four-seamer and slider, respectively. That’ll work. With career marks of 9.49 K/9 and 26.4 K%, there is absolutely no reason to think a healthy Soriano will do anything but generate whiffs in the late innings this summer.

(Christopher Pasatieri/Getty)

David Robertson
The king of the strikeout heavy staff, Robertson’s dominant 2011 season was built on his career-best strikeout rates: 13.50 K/9 and 36.8 K%. Both rates were top five among all big league relievers and the second best among AL relievers behind only Al Alburquerque (min 40 IP). Batters came up empty on 35.0% of the swings they took against his curveball, which is just ridiculous.

Robertson’s strikeout ways are nothing new. He’s never whiffed fewer than 10.40 batters per nine or 26.0% of the batters he’s faced in a single big league season, and he doesn’t discriminate either. Robertson’s strikeout rates against right-handers (11.19 K/9 and 28.9 K%) and left-handers (12.98 K/9 and 33.7 K%) are both through the roof. He’s already had a minor injury scare this spring, but assuming Robertson comes out of this bone bruise fine, he’ll again be counted on to lead the setup staff in 2012. The strikeouts will come pouring in.

Mariano Rivera
The greatest reliever of all-time saw his strikeout rate take a huge dip in 2010 (just 6.75 K/9 and 19.6 K%), but Rivera rebounded in a big way last season: 8.80 K/9 and 25.8 K%. Mo’s strikeout rate has actually improved with age, and his K/BB ratio has been quite literally off the charts for years now…

Rivera’s famed cutter has generated a swing and miss just 20.8% of the time during the PitchFX era (19.8% in 2011), which is relatively low compared to the primary pitch of most high strikeout relievers. Of course Mo has historically great command and generates an ungodly amount of called strikes; ~20% of the pitches he’s thrown during the PitchFX era have been called strikes, well above the ~16% league average. A little less than 11% of all the plate appearances against Rivera have ended with a called strike three during that time, again well above the league average (~4.5%). Strikeouts are great, but they’re even better when the hitter doesn’t bother to take the bat off his shoulders.

Pineda up to 93 mph

According to Erik Boland, Michael Pineda reached 93 with his fastball during the first inning of his appearance today. That’s a tick faster than he threw this past Monday, when he topped out at 91 mph. That’s a bit reassuring, at least. It goes along with what Dave Cameron wrote on FanGraphs on Tuesday, noting that Pineda is not a guy who has to fire bullets every single time. Relatedly, it’s interesting to hear that Brian Cashman mentioned that he’d read Cameron’s article (via Bryan Hoch).

Pineda, Nova, and Nunez agree to 2012 contracts

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

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

Kevin Goldstein’s Top 20 Yankees Prospects

That doesn't look like a four-seamer, changeup, or curveball grip to me. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein published his list of the Yankees’ top 20 prospects today, the final mainstream list of the spring. You do need a subscription to read the entire piece, but non-subscribers can see the list as well as the first write-up. Here are Baseball America’s and Keith Law’s top ten lists for comparison, as well as my top 30. Steal of Home compiled a consensus top 33 list that’s worth a click.

The Yankees have two five-star prospects according to KG: Manny Banuelos and Gary Sanchez. Dellin Betances and Mason Williams check in at four starts, and everyone else is three starts or fewer. “Banuelos should become at least a number three starter, but there is upside beyond that,” wrote Goldstein, who also noted that Manny’s command problems come from overthrowing and not some kind of mechanical flaw. The Sanchez write-up is drool-worthy — “special power … works the count well and looks for pitches to drive, and knows how to crush mistakes” — but at the same time he cautions that the kid sells out for power instead of just focusing on hard contact. Plus his defense is terrible.

I thought the most interesting nugget had to do with Jose Campos, who the Yankees acquired from the Mariners along with Michael Pineda. “[His fastball is] plus and more in terms of velocity, sitting in the low 90s with plenty of 95-96 readings every time out,” said KG. “Campos also throws the pitch with the kind of command usually found only in big leaguers; he works both sides of the plate with it, paints the corners and comes at hitters with a strong downward angle.” Campos still has a lot of work to do with his breaking ball and changeup, but 19-year-old kids with command of a huge fastball are just so rare.

