Inside the matchup: Tanaka vs. Nelson Cruz

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Welcome back to the rotation, Masahiro Tanaka. Congratulations, your prize is a one-on-one battle with the best power hitter in the American League — Mr. Nelson Cruz of the Seattle Mariners.

The 34-year-old Cruz leads the AL in both homers and slugging percentage, and is showing no mercy when he makes contact. According to data at Baseball Savant, Cruz has the longest homer in the majors this season — a 483-foot moonshot off Wandy Rodriguez on April 29 — and the second-hardest hit ball of any player — a walk-off single against the Rangers on April 19 that left his bat at an exit velocity of 119 mph.

Cruz is one of the most dangerous hitters in the league right now, a threat to crush the ball over the fence or send a screaming line drive to the outfield corner on any pitch, and can change the outcome of a game with one swing of the bat.

The good news for Tanaka is that this won’t be his first time pitching against the Mariners slugger. He faced the Orioles twice last season, saw Cruz a combined six times and retired him in all six plate appearances — three strikeouts, two fly outs and one ground out.

Let’s go inside the matchup to see how Tanaka was able to neutralize Cruz last season, and try to figure out how he should approach him during this afternoon’s game. [Sure, these are all super-small sample sizes, but let’s have some fun instead of worrying about the health of Tanaka’s arm.]

Tanaka did a good job of keeping the ball out of the middle of the plate, peppering the bottom outside corner with sliders, while mixing in a handful of high fastballs and a few sinkers in on the hands of Cruz.

cruz vs tanaka

The down-and-away slider was Tanaka’s key put-away pitch in the matchup, netting him four of the six outs against Cruz, including all three strikeouts on pitches at or below the knees.

That strategy was a bit unusual for Tanaka last year, who was more likely to go to his splitter in two-strike counts against righties (39 percent of the time) than his slider (31 percent). However, it was a smart game plan against Cruz, who last year really struggled with sliders from same-sided pitchers. He whiffed on nearly half of his swings against sliders and struck out a whopping 42 times on the pitch (second-most in the AL).

Another interesting trend is that Tanaka wasn’t afraid to “pitch backwards,” throwing his offspeed pitches early and often in the count. He started three of the six at-bats with sliders and kept Cruz off-balance by throwing him more off-speed pitches (11) than fastballs (9) in the six at-bats.

Tanaka is one of four pitchers that has faced Cruz at least six times since the start of last season and gotten him out every time. Can he shut down one of the game’s best sluggers again this year?

Like many power hitters, Cruz’s sweetspot is on the middle-to-inner third of the zone and off the inside corner of the plate, where he’s hit 14 of his 18 homers this season. Hey Tanaka, try to avoid that area, please:

cruz hrs

If Tanaka can get into a favorable count, throwing him a slider down and away — similar to last year — is probably a good idea. Cruz has whiffed on nearly 40 percent of his swings against sliders from right-handed pitchers this year, and he’s done little damage when making contact. He’s hit just one homer off a slider from a righty and more than half of those pitches that he’s put in play have been grounders. Tanaka’s slider had been nasty in his last two starts, getting whiffs on 56 percent of the swings against the pitch, including three strikeouts.

When Tanaka wants to throw a fastball in this matchup, he’d be smart to go to his four-seamer instead of his sinker. Cruz is slugging roughly 300 points higher against sinkers (.778) than four-seam fastballs (.471) from right-handers this year, and he’s twice as likely to whiff against a four-seamer than a sinker from a righty.

That pitch selection should favor Tanaka, who has decreased his sinker usage since his first two starts (when it got crushed), and starting throwing more four-seamers in his last two starts (with good results). Overall, Tanaka’s four-seamer has been a much better fastball option for him than his sinker this season:

Tanaka stats v2

That’s right, Tanaka has thrown 73 four-seam fastballs in 2015 and the only player to get a hit off the pitch was Russell Martin with a single in the season opener. It’s been an nice pitch for him so far, and Tanaka should feel comfortable challenging Cruz with well-located four-seamers this afternoon.

Tanaka vs. Cruz will be among the most anticipated matchups of the game, and could easily be one of the most pivotal, too. If Tanaka can use his four-seamer and slider effectively, and follow a similar game plan as he’s done in the past against Cruz, there is a good chance he’ll be able to win the battle with the Mariners slugger once again.

2013 Winter Meetings Day Three Open Thread

Could Ackley be less awful outside of Seattle? (Ronald Martinez/Getty)
Ack. (ley) (Ronald Martinez/Getty)

The Yankees did most of their heavy offseason lifting over the last few weeks, so the first two days of the Winter Meetings have been a bit of a bore. That’s been the case around the entire league, really. Hopefully things pick up over the next 36 hours — the Winter Meetings unofficially end following the Rule 5 Draft tomorrow morning — just to add some excitement to the week. This is supposed to be the most fun time of the offseason.

Anyway, here are Monday’s and Tuesday’s Yankees-related rumors. The most important thing we’ve learned so far this week is that the club is getting a ton of calls on Brett Gardner but they’re likely to keep him. They’re pushing Ichiro Suzuki in trades instead. Good luck with that. Guys like Joaquin Benoit, Mark Reynolds, Dustin Ackley, Danny Espinosa, and Michael Young are on their radar as well. We’ll keep track of the Wednesday’s rumors right here, so make sure you check back often. All times are ET.

  • 10:15pm: The Yankees rejected a Gardner-for-Phillips offer from the Reds. Happy to see the team values Gardner so highly, it would have been very easy to say yes to that offer following Robinson Cano‘s defection. [Heyman]
  • 6:47pm: The Reds are indeed interested in Gardner right now. The Yankees do not have interest in lefty reliever Sean Marshall, however. He was almost traded to the Rockies earlier this week before something popped up in his medicals. [Sherman]
  • 5:23pm: If you were hoping the Yankees would sign Bartolo Colon, forget it. He agreed to a two-year, $20M contract (!) with the Mets. That’s a lot. [Rosenthal]
  • 5:04pm: The Yankees were interested in Jason Vargas before he took a four-year, $32M deal from the Royals a few weeks ago. Weird. The soft-tossing, pitch-to-contact types are not usually the guys they target. [Nightengale]
  • 4:59pm: Freddy Garcia’s agent reached out to the Yankees, but they said they weren’t interested. With all due respect to Sweaty Freddy, there’s no need for a reunion. [Marchand]
  • 4:05pm: Brian Cashman told reported the Yankees are “ready to rock ‘n roll” when asked if they are holding back money for Masahiro Tanaka. He also indicated they may fill out their rotation and bench with low cost pickups later in the offseason, similar to 2011. [Sherman & Andy McCullough]
  • 2:27pm: The Yankees have no intention of giving Infante a four-year contract, and rightfully so. He’s sticking to that demand though. [Feinsand]
  • 2:25pm: The Reds have “little interest” in Gardner, surprisingly. They need a leadoff man and center fielder. [Sherman]
  • 12:24pm: The Yankees like Diamondbacks shortstop Didi Gregorius. He could play second this year before taking over as the long-term Derek Jeter replacement, at least in theory. Whether he’s attainable is another matter. [Joel Sherman]
  • 10:34am: There are “no active talks” between the Yankees and Reds about Brandon Phillips at the moment. They can do better. [Ken Rosenthal]
  • 10:22am: The Yankees are one of eight teams with interest in Johan Santana. All talks are in the preliminary stages and it would be a minor league contract. Johan is returning from his second torn shoulder capsule. [Andrew Marchand]
  • 10:03am: Apparently the Yankees and Tigers are discussing a deal involving Gardner and Austin Jackson. That seems … weird. I wonder if Detroit thinks it’ll be easier to sign Gardner long-term or something. [Peter Gammons]
  • 9:52am: There “are no legs” to any talks about Masterson between the Yankees and Indians. They only need his arm anyway, amirite? [Buster Olney]
  • 9:30am: The Yankees would like to get their hands on the available Justin Masterson. The Indians want young, controllable pitching in return, and since they already have three center fielders on their roster, a trade involving Gardner would require a third team. [Bob Nightengale]
  • No surprise here, but the Yankees are no longer in on Nelson Cruz or Shin-Soo Choo after signing Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran. They remain engaged with free agent infielder Omar Infante. [Mark Feinsand]

Reminder: Your trade proposal sucks.

Mailbag: Salty, Andrus, Cruz, Anderson, Perez

Eleven, yes eleven questions this week. I combined two into one so there are only ten answers. Needless to say, I went rapid fire. The Submit A Tip box in the sidebar is the best way to send us stuff, mailbag questions or otherwise.

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

Dustin asks: With Jarrod Saltalamacchia not getting a qualifying offer, does he become a more attractive option for the Yankees over Brian McCann? Or does the fact that he only has one above-average season keep McCann in the lead?

It’s a combination of several things, really. The lack of track record and defensive shortcomings mostly. I do think there’s a strong case to be made that Salty at his price (three years, $36M?) is a better deal than McCann at his price (five years, $80M plus a pick?). Given where the Yankees are as a franchise, with some young catchers on the way and payroll coming down, a shorter term deal for a backstop makes more sense than going big on McCann. I would prefer Carlos Ruiz in that case — he is a far better defender than Saltalamacchia, plus he should come even cheaper — but I think McCann is elite relative to his position. Guys like that are hard to pass up.