Goldstein also listed the top ten talents in the organization under the age of 25, which was unsurprisingly topped by Pineda. Ivan Nova (#3) and Phil Hughes (#6) were the only other big leaguers to make the cut. “Pineda is a potential front line starter who is still three or four years away from his prime,” he wrote. “He needs to improve his command and his changeup, and the American League East isn’t like pitching in Seattle; expect some bumps in the road early, although nobody should be worked up about his early March lack of prime velocity … Hughes remains young and talented, but nobody is quite sure how to harness it.”

The Yankees did lose a serious chunk of prospect star power by trading Montero, but the general consensus seems to be that they still have enough to qualify as a top ten system. Banuelos and Betances are the only real high-upside guys at the upper levels of the minors, so most of their most interesting and super-talented players are way down in Single-A or even lower. Bichette and Campos are two major breakout candidates;, strong years in a full season league would shoot both up the prospect rankings. Ravel Santana could join them if the ankle is healthy and allows him to put all his tools on display.

The perils of being a prospect in New York

Michael Pineda might not be a prospect, but that doesn’t stop people from treating him like one. In a way that’s unfair, since he did pitch a full major league season in 2011, and put up good numbers in the campaign. But in another way it is fair, since he still has plenty to prove. Any pitcher at his age and experience does. Of course, having something to prove in Seattle is quite different than having something to prove in New York. The media, unsurprisingly, is already on top of Pineda.

This morning a couple if infamous New York media scribes published articles on Pineda. Unsurprisingly, they focused on the negative. It’s not that these cases are without merit; again, Pineda is a work in progress. The problem is that they homed in on the negative while ignoring the adjacent positives.

On Pineda’s weight

Michael Pineda is a big dude. He stands at six feet and seven inches tall (or six-foot-eight, depending on who’s publishing the information). At that size, it’s hard to determine a normal weight. There are so many variables in body composition that it’s tough to determine if he’s carrying too much fat, or if he’s just a bulky dude. Still, playing weight is a hot-button issue in the media. Pineda did not help his case by showing up to camp at 280 pounds and saying that he’d like to be at 270. To the media, that translates to being 10 pounds overweight.

It’s hard to determine Pineda’s ideal weight. Maybe it really is 280. Maybe it’s 270, which is what he says he weighed at the end of 2011. Maybe it’s even lower than that. To criticize him for being 280 when he says he wants to be 270, then, is a bit much. This isn’t like you or me being 10 pounds overweight. This is a six-foot-seven athlete coming in 10 pounds heavier than he was at the end of last season. It’s less than 4 percent of his overall bodyweight. To conclude from these 10 pounds that he has exercise or nutrition problems is a blind and poor judgment.

Might he have these problems? Absolutely. But the 10 pound weight gain is not necessarily a signal of that. He’s still just 23, and still has to learn how to operate inside an enormous frame. It’s not easy. Even so, Pineda has already addressed the issue. As Jack Curry reported after Pineda’s performance today: “Pineda said he has lost 7 or 8 pounds. Wants to lose a few more.” So there you go. He’s been in camp for three weeks and has already dropped more than half of his goal weight. This should not be an issue.

On Pineda’s changeup

Immediately after the Yankees acquired Pineda, they addressed his repertoire. Brian Cashman said that if Pineda doesn’t develop a changeup and become an ace, he’ll have made a mistake in trading Jesus Montero for him. It seems that Pineda’s name can’t come up now without a reference to his changeup.

There is no doubt that eventually developing a changeup is important. That probably won’t come this year. The changeup can be a difficult pitch to master. It took CC Sabathia years and years before he successfully implemented one. There is a chance that Pineda could follow a similar development path. He could still get by with the fastball and slider while working the changeup in more regularly. But this is not an issue that will be decided this year.

Still, from all accounts Pineda has put a lot of work into his changeup this spring. That’s something he can afford, thanks to his already electric fastball and slider offerings.

On the Montero comparisons

Another constant when writing about Pineda: mentioning that the Yankees took a big risk in trading Montero for him. This is undoubtedly true. Montero is a hugely hyped prospect who could hit in the middle of the order. Yet the NY media didn’t quite see it that way previously. While Montero was with the team he came under fire for attitude issues. Writers constantly questioned his defensive ability. He was treated, in other words, as a prospect.