Nick asks: So it seems that Texas would be willing to move Ian Kinsler or Elvis Andrus. What would it take to get either? Andrus isn’t as attractive now because of that contract, but still should be considered. And Kinsler is always hurt.

Kinsler makes sense only if Robinson Cano signs elsewhere this winter. I don’t buy him as a first baseman or corner outfielder. I was excited about Andrus a year or two ago and thought he made a ton of sense as a Derek Jeter replacement — his free agency lined up perfectly with the end of Jeter’s contract (after 2014) — but I also thought he would continue to get better, not have a career-worst season in 2013. He’s owed $124.475M through 2022 ($13.8M luxury tax hit), which is scary. Furthermore, I’m not sure the Yankees and Rangers match up well for a trade. Texas is presumably looking for a young outfielder or high-end starter, two things New York a) doesn’t have, and b) needs itself.

Aside: Wouldn’t it make sense for the Rangers to trade both Andrus and Kinsler, then sign Cano and play Jurickson Profar at shortstop? Dealing Andrus and Kinsler would surely net them that young outfielder and high-end starter.

Ryan asks: I haven’t heard any mention of the Yankees and Nelson Cruz. His name hasn’t been floated on here since the trade rumors last January. Whats the deal? I would have though he’d be a great addition to the lineup.

Grant Brisbee explained why Cruz is such a risk yesterday, so I’ll link you to that. Long story short: Cruz is basically Alfonso Soriano without the defense. His numbers against righties aren’t anything special (.249/.299/.465 since 2011) and while home/road splits usually get way overblown, it’s hard to ignore how much more productive Cruz has been at his hitter-friendly home ballpark (.279/.340/.546 since 2011) than on the road (.247/.299/.432). The Yankees already have one Soriano, no need to give up a draft pick (Cruz received a qualifying offer) to get another.

Kevin asks: Juan Oviedo and Eric O’Flaherty seem like natural fits for the Yankees next year given the payroll and need for bullpen arms.

Oviedo is the pitcher formerly known as Leo Nunez, the ex-Marlins closer. He’s missed the last two seasons due to elbow problems that eventually required Tommy John surgery. I would bring him in on a minor league deal no questions asked, but there’s no way I’d guarantee him anything after missing two years. He took a minor league deal (with the Rays) last year and will have to take one again. O’Flaherty missed most of 2013 after having his elbow rebuilt. He was one of the most dominant lefty relievers in baseball before the injury (held same-side hitters to a .195 wOBA from 2011-2012) and I think he’ll get a nice contract this winter despite coming off surgery. Would he take one year and $2M to rebuild value? I’m not sure the Yankees can afford to go higher than that for an injured pitcher who won’t be ready until June or so.

(Jared Wickerham/Getty)
(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

Bryan asks: How about a flyer on Brett Anderson? The A’s have rotation depth and the cost wouldn’t be super high (you’d think) right now. Or would they be better off with a guy like Josh Johnson (who only costs money) if they want to take a gamble?

Man I love Anderson, but he just can’t stay healthy. He’s thrown more than 115 innings just once (175.1 in 2009) and over the last two years he’s been limited to 79.2 innings total. Anderson has been pretty awesome whenever he’s stayed healthy for more than a month at a time, but he’s going to make $8M next season. That’s a huge chunk of change for an always hurt pitcher. I’m not sure the Yankees can afford a risk like that. Payroll is tight as it is, and that doesn’t even factor in the trade cost. If I’m going to bring in a reclamation project starter, I’d go with Johnson because he only costs money. I’d prefer neither, to be honest.

Biggie asks: If Curtis Granderson accepts his qualifying offer would there be a market to trade him? What type of return would you expect? I would love him to accept, move him for another piece and sign Carlos Beltran for two years and $28M.

I don’t think the Yankees would have any trouble finding a taker for Granderson if he accepts the $14.1M qualifying offer. Chances are they could get a better prospect in return than they’d be able to select with the compensation pick as well. A contender in need of a bat like the Cardinals (if Beltran bolts), Tigers (for vacant left field), and Reds (if they don’t think Billy Hamilton is ready) would presumably show interest in Granderson on a one-year deal, ditto non-contenders like the Phillies, Mets, White Sox, Giants, Mariners, and Rockies. They wouldn’t get an elite prospect in return, but a rock solid Grade-B prospect who is at Double-A or higher. That’s very fair value if not a bargain.