But now that the Yankees traded him he’s apparently the second coming of Babe Ruth. It’s quite unsettling to see the turnaround on him. Would the writers have been this lavish in their praise if Montero were still with the Yankees? (Somehow I doubt it.)

There is no denying that Michael Pineda has a lot of work to do. He does need to develop a changeup eventually. He does need to maintain a healthy weight. Unfortunately for us, these are not one-time issues. They both take time. He’ll have to work constantly to keep himself in shape, and he’ll have to work even harder on getting a feel for his changeup. There is no quick fix. Does this mean that we’ll hear about the changeup and the weight with every poor start? Probably. Just keep that in mind, though, when you run across an article or column critical of him. While the criticism is probably valid in some ways, there are equally positive points right next door.

2012 Season Preview: Building Blocks

With Spring Training fully underway, it’s time to begin our season preview. We’re going to change things up a bit this year, focusing on various aspects of the team rather than individual players. You’ll see most players in multiple posts, but the concepts will all be different.

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

There is no such thing as rebuilding with the Yankees. They’re perpetually retooling, attempting to integrate young players into the roster while contending for the World Series every year. That’s much easier said that done, obviously.

Heading into 2012, the Yankees have a nice little collection of young players on the roster, including three with just one full big league season under their belt. Two of the three will be in the starting rotation while the third will see action off the bench and as an injury replacement, but they’re all very young and have a chance to assume very important roles with the team in the near future. The ages listed below are as of April 6th, otherwise known as Opening Day…

Michael Pineda, 23
The Yankees didn’t trade Jesus Montero (and Hector Noesi) to the Mariners just to improve their chances of winning in 2012, the move was geared towards improving their chances over the next half-decade. Pineda turned 23 the week of the trade and already has an above average big league season to his credit. He struck out more than a batter per inning last summer (9.11 K/9 and 24.9 K%) despite the lack of a quality changeup, a problem he has worked to correct with pitching coach Larry Rothschild early in camp.

They Yankees didn’t just acquire any ol’ young pitcher in Pineda. The CC Sabathia-sized right-hander combines high-octane stuff with surprisingly strong command (2.89 BB/9 and 7.9 BB%), hitting the mitt with his mid-90’s heat and wipe-out slider pitch after pitch. He’s not a finished product, but no one is at age 23. Pineda is starting from an extremely high baseline and still has plenty of room for growth, giving him scary upside and ace potential even in the rugged AL East. With five more years of team control remaining, the Yankees expect Pineda to form a dominant and historically large one-two punch with Sabathia for years to come.

(REUTERS/Steve Nesius)

Ivan Nova, 25
While Pineda was cutting his teeth with the Mariners last season, Nova was busy stepping up his game and serving as Sabathia’s running mate in the second half. A midseason demotion to Triple-A was largely undeserved but may have been the best thing that happened to him, as he improved his slider and gained enough confidence in the pitch to rely on it as his go-to weapon late in the season. Combined with his usual helping of ground balls, the right-hander exceeded all expectations in 2011.

Now that the curtain has been lifted on 2012, Nova will be counted on to not only repeat last year’s performance, but improve upon it. His walk rate (3.10 BB/9 and 8.1 BB%) is fine, though the Yankees would surely like to see him beef up the strikeout total (5.33 K/9 and 13.9 K%) going forward while maintaining his ground ball rate (52.7%). Like Pineda, Nova isn’t a finished product, but he is a bit more refined in the sense that he uses three pitches regularly (fastball, slider, curve) while working in the occasional fourth offering (changeup). With another five years to go before free agency, Nova has a chance to develop into that rock solid, mid-rotation workhorse that takes the ball every five days and gives the team quality outings each time out. With any luck, he’ll become more.

Eduardo Nunez, 24
It’s not easy to crack the Yankees roster as a young infielder, with a bench role being the only realistic way of making the team. Nunez got that chance last year and performed fairly well compared to most utility infielders, producing a .313 wOBA and a 92 wRC+ in 338 plate appearances. When Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez went down with injuries for weeks at the time, Nunez stepped in and hit .281/.333/.401 across two months. His offensive game revolves around putting the ball in play (10.9 K%) and stealing bases (22-for-28), two traits that suit a bench player.

While there is no star potential here, the offensive bar at shortstop is very low — league average at the position was a .303 wOBA and an 88 wRC+ in 2011. If Nunez can tighten up his throwing and become a passable defender at short, he’s by far the best in-house replacement candidate for Jeter. If that doesn’t happen, he can still be a viable part-timer as the two players on the left side of the infield continue on the path towards the glue factory.

* * *

The Yankees have a number of other players that appear to have long-term places on the roster — Robinson Cano, David Robertson, Brett Gardner, etc. — but none of them are under contractual control through 2016 like Pineda, Nova, and Nunez. Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain are friendly reminders that these things can veer off course, since both of those guys looked to have long-term roles with the team as recently as last spring. Now they’re question marks, question marks just two years away from free agency.

As always, the farm system has a chance to supply the Yankees will more long-term building blocks. Austin Romine and Manny Banuelos could spend the next six years as a battery if things break right, and 40-man roster guys like Dellin Betances, George Kontos, and Zoilo Almonte could force their way into the picture as well. Pineda and Nova are very clearly the future of the Yankees rotation at the moment, and Nunez’s importance to the club is dependent on the healthy of Jeter and A-Rod. Those guys may not form the next core of the Yankees when it’s all said and done, but they will be given every opportunity to assuming important roles on the team going forward.

Not Mike Mussina

(Reuters)

Who do you think of first when you think of the New York Yankees, #24?

Recency, a penchant for the dramatic, a great glove and a power bat would of course lead one to what might seem like the obvious choice: Robinson Cano. And it’s a pretty good answer, too, in my opinion. Robbie’s grown up into a core member of the team and is, quite frankly, a really good baseball player. He’s expected to hit third in the lineup this year, which means that there will be many men-on dingers and RBIs this year, plus lots of stellar plays he makes look easy and, of course, thousands of giant gum bubbles.

But Cano isn’t the only answer. Here’s some hints: he played first base for the Yankees from 1996-2001 (really knew how to pick his years, didn’t he?), hitting .279 with an OPS+ of 114 and 175 home runs. The answer, to anyone who was around during those years, should be obvious: the wonderful and amazing Tino Martinez. As a kid, I loved Tino only slightly less than I loved Paul O’Neill, and even four years after Tino left, I was still a little sore over this obnoxious second-baseman taking his number, which I believed should have been retired. I was a little insensible as a kid, but the point still stands. In sports and especially on the Yankees, where there are no names on the jerseys, the numbers become associated quite strongly with the player.

(While we’re on the subject of Paul O’Neill and #21, I seem to recall LaTroy Hawkins begin given a lot of crap for taking that number and then changing it, which filled me with more joy than you can ever imagine.)

As the Spring Training pictures roll in, the one thing that keeps throwing me off is Michael Pineda wearing #35. Like every other sensible Yankees fan, I loved Moose and felt it was really depressing that he never got a ring, and while I don’t think retiring his number is in the cards, it’s really strange to see someone else wearing it. Pineda’s a good choice to carry on his legacy of really good pitchers I wouldn’t want to meet in a back alley at night, but that doesn’t change that he isn’t Mike Mussina. Of course, people taking the numbers of old players is just another part of growing up with baseball. Pretty sure no one else is ever going to wear 2, though.

Let’s switch gears a little bit. I had this argument with a friend while I was in New York last year, so I’ll ask all of you: my friend had purchased a Hideki Matsui jersey some years ago while he was still a Yankee. Like a sensible person with disposable income, he had no name of the back. These days, Russell Martin, who is a pretty valuable piece of the team in his own right, now wears #55. Does your jersey magically become a Russell Martin jersey? Is it still a Matsui jersey in your brain, and that’s all that matters? Is the jersey meaningless without the player you bought it for? If no one ever wears #55 again, do you never wear the jersey? What if the number’s retired?

And because this is an article about Yankees jersey numbers: between 6, 46 and 20, which ones get retired?

Who's next? (photo by flickr user 2Eklectik, used under Creative Commons.)