Mike asks: What about Kelly Johnson as a free agent? He can fill in around the infield except at short and play the corners in the outfield.

If Cano does leave as a free agent and the Yankees decide to pass over David Adams and Corban Joseph as internal replacements, Johnson is the guy I’d want them to bring him to play second base. He shouldn’t required a multi-year contract like Omar Infante nor would he require the general headache of trading for Brandon Phillips. Johnson is a Yankee Stadium friendly left-handed hitter who hits for power (16+ homers in four straight years), plus he’ll steal a decent amount of bases and play solid defense. As an added bonus, he can also play left field in a pinch. The trade-off is a low average and strikeouts, which aren’t the end of the world for a number eight or nine hole hitter. Even if the Yankees re-sign Cano, Johnson makes sense as a lefty bat off the bench. Definite fit.

(Jeff Gross/Getty)
(Jeff Gross/Getty)

Tucker asks: While the idea of the Yankees signing Brian Wilson has been floated out there, and it definitely has a lot of appeal, I just can’t imagine him being willing to go to the barber, even if it means forfeiting a couple million. Do you agree with this?

Wilson already turned down a million bucks to shave his beard, but maybe $6-7M will change his mind? Ultimately, I think Wilson will wind up signing with a non-Yankees team because they’ll offer more money and guarantee him the closer’s job, not because he wouldn’t have to shave his beard. That would suck, he’s a perfect fit in my opinion (as long as you look beyond the beard and seemingly intentionally insufferable personality).

Thomas asks: Is there any chance that the Yankees try and get another full-time DH this season? If so, if he doesn’t retire, is it possible we would get another taste of Raul Ibanez? I’m sure Yankees fans would like to see him again.

Zac asks: Jason Kubel is one year removed from a 30-HR season and should come cheap following a poor year in which he battled injury. Is he s fit for the Yankees?

Going to lump these two together since Ibanez and Kubel are nearly the same exact player. If the Yankees don’t sign Beltran — he’s pretty much the only big name outfielder I can see them realistically signing — either guy would make sense as a part-time right fielder and part-time DH. They could also serve as that lefty bat off the bench I always seem to be talking about. New York could find a spot for their power even if they sign Beltran, though I think Ibanez is the safer bet at this point. Supposedly he’s only considering retirement or a return to the Mariners (he lives in Seattle during the offseason). As long as they keep him or Kubel away from lefties and have a defensive replacement handy, they’d make some sense for the current roster. I still don’t like the idea of adding a full-time DH. They need to keep that spot open for various old guys.

Anthony asks: Hey Mike, Chris Perez was just released by the Indians. Being that the Yankees will look to add a piece or two to the bullpen this offseason, do you think the team should give him a look? While I don’t see him serving as the closer, perhaps he can provide some value in the 7th or 8th?

I wrote about Perez in a mailbag back in May and said I wanted to see how he performed the rest of the season before thinking about him as an option for 2014. Well, from that date forward, he pitched to a 5.21 ERA (4.65 FIP) in 38 innings while opposing batters hit .283/.351/.520 against him. He and his wife were also arrested for drug possession. So … yeah, things didn’t go so well. The Indians got so sick of him that they didn’t even wait until the non-tender deadline to release him. Perez has really nasty stuff, but he clearly has some things to work on. I’m not sure if the Yankees have enough bullpen depth (or payroll space) to take on a second project reliever in addition to Dellin Betances.

Unconfirmed Report: Yanks inquired about Nelson Cruz

Via Frankie Piliere of AOL FanHouse, the Yankees are exploring trade options for left field, and one player they may have asked about is Rangers’ outfielder Nelson Cruz. Piliere makes it clear that this is an unconfirmed report, so make sure you take it with a big grain of salt. That doesn’t mean we can’t discuss it, though.

The 29-year-old Cruz was an All Star in 2009, his first full season in the majors. He’s got power (33 HR, .264 IsoP in ’09) and he can definitely defend in the corners (19.6 UZR in over 2,200 innings in RF), though his on-base skills are meh at best (87 unintentional walks in 1,125 big league plate appearances) and he had a ridiculous home-road split last year. Cruz is a sexy name that’ll excite people because he hit lots of homers in 2009, but the price will likely outweigh the production. Unless we’re talking a Swisherian type of heist here, I wouldn’t bother.

Here’s the layout of Cruz’s 2009 home runs, all 33 of them, as they would play at Yankee Stadium.

It appears that even had he hit all 33 of those home run balls at Yankee Stadium, they all would have left the yard. Cruz’s average standard home run distance of 413.9 feet ranked fourth in the majors, and his 12 no-doubts ranked fifth in the AL.